I Know Your Face!

The sign on the door read: Laundry Thief!  5’ 4”, brown hair, hiding under the stairs.  I know your face!

Um, okay.  The stairs leading to the basement of my apartment building, a.k.a the laundry room, are actually quite open and non-threatening.  Aside from knowing there are twenty-nine of them, I’m not too bothered by the climb.  The picture below is not the actual stairs, but it gives you a good idea of how a saw them.   See all the light?

safeStairs

 Thanks to that sign, written in brown marker, and taped to the inside of the main entry door, I now have to go to the laundromat.  

notSafe

Smashing Pumpkins – Carl

(An excerpt from my NaNoWriMo project.  I have reached the 20k mark.  As others have already stated, there is really no time to spend on crafting a single paragraph to near perfection (in my mind) if I intend to reach the 50k goal by the end of the month.  It is very unnatural for me to write without editing as I go and I’m suffering a bit of over-thinking.  I keep telling myself I can clean it up later, just get the words into the file right now.)

A slender, middle aged woman, wearing a stylish, brown, knit hat and a long, tan, wool coat made her way out of the door with a small boy in tow.  The boy looked to be five or six years old but it was difficult to tell through his outer wear.  His thin blue hoody was zipped all the way up, the hood pulled over his head which was also covered with a knit hat.  A grubby, white scarf wrapped tightly around his face completed the ensemble.  The only thing Carl could see for sure were the eyes, two dark orbs staring blankly out at the street.  With all the autism awareness these days he was prepared to make a snap judgement on the child when the woman snatched his shoulder and proceeded to push him before her into the street, obviously aiming for the bus stop he currently occupied.  The bearing of the woman and directness of her path gave Carl the crazy impression that she was coming specifically to talk to him about the boy.  His mind threw up a panicked scenario.

“Hey mister, you want to buy a boy?  He doesn’t eat much.   He can eat even less if you just don’t give it to him, he’s used to not having much.  Are you interested?  What do you say?  You could have your very own boy!”  

Feeling genuine alarm Carl made himself as still as he could.  Bug instincts, JC would have said.  When people knew something was wrong they tended to get very still, some ancient instinct making them believe if they could avoid detection then whatever the problem was, it would go away.  Hunching forward slightly he lowered his head and stared at the sidewalk as the woman and her boy entered the shelter.  The woman pressed the boy against the Plexiglas wall near the end of the bench.

“Stand there,” she said in a voice that swirled from her mouth like smoke.  Carefully tucking her long coat around her legs she sat down on the opposite end of the bench from Carl.

Continuing to stare downward Carl felt his nerves tightening with every passing second, the adult sized space between him and the woman feeling much too small.  He wanted to tap his toe or bounce his knee.  From the edge of his vision he could see the boy’s sneakers, a pair of off brand shoes that were too worn to have been bought new at his age.  By shoving his eyes far to the sides of their sockets and tilting his chin just a hair he could see the blue hoody was in similar shape.  Compared to the woman and her nice, wool, coat the boy looked like he had been bought on clearance from the local Goodwill.  Carl tightened his jaw and prayed the bus would come soon.

Smashing Pumpkins – Neisha

(A single chapter from somewhere in the beginning of my NaNoWriMo project.   I’ve been pounding on the keyboard, trying to get all my ideas down so I haven’t really put anything in order yet.  For those who are interested, the foreign words are Korean and the definitions can be found here.)

Neisha couldn’t stop  watching the big, round, black and white clock, glancing up from her math paper every few seconds to mark the smallest amount of time that had passed and inhaling so deeply that her nostrils pinched together before bowing her head over the problems again.  At this rate two-thirty was never going to get here.  Pausing in her calculations she slipped a hand into her straight, black hair just behind her left ear and absently separated a strand which she began to twirl around her fingers.  She had made a private vow to stop twisting her hair just that morning as she had noticed it was much thinner on the left now than the right.  She wasn’t just twisting it, she was breaking it off.  The idea of pulling out her own hair was offensive to her.  The problem was, she wasn’t always aware of when she was twisting it.

“Neisha?  Can I assist you with something?”  Mrs. Kanger’s voice, harsh and a bit too deep for a woman caught her by surprise.  

“Huh?”  Blankly Neisha stared at her teacher.

“Don’t you mean, what?”  Mrs. Kanger’s thick, over-penciled eyebrows rose high into her forehead, nearly touching the slightly curved and well bleached widows peak.   

Pulling the strand of hair tightly across her upper lip Neisha tipped her head to one side and forced her eyes to sparkle and dance.  “Huh?”  

Chuck Simmons, who sat to her right, snickered softly into his own math paper.  Neisha didn’t spare him a glance, preferring to not encourage the chunky redhead to take her side, ever. 

“You are not amusing, Neisha.”   Mrs. Kanger’s eyes sharpened to points.   “Finish your math before the bell rings or you will miss your bus and be forced to call your mother for a ride.”

It was an empty threat and Neisha knew it.  Mrs. Kanger would rather lay in a box of spiders than have Nema Kwon come to pick her up because of an unfinished math paper.  Still, she felt it wouldn’t be wise to push things much father.  Mrs. Kanger might be afraid of her mother but there were many ways the jot bab could get back at her.  Releasing her strand of twisted hair she lowered her eyes to her paper and moved her hand like she was going to write something down, at the same time she pressed out a small fart that popped against the metal of her seat like a Fourth of July banger.  She looked up in feigned surprise to see Mrs. Kanger glowering at her.

“Excuse me,” Neisha said politely and bent to her paper.  To her right Chuck snorted laughter onto his stomach and she couldn’t quite stop the corners of her mouth from twitching with a smile.

After the small volley of attitudes, the clock seemed to kick into high speed and suddenly Neisha found herself jamming her books into her bag and getting ready to leave.  The math paper was finished and laying on the top of her desk, each answer correct.  As the final bell of the day rang out Mrs. Kanger stood up from her own desk holding a stack of papers and called for attention.

“Before you leave I need most of you to come get your JOC page.  It’s that time of year again and these papers need to be delivered to your parents as soon as you get home.”  Tapping the stack on its side to square them Mrs. Kanger stepped to the front of her desk.  “As I call your name please come forward.”  Starting with Charles Albright, a.k.a Chuck the snorter, she moved quickly down the list.  Each student rose when their name was called and took the paper from Mrs. Kanger’s hand before heading out the classroom door.  Neisha ignored her teacher and headed for the door, her mind filling with ideas for food and advancing her progress on her current video game.

“Neisha Kwon.”  

Neisha’s head snapped toward the front of the room, her eyes popping in their sockets.  “What?”  

Mrs. Kanger shook a sheet of paper at her.

“But I’m thirteen,” she said.  Her arms felt weak, like french fries after the starch had been soaked out of them.  Her classmates stood stock still, their faces blank with surprise.  Some of them had celebrated her birthday with her and knew she was now, officially, beyond the age requirement of the JOC.  A few of them looked scared.  “I don’t have to enter.”  Mrs. Kanger met her eyes and Neisha got the impression that, despite their earlier clash, her teacher wasn’t any happier about giving her the paper than she was to receive it.  Mrs. Kanger never said a single word about the JOC but her required participation was openly minimal and her instructions to her students was exactly what they needed to be and nothing more.  Her legs moved of their own accord and Neisha found herself reaching for the paper.  “My birthday was in March,” she said softly.  Mrs. Kanger nodded her acknowledgement.

“Go straight home today and give that directly to your mother.”  Mrs. Kanger looked firmly into her eyes.  “Don’t waste time, Neisha.”  The implication was clear.  Neisha nodded and ran for the door.

The combination for her locker skittered from her mind for a minute and she spun the black dial around several times, her eyes vacant, staring emptily at the air slats in the metal door.  Why?  How was it possible?  She was too old now!  Her fingers and eyes moved together in muscle memory and the locker opened without her realizing she had dialed in the correct numbers.  She still couldn’t recall what they were.  Dropping her books onto the bottom shelf Neisha snatcher her blue fleece from its hook and  slammed the door closed.  

The buses were already lined up outside, uncharacteristically prompt on this auspicious day.  Not bothering with farewells she  made her way out the main door and down the short set of steps, not thinking to count them as she went.  There were exactly thirteen of them, the top one being a bit thinner than the others but not really noticeable unless you looked carefully.  Neisha had a rhyme that she liked to hum as she moved up or down the stairs, a rhythmic poem she chanted silently to herself that fit perfectly into the activity of thirteen steps.

Snap the neck, crack a bone, peel the skin, run for home.

This was not something Neisha ever said out loud, knowing instinctively that her peers would not understand and the adults would all make notes.  Nema had warned her repeatedly to keep her inner thoughts and ideas safely in her head.  Never write anything down or confide in anyone.  What you do can be judged by anyone who sees you.  What you think can only be judged by you.  Neisha took this advice to heart and the stepping poem lived only in her mind.

Children poured from the building, the younger students bolting from the doors of the elementary wing and racing for the bus line.  Sixty-three B was her bus number.  Spotting it down the row she made for it quickly.  

Lining up behind the other students that lived on her route she noticed the small, curly haired boy from the apartment complex next to hers.  He was smiling and holding his own copy of the JOC paper in his fist.  She watched him struggle to make his short legs bridge the gap between the sidewalk and the first step onto the bus, her mind shifted into attack mode.  Neisha watched him enter the bus and grin like a little Ddorang at the bus driver, Mrs. Karr, then take a seat close to the front.  Thinking that his pudgy, white, cheeks looked like dough that needed to be punched down before the yeast ran away with it Neisha slid into the seat behind him.  Her day couldn’t get any worse now, she might as well indulge herself a bit.  Settling into her seat she looked up to see Mrs. Karr watching her in the wide rear view mirror, her dark eyes narrowed and suspicious.  Neisha assumed a blank expression and turned her head to stare out the window,  frustration tearing at her stomach.  Softly, in the back of her throat she began humming her poem.

More children loaded onto the bus and fanned out into the seats.  Neisha noted Chuck’s light red head jogging past her window to get to his own bus which went down by the canal.  He was always talking about fishing with his dad and giving graphic descriptions of what cleaning fish was like.  The first time she had asked him if they ate the eyes he had looked at her like she had sprouted a second head.

“Who eats the eyes?  They’re tiny.  Nothing there to fry.”

“Get enough of them and you can have pudding.  See?”  Neisha had laughed and raised her lunchtime cup of tapioca for his inspection.  Chuck glowered at her.

“That’s just tapioca,” he said.  “Those aren’t fish eyes.”

Neisha shrugged and spooned some onto her tongue, giving him a clear view of the mess as she slurped it down her throat.

The bus doors swung closed and Mrs. Karr gave a last look into her rearview before putting the big engine into gear.  Neisha remained still, her head turned away, her eyes focused on the scene outside.  As the bus pulled away from the curb she shifted ever so slightly toward the front of her seat, looking intently at nothing out the window, pretending to keep it in view as they drove away.  By the time the bus turned onto the main road she was sitting right at the edge of her seat, her hand on the tall back of the seat in front of her.

“Do you know what gwishin are?” Neisha whispered to the little boy.  When he didn’t respond she continued as if he had.  “Gwishin are ghosts, spirits of the people who have died.  Sometimes a gwishin doesn’t leave as it should, it hangs around trying to be known to the people it left behind.”  She was talking through the thin crack between the seat and the wall of the bus, her voice measured and quiet.  With her hand on the back of the seat she could feel the boy move as she talked, shifting toward crack.  His voice whispered back to her.

“Do gwishin know they are dead?”

“Sometimes.  And sometimes they think they are still alive and try to do the same things they have always done.”  Neisha smiled as she spoke, feeling her prey within her grasp.  “You can hear them, moaning and whistling around the corners of buildings every time the wind blows.  They are looking for a way in.”  The boy inhaled audibly, his sudden tension as much a sensation to her as if she were touching him.

“Jeffrey, don’t you listen to a thing that girl tells you.”  

Mrs. Karr’s voice cut off further communication but Neisha didn’t mind.  She sat back in her seat smiling.  She had a name to go with the doughy face.

Smashing Pumpkins

Caroline stared blankly at the creased and grubby sheet of paper Jeffrey was pressing into her hand.  A thick strand of brown hair that seemed to have just begun to streak with silver, dropped free of her loosely coiled bun and landed limply against her cheek.  Her hand, still well fleshed but running rampant with small lines closed reflexively on the cold page.  Even without her glasses she had spotted it from the kitchen window while watching for her grandson to get home from school.  He had leapt from the bus like it was any other day but the paper, this paper, was bow-tied tightly in his fist as he raced for the house, smiling over the last words he had exchanged with his friends.  Now she could feel his eyes glued to her face.  Without looking she knew his expression was becoming alarmed, his brown eyes widening and his small, full lipped mouth beginning to sag and tremble.  She needed to pull herself together.  She needed to paste a look on her face that would ease his sudden worry.  Feeling like her skin was made of silicone she pushed her mouth into a smile and, dropping the paper on the counter reached to ruffle his shaggy, slightly sweaty, brown hair with hands that could have been carved from plastic.

“How was school baby?”

“Gramma?  Are you sick?”  With his red hoodie zipped all the way up and the hood barely pushed back Jeffrey’s face looked pale and anxious, framed by tufts of his messed hair.  For just a moment Caroline had the impression that his damp locks formed a pair of horns on his young head and her heart thumped painfully inside her chest.  Immediately she shoved the absurd idea out her mind.  Jeffrey was a normal five year old.  He was a good boy.  There was nothing to worry about.  Reaching out again she smoothed his hair down.

“I’m fine sweetheart.  How was your day?”  Pulling out one of the brown, low backed wooden chairs from the counter she leaned down to lift him, the weight making her back tighten harshly.  Lift with your legs, she thought.  Either he was growing fast or she was losing her strength.  Both thoughts brought sadness into her chest, a feeling that never seemed far away these days.  As he settled into the chair and tried to help her undo his jacket his former concern for her slipped from his mind and he began to prattle about all the things that had happened at school.  Making appropriate sounds of encouragement she hung his jacket on the wooden coat tree by the entrance to the great room, nearly stubbing her toe on the heavy, brown, resin cow she used to fortify the wobbly base and moved into the kitchen to get his sandwich and juice from the refrigerator.  Sliding the plate and drink container across the smooth, well scrubbed counter her eyes drifted toward the paper.  Jeffrey grabbed the sandwich and took a  large bite, never ceasing his now excited chatter.  When the word jack-o-lantern passed his lips followed by a coarsely chewed chunk of tuna fish sandwich Caroline felt her blood drain down her body and pool in her feet.  She pressed both hands flat on the counter to steady herself, and a very bad word wriggled free of her mouth.  Jeffrey froze in mid chew, tuna and bread openly exposed inside his jaws as his eyes locked onto her face, a regretful parody of the look his mother had given her countless times as she had grown up.  Heartbreak punched her in the stomach as she tried to wave away his worry along with the family resemblance.

“I’m sorry Jeffrey.  I shouldn’t say those words.”

“Are you sick gramma?”  Worry spread over his face again as he set down the rest of his sandwich and slumped in his chair.  “Did I do something?”  Caroline took a deep breath and tried to rally herself again.

“Oh no, baby.  You are just fine.”  With a slow exhale she picked up the paper and began to smooth it against the counter, noting the small, nearly perfect fingerprint of dirt Jeffrey had left near the top, right after the formal greeting: Dear Parent or Legal Guardian.  She might as well face the facts, her grandson was going to have a jack-o-lantern in the contest this year whether she read the paper or not.  Trying to pretend otherwise was just going to worry them both.  “I guess we need to go shopping for a pumpkin, huh kiddo?”  Tears prickled behind her eyes as happiness spread across his face.  Caroline lowered her face to stare at the print on the page, hiding her eyes from her grandson.  This paper was actually the second notice, the first one having arrived in the mailbox just after the new year began.  That one had been official, neatly arranged in a full sized envelope a quarter inch thick with all the rules and addendums for this years contest.  She had felt just as sick then, reading through each page while Jeffrey slept unknowing in his room.  To him it would just be a contest, something fun.  The reality of it wouldn’t shake his stability for a few years yet.  This paper today was the catalyst, the blatant reminder that the annual countdown was nearly over and that she had participated simply by having custody of Jeffrey.  She had forty-five days and then her life might change forever, again.

Victory and shame battled in her chest as she felt an alarming amount of gratitude for the fact that her daughter was not able to experience this moment.  Were she alive they would be hugging each other fiercely right now, trying to support each other and vowing they would make it through the next eight years together.  Jeffrey was a good boy.  He would be fine.  Caroline had raised her daughter to responsible adulthood, she would do the same with her grandson.  The jack-o-lanterns were not going to change that.  Her family would thrive.

“Katie says her grandpa has a pumpkin patch in his backyard.  She says he grows all their pumpkins every year.”  Jeffrey’s voice rose with hope.  “Gramma, can we grow pumpkins next year?  Can we grow a patch just for us?”  Pressing her eyes tightly closed Caroline tried to stem the horror that blossomed in her stomach.  He just doesn’t understand yet, she told herself.  Feeling hateful she wondered if Katie’s grandfather poured over the legalese of the Jack-o-lantern document looking for loopholes while he weeded his pumpkin patch?  Maybe he used it for mulch.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Jeffrey.”  Forcing her voice to stay steady she raised her head and gave him a smile.  “Pumpkins take up a lot of room.  Our yard is too small for them.”  Too small to grow them to the required size, she thought bitterly.  And what would we do with the extra ones?  Eat them?  Her stomach rebelled at the idea and she turned instinctively toward the sink, pressing a hand to her mouth to quell the queasiness.  Pumpkin pie.  Pumpkin bread.  Pumpkin roll.  Pumpkin cookies and cupcakes.  A litany of foods ran through her mind and nausea pushed upward.  Caroline held onto the edge of the sink with both hands as her stomach heaved and her hair bun gave up the battle, her heavy, brown tresses falling with a thump of finality into the stainless steel basin.  The only words she had read on the paper were the last ones: Failure to comply with any of the above requirements will result in immediate forfeiture of the contest and your child will be surrendered for disposal.  Behind her Jeffrey sniffled.

The Gathering – Delivery

Staying alongside the van was effortless, Hugh just kept a hand on the side view mirror and let his intent carry him along at thirty-five miles an hour while he kept a visual of the cemetery gates going in his mind.  The zombie behind the wheel seemed wholly agreeable.  Two bags of Double Chicken Parlays with bacon sat steaming in the console between the front seats.  The passenger zombies seemed to be frozen in their seats, their eyes staring blankly down at the floor as random stomach rumbles gave away their semi-carnivorous responses.  Hugh would have snorted in amusement had he been able.  Death definitely had its drawbacks.

Century Cemetery began as a single spot on the driver’s horizon then panned majestically across the scene as the van closed in on the gate.  Holding his position Hugh visualized passing through the gate and rolling to a stop in the crossroad near his grave marker.  The driver barely slowed to make the turn.  Hugh saw several of his death mates turn to look as the van sailed into the graveyard and all four tires locked up.  It halted right in the center of the crossroad.  Jeremiah strode calmly toward the  vehicle as the driver shoved open the door.  Hugh didn’t spare a glance for the big guy.  Holding patiently to his mental image he lead the zombie along the path.

“This is the place,” the driver declared.  “Who’s got a cellphone that takes decent pictures?”  The side doors of the van opened and several zombies climbed out, patting at their pockets.  Holding the sandwich bags in both hands the driver turned to face his compadres.  “C’mon!  Somebody’s got to have a phone?”  Finally one of them shuffled forward holding an outdated flip phone in his rotting his hand.  The driver looked blankly at it for a few seconds.  “Really?”  The zombie shrugged uncomfortably and lowered his hand.  “Nobody has a smartphone?  All we need is a decent photo of this so we can caption it.”  Looking exasperated he reached for the flip phone.  “Fine, I’ll work with what we’ve got.”  With long, un-zombie-like strides he headed for the nearest headstone.  Feeling victory within his grasp Hugh chuckled softly.  Beside his grave, perched casually on top of her head stone, Brianna spread her bony hands apart as if to clap then stopped, her chin lifting just slightly with curiosity.  The zombie paced to the back of Hugh’s headstone and studied the ground.

“We need to use the back of the stone so I can fake some words into the photo later.”  The other zombies made noises of agreement and began to spread out, skulking through the stones as if they were each looking for the right one.  Hugh stared at them in surprise.  No.  They needed to drop a single sandwich at the front of his head stone.  That was the rule.  Nothing else was acceptable.  Brianna lowered her hands as Jeremiah took a seat on a poured concrete stump, painted to look semi-realistic and crossed his arms.  Having passed its zenith the moon was already dropping again which meant time was no longer on his side.  Clicking his teeth together in determination Hugh scanned the cemetery for options.  Moonlight filtered through the tree branches, highlighting patches of earth and decorations.  Everything looked stationary.  Not a single flower pot or bucket was in sight.  Evidently All Hallow’s Eve was a night for caution among mortals.

Stepping close to the head stone the head zombie tipped the contents of both bags onto the ground.  Twenty-one Double Chicken Parlays with bacon rolled out onto the ground.  Hugh watched them settle as he cast about for a single crow.  All he needed was one.  The zombie pawed the pile of sandwiches, unwrapping a few and settling them carefully askew.  The other zombies shifted closer and offered a few suggestions like, sticking them to the headstone itself or smashing the meat to a pulp on the blank face of the marker.  Destructive, Hugh thought and felt a moment of thanks that he had not been raised as a mortal who hated things.  He risked moving a little away from the costumed men to search farther out for a crow.  Brianna’s skull rotated slowly as she followed his progress.  He tried to ignore her.  After a final adjustment the zombie stepped back to assess his work.

“I think that will do,” he said and reached for the phone he had shoved into his back pocket.  Hugh turned back toward him and felt a moment of real panic.  He didn’t want to do this again next year.  Three years was enough.  He wanted to move on.  The zombie held out the phone and snapped a picture.  “There.  Good enough.”  He handed the phone back to its owner and headed toward the van.  Two of the lesser zombies stared at the sandwiches left on the ground.

“You’re just going to leave them there?” the owner of the phone asked.  “That’s littering. And it’s rude.  Somebody is buried there.”

“If you’re that worried about it then pick them up,” the driver growled.  “I don’t care what you do with them.”  The two zombies began scooping up the sandwiches and stuffing them back into the discarded bags.  The phone’s owner held onto a single sandwich as he walked toward the van, looking down at it as though it wanted nothing more than to take huge bite of it.  Hugh stepped toward him and focused his thoughts as tightly as he could.  With a giant push of energy he did the one thing he could do in the graveyard that he couldn’t do anywhere else.  He materialized.

“Hey, over here,” Hugh whispered.  The zombie turned his head.  “Boo!” Hugh said. Eyes bulging in their sockets a scream ripped out of the zombie’s throat.  The other zombies whirled in surprise and saw Hugh spread his arms as if to hug the man.  Panic ensued as the men, yelling and screaming in all octaves, scrambled into the van and slammed the doors, leaving the lone zombie to his fate.  The mortal used the only weapon he had, he hurled the bag of sandwiches at Hugh followed by the one sandwich he had been studying.  The bag sailed through Hugh’s chest as he let himself return to mist and struck the front of his headstone with a satisfying whack!  The van roared to life and skidded backward toward the gate spraying gravel as it went.  The zombie raced after it.

Jumping like a jack rabbit Hugh bounced around his grave in elation.  Brianna clapped slowly as Jeremiah walked over to extend his congratulations.

“A bit dramatic,” the big skeleton commented.  “But effective.”  Hugh wiggled all his bones with such fierce pleasure that his spinal column threatened to collapse.  The moon was barely visible on the horizon as it set.  The sun was on its way.

With sunrise so close the others began returning.  All around Hugh skeletons settled onto their graves and talked quietly among themselves as they waited for sleep to come.  Several extended their congratulations to Hugh on his victory as the story spread about his materialization.  One of the last to return was Kameron, skull drooping in defeat.  She muttered congratulations to Hugh and walked slowly to her grave where she threw herself down so harshly that her bones flew apart.

“Next year for sure, Kameron!”  Hugh tried to sound encouraging.  Bones rattled as Kameron pulled a single hand back together and extended her middle phalange as the sun began to rise.  Hugh chuckled as he sank into the ground.

(Part one is here, Part Two is here.  Happy Halloween everyone!)

The Gathering – Aquiring

“Out of my way burger boy!”  Hugh was jostled at the gate by a slender skeleton stomping by.  Surprised he halted to watch her pass.  Getting a Double Chicken Parlay wouldn’t be nearly as much trouble as what she was after.

“Get that key ring, Kameron!”  Kameron’s skull pivoted on it’s synovial joint and she stared at Hugh as he displayed the letter K in American Sign Language with his right hand.   He wanted to smile for her then, a huge, face splitting grin, perfectly gauged to extract the maximum anger response.  Kameron’s lower mandible dropped open then closed multiple times as grass clippings and leaves rose to swirl angrily around her knobby feet.

“Hey, hey, Hugh Parlay.  How many crows will you kill today?”  The sing-song chant hit his mind like a devilish lullaby and he promptly changed his K to a rude sign formed with only his middle phalange.  Kameron laughed and turned away, the small hurricane of ground litter tumbling behind.  Well aware that Jeremiah didn’t give impossible assignments Hugh knew that Kameron would eventually find the key ring with her name on it.  Determination filled his spirit and he kicked into a jog.  Swinging left out of the gate he headed along the sidewalk toward the city lights.

One place in town offered a Double Chicken Parlay with bacon and it was crawling with business.  Cars lined up at the drive-thru with costumed drivers shouting their orders into the kiosk while others flooded inside.  Goggling at all the people Hugh slipped between the vehicles and took careful position behind the kiosk, close enough to make an impression but not too close that people would feel his icy presence.  Why so busy this year, he wondered?

“Your order comes to twenty-one sixty-eight at the second window, please.”

“Thank you.”  The black cloaked witch behind the wheel shifted her SUV into drive and inched forward off the weight plate.  A large mouse riding shotgun peered intently into the witch’s face.

“Do you feel anything?”  The witch shook her head.

“No but right at the end I thought I saw a little mist around the back of the kiosk.”  She fiddled with her sideview mirror.  “Do you see any mist?”  The mouse turned around in her seat and stared directly at Hugh who froze in surprise.

“Nah, I don’t see anything at all.”

Aw crap.  After finally getting himself pulled together time had been short at the last Gathering and out of desperation Hugh had tried to force a man to say the words Double Chicken Parlay.  In a panic the guy and gunned his accelerator, striking the rear bumper of the truck in front of him.  Evidently he had told his story to a few people.  Self-consciously Hugh sidled behind the outdoor order menu.  On the bright side, he thought, he had a lot of material to work with this year.

Four vehicles back from the witch and her mouse rocked a gray van filled with fully costumed zombies.  From his new vantage point Hugh watched the zombies with interest, the driver in particular seeming impatient to get to the kiosk.  The van rode as close to the back of the car ahead of it as it could without actually touching it.  The car’s driver, a plain joe in a dark suit looked like he just wanted to get out of line but the van was too close and cutting off a third of the opposite lane.  He couldn’t turn outward without causing a commotion among the rest of the people behind him.  Hugh chuckled and thought, face it pal, it’s going to be chicken for dinner whether you want it or not.  Would the suit guy be a good candidate, he wondered?  Probably not.  The car was a small, practical model with no sign of a baby seat or a wife.  Most likely he would eat from his coffee table with his porch light turned firmly off.

The van became much more interesting as it inched up the line.  The driver draped himself out the window and began grumbling at the other cars.

“Killers!  All of you.  What is wrong with people?  Did it ever occur to any of you to just eat a salad?”  Spirit soaring with hope Hugh stepped out from behind the sign and edged toward the van.  Could it really be a group of activists crashing the chicken joint on Halloween?  Dark suit pulled up to the kiosk and ordered a bucket with two sides and biscuits in a voice dripping with discomfort.  His back tires hadn’t even cleared the weight plate before the zombie forced his van onto it and began shouting into the kiosk.

“Gimme twenty-one Double Chicken Parlays with bacon!  Let’s kill as many animals as possible for one sandwich eh!”  Hugh counted the occupants of the van as he wondered if the driver realized there was cheese on the Parlay?  Technically that brought the animal abuse count to three but, only two were actually dead.  Counting the driver the long van held fourteen people.  At least seven of them thought they were going to eat two full Parlays all by themselves?  With that many sandwiches going out the window he thought he would be able to claim just one without too much hassle.

“Chicken is murder!” the driver hollered and beat his hand against the outside of his door.  “Murder!”  The guy had just ordered twenty-one Double Chicken Parlays.  Who was murdering who?  Suppressing the urge to laugh Hugh laid his hand carefully over the driver’s hand pressed against the outside of his door and thought firmly about the gate of Century Cemetery, drawing a clear picture of the large wooden sign with its deeply beveled wording.  Had he possessed lungs he would have held his breath.  The driver stared into space for a few seconds, his sunken zombie eyes looking vacant, then a smile spread over his face.  “I know what to do,” he stated and inched forward.

(If you missed it, Part One is here.)

The Gathering – Rising

“Welcome to the annual All Hallows Eve Scavenger Hunt!  I see a few of you are still working on getting yourselves pulled together.  Take your time, we have all night… or at least until the sun comes up.  First things first, for those who are having their first Gathering don’t panic, your parts will all reach you eventually.  If you find you are truly missing a piece or two have a look in the trees, sometimes the crows will carry off a bone for their nests.  Just focus on the piece you can’t find and eventually you will be able to sense its location.  Should you find that something is completely gone you can still rise, you just have to envision the missing bone being in its proper place.  For some of you this may take more effort than our one night will allow.  If you are unable to participate this time there is always next year.  Take things slowly and you will have a better experience in the long run.”  The skeleton speaking loomed above the rest, a large, heavy boned, titan of information.  If he noticed the multiple postures of alarm in the apparently captivated audience he gave no sign, simply continuing his lecture in a smooth, deep voice that carried clearly through the soughing tree limbs and rustling deadfall of the cemetery.

“Our list this year includes some unique items so pay attention.  I will say your name followed by the item you are assigned to.  If you can not get the item before the sun comes up you are disqualified for this Gathering.  Those who were successful in obtaining your item at the last Gathering you will be moving on to the next step in crossing over.  I’ll get to that after I am finished announcing the Scavenger Hunt list.”

Hugh lounged against his headstone and rotated first his left foot at the ankle, then his right in small, tight, concentric circles, focusing on his own bones rather than the sound of Jeremiah’s voice.  It was the same speech every year so it wasn’t like he really needed to pay attention.  Beside him, sitting cross-legged upon the dirt she rose from, Brianna leaned her spinal cord against her own headstone and crossed her arms over her chest.  Hugh stared hard at her, willing her to look at him as a light breeze pushed grass clippings over her femurs.  Around them the cemetery boiled with activity as the dead crawled, clawed and complained their way out of their graves.

“Save your strength for getting that Double Chicken Parlay with bacon,” Brianna stated, continuing to stare at Jeremiah while he talked.  Hugh looked away self-consciously.  This was his third year trying to get his item.  At this rate he would turn to dust before he was able to finish crossing over.  He looked back at his right foot, watching his phalanges move jerkily through the air.  Was his great toe looking grayer than last year?  A clump of sod splashed through his rib cage, the grassy roots catching on his sternum.  He glanced up in surprise.

“What the hell?”

“I said, do you have a plan for this year?”  Brianna’s skull gleamed in the moonlight, her

parietal bone shimmering like steel while she clawed the ground, readying a second handful of dirt.  Hugh wished his eyes were physical so he could fully appreciate the colors of the night that surrounded her.  Late fall was was filled with browns, yellows and greens that just couldn’t be seen at any other time of year.  Regret was a harsh emotion for the dead.

“Yeah, I have a plan,” he said trying to play it cool.  “I’m going to park myself next to the drive-thru menu and do my best to force someone to order one and drop it on the ground.”  He let his lower mandible drop open like a comedian at the punch line.  All he lacked were lips to smile with and a tongue to stick out.  Brianna aped him like a delayed reflection then played the air drums in hugely exaggerated motions.  Ba dum dum dum.

“Genius.  And once it’s on the ground?”  Hugh would swear under oath that she was raising her eyebrows at him.  He wanted to scowl and had to settle for digging his toe phalanges into the earth.  “Is a dog going to carry it to your grave for you?”  That thought had actually crossed his mind.  “Without eating it?”  That had crossed his mind also.  His toes dug trenches in the dirt beneath his foot while he brooded over the unlikeliness of his ideas.  Brianna had risen, assembled herself and acquired her item before the sun rose at last year’s Gathering.  Envy wasn’t even the right word but it was all Hugh could decipher about how that made him feel.  He had barely managed to put himself together when he had his first rising.  Jeremiah’s voice continued to boom across the cemetery.

“Remember, just because we can see each other doesn’t change the fact that we look like mist or fog to the living.  You are not physically visible or audible.  Getting your items will take some real thought and careful execution.  The item needs to be brought all the way to your grave and laid in front of the headstone.  Nothing else is acceptable”.  Hugh raised one hand like he was directing an orchestra, holding the pause, then brought it down sharply as Jeremiah continued.  “Happy hunting everyone.  Let’s have a great Gathering this year.”  His voice faded away and skeletons began to move toward the main gate.  Hugh pushed away from his headstone wishing he had lungs to sigh with.

“I guess it’s time to get going.”  He looked cautiously at Brianna who was still seated.  “Since you got your item already what will you be doing this year?”  In response she dropped her lower mandible open again, a sarcastic parody of his previous movement.

“Clapping for the underachievers, what else?”