Night of the Living Dad

It was nearly midnight when the lights went out. Mike Phillips had tripped the circuit breaker again.
          In his quest to make this year’s Halloween the scariest ever (and to really stick it to his insufferable neighbor Pete Thompson), Mike had overloaded the exterior outlet on the front porch. Six strings of pumpkin lights, two inflatables and a dancing skeleton were simply too much.
          His wife appeared in the doorway, backlit by the additional orange lights rimming their foyer. “It looks great, honey. But even your dad knew when to call it a day.” Mike blinked back a tear and followed his wife upstairs.
          Tomorrow would be the first anniversary of his father’s death. Without his partner-in-fright, the task of transforming the Phillips’ yard into the legendary attraction it had become fell on Mike’s shoulders alone. Echoes of his father’s voice kept him going—remember, it’s all for the kids, he would say. You’re giving them something they’ll remember the rest of their lives. And it was true—Mike had no shortage of Halloween memories from his own childhood, thanks to his father. Halloween was his Christmas, and apparently, it was genetic.
          Every year, they added something new to the display. Last year it was the lynching victim, played to fatal perfection by pop himself. Mike warned his pop that the repeated jumping might be too stressful; Pop scoffed and answered with a dozen push-ups. The rope around Pop’s neck had been merely for show—until the crabapple branch snapped and the bungee cords suspending him hit the ground like dead snakes. By the time Mike cut him down, his breath was a thin whistle. As they rolled him to the ambulance he gasped, “Next Halloween, I’ll be good as new--count on it.” His final words still echoed in his son’s ears.
          Mike woke up recharged, vowing to make this year’s display a tribute to his old man. During breakfast, he made a to-do list for the day, which he had taken off from work to prepare the yard.
          “Hey, dad—what’s the surprise this year? Live bats?” His son squirmed with anticipation.
          “You’ll just have to see,” Mike smiled back.
          “I wish Pop-pop was here,” his daughter murmured.
          “Me, too, sweetie.” He kissed the crowns of their heads and hustled them off to the bus. Minutes later, Mike’s wife pecked his cheek on her way to work.
          “Thanks for getting the kids off—you’ve got a full day, don’t you?”
          “Just takes a little longer by myself.”
          “Oh, Mike. I know this day must be hard.” She gently squeezed his hand.
          “I’m okay,” he said, winking. “When you get home, this yard will be alive.”
          It was a pleasant crisp day, and Mike spent the rest of it outside, re-routing extension cords in the front and assembling the zombie shack in the back. Designed to be the climax of the “tour,” the shack was most kids’ favorite part of the experience.           
The very small ones, however, wouldn’t go near it.
          From the outside, it looked like a pile of rotted boards. Mike used his kids’ jungle gym as the framework and built the shack around it. Opening its splintered door activated a small electric motor that powered a life-size, jointed creature made of chicken wire and papier-mâché and dressed in a tattered suit. Its face was a grotesque eyeless, slack-jawed rubber mask. The zombie rose to a standing position and, aided by a discreet pulley-and-cable system, appeared to float toward the visitor, who was by this point in danger of soiling his costume. The candy bowl was just to the left of the exit. Most kids took some on the way out; many forgot.
          As a gruesome prelude, Mike dug a mock grave in a bare patch of his front lawn. He propped a resin headstone at a cockeyed angle and spread hunks of dirt around the hole’s perimeter. It lacked the punch of live bats, but he thought his kids would be sufficiently creeped out. With a pang of guilt, Mike realized he had lost his window to visit his pop. Inside, he heard the phone ringing.
          By the time dusk fell, Phillips’ Morbid Manor (as it had come to be known) was fully operational, ready to turn hair white. Mike’s wife pulled in the driveway as he opened his first beer.
          “Impressive,” she nodded, looking around. “You were born to do this.”
          He looked up at the cloudless night sky. “I learned from the best.”
          Once in costume, his kids took the private tour, admired this year’s upgrade and seemed genuinely scared of the zombie they’d seen hundreds of times. It was going to be a fun night.
          Mike stationed himself in the shadows of the porch to watch the kids’ reactions as they approached. The screams from the backyard were lusty and gratifying. They also seemed louder this year.
          As he sipped his beer, he saw Pete Thompson strutting across the street, his own yard blinking and howling behind him. Once amiable neighbors, they had descended into a petty rivalry over holiday lawn décor.
          “I had the same idea, you know,” he said, indicating the hole. “Thought it would be in poor taste, considering.”
          “Poor taste?” Mike asked, distracted by the relentless screaming from his backyard.
          “Last night, somebody dug up a grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Looked like it had been done by hand--literally.”
          Mike’s wife cracked open the door behind him. Her face sagged and she leaned on the knob. “Honey? Did you listen to the messages today?”
          He shook his head slowly, the screams piercing his skull.
          “It’s your father’s grave. They think it might just be a Halloween prank, but—“
          He grabbed her wrist, a breath frozen in his lungs. “What?”
          “His body is missing.”
          Mike bounded down the porch and sprinted for the backyard, the children’s shrieks growing increasingly unhinged. Thompson was on his heels.
          “Hey, Phillips,” he offered as the zombie shack came into view, “No matter what happens, this year you win.”