The Girl At My Door.

 

I’ve always possessed a deep love for Halloween. Everything about it makes me tingle with joy. I mean, the weather is perfect; the leaves of yellow, red, and brown are gorgeous; the decor inspires my infinite imagination; the treats are mouth-watering; the movies and shows leave me in a perpetual state of high anxiety…what’s not to love?

Within the last couple years, I’ve become old enough to dress up for the holiday again. As a child, I, of course, slipped into a costume for the night. Then, as a preteen, it occurred to me that I was too old for such things, much like how it came to me that I was no longer little enough to play with my Barbies and dolls. I recently dove into my mid-twenties, right as my daughter, Olivia, entered her toddler years, and it dawned on me that I am finally at an acceptable age to don a costume again.

I still love Halloween. I don’t think anything could ever make me stop enjoying the night; however, I now approach Halloween like I’d approach a stranger in a dark alley: with extreme caution.

Olivia was about one and a half. I dressed her as a dragon that year, and she looked absolutely adorable (I’m biased, but it’s true). We trick-or-treated for an hour before my sleepy baby vocalized by way of a tantrum that she’d had enough festivities and was ready for bed. I’d worked all day, so I was a bit relieved that we could head home. The walk home was nice. The sky was a deep slate gray, as it wasn’t yet fully night. There was a cool breeze that carried to my ears the gleeful voices of happy, thrill-seeking children all throughout the neighborhood.

At home, I bathed my cranky baby, slapped a fresh diaper and PJs on her, and tucked her in, planting a kiss on her forehead before leaving her to drift into sleep. For myself, I changed out of my headless horseman attire, grabbed a beer, snagged a few chocolates out of Olivia’s pumpkin bucket, and settled into the couch to watch a horror film on TV. I sipped my beer, ate my stolen bounty, and cringed into the cushion at every jump scare. When the credits of the movie rolled, I turned the TV off and showered, ready for bed.

I was getting myself some ice water when there was a knock at my door. I checked the oven clock: 10:39. Trick-or-treating ended at eight, but I figured maybe some teenagers were trying to prolong the night or maybe wanted to dabble in some practical jokes, like ding dong ditch. I tiptoed to the door and peered through the peephole. A weeping girl, probably about sixteen or so, stood on my welcome mat, mascara running down her face in squiggly lines. She was dressed in an outfit that reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood.

‘Fuck. What’s this about?’

Reluctantly, I unlocked and opened the door. “Are you OK? What’s going—”

“You gotta let me in! Please! Please, Jesus, let me in! I’m so scared!”

The stench of raw fear emanated from this girl; if she was playing a joke, she more than earned a fucking Academy Award. I instantly felt my stomach drop; I had Olivia, sound asleep in her bed, to worry about.

“Yeah, come on, hurry,” I said, peering up and down my street before shutting and locking the door behind her.

“Oh, God, thank you, thank you, you’ve no idea! I’ve gone to a million different houses, and no one would even acknowledge me!” She peeled the red hood of her cloak off her head of long, dark hair.

“What’s going on? Are you hurt? Do I need to call your parents or the cops or both?”

“NO!” she shouted, throwing her hands up in front of her.

I flinched. She lowered her arms to her sides.

“I mean, no, that’s not necessary. I, uh, I’m OK. Can I have something to drink, please?”

“Yeah, of course. Uh, I hate to sound pushy when it’s so obvious you’re upset, but I really need to know what’s going on…”

She nodded solemnly, chewing on her bottom lip. After I’d given her a glass of water, we sat down on the couch. She guzzled the water down and put the empty glass on the coffee table. I cleared my throat. I didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable, but I had to know the extent of the situation.

“Um, I was with some friends. We weren’t trick-or-treating or anything, just walking around, goofing off, you know…there’s this party we were going to go to tonight…” She twirled a strand of hair around her index finger.

“It’s OK. Really.” I was trying my best to sound like a safe and comforting adult, when really I felt like a terrified, insecure kid. I wished I wasn’t having to deal with this, wished there was someone older around to take care of it.

“We went to the cemetery. Took some candles and stuff, for a seance. Just for fun, you know? We didn’t mean for, for…”

My arms broke out into goosebumps. I knew in the same way you can feel someone staring at you without ever seeing them, in the same way you know the teacher is about to call your name before she does, that whatever she was about to tell me was the truth. I squirmed in reluctance to receive it.

“At first, we thought it was a train because it sounded so far off. Then Danielle said it was just the wind, but the trees weren’t moving. That’s when the grave next to us just, just sort of crumbled. We all screamed and scattered—at this point I was actually laughing. It was still just adrenaline-inducing fun. But I ended up alone, running by all these graves, and s-suddenly it didn’t feel like much fun anymore.”

Her voice was getting shrill, hysterical. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I tripped and when I stood back up, there was this, this woman, standing right in front of me. She was in a long, black dress—oh God, and this smell! It was terrible—she smelled like something dead!” She covered her eyes with a shaky hand. “Her face, her eyes were completely white, and her mouth was wide open…s-she had all these teeth, real pointy teeth, but the worst part was the ax that was stuck in her neck, a-and her head was crooked, like, like it was barely hanging on!”

She swallowed and rubbed her arms. Her eyes were watery and distant.

“She touched me, t-t-touched me with these long, nasty nails. I screamed and ran and tried to get someone to help me—and then you answered your door. And I don’t know where my friends are, but I am so, so scared.”

I was stunned. I had no idea how to react. The rational part of me said, “This girl is messing with you!”

“You aren’t fucking with me, are you?”

“No!” she cried. “I swear.”

“You…I hate to ask this, but have you been using drugs?”

She shook her head. “I had two beers hours ago, that’s it.”

I nibbled my lip. “What about your friends? You don’t think it’s possible they were playing a joke on you?”

She stared off into space. “I hope they were.”

“Just hang on a sec—I’m going to get my phone, so you can call your parents, OK? Just breathe, you’re safe now.”

She didn’t answer me, just kept staring at nothing. Goosebumps materialized again. On the way to my room, I checked on Olivia. She was sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the situation in the living room.

When I returned, the dialer already open on my cell, the girl was gone. I raced to the door and flung it open. I looked up and down the street for her, but saw no one. Eaten alive with worry, but not knowing what to do, I barely slept that night. The only thought that consoled me as I tossed and turned was the idea that maybe it had been a silly (however convincing) Halloween prank.

The next day, as Olivia was eating yogurt melts in her booster seat, I scoured the living room for a book I hadn’t yet pawed through in order to get my mind off the mysterious teenage girl. En route to the bookshelf, I paused in front of the couch. There, where the girl had sat, were what resembled blood stains in four different places; two were on the cushion you sit on and the others were smeared onto the back cushions. The sight knocked the wind out of me—had she been bleeding? And how had I not noticed that she was bleeding, if she was? Why hadn’t she told me she was hurt?

As silly as I’d feel doing so, I felt compelled to call the police, to do something, but the news anchor speaking on the TV halted my intentions and captured my attention.

“…Hills Cemetery. The teenage girl was found dead at approximately ten this morning by the groundskeeper. Authorities are not releasing details of her death at this time, but did state that she appeared to have died sometime last night.”

My gut screamed out, “It’s her! It’s the girl from last night!”

I practically threw Olivia into her car seat in my haste to leave, buckling her and slipping behind the wheel in the driver’s seat. I peeled out of the driveway, narrowly missing my mailbox, and zoomed through the streets of my neighborhood, my neighbors openly gawking. Fifteen minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of the sheriff’s department. I burst through the entrance, Olivia in my arms, and jogged up to the front counter.

Before the officer standing there had a chance to speak, I cried out, “I want to speak to someone about the teenage girl found at the cemetery!”

“U-uh, o-kay, come with me.”

I followed the deputy through a fluorescent maze of generic metal doors. He stopped outside one and knocked.

“Yeah!”

“Lady to see you, about—well, about that teenage girl—”

The door opened, revealing a squat man with intense brown eyes. His eyes found my gaze and cooled considerably.

“Come in, come in, I’m Sheriff Hughs.”

We shook hands.

“I’m Laura Yoke.”

Olivia fussed as I squeezed into the dense office. I opted to stand, so I could bounce her on my hip.

“Please, sit,” he said, plopping down into his chair.

“No, thank you. I-I uh…oh, God. This is going to sound just so crazy. But, last night—”

“What time last night?” he asked, eyes averted as he scribbled in a notebook.

The digital green numbers on my oven clock flashed in my mind’s eye.

“It was 10:39.”

He added something to whatever it was he was writing, then set the pen down, folded his arms across his chest, and gave me his full attention.

“This girl, a teenage girl knocked on my door, and she’s crying, hysterical. I let her in and asked what’s wrong, and, and she says that she and her friends were having a seance in the cemetery, something spooked them and…

“Well, she says she saw…a ghost, I guess. And she’s so terrified, more scared than I’ve ever seen someone in my life! I went to get my phone, so she could call her parents, but when I got back to the living room, she’d left. I was up all night, worrying about this girl. And today I noticed t-these red marks on my couch, where she’d been sitting—they look like blood to me—then I heard the news, about the girl found, found—”

He held up a hand. “Let’s calm down a minute here. What was this girl wearing?”

“A costume, reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood, and she had long, dark hair and pale skin.”

The stern man’s face froze in shock for a mere, fleeting second. He adjusted his collar and flashed a smile in an attempt to quell my anxiety, but I knew by his reaction that the dead girl matched my description.

“OK. OK, sounds to me like we have us a little coincidence going on here.”

“Really?” I asked, hopeful. “Oh, God, that makes me feel a little better.”

“Listen, I’m going to tell you something else that I shouldn’t because I see how concerned you are. Couldn’t of been the girl found this morning—”

“Wait a second, I saw your face when I described how she looked!”

He dismissed my observation.

“Couldn’t of been her, I say, because the girl found this morning was already dead by 10:30 last night. She was…she passed around 8:30.”

I scoffed. “Just how accurate is time of death, though?”

“Pretty damn accur—uh, it’s pretty accurate, ma’am. So, there, it couldn’t of been the same girl, unless you’re wrong about the time?”

“No, it was 10:39. I know because I looked at the clock and thought about how trick-or-treating had already ended right before I went to the door. I’m one-hundred percent sure. But what about the red stains on my couch?”

He clucked his tongue and tipped his head to indicate Olivia on my hip.

“Ma’am, toddlers are professional mess makers. She probably got ahold of something you didn’t even realize she had and leaked it all over your couch. Don’t you think you would’ve noticed if this girl from last night was wounded? I mean, was she acting hurt?”

“No,” I mumbled. “I even asked her if she was hurt, and she said no.”

“There, it’s settled then. Nothing but a coincidence.”

I left there feeling a tad foolish, despite a nagging voice in my head insisting that something was wrong.

I needed so badly to trust in Sheriff Hugh’s argument that I convinced myself I was fretting over nothing. With a little time, and some avoidance on my part of the news in any form, I settled back into normalcy and soon rarely thought of Halloween night. Not until Thanksgiving.

At Thanksgiving dinner, my aunt’s husband, a sheriff’s deputy in a neighboring county, brought up the cemetery murder after he was three drinks deep.

“You just wouldn’t fucking believe the sickos running around, pretending to be fucking normal, standing in line behind you at Wal-Mart—it just turns my stomach. Like, that, uh, girl they found here at what’s-it-called—what’s it called, babe?” He looked to my aunt for the answer.

“Park Hills—”

“Yeah, yeah, Park Hills Cemetery—”

My blood turned to ice.

“That crazy fuck, that vermin—listen, I know they kept the gory fucking details outta the papers, out of respect for the girl’s family and all, but I gotta tell you, because it is a perfect fucking example of exactly the kinda sickos I’m talking about! This guy—who they’ve never caught and probably never will—actually axed the poor girl’s arms and legs, just hacked ’em right off. Yeah, that’s right, axed them off, to make it look like that woman’s murders from way back when—”

“Honey, maybe—”

“C’mon, Paula, I’m telling a story here, lemme finish.”

“Wait, are you talking about Tallulah James? They made it look like Tallulah James killed her, really? Remember, we used to tell each other the story of Tallulah when we were kids, Laura?” my cousin interrupted, wide-eyed and fascinated.

I said nothing.

“Whatever, Lula, whoever. Point is, the fucker actually stole her arms and legs! I mean, he’s got ’em at home, stashed in a fucking closet next to his umbrella or some shit—sick fuck! And he’s just walking around, buying cat food and pumping gas at Flash Foods—oh, and, and he *bit* into her neck, took a great big chunk of fl—”

Robbie!” Aunt Paula barked.

Robbie blinked and shrugged at his wife. “Paula?”

“It’s Thanksgiving. Maybe we should find something more pleasant to talk about. Besides, Laura looks as if she’s seen a ghost.”

Around the dinner table, all eyes on me, my family’s soft voices fused together in a gentle auditory breeze. Their faces tilted and grew hazy as I passed out of consciousness.

When I opened my eyes, my mom was leaning over me.

“Easy, baby. You fainted. I just want you to rest right here—I’ve got Olivia. Do you need anything?”

I shook my head.

“Robbie doesn’t know when to shut up. I mean, I’d rather not hear about that gruesome murder, either, especially on a holiday.” She sighed. “How are you feeling? Do you think you need to go the hospital or something?”

“No, I’m OK. I just got lightheaded…I guess the, you know, gore and…I’m fine, really.”

“Yeah, OK. I’ll be back to check on you in a few.” She pecked my cheek and departed.

Lying on my childhood bed, the story from my youth sailed back into my mind. I had always thought it was just a fun, scary story, made up by some kid with an imagination the size of life.

In the dark, one of us would whisper the tale of Tallulah James, the pastor’s wife who first poisoned him to death, then kidnapped a dozen children, murdered them, and axed their arms and legs off. Angry, suspicious townspeople discovered the rotting, limbless corpses of the missing children in her cellar. When they asked her what she did with their arms and legs, she smiled and replied, “I had to keep them from running, of course.” Her own niece buried an ax into her neck.

I hadn’t made the connection because up until then I hadn’t known how the teenage girl was killed. I’d never even contemplated whether Tallulah had really existed, not until Uncle Robbie spoke about the graveyard murder and “that woman’s murders from way back when.”

I rolled onto my side, pulling my knees into my chest.

Tallulah James had extinguished one last child’s life. And her unfortunate victim, both of us unaware that she was already dead, paid me a visit on her final Halloween night.

 

 

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