by Madeline McEwen-Asker
We had several Halloween mystery short stories submitted to our contest recently that while they didn’t make the final five, they are well worth publishing–here is the first one–Not On Your Nelly, a never before published short story.
Mungo Mortenstow noticed a hand-made costume hanging on his bedroom door when he arrived home from middle school.
“Surprise!” Mom said shooting out of the bathroom like a catapult. “Do you like it? You do like it, don’t you, Mungo?”
He looked at the exact copy of Max’s outfit from Where the Wild Things Are. A great choice for a little kid, possibly pleasant, if you happened to be about four, but Mungo wasn’t four and hadn’t been for nearly a decade. At nearly five foot ten, Mungo was already six inches taller than mom.
“You don’t like it,” she said her face a picture of abject misery, “do you?”
How come everyone else saw him as an adult, almost, except Mom? Mungo mustered his diplomatic powers.
“I hope it’s long enough in the legs,” she said grabbing the costume off the hanger and holding up the shoulders to his, pulling the crotch between his denim-clad legs.
“Mom!” he said taking a step back. “Please.” He took the costume from her hands that knew no boundaries; a woman who still spat on a tissue to scrub his face. That was the price of having an older mom, old enough to be anyone else’s gran, who could die any day because of her heart condition. Hence, although sometimes he wanted to crush her like a kitten, Freddie Krueger style. Instead, he took a deep breath and hoped Horace, his older brother, would bring the grandkids round for Mom’s baby-fix.
That was the price he paid for being Mungo, the miracle baby who arrived on this earth when his mom was already a grandmother four times over.
“Have you grown again?” Mom frowned at him, peering through her bifocals rammed against the bridge of her nose.
Mungo was tired of this topic. Whether or not he had grown? Eaten his home-made packed lunch? Completed his homework? Any girls on the scene? He particularly hated the word, ‘scene,’ or maybe the way she said it, with innuendo wiggling eye-brows.
Mungo retreated inside his bedroom step-by-step, closing the door in-by-inch muttering platitudes: “Yes, be there soon, I’d love a snack.” He didn’t lock the door but slipped a chair under the handle. It wouldn’t keep her out but might delay the inevitable. What did he have to do for a minute of peace?
He pushed in his ear-buds, turned up the volume and threw himself on the bed; a short single bed with a Mickey Mouse comforter set [new], ancient plushies lined up in order of size along his pillow. The walls were a faded shade of baby blue with thirty-six of the original fifty, glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.
Was it only an hour ago? After school, he went home with Oblenska Comaneci to study. If the name Mungo sounded weird, then Oblenska was almost as bad. Why would anyone name their daughter after a thoroughbred horse? At school, they called her Obi-Wan Kenobi, but not to her face, a beautiful face so the name didn’t fit: a turned up button nose, dark eyes, sombre expression, and fair hair cut short like a boys. Her parents both worked full-time.
She had the house to herself if you didn’t count the little brothers. Mungo didn’t, and neither did Oblenska.
There, they spent forty-five minutes in her magnolia colored bedroom, sunk in two separate beanbag chairs, like static drowning. He longed to touch her, but subtle, sophisticated movement was impossible. Her room had no toys, but an impressive collection of books filled a five-shelf bookcase. By their condition, split spines and dog-eared pages, someone had read them. Her bed, a double, wore a plaid comforter with matching pillows. No drapes, but the kind of vertical blinds you saw in offices.
“I go trick or treat with you?” Oblenska had asked. Her grasp of English amazed him, as did her forthrightness, when she’d only moved to California three months ago. “I have traditional Halloween. Mom, she buy pumpkins. You teach me carve, yes?”
“Don’t you do that at home?”
“No. I buy fancy dress, yes.”
“Costume,” he corrected.
“What you wear?”
“Haven’t decided yet.” Hadn’t thought about it either.
“Superhero of capitalism or knight on white charger?”
“Not sure I’ll go this year,” he said avoiding her eyes.
“You must. I think you go as Tin Man from Wizard of Oz.”
He laughed at what he hoped was a joke.
“No, it good for you. Man with no heart.”
Mungo didn’t correct her this time, glad she didn’t suggest the scarecrow with no brain.
Mungo heard the clunk of a car door outside and then the squeals of little kids tumbling up the drive, racing to get to the door first, squabbling about whose turn to ring the doorbell. The sound–a howling wolf –radiated throughout the house ready for Halloween, custom installed courtesy of his big brother, Horace.
The hall was a mass of movement, kissing, hugging, and squirming kids clamoring for candy twenty-four hours early, not that Mom minded. “What’s the point of being a grandma if you can’t spoil the kids,” she’d say in her role as Grandma Nelly.
Mungo’s youngest niece, Sara, wore a purple tutu with hair to match and an old plastic golf club instead of a magic wand.
“Uncle Mungo,” she said scrambling up his body like an assault course. “What you wear for Halloween?”
“Mungo’s going as Max,” Mom said.
“From Where the Wild Things Are?” Horace asked.
“Is there another Max?” Mom said herding the children into the lounge with an exasperated, “don’t-you-know-anything-look,” at her sons.
Horace hovered. Mungo malingered in the hall.
“How are you gonna get out of that?” Horace asked.
“Hoping you might be able to help.”
“Me? I’ve got enough on my own plate, without spinning your dishes too.”
“Did Mom do this to you too?”
“No,” Horace said rubbing the grey stubble on his chin. “You forget I was the youngest of four back then. She tricked Ovid, Virgil, and Anthony when she was the Tiger Cub Pack Leader. Got them to earn their sewing, knitting, and ironing merit badges. Made the badges herself. Think that’s why they threw her out of the Scouts. A black day for Nelly Mortenstow, but a coup for male independence. She’d lost interest by the time I came along.”
“Her interest has revived.”
“Don’t think it ever died, just in hibernation.” Horace grinned. “Don’t worry, someone will rescue you.”
“Knights on white chargers don’t save guys like me.” He had a vision of himself in one of those weird costumes that stuck out at the front and the back to resemble a horse, with his own body in the middle as the rider with a tin can on his head, wielding a plastic sword.
“True. Maybe instead you’ll get a damsel in distress.”
Mungo hadn’t planned anything for Halloween. Maybe tag along with Horace and the kids; blend in with the adults. Now Oblenska expected him to step up. What to wear? How could he dump the Max costume without upsetting Mom?
Online, he checked the Halloween stores. Even the cheapest costume cost too much. A waste for a one-off occasion. Although, if he picked the right one, maybe he’d have a better chance with Oblenska. He couldn’t picture himself in any of them. They all signaled a different message. The wrong message.
“There you are,” Mom said poking her head round the bedroom door. “Dinner’s on the table.”
Mungo pushed his salad around the plate.
“Eat up,” Mom said. “Chocolate log for dessert. Your favorite.”
Mungo hadn’t eaten chocolate for nearly six weeks, not that she’d noticed, and neither had his acne.
“Horace said you wanted to go as a knight on a white charger,” Mom said.
“He was teasing.”
“Good. How’s your study buddy?”
“Mom! Don’t call people names.”
“Isn’t that her name?”
“Of course not. She’s called Oblenska Comaneci.”
“Then why did Horace call her that?”
“Is she a communist?”
“How the heck should I know? Although,” he said with a spark of inspiration, “she is a feminist.”
Mom was also a feminist, the first wave; the burn-your-bra and don’t-wash-your hair version.
“Is she? Ask her around for dinner then I can lend her some literature?”
“Western feminist tracts and classics like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I’ve still got my original signed copy.”
Mungo filled his mouth with lettuce.
“I doubt if the Soviets permitted the freedom to read.”
Mungo took a gulp of tepid water. Best not to interrupt Mom mid-flow. As the mother of five boys, she’d had an ongoing mission, transformation into, “manageable husband material,” for the, “next generation of feminists.”
Mungo’s researched confirmed he was the only student in the entire school who could darn a sock, but his black belt status in Tae Kwando evened out the balance.
Meanwhile, how to delay the inevitable meeting between Oblenska and Mom? The last thing Oblenska said to him as she shooed him from the house was, “I see you tomorrow after school. Your house. Six o’clock. I bring my brothers for the trick and treat together.”
Oblenska wasn’t in any of Mungo’s classes, but he did see her briefly at lunch recess. Reluctant to tackle the gaggle of girls on the grass in the shade, he sat on a wall and ate a tasteless burger from the cafeteria, but Oblenska broke from the group.
“You are ready or you are not?”
“Excuse me?” Mungo said.
Oblenska wore her usual uniform of blue jeans and black T-shirt. She always looked great, no jewelry, no make-up, and no fuss.
“For festivity tonight,” she said. “I have costume for you.”
“Yes. We are team, you, me, my little brothers. It is good, no?”
He loved the way she said, “little,” pronouncing it, “Leetil.” In fact, he loved everything about her, everything except this ultimatum.
“See ya,” she said over her shoulder returning to the girls.
Mungo retreated in the face of impossible odds. What had she chosen? Had she bought him a costume or made one? What costume suited four people? The four musketeers? No, please. The four what? He wracked his brain. The four horses of the apocalypse?
Classes dragged like congealed oatmeal. Mungo couldn’t concentrate on pre-algebra. His mind flooded with different scenarios, growing more disastrous as the afternoon trudged onwards, each minute taking him closer to the abyss of total humiliation. Then a brilliant idea percolated through. What if he took Oblenska and her brothers to a different part of town? Some place where nobody knew him. That way, if destined to look a fool, there’d be only three witnesses, four if you counted Mom, and he didn’t.
The school bell rang announcing freedom. Mungo leaped from his chair, shouldered his book bag, and sauntered his way through the crowd carefree and confident.
After stopping at the mall and buying a few packs of glow-sticks for later, Mungo arrived home and found the house festooned with decorations. Mom must have spent a fortune: plastic gravestones graced the yard, orange lanterns lined the drive, the front door decked with purple swags, windows wore black silhouettes of not-too-scary ghouls, and the doorstep displayed a collection of carved, smiling, pumpkins.
Inside, he nearly tripped over several sacks of candy. Progress! Mom had realized home-made cupcakes weren’t acceptable; only plastic wrapped and vacuum sealed for the over-protective parents of San Jose.
“Is that you, Mungo?” Mom called from upstairs.
“Yup.” He dumped his book bag and ambled into the kitchen where his snack waited: sandwich cut into triangles, crusts removed, and a glass of chocolate milk to the right and three oatmeal cookies to the left. Would she still offer this when he was forty? Hearing footfalls on the stairs, he took a bite to show willing.
Mom burst into the kitchen.
“Ta-dah!” she said performing a clumsy pirouette.
The sandwich stuck to the roof of his mouth. He’d forgotten. How could he have forgotten? Mom wore her Wicked Witch of the West costume: lurid green face, pointy hat, red and white striped tube socks, and completed by, horror of horrors, a slightly bent broomstick. She should never have loaned it to Sara for dress-up.
“What’s with the socks, Mom?”
“They’re striped.” Not so say ridiculous. “They’re not authentic.”
“I thought they added a touch of whimsy. I don’t want to scare the little ones, and at their height, they’ll notice the socks first and won’t be freaked out by my face.” She smiled. “I skipped the false teeth too.”
Why couldn’t she wear something less weird?
“Haven’t you still got that costume from the book fair?”
“Cordelia, your namesake, King Lear’s youngest tragic daughter, with the tall hat and veil, medieval woman.” He couldn’t have Oblenska come green-face-to-face with this apparition. What would she think? First impressions count. “Here, meet my mom, the maddest woman in the west.”
“Don’t think Shakespeare’s suitable for Halloween,” Mom said. “Besides, no one will know who I’m supposed to be.”
Problem. If Mom planned to stay home and dole out candy, who’d drive him, Oblenska, and her brothers to the other side of town, preferably the furthest away part of town?
“Go change,” she said. “Horace is coming with the kiddies and Ovid said he might honor us with his presence.”
“What about Virgil?” Mungo’s eldest brother never came to anything. A bachelor, professor of classics and professional musician, and by far the weirdest of them all. Would Mungo end up like him, forever single?
“Virgil’s the organist tonight for the church vigil on All Hallow’s Eve, starts in ten minutes at six.”
Mungo glanced at the front door. Any second now, Oblenska and brothers, would ring the bell. He wasn’t prepared.
Hadn’t briefed Mom. His fingers slipped to the broomstick handle. If only!
“Don’t waste time, Mungo. Change in my room.”
“Your room? Why?”
“Because Oblenska and her brothers are dressing in yours.”
“Stop repeating everything I say. It’s so annoying.”
“You’re saying Oblenska and her brothers are already here?”
“Yes. You’re more dense than this cauldron,” she said lifting a black plastic bucket full of highly polished apples. “Don’t worry, they’re organic. I’m a woman of principals. Have to offer the trick or treaters a healthy alternative.”
Mungo stood, uncertain whether his legs would cooperate. A door banged. People pounded down the stairs. Two little boys burst into the kitchen, presumably the brothers, followed by…followed by whom? A girl dressed as Dorothy Gale from Kansas.
“I am look good, but I am bad at accent,” Oblenska said holding a long red braid in each hand. “This is Vlad, Tin Man, and this is Boris, Scarecrow.”
Mungo attempted a smile.
“Let me guess. I’m the cowardly lion.”
“Well done dear,” Mom said. “See,” she said turning to Oblenska, “I told you he’d join in.”
“What about the Max costume?” Mungo asked.
“Never mind that,” Mom said, “this is so much better.”
“You’ve watched the Wizard of Oz?” Mungo asked Oblenska. “When?”
“On airplane. It is based on our, The Wizard of the Emerald City, by Alexander Volkov, but different characters. Everyone is knowing this story. What is wrong? You not like my costume?”
“I do,” Mungo said. “I’m just not used to seeing you with so much hair and in a dress. I thought you were a feminist.”
“I am feminist. Your Dorothy is feminist icon.”
“Self-reliant. Ensures safe future. Takes command of own destiny.”
“You’ll all look adorable,” Mom said. “I’ve got my camera ready. Hurry!”
Mungo plodded upstairs and found a lion costume on his mother’s bed. Pulling it on, he fought with the zipper and then looked at himself in the full-length mirror in disgust. He looked ludicrous dressed from head to foot in yellow fur. He kicked off his shoes and sunk his toes into the huge cartoon paw-feet.
The door squeaked open, and Mungo turned to his expectant audience, Mom, Oblenska, and the boys.
“You forget your top,” Oblenska said stepping forward with a massive male head with a mane to rival the Lion King.
Mungo disappeared inside it, swallowed whole, to the delight of the bystanders.
“You look funstatic,” Mom said in a vague Slavic accent, inappropriate as always.
Mungo struggled to find the eye holes. No one would ever recognize him wearing this. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Can you see” Oblenska asked, “dear one?”
Dear one! Dear one? What did she mean? Was this a translation problem?
“Can you hear,” Oblenska asked, “dear one?”
Yes, he could hear. Yes, he could see, just about if he tilted the head forwards. Were any of his senses functioning?
“Oblenska asked about your name,” Mom said, “so I explained.”
Oh no, Mom. Did you have too? Of course she did, when did Mom ever hold back?
“How you’re named after St. Mungo, the patron saint and founder of the city of Glasgow, Scotland, where I was born. Hence your red hair and freckles, not that you can see them with all that acne.”
Too much information, Mom. When would she learn to hold her tongue? Somebody make her stop.
“And that, Mungo,” Mom said, “roughly translated, means, ‘dear one.'”
Perhaps Horace was right. Mungo wasn’t saved by a damsel in distress but enslaved by a young woman wearing a blue gingham dress.
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