Daylight fades, and Caleb stares at the vacant, decrepit house. Dirt-coated snow runs along the front of the old, yellow building, and filth coats the entire structure. The rickety porch threatens to collapse, and the sight of it causes Caleb to let out a sharp breath. The fourteen-year-old regrets his choice for completing a dare instead of telling the truth in an earlier game with his friends. His heart races and fear simmers in the pit of his stomach. A night alone inside the long-rumored haunted house terrifies him, but there’s no turning back now.

Caleb heads toward the back of the house. He tosses his sleeping bag and overnight supplies through a broken window, then slips inside.

He finds himself standing inside the kitchen. A foul odor invades his nostrils. If the Yankee Candle Company bottled it up, its name would be death and decay. Caleb covers his nose and gags. He shivers from the frigid temperatures, seemingly colder than the outdoors.

Screw this! I shouldn’t have lied and told Mom I’m staying at John’s!

Caleb slips a leg out the broken window, ready to end the stupidity. He halts and cusses; his friends’ words pop into his head. If you leave or cry like a baby, we’ll know ‘cuz we set up cameras! Caleb sighs and opts to complete his dare. Otherwise, he’ll never hear the end of it.

He grumbles and walks toward the front of the house, away from the cold draft that blows in through the broken window. On his right sits a narrow staircase with blood-stained walls.

Oh, hell no! I won’t be going up there!

Caleb moves past the stairs. He notices that the right side of the house is a single, large room. It’s filled with rocking chairs, desks, couches, and coffee tables–all broken and coated with mold.

Straight ahead, the room offers space for his sleeping bag. He heads toward the window and peeks outside onto the porch. It appears even more debilitated from this angle. Caleb peers down at the porch’s broken floorboards and spots a mouse as it scurries underneath. He wrinkles his nose and groans.

Caleb turns away from the window and focuses on setting up for the evening. After he unrolls the navy blue bedding, he retrieves a lantern from his overnight bag. To assure its use for the duration of the evening, Caleb places the light on the lowest setting. In a huff, he plops down onto the sleeping bag.

Before that evening, Caleb’s friends took his cellphone and left him with nothing to do. Boredom fills him. He shivers and watches as he exhales and produces white clouds before him. Caleb wraps his arms around his body, and he peers around the darkening room.

The cold air creeps under Caleb’s clothing and becomes intolerable. He opens the sleeping bag, climbs inside, and pulls it up over his head. Unable to do anything but curl up and hope for warmth and for time to pass, he lays inside the padded bag. He closes his eyes and drifts off to sleep.

Creaaak. Creaaak.

Caleb pops his head out from the sleeping back and scans the room. Unable to locate the source of the noise, he looks into the furniture-filled room. Perched on a three-legged chair sits a creepy doll. A few strands of black hair protrude from her plastic scalp, and she lacks a nose. Beneath the black hole in the middle of her face sits a crooked smile. A chill runs up his spine when he looks at its abhorrent, red eyes.

Why the hell would someone leave that thing here?

His body shivers and his teeth chatter. Caleb tucks his head back inside the bag and rubs his hands up and down his arms in an attempt to warm himself. He draws in a deep breath and struggles to settle his nerves. Eventually, Caleb drifts off to sleep again.

Creaaak. Creaaak.

He wakes and listens. His breaths quicken and his jaw aches from clenching his teeth.

Creaaak. Creaaak. Whooosh.

Caleb inches his head out from his sleeping bag. A dense fog fills the room, and a pungent odor, like burnt flesh, overwhelms him. He fights the urge to retch and pulls the sleeping bag up to filter his mouth and nose. His eyes shift upward, toward the ceiling.

The haze obstructs visibility, but the center of the ceiling appears to throb, like a heartbeat. It pulsates then begins to darken and swirl. Two objects protrude from the inky spiral and move downward.

Caleb’s mouth falls open, and his heart races inside his chest. Unable to look away, he watches as the objects–skeletal hands– advance toward him.

Caaaaaleb. Caaaaaleb. A child-like disembodied voice taunts him.

He jolts upright but finds himself shoved back into a lying position by an invisible force. His eyes widen, and he struggles to move his body to no avail. The fog thickens, and Caleb loses sight of the bony hands.

Shit! Where’d they go?

Caaaaaleb. Caaaaaleb.

He peers into the haze in search of the skeletal hands. The fog begins to dissipate, and Caleb spots the appendages advancing downward–with an object in their grasp. The bony fingers clutch onto the menacing doll.

She gives him a toothy grin. A cackle rises from her throat. Red lights radiate within her eye sockets, and she extends her short arms. Blood-tainted claws protrude from her fingertips, and she reaches downward.

Caleb’s heart skips a beat, and he calls out for help. The desolate location offers no answer to his plea.

The doll hovers above Caleb’s head with her feet dangling over his chin. A foul odor discharges from her plastic body and singes his nostrils.

Caleb turns his face away and chokes.

Caaaaaleb. Caaaaaleb. You should have heeded the rumors. Those who enter this accursed dwelling provide me access to their soul.

The doll chuckles and she plunges downward. Caleb throws his arms up to protect his face. Her claws dig into his forearms, and she sinks her teeth into the flesh of his wrist.

A burning sensation surges into Caleb’s wrist then moves up his arm and throughout his body. He teeters between the urge to puke or pass out. His vision turns fuzzy, and he fades into blackness.

Caaaaaleb. Caaaaaleb.

He wakes and opens his eyes. Hovering over him are half a dozen of his friends. Some wear faces of concern while others laugh at his expense.

“Dude, you’re impossible to wake,” taunts one friend.

“That must have been one hell of a nightmare,” teases another.

Caleb sits up and struggles to reorient himself. He searches the room, then looks upward toward the ceiling but finds nothing but dingy drywall. He gazes into the furniture-filled room to peek at the three-legged chair. Caleb observes an empty seat, devoid of the evil doll with heinous red eyes.

“Uuhhh,” Caleb begins. He shifts his gaze toward his friends. “I–I guess I had a nightmare.” He regains his composure. “I’ve paid up my dare-debt, so let’s get the hell out of here. You’re all buying me breakfast!”

He packs up his sleeping bag and lantern, then follows his friends into the kitchen.

One of his friends plugs their nose. “This place stinks!”

“Quit your whining,” teases Caleb. “I had to tolerate it all night!”

His friends climb through the broken window. Caleb tosses his gear out, then slips a leg through the opening. He grabs ahold of the window frame and spots a mark on his wrist–a bite mark. He furrows his brows and inspects it. What the hell?

Caaaaaleb. Caaaaaleb.

Caleb flinches, and he jerks his head toward the front room. At the base of the staircase stands the plastic doll. She cackles through her crooked grin and glares at him.

Caleb’s jaw drops and his body stiffens.

The doll’s mouth remains fixed with a crooked smile as her disembodied voice fills the room. It’s a good thing your friends showed up, Caleb. Otherwise, you’d be mine–forever!

She raises an arm and waves good-bye with her blood-tainted claws.

Caleb jumps out of the kitchen window and bolts toward his friends–away from the house.