"Hey Mandy? I don't think this is such a good idea," Josh stumbled to a halt in front of the darkened tunnel that lay ahead.
"Oh come on, you sissy," Mandy hissed. "I've been here a dozen times. Nothing but some old bones and a couple of bats, but the best part is the cave drawings!"
Josh sighed. He supposed he should have known Mandy would never be satisfied until he'd followed through on her dare. Still, it was a lot creepier at night than it had been when they discussed going to the cave during the school lunch period.
Mandy had already stomped down some weeds at the cave entrance and was beckoning him forward, so Josh trotted up the path and pulled out his flashlight, a birthday present from his grandparents.
"Remember, be very quiet," said Mandy. "The bats won't hurt you, but there's no point in stirring them up."
They began walking downslope, the light of the entrance growing dim, then disappearing when they turned the first corner. Now the cave walls gleamed a sick yellow in the flashlight beam and Josh felt his stomach clenching in dread.
That was when they first heard the voices.
Josh slammed to a stop. "What's that?" he cried.
Even Mandy was a at a loss as she listened to what sounded like the murmuring of a dozen low voices ahead.
"Muh-maybe we should just head back out," Josh stammered.
"No," said Mandy, always a bit bolder than her parents would have preferred in a 10-year-old. "Something isn't right. We need to keep going."
Josh rolled his eyes. "Something isn't right," he agreed, "and we need to get the heck out of here!"
But Mandy was already around the next bend, leaving the light of his flashlight in her wake. He could hardly leave her without a light, he thought as he hurried ahead.
Josh nearly bumped into his friend, who had stopped, holding a hand up to keep him from going forward. There in flickering candlelight they could see shadowy figures snickering and holding what looked like beer cans.
“Isn’t that your brother?” Josh breathed?
“Oh, Caleb, you’re gonna catch it now,” Mandy said, half to herself. “What am I gonna do now?”
“Let’s just go,” said Josh. “They’ll never know we were here. I won’t say a word. I promise.”
Mandy shook her head, ponytail brushing his shoulder.
“No, he’s been warned about hanging out with this crowd. If we don’t do something, who knows what kind of trouble he’ll end up in? He’s only 16 now, but he could still end up in jail with the stuff these guys are doing.”
In seconds, Mandy had a plan worked out. It involved both packs of Black Cat firecrackers Josh had been saving for Fourth of July, a boom box and some downloaded scenes from some of their favorite crime shows.
“Come out with your hands up!” a voice shouted into the cave’s interior.
From inside, Mandy and Josh could hear voices. “What was that? They talking to us? Shh. Keep quiet!”
Then a string of firecrackers shattered the stillness, followed by sounds of yelling and a distant police siren. More firecrackers exploded. Then thudding footsteps caused Mandy and Josh to dive into the nearby shrubs.
Four frightened teens were staring into the darkness, trying to decide whether what they had heard was real – or some strange shared hallucination.
Finally, Caleb squared his shoulders and said, “You know, this is crazy. I’m just not hanging with you guys any more!”
The others clearly were trying to talk him into sticking around, but he shook them off.
“I don’t know what just happened, but what if it HAD been the police? We’re drinking under age, Brad has an ounce of pot in his pocket and Mike just boosted a stereo from WalMart. It just isn’t worth it!”
He stalked off, leaving his friends to consider their own take on what had happened.
Josh and Mandy threaded their way through the bushes in the opposite direction, pausing just long enough to exchange a high five in the light of the rising moon.
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