“Please? I’ll give you twenty bucks,” Curtis pleaded with his fifteen-year-old brother, Kevin.
“Where’d you get twenty bucks?” Kevin asked while lying on his bed, casually tossing a foam basketball at a tiny plastic hoop on the closet door. Curtis obediently retrieved the ball for him after each shot.
“For my tenth birthday, remember?” Curtis answered as he handed the ball back.
“You got forty dollars for your birthday. Grandma and Grandpa Miller gave you twenty, and Grandpa Don and Grandma Jennie gave you twenty. I’m gonna need it all,” Kevin said, taking the ball from Curtis and launching a wild shot.
“But I need to buy the tickets!”
“Then there’s nothing I can do.”
Curtis slumped. The brothers simultaneously brushed their pesky brown bangs from their nearly identical blue eyes. One’s matching dimples drooped in frustration , while the other’s showed a devious satisfaction.
“Come on, Kev! Pleeeeeeease!”
“Why do you even wanna go to this thing, anyway?”
“Because! I like monsters ’n stuff.”
Kevin grew solemn and stared at his little brother for a long moment. “You don’t know what monsters really are, Twerp,” he said. Kevin thought for a moment about a real monster that he had once seen. He had recently learned that the worst creatures wear familiar faces, and they don’t fear the light. He had seen the death they can leave behind.
“Yeah, yeah,” Curtis said with a sigh and a roll of his eyes. “You say that every time I talk about horror movies.”
“Well, it’s true,” Kevin growled.
“But what does it mean?”
“Never mind. I just can’t believe you like all this Boogie Man crud.”
Kevin shook his head. “You’re such a weird little dude.”
“Whatever. Will you take me?”
“Why can’t you just do what most guys do; just think about sex?”
Curtis’s nose wrinkled as he pulled back slightly.
“Come on,” Kevin groaned, “surely you know what sex is. I knew about it when I was your age.”
“I know what sex is. But why would I want to do that?” Curtis mumbled.
Kevin slapped his hand to his forehead. “You are not my brother!”
“That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me! Now, please! Will you take me?”
Kevin released a heavy, irritated sigh. “Tell ya what, Twerp. If I make this shot, I’ll take you … for twenty bucks.”
Curtis slowly looked from Kevin to the tiny hoop on the closet door and back again. “Are you any good?”
“You better hope so. It’s your only chance.”
Curtis relented. “Fine. But don’t miss on purpose!”
“Would I do that to my precious baby brother?”
Curtis’s shoulders dropped as he leveled an expression of “are you serious” upon his aggravating older sibling.
“Okay … here goes,” Kevin said. He took aim, pumped his arm a few times, then let the ball fly. It sailed in a perfect arc … then dropped just short of the hoop.
Curtis groaned in defeat.
“Come on, Kev. It’s not like you have plans; you’re not dating anyone. No one likes you!”
Kevin sprang off the bed with his nostrils flaring. “That’s it; get out!” He spun Curtis around and tried to push him out of the room. Laughing all the while, Curtis fought, digging in with his feet. His arms flailed to grasp the doorframe.
“Okay, okay; sorry! I was joking!” Curtis hollered through his laughter.
“I said get out!”
“Jeremy’s gonna be there!” Curtis yelled as Kevin finally shoved him into the hallway. “Can you at least take me to his house? His sister’ll take us. I’m not allowed to walk that far alone. Ever since you made Dad so mad he treats me like a baby.”
“You mean your friend Jeremy Arigoni? Jamie Arigoni’s little brother?”
“Yeah,” Curtis said, following Kevin back into the room. “Why? Do you know her?”
“Sorta,” Kevin mumbled as he flopped onto the bed. He looked back at Curtis. “Okay, I’ll take you. But if I don’t see Jamie, we’re coming home. Got it?”
Curtis nodded excitedly. Kevin stood again, pushed his little brother back into the hallway, and reached to slam the door.
“Why has Dad been so mad at you lately?” Curtis asked in a serious tone.
Kevin paused, studying his little brother. “I screwed up,” he finally said. “You know how Dad is: wants everything … perfect.”
* * *
Kevin and Curtis strolled out of the darkness of the sidewalk and into the orange light seemingly clouded beneath the lampposts in front of the ramshackle old house. A large crowd had already accumulated, growing bigger like a puddle fed by the steady streams of kids and adults flowing from all directions. Over the street hung a banner that read: House of Horrors - One Night Only! October 31, 5pm - 9pm! Adults/$5.00 - Kids 12 and under/$3.00
“This is gonna be so lame,” Kevin muttered as he halted one step onto the lawn. “I hope this old house collapses on everyone.”
The graying three-story Victorian-style house with its hanging shutters and broken windows hadn’t seen occupants or paint in decades. It sat one street over from the main strip of the small Nevada town. With intentions of demolishing all the aging homes and other buildings in order to erect office and retail space, the city had purchased several lots along the block. As a way to raise money for new sports equipment, the local Boys and Girls Club had asked to use the dilapidated structure for one night before its destruction. Over concerns that the house might just do what Kevin hoped, many parents refused to let their children attend. Others made sure to accompany their young ones, most often to the embarrassment of the child. Most parents, however, apparently assumed that those in charge wouldn’t let children into a house that could prove dangerous.
“Come on, Kev!” Curtis urged as he hurried ahead of his older brother.
“Curtis! Get back here!” Curtis returned, frustrated. “Remember what Mom said? Stay with me!”
“Hurry up, then! What are you standing here for?”
“I’m looking for Jamie. ’Cause if she ain’t here, we’re going home. Remember?” Curtis surrendered into a mope as the two eased into the crowd. Most of the kids and a few of the adults wore costumes. Kevin had refused to let Curtis wear one, demanding that his little brother sport long pants and a collared shirt.
As they navigated the chaos, Kevin suddenly noticed a group of kids he knew from school, all five dressed in their regular tank-tops and torn jeans. Two of them sported buzz cuts with their initials carved into the short hair above their ears. The rest of the group wore long, stringy locks. Kevin grew uneasy and forced Curtis to stay put as the gang approached. Curtis instantly waved off the smell of cigarette smoke as the cocky kids gathered around.
“What’s with the sidekick, Kev?” the one with the cigarette asked.
Kevin glanced down at Curtis. “The little baby wants to go through the haunted house,” Kevin said, trying to act tough to keep on the group’s good side.
“That house is so lame,” one with a nose ring scoffed. “Look at all the dorks going in there, Man.” The group laughed and agreed.
Kevin’s eyes darted around, trying to spot Jamie.
“What ya lookin’ for, Miller?” the smoker asked.
“I heard Jamie Arigoni’s supposed to be here,” Kevin spoke, more thinking aloud than answering the question.
“How ya know that?” a kid with a neck tattoo asked.
“The twerp goes to school with her little brother,” Kevin said.
“Well, don’t get your hopes up, Dude; she’s taken,” the one with the cigarette explained as he casually exhaled a cloud of smoke. “She’s always hanging ’round that red-headed Ronnie Whalin.”
Kevin shrugged. “They’re just friends.”
“Ronnie Whalin’s such a dork,” Mr. Nose Ring scoffed. “He’s always jiggling those dark, nerdy glasses back and forth across his face!”
Kevin giggled. “Yeah; he is pretty strange.”
Ignoring his brother and the goofy gang, Curtis diligently studied the people waiting in line. He suddenly spotted his friend Jeremy. He never would have noticed him if Jeremy hadn’t removed his mask. He had come dressed as the puppet from the Saw movies. Jeremy’s blonde, leggy sister, Jamie, stood next to him. Despite the chill of the late-October evening, she wore her usual T-shirt and tight jeans with a small hand purse strapped over her shoulder.
“There they are!” Curtis announced, tugging on Kevin’s arm and pointing. “Come on, Kev; she’s here … you promised!”
Kevin seemed oblivious to Curtis’s voice as he stared at Jamie.
“Your big bro’s afraid to get close to her,” the smoker said. “You should introduce ’em, Kid.”
“Okay,” Curtis blurted and headed briskly toward Jeremy and Jamie.
Kevin jolted back to reality and hollered at his little brother. “Get back here!”
Curtis pretended not to hear as he gracefully wove through the crowd.
“Hey, Jeremy!” Curtis shouted as he drew near.
Jeremy spun around, his shaggy blond hair swishing over his forehead. His green eyes widened at the sight of his best friend. “Curtis! Cool, you’re here!”
A person dressed in a long black cloak with the large, floppy hood hiding all facial features stood behind Jeremy. The person turned when Curtis approached and quietly observed the two boys. This unnerved Curtis, but he quickly forgot about the nosy stranger.
“My brother wants to see your sister,” Curtis said to Jeremy.
Overhearing, Jamie looked down. “Who’s your brother?” she asked.
Curtis turned and pointed. “His name’s Kevin.”
“Oh, no,” she said with a sigh.
Jamie watched Kevin for a moment. In simple jeans and a long-sleeved soccer-style shirt, the lanky teen stood out like a clean-cut sore thumb amongst the scraggly gang.
“You actually talked him into bringing you?” Jeremy asked.
“He said he would only stay if your sister was here.”
Jamie groaned. “I know what he wants.”
Curtis turned and motioned his big brother over.
“Looks like your baby bro has hooked you up, Dude!” the tattooed fellow hollered and laughed with the rest of the group.
Mr. Nose Ring slapped Kevin on the back. “Go on over, Man!”
“He’s such a wuss!” the smoker blurted. “His little bro’s the ladies’ man!”
“Shut up,” Kevin muttered. With his head down and his hands stuffed nervously in his pants pockets, he shuffled across the dead grass, cautiously dodging the crowd.
“Don’t run off like that, geez,” Kevin said as he stepped beside Curtis. “You’re gonna get us both in trouble with Mom.”
“Well, here’s Jamie,” Curtis responded.
Kevin glanced bashfully at her. “Hi … Sorry … I had to come. I had to try.”
“I know,” she said. She forced a smile, “Well, since you’re here, I guess we could take these two in together.”
Kevin nodded. “Can we talk later?”
Curtis and Jeremy looked at one another. After simultaneously shrugging in confusion over the bizarre behavior of their teenaged siblings, they turned their attention to the house. The line moved excruciatingly slowly. Kevin itched to talk to Jamie, but she kept repeating “Not now.” Curtis and Jeremy chattered about the movies they had seen recently, recounting the goriest scenes, asking what the other would do in that situation. The person in the cloak continued to lurk near the group, watching, listening.
They finally reached the head of the line where an usher dressed in a basic Dracula costume took money at the front door of the house. Every ten minutes he allowed five people to enter. When he waved the line forward, Jamie reached for her purse.
“I’ve got it!” Kevin blurted and stepped ahead, holding out the twenty-dollar bill that Curtis had paid him. Jamie tried to refuse, but Kevin insisted. Dracula took the money and motioned them inside. Curtis and Jeremy charged ahead, receiving reprimands from both their older siblings as well as the usher.
The cloaked one paid and entered immediately behind Kevin and Jamie.
Once inside, a guide dressed as a zombie in a tuxedo quickly led them to a hallway beside a staircase. Curtis and Jeremy peered up the stairs as they passed, anxious to see what awaited them up there.
Halfway down the hall, the zombie guide ushered them into the first room. The door closed, quieting the group and leaving them in total darkness. A green light slowly filtered through a cloud of fog at the other end of the room as scraping footsteps and moaning broke the silence. The silhouette of a wolfman materialized out of the fog and lumbered toward the group, growling and reaching out. Curtis moved forward for a better look. The light suddenly brightened and Curtis deflated. The makeup and hair looked worse than a drugstore costume and the actor didn’t seem into the part. When a chain around the foot of the beast stopped it just short of the group, it thrashed its arms halfheartedly.
“Quick, before it gets loose!” the guide yelled and ushered everyone back out the door. He hastily led them to another room farther down the hall.
Once again, total darkness and complete silence greeted them. A murmuring restlessness grew among them until a croaking turned all their heads. A vertical sliver of light appeared several feet in front of them. The light grew wider and the croaking louder as a door slowly opened. As the group waited to see what would emerge, Kevin leaned into Jamie and whispered in her ear.
“Is everything okay?”
He leaned in again. “I just wanted to see –”
A loud thump interrupted Kevin as the door flung open the rest of the way and banged against the wall. A light above the group snapped on, revealing a mummy. It dragged its leg as it staggered toward them. Someone had used toilet paper to create the wrapping around the creature. The group moaned in disappointment.
“It’s not safe in here!” the guide yelled and shuffled the five of them into the hallway again.
As the guide led the group upstairs, Curtis and Jeremy smiled at one another, their hopes high that the second floor would offer better scares. As they climbed the creaky staircase, Kevin gently tapped Jamie’s arm to gain her attention. When she looked at him, he offered a pleading expression. “I just don’t understand why I’m being shut out.” A few steps behind, the person in the cloak slowly brought up the rear of the group.
“Please don’t put me in this spot.” Jamie spoke from the side of her mouth, not wanting to look Kevin in the eyes.
“I just …”
“I know how much you care, Kevin,” she whispered passionately, “but I’m not allowed to … I’m just not allowed.” She hurried to catch Curtis and Jeremy who had followed the guide into the first room at the top of the stairs.
This time the darkness disappeared quickly as the lights flickered to life with a zapping sound that made the group jump. In front of them stood a table with a shirtless man sprawled on top. He wore Levi’s jeans and had scars poorly painted all over his torso. Another man dressed as a doctor stood over him with automobile jumper cables in his hands. The doctor touched the cables to the prone man’s chest then screamed, “He’s alive! He’s alive!”
As the man on the table rose to a sitting position, his morbidly large belly and drooping chest spilled into evidence, drawing giggles from the group. The out-of-shape monster growled unconvincingly and stood from the table. He held his arms out straight and acted as if to grab Curtis and Jeremy.
Brushing his bangs, Curtis turned to the guide. “What else ya got?”
With his previous enthusiasm gone, the guide motioned for the group to follow him out the door. “This way,” he sighed, “it’s our only escape.”
“From what, boredom?” Kevin whispered in Jamie’s ear. She snickered softly.
The guide led them toward a door at the end of another long, wide hallway. No longer hopeful of better gags, the boys lifelessly followed. Jeremy spiritlessly stuck his costume mask on his face and sank his hands into his pockets.
“They didn’t even bother to decorate this place,” Kevin pointed out to Jamie. “No plastic bats, no rubber spiders. They didn’t put up fake cobwebs, or … anything.”
Bluish light filled the next room as the group entered. Kevin and Jamie stood side by side with their younger siblings in front of them. The person in the cloak stood directly behind Kevin, nearly pressing against him. The light came from a glowing ball on a table in a corner. Behind the table sat a woman in fortune-teller garb. Her gaudy jewelry clanked and scraped the glass as she brushed her hands over the ball.
“Come!” she ordered. “Let’s see what the crystal has to say! What will become of you?”
The glowing crystal ball suddenly flashed off and back on.
“The crystal is ready! Who dares ask of their future?”
When no one volunteered, the woman raised her hand and pointed a slender finger toward Kevin and Jamie for several long, silent seconds. “Them!” She drew out the word in a gravelly voice. “So young, so troubled!” She then looked down into the crystal, rubbing her hands in circular motions on the sides of the ball. “What tortures these poor young souls?”
“Troubled?” Kevin whispered to Jamie. “How’d she know that?”
“Know any teenagers who aren’t troubled?” Jamie whispered back.
The light emanating from the crystal slowly changed color from bluish to reddish to greenish to yellowish and back to blue.
“I just need to know what I did wrong,” Kevin whispered to Jamie as they waited for the woman’s corny answer from the glowing ball.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Jamie whispered back.
“Then what’s the matter?”
Jamie said nothing.
“Come on; I’m aching here!” Kevin pleaded.
Behind Kevin, the hands of the person in the cloak suddenly reached for Kevin’s neck, but stopped short and slowly drew back. The hooded head then lowered. While staring at the floor, the person adjusted the hood by pinching at the cloth on both sides.
“Yes,” the fortune teller hissed,” … Yeeessss … For you, young couple, denial will destroy your souls! Denial of the heart, denial of the truth! Denial is where murder happens!”
“Oh, brother,” Kevin muttered.
“To save your souls, you must no longer deny each other!” The woman continued.
Kevin and Jamie exchanged smiles, fighting the urge to laugh.
“You must no longer deny yourselves!”
“Okay, okay, Lorraine; that’s enough,” the guide grumbled. He directed the group back into the hallway.
“You’re murdering yourselves!” the woman yelled as the kids left.
The guide looked back at her from the doorway. “What’s wrong with you?”
The person in the cloak remained in the room, facing the woman, watching her.
“It’s where murder happens,” she repeated in a soft but serious voice as she looked up at the mysterious individual. The cloaked stranger nodded, then turned and joined the others in the hall.
The guide stepped in front of the group and turned to address them.
“I’m sorry about that. Pay no attention to her; she was just … ,” he shook his head. “I don’t know what she was up to.” Mumbling to himself, “Last time we hire someone from a passing carnival,” he turned and led them around the corner.
As the group rounded the turn, Kevin clutched Curtis’s shoulder to halt him. “Do you really want to finish this thing?” he asked. “It’s lamer than Mom’s car-trip sing-a-longs.”
Curtis shrugged. “We can leave, but I don’t wanna go home.”
“Me, either,” Kevin said. “I thought we could get something to eat.” He looked at Jamie, who had also stopped when Kevin and Curtis did. “Come with us.”
“Can we, Sis!” Jeremy piped in as he ripped the puppet mask off his face.
Jamie hesitated, glancing irritably at the person in the cloak who lurked nearby, eavesdropping. The figure raised a hand apologetically then slowly passed the group. The stranger suddenly gripped the sides of the hood as though reacting to a migraine as it joined the guide waiting at the entrance to another room.
“I guess,” Jamie finally answered.
Curtis and Jeremy both hollered “Yes!”
The four of them retreated toward the staircase, having to dodge the next group of kids headed for the fortune teller’s room.
Had any of them looked back as they filed out the front door, they would have seen the person in the cloak slowly descending the stairs, following.
* * *
Kevin stared intensely at Jamie as the foursome sat eating at a picnic table outside a local burger joint. Jamie did her best to avoid his eyes. Curtis and Jeremy had eaten their fill and now loaded their straws with spit wads. As soon as they turned and aimed at their older siblings, Kevin cut them off.
“Stop!” The boys groaned in defeat. “If you guys are done eating, then go play.”
“Where?” Curtis asked.
“Over there!” Kevin growled, waving them off to no place in particular.
Curtis and Jeremy each grabbed some napkins for ammo, then leapt from the table and scampered off. “It’s war!” Jeremy yelled, ducking behind a table, rising to shoot a spit wad at Curtis, then ducking again. Curtis agilely dove behind one of the square-trimmed juniper hedges that outlined the exterior eating area.
Kevin stood quickly cleared the table. He dropped the empty food containers into a nearby trash can and then scurried back to his seat. “Okay, I’m jumping right to it. What’s going on? Why won’t –”
“What do you think’s going on?” Jamie said, the firmest and loudest she had spoken all night. “It’s hard to get over something like that. It takes time.”
“I know, but why shut me out? What did I do? I thought we cared for each other!”
“You didn’t do anything. I mean, I guess … I don’t know.”
“I just don’t understand. Suddenly, I’m not allowed to come around? Can’t call?”
Jamie brushed a tear from her eye and sipped her soda. “I’m not supposed to talk about it,” she uttered.
“Come on; you’re his friend –”
Jamie held up both hands, subconsciously trying to shield Kevin’s words. “I know, I know!”
“You’ve known the guy forever; your families are close.”
“Kevin, please don’t –”
“I know you know what happened. Why won’t he let me see him?” Kevin demanded.
“I promised Ronnie I wouldn’t tell anyone,” she said, trying and failing to sound firm.
“Please, Jamie; I care for him so much. I thought he cared, too. Why doesn’t he want me around?”
“He just doesn’t want you to get hurt.”
“But he’s hurting me!” Kevin hollered louder than he had intended. He glanced around to make sure he hadn’t bothered anyone, but the rest of the eating area sat empty.
“Not like that, “Jamie tried to explain. “It’s … You know, after what happened …”
“I don’t know what happened! Tell me! Please!”
Jamie slowly finished her soda, wiped her eyes again, then, for the first time, looked straight into Kevin’s face. “Fine. But he doesn’t want people to know; so you can’t tell anyone.”
She cleared her throat and frantically searched her mind for a place to begin. “Well, he was in Reno with his cousin, Rebecca,” she began, the words coming timidly. “Their families were bowling … Some annual thing with them, I guess. Ronnie and Rebecca got bored and didn’t want to play anymore, so they took a walk. A group of older teen boys jumped them; they beat Ronnie up pretty badly, but he had no serious injuries. But …” She struggled for the nerve to continue.
“But what?” Kevin asked, his voice serious, his volume low.
“Rebecca kinda got shoved down and her … Her head hit a fire hydrant. She died later at the hospital.”
“His cousin Rebecca died?”
They both stared at the table between them, saying nothing.
“But Ronnie’s okay?” Kevin finally asked.
“Yeah, but he’s having a hard time getting over it. He blames himself.”
“Why? I mean, how could it be his fault –”
Sudden screams from the boys nearly brought Kevin and Jamie to their feet.
The screams instantly morphed into laughter as Curtis and Jeremy chased each other around the hedges, firing spit wads.
“Little brats,” Kevin said, sighing with relief. He placed his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands for a moment, anguishing over what Jamie had told him. “I still don’t understand why Ronnie won’t let me see him. I thought we were –”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Jamie said.
“The kids that jumped them haven’t been found, but the police believe that they did it because Ronnie is … you know.”
“Because he’s gay.”
“Ronnie said that he and Rebecca were talking about ‘his boyfriend’,” Jamie continued, her voice a bit stronger now. “Other than you and me, she’s the only person who he had come out to. The police think that the gang must’ve overheard them talking, and decided to jump them. A gay bashing thing. Ronnie said they were screaming the word ‘fag’ at him the whole time.”
Kevin stared silently at Jamie, his stomach twisting.
“Ronnie thinks that if he wasn’t gay, Rebecca wouldn’t have gotten hurt. And he doesn’t want you getting hurt, too.”
“How am I gonna get hurt?”
“If you guys are together, you might get jumped, I guess. Plus, his parents now know that he’s gay, and they’re not taking it well. He doesn’t want them to find out about you and him, ’cause they might be mean to you.”
“I don’t care! Let ’em say mean things! I just wanna see Ronnie!”
“Word might get around that you’re gay, too, then you’ll be in danger. Someone might jump you … At least, that’s what Ronnie’s afraid of.”
Kevin considered this for a moment. “So that’s what this is about?”
“Yes. See? He does care about you. He’s just messed up right now. Since they were minors, their names weren’t given out on the news or in the paper, so no one around here knows about it. If they did hear about a girl dying in Reno, they don’t know who she was, or that Ronnie was involved. So, for now, he’s going to be homeschooled. He just doesn’t want to face anyone for a while. Also, Kevin, he said …”
“What? He said what?”
Jamie swallowed. “He said he doesn’t want to be …”
“He doesn’t want to be with me? Is that it? Is he breaking up with me?”
“I guess, in a way. He said that he doesn’t want to be … gay … anymore.”
Kevin’s eyes drifted down as he tried to understand the statement. His gaze eventually found its way back to Jamie’s. “I don’t get it.”
“You know how religious his family is. He’s always felt guilty about being gay. Now he’s convinced that it must be a sin. And that Rebecca’s death was some kind of punishment, or warning. So he thinks he can just …”
“What? Just not be gay?”
Neither of them spoke for the next few minutes. When Jamie saw silent tears running down Kevin’s cheeks as he peered up at the night sky, she moved around to his side of the table and took one of his hands in both of hers.
“Just give ’im time,” she said softly.
“If something like that happened to me,” Kevin spoke without tearing his eyes from the skies, “I would need Ronnie. I needed him before, when my dad found out about me. But he just wants to deny me.”
“Like I said, you know how his family is.”
“My dad’s no better. You know the things he said. Called me ‘sick and diseased’.” Kevin slowly looked down at the ground, remembering the day a real monster showed up wearing his father’s skin.
“That old broad back there has no idea ‘where murder happens’,” Kevin said, his gaze still aimed at his feet. “It can happen right in your own living room,” he added. He could still see the shame in his father’s eyes, could still feel the pain of the words that had gutted him.
Like an endless echo of a werewolf’s howl through a moonlit canyon, his father’s words had tortured his mind’s ear since that fatal day. If we had known what a disgusting freak of nature you were, we would have aborted you!
He slowly lifted his eyes to look into Jamie’s. “I was his son. He always told me he loved me. Then it’s just gone?” He wiped his nose and looked away again. “If your own father doesn’t love you unconditionally, how can you believe that anyone else will?”
Jamie squeezed his hand tighter.
“Dad killed a part of me that day, but Ronnie convinced me that love is … what I thought it was. And now he wants to kill it again.”
“He’s not trying to hurt you; he’s just having trouble accepting himself,” Jamie said.
Kevin grew silent again for a long moment. “Look,” he said, “I know I’m only fifteen, and Ronnie’s sixteen, but this isn’t just hormones. I don’t care what old people say, we’re not too young to know what we’re feeling. I know it was love. But, I guess it didn’t mean enough to him if he can just dismiss it like that.”
Jamie rubbed Kevin’s back, not knowing what to say to him.
“Love’s just an idea, isn’t it?”
Jamie shook her head. “Not the kind you’re feeling.” She gently continued to rub his back. “You’re pretty special.”
No longer silent, Kevin’s tears boiled over again. He leaned into Jamie as he began to sob. “God I hate knowing he’s hurting and I can’t be there.”
Something moved into the light from the windows of the restaurant, throwing a shadow shaped like a hooded figure. The shadow grew closer.
Finally, Kevin pulled back from Jamie. “I guess we should wrangle up the brats and go home,” he said, sniffling. He looked around for the boys while drying his face. “Where’d they go?”
Jamie picked up Jeremy’s mask from the seat next to her and hollered for him, but heard no answer. Just before the shadow reached them, she and Kevin stood and headed in opposite directions. They peered over the hedges, one toward the street, one toward the parking lot. They looked back at each other, shaking their heads. “He’s in so much trouble now!” Jamie growled.
“Curtis, too! He knows he’s not supposed to take off on me!”
They joined hands and left the eating area … one step ahead of a moving shadow.
* * *
Moments later, with their breath now fogging in front of them, Kevin and Jamie followed the echoing laughter of their younger siblings into the park across the street from the burger joint. As they entered, they quickly understood why the townspeople had complained for years about the scarcity of lampposts throughout the sweeping grounds. Intimidating darkness squeezed the small circles of light beneath the few lamps along the edges of the park, and the one in the center near the pond. Numerous bushes formed eerie shapes in every direction. A breeze playing with the trees created moving shadows that played tricks on their eyes.
“Did something move over there?” Kevin asked and pointed toward a tree.
“I don’t know; I can’t see anything.”
“Naw, that’s just some falling leaves… I think.” Kevin squinted, struggling to discern one shape from another. “How come in the movies, there’s always a big, bright full moon on Halloween?”
Jamie giggled. “It’s so all those horny little dorks watching in the theater can see bouncing boobs when girls run from monsters.”
The two of them linked arms as they crept farther into the park and took turns calling out for Curtis and Jeremy. Their growing uneasiness distorted the common sounds of the night-filled park, causing them to flinch and gasp between shouts for the boys.
After a particularly startling flutter of a bird in a tree, Kevin clutched his chest and growled, “I can’t believe he did this! When I find that little twerp I’m gonna smack him so hard his first three children will be born ignorant!”
With her arm still locked around his, Jamie peered up at Kevin through a cloud of her breath. “What?” she asked with a confused chuckle.
“It’s an old joke. My grandpa says it all the time as though he just made it up.”
Kevin giggled. “Sorry; it was the only thing that came to mind.”
“It’s ok. I can’t think straight, either. I just wanna get outta here.”
Something crackled, snapping their heads around.
“Did you see that!” Kevin shouted.
“By that tree! I swear I saw someone move behind that tree!”
“Probably just a bird… or a squirrel,” Jamie suggested nervously.
“No… No it was a person, or, you know, the silhouette of a person!”
Jamie stared at the tree as she gripped Kevin’s arm tighter. “Wait…” she said, considering something. “Jeremy! If that’s you I’m gonna kill you so hard!”
When no response came other than the wind through the bushes, Jamie looked up at Kevin. “D’ya think we should go over there and –”
Screams lashed out across the night, spinning Kevin and Jamie around again. They nearly tumbled to the ground as they lost their balance on the sloping lawn.
“Was that Curtis and Jer–”
A cry for help split the darkness, quickly followed by more jagged screams.
“JEREMY?” Jamie hollered back across the park. “Is that –”
“Oh my god!” Jamie gasped. She gripped Kevin’s hand and tugged him toward the screams. “If those brats are playing a prank, I’m gonna use one to beat the other over the head!”
“What about –” Kevin started to ask, still thinking about what had moved behind the tree, but Jamie nearly yanked him off his feet as she hurried toward her brother’s voice.
Unable to foresee gentle dips and rises in the ground, the two of them stumbled repeatedly. As Kevin helped Jamie to her feet after a bad misstep, something from the corner of his eye caught his attention. He turned and saw a hooded figure below the lone lamppost near the bank of the pond.
“Look!” Kevin hollered and pointed. The figure moved through the light beneath the lamp and quickly dissolved into the darkness. “That’s what I saw before!”
“Forget it, Kevin! Let’s find the boys!” Jamie pleaded.
“That’s the weirdo that followed us through the haunted house!” Kevin released Jamie’s hand and bolted after the figure.
“No! Kevin, stay with me!” Jamie shouted.
“He’s not going near my brother!” Kevin yelled and kept running.
* * *
Curtis flailed his feet and reached frantically above his head, grasping for something, anything, to hold onto.
“JAMIE! HELP!” Jeremy yelled as he stood below his trapped friend.
“Quit yelling!” Curtis grouched. “If my brother finds me, he’s gonna thump me a good one!”
“But you’re stuck,” Jeremy said, “and I wanna get out of here.”
“I’m not stuck!”
“Oh, really? Then come down, and let’s go.”
Curtis struggled for a few more seconds, then looked at Jeremy. “Shut up.”
“See? You’re stuck. JAMIE –”
“Instead of yelling, why don’t you get me down!” Curtis snapped.
“I already tried. Why’d ya have to c-c-climb that stupid tree, anyway?” The chill of the October night had begun to shake Jeremy’s speech.
Curtis thrashed for a few seconds, trying to free himself from the branch.
“I’m gonna go get help,” Jeremy said, rubbing his arms. “ I’m cold, and it’s getting scary here.”
“Oh that’s stupid,” Curtis scoffed.
“I’m stupid? You’re the one hanging from a tree by the seat of your p-pants!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I slipped; so what? At least I’m not scared, like a girl!”
“Don’t be mean, Curtis.”
“Well? What’s there to be scared of?”
Jeremy glanced around, his shiver growing more intense. “It’s so d-d-dark. I can’t see anything. And who knows what’s in that f-f-field over there?”
Curtis twisted his neck as far as he could to look at the field behind the tree he hung from. A six-foot-high chain-link fence separated the back end of the park from a large cornfield. The thick rows of corn immediately beyond the fence looked like a black wall in the dark. A few stars glittered just above the silhouetted stalks.
“There’s nothing over there,” Curtis said flatly.
“I hear something,” Jeremy said, “like f-f-footsteps!”
“It’s just raccoons.”
“Yeah, well, I’m gonna get help, anyway. I wanna go home. I’m c-cold!,” Jeremy said, turning away from the tree.
“Wait! Don’t go!”
“I’ll get help; I p-prom –”
Jeremy halted with a gasp.
“What’s the matter?”
Jeremy slowly backpedaled until his back met the tree next to Curtis’s dangling legs. “What is it, Jer –” Curtis could suddenly see something moving in the darkness. As it drew closer, the cloak became distinguishable against the blackness of the night. The figure’s hands reached up and clutched the sides of the hood.
“C-c-can you help us?” Jeremy asked as Curtis wildly stretched for anything he could grab, feet searching for footholds.
The figure silently moved in on them. Curtis began to whimper as he drew his legs up in defense.
* * *
As much as he wanted to keep the person in the cloak away from his brother, Kevin quickly learned to slow his pace to keep from tasting grass. Huffing and sweating, he paused amidst the rapid misting of his breath to listen for any sound that would lead him to his brother. Shoots from bushes resembled waving arms in the dark, catching his attention and snapping his head in different directions.
His foot brushed something on the ground and he instinctively reached for it. His fingers quickly told him that he had found a piece of a cottonwood branch, nearly as thick as a baseball bat. He tested its weight with a few practice swings, then he heard another cry for help but couldn’t discern who had made it, Jeremy or Curtis. He didn’t care; with weapon in hand, he rushed toward the sound, juking bushes and ducking tree branches.
Bursting into a clearing, Kevin halted, not sure of the scene before him. The nearest lamppost stood too far away to aid his vision. Doubting his own eyes, he thought he saw Curtis suspended several feet above ground while Jeremy ambled backwards, seemingly retreating from something.
A few shaky steps closer and Kevin suddenly identified the cloaked figure from the other silhouettes. When he heard one of the boys whimper as the figure advanced on them, Kevin charged.
He sped past the figure, then spun around to shield the boys. He brandished the stick, drawing a flinch from the hooded stranger. “Stay back!” Kevin demanded.
The figure raised an arm, its hand slowly protruding from the sleeve of the cloak. As a finger extended to point, Kevin had enough.
“Get outta here!” He swung the stick to back the stranger off. He stepped forward, ready to swing again. “I said get –”
“KEVIN!” Both Kevin and the figure’s attention turned as someone stumbled through the bushes onto all fours.
“Jamie!” Jeremy yelled.
“It’s okay, Jeremy!” she hollered back as she lurched to her feet. She still clutched Jeremy’s puppet mask in her hand, but it now looked bent and crumpled from her fall.
“Take the boys and get out of here,” Kevin growled, “now!”
Jamie strove to catch her breath. “Kevin, please!”
Kevin looked at her, “Just get outta –”
The figure snatched the stick from his hands and flung it into the cornfield.
Kevin immediately moved back, keeping himself between the boys and the stranger. The figure stepped toward him, pinching at the sides of the hood.
Curtis kicked out repeatedly with his hanging legs, screaming for the cloaked creature to stay away. The stranger paused a few steps in front of them.
“Whatta ya want, you pervert!” Kevin yelled.
The figure’s hands rose again to the hood, but this time they clutched the edges of the opening. Slowly it began to pull back the covering. Curtis shielded his face with his arms.
The stranger slowly took one more step closer and slid the hood completely down.
Curtis yelped at the sight of the flaming pumpkin head.
Kevin grimaced as he gazed upon the corpse-like rictus on the ghoul’s pale, rotting face.
After the visions that their frightened imaginations had expected passed, their terrified eyes stared in disbelief at the truth before them.
Jamie had approached and taken the red-haired stranger’s hand in hers.
“Ronnie?” Kevin asked.
Ronnie raised his cloaked arm and extended a pointing finger. “Your brother needs help. He’s caught by his britches.”
Jeremy looked up at his dangling friend as Curtis peered down with eyes still wide with fear and confusion. “Did you know he was with us?” Curtis asked Jeremy.
“Yeah. He gave Sis and me a ride. Why? Were you scared?”
“Well I didn’t know who was under that cloak!” Curtis snapped.
“Now who’s scared like a girl!,” Jeremy laughed.
Kevin leaned forward, trying to take a better look in the dark. “You mean …”
Jamie pressed a hand to her mouth, trying to suppress a snicker.
“Ronnie Whalin, you little son of a … You were with us the whole time?” Kevin hollered.
Ronnie suddenly reached up and jiggled his glasses from side to side.
When Kevin saw this little quirk of Ronnie’s, he rushed forward and embraced him. Ronnie’s cloaked, trembling arms closed around Kevin.
“Why, Man?” Kevin asked as he pulled back. “Why’d you shut me out? I just wanna help –”
“It doesn’t matter, Kev’,” Ronnie said, his voice calm.
“Doesn’t matter! How can you say that?”
“Because I’m done.”
Kevin’s vision blurred with tears as he peered into Ronnie’s eyes. “What?”
Ronnie’s voice remained steadily soft. “Love is what you thought it was, Kev’. I know, because trying to dismiss you … us … has been killing me.”
“I don’t want you to hurt,” Kevin said, ready to burst into full-blown crying.
“I’m gonna hurt for a while. Rebecca and I were close. But I’m not gonna deny who I am anymore.”
Sniffling, Jamie patted Ronnie’s shoulder. “That’s good.”
“I think that ‘old broad’, as you called her, was pointing at you and me,” Ronnie said as he thumbed moisture from Kevin’s cheek.
“The fortune-teller lady?” Kevin asked.
“She said that denial would destroy us. ‘Denial is where murder happens!’,” Ronnie imitated the old gypsy well enough to draw a giggle from Jamie. “But she was right. If we deny a part of ourselves, we keep that part from living … We kill it.” He shrugged humbly, “We’re gay. If we deny it, we’re murdering a very large part of who we are.” He pulled Kevin close. “I’m tired of killing … tired of dying.”
Kevin nearly sobbed as the two of them hugged tightly.
“The worst part about dying that way,” Ronnie added, “is that you die alone.”
Kevin squeezed tighter, not wanting to let Ronnie go, making up for their time apart and staving off a sudden unreasonable fear of taking his eyes off the red-haired boy and losing him again. “You’re not alone,” Kevin whispered. He pulled the hood of the cloak over both their heads and quickly but softly kissed the boy who had finally arrived back in his life.
Sniffling and awkwardly palming tears from their eyes, they finally eased away from each other. “I can’t believe that was you right behind me all through that stupid haunted house,” Kevin said, then gave Ronnie a playful shove. “Don’t ever do that again.”
Kevin looked at Jamie. “And you,” he said, trying but failing to sound angry. “You should’ve told me that he was right there,” he turned to look at Ronnie, “in that silly cloak.”
“She managed to convince me to get out of the house for a while, but I made her promise not to acknowledge me,” Ronnie said in defense of Jamie. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone.”
“Still, that wasn’t cool, you two,” Kevin said.
Ronnie smiled bashfully. “When you said that you ached, I nearly hugged you right there in the fortune teller’s room.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I figured it would scare the crap outta ya.”
“But you had no problem giving me a heart attack out here in the bushes?” Kevin asked with exaggerated irritation.
Ronnie giggled. “The look on your face was hilarious! What did you expect to see when I removed the hood?”
“Oh man,” Kevin groaned, running his hand through his hair, “you wouldn’t believe what I was thinking!”
“Ya know what I can’t believe?” Curtis asked, turning everyone’s attention. “That I’m still hanging from this tree! Is someone gonna help me or what?”
“Oh, geez, Curtis!” Kevin said, charging over to his brother. “I’m sorry, Man.”
Together Kevin and Ronnie lifted Curtis off the broken branch that his pants hand snagged on. “What were you doing in that tree anyway?” Kevin asked.
“I … I was just …”
“Forget it,” Kevin said as he hugged his little brother. “I doesn’t matter. I’m just glad the evil creature in the cloak didn’t eat you.”
Curtis looked up from his brother’s embrace, “Are you gay?”
“Huh?” The question caught all of the older kids off guard, silencing them.
“Ronnie just said ‘we’re gay’. Are you?”
Kevin slowly squatted in front of Curtis until he had to peer up at his younger brother.
“Yes … I am,” Kevin finally answered.
“Okay,” Curtis shrugged, seemingly not caring one way or another.
“Do you know what ‘gay’ means?” Kevin asked.
“Kids at school say it means that you like other boys.”
“Well … yeah… basically,” Kevin said. “Is it okay with you if your big brother likes other boys?”
“Yeah … Why?” Curtis asked, confused by the sudden seriousness in Kevin’s voice and on his face.
“Well, some people don’t like it,” Kevin said.
“I don’t know, but that’s why Dad has been so mad at me. If it wasn’t for Mom, he would have kicked me out of the house.”
“Dad wouldn’t kick you out of the house,” Curtis said, scoffing at the idea.
“He said I’m not his son anymore. Told me to stay out of his sight.”
“He said that to you?”
Kevin nodded. “All because he found a video on my phone.”
“What kind of video?”
Looking at Ronnie, Kevin answered. “A video of me kissing a boy.” He returned his gaze to Curtis’s curious eyes. “Thankfully, he couldn’t tell who I was with. Not that it matters now.”
“You were kissing a boy?” Curtis asked.
“Yep … And Dad didn’t like it.”
“Why? Were you doing it wrong?”
Kevin slowly began laughing, louder and louder.
“You know how Dad is,” Curtis said, confused by Kevin’s laughter. “He wants everything perfect.”
Still laughing, Kevin pulled Curtis into a hug. If so-called “scary” movies made his little brother happy, then Kevin decided that he no longer minded. Let him enjoy the exaggerated frights of full moons and fangs, while remaining unacquainted with life’s true terrors. Real monsters don’t suck blood or devour flesh; they merely spew their own inherited hatred, killing the innocent child that was and nurturing the ongoing line of intolerance. Kevin knew that Curtis couldn’t remain forever ignorant of all the places where murder can happen, but he wanted the kid to enjoy life as he sees it for as long as possible. “Ya know,” Kevin eventually said, “you’re a pretty cool kid.”
“I am?” Curtis asked, his face wrinkling in confusion. His older brother had never complimented him like that before.
Kevin rose to his feet. “Well, cool for a twerp,” he said as he ruffled Curtis’s hair. “And you know what? If you ever want to kiss Jeremy here, or any other boy, or even a girl, it’ll be okay, too.”
Curtis and Jeremy turned to one another, simultaneously screaming, “Ewww, gross!”
As the three older kids giggled at the reaction of the two younger boys, Jamie tapped Kevin on his shoulder. “You really are a good brother. I mean, all these two wanted was to be freaked out tonight. And you just found a way to make it happen!”
Kevin laughed. “Yeah, I figured the idea of kissing a girl would do the trick.”