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THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HOOTER MCCORMICK -- PHOENIX IN PARADISE -- CONCLUSION

By: Wes Ishmael

Mind Over Matter

The adventure thus far: Eunice Nicklecock, deposed senior strategist of People for the Ethical Treatment of All Life (PETAL) escaped from the Gentle Balance and Peace Institute where she had been under observation ever since a run-in with Hooter and the Legend of the White Armadillo. Reports of her escape indicated she was heading for Apache Flats to seek revenge, which she was. Eunice had also made the sad mistake of referring to Hooter's ex-Sherry Waters—as Voodoo trash. So, Sherry was already in Apache Flats awaiting Eunice's arrival.

By the time Eunice Nicklecock stumbled into the city limits of Apache Flats, she was already half-way back to the Gentle Balance and Peace Institute, although she didn't realize it yet.

For one thing, it was Valentine's Day, which in Rio Rojo County was a little-needed excuse for an annual ritual that might seem downright quirky anywhere else.

What had begun as a late-season Sadie Hawkins Day had evolved into Kiss or Treat, followed by a boxed supper auction—proceeds going toward the annual Christmas Fund—and dance.

As you might guess, Kiss or Treat was a simple revision of October's Trick or Treat. In this case, ladies would go door-to-door Kiss or Treating, often dressed up in glamorous costumes: if you opened the door you had to be ready to dole out treats for their goody bags, or pucker up, or both. So, yes, you had to be plumb careful whom you opened the door for.

In the spirit of Sadie Hawkins, the event had begun as a platform for single women in the community to take the initiative with gun-shy potential suitors. While this was still the basis for it, most of Rio Rojo's female persuasion got involved one way or the other. For the married women, it was a chance to call on their spouses and rekindle a flame. For the secret admirers in the crowd it was a chance to express their interest. For those somewhere between the first date and matrimonial bliss it was a litmus test of loyalty. For the spinsters and old maids it was a chance to get even. And, for everyone else, it was just plain fun.

To be fair, Kiss or Treat has probably spawned as many fistfights, mistaken intentions and close calls as romantic jumpstarts over the years. But, it isn't quite the chap stick swapping free-for-all that it might seem to the uninitiated.

There are rules, after all, nebulous as they may be. For one thing, singles aren't supposed to call on those otherwise committed, exes aren't supposed to call on exes, under no circumstance are the men supposed to do the calling, and those calling are supposed to take no for an answer.

Unfortunately, even the natives lose track of these guidelines from time to time. Few in the county remember that such an oversight was exactly how Toothless Joe Kerr earned his nickname. Back in the day, when Aunt Pinky was prime courting material, but already had her bonnet fixed on someone else, Joe decided to use the annual Kiss or Treat as a way of announcing his interest. Pinky had neither the inclination nor the ability to accept Joe's feeble attempt when he came knocking on her door, and she proceeded to clean his plow, front teeth first.

This is the same kind of misunderstanding that ultimately led to Eunice Nicklecock's second undoing in Apache Flats.

A Pucker for Your Thoughts

To wit, Eunice was already more than a little flustered by the party lights she saw circling the town square, not to mention the costumed women she saw scurrying about town, animated by festive anticipation. Plus, no one was paying Eunice any attention. There were always plenty of out-of-town secret admirers in town for the event.

True to her form, Eunice reckoned she'd get to the bottom of what was going on. So, she marched up the first vacant sidewalk that she came to and knocked on the door.

Poor Elmer Franks. He's a long-time widower, who's not looking, but retains secret hopefulness in his heart. And, he doesn't hear so good.

Elmer swung open his door with a big smile on his face. Imagine how you'd feel looking into the deranged, chubby face of an unwashed Eunice Nicklecock, greasy hair matted to the creases in her forehead. When Eunice said, “What gives,” and rolled her eyes toward the activity going on up the street, then pursed her lips the she always did, Elmer thought she said, “Give me!” and puckered up. In horror, he thrust a bowl of homemade sugar fritters into her hands, slammed the door, shut off the lights and went to look for his heart medicine.

Never one to surrender easily, Eunice turned on her heel and began marching toward the action, chomping sugar fritters as she went. She spied some kids playing tag and asked them if they knew where she could find either Sherry Waters or Hooter McCormick. The kids froze, and not because of how Eunice looked. Around here, Sherry and her Voodoo legend was the stuff of scary bedtime stories.

“I reckon she's at that place,” stammered little Virgil Lumpkin.

“Yeah,” came the scattered agreement from his pals.

“What would that place be?” Eunice asked, nice as she could, though her blood was already beginning to run cold at the thoughts of imminent battle.

“You know, the haunted house,” said Virgil.

“I'm afraid I don't understand,” said Eunice. At least she hoped she didn't.

Margie Opperstein wanted to get back to the tag match. She squeezed to the front of the pack. “Look, you just go to that street there, turn right, and keep walking. It sits off be itself. You'll know it when you see it.” Then she tweaked Virgil's nose, “You're it.” And they were off.

Deja vu All Over Again

Actually, the haunted house was the old Thayer Place on the north edge of town. It was one of those rambling three-story affairs with peeling paint, overgrown trees and shrubs and the look of eternal vacancy. Thus, to the locals it has long been called the haunted house.

Eunice set out on the path Margie had outlined, plodding along with all the resolve and reason of a punch-drunk fighter. With every squeaking shutter and breaking twig, though, her heart would skip. She couldn't quit thinking about those blasted white armadillos that had led to her demise. And that, that, Hooter McCormick and his friend Sherry. She vowed they'd get what was coming to them as she swung her ever-present nine-iron more stiffly at her side.

She thought she heard something scurry through some underbrush on her right. She froze, and raised the golf club over her head. Could it be…one of those…white armadillos.

“No!” she ordered herself. “That's just a figment of your imagination. Not just that one, but all of them. That's what the doctors told you, Eunice. It's just a figment.” She started trudging again.

So it was that Eunice had cast her own net before she'd even made the corner to the haunted house.

As for Sherry Waters, her intuition was dead-on. She knew Eunice was close at hand. Plus, she'd spied her from a distance talking to the kids. She knew exactly what to do as she took the shortcut for the Thayer place.

When Eunice finally got close enough to see the old house, she knew she'd found her prey. And, she understood why the kids said it was haunted. Broken shutters rode the breeze, clacking and scratching against the house. The silhouette of dead branches grew from the roof like a bad haircut. The gate, when she finally got to it, was rusted and dangling by a single hinge. It was dark, too. No, it was black, pitch black, except for a low-watt bulb dangling precariously from a tree branch about 10 feet ahead of the rickety porch. There was just enough light to see the broken and buckled walk leading up to it.

Eunice raised the golf club higher and snuck slowly ahead. She crept up the three porch steps, her breath catching with each give-away squeak.

Sherry was watching all of this with bemused fascination, through the front door which she had cracked open. She just watched and waited, armed with a fuzzy white stuffed cat.

Just as Eunice reached out to give the door a ginger knock, Sherry swung it wide.

“Boo,” she whispered, tossing the stuffed cat at Eunice…

When the paramedics arrived, they found Eunice Nicklecock frozen stone cold solid in fear, like a statue that had toppled off the porch, but landed unbroken, golf club raised, eyes wide as hubcaps, a stuffed white kitten sitting on her ponderous chest. The note pinned to her sodden clothes gave her name and the phone number for the Gentle Balance and Peace Institute with a simple request, “I'm not well. Please send me home again.”

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