12 Hours of Halloween: Chapter 9

When I arrived at the place where Wilma Court and Cider Mill Drive intersect (those streets are still there, as far as I know), Leah and Bobby were waiting for me. 

Leah looked breathtakingly pretty in her Pocahontas costume: It was about what you would expect: an imitation buckskin tunic and skirt, with lots of tassels and feathers. She had even put a little war paint on her face—possibly lipstick and eye shadow that had been repurposed for the occasion. 

“Hi, Jeff,” she said.

“Hi, Leah,” I said. Did she know how pretty she looked? Did she know that I knew?

Bobby, meanwhile, seemed to be much more comfortable in his pirate costume than I was, although our two outfits were more or less the same. He somehow seemed to be more in character. 

“Hardy har har!” he said, in a funny voice that made Leah smile. “Last Halloween! Let’s go score us some booty!” 

Trick-or-treat was just getting underway. There were kids walking among the houses, but not too many yet. 

Most of them were significantly younger than us. 

“Let’s go, then,” I agreed.

We saw nothing unusual for a while. I was more or less familiar with the houses that were close to the intersection of Wilma Court and Cider Mill Drive. A few of the neighbors even recognized Leah and me by name, though none of them recognized Bobby.

“Aren’t you getting a little old for trick-or-treat, Schaeffer?” one of them asked me, in a joking manner that was not entirely a joke. This was Mr. Daley. He had been one of my little league coaches two summers ago. 

“My last year,” I told him. I almost asked him if he had been talking to my father. I’m twelve years old and I want one last trick-or-treat, I felt like saying. So shoot me.

“All right, then. Well, I hope you like Snickers.”

“Everyone likes Snickers.” 

We were about halfway up Cider Mill when both the terrain and the houses grew more unfamiliar. I almost never had any occasion to walk so far in this direction; and this wasn’t a route that I traveled often as a passenger in my father’s car, either.

We were walking up the driveway of a house with a yard that was decorated by fake headstones, when Leah spoke out:

“Hey guys, look: Those gravestones aren’t fake: They’re real.”

“What do you mean?” Bobby asked.

“Just look at them,” she said. 

There were lights on in the house, which I didn’t recognize, but which seemed to be a perfectly normal suburban split-level with a brick and aluminum siding exterior. Nor was I initially suspicious of the headstones. These were common enough as Halloween decorations. They were usually made of plastic or Styrofoam, and bore clichéd epitaphs like “R.I.P.” or “I’ll be back!”

But as I looked closer, I saw that these particular ones were in fact different, somehow; and I could immediately see what Leah was talking about. I broke away from Bobby and Leah and stepped out into the lawn, toward the five gravestones. 

“What are you doing, Schaeffer?”

“Hold on, Bobby,” I said.

I crouched down in the grass, my plastic scabbard catching in the turf as I knelt. 

The first headstone read, 

Michael J. Hollis

1965 – 1978

“For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

-2 Corinthians, 2: 18

“Michael Hollis,” I read aloud. “Wasn’t he—?”

But of course we all knew who Michael Hollis was, if we thought about it for a moment. Michael Hollis had been a thirteen-year-old boy, a student at Youngman Elementary, who had been struck dead two summers ago when he rode his bike across Route 125 one day without bothering with the crosswalk, nor even with looking both ways. The accident had occurred just east of Withamsville, and the tragedy had hit the local community hard. Michael Hollis had, by all accounts, been a good kid who had simply made one careless mistake. 

In the months following his death, Michael Hollis’s fate had become a standard cautionary tale among local parents. Even my mom had invoked his name once or twice during the summer months, when children are especially prone to the illusion that they are unbreakable beings who will live forever: “Be careful on your bike, Jeff; remember what happened to that Michael Hollis.”

Leah was kneeling beside me now.

“This isn’t right,” I said. “If this is someone’s idea of a joke, well, it isn’t funny.”

Equally strange, though, was the headstone itself: It wasn’t made from polyurethane, cardboard, or anything like that.

It was made from actual stone—probably granite. I touched the gray grave marker and felt not only its hardness, but its solidity as well. 

“That couldn’t be, could it?” Leah asked, as if reading my thoughts.

“No, it couldn’t be,” I replied. But the fact was that the gravestone of a recently deceased local teenager was here in this suburban front yard.

Without standing up, I moved laterally, away from Leah, to look at the next two gravestones. They were also for young people who had died recently. The first one, Diane Wallace (1964-1980) was another name that we all recognized. Diane Wallace had been killed in an automobile accident only two weeks after getting her driver’s license. The inscription on the next gravestone, James Platt (1963-1977) didn’t ring any bells; but if the pattern held, James Platt had probably been a local kid, too.

“Why?” Leah asked me. “Why would someone do this?”

“I don’t know.”

Bobby, in exasperation, had left the driveway and was now standing over us. “What?” he asked.

“You’ve heard of Michael Hollis, right?” I asked him. 

Bobby paused to ponder the name.

“Yeah, the kid who got killed a few summers ago. He was riding his bike across the highway, right?”

“Right. Well, this gravestone has his name on it. What’s more, this is a real gravestone, not a fake one that someone bought at Kmart.”

I showed Bobby the other gravestones as well, and provided explanations for the one or two names that he didn’t recognize. 

Maybe this was another inevitable symptom of Bobby’s comparatively loose upbringing: His single mother had little time to school him in the lore of the local kids who had met untimely ends, the ones who had crossed the street without looking, gone for a ride with the wrong driver, or perhaps consumed a fatal quantity of alcohol at a party. My parents, by contrast, were practically encyclopedias of these suburban examples of all that could go wrong for an adolescent. 

“This is a pretty sick joke, then,” Bobby said. 

“Damn right,” I said.

We were twelve-year-old boys, and reveled in various forms of black humor and sarcasm. But the irony conveyed by these headstones was a little too black even for us. There was something fundamentally wrong here, we both knew. 

And Leah was even more vocal in her disapproval.

“I say we skip this house,” she said. She stood up. “I don’t know who these people are, but I don’t want any candy from them.”

As if her declaration had summoned the occupants of the house, the front screen door creaked open. We all looked up.

“Do you kids want any candy or not?” the owner of the house asked us.

He wasn’t what any of us would have anticipated. The homeowner was an early middle-aged man who wore a dress shirt and slacks—no tie. He might have been one of my father’s colleagues at the accounting firm. Nor was he the slightest bit unfriendly. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“It looks like you’re admiring our decorations. What do you think, kids? We really went all out this year.”

A woman joined the man in the open doorway—his wife, obviously. Like her husband, she seemed to be the textbook example of normal. She was a moderately plump, blonde woman in her late thirties. Her hair was cut conservatively short and curled. She might have been one of my mother’s friends, any one of the neighborhood women who my mom occasionally got together with to exchange local gossip or play bridge. (I didn’t know most of their names, but I knew many of them on sight, and this woman somehow looked familiar.) 

“We’ve got Milky Ways!” she beckoned. She held aloft a hollow plastic jack-o’-lantern filled with candy. Behind her, the warm light of a perfectly normal suburban home revealed an equally normal living room.

If we had been a few years older, we would have challenged them. We would have asked them why they had turned the deaths of local kids into warped Halloween clichés. But we were only twelve, and still very much accustomed to regarding adults as default authority figures. (There were exceptions, of course: All of us—probably even Bobby—had received the standard lectures about the dangers of accepting rides from adult strangers.) The couple seemed so nice, so solicitous, and none of us were able to summon the words to oppose them. 

I don’t remember which of us began walking toward the door first. Within about thirty seconds, though, all three of us were standing before the open doorway, holding open our candy bags so we could receive Milky Ways from Mr. and Mrs. Normal. 

There was nothing odd about the exchange itself. We accepted our candy and thanked them. Each of us received one candy bar each, which was pretty standard this early in the evening. Later on, toward the end of trick-or-treat, homeowners would become more generous, giving each kid a handful of candy so as to avoid a large surplus of leftovers.

The only macabre element of the interaction came when the couple closed the door on us. The words of Mr. Normal—normal though he may have appeared—were a little bit “off”.

“Be careful”, he said. “It’s a scary, scary night out there.”

For some reason, that admonition sent a little chill up my spine, especially in light of the recent days’ occurrences. 

I was also mildly angry at myself. Those headstones on the front lawn—they were indecent, almost blasphemous. I should have said something, or questioned the couple, at the very least.

But I walked away from that front door without making the slightest gesture of protest. And what I saw next caused me to momentarily forget about the headstones.

A group of costumed children walked by, and there was a tall figure in the middle of them—perhaps a father who had been saddled with trick-or-treat duty for the evening. The lone man was not wearing a costume, of course. He was wearing a denim jacket.

Then I looked closer: the adult was not quite an adult, but a six-foot tall teenage boy named Matt Stefano. He wasn’t actually with the children; that had been a temporary optical illusion. He was behind them, relative to where I stood; and with his faster pace he quickly moved past them. 

He wasn’t looking in my direction, thankfully; his gaze was fixed forward, as if something down the road had caught his attention. 

Without looking down, Matt removed something from the pocket of his denim jacket. It was an object that I had seen before, and had never wanted to see again. I heard a click as the switchblade opened.

“Hey, that guy’s got a knife!” one of the children said. 

I hoped that this remark wouldn’t provoke Matt. Although they were just little kids—compared to us—I really didn’t know what Matt Stefano might be capable of.

Matt turned briefly and gave the group of children an evil smile that chilled me even more than the headstones had. But he kept moving. Although he had been turned in my direction for a few seconds, he luckily failed to notice me.

I now noticed that I was apart from my friends in the driveway. Bobby and Leah were still talking about the headstones, leaning over them and speculating. 

“What’s the matter, Schaeffer?” Bobby asked. “You look like you’ve seen another ghost.”

Ordinarily a person would say, You look like you’ve seen a ghost. It is a testament to the oddities of that particular season that Bobby was able to meaningfully say “another ghost”—even though he had since come to disagree with me about the true nature of the ghost boy.

“Come on,” Leah said. “Let’s go. These people have a warped sense of humor, or something.”

“It could be more than that,” I began. “Those are real headstones. I’ve never actually priced one, but I imagine that they don’t come cheap.”

“Yeah, well—let’s just forget about it.”

I saw Bobby start to say something, and then he thought better of it. Bobby, like Leah, did not seem eager to discuss the possibility that the headstones had been more than a homeowner’s sick prank. In the same way, neither of them had wanted to explore the possibility that the ghost boy might be more than just an ordinary teenage boy who had made some lucky guesses. 

As we walked down the driveway toward the street, Leah allowed herself one last backward glance at the inexplicable headstones. 

“Weird,” she said. Yeah, it was weird, all right.

We made our way to the next house. It occurred to me that we were traveling, however slowly, in the same direction that Matt Stefano had been walking. That would be no problem, probably, so long as Stefano kept moving. But if Matt were detained for some reason, or decided to double back, we would run straight into him. And my pirate costume didn’t much disguise me. 

In that moment, I made a decision: It was one thing to back down from Matt Stefano when it was only the two of us—or even when Bobby was around, for that matter. But with Leah here tonight, the stakes were higher. 

If I cowered before Matt Stefano tonight, Leah would lose all respect for me. And however much she liked me as a friend, I sensed that that would be the end of any chance that she might eventually like me as something more. 

I didn’t yet understand much about the whole amalgamation of masculinity, courage, and other factors that spurred female attraction. I only knew that being a coward before Matt Stefano would be the wrong thing to do.

I was therefore determined to stand up to him. But could I do that? I had never been able to do it before. Moreover, to view the matter objectively, Matt Stefano was older, larger, and stronger than me. To directly challenge him would be suicide—it would mean a bad beating, and maybe worse.

For the time being, I allowed myself to take comfort in the odds that we would not directly cross paths with him.

There were no headstones in the next yard. It was a normal looking split-level with an overgrown belt of shrubbery near the house, a white picket fence enclosing the back yard, and a tool shed in the back. There was a Mustang in the driveway that Bobby and I both paused briefly to examine. Driving was still four years in the future—a relative eternity at our age—but we had already begun to admire cars, to speculate about the masculine pickup trucks and muscle cars that we might drive at some unspecified point in the future.

The house was adorned with a few tasteful Halloween decorations: a tiny light bulb glowed inside a plastic jack-o’-lantern on the front porch. A white bed sheet, roughly manipulated to resemble a ghost, had been strung up in one of the shrubs.

“Do you know the people who live here?” Leah asked me. There would have been no point in asking Bobby, as he did not live in Shayton Estates.

“I don’t know any of the families in this end of the neighborhood,” I said. 

And that made me think: What the heck had Matt Stefano been doing in Shayton Estates to begin with? Surely he didn’t live here. Had he come here tonight with the express purpose of tracking me?

Pushing these thoughts aside, I pressed the doorbell.

The voice inside the house caused chills to ripple up my spine. It was a deep, booming voice:

“Open the door! Open the door!” it shouted.

Curiously, the voice also had an echo, as if the distinctly male presence were calling from the bottom of a ravine.

“That must be a recording,” Bobby said.

“I don’t think it’s a recording,” I said. The words had come as an immediate response to my ringing the doorbell.

“Well, then it’s some kind of a sound effect.”

Have it your way, Bobby, I thought. How could it be a “sound effect”? This wasn’t a Hollywood studio, after all. This was a house in suburban Ohio. (And in 1980, stereo systems were pretty basic.)

Leah was about to offer her two cents, but then the door opened.

The woman before us appeared to be perfectly normal—at first glance. She might have been in her early- to mid-thirties. She was wearing what might be described as a “sexy witch” outfit: a sleeveless black gown that featured a short (though not indecently short) skirt, and a plunging neckline. Her light brown hair overflowed from beneath a store-bought witch’s hat. Somewhat incongruously, she also wore glasses. They were encased in large, round plastic frames—the kind that were so popular in those days.

“Hello, children!” she said sweetly. 

Once again, we heard the voice from somewhere deep in the house: “Open the door!”

The words seemed to vibrate through the front doorframe of the house.

The woman turned away from us to call back at the unseen source: “I’ve got the door. You can stop now!”

When she turned back to us, she quickly recovered from what might have been a look of annoyance. She was clearly unafraid of the man who had called out in that preternaturally low and rumbling pitch. This was some sort of an elaborate Halloween ruse—or something unusual was taking place here. I hadn’t yet decided.

Was the woman’s skin unusually pale? A part of me thought so; but it was difficult to say for sure in the dim lighting. 

“Candy,” she said, as if declaring her own absentmindedness. “That’s what you children want: candy.”

I know, even now, that all of us were feeling vaguely insulted at being referred to as children. None of us protested, though. We were the ones trick-or-treating, after all.

The woman stepped briefly away from the doorway and retrieved a serving bowl filled with “fun-size” chocolate bars and lollipops. Nothing out of order here, I thought.

When she gave me my Baby Ruth chocolate bar, the woman also favored me with a wide, friendly smile. Her mouth opened just wide enough for me to see her canine incisors.

They’re fake, I thought. They have to be. 

She pivoted to drop candy into the bags held by Leah and Bobby. I noticed that her hand brushed Bobby’s. I saw Bobby stare back at the woman with wide-eyed amazement, then repulsion and fear. The woman shot a smile back at him. It might have been a private joke passed between the two of them. But Bobby turned away quickly, barely murmuring his thanks.

I stole a glance inside the house, which looked mostly normal, except for some atmospheric Halloween lighting. (This, of course, was nothing out of the ordinary.) My attention was drawn to something small and black that was walking jerkily past the woman’s feet in the foyer. 

The black cat walked like a robot, with stiff joints. The cat was no robot, though. Its black fur was genuine—and matted with blood. 

“Hit by a car,” the woman said in response to my unstated question. 

Leah saw the cat, too, now, and she gasped aloud.

The woman stooped to pet the animal. It tilted its head back in response to her caress, but not like a normal cat would. Like its walking motions, the head movement was stiff and unnatural.

Rigor mortis, I thought, involuntarily.

“Hit by a car,” the woman explained. As she scratched the animal’s blood-caked pelt, she gave me another smile, another flash of those incisors. “You can revive them afterward, if you know what you’re doing, but they’re never the same.”

Leah stammered on a reply, then turned and walked after Bobby.

The woman stood erect and allowed me to look at her in her full height, in that tight-fitting witch’s outfit. I was an adolescent boy. My feelings about girls—women—were still brand-new, raw, and beyond my abilities to fully comprehend, let alone master. The frank invitation conveyed in her dress and pose both disturbed and stimulated me on multiple levels.

“Would you like to come in for a while?” she asked. “Your friends are leaving.”

For a brief instant, my feelings of alarm and bashfulness dissipated. In their place came a sense that yes, stepping through that doorway would be the right thing to do. The strange woman and I could sit for a while. She would let me touch her—and she would touch me. She would give me a kiss with those incisors.

She tilted her head, and for the first time I caught a full glimpse of her eyes. The irises gleamed yellow. Some years would pass before I would realize that the irises of a wolf’s eyes are also yellow; but I immediately grasped that something was very wrong here—and it would be dangerous for me to stay any longer.

“Jeff, come on!” Leah said from the end of the driveway.

Leah’s voice—and the image of her in my mind—snapped me out of it. I turned my back on the woman without another word. I didn’t bother to walk laterally across the walkway between the porch and the driveway. I stepped directly into the lawn, and beat a hasty retreat down to the road, where Bobby and Leah were anxiously waiting for me.

I heard the front door of the house close. I did not look back.

“Did you see that cat?” Leah asked me.

I nodded. I had seen the cat—and much, much more. 

I wasn’t quite up to talking about the woman’s eyes just yet, nor even her teeth. My intuition told me that I had just made a slim escape from something—though I did not yet dare to name it. Not until I was a safe distance away from that house.

My vision began to spin now, and a wave of nausea surged through me. I separated myself from my friends and walked over to the nearest drainage ditch. I did not want to vomit in front of Leah, if I could help it.

“You all right, Jeff?” Leah asked.

I leaned over and braced my hands on my knees. The feeling of intense nausea passed. I was still shaking, but I rejoined my friends on the road. 

“All right,” Leah said, without slowing her pace. We were walking right by houses where we might have stopped for candy, but none of us seemed to care. “We need to talk about this.”

“Okay, let’s talk,” Bobby said. “What exactly did we see back there?”

“Maybe nothing,” Leah suggested weakly. Was she simply playing devil’s advocate? I recalled how the brief and horrific transformation of the ghost boy had so upset her.

“It wasn’t nothing,” I said.

“Maybe not,” Bobby allowed. 

“Bobby,” I said. “When that woman touched your hand, you made a face like you’d just seen a ghost. Then you practically ran away.”

He stopped in the middle of the road. I noticed then that we were the only kids out on the street, even though this was a suburb, and it was still the first hour of trick-or-treat. Other kids should have been here. Where had they gone?

“Her hands were cold,” Bobby began, in a hoarse whisper. “And her skin was—what’s that word—clammy. Like she’d been swimming in ice water.”  

“Did you see her teeth?” I asked. “Or her eyes?” 

“Wait a minute,” Leah interjected. She did not volunteer whether she had glimpsed the woman’s strange features or not, but her subsequent question strongly suggested that she had seen something. “So what are we saying here? Are we saying that woman was a vampire?” 

Now that Leah had actually uttered the word (the same word that all of us were undoubtedly thinking) it sounded absurd. Yeah, rightvampires.

And yet, it didn’t sound so absurd—not after everything we had seen, and in Bobby’s case, felt. I had felt something, too, for that matter.

Without saying anything more to my friends for the moment, I began to assemble the rudiments of an explanation: The woman might have been a recently turned vampire. She was still presentable, still capable of interacting with the living. The man who had called out to her might have been a stronger vampire, one whose mannerisms and appearance had so changed that he was no longer presentable. 

And that cat: Didn’t witches and vampires supposedly maintain animal “familiars”? Something had obviously happened to that cat—the woman had said that it had been hit by a car.

She had also said something about “reviving” it.

“No way,” Bobby said, dismissing Leah’s suggestion of vampires in Withamsville. “She was putting us on.”

“Sure,” I countered. “And what about her teeth? Did you see her teeth? Did either of you see her teeth?”

“You can buy fake vampire teeth at the mall, or from those mail order ads on the back of comic books,” Bobby answered. It was the same as it had been a few days ago, with the ghost boy. Already Bobby was beginning the process of rationalization, of making the evidence fit a comfortable reality. I figured that Leah would be on the same side. Nevertheless, I had seen what I had seen, and I wasn’t backing down.

“She didn’t buy those teeth from a comic book. And what about her skin? You were the one who felt her skin, and it freaked you out so bad you left the porch.”

“Hey, it was a good trick, I’ll admit.” Bobby’s tone was a bit testy. He didn’t like my suggestion—however indirect—that he had been the first one to be scared, the first one of us to look away.

“Do you really believe that it was a ‘trick’?”

“She could have been emptying ice trays in the kitchen.”

I looked at Leah. She shrugged and looked away. 

“How about this house?” She said. I think we were all eager to change the subject. This next house was two or three houses down from the home of the woman who might (and might not) have been a vampire. 

The house was somewhat unkempt. It looked like the owner had missed the last mowing of the season. In the space between the front sidewalk and the exterior wall of the house, weeds competed for space with some scraggly-looking shrubbery that might have been rose bushes. It was the end of October, though, and their blooms were long gone, despite the relatively moderate weather. 

We walked up the driveway, Leah leading the way. I watched the back of her head longingly. I wished, once again, that it had been only the two of us tonight. I didn’t know exactly what I might have said to her, but I wasn’t going to say anything of consequence with Bobby along as a third wheel.

Or was I the third wheel? Was Bobby the one that Leah really liked—or someone else, maybe? Trivial though the question may have been, it seemed to be a matter of life and death for me at the moment.

Distracted as I was by these thoughts, I didn’t even notice the car that was parked in the driveway. But I would notice it shortly.

Leah—or it might have been Bobby—rang the doorbell.

We waited. There was no answer. However, there were clearly people inside. Not only could we see lights behind the shuttered and curtained windows along the front of the house, we could also hear music and voices coming from inside. 

“Sounds like they’re having a Halloween party,” Leah said. “Should we go?”

“No,” Bobby replied. “If they’re having a Halloween party, then maybe they’ve got some good stuff inside.”

Another half-minute passed and there was no answer. I was about to suggest that we leave; there were plenty of other houses. But then Bobby rang the doorbell again, and gave the door an insistent knock. We were committed now.

We heard the doorknob turn and the lock rotate in the tumbler. The front door swung open with a creak. 

It was the ghost boy. He was clad in his usual attire: army surplus jacket, tee shirt, and jeans. (Was there something wrong with his neck, though?)

The ghost boy was completely unsurprised by our presence there. He might have been waiting for us to show up. In retrospect, he almost certainly was.

“Hey! Why don’t you guys come in and join the party?” he beckoned. With a sweep of one arm he made as if to invite us in.

There was indeed a gathering taking place inside the house, as could have been surmised from the noise—even when the door had been closed. The interior of the house was bathed in a dull orange-red light that prevented me from discerning many details about the figures milling around inside. 

I wasn’t quite sure if Leah and Bobby even recognized him. Then Leah gasped. 

I nearly gasped, too. There was definitely something wrong with the ghost boy’s neck. On the left side, near the larynx, a huge portion of skin was rotted away. It wasn’t a wound, mind you—it was decay. 

“Come on in,” he repeated, in a tone that was both deeper and rougher this time. 

My attention was distracted as something rolled by: It was a wheelchair: The old man from the parking lot of the Village Market leered at me as he pushed his way horizontally past us on the other side of the ghost boy. Then he was gone from our field of vision.

Bobby had been silent until this point. 

“Bullshit!” he said. “This is all a big put-on.”

Then the ghost boy’s guests began to emerge from the far corners of the house. In the kitchen, an adolescent boy with deathly pale skin limped toward us. I recognized him from the picture that had been printed in the local newspaper: He was Michael J. Hollis—the boy who had been struck and killed in traffic several summers ago, the boy whose grave marker had been placed in the front yard of a nearby house especially for Halloween night.

There were others in there as well: I saw Diane Wallace, walking with her head at an unnatural angle, a result of the accident that had killed her. James Platt was back there, too, and others as well. 

I don’t know exactly how many of them there were, but the house seemed suddenly to be full of them.

The ghost boy repeated his invitation. “Don’t you want to come in? This is where all the cool kids hang out.” He placed extraordinary emphasis on the word ‘cool’. Everyone inside that house was cool—or rather, cold.

None of us needed to see any more. In a pell-mell fashion, like the children that we had only recently been, Bobby, Leah, and I fled. 

As I ran toward the street, I caught a glance at the car parked in the driveway: It was a maroon Oldsmobile—a Cutlass sedan from the early 1960s. 

“’For twelve hours you will know no peace. For twelve hours you will be tested. And you’re weak. You won’t survive.’”

I repeated these words for my friends. They were the same words that the ghost boy had spoken to me, in the form of a malediction, on that afternoon I walked home alone.

Leah, Bobby, and I were standing in the middle of the street now. Before stopping, we had placed a comfortable distance between ourselves and the house where the ghost boy had been (and for that matter, the house of the strange woman who might have been a vampire, as well as the house with the lawn containing the uncannily realistic grave markers). 

“So what are you saying, Jeff?” Bobby asked after I had given them an exhaustive account of my exchange with the ghost boy. “Are you saying that kid put some kind of a curse on you, and that now it’s our curse, too, because we’re with you tonight?”

I paused before answering. What Bobby was saying was essentially my interpretation of the situation, his obvious skepticism notwithstanding. 

For some reason, the unusual happenings of the recent days had made my friends not only jittery, but touchy as well. This would cloud their judgment, I knew. And the divisions between the three of us might widen. 

I was already scared, and I had reason to believe that the “curse” as Bobby called it, might be seriously dangerous as well as unnerving. So far, it had all been little more than a display of strange sights and sounds. But given the horrific nature of those sights and sounds, that was bound to change.

“I guess that ‘curse’ is as good a name for it as any,” I replied. Do you have a better word?”

Bobby didn’t answer me. He looked away. And for the first time ever, I saw real fear in Bobby Nagel’s expression. Oh, sure—he was brave enough when facing down bullies of the St. Patrick’s or even the Youngman variety. But he was at a loss here; there was nothing in his experience, or in his image of himself as a slightly-tougher-than-average seventh grader that told him how to handle this.

“This is not happening,” Leah whispered. She looked away from me, too. “This is not happening.” 

Was it my imagination, or were my two friends showing signs of a mental breakdown? 

This was an odd question to be asking, of course: I had by now more or less accepted that all this strange phenomena had to have at least some basis in reality. 

It was easier to believe in ghosts than to fundamentally doubt my two friends—to seriously question their sanity. Like my parents and the comfortable home in which I’d thus far grown up, they had been with me for as long as I could remember.

Then a realization came to me: If we were going to find our way out of this, then I would have to take the lead. Although we were a pretty egalitarian threesome, I had always allowed Bobby to lead, on those rare occasions when a leader was needed. 

But now Bobby was faltering. It was up to me. This frightened me as much as it gave me a surge of confidence.

I surveyed our surroundings: They were more or less normal, and now I could even see a few other trick-or-treaters, though they were far down the street and few in number. The latter was little reassurance, of course. Matt Stefano might be among them. More dead kids might be among them.

Chapter 10

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