I watch them as they cross the street, caroling, gamboling, some almost cartwheeling in their excitement. They are a joy to behold in all their many costumes. There are witches and ninjas, cowboys and furry blue monsters. There are princesses and hobos, a ladybug, a clown. There are babies in strollers disguised as a pea in a pod, or there, a bumblebee.
The decorations on the houses are an invitation, letting these little masqueraders know which to approach. Tissue paper ghosts hang from trees, plastic jack-o-lanterns glow, and molded zombies push their way up from beneath piles of dead leaves.
“Come on, hurry!” Daisy says beside me, hidden beneath the bushes. “All the good candy will be gone!”
I won’t be rushed. I’ve been looking forward to this night all year, and I’m going to have the very best costume ever.
There, rushing past my hiding place, is a group of children. They are all of an age, perhaps ten years old. One is a pirate, black greasepaint on his cheeks to pretend beard stubble, and a black patch perched over one eye. Another wears a red and blue body suit, a large black spider on the chest – he is a superhero. I’ve seen them before, but I’m not impressed. Here’s a girl in a sparkly dress and shoes, a wand held in one hand, spangled wings strapped to her back.
“Billy, we’re running out of time!” Daisy hisses, poking me in the side with one bony finger.
“Shut up,” I whisper back, watching the last of the group approach the nearest house. He’s smaller than the other boys, dressed in a satin vest over a dazzling white shirt. Real leather shoes, shined by someone who knows how, peek out from beneath freshly ironed slacks. He wears a black cape, thrown back with pizzazz to show the scarlet lining. His black top hat is a little too big, but still dapper. A tiny fake mustache has been glued to his upper lip, and he carries a stuffed white rabbit under one arm. A magician, yes, he is. Seeing him is like magic.
“Billy!” Daisy whispers, poking me again, but I ignore her.
“Trick or treat!” the children yell, holding out bags and baskets when a woman answers the door. She oohs and aahs over their costumes, handing out her dole of candy. The first three children quickly head to the next house on the block, but the magician is saying thank you for the candy.
“Shut up,” I say to Daisy, wiggling out from under the bush. When the magician leaves the house, cutting across the lawn to catch up to his friends, I’m right behind him. In the shadows of the nearly leafless trees, I reach out to touch his hand, snatching at his sleeve like a stray wind.
We make it home just as the big clock in town chimes midnight. Mother oohs and aahs over our costumes, and Father laughs when he sees mine.
“Magic, huh?” he says, scratching a cracked yellowed nail along his bony chin. “Where did you find it?”
“Over on Sycamore,” I say, turning so he can see the whole outfit. The black and scarlet cape swirls, the shined leather shoes gleam, and the boy’s pale skin glimmers in the moonlight. He was a small boy, and it’s a tight fit, but I’m proud of this year’s costume.
“Alright, children,” Mother chimes, “Time to put your costumes away.”
“But Mom!” Daisy complains, letting Mother help her out of her costume with a pout. “Halloween only comes once a year!”
“Yes, I know dear,” Mother says, laying the blond girl’s skin, dressed in a ballerina’s leotard and tutu, across the nearest headstone. “But it will be Halloween again before you know it.” She’s smiling, though it’s hard to tell; her lips rotted away long years ago.
Jodi heard scratching at her bedroom window. She rubbed her eyes. The glow-in-the-dark clock said it was 12:00. She looked at her door, but it was closed. After trick-or-treating around the neighborhood, and sampling some of her haul of candy, Mommy had helped wash off her make-up while Daddy put away her goblin costume.
The scratching came again, and she sighed. Out of bed, she crept to the window and pulled back the lace-trimmed curtain.
Hideous wart-covered scaly faces peered in, sharp fangs bared with delight.
“Halloween is over now,” Jodi hissed. “You’ll have to come back next year.”
Leto saw the pearl on the beach. No shell lay nearby, no sign how it got there but the mark of high tide. He approached cautiously. Gifts from the sea could be dangerous.
He crouched close, but did not touch. The pearl was large, big as his thumb, and perfectly round. On the curved surface, he saw a blurry reflection of his own thin face.
Slowly he extended one narrow hand. Fingertips grazed the pearl, and the trap of seaweed and bone sprung up from the sand. In the shallows, hungry mermaids smiled fiercely as they hauled in their catch.
Cody was small, much smaller than his brothers. They all topped him by inches and outweighed him by pounds. His eyes were large in his narrow face, and his elbows and knees always seemed in the way. His brothers made fun of him.
“When it comes time for you to shift,” they would taunt as they pinched his thin arms or pulled his black hair, “You won’t be a crow like us. Not even a jackdaw or a rook. You’ll probably change into a cricket!” Then they would laugh raucously, sounding like crows even when they wore their human shapes.
Cody didn’t cry, and he no longer tried to fight back. They were bigger, and there were six of them, and he never won. So instead, he stole away and hid where they were too big to fit.
“I won’t be a cricket,” Cody vowed to himself fiercely. But no one could say what anyone would become on the eve of their thirteenth year, when their first change occurred. His brothers all became crows, like their father. Their mother had not been a crow, although Cody did not know what she had been. She died when he was a baby, and Father did not speak of her.
As his birthday neared, Cody avoided his brothers. “When you become a cricket, be sure to hide,” they would call to him. “Crows like to eat crickets, you know.”
Finally his birthday arrived, and the change was upon him. His brothers waited in crow-shape, to further torment the cricket they expected. Cody stretched, still thin and large-eyed, but no longer were his knees and elbows in the way. He was strong and sleek, a hungry black cat.
“I don’t mind eating crow,” he said with sharp teeth, “How about you?”
Leaves cover the ground, brightly colored and crunchy, crackling with cool fire. Jacob, dark-haired and dark-eyed, uses the wooden and plastic rake to scrape them up in piles. The air is cool, the sky painfully blue, and everything seems as crisp as a ripe apple.
Bony fingers protrude from beneath the largest pile. Jacob pauses, contemplating the pale, curled digits; they seem to be beckoning. The leaves are but a temporary blanket.
“Afternoon, Jacob,” Mr. Jenkins, the neighbor, calls from his yard. “How’s your mother?”
“Time will tell,” he replies, rearranging the leaves. “Funny how beautiful dead things can be.”
The sky is a parched, brittle dome, the sun a smear of molten light. Every footstep churns dust into the air, and each breath becomes a furnace draught. It’s late August, the hottest days of the year. Not a good time to be running, but you do what you must.
“Hurry, Chance,” Grace calls, face a flash of white amidst flyaway hair. She’s ahead of me now.
I had a dog once, named Gracie. That was before; and no one has pets now.
The belling is close. The pack has almost caught up.