I remember the Halloween when the new kids came to town. This would have been when I was, oh, twelve years old I suppose. Maybe eleven. I guess I must have been eleven. We hadn't had any new families move in for as long as I could remember, so it was big news. It was twins, a boy and a girl, and they were called Aja and Deke. I don't think those were their real names, I think their real names were long and complicated. It wasn't because they were foreigners or anything, they looked like us, they just had parents with funny ideas.
My parents went over to the house the new family had bought, out on the outskirts of town near the graveyard, with a pork pie, and tried to make them welcome; actually, my mother just wanted to collect gossip to use with the other ladies at the bingo hall. The new kids' house was one that had belonged to an old eccentric back before I was born and then had sat empty for years when he died until the executor of his will had managed to find these people to buy it. Maybe they were relatives of his, I don't really know. We always said the house was haunted.
Anyway, they arrived in mid-October and school had just gotten well started, and the new kids were in my class, and the teacher made a big deal over them and how they had just come back from sailing around the world in their family's little boat, and maybe "in days to come" they could tell us about it. The twins just sort of stood there in front of the class, looking around with their big buggy eyes in a superior way while the teacher gushed over them. Two short, muscular kids with straight brown hair and oily complexions, gazing around like they owned the place. I hated them both already.
In days to come, I hated them even more, and so did everyone else. They didn't talk much except to each other. They got high grades in school because they had already read all the books we were supposed to read, and many more besides. They had queer accents from all the places they'd been, and they used words from those places and from the books they'd read. They had a big shaggy dog and about fifteen cats, all of which ran loose outdoors.
Deke could throw rocks or fir cones or anything, further and more accurately than any of us. He used to whistle one over your head a couple inches, and chuckle to himself. You couldn't go to an adult and say "Deke's throwing things at me!" because he'd be all innocent denial and you could never show them a bruise because he'd never actually hit you. Our hatred for him was compounded of contempt for his funny ways, and envy of the things he could do and had done that we couldn't and hadn't.
Aja was what at the time would have been called a tomboy and nowadays we aren't allowed to mention. She'd climb trees and hide up there, dropping things on people who walked by. She'd do that wearing a skirt, and later collar you and point her finger and put on what I guess she thought was a comical expression of disgust and say, "You looked up my skirt! Ewww!"
Looking back I can see that it was mostly just that they had both been around adults all their lives and didn't know how to act with people their own age. If Aja had pulled that routine on me when I was, let's say, fifteen, I might have been able to deal with it and I can even see how it could have been a good thing. But I never got to find out about that, at least not with her, because she and Deke and their parents went back to sea after a couple years. And at the time, eleven years old, I was just confused and upset.
Halloween was coming and there was all the usual anticipation. My friend Martin, ever the planner, had worked out an elaborate map and a schedule for how we would visit every single house in town and collect the absolute maximum amount of candy. He had even calculated, based on notes from the previous year, exactly how much sugar he could eat at a time without barfing. Meanwhile other kids were looking for stuff to use for costumes. The lucky ones had gotten their parents to buy them costumes at the hardware store, but most of us had mean parents and had to make our own. I'd managed to beg a roll of aluminum foil and was going as a robot. I had wanted to be a ghost, but the only sheet they would let me cut up was the one with pink flowers on it. Hardly anyone ever got to be a ghost because most people's parents were just like mine about cutting up sheets.
I put aside my hatred long enough to ask Deke, in a more or less friendly way, what he was going to be for Halloween. I was sincerely interested; I figured that between his parents who let him do whatever he wanted, and his extensive experience, he'd be something really amazing. Maybe the Hindu elephant god or something. But when I asked him, Deke looked embarassed and uncomfortable, one of the few times I ever saw him show any weakness, and he sort of stammered that it was going to be a surprise. I wondered about that but soon put it out of my mind in the excitement of nagging my parents to let me go trick-or-treating with Martin and without my little sister.
Finally the big night arrived, and right after supper, before it was even properly dark, I wrapped myself in foil and scritched out the front door and down the walk. I hadn't counted on how noisy and scratchy aluminum foil actually is, not to mention cold, and I wondered if I had made a big mistake, but it was too late now.
Martin was waiting for me in the road. He had had the foresight to bring a flashlight, and even a big roll of masking tape, and he helped me tape my foil into place so it wouldn't fall off. He was going, improbably, as Father Christmas, in a red furry suit and a green touque. He explained that the costume had been sitting in his attic since his dad was Father Christmas at a church party two years ago, it was warm, and it came complete with a nice large bag for the loot.
We went from house to house and begged for candy and gradually filled up our bags. Because we had started so early a lot of the people were still eating their dinners and told us to come back later. That threw a monkey wrench into Martin's plans and he kept pulling out the map and crossing things off and drawing arrows all over it, rearranging the route. He didn't like writing words even though he could read a blue streak, so his map was covered with all kinds of symbols and abbreviations meaningful only to him.
As it started to get to a more reasonable trick-or-treating hour we started to see other kids on the road. In accordance with proper ettiquette we always pretended that we really believed they were robots or ghosts or ballerinas or clowns or whatever, even when their makeup was all smudged and their costume was all crummy and we knew exactly who it was, really. They did the same for us. We got a lot of mileage out of a little routine we worked up where I would wave my arms around jerkily and say "Z39.50 needs oil!" and Martin would pretend to take an oil can out of his bag and oil my joints, saying "Ho, ho, ho! Merry Halloween, Z39.50!"
It was getting a little on the late side, and very dark, by the time we made it to the end of town. We debated whether to go to the new kids' house. I argued that we ought to, since they probably would be giving out something unusual, and after all we had said we were going to visit every single house in town. Martin said that it would probably be something yucky, and anyway not worth walking all the extra distance. Neither of us mentioned, although it was of great concern to us both, that visiting that house would mean we'd have to walk right beside the graveyard, both on the way and coming back, and it was Halloween night.
We were walking out towards the graveyard as we argued, so as not to waste time. Suddenly Martin said something like "Ack!" and I looked in the direction of his gaze, out across the rows of graves. In the middle of the graveyard, where there was a big circular paved area, we could see bright red and purple lights shining through a cloud of smoke and flame.
That was all we needed to see. We turned tail and ran back into town, our costumes swishing and crackling around us. When we ran out of breath I was about scared enough to just go home, but Martin wanted to finish his route. He led me along the railroad tracks towards the next house, which was that of the Old Witch.
The Old Witch was neither particularly old nor, as far as I know, a witch. She was just a middle-aged woman who lived alone in a trailer near the railroad tracks. I guess she had a job in town, but I don't know doing what. I also don't know why the kids all called her the Old Witch, but that's what we called her whenever adults who might object weren't around. We were a little bit afraid of her, but since she never actually did anything scary that I knew about, it was mostly just a game.
When we were almost at the edge of the Old Witch's yard, walking beside a stand of trees, two short muscular figures stepped out of the shadows into the light of a streetlight. "Deke and Aja!" Martin blurted out. Then he remembered that he was supposed to be in character. "Ho, ho, ho!" he chuckled, "Two of my good little children from Neptune!" They were wearing identical space alien costumes, easily the best ones I'd seen all night, with store-bought blue bug-eye masks, antennae, and futuristic orange nylon backpacks instead of trick-or-treat bags. Each was carrying a flashlight that cast a brilliant cone of greenish light. They stood directly in our path, facing us.
The slightly bigger of the two figures opened its mouth. I guess it was Deke. He was wearing the most realistic artificial fangs I'd ever seen, but they weren't like vampire fangs or anything like that. He had a double row of little needle-sharp teeth that looked too small for his mouth. His tongue wiggled as if he were talking, but I couldn't hear a word. He waved his hand in front of him in an unclear gesture, and I noticed that he'd painted his skin blue to match his mask, and added an extra finger made of Plasticene to each hand. During this, Aja stood solidly a little behind and to the side of her brother, staring from Martin to me and back through the buggy eyes of her mask.
Martin sort of shrugged and said "Well, come on, then," and started walking towards the Old Witch's house. He muttered to me "OK, they're nerds, but those costumes should be good for a little extra candy." The twins followed us at a short distance, not saying anything we could hear.
We got to the Old Witch's house and knocked on her door and yelled "Trick or treat!", or at least Martin and I did; the new kids were still silent. The Old Witch dropped plastic-wrapped bars of homemade fudge into our bags, and then the twins sort of pushed up from behind and held out their hands and she gave them fudge, too. She praised their costumes, but they didn't seem to react. They were too busy taking turns unzipping each others' backpacks to store the fudge away. Then they looked at us as if to say "What next?". Martin shook his head in exasperation and starting walking back to town.
We went from house to house with the twins in tow for most of the rest of the night, collecting candy at each place. Aja and Deke were not very exciting company because they never said anything, but at least they didn't try to throw things at us or accuse us of looking up their skirts, and their costumes did seem to make the people we visited more generous than usual. On the whole, I was pleased to have them along.
We were cutting through a vacant lot, almost at the end of the route, with Aja and Deke close behind us, when Martin elbowed me in the ribs, making my foil crackle. He said, "Hey, let's stop for refreshments!" He walked out into the lot, where there was a circle of scrubby broom bushes. It was a popular place for kids to hide or play forts or whatever. We pushed through the broom to the clearing in the middle, and started digging through our bags. I drew out a giant orange pumpkin popcorn ball, one of my favourite Halloween treats, and munched contentedly.
When Aja and Deke caught up, they watched us eating intently for a moment and then unzipped each others' backpacks and took out the fudge the Old Witch had given them. Aja carefully removed the plastic wrap, folded it neatly as if it were some priceless artifact, and stuck it in a pocket of her costume. Then she took a dainty bite of the fudge. Deke didn't even bother to unwrap his but bit right through the plastic with his needle fangs, and chewed with enthusiasm.
I was concentrating on a particularly tenacious bit of caramel that had attached itself to one of my back teeth, when I looked up and realised that something was wrong. Deke was on his back, not moving, with chocolate smeared all around his mouth. Aja was kneeling over him, obviously in much distress, running her blue hands over his face, stroking his antennae. Her mouth was open and her tongue was moving but no sound came out. Then she keeled over backwards too.
I looked from their apparently lifeless bodies to the candy spilling out of the orange backpacks and the needle teeth marks in the half-eaten piece of fudge, clutched in Deke's little blue six-fingered hand. I looked at Martin and said all in one breath, "Do you think the Old Witch put poison in the fudge?" I don't think I really believed it, even at the time, but there was the evidence right before my eyes, and it was Halloween, and I was looking for reasons to be scared.
Martin looked sick, and said "I already ate mine." I told him maybe he ought to eat a lot more candy, to make himself barf, but I think he seriously thought it might be better to die than to waste all that candy. Either that or he didn't really believe it, even as much as I did. Anyway, he said "But some poisons you aren't supposed to make the person vomit, they said in the health book." He'd read it and I hadn't, so I figured he knew what he was talking about. Still, I really hoped he wasn't going to die, because I'd miss him.
"Um, does it hurt a lot?" I asked tentatively. "No," said Martin, "actually, I don't really feel very sick at all. Let's just keep going, okay?" I thought we ought to go knock on a door and ask them to call an ambulence, not just give us more candy, but Martin wouldn't hear of it. "They probably couldn't do anything about it anyways, and I don't want to get blamed for Deke and Aja. Not if I've only got a few minutes left myself. I'd rather keep on having fun and then just go when the time comes. You better make sure you wipe your fingerprints off of anything of theirs that you've touched, though. If I'm dying it doesn't matter about me." I don't think he was really serious about any of it, but Martin always talked like he was serious.
We left, as quickly as we could, and started visiting the last few houses. As we were walking away I could hear a dog's barking and some commotion back there in the broom, but I didn't want to go back and investigate. I just trotted listlessly after Martin. We went around and he marked off places on his map and directed me down one road after another. It was very late by the time we finished the route. We were both cold and tired and I at least knew I'd be in trouble for staying out so late. But Martin seemed pleased with the night's events. He clearly wasn't dead from the fudge, and that meant maybe it hadn't been poisoned and the new kids weren't dead either. Maybe it was all their idea of a practical joke. We were in good spirits, no pun intended, when we said goodbye in front of my house.
The next day in school, Aja and Deke were there with everyone else, apparently not dead. I said to Aja, as we were hanging around in front of the school during recess, that I had liked her costume. She looked at me oddly for a moment and then said "thank you," and walked away. I noticed that unlike the rest of us, she and Deke hadn't brought pockets full of candy to school with them. Maybe they'd eaten it all already.
In the next few days there was a little bit of trouble about a circle of charcoal that had been left in the middle of the graveyard. The adults all said that a group of kids from the high school must have had a bonfire, and they were all mad about how it was disrespectful to the dead, and a fire hazard so close to the forest, and all that sort of thing. Martin and I weren't allowed to go out at night for a long time afterwards because we had stayed out so much later than we were supposed to on Halloween, and we didn't dare go back to the vacant lot even in daylight for months. When we finally did, the clearing seemed to have been swept clean. We decided the whole thing had been a practical joke and didn't give it more thought.
What I did give some thought to was the strange bone that Deke brought in for show-and-tell a week or so later. He said that his dog had dragged it home. It was about the size of a kid's leg bone, but it was sort of ladder shaped - really two heavy bones with a lot of angled cross bars connecting them. It must have been fresh, because it still smelled horrible and there were tattered fibers stuck to it as if the dog had only just finished gnawing off all the meat. The teacher was very pleased with the bone, but of course in his eyes the new kids could do no wrong anyway. He hung it up on the wall. Nobody knew what sort of animal it had come from.