The streets were orange with pumpkinflesh and candlelight. Ghosts were in every window, cobwebs filled every porch. Monsters and spacemen and witches and characters from video games filled the streets.
And right up through the middle of it all walked Sarah and Jessie, a wizard and a little bear, hand in hand – at least the hand of Sarah’s that wasn’t clutching her gnarled old staff and a treat bag all at once.
“Slow down,” grandpa boo kept telling them every house, as he caught up in his big furry coat and big furry hat, its long flaps waving like elephant ears. “Slow down, you little speed demons. My leg! My leg! You’ll put me in the hospital with your impatient ways!”
But it was grandpa boo, and his smile said that he was only telling them another story. So they laughed and laughed and ran twice as fast to the next house… where they waited for him to limp all the way up to the lawn before they rang the doorbell.
Chewy soft things.
A few bags of salty crunchies.
Sarah hated caramels. Jessie hated lollypops. This made for an agreeable trading system as they sat in the Old Room next to the fireplace, which grandpa boo and their parents had told them they must never mess with.
Grandpa boo had messed with it tonight, and it was crackling that good orange light now. And because of that good orange light, and because Sarah and Jessie still had their costumes on as they traded candy, grandpa boo finally asked them the question.
“Now,” he said, “would you like a story?”
And that brought on the jumping and squeaking and shouting with all the dignity they could muster. At least from Jessie.
Grandpa boo had a lot of stories, and they loved to hear them. But he only ever asked the question Halloween night.
“All right,” he said. “All right. Maybe one, since you’ve been so very patient and kind and slow about my limping old leg tonight. Maybe one. So pick it wisely. Which one?”
“HEADLESS CLOWN!” shouted Jessie before Sarah had even opened her mouth.
“No,” said Sarah. “We heard all the headless clown stories already! I want to hear about the last werewolf!”
Grandpa boo leaned back in the furry “Well, you’re in for good luck for both of you then,” he said. “The headless clown was seen again not far from here just last week!”
And both Sarah and Jessie got very quiet, because they knew that the headless clown being so close meant that they’d narrowly escaped. He loved little children their age.
“Did he get anyone?” asked Jessie.
“Maybe,” said grandpa boo. “Now let me see if I can remember. It was down by the dock, I think. Yes, down by the docks. Some children were playing there – their houses were by the water.”
“Were they rich?” asked Sarah.
“Pretty rich,” said grandpa boo.
“The houses down there are very big,” said Jessie. “Mom says we can’t have them.”
“They ARE big,” said grandpa boo. “But the children weren’t in their big houses, they were down by the dock, jumping off it into the water. And they were having so much fun on that nice summer day-”
“Didn’t this happen last week?” asked Sarah. She’d been getting rather more suspicious of grandpa boo’s stories over the past year.
“No, it was last month,” said grandpa boo. “C’mon, listen up! Anyways, these children were having so much fun they didn’t see how low the sun had sunk in the sky. And when it was twilight it took them even longer to see that the red light around them wasn’t from the sunset at all.
“The HEADLESS CLOWN!” shrieked Jessie.
“Yes, it was him,” said grandpa boo. “The red light of the headless clown! He was lurking down by the trees and he’d walked up onto the dock and stood at the end. They were trapped.”
“Couldn’t they swim around him?” asked Sarah.
“No, it was too dark by then. The lake’s nice in the daytime, but at night it’s full of sharks.”
“Sharks can’t breathe in lakes.”
“They’re freshwater sharks. Look it up, there’s some in Central America. But these children, they were stuck there, between a shark and a clown place. They were so scared. But the oldest child, she remembered what her grandpa told her. What you do when you see the headless clown.”
“Cover your eyes!” said Jessie. And she did so, SMACK-SMACK against her face, as hard as she could.
“Right!” said grandpa boo. “And once they’d covered their eyes up, the headless clown had nothing to see them with. So the headless clown walked down the dock towards them, feeling around, and they snuck – zoom! – fast and quiet behind him, just like that. And when the headless clown walked to the end of the dock, what do you think they did?”
Even Sarah was too invested to say a word now.
“WHAM! They pushed him in, right on top of the sharks!”
“Did he die did he die did he die?” asked Jessie.
“The headless clown never dies,” said Sarah.
“No, you’re right,” said grandpa boo. “But I’ll tell you this: he won’t be back around here in a hurry. He’s got to find his legs and arms first.”
And grandpa boo smiled and they laughed and begged and pleaded and finally he said “okay, one more. One more story. Since you’ve been so nice and not made fun of my big furry hat.”
And he told them about the last werewolf, who lived all alone in the last forest, which was so far away that there was nothing to eat and he had to creep down the miles to the towns to sneak into people’s kitchens at night to steal leftovers.
And he told them about Big Al, the tree-climbing alligator who was raised by squirrels, and how he kept them safe from cats and dogs and pet owners by slipping in windows.
And he told them about the house with the fire inside, which would be sold at noon and ash by midnight.
And each time grandpa boo told them a story, they asked for more, and grandpa boo yawned and said he’d give one more, why not, since they’d been so nice, until at last he said he had only one story left.
“Who? Who?” asked Sarah and Jessie.
“It’s about the boogeyman,” said grandpa boo.
And this puzzled them, because they’d never heard any stories about the boogeyman before.
“Of course you haven’t!” said grandpa boo. “Tell me, does your room have a closet?”
“No,” they said.
“Well, there you have it. That’s your best defence against the boogeyman. He needs a closet to get at you. Or a cupboard. Or a garage. Something without a light where people aren’t meant to be at night. He creeps in through there.”
“Like a spider?” asked Sarah.
“Well, he’s furry like a spider but he’s a lot bigger, and a lot bearier. Big arms and big legs and a huge fuzzy body, and big ears and claws and fangs.”
“Glowing eyes?” asked Jessie.
“No, no. The boogeyman’s eyes don’t glow light. They eat it up. You can never see his face at all. Not until he gets you. Now, let me tell you about what happens when he tries. There’s some things to watch out for.”
“Red lights?” said Jessie.
“That’s the headless clown,” said grandpa boo.
“Listen for his grumbling stomach?” said Sarah.
“That’s the last werewolf. And you can’t hear the scales on the tree-branches like Big Al, and you can’t smell the smoke from the basement, like the house with the fire inside. No, no, no. The boogeyman, there’s only one way to know he’s coming.”
Grandpa boo leaned down and tapped the floor with one knuckle. Thud-thud. Thud-thud.
“You hear that?”
“If you hear that from your closet, the boogeyman’s inside. He always knocks three times before he comes in. It’s his way of giving you a chance to run. But it’s never fair, because you can’t run out of your bedroom at night. The boogeyman never plays fair. That’s how he gets you. That’s how he got so many people for so long. But not anymore. I’m going to tell you the last boogeyman story. Because he’s not here anymore.”
“What happened?” asked Jessie.
“One night, a long time ago, in this very town, there was a little boy. And that little boy was very, very, very scared of the dark. He begged for a night-light until he got one for his birthday in summer – not from his parents, you understand, because they didn’t want him to be afraid of childish things. It was from his big sister, because she knew that childish things are important. Adults forget that. Don’t they?”
“Right! So the little boy had a night-light, and for a long time, all the way into fall, he was happy and safe when the dark came in. And then came Halloween.”
“What was he dressed as?” asked Jessie.
“I’m not too sure,” said grandpa boo. “I wasn’t there. But he had a good time. Got lots of candy. Got lots of fun. Him and his big sister – she was a big big sister, you understand, almost an adult but not quite. A bigger sister to her brother than Sarah is to you. She didn’t even get any candy, she was too old for it. She went with her brother because she loved him.”
“Like you!” said Jessie.
Grandpa boo smiled. “Like me. Even if you both run too fast, you’re still nice to me, and I love you.”
“What happened to the little boy?” asked Sarah.
“I’m getting there. Halloween, full of candy, bedtime. But the little boy was just falling asleep when he saw something had happened: his night-light had fallen out. How, he didn’t know. Maybe the dog tripped on it. Maybe his parents took it out because they thought he didn’t need it. But it was dark, and it was Halloween night, and he was there all alone in his room with no company. And just as he was beginning to get a little bit scared, he heard this.”
And grandpa boo leaned down and tapped the floor. Thud-thud.
“And after a minute, just as he was beginning to tell himself it was his imagination, he heard this.”
“And right away, as he was trying to pretend it was coming from somewhere else, he heard this.”
“And it was coming from his closet. Right there. As he watched, he saw the doorknob turn, slowly. From the inside.”
“There’s no doorknob on the insides of closets,” said Sarah. Well, it was more of a whisper.
“No, there isn’t,” agreed grandpa boo. “Except for him. Except for the boogeyman. He has the handle to every closet, every cupboard, ever. And he opened up the little boy’s closet as easy as if it were his own front door, with his big furry paw.”
“How big was he?” asked Jessie.
“Huge. Bigger than a bear. And he slipped in soft and slow, until he was taking up almost the whole room and there was no way out at all for the little boy, who was crying now he was so scared. And then, BANG!”
Grandpa boo shot up with a start then, and so did Sarah and Jessie.
“The door flew open! You know who it was?”
“Superman?” said Jessie.
“The police?” said Sarah.
“No, it was his big sister, not even an adult yet and holding the first thing she’d grabbed out of the kitchen, just a little butter knife. You couldn’t have hurt a fly with that thing, let alone the boogeyman, and he wasn’t scared even a little. So he turned around, real slow, and he turned his empty face to her and he said “Boo!”
“What’d she do?” asked Jessie.
“She looked him right in his eyes that weren’t there and she wasn’t scared either. And she stabbed him right in the leg with the butter knife.”
“But you said-” protested Sarah.
“She wasn’t scared at all,” said grandpa boo. “That’s how you beat the boogeyman. She was the first person he’d ever seen who wasn’t scared at all, and it made him as weak and harmless and soft inside as a clementine. He ran back into that little boy’s closet with a limp, and he was never quite the same after that.”
Jessie squeaked, and if Sarah had more dignity she was still smiling like a jack-o-lantern herself.
“Now, I think that’s it,” said grandpa boo. “You’ve been very nice to me tonight, but I think I’m all out of stories. More next time.”
“Please?” asked Sarah.
“Very polite, but no.”
“Pretty please with sugar on top?” asked Jessie.
“No, no, sorry.”
“We’ll give you candy!” said Jessie.
That made grandpa boo laugh. “No, no, goodness no!” he said. “That’s your candy, that is. It’s very nice of you to offer, but you have enough there for the both of you, and maybe a little for your parents. I can’t be stealing from that. Thank you, though. Thank you both very much. But it’s time for bed.”
Sarah opened her mouth to argue more, but at that moment mom came in, and mom wasn’t like grandpa boo at all. You just couldn’t argue with her.
It was still Halloween. But it was the dull part.
Sarah watched the driveway, watched her parents leave for the party. Watched the snores start to trail up from grandpa boo downstairs. Watched the monsters patrol the streets, bags in hand. Watched the night filling up with scary stories. Watched the orange light across the road. And she didn’t feel the least bit sleepy.
She got out of bed, walked around the creaky spot and across the room, and poked Jessie.
“You awake?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Jessie.
“Your eyes were shut.”
“I was pretending.”
“Pretend you’re awake then-”
“-and put on your costume again. We’re going to get grandpa boo some candy.”
“Why?” asked Jessie, puzzled.
“We can get another story tomorrow. He won’t be worried about stealing our candy, because we’ll be getting it for him this time instead.”
“Oh,” said Jessie. “Can we have some too?”
Sarah sighed as loudly as she dared. “You can have one of my chocolate bars,” she said.
They walked the other way down the street this time, avoiding familiar houses and familiar faces who might ask why they were by themselves. Now and then they passed a neighbor, out walking with their parents, but Sarah’s beard and Jessie’s mask kept them safe. Just a wizard and a bear, nothing to see here, no questions to ask. It was normal, for Halloween.
They didn’t run this time. It was later, and their energy was here for the long haul. Grandpa boo was an adult and would be able to eat a lot of candy, even if he weighed about half as much as a normal one. Both their bags had to bulge at the seams for this to count.
“Maybe we can get two stories,” said Jessie, “for two bags.”
“Maybe,” said Sarah. “We’d better get a little more.”
They got a little more. And a little more than that. They finished their street and the street at its end and they turned right at that street’s end and they turned left past there and then they ran out of street, up a long driveway with too many trees at a house with too little house and too much garage.
“Last one?” asked Jessie.
“Last one,” said Sarah. Her feet hurt and she was tired, although Jessie seemed to only be accelerating. And it was because she was tired that she only noticed something was funny after Jessie had rang the doorbell four times in a row, DingdongDingdoDiDingDongng.
There was no orange light. The house was dark. There were no decorations.
“There’s no one here,” said Sarah, and the door opened.
There was a man there. He was big, bigger even than Sarah’s dad, broader and taller and hairier. He stared at them, and she saw that his eyes were very red. His breath was thick, and tangled itself damply in his beard.
There was a rustle at Sarah’s elbow, and Jessie stepped forwards, bag open. “Trick or trea-” she said and the big man grabbed her by the arm and yanked her inside.
Sarah was older than Jessie, and had been told what to do if there was trouble. In case of fire, in case of big dogs, in case of being lost, in case of thunderstorms, in case of strange people.
But right then she saw the big man was holding Jessie, so she ignored all of that and stepped into the house and swung her wizard staff right into his knee as hard as she could.
“Fuk,” the big man grunted wetly. He staggered, but he didn’t drop, and his free arm waved around like a helicopter right into Sarah who fell over into the door and felt something slam hard against her head and turn everything grey for a moment, just a moment.
She was on the floor faster than she understood. Looking up at something shiny, with just a little bit of hair and red stuck to it.
“Doorknob,” said Sarah. Sort of. Her mouth was full of something. She really wished she had a butter knife for some reason.
Someone picked her up, a set of grimy hands grabbing her by her robe. It couldn’t be the big man, he was still somewhere else, holding Jessie – Sarah could hear her kicking and trying to shout through her mask.
“Garage,” said the grimy woman from behind her.
A groan answered her.
“Fuk,” said the big man. “Knee.”
“The garage. Now.”
It was smaller inside the garage than it had seemed. Half of it was filled with a truck, and smelled of oil.
The other half was empty and smelled of something worse. It made Sarah think of compost buckets over-filled, but sweeter.
There was a sharp snap and Jessie yelled. “Huh,” the big man mumbled. He was holding her mask, the cords dangling and broken. “Wha’?”
“Halloween,” said the grimy woman, from behind Sarah’s ear.
The big man’s face curdled with thoughts.
“Kids don’t pay attention.”
Sarah was paying a lot of attention, as much as she could, but her head still wasn’t working properly and whenever she tried to kick the grimy woman her legs just flopped against the concrete floor, thump-thump.
“Hand me a rope.”
“Well then hand me the hose.”
“Behind you. The wall.”
The grimy woman shifted one of her hands to Sarah’s legs, grinding them together. “Stop it-”
The grimy woman let go of Sarah’s legs again. Then she looked up, up at the garage door.
“Mor’?” asked the big man.
The grimy woman shook her head, and pulled something sharp into her hand.
The whole garage shook.
Sarah wanted to do a lot of things. She wanted to yell. She wanted to bite. She wanted to tell them to let her and Jessie go and let them all run, because she knew what the knocking meant.
But she couldn’t do any of those things because her mouth was full of her wizard’s beard. So when she heard the last sound,
all she could do was shiver.
“Go ‘way-” said the big man, and the garage door blew open so fast the rollers screamed.
Outside, it was pitch black midnight. But there was something darker yet there, blotting out the sky. Its breath washed away the garage’s stink in a furnace draft and it had big arms and big legs and big flapping ears on a big, big, big furry body, like a bear’s.
And it had no face.
“BOO,” it roared.
Sarah shut her eyes. She knew that only worked on the headless clown, but it couldn’t hurt.
It didn’t hurt. But the sounds almost did. Her ears were still thick from the doorknob, but they were so loud they came through anyways.
Someone picked her up, and she kicked again, thump-thump, thump-thump until a hand gently held her feet still.
“Careful,” said grandpa boo. “That’s my bad leg.”
Sarah tried opening her eyes again, which was more work than she remembered but eventually worked.
And there it was, grandpa boo in his big furry coat and his big furry hat, all fuzz and puff over mottled old skin-and-bones. His arms were quivering a little with the weight of her in them.
There was a tug by Sarah’s legs. Jessie was at grandpa boo’s elbow.
“For you,” she said, and held up her bag.
“Well,” said grandpa boo. “That’s nice of you.”
The walk home was long, even after Sarah felt well enough to stand on her own.
“It was a thing to catch up with you, I’ll say that. You run too quickly for me.”
Jessie ran. But she ran in circles around them, and never strayed too far.
Mom and dad were home already and making a fuss, with no note to guide them. Grandpa boo hadn’t had any time. They were furious, but far more worried than angry.
“It’s not their fault,” said grandpa boo. “Well, it is. But that’s because of their grandmother. Little devils have no fear in them. Not one bit.”
And grandpa boo kissed them, and mom and dad hugged them, and they went to bed after they ate more candy than they’d ever been allowed to in one sitting. And everything was fine again.
But Sarah did lie awake in her bed longer than normal, listening to her sister breathe. Thinking about her grandpa boo, and his big furry hat.
It did have long, dangling flaps like funny ears.
It was covered in a thick fuzzy hide.
It was very big and puffy.
But one thought kept Sarah awake without really knowing why.
She was sure her grandpa boo’s hat didn’t have fangs.