Category Archives: Halloween

Wish Me Luck

The man with the greasy hair grinned. “I guess today’s your lucky day.”

I tested the zip ties around my wrists. “Really? You said you were going to kill me.”

He chuckled. “Never said it was good luck.”

Slipping a rough hand between my arm and bruised ribs, he hauled me to my feet.

The burning pain in my side forced me to gasp. I had been trying to be stoic. Thought maybe if he didn’t know how much pain I was in, he wouldn’t be tempted to poke the bruises. I might have been wrong about that, though.

“Don’t worry. We’re going to have some fun first. But not here. Too close to the trail.” He picked up the shoe that had come off my foot when he dragged me into the bushes and tossed it near me. “Put it back on. No clues left behind.”

“How am I supposed to do that with no hands?”

He glowered for a moment. “If you try anything funny, I’ll break your leg.”

I believed him. He was at least double my weight and maybe as much as a foot taller. I scanned the environs for any offshoots or paths while he tied the laces.

The man stood up and grinned. His teeth looked like he ate rocks.

“No one’s ever going to find you.” He chuckled again. “Or me. The Law’s too stuck on technology.” He gestured to the trees. “All you have to do is go off the grid and you may as well not even exist. I can do anything I want, and they can’t do jack about it.”

“I’m guessing you know something about those other three hikers that have gone missing over the last two months, then.”

He snorted. “That’s only the ones you know about.”

This well-maintained trail was popular among hikers, runners, and cyclists, but the surrounding forest thickened to a gloomy wood on either side. Dense shrubs and fallen trees made it almost unnavigable, but the man picked his way through the underbrush as if he knew where he was going.

He probably lives out here in some Unabomber shack.

“I got a promotion at work. More money, and closer to my house. Really lucky to get it.”

The man grunted. “Why you tellin’ me that?”

“Because I was supposed to meet my mom for dinner tonight. I was going to tell her about it, but… well, I felt like I needed to tell someone.”

He grunted again.

“I don’t suppose you know anything about rare coins, do you?”

“What?” He pushed a branch out of the way for us to pass.

“Yeah. It was the weirdest thing. I was really low on cash a couple of weeks ago, so I scraped together all my loose change and went to the grocery store to put it in the coin sorter thing—you know what I’m talking about? The machine that takes your change and gives you a voucher or gift card you can spend at the store?”


“Anyway, there were a couple of coins that got rejected. One of ’em, I’m not sure where it came from. Don’t remember seeing it before. Kinda goldish or coppery circle in the middle, and a silver circle on the outside. Writing on it wasn’t English. Thought I’d find somebody to look at it and tell me if it was worth anything.”

He snorted. “Probably a Mexican peso. Looks like your luck has taken a nosedive.”

“Maybe. But—”

“Would you shut up? I don’t care about your life.”

“Don’t you? You’re trying to steal it.”

He stopped and spun me around to face him. “Enough!”

He raised his fist, but only glared at me. I stumbled as he shoved me forward into the thicket. My head throbbed. Not sure how long I’d been out after he hit me over the head from behind, but it was a while. Hadn’t expected that, but probably should have.

It wasn’t easy to tell how much of the gloom was shade from the trees and how much was from the vanishing sun.

A thorny vine stretched its rigid stems like a razor wire spider’s web from a nearby tree. I managed to scratch up my leg as we pushed on through the thicket, and blood trickled down my calf. Enough for a marker? I brushed my leg against as many plants as I could to brush away the clots and keep it flowing.

I wiped my jaw across my shoulder to dislodge some dried mud. “So, you live around here?”

He growled like a grumpy dog.

A stick snapped somewhere to my left. Something large was moving through the underbrush.

The man heard it, too, and frowned at the dusky woods. He muttered to himself, and I thought I caught the words, “feral hogs,” but I couldn’t be sure.

“One of them survived, you know. She dug her way out of that shallow grave you left her in and crawled to the highway. That’s how I knew you were out here. I’m lucky you finally took the bait.”

He squinted at me, working his jaw back and forth, testing words in his head and biting them back. “Lucky?” he spat. “I’ll make sure your luck runs out. Double-damn sure. Then I’m on the wind, and nobody will ever find me. I’ll hunt again wherever I please.”

He took a moment to smirk before he shoved me again, and we resumed shuffling through the woods.

And there it was, maybe fifty yards ahead. As predicted, the Unabomber shack.

“Looks like a fixer-upper.”

“Shut it,” he snapped.

A deer stepped onto the rough path between us and the shack. It was over-sized for a native whitetail and shadows wrapped around it, even in the clearing, scoffing at the dwindling light.

The man waved his arms. “Get out of here! Go on! Git!”

The deer lowered its head and shook its antlers.

“Frickin’ ruttin’ bucks.” He cast about for a weapon. Not much but vines and forest litter presented itself.

The deer took a few steps toward us. It was just wrong. The creature was bone-thin and its limbs didn’t fit its body. Didn’t look strong enough to hold up its heavy rack of antlers. The poor thing’s face was so skeletal it appeared not to have any flesh on it at all and its eyes were sunken deep into their sockets.

The man shook his head. “Don’t worry, dude. I’ll put you out of your misery soon enough.”

“Bet he just needs food. He looks really hungry.”

“Naw. He’s had all summer to fatten up. That there’s chronic wasting disease. Zombie deer sickness.”

Wonder if anyone’s thought of that for Halloween—Zombie deer.

He waved his arms again and ran a few steps toward the deer. “Get out of the way!”

It continued toward us.

The man looked around again. He broke off a small limb from a yaupon bush. Couldn’t have been any thicker than my pinkie finger, but it was long and bushy.

“Nice flyswatter.”

He shoved me and I toppled over. I wriggled around until I could see what was happening.

The man charged, waving the branch. The deer rose onto its hind legs, towering at eight or nine feet tall over the man.

He froze.

And it kept walking.

The man took a few steps back.

Instead of dainty cloven front hooves, the deer had gnarled, clawed hands. Thick, iron-like talons sprang from its knotty fingers.

And still it came.

The man let out a strangled scream and tried to flee, but he tripped over his own hubris and sprawled in the fallen leaves.

I shook my head. And he thought he was such a predator.

Fading sunlight glistened off strings of slime as the monstrous deer opened its jaws. Its eyes glowed a deep red.

Unable to get up, I watched in morbid fascination as the thing’s nightmarish spikey teeth were fully exposed.

It bent over the fallen man. He screamed and struggled, then went limp. When the beast raised its head again a few minutes later, the lower third of its face was smeared in gore.

It rose and approached me.

The creature stank of rot and decomposition as it leaned over, running a rough hand down my arm. Its wicked talon sliced through the zip tie like hot butter.

“Thank you. I wasn’t sure that vine had drawn enough blood to open the portal for you to come.”

I put my hand over the strange coin in my pocket, to make sure it was still there before I stood up. I had started seeing the monster standing under a tree across the street from my window that night after I returned from the store with my paltry coin-bought groceries.

It had called to me in my dreams.

It knew what I wanted, and it told me what it wanted, so we struck a bargain. One blood sacrifice for one wish. I figured I could kill two birds with one stone—give some monsters to the monster and get something for me in exchange.

As long as I had the coin, it couldn’t hurt me, so why not?

It continued to loom over me.

I got to my feet and dusted pine needles off my butt. “That was a little harder than I expected. I’d been coming out here so much without him showing up that I’d started to think he’d moved on. Hadn’t counted on him bashing me over the head, though. Good to be lucky, I guess. But you got your meal. Now, it’s time for my wish.”

Its voice was like boulders grating against each other. “This will be the second. You have one left, Detective.”

Welfare Check

“Mommy? Why is Mr. Gonzales out there with two policemen?”

Kinsey Lang peered through the front window at her landlord, who waved his hands around as he spoke to a couple of cops.

He always was excitable.

Kinsey forced a smile. “I have no idea, Joanna,” she lied to the nine-year-old. “Take your brother and go to your rooms, okay? It’ll be all right. Don’t worry.” She awkwardly used her left hand to tuck a lock of hair behind her daughter’s ear that had stubbornly stuck to the girl’s forehead.

“C’mon, Charlie. You heard what Mommy said.”

The six-year-old stood, turning his head so he could use his one good eye to navigate. Kinsey watched until they disappeared into the hallway. She sighed and moved a chair against the wall to hide a hole in the sheetrock. The security deposit had been forfeited a long time ago, but she was still embarrassed for Mr. Gonzales to see the damage.

Would he blame her, like Randy always did?

Her husband had sworn it would be different this time. Guess he skipped the rent.


She knew exactly where it had gone. He’d stumbled in at six this morning reeking of cheap alcohol and cheaper perfume.

Kinsey took another look out the window. Neither officer had any paperwork. When they’d been evicted before, cops had handed her a whole stack of papers. But then again, she hadn’t expected to see any.

This time.

She moved away from the glass and paced around the living room.

Last month she’d scraped together enough money to pay most of the rent from her assistance check and some cash Randy had hidden in the closet. It was Tuesday—her check had come in the mail today. Always sent to her mother’s house, so Randy couldn’t get at it. She’d called to say it arrived.

They had a code.

Hey, Kinsey. Big sale at Walmart. You wanna go?

Sure, Mama.

I’ll come pick you up.

Because the one thing that Randy hated worse than being sober was going shopping, and food had to get into the house somehow. So he let her out, on a short, tight leash, holding the children hostage to make sure she returned.

Did they realize what was happening?

Even the cheapest level of store-brand cookie is still a cookie. Maybe that Mommy always came home with treats when she went shopping was all they needed to know. Safer that way.

He hadn’t always been like that. Or perhaps that was just one of the lies she told when she asked herself why she didn’t leave him. There were also practical considerations.

He said he’d kill her if she left him.

She had nowhere to go, anyway. Her stepfather hated children in general, and hated her specifically, so her mother was afraid to take her in. It would be hellish there, anyway.

Her father? He would have skinned Randy alive. If he hadn’t died of a heart attack when the children were small.

The voices outside got closer. She desperately wanted Mr. Gonzales to stay outside. She wouldn’t be able to bear the look on his face when he stepped inside and looked around.

She frowned as she almost tripped over her husband’s out-stretched leg.

He even managed to miss the couch. Kinsey wrinkled her nose. He reeked of more than booze now. Probably just as well. Easier to clean the tile than the upholstery.

Mr. Gonzales and the officers were on the porch now. She stepped over the pool of blood that spread out from beneath Randy’s head and tucked herself into the utility room. Kinsey sighed. Such a mess in here.

The exterior door to the backyard was unlocked, and she pulled aside the dusty curtain to peek through the dingy glass at the top. A clump of neighbors stood at the edge of the property.

Ah, Lucia Jones. Always were chasing after Randy. I wish you’d caught him.

And Chester Holiday. Biggest gossip in the neighborhood. Wonder what rumors he’ll be spreading tonight? If only he knew.

The key turning in the lock caught Kinsey’s attention.

A male voice. Must be one of the officers. “Mr. Gonzales. Please wait on the porch.”


Swear words.

They must have seen Randy.

The chirp and squawk of radios.

“Dispatch, we’ve got a 10-55d. Gonna need Homicide and Crime Scene out here… Copy that.”

More footsteps.

The word ‘clear’ repeated several times.

“Oh, God. Hansen? I found the kids.”

More radio chatter.

Footsteps getting closer.

“Where’s the mom?”

“Do you think she…?”

“Haven’t checked in here.”

The door to the utility room flew open and two officers gaped at Kinsey.

It had taken a long time for the photographers to finish and the people in Tyvek suits and surgical booties to start their prowl around the house. Little yellow tents with numbers on them littered the rooms.

Finally, someone taped some paper bags over Randy’s hands and tucked him into a body bag. The gun on the floor next to him went into another bag. The stretcher snapped into place and technicians wheeled him out.

Kinsey felt nothing and wondered if that was normal. She should have been upset. Instead, the Randy-shaped hole in her life was all fog and wind.

Another gurney appeared from the hallway, with a third close behind it. Tears streamed down the face of a man pushing one of the child-sized cadaver pouches.

A voice sighed heavily, right in front of Kinsey, so she shifted her attention.

“I’ll never understand as long as I live how someone could do something like this.”

Kinsey picked a sticky clot of blood out of her hair.

“Who found the bodies?”

“Her mother called for a welfare check. She was supposed to pick Ms. Lang up this afternoon but couldn’t get in touch.”

“What do you think set him off?”

“Who knows?”

“You get her feet.”

Kinsey watched as they pulled her body out of the narrow utility room. She didn’t recognize her own face. Her right arm caught on the edge of the washing machine, bending at a 90° angle between the wrist and elbow where the bone had been shattered. She winced.

Hours later, the crime scene investigators left. The officers left. Yellow tape fluttered in the October breeze.

“Mommy?” Joanna plopped down on the couch.

“What is it, baby?”

“Is Daddy coming back?”

Kinsey’s eyes lingered on the glossy black pool of clotted blood where Randy had lain. “I don’t think so, honey.”

She thought a shadow swirled over it but told herself it was just the tree outside moving in the wind.

“Grandpa!” Charlie shouted.

Kinsey turned her head. “Dad?”

Her father stood near the front door, arms open wide enough to a hug all three of them. “Come on, Kinsey. Let’s go home. Let’s all go home.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you are someone you know is in danger at home, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.


“Who did your ink?” The guy in the tank top had a man-bun and one of his arms was covered from knuckles to shoulder in tattoos.

“Pug. He died a few years ago.”

He stepped closer and peered at my arm like he was sizing up an item at a garage sale. “Nice. Dude. Pug was a legend.” He waved and continued down the sidewalk.

I rubbed my upper arm. After all this time, the bejeweled elephant still raised her trunk proudly. It was late October, almost Halloween. I shuddered.

I once ran off to join the circus. It was, I don’t know…twenty years ago? My kids were grown and my wife had been taking private lessons with the tennis pro at the country club for a while. I didn’t think she’d even notice I was gone.

I had found an ad for an assistant elephant keeper for a circus that’s headquartered about a hundred miles away in Dante, Florida. Training provided during the winter, then travel May through October. I’d even found a set of vintage nesting steamer trunks for my stuff. Maybe not the most efficient, but I love old things.

The Ninth Circle Circus always held performances in their hometown the last week of October. Halloween Homecoming, they called it. I arrived two days before the troupe and I unloaded my stack of impractical trunks in one of the tiny houses on-site provided to employees. It would have been easier to have just gotten an extra-large suitcase, I suppose. But the three of them grouped together, in all their old-fashioned glory, had made this feel like a real adventure.

I spent the majority of my time exploring Dante, the surrounding small town that was mostly populated by retired circus performers. There were all the shops you’d expect, and then some. But there was only one that I felt compelled to visit.

Perched on the slate roof of Orpheus’s Oddities was an eight-foot plastic lyre that had seen better days. There were a few patches of gold paint on the oversized instrument, but it was mostly a swampy grey. I wasn’t sure if that was by design or just entropy.

Wind chimes tinkled when I opened the door. I saw no one in the shop—the cashier must be in the back and would probably turn up in a minute. Casually posed mannequins stood all around the shop, dressed in sparkling circus costumes and antique jewelry. A trapeze hung from the ceiling and a life-size acrobat hung by his knees from the bar, forever ready to catch a non-existent flyer.

A taxidermied white horse stood close to the door, three of its hooves fixed to a heavy stand, while the fourth was raised in an elegant arc. Hot pink, glitter-sprinkled feathers to rival a Vegas showgirl rose behind its ears and another, even larger bouquet adorned its back, held on by a leather strap that encircled its middle. The brown glass eyes that stared at me from its majestic head were so realistic I found it… off-putting. I hurried past it into the heart of the shop.

A statue stopped me cold. On the glass counter, a life-sized contortionist squatted, her back bent at such an extreme angle that her placid face looked out from between her feet. It made me think of a spider, even though she had only half the limbs of an arachnid. A beam of afternoon sunlight cut through the dingy window above the wooden door and highlighted her face. The vertical slit of a pupil in her yellow eyes didn’t make me feel any more at ease.

“Anything I can help you find?”

Ahh! I almost jumped out of my skin when the contortionist spoke to me. She began unbending herself.

“No. No, thank you. I was just looking. Got a job at the circus and moved in yesterday.”

“Oh.” She grinned at me. Her eyes were an ordinary brown now. Must have been a trick of the light that created that creepy effect. “You must be Terry Gillespie. I heard they hired a new pooper scooper.”

“Yeah. That’s me. Hope there’s more to the job than that, though.” I hadn’t really thought about what duties an assistant elephant keeper would be performing before I applied for the job.

“My brother’s the elephant boss. Circus owns three of them—Ellie, Peanut, and Queenie. They’re all really sweet. Queenie’s the mom and Ellie and Peanut are her daughters.” The way her eyes flicked up to the ceiling when she said ‘brother’ made me wonder about their relationship.

“Is there a dad elephant?”

“Rorschach, but he passed away a few years ago.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

Her smile showed too many teeth. “If you have any questions while you’re looking around, just ask.”

I nodded and continued with my perusal. The store wasn’t the standard box from a strip mall. The building had clearly been someone’s house once upon a time. I guessed this had been the living room, or possibly parlor, depending on how old the house was.

My eyes fell on a shelf of preserved mutations. A tiny, two-headed pig floated in a jar of formaldehyde. A frog with four extra legs, placed randomly on its body, stared out from a brick of acrylic. A stuffed kitten with a single enormous eye, eight legs, and two tails sent a shiver down my backbone. A Fiji mermaid sat next to that, the clumsy surgery that grafted a monkey head and torso onto a fish’s tail painfully obvious.

I moved to the next room. Bigfoot print castings, a clump of alleged Yeti hair, and blurry blowups of UFOs lined one wall. A gallery of photos and paintings of sideshow freaks took up the other three. I kind of liked the impressionist take on the bearded lady.

Four additional rooms held circus memorabilia, old costume jewelry, and circus-themed home décor and souvenirs. I thought about getting a big top shower curtain for my daughter—she loves that kind of thing.

A glass cabinet in the souvenir room contained pewter figurines. Ringmaster. Clown. Lion. Elephants in several poses. One elephant, its trunk raised proudly, stood out from the rest. It was the only one of its kind, probably the last on the shelf, because it was so much better than the others. Purple and pink crystals—I assumed they were rhinestones—sparkled in the headdress beneath fluffy plumes of purple feathers. I had to get it, given my new job.

I set the statuette on the counter by the cash register. “There’s no price on this one.”

“All the figurines are the same price.” A sly smile edged up the corners of her lips.

Seemed reasonable. I wasn’t in the mood to haggle, anyway.

She rang up the statuette. “They say a raised trunk is for good luck.” She grabbed the elephant with a wad of tissue paper and shoved it into a bag.

“Thanks. I’ll need all the luck I can get.”

“Yes. You very well might.” She grinned her stomach-churning grin.

I took my purchase and left, not sure I ever wanted to set foot in that store again. I could order a shower curtain online for Genie.

When I got back to my tiny house on the circus property, I unwrapped the elephant and set her on the windowsill in my bedroom. Purple and pink blobs splotched the white paint of the sill where sunlight touched the jewels. The elephant just looked happy, and it made me feel happy looking at her. Don’t know how I knew it was a her, but I knew.

I was supposed to be at work at 8:00 AM, so I left my house at 7:45. I’d found the elephant enclosure when I first arrived, but I wasn’t entirely sure where in the oversized building I was meeting my new supervisor. As I got closer, I saw the grey forms of three elephants in the reinforced pen. But no people.

A woman in tights and a sports bra was heading in my direction.

“Excuse me? Miss? I’m looking for Elliot Spencer. Can you tell me where to find him?”

Her eyes boldly scanned my body from head to toe and back up again. “You must be the new bullhand. You’re a lot better looking than the last two. Shame.”

Last two? Is there a high turnover rate? “Um… thanks?”

She pointed to a towering barn. “You’ll probably find Spence in his office in there.”

“Thank you.”

I’d seen tall elephant and giraffe barns on trips to the zoo when the kids were little. But this one seemed less airy and bright. Dark, heavy timbers supported the tall awning, which cast the entryway in deep shadow.

It’s not like I need this job, I reminded myself, not sure where the resistance to entering the elephant barn was coming from. My footsteps echoed off the concrete walkway and were swallowed by the gloom.

“Hello?” I called.

There was no answer.

Further down the hall, I spotted a lighted office window, so I hurried toward it. Should I knock, or just go in? He is expecting me. I knocked on the door before opening it. A man a little older than me looked up, a phone receiver clamped to his face.

I looked around while he finished up his call.

“You Gillespie?”

“That’s me.”

“Fleur said you were in the shop yesterday.”

“Your sister?”

His lips pursed slightly. “The one and only. Alright, let’s get started.”

He gave me a tour of the elephant facility and introduced me to the pachyderms. As it turned out, Fleur’s description of the job as a pooper scooper wasn’t that far off. I shoveled food at one end and manure at the other. The elephants were friendly, brushing me with their trunks when I was in the pen. I didn’t mind, except when they got too personal. Peanut was bad about groping.

Halloween would fall on a Saturday this year. Spence told me they expected an especially large crowd. Dante wasn’t that far from Jacksonville, so there were always plenty of big-city suckers, ready to lose their money on the midway during that glorious Halloween Homecoming week. I fell into the rhythm of life in the circus. My favorite part was watching the aerialists from backstage. Benders not so much. They made me queasy.

Circus life was hard work, harder than I’d expected. Didn’t need to worry about going to the gym. I’d only been there a week and thought I was in decent shape, but I had to go up a notch on my belt to keep my pants from falling off.

It was closing in on three AM. I sat in Spence’s office, and he poured us both a drink. The midway hadn’t shut down until two to take advantage of the sizeable crowds. The Halloween Homecoming had been a runaway success. There was an afternoon matinee tomorrow, but for all intents and purposes, this season had ended with a bang.

Spence got up and stood near a picture of four elephants. I recognized Queenie, Peanut, and Ellie. Didn’t know the fourth, but suspected it was Rorschach. I coughed after guzzling a little too much of the liquor. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Spence had poured it from a crystal decanter, and I’d assumed it was whiskey, but I was wrong. It was not like anything I’d ever tasted, but I could pick out a few familiar flavors. Anise. Honey. Vinegar.

My head drooped against my chest. My normal bedtime was about five hours ago. Spence was talking. His words meant something, but I was too tired to understand what. I’d figure it out in the morning.

“C’mon.” Spence opened the door.

I stumbled after him, even less coordinated than I expected.

Queenie, Ellie, and Peanut stood in their stalls, stuffing hay into their mouths. Well, Ellie and Peanut were. Queenie stood quietly, facing us.

I leaned against the bars to hold myself up. “I should probably hit the sack. I’m beat.”

“In a minute. I want you to see something.”

“It can’t wait until morning?”

He had the same unpleasant expression his sister did—a grimace that was more snarl than smile. It made my skin crawl.

Something touched my hair and I jumped. It was Queenie, stroking my head with her trunk. “Well? What do you want to show me?”

Spence whistled an unfamiliar tune.

Queenie’s trunk shot out like a snake and pulled me hard against the bars. Something else wrapped around my right leg, then my left arm. I looked down to see two more elephant trunks. Another one grabbed my left leg.

Wait. Four? “Queenie!” I grunted. “Let go!” She ignored me. “Spence?”

He stood there in the darkness. “Sorry, Terry.”

The elephant tugged harder, as if she was trying to pull me through the bars. My ribs ached, like they would crack at any moment. I gasped for air. Instinctively, I lowered my head and bit down as hard as I could on the tender tip of Queenie’s trunk, clamping down until she released me, bellowing in pain.

I staggered away from the bars, out of reach. I don’t know what that thing was that stood behind the bars, but it wasn’t the Queenie I knew. Six trunks flailed like angry snakes in front of her face. Her head had widened and a third eye, smoldering red like the other two, had appeared in the middle of her forehead.

Teeth—not elephant teeth, but knife-blade piranha teeth—glistened in the slime that oozed from her mouth. My head swam. I tried to shake it off as I bolted for the door. Spence stuck out a boot and tripped me. I sprawled on the concrete, busting my lip and skinning my knee, but somehow I was back on my feet and running in an instant. I raced to my tiny house, locked the door, and hid under the bed.

What was in that drink? LSD? I forced myself to take deep breaths. Calm down, Terry. You’re so tired you’re hallucinating.

Feet crunched on the gravel path outside the house. No. No, no, no, no.

“Teeeerry. I know you’re in there. I can smell you. Come on out.” Spence sounded like he was trying to coax a lost kitten out of a tree.  

This isn’t happening. None of this is real. But I didn’t move from my hiding place.

Glass shattered in the front room. The front door opened, and heavy footsteps crunched on the remains of the window.

“Teeeeerry. Come out, come out wherever you are.”

I held my breath, feeling like I was going to lose my lunch at any second. The house had only two rooms: a living room with a kitchenette and a bedroom. If I wasn’t in the front room…

Spence whistled as he strolled through my house. That same weird tune from earlier. In the gap between the bedspread and the floor, I could see black boots, each footfall on the wood floor like a sledgehammer blow.

The boots stopped right in front of my face at the end of the bed. “Bingo.”

The double window above the bed shattered, and glass rained on the floor. Suddenly, the bed was picked up and tossed onto its side.

Six trunks had swarmed in from the broken window, searching for me. I wasn’t sure I was out of reach.

Spence shook his head. “You’re making this so much harder than it has to be, Terry.”

I scooted backward, slicing my palm on a shard of window. A trunk stretched toward my head, getting longer as I retreated until I hit the wall. It found my foot and dragged me toward the gaping hole where the window used to be. I clawed at the area rug, but only succeeded in bringing it with me.

The elephant figurine had been knocked to the floor and lay in the window debris. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was the only one I had. I grabbed the statuette, and it almost slipped out of my blood-slicked hand. But I held on and bashed the trunk that was tugging me up through the ruined window.

There was a sizzle, and I almost gagged on the acrid smell of burning flesh. Queenie screamed, dropping me onto the wood floor. Before I could get up, the other five trunks wrapped around my arms and legs, and I thought my shoulder was going to dislocate as she tugged and shook my arm, trying to make me drop the pewter elephant.

I don’t know how I held on to it. Maybe because the drying blood had become sticky.

Queenie squeezed my arm so tightly I started losing feeling in it. If I dropped the figurine, that would be the end of me.

I struggled, trying to turn my body and break her hold. She shook me and I felt like a mouse in the jaws of a cat. I wasn’t going to fit through that broken window. Not in one piece, anyway. Jagged glass studded the frame. I kicked my legs, trying to maneuver one of her trunks onto a sharp edge. No luck.

The monstrous elephant pulled me against the window frame. My body was being crushed against the center bar and I fought for air. As my body contorted, I heard a pop. I hoped it was the wood and not my spine. My arm slid toward my thigh.

The figurine brushed one of Queenie’s trunks.

She bellowed, and her grip loosened.

I smashed the statuette into her other trunks, burning them, too. She let go and jerked them from the window, dropping me into the broken glass. As I struggled for breath, I heard her thudding footsteps retreat into the darkness.

“What did you do?” Spence growled.

I whirled on him. His eyes were reptilian. Gold with vertical pupils. I almost dropped the statuette.

“Where did you get that?” he snarled as he backed away from me.

“At Orpheus.”

“No, you didn’t. We’d never carry something like that.” Then he growled, a low rumble deep in his chest. “Fleur,” he muttered just loud enough for me to hear before fleeing out the door.

I huddled in my closet until dawn, pewter elephant clutched in my hand. As soon as the sun bobbed above the horizon, I threw my few possessions into my steamer trunks and hit the road, with no idea where I was going, just wanting to put as much distance as possible between me and Dante, Florida. I got on I-10 and headed west.

Two days later, I was at the edge of a town whose name I can’t remember, sitting in a twenty-four-hour diner having stale coffee and a questionable piece of cherry pie. This had turned out to be a whole lot more adventure than I’d bargained for. Maybe what I really needed was a place in a small town. Just an anonymous retiree with a little house I could lock and leave when I wanted to travel. There’d have to be some things to do in the area, of course. But an out of the way place, a friendly backwater where a circus was not likely to visit. I’d had enough circus excitement for the next three lifetimes.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to the TV that hung above the end of the counter, but a video of a fire caught my eye. The volume was off, but I read the chyron.

“Overnight, the winter quarters of the Ninth Circle Circus burned to the ground. The compound housed a circus troupe during the off season, and the small town of Dante had built up around it.” The video switched to a still of a young woman, face smeared in soot. I almost choked on my cold coffee. It was Fleur, the contortionist. “Tragically, firefighters have only been able to rescue a single resident. Cadaver dogs have been called in, but no bodies have been recovered as of yet.”

I didn’t know what had happened. Had Fleur torched the camp? Or had they left her behind in the flames? Heck, maybe Queenie was so furious about being denied her…sacrifice that she lit it up. Either way, I needed to put more space between me and Dante. If it weren’t for the nasty cut on my hand, I would have chalked the whole thing up to a doctored drink. But that raised its own questions. I didn’t think there was a reason for them to come after me, but then again, I didn’t think I was going to get attacked by some perversion of an elephant, either.

I pushed away my half-eaten pie. Grabbing my check and heading to the door, I rubbed the bejeweled elephant in my pocket like a worry stone.

An extra dose of luck never hurt anybody.

True Crime Society

 True Crime Society

“Welcome to our virtual meeting for the Houston chapter of the True Crime Society. It’s Tuesday night live!” Elizabeth smiled at the screen, and stacks of electronic boxes filled with people, smiled back. So far, twenty-seven people had joined.

“We’ll just wait a few minutes before we get started to make sure any stragglers have a chance to get signed in. How’s everybody been this week?”

A woman in a bright yellow shirt began mouthing words, but there was no sound.

“Susan, you’re muted, hon.”

Susan squinted at her screen for a moment. “Can you hear me now?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I just wanted to let everybody know that I’m spending my lunch hour walking in the park. It’s like a mini vacation, you know, to get out of the house and just have a change of scenery. And guess what? I’ve lost five pounds!”

Other members clapped, and there were responses of “Way to go!” “Good for you!”

“Oh, oh, oh!” A young woman with a green China doll haircut and bee sting lips waved her hand. “My uncle got out of the hospital. Nobody thought he was going to make it.”

“Oh, that’s excellent news, Leslie.” Elizabeth smiled and nodded.

A name appeared in the waiting room. Alex Ridgeway. That’s the guy that signed up yesterday afternoon. She clicked the button and admitted him to the call.

A woman with long dark hair appeared in a new box.

Oops! Guess it’s an Alexandra, not an Alexander. “Welcome, Alex. This is our newest member. She joined online yesterday after watching the video on our Insta. Thank you, Patricia, for making that.”

Patricia grinned. “I had a blast doing it.”

Elizabeth shifted her microphone. “Alex, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself, then we’ll get started with our speaker.” Is that barbeque sauce on your cheek? You should always do a mirror check before you turn the camera on.

A faint yowl and a thump came from somewhere. Alex looked over her shoulder, then turned back to face the camera. “The cat’s knocked something over. I was just really curious about the group, so I thought I’d log in and check it out. Killers are fascinating. So, yeah…here I am.”

Alex looked over her shoulder again, then reached up and adjusted her webcam so that it was focused more on her chin and decolletage.

Elizabeth cringed. Can she not see her feed? “Alright, then. Without further ado, I’d like to welcome Agent Samuel Berkowitz of the FBI. He’s with the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, and he specializes in counter-terrorism. His latest book, Free Radical, is about how people get lured into violent organizations, and how to get them back out again. Alright, Sam, take it away.”

“Good evening. I’d like to thank Elizabeth DeSalvo for that great introduction – she made me sound really good. Hope I don’t disappoint. We’re all here together tonight due to the miracle of the internet. Amazing thing, the World Wide Web. Don’t you all agree?”

The people who had their cameras on nodded.

“Now, despite its many charms, the web has a dark side. You don’t know who’s really lurking on the other side of your screen.”

The bang of a slamming door made everyone jump.

Elizabeth broke in, “I’m just going to put everyone on mute. Sorry. I should have done that earlier.”

She glanced at Alex, who was watching something over her shoulder.

“Now, as I was saying,” Agent Berkowitz started.

A young, sandy-haired man appeared in the hallway over Alex’s shoulder. Elizabeth sighed with relief. At least there was someone there with her. Elizabeth had been getting concerned, as the new member had seemed very distracted by noises going on behind her.

Alex swiveled completely around to face the man. He charged at her, rage distorting his face. She just sat there, arms in front as if she were holding something in her lap.

Elizabeth fumbled for her mouse. It took her three tries to click the “Unmute All” button.

“Alex! Alex, run!”

She stood up just as the man reached her. The webcam got knocked over, and there was only a view of a laptop keyboard.

The crack of a gunshot ripped through Elizabeth’s headphones, followed closely by a guttural scream. Oh. My. God. “Alex! Alex!”

Her rectangle disappeared as her connection dropped.

“Elizabeth!” Berkowitz shouted. “Call 9-1-1. Do it now.”

She almost dropped her phone twice, her hands were shaking so badly.

“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”

The phone connected to the computer by Bluetooth, causing an echo as the conversation played out over the video conference.

“She’s been shot.” Elizabeth’s voice was so high and thin she didn’t recognize herself.

“Who’s been shot?”

“A-a-alex. We were on a virtual meeting. This man just walked in and shot her. We all saw it.”

“What’s the address ma’am?”

“I. I don’t know. It’s all virtual. She was new…”

“Do you have a membership database?” Berkowitz asked.

“Yes. Of course! Aileen? Are you still-”

“I’m here! Hold on a sec…” Her fingers tapped furiously on the keyboard. “Got it! Alex Ridgeway, 2001 Green River Road, #1130.”

Elizabeth repeated it to the dispatcher.

“Thank you, ma’am. Emergency services are on the way. Are you able to see the victim?”

“No. She disconnected.”

“I see. Can you describe what happened?”

Elizabeth told her what she’d seen. The little red circle in the upper right of her screen caught her eye. “The whole thing is recorded! It was for a webinar, but…”

“Excellent. I need your contact information. A detective may stop by later this evening.”

Elizabeth looked at the wastebasket near her feet. She thought she might vomit. But she managed to give the 9-1-1 operator her details.

Some of the True Crime Society members had signed off, but most were still on. Including Agent Berkowitz. This was the closest most of them had been to a true crime. Elizabeth just wanted to crawl into bed and hide under her covers.

“Okay, then,” Agent Berkowitz said. “I think we’d better save this talk for another time. Is everyone okay?”

Elizabeth could see his eyes scanning the screen full of pale faces. She wasn’t so sure she could answer ‘yes’ to his question.

“It’s normal to be shaken up,” Berkowitz said, looking at each individual frame. “Your body has a strong reaction to violence, because, well, you could be next. If your hands are shaking, you feel nausea, and your breathing is shallow, that’s the adrenalin that flooded through your body when the flight-or-fight reaction kicked in. It’ll pass as the excess adrenalin leaves your system, but it can’t hurt to talk to someone about it – seeing violence first-hand like that can affect the witness almost as much as the victim.”

“Thank you, Agent Berkowitz. I will, um, contact you later in the week.”

“Certainly. When you give the police everyone’s contact information, make sure they know I’m an FBI agent. I’m more than happy to assist with the case, if they would like.”

“I’ll do that.”

Berkowitz dropped off the call.

“Alright, everybody. Stay safe. Go hug your loved ones. We’ll reconvene next week. Good night.”

Elizabeth shut down the call, then got up to make herself a cup of hot tea. She sat on her couch, covered with an afghan, sipping the hot drink and staring out the sliding glass door to the back yard.

It didn’t help. It took another four hours for her to finally feel like she was winding down. She’d just stood up to get ready for bed when the doorbell rang. Elizabeth padded softly on bare feet to peer through the peephole. Two dark-haired men in suits stood there.

“Who is it?”

“Police, ma’am. Detectives Lucas and Rader.”

“Hold your ID up to the peephole.” She was half expecting them, but she was still spooked at the thought of strangers at her door.

They held them up, but between the dim porch light and the fish-eye distortion, Elizabeth couldn’t tell if they were real or fake. But neither looked like the killer. “What do you want?”

“We just need to ask you some questions about the Alex Ridgeway incident.”

They must be real if they know the details. Elizabeth flung open the door. “Come in, come in.”

She led them to the living room. “Can I offer you anything to drink?”

The one that she thought was Rader said, “No, thank you.”

“So, how can I help you?”

“The dispatcher said you might have a recording of the incident,” Lucas replied.

“Yes.” Elizabeth moved to the desk in the far corner and woke the laptop. Once she found the recording of the virtual meeting, she clicked on it and said, “I don’t want to watch this again. I’ll go in the kitchen and get myself some water.”

Rader nodded, his eyes softening. “Yes ma’am. I think that’s a great idea.”

When Elizabeth heard the gunshot, she drank most of the water and had to refill her glass.

“Ma’am?” Detective Lucas called. “Could you send this to me?”

Elizabeth came back into the living room. “Of course. Do you have a card with your email on it?”

“Yes.” He reached into his pocket and drew out a fancy metal business card case. Mother of pearl gleamed on the inside as he opened it.

Elizabeth sat back down at her computer. “I’ll load it up to the cloud, then send you a link. I think it’s too big to email.”

“If you could get a list of all the attendees and their contact information, that’d be helpful.”

“Already downloaded.” She started to upload the video.

“So you’ve never actually met Alex Ridgeway, is that correct?” Lucas asked.

“Yes, that’s correct. Is Alex okay?” Elizabeth suspected she already knew the answer.

Detective Rader shook his head. “No, ma’am. I’m sorry. If it’s any comfort, the cat will be okay, though.”


“Ridgeway’s cat. Yes. It came through the surgery just fine.”

Elizabeth’s hand flew to her mouth. “What happened to it?”

“The intruder stabbed it, but lucky for the cat, missed any vital organs.”

“How awful. As I said before, I didn’t really know Alex, but she seemed nice.”

The detectives looked at each other. Lucas pulled out his cell phone and scrolled around on it for a moment. He showed her a photo of a young man. Sandy blond hair. Blue eyes.

Elizabeth leaned back. “That’s the killer.”

Detective Lucas shook his head. “No, ma’am. That’s Alex Ridgeway.”

The Wallpaper Lady

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

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?”


Listen to Campfire Here





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.


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.”


“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.


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.
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.
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.”
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.