She was a bone-white old woman, as tall as the stone angel, bald, with cracked lips pulled back over brown teeth. She stared at Brendan with glistening steel-blue eyes. She wore dirty layers of rags and no shoes; her toenails were amber, encrusted with soil. She was the crone that Brendan had feared, but a hundred times worse, and when she spoke, her breath was fouler than six-month-old compost.
"Leave this place!"
She wrapped her hand around Brendan's wrist. It felt like a rope. He tried to pull away, but she held him fast . . . and then she looked into his eyes. "Who are you?" she asked more quietly.
"B-Brendan Walker," he said.
"Walker?" she repeated.
Brendan had never been so scared. Not scared stiff — beyond that, scared into action, like someone had shot a spike of adrenaline into his back. He twisted and wrested his hand free. He ran, spit flying out the side of his mouth. "Mom! Dad!"
Surely they'd seen her: She was a six-foot baldy with the body-mass index of a skeleton; she'd be tough to miss. He reached his family back at the Toyota after running across the lawn, which suddenly seemed to be the size of a football field.
"Bren, what's wrong?"
"Are you okay?!"
"I — you guys — you didn't — ?" Brendan looked back. Suddenly the whole scene looked much smaller and safer to him. It couldn't have been more than fifty feet from the sidewalk to the house. The whole time he'd been running, his heart pounding in his chest, still seeing the old crone's face in front of him . . . that had been only seconds.
And the woman was gone.
The sun had moved. The side of Kristoff House was bathed in shadow. The stone angel might have been there or it might not. Shadows hid all sorts of things.
"Brendan . . . ? Did something happen?" That was Cordelia. She was looking at him seriously; she knew he was freaked. Brendan started to explain — but what would be the point? He couldn't prove anything. He didn't want to sound like a little kid.
"Nothing," he said. "I just . . . I thought I lost this."
He turned on his PSP. He had never been happier to see the title screen of Uncharted. Back in a world that he understood and controlled, he slipped into the car.
A funny thing happened to Brendan on the drive back from 128 Sea Cliff Avenue. Every second that he put between himself and the old crone, he became more and more convinced that she hadn't been so scary after all. Dressed in rags, barefoot, with bad teeth . . . obviously she was a homeless lady. The more Brendan thought about it, the more it made sense: She lived in the yard. That was why the price was so low. She'd been spying on the Walkers, and she'd hidden when they'd spotted her — that was the darting shadow that Eleanor had seen. She loved the angel statue — she was obviously mentally disturbed; maybe she talked to it — and so she moved it (never mind how) when she saw Brendan and his sisters investigating. Then, when she had the chance, she snuck up on him to scare him, to drive his family away. And she asked his name because . . . because she was crazy! What other reason did there need to be?
Brendan kept telling himself this as he went through the hypnotic motions of gaming, and soon he was not only convinced that the old crone wasn't dangerous or supernatural (supernatural, come on); he was determined to go back and drive her from the property. After all, Brendan Walker wasn't somebody you could just push around. He was practically JV lacrosse.
The Walkers had been renting since "the incident." Their new apartment was much smaller than their old house, especially the kitchen, which was more of a corner than a room. That meant less cooking and more cheap takeout. The night after seeing Kristoff House, Dr. Walker convened a family meeting over Chinese food in the living room.
"So what's up?" Brendan asked.
"I just want to make sure you're all comfortable with our decision to buy Kristoff House."
"You mean your decision," said Brendan. "We had no part in it."
"Fine," said Dr. Walker. "But speak now if you have a problem."
"If we moved in, wouldn't it be Walker House?"asked Eleanor.
"I think we should call it One twenty-eight Sea Cliff Avenue, its proper address," said Mrs. Walker. "Otherwise it sounds like we're moving into something that belongs to someone else."
It does belong to someone else, thought Brendan. The old crone. But he didn't want to sound scared. He said, "I like it fine. Better than this dump."
"I like it too," Eleanor said. She was using a sauce-dipped spring roll to gather up as much shredded carrots and celery as possible; it looked like the spring roll was wearing a wig. "The faster we move in there, the faster we can get Misty."
"Nell, how many times do we have to go through this — "
"But Mom said I could get her. Mom made me picture her — "
"You'll get your horse someday," Mrs. Walker said, "if you eat your spring roll and stop playing with it."
Eleanor tackled the spring roll in four huge bites. She looked at her mother and spoke with a full mouth: "Do I get my horse now?"
Everybody laughed — even Brendan. You'd have a hard time getting them to admit it, but the Walkers liked dinners this way, quick and greasy, instead of with cloth napkins with rings.
"What about you, Cordelia?" Dr. Walker asked.
"Let me show you something." Cordelia ducked out of the room and returned with an old book. It had a black cover, no dust jacket, and gold lettering nearly worn off the spine.
"Savage Warriors by Denver Kristoff," Cordelia announced. "First edition, 1910. I took it from the library. And look!" She pulled out her MacBook Air. "On Powell's Books they're selling this for five hundred dollars! So that library alone is worth, like, the closing cost of the house!"
"Cordelia," Brendan said, "you stole from the Kristoff House library?"
"You don't steal from libraries. You borrow. Not that you would know."
"No, your brother's right," said Dr. Walker. "It's not our house yet, and you shouldn't have taken that — "
"That's right you shouldn't!" Brendan stood up. "Somebody might be really mad at you for stealing! You ever think of that?"
"Seriously, Bren?" Cordelia smirked. "Since when do you have a moral compass?"
Brendan didn't answer — partly because he didn't know what a moral compass was, partly because he was terrified of the old crone. Maybe she was a homeless lady, but maybe she wasn't. Maybe she lived at 128 Sea Cliff Avenue. Maybe she didn't take kindly to curious girls stealing books from her library. Brendan almost spoke up then about seeing her, about how he could still feel her hand around his wrist, about how that wrist felt cold even now, about how she had said "Walker" like it meant something . . . but he didn't want to get made fun of. He would handle the crone himself when they moved in. Like a man.
"Sorry," he said. "It's just . . . it's not right to steal."
"That's true," Dr. Walker said, "and Cordelia, you'll be putting that book back next week."
"What happens next week?"
"We're moving in."
From House of Secrets by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini. Copyright 2013 by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini. Excerpted by permission of Harpercollins.