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Once upon a halloween, p.6
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       Once Upon a Halloween, p.6

           Richard Laymon
 
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  "How old?"

  "They're all in first grade... six, I guess." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I know Gary's six. Guess the others are, too."

  "My Bret's eight," Jeff said.

  "My parents are gonna kill me."

  "No they won't. Everything'll be fine."

  "Hey!" Phyllis called out when they were still more than twenty feet away. "You're Rhonda Gale!"

  "Hi," Rhonda said.

  Phyllis turned and whispered something in Mandy's ear. Mandy nodded. Bret complained, "Isn't polite to whisper."

  Ignoring him, Phyllis continued to whisper.

  To Rhonda, Bret said, "Hi."

  "Hi there," said Rhonda.

  "My son, Bret," Jeff explained. "And the one in the poodle skirt's my daughter, Mandy."

  Mandy nudged Phyllis aside and said, "Pleased to meet you."

  "Hi, Mandy."

  "And Elvira there, she's Phyllis."

  "I'm not Elvira," she said, frowning. Then she cast a large smile at Rhonda and stepped up to her, extending a hand. "It's so nice to meet you."

  Rhonda shook her hand, and Phyllis kept it, pumping it vigorously.

  "I'm a huge fan. I've been to all the games. I'm Jason Filbert's sister. You know Jason?"

  Rhonda nodded.

  "You're the best on the whole squad, everybody says so. The prettiest, too."

  "Well, thanks."

  "I'm gonna be on the squad when / get to be in high school."

  "It just takes a lot of hard work," Rhonda said. "I'm sure you'll make it if you really give it all you've got."

  This is a very nice girl, Jeff thought.

  Then Phyllis said, "You go with Brad Farris."

  "Used to."

  "Did you break up with him?"

  "Phyllis," Jeff said. "Calm down and stop asking questions."

  "Don't you know who she is?"

  I do now.

  To Phyllis, Rhonda said, "Say hi to Jason for me, okay?"

  "Oh, I will."

  Rhonda retrieved her hand.

  "He'll wanta just die when he finds out he missed you. He could've been here, but he had better things to do. That's 'cause he didn't wanta go around with his 'punk sister,' meaning me. This'll teach him."

  "You've got to excuse Phyllis," Mandy said. "She gets easily carried away."

  "I'm not carried away."

  Bret chuckled.

  "So how come you broke up with Brad?"

  "Hold the phone," Jeff said. "Look, kids, there's a problem. Rhonda was out with her brother and a couple of other little kids and now she doesn't know where they are. Two boys and a girl, all six years old."

  "What're they wearing?" asked Mandy. Her tone was no-nonsense; she was on the case.

  "Gary, my brother, he's a clown. Doug's dressed up like Dracula and Rosie's a tramp."

  "Like a whore?" Phyllis asked.

  Mandy elbowed her. "Like a hobo."

  "Oh."

  "Where did you last see them?" asked Mandy.

  Rhonda turned halfway around and waved a hand toward the street behind her. "Back there," she said. "I'm not too sure. I think I'm a little lost."

  "Let's start heading in that direction," Jeff said. He patted her shoulder to start her moving, suddenly realized his mistake and dropped his hand to his side.

  She was already on the way. As she glanced back at him, he hurried forward to walk beside her. Looking over his shoulder, he said, "Everybody keep a sharp eye out."

  "Are we going on a search for them?" Phyllis asked, following close behind Rhonda.

  "We'll see what we can do," Jeff said.

  "Search and rescue!" Bret announced, running past everyone In the lead, he jumped onto the sidewalk in front of Rhonda and walked backward. "Don't worry, we'll find them. Won't we, Dad?"

  "More than likely." To Rhonda, he said, "They're probably wondering what happened to you."

  "I sure hope so."

  "How did it happen, anyway?"

  She shrugged. "They went on ahead. We were going down till driveway and I stepped on one of my shoelaces and almost fell. So then I stayed careful till we got to the street and I told them to wait up for a minute and I stooped down to tie my shoe. I was down on one knee and they were all standing around me and it was fine, but suddenly Rosie whacked me on the head and yelled, 'Not it!' and ran off down the street laughing. And Gary and Doug ran off with her. I yelled and told them we're not playing tag and to come back. But they kept on running. I couldn't go after them, not with my shoe untied. Besides, I wasn't really worried. They hadn't gone very far. I could still see them and everything. But I screwed up a couple of times tying my knot..."

  "I quadruple-knot my laces," Bret announced, still walking backward. "They never come untied."

  "I should've thought of that," Rhonda said.

  "I have some pretty good ideas sometimes. Mostly they aren't."

  Rhonda smiled at him. "I bet you have lots of good ideas," she said. To Jeff, she said, "Anyway, it didn't take me very long to get my shoe tied. Even with the screw-ups. But they were almost to the corner by then and they had a pretty good headstart on me. I didn't want them to go around the corner. Especially because this woman at the last house, she told me about some kid who said people were chasing him. So I yelled and told them to wait up. But they didn't. They laughed. Rosie even yelled, 'Can't! catch us!' And then they went running around the corner."

  "They should've stopped when you told them to," Bret said.

  "And you'd better stop walking backward," Jeff said, "before you fall down and crack your head open."

  Half-turning, Bret sidestepped briskly along in front of them. "How's this?"

  Behind them, Phyllis muttered, "What a wad."

  "Cut it out," Mandy told her.

  "Well, he is. I'm glad my brother isn't some little dork."

  "Hey, Dad," Bret said, "what's a dork?"

  "Never mind," Jeff told his son.

  "Anyway," said Rhonda, "that's how it happened. They just ran around this corner. I bet they weren't even half a minute ahead of me. By the time I got there, though, they were gone."

  "I bet they hid from you," Bret said.

  Rhonda nodded. "That's what I thought. I didn't think anything had happened to them. I figured they must've ducked into some bushes or something close by, you know? To play a trick on me. So I told them, very funny, ha ha, time to come out, game's over, that kind of thing. But also, I kept on walking in case they'd gone into hiding a little farther up the block. I kept thinking they'd get tired of screwing with me and come running out any minute, you know, laughing. But they didn't. Pretty soon I saw some kids so I ran and caught up to them, but it was just some other kids. Then I was another block away, and another, and I went around corners and hurried after kids I saw, thinking it was them, but it never was. Finally, I didn't know where I was any more. That's when I sat down on the curb and... sort of lost it. Then pretty soon you came along."

  Mandy's voice came from behind Jeff. "Didn't you ask anybody about them?"

  Rhonda looked back at her. "Not till your dad. I didn't exactly want everyone in the world to find out I'd screwed up. Besides, I kept thinking to find them. I really did think they were just, you know, hiding... playing a trick on me. But it went on way too long for that."

  "By the time they quit hiding from you," Jeff said, "maybe they couldn't find you."

  "I keep hoping it's something like that."

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  Hunter stood near Eleanor, watching her. She was still sprawled on her back, panting for air. She was shiny with sweat and a little bloody, but her skin had lost some of its flushed redness. She kept a hand at her throat as if to convince herself she was no longer being strangled.

  When she seemed better, Hunter said, "Do you want to gel out of here?"

  Instead of answering, she sat up. Then she raised her knees and slumped forward and rested her arms on them. Her head drooped.

  "Are you all right?" H
unter asked.

  "What do you think?"

  "Can you get up?"

  "Sure." But she didn't try.

  He looked at the looped cord. It lay nearby on the carpel, gray and motionless.

  "I think we'd better get out of here," he said.

  "Do you? Really?"

  "Before something else happens."

  Head still drooping, she muttered, "What is this fucking place, the House on Haunted Hill?"

  "I don't know, I don't know what's going on."

  "The fucking cord tried to hang me, that's what."

  "I guess so."

  "You guess so." She raised her head and looked at Hunter. "Wanta help me up?"

  Worried she might try something, he said, "I'd better not get too close."

  "Forget about it," she muttered, and struggled to her feet. Swaying slightly, she fingered her throat. Then she twisted halfway around and gazed down at the cord. She stared at it for a long time. Then she murmured, "Jesus." Meeting Hunter's eyes, she nodded slightly.

  Is that a thanks? he wondered.

  "Want me to go first?" she asked.

  "That'd be a good idea."

  She staggered toward the door.

  Following her out of the room and into the hallway, Hunter watched her back. It was red with rug burn, marked here and there with small scratches. Her buttocks shifted and flexed as she walked.

  "I need to use the John," she said.

  "I don't know..."

  "I do." She pointed straight ahead. "It's right there."

  As they approached it, Hunter said, "I don't want you out of my sight."

  "You wanta watch?"

  "I just don't want you getting away."

  "Yeah, right." She entered the bathroom and turned its light on. Leaving the door wide open, she walked past the sink. She bent over the toilet, raised its lid, and peered down into the bowl. "Looks okay," she muttered. Then she turned around and sat down.

  Still in the doorway, Hunter had a full view of her. She was sitting with her back straight, hands resting on her thighs. She looked toward the bathtub straight in front of her, apparently paying no attention to Hunter. He turned his head away when she started to pee.

  "Wasn't really the cord," she said

  "Huh?"

  "Not like the cord came to life. Felt like someone was there, you know? I was all set to go. Had my hands loose, had the belt off my feet. I'm about to stand up and all of a sudden the noose goes over my head and someone pulls it. Like there was a guy behind me doing it, some kinda maniac."

  In his peripheral vision, Hunter saw Eleanor turn her head toward him. Even though he still heard her urine drilling the water, he looked at her. She asked, "What's the story? This place got ghosts?"

  "I wouldn't know," Hunter said. "I've never been here before I just ran here to get away from you and those other creeps."

  "It's got something," she said.

  "That's for sure."

  "Maybe it's just in that room. You know? Maybe it can't get out. You never know. Weird shit has rules all its own."

  "I guess so."

  "I know so. I'm into some pretty weird shit, myself, in case you didn't notice."

  "I noticed."

  The splashing sound stopped. She reached sideways and spun a roll of toilet paper. "Don't know what that was. Ghosts, they can't do shit like that." She reached down with some paper. "Or so they say."

  Standing up, she twisted around and flushed the toilet. When she turned in Hunter's direction, he saw an angry red stripe high around her neck. Then his eyes traveled downward.

  "Give me a second," she said. She faced the sink, turned the faucet on, and put a hand under the spout to feel the water. " I just wanta wash up."

  "Okay."

  She glanced down at the front of his jeans and smirked. She didn't make a crack, though. Turning away, she bent low over the sink and dipped water up to her face. She rubbed her bloodstainted face with both hands, pink water spilling down her chin and neck and forearms.

  Done cleaning her face, she straightened up slightly, splashed water onto her chest and rubbed her breasts with both hands. She moved them around, squeezed them, swirled her hands all over them. When she finished, they looked clean and shiny and the nipples were stiff.

  Staring at herself in the mirror above the sink, she said, "So what do you wanta do, Hunter?"

  He shrugged. "Get you out of here, I guess."

  "You guess."

  "Yeah."

  She splashed lower, washed the blood off the small cut a few inches above her navel, then splashed her entire belly. As she splashed and rubbed, rosy water spilled downward, slicking her groin, trickling down her legs, making a wet place on the gray rug under her feet.

  She stared down at herself. "That's better," she said. She turned to Hunter. "Better?"

  He nodded.

  "Still think you don't wanta fuck me?" He shook his head.

  She smirked. "All evidence to the contrary aside, huh?" She pulled a towel off a bar and dried her face.

  "I want to get Connie back," Hunter said.

  Eleanor rubbed her neck with the towel. "The gal you were with at the graveyard?"

  "Yeah."

  "She your girlfriend?"

  "I guess so."

  Eleanor's towel-wrapped hand massaged one breast, then the other. "Maybe she got away."

  "If she didn't, I want them to let her go. And I want them to let Shannon and Laura go, too."

  "Don't want much, do you?"

  "If they want you back, they'll let 'em go."

  She chuckled, patted her cut with the towel, then began drying herself below the cut. "You want to trade me for them, is that it?"

  "That's the idea. Do you think it'll work?"

  She shrugged. "Might." Running the towel down her right leg, she bent over and Hunter watched how her breasts hung from her chest and swayed. "You never know. I'm pretty popular... at least with the guys in the group." She straightened up, then bent over again and dried her left leg. "Yeah, they might go for a trade. It 's sure worth a try. Hell, I'm all for it."

  Done drying herself, she tossed the towel to the floor.

  Hunter backed away from the door as she walked toward him He stopped with his rump against the newel post at the top of the stairway. He held the sword in his right hand, its point resting on the floor near his foot.

  In the doorway, Eleanor stopped. She casually leaned sideways Right shoulder against the door frame, she crossed her ankles, folded her arms beneath her breasts, and said, "Trading me isn't the best way to get 'em back, though. If you wanta play it really safe, we oughta gather up a few kids and take them along. Shouldn't be too hard to get our hands on some ankle-biters. I mean, it's Halloween." A smile spread across her face. "They're all over the place. I'll help you grab a few and we can take 'em out to the graveyard and trade 'em in for Connie and your other two friends."

  "Kids? Children?"

  "The younger the better," Eleanor said.

  "What do they want kids for? What the hell are they doing out there? Why do they want anyone?"

  "You know, for the ceremony The midnight sacrifices."

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  From the rear, Mandy said, "We might want to stand still till we figure out where we're going."

  Bret, a few paces in front of Jeff and Rhonda, raised an open hand and called out, "Halt."

  They stopped, spread apart on the sidewalk and turned toward Mandy and Phyllis.

  "Thank you," Mandy said. Looking into Rhonda's eyes, she-said, "Now here's what I think. I think we should go back to where you stopped to tie your shoe. We start from there and retrace your steps."

  "Sounds good to me," Jeff said.

  Frowning, Rhonda said, "I'm not sure I know where that was."

  "I know how to make you remember," Bret said. "I'll hypnotize you. You can always remember everything when you get hypnotized."

  "Get real," Phyllis told him.

  "It's true."

/>   "So what if it is true, you don't know how to hypnotize anyone."

  "Well, I sorta know how to try."

  "What do you remember about the house?" Mandy asked Rhonda.

  "Well, it had a really long driveway. It's the house where the woman told me about the kid who'd gotten chased."

  "What did she look like?"

  "Gosh... She was about my size, only older. I guess she was sort of pretty. She had light brown hair and it was cut short... pixie style, you know?"

  "Any distinguishing marks?"

  "Good one," Phyllis muttered.

  "I don't guess so," Rhonda said. "Not that I noticed."

  "What was she wearing?"

  "Oh, that I can tell you. A long-sleeved white blouse, open at the throat, and brown corduroy pants. I'm not sure about her shoes. She might've had sneakers on. Or maybe she was barefoot. I really don't know."

  "Doesn't ring any bells with me," Jeff admitted. Glancing around at the kids, he asked, "Does she sound like anyone we saw tonight?"

  Mandy shook her head. Phyllis shrugged, then reached into the open top of her gown and adjusted one of her fake breasts.

  "Oh, something else," Rhonda said. "She had paint on her. The woman. Like on her hands, and some on her blouse, and she even had a little smudge on one cheek, like she'd touched her face with a painty finger."

  "Laura does paintings," Bret pointed out.

  "Who?" Jeff asked.

  "Laura who lives in the old Witherspoon house," Mandy explained.

  "Yeah, her," Bret said. "Maybe she's the one."

  Mandy said, "Remember it, Dad? That was the big old house where we heard them inside but nobody came to the door. We thought maybe they'd run out of candy or gotten tired of trick or treaters, or something. Anyway, you made us leave."

  "It did have a really long driveway," Phyllis pointed out.

  Mandy turned to Rhonda. "The house where your shoe cam untied, was it like all by itself on a dead-end street?"

  "It was! It sure was! There was the dead-end over to one side. I remember it, the barricade? And woods all around. And the nearest other houses were maybe half a block away and across the street."

 
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