Title: A Haunting in Westchester (part 1 of 3)
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Summary: Chaos ensues when Xavier permits the students to take part in a haunted house.
Disclaimer: Marvel and Fox own the characters you know; others are from my own toybox. See notes at the end of Part 3.
Credit: To WabbitSeason, SpaniardX, Oryon, and Anonymous, for contributing costume ideas.
Notes: A look at my favorite holiday, Mutant High style. If you know where the name of the house comes from, consider yourself an expert in classic B-horror films.
"Maybe you could go as, like, a vampire," said Jubilation Lee, idly twirling her strawberry lollipop between her fingers. "'Cause it'd fit. You know, with the whole life-sucking thing and all."
Without looking away from "The Bride of Frankenstein" on the television screen, Marie "Rogue" D'Ancanto made a pouting face. "Not funny, Jubes."
Scott Summers rolled his eyes behind his ruby-quartz glasses.
At that moment, he was sitting on the couch in the darkened TV room with his fiancÃ©e, Jean Grey. Sprawled across the floor in front of them were nearly a dozen students of Xavier's School, most of them engrossed in the latest creature feature on Turner Classic Movies. It was two weeks before Halloween, which meant the house rules limiting the kids' intake of horror movies had gone out the window for the remainder of the month. Ordinarily Scott would have disapproved, but even he had to admit to a certain soft spot for the old Universal monster flicks the kids had discovered this year.
Some of the students had decided on their Halloween costumes months ago. Others had still not made up their minds, and among these was Rogue--hence Jubilee's helpful suggestion.
"Well, maybe you could do a "Gone With the Wind", Southern belle kind of thing," offered Kitty Pryde.
"Like Ah haven't heard *that* one before!" Rogue drawled.
"Hey," Bobby Drake murmured, uncoiling from his chiropractically unsound tangle on the floor. "You know what? I think I'd like to go as *him*." He pointed to the menacing image of Boris Karloff stalking across the TV screen as Frankenstein's Monster.
"You've got the brain for it," Jubilee sniffed.
Rogue stared at Bobby for a moment, then giggled and ruffled his hair with her gloved fingers, as if he were a toddler who had done something adorably precocious. "You're so cute."
"Wait a minute!" Kitty broke in. "Rogue, if he goes as Frankenstein, I know what you can be!"
"Frankenstein's *Monster*," Scott corrected quietly. He couldn't help himself.
When a dozen pairs of eyes stared back at him, in a silence broken only by the growling of said Monster, he squirmed and cleared his throat.
"Well, what's your idea?" Rogue asked, turning back to Kitty and incidentally letting their math teacher off the hook.
With a devious grin Kitty pointed to the television, where the hissing, tottering Bride of Frankenstein had just been unveiled. "You could go as Frankenstein's Mate!"
Rogue's eyes widened. "Aw, no. No way."
"Hey, that would be kinda neat!" Bobby exclaimed, with a fawning grin at Rogue.
"After all," Kitty urged, "you've already got those white streaks in your hair. All we'd have to do is frizz it out and make it stand up."
Jubilee snickered. "Maybe we could get Miss Munroe to kick up a lightning bolt for that."
"Okay, that does it!" Rogue snapped, and shoving Bobby aside, she pounced on her squealing friend.
Scott braced to separate the two, aware that Jean had raised a hand to reach out telekinetically and do the same. However, their concerns proved unfounded; both girls began laughing as they play-wrestled over Jubilee's bag of Dum-Dums. The two adults exchanged a glance and a shake of the head, and Scott smiled at Jean, receiving the same in return. They would have to remind Rogue, as they did every now and then, to be careful with herself--but for now, there was no harm done.
Jean started to turn back to the kids, but then her head swiveled in the other direction, taking note of a new presence she had sensed. Scott followed her gaze, and as he recognized the silhouette in the doorway, he mentally let out a sigh.
Logan strode into the room, his eyes taking in every inch of it from beneath lowered brows. He had been gone for most of the day--and, as usual, no one knew where or why. Now he was carrying a folded piece of neon-orange paper, and as he approached the back of the couch, he held it out to Jean.
"I just got back. Found this on the gate."
Her lips quirked in curiosity, Jean took the paper and unfolded it, tilting it and squinting to read it in the dim light of the television. Some of the kids instinctively sensed a mystery, and as the movie credits were rolling anyway, they crowded around the couch to investigate. They blinked in the sudden brightness as Logan helpfully switched on a lamp in the corner.
"So what is it?" Peter Rasputin asked.
Jean frowned thoughtfully. "It's an invitation to a haunted house someone's having on Halloween. I think this address is the Old Willows Place down the road."
"Isn't that the house some retired actress moved into about six months ago?" Scott asked.
"I think it is."
"Can I see?" Kitty begged, holding out a hand for the paper. Jean absently handed it over, and Kitty began to read with eager intensity.
From the tone of Kitty's voice, Scott instantly knew they were in trouble.
"What?" Rogue asked, sitting up on her knees and jostling Kitty in an effort to read over her elbow.
Ignoring the shoving, Kitty replied, "It says here they're looking for volunteers to help set up the haunted house--and to play the characters in it." She looked up excitedly. "Maybe I could, like, play a ghost!"
Across the room, Logan scowled--and for once, Scott was in total agreement.
"Wait a minute, Kitty," Scott cut in. "You're not thinking about using your power, are you?"
Kitty blanched slightly, but managed to retain an even, reasoning tone. "Well, why not? If anyone asked, we could just tell them it was special effects or something." She glanced around at the other teens, looking for moral support. "Can't you just imagine me popping out of a wall and freaking people out?"
"Hey, maybe I could juggle knives..." Peter mused.
And that set off the rest of the kids.
Amidst a sudden, excited babble of young voices chattering about the haunted house, Scott reached up to massage his temples. It was some comfort to him that Logan was doing much the same thing--but Jean was smiling slightly, with a calculating look in her eyes.
"Oh, no, Jean. Don't look like that." Logan's tone was as close to a whine as Scott had ever heard from him.
Jean blinked, looking back and forth between the two men. "Well... maybe it *would* work. It depends on the person running the haunted house, of course, but..." She drifted again.
"Can't we at least find out more?" Kitty asked pleadingly, backed up by a chorus of "Yeah!" and "Please?" from the rest of the kids.
Jean did not answer, but glanced up at Scott, with the sort of cheerfully expectant look that a grown man would be well justified in fearing.
That was the *coup de grace*, and Scott let out a prodigiously long and heavy sigh. "Alright. I'll talk to the Professor about it in the morning--*if* you all agree that what he says about it is *final*."
With reluctantly murmured agreements, the kids stampeded out of the room and up the stairs, all talking at once. Scott closed his eyes and slid his fingers under his glasses to rub his eyelids. He looked up in time to see Logan step forward, wearing an ominous expression.
"Please tell me you're joking."
Scott gave a shrug that was more like a wince. "It's up to the Professor now."
"Cop-out," Jean retorted, but she was still smiling.
"Why do you look so happy about this?" Logan demanded. "You *can't* be serious about letting those kids use their powers in public."
"Actually, this might be a great opportunity to let them do just that. Like Kitty said, if the conditions are right, we could pass it off as special effects," Jean replied. When Logan's frown deepened, she pressed on, "Think about it. We try to teach the kids to take pride in their abilities--yet they always have to hide them from the rest of the world. This is one day out of the year when they just might be able to have some fun with their powers."
"Yeah, it's *always* fun 'til somebody gets hurt," Logan grumbled, and with a shake of his head, he stalked toward the door.
He was almost there when he paused, then took a step closer to the shelf beside the doorway. He leaned over to scrutinize something amidst the stray odds and ends scattered upon it. When he spoke, his voice was entirely lacking its habitual growl; in fact, it had acquired a slight quiver of unease.
"There's an eyeball sitting on the shelf, and it ain't made of glass."
With a groan, Jean shot up off the couch. "Norbie's at it again..." She snatched a tissue from the box on an end table, used it to pick up the disturbing object in question, then disappeared into the hall.
Logan stared after her, then looked back at Scott, one eyebrow raised. "Do I wanna know?"
"Probably not," Scott replied. When Logan continued to stare at him, he went on, "Norbert Smith. Sleuth. His eyeballs function independently outside of his skull, and he's always leaving one of them lying around. Usually aimed at the TV when he's elsewhere, supposedly studying."
The Wolverine stood still, absorbing that information, for a full ten seconds before he spoke--in language that suggested a bit too much time spent in the vicinity of Jubilation Lee.
"Okay. That's officially the grossest mutation in the house."
Kurt Wagner felt a certain amount of tension in Professor Xavier's office the following morning, when the adults were called together to discuss the haunted house and the students' interest in it. The blue-skinned German crouched on his haunches in a chair beside the window, listening in attentive silence as his friends debated the issue.
"I don't like it," grumbled Logan, who was slouching near the door. "I thought it was risky enough that you let the kids go begging for candy. Besides, isn't it--*exploitation* or something, to let 'em put their tricks on display?"
"Not if they're volunteering," Ororo Munroe replied earnestly. Fun-loving at heart, she had taken her friend Jean's side of the issue, and was in favor of having a romp on the Eve of All Saints.
"Personally, I think Logan's right," Scott muttered.
Ororo grinned at him. "Hey, wait a minute. You mean you two actually *agree* about something? This is a Kodak moment."
Logan growled. Scott grimaced. Jean stifled a chuckle behind her fist.
"Alright," Xavier interrupted from behind the desk, hands raised in a conciliatory gesture. "I am aware of the risks. I also think that Jean is right--it's difficult for the children to live their lives with the secret of their gifts. As much as I disapprove of showing off, with the proper precautions, the chance to share those gifts for once could do a great deal to relieve some of that pressure."
Kurt was slightly startled to hear himself say, "I agree."
All eyes turned to him, and he fidgeted, his pointed tail swishing nervously.
"I was a performer," he reminded them softly. "The circus was a place outside of the ordinary world, where people could see me as I am, and feel wonder instead of fear. It was nice to have those times, when I didn't need to hide myself." He cast a shy glance around the room. "Even if no one knows that the children are mutants, I think it would be good for them to have that, just once."
A long moment of silence followed, as his friends considered his words. He shifted uncomfortably on his chair, only relaxing somewhat when Ororo smiled at him.
"So what would you do?" Scott finally asked Xavier. "Tell the woman setting all this up that our students want to rig their own 'special effects' in her house?"
"No... not exactly," Xavier replied, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. He considered for a moment, then looked up with a steady resolve in his eyes. "I want to go to Old Willows Place, and meet the lady in question. If I can determine that she would respond well to the truth, that is precisely what I'll tell her. If not..." he let the statement trail off meaningfully.
"I *still* don't like it," Logan muttered. Then his glance passed over Jean, Kurt, and Xavier, and he shrugged. "But I'll go along with it... until things get out of hand."
"They won't," Xavier replied calmly. "Of that I can assure you."
Old Willows Place, named for the family that had built it in the mid-nineteenth century, stood roughly a mile down Graymalkin Lane--making it one of the closest neighbors to Xavier's School. An elegant, three-story Victorian mansion, with a broad front porch and three gabled attic windows, it stood upon several acres of wooded property. It looked ideal for the role of the stereotypical haunted house. In fact, it outwardly did a respectable imitation of the Addams Family residence.
Evening was approaching when Scott drove Professor Xavier through the open wrought-iron gate and into the long driveway. As they pulled up in front of the house, a woman stepped out onto the porch.
Helen Conover looked much younger than her sixty-two years. She was still beautiful, perhaps all the more so because she seemed to make no special effort to be; her gold-and-silver hair was uncolored, her makeup was light, and her only jewelry was a wedding ring and a gold locket necklace. Her slender figure, clothed in a modest blue dress, had the grace and carriage of more than thirty years as a stage actress.
"Good evening," Xavier said, as the lift lowered his wheelchair from the van. "I'm Charles Xavier; we spoke on the telephone this morning. And this is Scott Summers."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Helen said, with a warm smile and a trace of Georgia in her accent. She shook both men's hands with a firm, confident grip. "I want to tell you again how delighted I was by your call. I haven't had any other volunteers for the haunted house yet, and I was hoping some of the students at your school might be interested."
"Yes they are, very."
"Wonderful." Helen's smile faded a bit as she glanced at Charles' wheelchair, then back toward her porch. "I just hope this won't be too much trouble for you. It's an old house, not terribly accessible..."
"We'll manage," Charles assured her with a smile. "Thank you for inviting us."
Presently, with some maneuvering, the Professor and his chair were installed in the front sitting room of the house. This was a pleasant, comfortable space, with a bay window, a fireplace, and shelves filled with the trinkets and mementos of a life lived to its fullest. On the walls hung photographs affectionately signed by past costars, and framed playbills from the shows in which Helen had performed.
"So you played Queen Gertrude in 'Hamlet'," Charles noted, admiring the testament to Helen's work which surrounded them. "I believe I would have very much enjoyed seeing that."
"Thank you. It was my last role before I retired," Helen replied, with a slight blush. "Critics said it was some of my best work, but after my husband Arthur passed away... my heart just wasn't in my performances any longer." She smiled ruefully, then stepped over to the table, where a polished silver tea service was laid out. "Would you like some tea?"
"Yes, please." Charles rolled his wheelchair up to the table, accepting the cup Helen poured for him. At the Professor's side, Scott politely declined the tea, but took the seat Helen motioned him to. If she was curious as to why he wore sunglasses indoors, she had the grace not to ask.
Helen sat down herself, stirring sugar into her tea. "So, you teach at the school down the road. Are you the principal, Professor?"
"Something like that," Charles replied, with a small smile.
In a friendly conversation such as this, he disliked intruding on a person's thoughts. Even now, when his goal was to determine how Helen Conover felt about mutants, he was loathe to pry into the mind of such an obviously good-willed woman. He compromised by examining only the general perceptions and feelings he sensed from her. What he found was precisely what he had expected: enthusiasm, kindness, and more than a little curiosity.
He decided to take a direct approach.
"When our students heard of your plans for a haunted house, they were very excited," he went on. "Many of them are interested in taking part in it. However, in all fairness, I want you to understand that the talents they have to offer are... rather beyond the ordinary."
The actress shrugged slightly. "Well, coming from a school for the gifted, I would imagine..."
"Yes, they *are* gifted." Charles paused, then concluded softly, "The children at our school are mutants."
Helen gasped and fumbled her teacup, splashing the hot amber liquid into her saucer. She was radiating surprise, but beneath it Charles found a wave of much more troubled emotions. Fear and alarm he could well have understood--but instead, Helen felt a powerful sorrow and regret, the echoes of something past and terribly painful.
Exchanging a glance with Scott, Charles readied himself to reach out with his mind, and erase his revelation from Helen's memory.
"I'm--I'm sorry, Professor." Helen looked away, focusing on her nervous hands as she mopped up the spilled tea. Charles did not need his telepathy to see that her mind was racing. He remained silent, allowing her to collect her thoughts.
When at last she raised her head to face the two men, her eyes were brimming, but she spoke in a quiet, steady voice.
"When my grandson was twelve... we learned he was a mutant. He could never have hurt anyone, but my daughter and son-in-law were *afraid* of him--so they sent him off to some kind of institution, to try to make him 'better'. All they did in that place was pump him full of drugs, until there was nothing left of the Kenny I knew."
She paused then, taking in a deep breath that shuddered with emotion.
"After three years, when he was almost gone already... he committed suicide. I haven't seen or spoken to my daughter since his funeral."
Charles had heard such stories before, but he felt the same fierce hurt in his soul each time. With a sigh he lowered his gaze, giving Helen some measure of privacy as she regained her composure.
"I'm deeply sorry, Mrs. Conover. The losses you've suffered are truly undeserved by a woman as caring and generous as you. My life has been devoted to preventing such tragedies as that of your grandson, so I understand your pain... and I apologize for having opened old wounds."
To Scott he said quietly, "I think we should leave."
"No. Please don't go." Helen managed a broken smile, shaking her head. "Don't you see? If I'd only known there was a place like your school... and people like you... then maybe Kenny would be alive today."
"I wish I could have helped him," Charles said gently, and meant it with every fiber of his being.
Slowly, Helen straightened in her chair, the mist clearing from her eyes. Her sad smile gradually warmed into something stronger, compassionate and resolute.
"Professor Xavier, I would be glad and honored to have the help of your students."
In the days that followed, the X-Men found in Helen Conover a better neighbor and friend than they could ever have expected.
The day after their first meeting, she reciprocated Charles' visit, and he gave her a tour of the school. The children were taken with her at once--especially when she told them that as an actress, she had created her own makeup effects, and would be glad to help them with their Halloween costumes. As for the adults, she quickly gained the friendship of Jean and Ororo, and delighted Kurt by her unhesitating acceptance of him. Even Logan lost his distrustful scowl after a short time in her presence.
When she was among the students, Helen's love of youth became evident. After the school day was over, she sat with them in one of the classrooms, seeming like a teenager herself as she talked eagerly about the haunted house and collected their suggestions. Once they had warmed to her, a few of them demonstrated how they could use their mutations for their roles, and she responded to their sometimes-startling gifts with the same pleased admiration she might have felt for a young musical prodigy.
As he watched her through the day, Charles' heart was warmed by the vision of what could have been, and should have been. People like this kind and gracious woman were the reason the X-Men fought to protect humanity.
By that evening, with the children's help and some technical advice from Scott, Helen had drawn up a plan for the arrangement of the haunted house. The elaborate layout would span the front rooms of the lower two stories of Old Willows Place, with a different theme for each room. She left after dinner with a copious bundle of notes, and a long list of supplies to purchase the following day.
The work--and the chaos--began that weekend.