I am afraid of the dark. Five times, Will, Windy, and I have tried to spend the night in the tree fort, and five times we've failed because I imagine the woods under us are filled with evil creatures intent on violence against young paranormal enthusiasts. Soon after nightfall, I beg to go back to their farmhouse, and we always do. I am a boy of reason and rationale, but the two disappear in the dark.

There is another reason I hate the dark. I am not fleet of foot or adept of hand even in daylight, and the nighttime further diminishes my coordination. I cracked my head against a pole during this investigation running for my life in the dark. My brain had already been fuzzy from the failed mulch-pile jump on my bike a month ago, and this second incident further scrambled my thinking, though maybe for the better, as it turned out. Despite the head injury, I have confidence in this investigative report, and believe I properly analyzed all of the clues discussed herein. Conversely, I have no confidence in my ability to navigate a bike at great speeds over a six-foot-tall pile of shredded bark.

This investigation started unlike any other: The police showed up at the front door. It was not the front door of my house but the front door of a home owned by my parents' friends, the Huffs, who live in my hometown. The Huffs maintain a second home near their grown-up daughter's family, and we were staying there for a few days while my father attended an insurance convention.

Although I had an inkling that this trip might lead to an investigation into the unusual, I thought my Custard Senses had betrayed me when I saw we were stuck in the middle of suburbia, the epitome of the usual. The Huffs' stucco dwelling matched every other home in the subdivision and seemed as if prefabricated on an assembly line in a gray industrial complex overseas. Many shopping destinations and consumer temptations of every category were close at hand. But my expectations of a Close Encounter of the Mundane Kind changed as soon as we entered the Huffs' home. There had been a burglary.

Criminal investigations are not my gig. I deal in the ethereal trade, where magnifying glasses, DNA testing, and deadly weapons are of rare utility. Premonitions cannot be magnified with a convex lens, ghosts resist blood draws, and no metal munitions of which I am aware can take down a charging poltergeist. Nevertheless, cops and I are both in the business of clues and analysis, so I was interested in their work and was happy to offer them assistance.

My parents showed the two responding officers the areas of import in the Huff home. The house was in general disarray. A table was overturned. The rug in the family room was crumpled. In the kitchen, a drawer was open, and utensils littered the floor. Other indications of an intrusion were more subtle, so I pointed them out to the officers: a gilded frame on the foyer wall was too far from straight, and a finisher's medal from the Warrior Dash was on the ground below it. Beside the medal was a gold screw hook. On the wall above, a bonanza of gleaming awards and trophies sat slightly out of alignment on a shelf. The shelf had a hole in its edge from which the gold hook had come loose.

My parents lead the police toward the rear of the dwelling. A highchair just inside the sliding glass door was tipped. To the left of the highchair was an area that should have been ignored because it looked ordinary, but something high in the air to the left of a small piece of modern metal artwork caught my attention, so I casually investigated it myself. I am not tall, and I had to stand on my tiptoes and raise my hand as high as I could to reach over the ledge. All of this work resulted in the recovery of a very uninteresting flat plastic square. It was the size of three stacked iPads with a circular fixed-bottom base and three small posts arranged in the shape of a triangle on top.

The two officers and my parents had moved onto the back porch and were examining the area. I exited the back door onto a cement patio and trailed them right and left as the police worked the scene.

"Why don't you go somewhere else while the officers are doing their job," said my father. "You're getting in the way."

There were cement steps to my right that ascended from the patio to a higher level, and I followed them, while the others were already returning to the inside of the house after apparently observing nothing of interest outside. At the top of the steps, I turned left and continued my search. To the left of a stone sculpture, flowers of all kinds hung from baskets affixed to the railing. Hands clasped behind my back, I strolled the patio for possible clues -- although I don't know why the perps would desire to burgle potted flowers. The only thing of note on the patio was a thorny twig, which seemed out of place. I picked it up carefully but discarded it over the railing after noticing it left a pungent fragrance on my fingertips.

It wasn't until that moment that I noticed an oddity. There was a basket that hung in front of an end post on an outside corner of the railing, and the flowers inside of it sprouted no blooms. Only the green stalks and leaves remained. Likewise, the flowers in the baskets further down the railing were stripped of their petals. I departed, wondering what sort of greenhouse of horrors cultivated headless flowers.

Inside the home, the two police officers were sitting opposite my parents in the living room. They concluded that the burglars were amateurs looking for items to pawn for quick cash, and they had entered only the family room and kitchen. I reminded them that the picture frame, race medal, and trophies in the front foyer seemed to have been disturbed and urged them to take a look at the unusual flowers on the patio. It was at that point that Officer Adams wondered aloud whether they could book a kid for impersonating a police officer and then ordered me to cease and desist.

The officers did not dust for fingerprints, conduct much of an investigation, and left after only 15 bored minutes. I was not impressed. I knew the Huffs would never hear anything further from the police, and even Officer Adams admitted nothing would likely come of the incident. The decal on the side of their cruiser said "Proud to Serve," but the only things these police were serving were unkindness, discouragement, and pessimism. Unable to determine that anything was actually stolen, their investigation was at an end. But my investigation was just getting started.

We ate dinner that night at the Huffs' house. My dad ordered our meal from the usual: Johnstons' Family Diner, which we had eaten at several times before on our temporary stays there. The Markses have never been accused of being a daring lot, and our meal reflected this lineage. We had mashed potatoes, fried chicken, corn, and rolls. We drank white milk. This humdrum pedigree is an engine for change for me, and I've attempted to fill my short life with more excitement than past Markses have been known to pursue.

After my mother and father had gone to bed that night, I found myself on the porch step outside. There was no reason to think that something paranormal was responsible for what had happened in the Huffs' house, but like I said on my Facebook page a few weeks ago, I'd had a feeling something strange was going to happen during this trip, and it was going to happen at night.

Despite my fear of the dark, it often serves as a black bait, falsely enticing me with mystery and then reeling me into danger. But there is a clarity of thought one gains by stripping the world of its colors, and the silence frees space in the mind for critical thinking.

There were plenty of streetlights in the neighborhood, and I did a lap, creeping along the fringes of illumination. Though a break-in had just occurred, not a single place in this crowded suburban sprawl had its porch lights on. This suited me just fine - less light meant less people who might see me and call the police. My walk revealed nothing noteworthy.

In the middle of the neighborhood there was a park, which included a large playground for children, as well as a wooded walking trail, and I entered it across the street from the Huffs' driveway. Despite the trees and woods around the nature trail, there was little else natural about the park, and it had been sanitized by lawyers for everyone's protection. It was nothing like Will and Windy's farm, where rushing creeks, rotting barn floors, and sharp farm implements practically begged the grim reaper to stop by. I would not have been surprised if the swing set in this park did not swing and the teeter-totter neither teetered nor tottered. The slide, if it were not as flat as a table, probably deposited the precious little ones into a bin of hypoallergenic pillows fluffed straight from a clothes dryer. There were no real rocks anywhere in the area either, probably being considered too hard and their sharp edges too dangerous. Instead, the rock path leading into the park from the parking lot was merely stamped from cement. I hopped from fake stone to fake stone over the perfectly even concrete walkway, upon which not even the most uncoordinated nerd could trip and fall. As proof that the sidewalk was nerd-proof, I did not fall.

After ascending a slight hill, I was confronted with a full load of freaky. The bottom of the hill on the other side was cloaked in fog. I felt something strange was down there.

Like the blood of the condemned boiling over steps inside the devil's home, my veins throbbed red hot as soon as I began my descent into the misty white valley. At the bottom of the path, I leaned against a ladder leading to a corkscrew slide. Rapping my knuckles on a rung, I confirmed the playground was not, in fact, made of harmless Nerf foam.

Behind me, chain links rattled and S-hooks squeaked against eyebolts.

I turned to find a little girl sitting on a rubber belt swing. She was younger than me, maybe eight or nine years old. Her presence there shocked me not only because it was 10 o'clock at night and the playground was otherwise deserted, but because I had weaved through the empty hanging swings just 10 seconds before.

The girl was looking directly at me when I turned toward her. Under the security lamp, her bejeweled white dress glowed like a purplish bruise brushed with glitter.

"Have you seen my friend?" she asked.

"No," I said. "Who is your friend?"

"He plays with me here." She looked down.

"Are one of your parents here? It's pretty late."

"They don't know I come here. My friend always meets me here. I wore this dress for him. He likes sparklies."

I didn't know whether to issue a perv alert or an Amber alert. I asked, "Is your friend a grown-up or another kid?"

"I don't know," she said.

"What's his name?"

"I don't know."

"What's your name?"


When I was littler, I did not have imaginary friends. I did not need make-believe playmates. Though I have no siblings, farmers across the street from my house raised not only corn but twins. I surmised that LeeAnn's friend was not real, given she did not know his name or whether he was an adult.

I was not sure if I was supposed to leave her there at the park alone. The protocol for these types of situations is not taught in elementary school. She did not seem scared or in any type of danger. We were, after all, in an over-populated, upscale neighborhood where the only crime to speak of was first-degree Breaking and Entering and Making a Mess.

"Are you going to be alright?" I asked LeeAnn.

"Yes. I will come back tomorrow night. It's a special night. Nobody would understand." The girl slid off the swing and departed on the faux-stone path. I could have done without the unexpected snap of wind that whipped her glittery dress malevolently before she disappeared over the hill.

Hot falls of sweat trickled from my temples, chilling my neck with bumpy flesh. As a rule, I heed such signals, as I learned from the best-selling book on obeying your sixth sense, "Foreseen Eggs and Scram." I immediately decided this night's investigation would be abbreviated, and my bed welcomed me with open sheets.

I could have used some sleep but could not manage to catch even a tiny little Z. Buried beneath my blankets all night, I worried about what I would encounter on my trip to the park the next night. Although the darkness had not brought me the clarity of thought I had desired, it had been the backdrop for a very unusual encounter with a peculiar little girl in a sequined white dress.

The next day, my dad attended his insurance conference. My mom wanted me to go shopping with her, but I declined. Not only was my mom not going to any specific store, guaranteeing aimless window-shopping for hours, but I wanted to do some more investigative work. Again, I'm not a criminal detective, but something is unusual about a break-in during which nothing is taken. I still had no reason to believe that anything paranormal was afoot, but anything falling under the umbrella of "unusual" was my turf.

The first thing I did was reexamine the foyer area. The officers had dismissed my observation of the crooked artwork, misaligned trophies, and fallen mudder medal, pointing out that none of these items had been taken so they were of no interest. On the shelf above where the medal had fallen was a framed photograph of a very muddy and exhausted Mr. and Mrs. Huff at the finish line of a Warrior Dash. I studied it, not realizing the clue that would be revealed to me after a dance with the devil in the full moonlight.

I also explored the backyard, the west border of which was a dry gulley. Of the east-facing houses along the opposite side of the gulley, only one had a clear shot of the Huffs' backyard, and even if somebody at that house were standing outside, a wrong angle could obscure the view because of a tree line. It appeared unlikely any of these neighbors would have seen any suspicious activity. There was a flower-lined path at the bottom of the steps leading to the grass, but closer inspection revealed these blossoms to be decapitated as well.

Around the mulch beds were footprints pressed into the overgrown grass, and I followed them to a sandbox. The prints in the sand appeared to be barefooted and five-toed. Jillions of these adult-sized prints were stamped every which way in the play sand.

I mentioned nothing of my investigation to my parents before they went to bed. This was not the sort of investigation you get adults involved in . . . until it all goes horribly wrong at some point.

I slipped out of the house again that night. It was pleasantly cool, and my walk over the fake stones leading up the sloped path toward the back of the park was brisk. Just before I reached the peak of the bulge of land, the top cross-member of the swing set in the valley on the other side came into view, and I could see the chains of the three swings swaying. Strange little LeeAnn had returned.

Or so I thought. When I summitted the crest of the hill, I realized the swings were empty.

A little radio sat under the swing set. It was not playing Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake, but just incredibly boring classical music.

The radio speakers were pointed toward the edge of a wooded area about fifteen feet away. I clicked it off. The swings were now still, the three sets of chains as silent as six monks arguing in a Zen monastery.

There was a commotion in the woods. The little pale girl I had seen at the park last night ran at me from the dark trees. She wore the same sequined dress as last night, and each jewel shed sparks of moonlight. She brandished no weapon I could see, but that did not make her any less threatening.

"What are you doing?" she cried. I did not have chance to answer before she grabbed the radio. "We were dancing."

"Who?" I finally spoke.

"We were," she said and fell to her knees crying. "You ruined it. We were supposed to get married tonight." In her palm was a ring, which she clenched in her fist.

It was only at this moment that I realized the little girl wore a tiara on her head. The crown was encrusted with brilliant gemstones that reflected the moonlight. The tiara sat crooked and low on her head, much too large for a little girl.

My attention went from the tiara down to her neck, from which hung a necklace. My eyes continued down her arm to her hand. Her wrist was adorned with a gleaming bracelet.

LeeAnn opened her hand and stared into her palm, but there was no ring. Beneath her bowed head, the gold hoop sat in a puddle of mud made from dirt and tears.

The little unwed girl got off her knees and ran from the park.

Sometimes I think I do not seek unexplained phenomena but they instead choose to find me. The world is a place of nonbelievers. Out of the hatred of uncertainty and the love of predictability comes a calloused skepticism that seems to repel the indefinable. But for some reason, I live in a world in which the unexplainable often walks right up to me and slaps me on the back like an old friend. Maybe it is because I am a True Believer that the universe has conspired to present me so many opportunities to seek the truth.

But I am not entirely cut out to be a paranormal investigator. It is not the line of work for a boy who is afraid of the dark.

My instinct was to run away. I turned, but before I could take a full step, my face struck one of the posts on the swing set.

On my back, I yelled, and over the whoosh of pain sparks, I heard something move in the woods. Maybe strange little LeeAnn's friend was not so imaginary.

Everything seemed turned upside down, which I think made my brain view all of the clues from a different perspective. I stumbled back to home base, pained body parts collapsing onto the desk chair in the bedroom. It did not take long on the Huffs' computer for me to confirm my new theory.

The intruder who broke into the Huffs' home came not to steal electronics to pawn for quick cash, as the police had perfunctorily presumed. The prowler was seeking wedding gifts for the little girl at the park. He liked shiny things - or "sparklies," as LeeAnn had said. This was not uncommon, I confirmed on numerous websites. He had stolen one of the Huffs' two shiny Warrior Dash medals that hung from the shelf in the foyer, a second gold screw hook from the foyer shelf that he bent into a wedding band, Mrs. Huff's old jeweled tiara from the acrylic display stand, and a single silver spoon from the kitchen that he fashioned into a pretty bracelet. He probably caressed the gilded picture frame and trophies in the foyer, admiring their luster. And instead of making a quick getaway, he stopped not to smell the roses, but to eat them, which would be consistent with the information I found on several websites. They also have notoriously horrible body odor, like that I smelled on the thorny branch that had dropped from his body onto the patio while he dined on flower blooms.

Strange little LeeAnn's mysterious friend was an adolescent bigfoot - or sasquatch or Gigantopithecus or Jersey Devil or Harry - who had grown fond of her. So enamored was he that he broke into a house just to get her some glittery wedding gifts.

Like I had announced on my Facebook page before this trip, I had a feeling that something strange was going to happen, so I brought a small rock from the rockpile just in case. I stayed up that night at the Huffs' house preparing it.

Before my parents and I left the Huffs' home, I returned to the park across the street. I left the special stone in the woods. I doubt it is still there though, as it is well documented that bigfoot families are nomadic and travel in search of food and shelter, so who knows where he might have taken it.

And I'm certain he did take the stone. I attached four crystals to it because I know how much LeeAnn's little bigfoot likes sparklies.