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Who Is Itt?: A Halloween Mystery Short Story

IN THE October 23 ISSUE

FROM THE 2021 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Elena E. Smith

October, 1967

“Guess what I’m gonna be?”

Terry whizzed by me on his metallic blue Sting Ray bike, his auburn-haired neighbor Bobby trailing behind us. Both wore button down plaid shirts and corduroy pants. Our school did not allow denim.

Terry was referring to the yearly Halloween party where our two-story high cafeteria would turn into a haunted house full of costumed kids. This year would be different for us. Now that we were in seventh grade, we were invited to attend the dance afterward. I looked forward to it, hoping that the new kid, Ricky Hodge, would ask me to dance.

“What are you gonna be?” I pedaled faster. Riding in a skirt wasn’t all that bad once you got used to it.

“Cousin Itt!” cried Terry over his shoulder as I gained on him. Bobby still trailed behind.

“From the TV show?” I asked. “It’s not on anymore.”

As soon as I said it, I knew he’d be sore.

He turned to look at me, his light brown bangs flopped against his forehead. Bobby was now even with us as we rode in a pack like the three musketeers. He looked straight ahead. He didn’t want any of Terry’s quick temper landing on him.

“So what? It’s still a cool costume. It’s all hair.”

“Where are you gonna get a bunch of hair?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Bobby agreed weakly. “There aren’t any wig stores around here.”

“I have an idea already and it will be so groovy everyone will wish they thought of it first,” Terry bragged, his eyes straight ahead. Few cars drove down the street this time of day. “My mom’s gonna help me. It will take a sheet, an old mop and lots of yarn. You can laugh now if you want, but I’m gonna win the costume contest.”

“Boss,” said Bobby.

It sounded even better than “cool” or “groovy.”

We rode south on 68th Street until Terry and Bobby peeled off on Taylor. I continued toward home, flying down the dip in the road and coasting halfway up the other side, my shoulder length brown hair flying behind me. I had been thinking about my hair all day and couldn’t wait to call Beth on the phone so we could plan our costumes, make-up, and hairstyles for the dance.

When I got to the light green clapboard house at the end of the semi-circle gravel driveway, I slammed my bike down and ran through the back door. Momma, in the kitchen, watched me pass the TV room and raised her eyebrows.

“No Wallace & Ladmo show with Terry, today?”

“Nope.”

I rushed to my bedroom and my new princess phone. It was just like Beth’s, except hers was pink. I closed the door and stopped and leaned against it to catch my breath, remembering something Momma said recently: “The day will come when you and Terry will get tired of watching Wallace and Ladmo cartoons after school.”

She was right. Even though Terry and I still rode bikes to and from school most days, he had stopped coming over regularly. He rode home with Bobby instead of coming over and begging Momma for cookies.

I shed my matching skirt and blouse in favor of jeans and a T-shirt, then flopped onto my bed, smothering the floral comforter Aunt Tressie had given me. Propped against a couple of pillows, I dialed my best friend’s number. Her words came out in a rush; I could hardly follow what she was saying.

“Who’s the note from?” I asked her when I could get a word in edgewise.

I pictured my best friend on the other end of the line, sitting on her ruffled pink bedspread. She had long blonde hair to her waist, and she curled it at the ends. Her family had more money than most of ours did, so her clothes came from the major department stores in Phoenix. She was also allowed to wear lipstick, even though it was only light pink. Beth Peterson was the prettiest and most popular girl in the seventh grade.

“I don’t know who it’s from. Want me to read it to you?”

“Yeah!”

“Dear Beth: Your hair is pretty. I like you a lot. Signed, question mark.”

“Question mark? Who’s that?”

“I don’t know. When I got to math class, I saw it stuck in my desk—you know how the arm rest curves around, and you can put your books and stuff underneath on that little wire shelf?”

“Uh-huh.” I pressed the phone to one ear and dangled my legs over the edge of my bed, stretching them, looking at my socks.

“And the arm rest is where you can put your right arm?”

“Yeah, unless you have a left-handed desk.”

“But, who has one of those?” I pictured her rolling her eyes as she said it.

“Southpaws.”

“Oh, yeah. Anyway, you interrupted me.”

“Oh, sorry. Go on.”

“Well, right by where my right elbow goes—”

“Right by your right—?”

We both giggled.

“Yeah, right by my right where I write.”

I giggled. Not because it was funny. It was the forced giggle all Beth’s friends made. We never told her when her jokes were corny.

“The note was stuck in there.”

“No one else saw it? The teacher didn’t see it?”

“No, it was small. Like, remember when we were in third grade and we made Cootie Catchers?”

“So, your secret admirer is a third grader?” I teased. I flopped to another position on my saggy bed. “You guys will look funny at the dance when he rests his head on your elbow for the slow ones.”

“No—!” she exclaimed in a further fit of giggles. I could picture what she was doing now, lying on her back and kicking her feet up. “Anyway, third graders aren’t that short.”

“So, you would dance with one?”

“No!!!” she laughed even harder. “I was trying to make you remember Cootie Catchers.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“Well, the note was folded up like that. He took a full sheet of notebook paper and folded it into a small triangle.”

“Wow! And he only signed it with a question mark?”

“Yeah, and I don’t have his fingerprints,” she said sarcastically.

“But, don’t you have Mrs. Roycroft for math class?” I asked. Picturing the tall extra-wide teacher with the poodle haircut was enough to make me shudder.

“Yes.”

“She’s strict. If she finds out someone’s passing notes—”

“I know. But it shows that my secret admirer has guts.”

“You can say that again.”

“It shows that my—”

“Just kidding.”

Beth laughed. “I have to find out who it is. Is it some guy I like, or some creep-o?”

“Who do you like?”

There was a pause.

“Beth?”

“Well, several guys are kind of cute.”

“Like—?”

“Like Dave Jones. Like Alex Thomas. Like Terry.”

“Terry?!” I couldn’t believe it. Beth thought my sweaty bike-riding buddy was cute?

“I know you can’t see it, Nellie, because he’s like a brother to you. But some of us think he’s cute.”

What could I say to that? Terry? Cute?

“C’mon, Nellie, stop being a tomboy and be a girl. Isn’t there someone you like?”

I stayed quiet.

“Come on!”

“Well,” I confessed, “at first I thought Bobby Robbins was cute, until I found out he was a chicken. One day, me and Terry and Bobby were riding our bikes in the desert and we stopped to throw rocks at a scorpion and Bobby was so scared he started crying. He thought it would charge us and run up his leg and sting him. We killed it, though.”

The line was silent for a minute, then I heard a click.

“Party line,” said Beth.

“Oh, yeah.”

“We’re still talking,” she informed the other party.

The line clicked again.

“So, anyway,” said Beth, “Bobby Robbins doesn’t count if you thought he was a chicken and you made him cry.”

“I didn’t make him cry! He did it to himself.”

“Oh, so what. Tell me a boy you think is cute, that you actually like.”

“Ricky Hodge,” I mumbled.

“Who?”

“The new kid in my English class.”

“I don’t know who he is yet,” said Beth.

We talked for at least another hour. She wanted to know all about the color of Ricky’s hair (brown), his eyes (hazel), how tall he was (about 5’6”, not much taller than me), and what he usually wore (tan corduroy pants and a brown corduroy jacket). During this drawn-out conversation, the party line clicked on several more times and I finally asked Beth who it was, but she didn’t know. I wondered if they were listening in, and we giggled about that, thinking how funny it would be if we made up fake stories so the snooper would spread it around and get in trouble.

Then we fantasized about what it would be like when we were old enough to have a slumber party—what games we’d play, and who we’d invite. We stayed on the phone until it was time for supper at my house.

* * *
The next day when I went to the school cafeteria for lunch I couldn’t find Beth, so I sat with Karen and Laurie. Karen was a laid-back, sweet-voiced girl with honey blonde hair and blue eyes. Laurie was a warm, friendly, heavy-set girl with shoulder length brown hair and brown eyes. They didn’t know where Beth was, either, but we knew she was at school because we’d all seen her after first period.

“Alex Thomas walked her to school today,” Karen told us.

Just then, Beth approached our table holding her lunch tray out in front of her, walking like a robot. She wasn’t clowning around. Her face was drawn, and she sat down without a word, staring at her food.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

I could tell she was trying not to cry.

Two eighth graders walked by.

“Beth got in trouble,” they jeered.

A tear slid down her cheek and she brushed it away with the back of her hand.

“What happened?” I asked.

“It’s that mean Mrs. Roycroft,” she said. “She made me stay after class for ten minutes!” She choked and took a sip of milk. “It’s not my fault. I didn’t do anything!”

We all looked at each other, waiting for her to talk. She picked up her fork and poked the Salisbury steak that looked like a reject from a TV dinner.

Terry and Bobby walked by.

“Have fun in math class, today?” Terry said and kept walking.

Beth turned red.

“What happened?” we chorused.

“Well, some boy wrote me a note yesterday. And today, when I walked into class—” she stopped, still choking a little, “—there were a million notes piled up on my desk and seat. The teacher blamed me, but I don’t know anything about it!”

“What kind of notes?” Laurie asked.

“Love notes,” Beth spat out the words like they were a mouthful of brussel sprouts. “‘I love you, Beth.’ ‘Will you be mine?’ The whole class was laughing at me.”

She burst into tears.

* * *

Though there had been days that I’d raced home from school and not been greeted by the smell of fresh baked cookies, this was the first day I was overly aware of it. My afternoon had been strange. Beth, preoccupied, had not passed notes to me in last period, and Terry did not meet me at the bike racks to race home. I saw him talking to Beth in front of the school when her mom picked her up, but they didn’t see me. I pedaled home alone and walked into an empty kitchen.

I could hear Momma in her bedroom as she talked on the phone. When she came out and saw me, she looked surprised. She brushed her medium length brown hair back away from her forehead and reached down to smooth the skirt of her pastel housedress.

“Hello, dear.”

“No cookies?”

“Not today. But I do have a treat for you. I have to go to TG&Y, so I thought I’d take you with me and we’d stop at Revco for triple-dip cones.”

I didn’t really want to go with her on her errand but three scoops of ice cream was hard to pass up. We drove to Papago Plaza, an outdoor shopping mall near where Beth lived. I knew Momma wanted to have a serious talk with me because that’s what she usually did when she drove me somewhere. When I was locked in the car with her, I couldn’t get away.food

“Did you have a problem with Beth today?” she asked, glancing to the side to see my reaction.

“A problem?” My mouth went dry.

Her eyes returned to the road and its sparse traffic. “Mrs. Peterson called me. She said Beth is very upset with you.”

“Upset with me? Why?”

“She said you told her secret.”

“What secret?”

“Something about a note from a boy who likes her.”

“I didn’t tell anybody about that. She didn’t say it was a secret, but I didn’t tell anyone.”

“Not even Terry?”

“Especially not Terry! Why would I tell a boy? They don’t care about that stuff.”

“You’re right, Nellie. I told Mrs. Peterson you would never repeat Beth’s secrets. But we were trying to figure out how all the boys knew about it. She didn’t tell anyone but you and a few other girls.”

I shadowed Momma through TG&Y, then tried to act enthusiastic at the ice cream counter at Revco. Momma complained about how there wasn’t enough yarn at TG&Y to keep going on her Christmas afghan while I thought about Beth and her problems.

“We’re going to have to figure out a costume for you,” Momma said after she ordered our cones.

“I think I’ll go as a pirate, again.”

The two ladies at the counter, in their mint green nylon dresses, white starched aprons and teased hair, continued talking as they scooped our ice cream.

“Well, on a party line, you can hear everything,” one of them told the other.

I grabbed Momma’s arm. “That’s it! The party line! Someone eavesdropped on Beth and me! I’d sure like to find out who.”

“Well, that should be easy,” said Momma. “It has to be one of her neighbors.”

* * *
I couldn’t wait to call Beth so we could play detective about the party line, but because she got in trouble at school she wasn’t allowed to talk on the phone. The next time I saw her was in the cafeteria at noon, flanked by Laurie and Karen. Their lunch trays were pushed to the side because they were hunched over something, so absorbed that at first they didn’t notice me until I scooted onto the bench seat facing them.

“What are you looking at?” I asked.

All three raised their heads at the same time and jabbered excitedly. “It’s another note from the secret admirer.”

Beth pushed it toward me, and I read it quickly: “Beth, I am too shy to tell you how much I like you, but I am going to tell you at the Halloween dance. You will know me by my costume—Cousin Itt.”

I tried not to let my face show what I was thinking. So, Terry was the one who was writing the love notes!

* * *

Terry and Bobby were waiting for me after school at the bike racks. In my mind, I had already decided that if Terry had a crush on Beth there was no reason for him to hang around me, unless he was using me to get closer to her. I didn’t want to be a jerk but let’s just say this wasn’t my friendliest bike ride home with Terry. And, knowing me as well as he did he knew something was wrong but he didn’t want to hear what it was.

At dinner that night, I was still in a fog, trying to imagine that two of my best friends might become…boyfriend and girlfriend. Poppa came to the table and took his cap off, setting it on a nearby armchair. His crewcut stayed plastered to his head where the cap had been.

It was already dark out and my brothers buzzed with excitement because tomorrow was Halloween. My younger brother, Curt, wore his skeleton costume to the table, then pushed the round plastic face mask back on top his head so he could eat. He was blonde and blue-eyed with a round friendly face. Poppa said the blessing, then we began to pass the food and talk about our day.

“I had to drive into Scottsdale, today,” Poppa told Momma,
“so I dropped by TG&Y to see if I could find any more yarn for you.”

Momma looked at him hopefully.

“What a mess!” exclaimed Poppa. “I’ve never seen Papago Plaza so busy before Halloween! There was a line outside TG&Y. I decided to wait, but—no luck. Apparently, they’re out of yarn and mops. Everybody was complaining.”

I bit my tongue. Yarn and mops?

“Yeah,” Curt said casually, “that’s because a lot of the seventh-grade boys are dressing up as Cousin Itt. They make the costume using a sheet, then their moms sew a mop on top of it and tie on a bunch of yarn to make it look like hair.”

“A lot of seventh-grade boys are wearing a Cousin Itt costume?” I stammered.

“What’s the point of that?” asked my high-school age brother, dark-haired skinny Jim, with a chuckle.

“Someone’s playing a joke,” said Curt. “I don’t know who started it, but someone got the Cousin Itt idea and everybody thought it would be funny to…”

I rushed through my dinner, tuning out the rest of the conversation. Terry was going to be hopping mad when he found out about this.

No one in my family noticed when I snuck out the back door and picked up my bike. We weren’t supposed to ride after dark because we didn’t have bike lights, but there were very few cars out after dark. The stores were all closed, and there was really no place to go. I knew if I was careful I could zip over to Terry’s to warn him of the problem and be back in my room before anyone knew I’d gone out.

His house looked like most of the other tract homes on Taylor Street. The porch light was off, but lights shone through the picture window in the living room so I knocked on his front door. He came outside where we hunched together and whispered. My story spilled out and he cocked his head to one side as he listened, thinking.

“Rat finks!” he swore. “I don’t know who did this to me, but I’ll get even. I’m gonna win the costume contest.”

“What about the note to Beth?” I forced myself to ask him. “Did you send it?”

“What note?” he asked, distracted.

“Beth got another love note, from someone who said they would be wearing a Cousin Itt costume.”

“Well, it wasn’t me!”

“I just can’t figure out how everyone found out.”

“Well, you said Beth has a party line.”

“Yes…”

“Well, don’t you know who lives next door to her?”

“No, who?”

“Alex Thomas! I’ll fix that guy,” he muttered as I retreated back to my bicycle.

This was turning into a big mess.

* * *
The next day at school was the perfect day for the Halloween party and dance. Just like every year at this time, the daytime temperature was in the forties, and our schoolyard trees scattered their dead leaves across the ground. We crunched through them, mashing as many as possible. The outside corridors filled with younger kids wearing costumes and carrying grocery sacks or pillowcases to put their candy in.

I wanted to tell Beth everything I knew but I never got the chance. At the lunch table, instead of just Laurie and Karen hanging around, there were several other girls, and they were all talking at once about costumes and make-up and who they wanted to dance with. Beth was the center of attention as she told her stories about the love notes and how her secret admirer was going to wear a Cousin Itt costume so she would know who he was. There was no way I could easily break in to let her know what my brother Curt said—that a lot of seventh-grade boys would be dressed as Cousin Itt. Which one would come forward to dance with Beth?

Names were thrown out as people tried to solve the mystery. Who was “Itt”? Was it Alex Thomas? Dave Jones? Terry? Bobby? Or even Ricky Hodge? I listened without saying a word and no one noticed.

Seventh and eighth graders were released from school early that day, at two o’clock, so we could go home and change clothes for the party and dance. The kids serving on student council, which included Beth, began decorating, taping crepe paper streamers to the ceiling and covering the windows with black construction paper.skeletons

When I returned to school a little later in my pirate costume, a hairy white Cousin Itt with a huge cardboard sign stood at the door to admit me. The sign, attached to a two-by-four, read “Dogpile on the Rabbit,” in green, orange and purple glitter. This was something one of our local DJs on KRIZ said, but I didn’t know what it meant or why everyone laughed when he said it.

“Go on in,” said the Itt in Terry’s cheerful voice.

No one else was nearby, so I asked him, “Why do you have that sign?”

If I could have seen through all the yarn, I would have seen Terry smile. “I’m gonna win this contest, you just watch.”

It was early, so there weren’t that many people inside yet. Everybody could tell who I was, even with my black eye patch. I wandered among the younger kids for a few minutes, then entered the horror maze where a bowl of cold spaghetti was a dead man’s guts, and peeled grapes were eyeballs. The little kids squealed, but of course this wasn’t the first time I’d been to one of these.vampire

When I emerged from the maze, the darkened room was full of kids. Beth was in a Rapunzel costume, near the stage. She didn’t look happy.

I walked to her side. “What’s wrong, me pretty?” I said in pirate talk.

“Look at that,” she pointed.

I looked toward the middle of the large room, where the dancing would start as soon as the music came on. My eyes adjusted, and I saw clearly that there were at least twenty boys in Cousin Itt costumes. I knew they were all boys because I could see their pants and shoes under the edge of their sheets. They looked like ghosts covered in long strands of yarn. Each carried a cardboard sign with Magic Marker letters that read, “Dogpile on the Rabbit.”

“I don’t get it…” I said.

Beth crossed her arms and pouted. “Someone found out about my secret admirer, and now it’s just another joke on me. First, he said he would dress up as Cousin Itt and after the dance he would tell me who he was. Then, he wrote me another note because he found out that a bunch of the boys were going as ‘Itt,’ so he said he was going to carry a sign. Well, those boys must have found out about it, because they’re all carrying the same stupid sign. How will I ever know which boy likes me?”

I wanted to tell her, “They all do,” but I said nothing.

“This has been such a rotten week. What else will go wrong?” she grumbled.

One of our teachers got up on stage and instructed the younger kids to go home, then directed the dance music to start. It was the first time I’d ever been to a dance. Beth was approached immediately, and she danced with several of the Itts and a number of other guys, as I watched. A few of them asked me, but I didn’t want to. I was only interested in Ricky Hodge but I couldn’t find him in the crowd. He was either one of the Itts or he’d decided not to come. Eventually, I noticed him, dressed up as a farmer. I looked his way a couple of times, but I never caught his eye and the dance continued from song to song for two hours until it was time to judge the costumes.

Mr. Gonzalez took the stage. He was one of our youngest teachers and was very popular. He had brown hair and a thick mustache. Our other male teachers didn’t have facial hair. But they all wore ties with their shirts, and he did, too. That was the rule.

“Well, this has been a very hard contest to judge,” he announced. “There are many interesting costumes here today, but I am intrigued that about twenty of you boys all dressed up in the same one—Cousin Itt from the Addams Family.” Kids cheered. “Very clever, and I can only remind you of the saying, ‘Great minds think alike.’ I’ll bet there are a lot of local moms who are pretty upset that TG&Y is out of mops and yarn.” Everyone laughed. “The student council has taken a vote, and of course it was unanimous that Cousin Itt is the winning costume. But in order to award the prize, which is two extra-large pizzas at the Pizza Parlor, we need your help. So, I want all of the Cousin Itts to come up and stand in a row in front of the stage for the final judging.”

Twenty-two boys of various shapes and sizes lined up facing the room. Most of the fake-hair costumes were made from whitish yarn, but I guess when the store ran out, some of them had to switch to tan and brown. White, of course, was most like the real Cousin Itt on TV. Each of the Itts held a “Dogpile on the rabbit” sign but Terry’s was the only fancy one. Mr. Gonzalez held his hand over each contestant’s head and asked for applause. Terry was clearly the winner and stepped forward to collect his prize.

There was one final dance song, a slow one. I was standing near Beth when Ricky Hodge walked up to ask her for a dance.

“No, thank you,” she said.

He turned away quickly to hide his embarrassment.

Then, Terry came over. Beth and Terry stood facing each other for a minute, without a word. Finally, Beth said, “Were you the one who wrote me those notes?”

Terry snickered. “Naw, it wasn’t me. I just know who caused all the trouble by spreading rumors. It was Alex Thomas.”

“How do you know that?” Beth shot back.

“I have my ways,” he said smugly.

He reached under his sheet costume into his pants pocket and took out a small, folded triangle of notebook paper and held it out. She looked at it, then looked up at the eye holes in his costume, barely visible behind the mop and the yarn hair. I watched her face change as thoughts flashed through her mind. Terry just said he didn’t write the love notes but he was handing her a note that looked just like them. She snatched it from him and unfolded it hastily so she could read it.

When she finished, she looked up at him, her eyes searching for some expression even though his face was covered. I knew Terry like the back of my hand and I was sure he was grinning.

“Who gave you this?” she finally asked.

“Dave Jones.”

Beth and I looked at each other in surprise. Dave Jones was the shyest boy in our class.

Terry straightened his sheet costume then turned and walked off. His interest in the matter was over. Beth and I forgot that it was the last dance number and hurried to the restroom together.

Once inside the small enclosure with one toilet, she turned on the light and locked the door. She handed the note over to me, and I read it: “Dear Beth, I’m sorry someone wrecked my plan to dance with you today. But I will try again at the Sadie Hawkins dance.”

We wondered whether the note really was from Dave or if Terry was playing a trick on us, but Beth said the handwriting looked the same. We stared at it in exasperation. The Sadie Hawkins dance was a whole month away.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & Halloween mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. A new Halloween episode went up this week and another one will next week.

Elena E. Smith’s currently published stories include “Ray’s Mistake” (Aug. 15 issue, Yellow Mama Magazine online); “Everything” in the Sisters in Crime Anthology LOVE KILLS (Sept. 10); and “My Affair” (Oct. 15, Yellow Mama). She has had four stories accepted in the B.O.U.L.D. Awards anthology appearing in November: “Bench”, “Service Providers”, “A Very Expensive Wedding”, and “Desert Day”. Smith has a public group on Facebook, MAHUENGA

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