A Halloween Tale....
By Helen H.
It was a dark and stormy night...so began the invitation to the Institute's annual Halloween party. The arrival of the black envelope with the bright orange card inside was always eagerly awaited, as it signified the unofficial start to the holiday season. Normally the NIMR Event Planning Department concerned itself with arranging the many scientific seminars and technical conferences held throughout the year. But when it came time for the annual staff get-togethers, Conference Manager Melinda Bennett and her people knew how to throw a great party. A good time was always had by all, kids and adults alike.
Although Halloweens in Santa Barbara were dark, they were not usually stormy. This year's weather promised to be pleasant, with just a thin build up of clouds curling across the full moon that was already rising above the coastal mountains. The stiff breeze coming off the ocean, stirring the branches of pine trees and palm fronds was normal for this time of year.
One of the places where Melinda and her staff excelled was in party decor. The conference room was decorated with every imaginable Halloween prop; wobbly grave markers, grinning pumpkins, swaying skeletons draped with sticky spider webs and bubbling cauldrons tended by life-sized "witches." Eerie music played softly in the background while guests enjoyed hamburgers, hot dogs and fried chicken, accompanied by a series of side dishes and gooey desserts. Games like "pin the tail on the headless donkey" were followed by the costume parade, featuring a bevy of mad scientists, beautiful princesses and of course, lots of uniformed sailors and sailorettes.
It was now time for the evening's big finish, the Halloween story that was the staple of each year's event. The younger children, the really young ones, were snuggled down in Hall A, to be read "Raising Pumpkins" by the one and only "Grandpa Jamie." This little story, about the Tipitops, a farm family that grows pumpkins with minds of their own -- Halloween parties being their seasonal specialty -- never failed to capture the children's attention and amusement. It had been a battle in the beginning, getting the venerable Dr. Jamieson to consent to take part in the yearly event, but Angie was, as always, very persuasive. She had reminded him that children that were happy made their parents happy. And Halloween parties made everyone very happy indeed, the hazards and stress of everyday life far away. Seeing his small audience's smiling, glowing faces, Jamie had long ago conceded that he enjoyed his participation very much.
For the older children, their reward was a story personally selected by Admiral Harriman Nelson and read to them in his stentorian voice. Indeed, it was a rite of passage for NIMR youngsters when one attained the ripe old age of 10 and was therefore treated to this particular end to the evening. For once no one complained that they were "told old" for something. The story itself was not particularly scary. No, it was more of a morality tale, not that all of the youngsters understood what that was. But what they did understand was how much fun it was being read to.
Admiral Nelson took his seat on a small raised platform. He had donned the professorial robe that he'd acquired at some long ago doctoral ceremony, complete with tall wizard's hat, whose drooping peak was adorned with a giant orange pompon. As with Dr. Jamieson, the wearing of this outfit had taken skillful negotiating, but Angie had gotten her way in this, too. She had also managed to decorate the robe with felt cutouts of pumpkins, ghosts and leering skulls.
In the back of the room Lee was smiling and joking with Chip. Seeing Admiral Nelson enter with book in hand reminded him of the first time he had seen this "costume." The admiral had emerged from the conference center's office resplendent in the robe and hat just as Lee walked by. Lee's mouth had dropped open. But before he could give voice to the sentiment on his lips the blistering look Nelson had given him - one that indicated that if Lee said anything, he would be reduced to a circle of soot! - had registered. He had gulped the words back down and kept going.
It was time to settle in. The kids crowded around the admiral on the floor, with parents ensconced on chairs set further back in the room's shadowy recesses. Nelson opened his book to a selected page. He looked down at dozens of expectant faces and smiled broadly. "Another Halloween it is, then. Is everyone ready?"
A chorus of resounding "yeses!" answered.
The admiral picked up the book and began. "Our story is from a time long ago, set in a small town in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is where the Liberty Bell is, boys and girls." Eyes brightened. Everyone knew where the Liberty Bell was. "Now, Kenneth Penny was an inquisitive young man, a good student, and a loving and devoted son to Karl and Kathy Penny. Indeed," the admiral intoned, "Kenny had always gotten excellent grades, was respectful to his teachers and other adults, and never got into any trouble." He lowered his head and looked up through the pair of round, "Ben Franklin" glasses he had perched on his nose. "In other words, the perfect child."
The kids exchanged rolled eyes and tight smiles with each other. This was a staple of the evening, too.
"Yes, Kenny Penny was a good boy. Except for one day of the year, the one he considered "his" day, the one that during the other 364 he was in training for: Halloween. No one could have spoken of young Mr. Penny as a good boy then. Halloween time was when he tried his hardest to pull off a prank that he could talk about to his friends for a long time to come. And of course, he couldn't be caught doing it.
"These mysterious Halloween pranks were legendary. One year Mrs. Cooper's chickens were found in their coop -- a locked coop -- wearing little pumpkin suits. And the chickens had never made a sound. No one could understand it." This revelation was accompanied by hoots of laughter from those assembled. "Two years ago every doorknob at the elementary school was covered with thick, black grease, a fine mess that was hard to clean up. The rumor began that the culprit was Johnny Jones, the town bully. No doubt Kenny himself started up this rumor. Johnny protested that he had had nothing to do with it, but no one believed him. Now children, this is a fine example of why you should never get a bad reputation -- it will come back to haunt you, and not just at Halloween."
Scores of heads, big and little, nodded solemnly.
"This year, Kenny Penny had decided, was going to be the year. He had thought long and hard, and discarded dozens of ideas. This time, it would be the prank to end all pranks. The one that would make his reputation as the bravest boy that had ever lived in Pearsonville, Pennsylvania. After that, no one could possibly accuse him of doing something bad. That was his goal. We should all have goals, boys and girls; just not ones like Kenny's."
All the parents joined in the head nodding this time.
"Now for this particular prank, Kenny needed a house - and not just any house. No, he needed a scary house. And Pearsonville had one ready made for the purpose -- old Mr. Gordon's was considered perfect. Mr. Gordon lived all by himself in this tumbledown home right on the edge of town, where the neatly tended fields ended and the dark, menacing pine forests began," the admiral rumbled, letting that image sink in for a moment. "Kenny had made a point of mentioning in the days leading up to October 31 that he had been told that anyone going to Mr. Gordon's house on the night before Halloween (the night before, that is, because Kenny would never, ever miss out on treat or treating) would go inside and not come out. Especially," and here the admiral paused, and looked about the room, "any boy or girl who was very bad at turning in their homework." As he said these words little shoulders went up and eyes widened. Many a youngster resolved in that moment that they would always do their homework, whatever it took!
"So Kenny informed all his friends that someone needed to find out if the story was true. Who would it be, he asked. Who would be the bravest boy in town, the one that would go to Mr. Gordon's house and prove that there was nothing to be afraid of? Why, it would be Kenny Penny, of course! Who else was brave enough? He was it. He would go to the Gordon home, go in, and come back out. Simple as you please." The admiral smiled. "But it wouldn't be a Halloween story if it was as simple as all that, now, would it?"
"Nooooo!" The response was deafening, coming from everyone in the room. Even the CO and XO of Seaview, jostling each other at the back of the room, joined in.
"Kenny's plan was simple. He would go into the house and pretend that something terrible was happening, with lots of screaming and banging about. Then he would douse his shirt with catsup -- the catsup he was bringing with him, by the way -- and run out of the house saying that he had saved himself and Mr. Gordon from the monster he found inside. He figured that no one would have the courage to find out for themselves if the story was true. And if Mr. Gordon himself never mentioned it, Kenny would tell his story in such a way that all of his friends understood that something had happened in Mr. Gordon's house. He would then, for now and forever, be known among them as the bravest boy in all of Pearsonville."
"Don't get any ideas, Jimmy," one of the parents called from the back of the room. The boy named Jimmy ducked his head and grinned as laughter rolled around the room.
"So Kenny told all of his friends to meet him at the end of Mr. Gordon's street on the night of October 30th. All of them were there, of course. After shaking hands with each in turn, Kenny walked quietly up the sidewalk that led to the Gordon front door. Truth be told, he was a little scared. Not a light shown through the many windows. The scraggly branches of a half dead tree seemed to point their jagged fingers toward him as he got closer and closer. He had to walk up a single wooden step, and that creaked a bit as he put weight on it. That definitely gave him a fright! But he knew something that no one else knew. He knew that Mr. Gordon was gone, had been gone for some time. Kenny had heard this from his father, who owned the largest market in Pearsonville, one responsible for making deliveries to the Gordon house on Washington Street. Off to visit a daughter in another town, Kenny had heard his father say.
"So Kenny entered the empty house -- and the door slammed shut behind him. He--"
Suddenly the double doors to the outside patio, which had been left open after the dinner, crashed closed. There were yelps and a lot of squeals, and not only from the young visitors. Lee and Chip came to the rescue, checking the doors and then standing in front of them.
"Well, windy tonight, isn't it?" The admiral said. Several pairs of little round eyes nodded tremulously. "Let's continue. Now, Kenny had pretty much jumped out of his skin when the door closed so violently. But he really was a brave lad. To pull off the pranks he had, one had to be brave. He had started to shiver a little, though. Of course, he told himself that was just because the house was colder than he thought it would be." The moment Admiral Nelson said those words, the temperature in the room seemed to plunge. The adults noticed it first. Sweaters were pulled out of bags and placed across shoulders. "My my, did we forget to pay our heating bill?" the admiral asked, throwing an inquisitive look at Lee and Chip. Everyone chuckled, although among the adults raised eyebrows were exchanged. "Cold or not, Kenny couldn't turn on any lights, because then his friends outside would know he was up to something. But he had brought a flashlight, and he pulled it out of his pocket of his jacket; the same jacket where he had placed a tape recorder and the bottle of catsup. The tape recorder that would produce the loud screams and loud banging noises. And the catsup that would substitute for the bloooood--" the word caused grimaces to form, all around "--that Kenny Penny would be covered with as he ran out of the house. Oh, he had planned this very carefully, all right.
"So he took out his tape recorder, where he had recorded some terrible screams, and he took out the bottle of catsup. His mother was going to be very unhappy when he ruined out of his best shirts, but for Kenny, the punishment for that was something he was willing to risk. Then he turned on the flashlight, which sputtered for a moment--" The overhead lights above the assembled listeners flickered for a few seconds, and then stayed on, although they didn't seem as bright as they had a moment before. Admiral Nelson looked up, a frown forming. "Perhaps we forgot to pay our electrical bill, too," he said lightly, and his audience chuckled in amusement, but softer and quieter this time, with an air of apprehension. "As I was saying, the flashlight sputtered but stayed on, a faint beam showing him just enough of the surrounding area to keep him from bumping into things. Kenny had carefully prepared for everything. He had brought the tape recorder, he had brought the catsup, he had brought the flashlight. What he hadn't prepared for was that old Mr. Gordon hadn't left to visit his daughter at all. So intent on his task was Kenny that as he poked around looking for a place to plug in his tape recorder, it took him a few seconds to register the sound of feet shuffling down the steps from the second floor of the house. Something was coming down the stairs. And that something was making thumping noises." The admiral stopped and looked at each child in turn. Yes, faces were definitely getting paler and eyes were getting wider.
"Now, Mr. Gordon was a very tall fellow. And the hair on his head was white and it stood up in a most amazing way, especially after he had just gotten out of bed, awakened as he had been from the sound of the front door slamming, something it often did when the wind hit it just right. Now, he wasn't concerned about burglars. There had never been such a thing in Pearsonville. That thought hadn't entered his mind. No, he was just concerned because that ol' front door had come unlatched, and if he didn't go to fixin' it, it would bang and bang and bang all night. So of course he would get up, put on his bathrobe, and go downstairs to close it up tight. Which is what he proceeded to do. And he proceeded to do this without his teeth. Now, children, sometimes older people have to wear something called dentures--"
"Like my Grandma!" Cindy Landers cried out, and proceeded to show all her friends around her just what her grandmother looked like without her teeth, which sent them all into fits of hysterics.
Nelson waited until the clamor had died down before he spoke again. "Thank you, Cindy, for explaining that for us. It certainly saved me the trouble. So, now you have an idea of what people look like without their dentures. It can be sort of scary, I suppose. Especially," and here he lowered his voice until he was almost whispering, "when you're not expecting it. And Kenny Penny, our little prankster, was definitely not expecting it!
"Kenny froze in trembling dread. He dropped the tape recorder on the floor but try as he might, his feet just would not move. He still had the flashlight in his hands, but couldn't seem to raise it up towards the staircase. Not that he wanted to see what was coming towards him, anyway. His heart beating faster and faster, every hair on his head standing on end, all Kenny could do was wait. So much for his idea of a prank that he'd remember for a long time to come. He was going to die of fright, or the monster was going to get him. Either way, he was done for." Admiral Nelson paused again, letting the tension mount. There wasn't a sound in the room.
"Old Mr. Gordon stepped off the last step and turned towards Kenny. He had a flashlight in his hand, too. He'd been shaking the thing as he walked downstairs. When he finally reached the bottom he had it turned upwards towards his face, and with a last hard shake the flashlight finally came on. Some of you have probably had fun doing that. When Mr. Gordon did it, showing an empty mouth, long hooked nose and crazy hair that cast a giant shadow behind him, Kenny saw for sure that he hadn't had to make anything up at all. There really was a hideous monster --- and it was coming right for him.
"Finally, his feet worked again. He almost stumbled over them, but they moved at last. With a wild yell he tore out of Mr. Gordon's place and flew down the street, racing past his friends to his house, where he flung the front door open and stumbled in as he darted to his bedroom, slamming that door behind him. Kenny did not come out again that night. He didn't even come out the next night. He told his parents he wasn't feeling well, and his parents figured that had to be true, because Kenny Penny had never missed a night of treat or treating."
"Ohhhhhhh," little mouths uttered. To miss the chance to fill up a bag with candy...that had to be bad!
"He never mentioned the night to his friends. Try as they might to get him to talk about it, Kenny stayed silent. So of course all of them thought he had accomplished his mission; he had come across something in that house and survived it. His reputation as the bravest boy in Pearsonville became secure. Mr. Gordon never said anything either, because although he knew there had been somebody in his house, he had forgotten his glasses and saw only a shadowy figure race by him. And Mr. Gordon was as blind as a bat without his glasses.
"So Kenny Penny got what he wanted but at a very high price. For he never, ever tried another prank as long as he lived. And Kenny had, up to that moment, lived for pranks. He became somewhat of a dull boy, but such is the price that one often has to pay for ideas that go very, very wrong. So," Admiral Nelson said as he shut the book, "what is the moral of this story, boys and girls? Hands!"
A dozen hands shot up, including those of Commander Lee Crane and Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton, grinning to make their faces crack. "You, gentlemen, are disqualified," the admiral said, pointedly ignoring their cries of disappointment. His eyes settled on the oldest child in the room, the one that had heard the story the most. This year that was Joanna Simms, daughter of one of Seaview's damage control officers. "Miss Simms, isn't it? What's your answer?"
Joanna shot up from her seat on the floor. Voice breaking just a bit from the strain, she said, loudly and clearly, "Be careful what you wish for!"
"Excellent! Thank you, Miss Simms, and thanks to all--"
"--Because you might grow up to be boring, and that's no fun at all!" Joanna Simms added, folding her arms and looking especially satisfied with herself.
Admiral Nelson stifled a laugh. Gravely, he said, "...and that, too. Thank you again. Thanks to all of you for coming. I hope you enjoyed it."
A rousing round of applause answered him. Parents came forward and shook hands with the admiral as they gathered up their children, more than a few commenting on the "scary special effects" that had added excitement to the story session. The room was soon empty. The admiral shrugged off his costume and went looking for his command team, who were moving chairs and pushing tables back into their usual formation.Rubbing his hands together, Nelson said, "Well, quite the party, I'd say. I must find Melinda and tell her how much those little surprises added to the story."
"Maybe a little too realistic, Admiral," Lee said. "She could have at least warned us!"
"Perhaps, Lee, perhaps. It certainly added to the telling of the story, however." Melinda Bennett emerged through the kitchen doors just as he was saying the words, joining their little group. Taking her hands, Admiral Nelson exclaimed, "Melinda -- once again, thanks for an amazing party. It was your usual triumph."
"Thank you, Admiral."
"You outdid yourself with all the goings-on, the doors shutting, the lights -- and the temperature! Tell me, how did you pull all that off without anyone seeing?"
Melinda Bennett looking absolutely perplexed. "Sir?"
"The special effects - how did you work those?"
"Sorry, Admiral, but I've been in the kitchen overseeing the cleanup. I didn't have anything extra set up for tonight."
It was the admiral's turn to look perplexed. "You mean -- you didn't slam the doors shut?" She shook her head. "Dim the lights?" Another shake. "Turn on the air conditioning?"
"Air conditioning?" she answered, laughing. "In October? That would be a big waste of money, sir!"
Nelson looked from Chip to Lee and back again. "You're saying you did nothing special for this party?"
"No sir, just the usual."
"I see...thanks, Melinda." He motioned to Lee and Chip, drawing them away to a corner of the room. All three turned their heads as if on a swivel towards the outside windows as a sudden gust of wind rattled the panes. Moonlight filtering through the trees speckled the grass with weird shapes that were appearing and disappearing with the whim of the clouds. "From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good Lord deliver us," Nelson said bemusedly. "I think this is a Halloween we'll remember for a long time to come. All of this can be explained, of course."
"Of course, sir!" Lee and Chip agreed.
"But for right now...I don't think we'll speak of this again, gentlemen. Especially not to the children. No, better make that their parents. I've no doubt the children would enjoy the mystery immensely!"
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals,
when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets
(for it is in Santa Barbara that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and
fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."--with apologies to Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)
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