“Pretense and Pizza”
Each year near Halloween, a select number of fifth-grade children were picked to attend a special field trip to Chesterfield Mansion, located in the well-to-do Blakeley Estates area of River City. Built in the 1930s, the brick and wood structure stood all alone for years in the countryside after it was constructed, a thing of classic architecture, Gothic design, and presumably full of cool stuff.
Spooky couldn’t wait to get there.
Loaded in a dingy school bus full of random classmates from all over the county (none of which he really knew) and their overnight bags, “Spooky” Spencer Lawson could barely sit still. He’d been patient waiting with the other kids and chaperones for the bus, listening for his name as headcounts were taken and permission slips collected. All the other kids whispered about the solid milk chocolate pumpkins they had heard about from older brothers and sisters, potential rewards for a mansion-wide scavenger hunt that ended at midnight. With no siblings of his own to speak of, Spooky’s father had told him the tale.
Spooky wasn’t in it for the promise of candy. Kids in River City already talked about how the Chesterfield Mansion was haunted, how no one was ever allowed to see inside except on these specific field trips, and that children supposedly disappeared during each such occasion (no one could ever show evidence that any child had ever actually gone missing, of course). Nonetheless, Spooky liked to think of the mansion’s current owner, William A. Chesterfield III, as a kind of local H.P. Lovecraft, a slightly insane recluse secretly practicing the dark arts to appease the elder gods and grow his fortunes. Personally, he preferred the intimate horrors of Edgar Allan Poe, but the idea that just behind a portal to another world might lurk massive, spineless creatures of unfathomable power driven to consume all of humanity was irresistible.
After a short drive from the school where everyone initially met up, the bus arrived at the mansion gates just after sunset. A long driveway from the main road led up to the main entrance. The bus stopped and the children crowded out with their luggage. Wide eyes looked up at the foreboding residence in worry; Spooky, in contrast, couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Even a thunderstorm was rolling in with the setting sun, and the weather forecast suggested to Spooky that the ambiance was perfect for the evening’s exploration.
The main entrance to the mansion was a three-story square structure with an arched roof, presumably housing an attic space. Massive columns lined the front steps and awning of the entryway. The main double doors were each carved out of dark wood and adorned with brass knockers, like something Ebenezer Scrooge would have. At the top corners on either side of the roof cap were actual stone gargoyles, the kind Spooky imagined flew off to patrol the grounds after midnight.
As the initial effect on the other kids wore off, the main doors opened to a traditionally dressed wait staff ushering the children and chaperones inside before the rain started. The foyer was enormous, with a polished wooden floor and a grand staircase going up the right side to the second floor with an overlooking balcony. Entryways on the left and right of the foyer led to other wings of the mansion, while a passageway to the left of the staircase pushed deeper into the main house. Every wall and every corner had something creepy and old either carved into it or hanging off of it. Above the middle of the room was a brightly lit, opera phantom-worthy chandelier.
For a moment, the silent effect of awe that the entrance outside had on the children returned, right up until one of the maids said, “Pizza is being served in the North hall,” indicating the left entryway. Within moments, the foyer was emptied of children, all except for Spooky. Still taking in the sight of it all, one of the chaperones, Mrs. Price, came up to him.
“Spencer, we’ll come back after dinner…”
“I’m not hungry,” Spooky dismissed her as he continued to look around.
Mrs. Price looked cross. “I think your father would prefer you ate something before stuffing yourself with candy later.”
Spooky turned to the chaperone. “Not really. My excuse is with my permission slip.”
“Your what?” Mrs. Price looked confused and opened a portfolio with all of her paperwork. “What excuse?”
“Huh?” Spooky checked his pocket and found a folded piece of paper. “Oh. Oops! Sorry. Here.” He handed the paper to Mrs. Price who proceeded to unfold it and began to read. The expression on her face contorted with confusion.
“’Victus Mortuus’ Syndrome?” she asked.
Mrs. Price started to read aloud. “’This unique condition is limited to the patient and represents no danger to others. Symptoms are categorized as follows: faint or seemingly nonexistent heartbeat, shallow or seemingly nonexistent breath, little or no bleeding from accidental lacerations, cloudy eyes, skin pallor, severe lack of appetite, and dehydration. It is strongly suggested that the patient be allowed (but not limited to) the following concessions: water or fluids whenever requested, excused from any and all meals, excused to go to the restroom at any time, and excused from strenuous activity at any time.’”
Spooky waited for a response, but Mrs. Price continued to stare at him in disbelief.
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” she said finally.
Shrugging, Spooky replied, “It does say ‘unique.’ Can’t I just stay in here and look around? I promise I won’t touch anything.”
Mrs. Price looked around, noted the wait staff still in the foyer with them (two butler-looking guys and three maids), then handed the paper back to Spooky. “How about this? If you do touch something you’re not supposed to, they have my permission to have you stuffed and put on display in the trophy room.”
Spooky smirked. “Promise?”
From the look of dismay on Mrs. Price’s face, it wasn’t hard to tell she meant it as a threat and certainly didn’t expect the reaction she got. As she walked off toward the pizza party, Spooky noted that the closest Butler Guy was within earshot to hear what Mrs. Price said, but he hadn’t reacted in the slightest.
“Do you guys stuff children on site or ship us off to a taxidermist to have it done professionally?” Spooky asked.
Without missing a beat, he replied, “Mr. Chesterfield doesn’t settle for less than the very best. He would have you shipped off for a proper stuffing.”
Spooky grinned. “Good answer.” Turning to the South wall above the entryway to the South wing, he looked up at three massive portraits of older gentlemen, each in a stately pose with a chair. “So, which one is our host this evening?”
“The third one, sir, on the far right. It was commissioned twelve years ago. A very good likeness, and just as creepy as his predecessors.”
“Does he know you talk about it like that?”
“Mr. Chesterfield doesn’t concern himself with opinions, only results.” A maid stepped up and handed the Butler Guy a bottle of water. “Refreshment, sir?”
Spooky took the bottle and opened it. “Thanks! So, when do we get to meet him?”
“Mr. Chesterfield will appear just before nine to present the rules and begin the hunt. And if you’re very lucky, it will be the only time you meet him this evening.”