As a special Halloween treat, I’m posting a recently-published short story, “Candy Witch”, from my collection Before the Ripcord Broke: Stories.
Please note: this is a short-term post, which will expire at the end of November.
Until then…happy reading, and happy Halloween.
My sister Jenny picked the perfect day to get married, a clear and warm morning in May, out on the lawn of her best friend and maid of honor. A hundred of us are sitting in folding chairs, watching Jenny tie the knot with the groom beside her. She’s holding a bouquet of pink roses and she looks beautiful all in white.
But the Jenny I remember best didn’t wear white. She wore black. And it wasn’t springtime. It was autumn.
Our parents moved us in the month of October to the house where we grew up. I was nine and Jenny was thirteen. We lived in the last and smallest house of the subdivision, the one closest to the highway. I realize now, it was a much nicer house than the one we lived in before, and in a better neighborhood.
I didn’t understand at the time why we had to move. There was nothing wrong with our old house and we had friends at the old school. At the new school, I immediately fell behind in my lessons and I discovered that the kids in this school wouldn’t talk to anyone in October that they hadn’t met in September. I think it even bothered Jenny. She kept to herself more than usual, shut in her room with the radio on.
We didn’t see as much of Mom or Dad either. Dad started working later into the evenings and Mom took a job on the swing shift as a cashier in a drug store five miles away. Almost all our meals were leftovers served out of plastic containers while she was still at work. I learned to hate the drone of the microwave heating up another bowl of spaghetti.
It wasn’t all misery, though. Halloween was coming, time to get all the candy I wanted – sacks of it, and my mouth smeared in milk chocolate, just like last year in the old neighborhood. The moving boxes weren’t all unpacked before I started reminding Mom and Dad.
At first I barely noticed how quiet it got when I mentioned Halloween. My own desire filled my ears with a rushing sound. Later on, when my parents still didn’t say anything, I felt fear between my shoulder blades. There wasn’t much time left to get ready. I almost yelled at them on the last Saturday before Halloween: we had to buy costumes and candy.
I saw Mom look at Dad. He said, “We can’t take you. We’re both working.”
I stood there gape-jawed and the shock stuck in my chest. I knew they had been holding out. They knew the whole time they weren’t going to take us trick-or-treating. They knew!
“I’ll take him,” Jenny said.
“You’re too old for Halloween,” Mom said.
“I won’t ask for candy. I’ll just take Dan.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Dad said. “We’ll go next year.”
I looked at Dad with my eyes and my jaws. Next year? Next year?
“Do you want to do that?” Mom said to Jenny.
“No. But Dan might cry if I don’t.”
Another look between Mom and Dad. Jenny was right. I might have cried right there if they hadn’t said yes to my sister. I did cry when I went back to my room, tears of relief.
The good news was that I was going trick-or-treating. The bad news was that Mom didn’t take us to the store where they sold costumes. She took us to the fabric store and bought a length of black cloth, some thread, some pins, and three sticks of charcoal. The store also sold candy, and Mom bought two bags to give away to the neighbor kids.
“It’s not enough candy,” Jenny said.
Mom said, “It’s plenty.”
We worked on the costumes when we came home from the store. Jenny made a witch costume from some of the cloth and a few pins. She made a pointed hat using cardboard from an oatmeal box to hold the cloth in shape. She wasn’t going trick-or-treating but she could still dress up. She practiced applying the charcoal to make her face dusky, and hollowed out her eyes until they were black.
Mom didn’t make me a costume to look like Spider-Man, or Superman, or Batman. She sewed me a black sack that went over my shoulders like a long shirt. She found a pair of Dad’s cutoff blue jeans, which she cinched up with an old belt from his closet, and she made a hat from a red bandana.
“Try it on,” she said. “See if it fits.” I put on the clothes and she made me stand in front of her full-length mirror.
I said, “What am I?” I looked like a rotten apple and I wanted to cry again.
“You’re a hobo,” she said. “You’ll look even spookier after we put charcoal on your face.”
It was the worst indignity. I wasn’t going to wear a mask on my face, just dirt.
She saw my look and her face knotted up. “You wanted to go and you’re going! You wanted a costume and I made you one! You can wipe that look right off your face, you hear?”
I stopped breathing. I don’t remember her ever yelling at me before. I did my best to wipe the look off and pushed past Mom to leave the room.
Halloween night came, and Mom and Dad were both at work. Dad would be home in an hour, Mom in two hours. Jenny warmed our dinner and we both got in our costumes. Jenny rubbed charcoal on her own face and offered to apply it to mine. She didn’t argue when I refused. Jenny emptied our candy into the plastic popcorn bowl and set it on the lamp table for Dad to give out. She let me have one piece before we left.
We were the first ones outside on our end of the street. Jenny walked me over to the house next door and stood on the sidewalk while I rang the doorbell and said trick-or-treat. That first house was hard, being all alone on the porch, hoping I hadn’t started too early and dreading I would have to explain my awful costume.
It got easier after the second or third house. My old trick-or-treat skills returned to me and my nerves settled down. Other kids began to come out.
They were just a trickle to start, then a stream. Soon I found myself moving house to house behind the same group of kids. One of them was a foot and a half taller than me, wearing a yellow costume and a rubber mask with a long nose and orange eyes. It was a much better costume than mine, whatever it was.
All the costumes were better than mine. They were bought at a store and were brighter and had recognizable characters. They carried their candy in glossy paper sacks or plastic pumpkin buckets. I had a striped pillow case, the same one I had slept on the night before, and there was nothing I could do to make it not look like a pillow case. I had never seen a real hobo, but I knew what it felt like to be a hobo from walking in my own neighborhood.
Jenny was the most striking character among us even though she had made her costume herself. She turned blacker and blacker as the sun went down. Not the shiny plastic black of the store-bought costumes. She was fully black. Utterly black.
I began to notice, as my bag filled up, that Jenny wasn’t paying attention to me anymore. She was looking up the street, at the other houses and the other kids and their parents. I stopped next to her on the sidewalk. “What?” I said. Was the wind bothering her? Did she think it was going to rain?
She didn’t look at me. “There are too many people.”
It didn’t seem like too many to me. More people meant more houses with candy.
“I told Mom we wouldn’t have enough.”
So? What difference did it make? Mom and Dad weren’t home. No one knew about us anyway, and our porch light was turned off.
She turned to me now, with eyes I couldn’t see, they were so dark. “I have to go.”
“But –” I said.
“You stay with these kids. Hey you!” She called out to the tall one in the yellow costume.
“What,” he said. His voice was deep, and not just because the mask muffled it.
“What are you?” she said. “A dinosaur?” He didn’t look anything like a dinosaur. Even I knew that.
“I’m a goblin!” he said.
“Yeah, sure. How old are you, about twenty?”
“No. How old are you?”
“Never mind,” she said. “I have to go, and you have to look after my little brother.” She put her hand on my shoulder and shoved me forward.
“Him?” he said. “Where are you going?”
Jenny put her hands on her abdomen and said in a creaky witch voice, “I have craaaamps…”
Goblin froze, looking at her and wondering if he just heard what he thought he heard. Jenny marched away in the opposite direction. I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about.
Goblin looked down at me. “Looks like you’re with me, little brother. What are you supposed to be?”
I couldn’t say it. It came out, “A…a hhh –”
“All right, then. You look like one,” he said.
Goblin took good care of me. We stayed together and he let me go first on every porch. He looked at the grownups holding out bowls of candy and tilted his head in my direction, to make sure they would see me. I always took the candy I liked best, and sometimes Goblin took an extra piece and threw it in my bag.
We worked our way along the main street, now among dozens of other kids, like ants moving along tracks looking for sugar. The houses grew bigger and brighter as we went deeper into the subdivision, and the candy got better too: bigger, richer, and sweeter.
From time to time I looked at the other side of the street and I thought I saw a flicker of black. Was that Jenny, now with a bag and knocking on doors? The flashes went by too fast and I couldn’t be sure.
At last Goblin and I approached the last house on the block, the tallest and best lit house in the whole neighborhood. It had a brick stairway leading up to the porch and a white front door with a brass doorknob. A procession of kids was climbing and descending the stairs. I knew this had to be the home of candy heaven.
When I pushed the doorbell, it played a song! The door opened on the most beautiful teenage girl I have ever seen, wearing a sparkling robin’s egg blue gown and a rhinestone tiara. She held a huge glass bowl of candies so rare and perfect that I had never even heard of them.
She smiled brightly and put two pieces of candy each in my bag and Goblin’s. Then she dropped in a toothbrush wrapped in plastic and said “Happy Halloween!” like the trilling of birdsong. I didn’t find out until I got home that the toothbrush was printed with the name of her father, a prosperous dentist who didn’t mind if Halloween helped him drum up a little business from the neighborhood.
We floated back down the steps, leaving the high temple of candy and with half the neighborhood still left to visit. We were a goblin and a lowly hobo making out very, very well.
Suddenly a shadow jumped in front of us at the bottom of the steps. “Good, you’re here.” It was Jenny, looking blacker than ever now that we had seen a Halloween princess.
“Hi,” I said.
She looked into my bag. “How are you doing for candy? Getting a lot?”
I leaned back. “Pretty good.”
She held out her sack. “Trade me.” She reached out and took my sack before I could tighten my grip.
I took her sack and I could feel it was empty. My chest started to tighten. “What!”
“Dad’s home now. All the kids in the neighborhood will be coming to our house and he needs more candy.”
“No! That’s my candy!”
She leaned her black eyes over my moist ones. “Do you want Dad to have no candy to hand out?” She pointed at the dentist’s house. “What will Cinderella up there say to all her friends? Who will want to talk to our mom?”
I would like to say that I cared about Mom and Dad, but I didn’t. They didn’t want to let us trick-or-treat in the first place, and I didn’t want them to give away all my candy. It wasn’t fair.
She said, “I have a job for you.”
“No!” I said. “Give me back my candy.”
“No, this candy is taken.”
“I want it!”
“No. But I want you to keep trick-or-treating to get as much candy as you can.”
“More?” I said.
“More. Can you do that?”
I nodded. At least I would get some candy.
“And,” she said, “I want you to tell every kid you see that the best candy in the neighborhood is at our house. Tell them where to go. Make it so Dad can’t even sit down because he’s giving out candy, do you hear me?”
So she was going to give the new candy away too? I started to shake my head no when Goblin said, “Can I help?”
Jenny turned from me and the point of her hat tilted back to look at him. “You better. Danny is nine, not nineteen like you, shave boy.”
“I’m not nineteen,” Goblin said.
“I don’t care if you’re thirty. Just get the kids to our house.” She turned and went away with my candy.
“She’s mean,” Goblin said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What’s her name?”
Goblin made a game of it, telling the kids on the sidewalk that my house had the best candy and that it was the scariest house in the neighborhood. He started calling me a hobot, a robot invented by a mad hobo scientist who wanted to rule the world.
At the same time, we didn’t forget to trick-or-treat every door. I put my heart into it, knowing that the only way now to have enough candy was to have more than enough.
Goblin left me near my house, saying he had to get going. I never saw him in my neighborhood again.
Jenny’s plan worked. I passed dozens of other kids on the way toward our now-lighted porch. I wished they would move slower, and I imagined they were all foot-dragging zombies who would rather eat brains than candy.
Apparently Dad didn’t know they were zombies because he was handing candy out to everyone. He talked a moment to each of the parents and said we were new to the neighborhood. The line was getting longer, he was talking so much.
I pushed through some kids to walk up the three wooden steps to the porch. “Look at this!” he said to me. “We have trick-or-treaters! I hope your mom gets here soon to see it. Dan, meet our neighbor Lola.”
I moved past Lola and through the front door with my sack held close on the other side, now almost half full again. It would be safe if I could get it to my room.
But Jenny was right there to take the sack and pour it into the popcorn bowl. “Nice work, hobo,” she said, and carried my candy back outside
I didn’t answer. I walked to the kitchen with slumped shoulders.
And then I had an idea. I called Mom at work. I asked her to bring home more candy.
I could hear her sigh and I pulled the phone away from my ear. “Hon, Jenny already called me and said you ran out and now you’re giving your trick-or-treat candy to the neighborhood. Are you saying you need even more?”
I realize now this was one of the most important moments of my life. Did I trust my sister or not? I’d like to say I didn’t hesitate. Why wouldn’t I want more candy, no matter what? All I know is that, somehow, I said the right thing. “No, that’s okay.”
“All right. I’ll be home in awhile.”
I hung up the phone and joined Jenny and Dad on the porch. Jenny nudged me into saying hello to everyone who came to our door, and by the time the night was over I had met a lot of the kids in the neighborhood. When I saw them again at school, I wasn’t quite so scary to them and they began to talk to me.
Mom came home. The trick-or-treaters were gone, and so was all the candy we had taken from our neighbors. The candy she brought home was all for us, and only the kinds we liked. There was plenty, even after Mom and Dad took their handfuls.
And last and best, Dad said Lola had invited all of us to her house for dinner sometime in November. That is, it was best for Mom and Dad. For me, it would be unbearably boring.
I still remember that night, the four of us sitting on the porch, Jenny and I eating candy and Mom and Dad holding hands, and thinking for the first time that our new neighborhood was home.
We’re both grown now and have grown-up jobs. Jenny is an event planner. If a company wants a conference or a meeting to go off smoothly and everyone to have a good time, they call her.
I work in an advertising agency. My job is to make the customer think he has problems for which my client’s product is the solution. Problems like, Do you want to drive a car that matches your success in life? Own the blah blah blah 400 blah blah…
Jenny and I do the same kind of work, don’t we? Just in different ways? We match problems to solutions. We’re both collecting candy, just on different sides of the street, right?
I don’t know anymore. Sometimes I visit Jenny at her work and watch how she does her thing and it makes me think I need to find a different path.
I did one good thing, though. I saw Goblin again, years later. He came to work at my company for a while. His real name is Mark, and he recognized me from our Halloween night together – and he remembered Jenny by name. He was visiting his cousins that night, before Jenny made him take care of me. He’s a really good guy, so good that I asked Jenny if I could give him her phone number. She said, “No. I don’t have time to date strange guys. My life is busy enough already.”
I gave it to him anyway. She would just have to trust me. Mark asked me if she wanted him to call her and I said she did. That’s what Jenny would have done if it were the other way around. See a problem, solve a problem.
Now I’m sitting next to Mom and Dad, watching my sister get married and trying, yet again, not to cry. There’s Mark standing in front of Jenny without his goblin mask, lifting the veil from Jenny’s pretty eyes.
Excerpted from Before the Ripcord Broke: Stories