"This is J.T., Dennis, and Gaby. Guys, this is Clara."

Nicholas didn't point to his friends as he said their names. He just kind of looked at them, then looked back at Clara. Clara knew her mother wouldn't approve of such a weak introduction. Truth be told, she didn't much like it either – mostly because it put her on the spot.

Nicholas didn't add any details to the introduction, either. He didn't tell his friends that Clara was new in town, or that she'd just moved in with her aunt, or anything else like he said to the group at the Giant Brine. Clara realized what this meant – that he'd already told his friends about her. She wondered how he might have described her. Whatever he said must have been accurate, because the others already seemed comfortable at having her join them under the tent.

"Hey," said J.T., bobbing his head a couple times.

"Hey," Clara said back, trying not to sound like she was mocking him. She added, "Nice to meet you all," just to be safe.

"Here," Gaby said, sliding closer to Dennis. "Take a seat."

"Thank you," Clara said, sidling into the empty spot. She was happy not to be the only girl in the group. The attention that always brought was like a spotlight – something she was already feeling enough of. She put her Berry Buccaneer on the bench, spilling a little down the sides of the mug. On stage, the background music stopped and the crowd settled into place.

Dennis leaned forward so he could see Clara past Gaby. He asked in a confirming tone, "Clara, you said?"

"Yes," Clara answered. "It's an old lady name." She'd used that line before. It usually got a laugh.

"It's a nice name," Nicholas said.

"A nice old lady name?" Clara asked. Nicholas chuckled. She knew it may come off as flirting to the others, but thought she had a good enough sense of his personality at this point that he'd take her teasing as she intended. And if his shy smile meant anything, he did.

Clara grabbed her drink and took a sip. She must have finished faster than Dennis had expected, because as she looked back up from her mug, she clearly caught him mouthing "She's hot" to Nicholas. Clara pretended not to notice.

Nicholas shushed the others, smiling. He pointed toward the center of the performance area and said, "I think they're getting started."

Clara watched as Howie exited a tiny "backstage" tent onto the sand. He stepped up onto the stage wearing a tattered jester costume and garish makeup. Eerie chamber music began building. The audience got quiet – quiet enough that Clara noticed the slow whoosh of the waves coming up on the shore. She'd forgotten for a minute that she was on a beach, sitting only a few yards away from the Atlantic Ocean. It was a powerful feeling.

Howie took the microphone from its stand. "Welcome, all you ghouls and goblins," he said in an over-the-top macabre voice. "Thank you for coming out for the resurrection of... Breach Point Castle!"

The crowd applauded again and Clara joined in. There was genuine enthusiasm in the chilled night air.

Howie continued. "We will now present a story originally written by our own Mad Doctor back when he was reigning over the Castle's infamous Dungeon Room... though we've modified it to make it even more chilling!" There was an effect on his voice that made the last word echo.

The audience applauded. Clara noticed a few of the smaller children huddling in close to their parents. She knew she'd have been the same way at their age, if she'd been brave enough to watch the spooky play at all.

The music hit a crescendo before stopping completely. The main stage lights went out as well, with only eerie red and green gels projecting up from the base of the stage. It was actually quite creepy.

The rest of the group marched out slowly as a dirge began playing. Clara recognized them all – Greg in his Mad Doctor costume, his wife Darlene as a ghostly figure draped in what looked like an old wedding dress, Genevieve and Corine in deteriorated cheerleader outfits, and Kevin looming behind them in a hooded black robe. He carried a scythe and Clara could just barely see the skull makeup peeking out from under his hood. He looked truly menacing now. She thought his character seemed too scary for the younger kids in the crowd.

The sketch began, and it was much lighter than Clara had expected. There was a loose story about a group of teenagers whose car had broken down in front of the Mad Doctor's house, and the five characters argued over what to do with them. The humor was heavily pun-based, which got the biggest laughs from the younger kids in the crowd.

Clara mostly watched to see the reaction of the audience. She wondered what it was like to be the parent of a young child – this must be a big night out for them. Free entertainment on the beach. The older kids – especially Nicholas' friends – used the performance as a backdrop for their running commentary. Something to make fun of, even though they still seemed to be following the story. Not Nicholas, though. He gave little laughs when J.T. said, "Oh please," or Dennis mocked the believability of the plot, but Clara could see the pride in his eyes as he watched his uncle perform. She liked seeing that kind of family loyalty in him.

She observed herself as well, wondering if she'd always be such a watcher of people and things. She always wandered outside of herself at these kinds of events, where a group of people watched something like the play that removed their need to interact. Maybe others were that way as well – though that didn't seem to be the case. Whether the people in the audience were sincerely watching the show or mocking it, they all looked immersed.

Clara tried to immerse herself, but it wasn't working. She was too conscious of the effort. Instead, she looked out onto the ocean, trying to picture the Castle standing in that exact spot, long ago. She squinted her eyes and almost convinced herself that she could make out the outline of the gothic structure.

Nicholas must have sensed her detachment because she felt him staring. Clara didn't look back to him at first, but he had to have wanted her to notice because he stood up and walked in front of her.

"Hey," he said. "Do you want to see something cool?"

------------------

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- Steve


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