Halloween Short – Party at the Witch House
To celebrate World Fantasy Con 2013, myself and several authors, all of us represented by the fabulous Juliet Mushens of The Agency Group, have decided to write Halloween-themed shorts. As Andrew Reid (a member of “Team Mushens”) has explained here, we will cross-link the stories via Twitter. Since the convention opens on Halloween night, and I add another year to my life two days prior (no wonder I think scary is fun, eh?), I suspect I’ll be lucky to remember this year’s debaucheries at all. If you see me in the bar, and I’m a mess, please be kind.
Anyway, here’s my entry. Enjoy!
PARTY AT THE WITCH HOUSE
As a nine-year-old on my first day of 4th grade, I endured three fights, one each recess, a different kid each time—and each time, I lost. I was new; everyone expected their shot. The next day brought fresh opponents and fresh defeats, but the days passed. I worked my way through the boys in class, and started tying, then winning. My rank in the pecking-order was established. Certain kids knew they could pick on me. Others knew to back off. Problem was, where I came from, I was near the top. Middle wasn’t my style. So I kept challenging those top three, the ones who’d started it.
And kept losing.
One afternoon, they all followed me home, jumped me from some bushes, and beat me silly. Luckily we were practically in my backyard, in view of the kitchen window. By the time my mom stormed out, they had me pinned to the ground, taking turns stomping on my chest. After they’d run away, she said, in her hippy earth-mother 70s way, “The universe will balance it.” Then, she added, “It sure as hell better, anyway.”
That night, my dad called their dads:
“I got no issue with one-on-one. But three-one-one doesn’t cut it with me. How about you?” Same words each call.
I think he got through to them, because next day at school all three top boys ignored me. Until one, Karl Ward, a kid so muscular for a nine-year-old they called him Boulder Shoulders, approached me at lunch and said, “You really live in that house?”
Our house was big and old and needed a coat of paint.
He blew out a breath. “How you still alive? I mean, that’s where the witch lived.”
It gave me an idea.
See, I was born two days before Halloween, and that year, Halloween was a Saturday. The next five or six weeks saw me playing class clown and joking my way into trust of the top three, so that when the time came, they saw my invitation to a sleepover birthday party on Halloween night in the Witch House exactly how I wanted them to—as a challenge to their bravery. They couldn’t laugh that off. Or refuse.
On the day of the party, my mom helped me rig up her stereo and prepare the basement. We placed one speaker in the entry hall, and another in the laundry room near the basement door. We played an album any 70s child will know, The Chilling Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House—howling winds, thunder-storms, cat screeches, ghost groans and phantom shrieks.
The top three boys, my only guests, arrived at dusk. While the stereo speakers gusted and moaned, each boy entered a house lit only by candles that painted the walls with dancing shadows. Dressed in black, with her face powdered deathly white, and with a smile that revealed her glow-in-the-dark fangs, my mom led each boy one at a time to the basement door. There, she said, “Descend these steps and kneel to the witch.”
The basement floor was unevenly cobbled. Lining the walls were cobwebbed wooden shelves, empty but for a few dusty glass jars containing rusty nails. Hand-saws and garden shears and screwdrivers, all coated in years of rust, sat on wobbly wooden tables like instruments of torture. The space smelled of dust and rot. And the corners were dark. They were haunted by shadows that shifted in the candlelight like lurking things. The candles were arranged in a circle, and positioned in the middle of it, in an old rocking chair we’d found in the attic that day, sat the witch, stuffed with dried leaves and wearing a black pointed hat. The nose on her rubber mask was long and curved like the blade of a scythe. In a row at her feet were three plastic jack-o-lantern baskets for trick-or-treating. Each bore the name of one of my guests in black magic-markered calligraphy. Like an incantation.
I hid to one side, in one of those dark and haunted corners, wearing a skeleton mask and a white sheet. Around one wrist was a plastic ball-and-chain. Karl Ward came first, dressed as Evel Knievel. He stepped down the rickety stairs, entered the circle and, visibly shaking, knelt. That he followed my mom’s directions to the tee didn’t surprise me. When I’d asked about the witch at school, I’d heard how anyone who visited her house ended up dead. My dad said it was idiocy, that he’d heard she was a lonely old lady. He said, “Don’t listen to foolish playground stories.”
Well, Karl Ward listened to them. As soon as he entered the circle and knelt, I was filled with a sense of loving protection, as though embraced by those shifting shadows, cold against my skin, but warming through me with an ageless charm. Thus strengthened, I leapt, and Karl Ward’s scream was satisfyingly genuine. He threw his hands in front of him and wimpered. That’s right. Boulder Shoulders cowered before me. Laughing, my trick a success, I picked up his basket and offered it. But, to my bewildered delight, he kept screaming. All the way up the stairs.
Same with the next two. The top three boys went straight home that night, and never bothered me again.
Did the universe, via my mom’s trick, balance things out? I thought so. I thought that was the end of it.
The next year, my dad’s fortunes improved, and we left Archangel, Illinois for good. I’m in my 50s now, and live in Oregon. But the other day, that little town made the national news. A spate of mysterious deaths. Animals in the countryside, then people in town. It got me to thinking about it again.
Online, I found that none of my party guests numbered among the recent dead. Because, as further surfing showed, none of them had lived past their 20s. Hunting accident. Car-wreck. Boulder Shoulders was murdered in prison. Then I remembered something, a detail from my sleepover I’d never properly registered. Yes, I had leapt from my darkened corner, and yes, those kids hadn’t stopped screaming. But they weren’t scared of me. Their eyes told me that.
Because—now that I think about it—their comically terror-popped eyes were fixed on something taller, behind me.