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Stranger Things

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Gunn placed Angel's short broadsword into the weapons cabinet and Fred closed the doors.

“All clean,” she said. “I can't say I've ever seen them all clean and put away at once. What do we do now?”

“Halloween's traditionally quiet. I dare to say we might have a night off,” Wes said from his place at the Hyperion's reception desk. He was flipping through a Skolish text, looking for a translation.

“I loved Halloween,” Cordy said, looking up from the invoice she'd been trying to write tactfully for half an hour. “Until that Ethan guy ruined it for me, do you remember that, Angel?”

Angel grunted. For over an hour, he'd been trying to open the weird little box-like artifact Fred had picked up at the ritual sacrifice they'd broken up the night before. Frustrated, he smashed it down on the counter. The pieces scattered with a blinding flash.

Everyone froze.

Nothing happened.

“Does this look like the symbol on the box to you?” Wes said to Angel, pointing at the open page in his book.

Angel pressed his fingers to his closed eyelids. He blinked his light abused eyes several times before leaning over to look at the symbol. “Yes.”

“Well, it might mean spirit,” Wes said. He frowned. “Or possibly fish...” He went back to flipping pages.

Cordy slapped the printed invoice down on the corner of her desk and walked over, joining Angel in his woebegone survey of the shards, which lay scattered across the lobby floor.

“Halloween in Sunnydale was always going wrong just that fast,” she said. “But it was still fun until high school. If you weren't quite sure if the jack 'o' lanterns were supposed to be blowing up or rolling their eyes, you figured it was just a clever trick, right? And just because Daddy's friend Rick had a really realistic devil's mask, you know the kind that survived water balloons and tugging on and that he never took off, even when he ate popcorn balls, who was to say it wasn't just a really expensive mask?”

“What happened in high school, Cordy?” Fred said, coming over to sit with them.

Gunn crouched over and poked a finger at one of the wooden slivers on the floor. “I guess I'll sweep these up,” he said.

“Everyone became whatever they were dressed as, except me and Angel.”

On his way to get the broom, Gunn veered back. “Really? What about the little kids?”

“It was just one shop,” Angel said as Cordy nodded and said, “Them, too, all the little monsters became little monsters.”

Fred covered her mouth with her hands. “I was a Wonder Woman-Zombie-Vampire one year. That would've been awful!”

Gunn laughed. “You were what?”

“I loved Wonder Woman,” Wes said. “Those bracelets...” He held his fists up and deflected Gunn's swipe at him. Lifting his chin, he pushed his shoulders back. “I was Sherlock Holmes one year at a Watcher's party. I held the raging HellHound on a leash in the Haunted House. The girls were quite taken with me.”

“My Dad took me and my friends to the Jaycees Haunted House every year,” Fred said. “That was after trick or treating and the neighborhood party. We bobbed for apples and ate pizza, and told scary stories without any lights on. The Haunted House always had walls with holes in them and when you stuck your hand in, some creature would grab it, or you'd get a handful of pumpkin guts. There was this dark-haired guy with cut cheeks and these lips...” Lost in thought, Fred shivered. “He played Dracula every year. He'd start to rise and we'd all scream and run into the Mummy in the doorway and scream again. If I'd known then what I know now...”

Angel said, “I worked in a haunted house once.”

“Get out,” Cordy huffed.

“No, really. It was in Memphis, in the late fifties.” His gaze wandered away across the hotel. “I think. Or maybe it was 1963.”

“That's a, um, wide margin of possibility,” Wesley ventured.

“Yeah, well, I started the sixties a little earlier than most,” Angel said, looking at none of them. He stared into the decades between here and there and fell silent.

“Go on, Angel,” Gunn said as Fred said, “Tell us, Angel,” and then they gave each other goofy grins.

Angel glanced sideways at Cordelia before leaning forward with his forearms on the reception desk. “It was north of Memphis,” he said, lowering his voice into his patented story time tone. “I had been, um, skulking around the wharf on the river.”

Cordelia shuddered. One corner of Angel's lips lifted.

“I agree,” he said softly before launching back into his tale. “There was this little place tacked onto the back side of a cargo house, where they loaded barges. Not a diner really, but you could get coffee, and sandwiches, and get out of the wind for awhile. At night, in the winter, if you knew the right way to ask, they sold shots of whiskey or ouzo or whatever they had to the hands who were freezing to death on night shifts. Most of the business down on those docks was run by demons or half-demons who didn't really care who moved their product as long as it got moved, so a lot of the hands weren't in good health to begin with, and they really suffered when the temperatures dropped.

At the beginning of October that year...”

“Whichever year it was,” Gunn interjected.

“...a girl started working there. She was young and soft-hearted...”

“Was she blonde?” Fred said.

Angel gave Cordy a withering look. “Cordy doesn't know everything.”

Cordelia snorted. “What was her name?”

“Do you want to hear this story?”

“Yes,” everyone said together.

“Okay. So this girl, Holly,” Angel said, and paused. No one said anything. “Holly was from the hill country. She married poor and followed her young husband to Memphis after he'd come down river on a job and never returned. She ran out of money before she found him and ended up on the river, figuring she'd just keep asking river-men until she heard something.” Angel looked at each of them in turn. “At least that's what she said.”

Fred gasped. Wesley grinned. Lorne closed the lobby door hard and everyone jumped.

“Pull up a seat, Lorne,” Wesley said. “Angel's telling us a story.”

Cordy recapped. “Sometime in the fifties or sixties, near Memphis on the river, blonde who says she's something she's not.”

Angel sighed.

With everyone settled again, Angel continued. “Holly got it in her head that these poor unfortunates should have a hopping Halloween, complete with live music and the latest twist, a haunted house. I made the mistake of lurking a little too convincingly one night and got myself recruited to help scare the customers.

The place was no Caritas, but the humans there knew there were stranger things in the world than any teacher or parent or official ever let on. Holly was an innocent. She accepted everyone, even the ones without human faces, as if they were just malformed misanthropes with bad attitudes. Every second cup of coffee she poured was free and the demon who owned the place, Bailey, looked the other way while she doled out band-aids and kisses. Chaste kisses. Half the the wharf was in love with her and the other half wanted her as their mother.

She drew me out, made me go shopping with her. We went to Schwab's and bought white candles and paper skeletons. She traded for paint somewhere and had me do a mural on the back wall- a long hall with thirteen numbered doors. I added a chandelier of snakes holding lit torches.”

Wesley raised his brows. Angel cleared his throat and shrugged sheepishly.

“It's not Samhain. On Halloween, the docks were frenetic with activity. Everyone, even the overseers, wanted to be done before midnight, so they wouldn't disappoint Holly. From about ten on, they all came drifting in. By midnight, Bailey was drunk on fermented mushrooms and started serving whiskey and, um, assorted other less common entertainments on the house. Let me tell you, that was...” Angel shook his head. “That was a very bad idea.

There were maybe sixty-five hands inside and at least twenty more in small groups outside, everyone drinking and more or less pretending to get along for Holly's sake. Though, you know, Joe, I think, got eaten before Bailey got all happy with the free...”

“TMI, Angel,” Cordy said.

“TMI?”

“Go on, Angelcakes, just leave out the asides,” Lorne clarified.

“Right,” Angel said, his brow furrowing as he tried to remember where he was in the story. “Holly clapped her hands and organized the men into two lines for the haunted house. I lit the candles, but I still wasn't sure what she had planned. There was only the single room and it was pretty small.

She was a third of the way into the incantation before I recognized it. A fight broke out in the back, against the wall where my hallway painting was twisting. Writhing. The floor rose and the carpet rippled and I could swear I heard the knockers clack against their door plates. I thought maybe it was just the... um, entertainment I'd consumed, but then one of the snakes dropped out of the chandelier onto a Jutker demon and the torches flared so high that the whole room flickered. More of the snakes dropped and the torches swung, casting shadows that gibbered and... chased? Herded, maybe is a better word. The shadows started herding hands forward.

The windows shattered and that's when true panic broke out. The humans ducked and cowered. The demons hiding behind human faces flipped out and reverted. Everyone either charged the shadow blocking the door or Holly. I got to her first, but with the weight of the demons at my back, I carried her right into the hallway.”

After a moment in which Angel only stared at his hands, Fred said, “And then what happened?”

“She was laughing. We were lying on a moldy carpet in a decaying hotel corridor with the knockers on every door making such a deafening racket I couldn't even hear her. I vamped. I yanked her up and faced the oncoming rush with her beating her fists into my back while I held her there. Her hands burned my back like they were on fire.

The demons came pouring in and the room we'd just left, the chaos, the humans, all that looked like a smeared sidewalk chalk drawing. The faster I backed away, the faster each door on the hall swung open. The demons were swept into the dark inside and the doors slammed shut on their screams. I could hear their bones crunch. Blood seeped under the thresholds. The hallway reeked of sulphur. Finally I was at the end of it, with Holly trapped behind me, her arms wrapped around my chest, her hot breath brushing my neck in bursts as she spoke. I had to brace myself against the rock of her body.”

Angel let his eyes drift closed. “'The river,' she said, 'the river, the river will give its blood for mine and thine and thee. The river, the river, the river will twist and follow the hapless three. The river, the river, the river and thee will force my true love to me'. And then she stabbed me.”

“Why? Fred yelped.

Opening his eyes, Angel said, “I don't know. I was the only vampire there, which now that I think about it...”

“Vampires don't like the blues,” Lorne reasoned.

“You have a soul,” Wesley said.

Gunn nodded. “Monster with a soul. Like Frankenstein.”

“Frankenstein?” Angel said.

“You are dead,” Cordy pointed out.

“I bet you were the only dead person there, too,” Fred added.

“So I was the only dead, souled monster there, what's your point?” Angel said drily.

Wesley said, “Indeed. What happened?”

“The carpet was a damn good sponge, that's what. When my blood hit the demon blood running from under the doors, it rolled together like mercury and boiled into the apparition of Holly's dead husband. By then, I was on my knees, bleeding out. She stepped around me and went to him. He took her in his arms and when they came together and kissed-”

Angel stroked his fingers over the lobby counter, a thoughtful look crossing his face. “Well, Hell wasn't really much louder than the screams of the demons from inside those closed and terrible rooms. Holly faded. No, that's wrong. Her color faded, she herself- her body- I could smell the river on her. In her.

She became nothing more than river water flowing into the blood that made her man and then they were gone, splashing back down onto the carpet and walls and doors. I covered my head and came to three days later crumpled in the dark corner of a pilothouse on a barge off New Orleans.

The pilot was the Jutker demon. The one who escaped because the snake I painted into the chandelier fell on him and he ran out before the spell hit the outside door. The humans there apparently weren't affected by the spell and came out after him. The whole place collapsed. Fire took three cargo houses, but the official death toll was only four. Two fire-fighters, Holly, and one vagrant, me. In all the confusion, the Jutker got me out. He, uh...” Angel tipped his head, his lips twisting, but he didn't lift his gaze from the Hyperion's counter. “He saw potential profit in my 'abilities'. Apparently, he'd witnessed a great deal of what happened in the painting before the collapse. I left the barge in a hurry.”

“You're putting us on, aren't you, “ Gunn finally said into the silence. “That hallway's right out of the Haunted Mansion at Disney.”

Angel smiled. “You aren't the first I've told that story to,” he said.

“You're kidding, right? Disney?”

“I've never been to Disneyland,” Fred sighed.

“You're kidding, “ Cordy said.

“Neither have I,” Wesley said. “Maybe...”

“Cordy could take you,” Gunn said, shooting a hard look at Wes.

Fred's eyes lit up with excitement. “We could all go, together. Even Angel- they're open late, right?”

“Fred,” Angel said at the same time as Gunn blurted, “I've been banned.”

“What?” Cordy said as Wes said, “Why?” and Fred said, “Charles!”

Gunn sucked in a deep breath. He shook out the rag still in his hand from oiling his hubcap axe and folded it into squares. He set it down while everyone waited. “I've been banned from Disneyland,” he mumbled. “And Disney World, and every other Disney property in existence now or in the future for disruption of entertainment services and jeopardizing guest safety.”

Wesley's mouth turned down as his brows rose. “I'm impressed,” he said. “That was very succinct. Whatever was the feat?”

Gunn rolled his eyes. Adopting Angel's half-slouch upon the counter in unconscious solidarity, he thought for a moment. “Okay,” he started. “It was Halloween, too. This was back when the crew was just getting together. My sister was all about Halloween, then- she was eleven, almost twelve. You don't treat or treat in the Badlands unless all you want's the trick. And I wouldn't let her go anywhere else. I was learning that just about anything could be lurking on the back side of an opening door.”

Wesley and Angel both nodded.

“My aunt suggested we go to Disneyland. Alonna had only ever been once, when she was six, so she latched onto that thought until there was no way we could not go. We pulled a couple jobs for the money and we went. There were six of us and Alonna. That girl ran us ragged.” Gunn smiled, amused by the images his words called to mind. “She was something else.”

Fred patted his hand.

“Late that night, we're heading over to get a good place for the fireworks when Alonna swings a right and goes through these little bat doors and poof! She's swallowed up in a crowd waiting to see the Country Bear band. Those bears give me the willies.

I ran in after her and, of course, two big white guys with walkie-talkies catch me up right away, one on each side, asking do I need something? Yeah, I say, my little sis just ran in here, and one of them pointed and they both let go.

My crew pushed in behind me and we covered the whole right side of the room the same way we'd been practicing sweeps. Aaron came up with her and she threatened a tantrum until we found seats together. The show started. The bears look at you no matter where you sit and they roll their necks like they might pop their heads off and change into something else and the music – it's just wrong.”

“I like the bears,” Cordy interjected.

Gunn looked sick. “How about the animal heads on the wall? They're flat-out creepy.”

“Were they evil?” Wesley said.

“Naw,” Gunn said. “It was the four vamps sitting front row center that we didn't like. They were shifty looking throwbacks- looked like they'd never shopped after grunge died. Halfway through, two of them make excuses and 'I'm sorrys' and leave their seats. Two of my guys shadowed them up along the side railings of the room and stood alongside them at the back, near the exit doors. I'm watching them watch each other while Donnel watches the vamps still sitting down front, when the Disney goons take an interest and start watching me.

This is just as the Bear Rugs started in on “Devilish Mary”...”

Lorne giggled.

Gunn nodded. “Yeah, appropriate, huh?”

“What's “Devilish Mary?” Cordy said as Fred said, “What are the words?”

Gunn looked at Lorne who shrugged and started singing in a quiet, low tenor. “When I was young and foolish,
I swore I'd never marry.
Well, I fell in love with a pretty little girl,
And sure enough, we got married.

Rinka....”

“... ma dinka ma derry,” Angel whispered when Lorne stopped. He didn't seem to notice that no one but him was talking.“Prettiest girl in all this world; her name was Devilish Mary.”

Lorne rejoined him and Angel's voice dropped off, but his lips still moved.

“Hadn't been married about two weeks,
When she got mean as the devil,
And every time I looked cross-eyed,
She'd wop me over the head with a shovel.

Rinka ma dinka ma derry,
Prettiest girl in all this world;
Her name was Devilish Mary.

Hadn't been married about six months,
When we got mad and parted.
She bundled up her little duds,
And down the road she started.

Rinka ma dinka ma derry,
Prettiest girl in all this world;
Her name was Devilish Mary.”

“Angelcakes,” Lorne said, squinting at him. “You really were in Memphis. Did you know Ferrel?”

“He was the live entertainment that Halloween.”

“It really is a small world,” Cordelia said brightly.

Everyone groaned.

“Now those dolls really are evil,” Lorne said to Gunn.

“Maybe Fred and Cordy can check that out this week,” Gunn said. He smiled at Fred. “Just don't take stakes.”

“They banned you for dusting the vampires?” Wesley said, sounding outraged.

“Oh, yeah,” Gunn said. “They didn't like our 'military style operation' and said that vampire dust can cause 'a health hazard to those with compromised airways'. When the song started, the two suckers down front jumped up onto the stage and joined the show, ripping into the bears, sparks flying. People started screaming and trying to leave, which they were able to do, because my guys staked the two vamps near the exits as soon as the trouble started. They never saw it coming.

When the other two vamps realized people were actually getting out, they left off destroying the bears, which was good, cause burnt electronics and fake hair do not mix. It stunk and our eyes were burning. Alonna was crying. Of course, they honed right in on her. I staked one as it falling on us. Vamps aren't the smartest dogs in the pack.” He glanced up at Angel. “Except, y'know...you're pretty smart...”

Angel grinned. “Thanks, Gunn.”

“Anyway, George dusted the other and then security was on us and we got read the riot act down in Disney's dungeon and banned for life.”

“But,” Wesley stuttered.

“They have it worked out with the vamps they employ. Some agreement about a certain number of guests they can have and the amount of destructive mischief they're allowed...”

“Disneyland employs vampires?” Cordy said.

Gunn nodded. “I, uh, actually thought ya'll already knew that.”

“They've got a lot of demons on staff,” Angel agreed, wincing a little off the look Wes gave him.

“They held a staff party at Caritas last year,” Lorne added.

“Huh,” Wes said.

Throwing her hands up in an oh-well gesture, Fred said, “Demons have to pay the rent, too, don't they?”

“Some of them do,” Lorne said in a soothing tone.

“What about you, Lorne,” Cordy said, “Does Pylea have Halloween?”

“They have a Day of the Dead.”

“But it's nothing like Mexico's,” Fred exclaimed.

Lorne shuddered. “It was more like Veteran's Day. The Deathwok Clan always plays the major role. I still remember the whistle of the axe. My mother took great joy in cutting us kids up on the Day of the Dead. We play the slain heroes, ceremonially brought back to life one piece at a time before the Dance of the Dead begins the all-night feasting.

I was always certain one of the Hellhounds would get ahold of my body before the adults got done sermonizing, or that they'd forget to put me back together. Or decide not to.

I did like the traditional dance, though. If Pyleans had rhythm, which they don't, the Dance of the Dead would be the most rhythmic. It had a rousing chant. My brothers jousted for Bangtongs and we told stories about past Groosaluggs.”

“I wonder how Groo is,” Cordy mused.

“Oh, but the scary storytelling around the pyre was like Halloween, right? The Van-Tal hunters re-enacted their hunts and the warriors relived their most disastrous defeats. And the feast was fashioned into pieces of heros. Arms and heads, and... other dead hero things.”

“I was so afraid I was gonna get eaten my first Day of the Dead,” Fred said.

“You're lucky you weren't,” Lorne said. He slid off his perch. “I'm going to make myself a mai-tai, anyone else care for one?”

“Are we going for tacos, Charles?”

Gunn stood and stretched. “I could use tacos. You guys want anything?”

“Wait,” Cordy said, looking past them at the lobby doors. Angel straightened up just as a girl in a torn blue dress hit the door, blood on her cheek and streaming down from her hair. She banged her fists on the glass, but there wasn't any sound. Her mouth opened in a wide, silent scream. She looked back over her shoulder and vanished.

The scattered, shattered pieces of the box Angel had broken burst into flame, burned to ash in seconds and swirled away in a sudden cold draft.

A soft oath escaped Gunn's lips.

“Happy Halloween,” Cordy breathed.

“I'll stay with Connor,” Lorne said and started for the stairs.

“Thanks, Lorne,” Angel said, his focus still on the lobby doors.

Wes cleared his throat. “I'm assuming 'spirit' was the correct translation after all. Do you still have that EVP device you were working on Fred?"