Here is another horror story I’ve cooked up for the Halloween season. This one I’m very proud of, it’s the largest scoped story I’ve finished in several years. I’m calling it “Man Hunt and Moon Men” for now, but it’s changed a great deal in the year+ I’ve been working on it, so that title doesn’t work as well now.
*I’m considering: “Man Hunt, Moon Men and Mania”, “House on Moira Lane”, “The Tale of the Manic Man” and “The Tale of the Empty Houses.”
“Manhunt and Moon Men*”
The summer I saw aliens was spent, in part, groping for words to explain the language of idle bike chains cruising down Heather Hill passed unknown new neighbors watering old gardens, planted forever ago, like 1988. That summer was a lot of groping.
Middle of August, on tour with the natives, a fox-faced kid called Little Mark.
“That’s the Valdez pit—bunch of Spics…the grandparents live with them, and all the sisters—one kid is the other kid’s uncle even though he’s younger by like two years.”
Big Mark, the ape, agreed. “There’s about twelve of them.”
Drew Jackson looked glum, his hair gelled in slick spikes, an amateur gut. I trailed the three older boys, my embarrassing mountain bike and their shining Dynos with the fat pegs and steely paintjobs.
“Juliet….” Little Mark pontificated. “Skinny, white ass bitch. That trailer—they live on the lawn because the house is condemned from fire damage.”
Someone had spray painted FUCK in tall black letters on the side of Juliet’s house; then a second, grayer can had turned the ‘F’ into a ‘B’ so it read BUCK, which turned out to be Juliet’s last name—Juliet Buck, the slender, milk-skinned girl.
Penumbratic flashes of streetlights—they clicked open their eyes, calling closer lazy, Cretaceous dragonflies and, milling in eclectic parades over the road, the shining, Egyptian cockroaches.
“This is Mark Savage’s place. He plays a lot of Magic, but he’s also a psycho pyro.”
A third Mark? What Twilight Zone was this? We stopped on the corner of Dumpty Circle—where I’d lived, to this point, nearly two hours—at the foot of Heather Hill, which we climbed…they rode so easy up it, but for me every revolution was a labor…down the narrow, crudely paved Moira Lane—that rode was a disaster—stopping in front of a queer house walled by navy green, pipe cleaner pines. They murmured it was haunted.
“Haunted how?” I asked.
Big Mark managed to make even a basic shrug look lumbering. The name Big Mark suited him perfectly; this Mark was a moose of a fifteen year old American boy, curly black hair pinched onto a sullen brow and square jaw, sloping gargoyle shoulders and a billboard torso. He was always smacking his lips and they were always wet, and he was always licking them. Like Little Mark—his associate in all avenues of life (next door neighbors, same gym class and lunch period, same Babe Ruth team)—this enlarged version wore small black eyes which betrayed only the simplest forms of emotion.
Little Mark, the proverbial Brains of the Operation, was skinny with prickly blonde hair and a desert complexion. He slouched in his white tee and blue jeans and lurched over his handlebars toward me with lax, swaggering menace. Getting dark. “So what are you some kind of faggot?”
I’d never heard that word. I rolled casually to the sidewalk where I could step off my bike without toppling over sideways it was so tall, technically my dad’s bike. Carefully, I answered. “No.”
“Then you got a girlfriend,” he pressed.
“Actually I broke up…because of moving.”
Little Mark wheeled around me, somehow moving without pedaling. “What was her name?”
Instead of thinking I said the first name that came to me, the name that’s always coming to me, then and now—a girl I knew in fourth grade and hadn’t seen since: “Samantha Jackson.”
Crickets; those distant buzzing power lines.
They all laughed. I stood, blushing—when the lights of the only house on Moira Lane flew on, lights so bright you could not see inside, only white light beaming, breaking up night. Now no one was laughing. A lonely bat somersaulted overhead.
I struggled back onto my seat. “Somebody lives in the haunted house?”
A low rumble of thunder roiled over the tops of dark trees cloven with dirt bike paths…quietly rain came down on the road. “Nope, nobody does.”
The lights switched off—the house disappeared behind the pines.
Big Mark spat. He regarded the steady drill of rain. “No tag tonight,” he decided.
Drew nodded approval. Together the boys sped off, down the earthquake riven road under halide lamps. I paused in a ring of streetlight, and swam off into night, hoping I remembered the way.
Trip Turner moved into the Gothic Revival Victorian on Dumpty Circle a week before starting junior high. By the end of September he’d learned all there was to know. Trip admired this fact while brushing his teeth the first day of October, his thirteenth birthday—looking out the window onto the Giant’s Wood, black elm trees towering over the crab grass cul-de-sac; at the backs of the other houses bunched beneath their shade…rogue limbs reached over fences, trafficking squirrels from one bird feeder to the next, unleashing the same orange downpour over roofs and porches. The Giant’s Wood bound the houses—the Bledsoes, the Bucks, the Roys and the Turners—into an isolated colony, anchored by some central system. Trip reminded himself to visit the Wood immediately after class—it looked creepy in the morning fog.
The outer ring of Dumpty Circle, where trip waited for the bus, orbited the cul-de-sac like a race track; the Valdez clan across the street—with their never ending barbeques and late night shouting matches and dozen pickup trucks in the driveway; an elderly widower, the spiderlike Madame Beverly; Baby Caroline, local commercial celebrity; a queer foursome of retirees whose entire yard formed a single garden, ripe with mossy bird baths and little bridges to nowhere; the newlyweds; and lastly, in the stone-dust shoulder of Heather Hill, Mark Savage’s house, where days-long periods of rest were suddenly broken with an outcry of bottle rockets and Slipknot.
The neighborly noises were new to Trip, who’d only ever lived in an apartment before: the shrill bark of Beverly’s Terrier, soon picked up by the college kid’s pit bull, the Valdez mutt and a stable of Dalmatians that guarded Baby Caroline; a lawnmower seizing on some mysterious object hidden in the cold, lush crab grass that infested every unpaved corner of the circle—the machine would scream and the air smelled of oil, and Mr. Valdez or newly married Glenn Sherbet would swear openly until the engine roared to life once more.
Beyond the peak of Heather Hill, Trip’s knowledge dimmed. The Marks rode into his life infrequently, usually to duck the fallout of a scheme gone wrong, or to enlist Trip in any number of games where he served as the target of their unchecked physical abuse. The Marks hailed from the barren Green Street ghetto—four brown lawns ruled by a veteran Rottweiler named Frankenstein.
Moira Lane, the deserted highway, bridged Green Street and Heather Hill, a featureless route except for the slowly developing vacant lot and, of course, the house.
Trip stood under a streetlight adjusting a messenger bag stuffed with homework, The Giver for class and Werewolf Skin for fun. He wore a brown, plaid button up and Air Force corduroys. He pushed thinly wired glasses up the white slope of his nose. He didn’t feel thirteen.
He fretted under the blinking streetlamp; the ugly lavender light provoked migraines every morning—everything about the circle suspect, inducing major creeps: houses sat back in the shadows of evil trees with gaping windows and squat, hunched architecture suggesting growling animals…the trees extended well into the road, joining a lush through which voices echo strangely. The lamp hung off a tar-stained Georgia Pine telephone pole, illuminated the pumpkin patch glistening with rain.
Beside Trip the soft spoken Juliet Buck chewed on her blonde, boyish hair.
It had taken Trip a week to understand the mechanics of the pumpkin patch: at the end of Green Street, buried in pricklers and swamp gas, the Reeves house sat at the edge of a steep, muddy incline—the summit of a suburban volcano—where manic Corey Reeves and his hoarding grandfather grew pumpkins year round. Thousands: traditional orange orbs, tubular white melons, red and smooth, ribbed and gray…even squash. The swollen gourds surrounded the Reeves’ property, piled on the porch and in aluminum trash cans, bobbing in a black in-ground pool, eventually avalanching downhill into the unofficial Dumpty Circle Playground & Pumpkin Patch. Bales of hay to sit on, a swing set, horseshoe pit and a picnic table where kids carved faces into the fall-colored shells. If you sat long enough in the patch you would hear plop, plop, plop and a pumpkin would rush through the dead leaves into the grassy lot.
Trip looked beyond the grove of pumpkins glowing orange in the enduring dark (or deflated from a humid summer, shriveled black corpses from last Halloween). Sometimes the Marks would tumble out of this passage on bikes, come to harass Trip before school started. He looked beyond Juliet’s pretty, toy face, passed the unsold apartment sequestered in unraked leafs and shoots of ivy to the house on Moira Lane.
You just see the black roof, the ornate brick chimney (which sometimes, inexplicably, breathed smoke; Katelyn Roy said it was spirits passing in and out). For a moment Trip thought the lights might be on, but it was only the rain on his glasses, the ugly purple lamplight playing tricks.
By the time school let out that afternoon the day had turned brilliant with gold New England sunshine. Cool gusts of air rushed through open school bus windows. Trip ditched his book bag on the lawn and retrieved his bike from the shed…coasting with no hands, the autumnal tunnel racing overhead, peppered with flashes of sunlight. When the clouds returned and the younger kids arrived, invading the streets, Trip remembered his avowal to visit the Giant’s Wood.
He collected his bag from the lawn, deposited his bike in the shed. He skirted the broad, above ground pool that occupied most of the backyard until reaching the corner where he wedged himself between the pool and fence, scaling upward, and dropped his bag on the forgiving leaf-blanket below.
Inside the Giant’s Wood the light of day reduced to patterns of shadows. Trip traveled familiar paths to the enchanted hollow, a loose crown of a dozen sky-scraping elms, at the center of which stood eight prize-worthy pumpkins, each the size of a small car, worshipped by children no bigger than tires. Land of giants.
He pressed his palms to the cool, creased shells. He circled them, appreciating their full girth. Leathery stems protruded out of sight, sprouting tendrils that spread through the hollow in complicated knots. After several minutes he settled in his favorite spot, able to lean against one melon and prop his feet up with another. He took out his homework.
An ugly red C- glared back at him. His first effort to complete the “What I Did With My Summer Break” had been rejected entirely—apparently Trip’s extraterrestrial encounter during a game of Flashlight Tag didn’t qualify as a memoir. This revised entry suffered from the same censorship: she’d excised all the curse words, all the sexy stuff, leaving Trip with a soulless manuscript hardly worth the time. Ms. Carver “highly doubted” the paranormal activity as reposted, as well as the house on Moira Lane (through crimson marginalia Trip gathered Ms. Carver doubted the house’s very existence). He’d artfully glossed over the part about Samantha Jackson turning out to be Drew’s sister—how mortifying! Even in the shelter of the elm trees, among the giants, Trip blushed at the memory: Sam’s wet, equine eyes taking him in. “Like I’d ever date a kid with glasses.”
A black monster emerged from between the trunks of two elms: Frankenstein staggered into the hollow, tripped up by vines, pausing frequently to regard invisible smells on the wind, before dropping his head into Trip’s lap.
“It’s alive,” Trip said for the millionth time. “It’s alive.”
Trip had deduced the old Rottweiler belonged to Corey Reeves, but treated with the same intrusive respect wherever he went. Not included nor bothered by the pack of Dalmatians that stormed the streets every evening at dusk. Sometimes Frankenstein slept under the Turner’s back deck, when his sore hips discouraged the climb up Pumpkin Hill to Green Street. His blue, sightless eyes rolled back in his head as Trip worked the sweet spot behind his ear, proud robins hopping back and forth, whistling. “Good boy,” he said.
By seven o’clock it was dark. Trip made grilled cheese—Landon Turner owned a shipping warehouse; the later he worked, the more he made. Trip hadn’t expected his landmark birthday to effect his father’s hours.
He ate in the living room, still crowded with moving boxes, watching a marathon of Are You Afraid of the Dark? Outside the alcove window seat he saw college kids sitting at the table in the pumpkin patch, smoking cigarettes, holding green glass bottles. A black valley of pricklers obscured the dark house on Moira Lane.
Stripping down to shorts and t-shirt, Trip fed Felix, the black and orange Bengal he’d received a year ago today. Felix had been just another cat at the apartment, but seemed exotic on Dumpty, where all cats were plain black Bombays. They hunted at night, passing days in the upper branches of the Giant’s Wood, a snoozing mass of bad luck. Felix, standoffish, waited for Trip to leave before dining.
“Well goodnight then.”
Trip’s bedroom on the second floor looked onto the backyard, his view of the covered pool and lawn inundated with leafs obscured by a near branch—so close Trip could crawl out the window and tiptoe across his backyard into the Wood—which supported a heavy snow owl’s nest. Sometimes at night the hooting woke Trip up, but the great white bird was gone now…Trip slipped into bed and off to dreaming in a minute.
In his sleep some dark creature stood at the door of his closet, breathing hungrily. Trip’s eyes snapped open in the dark…the owl materialized in his ears, a ghostly visage pacing behind the glass—as did a knocking at the door. Trip buried his head under the pillows. What time was it? More knocking.
Trip stepped into slippers and pulled on a sweatshirt, turned on every light switch he passed. He opened the door on the Marks, anonymous under gray hoods, fists bunched in their sleeves, shielded from the cold.
“Get a flashlight.”
The rules of games like Man Hunt and Flashlight Tag are fuzzy to apartment-born boys, rumors we all want badly to believe in. In the ‘burbs, meanwhile, there is nothing else. Every garden bench, every trash pile at the curb, every under deck, every unlocked car, every shady, dark elm tree—these were things to crawl under, disappear behind, step inside of…. A hiding place, I learned the first night, had religious splendor.
We met on Green Street between Little Mark’s house and where Eric Roy lived on the corner. Eric was a cleaner, more refined delinquent, with braces and an unbuttoned black polo. He reminded me of Roger from “Lord of the Flies.” His sister, Katelyn, lived on the circle with their father—a puzzling arrangement—and was easily lured form her Barbie vanity and Spice Girls records to these late night, brutish games. Nine years old, ten times darker than Eric and fragile as moth’s wings—Katelyn was shaking already, eyeing the steel flashlight her brother lugged around like a club.
Big Mark’s brother, Ricky, slouched against the street sign, hands dug deep in pants so baggy they might never return. Pink acne, hawk nose, devilish bowl cut. Nearly seventeen, he flipped open a pack of cigarettes, offering one to Rachelle, Little Mark’s older sister, who I estimated to be eight feet tall with relaxed, dirty-blonde hair and billowing gray sweatpants. She accepted the cigarette greedily, sucked on it until there was none left. “Too buggy,” she announced afterward, excusing herself.
After an hour of waiting—the full moon alight in the starblown sky—the last two came pedaling down Moira Lane; Drew Jackson, clad in wife-beater and swim trunks, and his twelve year old sister Samantha.
Drew had explained that two years ago (the summer after fifth grade) their mom had moved to Arizona and Sam had become depressed and overweight—spent the whole winter crying in bed, devouring ice cream and observing late televised hours when episodes of Daria devolved into racy Salt-n-Pepa videos that spurred Sam in the opposite direction and led her into that ring of lamplight on the last day of August: milky, Capulet breasts, dark hair pulled back in pigtails, an ovular, thoughtful face with soft, apologetic features—big pearl teeth, lips like gored watermelon, inky eyes twinkling in the dark…she wore black tights and a polka-dotted red shirt…ribbons in her hair.
It’s hard to think about it now, how all that was between us then were a few bike wheels and an embarrassing lie, that we’d “dated” three years ago, one she dismissed and never revisited.
Ricky said “Ninety-nine,” emphatically, like a curse word—his personal defiance of well-established Man Hunt etiquette: start at 100. The Marks drifted into the dark with halting nonchalance, while Sam, Katelyn and Drew fled in a panic to hiding places conceived over breakfast.
Remaining in the light an extra moment, our eyes met—I no longer trusted Eric Roy; the implicit pact as boys that, without parents present, we would not split each other’s skulls open…I did not feel like Eric and I had signed the same social contract.
Ricky had reached ‘50’ already, impossibly, and I ran—seeking preternatural corners of night, Dawn of Time darkness. I settled for a small lane between rows of square evergreen hedges separating the Roy’s yard from the vacant lot. I smelled cold gravel, could see through a pattern of trees the mute flicker of Corey Reeves’ big screen TV—Monday Night Raw. Ricky never announced that, Ready or Not, Here He Came (a further betrayal of rules) but I could sense them roving Green Street, far more territorial than Frankenstein had ever been, stabbing flashlights into shrubs; detectives, intergalactic head hunters, those dangerous animals.
In a bush near mine, I realized, Katelyn Roy had shape-shifted into a beach ball-sized version of herself, knees held tightly to her chest, holed up in the bush a clear inch off the ground, levitating with her eyes shut, ragged breaths, goose bumps on her brown forearms undulous in the scant, blue moonlight.
That round lasted an hour. Stars withdrew into space, streetlights sapped of their last ounce of power while the seekers worked methodically through all knows places to hide: from my belly I observed them lift Little Mark—by his sneakers—from a hole in the ground, dropping him on his head; use a pool skimmer to dislodge Drew Jackson from the black clouds of an oak; flaring pubescent noses, rife with fine, oily hairs, sniffed out Big Mark on the roof of the minister’s shed.
A lull…their searching voices fell from sound…I considered making a dash to the Goal, the streetlamp—or better yet, home, down Pumpkin Hill to the circle—but fear kept me.
Finally they arrived, shafts of light penetrating the hedges. Katelyn let out a small gasp, effectively her last words. The young girl’s lithe, skeletal face—an inch from mine—bulged white, her eyes wild and rolling until Eric got a hold of her foot and jerked her roughly out of the bush into the open.
From there the operation became complicated, a procedure obscured by my place in the bushes and the sweat pouring down my face. Eric had his sister on her back, pinning down her arms with his knees. She kicked madly but made no sound. Ricky’s role in it all unclear, pacing sentry…gradually the sound of Katelyn’s sneakers beating the earth subsisted, and a minute later she staggered off, moaning miserably.
As we prepared for the second round, regrouped under the streetlight, I noted Sam’s red face, her drained expression, the green chain of bruises winding up her arm. She was ignoring Little Mark, who’d been after her all summer, her gaze fixed on the nighttime sky and the oscillating arc of satellites and commercial airliners. Whatever happened to her had been worse, way worse. She caught me staring; her quivering, colorless lips curled into a brief smile, and I decided I would be the one to save her.
Trip collapsed in the cold grass, the lawn slicked with dew this early hour. Through the overgrown passage, up Pumpkin Hill on Green Street, Big Mark and Ricky continued slamming each other’s faces against the garage door, almost taking turns. When Ricky broke Big Mark’s nose, cascading blood down his black warm up sweatshirt, Trip had run—a matter of time before hostilities were trained on him, who one month ago had stolen Sam Jackson from their cruel game—Trip hadn’t been invited back until tonight, four tense rounds played slow in the cool October evening.
He sat in the dark. School would start soon—he felt it like a cramp. Landon Turner was not home. Felix flew the dog door, joining the morning hunt; Dalmatians bayed. Trip steadied his heaving chest and listened for frogs, an omnipresent track two weeks ago—now the small, sewer-fed pond housed none of the prehistoric Leopards…tepid and unattended behind the Valdez house…only crickets and, to Trip’s delight, those red and blue diamonds zigzagging across a portrait of stars—alien space crafts, he knew, but tokens also of a night unlike this, warmer, the first of September, moving through a dark forest beside a girl, walking her home, the rest of the galaxy whizzing overhead.
Trip spent the morning revising his memoir (“The Brief Green Street Summer”) not in the company of Ms. Carver’s exacting red pen but on the back deck, removing his sweatshirt as the sun rose, looking over the Giant’s Wood. He had just written a sentence ending “…in the company of Samantha Jackson and a crew of murderous young men,” when his wrist watch flashed nine o’clock. He’d outlasted his sleepless hangover. No longer having a father, he walked out the front door into the fresh day.
He’d never skipped before. The sun’s white light fell easier on his bespectacled brown eyes, an idyllic fifty eight degrees. He was thirteen. Across the street Valdez had gone to work on Halloween decorations.
David Valdez, 5’ 5” and every bit of forty nine, secured stalks of black corn to his lamppost. Demented, zombie jack-o-lanterns consumed the walkway and garden. He’d rigged a stereo to play horror music on loop: heavy chains dragging up stone steps, howling wolves, psychotic cackling. The American flag had been removed (for the first and last time in the calendar year) and replaced with a skull pumpkin on a black field. Once he had a beer in him, Valdez climbed a ladder with a generator strapped to his back—thirty minutes later an inflatable haunted forest ruled the staggered roofs, guarded by a pair of gargoyles pinned down with orange bungees. By noon, before he’d even started the backyard, Valdez was wiped out.
Trip took his bike up Heather Hill and used the momentum to shoot around the circle, rushing up Juliet’s front lawn over cracking leafs, around back where outlines of a corn maze had been erected…the edge of the forest marked with a wide, sand swept shoulder where the haunted hayride would depart from, the night before Halloween. Sometimes Juliet skipped, he knew, but not today.
Trip reflected on the amount of time he’d spent inside the empty house. Contrary to Little Mark’s initial report, the place had never been condemned—the fire had been small, only touching the kitchen and entry stairs. Juliet’s dad, Bruce, a twenty seven year old metal head, could not afford both the rental trailer and repair costs, so they remained in a state of flux.
Juliet—when you were close, like face to face on a sundrenched mattress in her abandoned bedroom close—had skin shaded a complex, monochrome white (ivory, old lace, seashell). Usually no one got that close. Scary thin with Isabelline hair, her olive drab fingernails made her look witchy, and prettier as autumn wore on. Her bedroom closet was not filled with shoes or skirts or gymnastic trophies, but unopened Aaahh!!! Real Monsters collectible figures and a stack of Godzilla VHS tapes as tall as Trip (there were less encouraging items; box of tampons, a Ziploc bag of hair). She spoke in an annoyed, lyrical, inaudible voice—when she spoke.
Trip waited in the Giant’s Wood. Frankenstein snoozed in the shade of the still growing gourds, shimmering with a fresh coat of repellant. Trip caught glimpses of the yellow bus making its pass of Dumpty Circle, Johnny Bledsoe in his Pierce jersey racing to play Nintendo…Juliet waited, examining the depths of her purse, before entering the alley between fences, reappearing a moment later in the Wood. She stooped to deliver a perfunctory kiss on Frankenstein’s head, then scaled the tallest Giant, Juliet in her skinny jeans and Green Day t-shirt—Trip’s t-shirt. “If Bruce sees you up there—”
“You weren’t in school.” Not cross or concerned, only stating the obvious.
He nodded slowly. “Go on.”
“Ms. Carver made an example of you again—I feel like an irrational fear of the imagination is horrible baggage to bring to an eighth grade English class, don’t you?” It wasn’t a question; Trip didn’t treat it like one. “Anyway,” Juliet continued, “they’re monsters, all of them. She wants us medicated. I don’t blame her.” Juliet took her own cue, withdrawing from her purse a sixty-dram amber vial. “Want one?”
Trip hesitated. The vial reminded him of Landon’s master bathroom, the vanity strewn with pill bottles. He’d never considered trying medicine—like dessert—until meeting Juliet Buck…her vial made Trip hallucinate, melted his fears and anxieties into a delirious wash…they’d wander the circle together, sticking to the shadows incase the Marks came barreling down the hill wielding revenge…sometimes Johnny joined them, like today.
After Trip’s Man Hunt heroics, he and Landon decided it would be better to avoid Green Street for some period of time—preferably forever. For the first week of school Trip grounded himself to the living room couch, where he observed the red and black invasion of their ceilings take on the amorphous shape of an alien World Map. Landon Turner, prone to bouts of mania (through which he worked for days without sleep) and sullen withdrawal (he had emerged from a week-long nap that morning), surveyed their gory Sistine Chapel.
Ladybugs, male and female, had come in waves one gray Sunday, rebuking whatever efforts to dislodge them—Trip was too short for the job; Landon took his shot. He funneled insecticide into a Super Soaker, topped with gasoline. Pump, pump, pump, pump—spray. A fuming, yellow arm reached in every direction. “Cover your mouth,” Landon said through the black bandana over his face. Immediately the ceiling went mad, seething mass of red-black cells…one by two by ten, ladybugs fell to earth, heaps of them squirming lifelessly into the carpet.
Landon frowned. The sun poked out. “Vacuum this up,” he told Trip, proud of himself, and returned to bed…a knock at the door.
Johnny Bledsoe was two years younger than Trip and one foot taller, an unfilled athletic build with a bullet head and willowy limbs. For days Johnny and Trip cruised their bikes around the circle, casting invisible lines behind them, up Heather Hill and passed the house on Moira Lane; Johnny was not welcome on Green Street either, so they cut through the vacant lot and crossed the main road, touring neighborhoods abroad: Red Wing, Vernon Street, Robin Road.
When Juliet returned from “summer camp,” she joined them without explanation. Juliet could ride as fast as the boys, but never felt the desire. She knew streets beyond Robin Road, but didn’t share them. Sometimes she carried a pack of cigarettes that Trip never saw her smoke.
She withdrew the pack now. “I’m tired of my chilly little life.”
“It’s beautiful out.”
Juliet ignored Trip, pocketing the pack. Johnny’s face soured as he choked down the pill. “Water…need water.”
“So harsh Juliet,” he shot back.
“The cruelest.” She plucked an eyelash.
They rode out of the Giant’s Wood, light as air. Trip and Johnny weaved gaily across the road while Juliet glided in small, personal circles…Trip experienced exultance, triumph, contentment… it took an hour to make a full pass of Dumpty. Valdez had tacked up mock headstones all over the neighborhood (Lizzie Borden, Ichabod Crane, Mike Meyers) and a field of luminous ghosts waved from his backyard. They stopped at the unsold house next door to the college apartment. The yard grown over with foreboding stalks of grass that looked festive this time of year. Somewhere in the jungle a realtor’s sign. Juliet stuck out her lip. “Let’s go.”
The uncovered, in-ground, Sarlacc pit pool was rife with wet debris, leafs, and the lifeless pelts of small animals…potted plants hung from the porch, spilling roots onto the cement and into the water; but at the moment, everyone agreed, it looked like the twisted tails of ivy were reaching out, grabbing at their sneakers while they sat staring at the valley of pricklers and the famous roof of the house on Moira Lane.
“I heard a guy hung himself in the basement.”
“Hanged,” Juliet corrected.
“I heard his kids still walk around upstairs, calling his name, waiting for him to make them dinner.” What Johnny had heard had not changed in the month Trip had known him, yet Johnny broke the news regularly. “Go down in the basement at night, and you’ll see him swinging…then the kids call your name, and you’re done.” He drew a finger across his Adam’s apple, illustrating how done you were.
Juliet punched him severely in the shoulder. “Stop it.”
“I definitely felt that.”
“So what’s the deal with the light, then?” Trip hadn’t permitted himself a question regarding the supernatural since his initial, doltish “How haunted?” But the medicine allowed this childish curiosity. Juliet smiled, just for him, showing her small teeth and pale gums, her pretty stem of tongue.
Johnny had no further info. “Just general haunting.”
“Yeah,” Juliet played along. “You wander the same four rooms for eternity, you start playing with the lights, running a fan or two….”
“Maybe turn the stove on?”
“Whatever,” Johnny shrugged. “Neither of you ever went down there.”
“Neither have you,” Juliet objected, but Johnny kept on:
“Trip has an excuse at least, he’s new—but you, Juliet, wore black lipstick like seven years ago. When you were still in diapers. And you never been down there once.” Johnny snorted. “Some witch.”
Juliet turned to Trip. “I was not in diapers when I was seven,” she clarified. “Fine, show us the way.”
Johnny blanched. “I’m…tired—these pills. Anyway it’s after five. It’ll be dark soon.”
“Isn’t that the point? It’s got to be dark to work.”
They eyed each other testily (while not the physical battlefield of Green Street, Juliet and Johnny engaged each other in mental warfare constantly in the form of dares, taunts, sarcasm beyond their years). Johnny, without another option, caved. “Ladies first.” Juliet strode into the shadowy mouth of pricklers.
The valley, directly adjacent to Pumpkin Hill, contained at least two trillion individual pricklers, as if the Creator itself had overestimated how many thorns the planet would need and deposited the leftovers here: thick, green whips tipped with brown, beetled edges; purple stalks streaked white with red razor-teeth; mossy, infinitesimal needles. To Trip the valley looked like a single, impenetrable mass, but Johnny and Juliet had memorized every passable gap, every length of trail, semblance of path, each fallen tree you could tiptoe across. Even the experts, however, dreaded being caught in the valley after dark. Juliet weaved silently, ducked morosely, casually scaled a tree. Trip watched.
As the incline steepened Trip felt a tickle on his nose…he gazed up at a helical chain of yellow leaves descending in slow motion—a shadow dropped onto the path. Johnny screamed.
“Jesus,” Trip cursed, blocking his ears. They eyed the black cat, svelte with mutant eyes.
“Great,” Johnny said. “Just what we need.”
Juliet knelt down and cuddled the cat to her face. “Go home,” she told him. “Go to the Wood.” With a purr the cat padded off downhill, and Trip believed it would listen.
They came onto the backyard as the sun dipped behind the vacant lot, a dim purple barrier between the earth and black space, stars blinking on.
Nothing remarkable about the only house on Moira Lane, not like it was some mansion dominating the street…more like a ratty bungalow, scaring off potential partners. A hilly, shapeless yard, columned with tall black trees blotting out the sky, random banks of fog, a noxious odor from a nearby sewer line. The deck looked about to crumble, soaked with rain. And of course the ordinary bulkhead with its unlocked aluminum door.
Trip whistled. It was all he could think to say.
“Well.” Juliet unfolded her arms, crossed them again, fidgeting. Johnny took great pleasure in this.
“You already said that.”
Johnny set himself up on a ragged tire swing. Trip felt Juliet’s cold fingers pinch the palm of his hand, briefly, before setting off across the wide, dark yard. “Want me to come?” he called out.
Trip watched her go, without pausing, through the door into the basement.
“I knew she’d do it, too,” Johnny laughed, gathering momentum—not a mean laugh; a laugh deeply impressed by her fearlessness. Trip felt a stirring in his corduroys—the pinnacle of adolescence, when the basement of an abandoned house is no longer perceived as “haunted,” but a “killer spot.”
He’d never made out with Juliet. They’d kissed a dozen times, approximately, in various incarnations: stolen, bruising pecks; gentle cheek-to-cheeks; a single, drawn out union of half-parted lips, completely still for seven minutes…but no tongue. Trip wanted to taste the tongue Juliet stuck out whenever she proved him wrong—the tongue she stuck out in bed and almost touched him with.
The house appeared regular close up. The deck, while stamped with moss and lichen, blanketed in a foot of glowing pine needles, was not about to fall. Cigarette butts and a crushed can of Bud Heavy (Landon Turner’s beverage of choice). The noxious smell of the sewer soared to unbearable heights, like rotting flesh…Trip drew his shirt over his nose. He shivered.
That scream silenced the world. The forest and all its crickets stopped playing. Johnny, so startled, released the rope mid-swing, crashed ten feet to the ground with an ugly thud. That lonely scream might have lasted a heartbeat or half an hour. When finally Trip came to he threw open basement door, found Juliet standing in a square of failing light, surrounded by the black. Her hair was matted oddly and her red t-shirt, Trip’s t-shirt, appeared drenched…. “Jules?”
Only her lips moved, forming erratic, silent words. Trip pulled her to him, outside. He could see she was covered in—yes—blood…thick, purple ropes, chunks of black viscera…she looked like a horror show.
Trip turned on Johnny, belly in the dirt. “Get someone! Help!”
Johnny did not wait, sprung up and dove into the valley of thorns, tearing back home. Trip kept rubbing her shoulders—she worsened by the second… color drained from her face, whiter and whiter…the blood (was it hers?), crystalized her fine blonde hair, clung to her gaunt face, some zombie-metamorphosis. She eyed Trip like he was the devil, like he was to blame, like he’d done it himself.
All she kept saying. “I saw him…I saw him.”
That night trip dreamed of the fever. The morning he’d spoken to Officer Hobbs, Trip had crashed into his room at dawn, where he proceeded to vomit profusely, watching coverage of Princess Diana’s funeral. A fever consumed him, perpetual and hallucinatory—the Marks, like goblins, banging down the door; Eric Roy coming after him with fists ribbed with steel; Samantha Jackson crying without making sound, an incredible trick she knew.
In his dream, Trip’s father sat on the sofa beside him, when in reality he’d stayed locked in his room for the duration—Trip moaned and choked and swallowed bile because he didn’t know what else to do. In the dream they sat together, placid smiles carved into their faces. The fever raged around them, and Landon Turner wrapped a protective arm around his son. But still, it was a nightmare. Trip woke up cold, hoping his father had not come home.
A heat wave descended on Green Street with record-breaking scorn. I stood in the dim hallway of Little Mark’s American raised ranch for the first and last time, Labor Day, syrupy beads of sweat collecting at the nape of my neck…a house could not feel more haunted: shades all drawn, the doors atrophied from disuse—joined seamlessly with the wall—and the kitchen breathed a unique odor to where I stood, doubtful.
In the bedroom ahead the Marks sat on the floor watching “Predator” on TV, unaware of my presence. Across the hall, Rachelle chain-smoked in bed while Sam fixed her hair at the mirror. Donna Lewis on the radio, Lindsay Davenport crushing Maria Berrera.
“Hey kid, come here.”
I planned to continue up the hall, to the front door and out of there.
“Hey,” she persisted. Mark’s sister’s tall, blonde frame spread over her bed in only a white tee and black underwear. I blushed, entering the balmy room, reeking of Newports and hairspray.
“Sam wants to practice on you.”
Sam spun around at the vanity. “No, stop.” She wore a neon bikini top with a Coke beach towel piled over her thighs.
Rachelle smiled the tight, cruel smile she shared with her brother. “She wants to blow the minister’s boy tonight.”
“I do not! You do!”
“She’s going to blow you to smithereens Turner.”
Sam shrieked, turning to face me. “You’re perverted. Get out of here! Now!”
“No flashlights,” Eric had reminded us, disembodying the batteries from the sleek, steel shaft, slipping the dead tool into his deep jean pockets, coldly regarding Sam alone outside the spotlight, her bathing suit glowing beneath a white blouse and Safari shorts…she’d kept holding one of her arms in place with the other, switching back and forth distractedly. The Marks had hustled off into the woods; Drew Jackson scurried inside the monkey-puzzle trees behind Ricky’s house; Rachelle strolled casually in the direction of the minister’s shed.
I’d settled in a tree looking over Sam’s spot, a series of trash cans outside the Reeves place—Sam, rocking in the sand and specks of glass, had no idea. Together we monitored Eric Roy’s progress up the middle of the road, slipping the flashlight from his pants and reloading batteries. He used his hand to muffle the beam, prodding the garbage cans for her.
He shoved her back. With a primitive gesture he sent the button of her khaki shorts pinging off into the dark.
“Eric,” she said severely, and when this rolled off, more desperately: “Eric, no, Eric, no, Eric—”
Through the elm arms I could see only her legs, unreal white, the neon flag yanked down to her ankles where Eric unstrung it to store between his teeth—but, in his haste, he’d forgotten his lookout. Eric reared up with animal ears. “Ricky?” he tested the dark. “Don’t move,” he said a dozen times, leaving her on the side of the road. “Ricky,” he called.
After a moment I dropped to the ground, found Sam’s shorts among the trash and handed them over—looking tactfully away.
She sniffed. “Thanks?”
She considered the ineffectual shorts. “He’ll just take them again.” Water oozed from her eyes; otherwise an indifferent expression, almost pleasant. “He has half my closet under his bed.”
“I know where we can go.”
“He’ll find me.”
I thought to console her, explain that everything would be okay. Instead, I asked if she remembered me at all.
That’s when I took her hand.
The Reeves yard had no spotlight or porch light or pool light—an experiment in blackness. I pulled Sam down Pumpkin Hill, noisily dislodging gourds, sending them tumbling off into the patch, crashing through pricklers, splashing in the frog pond. Eric and Ricky screamed somewhere behind us. “Sam Jackson is a slut! Trip Turner is a dead man!”
She exhaled a hopeless moan.
At the foot of the hill, we set across the Pumpkin Patch to my yard and on to the Giant’s Wood. She looked around, wondrous.
“What is this place?”
“A fortress,” I said.
Sam doubted this. She walked circles around the orange monsters. “You told them I was your girlfriend?”
“It was stupid.”
Sam accepted this. Her face resumed its gravity. “This is stupid, too. I’m not allowed to quit.”
“Why do you even play?”
She smirked. “Drew convinced my dad Eric is some genius. Which I guess is true. My dad is, like, arranging my wedding. Anyway he’s dating a twenty-two year old, some college girl—gross—and wants me out of the house 24/7.” For a moment she disappeared behind one of the giants. “It was cute, how you couldn’t talk today, with Rachelle.”
“She was naked! And you told me to leave.”
Sam dropped her eyes, very catlike. “You were speechless,” she teased. “Want to…walk me home?”
We exited the Wood, cut through the newlywed’s lawn to the power lines (that phantom sensation of bugs crawling up your skin) where swords of light danced in the sky—a new club Opening, or a prisoner escaped.
“Oh my god—look!” Sam squeezed my finger into dust. “Look at the sky!”
Through towering rows of pylons and heavy, electrified cables, Trip’s eyes realized a dozen pretty lights cartwheeling through space, ambient tracers of figure eight flights. Blinking, streaking, descending on distant worlds. “What are they?”
“Satellites,” I ventured.
“You nerd. It’s aliens.”
We sat in the dirt and watched the sky. Every time the night piled on another layer of black, Sam moved closer…until the tipping point, as slowly the layers peeled back; pitch became black, became mauve into lilac, predawn blue…the flying objects long gone.
Sam, half-asleep, worked the tip of her nose into the gap of my nostrils, and her lips met my lips, our tongues touched…cluelessly I groped the handle of her hips, played up and down her ribs, cradled the firm arch of her pony tail.
She left as the gray morning haze burned away. An army of birds announced “September!” Sam did not say Thanks, or Bye, or anything, just continued her zombie walk up the back deck inside. I don’t think she’d have noticed, or cared, if I’d followed, padded silently through her father’s house and crawled into bed beside her. Instead I set off for Mark Savage’s place, forming a plan.
Officer Hobbs rode around the neighborhood every morning at 5 AM, afterward parked outside Savage’s house for a minute. I found him there, making diligent notes on a small pad of paper. I surprised him with a gentle rap on the half-shut window.
“Morning son,” Hobbs greeted me with a smile.
“I have to report something.” In a torrent of words I explained what had happened, and how it had happened many times before, probably with other girls too.
Hobbs nodded slowly, aware of Eric Roy and his capabilities. “These serious charge,” he reminded me. “You sure of everything you’ve said?”
“I only actually saw it this once, but…if you look in his room, under his bed, you’ll find the bathing suit. Neon green and really pretty. She didn’t give it to him,” I clarified needlessly. “It was in his mouth, if you need DNA.”
Hobbs smiled an unfortunate smile. “Get home son.” His cruiser rolled down Heather Hill, made a three point turn and roared off in the direction of Green Street. I went home, hiked the stairs and turned on the TV. Something about a car accident in Paris, a dead Princess…on came the fever.
Trip “slept” with his face against the cold glass window, and with his eyes open. For two weeks, he could not sleep in the traditional sense. All night he watched leafs collect in reefs in one gutter, and a gust of wind would drag them (thousands) across the street, rattling back and forth in a spectral game of tennis. Trip watched college kids roll joints in the Pumpkin Patch. He watched Mark Savage, for a week straight, pull a jack-o-lantern from Valdez’s porch and turn it into a gory pile on the driveway. He watched the Neanderthal Corey Reeves, in an unsettling display of normalcy, walk Frankenstein on a leash—4 AM.
Trip watched the house on Moira Lane…every evening around two o’clock the lights flashed on, blinding white, then vanished, leaving the world that much darker. Trip suspected a timer, but the pattern was never exact: 1:50, 2:02, 1:58.
Johnny claimed to be grounded, practicing Nintendo therapy on his separated shoulder. Juliet Buck disappeared. The trailer was gone and Bruce no longer tended the Giant’s Wood—vines enveloped the place, making an extraterrestrial show of the hollow. Trip awaited the knock at the door, Officer Hobbs come to question him about Juliet and the house, but he never came. Neither did Landon Turner.
Once Landon had “worked” two weeks straight, but that had been years ago, when Trip shared an apartment with his mother and Landon’s absence was a reprieve from his gloomy, inconsistent moods. Now Trip was alone. He attended school irregularly. He wrote “Green Street Summer” in the morning, saw the Giant’s Wood for lunch (bologna under a canopy of sleeping black cats) and in the evening strolled around the circle. Otherwise, he stayed in bed. He was so silently sad, so much like his father.
One evening near the end of October rain came in straight white lines, a summer storm, leveling the ocher streets with muddy riverbeds and deep, worm-riddled puddles. Trip stood at the edge of a dark driveway. He was considering abandoning the nightly lap when she rounded the corner—pushing Baby Caroline in a stroller with balanced, motherly strides, immeasurably older in her brown boyfriend cardigan and fitted blue jeans. She stopped when she saw him.
He stepped out of the dark.
He hadn’t seen her since that morning, two months ago, her exhausted, fawn eyes. Rumors said she’d switched schools.
“I’m babysitting,” she explained. Baby Caroline posed in the crib, young starlet.
Sam didn’t know how to answer. She looked at him, sensing that every girl to have ever loved him had wound up flying away or covered in blood. “Wait here a sec?” She disappeared up the driveway. When she returned she allowed Trip to walk her to the Pumpkin Patch, dodging puddles, where they settled on a damp picnic bench. In the forest rain continued to fall. A stereo blasted in the distance, the college apartment: “I am still living with your…ghost.” Haunted, dragging chains from the Valdez house—Trip had grown so accustomed to the noise he didn’t notice; Sam winced whenever the witch screamed.
“Eric went to juvy,” she said finally. Long, womanly fingers pulled anxiously at her red lower lip…she did not intone gratitude or discomfort. “I should get home. My dad doesn’t like me out at night now. Isn’t that weird?” But Trip saw how happy it made her.
“Want me to walk you?”
“No, it’s not even a big deal. But thank you Trip. Seriously.”
He was seeing tragedy everywhere. On the thirtieth day of October a skein of geese flew overhead, blasting the morning mist with their calls and igniting in Trip an implausible loneliness…a minute later two stragglers, some degrees off course. Trip knew the family would be states apart by the end of the day. His shoulders sagged, watching the bus head to school without him.
He found a dead ant in the freezer. The ant’s presence was revolting, but its deadness signified the emptiness of the fridge, of the house.
He rode his bike in an effort to recall the energy thirteen year old boys take for granted, saw Baby Caroline’s house covered in red paint, papered with soggy yards of Angel Soft and egg yolk. Her father eyed Trip menacingly.
The sun had already begun to set when the bus returned with Johnny Bledsoe, who completely stiffed Trip standing in his lawn with a Wiffle bat and ball. Humiliated, Trip gave over to the feeling with a frustrated sigh and cried angrily into a pillow until his throat felt raw. He napped…woke to the sounds of laughter and an American Shetland prancing down the street.
Hurriedly he threw on jeans and a t-shirt, double-backed for a jacket—his father’s red and black hunting coat. Trip strapped on work boots, hit the street in time to see the horse drawn carriage round into view, passing the Pumpkin Patch where children swung or wielded carving tools under close supervision; the college kids hosted a beer tasting contest. Trip trailed the carriage around the bend, passed Baby Caroline’s clean house, up Juliet’s driveway to the backyard where a new series of riders waited—the Sherberts and Madame Beverly among them. Near the back of the yard, at the mouth of the corn maze, Bruce stood with his arms folded against the world, protecting his fragile daughter who looked to have shed a dozen very necessary pounds since Trip had seen her last…he watched her slip under Bruce’s nose onto the carriage, where Trip joined her on a bale of hay.
The Sherberts shared the same mittens, necks bound by a single scarf. Madame Beverly wore eyeliner and a knowing smirk. As the carriage kicked away, Juliet fixed on the pole star. She treated Trip like a stranger.
He weighed his options: Juliet hated being the subject of conversation; if he asked how she felt (or where she’d been, what had happened) he feared she would never speak to him again.
The Shetland circled the foot of Heather Hill and headed passed the college apartment. Juliet expelled a melodious sigh. “Did you know I missed school because I was at the doctors for like a month? Bruce came up with the whole summer camp cover. I told him it was stupid. ‘Bruce,’ I said, ‘what kind of summer camp runs through the middle of September?’ Bruce didn’t want people bothering me, kids asking questions and teachers treating me like…a threat.”
Trip nodded slowly. He’d assumed as much.
“They thought I had an anxiety disorder…which I do, except it’s not general anxiety disorder—trichotillomania, it’s called.”
She dashed his humor with a look. “They wanted me to shave my head,” she continued. “They said that even though only like one percent of people have it for life, onset at age twelve isn’t good. Most girls are growing out of it then.” She diverted her gaze from the stars, considered looking at Trip. “Sometimes babies can get it, did you know? Imagine Caroline trying to pull her hair out—no more commercials then!”
The carriage paused at the Pumpkin Patch, where a parade of children rushed over, presenting their creations…butchered heads waiting for a candle to bring them to life. The black horse snorted nervously. They rode on.
When Juliet spoke again it was no longer with faked pleasantry, but solemn and stern. “I wouldn’t do it. So they kept me until they thought I was better, even after school started.” Finally she appealed Trip with hopeless, green eyes. “I’m better Trip, I swear. And I’ll get better. But, but….”
“Monster Mash” faded behind them as they rounded the dark corner. She crowded against him and felt like nothing, a gathering of air, until the light returned, and then she said simply “You have to go Trip. You have to see him…you have to see what it’s like.”
In the yard her father swore profusely, tenderly, loving curse words about how bad it was for her to go off like that. He ignored the boy.
Juliet informed Trip she’d be flying to Florida in the morning to visit her mom, would be back next week. “I can’t handle Halloween right now, everyone agrees.” She stepped forward, intending to kiss him, but instead sniffed him, the tip of her witch’s nose grazing the bags under his eyes. “Trip.”
“You smell like your father.”
Early in the morning a jet roared overhead. No telling where it was bound—Florida or San Juan, departed from Logan or some Icelandic layover.
But Trip felt inspired. He grabbed Felix by the scruff of the neck and dropped the cat, ass first, onto the untouched bowl of food. “Eat breakfast with me!” he laughed. “Stop being so self-conscience!”
He sailed up Heather Hill, having finished “Green Street Summer,” cruised brazenly past the house on Moira Lane, around the corner of Green Street and onto the main road. No cars, early morning fog uncoiling down sewer grates.
In the Giant’s Wood Trip brandished a pair of scissors, clipping with gleeful precision the excess vinery until the monster pumpkins looked ready to be loaded onto the bed of a truck and awarded ribbons. He sang the entire time—“I put a spell on you, now you’re mine!”—unnerving the cats overhead, driving them into a purring frenzy.
Before noon the entire yard had been decorated. Trip stepped onto the street and took it in: cobwebs swabbed the trees and porch railings, covered Landon’s abandoned Ford; rubber rats and spiders infested every conceivable corner, half-buried under pine needles on the front steps which also housed some small pumpkins he’d borrowed from the patch—he might carve them later; a witch who’d, maybe drunkenly, flown into the side of the Turner house, snapping her broom; bloody, severed limbs; bats hanging from tree branches; a lonely ghost playing banjo on a bale of hay. What a maniac, Trip thought of himself. He ventured indoors, intending to break back into the sunlight as soon as he’d scrounged up some food—when came a knock at the door.
Since the Marks had called on him at the start of the month, the door had gone unmolested. Trip had envisioned various calls—Juliet’s healthy return, Hobbs come to deliver one bad article of news or another, Johnny Bledsoe apologizing for his fair-weather friendship—but never Sam Jackson, half-naked and quivering in the cool breeze…a Teenie-sized bottle of Cayman Jack margarita in one hand, half-sucked strip of Candy Buttons in the other. She had on only black body shapers, thigh-high October socks and a neon-green belly shirt exposing a strip of midriff. She’d scrawled with red sharpie GHOST across her chest. She stepped inside, locking the door behind her.
“Eric is here.” She pushed passed him upstairs, settled on the sofa before leaning into the alcove and looking out, searching the suspiciously vacant street.
“What do you mean here? Where?”
“At my house Trip, talking to my brother. Dad’s gone for the weekend.” She described everything in trivial notes, building to the key of her visit: “He said he’s going to kill us.”
Trip swallowed a rock. “Us?”
She nodded. “He seemed more focused on you. I had to climb out my window, he was banging on my door Trip.” She wound up in a ball, slipping between the cushions of the couch, and wailed—not quietly.
Trip excused himself. He locked the deck door and porch sliders, shut and secured every window, headed to the basement and dead-bolted the bulkhead, dragging pieces of furniture for reinforcement. Satisfied, he went back to the living room where Sam had produced several cans of Bud Heavy. He realized they were Landon’s, his father’s final artifacts.
“You have no food.”
“What do you—where do you want to go?”
“My mom lives in Mexico.”
Sam slugged back the beer. “Realistically, the house.”
Trip didn’t need to ask which house. “Why?”
“No one goes there.”
“Stay here. You’re safe here.” Trip saying this confirmed its untruth.
“Would you sit down? You’re freaking me out.”
For a long time they sat like that while Sam worked through three heavy beers. They went to his bed, shutting the door definitely behind them, and buried themselves in blankets.
The apartment contains a single door—to a single bedroom. He sleeps on the couch. He does not complain, or ever ask if he’ll get a bed or a room of his own. Except, tonight he’s had a nightmare, he’s wet himself. Maggie wants to clean the cushion, going as far as suggesting they let him sleep with them, just for the night. “He’s only four.” Landon hears none of it. “The kid needs to know to be responsible,” is the phrase he harps on. “In fact, let’s stand here, the both of us, all night so he doesn’t get on the floor. So it’s fair.” Maggie thinks this is sick, and says so. He pretends to sleep, the acrid urine burning his eyes, making his nose run, listening to his parents channel the strained, subdued tones that defined their brief marriage.
For a moment in dreaming Trip felt awake—he should have entertained the image more directly…outside the window, at the mouth of the Giant’s Wood, there stood a white fox. Not an arctic animal, but a ghostly sigil of the natural world. It did normal things, cleaned itself, winding in luxurious circles after its tail. Trip came to staring at nothing, darkness, without Sam’s soft body against him.
He put his clothes back on and searched the house. As he’d left it, except the front door was unlocked and Sam was gone.
Dumpty Circle hummed with children dressed as Disney princesses and vintage astronauts, ballerinas and cowboys, witches and warlocks and robots and Patriots swinging plastic pumpkins by thin black handles, patting pillowcases stuffed with treasure; they shrieked and ran ahead of perpetually worried parents; they rang doorbells and screamed “TRICK OR TREAT” from behind rubber masks and colorful boas. Trip trained his eyes against the zombified mass; he had no illusion of catching her sitting calmly in the Pumpkin Patch—overrun with a college costume party—but instead kept imagining from all corners of the world his enemies advancing: all three Marks, Ricky, Eric, Corey Reeves even. They could be anyone; it was a night of disguises.
Trip ran back inside and unearthed from his closet a cloth Spiderman mask. With his father’s hunting jacket on he looked like a faceless lumberjack. He crossed the sea of strangers and scaled the fence of the unsold apartment, skirted the dark pool and entered the valley of thorns. Several times he became lost, but the coat and mask protected him from serious lacerations. He pressed on. After a few minutes Trip began tentatively calling her name, dreading that steel bulk-head.
In the yard his heavy work boots dragged the cold earth. Darkest night, without even a moon to guide him. He touched the rusted bulkhead. You have to see him. Instead he climbed the back deck, tried the slider and admitted himself into the haunted house.
Scant furniture covered in plastic wrap or white sheets. Dust collected in piles in some places, recently swept in others. The layout was small, compact, without any doors to shut, no complicated corners to hide behind—an ordinary series of livable squares. If Sam was here, he knew, she’d be in the basement. That was the point, to stand where no one else stood, to hide where no one wanted to look. Maybe if they’d done that all summer, for their whole lives, he and Sam—if they’d played the game but found cursed basements to hide in…but the Erics and Rickys and the multitude of Marks in the world knew the best places to hide and when they found you showed no mercy. With a sinking sensation Trip understood Sam had gone home, or to a girlfriend’s, or maybe she’d be waiting for him in bed, grateful for his worry, snaking out of those black body shapers….
He stood at the basement door, gazing into nothing. The stairs were wooden and unfinished, offering little support. Moira Lane was not haunted, he knew—everywhere was, and everyone; haunted by feeling, good and bad, by cruel tricks you’d played and kind favors unperformed, by people you missed and those you’d never met…never a moment where you were only yourself, alone and thoughtless. You were always living with one ghost or another.
At the bottom of the stairs he paused. “Sam?” he whispered. “Sam,” he said loudly, disturbing the spirits. “It’s me.” He edged darkness, making this last pass of the house on Moira Lane—he’d go to the corner afterward, where Hobbs would be parked, and explain everything. And it would be fine. And in a week Juliet would return, and they’d go back to school together, and before they knew it summer would return…outside the trick-or-treating continued, families ferrying one another through the dark stretch of pavement connecting Green Street and Heather Hill.
And then the lights came on—old, outdated basement fixtures snapped to life, independent of any timed system. They simply came on. Trip jumped, startled, and took in the featureless, stone room—devoid of anything but an overturned office chair and a thick cable secured to one of the wood beams running overhead…and attached to that cable the grayish, mottled vertebrate of an adult man, his features sunken and decayed, mostly worn down to bone. A few weeks ago the humid air had shrunk the skin until it split, spilling carnage over the unfortunate young girl who’d stood where Trip stood now. Without even spotting the familiar dungaree jacket and mud caked jeans piled beneath the swinging, skeletal feet, or the circle of Bud Heavy surrounding the small shadow with votive dedication—Trip knew that cruel, skinless, manic skull anywhere.
Frankenstein bayed in the Giant’s Wood—midnight. Somewhere in Florida Juliet Buck gathered her fine white hair in gentle bunches, put them to the blade. South of San Juan, Maggie Turner breathed salty ocean air…but it did her no good, it never did. In the guest room at Baby Caroline’s, Samantha Jackson answered Officer Hobbs’ questions the best she could—she was still a little drunk, and anyways she had no idea where the Turner boy might be. “I don’t know him very well.”