Cop House

by Sam Shelstad

Sam Shelstad is from London, Ontario. His short fiction has appeared in Joyland, Prism International, The New Quarterly, Carousel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Feathertale Review, and The Rusty Toque.

“Sam Shelstad’s preternaturally optimistic Ruth had me spitting laughs like watermelon seeds. ‘Cop House’ is slyly satirical, very funny, as well as bittersweet—and I learned a thing or three about crafting state-of-the-art Halloween decorations and neighbourly love.”
—Zsuzsi Gartner, Thomas Morton Memorial Prize Judge

 

1

I was cutting spider shapes out of a sheet of black vinyl when John Seabreeze called me up. I remember feeling so safe when he moved in next door. After Mom died, I was having these panic attacks, and then John moved in and I felt safe because he’s a security guard. He works over at Pearson Airport. I was relieved because his whole career is protecting people, but then he started calling me at night and saying crazy things.

He didn’t even say hello this time. When the phone rang, I put down my scissors, picked up the cordless, and there was John cutting to the chase.

“I want you to come over, Ruthie,” he said.

“I can’t do that now.”

“I want you to come over. We can play body games, Ruthie. Please. Non-sexual, I promise.” He was always talking about body games, which he described as a fully-clothed, free-form touching and explorative play experience. He said it was good for the heart.

“No, John. I’ve got the Halloween contest to work on. It’s coming up.”

“You’ll come over. I can see you, by the way.”

He hung up.

He couldn’t see me, because I was in bed with the curtains shut. But that’s what he did: He’d call me up, ask me to play body games, and then he’d tell me that he was watching me. The funny thing is that when I passed him on the street he acted normal. Or quiet. He’d just mind his business, no mention of the calls. He had a brown moustache that looked exactly like his eyebrows—a third eyebrow above his lip.

And I believed him when he said the games would be non-sexual, and good exercise, and that even celebrities play them to unwind after the Oscars. But obviously it would be so weird if I went over there. I really did have the contest to work on. When he called, I was lying in bed and cutting spiders out of a sheet of black vinyl for the spider cannon.

Every year my street has a Halloween decoration contest; whoever has the best looking house wins a bucket of candy from Costco—but really it’s more about the prestige. Last year, I didn’t win, and the year before that I didn’t win. The year before that, my Mom was still alive and she won, and she won every other year since the contest began, too. I live in her house. I grew up here, I moved away, and then Mom died and now I live here in Etobicoke again.

This year I’m building a spider cannon and I have all these special tricks planned because I’ve got to win. I have this vision of my house decorated and it looks okay, but then I pull a switch or something, everything changes, and then it’s suddenly amazing. I’m not sure how to do it yet. Maybe there will be orange ribbons hanging from the eavestrough, but when I pull the end of a ribbon all these yarn cobwebs fall down. I don’t know. And then I can shoot off the cannon. At first I thought I’d make the spiders out of paper so they’d float around a little before they hit the ground, but then I decided on vinyl because it would be easier to gather for reloading. But I don’t know. I’ve got two weeks—judging is on Devil’s Night.

I’ve got to win because Mom would have wanted it that way. She always won, but now that I’m here it’s Amanda P from across the street who takes home the bucket. I grew up with her. She lives in her mom’s house, too, except her mom isn’t dead—she’s in a retirement home. Amanda P is married and has been to Florida several times; she really went for it and carved out a nice life for herself. She doesn’t have to work because her husband has a good job at the plastics plant. I hear him yelling all the time, but that’s just blowing off steam from all the plastic he has to deal with. She’s got it pretty good. She can stay home all day and work on her decorations; last year she had a forty-piece orchestra of carved pumpkins playing cardboard instruments. I’m full time at Town Drugs, so I have to work that much harder when I’m off. I’m only sleeping four hours a night until the contest is over. But it’ll be worth it when I take home the prize for old Mom.

You can only do so much in a day, though, so I finished cutting out a big Papa Spider and turned off the light. Tomorrow, after work, I’d start thinking about the roof goblins/UFO mobile/“Coffin Express” train, etc., and how I might conceal these contraptions under a veil of mediocrity until judging.


2

The next morning, I passed John Seabreeze on the way to the bus stop. He was standing on his lawn, staring up into a tree.

“Morning,” I said. “What’s up there—a cat?”

“Nothing,” he said. He walked back inside his house.

At work, Mr. Greismeyer was hung over and in a foul mood. He’s my boss. He had taken the cardigans, food containers, paystubs, and American Idol umbrella from my locker and dumped it all in the break room garbage bin. Said if I wanted a messy locker, he’d show me messy. Said to have some self-respect. Said I needed to at least respect Town Drugs. I’m not sure how he even knew my combination, but you don’t want to mess with Mr. Greismeyer when he’s hung over. One morning, I overcharged someone for a toothbrush and he made me wear a sign around my neck that said: PROBATIONARY EMPLOYEE: WATCH CLOSELY. It’s hard to criticize someone like Mr. Greismeyer, though. He has his own store, and knows all this stuff about business. There was a lot you could learn from a guy like that. Plus, I really believe that everyone is ultimately good—my boss included. Sometimes you have to dig a little to find the good, but it’s in there.

I put everything back in my locker, neatly, and went to set up my till. Norma, the other cashier, was already in place.

“Morning,” I said.

“Fuck off, Ruth,” she said.

Norma didn’t like me, but she didn’t like anybody else, either. She hated her co-workers, and she hated the customers. She regularly told Mr. Greismeyer to fuck off, too, but she was his niece and he let it slide.

It was a long day. The morning was slow and dragged on, and then Norma didn’t come back from her lunch break. I had some big afternoon lineups, but I kept it moving as well as I could. Then Jan, the other cashier, didn’t show up for her shift and I had to stay until close. I left the store at eight-thirty, and Mr. Greismeyer was parked out front. He had the windows down and the radio blaring techno. He saw me coming out.

“Hey, Ruth!”

“Hi, sir.” I walked up to his car and looked in. There was an empty bottle of wine on the passenger seat, and a half-full one between his legs. I could smell wine breath and farts.

“Baby, come join me. Let’s put this morning behind us. You know who this is?”

“Sir?”

“This music, you know who it is?”

“No, sir.”

“I made it. On my computer, at home. Pretty good, right? I call it Mr. G’s Sound Explosion, but that’s tentative. Come on in, have a drink.” Mr. Greismeyer slapped the horn and opened the passenger door for me.

“Sorry, sir,” I said. “It’s been a twelve-hour day. Jan never showed up, you know. And I’ve got a Halloween contest to work on. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Suit yourself. But I want you in early, got it?”

“What, why?”

“Don’t like it? Then come have a drink with me.”

I left.

When I got home around nine, I found the word GAYBIES spray-painted on my garage door, whatever that meant. And someone had dug up my petunias and stuffed them in the mailbox. There are a lot of teenagers in my neighbourhood—my backyard shares a fence with the high school football field. But this new attack was no biggie, because I could cover the graffiti with Halloween decorations and the petunias were going to die soon anyway. I went inside, made an egg-bagel, and pulled out my crafting pail. There was work to do.


3

I had trouble sleeping that night, despite exhaustion. I turned in around one, after constructing two Coffin Express train cars out of cardboard boxes and drawing up plans for a mummy conductor, but I couldn’t settle down. First of all, John Seabreeze kept calling. I unplugged the phone at one point, and then I heard a scratching at my front door. I looked out my bedroom window and saw a big shadow run into John’s house.

But also I couldn’t stop thinking about those teenagers, or whoever spray-painted my garage. Why would they do that? Why gaybies?

One of the great challenges of the Halloween contest is the constant vandalism on my street. Last year I made a life-size zombie out of papier-mâché and one of my mother’s old pantsuits; someone ripped the head off and took a shit inside of it. But these kids won’t touch Amanda P’s yard, because they’re all scared as hell of her husband, who looks like a Neanderthal. Wish I had that kind of security. I mean, there’s John Seabreeze next door, but he’s so skinny. Even with three eyebrows, or three moustaches, even with his pressed uniform and aviator shades, it’s not enough to command the respect of these hooligans.

Although maybe it isn’t fair to call them hooligans. It’s a teenager’s nature to rebel. These kids have it rough, what with puberty and bullying and exams. They may act out, but there’s a puffy layer of goodness beneath the rest. You can be sure of that.

Anyway, so while I was lying in the dark, not sleeping—pretty much waiting for my seven o’clock alarm to go off—I thought of the cop house. When I was eight, my dad started hitting Mom, so Mom and I moved from our quiet street in Etobicoke to a sketchy neighbourhood in the city. I didn’t like that there were people everywhere, and I didn’t like the way they looked. They were always shouting at night—I could hear it from my bedroom—and I was scared all the time.

“Whenever I feel unsafe, I just imagine all these police officers living together in a little house and I calm right down.”

Then one day my mom pointed out this house at the end of our street. She said it was a cop house, and that I needn’t be afraid because the police were right there, and if anything went wrong they would help us out. Mom was telling me that a police officer lived in the house, but at the time I thought she meant all the police officers lived there. I pictured them eating meals at a big, long table and watching television together. I could see these cops lined up along the upstairs hallway in their towels each morning, holding bars of soap and hair gel, waiting for the shower. And it worked: I stopped being scared. I loved living near the cop house.

Later, I found out it was just Officer Kearn in there—who I think even lost his badge for tasering his wife—and we eventually moved back to the suburbs, but the idea of the cop house stuck with me. Whenever I feel unsafe, I just imagine all these police officers living together in a little house and I calm right down.

So that’s what I did: I thought about the cop house, relaxed a little, and eventually I fell asleep. I may have even dreamt about the cop house, but maybe I was just thinking about it and I’m confusing the thinking with the dreaming.


4

I had a busy afternoon at the drug store, and Mr. Greismeyer was hung over again. He kept knocking my candy bar display over and calling me a dipshit, but Jan showed up for her shift and I got to go home at four-thirty.

I began work on the mummy conductor. I wrapped toilet paper around a big teddy bear, made him a conductor’s hat out of felt, and then started on the light display for the roof. I wanted it to say BOO in white lights, but then I’d turn on a different set of orange lights and the letters would become the eyes of these elaborate jack-o-lanterns with speech bubbles coming from their mouths that said BOO in smaller letters. And then I’d turn on another set of red lights and the little letters from the speech bubbles would be smaller jack-o-lantern eyes, and so on, but I only had enough lights and nails for one BOO. I was untangling the lights in my bed when I smelled smoke.

I looked out the window, saw the smoke coming from my front yard, and ran downstairs and onto the porch. It was the Coffin Express. Through the flames I saw a pair of bicycles peel around the corner at the end of the street and disappear. I ran over to the side of the garage, turned on the faucet, and doused the fire with Mom’s hose. Last stop for the Coffin Express! I almost said this little joke out loud to lighten the mood, but John Seabreeze was staring at me from his window and I went back inside.

I returned to untangling the lights for the roof, because you can’t let little setbacks get in your way. Gotta keep moving. But then I started feeling angry and I broke one of the little plastic light casings in my fist. I decided to make an egg-bagel.

I ate in front of the TV, and at first I was excited because Martha Stewart was on. She’s just so good. But it turned out to be a commercial and then it went back to the news, which I can’t watch. Too depressing. Especially world news, which is always conflict and crying mothers and animals covered in black goop—but local news can give me anxiety, too. I changed it to the weather channel and ate my egg-bagel in peace.

After eating, I returned to the lights and started having doubts. Like, why bother untangling these lights? Why bother entering the contest at all? Would my life improve dramatically if I even won the bucket? No, it would not. I would still work at the drug store and live amongst teenage arsonists and be lonely all the time. My pillow would still smell like tears every morning, if tears left a smell.

“Because once you give up on something like a little contest, then you start questioning everything else in your life …”

But you can’t think like that. That kind of thinking gets you nowhere, so I untangled the lights and got out the ladder. I spent two hours up on the roof arranging the lights, and I had to put a flashlight in my mouth because it was dark, but I did it. The lights spelled out BOO and it looked amazing. Even without the secret jack-o-lantern eyes and everything. Because once you give up on something like a little contest, then you start questioning everything else in your life: Why bother going to work today? Why bother putting on antiperspirant? Why get out of bed, ever? And that’s just pathetic. We need these contests—things to really strive for—to keep us going, and so I resolved to win the Costco bucket no matter what. Let the teenagers set fire to my actual house. I’ll use it to my advantage, and make my theme Partially Burned Down Home with Ghost Firemen.

“Look out, Amanda P,” I said to the wall that stood in the direction of Amanda P’s house. “Your old pal Ruth is on the warpath.”


5

The next day, I had so much positive energy I didn’t mind that someone threw up on the floor by the Gatorade and I had to clean it. It didn’t even bother me that Mr. Greismeyer ate the sandwich I brought and then made me spend my lunch break vacuuming his car. I did almost lose it when I saw a kid bike by the window wearing my felt conductor’s hat, but I reminded myself that it didn’t matter. It was just a hat. He was just a kid. He might grow up to be a famous doctor and help cure diseases. Deep down he was probably a little angel and there was no need for me to get upset, so I didn’t. I was focused on the contest; I had so many ideas.

For one, I decided to rebuild the Coffin Express because it would definitely impress the judges and we had more diaper boxes in the back of the store. I also came up with this genius plan to put a kind of lever underneath the candy bowl on my porch, so when trick-or-treaters reached in they’d push the bowl down on the lever and a fake arm would come out from underneath the table and touch their legs. My creativity levels were through the roof.

Jan didn’t show up for her shift, and I had to stay until close again. I was still beaming, though. So much so, that when I left the store and heard techno blaring from Mr. Greismeyer’s car in the parking lot I decided to join him for a quick drink. He was always so nice in the evening. When you catch a normally grumpy person in a good mood it’s important to soak them up and show them how much you appreciate their positive side. Then they’ll try to be in a good mood more often. It’s true.

“That’s a girl, Ruthie,” he said, pouring wine into a Pepsi can for me. “You know, I always thought you had it in you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Greismeyer.”

“Goddamn right it’s time you joined me in here. In my car bar. Goddamn it’s nice to sit down and have a drink like this.”

“It’s very nice.”

We sat listening to the techno for a while—which wasn’t really that bad.

“You know, if I wasn’t a married man,” he said, peeling at the label on his wine bottle, “I’d be all over a girl like you. Goddamn right. You’ve got some baby fat on you, for sure. But I love it. All the right places, you know?”

“Thanks.” I meant this, too. Perhaps what he’d said was borderline inappropriate, but essentially he was just complimenting me. There’s always room in the world for compliments.

“But don’t get any ideas in your head now, alright? I’ve got a wife waiting for me at home. She’s insane.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s right. Now get the hell out of my car before I do something that’s out of line.”

I left.

I missed the last bus and had to walk home, but I had a nice buzz and the stars were out. I mean, I only drank half a Pepsi of wine, but I really felt like I was buzzing. I stopped to pet a cat that was lying in the middle of the sidewalk and it licked my hand. My hand smelled like milk. A few minutes later I found a piece of pink chalk in someone’s driveway—I wrote GAYBIES on the curb and ran away. I laughed to myself. I felt so young.

And then I got home. The lights had been pulled off the roof and thrown into the street. My living room window was broken, too, and when I went inside I found a rock with a note tied to it. The note said: boo yerself bitch.

I screamed.


6

When I was done screaming, I realized the phone was ringing and answered it. John Seabreeze, of course.

“I heard you,” he said.

“I’m sorry, John. I’ll be quiet now.”

“No, that’s not—”

“It’s these kids. These darn kids, these fucking kids.” I was crying and talking at the same time. Maybe it was the wine. Or maybe it was the awful things that were happening, but either way I was crying.

“You sound tense. If you wanted to come over, we could—”

“If you say anything about body games, I swear to God, John. Jesus.”

“But just so you know, you’d calm right down. Worries out the window. Jennifer Aniston? That’s how she got over Brad.”

“Jesus. But hey, did you see who did it? You were home, did you see anything?”

“No.”

“Nothing?”

“Sorry.”

“I’ll tell you something, John. You catch these kids for me and I’ll come right over. Body games all night, whatever you want. Catch these kids, I’m in.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

He hung up.

I got the broom and swept up the glass from the window. I threw out the note and the rock, and retrieved my BOO lights from the street. It looked like most of the lights were broken, but I put them in the closet and not the garbage because maybe they’d be useful for something else. Like Medusa hair? Is she a Halloween thing?

I went to make an egg-bagel, but I was out of both eggs and bagels, so I had the last swig of milk and went to bed. There was plenty of work to do, but my eyes kept closing. That’s why you shouldn’t drink alcohol in contest season—lesson learned. Stay sharp. While I was turning off the hall light, I looked out the window and saw John Seabreeze standing on his porch in the darkness.


7

The next morning, I woke up early and pulled out the crafting pail. For the UFO mobile, I decided to make one big spaceship that would deploy three smaller ships from its base when a switch was pressed. These three ships would each deploy three even smaller ships, which would then drop little Plasticine aliens with parachutes. I’d press the switch during judging, and illuminate the whole scene with a green spotlight. And a tape would be playing—some kind of eerie hum. Yes.

I was running out of supplies, though, so I bussed it down to the dollar store. I bought yarn, twine, elastics, paper clips, construction paper, transparent paper, toilet paper, markers, watercolor paints, Plasticine, glue sticks, scotch tape, duct tape, cotton balls, pie plates, plant pots, Tupperware containers, plastic cups, felt, and two Oh Henrys. I steered clear of the Halloween section—that’s cheating—and dragged my bulging plastic bags to the second hand store, where I bought three flashlights, a cape, and a real farmer’s pitchfork. I had to call a cab to take everything home, and there was an embarrassing moment when I called the driver Mom, but she just laughed.

As I was bringing the supplies to the porch, Amanda P gave me a whistle. I put everything down and went across the street. She was digging a pit.

“Hi, Amanda,” I said. “What are you digging there, a pit?”

“What kind of stupid question is that?”

“No, I mean is it for the contest?”

“No, I’m digging my way to fucking China,” she said. She was in a mood, which was fine. She had a green bruise that looked like a slug crawling under her left eye, which would put me in a mood, too. “Anyway, why don’t you take the shovel for a while? I’m swamped and I know you’ve got the day off. My back feels like shit.”

“But Amanda? I kind of have a lot to do myself. With the contest.”

“Oh, really? You’ve got a lot to do? For Christ’s sake, just help me out and be a good neighbour for once. My back, Ruth.”

Before I could respond, Amanda’s front door swung open and her husband came out. He glared at me.

“The damn remote control,” he growled.

“I’ll be right in, dear,” Amanda said. “Ruth?”

“Sure, I’ll take over for a little while,” I said. “Go rest your back.”

So I helped dig for two hours, and then snuck off to work on my mobile. I was sweaty and craved a nap, but I kept at it. I made these amazing spaceships out of the construction paper and Tupperware containers—especially the mother ship, which had portholes with little googly eyes looking out of them—but couldn’t figure out how to make them pop out of each other via a switch. I just left it all hanging out like a jellyfish, and it actually looked so beautiful. I was proud of myself. So maybe I didn’t need these gimmicks; the elegance of the finished mobile transcended the elaborate presentation I originally had in mind. It was all it needed to be. I hung it on the porch.

Later, I saw Amanda P filling her pit with naked baby dolls, which was maybe too far. But then again, she’s the seasoned pro. Perhaps the judges appreciate her willingness to take risks. Which is pretty inspiring, but it was getting late and I was tired from all the shopping and crafting and pit-digging. I looked at my mobile once more and went to bed.


8

My phone rang at two-thirty in the morning. I knew it was probably just John Seabreeze, but it might have been an emergency so I picked up. It was John Seabreeze.

“Alright, Ruth,” he said. “You can come on over.”

“Jesus. It’s two-thirty in the morning. I’m not playing body games with you in the middle of the night. You have to quit—”

“No, it’s not body games. Some kids came by your house a few minutes ago.”

“What?”

“They were going for that thing hanging on your porch. I stopped them.”

“They were? You did?”

“Yeah, and two of them got away. One of them didn’t.”

“What happened to the kid that didn’t get away?”

“Come on over, Ruthie.”

I went over.

I knocked on the front door, but John came around the side of his house and led me into the back. There was a light on in his tool shed.

“Is that—”

“He’s in there alright. Little shit. Come look.”

“I can’t believe it,” I said. It felt like a dream. It wasn’t a nightmare, really, but it also wasn’t one of those really good dreams where it’s your birthday and the presents keep coming.

“Don’t be shy, he’s not going anywhere,” John said.

I peered into the little window and saw the kid who had biked by the drug store the other day. The one who wore my conductor’s hat. He was sitting on the floor and crying. John banged on the side of the shed and the kid started crying even louder.

“John, you kidnapped him,” I said. My mouth was super dry and I felt heavy. Like I would sink into the grass. “You have to let him go.”

“You said to catch him,” John said. “I caught him. And besides, I gave him a choice. Told him he could sit in there until I felt he was ready to come out, or I’d call his parents. He made his decision. Here, try banging on the wall. He goes nuts.”

“You have to let him go.”

“I will, I will. But give the wall a little bang with your fist. Give it a try first.”

“Let him go now, John.”

“Fine. But I’m telling you.” John went to unlock the door but I stopped him.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait until I’m home first.”

As I was walking back to over to my house, I heard a loud bang, followed by a kind of moaning. It might have been the kid crying, but it might have been my stomach, too. All I had to eat that day was two Oh Henrys. I was hungry, I was tired, and I had work in the morning so I went back to bed. The kid would be fine; John would let him go. Everything would be fine. John was actually pretty good at catching vandals when motivated. My mobile was hanging on the porch—not a scratch on it.


9

The next evening, Jan didn’t show up for her shift again and I stayed until close. Mr. Greismeyer was parked out front when I left. He called me over.

“Ruthie, come have a drink. I’ve got a new track to show you. And I brought you a cup from home this time.”

“I can’t,” I said. “Sorry, sir. Another long day. It’s late and I have the contest to work on.” I hated to disappoint him, and it was so nice of him to invite me into his car again, but there was so much to do. I couldn’t afford to lose focus.

“Goddamnit, Ruthie, get in here.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Goddamnit, I brought you a cup.”

I left.

I caught the last bus, and on the way home from my stop I was startled by a noise coming from Amanda P’s yard. A raccoon was rummaging around in the baby pit. I watched it for a minute and then noticed a man hanging from the tree in her yard. There was a rope around his neck, and his entrails were pouring out from his stomach. It was, of course, a dummy—the entrails were coloured socks. A strange new direction for Amanda P, but it definitely showed creativity. There was a sign stuck to the dummy’s chest, too. I came closer, scaring off the raccoon, so I could read it. The sign said: CHILD MOLESTER.

My own decorations, for a change, had been left alone. The mobile was hanging unscathed on my porch, as was the “Beware of Ghost” banner I had stuck to the garage door to cover the graffiti. No rocks, no notes, no nothing.

I went inside and the phone was ringing.

“So,” John Seabreeze said. “I think it’s time for some games.”

I hung up and went over. What could I do—I owed him.

He wouldn’t look at me when he answered the door and he kept rubbing the back of his head. He was wearing a grey sweat suit with the shirt tucked into the pants, and the pants tucked into the socks.

“Take off your coat and your shoes,” he said. “You can leave the rest on.”

I took off my coat and shoes and he led me into the basement. There were candles lit all around the room. Blue gym mats lay across the floor.

“So how do we do this, exactly?”

“I’ll get us going,” he said. “Lie down on your back.”

I got on my back and John started dragging me around the mats by my feet. It was kind of fun, actually. Then he got down on his knees and started hugging my legs. He was squeezing them pretty hard, but it didn’t hurt. It wasn’t so bad.

“Things went on like this for almost an hour, and then I excused myself.”

He hugged my legs for a bit then asked if there was anything I’d like to try. I said I couldn’t think of anything, but he kept on pressing, so I said that maybe we could try kissing. I mean, John looked pretty good in his sweat suit and he was a talented security guard and I hadn’t kissed anyone for a long time, but he said I was missing the point. Then he turned me over on to my stomach and grabbed me around the waist. He began walking around on his knees and kind of wiping me into the mats. Like he was cleaning them and I was a rag.

Things went on like this for almost an hour, and then I excused myself. I was just so tired, and I hadn’t eaten all day. I thanked him for helping me out with the teenagers, and he thanked me for the body games. He said I was just great. I tried to kiss him goodnight, but he closed the door and I went home.


10

That night I dreamt about the cop house, except it wasn’t a nice dream. I’d say it was almost a nightmare. In the dream, all these policemen were dragging me around their house by my feet. They were taking turns, and sometimes they would bang me into a wall. Then one of them let me fall down the stairs into the basement, and they closed the door on me. It was so dark. I woke up all sweaty and it was dark in my house, too.

The next morning I called in sick to work, which was a half-lie. I was just tired. I slept in and spent the rest of the day working on the contest. And I felt guilty because I was supposed to be at the store, but it was worth the guilt because I got so much done. I used a bicycle pump, a funnel, and a piece of window screen to finish off the spider cannon, which worked perfectly. I made so many cotton cobwebs and put them everywhere. More banners, more orange ribbons. A new conductor’s hat for the mummy. I painted a black cat on the lower sash of my front window, and two red circles on the upper sash, so that when you opened the window the lower sash aligned with the upper sash and the cat suddenly had scary red eyes.

I worked all day, and when I went to bed my decorations were still standing. The vandals had backed off. I was safe.

Then John Seabreeze called me up in the middle of the night.

“I caught another one, Ruthie,” he said.

I went over.

I met him in the backyard, and the light was on in his tool shed again.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said, “but this one’s a little older.”

“How much older?”

I peered through the little window. It was Mr. Greismeyer. He had a scarf wrapped around his mouth and he was lying on the floor. He was tied to a chair, which had tipped over.

“What the hell, John? What—”

“He was sneaking around your house. Do you know this man?”

“That’s my boss, Mr. Greismeyer.”

“Shit.”

We went inside and I untied the scarf.

“Goddamnit, Ruth,” Mr. Greismeyer said. “Is this psychopath your friend or something? Now go call the police.”

John Seabreeze helped him up and untied him. Mr. Greismeyer was frantic. He yelled at John, and shoved him into the grass. He yelled at his lawyer, who wasn’t even there.  Then he yelled at me. I went home and called the police. I was crying on the phone, but the man I spoke to was nice and two officers eventually came. They asked John all kinds of questions, and made Mr. Greismeyer sit in his car until they finished because he kept interrupting. I had to answer a lot of questions, too, but I wasn’t in any trouble. I made the officers coffee and egg-bagels. I also made Mr. Greismeyer an egg-bagel, but he threw it on the ground.

“You know, I was coming to check on you, Ruth,” he said. “I knew you weren’t sick, you stupid liar.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said.

“Yeah, well you can put that on your goddamn resume, because you’re sure as hell fired.”

John went back inside—there was nothing the police could do, since he was just trying to protect his neighbour. Mr. Greismeyer was furious. As everyone drove away, I saw Amanda P looking out her window at me. I waved, and she ducked out of view. The light in her window went off and I stood on my porch waiting to see if she’d come back. She didn’t. I could hear the raccoon digging around in her pit.


11

While I wasn’t exactly thrilled I had lost my job, it couldn’t have been better timing. I had a week of distraction-free contest prep time now, and I took full advantage of this opportunity. When life gives you lemons, make a lemonade stand with little scarecrow children proprietors attached by string to the lemonade jug and when someone pours a glass of lemonade the children stand up to collect payment.

I crafted like hell the whole week. I woke up early, stayed up late, and my fingers turned black from glue bits and markers. I hung white towels from the tree, and attached little paper hats and glasses to them so they were gentleman ghosts. I found a floodlight in the basement, which I used to illuminate the UFO mobile—it looked perfect. I carved pumpkins, made mini-tombstones for the garden, hung ribbons pretty much everywhere, and cut skeleton silhouettes out of cardboard and painted fun glow-in-the-dark faces on them. The Coffin Express was new- and- improved, and the lemonade stand was a perfect introductory piece at the end of the driveway. I didn’t have a distinct theme like Amanda P’s did—her grotesque, envelope-pushing, gore décor now included heads on pikes and a life-like lawnmower accident scene—but everything in my yard looked nice in a classic Halloween sense. I worked hard and I was proud.

The kids left me alone, too. I was worried they’d come back and inflict even worse damage on my decorations now that I was ignoring John—since the incident with my boss, I decided it would be best to avoid any further distractions—but the neighbourhood was quiet. In fact, when I passed teens on my way to the store they’d cross to the other side of the street. There must have been rumours going around.

Mr. Greismeyer made a few appearances. He’d park on my street at night and drink in his car. I think he wanted me to come out and sit with him, but I stayed inside. I didn’t want to encourage him. I had work to do.

I kept my focus on the contest, but it didn’t really matter in the end. When Devil’s Night came, Amanda P won the bucket. She deserved it though, really. She took such a huge risk with her theme. I thought the judges, who were mostly old women, would find her display much too disturbing. Even I was creeped out and couldn’t look at her lawn without clenching my teeth a little, but it shows you how the judges based their decisions on artistic merit. Amanda was a true artist. There was so much I could learn from her. When they said her name everyone clapped for a full minute. I joined in, of course. I think I clapped the loudest. Then I waited in line to shake Amanda’s hand, congratulated her on the big win, and went home. I was exhausted. I sat on my couch, thinking I’d just rest for a minute and reflect on the day, but I tipped over and fell asleep.

It was dark outside when I woke up, and my stomach made these noises. I went to make an egg-bagel, but my hands were trembling and I dropped all of the eggs. The whole carton hit the kitchen floor and all the eggs broke. I took a cloth and started wiping up the mess, but I guess I was crying because I couldn’t see too well and my hands were still trembling. I just kind of spread the eggshells around and then I started yelling. I’m not sure what I was yelling, exactly, but it was probably something to do with Amanda P because that’s who I was thinking about. It was all kind of a blur.

Basically, I was thinking about how she had won the contest but that it wasn’t fair because her display was gross and upsetting, while mine was family-friendly. How Amanda’s yard was actually frightening the neighbourhood kids and my yard was only spooky in a fun way, and it wasn’t fair. How nothing is ever goddamn fair and people like Amanda waltzed around receiving candy for psychologically damaging little children. I kept yelling until my throat stung. My hands were covered in eggshells. It felt like I wasn’t in control of my body—that it was just doing things on its own. For instance, when I went into the craft cupboard and gathered up all my paint tubes and put them in a shopping bag. Did I really do that? I checked the label of Lake Placid Blue to make sure that the brand was flammable, and then I went into the kitchen and grabbed the barbeque lighter. I put on my boots and went outside.

“I paced around the house, focusing on my shame and ignoring my secret pride until I tired myself out and hit the couch again.

The contest festivities were over and the street was empty. I was in a state or possibly a trance. I walked over to Amanda P’s yard and squirted paint into her baby pit. I squirted and squirted and threw the empty tubes into the pit as well. The baby dolls were covered in a rainbow topping of paint squirts. I pulled out the barbeque lighter and was about to ignite everything, when I heard shouting from inside Amanda P’s house. I ran home and locked the door.

The shouting had jolted me out of the trance. I felt like myself again, like I was in control, which meant I also felt shame. Why would I ruin Amanda P’s baby pit? She had won fair and square. Good thing I was stopped before I had lit the pit up. And the most shameful thing of all was that I also felt kind of good—like I noticed this warm feeling deep inside me over what I’d done and what I’d planned on doing. Like a part of me was proud of the paint squirts. This made me feel even more ashamed. I paced around the house, focusing on my shame and ignoring my secret pride until I tired myself out and hit the couch again. I fell asleep with my boots on.


12

I woke up to the sound of a man shouting in the street. I looked out the front window. It was Amanda P’s husband.

“Yeah, run away you ungrateful bitch!”

He stood on their porch with a bottle in his hand. Amanda P was running across the street, to my house. I went to unlock the front door and she was already pounding on it.

I let her in and made tea for us. We sat on stools in the kitchen. She was shaking and had a fat lip.

“Are you okay?” I asked. “What happened?”

She didn’t respond.

We sipped our tea and listened to the clock tick, until Amanda P said she was hungry. I got the Halloween candy bowl down from the mantle and she ate a snack-sized Oh Henry.

“I’m scared,” she said. She was really shaking.

So I told her about the cop house; how there was this little house only a block away from our street where all the police officers lived. That they wore their uniforms while they did chores, and had special blue cop pajamas with red stripes down the side, too. That they had barbeques and laughed and watched the weather channel together. That they had a heated pool in the backyard and did cannonballs.

“What about their wives?” Amanda P said. “Or husbands?”

“The spouses get to stay. And their children, too. They all live in the house together.”

“Do they have their own bedrooms?”

“No,” I said. I struggled to keep my eyes open, but it was important that I hide my fatigue. I needed to be there for my old friend. “They sleep in one big bedroom on the second floor. They have bunk beds. And every night, once all the cops and their families are under their blankets and the light is off, they sing a song together. A goodnight song.”

“But what if there’s a crime?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What if there’s a crime at night, while all the cops are asleep?”

“The crimes only happen in the day,” I said. “Because the criminals need to sleep, too.”

“Jesus, Ruth,” Amanda P said. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

But she wasn’t shaking anymore. She wasn’t shaking at all.

I took her up to my old bedroom, plugged in the dehumidifier, and brought her a glass of milk. She went right to sleep and I stood in the doorway. She looked so vulnerable, lying there. The only thing protecting her from the frightening world outside Mom’s house—my house—was me. I was in charge.

And as I watched my friend sleep, the gloss on her fat lip catching the moonlight that shone through the window, I knew everything would be fine.

 


Sam Shelstad is from London, Ontario. His short fiction has appeared in Joyland, Prism International, The New Quarterly, Carousel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Feathertale Review, and The Rusty Toque.

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