Read an Excerpt
Trick or Treat
By Richie Tankersley Cusick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Richie Tankersley Cusick
All rights reserved.
"Okay, how about this? 'Spirits in torment! Do they really come back to the scenes of their tragedies? Bound there forever, even in death?'"
Martha stared out at the deepening twilight, the rolling hillsides so unfamiliar, the trees nearly stripped by October winds. In spite of the station wagon's stuffy interior, she shivered.
"Dad, do we have to talk about that now?"
Mr. Stevenson gave a vague nod, his eyes focused more on his thoughts than on the road. "What a great topic for my new article! Guess Halloween's got me inspired and —" He stole a glance in her direction, his attention complete now. "Are you still upset with me?"
Martha let the words hang between them for several seconds. "I just ... can't believe you did this."
Dad regarded her, his eyes shifting guiltily back to the windshield. "Now, you and I talked about this, Martha — you knew Sally and I wanted to get married and have all of us together. I couldn't have lived in the same house where Sally's ex used to live. And Sally and Conor could never have competed with all your mother's memories at home. It wouldn't have been fair for any of us. We had to get a place of our own."
"But you didn't have to elope — and you could have waited till Thanksgiving vacation to move —"
"Martha ..." he said helplessly, "I just wanted to be with her."
"But Sally got the house. She picked it out and—"
"Hey, be reasonable. You and I agreed a long time ago to get out of the city. I didn't have time to go house-hunting, and when Sally called about this place, it sounded perfect. A study where I can write, a studio where Sally can paint — "He glanced at her again, his face tired. "You really ... don't like her."
"No, Dad, it's not that. I like Sally. Honest."
"Conor's weird," she sighed. "Look, Dad—"
"You always wanted a big brother."
"He's only a year older than me."
"And think how much harder this'll be for him, being a senior and having to transfer in midyear—"
"Nothing bothers Conor," Martha said flatly.
"You've only met him a couple of times! He's a philosopher." Dad chuckled. "You just have to scratch below the surface and try to understand him."
"I don't want to understand him. I don't even want to be around him." How could anyone understand a guy so aloof and casual about everything? "He has that look," Martha said stubbornly.
"You know—like he can't make up his mind whether to laugh at me or be disgusted." Dad was making every effort not to laugh at her now, but she knew she was right. Unreadable, that was Conor. Independent and maddeningly elusive.
"He's always been nice to you, hasn't he?" Dad asked.
"He just seems so ... I don't know ... otherworldly."
"Otherworldly! Like an alien?"
"Oh, Dad, stop kidding — you know what I mean! He hardly ever talks. When he does, it's more like he's talking to himself. And he kind of leans back and takes everything in — like he knows some secret about life and he's just watching everyone else make fools of themselves."
"Maybe he does," Dad smiled. "And maybe we are."
"Oh, forget it — you just keep defending him."
"I think he fascinates you, and you won't admit it."
"Dad, get serious —"
"Martha, you're just too —" Dad broke off abruptly, the car slamming to a halt as he pointed towards a shadowy break in the trees ahead. "This is it, I think. Sally said the first clearing after that turn back there."
Martha squinted through the dusk, shaking her head. "I don't know ... I can't see a thing." As the car inched forward, branches clawed at her door. She heard the hollow clatter of a bridge under the wheels as they went deeper into the woods. "We're in the middle of nowhere! Maybe we should turn around and—"
"Look, Martha, there it is."
And Martha gripped the dashboard and stared.
The house looked strangely ghostlike, rising up through pale wisps of fog, its dark stone walls and chimneys interwoven with bare, twisted trees. Silhouetted there in the twilight, its gables crawled with dead ivy, its tattered awnings drooping like eyelids hiding secrets. Like something in a dream, not quite real. Not quite safe....
Martha took a deep breath and let her eyes wander over the blur of house and shadows, the gloom broken here and there by sallow squares of window light. Someone had propped a scarecrow against the porch, and its hideous face flickered at her in the sputtering glow of a jack-o'-lantern. There was a long, low whine of autumn wind; as dead leaves spattered across the windshield, Martha glanced nervously towards the woods, her hands suddenly cold. What a perfect place for someone to hide ... for someone to watch ... And we'd never even know....
"Perfect," Dad muttered, a grin spreading from ear to ear. "Absolutely perfect!" As he parked the car at the end of the drive, Sally came running out the front door, laughing and waving, catching them each in a hug.
"So what do you think?" Sally pulled Martha up the wide steps onto the porch. "Pretty wonderful, huh?"
Martha gazed at the cracked door, the paint peeling off in long strips, the broken panes of stained glass carelessly taped over. Part of the boards had rotted away underfoot.
"Well," Sally said quickly, seeing Martha's look, "of course it still needs work! But what potential!"
"It's ..." Martha nodded dumbly, "a wonderful house." If you like horror movies. "We'll love it here." I wish I was on the other side of the world. She glanced up and stiffened. For a moment she'd forgotten all about Conor, but as he stepped outside, the light from the hallway caught his face, and she felt herself irresistibly drawn to him like she'd been before.
There was just something about Conor. That weird something she couldn't quite pinpoint, and yet it was there, so real and just beyond figuring out, that it made her crazy. The square jaw and the way his mouth was always set — like he might be speculating over something — except the corners lifted slightly in a secret sort of amusement. The deep-set eyes — so cool and steady and piercingly blue beneath low brows. He was tall and slender, but his shoulders were broad, and tonight he was wearing jeans and a bulky sweater, those strong shoulders hunched against the chilly night air. His hair was thick and always looked windblown, burnished gold and tousled across his shoulders. Martha took him in with a sudden, sinking revelation. My stepbrother. Oh, God, he's my stepbrother now.
She didn't have to like it. Not ever. She ducked past him into the house but not before catching that glint of amusement in the stare he gave right back to her. And then he and Dad were talking and shaking hands, and Sally was pulling on her again.
"You remember Conor, don't you? Gosh, listen to me — of course you remember Conor! Why am I so nervous, anyway — after all, we're family now!"
Martha stiffened again as Conor slipped one arm around her shoulders, giving her a hug. A slow, controlled smile inched across his lips, and she could feel herself turning red.
"My very own little sister. What a lucky guy."
Martha jerked out of his grasp as Dad and Sally choked back laughter.
"Uh, Conor, why don't you show Martha her room," Sally stammered. "Conor picked the one he thought you'd like, Martha, but of course if there's another—"
"I'm sure it'll be fine," Martha said tightly. Conor's glance slid over her, and he led the way upstairs.
It was too dark to really see much. As Martha followed the vague outline of Conor's back, she tried to pull away from the deep shadows, the close walls, the old musty smells. The stairs were warped and creaky, and as they came out onto the second floor, she stood there uncertainly, hastening to Conor's hand groping along the wall.
"Half these lights don't work," he mumbled. "One of the few minor inconveniences we'll have to get used to."
"What're the others?" Martha hated to ask.
There was a soft spurt of yellow light as several wall lamps came to life, illuminating part of a hallway. Conor squinted at them. "How does one bathroom strike you?"
Martha groaned. "You've got to be kidding...."
"I wish I were. It's at the end of the servants' hall." At her puzzled expression, he nodded towards one black doorway. "There's a back staircase there, too — you can take it all the way to the cellar or up to the attic."
Martha peeked cautiously into a room. "Is this one mine?"
"No, it's back here — away from everyone else's."
Martha went slowly towards the last doorway, her uneasiness growing. There were so many shadows—shadows the lights couldn't touch—and Conor's voice sounded hollow and unnatural. She felt her heart flutter in her chest. "Why did you pick this room?"
"I thought you'd want privacy." He found the light and motioned her in. "Mom brought this bed down from the attic. You can use it till—what's wrong?"
Martha froze beside him on the threshold, her eyes riveted to the room beyond. There were shadows here, too — lots of them — skittering across the faded flowers on the torn, stained wallpaper. A bare window seat stretched beneath a curtainless window, and the closet door stood slightly ajar.
"It's so cold," she murmured.
Conor followed her gaze to the scant furnishings. "Once you get your own things, it won't seem so —"
"No." Martha looked up at him, her cheeks suddenly pale, and one hand grabbed for his sleeve. "Can't you feel it — it's so cold — it's so —" And as her grip tightened on his arm, the coldness turned to fear. "Conor ... something terrible happened in this room."
For a long moment Conor stared at her, his face expressionless. She heard Sally calling them to dinner, and she saw the deep intensity of Conor's eyes, and she pulled away, suddenly mortified.
Conor was still watching her. "Drafts," he said quietly. "All old houses have them."
She nodded stiffly and followed him back downstairs.
She couldn't eat. Picking at the mysterious concoction on her plate, she was only vaguely aware of conversations going on around her, until she felt Conor nudging her under the table.
"Martha, you haven't heard a thing we've said," Dad scolded.
"Oh ... sorry ... I...."
"Well, at least someone around here thinks my article is a stroke of genius—'The Doomed and Restless Dead!' And I certainly have the inspiration for it," Dad chuckled. "Did the realtor guarantee ghosts with this place?"
"Could be," Sally grinned. "There's supposed to be an old cemetery somewhere on the property."
Martha nearly choked. "A cemetery!"
"You shouldn't have told her," Conor shook his head. "She'll be packed up before dessert."
Sally glanced apologetically at Martha's bowed head. "I think you'll really like the school here, Martha. When you go on Monday, you're to see a Mr. — what's his name? — anyway, he'll be your advisor. Maybe you could kind of stick with Conor — he already knows his way around, and I know it'll seem strange to you the first few days."
Not any stranger than all of this, Martha thought, but aloud she said, "I'll be okay by myself."
Dad put down his fork. "Now look here, Martha. Sally's gone to an awful lot of trouble and I —"
"No trouble. Really. None," Sally insisted quickly, and Martha's food stuck fast in her throat. "I just thought Conor could show her where things are."
"I'd better stick close to her," Conor announced so matter-of-factly that everyone stared at him. "She looks about twelve. If I'm not there to vouch for her, they might send her over to the elementary school."
Martha gritted her teeth as Dad and Sally began laughing. It was true, she had always looked young for her age — wholesome, that's what Mom had always called her. Wide gray eyes and bouncy blonde hair, and a face that couldn't hide her true feelings, no matter how hard she tried. And she was trying now, but Conor was watching her, and she had that awful, exposed feeling that he could see right through her — and was enjoying himself.
"Thanks, Sally, good dinner," Martha lied. "May I be excused?"
"You hardly ate a thing." Sally looked worried. "But sure," she added before Dad could object, "go on and have a look around."
It was strange, Martha thought, how even with all these lamps on around the house, everything was still so dark. She felt hopelessly disoriented — like a mouse in a maze — silent walls rising around her, high ceilings and hidden corners swarming with shadows. She hated this house. Hated it. She'd never liked scary things. She'd never understood Dad's macabre sense of humor or his fascination with the unknown, or the articles he was always researching and writing for those dumb human interest magazines. And she hated herself —it was horrible being sixteen and such a baby.
But it's not you this time ... it's this house.
Martha raised her eyes, her gaze settling on the heavy draperies at the far end of the hall.
Just now ... she was sure she'd seen them move.
Just a slight rise ... a fall ... as if they were alive ... breathing ... as if someone might be hiding just behind the dingy folds of velvet....
She stared at them, mesmerized. She felt her feet moving her backwards, but she couldn't turn around....
She didn't see the figure standing behind her, its shadow spreading slowly over the wall.
She felt the hand against her back, and shrieking, she spun wildly as Conor sidestepped her flailing arms.
"You!" Martha gasped. "Don't you ever do that to me!"
"I thought you heard me," he said calmly.
"Heard you! What are you, part ghost?" She was shaking now, as much from anger as from fear, and Conor had that look on his face that she hated so much.
"Do you want to see the rest of the house?" He started down the hall, glancing back at her over his shoulder. She stood there rigidly, glaring at him. "I wouldn't get too close to those curtains, if I were you. I think they're moving."
Martha caught her breath, then with forced casualness, caught up with him at the staircase.
As they wound through the house, she grew more confused by the minute. There were so many rooms — so many different hallways and stairwells — so many nooks and niches and closets that it was overwhelming and frightening. When they finally ended up in the kitchen, she collapsed in a chair with a gloomy sigh.
"I'll never find my way around this awful place."
Conor regarded her thoughtfully. "Before you know it, it'll feel like part of you."
"It'll never feel like part of me. It's not part of me."
Conor shrugged and helped himself to some cake on the counter. "You have to admit, it has character."
Martha stared miserably at the floor. Character! She couldn't believe how drastically her safe, happy world had changed — and now Dad and Sally would be so wrapped up in each other and this stupid house and its character, they'd never care how unhappy she was. And as for Conor....
Martha glanced up quickly. She could have sworn he'd been watching her, his body propped lazily back against the wall, but now that she looked at him, his eyes were on the doorway where Sally was peeking in.
"I think I'll go on up; I'm really tired." Martha gave an exaggerated stretch, and Sally leaned down to hug her.
"I'm so glad you're here, Martha. So glad we're all here."
Forcing a smile, Martha left the kitchen. Everyone's glad to be here but me. The thought made her feel lonelier than ever, and she dragged herself upstairs, fighting back tears.
The cold was still there, trapped inside her room.
Not as strong as it had been before ... not as jolting ... but there, just the same ... seeping from the corners like an invisible fog....
Martha rubbed her arms and began emptying her suitcases. This room must be on the windy side of the house; that's why the temperature's so much lower. ... For a brief moment she toyed with the idea of telling Dad, but then decided against it. He would only joke about it or accuse her of being difficult. I'm just tired ... once I get a good night's sleep, it'll be gone ... once the sun comes out I'll probably even laugh at myself. She hoped Conor wouldn't say anything about it—she'd been embarrassed enough, acting like such an idiot in front of him.
Shutting her door, Martha got into her night-gown, her eyes going uneasily across the room ... the windows ... the closet. Funny ... that closet was open before. ... Puzzled, she tried to remember—had Conor closed it when he'd shown her around earlier? She was almost positive he hadn't, yet now the door was shut.
Excerpted from Trick or Treat by Richie Tankersley Cusick. Copyright © 1989 Richie Tankersley Cusick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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