tagSci-Fi & FantasyCasper House

Casper House


Little Audrey's mother was the worst sort of doting Supermom, and every year she had a painstakingly homemade costume. This year, she wore a papier-mâché pumpkin, capped off with an orange saucepan lid for a hat which kept slipping off to the side. "Jim! My hat!" she ordered once again.

"I'll have to start charging you snacks to fix this for you," Jim said as he straightened the lid for at least the fifth time since they'd set off. Audrey was, of course, unable to fix the hat herself, as her arms were stuck out to the sides of the pumpkin.

"Yeah, right, Jim, you're not getting any of my candy!" Audrey snapped in the babytalk accent she had yet to outgrow at age eight. Jim recalled that her brother, Tristan, who had been in his class, had the same problem. Tristan had also been a nasty little brat just like Audrey, and Jim drew no small pleasure in knowing the jerk was still living at home while he, Jim, was attending college hundreds of miles away. If only he'd found an excuse to stay away for fall break! "You want candy, you ask your sister," Audrey concluded firmly, once again without a thank-you for fixing her hat as she pranced off toward the next house.

"He's my half brother, and he's not getting any of my candy either!" Heather said. "I haven't had any problems with my costume, have I?"

"Not except that no one knows what it is," Audrey chirped.

"Hey!" Heather slapped Audrey on the side of the head, and Audrey's hat went askew again.

"Jim, my hat!"

"Heather, that was rude," Jim said, though privately he couldn't blame his half-sister. It was true: an awful lot of the people who had met them at the door had told Heather she was an adorable angel when she was really supposed to be a butterfly.

"What do you know, Jim?" Heather demanded. "You know what Mom said about your father last week?"

"Yes," Jim said as he fixed Audrey's hat again. He didn't know, but it was easy enough to guess what Mom might have said after her third drink or so of the afternoon.

"Jim, why are you a nerd for Halloween when you already were a nerd anyway?" Audrey demanded in lieu of thanks once he had her hat back on. Heather dissolved into haughty giggles, and the girls' earlier feud was forgotten.

"I'm not a nerd, I'm a fifties greaser," Jim replied. Jeans, hi-tops, a t-shirt with a spare pack of Mom's cigarettes rolled up in the left-hand sleeve, and slicked hair...it was the perfect homage to the era of his favorite kind of music, not to mention a fast and convenient costume after Mom had sloshed rum and Coke on his sweater during their argument over who was going to take the girls trick or treating. His only complaint was that it was a bit chilly to be out in a t-shirt.

"You're a fifties nerd, Jim," Heather corrected.

"A nerd in any decade," Audrey corrected. "My brother used to say so all the time!"

"At least your brother didn't have to listen to all that ancient music all the time!" Heather added. "Earth angel, earth angel, will you shut up already!"

Back in high school, Jim had promised himself every year that this would be the last time he took little Heather and her friends trick or treating. When he'd started college two years ago and hundreds of miles away, it had looked as though he was free at last of the yearly burden. Just his luck, then, that fall break had happened to coincide with Halloween this year, and so that day just after lunch Mom had once again informed him that he would take his much-younger half-sister out. "You know perfectly well you love it, James," she had told him as she mixed her first drink of the afternoon.

"No, I don't, and you know it, Mom!" he had protested. "Sooner or later Heather gets tired, and she always gets really nasty really fast when that happens. I had enough of that back in high school."

"Okay, you're right," Mom had conceded. "But you're outranked, honey. She's going with Audrey, and I'm certainly not spending the afternoon with that little brat."

"Audrey!" Jim had slammed his fist down on the counter at the mention of Heather's spoiled, manipulative best friend. "I refuse! She's such a little..."

"Don't you dare use that word, you shithead!" Mom had snapped, sloshing her drink onto his sweater as she jabbed her finger at him. "You know I don't tolerate sexist language in this house, even from a chauvinist pig like you who doesn't know any better! Should've kicked your father out years before I did."

"But she is!" Jim knew better than to do anything but ignore his mother's favorite epithet for him. "All her life, she's had Heather wrapped around her finger --"

"I know that, Jim! Heather's just like you, no backbone at all, but at least she's only eight. Someday maybe she'll come to her senses and choose better friends, but for now Audrey is her friend and they're going trick or treating together, and I'm not going to bother with that little brat myself. You're living under my roof, you'll do what I tell you, you shithead!"

At least the order meant an afternoon out of the house, Jim reminded himself as he ushered Heather and Audrey through the streets of the old neighborhood, vowing with every step to have someplace else to be next fall break. He did his best to content himself with his favorite childhood memories of the old neighborhood, which had changed only a little here and there in the two years he'd been gone.

The two brats were still sharing a laugh at his expense when they rang the next doorbell. The sun was starting to sink over the rooftops of Maple Street, Jim was happy to note. At least that would give him an excuse to call it a day soon enough.

"Trick or treat!" Heather and Audrey sang out as an older woman answered the door.

"Well, now!" exclaimed the woman as she held out a bowl of peanut-butter cups. "A little bird told me there were a pumpkin and an angel at the door, and I thought that can't be right! But here you are!" To Jim she added, "You look just like the boy I went to prom with," and she offered him the bowl.

"Thank you," Jim said, helping himself to a peanut butter cup.

"Take a few more if you want!" she encouraged him.

Jim complied. "Thanks again. Heather, did you say thank you?"

"You're not the boss of me!" Heather retorted.

"You're not the boss of anyone, Jim," Audrey added, and they both turned off across the woman's lawn toward the next house.

"I'm so sorry, ma'am," Jim said. "I'll say thanks for all three of us."

"Don't worry, dear, maybe your sisters will grow up to have your manners someday," she told him with a smile. She shut the door before Jim had a chance to explain that the pumpkin was, thank heavens, not related to him.

Jim took a moment to unwrap one of the sweets before catching up with the girls. When he did, he found Heather standing in the middle of the driveway sobbing uncontrollably while Audrey looked on.

"What now?" Jim asked.

"Shut up, Jim!" Heather screeched.

"What is your problem?"

"You know what, you shithead!"

Jim felt his hands curl into fists. "Heather! Don't you dare call me that. It's bad enough Mom does --"

"Mom's right about you!" Heather wailed.

"That's it, we're going home." Jim grabbed Heather's wrist and turned up Oak Street towards their house, but Heather pulled back in the other direction. He also reached for Audrey's hand, but she danced out of his reach with a haughty laugh. "If you're going to talk to me like that, no more candy for you!" he ordered Heather, ignoring the brat for the moment.

"No! I'm not done!" Heather insisted.

"Then tell me what your problem is!" Jim demanded.

"Everybody thinks I'm an angel! They never get Audrey's costume wrong!"

"Oh, so what?" Jim said. "It's their mistake, and you still get the candy. But you're not getting any more unless you knock it off."

"I'll tell Mom when we get home that you cut the trip short, and she'll yell at you!"

"She'll find something to yell at me about anyway," Jim said. "Think I care about that?"

At that, Audrey once again burst into laughter. "I'm going to the next house, Heather, whether you are or not," she announced, and she pranced off across the street.

Jim turned back to Heather, then doubled back as he recalled that 'the next house' was an old mustard-colored Dutch colonial with ivy growing over most of its surface, known to decades of neighborhood kids as "Casper House" because its only occupant was rumored to be a senile old man who smiled at passerby from the porch but never came out or said anything -- a friendly ghost of sorts. No one knew if the old man -- whatever his real name -- had ever given the kids any cause to be afraid of him, because no one had ever dared knock on the door. Especially not on Halloween. But Audrey, whose family lived several blocks away, wasn't up to speed on their neighborhood legends.

"Audrey, no!" Jim called out. "That's Casper House! No one ever goes anywhere near there!"

"You can't stop me!" Audrey replied sassily as she sauntered up the rickety steps. At that moment, two cars drove past, forcing Jim to wait helplessly on the sidewalk across the street. Once the coast was clear, he pulled Heather across the street. But she was still straining against him, and he hadn't even managed to get her halfway across before Audrey reached the top step and, turning sideways for access pressed the doorbell triumphantly. Seeing the panic on Jim's face, she laughed.

Jim finally got to the foot of the steps he had always so assiduously avoided himself when he was younger, and grabbed in vain for Audrey's hand before the door opened. With Heather still screeching and throwing her full weight in the other direction, Audrey was easily able to avoid Jim's desperate grasp, and he was still scraping uselessly at the back of her pumpkin when the door opened.

For a few panicked seconds, Jim was his eight year old self on the ultimate neighborhood dare, feeling every bit of the terror that had kept him from ever ending up on those steps back then, swearing to himself that the worst the old man would do was tell them to get off his lawn, and reasoning that at last he had the ability to yank Audrey away to safety. All these thoughts and dozens of others roared through his mind as helplessly he watched the door open.

"I'm sorry, sir, we..." Jim began. His voice trailed away as the figure behind the door came into focus. It wasn't the creepy-friendly old man he had known and feared all those years ago at all, but rather a cheerful-looking dark haired woman, Jim's age or possibly a bit younger even. She wore a floral print dress that looked every bit as much out of the fifties as Jim's costume did. He could even see crinolines under her skirt from his vantage point at the bottom of the stairs.

"Trick or treat!" Audrey bellowed. Not to be outdone, Heather darted around Jim and up the steps and held her goodie bag out as well.

"Well, we certainly do have treats here," the young woman said, holding out a plate of homemade cupcakes.

"Kids, don't take those!" Jim managed to say as the panic passed. "You know the rules about homemade food from strangers."

"Don't listen to him!" Audrey said. "He's just my friend's stupid half-brother!"

"Well, he is right," the woman allowed. Looking at Jim now, she added, "But where's your costume?"

Jim, relieved as he was confused, laughed. "Yeah, I guess we cancel each other out as far as costumes are concerned. Did you watch Grease for inspiration?"

"Did I watch what?" She now looked just as flummoxed as Jim was feeling.

"Never mind him!" Audrey exclaimed. "We want the cupcakes!"

"My word, you're an impertinent one!" the woman said to Audrey, setting the tray of cupcakes aside. To Jim she asked, "Is she always like this?"

"I'm afraid so," Jim said. "I've known her since she was three."

"Well, I'll tell you what, girls," she said. "Your brother is right, you really shouldn't take treats from strangers. But I've got good news for you: you're just in time for the show my family puts on every year for the neighborhood kids. Come join the other kids in the living room, and then you won't be strangers anymore, will you? Then we'll be friends and you can have the cupcakes...if you remember your manners!"

"Now, wait a minute..." Jim began. But before he could put a stop to anything, Audrey and Heather had clambered inside. Jim rushed up the steps after them, but the hostess took his hand and pulled him aside.

"Let's let the kids have some space for now, shall we?" she asked with a sugary smile. "In the meantime, perhaps you'd like a cupcake?" She picked the tray back up off the table where she had set them, and Jim had his first ever look around the interior of Casper House. It was furnished with ancient but pristine couches and chairs in garish floral prints not unlike his new friend's dress. There was even a black and white television buzzing in the living room, where Jim now saw several other children were playing with a plethora of toys that also looked like museum pieces.

Jim looked down at the enticing sweets. "Um...I really shouldn't accept sweets from strangers either, you know," he stammered.

"My name is Betty," she said, shaking his hand. "Now we're not strangers."

"I'm Jim," he said, and thinking the cupcakes were the least bizarre development of the past two minutes, he picked one off the tray. "Thank you."

"You're very welcome, Jim. So are you and your sister -- oh, excuse me, half sister -- new in the neighborhood?"

"Well, no!" Jim couldn't hide his surprise at the question. "I take it you are? And what's with the retro furniture? Even the TV?"

"The TV is new!" Betty reassured him. "Our first one. Father finally gave in and bought one last year. We've lived here since he came home from the war. I was only eight then."

Jim decided to play along, whatever the joke might be. "He was in Iraq, was he?"

"No. Italy mostly, but he doesn't like to talk about it. None of my friends' fathers do, of course."

"Right, of course," Jim said. "My grandfather never did either. He was in Korea."

"Your grandfather was in Korea?" Betty exclaimed. "Is he a general?"

Jim let it slip out: "No, he got drafted."

"Drafted, and he's old enough to be a grandfather?! I don't understand!"

"That makes two of us," Jim said. His fear now returning, he looked into the living room. "Should we be keeping an eye on the kids?"

"Her mother and I are doing that," came a voice behind Jim, who turned around to see a vaguely familiar looking, dark haired man of 45 or thereabouts. He was carrying a pitcher of milk in one hand and a stack of glasses in the other. "We try to do something special like this every Halloween. It's a tradition since Betty was their age. Our way of making up for all the fun I missed when she was a little girl and I was off in Europe. Your father probably understands too."

"Yeah, yeah of course!" Jim had given up on trying to understand the situation, and there was no need to sour the festive mood by explaining that his father was an absentee drunk whom he hadn't seen in years.

Betty's father, having set down the milk and glasses on the cocktail table for her mother to pour for the children, returned to shake Jim's hand. "I'm sorry my daughter hasn't introduced us properly. We're always telling her she's welcome to have any of her friends from college over, even boys, but she's so secretive anymore."

"He's not a friend from college, Father!" Betty protested. "He's a neighborhood boy, and we just met. His name is Jim, just like you, Father."

"Ah, well, then I'm sorry," the older man said. "One Jim to another, then, welcome. Are you new in the neighborhood?"

The word "yes" formed on Jim's lips, until he recalled that he had just told Betty otherwise. "No, I'm just...I've been away at college too."

"Ah, you too then! Well, I'm sure you and Betty have plenty to talk about. We'll watch the children."

"I'm not...are you sure?" Jim was still wary, and a glance in the living room confirmed that Audrey was already antagonizing a couple of the other little rugrats.

"Of course he's sure!" Betty told him, taking him by the arm. "Let's go have some more cupcakes in the kitchen!"

"I really ought to have a chat with Audrey first," Jim said. "I can see already she's being a little --"

Betty yanked him away by his arm. "My parents know how to handle a brat like that, I promise! Let's go get you a cupcake!"

"Er, okay!" Jim's head was swimming, but it didn't seem wise to argue the point. The hallway looked just as retro as the rest of the house had, as did the kitchen, where in spite of Betty's suggestion, they didn't stop. Instead she guided him through the kitchen to the back stairs. "We're not really stopping here, are we?"

"Are you joking?" Betty grinned at him. "We're a couple of mature adults, aren't we? We deserve an adult treat."

"Whoa, hold it!" Jim stopped short in the hallway. "You're beautiful and all that, but I just met you and I am responsible for Heather and Audrey. I know they're a couple of spoiled little shits, but still..."

"Don't you get it, Jim?" Betty asked him with a soothing touch of her hands on both of his. "They're getting what they need, and I'm getting what I want, and you're getting almost what you want. That's all. Sorry I don't look more like Jayne Mansfield, but I'll have to do."

Jim was more flummoxed than ever. "How do you know about that, Betty? You just met me, and I'm nearly sure you don't really live here, at least not since you were a little kid like you said, and I know you know it's the twenty-first century out there, and --"

Betty pressed one finger to Jim's lips and silenced him. "And I know what you like! It doesn't matter how I know. The point is, I know about your thing for the fifties, and that's what you're getting for Halloween! That's all."

"You just guessed that because of my costume," Jim protested.

"That plus your big collection of doo-wop CDs and the James Dean poster you had on your closet door all through high school," Betty teased.

"Bwah..." Now Jim was frightened.

Betty burst into giggles. "Relax, Jim, you're safe! And I'm flattered you have such a hard-on for my era, really. I guess I can't blame guys for liking the fifties; it was still such a man's world back then." She took him by the hand again and led him into her room, which was drowning in ruffles and postwar kitsch. Jim felt like he'd stepped into a museum, or onto the set of a bad Disney movie. "Have a seat on the bed and I'll put on some music," she said. Jim watched as she turned on an ancient record player and set a stack of 45s in the record changer. "I'm sorry I never bought too many doo-wop records. My collection was mostly Elvis and some Chuck Berry here and there. And I put them all away along with all my poodle skirts when I went off to college, too. All the girls I knew there were into jazz and folk. I had just bought my first couple of Pete Seeger albums when...well, in any case, those aren't here, they're at school. But my rock and roll records are here, anyway." She turned back to him with a welcoming smile as the bass riff intro to "Don't Be Cruel" barreled out of the old speakers, and held out her hands for him. "Dance?"

"Sure," Jim said, though he felt sure of nothing.

Betty whirled him gently around the space between her dresser and her bed, her skirt flaring enticingly as they danced. "I do admire your taste," she told him. "Kind of a kick dressing up like this again, actually," she said. "I do hope it's okay that I don't look more like Jayne Mansfield. I could have come back looking like her, but I prefer to be myself as I was."

That stopped Jim cold in his tracks once again. "How on earth do you know that?!" he demanded.

"Know what?" Betty asked innocently, but with a mischievous look in her eyes. "That your greatest fantasy is a night with Jayne Mansfield? The same way I know everything I know about you, of course."

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