An icy wind cut through the fabric of my jeans and numbed my legs as I paused under the streetlight at the end of the block. When had it ever been so cold in October? And where was everybody? Our dark street was as deserted as it might have been on the bitterest winter night. Even the dry and brittle leaves seemed lonely as they scratched along the pavement of the empty road. My gloved fingers fumbled with the pillowcase that contained all that I had to show for the evening, a take that seemed disappointingly modest compared to the great hauls I recalled from Halloweens past.
With every exhalation I could feel my breath condense against my perspiring face, which was concealed behind the stifling latex of a full-head Frankenstein mask. I pushed back the bulky cuff of my heavy coat to reveal my watch. 7:09. Still nearly an hour of trick-or-treating left. As I trudged onward, a rivulet of sweat trickled from the back of my mask and descended between my shoulder blades, causing me to shudder. I let out a short gasp against my unforgiving mask, adding more moisture to the rubbery enclosure that was turning my expedition into an alternating series of smothering heat and quivering chills.
Where were the Reilly kids? Where was Chuck Martin? Did everybody just give up this year and go home early? I reached Wiltshire and peered up and down the street in search of house lights and other signs of life. Not a soul haunted the sidewalks, and only a smattering of homes had their porches illuminated, spread out down the block like cold and distant constellations. I thought about turning around and going home, but then I raised my pillow sack and noted how little resistance was provided by the weight of its contents. Mom had said that this year was it; trick-or-treat was for kids, and next year I would be too old to put on a costume and walk around asking the neighborhood for candy. This wasn’t the way I wanted to remember my last year.
I didn’t really know anyone on Wiltshire, except for Mr. and Mrs. Runyon, whose back yard ran right up against ours, and I knew they wouldn’t be home because Mom had told me they went out to eat every year so they wouldn’t have to hand out candy. I was supposed to stick to only the houses of people I knew, but that was hardly anybody. What was the point of even going if you didn’t have a decent chance of filling your pillowcase? Finally my parents got tired of hearing me complain and agreed with me that if I would be old enough to call it quits next year, then I was old enough now to walk alone around my own neighborhood.
I lumbered toward the nearest house with a lit porch, keeping my head down and peering through the narrow slits of my mask. There was a really bad, uneven part of the sidewalk somewhere along here, and I didn’t want to trip over it in the dark and smash up my face like Joey Metcalf, who once got seventeen stitches in his lip when he missed it. When I finally reached the house, I walked up to the porch and discovered a large, empty wicker basket. Taking a step backward, I noticed a little sign with someone’s dirty shoe print on it under the bushes. HONOR SYSTEM, it read in big, curly letters. Take ONE and have a HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
The next home with a light on was eight houses up the street, and when I got there, I remembered that I did know some people on Wiltshire besides the Runyons. It was the Lewis house, and even with a sweaty Frankenstein mask on, I had a good enough head on my shoulders to know I should avoid it. The Lewis boys were juvenile delinquents, in trouble all the time. The older one had actually tried to poison their little sister, or at least that’s what Chuck told me. I stayed away from that family, and I sure wasn’t going to accept any candy from them. If anybody was putting razor blades in their Snickers, it was the Lewises.
By now I was in the middle of the block, and since I hadn’t yet profited from my venture down Wiltshire, it seemed silly to do anything other than hit the homes between here and the corner. I would actually be closer to home that way, so long as I continued around the block. The next stop was a house where the curtains were still open, and I could see a television with some sort of game show playing on it. I heard a very loud ring when I pressed the doorbell, but it seemed to take forever before the door creaked open.
“Well!” croaked an old, white-haired lady with a kind, wrinkled face. “What have we here? Ooh, it’s Frankenstein’s monster, well I’ll be!”
“Trick or treat,” I uttered into my mask.
The old lady reached for a bowl brimming with popcorn balls. “I haven’t had many visitors tonight. Maybe it’s the cold. Or maybe you’re scaring all the other monsters away, eh?” She laughed at her joke. “Here, you go on and take as many as you like. I can’t eat them, you see, what with my dentures.”
I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t like popcorn balls, and it seemed rude to take only one when she seemed so pleased to offer me as many as I wanted. “As many as I like?”
“Why, certainly!” she crowed, her eyes darting momentarily toward the droning television. She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and smiled at me patiently.
“Gee…” I stammered, unsure how to proceed. She seemed very nice, and I didn’t want to offend her. I thought about taking two popcorn balls, but I wondered if that was as insulting as taking only one. Three seemed like it might be the right number, yet the way the old lady pushed the bowl toward me and stretched her smile even wider across her wrinkled face made me think she wanted me to take even more. Another stream of sweat ran from my mask down my back and caused me to shudder.
“You’d better take some quickly,” she added as she glanced yet again toward her TV. “I wouldn’t want the cat to get out, what with the door open like this.” Again she pushed the bowl toward me, tilting it forward so that a single popcorn ball rolled off the top and dropped into my open pillowcase. I peered upward through my mask and saw that she hadn’t even noticed. She was watching the game show.
I don’t know what got into me at that moment, but suddenly the whole idea of beggar’s night seemed ridiculous to me. Here I was, chilled to the core yet sweating feverishly, holding out my sack for something I didn’t even want. And there was the old lady, starting to lose her grip on the quivering bowl and now totally absorbed in whatever was coming out of her television. Judging by how ancient she looked, I guessed that it was just as likely her last trick-or-treat, too. As another shudder rippled down my spine, I knew it was time for both of us to call it quits.
Before I could even consider the wisdom of my actions, I reached deep into the bowl and scooped the popcorn balls over the rim and into my bag. I needed only two scoops to get them all. At last the bowl stopped quivering, and the old lady turned from her television and stared down at the empty container. Then she looked at me expectantly.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I offered.
“Happy Halloween,” she smiled, closing her door quickly. The porch light went off, and through the window I saw her settle down on the couch. The clock above her television showed 7:25. I hefted my bulging pillowcase over my shoulder and headed for home.