The Barrington House is a short story of three chapters, posted over three days -- by me, your calendrically thematic host, Cheeseburger Brown.
This is a story for Hallowe'en, and it marks the anticipated return of Mike Zhang Cuthbertson, last seen alive and well in Night Flight Mike, last rumoured missing in action in The Reaper's Coleslaw.
And now, we begin our tale:
Bianca was a bad girl, and the neighbourhood wanted retribution.
There was Rachael Lippenbaum, who had suffered repeated attacks of gum in her hair. There was Arnold Drober, who was pushed in the muck every day he was unlucky enough to meet Bianca at the bus-stop. So too was vengeance craved by Leon Archibald whose books had been thrown on a roof, and Amanda Weller whose dress had been torn. Geoffrey Penobscot, Susan Chow, Merrick Inderwater -- all angry. But first in line was Dini Butler who had never fully recovered from her involuntary inclusion in a wet T-shirt contest in front of all her classmates when Bianca got a hold of the caretaker's hose at school.
"Bianca must pay," she hissed to the cadre of conspirators assembled in the alley behind the town grocery store, sharing stolen cigarettes and passing between them one lukewarm can of light beer borrowed from Mr. Butler's garage fridge.
"I hate her," contributed Arnold Drober, his pants splashed with mud from an encounter earlier that day.
"We all hate her," agreed Amanda Weller. "She's a lesbian or something."
"I know, eh?" chimed in Susan Chow. "She's like on hormones. What's with those boobs? Who does she think she is?"
"We're not here to bitch," said Merrick Inderwater firmly. "We're here to make a plan. We're here to teach Bianca a lesson once and for all. Right Dini?"
Everyone nodded. A few of them coughed, awkwardly balancing cigarettes between their short, child fingers. Even the kids who hated Dini Butler had showed up, demonstrating their willingness to attach themselves to the perceived lesser of two evils given a cause sufficiently compelling.
For his part, Merrick had found himself unable to go against Dini's bidding ever since the wet T-shirt incident. He woke up damp nightly, possessed by throbbing afterimages of the stark visibility of her training bra. "Okay then," he continued. "What do we do, Dini?"
"We strike on Hallowe'en," said Dini, turning to look at each of them in turn. "It's the perfect cover for pranks, and we're going to prank her big." She paused, licked her lip-glossed lips twice quickly, took a deep breath. "Bianca's going to spend the night in the Barrington House, and we're all going to make it happen."
At mention of the Barrington House there came a collective gasp, followed by more coughing. Dini waited patiently for the air to clear. Every kid in town had heard the stories about the derelict mansion on the hill at the end of Barrington Road -- whether depicted as haunted or peopled by witches or gangsters, the consistent theme was dread.
"I heard Jordan Cottle's uncle killed himself there in like the sixties or something," whispered Geoffrey Penobscot. "He hung himself in the dining room after his team lost the pennant."
"That's where Fast Andre and his gang killed the kids they kidnapped after the Big Bank Robbery in nineteen seventy-seven," said Leon Archibald with certain authority, adjusting his glasses. "The sheriff didn't even find their bodies, because Fast Andre cut them up and fed them to his dogs."
"My sister says Fast Andre still lives there."
"No way -- my dad says no one can live there because the poltergeist keeps them out. If you look in any mirror in the house your face looks like it's melting off. Seriously."
"I heard there's toxic waste in the ground under the house, and it makes the animals turn all rabid and stuff, and that's why witches do their rituals there, like all naked and perverted and gory on the solace."
Dini raised her hand for order. "Know what?" she asked rhetorically, brow raised. "I bet there's nothing in the Barrington House. I mean, not really. The point is that everyone is scared crapless of it, even stupid Bianca. We don't need anything to be there -- we just need to lock her in and let her imagination do the work."
There was a general murmur of assent.
Dini took a deep breath, which nearly caused Merrick to swoon. "Now," she declared, "let's decide who's going to do what."
Bianca was also the subject of discussion in her own home. It was being explained to her in no uncertain terms that she would be obliged to spend the Hallowe'en evening accompanying her younger siblings from house to house around town, protecting them from candy-nabbers, pumpkin-smashers and the pranks of drunk teenage hooligans.
Bianca frowned deeply. She had rather hoped she would be one of the pumpkin-smashing, drunken teenage hooligans herself. She was only thirteen but she ran with a high school crowd, and she had been looking forward to Hallowe'en as an opportunity to demonstrate to them just how hardcore she really was. She had been intending to go on a bad-ass free-for-all, and had even been contemplating letting Mark Norbert feel her up under her shirt.
For a week she'd been collecting drabs of liquor from various sources to combine them in a large juice bottle, and spiriting cigarettes away from behind the counter at the Smoke Shop while Mark distracted Eileen or Doris or whatever old hag was working there that day.
"Bianca, are you even listening to me?" cried Mother.
"Yeah, Mom," groaned Bianca, rolling her eyes and snapping her gum. She glanced over at her siblings with a pained expression: her white sister India and her yellow brother Mike smiled back uncertainly.
"I'm going to be a eukaryotic cell," squeaked India.
"You are so lame," noted Bianca.
"What are you dressing as?" challenged Mike, his eyes swimming through the thick lenses of his Scotch-taped glasses.
"I'm thirteen, Mike," snapped Bianca. "I don't dress up for Hallowe'en anymore because I'm not a little kid like you."
"I'm ten," Mike defended himself sullenly.
"Exactly," agreed Bianca.
Mother sighed. "Could you at least try to be civil to your brother and sister, Bianca? Please? This is an opportunity to show your father and I how mature you can really be. Don't blow it."
The sun began to set. Bianca fumed. Father and Mother helped get India and Mike into their costumes -- the former ensconsed in a transparent sac of cellular goo made from a refitted pool toy, and the latter feeling rather dashing in his black trenchcoat and sunglasses. Bianca sneered, "What're you supposed to be? The tax man?"
"I'm Neo from The Matrix," said Mike. Then he added, "Whoa."
Bianca clucked her tongue. "You do know that you're never going to get laid as long as you live, right?"
India furrowed her brow. "What's laid?"
Ten minutes later they came to the park at the centre of town, crossing paths with other bands of costumed kids carrying bags for candy and little cardboard boxes hanging around their necks for UNICEF pennies. The merry-go-round in the north-east corner was spinning, ridden by little witches, werewolves, droids and Spidermen. "Can we go for a ride on the way home?" asked India, tugging Mike's hand as she looked up at Bianca.
"You can do whatever the f you want," said Bianca. "I'll meet you back here at eight thirty, okay? And don't be late or I'll f'ing kill you."
Mike was anxious. "Mom said you were supposed --"
"I know what Mom said," replied Bianca icily, drawing a hand down her round, brown face dramatically. "Did you hear what I just f'ing said?"
"Well, yeah, but --"
"Good. Take care of India, Mike. Don't get into trouble. I'll see you at eight thirty."
Mike and India watched Bianca stride away from them, crossing the park, lighting a cigarette as she was progressively occluded by the rows of leafless oaks. India was concerned. "Doesn't Bianca want to trick-or-treat?" she asked Mike.
Mike shrugged. "I guess not."
"But we're still going to go, right Mike?"
"Yup." Mike stared after Bianca sadly, then turned back to his little sister. "Yup, we sure are. Let's go. We can start on Western, then walk toward school."
India grinned and gave Mike her hand again. As they walked her cytoplasm sloshed and her UNICEF box rattled with starter pennies she had begged from Father. They plowed through a pile of crispy, russet leaves, kicking at the flotsam in the day's last golden light. "I bet I'm going to get Lifesavers," India predicted.
"I bet," agreed Mike distantly, eyes cast over his shoulder in the direction Bianca had gone.
He smelled trouble.