01 Feb Don’t Ever Take your eyes off your children this Halloween
“Dad, just a few more houses, pleeeasseee?”
Why did I say yes? I blame myself every day, but how could I not? If you saw his face, if you saw those big beautiful brown eyes staring up at you I don’t see how you could refuse. My son, Daniel, dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow for the second year in a row, pulled and tugged at my hand until I relented. I agreed to a ‘just a few more houses, then we go home okay?”
I was weak, spurned on by love.
We had finished our third block of houses. His pillow sack was almost full of all sorts of candy, a fact I was reminded of every passing minute as I lugged it around on my back. He had one of those small plastic pumpkin carriers for the front doors, and then he’d run back to me and dump the contents into the pillowcase. Our system was flawless, a perfect combination of team-work and strategy meant to produce maximum amounts of candy. Those answering the door would see an adorable Jack Sparrow with an empty bucket, and most of them would add some extra candy bars or gum packets to accommodate the poor pirate.
So he didn’t need more candy. He was just enjoying the night, an unseasonably warm October after so many years of miserably cold Halloween nights. I couldn’t say no. Children only have so many years of trick or treating in them, and I wanted him to make the most of each one.
We walked down an alleyway to the next block, the last street before the country fields took over. The first house was lit up with orange and white lights, fake spider webs draped over their hedges. He practically sprinted up to the door, not noticing the fake body sitting on the chair.
At least I thought it was fake.
It started to move. I tried to yell and warn Daniel but the body on the chair already grabbed my son’s arm, emitting a howling growl at the same time.
Daniel, Captain Daniel, was unfazed. He even started to laugh! I was so proud of him in that moment. After thanking the woman at the door and wishing her a ‘Happy Halloween!’ he sprinted back to me, excitedly dumping the contents of his conquest into the bulging pillow sack.
“Dad, did you see me? I wasn’t scared at all!”
“Buddy, you are a champ. If that was me a little bit of pee would have come out. Bet on it!” We shared a laugh together, and he threw his arms around me.
It would be the last time either of us would laugh.
I looked down at his eye-liner streaked face, his beautifully crafted hand-sewn pirate hat (courtesy of the Mrs.) and to my everlasting shame, I said the words that haunt me every day.
“Okay, little Captain, one more house.”
There were only three more on the street. The two beside the house we had just gone to were dark and had no decorations on them. Every child and parent knows this as the universal sign of ‘don’t bother coming to my house for candy’. So we skipped those two and ended up at the house at the end of the road. To his credit, Daniel noticed that it also didn’t have any decorations, but the front porch light was on. He looked at me, silently asking for my approval. I didn’t get a sense that anything was particularly wrong or off about the house. Even though it didn’t have any of the lights or spiderwebs or fake bodies the other houses had, the outside light was on and we could both see a red and white candy-striped bucket on the front porch. There was also a note above the bucket, and I could already guess that it instructed that you take a few pieces of candy and be on your way. But I was always cautious, ever weary. I told him to stay on the sidewalk, and I walked up to the front porch. I picked up the note. It read:
“If no one should answer when you ring the bell, please take a candy and I wish you well.”
There were no windows that I could subtly peer into. But the house on the outside was perfectly presentable. The porch was clean, the lawn crisply cut and clearly maintained. I peered inside the bucket and my eyes lit up. Even as an adult I knew that full-sized chocolate bars were rare, but there they were. Snickers, Mars, Oh Henry. All of the classics, in full-sized glory. I was so excited for Daniel. I turned around and went back to the sidewalk, where he was practically brimming with energy. Even after a long night like this one he was raring to go. I put on my best pirate voice.
“Alright, Captain, the note says to knock on the door and if no one answers, you can take one of the treats from the bucket. Just one though, okay? Make it fair for the other children.”
“Aye aye, me matey!” he said back in his best pirate voice. We gave each other a fist-pump. He walked up the pathway to the front door. I made sure to watch him the whole way. It could be another setup, some clever house owners putting together an elaborate ruse to get the childrens’ guard down before they reveal the big scare.
My phone vibrated once in my pocket. No doubt it was a text message from my wife. I watched as my son knocked on the door and patiently waited. We agreed before the night began that if nobody answered within ten seconds, then it was time to move on. I remember every detail of those next ten seconds:
I took my phone out of my pocket, still keeping an eye on Daniel.
I entered the code in without looking at the phone, unlocking the screen.
Daniel was still waiting at the door.
Through muscle memory I brought up the new messages screen, still not taking my eyes off my son.
He began to turn around.
He started to head towards the bucket left on the front porch.
He smiled at me.
I glanced down at my phone.
Sent: You and the Captain okay?
Reply: On our way home.
Daniel was gone.
I didn’t register it at first. I figured he was hiding behind… something. Daniel! I called out. DANIEL!! There was no reply. I ran up to the porch, but I found nothing. No clue as to where he had gone. There was no way he could have ran around the house, not in the span of one to two seconds.
I looked up and down the street but there was no one; no parents, no kids, nobody. Did someone open the door? Was he inside? I started to pound furiously on the front door, screaming my son’s name. I was screaming at the top of my lungs as I tugged at the door handle, trying to get it open. I must have screamed loud enough because the woman whose house Daniel was so brave at opened her door and yelled after me.
“Is everything alright?”
“No! Have you seen my son? The little boy dressed as a Captain?”
“Oh my goodness, no I haven’t. Should I call someone?”
His cell phone. I smacked myself in the forehead. I forgot he had one on him. I grabbed the phone out of my pocket and dialed his number.
It went straight to voicemail.
I almost threw the phone away right then and there, but I tried to calm myself down. Tried to think back. But all I could picture was someone, some… thing, opening the door, grabbing my son and covering his mouth before he could scream for me. I dialed 911. I didn’t care if we found him later, if he was playing some trick on me. I just wanted him back.
I told the neighbor to grab a flashlight and help me look for him. When the cops arrived, the neighbor and I had been looking all around the house, trying to find a way in. I was about to break a window when I heard the sirens. Those wailing screams echoing in the distance. I took such comfort in those sirens. I just knew in my heart that as soon as they got here, my son would pop out of somewhere, tell me it was all a big joke. I wouldn’t scold him, I wouldn’t yell at him. I would just hug and squeeze and hold onto him until he left for College.
I told the cops everything, down to the exact detail as I remembered it. They also pounded on the door, but when they saw my frantic behavior, the impatience riddling my body, they went ahead and broke the door in. They told me to stay behind, let them clear the house. I wanted to protest, to scream at them, to tell them nothing could keep me away. But when they drew their guns and yelled into the house I knew they were taking this seriously. Five of the longest minutes of my life passed by. I don’t know when she did it but at one point I looked down and the neighbor was holding my hand. She had children of her own, she knew what was happening, what could be happening. When the two cops came out of the house the look on their faces said it all. I almost broke down there on the street, but I had to hold on a little longer. I tore into the house, past the outstretched arms of the officers and started yelling for my son, bursting in and out of each room with ferocious intent. It wasn’t until I went up the stairs into what was once a bedroom that I realized no one was living in this house. No one had been living in this house for years.
I ran down the stairs, almost knocking the officers down as I ran up to the woman, the helpful neighbor. I grabbed her and started yelling.
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me no one was living here?”
She started to stammer, taken aback by my sudden turn, my aggression towards her.
“I….I didn’t know! I’ve only lived on this street for a few months. I never saw anyone come in or out but that could be for a hundred different reasons. I’m sorry! I didn’t know!”
I stood there, on the street, breathing heavily, holding onto the shoulders of a woman I only met a few minutes before. The officers placed their hands on my arms and I released her.
I looked back at the house, that two-story monstrosity bathed in darkness, and I knew. However impossible it was, I knew right there and then.
Daniel wasn’t coming back.
* * * * * *
Things for me were dark, really dark, for many months afterwards. I don’t really remember all of the police searches, the news bulletins, the press conferences. I ignored the pitied looks of my friends, the suspicious glares of my neighbors. My wife and I, despite everything, remained strong together. Every night we told each other “no body, no death”. In our hearts Daniel was alive.
The initial investigation of the house amounted to almost nothing. The previous owner had declared bankruptcy and abandoned the house. The bank hadn’t been able to sell it to anyone, so it sat there collecting dust. No one could account for the maintained lawn out front, and the police never found any bucket full of chocolate bars or any note. I don’t care what they say, I know what I saw.
I know there were some on the police force that suspected me. I went through rigorous interrogations, but they came up with nothing, as I knew they would. I didn’t blame them. If I had been in their position, I would have suspected me as well.
After three months all things concerning Daniel dissipated, except for in our household. We still put out flyers all over the surrounding neighborhoods every week. We still kept up to date with social media, pleading anybody and everybody to keep an eye out for our boy. I drained my accounts hiring private detectives to look into the house, the neighborhood, anything that I thought could help. They all came up with nothing. No clues. No traces.
Daniel had simply vanished.
Every night I had the same nightmare. Someone knocks on the door to our house, and I race down, hoping against all hope that it’s Daniel. And every time I open the door it is Daniel, and he’s standing there in his Captain Jack uniform and his pumpkin candy carrier. I scream out in joy and grab a hold of him, except his flesh starts to melt and sift through my fingers. His body turns into sand, and suddenly my son is a pile of dust and dirt on the carpet.
Then I wake up.
* * * * * *
Two weeks ago I was on the couch in the afternoon staring at the ceiling when I heard a knock on the door. I got up slowly, thinking it was a reporter coming to do a follow-up, or some punk kid claiming to have seen my son, something that happened all too often. I opened the door and nearly screamed. Not in joy but in sheer terror.
My son was standing there. Daniel.
My wife came barreling down the stairs, and she screamed as well, but hers was all happiness. She pushed me out of the way and took Daniel up in her arms. I couldn’t move. I kept waiting for his body to turn into mush, his ashes spilling through my wife’s fingers. I kept waiting to wake up in my bed, sweating and crying.
But that didn’t happen. Against every single odd in the book, Daniel had been returned. Through all the crying and hugging and kissing, Daniel didn’t say a word. He was just… there. No expression on his face, nothing registering in his eyes. We put it down to shock. Clearly something had happened to him.
As each day passed, not a single doctor or therapist or police officer could find anything physically wrong with him.
“Everything should be in working order,” said one particularly pompous doctor after examining Daniel. “I can’t tell you where your son was, or what happened to him, but whatever happened, nothing is wrong with him on the outside.”
Nothing was wrong with him on the outside? I nearly knocked out that smiling white coat right there and then, but I was so elated to have Daniel back that I shrugged it off, ignored it. Nothing mattered anymore.
Daniel was home.
Later that night, I was sitting at the dinner table after having tucked Daniel in when I came to the sudden realization that I wasn’t exactly happy. I should have been. I should have been screaming over the rooftops with complete joy in my heart. But something was wrong. Daniel wasn’t Daniel anymore. That happy, brave boy had come back… different. I tried to think about why. Obviously it had something to do with where he had been, what had happened to him. But there was something else. Something nagging at the back of my neck.
Then with a cold, sinking feeling, I remembered. Daniel had said something when I tucked him in. He had whispered, “I like it here.”
I didn’t register it at the time, but sitting at the table I didn’t like it. What did that mean? I ran up the stairs and opened his door. He was sleeping just as he should have been. I almost laughed out loud. What was wrong with me? My son was home. That’s all the mattered.
A few nights ago I woke up in the middle of the night to see Daniel standing in the doorway. He wasn’t moving. He was just…standing there. I looked over to my wife but she was sleeping. I turned back to Daniel.
“Hey there, Captain, are you okay?”
He didn’t say anything at first. He just looked at me and smiled, and for a second my blood turned cold. My flesh raised. That smile wasn’t my son. Then he whispered something. I couldn’t hear it.
“What was that?” I asked him.
Then he sprinted towards me. So fast. So quick. And he yelled, “I LIKE IT HERE!” Then he ran back out of our room and into his, slamming his door.
My wife slept through the whole thing.
Last night was the turning point. I was just about to lock the front door for the evening when my wife started screaming. And I mean screaming. I was convinced in the few seconds it took me to bound up the stairs that someone was killing her.
In a way, I was right.
I burst through the bedroom door to find Daniel standing over my wife with an axe. He had that dead smile on his face again. The axe was raised above his head when I tackled him. He started to scream, and I started to cry. He just kept repeating the same thing over and over again:
“You’ll like it there! You’ll like it there! You’ll like it there!”
Now, I’m lost. I don’t know what to do, who to turn to. And as Halloween approaches, I think I have to go back. Back to the house where it all began. I’m going to take Daniel.
Maybe he can show me where he wants us to go.