Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
It’s that time of the year again. I know how I’m going to be spending Halloween. Same way I have for the past two years, slowly nursing a beer in the bar. Watching the glass sweat on that smooth wooden counter, staring at it till it goes warm in my hand. I’m not there to get drunk. I’m there to escape. I never want to be alone at home over Halloween night again. I promised the Deputy that I wouldn’t talk about that night. The town didn’t need it. Hell, I even deleted the video. But now, with Halloween around the corner, it all comes back. Well, small-town law enforcement doesn’t care too much about the Internet.
I live in a small house at the end of the lane. Another non-descript house down a row of its sisters. Pre-fabricated mostly. Far enough off the beaten path to be cheap, not so far as to be rural. But close, pretty damn close. I didn’t expect many kids to call around trick-or-treating come Halloween. It’s a long road, and most children manage to fill their baskets long before they get to my place. Besides, I quite like the peace and quiet. Halloween used to be a good night to settle down and catch some of the classic horror movies on TV. I kept a couple of bags of candy around just in case some kids actually made it all the way down the lane, but mostly it would be an evening all to myself.
I can’t quite remember what I was watching that night. Probably because I’d been enjoying an after-dinner beer and I may have gotten carried away, dozing off after one too many. I woke with a start. My beer had gone warm on the side table, my hand still curled around the can. I winced as I unwrapped my fingers. Something had woken me up. The TV droned on in the background, the senseless drivel of late-night programming flickering across the room.
Maybe it was just some high school kids out after some Halloween party, out on the streets, making some noise that woke me up. I checked the time. Past midnight. I was glad that I’d invested in a little security for my house. Just the basics, really. A good camera to cover my front lawn. Motion-activated lights around the front and back.
I was trying to make the tough decision of whether to clear up the mess right there and then or to just kick the can down the road till the next morning when a loud rapping at the door shattered the silence. The can bounced off the floor, warm beer spraying across the bottom of my track pants. The shock left me too numb even to swear. I had just set the can back upright when the knocking sounded again. That arrhythmic rap increasingly impatient, the tempo building up as I stepped towards the door. I peered around the edge of the window. I saw nothing but my pale face in the glass. It was pitch dark outside.
Why wasn’t the light working? The knocking stopped.
A tree branch perhaps. Or something else tapping on the porch. The peephole glared at me, that little glass orb suddenly bulging with some half promised horror. I swallowed. Or I tried. My throat was dry, the warm beer on the floor suddenly inviting.
“It’s nothing,” I said out loud. Hoping that the familiar echo of my voice off the walls would ground me somehow. I walked up to the door and peered out, only seeing the orange cones cast by the halogen street lights, a distance away.
Nothing. I thought to myself, feeling childishly stupid. I sucked in a deep breath, feeling my lungs strain, then let the air stream out slowly. Then, another knock.
I turned back around to face the door. My heart punched at the inside of my chest, its crazed dance playing counterpoint to the knocking. I wasn’t surprised to see my hand shake as I reached for the doorknob. Our town was a safe one, far from the troubles of the big cities, or so we’d read in the papers. We had little more to fear in the night than seeing our trash strewn across the yard by the nimble fingers of raccoons.
I threw the door open. The porch lights winked on, suddenly blinding me. I blinked away the white spots from my vision. A pair of children stood on my porch. They must have been nine or ten. I couldn’t see much more off them, because they were in the classic Halloween getup, a simple sheet draped over each of them, a pair of holes cut out for them to see through. A pair of small baskets for candy broke the smooth lines of the sheets. The toes of brand new dress shoes peeked out from under the sheets. A boy and a girl, I thought.
“Trick or treat.”
Such a common refrain. I’d expected the words, but not the delivery. There were but two figures in front of me, yet their voices seemed to come from a great distance away.
“Trick or treat.”
The pair spoke again. I felt a little discomfited at the distortion in their voices. More than the weird volume, their voices seemed to blend into each other’s, with some strange harmonics at play at the edges. It seemed almost as though there was a choir of two, just there, speaking to me.
“Treat, I guess,” I said. More than anything, I wanted those two away from my house. The whole situation felt wrong, the familiar veneer of the season concealing something deeper. Something rotten, like that small panic when biting into a fruit and feeling that lack of resistance, your teeth sinking into soft mush instead of sweet flesh. For a moment, I blamed the haze of alcohol, the dregs of sleep clouding my judgment, but adrenalin had swept those far away. My fear was true.
I turned to the counter where I kept my keys and grabbed for the bag of candy I had prepared for the occasion. I was half hoping that the two figures would be gone when I returned to the door. That they’d been a figment of my imagination, perhaps a shadow of some dream brought on by cheap horror movies and cold pizza. I had no such luck, the pair hadn’t moved an inch.
They each raised their baskets. There was already an assortment of candy there. They’d had a good day.
“A bit late for you guys to be out, isn’t it? Where are your parents?”
The only answer I got was an impatient shaking of the baskets, the rasp of candy wrappers rustling. I held out a handful of candy, ready to drop it and call it a night. I expected to see a small pale hand clutching at the handle of the basket. Instead, I saw the anemic matte sheen of plastic. The basket was draped off the plastic hand of some kind of store mannequin. I was more than thoroughly creeped out by this effective little trick. I shrugged. Maybe the voices were recorded, a little technology to bolster an otherwise traditional costume. I felt the fear melting away as I explained it to myself in my head. Just some clever little children, probably with the help of an adult. Smart, I thought. It had certainly got me going for a while.
“Stay safe,” I told them, dropping the last of the candy into the baskets. They didn’t acknowledge me, they just stood still on the worn wooden boards of my porch. I shut the door on them. The window darkened as the light on the porch shut off. Odd, maybe the motion detection stopped working. Some unbidden instinct told me to stay there and wait. I heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps on the porch as the two walked off. Still the light stayed dark.
My relief grew as the odd strangers left my property. Still, something didn’t sit right. Something wasn’t right. The light was working. It turned on when it detected me. It saw me. It didn’t see the kids. The sensor was working. It was state of the art. Passive infrared. Detected motion by detecting changes in temperature. Like a human body. Like mine but not the kids’. Whatever was under those pristine white sheets wasn’t warm at all.
The realization washed over me, like an ice cube running down my spine. My breath came in short rasps. I had to see. I had to know. I could barely bring my hand to the curtains, they were shaking so bad. When I pinched the edge of the curtain between my thumb and my finger, the curtain began to undulate wildly. I filled my lungs and peered out through the glass.
They were still there, barely twenty yards away. Doing nothing. Just standing there, motionless, facing the street. As I watched, they both swiveled their heads, in perfect tandem, to affix two pairs of fathomless eyeholes on the window.
There was no way. There was no way they could have seen me come to the window. I had to put the back of my hand in my mouth and bite down hard to keep from calling out. They knew. They knew I was there. I backed away from the window, dragging my leaden feet over the carpeted floor. I barely noticed when my heel knocked the can back.The beer leaked out onto the carpet, leaving a widening patch in front of me. I couldn’t believe the raw, animal fear those two had summoned up in me. Every instinct I had told me to run. Run. Get help. Anything but stay and be trapped in my own house.
What could I do? Call the Police and tell them that I was scared of two little children trick-or-treating? Call one of my friends past midnight and ask them to come over like a little boy crawling to his parents’ room after a nightmare? The situation was ridiculous. My mind told me so. That there had to be a rational explanation for everything. But I could not explain away the light, fluttery feeling in my stomach. I could not rationalize the prickly lump at the back of my throat. They’d only said three words to me, in those unearthly tones. Who knew how cold those lips were?
I shut the door to the kitchen, the sound echoing through the empty house. I turned my chair to face the front door. And then I waited, white-knuckled, for the dawn to come.
* * * * * *
I must have fallen asleep sometime during that long, cold wait. Not daring to move from my chair, paralyzed with fear that one of those shrouded children would appear at my window, or worse yet, behind me. But even that manic store of energy wore out as the night wound to a close.
I was woken up by a polite knock on the front door. I sat bolt upright, nearly falling off my chair. I stumbled to the door, a hint of the dread from a few hours ago still lingering like a stale funk in the air. I checked the peephole again. This time, I was confronted with the well-scrubbed face of one of our town deputies. We’d been to school together, it was that kind of smallish town where you’d know almost everybody your age if they had a history there. He was an earnest man, tough but fair.
“Good morning, officer.”
“Good morning,” he replied. The sour look on his face told me that it was anything but that.
His nose twitched as he took in the stale sour smell of beer steaming off the floor in the morning sun. “Had a good night last night?”
I thought back to the night before. “No, I didn’t.”
The lawman was quick to see the fleeting shadow of doubt wash across my face. He pressed home his advantage. “You care to explain why you stole the two mannequins from the store, dressed them up and put them on your lawn?”
He shifted to the side and past his door-filling bulk I saw two familiar shapes on my lawn. My lungs wouldn’t fill with air. They were still there. They’d been there the whole time.
“You okay, buddy?” The big man leaned in, blocking my view and steadied my shoulder with one of his strong hands.
I brushed his hand off and lurched out into the yard, mindless of the freezing dew on my bare feet. The pair stood there, the draped sheets joined in between them. They were holding hands. The two of them were holding hands. I brought my palm down gingerly on the head of the one nearer to me. Hard. I felt hard plastic. I whipped the sheet off with one smooth motion. I gave a strangled cry as I stared into the empty green eyes of a child mannequin.
I backed away. Too quick. I ended up on my ass on the cold grass, clawing and scrambling backwards, until I bumped into the solid legs of the Deputy behind me. He’d been quick to recognize my unease earlier, he was just as quick to realize genuine fear. He hoisted me back to my feet and helped me back into my house.
“Mind telling me what that was all about?” He’d dumped me on the office chair in front of my computer. I tried, but I couldn’t force the words out.
The Deputy sighed and settled onto my couch, wrinkling his nose at the empty beer cans on the side table. He leaned forward. “First call of the morning after Halloween and I’m chasing down some bullshit break-in to a store in the middle of town. Now, I’ve got you hungover and scared shitless from a damned pair of dolls on your front yard. What I know is someone got into a store, smashed up the glass, stole sheets and a couple of mannequins. Bloody kids again. Except the glass…”
The lines on his brow deepened. I watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down. “The glass was on the outside of the shop only. Damndest thing. You’ve got a camera on your yard, don’t ya?”
I nodded, numbly.
“What say you give me another ten minutes of your time, tops. We go through that footage. I see who put those things on your lawn and then I’ll be out of your life, hopefully for good.”
I turned to face my computer and called up the stored videos on my hard drive. They were all transferred by wi-fi. Convenient, for the time that I bought the cameras.
“Just put on double speed backwards. We’ll see who set them there soon enough.”
I hit the reverse play key and upped the speed. I saw the two of us scuttle from the house to the lawn and back again. Then, the first rays of the sun retreating from the grass, pulling back over the pair of figures, until they were back in darkness. The two of them stood there, motionless, for the longest time.
When the two figures moved, all by themselves, in a jerky, swaying motion, back from my lawn to my front door, the cursor danced a little jig in the corner of the screen as the shakes returned, stronger than before. The sharp hiss behind me told me I wasn’t alone in my discomfort.
I shuddered as I watched myself on screen, so close to the two abominations, giving them a handful of candy each. I slowed the recording back to normal speed. On-screen, I saw myself turn back into the house to retrieve the candy. The two figures stood there, impassive. As one, they both fixed those dark eyeholes on the sheets on the camera. There was something else unmistakable. There was a slight pulse in the sheets, a small undulation. The mannequins were breathing.
“I’ve seen enough.”
I turned to look at the Deputy, his face as white as the sheets on the shrouded figures on the screen, his hand tight around the grip of his sidearm. That, of all the things, scared me most of all. A symbol of law and order, who had seen the worst of what our little community had to offer, just as scared as I was and ready to pull a gun in my house. I clicked the window shut and got up. I wandered over to my cabinet. I pulled out a pair of tumblers and a bottle of the good stuff. The bottle gave a couple of contented glugs as I sloshed the rich golden whiskey into the glasses. I set one down in front of the other man and took a sip from my glass.
A lawman could lose his job, drinking on duty. The Deputy didn’t hesitate when he emptied half his glass. He didn’t look at me when he spoke.
“My old nan wasn’t from around here. She was back from the old country, across the sea. She hated Halloween. Said there were things out that night that weren’t meant to see the light of day. One night a year, she told me, for one single night, some things were set loose. The candy and costumes were a new thing. Back in the past, on All Hallow’s Eve, good folk crossed themselves and prayed and stayed in. Whatever’s on that recording, it’s not what our town needs, you understand.”
“Dumb high school kids,” I said, the lie taking shape and form in my mouth. “Fooling around.” The lie fleshed out, took on a veneer of credibility. That would be the explanation. No one had to know the dark kernel of that story.
“And your camera, it was having technical difficulties that night.”
“Never was a good piece of equipment. Regretted buying it the same week.”
He stuck out his hand and we shook on it. And I have kept my word to now.
There isn’t a good reason why I broke my promise. I’d never known true fear till that night but I replay it in my head, over and over. The recording is long gone, of course, but every detail of that night has been branded on my mind. I remember the fear but I cannot think of a single action the two of them had done to threaten me. Eerie, unnatural but without a drop of malice.
It’ll be Halloween soon. I know where I’ll be on that dark night. Some things roam the streets that shouldn’t be there. The masks and costumes aren’t always for the children. Sometimes they’re there for the adults. For our own protection.
After the Deputy left, I watched the video, forwards, just once. I remember seeing the two figures on my lawn, slowly inching their hands up, locking them under the sheets, and waiting for the sun to rise. Things that shouldn’t be out on this good earth. But sometimes, just sometimes, they just want the simple things. Like one last trick-or-treat.
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