01 Feb This Halloween We Kept the Lights Off but They Still Came
It was for our own protection. That’s what our father said as he meticulously checked each of the seven locks on the door.
Penelope and I watched him cautiously from the dark of the living room. His hands fidgeted with the knobs, toggled the deadbolts, traced the squared edges of the new padlock that had been installed with what was almost mistakeable as gentleness. The dreary light of sunset filtered through the windows, catching dust motes and lighting them up with a ghostly incandescence before they stirred and settled in the gloom along with our father – his shirt damp and stained, his hair disheveled, his eyes rheumy with a pessimistic, sleepless sort of worry. For weeks, he had been telling us that Halloween was cancelled for us – that, this year, we’d be keeping all the lights off, the doors locked, and the shades down. He’d said it with a sort of nervous electricity each time, the kind we’d seen over and over again as we’d grown up – the kind our mother had warned us about through her teeth when she’d finally left him. If his words hadn’t convinced us to listen, the way he made himself tall and broad, like a wall when he said it, had. There would be no disobeying him on this. The locks, it seemed, were to make sure of that.
Still, we could see the other children, costumed and wandering along the street. I felt Penelope tense as she looked on and squeezed her hand. Then, absently, I scratched the side of my head.
“I don’t understand why we can’t go out for a little bit,” Penelope said, her voice high and brittle, like a bell in the silence, “just a little bit. We could stay right out front – right where you could see us. If anything bad happened, we could come right back.” Though she was speaking to him, she didn’t turn her head away from the window. Outside, a lanky boy with a jack o’ lantern for a head and a skeleton suit for a body stopped at the edge of the driveway, stared up at the house, and then shuffled on.
“My decision is final.” My father replied, his voice phlegmy but emphatic nonetheless. “We’re all staying in today. Lights off, door locked, windows shaded like we’d said. I need to keep you here to keep you safe… especially with this shit your mother has been pulling lately.”
Penelope and I hadn’t needed to be told that she was the reason for his worry. In the last week alone, she’d driven by half a dozen times and parked her car at the end of the driveway twice without getting out. The one time she did get out, she’d walked the entire length of the driveway, casting furtive glances over her shoulders and eyeing the house teary-eyed. We could tell, by the way her black sedan skewed in the gravel and the look in her eyes that she’d been drinking again. It was a surprise that Russell, her long-term boyfriend, or his son, Dane, weren’t with her.
When the front door hadn’t budged, she’d trudged through the overgrowth along the side of the house to the back. Our father hadn’t known she’d still had a key, but the noise she’d made trying to come through the front had been enough to tip him off that she was around again. When she’d finally managed to put the key in the back door’s lock and turn it, our father was there to meet her. Without a word, he’d slammed the door back in her face, sending her scrambling and screaming backwards, then running back to her car while nursing her bloodied nose.
Now, the back door was tacked permanently shut with three heavy two-by-fours.
“It’s only a matter of time before your mother, or someone caught in her clutches, comes back to the house again. She’s the one that decided she didn’t want to be a part of this family anymore – who decided that her new life with Russell was more important than us. Neither she, nor anyone who shows up on her behalf, are coming in to talk to you or your sister. The fact that, today of all days, they could show up on our doorstep with masks on to hide their judgmental faces and lying mouths should be enough for you to just trust me and do as I say.”
Penelope put her hands to the side of her head and sighed. The red light sliced through the shades and cast her face with a hellish glow, pooling where her damp hair pushed up between her fingers. Across the street, a group of miniature princesses shrieked as a spidery, mechanical scarecrow came to life while they reached for the cauldron heaped with candy at the base of its feet.
As night fell over our neighborhood, Penelope and I watched the ebb and flow of trick-or-treaters on the street. With the no lights rule our father was enforcing, that meant no television, no computers, no nothing. He’d briefly suggested that we go upstairs to read or maybe, even, that we call it an early night, but the selfsame magic that captivated us as we watched the costumed figures flit from door to door like buzzing, brightly-colored flies refused to let us grow tired. Here was a group of boys dressed as pirates, some with red and black bandanas strung like garland around their wiry frames, others with austere tricorn hats catching the streetlights with their blade-like edges. There was a group of older girls, high school girls like us, their black dresses hemmed short, their heels rubbing red heat into the cold white of their ankles as their makeshift coven strode confidently and undoubtedly toward some Halloween party or another. And with each passing car, I wondered silently if our mother would return tonight – if she would fulfill my father’s prophecy and try to steal us away. But the cars never entered our driveway, never slowed as they passed, and Penelope was silent, though I knew her eyes were following the same crowds and cars as mine were. Our father was nowhere to be seen.
As midnight approached, the stream of costumed visitors to our neighborhood had slowed to a trickle. I could see that the slowing festivities had changed Penelope – that the fewer people there were on the street, the more concrete the fact that we’d missed Halloween became for her. With her penchant for bright colors, ghost stories, and her insatiable sweet tooth, it had always been her favorite holiday. Missing it was a huge letdown, but watching it pass had been worse. I put my hand on hers again and squeezed lightly. “It will be okay, Penelope. There’s always next year…”
Penelope scoffed. “I hate when you say that it will be okay. Whenever you say it, it never is…” She bit her bottom lip and the sighed. “And how do you even know that next year will be any different? Dad has always been this way – will always be this way. Afraid of this or that, pissed at mom or whoever he thinks she’s trying to reach out to us through. He’ll throw more fits, slam more cupboards, scream at us more. He’ll always be there to stop us from just moving on… or from having fun. It’s not fair.”
I slung my arm around her and pulled her closer. “I- You’re right. It’s not fair. But, hopefully, we won’t have to deal with it much longer. Besides, he is just trying to protect us, as messed up as his idea of ‘protection’ might be. He means well enough, even if he is a little demanding…”
Penelope shrugged. “If you say so. I think I’m done here. I’m going to head upstairs.”
I sighed. “Okay, I’ll follow your lead.”
We stood up from the couch and, for a moment, I felt spacey and unsteady, as if I were floating far away from my body. But, just as I was going to reach out for Penelope to sturdy myself, we heard the gravel of the driveway crunch, and a white light blasted through the shades and illuminated the entire living room.
Immediately, we were back at the window. The bloom of the light was blinding, especially after spending the entire day shrouded in the indoor darkness, but as my eyes adjusted, I could see the dark stretch of our mother’s black sedan. The doors swung open, the headlights went black, and the doors closed. Four figures, varying in height width, stood silhouetted against the streetlights.
“Dad!” Penelope yelled. “Dad! Someone’s here!”
Slowly and purposefully, they advanced toward the house. As they approached, we could see that each held something – one a crowbar, another a pair of bolt-cutters, the third a baseball bat. They climbed the porch stairs, the wood groaning beneath their collective weight. Penelope and I both instinctively stopped panting, our breaths growing shallow and harsh. We could hear them talking through the wall.
“Are you sure this is the place?”
“I’m positive,” a familiar voice answered, “this is where she said it was. I’ve been by it before.”
“And you’re sure that we can have our fun here without someone finding out? You’re sure that there won’t be any problems?”
“I doubt it,” said the familiar voice. “And if there is, there’s four of us at least.”
The first voice laughed in response. “Good. Then what are you waiting for? Turn on the light so we can make this quick.”
There was a small click and the yellow beam of a boxy flashlight flared to life. Through the slats in the shades, we could see them now – high school boys, all of them. One of them was tall with long, greasy, dark hair. Another stood above the rest, his hair lighter and curled, his face pockmarked by acne and scars. A third stood behind them, a ballcap on his head, his hands wrapped around the grip of the baseball bat on his shoulder as if it were a claymore. The last – the one with the flashlight, we recognized, first by the skeleton suit he was wearing, and then by his sunken eyes and pinched nose. It was Dane.
“Come with me, now!” Our father materialized from the darkness and I almost screamed. Penelope leapt up from the couch, taking his hand, and I followed. As we heard the metal edge of the crowbar jam between the door and its frame, our father pushed us down the hall toward the kitchen. We passed the back door and stopped at the entrance to the basement.
“Listen to me. Don’t go down into the basement. Stay at the top of these stairs and, no matter what you hear, don’t come out. You hear me?”
The door swung open and we stepped inside.
“I don’t know what these boys are up to, but your mother must’ve sent them. And she’s not getting her grimy fucking hands on my daughters.”
The door slammed and darkness enveloped us. I could feel Penelope shivering next to me as our father locked the door from the other side and walked away. The side of my head began to itch and I scratched it, anxiously pulling at the roots of my hair.
We heard the wood of the front door groan and crack. Seconds later, we heard it slam back into its frame. There was silence and, then, something smashed into a windowpane, shattering it into our home. One thump followed, then another, and a third, and a fourth. Footsteps on the wood, the floorboards protesting. Penelope’s breath was loud in my ear, her body quaking, her nails digging into my skin. The silence above seemed to stretch on without end and I wondered where our father was – what his plan was. I wondered if he could stop them. Then, the linoleum outside of the basement door creaked and I pulled Penelope close and covered her mouth.
The lock slid on the other side and the knob turned.
The door swung open and the four boys stood, staring at us with half-grins on their faces. Their grips on their tools tightened. The beam of the box flashlight swung up from the floor until it laid directly on Penelope and me.
I felt my breath catch in my throat, my chest heaving as I tried to breathe. My brain was telling me to scream, to cast Penelope down the stairs and throw myself at them, but, instead, I just stared back at them, the light of the flashlight on my face, my body anticipating what came next.
“Here we are,” said Dane with a chuckle, “just what we were looking for.”
He took a step toward us, closing the space.
“We’re going to do it down there?” The greasy-haired boy asked, following close behind.
“Where else?” Dane laughed. “This is where it has to happen.” He took another step, and then another, until we were eye-to-eye, our faces almost touching. I could smell faint hint of chocolate on his breath, could feel the heat radiating from his body.
“We’re right behind you,” one of the other boys said.
And, starting with Dane, one-by-one, the boys walked through us into the basement. As if we were no more than a projection, a mist, a mirage, they passed through us, and I felt the walls around me begin to warp and stretch, like I was far away from my body, like I was in two places at once. I turned and locked eyes with Penelope. In my peripherals, I could see the boys canvassing the basement with their light.
“This is where he did it,” Dane said, quietly to the others. “This is where my stepmom’s ex-husband shot both their daughters in the head. Where he lined them up and used one bullet to kill two girls – a clean shot, temple-to-temple – and then hung himself from the rafters with an extension cord. It happened exactly a year ago today… and, to this day, my stepmom swears that they’re still here, in this house, trapped forever because of his actions…”
I stared at Penelope and she stared back.