Last Halloween

Last Halloween was first published in FLAPPERHOUSE #19

On the last morning I will have with my son, I make him pancakes with fresh blueberries from the community garden mixed in the batter.  When the Patels from down the street heard the news, they brought us a flask of fresh maple syrup from the trees in the western woods, and I’ve chilled it overnight in the fridge. Butter from the community farm sizzles and spits on the griddle as Malcolm drags his feet down the stairs. Outside the kitchen window, perched on the skeletal frame of an old oak, the crow gazes at me. Its head crooks to one side and beetle-shell eyes flash in the October sun, fixed on mine. I look away.

“Morning,” I grunt, trying to keep the desperate quaver out of my voice. “Thought maybe you’d like to try some coffee with breakfast.”

He narrows sleepy eyes, skeptical of the offer, then shrugs. “Doesn’t it, uh, stunt my growth?” I wince, but he doesn’t notice.

“I think maybe one cup is okay.” I set the chipped, steaming mug down in front of him with the first batch of pancakes. “Just don’t tell mom.”

He tries to play it cool, like it’s no big deal, but I can see the excitement in the corners of his smile. He wraps his small hands around the mug, half covering the Notre Dame crest, and sniffs at the steam. I realize that I’m staring at him, so I look out the window again. The crow catches my eye and nods, then takes flight in a burst of sparkling black feathers.

After breakfast, Malcolm lays out his goblin costume, itemizing and accounting for each piece and prop. I watch from the hallway, passing by with the same load of laundry again and again. I don’t want to make this day any harder than it has to be.

From our bedroom, Annie’s tiny cries drift out alongside the sound of Rose singing gentle lullabies. Rose said her goodbyes to Malcolm as he slept last night. She doesn’t trust herself not to upset the boy, so she’s planned to stay with our infant daughter until he’s gone. I told her I would cover for her if Malcolm asked.

When I’ve run out of reasons to pass by his doorway, I go to the garage. In a box above the workbench, still packed from our move last January, I find what I’m looking for. A cracked plastic bucket, molded in orange like a child’s drawing of a jack-o-lantern. It was mine from childhood, in a place far away from here. I’d hoped both my children would have the chance to use it, but if I send it out with Malcolm, I know it won’t be coming back. Annie won’t be old enough to carry it for at least another year.

My throat is tight again, and I clear it to chase away the tears. What’s one more loss tonight, in the greater scheme of things? Malcolm should take it. He’s always loved it.

As I turn back towards the house, I hear scraping on the rafters above. The fox strides across the beam and sits on his haunches. I have an idiot impulse to fling the pumpkin at the animal, an impotent urge for violence in the muscles of my forearms. Instead, I sigh and nod. It looks at me from pools of liquid black, grey fur rising and falling with each patient breath.

There is no malice in those eyes, nor the others. We all know what has to happen tonight. Rose and I signed the pact when we came to this town. We accepted the risk, because it seemed worth it. Maybe it is, still. This is a safe town. Safer than anywhere else on earth. Annie will be exempt in future years.

The fox is gone when I look up.

I’m surprised to see Rose when I come back in the house, Annie bouncing on her hip. Her eyes are red and raw, but she’s smiling as Malcolm shows her the whole costume. She sewed the shredded burlap tunic together herself, last weekend, before we’d known that Malcolm had been chosen. He slides on each piece, the mask, the long fingered rubber gloves, the hooded cloak, and then poses with mock threat, straining to make his voice deep as he cackles at Rose and Annie. Our daughter burbles with delight and reaches out to touch his outstretched claws.

Rose looks to me, wordless, and reads the question on my furrowed brow. She nods, just once, and her smile strains with infinite sadness. She turns and kisses Malcolm, on the forehead of the grotesque mask.

“I’ll get you some makeup, honey. We’ll blackout your eyes a bit, so it matches the mask.”

She squeezes his shoulder, and I see the dark wave wash across her face, eyes dipping beneath the water. Malcolm, behind the mask, doesn’t see it. She hurries out of the room, Annie still giggling at her side. I clear my throat to draw Malcolm’s attention away from the slam of the door.

“Look what I found,” I say, holding the pale pumpkin aloft.

“Oh,” he says, lifting the mask up just high enough to speak, “I thought, maybe I’m a little too old for that. It’s a kid’s pumpkin, right? I was gonna ask you if I could use a pillow case.”

I hate myself for the flood of relief I feel. The pumpkin will stay. Malcolm will go.

“Yeah, no, that’s a good idea, buddy. You can carry more in a pillow case.”

He grins wide, his lips splitting beneath the goblin’s face like a slit throat. I turn away, and busy myself with scouring the iron griddle in the sink. The sobs feel like punches to my solar plexus, but I choke on the sound and he doesn’t notice.

The sun dips, fat and orange, to touch the skeletal arms of the trees in the western forest. It’s almost time. My head is swirling mass of dead leaves as I sit on the porch chair, staring into the solid wall of trees on the far side of the street. Malcolm has to tug on my sleeve before I realize he’s standing next to me.

“Dad,” he says, his voice quiet and tremulous, “I don’t feel so good. I think it was mom’s hot cocoa, maybe the milk was bad.”

I’ve spent his lifetime feeling a flood of anxiety whenever he tells me this. He’s always been such an easy child, never tells me something is wrong unless it’s really, very wrong. But I don’t feel the anxiety now. Maybe I do, but it’s a familiar raindrop in an alien, swirling storm. What burns in my chest, all the brighter for the contrast against the gloom, is hope. Maybe he doesn’t have to go tonight.

I put my hand on his forehead, then kiss the skin to confirm, but he is cool. No fever. His hands, still in the rubber goblin gloves press up against his belly, and his face creases. The raccoon eye mask of black eye shadow has started to run as his skin beads with sweat. I nod, too fast, too excited at the possibilities to stay calm.

“Let’s go inside bud, we’ll see what we can do.”

I take him by his gloved hand and lead him to his bedroom. He lays down on his back, and I leave him there, heart pounding as I go to the medicine cabinet. This is a sign. It has to be. They’re telling me it’s okay, we can keep him. This was just a test.

Passing through our bedroom as I race towards the bathroom, I see Rose holding Annie close. The moment I see her eyes, I know what’s happened. She’s pleading at me not to be mad with the crook and angle of her head, and I know. The bottle of expired antibiotics is still open on the counter, a needless confirmation.

My skin flushes hot, and I don’t trust myself to stay quiet or still. I turn away from Rose, refusing to meet her pleading gaze. She’s talking now, but the roar of my heart in my ears blots it out. I have to leave before I act without thinking. I need to clear my head. I don’t know what comes next.

I stumble back down the stairs, past Malcolm’s room, into the living room. The smell hits me first. A great, galloping blast of wet, green air. The smell of mud and rotting leaves and tender shoots from the forest floor. I’ve never seen the stag before, but I know it instantly.

It stands in the center of our home, legs splayed broad and challenging. Its great head is dipped low, as if smelling something on the freshly shampooed carpet. Beneath the shining nut-brown pelt, muscles like iron cables contract and release, a coiled spring of implied threat. The curling mass of its antlers gleam like polished oak. At the edge of my perception, they seem to twist and writhe in the last of the autumn sun, a mirrored, squirming Rorschach blot of bone and light. It raises its head to me, oil-black eyes rising far above my own, and snorts. The blast of wet air stings my eyes. My knees buckle, limbs cold and distant as I slide low, prostrating myself before the stag. The thunder of its hooves rattle my teeth as it steps closer.

I see myself reflected in the eyes, mouth open in mute horror. They’re not eyes, I think in some distant corner. They are portholes. Windows in a vessel, where something from from far beyond looks back out. It sniffs at me, tasting my primal terror. It doesn’t speak. It doesn’t have to. I know.

“I’m sorry…” I say, my voice just a distant scratch of insects on bark from somewhere deep inside me. “I’m sorry, I just didn’t want to let him go.”

It cocks its head to the right, the weaving tangle of antlers creaking like the forest at night, and waits.

“I’ll do it,” I say. “I gave my word, and I will do it.”

For a long moment the only sound is the great bellows of its breath as it looks straight through me. Then it turns, satisfied, and walks through the wall, passing through plaster and paint as if were a waterfall. I watch from the window as it strides across the road, away from the houses on the eastern side of the street, into the dark thicket of the western woods.

I’m too tired to cry.

Children are just coming out of doors, a parade of homemade ghost costumes, witches hats, and bright primary colors. There are no parents with them, even with the youngest groups. They have nothing to fear tonight, or any other night in this town. The pact keeps them safe. They only take one, each autumn, and the rest of the year, the children are protected. The Keplers, eyes heavy with sympathy, assured us that it’s almost never a new family in their first year. We just got unlucky. It happens.

Malcolm is still bent forward in discomfort, but since he vomited in the bathroom sink, his spirits have lifted. He holds the pillowcase in one hand as we step out onto the porch, the crisp night air heavy with the scent of approaching winter.

Walk it off, I told him.

Think of all that candy you’ll miss out on, I said, hating myself with every word.

I’m doing it for Annie, I think. But I know I’m doing it for me, so I don’t ever have to kneel before those antlers again.

Rose watches from a window, eyes fixed on me, not our son. Malcolm’s already gone for her, and I wonder if we’ll ever recover from this. I meet her eyes and try to say a thousand things with one small nod.

Malcolm adjusts the mask, obliterating my son’s face forever. His eye-shadow blacked eyes peer out like coins dropped down a well, vanishing as they go. He starts to walk down the sidewalk, towards the next house.

“No, bud,” I say, “You should cross the street.”

He looks at me, the goblin face cocking to the side with confusion. On the western side of the street there are no houses. Only the great wood. He’s about to ask a question, when I say my last words to my son, the words that will haunt me till I die. The words I loathe myself for saying.

“Trust me.”

He looks both ways, big city instincts never lost, and crosses the street. The woods sway, the hissing sound rising as a thousand branches shed dead leaves to the wind. On the far side, there is no sidewalk, the road just gives way to a thick wall of trees. He stands before the woods, a place he’s played in a hundred times since we moved to town, a place that holds no danger for the other children.

He sees them in the dark before I do. Thousands of them. A churning mass of silent life, watching him, waiting. He turns back, and I thank the stag that he’s too far away for me to see the rising panic in his eyes.

I wave. Try to smile. He doesn’t deserve to be afraid in the end.

They swallow him. A tide of fur and antlers and feathers and little needle teeth. He’s swept along like a cork on water, carried with quiet reverence into the gloom between the trees.

My son is gone. The great hissing noise of the watchers in the woods, a thousand bodies sliding in the undergrowth, drifts away on the October wind. After that, I only hear the children laughing. Halloween sound effect records being played from a half dozen houses on our block. The sounds of joy and celebration. Why shouldn’t they celebrate? They’re safe.

I turn away, and back into the dark and silent house. The bowl of candy sits on the front stoop for anyone who will come by. No one will question our lack of festivity this year. They’ll know. They’ll understand.

Rose and I sleep on opposite sides of our bed, the gulf between us silent and patient.

It comes late that night. I hear the door open, and I know with an oily dread exactly what it means. Still, I go to the front door.

It stands in the doorframe, looking into our home, still wearing the goblin costume. Behind the mask, the dark pits of its eyes yawn. One of our good pillowcases, bulging in strange and queasy ways, hangs in its gloved hand.

“Hey dad,” it says, in a voice that is so like Malcolm’s that it fills me with a flush of rage. “Sorry I was out late. It was a good night.”

I can only nod, my breath catching as I try to inhale. Rose emerges from our bedroom, putting a trembling hand on my shoulder. I take her hand in mine and squeeze so hard I can feel the bones grind. She breathes deep before speaking to the thing in the doorway.

“Hey, no sweat, honey. Why don’t you hop into bed?”

It shuffles forward, across the threshold, the movements almost exactly like Malcolm’s gait. I resist an atavistic urge to to strike the thing, to force it back out of my house. But we signed the pact. There’s no going back now. It walks straight up to me, and reaches out for a hug.

I take it in my trembling arms. It is warm like Malcolm. It smells so much like him. It hugs me back, the goblin mask nuzzling into my neck. Just like Malcolm.

We will make do. For the good of town, we will endure.


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