ALL SOUL’S DAY. The festival of the dead.
“Let me do it, Mom,” Kelly said.
They stood on the front porch in the gathering dark. Her mom struck the blue-tipped, wooden match against the side of the box and quickly handed it to Kelly. Kelly stuck the burning match into the skull of the jack o’ lantern that she and her mom had carved out a few hours earlier. The match almost burned her hand before the wick of the candle caught fire, and she had to drop the match inside the pumpkin. She pulled up the long skirt of the white dress her mom had given her for her costume and maneuvered awkwardly down the front porch stairs to gain a head-on look at the jack o’ lantern.
“Be careful, you’ll trip,” her mom said.
The flame danced behind the jagged eyes and the yawning mouth.
“Geez, it’s really spooky!”
“Okay, come on in, and get the rest of your costume on,” her mom said as she put the top of the jack o’ lantern’s head back on. “Your dad’ll be here any minute. That is, if he’s on time for once.”
“I wonder if it’s going to rain again,” said Kelly, looking up at the sky. It had rained most of the afternoon and had cleared up only an hour ago.
Her mom had a date that night, so her dad would take her out trick-or-treating and she would stay all night at his place. She put on the halo that she had fashioned out of white coat hangers, and her mom pinned on the wings they had created from metal rods, rubber foam, and white cloth. Her treats bag was a white pillow case, shining bright from the washer, dryer, and hot iron. Her mom’s old white dress and a pair of white ballerina shoes completed her outfit. She marveled at how inventive her mom could be. Her dad could not have accomplished anything like her mom had so effortlessly managed. He had no skill with his hands. He would have just gone out and rented her a costume.
“What did they think of your costume at school today?”
Kelly shook her head as if to shake off the memory, and her mom thought for a moment that her daughter was going to cry.
“They didn’t like it. They thought it was dumb to dress up like an angel for Halloween.”
“Well, what do they know anyway?”
“Nothin’. That’s what they know. Nothin’.”
The doorbell rang.
“Okay,” said her mom. “Here’s your goodies bag. See you tomorrow.”
The doorbell rang again as she stepped carefully down the stairway. Her mom had forgotten to turn on any lights downstairs. She had to hold on to her halo to keep it from falling off. Her mom hadn’t turned on the porch light either. She reached for the light switch as she opened the door. Something was wrong. A hulking, rounded shape lurked there in the darkness, and when she reached to turn the light on, the thing lunged to grab her. She screamed as loud as she could. Then all kinds of things seemed to happen at once. A light turned on overhead, her mom came running down the stairs, the thing grabbed her arm and kept saying “Kelly, it’s me. It’s me! Kelly!”—and although she realized after a few seconds that it was her dad’s voice coming out of the thing, she still couldn’t stop wailing.
“Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Her mom grabbed her and hugged her tight.
“The hell you didn’t,” her mom said to him over Kelly’s shoulder. “You always thought that scaring people was so cute.”
“I really didn’t!”
But he had meant to surprise her, and maybe even scare her too, just a little bit, not the way it happened. Another bad idea.
“God, Dad! You scared me to death!” Kelly said, turning around. She knew she had to get out of there with him fast or there would be an even uglier scene. “Bye, Mom. See you tomorrow.”
She took his hand and pulled him after her out the door.
“Jerk!” she heard her mom hiss as the door closed between them.
Once she got over the scare, Kelly was delighted with her dad’s costume.
“That’s neat, Dad. Where’d you get it?”
“I rented it. I always wanted to be a gorilla.”
She laughed and put her angel’s hand in his gorilla’s paw, and they walked off down the sidewalk, she pulling him along eagerly toward the next-door neighbor’s house where three little devils were knocking at the door.
Kelly’s mom watched them through the front window as they moved off down the sidewalk, shaking her head angrily at the way Kelly had forgiven him so quickly and easily, as quickly and easily as she herself had forgiven him so many times over the years.
“Don’t stay too close, Dad,” Kelly said. “I don’t want them to think I’m a little girl.”
When she walked up to the front doors of the houses, he stood off in the darkness, as she had sternly instructed him to do, so the people could not see that she was chaperoned.
A fog had descended on the misty night. They could not see more than half a block.
“Geez!” she said. “It’s really spooky now.”
It was like a ballet in a dream, half full of foreboding, half full of wonder. The yellow street lamps emitted only a wan and distant light, vague and blurred and ebbing. All about them, up and down the sidewalks and crossing the streets and standing on porches with their treat bags, the little graveyard people moved through the night amid the mist and the fog. A witch, a vampire, and a bloody corpse walked up to them.
“Hey, Kelly,” said the witch.
The witch cackled. “Guess who? Trick or treat.”
Kelly watched them walk past and off down the street, trying to figure out who it was.
“I don’t know who that was. Next year I wanna go out trick-or-treating with my friends. Can I do that? Will I be old enough then?”
“We’ll see next year. That’s a long way off.”
He supposed this would be the last time he would trick-or-treat with her. Another letting go. Letting go, and letting go, and letting go again. That seemed to be what being a parent was mainly about sometimes. He remembered that he had begun to go trick or treating without his parents by age eight or nine. But everything was so different now. Brownies laced with strychnine. Razor blades in caramel apples. Real goblins and demons stalked the night these days, and the wolves had emerged from the forest and were hunting in the streets.
They had entered a cul de sac of only a few houses. She had forged ahead of him about ten yards. “Look, Dad,” she said, pointing across the street. An executioner, much taller than the other trick-or-treaters, in black hood and cape and brandishing a bloody ax, marched slowly, portentously across the street toward her. O’Keefe started to laugh, but the laugh caught in his throat when he saw the executioner bearing down on her with what seemed like harmful intent. The blade of the ax looked so real. Something in his body told him to move very fast.
He had covered half the distance between him and Kelly when the executioner saw the gorilla running toward him, stopped, abruptly dropped his ax, and yelled. “Hey, Kelly, it’s me. It’s just me, Kelly,” as if she were the only court of appeal from the galloping gorilla. Then he turned and ran away.
Kelly was laughing. “I know who you are!” she yelled at the running figure. “That was Stevie. Caroline’s brother. I guess we showed him.”
“Hey, Stevie,” she yelled at him again. “You better watch out, or I’ll sic my gorilla on ya.”
“What an idiot,” O’Keefe muttered, his heart still racing. I’m getting scared of my own shadow.
As they walked farther on, she said, “I don’t think they ought to allow big kids to trick or treat.”
Her sack was soon almost full.
“What kind of stuff do you have in there?”
“Mostly just those little miniature candy bars. It seems like everybody gives you the same thing.”
“You had enough yet?”
“Just about. Can we just finish this block?”
The elderly Ryans’ house, the spookiest house in the neighborhood sat far back off the street, surrounded by hedgerows. The Ryans couldn’t afford to keep the place up anymore, so the paint on the wood trim was nearly peeled off and the yard was more weeds than grass and always needed mowing. The only yard work old Mr. Ryan ever managed to accomplish was to hack futilely at his hedgerows with an ancient pair of shears. One of the shutters hung crazily down from one of the upstairs windows, half on and half off. It had been hanging that way for years, and the kids always wondered what kept it from falling all the way off. An old wooden swing on the front porch often moved slowly back and forth by itself even on hot and windless summer nights.
The kids in the neighborhood had made a mutual dare at school that each one of them would walk alone up to the Ryan house and ring the doorbell and wait in the darkness for old Mrs. Ryan to shuffle slowly to the door, creak the door open, and reach out her gnarled, claw-like, liver-spotted hand so she could drop two measly, little candy kisses into your bag. Anyone who didn’t have the courage to do it had to pay each of the other kids a dollar, and Chris Larkin claimed he had a way to know if anyone cheated.
“I’d skip that place if I were you,” said O’Keefe.
But she apparently meant to go up there.
“You want me to go up with you?” he asked.
“No,” she said sternly. “You have to stay right here.” She disappeared between the hedgerows.
Walking along the narrow path with the bushes scraping at her on either side, she imagined a hand reaching out from the thicket of branches. She kept looking straight ahead, never to the side, for fear of seeing a pair of red eyes peering at her. One of her wings caught on a branch and wouldn’t let go. She pulled away hard and heard the wing tear.
“You’d better not be there, Stevie,” she muttered. “You’d better not try to scare me.”
It seemed to take forever to get to the porch. She rang the doorbell and tried not to look toward the shape in the darkness to the left of her, the old wooden swing, the scariest thing about that scariest of places. Mrs. Ryan was not answering the door. Maybe the doorbell didn’t work anymore. Maybe the Ryans couldn’t hear it ring. Maybe they had died in there and wouldn’t be coming to the door at all. She reached out to knock when the door opened and she almost fell forward into the house.
“Trick or treat,” she whispered, hardly able to get the words out. “Well, aren’t you the sweetest thing!” said Mrs. Ryan. “Herbert!” she screeched. “Come here and see what the Good Lord’s put on our doorstep tonight. You don’t mind if Herbert comes to see you, do you?”
Kelly shook her head. No, she didn’t mind. Yet she couldn’t help but think of Hansel and Gretel and the old witch who lived in the forest and fattened up little children so she could roast them in her oven and eat them up. But she could also tell that these were kindly old eyes she was looking into. A fierce-looking old man came shuffling up behind the old woman, but he brightened as soon as he saw the angel on his doorstep.
“Well, well, Katherine,” he said to the old woman. “Ain’t she the very picture of heaven?”
He stuck out his old hawk’s face and said, “What’s your name, little angel?”
“Kelly O’Keefe,” she said, stepping back on the porch, preparing to turn around and run if she had to.
“And an Irish angel at that,” the old Irishman said, affecting a brogue.
“And look, Herbert,” the old woman said, “she’s an angel with a broken wing.”
“Why don’t you come on in here and have some hot apple cider,” the old man asked, “keep us old folks some company for a few minutes?”
“My dad,” she mumbled. “He’s waiting for me out at the curb.”
“Well,” the old lady said, “let’s have him in too.”
She started to say “No.” If her dad came up to the house, she might lose the bet with the other kids. Would that nasty Chris Larkin call that cheating? Where will I get the money to pay all those dollars? But the old couple stood there beaming, and she did not see how she could tell them “No.”
“Dad,” she yelled. “Dad, come up here a minute.”
She heard him rustling along the hedgerow. “Don’t be afraid,” she told the old couple. “He’s a gorilla.”
“THEY WERE NICE,” she said as she and her dad came out from the Ryans’ yard onto the sidewalk. There were no trick-or-treaters left on the streets, and most of the porch lights had been turned off.
“Will you carry my bag for me, Dad? I’m tired.”
“Heavy,” he said. “I think they gave you all the candy kisses they had left.”
“That’s what I’ll show the kids tomorrow. All those candy kisses! I’ll bet nobody else went inside,” she said proudly. But she thought she would leave out the part about her dad coming in with her.
“Look, big kids,” she said, and shrank toward him. Down the block two skeletons, both of them taller and broader than children, taller and broader even than teenagers, walked toward them. They did not seem to have much in their bags. They were almost walking in step, not like teenagers out on a lark, more like soldiers out on a march. They said something to each other, then, at the very same time, each of the skeletons reached into his bag.
Kelly lost her grip on her own bag of treats when her dad suddenly snatched her up, hoisted her over his shoulder, and started running back toward the Ryans’ place. Her candies scattered all over the sidewalk. From over her dad’s shoulder she could see that one of the skeletons had dropped to one knee and was pointing something at them. Soundless flashes of fire jumped out from the skeleton’s hands, and she guessed it was bullets that were whizzing all around them and crashing into the bushes. Then her dad fell down, and she spilled hard onto the sidewalk. The fall knocked the breath out of her, and when she looked up, he was on his knees and crawling toward her, struggling to his feet. He swept her up again and they plunged through the Ryans’ front hedgerow. She cried out when the spike-like branches jabbed and scratched her face and arms and legs. Now he had dropped her and was pulling her along the ground, and she thought he might pull her arm clear out of its socket. The pain kept her from seeing the pistol muzzles flash on the other side of the hedgerow, kept her from hearing the skeletons crashing after them and cursing because they had a hard time struggling through the thicket.
Now her dad was dragging her into some kind of hole that she later realized was the big window well of one of the Ryans’ basement windows. He covered her up, crushing her with his big hairy gorilla’s body, and whispered for her not to make a sound, but he was breathing so heavily and choking and gagging that she just knew the skeletons would hear him. She waited for them to come and fire the soundless bullets into their huddled bodies, and it was only then that she started to cry.
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