Posted by my pal, Michael Montoure at http://www.bloodletters.com/
HAPPY HALLOWEEN! HERE’S A FREE STORY FOR YOU!
Greetings, trick-or-treaters! Hope you’re having a good Halloween so far. I’m afraid I haven’t figured out a way to distribute candy to all of you electronically, but here’s something else I hope you like, as I promised at my last reading here in Seattle — a copy of the story I wrote especially for that reading. This story isn’t available anywhere else online just yet, and it’s so new, it doesn’t even have a title yet! I hope you enjoy this Halloween newsletter exclusive. Thanks for reading!
Almost three hours they’d been driving, and now that they were nearly there, Catherine didn’t seem to want to finish the trip. She’d had him pull over on the side of the road a couple of blocks away — right town, the right street, but not yet the right house. They sat there with the lights turned off, with the engine turned off, the car making tiny metal sounds as the engine cooled down, soothing as raindrops.
David cracked his window open a little as Catherine lit up another cigarette. He normally didn’t let anyone smoke in his car, and she didn’t usually ask to, but this was the one night he made an exception. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, foot kicking at empty paper coffee cups from gas stations and rest areas, staring blankly out the window as he watched her reflection, face briefly lit in the flare of her lighter and then gone, nothing outside but strings of orange lights, and he could faintly see the outlines of styrofoam gravestones, of ghosts hanging in the trees.
It seemed darker here than it should be, like night came to this town a little faster than it does for everyone else.
“What’d you say?” David asked, when he realized she’d spoken and he hadn’t heard.
She turned slightly toward him. “I’ll be ready to go in a minute,” she said. “I’m sorry. This just — it doesn’t get any easier, you know?”
“I know. It’s okay. We don’t — listen, we don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to. If you want me to just get back on the freeway, we can go home right now. I don’t mind.”
“No. No, I don’t want you to. I have to do this. I have to do this every year.”
“I’m sure your mom would understand if, maybe just this one time, if you — ”
She turned sharply and looked at him. “Mother doesn’t make me do this,” she said slowly. “If you don’t get that, then maybe you shouldn’t be here.”
“No, I do. I understand.”
She sighed, the sound barely audible. “No, you don’t. Not really.” She leaned over and put her head on his shoulder. “But that’s okay. This is just — this is just my crazy family. This is what I’ve got to live with. And you don’t. Have to, I mean. I’m glad you are here. I didn’t expect you to come back. Not after last year.”
He didn’t know what to say to that, so he just put his hand on her leg and squeezed it tight. She pressed her head a little harder against his shoulder, like a cat.
“Okay,” she said after a minute. “Let’s go. We don’t know for sure what time he’s ever gonna show up, and I don’t want to miss it.”
He nodded, and started the car. Without saying another word, they drove the short distance remaining, and there, up ahead on the right, stood the Evanston house, more brightly lit by the streetlight on the corner. Fewer decorations than the neighboring houses — old paper skeleton cut-outs in the windows, carefully taped and patched and preserved, arms and legs at just the right angles. Three jack-o’-lanterns on the front porch, always three, exactly the right size, carefully selected for their consistent color and sizes, two smaller ones and one large, burning bright candles glowing through eyes and gaping, gap-toothed mouths that were painstakingly carved to look just like the ones in old family photographs. No variation was permitted.
Inside, David knew, there would hot mulled cider waiting for them, sickly sweet and heavily spiced, and homemade pumpkin pie and popcorn balls, and the old tape of spooky sound effects, worn thin, would be making its endless loops. Catherine’s mother would be there to greet them, all her nervous bird-like energy and tight strange smiles and darting, distant eyes. She would hug them both, enfolding them in arms as delicate as spider-web and moth-wing, and tell them how good it was to see them both, how good it was of David to come, her voice happy and light and only ever so faintly trembling, trying to be everywhere at once and making sure the candles were lit and the bowl of candy well-stocked, happy in knowing that this night, this one night, she would get to see both her children.
He could already see her at the window, peering out into the dark at them, as they pulled into the driveway, the crackling, popping sound of gravel under his tires. She was already at the door, waiting and holding it open, as they stepped out of the car, as Catherine dropped her half-finished cigarette and ground it under her heel.
David gestured to the bag in the back seat on her side of the car. “Don’t forget your costume,” he said.
“David, I really don’t think I’m going to feel up to going out later,” she said.
“I know,” he said, “but if we drink at home, that makes us alcoholics.”
She let out a single, delighted laugh — the first laugh he’d heard from her all day — and she reached in and pulled out the bag. He took her other hand, and they walked up the path to the stairs, up into the house, and let the house swallow them whole, like small stones tossed into a deep and sunless lake.
David kept pulling his phone out of his pocket to check the time. It kept feeling like ten minutes had passed when it had only been two or three. He didn’t want to seem rude, and only did it when no one was looking, didn’t mean to seem impatient or bored. He just didn’t understand how they did this year after year, wondered when it had started to seem normal to them.
They acted like everything was normal, at least. This was a family that didn’t meet for Thanksgiving, never got together to open Christmas presents. She and David would be spending those holidays with his sister and brother-in-law down on the Oregon coast. He couldn’t imagine Catherine and her mother ever having a bright and sunny Fourth of July picnic, couldn’t picture them finding a place to lay a blanket at the beach to watch fireworks and fireflies. Catherine barely even called her mother on the phone throughout the year; it was just this night that they met in Catherine’s childhood house and spoke brightly of the weather and the economy and of people Catherine had once known and whether Catherine ever thought she’d go back to school.
All of it interrupted every heart-stopping moment someone rang the doorbell.
Just neighborhood children, so far, eyes wide and laughing breathless, or shy and too young and urged forward by well-meaning mothers who had dressed them as Batman or Iron Man or a princess or a Transformer, changed their faces and led them out into the world.
Catherine’s mother would answer the door with an enthusiastic but distracted smile, giving the children their candy — the parents would usually polite refuse the popcorn balls, they didn’t want anything homemade and therefore suspect, Catherine always thought it was a lot of trouble to go to for something no one was going to eat but she understood that her mother was convinced that everything, every last detail, had to be perfect, had to be just the way it was that first Halloween. Her mother wouldn’t really be looking at the children, would only half-acknowledge the thanks their parents urged them to give as they fished tiny candy bars out of the huge plastic crystal bowl. Her eyes were elsewhere, looking past them to the oasis of light under the streetlamp.
After this had happened for the fourth time, David couldn’t handle making light conversation in the kitchen any more and had gone to stand by the front window, checking his phone again. After staring at the time for a moment, he opened his pictures and started scrolling through them, looking for the one he’d managed to take last year. Before his phone had crashed, before the power went out in the rest of the house entirely.
There it was. It didn’t look like much — blurred, pixellated, every point of light pulled into blurred streaks. The autumn leaves on the trees looked like flames, and there, right there in the foreground, was something dark, a chiaroscuro smear of black and white that he would swear was a different shape every time he looked at this picture —
Catherine’s small hand on his shoulder scared the hell out of him and nearly made him drop the phone.
“You just gonna stand out here?” she asked him gently. “I hear a watched pot never boils, or something like that. That’s what my dad used to say, anyway.”
He put his arm around her. “I never really hear you talk about your dad.”
Her arm slid behind the small of his back. “There’s nothing to talk about. He left after the first year.”
“The first year — oh.” He nodded. “And you never heard anything from him after that?”
“Not a word.” She reached out and took the phone out of his hand, stared at the picture. “I’ll be honest. I thought you’d be gone after the first year, too.”
“You did? So — why bring me here at all, then?”
“To see if you would leave, I guess. And to see if — to see if you saw it, too. Someone outside my family. To know that I wasn’t crazy.”
“But you have proof, though. You have those other pictures.”
“Yeah,” she laughed. “Proof. I remember you not believing that ‘proof.’”
He hadn’t. A year ago, they were sitting upstairs on the bed from her teenage years, sitting cross-legged and facing each other like kids, an open shoebox full of letters and notes and keepsakes sprawled open between them.
He had asked her for an explanation of why they were there, why she’d chosen this particular holiday to bring him home to meet her mother, why there was this strained and strange air of anticipation. This was the explanation she’d wordlessly offered.
Half a dozen photographs. Each of them a picture of a small boy wearing a skeleton costume, white paint on a black sweatsuit, a store-bought plastic skull mask covering his face. He held a plastic jack-o’-lantern treat bucket; in half the pictures, he dangled it loosely at his side; in the other half he held it out imploringly toward the camera.
“Okay … ” he said, “what am I looking at?”
“That’s my little brother,” she said, and he could barely hear her. “Jesse.”
“Your — oh. The one who — ”
“Died, yeah.” Her expression, her voice, were neutral and tight.
He was still trying to figure out what he was supposed to be noticing about the pictures. Two of them were Polaroids, the rest looked like 35 millimeter. “Okay, so — these were taken with different cameras — ”
“Those were each taken a year apart.”
“But — ” He glanced down at them. The same costume each year? And her brother hadn’t grown an inch all that time? And hadn’t he died when he was just — “They can’t have been,” he said, all these thoughts competing for space in his head at once.
“They were.” She reached out and took one of them. “This one was taken two years after he died.”
“After he — ” He stared at her for one long incredulous moment, then laughed and relaxed, slumping his shoulders forward. “Okay. Okay, that’s a good one. Did you ever hear the one about the guy who picked up a hitch-hiker, and when his car drove past a cemetery she disappeared?”
She looked ready to explode. “I’m not — ” She stopped herself, forced herself to calm down. “I’m serious. Look again. He’ll be here later. He’s here every year.”
“Well, there’s got to be some kind of explanation. I mean, this can’t be the same kid as your brother, that’s just — this is a common thing to dress up as, it’s got to be other kids in the neighborhood who — ” Even as he was saying it, he couldn’t believe it — the details of the hand-painted bones were too distinctive, this still had to be some kind of joke — but he looked up at her and saw the silent tears that were already streaming down her cheeks and he knew that it wasn’t. “Hey,” he said, his hands reaching out toward her helplessly, “hey, I didn’t mean — ”
“You’d think I’d be scared. I mean, I should be? Shouldn’t I? Every time I read about a haunted house, people there are scared.” He had to strain to hear her, and he wasn’t sure she was really even talking to him. “but I’m not scared. I think I was, the first couple of years, but — it’s the only time I get to see him. Shouldn’t I — shouldn’t I want to see my little brother? Even if it’s only like this?”
He didn’t know how to answer that. He’d never really seen her crying like this and didn’t really know how to handle it — he just let his hands drop uselessly back to his sides and stared down at the photographs again. Because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, he finally asked, “How did he die?”
“It was my fault,” she said, and after a moment she let out a bitter laugh. “Okay. It wasn’t. I know it wasn’t, everyone tells me it wasn’t, I know that, I just — ” She took a deep breath and let it out in a long, shuddering sigh. She started gathering everything up and putting it back in the shoebox. “He was nine. He’d been saying for weeks that he was old enough to go trick-or-treating by himself that year, and he had Mom half-talked into it. Past few years before that, Mom had been making me take him trick-or-treating, and I was sick of it, so I’d been backing him up, telling Mom that I agreed with him, I thought he was old enough.”
She put the lid on the box and sank back against her pillows. “I didn’t really care if he was or not. I was just too old for Halloween. Sixteen. I just wanted to rent a bunch of horror movies and stay home and have my best friend over and watch them and eat popcorn.”
She looked around, found a box of tissues next to her bed and tried to dry her eyes a little. She almost didn’t even sound sad anymore — a little angry with herself, still, after all this time, but mostly just numb. “A couple weeks before Halloween, though, he got it into his head that he really really wanted me to go with him after all.”
He laughed, thinking back to what it had been like when his own sister had decided that she was too old for Halloween. “Yeah, that sounds like a little brother to me.”
She nodded. “He begged and pleaded, and I begged and pleaded with Mom not to make me do it. She’d already told me I could have Kelsey over to watch movies and I kept telling her she’d promised me I could. So in the end, she made him go out by himself.” She closed her eyes tight. “He kept hoping that maybe I might change my mind at the last minute. He stood outside on the porch in that stupid skeleton costume for over an hour waiting for me to come outside and go with him and I just sat here in this room with the TV turned up and watched Nightmare on Elm Street until Mom finally told him he needed to go if he was going at all.” She opened her eyes again, focused on nothing at all. “I never even said goodbye to him. And then he never came back.”
She didn’t say anything else, and when he was about to prompt her to go on, she said, “They say the driver was going about thirty-five, forty miles an hour when he came around the corner. That there’s no way he could have stopped in time. His blood alcohol level was over eighteen percent.” Her voice sounded like it was coming from very far away. “He’s in jail still, I think. We were hoping they were gonna kill him, but at least he went to jail.”
David got up and came around to sit down next to her on the bed and put his arms around her. He held her close like that for a while, the strange photographs half-forgotten, until the doorbell rang, and they both went downstairs, and he saw the dead child for the first time.
Now, a year later, he stood next to her in the dark living room, watching costumed children walking up and down the block and waiting for it to happen again.
“What time does it usually happen?” he asked. He’d been about to say, “what time does he usually show up?” But this seemed easier, easier to talk about the event than about the person.
“Not sure. Some years he shows up exactly at 9:17. But that doesn’t seem to be a rule or anything.”
“9:17? Oh. Is that what time, uhh — ”
“That’s when the accident happened, yeah,” she said quickly, nodding. “A couple years we thought he wasn’t coming at all. One year he rang the doorbell at like three in the morning.”
David thought about it for a minute. “I don’t see how he can ring the doorbell at all. Or knock.”
“I know, right?” she said, and shrugged.
“Can you touch him?”
“No idea. He doesn’t let us get close enough to try.”
“Does he ever say anything?”
“Not a word, no.”
He just nodded.
“What are you thinking?” she asked him.
“Oh,” he said, “I was just thinking about how we are going to go out and get so goddamn drunk after he’s gone.”
She laughed, “David, like I said, I don’t know if I’m going to feel up to going anywhere.”
“I know, but you promised you’d think about it. You asked what I was thinking about, and I was just thinking about it, is all. No pressure.” He squeezed her hand. He did think it would be good for her, for both of them, to dress up and go out where there was light and music and people and try to at least unwind, if not exactly have fun. To do something at least slightly normal with the rest of their night.
“It’s gonna partly depend on how late it is afterward,” she said.
He pulled his phone out again. “It’s almost 9:17 now.”
“Yeah, I know.” She was biting her nails. That was a habit she was trying to quit, and normally she would want him to remind her of that fact, but he thought he should probably let it go.
Her mother’s voice drifted to them down the hall “Kids? Where did you go? Pumpkin pie’s almost cooled down enough if you want some.”
David glanced at Catherine, who was still staring out the window. “We’re in the living room, Mrs. Evanston!” he called back. “We’ll be right there!” He looked back at her. “Well, should we — ”
“Mom?” Catherine said, almost a whisper. Then she shouted, “Mom? Mom! Get in here! Get in here right now!”
He turned to see where she was looking —
There. Right there, right under the streetlamp but still somehow hard to see, a small figure in black and white, standing, watching, waiting.
Catherine’s short sharp breaths seemed as loud as thunder. He would almost swear he could hear her heart pounding in her chest.
Her mother came flying into the room, yanking the apron she’d been wearing up and over her head, nearly but not quite pushing past David to get a view out the window.
“He’s here, he’s here, he’s here,” she breathed, her eyes jack-o’-lantern bright. “My boy is here.”
Catherine reached blindly for David’s hand, and he gave it to her and she held it deathgrip tight.
They watched, breaths held, as the dead child waited patiently for cars to go by so he could cross the street. Other children passed him, running and laughing, kicking up Autumn leaves as they ran by. They took no notice of him as he stepped forward, as not a single leaf was disturbed by his silent footsteps, the dark eyes of his mask staring up at the house.
He was — hard to look at. It was like trying to focus on something, half-glimpsed and half-forgotten, that had darted by the corner of your eye at the very edge of your field of vision. He seemed to shimmer, like an illusion of water swimming in the heat haze of a hot summer road. One moment it would seem like he wasn’t there at all. The next eyeblink and he would be much more than a single step closer, suddenly looking more solid and real than anything else around him, the black fabric and white paint of his costume somehow brighter and more vivid than the colors of the trees, than the colors of the other costumes around him.
Closer and closer to the house. In the yard now. On the path. The lights in the house were already starting to flicker.
“Should we — ” David’s half-formed question was a harsh whisper.
Catherine shook her head. “He’ll ring the bell. Just wait.”
Her mother stood near the door already, holding the bowl of candy in one hand, smoothing down the front of her dress with the other, patting her hair and brushing it back out of her eyes.
They couldn’t see him out the window now. He had to be on the front steps. Now on the porch. Now at the door.
And then after a few agonizingly long seconds, the doorbell did ring.
Catherine opened it wide. All the lights in the house went dark as the light from the street spilled into the room; the television, the tape of sound effects, the refrigerator, all the sounds of the house fell suddenly silent.
Her mother, smiling bright, stepped forward. “Hello, Jesse,” she said softly. “Look at you. Just look at you. Aren’t you my big man.”
Tears were running down Catherine’s cheeks as she stood and stared. David reached for her hand, but she brushed his away.
Jesse nodded. White bones burning bright against deepest black.
“Look at you,” her mother was still saying. “My big trick-or-treater. Hello. Aren’t you just the cutest little skeleton ever?”
Jesse nodded again. He wasn’t just silent — he seemed like he would absorb the sound around him, dampen it, like he was a boy-shaped absence in the air, an anti-presence. He held up his plastic jack-o-lantern.
“Okay,” his mother said. “Okay. Here you go.” She reached into the bowl and pulled out a huge fistful of candy, stray chocolates slipping between her fingers and falling back into the bowl, and held it out over his tiny bucket and dropped them in. It seemed to take a long time for them to fall and the sound of them finally hitting the bottom echoed strangely, the sound reverberating back and forth as if they were all standing at the bottom of a very deep and hidden cave.
Jesse’s head — David thought for a second he might have imagined it — tilted forward ever so slightly, his shoulders sagged almost imperceptibly, and David swore he looked almost — dejected? Disapppointed? His masked eyes turned toward Catherine and stayed on her for a long moment, and then he finally nodded one last time and turned to go. He walked slowly down the steps, sneaking another glance back over his shoulder at Catherine, and stepped onto the path that would lead him away for another year.
Their mother stepped back inside, and they quietly, respectfully closed the door. Her mother dropped the bowl, remaining candy scattering, as Catherine’s arms reached for her and they both held each other and cried.
“So is that it?” David asked. “Is that all?”
“That’s it,” Catherine said, wiping at her eyes with her sleeve. “That’s all that happens. That’s all that ever happens.”
David frowned. “Okay, but that’s — something’s — something’s not — ” He stopped, his eyes widening, and he lunged for the doorknob and threw the door open wide again. “Hey!” he called out, stepping outside in the frigid air. “Hey! Hey Jesse! Wait!”
Her mother reached for his arm. Catherine came out to stand next to him, placed a soft hand on his chest to stop him. “There’s no use chasing him,” she said. “We’ve tried. He just disappears.”
“Jesse!” David called again, ignorning her. He could still see the dead child at the end of the path, about to step into the driveway, out into the street. “Jesse, hang on! We’ll come with you! We’ll come trick-or-treating!”
Catherine’s eyes widened. “What?” she said, staring at him, and David just pointed. “Look,” he said.
There, at the end of the path, Jesse had stopped. Was slowly turning back to face them.
“We’ll come with you,” David said again. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what you’ve been waiting for all this time. Isn’t it? Catherine, tell him. Tell him we’ll go.”
She stared, disbelieving, as Jesse took a few faltering steps back toward the house.
“Is — is that what you want?” she called out. He stopped. Looked at her, and nodded.
“Okay,” Catherine said. “Okay. We’ll go. Okay? I promise. We’ll go trick-or-treating.”
Jesse dropped the orange bucket and ran for the house. Ran up the stairs and held his hand out to her and she took it and burst into tears.
“Catherine — David — what are you saying?” her mother said, reaching out for both of them. “Are you sure? Are you sure it’s a good idea? Are you sure you’ll come back?”
“No, Mom, I’m not sure,” Catherine said.
David kneeled down next to the dead boy until he was at eye level. He couldn’t see the eyes behind the mask, if there were any. “Hi, Jesse, I’m David. I’ve got a big sister, too. Me and your sister, we brought costumes. Do you want us to get costumes? Your sister was going to be a witch and I was gonna be Frankenstein. Does that sound cool?”
Jesse nodded enthusiastically.
“I’ll go upstairs and get them. Okay? Will you wait right here?” Jesse nodded again, and David looked up at Catherine. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah,” she said, and laughed through bright tears. “Yeah, that is okay. That is totally okay.”
“Catherine, you can’t,” her mother urged. “You don’t know what — you don’t know what happens. You don’t know where he goes. You don’t know what happens from one year to the next. What if he takes you with him? What if you don’t come back?”
David was already heading for the stairs, could barely hear her as she responded, “Well, then I guess we’ll see you next year, Mom, won’t we?” He didn’t hear the response, if there was one.
He ran up the stairs, finding his way blind, laughing, feeling dizzy and light-headed. Inside, he was nine years old again, ready for the night. Soon he would lose his face under a mask again, for the first time in years; lose his face and set aside all use for a name, go out into the streets to find the best houses with the best decorations, in search of candy corn and caramel apples, all the treasure they could carry.
He didn’t know what was going to happen. There was no way to know. Either the night was going to end, or it was going to go on forever.
And that was just how it should be, on Halloween.