I remember when I was in the late October of 1956. One of them, anyway. I was staying in a quiet little neighborhood reminiscent of my old place, when I lived in the Ardent farmhouse. I was looking to sit quietly and think, maybe recapture a little of the atmosphere of the past. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It was just a quiet place that reminded me of another.
I don’t know. Maybe I was right. Maybe I was wrong. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, even after the fact, what effect a place has on you, for good or for ill, and what it tells you about yourself.
I had one of the three houses on the circle of the cul-de-sac. There were no fences in our neighborhood. There were barely any hedges, aside from the ones growing alongside the houses. Yards ran into yards and property lines were defined by how far you mowed in the summer. Kids played in the street to spare the grass and rang bicycle bells as they pedaled all along the pavement. Saturdays were for washing the car and Sundays were for church, afternoon picnics, and evenings on the porch.
Peaceful. That’s the word I want. There was often a lack of quiet, but it was peaceful. I needed some peace, and the place provided it.
There was the inevitable welcome wagon to bother me, of course. I was nice to them, but completely evasive about all questions. I maintained a perfect politeness at all times. Later, when people rang my doorbell, I always smiled, was always friendly, and never gave them anything more than lemonade or tea. They eventually stopped coming by, leaving me to read my books, putter in my garage or basement, and simply be.
Halloween, though, always causes porch traffic. I’m a sucker for kids, and I know it. The little people play in my yard, run around my house, all that sort of thing all the time. They drink from my garden hose and sometimes ask for Mercurochrome and band-aids. I’ve removed several splinters, and I have no idea where the swing set came from.
Okay, maybe I do know where it came from. I can sense the silent judgment. Lay off.
So when the doorbell rang, I knew what was starting, or so I thought. I answered the door—no costume for me; I’m not into that sort of thing, these days—and handed out candy to spooks and spacemen. It went on for quite a while. Kids didn’t travel in fearful packs back then. They roamed free, sometimes supervising a younger sibling, but often hunting for candy like little predators. Lots of adults were out, of course, mostly on their own front porches and watching over the sprightly festival.
Then Death knocked on my door.
He wasn’t a particularly impressive Death. His robe was a pair of towels dyed black. His mask was flour rubbed on his face. His scythe was a stick with cardboard and tinfoil. In addition, he wore a woeful expression as he muttered “Trick or treat.”
His performance was terrible. His costume was terrible. The saving grace of it all was the fact he made an effort. True, it was a miserable failure of an effort, but he made one. For a kid whose parents seemed to still be living in the Great Depression, it was a masterful attempt, but still short of the mark.
I knew him, of course. Johnathan Lane, local po’boy. Everyone called him “Johnny” when they didn’t call him “po’boy.” It always annoyed me when I heard it. And, no doubt, every kid and many adults were going to call him “po’boy” based on his sorry excuse for a costume.
I respected the effort. I’m not obliged to respect the result.
“Mister Lane,” I told him, “you need some help with your costume.”
He looked at the floor and shuffled his feet a little.
“Everyone calls me ‘Johnny,’ Mister Blake.”
“And I shall call you ‘Mister Lane,’ because you are.” I sighed. “All right, if you’re going to be the Grim Reaper, you need a better robe. You wait right here and I’ll get you one.”
He looked up again, perplexed and slightly hopeful.
“We’ll fix this,” I promised him. “Don’t move from that spot.”
I went inside while Death guarded the door. I came back out with a two grease pencils and my cloak. I whipped the cloak around him and it settled into place, adjusting itself and changing, forming robes, cloak, and hood. I had him stand still while I drew on his face with black and white grease pencils.
Typically, worlds where technology is ascendant have poor magical environments. With some time and effort, however, a few small spells will work perfectly well. I drew some contour lines, defined his jaw and eyesockets, colored his nose a bit, and hummed while I worked.
Death looked at me when I was done. His robe was black as a hole in space, an emptiness to make the gaps between the stars seem merely grey. His face was a skull and his eye sockets glowed with tiny, winking points of light whenever he blinked.
“Not much to be done about the scythe,” I mused, looking it over, “but your makeup and robe are spot-on. Now let me hear you say ‘Trick or treat’ like you mean it.”
It took a few tries, but we got it down. I sent him off to scare hell out of the neighborhood while I sat on the porch to watch. Other trick-or-treaters came up, were suitably placated, and went away again, but I enjoyed Johnathan’s show.
Big Blubber—Bubba Crandal—was the neighborhood bully. He was a heavyset kid too big for his age and too big for his height. I saw a career in pro wrestling for his future, possibly football. He was costumed as a soldier in olive drab, web belts, and plastic cowboy sidearm. He shook down other kids for candy. He never took all of it, but helped himself to a ham-handed fistful from their bags and sacks.
Johnathan didn’t have much in the way of candy when Blubber came up to him, so Johnathan wrapped my cloak around himself and clutched his bag close. Blubber reached for it anyway.
His hand encountered nothing. He reached for the cloak to pull it aside and his hand went through the hole.
In the night, when the sun no longer interferes, my cloak can do strange things.
Blubber reached forward, kept reaching forward, and damn near fell into it. Johnathan stepped back, saving Blubber’s life. I’ve never concerned myself with where things go when they vanish through that darkness. I’m not sure it’s possible to recover them. I’m also not sure how hard I would try, considering Blubber’s penchant for petty cruelty.
Johnathan then closed his eyes and held still, afraid he was about to be beaten bloody. But Blubber stood there and look at him. Maybe it was the way Johnathan held so still. Maybe it was the way the twinkling lights on Johnathan’s closed eyelids gave the impression of deep wells of night staring back at Blubber. Whatever the case, Blubber eventually snorted and moved past him.
Johnathan proceeded without giving up any candy. Blubber, no longer looking at the magical eye makeup, regained his nerve. He fished out an apple from his own bag, took aim, and fired it like a fastball at the back of Johnathan’s hooded head.
It went through the darkness and into the far distance, sailing away, and Blubber watched it go, jaw reaching for his belt buckle. Johnathan never even noticed.
I noticed, and was annoyed. A few seconds later, Blubber’s bag went off like a volcano, spewing his ill-gotten loot into the sky to rain down over half the neighborhood. The squealing and shrieking rose to such heights the bellow of rage and frustration was almost entirely drowned out.
For the next hour, Johnathan was the hit of the street. People looked startled as he approached, bag in hand, and always forked over a handful of loot. Even old man Parker, up on the corner, failed to hand out his usual Halloween apple. He was the sort who always claimed to love kids in between shouts for them to get off his grass or quiet down or something. I think the apples were his way of pretending to be a nice old man while punishing children.
“An apple a day keeps the doc—” he said, before he looked Johnathan in his death’s-head face. “—tor… away…” He put the apple back, told Johnathan to wait, and went inside. He came back with a handful of gumdrops. “But candy works for the Grim Reaper.”
“Thank you, Mister Parker.”
“Thank you,” Parker replied. I suspect he was glad to see Johnathan go. There comes a certain age where any visit by the personification of Death is a chilling one.
Johnathan had a wonderful evening. I’m not sure how he managed to stuff so much loot into one bag. More important, I don’t think he ever had so many adults tell him how wonderful his costume was—or give him so much approval. To say nothing of the other kids! For what might be the first time in all nine of his years, everyone was envious of him.
If Death had shown up at that moment to spirit him away, Johnathan wouldn’t have minded.
Still, all good things, as they say. Mothers called to kids. Fathers repeated the calls. Gradually, the supernatural gave way to the mundane night. In half an hour the spectacular faded from the street, leaving only blacktop, well-mown lawns, and some rogue candy wrappers shuffling like dead leaves in the breeze.
Death came up my porch stairs to offer me a bag of candy.
“I gotta get home, Mister Blake. Mom’s been callin’ for me.”
I rummaged in the bag for a moment and found something for me. I also palmed a hundred-dollar bill, leaving it behind in his bag. One of my tricks for the evening, and a treat.
“This will do,” I told him, holding up the licorice. I hate the stuff, so rescuing him from it seemed reasonable.
“Thank you for the loan of your costume.”
“You’re very welcome, Grim Reaper. You did a fine job as Death.”
“You did. You were confident, you were kind, and don’t think I didn’t see you with Blubber. You wanted to be mean to him, didn’t you?”
“Why weren’t you?”
“I wasn’t sure what to do.”
“I mean, I wanted to punch him, but my Mom says that’s not how to handle bullies.”
“I tell you what. Tomorrow, catch him alone.”
“Yeah?” he asked, eagerly.
“And offer to share some candy with him.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed. Try being nice to him.”
“And if he’s mean to you after that, then punch him.”
“Are you sure?”
“He’ll beat you bloody,” I warned. “But if you never give up and never give in, he will. I promise.”
I made no mention of my intention to keep an eye on how the two of them got along. I wonder if Fred can stop by this world? If not, I’m pretty sure I can fake it.
“Nice first, then punch,” Johnathan repeated. “Never give up, never give in.”
“Exactly. Try to give people a chance to be nice back, but don’t take their bullying.”
“Okay. Do you want your cloak back?”
I reached out, touched it, and it flowed off him. It crawled up my arm and across my shoulders, flowing down behind me.
“You only got it on loan,” I reminded him. “It belongs to me.”
“Now run along home. Your mother is probably worried.”
Johnathan hurried home. I got out a notepad and a disguise spell. Moments later, I knocked on old man Parker’s door. He opened it and almost had a heart attack. Which, come to think of it, would have been rather ironic.
It’s one thing when a four-foot-tall Death shouts “Trick or treat!” It’s quite another thing when a six-foot-tall Death is holding a notepad in his skeletal hands and has his skull aimed at you.
“Samuel Hobson Parker,” I intoned.
He swallowed and nodded, unable to speak.
“Thank you for the gumdrops.” I drew a line across the notepad, as though scratching out a name. “Have a good evening, Samuel Hobson Parker. I will see you again… some other time.”
I gestured his door closed and vanished into the night.
So, okay, fine. Maybe I do enjoy Halloween just a little bit. Maybe peace and quiet aren’t the only things I want. Is it so wrong to want to be left alone? To enjoy simply being someone at the end of the block who doesn’t care if kids run screaming through his yard?
And, yes, maybe, once in a while, possibly, when the mood strikes… Do someone a favor? Have a little fun?
Maybe I’m not completely broken.