Monday, October 26, 2015
“Didn’t I tell you this was gonna happen?” Loki said sulkily. “This party blows.”
For once his twin brother Thor wasn’t in complete agreement. Yeah, the Beavers’ rec room smelled like wood chips and Bonita’s parents wouldn’t let her play the stereo loud and the games were lame, but the food wasn’t half bad even for a herbie house and the grownups were having their own Halloween party upstairs so for the most part they left the kids alone. Except for when Bonita’s uncle came downstairs and tried to scare them with some creaky old story even a first grader would scoff at. What did he think they were, six?
At least they hadn’t tried that ancient bit with the brains and eyeballs and that. Like a wolf’s nose couldn’t tell the difference between brains and a plate of spaghetti. Only human kids fell for that moldy oldie. Carnie kids would just eat the stuff, real or not. Most parents in the Peak knew better. Bonita’s uncle finally gave up and left the kids to themselves, which suited everybody just fine.
“The party’s okay,” he said to Loki now. “You wanna dance or something?”
“Nah.” Loki looked like he wanted to just sit and scowl. He seemed to be missing things that had become more apparent to Thor. Like how Bonita Beaver’s cowgirl costume fit her funny in the chest this year. It seemed to stick out more. Or how the girls wanted to dance more than play party games, or just stand and giggle at the boys. Thor had to admit he wouldn’t mind standing next to Bonita and her interesting new chest himself.
Loki nudged his brother. His scowl had upended into a grin. “Good thing we made plans in case this happened, huh?”
Bonita was standing in the corner with that stupid elk kid, Kerry Long/Lang/Loogie/Whatever. “Yeah, I guess.”
The nudge became a jab. “You guess?”
“Okay, okay. We’ll do it now. Before somebody’s mom comes down and checks on us again.”
“Right.” Loki waited for the song on the CD player to end, then stood up. “Hey. Who wants to see a real ghost?”
# # #
“The year was 1845,” Loki said, waving his plastic wizard’s wand in the air. His robe swirled around his feet, not quite dragging on the sidewalk. The other fourteen partygoers followed at his heels. Thor brought up the rear and kept a sharp eye out for any grownup who might screw up their fun. “The Talbot pack had moved into Montana the year before. They thought this part of the state was deserted, but there were humans around. Mountain men, cattle ranchers, Indians, that kind of stuff.”
“You’re supposed to call them Native Americans,” Eddie Cooper said. His family were bear shifters, and had given the Sioux nightmares up until about a century ago. “Though we used to just call ‘em ‘dinner’.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Loki said. “The point is, the Talbot pack thought there weren’t any dangerous humans up here—”
“Humans are always dangerous,” Eddie Lang said. Many of the others nodded.
“Exactly,” Loki agreed. “A bunch of them got hold of Jarrod Talbot. They called him a warlock and a skinwalker and all that other stuff. Then they put a noose around his neck and hung him from a tree.” He waved his wand. “That tree.”
The procession stopped and gawked in awe at the venerable oak Loki pointed to. It stood at one end of the small town green, within sight of City Hall. The Mayor himself, it was rumored, frequently helped himself to its acorns. “And now,” Loki continued, “on cold, dark nights like this one, the ghost of Jarrod Talbot appears to avenge himself against—”
“Wait a minute,” Bonita said. “That tree wasn’t even planted until 1925. So how could they have hung Jarrod Talbot from it when it wasn’t even there yet?”
The kids looked at Bonita. The Beavers were on a first-name basis with almost every tree within the Talbot’s Peak city limits, having planted most of them over the decades since the town’s founding. Nobody questioned a Beaver when it came to trees. They turned back to Loki for an explanation.
Loki never missed a beat. “Exactly. The original tree got chopped down in 1900. That’s why Jarrod stopped showing up, because his tree was gone. But this one got planted on the same spot. As soon as it got big enough, Jarrod’s ghost started appearing again. I mean, he’s a ghost, how’s he supposed to know the difference?”
The kids nodded. It made sense. Thor let out the breath he’d been holding in a whoosh.
“C’mon,” Loki urged, his voice hushed. “Let’s see if he’s here.”
He led the way across the street. They followed in a nervous clump. As they neared the tree Loki hung back until he was standing by Thor. “Did you check on the rope?” he whispered.
Thor was glaring at Bonita and Kerry’s linked hands. “Huh?”
“I said, did you check—”
“Yeah, yeah, gimme a minute.” Thor slipped into the bushes. Earlier in the day he and Loki had planted an old store mannequin in the tree, painted white and dressed in a ratty wig and a fake wolf fur, with a rope around its neck. Once they loosened the primary knot the thing would come rattling down through the branches. Kerry Lang would probably crap himself. Thor picked up his pace.
Seconds later he hissed through the bushes at Loki. “Dude! C’mere! Now!”
“What?” Loki joined him in the underbrush. He looked where Thor pointed. There lay their mannequin, still in its wig and wolfskin but minus the noose, crumpled up beneath a bush like a broken Ken doll.
“Dammit!” Loki swore. “The Mayor must’a found out or something. Now whatta we do?”
Dejected, he and Thor emerged from the bushes and rejoined their fellow partygoers. The group was getting restless, and skeptical. “Maybe it wasn’t this tree,” Loki said. “It might’a been—”
At that moment Jarrod Talbot appeared.
The ghost of the slain shifter dropped from above and landed before the partiers. What remained of his decaying flesh gleamed pallidly in the dark. His streaming mane was striking white and ragged. His eyes had no color at all. He was also missing his feet: his legs ended at the shins, causing him to float above the ground. A hangman’s noose dangled from his neck.
He pointed a huge, clawed hand at Loki. His mouth opened in a soundless roar.
The kids’ screams more than made up for his silence.
Kerry didn’t crap his pants, but he did shift. The panicked elk led the stampede back across the street. The partygoers—some human, most animal—followed the rapidly-disappearing Kerry toward the safety of the Beaver family’s rec room. All of a sudden those party games didn’t seem so lame after all.
“Geezum,” Loki panted, once they’d put a block and a half between themselves and the raging phantom. “He was real? I got his name out of a history book.”
“Looked real enough to me,” Thor said. He looked for Bonita, but she’d fled with the rest of the bunch. “Smelled it, too. Yuck.”
“We should go back,” Loki said. “Bet we could catch him.”
Thor demonstrated his growing maturity. He cuffed his twin on the shoulder. “Dude. You gotta learn to quit while you’re ahead.”
# # #
Chuckling to himself, Sergei followed the children just long enough to make sure they were safely on the way back to their little party. The few adults out on the streets peered curiously at the albino tiger shifter. A growl was sufficient to send them on their way as well.
Once he was satisfied the children were all right, Sergei returned to the oak. He tossed the noose aside and retrieved his long black coat and hat. His matte-black boots had disguised his feet quite nicely in the dark, giving the impression he was floating.
Dressed once more, he strolled toward Java Joe’s. There he would wash off the zombie makeup and collect his payment, a cup of the strong tea he favored. He would take no money from a mother looking to school her cubs in the hazards of frightening others.
Marissa had also promised him cookies.
Ah, Halloween. A time for treats, and especially tricks. Still chuckling, he entered the coffee shop.