Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Halloween 2021 story contest.
On Halloween night, the world becomes something else- an altered form of itself, for one night the trees that line the suburban lanes move in a particular way, the air is affected and sound seems to drift lazily from ear to ear as groups make their way from block to block. It is, perhaps, this quality of distortion which can make one question what is real and what is a mere fabrication of the mind.
Mitchell sat on the sofa, flipping through channels, trying to get his faculties in a calmer state. At 6:00 the children would begin making their way along the leaf-coated sidewalk, and he wanted to prepare himself. The candy had been purchased the night before, he had what he figured was a tolerable variety. Some were old favorites he had enjoyed in his youth, others were novel. His wife walked in with a plate of toast, which he grabbed and began chewing intently.
“You don’t need to be so tight,” she said, resting on her arm. “It’s just tonight. You go up there and I’ll help you. It’s one day out of the year.” She said this while dressed in the festive garb of a discount necromancer, which he assumed would make a better impression.
“I know, Lil,” came the measured reply. “Damnit, Lil, I’m not used to this. You’ve taken Carl out every year, and now here comes this friend to take him- need I remind you, who according to the parent-teacher conference last week, was caught smoking pot in the bathroom- and now I have to give out candy. I’m swamped enough with parental concerns as it is.”
She took a bite of toast and smiled. She had good intentions, he had been nervous lately and this was a good way for him to get his inner turmoil out, to confront the neighbors in a casual setting. He could admit he needed to push his boundaries.
“You don’t need to worry,” she said, clamping her hand over his to steady it. “You should be praising him for branching out. He’ll come back here and we’ll take the pictures like always, and then you can have a well-deserved sleep. Both of you will have fun tonight.” He doubted her reassurances, lodged them in the back of his brain for later when they would be proven false, but for the time being he set the remote down and got to his feet. Peering past the curtains, he checked his watch and grabbed the bowl.
She turned to one of her favorite shows and reclined. It had to be admitted, she had done all the work and preparation up until now. A loyal and dedicated wife and mother, and he had always been going out with Carl. It didn’t seem fair. She warranted a break, he knew that. But his eyes were still groggy, and his joints remained stiff. Not enough sleep last night, every holiday rushing at him like a cavalcade, with no time to prepare. He hoped the candy would be adequate. Not even a single decoration dotted the front lawn- one lit pumpkin he had retrieved that morning on his route to the mailbox, the sole beacon of sweets.
The doorbell rang and he reflexively opened the door up as far as it would go as fast as possible, as if to appear more approachable and friendly. Behind him his wife poured a cup of Grigio. She would be of no assistance while he ran the gauntlet, he surmised, but it was nice to have her charming presence back there all the same.
“TRICK OR TREAT!” came the chorus of impeccably fashioned youths, whose gaping maws opened wide to demand payment. Their arms shot forward into the fray of sugar, lightning-fast rods clad in faux papyrus and imitation suede, and emerged victorious with bales of lemon drops and cow tales, licorice whips and miniature chocolates. Their parents stood below at the base of the steps, living vicariously, shooting anecdotes of times gone by. Now or never, he reckoned.
“Hey there, Seymour!” he waved from the doorway. “How’s the season? Making anything from it?” Seymour turned and a disinterested grin came over him.
“Sizable, Mitch. Not the best, but hey, can’t expect much from most of the bookies around here. Nice to see you. Remember the PTA meeting this Monday, it’s important.” Then his daughter clambered down the steps toward him, and he escorted her off. They both rounded the corner. He didn’t need to be reminded about the PTA right now, but Seymour knew that. Typical Seymour, always condescending, always faking sympathy. The last of the early birds careened into the avalanche of leaves and he set the bowl down on the side table.
“They took the candy so fast,” he said, his gaze averted to the exterior panorama. Normally he was an active player, but tonight for the first time since Carl’s birth he was watching this pantomime live. It was strange to be so detached from events so immediate.
“Of course they did,” said Lil, dipping a carrot. “This time of year, it does something to them. They’re never as motivated as they are now. You should have been there for some of the times I doled it out. Some of them trip on their capes, they’re so eager to get to the next house. One kid bashed his skull on the railing and they almost had to call the paramedics. It’s wild, what an arbitrary ritual can do to someone.” She was spot-on. Rituals did have a kind of lasting effect on the psyche. He thought back to one of his fondly remembered October escapades.
He had been older than Carl, though not by much, and he and a group of friends had visited the cemetery and conducted an amateur seance there. It was the kind of thing that never slipped your mind. Though it had lasted only half an hour, he still felt sometimes as if he were surrounded by the tombstones, holding hands with his peers, whispering something in Latin as the branches swayed and the moon hung suspended behind a viscous layer of clouds. It always came back.
He held the bowl out at arm’s length as if not to be injured by the vicious attack that was to ensue. Here was a fairy princess, here was a goblin, a mannequin, a robot with crayon inscriptions. The amount of time spent crafting this garb was a testament to the dedication of the event. As before, he said hello to his friends from the PTA, and they smiled and departed. No time for small talk. Maybe this wasn’t the best way to get accustomed to his surroundings. After all, every year prior he had seen them or their spouses, and said hello, although the roles had been reversed.
His thoughts returned to Carl, whose friend couldn’t be trusted. After tonight, he decided, he would talk with Carl up in his room about who to associate with. They would cut it off after tonight. Carl was getting good grades and didn’t need to get mixed up with anyone like that. He didn’t even know the kid’s name. Pascal or something. And now Pascal or something was out there, probably slip a toke in Carl’s pail while he wasn’t looking, or walk across the street too slow and they’d both get hit by a car. He shouldn’t have agreed to it. He glanced back at Lil, holding her Grigio in one hand and turning up the volume with the other. She was a lush if ever there had been one.
The next group came ambling along and he was prepared. Getting into the swing of the night. Across the lane every house was dressed to the nines in inflatables and elaborate props, a phantasmagorial light show, and he had nothing but one pumpkin, which he and Carl had painstakingly carved prior to Carl’s unseen and silent departure. He had been upstairs shaving when Carl left. That was the way of things, he surmised- as they grew older they also grew distant. Less talkative. Less honest.
“TRICK OR TREAT!” came the hands and the mouths and the carefully rehearsed routines. He opened the door an inch more as they approached, shoes and slippers kicking aside mounds of discarded foliage. Their parents were taking pictures on their phones, though considering his sparse decorative sensibilities he couldn’t begin to imagine what of.
“Hold it,” he stated firmly, noticing something was off and putting a defensive hand up toward the collection of erstwhile souls. “You. You were here before. What are you trying to pull?” There, in the center of seven ghouls and pop-culture characters, was the same mannequin. It looked up at him from the horde. It was shorter than the rest, and he couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl. It was clad in a black jumpsuit, with a rubbery beige mask that yielded no emotion. Couldn’t see anything past the eye holes.
“It’s fine,” said a nearby astronaut whose control panel was crafted from bottle caps and hot glue. “Give us our candy.” The group erupted, hands reaching forth, and as before the mannequin’s hand darted in and out with a handful of goodies, and without as much as an apology or a word of thanks it and the other participants darted down the front steps and onward to their next target.
He shut the door and walked over to Lil. Her reserves of Grigio were almost depleted, and he wasn’t about to intrude on her for some. He needed to remain sober and alert, on his toes. This was as much of a hassle as he had presumed, but she was enjoying it. He took a piece of celery and swirled it around in the dip, contemplating his next move. She glanced over at him from the TV.
“Something. Anything. I don’t know.” Their hands found each other, he ran his up to her shoulder and started massaging it. She was as tense as him, even if her costume indicated a sense of cheerful spontaneity. The wine hadn’t taken the edge off. Still, that was typical for her. She was on her toes even given the best possible circumstances. Expected to drive Carl to school and back, attend all the community meetings with that multitude of eyes gazing at both of them, it was enough to turn anyone pale.
“You can tell me, go ahead,” she murmured. “I want to be here, this is exciting for both of us. Tell me what happened.” He considered this for a moment. It was probably nothing.
“There’s this mannequin, Lil,” he started. “It came up the steps, twice, and the second time it looked as if I wouldn’t notice it was here again. Like I was stupid or something. And it was really fucking terrible, too. Like, some kid wants to be a mannequin of all things. And on top of that, it insults my intelligence. Really pisses me off. If they show up here again I’m not going to be as accommodating.” He realized that his tone of voice was too intense. Her face displayed a mixture of bewilderment and entertainment, and then her gut fired up and she tipped her head back and laughed.
“You poor inexperienced amateur!” he dug his nails into the armrest as she mocked him. “You think you’re the first one to have to deal with that? Hell, I’ve had to deal with ten ‘repeat offenders’ every year. Just humor them. This is their night, Mitch, when the dead walk the Earth. Who cares if they get extra? We don’t want a reputation as the couple who refuses them.” She was tearing up at this point, and went off to the bathroom to get a tissue. He observed his celery, turning it over, thinking about those cold dead eye slits and the look the thing had given him.
“It’s not that,” he called over to her as she walked back in and hit play on the remote. “This mannequin, or whatever it’s supposed to be, maybe it’s supposed to be something else. It moved like-”
“Be quiet,” she snapped. “Go out there and hand some fucking candy to them. You haven’t done this before, you’re not used to it, I get it, but put yourself in my shoes for a second, think about how much work I go to every year to manage it. Now let me watch my show.” Her face lit up as the screen came to life and he put his hands in his pockets. He was making too big a spectacle over it. There was still enough candy in the bowl to last the rest of the night. More than enough.
Ding-dong. He counted to ten and took a deep breath.
There was a new assortment of faces. A space cadet, raygun in hand, a dalmatian, a nerd complete with mailing tape on the bridge of his glasses. He offered the bowl up and they all grabbed a few pieces. They weren’t as greedy as that mannequin. They did things in moderation, with respect. They were honest and didn’t lie to people, didn’t take advantage.
Speak of the devil. From the east end of the block came the mannequin once again, shuffling along through the autumnal haze, difficult to see with the sun going down but sure enough it was the same rubber face with the same dark sockets that gave way to nothing, the same pail and the same leisurely gait. And it was then that he realized something else about the silent glutton.
Despite being shorter than most of the other trick-or-treaters- maybe three and a half feet, definitely young- the mannequin had no accompaniment. The previous time, there had been seven trick-or-treaters and eight parents at the base of the steps, two of whom he knew were a couple. Now there were five trick-or-treaters and five parents, and here came the mannequin with nobody in sight. Sure, he hadn’t always been accompanied, even by his peers, but the solemnity of this thing, and the eccentricity of its costume, was enough to make the adults shrink back as it rose along the steps and toward Mitchell, trying its best to blend in with the others.
“Trick or treat,” it said in a voice that was simultaneously androgynous and sounded too old for the body holding it. It opted not to stick its hand in this time, instead holding out its pail for Mitchell to voluntarily contribute. He glanced back at Liz. She was still held captive by the TV. She wouldn’t hear.
“Sorry,” he said, holding his arms to both sides in a display of mock surrender. “You were already up here, and these other guys need some too. Maybe try the other houses.” The youths recoiled at the sight of the guest, who despite being entirely covered from head to toe and therefore rendered socially invisible was a formidable presence that demanded attention.
“I did,” came the nondescript tone, and it held its pail up once more in a futile gesture of mock pity. “Look, Mister. I have all the candy in the world. Ha ha.” He bent down to see. The mannequin had a pail that was specially designed to fit as much as possible- it was chock to the brim with treats of all shapes and sizes, dimensions and colors. Tonight this person- no, this thing- would sit down in some dark cave on the outskirts of civilization and gorge itself on these ill-gotten gains, acquired through deception. It made him sick to think about.
The other trick-or-treaters remained steadfast where they were, as did the parents, a few of whom were holding up their phones in an attempt to witness the confrontation. But it was dark, and the visibility had gone down, and the sun had long since graced the horizon. Mitchell saw the obscene amount of candy in the mannequin’s pail by the porch light, wondered how it could even lift it all, and in that moment something inside him snapped.
“You have all the candy in the world?” he giggled, setting his bowl down to approach the crowd. “Here, let’s learn about sharing. Let’s SHARE with your friends.” He grabbed heaping mounds of candy from the mannequin’s pail and dumped them, one by one, into the other children’s baskets. They looked down at their parents to check if it was OK to keep.
“Fuck you, Mitchell,” said one of them from the sidelines. “Give that kid back his candy.”
“I don’t need to!” he shouted back. “This kid has all the candy in the world!”
He looked up to see that the mannequin had left. The group ambled down the hill slowly, not sure what to say, and followed their parents home. Tomorrow those same parents would likely be spouting rumors of his rapidly decaying mental state and related marital issues. It was true, you could only push him so far. This mannequin had crossed the line. As far as he was concerned, Halloween was over. He lifted the pumpkin up and blew out the candle, then carried it inside. No more demands, no more expectations.
“What are you doing?” she asked as he set the pumpkin down and exhaled sharply. “It’s only eight o’clock. There are still kids out there who are going to ask for some candy.”
“Not anymore,” he said. “No lit pumpkin on the porch, no candy. Those are the rules, aren’t they?”
“Well, yes, but...”
Realization swept over her. She put her hands up in disbelief, shook her head. He grabbed the bottle of Grigio and poured the few remaining drops into his glass, then downed it and swallowed.
“I did, Lil. I very much did.”
“You better not have done anything that will get us sued. If you do that, if you force us into legal trouble, I’m leaving you and you can bully children all you like alone at the trailer park.”
“Sue us?” he exclaimed, snorting faintly. “Who’s going to sue us? That kid didn’t have any parents, he was probably a transient and I took his candy and redistributed it to the kids who actually work for it instead of being dishonest. That’s all. Didn’t shove him, didn’t hit him, or beat him up. Fuck, Lil, I’m practically the Robin Hood of Halloween. Everyone in town should thank me for what I did.”
She turned the TV off and crossed her arms. They sat for a long time.
The hours passed uneventfully and the noise of children gradually gave way to the solemn moan of the express out at the railroad yards, and the candles went out and the decorations were deactivated one by one, and outside the street went dark as houses put their remaining candy surplus away and went to sleep. And inside the light stayed on and the TV stayed off, and they both sat, the effects of the wine long dulled and their sobriety returning. She looked up at the clock.
“This is too late,” she remarked, pressing her fingers to her temple. “Mitch, Carl should have been back by now. Do you hear me? I told him to be back here in a couple hours. Mitch, it’s almost midnight.” He stared toward the walls with waning interest, propped up like a Greek statue of supreme indifference. She wrung her hands and rose to her feet.
“Wouldn’t have happened if I had taken him instead of that stoner friend,” he said.
She picked up the empty bottle of grigio and while at first he thought she intended only to threaten him with it, she brought it down over his skull in one fell swoop. It smashed itself into a million little shards thoroughly, but he felt next to nothing. He kept that blank expression as wine fumes permeated the air and she wiped her runny nose on her sleeve. She put on a heavy coat.
“I’m going out to look for him, Mitch,” she whispered. “I don’t know if you can even hear me, you’re such a smug entitled prick, but I’m going out to look for our son, and if I find him he’s coming back and we can spread out his candy and take pictures-” and then she stopped and walked slowly onto the porch, and the last he heard of her were her shoes tapping on the pavement. Then they faded away and he was left with a blank screen and hundreds of crystalline shards all over the carpet.
He was numb, his anger had transformed into a kind of anesthetic, and although blood trickled down in little rivulets and streams, he was calm, almost zenlike. Outside the wind howled through the leaves and rustled in the hedges, and he heard the nocturnal symphony and sat for an hour, and then two hours, and the moon was suspended by wires and the street lay dormant. After three long and solemn hours of introspection, three hours that would turn blood to ice and spirit to cyanide, he heard footsteps approaching. From the east end of the block.
He made his way to the front door in a fugue state, half asleep from the blood loss. Threw it open. There was the mannequin, an isolated figure in a Currier and Ives landscape, the street entirely asleep and oblivious to this gremlin’s presence. It stood alone, pail by its side, full of glittering plastic wrappers. Alone and unaccompanied on the porch, save for the pervasive scent of peanuts and chocolate.
“I have all the candy in the world,” the thing motioned toward the pail. “I got more.”
He held his eyes up close to the bucket. Yes, it was indeed quite a haul. Full of candy, chock to the brim, bursting with variety. It was then that he looked up and noticed the mannequin’s rubber mask was covered in red fluid, and the anonymous eye holes were as much an enigmatic abyss as ever. He ran his hand through the treasure, and collapsed next to a juniper bush. Underneath the initial layer of candy was something warm, and wet, and sticky.
He ran his hand like a rake through the debris and pulled out an eyeball. Here was a finger. Here an ear, another finger, a stomach. All mixed in with delicious sugary sweets. Here was his wife’s teeth next to a cherry mash, his son’s intestines carefully wrapped around a king-size peanut butter bar- he had forgotten how satisfying it was to be the proud recipient of a king-size bar. And here were the remains of dear old Pascal or something, which melted in your mouth and not in your hand.
“Quite the haul you have here,” he said, peeling down the wrapper of a nut roll.
“You bet,” came the reply from the empty face. “Halloween is the best time of the year!”
“Oh, you bet.” He sat down cross-legged next to the pail and began digging in.
Written by Kyleisgone