Helena LaRose dragged the body out of the house and rolled it up and across the canopied swing on her front porch. First went the feet, then the torso. By the time she got to its flailing head, the rules of motion took over, and the corpse moved itself. Its weight caused the creaky three-seater bench with the weathered cushions to rock, hitting Helena straight in the kneecaps as it swung forward.

“Easy there, Sport,” she said, reaching forward and slowing the swing to a halt. “There will be no swingers on the porch tonight. I’ve got a reputation to maintain.” If the corpse was trying to get one more kick at her, it would have to do better than that.

Taking a step back to observe her handiwork, Helena knew that something wasn’t quite right in Deadville. “I should have thought more about this,” she said to herself, struggling to prop the body upright. “He’s just not a looker.” His lifeless arms flopped around her, hitting her in the head. “Son of a bitch,” she sighed.

She brushed back a strand of dark hair that had fallen in front of her eyes, and put her hands on her hips in exasperation. Moving cadavers around had certainly been a lot easier when she was younger.

“Do you need some help there, Helena?” asked the old man who had been silently viewing the entire scene from the sidewalk. “I don’t think he’s obeying the laws of physics. I’m pretty sure dead weight isn’t supposed to move around.”

She jumped. There was nothing worse than being caught in the act. She had hoped to keep things undercover a little longer. Timing never had been her thing.

She turned and gave her neighbor a wary smile. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to sit in the rocker today, Mr. Wagner. I know you’d prefer to stretch out on the swing for a bit of a rest on your afternoon walk, but it’s occupied at the moment.”

“So I see,” Mr. Wagner said, taking it all in stride. He sat down in the pine rocking chair next to his usual spot. “I guess I could break from my routine just for today.”

“Thank you,” Helena replied.

Mr. Wagner glanced at the body and pouted. “You’ve covered him with my blanket. The one you always give me to use. Do you think you can get me another one? I’d take it from him, but there’s just something unsettling about using a blanket that has covered a dead guy.”

“I’ve got another blanket ready for you, Mr. Wagner. It’s in the front hall. Cotton. I know wool makes you itch. The newspaper is there, too. I’ll get them both for you.”

“Don’t get old, Helena,” he sighed. “It’s a bitch. Stay young and beautiful like you are.”

Helena laughed. At fifty-eight, she was hardly young, but there was some kind of ageless beauty about her that was hard to dismiss.

“Young is a relative thing, but thanks, Mr. Wagner. How about I put the kettle on for us while I’m inside?”

“Can I have regular orange pekoe today?” he pleaded. “None of that herbal stuff?”

“Do you really think you should, Mr. Wagner? The anti-oxidant level is so much higher in the rooibos I blended for you.”

“Helena, stop being the naturopath that you are and give an old man a decent cup of tea. I’ll sign a waiver if you like. I rely on a little caffeine to keep my eighty-three year old heart pumping. I like coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon and a stiff shot of scotch at night. Write that down in case your doctor books don’t cover the real secret to a long life.”

“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Wagner,” she laughed. “Just don’t let it get around. It’s bad for my business. I spend a lot of time telling my clients that peppermint tea is the elixir of life. You’re right though, peppermint schnapps may be closer to the truth.”

“Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder,” he winked wryly, smirking at his pun. There was nothing wrong with Mr. Wagner’s mind. He was sharp as a tack.

Helena watched him stretch his age-spotted finger in the direction of the body.

“Your man there, he’s got a problem,” he announced. “His leg has slid down to the floor. They’re the first things to go, you know. Legs. For me it was the knees. Do you want me to make him sit up so the kids don’t trip over him later tonight?”

Helena didn’t hear him. She was staring towards the house, her mind evidently elsewhere.

“Hello? Earth to HEL-EY-NAH...” he said slowly, emphasizing each syllable of her name. “I SAID, do you want me to fix him? Are you going deaf? Do I have to shake you senseless? That’s what people do to me when I have my hearing aid turned down too low.”

He tugged at her skirt. A very short skirt that showed off her magnificently toned legs. He knew that would get her attention. It certainly got his. He might be an octogenarian, but certain things still worked. As much as that thought may have bothered some women —hell, it might have downright creeped them out he often flirted with Helena and she didn’t seem to mind it in the least.

Helena turned her head back towards him. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Wagner. Honestly, I don’t know where my head is today. I had all this running around to do this morning, even before I got started getting the house spooked-out for tonight. I guess I tired myself out, putting up all the Halloween decorations. If you could help me with the body, that would be wonderful.”

“I like the cobwebs you put up. You didn’t have to buy them though, I have plenty at home I could have lent you.”

Expecting a witty comeback from her, Mr. Wagner was concerned when he didn’t get one. “Is everything okay, Helena?”

She cocked her head slightly and took a slow look around her front property. “Yes, although the hairs on the back of my neck seem to be a little over-active today. I can’t put my finger on why that is. It must just be the occasion. I love Halloween, don’t you, Mr. Wagner?”

“It’s a lot more fun since you moved onto the street,” he admitted.

“The house is really going to look spooky this year. I’ve rented some strobe lights and a fog machine from a special-fx place in the city. You’ll have to come by and see it tonight. I think it will be quite something.”

“I’m sure it will be. I’m a big fan of your Halloween house, you know that,” Mr. Wagner said. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Thanks, Mr. Wagner. I’m just a little worried. Most of the neighborhood kids are getting older now. They’re harder to impress.” She looked at her watch. “I thought I’d be done setting up by now, but Mr. Death-warmed-over, he’s just not co-operating.”

“Dead men are like that,” Mr. Wagner said.

“It’s not just the dead men,” Helena laughed.

“That’s better. I thought for a moment you were losing your sense of humor. If there’s anything else I can do to help, besides fixing his leg, you just let me know. I’m not totally feeble. I can still tape up a decoration or two.”

He stood up and walked over to the body. The rubber mask that Helena had stuffed for the head was pretty realistic. Under the shadow of night it was going to be more so. He noticed the male clothing that she had stuffed to make the body. It seemed somehow familiar. A twinge of jealousy ran through his veins. He didn’t like to think about Helena having a boyfriend.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Wagner,” Helena sighed. “I don’t know what I’d do without you. See if you can prop him up a bit while you’re at it. Maybe you can make it look like he’s watching the kids coming up the stairs. That would be kind of scary, don’t you think?”

“Oh, I’m sure it will be very scary tonight,” he agreed.

“I think so too. Now, if you don’t mind,” she said, walking towards the front door, “I’ve got to go upstairs and get the rooms ready for my girls. Oh, I haven’t told you, have I? My daughter and granddaughter are coming tonight to stay with me for a while. They called late last night and told me. That’s probably why I’m in such a tizzy. It’s all so sudden. I haven’t even gotten around to making up their beds yet. Aren’t I terrible? But don’t worry, I’ll bring you out some sweets in a few minutes, I promise. You just make yourself at home.”

“The blanket and the paper?” he reminded her, shaking his head. “I’d actually prefer that to sweets if you have too many things to remember today.” He started to move the body on the swing. “I think it looks better lying down,” he said. “But I’m going to turn him around like you said, so he can watch the kids coming up the walkway.”

“You are now officially in charge of the dead guy, Mr. Wagner. That’s one less thing for me to worry about today. I will entrust you to make it look real.”

“When you’re in your eighties, you get to be a bit of an expert on dead guys,” he shrugged. “It’s nice that you’re going to be having some company. I don’t want you to be lonely.”

“How can I be lonely with you around, Mr. Wagner?” She sensed a note of sorrow in his voice. “You’re like family to me. Telling me all the who’s who and what’s what when I first moved here, to Troy. I never would have guessed that Burt McGee was the preacher’s illegitimate son. Not in a million years.”

“Well, I still don’t know how you figured out that Liz Delaney and Stacey Freeman were two sisters who were separated at birth. They don’t even look alike. One’s a redhead and one’s a blonde. That might be close enough to call, I suppose, but one is a lot uglier than the other.”

“Call it woman’s intuition,” Helena laughed.

“You’ve got more than your fair share of that, girlie,” Mr. Wagner winked. “I sometimes wonder whether you’ve got that E.S.P. thing going on. I really hope you don’t, because if you really could read my mind, we probably wouldn’t be friends.”

“I’m afraid I’m not very good at reading people’s minds, Mr. Wagner. Although I know a few people who can.” She paused for a moment, her lips coming together tightly in a grimace. “You’d think they’d be happy with that gift, but no. Me, I’d love to be able to do it.”

Mr. Wagner looked at her, unconvinced.

“Rest assured, your deep dark secrets are safe from me,” she admitted.

A look of relief crossed the old man’s face.

“But,” Helena said, leaning in to him so close that he could smell her sandalwood perfume, “if you swear to take it to your grave, or at least lie and say you saw them both on the beach, I’ll tell you how I figured it out. The sisters have the same birthmark on their left shoulder. Identical. Shaped like a pineapple. I put two and two together when they came to my practice complaining about shoulder tension. That’s where we women carry our stress.”

“If you say so,” he said, still intoxicated by her presence. She was wearing a tight, striped sweater that was cut low both in the back, and in the front. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She had a magnificent set of ta-tas.

“It’s true, Mr. Wagner. You take a look at them next summer.”

He coughed, and she realized where his gaze was aimed.

“The sisters, Mr. Wagner. They both spend hours in the sun and they’ve got the leathered skin to prove it. I’ve got them on a vitamin E regimen.”

“If you say that’s how you figured it out, I’ll pretend I believe it,” he winked. “But I still think there’s more to you than the lovely picture you present to the world.”

“You’re always great for my ego, Mr. Wagner. I guess I do have a way with people. Well, with men anyway. Women can be a little standoffish.”

“They’re just jealous. You just ignore what Betty. Lachey is saying.”

“Why? What is Mrs. Lachey saying?”

Mr. Wagner changed the subject. “Tell you what, I won’t visit for the next little while. I’ll let you enjoy your company all by yourself. You won’t need an old man hanging around your house.”

Helena put her arm around her friend. “Nonsense. I’m sure my granddaughter Ellie will love to hear your gossip just as much as I do. She’s quite the talker herself, our Ellie. She loves Halloween, as I recall. You’ll be able to laugh about all the kids who were afraid to come up the steps. I’m sure you’ll both find that amusing.”

“Children aren’t much for stories from old folks these days,” he lamented.

“Well, Ellie’s not exactly a child. I haven’t seen her myself for a few years. She was eleven then and she’s fifteen now. I suspect she’s grown up quite a bit. I don’t know how much she remembers about me. I wouldn’t be surprised if she makes a little strange in the beginning, although I hope that it’s not strained for long. I don’t know if I remember how to talk to a teenager. It’s been a while.”

“That’s what happens,” he said sadly. “They grow up and they have no time for you.”

“Well, they do get busy,” Helena replied, knowing in her heart that the old man was right. Her only daughter Helen rarely even phoned her. Just a card on her birthday and a cheese tray at Christmas.

“That’s probably why the hairs on my neck are standing up,” she thought to herself. “Why did Helen call and ask if she and Ellie could come and stay for a while? Why now?”

Her relationship with Helen was awkward at best. It had been that way since Helen was a teenager. That’s why the phone call last night had been disturbing. There was something in her daughter’s voice that hinted there was more to the story than she was initially letting on. Something that intuitively told Helena that “Ellie wants to get to know you,” really meant “Ellie’s in danger and you’ve got to help us.” Helen never was a good liar.

“Don’t be upset if my daughter Helen doesn’t seem friendly,” Helena explained to Mr. Wagner. “She’s like that with everybody. I don’t know where she gets it from. I’ve lost track of how many languages she can speak — French, Spanish, Italian — but try and communicate on a human level? Well, that is a whole other ballgame with her. I dare you to ask her wazzup!”

“A little uptight is she? Okay, I won’t take it personally. Thanks for letting me know.” He looked at the dead man and sighed. The legs had fallen down again. “Are you sure this stubborn old coot isn’t supposed to be me? I’m starting to see a resemblance.”

“Take it easy, Mr. Wagner. Don’t let him give you a fight. I can always ask one of the Lachey boys to help me with him later.”

“Never you mind,” Mr. Wagner said. “You put me in charge of him, and come hell or high water, in charge I will be. Mr. Corpse here would frighten the bejeezies out of young Stanley. I know he just had his eighth birthday, but he’s still a bit of a baby if you ask me. You just go about your business. I’ll tend to our friend here. I’ll be fine. It takes me a while longer to do things, but I have no plans for the rest of the afternoon. Especially since it looks like I won’t be doing any newspaper reading anytime soon.”

“Maybe I didn’t make the legs right,” Helena said, oblivious to his remark. “Anatomy wasn’t my strong subject. I probably spent too much time on the head. Did you notice the wound I made?”

“You mean the slit eyeball?”

“I spent a lot of time getting the blood on it just right.”

“I can see that. Wonderful job. Brian De Palma would be proud. Now go and make the beds or do whatever you need to do. Leave him to the master. I’ll set those legs straight. I’ll make the man look like rigor mortis has set in.”

Helena laughed. “Oh Mr. Wagner, you kill me. Well, not really, but you know what I mean. You’ve got quite the funny bone. Tell you what, I’ll take you up on that offer and leave you to it. I’ll be back in just a bit. If you need anything, just holler.”

“Maybe there’s another blanket up there in one of the bedrooms?” Mr. Wagner asked hopefully, but Helena had already turned away, leaving him alone on the porch.

“I might as well join you on the swing,” he said to the body, “for all the attention I’m getting around here today.”

Helena walked into the house and headed straight for the family-sized kitchen. She quickly filled the tea kettle with water, placed it on the stove burner and turned it on. The water would take a few minutes to boil, allowing her time to rush upstairs and check the bedrooms.

She ran up the staircase faster than she had ever done before. It winded her slightly, and she made a mental note to bring the exercise bicycle out of storage for the winter.

Standing inside the converted attic bedroom on what was the third floor of the old house, she took a look around the normally unused room. It was a good size, with plenty of closet space that could be used for a teenager’s endless wardrobe. As an added feature, there was a door opening to a little balcony above the second floor. Helena knew Helen would be envious, but she wanted Ellie to have this room. It would offer the teenaged girl the privacy Helena knew Ellie would covet at that age. It would also put a floor between Ellie and her mother, and that was probably also a good thing at this point in all their lives. But it needed a good dusting before nightfall.

“So much to do, so little time,” Helena sighed. She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. She could hear the swing creaking on the porch, but soon tuned it out. She was listening for non-earthly sounds. “You’re not fooling me,” she said aloud. “I can feel it. The winds of change are blowing around me, and I can tell they are not fair weather winds. So help me, if you mess with my family, I will kick your ass.”

Her green eyes opened slowly and she looked around the room. There was no sign that anyone else was there, or that anyone else had heard her. “I need to get this room ready for Ellie,” she said, not convinced. “So don’t even start.”

Shaking off the shiver that was running down her spine, she walked over to the old oak mirror hanging on the wall. She was overwhelmed with the need to look over her own shoulder. “Not that you’d show up anyway,” she acknowledged, gazing into the reflection. “At least not during the day.”

She paused as if she were waiting for an answer. The room offered her none. “I hope I’ve made myself perfectly clear.”

Taking some sheets from the closet, Helena made up the bed. Ellie’s bed. That thrilled her. Never in a million years did she think her granddaughter would ever be under her roof.

She spread out a handmade quilt that some Amish friends had painstakingly made for her years ago. The design was constructed from several pieces of patterned fabric laid out like stained-glass windows, all on an off-white background. It wasn’t the most modern of bedspreads, but it would be warm. The room at the top of the stairs got quite chilly at night. Besides, if Ellie didn’t like the bedspread, they could always take a trip together into the city for a bed-in-a-bag. She wouldn’t take it personally. It was a teenager’s prerogative to hate things. In the meantime, the covert religious symbolism might not be such a bad thing ― the crosses in the pattern covering her granddaughter at night. It most likely wouldn’t mean anything to Ellie, but it would make Helena sleep better, given the foreboding sensations of doom she was having.

Helen, though…Helen would be another story. Helen was smart. She’d figure out the symbolism of the bed covering in about thirty seconds and there would be hell to pay. Hell that would go on forever. “Not good,” Helena said, deciding to roll back the bedspread to the foot of the bed. “What Helen doesn’t know won’t hurt her. At least for now,” she said, opening the balcony door to let some fresh air into Ellie’s room.

Leaving the door open behind her, Helena went down the flight of stairs to the second floor and headed for the room at the back of the house that would become Helen’s.

That decision would have its own problems. Having her daughter sleeping down the hall meant Helena was going to have to behave herself. But other than banishing her daughter to the cottage in the backyard— the space she used as her medical officewhere was Helen to sleep? She laughed. There were only three bedrooms in the house. The room with the gaudy peony-covered wallpaper that had been left by the previous owner really was the only answer. Her daughter Helen would hate it. That thought made Helena laugh a little harder.

“I’ll be nice when she gets here,” Helena promised herself. “Okay, at least I’ll try to be nice.”

She gave the room a once-over. She regularly vacuumed the entire second floor, so there were no cob-webs in the corners of the windows, or dust bunnies under the bed. She knew Helen would check.

Satisfied, she went down the hall and peeked in to her own bedroom, the master. It was tidy enough for company. She looked around for telltale signs of her personal life. Everything that needed to be hidden was.

Low whistles from somewhere outside the room interrupted her train of thought and made her feel afraid. “No,” she whispered, turning at the noise. “Not now. The girls are coming.”

She listened intently for more telltale sounds. Then she remembered—the tea! She gave her head a shake. A sense of relief warmed her veins. The sound was coming from the kitchen. She had completely forgotten about the orange pekoe. Poor Mr. Wagner!

She ran downstairs and threw a couple of teabags directly into the whistling kettle. There wasn’t much point trying to be fancy. She hoped he would forgive her. “Tea, paper, blanket,” she said as she gathered everything up and headed outside to the front porch.

It was too late. Mr. Wagner had left.

Helena put the tea down on the seat of the now empty rocking chair. Across from it was a perfectly positioned stuffed dead body lying across the swing. Apparently the corpse had won that battle and remained supine despite Mr. Wagner’s best intentions. The blanket had thoughtfully been placed over it so the neighborhood kids wouldn’t see it too early.

“Nice job, Mr. Wagner,” she sighed. “I guess I’ll see you later.”





“Do you have to bring that?” Helen Bocelli pleaded with her daughter.

“Yes I do,” Ellie replied, holding the yellow ragged teddy bear under her arm. “It’s my continuity. You may have moved me several times in my life, city-to-city, uncle-to-uncle, dad-to-dad, wherever — but Beastie Bear here, he always comes with me. Taking away my security so early in life could cause irreparable damage. I would have thought that was covered in those parenting magazines you’ve subscribed to over the years.”

“You’re fifteen, Ellie,” Helen sighed, “so I’ll ask you again, nicely. Isn’t it time you let go of that ragged old bear?”

Ellie looked at her mother in mocked horror, her newly applied black lipstick adding forced drama to the dropped-jaw look she was trying hard to pull off. She flicked her long black hair over her shoulder in defiance before assuming a stance of implied superiority.

“Do you have to bring THAT?” she asked her mother, pointing to a van in the driveway. “I mean, I’m glad you’re dumping him, but don’t you think it’s time you let go yourself? By law I think he gets fifty-percent of your communal property, and I’m thinking the stupid van is a good place to start. Put it on his side of the equation.”

      Helen studied the white vehicle. It was an eyesore. “I’m just borrowing it, Ellie,” she said. “Our stuff won’t fit in the back of the BMW. I have to get us to your Nan’s somehow.”

      “In a van marked ‘TONY’S EXTERMINATING SERVICE’? I’m sure Nan will be impressed. I can hear her neighbors now. ‘Do you have cockroaches, Mrs. LaRose’? No, that’s just my daughter and granddaughter coming to live with me for a while. They like to travel in style.”

      Helen sighed.

      “Think about this, Mom,” Ellie continued. “Do you actually think it will be easy for me to make friends when my mother makes me show up in a bug-mobile? Like, hello?”

      Helen looked for the slightest sign of compassion in her daughter’s make-up blackened eyes. There was none.

      “What?” Ellie asked. “Is there something wrong with my thought process or something? I’m a straight-A student, so that would be a bit questionable, but I suppose it could happen.”

      Helen admitted to herself that her daughter had a point.

      “I know, I know. Just get in the van, Ellie,” she sighed. “I’ll be bringing it back to Tony once we’ve settled in.” She felt a loose strand of hair fall down across her neck. She reached back and placed it back into the bun at the back of her head.

      There is nothing worse, Helen thought to herself, than having a fifteen-year-old daughter who is more together than you are.

      Helen had agonized about leaving her husband Tony and moving Ellie to a new home for weeks, but Ellie had packed her bags in less than an hour when she had told her the news. In fact, Helen realized, it was almost as if Ellie had been expecting it.

      “Don’t your feel just a little bit sad, Ellie?” she asked, throwing the last suitcase into the van.

      Ellie could barely contain herself. “He’s a loser, Mom,” she said. “Always was, always will be. I don’t know what you ever saw in him. He’s not good looking, he’s not rich, he’s just ― hairy. But I’ll pretend to be sad if you want me to be.”

      Ellie pouted, pulling her black lipsticked bottom lip out as far as she could, just for effect.

      Helen thought for a moment before answering her daughter. Tony was ungodly hairy. “What did I see in him? I don’t know. I suppose I was looking for a protector for us. Tony is big and strong. He’s really a nice man, Ellie. You just never gave him a chance.”

      “Do you have one of those fun-house mirrors in your bedroom or something? Tony? Big and strong?” Ellie snapped back. “Mom, the man has a complex. He likes to kill things for a living. He keeps referring to himself in the third person as “The Exterminator,” in this weird Schwarzenegger-type voice. That alone should have been your first clue. Is he Austrian? No. Should he really have an accent of any kind? No. He was born here. Has he ever even been to a foreign country? No. He’s a suburban-pest-controller-hit-man-wanna-be and I’m glad we’re leaving.”

      “How do you really feel, Ellie?” Helen commented, opening the passenger door angrily. Ellie had pushed her too far. “Get in the van. Enough of the lip for a little while, okay? I want to get to Nan's before it gets too late. And for your information, Tony and I went to an exterminator conference once, in Mexico. So he has been out of the country. For a day or two.”

      “There’s really such a thing as an exterminator conference?” Ellie rolled her eyes at her mother. “I stand corrected.”

      “Grow up, Ellie,” Helen said, hopping into the driver’s seat and fastening her seatbelt. She started the van up. The muffler made a huge racket.

      “So much for sneaking into town,” Ellie said. “I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with making a grand entrance. It’s a good thing I’m flexible. Be proud that you’ve raised a daughter that isn’t frightened by change. I’ll go far in life.”

      As Helen put the van into gear, Beastie Bear did a face-plant from his spot on the dashboard.

      “It’s probably from the fumes in this van,” Ellie commented. “Can’t you smell it, Mom? It’s disgusting in here. It’s kind of a mix of powdered insecticide, dead bugs, an old gym bag and a hint of pepperoni. There may even be notes of alcohol on the nose, and that’s not good for a scent. Eau-de-knock-off.” She reached down and pulled a beer bottle out from under her seat. “Ah ha! The nose never lies.”

      Rolling down the window, Ellie tossed the bottle onto the lawn, much to her mother’s dismay. “We wouldn’t want to be pulled over with it in the car, would we?" Ellie asked with mock innocence. “That muffler is like a magnet for the cops. Come ticket me, I’m noisy. Hmm, maybe I’d better check under your seat too, Mom.”

      Helen took a sniff of the air. There was an odd chemical smell in the vehicle, but that was pretty much an occupational hazard. “Okay, you’re right about the van. I’ll get it back here and make the swap for the convertible as soon as I can.” She looked over at Beastie Bear. He looked like he had passed out. “Tell you what, Ellie,” she said, reaching over and propping him back up, “I’ll let you out around the block from Nan’s if you’d like, okay? You don’t have to show up in the van. I’d walk with you, but you know, we’ve got all this baggage we’re carrying. I mean luggage. Wrong choice of noun.”

      Ellie laughed. “Thanks Mom, but you’ll need my smart mouth around to protect you when the neighbors see the van. You haven’t stood up to verbal abuse very well lately.”

      Right again, Helen thought. There was a time when she could joust with her daughter for hours, quite impressed with the vocabulary of her child. But now Ellie was a teenager and that same vocabulary was thrown at her in a whole new way. And even though her daughter probably needed her more than ever, lately Helen’s own words of wisdom had been coming out all wrong, or worse yet, not at all.

      “I could follow you in the Beemer. I know how to drive,” Ellie pleaded hopefully.

      “How do you know how to drive?” Helen screeched, without realizing she was doing so. “Never mind. I don’t want to know. No, you can’t drive the coupe. Tony bought it for me, and I will not have you smashing it up. It took a lot of dead cockroaches to pay for that car, I’ll have you know.” She adjusted the rear view mirror. The sun was beginning to set behind them. “Wait, maybe I do want to know. Who taught you to drive? Did Tony teach you how to drive? Because he’s a really bad driver, so don’t listen to him.”

      “Tony’s bad at a lot of things, so I don’t ever listen to him. What happened to Dave?” Ellie asked, changing the subject. “I liked Dave.”

      “You were five and Dave liked you a little too much. You’re not much of a judge of character.”

      “Tony doesn’t like me at all. So much for your own character assessing abilities. I would have thought that would have mattered to you, you know, that your new husband at least be civil to your daughter. What makes you think we need a protector anyway? We were doing fine with Bill. Remember Bill? Bill was great. People used to say I looked like him, even though he wasn’t my dad. Why would you leave Bill for Tony?”

      “It’s complicated,” Helen answered. As much as she tried to be open with her daughter, there were some things she just couldn’t tell her.

      “That’s your answer to everything.”

      “Well everything is complicated.”

      “Fine,” Ellie sighed, and began to chew her black, polished fingernails. She avoided looking at her mother.

      “Are you nervous about something, Ellie?” Helen finally asked. “This nail-biting thing is relatively new for you. There’s some gum in the glove compartment, if you’d prefer to chew on lovely mint flavor rather than old nail varnish.” It seemed like only a few months ago that she had argued with Ellie about cutting the very same fingernails. They had grown so long they were starting to curl downward on their own.

      “You’re taking me to live with a woman I hardly know, in a town I’ve never heard of, where I have no friends. What’s there to be nervous about?” Ellie asked sarcastically, reaching for the glove compartment door. She opened and closed it quickly. “Don’t even ask what’s in there,” she said, her eyes opened wide in shock.

      “Ah, so underneath that cool Goth exterior you’ve personified for yourself, the old, sweet, apprehensive, Ellie of old still exists,” Helen smiled to herself.

      “Something like that. It’s complicated.”

      Her daughter was a bright one, Helen knew. Sometimes it made dealing with her all the more difficult. “I know you think I’m the most un-cool mother on the face of the earth...”

      “Don’t flatter yourself, Mom. You’re at least the third,” Ellie smirked, the corners of her mouth curling up goofily like some character on MAD TV.

      That was it. No more late night television for her, Helen decided. “As I was trying to tell you before you immaturely made that face at me — and I hope it stays that way just to teach you a lesson — I know a little about the Goth look myself, you know. It’s not exactly a new statement you’re making there. It’s been around for generations. It’s a very old European style, dating back centuries. As in, ancient. You don’t want to look ancient, do you?”

      “I don’t know about ancient, but nineteen would be good. What are you trying to say, Mom?”

      “Ellie, do you think maybe you could take off the Goth make-up before we get to Nan's?”

      Ellie looked at her mother as if she had lost her mind. “It’s my style.”

      “Look!” Helen said, pointing out the van window. “There’s a Biggie Mart. Maybe we can find you a new style.”

      “Mom, we’ve discussed this before. There’s nothing wrong with how I dress. Nothing’s too short, nothing’s hanging out—nothing. If you think about what I could be wearing, I think you’ll find you’ve got it made. I could dress like a slutty, schoolgirl/pop-star and maybe somebody like Dave would come along and…”

      “Okay, okay, I get the picture. But Ellie, look at it from my perspective. We’re going to your Nan’s, and today is Halloween. She’s going to think it’s a costume. She’ll say, ‘Ellie, you look so cute!’ But the joke will be on her when she realizes you dress like this all the time. Not just for pagan festivals, but at Christmas, and Mother’s Day, and whatever other three hundred and sixty two days of the year there are.”

      “Mom, you’re exaggerating. I take the make-up off at night. So you can take Christmas Eve out of the scenario and revise your count. Which is a little off, I might add, given that there is probably more than one pagan festival a year.”

      “That will be a relief to her, I’m sure.”

      “I’m her granddaughter. She’ll love me no matter what.”

      “You think so, do you? Try calling her ‘Grandma’. She’ll claim you belong to the neighbors.” Helen ran her finger across her throat execution style “Or kill you, so you never utter those words again.”

      “She will not.”

      “Give it a try, see what happens,” Helen shrugged.

      Ellie sadly watched in the side mirror as every familiar landmark became smaller in the distance. She tried to remember what her grandmother was like, but it had been a long time since she had seen her. She remembered liking her, and she remembered that her mother didn’t. Which made her wonder why they were going there in the first place?

      “Do you think I’m going to embarrass her or something?” Ellie asked pensively.

      “The thought had crossed my mind.”

      “And parking a van in front of her house, a van that’s side-painted with a dead cockroach lying on its back, won’t? Thanks a lot.”

      “So we’re back to the van again. I hate it when you’re right. Look, when we get to Nan's, let’s pretend we like each other, at least tonight. Okay?”

      Ellie looked at her mom, bewilderedly. “I do like you mom. Except when you treat me like a child. What did you mean by that anyway? Don’t you like me? You said ‘pretend we’.”

      The remark stung Helen. “Nothing. I’m sorry, Ellie. Of course I like you. I love you. This has just been an emotional day for me, that’s all.”

      “You can like someone without loving them, and you can love someone without liking them,” Ellie said thoughtfully.

      Maybe she was growing up after all, Helen admitted to herself. She reached over and flipped Ellie’s long black hair over her shoulder so she could see her daughter’s face. “I like and love you, Ellie. That’s also possible.”

      Helen thought for a moment she saw the slightest beginning of a smile on her daughter’s face. It didn’t last long.

      “Then why are we moving to Nan's anyway? To this Troy place? Why don’t we just move around the block or something? That way I can still be friends with Dina and go to the same school. We don’t have to move miles away just because you’ve dumped your latest husband.”

      Helen knew the tender mother-daughter moment had passed. “I’m not sure being friends with Dina is such a good thing for you. I think she’s going to get herself pregnant. It will do you good to meet some new friends. Country friends.”

      “She already is pregnant.”

      Helen sighed. “Okay, see that’s what I mean. This move is going to be so good for us.”

      “It’s not contagious or anything, being pregnant.”

      “It kind of is, Ellie. Sure, you won’t get it from her, but if it’s going around, it’s going around. And don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean, because I know you do.”

      “Is that what happened to you? Didn’t Nan move you to a small town in time?”

      Ellie had wanted to hit a nerve in her mother, and she did. A big one.

“Ellie, you’re driving me crazy. Can we change the subject please?” Helen yelled, her voice hitting decibels her daughter had never heard.

      “Then let’s go back to the real subject, which was, before we segued, why are we moving to Nan’s?”

      Ellie saw her mother panic and let go of the steering wheel, if only for a moment.

      “Mom? Are you okay? I mean, if it’s some deep dark secret you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to. I don’t have a huge issue with the unknown. If you need to keep a secret, keep a secret. I know this may come as a big surprise to you but there are some things I don’t tell you. I have some secrets too.”

      “Oh God, I don’t know if I even want to begin that conversation,” Helen thought to herself

      She knew she had become too upset to drive. Looking out the window towards the right, she saw some fast food outlets coming up, off the highway. “Are you hungry, Ellie?” she asked. Not waiting for Ellie’s answer, she pulled onto the off-ramp.

      “Well, I kind of had some pizza at Dina’s earlier,” Ellie began, watching her mother’s erratic behavior. She could see her mother was trembling. “Mom?”

      Helen pulled into the nearest drive-through and put the van in park. “I just feel safer at Nan's.”

      “Why? Are we in danger or something? You’re acting really weird. Did Tony threaten you? Because if he did, I can take him.”

      Helen smiled. If it came right down to it, Ellie probably could take him. “No, Tony didn’t threaten me. Or you.”

      “Then what’s wrong?”

      Helen hesitated. “Won’t it just be nice to live in a small town? Where everyone knows your name? Where all the neighbors say hello? I want the best for you, Ellie.”

      Tears were beginning to well up her in eyes. Not now, she told herself.

      “The hookers outside Tony’s office say hello to me all the time.”

      Helen rolled her eyes.

      “I get my eye-rolling thing from you, you know,” Ellie offered.

      Again, Ellie was right. She was right about a lot of things, but still so wrong about others. It was all part of growing up, Helen knew, but Ellie was special. Not special like every mother’s daughter is, but special in a way that only Helen and her own mother could ever possibly attempt to understand. Sooner or later, and lately it was looking like sooner, Helen was going to have to figure out a way to let Ellie understand how special she was without scaring the shit out of her. For that, she needed Helena.

      “Look, let’s just give it a chance, okay?” she pleaded. “Your Nan is so excited that we’re coming. I know you don’t know her very well, but people say she’s really nice.”

      “People? She’s your mother. Don’t you think she’s nice? Everyone else seems nice to you. You still think Tony is nice, and you’re leaving him.” She paused for a moment. “I’ve heard you tell Tony that Nan is nuts.”

      “Did I?” Helen winced. “I was exaggerating. She’s just a little eccentric.”

      “So, is she nuts in the way I think you’re nuts sometimes? Just because you’re my Mom?”

      “Yes. Exactly like that. She drives me crazy. Even more than I do you.”

      “Impossible. Like what? Tell me, what does she do?” Ellie begged.

      “Well, for example, I know you hate the way I dress as much as I hate the way you do. I’m much too conservative for your taste. You think I’m stuck in the eighties with big shoulder pads and big hair. I’ll have you know I have let go of the shoulder pads.”

      “You still have a lot of hair.”

      “Which is why I wear it up or pulled back. Having said all that, the way you dress is too deep, dark and depressing for me. I would rather see you in something a little less funeralesque. But I try to live with it. Your Nan however, well she’s just in a world of her own.”

      Ellie was suddenly enthralled. There was something about her grandmother that drove her mother batty. “What about her? Is she muumuu-ville or something?”

      “How on earth do you know what a muumuu is? That’s way before your time.”

      “I sometimes watch reruns of Three’s Company. They’re those curtain-like dresses that Mrs. Roper wore, right?”

      “Yes, but no. Your Nan is definitely not muumuu-ville. You really don’t remember much about her do you?” Helen asked. “She’s more like…”

“Like what?” she asked excitedly.

      “Like the slutty schoolgirl/pop star.”

      Ellie howled. “I love her already.”

      “And that, my darling,” Helen said, reaching across Ellie’s seat to tussle her hair, “is exactly what I am afraid of.”




      By evening, a cold wind from the north began to blow through Troy. The autumn leaves, neatly raked and piled only a few hours earlier, were now whirling around in the air. Neither the cold nor the leaves seemed to bother the little ghosts and goblins out trick or treating. For them the night was full of adventure.

      Most parents in the city preferred to bring their costumed kids to a supervised Biggie Mart party down at the mall. This wasn’t the case in Troy. Every house on the block had the porch light on, awaiting cries of “shell out, shell out, the witches are out.” The small town streets were safe enough for the excited ghouls to scamper door to door uninhibited. A few of Troy’s teenagers could be counted on to get out of hand later on in the evening, but it was only seven o’clock and there not a burning leaf bag in sight.

      One thing was for certain that night; everyone, no matter how old they were, paused to look at the LaRose house. The full moon cast an eerie shadow through the branches of Helena’s now leafless maple tree, the barren limbs forming an effigy of a hunchbacked crone. Every thirty seconds or so, Helena’s rented strobe light added to the illusion, making the shadow figure appear to boogie to a danse macabre. “Step on a crack, break the old hag’s back,” the children sang, as they hopped over the walkway to avoid stepping on the silhouette.

      “I can’t believe it’s the same house,” Wendy Robinson remarked, holding her young daughter Annie by the hand. “All summer long the porch had the most amazing display of pink and purple fuchsias, hanging down from moss-covered baskets. Helena won a blue ribbon for them from the horticultural society. What on earth is hanging there now?”

      “I think they’re spider webs,” her husband said. “It looks like the stretched cotton batting we use down at the mill. The dead guy on the porch looks pretty real. Let’s go take a closer look.”

      “How about if we just move along to the next house?” Wendy replied. “If you think I’ve forgotten the skimpy cat outfit Helena LaRose wore last year, you’re wrong.”

      As the family moved on to the neighbor’s house, a little girl, dressed in blue gingham ran behind their backs. She disappeared around the corner as fast as her little feet would take her.

      “Where’d she go?” a young boy dressed up like a cowboy asked his friend. They had just come around the corner themselves and the little girl had almost knocked them over in her rush to get away.

      “Brooke runs pretty fast, for a girl,” his ghostly companion said. He adjusted the huge sack of candy he was lugging over his shoulder. They had been to almost every house on the street and his bag was getting heavy.

      “Yeah, but…”

      “Forget her,” the ghost said to his lasso-laden friend.

      They appeared to be about the same age, but the ghost was a little bit taller and quite a bit pudgier than the cowboy.

“Let’s see what Mrs. LaRose is giving out this year,” the bigger kid said. “Last year I reached into that big cauldron on the porch and pulled out a roll of dimes. Five bucks!”

      “I only got a chocolate bar,” the cowboy lamented.

      “Everybody knows she puts the good stuff at the bottom, Stan. I dare you to do it this year. Put your arm all the way into the pot.”

      Stan Lachey was not so eager. “Something might happen to it. You don’t know this house like I do, Kevin. I heard a kid went missing here last year. Somebody dared him to go into the back yard and he’s never been seen alive since. I’m not taking any dares, that’s for sure. A chocolate bar’s not so bad. If that’s what’s on top.”

      Stan pulled the string under his chin a little tighter, ensuring his black faux-Stetson wouldn’t fall off. His hand reached down to the toy gun in his plastic holster, like he had seen many an officer do on COPS. It did little to comfort him. Taking a deep breath as he gazed at the house, he wished he had brought his inhaler. He could feel his chest tighten and wasn’t sure if it was his asthma acting up or whether he was truly going to be scared to death, right there on Maple street.

      “Don’t be such a wussie,” Kevin complained. “If the story was true, the place would have been crawling with cops. Mrs. LaRose would be in jail, not treating my mom for her sciatica, whatever that is. I'm going up to the porch. Remember last year she had that awesome scarecrow propped up in the rocking chair? There was blood coming out of his nose and his ears and white frothy stuff gagging out of his mouth—it was totally wicked.”

      Stan shuddered. He wasn’t much for blood and gore. “Shut up Kevin. Maybe I’ll just give it a miss this year.”

      Stan’s older brother Ryan, who had been casually observing the situation from his spot behind a hydro pole, approached his younger sibling. Being sixteen and too old for trick or treating, Ryan Lachey and his friend Tom Williams found themselves babysitting Stan on the annual candy raid. It would only take an hour or so, and besides, Ryan’s mom had slipped them a twenty for their troubles. They weren’t quite sure how they had gotten stuck with Kevin, but Kevin was an okay kid and Stan’s only friend, so they had let it slide.

      “We’ll use the money to get Old Man Wagner to get us some beer,” Ryan assured Tom. “And we can prowl for chicks while we’re out here. It’s like a job with benefits. That’s how I see it.”

      “Old Man Wagner’s a beer scalper,” Tom complained. “That twenty will barely get us a six-pack if we ask him to get it. He’ll make us throw in another five. He’s been ripping us off all summer.”

      “What are ya gonna do?” Ryan shrugged. “No one else believes we’re twenty-one.”

      “He doesn’t believe we’re twenty-one,” Tom replied. “He just does it. He says he’s too old to worry about jail, but not too old to make a buck or two. Cheap bastard.”

      It took a while for Tom’s assessment to register with Ryan, and even then, Ryan didn’t want to believe it.

      “He’s okay though, for a guy who’s almost dead,” he assured his friend. “My mom said he was a fucking sly dude when he was younger. The cops were always hauling his ass off for something. They ripped out his whole garden one summer in the sixties, or so my granny told her.” He took an imaginary toke and shrugged. “He probably figures—what the hell? Give the dudes some brew. Tell you what, if my mom knew he bought us beer, he would be fucking dead. So he’s okay by me. Even if he is a cheap bastard.”

      “Yeah, I guess so,” Tom said. Sometimes it was easier just to agree with Ryan than try to explain things to him.

      “Fuck. I wish I had worn a coat tonight,” Ryan admitted. He pulled down the sleeves of the jersey he wore beneath his black number twelve football jersey, but it didn’t help. He shivered. The nylon pants he wore hanging down below his crotch gangsta-style, didn’t offer much protection from the wind.

      “Fashion alert,” Tom taunted. “You can wear hoodies after September. Even jocks like you.”

      “Why don’t you tell me stuff like that before I leave the house? Shit,” he complained.

      Ryan stood six feet tall and weighed in at a bone-crunching two hundred and ten pounds. “What? What are you gawking at?” he asked Tom rhetorically. He knew damn well what Tom was staring at. He had shaved his head earlier in the afternoon in preparation for the upcoming football game.

      “The ‘do’ dude,” Tom replied, shaking his head. “I can’t get used to it. It’s a little Smallville.” He didn’t know if the evil-son/bad-guy look was quite what Ryan was aiming for. “They killed him off, you know.”

      “Reborn, my friend, reborn. Anyway, I was aiming for a scary wrestling dude,” Ryan corrected him. “A lean, mean, fighting machine. I mean, would you want to run into me on the field? Like, fuck no. I thought about this a lot before I did it. It’s all part of my master plan for total territorial dominance. Besides, I’ll save on haircuts.”

He wished he had thought about how his hairless head would handle a Troy winter. He pulled a ski-band out of his pant pocket and placed it over his ears. They were starting to numb in the cold.

      “What's the matter, Stan?” he asked, moving closer to hover over his brother. “Scared?”

      “No,” Stan answered. “I’m not scared. But I’m not stupid either.”

      Stan watched as Kevin, who had recently turned nine and was full of bravado, made his way up the walkway towards the front porch. “How come,” Stan asked his brother, “there’s lightning all around this house when it’s not raining? Don’t you think that’s a little weird?”

      Ryan looked at Stan in disbelief as the special effects worked their magic. “You’re a little weird. You might want to re-think that stupid remark.”

      “Stan, come on,” Kevin begged. “It's awesome. I can see a dead body on the swing. The hand is sticking up like it's stuck or something.” Kevin kept going up the stairs until he reached the dead guy. Daring to touch the arm, he was amused by its stiffness. “Look, when I push it down, it doesn’t move. Awesome!”

      Feeling the chill of the night air himself, Tom Williams did up the zipper on his brown leather jacket. He put his hands deep in his pockets and striked a pose of indifference. Tom was the total opposite of Ryan. His tight jeans clung to his slightly shorter, lean body in a manner only a sixteen year-old could pull off. He casually ran his hand through his blond, spiked hair, pausing to look at his reflection in the side-mirror of a car parked on the street. Liking what he saw, he nodded, and turned his gaze to the house. “Didn’t your mom teach you to respect the dead, Kevin?” he asked, taking note of the Halloween prop. “Leave it alone.”

      “Whatever!” Kevin said, holding his arms out zombie style, his fingers rigid, towards Stan. “I am a creature of the night,” Kevin claimed. “I come to suck your blood.”

      “You’re seriously mixing up your monsters there,” Tom corrected him.

      “Like they’ve got rules?” Kevin laughed.

      Stan’s eyes went wide as his whole body froze in fear. “That’s not funny, Kevin. This house is really haunted, no lies. You shouldn’t make fun of them like that.”

      Ryan tapped Stan lightly on the shoulder from behind, causing Stan to jump about a foot. “Boo.”

      “Cut it out, Ryan. I'm telling Mom.”

      Ryan could see tears forming in Stan’s eyes. “It's just the LaRose house, you big suck. The same house you raked the leaves at yesterday. What the hell is wrong with you tonight?”

      “Tonight?” Tom jeered. Ryan’s little snot-nosed brother was being a royal snot-nosed jerk.

      “It’s freaking Halloween, Ryan. Don’t you know anything?” Stan stammered.

      Ryan could see the strain on his brother’s face. For an eight-year-old, Stan was already starting to look old. The deep furrow in his brow was going to be with him for life. He slapped his brother across the head. “Don’t swear. Don’t even pretend to swear. You’ll fuck it up, and I’ll get in shit. So, no swearing, you got it?”

      Stan nodded.

      “What do you mean, anyway?” Ryan asked. “What don’t I know? Just stop blubbering and tell me.”

      “Everybody knows Halloween is the one night a year they can make their move because everyone else looks just like them,” Stan whispered, his voice cracking with fright.

      “Who’s them?” Ryan asked, throwing his hands into the air. “Booger people? Who?”

      “You are so dumb, Ryan! T.H.E.M! The-Human-Eating-Monsters!”


      “Okay,” Stan began slowly, trying to get his point across to his brother. “Explain to me how come five seconds after I bagged all the leaves in the backyard yesterday, they were all over the ground again? I’m telling you, cross my heart, all the leaves moved. It’s like someone else was there, tossing them all around. Only I couldn’t see him.”

      “I don’t know, Stan,” Ryan sighed. “Maybe there are some kick-ass Man from Glad ghosts in the neighborhood hiding behind the trees just waiting to jump out and make you shit your pants. That’s the only other explanation I have. Yesterday was not Halloween, so there goes your theory.” There was a look of exasperation on Ryan’s face as he looked to Tom for help.

      “No, he’s right, Ryan.” Tom admitted reluctantly. “I’ve heard about it before. There’s this force that can move all around you, even touch you, without you seeing it. But usually you can feel it. It makes your body cold.”

      “See,” Stan said. “Tom knows what I am talking about.”

      Tom laughed, putting his hands on Stan’s shoulders and shaking them. “I’m talking about the wind, Stan. Chill buddy.”

      Ryan grabbed his brother by his six-shooter belt, pulling him closer to his own body. He put his massive hand over Stan’s cowboy hat and shook his brother’s head up and down a couple of times, forcing him to nod in agreement. “Okay, Stan. It’s time to wrap this up. Make this the last house. Tom and I want to get home and Mom doesn't want you out on the street alone.” He looked slyly at Tom. It was time to toughen Stan up, one way or another. “Not after that kid went missing last year,” he added. “You remember me telling you about that, right? I heard that Mrs. LaRose has got the body buried behind the house. Did you notice any patches in the backyard when you were over there? Something that looks like a grave? You did, didn’t you?”

      Stan nodded his head slowly. “Uh huh.”

      “You probably even raked over some of his hair poking out from the ground. News flash. That wasn’t a new rake she got you to use last week, Stan. It’s a corpse-o-matic 500 styling comb.” He ran his hand across his bald head, shaking imaginary hairs from his fingers in front of Stan’s eyes. “Psyche,” he said, looking back at Tom and nodding with satisfaction.

      “See, Kev,” Stan yelled. “I told you.” He turned to Ryan. “Maybe we should go home now. I don’t need any more candy. I think I’m going to barf.”

      “Stan. We’re only messing with your head. There’s no missing kid. There’s no body. There’s no grave, there’s nothing. I swear. You’ve got to loosen-up bro. I’m not always going to fucking be here to hold your hand.”

      “You wait until Kevin goes missing and winds up on the news. Then we'll see.”

      “Stan’s already got a bag full of candy, Ryan. Let's just go,” Tom said impatiently. “Maybe Jacey knows where there’s a party going on. We can call her from your place. Maple Street isn’t exactly a prowl party.”

      “Hang on,” Ryan said, reaching into Stan’s bag and pulling out a couple of chocolate bars. He handed one to Tom. “This is the last house, I promise. I want to see what Mrs. LaRose is wearing tonight. Maybe she'll be dressed in a long, black, silky thing. Or a short, black, silky thing.” He grinned lasciviously. “Whatever.”

      “You worry me, buddy,” Tom said, shaking his head. “Mrs. LaRose, she's like a grandmother. Why don't you ever go after someone our age?”

      “Grandmother or not, Mrs. LaRose is hot. You find me someone our age that looks like her and I'll make my move. Until then, I don’t mind hanging around here for a few more minutes.” He turned towards Kevin. “Kev. Don’t just stand there. Ring the bell.”

      Kevin was too busy digging through the candy in the cauldron to pay any attention to Ryan.

      “Guess I’m gonna have to do it myself,” he said. “Come on, Stan. Get on my back. I’ll take you up there.”

He began to lower his massive frame so his brother could piggyback on him. But his plans were interrupted as his attention turned to the sound of a loud van coming down the road. “What a piece of shit,” he said, as it pulled to the curb in front of the LaRose house.

      Tom noticed the corporate logo on the side. “It’s the city death squad.”

      “There’s chics inside it,” Ryan noticed, standing back up without his brother on his back. “Why would chics be riding around in a roach mobile? It’s got to be part of Mrs. LaRose’s Halloween thing. The show’s getting better every year.” He nodded for Tom to join him back in the shadows of the tree. They silently watched the passengers get out of the vehicle.

      Ellie took a good look at the LaRose home. “I didn't know Nan decorated her house up every year,” she said to her mother. “It’s pretty cool. It looks like the Adams Family house. I'll fit right in.”

      Helen came and stood on the sidewalk beside Ellie. “Hmm...” she pondered, looking at the decorations. “I just hope she takes it down before Christmas.”

      “You know, you sounded just like Marge Simpson when you said that,” Ellie commented. “Not to mention your hair’s looking a little bouffant.”

      Helen patted her windblown bangs down. “I would have kept the window up but I was getting a little car sick,” she admitted. “I am definitely bringing the van back as soon as I can.”

      “Check it out,” Ryan whispered to Tom. “They could be Mrs. LaRose's sisters, they look so much like her.”

      “I guess they kind of look like her,” Tom shrugged. “I don't spend as much time looking at grandmothers as some people around here do.”

      “Dude, they're babes.”

      “Ryan, the one on the right is like forty.”

      “Really? My dick can’t tell them apart.” His eyes became as intimate with the female forms as their bulky autumn clothing would allow.

      Tom took a long look at Ellie. “Are you on crack? Goth-Chic is our age. She's got a math book under her arm. Look familiar? I guess not to you.”

      “Not Goth-Chic. I meant the preppie babe. Her and Mrs. LaRose. I'd do 'em. You can have Goth-Chic.”

      “Isn’t there some polygamy law against that?” Tom asked. “You haven’t joined some fundamentalist religious sect on me, have you?”

      “It’s only illegal if you marry them,” Ryan shrugged. “I don’t make the laws, dude. And like you said, I don’t have to worry about the age thing.”

      “I find it disturbing that you’ve thought about it,” Tom admitted.

      Kevin, bound and determined to find money at the bottom of the cauldron whether there was any or not, was starting to get impatient. “Stan, are you coming or what?” he asked, his arm buried deep in the candy. “Should I just throw you something?”

      “Stan,” Ryan yelled, giving his brother a push. “Get the FUCK up the stairs. I want to go home.”

      Helen turned, noticing the boys for the first time. She did a ten-second sum up. Two of them looked to be Ellie’s age. The bald-headed kid with the foul mouth was trouble, no doubt about it. He had a look only a mother could love. Maybe. The other boy wasn’t much better in her eyes. He was too good looking for his own good. He’d also be trouble. Two minutes in Troy and there were already two reasons to leave.

      “Lovely language they speak here,” Helen commented to Ellie. “Don’t be in a rush to learn the local dialect.”

      A flash of the strobe caught Ellie, illuminating her in slow motion. The unflattering light outlined her mascara-laden eyes and made her complexion eerily pale.

She looked at the boys. Trash-mouth, well she could teach him a few choice words of her own if only her mother weren’t around. The other one—the cute one—left her momentarily speechless.

      Tom looked at Ryan. “Oh yeah. Goth-Chic's a hottie,” he said sarcastically. “Thanks for giving her to me.”

      “My name is not Goth-Chic,” Ellie snarled back at them.

      “Fuck, she’s got bat hearing or something,” Ryan whispered to Tom.

      “I guess we were being kind of loud,” Tom offered. “We’d better cool it if we want to make a good impression.”

      “Too late for that. The Mom’s already got the ‘lock-up-her-daughter’ look going on.” He sighed. “I know it well.”

      Ellie noticed Stan standing by himself on the sidewalk. She offered her hand to him. “Come on, kid. You want candy? I'll take you up there. This is my house now.”

      Her dark demeanor was not assuring to Stan in the least. He noticed the chipped black nail polish on her fingers. He also noticed a spider tattoo peeking out from under her sleeve. “Thanks, Cruella,” he said nervously, “but I'm not supposed to go anywhere with strangers.”

      “Suit yourself,” Ellie shrugged.

      The front door of the LaRose home opened, framing Helena in a long, sexy, slit-to–the-navel, black dress.

      Helen rolled her eyes. “I knew it.”

      “Sweet,” Ryan smiled.

      “I thought I heard a car door slam!” Helena squealed, slinking down the stairs in six-inch stilettos.

      Stan looked towards her and froze in fear. He could have sworn he saw something pass swiftly behind her on the walkway, then turn and head into her backyard. It was only there for a moment, and it looked right at him. Whatever it was.

      “What's the matter, Stan? Cat got your tongue?” Helena asked. “You’re awfully quiet tonight. Don’t let my outfit scare you. It’s just a little ensemble I threw together for the occasion. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted be a witch or a vampire queen. I went for both.”

      Stan grabbed at his throat, choking as he gasped for air.

      “For heaven’s sake, Stan. It’s just a figure of speech!” Helena said. “There’s not a cat in sight.” She looked at Ryan for help. “Did he swallow a gumball whole? Do I need to do the Heimlich maneuver on him?”

      “It’s okay, Mrs. LaRose,” Ryan assured her. “He’s just scared. I have his inhaler in my pocket.” Ryan pulled it out and gave it to Stan, who promptly filled his lungs in hurried puffs. “He’s always forgetting it. I figured he’d need it sometime tonight.”

      “He’s lucky he’s got you to look out for him, Ryan. Is he going to be okay?”

      “He’ll be fine,” Ryan assured her. “Just give it a minute.”

      “A boy Stan’s age shouldn’t have shock-related asthma. You tell your mother to bring him around to my office one day this week. I’d like to see if I can help. I think a lavender elixir would work wonders for him.”

      “I’ll ask her, Mrs. LaRose. But I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

      Helena turned and reached her arms out towards the girls. “My darlings! I didn’t mean to ignore you. Come give me a hug. This is the most wonderful visit I’ve had all year. Go inside and make yourselves comfortable. I’ll be about another half an hour with the kiddies, so that will give you some time to settle in. Helen, you can have the room down the hall from mine on the second floor. Mine would be the big room. Ellie, the room at the top of the peak with the little balcony there is all yours.” She pointed at it from the walkway. The light was on awaiting Ellie’s arrival. “You must be tired. We can catch up in the morning.”

      “Thanks, Gram!” Ellie said, looking up at the house. “Wow. I’ve never had my own private balcony.”

      Helena shuddered, and then waved her manicured finger at her granddaughter. “Uh, uh, uh, enough of that, Ellie. If you choose to let the odd expletive loose in this household, it will be overlooked. But utter THAT four letter word again, and believe me, hell hath no furry, as they say.”

      “I warned you,” Helen reminded her daughter, repeating the neck slashing gesture she had made in the van. “Ix-nay on the gram-nay.”

      “Sorry, Nan?” Ellie said apprehensively.

      “Much better,” Helena said, giving Ellie a big hug. Ellie’s arms gave her a big squeeze in return. “Well that’s what I’ve missed,” she said to her granddaughter.

Helena then stepped towards Helen, hoping for the same reaction, but her daughter pulled back from her. “Is everything okay, Helen?” she asked.

      “Really, Mother,” Helen began, “are you telling me, that in all the closets in that big old house of yours, you couldn't find something a little less revealing to wear into the middle of the street than a flimsy evening gown? It looks so...cheap.”

      “Helen,” Helena sighed. “Don't be such a stick in the mud. It's Victoria's Secret, dear. I can assure you it wasn't cheap. Now give me a proper hug.” She threw her arms around her daughter and gave her a big kiss.

      Helen wiped her face with her glove. Even as a child she had hated when her mother left lipstick on her cheek. “How come Ellie gets the room with the balcony?” she pouted.

      “Because she is young and beautiful and will probably have a wilder sex life than either of us can dream about. She'll need to get by you somehow.”

      “She is only fifteen. She doesn’t have a sex life. At least she better not have. I’m counting on you to set an example.”

      “Another conversation for another day,” Helena said knowingly.

      “Don’t go putting ideas into her head, Mother.”

      “Can we help you, Mrs. LaRose?” Ryan asked.

      “No, you cannot help,” Helen stated. “Why are you still here?”

      “Helen, don’t be rude to the boys. They can help bring the luggage in,” Helena answered. “Just the things they'll need for the night, please, boys. We can unload the rest in the morning. The van will be safe enough.” She looked at the exterminator logo on the vehicle parked in front of her house. “Really, Helen. And you have the nerve to question my style.”

      “I warned you,” Ellie echoed to her mother. “We should have come by bus.”

      Ryan followed Helen as she walked to the rear of the van. “Can I carry something for you, Mrs. LaRose? I mean you, the other Mrs. LaRose. Or whatever your name is. I figure you probably don’t want me calling you Helen. Or do you?”

      “It's Bocelli, actually,” Helen replied, irritated. “On second thought I'll probably be switching it back to LaRose. Ms. LaRose is fine. Helen is not.” She opened the rear doors and pointed at a suitcase. “Take the heavy blue one, will you? Thank you. Ryan, is it?”

      He nodded. “I live next door. Nice and handy, in case you need anything. Anytime.”

      “Great,” Helen muttered, under her breath. Just what she needed. A swearing, sex-crazed behemoth living a stone’s throw away from her impressionable daughter.

      “So… it’s Ms. LaRose. I take it you’re single?”

      The look she threw him said it all.

      “Okay then, I’ll just take these into the house,” Ryan said, giving her the same look back.

      Tom walked over to the side of the van and opened the sliding door for Goth-Chic. “So you’d be Ellie Bocelli?” he smirked.

      Ellie stared him down, having heard that one before. “You can rhyme. Very good. You must be the smart one.” She pulled her duffle bag from the car seat and threw it on the ground.

      “Nice to meet you too,” Tom said sarcastically, unsure what had set her off.

      “I’m not Ellie Bocelli. I am a LaRose. I'm technically a bastard. But that's more information than I usually give somebody I don't know. Happy now?”

      “Working the ‘Miss Congeniality’ thing are you? Why do I get the feeling that's not a costume for you? I'm surprised you can stand there under the streetlight. Doesn't that hurt you people?” he sassed back.

      Ellie grinned, appreciating the quick comeback. She took a lingering look at Tom. There had been plenty of good-looking boys at home, but Tom, he was definitely worth the move.

      “We took that into consideration when ‘my people’ designed energy efficient bulbs. You’ll notice the soft-pink light they produce reduces glare. Not only does it not make me want to immediately crawl into a coffin,” she paused, suddenly losing her icy edge without wanting to do so, “it’s easy on the eyes.” She felt her heart begin to beat faster. Just looking at him did that. She desperately hoped her voice had not just given her feelings away.

      Tom, upon closer inspection of Ellie, saw that Ryan was right. They all did look alike, which meant that Ellie was also a babe. Her hair was long, dark and silkily beautiful. His eyes lowered to her chest, where he guessed that underneath the baggy black sweater she was wearing, she was built a lot like her grandmother. It was hard to tell. He smiled at Ellie, slightly embarrassed.

      “Easy on the eyes,” he repeated, a sexy smile coming across his face. “Okay, Goth-Chic. Let’s start again. I'm Tom. Tom Williams. I live two streets down on Pine Crescent. I’m a straight-A student and I work part time at my dad’s hardware store down on Main. I couldn’t throw a football if my life depended on it. That makes me a loser in this football crazy town. Tossing a pigskin would be my buddy Ryan’s job. He’s the all-star. And a letterman. That last part might surprise your mom. Of course he got it for football, but apparently it still counts.”

      Ellie smiled back shyly. He was beyond cute. Her shoulders raised and her fists tightened uncontrollably as she tried to prevent herself from gushing right in front of him. “My name's really Helen, like my mom, but everyone calls me Ellie. Ellie LaRose. It gets too confusing otherwise. I’m athletic, but I’d never get a letter for sports. I like the javelin. Weird huh? I like to pierce things.”

      Tom noticed her ears held several earrings. His mind began to wonder about what else might be pierced. Nothing would surprise him.

      “And I like to dress in black,” she summed up.

      “So I see,” he said, subconsciously running his hand through his hair, making sure every one was still in place.

      “Anything else you want to know?”

      “Helena, Helen and Ellie?” Tom asked quizzically.

      “You've got it. You are the smart one.”

      “It’s kind of ironic then...”

      Ellie looked at him bewilderedly.

      “The two of you moving to Troy,” Tom said. “Population 3,000 and well, two.”

      Ellie suddenly got it. “Oh my God,” she said, slapping her forehead with her hand. “That makes us the Helens of Troy. Please don’t point that out to anyone else.”

      “See. You are smarter than a fifth grader. Don’t worry, I won’t.”

      Ellie laughed. Tom took it as a sign their verbal jousting had come to an end. He relaxed a little. There was something unusual about her, he thought. And it wasn’t just the outfit. Maybe it was her big green eyes, framed by lashes that were longer than any he had seen on a girl in his life. Maybe it was just that she was hot, like Ryan said. Maybe it was the fact that for the first time in his life, he was actually seeing an aura around someone.

      “I heard your grandmother ask you to call her Nan. Nan, Gran, what’s the difference?” he asked, his head tilting from side to side looking at her, following the patterns of light around her that only he seemed to be able to see.

      “A big one, apparently. She doesn't like to be reminded of her age. She thinks people will think Nan's short for Nancy or something. I guess I could call her Helena. I don’t know. Whatever makes her happy. What are you looking at?”

      “Nothing,” he said, trying not to look at her glow. “Ryan’s in love with her, just so you know. Ryan’s pretty much in love with anything that’s female and alive.”

      Alone on the sidewalk, Stan was feeling abandoned. “Hello? I'm over here. Remember me? The kid who wants to go up the stairs before next year,” he yelled, finally finding his voice. “What? Am I invisible or something?”

      “Stan. Will you just go up the...” Ryan started.

      “Could you please not drop an f-bomb?” Helen interrupted.

      “Stan, go up the stupid stairs,” Ryan continued, looking at Helen defiantly. “You little wimp-ass,” he added.

      Stan thought it over. He didn’t want to go down in history as the only kid afraid to go up Mrs. LaRose’s porch. Especially now that these new people had arrived. Kevin, Ryan, Tom and even Mrs. LaRose pretty much knew he was afraid of the littlest things, but he still had a chance with the strangers. He slowly walked up the stairs, onto the porch and reached into the cauldron. Fearing to look inside, in case something truly evil lurked there, he turned towards the swing. He screamed. He could feel his head swirling, and he knew no matter how much he didn’t want to do it, he was going to faint.

      Ellie darted to the porch. As Stan spun around, she held out her arms, catching him.

      “Well! This has never happened before,” Helena exclaimed.

      “Kid,” Ellie said, easing him to the ground. She slapped him across the face. “Kid, wake up.”

      “Don’t do that,” Ryan yelled, running up behind her. “His name’s Stan. He’ll come to in a second. He always does this. He has a short synapse or something. It makes him pass out when his adrenalin gets charged.”

      “You mean thanks, right?” she asked him. “For catching him so he didn’t split his head open when he fell?”

      Ryan nodded sheepishly.

      “How’d you know he was going to do that?” Tom asked, joining them on the porch. “You were running up to him before he even turned to look at the dead guy.” The aura about her had changed. It was dimmer, as if some of its power had been lost.

      She thought about it. “I don’t know. I just had this feeling.”

      Stan began to stir. He tried to open his eyes, but his pupils were stuck somewhere up in his head.

      “Do you want your inhaler, Stan?” Ryan asked.

      Stan shook his head. His speech was slurred, but the color was starting to return to his face. He tried to focus. “There’s a dead body on the swing.”

      “Yes dear, I know,” Helena said, feeling his forehead. He was a little clammy. She reached for his wrist and felt his pulse. It had returned to a normal rate and he seemed to be breathing easier. She heaved a sigh of relief. “Maybe this one’s a little too realistic this year.”

      Tom looked at the dead guy on the swing. He pulled the blanket down from his face, wanting to get a closer look at him “Um, Mrs. LaRose?”

      “Cover his face up again, Tom. I don’t want him scaring any more children.”

      Tom didn’t move.

      “Tom? Are you okay?”

      Tom, like Stan before him, was turning ashen before her eyes. It was only a moment before he too, passed out on her porch.

      “Well, I didn’t see that one coming,” Ellie said.

      “What is going on here?” Helen asked. “Mother?”

      Helena had no idea.

      “I can’t take them anywhere,” Ryan joked, but even he was feeling uneasy. “I’m used to Stan visiting Neverland, but that was a first for Tom.” He turned and looked at the swing. An odd look crossed his face. “Mrs. LaRose?”

      “You stay firmly planted, Ryan,” Helena stated, pointing at his feet. “There will be no more fainting tonight. Three’s a crowd.”

      “I don’t know how to tell you this,” Ryan said, his voice suddenly becoming solemn. “There really is a dead body on the swing. It’s Old Man Wagner.”








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