“Somehow, I got back up the stairs, past the broken banister and the light fixture that dangled against the torn plaster like a dead head on a broken neck.”
I wish I wrote that. I opened a book to a random page and wasn’t surprised to find such an amazing sentence. You can find it on page 258 of the trade paperback version of Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Then if you haven’t already, go back and read the entire book.
In 1979 I quit bottle feeding my six-month old baby at night because of ‘Salem’s Lot. I was about halfway through the book and had become convinced if I went in her room, a vampire would get me. I sent my husband in to feed her. I’m pretty sure that behavior made me a terrible mother, but at least I never got bit.
‘Salem’s Lot was my introduction to Stephen King. For the last 38 years he’s been responsible for the best birthday and Christmas presents I’ve ever received. He’s introduced me to characters I consider lifelong companions, even though most of the time he killed them. I’ve always gotten over being pissed off at him for his callous behavior toward my imaginary friends.
I’m only comfortable writing satire, but I want to be able to write horror because of Stephen King. He introduced it to me before I got sucked into liking romance or some stupid shit like that. Even though I’m not good at horror I still try. Below are two short stories I wrote because I love the writing of Stephen King.
A Suburban Halloween
“I mean it, Jake. You keep a close eye on your little brother or you’ll be grounded until next Halloween.” The miniature Wal-Mart Spiderman sitting on the bottom step of the staircase giggled, then clasped both small hands over his mouth as Jake snapped his head around to glare at him, then turned his attention back to his mother.
“I got it, Mom. Take the brat trick-or-treating, make sure he doesn’t get run over, snatched by a pervert or abducted by aliens. I got it already.”
Lila Sinclair shot her seventeen-year-old son a scowl which promised harsh punishment when she returned home. He shrugged his scrawny shoulders and gave her a bland look. He knew her hollow threats were remnants of a time when she didn’t have to work two jobs to support her children. His mother wouldn’t have the time or energy to read him the riot act. She delivered pizzas until after midnight and would only get a few hours sleep before getting up for her full-time job as a receptionist for a bail bondsman. That schedule had been her life for the last four years, and the wear and tear had begun to show in countless small ways, which alarmed Jake when he bothered to think about them. His once lovely and vivacious mother had become a worn out ghost who seemed to relish her aches and pains and revel in her slipshod appearance. Her two sons resembled her, with their chestnut hair, hazel eyes and small, bony frames. Jake could remember when his mother took pride in styling her hair and wearing tastefully applied makeup. To save money, she had recently taken a pair of scissors to her long hair and didn’t seem to care about the coarse strands of gray which threatened to consume her butchered mop.
He could clearly see the fine lines of worry around her mouth and the despair and regret in her eyes. She had lost weight she couldn’t afford to lose, and the baggy discount clothes she wore had obviously been purchased for comfort, with no thought of attracting the opposite sex. Lila’s husband Carl abandoned them when Jake was seven, then showed up a few years later just long enough to sweet talk his way into her bed and knock her up with Monty before he left – this time for good. Carl’s attempt to rob a liquor store didn’t turn out the way he planned. Not that much planning went into it once the crystal meth kicked in. Jake figured a life sentence for capital murder beat the hell out of rehab when it came to staying clean and sober. He didn’t miss his old man any more than he missed the bruises and bloody noses which Carl delivered with the precision and dedication of a middle-weight champion. The marks had faded years ago, but the memories had not. Even if Monty could be a royal pain in the ass, Jake occasionally took the time to be grateful his six-year-old brother had never known their father.
Lila sighed and capitulated in the stare-off with Jake as she knelt before Monty. “Have a good time tonight, Spidey. Don’t go easy on any bad guys out there, okay?”
From behind the shoddy workmanship of the cheap costume eyeholes, Monty gave her a solemn look, nodded and held up his wrists. “Don’t worry, Mom. My webs will keep any bad guys away from you.”
“I know they will, sweetheart. You’re my hero,” she said as she gave him a quick peck on the top of his head, turned and left the house.
“Get your loot depository and let’s get this the hell over with, Spiderbrat,” Jake demanded, the disgust evident in his voice. Nothing could be more humiliating than being a babysitter on Halloween, especially when he had planned to hang with his friends.
“I’m Spiderman, not Spiderbrat, and if you don’t quit being mean to me, I’ll sling my webs on you,” Monty whined as he grabbed the handle of a large plastic jack-o’-lantern.
“I’m shaking, Spidertool. Now move it.”
Trick-or-treating remained a tradition in the Sinclair’s small suburban neighborhood. Jake and Monty joined the throngs of superheroes, ballerinas, faeries and trademark horror movie monsters as they all vied for the best treats. Although Jake used to love the ritual when younger, now he just stood in the street, exaggerated boredom issuing from every pore, while Monty approached the front doors, rang the bells and joyously yelled out, “Trick or treat!” After two hours of this routine, Monty’s jack-o’-lantern had begun to overflow with candy.
Jake said, “That’s it, Spiderfool. I’ve done my time and now we’re going to meet my friends. If you tell Mom, I’ll kick your ass.”
“But I’m having fun,” Monty said, as his lower lip began to tremble.
“We’ll both have some fun if you just come with me and keep your mouth shut.” Jake started walking and didn’t look to see if his brother followed. The little boy in the Spiderman costume had to jog to keep up with his older brother. They cut through yards and alleys on their way to the designated meeting place. A crisp October breeze became the leading partner in a frenzied All Hallows Eve dance with the autumn leaves. The Sinclair brothers had traveled several blocks when Monty said,
“Please stop, Jake. You’re walking too fast. I need to rest a minute.”
Monty sat down on a curb and forced Jake to stop. He rolled his eyes, then turned his back on his brother and took the time to look around. The unfamiliar neighborhood seemed shabby and forlorn, as if it could remember much happier times of newlyweds, laughing children, and 4th of July parties celebrated against a backdrop of fireworks magically shaming the stars in the night sky. The two-story houses all appeared to have large front porches and the teen noticed there were no lights on to welcome trick-or-treaters. Even though it was nearly ten o’clock, he found that odd and a bit disturbing. He shook off the feeling and decided the occupants were probably elderly and had quit giving a shit about Halloween years ago.
His thoughts were interrupted by Monty, who asked, “Do you hear that?”
“The pretty lady calling me,’ Monty replied, his head cocked to one side. Jake looked around. The street was empty.
“I don’t hear anything. You heard someone calling you by name?”
“Yeah, the pretty lady.”
“Wait a minute. How do you know she’s a pretty lady?”
“I dunno, I just do. I think she’s over there.” Monty pointed a finger in the direction of a Victorian house with a faded For Sale sign in the front yard. Jake didn’t have much of an imagination, but the broken rails around the porch and the shattered window pane on the second floor made him uneasy. A filmy curtain gently flapped from the hole in the window like a beckoning ghostly arm. He strained to hear a woman’s voice, and heard nothing but a dog howling in the distance. He grabbed Monty’s hand and yanked him up off the curb.
“Let’s get out of here.”
They hurried past the house, but Monty kept looking back. After a few moments, they approached a group of teens in the abandoned building which served as their unofficial hangout. A flashlight placed on the ground illuminated the faces of three boys and one girl. Jake’s heart pinballed in his chest when he saw Freddie. The petite girl, whose short dark hair with its pink highlights shimmered in the dim light, wore what some would assume was a Halloween costume. Jake could have told them that was just how she dressed. Black knee boots and red-and-white striped stockings covered her legs. She wore a shockingly short black mini-skirt and a crimson bustier which exposed most of her fist-sized breasts. Jake yearned for Freddie the way an astronaut yearns to gaze at the Earth from the far reaches of space. He’d loved her since kindergarten, but she had neatly placed him in a subcategory labeled ‘The Guy I Confide in About My Boyfriends’ under the larger category labeled ‘Big Brother/Best Friend’. Standing in a semi-circle around her were Mick, Greg and Charlie. Her outsider status with the other girls at school had been established since the first day of junior high, when she learned to flirt like a pro. They were all smoking weed as the two boys approached.
Freddie smiled, held out the joint between her fingers to him and said, “Hey, Jake. Did you know you’re being stalked by Spiderman?”
Jake took a huge hit and held it for a moment before he replied. “Yeah, Spiderbutt here has been ruining my night.” The guys laughed a bit too much at the lame joke because they were all high, but Freddie didn’t even giggle.
In a déjà vu moment for Jake, she knelt before Monty, just as his mother had, and said, “You’re my hero, Spiderman.”
Freddie’s kindness and the grateful smile on Monty’s face tugged at Jake’s heart, but he suppressed any warm feelings because he needed to get tough with his little brother. “Monty, you had your fun tonight and now it’s my turn. I swear I’ll break your arm and all of your gay video games if you ever breathe a word to Mom. As far as she’s concerned, I took you trick or treating and that’s all. Sit over there in the corner and eat your candy. Got it?”
Monty’s smile faded as he looked down at his sneakers and muttered, “Whatever.”
Jake forgot his brother as he got high and bullshitted with his friends. Nearly an hour passed before Freddie asked, “Where did Monty go?” He looked around and didn’t see any sign of him.
“Oh, shit. That damn brat is going to get me grounded for life. I better go find him.”
Charlie giggled, “Spidey’s missing. What a buzz kill.”
Freddie glared at him and snarled, “Shut up, you idiot. Monty’s just a little boy and it’s nearly midnight.” She turned to Jake and said, “I’m going with you to look for him. The rest of you split up and call if you find him.” She held out her hand and Jake squeezed it with gratitude. Charlie was right though. Losing his brother was a buzz kill. All the terrible things that could happen began racing around in his brain like chunks of ice being pulverized in a blender.
“Do you think he went home?” Freddie asked, as they slowly jogged down the street.
Jake frowned and replied, “I don’t think he knows how to find his way home. He knows better than to wander around on his own. I can’t understand why he would do something so lame.”
“Maybe he’s pissed off and just wanted to get away from you. You were pretty mean to him.”
“He’s been a lot more pissed off at me and never done anything like this before. Mom has drilled all those rules about strangers into his stupid head. It doesn’t make sense that he would go off by himself.”
Jake abruptly stopped, and Freddie, who jogged a step behind him, ran into his back. “What is it? Do you see him?” she asked as she leaned over to grasp her knees and catch her breath.
“No way,” Jake muttered. “He wouldn’t have gone back.”
“On our way to meet you guys tonight, we stopped near an empty house. Monty told me he could hear a pretty lady calling his name. He said her voice was coming from the house.”
“So? Maybe it was one of his teachers who lived there or something. Why do you think he would go back to that house?”
“Freddie, I couldn’t hear anything and I don’t think he was making it up. That house wasn’t right. It seriously freaked me out.”
“Why would a house freak you out?”
“I can’t explain it. The house was run down, but so is mine. There was a For Sale sign in the front yard, and it looked like it had been empty for years. It just seemed creepy to me, but it didn’t seem to bother Monty. Maybe that’s what bugged me so much about it. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but my little brother would have marched right up to the door and shouted, ‘Trick or treat!’ He’s just a little kid and he made me look like a big pussy. What if there was some crazy old lady in the house calling Monty? There’s no telling what could happen to him.”
Then let’s get moving. Do you remember where it is?”
“I think so, but you’re not coming with me. Go find the guys and bring some cops or something. Hell, bring the Marines.” Jake gave a shaky laugh.
“Don’t even try to pull that chauvinistic shit on me, Jake Sinclair. Monty is like my own little brother and even if you’re afraid of a house, I’m not. I’m going with you to find him.” He had never loved her more as she stood before him – a beautiful warrior with her hands on her hips and her chin tilted upward in defiance.
“Great. Come with me. We can get dismembered together. It’ll be romantic.”
The worry never left her dark brown eyes, but she managed a grin. “Are you flirting with me, Jake? After all these years?”
“Uh – I guess so.”
Freddie smiled a woman’s smile and said, “It’s about time. Come on, let’s find Monty and go home.”
She once again took his hand and they began to run. When they arrived, it was like stepping onto the set of a John Carpenter film, right down to the swirling mist and eerie glow cast by the full moon. Freddie gave Jake an odd look and asked, “Does this seem familiar to you? It does to me.”
“Yeah, I’ve rented this horror film dozens of times.”
She pointed at the house. “That has to be it. I see what you meant when you said it’s not right. There’s no way Monty would’ve gone in there. I’m damn close to peeing in my pants just looking at it.”
Jake yelled, “Monty! Monty! Where are you?”
“Shh. Do you hear that?” she asked.
Jake quit calling his brother and listened. A faint voice called his name and it seemed a thousand pounds of dread sloughed off his shoulders as he looked up at the broken window and saw Monty waving them in. Freddie jumped into Jake’s arms, wrapped her legs around his waist and gave him a kiss filled with relief, passion and love. His terror for his brother’s safety forgotten for a moment, Jake returned the kiss with his own, backed up by twelve years of hopeless longing. Reason eventually returned, and he gently disengaged his lips from hers and said, “Let’s go get Monty. It’s midnight and if we hurry, we can still beat my mother home.”
Holding hands, they made their way up the walk. Weeds had forced their hungry way through the crumbling concrete, only to be smothered by past seasons of decaying leaves. Stark rose bushes, a few blackened petals remaining in an obscene parody of their former beauty, served as thorny guardians of the house. Jake and Freddie maneuvered their way up the dilapidated steps and across the sagging porch, which creaked and groaned like an arthritic old man. Freddie looked at the tarnished brass knocker set in the middle of the the door and asked, “Do you think we should knock?”
Jake shook his head and replied, “No. If there’s anyone in the house besides Monty, I’d rather not talk to them. Let’s go in and get out as fast as we can.”
He took a deep breath, and before he could change his mind, grasped the door knob and opened the door. They stepped into the house and looked around. Moonlight filtered through the dingy window panes, allowing them to see a staircase to the right of the entrance. As they looked up, they saw Monty perched on the top step. He called down to his brother, “Jake. I found the pretty lady. Do you see her?”
A woman stepped into view from a hallway and gave a pat to the top of Monty’s head as she began to drift down the stairs. She appeared to be just a few years older than Jake. Her long silver hair seemed as alive as the ocean as it swirled and eddied about a face so beautiful he imagined a poet would commit suicide after countless vain attempts to describe it. A garment so sheer and wondrous it seemed to be made of faerie dust barely covered her voluptuous body. With each step she took down the stairs, it would alternately expose and then cover her breasts. He shook off Freddie’s hand and took a tentative step forward.
“I see her, Monty. I see your pretty lady.”
“What the hell are you talking about? There’s nobody there,” Freddie said, her voice shaking with fear.
He ignored her and took another step towards the woman, and then another. She met him at the foot of the stairs and whispered, “It’s you, Jake.” Freddie was forgotten as the woman placed her hand on the back of his head and pulled his face closer to hers. So close he could smell the intoxicating scent of lust and see the promise of deep and unspoken desires in her violet eyes. Her lips parted and she pressed them to his. They were cool and sent a slipstream of ice racing through his blood.
The kiss lasted a millisecond. The kiss lasted an eternity. It revealed to Jake a man who loved the woman with the same intensity as her disdain for him. Countless lovers caressed her body on the same marriage bed where the man’s shattered heart led his hands to her throat. The man spent the rest of his days locked away from the world, but not from the haunting image of her last cruel smile. Somewhere deep in his soul Jake heard Freddie screaming, but her once beloved voice had become as inconsequential to him as the lonely whistle of a train in the distance. His soul and his love for her passed through the woman’s lips. This is where he belonged. The woman tenderly smiled at him and asked, “Do you love?” He numbly nodded. “Show me.”
He turned to Freddie and her trusting eyes widened in disbelief as he grabbed her by the throat. She was so tiny. It only took a moment and he threw her lifeless body to the floor. Jake looked dispassionately at the girl he had loved since he was five years old. Then he raised his eyes to discover the woman had disappeared and Monty stood before him. He looked into his little brother’s eyes. A deeply buried part of him realized the zombie quality in Monty’s eyes would be reflected in his own if he looked in a mirror.
What had once been a little boy in a Spiderman suit looked up at him and said, “I’ll go get Mom now.”
“Yeah, little brother. Go get Mom.”
The lean man covered in blood smiled at the busty blonde zombie. “What scares you?”
The light cast by the campfire appeared to devour Jo Jo’s ravaged face. She giggled. “Getting drunk and forgetting I’m wearing granny panties. You know…in case I feel the urge to remove my pants.” She winked at Lore, who sat directly across from her. He grinned.
Clappie groaned. “Ho Jo, do you ever think about anything but sex?”
“Sometimes I think about astrophysics and what shade of nail polish to wear.” All the zombies laughed except Clappie, who sniffed and took a swig of beer.
Hunter said, “We all know you wear thongs, Jo Jo. Answer Lore’s question. If you dare.” He gave his best mad scientist laugh.
“Okay. I’ll answer his question if everyone else does. But first he has to answer a question for me.”
“That’s fair. What’s the question?”
“How old are you, do you have a girlfriend, how did you end up running a haunted hayride, why are you named Lore and did you know you have the sexiest green eyes I’ve ever seen?”
Clappie snorted and said, “Why don’t you ask him the results of his last herpes test while you’re at it?”
Hunter sprayed a mouthful of beer into the flames and started choking. Dusty pounded him on the back. When Hunter could breathe again he said, “Damn it, Clap, you almost killed me.”
She shrugged and turned back to Jo Jo. “Seriously. I can’t figure how you make such good grades when you act like a stereotypical blonde bimbo.” She looked at the older man and said, “She’s been my roommate for nearly four years and being circumspect isn’t in her DNA.”
“It’s cool. I don’t mind sharing. I’m thirty-two and don’t have a girlfriend. I didn’t realize mine are the sexiest green eyes you’ve ever seen, Jo Jo. Thanks for the compliment, but perhaps you should get out more.” Lore waited for the half-drunken laughter to die down before continuing.
“There’s a line from Aleksandr Puskin’s poem The Gypsies. We are wild and have no laws. That line could have been written about my mother Serena. I grew up in carnivals.”
Jo Jo whispered, “A carnie.”
“Yeah, Serena gave birth to me on the Falling Star ride.”
“Holy shit, dude. Isn’t that the one shaped kinda like a tube which swings back and forth?”Dusty said.
“Give that man another beer. He knows his carnival rides. According to Serena, I was also conceived on the Falling Star.”
Dusty shook his head. “Man, don’t take this the wrong way, but your mother must have been a nut job. That ride is killer. The only time I ever caught the Falling Star, the last thing on my mind was sex. I did consider pissing myself though.”
“If you knew how unsafe some of those rides are, you’d have done more than consider it. Serena’s quite a character. She claims to be a gypsy and is still telling fortunes and putting curses on the marks. Usually only those who don’t give her a tip though.”
“Do the curses work?” Jo Jo asked.
“I can’t swear they do, but one night after the carnival closed a drunk carnie Serena couldn’t stand tried to cop a feel. Most men probably wouldn’t blame him. She joined some of us at a local bar for a few beers and wore her most flamboyant outfit – gold bracelets, purple and green satin dress, and high heel, lace-up boots. Serena wasn’t shy about her breasts either. The bodice on the dress revealed as much as the law allowed.
“She walked over to the jukebox and deposited her quarters. A wild and haunting song began to play. Later the bartender kept telling anyone who would listen that the song wasn’t on the play list. My mother began a slow and erotic dance which mesmerized not only the carnies, but the rest of the men in the bar. The music got faster and she began to spin in circles – her skirt twirling and her dark wild hair whipping about her lovely face. The song ended and as she stood there, breasts heaving, the carnie she loathed approached and stuck his hand down the front of her blouse. He seemed to be in a trance. She kicked him in the nuts and after that night his nose hair kept growing so fast he couldn’t keep it trimmed.”
“That’s a weird curse, but I kinda like it. Do you know any others I could use at the restaurant?” asked Hunter, who had worked his way through college as a waiter.
“Best not to tempt the gods, Hunter. Just keep spitting in your customers’ food.”
Hunter laughed. “Man, I don’t do that. What I do is…”
“Stop!” Clappie shouted. “I’d like to enjoy fine dining someday without worrying about your bodily fluids in the risotto.”
“It won’t be my fluids, now will it? Aren’t we all going to be famous actors?”
“Hell, yeah! No more minimum wage jobs for us. No offense, Lore.”
“None taken, Dusty. While I’m not as psychic as my mother, I have been able to predict things at times. Since you four are the most realistic zombies I’ve ever employed, I have a feeling your stars are on the rise.”
“That gives me goose bumps,” said Jo Jo, as she batted her eyelashes at Lore. The firelight played on her gruesome face, but even fake rotting zombie flesh couldn’t stop the college senior from flirting with an attractive man. “Now finish answering my questions. Please.”
“Life as a carnie gave me a severe case of wanderlust. I couldn’t stand being tied down forty hours a week working a regular job. I saved up until I could afford the RV over there. Then every Halloween I lease a few acres in the woods of whatever state I happen to be in. Ticket sales pay for advertising, renting the flatbed trailer and actors’ salaries. What’s left over usually lasts long enough to get me through until the next Halloween. If it doesn’t I take on odd jobs wherever the road takes me. It’s not the life for everyone, but it suits me.”
“So, what’s with your name, dude?” asked Dusty.
“Serena wanted a girl and her favorite name was Lorelei. The German legend fascinated her.”
“What German legend?” said Jo Jo.
“There’s a gigantic rock located at a dangerous curve of the Rhine River. A siren named Lorelei waits there until a boat approaches. Then her singing lures the sailors to their deaths.”
Clap said, “And your mother wanted to name you after a psychotic killer siren?”
A gust of wind stirred the flames and a mournful howl from deep in the woods highlighted the long pause following her question. Lore gave Clappie a piercing look which sent shivers down her spine. She closed her eyes and when she opened them again, the congenial man she’d worked with for the past month smiled at her and said, “Apparently. But remember Serena claims to be a gypsy. Things like that intrigue her. She wanted a mythical daughter and got me instead.”
“That takes care of me. Now back to the original question. Jo Jo, what scares you? And not something silly. It’s Halloween and time to probe the terror deep within us all.”
This time the young woman’s giggle came off nervous and strained. “I’m afraid of stalkers.”
“Oh, give me a break, you narcissistic piece of work,” Clappie said. “Nobody’s stalking you.”
“I know, but I’m trying to answer his question seriously. There’s a reason they scare me. About fifteen years ago, while I played hopscotch on the sidewalk in front of my house, a man pulled up in a car. He leaned over, opened the passenger door and said he lost his puppy. He needed help looking for it. He seemed nice and so sad. I really wanted to help him, but remembered that stupid slogan they taught us in elementary school. Stranger-danger.
“When I told him I couldn’t help, he got out of the car and came for me. I ran screaming to the house and as he grabbed my ponytail my dad opened the door. The man turned and ran. They never caught him.”
“You never told me that story. I’m sorry about being such a bitch. That’s awful.”
Jo Jo gave her roommate a shaky smile. “I’ve never told anyone that story. It freaks me out too much to talk about it. I don’t know why I told it now. I should have said I’m afraid of spiders.” She looked into Lore’s eyes and shivered. He’s not smiling, but he still looks positively gleeful. She turned away and said, “Who’s next?”
The remaining three college students looked at each other. Dusty sighed. “I’m afraid to drive.”
“Really?” Clappie asked. “I knew you never drove, but assumed it was because you didn’t own a car.”
“I used to own a car. A present for my sixteenth birthday from my parents. A restored ’68 Mustang. Man, I loved that car. I hated going to the grocery store, but started volunteering to pick up shit for my mother so I’d have an excuse to get behind the wheel.”
“So what changed all that?” Hunter asked.
“A car crash.”
“You were in a crash?”
“No. I witnessed one. A big rig carrying a load of huge metal pipes jackknifed on the Interstate about a quarter mile ahead of me. The car following it swerved and at first it looked like everything would be okay. But the chain holding the pipes snapped and one of them rolled off the truck and bounced right into the windshield of the car.
“It happened so fast. I slammed on my brakes and dialed 9-1-1. By the time they answered it was over. I pulled up near the car and jumped out to see if I could help.”
“That was brave of you.”
Dusty snapped, “No it wasn’t, Jo Jo. I wish I’d never done it. The driver was a girl who looked about my age. I found out later she was eighteen. The kind of girl I used to imagine marrying someday. Gorgeous. Long blonde hair and blue eyes. Her eyes.” He shuddered.
“What about them?” asked Clappie as she gently placed a hand on his shoulder.
“They were pleading with me to save her. But I couldn’t. The pipe had not only gone through the windshield, but also the steering wheel. It had impaled her to the seat. No blood at all that I could see. I guess she was in shock. She didn’t say anything. Just looked at me. I took her hand, held it and told her everything would be alright, but I knew it wouldn’t. Not ever again. I watched her eyes die like the bulb in a flashlight which gets dim as the battery wears out. And then she was gone. I stood there crying and holding a dead girl’s hand. Her name was Melanie.
“When the cops and ambulance got there a few minutes later I couldn’t even go sit in my car. One of the cops moved it to the side of the road and I walked about half a mile into the middle of a field to get away from the highway. I called my parents to come pick me up. They sold the Mustang.”
Clappie leaned over and gave him a tight hug. As he buried his face in her copper hair she could feel him trembling.
Lore said, “Maybe we should quit this. I had no idea it would be so upsetting to you. It’s always been a fun tradition at the end of the hayrides. I feel terrible.”
Clappie looked up and said, “No. That’s not fair to Jo Jo and Dusty. It’s my turn and I’m afraid of fire.” She stared into the flames dancing in the campfire. “Well, maybe not so much fire as being burned alive.
“I also had a traumatic experience when I was a young girl. My sister, brother and I stole some candles and matches from the house and snuck out to an old panel truck that belonged to my grandfather. The seats were ripped up and some kind of white stuffing stuck out like bloated, half-melted marshmallows. We kept lighting and blowing out the candles, pretending it was our birthdays.
“We had so much fun until I held a match too long and it burned my finger. I dropped the match onto the stuffing and it immediately flared up. We all turned to run. I remember thinking if we could get to the hose and spray the fire we wouldn’t get in trouble. But I was in bigger trouble than getting a spanking.
“The flames caught my hair on fire. My brother turned back and saw what happened and tackled me into the dirt. Poor little guy. He burned the palms of his hands trying to put out the flames. It only took a few seconds for most of my hair to burn off and the back of my neck got burned.”
She lifted her hair and leaned over for her friends to look at the puckered skin. “I never put my hair up and this is why.”
Clappie took a deep breath and immediately did what she always did best – make them laugh. “So, Mr. Lore Meso, that’s why Smoky the Bear is my bestest friend in the whole wide world.”
After the somewhat hysterical laughter died down, Hunter said, “I guess it’s my turn. I’m afraid of love.”
With the exception of Lore, the others began to laugh until they saw he was serious. Hunter shrugged. “Yeah, pretty lame. My mom used to drink – a lot. My dad finally couldn’t take it and left us.
“The night he left was horrible. My mother howled, cried and pleaded with him. It was like a scene from a bad reality show. She even fell to the ground and threw her arms around his legs. He had to drag her along the floor to get out the front door.
“The entire time she kept screaming how much she loved him. After that she was always drunk. Dad never forgot to send child support, but he did forget to come see me. About a year later he remarried and the day after we heard the news, I came home from school to find my mother dead. She hung herself from a light fixture in the living room. I was fourteen.”
“I went to live with my father and his wife. They had a daughter and I could tell they resented me intruding on their happy little lives. Dad couldn’t stand me being around because I look like my mother. My stepmother seemed to think insanity is catching and avoided me. I couldn’t wait to leave for college.”
Hunter’s laugh contradicted the bitterness in his eyes. “Love’s not for me. Love will fucking kill you.”
Everyone stared into the flames until Clappie couldn’t take the silence. She looked at Lore and said, “You were absolutely right. That was a fun tradition!” She held up her bottle of beer in a mock toast. “To fear!”
As one, all four students rose and clinked their bottles together. “To fear!”
Jo Jo looked at Lore, who remained seated.
“What scares you?”
“You do. All of you.” He smiled and said, “Now get out of here and go break a leg, or whatever you’re supposed to say to theatrical types. It’s been a pleasure working with you. I’ll see you on the big screen someday.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Clappie examined her naked body in the full-length mirror, leaned in and peered at her face. Damn it. Look at those crow’s feet. I really should quit smoking. And my boobs seem to sag more every day. My agent’s right. I’m going to have to make an appointment with a plastic surgeon if I want to keep working. That sucks. I’ll bet Bette Davis never had to get a boob job.
She pulled on the robe provided by the luxury hotel, walked back into the room and picked up the script she’d tossed on the bed. She had time to memorize a few more lines before the driver would arrive to pick her up for the premiere.
She propped four pillows up against the headboard and got comfortable. She grabbed the pack of smokes sitting on the bedside table, lit one and took a satisfying drag. Opening the script to a page marked with a post-it, she began to read the words out loud, but after a few minutes her thoughts began to wander to the upcoming event.
The Halloween release of Global Swarming was being hailed as one of the few fall blockbusters. She hated the hoopla associated with movie releases, but tonight would be special because her three co-stars – her family – would be joining her at the Halloween bash after the premiere.
She put the script down, lit another cigarette and thought about Jo Jo, Dusty and Hunter. They’d all made it, just as Lore predicted. None of them even had to struggle. In the spring after they worked together as zombies at the haunted hayride, they collected their diplomas, marched off the stage and into successful film careers. She often considered it downright spooky how easy it had been for them. And now they’d made a zombie movie together. “Life imitates art,” she mumbled, closing her eyes.
Clappie softly snored as the lit cigarette held between her fingers dropped onto the script on her lap. A dirty brown circle began to form and within seconds flames engulfed the pages.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Dusty loved being an actor, but hated the celebrity involved. He never went anywhere without one of his many baseball caps and a pair of sunglasses. He searched the backpack he’d carried onto the plane for the third time and once again failed to find his minimalist disguise.
This is crazy. I was wearing them before I took a shower. Could a housekeeper have come in and taken them? Great. I won’t have time to replace them before the premiere.
In the elevator Dusty stared at his shoes and tried to ignore the stage whispers of the other passengers. The doors slid open and he held back to be the last to exit. He couldn’t stand the thought of the others whispering behind him – wondering if it was really him. If it weren’t for Jo Jo, Clappie and Hunter, he would have skipped the premiere and stayed on his ranch in Texas.
He gave the cab driver directions without making eye contact. He noticed the man staring at him in the rearview mirror. Dusty turned his head and looked out the window, hoping the man would take the hint.
Please no. I need to be left alone.
“Aren’t you the guy who played Johnny Depp’s son in that movie…what was it called?”
Dusty sighed. “Shutterbug.”
“Yeah! That’s the one. Man, you were great. You won an Academy Award, right?”
“No, I only got nominated.”
“Man, you got robbed! What’s it like working with Johnny Depp? My wife loves the guy. Wait until she hears you’re my passenger.”
The cabbie pulled his cell phone out of his shirt pocket and began entering a text message.
“Dude! Don’t do that while you’re driving.”
“It’s cool. I do it all the time.” The cabbie turned and looked back over his shoulder.
“I’m serious. Put the phone…watch out!”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Naked, Jo Jo dove into the pool and swam underwater to the shallow end. She burst out of the water, still as lovely as a Greek goddess thanks to studio money and plastic surgery. With her arms balanced on the edge of the pool, she tread water and gazed into the woods which bordered her property. She closed her eyes and thought about the upcoming premiere.
They’ll be shocked when I show up wearing the Vera Wang zombie wedding dress. Screw the majority vote. This is Halloween. We’re supposed to dress up. I suppose Clappie will give me shit, but after all these years I can take it. This is going to be fun!
She opened her eyes and screamed. An enormous man stood above her. In her vulnerable position he seemed to be ten feet tall. He wore black pants and a gray silk shirt. His slicked back dark hair glistened with gel.
Mindful of her nudity, Jo Jo quit treading water and placed the balls of her feet firmly on the side of the pool.
Maybe he can’t swim. If I have to, I can stay in the middle of the pool.
Trying to sound authoritative she said, “Get off my property! I’m calling the police right now.”
The man slowly brought his right hand from behind his back. In it he held what looked like a machete. “Diablo,” he whispered.
Jo Jo didn’t wait around for further introductions. She bent her knees, shoved off from the side of the pool and twisted her body to be face down in the water.
I can get away. I have to.
Her head snapped back out of the water, her hair tangled between his massive fingers.
This time I don’t think my father is going to open the door and save me. This time…
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Hunter opened the door and a dark haired young woman with a bruise on her face stood behind the rolling cart.
“Thanks. Please put it over there on that table.”
She looked around the room in confusion. It finally dawned on Hunter she wasn’t wearing a hotel uniform. He sighed.
“You don’t work here, do you?”
“No, but I…”
He held up a hand and said, “Please don’t say anything else. Just leave.”
“But I need to tell you…”
“No you don’t. You don’t need to tell me anything. This kind of thing has happened before. I want you out of my room and if you don’t go right now I’ll call hotel security It’s their policy to arrest trespassers.”
“Cops,” she sneered. “Cops are good for nothing. Did they help me with this?” She pointed at the bruise on her face. “Or this?”
She ripped open her blouse with such violence one of the buttons flew right at Hunter. He reflexively ducked.
Aww, shit. Here we go. I can see the tabloids tomorrow. I’ll be accused of raping this bitch and she’ll only back down when the payoff is at six figures.
“You’re not paying attention to me!” she screamed. “I love you and you didn’t do anything to stop him!”
Hunter looked in horror at the woman’s breasts. Not only were they mottled with fist-sized patches of purple and yellow, he could see open wounds and scabs which could only have come from the embers of a lit cigarette. His stomach churned and bile began to rise in his throat.
“Listen, lady. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but let me get you some help. I’m going to call the front desk and ask them to send up a medic for you.”
“Stop!” She leaned over and fumbled underneath the white tablecloth on the rolling cart.
I wonder how she got that cart? Where’s the real server?
She straightened up and pointed a gun at him. “Suicide pacts are romantic, don’t you think? I love you.”
Love will fucking kill you. Where did I hear that?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“…and Officer Brady told me there were no signs of foul play at all. Those students up at the university looked like they died in their sleep. Brady’s a regular here, just like Arnie over there. Right Arnie?” she asked the man wearing a grubby shirt with a patch above the pocket identifying him as Arnold.
“Right as rain, Suzy Q.” Arnie continued cramming fries into his mouth with one hand, while the other kept brushing away the dangling construction paper spider attached to a fake cobweb left over from Halloween.
“I’m telling ya, I never saw Brady shook up about anything, but he was shook up today. I told him they should test those kids for drugs. That’s what I think happened. All the kids up at the university use drugs. That’s a fact.”
Suzy poured the customer seated in front of her another cup of coffee as she wiped down the counter. “It’s a shame though. I heard all four of them planned on being actors.” She shook her head. “So sad. The poor parents.”
Despite the melancholy pronouncement, the green-eyed man observed her face was flushed with excitement. He raised the cup of steaming coffee to his lips. As he gently blew to cool the molten liquid, the corner of his mouth twitched in what might have been a smile.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Is there no way out of the mind? – Sylvia Plath