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Callie stood with her back against the wall next to the dining room window. With a careful finger, she lifted one of the blinds ever so slightly. An eager set of green eyes looking up at her showed on the other side. Callie jumped away from the window with a gasp, darting directly behind a nearby arm chair. Evil cackling emanated from the outside. A few moments later, the front door opened.
“That was terrifying,” Callie laughed as her younger brother Ben came grinning towards her. He laughed in glee. Then he turned serious.
“Callie, I saw that old man and woman staring at us from their window again as I came from school. Just standing there!”
“I know!” Callie exclaimed, her voice growing hushed. “Every time I go outside one or both of them are staring at me, just as they’re clipping the hedges or sitting by their window or washing their car. I don’t understand it!”
“It’s so creepy,” Ben said.
Callie thought a moment. “We should go investigate. We can’t put up with this anymore.”
Ben looked at her solemnly. “I agree.” He added, “They probably won’t say much though. They never speak.”
“Perhaps,” Callie shrugged.
They opened the front door. The tall old man and his stern wife were still standing at the window, staring at the two.
“Do they ever move?” Ben murmured.
The girl and boy strolled up the driveway and up to the green, wooden front door.
The children started at the doorbell the instant Callie pressed it. Feet padded up to the entrance. The green door creaked open. A scrutinizing old man with eyes that gleamed behind his spectacles peered from the other side.
“Is there something I can do for you children?” his gravelly voice cracked.
Callie replied sternly, “Yes. We were wondering why you keep looking at us ever since you’ve moved here.”
“It’s creeping us out!” Ben frowned. “And you only do it when our parents aren’t home! Why are you—”
“Hush, hush now! Come in, and I can explain everything over some tea.” The man spread an arm beckoning them enter the quaint home. He smiled a calm, reassuring smile that seemed to say, “All your fears are for nothing.” Frankly, at the first sight of the man Callie and Ben both felt their imposing image of the elderly couple wiped away by his feeble frame.
“Oh—okay. At least for a short time,” Ben assented, still with some reserve.
The old man smiled as if glad of their consent, and stepped further aside to let them enter. The moment Callie and Ben walked two paces across the small, dark entryway, the man shut the door, turned around, and stared at them in gleeful concentration.
Before the two could speak out, a slim, wrinkled lady scurried round from the back of the house where the kitchen was, calling, “Bert, are those our guests?”
“They’ve come indeed, my dear!” Bert’s eyes shone bluer as he spoke.
The pair of old folk stepped towards Callie and Ben, pushing them backward into the sitting room on the left.
“What’s going on?” Ben shouted.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Bert said, ignoring Ben’s protest. “We’ve been watching you for months, and know you are our perfect visitors!”
“We noticed you watching us from you window. That’s why we’ve come!” Callie said.
“Ah, you were tricked! The two figures at the window? That was just a decoy!” the old lady exclaimed.
The children turned their heads to the window, and indeed, two tall figures, one dressed as a man and the other a woman, stood stock-still, looking out.
“We didn’t want to raise suspicion, you see, to our true plans,” Bert murmured.
“Oh yes,” his wife continued, “we were at your windows by day and your attic by night, searching for all the knowledge we could gather about you. Yes,” she led Callie by the shoulders from behind into a floral-upholstered chair, “we have long awaited the chosen ones to arrive.”
Bert pulled close the drapes with a rope line at the side of the window, and switched on a standing lamp. Ben stood in bewilderment, not daring to dart out the door, lest he leave Callie behind with their neighbors alone.
“You must pass three tests,” the old woman declared. Somehow she had already lit a candle and held it before her face. Callie and Ben gaped. “You have several minutes for each. Answer wisely, or we shall have you for tea.”
“I’ll go check the cauldron,” Bert said hoarsely, and he sauntered into the next room. The lady was now wearing a black cape.
“One—” she held up a long, bony finger, “what is, one plus one?”
Ben and Callie looked at each other.
“Uh, t—two?” Callie stuttered.
The wrinkled rake gasped. “You are far smarter than I reckoned!”
Bert crept back into the room with a sinister grin, cackling. “Just wait for the second test,” he said. He shuffled to the corner of the room, picked up a faded, upturned top hat, and handed it to his wife. She cleared her throat as she pulled up a strip of paper.
She read slowly, “How many pickles does it take for a seabird to float?” She looked at them seriously.
“You have to be kidding. What?” Ben said rudely.
“Answer the question! We don’t accept back-talk here,” the lady snapped. She waited, head held high. A faint bubbling could be heard from the back room.
“Well, none,” Ben answered with a shrug. “It doesn’t take any pickles for a seabird to float.”
“Egg-cellent,” the lady crooned, returning the top hat to her husband.
“Yet,” Bert murmured, “the boy gets two demerits for his rudeness.”
“Yess,” his wife hissed.
Neither Callie nor Ben could guess what that would mean. They both gulped. The thin woman paced the room uneasily.
“Are the equipment ready?” she asked Bert. He nodded. “At last, you have reached the third test,” she spoke, clasping her hands. “Try not to move.” Suddenly the floor collapsed into a pit of fire, leaving tall, crooked islands for Ben, Callie in her chair, and the old couple to stand on. “Now, jump down!” the crone commanded. Callie and Ben could scarcely believe their eyes!
“One,” the couple counted, “two, three, jump!” To Callie’s terror, Ben jumped.
“No!” she screamed. She watched him land flat on his feet, floating above the flames. The lamplight brightened, and the floor reappeared as before. The couple stared at Callie reproachfully.
“It was but a hologram,” the woman said. “Three demerits! Come this way, both of you.”
She led them into the kitchen, with Bert following behind them. A great, black cauldron filled the small space, raging with steam.
“You must jump, Callie, for you have failed,” the lady said.
Callie hesitated. No doors or windows could be seen, no point of escape. Yet must she?
“Let me do it,” Ben spoke up. “I can take her punishment.”
“You have your own. You must stick two limbs in the water, for your two demerits,” the man growled.
“No, let me go,” Callie said. “Let Ben go home. Let me jump in.”
“As you wish,” the lady bowed.
Callie climbed the ladder. Certainly after all this, the cauldron was fake too. No, the rush of boiling water and scalding steam below her could not be mistaken!
“No!” Ben cried.
Callie jumped. The cauldron opened in half, and showed the girl safe on a cushion behind a billow of steam.
“Liquid nitrogen,” Bert coughed, fanning himself. Ben and Callie ran to each other.
“How’d you know you’d be safe?” Ben cried.
“I did not know for sure, but I saw the hole in the middle.”
They glanced up, and stared in surprise. The old lady had shed her wrinkles, and stood, tall and young.
The old man explained, “It was my daughter Morgan’s test to see if children today loved others, and you have passed. Now go home.”
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