Photo Credit: Seth Ryan

Lisa Morton is a screenwriter, author of non-fiction books, and award-winning prose writer whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening.” She is the author of four novels and 150 short stories, a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, and a world-class Halloween expert. Her most recent books are the anthology Weird Women 2: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers (co-edited with Leslie S. Klinger) and the collection Night Terrors & Other Tales, and her original weekly fiction podcast Spine Tinglers recently debuted at myparanormal.net. Lisa lives in the San Fernando Valley and online at www.lisamorton.com.


by Lisa Morton

The Kansas Plains, 1935

Jim figured it was somewhere close to midnight when he and Happy stood at the crossroads, figuring out where to go next.

Happy raised the lantern he held, its small flame casting a glow on the road leading north. “I say that way – quarter mile down we can get both the McPhersons and the Blakes.”

“You got the lantern, you lead the way,” Jim answered before falling into step beside his friend.

Truth be told, this whole evening had been at Happy’s direction. Jim’s father had told him that, at fifteen, he was too old to still be playing pranks on Hallowe’en. “Ain’t nobody can afford Gate Night no more anyway,” his mother had added. “World’s changed too much.” She turned back to her chores in the kitchen, going silent again. Jim remembered a time when his mother had been beautiful, before her face had become a permanent map of worry lines.

Jim’s folks were already packing up to leave for California in a week, he and his two sisters and whatever their truck could carry. The farm had been in the family for generations, but it was a useless thing now, a dust-shrouded wasteland, a memorial to a broader failure. This would be the last holiday he’d have with Happy, the best friend he’d known since they’d met in Sunday school when both were in diapers and Happy was still Randolph, before he acquired the nickname that his burgeoning grin would soon inspire. Jim understood that they couldn’t stay here anymore – the dust storms had destroyed their livelihood, heading west was their last hope – but Happy had always been a part of his life.

Everything was changing.

“There’s the McPherson place,” Happy said, as he threw a black cloth over the lantern to hide its light.

Ahead was a farm that looked like most of those around: withered fields, rusting equipment, buildings badly in need of repair that no one could afford. Happy ran ahead of Jim, reaching the front yard gate which would soon be disassembled and moved to someplace like the horse corral or the top of the barn.

“C’mon,” Happy whispered, flashing his trademark toothy smile.

Jim trudged forward. He’d lost his enthusiasm for pranks this year; maybe his daddy was right and he really was too old for it, or maybe it didn’t seem right when folks were already struggling so much to add one more burden, however small. He should’ve been home, sitting with Lettie and Alice listening to Granddaddy tell stories he’d heard when he was little, about fairy caverns that magically appeared only on Hallowe’en night in Ireland to lure unwary mortals to their death. Every year he told the same story – about the foolish young man who entered a barrow to frolic with a fairy, and when they found him a year later he was just a bag of bones, danced to death – but Jim liked hearing his granddaddy’s stories, no matter how many times he told the same ones. The old man still had a trace of a lilting accent that he exaggerated when he told the ancient tales, which Jim had thoroughly believed when he was little.

“Jim, get over here!” Happy already had his pocket knife out and was busily prying off the gate’s hinges. Jim reluctantly joined him.

A few minutes later they had the gate free; together they moved it to the empty cow pasture, where they stood it up against a tree stump. “That looks mighty fine, and hoo boy, won’t old man McPherson be red in the face when he sees it!” Happy said, clapping his hands.

Jim didn’t share Happy’s glee; the night had turned cold, leaving him to shiver in his threadbare jacket. In the distance a cat howled in fury, its cries echoing across the Kansas plain, sounding like a baby in distant distress.

Finished with their latest victim, the boys ran down the road to the Blake place. Happy spotted an old horse trough that he wanted to relocate to the front lawn. “Help me move this,” he said to Jim, positioning himself at one end.

Jim dutifully moved to the other side, but he stopped before lifting it, squinting at the Blakes’ old farmhouse. “Happy, I don’t think there’s no point.”


“’Cause I think the Blakes are gone.”

Happy turned to look and saw, as Jim had, no lights in the house, no cars or trucks nearby. The windows had been covered in boards, the grass was brown and crispy, a swing hung from a dead tree by one creaking chain.

Straightening up, disappointment evident in his posture, Happy said, “Well, hell’s bells…I didn’t hear nothin’ ‘bout the Blakes pullin’ up stakes.”

Shrugging, Jim said, “Wouldn’t surprise me, though, since Mrs. Blake caught the pneumonia and died last year. Nothin’ to hold ‘em here anymore.”

Happy kicked the trough in frustration, his foot tearing a hole in the ancient metal.

“Let’s just go home,” Jim said. “We done all we can for this Gate Night.”

Happy was about to answer when he looked up as something caught his attention. “What’s that?”

Jim followed his gaze to see a light a short distance down the road. “I don’t know, but don’t nobody live there, so let’s just –”

Cutting him off, Happy hefted the lantern and started walking. “Let’s go see.”

Inwardly sighing, Jim followed.

After a hundred yards they saw a large house clearly before them, fiddle music and warm light issuing from its open front door. Both boys stopped, staring.

“That ain’t possible,” Jim said. “There’s never been a house here.”

“Well, there’s one here now,” Happy answered. “I reckon it just got built.”

“Who’d build out here, and now?”

Grinning again, Happy said, “A sucker, that’s who!”

He ran forward.

Jim stayed his ground, every cell in his body thrumming with a sense of something wrong. He’d been down this road just a month ago, running an errand for his daddy, and he was sure he hadn’t seen this house, not even so much as a foundation or a few piles of lumber. The light issuing from it was inviting, the music cheerful…

None of it should be there.

Happy waved to him from where he crouched at the gate before the front walk. A low picket fence spread along the edges of a lush green lawn; roses lining the path up to the porch steps scented the chilled October air with their rich aroma. The jig played by the fiddle lit Jim’s blood, causing him to involuntarily thump a foot with the rhythm.

“Look on the steps,” Happy whispered.

Jim did, and saw a plate of doughnuts, so fresh they were steaming. Their scent, heady and sweet, reached them, causing Happy’s stomach to gurgle. Jim knew his friend hadn’t had much to eat tonight, with his daddy too sick and his momma too drunk to worry about food for their young ones.

“They’re right there for the taking,” Happy said, starting to rise.

Clutching at his friend, Jim whispered, “Wait.

“For what? Those doughnuts are just gonna get cold…”

“Something’s wrong.” Jim examined the house carefully, looking for clues. “Why can’t we see nobody inside? Who’s playin’ that fiddle?”

Happy looked at the house then shrugged. “So they’re just out of view. So what?”

How could Jim tell him that this was like something out of one of his granddaddy’s stories, that maybe the dust storms had blown in more than just dirt? “This ain’t right,” was all he could muster.

His friend punched his arm. “What, you think this is some house full’a haunts or somethin’? Well, maybe we should check those doughnuts, just to be sure they’re real.”

Happy was gone then, on his feet and stealthily opening the gate. Jim let him go, knowing he’d lost the argument…but he didn’t follow. Instead, he stayed kneeling behind the gate, watching.

Happy crept up the walk, between the tall, thick rose bushes, to the front steps. He looked back once, waved Jim up, and then, without waiting for his friend, began to crawl up the steps, low, like a slinking predator. Just below the top he reached out an arm, his eyes riveted to the open front door. His extended fingers found a doughnut; he turned to face Jim, moving the food to his mouth.

Jim wanted to scream, to run forward and wrench the thing away, tell him they had to go – no, they had to run – but instead he froze, paralyzed.

He watched in dread as Happy bit, chewed, swallowed…and his expression blossomed into bliss. He shoved the rest of the treat into his mouth and reached immediately for another. He beckoned again to Jim, who felt the awful temptation to join his friend, to share that joyful experience before they parted forever –

“Well, hello, boys!”

A woman stood in the doorway, looking down at them. Jim couldn’t understand how he hadn’t seen her step forward; one second he was looking at Happy and the doughnuts, and the next she was just there.

What’s more, she was beautiful. She had fair skin, hair almost as red as a newly-painted barn, mischievous eyes, full, wide lips, tilted up in a smile. She wore a dress of a green material that Jim couldn’t name, her feet were bare, her neck and wrists glimmered with gold jewelry.

Happy leapt to his feet, so startled he stumbled and landed sprawling at the base of the steps. She laughed lightly, but not in derision. “You don’t have to be scared of me,” she said.

She terrified Jim more than anyone or anything ever had.

He stayed frozen, squatting behind the gate, watching as Happy got to his feet while she looked down. “I put those doughnuts out for you.”

Happy was plainly in awe of her, his eyes riveted. “That was mighty kind of you, ma’am.”

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Folks call me Happy.”

Her smile widened, she held out a hand. “Happy, I’ve got some warm cider inside.”

Mesmerized, Happy took a step forward.

Jim leapt up. “Happy -!”

The woman’s gaze shifted to Jim; he felt like the live frog he’d once had to dissect at school, before Daddy had taken him out to help around the farm. “And you – what’s your name?”

Jim didn’t answer, but Happy did. “That there’s my friend Jim.”

Something clenched angrily inside Jim; he instinctively knew that Happy had just given away something significant, something that had kept them safe. He stayed silent.

“Well, Jim, I’ve got plenty of cider to go around. And popcorn, and caramel apples.”

Jim didn’t answer, or move.

Behind her, the fiddle ended its last song and started a new one, even sprightlier. She held a graceful, jeweled hand out to Happy. “How would you like to dance?”

Jim couldn’t see his friend’s face, but from the way Happy stammered, Jim knew he’d just blushed. “Oh, ma’am, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout dancin’.”

“C’mon, it’s easy – I’ll teach you.”

Happy took her hand.

A cry escaped Jim.

The woman squinted at him, and he felt primeval malice there, strengthened by eons of stoking and building. He knew this was nothing he could fight, he could only let it happen, let his friend be pulled forward into the house, into the dance…

The woman took both of Happy’s hands in hers, looked down at their feet, began to move. Happy followed her motions, and within seconds they were both laughing and whirling, the music ever quickening, their steps following faster and faster.

The biggest part of Jim wanted to join them, throw caution to the dust, run up the stairs, fling himself into the mad reel…but the strongest part held him in place, fearful yet resolute, determined to hang onto his center.

He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, watching, but at some point the woman separated from Happy, who danced the jig by himself. She applauded as he executed complicated steps, his hands waving in the air. “I didn’t know I could dance!” he shouted.

She laughed and clapped, then she turned away to look at Jim. She walked back into the doorway, leaving Happy to dance alone behind her.

“Why don’t you come on in, Jim?”

Her voice was like hearing rain in a drought; lilting, but with rich, deep undertones. Her eyes were half-lidded as she gazed at him, those lips closed but ready to part.

Jim knew he should run, with or without Happy, but his feet refused to move. He stood there, silent, feeling trapped and stupid.

“Have you ever danced? Wouldn’t you like to dance with me? We could slow the tempo down, do a slow dance, close together…” She swayed slightly, slowly, ignoring the wild pace of the jig behind her. She held a slender hand out to him. “One dance. What could it hurt?”

Jim did want to dance with her, to take her hand and let her lead him…anywhere. He could feel the magnetic pull of her, but he fought against it with all of his will. She saw his struggle, lowered her voice to a lower, more urgent register.

“What’ve you got here?” She gestured at the dry, dead prairie around them. “Or in California? Do you want a life working fields, sweating all day to feed other people while you’re barely making enough to feed yourself? Is that want you really want?”

“No.” The word escaped him before he could stop it. As soon as it left his mouth she smiled, and he knew he’d given her the first hold on his soul.

“Come in, Jim. If you like it – and we both know you will – you never have to leave. You can stay here, with me, forever. Imagine an eternity of dancing, eating…of love.”

Something stirred in him; it wasn’t just physical, although that was part of it. No, this went right to the core of him; he had to admit that she was right. He didn’t want to be a farmer. He’d never admitted as much to his parents, or even to himself, but the thought filled him with a dull horror. He wasn’t sure what he did want to do, but he thought if he had time to himself, time when he wasn’t helping Daddy around the farm, when he was fighting storms and spitting out the dust he’d breathed into his lungs, he might find out what his real calling was. He thought he might be an artist of some sort, but he still had so many discoveries to make…

Or he could accept her invitation, join her forever on a journey of magic and pleasure.

Behind her, Happy cried out in pain, but he didn’t stop his mad jigging.

Jim realized he couldn’t, and he also realized that she was a trickster. If he set one foot in that house, accepted one bite of food, he saw not a future of bliss, but one of desperation and agony. Happy was already lost for good; he would be next, if he was foolish enough to believe her.

He stood, torn, until Happy shouted, “Don’t listen to her.”

“I’m not leaving without you --”

His friend, his childhood best friend who had saved him from bees and bullies at school, who had shown him how to swing out on the old rope over the creek and drop in, who’d laughed so hard the time the cow’s milk had shot out of the udder all over him…Happy cut him off to say, “I can’t leave, but you can. Run, Jim, get out of here!”

The beautiful woman’s eyes glowed fiery red like poked embers. Her lips twisted into an angry grimace, her fingers hooked into claws, and Jim knew she might just kill him if she couldn’t have him.

“I’m sorry, Happy,” he said.

He ran, then. He stumbled through the Hallowe’en night, half-blinded by dust and tears, finding his way home by instinct alone.


His daddy found him on the front steps of the house early the next morning, unconscious, covered in grime and sweat. He picked him up, brought him inside, put him in his bed. Jim had a fever that lasted for two days; when it broke, the questions started.

Happy had disappeared. Jim told them they’d been out on Hallowe’en night together, that they’d gotten separated out near the Blake place, that he didn’t remember what happened or how he’d made it home.

He was lying, and the police knew it, just as his family did, but nobody questioned him too hard. Not even Granddaddy, who peered at him with a mix of suspicion and pride.

The police scoured the area around the Blake place. Just beyond it, they found a plot of singed earth they couldn’t account for, but no trace of Happy.

Jim, though, saw his friend in his dreams every night, saw him sobbing in pain, his flesh wasting away as his feet kept up their lunatic rhythm; meanwhile, she stood nearby, satisfied by Happy’s doom…but Jim sensed that her satisfaction wasn’t complete.

Because she hadn’t gotten both of them.

When he was recovered, they loaded up the family truck and started the drive west. Daddy said they’d make it to California in a week, if the old Chevy held out. One night, in their little camp by the side of a road, Daddy surprised Jim by telling him that once Jim turned 18, he was free to make his way in the world, doing whatever would give him a good life, whether it was farming or something else. At the end of the talk, they hugged, and Daddy mussed Jim’s hair, and Jim saw a future before him that he hadn’t dared think about before.

That night, Jim dreamed again of Happy, and he saw what would happen: next Hallowe’en, they’d find Happy in that scorched plot of land just down the road from the old Blake house, except he’d be skin and bones, shriveled down to almost nothing. No one would be able to explain it, and a few might wonder if Jim hadn’t known more than he’d let on…but he’d be in another state, and there really wouldn’t be any point in bothering him, because he couldn’t very well bring the dead back to life.

Jim woke up with the feeling that he might meet her again someday, the woman who’d stolen his friend, but next time, he wouldn’t be a fifteen-year-old kid.

He’d be ready.