Author's Notes: Hello once again! I have returned with another story for your consideration, this time with a haunted boardwalk, hot ghost chasers, and a girl trying to unravel the mystery of her disappeared mother while trying to protect what's left of her family. This is another one I'm rather playing by ear, and as usual, inputs and comments are always welcome!
I mostly got the idea for this story when I went to Santa Cruz with my girlfriends for my bachelorette party and I decided "Hey! I want to write a story about a haunted boardwalk!" So I'm winging this more than the other stories I have currently published. There are a few things that I haven't entirely decided on, like the name of the town MacKenzie and her family move to, so don't be confused if it suddenly changes in later chapters. The title itself is a working title as well. I'll try to keep up consistency as things are changed. With that in mind, enjoy!
"I don't see why we couldn't have waited until after Halloween."
For all her life, MacKenzie prided herself as never being a whiner. She never fussed about bedtime, she never rebelled against homework, and she rarely huffed and puffed over whatever new organic food fad her stepmother put down in front of her for dinner (that was, however, an ongoing battle her father was on her side on, and certain lines had to be drawn). Life was both fair and unfair, and when it did take a turn for the latter sitting around feeling sorry for yourself wasn't going to help make it better. So when her parents announced, quite suddenly, she might add, that they would be packing up and moving from their apartment in the city to the small coastal town of Loretta Cove, MacKenzie felt that she had enough good daughter credits built up that she could have her say in the matter. She was sixteen, she was quite comfortable in the niche she found for herself in the awkward world that was high school, and they were making her move right before her favorite holiday. She was entitled to be indignant over the whole ordeal.
"Heath issues don't work on timelines, MacKenzie," Rachel said as she continued to unpack one of the numerous kitchen/culinary boxes. "And don't whine. It's unbecoming."
"I'm not whining." MacKenzie whined, suppressing the urge to grin when her stepmother glared at her. "I'm just saying another two months in the city wouldn't have hurt any of us. I lived in Chicago my whole life and I'm fine. Don't have a smog cough or anything."
"It's not just city pollution you need to worry about. All cities are just one giant poisonous environment, physically, psychologically, and emotionally. You wouldn't even know you were sick until there's nothing that can be done to treat it."
MacKenzie didn't say anything immediately in response. She instead reached for the box containing their extensive collection of coffee mugs and began to line them up in single file along the counter as she unwrapped them, taking a moment to compose her thoughts so she wouldn't say something childish and take away from her own argument. It wasn't that MacKenzie didn't like Rachel – far from it, actually. Oh sure, she had all the standard worries when her father told her he was getting re-married, that Rachel would try to superimpose herself as MacKenzie's replacement mother, or that she would suddenly lose her father's attentions to his new wife. But as they all settled into their new routines MacKenzie fear's quickly evaporated, and except for the few crazy new health and diet fads (death to the person who discovered the benefits of wheat grass), she and Rachel got along pretty well.
However, there were times when Rachel still tended to treat MacKenzie like a little kid, like when she made up excuses to the painfully obvious. She knew that Rachel was looking for a ticket out of the city even before she married her dad, and when he came back from his last doctor's check-up with a brand new bottle of high blood pressure medication, Rachel immediately declared his new health condition must be caused by the natural stressful conditions created by city living. MacKenzie wanted to point out that there were a lot worse places to live than Chicago, and that his high blood pressure probably had more to do with those stupid launch parties and publisher dinners she insisted he go to, but Rachel was her father's agent as well as his wife, so MacKenzie's opinion in the matter meant little.
Except for now, that is. Rachel was going to hear her opinion whether she wanted to or not.
"But I was on the committee this year. Sophomores never get to be on the Franklin High Scaretacular Haunted House committee. It's only ever open to the juniors and seniors."
Rachel sighed, setting another box down on the counter with a little more force than what was necessary. "MacKenzie, I don't know what else to tell you. If we did not make an offer on this house when we did we would have lost it. Maybe you can find some other Halloween activity around here."
"Yeah, maybe," MacKenzie said glumly, withholding the urge to point out that it wouldn't be the Scaretacular Haunted House or Franklin High's annual Haunted Ball that took place on All Hallow's Eve. "Where do you want the coffee mugs?"
"Just leave them there for right now. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to organize the kitchen." She looked over their new galley-style kitchen, wrinkling her nose. "I didn't realize we'd be so short on storage space compared to the apartment. I suppose we should invest in getting some additional cabinets installed." MacKenzie tried not to wince. It had not fully sunk in that this move was real, that it was permanent, and Rachel talking about adding things to the house was forcing her to acknowledge that she was not ready to.
"Do you need any help with anything else?"
"Not right now. I'd like to get the plates and silverware put away, but I don't think we'll be ready to cook anything until tomorrow. I saw a deli while I was out today, and I was thinking about picking up some sandwiches from there for dinner tonight. Does that sound good?"
"There's also that Chinese place we saw on our way in."
The wrinkles in Rachel's nose deepened. "I'm not sure about that one. They look like they'd still use MSG in their food." She must have seen the look of disappointment on MacKenzie's face, because she added, with just a hint of resignation, "but we can always pick up a nutrition sheet just to make sure."
"Thanks," MacKenzie replied weakly, knowing in the end Rachel's peacekeeping gesture would be futile. Even if there was no MSG in the food, she would no doubt find something else in their food that was not suitable for a growing teenager and her newly-medicated husband. It felt like a really long time since MacKenzie had a good bowl of chow mien or Mongolian beef.
"I'm going to go work on my room a little bit. Let me know if you need anything else."
As much as MacKenzie was against the sudden uprooting of her life, she couldn't deny that the house her father and stepmother found was pretty freaking adorable. It was a two bedroom split-level built during the 1950s, complete with detached private garage, a square of short, spongy grass for a front yard, and a second-story loft that she immediately claimed for her own bedroom. The house was built in a quaint neighborhood full of similarly cute beach houses, no two of which were alike and within walking distance of the main streets of Loretta Cove and half a mile from the rocky coastline.
MacKenzie never saw the ocean before, and, truth be told, never felt any real desire to. She had grown up on the shores of Lake Michigan, and therefore always assumed that the ocean couldn't be much different. But as soon as she stepped out of the car and looked out over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean for the first time she realized how wrong she was. For one thing, the beaches were nothing like what they showed in Baywatch. The sea was not a sparkling sapphire blue, but iron gray instead, frothy and angry-looking beneath a low hanging overcast sky, dashing itself against the rocky cliffs as though it was furious that they were stopping the waves from pushing further inland. There were beaches, but they were gray too, long and bleak-looking with less-than-reassuring signs warning swimmers against jellyfish, riptides and undertows, and how there were no lifeguards on duty to pull the sorry ass of any swimmer who was stupid enough to go in to safety. She even saw a sign pointing the direction to a tsunami safety zone.
And the ocean was huge. There were no pictures or movies in the world that could prepare her for the behemoth of the Pacific, stretching away on either side of her and off into the horizon where it merged with the sky.
"Well, maybe it'll look better when the sun's out," Rachel said optimistically.
Her father, however, didn't seem to mind in the slightest. MacKenzie knew that this was what he called his "writing weather," and that the darker, stormier, and nastier it was outside the more he was able to get accomplished. He practically beamed when the weatherman announced a chance of rain and a high wind gust advisory on their first night in the new house. "A good omen," he declared, looking directly at her with a smile as he said it, prompting a smile of her own in return. MacKenzie always figured it only made sense, as an author of a series of popular horror and ghost stories for early and young adult readers. She began to wonder if this was another reason why Rachel chose to move here of all places, to have something on her side against the ongoing war of immovable writer's blocks and encroaching deadlines.
It had rained that night, just as the weatherman predicted, and as soon as the first drops began to hit the windows her father had his ancient laptop out, perched on his knees as he leaned against the wall, furiously churning out three new chapters on his latest book as she and Rachel unpacked boxes around him. Not that either of them minded; Rachel was just happy he was writing at all, and it meant that he would have something new for MacKenzie to read before she went to bed that night, and she was in desperate need of something old and familiar when so much was changing around her.
But now the clouds were beginning to break up, allowing a few golden rays of sunlight to escape between them, and with the breaking of the clouds came the breaking of her father's creative flow. As MacKenzie passed by the room her father was setting up as his office, she saw Benjamin Garrett sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, surrounded by piles of notebooks, binders and stacks of well-loved paperbacks. He told Rachel almost two hours ago that he was going to start organizing his office, and so far not a single book had found its way of any of the shelves.
"You know Rachel's going to pitch a fit if she sees you haven't gotten anything done," MacKenzie said, coming to sit by her dad in the same cross-legged position. She picked up the nearest notebook and flipped through its crumpled pages, filled with bits and pieces of dozens of stories, both used and unused, in her father's scrawling handwriting. Unlike Rachel, MacKenzie wasn't surprised to discover he hadn't made any headway in unpacking; any time he reorganized his office he would often get caught up in looking over his old notes, to see if anything could be salvaged for whatever new novel he was working on.
Today, however, it was not a notebook lying open on her father's lap, but a photo album. MacKenzie felt her heart lurch at the sight of the pretty blue-eyed brunette smiling up at her from the photographs' glossy surfaces.
"I must have thrown this in with the rest of my books when I wasn't paying attention," Benjamin said, offering an explanation she didn't ask for. "It seemed only fair to look at it at least once before it gets put away again."
MacKenzie rested her elbows on her knees, chin in hand as she watched her father look through the photos of her mother in silence. MacKenzie barely remembered her mother except for a few fleeting albeit prominent memories, such as story time before bed, pancakes on Sunday mornings, and raiding her closet to play dress-up for hours on end. She did more accurately remember the police officers and detectives who seemed to visit their apartment every day for months on end, using words that she didn't understand like "homicide" and "ransom," and yet the tone they spoke them made them terrifying to her. She remembered being rushed from their apartment building with a coat over her head whenever her father took her to school, dodging people with cameras on their heads so big they looked like robotic Cyclopes. She especially remembered the satisfying crunch the boy's nose made when she punched him after he suggested that her dad probably knew of dozens of way to get rid of a body since he wrote books about that kind of stuff. As the months went by the police and detectives didn't come by as often as they did before, and eventually even the news reporters with their big cameras stopped coming around, too. When MacKenzie got older she decided that Emily Garrett was not the type of woman who would abandon her family and disappear without a word to anyone. Or, at least, that's what MacKenzie liked to tell herself.
She also became old enough to join her father's skepticism over the bones the police found on the outskirts of River Grove, even though they belonged to a female roughly the same size and age as Emily Garrett. A DNA test was of course ordered, but it came back disappointingly inconclusive. By then her father was so tired, and he paid to have the bones buried whether they belonged to her mother or not. The headstone that marked the grave had no names and dates, only the epitaph "Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
"Do you think Mom would have liked it here?" MacKenzie asked after a period of prolonged silence.
"I don't think this would have been her first choice of places to move to. Your mother was too much of a sunshine person. Even Chicago was difficult for her sometimes. But, the only thing she loved more than the sun was you, so no matter where you were she would have been happy."
"Oh, I don't know about that," MacKenzie said, bumping her shoulder against his. "She seemed pretty fond of you, too. I'm sure she wouldn't have minded being where you were, either."
Her father smiled ruefully, causing the shadows on his face to shift and settle in unfamiliar places. She knew how hard it was for him to talk or even think about his lost wife. Seeing a trace of guilt flicker in his honey-brown eyes, MacKenzie reached out to place a hand on his knee. "I know you miss her, Dad, but Mom's not going to come walking through the front door. You have nothing to feel bad about by marrying Rachel. She makes you happy, and that makes me happy."
His smile widened a bit, the shadows loosening their hold around his mouth. "Even when she tried to swap out the turkey for tofurkey last Thanksgiving?"
MacKenzie rolled her eyes. "Well, I didn't say our relationship was perfect."
Her father laughed at that, making MacKenzie smile herself. She looked around his office, taking in the number of boxes that still needed to be unpacked and thought about all the ones waiting for the same treatment upstairs. She then caught sight of a thin rectangular package leaning against the wall, the thick brown paper peeled back to reveal the corner of a gilded frame. MacKenzie knew exactly what it was without having to look at the picture the frame held.
"Do you think Rachel's going to let you hang that back up in the dining room?"
Her dad's eyes were immediately drawn to the picture MacKenzie was referring to. "Oh… We'll see. I figured I'd let her have the run of the front of the house before I breech that conversation."
"I'm surprised she didn't pay off the movers to leave it behind or damage it or something." Rachel made not secret that she hated the painting that had been in her father's possession long before she was born. It showed a young girl wearing a gossamer white dress, standing on the threshold of a dark forest, the branches of the trees reaching for her like skeletal hands. No, not just reaching – beckoning to her, while equally dark and nameless things lurked between the trunks, watching her every move. But it wasn't the forbidding forest that inflicted a feeling a dread to the viewer, or the mist curling on the ground or the creatures crawling amongst the trees. No, it was the look on the painted girl's face, a mixture of horror, apprehension, and fascination. She always looked as though she wanted to run into the forest's clutches as much as she wanted to run from it. To make it even worse, the girl had the kind of eyes that followed you across the room, begging you to join her in that beautiful, terrible realm. According to her dad, it was the painting that inspired him to become a writer in the first place, and her mother hated it as much as Rachel did because she claimed she could never escape the girl's eyes. It would be nothing short of a miracle if Rachel let it pass the doorway of this room.
"I think you should save your energy and just hang it up in here."
Her father looked at her with a frown that was half-playful, half-serious. "Now, Kennie, what have I always told you about finding inspiration?"
"That is can be found in the most unlikely places," she sighed. "All right, I'll talk to her too. Remind her exactly what she was getting into when she agreed to marry you."
"That's my girl," Benjamin Garrett beamed, reaching over to ruffle her hair.
MacKenzie leaned over to kiss her father on his stubbly cheek. "I'm going to do some more unpacking." She unfolded her legs and stood up, but before she left his office completely she paused, looking pointedly at him over her shoulder. "And get some real work done, or I'm telling on you."
Her father chuckled, but picked up a stack of books and started to put them on the shelves.
The stairs leading up to MacKenzie's loft room were tight and spiraled, with blonde wood steps and wrought-iron railing, adding another piece of charm to the house she found endearing. It was a bear trying to get all her furniture and belongings up there, and her father made the comment more than once that if they ever moved again MacKenzie would be starting over from scratch because there was no way he was going through that ordeal again. But now with the fiasco done and over with MacKenzie was rewarded with her own slice of private heaven. Her bed was situated up against the wall with the room's only window, beneath a low, sloping ceiling, already made up with her dark blue duvet with its smattering of gold constellations. Her wardrobe was next to the loft's tiny closet, and her one oversized bookshelf and worktable crowded each other on the third wall. There was no fourth wall, just an open space that looked out over the living room below and guarded by another iron banister. The loft looked every bit the warzone her father's office did; boxes and bags and containers battled each other for space, covering their hand-written labels yet still rendering MacKenzie's efforts at some sort of coherent organization system useless. The only things she so far unpacked other than the essentials she needed for school was her mannequin and the Halloween costume she'd been working on for the past few months.
MacKenzie felt her face fall a little when she saw it. It was her most involved and complicated costume yet, and she was really hoping to turn some heads at this year's Haunted Ball. Unlike the last two years, when MacKenzie chose to be something specific – a Silent Hill nurse when she was in eighth grade, for example, and Harley Quinn when she was a freshman – MacKenzie was going for an all-out steampunk theme, complete with boning in the faux-leather corset and petticoats underneath the multitudes of fabric that made up her skirt; all hand-made, of course. She knew there wasn't any reason why she couldn't wear it at whatever Halloween shindig she found around here, but she knew it wouldn't be the same. Sure, there was always a fair share of cheap latex masks and sexy "insert-ridiculous-and-irrelevant-theme-here" costumes at the Ball, but they were always countered by the students who put genuine time and effort into their outfits. The Franklin High Scaretacular committee took the business of Halloween very seriously.
Being her father's daughter, instead of attacking the first box and putting its content into their rightful places, she instead crossed over to her worktable/computer desk/vanity and started reviewing the pattern for the short military jacket that would accompany the rest of her outfit. Downstairs, she heard Rachel telling her father, "No, you are not putting that thing in the dining room!", indicating he already initiated the battle for painting placement. In response she heard her father cheerfully declare that she was right, and that the living room was a much better choice. Or, better yet, the front entryway! All of which was met by Rachel's huffs and murmured exasperations.
MacKenzie smiled, and decided that as long as the important things remained the same, this move would not be so bad.