By Joanna Campbell Slan
Note: I'm putting this up and leaving it up until November 2, 2014, and then it's going to disappear--POOF!--like a ghost!
It's my Halloween treat for all of you, a way of thanking you for buying 400 copies of Cara Mia Delgatto and the Haunted Flamingo. If this works, if I see more copies of Cara Mia Delgatto and the Haunted Flamingo being sold (http://tinyurl.com/CMDFlamingo), I'll do this again (with new short stories) in the future. It's just a way of thanking YOU for supporting me.
Much love, Happy Halloween, and be safe--Your friend, Joanna
PS It's a first draft, so it probably has mistakes and typos. Sorry about that.
~ October 24, one week before Halloween ~
“Now it’s official,” said Detective Chad Detweiler, slipping his arms around my ever-expanding belly. “Only seven more days until Halloween.”
We stared at the countdown calendar I’d posted on the refrigerator. A big “7” was positioned right at Erik’s eye level. Noises echoing from the other room announced that he and his sister Anya were trooping down the stairs for breakfast. A sturdier step foretold that Brawny, our nanny, was shepherding the kids toward the kitchen.
“Ooooh,” squealed Anya. At thirteen, she’s as tall as I am, but infinitely cooler. To hear her cry of delight warmed my heart. Even though she works hard to be a jaded teen, she’s still my little girl, my first-born child.
“Let me see.” Erik pushed past her. He’s our recently adopted five-year-old son, and he came with Brawny, the Scot nanny who’d been with him since birth.
“Manners,” Brawny warned him. As always, she wore a kilt, a starched white blouse, knee socks, and a sporran, the fur-covered pouch that’s part of every Scot’s native costume. On her feet are brogues, a sturdy leather lace-up bootie, the ancestor of today’s wing-tips. Brawny had explained to us that the perforations in the leather had actually been useful, back in the day. Because Scots walked through bogs and wet areas, the holes allowed water to drain away so the shoes would dry quickly.
I’ll admit that most people do a double-take when they see Brawny, but we’ve become accustomed to her wardrobe. She’s made herself a part of our family, and I have no doubt that when my baby comes in January, she’ll be indispensable.
“Sorry, Anya,” Erik said to his older sister, taking her hand and kissing it. The two siblings quickly bonded, even though they’d previously been only children. Turning his milk chocolate face to me, he asked, “What is it, Mama Kiki?”
“It’s a calendar,” I said. “You see, Halloween is my favorite holiday. Bar none. So I thought it would be fun for us to count down the days until you get to go trick-or-treating.”
“What’s that?” Erik screwed up his face. His dark brown eyes clouded with concern.
“You don’t know what trick-or-treating is?” Anya is usually pretty careful not to make him feel stupid, the way some older siblings do with their younger family members. The minute the words were out, she popped a hand to her mouth in horror. “Sorry!”
Detweiler let go of me long enough for me to lean over and hug the bewildered boy. “Didn’t you go trick-or-treating?”
“No,” said Brawny. “He didn’t. The house was set off, by itself, so we didn’t have neighbors. No way to walk from home to home.”
“But didn’t his school do something?” Anya was shocked, and she couldn’t keep her surprise out of her voice.
Brawny smiled. “His school was what you would call p.c. That is, politically correct. As I understand it, several parents expressed their distaste for a pagan holiday. One objected on religious grounds, thinking it’s a holiday for devil-worshipping. The school put out pumpkins, to celebrate the harvest, but that’s about it.”
“Well then,” said Detweiler, reaching down to scoop up his son. “Have you got a big surprise coming, buddy. Your Mama Kiki is the Queen of Halloween. She loves it! You are going to have so much fun.”
Anya joined them, in a natural hug. “You are going to love trick-or-treating. We go to people’s houses, and they give us candy. Lots and lots of candy!”
Brawny struggled to keep from grimacing. She thinks that we Americans eat far too much sugar as it is, and she’s right. I mouthed, “It’ll be okay,” to her, and she sighed.
But I couldn’t help grinning.
Erik had never celebrated Halloween? Get out of town, Charlie Brown! This was going to be a blast!
Clancy Whitehead slammed a chair against her desk. In response, her beautiful auburn hair swung forward to cover her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” I asked my friend.
As usual, Clancy looked like perfection itself. Today she wore an outfit in the classic style of Jacqueline Kennedy, black gabardine slacks and a matching silk blouse. On her feet were flats in a zebra pattern. At her throat was a beautiful gold necklace. But on her face was a big frown.
“Nothing,” she muttered, but sure as my name’s Kiki Lowenstein, there was SOMEthing bothering her. Something big, in fact. Her entire posture vibrated to an angry buzz, like a honeybee who’s been chased away from a fragrant clover blossom. Clancy is a very private person, but she’s learning to open up to me. We’ve been friends now for more than two years. She knows I care about her, and I have her best interests at heart.
“Nothing,” I repeated. “Clancy, we both know that’s not true. Spill the jellybeans, girlfriend.” With that, I reached into my pocket and offered her an open bag of Jelly Belly BeanBoozled in assorted flavors. Her favorite candy is their Buttered Popcorn. With great care, she reached in and plucked up one of her favorites. Her scarlet nail polish gleamed as she popped it into her mouth.
“What?” she spat the candy into her palm. “Yuck! This tastes disgusting. Rotten eggs!”
As she raced to the sink, gagging sounds echoed from our bathroom. I reached into my other pocket and pulled out a fresh packet of regular Jelly Belly jellybeans.I giggled.
“That candy came from their BeanBoozled mix. Ten of the flavors are real. The yummy ones we’ve come to love. But ten are imposters.”
I showed her a new bag.
“No way,” she said with a sneer.
“Honest, these are the ones you love.” I pointed to the different labels on the bags. “See? You took one from the BeanBoozled. These are the regular candies.”
After cautiously sniffing a cream and yellow-colored jellybean, she tentatively bit it.
“Ah.” She savored the taste of buttery popcorn.
“You still haven’t told me what’s bugging you.” I put the trick bag back into my pocket and handed her the new bag of traditional flavors.
“My mother is driving the staff at the assisted living facility bonkers. Crazy. Bug-nuts. She insists that there’s a witch in her room. That a frightening hag is coming to get her. Mom says that every night when the place is quiet, the witch cackles and threatens her.”
“Wow.” I shook my head in sympathy.
Clancy, Margit, our other full-time employee, and I all have aging mothers. Margit’s has an advanced sort of Alzheimer’s. She thinks Margit is her baby sister and will only speak German.
My mother is meaner than a junkyard dog with a bad case of worms. According to Mom, I’m the devil’s handmaiden, and everyone is out to get her. Mom keeps returning to her glory days, when she was in the entertainment business. She’s convinced that men want to get into her pants. This leads to all sorts of awkward situations, complete with Mom accusing men of looking at her with lust in their eyes.
“You might be seeing glaucoma,” I told her only last week. “Or cataracts. But not lust.” She didn’t believe me. Mom is convinced that she’s the most desirable woman on the planet.
“I’m sorry,” I told Clancy, as I put a hand on her shoulder. My friend leaned into me. Clancy’s not really comfortable with physical contact, but she’s growing more accepting of it. Tilting her head to one side, she briefly rested it against my shoulder.
“Thanks,” she said, in a voice clotted with emotion.
We stood like that, silently, for a while. She’s both my friend and my right hand assistant, the organizing force behind Time in a Bottle, the scrapbook and crafts store I own. I try to let her know how important she is to me. Only occasionally do I feel like I succeed. This was one of those times.
Clancy reached up to squeeze my fingers. “Thanks,” she said again. “Now let me show you the new album that a local family has commissioned. They were adamant that you were the only person they trusted to make it for them. Archivally safe and all that. The only problem is the short turn-around time.”
“Did you tell them I could get it done?” I asked, eagerly. Making albums is one of my favorite activities. I love the challenge of putting all the various pieces together to make a harmonious whole. Using a method of speed scrapping that I’ve perfected, I can assemble an album in record time.
Clancy rolled her eyes. “Of course I did.”
~ October 26, the Monday before Halloween~
But the moment I pulled up a stool and sat down at my worktable, I felt a chill run up my spine. The cold wave hit me again when I grabbed for the empty pizza box. These are the standard storage units we use for all our projects. (Of course we buy them new!) They’re cheap, cheap, and once a label is slapped on one end, easy to recognize. When stacked on top of each other, they don’t take up much space. We arrange the boxes alphabetically, by last name, although each morning Clancy hands me a “to do” list, detailing which project needs to be done next, so that I don’t miss a deadline.
That cold draft caused the hairs to stand up on the back of my neck. In response, I glanced up at the vent overhead. Odd.
The papers on my worktable hadn’t moved, but I’d definitely felt the tingle of cool air on my skin.
I ignored the sensation and pulled on a pair of white cotton gloves, mandatory equipment for protecting old photos from oils on your skin. My excitement grew as I opened the box.
This group of pictures didn’t disappoint. The photos were all old. Really, really old. The foxing and discoloration was one clue. The clothing and hairstyles another. I gasped with joy as I realized I was holding images from the mid-1800s, the first fruits of commercial photography.
Until the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, painting or drawing were the only ways to preserve an image. The rich relied upon painted portraiture, but the daguerreotype opened the door for the middle-class to own photos of their loved ones. The back of each photo had been carefully labeled, recently. The name of the person, the dates of birth and death were included.
As I combed through the lot, one photo moved to the top of the pile.
Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m sorta, kinda being bathed in a hormonal soup—and it’s messing with me. I cry at the drop of a paper napkin. Moving from low to high and back again is a daily occurrence. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by my intense reaction to this particular photo.
A girl and a boy stood side-by-side holding hands. In front of them was another child, a much younger girl who was seated in an overstuffed chair. They all wore high-topped shoes, formal clothes, and a blank expression. A variety of flowers encircled the trio. I grabbed my magnifying glass and examined the picture more carefully. Next to the chair was an oddly shaped lump that had been draped with a floral shawl. One corner of the shawl actually fell over the lap of the child in the chair.
My eyes traveled down to their feet. The shoes of the standing kids angled out as perfectly as any ballet students’ would. A metal stand appeared at their heels, a gizmo that reminded me of the stands that held up dolls. How odd, I thought.
The standing girl was obviously the eldest of the three children. I’d guess her to be about ten. The boy looked to be Erik’s age, maybe five. The child on the chair was a toddler, maybe two or three years of age. The ten-year-old grasped her younger brother’s hand firmly, with an air of protectiveness that reminded me of how Anya looked after Erik. With her free hand, she gripped the shoulder of the toddler.
The scene touched me. Initially, I’d worried about how my daughter would adjust to having a younger sibling. But over the past few months, Anya had proved herself to be loving and patient, especially when I’d been exhausted by my pregnancy.
I glanced quickly at the back of the picture. According to the label, the oldest child was Elizabeth Mullhaven Jacobson, the little boy was her brother, Victor, and they were joined by their baby sister, Petronella. The photo drew me in. Time and space ceased to exist, collapsing until I was in the same room with the children. I wondered why they needed the stand. Was posing for the photo tedious? Was the little boy too rambunctious to stay still?
Their expressions were blank. Petronella, in particular, had a wide-eyed stare that seemed odd.
What was that weird lump covered by a shawl? Why was a portion of it draped over the toddler’s lap? That made no sense to me. None at all.
It was just plain bizarre, and yet, poignantly touching.
These children deserved a special page, one of their own, where their poignant portrayal of familial love could be admired.
Putting the picture carefully back in the box, I found the questionnaire we’ve developed for every custom project. John Jacobson described himself as the curator for his family archives. He had requested a black album, in somber colors. The labels on the back of the photos were to be added as cutlines under the pictures. Also to be included were the biographies, the birth and death dates of many, but not all, of the subjects.
As projects went, this would be an easy task, because Mr. Jacobson had the materials well-organized. He left it to me whether to handwrite the information or print it up on my computer before adding it to the pages.
To help me, I’d created a thumbnail sketch of each of the empty album pages. I notated which photos would go on each page. By doing this, I could prep all the pages at once. That would speed my work considerably. After I planned the project, I went through the box a second time to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
I also reviewed the personal note written to me by a Mr. Jacobson:
Dear Mrs. Lowenstein,
Word of your talents has reached my eager ears. The Jacobson family has appointed me as the curator of our family photographs. Attached is a genealogy chart for our little tribe. If you have any questions, please contact me. I’m asking that this be done by October 31, because one of our members will be celebrating her 100th birthday on that date, and we’d like to present the album to her. I fear she won’t be with us for much longer. So it is essential that you meet the deadline. I shall drop by your store to pick up the album at noon on October 31.
My enthusiasm was tempered by Clancy’s appearance at my elbow. In her hand, she held a bunch of papers. She pulled up a stool next to mine at my worktable. “Have you looked over your schedule for the week?”
“You mean the days and hours I’m working?”
“No, I mean the upcoming special events.”
I had to admit that I hadn’t. “What’s up?”
“On Saturday, which is Halloween, you’re in charge of the birthday party for Sabrina Lazarus, who’s turning ten. I need to know what project you have in mind so we can get prepped for it.”
“Drat,” I said. Although I’d seen the notation on my schedule, I’d ignored it, the way you do when you tell yourself, “I’ve got plenty of time.” Now the event was right on top of us, and I hadn’t thought through all the details.
“You told her mother that the girls will be making Halloween jack-o-lanterns,” said Clancy, flipping through the sheets she held. “There will be twelve of them. All nine and ten. We’ve allocated a total cost for each girl of two dollars for supplies.”
I leaned forward, put my head on the table, and groaned. “That’s it, that’s all? Two bucks doesn’t buy much these days.”
“You’re telling me,” said Clancy, smoothing her hair.
Unlike her tamed locks, my blond curls are unruly. Smoothing them is a joke.
“Also in my notes, Mrs. Lazarus expressed a desire for ‘lots of bling,’ whatever that means. She was very clear that Sabrina likes sparkle.”
“Oh-kay,” I mumbled. “I think I’ll make one of those paper pumpkins. There’s a cool SVG program that we can use to cut them out.”
“SVG?” Clancy scowled. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Scalable Vector Graphics. It’s a type of program that allows you to change the size of a die cut and all its ancillary pieces before cutting it on an electronic die cut machine, like our Silhouette,” I said. I had to lift my head off the table so she could hear me since I was explaining a technology new to her.
“Right,” said Clancy. “Let Rebekkah do that.”
Rebekkah Goldfader is the daughter of Dodie Goldfader, the woman who originally opened Time in a Bottle. Rebekkah is whip-smart and proving herself to be a technical whiz kid. When we try to do anything complex on the computer (or with machines that link to our computers), we call Rebekkah.
“Don’t you want to learn?” I asked Clancy.
“Not particularly,” she said.
On Wednesday, the kids had a half-day at school. My mother-in-law-to-be Thelma Detweiler called that morning, after talking to her son, and asked permission for them to come to the Detweiler farm, over in Illinois.
“Our pumpkin patch is fabulous this year. Just fantastic! I thought that Erik and Anya could pick out their own pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns. If it’s not too late,” she said. Thelma had to be the most thoughtful person ever. She was constantly coming up with ways to interact with both our children. The outings she planned usually had an educational component. A few weeks ago, the kids helped her pick apples. Then they made applesauce. Sounded really labor-intensive to me, but they loved the experience—and we would have enough applesauce to last for months! Anya and Erik came home talking about bees, pollination, grafting, and how heat kills germs. How Thelma managed to pack in so much learning was a marvel to me.
“Of course they can visit the farm,” I said. Then we agreed that Brawny would drive the kids from their school over the Mississippi River and through the woods to the Detweiler house. “Did you know this is Erik’s first real Halloween?” I explained why this was his maiden trick-or-treat adventure.
“Such fun! What’s he going to wear as a costume?” asked Thelma.
“That’s a good question. He can’t decide. He’s gone back and forth between Spiderman and a penguin. Last night he said he wants to be a ghost. That lasted all of five minutes. I took him to Walmart Monday night to look, but he couldn’t decide. Brawny took him after school yesterday, too, but he couldn’t make a choice. The whole idea of a costume seems to have him baffled. He keeps saying, ‘I want to be a trick-or-treater!’ I guess we haven’t done a good job of explaining the rigmarole to him.”
Thelma chuckled. “He’ll catch on soon enough. Wait until he sees all the sweet loot he’s going to get.”
I sighed. I try not to vent to Thelma, but she’s such a good listener, that I often realize after our conversations that I’ve poured my bucket of troubles onto the ground at her feet. “That’s another problem. Brawny really, really hates the amount of sugar in our diets. Not only that, she has explained to me in great length that in the UK certain food colorings have been banned because they aren’t good for kids. A lot of those show up in the brightly colored candies commonly handed out here.”
“Ouch,” said Thelma. “Is she against them trick-or-treating?”
“No, but she’s not happy about it. Here we are, coming up on my favorite holiday, and it’s like living with the Grinch. I know she’s trying to be open-minded, but she’s very protective.”
“In that way, she’s more like an English bulldog than a Scot nanny,” said Thelma.
She had that right.
The kids came home that night tired, dusty, and mostly happy. Erik was a little teary, but then we discovered that he had a cocklebur stuck to the inside of his sock. It had scratched his tender skin.
“See? It’s a seed,” explained Detweiler, showing the spurred hitchhiker to the boy. “It didn’t mean to hurt you. It needed a ride and when you walked by, this little seed jumped on board, like you were a train.”
“I am not a train,” said Erik, solemnly.
“We know that, but the cocklebur didn’t.”
My heart always melted at the sight of the long, lean cop squatting down so he could be eye-to-eye with his son. Detweiler is so good with kids!
He has always wanted to be a father. When we met, he took to Anya right away, but he was also careful not to overstep his bounds or act inappropriately. I know a lot of single mothers who’re involved with men who have trouble creating and maintaining a healthy relationship with their young daughters. Luckily for me, Detweiler has two sisters, so he’s very aware of how vulnerable girls are. And of course as a cop, he’s seen predators up close and personal. He’s also told me about men who just plain didn’t use good sense around the daughters of their partners.
I am lucky in so many ways, and a kick from my little passenger reminded me that my good fortune is going to increase. This baby will be born into a harmonious, happy family.
Erik has created yet another bond between Detweiler and Anya. Because they both love the little boy, a new link has formed between the two of them. Erik benefits, and so do we all, because our blended family is strengthened by these fibers.
Brawny carried in a big cardboard box and set it on the dining room table.
Since both of the kids had brought in their own carved jack-o-lanterns, I stared at the box and wondered about its contents. Surely Thelma hadn’t sent home another kitten! We already had two cats, Seymour who was born on the Detweiler farm, and Martin who I rescued from a cat hoarder.
Brawny caught my look. “More pumpkins. Small ones. Erik had lots of fun picking them. Thelma thought you might want to decorate the store with them.”
She was far too late for that. We’ve had up Halloween displays for nearly a month.
But I’m too thrifty to throw out anything that might be of value. “Would you put them in my car? Maybe we can find a purpose for them.”
“Of course,” said Brawny. “She also sent over two pumpkin pies, some cooked pumpkin in a jar, and a couple of new recipes for you. Did I mention the tin of pumpkin cookies?”
“No,” I said with a laugh. “Does Thelma think we’re starving over here in Missouri?”
A big grin split Brawny’s face in half. “She must have done. Every time I see her, the woman loads me down with food. She’s a rare pearl, that one.”
I was sound asleep when the screams woke me up. I rolled out of bed, bounced onto my feet, threw open the bedroom door, and raced down the hall. Gracie howled from behind Anya’s bedroom door, throwing her weight against the wood panels. I didn’t stop to let the Great Dane out. My only thought was to get to Erik—fast!
I fell into his bedroom door. As it swung open, I stumbled, landed on my knees, and crawled to his bedside.
“Mama!” he screamed.
Brawny and Detweiler must have reached the doorway at the same time, because as I scooped the boy into my arms, I heard a loud woomph. They’d managed to jam themselves in the opening.
“Hush, hush,” I said, as I rocked the wailing child.
His face was wet with tears. As his bottom lip trembled, he hunkered down under my arm, snuggling as close as he could get. I held him tightly.
“He okay?” Detweiler wobbled on his feet. Brawny stood two steps behind him. Usually she’s first in an emergency, but I’m a mom, and my instincts are razor-sharp when it comes to one of my brood.
“I think so,” I said, as I stroked his hair. “Did you have a bad dream, honey?”
He hiccupped and buried his face into my side.
“You’re all right.” I scooted back onto his bed so that I was up against the headboard. With my free hand, I shooed Detweiler and Brawny away. “All right. Everything’s all right, sweetie. Hush, hush, hush.”
“What happened?” Anya tried to peer over Brawny’s shoulders.
“Bad dreams,” said the nanny as Gracie pushed past the crowd. The long-legged dog hopped nimbly onto the bed beside me. She rested her wet jowls on my knee. Erik felt her, so he reached around behind us, searching for her with his hand. She nuzzled his fingers.
That’s how we fell asleep. Erik tucked under my arm. Gracie drooling on my knee. My head leaning against the hard wood of his headboard.
The next morning I took the kids to school. After parking my car in the big lot at CALA, the Charles and Anne Lindbergh Academy, I took Erik by the hand. Anya walked beside us, then peeled off at the fork in the hallway. “Bye,” she mumbled. The interrupted sleep played havoc with her disposition, especially since she’s not a morning person anyway.
Erik and I continued down the marble floor, making our way to Maggie Earhart’s room. Maggie is his kindergarten teacher and an old friend. Her daughter Madeline is Anya’s age.
She was busy greeting short people and getting them settled when we stepped into the room. It only took one glance for her to realize we had a problem. I liked that about Maggie: she’s no nonsense. She’s shaped like a child’s building blocks, and that visual image supports her personality completely. Maggie is solid, dependable, and sturdy.
“You two okay?” she asked as she approached.
“Erik? Go put your backpack away while I talk to your mama,” said Maggie.
He reluctantly let go of my hand.
“Miss Sharma? Could you help Erik get situated?” Maggie spoke over the heads of her pupils, gesturing to a young woman who looked to be Indian or Pakistani.
“Of course,” she said, as she straightened. Her long black hair reminded me of a heroine in a Disney film. I’d heard that all the kindergarteners were in love with Miss Sharma, and now I knew why. She moved like a swan on a still pond, totally motionless from the waist up. Her liquid eyes both studying Erik and thawing the child’s reluctance. He’d turned loose of my fingers, but he’d gripped my pants. Now he loosened his grasp, leaned away from me, and took a step toward the teacher’s aide.
“I had a bad dream,” he announced to her.
“Ah,” she nodded. “I have them myself once in a while.”
“You do?” his voice brightened.
“Yes. Most people do. Young and old alike.”
“Really?” He couldn’t hide his skepticism.
“What was your dream about?” she asked. Her tone was light, not as demanding as ours had been earlier this morning. I wasn’t surprised when he answered her immediately, although we’d been unable to pry anything out of him.
“My mama and Daddy Van. They were ghosts. They comed to haunt me. Ghosts don’t like little boys.” He recited all this while staring at the toe of his shoe.
I felt sick. This poor child had been through the loss of his mother, Gina, Detweiler’s first wife, and the concurrent death of the man who’d raised him, Van Lauber. Now with all the talk of Halloween, he’d conjured up visions of them coming back from the dead for malicious purposes. Fortunately, in my sleep-deprived state, I could wrap my head around what to say, so I stood there, stupefied.
“I see,” said Miss Sharma. “But your mama and your Daddy Van loved you, didn’t they?”
He nodded quickly.
“In fact, they loved you very, very much. So they wouldn’t come back to scare you, would they?”
He thought about that. “No,” he admitted at long last.
“So it must have been something you ate,” she concluded. “Did you have anything extra? A sweet? Too much food?”
He tilted his head and considered this. “Anya gived me a half a candy bar. I liked it.”
Miss Sharma knelt so that she was eye level. “Then perhaps all that sugar made your tummy send messages to your brain. Your mama and Van weren’t visiting you at all.”
He took this onboard. I held my breath. Would he buy this explanation? After what seemed like an eternity, Erik said, “Right. They loved me. They wouldn’t hurt me.”
I stood there for a long, long time, as wave after wave of sadness washed over me.
“Happens every year to at least a handful of my students,” said Maggie, shaking her head. “Halloween spooks them, and that’s no joke. But this makes me feel especially sad because I should have warned you.”
“Really?” I raised an eyebrow at her. “How can this be your responsibility?”
“Because Tony Agnelli was telling all the children about ghosts yesterday. I caught the tail-end of it. I heard him say something about dead people coming back to haunt us. A little alarm bell went off. Erik was absorbing Tony’s every word. Not that Tony’s a bad kid. He’s just very precocious with two older brothers who love teasing him and putting a scare into him now and then.”
I shrugged. “Don’t blame yourself, Maggie. It was bound to happen. The kid lost his mother and step-father less than a year ago. Of course all this talk about dead people would stir up old memories.”
“Right, but I should have been proactive,” she said, as she shook her head. We were standing by her desk, watching the children interact. Erik seemed to have put his rough night behind him. Miss Sharma had encouraged him to join a group of students working with math problems.
“At least I’m proactive about this,” Maggie pulled a hot pink sheet of paper from her in-box. The headline read, “Avoiding the Candy Crazies.” As I scanned it, I read her suggestion that children be allowed to pick one piece of Halloween candy a day for any upcoming stretch. The rest of the candy would then be turned into Miss Maggie or Miss Sharma, who would donate it to a homeless shelter.
“Great idea,” I said, and I told my friend about Brawny’s concerns.
Maggie agreed with my nanny. “I don’t want to sound alarmist, but sugar is not healthy. I don’t care what the corn sugar or cane sugar lobbies tell us. The studies show a definite correlation between sugar and all sorts of problems. Everything in moderation. Although Halloween is definitely NOT about moderation.”
I laughed, thinking of how I’d gone overboard decorating the store and our house. “You can say that again!”
The store was blessedly quiet when I arrived. Brawny would bring Gracie in later, because she was scheduled for a “drop in” knitting day. Knitters could show up with their projects from noon until three and receive Brawny’s help free of charge. The idea had proved incredibly popular. Women of all ages visited us. A few actually needed help. One or two only needed encouragement. But all appreciated my nanny’s talents. Brawny was growing a following.
I hoped that she’d be more alert than I. Oh, how I wished I could drink regular coffee! Or my absolute fave, Diet Dr Pepper! What I desperately needed was a jolt of caffeine to wake up my brain. Standing in front of our coffee maker, I nearly caved in.
I couldn’t do it.
It wouldn’t be good for my baby.
Instead, I heated water, dumped ground decaf into the cafetiere that I’d been given by Cara Mia Delgatto, and waited five minutes for it to brew.
A few minutes later, I sniffed the wonderful aroma and poured the brew into my mug. Sitting down at my worktable, I opened the Jacobson project box and withdrew my thumbnail sketches, my plan for the empty pages. As I did, the photo of the children tumbled onto the floor. I picked it up.
Once again, I wondered what that strange fabric covered lump. My eyes picked out the stands by the children’s feet.
Taking a sip of my decaf coffee, I decided a little research was in order. Opening my computer, I plugged in “stands and old photos.”
That yielded page after page of citations. I tried a different approach. I plugged in “Stands and old photography.” That pulled up citations and a black and white image of a man with a stand behind him. I clicked on it to read the headline: “What were posing stands used for?”
My mouth fell open as I scanned the article. Evidently, the metal stands were used to prop up dead people.
That was enough for me. I turned off the computer and began to collect paper for my album pages. The whole time I counted sheets, I “saw” that photo of the three kids in my head. Was it possible that the two oldest were dead?
Staying busy was the best way to avoid being grossed out, so I hurriedly began to stamp and emboss embellishments to use on my pages.
But my thoughts kept returning to the photo of the three siblings. I knew that childhood mortality rates were high back in the 1800s. I’d seen gravestones where one child after the other was given the exact same first name in an attempt to carry on a family name. The dates on the stones explained that these children had not lived to adulthood. Many had died in infancy. Most didn’t make it past their teens.
My little passenger kicked vigorously. It was his way of saying, “I’m here and healthy, Mom!”
I hoped that his kicks would help me keep my eyes open. I was seriously sleep deprived. A glance at the clock told me that Clancy would be walking in any minute. Talking to her would perk me up. Meanwhile, I kept working on the Jacobson family album.
One look told me that Clancy was more tired than I. She’d managed to dab her right eyelid with mascara. That never happens to her. She’s incredibly picky about her makeup. When she came closer, I could see that she’d missed a spot with her foundation.
“You are an imposter,” I said, pointing an inky finger at her. “My friend Clancy Whitehead is always perfectly groomed. What’s the scoop?”
She actually snarled at me. “Give me a break, would you?”
That made me laugh. “Seriously. Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not. I had to drive from Illinois to my mother’s assisted living facility at two this morning because she had awakened everyone screaming about witches!”
“There’s a lot of that going around,” I said, and I explained about Erik.
“I know you love Halloween, but I’m ready for this holiday to be over. Is Erik going to be all right?”
“Yes. I think so,” and I explained what Maggie had told me. When I got to the part about Maggie sleeping next to Matt, Clancy laughed out loud.
“From what you’ve told me, Maggie really had to bend her own rules on that.”
“Yuppers. Maggie can be pretty rigid when it comes to parenting.”
Clancy cocked her head to one side. “I wonder.”
“I wonder if I should sleep on Mom’s sofa tonight. It’s a pretty nice one. Then I wouldn’t have to drive to Illinois. I could be there if she starts screaming. Maybe she just needs me to help her get through this rough patch.”
There are times in a friendship when you see right through to a person’s heart. Clancy, the paragon of propriety and good grooming, had been temporarily replaced by Clancy, the loving daughter. How lucky I’d been that day we’d met.
“What’s that look on your face?” she asked.
I told her what I was thinking.
“I got lucky, too. Now show me how your work is coming on the Jacobson album.”
I did. I also told her about the stands to prop up dead people.
“Uh-huh. That doesn’t surprise me. The Victorians were obsessed with death. Ever hear of momento mori?”
I admitted I hadn’t.
“It’s Latin for ‘remember death.’ A reminder that this is fleeting, so we should live our best lives and accept the finality of our existence. Let me see the photo.”
I didn’t even have to dig around in the box. “Weird,” I said.
“What?” Clancy took the picture from my hand.
“Every time I open this box, that photo is on top.”
“That’s your imagination.”
“No, it’s not,” I said.
Clancy smirked. “This looks to me like a post-mortem photo.”
“I’ll bet you lunch that all three of the children in this picture are dead.”
As much as I wanted to research post-mortem photography, I didn’t get the chance. The door minder rang, and never stopped ringing, as customer after customer came into the store.
At one, Brawny arrived. Fortunately for Clancy and me, she’d brought us sandwiches. Otherwise, we’d have gone hungry because the place was too busy for us to take a real break.
I’d been craving bologna lately, so my nanny had thoughtfully provided a couple of bologna and American cheese sandwiches on toasted whole grain bread. I knew she didn’t really approve, since the cheese and the meat were highly processed, but Brawny had put aside her prejudices to pamper me. She’d even added several small bags of my favorite cheddar cheese SunChips to the lunch.
“How was Erik when you dropped him off?” she asked, as she deftly knitted a pair of orange, black, and purple Halloween socks for Anya.
I re-hashed my conversation with Maggie.
“Tell you what,” said Brawny. “I’ll sleep on the floor next to his bed tonight. I can use the air mattress. You and Detweiler need a sound eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.”
“I hate to ask that of you.”
She smiled. “That’s my job.”
A little after three, she left to pick the kids up from school. As she pulled out of the parking lot, I watched.
“She might be the best gift anyone has ever given you,” observed Clancy.
I agreed. “When Lorraine Lauber offered to pay Brawny’s salary, I nearly turned her down. I understood that Erik needed continuity in his life, and Brawny’s been with him since birth, but I thought nannies were pretentious.”
“She’s more than a nanny. She’s a part of your family.”
“That’s true. She takes fantastic care of Detweiler and me both. She’s got him exercising regularly, which I think makes him safer on the job. If he finds himself running after a creep, he’s fully capable of going for miles. He can also lift more weight than ever, because she pushes him. She does most of the grocery shopping and cooking, so we’re all eating healthfully.”
“But is she a friend?” asked Clancy.
“Although she hasn’t shared much of her life with us, she sure seems like one. She’s supportive of everything we do.”
“And she loves your kids.”
“And our pets.”
Clancy smiled. “It’s hard not to like someone who loves what you love.”
“Isn’t that the truth?”
The rest of the day before Halloween passed by in a blur of activity. Between customers I kept racing back to my worktable so I could get the Jacobson family album done as promised. A couple of times, I had to close the pizza box and put it away so I could help a guest complete her own work.
But then I’d pull out the red, white and blue box with the label that said JACOBSON on one end and go back to what I was doing. My thumbnail sketch kept me focused.
To my amazement, each time I opened the box, the photo of the three children was on top. I began to wonder if the picture was haunted. It sure seemed like it did a lot of floating to the top of the pile of pictures.
Of course, the subject matter still haunted me. The very idea of propping up dead bodies turned my stomach. Fortunately, I wasn’t plagued by “morning sickness” anymore. Otherwise, I would have been really miserable.
But the whole idea of photographing dead bodies got under my skin and frankly, haunted my thoughts. During one lull between customers, I actually typed in “post-mortem photos” and pulled up a couple of articles. I only had the chance to skim one. Surprisingly, what I read was comforting—and actually made a lot of sense to me, especially since I put such a high value on family snapshots.
According to this one article, back in the days when cameras were rare, and the only alternative to photos was painted portraits, it was common for people to die without leaving behind any visual image. Therefore, in a desperate bid to remember those who’d passed on, families would put the bodies of their loved ones into cold storage until a photographer would come to town. Then the corpses would be hauled out, posed, photographed, and finally buried.
So, those flowers I’d noticed weren’t just floral tributes. They served a far more practical purpose. They’d been assembled to help overcome the smell of decay. And that strange look in the eyes of the children? According to the article on my screen, painting “open” eyes over the closed eyes of a corpse was common.
On one hand, it was gross beyond words, and yet…given the choice between this macabre sort of picture-taking and no image at all, I had to admit the whole set-up was pretty ingenuous.
“Kiki? I need your help,” said Clancy, beckoning to me from across the sales floor.
Although I wanted to learn more, I shut down my computer. Usually, I’m thrilled to have a steady stream of foot traffic come through our doors. Today, between my exhaustion and my desire to learn more about post-mortem photography, I had to fight to keep a smile on my face.
But I managed. At five-thirty when the last scrapbooker walked out of the store, I turned the sign to CLOSED.
“Good golly, Miss Molly,” said Clancy, sinking down onto a stool. “My feet are killing me.”
“Mine, too.” I glanced at my phone. “I wonder if Brawny remembered that Erik still needs a Halloween costume.”
“Oh boy,” said Clancy. “Lucky you. Finding a Halloween costume on the day before the holiday is mission impossible.”
“Yeah. I guess I’d better text-message her and see what needs to be done.”
~ Halloween ~
“Did you get any sleep last night?” I asked Clancy, the next morning when we opened the store.
“Actually I did,” she said. “Could you pin on my tail?”
In honor of the holiday, she was wearing black leggings, a black mini skirt, and a black long-sleeved shirt. She’d carefully done her make-up so that she looked like Cat Woman from Batman.
“Good for you,” I said, as I maneuvered the safety pin. “There. All done.”
“Thanks. We figured out what was bugging my mother.”
“They redid the heating vents last spring. You know it’s been dipping down into the low forties at night? When the heat would kick on, the metal in the vents crackled. That’s what she was hearing.”
I shook my head, causing my floppy ears to flap around my face. For my costume, I’d donned a pair of brown maternity pants in a stretchy material, a matching top, and headgear that turned me into a big brown dog.
“My turn,” I said, as I handed my own tail to Clancy, so she could pin it to my huge backside.
“Dogs and cats living together,” she muttered. “What will they think of next?”
“Did you get any sleep?” Clancy asked me.
“Yes. Brawny took the night shift. She says that Erik slept like a baby.”
“What did he decide to be?” Clancy asked, as she gave my rump a final pat of approval. “Uh-oh. Your tail is dragging, Missy. Better watch your step. Maybe I should pin the tip of your tail to your backside so you don’t trip on it. No, that won’t look right. Hmm. I can’t position the base of the tail higher or it’ll look completely weird. How about if I use a piece of thread and attach the tip to your pants?”
“Please do. Erik still couldn’t make a decision. I guess all the costumes he liked were too big or too small. Frankly, he doesn’t seem very concerned. Each time I ask what he wants to be, he says, ‘A trick-or-treater!’ Somehow I think he’s missed the point.”
“No, actually, I think he’s nailed it. The goal isn’t to fool anyone. It’s to collect candy.”
I smiled at her. “Yeah. You know, that’s right, isn’t it?”
We gave each other a high-five.
I didn’t panic until eleven-fifteen. That’s when it dawned on me that we’d forgotten all about Sabrina Lazarus and her party.
“Did we get the die cuts made?”
“I totally forgot!” Clancy’s eyes went wide with horror. She looked like a startled black cat, for sure.
“Do we have the treats?”
“Yes. I ran by a bakery this morning.”
“So all we’re missing is my project?” I could feel the sweat under my armpits. Cold sweat. This had never happened to us before.
“Yes,” said Clancy. “Kiki, I am so, so sorry. I’ll take the blame. It’s my fault.”
“Hey, we’re in this together. Remind me, how many girls are we expecting?”
“A dozen. They’re expecting to make jack-o-lanterns.”
I groaned. “Okay, how about this. We’ll give them orange paper and let them cut their pumpkins out. They can glue on fake gems.”
Clancy shook her head. “Sabrina’s mother would have a cow. She’s expecting something more elaborate. In fact, she’s bragged to the other mothers that she can’t wait to see what you’re going to have the girls create.”
That about did me in. I pulled over the stool and propped my head on my hands. “Curses, foiled again.”
“I’ll take the heat,” said Clancy.
“No, you won’t. We’ll figure this out,” I said. “It’s my job to be creative. Tell you what. Make me a cup of tea so I can think, would you?”
“I’d be glad to. Where are we on the Jacobson album?”
“Done. All we need is to get it wrapped with tissue paper.”
“I’ve really let you down, Kiki. I am so, so sorry.”
That wasn’t like Clancy to be so upset. Usually she’s pretty pragmatic.
“I think you’re trying to tell me that Sabrina’s mother is going to pitch a fit.”
Those kitty-cat eyes roamed the ceiling. “Uh, yes, I think that’s a distinct possibility.”
“Then I better think fast,” I said. “Can you arrange the tables for the party?”
“Right after I get you your tea,” she said, and she hurried into the back room.
I couldn’t help but notice that her tail was dragging behind her.
“Smile, Sabrina and Kiki!” Sybil Lazarus held her Nikon in front of her face as she focused the lens on her daughter and me.
Although I was bone-weary, I gave the camera a big grin.
“Hold up the jack-o-lantern!” Sybil instructed us.
I helped Sabrina lift the small pumpkin she’d decorated with gems, markers, and ribbon. No one would ever guess that I’d thrown together the project at the last minute. Thanks to that box of small gourds I’d been carrying around in my trunk, I’d been able to pull off what Clancy called, “A minor miracle.”
All of Sabrina’s friends had managed to complete their jack-o-lanterns, too, so Clancy was helping them group the projects together for a photo.
As Sabrina and I broke away from our pose, the front door opened. Standing on tiptoe, I spotted an older man dressed in a tweed jacket with suede patches on the elbows. His white moustache twitched with amusement as he surveyed the beehive of activity. A dozen little girls in costumes raced around the table, giggling about their goody bags, and twittering about how much fun they planned to have this evening trick-or-treating. At least six of the girls were princesses. Two were mermaids. One was an Indian maiden. Another was a pink pony. And Sabrina was a fairy.
At first, I figured the newcomer to be her grandfather. But his posture suggested he was a bit uncomfortable around all this feminine energy, so I quickly discounted that idea.
I walked over to greet him and introduce myself.
“I’m John Jacobson,” he said.
“Of course,” and I mentally slapped my forehead. It was half past noon, so who else could he be? “The album is in a bag behind the cash wrap station. Let me get it for you.”
He followed me. “My, this certainly is a festive occasion, isn’t it?”
I laughed. “Yes. Sabrina’s birthday is today, and Halloween is always a big deal for scrapbookers. You have a family member turning 100?”
“Yes, my dear aunt Elizabeth. Can you imagine?”
“She’s the one in the photo? With her brother and sister? I’m so glad to hear that!”
He looked at me curiously. “Really?”
I hastened to explain. “I saw the posing stands and got it in my head that she was…that it was…a post-mortem photograph of three dead siblings.”
“Ahhh.” His voice came out a whisper. “I see. Since you are obviously expecting, that must have been upsetting.”
I blew out a long sigh. “It was. I have a daughter and a son with a son on the way. Would you like to see my work before you pay for it? I realize you’re on a tight deadline, but if you need something changed, perhaps I can do it quickly.”
“That sounds like a grand idea,” he said, pulling the album from the depths of the bag.
The sound of crinkling tissue paper always made me smile, and this time wasn’t any different. But I still get a little nervous when a client views my work. Mr. Jacobson moved at the speed of Elmer’s Glue, even more torturously slow than most customers. I told myself to be patient, as I waited for him to turn to the page with the three siblings.
~Ten o’clock, Halloween evening ~
“So what did he say?” Detweiler had been listening carefully as I told him about my day. “Was Mr. Jacobson pleased with your work?”
The kitchen smelled pleasantly of leftover chili and cornbread. We’d eaten our dinner before leaving to go trick-or-treating. Now the kids were upstairs dividing up their loot. Brawny was overseeing their efforts to choose candy to keep and candy for Maggie to give to the homeless shelter.
While Detweiler washed the slow cooker, I put away the dishes, relishing the warmth of them as I plucked them directly from the dishwasher. The sounds of Anya and Erik’s happy voices floated down to us. Next came a gruff guffaw from Brawny. I reflected on how blessed we were to have such a happy party under our roof.
“Yes, Mr. Jacobson was very pleased. He took his time leafing through the album. I’m glad he did. You see, I had something completely wrong. I thought the stands by the feet of the children were there because they were propping up corpses.”
“What?” Detweiler turned those amazing Heineken-bottle green eyes on me. “Come again?”
I explained about post-mortem photography. “The citation I read said that photographers used stands to prop up dead bodies. That turns out to be totally incorrect. In fact, it’s sort of a scam. Post-mortem photographs sell for a lot of money. People have been spreading the rumor that those stands are proof the subjects are dead. In actuality, the stands served as a crutch for the living, to help folks stay still. It took a long time to snap a photograph back them. Having the subject change position was a real problem. A stand reminded people not to squirm around.”
“So the kids in the picture were alive,” he concluded.
“Not all of them. The toddler was dead. Had been for six months. That funny shawl-covered lump was the kids’ mother. Turns out, mothers often wore a shawl and hunkered down to help prop up a dead child. That also explains why a portion of the shawl was flopped over onto the toddler’s lap—and why the oldest sibling had her hand gripping the toddler’s shoulder.”
Detweiler turned and pulled me into his arms. “I hope this didn’t distress you too much. Especially in your condition.”
I smiled up at him. “Actually, I’m okay. In fact, I’m feeling pretty good. Mr. Jacobson reminded me that healthcare has made tremendous strides over the past century. That toddler died of whooping cough. Of course, now we have vaccines for that.”
The sound of feet trooping down the stairs interrupted our embrace. Erik was leading the pack. For a costume, he’d opted to wear his school clothes. As we’d taken him from house to house, he’d solemnly explained, “I’m a trick-or-treater.”
His flat delivery provoked all sorts of laughter from neighbors handing out candy. I suspect he doubled his take because his explanation had been so matter of fact.
“Mama Kiki,” he said, running to me on his chubby little legs. “I brought you a piece of my candy. Here.”
He opened his palm to show me a partially melted Hershey’s Kiss.
“That’s so kind of you, honey.” I took the treat and leaned over to plant a kiss on his nose. He smelled like peanut butter and chocolate. A Reese’s Cup, if I’m not mistaken.
“I like Halloween,” he said, wrapping his arms around my legs. “It’s your favorite, right? It’s my favorite, too.”
“I’m so glad,” I said, hugging him to me. “I’m so glad.”