The Chosen One
by Amy Susan Brown
As soon as she opened the front door, Karlee saw trouble.
Arnold stood there in a great big furry bear costume, his chubby face peeking out from beneath tiny bear ears, smiling. He was holding a pot of bright orange mums, which he thrust in her direction.
“F-for your m-mom,” he said, with the stammer that made the kids titter when Mrs. Lawson called on him in class.
What sixth grader comes to a Halloween party dressed like a five-year-old with a present for her mother?, Karlee thought. Why did her mother have to make her invite the whole class? Karlee assumed Arnold wouldn’t come. He never did. She pushed him towards the kitchen. “Why don’t you bring the flowers to my mom? She’ll be so happy.”
Arnold looked back at her. “But…but…wh..where are the others?”
At the basement door, Karlee turned, tossing back her long black hair beneath her witch’s hat. “We’re still setting up. I’ll come and get you when we’re ready.”
In the basement, the haunted house was almost complete. Karlee pushed aside cotton spider webs as she made her way to the centerpiece of her creation: the coffin.
Trevor and Nelson sat on the sofa, watching her best friend Dani hang the final decorations. They’d already hid the six-packs of beer in the closet. Karlee was hoping her Mom would pour her nightly Chardonnay, sit in front of the TV, and ignore them.
But now there was Arnold to deal with.
“So guys,” Karlee said, pulling down the bodice of her witch’s dress to reveal more cleavage, “you won’t believe it but Arnold is here.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Dani said. She was wearing her cheerleading outfit, with the sweater that was at least one size too small. “Don’t tell me you invited him!”
“Of course not!” Karlee said. “Now what do we do?”
Trevor walked over to the coffin. “This party just got a lot more fun,” he said, tapping his wizard’s wand against the side of the coffin. “Let’s give Arnold the starring role.”
“You mean put him in the coffin?” Karlee asked. “But I mean, can you breathe in there?”
“Sure you can,” Trevor said, flipping open the latch and peering inside. “The question is, can we fit big old Arnold in here?”
“And he’s wearing a bear costume!” Karlee said.
Trevor laughed again, this time with an edge, the laugh he reserved for slamming some poor kid into a locker. “Now this I gotta see. Bring Paddington down here!”
At the sound of Arnold’s voice, they swiveled around. Arnold was standing on the staircase, holding a paper plate of cupcakes.
“Hey man,” Trevor said. “How long you been there spying on us?”
“I wa-wasn’t sp-spying,” Arnold said, his bottom lip trembling.
“Well, good,” Trevor said. “Because we chose a part for you.”
“A p-part?” Arnold stood on the staircase, his eyes on Karlee. She shrugged. Like she was going to be his defender.
“Yeah, man, for the haunted house. We need someone to be the living dead, to lay inside this coffin. And we choose you. It’s best part!” Trevor glanced at Nelson and they smiled.
Arnold stared at the two boys. He descended the last two steps and walked over to the coffin. He looked down, his face pale.
“You’re not scared, big guy, are you?” Trevor said. “Even if you are dressed like a bear.” The girls giggled.
“Wh..what parts are you playing?” Arnold asked, turning to face them.
“Oh, that’s part of the surprise,” Karlee said. “You’ll see.”
She gave him a nudge, pushing him closer. She thought she saw panic in his eyes and for an instant, she hesitated. But Trevor had set the plan in motion; it was out of her hands now.
“O..okay,” Arnold said. He raised one leg over the edge of the coffin and steadied himself with his hands, nearly falling inside.
“Easy does it, man,” Trevor said. “Here, let me help you.”
Trevor pushed on Arnold’s shoulder, a little harder than he needed to, and Arnold winced. “Sorry, did that hurt?” Trevor said. “It’s hard to tell under all this fur.”
Nelson laughed. He and the girls stood next to Trevor. Beads of perspiration dripped down Arnold’s pale face. He swallowed hard and squeezed his eyes shut. “Okay,” he said, his voice shaking. “You…you can shut it now.”
Trevor eased the lid down and put his hand on the latch. Karlee grabbed his arm. “No,” she hissed. “Don’t lock it.”
“Then our monster might get out,” he whispered back.
“Stop it,” she said in a low voice. “We did what you wanted, okay?”
Trevor put his arm around Karlee’s waist. “Not everything I wanted. C’mon, let’s get the beer.”
He took her by the hand and motioned for the others to follow. Nelson carried the beer. They ducked inside Karlee’s old playhouse in the backyard, where they usually went to drink or smoke a joint. It was an hour before the other kids would arrive because she’d changed the time of the party last minute. She’d never told Arnold because he wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Just a minute,” Nelson said. “I forgot something.” He gave Trevor the beer. “Save some for me.”
Karlee watched as Nelson went back inside, her stomach knotted. She didn’t like this game they were playing but it was too late, wasn’t it? She didn’t want to look stupid in front on her friends. Anyway, Arnold would be okay, wouldn’t he?
They passed the beer around, each taking a bottle as Nelson walked in with a second six-pack. “Let’s get this party started,” he said.
Karlee swallowed her beer; it tasted bitter in her mouth. She hated beer but she’d never admit it. Trevor nestled up against her, his eyes on her breasts. “So, are you a good witch or a very bad witch?” he asked. She closed her eyes. She wanted him to kiss her, and to forget what was going on around her. Beer was good for that, she’d learned.
Dani and Nelson were on top of each other in the corner.
She felt Trevor’s hand slide up her skirt and she pushed him away.
“Hey, what’s going on?” he whispered. “Don’t you like it?”
She sat up. “I…I have to go check on Mom. Make sure she’s not snooping around.”
Trevor sighed. “Whatever.” He took a swig from his bottle of beer. “Get back here soon.”
Karlee walked slowly towards the door leading to the basement. How long had they been in the playhouse? Her head throbbed and she almost lost her balance as she pushed open the door. She heard a noise. A fist pounding against wood. A cry for help. Shit. Her mother would have heard that. She’d be downstairs in a second looking for Karlee. She ran back to the playhouse.
“Get out!” she cried as she flung open the door.
Dani pulled down her dress as Nelson raised himself up on his elbows to look at Karlee. “What the hell?” he said.
“He’s making noise!” Karlee said. “My mom’s going to hear him!”
“Who?” Nelson asked.
Idiot, Karlee thought. “Arnold,” she hissed. “I don’t know why he’s yelling for help and knocking on the coffin. We didn’t lock it.”
Nelson laughed. “Well, you didn’t lock it. But maybe someone else did…”
“What?” Karlee stared at him. “You asshole!” She turned and ran back towards the house.
She swung open the back door but it was too late. She heard her mom shouting, the sound of her feet on the stairs. “Karlee, what’s going on down there?”
Karlee made it to the base of the stairs as her mom walked in. The back door swung open and Nelson, Trevor, and Dani pushed inside the room. Her mom stared at them. “And where were you?” she asked them. “What’s going on here?”
They all heard it. The pounding, louder than softer, a cry more like a whimper. “H..help, p..please.”
Karlee turned to the back of the basement, determined to get to the coffin before her mother did. But she wasn’t fast enough.
Her mom put her hand on the coffin. “Is someone inside here?” she asked, staring at Karlee. She unhooked the latch and lifted the lid. Arnold lay there, his face so pale that they all took a collective inward breath. He wasn’t moving. There was the smell of damp fur and his knuckles were red and blistered.
“Shit,” Trevor said. “What’s wrong with him?”
“What’s wrong?!” Karlee’s mother swiveled towards Trevor. “You put this poor boy in a box and locked it! Animals! Help me get him out!”
Trevor and Nelson reached in and grabbed his arms and legs. Karlee’s mom grabbed him by the waist. They lay him on the floor.
“Get some water, Karlee!” Mom said.
She ran back with a glass of water and her mom grabbed it, splashing some of it onto Arnold’s face. He blinked, then coughed, wiping his eyes.
“Arnold,” Karlee’s mom asked. “Are you okay?”
Arnold opened his eyes, staring at them. A smile spread across his face. “Ho..how did I do?”
“What’s he talking about?” Mom asked Karlee.
“Nothing…” she said.
Arnold reached out and put his hand on Karlee’s arm. His hand was damp, clammy. He smiled. “You ch…chose me.”
He turned his head to look at Karlee’s mom. “It’s okay, Mrs. Garritt. I’m okay.”
“I don’t think you are,” she said. “I don’t know what’s been going on but I intend to find out. You kids needs to go home. The party is over. Arnold, I’m calling your parents to come get you.” She turned to her daughter. “And you, miss, are grounded. Get upstairs to your room.”
Karlee was in her room when she heard the doorbell ring and her mom talking to Arnold’s mother. As she waited for her mother to knock on her door, Karlee faced the wall, ready for whatever reckoning was coming her way. She had known all along that Arnold would wreck the party.
Two years later, when Arnold hung himself in his bedroom, Karlee had transferred to another school. She never thought about that Halloween party.
Only on those nights, when she woke up drenched in sweat, crawling her way out of a deep, dark place, a hand on her wrist pulling her back down. She would scream as his face came into view. “You chose me,” he whispered. “Thank you for choosing me.”
© Amy Susan Brown 2016