My instructions were clear.
Only go to houses with the front light on.
Always keep your sister within sight.
Don’t cross the streets.
Stay on our block.
Say thank you.
Trick-or-treating in our neighborhood starts around twilight for the little kids, and sometimes lasts as late as nine o’clock for the bigger ones. My sister and I were of that in-between age, she being seven, and I a very mature ten. She was still too young to go out on her own, so I was tasked with the burden of being her escort.
I was of two minds on the matter. On the one hand it made me feel important, and I took my responsibility seriously. On the other hand, what ten-year-old wants to be saddled with their kid sister on the coolest night of the year? If my parents were the audience, it was the worst burden they could have possibly dreampt up, pure and simple. Out of their purview, I pretty well strutted with self-import, and tried to boss Molly around as if it were my divine right.
Not wanting to be confused for a little kid I insisted on waiting until five-thirty to roll around, much to Molly’s protestations. Five-thirty was what my friends, Tim Morgan and Bill Taylor, and I had set as an acceptable departure time. By then many of the little ones were already being shepherded home by their over-protective parents.
Halloween night of ’05 was all one could ask for. The weather was warm and dry, the sudden cold snap at the start of the week past, with only the lightest of breezes to stir the air – no jackets were necessary.
We all gathered down at Bill’s back gate. Tim looked none too happy, for while I was encumbered with Molly, he had it worse – his twin sisters, Mary Ellen, and Tabby were in his care. Bill, on the other hand, looked pleased as punch. He was the youngest in his family, and this was the first time he was allowed to do the rounds on his own.
The six of us – me as Albert Pujols in my Cardinals jersey and cap, Molly as a witch à la Hogwarts, Tim a hobo as he was every year, his sisters as Kim Possible and Dora the Explorer, and Bill as a pirate – headed out, intent on making the best haul ever.
Our block, though not particularly long, is known to be generous. Another factor going for us, Crestview Court – the short cul-de-sac bisecting the back side of our block – adds another nine houses to our route without requiring us to cross a street. So, despite our parents’ rules, we had a good chance of meeting our goals.
We did our own street, Brookdale, first. Unfortunately, we made old lady Carter our first stop. Valuable collection time was lost while she puzzled out who we were. In the end Mary Ellen and Tabby stumped her. They had to say who they were, and then had to go into a long explanation detailing the exploits of Kim Possible and Dora the Explorer. Still, it was my first chance to try out my home grown joke, and I delivered it with gusto.
“How many Cubs does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
Mrs. Carter stared at me for a moment before making the obligatory response. “I don’t know. How many?”
I started cracking up before I even delivered the punchline. “No one can remember, they haven’t done it since 1908!” My laughter subsided as I realized Mrs. Carter was still staring at me as if waiting for the finish. “Get it?” I asked. “Since 1908.”
She smiled and said, “That’s funny,” in the most unconvincing way. All this, and all we got was a lousy fun-sized plain chocolate bar.
Fortunately the rest of our street made up for it. Green Meadow, being the cross street was pretty much a wash. There are only two houses on it, and the Stewarts’ porch light, as always, was off.
By the time we got halfway down Woodcrest our bags were actually getting pretty heavy. Tim looked longingly across the street at the Turner’s well lit house. Word had it that the Turner’s went all out, gave full-sized candy bars, and had a great haunted house setup in the basement.
“Let’s check out the Turner’s this year,” Tim suggested.
“We can’t cross the street,” Molly said.
“It’s not busy. Let’s go.”
I was all for it, but Molly said she’d tell mom if we did.
“We’ll we’re going,” Tim decided for himself and his sisters. He was determined. He was also drawn by the fact that he had a major crush on Jenny Turner. “You coming?” he asked Bill.
Bill looked torn, but in the end decided to stick with us. Tim and the twins gave a quick look both ways and then dashed across the street and disappeared into a crowd of about a dozen other kids heading up the walk.
The three of us continued on and soon came to the corner of Woodcrest and Crestview Court. Of the nine houses only three had on lights. Bill suggested we skip it as not worth the effort, but Molly insisted we do the circle. After a good deal of wheedling she got her way.
The last house we came to with the light on looked a bit unkempt and Bill suddenly lagged behind.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him.
“Oh, nothing. I just don’t want to… That’s old man Henderson’s place.” I didn’t know much about old man Henderson expect he seemed to be lonely and walked a tired old black lab every day. I shrugged. “He’s kind of creepy,” Bill went on. “They say he killed his wife and keeps her in a rocking chair, like in that movie.”
“He did not!” Molly retorted. “He’s a nice old man, and Bo is a really nice dog.” She started down the walk.
“Molly, wait!” I reached for her, but she jerked out of my grasp and darted to the door. Before I could stop her she rang the bell.
What could I do but follow her onto the stoop? I looked back, and Bill stood there at the end of the walk, neither coming nor leaving. Distracted as I was, I nearly jumped when the front door jerked open. A warm orangish light washed out upon us.
“Trick-or-treat!” Molly shouted.
An old man in a red T-shirt and bluejeans stood on the other side of the storm door regarding our attire. A rolly-polly black lab stood just behind him, lazily wagging its tale. The man glanced aside, into another room, then slowly opened the door a crack.
“Trick-or-treat!” Molly shouted again, her eyes fixed on the black lab.
“Hello, Molly. Is it Halloween? I clear forgot.” He looked a bit perplexed. Then he opened the door wider to allow us to step in. I reached, but Molly was over the threshold before I could stop her. What could I do but follow her in?
The house had that vaguely sweet yet unpleasant odor reminiscent of the nursing home grandma was in. I glanced back out the door to see Bill standing resolutely at the curb.
Molly made straight for the dog, who nuzzled up to her warmly. They obviously knew each other well. Then she glanced into the other room and said, “Happy Halloween, Mrs. Henderson.”
That’s when I noticed the hospital bed. I took in a sharp breath when I saw a pale withered arm rise up and give a fluttery finger wave before dropping back down. The arm belonged to a gaunt old woman laying under several blankets. With a knit cap on her head only her pale arms and face were visible. Yet her clear blue eyes were very much alive, and she gave us a warm smile.
“I’ll see what I can rustle up,” Mister Henderson said, shuffling off toward the kitchen. As he did so Molly went over to visit with his wife, the dog tagging right behind her. I lingered by the door, undecided whether or not to bolt. As I fretted, Molly blithely related the adventures of our evening thus far and detailing her night’s haul. I was about to make a move to grab her when Mister Henderson came back into the room.
“This is all I could manage,” he said, almost apologetically. Molly joined us in the hallway and he dropped a full-sized chocolate bar into both of our bags. “So,” he said, “you have a joke for me?”
I told him my Cubs joke and he laughed heartily. Then he handed me another chocolate bar. “This one’s for your buccaneer friend out there,” he said, indicating Bill.
Old man Henderson watched us walk back out to the curb. When we got there Molly let out a gasp and turned back abruptly as if she forgot something. “Thank you!” she shouted down the walk toward the house.
In response Mister Henderson gave us a friendly wave. As we turned to go he closed the door, and front light winked out.
(c) 2013 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.