Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror


A curious little charmer, this one. In the midst of Halloween madness, there is still a little room for a good deed...

All Hallows at the Lions' Cage

By Edward C. Lynskey
About the author

ANNIE SPARKLEBREATH WAS MONITORING other voices beamed across from the other dimensions. She scribbled these ramblings down in a marble-covered notebook she stowed beneath a loose knotty-holed plank. Fact was, blending in and keeping a low profile here was easier said than done. Mrs. Bell, her landlady, for weeks had been urging her to venture out, to mingle with the teeming throngs, to breath deep New York City's autumnal air crisp and clean as figs. She thought it unhealthy that a young girl would toil for long and uninterrupted sessions on "her first novel".

"You'll grow google-eyed and go batty holed up yonder like a hermit," Mrs. Bell warned Annie while defrosting her freezer.

Putting down her laundry basket, Annie laughed. "Even hermits have fun, too," she remarked.

Holding a wooden spatula, Mrs. Bell paused at jabbing the hoary rim crusted on the Freon tubing. "You remind me of my late daughter, Sally. She was bookish, too. She absolutely loved to write lyrical verses."

"Why, I thank you for that compliment," Annie responded, fondly smiling back.

"She was viciously murdered along Riverside Drive," continued Mrs. Bell. "Halloween night, three years ago." Trembling, Mrs. Bell's jaw jutted, her color drained to an ashen sorrow. A mother's agony etched a crown of thorns on her fervid forehead.

Eyes moistening, Annie approached with bare arms open to embrace her landlady. "I'm truly sorry for your loss," she gently expressed.

"It's been so nice having you here during this time," Mrs. Bell affirmed, returning the hug.

Back inside the brownstone apartment, Annie, sprawled on the big brass bed that was formerly Sally's, felt immediately at home. She tied the green baize curtains to blot out sunbeams. Dim solitude eased the interception of the encrypted messages. Annie pressed umber palms over her ears, listening intently. The marble-covered notebook lay propped open to a new, blank page. An uncapped Bic pen was wedged between her molars. The strings of messages filtering through sounded garbled.

Retrieving a cottage cheese carton from the dorm fridge, Annie locked the apartment behind her before climbing the three flights of stairs to Mrs. Bell's rooftop. Biting her lip, Annie deftly stepped over the rows of potted red-rust geraniums and pressed against a bent antennae rigged up in the far northern corner. Here the signal strengths ebbed and flowed like on the radio of a car entering a murky bridge, then emerging into flush sunlight. The persistent repetition of two words, "murder" and "death," troubled Annie. She'd discerned that a pack of griffins was colluding to pursue their nefarious acts against Mrs. Bell.

Despite finishing the cottage cheese, Annie remained hungry.

Trouble was, Annie had only a two-dollar bill to her name. As so often was the case, she felt compelled to improvise. Returning downstairs, she waited until darkness cloaked the streets, then adjusted Sally's white fedora to slant over one eye. She strolled along the sidewalk, her dusky smile beguiling.

"Good evening, Miss Sally," the hansom cab driver bid her. He was picking up a newlywed couple to tour moonlit Central Park.

Hurrying to flee the street light's illuminated ring, Annie waved back.

One block over, looking up and down the deserted street before ducking down a remote alley, Annie fell on all fours. Not missing a step, she assumed a wolfhound's muscular and svelte glide pouncing over garbage pails, patting over chilled cobblestones.

Behind the Thai diner, beside a torn screen door to the bustling kitchen with rattling pots and pans, Annie smelled the discarded pork chops in the chipped plate the wizened cook she knew as Fan had set out for her. The chops sated her hunger pangs.

A Halloween moon, huge and hairy, bobbed overhead, its lunar tug calibrating the New York harbor tides. Annie's whiskers twitched from its unusually vigorous gravitation. This also troubled her. Her paws broke into a half-trot. Already the midnight was smoky and ripe for morbid trespasses. Lurid promises hung in the air like sweet, sad dirges.

A steady diet of violent crimes -- rape, stabbing, mugging, strangling, slashing -- always fed the human psyche. Annie had grown to except that much and even prevailed to accept it. Still, Halloween night unleashed especially dark extremes and macabre excesses. Costumed as ghouls, ghosts, witches, warlocks, etc., people once a year ventured out in mock celebration of things they couldn't begin to understand. In the unseen fourth and fifth dimensions, this abject frivolity and disrespect rankled the very entities that mortals sought to portray and ridicule.

Mrs. Bell, for instance, since her daughter Sally's murder insisted on returning each Halloween to the lions' cage at the Bronx Zoo. Among fellow jesters, she would stand at the pikestaff fence and "roar" at the shaggy lions snoring in their adobe dens. Whiskey flasks circulated. Jolly backslapping went on. They exchanged dirty jokes involving lollipops. Emboldened by their Dutch courage, the most brazen -- with Mrs. Bell in the forefront -- scaled the pikestaff fence and teetered by the moat to taunt the yawning lions.

This year they would gape, jaws dropped, at the lions' leaping prowess. In fact, this year Halloween would bristle with many paybacks by disgruntled spirits and spooks. Alerted by peace-loving Hephaestus a few weeks before, Annie was one of a few good guys wearing white fedoras. She was doing her level best to head off the gory incursions tagged for Mrs. Bell.

Annie darted across a barren intersection, a moon shadow traversing a city gone berserk. A bumblebee taxi screeched to the subway escalator. A drunken young girl lurched out, her green miniskirt rising like yeast, her haunches soft as butter. Off under the closed newspaper kiosk, Jack the Ripper's shadow lurked, his straight razor stropped with black-hearted malice. The girl, no more than sixteen, detected his low coarse whistle but, not until too late, his steely sharpness slitting a fair and tender throat. Howling in tandem with the young girl's horrific death wail, Annie hurried to reach the zoo in time.

For a wrap to ward off the evening chill, Mrs. Bell had seized a Red Cross flag flapping for the neighborhood blood drive and ripped it down with one mighty yank. Voices soon goaded her to whip herself up into a maniac frenzy. A bearded man tossed his empty bourbon bottle at the male lion now pacing in front of the moat. The lion's blood-shot eyes blazed. Interlacing his fingers, the bearded man fashioned a crude stirrup and hoisted the big-boned Mrs. Bell over the pikestaff fence to tumble to the opposite side.

Snarling, Mrs. Bell snatched the wine bottle the man shoved between the steel bars. Upending the bottle, she gleefully grunted after feeling the alcoholic explosion hit her head. She waved a yellow scarf at the nearest lion like a feeble-minded matador.

Bounding through the zoo's wrought iron gate, Annie rumbled past the cerise-hued aviary and stucco reptile house. A night watchman, his shoelaces untied and hatless, dozed inside a pink lit doorway, the revelers' gift of the half-full tequila bottle tucked under an elbow. Sniffing, Annie discerned the vigorous whiffs of rancid sweat from an infuriated male lion.

Mrs. Bell was making a dopey and delirious sport of it. Crying and whooping, she defied the male lion regally frozen at the moat's lip. The other revelers, maddened by the mob carnival atmosphere, encouraged her to cross the moat. Mrs. Bell vaguely remembered she couldn't swim a lick. The bearded man offered to ferry her across. That declamation earned a robust drunken outburst.

The crowd's chant began, slurred but growing emphatic.

Stick it to the beast.
Stick it to the beast.
Stick it to the beast.

All at once, the lion roared, its silky tawny mane flying behind as it catapulted through the frosty night to land but a few yards from Mrs. Bell. Mrs. Bell blinked, shook her head, blinked again. The now hushed crowd stared in disbelief, recoiled a pace from the pikestaff fence.

Annie had espied the lion's athletic leap, except she gleaned the evil-minded griffins invisible to mortal eyes had assisted the beast. Baring her chisel-like fangs, arraying her dagger-sharp claws, and balefully baying, Annie scattered the cowardly griffins. She then pivoted to deal with the male lion poised to crush a stupefied Mrs. Bell.

Growling a feral warning, Annie charged the lion's exposed flank, threateningly snipping its tail. During this diversion, Mrs. Bell possessed the presence of mind to hightail it over the pikestaff fence to safety.

The whimpering male lion plunged down into the moat and dog-paddled to the far shore to rejoin the pride.

* * *

The next morning Mrs. Bell slouched at the kitchen table, her eyes dulled by the superstar hangover. Like always, she regretted her impulsive if not destructive antics from the night before. Halloween night made her crazy, rendering the anniversary grief of her daughter's murder unbearable. The oversized wolf vaulting into the lions' cage, the one rescuing her from the near jaws of death, thrilled her. As Annie shambled down the stairs, Mrs. Bell looked up. Annie was toting her two yellow, bulging suitcases.

"I won't require lodging any longer," Annie informed her.

Mrs. Bell acted surprised. "You've already finished the first novel?" she wondered.

Grinning, Annie placed the room key on the drainboard. "Something like that," she replied. "I kept everything I produced here, too. Thing is, I may very well return, say, next year. So, let's plan on it."

The End.

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All Hallows at the Lions' Cage is copyright Edward C. Lynskey. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)