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It was Halloween night, 2020, and Mason Cummings’s parents were nowhere to be seen. No, they weren’t missing, nor were they dead or injured. In fact, they were perfectly healthy, at least for now. Mason’s parents, Karen and Stewart, were wealthy enough to afford several vacations a year, and in the latter part of the year, they resolved to take several back-to-back to make up for the ones COVID lockdown mandates had stolen from them during the spring and summer. As a result, they left their mansion of a home in the care of their twenty-year-old son until they returned on November 1st.

“Make sure,” Mason’s mother told him as his father jammed their tenth stuffed suitcase into their newest car, “that you don’t let any trash anywhere near the house.”

Mason smirked. His mom thought nearly everyone was trash, including him and Dad on some days.

“Keep an eye out for anyone looking up to no good. You know, sagging their pants. Or wearing some cheap, ugly costume on Halloween. Not some gross trick-or-treater kid, either. I don’t want a speck of dirt on even the doormat between now and the time we get home. Got it?”

“Got it,” Mason said cheerfully. And Mom walked down the driveway in her heels, briefly raising a hand in farewell as Mr. Cummings laid down on the horn for her to hurry so they’d make their flight.

Mrs. Cummings didn’t need to worry about the doormat because it was nowhere to be found by 12:00 AM on Halloween night. Someone who’d left the party early had stolen it. The house was a hive of hedonistic anarchy, swarmed with half-dressed, half-conscious college kids and completely littered with trash. Early on, the festivities were loud enough to arouse the ire of everyone in the neighborhood. The partiers already had earned one warning from the police, so, after a while, and as they were finally becoming tired, they calmed things down.

Most of the guests had left. Now, it was just Mason, Aaron, and Emily. Aaron was the loveable oddball from Mason’s group, always up to weird and dumb antics, but still outgoing and obnoxious enough to fit comfortably into Mason’s clique. He’d come dressed in a dollar-store Deadpool outfit that was two sizes too small. He was the only one who wore a costume, not because he missed any memo that it wasn’t a costume party, but simply because he felt like it. Indeed, no one had worn any sort of mask at the party, scary or otherwise. Emily was Aaron’s girlfriend, known for being short and fast-talking and for flawlessly performing Elle Woods in their high school’s production of Legally Blonde, not because of any acting talent, but because her personality was essentially the character.

“Look, I just don’t believe in outer space, you guys. Like, how can it be a real thing? Like, we can’t leave the mantle of the Earth. It just isn’t possible. Am I not wrong? I can’t be wrong about this, you guys. Like, you don’t even know how many times I’ve fought with my friends over this.”

It was an old friendly debate the three friends had had before. Aaron was laughing hysterically, still drunk. His hair was a mess. He’d finally taken off his Deadpool mask. Mason was just shaking his head, flashing a pearly smile. None of them gave a shit if outer space was real or not. Mason thought it was, but what did outer space matter to him? Outer space, real or not, hadn’t crushed his party. And neither had anything else, including COVID, whose existence mattered even less to him than the existence of space or whatever was out there floating through it.

Aaron slowly looked around the room, taking in the sight of the trashed house. In the kitchen, the glass of one of the microwaves was broken and blood-soaked from someone’s hand. In front of them lay an overturned bookshelf. Every family portrait hanging on the wall in the hallway had been torn down. The face of the clock hanging over the fireplace was cracked. And that was only downstairs. “Dang,” he chuckled, “your parents are gonna be so pissed.”

Mason scoffed. “They’ll get over it,” he said. “They can replace all their shit.”

“I don’t know man,” Aaron said skeptically, still laughing. “This is pretty bad.”

“Yeah,” Emily agreed, nodding rapidly and laughing herself, “this was probably the biggest party you’ve ever thrown.”

“It’s a big house,” said Mason with a shrug. “Not everything’s broken. And they’ll get over what is. It’s not a big deal.”

“This is a big house,” Aaron said slowly, as if he were just now noticing it. He gazed around again, as if in awe. “I bet someone could still be passed out in one of the bathrooms and we wouldn’t find them till morning.” He laughed uproariously and his girlfriend pushed him playfully, again joining his laughter.

Mason smiled. He rolled his eyes. “Y’all are morons,” he remarked affectionately.

Emily and Aaron continued to laugh; it seemed they could go on all night. But then, something interrupted them—the chime of the doorbell. Mason glanced up at the clock. When he remembered it was busted, he got annoyed and took out his phone. “It’s fucking three. Who the hell could that be?”

“Trick-or-treaters?” Aaron guessed sarcastically. Emily giggled and pushed him again.

“Shut the fuck up,” Mason mumbled, although he privately worried some adult, late-night trick-or-treaters had indeed turned up, the kind of trash his mom had warned him to look out for. After a moment of trepidation, he walked to the front door and creaked it open. He wasn’t so sure who it’d be, guessing now that it might be the cops again. But it wasn’t. It was indeed a trick-or-treater. A kid under a sheet with holes cut into it for his eyes. Maybe six or seven years old.

“Whoa,” Mason said, taken aback. He blinked several times, as if to make sure he was seeing correctly. “Kid,” he said, “W-Where are your parents?” He stuck his head out the door, looking around to see if anyone was accompanying the trick-or-treater. But the street was totally empty.

The kid didn’t answer. He didn’t say anything. Instead, he silently extended his arm and presented his pumpkin-shaped candy bucket; only one piece of candy was inside. Mason looked down and squinted at it. It was large for a piece of candy and wasn’t a brand he recognized. It seemed to be dark red in color. For one terrible moment, he thought he saw it move, and believed it might be a tarantula. He jumped a little. The kid rattled his candy bucket insistently, as if imploring Mason to take whatever was inside. He briefly turned his head to look at his friends for help. But they only stared back at him and at the kid, fascinated (and a little scared).

“What’s he got, man?” Aaron asked.

“Don’t know,” Mason replied. He turned back to their visitor. “What’s that, kid? Some kind of Halloween decoration?”

The kid, still silent, leaned forward. His eyes grew large. For the first time, Mason noticed how unusual they looked—bloodshot with seemingly bright red irises and violet pupils. The dark circles under the kid’s eyes seemed to suggest he hadn’t slept in days. Maybe he’d been out all night, lost. The kid also apparently hadn’t seen the sun in quite some time, judging by the strange paleness of his skin, just visible through the holes in the sheet.

Mason looked at the kid for a moment more before slowly reaching into the bucket and picking up the object, some sort of spiked ball. Whatever it was, it was made of some strange, prickly material, as if he was holding a ball of static. Mason’s instincts told him to drop whatever this strange orb was, but he clutched it, fascinated. He wasn’t able to guess what it was. He’d never touched anything like it before. Its strange spikes, which Mason had initially taken to be spider legs, seemed to be pricking his palm, but it wasn’t painful. They made a strange noise like the quick rustling of many needles. There was no mistaking it, though—the thing, indeed, was moving. Suddenly, it gave small but piercing screech, and Mason shouted in alarm and dropped it. As soon as it hit the floor, he kicked it into the night.

“Kid!” he spat. “What the hell do you think you’re—?”

But when he looked up, the kid was gone. Mason blinked, stunned. He peered out the door, looking down the street both ways, but could see nothing but streetlamps and houses in the still quiet of the night. “Where’d he go?”

Aaron was laughing. “Didn’t give him his treat, so he gave you a trick.”

“Shut up,” Mason groaned. He began walking back to his seat in the living room but stumbled. The chills of sickness had suddenly flown up through his body. “Fuck,” he groaned, shivering as he eased back into his chair. He tried to say something but was interrupted by a fit of coughing.

“Dude, you don’t look so hot,” Aaron said, genuinely concerned. Mason’s coughing continued, now worsening into hacking. Some mucus flew onto the floor. His nose leaked a thin and runny snot.

“Ewww!” Emily cried, jumping away. “What the hell, Mason?”

But Mason couldn’t respond. His head was swimming. It felt ready to crack in two.

“Dude, you’re white as a sheet!”

He was. Mason began to sweat. His skin took on a ghostly pallor. He grabbed his chest. Suddenly, breathing seemed hard. Still possible. But hard. Harder than it had ever been for him. Still, he seemed finally able to talk. “I-I,” he said with some difficulty. He paused to cough. “I might need to lie down.”

“You think it’s COVID?” asked Emily. “That kid looked kinda sick.”

“He couldn’t give it to him that quickly,” Aaron pointed out. But he had to admit to himself, it wasn’t the stupidest thing Emily had ever said. Not by a longshot. “Still, you might have it, bro. It can take a few days to come on.”

Mason nodded. His breathing was labored, but he wasn’t yet worried. He was still able to get air. It wasn’t too easy, but he was definitely able to get air in. That was good. Yeah, that was good.

“Dude, do you want to go the hospital?”

“No!” cried Mason, throwing more mucus on the floor. He coughed violently. “No, no. I hate hospitals. Really, I’m fine guys.”

“You don’t look fine,” Emily remarked. Her face suddenly turned worried. Her mind began to race. “Maybe we should leave,” she said, turning to her boyfriend.

“Leave?” Mason said incredulously. “What? You afraid I’m gonna give you COVID?”

His friends said nothing for a moment. “Well, dude, you probably have it,” Aaron finally said with some trepidation. “We might already have it too since we’ve been around you all night. You might have given it to everyone at the party. We should probably tell them.”

“Yeah,” Emily agreed, nodding. “Yeah, and then there’s that kid. You might have given it to him, too.”

“Yeah,” Aaron said, “and we don’t know what that kid was doing out so late without his parents. We should call the cops or someone to find him. He could be out there lost.”

Mason shook his head and waved a disapproving hand as he tried to catch his breath. “The kid didn’t say he was lost, did he? Someone was probably with him.”

“Like who?” Emily asked incredulously. “Who takes their kid out trick-or-treating at three in the morning?”

Mason glared at her.

“Yeah,” Aaron reasoned, “if that kid was with someone, it wasn’t his parents. Like, maybe he got kidnapped. Maybe the kidnapper sent him to the door to give you that weird thing in his candy bucket.”

“Yeah,” Emily gasped, realizing something. “Yeah, Mason, people do some fucked up shit. Someone might have been using that kid to poison you. Like, you don’t know what that thing was. Maybe it’s not COVID, maybe that kid put fucking poison in you!”

Mason eyed her quizzically. She hadn’t made this much sense in all the time he knew her. She looked terrified. Aaron too. He was just about to relent and allow them to take him to a hospital. But then, out of nowhere, a giant, bone-chilling moan like that from some tortured phantom sounded loudly from upstairs.

Emily let out a little yelp. Aaron paled, looking nearly as white as Mason. Everyone froze. Mason was too scared to even cough, though he felt the urge.

“What the fuck was that?” Aaron whispered.

Mason thought for a moment. Suppressing a cough, he answered reasonably, “Someone from the party. You said it yourself. We might have forgotten someone in one of the bathrooms upstairs.”

“That didn’t sound like someone drunk to me,” Emily said fearfully.

Mason covered his mouth to cough. “Well,” he said, almost annoyed, “it couldn’t be anything else.”

Emily had to summon all her strength not to cry. She turned to her boyfriend. “Aaron,” she said in a small voice, “maybe…maybe you should go check.”

Aaron gulped. He hesitated. Then, reluctantly, he nodded, and without a word slowly ascended the staircase at the far end of the room.

Emily clasped her hands together, watching Aaron fearfully until he disappeared upstairs.

Suddenly, Mason erupted with his worst fit of coughing yet. He stood, bending over and holding his stomach. Emily turned and was horrified to see Mason retch violently and vomit up what seemed like a bloody wad of tissue. She cried in horror. Mason trembled, staring at what he could only register as some organ he’d coughed up—his lung, his stomach—something that no one should ever see and only ever saw if they were certain to die. Some part of himself that he knew must be there inside him, but that didn’t seem real until now when it was staring him in the face, plopped lamely on the once-immaculate white carpet in a chunky pool of blood and mucus.

Before anyone could say anything, the upstairs erupted with Aaron’s screams. “What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck is that?

Suddenly, Emily and Mason were caught in what seemed like a terrible windstorm swirling throughout the entire house. More furniture crashed—the dressers upstairs, the kitchen cabinets. The lights flickered and buzzed. Emily was tearing her throat screaming. The whole house seemed to quake. From upstairs, Aaron’s screams continued even louder amid the bedlam, though they were now desperate and muffled and choked.

Something snaked its way from downstairs. Mason’s eyes bulged as he looked up to see what was clearly a pure-white bedsheet, floating down the stairs without anyone in it, at least not anyone human. He thought he could detect the eyes of the kid. Those strange, sickly, red-purple eyes, suspended like sinister alien planets in the eyeholes of that sheet. Then, he heard the fast, scuttling, needly sound of the kid’s strange, spiky ball, so loud it was overtaking Emily’s screams. It grew louder and louder, devolving into a loud and terrible buzzing, sounding now like a swarm of angry, killer wasps.

The sheet spread out wide when it finally came to the bottom of the stairs. Aaron’s screams faded away, as did Emily’s. The sheet seemed to be covering all, like a blanket, the eyeholes fixed squarely on Mason, and it was gliding toward him slowly like a sinister and hungry stingray. Mason searched around. He could barely make anything out in the house. Everything seemed dark and blurry and time seemed to slow. The lights continued to flash, now at slow and random intervals. Emily had vanished. The only thing he could see clearly now was the sheet, expanding, somehow reaching every inch of the room. The front of it lifted up slightly as it came closer, and Mason could see underneath it that it was being propelled forward by those piercing, scuttling spikes that were now protruding out of the eyeholes.

Mason Cummings stood on weak legs, ready to collapse. His terror seemed to leave him. He seemed resigned to his fate. Through the daze of his blistering fever, he accepted, finally, that he’d played with fire, and now he was going to pay for it. The sheet rose. The virus revealed itself, its round face seeming now to split open into a gaping mouth. The spikes seemed to become a set of sharp and terrible teeth. The virus let out a loud, hungry screech, and then, in an instant, Mason was swallowed whole and the sheet collapsed over all.

The next day, Mr. and Mrs. Cummings arrived home to a suspiciously quiet house. Opening the door, they faced a nightmare beyond comprehension. Seeing first her son’s pale, lifeless face, out of everything, and his blood-stained mouth, Mrs. Cummings screamed until she fainted.