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Authors: Richie Tankersley Cusick

Trick or Treat

BOOK: Trick or Treat
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Trick or Treat

 

Richie Tankersley Cusick

 

for Thea

who made me believe it could happen

my love and gratitude

Chapter 1

 

“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, then.”

“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.

“What look?”

“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.”

BOOK: Trick or Treat
10.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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