An Excerpt from
The Skeleton Haunts a House
by Leigh Perry
Most people wear Halloween costumes in order to look scarier, but my best friend Sid had picked his to look less scary.
He’d already climbed into the full-body fur suit, and I reached up to put the head on.
“How’s that? Is it straight?”
“I think so,” he said, “but it’s hard to breathe in here.”
“You don’t need to breathe.” I wasn’t being mean. Sid really doesn’t need to breathe. In fact, he can’t breathe because technically, he isn’t even alive. He died over twenty years ago, and like most people who’d died that far back, all that’s left of him is a skeleton. Unlike most people—unlike any other people at all, as far as I knew—Sid has come back to…Well, if not to life, then back to consciousness, movement, and a penchant for watching old cartoons. He also has a passion for Halloween, since it’s one of the few times he can go out in public.
One might think that Sid’s usual boney appearance was already right on target for Halloween and in previous years he’d dressed as Death, the Grim Reaper, and Jolly Roger. However, recent incidents had linked skeletons and my family a little too publicly, and we’d decided that something more discreet was called for. Besides, Sid had run out of skeletal-themed costume ideas and was ready to try something new.
“How do I look?” He spun around slowly so I could see him
in all his furry glory.
I reached up and straightened the green vinyl collar
around his neck. “Not bad. I would never have recognized
you.” That was, of course, the point of a full-body-covering
getup. “Let’s hear the voice.”
“Scooby dooby dooooo!” he crowed.
“Excellent!” It wasn’t the best Scooby-Doo imitation I’d
ever heard, but it wasn’t the worst, either. “Why don’t you
practice moving around while I get my costume on? And
remember you’re over a foot taller than usual, and a lot bigger
around. Be careful and don’t step on the dog! The real dog, I
Byron, my daughter Madison’s Akita, had been solemnly watching the costuming process. I didn’t think he acknowledged the cartoon Great Dane as a fellow canine, and even if he had, Sid’s imposture would not have caused any latent affection to develop. Byron and Sid have a love-hate relationship. Byron would love to chew on Sid again, and Sid hated the memory of him doing so.
I left Sid stumbling around the living room, wincing as his tail nearly knocked a vase off of an end table, and went upstairs to my room to get ready. Since I was going as Scooby’s buddy Velma, my outfit was considerably easier to get on, and fortunately for my budget, had been made up of things in my house rather than rented from an expensive costume shop. I was wearing an old turtleneck sweater I’d dyed orange with a brick red corduroy skirt that I hadn’t worn in years. Once I added orange knee-highs and an old pair of sunglasses from which I’d poked out the lenses, all I had left to do was curl under my close-enough-to-Velma-brown hair.
When I got back downstairs, I did my own twirl. “What do you think?”
He put his paw onto his chin. “Your skirt is too long.”
“I hemmed it two inches shorter than any other skirt I own—that’s as far as I’m willing to go.”
“Isn’t Velma’s skirt pleated?”
“I didn’t have a pleated skirt, and besides, have you ever tried hemming a pleated skirt?”
“I don’t know about the shoes.”
“I am not buying a pair of shoes for one night.”
“And your hair is too long.”
“Sid!” I said. “I’m only dressing up to keep you company, not entering a most-authentic-costume contest!”
“Yeah, okay. Just say your lines!”
“Jinkies! I think we have a mystery here!”
I pulled the glasses off and put them behind me. “My glasses! I can’t see without my glasses!”
“Scooby dooby doo!” He held up a paw for a high five, but managed to miss.
“Dude, I’m the one who lost my glasses!” I said, putting them back on my nose.
“Sorry. It’s not easy to see in this head. Shall we go?”
“Just as soon as we go over the ground rules.”
“Again?” He gave an exasperated sigh. “Don’t take off any piece of my costume until we get back home. Don’t go running around alone. Stay in character. Keep my phone handy.”
The phone rule had caused some problems since the costume had no pockets and Sid wasn’t wearing anything else, but I’d found a conference badge holder with a sturdy lanyard and a pocket big enough to hold the phone. Sid had it around his neck under the suit, and if necessary, could wriggle around to use it. It wouldn’t have been possible for a normal human, but most of what Sid did was impossible for a normal human.
“Good.” I checked that Byron’s food and water dishes were filled, grabbed my pocketbook, and said, “Let’s go!”
“I don’t think Velma carried a purse.”
It took a little maneuvering to get Sid into the front seat of my green minivan with his head on. With anybody else, I’d have suggested he remove it for the duration, but since we didn’t want to give any children nightmares from seeing a skull on top of Scooby’s body, I just crammed him in and let him complain.
It wasn’t a long drive, anyway, though it took more time than it did most days because of the traffic. We were heading for the Halloween Howl, Pennycross’s annual celebration of all things spooky and scary. There were events scheduled at venues all around town, but McQuaid University—where I worked—was the epicenter. The Howl had started as a student Halloween party before morphing into the current month-long extravaganza. It wasn’t as famous as the Haunted Happenings in Salem, but it drew pretty big crowds from the western part of Massachusetts. We were still three weeks away from October 31 but the fair that was the main draw would be running all three weekends leading up to the big day, fortunately on a Saturday this year.
Normally I enter campus at the main entrance on Elm Street, but the tree-lined street was closed to vehicle traffic for several blocks to make room for the carnival midway, whose lights I could see as I approached. Instead, I drove around to the back entrance, hoping the faculty parking pass that was one of the few perks of being an adjunct English professor would enable me to find a decent spot. Luck was with me—I snagged one of the last half dozen spots in the lot nearest the festivities.
The campus quad was normally a tranquil oasis of grass and stately oak trees, but tonight it was filled with tents for selling food and drink; campus club fundraising activities like a dunking booth and a cakewalk; a bandstand and dance area; and community arts and crafts displays.
I tugged my overly short skirt down a bit and helped Sid out of the car. After we made sure his head was on straight, I said, “Lead the way, Scooby. It’s your night to howl!”
“Thanks, Velma,” he said in a passable rendition of Scooby’s accent, and grabbed my hand to pull me along.
I didn’t blame him for being excited. Since Sid had come to live with my family back when I was six, ninety-nine point something percent of his time had been spent inside our house. Any opportunity to get out was a treat—being able to cavort in public was like Christmas.
He wasn’t the only one cavorting—the campus was hopping. And dancing and slithering and creeping and all the verbs that went along with the Halloween Howl. The McQuaid security officers were the only ones I saw who weren’t in costume. Sid played his character to the hilt, pretending to be frightened of a crowd of zombies, boogying with a lady vampire, and joining the tail end of a conga line composed of masked superheroes.
By then it was fully dark and I was getting chilly, which Sid noticed despite the fun he was having.
“You okay, Geor—Velma?”
“I’m fine,” I said, though I was starting to wish I’d rented a fur costume of my own. “I’ll grab some hot cider. That’ll warm me up.”
“Wait! I know! Let’s go to McHades Hall!”
“No, cider will be fine.”
“Come on!” Sid said, and grabbed my arm again to pull me through the crowd toward the front corner of the quad where a particularly bustling building loomed.
McQuaid Hall was the oldest building on campus, but the out-of-date, poorly maintained structure needed so many repairs that it was rarely used for anything but photo ops until a member of the McQuaid Scholars Committee realized that the place bore a striking resemblance to the Addams family mansion in the old TV show. So what better way to raise money for scholarships than to convert it to a haunted house every year, and rename it McHades Hall for the occasion?
McHades was one of the star attraction of the Howl. I understood the haunt was one of the best in our part of the country, but I’d managed to avoid setting foot in the place. I was hoping to maintain that record, but three things were working against me. One, my sister, Deborah, was in charge of McHades this year. Two, my daughter, Madison, was working there. And three, Sid had a death grip on my hand.
As we got closer, we saw that the line of people waiting to
get in snaked along the sidewalk. “Oh darn,” I said in relief, “we’ll never make it through that line. Let’s hit the midway.”
“Don’t worry, Deborah will get us in,” Sid said, pulling me past the gathered ghoulies, ghosties, and long-legged beasties to the tent where Deborah watched over a pair of ticket sellers, talking into a walkie-talkie.
Sid cheerily said, “Hi, Deborah! It’s me, Scooby!”
Deborah looked resigned. My sister was a locksmith, which she said meant that she dealt in hard facts that made sense. Since Sid did not make sense, she had a more difficult time accepting Sid than I did. “I figured you guys would be showing up,” she said unenthusiastically.
Sid lowered his voice to what he thought was a conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t suppose you can sneak us past the line,
“You’re in a fur suit,” she said dryly. “Not exactly easy to sneak.”
“Aw, come on, Deborah—”
“But as it happens, Madison reserved will-call passes for you two so you can go in with the next party.” She handed an orange cardboard ticket to Sid, then tried to give me one.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll wait out here.”
“You don’t want to go in?” Sid said.
“Not even to see Madison give her spiel?”
“She did it for me at the house.”
“You’re not still freaked out about—”
“No, I’m not,” I lied. “I just don’t like going in front of all these other people. You go ahead.”
“Are you sure?”
“The next party is leaving now,” Deborah said, though I’m not sure if she was taking pity on me or getting rid of Sid. Either way, he scurried off to join a group. A young Snow White immediately announced that Scooby would protect her from any monsters, and reached up to hold his hand.
“Isn’t that cute?” I said.
“It’s not going to be cute when she comes out of the haunt crying.”
She pointed at a sign on the ticket booth.
McHades Hall is too scary for the following:
People with weak hearts.
Those who faint easily.
Children who frighten easily.
Enter at your own risk—no refunds!
“Yow. Maybe you guys should tone it down a little.”
“If we tone it down, people complain because they feel cheated. We’re not talking McKamey Manor or Blackout, but we are trying to scare people. That is the point, after all.”
“Just because you don’t like haunted houses—”
“I know, I know. I’m a wimp.”
She shrugged. “You can see we’ve got plenty of customers without you.” If anything, the line had gotten longer since we’d been talking. “Come Halloween, people are going to be waiting for two hours to get in. I just hope my cast lasts. All that screaming and scaring is hard work.”
“So how long is Sid going to be in there?”
“It takes about half an hour to go through.”
“Then I think I’ll go get a hot dog.”
“Bring back hot dogs and fries for me and my ticket sellers, and I’ll pay for yours.”
I ran into my friend Charles along the way, and stopped to chat for a bit. Then with the line at the concession stand for hot dogs and the difficulty of carrying my load through the ever-increasing crowd, I was gone considerably longer than half an hour. When I finally got back, I handed Deborah the sack of food, reached in to grab a hot dog and a mustard packet for myself, and asked, “Isn’t Scooby out yet?”
“Out and back in again. He was making a hairy nuisance—”
“What?” She made a face. “God, you’re as bad as he is. He was making a nuisance of himself while waiting for you, so I gave him another ticket.”
“Jinkies. I guess he enjoyed it.”
“Something weird about a . . .” She looked around and apparently decided too many people were in earshot. “About a guy like Scooby liking a haunted house, don’t you think?”
“You know, he volunteered to work here for you.”
“Madison told me. Thanks, but no thanks. We only hire fake spooks.”
“Suit yourself.” It was probably just as well. The other cast members might have noticed there was something odd about my pal.
I’d just finished my second hot dog when the first screams came. Well, to be fair, people had been screaming the whole time, attesting to the success of the scare actors’ efforts, but these came via Deborah’s walkie-talkie.
“What’s going on in there?” she demanded of whoever was on the other end.
The response was loud enough that I could hear it plainly. “There’s a dead body in here!”
Say again?” Deborah’s tone was determinedly matter-of-fact, but I could see how tightly she was gripping the walkie-talkie.
“There’s a dead woman in the party room. A real one!”
“Who is it?” Deborah barked, and I knew she was thinking the same thing I was. My daughter, Madison, Deborah’s niece, was in there. Sid was, too, but the voice had said “she.”
“I don’t know. There’s blood and . . . It’s real blood!”
“Don’t go anywhere, and don’t touch anything! I’m coming!”
She keyed a different switch. “Security. Lock the haunt down—nobody in or out. Do it now!” Another switch. “Bring up all house lights and shut off sound effects. Room monitors, hold all groups in place and stay where you are! Tell your actors to drop character.” Then she pointed at her ticket agents. “You, call 911. Tell them to send cops and an ambulance. You, call campus security. I’m going in.”
She headed for the front door, and I was right on her heels.
“Where’s Madison?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.” Back on the walkie-talkie, she said, “Room
monitors sound off.” Deborah must have prepared them for an emergency because they started giving their names and statuses, including which scare actors were with them. Their voices were probably higher-pitched than usual, but they were holding it together.
Deborah led us in the front of the building, where a group of confused customers surrounded a young girl in a bride of Frankenstein costume. “Stay here!” Deborah ordered as we zoomed past, ignoring their questions.
There was a wide stairway in front of us, and though the glow-in-the-dark arrows painted on the floor pointed up, Deborah went past them to part a set of black curtains. The enclosure behind held control boards manned by college-aged kids in jeans and orange McHades Hall Crew T-shirts.
“What’s going on?” one wanted to know.
“I’m going to find out. Stay here, stay safe.”
We went through another set of curtains at the back, and I found myself in a narrow corridor made up of plywood walls. Deborah went forward and slid open a door. Just as we went in, I heard a room monitor on the walkie-talkie say, “Avery. I’ve got Madison and her group with me.” I took a breath, wondering how long it had been since I’d done so.
The large room we’d entered was set up like a party, if you liked creepy parties. There was a banner hung on the wall that said Delta Epsilon Alpha Delta Rush in red, dripping paint. Along one side was a long table filled with nasty- looking refreshments like eyeballs in Jell-O, finger sandwiches with human fingers shoved into them, and a head with brains hanging out. A bar had poison bottles, bloody Bloody Mary glasses, worms in the martinis, and maggots in the beer. All fake, of course, but as gross as it was in normal light, I
could only imagine how it would have looked if the scene had
been set for customers.
In one corner of the room, half a dozen people in zombie costumes were huddled together. When they saw Deborah, they pointed to the opposite corner, where a woman was crumpled on the floor, lying on one side with one arm flung forward and wide-open eyes staring at nothing. And as the guy on the walkie-talkie had said, there was blood.
When I got nearer, I realized that she looked closer to girl than woman. I couldn’t bring myself to look too long at her face, but her hands looked young. Her long blond hair didn’t hide the fact that she’d been beaten hard enough that her skull was no longer shaped right and one arm was bent at the wrong place. She wasn’t in costume, unless it was some character who wore blue jeans, white sneakers, and a dark blue hoodie.
Deborah knelt beside her and touched her arm. Then she checked for a pulse, something I hadn’t realized she knew how to do. After a moment, she shook her head, took a deep breath, and stood. “Okay, the police are going to be here soon. Does anybody know who this is?”
There was a round of nos.
“Who found her?” Before anybody could answer, she said, “Never mind, we’ll wait for the cops.” She got back on her walkie-talkie to tell security to bring the police to the zombie party when they arrived. “Otherwise,” she said, “nobody comes in, nobody goes out.”
I whispered, “What about Sid?”
“There’s nothing I can do about him, Georgia. We’ve got to preserve the crime scene.”
She was right, I knew she was right, but the thought of what was going to happen when the police made my skeletal friend take off his costume scared me more than anything in the haunt could have.