As Henry pulled into the restaurant parking lot, he scanned the people lingering around the entrance and quickly identified his date by the ruby brooch on the shoulder of her wool coat.
“You’re early!” he said as he approached. “Susannah?”
“Henry!” she grinned. “Yes, I thought it would be easier if I let you figure out who I was; I hate introducing myself to strangers.”
“Well, if you had let me pick you up at your house,” he said, fake-accusingly.
“Let’s eat,” she said, grabbing his arm and pulling him toward the door. “I’m starved.”
After dinner and a bottle of red wine, Henry was a little woozy as they walked back to the car. He was still drivable, though, and soon they were cruising down side roads, at Susannah’s direction, toward her house.
“There it is!” she said, pointing to an older house. The porch light was still on, even though it was nearly midnight. “Mom and Dad left the light on for me!” Henry slowed down to pull into the driveway, but her cold, small hand on his arm stopped him. “No, keep driving. I’m having too nice an evening.”
“All right,” Henry nodded dutifully. Eventually, they pulled into a local park. Henry turned off the car and turned to Susannah. He put his arm around her shoulders and was trying to pull her toward him when she jumped.
“Oh!” she said, putting her hand to her mouth in surprise. “I have to go!” Without another word, she broke from Henry’s grasp, opened the car door, and ran off into the dark.
Henry tried to follow her, but the alcohol was really beginning to work; he called her name for several minutes, to no avail. In the end, all he could do was get back in his car and drive home.
The next day, when he got into his car, he saw Susannah’s ruby brooch on the passenger’s seat. He backtracked through his memory of the evening and was able to find her parents’ house with surprising ease. He parked the car, grabbed the brooch, walked up the path, and rang the doorbell…
A handsome man with a clipboard and a brown suit answered the door. “Hello,” he said. “Come on in.”
“What is this?” Henry said.
“We’ll get to that in a minute,” the handsome man said. Henry thought his host was wearing a lot of makeup for a man, and also that he was missing an arm. “I’m not what you were expecting, am I?” said the one-armed handsome man.
“Well, no,” Henry said. “But you look familiar…”
Henry took a seat on the couch as the one-armed handsome man read from his clipboard. “You used some pretty saucy language in your internet chat with Susannah. Do you think it’s appropriate to tell a 13-year-old, ‘I’d like to put my mussel in your clam shell?’“
“Oh, crap,” Henry said. “She doesn’t look 13. Also I work in the fishery business, so, you know, there’s some context there. Are you her father?”
“Are you a cop? Are you going to arrest me?”
“No. I’m not going to arrest you.”
“Who are you?”
The handsome man shrugged. “I’m Chris Hansen from Dateline NBC and this is part of our ongoing investigation of online sexual predators and pedophiles.” An extremely thin man with a television camera emerged from the kitchen while an extremely thin man with a boom mike rushed in from the den. The left eye of the extremely thin man with the boom mike was hanging from its socket by a long red nerve.
“Oh, no! Not Chris Hansen!” Henry cried.
“Yes, indeed.” Chris Hansen said. “Are you suddenly afraid because you know your life will be ruined by public humiliation and the stigma of being a sex offender?”
Sobbing, Henry said, “No! I’m suddenly afraid because this is the year 2035 and you and your Dateline crew were killed in an investigation of commuter rail safety more than 20 years ago! On the tracks just behind the local park! I’ve seen the memorial!”
Chris Hansen nodded gravely. “Yes,” he said. “That’s true.” The cameraman laughed. The boom operator drooled.
Henry turned for the door and tried to flee, but he was met in the yard by zombie cops, who arrested him, took his mug shot, and then ate his face on a wheat cracker.
Susannah, by the way, is not 13 at all but a really hot sophomore in the broadcast journalism program at Columbia. She sees dead people and is totally cool with it.
A man with a hook for a hand opened the door. He wore a hockey mask on one side of his face and a ghost mask on the other. On his cheek was a red boil with what looked like a hundred baby spiders crawling around inside. When he fidgeted, his shoes squeaked just like they would if he were hanging from a tree and his sneakers were rubbing on a car roof. Five of his fingers were knives.
“Are you selling something?” the man asked.
“I’m looking for Susannah Rutledge. Is this her house?”
“Nah. She lives next door.”
“Oh, OK. Sorry to trouble you.”
“No worries. Hey,” the man said as Henry was walking away, “you don’t need an extra hatchet, do you? I’ve got like 40 of these things; I can’t give them away.”
“I’m cool,” said Henry, “but thanks.” He walked next door and found Susannah lying on the front lawn dead from alcohol poisoning; she’d choked on her own vomit after passing out, the paramedics concluded. Henry committed suicide a week later, which made Susannah’s father feel better and her mother feel worse, she being the forgiving type.
While he waited, his mind drifted back to the night before—an evening that had held all the romantic promise one could ask for—a step in the right direction for a guy who had spent the past year alone in a drunken haze.
He fondled the brooch, felt the prick of its pin. He glanced down and noticed something engraved on its silver plating: To Susannah with love, Henry.
That’s strange, he thought. And so was the sudden familiarity of his surroundings—the porch swing, the white Doric columns, the glazed ceramic planters by the doorway. From the depths of his brain arose the geometrically perfect face of a woman who bore a striking resemblance to last night’s date.
A breeze swept dead leaves off the porch, creaking the door open. He entered cautiously, calling out, “Susannah?” Inside, it was frigid, damp. Dusty sheets covered the furniture. The place stank of mold and mothballs.
Something crossed his shoe. Startled, he stepped back and heard the crunch of broken glass.
Underfoot was a mangled pewter frame. And in it, a black and white photograph of Susannah in a wedding dress. Standing next to her was a man who—Jesus H. Christ, that’s me.
And he recalled the live oak in the backyard, the Volkswagen Beetle on blocks—remnants of that summer project that never seemed to end. There was also the gravestone that marked the final resting place of her parents and that companion monument he and Susannah had purchased together.
The caw-cawing of crows summoned him to the backyard. He shuffled through the thick blanket of autumn leaves, past the rusted, skeletal remains of that heap he never finished fixing, toward that now-naked live oak covered with crows, apparently upset about something. There must’ve been a hundred of them scattered across the scraggly branches of that tree.
He dropped to one knee before one of the gravestones. On the left side read: Susannah Elaine Proctor, June 22, 1970-Oct. 30, 2005.
And on the right side: Henry Allen Proctor
Aug. 17, 1971
Oct. 30, 2006
There was no answer. Henry rang again, but nobody appeared to be home. Panicking, he raced back to his car and started driving straight to his therapist’s office. He phoned on the way, pleading with the receptionist to fit him in for an emergency appointment.
Lying on his therapist’s couch, he recounted the events of the previous evening.
“And you say you had been drinking red wine?” his doctor asked.
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“But I swear it happened.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it. It’s only that the ruby brooch, the red wine: It sounds like you’re having a symbolic crisis.”
“Really—is that all?”
“Let me ask: Do you remember what color lipstick she wore?”
Henry smiled. “Thanks, Doc, I really owe you one.”
He then got up, shook the doctor’s hand, and turned into a gigantic twat.
But instead of a doorbell, it was a brooch just like the one in Henry’s hand. And, pulling away, Henry realized that instead of a hand protruding from the sleeve of his jean jacket there was a giant brooch. “Good Christ,” exclaimed Henry, or should I say Mr. McBrooch, because now he was just one giant brooch, standing there in double-denim. He was so shocked that he dropped Susannah’s brooch. Not that it mattered.
A man answered the door, but he was a brooch, too. Then another brooch appeared, this one brandishing a rolling pin and all jolly and shit. “Welcome to our home,” said Papa Brooch. “Oh, my! This is the happiest day in the history of the Brooch family, probably,” gushed Mama Brooch.
Everyone who lived in the house was a brooch; it was totally amazing. There were Brooch children running around everywhere and a little yappy brooch dog with a collar made of brooches, or should I say human fingers. “Come into the kitchen,” Papa Brooch said. “I’ll put on some tea!” said Mama Brooch.
Mr. McBrooch, a.k.a. Henry, couldn’t even walk anymore, mainly because he was still pretty new to being a brooch. He just tottered. “Where is Susannah?” he demanded, although instead of words only bubbles came out of the crack in his brooch-face, and when the bubbles popped tiny brooches fell out and scattered like cockroaches under the cupboards.
“Fucking cockbrooches!” screamed Papa Brooch.
And everybody laughed and laughed at that, because it was so like Papa Brooch, who didn’t appreciate the good graces that most folks practiced in the presence of such fine company as Henry McBrooch, who would go on to be the first brooch ever to hold a public office for consecutive terms, even if it was in Manitoba.
The woman who answered the door looked very much like Susannah, but she was far too young to be her mother.
“Can I help you?” she said, not unkindly.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” Henry replied, always the gentleman. “Susannah left this in my car last night.” He held out the brooch.
She went pale and took the brooch from Henry. With effort, she whispered. “In your car? Last night?” as though she couldn’t believe it. As though it were physically impossible.
She started to cry. “What’s your name?”
He told her.
“What’s your father’s name?”
“Look, I just wanted to return this to your sister. I didn’t mean to trouble you.”
“What’s your father’s name?” This time she practically yelled.
“He’s Stevens too, of course. Dave. He’s in a home now.” Why was he even telling her this? Clearly she was batty. “I’m going to go now.”
“Go. Stay gone. You’re not welcome here.” She was vehement to the point of being crazed.
Henry got the hell out of there. So much for doing a good deed. He could have just sold the brooch on eBay, for Christ’s sake. Dating sucked.
A cop called that night. They were reopening the Susannah Jameson murder case based on new evidence presented to the deceased’s daughter: a ruby brooch missing since Ms. Jameson’s disappearance. Henry’s father had been a prime suspect at the time, but there had been no evidence to convict him.
Henry hung up the phone, dumbstruck. His thoughts were wordless. He stared out the window as the translucent face of his date from the night before smiled back at him sadly, then disappeared.
Susannah opened the door, but instead of the poignant drudge Henry had met at the reference desk, she was transformed into a princess of bewitching glory. Her hair was piled in sheaves of fiery curls, her plunging crimson dress was emblazoned with golden eagles, ruby earrings hung from both ears, a ruby choker glittered around her languid throat, and her dainty feet were protected from the chill by a pair of fur-lined ruby slippers.
“I knew you’d return the brooch,” she purred, leading Henry by the elbow into the living room. “Mother thought you were common but I told her you’d be back. Didn’t I tell you, Mother!”
A matron with a massive bosom admitted Susannah had been correct. Henry could only gape. Everything was ruby red, from the damask wallpaper and the overstuffed settees lining the wall to the steaming samovar in the center of the room and the quilted robes and jackets worn by the rest of Susannah’s family. Some kind of party seemed to be going on: Cossack uncles stomped arm in arm to the tune of their own bellowing, mustachioed acrobats swung from a Tiffany chandelier, shrieking girls chased each other under a table laden with pickles and smoked sturgeon, and in the back of the room two men with pistols paced off a duel.
“Welcome to the family,” Susannah giggled. “Our clan is very ancient and very insane. We are descended from Ivan the Terrible, Baba Yaga, Countess Bathory, Rasputin, and an Irish sailor named Mulcahey who was a pretty decent guy despite what everyone says. Rubies and Ouija boards are almost all we own anymore, but we own a lot of them. In spring and summer we picnic and commit incest, in autumn and winter we dance and drink blood. Every Halloween we go down to the cellar and machine-gun each other to death, then we rise from the dead and start all over again.”
Susannah batted her lashes at Henry. “You seem like a decent guy, too. You can join us, or you can decide not to. If you do, though,” she said, winking, “we’ll go upstairs and I’ll show you the most precious ruby in my collection.”
Henry looked around the room, then formed the last articulate question of his life: “Is the sturgeon fresh?”
“Of course not,” Susannah laughed. “It’s rotten to the bone. C’mon, before Mother catches us!” And with that they bounded up the ruby stairs without a backward glance.
… Nothing. Henry rang again, rocking his finger back and forth as he applied pressure. Sometimes on these old houses you have to find the doorbell’s sweet spot, he thought.
More silence followed, so Henry smacked the flat of his palm against the door now, three times in rapid succession. A muffled voice answered back, “Give me a second here, bro. Jesus!”
Henry didn’t like this at all. Susannah’s disappearing act, this creepy house, and now this mysterious stranger—it was all giving him the creeps. Was she worth it, he wondered? Yes. Of course she was—all this and more. Henry began kicking at the door like a madman, desperate to see this bewitching woman.
Suddenly, the door swung open fast and Henry found himself chest to chest with a young man about his age. His expression rippled with hot fury.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM, BRO?” he demanded.
The young man’s wrists were encircled in black leather bands and, stretched over his powerful torso, he wore a black T-shirt bearing the legend: This IS My Fucking Halloween Costume.
“Hey, um, sorry. Is Susannah here? I need to see her.” Henry didn’t like where this was going.
The young man’s face slackened a bit. “Susannah? Are you fuckin’ wasted? This is a Porta-John. No one lives here ‘cept the loaf I just pinched off.”
Henry’s head began to spin. He staggered backward, nearly losing his footing, until another barrel-chested young man caught him from behind and pushed him forward, hard.
“This—this can’t be,” said Henry.
“‘Fraid so, bro. Look around. You’re, like, 50 yards from the Second Stage. And this is a fucking portable toilet. So, unless your girlfriend lives in my asshole, she ain’t in there.”
Henry leaned into his madness, and let it take hold. “NO! YOU look around!” he screamed. “The woman I love lives in there! And I brought her ruby brooch. BEHOLD!!” And he thrust his hand under the young man’s flared snout.
“Holy crap, is that a turd?! Oh, that’s it, you are so dead!” The young man wrapped a thick trunk of an arm around Henry’s windpipe. Several other young men shouted and cheered as Zach began applying heavy, even pressure, while the furious guitar crunch of System of a Down provided the perfect soundtrack to this awesome beatdown.
As Henry fought off the blackness, his stomach erupted with a hot spray of cheap red wine and gastric acid. Zach quickly flung him away, into the mud, then addressed the circle of stunned onlookers. “I guess it ain’t really Ozzfest until some fucked-up shit happens,” he shrugged. The crowd silently parted for Zach as he made his way back to his blanket.
The woman who opened the door greeted him enthusiastically. “Welcome!” she cried. “Please, come inside.”
Henry stepped into the foyer of the mansion. “I, um—I’m looking for a girl,” he stammered.
“We know who you are,” cooed the woman. “And you’ve come to the right place.”
The woman stepped aside and gestured toward two beautiful ladies standing at the back of the room. Both were clad in magnificent gowns, and they eyed Henry with undisguised hunger.
An older man stood by their side, and he stepped forward to greet his guest. “You grace us with your presence, my lord,” he said with a bow. “These are my stepdaughters, and they have been eagerly awaiting your visit.”
“Oh. OK,” said Henry, confused. “Well, I have this brooch—”
“A brooch?” muttered the stepdaughter on the left. “But I thought—”
She and her sister exchanged crestfallen glances and then looked downward. For the first time Henry noticed that their shoes were soaked with blood.
A moment passed. “Never mind,” said the sister on the right. She hobbled forward, wincing with each step, then stopped before Henry and composed herself.
“It was I you danced with last night at the ball,” she said. “You have only to pin the brooch to my gown to know this as the truth.”
“The ball?” said Henry, his face the very picture of perplexity. He looked from one sister to the other, recognizing neither. “No, last night I—”
Then, abruptly, Henry’s befuddlement melted into chagrin. “Ohhhhh, no,” he moaned. He turned to father and asked, “What kind of story is this?”
“Oh, you know,” said the elder. “Fable. Thinly disguised morality tale, that sort of thing.” He jerked his head toward a doorway, through which Henry could see the kitchen. “I could bring out my real daughter, the cinder maid, if you want to cut to the chase.”
“No, no,” said Henry in embarrassment. “I—I think I’m at the wrong house. This was supposed to be, like, a spooky ghost story.”
Henry’s mortification deepened as the father burst out in laughter. “I’m so sorry to have bothered you,” Henry said sheepishly.
“No worries,” said the father, waving away the apology. “Happens all the time, to tell the truth. That’s the problem with these stories, you know: They never actually describe the house. It’s always just ‘her home’ or ‘an older house,’ so they all wind up looking the same.”
Henry visibly relaxed as the father continued. “We get folks from other genres here all the time. A coupla months ago we had a guy from a crime noir story. He kicked in the door, pulled a .38 special, and demanded to know where he could find ‘The Mook.’ We had a good laugh over that one, once we got it all sorted out.”
There was an awkward pause after the father finished chuckling. Eventually Henry broke the silence. “Look, I’ve kept you long enough,” he said. “I’ll get going and leave you alone.”
“Hang on,” said the father, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You said you were looking for a scary story? Well, look: This is one of those original fairy tales, not that Disneyfied crap. So if you want to hang out for a few more minutes, you might get a suitable ending after all.”
Henry looked dubious. “Probably not the ending you were expecting,” conceded the father. “But horror stories that end unexpectedly are always the best kind anyway.”
Having imposed on the family thus far, Henry figured it would be impolite to decline the father’s offer. So Henry agreed to stay. The cinder maid brought mugs of ale, and they sat at the table, swapping tales. The father groused about the three pigs that lived next door; Henry told of the time he had returned home from a date to find a hook on the handle of his car door.
Then, suddenly, the front window exploded inward, and a flock of pigeons burst into the room. The bird swarmed the two stepdaughters and pecked out their eyes!!
Thus, for their wickedness and falsehood, they were punished with blindness as long as they lived.
“Awesome,” Henry said to their father. “Thanks!”
Henry tried to remind himself not to start blathering aimlessly as he knew he usually did when nervous, especially when meeting a girl’s parents. After a few moments a man, looking to be in his late 40s, balding, wearing boxers, a sleeveless undershirt, a bathrobe and slippers appeared at the door. He looked half-awake and regarded Henry blankly with his mouth hanging slightly open. He said nothing, which made Henry even more nervous.
Henry held up Susannah’s brooch and said, “Good morning, Mr.—Um, funny thing: I guess I don’t know your last name. Susannah never told me her last name, so—well, not really her fault, it just never came up last night. Susannah is your daughter, isn’t she?”
The man said nothing, but held the same slack stare on Henry.
“Well, um, I took her out last night, and we had a really great time, and, uh, she just kinda took off at one point, but I lost track of her, so I came here, ‘cause she showed me the place last night before she ran off, and—” he sputtered, then, thinking that Susannah’s father would assume the worst, Henry started to back up, “But it’s not like anything happened between us, like nothing uncool or anything. I was a perfect gentleman, I mean, I didn’t try to do her or anything, ‘cause I knew she was a little buzzed from the wine I snuck into the restaurant. I mean, I know we’re underage and all, but I only let her have a little, ‘cause I swiped the bottle from my dad’s collection, which is great. He collects. You should really meet my dad, I think the two of you—” he trailed off. “Never mind my dad. I mean—it’s not like your daughter isn’t great and all and that I wouldn’t want, potentially, to do her at some point, ‘cause, like, I felt a real connection to her, not to presume too much, and of course you would raise a hell of a girl, um, woman that, you know, after a proper courting period and several discussions about contraception and STDs I could, y’know, perhaps see the two of us—” Henry blabbered, a part of his mind recoiling in distant terror as he realized what he was saying but, as always, unable to stop. “Well, she just like, disappeared last night, like, ran off into the woods, and I looked for her a lot, but I was pretty trashed. I’m so sorry.” Then upon a moment of reflection on everything he had just shared added, genuinely, “Please don’t kill me.”
The man remained silent, but looked just over Henry’s shoulder. He spun around to see Susannah walking up the path. She looked up suddenly and saw Henry standing on the porch. An angry look passed over her face, and she blurted out, “What are you, like, stalking me or something?”
“No, I was just worried about you after you took off last night,” Henry said in his defense, but he didn’t even get the whole sentence out of his mouth before Susannah let out a frustrated scream, turned and ran into the woods next to her parent’s house.
Henry, completely confused and still quite hung over, watched her run away for the second time in as many days. Just over his shoulder he heard her father grumble, “Hmph. Teenagers.” Henry turned back around, eager to respond to the first sign of conscious life from the man, but was met with the door swinging shut in his face. Sheepishly, he placed the ruby brooch on the welcome mat and strode back to his car firmly deciding to never, ever go on a blind date again.
An old-fashioned bell sounded from deep within the structure, pealing once, then a fainter echo. Then silence.
He tried again, holding the bell for a few seconds longer, his finger cold on the antique brass chime, its surface gnarled and worn.
The last bell faded away into nothingness and the house creaked in response, a wooden cracking sound that seemed to echo around an endless space. A chill arose from beneath the door, winding up Henry’s leg like an icy creeper. He pulled his collar closer around his neck, the gesture offering him little comfort.
Still nothing. He checked his watch. She was probably out. Not wanting to ring again, he put his head to the door, carefully supporting himself against the doorframe so as not to bang against the rough wood finish. He pressed his ear to the grain. From within he thought he could make out a low, distant hum. A loud fridge, or perhaps even a generator. Above him, the lantern burned a dull yellow light.
He stepped off the porch and began to walk down the path. He’d taken barely five steps when he turned around quickly, as if tapped on the shoulder. On the first floor he thought he perceived a flicker of movement, the white lace curtains hastily drawn shut. Maybe someone was home.
He watched and waited. In the grayish, cloudy light, the house looked far more tumble-down than he remembered, its paint dulled and peeling, the window frames rotten and tiles missing from the steeply pitched roof. He focused again on the window. Was there someone behind that thick curtain? Was he being watched?
A minute passed. He could feel his heart beating. In his pocket, his fingers rubbed against the ruby brooch, finding comfort in its rough edges and the tiny facets of the stone.
Behind him the garden gate creaked open.
“I think you’ll find this property offers a lot of potential,” said a young woman. “We’re selling it as a teardown, but if you’ve got the time, I guess it’s a real fixer-upper. Hello, sir, can I help you?”
Henry started, then spun round to find a real-estate agent leading a young couple down the path.
“Can I help you, sir?” the woman repeated.
“No, no, thank you,” he stammered, adding, “I thought I had an appointment.”
“We have no one else on today’s list,” the realtor said, glancing at her clipboard. “But I shouldn’t worry. This house has been on the market for nearly three years. Can I book you an appointment to view?”
But Henry was already off down the path, not pausing to look back.
And the brooch? Perhaps he accidentally dropped it. Perhaps he simply misplaced it. But he never saw it again.
“Henry!” Susannah chirped, opening the door.
“Hey, I just wanted to return this. You left it in my car.”
“Jeepers! Well, thank you.”
“You took off so quickly that I—”
“I’m sorry, I really did have to go.”
“That’s OK. So, um, would you like to go out again some time?”
Henry beamed. “Well then, I’ll give you a call.”
“I’ll be waiting!” said Susannah with a wink.
And then a witch stole her kidney.