She was just letting the cat out for the morning when the ghost attacked. It howled. It screamed. It lunged towards her, waving its spectral arms madly. Hazel glanced up, then continued scratching Fiddlesticks behind the ears.
"Hello, Toby," she said. "How're you doing today?"
The ghost slumped.
"I didn't scare you at all?"
Fiddlesticks purred and tried rubbing himself against Toby's legs. Instead of making contact, his small black body went straight through. Toby flew up a few inches, out of reach.
"Stop that," he said. "It feels weird."
"Getting ready for the Halloween party?" said Hazel. She went to the opposite end of the porch where the flower boxes were. Despite her best efforts, most of the flowers had succumbed to the first frost of the season. They were thoroughly dead.
"Yeah, but I'm not having much luck." He looked down at himself and sighed. "I guess I'm just not scary."
Hazel looked at her friend.
Toby had died a few days after his thirteenth birthday, putting him a couple years older than her not counting the years he'd been dead after. Before that, though, he'd been a scrawny scrap of child in thick, square glasses and overlarge hand-me-downs from his older brother. Despite his best efforts, there was absolutely nothing intimidating about Toby.
"Well, maybe you should dress up." She picked up the watering can and watered the remaining flowers.
Toby snorted. "Oh, right."
"No, I mean it. Maybe a bed sheet? With holes cut in it."
He drifted in front of her, going through the flower-boxes until he was hovering outside the porch, over the short bushes lining the house. "You're making fun of me," he said. "I'm having real problems, and you're teasing me."
"Well I'm sorry," she said. "It's kind of hard to get worked up for you when you do thisevery year. You always do the same thing, you get all upset about you being- well, you. And then you mope. And then the party comes around and you forget it all when the Bogart Brothers show up and you spend all night running around, playing jokes on the-"
"They're not coming," he said flatly.
She stopped watering and looked up. "What? Really?"
He glowered and crossed his arms. "They're banned from leaving the cemetery tonight. They went around to the mayor's house last week and wrecked up his front yard. Now he's grounded them both until after Halloween's over." He gradually started sinking. "I'm going to be all by myself in my stupid-not-costume and I won't even scare anybody and I'll be all alone and I hate everything!"
The air dropped several degrees as he sank into the dirt. "I hate this stupid party and I'm not going!"
"Toby!" Hazel leaned over the porch's wood fence. "Toby! Get back here!"
It was no use; he was gone.
She sighed and wiped her hands on he black dress. It was no use talking to him when he was like this. Boys were so darn touchy.
With one last look around, in case he was lurking somewhere nearby, Witchhazel Scattergood went inside.
* * * *
An couple hours later found her on the couch, curled up with a book and a blanket. She was just starting to doze off when there was a knock at the front door.
She yawned and stretched and then dragged herself off the sofa to answer it.
"Y'llow?" she said, undoing the lock. "Who is it?
An ash-gray face with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks looked down at her. His skin dried up and patchwork in places, like the skin had fallen off and had to have new pieces sewn in to replace it. The clothes he wore were filthy, but it was old, ground in and stained filth, not new filth. One short sleeve was empty. He carried the missing arm in his free hand, and had apparently been using it to knock on the door.
"Mmmmmrrrrgggghhh," he said.
Hazel stifled a yawn. "Hi, Stanley. Mom's not here right now."
"She and dad went to Cancun for their anniversary." She drew herself up proudly. "I get to stay by myself for a few days."
"Mrrrgh?" said Stanley with obvious concern.
"No, no. I'm alright. The place is warded and everything, so it's not like anything bad's gonna happen." She shuffled uncomfortably, not liking the idea that an adult would start poking around and ruining her fun. Even if it was just Stanley. "You need to get your arm fixed?"
He nodded. From the looks of it, the arm had snapped off clean, right in the middle of the humerus. "Mrgh."
"Well, I don't know how to sew like mom. . . "
"Mrrrrrrgh, mrrrgh mrgh."
"No. I don't even know where she keeps her kit. But wait! I think I've got an idea. Hold on." She ran to the laundry room and started digging around on the shelf there. After a moment of searching, she hurried back to the porch for Stanley.
"Here," she said, tearing a strip of duct tape off the roll. "Hold your arm together and I'll tape it up for you."
Stanley smiled, revealing a mouth full of black gum and yellow, uneven teeth. He pressed his arm against the stump where it belonged, and, after some careful maneuvering and about half a roll of duct tape later, his arm was fixed.
"Mraugh!" he said, wiggling his fingers to test. "Mrrrgh."
"Yeah, it'll be a bit stiff for a while. Mom 'n dad will be back Monday, so you can come back and she'll sew it up for you right."
Stanley nodded cheerfully. "Mrrrrrgh?"
"Yep, I'll be there. Someone's gotta keep Toby out of trouble, right?"
Stanley nodded and waved and shambled off the porch. Hazel grinned and went back to her book.
* * * *
It was the thumping that woke her.
Hazel yawned and stretched and oozed out of bed, following the noise down the hall, past her parents empty bedroom, and down into the living room.
She thought at first it was the door that maybe Stanley had come back. Instead, the noise was coming from the front window.
Curious, she opened the window, and a little bat darted in.
It was tiny. Like a mouse with two playing cards attached to it. It's fur was brown, but its wings were black and covered in light spots. It fluttered madly around the room before finding and latching onto the light fixture on the ceiling.
"Benny?" she said. "Benny, are you okay?"
The little bat shivered.
"Benny, it's okay! Whatever it is, it's okay!"
She grabbed a few pillows off the couch and set them below the light. "Come on, Benny. It's okay, I got'cha."
Slowly, uncertainly, the bat disengaged from the light and flopped unresisting to the floor. It landed squarely on the pillows, wings outstretched, belly to the ceiling. She crouched beside the bat and gently stroked its head.
"Aww, Benny. What's wrong?"
There was the slightest hint of motion and a quiet shift in the air. The spot where the bat had been a split second before was now filled by a boy no older than Hazel. His skin was the same rich brown the bat's fur had been. His eyes were closed, and one was ringed with mottled gray and purple.
"You okay?" she said, continuing to stroke his head.
"He hates me," he croaked. "Why does he hate me so much?"
"Jason. He caught me by O'Leary's place. I was just hanging out in the fruit trees, you know? Just having breakfast and he started pickin' on me. He and Don and Ricky."
Hazel got up and went to the laundry room, where the first aid kit was. "What did they do?"
"They made fun of my ears. Then my wings. When I turned big, they made fun of my accent."
She returned with the medikit and started rooting around for her mother's special cream. "And what did you say?"
"That back in Borneo they'd be the ones with accents."
Hazel picked up a promising looking jar and unscrewed the lid. The violet ointment inside smelled strongly of lilacs and fresh magic. Her mother must have doubled up the spells on it before she'd left.
"Hold still," she said. She scooped up a handful of the cream and smeared it all over Benny's bruise. The swelling went down immediately. "And then what happened?"
He tapped his eye. "They chased me all the way here. I think they still might be outside."
"Have you told Mr. and Mrs. Sanguini? Can't they do anything?"
He shook his head. "Jason said that if I told Aunty Ruth or Uncle Joe, he'd just beat me up even harder."
"When do your parent's get back from Borneo?" she said.
"Not for another two weeks," he said miserably. "Can I stay here tonight? I don't want to go back there."
"Benny. . . "
"Please, Hazel? Can't I just stay tonight? I won't take up too much space. . ."
She sighed. "Here," she said, handing him a cloth from the kit. "In about five minutes, wipe off the gunk around your eye. It should be better then. Okay, you can stay tonight, but you gotta leave by morning, okay? And you can't tell anybody. My parents didn't want me having anybody over while they're gone."
He smiled tiredly. "Thanks, Haze. I promise I won't make a mess or anything."
"Don't worry about it, Benny." She stood up and stretched. "I'mma go back to bed, okay?"
"Okay. Night, Hazel."
With a yawn and a wave, she headed back into her bedroom, and back to sleep.
* * * * *
He was gone by morning. The first aid kit had been neatly put away, and the only sign to show he'd been there was the slight mussing of the curtains- A few thread pulled here and there, where he'd apparently slept.
She tried not to feel too bad. Her parents got home before Benny's did, right? So she'd just tell mom. She'd tell mom and mom would tell Mrs. Sanguini and then they'd take care of Jason.
It was a fool proof plan. So why did she feel so bad?
She went to let FiddleSticks out for the morning and tried not to think about it.
Toby appeared beside her on the porch, smiling smugly. It was hard to tell in the sunlight, but she was almost certain he was glowing with enthusiasm. "Morning Toby," she said. "Someone's looking happy. Did you change your mind about the party?"
"Yep! I went to the cemetery and had a talk with Todd and Mort."
"Are they coming after all?"
"No. But it's going to be the best Halloween ever anyways."
He started floating in a circle around the yard, flapping his arms like a bird. "There's a party and people and-"
"Pranks?" she said.
He dropped like a stone, landing a few inches off the ground. He skimmed across the tops of the blades of grass on his back, like a swimmer floating on water.
"Maaaaaybe. You never know. Unfortunate but entertaining accidents have been known to happen on occasion, yes. Saw a bat flying around your house earlier."
"Yeah, Benny. His cousin and his friends have been picking on him."
Toby sat up and scowled. "Jason and his crew, right?"
Hazel blinked, surprised. "You know them?"
He scowled harder. "Once upon a time. Knew them back before we were all dead-ish. They were bullies then, too."
She didn't know what to say to that, so instead,she said, "So. What's your big plan for the party tonight?"
"What makes you think I have a plan?"
"You're smiling. You always smile when you have a plan."
He actually hadn't been smiling, but as soon as she said that, a grin immediately wormed its way out.
"I can't tell you," he said.
"Because then it won't be a surprise!"
He laughed and vanished before she could say anything else.
* * * * *
The town's hall -not to be confused with Town Hall, which was much less interesting and usually full of grumpy old people arguing- was a large, mostly empty building in the shape of a rectangle, with a kitchen and bathrooms and not much else. Out back was a patio and farther back was a pool and beyond that was a landscaped little park, filled with flowers in the spring and summer, harvest-ready fruit trees in the autumn, and lots of hedges year round. This was the place where people had parties. Families rented it out for birthdays and family reunions. The school sometimes used it for plays or recitals. And, every year like clockwork, they had the Halloween party.
The party started at five, but Hazel didn't get to the hall until fifteen after. Even then, only a quarter after it started, the place was packed.
She weaved through the crowd, constantly stopped by people who wanted to know how she was, how her parents were, how their trip was going, when they'd be back, what school was like, did her mother remember that they were on for bowling the Saturday she got back? Did her father remember he was going over to help them move? Ah well, they'd just call and remind them to be sure- and an endless barrage of other questions adults tended to ask children that weren't their own.
Hazel answered them, politely when she could and tried her best to weasel away. Times like this made her wish she could go invisible, like Toby. or small, like Benny.
She couldn't find Benny anywhere. He wasn't by the punch bowl, or out on the patio, or near the food, or in any of the darker corners of the room. She frowned and started looking up, in case he'd gone shy and batty and was clinging to the ceiling.
"Hazel?" said a familiar voice right up against her ear. "What are you looking for?"
She hopped to the side and kept looking up.
"Benny," she said. "He's supposed to be here tonight, but I haven't seen him. I- hey! Stanley!"
She hurried over to the punch bowl where Stanley was talking with the other chaperons.
"Stanley! Have you seen Benny?"
"Mrrrg mrrrrrrgh mrgh."
"Outside? Really? Okay. Thanks."
"Mrrgh mrgh." Stanley nodded good naturedly and turned back to the other chaperons.
"Toby," she said loudly. "Stanley says he's outside."
"I'm right here," said Toby, materializing a few feet above her. "No need to shout. Okay. You go check, I've got stuff to do."
"Stuff?" she said suspiciously.
"Yeah. Stuff. Since when can't a guy have stuff to do, huh?"
"Look, find Benny, then get back here as fast as you can, okay?"
"Because we wouldn't want to miss the stuff."
He grinned. "Exactly."
She smiled despite herself and went swimming through the crowd, to the back doors.
* * * * *
The patio was full of spiky-haired teenagers in black on one side, and men her father's age standing around a barbecue on the other. She asked them- all of them- if anyone had seen Benny.
"That's Jay's little cousin, right?" said one of the teens.
He pointed out into the garden area, past the tall hedges and towards the trees. "Dunno about him, but I saw Jay go out there a while ago. Maybe he knows?"
"Alright, thank you!" She hurried off.
She found them together, back by the fruit trees. Benny was there, sitting at the base of a tree with his face smeared with juice and what looked like an apple clutched to his chest. There was a bunch of half-eaten fruit scattered around him. Jason was there, leaning one handed on the tree, looking down at him.
Jason was one of the palest people Hazel had ever seen, except for maybe his dad. he was twice as tall as Benny, even though he was only a few years older, and the way he was smiling made his teeth look even sharper than usual. His boots, she noticed, were wet and stuck with bits of fruit.
Like he's been stomping on some, she thought. Her hands curled into fists.
"Hey!" she shouted. "You leave him alone!"
Benny's eyes widened when he saw her, but Jason didn't look.
"Wow, Benny. You really need your girlfriend to help you?"
Benny flushed almost as red as she did.
"Jason you leave him alone right now or I'm gonna tell your mom 'n dad."
he turned around and looked at her coolly. "If you do, I'll just get you, too."
She opened her mouth to speak, but snapped it shut when she saw Benny shake his head.
"Jason," he said, getting to his feet. "How come you're always picking' on me?"
"I'm not pickin' on you. We're just playing."
"No, you're picking on me.
"I don't pick on you."
Benny pointed to the black eye. "What's that then?"
"That wasn't me pickin' on you. That was you bein' in my way."
"And all the other stuff? Pushing' me around and pulling' my hair and locking me in the laundry room?"
Jason didn't blink. "You're in my way a lot."
"How can I be in your way when I'm in the next room over?"
Jason drew his lips back in a sneer, revealing one unusually long tooth in particular. "You being in my house is being in my way. You taking up my bedroom and my parents and eating that gross food that stinks up the fridge is all being in my way."
He moved forward and shoved Benny back against the tree, then pinned him there one-handed. The other was curled into a fist and drawn back.
Hazel jumped on to Jason's back, trying to wrap her arms around his neck and screaming, "I'll tell on you! I'll tell on you!"
Jason smacked her off, only for Benny to grab onto him shouting "Don't hit her, don't hit her!"
With primal growl, Jason pulled both of them off and tossed them to the ground.
A cat ran by. It was white and slightly transparent, but solid enough to jostle Jason's leg slightly when it ran through him. It was gone almost instantly, having fled through the bushes. Jason scowled while Benny and Hazel picked themselves up. Before any of them could say anything, another cat ran past, followed by much larger dog. Together, they carried enough force to knock Jason off balance, sending him rump-first to the ground.
He was interrupted as a stampede of ghostly dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, parrots, finches, one monkey, three horses and a donkey all ran him over. For about thirty seemingly endless seconds, they watched animal after animal pass by. If she squinted, Hazel could almost make out a curled up lump of Jason through the spectral horde.
The last one to pass was Toby, riding on top of an overlarge potbellied pig. He saw them and waved, but didn't get off until after the pig had run over Jason.
"Hey guys," he said, floating towards them. "Whaddaya think?"
There were shouts from the distance. The horde had made it to the party hall. "I think you're going to be in so much trouble," she said with a grin. "Is this what you and the Bogart Brother's cooked up? Where did they all come from?"
Benny prodded her shoulder and pointed. "Hey, uh. Is he going to be alright?"
She looked to where Jason was curled up on the ground, moaning.
Toby shrugged. "Should be. He's not, like, physically hurt or anything. He's probably just a little off from having so many spirits go through him at once."
Benny went to kneel down beside him. "Jason?" he said.
Jason curled up a little tighter and tucked his head in his arms.
"Jason?" he tentatively nudged him in the shoulder.
"Leave him," said Toby. "Come on, I bet things are getting interesting inside."
Instead, Benny started pulling on Jason's arms, trying to get him to unravel. "Come on, Jay. Aunty's gonna be worried."
Hazel went to get the other arm, and together, they managed to pull Jason to his feet.
"What're you two doing?"
"I've got to get him home," said Benny.
"We can't just leave him out here," said Hazel. "it's almost dark."
"So? He likes the dark! He's a bat!"
Jason moaned and went limp. They all toppled over.
"But you're going to miss the party!"
Benny gave him a calm, flat look. "I can't leave him out here."
Toby groaned. "You guys are going to drive me insane. Hang on, you're doing this the stupid way. I'll be right back." He went invisible.
"Where are you going?" said Hazel.
"To get Stanley!" said the disembodied voice. "You're never going to carry him on your own."
"Thank you, Toby!" they both shouted.
"Yeah yeah yeah," said Toby, getting farther and farther away. They listened to him grumble until he'd gone away completely. Jason began to shiver.
"Do you really think he'll be okay?" said Benny.
"Probably," she said, going to sit down. "I don't think Toby would do anything permanent to him."
"I guess," said Benny. He sat down between her and Jason.
"Hey, Hazel?" he said shyly.
She smiled. "No problem, Benny."
And then they waited in silence.