A finger of dread brushed like a feather’s stroke, reminding her of her words.

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Unsplash picture by Beth Tectschmann

Jolene

Little Lee sat on the couch and waited, watching the clock. It was 6:45 and he couldn’t go out until 7, when it got dark and people had time to finish dinner, said his mother, Jolene.

She also said this was his last year to trick or treat.

“You’re 11 now, and 12 is too old.” It hurt her to say it. He was small for his age, a little boy, really, with a sprinkling of freckles and a thatch of reddish hair that sprouted stubborn cowlicks. He still liked to fling his arms around Jolene and say “I love you,” which she didn’t think was true of most 11-year-old boys. There was a sweetness to him that kept him from harassing cats or smashing toads; a sweetness that caused his eyes to tear when anybody, even a girl, got teased on the playground.

He was dressed as a pirate, full length striped trousers and lace-up vest belted with a broad black sash that dipped almost to his black, high top boots. A red bandana with a skull and crossbones swept round his head, containing his cowlicks. He had removed his eye patch to watch the clock hands crawl with agonizing slowness toward seven o’clock.

To pass the time he played with his noise box, something his dad, Big Lee, had picked up at a sales convention. Little Lee pressed buttons indiscriminately, producing a series of sounds that ranged from fart noises to barfs to barking dogs and screeching tomcats.

Jolene hated it. “Why couldn’t you have gotten him something more mature?” She asked her husband. “He’s eleven now.” But she couldn’t deny the noise box was a hit.

“Can I go now?” Little Lee interrupted her thoughts, the pirate’s patch repositioned over one eye. “It’s five till seven.”

“Okay,” Jolene sighed, a lump rising in her throat as she watched her freckle-faced pirate stride off into the night. He had wanted to go alone, after years of trick or treating in parent-escorted groups, gaggles of children dressed as witches, ghosts, princesses, and the latest action figures. Her husband had said “You’ve got to quit babying him. I know he looks eight or nine, but he’s eleven, for crying out loud.” So she had relented, but now a finger of dread brushed like a feather’s stroke, reminding her of her words.

Why had she said it? It seemed bad luck, now. A premonition. But she shoved the thought aside and went to answer the door, where a tiny Moana clutching a round plastic pumpkin waited for candy.

Throngs of children scurried up and down the street, colorful costumed figures flitting through the dark, all giggles and laughter as they moved from house to house. Gleaming jack-o-lanterns grimaced from front porch steps, a straw witch tied to a tree spun crazily in the breeze and a gigantic blow-up cat with glittering yellow eyes wobbled in someone’s pitch black yard. The air smelled like woodsmoke and there was a nip in the air that hinted at winter’s approach.

Even with people taking time to admire his costume and say Aren’t you Jolene’s boy, Little Lee canvassed the street in no time. He always remembered to say thank you, sometimes calling it over his shoulder as he dashed to the next house.

After circling the cul de sac, racing up and down side streets and venturing three blocks away, his bag was still only half full. If this was to be his last time ever trick or treating, he wanted it filled to the brim. Go out with a bang, as his father would say.

He hesitated briefly. Trick or treaters were still out, although the clumps of younger kids had thinned. If he hurried, he could hit the next neighborhood, fill his bag and dash home before his mother started worrying. He felt exhilarated, almost like a real pirate, as he zigzagged through the less familiar streets and called hello to a Mad Hatter and a Captain Marvel.

He reached the next block and a ragged cloud scudded over the moon, plunging the neighborhood more deeply into darkness. It must be getting late. The trick or treaters had disappeared, melting into the night, their laughter replaced by the mournful hoot of an owl. He should turn around, but there was one more street he wanted to cover; a street where two and three story houses loomed on wide, sweeping lawns. Once when he and his mother had ridden down that street, Jolene had said, “This is where the rich half lives.”

“Why are they rich?” Little Lee had asked, but she only replied, “I’m the richest one of all, because I have you.”

He thought about those big houses and how much candy the rich people in them would give away; probably whole candy bars. But he was disappointed when he trekked up the first long driveway and no one answered the doorbell. He thought he saw a curtain part and the briefest flicker of a pale moon face, but he couldn’t be sure. It was creepy, and he hurried to the next house, where an older woman holding a bucket of candy said, “A handsome pirate. Not many have come up this street tonight and it’s getting so late I don’t believe many will. Take what you want.”

There were no more trick or treaters as he shuffled down the long stretch of road leading toward the next house, a forbidding stone structure with whispery cobwebs and giant spiders draping the shrubbery. Anybody who decorated this much for Halloween would have lots of candy, he reasoned.

But it was further than he thought. The night had deepened and trees were grotesque silhouettes, their branches clawing the sky like long, skeletal fingers. He removed his pirate’s patch and squinted into the dark, straining to see. Maybe he should go home. Shadows flickered and danced across wide lawns that looked ominous beneath the ghostly glow of street lights.

Then he heard it. A crunch, a rustling, and the soft thud of a boot. He whirled around, heart stuttering beneath the pirate’s vest.

“Who’s there?”

They were on him before he knew it; before he could run. There were three of them, faces hidden by black ski masks, eyes invisible behind dark holes that looked like the hollow sockets of dead men. One flashed a silver knife; scraped it across his throat. A spurt of blood trickled down his neck and he screamed until a hand slapped hard across his mouth. Another one ripped the bag of candy from his hand and flung him to the ground. He felt the knife against his back and waited for it to rip his pirate’s vest; slice the soft, yielding flesh beneath.

The last words he heard were, “Hey, we hit the jackpot. This dude’s made a Halloween haul.”

Jolene hadn’t gotten uneasy until nine, when the last trick or treaters straggled through. Lee always told her she was too hovering, so she didn’t want to go nuts because her son was late getting home. She wished she could call her husband, but he was in the air by now, flying back from his sales meeting and due to arrive later tonight.

She started panicking at 9:30; considered driving the car around the neighborhood at 9:45 and discarded the idea because what if Little Lee got home while she was gone?

By 10 o’clock she was pacing the floor. She stopped now and then to search outside, peering into the blackness of a Halloween night where all the trick or treaters except her son had gone to bed.

At 10:30 she decided to call the police. She picked up the phone, poised to dial 911 when the front door burst open and she felt the blast of cold night air before she whirled around and saw him. A trickle of blood coursed down his throat and his pirate’s suit hung loose and tattered. His bandana unraveled around an unruly thicket of cowlicks. His boots were caked with mud, his pirate’s patch had vanished and he clutched not one but two bags filled to the brim.

Jolene gasped, relief and terror flooding her in a jumbled cocktail of emotions.

His thoughts, a kaleidescope of events, coalesced into the memory of that one mistake that led to victory. The boy had spoken, and he had recognized the voice. He thought they were going to stab him; waited helplessly for the slash of the knife, but when they didn’t, after they had fled with his candy, he stood up shakily and brushed himself off.

He knew who they were, and that meant he knew where they were. They were in the cabin. He had stumbled across it one day and spied on them as they smoked and drank and cursed and smirked and a pimply, evil faced boy flashed the same silver knife.

It didn’t take him long to get there. He ran all the way to the end of the cul de sac, cut through the woods that skirted his neighborhood and followed a dirt road that meandered to the edge of the clearing. The cabin, a dilapidated, sagging shack, sat forlorn in the shadow of ghostly trees. He hunkered down and slipped softly to the window, where he watched the trio spread mountains of candy across a rickety table. There were Reeses Pieces, Mars bars, Hershey’s, milk duds, M&M’s, candy corn, chocolates, suckers, licorice and more; every kind of candy imaginable spread like spoils from a war, or a bank robbery.

He shifted slightly, little more than a rustle, but the one with the knife narrowed his eyes. “You guys hear anything?”

“I ain’t heard nothin’,” the tallest one said.

The third one lifted his nose like a hound after a scent. “I’ll check it out. We find anybody, we gut ’em like a fish.”

The police sirens were so unexpected that all three boys jumped, upsetting the table and sending a landslide of candy to the floor. The sirens grew louder, closer, shrilling through the night, shattering silence. The boys panicked, stumbled into each other, cursed and screamed as they bolted through the door and fled like rats from a sinking ship.

Little Lee watched until they disappeared, then crept inside the cabin. He punched the noise box and the sirens stopped as abruptly as they had started. Night filled with silence as he gathered candy.

“What in the world happened, Little Lee?” Jolene cried, rushing to gather him in he arms.

“I’m not Little Lee anymore. Call me Lee,” he said as a smile, broad and triumphant, spread across his grimy face.

This story is a response to Writer’s Prompt #29

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Writer, editor, publisher, journalist, author, columnist, believer in enjoying my journey and helping other people enjoy theirs. bknicholson@att.net

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