When Chloë ignored the “Enter At Your Own Risk” sign on Mr. Sedgewick’s property line, she had no idea what the consequences would be. On a regular day, she would never have dreamed of going anywhere near his creepy old mansion. But this wasn’t an ordinary day. It was the day of Rachel Turner’s 12th birthday party. Let me explain a bit.
When Chloë received the pink-and-purple sparkle evite, she was excited out of her mind. Rachel was the most popular girl in the 6th grade. She wore eye shadow to school, shopped on weekends at Forever 21, and even had her own laptop. Usually, Chloë wasn’t considered one of the super popular girls. She liked to think that she was semi-popular. She was well-liked, and always kept up with all of the new trends. Still, she had never been invited to Rachel’s party before. But this year, Chloë decided to go out for track (Rachel and her BFFs all did track). And so Chloë was selected to be one of the lucky few to be graced by Rachel Turner’s magical glow at her spectacular birthday party.
The morning of the party, Chloë spent lots of time getting ready. She packed her bag carefully, making sure nothing she brought would be considered too childish. She insisted on bringing her mom’s thermal camping sleeping bag to avoid having to use her way - too - childish - for - Rachel - Turner’s - party mermaid sleeping bag. She picked out her cutest pjs, the ones with the purple bottoms and pink top with the hearts on it. She brushed her long, wavy, caramel brown hair a hundred times to alleviate as much frizz as possible (though she was pretty sure the excessive brushing actually just added to the frizziness).
When her mom dropped her off at Rachel’s (really big!) house, many girls were already there, and the party was already partly underway. It was a huge event, filled with girly movies, popcorn and candy, Taylor Swift songs, and of course, party games. Being perhaps the most popular slumber party game, the girls decided to start with truth-or-dare. Situated in a newly-created circle, Rachel took charge of the game.
“Alison! You’re first.” Rachel said. “Truth or dare?”
“Truth!” Alison squealed. Alison was Rachel’s official BFF.
“Okay,” Rachel grinned. “Do you like Alex Jackson?” The girls waited with bated breath.
“Eeeeeeek! Yes!” Alison blurted, then hid her face under a pink Meghan Trainor throw pillow. They all went wild, screeching and giggling up a storm. Chloë felt her cheeks go pink with pleasure as she laughed. But then - “Chloë! Truth or dare?” Alison asked Chloë, emerging from her pillow.
“Dare!” Chloë answered confindantly.
“Okay.” Alison grinned. “I dare you to go sneak into Mr. Sedgewick’s house!” Chloë gasped.
“You can take pictures, for evidence!” Rachel shouted.
“Wait - who’s Mr. Sedgewick?” One girl asked.
“Mr. Sedgewick is the old man who lives in the big old mansion down the street from me.” Rachel told her.
“He’s the creepiest, scariest old man EVER!” Chloë said.
“He’s also super ugly. He has a really big cucumber nose and he probably has warts.” Another girl informed them.
“He lives all by himself - but he probably never got married. Or if he did, he probably killed his wife!”
“He has big NO TRESPASSING SIGNS all over his lawn.”
“You don’t want to cross Mr. Sedgewick.”
Chloë knew there had been many rumors about Mr. Sedgwick, the least scandalous being that he kept a pet alligator in his pool. She still wouldn’t have agreed to the dare, if it weren’t for the fact that this was RACHEL TURNER’S big slumber party, and if Chloë refused the dare she would look like a loser in front of Rachel and all of her mega- popular friends. So she didn’t really have a choice. She had to do it.
So anyway, that was how Chloë ended up trotting down the street (glowing yellow thanks to the dusty street lamps lining either side) nervously, on her way to her certain doom. Reaching the edge of his yard, she tiptoe-ran across the freshly mowed grass and eased open the thick, creaky cellar door. She clutched her pink iPod touch tightly with white knuckles (she wasn’t allowed to have a phone yet, something Rachel teased her mercilessly for). Chloë was a courageous girl. She wasn’t afraid of anything she would find down in Mr. Sedgewick’s cellar (caged children, dead bodies?) but she was afraid finding Mr. Sedgewick himself. He definitely had the reputation of Mr. If - you - step - one - toe - on - my - lawn - I - will - kidnap - your - dog - and - you - will - never - see - him - again. Which really happened, to Alison! Their dog Peaches was missing for months. When they finally found her (after hundreds of “missing dog” posters and phone calls to the ASPCA and the Humane Society,) she was curled up in the bushes by the local high school. Shivering, she was super skinny and missing big patches of fur. Alison’s parents said that she must have just wandered off and then not been able to find her way back home. But everyone at school knew the truth, that Mr. Sedgewick had stolen Peaches from Alison’s yard in the middle of the night and hid her in his cellar. Everyone said that he probably only fed her stale twinkies and orange soda pop. So Chloë wasn’t taking any chances with Mr. Sedgewick (or, for that matter, his cellar).
The cellar was dark. Not pitch black, but a dark chalky grainy black that makes you want to rip and scratch away the darkness in front of you but you can’t because it’s darkness and it can’t be touched or moved. As Chloë slowly shuffled her brand-new black high-top converse along the dusty cellar floor, something long and skinny and cold brushed her face. She clamped a clammy hand over her face, biting back a scream. Tentatively, she reached a trembling arm to where the thing had been, dreading the possibility of a centipede, bat leg, string of circus spiders, or any other unlikely horror her frightened mind was making up on the spot. Her fingers closed around a smooth chain, and she yanked it down, filling up the basement with the soft glow of an old lightbulb. Deciding that the light was safe enough, she rounded the corner of the enormous basement and gasped.
There before her was a huge, dusty, once gleaming silver, cage. Now THIS was what she had come down there for. Hurriedly opening her camera app to take photos, she approached the cage and peered inside. There were no bound and gagged prisoners or carcasses of past victims, but dozens and dozens of stacked brown boxes. Curious, Chloë slipped through the widespread metal bars to investigate what might be inside.
She reached for the nearest box and pulled it towards her. Coughing at the created dust cloud, she opened the top flaps of the box and pulled out what looked like an old book. Upon closer inspection, it turned out not to be a book, but an old photo album. Even more curious, Chloë leafed through the pictures. There she found picture upon picture of the same young girl. There she was as a baby smiling sweetly, wrapped up like a burrito in a blanket. Then as a chubby toddler with tight red curls all over her head, grinning and holding her mother’s hand. Later, a little kid laughing and zooming down the slide at a park. And then older, a pale little girl without hair, still smiling, baking cookies with her grandmother in the kitchen. The same hairless girl, curled up like a cat in a big yellow chair that dwarfed her by comparison, a half-smile on her face and sparkles in her eyes. And then again, this time happily hugging a large fluffy yellow dog. Chloë kept turning the pages. Many pictures later, there was the same girl. Now she was about Chloë’s age, but thin and sickly and unsmiling. The next picture. A man and a women, both black clad, arm in arm but sans happiness. The corners of Chloë’s mouth turned down. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder. And this time, she screamed at the top of her lungs.
Yesterday, Chloë would have expected Mr. Sedgewick to scream and curse at her and lock her in a dungeon for a great many years, at the very least. But now, as she looked up at the elderly man standing above her, his trembling hand squeezing a cane and his eyes moist, she wasn’t so sure. And so ten minutes later when she was sipping tea and munching on ginger snaps with Mr. Sedgewick at his round mahogany kitchen table, the thought didn’t even enter her head that the cookies might be poisonous. He wasn’t angry that she had trespassed on his property and broken into his house. Well, maybe a little. But he wanted to talk to her, he said. She could tell that he needed somebody to talk to.
He told her all about his daughter. His daughter Emma. How she loved to bake and read. How she had a fiery personality and was sometimes very stubborn. How she had a special connection with animals. How she was diagnosed with leukemia when she was just nine. And how she died when she was only thirteen years old.
Chloë understood that maybe Mr. Sedgewick wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Maybe he was just a sad guy. A sad guy who was all alone and had nobody to talk to. A sad guy who needed somebody. She wished that she could grab back every mean word she’d said about him, but she couldn’t. It was too late to take back her words, but it’s never too late to make amends.
By the time Mr. Sedgwick had finished talking to her, it was half past seven, and the tea that Chloë had been pretending to drink and enjoy (black tea - blech!) was cold. The girls at the slumber party had probably forgotten about her by now. Chloë hardly believed it herself, but she had enjoyed listening to his stories. After promising that she would return that Saturday to talk to him again, (and the Saturday after that, and perhaps the Saturday after that too,) Mr. Sedgewick wrapped up a little package of the leftover ginger cookies for her to take with her and sent her on her way.
This time, instead of sneaking through the cellar door, she marched confidently out the big front double doors. Halfway down the street, she turned around to look back at the Sedgwick mansion one more time. Mr. Sedgewick sat in the upper window, smiling the same half-smile his daughter had in the pictures and waving at her.
When Chloë walked back into Rachel Turner’s pink and postered bedroom, the girls all turned to look at her. The room fell silent. Then it was like an explosion of words and exclamation points and question marks.
“Oh my god! What took you so long?”
“What happened with creepy old Mr. Sedgewick?”
“Did he catch you?
“We thought you died!”
“No - guys - wait!” Chloë tried to interject. “Mr. Sedgewick isn’t mean, or scary or bad.”
“What are you talking about?” Rachel asked, jumping down from her perch on her (pink again, of course) four poster bed. “Did he brainwash you somehow?”
Chloë knew she had to put things right. She told all the girls the truth about Mr. Sedgewick. About what she had found in that basement. About how Mr. Sedgewick was sad, not bad. About the conversation they had. In the end, the girls were much more enthralled than if Chloë had told them he was keeping circus monkeys in his basement. And they understood, finally, who Mr. Sedgewick really was.
That Saturday, Chloë did go back to Mr. Sedgewick’s house. Hearing the doorbell ring, he shuffled to the door as quickly as he could. Unlatching it and pulling it open, he gasped. He had expected one little girl standing on his front steps, and there before him stood more than ten.
And Mr. Sedgewick’s little half-smile widened into a full grin.