Jimmy snatched the book from his older sister Maddie's hands, blinding her with his headlamp in the process. She tried to swat him in the shoulder but he squid-move slipped away and flopped back down into the couch. He began flicking through the pages of the thin black paperback book, ever so slowly, like a monk pouring over an illuminated manuscript.
"Are you kidding me? C'mon... we don't have all night," said Maddie.
But Jimmy remained steadfast, popping a loud bubble gum bubble, humming his way through the book with care.
Will used the lull to check in on his Oreo sludge contraption with his flashlight. It was an old, well-tested recipe, one that he'd concocted and perfected over the last three years in latchkey:
Stack 5 Oreos in a cup
Place spoon on top of Oreos
Add (skim) milk to completely cover the Oreo stack
Wait 5 minutes (exactly)
Drink milk while keeping the spoon in place. Do not eat any of the Oreos.
Finally, use the spoon to consume the cool liquid magma Oreo sludge
Will tested the surface tension of the Oreo stack by pressing down slightly with the spoon. Too much resistance, he noted to himself. A minute more and he'd be golden.
Something crackled in the kitchen and all the cousins jumped in their seats.
"Ice-maker," said Alice, Will's little sister.
Will wasn't sure their ice-maker actually worked, but he didn't press the issue further. A half-hour of ghost stories would do that to a kid.
Every December, Will's parents and aunts and uncles held a Christmas party -- importantly, sans children -- which meant, in turn, that Will and his cousins had a sleepover at Will and Alice's house. This highly-anticipated event of the Christmas season involved many hallowed traditions, including the "Mario Marathon" wherein Will and Maddie would try to beat Super Mario Bros 1 on regular Nintendo (with the help of Game Genie's infinite lives code, of course). Even with the cheat, they could rarely figure out how to escape the maze castle in World 7. Eventually someone (usually Jimmy) would accidentally kick the Nintendo and the game would freeze. No amount of blowing on the cartridges (even using their tried-and-true family trick of blowing through a t-shirt) could restore their progress, so they'd give up and move on to the next order of business: scary stories.
Everyone knew that ghost stories are best in the summer, surrounding a crackling camp fire, with a knobbly marshmallow stick in hand. But this was December in New Jersey, so they made due with the second best thing: grabbing flashlights, turning off all the lights in the house, and swaddling themselves in comforters and blankets.
If there was one thing about Will and Alice's house that their cousins loved best, it was the comforters.
Will always made sure that he snagged his favorite two blankets, usually by hiding them somewhere behind a couch. One of them was blue with a stitched farmhouse on it. He had some vague idea that it was a gift to his mother when he was born. The other was his old green tartan comforter from his bunk-bed. Will had a thing about these blankets.
Here was the thing: every Saturday morning, Will would start the day by lying on the floor behind the couch, next to the heating vent, and wrapping his entire body (head and all) under the two blankets. He'd toast up, then peel back the blankets one-by-one, imagining that he was Mega Man X, buried underground in a robotic capsule by Dr. Light, waiting for the right moment to emerge as the long-awaited hero.
"Okay, found one!" said Jimmy.
"Finally," said Maddie. "Well... let's go!"
Jimmy popped another bubble and then began reading.
"This one is called The Last Thing."
It was nearly dark by the time the man finished up work. He was feeling very tired that day. As soon as he locked the door to his office building, someone hollered at him from the store across the street.
Will was just happy it wasn't the one about the drum. He didn't even like to think about that story for one second. But he couldn't help it. It was like when you remember how weird blinking is and then you can't stop thinking about blinking and how it feels like you have to remember to manually blink now and you might never stop thinking about it and your life is now ruined. Now Will was thinking about the replacement mother in the drum story, with the glass eyes, and the wooden tail, tapping on the floor. He was barely listening to Jimmy.
The man shook his head. "Buddy, that's the last thing I need." He turned away from the man trying to sell him a coffin and stepped into the road, where he was hit and instantly killed by a bus. Sometimes, the last thing we need comes sooner than we expect, and that's what scares us most about strange sounds in the dark. The stories in this book, the fourth collection I've gathered, come from people I've met and tales I've discovered in folklore collections in libraries around the country. Are these stories true? Maybe... it's hard to say for certain, but one thing I know for sure is that..."
"Jimmy," said Maddie. "Stop. Are you literally reading the introduction to the book? Instead of an actual story?"
He stopped and flicked the pages back. "Uhh..."
"Oh my god," laughed Alice.
"Maybe?" said Jimmy. "But it's still kinda scary, right?"