Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2004
Adult Winners

Third Place

Our third place Adult winner is Tara Van Allen of Saugus. Ms. Van Allen also won third place in 2002. Although she really enjoys her day job -- writing water and wastewater engineering proposals at Dufresne-Henry, Inc. -- Tara's true love is fiction. In addition to five short stories, she has written three screenplays and a novel and is already outlining her Halloween submission for 2005.

Borderline Souls

Tara Tamasi

The other survivors and I swore we’d never tell.  It was a moot point--nobody would believe us anyway.

Only a year and a half ago I had no idea of the hell that awaited me.  After a bitter divorce that had wasted twelve years of my life, I was engaged to Steve.  Things were just peachy until a routine gyno visit revealed I had breast cancer.  

My doctors opined:  “You’ll need chemo first, then lumpectomy, radiation, perhaps more chemo.”

My family demanded:  “Get a second opinion!  Cancer doesn’t run in our family.  You CAN’T have cancer.  

Steve said:  “C’mon, let’s go out to the party.  So what if you’re bald.  Wear a scarf.  So what if you can’t drink.  You can drive.”

Ahem.  The tumors grew despite incessant chemo treatments that balded me, bloated my abdomen, claimed my eyebrows and eyelashes, and turned my face green like Shrek.  When they finally cut off my left breast, the tumors recurred in my bones.  Finally my doctors conceded and gave me the option of stretching a year into two with weekly doses of harsh chemo.

I decided to take control of what remained of my life.  I broke up with Steve, who hadn’t touched me since the onslaught of cancer.  

Then I firmly explained to my family that I was returning to work, and while I hoped to reach my thirty-eighth birthday, I would not be having any more chemo.  My sisters cried, pleaded, cajoled, and finally berated me.  They even tried to get Steve to talk sense into me, but he had already met Sybil, so he wasn’t interested in my life span anymore.  How could a man who had cried so passionately over me find someone else so quickly?

I returned to work to wait for the inevitable.  I got used to the embarrassed clearing of throats when my co-workers couldn’t think of what to say to the walking dead.  Everyone knew my prognosis.

But today was Halloween, and instead of sitting at home waiting for trick-or-treaters who hadn’t shown up last year, I attended my office costume party.  I was living it up one last time as the St. Pauly girl.  My cheap blond wig was so comfy I debated about keeping it to cover my black peach fuzz.  I also loved my phony rack of double Ds, which effectively hid my lopsided chest.  

Food still tastes bland, so I was skipping the buffet.  But my oncologist had given me permission to drink chardonnay, which is so much better than green tea.

Imbibing alcohol at work felt wonderfully naughty, and I felt a burst of alcohol-induced frivolity as I chuckled at the diversity of costumes.  I knew who everyone was despite their clever attempts to disguise themselves.  In keeping with our vows of silence, I won’t divulge any real names here, just our aliases.  

Snow White actually had two dwarves with her:  Dopey and Grumpy.  All three hailed from the Accounting Department.  

A cheap rendition of Xena, Warrior Princess, proved more inappropriate than my own costume, but hey, our receptionist-by-day had the body for it.  Over by the booze table, Scooby Doo was lapping down beers.  A Witch chuckled at an elaborately detailed Skeleton.  Pearly white cartilage was expertly stitched on a black lycra suit worn by our rail-thin geologist.  I was tempted to shut off the lights to see if he’d glow.  

Then I saw Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz strutting about.  In five years, Dorothy had risen from engineer to head of her division.  I never indulged in the malicious gossip about her supposed hanky-panky with one of the vice presidents, but I often wondered how she rose so quickly in the ranks when I saw her many mistakes in specs.  

Wanting to avoid Dorothy’s tedious company, I retreated to the other side of the foyer where I met up with SpongeBob.  Homer Simpson and O.J. Simpson, entrapped in a makeshift jail cell, joined us.  I wondered if I had missed a memo stating there’d be a huge monetary prize for most original costume.  

“I like the Head the best,” Homer said.  He was talking about my friend who was in actuality SpongeBob’s assistant.  She wore a huge cardboard box, designed to mimic a refrigerator.  I was impressedthe refrigerator swung open to reveal several fake rows containing Tupperware, a carton of eggs, a half gallon of milk, and several cans of Coors Lite.  

But the cleverest part of the costume lay in the freezer.  A “to do” checklist, held in place by fake magnets, stated:  “Buy beers, go food shopping, clean cat box, and kill girlfriend.”  A checkmark next to each line item indicated the deeds were accomplished.  When you opened the freezer door, you saw her head, gray-faced and caked with fake blood, with mascara running beneath her eyes.

“The Head’s got my vote too,” I said and saluted her.  She grinned back and shut her freezer door quickly because Dorothy was veering in her direction.

I was on my second cup of lukewarm chardonnay, dying for something frosty and tingly, when I saw “him” chatting it up with the Witch and Skeleton.  I almost dropped my cup as I muttered, “Steve who?”

His costume of blood-red lycra showed off his six-pack, chest, thick arms, and muscular legs.  He had cerulean blue eyes with eye lashes that any normal woman would covet, much less a cancer patient.  Thick, black curls, which I yearned to run my fingers through, cascaded to his shoulders.  Silver horns adorning his head and a tail ending in a spike disclosed his identity of the Devil.  Instead of the obligatory pitchfork, this Devil carried a large birdcage with a sign stating:  “Sell your soul for a Winner’s scratch ticket.”

A scroll of instant scratch tickets, each selling for five bucks, was attached to the cage.  The cage housed two little jet-black plastic devils.  It was too cute.  And an excuse to find out who the hell he was, cause I have never seen him before.  Really, if I were ten years younger, still had hair, a left boob, and more time left to live, I’d be after this hunk in a minute.  As the Witch and Skeleton stumbled away, I jumped at the chance to chat it up with the Hunk.

“I’ll take one,” I gushed.  

He smiled at me with the authority of a gigolo who was used to wallflowers pathetically grateful for just a flash of his attention.  

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, a teasing lilt to his gorgeous masculine voice.

“Heck, yeah.  Um, can you take an IOU?” I asked, suddenly realizing my knockoff Todd pocketbook, which contained all of my cash, was back at my desk.

“No sale until the money hits my palm,” he said and turned to Dorothy, who it turns out wasn’t making for the Head after all.  She had seen my dark prince and decided that being fifty-six and married didn’t mean a thing.  

Dorothy cackled at something my Hunk said as I hurried toward my desk.  I had to dart past the Head, who was chatting it up with Snow White and Dopey.  Knowing her, the Head was probably trying to find out if next year’s raises had been approved yet.  Homer Simpson and O.J. were arguing sports with the inebriated Scooby Doo.

I ran back, wondering if I could convince the Devil to ditch my co-workers for better ambiance and frosty drinks at a nearby bar.  I was far too self-involved to care why some of my colleagues seemed to be walking around in a daze.  

“I’ll take two!” I gasped, embarrassed at how breathless I was.

“Alas, since you have only one soul to exchange, you may only buy one.”

‘Fine, whatever.  I’ll take it,” I said eagerly.

My Hunk smiled at me, like I was the only woman in the room.  He tore a ticket from its wad and dangled it at me.  

“So you’re selling your soul on your own free will?” he drawled.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said.  

I signed the contract, he handed me the ticket, and I handed him five dollars.  The triumphant look in his eyes and the maniacal laughter worthy of Vincent Price were the last things I was conscious of when the room started to spin, and a blast of hot, putrid air knocked my body right out of my mind.  That’s the only way to explain it.  I watched in terror as my body stumbled away from my conscious self.  It was surrounded by a glowing red aura.

That’s when I noticed that Grumpy, Xena, and SpongeBob’s conscious selves all stood next to me.  Their bodies, surrounded by the same buzzing red radiation that engulfed me, walked around in a daze.  I was horrified to see that the Witch and Skeleton were also trapped in the red aura.  The Skeleton walked into the wall, took a step back, and walked into the wall again.  Homer Simpson, laughing like it was a joke, righted the Skeleton, who then walked away without acknowledging a now befuddled Homer.

The Devil commanded my attention.

“You’ve sold your souls, which now stand before me.  The shells of your former human bodies are what you see walking around.  The others have no idea what’s going on, except that you’re all acting strangely.  Now, you have one last chance to save yourselves.  Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t take your soul.  Take note of your former colleagues in the cage.  Obviously, they failed.”

“How’s our disappearance going to make sense to our families?”  SpongeBob asked valiantly, but his voice quavered.

Satan snarled at him, blowing a gust of hot, rotten air into SpongeBob’s face.  “You will speak only when spoken to!”  

His anger was terrifying, and we all whimpered in unison.

Satan snickered.  “However, I do enjoy telling it like it is.  You will all continue to carry on in your body shells like you see.  But when you get home, you will all die suddenly of food poisoning.”

“But I didn’t eat anything,” I blurted, suddenly grateful for my deadened taste buds.

“Well, we’ll have to rectify that, won’t we?” the Devil drawled and snapped his fingers.  My body shell began stuffing my face with what appeared to be pigs-in-a-blanket.  The Head, knowing full well I couldn’t stomach that kind of crap, gawked at me.  

“Mwah, ha, ha, ha!” the Devil guffawed again in Vincent Price mode.  “We’ll start with you.”  The Devil pointed at Grumpy who was hyperventilating.  “Can you find the right words to save yourself?”

This had to be some kind of riddle, I thought desperately.  Think.  THINK.  THINK!  Maybe it was all about sacrifice.  I only had about a year left to live.  Everyone else captured by Satan seemed to be in perfect health, or looking at Grumpy’s bloated belly, unaware of any medical problems.

“Take me!”  I begged.  “Let them go and take me!”  

“Oh, I’ll take you,” the Devil said.  “But your insincere words can’t save them or yourself.”  His face contorted as he ranted.  “This isn’t about life.  It’s about eternity.  An endless pit of time and suffering that will NEVER end.  Would you really give up your soul for them?  Look.”  He thrust the cage in our faces.  “They’re already halfway to Hell.”

The devils writhed and moaned.  One of them kept trying to pray, and every time it crossed its hands, sparks flew and it screamed in agony.

“God can’t help you now,” the Devil said almost lovingly to the pitiful creature.  When he turned his attention back to us, he chuckled, and it sounded eerie, like a bass cello.  He set the cage on the floor and kicked it open.

“Enough procrastination.  What’s your sorry excuse?”  Grumpy again was on the line.  

“Why me?  I go to church every Sunday.  Why not the Head?  Or Dorothy?  Why isn’t Dorothy going to Hell?”  Grumpy whined.

I looked at him with the contempt he deserved.  Grumpy never smiled and was a classic complainer.  In fact, Grumpy was an apt choice of costume for him.

The Devil yawned.  “Only the damned and borderline souls can see me.  The Head is a righteous woman.  I can’t touch her,” he snarled, sounding strangely like a whiny little boy.  “Her,” he pointed at Dorothy, “I don’t need to buy.  She’s already mine.  However, the rest of you were all borderline souls, ripe for the plucking.”  

The Devil readdressed Grumpy.  “Going through the motions of sitting in a pew and tuning out the priest while you doze doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to Heaven.  You don’t contribute to society, but you snatch as much as you can from others with nary a thank you.  Your selfishness is so rampant that you would not hesitate to inflict your well-deserved fate on an innocent to save your own worthless hide.  I LOVE people like you.”  

The Devil zapped Grumpy, who was immediately engulfed in flames.  The fire spent itself almost as fast as it started, but Grumpy’s shrieks of agony continued.  Grumpy’s face shook, and he suddenly had possession of his soul and could move from the hex that held the rest of us immobile.  Shaking and whimpering, he collapsed to his knees.  I started weeping.

“Get into the cage!” the Devil roared.  

Grumpy staggered into the cage, each body part transforming into a writhing little black devil’s body part until he was wholly devil.

“Now you.”

“But I AM a good person,” Xena pleaded.  “You gotta believe me.  Whenever I drive, I pray every time I see an ambulance.”

“You mutter the Hail Mary mechanically even as you callously surf the radio for your rap crap, which is so loud, you can’t even hear yourself pray,” the Devil spat.  “You go out every night in your revealing clothes and drink yourself into oblivion so you can tell yourself the next day you weren’t responsible for what you did the night before.  Your greatest pleasures in life stem from the suffering you inflict on others, whether it be the men you reject or the women you enrage when you flirt with their mates.  You’re pathetic.  It’s people like you who make up the majority of borderline souls.”  

The Devil zapped Xena, and she screamed amid the flames.  “Get into the cage!” the Devil roared.  Xena staggered into the cage, transforming into a little black devil.  She dropped to her knees, her wails of agony drowning out Grumpy’s pitiful shrieks.

“You.  Any last words?”  SpongeBob was now on the hot seat.  

“I don’t want to leave my family,” he whispered wretchedly.

“Ehhhhhhh!” the Devil simulated the buzzer sound when someone’s made a wrong answer on a game show.  “You care more about making money than your precious family.  When was the last time you noticed that your fifteen-year-old daughter dresses like a harlot and skips school?  Or that your neglected wife is contemplating an affair?  You work fourteen-hour days and weekends, and what little time you’re home, you’re too tired to do much else but hide behind a newspaper.  Meanwhile, your family is well on their way to becoming borderline souls, because of your blatant disregard.  Now get out of my sight, little man.”  Satan zapped SpongeBob, who screamed as flames swallowed him.  “And get into the cage.”

SpongeBob’s face shook, his body followed suit, and he dutifully let himself into the cage.  He shrieked with anguish as he transmuted into a black devil.

That left only me.

Think, I had to think.  Why’d he save me for last?  Could I still save my colleagues?  Did I know something?  Was he afraid of me?  Or was I just being delusional?  I had seconds left to figure it out.  I had nothing.  Nothing!

Except dignity.  I had faced the probability of death for so long now, that I promised myself I would die with dignity.  I would not grovel to Satan.

“Any last requests?” the Devil shoved the contract in my face.  I saw my signature and everyone else’s promising to sell our souls for the price of a five dollar scratch ticket.

“Wait!”  I said.  “That’s not my real signature!  I’m mean, I’m not the St. Pauly Girl!  And he’s not,” I pointed at what I thought was SpongeBob, but who could tell?  “SpongeBob!  Nobody signed their real names!  This contract is invalid!” I said triumphantly.  

“Do you think I’m a judge you can reason with?!” Satan roared, and if souls were capable of bodily functions, I surely would’ve have lost control of my bowels.  “Think again.  Your pathetic human laws do not apply to me.  I am Satan.  You cannot expect mercy or justice from me,” he said, curling his bottom lip to show his incisors.  

“You think just because you’ll be dead in six months you’ve got nothing to lose.”  He mimicked my voice and whined, “I don’t want any more chemo!  I want quality of life!  I should volunteer whatever time I’ve got left to help others.”

“Oh, you’re such a martyr.  But instead of volunteering your time and helping other people, you sit on your lazy ass watching reality TV shows and sobbing like a baby, night after night, with your thumb up your nose.  Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve, DIDN’T!  Hell is full of hypocrites like you.”  

I cringed.  Did he have to give away all our personal secrets?

Without any warning, Satan zapped me.  I could feel the excruciating transformation.  As the flames engulfed me, hot dry air shot down my mouth and quickly coursed through my intestines, and I felt a numbing sensation as I breathed it out.  I was doomed, and...

Wait a second.  I’ve felt this way before.  When the doctors first told me I had cancer, I breathed in this overwhelming hot air that paralyzed me until I exhaled it.  It’s called mortal fear.  Now that I was in control of my soul again, I was allowed to feel the fear, the fear that would make me mindlessly join the others in the cage.  But the Devil never physically forced them into the cage.  He told them to get in, and they did, on their own free will.  Could it be that simple?

“Get into the cage.”

“No.  I will NOT walk into that hellhole.  You may NOT have my soul.”  I heard Satan roar, but I faced him and grabbed the contract.  Don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t being cocky.  I was desperate.  I ripped the contract in half.  The Devil’s howl reverberated inside my head, and I don’t know how my ear drums didn’t explode at the sound.  

Maybe the hope etched on the otherwise suffering faces of the captives gave me strength.  Or maybe it was my faith, the same faith that had carried me through the year and a half of battling cancer.  I found courage.

“You’re nothing.  You have to trick people to steal their souls.  Using their own free will against them.  Well, you won’t do it to me.”  I searched the room for my body shell.  It was standing next to SpongeBob, looking aimlessly into his vacant eyes.  I ran and jumped into my shell the way I’d jump into a pool.

The shock of uniting my soul with my body was a much easier impact than losing it.  I ripped my scratch ticket in half and cautiously took in my surroundings.  I could see the red aura that vibrated around my captured colleagues.  They all stood like robots, and the Head, frustrated, was saying to the Skeleton, “What the hell’s wrong with you people?”

Meanwhile, the Devil was far too hasty in his retreat.  Why was he leaving?  Was he a sore loser?  No.  It must be because I had the means to somehow save my friends.  I ran after him, but he opened a portal in the elevator and hopped in, laughing triumphantly in that obnoxious maniacal tone.

Everything was happening in a maddeningly slow-motion warp, like in the movies.  The Head waved her arms in front of SpongeBob’s face, yelling his name, but he stared unblinking.  The elevator door had six inches left to closing.

I heard their cries.

“Save us!  Help us!  Help!”  

Tears of frustration blurred my vision as I watched the door close another two inches.  “Nooooooooo!” I yelled in despair and tried to run faster, but my legs felt heavy and clumsy, as if I wore workboots made of cement.  I wasn’t going to reach the elevator in time.  It shut another inch.  My friends were doomed.  

Then it happened.

Perfectly red manicured fingernails swatted the elevator, forcing it back open.

“Where are you going, cutie-pie?  I still want that ticket.”  Dorothy demanded flirtatiously.

And that’s all the time I needed.  

For the first time since I had the displeasure of meeting him, he looked at me without cockiness.  I jumped into the elevator.  Dorothy gasped as I knocked the cage from his hands.

“Get on your knees, you unclean thing!”  I bellowed, thinking at that exact moment of how Mom always says I’m the dramatic one in the family.

I kicked the cage door open with my foot.  The little devils stared up at me with hope.

“Get out!  Run to your bodies now!”  Frankly, I didn’t know just how much power I actually wielded and how long it would last.  The little devils sensed my dilemma and ran.  I watched in elation as the empty shells of my colleagues were reunited with their souls.  The reddish auras faded away.  Their souls were intact.

In his rage, the Devil was incoherent, or maybe he was just cursing at me in an ancient language.  Whatever.  That’s when my colleagues, except Grumpy, who ran heaving into the Men’s room, rushed over to the elevator.  Did I forget to mention that SpongeBob was president of our firm?

“Leave my sight, little man.  Never come back.”  SpongeBob pulled a sputtering Dorothy away, I hopped back out, and we gravely watched the elevator close.  None of us former borderline souls ever used that elevator again.

All of us involved in the crisis stared wearily at each other for a moment, then they each hugged me.  We all mumbled some lame excuse to the rest of our confused colleagues and left.  While I sat in the gridlock traffic, I resolved not to think about what the Devil had said.  About my dying in only six months.

On Monday, SpongeBob treated us to lunch.  We were a motley group in everyone else’s eyes, and a few bewildered people tried to get me to spill, but I refused to tell anyone why SpongeBob singled us out.  

Over the weekend, instead of sobbing in front of the TV, I had volunteered at a local animal shelter.  Xena admitted she hadn’t gone near a club all weekend.  I noticed she wore a conservative sweater and loose slacks.  

So it was the same for all of us.  We embraced the second chance given to us, and we resolved to redeem ourselves.  We promised to live our lives well, but to never mention Satan again.  Then everyone thanked me one last time for saving them, and I’ll cherish their gratitude for the rest of my life.  Saving a life makes you feel powerful.  Saving a soul is euphoric.  Borderline soul he called me.  Not anymore.  

Still exhilarated from lunch, I was practically skipping down the hall when suddenly I stopped, blanching.  My eyes widened, and my mouth gaped like a doomed fish.  I dropped my doggie bag, and ziti spilled on my feet as I hyperventilated.  My hand clamped my mouth to prevent my lunch from heaving back up.

“What’s the matter NOW?” Dorothy asked impatiently as she strutted by, unaware of the red aura that shrouded her like a coffin.

The End

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