Authors: Bryant Delafosse
Saturday morning I woke from a dream and immediately begin to scribble in the notebook on my nightstand. Recently, I had begun to keep a journal. I found that putting down as much as I could remember on paper helped me to recognize it for what it was. A nightmare. But it didn’t stop the frequency. If anything, I was having them more often, usually on days of unusual anxiety. Looming exams. Baseball playoffs. Band concerts. It became most vivid when someone in my family was in trouble or sick.
In the dream, I once again stood on the porch of The House Without Doors, an orange pumpkin bucket full of candy in my hands. Five years old.
This time as I approached the black wall of the house and extended the palm of my free hand to touch it, the candy within the bucket began to glow with an ethereal light. The paint itself on the ancient wall of the house began to peel as if from a source of great heat. The light was so intense and white that the very darkness recoiled from it like a physical presence.
I sensed someone behind me and turned to see Bridgette Sullivan rushing away to join the other twirlers on a football field. I looked up into the bleacher seats and saw nothing but the empty eye sockets of hundreds of whitened skulls perched atop skeletal remains staring back at me.
The dream ended with Bridgette saying to me, “Nice save, Graves,” recalling what had just happened the night before at the football game.
On Friday night, the band had traveled to Fayetteville and clobbered what was considered one of the best teams in our division, simply because their star senior quarterback wasn’t allowed to suit up because of his grades. (The word was that their coach had thrown up his hands and basically said that if the teachers were going to take away his best player, there was no point in even trying—“A rotten attitude even for a child,” my father had said later.)
At one point during, our performance on the field, half the whole cornet section suddenly took a vacation. It was almost as if someone had pulled the Duracells out of their backs or something. All I could do was play my part louder and eventually Greg and Sonny found their place again.
On the way back to the bleachers, they were arguing about something when Bridgette Sullivan, one of the more attractive twirlers, appeared beside me and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Nice save, Graves,” as she passed. “Those two idiots nearly tripped over each other out there on the field.”
That must have been why I had been dreaming about her. That or I was developing an obsession with the way she looked in her twirler uniform.
Still, that didn’t explain the part about the skeletons in the stands.
After I’d finished my journal comments, I peeled myself out of bed, showered, and got breakfast. I called Claudia around ten but there was no answer.
I piddled around for another half hour, putting up the plastic window decals of bats, skeletons and ghosts.
Ten thirty rolled around and I called again. No answer.
By this time, I was getting downright angry. Here I had gotten up “bright and early” on a Saturday (the only day I actually get the chance to sleep in) and the person who had goaded me into it wasn’t answering her phone. Finally, I resigned to starting the work all by myself as I normally did.
When Mrs. Wicke pulled up in her old Honda van, I was just hitting my stride on completing the set-up of a zombie torso emerging from a fresh grave. I felt myself growing tense in preparation for giving Claudia a piece of my mind when I realized that she wasn’t with her mom.
Mrs. Wicke stepped out of her car with a casserole dish. It smelled like dessert of the cinnamon-apple variety. She gave the yard a look that was half-smile, half-disgust.
“Oh Paul. Really.”
Of course, I could only beam with pride. “Hey, Mrs. Wicke. This is nothing. Wait ‘til I plug him in.”
“Nothing too scary I hope.”
“Nah, it just sits up and sings Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
“Don’t forget, there’ll be little ones coming by for their first Halloween experience, y’know. This might scar them for life.”
“If I’m lucky.”
She stared at me for a moment, seeming to gauge whether or not to say whatever had just entered her mind, thought twice about it, then decided to say it anyway. “Y’know, Paul, I’m glad you two are spending some time together. Growing up, I always felt you were that inner voice she couldn’t always hear.”
“What? You mean like Jiminy Cricket?” I chuckled ironically.
She looked away then, maybe fearing that she said a bit more than she should have. “Y’know, you ought to give Claudia a call and ask her to come help you. Ms Lazybones is still in bed.”
So much for trying to stay cool. My temper got the better of me and I spiked the plastic skull I had been holding.
Mrs. Wicke stopped and turned. She was adding up the figures and arrived at an answer. “Was she supposed to help you?”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Wicke. No big deal.”
“Oh Paul, I’m so sorry. She didn’t get to bed until early this morning.”
I sighed and turned back to my work, driving the metal spikes holding the glowing ghost-shaped lights into the ground harder than was really necessary.
“If I’d had known she was supposed to be here, I would have made her go to bed. I’m going to turn around and go back…”
“If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you just let it go.”
Mrs. Wicke gave me a long look and smiled maternally. “You’re right. I’ll let you two work it out.”
I spent another hour on the mock graveyard, reached a stopping point, and went inside to grab a little lunch.
Mom and Mrs. Wicke were sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of photo albums. Both were red-faced from laughing (and no doubt from the bottle of wine they were in the process of emptying). When I saw my mom enjoying herself like that, I always felt it gave me a glimpse into the girl she must have been in high school, carefree and her whole life ahead of her.
I peeked over her shoulder and saw an ancient photo of two teenage girls in sweaters and poodle skirts, smiling and waving from the front seat of a ’57 Chevy.
Mom cuffed me on the ear.
“That’s me, buster!”
It was my mother with at least twenty years subtracted from her. Her eyes wide, her face fuller, her hair bigger. She was, it turned out, not much older than I am.
“Good lord. You’re like a kid.” Then on the heels of that. “Whose car?”
“That was your grandfather’s car. He sold it in ‘69. He used to let me and Patty take it out now and then.”
“Oh, our friends hated our guts,” ‘Patty’ recalled. (Nah, I couldn’t picture Mrs. Wicke as a Patty. No way).
I scanned the open pages of an album I had never seen before. Obviously, it was from the Wicke archives. At the bottom of the page was a rugged dark-browed kid, with a cocky smile. He wore a t-shirt with a cigarette box-shaped object rolled up in his sleeve and a handful of grease in his unruly hair.
“Ronnie. Claudia’s father.”
I leaned toward the page.
It was him. The mystery man.
“Y’know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of him.”
Mrs. Wicke looked down at the picture and laughed. “Yeah, he hated taking pictures.” The humor drained out of her face as she time traveled back to the day of the picture. I wondered how must it have felt to lose someone so close to you and then try and carry on the semblance of a normal life, only to have the past pop up at random times.
Claudia had never had that problem in relation to her father, because she had never known the man except through images in photo albums. I’d never really thought about it from her perspective. I couldn’t imagine never knowing Dad, but then I’ve already built up a lifetime of memories of time spent with him. Claudia had none of those memories of her father.
Ronnie Wicke looked normal enough. Friendly, with a smirk lifting the corner of one lip and a spark in his dark eyes (as dark as Claudia’s own) that seemed to suggest he was about to tell the photographer a joke to end all dirty jokes.
“Oh, Paul! Almost forgot. Call Claudia.”
I gave Mom a look. “What does
“I don’t know. She sounded pretty excited about something.”
I gave Mrs. Wicke a look but she was busy refilling my mother’s wine glass.
Dialing Claudia’s number, I let my temper simmer down and decided to let her attempt an apology.
Her greeting: “What?”
“Oh! Hey, come over. Now. It’s important.”
Then she hung up.
I stared down at the receiver, hoping a portion of my ire was traveling fiber-optically to that two story house on Ash Avenue.
Of course, I went back to work on the display in direct retaliation.
About thirty minutes later, Mom comes outside, wordlessly hands me the phone and walks back into the house.
“Where are you?” the voice on the other end of the receiver asked.
“Paul, we can do the stupid display any time. This is really important time-sensitive stuff. Lives are definitely at stake.”
“Claudia, are you high? What the hell are you talking about?”
“There’s a serial killer in our neighborhood.”
My knock was responded to with a yell from an open window upstairs. The first thing I noticed as I opened the door was the smell of burnt popcorn, probably one of the most unattractive odors on earth outside of decomposing road kill.
Apprehensively, I made my way upstairs to the door at the end of the hallway.
I’m not sure how I had pictured a teenage girl’s room would look. If I had to venture a guess, I’d assume posters of unicorns or celebrities would be adorning the walls. There would be perfume bottles, make-up and hair-styling products on their dressers. But I’m a guy, right, so I figure I’d get three out of four.
Claudia’s room was more like a crime analyst’s lab.
First, the walls of the room had been painted jet black, the yellow carpet-- due to the fact that every bulb in the room had been replaced with a black light bulb--glowed the color of a swamp on an alien planet. The total affect was one of disorientation. I located Claudia only by the light of the computer screen. She had one hand on the mouse and the other in a bag of popcorn.
Beside her computer was a small library of true crime books authored by men with names like Keppel, Douglas, and Greysmith with subjects I’d vaguely heard of in movies and TV shows. Berkowitz. Bundy. Dahmer.
The bookshelf was covered with other memorabilia. A skull-shaped candle that bled red wax. Unique bookmarks, one shaped like a guillotine, another with a little noose dangling from the end. The centerpiece was three cartoonish figurines; the first was Frankenstein’s monster covering his eyes; the second, the Wolfman covering his ears; and finally, the third, Dracula covering—oddly enough--his
“Hey, did you read the paper this morning?”
“No, not yet.”
“Take a look at the front page first. It’s on my bed.”
Along with the newspaper, there were computer printouts of maps covering her bed and a large black binder opened to a page that showed a black and white crime scene photo of a corpse flanked by two uniformed officers. This photo, which looked as if it had been copied from a book, had been trimmed down and slipped into a clear plastic sleeve. Flipping through the next few pages, I realized that this book was a collection of news articles and photos of homicides. Lying beside this binder was an oversized hardbound book, also filled with crime scene photos.
As I gazed down at the disturbing pictures of human destruction, I heard a familiar song coming from Claudia’s computer. I figured she was logged onto a radio station or maybe had a CD in her drive. I couldn’t place the melody. When I opened my mouth to ask what she was listening to, the music stopped.
I realized with confusion that I had been unconsciously humming the tune.
Shaking it off, I turned back to the bed and glanced down at the Haven Herald. The headline read: “Coroner Says Abner Girl Strangled.”
“Claudia, what’s going on? What is all this?”
She finally turned away from the computer. “Oh, don’t mind the rest of that stuff. It’s the newspaper I wanted you to see.” She stood and stretched. “You want some coffee. I could use some. C’mon, you can read this in the kitchen.”
Once downstairs, I settled down at the table and scanned the article in the morning newspaper.
“Tell me when you’re finished.” Claudia dumped a couple of scoops of coffee into the coffeemaker, filled it with water, and switched it on.
She joined me at the table and watched me read for about thirty seconds. The only new information was the part about an autopsy revealing that the neck of the victim had showed evidence of strangulation, but I wanted to read through to the end.
I waved her off. I’ve never been the quickest of readers.
“Strangled,” she interrupted. “I guess that rules out your suicide theory.”
Sighing, I slapped the paper to the table. “I never said I thought it was suicide,” I growled. “I was just playing devil’s advocate, okay?”
“No, that’s cool, Paul. I like the rhythm of bouncing ideas.” She leapt to her feet, went to the freezer and pulled out a microwavable pizza. “You want anything to eat?” she asked, as she ripped the plastic wrapping from the frozen wheel of tomato, cheese, and bread and tossed it into a microwave in desperate need of a moist sponge.
I returned to the article and was only a paragraph from finishing before she said, “There’s been a series of disappearances.”
I abandoned the newspaper for good and settled back in my chair. “And I guess you’re going to tell me that this Abner girl is somehow connected.”
“There’s a pattern. Girls between the ages of thirteen and seventeen all within a seventy-five mile radius. Between Austin and San Antonio.”
“Five,” Claudia revealed, joining me at the table, wetting her lips hungrily.
Suddenly, my curiosity was peaked. “How come I never heard about this?”
“They don’t want to start a panic, y’know.”
“And all these girls were found dead?”
“No, only one was found dead.” I waited oh-so-patiently for the punch line. “So far.”
“Okay, but these girls who disappeared… are they connected?”
“I think so.” She got this look on her face as if daring me to challenge her. “I just haven’t discovered how.” The microwave finished nuking the pizza and gave a single loud
Accompanying that sound, I almost expected to witness the sight of a coo-coo birdie peeking out through a tiny door in the center of Claudia’s broad forehead.
I looked down at the newspaper and tried to find the passage in the article that might have led her down this bizarre road.
“Listen. I need a ride. To Abner.”
I snorted derisively.
“What?” she countered with innocence.
“I’m finishing the display.”
“You’re precious display will be here when we get back and you can finish it twice as fast if I’m helping.”
“So now you’re bargaining? I thought you’d already agreed to help me?”
Claudia rose and retrieved the pizza from the microwave. She grabbed a pizza cutter from a drawer and plunged it twice with unexpected violence through the white skin of the pizza, raising twin channels of tomato sauce to the surface.
“I agreed to help you with the planning, not the execution.”
She slid half of the pizza onto another plate and set it down in front of me.
“I told you, I just ate.”
“C’mon, Paul. It’ll be fun.” She gave me a look that almost swung me around to her side, but I came to my senses and thought of an indirect way out of it.
“No way Mom will ever let me drive all the way to Abner. That’s like an hour away.”
She took a huge bite of the pizza, talking between chews, a smile emerging. “Let me handle that.” Somehow, the spectacle drew a fine line between repulsive and adorable.
I chose to stare down at the pizza before me and wondered nervously what the hell we were going to talk about for an hour. No, scratch that. Two hours.
“Why exactly do we have to go to Abner again?”
“I’ve never been there. So, I have to see the town and I have to see the crime scene. Trust me, it’ll help the investigation.”
Investigation, I asked myself. Was she putting me on?
Then I glanced at her eyes and realized that this was the most animated that I’d seen her since she got back. The thought of taking that away from her seemed a little cruel.
Suddenly, despite the fact that I wasn’t hungry, I found myself eating the food she had laid before me.