The square shapes of miniature bottles of hand sanitizer bumped against Mason's leg as he walked along A Street. He felt lucky to be able to go trick-or-treating this year, but those bottles annoyed him. Even Mr. Laymon handed them out when he usually handed out coupons for movies and one year fifty-cent pieces. Even more houses kept their lights off, their doors locked, and their families snug inside.
What a waste of a full moon Halloween, Mason thought. His twelfth Halloween had turned crummy months ago when his mom reminded him that it was the last year he'd be allowed to go trick-or-treating. A few weeks later, the possibility of not getting to go out loomed over his favorite holiday. Why pick a costume, his mom said, when there might not be a school day to show it off at anyway. Reminding her that Halloween would be on a Saturday earned him a screen-free day.
But here he was now, a tinge of wildfire smoke still in the air, his candy bag banging against one leg and his Black Panther mask in his other hand, staring up a hill and wondering if any of the houses at the top were handing out candy.
His friend Tobias once rode bikes with him to the park on Residence Street. The park overlooked the other side of Moscow and north, but Mason and Tobias were distracted by the used condoms scattered around the lone park bench. Cars parked in driveways hid any sign of life that afternoon, but they were big houses, especially the one at the west end.
"Let's bail, this is lame," Tobias said, lightly punching Mason in the upper arm.
"Yeah, let's ride down to Rosauer's and get a drink," Mason said, feigning his own punch but knowing he'd get worse from his larger friend if he made contact.
Last summer seemed so long ago. The gulf between eleven and twelve was more like an ocean, bigger than crossing from nine to ten even, and not just because the world around Mason had changed so much. He'd never knocked on the doors of the Residence Street homes because most years there was snow in Moscow by mid-October and walking up Cherry Street to get there was a no-go. Some kids had their parents drive around with them, but Mason and Tobias were a pack of lone wolves, old school traditionalists who pounded the ground for every Reese's Cup and Fun Size Snickers and popcorn ball they could get.
That and Mason's mom wouldn't take them. She wanted them in a group and her Impreza wouldn't hold them all.
Tobias's parents had him locked in the house. Their summer of being twelve — the last year for real boyhood mischief — had been stolen from them and now Halloween had taken a serious blow. When the city announced they'd allow trick-or-treating, Mason texted Tobias, but got a frown emoji in return. His parents weren't going to let him go.
A real lone wolf this year, Mason thought. There were only a few other kids out, most of them with their parents. No one casually bumped into each other by walking opposite directions on the same side of the street. Mason knew his mom would have liked that as she remained vocal about people in stores not following the clearly marked arrows on the floor. Every kid he did see seemed dejected (week four spelling test), and their buckets and bags proclaimed the weight of hand sanitizer bottles just like his.
Mason reached into his bag, the plastic claws on his hands pushing away the bottles of ill omen, and grabbed a Kit Kat. The wafer candy bar was Tobias's favorite and they usually traded, Mason giving up Kit Kats in return for Reese's or the rare Big Hunk which he gave to his mom. After chowing down the single piece of candy, he put the wrapper back in the bag and stared up the hill again. Now or never, he thought.
Cherry Street ran three blocks straight up. After the first block, the sidewalk ended. At the intersection after the second block, the road turned mostly to gravel. At the top, a silver water tower ascended toward the sky. Mason skidded a bit on the gravel part and caught his balance before tumbling back down the hill.
"Panther skills, yo," he said aloud, mimicking the fake ghetto accent Tobias often used just out of earshot of Mason's mom. Maybe going lone wolf — lone panther — wasn't such a bad idea, he thought.
Finally reaching the top of the hill, he first turned east and saw the scattering of homes all with their lights off. Facing west, the only light came from the house at the end of the street, the big score, the house that everyone knew was too big for the skinny ridge it sat on. The house all the kids he knew in Moscow Middle School, and the ones he knew the year before at Lena Whitmore, would tell you was haunted.
Indian ghosts are buried there, Grace Jensen said, earning the laughs of an entire lunchroom because everyone knows you don't bury ghosts.
The house used to be a hospital, Jeanie Motton said. Everyone listened because they all knew she was the smartest kid in class and both her parents were professors (which made her smartest because many of the kids only had one parent who taught at the university). People used to die during surgeries all the time, and especially women during childbirth. The girls always gasped and more than one would proclaim they never wanted to have kids after that.
No, it was a school, Anthony Underwood said. When kids misbehaved, they got sent to the basement and when the town flooded, a bunch of them drowned. How the floods reached the basement of a house on the hill no one knew, but this story kept most kids away from the house.
Walking toward the house, bag of candy and hand sanitizer smacking his thigh, Mason thought of all these stories. Any one of them could be true. They could all be lies. As he grew closer, only one story really frightened him, but he didn't want to think of that now. The lights were on and this would be the last house he ever got to trick-or-treat.
His foot landed on the first step of the wide, wooden porch and Mason thought he heard birds take flight somewhere. He looked around but didn't see any birds left in the sparse trees. When he placed his other foot on the second step, he heard a chime and a tune, something his mom said certain people she distrusted used for their doorbells. When he reached the landing, both feet near the door, the house seemed to swell before him, as if every door inside opened at the same time, breathing in his essence, then slamming shut again.
Reaching for the doorbell he knew must be broken, Mason saw a nest of spider eggs where the button should have been. One dark-bodied spider crawled on the wall above the nest, not noticing him yet. He moved over a bit and knocked instead.
The door shook beneath Mason's small fist and he nearly turned and ran. He heard his mom again — Running is what the Somner men are known for: running downfield, running the bases, running away — and stayed put. He knocked again, harder but not impolite. Nothing shook, no out of place noises, no malicious odors...
The doorknob turned and Mason swallowed a mouthful of spit as it did. The heavy door began to swing open, revealing a well-lit foyer, a table draped with a red and gold cloth, a dishful of old-fashioned candies atop it.
He did not see who opened the door.
"Hello? Trick-or-treat?" Mason said, softly but with confidence. The door pushed open farther, but Mason still couldn't see who was behind it. "Who's there?"
"That's my line, son," a gruff voice from the stairwell Mason could now see beyond the table.
"You knock-knocked. My line is who's there, not yours." An old man, bent over to where his head was not much above the table, emerged from the darkness. He reached for the candy dish with a hand that looked to be all knuckles and nails. His fingers stretched out, grasping one entire side of the dish that must have ignited the arthritis in his hand, but since the man's face was already a grimace, Mason didn't notice any change.
"Good joke," Mason said.
"Finish it and you can have some candy. Mind me now."
As much as Mason wanted to say he'd trick-or-treated the house on Residence Street, being told what to do by a stranger — an old white man, even — irked every ounce of his preteen spirit.
"Nah, I'm good. Have a happy Halloween." Mason was inside the house just far enough not to be knocked down by the heavy front door slamming closed behind him.
"Mind me now, boy. Finish the joke."
"I'm leaving now..." Instinctually, Mason wanted to say sir. His mom raised him with manners, but not with subordination. "However you are controlling the door, open it back up, please."
"Finish the joke, boy."
Inhaling the musty air of the house, Mason gave in, just to get out. "Mason."
"Mason who?" the man said, trying to smile through his twisted face.
"My son will never come to this house."
"That's not funny."
"Neither are you. Now let me out." Mason puffed his chest out, wishing he was as big as Tobias or as big as the pictures of his father in his Army uniform, and pointed to the door.
"Open it yourself," the man said, placing the candy dish back on the table and turning away from Mason.
"Thank you," Mason said, keeping his manners.
He shuffled to the door, keeping his eyes on the man's bent back. Reaching for the knob, he felt something touch his hand. Just that spider, he thought. Tobias would have freaked out. But then whatever touched his hand grew and swallowed first his fingers then his entire hand. Mason looked and saw a skeleton hand where the doorknob should have been, covering his own hand. He screamed like he'd not screamed since he was a little kid. Somewhere behind him, the old man laughed.
The bony hand held as a full skeleton, more than six feet tall, emerged from the door. Tattered gray cloth hung in strips around its shoulders and hips. A gray cap sat on the skull, tilted to show a hole on the side and the dark, empty cavity where a brain once was. In the hand not holding Mason's was a set of rusty shackles.
"Run... away," the skeleton said, despite the lack of lungs and vocal cords. "Runaway!" The skeleton tried to clamp the shackles on Mason's wrists, but the young man squirmed free. Looking to see if the old man was still in the room, Mason moved to the right, where he remembered seeing windows from the outside. He did not see the man and he did not see the windows. From inside, the house appeared to be solid walls and locked doors. Mason slammed into solid oak doors and rammed himself into the walls where he thought windows should be, hoping the solidity he saw was a ruse. Nothing gave way except his shoulders. Nothing cracked except his collarbone. Behind him, he could hear nothing but the skeletal voice saying, "Runaway."
A gray cap sat on the skull, tilted to show a hole on the side and the dark, empty cavity where a brain once was.
"I'm trying to run away," he said to no one, but received a reply anyway.
"He's not telling you to run away, boy," the old man said although Mason had no idea where he might be. "He's calling you a runaway, just like your ancestors." The man's laughter filled the entire house, filled Mason's head.
Mason let the cacophony roll over him, envelope him, make him want to give up. Then another voice came to him, one he knew but had never heard live. "Don't run away. Run toward."
He knew his dad wanted him to run toward a better life. His mom always told him that. She told him about the first time she saw him run: stealing a base during a high school baseball game. She told him how they both ran from her parents when they didn't approve of their marriage. Most of all, she told Mason about her father running toward a burning Humvee after it ran over an IED to save the soldiers inside. She told him he wouldn't have run from the bullet that took his life, even if he'd seen it coming.
"Run toward, Mason. My son."
Mason shook his head, stood up, and looked down the hall he'd come from. The skeleton lumbered in the middle, taking its time, knowing Mason had nowhere to go. But that was wrong. Mason had one way to go: toward it.
Mason, through everything, had never let go of his mask or his bag. He slid the Black Panther mask over his face and moved the bag to his hand not at the end of the broken collarbone. Thankful for the added weight of the hand sanitizers, Mason swung the bag as he sprinted down the hall. Just before reaching the skeleton, he jumped, causing the bag to connect with the skeleton's jawbone. The skull exploded and the skeleton collapsed.
Mason's momentum carried him a few feet beyond the bones, but after coming to a stop, he turned and saw not a pile of dust and bones, but the twisted old man, now missing the bottom half of his face. His tongue wagged like he was still trying to talk but could form no words. Angry grunts and half-hearted hisses emanated from the hole that was the man's throat. One abnormal hand still clutched the corroded shackles, barely able to shake them at Mason.
Approaching the man, Mason reached into his bag and took out one of the bottles of hand sanitizer. He flipped the cap open and drizzled it over the man's hands and even his half-face.
"You are a virus," Mason said. "I won't let you spread."
When the sanitizer hit the man's skin, it began to smoke. Patches of wrinkled white skin turned gray, then black, then to dust, until the man was a skeleton again. Mason grabbed another bottle of sanitizer and sprayed it at the bones until they became dust, too.
The front door was not as far away as it seemed. It opened with little effort from Mason. As he did, he saw three kids in superhero costumes about to mount the steps.
"No one's home here, kids," he said. "Go back home."
A boy — Mason thought he looked about eight and was also dressed as the Black Panther — looked at him and smiled.
"Wakanda forever," the boy said.
"Wakanda forever," Mason replied.
"Trick-or-treat with us," a tiny Wonder Woman asked.
"Yeah," Mason said. "Let's get some candy."♦