it's almost Halloween and I do so love the season, so because I can, I'm going to post one of my Halloween tales for you.
Naturally it's copyrighted. Naturally I'll ask you not to print it and sell it for profit. If you MUST print it, please include my name. Just kidding, don't print it. Well, okay, you can print it if you want to read it off the computer screen, but you know what I mean.
The first time Hathburn Avenue showed up was at Horrorworld. The online site then owned and run by the lovely Nanci Kalanta. The second time was in my collection SLICES, which I may even eventually put out as something other than a limited edition collection.
It's been a while, so hopefully this is a treat and not a trick.
James A. Moore
Candles lit the insides of carved faces on nearly every porch on Billings Street. The sun was almost gone and the jack-o-lanterns were more obvious, more deliciously sinister as the darkness swallowed most everything. I remember looking at the glowing caricatures with a mix of fear and anticipation. It was excitement at first; but even as the night started, I had a strange feeling that bad things were coming.
There were seven kids in the group and we were all supposed to follow Mike Berry’s mom as she lead us door to door. Mrs. Berry was a heavyset woman who wore baggy clothes to hide her size and covered her face in enough make up for a dozen teenaged girls, but she was also a very nice lady and seemed, to me at least, a little sad. That night the make up wasn’t as out of place as usual. In the spirit of the evening, she’d dressed herself as gypsy in the tackiest run of clothing I’d ever seen and enough scarves to open her own accessories shop. Her son was dressed up, too, in a long, dark cloak with a cheap plastic skull face that was far more effective in the growing darkness. Mike Berry was always a weird kid, sort of prissy and prone to laughing at the strangest things, but his mom was our chaperone that night and we all had to hang with him by default.
There were supposed to be nine of us, but Rick Treacher wasn’t there yet. Chuck Willinger wasn’t there. That didn’t seem right at all. Chuck had been planning his Halloween the way generals planned wars. He had a list of the best houses to get candy from and a second list of the ones he intended to visit after the official fun was done with. Chuck had a memory for slights, and at least three grown ups had caused him enough grief to get on his bad side. Chuck was a little too intense sometimes, a little too willing to hold a grudge or work out the details for elaborate revenge plots. Mostly, he was also too willing to go through with his plans. No one should be that vindictive at the age of eleven.
Rick being gone was weird, and unusual, but not as important as Chuck not being there. The three of us had been friends for as long as any of us could have remembered, but that Halloween, I was the only one of us ready to go out and have fun. I had no idea why Rick hadn’t shown, just knew that he was missing. In the grander scheme of things, Rick was always the least predictable of us.
It took me a second to remember that Chuck was dead, and when I did I felt a shuddery breath slide out of me. Chuck Willinger was dead, along with his entire family. I knew that. But part of me kept trying to forget it. Like I could ever really forget the heat from the flames of the house next door burning away, or the wheezing sound in my father’s voice for the next couple of weeks afterward. Dad had tried to go in and save our neighbors right after he’d called 9-1-1, and he’d failed. I watched my best friend’s house burn down to nothing but a few walls and a mountain of ash, and I knew that he’d died in the same fire. The police said the fire that took them was probably an accident, but I could remember the spokesman on the evening news, a round faced man with a tight crew cut who made the statement about the Willinger Family and seemed, to my eyes at least, to doubt the very words he spoke.
I pushed the thought out of my head. Chuck had loved Halloween and I decided that I’d have fun that night despite the relatively fresh wound of losing a good friend to a stupid fire. Not all that far away, just past my own house, the remains of the Willinger place sat brooding and scorched in the dying light; a ghost of what it had been, a memory of sleepovers and watching crappy horror movies and talking about everything from comic book heroes to the way we’d started noticing girls. It was only Chuck I talked to about those things, because Rick would have never understood. Rick didn’t let his mind wander the same way. Chuck should have been with me. He should have been there in his zombie costume or whatever he’d spent half the summer working on. You could always count on Chuck to have the coolest costumes.
I was eleven, just at that age where people start looking at you funny if you still go out trick or treating. (By people I mean my older brother Troy, who was fifteen and thought I was the world’s biggest loser. That was okay; I thought he was up near the top of the charts for being a dick, so it balanced out.) I didn’t care if they looked. I had a mask and I had a bag waiting for candy.
Mrs. Berry pushed several of her bracelets aside and looked at the delicate watch on her ham hock wrist and frowned. “I think we’re going to have to go without Rick, kids.” A few of us made token noises of disappointment, but let’s be honest here, we wanted goodies and if Rick lost out, well, that was his problem, not ours. Oh, who am I kidding? It was also a perfect chance to tease one of my best friends about what he didn’t get to snack on for the next week, and to get closer to Mindy Carruthers, who we both wanted to know a lot better. Mindy had never been all that interesting in the past, but she managed to turn pretty over the summer and it wasn’t easy to look away from her sometimes. She’d always been short and a little pudgy—not that I had room to talk about on those fronts—but these days she was vital, energetic and had the ability to catch my eye from 30 yards away. The freckles that used to look like mud splatters on her skin were somehow more interesting than when I was younger and her eyes didn’t seem to have changed that much but were now absolutely fascinating. Mindy, if I didn’t mention it already, was one of the other seven kids in our group.
After the false protests, we were on our way, and it pleased me to no end to know that the pirate standing next to me most of the way was Mindy under a tricorn hat, an eye patch and a stuffed parrot.
We’d only made four houses—my entire haul of candy consisted of a bite sized Snickers bar, a piece of petrified bubble gum that would require nothing less than the teeth of a shark to make chewable, one candied apple from Mrs. Murphy, the widow on the corner, and a religious tract with a Hershey’s Kiss taped to it—when I first got the feeling that someone was watching me, maybe even following me.
Now, I bet most people could tell you that at one time or another in their lives they felt like they were being followed. I bet you could tell me about a time or two yourself. But this didn’t feel like eyes watching me so much as it felt like eyes intent on killing me. My skin crawled under the rubber werewolf mask I’d begged for and finally gotten (not a cheap rubber mask like at the grocery store, but a Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man mask from Don Post Studios that cost my parents a cool forty-five dollars. I’d have never gotten it if my birthday wasn't two weeks before Halloween.), and I know I wasn’t the only one feeling it, because Mindy turned and looked behind us a couple of times and so did a few of the others. The only one who didn’t seem to notice anything strange on that chilly night at the end of October was Mrs. Berry. The kid who lived next door was six years old and stuck with the unfortunate name of Kilroy Houseman. He was dressed up as a clown, with oversized shoes and a red and blue jumper that looked almost big enough for me. He kept peeking over his shoulder so many times that he managed to trip over his own feet and gave himself a goose egg on the head. Poor Kilroy was hardly the most graceful kid, and the knot was big enough that when he started crying, no one thought he was being a baby about it.
Four houses in, and already things were going bad. I might have worried a bit more about that, but Mindy was there and I had to look brave for her. This was my chance, you see, to get in good with the girl who was occupying most of my daydreams even when I didn’t want her to.
After a few minutes of hemming and hawing about what to do, Mrs. Berry decided it would be best if Kilroy went home and she would gather the rest of his treats for him. Kilroy didn’t cry about it, but his disappointment was written on his face and in his wide, shocky eyes.
She gave me his bag to hold, as I was the oldest. I promised Kilroy I’d make sure he got the good stuff and he smiled his thanks before leaning in close and whispering “There’s something out there, Tom. Something bad.” I wish I could have told him it was just because it was Halloween and the wind was blowing just so, but I couldn’t. Deep down inside, I agreed with him.
So did all of the others. I think there’s something almost paradoxical about adolescence and childhood. Think about it: as a whole, I’m convinced that every single kid there knew something was wrong, really wrong and maybe even dangerously wrong. We were scared enough that not a single one of us even gave the notion of skipping on to the next house consideration, because there were no parents to watch us. And at the same time, I seriously doubt that any of the kids that stood around waiting for Mrs. Berry to come back even considered leaving, because it was Halloween, and this was our night to have fun. So instead of moving forward with the whole group or even retreating to our homes and hiding under the covers—that trick still worked when I was eleven, but not for much longer—we stood around and waited in a rapidly growing, uncomfortable silence, for our leader to return.
And all the while I felt those eyes on me. I was surrounded by a very small witch, a female pirate, two unknown kids in ghost makeup with sheets wrapped around them and billowing in the light breeze, and the Grim Reaper, all of whom looked exactly as worried as I did if I could judge by the way they fidgeted. I looked at every house, near the ground and even on the roofs to see if I could locate the source of my unease, but there was nothing. The scent of Chuck’s ruined house—burnt plastic and wood—was gone from the air, replaced by the smell of dying leaves and the promise of winter just around the corner. The houses I knew in the light of day were still there as the last of the dusk died and gave birth to the night, but they were made unfamiliar by shadows and patches of darkness so complete that anything could have been hiding in them. The trees I walked past on the way to school were barren now, skeletal ghosts of their former selves, bathed only occasionally in the luminescence of the street lights.
I lived seven houses down the block from where we stood, but my house may as well have been a thousand miles distant. It made no sense to me. It made no sense to the kids around me. We were neighbors and friends or even just friendly acquaintances, but you couldn’t have proved it at that moment. We were all scared…of nothing.
Mrs. Berry finally came about after what seemed like half the night but was really only a handful of minutes. She forced a pleasant smile on her round face and took Kilroy’s bag from me and we were off again.
The Bowers family had popcorn balls. A lot of hype had been in the newspapers and on the five o’clock news about how dangerous homemade treats were, but everyone knew the Bowers and this year they’d added M&Ms to the family recipe, so no one was worried or upset about the treats.
Mindy and I ate ours on the way to the next house, sneaking back a little from the rest of the group to flirt with our eyes and finish our treats. We didn’t lose sight of them though. That little notion never crossed our minds, because we knew that something was out there, watching us and hating us. By the seventh house we were holding hands and ignoring the fact that the remnants from the popcorn balls practically fused our fingers together. I couldn’t imagine a better person to be glued to for the rest of my life.
We kept looking over our shoulders from time to time, too, because whatever was looking at us seemed to be following us as well. There was another group of kids that passed us at one point, and I watched them as closely as I could from the corner of my eye to see if they were going to start looking over their shoulders. They did, but they were still laughing as they reached the house we’d just finished at.
We rounded the corner of our street, moving around to Hathburn Avenue, a larger road that had more houses, better houses and not a single street light. Most of the homes had lanterns or light posts of their own, but there were none of the sodium lights I was familiar with spilling beams of bright yellow illumination across the road and sidewalks.
The feeling of being watched got worse as we started walking. I think by that time even Mrs. Berry with her perpetual smile was starting to notice something was wrong, even if it wasn't on a conscious level. She pulled her shawl in a little tighter and rubbed her arms amid the chiming tinkles of her costume jewelry as if to ward off the chill of the autumn night. It wouldn’t have seemed so unusual, but the temperature wasn’t that bad. Something about that simple gesture of hers made the paranoid feelings of being watched even more intense and for the first time in several minutes I was thinking more about heading home than I was about candy or even Mindy.
I don’t know about where you grew up, but in my home town the idea of showing you were scared at eleven was almost a death sentence, so I braved the new street and the dread that grew inside of me. Potential ridicule was easily outweighed by the need for candy corn and chocolate bars. I’m weak like that.
There are sayings in this world that make no sense until the first time you experience them. That night, after the third house on Hathburn Avenue, a goose walked over my grave. I felt the chill start at my feet and move like frozen lightning all the way up my back and I wasn't the only one. I saw the rest of the kids as the feeling hit them and I saw Mrs. Berry tightening her shawl around her oversized torso at the same instant. Next to me, almost in my blind spot, I heard Mindy let out a small gasp of surprise and quickly turn around, trying to look everywhere at once. Mike was the same age as me, but I saw him step closer to his mom without even realizing he’d done it. Death comforted by an overweight gypsy. I couldn’t blame him; I wanted my mother around then too.
Mrs. Berry put an arm around her son and he let her for a few seconds before stepping back. The matron looked at us and forced a smile that looked more like a stifled scream onto her face. “Does everyone have enough now? It’s getting sort of late.”
My bag had ten, maybe fifteen pieces of candy, nowhere near the usual amounts, and I was seriously considering nodding a yes anyway. Mike blew that chance away when he stepped back from his mother.
“Mom, no!” His voice brooked no argument. As far as he was concerned, she may as well have pantsed him in front of everyone there and all the girls in class at the same time. His mother was sounding scared and instead of being afraid himself, he decided to take offense at the very idea that Halloween was done. I know the reasons and I bet you do, too. When you’re eleven there’s little as important as being seen as one of the cool kids and having his mother ruin Halloween for everyone was just about a guarantee of public humiliation.
Mrs. Berry, who made the best lemonade and always had some kind of treats for us when we came over, looked at her son as if he’d slapped her and blinked her eyes several times in rapid succession before answering. “Well then,” her voice was half an octave too high and as cheery as her attempt at a smile. “I guess we better keep going.” I couldn’t help wondering exactly when Mike had become the head of the family, but even at eleven I knew he was in charge and I felt embarrassed for the woman who was watching over us. He might have felt like he’d been humiliated by her, but the truth was closer to the other way around.
She didn’t walk to the next house, she stormed toward it. Any of the kids who’d been thinking about going home and calling it quits got over that idea around the same time Mrs. Berry turned her back on us and started for house number four.
There was a pumpkin sitting on the stoop of 362 Hathburn Avenue, but the candle that had been burning away inside of it was dead, and only the faintest hint of roasting pumpkin aroma still wafted around it. There were no lights on, either.
Have you ever had a moment when you realized you knew a place? I’m not talking about déjà vu where you think you might have seen a place before, but a sudden realization that you know a house as well as you know the back of your hand. I felt that when I looked at the dark building in front of us, and there was no denying the feeling.
362 Hathburn Avenue, two blocks away from my house, was a perfect duplicate of Chuck’s place before the fire burned it to the ground. I hadn’t been on Hathburn Avenue very often. It wasn’t a part of my world. I headed the other direction for school, and the woods back behind our street were far more interesting than a busy road with oversized houses. I can’t say I’d never been down to that road in the past, but I can tell you this: I never once saw a perfect copy of the Willinger residence, a location I knew very well before it was consumed in flames.
I stopped walking and looked at the house. It had the same style of shingles on the roof, the same front porch, with three steps leading to the front door with the oversized knocker. I counted the number of posts on the railing, and noticed that post number seven was missing, just like at Chuck’s place.
Mindy bumped into me lightly, and I kept staring, not believing what I was seeing.
“What’s wrong?” Her voice was a whisper, the same sort reserved for libraries and churches.
I shook my head and took off my Wolf Man mask to speak to her, feeling the chill in the night air erase the moisture from my skin. “Not that house. I’m not going to that one.”
“Why not?” Her lips asked the question, but her eyes moved from me and studied the house. Finally, she nodded her head ever so lightly and backed up two paces, as her eyes widened. “Okay. We’ll skip this one.”
We stepped back to the sidewalk as the rest of the group walked across the boards of the porch, their feet thumping and clumping along as the wood creaked in mild protest.
Mrs. Berry lifted the ornate brass knocker from its resting spot and I swear her hand trembled, though from fear or effort I could never guess. The metal let out a squeal of disuse as she caught it, held it and waited. Beside her, Mike reached toward the knocker, his face still covered in his cheap plastic skull mask. I think he meant to stop that knocker from coming down. I really do. Why? Because he jumped when he saw her hand in motion. His whole body shook a bit as if he’d been startled out of a daydream.
As her fingers dropped the knocker, a deep thump issued from the wood and that feeling I’d had of being watched, of being hated, increased. Every kid on that stoop backed away from the sound, because no piece of wood ever made a noise like that. It was a bass drum, a hollow deep booming noise that made as little sense as the Willinger house being on the wrong road.
Mrs. Berry stepped back, too, her foot catching on an uneven board and her weight suddenly plummeting, falling, landing roughly on the planks that let out a deeper groan of protest that almost hid the sound of her grunt of pain. I don’t think it was my imagination, I really believe to this very day that I heard the sound of her arm breaking as she hit the deck, even though the sound was covered over by the scream that came from Mike when the door opened.
Scream? No, it was more than that. It was a primal jolt of fear that was ripped from his soul. The sound dwarfed everything around it, consumed the other noises like a banshee’s wail. Mike Berry, resplendent in his Grim Reaper’s outfit, staggered back as if he’d been shot in the chest and clutched at the area over his heart as the door swing inward.
Mindy and I stepped back too, ready to bolt back toward our homes, to do almost anything to get away from whatever was coming out of that doorway. Every kid there moved, stumbling, falling, running, and crawling as the darkness seemed to swirl from inside of that impossible house.
Darkness, and something else.
I don’t think it could have spoken. It didn’t have a mouth or a face for speaking. Or maybe it could have and simply chose not to speak.
The darkness moved, a chaotic cloud of smoke and soot that whipped around itself in a frenzy of activity. It rose from the threshold and stepped onto that porch, barely acknowledging the existence of the heavyset woman lying at its feet. Mike Berry didn’t seem to care that his mother was in front of the thing, close enough to feel the wind from its passage and to be left with a trail of black soot across her body and face where it touched.
Mike was too busy trying to get away from it, to run as fast and as far as he could. The skull mask fell away from his face, torn aside to let him see his escape route better. I remember watching it drift and fall, before one of the eye sockets got tangled in the shrubs at the front of the porch. The cheap plastic face stared at me with blank, idiot eyes and seemed to accuse me.
Mindy’s fingers clenched in mine painfully, but I was barely aware of them. I was too busy looking at Mike as he tried to run, tried to get away from the thing that moved after him.
The blackened shape had grown, taken on a form that was unsettlingly similar to the costume Mike wore. Not quite a human shape, but similar enough to be unsettling.
Mrs. Berry rolled over, her face pasty under her makeup and the layer of soot, and screamed for the thing to leave her baby alone. It paid her no attention.
Mrs. Berry stood up, bracing with one arm while the other hung loosely at her side, and swayed toward the thing, reaching out, doing all she could to stop the monster from touching her precious boy. It was one of the most amazing sights I ever saw, a colossal act of courage and determination that still leaves me a little awestruck when I think about that night. I could see the blood dripping down her arm and spilling in thin streams down from her useless fingers. She should have been curled up and moaning on the deck, not moving to save her son.
I still remember her face when her good hand grabbed for the body of that darkness. She staggered forward and her hand pushed into the seething blackness and came out on the other side in a shower of white hot sparks. It stopped moving toward Mike for a moment and simply stood still, the rough head shape craning down to look at the dark hand that thrust from its torso.
I don’t know if it meant to hurt her. I really can’t say. All I know is that an instant after her hand plunged into the figure, Mrs. Berry let out a wail of pain and forgot all about Mike’s health. She was wearing all of those scarves, all that costume jewelry. It only took a second to realize that something was wrong with her skin after she’d plunged into the shape. You could tell by the way her bangles stuck to her flesh, taking on new shapes as the heat softened them.
The woman let out a second, weaker wail as her clothes caught aflame. Fabric shrank back from the inferno that must have been cooking inside of the ghostly figure and then exploded into tongues of fire that enveloped her in seconds. She drew in a deep breath, surely for another scream, but the heat must have cooked her lungs away before that could happen. In a matter of seconds she was a column of fire that fell to blazing knees and bowed toward the porch of the house, supplicant to the pain of her own death.
Mike’s sense of preservation outweighed his need to check on his mother. He jumped over the railing of the porch and landed in the dark lawn to the side of the house, stumbling to catch his balance and pin wheeling his arms madly.
And the smoldering reaper went after him, flowing over the boards of the porch without causing them any damage and moving through the railing as easily as the smoke it resembled.
Mike’s eyes were wide and rolled blindly in their sockets, looking for some way to avoid what was coming next. He focused on me for the briefest moment and called my name as if I could somehow make what was about to happen stop. I couldn’t do a damned thing but stare. My feet felt like they’d been fused to the lawn, and my legs hadn’t enough strength to step in any direction.
“We didn’t mean it! It was an accident!” Mike’s voice cracked as he spoke, and I felt an involuntary shudder move through me as his words struck a chord deep inside.
An accident. A little mishap. I looked at Mike as he ran, heading further away toward the back of the house, and thought hard about his words.
Mike had always loved to play with matches. It there was something he could burn and a lighter or a book of Diamond matches to be found, there would be a fire inside of five minutes. It was almost guaranteed. Mike and Rick Treacher used to be thick as thieves, but while I still saw Rick regularly, Mike didn’t show up as much as he had before the fire.
I couldn’t believe what I was thinking, couldn’t get a solid grip on the notion of them burning down the Willinger place, because at eleven years of age, I’d have never considered letting something like that get out of hand. Still, it made sense in its own way and, really, of all the people I knew, I could see Mike starting a house fire easiest.
“I’m sorry!” Mike fell on his knees in the back lawn, and I saw him for only a second before the black form fell over him. Mike screamed as it touched his skin. He was only a silhouette in the darkness by then, more easily heard than seen, but oh, how he screamed. “I’m saaaawwwreeeee!” His voice broke and was silenced, leaving only the sound of my panicked breathing and Mindy’s next to me.
Breathing and the sound of something hissing, like bacon in a hot skillet.
In the midnight shade of the house, the ash and smoke monster turned and I saw glimmers of red light within its form; coals burning within the heart of the demon.
It moved toward me and my legs remembered how to run after it had come only a few paces closer. I looked to where its face should have been, even as I turned away, and saw the hatred that burned inside of it, the merciless rage that seemed to emanate from it like heat from an open over door.
I also saw something of Chuck in that darkness. Not his face, not really, just a hint of his face.
My feet bolted hard toward Billings Street and my right hand, still stuck to Mindy’s, hauled her along for the ride. She didn’t protest. I don’t think she could have.
Somewhere behind me, I heard one of the little kids cry out, one of the ghosts, I think. I’d been so fixated on the burning ash and dust that walked when it shouldn’t have been possible, that I never even noticed the car coming. I can only guess that the ghost never saw it either. I heard the bloody shriek of tires locking and scraping along the road and I heard a loud thump. My mind told me the rest of the story. I didn’t stop running.
By the time I got back to my house, my parents were already on their way out the door, coming looking for me, no doubt, and the distant cry of an ambulance siren was coming closer. I was breathless and sweating despite the mild air. So was Mindy beside me.
I know there were a lot of questions. I answered them as best I could and so did Mindy until her parents arrived to pick her up. The police came by to ask more questions, having been summoned by my father who went over to Hathburn Avenue to investigate the incident himself.
I wish I had all of the answers, but I don’t. There was no sign of Mrs. Berry ever found at the sight and the same is true of Mike. There was a trail of burn marks that ran from the front of the house along the porch, and inside the house there were more scorch marks but no bodies were found. Tina Lawrence was hit by a car that Halloween night and lived through it, though there were several surgeries she had to look forward to, if she ever wanted to walk right again. Her leg was nearly severed when the driver of the car tried to back his vehicle off of her. I never knew the driver’s name, or whether or not charges were ever pressed against him. My parents did their best to shelter us from the ugly realities of daily life, and that was one of the things that simply was not discussed around me or my older brother.
I learned about crematoriums later on and learned that the human body is a pretty amazing thing. Even after being deliberately set ablaze, there are some bones that have to be ground into dust to add to the ashes of a loved ones remains. Fifteen hundred degrees of heat and parts of the body are still intact. There was nothing left of Mike or his mom. There was nothing left of the people who lived at 362 Hathburn Avenue. I checked, believe me.
It was almost a month later when I went down Hathburn again. My mom had to take me to a dental appointment, and she drove that direction without even thinking about it if I remember it right. But she stopped when she reached the house where it all went down, and she stared for a few moments, as if trying to reason out what had happened for herself.
The house looked nothing like Chuck’s place. Not from the front and not from the back which I knew a lot better from the numerous times I’d gone there to play at Rick’s. I hadn’t recognized the place on Halloween, hadn’t even considered it, because we always went in through the back door at Rick’s place. It was easier to cut across the back lawns and through the woods than it had ever been to walk along the side of the street.
Was it Chuck I saw that night, coming from Rick’s house? I don’t know. Whatever it was, I know I never saw it again. All I can tell you is that Halloween was never the same for me after that, and neither was the neighborhood. We moved away less than a year later, when my father got transferred to a different branch of the bank that he worked for. By that time Mindy and I had already sworn undying love to each other, roughly a month before her family moved away. There were no letters, no phone calls. We each went our own way and moved on in the world; still, I remember her now and then and miss her a bit.
I think my dad might have requested the move, because really, I don’t know that anyone who was there that night was ever comfortable in the neighborhood again.