One in fire, two in blood.
"Come on, Bryan!"
Three in storm and four in flood.
"What the hell are you so afraid of?"
Five in anger, six in hate.
"You don't seriously believe this junk, do you?"
Seven fear and evil eight.
"You think the Dark Man's gonna come and get me?"
Nine in sorrow, ten in pain.
"It's just a stupid game."
Eleven death, twelve life again.
"It's like a skipping rhyme."
Thirteen steps to the Dark Man's door.
"You ever see anybody die from a skipping rhyme, Bryan?"
Won't be turning back no more.
Bryan woke, as he always did, with a scream that didn't really happen out loud, and the sweat sticking the cotton sheets together. It was the height of summer and school was nearly out, the grass outside was dying, and even in the shade the concrete was hot to the touch. But Bryan was still shivering.
The shivers always came in summer.
People thought winter was the bad time, the time when you huddled under your blankets and hid from the evil things outside. But winter was just dull and dark. It had to be bright and sunny for the blackest shadows to come out.
He could always feel the Dark Man when the weather started to warm up. It was his season. The sun in the sky and the birds in the trees, and the Dark Man in the shadows.
He'd tried to tell himself again and again that it was imagination, twisted memories. He'd only been ten when it happened; he was fifteen now. He had been just a kid, and his brain had made him see the Dark Man because that was what they'd been playing. The Devil's Footsteps were just stones, and the Dark Man hadn't taken Adam.
But it was Adam's voice Bryan heard when he told himself that. Adam laughing, taunting, making fun of Bryan, who hadn't completed the rhyme, who'd run away before he'd reached the thirteenth step. Adam making fun of the Dark Man.
What did it matter if you believed in the legend or not? Adam was still gone.
Everybody laughed if you mentioned the Dark Man. A local myth, the children's bogeyman. The Dark Man of Redford. What a silly, childish story. Everybody laughed. And everybody hugged their coats about them and said, "Hey, isn't it cold in here? I think it's going to be a bad winter, this one." Bryan could have told them that it wasn't winter you had to watch out for. He might be fifteen now, but you don't grow out of childhood superstitions when you've seen them with your own eyes.
But Bryan just wiped the cold sweat away, and got out of bed. Because being afraid of the Dark Man didn't get you a day off school. Not even a missing brother did that, five years down the line.
His parents were already downstairs, making breakfast, talking quietly. It looked happy, it all looked normal. Only if you'd been here five years before could you tell that something had changed, something was missing. Something that should have been here had slipped out into the night and disappeared with Adam. His parents might be making conversation, but Bryan didn't think either of them was really listening to it.
The dining table had four chairs, and no matter where you sat you shared it with the ghost of Adam. Bryan poured himself a bowl of Cheerios and sat on the arm of a chair in the living room to eat them. Adam's face smiled up at him from the photographs. But that was better than the other photographs, the later ones, the ones with the Adam-shaped hole in them.
The smiles all looked the same. Even his own. Bryan always thought that was creepiest of all, that it all looked the same and you couldn't see. That there could be this great big huge wrongness in the middle of their family, and you couldn't actually see it at all.
He was always glad to get outside. Even in the summer, when the Dark Man might be out there waiting for him, it was better to be outside. Being at home was like sitting in a crypt where they'd forgotten to tell the people they were dead.
As he walked, he counted steps. He always did it, he didn't know how to stop.
One in fire. Two in blood. Three in storm. Four in flood.
Devil's Footsteps was one of those playground rhymes that everybody knew and nobody remembered making up. It was a game, a test of bravery. Whichever step you stopped on, that told you how you would die.
Five in anger. Six in hate. Seven fear. Evil eight.
But somewhere out in the woods, so the legend went, were the real Devil's Footsteps. A trail of stones that led nowhere. And if you walked the real Devil's Footsteps and you said the rhyme, then on the thirteenth step the Dark Man would come to claim you.
And he and Adam had found them. He had been ten years old, and he'd believed it. His nerve had broken on the eleventh step, and he'd jumped off the stones and fled back to the beginning. He was too afraid of the Dark Man. Adam had been twelve and he hadn't believed, because twelve-year-olds had no time for stupid games like Devil's Footsteps. But he'd had to prove to Bryan just how childish he was being. He'd had to get all the way to the thirteenth step.
Afterwards, of course, there had been news bulletins and posters pinned to trees, and quiet patient policemen who tried to get him to describe this "Dark Man," tell them about the person who'd taken his brother. There had been search parties who methodically quartered the woods, going over every inch, missing nothing.
None of them had ever found thirteen stones that made a pathway. And none of them had ever found Adam.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Devil's Footsteps by E.E. Richardson. Copyright © 2005 by E.E. Richardson. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.