BY DAVID HENSON
Copyright is held by the author.
VERDON LOOKED up from his phone and found himself face to face with a witch holding a bloody knife over her head. He chuckled at the cardboard cutout and stepped to the sales counter. “Verdon Hardy,” he said. “My wife ordered a dozen skull balloons.”
The clerk turned to the table behind her and grabbed a weighted bouquet of white balloons shaped like skulls. As she handed them to Verdon, one popped in his face, and he jumped.
“They don’t bite,” the clerk smiled. She returned to the table and screeched helium into another skull.
Out in the parking lot, Verdon shoved the balloons into the back seat. His phoned dinged, and he read the text with a grin.
Driving home, Verdon looked over his shoulder to check his blind spot before changing lanes, but the balloons kept him from seeing. He flicked his signal and began easing right. A horn blared, and a pickup barreled past him. Verdon twisted back and yanked the balloons down, but one shot forward and hovered in front of his face. He batted it a few times, but it kept rebounding to block his view. He finally was able to ease it away in time to yank the steering wheel, tires squealing, to avoid drifting into the oncoming lane.
Verdon pulled into the garage, sent a text, then escorted the balloons inside. Gwen was stabbing birthday candles onto a cake decorated like a pumpkin.
“Where do these go?” Verdon said.
“I thought we’d cut them loose and let each one float around. Fun.” Gwen handed him a cake knife, and Verdon cut above the weight.
Verdon took in the decorations. Bats hung under the kitchen cabinets. Rats with blinking red eyes huddled under the table. A sheet tacked to the ceiling haunted the dining room. “Maybe you’ve overdone it.”
“It’s my sister’s fortieth, and she always had to share her parties with Halloween when we were kids.”
“Seems she still does,” Verdon muttered.
Verdon’s sister-in-law, Lola, and her husband, Hunter, arrived first. As Verdon handed Lola a Chardonnay, Gwen opened the door to let in someone else. One of the balloons caught a draft and dove into Lola’s glass, spilling wine on her slacks. Verdon started to pat her thighs with his hanky, then thought better of it and handed her the cloth.
A little later Lola had another mishap. One of the skulls had a slow leak and had sunk to the floor. Lola stepped on the balloon and fell, splitting her lip, which bled on her white blouse. The incident was a downer for a while, but Lola changed into one of Gwen’s tops, and the party got its legs back.
The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough except when Verdon whispered to Gwen that she should slow down on the wine. She spun away and poured another glass.
By midnight everyone had left but Hunter and Lola. Hunter was in the bathroom, Gwen in the kitchen. Verdon and Lola sat quietly on the couch, Lola holding a bag of frozen peas to her lip. Then a balloon floated over the sofa, and the string snagged on Lola’s necklace. Verdon leaned close to help just as Gwen came out of the kitchen. “Son of a bitch,” she slurred. “With my sister?”
“Gwen — ”
“I said if I ever caught you again — ”
“Gwen, he was only trying to get this string loose.”
“Whatever Lola wants. You slut.”
“What’s going on?” Hunter said, the sound of the toilet flushing behind him.
Lola went into the kitchen, the skull bobbing behind her. She threw the frozen peas into the sink, cut the string with the cake knife and slammed the door on her way out with Hunter.
Gwen swayed her way into the bedroom. After a moment, Verdon went in. “Gwen, you’ll see things more clearly in the morning. I’m going to sleep on the couch.”
Gwen put her hand to her mouth and cocked back her head.
“You shouldn’t be taking that,” Verdon said. “They weird you out even when you haven’t been drinking.” A wine glass zipped past Verdon’s head. He hurried to the bed and grabbed his pillow.
Verdon turned out the lights and laid on the couch. As he was fluffing the pillow, his phone dinged.
Lip’s throbbing. How’s everything there?
I’ll patch things up tomorrow.
Maybe you shouldn’t?
She suspects already. Let’s tell them both.
Can’t think now. Call you tomorrow.
Vernon closed his eyes. A moment later, something grazed his face, and he brushed at it with his hand. He needed to call the bug man. They always had a mini spider invasion when the weather turned chilly. Then he felt something again. And again. He jumped up, rubbing his hand furiously around his face, turned on the phone’s flashlight and saw half a dozen skulls staring at him. A scream rose from his throat, but he choked it off when he realized the air intake above the couch must have drawn the balloons. He punched them away and laid back down.
Red-eyed rats swarmed over him, and bats flapped above his head. He ran into the dining room and tripped. The ghost hanging from the ceiling plunged at him. He tried to yell for help, but couldn’t make a sound. He heard heavy breathing.
He woke up in a sweat and turned on the phone light. Gwen was standing over him. Her eyes were glassy, and she was holding the cake knife.
“Gwen, wake up,” Verdon whispered, his heart still pounding. He stood and reached for the knife just as a balloon swooped into the blade and popped. Gwen gasped and slashed with the knife, catching Verdon’s throat.
Verdon clutched his neck. Blood spurted, and he sank to his knees. Gwen shrieked. Verdon tried call her name, but could only gurgle. The last thing he saw was a skull, its face contorted in a grin.