The Last Trick-or-Treater
“Can you stay out late tonight?”
I should have told her no. I can’t tell you how many times that memory plays out in my head. The intersection of Hawthorne and Walter Ave was lit up by rusted street lights and a thousand dampened maple leaves. A light drizzle and heavy wind pitched a willowing fog through the thinning trees. My two best friends stood in front of me, with pillowcases full of candy, and a pair of pathetic puppy dog eyes. I should have said no. I wish so much that I said no. But I didn’t. And two hours later, Linda and Mike officially disappeared from the face of the Earth.
“Yeah. Should be fine.”
It wasn’t fine. It couldn’t be. I had to be the only sixteen year old in town with a strict ten o’clock curfew. It was ten thirty. My mother would go on to tell me how she waited up for hours in a near state of panic. The cul-de-sacs and neighborhood roads were empty. Almost all of the other kids, young and old, had already gone home. We should have too. But I ignored my mother’s rules, and followed the older kids, because I wanted to seem somewhat cool; for once in my endlessly lonesome life.
“Some people still left their buckets out.”
Mike sprinted up a perfectly manicured hill as the remnants of his corny ass Batman cape swung haplessly behind in the wind. A bright blue box of candy waited on the porch. Linda didn’t bother to follow. She wanted to do a couples costume. But Mike insisted on Batman and Harley Quinn. Linda wanted Lola and Bugs. They met, somewhat awkwardly, in the middle.
“He looks like such a dipshit in those tights,” she groaned.
I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school. My mom moved around a lot for work. That didn’t help. I was also an extremely awkward, painfully shy, and slightly chubby kid. That made it worse. Most of the clicks from elementary and junior high stuck together at Jackson. Outsiders were shunned to empty lunch tables and uncomfortable lab partner combinations. But one morning in early October, a geeky guy with glasses, and his surprisingly tall girlfriend sat down and struck up a conversation, all because they liked my Megadeth shirt. We became buddies ever since. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I wore something else that day.
“Did you see where he went?”
A moment later, Mike popped up behind up in the darkness from behind a mailbox, with a full pack of Starburst and dumb grin painted all over his gangly features.
“You guys are missing out,” he mumbled through a mouthful of gum. “Full sized candy bars up there. None of that popcorn shit.”
“You’re a big kid,” Linda teased. “What are you going to do when you’re away at State next year?”
”It’s college,” Mike shrugged. “I’ll go dorm to dorm.”
The three of us followed Hutchinson all the way down to where it met the parkway. The streets were desolate. Leftover candy wrappers and bits of costumes littered the quiet suburbia like tumbleweed. Every now and again, Mike would sprint ahead to pilfer a candy bar from an assuredly sleeping neighbor’s porch. Linda and I hung back and chatted about the future.
“I want to go to school with him,” I remember her saying. “But he’s a year older.”
“You’ll be okay.”
“Will we?” she asked wistfully. “There’s a lot of pretty girls outside this town…”
I laughed. The concept seemed crazy to me. As odd as it may sound, at that point in my life, there was no two people more perfect for each other than those two kids.
“Trust me,” I smiled. “Mike doesn’t want them.”
The drizzle turned into a steady rain around ten thirty. Big waves of water formed rivers between the sidewalks and asphalt. Heavy wind whipped the masks and hats off our heads. It was getting later. I knew I had to leave. My phone died around 10 45. Linda’s still worked. I wanted to call home, to give a heads up, but around five to eleven, Mike rushed up again. This time he was out of breath.
“There’s a kid over there.”
“Shocking,” Linda muttered.
“It’s Halloween,” I laughed, “You think we’re the only teenagers prowling through the suburbs?”
I paused. Mike fought to catch his breath.
“You know, I’ve actually got to get going….”
They both ignored me.
“Stop trying to scare us,” Linda shot back at her boyfriend annoyedly. “You didn’t see anything.”
“I saw a kid,” Mike sputtered. “Not an adult, not a teenager, a little kid in a ghost costume. Walking by himself in the middle of the street.”
“Where?” I asked. “You better not be joking.”
“He could be lost,” Linda mused. “It happens. Kids are always in those huge groups.”
“We can’t leave him…” I added. “What if he gets kidnapped?”
“An adult could still be in the area…”
“Look I’ll show you,” Mike called over his shoulder. “He’s going down Whipporwhill.”
The three of us jogged down the road and cut through a side street. We ducked our heads and followed Mike through a couple backyards before we came out the other side, to a street that looked completely foreign to me at the time. Mile high pines lined the road while their wet needles kicked up and lodged themselves in my shoes. I was lost. But they weren’t.
“Okay,” Linda muttered while looking around. “Where is he?”
We didn’t have to wait long to find out. Mike pointed his finger awkwardly to an area just above my right shoulder. I spun around. Standing in front of us, at the edge of a driveway, was a small child in a white sheet.
“Oh my God, hi!” Linda exclaimed in surprise. “You snuck up on us! Where’s your mom and dad, cutie?”
The kid didn’t say anything.
“We have to take you home little buddy,” Mike chortled. “Can you show me where home is…?”
Linda reached out, as if to guide the child, but a hand quickly smacked her away,
“I’m sorry,” she whispered in shock. “Oh gosh I’m so sorry, I won’t hurt you!”
With that, as if on queue, the tiny little ghost took off running down the road. He cut to the left and disappeared behind a neighbor’s hooded Jaguar. Then he drifted out of sight.
“Shit,” Mike muttered. “You scared him.”
“I did not.”
“Then why’d he run?”
“I don’t know dipshit, but we can’t leave a kid out here overnight, so how about you start looking?”
And so we hiked onwards.
I checked my watch. Eleven o’clock. The rain made it pretty hard to see. My lack of direction on a foreign street made it even more tougher. The three musketeers huddled close like cave divers. Linda took the lead up ahead while Mike and I peered into backyards and side streets. The kid couldn’t have gotten far on those little legs, I reasoned with the nagging voice of my mom in my head; soon enough the misunderstanding would be cleared up. Soon enough I would be home, with a bucket full of Kit Kats and a stockpile to last me into next year.
“Hey,” I asked Linda. “Can I borrow your phone?”
“It just died,” she bemoaned. “Sorry. We’ll leave soon. Promise.”
“Hold up,” Mike whispered. “Do you guys hear that?”
Linda stopped and stared into the yard of an old Victorian. Mike pointed somewhere in between the trees. It took a couple moments for my eyes to adjust. A white sheet bobbed steadily through the darkness. Only this time it was attached to a much bigger body.
“Oh. Maybe that’s the father… Hey… sir… ma’am… I think we found your child,” Mike shouted. “He was going this way on Whipporwhill.”
The hooded shape started walking back towards the road.
“I might have scared him,” Linda joined in. “Or her!”
The ghost figure stopped. It couldn’t have been more than ten feet ahead of us on the road. The costume was nothing special. A white sheet was placed evenly over the wearer’s body. Three holes were cut out for eyes and a mouth. At that time it became clear how much bigger this ghost appeared to be. He had nearly a half foot on Mike and me.
“Don’t you talk?” I joked awkwardly. “Oh shit, guys, maybe they don’t speak English…”
No sooner than I spoke, a hauntingly familiar voice spit out from the slit in the sheet.
“Matthew, you were supposed to be home at ten.”
I let out an audible groan.
“Mom what are you doing out here,” I grabbed my bags and looked for her car. “I was just about to leave.”
The shape said nothing.
“Just give me a second to get everything…” I muttered. “You didn’t have to come out here.”
“That’s a pretty cool costume, Mrs. Richardsen, Mike offered. “Reminds me of an old movie.”
The ghost turned to him fast as lightning.
“Michael,” it said in a different voice. “You know I told you not to hang out with that tramp.”
That comment sucked the air out of an already cold night. Mike stared back with dumbfounded amazement. Linda looked pissed. I didn’t know what to do, so I dropped my candy to the floor, and let it fall with a sad little ‘splat’.
“That’s not funny,” Linda spit back with venom. “Who are you? Mrs. Miller died last year.”
The ghost stared back blankly.
“Let’s go guys,” I whispered nervously. “Can we please go?”
I turned to walk away. But a flurry of footsteps behind my back turned my stroll into a sprint. I turned around to see the ghost holding Linda by the arm. I didn’t need to see much more. I screamed bloody fucking murder, grabbed Mike, and high tailed it to the safety of an adjacent yard with lights. Linda’s panicked shouts echoed behind us like a bad dream.
And then they stopped.
“What the fuck,” Mike whispered from underneath a lawn ornament. “Why would you leave her? We have to go back. We have to go back.”
I put my hand over my friend’s mouth and told him to shut the fuck up. A pair of lonely feet click-clacked their way across the street a hundred feet away. Then they spoke.
“Michael,” the voice shouted with an unevenly high pitch. “You’re too young to be wasting your time on that slut.”
The hardened vowels of the woman’s heavy accent faded in and out. Something else started to take over. Something harsher. I reasoned that it had to be someone playing a prank. Then I reasoned that it couldn’t be human at all. And I’ve debated that impossible argument a thousand times in my mind ever since.
“Let’s go home, sweetie,” it crooned. “I made dinner. Just the way you like.”
I cringed at the falsetto.
“That’s not my mom,” Mike whispered through my hand. “My mom’s fucking dead, man. She’s dead. I saw the body.”
“I know,” was all I could say. “I know, I know, I know.”
The footsteps started to get closer. I couldn’t see the ghost yet, not without the light from the road, but I could hear the damn thing plain as day. Heavy boots punched into the pavement and crushed dry leaves with every step. A shuffle in its gate fell into the same repetitive motion. And it kept clearing its throat, loudly as if it had a cough.
“Please come out,” the shifting tone whispered from somewhere close. “Don’t leave me all alone!”
We both recognized Linda’s voice immediately. But Mike reacted sooner than me. He darted from our hiding spot like a bat out of hell. I had to sprint just to keep up. I lost him around a corner and down a gulch that led into the woods. For a moment the sounds of a struggle drifted somewhere ahead. I tried to follow. But I lost them.
And then it was quiet again.
I was alone.
I wanted to shout for Mike, or Linda, or anyone awake in this massive, McMansion style neighborhood. But I didn’t want to give away my new hiding spot. I found a tree with some climbable branches. I cut my hands on the way up and ignored the blood that dripped down onto my costume. From that high vantage point, I could see the quickest way home. I plotted out a path through a side street and into somebody’s backyard. looked down to jump. And that’s when I noticed the white sheet waiting beneath me.
“Invite your friends over for dinner,” it cackled. “I cooked them something really special.”
I screamed so goddamn loud that my lungs hurt. I hopped out of the tree, stutter stepped, and sprinted my way back towards our cul de sac. I know it tried to follow. I could hear it’s heavy boots behind me. I could hear that disgusting fucking voice clearing over and over again. I felt something grab at my arm, so I know it tried to catch me, but I never looked back. Not until my hand found the door handle to my wonderfully warm home. Not until my mom wrapped her arms around me in shock, just like I was a little kid again, and not until she promised to call the police. Only then did I finally look out the bay window. I expected to see the ghost, waiting for me patiently in the streets, but it was gone. Just as suddenly as it had arrived.
At 12:15, a state task force descended on Hawthorne Ave.
Our small town spent three full months looking for Linda and Mike. Based on my story, detectives assumed they were dealing with a kidnapping, but after a month of no results; their hypothesis shifted to homicide. I was given polygraphs. I was called in to speak with detectives on at least a dozen occasions. But none of their questions ever led to an answer. They never found a body. They never found the abductor. They never found a shred of evidence to indicate anything outside the ordinary happened in our neighborhood that night. The leading theory among parents and police has changed. Most folks now think the happy couple ran off to get married. Mike was annoyed with his dad at the time. Linda hated her mother. Maybe it’s better for everybody to believe something so innocent.
Part of me got over my childhood trauma. I went to college in a different state. I enrolled in years of therapy. I met a girl who loved me through the scars, and so we got married, and then we had a couple kids. And finally, this year, after some initial balking… I agreed to dress up and celebrate the holiday. For the first time in a long time.
It’s five o’clock in the morning, here, now. It’s the day after Halloween. A thin veil of predawn darkness still hangs over my new city, and an eerie gust of wind is doing its best to keep the holiday alive. My doorbell just rang a short while ago. The camera showed me who was there. A little child in a ghost costume is waiting for me on the front porch.
And he won’t leave without a treat.