MISS MISSY PEEPLE shuffled down the gravel hill as fast as her callous, fungus-ridden feet would let her go. She could feel her ankles swelling. She hadn’t moved this fast in years. But she had news that would shake up her little town of Skary like they’d never been shaken before. This was comparable to the news her sister, Sissy, had delivered almost thirteen years ago. At seventy-two, poor Sissy had slipped on some gravel and hit her head on a slab of concrete on her way to tell the important news. But she had made Missy proud. She had managed to utter in her dying breath the words that would have the town talking for years: Dr. Schoot and Nurse Wintery were having an affair. She’d given her life for the sake of Skary.
But this old maid had news that might raise Sissy from the grave. Missy huffed and puffed her way down Scarlet Hill, maneuvering her cane this way and that to keep herself from tumbling to her death.
It was a balmy day—oh, perhaps not balmy, but sunny and slightly warm for this late in the season, and Missy was sure she was actually breaking a sweat.
The clock tower rang out proudly that it was noon, and only a few hundred feet in front of her Missy could see the folks gathering for lunchtime at the community center. Her lungs seemed to collapse further with each breath she tried to take. But she must keep going. Quite frankly, she’d rather die than not tell all.
She made her way onto the sidewalk, where her shoes glided more easily but for the crack here or there. She managed to avoid those so as to not break her deceased mother’s back. Howard the barber stood outside his shop smoking a stinky cigar and reading the weather report from the newspaper.
“Those dumb weathermen! Look at how bright the sun is shining today, and they’re saying here that it’s going to be cloudy! What do they know?”
“Not now, Howard! Not now!” Missy spat as she scooted past him, clubbing him in the foot with the end of her cane. “I must get to the center. I’ve got news!”
Howard laughed heartily. “What is it this time, Missy? Dr. Twyne’s cloning pigs again?”
Missy scowled and gave Howard a nasty wave of her hand. Her news was too pressing to go back and argue with Howard about the pig cloning, though she did have proof of that, no matter what anyone said.
Fifty yards to go and her arthritis kicked in. She managed to scoop an aspirin from the bottom of her purse, chew it up, swallow it, and never miss a step. She always did like that bitter taste. Half her bun was falling down, her nylon stockings were barely holding up, and her polyester floral dress was sticking to several parts of her body by the time she managed to shove her way through the line into the center and make her way to the small platform that held the American flag the way an athlete holds a trophy.
She thumped the microphone needlessly. It always stayed on. No one knew how to turn it off. But it gave a high-pitched shrill of a sound that hunched backs and raised hairs. Missy Peeple smiled authoritatively as everyone turned to see what was going on.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” she said, hushing the already quiet crowd. Her brows arched, and her eyes narrowed. “I have a very important announcement to make. One I think everyone will be interested in hearing.”
She glanced around the room, pleased to have everyone’s attention. She liked attention. She craved it. And at eight-seven years old, she was just about to hit the pinnacle of her life. She said a little prayer. Not to God, but to Sissy, hoping she was somewhere watching this monumental event.
“It’s a little hard to explain.” Wolfe Boone’s long legs didn’t quite fit between the pews, and as he struggled to cross and recross them, his big foot hit the wood with a thud.
Reverend Peck tried hard to look calm and serene and pastoral as he sat next to Wolfe on the third row of the middle pew. His hands were folded neatly in his lap. He nodded his head understandingly. He smiled soothingly. But inside, his organs were beating like a cha-cha band. Everything was rattling, including his mind, as he tried to remember the last time he’d had a conversion. Seventeen years, if he remembered right. And certainly nobody famous! It was Dr. Schoot who had converted on his deathbed after years of drinking and carousing.
Reverend Peck nodded and patted the tall man on the shoulder. “Take your time.”
“Well, you see,” he began, “I was sitting up at my house, you know, the one up there on the hill that overlooks the town? And I was starting my new novel. And I didn’t really know what I was going to write about. I wasn’t worried. I just thought I’d start writing…”
Reverend Peck thought to himself that Wolfe Boone’s voice was softer and less deep than he expected. He spoke properly, with a tinge of a British accent. And though his hair was tousled and long over the ears, he was a good-looking man, probably in his late thirties, early forties. Reverend Peck had seen him from time to time in the grocery store and at a restaurant here and there. But he’d never spoken to him. Wolfe Boone always looked as if he didn’t want to be spoken to.
“I had this silly notion of an evil that had a shadow but was invisible. And that’s where I get all my best ideas. Silly notions. And so I just began writing, but then I stopped. And I realized I was very sad inside. Do you know that feeling? Just empty. Just dead.”
Reverend Peck nodded and smiled. He wondered if he should call him Wolfe, or Mr. Boone, or Boo. That’s what they’d called him for years. Boo. It was a fitting nickname for the man who had made the town of Skary famous, the man no one really knew.
“Sure. I understand completely.”
“Yes, well, so I’m feeling quite dead inside and really more than dead if there is such a thing, and I’m looking out my window, and from my window I can see the steeple of your church. So I walked down the pathway around the hillside and down to your church and here I am.” He cleared his throat. “I know I’m babbling. I’m a better writer than I am a speaker.”
Reverend Peck studied the man’s eyes. He always did that before talking to someone about God. It helped him remember how precious the human soul is. “Please don’t worry about being awkward around me. I’m here to help.”
Wolfe Boone nodded and then seemed to have nothing more to say.
Reverend Peck filled in the silence. “So this is your first time in the church?”
“Yes.” Wolfe Boone threw his hair back out of his face. “I’ve wanted to come before. Many times.” He shrugged. “I just haven’t.” He looked Reverend Peck directly in the eyes. “Someone has led me to this decision today. And Reverend, I don’t want to wait any longer. What must I do to be saved?”
Ainsley Parker splattered the ketchup across the fries in the perfect manner to make the things look “bloody.” She had never thought French fries looked liked fingers, or ketchup looked like blood, but “Bloody Fingers” was the most popular dish at The Haunted Mansion restaurant, as much as she despised it. Kids would roar with laughter while pretending to be cannibals. Grownups weren’t much more mature about it.
She waited impatiently for Chef Bob to finish the order of Queasy Quesadillas, a frightful invention of cheese, red tortillas, smashed green chilies, and a pasty black bean sauce made to look like something horribly disgusting, but no one really knew what. It didn’t matter. If it was grotesque, it was popular.
A familiar scent that was not from the kitchen caught her nose. Garth Twyne. His cologne always beat him into sight. “Here comes lover boy,” murmured Marlee Hampton as she picked up her own order.
“How much rejection can one guy take?” Ainsley moaned. She heard Garth cross the floor in a strut caused by too-tight Wranglers. “Ainsley!”
She turned and watched him make his way to the counter near where she stood.
“Garth. Don’t you have some dying horse to save?”
“That was yesterday. Saved Herbert’s horse, you know. Three more minutes and the horse would’ve been a goner. Herbert was so grateful he said he’s adding me to his will. The doctor saved the hay—I mean the day!” He laughed and snorted. Ainsley held her breath in order not to smell the aftereffects of his lunch.
She laughed to herself: In almost every conversation she had with Garth, he somehow had to mention that he was a doctor. She assumed the complex came from the fact that his brother, Arnie, was a real M.D., and Garth was just a vet. He’d been kicked out of medical school for incompetence, which surprised no one. Arnie had gone on to be a surgeon in Indianapolis. Ainsley glanced back at the kitchen to see what was taking Chef Bob so long with the quesadillas.
“So I’m assuming you haven’t heard the news.”
“What news?” she said into the kitchen. “Bob? Where are those quesadillas?”
“Missy Peeple just made the announcement at the community center.”
“You’re cloning pigs again?”
“That’s not funny, and no, it was something far more important.”
Garth’s tone was grave enough for Ainsley to actually turn around and pay attention to him. “All right, what was the news?”
Garth smiled widely, his yellow teeth crooked and dull. “Guess.”
Bob finally sent through the quesadillas. “Garth! You’re so annoying!” Ainsley snatched up the order and carried it to her table. Garth followed closely behind.
“What? I’m just trying to have a little fun.”
“I’m not in the mood.” Ainsley smiled at her customers, out-of-towners, she guessed, by the way they marveled at the restaurant’s horror paraphernalia. “Here are your Queasy Quesadillas, your Bloody Fingers, an order of Slime Balls, four Vampire Sodas, and one Screamy Potato.”
The teenage boy’s eyes were wide with delight. “Does Wolfe Boone come in here any?”
Ainsley tried to hold a steady, polite smile. “Occasionally.”
The girl chimed in. “What’s he like? Is he scary?”
“Oh, he’s everything you would imagine him to be,” Ainsley recited. The questions were endlessly the same.
“What does he usually order?” the father asked.
“Mad Cow Meatloaf.”
“Is that really his house on the top of the hill?” the wife asked.
The boy tried to reach the fake eyeball floating in his soda. “I bet he’s mean. He’s mean, isn’t he?”
Ainsley had little patience for all this. The last person in the world she wanted to discuss was Wolfe Boone. He was the very reason she had to wear vampire teeth and dress like a ghoul. He was the very reason this town was nothing more than a tourist trap for the dark side. The very thought of him made her sick to her stomach. Conflicting emotions passed through her heart as she thought of her Aunt Gert, battling cancer, suffering as her mom had. Gert was the reason she stayed in this town, the only reason she stayed at this restaurant. Before it sold its soul to the devil, The Haunted Mansion was a quaint diner called Sylvia’s.
Her mom and aunt’s favorite. She stayed and worked here out of principle but nothing else. She adjusted her vampire teeth so she wouldn’t sound as if she had a speech impediment.
“Is there anything else I can get you?”
They all shook their heads, and Ainsley returned to the counter, Garth following so closely she could hear him breathing. She turned around. “Garth! Give me some room, will you?”
“You’re a little snippy today.”
“Are you going to tell me the news or not?” Ainsley wiped her hands on her apron and eyed the couple in the corner waiting to be served. “It’s the busiest time of the day, you know.”
Garth’s eyes narrowed, and a wicked little grin crept across his thin and crusty lips. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Wolfe Boone gave his life to the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Ainsley looked hard at Garth with a fierceness she could hardly control. “Is this some sort of sick joke?”
“Not according to Missy Peeple. Said she was watering the flowers at the church and heard him talking to Reverend Peck about the whole thing.”
Ainsley shoved her hair out of her face. “What does she know?”
“This makin’ you angry, darlin’?”
“He makes me angry in general, and you know it.”
Garth snickered under his breath. “You’re cute when you’re mad.”
“You’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got customers waiting.” She tried to smile at Garth politely. Her mom had told her always to be polite, even to people she didn’t like. And she knew Jesus had mentioned that once or twice himself.
Ainsley walked past Garth, took the couple’s order, and then stepped outside the back of the restaurant for her fifteen-minute break. Could this be true? Missy was by far the most accurate and experienced town gossip, but it was easier to believe Garth was cloning pigs.
A yellow cat purred its way through her legs, wrapping its tail around her ankles. “Shoo!” she instructed the cat, who hurried off to the garbage cans.
She’d been a Christian nearly her whole life. That’s why she despised what that man had done to her wonderful little town. What had once been a nice, quiet, simple town was now a haven for all that was gruesome, horrid, and monstrous. All because of him. How could a man like that change? For real?
She looked up to the sky. If he was faking it, then God would know. God knows everything and brings all evil into the light. Ainsley smiled with that small reassurance. A cold north wind blew in suddenly, and she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Just a moment ago it had been sunny. But now dark, heavy clouds filled the sky.
A storm was coming.