A Halloween Tale

I can’t imagine any sadder place for a kid to be on Halloween than stuck in a hospital, can you? I think it’s almost worse than being there on Christmas. Family and presents can come to you in most cases, but Halloween is about wearing a costume and going out with your friends and eating tons of candy. Try doing any of that from a sickbed.

Quint’s hospital works to make it still a special day for their patients, though, which is where Jagger and I come in. Every year, we dress up and visit as many kids as possible in their rooms. We’re not the only therapy dog/handler team that does that, of course, but we’re the only ones who also put on shows in each of the playrooms for any kids well enough to attend. What kind of shows? Google “canine musical freestyle” and you’ll get a good idea. We don’t do it competitively, but we are good enough that the hospital’s development office asked us to perform at their Masquerade Ball fundraiser this year.

It was all going swimmingly, until…

Well, let me tell you about the performance first. Jagger and I both worked incredibly hard on it, so I want to brag a little before we get to the ugly bits.

The MC started it off with a speech on how donations went not only towards treatment, but also towards quality-of-life initiatives like Angel On a Leash. (Yes, that’s what the therapy dog program is called. Yes, I’m aware of the poetic coincidence, given Quint’s petname for me and the nature of our relationship. Zeggy teases me about it constantly, so you can shut up now.) He ended by saying, “One of our superstar teams gets creative to bring joy to children who are going through difficult times. Here to give a small demonstration of their talents, please welcome Theo Calhoun and Jagger!”

That was the signal for the DJ to start our music, and for Jagger to crawl on his belly to the middle of the stage as menacing laughter boomed over the speakers. There were a few “awww”s from the audience. I had to admit, Jagger did look adorable as a ghost. My entrance cue came seconds later, and I jumped out to cheers as people recognized the song and my costume.

A dog with a sheet draped over it in a ghost costume, holding a Halloween candy bucket shaped like a jack o'lantern.“If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!”

I lip-synced rather than singing, because you don’t mess with Ray Parker Jr’s voice. Jagger hit all his marks while I danced around, alternating between acting like I was afraid of him and pretending to unsuccessfully shoot at him with my Neutrona Wand — the thing that fires ghost-catching streams of protons in the movie, for you uninitiated. By the end of our routine, the audience was really getting into it, shouting “Ghostbusters!” along with the music. For the grand finale, Jagger rolled onto his back while I stood triumphantly over him, and then, as soon as I holstered the Wand, he jumped into my arms and “slimed” me by licking my face. It was, in a word, spectacular. (Or should I say spooktacular? …Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

After we took our bows and turned the show back over to the MC, I found Quint in the crowd. He was kind of hard to miss, given that I’d made him wear a tan jumpsuit and Proton Pack too. He’d wanted to go without a costume, believe it or not. “It’s a Halloween party to raise money for sick kids, Quint!” I’d said. “You can’t just wear a tuxedo and say you’re James Bond. It’s not allowed.”

As if to prove me wrong, he was standing with a group that included a man in a tux. This guy would’ve been better suited to the role of villain, though. His blond hair was slicked back like he’d just gotten out of the shower, and his handsome face looked much too serious for a costume party.

“That was wonderful, angel,” Quint said, moving over to make room for me and Jagger in their circle.

I recognized most of the people as doctors and nurses from the pulmonology unit, and accepted their compliments on the performance with a grin and a modest, “Jagger does the majority of the work, really.”

Quint touched my shoulder to draw my attention back to him. “I’d like you to meet Stephen Walker, Theo.” He gestured to the Bond villain on his other side. “Stephen, this is my husband, Theo Calhoun.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said. I extended my hand for the man to shake and barely concealed a wince as he squeezed my fingers together hard before letting go immediately.

“Likewise,” he replied, with a smile that reminded me of a shark. All teeth and no warmth.

“Stephen’s firm, Walker & Morgan, is one of the major sponsors of tonight’s event,” Quint said.

“Yes,” said the shark. “I’m here as our representative, to see how our donation is being spent.” I swear he looked right down his nose at Jagger when he said that. “The show you put on was interesting,” he continued, with the faintest pause before the last word.

I matched his cool smile with one of my own. “Thanks. The kids really enjoyed it earlier today, too.”

“You don’t think it’s a little, ah, dated for them?” he asked. “Not to mention violent, with that fake gun?”

“It’s not a gun,” I said, keeping my voice level. “You can’t kill a ghost, you just contain it. That’s what the Neutrona Wand does. And most kids have heard the song even if they haven’t seen the movie. They loved it.”

He looked doubtful, but before I could say anything more, Amanda, one of the doctors in the group, chimed in. “I can vouch for that, at least with the kids in the asthma center. It’s great to have a more hypoallergenic therapy dog to come visit them in a controlled environment. Jagger and Theo are both huge hits.”

“Theo, don’t you sing in a band too?” asked one of the nurses.

“Yep,” I said. “The Upstart Crows. We play Celtic-influenced alternative rock. I’m the lead vocalist and guitarist.”

“I would love to see you perform with them sometime,” Amanda said.

“You might,” Quint said. “I mentioned to Dr. Andrews the idea of having them at the holiday party in December, and she seemed to like it.”

“How kind of you to help out his career like that,” the shark said, giving Quint a rather more sincere smile than he’d given me.

“Oh, Theo doesn’t need help; he’s very talented,” Quint said, but nothing in his manner suggested he’d noticed the insult.

It was the last straw for me, though. “Excuse me, I’m a little thirsty,” I said and led Jagger away before Quint could stop me.

Zeggy and Ike were here somewhere, I knew. She’d told me they would be dressed as Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze, so I just needed to find a woman in a red-headed wig with two hair “horns” sticking up and a guy in a bald cap and silver body paint-

Ah, there they were.

Zeggy looked around when I laid my hand on her arm and said, “I was wondering when you’d come say hi. Hey, Jagger puppy! Who’s a good little ghosty?”

“Can I talk to you a minute?” I asked.

Zeggy’s been my best friend since we were eleven. She knows when something’s wrong. “Ike, hon, get us some punch,” she said. “Take your time with it.”

Ike, who looked oddly fetching wearing a shiny blue bathrobe, glanced from me to Zeg and then wandered off. Once he was gone, I turned to her and said, “Sorry, but I need to rant.”

“I can see that. What’s up?”

“That pompous lawyer Quint just introduced me to was being so condescending I wanted to hit him. I’d like to know what the hell his problem is,” I fumed.

Zeggy looked past me and asked, “The tall, blond one chatting with Quint?”

“Yes.” I didn’t look around, not wanting to see the shark’s haughty face again.

“You’re much hotter than he is, if that — oh!” Her eyes widened suddenly.

“What?” I asked, looking over my shoulder. Quint was still talking with the shark, but I didn’t see anything else wrong.

“Nothing,” she said, too quickly. “It was probably nothing.”

“Zeg!”

She looked reluctant for a moment, and then said, “Well, either the lawyer was brushing a bit of fuzz off Quint’s shoulder, or he was flirting with him.”

My mouth dropped open. “There is no fuzz on that jumpsuit,” I bit out, spinning around to glare across the room. “Quint uses lint rollers on everything. I ought to go over there and-”

“Now, see, that’s why I didn’t want to tell you!” Zeggy said, taking my arm and pulling me back to face her. “I knew you’d overreact.”

“Overreact! He’s flirting with my husband!” I hissed.

“And from what I could tell, your husband didn’t even notice,” she replied. “He loves you, he doesn’t care about whatshisname-”

“Stephen,” I sneered.

“Stephen,” she agreed, “and going over there and making a scene is only going to make you look bad and get you in trouble.”

I huffed, but I saw her point. “Alright. But I swear, if he makes one more sly insinuation, I’m gonna slug him.”

She rolled her eyes. “Look, the next time he tries to rile you up, just take a deep breath, count to ten, and pretend to accidentally spill something on him.” I laughed, and she grinned wickedly and added, “That’s what I do when I find some gold digger setting her sights on Ike.”

*

Okay, so maybe I skipped the whole deep-breath-count-to-ten part. But really, what would you do if an attractive blond was hitting on your husband right in front of you? It wasn’t even creative. He was literally hanging on to Quint’s arm and laughing at everything he said. Quint, who is oblivious to almost anything less overt than grabbing and kissing, still hadn’t noticed

I walked back over, holding the glass of red punch Ike had given me, and as I got near, the shark was saying, “I’d really love to get together over dinner and discuss these plans you have for the center, Quint.”

Oh, that was it.

Subtlety, I gave Jagger a hand signal, and he darted between my legs. “Ah!” I said, falling forward like I had been tripped. Quint moved immediately to catch me, but the damage was already done. The shark was wearing an outraged expression and my punch, which was dripping down his formerly white shirt. Because he’d been standing so close to Quint, there was also some on his jumpsuit, but I considered that a necessary casualty. “Oh my god, I’m sorry, sh-Stephen,” I said. “I’m sure the hotel has club soda, if you want me to-”

He shot me a dirty look. “This is a five hundred dollar Gucci dress shirt. It’s dry clean only.”

“Really, five hundred dollars?” I asked. How could a plain white shirt possibly cost that much? Remembering I was supposed to be projecting nothing but apologeticness, I added, “I’m so sorry. I’ll pay for the dry cleaning.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Quint’s suspicious frown. I projected harder.

“Don’t be silly, Theo, it was an accident,” Amanda said, handing napkins to the shark. He started blotting the stain ineffectually, still scowling. It made his face much less pretty.

“No, I insist,” I said. “I don’t know what got into Jagger. I guess he thought the show wasn’t over yet.”

Quint looked down at Jagger, sitting quietly by our feet. Then he Looked at me. Then he said, “Stephen, just send the dry cleaning bill to my office and I’ll see it’s taken care of. Theo, if Jagger is going to misbehave, I think it’s time he went home.”

Amanda wasn’t the only person who protested that, but Quint politely excused us, took a discrete grip on my elbow, and ushered me out of the ballroom, with Jagger following along behind. As soon as we were alone in the hallway, he turned to me and pulled his patented Ice Bucket Voice — very quiet, very gentle, and slightly puzzled, so called because it produces an effect like a bucket of ice being poured down your spine. “What were you thinking?”

I countered with my Innocent Angel Face, although I didn’t hold out much hope. It’s never been the victor in a battle with the Ice Bucket. “What do you mean?”

He inclined his head sedately. “Please do feel free to continue down that path. I’m sure we can find somewhere more private to finish this discussion.”

I broke our eye contact to glare at the wall. “I said I’d pay for the dry cleaning, didn’t I?”

“Which you will. Look at me and answer the question, please. What could possibly have led to you spilling your drink on him?”

The forecast for this Halloween night, ladies and gentleman, is hail. You are advised to seek shelter and wait out the storm.

“He was hitting on you and being a rude snob to me,” I said.

He shook his head. “Yes, he was being rude to you,” he said, his voice finally thawing, “and you did the right thing by walking away then, but he was not hitting on me.”

“He was!” I insisted. “Zeggy saw it too. He asked you out, for fuck’s sake.”

Quint arched an eyebrow at me. “Watch your language, young man. He asked me to a business dinner, not a date. That is not an excuse for spilling punch on him.”

“I also got some on you,” I muttered.

“Theodore William Calhoun.”

Quickly, before he could get any ideas about pulling me into an empty conference room or something, I said, “Sorry.”

He pinned me with a long look, and then, sighing, said, “Go home. I’ll try to leave as soon as possible, and we’ll discuss this further when I get there.”

Which is Quint-code for ‘I’ll spank you when I get there,’ but at the moment I was more concerned with him going back into that party and the shark getting his wet fins on him. “Why can’t you come with me?”

“Because now I need to be even more of a sycophant to make sure his father’s firm remains one of our donors,” he explained in a calm voice.

I winced. I hadn’t even considered how this might impact the hospital. “Quint-”

“It’s fine, angel,” he cut me off. “If he’s petty enough to stop the donations over something like this, that is not your fault.” He pressed a swift, reassuring kiss to my forehead and repeated, “Go home. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

*

Jagger and I took a cab back to our apartment. When we got there, I changed into my pajamas, removed his costume, and laid down on the couch. It took Quint another hour to arrive, most of which I spent petting Jagger and aimlessly flipping between TV channels. Waiting for a spanking is the worst. Especially when you’re also feeling guilty as hell that your actions might’ve hurt sick kids in some way. The moment I heard the door open, I was on my feet and going to meet Quint. “What happened? Did he take back the money?” I asked.

“No, angel,” he said, locking the door behind him. “He couldn’t have taken back what had already been given. It doesn’t work like that.”

I watched him put his shoes in the pantry and helped him out of the Proton Pack. “Did he say they’d never donate again?”

“No, he didn’t do that either,” he said. I breathed a sigh of relief, but something in Quint’s manner was still off. He took my hand and led me to the couch, with a slight detour to shut Jagger in the guest room on the way. Once we were both sitting, the lecture should’ve started. It didn’t.

After a few seconds of silence, I couldn’t take it any more. “What?”

Quint opened his mouth, closed it again, exhaled, and finally said, “He tried to kiss me.”

“WHAT?”

“Lower your voice, Theo,” he said evenly. “He tried to kiss me. He didn’t succeed. I told him our relationship would remain strictly professional, and I will be dealing directly with his father from now on. That was the end of it.”

“I told you he was hitting on you! Unbelievable. It’s not like he didn’t know you’re married.”

“Yes, and I should’ve listened to you. I’m sorry for that. It won’t happen again,” Quint said. He squeezed my hand. “Are you okay?”

I thought about it. “Yeah, I guess,” I said. “I mean, I do trust you, I just…. I’m in a room full of doctors and high-society types and then there’s me, took two tries to get a bachelor degree, no real job… Sometimes I feel inadequate.” The tears were already starting. I blinked them back.

“Theo, I fell in love with you,” said Quint, in his gentlest voice, “not your degree or your career, both of which are admirable, by the way.”

“I know all that. I just forget it sometimes.”

He nodded. “Well, I’m afraid the best I can do is keep reminding you and proving it to you every day, and part of that is showing you I care about your actions.”

Yep, I figured we’d get to this part eventually. Ducking my head, I asked, “Don’t I get a pass due to extenuating circumstances?”

“No, you don’t,” he said, raising both eyebrows. “Whatever Stephen did, young man, your own behavior was completely unacceptable.”

Have you ever noticed Quint never says something was partially unacceptable behavior? I’ve considered pointing that out to him, but never quite gotten up the guts to do it. Anyway, in this case, as in most, he was right. I should’ve just walked away again, or pulled Quint aside and clued him into what was happening. Suppose I really had cost the hospital money?

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Stand up, please,” he said.

I took a deep breath and obeyed.

And that, folks, is how I wound up getting spanked by a man in a Ghostbusters costume. But, hey, there’s worse ways to spend a Halloween.

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