Blogs and tales by Warren R. Smith

There Came a Knock - pt2

Another group arrived and saw a party in the making. The living-room became a mix of various zombies, a lion tamer, comic book heroes, a mustachioed villain arm in arm, and cahoots with the likeness of an unpopular politician. Shining faces and rosy cheeks revealed themselves as stifling masks were pushed back and worn like hats.

Ventura organized a guessing game while serving up drinks and cookies. “Guess what in this room I am thinking of,” she said.

After some hesitation, one answered, “A candle.”

Another answered, “A cat!”

“The taste of young human flesh,” said a wry boy in jeans, a tee-shirt, and leather jacket. A realistic looking cigarette dangled from his lip tragically.

“Good answer!” Ventura pointed at him. “Only it was wrong, I was thinking of this bowl of confetti.” With that, she picked the bowl up from the table and launched its contents high over the guests. Coming down, it was soft rains upon Antietam; it was a ticker-tape parade on Mainstreet of the afterlife. It fell on the astonished young guests and blessed them one and all. It stuck in their hair and got in their costumes.

“I like you,” said a young girl with cat ears and painted-on whiskers. “Can I take a turn?”

“Sure you may,” said Ventura, patting the little cat between the ears.

“I spy with my little eye, something cozy and blue.”

They played a couple of mildly entertaining rounds of the game more before interest fizzled.

Ventura hooked and draped a white tablecloth to make a screen in the corner of the room. Behind it was a table lamp with its shade removed. She announced another kind of guessing game. Some of the guests got up, but she begged them to stay long enough for a few rounds. They glanced at one another and reluctantly agreed to sit down.

All lights went out except for the flickering Jack O’Lanterns. The effect was impressive as a hush of excitement became palpable. Ventura appeared with a flashlight under her chin, lighting her face like from the days of black and white horror films. Young people laughed with her.

“Now, I want you all to bring your chairs a little closer. This game is called Shadow-Buff. I know you’ll love it.”

She directed her guests to form groups of two’s and three’s, each devising a secret they would act out in pantomime behind the screen. The rule was: the players must perform their roles in silence while the audience guessed the meaning behind their shadow dance.

It was agreed to begin. As the first contestants stepped forward, Ventura dipped behind the sheet and turned on the light. She ushered them behind the impromptu screen, and they let their shadows take over from there.

The first scenario was an aloof pedestrian, walking in place, and the shadow of a stalker creeping up from behind. In the end, it was a murder by knife, horrifically prolonged, even after being called. With boos and hisses, the audience demanded the next players have their chance.

The art of the medium was quickly absorbed. Ad-lib mimes swung freely between unbridled madness and moments of baffling brilliance. Distorted shadows shedding inhibitions, danced and menaced while the audience shouted for more.

In another scene, a brave lion tamer turned cowardly and got mauled. Following that, a one-man show illustrated the evolution of walking posture in five stages, from primate to man. He bent his back one final time for a sweeping bow.

The Scarecrow and Dorothy borrowed a broom from Ventura. Behind the screen, the broom hoisted over a shoulder became a rifle. The boy marched in place. The shadow-girl dabbed a tear from her eye and waved goodbye with a handkerchief. The play lasted only a moment.

Ventura cried out, “No, stop. It’s too sad!”

It was immediately apparent the old woman was not joking. Were those not real tears? All of her guests were astonished. One girl whispered to another. Together they got up and said it was getting late. More filed out behind them.

The crowd thinned rapidly. Ventura lingered at the door, watching the last guest disappear up the street.

The moment after she closed the door, there came a knock. Secretly pleased, Ventura shook her head in tired dismay as she opened the door.

There were only moths hitting the street-lamp at the corner, and not a soul in sight. She felt cold, closed the door, and turned. Shadows of two children, straight and still, stood upon the shadow buff screen in the dark living room.

She jumped. “Oh! You two about scared the daylights out of me.”

Their forms were stillness personified.

“Still full of tricks tonight, are you?” said Ventura. “Okay, one last game. My guess is you are two bookends — no?” She crept closer. “The last bowling pins standing — no? Of course not.” She crept closer. “I know what it is. You are two little rascals ready for a bowl of ice cream!”

Plunging her head behind the curtain, Ventura shouted, “Boo! I got you.”

No one was there.

She stepped back. The two shadows remained on the white cloth. Around the room, glowing pumpkins seemed to mock, beaming toothy smiles at her.

She stepped back and bumped into the edge of a chair. She sat down slowly in awestruck wonder. “Jessie? Roger? Is that you?”

A measure of delight could not keep her goosebumps at bay.

“It’s not possible, I know — but still. It’s been thirty-eight years since the war took you away. I’ve missed you so.” She laughed suddenly. “But, you boys always said your mama put on the best Halloween party around. You couldn’t resist, could you? ”

She might have been talking to construction paper cutouts. They offered nothing but to gaze into the dark core of their once familiar shapes.

“I still remember how trim and handsome you two were in uniform, oh. Just like your Daddy — and proud. Please don’t just stand there and stare at me. Be good, and let me see your faces once more? My boys, my good boys.” There was a pressure mounting inside of somehow knowing it would be like this. There was only one thing left to do. Ventura broke down and sobbed into her hands. “There’s no word for it. That’s how terrible it is. No mother was meant to outlive her children.”

When she looked up, the two boys were now wearing helmets, their shoulders squared and thrown back, standing at attention.

Ventura stood up, angered for tears without comfort, souring on life. Stumbling forward, she grasped the hem of the sheet, yanking it from its pinnings.

The neighborhood street was empty, as only a matter of timing could provide. Nobody saw Ventura’s living room window beam with a sudden bright light. It lasted only a moment and faded, leaving the place looking dead.

The moths preoccupied with batting at the street lamp had a change of interest. They flew across the street and up to Ventura’s walk. At the front doorstep, they accumulated, fluttering in a clamor to get into the wide grin and pyramid eyes of the giant pumpkin.

With crackles and hissing and wisps of smoke, they doused the stubborn candlelight with their wings and bodies. So, at last, the Master of Ceremonies on the front step flickered a ‘goodnight’ to one and all.