The Haunting of Pico

Pico is full of secrets, as Chris discovers when his family unwittingly moves into the town's haunted house.

As an Asian adoptee relocating from a big city, Chris worries about fitting into a small-town high school still using a Rebel soldier for its mascot. But, to his relief, the attitudes of the town are changing, and soon he has friends, a job, and a cute new neighbor.

Still the shadow of a less tolerant time lingers.

Sixty years ago, Charlotte Monroe was murdered in Pico, hung from the oak outside of Chris’ bedroom window. Chris is sure that it’s her ghost he hears every night. As the weeks go by and Charlotte’s midnight wailing gives way to violent outbursts, Chris knows that to save his family he must put the sins of the past to rest.

A Sample from Chapter 1...

“I can’t believe you bought a house without us,” I said from the back of the car, taking a break from my game to look out the window.

Eve looked at me like I was an idiot and spoke for the first time in an hour.

“Forget the stupid house already.” She focused her anger toward the front seats. “I so can’t believe you would decide to move out here in the first place. Who leaves California for the armpit of Texas?”

Mom turned a little in her seat so she could glare at us better. “We went over this. We didn’t have a choice; your dad was transferred. And the house is fine, Christopher. You’ll like it. Besides,” she added, “this isn’t the armpit. That’s a little further southeast.”

“It’s got character,” my dad volunteered. I got a sinking feeling. He was both stubborn and an eternal optimist, like General Custer and whoever had been steering the Titanic.

“They have a Confederate chicken for a mascot,” I noted as we passed a yellow water tower rising up from a cow pasture. Big letters pronounced this the “Home of the Rebels” and a cartoon bird wearing a gray Civil War uniform waved down at us. Below it, a giant billboard featuring a smiling cowboy advertised “Bailey Ford, Home of the Texas-sized deal!”

My dad grinned. “Did you know we’re moving to the chicken capital of Texas?” He said it like this was a good thing.

I grunted. I knew about the chickens. As soon as I heard we were moving, I started searching the Internet for anything I could find about Pico, Texas. Besides producing a lot of poultry, the only thing Pico was noted for was a high missing persons rate. But who could blame them? We'd just gotten here and I wanted to be missing from this town, too.

My sister wanted to move out here even less than I did. She'd been giving us all the silent treatment for the last week, punctuated by intermittent explosions. She unwound her crossed arms; another eruption was about to start.

“And what about my friends?”

“Seriously,” I agreed.

“You don’t have friends,” said Eve.

“Yes, I do.”

“Those losers you hung with back in San Jose don’t count.”

“And the bunch of future unwed teenage mothers you ran with do?”

My sister whipped out her phone and started texting furiously.

I leaned across the back seat. I couldn’t quite read her screen, but I could guess that whatever she was writing involved me and wasn’t flattering.

“Snoop much?” snapped Eve, punching the power button on her phone.

“You’ll make new friends within a week,” said my mom, in a way that suggested friends could simply be replaced like toasters.

“Your mom’s right, guys. People are friendly in this part of the country.” My dad glanced pointedly in the rearview mirror at Eve.

My sister shot back, “Are you crazy? All I’m going to find out here are a bunch of cow-tipping hicks.” She gestured at the feed store we were passing. According to the sign, they also had ammo and live bait. I’d say it was a well-timed coincidence—that is, if we hadn’t already passed five similar stores on our drive out. She had a point.

My dad unloaded with one of his ludicrous analogies. “Relax. It’ll be like replacing your favorite pair of shoes that have gotten old and worn. You think they were the most comfortable ones in the world, until you get the latest model, and then wham! You can’t imagine how you lived so long without them.”

Eve muttered something unrepeatable. I guess she didn’t like her friends being referred to as ratty sneakers. I wasn’t worried about her too much. She would fit in just fine no matter where we went. Eve was fourteen, one year younger than me, and had always been nauseatingly popular. It’s depressing to be outdone in every way by your younger sister, especially when she makes sure to remind you of it at every opportunity.

I, on the other hand, was the kind of kid the others forgot about over summer vacation. But this would be my sophomore year and I was determined to make a fresh start. Maybe try out for a sport or something. Meet girls.

Not that I was hated at my last school; it was okay. I was just kind of a non-entity. Here, I wanted to make an impression and actually enjoy my high school years, rather than just make it through them.

“We’re here,” my dad announced five minutes later.

“Yay,” my sister replied.

I put down my game and stared out the window. We were driving through an old neighborhood. Large trees lined both sides of the street, their branches rising up to meet in the middle, forming a tunnel.

When my dad pulled up to a huge Victorian mansion a century past its prime, my first thought was that we were moving into a haunted house. Whatever color the place used to be, it was now a dirty gray, the paint curling and flaking. The windows on all three stories were covered by crooked shutters and the huge yard was overgrown. I winced, knowing I would be stuck mowing it. Two large dogs stared at the car from where they lay on the wraparound porch. I wondered if they came with the house.

I let out a sigh of relief as the car rolled another fifty feet past the dilapidated heap and pulled into the next driveway. This house was probably just as old, but at least someone had painted it a cheery color. A real estate sign in the yard sported a picture of the puffy-haired, bottle-blonde agent with a “Sold” banner pasted across her face.

Dad pulled our gray Volvo wagon to a stop in a shady part of the driveway, next to a side door. I was not the car’s biggest fan, but my mom reminded us that it was safe. I would rather have been unsafe in a Corvette, or really anything besides a station wagon. But once my dad found something he liked, he stuck with it. My mom had the exact same car in white.

Our new house had a garage, but it was detached and sat behind the house, way down at the end of the long driveway. The doors slid to the side rather than from the top like I was used to. I didn’t think there was a garage door opener, which meant I was going to become one.

“All right, everybody out!” my dad called, turning off the car and opening his door.

“Four o’clock, right on schedule,” Mom chimed in. She was a little uptight when it came to lists and punctuality.

“Two days. Not too shabby,” said my dad, getting out of the car. He stretched and looked around. I looked around, too, unable to keep from comparing this place to California. What a difference a couple of days could make.

Resigned to my fate, I climbed out of the car and was blasted by a wave of heat. It was too much to ask for the house to have a pool, but I glanced at the back yard just in case. No pool. Instead, I saw a half-drained fish pond hard at work breeding mosquitoes, a stone pit I assumed was the redneck version of a grill, a half-rotted wood shed, and a fenced garden showcasing a bunch of shoulder-high weeds.

A sad-looking picket fence ran alongside the length of our driveway. It didn’t look up to the task of keeping in the two dogs I had seen on the mansion’s porch. I hoped they were friendly. A two-person swing hung in the neighbor’s yard, suspended from the giant oak tree that loomed over us.

I felt a shove on my shoulder and turned to see Eve. “Aren’t you listening? Dad said to unload the car.” I scowled, then grabbed my backpack and a garbage bag full of blankets from the back of the wagon. I followed my sister, who hadn’t bothered to bring in anything.

“Is your ego so big you can’t carry anything else?” I asked her.

She didn’t bother turning around as she answered, “That’s what we have you for: the manual labor. When Mom and Dad want thinking done they’ll ask me.”

I chucked the garbage bag at Eve’s back and she whirled around to give me a dirty look. But she picked it up and headed through the side door.

The inside of the house was nice enough. It had high ceilings, a fresh coat of paint, wood floors, and lots of built-in cabinets and shelves everywhere. It was also twenty degrees cooler than the outside, which helped sway my opinion in its favor.

I set my backpack down in the middle of an empty room and was heading back to the car for more bags when I heard Eve fly up the stairs. I realized that I was late in the race to claim the Best Room. I zoomed up after her. By the time I reached the top of the stairs I had heard one door slam and saw her opening up a second.

“This one’s mine!” she said, going in. I started to follow her and got a brief glimpse of a large, brightly lit room before she turned and shut the door in my face.

The next room I found was obviously going to be Mom and Dad’s; it was huge and had been retrofitted with its own bathroom.

Eve and I were going to have to share the remaining bathroom, and my sister was going to be even more pissed about this whole move once she saw it. The bathroom had an old claw-foot tub with a handheld shower. A metal hoop around the tub held up a moldy shower curtain. The room had an avocado-green pedestal sink and matching toilet with a white poofy lid. A single glass shelf for toiletries was held up by rusty metal brackets.

I checked out the remaining two bedrooms. The one at the back of the house was private, but also small and dark, with a single window that overlooked the backyard. The other bedroom was larger and had a pair of big windows. I opened the blinds on the first one and got a perfect view of the side of the grim looking mansion. There was no screen. I would have to do something about that or the bugs would eat me alive.

The second window also overlooked the mansion, except the view was partially obscured by the gnarled oak tree. Its huge trunk was planted just on the other side of the picket fence and its twisted branches clawed their way up and out. One large limb had been cut off within a foot of my window. This thing was going to give me nightmares. I dropped the blinds and headed back to the smaller room.

“I’ll take this one,” I called out.

“No, you won’t,” said Mom, poking her head in. “Your father wants this one for his office. Besides, it’s small. The other room is bigger and has more light. Now go help your dad finish unloading the car.”

“What the heck!” A high-pitched shriek indicated that my sister had found the bathroom.

My mom rushed to console her as I stomped down the stairs. I began moving the bags and boxes out of the car and into a large kitchen that was straight out of the 1960s, and not in a cool retro way, either. Its avocado-green appliances matched the ones in the upstairs bathroom.

My dad saw my look. “Yeah, it’s a fixer-upper. But we got it for cheap, and I always wanted to own a historic house.”

“Why didn’t you buy something new?”

“Because old houses are built better. We had it all checked out during the inspection. Everything might look old, but it’s in great shape.”

I had my doubts, but as long as the AC worked I could live with the rest. It was mid-August and, from what I had read on the Internet, we could look forward to another month of temperatures above one hundred. If we were lucky, the nights would plummet into the eighties.

I helped my parents unpack what we brought in the car with us. We had no Internet access yet and the TVs were coming the next day with the movers, so I played a game on my PSP until my parents rounded up Eve and me for dinner.

We drove around for a while, checking out our new town. It wasn’t very big. There was no mall to speak of, and even though it was early on a Saturday night, most of the businesses were already closed. Store windows and billboards all around town announced their “Rebel Pride.”

“Wow, they take their football seriously,” said my dad.

“Either that or they’re still fighting the War of Northern Aggression,” added my sister. She was still being sarcastic, but claiming the best room in the house had softened her edge a bit.

We stopped in front of a big high school for a minute. Beside it loomed a stadium that would have suited a university better than a small town’s high school.

Next we drove by the shoe factory where my dad would be working as the new general manager. When he broke the news about the move, he said he didn’t have much of a choice. He had been hand-picked to sort through the problems caused by the last general manager. The plant was big, and I guessed it probably employed a good portion of the town.

We ended up stopping at a familiar chain restaurant for dinner. My dad was risk-averse and liked consistency, which meant that once we found a restaurant that met with his approval, we went there a lot. It was the same with the food; he found something he liked on the menu and then ordered the same thing every time we went.

The hostess gave us a funny look when we entered, wrinkling her nose, but to her credit covered it up quickly. I took one look at her and thought that maybe this place wasn’t so bad after all.

She was a tall brunette about my age. Her name tag read Savannah. I smiled at her. She rolled her eyes, then gave my sister a different look, that of a predator sizing up the competition. My sister gave as good as she got. I was used to it; Eve was beautiful and the results were annoying.

We received more looks while we ate. Most of the people here were white, and my sister and I were not. We had both been adopted from South Korea as babies. We got the occasional stares in California when we were with our parents, but not like this. I guess around here Asians were rare, and Asians with white parents even more so. We all pretended not to notice, except for Eve, who owned the attention like she always did. She thrived on it.

We got home around ten. With no furniture, computer, TV, or friends on a Saturday night, I was left with a couple of comic books I had already read and my PSP. I trudged up the stairs to my empty room. The furniture wouldn’t be here until tomorrow, but I had a sleeping bag. I unrolled it on the wood floor and sat down with my back against one of the walls.

I played games until the battery died, then decided there wasn’t much left to do besides brush my teeth and go to bed. Fortunately, the bathroom was empty. I hated sharing one with my sister. Nights weren’t bad, but if I didn’t beat her to it in the morning, I was in for an epic wait. To her, hair and makeup were an art form that couldn’t be rushed.

Despite the unfamiliar room and insanely loud bugs chirping and buzzing outside, I fell straight asleep. Normally I sleep like the dead, but this time I was woken up in the middle of the night.

I was disoriented; it took a second to remember where I was. Then I heard the creaking noise. I sat up, looking around the moonlit room, slowly regaining my bearings.

The ceiling creaked again, like someone was walking in the attic. I figured we had raccoons or squirrels up there, though they were awfully slow ones. I listened as the footsteps meandered uncertainly across the ceiling.

Eventually they stopped. I waited for another minute, but they didn’t return. The room was stuffy and it was too hot to go back to sleep. Either the AC had conked out, or maybe my vent was closed. I plodded over and opened the blinds, then the window.

One light was on in the mansion next door. The outside shutters were open, and in the window opposite mine I saw a girl sitting and reading a book. She looked up; I guess she must have heard me open my window, though hers was closed. She was around my age, pretty, with long blonde hair. She reached over and pulled the chain on the table lamp and it went dark.

I could just make out her shadow as she sat watching me. I gave a tentative wave. She sat there for a few more seconds and then closed the curtains.

Great. I creeped her out. She probably thought I was some sort of peeping Tom. Here was a cute next-door neighbor, and she already thought I was a freak. Hopefully she wouldn’t tell her friends; that was all I needed starting a new school.

I sighed. So much for making a good first impression. I returned to my sleeping bag, lay down on top of it, and faded back to sleep.

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