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Halloween Decorations

Manuel A. Meléndez 

is an award-winning Puerto Rican author, born in Puerto Rico and raised in East Harlem, N.Y. He is the author of three mystery/supernatural novels "When Angels Fall", “Battle For a Soul”, and “The Cowboy”. Seven poetry books, “Observations Through Poetry”, “Voices From My Soul”, “The Beauty After The Storm”, “Meditating With Poetry”, “Searching For Myself”, “A Poetic Journal”, and “Pasos Sin Rumbos”. Two collection of Christmas short stories, “New York-Christmas Tales Vol. 1 and 2.” Two collection of supernatural horror stories, “Wicked Remnants” and “Outbursts of Horror” a collaboration with El Davíd. Two novelettes, “In the Shadows of New York”. “Battle for a Soul” was awarded in the 2015 International Latino Awards for Mystery Novels and “When Angels Fall” was voted by the as the Best Novel of 2013. His story “A Killer Among Us” was published by Akashi Books in “San Juan Noir” anthology. The author lives in Sunnyside, N.Y. harvesting tales from the streets of the city.

They finally moved in two weeks later after all the construction was finished and the house was proudly more beautiful than any other home on the block. Everyone in the neighborhood had been eager to know who had bought the house that had stood empty for the past ten years. Finally, when it was done and God only knows how much money had been spent to restore it to its original form, many on the block were not pleased. It was an old house, and according to those who have lived here since birth, it was once the center of big lavish parties, and summer BBQs that went into the wee hours of the morning. They called it the party house—until it emptied—except for an old man.

That late October, I was thirteen years old. Obviously, all those stories about the party house were hearsay from the adults who spoke freely regardless of whether I was within earshot of their whispered conversations. I had always been a bookworm and because I was always sitting in a corner with my nose buried in a book, the adults either ignored me or I merely became part of the scenery.

According to those whispered talks, I learned that the last person to leave was an old man, and whom many argued about exactly who he had been. Some claimed he was the original owner, others contended he was one of those individuals who, after a one-weekend stay, turned into a lifetime resident by doing odd jobs and staying useful. Whoever he was, one night they carried him out and whisked him away in an ambulance, and the party house became the spooky house where haunted stories are spawned. The house became the spot where dares were made, especially during Halloween night. Because of that, all the windows were shattered by thrown rocks. After many years of being unkept, the grass and bushes in the garden had taken over the entire area that surrounded the house. Before long, the house became the domain of raccoons and God only knows what other type of vermin. Everyone in the neighborhood ran out of patience when nothing was done about the eyesore. It was right there, smack in the middle of their middle-class, close-knit community.

I know offhand, that my mother and most of the housewives and the retired old men bombarded the Mayor’s office with requests to have the house demolished or to discover  who owned the deed and force them to do something about it. After ten years, when their demands went ignored, other things in the neighborhood became more important issues. The hideous, run-down house was left to slowly rot. Nature overtook the structure and soon the walls were covered in ivy, and part of the roof sunk straight into the upper floors.

To the surprise of the entire neighborhood, one Monday morning, a construction crew arrived. Within hours, they had boarded and secured the surroundings of the house, and city permits were posted telling everyone that finally their pleas for something to be done about this deteriorated eye-sore were answered.

For the next year and a half, workers arrived sharply at seven and were gone by four o’clock. The noise from all the heavy equipment they used was unbearable, but I think seeing that something was being done to get rid of the party house made everyone a bit  willing to undergo a bit of inconvenience. However, to the discomfort of many within the area, they were not demolishing the house. According to those who had lived here for the past fifty years, they were uptight because the house was being rebuilt to the exact original designs.

I was lucky that my bedroom window faced directly onto the project, and I had the best view of all the workers laboring on the restoration of the party house. For some odd reason, this renovation had everyone fuming. My mother voiced her opinion extremely harshly one night while we were having dinner. I remember, as I asked  my father if he wanted the last pork chop, she nonchalantly made a comment; the restoration of the party house seemed like a curse. My father, like always, merely grunted, stabbed the last pork chop, dropped it on his plate, and shrugged. He was a man of few words, unless there were a few cold ones sloshing in his head. Then he became a chatterbox. Savoring the last pork chop, he nodded at the right time as my mother yakked away, a skill I believe he had mastered. Perhaps, not aware of my father’s listening tactic, my mother went on and on about the noise. Adding animatedly with the waving of her hands that because of this construction, she was needing to clean our house every day to combat  the dust that came pouring into the living room and the bedrooms upstairs.

All these talks from my mother and the other adults gnawed at me. The more they vehemently discussed it, the more curious I became about this party house. It confused me. First, they wanted something done about this old house, and now that something was being done, it drove them furiously insane. My mother always voiced an old saying about being careful of what you wish for, and sometimes getting it was not a good thing. Somehow, I felt this was exactly what was happening. Everyone wished for something to be done about the party house, and now that something actually was going on, I saw how pissed off they were.

The day the new owners of the house arrived was on a Saturday morning. A large black limousine pulled over in front of the house and a man and a woman stepped out. As I watched with interest, like most of those neighbors nearby, the couple marched directly to the porch, which I found quite odd. At no point did they stop and admire the newly restored house, not even for a second, or take a quick glance at the neighborhood. Their mannerisms were like those of people  who had returned from home after a long vacation. They climbed the few steps to the porch, unlocked the door, and quickly went inside. Afterward, for the entire Saturday, not a peep was heard from them; only one light came on late in the evening, and right before midnight they turned it off.

A downpour, which kept everyone at home, greeted Sunday morning. From my window, I saw the many times the neighbors drew their curtains aside to  stare at the party house. I found it strange how this house was angering the residents of the block. A few times, I came down the stairs from my room, and I found my mother pacing back and forth in front of the windows, stopping here and there to look outside. I presume everyone who had the front view of the party house was doing the same.

My father was watching his football games. He already had a few beers in him, and his tongue was loosening up.

“Will you stop pacing?  I just missed a great catch because of you getting in front of the television,” he said, digging one hand into a bag of chips.

My mother stopped for a second, glared at him, and taking one last look out the window, went to the kitchen where a roast was baking in the oven.

“So, what’s the story with the new neighbors and that house?” I asked him, hoping that the beers would make him reveal the great mystery I had been conjuring.

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” he said as he cursed when his team, the New York Jets, who fumbled the ball at their own five-yard line. “Ask your mother. She’s the one who was raised here. I’m from the Bronx, and why I let your mom bring me here, of all places, damn Brooklyn, is something I’ve been asking myself for the past fifteen years.”

“You’re free to go!” my mother yelled from the kitchen. I was surprised she heard him over the rattle of pots and the loud blaring of the television.

My mom’s sudden tirade continued and the more she slammed and banged in the kitchen, I saw a mischievous smile appear on my father’s face. He was really enjoying my mom’s little tantrum, and now that the Jets had tied the game with a touchdown, my father was as ecstatic as a cat that had just feasted on a fat canary.

“You think this is the year these bums will finally win a Super Bowl?” my father asked me, as he opened the cooler next to his recliner and fished out a bottle of beer. My father was a hard worker. He worked as a maintenance man at the Empire State Building, and the only reward that he gave himself was watching a few games during the weekend with his cooler filled with Budweiser. Usually, by suppertime, he was pretty drunk, and after wolfing down whatever mom cooked, he would then head upstairs and sleep until late into the next day. It infuriated my mom, the same way it infuriated her when I played video games, which to keep peace in the house, I seldom play anymore.

In a huff, mother came out of the kitchen and stood for almost a minute, her hands on her hips, as she glared at my father without saying a word. When father ignored her, because it was halftime, when he refilled the cooler with beers, she mumbled something under her breath and marched to the closet by the door. It was the coat closet, as she called it. God forbid my father, or I would any other type of clothing there.

As she slammed the front door, all I could hear was that she was going to Rose’s house, the neighbor next door. It was the place she always went, especially when she was angry. They have lived next door to each other since they were classmates in grade school.

I could hear my father in the basement. Soon, he would come up the stairs with a fresh supply of beer. Not really a sports fan, I was going to my room when dad opened the door and motioned me to stop. I watched him take out a few cans of beer from the bottom of the cooler, place the new batch inside, replace the cold ones back on top, but not before placing a can on the side table.

He pointed to the couch next to the recliner and told me to sit down, which I did. “I’d give you a beer now that your mom is not here, but I’d rather not. You’re still a few years from having a cold one with your old man but sit down anyway. I want to talk to you.”

The game was about to start, but something told me, whatever he wanted to say was more important than if the Jets won a game or not. He pulled the tab off the can and took a long gulp. He sat down on the recliner and lifted his legs up.

“You asked me before what all the uproar about the house is about… the one everyone called the party house. Well, I’ll tell you as much as I know, but what I’m going to tell you, it stays here. Do you understand? The last thing I need is for your mom to get one of her hissy fits, and you know it doesn’t take much for her to have one of them.”

He laughed and took another swig. “When I married your mom, we moved into a small apartment in the Bronx. She hated every second we were there. Her mother, your grandmother, who you never met, became ill, and your mom was spending more time there than at our place. Sure, I was not pleased one bit, but marriage is about compromise, especially if you want it to work. Soon I was spending every weekend here until your mother decided that it was best for everyone to come and live in her parents’ home. I was not too thrilled about it, but knowing her mom was getting worse by the minute, and her father was not far behind, I agreed. That was fifteen years ago, almost sixteen. One thing I noticed, this neighborhood is...”

My father stopped talking as he opened his hands and then joined his fingers together. “A close-knit community, like a damn clan. They don’t take well to strangers, and to them, if you didn’t attend P.S. 17 or made the communions at the Blessed Mary’s Church, well, you’re a goddamn outsider. I’m still an outsider, in their eyes. They tolerate me because of your mother, but not one day goes by that I’m not discreetly reminded that I am and always will be an outsider. Do I care? Not one bit!”

He dropped the empty can of beer next to the cooler and took another one, but this time, he placed it on the table without popping the tab. He grabbed a handful of chips and shoved them down his throat, a bunch of them cascading all over his chest and some went down the side of the recliner.

“The people who owned the party house were strangers based on their standards. The previous owners were an older couple, and when they died two weeks apart, a nephew or whoever this fella was, who inherited the house, came around. In less than a week, they sold the house. Some neighbors, including your mother, said they sold the house for pennies. They were pretty annoyed, as if they expected to be included in all the business transactions. But how did they know how much they sold the house for? My guess is as good as yours. But that’s something common here. Everyone fancies to know everything.” My father picked a few of the chips from his shirt, ate them, and then popped the tab and took a long swallow of the beer.

“The people who bought the house were a couple in their mid-thirties with two kids. For whatever reason, their arrival drove everyone insane, because for all these busybodies there was no way this couple could afford the house. They were nice people, kept to themselves, and did their best to be as friendly as possible. Always waving hello. On their first Halloween, they decorated the house and front yard with unbelievable decorations. They even placed a long folding table on front of the porch with boxes of candy, and while their own children were trick-or-treating, the couple dressed in colorful costumes and greeted all the kids from the neighborhood. But instead of accepting their friendly gesture, everyone frowned at them. I heard that some didn’t allow their children to eat the goodies they received from them. The next day, the police came to the house, because Janet, the nasty lady down the block, reported that they gave their kids’ candy laced with poison.”

I was taken aback by that, but something in my father’s eyes told me he never believed the story, and with his next narration, he solidified it.

“They took all the leftover candy they had, and the couple even had to get a lawyer to fight the accusations. Now mind you, nobody questioned that Janet’s children were the only ones who were  poisoned, yet they never ate them. Plus, nobody told the cops until I made an anonymous call to the police precinct and reported that Janet’s husband, Bill, was an exterminator.”

“So did they get arrested?” I asked, fascinated by what I was hearing.

“No,” my father burped into the back of his hand and then continued. “My information reached the couple’s lawyer, and soon after, they made both Janet and her husband appear in court, and under oath, they admitted to their lies. They were lucky they were not arrested and put in jail, thanks to the couple who decided not to press any charges. Still, Janet and Bill had to pay a hefty fine, which forced them to take a second mortgage on a house already paid in full by Janet’s parents. Serves them right to be so goddam hateful.”

“What about the party house? How did that come about?” I asked. I could tell my father was into the conversation, because he lowered the volume on the television and only took quick, uninterested glances at the game.

“During Christmas, they had what I believe was a small gathering. Nothing out of the ordinary. But for Christ's sake, it was Christmas, and it’s time to celebrate. They had music on, and you could hear the laughter coming from the house. Well, at about nine, the cops came to the house. I later learned from Jimmy, the only sane person here on this block, that someone called the police reporting a loud party and fighting. Even mentioned something about gunshots. Of course, that was far from the truth. Then, anytime those poor people had visitors, someone for sure was calling the cops with false accusations. It didn’t take long for the police to begin dismissing those pesty calls from assholes with nothing better to do with their lives, but to make others’ lives miserable. And that’s when the couple fought back. I guess they figured if they were going to be harassed for doing nothing, well, they were going to give them real reason to call the cops. The parties began almost every weekend. When the weather was good, the parties were BBQs that lasted all night.”

My father stood up and went to the window, parted the curtains, looked out, then returned, and sat next to me. He watched the game but  I noticed his interest was not on what the Jets were doing, but on what he was telling me. It was as if he needed to tell me all this because with my mother always around, this opportunity would probably never occur again.

“Then things started happening, which caused many yelling matches between the couple and the rest of the neighbors. They vandalized the house with childish pranks during the night. Still, it would have driven me insane if it had happened to me. They threw eggs and rotten vegetables onto their front yard and porch. Mean-spirited messages were spray-painted on the side of the house, telling them to go back to where they came from. One time they even threw a few bricks, smashing their front windows and screen door. It was disgusting.

I even went over to help them clean up the mess and tried to tell them that not everyone was like this; there were some good people here who were angry about what was going on. They thanked me, but to everyone around here, your mother included, I was the biggest traitor in the world. When I came back home, me and your mom had a doozy of a fight because of it. She claimed I had embarrassed her in front of the friends she grew up with. I asked her if she was not bothered by what some of her friends were doing to these people? That added more fuel to our fight until I couldn’t take it any longer and I left.

I stayed with friends for a month until she realized my traitor’s money to pay the bills was needed for her survival. Your mother, like the rest of her childhood friends, felt that the husband must provide for everything. Therefore, they don’t need to work and help with the bills that every year keep increasing. I thought about it… about coming back, but I did, because of you. She was two months pregnant and regardless of how disgusted I felt about this entire situation, I knew my duties as a father took center stage.”

My father rubbed his face, and when he lifted his hands, there were deep wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes that I had never noticed. He went to the cooler and took another beer and settled on the recliner. He looked troubled, and his mannerism carried the signs of someone who didn’t want to finish what he started but knew he must. My father swallowed the entire beer with one gulp and crushed the can on top of the table.

“One Halloween eve, around midnight there were screams coming from the house,” my father said. “It was the husband who had returned home from a business trip. To this day, I remember those screams. I never knew they could describe pain so vividly by one scream. They murdered his wife. Her throat slashed, they propped her up with the rest of their Halloween decorations. According to the news, she was killed two days prior, and disguised as a Halloween mannequin until the husband came home and found her.

The killer was never found, and of course, when detectives came around, everyone shrugged with indifference and gave the same answers. They saw nothing; heard nothing. I was putting a lot of overtime at work. Nothing against you, son, but not having help from your mom to even get a part-time job at a local store. I couldn’t keep up with the bills. I was working almost sixteen hours a day and had odd jobs on the weekend. Whenever this gruesome killing took place, I was away from home. But one thing bothers me to this day. The little group of your mom and her friends always gathered on our porch for practically the entire day. How the hell did nobody see anything? That’s hard to believe. God forgive me, but I know they saw who did it, and…”

My father once again rubbed his face, and I wondered if that was his gesture of trying to erase the ugliness, he was telling me now.

“What was more than hideous was that before killing this woman… a lovely woman may she rest in peace,” my father crossed himself, and that took me by surprise because he was not a religious man. “They tied their children, and the older man, who we later found was the lady’s father, inside the basement. Their mouths were taped, and they were there with no food or water for two days. How did they survive? Maybe God had better plans for them.”

“So, what happened after that?” I asked, and even though I didn’t want to hear anything more, I felt like I needed to know it all. No more mystery about the party house.

“After less than a year, they moved out; the father with the two kids. By then they were maybe, your age. So, they’d be in their twenties now. But the older man, the grandfather, he refused to leave. It turned out he was the owner of the house. About ten years ago, they took him out on a stretcher. Did he die? I don’t know if he did or not. Anyway, that’s the story of the party house. Party house, my ass! That’s what they want to tell each other. They lied, telling each other that these good people were to blame for what happened. That’s right, bullshitting each other to ease their damn conscience so they can sleep at night.”

I was about to ask more about my mother and her friends when we heard the door open. My mother came in and we could see something was wrong. She seemed flustered. She stopped in the hall, and just stood there. Her eyes were two enormous balls that seemed ready to jump out of their sockets. Her lips were drawn downward, and a slight twitch moved her lower lip.

“Mom, are you okay?” I asked her, and as much as I wanted to go to her, in my head I pictured her watching with her friends as a woman’s dead body was dragged across the room and up pushed against the front door at the party house.

“Janet and Bill are missing,” she blurted out, as she entered the living room and plopped down on the couch. I sensed her body trembling, even though there was a sizeable space between us.

“What do you mean, missing?” my father asked, but without any indication that he cared about her friend’s whereabouts.

“Missing!” she yelled. “What do you think missing means?” she jumped to her feet and paced nervously, dragging both hands through her hair.

Before she could say another word, the phone rang. She crossed the room quickly and snatched the phone before the second ring. She listened. Her mouth, a thin crooked line. Her eyes once again held that look of fear. She lifted her free hand and placed it over her mouth. She gasped loudly. “My God,” she whispered and set the phone down. She stood there, staring at the wall in front of her. I could smell the roast in the oven, and I knew if she didn’t tend to it, it would surely burn.

“What’s wrong?” My father stood up, took two steps toward her, and then stopped.

My mother turned around, her face slumped towards the floor, and she wrung her hands the way you wring a pair of wet socks. “Rose and her husband are missing too,” and once again she plopped down on the couch. Her breathing was choppy, and there were beads of sweat on her upper lip. She looked up, first at my father, then at me, and finally, her stare went to the slightly drawn curtain where the party house could be seen in it entirely. The house was dark, but for the lights on the Halloween decorations that the new owners had placed on the porch and front yard the night before. Perhaps, in anticipation of a great turnout of joyful trick or treaters, and the chance to get to know their neighbors.

That night, my father and I feasted on tuna sandwiches. The roast burnt to a hunk of charcoal. The entire house smelled like a five-alarm fire. We opened all the windows, even though the temperature had dropped to the low fifties. My mom was a basket case. Normally, when e the phone rang, she dashed to it, but now when it rang, she hesitated to even gaze in that direction.

At close to midnight, I went to bed. My father had turned in at least two hours earlier. My mother remained in the living room, finally looking at the phone that didn’t cease ringing, and nervously stared at the dark party house with the glow of Halloween ghouls and ghosts.

Once in my room, I held the costume I was going to wear tomorrow for Halloween and inspected it. Looking at it now, I felt childish. I was thirteen, and I decided this would be my last year before putting my trick-or-treat days to rest. I went to the window, and looked at the decorations on the party house and My father’s story definitely added,  an element of fright.

I went to bed with the ringing of the phone and my mother’s hysterical voice as my lullaby. My sleep was crammed with a collection of crazy dreams. The last one startled me so badly was at a few minutes before three. My mother was ripping a piece of duct tape to seal my screaming mouth.

The early morning could not have come sooner. I was exhausted and the lack of a good night's sleep was taking its toll. An intense fog swirled over the neighborhood, and the only thing I could see outside my window was the display of blinking Halloween lights from the party house.

My father’s story had made quite an impression. Part of me hated him for telling me such a macabre tale. Another part of me was glad he did, even if it made me see my mother in a different light. It made me question my relationship with my parents. Was my mother responsible for that man’s wife’s horrible death? Was she one of those people who trapped innocent kids inside a basement and covering their mouths with duct tape like what happened to me in my dream? Did she know what her friends were about to do, and had she sat on our porch and witnessed the murderous act? If she had, she was as guilty as the one who sliced the woman’s throat. Was my father as guiltless as he came across when he told me the mystery of the party house? If he knew what happened, why stay quiet all these years? All the thoughts that had been running through my mind since last night were now all bunched up right in the middle of my head in the form of  a migraine.

I went to the window and stared out. The fog seemed to have gotten thicker and whiter— it was like looking through a glass of milk. I wished I knew who was living there now. Did they know the ugly history of that house? How soon would someone harass them? Because, according to my father, in this twisted neighborhood, they were strangers.

I could hear footsteps downstairs. They were pacing steps, and I knew they were my mother’s. Throughout the night, I heard her walking back and forth, and the constant ringing of the phone. I heard her cry in soft, yet hysterical sobs. At other times, I heard her curse in a guttural, hateful voice. Was my mother going mad? All this was taking place while my father snored loudly from their bedroom, which was across from mine. I wanted to knock on his door, wake him up. Make him aware of the suffering that  kept my mother up all night.

I was about to step away from the window when I heard a car driving into the neighborhood. It was the same limousine that brought the man and woman the day they arrived. I leaned forward, my forehead pressed hard against the window glass. The coldness quickly brought relief to my headache. The limousine pulled over to the curb. I could hear the engine’s roar. It sounded like an old man with bronchitis. Through the thick fog, I saw the man and the woman come out of the house and walk to the car. The driver jumped out and came around to open the back door for them. All three were dressed in black. The man’s and woman’s coats were long, and they swirled around them. It reminded me of vampires’ leathery capes. They slid inside the limousine. The driver slammed the door, went around to the driver’s side, got in, and pulled away from the curb. As it drove away, and I heard the roar of the engine, until it faded away. Only the whistling of the early morning wind resonated through the sleepy neighborhood.

I remained there, no longer wanting to wake up my father. I took a quick glance at my Halloween costume, and in that second, I decided not to wear it. The reality that I learned last night stole all the joy and fun of Halloween. The authentic horror  I was now aware of took center stage on the day reserved for fake ghouls and ghosts.

At a distance, I heard the loud, high noises of sirens. I swear they had a unique sound. It was the sound of the importance of something that couldn’t be delayed any longer. Three cop cars arrived simultaneously. Two from the left, another one from the right, coming to a piercing, screeching halt. No sooner than the officers jumped out of their cars, an ambulance pulled over, with less fanfare, but still loud enough to shake the entire block. They conglomerated in front of the party house. By now, the fog had disappeared as if this were a movie, and the fog was no longer needed to establish the eeriness of the story. Two police officers went into the yard, followed by the EMT’s. I slid the window up and my curiosity was on overdrive. As I leaned forward, the morning coldness gave rise to goose bumps along my arms. There was an evil smell in the air, like fresh blood on a butcher’s floor. One of the police officers reached to move one of the Halloween decorations, the mannequin of a woman. At the officer’s touch, the head  dropped off and rolled down a few inches away to the area where the sidewalk meets the grass.

I saw the police officer flinch and the look on his face was more than shock; it was the horrifying expression of fear. Another cop moved another decoration, of a man sitting on the top of the steps leading to the porch. The head tumbled to the walkway with a thud, a sickening sound. I heard my mother scream. It was a loud, unceasing scream. I heard the running footfalls of my father, hurrying down the steps. My mother was now yelling the names of her friends who were reported missing. Each name she yelled out in elongated screeches.

By now, four heads had rolled from four Halloween decorations that I no longer believe were fake, but actual bodies of human beings.

By noon, the city coroner removed all four bodies. A few hours later, they were confirmed to be the bodies of Janet, Bill, Rose, and her husband, Johnny. My mother’s little clan, who according to my father’s story, were responsible for the death of a good woman whose only mistake had been wanting a house in a neighborhood where strangers were not welcome.

On that Halloween night, the trick-or-treaters stayed home. By midnight, on the front porch of my house, my mother’s guilt got the best of her. She climbed on top of the balustrade, tied a rope over the porch roof, and hung herself. Her suicide note was only two words. Party House.

Her body swung out there for at least twenty minutes before the police arrived. From my window, I saw a man along with a young man and woman in front of my house. They took a picture of my mom’s body as it swayed back and forth. I overheard them say before they walked away. “Best Halloween decoration on the entire crummy block.”

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