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I had to try one time. Even though Dad was about to turn the car into my aunt and uncle’s driveway. Even though he and Mom had said “no” the hundred other times I’d already asked them. This was my last chance so I crossed my fingers on both hands and went for it. “Please please can I go to New York City with you guys?” I asked. “We could see the Statue of Liberty. I read all about it online. It’s 305 feet tall if you count the pedestal it stands on.” I knew they would like that I threw in the exact measurement. They always approved when I used my laptop for educational things instead of just playing video games. “I promise we’ll take you to see it another time, buddy. This is a business trip for us and we’re going to be busy the whole time we’re there,” Dad said, stopping the car in front of my aunt’s herb garden. “Aww, look how excited they are to have you stay with them.” Mom pointed to the porch. Great Uncle Theo held up a WELCOME JAKE! sign and Great Aunt Ducky took a handkerchief out of the pocket of her plaid dress to wave back and forth, her silver hair pinned in its usual neat bun. “Then can I at least have eight hours of screen time every day?" I asked. “And then two more after dinner? There isn’t anything else to do out here. I’m going to be so bored!” “You can have three hours a day,” Dad said. “That’ll leave you plenty of time to do other fun stuff out here in the country, like going fishing with your uncle. Or peach picking with your aunt.” “Except none of those things are as fun as playing Battle of the Zombie Dragons,” I muttered as Uncle Theo pulled open the car door. Right away I got a whiff of the just-blown-out birthday candle smoky smell that always blew around my aunt and uncle’s little brown house with its crooked green shutters. Uncle Theo ran his hand through my curly hair. “Well, I’m surprised you didn’t feel that crawling around your noggin!” He held up a plastic spider and grinned. “Good one, Uncle Theo,” I said politely like I did every time he played one of his practical jokes. When I was six, I couldn’t stop giggling at his endless pranks. Now that I was almost eleven, I thought they were more annoying than funny. “Wait until I show my new batch of fake dog poop. It fools your Aunt Ducky every time and we don’t even have a dog!” Uncle Theo burst out laughing. After they kissed me goodbye and reminded me to “be a good boy” and “don’t play your games all day, be outside in this nice fresh air!” Mom and Dad got back in the car. I stayed out on the porch for a few extra seconds in case they changed their mind and turned around to come back for me. But Dad tooted the horn a few times and Mom stuck her arm out the window for one last wave before they turned onto the road. I couldn’t help letting out a little groan and Uncle Theo nodded. “Yes, today is a scorcher,” he said. “Let’s take your things up to your room and we’ll head over to Dairy Queen after lunch. Nothing better in this heat than a strawberry sundae.” He picked up my duffel and took it inside. I leaned down to pick up my backpack. Two bright purple eyes peered at me from below the porch railing. “Whoa!” I said, leaping back so fast I knocked over one of the rocking chairs. Whoever or whatever it was took off towards to the woods that edged the back of the yard. It was galloping so fast all I could see was a dark blur. Maybe it was a bear? Not that I knew a lot about bears. Back home in Chicago I mostly saw pigeons and a few squirrels and once I saw two rats fighting over a piece of bread in the alley behind our apartment building. I ran into the house and up the stairs to the little guest room at the end of the hall. “Look at this Jake,” Uncle Theo said from the doorway. He held up a small spoon. He touched it and the whole spoon collapsed. “Isn’t that a hoot? I can’t wait to see the look on Aunt Ducky’s face when she tries to eat her banana split with it and the ice cream keeps falling right to the ground.” “Good one, Uncle Theo,” I said without even thinking. He leaned in and whispered. “You won’t believe what I’ve got up my sleeve for my next stunt. It’ll be the biggest one I’ve ever pulled off. You’ve never seen anything like it!” I followed him down to the kitchen for lunch, trying to figure out what his big practical joke could be. Probably something he read in his favorite book, THE 100 BEST PRANKS TO PLAY ON YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILY. I’d looked through it once and Uncle Theo had drawn little stars next to Number 39: Fill the cookie jar with ketchup and Number 67: Stuffing the whole freezer with ping pong balls. So that’s what I’d be doing the next ten days: Playing ZombieDragons, staying away from weird bears and watching out for Uncle Theo’s next big joke. Page Break Chapter 2 “I saw something weird today,” I said when we sat down at the table. “There was something looking me from the side of the porch.” “Probably our neighbor’s cat, Henry coming over for a visit,” Aunt Duckie said. “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly.” I shook my head. “No, this definitely wasn’t a cat. It ran to the back woods so fast it was hard to see anything. I even thought it could be a bear. But bears don’t have super bright purple eyes, do they?” Uncle Theo put down his egg salad sandwich. “You’re sure it had bright purple eyes?” I nodded. “That was not a bear.” He stood up. “Excuse me. I’m going to run downstairs to get some, uh, pickles from the pantry.” “There’s some right here, Uncle Theo.” I pointed to the plate in the middle of the table but he’d already hurried through the basement door. “What’s going on?” I asked Aunt Ducky. “He seemed really freaked out all of a sudden.” “Oh, uh, maybe he’s worried that we’re out of pickles,” Aunt Ducky untied her apron. “I’ll go help him find some. You stay here and finish your lunch.” She went down the stairs quickly too. I was gulping down the rest of my sandwich so I could get upstairs to start a new round of Zombie Dragons when a loud thump! on the back porch made the kitchen windows shake. I looked through the yellow curtains to see a box. At least I thought it was a box. I’d never seen one like this and it was my job on Saturdays to unpack all the cartons delivered to my family’s shoe store. This one looked like it was made of heavy black rubber. Bulging out on one side, it caved in on the other. I opened the door to read the writing etched into the rubber: 5 POUNDS OF CHUNKY BAT VOMIT FOR SPELLS NEEDING CHUNKY BAT VOMIT 5 POUNDS LIQUIDY BAT VOMIT FOR SPELLS REQURING LIQUIDY BAT VOMIT. DO NOT LEAVE OUTSIDE OR VOMIT WILL MELT. PUT IN COOL DARK PLACE RIGHT AWAY. This must be stuff for Uncle Theo’s prank. He probably ordered it from the same place as the fake dog poop. Despite the loud thump like someone had dropped a boulder on the porch, it was pretty light when I picked it up. The kitchen was sunny and warm so I carried the box down to the basement. My aunt and uncle weren’t in the little pantry stocked with Aunt Ducky’s jars of homemade jam and pickles, and they weren’t in the laundry room either. “Where are you guys?” I called. “You got a package delivered.” “I’m very sorry we sold you a jar of ant snot when you asked for worm snot,” Uncle Theo said. “Huh?” I said. “My spell was ruined by your stupid mistake. If things don’t improve around here, you will suffer my rage,” a raspy voice answered him. “This place will suffer the rage of all the witches!” another voice screeched. “We are tired of the way this store conducts business and we won’t put up with it much longer.” “I’m so sorry, I assure you it won’t happen again. Beltrane, please bring me a jar of our finest worm snot for Witch Hensel right away,” Uncle Theo said. The voices were coming from the far left side of the basement, always the shadiest, coolest part of it because of the big maple tree that grew in the yard above. “Uncle Theo, are you okay?” I leaned into the wall to press my ear against it when something pressed against my arm. It was a glass doorknob on a slim door tucked into the corner. How had I never noticed this door before? I used to spend hours down here playing with my train set, the tracks covering every inch of the floor. I twisted the knob and the door opened easily. I poked my head out before I went through the doorway. A few uneven steps dropped to a narrow tunnel lit by small torches flickering along a crumbling brick wall. I leaned forward to read something scratched into one of the bricks: NO WITCHES ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT My shoulders relaxed. I’d just found Uncle Theo’s next prank. He must be getting all of this ready for Halloween. It was only August, but this one was definitely going to take a lot more work than putting fake dog poop down. Of course he had to start working on it early. This was like something in a movie. I started down the tunnel. It probably led to a room decorated with fake cobwebs and ghosts made out of old bedsheets. I’d find it, let Aunt Ducky and Uncle Theo yell “Boo!” at me and then get back to Dragons and hopefully we’d go to Dairy Queen for that strawberry sundae soon too. The sharp twists and turns of the tunnel reminded me of the cornfield maze my fourth-grade class visited last fall. After a few seconds, though, I couldn’t tell if I was going forwards or backwards, right or left. The torches gave off such little light that I kept stumbling into dark dead ends, scraping my nose against the bricks. Stairs led down one passageway only to go back up another a few seconds later. I felt like I was walking in circles. Scary, dark circles. I didn’t know what direction I was headed in and I certainly didn’t know how to get back to the basement. Hot tears filled my eyes and now I really couldn’t see where I was going. “Uncle Theo?” I called. “Aunt Ducky?” No one answered. I slumped against the wall to figure out what to do next.