IN A WHIRLWIND OF AUTUMN LEAVES
“Daddy, come on!”
Billy’s father stood on the sidewalk at the corner of Jefferies and Laurel, staring down at the cellphone in his hands. Billy tugged at the man’s jacket.
“Just a minute,” his father said without looking up from the small screen. “I’m in the middle of something.”
Billy groaned behind the rubber mask that turned him into green warty goblin. The brown poncho he wore to round out his costume was heavy, and despite the chill October wind that sent the crisp autumn leaves scurrying across the pavement, he was sweating.
Not that he minded. It was Halloween, and he’d endure any number of discomforts for the prospect of CANDY CANDY CANDY! It was the night of the year the he anticipated more than any other, with the exception of Christmas Eve. He’d picked out this costume mid-September, and he’d been dreaming of trick-or-treating ever since the first leaf had turned yellow-orange on the maple in the front yard.
Typically his mother took him out on Halloween night, but this year she was feeling a bit under the weather, so his father had volunteered. Which would have been fine if his father wasn’t constantly distracted by his phone.
They’d been out for half an hour and had only made it one block.
Billy watched in dismay as a host of short monsters paraded by. Ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches. All accompanied by adults who were smiling as they held their kids’ hands and led them from one house to another.
“Daaaaddyyyy!” Billy said, stomping his foot on the cement. “Everybody’s gonna be out of candy by the time we get there.”
With a sigh, Billy’s father tore his gaze from the phone long enough to glance down at his son. “Have a little patience, Billy boy! I’m having a bit of a work crisis, and I need to get some stuff taken care of.”
“But Daddy, it’s Halloween.”
“My bosses don’t care about Halloween. I’ll tell you what, you just run along and go to all the houses on this side of the street while I finish up this email.”
“By myself?” Billy said, feeling a shiver run up and down his spine. At 9 years old, he considered himself a Big Boy, but the prospect of wandering the neighborhood at night on his own frightened him.
“Just to the end of the block, about four houses. Once you reach the next intersection, you come on back here. I should be finished by then.”
Billy turned his head to stare down Jefferies street to where it intersected with Wilkinson. Just one city block, but it seemed to stretch on for miles. Yet the fear of being away from his father’s side in the dark was eclipsed by his desire for the candy he knew waited behind the doors of these houses. Besides, there were plenty of streetlamps and porch lights keeping the shadows at bay.
“Promise you’ll be right here?” he asked, only a slight quaver to his voice.
“Count on it, Billy boy,” his father said, his attention already returned to the phone.
Steeling himself with a deep breath, which filled the inside of the mask like a warm vapor, Billy left his father’s side and started slowly down the sidewalk to the first house. A gaggle of children were coming back down the walkway, giggling and peering into their bags and plastic jack-o’-lantern buckets at the candy they’d just scored.
Billy made his way to the porch alone. On the top step an animatronic crow turned its head, flashed red eyes at him, and let loose with a mechanical caw. A cellophane witch was plastered on the large front window next to the door. Billy rang the bell and waited, clutching his orange and black bag like a security blanket. He called out a tentative “Trick or treat” as the door opened.
An old lady with a billowy white could of hair and cats-eye glasses stood before him, oohing and aahing over his costume as she deposited several fun-sized candy bars into his sack. He saw a Mounds, which wasn’t his favorite, but also a Snickers and Milky Way which he loved.
Bolstered by the promise of more chocolatey goodness, he went to the next three houses with enthusiasm, no longer worried about being away from his father’s side. In fact, he ceased to think about his father at all, and never looked back to make sure the man was still waiting on the corner. He bounded from door to door, his “Trick or treat” becoming more enthusiastic and boisterous each time. At the end of the block, he finally glanced back down Jefferies. His father was spotlighted under a lamppost, still tapping away at the phone, not even looking in Billy’s direction.
Billy stood there for a moment, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. He had always been an obedient child, never getting up to any serious mischief, and he rarely defied his parents instructions.
But what harm could come from him crossing Wilkinson and continuing down the next block? It too was well lit, with plenty of other kids and their parents going house to house. If he waited on his father, it could take them fifteen minutes to get down the one block when Billy could do it in five on his own? He’d be careful, checking both ways before crossing the street, then at the end of the block he’d cross to the other side of Jefferies and make his way back. Immersed as his father was in his work email, he likely wouldn’t even notice Billy had strayed farther than he’d been told to go.
Deciding to break the rules for once, Billy checked for traffic then crossed the street. The wind gusted, sending a flurry of leaves into his path as if trying to stop him. He kicked through them, laughing and enjoying the scritch-scratch sound they made.
At the first house on this new block, he got a large bag of M&Ms and a box of cracker jacks. Walking back to the sidewalk, his head was down as he peered into his bag, looking at all his sugary loot. The wind rose again with a keening howl, sounding like something in pain, and the leaves were lifted up into a whirlwind that encircled him like the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz. The brittle leaves scratched at his poncho and scraped along the rubber mask, and they spun around him in such great numbers that they blocked out his vision with a blurring kalediscope of orange, red, and brown.
Billy, initially delighted by the sensation of being caught in the middle of this gaily painted whirlwind, began to feel frightened. He stumbled forward, flailing and kicking out at the leaves, then stumbled and fell down hard on the pavement. The impact caused him to bite his tongue, and pain flared even as the coppery taste of his own blood filled his mouth.
The cyclone of leaves had finally torn apart, the various pieces skittering away into the night like scurrying insects. Billy stood slowly, rubbing at his bruised tailbone. He bent to retrieve his dropped trick-or-treat sack then straightened his mask which had gotten knocked askew in the fall.
Only then did the boy register that the street had grown dimmer. Looking up at the streetlamps, he saw that several of them had gone out, and those that still glowed gave off only a sickly yellow light that served to accentuate the darkness instead of alleviating it. There were no longer any porch lights shining like beacons. The wind changed directly suddenly, and all those leaves that had skittered away before now came back his way, as if giving chase. Billy glanced down Jefferies Street, back the way he’d come, hoping to catch a glimpse of his father. All he saw that way was a wall of shadow that looked as solid as cement. He was afraid if he walked into the darkness, he would be swallowed whole and never seen again.
“Daddy?” he called out in a tiny voice that seemed not to carry any further than the tip of his nose. “Daddy, are you still there?”
There was no response. In fact, the night was utterly still and quiet except for the rustling leaves. All the other trick-or-treaters and their parents seemed to have fled. As much as the darkness scared him, being out here alone scared him even more. He started shuffling back toward Wilkinson. The houses looked different shrouded in shadow, more sinister and they seemed to lean at odd angles as if set on crooked foundations. The pavement as he crossed the intersection was cracked and broken where he remembered it being smooth before.
The sound of the leaves now resembled laughter, the mean-spirited tittering of a witch as she bakes small children in her oven. Billy picked up his pace, not quite running but definitely more than a walk. Maybe a trot.
He had nearly reached the end of this block and there was no sign of his father. He’d been waiting on the corner the last Billy had seen of him, but now the sidewalk was deserted. Billy stood there, eyes desperately scanning the area. He sensed movement at the house next to him, and he turned just in time to see what he had thought was an animatronic crow before flap its wings and take flight, buzzing past Billy’s face so closely that feathers beat against the mask.
“Daddy!” Billy shouted, feeling tears sliding down his cheeks. He crouched down on his haunches with his back to the splintering lamppost and gave in to a fit of sobbing like he hadn’t done since he was in diapers. Why would his father have left him? Was it like in that story his mother told him at bedtime a few weeks ago, Hansel and Gretel. The idea that parents would abandon their children had terrified him, and now he was living it.
“Are you okay?”
Billy looked up at the sound of the voice to see a group approaching him from down Laurel Street, a group comprised of three kids and two adults. A familiar enough tableau on Halloween night, but there was something about these people that seemed a bit off. It took Billy a moment to realize what it was.
The parents were in costume and the children were not.
Although as they came closer, stopping just in front of him, he realized that wasn’t true. The kids were in costume, but the adults’ costumes were so much more elaborate and horrific. The children were dressed as a baseball player, a mailman, and a cheerleader respectively. The father was done up as a werewolf, with a very convincing furry mask with yellow eyes and snarling teeth, hairy arms and legs jutting out of ripped clothes. The mother looked like a giant insect of some kind, covered in hard body armor with wiggling antennae and multiple arms. It was an impressive costume, and Billy couldn’t even begin to fathom how she’d gotten herself into it. The spectacle of the two adults’ costumes temporarily took his mind off his troubles.
“Why are you crying?” asked the little cheerleader, bringing Billy crashing back down to reality.
“I can’t find my Daddy.”
The insect lady said, her voice clipped and high-pitched, “Are you lost, little one?”
“No, I’m not lost. My Daddy is lost. He was right here and now he’s not, and I don’t know where to find him.”
The werewolf got down on one knee so he was at Billy’s eye level. This close-up the mask was even more impressive, and the breath that wafted from the snout had the slightly sour smell of meat on the verge of going bad. “Do you live around here?” he asked in a growly voice.
Billy looked around at his surroundings, feeling like he had stepped into a nightmare. He should know this neighborhood, he’d ridden his bike along the streets all last summer, and yet nothing looked familiar to him now. He couldn’t even find any of the landmarks that usually helped orient him. Where was the white-picket fence in front of the Haversham’s house, or the Stevens’ tacky lawn ornaments? The towering oak tree with the tire swing hanging from one of the lower branches should have been just across the street…except it wasn’t. He should know exactly where he was, but he may as well have been on another planet. This sense of disorientation only led to more tears.
“Oh dear,” said the insect lady, reaching out with one of her multi-jointed arms to pat him on the shoulder. “I’m sure your father will turn up soon. We’ll wait with you until he does.”
“But Mom,” whined the mailman, “I want more treats.”
The werewolf swatted the boy gently on the back of the head. “Show a little compassion. This boy is lost.”
“He can come with us,” the baseball player said.
The insect lady shook her head. “He should stay put in case his father returns.” Turning her wide black eyes back to Billy, she quickly added, “When! I mean when your father returns.”
“He can come with us,” said the cheerleader. “We’ll just go to the houses on the other side of the street. That’s still in the area.”
“I don’t know.”
Billy sniffled and said, “I wouldn’t mind.” He was still scared, but less so now that there were other adults present. Nothing too bad could happen with adults present. Besides, he still wanted to fill his sack.
The other three children cheered and clapped and the werewolf said, “Okay, fine, but just the houses across the street.”
The two adults let the four children across Jefferies street and up to the first house. Not only were the oak and tire swing gone, but Billy could have sworn this house used to be red brick instead of rough gray stone.
At the door, a big slab of wood twice as tall as a normal door, the werewolf lifted a heavy brass knocker shaped like a bat and let it fall against the wood with a hollow thud! Then the two adults stepped back and left the children to stand before the door with their sacks held out.
The door opened with a pronounced creak, and the tallest person Billy had ever seen stepped over the threshold. Draped in a brown robe, the hood of which completely concealed the face, skeletal hands sticking out of the sleeves, one of which gripped a scythe with a gleaming blade. An impressive Grim Reaper costume. Billy wondered if perhaps the person was on stilts under the robe, but the size of the door suggested otherwise.
“Trick or treat,” Billy called out in unison with the other three children, although it sounded oddly as if the baseball player, the mailman, and the cheerleader said, “Tricks are treats.”
The Reaper reached the free hand into one of the many folds in the robe and then started dropping items into each sack. The hand went so deep in each bag that Billy couldn’t see what kind of candies they were getting. Then the Reaper seemed to float back into the house, the door slamming shut in the children’s faces.
Going back down the walk, the other there were chattering excitedly as they glanced into their bags. Billy scanned the street again for his father then looked into his own bag, expecting to find peanut butter cups or marshmallow pumpkins or candy corns…
…but what he saw instead caused him to yelp like a kicked dog and drop his bag. Out spilled all the candy he’d collected so far tonight, as well as the fat slimy worms that the Reaper had apparently just given him.
“Eww,” said the cheerleader. “Who put that gross stuff in there along with the goodies?”
Billy pointed back at the house they’d just come from. “He had to have done it, I know these weren’t in my bag before. You guys didn’t get the same?”
They all peered back in their sacks and shook their heads.
“Why would anyone play such a vicious prank on a child?” the alien lady said.
“Maybe it’s because you’re not wearing a costume,” the cheerleader said to Billy.
The boy frowned inside his mask. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, it’s Halloween. You’re supposed to dress up, not just come out as you are.”
Billy bristled at this, assuming the girl was making fun of him. “Hey, that’s not very nice.”
“She’s got a point,” the mailman chimed in. “Couldn’t your folks afford to get you a costume?”
“This is my costume, you bunch of jokesters,” Billy said then reached up and pulled the rubber goblin mask off his head.
The three children screamed and started backpedaling away from him. At first he thought this was just more of their cruel mockery, but then he saw that the werewolf and alien lady were reacting the same. Surely adults wouldn’t be so mean.
The baseball player bumped into the mailman who in turn bumped into the cheerleader. Their bags fell open, spilling out tangled mounds of worms and snails and snakes and toads. All three children toppled to the ground like dominos, and that was when their faces fell off.
Not their real faces, but the masks they wore.
Under the baseball player mask was an alien head that was a smaller replica of his mother’s; the mailman façade fell away to reveal a furry werewolf head; the cheerleader’s real countenance was so misshapen and foreign and hideous that Billy’s mind could barely comprehend it.
Now it was Billy who screamed and backpedaled. He fell onto his bottom again, but this time he barely registered the pain. He scrambled to his feet and started running away from the nightmare children. He could hear them shouting behind him, but he didn’t glance over his shoulder to see if they were pursuing him. He fled across the street, not even checking for traffic, and at the far curb he stumbled over the broken pavement and fell face-first into a large pile of leaves.
He sank in for what felt like miles, totally submerged in the leaves. They were all around him, scratching at his face, blinding him. It was as if he were drowning in the dead leaves. He kicked and writhed…and then screamed again when he felt hands on his arms. He beat at whatever monster was trying to get hold of him.
“Billy, son, it’s me! Calm down!”
The familiar voice registered, and Billy opened his eyes to see his father kneeling next to the pile of leaves, his arms held out. Billy leapt into those arms, wrapping his own around his father’s neck.
“Billy boy, I’m so sorry,” his father was saying, returning the tight hug. “I only let you out of my sight for a minute, and when I looked up again, I couldn’t find you anywhere. Scared me to death. Please forgive me, I should never have been so neglectful.”
“It’s my fault, Daddy! I should never have wandered off.”
His father pulled back, examining Billy with look and touch to make sure he was okay. “What happened to your mask and your trick-or-treat bag?”
“I guess I lost them.”
“It doesn’t matter. I promise, my phone is away for good tonight. We’ll hit every house in town.”
Billy looked around, finding himself back on the Jefferies Street he’d always known. There was the Haversham’s fence, and the flamingos and gnomes in the Stevens’ yard. Just down the road a bit he could see the oak with the tire swing hanging from one of its lower branches. Still, even though everything was once again familiar and well-lit, he sensed a darkness underneath it all, and the sound as a gust of wind sent the leaves stampeding across the pavement gave him chills.
“Can we just go home, Daddy?”
His father frowned at him. “Are you sure? I know how much you’ve been looking forward to tonight.”
“I’m getting a little old for Halloween. Let’s just go home, and maybe you can read me a story. Nothing scary though.”
“Sure thing, Billy Boy,” his father said with a smile, then he lifted Billy into his arms in a way he hadn’t in years.
As he was carried home, Billy buried his face in his father’s neck and tried to block out the sound of the autumn leaves.