Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Eight: Caught

Without warning, they all stopped chanting at once. Their perfectly synchronous words were replaced with a jumble of conversations and whispers.


Crouching by the bushes, Leo steeled himself to stand up and introduce himself. Now was his chance. He might not be doing exactly what his parents wanted, but hopefully they’d be proud nonetheless that he managed not to be an antisocial hermit.


He ran through a few opening dialogues in his head. None of them were all that great. Some too formal, some maybe too weird, even for the weirdos.


He settled on “hey.”


The syllable hung in his throat, ready to come out.


He realized a beat too late that things had gotten quiet.


Too quiet.


He stood up, a smile he hoped was welcoming plastered across his face.


The pagoda was empty.


Leo’s smile dropped. He stumbled out of the bushes, peering left and right into the darkness.


There. Way off in the distance, bracketed by trees, was a bobbing flashlight, illuminating a brood of dark teens.


How had they moved so quickly?


Leo set off at a jog, pursuing them from a distance.


This was the end of the neighborhood, or at least, some far corner. The kids were setting off down a forest trail littered with benches, recycling bins, and woodchips.


They moved at a brisk pace, turning down paths seemingly at random, moving deeper and deeper into the woods. The trees closed in on all sides, shutting out the moonlight and the streetlights, swallowing the world in a blind, all-encompassing blackness.


Leo’s confidence was flagging, but he had no choice but to follow them. It was too dark to turn back, and he’d lost track of all the twists and turns they’d taken.


Finally, they stopped in a large opening. On the other side of it was a smooth, glassy pond, reflecting the dim starlight. Leo stopped at the edge of the opening, panting. He watched the kids drag sticks and branches into a dirt pit in the center of the glade.


Someone sprinkled a liquid over the sticks.


Someone else pulled out a lighter.


Then, they lit the whole thing on fire.


The fire swooshed up with a powerful, blinding brightness, hurting Leo’s eyes and warming his face. It was a huge bonfire, dancing like a 9 foot tall human being.


The kids encircled the flames, holding hands. 


They said their classic chant but just one time.


“Do it for yourself, do it for your health. Self love, self peace.”


Then, they all took a single step back, unlinking their hands and raising them to the sky, fingers splayed out. They held this pose for a few beats before they all slowly lowered their hands to their sides.


One of the kids threw their hood back. It was the person with the rainbow hair.


“There is an intruder among us,” they called out in a powerful, echoing voice.


Leo’s heart stopped.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Seven: The Pagoda

Walking deeper and deeper into the neighborhood, Leo kept his head down, pulling his costume closer to his body to protect against the chill. It was properly dark now, the world dulled into an indigo blue. He veered away from other kids, shying away from their glances.


This might be Leo’s worst Halloween ever, even worse than eighth grade.


He was so preoccupied with his own misery, staring down at his beat up sneakers, that he didn’t notice the sidewalk arced to the left.


He thumped down off of the curb and into the grass, tripping and falling to his knees with a grunt.


He stood back up, heart beating hard, face red and flustered, brushing dead leaves off his legs.


In front of him, there was a huge, kidney-shaped pond, the edges littered with wheaty fronds and lily pads.


On a pavilion sticking out into the pond was a pagoda of sorts, an octagonal, wooden structure with benches and bird feeders.


It was all really pretty, and might be the only thing Leo liked about the neighborhood, but that wasn’t what caught his eye.


No, it was the people who inhabited the pavilion.


There were about six or seven kids huddled in a tight circle in the middle of the pagoda. They were all wearing long, black robes, with hoods covering their heads. Someone was holding a flashlight to illuminate their faces from below in eerie, yellow lighting.


And they were chanting.


It was rhythmic, monotone, and quiet, like the foot stomping at the beginning of “We Will Rock You.”


Leo knew he was acting like the ditzy girl in a horror movie, but his fascination propelled him forward. He crept toward the pagoda silently, sticking to the grassy area. Nearing the railing, he looked up from the bushes at the gathering.


Their faces were clearer now. One person had a lot of piercings. Another person had rainbow hair. A whopping three–three! of them were wearing band t-shirts from bands Leo was obsessed with.


Now he could make out the words of their chants.


“Do it for yourself, do it for your health, self love, self peace.”


That was not what Leo expected, but when the words sank in, they pulled a wry smile up onto his lips.


It was a good message.


But most importantly, it was weird.


These kids were out here being weird as all getup and they didn’t care.


Leo was officially obsessed.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Six: Maybe Not…

Something caught his eye as he walked along, feeling sorry for himself, not even trick-or-treating.


One of the houses up ahead had the coolest Halloween decorations Leo had ever seen.


There was a big, inflatable ghost out front, and several tombstones with skeletal hands climbing out of them. The bushes and trees were laden with cottony cobwebs and giant spiders with glowing red eyes. Dry ice cauldrons filled the yard with eerie fog. There were purple and orange lights strung up everywhere, including a big, orange arrow affixed to the side of the house, pointing toward the back of the house.


Mesmerized, Leo forgot himself, following the flashing orange arrow with a mouth hung open in wonder.


He walked down a little brick path to a wooden deck attached to the back of the house. The deck was strung up with lights, too, and party music blasted from speakers. There were more kids here, mingling with one another and eating snacks and drinking pop.


Leo steeled himself, taking a breath.


He could do this.


If only for the snacks, he could do this.


Leo climbed up the deck stairs. He filled a red solo cup with Coke and walked over to a group of boys leaning against the railing and talking and eating.


Alright. Here we go.


“Hey,” Leo said, deepening his voice. He coughed.


The boys looked up. One of them nodded his head at him. Leo guessed this was the highly-studied “bro nod.” “Hey.”


Leo nodded back. “So.” He fished his awkward, stupid brain for something to say. “What’s up?”


“The costume contest is in like fifteen minutes,” one of the other boys offered.


“Oh!” Leo perked up. Then he schooled his expression, matching the passivity of the other boys. “Uh, cool.”


“Yeah, for kids,” a third boy piped up. “Look at that girl’s costume. Is she a ladybug or a pimple?”


That got some laughs. Leo laughed nervously along.


“What’s your costume?” one of the boys asked him.


“Oh, my mom made me wear it,” Leo said, and the annoyance in his voice was genuine. “I think it’s supposed to be, like, Aladdin, or something.”


“Bro, that sucks,” the first boy said. “My mom made me go as Batman but I ditched that shit the moment I left.”


Leo thought Batman was cool as hell, but he nodded anyway. “Yeah.”


“That’s the only good costume I’ve seen all night,” a dark-haired boy said, pointing to a kid swinging on the playground swingset. Leo leaned over the railing, peering at it. It was a jersey of some kind, with a number on the front.


“Yo! Drew Brees! That’s my GOAT,” one boy said.


“Nuh-uh. Matthew Stafford, he’s so underrated,” another one said.


“If he’s underrated, why is he benched all the time?” the first boy countered.


“Why are we stuck on quarterbacks? The game hinges on the wide receiver.”


For Leo, the boys had switched tongues, speaking gibberish instead of English.


He tried to contribute at all, to ask a question, but they just spoke over him, over the music.


Completely unnoticed, Leo backed away and left the deck.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Five: A Quick Escape

Once Leo was a block away, he finally let out the breath he was holding, shoulders slumping forward in defeat.


He glanced behind him. He couldn’t even see his house anymore. His parents and those girls had vanished.


Around him, costumed strangers walked from house to house in duos and trios and larger groups. The autumn evening was peppered with laughs and candy wrappers crinkling and creepy laughter from motion-activated, fancy halloween decorations.


And here was Leo, all alone.


All alone and looking stupid.


It made him angry, eyes burning. He made a bee-line for a park bench nestled in some bushes next to a playground. Shivering and breathing heavily, crouching behind the bench like some kind of creepy weirdo, Leo ripped the pink tule from his princess costume. He bunched it up in his hands and threw it into the trash can, minus a long strand of it that he fashioned into a kind of belt.


He ripped the front and back of the skirt portion of the dress, vertically down the middle. He folded the pieces of the fabric together and stuffed them into his socks.


He broke the sparkly pink spines off of the tiara until it was a jagged, crappy circlet. He pushed it down onto his forehead, his black hair puffing out around it.


He looked down at himself.


A princess had transformed into a prince. It was a dubiously Arabian costume, with wide pant legs and a cinched waistline. It could pass for a legitimate costume.


Just barely.


But it was good enough.


Alright. He felt a little more like himself again, the tightness in his chest fading away with each inhale and exhale.


He hopped out of the bush, glancing left and right to make sure no one had seen him. Once he was satisfied, he started walking farther into the neighborhood–and farther away from his parents.


He got lost pathetically easily, but he didn’t even care. The point was to be away from home long enough to fool his parents into thinking he was having fun. Getting lost was just a side perk.


The neighborhood streets curved pleasantly, lined with orange and red-leafed trees. But everything was so… identical, so uniform. The houses all had the same fake brick veneer and exhausted beige siding. The same two car garage with a cost-effective sedan out front.


Back home, Leo’s parents had lived in an apartment complex right next to the campus Leo’s mom worked at. Their neighbors had been from all over the world and all had crazy stories to tell about love and school and cities and war. Everyone’s difference brought them together.


Looking at all the other kids, Leo had never felt more distant from anyone else.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Four: Unmitigated Disaster

The Spice Girls looked up at Leo, their expressions unreadable beneath their butterfly hair clips and sparkly outfits.


“Hi?” Posh Spice said.


Leo shifted from foot to foot, feeling like bees had buzzed up into his costume. “I just moved in. Down the street,” he offered.


Sporty Spice perked up. “Oh! Where?”


Leo jerked a thumb behind him. His house sat on the spot where the coul-de-sac turned into a proper street. The yard was empty, but he knew his dad would work his green thumb soon.


All five of them glanced at the house. Something passed between them. Someone snickered.


At Leo’s confused look, Baby Spice took pity. “You live in the Parker house.”


“What’s the Parker house?”


“It’s where Genevieve Parker lived,” Ginger Spice gushed. “Now that was a crusty old bitch.”


They all laughed at Ginger Spice’s insult.


Leo didn’t know what to say. “Um. Cool.”


Silence again. Leo was drowning in it. Coming up for air, he spoke again. “Uh, my mom wanted me to introduce myself and hand out candy with you guys.”


None of them looked very enthusiastic about it, or at least, Leo thought so. “What’s your name?” Posh Spice asked.


Leo swallowed. Well. There that question was. “Leo,” he said.


“Oh. Cool,” Posh Spice said. “I’m Andy.”


“Bella.” Sporty Spice.


“Erin.” Ginger Spice.


“Opal.” Scary Spice. Her expression was particularly haughty.


“Sun Woo, but people just call me Sunny,” Baby Spice offered.


“Nice to meet you,” Leo said.


“Well, Leo, we don’t really have a sixth chair,” Posh Andy said. “So, like, sorry.”


“Yeah…” Ginger Erin said, trailing off into another awful silence. “Want some candy?”


“Sure.” Leo shuffled forward, then realized he didn’t have a pillowcase or plastic pumpkin to put it in. Lowering his eyes, he reached into the closest bowl and grabbed a handful of Reese’s Cups. He reached under his dress, putting them in his jeans pockets. They bulged ridiculously, crinkling as he moved around.


Leo was at a crossroads. The Spice Girls were all still staring at him. Should he stay? Should he go? What would his parents say if he came home just a few minutes later with his tail between his legs?


“So, I, uh–“


“Trick or treat!!”


A trio of particularly adorable elementary school-aged kids had approached the table while Leo was having his internal crisis. They were dressed up as the three blind mice.


“Oh my gosh!!” Ginger Erin exclaimed. “Aren’t you the cutest?”


All attention moved to the cute kids, and their pillowcases, which were immediately loaded with piles and piles of candy, much to their delight.


While the Spice Girls cooed and giggled at the Blind Mice, Leo shuffled away, slinking over to the next street corner and out of sight.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Three: The Spice Girls


His parents were looking at him with hopeful expectations. Unable to let the silence continue any longer, Leo took the dress from his dad with a forced smile. “Thanks.”


His dad clapped him on the back. “Go out there and have fun,” he said.


“I just talked to the woman across the street, with the beautiful Elm tree,” Leo’s mom added. Her daughter and her friends are handing out candy to the kids at the end of the cul-de-sac!”


The enthusiasm practically vibrating through Leo’s mom was an order. If Leo didn’t go ham it up with those girls, he would crush his mom.


Leo gave them both a curt nod before slinking back up the stairs. In his sweaty palm, the cheap material of the gown itched.


It was like a horrible homework assignment worth a quarter of your grade. Leo changed clothes and put on the dress with a mechanical slowness, face devoid of expression. 


His parents tearfully bid him goodbye like it was prom night. No, that eventual nightmare wasn’t for another few months, thank god.


Once outside, the cold bit into Leo through the princess outfit. The tiara scratched at his scalp. More kids were out now, and Leo bristled whenever they looked his way.


Steeling himself, Leo squared his shoulders, stood up straight, and marched toward the gathering at the end of the coul-de-sac.


There was a folding table set out on the asphalt. It was covered in a table cloth with an orange and black spooky theme. On top of it, a few big baking bowls full of the best candy sat.


And, behind the table, in folding chairs, sat five teenage girls.


As Leo approached, his heart sank further. Their costumes were immaculate, and, worst of all, they matched.


Each of the five girls was a different Spice Girl. From left to right, there sat Ginger Spice, Posh Spice, Scary Spice, Sporty Spice, and Baby Spice. They were all white, except for Baby Spice, who was Asian.


Leo thought back to his parents’ hopeful expressions. Leo was a mixed kid to two hard working parents who’d faced income problems and even people having a problem with their interracial relationship. In the year 2004.


This neighborhood did not feel like home, and Leo didn’t think it ever would.


Still, Leo approached the table. As he walked up, all five of the girls looked up, their energetic conversation dwindling away.


Leo stopped a few feet away. Everything was silent, save for the breeze rustling the autumn trees and the occasional cry of “trick or treat!”


“Uh.” Leo swallowed. “Hi.”