By Earl Hatsby
Sam peered at the dead body on his neighbor’s front lawn and trembled in a despair beyond his years. The end had come. Such a shame. The body was meh.
He gave the yard a quick scan. His wobbly plastic fedora, a size too large, didn’t turn with the rest of his head. He adjusted it, then moved his eyes to the oak tree in the center of the yard. As he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark, he swatted at flies, his fingers crossed. Old Man Clarke was a stickler for details. The little things. The tree might harbor surprises.
Last year in this same yard there’d been a body hanging from those dark branches. A good body. The proportions and weight were spot-on. The swell of the chest and curve of the back. Realistic. Freaky.
It wasn’t the body that gave you the creeps. It was the scene, the way the body swayed in the breeze and caused the branches to creak. The way the untied bootlaces slipped along the grass. The way the window light played on the plastic as the body turned in the wind. Mr. Clarke knew what he was doing. He’d cocooned the body with blood-smeared Saran Wrap and hanged it from the neck with heavy rope. A year later, Sam’s still remembered how the nose pressed through the wrap, how the brow and chin drew taut angles in the plastic.
Now, his eyes having adapted to the gloom, Sam issued a silent plea to this very same tree: Have something in you. A shrunken head, a skeleton cat, a red-eyed rubber vampire bat. Anything.
The thick branches showed black in the waning light, its shadows blending into a prickly mass. Plenty of places for something to hide. But Sam knew better. After only a few seconds looking, he sighed and turned back to the lame body in the grass. All October long he’d waited to see what the old hermit would do to follow up last year’s Saran-wrapped man. Then, two weeks ago, this stupid dummy shows up in the grass. Major fail.
As a Hail Mary, Sam turned to the other half of the yard and spent a few moments scanning for cleverly hidden spooks and gags that might somehow redeem this year’s lackluster Halloween spooktacular. Maybe some severed hands sprouting from the unkempt garden at the base of the porch. A brainy splatter of blood on the side of the garage. A fake arm streaked with soot, sprouting zombielike from the chimney. Zilch.
Disenchanted, he started along the path of pink, mossy pavers. These would take him right to the front steps. He wouldn’t wait for his big brother, like he promised. No need. He only wanted to see the body up close, to make sure. A detail might save the whole thing. And then, as consolation: Get the candy. Mr. Clarke gave candy bars.
Sam’s candy-stuffed Stormtrooper pillowcase thwumped against his thigh as he moped from one paver to the next. He thought of the fun he had in store that night. Hiding the candy was better than eating it. The trick was to hide it in so many places you lost track of where everything was. Diversify the portfolio, his dad would say.
But Halloween wasn’t just about the candy. Not for Sam. It was about sticky stab-wounds and eyeballs dangling from sockets; flayed skin with bones jutting from the flesh; twitchy-eyed madmen creeping in the shadows; cruel torture traps that forced you to make unspeakable choices. Halloween was the time of the year when Sam could indulge in his love of everything macabre, when he could explore gory thoughts without feeling guilty. Clarke’s ghoulish decorations had always been a big part of that.
He heard something scrape against the side of the house. Instinctively he made himself into a statue, quietly studied his surroundings. The bushes heaved in deep shadow. The oak tree’s branches cut against the purple sky. For the first time he became aware of the property’s desolation: The patchy cypress fringing the yard, the distance to the sidewalk. Men could spring from behind the bushes and he’d never beat them to the street. He puffed his chest.
“Is there anybody th—“
He caught the sound again—prr-click!—and this time he noticed the acorn bounce off the house’s beveled siding and settle in the grass. Then he heard a shrill of laughter from the sidewalk. Grabbing his plastic fedora to keep it fixed to his head, he spun to the street just in time to see the kids—Keith Carpenter and Joe—walking away, laughing. They were holding their noses like Sam.
More relieved than angry, Sam filled his lungs and shouted, “I hope there’s razor blades in your Milky Ways!” A fly tried to get in his mouth.
His shoulders sank. Halloween sucked this year for so many reasons. He didn’t want to be Indiana Jones/park ranger, for instance. He wanted to fill pantyhose with a bunch of rolled-up socks and smear the nylon with fake blood, then somehow hang the whole thing from his belly like exposed intestines. He wanted his dad to buy him some of those stick-on latex wounds, which he would then apply to his face and neck, use his mom’s makeup to blend them with his skin. He wanted to get those sucker candies that make your mouth and teeth all red. He wanted raw steaks from the supermarket he could hold in his hands and pretend were livers and hearts and muscles. He wanted to be a dead person. Mom said no.
Alone again, he resumed his walk to the terrible, dead body. Sam snickered, loud enough so that Mr. Clarke could hear him inside the house. Mr. Clarke deserved to feel bad about this, Sam thought.
Yet on some level, he understood. The hanging body had been a critical hit, sure, but it caused a stir with the neighbors. A lot of young kids lived nearby and had to pass the body every day on their way to school. When November finally came around oOd Mr. Clarke, at the insistence of some of the neighbors, made a big show of unwrapping the body and revealing that the hanged man was nothing more than parts of an old mannequin wrapped in layers and layers of clothing, with two 5-pound dumb-bells stuffed in the large combat boots. His wrinkled grey eyes shone with pride, and rightfully so! Little details made all the difference.
But not everyone let it go.
Mr. Armstrong. Douche. He really let Clarke have it. In front of everybody! Hard to watch. The poor guy just stood there scratching his white beard, needlessly adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses. Use your head you stupid old man!” Armstrong yelled at him for hanging a body in the tree when the cops still hadn’t found the guy who’d killed the family in Mayersville and slit their throats and stuck around and watched TV in their living room as if nothing happened. Sam knew about that last creepy detail from reading the news reports online. To this day he checked the local news sites looking for updates. On some level deep down he hoped there’d be more killings, just as long as it wasn’t anyone in his family. Haha.
Sam kept hoping scrawny Mr. Clarke would cowboy up. Fight the bastard. Fetch a steak knife from the house and bury it in Armstrong’s neck. Calmly wipe the spray of blood from his glasses, then slide them back on his nose like it’s no big deal. But old Clarke just stood there and took it, and afterwards everyone had the same thought—no more spooktaculars.
They were right. As he drew nearer, Sam kept his eyes fixed on the lousy figure in the grass, which lay directly ahead of him, its leg strewn at a stupid angle over the walking path. He adjusted his fingers to keep his nostrils 110 percent, airtight. The sleeve of his dad’s brown leather jacket slid down from his wrist. He noticed goosebumps on his skin.
Goosebumps. But they were there for the wrong reasons! The face was purple and fat, which could have been cool, but it was too purple, too fat. Mr. Clarke had overdone it with the food dye and the filling. Not subtle. The goosebumps on Sam’s arms had more to do with how the neighborhood had settled into an eerie stillness ever since Keith Carpenter and Joe drifted away. Everyone had finished trick-or-treating. It was too dark.
Finally, his own shadow crept over the body. This was it. He crossed his fingers and crouched for a closer look, hoping against hope the body featured a high-tech hidden compartment that released living maggots whenever visitors got close. But no. The stupid dummy just stayed dead. Green webbed veins in the cheeks to offset the uniform purple. A Satan goat tattoo. An oozing werewolf pentagram.
The body looked even stupider. Very fake. Smeared grass leaves, brown and damp, underscored the lameness of the waxy skin. It lay at a weird angle. The eyeballs didn’t quite agree with each other. In front, the neck looked hollow. The clothes didn’t seem to fit and the hands and the fingers were like a clown’s. Just laying there in the moist. Not even wrapped in Saran wrap. It had a wristband of ants.
Sam kicked the toe of his sneaker into the damp dirt, spritzing a few spots of mud on the curve of the dummy’s ear. Now he needed to decide. His gut told him to turn around and head home. Punish Mr. Clarke for his laziness by not asking for candy. Make him lonely.
Sam’s father had guessed Mr. Clarke’s septic tank had leaked into the yard. The last few days you could smell it even from Sam’s house way down the street. But just now Sam came up with a better theory: the smell was part of the spooktacular! And the flies and the dark—all strategic. Sam had to admit, there was an overall creepiness. Tricky and subtle. Perhaps this time Mr. Clarke was going for a more subdued, designer terror.
And now Sam needed to know. Grinning, he launched back onto the walkway, hopped from paver to paver as if they were a bridge that was crumbling into the earth. In a great burst of energy he rushed alongside the house’s somber front porch. His plastic fedora tottered on his head, and when its brim dipped down over his eyes he poked it back up with his finger to see where he was going. It was quite dark now. No lamplight brightened old Clarke’s living room, though a TV flickered the walls from deeper in the house.
As Sam hooked a right and climbed the porch steps he noticed a smear of dried blood on the squeaky wooden risers. Ta-da! Confirmation! He pumped his fist. An understated smattering of fake blood did the work of a dozen plastic Draculas. This helped build a story: A murder. A body dragged down the steps for disposal. And to think, Sam had written Clarke off on account of that stupid dummy in the grass! The blood on the steps implied a grander design. Secret scares.
His Halloween spirit restored, Sam bounded across the rickety porch and found himself at the front door, which he then rapped with the hand that wasn’t twirling the hefty pillowcase. The little windows in the door said the lights were off in the foyer, but that didn’t mean the house sat empty. Old Mr. Clarke’s Ford clunker slumbered in the driveway as always, gathering rust. And don’t forget about the TV. It was on.
Sam detected movement from somewhere inside the windows. The entire porch rumbled with big heavy footsteps. Mr. Clarke was an old man, small and wispy. The details didn’t match.
Sam trembled in a despair beyond his years. His legs didn’t listen when he told them to run. As the front door creaked open he whipped his head away, craned his neck to catch another look at the thing in the grass just to double check it could be Mr. Clarke if it wanted to be, and yes, it could. It was the little details that told you—like the white goatee on the bloated face and the corduroy pants with the wire-rimmed glasses crushed in the pocket. Out of habit, Sam sprung his hand to adjust his big stupid fedora, which hadn’t turned with him when he’d spun. Before his fingers reached the brim, a large hand clamped his wrist and pulled him into the house.
About Earl Hatsby
Earl Hatsby’s fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Monkeybicycle, Jersey Devil Press and No Extra Words. His work has been nominated for UCLA Extension’s James Kirkwood Prize in Creative Writing. More of his fiction can be found at www.practicallyserious.com.