It was the usual Thursday dinner at the Rutabaga house. Everyone sat around the table, munching on under-cooked carrots, lumpy meatloaf and heavily buttered, mashed potatoes, and talking very, very loudly. On the walls, there was a menagerie of odd portraits of long-gone family members, each one with its curious story. Aunt Tilda, sporting a crimson turban, had nearly died being shot out of a canon. Uncle Wilber, of the handle-bar mustache, had tried, unsuccessfully, to teach cats to speak Sumerian. Cousin Rufus, elegant in spite of his goiter, had a fire-eating Orangutan as a pet, or so Aunt Persephone swore. They gazed through their whiskered, dusty faces at the current ruling clan, and sometimes, when they thought no one was looking, they rolled their eyes or stuck out their tongues at them.
It was the week before Halloween, and this would be the first year that the Rutabagas spent it with Hanna. Though they were a bit modern for Hanna – who was herself a very quaint, late 19th-Century, Victorian, “a painted lady”, as they were called – she had become quite fond of them. And she had high hopes that this Halloween might be the most special of all.
The Rutabagas had been talking about their plans all month: a truly haunted house, with trap doors, ghoulish disguises, frightful music, blood (no, no, not real blood, but you get the point) dripping from the walls – her walls! It was enough to make her close the shutters! If only they’d ask her what she’d like to do!
There was something about old houses that made everyone think they were haunted – or should be. Every year that the Casaubas, or the Hellers, or the Joneses, had spent there, they had always turned her into a fright-fest. Children would run screaming from her, warning their friends. And long after Halloween was over, the neighborhood children would hurry past her, careful not to pass her after sunset.
There were even years when no one came to trick or treat, so strong was the belief that she was haunted. But Hanna wasn’t haunted, not at all! The portraits were haunted, but she had nothing to do with that, they came that way. She was a happy house and she was happiest when she was full of people, especially children. She wanted children to come over again and have tea and not get goose bumps whenever a branch from the old willow tree out back scraped against her windows. If only she could convince her current family to see Halloween differently.
She had a feeling she could. From the first, she had had the feeling that the Rutabagas were different, that if she spoke to them they might actually hear her. There was a certain glow around the youngest of their three children, Samantha, which gave Hanna the confidence to speak up. And so, bit by bit, Hanna had introduced herself. First to the youngest, and then to the others, though they were a lot tougher to reach. As it turns out, they could all hear her perfectly well, when they weren’t talking rambunctiously – which was rare. And it also turned out, that they weren’t the least bit frightened that they could. Peculiarity must’ve run in the family!
Little by little, Hanna had become part of the family, she even sang “Happy Birthday” along with everyone else, using the gaps along the windowsill to make the high notes. A house that sings sounds haunted, I know. But haunted houses are full of ghosts. Hanna was just full of life.
Hanna looked out at the leaves, toasted orange and copper. She listened for the crisp crackle as the neighborhood children stepped on the driest leaves – Krrr-unch! When the leaves blew past her, she always heard – Hall-o-ween! Down the road, the wind had picked up, and all the leaves the Williams had just raked into a heap went swirling into the street – whirly-whish! Why did they bother, everyone knows that leaves are meant to swirl in eddies up and down the street!
Back at the dinner table, the Rutabagas were reporting on the day.
“What did you do at school, Lily?” Mrs. Rutabaga asked.
“Nothing exciting.” said Lily, pouting a little. “We just made these silly decorations for Halloween. Nothing as grand as what we’ll do for our celebration,” she added, a big grin spreading across her face.
“That’s nice, honey. And you, Oscar? What did you get up to?”
“Same thing as Lily-boring stuff, except the part where Mr. Chimens talked about the way people used to rob graves for scientific research,” said Oscar, pantomiming a suddenly severed arm. Thud! went his right arm next to his plate. “Man! I wish they still did! All we get to work with are these lame cow cultures.” Oscar said, spearing a tough round of carrot with his fork. “Hey, we need to pick up materials for the fake corpses,” he thought aloud. And at that, everyone chimed in enthusiastically, relishing all the gruesome details. Everyone, except Hanna.
Hanna realized the time to act was now. It wasn’t polite to butt in in the middle of a conversation, but it also wasn’t polite to ignore someone who hadn’t spoken. She sounded a firm “a-hem” to get everyone’s attention. No one seemed to notice. So, she cleared her throat. Again, the din at the table went on uninterrupted. Finally, exasperated, she sneezed – and all the curtains flew sideways. That did it!
“Did you hear that?” Samantha, the youngest, asked everyone. “What?” Everyone returned. “That!” Dear Samantha! Hanna could always count on her to listen. “She’s trying to tell us something.” Eyes rolled, and this time they were the family’s eyes, not their ancestors’.
“”Everybody listen! The house…I mean…Hanna, wants to tell us something. Just listen.”
“Oh brother!” said Lily, who at a whopping eight years-old thought her little sister Sam, a mere six years-old, should stop always showing off.
“Shhh!”, said Mrs. Rutabaga, who had caught a word or two.
“I don’t…”, started Lily, her face turned up to one side, listening.
“I don’t want…”, added Samantha.
“I don’t want to be … haunted! I don’t want to be haunted! That’s it!” everyone chimed. Oscar put down his fork, ready for a fight.
“Not haunted!?! What’s the point of Halloween, if we don’t have a haunted house?” he rolled on, his face puckering with indignation. “That’s what Halloween’s all about: everyone getting as scary and scared as possible!” he puffed.
“Hold on, Oscar! Hold on.” soothed Mr. Rutabaga. “Let’s hear Hanna out. So, Hanna, what do you want to be?”
“Happy!” everyone said in unison, after an inquisitive pause.
Hanna looked around the table at her new family, afraid they might not understand, but to her great surprise, each of the Rutabagas – except Oscar – seemed to understand why she would want such a thing. Maybe they could help Oscar understand too.
Mr. Rutabaga caught her train of thought and came up with an ingenious plan to convert Oscar to her cause. Everyone, he observed, makes a haunted house for Halloween. How original is that, he queried. He knew that Oscar loved to be the first to do things, especially since he was usually the last in the Rutabaga household.
“Instead of doing what everyone else is doing, why don’t we use our imaginations to come up with a truly novel plan this year?” he asked.
Oscar was not easily swayed and it took quite a bit of quick thinking on Mr. Rutabaga’s part, but bit by bit, he came up with a compromise that everyone, even Oscar, could live with. Instead of a truly frightful maze of zombies, werewolves and ghouls, severed limbs and bodiless brains, they would opt for a Halloween party, with prizes for the best costume, old-time games for the little kids, like bobbing for apples (a nod to Hanna’s day), and a Jack-O-Lantern cutting contest! Mrs. Rutabaga and the girls decided to make caramel apples and popcorn balls – and, with lots of warning signs for the younger kids, Oscar got to turn his room into the “Haunted Dungeon”.
Hanna was thrilled! And as the Rutabagas began, in their bombastic way, fleshing out the details, even Oscar began to take to the idea. All the next week, word spread about the “Happy Halloween Party” at the Rutabagas’. And when Halloween came, Hanna was full of laughing children, eating candied and caramel applies, parading their costumes on the makeshift stage in the backyard, and daring each other to go into the “Haunted Dungeon”!
It was the happiest Halloween, Hanna could remember. And from then on, Hanna was known as the “Happy Haunted House.”