PLEASE NOTE: This story contains profanity. Reader discretion is advised.
Bianca was a bad girl, and the neighbourhood wanted retribution.
There was Rachael Lippenbaum, who had suffered repeated attacks of gum in her hair. There was Arnold Drober, who was pushed in the muck every day he was unlucky enough to meet Bianca at the bus-stop. So too was vengeance craved by Leon Archibald whose books had been thrown on a roof, and Amanda Weller whose dress had been torn. Geoffrey Penobscot, Susan Chow, Merrick Inderwater -- all angry. But first in line was Dini Butler who had never fully recovered from her involuntary inclusion in a wet T-shirt contest in front of all her classmates when Bianca got a hold of the caretaker's hose at school.
"Bianca must pay," she hissed to the cadre of conspirators assembled in the alley behind the town grocery store, sharing stolen cigarettes and passing between them one lukewarm can of light beer borrowed from Mr. Butler's garage fridge.
"I hate her," contributed Arnold Drober, his pants splashed with mud from an encounter earlier that day.
"We all hate her," agreed Amanda Weller. "She's a lesbian or something."
"I know, eh?" chimed in Susan Chow. "She's like on hormones. What's with those boobs? Who does she think she is?"
"We're not here to bitch," said Merrick Inderwater firmly. "We're here to make a plan. We're here to teach Bianca a lesson once and for all. Right Dini?"
Everyone nodded. A few of them coughed, awkwardly balancing cigarettes between their short, child fingers. Even the kids who hated Dini Butler had showed up, demonstrating their willingness to attach themselves to the perceived lesser of two evils given a cause sufficiently compelling.
For his part, Merrick had found himself unable to go against Dini's bidding ever since the wet T-shirt incident. He woke up damp nightly, possessed by throbbing afterimages of the stark visibility of her training bra. "Okay then," he continued. "What do we do, Dini?"
"We strike on Hallowe'en," said Dini, turning to look at each of them in turn. "It's the perfect cover for pranks, and we're going to prank her big." She paused, licked her lip-glossed lips twice quickly, took a deep breath. "Bianca's going to spend the night in the Barrington House, and we're all going to make it happen."
At mention of the Barrington House there came a collective gasp, followed by more coughing. Dini waited patiently for the air to clear. Every kid in town had heard the stories about the derelict mansion on the hill at the end of Barrington Road -- whether depicted as haunted or peopled by witches or gangsters, the consistent theme was dread.
"I heard Jordan Cottle's uncle killed himself there in like the sixties or something," whispered Geoffrey Penobscot. "He hung himself in the dining room after his team lost the pennant."
"That's where Fast Andre and his gang killed the kids they kidnapped after the Big Bank Robbery in nineteen seventy-seven," said Leon Archibald with certain authority, adjusting his glasses. "The sheriff didn't even find their bodies, because Fast Andre cut them up and fed them to his dogs."
"My sister says Fast Andre still lives there."
"No way -- my dad says no one can live there because the poltergeist keeps them out. If you look in any mirror in the house your face looks like it's melting off. Seriously."
"I heard there's toxic waste in the ground under the house, and it makes the animals turn all rabid and stuff, and that's why witches do their rituals there, like all naked and perverted and gory on the solace."
Dini raised her hand for order. "Know what?" she asked rhetorically, brow raised. "I bet there's nothing in the Barrington House. I mean, not really. The point is that everyone is scared crapless of it, even stupid Bianca. We don't need anything to be there -- we just need to lock her in and let her imagination do the work."
There was a general murmur of assent.
Dini took a deep breath, which nearly caused Merrick to swoon. "Now," she declared, "let's decide who's going to do what."
Bianca was also the subject of discussion in her own home. It was being explained to her in no uncertain terms that she would be obliged to spend the Hallowe'en evening accompanying her younger siblings from house to house around town, protecting them from candy-nabbers, pumpkin-smashers and the pranks of drunk teenage hooligans.
Bianca frowned deeply. She had rather hoped she would be one of the pumpkin-smashing, drunken teenage hooligans herself. She was only thirteen but she ran with a high school crowd, and she had been looking forward to Hallowe'en as an opportunity to demonstrate to them just how hardcore she really was. She had been intending to go on a bad-ass free-for-all, and had even been contemplating letting Mark Norbert feel her up under her shirt.
For a week she'd been collecting drabs of liquor from various sources to combine them in a large juice bottle, and spiriting cigarettes away from behind the counter at the Smoke Shop while Mark distracted Eileen or Doris or whatever old hag was working there that day.
"Bianca, are you even listening to me?" cried Mother.
"Yeah, Mom," groaned Bianca, rolling her eyes and snapping her gum. She glanced over at her siblings with a pained expression: her white sister India and her yellow brother Mike smiled back uncertainly.
"I'm going to be a eukaryotic cell," squeaked India.
"You are so lame," noted Bianca.
"What are you dressing as?" challenged Mike, his eyes swimming through the thick lenses of his Scotch-taped glasses.
"I'm thirteen, Mike," snapped Bianca. "I don't dress up for Hallowe'en anymore because I'm not a little kid like you."
"I'm ten," Mike defended himself sullenly.
"Exactly," agreed Bianca.
Mother sighed. "Could you at least try to be civil to your brother and sister, Bianca? Please? This is an opportunity to show your father and I how mature you can really be. Don't blow it."
The sun began to set. Bianca fumed. Father and Mother helped get India and Mike into their costumes -- the former ensconsed in a transparent sac of cellular goo made from a refitted pool toy, and the latter feeling rather dashing in his black trenchcoat and sunglasses. Bianca sneered, "What're you supposed to be? The tax man?"
"I'm Neo from The Matrix," said Mike. Then he added, "Whoa."
Bianca clucked her tongue. "You do know that you're never going to get laid as long as you live, right?"
India furrowed her brow. "What's laid?"
Ten minutes later they came to the park at the centre of town, crossing paths with other bands of costumed kids carrying bags for candy and little cardboard boxes hanging around their necks for UNICEF pennies. The merry-go-round in the north-east corner was spinning, ridden by little witches, werewolves, droids and Spidermen. "Can we go for a ride on the way home?" asked India, tugging Mike's hand as she looked up at Bianca.
"You can do whatever the f you want," said Bianca. "I'll meet you back here at eight thirty, okay? And don't be late or I'll f'ing kill you."
Mike was anxious. "Mom said you were supposed --"
"I know what Mom said," replied Bianca icily, drawing a hand down her round, brown face dramatically. "Did you hear what I just f'ing said?"
"Well, yeah, but --"
"Good. Take care of India, Mike. Don't get into trouble. I'll see you at eight thirty."
Mike and India watched Bianca stride away from them, crossing the park, lighting a cigarette as she was progressively occluded by the rows of leafless oaks. India was concerned. "Doesn't Bianca want to trick-or-treat?" she asked Mike.
Mike shrugged. "I guess not."
"But we're still going to go, right Mike?"
"Yup." Mike stared after Bianca sadly, then turned back to his little sister. "Yup, we sure are. Let's go. We can start on Western, then walk toward school."
India grinned and gave Mike her hand again. As they walked her cytoplasm sloshed and her UNICEF box rattled with starter pennies she had begged from Father. They plowed through a pile of crispy, russet leaves, kicking at the flotsam in the day's last golden light. "I bet I'm going to get Lifesavers," India predicted.
"I bet," agreed Mike distantly, eyes cast over his shoulder in the direction Bianca had gone.
He smelled trouble.
Bianca sauntered into the graveyard, feeling sassy. She was wearing her white jeans that hugged her booty, and had undone her cardigan to the level that made Father mad. She threw away her half-smoked cigarette in favour of a new one so that it would last long enough for her to clear the gates and find her friends. She wanted to make an entrance as she presented her juice bottle of indiscriminately mixed liquors, and she felt an appropriate bad-ass prop would be to have a smoke dangling from her lips defiantly.
The moon was a sliver of a crescent. The night was dark.
She kept a sharp eye out for the caretaker, glancing side to side while she sallied between the graves, reaching out to drag her fingers along their rough edges. As she approached the Sugarwood Mausoleum she heard voices -- a burst of laughter, a bottle breaking, urgent commands to keep quiet.
"I think I hear something," said Jordan Cottle. "Shut up, guys."
Bianca flattened herself against the side of the tomb and crept slowly toward the corner, then leapt out with a yelp. Her friends screamed and Bianca fell down laughing. "Jesus Shitrod!" cried Tabitha Hendrick, spitting out beer. "Bianca you're such a bitch."
"I know, I know," giggled Bianca, pulling out her juice bottle. "And this bitch is a bartender."
"Rock on," grinned Mark Norbert. "If I drink one of more of these warm goddamn diet beers I'm going to puke."
Bianca blushed invisibly at his praise, passed him the bottle. He swigged, declared the contents repulsive, and then swigged again and passed the bottle on to Jordan. Bianca sat down next to Tabby, who was working over something carefully in her lap, a bottle of beer pinched between her chubby thighs. "Whassup, ho?" asked Bianca in a friendly way.
"I scored some weed," mumbled Tabby. "You going to smoke it with us?"
"For sure," said Bianca carelessly, quailing inside.
She watched with wide eyes as Tabby presented a fat, misshapen log of rolling paper, grey in the feeble light. It took Tabby five matches to get it lit, enduring the barbs of the others as she did. She drew in deeply and then exploded into a coughing fit, holding the joint at arm's length as she doubled over to hack. "Frig," she commented hoarsely.
Bianca took it next and repeated the act, fidgeting to conceal the fact that her hand was shaking a bit. While she coughed and her eyes swam with tears Mark plucked the joint away from her and dragged on it, then frowned. He looked over at Tabby dolefully. "This is oregano, you idiot."
Tabby squinted at him, uncomprehending. "What?"
"It's goddamn oregano, Tabby. It's a goddamn spice."
"Does it get you high?"
Mark rolled his eyes. "You put it on pizza."
"Shitrod," said Tabby sadly. "I paid ten bucks for that. I frigging hate Andrew Arlen now."
"You bought from Andrew Arlen?" chuckled Mark, swigging from the liquor bottle as it came around again. "Jesus, Tammy. You're stupid and fat."
"Hey, shut up," suggested Jordan.
"Whatever," countered Mark.
Bianca looked up over Mark's head and saw that Xavier had arrived. He was dressed as Satan. The first thing he said was, "You queers don't even have costumes?"
"You're wearing a costume?" snickered Mark. "You're gay."
"It's fuckin' Hallowe'en, dipshit."
"Relax, man," said Jordan. "Somebody get Satan a drink."
"I can't believe you bedwetters don't even have costumes," grumbled Xavier, leaning against the rightside pillar of the mausoleum's dried-leaf carpeted portico. "You're probably drinking jungle juice too, eh?"
Bianca tucked the mixed liquor behind her leg. "There's beers, too, Xave."
"Girls don't get to call me 'Xave' until they've touched my junk, Bianca," said Xavier cooly. "And you're too young to even know how to touch junk, so shut up and make yourself useful by throwing me one of them beers, eh?"
Bianca passed him a beer sullenly. Even with red-paint and a fake goatee slathered over his face Xavier was still too good looking to make direct eye contact with, so when she sat back down she scooched closer to Mark, facing Tabby. "Tell him about your weed, Tabby," said Bianca, raising an eyebrow, eager to redirect Xavier's attention. He was their chief -- a tall tenth grader who knew no fear.
"Let's just forget about it," said Tabby.
"Oh yeah, Chubs tried to smoke us oregano," guffawed Mark. Bianca laughed with him, batting his knee playfully.
"Like a pizza," she added.
"Don't call me Chubs, you asshole," glowered Tabby.
Xavier smirked as he withdrew a joint from his pack of cigarettes. "Hey, do you kids want to do some drugs?"
Mark chortled. "Why sure, Satan!"
Bianca feigned nonchalance as she apprehensively followed the progress of the lit joint around the circle of friends. When it was her turn she saw no alternative but to take a haul. She told herself it would be just like a tobacco buzz only stronger, probably. She drew in the acrid smoke, her eyes watering instantly. She passed it on as she fought the urge to retch, her vision scintillating from oxygen deprivation.
She exhaled, mastering the cough reflex by the skin of her teeth.
"So, we going to go pumpkin smashing?" asked Mark as he passed the joint on to Xavier.
Xavier nodded. "Fuckin' right, man. I just want to get my buzz on. Bianca, give me a hit of that jungle juice you're hiding, will you?"
Bianca complied with only minor difficulty, her limbs feeling heavy and distant. Her breathing sounded too loud in her head. Jordan passed the joint to Tabby who passed it back to Bianca. She tried to take a shallower drag this time, but even so her head was starting to feel weird and wooly. She blinked and rubbed her eyes.
She leaned up against Mark. He put his arm around her, his fingertips gingerly brushing the strap of her brassiere.
For a moment that felt an hour long Bianca took in the scene in front of the vine-choked mausoleum, lingering with dreamy emphasis over the details of the shadows cast over everyone's features. Suddenly she noticed how malevolent their expressions were, and she began to worry that they all thought she was nothing but an annoying, mouthy kid who they tolerated having around simply to have something to make fun of later. They were all staring at her now, frowning and angry.
"What?" she demanded finally, looking wildly between them.
Jordan snorted. "What what, Bianca?"
"Why are you all looking at me like that?"
Tabby squinted. "Like what?"
"I wasn't even looking at you," said Jordan, baffled.
"She's fishin' out," opined Xavier.
"Just calm down," suggested Tabby.
"I'm sorry, a'ight? Whatever I did or said, I'm sorry you guys," Bianca said nervously.
"What the hell is she talking about?"
"I already called it, you homo -- she's fishing out."
"Just breathe, Bianca. Breathe slow."
Mark squeezed her shoulders warmly and Bianca took a couple of deep breaths, watching idly as Jordan and Tabby turned away and started to make out, lips smacking clumsily. Xavier smoked a cigarette, regarding with intent interest as the loops of fume in front of his face were briefly illuminated by the ember as he dragged. "Smoke is so fuckin' cool," he philosophized.
A dog barked. And then again, closer.
Xavier looked up. Jordan and Tabby paused. Bianca froze. "That's not..." trailed off Mark, looking around apprehensively.
The yammering hound was closing in on them quickly, its voice echoing off the stones. On the breeze behind it they heard the caretaker, Mr. Phelps. "I know you're in here you punks!" he shouted. "Find 'em, Grizzle! Go on, boy! Bite yourself some punk ass!"
Before Bianca could even process what was going on everyone had leapt to their feet and run away, leaving nothing but a lone can of beer glugging out its last contents into the leaves at her feet. "Oh my shit!" she cried, panic fluttering behind her sternum and taking her breath away.
She chose a direction and bolted. She tossed the jungle juice and it smashed against a grave. She plunged blindly through a thicket of decorative shrubs and then stumbled, looked up and was terrified by a statue of an angel. She rolled to her feet and pressed on wildly, suddenly too disoriented to find any of the cemetery gates.
She came up against the high fence along Sir John A. Macdonald Avenue just in time to see Xavier's red costume dropped down the far side. "Xavier!" she whispered fiercely, "help me get over!"
Xavier hesitated only a second, Grizzle's fervent barking bearing down on them. "Sorry kid, you're on your own," he said quickly and then turned around and pelted away down the sidewalk.
Rage choked Bianca, making her eyes tear. "F you, Xavier!" she screeched so hard it hurt her throat.
She instantly regretted it, of course, a cold sweat breaking out under her sweater as she heard Mr. Phelps change direction and come crashing through the bush directly at her, calling his dog after him. "I smell punk!" the old man shouted.
Bianca raced along the edge of the fence, keeping low, wincing at every snapped twig and kicked stone.
She came up short, startled by her arrival at the south gate. She slipped through and then jogged up the sidewalk, eyeing the graveyard interior anxiously. She felt nervous and strange, and she couldn't help but continually rub her hands over one another even though it did not soothe her. She tried to light a cigarette but dropped it into the gutter. "F," she said, the sound of her own voice surprisingly loud in the empty street.
She started to regain herself as the came to the corner of Sir John A. and Barrington Road, by the parkette donated by some dead rich person's children years and years ago. She planned to sit down on the wrought-iron bench to catch her breath but stopped in her tracks when she saw that the Grim Reaper was loitering there, standing in a pool of his own shadow beneath the orange light of an antique-style street standard.
She forced a fake chuckle. "So even Death trick-or-treats, huh?"
The Reaper said nothing.
"O-kay," she drawled, frowning. "Nice talking to you."
Bianca walked on past the parkette, continuing east on Sir John A. She had not proceeded too far before she detected the scrape of an additional set of footfalls. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw the Grim Reaper there, walking a few paces behind her. "I don't have no candy," she said as casually as she could, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up.
The Reaper said nothing.
She increased her pace slightly, and so did Death. After half a block she started to feel stupid for being creeped out by some moron in a costume, so she whirled on her heel and crossed her arms, facing her follower. "You think I'm f'ing scared of this crap?" she challenged.
The Reaper stopped, regarding her behind his skull masque impassively. She could see no pupils glint through the dark eyeholes.
"What the f are you supposed to be, anyway?" she continued defiantly. "The ghost of f'ing Helen Keller or something?"
The Reaper said nothing.
Bianca turned around again to continue walking but was startled by the silent presence of another fully-masqued trickster: an Imperial Stormtrooper from the Star Wars movies was blocking the sidewalk ahead, white armoured arms crossed over his chest. "Happy Hallowe'en," said Bianca darkly, attempting to push past him.
The stormtrooper grabbed her. Before she could even resist the Grim Reaper slunk up from behind and secured her arms behind her back. "What the hell?" she spat, struggling against the two of them.
A black cyborg wearing a plastic masque of a pale faced infested with wires and cables stepped out of the bushes beside the road, arms extended toward her. A synthesized voice crackled out of the masque tinnily, "We have analyzed your defensive capabilities and judged them to be inferior to our own."
"What is this? Jesus crap -- let go of me!"
In a matter of seconds the ring of costumed kidnappers closed in around her. The hood of her sweater was pulled over her head and the drawstring pulled tight, cinching the material around her face and covering her eyes. She started to kick out but felt herself picked up, her flailing feet bound together by somebody's strong arms. She would have screamed then, but the stormtrooper's black-gloved hand clamped over her lips. She tried to bite him but her teeth met only plastic armour, clicking ineffectually.
She ended up biting her own lip as she was jostled along.
"Resistance is futile," noted the cyborg's recorded voice.
And it was.
An hour later Mike Zhang Cuthbertson and his little sister India stood on the edge of the park at the centre of town, eating candy and wondering after Bianca. Mike shot the cuff of his trenchcoat and checked the Indiglo face of his digital watch again. "I guess we should just go home," he mumbled.
"Can you take the wrapper off my Tootsie Roll for me?" asked India, her mouth already filled with a Mars bar, a half-sucked green lollipop stuck to her arm.
"Bianca's going to be in so much trouble," said Mike, dutifully unwrapping the Tootsie Roll and handing it back to India.
They were about to set off when Queen Amidala appeared from the corner by the pizza store, clutching her robes out of the way as she ran toward them. "Mike!" she cried, "Mike Cuthbertson!"
"Yeah?" Mike called back.
"Your sister's in trouble!"
When she arrived before, huffing and puffing, Mike recognized the harried royal as Sarah Bleeton, who was in his grade at school. Mike thought she was pretty so he focused on her wig instead of her face as he asked, "What do you mean? How did you know she ditched us?"
"Some kids took her, Mike!" gasped Sarah, leaning against the merry-go-round as she fought to regain her breath. "Paramjit says he saw them put her in the Barrington House and then nail the door closed with her inside!"
Mike felt dizzy. The Barrington House!
"Who would do that?"
Sarah shook her head, her ornamental wig canting dangerously. "I don't know, I don't know. What should we do? Should we go get your parents?"
Mike bit his lip pensively. "I think we'd better go get her out of there right away," he decided, his stomach turning over queasily. "She's got to be scared out of her mind. Let's go. Come on, India!"
Queen Amidala, Neo and a candy-eating eukaryotic cell ran along Western, turned up Sir John A. Macdonald, and made a beeline for Barrington Road. At the top of the hill they arrived winded to find a small crowd of kids clustered in front of the looming shadow of the famous house: Dr. Evil, Freddy Krueger, two Pikachus and three Agent Smiths. One of the agents held up his hand. "You don't wanna go near there," he pronounced carefully.
"You give me that juris-my-diction crap, you can cram it up your a," grumbled Mike, pushing past the gawkers.
"Merrick's there and he said he's going to kick anyone's ass who tries to get in the way," warned Freddy Krueger.
Sarah hesitated, putting her hand on Mike's shoulder. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
"Somebody's got to do something," he declared, brushing off her hand and marching on. "Watch India, will you?"
Mike slipped inside the rusted gates and up the overgrown walkway to the shadowed verandah. He stopped at its edge, hovering by the bushes. Wearing a long black cloak Merrick Inderwater was sitting on the railing. Standing around him was an Imperial Stormtrooper, a Borg and Cruella DeVille. "How long are we going to leave her in there?" Merrick was asking.
"All night," said Cruella. "Somebody can bust her out in the morning for all I care."
Mike recognized the voice of Dini Butler. The next one to speak was Arnold Drober, dressed as the stormtrooper. He said, "What if she gets hurt or something?"
"What, like crapping her pants or something?"
"I don't know Dini, I'm just worried that --"
"You're always worried, Arnold. There's nothing in there but old furniture. Forget about it. Let's get out of here."
From inside the ancient house came the distinct sound of Bianca screaming, suddenly and briefly. The kids on the porch all exchanged looks. "What was that?" breathed Arnold.
"She probably just found a mirror," guessed Dini. "Come on."
She led her crew off the verandah and down the path, very close to Mike who held his breath and kept perfectly still. The shadows passed him by, though there was one straggler; the stormtrooper lingered, looking up at the derelict mansion. He took off his helmet and peered at the upper storey, his brow furrowed.
"Dini," he whispered. Then louder, "Dini!"
"What is it now?" called Dini from the end of the walkway.
"I think..." he swallowed loudly, still staring. "I think I just saw somebody in there. Upstairs. Somebody's in there with her."
Merrick swore under his breath. "You're imagining things, you dork. Let's go."
Reluctantly, Arnold turned away from the Barrington House and replaced his helmet as he jogged to catch up with his co-conspirators. Mike waited for a count of a few seconds and then emerged from the bushes, hovering at the steps up to the verandah, eyes locked on the mouth-like front doors of the house, criss-crossed by two-by-fours nailed crudely into place.
He gulped, and then gasped as the bushes beside him rustled. Then he heard the distinct sloshing of India's cytoplasm, little plastic mitochrondria knocking against the insides of her inner-tube. "India?"
"Where's Bianca?" she asked.
Sarah appeared next, her royal gown covered in burs and thistles. "India!"
"I just heard Bianca scream," said Mike, his mouth dry. "And Arnold Drober said he saw somebody in the window upstairs."
"There couldn't really be anyone living in there, could there?" asked Sarah quietly. "I mean, not really."
Mike frowned. "I don't know."
"What are you going to do?"
He chewed his lip nervously for a moment, then nodded to himself as he came to the inevitable conclusion. "I have to go in after her," he said.
He sighed grimly. "Holy crap I'm scared," he admitted.
"I should run back and get your parents."
"No," he said firmly. "You stay with India. I've got to go in."
"You can't, Mike! What if there really is someone in there? It's way too spooky."
"If we're scared out here, imagine how Bianca feels," he said.
Sarah let out a long breath, and then pressed her pumpkin-shaped flashlight into Mike's hand. "Oh my gosh I can't believe you're going to go in."
"Yeah," agreed Mike, his voice cracking. "Me neither."
With that he climbed the creaking steps up to the verandah, walked along until he found a boarded up window, and then pulled on the weathered plywood until it split along a nail and revealed a hole just big enough to squeeze himself through.
As Sarah and India strained to see him in the gloom, Mike hauled himself up and disappeared into the hole.
Mike found himself in a small room, surrounded by the looming shadows of furniture covered in moldy sheets and hemmed in by the grey-blue sparkles of deep gloom. His eyes fought against the dark for a moment before he remembered Sarah's pumpkin-shaped flashlight.
He turned it on, projecting a fuzzy jack-o-lantern face through the clouds of dust he had raised with his clumsy arrival through the boarded-up window.
Mike sneezed. The motes sighed away, tumbling.
It was just a room in an abandoned house. Nothing more. It was not filled with unusual things -- just old cabinets and chairs. For a moment he felt like giggling, and steeled himself with his newfound lightness.
Ghosts, after all, were not real.
Buoyed with this confidence he wiggled his way to the door and turned the knob. It squeaked alarmingly but Mike was able to laugh at himself for jumping. He slipped into a wide corridor lined with staring faces, and after a fuller examination with the flashlight's beam revealed them to be a series of grimey portraits in oils, it took a more sustained effort to slow his thumping heart. "It's just a house," he repeated to himself. "Just walls and trash."
Unbidden his mind found references from movies and spooky books about "just walls" somehow absorbing imprints of living souls, especially when those souls were upset. His skin crawled. He suddenly couldn't help but think of the walls of the narrow, picture studded corridor as invisibly soaked with echoes of human misery.
He tried to keep the flashlight beam low, because otherwise it seemed like all the eyes in the portraits were fixed on him, and malevolent.
Mike emerged into the main hall.
A faint glow entered from a pair of dingy skylights partially covered by leaves, lending the hall a colourless, surreal quality. The front doors were to his left, nailed closed by a Bianca's captors. He rattled the handles experimentally, and wondered whether Bianca and he would have enough combined weight to smash the doors open without hurting themselves. He doubted it.
Something scraped around behind him. Mike spun, his jack-o-lantern of light peeling around the hall's many shadowed corners. "Bianca?" he whispered hopefully.
Mike reckoned the house was likely to be populated by vermin: squirrels and mice, voles or bats. He couldn't let himself jump at every little noise -- not if he expected to get through this without bursting into panic. He took a couple of deep breaths.
Twin staircases with broken risers rose around the sides of the hall, leading to a second floor railed landing. The flashlight was too feeble to probe any further details, so Mike dropped it down to the mouth of another corridor running off of the hall. Where did he dare go?
He tried to put himself in Bianca's shoes. Had Mike been shoved in through the front door and then heard it nailed shut behind him, where would he go?
He puzzled over this for a moment, and then opened his eyes wide and gasped. Bianca's shoes! He pointed the beam down at the hall's floor of cracked tile and fished around until he found his own footsteps in the dust. He backed away from the front doors, hunting for another trail leading away somewhere.
And then he found it: the slurred outlines of Bianca's Nikes, headed straight for the rightside staircase.
"Why would you go upstairs?" Mike said aloud, wandering cautiously forward while opening up the gloom on the second storey with his beam. "Bianca?"
He paused at the mouth of the second corridor, opposite the one he had come from, peering into its black infinitude. He was startled when his jack-o-lantern glow flickered across two eyes. He wondered if it were another portrait.
The eyes blinked.
Mike took an voluntary step backward, changing the beam angle and losing sight of the reflected points. He sought them out again and revealed two pairs, one now much closer, accompanied by a scuttling sound.
"Who's there?" croaked Mike, and then, before any answer might come, he lost his nerve and dashed up the staircase, wishing more than checking that he didn't put his foot through a hole in the rotting wood. The entire staircase creaked and groaned loudly, as if in warning of imminent collapse.
At the top Mike dropped to the floor, rolled over and trained the flashlight on the mouth of the corridor just in time to see a fat raccoon amble out. It sat on its haunches and stared at him with its ringed eyes, blinking and sniffing.
Mike sighed. "I'm such an idiot," he mumbled.
The raccoon skittered away, its claws clicking on the wood. Another raccoon followed. In their wake Mike noticed rolls of fog or smoke oozing from the mouth of the dark corridor. At first he thought it was dust, but it continued to thicken, now dense enough to show his beam as distinct illuminated rods of triangle eyes, nose and grinning mouth.
Mike got gooseflesh. He couldn't look away.
An airy voice moaned quietly, rising out of the silence in a precise and slow crescendo that made Mike second guess its reality three times before the sound was too clear to ignore. It made his hair stand up.
Similarly, he doubted that he could detect a glow in the vapour coming from the corridor until it saw the fuzzy shadows it cast on the high, stained walls of the hall.
Light but distinct footfalls were coming down the corridor at a painfully slow but terrifyingly certain pace. The moan came again, this time louder and more plaintive -- a mourning wind arriving on a bed of fog, chased by something that knew Mike was watching.
Before he even knew what he was doing, Mike fled.
He desperately tried one door after another until one gave way before him, spilling him into a velvet black darkness, utterly featureless, the air cold. He hit the floor and spilled onto his back, kicking out until he found the door and heard it knock shut. Then he set to feeling along the floor for the pumpkin-shaped flashlight, his heart pounding. He refused to look up to even attempt to penetrate the darkness until he had a way to ply it.
He found it. It wouldn't turn on. With shaking hands he felt out the battery compartment and pressed the lid in more snugly. The lid clicked. The plastic pumpkin turned bright orange, its features shining out. Mike allowed himself a small smile.
He was in a nursery. It was windowless, close and Victorian, filled by too much furniture. An uncovered crib stood in the middle, its sheet in a pile beside it. A doorway on the far wall appeared to lead into a larger bedroom -- the master bedroom.
Searching the floor again, Mike saw Bianca's scuffs in the dust leading to the master bedroom so he began to cross toward the door. He heard a faint rustle. "Bianca?" he ventured, his voice quavering. "Bianca, it's Mike. Let's get out of here."
When the rustling sounded again it seemed to be coming from the crib. Mike froze.
Reluctantly he looked sideways, and then even more reluctantly let the flashlight beam follow. It played over the fallen sheet, over the ornately carved bars of the crib's side, and then revealed a pile of old, dirty blankets resting inside. The blankets moved.
Mike nearly dropped the flashlight again.
He was telling himself how it must be a squirrel until the thing under the blankets began to quietly sob. The pile rustled again, and a weak, bubbly infant's cry surfaced from beneath it.
The room was very, very cold. Mike could see his own breath.
He felt as if it might pee his pants. His legs were made of iron, like in a bad dream.
With a mighty push of imaginary courage he managed to force himself to shuffle past the crib, wincing in dread when he came closest to it, trying with everything he had to ignore the rustling and sad gurgling. It sounded as if a baby were choking in there.
A board creaked beneath him and baby cried louder. It could hear him.
Overwhelmed by a mix of feelings Mike turned away and plunged into the master bedroom, sussing out each corner with his flashlight as quickly as he could: a canopy bed, stacks of boxes, more covered furniture, rolls of carpet. He closed the door to the nursery behind him, muting the eerie crying.
"Bianca!" Mike called as loudly as he dared.
Something primal demanded that he put more distance between himself and whatever it was wailing in that crib, so Mike sidled along the wall until he came to a door that presumably led back to the landing overlooking the hall. He tried and found it locked.
The next door he tried was a closet. His flashlight showed him a row of moth-eaten suits and moldy dresses, swaying in a distressingly human way in the wake of the aggressive way he'd pulled the door open.
A tiny, senseless, mammal part of Mike bleated to him to hide in the closet. Hide and wait for morning light.
He intellectually dismissed the notion, but never the less found himself reluctant to leave the closet. He decided for the purposes of curiosity to see what kind of a hiding spot the closet truly offered, so he timidly stepped forward and pulled aside the row of clothes with the end of the flashlight, revealing a dark face with wide, crazy eyes.
Mike screamed as he'd never screamed before, his throat involuntarily making noise as he fought to gasp for air. He fell over himself backward, arms flying before his face.
The pumpkin flashlight hit the floor and winked out, spinning off into a corner.
Mike kicked himself backward across the floor until he hit the bed, releasing a snow of dust from the saggy canopy that startled Mike into a fresh shriek. He stuffed his knuckles into his mouth to make the noise stop.
He could still hear screaming. It wasn't his.
"Bianca!" he shouted into the darkness. The scream faltered, so he shouted again.
The scream faded. Raspy breathing. Snuffling. "...M-Mike?"
Mike said nothing for a moment, his entire body vibrating. He clenched his jaw and his fists to steady himself, his eyes squinched shut and back tensed. He was finally able to draw a real breath. "Yup," he squeaked at last. "It's me, Bianca. Scared shitless."
"I'm f'ing scared shitless too," she groaned.
"Come here," said Mike.
"Where are you?"
"Follow my voice."
"I can't even -- I don't know where --"
"I'm coming to you. Stay still."
Bianca jumped when Mike found her. He awkwardly put his arms around her and gave her a hug and then, after a pause, she lay her head on his shoulder. He could feel her fighting against tears, muscles working.
"Everything's going to be okay, Bianca," said Mike.
Bianca lost the battle and sobbed. She had not let anybody hug her in a couple of years. She clutched her hands together over her mouth as what seemed like an impossible amount of wetness welled out of her eyes. For a moment she knew no shame before her brother, and allowed herself a kind of moment usually held strictly aloft. A layer or two of false, desperate dignity dropped away and Bianca found she could suddenly breathe more freely.
"Mike, there's something -- I don't -- like a ghost or..."
"I know. I saw it, too. And the baby-thing."
"Oh f, oh f...I heard it. Can you hear anything now? I can't hear it. Oh f Mike, maybe we should save it. Whatever sick freak put us in here, put that baby in here -- I thought I was going to die, Mike."
"It was kids, Bianca. Kids put you in here. It's just a mean prank. They didn't kidnap a baby."
Bianca paused before speaking, which was uncharacteristic. "Who would do that?" she asked sadly.
Mike swallowed. "I didn't see them all. Dini Butler was there. Arnold Drober. Merrick Underwater."
"Inderwater," corrected Bianca. "You retard," she added warmly.
Bianca sighed with relief, relaxed a bit, leaning her back against Mike. "So the baby-thing is just part of the prank, those twisted assholes."
Mike hesitated. "...Yeah, I guess so."
"It's all a trick," she said, nodding with growing confidence mixed with a thread of cathartic rancor. "Those f'ing freaks. F'ing Dini. F'ing shit-faced Gap-skank Dini."
"Okay: revenge later. Let's escape now," said Mike. He crawled across the floor, sweeping his hands out until he'd retrieved the pumpkin-shaped flashlight. He turned it on. "I know a way out. It's downstairs."
Bianca frowned. "Do we have to go past the baby-thing again?"
"I think so. But, like you say, it's just a trick, right?"
Bianca nodded firmly, accustomed to feigning confidence. "Right. Bastards. Let's go. Here, gimmie the flashlight."
Mike dutifully handed the flashlight to his older sister. He was smiling. He felt enormously relieved to be able to hand the mantle of leadership over to a senior figure. Though he had needed to reassure Bianca to snap her out of her fear, now he was happy to be reassured by her. Maybe the baby-thing was some kind of a contraption Merrick and Arnold had made.
Bianca opened the door to the nursery and strode in, Mike at her heels. She pointed the flashlight.
The crib was empty.
"Bianca..." said Mike slowly, "did you see anything else, um, like downstairs?"
"I saw eyes in the dark, and heard moaning. Like ghost moaning kind of crap. Must've been one of those spooky Hallowe'en CDs you see at the dollar store."
"Let's just run by that part quick, okay?"
Bianca rolled her eyes. "You're such a wimp, Mike."
Mike said nothing. They crossed the room and opened the door to the railed landing overlooking the hall where Mike had fled the apparent apparition. As they emerged from the nursery Mike's eyes were glued to the mouth of the corridor at the bottom of the curved staircase, seeking any sign of supernatural menace. "Can we go down the other side?" he asked Bianca, turning around.
Bianca was indeed looking at the opposite flight of stairs, the flashlight hanging limply at her side, illuminating the floor.
What had caught her attention was the pale woman draped in shredded white robes, standing at the edge of the landing while clutching the sickeningly loose form of a dead infant to her breast.
She opened up her mouth and wailed, reaching one arm out toward Bianca and Mike. The arm was translucent.
Bianca peed her pants. She tried to scream but could make no noise. Her knees turned to jelly and she fell backward into her brother, who caught her with a grunt. Then he folded and they both hit the floor heavily. In a scampering panic Bianca rolled over and lobbed the pumpkin-shaped flashlight at the reaching, weeping wraith.
The flashlight struck the wall, cracking. It went dark as it bounced down the stairs.
The woman took no notice, regarding them with out-stretched arms but proceeding no closer. Her the fringes of her robes drifted as if blown by a breeze but her hair was dark, wet, heavy, matted. Mike stepped closer. Her eyes were just sockets, and Mike stared into them. They flickered. He detected the characteristic stutter of a video disc switching layers.
He put his hand on his sister's shoulder. "It's fake, Bianca. You were right."
Mike stepped right into the apparition, then turned in place until he found the source of the projection: a square of glass inset into the wall over their heads just inches from the output spout of a dry ice machine. "It's a video projector shining on a cloud of movie fog."
The apparition wailed again, startling them both. Mike stepped to the left and, after a pause, the woman in the projection turned to face him. He repeated the experiment to the right. "Motion detectors," he concluded. "They must be wired up to the navigation controls of a DVD player or something."
Bianca furrowed her brow. "Is Merrick Inderwater smart enough to do that?"
Mike shook his head. "This would be a pretty big deal to set up."
Mike pursed his lips grimly. "Let's just get out of here, okay?"
She nodded mutely.
They went down the stairs and Mike led Bianca through the corridor to the room where he'd first come in, made somewhat more difficult by the lack of a flashlight. Mike worked his way to the boarded-up window and felt blindly for the corner he'd broken aside. He frowned.
"What's taking so long?" hissed Bianca.
"The hole's gone," said Mike, knocking on fresh plywood.
Even muffled through the wood they both instantly recognized Geoffrey Penobscot's low guffaw. Someone else snickered, possibly Merrick. "Oops!" called Geoffrey; "guess it's time for Plan B, eh Cuthbertsons?"
Mike clenched his teeth. "Those jerks!"
"F'ing bastards," contributed Bianca darkly. "What do we do now?"
"We find another way out," said Mike. He chewed his lip nervously. "We'll just have to find another window we can kick the wood off of. We'll try a bunch of them. There's nothing to be scared of anymore, right?"
"Right," confirmed Bianca. "Just tricks. Can't hurt us."
"Just tricks. Let's go."
They stepped back into the corridor and found themselves confronted by a furry shadow that growled menacingly. It only took one bark-punctuated lunge for Bianca and Mike to break into an all-out run to the other end of the corridor. They threw open a swing door and scampered inside a large kitchen, the echoes of their progress suddenly dully metallic. Mike turned around and leaned against the swing door. He was shaken roughly as the dog threw itself against it. "Bianca, help!"
"I can't see a damn thing!" yelled Bianca desperately.
"Don't you have a match?"
Cursing herself for own stupidity, Bianca withdrew a box of matches and broke two against the side before successfully igniting the third. She held it aloft and turned in a tight circle. "There's a little place to hide!" she said to Mike.
Mike glanced over. "It's a dumb-waiter. Yeah, okay. Ready to make a break for it? One...two...three!"
Bianca picked Mike up and stuffed him inside the boxy, shelf-like opening of the dumb-waiter as the barking dog burst through the swinging door and raced toward them, claws sliding on the tiles. With a yelp Bianca simultaneously burned her fingers with the match and jammed herself into the dumb-waiter after her brother, fumbling to draw the hatch closed behind her.
A split second later the dog's flailing claws could be heard scraping at the hatch. The beast whined.
"That dog is no trick," muttered Mike, compressed uncomfortably.
"No shit," agreed Bianca. "What're we gonna do, Mike?"
"Climb," he said. Wedging himself between the narrow walls of the chute Mike wiggled upward, inch by inch. By reaching up as far as his fingers could stretch he felt the lip of the dumb-waiter's next station on the floor above. He scooched up further and then knocked the hatch open. He reported his progress down below and then worked his way higher.
At the top he rolled out of the dumb-waiter and hit the floor with a thud.
He was still staring agape at the room he found himself in as Bianca struggled to fit her hips through the hatch, panting hard. "What the f...?" she murmured after hitting the ground, looking around.
There were in a compact anteroom in a series of connected apartments, every wall lined top to bottom with bookshelves, overlapping water-stains running between them. Several of the bookshelves were topped with ragged umbrellas, positioned beneath the ceiling's most explorative cracks.
The windows were covered by heavy curtains. There were dozens of candles. On the far wall hung a map of the world annotated with hundreds of tiny notes in scrunched, childish capitals with no spaces between the words.
Bianca blinked. "What...the f...is this?"
Mike wandered into the next room, finding a water-warped desk surrounded by more piles of moldering volumes. An ancient mechanical typewriter sat on the desk beside a stack of typewritten pages held down by a brick. Mike pushed aside the brick and read from the top page:
To me, she was beautiful.
"I think it's some kind of a memoir," said Mike, looking up.
By today's standards she'd win no pageants, that's true. Back in those days we liked our women womanly -- lumbering hips, pendulous breasts, belly of plenty -- and by that metric she was a goddess. In fact, on more than one occasion she was used as the model, or at least the inspiration, for hand-sized carvings in bone or stone meant to incarcerate the spirit of fertility for our admiration...
"Yeah, but whose?"
Next Mike stepped up to an elaborate assembly of strings and bells in a multi-chambered wooden frame between two bookshelves, each line marked with a scrawled label: KITCHEN, DRAWINGROOM, SERVANTSHALL, CELLAR...
As he looked on one of the strings tugged and its corresponding bell tinkled: MUSICROOM. Then the one next to it: WESTCORRIDOR. Mike squinted, furrowing his brow. "Whoever it is, I think they're moving through the house now."
"How can you tell?"
Mike pointed as the KITCHEN bell rang, then he scampered back into the first room and stuck his head in the dumb-waiter. At the edge of perception he could detect the low murmurs of a man's gravelly voice, apparently talking to the dog. Mike turned back to Bianca, eyes wide. "He's downstairs getting the dog."
"We should get out of here," said Bianca urgently.
Mike nodded. He picked up a candle and rushed to the end of the library-apartment, cautiously prying open the door and looking out into the corridor, holding the guttering little flame out ahead of him. He paused, and Bianca crashed into him from behind. "Go, go, go!" she hissed.
At the end of the corridor was a flight of curved stairs, the shadows playing and turning as a heavy-footed someone carrying a candle slowly, laboriously shuffled their way upward. Mike was paralyzed, blocking the doorway, his sister pushing against him.
A cloaked man came into view at the top of the stairs, a large dog at his heels. The candle he held illuminated a slice of his face beneath his hood, and Mike saw that the flesh there was twisted and ruined, scarred and lined.
The eyes, however, were not cruel. They were wide and brown and warm. Those eyes locked on Mike's now, and the hulking shape paused, leaning into a walking stick.
"I hear footsteps!" cried Bianca. "Is there something there?"
"No," Mike said in a clear, unfrightened voice. "Nothing's here. Just some stray dog, I think."
"Does it see you?"
"Yes," said Mike, his eyes still locked with that of the cloaked figure. "We should go back the way we came, leave this old house alone."
"But the door's nailed shut!"
Mike glanced down at the hammer hanging in the monster's scarred hand. "I don't think we'll have a problem," claimed Mike. "Let's just go."
The man nodded. Mike nodded back.
He withdrew into the room and shut the door, then led Bianca quickly back to the anteroom and opened the hatch on the dumb-waiter. They scrambled inside and dropped down, emerging into the dark kitchen. Mike carefully drew the candle out of the dumb-waiter and lit their way to the swinging doors.
Bianca did not let go his hand. Mike realized that he was the leader once again.
The passed quickly through the corridor and came out into the hall. As Mike had promised, a pile of rude two-by-fours lay beside the now functional front doors among a smattering of bent nails. Without so much as a look around they wrestled open the doors and stumbled out onto the verandah.
The night was still and cool, the sky sprinkled with keen stars.
Mike blew out the candle and put it on the porch, then carefully closed the front doors. When he turned around Bianca was watching him closely despite the dark. "What lives in there, Mike?"
"I told you, nothing. A dog."
She sneered and shook her head. "I know you and India think I'm stupid, Mike, but I'm really not. I f'ing saw the hairs on the back of your neck stand up." She paused, then continued more quietly. "You were just protecting me, weren't you?"
Mike said nothing.
"F it," she said at last, breaking the silence. "If it's so scary you didn't even want me to know, maybe I don't want to know."
"Okay," whispered Mike.
She mumbled something.
Bianca sighed. "You're a helluva little brother, Mike. Don't make me say it again, okay?"
Mike nodded, smiling a little. "Okay, Bianca."
They sussed out the hedges by the verandah and the walkway but Sarah had already taken India home. Together they made their way out to the sidewalk and then turned back to look at the tall, looming silhouette of the Barrington House. A curtain on the third storey was tucked aside just a tiny bit, an indistinct shadow peering from the window, framed by flickering candlelight.
"Goodnight, Monster," said Mike under his breath. "And thanks."
"What did you say?" asked his sister, starting to walk down the hill toward home.
Mike shrugged, following her. "I said happy Hallowe'en, Bianca."
She snorted. "Yeah, right. The happy part will come when I figure out just how I'm going to get back at those assholes for trapping me in there. That was sick. I never did anything to deserve that -- I mean, not really. F'ing Dini Butler, I hate that bitch."
"Sometimes maybe you could be a little nicer," offered Mike.
Bianca started to snap a harsh reply but stopped herself, perhaps feeling more humble on the subject of harassment. She patted her pockets and came up with a cigarette. "You're right," she said softly. "Want to try a cigarette?"
"You're the one who peed your pants."
"Shut the f up."
They veered around smashed pumpkins in the road, kicking aside the occasional dropped candy or squashed chocolate bar. Mike jammed his hands into his pockets and swaggered contently. He'd never felt closer to his older sister.
"Happy Hallowe'en, Mike," Bianca mumbled around her smoke.
"We'll get them next year."
"F'ing right," Bianca agreed. "F'ing right, Mike."
The kids walked home. The night waned. And the legend of the Barrington House grew.
The Long Man | Night Flight Mike | Girls Can Be Santa Claus, Too | The Reaper's Coleslaw | Brat Punk Discordia | And Bananas for All
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