I hereby present chilling evidence of an overactive imagination. For those curious, I grew up in Long Beach, CA.
Sunnyside Mortuary was the scariest place in the world.
And Joanie knew that her mom would drive through it on their way home from the school Halloween party that night. The road home passed directly through the City of the Dead, as Joanie’s dad said it was often called when he was a boy. Acres of graves, many dating from the 1800's, spread nearly to the horizon on either side of the road; and at the end, O! At the end was . . . the Haunted Tower.
“Mom, could we take a different way home tonight?” Joanie asked as she climbed into her family’s ancient station wagon. A gust of wind caught her headdress and flipped her fabric ears into her eyes just as the door closed.
“Why would we do that?” Mom asked, turning the key. The engine started with a screech of complaint but settled into its usual ratchety rumble.
“I don’t like driving through the cemetery on Halloween,” Joanie admitted. “It’s creepy.”
Mom rolled her eyes, pulled out of the parking lot, and entered the flow of traffic. “After herding wild children all evening, I’m taking the shortest way home. No more of your silliness tonight.”
Joanie slumped into her seat, wrapped her arms around herself, and tried to think like a grown-up.
Dad said Sunnyside Mortuary was an architectural work of art in the Spanish style. It had been built long ago out of genuine marble and granite, and it boasted magnificent stained-glass windows, a pipe organ, and a huge pendulum that ticked away the time. A three-tiered tower topped this glorious edifice, a landmark of the city.
And it had dead people buried in its walls.
To Joanie, the dark windows high in that ornate tower seemed to leer down at passersby, as if attempting to lure them inside to be swallowed up in its walls. When she was little she used to hide her eyes whenever the road led past Sunnyside, but more recently she had decided to keep both eyes on it. That way, nothing it did could take her unawares.
Mom stopped at a light and sighed, pushing hair back from her forehead. “Did you enjoy the party?” she asked.
“It was fine,” Joanie said mechanically. One more signal, and then . . . But Mom would drive fast, and soon the horror would be behind them, lost in the windy darkness.
Some of Dad’s relatives were buried at Sunnyside. Almost exactly a year ago, Joanie had attended her great aunt’s funeral. To her profound relief, the service had been held in a church, not at the Haunted Mausoleum, yet to this day Joanie could not forget how Aunt Agnes had looked, lying there in the coffin.
Aunt Agnes had scared Joanie when she was alive. The old lady wore dresses that hung like sacks on her bulgy frame, her thinning hair was dyed orange, and she teetered around on high-heeled pumps. When it came to her thick red lipstick, Aunt Agnes didn’t care about coloring inside the lines; and her eyes were wide and staring, like windows. She would grab Joanie by the arm, haul her close so she couldn’t escape, and talk right in her face.
When she was dead, the lipstick hadn’t made her look any better.
On the next block, Joanie saw groups of trick-or-treaters walking along the sidewalk, carrying pillowcases to catch the candy. The wind blew their costumes around and picked up discarded candy wrappers. One tall skeleton glowed faintly greenish beneath the streetlamps. It turned to watch the station wagon pass, and Joanie shivered at sight of those empty eye holes.
The car turned onto The Street. Soon the mortuary would appear. At night, lights shone up at the Haunted Tower from the outside, making its windows appear blacker than ever against the livid stucco.
On the sidewalk outside the fence Joanie saw a thick figure tottering along on high heels. It looked like an old woman from behind, but it could have been a trick-or-treater. Except, why would she be alone?
Joanie hunched her shoulders and kept her eyes peeled for that tower. The black iron fence around the cemetery flickered past. Then against the black night appeared the tower’s face, ghastly white above treetops tossing in the wind. Joanie gulped but set her jaw. Only a minute more and the City of the Dead would shrink away in the rearview mirrors.
The station wagon made a groaning noise, and steam starting pouring from beneath its hood. “Oh no!” Joanie’s mother cried. “Not again! Stupid, worthless car.”
The engine sputtered out, and Mom had to steer the gasping car to the side of the road. A long black hearse purred past, ran a yellow light, and vanished into the night.
No other living soul was in sight.
Joanie slowly leaned forward and looked up. Those dark windows peered down with avid interest. “It is watching us, Mom,” she said. Her heart thudded in her chest, and her mouth was too dry to swallow.
“Joanie, I said that’s enough! What do you want to do, scare me silly?” Mom buttoned her coat and gave her daughter a warning look. “You stay here. I’ll be right back. We’ll probably have to walk to a gas station.”
Even though she wouldn’t begin to know how to fix anything wrong with the engine, Joanie’s mother climbed out and opened the car’s hood. Steam poured out on either side, whipped into swirls by the gusting wind. Joanie took another look at the tower, now wreathed in glowing mist. It looked larger, closer.
With the hood up, Joanie couldn’t see her mother through the windshield. The Haunted Tower was her only companion. Panic gripped her throat, and she breathed in short gasps. More than willing to risk Mom’s anger, she fumbled for the door handle and scrambled out, her costume whipping in the wind. The door squealed when she slammed it shut. Knees trembling, she walked around to the front of the car. Her mother wasn’t there.
Hard, icy fingers grabbed hold of her arm and spun her around.