I was the first baby born on September the 30th in the town of Cloverdale, Illinois. The Daily Currier carried the story as front page news, news being scarce in a community of five hundred. My mother captured the moment; she framed the clipping and hung it in her entrance hall. My wife and mother found this tiny moment of fame adorable, and they conspired to throw a birthday party on the eve of my fortieth with New Yearís Eve style celebration at midnight, my moment of birth.I wasn't happy. In fact, I still wasn't talking to my wife by the time the first guest arrived. It was an open house type of affair. I'm sure you know how that goes. All of your best friends, as well as some you don't like so well, show up at your door with friends whom they've invited, and then friends-of-friends drop in and all you can do is vaguely wave them all toward the bar and hope you don't have to remember anyone's name. By the time Joe Bupkiss arrived, he was already half in the bottle. He leered at my wife and then announced that he was ready to lead the crowd in his personal (and likely obscene) rendition of Happy Birthday. Fortunately, he saw someone reaching for the last of the scotch and, in his panic, promptly forgot the threat. Anyway, it got to the point where I didn't recognize half the people slugging down my spiked punch. Still unhappy with the whole ordeal, I started to grumble about morning cleanup. Used paper plates decorated the furniture, and damp rings marked my walnut credenza. The hors d'oeuvres had turned soggy and had reached that temperature where I wondered if I should pack them away before a salmonella outbreak. Then the church clock chimed midnight and shouts of congratulations filled the room. As things calmed down, people got a little misty-eyed, probably remembering that pony they'd always wanted and never got. Joe suggested we tell stories--a little something from our own lives to assure each other that we might leave some small dent in the universe. I noticed that he had found my private reserve of Macallan's Most of the crowd studied their shoes in uncomfortable silence. This was too personal a request for this type of crowd unless you were as drunk as Joe was, but one young thing stepped up and said she had the perfect tale to show us the true meaning of life. ďI want to tell a story about love and forgiveness,Ē the girl began. She glided straight up to me and placed a hand on my arm. I gave my wife a dirty look, assuming it was a put-up job. Everyone was happy for a guinea pig, so she took the floor and began to tell us about Preacher's Hollow. She was a sweet-looking kid, someone who should have been pushing sodas at the five and dime, except she wore a long, black dress with a high collar and a bonnet to cover her hair. Her cheeks could have used a pinch for color, and she had a coquettish way of holding her head tipped to one side. "Where'd you find this one?" I asked my wife, speaking to her for the first time that evening. "Not mine," she answered. "Maybe Twitter brought her." I looked to the corner of the room where Robert Twitter, dressed in an angst shade of black accented with a startling fuchsia ascot, sipped a green martini. Robert was the resident artist of the group. He liked to be different. "Back when I was young," the girl began. "Amazing," muttered Shelby Reynolds, Professor of Feminist Studies at a nearby college. "This girl is how old? Already, society has put the idea in her head that she's over the hill." Having heard my share of Shelbyís lectures, I shushed her and pointed toward the center of the room. The story was in full swing now. It seems that Preacher's Hollow was a one-horse town with it's very own Hatfield and McCoy rivalry. Nobody remembered how it started, but the Crawley people thought the Minnow family stunk worse than a stopped-up toilet, and the Minnows in turn didn't think too highly of the Crawleys, either. Well, this little girl stated that her father, Jedidiah Crawley, was the head of the family, sworn to hunt Minnows till the end of his days, which was a problem because she was in love with Terrance Minnow, son of the Minnow patriarch. "Why didn't you just elope?" Shelby called out. The girl responded with a look of horror. "We would never dishonor our families that way." "Incredible," Shelby murmured, although she seemed satisfied, as if the girl had just given her the subject for her next lecture. "Terrance and I decided that if we were to be together, then drastic measures were called for. The one place where everyone in town reluctantly came together was at the small church at the end of Main Street. There was a wooden collection box in the entrance where people would drop in what change they had to support people even poorer than they were. To steal from the poor is the greatest of sins, and punishment for such an act was death by hanging." "Fascists," muttered Twitter. "Our idea was that, if both family patriarchs had to sentence their only child to death, then they might reconsider their immovable positions and make room for compassion and love, and that might lead to reconciliation between the two families." "Is that all?" my wife whispered with a nervous laugh, although I could tell that she was as interested in the outcome as the rest of us. "So we stole the box. The results were incredible." The girl's pale skin glowed and her eyes sparkled. "At first, fingers were pointed. Crawley folks gave speeches in front of the Town Hall condemning the Minnows, and the Minnows reciprocated with enthusiasm. But soon, the entire town joined forces to find the culprits of such an unspeakable act. Crawley searched side by side with Minnow, and Minnows would stop Crawleys on the street to gossip about the latest findings. Terrence and I were so pleased that we finally decided to own up." She screwed up her face, as if remembering a painful moment. "It must have been difficult to tell the truth," Shelby said in a warm, encouraging voice. The girl shot her a grateful glance, recovered herself, and took a deep breath. "Our fathers reluctantly agreed to meet when we told them we had information on the theft. We explained what we had done and why. They just stared, with the deepest disappointment imaginable." "Parents," Twitter snorted, though the hand that held his Martini glass shook. Joe lifted his scotch in a toast. "And the two forgave you and the town came together and you lived happily ever after." He lifted his drink to his lips, but stopped when she slowly shook her head and said: "Oh, no. You see, pride was on the line. Now that our fathers knew we had done it, each one felt the responsibility to punish more strongly than if only one of us had been guilty of the crime. Neither man wanted to be accused of being soft." She pulled down the collar of her dress and revealed deep bruises. The pretty tilt of her head seemed permanent, if the jutting bone was any indication. Pandemonium broke out, and I struggled to calm everyone down while at the same time regain my own composure. I did the first thing that came to mind. I clapped. The first slap of my hands shocked the room into silence, and as the sharp echo picked up speed, I could see their faces relax. Clapping meant a performance, and a performance wasn't real. They joined me with a mad enthusiasm brought on by relief. They applauded until the neighbors pounded on the wall to silence us. "Where is she?" I followed my wife's glance to the center of the room. The girl was gone. Everyone seemed to sense what I was doing, for they all began to search the room. My wife checked the spare bedroom, and I looked into closets. My guests waited for the verdict. "She must have slipped out in the commotion." I gave an unsteady laugh. No one believed me. The place cleared out shortly after. A few good things came out of that night. Joe Bupkiss set down his scotch and walked directly from our door to an AA meeting. Shelby Reynolds is still touring with her latest lecture "Patriarchal Judgments and The Dangers of Marriage". Robert Twitter made a splash with his controversial paintings of maidens with broken necks. I made up with my wife immediately after the the party. It was a silly fight, if you think about it. She did make me one promise. I didn't even have to ask. Next year we'll celebrate with an intimate dinner for two.
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I donít think the young lovers in this tale had a ghost of a chance. You have to admire, though, how those youngsters hanged together. (No. I donít look anything like the Crypt Keeper, so there.) Another author debuts with a creepy tale told well. Encourage her with your feedback on our BBS, ARers. - GM