Ideally, I’d have had the idea for this story in time for Halloween, but I just plain didn’t.
What follows isn’t a ghost story, exactly, but I hope it can give you a little chill. All characters, situations, cultural traditions, observations, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions are fictitious, coincidental, accidental, or are used fictitiously.
One Halloween Night
Robert’s first batch of Trick-or-Treaters came at around 7:30: a bug, a robot, and a witch. A trio of parents hung back in the darkness beyond the span of the porch light. A few minutes later, the second Trick-or-Treater, a very small kid dressed as a sunflower, was solo except for his mom, standing six feet back and prompting him: “Say ‘Trick or Treat!’ Remember to say ‘Trick or Treat!’” Robert held the candy bowl at the kid’s level and the kid finally mumbled the magic words and took a fun-size Snickers. “Say ‘thank you!’” the mom reminded him. The kid seemed paralyzed by the push-and-pull of free candy on the one hand, and a terribly frightening social engagement on the other.
Robert fondly remembered his own kids’ first Halloween, when he too prompted them—at every house—to say “Trick or Treat.” He could relate to this mom: somehow, a kid just standing there waiting for his candy was violating a social contract. The words were important, and of course the gratitude. Robert chuckled remembering the first time he’d prompted little Amanda to say thank you: he’d nudged her and whispered, “What are you forgetting?” Amanda looked back to the homeowner and said, “Oh, yeah … can I get something for my dad, too?”
The girls were older now, almost too old for Trick-or-Treating and certainly too old for a parental escort. Robert fretted about the possible danger in this nighttime tradition. Why did Amanda have to go as a raven? Could she possibly have chosen a less visible costume, what with drunk drivers all over the road? And little Sarah was so sociable, she chatted up everyone who answered the door … which was just fine in their own little neighborhood, but these days it seemed like she wouldn’t need to stray too far to encounter that over-friendly whacko who might (gasp!) invite her in.
Of course, as much as Robert worried, he also kicked himself for being so paranoid. He’d always had an overactive imagination, and it didn’t help that he was lately consumed by a growing addiction to true crime novels. For the last six weeks, walking Sarah to school and back, he’d been watching the painstaking construction of a haunted house a few blocks away, which was so elaborate they practically needed a building permit. Why go to so much trouble? Surely he wouldn’t have been so suspicious if he hadn’t read The Lovely Bones, in which a psychopath builds an elaborate underground clubhouse and lures in an innocent teen, correctly supposing that her curiosity would overcome her parents’ admonishment about talking to strangers.
The next wave of kids were perfectly behaved: they remembered the Trick-or-Treat, the thank-you, and even wished him a happy Halloween. Robert was charmed, but also slightly relieved, for he couldn’t help but evaluate Trick-or-Treaters, with his entire opinion of humanity hanging in the balance of the kids’ behavior. One year he left his post for about ten minutes to have a drink with the neighbors, leaving the candy bowl on the porch with a sign reading, “Please take just one.” When he got home, the entire bowl was already empty, some little lardy scofflaw obviously having dumped the whole thing into his bag. This offended Robert inordinately, as did kids who grabbed a whole handful of candy when he held out his bowl.
The next time the doorbell rang it was a duo of pre-teens in inscrutable costumes. Dark lords of some sort, Robert guessed. They didn’t say anything at first and then one elbowed the other, who said, “Trick or Treat, Trick or Treat, give me something good to eat,” and then, in a barely audible mumble, “Or smell my feet.” Robert wanted to say, “Look, if you’re going to play that card, you have to step up and do it right. Own the insult. Look me in the eye and say, ‘Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.’ Don’t tack the ‘smell my feet’ part on at the end. Now let’s try it again.” Instead he just held out the bowl.
Of course, as a kid Robert hadn’t had the verve to say those words at all, as much as he and his brothers dared each other. When it came down to it, they were all craven, and this manifested in unfailing politeness. That is, until they became full teenagers. The last year Robert had trick-or-treated, he wore this giant foam monster head his brother had made, and he could barely see out of it, which (it turned out) made him a sitting duck for a candy mugger. The jerk had pretended to admire young Robert’s costume, and then grabbed his whole candy bag—a haul representing over two hours of hustling from house to house—and ran. The rest of the night, Robert had been driven around at high speed in the back of his brothers’ friend’s Jeep, looking for the thief so they could avenge the crime and get Robert back his candy. Futile as this was, it felt like turning the page from childish rituals to manly acts of courage.
“How many can we take?” the next kids asked. Robert replied, “Just one … I’m running low.” He was pleased that the kids were polite enough to ask. Following this there was a lull, and Robert was able to wolf down some of his dinner before the doorbell rang again.
To his surprise, there was no kid there, but an adult starting to walk away. Normally when Robert was slow to answer the door, the kids would leave off ringing the doorbell and start knocking on the door, sometimes two or three at once, and one time a kid accidentally tumbled into the house when Robert opened the door. Such impatience was understandable: for kids fixated on hitting as many houses as they could, time passed differently, with each moment of waiting seeming to stretch out toward infinity. But here, since it was obvious someone was home—given the porch light, the lights on in the house, and no fewer than three lit jack-o-lanterns on the porch—any adult should have been more patient. And where was this guy’s kid?
The guy smiled sheepishly. “My daughter ran off,” he explained, before turning toward the sidewalk and calling, “Katie, come back!” He paused for a moment and said, “Oh well, I’ll get her something.” This seemed perfectly reasonable, until he proceeded to grab a whole handful of candy before walking off.
Robert was perplexed. On the one hand, parents—particularly in this earnest community—were always bending over backward to do right by their children. On the other hand, wasn’t the classic post-Trick-or-Treat dilemma all about how to get all that candy—with its sinister corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavor, and PGPR—out of your kid’s hands? What parent would want to add extra candy to the stash?
Robert almost shrugged it off, but then walked out onto the porch and watched the man walking away. So far, the guy hadn’t reunited with his daughter. And another thing: he was carrying the candy bag. What parent carries his kid’s candy for her? And what kid would even allow this? The guy was heading south and it was a long block. Robert went inside and phoned his friend Mark, who lived ten houses down.
* * *
Mark’s doorbell was broken and he had a sign: “Please knock loudly!” Kids took this to heart and tended to pound the crap out of his door, especially because Mark was a bit slow getting there. So when he thought he heard a light knock, he wasn’t sure and stayed on the couch. The knock came again; he drained his beer and went to the door. He’d have been surprised to see only an adult walking away, except for the call he’d had from Robert.
“Oh, there is someone home!” the guy said as he turned around. He added sheepishly, “My daughter ran off.” He looked toward the sidewalk and called, “Katie! Come back!” With a little shake of his head he said, “Oh well,” and reached for Mark’s candy bowl.
“Wait,” Mark said. “Before I give candy to my Trick-or-Treaters I like to see their costumes. Like, I won’t give candy to un-costumed teenagers.” He stepped out the door and escorted his guest to the sidewalk. “Now, which kid is your daughter?” The guy pointed at a little girl halfway to the next house.
Mark called out, quite loudly, “Hey Katie, you forgot something!” The girl did not turn around. She was dressed in a darling little Totoro costume but had evidently found the fabric head stifling and had pushed it back like a hood so it dangled down her back. “Hey Totoro, you forgot something!” Mark yelled, and now the girl looked back, confused. “Hey, is this your dad?” Mark called out. The girl looked stricken and ran ahead to an adult whose hand she grabbed. Her actual dad.
The guy with the candy bag started to quickly walk away but Mark grabbed him by the wrist. “What the hell is your problem?” Mark demanded. “Why can’t you go buy your own damn candy?” He looked the guy up and down. The guy wasn’t homeless or anything. Good shoes. “What, are you like some kind of kleptomaniac?” Mark continued. “You get off on abusing people’s trust? You some kind of sicko?” The guy just stood there, frozen, his face stuck in a half-smile. Was he enjoying this, too? Or was this half-smile just a manifestation of his abject awkwardness?
Now the guy grasped the full murderous menace on Mark’s face and managed to wrestle free and run for it, his candy bag slapping his leg as he went. Mark shook his head and went back into the house.
What could he do? Call the police? What would be the charge? Trick-or-Treating Without A Costume? Trick-or-Treating While Adult? Identity Theft? Impersonating a Parent? Unspecific Non-Sexual Perversity? There was no specific crime committed, and yet his transgression was so very, very disturbing.
Mark phoned Robert. “He’s headed back in your direction, in a full run,” he said. “You wanna go out and at least trip him or something?”
About the Type
This blog post was set in Calibri, a typeface based on a sans-serif New Wave face used in a variety of 1980s teen-coming-of-age novels. Calibri was cut by Lawrence Spitspoon in Taos, New Mexico, and was brought to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA by a hitchhiker on his way to a salmon-fishing job in Alaska in 2007.
Depending on your web browser, its configuration, and your computer operating system, this blog post may appear in Georgia, a typeface cut with a crude hunting knife into the trunk of a Mongolian oak (quercus mongolica) in Izborsk, Russia, in the early 1800s by Ivan Ivanovich Zakareishvili in memory of Tsar Alexandar I. Georgia was first introduced to the web in 1997 when bundled with the Internet Explorer 4.0 supplemental font pack.