(from the book of short stories “Nothing Strange,” by M. Henri Nadeau, 2022)
They were so big now. Near the door she fussed with the lion’s mane, pushing the polyester strands one way and then the other and then back to the first way. Bill saw that she was fussing. He stepped toward the lion and put a hand on his shoulder to guide him. I think we’re ready, he said. He looked into his wife’s face. We’ll be alright.
Okay, well, just make sure to look out for cars. They might not be expecting kids to be out. We really should have put some reflective tape on. Maybe you can stop by TradeMart on your way and get some reflective tape. I think they have some in the back aisle. But if you don’t see it you should ask.
We’ll be fine, said Bill.
Have you two had enough to eat? she said. You should have something substantial in you before you start eating all that candy.
Uh huh, said both the jester and lion.
She suddenly looked at Bill as though she’d realized something; something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Coats! she said. It’s cold.
Both lion and jester protested. Nobody will be able to tell what we are, said the jester.
She looked at her husband with her mouth agape, as though paused for breath. It’s a cold night, she said to him. Even standing there by the doorway they could feel the coldness.
We’ll bring the coats along, he said. We’ll use them if we have to.
She stared at them gathered there at the door, ready to leave. My god, she said, can you imagine if they step in front of a car and the car doesn’t see them? She began stroking the lion’s head. Keep an eye on your brother, Deena, she said.
The jester gave her a face. She was 13 -- too old to need safety guidance. Mom, we’re not going to step in front of a car, she said. We’ll be fine.
Well I’m just saying, you’re the oldest one. You need to take that role of watching out for the younger ones.
Well, technically, said the lion, Dad’s the oldest one, right?
Bill leaned into his wife’s forehead and gave her a kiss and he followed the jester and lion out the door. He paused in the doorway to see how she was doing. You know, he said, I am the oldest. Technically.
She smiled but then the smile vanished. You won’t stay long at Darrell’s, will you?
Well, just a bit. We’ll catch up a little, I suppose. He shrugged his hands. We won’t stay long.
They did this every year; sort of a tradition. There was no trick or treating in their own neighborhood, where there were no sidewalks; where the houses were set back from the road among dark trees. Bill’s brother lived in a more pedestrian neighborhood. He was a committed bachelor who hadn’t taken the family route that his older brother had taken. Whenever they talked about Darrell’s failings — his eternal bachelorhood or his drinking or his crude manners, Bill said that they shouldn’t judge Darrell. He’d gotten the short end of the stick in their family. He was an accident, his birth consummated during a short-lived reunification of their parents, his childhood forgotten by a family that had since moved on with their lives. Every year Bill drove the kids out to his brother’s place, parked in his driveway and trick or treated in his neighborhood.
She pulled back the curtain and watched them leaving. The headlights of a passing car filled their faces for a moment. She saw her husband alone in the front seat, seeming to be welded to the steering wheel. The heads of the two children were in the back seat. One of them lifted a paw and waved at her and as she waved back the other two began their own waves. She worried that Bill’s return wave would divert his attention from driving, and she wanted to shout to him through the windowpane not to mind her, just to watch where he was going. He seemed to maintain control of the car. It went slowly along the street. She watched the taillights vanish among the trees lining the road. Bill was a safe driver.
She thought again of her children walking about in Darrell’s busy neighborhood, both of them staring into candy bags, counting their cache as they stepped unknowing into the path of a fast-moving car, some teenager out drinking behind the wheel, egged on by his friends, driving too fast. She thought of the thump and their small bodies flying through the night. She thought of Bill stupidly watching, unable to react in time to save them. The idea had become ridiculous, and she laughed at herself. They’ll be fine, she thought.
It wasn’t time yet, but she took her pill to get a head start on things. She was planning to do some knitting and she didn’t want it to get too late before she remembered. The glass on the counter didn’t have much water in it and the pill left a bitter taste behind the swallow. It occurred to her that she could have a bit of wine to wash it down. There was half a bottle of Chardonnay in the refrigerator. She went upstairs to the sewing room carrying the cold glass of wine and the knitting magazine that had come in the mail that afternoon. One more time she looked out the window. There were no lights except a distant neighbor’s, screened by trees, and there was no moon. A wind had come up and was rustling around their property. The neighbor’s dogs set into a fit of savage barking and then went quiet. It didn’t seem possible that children were outdoors at this time, when they should be warm and safe in their homes.
There were two men visiting Darrell; they sat on the couch facing the front door, clutching rocks glasses filled with ice and caramel-colored booze. When Bill came in with the kids one of them said, Uh oh. Lion in the house.
Hi Uncle Darrell, the children said in unison.
Hey, look at you guys. Real spooky, said Darrell. He didn’t get up from his seat. He was in the recliner directly across from the television set. As the children came into the room both Darrell and his guests tucked their drinks into discrete spots at the hems of their seats. Come get some candy, said Darrell. He gestured toward the large bowl on the coffee table and the lion rushed at it.
Well, you too, Deena, he said to the jester. You’re not too old for candy now, are you?
No, she said. I’m just letting my brother go first.
There’s some manners, said one of the men on the couch.
You raised them right, said the other man to Bill.
What, him? Said Darrell. I think his wife gets the credit for that. The only thing my brother’s ever raised is shit, on his shitfarm.
Bill seemed to consider this. Thanks, Darrell, he said.
The men on the couch shook Bill’s hand and sat back down. They worked at the print shop with Darrell. Darrell said he was keeping them out of trouble. Get yourself a chair from the kitchen, Darrell said. Want a little drink? There’s some cheap Scotch on the caddy; help yourself. I’m keeping the good stuff for myself. Bill went into the kitchen and filled a glass with ice and soda and put a splash of Scotch into it. His drink looked very pale, lighter than straw. Darrell would chide him for not making it strong enough. He put in more Scotch and told himself that he’d only drink part of it, thinking of ratios.
When Bill returned to the room he thought of what his wife had once said: Darrell needed an interior decorator even more than he needed a wife. Bill considered the roomscape that hadn’t changed in the thirteen years that Darrell had lived here. At least he keeps it tidy, he thought. The children had sat on the floor and were staring at the television. A male character was swearing at a female character as he drove fast in a car.
So what are we watching here, Darrell? Said Bill.
Oh. Right, said Darrell. Probably not appropriate for younger viewers. I’ll switch it. Darrell raised from his seat for the remote control next to the candy bowl and released a terrific fart. The children tittered and looked at each other. Woah! He said. He acted very surprised. Pardon my French, he said. He settled back in his seat and aimed the remote at the television and it changed to a newscast.
Bill spun the ice in his glass and stared into it. The others had picked up their drinks. Well, happy Halloween, said Bill. He pitched his glass toward the men on the couch and then to his brother and they all drank.
So how’s Mum? said Darrell.
She’s doing great, Bill said. I was up there last week. You should visit her more so she doesn’t forget who you are.
Their mother was demented, and though she sometimes spoke about her youngest child she could never remember his name. Sometimes she spoke about him in loving memory, as though he’d died a long time ago.
That’s alright, said Darrell. He pushed air away from his side. I’m gonna’ go up there next month during our shutdown.
That’ll be good, said Bill. She’ll be glad to see you.
Any luck in your trick-or-treating? one of the men asked the lion. He had a bushy beard, and Bill thought for a moment that he looked a bit like a lion himself.
Yeah, said Jeffery, his eyes widening and his whiskers peeling back. He showed the mouth of his bag and the man peered toward it. We got so much stuff. Uncle Darrell’s neighborhood is the best for Halloween. Our neighborhood blows.
We’re out on Hammer Ridge, Bill explained.
Whole lot a nothing up there, said the other man on the couch. He hadn’t spoken much so far, but the topic of neighborhoods seemed to animate him.
Darrell looked away from the television and stared at Deena for a long while. And what are you, Deena, he said. A clown or something?
Deena was sitting sideways to Darrell with her long legs stretched toward the light of the television set. She’d taken her shoes off and her feet were bare. She’d also taken off her jester hat. I’m a jester, she said. She turned her head to answer him, hitched her hair over her ear and smiled. It looks better with the hat, she said.
He stared at her. Well, said Darrell. You’re a pretty good looking little jester. My opinion.
The lion looks good too, said the bearded man on the couch. He made a growling sound at Jeffery and Jeffery growled back. As the man leaned forward to growl Bill noticed there was a tattoo on the side of his neck.
The doorbell rang. Trick or treaters, said Darrell. Why don’t you two take care of them? He watched the children get up and go past him toward the door.
Deena, wait, he said. Go grab that candy bowl. You’ll need that. Deena walked again past her uncle to pick up the bowl.
That’s a real good costume she’s got, Darrell said to Bill as she was leaving the room.
There were more trick or treaters, and the children brought the bowl to the door each time. When they were out of the room the men on the couch reached into the hems of the couch for their drinks and took long gulps. Darrell kept his drink in his armrest hand and went into the kitchen a few times to refill. Who needs another one? He said. He came back into the room and stumbled a little as he was sitting down. Woah, I almost lost it, he said happily. You see that? I almost did a face plant into the window.
Well, we should get going, said Bill. He looked for a place to set his glass as he stood up.
Well don’t go away mad, said Darrell. Just go away! He laughed at his joke and the men on the couch laughed too.
Come on, guys. Your mother’s expecting us by now, I think.
Woah, woah, woah, now, said Darrell. I was talking to doofus there. I didn’t say you kids were going. He made a feigned effort to stop Jeffery, leaning forward in his chair and swatting with a hand, but Jefferey slipped past. Oh, the lion got away, Darrell said. Jefferey stood by the door and stared sidelong at his uncle. Deena’s only path to the door was the narrow space between the coffee table and her uncle. He was bobbing his head side to side, ready for the game. I won’t let you get away, he said to Deena. She tried to step past him and Darrell reached out with his free hand and grasped her shirt front. Deena made a little sound and stepped back and her uncle’s hand fell away. Oh, I almost had you, said Darrell. He sounded very excited about this game. He bent over to set his drink down and straightened, waiting.
Deena looked stricken as she stood back against the wall. She could squeeze through the small space between the couch and the coffee table, but the men sitting there were sprawled forward.
Woah, look out for that, Bill said. He motioned toward Darrell’s glass on the carpet.
What? said Darrell. Oh. He looked down and reached for his glass and moved it clumsily, setting it closer to his chair leg. As he did, Bill stepped quickly past him and embraced his daughter, hoisting her into the air. I got her, he said with false triumph. As he picked her up he remembered very clearly what it had been like to hold her when she was small, and their bodies folded together, creased by memory. He carried her quickly past his brother, pivoting her away from him as they passed.
Aw. Bastard, said Darrell. His voice was angry. Deena looked back at the room over her father’s shoulder. The men and Uncle Darrell were staring at her. She was trying to smile and she felt that her face was burning. Her father set her beside her brother at the door and she put on her hat.
Night, everyone, said Bill to them. You guys stay out of trouble. The two men on the couch looked guilty and assured him they would.
They came into the long driveway just as she thought to look up, and it all seemed perfectly natural to her that they were now home. She’d been very relaxed, knitting at the window and floating to the door once when she thought there was a trick or treater. She’d found no one there — it must have been the wind. And now they were home and she felt proud of herself that she’d been so content while they were gone. The relief didn’t come like a flood. They were home, just like they should be.
The children dumped their candy onto the dining room table and waited. Bill sat and started going through each piece, looking for the pin holes and protruding razors. Inspecting the candy suddenly seemed very silly to her. Laughing suddenly, she stood back from the table. Oh, let’s not worry about it, she said. I’m sure it’s fine.
We can just eat it? said the lion. His mane was pulled down now.
Why not, she said. It’s Halloween.
We’ll look at them before we eat them, offered the jester.
When the kids were in bed she grabbed her husband’s rear end while he brushed his teeth in the bathroom. I’m feeling a little wild, she said. They looked at themselves in the mirror – she was smiling and he was holding a mouthful of toothpaste.
They made love sideways, beneath the covers, so that any child blundering into the room would suspect nothing strange. When they were still, the house was quiet except intermittent shakes of wind. I don’t think we’ll go out trick or treating next year, Bill said. We should just try to do it in our own neighborhood.
Really? she said. She sounded glad for the idea but very sleepy. And in a moment she was breathing deeply, snoring a bit. Bill turned on his side and looked out the curtained window. The moon had risen and it shadowed the trees as they shook in the wind. For a moment they seemed to be tall ghouls who’d come to their house for candy or for flesh, waiting there in the darkness for someone to answer the door.
By Mark Nadeau