The first time you notice the child, two groups of trick-or-treaters have converged on your porch at once. It’s twenty-two minutes past six and the smaller children are out in full force, guided by grown-ups or older siblings pressed into service.
The monsters are pretty thin on the ground right now. At this hour, it’s mostly mutant turtles and cartoon princesses, Sith Lords and Jedi Knights… and at the pack of the pack, standing just off the edge of your small patio-like front porch is one tiny child, painfully pale and painfully thin.
If those dark circles are just makeup, it’s a far more subtle job than the usual Halloween face paint. The brief glimpse of gray you get beneath the neck doesn’t look much like a costume, but then a taller child in wizard school robes shifts in front of you and you lose your train of thought.
By the time the crowd has thinned out, you couldn’t exactly swear that the pale child in the back never came forward to grab a handful of Smarties and Sixlets with the rest, but you didn’t see it happen.
Well, some kids are shy, you tell yourself. Probably someone else in the group was an older relative, tasked with the perilous task of going up to the door and actually collecting the candy.
When you open the door a few minutes later to see the same child, dressed in a shapeless gray sweater and dingy white pants, standing at the edge of your porch behind a pair of children dressed as superheroes in tutus, you manage to summon up a smile and a remark about how glad you are to see they found the bravery to come back, but somehow the words catch in your throat and the smile dies on your face when you meet the child’s eyes.
You can’t be sure—after all, it was only a glimpse before—but you’d almost swear it was standing in the exact same place as last time. Head at the same angle, eyes staring ahead in the same fixed way. You hold out the candy bowl for the first two visitors and then make a valiant effort to thrust it out towards the strange child at the back of the porch for several seconds. When it doesn’t move or react in any way, you step back and quickly shut the door.
The next time there’s a knock on the door, you take a look through the peephole. No one there but a pirate. You step back and open the door in the same motion, and find yourself looking at a child you’re sure wasn’t there before, as though the door had been a screen wipe transitioning to a fresh scene.
You give the pirate the due booty and barely manage to restrain yourself from screaming at a child for being spooky at Halloween.
“Nice trick,” you say to the other child. “Bet you don’t get much candy that way, though. Come up and have some!”
You know the child won’t.
When you close the door, you look through the peephole and then through the side pane and see nothing. You try to convince yourself that if you were to open the door, your front step would be deserted. You don’t quite manage it.
When the next knock comes, you take a long time to answer it. You know what you’ll see before you open the door, and of course you’re right. When you close it this time, you briefly flick off your porch light, then you look at the candy in your bowl and think about the decorations all over the outside of your house. No one would look at your house and believe that you’re not at home to trick-or-treaters.
Anyway, would be any better to hide out alone in your house with the lights off, waiting for the children knocking to go away disappointed? It’s not like the other child would leave.
You do your best to ignore its continued presence as you go about your holiday duties. Surprisingly, it works. No one else mentions the other child or gives it much notice, and after a while it just becomes a background part of the routine.
The crowd changes a bit as the sun finishes setting and full dark sets in. The older kids are out now, the ones who go all out on their costumes. The little kids are cute, but you’ve always loved the scary side of Halloween, the ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night…
And just like that, you’re thinking of the other child again, and suddenly you’re noticing that at some point he took a step up and is now positioned just inside the bounds of your porch. He’s changed the angle of his head, and the look on his face is… less vacant. Hard to quantify, though.
Official trick-or-treat hours for your town run until 8:00, though you’ve always kept the light burning a bit later for people who don’t read the community calendar.
Tonight, though, you start giving out your remaining candy multiple handfuls at a time, and as soon as your phone says 8:00, you lock your door, turn out your porch light, close all the blinds, and turn on every light inside your house.
You pour yourself a glass of wine, and you’re just in the process of trying to decide between going upstairs to drink it with a book or sitting down with something light and fun on the TV when you hear the unmistakable metal screech of your storm door being opened.
You freeze up. The porch light is off. Everybody knows that’s the universal signal of “no candy here”, right? You’ve closed up shop for the night. All you have to do is be quiet and ignore it…
“Trick or treat.”
It’s a child’s voice, a tiny voice, yet one that is remarkably piercing in the stillness of the moment. Your blood pounds in your ears as you try to decide what to do. Answering the door seems impossible, even if it seemed like a good idea, but you’re not sure how much longer you can stand to ignore it…
“Hello?” another voice says, an older one, and you both jump in surprise and then relax so completely you practically deflate. It’s your next-door neighbor. They always come by your house last, after doing a driving tour of other neighborhoods. They must have been running a bit late tonight, that’s all. You remember now that you didn’t see them among the press of costumed bodies at your front door. It might have seemed weird at the time, if anything so normal had the power to seem weird.
“Coming!” you shout, almost laughing with relief.
You run-walk to the front hall, where you reach for the door before realizing you have empty hands. The last remnants of the candy are in the bowl, which you set down on the little foyer table just behind you.
You turn around…
First Published: October 29th, 2015
Word Count: ~1200