Horror, Short Stories

The Puppet Master: A Short Story

The Puppet Master_ A Short Story

A cool breeze stirred the red drapes of the Fielding home—a sign that October 31st, 2002, would be the first real chilly night in small-town Tennessee since April. Freddy Fielding pulled the throw blanket closer around him on the couch, remote in one hand. At the sound of the doorbell, he flew to the foyer. The swinging door revealed Lila’s head dangling by a thin strand of sinew and flesh, the white bone of her neck jutting toward the moon amid a fountain of blood. Freddy screamed, and Lila’s thick black pigtails bobbed as she laughed and righted her tilted head.

“‘Sup,” she said through a smile.

He let her inside, gaping at her craftsmanship. Against the dull gray backdrop of growing dusk, she really had looked decapitated, but in the bright light of the house, he could see the black body paint that concealed her real neck so that the prosthetic severed neck poking out of a rigged T-shirt and jacket ensemble looked like it was coming out of the shirt collar, when it really sat atop her right shoulder. Her normally rail-thin frame was padded with something underneath the extra-large T-shirt, filling her out to accommodate the false neck. With her head up straight, the illusion of the painted, bloody flesh strand was distorted, but still recognizable.

“That is so frikin cool!” said Freddy. He went to his knees and bowed. “Long live the Scream Queen. Jamie Lee Curtis ain’t got nothin’ on you.”

“Thank you, thank you,” she said, taking a bow herself. “But dude, what are you supposed to be?”

Freddy jumped up and spun around for her to get the full effect of the faux fur-covered extremities, prosthetic wolf ears jutting from his unkempt brown hair, bubble pipe, monocle, and houndstooth jacket and hat. He’d painted whiskers and a black dog nose over his own freckly one. “Werewolf Sherlock Holmes!”

Lila clutched her stomach, laughing, and forced out, “Oh my God. Freddy, that makes no sense.”

“Ah, but it’s elementary, my dear Lila. In my version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the hound was actually a werewolf, and old Holmesy got a nasty bite.”

Lila flourished her finger in a eureka gesture and said, “Brilliant, my good man!”

Mrs. Fielding’s voice carried from the unseen kitchen. “Is that you, Lila, honey?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I’ll call your momma and let her know you got here safe.”

The friends exchanged knowing glances. All their parents were paranoid these days.

Lila glanced down the hall and lowered her voice. “I hope you’ve got more than that monocle if we’re really going to do this.”

Freddy leaned in. “Well duh,” he whispered. “I stole Dane’s pocket knife. Thing is frikin massive.”

“I swiped a steak knife,” Lila said, patting her jacket pocket. “Think it’ll be enough?”

“Yeah, totally. I mean, he’s super old. The kids he’s been snatching are like babies. We can take him.”

“You got any rope so we can just tie him up?” said Lila. Concern pulled at her eyes, which she’d darkened with black eye shadow. “I’d rather not have to actually … you know … stab anybody.”

Before Freddy could respond, his mother poked her head into the hall, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

“What are you two whispering about?” she said with a smile. “Come on, I made you some snacks.”

The friends raced down the hall, shoving each other for the lead. Freddy reached his chair first, but at such a fast clip that he skidded across the smooth wooden seat and onto the floor.

“Freddy!” said Mrs. Fielding with more disapproval than concern as Lila laughed her head off.

Mrs. Fielding put down a plate of pigs in a blanket wrapped up to look like mummies with mustard faces as Freddy sprang up and put his hat back on.

“I meant to do that,” he said, adjusting his monocle with all the dignity of a middle-aged British gentleman.

“Uh-huh,” said Lila and Mrs. Fielding together.

“You lost your pipe, Sherlock,” said Lila through a mouthful.

Dane walked in as Freddy retrieved the wayward pipe. Lila bent her head to avoid noticing how much muscle he’d gained this past year in football. Dane thumped Freddy on the back of the head, and Freddy threw a foot into Dane’s ankle as he passed.

Like Freddy, Dane had their mother’s freckles, but his were lighter and not so close together, and his hair was their father’s dirty blond that curled at the temples.

“Oh good,” said Mrs. Fielding, whose back had been turned during the minor assaults. “Dane, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”

Dane froze, looking wary of his mother’s overly sweet smile. “About what?”

“Your dad called, and he’s stuck at the office, so I need you to take your brother and Lila trick-or-treating.”

Dane threw back his head and groaned, “Oh my God. Mom!”

Freddy choked on his mini mummy. “No frikin way!” he said through the tears of near asphyxiation. “We’re twelve. We don’t need a chaperone! We went by ourselves last year.”

“I told you, I’m going to Tonya’s party,” said Dane. “Let them go by themselves. They’re just going around the neighborhood.”

“The neighborhood isn’t safe anymore,” said Mrs. Fielding, voice firm.

The kitchen went silent.

Dane jabbed a finger at Freddy. “You’re done by nine.”

“Ten!” said Freddy.

“Nine,” said Dane through his teeth.

“Fine,” Freddy mumbled.

“And you’re home by midnight,” Mrs. Fielding said to Dane.

Dane heaved a sigh and glowered at Freddy as he headed back to his room to await the dark.

***

The night was lit with the orange glow of streetlamps and jack-o-lanterns as Freddy and Lila led Dane around the neighborhood. The werewolf Sherlock and his nearly headless Watson had deduced long ago that the people who went all out with their decorations had the best candy. They wore wide, matching grins as they started up the Grovers’ walk, lined with pumpkin lanterns. An animatronic witch rocked in a wooden chair on the porch, her motion sensor invoking a cackle as Lila and Freddy reached the steps.

Mrs. Grover answered the door in an Alice in Wonderland dress and beamed when they chanted, “Trick-or-treat!”

“Wow, you two have outdone yourselves!” she said.

“Well, it is our last year and all,” said Freddy with a morose shrug.

“Oh, poo,” said Mrs. Grover with a dismissive wave. “Who says thirteen’s the cut off? I just had two sixteen-year-olds by here.”

“Yeah, but I bet their friends think they’re losers,” said Freddy, surprising a snort out of Mrs. Grover. He looked over his shoulder at his brother waiting on the street. “Dane doesn’t trick-or-treat anymore.”

“Well, regardless, costumes like that deserve double candy.” She grabbed two whole handfuls, dropping one in each basket.

“Holy smokes, Mrs. Grover!” said Freddy, eyes bugging at the gold mine of snack size Milky Ways, Twix, and Reese’s.

“Sweet, thanks!” said Lila.

“Got to get rid of it all somehow,” said Mrs. Grover, her smile slipping a little. “Not many out tonight.”

It was true. When they said goodbye to Mrs. Grover, they turned back to a nearly empty street. Almost every house in the neighborhood had children, and Halloween was usually a grand affair. Tonight, as they moved toward the next house, they passed a lone Spongebob with his mother. Up a few houses, a wand-toting fairy and a pirate queen giggled together, with one of their fathers keeping a close watch on the street around them. All the trick-or-treaters were at least nine. No little ones out tonight. Not many of them left.

The next house was dark. A ghost dangled, forgotten, from a tree in the yard, but there was no pumpkin on the porch. Little Annie Hoover had been snatched before she could carve one. Her parents weren’t celebrating anything anymore. Annie’s picture, a school photo that showed off her missing front tooth, was one of eight plastered on trees and lamp posts all over town.

A cop car rolled by at a walking pace as the kids moved on down the sidewalk. The window rolled down and the officer stuck his head out to ask, “Ya’ll doing all right?”

“Yes, sir,” all three said together.

“Haven’t seen anybody sneaking around, have ya?”

“No, sir,” said Dane.

Freddy bit his tongue and clenched a fist. Lila patted his shoulder. The cops hadn’t believed them when they’d said they’d heard thumping in old Mr. Crosby’s basement. When they’d told them how they’d peeked in his window—having grown suspicious after Lila noticed a pink hair bow in his trashcan—and seen Crosby limp in his armchair, staring with vague interest at a blank blue television screen, the cops and their parents had scolded them for snooping. Mr. Crosby was far too old to be involved in this “dreadful business.”

Freddy had countered that Mr. Crosby hadn’t been too old to chase him down the street with a shovel after Freddy accidentally ran through his flowerbed with his bike. No one had listened. So tonight, they were going to do something about it themselves.

As the two friends walked up the next drive, leaving Dane behind, Lila leaned in and asked, “How are we going to investigate Crosby’s basement with Dane tagging along?”

“We aren’t,” said Freddy. “We’ll have to sneak out late, when our parents are asleep.”

“Maybe that’s better anyway,” said Lila, ringing the doorbell. “’Cause Crosby will be asleep, too.”

They did the usual song and dance, earning two more pieces of candy each.

On the way back toward Dane, Lila muttered, “We have to trick-or-treat at old man Crosby’s.”

“Are you nuts?”

“Think about it. If he reports his house being broken into, who are they going to question first?”

“We’ll be sending the cops to his house, not the other way around. He’s guilty for sure.”

“But Freddy, what if we don’t find real proof?”

Freddy only sulked, and Lila grew silent under Dane’s bored gaze. Mr. Crosby’s house was next. The modest two story with the creaky front porch lacked any sort of seasonal decoration, but the windows glowed with dim light through the curtains. Lila grabbed Freddy’s houndstooth sleeve and forced him up the drive beside her.

“We have to act like we’re not afraid of him,” she said in a harsh whisper when he started to resist.

He fell into step, saying, “I’m not afraid of him.”

Lila sighed. “Fine, we have to act like we don’t suspect him anymore.”

“You watch too many murder mysteries, Scream Queen,” said Freddy as they approached the porch steps. “We’re twelve. No one’s going to question us about anything. No one takes us seriously.”

“You’ll thank me and my murder mysteries later,” said Lila, giving him a playful pinch in the ribs before ringing the doorbell.

They stood side by side, Freddy twiddling his thumbs and Lila her hair, for a solid minute.

“Welp, he’s not comin’” said Freddy. “Let’s go.”

Lila rang again, slamming her thumb on the little white circle in rapid succession. Freddy threw back his head in a theatrical groan.

There were shuffling footsteps behind the door. The hinges creaked—like the sound of a baby yawning. Crosby’s balding head and robe-draped shoulder poked through the partially opened door. His untamed eyebrows came together in annoyance as the two kids let out a feeble, “Trick-or-treat.”

“What do you want?” His voice was gruff, like a bridge troll in a fairy tale.

Lila sputtered, her nostrils assaulted by a heinous stench. Beside her, Freddy stifled a gag.

“It’s Halloween, Mr. Crosby,” Lila managed.

“You’re supposed to give out candy,” said Freddy.

“There’s no candy here.” The door slammed and the lock clicked.

Freddy sucked in a loud breath of fresh air. “Holy hell! Did you smell that?”

“Yeah. Like … rotten meat. And something else … like an herb or maybe that incense stuff my mom uses when people come over.”

“Dude smells like he died last Sunday,” said Freddy.

“Or something died in his house,” said Lila.

They froze on the driveway and shared a long look.

“Get a move on, nerds,” said Dane from the sidewalk. “Ándale! Ándale!”

“Don’t get your panties in a twist, Speedy,” said Freddy. “We’re coming.”

“Freddy,” said Lila, “we have to do something.”

Freddy turned back. “We are, Lila,” he murmured through his teeth, “but not right now.” He bobbed his head at Dane.

“Maybe we should tell him. He could help.”

“Tell me what?” said Dane. “Get your asses over here.”

“Lila,” said Freddy in something close to a whine, but Lila scurried toward Dane.

“Dane, something’s going on in Mr. Crosby’s house,” she said.

Dane rolled his eyes. “Y’all are still on this?”

“Please, Dane, listen,” said Lila.

Dane studied her. “You’re really scared, aren’t you?” The question was only half-mocking.

“Yes,” she said, face free of shame. “When he finally answered the bell, he wouldn’t open the door all the way. And the smell, Dane … It was like something died.”

“Really frikin’ awful, dude,” said Freddy.

“And he was burning something, like incense or … or sage!” said Lila, suddenly alert as a deer on the side of the highway. “That’s it! My grandma grows it. It was sage. He’s trying to cover up the smell. And now that he knows we smelled whatever it is, he might get rid of the evidence! We have to do something. Quick!”

“We have to get photo evidence,” said Freddy. “We gotta go back and get Dad’s camera.”

“Whoa, whoa, slow down,” said Dane with a smirk. “You little freaks watch way too many horror movies.”

“We’re not making it up, Dane,” said Freddy through a scowl. “His whole house reeks!”

“I bet it does,” said Dane. “He’s a sad, grouchy old dude who lives by himself. He probably hasn’t cleaned in months. Years, maybe.”

“You never listen to me,” said Freddy, arms crossed tight.

“That didn’t smell like dirty socks and garbage, Dane,” said Lila. “It smelled like roadkill. Why won’t you believe us?”

“Why won’t I believe that Mr. Crosby is kidnapping kids and butchering them in his house, you mean?” said Dane. “That’s what you’re implying, right?”

“Somebody’s taking them,” said Lila. “And it’s somebody close by. Half the missing kids were from this neighborhood, and the others were all taken less than two miles away.”

“It’s not Mr. Crosby,” said Dane.

“How can you be so sure?” said Lila.

“Because Mr. Crosby’s daughter was murdered like 40 years ago,” said Dane, staring down his nose at them like a teacher about to send troublemakers to the principal’s office. “Some sick pervert snatched her at the county fair and murdered her in those woods back behind the mall. He butchered her, and Mr. Crosby was with the search party when they found her body like that. They caught the guy a month later when he tried to take another little girl.” Dane jabbed a finger toward the worn-down house. “Mr. Crosby is the last person to snatch and murder children. He knows what it’s like to have one taken away.”

Lila hung her head, her thick ponytails swishing past her face. “I didn’t know,” she said quietly. “But … Dane,”—she drug the toe of her Doc Martins across the sidewalk—“I do know what we smelled. We’re not making it up.”

Dane’s face softened, and he sighed. “I know you’re not lying, but you’re also not right. You’re freaking yourselves out.”

“Maybe he’s trying to replace his daughter,” said Freddy, voice hard with defiance.

“Please,” said Dane through a scoff.

“No, it’s perfectly plausible,” said Lila. “A lot of serial killers have trauma in their pasts. Maybe Mr. Crosby’s gone senile, and the trauma is making him snatch kids to replace his lost daughter. And maybe, when they don’t meet his expectations, he kills them.”

“That makes no sense. Boys have gone missing, too. You sound like a TV show,” said Dane.

“That’s straight out of psychology textbooks, actually,” said Lila, raising her chin. With the dark house as a backdrop, it looked as though her head dangled in midair.

“Yeah, Dane, you should know that,” said Freddy. “Didn’t you ace psychology, just like everything else? Or is that precious report card on the fridge a forgery?”

Dane scowled. “Get moving,” he said, pointing up the street. “You only have thirty minutes left on the clock.” He flicked his head at Freddy’s watch. “I mean, I know you flunked math, but surely you can tell time.”

Freddy seethed and clenched his fists, but Lila urged him forward, whispering in his ear, “We’ll ditch him.”

When Harry Schmidt and Penny Bordain, dressed as a baseball player and a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, came into view across the street, Lila and Freddy exchanged a look. They made a great show of pointing them out and waving.

“We’re going to go say hi real quick,” said Freddy over his shoulder as he and Lila raced across the road.

“Fine,” said Dane.

“Hey,” said Penny through a tight smile.

“Oh joy, it’s Freaky Freddy and his Horror Hoe. What do you want?” said Harry.

“Just can it and pretend to show me your candy, ass wipe,” said Freddy. “We’ll be gone in a minute.”

“Stand in front of me,” Lila told Penny.

Penny obliged with a muttered, “Whatever, freak.”

Lila gave a terse smile. “If you or Harry tell Freddy’s brother where we went, I’ll tell the whole school that secret you spilled at Jane’s birthday party.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Oh, but I would.” Lila peered over Penny’s shoulder. “He’s not looking. Now! In here.”

She jumped into the ditch and crawled into the small storm tunnel that ran underneath the street at the end of the cul-de-sac. Freddy spared a second to salute Harry and say, “See ya, fucktard,” before following her.

“Euck,” said Lila, crawling through sludge and damp, disintegrating leaves.

Halfway through, they heard Dane call their names, followed by, “Hey kid, where’d they go?”

They froze.

Lila and Freddy cringed, waiting for Dane’s voice to echo through the tunnel, but when he called their names next, he sounded father away. Freddy released his breath in a whoosh. “Keep going.”

They snuck out of the tunnel and behind the nearest home. They made their way through backyards to Mr. Crosby’s house and stopped ten feet from the back door.

“Are we really going to do this?” said Lila.

“Somebody has to,” said Freddy.

Lila nodded and then said, “Please take off that monocle. I can’t take you seriously.”

Freddy stuffed the prop in his jacket, and they slunk toward the house, watching the windows with hands on the knives in their pockets.

Freddy jiggled the handle. “Locked.” He took out Dane’s pocket knife and started to finesse it between the peeling old door and the jamb. No sooner had the tip slipped in the crack than the door swung open wide enough to admit them.

“That was weird,” said Lila.

“It must not have been locked after all,” said Freddy. “Or maybe I’m just that good.”

“Shh.”

The house was dark on this side, but a lamp shone at the far end of the narrow hall. Freddy stepped in first, walking on tip toe. There was a door immediately to the right, and Freddy turned the knob easily. Lila rushed in and pressed herself against his back as he swung the door open with a soft creak that made them both flinch. They crept down the short, pitch black stairway, clinging to the old wooden rail.

At the bottom, Freddy took out the flashlight they’d grabbed last minute, and clicked it on.

Lila stifled a scream. Hollow, lifeless eyes and a sunken face peered through the bars of one of three cages. The child’s skin had shrunk against the skull and wrinkled like a paper sack. Her white blonde hair was sparse at her crown, most of it on the floor around her skeletal knees. Her sagging jaw poked through the bars against which her forehead rested.

“She’s a mummy,” Freddy squeaked, and Lila shushed him.

“We have to go, now,” she whispered.

“Please help,” said a voice.

“Don’t leave us,” said another.

“Oh my God,” said Lila, rushing forward, past the cage with the mummified child. She tried not to notice the boy and girl in much the same shape leaned against the back of the cage. Or the three in the second cage.

In the farthest prison sat a small boy in red overalls and a slightly older girl in a blue dress.

“You’re Annie Hoover,” said Freddy, coming up behind Lila and ogling the girl.

“Yes,” she said, voice weak.

“What’s your name?” Lila asked the boy as she examined the lock on the cage.

“Tucker,” he said. “I’m four.” He put up his fingers in a practiced gesture. “I want my momma.” Tucker burst into tears, and Annie pulled him to her like a mother, patting his head.

“Please get us out.”

Freddy yanked on the padlock. “We’re gonna try.”

“What’s wrong with your head?” said Tucker to Lila, voice trembling in fear.

“It’s just a costume. Today is Halloween,” said Lila. She flicked the prosthetic neck to show it wasn’t real.

“Halloween?!” said Annie, tired eyes flying open. She grabbed the bars, putting her face inches from Lila’s. “Oh no! You have to get us out!”

“Shhhhh!” said Lila, looking toward the basement steps. “We can’t get you out if we get caught.”

“We can’t get them out period,” whispered Freddy, knife inside the padlock. “I can’t get this thing open.”

Annie lowered her voice, but her whisper still sounded like a scream as she said, “Don’t leave us. Beat it open. She’s going to do it tonight. She said she’s going to … to …” Annie looked into the adjoining cage and whimpered.

“She?” said Freddy. “Mr. Crosby, you mean.”

“Please open it,” said Annie.

“We’ll come back with help,” said Freddy.

“She’ll have done it by then,” said Annie, tears spilling down her face.

“Who’s she?” said Lila.

But Annie started trembling, eyes fixed behind Lila’s head, and urine ran down her leg and splashed on the floor.

A rich, sultry female voice said, “Naughty, naughty children.”

Freddy whirled so that the flashlight lit up Mr. Crosby’s dull, glazed eyes. His blue house shoes and matching robe strings dangled three inches from the cement floor. His head leaned back on a limp neck. The creature holding him—her long, clawed fingers embedded in his back—shook him like a doll, snapping his head side to side. Her black hair writhed like Medusa’s snakes, as if caught underwater. Her pupil-less eyes glowed green-yellow in the light, from sockets that were gouged with deep, red scars. Her head nearly touched the ceiling, and the train of her black dress snaked up the basement stairs. A shadowy mirage shifted and swirled at the edges of her ivory skin, which was almost transparent.

The house’s stench grew unbearable. Mr. Crosby smelled of death, his puppet master of sage. She smiled to reveal sharp, feline teeth. “What?” she crooned. “You don’t like my toy?” She shook Mr. Crosby again. “I thought we could play.” She clicked her tongue at her fleshy puppet. “I’m sure he’d love to play. He so wanted his little girl back. When he sensed me here, he thought I was her. Ariel, he called me.” Her laugh was deep and throaty. “He let me in so easily.”

“What are y—” Freddy began, but Lila shoved him forward, screaming, “Run!”

The shadow creature growled and put Mr. Crosby’s feet on the floor, her fingers sinking further inside him, passing through the skin like a ghost. Mr. Crosby stood straight, head erect, and ran for them. Lila ducked his swinging arm, and Freddy juked around him. The massive woman took up the whole passage, but Lila never stopped running, closing her eyes as she barreled through what felt like heavy smoke, coughing as the powerful scent of sage assaulted her nose. Freddy hesitated, and Mr. Crosby grabbed him by the back of his jacket. Freddy shirked off the costume and bolted after Lila, taking the steps in three large bounds.

Freddy began screaming for help as Lila tried to open the back door and found it shut tight.

“Lila, hurry!” said Freddy, flashlight shaking. Mr. Crosby was thundering up the steps.

“It won’t open!” she said, fumbling the lock left and right to no avail.

“Help! HELP!” Freddy shrieked as Crosby’s grinning face appeared.

“Try the front,” said Lila.

They dashed down the hall, but Crosby snatched Lila’s pigtail as she raced by. Her scream of pain stopped Freddy in the living room. He turned just in time to see Crosby drag her back downstairs by the hair, her fingers grabbing at the doorframe and slipping into the darkness.

“Freddy!” she said from the basement depths. “Go get help!”

Freddy hesitated and then tried the front door knob. It wouldn’t even turn. He took the knife from his pants’ pocket and flicked it open before running back into the basement.

“Let her go!” he cried, pointing the blade at Crosby, who was trying to wrangle a kicking, biting Lila. His face was blank as he lifted her off her feet in a bear hug and stared at Freddy.

“He can’t hear you, dear,” said the ghostly woman. “He’s been dead some time.”

“What are you?” said Freddy, swiveling the blade so that it aimed roughly at her chest.

“Now that’s rather rude,” she said, pouting her thin, berry lips. “You haven’t even asked my name.”

“Fine, what’s your name?” said Freddy, trying to force his features into a tough glare.

“They once called me Lamia.” She winked, but all the ruthless joy drained from her smile. “But I’ve been called goddess, and witch, and monster, too. It doesn’t really matter.”

Freddy saw Lila lift her legs toward her chest and reach for her pocket, and fought to keep his face stony.

“What matters is that you’ve been very helpful to me, little one,” said Lamia. “It was beginning to prove difficult to lure another child close enough to the house, and I’m on a deadline. I needed three souls to devour tonight, but now I have four. The more the merrier. Perhaps, once I regain my form, I’ll make a picnic out of you and take you somewhere pretty. I grow so weary of this little prison.”

Lila drew the steak knife from her pocket and brought it down across Crosby’s fingers, severing the soft, decaying appendages, but he didn’t flinch. She jabbed it over her shoulder, where it stuck in his eye. Still his arms held her.

“Stop that!” said Lamia.

“Freddy, get me loose!” said Lila. “She can’t touch us yet.”

Freddy charged, but Lamia whipped Crosby out of reach with a wave of her hand. Lila screamed as she flew through the air in Crosby’s arms.

Freddy ran for the third cage. He banged on the padlock with the butt of the flashlight.

“Your crusty old hand puppet can’t get us all,” he said. He raised a furry index finger, eyes wild, and squeaked, “It’s elementary, my dear Lamia!”

“Stop that, you little beast!”

Lamia set Crosby down. He pulled the knife free, taking most of his eye with it, and shifted Lila to one arm as he tramped toward Freddy. The sound of feet on the stairs made them all look around. Dane jumped the last four steps and froze, jaw slack, with Harry Schmidt’s baseball bat in his hands.

“Another one?” cried Lamia.

Dane looked down at the ghostly dress he was standing on, flummoxed. His shoes slipped through it like water. He looked back up at Lamia, who appeared almost as bewildered as him, just as Lila screamed, “Whack him, Dane! Whack him! Hit a home runner!”

Roused by her cry, Dane charged, coughing as he went through Lamia’s swiping hand and shifting, transparent torso, bat raised. Lamia tried to pull Crosby out of reach again, but Freddy grabbed the old man’s robe and Lila planted her feet. Together, they wrestled with the witch in a twisted game of tug-o-war.

Dane yelled, “Duck!” and the bat cracked across Crosby’s temple just as Lila and Freddy gave a massive heave. Crosby flew off the witch’s hand, his head a dented ruin. Freddy and Lila hit their butts with soft oofs.

Lamia’s feral cry of rage made them all jump. Annie Hoover screamed, “Get us out!”

Dane swung again, and the already battered lock popped free. Lila picked up Tucker, and Dane hauled Annie onto his hip with one arm. Freddy led the pack up the stairs, face scrunched against Lamia’s ear-piercing screams.

“Go right!” said Dane, and Freddy veered toward the living room.

Glass littered the couch pushed up against the west wall where Dane had smashed in the window.

“Freddy, you first,” said Dane.

Freddy hopped on the back of the couch and dove through the window. Lila passed Tucker into Freddy’s waiting arms.

Thundering footfalls from the basement sent Annie into a frenzy. “She’s coming! She’s coming!”

Dane coaxed her through the window. Crosby’s concave face appeared from the basement. Lamia’s arm stretched him down the hall, his legs walking but not touching the ground. She materialized through the wall after him, hissing like a cat.

“Go, Lila,” said Dane, readying the bat.

“We have to get Crosby,” said Lila, just loud enough for him to hear.

“What?” said Dane, just as Lamia snarled, “I’m going to pick my teeth with your bones.”

“If we don’t, she can get more kids,” said Lila.

Lamia set Crosby on the ground and made him run, arms outstretched. Lila and Dane each grabbed a groping hand and pulled.

“What? No!” said Lamia, thin eyebrows arched in surprise. “Let go!”

Lila put her legs through the open window, and Freddy pulled her through, bringing Crosby’s right arm with her. Lamia made Crosby writhe and kick, but Dane shoved him from behind, and as Crosby’s mangled corpse slid through the window, Lamia’s hand popped free of his back. Dane slid through the window and laid in the grass, panting. The children huddled together around him as Lamia spouted all the heinous things she’d do to their corpses.

“Put a sock in it, hag!” said Freddy.

A siren blared nearby, and blue and red lights colored the street. They all stared at the house, where Lamia had retreated to the basement, her curses faltering into faded wails.

“Are we safe?” said Annie.

Lila plopped down in the grass and watched the house as the police cruiser came up the drive. “At least until next Halloween.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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