Millicent Horn-Young was going all out this year, mostly with rats.
Some people play Christmas carols at Summer Solstice to remind themselves that it is only six months till Yuletide cheer. Not Millie. She would adjust her shady hat, apply a little more sunscreen and — bending down to remove a couple of weeds while counting down the days — wonder if she should turn her Halloween Haunted House maze to the right or left.
For 14 years, the Horn-Youngs had run the biggest and best Halloween house in town. No-one else came close. In the 15th year Harry died, leaving Millie to carry on alone. She almost didn't do it that first year without him but she pulled herself together, planning the maze helped her survive her loss.
Two years later, the Barkers moved next door.
The Barkers were outwardly kind-spirited and they joined all sorts of useful community groups, but their hearts were deeply and sincerely competitive and jealous. In early September the year after they arrived, Jeff Barker told his wife Harper to get in the car. They drove to Walmart, where their dollar could buy more sweatshop-cheap fake blood, stringed jack-o-lantern lights, furry spiders and plastic carving knives. This way they depleted two aisles of Halloween decorations just hours after the displays went up.
The aim was to unseat the undeclared but undisputed champion horror house queen. Jeff and Harper decorated furiously, on October 25 it was ready, but they failed. Quite miserably. Among other things, they hadn't prepared for rain. The following year, they threw a lot more money at both The Bay and Michael's craft store and rigged tarpaulins. It didn't rain, but they failed again.
They didn't have Millie's knack for telling a story. Harry used to say his wife should get a Canada Council grant for her productions. One year it was the headless horseman, complete with life-sized horse statue. Harry hadn't much liked climbing onto it dressed as though he'd been decapitated, but he had to admit it was effective.
Another year, Millie stuck with frightening creatures of the forest: cougars, grizzly bears, wolves, sasquatches and wasps, and called the theme "terror in the wilderness". Mysteriously, she told Harry to wear a suit and zombie makeup and go as a Canadian politician. It ended up being his favourite year, he told her, because he scared the parents more than the kids.
The local families who spent 10 minutes going through the mazes Millie planned and built often did it twice; they might learn the story of a vampire who lost his best friend, or how the mummy escaped from his tomb. At the end there'd be lots of candy.
All Harry had to do was dress up — he was the lead actor of every annual Haunted House night. Once, he was a ghostly First World War soldier with a gas mask and the next year he was Sully from Monsters Inc. He'd gently growled to make eight-year-olds shriek and laugh. With the 14-year-old boys he was a little scarier because they were too old and too greedy for easy chocolate. They would shriek, too. Millie took Harry's place after he died and she would growl, poke, jump out from hiding and provoke until the last kids left frightened and satisfied.
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