This is my 2013 Halloween Contest submission. Please vote, if you like. Happy Halloween!
"I killed Jeffrey."
I sat on the bed, practicing what I would say in court in the morning. My stomach was in knots. My arms were folded tightly across my breasts, and I rocked back and forth like Rain Man.
I felt badly about it, but no amount of guilt, penance, or money would bring Jeffrey back. I really couldn't even believe that I had been the one that killed him.
I was planning to own up to it, and tell the whole truth. I wasn't going to try to blame my actions on the alcohol I had consumed or how freaked out I was that night. I was just going to tell the truth, and hope that the judge would understand and show me mercy.
I began to rehearse again.
"Your Honor, the truth is that Jeffrey scared the living shit out of me." As true as that was, I don't think I'd win any favor with the judge.
"Well, you see, Your Honor. I was drunk and..."
I caught myself trying to shift the blame again, and I scolded myself for it.
It was the truth though. I was drunk, and he scared the hell out of me. It wasn't premeditated. It wasn't like I got out of bed that morning thinking, "Hey! I think I'm going to kill Jeffrey today!" It just happened.
The worst part was that I had hurt April that night. She was my only friend, and we were becoming so much more than friends, but I had ruined everything on the night I killed Jeffrey. I was desperately holding on to the hope that if I just accepted responsibility for everything that happened that night, that April might forgive me, and maybe she'd even talk to me again.
"Your Honor, Jeffrey gave me the creeps from the first moment I first laid eyes on his dark form in the corner." I'm not a racist. I wasn't afraid of him because he was black. That didn't bother me at all. I hoped that no one would think that this was a hate crime.
What gave me the willies were his eyes- black, beady, and too small for his oversize body. Jeffrey was huge by anyone's definition, and I have to admit, I thought it would have been much harder to kill him than it was.
I know I said that it wasn't premeditated, but I can at least admit to myself that I thought about killing him beforehand. In the days leading up to the Halloween party at April's grandmother's house I thought about killing him every day, just to keep the hairs from standing up on the back of my neck when I heard his name.
The other thing that creeped me out were his almost preternaturally long legs. They seemed to take up most of the size of his body. I still shudder when I think about how odd his movements were when he walked; his legs were just too damned long for the rest of his body.
I took a deep breath and started rehearsing again.
April and I met in the commuter lounge during the first month of our freshman year at Eastern Vermont University. It was crowded, and there were no tables available. April was sitting alone, so I approached her. Not because she looked particularly approachable or anything, but she was the only person I saw who wasn't deeply engrossed in the "getting-to-know-yous".
"Is anyone sitting here?"
"Go ahead." She cleared a spot on the table for my stuff.
"Nice to meet you."
That was the end of the conversation that first day. She immediately dug out her ear buds and cranked something obnoxiously loud. She returned her attention to whatever was on her iPad, and didn't look at me again until I stood to leave.
I studied her out of the corner of my eye while I scrolled through the handouts from the morning classes on my own tablet. April's shoulder-length, red hair was absolutely striking, overpowering the rest of her features. Her pale, lightly-freckled skin practically disappeared behind the dark frames of her glasses.
She wore her unfriendliness like one of those suits they wear when they clean up a senator's office after he receives an anthrax greeting card in the mail. She didn't smile or encourage conversation. She only made eye contact with me when we spoke. I never saw her eyes wander around the room, not even out of curiosity. I wondered if she was nervous or just plain snotty.
As it approached the top of the hour, I checked the time on my tablet and began to pack up. She looked startled, perhaps because she didn't realize how late it was, perhaps because she didn't think I'd still be there.
I gave a quick wave before I walked away, not expecting to run into her cold, unfriendly face again.
I was the first to claim a table in the commuter lounge the next day. It wasn't as crowded as the day before, so I didn't anticipate company. I plugged in my ear buds, turned up the volume, and started reading.
Five minutes later, April startled me when she tapped me on the shoulder.
"Ah!" I yelped, jumping a mile.
"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. Do you mind?" She gestured toward the table.
I laughed a little, still breathing hard. She scared the crap out of me. "Please. Sit down."
"I won't bother you or anything. I just need a place to sit."
"Not a bother at all," I said. I paused, debating whether or not to start a conversation. Before I could say anything else, April turned up her music and buried herself in her iPad.
This became our pattern. One of us would find a table; the other would take a seat when she arrived. We'd exchange pleasantries, and then plug our ears in and disappear into our own worlds.
Curiosity and loneliness got the better of me by the beginning of October. I figured that if I could just stall her for half a beat, I could break the ice, and get her to talk. Pumpkin cappuccino seemed like a good break in our routine, so I stopped at Dunkin Donuts on the way to school one Thursday. Even if she didn't like it, at least she'd have to say "thank you", and I could talk to her before her ear buds went in.
"Pumpkin cappuccino?" I offered, instead of my usual greeting.
She looked a little annoyed for a second, and I thought she was angry with me for disrupting our routine.
"For me?" she asked, her expression softening.
"Of course, I mean, if you don't drink coffee, you don't have to drink it..."
"No, no. I just didn't expect it. Thank you," she said, finally smiling a little. That was the pause I was looking for. I bit the bullet and asked her where she was from.
We were still talking two hours later. I hadn't realized just how lonely I was and how much I really needed a friend. I had come to EVU because my father's aunt lived about half an hour away. She had recently gotten her third divorce, and had some space to spare, so I moved in. She was nice enough, but she was in her sixties, and we didn't have much in common. We had dinner together once in a while, but we basically lived separate lives in the same house. More than once I had wished that I lived in a dorm, just for the company.
"What time is it?" she asked me, all of a sudden.
"It's three-ten. I totally missed philosophy. Holy shit."
"I missed music appreciation. Damn. I guess I don't have any more classes today," she said, shaking her head. "Do you?"
"No. That was it. I feel kind of stupid. I didn't realize how long we were talking."
She paused for a moment, like she was trying to figure out what to say next.
"Do you want to come to my house for dinner tomorrow night?" she finally asked.
I smiled. "That sounds really nice. What time?"
"I have to pick my grandmother up from work because her car is in the shop. How's seven o'clock?"
"I'll be there."
April's house was on Main Street, just outside of the business district. Her house was big and old and run-down. It was set farther back from the street than the neighboring houses, and the long sidewalk was marred by weed-filled cracks. The lawn looked like it hadn't been mowed all summer.
The whole house was dark. In the fading light I could see that the paint on the house was peeling and several shutters were missing from the windows. The shutters that remained hung at odd angles, giving the house a sinister look. "I bet the neighborhood kids stay away from this place on Halloween," I thought to myself.
I double checked the house number that April had written down, sure that it was wrong. This place looked abandoned, for crying out loud! April didn't appear to be lacking for money or anything. She wore name-brand clothing and used expensive electronics. Why wouldn't they fix the paint and the shutters?
My own family didn't have a lot of extra money, but we painted the house every few years, and my father, who owned a hardware store, was a fanatic about making repairs. My mother tended our little flower gardens, and everything always looked nice and well-kept. My parents thought it was good advertising for the store.
I sat in my car, wondering if I had the wrong house or the wrong time. I was beginning to think about leaving when April's car pulled up behind me, temporarily blinding me with its high beams.
I got out of the car, feeling relieved. April's grandmother jumped out of the passenger seat and grabbed my hand.
"You must be Lee! April's told me so much about you. And by 'so much', I mean almost nothing." She elbowed me in the ribs. "I hope you like ziti. Dinner will be ready in half an hour."
She went to the back of the car to get her things, and April led me up the sidewalk.
"C'mon. I'm sorry we're late."
Before I could say anything forgiving, April unlocked the front door, and led me into the entryway. The first thing I noticed was the stale, dusty odor of cigarettes. I wondered who the smoker was. The house was almost completely dark, and I felt a little nervous, afraid to bump into something.
"There are almost no wall switches in this house, so we're always walking into dark rooms," she explained. The living room was just to the side of the entryway. April pointed to a lamp that I could just barely see in front of the window.
"Can you see that one to switch it on?" she asked. "I'll get the kitchen light."
I walked carefully into the living room, trying not to bump into furniture that I couldn't see. I put my hand out in front of me, feeling my way to the table in front of the window. I reached the cold, glass lampshade and fumbled for the button. Just as my fingers closed around the switch, my leg bumped against something soft.
I thought it was a chair, but as the room flooded with light, I saw that it was a young man, sitting in the chair in front of the picture window. He was dressed black skinny jeans and a black hoodie. He was smirking at me in a way that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
I screamed and knocked the lamp to the floor, breaking the glass shade and the light bulb, plunging the room into darkness once again. I backed away, aware that there was now a little bit of light in the room. April had finally turned on the kitchen light before running into the living room.
She turned on the lamp in the other corner, and I could see the man sitting in the chair. I expected April to scream and run too, but instead her face looked annoyed.
"You asshole! Get the hell out of here!" she screamed.
"I was just leaving. Your friend bumped into me, for crying out loud. I fucking live here!" he blustered, stamping toward the door. He gave me an evil smile and a wink as he passed me.
Gran burst through the front door to see what the commotion was just as the guy in black walked out. "What's going on? Is everybody OK? I heard a crash."
"Asshole was sitting in the dark, and he scared the shit out of Lee. Lee, that was my idiot cousin, Hunter. I usually just pretend he doesn't live here."
Gran rushed to the lamp, and started picking up the pieces.
"I'm so sorry," I said. "I couldn't see, and I bumped into his leg, and..."
April took over the cleanup, and Gran led me to the kitchen. I sat down at the Formica kitchen table and glanced around at the 1950's fixtures. "Not another word about it. My grandson is not always a nice person. He'll pay for the lamp, one way or another. Don't expect an apology from him for scaring you though."
She poured me a glass of ginger ale, and I tried to relax.
She served the baked ziti, and did what she could to pry my life story out of me. There wasn't too much to tell. I had an average, happy childhood in a stable, loving household. I hadn't declared a major, and I only chose EVU because I could live with my great-aunt.
"What about hobbies? You must have a hobby or two," Gran prompted.
"I played the flute in the band in high school. I wasn't good enough to keep up with it here though," I admitted. "I guess I'm feeling a little lost. I'm spending all my time with my great-aunt, except for the time I spend in the lounge with April."
It was a relief to admit just how lonely I'd been.
"I'm sorry it took so long for us to talk," April said. "I have a hard time talking to new people. Being shy sucks."
Gran agreed. "April keeps to herself. We've tried Girl Scouts, soccer, Key Club, even 4-H. She just prefers her own company, I guess."
I hesitated before asking the question that was burning in my mind. "You don't have to answer this, but...Can I ask why you live with your grandmother?"
April smiled sadly and looked at Gran. Gran reached for her hand, and said, "I've got this, Sweetie."
It was a sad story, and by the end, we were all in tears. It was a plane crash.
"My husband, both of my children and their spouses were on that plane, on the way to Hawaii for an American Psychological Association conference. Harold, my husband, was a practicing clinical psychologist. My daughter Heather, April's mother, was a researcher. My son Tom, Hunter's father, was a psych professor at EVU.
"I wasn't on the plane with them only because I was flying out two days later. The kids weren't coming with us, and April's other grandparents weren't available to keep her with them until two days after our scheduled departure. I wasn't going to the conference itself, of course, so I volunteered to stay so Heather and Tom could enjoy their getaway with their spouses."
Gran stopped and took a deep breath before going on.
"The plane crashed in the middle of the Pacific. No survivors. They found the pilots and the bodies of a few passengers in the wreckage a month later, but there was no sign of my family."
"Oh, my god," I whispered.
"It's been hard on all of us. April was quiet before the crash. She hardly spoke for two years afterward. Hunter has become...I don't even know what to call him."
"An asshole," April said.
"Among other things, yes. He's an asshole."
"And how about you?" I asked Gran. "You're so full-of-life. I'd have never guessed that you've had such a tragedy."
She smiled sadly. "Prozac. Harold is probably spinning around in his watery grave, but I just medicate. No therapy for this old broad. And it was eleven years ago. I'd probably be a widow by now anyway. Harold smoked three packs a day."
April interrupted, "Don't worry. She got plenty of therapy for me and Hunter. You can see how well that worked."
I wiped my eyes with my napkin and said, "I don't even know what to say. I'm so sorry this happened to you."
"We do alright," April said. "I miss my mom a lot though."
There was a long, almost uncomfortable silence. I thought about the condition of the house, and it suddenly made sense. The house was frozen in a happier time, when Gran's husband and children gave the house life. They didn't lack the money to take care of it. They lacked the heart.
"More ziti?" Gran asked with a false smile.
After dinner April led me to her room.
"I spend most of my time in here," she told me.
It was a comfortable room with a king-sized bed and a reclining chair with a reading light. A tank full of vibrant fantail goldfish bubbled in the corner, its incandescent light casting a soft glow over the room.
"Have a seat," April said, motioning toward the recliner. She plunked down on her bed, and grabbed a pillow, hugging it to her chest.
"This is nice," I said.
"Yeah. After my parents died, Gran thought I'd relax better if I had a comfortable place to sit and stare at a fish tank. I guess it worked."
I sat, watching the goldfish swirling around the tank for a moment.
"Lee," she said quietly. "I need to tell you something. I mean, if we're going to be friends, I think you should know."
"What?" I was nervous about what she might say.
She took a deep breath, and finally spilled it. "I'm a lesbian."
I wasn't expecting that. I must have looked startled, because she started rambling, her words coming in a flood.
"Please don't think that I'm interested in you THAT way. I just like hanging out with you, and I think we can be friends, and..."
"No, no. It's ok. I'm not spooked. I mean, not too much anyway. Is this common knowledge? Does everybody know?"
"Not really. I don't usually advertise it. Gran knows. I don't know if Hunter knows or not. I've never even had a real girlfriend," she added. "I mean, I've kissed a couple of girls, but I haven't really dated or anything. How about you? Are you missing some boy back home?"
"Nah. I had a boyfriend for about a year, but we broke up before graduation. He was an ass. He was dating a girl from another school the whole time we were going out."
"That sucks. Are you sure you're not freaked out?" April asked.
"I'm just so glad to have someone to talk to, I think I could overlook it if you told me you were a serial killer that has sex with goldfish!"
I think that was the first time I ever heard her laugh.
"You know," I said. "I'm medicated too. I take Zoloft."
"I have a little anxiety thing."
"Anxiety thing? Is that a clinical diagnosis?" she teased.
"Ha. No. After three years of therapy, they finally medicated me. When my brain chemicals are out of whack, or, as I like to call it, 'When I'm Crazy', my adrenaline goes haywire, and I blow the slightest thing out of proportion."
"Like anything. Mostly things I say. I worry that someone will take it the wrong way, or hold it against me. It's weird. Or if a teacher says, 'I know some of you cheated on this test,' I automatically think that I'm one of the ones being accused, even if I didn't do it."
"Wow. That's a lot to carry around."
"Zoloft helps a lot."
"You know what else helps?" she asked with a sly smile.
I was afraid to ask. "What?"
"Having sex with goldfish."
It felt good to laugh out loud with someone else.
A week later we were sitting in the lounge, killing time before our ten o'clock classes on Thursday, when she invited me to her Gran's Halloween party.
"I know. It sounds dreadful- a party with a bunch of senior citizens. It's cool though. She belongs to this travel group, and she hosts their Halloween party every year. Another lady takes care of Fourth of July because she has a big backyard. They rent a banquet room at the Holiday Inn for New Year's.
"Most of her friends bring their grandchildren, and some of them are around our age. Even my idiot cousin comes, but probably only because he lives there. He's twenty one now, so maybe he'll find something better to do."
"Do you dress up and stuff?" I asked.
"Dress up and decorate. That's the best part. You can help us decorate too."
"OK. That sounds like fun."
"We start this weekend. Why don't you stay over? Gran would love to have you. She's talked about you non-stop since you came for dinner."
"Sure," I replied. "The alternative is studying philosophy all weekend in my room. I'm not too crafty though."