Scarecrow and Zombie

Ginny was a scarecrow. Her messy blond hair was already passable for straw, so nothing needed to be done there. She wore a flannel shirt, a pair of worn-out jeans from the Goodwill store, and some broomsticks duct-taped to her arms. Combined with her naturally lanky frame, it made a fairly decent costume, if not a comfortable one. She had wanted to be a princess, but Mom vetoed that idea because she had been a princess last year.

A viewing of The Wizard of Oz provided the inspiration for Ginny’s second costume choice. “If I can’t be a princess,” she said, “then I guess a scarecrow is the next best thing.”

I was a zombie. I was a zombie every year but for some reason Mom never objected to that. It seemed like an obvious double-standard but it worked out in my favor. I loved zombies. I had seen Night of the Living Dead up through Day of the Dead by age 12 thanks to my best friend Ryan’s overly-permissive parents and horror-obsessed older brother. My costume consisted primarily of some strips of fake flesh peeling off my face, fake blood applied liberally around my mouth, and an arm I amputated from one of Ginny’s dolls over her loud objections. I would occasionally nibble on the doll arm, which made the adults doling out candy slightly uneasy.

I had wanted to go trick-or-treating in Ryan’s neighborhood but was instead given the task of escorting Ginny around ours. This was especially disappointing given that it would probably be my last year trick-or-treating. It was sort of an unwritten rule that once you hit your teens it’s just really uncool to go door to door asking for candy. The few teenagers in our neighborhood who still did it, a few of them brazen enough to try to pull off jeans and a hoody as a costume, were met with overwhelming disdain. Oddly enough, though, I never saw anyone actually refuse to give them candy. They just accompanied the candy with pronounced frowns and occasional eye rolling.

Adding to the disappointment of this particular Halloween was how few houses were giving away candy. A bad economy had taken its toll and at best one out of every three houses were lit up. With the remaining houses, one could see the amorphous, bluish light of the television screens bouncing off the walls as families kept the rest of their lights off as the universal sign that they were party-poopers. Ginny and I had made our way around almost the entire neighborhood and had only half-full pillowcases to show for it. We were also running way ahead of schedule due to skipping so many houses, so I figured we had time to take a detour into the neighborhood’s haunted house.

In the movies, haunted houses are always aging Victorian homes either in New England or the Deep South. In the Midwestern suburb I lived in, the oldest house standing was built around 1980. The best candidate for a haunted house was a modest split-level home that had fallen into a state of disrepair even before the previous owners had given up trying to pay their mortgage or sell the house and had instead simply packed their bags and left town. The lawn was relatively well-maintained by the surrounding neighbors, who did not want the stigma of having an abandoned, run-down house next door. There were things they could not fix, though, like the moldy shingles on the roof, the broken windows, or the cracked and peeling paint.

I pointed at the house and announced to Ginny, “We’re going in there.”

Her eyes widened and she took a step backward. “Nuh uh,” she said. “That’s scary.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s why we’re going in. It’s Halloween. You’re supposed to be scared.”

Ginny protested further, but I grabbed her by her hand and dragged her toward the house’s side yard.

“Where are we going?” she whined.

“One of the windows over here is busted open. We can get in through there.”

“I’m not tall enough!”

“I’ll lift you through.”

I walked over to the window and pushed up on the cracked and cloudy glass. It slid upward easily but without anything to prop it up I was stuck holding it open. I motioned Ginny over and told her to bring me a branch that was on the ground a few feet away. I snapped a few inches off the end and then jammed it into the window frame.

“OK,” I said. “Now I can lift you up into there.”

“Great.”

I lifted her through and then followed her in, then reached into her bag and pulled out the Halloween flashlight with the plastic Jack-O-Lantern on the end that Mom had bought for her at the dollar store. I flicked it on and it cast an anemic glow on the walls around us.

“It’s still too dark,” Ginny protested.

“Scaredy cat,” I taunted her.

“Am not!” she cried and stalked off ahead of me. I followed closely behind, not wanting her to get swallowed up by the darkness.

Soon I could make out the remains of the kitchen. Every appliance had been stripped from it, but you could see the empty spaces where the refrigerator and stove had once been. The smell of rotting food hung in the air, causing us both to gag a bit. As we made our way across the room, I heard a thumping noise coming from inside one of the cabinets.

Ginny jumped. “What’s that?”

I flung the cabinet door wide open and a mouse scurried out of it, down to the floor and away past Ginny’s feet. Ginny shrieked and started crying.

“Hey, don’t worry,” I told her, putting my hand on her shoulder. “It was just a mouse. It’s gone now.”

“It’s not gone,” she sniffled. “It’s still around here somewhere, waiting to run out and eat my toes.”

I laughed. “Oh my god. It is not going to eat your toes. Where did you get that idea?”

“I saw it on TV,” she said. “They found a dead body and mice were eating its fingers and toes and so the police couldn’t find out who it was by the fingerprints and toe prints and they had to pull out the dead person’s teeth to find out who it was.”

“That’s just a TV show. It’s not real.” I gave her the sternest brotherly look I could muster. “Besides, you shouldn’t be watching that stuff anyway. You’re too young and impressionistic.”

“Mom and Dad let me!” she protested.

Just then, we heard a loud clanging sound from downstairs in the basement. I whirled around in fright as if the source of the noise were right next to me and Ginny shrieked.

“More mice?” she suggested hopefully.

“I don’t know. Let’s go find out.”

“Why would we want to do that?”

“Because it is scary and therefore it is fun. Come on.”

I worked my way along the wall, looking for the door that led to the basement. After opening the doors to a few closets and a bathroom, I found the right one. I motioned for Ginny to follow me and then carefully made my way downstairs.

The basement reeked of mildew, rot, and a faint smoky smell. I caught a hint of movement in a corner at the far end of the room. I trained the flashlight on that spot and could vaguely make out the shape of what looked like a person huddled in the corner. The person coughed.

“Zombie!” I shouted. “Run!”

We both turned around and bolted back upstairs. I slammed the basement door shut, grabbed Ginny and headed toward the window. Without saying a word, I lifted her through the window and then followed behind her. We ran hand-in-hand from the house and were a couple of blocks away before I finally stopped to catch my breath.

I looked down at Ginny and tears were streaming out of her eyes. “I’m scared,” she cried. “Is the zombie coming to get us?”

I wiped the tears off her face. “No, it’s not coming to get us. It wasn’t even a zombie, really. It can’t be a zombie because zombies aren’t real. I just got scared because it was so dark in there. Besides, zombies don’t cough.”

Ginny sniffled and attempted to give me a hug, giving up when she realized she couldn’t bend her arms because of her costume. “Ok. If you say so.”

“Look. I need to go back there. If there’s someone sick in the basement, they might need help. You don’t have to come if you don’t want. I can walk you home first.”

Ginny’s eyes widened. “What if it’s a murderer?”

“I don’t think it is, but if so I’ve got an orange belt in Kung Fu so I could probably take him.”

Ginny looked at me and thought about it for a moment. “OK. Let’s go back.”

Walking the few blocks back to the abandoned house, we passed a group of kids going in the opposite direction who were dressed up as pirates. They all seemed to have bought the same costume from the Halloween store, which actually made them look slightly scarier, like a hoard of pirate clones. I didn’t recognize any of the kids, so we passed by them without a word.

“Yarrr!” I heard one of them yell when they were about a block away.

“Yo ho!” another replied.

We got back to the house and entered through the same window we had gone in before. I navigated my way back to the basement door with Ginny closely behind me and then we made our way downstairs. As we descended the stairs, I thought about what Ginny said about this person in the basement maybe being a murderer. Sure I had Kung Fu training, but if the person had a gun then we were in big trouble. I didn’t want to wimp out, though, so I tried not to think about it too hard.

“Hello?” I called when we reached the bottom of the stairs. “Is there someone down there?”

“What are you asking that for?” a woman’s voice responded. “You already seen me.”

I pointed the flashlight to where the voice was coming from and saw the same vague, person-like shape I had seen before. I slowly moved closer to it until I could see the woman.

“Umm… hi,” I said to her.

“Psssh,” she responded.

As I looked the woman over, the idea that she might be a zombie briefly returned to my mind. She was wearing dirty, tattered clothes and looked like she hadn’t bathed in weeks. Her face was sunken and her hair was greasy and matted. I was afraid she might start trying to claw out my internal organs at any given moment. However, rather than make a move toward me she remained collapsed in a heap on the floor looking like she wouldn’t have the energy to stand up let alone eviscerate me.

“What are you doing down here, lady?” Ginny asked. “Nobody’s supposed to live here.”

“I was sleeping, goddamnit,” the woman muttered irritably. “What are you kids doing in here? And why are you dressed so goddamn funny?”

“It’s Halloween,” I told her. “We came in here because we thought the house might be haunted.”

The woman snickered. “Wooooo,” she said. “Wooooooooo!”

I looked at the floor around where she was sitting. There were a couple of empty vodka bottles, a small pile of cigarette butts, and some syringes.

“What’s your name?” I asked the woman.

“Leia,” she replied. “Princess Leia. What’s yours?”

“What are the needles for?” I asked her, deliberately avoiding her question.

“Medicine. I’m real sick.”

“They’re for drugs,” Ginny whispered to me. “I saw it on TV. She puts the drugs in her arm and between her toes.”

“Listen,” the woman said. “You two aren’t tattletales, are you? I mean, you’re not going to go telling other people that I’m here, right? I ain’t hurtin’ nobody, just tryin’ to live, you know? Nobody was using this house anyway and I figured if nobody else, why not me?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “If you’re sick, maybe you should get some help.”

“Nobody’s gonna help me,” the woman sneered. “They just want to put me in jail for using my own medicine instead of theirs. Nobody, nobody, nobody’s gonna help me. So keep them away. Keep. Them. Away.”

“Are you really a princess?” Ginny asked.

The woman looked confused. “What? A princess? Huh?”

I took Ginny aside. “You’re right. This woman is on drugs. That’s why she’s acting so crazy. I think it’s marijuana. You can tell by the needles. We need to go home and tell Mom and Dad so they can call the police.”

Ginny started crying. “What will happen to Princess Leia if we call the police?”

“I don’t know,” I said gravely. “I think they have special jails for drug users and she’ll go there so they can get her off the drugs.”

Ginny cried louder. “She just wants to live!”

“Listen to your sister,” the woman said. “She knows what she’s talking about.”

“OK, lady,” I told her, “we’re going to leave and we won’t tell anyone you’re here.”

“Really?” she asked. “Aww shit, you kids are cool. Hey, little girl, why do you got broomsticks taped to her arms?”

“We’ve got to go now,” I said. “Goodbye.”

“Hey, peace be with you,” the woman said with a drowsy grin.

I grabbed Ginny and headed back toward the stairs. She sniffled and waved goodbye to the woman as we ascended the steps. The woman didn’t seem to see her.

“OK,” I said when we had made our way back outside. “We need to hurry home and tell Mom and Dad.”

Ginny’s eyes widened. “I thought we weren’t going to tattle!”

“I just said that so she wouldn’t try to hurt us. Drug users are dangerous. Come on, let’s go.”

We hadn’t gotten far when we ran into the pirates again. They seemed to have gotten rowdier and increased in numbers since the last time we saw them. At the front of the pack, one of the pirates was jabbing a captive in the back with a plastic cutlass while the rest of the group shouted, “Walk the plank! Walk the plank!”

The captive was a scrawny boy dressed as a werewolf. He was tied up with bungee cords and looked like he had been crying. Being older than these kids, I decided to intervene.

“What are you doing to that werewolf?” I asked. “You need to let him go.”

“He’s our prisoner!” shouted one of the pirates. “We’re going to make him walk the plank!”

“Yeah!” joined in a few of the other pirates.

“Go home, you little twerps,” I told them. I grabbed the werewolf and pulled him away from his captors. This was met with howls of outrage.

“He’s trying to take our prisoner!” shouted one.

“Get him!” screamed another.

The gang of pirates rushed me, plastic swords drawn. Suddenly I was being buffeted by small fists and plastic swords. Ginny yelled hysterically at them to stop, but I soon found myself on the ground being kicked all over my body with an occasional blow landing on my head. I felt on the verge unconsciousness when someone shouted, “Zombie!” and the kicks all stopped at once. I heard the footsteps of the pirates as they all ran in unison and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Zombie or not, at least I was finally safe from that vicious gang of preteen pirates.

“Oh hi, Princess Leia!” I heard Ginny say above me.

I pushed myself up off the ground slowly, feeling battered and broken. Blood trickled out of my nose and onto the pavement below. I had lost a few fights before, but never had I been beaten up as badly as I was by those miniature marauders. The woman from the basement of the abandoned house was standing a few feet away and shaking her head.

“It’s a sad state of affairs when pirates are allowed to roam the streets, beating the tar out of innocent children,” she said grimly.

“What are you doing here, Princess?” Ginny asked. “Did you come out here to save my big brother?”

The woman looked confusedly at Ginny. “I’m out of medicine. Time to move on. Ain’t nowhere to buy it in this neighborhood that I can find.”

With that, the woman patted Ginny on the head and walked off down the street. Ginny waved stiffly at her and then turned her attention toward the boy in the werewolf costume, who was still tied up and had not yet spoken a word.

“Are you OK?” she asked him.

He nodded mutely and then pointed at me.

“That’s my big brother,” Ginny said. “He knows Kung Fu.”

I untied the boy. He nodded in thanks and then walked off.

“Let’s go home,” I said to Ginny, wincing a bit as I started to walk.

She smiled, took my hand, and led the way as I limped along beside her.

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