“No way,” Mateo said, his arms crossed firmly over his chest. “I don’t want nightmares for a week, thanks.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic,” said Taylor, rolling her eyes. “It’s just a ride
“Grimstone Manor isn’t ‘just a ride,’” Mateo said. “It’s more like a torture device.”
Taylor turned to Zari with an exasperated sigh. “Will you please tell him he’s being ridiculous? And hurry up. It’s already dark, and the park is closing soon.”
“Um . . .” Zari bit her lip. Their arguments made her skin itch, and she hated being stuck in the middle. Turning to Mateo, she said, “I’ll go. You can sit this one out.”
Mateo looked conflicted, his thick brown hair framing his face in an artful mop since he’d discovered hair paste. Finally, he dropped his arms with a sigh. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
The three friends weaved through the crowd at ThrillVille, their local amusement park. Far ahead, the outline of a Gothic mansion appeared over a thick stand of trees. Soon they came to a moss-covered archway built with fake stones and displaying the words Grimstone Manor
in creepy-looking letters. Gargoyle statues perched on either side of the arch, their tongues jutting out between blunted fangs. Simulated lightning flashed above twisted trees as chest-rattling thunder rumbled through hidden speakers.
Mateo’s eyes widened. “I’m going to regret this.”
“Don’t worry,” Zari said, patting his arm. “Taylor will fight the monsters for us.”
They hurried through the archway to join the line. A bored-looking attendant pulled a chain across the opening behind them. “Just made it,” he said, like he wished they hadn’t. “Last ride of the night.”
“Yes!” Taylor said, flicking her blond ponytail. “Today has been awesome. I’m so glad we pulled this off.”
Mateo frowned. “I don’t like that I lied to my dad about where we’d be.”
“You didn’t lie
, exactly,” Taylor said. “You just didn’t update him on our change of plans.”
“Like Zari and I didn’t ‘update’ our parents that your mom and dad are out of town?” he said.
“They’d never have let us sleep at your place tonight if they’d known we’d be alone.”
“We all went along with it, so let’s not argue,” Zari said.
Mateo gave a reluctant nod. In the distance, Grimstone Manor sat on a low hill, bathed in eerie green light, looking like a demented frog. He eyed the simulated swamp they’d have to cross before reaching the mansion. “The house is bad enough. Did they really have to add a scary swamp?”
“Just focus on that popcorn smell,” Taylor said, drawing in a deep breath. “Zari will buy us some after the ride.”
Zari laughed. “You wish.” As the line crawled forward, she gazed up at the sinister-looking mansion. “I wonder if that’s what the original house looked like.”
“What original house?” asked Mateo.
“Hezekiah Crawly’s mansion,” she said. “You know, the one the ride is based on.”
“Who’s Hezekiah Crawly?” asked Mateo.
“Seriously?” Taylor said, giving him an astonished look. Then her expression relaxed. “Oh right, you didn’t grow up here. You don’t know all the boring local history stuff.”
Zari gave an affronted sniff. “Boring? You call the legend of a missing necromancer boring?”
“A necro-whoser?” Mateo asked.
,” Zari said. “Someone who studies dark magic.”
“So this Hezekiah guy was one of those?” Mateo asked.
“That’s the legend,” Zari said. “About a hundred years ago, Hezekiah Crawly lived in a mansion that stood right where the ride is now. There were rumors that he was really into dark magic, even stealing bodies from a local graveyard to try and raise the dead.”
Mateo shivered. “Why would anyone want
to raise the dead?”
“According to the rhyme, he wanted to rule the world,” Taylor said.
“What rhyme?” Mateo asked.
“Oooh, come on, Zar, let’s do the clapping with it!” Taylor said, moving to stand opposite Zari. They clapped their hands together in a rhythmic pattern as they chanted:
In a mansion on a hill
Lived a man no one could kill
Raised the dead with magic dark
To rule the world and make his mark
Disappeared but made his fame
Hezekiah was his name
As they finished, Taylor and Zari fell against each other in a fit of laughter.
“Want us to teach it to you?” Taylor asked Mateo when she’d caught her breath.
Mateo smirked. “I think I’ll pass.”
They finally reached the front of the line and entered a replica of a broken-down boathouse. As they stepped inside, a rolling fog tickled their ankles. Overhead, huge fake bats with red beady eyes hung from the rafters. Eerie groans and strange whispers seemed to come from all directions, mingling with sound effects of crickets, bullfrogs, and lapping water. Through the open front of the boathouse, Zari spied the gloomy mansion rising from the mist across the swamp. Her smile faded as she tugged nervously at one of her close-cropped coils.
Beside them on the water sat a small flat-bottomed boat. At the back stood a figure draped in ragged brown robes and holding a long pole. Glowing green eyes shone from the darkness beneath its hood. Then a spotlight flicked on, illuminating the figure’s face. Or . . . lack
of face. A yellowed skull grinned out at them.
“Gah!” Mateo said, turning away with a sharp breath.
“Who dares seek passage to Grimstone Manor?” said the skeleton, its jaw moving stiffly in time with the voice recording. “You must be brave . . . or foolish! To reach the manor, you must cross the perilous Swamp of Dread. If you succeed, you’ll be welcomed by the inhabitants of the mansion. They love
having guests for dinner . . . served medium-rare!” The skeleton pointed at them with a bony finger. “Exploring Grimstone Manor will require all your courage. Nasty surprises lurk around every corner. I’ll see you after your journey . . . if you survive
!” With a final peal of crazed laughter, the spotlight faded and the skeleton fell silent.
An attendant, slouched on a stool against the wall, waved them forward without looking up from her phone. “No pictures or video recording allowed,” she monotoned while pointing to an empty locker. “Place your cell phones in a locker and take the key. You’ll pick them up afterward. Remain in the car at all times. Enjoy the ride.”
They surrendered their phones and climbed into a waiting car. With a slight jerk, they left the boathouse and slid into the dimly lit swamp. Taylor whooped in excitement. Mateo looked nauseous.
“Come on, Matty. It’s only a ride,” Taylor said. “What could possibly happen?”
Copyright © 2023 by Matt McMann. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.