“From the stage that brought you Will & Allyn’s Interactive Theatre,” Allyn-a-Dale proclaims before the curtain, “here’s Ever On Word’s original talk show, Will Scarlet’s Kiss & Tell.”
The curtain rises, the studio audience applauds, and Will Scarlet himself walks smiling and waving onto the bright, cozy set.
“Hullo, everyone! Let’s jump right into it, shall we?” Leading by example, he hops into his armchair. “Allyn, who—” He performs a double take, startling at the belated realization that the chair across from his own is already occupied. “Who-o-o have we here?”
“The creation of author Ginger C. Mann,” says Allyn. “Namely—”
“Betty,” the pudgy, older woman interjects. “My nieces and nephews call me Aunt Betty. But you, handsome… you can just call me Betty.” She bats her eyes coyly at her host.
Ever the professional at rolling with the punches, Will flashes a hospitable grin. “Betty it is! So glad you could join me. First things first – is popping up onstage unannounced right under the nose of security your only gift, or are you a woman of many talents?”
Betty tosses back a head full of thick, red hair and flashes a toothy grin. “I am a br-ILLIANT organist, and I am also a Montessori teacher – or, I was. Then, my husband Timothy died, and the whole world came after me. Every bank in town wanted a piece of my property, my money, my flesh…” She stops talking suddenly and looks over her shoulder as if she hears something. “I’m in the witness protection program,” she whispers directly to the camera. “Don’t tell anyone!”
“I have no doubt our international audience’s lips are sealed,” Will assures her. “Mum’s the word, hey, Allyn?”
Allyn’s voice wafts in from off-camera. “Did you say the banks want your flesh?”
Betty nods emphatically. “It was just fine, just fine, until the day the underworld opened up and spit zombie bankers all over Nacogdoches, Texas! No going out after that happened, not even to play my organ at the Baptist church. I just stayed in that house as long as I could and…” She checks a watch on her wrist, then digs in her purse for something. “I think it’s past my medication time.”
“I was just thinking something similar,” Allyn is heard to murmur. Will waves for him to shush, blinking in bemusement all the while.
Setting down her purse as if she has forgotten what she wanted from it, Betty carries on. “Well, when the zombies took over my house, and the vampires kicked me out of town…”
“Vampires be like,” Will tuts sympathetically.
“I called my niece, Beverly,” Betty continues. “Haven’t seen her for twenty years, but she took me in. So kind of her.”
“I’ll say. Three huzzahs for family you can count on in your time of need! How are you enjoying your stay with your niece so far?”
“Her place is so full – she has three kids! – she put me in a spare room that she made out of a giant pantry. Cute little room, all stringer lights and mirrors in there. But the mirrors work just a little too well.”
Will cocks his head. “How do you mean?”
“I’m seein’ that the place is,” Betty whispers behind her hand, “oc-cu-PIED! I’m roomin’ with a ghost, Will Scarlet, a ghost that lives in my family’s haunted house in Lake Charles, Louisiana.” She pauses, staring at the host, to let this sink in.
“Good Lord,” cries Will. “Zombie bankers, vampires, ghosts… You, Aunt Betty, are positively plagued with the paranormal! The ghost hasn’t tried to eat you or run you across state lines, has it?”
Shaking her head, Betty whispers again, “The ghost likes me, and it follows me around.” She looks over her shoulder. “Everywhere. But my family don’t believe me. Can’t say why.”
A second cough – this one from off-camera – suggests Allyn may be in possession of a theory or two.
“Everyone’s a skeptic,” says Will, with a supportive pat for his guest’s hand. “It’s clear you’ve got a lot to deal with, just now, so I won’t keep you haunting this stage much longer. Just one more question, if you would. Tell me, what is your author Ginger’s biggest, deepest, darkest, most mortifying and/or hilarious secret? Or—”
“Ginger?” Betty’s eyes blink as she snaps back to attention. “Oh, you mean the tall woman who is always walking up behind me and listenin’ in? She’s not so bad. We sit out on the porch together, and sometimes she plays duets with me on the organ. Occasionally, she plays with my students. She’s behind me now, in fact. She’s become a friend of sorts, but she’s awfully shifty. Must be what happens after a person dies.”
“Wha—?!” Will startles half out of his chair. “Ginger?! But I thought—”
“Oh right, I forgot to mention that – she’s dead. Dead people are the only ones who actually ‘get’ me, you know. Some of them are hanging out right here, Will Scarlet. My own social club. There’s a banker, an author, a railroad worker, a banjo player.” She whispers behind her hand, “Kinda wish that one would go on ‘into the light,’ know what I’m sayin’? Then there are all of the little kids that want me to teach them somethin’.”
A hair curler flies across the set, followed by another one. “Jimmy! I told you not to throw those things at—” She turns to Will. “Excuse me, you know toddlers, they love hair curlers.”
Betty steps off-camera for a moment. From off-set, her voice drifts in, “And put them back in your bag. We always put our work away. Maria Montessori said—” From the other direction, the sound of a filmy drum track simulates a foxtrot. “Carly! I’m not available for your lesson now, pipe down…!”
She wanders back on set, her thick red hair sticking up at odd angles, looking bewildered. “Oh, hi,” she says to Will Scarlet, “I don’t believe we have met. My name is Betty.”
“Um…” says Will, nonplussed.
With a look of recognition, she snaps her head up hard enough to make the loose flesh on her neck jiggle. “Oh, right! Well, I don’t want to go bragging, but I see folks nobody else ever sees. And I think they like it. Some days, I wish they didn’t. You are awfully understanding too, Mr. Will Scarlet. I mean, it’s like I’ve known you forever. Wait, when did you say you were born? Or did you…” Betty peers at Will Scarlet with increasing curiosity. “Where is your body buried, Mr. Will Scarlet?”
His eyes pop wide open, his face gone white behind a strained smile. “Allyn,” he hisses out the side of his mouth. “How the devil does she know I’ve died?”
“Admit nothing,” Allyn hisses back. “Change the subject.”
Will’s focus whips back to Betty, blurting, “Would you like to kiss me?”
“I’ll gladly kiss a man as good looking as you, Mr. Will Scarlet.” Betty’s eyes turn sideways, and she cranes her head to look behind Will Scarlet. “But up until now, I think my student was busy with you. Why don’t you take the curlers out of your hair first?”
“Curlers? What curl— oh.” Having turned toward the live-streaming monitors, Will belatedly notes that his golden-red locks have been somehow rolled into a set of lime green hair curlers.
“On second thought…” Betty puts on a fresh coat of fire-engine red lipstick. “You look great to me. Pucker up!”
“Puckering up.” Will sweeps Betty into his arms, swings her ‘round, and dips her low, calling over her head, “Allyn, how ‘bout a word from our sponsor?”
“Today’s Kiss & Tell segment,” says Allyn, determinedly ignoring anything else taking place on this stage, “was brought to you by Ginger C. Mann’s ‘The Poltergeist and Aunt Betty’ – included in ‘Beyond the Wail: 12 Grave Tales of Love and Loss’, launching tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Allyn,” Will says. “Thanks to you as well, Betty …and, um, Betty’s ghostly coterie. And thank you, my beautiful audience. Remember, authors – if your characters would like to appear on the show, simply follow the guidelines provided here, and we’ll get them on the schedule. ‘Til next time, lovelies: Scarlet out!”