The Seventh Circle

Mr. Hughes loved Halloween.

He once told me that it had been his wife’s favorite holiday, and he kept up the decorating to honor her after she’d died. An elaborate shrine to the dead, if you will. Instead of “Sweets for the sweet,” “Deads for the dead?” But I digress.

Every year, he created a different theme. Last year had been the best yet. A realistic cemetery erupted from his yard one morning. Bats hung from the trees, and giant spider webs stretched between tombstones. On Halloween night, he added a fog machine, and a hidden projector threw stalking specters against a nearly invisible mesh. Younger children were too scared to come close to the trick-or-treat bowl, but the older ones loved it – it was almost like a free haunted house.

He always made a costume that matched the decorations. One year, I helped him pass out candy, and he was surprisingly good at making me up like a zombie. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and it terrified me for a moment before I realized that it was me. The makeup was too realistic, too perfect. Made me think of the nightmares I used to have when I was in the hospital. I didn’t sleep that night. Or the next one. By the time I got to fifty-six hours, I was starting to hallucinate. I collapsed on the sofa and slept twelve hours straight. But at least I was too tired to dream. Another plus: my house was incredibly clean and my closets were more organized than they’d ever been.

The year after that, he did a werewolf scene. A disguised post supported a leaping canine monster, and I couldn’t tell you how creepy it was to go to my mailbox and be faced with a werewolf in mid-attack. Did I mention that it moved? It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Reminded me too much of the time my aunt’s big dog attacked me when I was little. Still have the scars on my jaw. I even go the long way around out of the neighborhood so I don’t have to drive past that monstrosity on the way to work. I couldn’t even look out the living room window in the evening – those glowing eyes haunted my nightmares.

Aside from his Halloween obsession, Mr. Hughes isn’t a bad neighbor. If you don’t mind obsessive grass mowing. At seven in the morning. But he always smiles and waves when he sees me. Although I suspect he might have been the one to complain to the HOA about my edging. That’s how the lawn service company does it. Not my fault, is it?

But this year, he’s got the most over-the-top tableau I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, given his decorations. It looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Layers of ragged nylon fabric dance in the breeze of a fan, simulating flames. Damned souls writhe in the fires, and motion sensor-triggered sound effects wail in anguish. An enormous three-faced Lucifer head with pointed teeth and gaping maws was tethered between the two oak trees.

The night he put out the display, I woke up screaming. It had been months since that happened. I had to call my shrink at three AM. I think it’s probably been two years since the last time I had to do that.

Mr. Hughes. It was almost like he knew. Knew my most vulnerable spot, then gleefully sucker punched me. Was he trying to drive me insane? He couldn’t possibly know. But why? Why on earth would he choose this scene?

Surely, if he had been there, listening to my wife and kids screaming as the house blazed around them, he wouldn’t have done it. There was nothing I could have done as I lay on the ground, grass slick with my own blood, jagged bone ends sticking out of my thighs. I had tried to drag myself to the front door, but my legs were worse than useless. An explosion – later I found it was a gas line – shattered the windows and roared through the house like the Devil himself. I had been upstairs and got thrown through a picture window into the front yard. I lived. Not sure if it was a blessing or a curse. I had survived Hell, and for what? To be mocked by Halloween decorations? But this year, I could do something about it. I called up Mr. Hughes and offered to help with the final touches.

***

Sunday, Halloween morning, was cool and dull. Thin clouds lazed by, briefly exposing the wan sun. Clots of neighbors paused on the sidewalk, admiring Mr. Hughes’ pièce de résistance. A very realistic corpse had been added to one of the jaws of the three-faced Satan. The body’s head and neck vanished into dark mouth, and the arms were raised, hands against the teeth that were trying to chomp it down. The grass had been torn up, as if there had been an epic struggle. The character wore the kind of robe common to Christmas pageants – perhaps he was meant to be Judas? But I’m not really sure. Almost as soon as I’d arrived at Mr. Hughes’ house the prior evening, he’d offered me whiskey from an expensive, imported bottle. We each had a shot, then another. We went outside to look at the display, and he told me that this would probably be the last year of his Halloween extravaganzas. I agreed, fingering the length of clothesline I had in my pocket.

Watching from my darkened window, I could see that the neighbors’ concern increased to panic as Halloween evening stretched on, and Mr. Hughes had not appeared to pass out candy. I saw Mrs. Montoya, his other next door neighbor, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, talking on her cell phone. I went to see what she was up to.

She ended the call before I got out there, and as I got closer, I could see that she was crying.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Montoya?” I kept it formal – I didn’t know her all that well.

She sniffled before she turned to me. “Ernie seems to be missing – he hasn’t come out with candy, and he won’t pick up the phone. I’ve called the police. I’m afraid he may need to go to the hospital.”

Too late for that. “Really? Why?”

“He was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer. He only has a few months to live.”

“I didn’t know. I’m very sorry to hear that.” You have no idea how sorry.

I sat on the curb and started to laugh. I was still laughing when the police arrived.

Punch

By Emil G. Skrubb

Today, I learned to never trust Halloween dances. They may seem innocent at first, but never, ever fall into their trap.

Allow me to explain.

It was Friday, October 30th, and everyone was hyped up for the big Halloween dance after school. I didn’t plan to attend, since none of my friends were going to be there, but everyone kept on trying to convince me that it would be fun.

“Why aren’t you coming to the dance? It’ll be fun!” they all said. I didn’t even know these people. It was almost like they were in some sort of Halloween-dance cult. Seriously, why can’t people mind their own business? It’s not like I had five bucks to spare, anyway. I needed that money to buy snacks from the vending machine! I could be doing things with my life instead of wasting my money at some boring dance. I had been to these kinds of things before, and they were rarely anything but flashing lights and LOTS of noise.

The straw that broke the camel’s back is when even the teachers started nagging me to go. “Who’s going to the Halloween dance tonight?” they would ask. Most everyone’s hands went up. They tried all sorts of things to convince us to show up, including offering extra credit and free candy if we came.

“Fine, I’ll go to your Halloween party,” I sighed, exhausted from everyone annoying me and trying to convince me. It became clear that they wouldn’t give up anytime soon. Besides, I really needed that extra credit.

After the last bell rang and we were let out of class, I grabbed my things from my locker and walked downstairs hesitantly. There was still a chance to get on the bus and leave! Then, I remembered the extra credit. I didn’t really have much of a choice at this point. I walked up to the admission table, paid my five dollars, and got a bright pink wristband.

“Have fun!” grinned the teacher in charge of admission. I was positive that I wouldn’t. I walked into the cafeteria, which was covered in cheesy Halloween decorations that were probably from the local dollar store. It was absolutely full of people, every one of them screaming and dancing. I made my way to the refreshments, possibly the only redeeming factor of this so-called party, and tried not to get trampled in the process. Unfortunately, all the good food had been eaten already, and all that was left were the less popular choices. I decided to pass. I mean, it’s not like any of it was healthy enough to justify eating it, anyway. Just then, they started blasting my least favorite song at full volume. I desperately tried to cover my ears, but I could still hear it clearly.

All of a sudden, loud, grating feedback played over the speakers. Nobody else seemed to notice; they were too caught up in the party. Then, it happened again. They should really get their sound system fixed!

I suddenly got this overwhelming feeling that something was horribly, horribly wrong. I couldn’t put my finger what it was, but I felt like I had to get out of there. I ran to the front door, but I was blocked by the principal.

“Leaving so soon? Don’t go yet! We’re just getting started!”

I screamed and ran to the other door. I tried to open it, but it was locked! Just then, the principal took the mic.

“It seems that someone wants to leave early. We can’t let THAT happen, can we?”

All eyes turned to me. Everyone had this disturbing, devilish grin. “Of course we can’t!”

They all surrounded me, still smiling like maniacs. “Don’t be afraid! It’ll only hurt a little!”

“W-what will?! What are you going to do to me?!” I cried.

“Oh, you’ll see!” they replied cheerfully, as if this was a completely normal thing that they all seemed to enjoy.

They took me backstage, right by the speakers, and pulled out knives. Lots and lots of knives. They had what appeared to be a punch bowl with them.

Well, now I know what caused the feedback. And it wasn’t the sound system, after all…

If you ever go to Halloween parties, remember not to drink the punch. But in the event that you do… Well, you’ll see!

AND, not OR

To the young black woman who stopped by my table last Saturday at the Rosenberg Kroger:

It broke my heart when you felt you needed to lower your voice and add a disclaimer of “I don’t mean to offend you” when you told me that you belonged to a Meet Up group called “Black Girls Rock.” I know that you don’t know me, but you felt it was safer to assume I would find that offensive and stepped back a little from owning it, and that made me sad. Yes, there are many beautiful, amazing black girls who absolutely rock. Step into that light and shine!

Now I’m not talking about hate or supremacist groups here who think they are better than anyone else and blame all of their and the world’s problems on some Other, someone Not Them. Those are an entirely different animal. Those haters excepted, there is not a thing in the world wrong with celebrating special qualities of a group – black girls, gifted children, marathon runners, homeless shelter volunteers, Area V Eventers, FFPS Soccer teams, and countless others – all have a group identity, a set of abilities, skills, or traits worth lauding. Recognizing one group is not equal to denigrating others.

Because we are not interchangeable cogs in the machinery of life. Everybody has their own custom blend of traits, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and they bring their own unique gifts to the world. Celebrate what makes you you! Taking joy in things you love and stepping into your personal power does not detract from others or take away from them. On the contrary, the more joyful and centered we are as individuals, the stronger our communities, and the better our society.

 

How I Made my Gorgon Headpiece

1. I started with armature mesh. It can be found in most craft stores with the polymer clay supplies. I molded the mesh onto my head, shaping it to cover my scalp.

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Mesh step

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2. I used fiberfill to add contour and shape to the mesh.

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3. I took plaster-impregnated gauze strips (also available in the poly clay aisle) and covered both the mesh and fiberfill, and let that dry for 48 hrs.

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4. After experimenting with various materials, I found some 3/8″ mesh tubing. I used 3 packs (60 yds), and I cut the tubing into 12″ – 18″ lengths.

5. I fed a black pipe cleaner (chenille stem) into each tube and bent and twisted into a serpentine shape.

 6. I used a bamboo skewer to poke a hole in the plaster, inserted about ½” of the stem into the headpiece, and hot-glued it down.

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7. I glued a ½” pompom in the open end of each tube.

 8. I glued 2 size 8 beads on each pompom for eyes.

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9. I painted the plaster black and applied three coats of varnish.

10. I glued felt to the inside to make it more comfortable, and keep plaster crumbs out of my hair.

 

Dragon Killer Trailer

Belinda Tate is at it again. As The Devil’s Advocate (the third installment of the Marti Keller Mysteries) opens, she is planning to launch the second book in her Dragonfire series (under her pen name, Coda Sterling) during the Space City Sizzlin’ Summer Literary Conference at the George R. Brown Convention Center. Dragon Killer picks up right where Dragon by Knight left off.  Tristan and Lisabeth are on the deliciously tropical Island of the Dragon Council, preparing to return to Galveston. When a meeting with Tristan’s adolescent son goes bad, things quickly spiral out of control, fueled by treachery and political infighting, and leaving Lisabeth wondering if she and Tristan will live long enough to make it to the alter.

And it’s a good thing Belinda likes mystery and suspense, because she herself finds a target painted squarely on her back during the convention. She’s counting on Marti to solve the mystery before Belinda’s number is up.

Brain’s Vacation

When my daughter was a toddler, she used to like to jump on the tile steps to the living room. I would tell her, “Don’t jump on the steps – if you fall, you’ll crack your head open and your brain will fall out.” She would say, “And then what would happen?” So I made up a story for her, and called it “Brain’s Vacation.”

I started playing around with the artwork for the story this past fall, and I decided I liked the plump little brain I came up with. So here it is – my first picture book. It’s currently available only as an ebook, but I’m looking at some book app software, and if I can get the artwork together for another couple of short stories I have, I will do a print anthology.

 

Sobek and Friends

The Space City Scribes are putting out an anthology in November called  “Space City Six”, and we each contributed a story. My piece, “Fever,” includes historical encounters with various mysterious creatures in Houston’s not so misty past. Because Houston was born on Buffalo Bayou, of course there  had to be alligators. And not just any old gators, but strange hominid gators, not unlike the lizard men sometimes reported in swampy areas.

But the alligator people, as a race, needed a name. So I did a little research. As it turns out, the Egyptians had a crocodile headed god named Sobek.  Excellent! I could spin it so that Sobek wasn’t a god so much as a species, which had spread around the globe and evolved similarly to crocodiles and alligators. I created my artwork and loaded it into the book trailer video.

Then I started listening to episode 12.09 of Mysterious Universe, where they interviewed Linda Godfrey about her latest book, American Monsters. She described an incident describing a creature that so closely represented my artwork that I was sure the Twilight Zone theme was playing in my house.

 

 

Goodbye, ‘Lope

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Penny and Fabi

In May of 2000, my soon-to-be husband and I stood in front of the statue “The Rape of Persephone” in the gardens of Versailles.  I called her PER-sef-a-nee, and he called her per-sa-FONE. We went back and forth about the pronunciation, and the discussion ended with me asking, “And how many people named pen-a-LOPE have you ever heard of?” Fast forward to September, when he had gone out to the barn with me, and I was putting away my horse. A tiny white kitten wandered out of the bushes and began rubbing on the horse’s legs. He scooped her up so she wouldn’t be stepped on, and she curled up in his arms, purring as loudly as I’ve ever heard a cat purr. The obvious name for her was pen-a-LOPE. When she got back to our townhouse and laid eyes on Fabio (my large grey and white tomcat), she was quite the smitten kitten.

She used to love to chase the clear plastic lids from bottled water with the squirt top, and one time my husband threw one for her, but she returned with a large tree roach, which she happily dropped in his hand. When she was happy, she was the Purr-a-Lope; when she got sooty from exploring the fireplace, she was the Grub-a-Lope, and so on. And one time, of all the odd things for a cat to eat, she swallowed a needle and thread. We had to take her to the emergency clinic for a $1,000 needle-ectomy. We still have the x-rays.

Even though she was spayed and never had kittens, she was the Mother Cat. She always had a lick for everybody, and she could usually be found curled up with the love of her life. When we had a minor fire in our house, and Fabio got trapped in the wall, she rescued him. She was a crotchety, no-nonsense cat who didn’t like to be held, but would deign to sit in your lap if she was in the mood. I think her dislike of being cuddled was rooted in the fact that when we found her, she had ear mites, fungal infections, and bacterial infections in her ears, and we had to put several kinds of medicine in them for weeks to get everything cleared up.

And there was no sleeping in if Penny decided it was time to get up. She would stand on my chest and lick my eyebrows. If that didn’t work, she’d start slapping my face and licking my mouth. She was nothing, if not determined.

I wrote a story about Penelope the Rescuer for a children’s magazine, but it wasn’t published. It follows below:

Penelope the Rescuer

No one was home when smoke started to fill the house. No one except the three cats. Angelique waited by the door for the family to come home. Fabio, her brother, found a place to hide, far from the fire. Penelope hid with him.

It wasn’t long before the family came home. Angelique meowed and MEEEOWWWed at the door when they came in. They took her outside to safety. They looked for Fabio and Penelope while they waited on fire trucks to come. The cats could not be found.

The fire trucks arrived with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Fire fighters with helmets and masks and hoses streamed into the house. One by one, they all came out again. They set up a large fan to suck the smoke out of the house. Finally they left.

Hours later, after everything had gotten quiet, Fabio and Penelope came creeping out. Grey and white Fabio only had a smudge of black on his white nose. Poor Penelope was smeared from nose to tail with soot. Instead of a sparkling white cat, she was now a dingy grey.

A few days later, workmen came to fix the damage from the fire. They tore out the burned wall and left. The next day, they came back and replaced it. By now, Penelope was almost clean again.

When the family came in the evening to feed the cats, they saw Angelique and Penelope. They couldn’t find Fabio anywhere. They could hear a distant mewing. Where could he be?

He had crawled through the hole in the wall. He was trapped underneath the house!

The daddy made a hole in the floor where the air conditioner pulls in the air. The mommy called, “Fabio! Here, kittty kitty!”

But Fabio was too scared to come out. They got some food, but he wouldn’t come. There was no way to go in and get him. How would they get him out?

Just then, Penelope jumped down into the hole.

“Oh, no. Now we have two cats stuck under the house!” said the daddy.

Fabio stopped mewing. Soon, Penelope and Fabio came to the hole in the floor. The mommy picked up Fabio and pulled him up. Penelope jumped up herself. She was all dirty again. Cobwebs hung off her ear. The mommy and the little girl hugged her ‑ she was Penelope the Rescuer! What a brave cat to go down into the dark to find her friend. That night, she got a special treat. She enjoyed the can of tuna, but she was really happy to have her best friend back safe and sound.

Purveyor of Fine Collocations