Halloween Writting Contest Entry 13
The following story was submitted as an entry in The Wanderer second annual Halloween Writing Contest.
The winner will be announced in the October 30, 2008 edition.
Stories will be posted on-line as they are available in print.
Forty-Four Shelley Avenue smelled toxic. Through the yard, through the air, and certainly through house -- it was a bitter spice in Eiko's nose. One that seemed to waft through the walls and the floor and lead to a pantry-sized door in the corner of the kitchen where it concentrated and threw down with the fresh fall air trapped in the house. The polluted taste made its way up and built havoc from its fierce origin in the paint can down below.
She shined a light down the stairs, setting the cage down as she did, and leaned forward until her slender body was under a string of paper cut-out pumpkins. Right there the smell hit her again. "Mrs. Cossack, you've probably ... definitely, have a problem," she said.
"It's down there," the woman said, stacking another of her boxes, and throwing back her hands. "Look at these."
The box was beginning to wilt, shredded and carrying more of the odor onto the top floor with its contents, the word Halloween adorned the top in a dust-speckled script of blue sharpie. It was writing that was solid, elegant, and from years ago, and now slowly it was being accosted by a soaked up blot of paint thinner.
Eiko watched and bit her own lip as Mrs. Cossack tore off the cover.
Over the phone it sounded like Mrs. Cossack lived with gremlins. They worked, keeping her going and pushing her to speak, but not without cogging up the process along the way. "Are you open?" she asked.
"Uh, that depends. Is something strange ... happening?" Eiko had to pull at her own voice now, scanning down the signage above her desk. Strange Happenings, a one-market sensation on public access TV was, of course, open on the week before Halloween -- even on a Saturday, even with just the Girl Friday for supernatural reporting as the only one in the office.
"I have a problem," the woman said. "There's an animal trapped in my house and it spilt something. I have it all over so I called Animal Control --"
"If this is a prank call ..." Eiko ended with an airy silence, almost making up her mind. She rolled her almond eyes back to the sign. This was all week. The whole past seven days -- each call starting with a farfetched story and Eiko rolling her eyes. She had sat through the ridiculous questions and giggles, anticipated the punch lines, all the while strangling the cord of her phone. Eiko might have needed a story. The stalled pulsing cursor on her screen told her that much. She just wasn't sure how badly.
Eiko held the receiver from the bottom and spoke, "We really get enough of them this time of year, usually sharper than 'is this Animal Control?' by the way." Right then the cord was wrapped around her hand, with her fingers twisting at the coils and her eyes drawing on the tile ceiling. Something fell on the other end of the line.
"They didn't pick up. All they had was a message." It went quiet again until there was a distant but abrupt bump. The woman spoke like the working gremlins in her body had set off an alarm. "I'm losing a lot," she said. "It's about to get at my ghost."
"This was very valuable." Mrs. Cossack set a handful of a house down, the ceramic steeples chipped off from the tiny gothic church. There was a white glint of porcelain where it had snapped. She followed with a tiny graveyard from the same set, with tombstones attacked in the same way. "I've had these forever," she added, pulling the formerly white tissues from the base of the box. "Do you see it?"
Eiko looked at the dented cover lying on the table and turned back towards the stairs. The cellar was still dark enough to make her feel blind, with the only light creeping in from a far corner still in the sun's reach. Eiko wasn't there yet, she was still getting over the smell.
"Sometimes the children from down the street come." She was waiting on her porch, yelling over the gremlins and making it to the end of her drive. "I think one of them let it loose."
Eiko knew the house from Mrs. Cossack's description. It was two turns in the city and fifteen minutes of back roads from the office and looked built for the holiday. The driveway was lined with glowing ghosts and pumpkins, alternating in sequence and leaving a little orange spotlight below them in the grass. The corner of the house was guarded by a carved silhouette made of four feet and an upright tail curled to an S. It had marbles for eyes and sat in a nest of cotton floating above the ground that got in the habit of whisking onto Eiko's boots as she went. She sneezed as she hit the steps.
Mrs. Cossack looked at the girl in front of her, who was old enough to drink but not by much, and then stared at her hand. "It's good that you brought that," she said.
Eiko nodded and slipped past and was followed in. The tinge of sharp heat was drifting outside of the door, barely noticeable in Eiko's nostrils. Inside it lit her senses on fire. It covered the house, coating the air and making Eiko blink. She took Mrs. Cossack's house in as snapshots while she adjusted, letting her nose, tongue, and eyes compensate by distraction. The acid air aside, the walls were a seasonal overdose. Her ears took over for a moment.
"All of this was already out, but the worst is downstairs."
Eiko Grayson slipped the penlight from her blue jean pocket and shined it into the rafters above her head. It hovered in and out the darkness of the beams, first catching the edge of the stairs she came down and then melting into what was left of the sun leaking through the windows. She let it stop on the beam just over their bodies. In the middle, just as the beam crossed another and formed a dusty T, there were two clean chips in the wood. She set the trap like a bridge in between and slipped back down. "That's it," she said.
"That's where it started." Mrs. Lorraine Cossack shuffled forward, making her frame fit between the stacks that easily turned into a cardboard canyon as they went, and catching the leg of her pants on the dusty walls. Her feet kept going though, scratching against the concrete floor until she was able to knit her hands around her goal -- a hollow-sounding ghost attached to a wooden post. It whirled on its perch, looking alive as Mrs. Cossack dragged it behind her. Scratch, scratch, scratch, her feet went with the ghost following along. Finally, it settled into a limp drape. When the ghost and its keeper were back under the umbrella of the penlight, the woman turned to Eiko, waving the spirit in her face until she could smell the oily fumes off of it. "Another one," she said.
Eiko kept silent and walked into the canyon herself. It was a wall on either side, of bells, pastel eggs, and patriotic fireworks, all left alone until their season was on deck but still drenched in the fumes that drifted through the whole house. She followed it all the way to the end where it met the workbench against the wall and the canyon became a tunnel. Well, a burrow really.
"Do you see anything?" Mrs. Cossack's voice was muffled with the boxes playing interference and the workbench now sitting over Eiko's head.
"No," Eiko said, sliding up another few inches. The cone of light from her hand hovered up into the corner of the bench, settling back down over another pile of dust. She inched forward again until a lukewarm slime laced her arm. "Come on!"
"What's the matter?" Mrs. Cossack leaned a little forward, just enough to see an outline of Eiko in her own flashlight with her shoulders bumping the splintering edge of the workbench and the floor of fifthly concrete. The girl had a hand holding up her slim body and her other arm pressed against her cheeks. In an eclipse of the flashlight under the dark homespun alcove, Mrs. Cossack saw a sliver of copper solution reflected off of the girls arm and against her black hair and began to wonder again who exactly she had called.
Eiko's voice echoed around her, "If this was a prank call," she said, "Now's the time to drop the punch line." Eiko wiped the oil from her arm, resenting the fact that now every particle of dust from every odd, end, or unseasonal ornament seemed to find her arm. She made one more pull forward and settled her light on the other far corner.
It went silent in the provisional tunnel -- a mingling of cobwebs, dust, and wooden quills, but all hanging alone and in quiet. If just for a moment the gremlins seemed like they had left altogether. It was nothing like what Eiko had heard over the phone. "Did you see that?!" Mrs. Cossack was screaming.
Eiko scanned the left side of the bench again and there was nothing. She moved the penlight across to the right side where it bounded off the outside leg and into the alley of boxes piled to the side. Both were familiar views at that point.
It crawled at first, just as a hint -- a chattering little motor on four legs. When it finally did meet the light it bolted.
Eiko slid backwards fast as she could, tracking the shadow with her light and the using dropping sun as back up. It scurried along the opposite wall, tying Eiko for distance but overwhelming her on speed. It weaved through the cans -- the streaming puddles of oil it left earlier not even an issue. Before Eiko reached the other side of the grand box landscape the squirrel was already on the top leaping for the ceiling.
Mrs. Cossack screeched once, then again. At the bleaker end of the cellar the rodent was sitting and scoffing, alternating glances between the trap and the woman with the ghost, but not shifting an inch. It shrunk and wiggled tight to the beam and Eiko saw her chance.
Along with the arrival of Eiko's penlight on the scene, there was another scream -- this one carrying through the entire house. As Mrs. Lorraine Cossack dug her fingers into the pole the ghost's expression had changed in a quick minute. A styrofoam head was staring back at her, half of it still crept over with the paint thinner. Its cover had fluttered through the air, slowly but surprisingly, parachuting and then pinning the enemy to the rail. It was only an instant. It was still enough.
Eiko pulled it down and over the beam, bagging the strange squirrel in a convenient bundle that left two glued-on wobbly eyes staring back at her and a pair of frozen eyes tracking her up the stairs.
Into the yard, by a plastic gravestone and a dangling skeleton acting as a One Month Only Wind Chime, she let the bag open and her quarry made way. In her hand, half chewed through and soaked in paint thinner, was all the proof she needed for a truly strange happening.