Dara Marquardt is one of our Halloween writing contest finalists for 2015. We’ll be publishing our contest finalists every day until Halloween, when we’ll announce our contest’s winner.
By Dara Marquardt
It was a gift from across the high seas, that’s what the square of thin paper said as I unwrapped the package. I’ve read that square a hundred times, but have found no fine print about this.
My mom brought it back from her business trip. She was always doing that, bringing me little trinkets; Kokeshi dolls from Japan, Matryoshka nesting dolls from Russia, a delightful gem colored ten-penny carousel toy from Germany that played the most peculiar little tune, a set of shekeres from Kenya filled with bite-sized orange stones. She was always bringing me these far-flung wares. But nothing like this.
It was a spirit house from Thailand. It had golden gables and a Cheshire green roof of clay shingles. It had tiny windows the size of my pinky nail and when I pressed my cheek to the side for a better look, the interior walls were painted with couches and drapes, even a matchstick-sized fireplace for the spirits to warm their toes.
The tag said to put it outside for the spirits to haunt.
So that’s what I did.
It started on Halloween morning when I was getting ready for school. I heard a knock on the door and my nanny, Paiva, was fixing breakfast at the stove. Mom had left again, taking a six AM to Berlin. I figured it was a courier, we were always getting packages, great swaths of blueprints rolled in tubes the size of pool noodles, envelopes full of bubble paper I stomped with my bare feet.
I slid off my stool, leaving Paiva and her duck printed apron at the stove, and opened the front door. No one was there. My hair was in corkscrews, still messy, the day a cream shade of Crayola blue, the sidewalk nearly vacant except for the tree out…
“Down here, shorty,” said a little gruff voice.
I looked down.
“Um, hello,” I said to the wee thing standing no higher than my ankle. He wore a cloak of moss and one eye shone like a gold quarter blooming in clover.
“I hate to bug ya, toots, but I need a place to stay for the night.”
“Um, I have to go to school,” I said, thinking about writing this in my WHAT’S NEW WITH ME journal Mrs. Herbert had the class working on. Each Monday we spent twenty minutes writing about WHAT’S NEW WITH ME and I had planned to write about my awesome Minion Halloween costume and plans to go trick-or-treating with Jessa Ringer.
“Listen kid, I don’t bother about your business, and you don’t bother about mine. All I need’s a place to stay for the night. I noticed, as I was hauling my junk from 2nd and 6th, your spirit house here and man is that a sight for sore eyes.”
“You’re not a spirit,” I said as Paiva hummed to herself. Spiders crawled up my spine.
“Heck no, girlie, I’m the Norwegian troll. You may a heard of me.”
I reddened a bit. “I haven’t.”
“It’s a long story but my cousins the Huldra and I had kind of a falling out. I been in New York for the last…” he glanced at his moss-covered wrist but I could see no watch, “six hundred, seven hundred years. I’m on my way to Salem but the train had a problem back in Philly, it’s all jammed up so I need a room for the night. I can pay you.”
“How much?” I asked, thinking of the porcelain bank my mother brought me from Paris. It had a Bazooka Joe wrapper and nearly five dollars in it.
“One Hell Stamp. It’s Chinese currency. You do accept international currency, correct?”
I nodded. The Norwegian troll reached into the depths of his moss and pulled out a tiny white scrap of paper; a beautiful red Chinese flower scribbled on the face of it. I took it and put it in my pajama pocket. He turned, grabbed a small bag from the step, and climbed into the spirit house by my mom’s porch rocker. A moment later a curl of smoke began to rise from the roof. He’d lit the fireplace.
My mouth was full of spearmint bubbles, my Batman toothbrush making fiery pew pew POW noises when a knock came at the door. I slid off my Hello Kitty stepstool and ran my hands down the front of my plaid school uniform.
I opened the front door as Paiva puttered around the laundry room. She was whistling, I Hear My Train a Comin’.
“Oh what a beautiful mistress,” said a slender woman. She was a bit taller than me and wore a massive black thatched hat that covered her in shadow to the white moon of her chin.
“Are you…Morticia? From the Addam’s Family?” I asked, stunned. She wore a skintight black gown with a deep cleft down the middle. Her breasts were like white marble and in her hand she held a cigarette.
She smirked and took a long drag.
“My dear, I am looking for a room for the night. I don’t know if you’ve heard but the line from Philly has run aground. Apparently gremlins are suspected but if you ask me, I wouldn’t put it past the nymphs. They’re mischievous. Do you have a room for the likes of me?”
I felt the warming morning air whistle against the insides of my cheeks and realized my mouth was hanging open. “Uh, a room?”
She tapped her cigarette and grey ash scattered like tranquil snow. The wind tossed it in lazy circles at her feet. I realized she wasn’t wearing shoes and her toes were spattered with earth. “Your lovely little house.” She motioned to the spirit house, its Cheshire green tiles gilded with gold sunspots.
“Um, actually a nice Norwegian troll is renting it for the night. If you’d like to…share it with him? I suppose that would be ok.”
“I really am in a jam,” she said, adjusting her hat. “Ten sugar skulls is the going rate?” she asked, reaching into the depths of her sleeve.
I nodded and extended my palm. In dropped one, two, three, ten sugar skull candies with white sugar faces and hollow, eyeless sockets. “Santa Muerte minted,” she said, tipping her hat up. Supple black flowers ringed the empty wells of her eyes. Her lips were painted crimson and the bones of her cheeks were mourning nude. She smirked and knocked on the door to the little house. The Norwegian troll offered her his hand and she climbed up, lifting her skirt as she shrunk to fit through.
Before I could use my Lego Star Wars rinse cup, a woman cloaked in a ragged shawl came up the pavers me and Paiva made last Easter. In her hand she held a thick cast iron cauldron.
“Let me guess, you’re the Wicked Witch of the West?” I asked, the faint laughter of my two guests ringing out.
“I am the all powerful Baba Yaga. I hail from mother Russia and have come seeking aid.”
“The train from Philly broke down?” I ventured, wanting to take a step back because I read about Baba Yaga once. Actually, Paiva read to me about her and I was too young to hear it. I know because I had nightmares for a week.
“The blasted locomotive. It’s older than time. I need a room for the night, my young apple,” she said.
“Um, ok but there’s a Norwegian troll who’s already renting. And Santa Muerte.”
She spit between two fingers and hissed. “Santa Muerte owes me ten bucks.”
“Take it up with her, I’m just the landlady,” I replied.
“What is the due, my apple?”
I didn’t want her to call me her apple. She lured children from their beds with candy apples. I remember the story where one little girl bit into it and found a mouthful of her family’s eyes.
“Well, what do you have on you?” I had no idea if she carried Hell Stamps.
She looked up, her hair dark like tree roots, matted like wet clay. Her nose was a cavity, deep and black and if I thought it might peer right back. “A firebird skull.”
She palmed a quarter-size bird skull, the beak white as cut bone. I took it and she shuffled to the house, her kettle rattling as she climbed inside.
“Ten bucks, Santa Muerte!” I heard before I went back in.
I was loading my school papers into my bag when the knock came. I pretended not to hear it in the secret hope that Paiva would get it this time. She didn’t. She was upstairs digging for my gymnastics bag. I had lessons right after class. I sighed and zipped my backpack up.
“I guess you’re the devil,” I said, standing with a man about six feet tall cut into tiny grey squares by the storm door screen. His feet were carved into coal-colored hooves.
“That’s correct, little wandering soul. I’m from Jersey.” A set of purplish-crimson wings rustled from behind his back. I tried not to gape at the massive bunches of horns twisting about his head.
“I guess the train breaking down has you in a jam. You probably need a place to stay?”
“How did you know? Are you a seer?” he asked, rubbing his goat-y jaw.
“No, I’m just the landlady. Whatchya got?”
“Hmm,” he said, his eyes glittering like pennies in a wishing well. “Do you take checks?”
“I saw that trike last night. A kid’s trike. I knew I shoulda grabbed it but the guy started shooting at me. I mean, come on, I was only trying to nap on the roof.”
“How about this, I’ll give you one of my scales, good as gold, see?” he asked, the snake of his tail twitching around his goat leg and into his hand. With his black claw he plucked a single shimmering blood scale. He held it out to me. I carefully opened the door and tweezed it with my fingers.
“Fair. FYI the Baba Yaga, a Norwegian Troll, and Santa Muerte are already bunked up for the night.”
“But Santa Muerte smokes. I didn’t pay good money to share a room with a smoker.”
“No refunds,” I said, testing my luck.
His glittering eyes flashed but he sighed. “All right, all right. I can’t say I won’t YELP about this later, though.”
“What’s going on, anyway? What’s the deal with the train?” I asked as he went tromp-tromp-tromp across the porch. The little house now had a light on and I couldn’t be sure of it but I thought I heard Baba Yaga humming. And smelled a delicious stew, something with juniper and thyme.
“The annual Salem Witch Trial Mixer. It’s the biggest Halloween gala of the year.” He cleared his throat and whispered, “Don’t tell Santa Muerte though. She thinks Dia de los Muertos is the best but if you ask me, it’s all just a bunch of drunks running around with skull masks painted on.”
He winked and I went inside. Paiva was waiting with the car keys in hand. I think I knew what I would put in my WHAT’S NEW WITH ME journal. It would be a rate schedule.
Dara Marquardt’s short stories have been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, American Popular Culture, Acidic Fiction, Nonlocal Science Fiction, Floyd County Moonshine, placed first in Colorado Mountain College’s Common Reader Creative Writing Contest and placed first for prose in Rocky Mountain Reflections Journal. Additionally, one story has been selected for an upcoming horror anthology.