Ted pressed the colorless doorbell one last time. Inside he could hear the faint sound of a television. The windows remained dark. The curtains drawn. The door still.
“C’mon,” Aaron said, pulling up his skull mask. His skeleton costume glowed in the faint moonlight as he marched down the pathway. “We’ve waited long enough.” Next to him, Sandy shrugged and followed suit, her green makeup a splotchy reminder of the earlier rainfall, her nose bouncing on her chest like a necklace.
They’d all been less than themselves, drudging through the damp leaves and empty streets of their last Halloween together. Ted had meant it to be a joyous celebration. They wanted to hit all their favorite houses one last time before college, and still have time to go to a few parties later.
Instead they just felt a growing sense of disappointment. The house on Midlothian, which had given away full packs of Starburst when the Mahoney twins lived there, was now occupied by a new family, young and inexperienced, giving out Smarties. The house on Jackson, which used to laugh and scream as you walked up to it, sat dark and empty with a For Sale sign out front.
Small and squat among bushes, it sat lonely on a dead end street called Cherry Point. Tree branches crawled like fingers above the walkway. Owls hooted from the forest around it.
The owners of the house were renowned for their frightful displays. One year, the undead came crashing around trick-or-treaters, swinging from the ceiling, rising from the ground, working to impede the high stepping children as they half-screamed, half-laughed down the hallway to the waiting bowl of candy. Another year, a lifelike head bit eager fingers if they reached in too deep for the candy.
“I heard he murdered his neighbor for mowing too close to his house,” Ben Rodgers had said later.
“Then why’s he not in prison?” everyone had asked.
“DUH,” Ben said, bewildered that it needed explaining, delighted at being the one to do it. “Cops are as ‘fraid of him as everyone else. I wouldn’t arrest him. Might turn me into a newt.”
The candy at their house the best. An all you could choose of King Size bars. Kit-Kats. Snickers. Reese’s. You name it, they had it.
The terror and glee they’d felt when they were younger had crystalized into love in their adolescence. They paid closer attention to the makeup on the mannequins, the thickness of the cobwebs, how the mist from the dry ice billowed like clouds.
This year, dreary and despondent, Ted stood on the doorstep alone as his friends abandoned him. The house sat empty, a television echoing inside like a memory of hauntings from years past.
“C’mon, Ted,” Aaron yelled from the street. Sandy stood next to him, her fists pressing into her waist, a hip pushing into one of them.
Ted kicked the door in frustration.
Once. Twice. A third time for good measure. The kicks reverberated in the night.
“Fine,” he yelled. “Stay shut.”
He turned and stomped down the walkway, imagining all the fury he could unleash on the door.
“Wait,” Sandy yelled. But he’d already seen it. The porch light had blinked on. Ted’s shadow cast long across the lawn. He froze where he stood, halfway to the street.
Sandy and Aaron rushed past him. Sandy pulled up her nose, Aaron pulled down his mask. Ted still didn’t move, stuck in no-man’s-land land, exposed to the night. What if the owners were dead and long buried? What if a murderer lurked within? What beast had he awoken?
“Ted,” Aaron yelled. “C’mon!”
Aaron was right, Ted decided, suppressing the childish fears bubbling up from his stomach. They needed to stand at the door together when it opened, say the incantation in unison, get their just reward.
He turned, picking up the sides of his ghost costume. “It looks like a curtsy every time you do that,” Sandy had joked earlier. But he didn’t care. Seeing through the sheet was hard enough, he wasn’t going to make things worse by tripping.
An unfamiliar old woman, illuminated by a dim lamp behind her, stood in a white nightgown flowing to her bare feet. Her hair waved in the night air. Her eyes peered into the darkness from behind the screen door. Her mouth stretched open and she said, soft as the wind, “Who’s there?”
Her cheeks sagged, wrinkles hanging like sheets, mouth held tight. She blinked at the darkness and then caught a pair of square-framed glasses dangling at her chest and pulled them to her eyes.
“Trick or treat!” the three friends yelled together from the doorstep.
“Oh my,” she said at the sight of the three monsters that were really teenagers too old for this game. “Is it really Halloween?”
She pushed the screen door open. It creaked with anxiety, a warning, perhaps. She held it ajar, fixing each of them with a stare, her eyes studying their wardrobes.
Their pillow cases hovered open, steady and expectant. An owl crooned in the night. She smiled at them, overjoyed by the unexpected company.
“Would you like to come in?”
The woman didn’t wait for an answer. She pushed the screen door open until Ted took it, then shuffled back into her house and down a dark hallway.
“Let me see what I have for my trick-or-treaters,” she called.
The three friends pulled themselves into the living room, wiping their wet feet on the faded yellow rug. The living room felt bare without the cobwebs, mist, and dancing zombies they remembered.
“I guess it’s a new owner,” Ted said, casting his eyes round the room.
Green couch. Brown wallpaper. A lampshade with a large burn mark on the outside. Boxes lined the wall near the door.
“Or maybe her husband died,” Sandy said. A picture of an old couple sat on a side table. But the woman in the photo looked heavier than the woman who came to the door.
“Guys.” Aaron stood at the threshold still, his hand resting on the screen door handle, a finger pointed to the far wall. His eyes filled with alarm. “We should go.”
Strung along the wall like streamers were hairy bats, dead and decaying. Hanging below them were an assortment of skulls. Rats. Squirrels. Humans. Things you might catch outside.
“If she didn’t know it was Halloween…”
Sandy didn’t finish the thought. Aaron pushed the latch and flung the door open. It slammed back and bounced against each of them as they ran, a ghost, a witch, and a skeleton, their screams swallowed by the darkness. A werewolf answered their calls from the woods, alerting the rest of the cursed beasts free on this hallowed eve that it was time to join the hunt. The old hag’s trap had been sprung.
The three friends scampered down the empty street unaware of what was coming or that they were lost or that this truly would be their last Halloween.
The woman returned to the screen door a smile on her lips, yelling into the night after her prey her answer to their question, the incantation they’d never understood. Until now.