The wake of the flat boat spun iridescent waves into the brackish waters of the cypress swamp. The lights on the far shore marked Zodac's plantation house against the night sky.
I had intended to stay in this Halloween, but Zodac's emailed invitation to a party (which had strangely wound up in my bulk mail folder) got me thinking. Maybe it was healthier these days to spend a night amongst fake monsters than locked in a room with my own all-too-real ghosts. I adjusted my ginger mustache. There would be time for all that later. For now, like the souls of the dead, I was bound to go amongst the living.
Mer-Man was already crying when my boat bobbed against the dock. "Hey, He-Man," he whined.
"Heya, Mer-Man. Why are you dressed like the guys from that 'Freeze Frame' video?" He was all in white with a lank black wig on.
"Oh, just--" he snotted, began to wail again, and ran away to stick his head under water.
"Don't pay attention to him," said Beast-Man, handing me a can of Red Stripe. He was dressed as Dido. It was a costume party. For my part, I was uniformed as an officer of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, down to the boots and collar tail.
"Mer-Man's just upset. You see, he came as Jack White and I was supposed to go as Meg, but I decided to come as Ziggy Stardust instead." I nodded like it all made sense to me and drank my beer.
"Who's he supposed to be?" I asked as Orko floated by.
"Les Yeux sans Visage," hissed the big-eared blue freak.
"Funny," said Mer-Man, who had by now gotten some control over himself, "he told me he was the Boy with the Arab Strap."
Zodac ushered us all into the spacious, if creepy, house. Orko congratulated him on his cool Angel costume. Zodac corrected him, saying he was "actually Angelus, who is Angel when he is evil and without a soul." I found the whole thing to be rather pedantic and occupied myself trying to find a place for my empty Red Stripe can.
"Where are the girls?" I asked.
"Hmm?" Zodac pretended not to have heard. "Tonight we will be playing a very spooky and angsty Vampire the Masquerade mega-adventure," he said, leading us into the library. "Oh, and you will be using pre-made characters so we don't have any problems." He shot a look my way.
"I hope I don't have to be a Gangrel again," predicted Beast-Man.
"Hey, Orko," asked Mer-Man, "did you watch String Theory on Nova?"
"Yeah. I hate it when they tart it up like that."
The library was big and oppressive, like Zodac's dad. The bookshelves were crammed with dog-eared volumes and curios acquired through a lifetime of "I'm-a-freak" collecting: hands, flayed skins, pickled babies, large knives, and a big painted skull. I hid my beer can behind a copy of the Necronomicon.
"It's cool that your parents are away, Zodac. Boy, do they ever collect some weird stuff."
"Ha! It's a priceless occult collection, Orko. But yeah, it's cool that my dad and new mom went out of town. They left me pizza money."
"Look, I'm Richard Cranium," laughed Beast-Man, taking the skull from the shelf and dancing with it.
"Leave that alone, that's my third mom!" shouted Zodac.
"Oops, faux pas," admitted Beast-Man, setting the skull clumsily on the table. Zodac sat the grizzly noggin upright.
"She was a famous sorceress. It is said that if you make a wish while touching the skull, it will come true."
"OK, wish we were at another Halloween party. One with girls," I suggested.
"No, no, it's not like that. It's one of those 'be careful what you pray for' evil wishing devices. You know, the kind where you wish you had a friend your age and you wake up with an evil conjoined twin who tries to eat your flesh." That explained Zodac's third grade skin graft operations, I thought.
"Nonsense. You just need to word it right. No loopholes. Watch!" commanded Beast-Man, and he thrust his hand upon the skull. "I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller. I wish I had a girl who looked good, I would call her--"
Lightning flashed and the lamps flickered.
Outside it seemed to be getting windier and the house groaned in protest.
"Dumbass," laughed Orko. "If you want to get your wish, you have to ask for something the skull would want to grant, comme ci!" He placed a pale blue hand on the skull. "I wish a dark and evil force bent on our destruction were to take control of this house. Dead by dawn!!!" he cackled.
Suddenly all the French doors blew open and a dirty wind tore through the house. The timbers of the decaying mansion shrieked an unearthly chorale and the lights went out. For a heartbeat all we could hear was the sound of every window, storm shutter and door slam shut and then...silence.
"Ziggy peed his pa-aaa-ants," sang Beast-Man.
"That was a lame gag, Orko", critiqued Zodac.
Slivers of moonlight peeked into the room.
"Anyone dead yet?" asked Orko.
"Hold on, I've got a lighter," I said, fumbling in my pockets. Then, with a click, I bathed the room in a warm orange light. "Everyone present and accounted for? Beast-Man, Zodac, Orko..." I turned to face Mer-Man and found my gaze reflected in two large white soulless fish eyes. Mer-Man was motionless and then he slapped my lighter closed.
I tripped backwards in the darkness and heard what sounded suspiciously like one of Zodac's dad's antique sacrificial daggers being unsheathed.
Beast-Man screamed an agonized, "Oh, snap!"
I got the lighter on just in time to dodge a vicious knife slash directed at my face. The blade sprayed me with wet blood as it whipped by. Beast-Man's blood. Mer-Man grabbed Zodac by the helmet and, with one hand, threw him across the room. Orko flew up a chimney. I grabbed Beast-Man, who was holding his bleeding guts, and dragged him through the first door I found.
Mer-Man was right behind us and I slammed the door in his face and braced it with all my weight. There was a popping noise as the knife point pierced through the old wood. I nearly lost my grip as half a panel was punched out by a webbed hand.
"Die, you bastard!" roared Beast-Man, and pulling the service pistol from my holster, opened fire on the searching hand.
Blam. Blam. Blam. A string of smoldering spent paper caps curled out of the top of the gun.
Zombie Mer-Man smashed his face through the now half-destroyed door. My powerpunch sent him flying backwards, but even as Beast-Man and I took to our heels, I could hear him scrambling back to his feet.
We ran up a carpeted staircase and ducked into a room. It looked to be some sort of guest bedroom. I tried the windows. They were stuck and not even He-Strength would budge them. Beast-Man hobbled into an armchair. He was looking pretty wiped out, like Bowie circa "Low".
"I could have been getting candy...instead I'm going to die," he self-pitied.
"Shut up. We have to---" Slow carpet-muffled footsteps approached our hiding place, coming to a stop just outside. The door knob shook roughly, and then...the footsteps began moving off.
"Look," I whispered when it seemed safe, "we've got to keep moving. Either we find a way out or we destroy that thing."
"OK, OK," wheezed Beast-Man. "Just give me some time to rest." Just then the phone next to him began to ring. Once, twice. He answered. "Hello?"
"This is he."
"Why don't you ever call me?!" demanded an attractive-sounding woman's voice on the other end. He slammed down the receiver.
As we quietly slipped through the upper hallway, we heard a faint creaking in one of the walls. I stopped to listen. I could almost make out the sound of overweight breathing. Suddenly a dumbwaiter opened and out tumbled Zodac, sweaty, but alive.
"Shhh! Where's Evil Mer-Man?"
"I don't know. I ran while he went to kill you and Beast-Man."
A scream of terror from downstairs answered that for me. Mer-Man had Orko.
We listened in horror as in that midnight hour he cried, "No, no, no." With a rebel yell, he cried, "Oh, please, God, don't kill me!"
"He was a prick anyway," bled Beast-Man.
"Zodac, there has to be a way to stop this curse. It's your third mom's head - what do we do?"
"Well," he began, regaining some of his old self-importance, "to destroy the curse of the wishing skull, one must reattach the head to its original body."
"Great! How the hell are we gonna do that? We can't get out of the house, let alone go to a cemetery."
Zodac stared at me uncomprehendingly. "Why go to a cemetery? The body is in the basement with all my other old moms."
Beast-Man fainted, apparently from loss of blood.
* * *
"All right, here's the game plan - you two make for the front door and try to get the boat somehow. I'll sneak down to the library, grab the skull, and run it down to Bluebeard's basement."
"OK," agreed Beast-Man, "but I keep the cap gun."
Zodac drew a map to the basement on a dusty end table. We wished each other good luck and we were off.
Slinking down the back stairs, I nearly slipped on a wet rag. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a torn cloth with a big O on it. Now it was just a matter of hoping that Mer-Man had decided to spend his time skinning Orko's body.
There was no sign of anything demonic as I slipped into the library. The skull was still lying on the table and I scooped it under my arm. I made a small torch with some bits of curtain and a piece of the broken door. Eerie shadows painted the walls as tiptoed towards the basement. The door was unlocked.
Somewhere in the distance I thought I heard a cap gun firing.
The basement stairs disappeared into darkness after about three steps. Zodac had warned me that it had been allowed "to go a bit" and "some damp may have gotten in". My fourth step on the rickety stairs saw me crashing through the rotten planks and plunging into cold, dank nastiness.
There was at least a foot of water and two of mud. Rats swam away from my torch as I trudged through the sludge. Scratch one good pair of boots.
I tripped on something and barely managed to keep my torch dry. With my free hand I groped around in the ooze. My fingers wrapped around what turned out to be a partially broken ribcage with tatters of a wedding dress still attached. I followed the gruesome discovery to its pinnacle and pulled from the mud a decomposed but almost-recognizable head. Something in the mud mixture had preserved not only the skin of the face, but had kept the hair soft and lustrous. Not being the corpse I was looking for, I tossed it back.
I had found two more bodies before I heard the basement door open and a cold breeze extinguished my torch with a hiss. I crouched as low as I could in the filth, cradling the skull and searching frantically for a headless corpse. There was a loud splash and small waves rocked against my waist.
"He-Man...Adam...it's me," whispered a familiar voice as it waded blindly towards me.
"Remember the time you played hide and seek in the dungeons of Grayskull and no one found you all day? You were so scared that time, remember?"
My toe nudged something hard in the ground. I hoped it was a shovel or a flamethrower, but it was a femur.
"I found you. I spent all night looking for you. Remember, Adam? You were so happy to see me! Come to me now!"
I blindly felt over the cracked sternum and mangled limbs until I reached the vertebrae of the neck where my hand found nothing.
"Where are you, Adam? Come to me! Come to your dear dead daddy!"
I screamed and smashed the witch skull down upon the neck of the unfinished corpse.
A great cry filled the basement and the house. I flicked on my lighter and saw Mer-Man, still white-eyed, reel back, grabbing his head. His wig was slick and askew, his white clothes covered in blood and mire. As he howled, I ran at him and, catching a foothold on his shoulder, vaulted myself up to the remaining steps to freedom, the doorway glowing before me.
I burst panting from the cellar and realized that the light I had seen from below had been coming from the flames that licked the walls of the old mansion.
The front door flew open at my touch and I ran onto the dock. Beast-Man was cowering in the flatboat.
"He got Zodac." Beast-Man was crying. "I told him not to go back for his lucky dice bag."
"Get this boat moving," I ordered.
"There's no pole," blubbered Beast-Man.
"Screw it," I said, and leapt into the viper and alligator-infested water and swam/crawled away from the growing inferno, towing the boat and its single passenger behind me.
We were halfway through the swamp. Beast-Man had either passed out or died after realizing he was no longer a baller. I turned to watch the final moments of the house. After a great roar of flames, the roof collapsed with a crash. An orange haze of fire and smoke filled the night. Some swamp birds, tricked by the light, had begun to sing. It seemed to me that other voices joined them from somewhere beyond the shadows.
"Happy effing Halloween," I whispered to myself.