Category Archives: Halloween

The Wallpaper Lady

This story was written and narrated by Houston area author Lynn Long. Visit his website for more info: http://www.gulfcitysaga.com/

Newt Bunko double-checked the address and identified the house. The Craftsman in the middle of the block.

“Good, I’m on the right side.” He never let the client see the red, replacement door on his beige Crown Vic. Appearances matter. After he parked the land whale, he popped a tape into his stereo unit. The staccato theme to Mission Impossible­ blasted through hissing speakers. When the music stopped, the tense narration started.

“Good morning, Captain Commission. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make this sale. You are an eagle—an earning eagle. You are the captain of cold calling. Now go in there and close this deal.

As always, should you or any of the Fantasti-Cans Force not make the sale, the Secretary will drop you on the leader board. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck and always be closing.”


Inspired, Newt fished out a tube of peppermint Binaca and gave his mouth the blast that lasts. The steering wheel pulled a gap in his straining shirt as he slid out of the sedan. Armed with a thick sales book and brimming with confidence, he waddled toward the house.

As he huffed up the steps, he came eye to eye with a snaggle toothed Jack-O-Lantern waiting patiently on the porch. Thick paper embossed with a cliché image of a witch covered the door. The old hag beckoned, ‘Step inside my pretties.’

Taking a deep breath, Newt exhaled a minty “You got this,” before pressing the doorbell button. It took a few minutes for a thin, gray-haired woman dressed in black to appear. To Newt, she looked like she had posed for the door cover.

“Good Afternoon, Mrs. Spellman. Newton Bunko with Best Ever Windows. I called earlier.”

“Oh, yes, young man.” The LOL, Little Old Lady, opened the door wider and waved him in. “Come in my little sweetie.” She let out a strangely harsh laugh. “Just kidding. I love Halloween and the sweet darlings in their costumes.”

Newt gave her a big smile. “I do too. I can’t wait to hand out the candy.” Liar, liar, pants on fire. He lived in three-story walkup and he would spend the night drinking lite beer, eating a 250-count bag of fun-sized Snickers  and watching the horror movie marathon.

“Mrs. Spellman, I don’t want…”

“Stop right there. I’m Miss Spellman—never found Mr. Right. Besides, just call me Edwina.”

“Of course, Edwina. Call me Newt.”

“Sure Newt, please have a seat.” Edwina choose the small, plaid loveseat and Newt plopped down right beside her.

Flipping to the back of his book, Captain Commission dived right in. “No need looking at the economy lines. For a fine house like this one, you’ll want Elite.”

More by accident than intent Newt had told the truth. It was in fact a lovely home. Newt figured the bungalow was built in thirties and the craftmanship implied by its name, was evident everywhere. The cottage had more space-saving built-ins than a yacht: bookcases, mailboxes and even a telephone nook.

Without hesitation, he jumped into the sales pitch. The quality of his merchandise, how it enhanced home value, the energy efficiency and, of course, its lifetime warranty. Non transferrable and by the looks of this old bird, it would expire within five years.

“That’s all very nice,” squeaked Edwina. Newt’s blitzkrieg sales pitch seemed to have overwhelmed the frail woman. “It just seems like it would so expensive.”

“That’s a common reaction, but don’t you worry. The good people at headquarters can tailor a payment plan to fit your income.” Adopting an erudite tone, he added, “Besides, you have to think value over cost. A window replacement program from Best Ever pays for itself. Especially the Elite line.”

Reaching over, she placed her hand on his knee. “Oh, I just don’t know. This is when I wish I had a man around.”

“Miss Spellman, Edwina, rest assured I’ll be with you through every step of the process.” Placing his hand on top of hers, he leaned in for the kill. With a Binaca fresh whisper, he asked, “Miss Spellman, tell me how to earn your business?”

 “It seems like the right thing, but it just makes me so nervous.” In a flash, she perked up. “A nice cup of tea. That always calms me down.” Rising, she shambled into the kitchen to prepare the beverage service.

Newt sustained a plastic smile as she left the room. Great. I hate tea.

The little old lady was taking forever, so he investigated a nearby window. He found a double-hung, oak frame unit with polished brass hardware. Flipping the catch, he opened a sash. It moved as smooth as butter. Replacing these windows with the vinyl crap he peddled would be criminal.

Not my problem.

As he closed the window, the wall paper caught his attention. On the right, a chocolate brown paper with a gold, Art Deco pattern adorned the wall. An abstract paper in varying colors with elongated and distorted ovals covered the other half. The pattern reminded Newt of that Dali painting with the melting clocks. It was just plain weird.

“Here we go!” The LOL pushed a tarnished, silver cart with the tea service. She had a teapot snuggled in a Jack-O-Lantern cozy and a tray of Halloween cookies: scary ghosts, wicked witches, mutilated pumpkins and a dancing scarecrow. They returned to the couch where she served. Newt gave it his best shot, even holding out his pinky as he sipped the brew.

“My, this is quite tasty.” He complemented the tea as he bit into a heavily frosted cookie. The morsel was more icing than cookie and the salesman wanted to spit it out.

Be calm and munch on. A sale was in the balance, so he washed down the cookie.

“You like them!” Edwina beamed. “Have another.” She pushed the tray toward him.

“Oh, no. Got to watch the old waistline.” He patted his amble belly. “But I’ll have some more of that tea.”

The two sat there for an hour sipping tea and talking about anything but window replacement programs. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, Edwina stood, went to one of the bookcases and removed a cut crystal bowl.

“This one was from last year,” she announced as she handed it to Newt, who struggled not to drop his cup or the bowl. After ditching the demitasse and clasping the crystal, he read the inscription:

First Place

Grandiflora Rose

Loddiges Rosarian Society

“Impressive,” pretended Newt. Pointing at the row of bowls in the cabinet, “And it looks like this isn’t the only time you’ve won.”

“I have the best entry every year.” Edwina snapped up, straight as a rod. “It’s nothing but pure jealous spite when I don’t win first. I just throw away those second-place cups.” Just as quick, she softened and leaned in close to her guest. “I’d tell you my secret, but then I’d have to kill you.” Newt joined her in her harsh, unsettling laugh.

“You must try another cookie,” commanded Edwina as she used silver tongs to place the dancing scarecrow on his saucer. This confection did stand out, with silver beads for his eyes and buttons. Forcing a smile, Newt bit his head off.

Now this one is tasty. It was a peanut butter and chocolate concoction that he wolfed down in a couple of bites.

“My, you really liked that one. Sorry I only have the one.” The LOL beamed.

Newt grinned and was about to reply when his bladder went into overdrive.

“May I use your facilities, Ma’am?” Newt rose from the settee.

“Why so formal, kiddo.” She pointed toward a door at the far end of the room. “You can syphon the python in there.”

Flabbergasted by her answer, Newt toddled toward the toilet. Beautiful tile work and polished brass adorned the chamber. Everything except the floor which was covered in a strange, clinical vinyl. After closing the door, Captain Commission scolded himself. Get back on point. Time to seal this deal.

He patiently stood over the bowl while his serpent spewed out a stream of yellow venom. He was zipping his snake back in its den, when a weird wobbly slithered up his spine. Looking down, he watched his Thom McAn wingtips spin and fall away as if they were being flushed through the floor. Slumping to the ground, he watched the ceiling gyrate and float away. Closing his eyes, a tranquil wave swept over him. Now he felt like he was floating in a warm, briny sea. He tried to move, but he couldn’t twitch even one itsy-bitsy muscle.

The door to the bathroom opened and Edwina stepped in pushing a stainless-steel cart. She gave him a picture-perfect smile. “Curarium. At least that’s what I call it. It’s an oral neuromuscular paralyzer that I synthesized from the curare plant. Works pretty good, don’t you think?”

Captain Commission couldn’t answer. Nonchalantly, Edwina opened the medicine cabinet and worked a control panel hidden behind the glass door.

“Timing is critical. I have to give you the cookie right before the pee potion kicks in.” A panel in the roof dropped like a trap door. As a nylon sling descended, she continued. “Weight, age, a bunch of factors can screw up the clock. Good thing I’m an old pro.”

She took off his worn shoes and holey socks and dropped them into a garbage bag. “Thom McAns? I didn’t know they made those anymore.”

Her skilled hands looped the sling around his ankles and she went back to her control panel and held down a rocker switch. “I used to do this with an old rope pulley. This is a whole lot easier.”

Up went Newt. As he hung like a side of beef, she took a huge pair of shears and cut off his clothes. After stuffing the remains of his cheap suit into the garbage bag, she pulled on rubber gloves with a proctologist pop. The LOL came over and sat on the side of the tub. “Let me tell you my little secret…

The was a beautiful rose, red as a robin’s plume

But nasty chemicals would make her gloom

Feed her meal of blood and bone

And all other flowers, she’ll dethrone

Because fresh kill is the trick to make her bloom”

She stroked the hair out of his face and flashed him a sweet smile. “I feed my babies a diet of blood and bone meal and they just flourish.” She beamed, “I’ve tried dogs, cats, birds, you name it. But they do the best on good ol’ homo sapiens.”

Frowning, she continued. “One thing that always bothered me was the waste. Then I thought—wallpaper. Once you roll out and dry human skin, it almost becomes translucent. A stretched face produces the most interesting patterns. Plus, it’s quite durable and easy to clean. Electrolux, Kirby, Rainbow. Vacuum machines alone did one bedroom. Then it was magazines, insurance, supplements. There’s always somebody trying to sell you something.”

Standing, she continued, “Vinyl windows, that’s a hoot.” Edwina slapped Newt’s ample butt. “This is a Wesley Peter’s house. You think, I’d put in cheap windows. That is a hoot.”

Returning to her cart, she retrieved one of her crystal bowls and put it under his head. “Only seems fitting, don’t you think? You’ve been hanging long enough. It goes faster if your blood has pooled toward your head. You feel a little pinch, then get sleepy and … well you know.”

She got face to face with Newt. “Don’t worry it’ll go fast.” Finding the strength, he managed to shake his head and blurt out “Nuuca.”

“No?” Edwina gave him a wistful look. “I’m afraid so, honeybun. I’m low on rose food and besides, you know a tad too much.”

Stretching out her arms and arching her back, she elucidated further. “It’s quite an ordeal. I have to leave you hanging here about three days until the skin loosens up enough to harvest.” She thumped his belly. “Even with a big boy like you, you don’t get as much as you’d think. Then I can extract the bones. The rest of you will end up in that low-shelf cat food. You know, that ten cans for a dollar stuff. The people who make that crap don’t ask many questions.” 

She shook her head. “You won’t believe how much floral scented Glade I go through and they don’t sell that door-to-door.” She gave him a hoot and another ass swat.

Moving back to her cart, she examined a tray of instruments. “Hmmm, which one to use?” After looking back and forth between the tray and her victim, she made her decision.

“This one will work just fine.” She approached with a well-honed paring knife, and felt for his throbbing neck pulse.


“Left or right, sweetie?”

Campfire

Listen to Campfire Here

HALLOWEEN HAYRIDE

TOUR THE HAUNTED WOODS

GHOST STORIES, HOTDOGS, AND S’MORES

AT THE CAMPFIRE

Wen tapped the poster with his long fingers. “When are we going to get to the campsite? I’m starved.”

“You’re always hungry,” I grumbled, then felt bad as I looked at his protruding ribs.

He shot me a sullen look. “Don’t spoil my fun. I’ve been looking forward to this since the sign went up.”

“I know.”

We continued through the darkening forest. The few birds that hadn’t headed south for the winter chattered as they bedded down for the night. A fresh breeze rattled the last stubborn leaves in the branches and knocked bare limbs together.

Wen licked his lips. “What kind of ghost stories do you think they’ll tell?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be all the standard ones.”

“What, like monsters in the woods?” he chuckled.

“Sure. People love monster stories.”

The birds fell silent as we approached. The eerie scream of a fox echoed in the distance.

The trees grew denser and darkness settled around their feet. Leaves crunched and the occasional twig snapped as we walked along. The air was crisp and dry, smelling of leaves and dirt, with the occasional whiff of cedar or pine, carried on a gusty wind that wouldn’t lay.

It got darker and darker, and we didn’t seem any closer to the campfire. “We should have stayed on the trail, Wen.”

“I’m taking a shortcut.”

“We’re not lost, are we?”

“Of course not!” He surged ahead of me.

We were definitely lost. “I wonder if they’ve started the fire yet. Maybe we can follow the smell of the smoke.”

I sniffed the air, hopeful. But we were probably upwind of it still.

Wen snickered. “Worried about monsters? I think I smell a sasquatch.”

“Ha!” He knows Big Foots – Big Feet? – give me the creeps.

I thought we sounded like a herd of elephants moving through the silent trees. If there were monsters hunting us, we wouldn’t be too hard to find. Good thing there weren’t any. Probably.

“Look over there.” Wen paused and pointed off to the right. “I see a light.”

“Looks a little small for a campfire.”

“Of course, it’s not a campfire. I think it’s probably a flashlight. Or a lantern. Let’s go!”

I crossed my arms. “Instead of chasing after some lone person in the woods, I think we’d be better off re-tracing our steps. Whoever that is might not even be going to the campfire.”

Wen laughed. “Why else would anybody be out here in the forest tonight? It might even be the haunted woods tour. We could catch up.”

I frowned. Unlikely. “Fine.”

We followed the light for a while, but no matter how fast we moved, we couldn’t seem to get any closer to it.

I stopped. “I don’t like this, Wen. No way this is the tour group.”

“But it could be part of the tour.”

“I doubt that.”

As if it heard us, the light turned in our direction. Instead of moving away, it was now drifting towards us, bouncing gently as if it were a lantern being carried along.

Were they lost, too?

Closer and closer. The light floated along about three feet off the ground, and I could make out a figure on the other side. It wore mist like a shroud, and its large dark eyes sank into its pale face.

Wen cocked his head and smiled dismissively. “Ghost. They can’t do anything.”

I wasn’t so sure.

Without warning, the thing’s face split in half and a tongue shot out, straight at me, like a giant frog’s. It missed, barely, and I lurched backward, almost falling on my butt. The tongue was slithering on the ground, searching for something to grab onto, as I scooted backward. Wen banged an antler against a tree, trying to draw its attention. A second tongue lashed out in his direction, snaring one of his hands. Pulsating and twisting, it tried wrapping itself around his arm. He bit clean through the writhing flesh, and foul-smelling dark green blood spurted out. The creature cried out in pain, sucking both tongues back into its mouth.

It looked angry, and I didn’t want to stick around for its next party trick. “Not a ghost! Run!”

We pelted through the trees like there was a wildfire behind us.

I’m not sure how long we ran, but the light didn’t follow us. When I was sure it was far out of sight, I slowed to a stop.

Wen spat several times and wiped a glob of green blood off his lips. “Pah! That was horrible.”

“Yeah? Well, you brought a souvenir.” I pointed to his arm.

He snatched the piece of the creature’s tongue that was still attached to this skin and pulled. “Ow!”

It finally came loose, leaving behind a bloody wound where it had attached itself, leech style. He tried to throw it away, but it stuck to his hand. I got a stick and prodded the viscid lump onto the ground. It wriggled wildly, and I covered it with leaves to keep it from sticking to anything else.

“Well, that was fun. Glad nobody else was around to see that debacle.”

He shook his head and little bits of bark and a few leaves rained down. “How was I supposed to know that was going to happen? Do you think they’d have a tour out here if they knew there really were monsters in the woods?”

I shrugged. “Any idea what that was?”

“No. I’ve seen the lights before, but I’ve never gone close.” He toyed absently with some of the hair on his cheek. “I have no idea where we are.”

His stomach growled in an alarming way.

“Can you climb one of those trees, Wen? If we can find the road, we should have some idea which way to go.”

He scampered up a tall pine freakishly fast. Bark nuggets fell in his wake, and the wind turned them into chunky shrapnel. Then silence.

I was just about to call out to him, when he said, “I see them! I can see the lights of the truck moving down one of the old logging roads. I see the fire, too.”

Wen leapt off the tree from a much higher spot than I would have, and he landed with only the slightest rustle of leaves. Perhaps it was because he was so thin. I probably had at least one hundred pounds on him.

“This way!”

He jogged off, in almost the opposite direction we’d been heading. I followed. He hadn’t set a fast pace, and I could run for miles, anyway. In this cool weather, it was a nice little jog.

Over the breeze and crunching of dead leaves, I heard a noise and raised my hand. We stopped. “Shhh! I hear people talking.”

I veered left, toward the sound. Wen followed. He paused to raise his face to the gloomy tree canopy and sniffed the air like a dog. “You’re right. I can smell the fire now. And food.”

“You and food.”

“Looks like they’re just getting back from the haunted hayride – people are getting out of the trailer. Dinner time!”

We watched for a few minutes as pre-skewered hotdogs and marshmallows were handed out. There was a good crowd of people, maybe fifty.

Wen picked a cobweb-shrouded leaf out of my fur and dipped his antlers toward the campsite. “C’mon, Dogman. Let’s eat!”

I smiled at my Wendigo friend, although my bared fangs usually made it look more like a snarl. “After you.”

& & & & & & &

The Wendigo is a creature from the northeastern forests. The Algonquian people recognized him as the spirit of desolate places, the personification of the famine of winter. His insatiable hunger for human flesh makes him a fearsome enemy who can eat people, or possess their bodies and use them to commit atrocities. He is often depicted as having a human body with antlers on its head, or a deer’s head and antlers. There is a psychiatric condition known as Wendigo Psychosis – the overwhelming desire to eat other humans. In 1878, a Cree man named Swift Runner suffered from this when he murdered and ate his entire family over the winter.

Dogman sightings are most frequently reported in the Midwest, especially Wisconsin and Michigan, although they have been described on every continent except Antarctica. In 400 B.C., the Greek physician Ctesias wrote about tribes of Cynocephali, or dog-headed men. Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo both reported encounters with them, and Saint Christopher, patron of travelers, has the head of a dog in some early depictions. Most dogmen seem to prefer living in rural areas and forests, but they have been sighted in large cities. The dogman is described as having a hairy, bipedal body with the head of a dog or wolf. It may or may not be a werewolf, but it is definitely not a Big Foot. Linda Godfrey has collected accounts of numerous dogman sightings in her book, The Beast of Bray Road.

The Will-O-The-Wisp, or ghost lights, has been encountered by people outside at night for at least as long as folklore has existed. Explanations range from trickster faeries leading travelers astray, to restless ghosts, to swamp gas (and many things in between). Since they have a habit of disappearing when people try to get close, no one has ever really seen what is behind the light. The Marfa Lights and the Bragg Road Ghost Lights are two Texas examples of this phenomenon.

Lechuza

It was hot, for October. Just a little over a week before Halloween, and it was still 90 humid degrees on the Texas Gulf coast.

I sat on the patio, fan on and ice tea in hand. My mom’s two foofoo dogs, Alice and Charlie, panted near the sliding glass door. No one knew their exact parentage, but they were small, white, and fluffy. Mom adored them, but I preferred dog-sized dogs to these snack-sized fur nuggets.

My aunt, who lives in Oregon, had heart surgery, and Mom volunteered to stay with her for a couple of weeks while she recovered. I was voluntold to petsit Alice and Charlie while she was away. I didn’t mind, actually. My SO, Chris and I were going through a rough patch and, frankly, we could use the time apart.

So here I sat, on a Friday evening, drinking ice tea, listening to an audio book, and trying to cook dinner in the outdoor kitchen. I had ditched my work skirt and heels for shorts and flipflops the instant I walked through the door, and weekend mode had taken hold soon after. I could play the book as loud as I wanted, because the closest neighbor was half a mile away, and no one would eavesdrop on the spicy romance I was currently consuming.

The gas grill had a trick to it, and I hadn’t mastered it. There had to be more temperature selections than “Off” and “Incinerate,” but for the life of me, I couldn’t find them. I was about to give up and go into town to see what I could find – this was terra incognita to GrubHub – when I heard it.

A baby crying.

Alice growled, her hackles rising. Charlie tucked his tail and whimpered.

“Shhhh.” I shook my head at the dogs, then peered into the gloom. “Hello?”

I turned on the back yard lights. The open grassy area was lit up like a Friday night football field, but the trees cast eerie shadows that moved and flickered in the night breeze. Not even the halogen penetrated the thicket at the edge of the property, and I felt uneasy, as if I was being watched.

I listened again for the baby, but only heard a few crickets.

“It was just some animal,” I assured the furballs. “A rodent, probably. C’mon pups. Let’s go inside.”

I made sure the gas grill was off, and the dogs scrambled inside the instant I pulled on the door. Giving one last glance over my shoulder before I followed them inside, I saw nothing unusual. I did, however leave the outside lights on.

I was looking for my car keys when my text chime went off. It was Chris. The part I could see read, “I really need to tell you something…” Was he going to tell me he missed me and couldn’t wait for me to get back? That he was glad I was gone and hoped I could stay longer? Not entirely sure I wanted to see the full message, I tapped on the text bubble icon.

“I really need to tell you something. I’m sorry. Moving out. I’ve met someone. Sorry.”

That explained a lot. Honestly, I felt more relieved than sad. I suppose I’d known for some time that we weren’t right for each other. I just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Inertia can be a terrible thing.

How should I reply? It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but nothing I said was going to change anything for either of us. “Fine. Whatever.”

It would be weird, going back to an empty apartment. But I would be fine. Better than fine. I might even stop by the shelter on the way back and adopt a kitten. Chris hated cats. Ha. Maybe I’d get two.

That didn’t solve my immediate problem, though.

“I’m going to get dinner. You two be good,” I told the dogs as I turned on most of the downstairs lights.

The truck stop hadn’t changed much since the last time I was there, years ago. Fried everything. Large portions. Quart-sized red plastic tea glasses. This week’s special was the gizzard platter – greasy, gristly globs surrounded by mounds of fried pickles and French fries. With thin, brown gravy. My years away at college and living in Houston had bent my taste buds in a different direction, and I now had a difficult time finding something on the menu that appealed to me.

“Sue? Good gosh almighty! Your mother didn’t tell me you were in town.”

I looked up to see that my waitress was Margarite Tremont, one of Mom’s oldest friends.

“Yeah. I’m looking after her dogs while she’s taking care of Aunt Cynthia.”

“That’s right. I knew she was going out of town. Didn’t think about the critters. Know what you want, darlin’?”

“Um, I think I’ll have…the grilled cheese on wheat bread with a dinner salad.” I knew the salad was a risk. Hopefully, the lone tomato wedge would be closer to red than green.

“Sure thing. Ice tea to drink, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How could I forget? You and Cody were so close for so long.”

“Right.” I smiled and nodded.

It had almost seemed like fate – our moms were best friends, and we’d known each other since we were babies. We thought we’d stay together, long distance, as we headed out to different colleges, and we did at first. But we inevitably drifted apart.

“I’ll go get your order turned in. Food’ll be right out.”

“Thanks, Miz Tremont.”

She winked at me as she tucked her order book into her apron pocket and made her way back toward the kitchen, pausing to fill a tea glass here and take another order there.

I sat and continued reading that steamy romance on my phone while I waited. I was just getting to the good part when I heard the loud clearing of a throat. Irritated, I looked up.

“’Scuse me, Miss. Is this seat taken?”

“Cody?” Wow. He’d filled out a lot since the last time I’d seen him. He wasn’t the lean, lanky young man I remembered. Still lean, just not lanky. Did his mother text him and tell him to come here? “Of course! Sit down. I didn’t know you were…”

“With the po-lice?”

“The uniform looks good on you.” Really good.

His mother came by with another ice tea. He raised it, as if in a toast. “How’ve you been?”

“Good. How about you? Mom said you got married.”

I hadn’t meant to blurt that out. I was in grad school when she told me, and I was too busy to think much about it then. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.

“I did. But Kelly and I had…irreconcilable differences. Didn’t quite make our first-year anniversary.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

We spent almost two hours catching up. I could have talked longer, but I was starting to yawn, and the puppers still had to go out to do their doggy business.

He walked me to my car. “Drive safe, now.”

I almost told him about the baby crying earlier, but decided it was silly. “I will.”

I didn’t see or hear anything unusual when I took the doglettes out. In fact, there was nothing unusual for the next three days. Other than Cody and I texting each other every evening.

On Tuesday night, I was almost asleep when I heard a thud, then it sounded like a herd of buffalo was running across the roof. Charlie and Alice hid under the bed. Apparently, discretion is the better part of valor when you’re a mini-pup.

“Come on, you two. It must be the wind blowing a tree limb across the roof. Don’t be so silly.”

I got up and pulled back the curtain. Nothing moved under the moonlight, although dark clouds smothered the starlight to the west. I closed the drapes and slipped under the covers, pulling them up to my chin. The roof stomping died down after a few minutes, but my light stayed on all night.

I invited Cody to the house for dinner Wednesday night. When I went to turn Charlie and Alice out in the back yard, he said, “They shouldn’t go out without supervision. There’s coyotes around. And owls. You’d be surprised what they can carry off. And you should be careful, too. One of your neighbors went missing Friday night. Personally, I think he just skipped town to get away from the repo man. But you can’t be too careful. I’ve been driving by, before my shift ends. Just to make sure everything’s okay.”

I wished he would stay over, but he had to work. At least there were no roof walkers that night.

Cody was going to pick me up on Friday to go out. I was almost ready when I heard a knock at the door. I glanced at my watch. He was fifteen minutes early. I started down the stairs to let him in when Alice ran in front of me and bit my ankle, hard enough to draw blood.

“What is wrong with you?” I shouted at her.

She only growled in response.

I went the other way, into the bathroom to get a bandage. By the time I came back, she was nowhere to be seen, but I did hear nails clicking on the hardwood floor below. Maybe I should call the vet in the morning to make sure she’s current on her rabies shots.

“Coming!” I shouted, hoping Cody could hear me as I hurried down the stairs.

Earrings in my hand, I opened the front door. Cody wasn’t there. No one was, and there was no car parked in front of the house. I slammed the door and locked it, then turned on all the downstairs lights, and the outside lights, for good measure.

When Cody arrived ten minutes later, Charlie and Alice greeted him like he was their long-lost best friend.

He looked around at all the lights. “Everything okay?”

“I thought you were at the door a few minutes ago. I heard a knock, but there was no one there.”

He stepped outside and looked around for a moment. When he came back in, he held a nut. “You got that big ole oak tree that overhangs the front porch. It is fall – there’s acorns everywhere on the ground. I’m sure that’s all it was.”

“You’re probably right.” It was then I noticed the dark circles under his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Long night. There was a traffic fatality just down the highway. Driver swerved off the road. Maybe trying to avoid a deer or something. She was more messed up than she should have been – I guess the smell of blood attracted scavengers before anybody found her.”

I shuddered. How awful.

All the lights stayed on. I didn’t want to come back to a dark house.

It helped that Cody came in with me after our evening at the dance hall. Poor guy. He was so tired he’d fallen asleep on the couch by the time I got back into the living room with two glasses of wine. I covered him with an afghan and went upstairs. I will say that I slept better with him in the house, and I would wake up to face the monsters refreshed.

Saturday was Halloween, and Cody was working a double shift. I was surprised at how many kids fit in the back of a pick-up truck to come around to the houses out in the sticks for trick-or-treat. The candy ran out around nine and I turned off the outside lights. I had skipped dinner, and for a while, I didn’t miss it. By 10:30, my stomach was growling and I was low on groceries. The only solution was to drive to the truck stop for another grilled cheese. Nothing else was open, and that can of mushroom soup in the Mom’s pantry just wasn’t going to cut it.

When I returned to the house, I parked in the garage and come through the back door. I was glad of the garage, because the wind had picked up blown in billowing clouds. The dogs were silent. That was unusual. I caught a glimpse of something moving in the living room. My heart skipped a beat.

Was that lightning, or someone shining a flashlight in through the window? Fight or flight kicked in, and I chose fight. I’m not sure why. I charged to the window and was horrified to see the pane sliding up, and long fingers creeping under the sash.

Mom didn’t have security cameras, but I did have my cell phone. I wanted to have a photo to show the cops, so I took several shots with the flash on. Then I called 911 and put the phone on speaker.

The long fingers were slipping away, and I wanted to try and catch this punk. Maybe I could even hold him until the cops rolled up.

“No!” I yelled, grabbing a couple of the fingers and pulling them backward against the wall as hard as I could. Anger flowed through me, and I was more than happy to hurt this jerk trying to break in to my mother’s house. Thunder grumbled in the distance.

The dispatcher stayed on the line with me, and I shouted answers to her questions through gritted teeth. I dropped the phone so I could push down on the window to keep the burglar’s arm trapped. As red and blue lights strobed down the lane towards the house, he gave a final desperate wrench and pulled his arm away, disappearing into the dark.

I opened the front door as Cody and another officer ran up onto the porch. I told them what happened. The other officer went to see if he could track the thief while I showed Cody the photos.

“I know it’s Halloween, but if this is a joke, it isn’t funny.” he said.

“What?” I looked at the screen and almost dropped the phone. Staring back at me was a pale, wrinkled face, eyes clouded as with cataracts, but a black, vertical pupil was clearly visible. Instead of a nose or mouth, it had a curved, sharp beak. A Halloween mask? Was this some sick prank?.

Something dark lay on the window sill.

“What’s this?” Cody picked it up.

It was a large feather, black horizontal bars on a grey background. What was it from? A hawk? An owl? If it was from an owl, it was a huge one.

Outside, a baby cried, then the sound was lost in a boom of thunder. The windows rattled.

“Brooks!” Cody called out. The other officer hadn’t returned from his search, and it had been twenty minutes.

I didn’t want to be alone in the house, so I walked around the property with him, looking for Officer Brooks. There were only four city police officers. Two were here, one was on the way, and the other was on vacation. Cody had called the county sheriff for reinforcements, but they were a half hour away.

We looked all night in the rain for Tony Brooks, and a search team combed the area for two weeks, but he was never found.

But that all happened a long time ago. Cody and I got married not long after that, and had four beautiful babies. Now, our kids have grown up and flown the nest. Cody died in a car crash…has it been two years, now? They never did figure out what made him swerve off the road. But I’m not alone. On short autumn nights, the owls sit outside my window and call to me. Someday soon, I’ll join them.

A Murder of Crows

Jim Bob Renfro needed a helper, and I really needed a summer job. His opening at A Pest Free Palace was available, and it paid $12/hour – a fortune to a high school sophomore with no experience.

Most of the time, I vacuumed up mouse turds and fetched things from the truck. Stuff like that. From the start, I didn’t like Jim Bob – Mr. Renfro – much. Not sure why. He hadn’t said anything mean to me, and he looked like an average middle-aged dude – nothing weird or creepy. One thing, though – he had a flashy gold watch that he was uber-proud of.

Once, he saw me looking at it and said, “You work hard, save your money, and maybe you can get a watch like this. It’s very expensive.”

What I was thinking was, “Did he really pay money for that gaudy bauble?”

I hadn’t been there long when we went to a house for a follow-up visit. We climbed the rickety pull-down ladder to the attic to check the de-ratting progress. I had a trash bag tucked into my belt, and I held the flashlight for him while he rummaged around in a dark corner.

“Open the bag,” he grunted.

He tossed a glue trap with an emaciated, dead rodent into the sack.

I felt queasy.

There was some rustling and squeaking, and Mr. Renfro produced a second glue trap with a terrified, live rat stuck to it, squealing and struggling to get free.

“You’re not going to just toss it in the bag, are you?”

He cocked his head and looked at me as if I’d asked the question in Russian.

I pointed to the trap. “The rat? It’s alive.”

“And?”

“You’re going to throw it in the trash and let it suffer?”

Renfro smirked and dropped the trapped rat onto the floor. Before I realized what he was going to do, he slammed his heel down on the rat’s head.

“Now it’s not suffering. Clean it up.”

I gagged as I tossed the bloody mess into the garbage bag. Maybe I should start looking for another job tomorrow.
Renfro headed toward the ladder. “Put out some more glue traps.”

I did. I just didn’t remove the plastic layer that covered the glue.

By the time I came down and refolded the ladder, Renfro was finishing up with the homeowner.

“Good bye, Mrs. Thompson. We’ll see you next week.”

“Thank you, Jim Bob! I don’t know what I do without you.”

As it turned out, job opportunities were hard to come by, so I had to grit my teeth and stick it out for the rest of the summer. I was never so glad to see August roll around – couldn’t wait for the first day of school.

It was a few months later when my mom called me to the phone. I think we’re the only people I know who actually still had a landline.

“Hey, it’s Jim Bob Renfro. Got a big job Saturday, and I wondered if you could use some extra cash?”

I could definitely use extra cash. “I have plans that night, but I’m free during the day.”

It was Halloween, and Randy – one of my buds – was having his annual party. He and his brothers made their own haunted house in the garage with black plastic sheeting to form the corridors. Sure, sometimes it was cheesy, but they also had a pool, and it was still usually 80 or 90 degrees in October. And his mom went nuts with all the Halloween food. Spider cupcakes, mummy meatballs, witch’s fingers breadsticks. And then some.

“If we start by eight, we should be done in the early afternoon.”

I was saving up for a car, for when I got my driver’s license over the summer. I needed every penny I could get, because Dad said I had to pay the insurance, too.

“Sure. See you Saturday morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Crows. Filthy birds, even worse than pigeons. Started roosting on an office building, and we have to encourage them to leave.”

“Oh?” I was afraid to ask.

“We have to install bird spikes, stuff like that. I’ll tell you all about it Saturday.”

Saturday was a little chilly, and I was glad I had a jacket when my mom dropped me off at A Pest Free Palace’s office. Being here reminded me how much I hated this job. Probably too late to call in sick. I just had to think of the beautiful car I would buy with my saved-up money.

Mr. Renfro waved at my mom as he opened the door. She drove away. I wanted to run after her. But if I wanted my own car, I had to come up with the cash. I forced a smile.

“Morning, Mr. Renfro.”

“Morning. Everything’s already loaded up. Let’s get ‘er done.”

The crow-plagued office building was across our small town, at the edge of the city park. Fifteen minutes after setting off, we arrived. A few of the black birds watched us from the trees as we tacked down bird spikes, installed rotating reflectors, and hooked up a motion-activated predator call broadcaster. Sometimes they flapped around and cawed to each other, but mostly they just watched. I felt like I was trespassing.

As I walked across the roof to string some cable, I heard a loud crunch and the roof started to give way. I threw myself backward and landed on my butt. At least my foot didn’t go all the way through the shingles – just left a big dent. Renfro didn’t ask if I was okay, but he did take a picture to send to the building manager to they could get a roofer up to repair it. Priorities, I guess.

When we finally got the equipment installed, we sat under the awning over the office’s front door and took a break. I seriously wished I’d brought more than a PBJ sandwich and an apple.

“Now,” Renfro said between bites of his own meal. “There’s one more thing we have to do.”

I’m not sure why this made the food in my stomach curdle. Maybe it was the way he looked at the watching crows.

“Pigeons, sparrows, they’d see all that stuff and just go away. Not crows, though. They’re too smart for their own good. They’ll find ways around the spikes, and realize the reflectors aren’t a threat. Nope, crows, you have to send them a message.”

I didn’t like the way that sounded. I just nodded. Something bad was getting ready to happen, I could feel it coming.

Renfro packed up his lunch kit and took it to the truck. When he came back, he had a BB gun and a sparkly glass bead the size of a grape.

He chuckled softly. “They can’t resist something shiny. Watch this.”

Renfro rolled the bead out onto the grass beneath the tree where the crows were perched. They cocked their heads from one side to the other, trying to get a better look. After muttering amongst themselves, they hopped, branch by branch, to the lowest part of the tree. One must have been the lookout, because it stayed perched in the leaves and kept its beady little eyes on us while the other three flew down to investigate.

Renfro carefully sighted in on the middle crow in a group of three and pop! Down went the bird, struggling and flapping on the ground. The other three flew off, cawing loudly.

I don’t think you should have done that.

He took the bird by the feet and carried up onto the roof. He used a heavy-duty staple gun to secure it to the roof, out of sight from the street, but easy to see if you were a crow flying over the building. It squawked both times he stapled it, and I jumped each time. I couldn’t really see it, but I could guess what he was doing.

You really, really should not have done that.

“Welp, that’s it. The crows won’t roost here anymore.”

He gave me $100 in cash and dropped me at my house – it was on the way back to his shop. The bills were new and crisp, but they felt dirty.

I tried playing Assassin’s Craft online for a while, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor crow stapled to the roof. My mom had dabbled in reupholstering chairs, so I found her tack removal tool and stuck it in my pocket, pulling my shirt over the long bit of the mini-crowbar that stuck out of my jeans.

“I’m going to ride my bike,” I told my dad.

He barely looked up. “Don’t be gone too long if you want a ride to Randy’s at seven thirty.”

“I know.”

It took about twenty minutes to get to the office where we’d worked earlier, and dusk was just settling in. I didn’t have a ladder, but I pulled the fire escape down and used that to get up on the roof.

There were crows everywhere. They surrounded the bird that Renfro had stapled down, and they moved silently out of my way as I approached their fallen comrade.

I pulled up the staples, and the bird just laid there limply. I thought it was dead, but one of its eyes opened. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I couldn’t leave it there. I put it inside my shirt and tucked the shirt into my pants.

As I started toward the fire escape, a flash of something shiny and gold caught my eye. When I turned towards it, I noticed a huge hole in the roof, where I’d nearly fallen through earlier. What had made it collapse?

Curiosity was not my friend. I looked over the edge.

Lying on the polished concrete below was Mr. Renfro. What on earth could have brought him back to the office building? He knew the hole was there – he took a picture of it. I thought of the shiny object at the edge of the collapsed roof and swallowed hard.

I called 911and scurried down the fire escape.

The fire department broke through the glass doors, but it was too late for Mr. Renfro. They suddenly became very suspicious of what I was doing there. I called my mom to come get me, and I told them what had happened. Everything. I even pulled the half-dead crow out of my shirt to show them.

One of the police officers looked at him and said, “My girlfriend’s a wildlife rehabber. Why don’t you let me take him to her?”

I handed the bird over. What was I going to do with it?

Needless to say, I didn’t make it to Randy’s party. After taking such a long time to go to sleep, I was annoyed at being woken up at a quarter of six by cawing crows. Then came the pecking. There were birds pecking on my bedroom window. Irritated, I went to shoo them away.

I opened the window. “Let me sleep, you idiot birds!”

Something shiny glittered on the window sill. I rubbed my eyes and picked it up.

It was Mr. Renfro’s watch.

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!

No App for That, Part 1

I knew there wouldn’t really be anything in the mTalk store for under $150. Even with the 50 bucks Mom offered to chip in, there was nothing I could afford. Didn’t stop me from looking. Or from feeling let down. Guess we’d have to try the used phone place my BFF Stacy told me about.
“Don’t worry, Lauren. I’ll buy you the best phone ever,” my dad had said when he called last month. Then he sent me a check for $100. That wouldn’t even buy me a decent mom phone. Happy birthday to me.
“Stacy said it was just across from the yogurt place,” I told my mom.
I tried to cheer myself up. At least Dad sent cash, instead of having his new wife, Twila pick out something for me. At Christmas, she sent me some earrings from the dollar store and the most hideous sweater in the history of mankind. Seriously. The cat wouldn’t even sleep on it, and I left it in her basket for two weeks before I used it to wash the car. But Dad thinks she’s an expert because she’s only three years older than me.
At least summer break was coming up and I could work more hours at Grocer-Ama. If this place, Allbrands Refurbished Phones, didn’t have what I wanted, at least I had a $150 head start. Might have that mTalk by July. Bye-bye prepaid cheapo. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a sleek new phone in my hand. Purple skin like Kaia’s or rhinestones like London’s?
The smell of freshly made waffle cones made my stomach growl.
“Want to get a yogurt first?” Mom asked.
“Okay.”
I ordered cheesecake and strawberry swirl. With sprinkles, of course.
“What are you getting?” I asked Mom.
“Oh, I’m just not really in the mood for something sweet right now.”
I knew she was lying. She’s always in the mood for something sweet. She was only working four days a week now, and money was tight.
I picked up an extra spoon from the basket on the counter. I put it in her hand on when we found a place to sit and I pushed the cup of yogurt to the middle of the table.
“Thanks, ba-Lauren.”
I prepared myself for disappointment as we walked across the corridor to the used phone store.
The man behind the counter looked kind of old, but he had blue-black hair and very dark eyes. Dying your hair after a certain age is just wrong.
“Is there something I can help you find?” he asked.
“Yeah.”
Mom cleared her throat.
“Yes, sir. Do you have any mTalks?”
“But of course.” He pointed to a display at the end of the counter.
There it was. The newest model – the mTalk MultiFinity. Stacy was always going on about how great her mTalk was. It has the best apps, and blah, blah, blah. And she didn’t even have a MultiFinity. This one was only $75.
“What’s wrong with it?” It seemed way too good to be true.
“Ah. The MultiFinity. Scratch and dent.” He slid open the glass door and picked up the phone. When he flipped it over to show me the back, I could see what he meant. Two deep scratches ran from top to bottom and a little dimple slumped between them.
“The damage is only cosmetic,” the man said as he slipped in a battery. The phone vibrated and lit up.
“This is how you connect to the internet.” He pushed a button with a cube on it. Then he put it in my hands and went to talk to my mom.
I heard them talking about contracts and service plans, but I didn’t pay much attention. A news page flashed onto the screen. I navigated to my favorite band’s site. Steve, Justin and Zack, The Mercury Fish, appeared. Then I went to Stacy’s blog and left a comment.
No way I was leaving this thing in the store. With a skin, nobody would ever see the scratches. I started picking through the mTalk covers on the pegboard.
“I guess that means you want the phone, Lauren?” Mom asked, right behind me.
“Yes!” I hoped I hadn’t sounded too much like a kid.
“Thought so. They have a basic plan I think you can afford.”
“Kewl.” I went back to the skins. By the time Mom had finished all the paperwork, I found a blue metallic leopard print one that I liked.
My mother handed me a brochure when we got in the car. “This is what your plan covers. I do expect you to pay for this. No pay, no phone, understand?”
“Sure, Mom.” I was too busy putting the skin on and personalizing the phone to read the brochure. It would still be there later.
I went over to Stacy’s almost as soon as we got home.
“Hey, Stace! Look what I’ve got.”
“An mTalk? ‘Bout time.” She touched the screen. “How’d you score a MultiFinity?”
“Birthday fundage.”
Stacy cocked her head and looked at me. “From your dad? Did he sneak out while Twila wasn’t looking?”
“Don’t know. He sent a check. I cashed it.”
Just then, we heard the front door open and close. I looked up as Stacy’s brother came in.
“Hey, Jeff.” I said, trying to sound very casual.
Stacy rolled her eyes. I’d been crushing on him for years now. He was in college and so much more mature than high school boys.
“Lauren’s snagged a MultiFinity. Check it out.” Stacy said. “She’s one of us now.”
“Cool. Let’s see.”
I had trouble breathing when he sat down next to me on the couch. When he brushed my hand to pick up the phone, my skin tingled and shivered. I could feel the heat of his body next to me, and I could just about pretend it was me he was interested in instead of my phone. Too soon, he got up, reminding me that I was nothing more than his little sister’s friend. Sometimes, reality sucks. I held in the sigh.
When he had gone, Stacy elbowed me in the ribs. “You’re so pathetic. Just an FYI, he has a girlfriend now.”
“Why should I care if he has a girlfriend?”
I almost dropped my phone when it rang a few seconds later. It was Mom, telling me to come home for dinner.
* * * *
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock. What was that noise and why was it happening at 12:01 AM? On the nightstand, my phone was glowing. I closed one eye to cut down the glare and looked at the screen. 1 New Message. Why is someone texting me at midnight?
I looked at the message. The sender was an unfamiliar jumble of numbers. Welcome to dNet. Thanks for activating with us. A whole new world awaits you!
They woke me up to tell me that? I turned the phone off and went back to sleep.
The next four days were the last short week of school. Awards ceremonies, report cards, turn in textbooks, yearbook autographs and all the usual stuff.
I had Friday completely off, no Grocer-Ama until Saturday. Stacy and I spent the day bumming around at the mall, then hanging out by her pool. Jeff didn’t show while I was there. Bummer. I had the hottest bikini ever. Mom would have died if she saw it.
“Hey, Lauren? Let me hook you up with some killer apps.”
“Sure.”
I handed Stacy my phone while I went in the bathroom to change clothes.
“You ready for Driver’s Ed on Monday?” Stacy asked when I came out.
Mom had let me drive her car a little bit in the empty parking lot of the bank on Saturday afternoons. It had a clutch and I had to remember which pedals to step on and how to shift gears. It was hard and I was looking forward to having an automatic to learn on.
“Yeah, I guess. Wonder who’ll be in our group?”
“Don’t know. As long as it’s not Perry. I can’t stand to be in the same room with him. He smells.”
“I don’t think it’s all his fault. I think his mom feeds him lots of garlic to keep girls away.”
Stacy laughed. “Girls? Maybe. Anyway, it works.”
I was tired when I got home, and I went to bed early. I fell asleep playing with my MultiFinity, trying to figure out some of the new stuff Stacy loaded for me.
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.
I sat up so hard I almost fell out of bed. I had been dreaming that something with claws was holding me down, trying to push all the air out of my lungs. I was glad the phone woke me up. I looked at the clock. It was 12:01 AM.
What useless message does dNet have for me tonight?
It wasn’t dNet. It said ‘Jeff.’ No last name. Odd. The message read, ‘Cum outside & meat me undr tree.’
Meat me?
I looked out the window. I could just make out a figure darker than the shadows under the live oak tree. That totally creeped me out. That couldn’t be any Jeff I knew. I texted back, “No thx”
I left the phone on my nightstand, went in Mom’s room and got in bed with her.
“What’s wrong, baby?” she muttered, half asleep.
“I thought I saw someone outside.”
“What?!” She was suddenly awake.
Putting on her bathrobe, she called the police and picked up the golf club she kept in her closet. Dad always wondered what had happened to his 9 iron. Cordless phone in one hand, club in the other, she walked around the house, turning on all the lights, indoors and out.
The police cruiser showed up about ten minutes after Mom called. He asked me about what I saw. I was afraid to mention the text. Mom would take my phone away for sure if she knew. The officer looked around, but didn’t find anything.
“Could be a transient,” he hold my mother. “There’s been more of ’em lately, you know.”
“I see,” Mom answered.
“I’ll make sure I come back by a few times during the night. You probably scared him off. I don’t expect he’ll be back.”
“You don’t expect? That isn’t really good enough. I have a teenage daughter to look out for,” my mother snapped at him.
“Easy, ma’am. If he was just under the tree and not trying to get in the house, he was probably just passing through. I would recommend you leave your outside lights on, though.”
We sat up watching old reruns, the ones you find on network TV after midnight. We didn’t have cable anymore. My mom cannot just sit and watch television. She has to DO something. Usually, she knits. By the time I fell asleep around three, she had most of a scarf done.

No App for That, Part 2

Saturday was the same as just about every other Saturday. Have breakfast, go to work. Come home. No date. I almost fell asleep during dinner. I went upstairs to lie down for a minute and the next thing I knew, it was morning.
I didn’t have to be at work until four. Stacy and I went to the mall to play crazy golf. It’s indoors and everything is glow-in-the dark. Before we went in, I took our picture and posted it on FaceSpace.
We were on the bus on the way back when my phone buzzed. It was a text from London. ‘OMG. Who’s the guy?’
‘?’ I replied.
‘W/U & S @ mall’
I looked at the picture in my phone. Nobody but me and Stace. I went to the internet and opened my FaceSpace page. There were Stacy and I. Behind us stood a guy in a black shirt. I could tell he had blond hair, but the top half of his face was cut off, And his hand was on my shoulder.
My hands started shaking. I deleted the pic.
“What’s wrong with you? You suddenly turned white,” Stacy said.
“Nothing. Here’s our stop.”
* * * *
I opened my eyes and looked around. I had left the lamp by my bed on. The clock read 12:00. I sat up. Nothing seemed wrong. Not until my phone lit up and buzzed. It was 12:01.
The message was from “Jeff.”‘LET ME IN.’ I heard someone tapping on the glass of the back door.
‘NO NO NO NO NO. GO AWAY’ I turned the phone off and took the battery out. The tapping stopped. Text me now Jeff, if that’s even your name.
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. It felt like someone was pouring icewater on my head. Cold fear dripped onto my shoulders and down my back.
TTYL  Jeff replied.
I threw the phone and the battery into the night table drawer. I was taking it back tomorrow. I didn’t care how good a deal it was.
Taking a deep breath, I crept to the window and peeked out through the edge of the curtains. Nothing unusual outside. I picked up a book and tried to read, shivering under the blanket and staring at the same page for hours.

“Lauren. Wake up baby.” Mom was shaking me.
I opened one eye. It was 6:45.
“What?” I asked.
“Driver’s Ed, remember? I’m dropping you and Stacy off on the way to work.”
After I got dressed and ate breakfast, we got in the car.
“Didn’t you sleep well?” Mom asked me, her eyes narrowing. I wasn’t sure if she was worried about me, or if she thought I was up to something.
“I was going to talk to you about that. I need to take this phone back and see if they maybe have a different one.”
“Why’s that?”
“Somebody keeps texting me in the middle of the night. Must be a wrong number or something.” I didn’t bother telling her about the text after I’d pulled the battery out. She’d never believe it.
“Texting you? What are they saying?” Mom swerved into the other lane as she jerked her head in my direction. Good thing we weren’t out in traffic yet.
“Nothing, really. Just wanting to meet up.”
“Absolutely, we’ll get your number changed. We’ll go back to the store this week, tonight if there’s no overtime from work. You can just turn it off and leave it downstairs so it doesn’t wake you up until then.”
We pulled into Stacy’s driveway and she came out to meet us. Mom was taking us to class, and Mrs. Halloran was picking us up. We’d already done all the classroom stuff and watched the gory car crash movies. Now it was time for what Coach Smith called the “practical education” part.
Mom and Stace good-morninged each other and off we went.
There were four of us in the group: me, Stacy, James and Emily. I had to drive last.
“Turn right at the next intersection,” Coach Smith said.
I put on my turn signal and started slowing down. Maybe a little bit too soon. I triple checked for cars and pedestrians. I didn’t’ see either as I started to turn.
Then I saw him. Walking into the street, right in front of the car.
It was a guy with kind of greenish skin and white blond hair. And black eyes. Not just dark colored irises. The whole eye was black with no white at all. In fact, it could have even been a zombie version of Stacy’s brother. I screamed as slammed on the brakes with both feet. The car screeched to a stop and everyone lurched against their seatbelts.
“Lauren, what in God’s name is wrong with you?” Coach Smith shouted at me.
I got out of the car, searching frantically. “Where is he?”
“Lauren, who are you talking about?” Coach Smith had gotten out of the car, too.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t see him. That guy that stepped off the curb right as I turned the car.”
“Lauren, nobody stepped off the curb. You’re imagining things. Why don’t you just get back in the car. On the passenger side. I’ll call your mom, okay sweetheart?” His voice was suddenly soft and sweet.
Great. Now he thought I had lost my mind.
“Fine. Whatever.”
I got in the car. My heart was still thumping against my ribs and I was breathing hard from the adrenalin. Nobody said a word as Coach Smith drove to the nearest parking lot and called my mom. I stared out the window. I’m not crazy. I’m NOT crazy.
Mom met us at the school. She hugged me, then she lifted my chin up and looked at my eyes and felt my forehead.
“Go sit in the car, baby. I just want to talk to Coach Smith for a minute.”
I sat in the passenger side with the door open, hoping to catch a little breeze in the stifling heat. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could see Coach Smith’s mouth moving and Mom frowning and nodding her head.
When Mom got in the car, she started the engine to get the AC going, but didn’t go anywhere.
“Okay, Lauren. I’d like to hear your side of the story. Tell me what happened.”
“This guy stepped off the curb, right in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, but when I got out of the car, I couldn’t find him.”
“I see. Why do you suppose no one else saw this person?”
“I don’t know.” Tears started to well up in my eyes.
Mom closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Have you been using drugs?”
“What? No!”
“Well, something has changed. You aren’t sleeping at night and you’re having hallucinations. If it isn’t drugs, what is it? Are you having a mental disturbance? Or is this some misguided ploy to get attention?”
“So those are my choices? I’m a junkie, a nut job or a conniving brat? Is that really what you think of me?” I couldn’t stop the tremble in my voice or the tears from overflowing onto my cheeks.
“Lauren, I don’t want to believe any of those things about you. But if there’s another alternative, perhaps you could tell me what it is.”
“It’s this stupid phone, okay? Ever since I got it, weird stuff has been happening to me.” I told her about the texts from “Jeff,” wishing I hadn’t deleted them, and I told her about the picture I put on FaceSpace. I even found it on my phone and showed it to her. And I still had the text from London about it.
“Okay. Let’s go to the phone place.”
She didn’t speak to me on the way. I could tell by the way she was gnawing her bottom lip that she was thinking about the problem, looking for a logical explanation. The trip to the phone place was probably more to buy time to figure out what to do than because she believed me.
We parked in our usual section and went in the door closest to the yogurt shop. As we got closer, I started looking for the Allbrands sign. I didn’t see it. Could they be closed on Mondays? We were directly across from the yogurt place and there was no phone shop, only the painted screen that makes it look like there is a store there.
“Excuse me,” Mom said to the lady behind the yogurt counter, “But do you know if that mobile phone store across the mall from has moved to another space?”
“Mobile phones? There’s never been any mobile phone place over here. Can I get you some yogurt?”
“No, thanks.”
Maybe now my mother would believe me.

No App for That, Part 3

“Okay. I’m sure they’ve just moved. Or closed down. Let’s go look at the directory.” She grabbed my wrist and hurried me down the corridor.
“But Mom – you heard what the lady said.”
“She may be new and just not know. Or she may not care.”
We stopped in front of the “You Are Here” directory and map. Mom read the name of every business in the mall. Three times. I didn’t bother. I knew there would be no listing for Allbrands Refurbished Phones.
“I put the paperwork in the glovebox,” she said. “It’s still in the car. That’s bound to have a phone number on it.”
She marched us out to the parking lot and hunted furiously through the glovebox and under the seats. “It has to be here somewhere,” she muttered.
But it wasn’t. Even under the blaring sun, her face was pale and her eyes were wide.
“Alright. I have and idea. You said the problems started when you got the phone. Let’s just try an experiment. Get in the car.”
Mom’s fingers drummed on the steering wheel as she drove. I didn’t like to see her so upset, but at least she seemed to believe me now.
She pulled into the parking lot of a large city park between the mall and our house. It was 98° and not a breath of air. The park was abandoned. Mom took a plastic grocery bag that had some trash in it from the floor of the front seat and got out of the car. I followed her to the farthest possible trash can, where she emptied the bag.
“Turn off your phone and give it to me.”
When I handed it over, she wrapped it up in the plastic bag, then looked around the park. “Tip the trash barrel, but not all the way over.”
The barrel smelled like mildew, vomit and dog poop, and I had to stand there holding the disgusting thing while she used a stick to dig a little hole underneath. Sweat was running down into my bra and I thought I was going to hurl from the stench of the trash can.
“There,” she said as she snuggled my plastic-wrapped phone into the dirt. “You can put the trash barrel back, now.”
As much as I had wanted my mTalk, I was glad for it to be gone. After we got home, I ate a bowl of cereal and went upstairs to chill in my room. The next thing I knew, Mom was shaking my shoulder. I looked at the clock. It was three hours later.
“Stacy’s on the phone for you.”
Groggy and disoriented, I sat on the edge of the bed, trying to get my bearings. “Tell her I’ll call her back. Please.” I was too embarrassed to talk to her after the Driver’s Ed incident.
I had just over an hour before I had to be at work, so I splashed some water on my face, brushed my teeth and went downstairs. Mom had her headset on and was typing at the computer. Must be trying to work from home.
“Baby, would you mind getting the mail? I just saw the truck go by and I’m sure hoping there’s a check from your father in there.”
I got myself a cola and went out to the mailbox. There was a lot of stuff jammed in there. Something clattered to the pavement at my feet. I looked down.
It was my phone.
I screamed. Mom came running out of the house, cable dangling from the end of her headset.
“Lauren?!”
I was shaking too hard to talk. I just pointed to the phone on the ground. My mother’s face went white. She picked it up and slammed it to the concrete, over and over until the casing broke open. Then she stomped its electronic guts into the road and kicked the parts into the storm drain.
She put her arm around my shoulder and guided me towards the house. She took the pile of mail from me and I flopped onto the couch.
“Let’s see that thing try to come back now,” Mom said. “Are you feeling up to going to work this afternoon? If so, you’d better eat something, baby.”
I looked at the clock. Work seemed like a great place to be. Nothing weird ever happened there. Everything was completely, boringly, normal.
I went into the kitchen and fixed myself a cheese sandwich. I couldn’t manage more than three bites of it, but I did finish my cola.
Mom dropped me off at the store and Inez, the manager, gave me a ride home after closing. The whole phone episode was starting to feel like a bad dream.
Mom was sitting at the kitchen table, paying bills when I came in. “How are you feeling, Lauren? Work okay?”
“Fine, Mom. I’m just really tired. Night.”
“Goodnight, baby. Love you.”
I was in the middle of brushing my teeth when the knocking started. It was downstairs, at the front door. It was loud, but slow and steady, like a metronome. Knock…knock…knock…
I froze. People knocking on your door after ten at night can’t be good. I could hear my mom ask, “Who’s there,” and a voice asked to be let in. I slipped my robe on over my nightshirt and walked quietly to the top of the stairs.
I recognized the voice of the person at the door. Stacy? What was she doing here this late? I came halfway down the stairs. Then I stopped. There was a guy with her, the zombie Jeff I thought I’d run over during driver’s ed. Something was way beyond wrong.
“Stace?” I called to her. My breath switched from normal to shallow and I gripped the railing to keep my balance.
“Lau-ren.” She sung my name, like she was calling a dog.
I looked at my mother. She stood completely still, staring into Jeff’s all-black eyes. “Mom? Mom!”
She didn’t move.
“She can’t hear you, Lau-ren,” Stacy sang. “Not since she let us in.”
Stacy started towards the stairs. I started backing up.
Then she smiled. It was the most horrifying smile ever. It was almost as if someone standing behind her pulled her lips up and back to show her teeth. But worse, much worse, was what happened to her eyes. As I watched, they went from normal to completely black. No iris. No white. Only black.
I turned and bolted towards my room. Stacy appeared at the top of the stairs, blocking my way. Her back was to me.
“Lau-ren,” she sang. Slowly, her head swiveled around a complete 180° and she was looking at me from where the back of her head should have been. She giggled, then her face got fierce “Run!” she snarled.
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I took a shortcut by vaulting over the railing where the stairs made a right angle turn. Not only did I bang my head on the edge of the stairs going down, but I didn’t quite stick the landing and I heard something crunch in my ankle. I would feel it later, when the adrenalin rush faded.
I sprinted the five steps to the antique china hutch that stood under the staircase. Stacy met me there.
A gurgling, giggling sound seemed to be coming from her, but her mouth was closed. “Lau-ren. Time’s up.”
“Why, Stacy? Why?” I had to keep her talking for just a minute while I eased open the drawer behind me.
“Why not?” The freaky giggling got louder.
“But you were my friend.” I found what I was looking for and curled my fingers around the handle.
Stacy cocked her head at an unnatural angle. “Yes. I still am.” The horrible grin again. “Don’t fight me and I promise it won’t hurt. Not much, anyway.”
As she lunged towards me, I whipped the silver-plated cake server in front of me and held on to it with both hands. I scrunched my eyes closed as tightly as I could. I wasn’t sure it would work and I didn’t want to see what happened either way.
I felt a bump and heard screaming, snarling and bellowing, as much inside my head as in my ears. It was a tsunami of sound and I wondered if I would drown in it. I thought my head would implode. Then silence. I let go of the cake server, but found my hands were empty. Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes.
Stacy and zombie Jeff were gone. Mom was lying on the floor, her left arm bent between her elbow and wrist. I crawled over to her. She was still breathing. I managed to drag myself over to the phone and called 911 before I passed out.
I gradually became aware of voices. My mom’s and my dad’s. I opened my eyes. Mom was sitting in a chair near the end of my bed, her arm in a cast and a sling. Dad was next to me. I was in a hospital room.
“Hey, Sunshine!” Dad, said, squeezing my hand.
There was no sign of Twila. Things were looking up. “What happened?” I asked, trying to shake the cobwebs off.
You broke your ankle and had a nasty blow to your head, baby. They wanted to keep you overnight for observation,” Mom said.
I don’t know if Mom remembered what happened. But I did. Every awful moment.
“Somebody broke into the house. Home invasion robbery. Odd thing was, the only thing they took was a silver-plated cake server,” Dad said, shaking his head. “Drugged out wackos.”
The door squeaked open and a nurse came in with a vase full of red and orange poppies. She set it on the counter by the sink. “What nice friends you have!” she said as she smiled and handed me the card.
Can’t wait to see you again. Get well soon! Love, Stacy