HALLOWEEN HORROR: ‘Before and After’

Before and After Halloween Horror

“Tonight’s the night. I just feel it,” Claire said softly while she looked around for support.

My brother Joe frowned and looked down, trying to ignore the twitch in his left eye. His girlfriend Zoe quietly put her hand on his shoulder and frowned with him. Joe’s best friend Alex put on a brave face, refusing to show the slightest sign of fear to the others. Typical Alex. He was almost 18 now, the oldest of our group, and he felt the grave responsibilities that came with that position. And then there was me, Joey’s baby sister, the youngest of the bunch.

Not too long ago, we were just your typical group of suburban kids.

“I just know tonight is perfect. I mean, it’s Halloween, and today is … ” Claire let her words hang out there.

We all knew exactly what she meant, but we didn’t dare to say it out loud. I certainly didn’t. I just nodded, indicating that I would go along with everyone else. I was still only 15, so I didn’t really count anyway.

Claire felt the need to explain. “I know exactly where to go. It all depends on choosing the right place and the right time. Spirits only appear where they feel a strong connection. And tonight … I mean, it’s been exactly a year, right?”

Exactly a year ago, our lives were rudely divided into before and after, whether we liked it or not. We often wished we could go back to before, but it would always be after for us.

“I don’t know if this is such a good idea,” Joe said while he looked away. His jaws were flexing, his teeth were chewing invisible gum. He quickly checked his phone, as always. No texts.

“We will contact her tonight,” Claire said. “Maybe it will help you, Joe. Wouldn’t you want to talk to her? Tonight may be your only chance.”

“Where are we going?” Joe asked, his left eye twitching badly now. He was unsure if he was ready to follow Claire into the unknown. On the other hand, he did want to talk to her. Desperately.

Claire lowered her voice even more. “We’re going to a place with a very close connection to her. You can’t get any closer. We need you to come with us, because you’re the one she will contact. I’ve done this before, you know.” She could be very convincing. I guess she’ll probably be a lawyer when she grows up.

A few seconds of solemn silence followed. Claire stared each one of us down, challenging us.

Did she really think that I would be shaking in my boots, trembling with fear? No way. I decided to play along. It might be fun.

Zoe agreed. “Fine with me,” she said. “Take us to that special place of yours and show us what you’ve got, Claire.”

Claire immediately accepted Zoe’s challenge. “Guys, are you coming with us? Or are you scared? Otherwise us girls will just have to go by ourselves, gentlemen.” Claire and I smiled and gave each other a mental high-five, we just couldn’t help ourselves.

Joe’s front teeth tore the nail off his phone-hand-index-finger and spit it out on the street. His face was paler than ever. He realized that it was too late to bail out without losing face. Not in front of the girls and his best friend. He nodded weakly, not to anyone in particular.

“OK, let’s do it,” Claire decided and ran off to fetch her Ouija board.

*****

We all strolled up to Alex’s beat-up Honda Civic, following Joe’s halting pace. He was still on one crutch, and his limp seemed worse than usual today. Zoe casually held her boyfriend’s free hand while he hobbled along with us. She wouldn’t let his crutch come between them. Two lost kids with matching Goth outfits. Torn black denim, nose rings, even tattoos.

A week ago, Zoe got a brown cauldron on her left shoulder. Very Halloweenish, but it turned out to be just a henna tattoo. My brother immediately trumped his girlfriend on the tattoo front. Three days ago, he got himself three black teardrops on the veiny white flesh of his inner right forearm. And these teardrops were the real thing, baby. Solid, pitch-black ink. Joey’s skin was still a little red around the edges of each tear. It must have hurt, and that’s probably why he got these tears in the first place. Just like the rows of half-infected pinkish-red razor blade scars hidden under the long sleeves of his black t-shirt.

Alex’s Civic was tiny, but somehow all of us still managed to fit in. I didn’t take up too much room anyway. Joe was riding shotgun, his single crutch between the front seats, the grey rubber tip almost touching the windshield. He stared up at the bright white full moon that seemed to follow our car around.

From the darkness of the back seat, Claire and I cast long looks at Alex’s handsome profile behind the steering wheel. I had half-expected him to drive us to one of the many cemeteries of Valhalla, New York. Would have been totally appropriate on a night like this. Not so. Alex passed by the vast Holy Cross Cemetery (my all-time favorite graveyard), refusing to go faster than 25 miles on the treacherously meandering Old Knollwood Road. On this particular night, nobody laughed at him for driving like an old geezer. He turned right onto a dirt road that took us deep into a stretch of dark woods. Suddenly the beams from the car’s headlights hit the bars of a steel gate. A faded sign sternly warned us to “Beware of the Dog.”

Was this it? A junk yard? Which dead person were we supposed to talk to on this very special night, in this not so special place? A killer, a victim, an old rock star, a Revolutionary War hero?

When we crawled out of the Civic, our eyes slowly got used to the darkness around us. Alex tried to reassure us. “Don’t worry about those signs. I know this place. I come here all the time to buy parts for my car.” He sounded almost casual and looked as handsome as ever. “There’s no dog, by the way. It died years ago. There’s nothing but junk here anyway.”

I guess that’s why they call it a junk yard, I didn’t say.

Zoe got impatient and rolled her eyes, in that typical Zoe way of hers. “What are we doing here, Claire? What’s so special about this place?”

Claire looked up at Alex. “Why don’t you show us what you told me last week?”

There was no turning back anymore. Alex led the way, using his phone as a flashlight. “There’s a hole in the fence over there, behind those bushes. Just follow me.” Our shoes made deep imprints in the muddy ground as we walked past heaps of car wrecks, refrigerators, washers, dryers, old computers and broken bicycles. “There it is. I recognized it when I was here last week,” Alex said. He pointed with his phone to the back of the yard, behind a pile of indeterminate scrap metal.

*****

Joe seemed to shrink two inches when he recognized the wrecked blood-red ‘96 Ford Taurus. He covered his mouth with his free hand and stared straight at the subject of his recurring nightmares. The entire hood had folded like a harmonica, the windshield was smashed, the engine burnt out, the roof heavily dented. But it was his wrecked Ford Taurus, no doubt about it. Joe’s former pride and joy, a relic from before. Cheap but fast, with a powerful six-cylinder engine. Joe couldn’t take his eyes off his old car. It seemed to pull him closer, like scrap metal to a magnet. “I can’t leave now. I just can’t,” he said more to himself than to his friends. He looked at Claire. “Do you really think she’ll talk to me here?”

Claire looked confident, happy to provide the answer Joe wanted to hear. “If there’s ever a time and place where she will contact you, it’s here and now.” She really should become a lawyer when she grows up.

Joe nodded in agreement while he kept staring at the car wreck in front of him. His left eye even forgot to twitch for a moment.

Alex had to use all of his strength to pry open the back door. His phone shone on the torn leather backseat, and then on the driver’s seat. Still mostly intact. The passenger’s seat was almost completely burnt out, though.

Claire got into the backseat and beckoned us to follow her, making sure Alex would sit next to her. Even after a whole year, there was still a faintly sweet smell in the car. When I recognized it, I just tried to keep my eyes off that charred passenger seat.

Claire unfolded her “Mystifying Oracle” Ouija board on her lap. She claimed it was a real antique with a splendid track record, inherited from her grandmother Lucy. Whenever I was around, I made sure to let the planchette say nice things to Claire on her grandma’s behalf. My skills with the planchette would come in handy tonight.

Claire’s impatient look at her watch indicated that she was ready. Our gifted medium took a deep breath. “It’s time. It’s exactly the right time.”

Alex held up his phone, casting the shadows of our heads on the Ouija board. Claire asked in a low-pitched voice trembling with drama: “Angela … Angela, are you there? Are you with us … Angela? Can you see us?”

Silence. Chirping crickets in the background. A rustling sound in the bushes made Joe quickly turn his head and peer into the darkness outside. A skunk? Something else?

Suddenly, the planchette seemed to move a little. And again, a little more pronounced now. My timing was perfect, even if I say so myself. I built up a little suspense at first, and then slowly moved the planchette to let my friends hear what they wanted to hear. The planchette moved to the upper left corner of the board – “YES.”

Claire looked at us in triumph. The planchette had instantly vindicated her impressive abilities as a medium. Zoe was no longer rolling her eyes.

Claire continued in the same low voice: “Angela … are you happy where you are?”

All eyes were now focused on the board. What would I let the planchette say? Was it time for some drama? Some suspense? Would I scare my old friends a bit? The planchette moved again, first tentatively, then firmer. It took a while for me to spell “S-O-M-E-T-I-M-E-S.” I enjoyed the surprised looks on my friends’ faces.

Joey’s teeth tore off the last bit of his index finger nail, his eye twitching viciously now. “Angie, are you in pain?” he blurted out, but immediately regretted his question. He slowly shook his head, fearing the answer, and couldn’t bear to look at the Ouija board.

I decided that it was definitely time for some more drama now. Just another straight “yes” or “no” would be a little too easy for Joey. The planchette started moving again, while I tried to look as shocked as the others. “G-O.” I paused to increase the tension even more.

“Go? Maybe she wants us to go?” Joe suggested, eager to end our little game.

I slowly moved on to “N” and “E.”

Zoe got it. “G-O-N-E. The pain is gone, I think she’s trying to say.” Joe sighed, obviously relieved.

“Who do you miss most?” this time it was Zoe who asked, softly squeezing my brother’s hand.

My answer came fairly quickly. I could make the planchette do whatever I wanted, as a real master of the art of subconscious manipulation. I spelled “D-U-D” and then waited.

My friends seemed to expect more. For a second, the planchette moved slightly towards the “E” to make it “D-U-D-E.” That was obviously just Claire’s finger pushing, so I blocked her move.

“Dud?” Claire looked around at her friends. “What’s that supposed to mean? Maybe she means dude? Joe, what do you think?”

Both Joe and Alex recognized the word, I could see it in their eyes. The odd, three-letter word made them stare at each other, wide eyed. I could almost feel the shivers down Joe’s fractured spine. No, it was not supposed to be dude. They used to call each other dud instead of dude all the time, mocking each other like best friends tend to do.

It was also the last word of the last text. The last text from before … Joe and Alex both knew that.

“I think we should go now,” was Joe’s only response. Alex quickly agreed. Zoe kissed her boyfriend on the cheek and held his hand. She wanted to end this séance too, for Joe’s sake.

“Let’s just do one more question, OK?” Claire asked, but she immediately went ahead before we could cut her off. “Angela … Is there anything you want to tell Joe?”

Joey closed his eyes and held his breath, like a condemned man awaiting the verdict.

*****

We all knew that open questions like this were against the unwritten rules of Ouija etiquette, but I quickly forgave Claire. Her question gave me a real opportunity. What would the planchette’s response be?

There were so many things I wanted to tell my dearest brother Joe. I looked straight into the big, dark eyes in his ashen face and suddenly felt the oppressed rage whirl in my stomach and rush up to my head.

This was my chance to finally take revenge for what my brother had done to me. This was my time to make him suffer, burden his conscience with guilt, make his cross too heavy to bear, drown him in an ocean of everlasting guilt. Now was the time, here in this godforsaken stinking car wreck.

After all, my brother’s old Ford Taurus was where I died exactly a year ago.

He caused the accident that mercilessly divided our lives into before and after. That weird, sweet smell in the car was me, it was whatever was left of my burnt flesh that still stuck to the melted polyester seat cover of the charred passenger seat. Because of my beloved brother Joey, I would never turn 16, never get my driver’s license, never go to the prom, never have a boyfriend, forever stay a virgin.

Exactly a year ago, my brother was driving his beloved Ford Taurus, while I was riding shotgun. We were in the best of moods, eager to get to the coolest Halloween party in town. Joe had forgotten his phone and grabbed mine to text his buddy Alex. “RU ready dud?” Yes, dud not dude.

He dropped my phone before he could send this very important text. Reached out to grab it from under his feet. Applied the breaks a little, steering with one hand, and peered down into the darkness between his legs. Such an excellent driver. His reaching fingers shoved the phone forward, and it almost got stuck under the gas pedal. “Let me get it for you,” I offered. No, there was no need for any help. He would get it himself. And he did. Still steering with one hand, he handily sent his text off to his best friend Alex.

When he looked up again, Old Knollwood Road had suddenly curved sharply to the right. Joe missed it only by a second, but it was too late. He swerved into the left lane and we were immediately blinded by the flatbed truck’s headlights and deafened by the sound of the horn. In a reflex, he still turned the steering wheel in a desperate attempt to avoid a full-frontal collision. The truck crashed into the right side of the Taurus, hitting the passenger seat door. My door.

The last thing I saw was my brother wiping away the blood from his face, grabbing his knee with one hand, still holding on to my phone with the other.

Dear brother Joey limped away with a shattered knee, his back in shambles and his neck suddenly too weak to carry his top heavy head. On a muddy patch on the side of the road, he stood still and stared in disbelief at the burning car. Dazed. But not too dazed to realize what he had done. There were laws against driving and texting. It had been question 16 on his driver’s license test.

He looked at my pink phone case clenched in his fist. “RU ready dud.” Famous last words. He quickly threw it into the undergrowth when he heard the approaching police cars. As if the phone was burning the palm of his hand like the flames in the Taurus were burning the skin off my back.

Joe never admitted his guilt to anyone, not even mom and dad. Particularly not mom and dad, because they would never forgive him. Of course Alex had a feeling. That last text was obviously from Joe, not from me. I would never call my big love interest “dud.” And the timing of that text was awfully close to the accident. Too close to be a coincidence, really. But Alex never asked his friend about it. What was the use? Best friends don’t ask questions that shouldn’t be asked.

*****

I focused on the Ouija board again, more intensely than before, my fists clenched on my lap in front of me, my knuckles white and bony. On this memorable night, my friends were giving me the chance to punish my dear brother. It was tempting to strike back and let the planchette accuse and immediately condemn Joe. Guilty as charged.

I saw my big brother covering his face with his left hand, his right on his crushed kneecap, hunched over, looking tiny and frail, his face as pale as the moon above, biting his lip, fighting back his angry young man’s tears.

The planchette moved slowly again, drawing gasps from my friends.

“I–F-O-R-G-I-V-E–Y-O-U.”

Of course. He was still my brother. It was the answer that I would have given before. Death doesn’t change everything, you know.

Poor Joe looked up, naively assuming that I was somewhere high up in the sky. He sighed, too emotional to speak. He swallowed visibly. Was about to say something. Then didn’t. Then he did: “I’m so sorry, Angie, so sorry. I miss you every day,” he was sobbing uncontrollably, his head in Zoe’s arms.

Zoe comforted her boyfriend softly, with her arms around his trembling shoulders, almost sisterly. “It wasn’t your fault, Joe. You couldn’t help it. It was just an accident.”

When Joe’s tears finally stopped, my friends’ heavy silence filled up the wrecked Taurus like a giant airbag. Claire broke the built-up tension. “It’s getting kind of cold, right? Let’s get out of here.”

I didn’t feel like going back with them, though. Maybe Claire was right – this metal coffin was where I belonged. I just hope they’ll visit me again next year.

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