(Aunt Pearl makes the best gingerbread muffins!)
The floorboards groaned underfoot as I made my way down the hallway towards the beckoning scents of bacon and coffee. The others were still snuggled in their sleeping bags on the living room floor, the fire in the hearth warming their toes. Walking into the kitchen the vintage red cherry wallpaper, red enamel sink, glass front cupboards and white walls waved a cheery ‘hello’ in my direction. Aunt Pearl stood at the stove cooking enough food to feed a small army or Wood in the morning.
Walking to the cupboard, I opened it and grabbed a cup and saucer – then poured the best concoction man has ever made into the cup – coffee. Sitting down at the kitchen table I took a moment and savored the very first sip of the day. My Aunt familiar with this ritual waited until said sip passed my lips before making conversation, “The others still asleep?”
Resting my elbows on the tabletop, I held the cup under my nose, “Yeah, they’ll be out for a while yet. Long night.”
More specifically a whole lotta spiced rum.
I did know she wasn’t irritated about last night’s late hour since she never threatened to put us over her knee. Wood and I might be thirty-something but every now and again we do something silly enough to warrant her standard threat (which in all fairness she’s never actually carried out). It’s just her way of letting us know we’re leaning on her last nerve.
“Thanks for coming to get us last night and grabbing Beatrice’s car on the way her,” taking a nice big second gulp of coffee, trying to quickly conclude this portion of the conversation.
After flipping some flapjacks onto a plate, she answered, “Your welcome dear. We thought it would be faster to pick you up than bail you out.”
Laughing softly into my cup, “I’m sure it had nothing to do with Wood texting you to come get him and his mateys, right?”
So, amongst the giggling last night during our impromptu sleepover, which struck all our silly bones, Wood admitted that he’d texted Aunt Pearl and Uncle to come get us. She’d asked him to take a photo of me in full pirate regalia when I settled up on our ancient bet. He did one better and tempted her out of the house at one in the morning to take her own pictures. I am pretty sure she’s going to get an eight by ten made and place it smack dab in the middle of the living room mantle.
Could be worse.
Robbie howled when we’d stumbled in the front door, he’d been eating a late dinner with them when he got the text from me – I didn’t mention a word about our ensembles. During dessert, Aunt Pearl got Wood’s follow up text which coaxed her into action. Robbie stayed to see how committed we were to the bit, he should have known we’d go full pirate – it was Wood’s plan after all. Wood did apologize for my mortification, but The Brace Affair went so spectacularly awry, he really felt we needed to end the night with a laugh.
Aunt Pearl’s voice recalled me from my musings, “Of course not dear, that was just a happy accident.” Her voice sounded bland, but I knew better. Her back was turned because she didn’t want to show how funny she found the entire situation last night. She doesn’t get roped into our mischief very often, anymore. “Are you working today?”
Feeling the marrow in my bones droop, “Yes. Just a half day though. I only have two more days, including today, left of this insanity.”
“Well hard work builds character.”, she placed a plate of fresh pancakes in front of me and topped off my coffee. “To keep your energy up.”
Digging into the stack of flapjacks Aunt Pearl took the reigns of the conversation while I chewed, “Oh. Remember when you asked me about Tiffany Grindle, my old student who went missing twenty years ago?” Walking over to the table she placed the newspaper to the right of my plate an opened it to the front page (my fingers were sticky with syrup), “They found her remains last week up in the mountains about fifteen miles from where they found her car.”
I choked on my bacon.
Trying to clear my airway gave me the moment I needed to contain my jubilation, “They found her last week?”
Aunt Pearl stopped whacking my back and went back to her position in front of the stove, “Yes, apparently the police kept it under wraps until now, waiting for a positive identification. They’ve had a few false started over the years, so they wanted to make absolutely sure before they went public. But that’s not even the most interesting part!”
Orin (calling down to me): “We really got the old ticker going tonight didn’t we!”
The heat of my anger welded me in place.
Unlike the Inebriated Three.
They were, for the first time, taking a real interest in remaining free of police custody. Wood dashed to the curb intensely surveying a deserted Ash Street. Apparently, it did not meet his expectations because he started intently texting someone. Laney meanwhile crouched down and pressed her eye against the gate’s keyhole while Beatrice mimicked her attitude only with her ear against the timbers.
Laney (whispering): “Wood, see if anyone’s coming thru the other gate.”
Orin (leaning backwards in an exaggerated motion): “Nope, not a soul that way!”
This sent the idiot urchins on the wall into more guffaws.
Wood (after a quick check agreed): “Nothing.”
Beatrice (consternation clear): “They were right behind us.”
Ruby: “Nope! It was just us honey.”
Paul: “A bit of wind and nails raking over cement makes it sound like a whole hoard is on your heels.”
Walking over to Wood I wordlessly pulled on his lapel exposing the flasks residing in his bandolier. Slipping the last one out of the line that lay across his chest, I slowly unscrewing the top then took a deliberately long draught of spiced rum. All the while eyeing the chortling miscreants atop the wall. Their mirth sputtered out quickly under the waves of fury they finally felt rolling towards them.
Me (turning to Beatrice): “No, I think we succumbed to the sinister atmosphere of a cemetery at night.”
Beatrice (glancing at the top of the wall for a moment): “We knew they’d been chasing us, so we thought we heard feet behind us.”
Alice (contrite): “Sorry Caretaker. We didn’t mean to scare you and your friends…”
Paul (crestfallen): “….it’s just when we saw you wearing those silly costumes causing such a commotion….”
Orin (sheepish): “…we just couldn’t resist.”
Laney (looking up at me, hope unmistakably sprouting): “So no one’s on the other side? Our imaginations were working overtime?”
Me (looking first at Laney, then up to the Residents): “This is how these places get such rotten reputations, they play tricks on you.”
Orin (pleading): “Don’t be mad Caretaker. Please? Joseph sent us to help you. He and the others lead the search parties up to the Manor and Great House so you could get away. We just got carried away.”
Beatrice: “We should still get while the getting’s good. They’ll figure we gave them the slip eventually.”
Wood (beating me to the punch and with visible relief): “Don’t worry I think I see out chariot now!”
With our luck, it will be a patrol car.
A wave of exhaustion engulfed me, extinguishing all traces of the fury threatening to explode moments before. Did Wood add Xanax to the rum tonight? More likely my adrenaline finally ran out. The Residents sensing my anger withering away, burst into a chorus of apologies aimed at all of us (irregardless that only I could hear them it’s the thought that counts).
Iris: “Looks like a station wagon Caretaker.”
Me (wondering out loud): “Why is Robbie driving Aunt Pearl’s car?”
It turns out the Resident’s weren’t the only ones playing games this evening….When the silver station wagon pulled to the curb, I figured out who Wood been texting.
Stifled giggles erupted when Aunt Pearl and Uncle alighted from the car.
Aunt Pearl: “Well good morning! Funny running into you here.”
Yes, a real coincidence.
Aunt Pearl (stepping on to the curb and waving her hand): “Your costumes are wonderful. Now line up in front of the gate so I can take a group picture!”
The Residents knowing they were still in the doghouse valiantly attempted to keep it together. Only an occasional muffled tee-hee-hee escaped their lips.
Aunt Pearl (pumping he arm): “Give me a nice ‘AARRGGHHH!’ for the camera.”
If it was possible for the Residents to die of laughter they might have at this point. I really couldn’t blame them.
Aunt Pearl: “Phoebe stop glaring at Dourwood and smile!”
Wood, who’d adopted the countenance of an angel, beamed the entire time Aunt Pearl performed precise micro adjustments to our costumes, hair, stances and facial expressions. All so she could capture the perfect piratey portrait of the four of us (and the trip down memory lane, of every Halloween photo shoot we’d endured as kids, was just an added bonus). She didn’t even break stride when discovering one of our number was a complete stranger to her – ‘Don’t worry dear I’ll send a print to your folks.’ And didn’t Beatrice looked just thrilled at the prospect.
Uncle watched the entire process with a rather amused expression – despite my pleading glances.
Joseph (wryly calling down): “You might want to head out now. The search parties are dispersing.”
Please let the earth open up and swallow me now.
What did I do to piss off the fates? Or perhaps they were as capricious as advertised. Because we had less than a quarter mile left to travel when a Resident called out the first warning.
Little Ben may hate teen trespassers, but he was too cheap to replace the lights they’d broken. Without a street light or steady moonlight (the moon had decided to flirt with us), The Crossroads were very dark indeed.
Brilliant for kids climbing over the wall – abominable for escaping pirates.
So how did they spot us?
Didn’t matter. The Inebriated Three stopped singing when the leaves started skittering and crackling a few yards behind us. The hunters were hot on our tail.
Without urging they sped up.
Laney clung to my hand so hard it hurt.
Wood (softly calling to me): “I can hear them.”
Beatrice: “So can I, but I can’t see…”
Orin (shouting): “Run!”
Me (panting): “Orin it’s too dark, I can’t see well enough to run!”
Even before the sentence finished, I felt a frosty hand slip into mine, leading us into a reckless run to the gates. He slithered around the sunken graves while we merely attempted to avoid stumbling, falling or twisting our ankles on their fringes. The serpentine pattern of our run completely confused me. Our feet ate up the ground, but when the moonlight momentarily skipped over the grass before us, the Gates appeared no closer. All the while the hiss and crunch of our opponent’s feet running thru leaves behind us grew steadily louder.
Our legs pumped, our breath bellowed, and we hung on to each other even harder trying to combat the sweat streaking our palms.
Wood (panting): “Where are they?”
Unheeding of our distress Orin continued pulling us forward on the twisting path forged by the unceasing information called out by the other Residents.
“Fifteen yards behind you!”
“Second group cutting diagonally west trying to cut you off!”
“A third group just arrived!”
Chief Escape Artist, my ass, should’ve taken a swig from one of the innumerable passes the flasks took this evening. Maybe then anxiety wouldn’t be howling in my head, and my heart wouldn’t be readying itself to explode from fear (yes I know alcohol isn’t the answer – but right now it really was). Though the Inebriated Three didn’t sound particularly calm at the moment either, so perhaps it doesn’t dull anxiety as much as I hoped.
The Residents gave us no quarter.
“Four heading in from the east.”
“Little Ben just arrived.”
“Two people down out of the closest group – but one’s still gaining on you.”
Even over their calls, I could hear snapping and skidding of those after us.
Beatrice (pulling up from a stumble): “My god, how many are back there?”
Wood (gasping): “Are we close?”
In answer, the Moon emerged for a moment to send a beam to illuminate the gates which were fifteen yards away. With one last burst, our legs screaming for relief, we surged forward snaking our way between the last of the markers.
Alice: “The Gate are still free! Hurry!”
Orin slowed, then his hand disappeared from mine and was replaced by the rough wood of The Crossroads’ gate. Frantically my hands sought the lock, my ears keenly attune to the whispering leaves and grass behind us.
Me (running my hands over the gate): “The lock, find the lock.”
“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” The Resident’s chanted. Our panic was practically palatable.
Beatrice (yelling): “Here!”
“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” Their voices riding the shrieking fear dancing across my nerves.
Fumbling with my keys, almost in tears when they slipped from my fingers, I finally found the lock and slid my key home. Twisting it I pulled the gate open, we fell thru, slammed the sucker closed together and I locked it in a flash.
Leaning against the gate, we all blinked at the sight before us – the well-preserved houses of Old Town tucked up tight, glittering under the diligent efforts of Jack Frost and ambient light. The utter peace and stillness of the night entirely at odds with our racing hearts and whistling lungs.
Nothing (other than our panting) broke the silence of the neighborhood; no rattling keys, turning locks, shouting, pounding, creaks or groans from the other side.
Nothing split the sense of peace until Orin, and the other Residents started laughing like loons from the top of the wall.
Startled it took a moment for the other shoe to drop.
(The ingredients for spiced rum according to Wood’s Gran’s recipe.)
Practically dancing in place waiting for Orin’s return I couldn’t work out which of the three fates would be worse if we were caught – becoming fodder for the police blotter. Explaining to the police (and Little Ben) what possessed us to bury rubber ducks in an empty field in the first place. Or the horror of calling Aunt Pearl to bail four pirates out of jail at one a.m.
The tree of humiliation bore rich fruit tonight.
Apparently, the Inebriated Three didn’t share my anxiety of capture (while they all still wore their tricorn hats, they currently embodied the philosophy of Yo-ho-ho And A Bottle Of Rum, thus their new nickname). The flasks of spiced rum they insisted on passing around each time we slowed down or stopped bore a portion of the responsibility for their lax attitudes (yet another one, or possibly two, made an appearance in my Orin inspired absence).
The joys of being the designated getaway driver.
Me (trying for calm): “Time to put that away, guys. We need to get ready to run.”
A scene from a Three Stooges movie ensued while they endeavored to comply with my request. Helpless I stood back and tried not to split a seam at their earnest efforts to simply stand.
Laney, the first to get up, stood on the tails of Beatrice’s greatcoat. This caused Beatrice to fall over when her ascent to an upright position was unexpectedly arrested. Wood was fine until Laney careened into him when Beatrice yanked her coat out from under Laney’s foot. All the while, trying to maintain radio silence, they pantomimed their displeasure to each other.
When they were upright and moderately stable (and trying to figure out exactly where they’d misplaced their dignity), I turned around to see if Orin had returned. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I discovered him standing inches away from the end of my nose.
Me (aggrieved): “Seriously, are doing that on purpose?”
The peanut gallery gathered behind Orin broke into a chorus of chortles at my demand. And judging by the number of Residents gathered on such short notice the Inebriated Three and I had managed to cause quite a brouhaha this evening. Their questions/comments solidified this idea; Wow you really are dressed as pirates./Did you miss us?/Did you know the police are here?/I’ve never seen Little Ben move so fast./I haven’t had this much fun in forever…. Their comments went on for a while.
The fact I was at the root of this uproar added to the Resident’s delight – the pirate costumes were just icing on the cake.
Wood: “Morticia are you talking to someone?”
Me (using the spirts they’d drunk in my favor): “Nope.”
Me (speaking to the Residents: keeping my voice low so hopefully the Inebriated Three wouldn’t hear): “Thanks…”
Orin (cutting in, turning to the Residents): “Here’s the plan. John, Peter, and Stu follow us to the west. Ruby, Sandra, and Iris the same to the east. Alice, you run ahead to the gate and call the all clear – if it is. I’ll lead them on. Everyone else fan out and keep a weather eye for incoming trouble. Ready?”
While Orin relayed orders to the Residents I eyed my friends – Wood looked to be holding his liquor well, Beatrice wove just slightly in place, and Laney was dancing to music only she could hear. Fantastic. The perfect illustration of the influence body mass played in drinking. With a sudden flare of inspiration (or perspiration or both) I knew how to navigate them through the marble maze which stood between us and the gates.
Me: “Laney take my hand, Beatrice you take Laneys, Wood you take Beatrice’s.”
Laney (in a slurring reworking of a Beatles’ song): “I want to hold Wood’s han-an-and.”
Me (trying to keep it together): “Ok, Wood switch with Beatrice.”
Me: “This way I can lead you through the headstones, and you won’t trip and break your necks.”
Orin (thoughtfully): “Well it has been a while since we’ve had a newcomer….”
Beatrice: “But I want to hold your hand.”
Ignoring both Orin and Beatrice, I lead our chain out from the safety of our hiding spot. With a few initial herks and jerks, we settled into a nice rhythm.
Laney (singing softly): “Following the leader. The leader. The leader. Following the leader where ever she may go. Tee dum. Tee dee…..”
Laney’s love of aliens is only eclipsed by Disney – figures she’d find a fitting song – from Peter Pan no less.
Why couldn’t our pursuers helpfully tick like the Crocodile? I ejected the analogy from my brain quickly. My heart didn’t care for it one bit since the Crocodile got Captain Hook in the end. Maybe we were one of the Lost Boys? In disguise? Stifling a giggle, I banished the picture of Orin zipping around us like Tinker Bell.
The Inebriated Three picked up the chorus (softly): “Following the Leader. The Leader…..”
We were a quarter mile away when I heard Alice’s faint all clear call – perhaps sensing my relief – the Fates threw a spanner in the works.
An excited squawk from a walkie three rows away sent us scurrying behind one of the larger mausoleums in this section of Nevermore.
That’d been a near thing.
Who knew Seth (the newest groundskeeper) could summon that much stealth? Counting off a hundred heartbeats (sounds like a long time, but my heart was beating a brisk tempo at the moment) I slowly eased an eye around the corner, trying to catch even the smallest movement. Despite not seeing a single hint of our pursuer my heart refused to settle down into a normal rhythm.
Me (whispering): “Wood can you see anyone?”
Since no one’s yelling ‘got you’ or ‘their over there’ I will take it as a promising sign. Maybe this time we’d lost them? Hope springs eternal.
Wood (softly): “Nope, nothing.”
It seems Laney and Beatrice came to the same conclusion, or they were just tired from all the running and/or rum, either way, they’d sunk down to the ground for a rest. Wood joined them, leaving me to keep my eyes peeled for motion amongst the tombstones.
Me (taking a beat to talk to them): “We’ll catch our breath here for a few minutes then make a final push for the Crossroads.”
The Tricornies murmured their agreement and settled into more comfortable sitting positions. Inching around the side of the vault trying to get a better grip on our surroundings, I nearly screamed when a figure stepped out in front of me.
The Figure: “Caretaker, did you hear about the kids running around Nevermore in costumes tonight?”
As my hands were covering my mouth, trying to keep the squealing I was doing on the inside, I couldn’t reply to Orin’s question right away.
Orin (taking in my current attire – long coat, embroidered vest, linen shirt, bandolier and the dark plume in my tricorn hat): “I think you might have.”
Seems the dip my toes took in the creek during our hasty exit from the farm numbed them to a greater extent than I’d realized. Well, that explained why it hadn’t hurt very much when I’d kicked that rock – I’d chalked it up to wearing boots instead of sneakers (tomorrow’s bruise tally will prove fascinating).
Me (whisper yelling): “Orin! You nearly scared me to death!”
Orin (dismissively): “Don’t worry, no one’s died of that in years! Hey, aren’t there supposed to be more of you?”
Stepping around me he peered around the corner of the crypt and started laughing. Following behind, I glimpsed the three Tricornes as he must have – Beatrice one leg in the air pulling up her sock inside her boot, Wood with his phone aglow and Laney taking a slug from yet another flask (which she whipped behind her back when she saw the whites of my eyes). All of them wearing full pirate regalia.
Me (hissing at Wood): “Are you trying to get us caught? Put the phone away! Laney! Seriously?”
Doing a one-eighty, I tried to glimpse any activity amongst the shadows, while my ears strained to hear any tell-tale sounds of feet on grass (Orin’s laughing didn’t help my efforts). Stepping back around to the side of the vault I beckoned Orin to follow me.
Me: “Orin. Orin! Please stop laughing! We need to get to the Crossroads, can you help us out?”
His laughter slowly died during my plea, the silence stretching between us while I watched his wide grin slide into a sly smile.
Me (trying to wrangle what little patients I currently possessed): “Okay, what do you want?”
Orin (taking a moment to think): “You know Mazy’s squirrel? Could you make sure it has enough to eat this winter?”
This night just keeps getting better and better.
Me: “Done. Now, will you help?”
Orin: “No problem Caretaker. Let me round up some other Residents.”
On those words, he walked out of sight. Orin might have laughed, but we needed the Resident’s help. We were at the edge of the old original section of Nevermore – after that would be the Crossroad’s burials.
Where we’d have absolutely nothing, except for the night, to hide us from sight.
Just to give you an idea of the swampy mess Little Ben proposes setting the Sunny Valley Farm & Pet Cemetery next to – here’s a video from a section of Iron Creek a mile to two away from his proposed site (during a daytime scouting trip – video quality isn’t great, but you get the idea).
Laney, Beatrice, Wood and I may or may not have dampened our toes somewhere close to here, hard to tell with it being dark and all, during our flight!
Little Ben: “We’ll make an example of them. I am tired of kids drinking in Nevermore. You go left. Ryan goes right. I’ll take the path. Keep your walkies on, Hank will radio when the police arrive.”
We hardly dared to breathe until the crunching of gravel faded off into the distance. Peeling ourselves off the back of the shed, I peered with one eye around the corner to make sure they were really gone. Convinced we were alone I sunk down into a crouch and closed my eyes – trying in vain to calm my breathing.
Wood (whispering): “Since when did he start doing night patrols?”
Laney (her great coat rustling next to me): “Probably sacked the security guards to save money.”
Beatrice (chuckling): “Maybe the aliens called him.”
Laney (a quiet tink of metal on metal came from next to me): “Ha-ha! What do we do now Phoebe?”
Still gathering my wits after an unanticipated sprint across farmland, woodland, and Nevermore I thanked whatever god was listening that Little Ben never got a good look at us. We owe a lot to the university’s theater department for creating the misconception he was currently laboring under.
Me (my eyes still closed, my nose detecting cloves and cinnamon): “Come on guys, enough with the spiced rum, it does not increase your stealth stats.”
Not bothering to open my eyes I decided to assume the Tricornies looked my way guiltily and put the flask away (rather than finishing it off then putting it away – which sounded more like them). Though I suppose at this point it couldn’t hurt, they were already two flasks in when we made our escape.
Laney (first to notice the bobbing spheres of lights swarming on the top of the hill): “Guy’s alien spaceships!”
Me (turning to look at her): “Did you finish an entire flask on your own?”
Laney (pointing): “No. Look, aliens! Heading this way!”
We all stopped for a moment and turned the direction indicated by her index finger – indeed about a half dozen orbs of light were rapidly approaching. Mesmerized by their undulating movement we stilled, my brain trying to process what my eyes told me, the baying is what finally broke the spell.
Me (dropping the post hole digger): “Run!”
Me (grabbing the digger out of her hand and tossing it down): “We’ve been seen, RUN!”
Finally catching up with my conclusion the other three followed me in flight (to this day Beatrice remains thrilled she got to test her Grade A Beef Diversion – turns out farm dogs are indeed distracted when prime cuts are tossed their way).
No, things didn’t go sideways when Wood decided this evening was the perfect opportunity for pirate shenanigans – it was forked up from inception. We’d counted on the late hour and darkness to cover our slightly criminal endeavor which. Turns out it didn’t cut the mustard – someone spotted us about forty-five minutes into the execution of The Brace Affair. I don’t think the MacGregor’s hold with Little Ben’s lax ideas of security.
Thru sheer luck – for the MacGregor’s, not us – they’d cut us off from Beatrice’s car, so I lead us to familiar ground. Which is why the Tricornies were currently sharing a quiet flask behind a utility shed in Nevermore while I tried to figure a way out.
Pulling out my phone I texted my cousin.
Me: “Ok guys, lets head to the Crossroads.”