Luckily, Will’s dad was a fan of “Early to bed, early to rise,” and packed it in right after the ten o’clock news. His mom didn’t watch the news because it gave her nightmares, but she liked to read in bed. Their light was always off by eleven, though. Another lucky thing was that Will’s room was close to the stairs, so he didn’t have to climb out the window. It was too high to jump and the downspout was too flimsy to be useful. There was no way he could drag his dad’s big ladder from the garage. So it had to be the stairs. He tested them for squeaky spots that evening, while his parents were watching TV. All okay, except for the fourth from the top and the third from the bottom.
Right after his mom kissed him goodnight and left the room, Will changed from his pjs to regular clothes and got under the covers. It felt weird to be wearing jeans and a shirt and sweater in bed, but his dad sometimes checked on him, so everything had to look normal. Then he got scared he’d fall asleep and not wake up until morning. Doof would tease him mercilessly about that. Will could almost hear him singing “Rock-a-bye baby” or some other lullaby.
Finally, the clock beside Will’s bed said 11:30. He was supposed to meet Doof at the corner of 12th and Maple at midnight. Normally it would take fifteen minutes to get there, but this wasn’t normal.
The stairs had developed a lot of fresh squeaks and creaks. Will froze after each one, a story about needing a drink of water ready on his lips. But nothing happened. Going out the back door, he realized he hadn’t thought about getting back inside. He’d have to leave the door unlocked. If a burglar came in and stole something, it would be his fault.
Thinking about what his dad would say if that happened, Will almost changed his mind. But then he thought I don’t care what he says. I’m going. He closed the door softly and crept down the driveway to the street.
Doof wasn’t at 12th and Maple. No one was. Parked cars sat there reflecting the street lights. Will stood on the sidewalk wondering how long he should wait before he gave up. He’d never been out this late before, not even on Halloween. The trees rustled quietly, as though they were telling each other secrets.
“Gotcha!” Hands grabbed Will’s shoulders from behind. He screamed.
“Quiet!” Doof clamped a palm over Will’s mouth.
Will shook him off and pushed him away, nerves jangling. “What did you do that for?”
“Just testing your reflexes, pal.” Doof giggled. “Testing, testing, one, two, three. You ready?”
“Not if you’re going to be a jerk,” said Will.
“Not me! Everything’s cool. Hey, listen!”
Music. A faraway sound, getting closer, the way a siren gets closer and louder. Except this wasn’t a siren. It was the ice cream truck’s tune, frantic and jolly.
They ran down Maple street. The numbers on the cross streets got smaller. As they crossed 1st Street, Will noticed they weren’t on Maple anymore; the street sign said Railway Avenue. He’d never been here before. The houses were much older than in his neighbourhood, and then there were no houses, only business buildings. Ahead, train tracks gleamed silver-blue under the street lights. On the other side of them was a gas station.
The lights on the pumps were off, but a yellow light shone in the garage. A couple of cars were parked outside its open door and a few dark figures stood around. Guys. Strangers. They had bottles in their hands and talked in low voices, punctuated with bursts of laughter.
Will stopped. “Are we going over there? Where are we going, anyway?”
“Don’t be a dummy. We’re going to get us some ice cream. Come on!” Doof set off across the tracks.
“Are those guys waiting for it too?” Will asked.
Doof didn’t get a chance to answer. One of the guys by the gas station saw them and came over. He wasn’t a kid. Not even a high school kid. “What’re you kids doing here?” He didn’t sound friendly.
“What’s it to you?” Doof stuck his chin out.
“This isn’t a good place for kids—”
The ice cream truck’s music sounded really close, but they couldn’t see it.
“It’s over there! Come on!” Doof took off, running hard.
The guy from the gas station noticed Will for the first time. “That kid a friend of yours?”
“You know what’s making that sound?” Will nodded again.
“Then you better keep him away from it.” The guy turned and went back to the gas station, where the light in the garage suddenly looked warm and friendly.
The music brayed and wheezed, only a couple of blocks away. The tune’s words popped into Will’s head. Lullaby and good night, soon you’ll be sleeping tight. He turned and ran after Doof, just in time to see him go around a corner two blocks away.
Will pelted down the street and around the corner. Doof was still a block ahead of him, and the ice cream truck was coming toward them. It pulled over to the kerb by a vacant lot across the street and stopped. The music faded to a growl.
Will almost ran into Doof, who had stopped by some bushes. He felt suffocated from holding his breath.
Doof stood and panted. “Maybe they’re waiting for us.” “Let’s not get too close to it,” said Will, and for once Doof didn’t argue.