A Trick of the Night by Eleanor Pearson (November 2021)
It was a cold evening, the chill end to a crisp October day. Frost crusted the lawn and crunched beneath my sneakers on the way home from school. The lopsided jack-o’-lantern on our front steps was edged with ice.
Because of the cold, Mom said I had to wear a coat under my Cinderella dress. The coat was hot pink and electric blue and so bulky that my costume had to be held on with safety pins. I became hideous: a mutant princess, a blob in a tiara.
I tried to argue, but Mom had no time. She said the words as sentences: No. Time. She never did; her time was all stolen by my little sister Emily, who was naughty.
That girl is a terror, Mom told the phone when she thought I was sleeping. She just won’t listen. Sometimes, I wish…
That night, Emily suddenly hated her own costume, which she had helped pick out; she thrashed on the floor, screaming for a new one.
“You have to wear the coat,” Mom snapped through the noise. “And you have to take her with. She’s old enough now.”
I whined, but I knew she was right: Emily was old enough. And older kids always took younger kids. They had to, that night, the one night adults weren’t allowed outside.
By the time Mom pushed us out into the orange-glowing sunset, Emily’s ladybug costume was missing a wing. She had broken it like she always broke everything. When we joined my friends, she babbled and scampered and asked stupid questions, and my friends laughed at her, but I could tell that they were really laughing at me. I curled my fingers inside the sleeves of the ugly coat.
Luckily, Rachel had been forced to bring her older brother along. He glowered on the edge of our group, eyeing our baskets and the darkening sky.
Now gathered, we made battle plans. We were determined to get more candy than the Oak Heights kids, who had the newest games and always lorded their king-sized bars over the rest of us. We would have to walk far, stay out late – we shivered with danger, but egged each other on.
We switched masks for repeat visits. We traded capes and cloaks and foam muscles. We carried little decoy baskets, pleading, “Mom made me eat first! I just got out!” We hit each block three, four, five times.
Emily soon lost her other wing and broke both of her antennae, but none of the adults saw how sloppy she was. They didn’t even care that she never changed her costume.
A few blocks out, we met another group with kids we recognized. Some of them joined our group; some of our group struck out on their own.
More kids splintered off at the street after that; more kids joined. I had never met many of them before, but we didn’t need introductions. Only the group mattered.
The group became friends-of-friends and neighbors-of-neighbors. We had swapped costumes so many times that I couldn’t remember what mask hid who. There were pirates with robot heads, princesses in vampire cloaks, cowboys with nunchucks.
It became so late that we yawned huge cracking yawns. We knew that we should turn back, but there was always one more house, and then one beyond that.
The stars spun and the moon sank. The neighborhoods were never-ending; we walked from street to street to street.
The houses became larger and stranger, then smaller and stranger, but their lights were still lit. They still had candy. There was another one just down the road.
In the deep night, down a gravel driveway, I turned – and recognized no one. The costumes around me were filled by strangers. I searched for eyes and saw none behind the masks. Empty darkness looked out from those plastic faces.
I knew these were not my friends.
They were not the neighbor’s friends either, or kids from another school. They were no one’s friends.
I searched for names, tried to match costumes to faces. I hoped it was a trick of the light, a trick of the night. I hoped that I was mistaken.
I knew that I wasn’t.
They walked with the slick effortlessness of oiled machines, footsteps silent as centipedes’. No breath puffed white into the air. The wind pushed their costumes inward, revealing the space where a body wasn’t.
When they left, I followed. I was more afraid of being alone.
All houses were alike. Doors opened noiselessly, revealing adults with candy and painted smiles; doors slid shut; we continued along dark-paved roads. The only feet I heard were my own.
All through this, there was the watching. Shadow eyes on my back. Empty masks.
The bare skin above my collar tingled, anticipating touch.
Then I was home. I was alone.
I stumbled through the door, stunned in the light. It was everywhere, glowing, nearly blinding.
Mom crushed me in a hug. She pulled my mask off, kissed me too long on the forehead.
I blinked the spots from my eyes. Emily’s basket was lying by the door, ripped into confetti shreds.
Mom saw me looking and pulled me closer, tucked my shoulder beneath her chin. “You know they always take one.” Her breath tickled and I squirmed.
Then she whispered, so soft I could barely hear it, so close that the words fell warm into my ear, “I had wished it would be her.”
I believed what she said. I had wished it too.
Mom smiled and straightened and smoothed my hair. “It’s late,” she told me, pretending to be stern. “You should have been asleep hours ago. And you better not have eaten too much sugar tonight. Come on, time for bed.”
The next week, we painted the empty bedroom over. The neighbors helped. Mom baked them cookies; Dad bought them beer. Soon the walls were bright and happy, yellow and green.
The next year, Mom had a baby. I had just learned to knit, and I knitted her a hat in a wobbly beginner’s stitch. She didn’t complain; she wasn’t naughty. She was everything we had hoped for. We named her Emily.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eleanor Pearson is a writer from St. Paul, Minnesota, where she supports her writing habit with a variety of jobs. Between writing and working, she travels as much as possible. Her short fiction has appeared in Syntax & Salt and Smokelong Quarterly.