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Dreadful Screams and Horrible Hisses.

Becky slid open the massive barn door and searched in the darkness for the light switch. She could hear her horse, Joco, pacing in his stall. "Hold on, Joco, I'm coming," she called. Joco leaned over the stall door and answered with an impatient whinny.

"Sorry I'm late, boy," Becky said, giving the horse's velvety nose a pat. "Play practice took longer than I thought. Jon promised to feed you. But brothers can be real jerks sometimes."

She pulled the hose to the horse's stall, slid it between the boards, and filled the bucket. Joco took a long drink and then nickered softly. Becky dumped a scoop of sweet-smelling grain into his trough.

Becky sensed an eerie quiet in the huge, old barn. Dad and Jon had finished the milking hours ago. In the shadows, the farm machinery stood idle. Only Joco's soft munching broke the silence.

"Now for your hay," Becky said. She started to climb the ladder to the hayloft. Last fall, the loft had been filled with hay. But now that winter was over, the few remaining bales were stacked in the farthest corner.

"That light up there looks kind of dim, Joco," Becky said as she climbed. "I hope I can see to find you some hay."

In the loft, the faint light cast shadowy figures on the dusty floor and high walls.

"Kitty, kitty, kitty," Becky called, hoping Patches would come and chase away the uneasiness she felt. She tugged a chunk of hay from an open bale and then called again. But the familiar meow did not come.

Instead, a long, evil hisssSSSS filled the air. Becky stopped. Then she heard another. even longer and louder, hisssSSSSS.

Becky clutched the hay and raced liar the ladder. The awful hisssSSSS followed, seeming to reach out for her and nip at the tail of her sweatshirt. She tossed the hay to the floor below and scrambled down the ladder. her feet barely touching the rungs.

When she was safely down, Becky listened again. She heard only the pounding of her heart and Joco's peaceful munching. Becky wrapped her arms tightly around Joco's neck searching for warmth and comfort in his silky mane.

"Maybe it was only the wind," she whispered, trying to comfort herself.

Becky looked out the barn door. The night was quiet and still. The moon and stars sparkled in the sky. Up at the house, a faint light glowing in the kitchen window reassured Becky and helped to calm her fears.

"Goodnight, Joco," she called. "Sec you tomorrow."

Becky tugged on the big barn door and it rumbled closed with an unusually loud bang. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a chorus of unearthly screams ripped through the darkness. With the echo of the dreadful screams ringing in her cars. Becky ran to the house.

"Mom! Dad!" Becky yelled as she threw open the kitchen door.

"They went over to the Martins'," Jon called front the den. "Do you have to make so much noise? I'm trying to watch a movie."

"But, Jon, there's something terrible going on in the barn."

"What kind of terrible?" Jon mumbled, his eyes never leaving the TV.

"An awful hissing noise," Becky cried, "and then a loud scream--like someone is being murdered!"

"Sure, Becky," Jon mocked. "You get a little part in the sixth-grade play, and now you think you're the world's greatest actress."

"I'm serious, Jon!" Becky pleaded, but he just ignored her. "Oh, forget it!" she shouted.

Becky ran into her room and fell across her bed. Hot tears of frustration welled up in her eyes. She pulled the covers over her head and sobbed quietly in the dark.

Becky awoke to find the bright morning sun shining through her curtains. As she rubbed her swollen eyes, last night's dreadful memory slowly returned. I don't even remember Mom and Dad coming home, Becky thought.

"Hi, honey," Mom said when Becky finally stumbled into the kitchen. "I hear you had a little scare last night."

"It wasn't exactly a little scare, Mom. How did you know?"

"Jon told us. He and Dad heard those same weird hissing noises when they went to milk the cows this morning. Your dad wants you to go out to the barn as soon as you finish eating breakfast."

"I'm never going into the barn again ... even in daytime, even with Dad there, even to take care of Joco," Becky cried. "Joco! Is he all right?"

"Joco's fine. Jon fed him for you. I think your brother feels bad for ignoring you last night."

"Well, he should," Becky said indignantly. "But what about those terrible screams?"

"Your dad didn't hear the screams, Becky. That's why he wants you to go out to the barn. He wants you to help him figure out what's going on."

Becky picked at her breakfast. She knew she would have to go to the barn sometime. She couldn't just abandon Joco and Patches. Finally, she could delay no longer.

As she trudged through the barnyard, Becky saw her Dad waving from the open barn door. She hurried on despite the knots in her stomach.

"The hisses seem to be coming from somewhere in the loft," Dad said after hearing her story. "Maybe we should start looking there."

Becky took a deep breath and followed her dad up the ladder to the hayloft. This morning, bright beams of sunlight filtered through the cracks in the old barn walls. From somewhere under the stacked hay bales, Patches strolled out to greet them.

"Hello, Patchy-cat," Becky crooned. "I'm so glad to see you. Where were you hiding last night?"

With Patches purring beside her, Becky thought the loft seemed friendly again, just like always. She lay down in the hay while her dad looked around. Up high near the peak of the roof, Becky noticed something that she didn't remember seeing before.

"What's that way up there, Dad?" she said, pointing over her head. "It looks like a box hanging on the wall."

"Jon and I put that up there three or four years ago," Dad said. "We thought it might attract some barn owls, but nothing ever came of it."

"Oh, I love owls, Dad," Becky said, completely forgetting the reason they were there. "Maybe they came, and we just don't know it."

"Well," Dad said, "why don't we both climb up there and take a look?"

They climbed over the stacked hay bales and onto the platform. Becky slowly opened the hinged lid.

Soft morning light beamed into the box through a small rectangular opening. Becky stared in amazement at the five white and fuzzy, heart-shaped faces.

"Oh, Dad," Becky whispered, "baby owls."

At the sound of the voices, the five frightened owlets began to sway slowly side to side. And then they let out a low, spine-chilling hisssSSSS.

"That's it!" she gasped. "That's the noise I heard."

They peeked in again.

"The screams I heard must have been from the parents," Becky said.

"Probably so," Dad agreed. "Maybe we should leave these little guys alone now."

"Yeah," Becky said, heading for the ladder, "the parents would make a terrible shriek if they saw us here."

"I had almost forgotten about that nest box up there," Dad said, brushing the hay off his jeans. "And when the owls finally came, they just about scared our Becky half to death."

"The owls can hiss and scream all they want," Becky said with relief. "They won't scare me again. In fact, I have a great idea."

"What's that?" Dad asked.

A mischievous grin formed on Becky's face. She said, "I can invite Jennie and Sarah over for a slumber party. We can sleep in the hayloft and tell ghost stories and -- "

"Shame on you, Becky," Dad laughed. "You wouldn't scare your best friends like that, would you?"

"Sure I would," Becky said, chuckling as they closed the barn door and walked to the house.
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Author:Dixon, Catharine Peirce
Publication:Children's Digest
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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