Crumbling bricks set long ago in a cruciform pattern, mazed by moss, tonight blown slippery cold by dank air fleeing the sky's roiling clouds. Three men crowd around a stone fire pit. Firelight throws their shadows across a sloping swale. As the men move, their shadows race to a black-browed woodland, then shrink back.
Children, drunk with chocolate and sugar, squeal their way in and out of shadows, scare each other into spasms of laughter too loud, too long. Over here a stiff-legged Frankenstein stalks an eager victim. There a witch crashes her broom into an impotent imp. Two gleeful ghosts carom off each other, fall to the ground—hamstrung by twisted sheets, they kick and squeal like gelded piglets. A vampire, larger than the rest, as large as a man, cloaks his face and floats into the watching woods.
One man rummages through shards of shattered shellfish, spits the fire into an angry hisss.
"Them kids. Listen to 'em."
"Ayah, scarin' themselves silly." This from the second man, legs planted on the wall, beer mug balanced on a bony thigh.
"'Member when we was kids?" This from the last man as he leans into the fire, as his shadow retreats from the woods, as he rubs memory into his ashen hands, as the first ghost to rise flees the second, as both flee the firelight, as a demon peaks over a hedge to choose a victim.
"I 'member once my brother, Bobby, he double-dog dares me to ring the doorbell where this ol' geezer lived in a rundown shack back up against the alley? We'd always run past it when we was alley trampin'. Never did nothin' mean to us, but we always talked like him bein' mean was a known fact."
The overlapping “Oooo-Woooo-Oooo!” of the two ghosts curves around the lightless house, leaps over the roof back to the men.
"All the lights was out. He didn't want nobody trick 'r treat'n, we figured. Well, I couldn't turn tail on a dare from my little brother. So I run up quick and ring the bell. One of them old kind you got to twist hard? What a racket! Like somebody breakin' down your door. I ran back to Bobby so fast I beat the sound of that bell back! When nothin’ happens Bobby says 'let's go zap him.' Real brave now that nobody's home."
The “Oooooo!” and the “Woooooo!" circle back on opposite sides of the house.
"We had these, called 'em zappers—take you a empty spool, cut notches in it, put it on a stick, wrap a string...?"
"We did that, too!"
"...lay it up against some window. Yank that string, it makes this awful..."
"...just like glass breakin'!"
A squeal curves around the far side of the house. The squeal of a child who hasn't learned yet how you squeal when you're scared and how you squeal when you're not really scared. The ashen-handed man looks up from the fire.
"Maggie. Scare herself to death one of these days."
"I'm right next to Bobby when he pulls that string. An’ quick as bad news the light comes on and there's the old man's face in the window, right where Bobby's hand is, like a, like a... I peed in my pants!" The man drops his head, ashamed of the memory. "I actually did. And my stomach beat my feet home, too."
One voice, more desperate than those in the darkness by the woods, flees to the woods from the side of the house. "Maggie, Maggie, Mag-gieee!"
"Hee, hee. Maggie scared her back good, now din't she?"
"Scaredest I ever was," says the man with the beer, "was one summer we used to play down in front of my best friend Dale's house. One day this woman comes out of this big ol' house acros’t the street, says for us to hush up, says her mother's sick and doesn't need a buncha' brats—that's what she called us—doesn't need a buncha' brats makin' her mother sicker. Dale, he zips it up right now. But me, well, I laughed—nervous I guess. So that lady marches over, shakes her finger right in my face. 'You're gonna' kill my mother with all your racket.' Face so close I could smell the liquor on her. Scared the beJesus out of me."
The squeals in the darkness beneath the brow of the woodland die out. The calling voice joins the silenced voices. "Maggie, Maggie, Mag---!"
"So this one day I go down to Dale's house and call him out the way we did back then, 'Yo, Dale! Dale! Day-elll!' Over and over. Next thing you know, I hear this loud scream from that house acros’t the street. It was some scary scream, all right! I took off like the bogeyman was after me. Hid in the bathroom. Thought I had killed that old lady. Waited all day for that woman to come and get me, pictured her dragging me back to touch her dead mother that I killed. Funny how you can get a crazy idea in your head like that, can't get it out. But that's what I kept thinking, how her or the police or somebody was gonna' make me go touch the dead lady I killed in that house acros’t from Dale's. Still wonder sometimes if maybe I didn't kill her. I mean, why else would she scream like that?"
The man's eyes darken with distant remembrance as he turns to the perforating squeal that comes from the woodland. From behind the massive oak. An oak whose size soaks up surrounding shadows. An oak that was here before there were people to cut down trees.
"Darrell, you stop scaring your sister! Get on back here and I mean now!"
As he stands, slow and uncertain, the beer spills without his knowing it has spilled, cleaves to the sticky cold on the moss-mazed bricks.
Another squeal, this from some savaged animal, plaintiff and spasmic and moving away from them with impossible speed. Then another—louder, longer. But more quickly stilled.
Now all three are on their feet running, running to the woodland. Running blindly, crashing through dead growth, lashed by unseen switches.
Calling, stumbling, falling—calling. Calling.
But the only reply is the echo of their calling from uncaring clouds.
A graduate of St. Louis and Louisiana State Universities, Tom Deiker is a clinical psychologist who feeds his family and writing habits by superintending a public psychiatric hospital in Cherokee, Iowa, as he has previously done in Louisiana and New Mexico. “Squeal,” in fact, is set on the grounds of a state mental hospital residence patio which Deiker and his wife built from the bricks of a demolished mental ward, where his four kids chased each other and friends of many a Halloween night next to the dark woods. Deiker’s publications include several dozen mental health articles, essays, short stories, poetry, and a baker’s dozen of unpublished screenplays and television pilots.
Copyright 2005, Tom Deiker. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.