A knock at the front door startled Muriel out of her half-slumber. She shot forward in her chair, wincing at the pain in her back. The damn thing always chose the wrong moment to act up. She knew she should do her exercises more often, but it was too easy not to.
Still dazed, she blinked once, twice, wondering if she had been far enough gone for the knock to be a fragment of a dream. The sky outside had grown dark since her eyelids first closed, the way it does, almost in an instant, in a mid-autumn evening. The television murmured a Thursday night game show, casting a glow over the hardwood floors, leather furniture, and carefully arranged objet d’art. All as it should be. Quiet, clean—and a touch pretentious. But it wasn’t her place to judge. Wasn’t her house.
It sounded again—less a knock than a pounding, insisting on an answer. Now. Now. Muriel pushed her aging body from the recliner, joints popping, on edge. What on Earth, she wondered. Who on Earth. Someone normal—someone safe—would use the doorbell. She had agreed to housesit because the neighborhood was good and sitting around her retirement-village apartment was starting to feel like waiting for death. Nothing could be so important to scare an old woman staying by herself. There had better be a fire somewhere.
She almost wished the house came with some kind of large dog, but of course, Heather and Julian and their allergies—Muriel chuckled to herself, imagining them with a giant, slobbering Great Dane. Spike was the only security system she and Bill had ever needed. Making sure the deadbolt was in place, Muriel glanced through the peephole.
Goodness, she thought, she hadn’t realized.
“Trick or treat,” the taller one said, goodie bag at the ready, as Muriel inched the door open. It sounded like a boy, but a sheet, white with a few faded stains, covered the body, save for ragged eyeholes. He was probably thirteen or fourteen, if height was any indication, and the phrase had lacked a child’s singsong melody. Next to the ghost stood a girl with unkempt curly hair, wearing a mouse-ear headband and whiskers scrawled on her cheeks with makeup or marker. She was quiet, expressionless. An older brother taking his little sister out, Muriel thought, except not as cute as she might have imagined. A larger figure with a dog on a leash stood by the edge of the street—the parent, she hoped.
This would be quick, at least. “I’m sorry. I don’t have any.”
It seemed to take a moment for her words to register. The mouse twisted some of her brother’s fabric under her thumb and forefinger. The ghost himself didn’t move. Muriel could make out the McDonald’s logo on the crumpled brown sides of his bag—a far cry from the plastic orange jack-o-lantern she remembered her own children carrying thirty years earlier. The porch light couldn’t reach far inside, but it didn’t look like he’d had a successful night.
“The light is on,” he said. “Any place with the light on has candy.” The eyeholes stared hard at Muriel, the bag’s edges tearing with his insistence.
Well, now. Muriel smiled at his sense of entitlement. “I forgot to turn it off. I don’t have anything.”
The mouse shifted on her feet. The ghost kept his bag open. “Trick,” he said, “or treat.” The emphasis was clear. Muriel imagined a bar of soap hidden under that costume, ready for her windowpanes. Heather and Julian’s windowpanes.
So the ghost knew what he was doing. Good for him. She may be a cranky old lady, but Muriel would never lecture children on proper behavior. Kids were supposed to be kids. These ones today—at the after-school program where she volunteered, even her own grandchildren—were too timid, too shy. She chuckled inwardly as she thought of her own younger days. It’s good to shake things up every once in a while. Her victims deserved it. Made them think twice.
But the last thing Muriel needed was for her young homeowner friends to return to soaped windows or toilet-papered trees or slashed tires or whatever else the ghost had planned. Especially not Heather and Julian, who left explicit instructions to water the ferns with a cup of mineral water at five-fifteen every night, and to change the HEPA filter on the GermGuardian no later than ten on Saturday so it would trap all the allergens before they arrived. Nice people—so good to her after Bill died—but all that fuss over nothing. She had never once heard them sneeze.
She hoped she had never been so foolish with her own family in their Levittown home all those years ago.
“Let me check,” she said to the children. “Don’t go anywhere.” Surely there was candy around, even if it was some kind of overpriced organic stuff. She shut the door. The TV was still glowing.
“I’m tired,” she heard the mouse say through the thick wood.
“Don’t give up. Sometimes you gotta make people.” The brotherly advice was almost sweet.
Muriel didn’t know the pantry well enough to rummage, and anything put back in the wrong place would surely be noticed. A cursory glance led to nothing, so she resorted to opening kitchen drawers and cabinets one at a time. A pouch of dried fruit with a name she couldn’t pronounce was tucked away beside a replacement Brita filter. Maybe enough. She could get back to her show, then make a trip to that store they liked tomorrow for a replacement.
Opening the door, she found the kids where she had left them. The street was quiet—no other trick-or-treaters. It occurred to Muriel that no other trick-or-treaters had followed the beacon of the porch light. She held out the bag in pinched fingers toward the ghost.
“That’s it?” he said.
“That’s it. I’m sorry.” Muriel swore the ghost’s eye slits narrowed as he decided what to do next. Trick, or terrible treat.
“Thanks,” he muttered, swiping the dried fruit and grabbing his sister’s hand in one swift motion.
“I’m tired,” the girl whined again as the ghost dragged her by the wrist down the flagstone path. Muriel noticed she was wearing no shoes. They held no flashlight against the dark. The man by the street was gone.
“Wait a minute,” she said. The ghost and the mouse turned. “Where are your parents?”
The slits narrowed again. Muriel could feel distrust emanating from him as he gripped his McDonalds bag tighter. “Around.”
“You do have parents?”
“And they’re taking care of you?”
A pause before another affirmative. Muriel knew a lie when she heard one—she’d told enough of them in her day. The figure before must have been a passing dog walker. This was truly a brother taking his little sister out.
An involuntary shudder left Muriel as she inhaled a quick breath. Here she was, just minutes ago complaining about an interrupted nap, while right under her nose were these two. What to do. She wanted to follow them home—or wherever they were going—and say a thing or two to whoever was in charge. She wanted to invite them in, let Heather and Julian find grubby children sleeping between the 600-thread-count sheets on the guest bed. Give them something real to fuss about.
Neither seemed prudent. Neither seemed possible.
“It’s not safe to be out by yourselves,” was all she could think to say.
The girl shifted back and forth on her bare feet. “We’ll be fine,” her brother said.
Muriel lurched herself forward to reach them, but they scampered away. “Wait,” she called, to no avail.
She stood in the yard a moment as the kids disappeared into the growing darkness. The neighborhood was fully empty now, save for the trees dropping the last of their autumn leaves onto manicured lawns and shadowy Beamers looming silent in the driveways. No one would have thought those two existed, invisible, even here. Muriel wanted to drag them from door to door and make people see. Telling was never enough. They had to see for themselves.
Somewhere along the way she had become complacent: focused on raising her own two children in their own fenced-in, swimming-pooled backyard. Doing due diligence at church bake sales, holding down the home until the kids moved out and life moved on. A life’s work—no small accomplishment—but she could be just as blind as anyone.
The police, when she called, promised to do what they could, but Muriel knew it wouldn’t be much. The kids would run from the headlights, hide in the darkness. She couldn’t give a description, or even their names. Hanging up, Muriel knew there was one more thing she had to do, the only other thing she could. She made her trip to Whole Foods the next day.
When Heather and Julian’s Uber pulled up Sunday afternoon, the yard was a mess. Toilet paper adorned the trees, even the ferns on the porch. In big, soapy letters, each front window displayed three words: trick or treat. Discarded in the lawn were empty wrappers advertising all-natural, bleach-free toilet essentials.
“I just couldn’t stop it,” Muriel said. “Poor things.” They faced the damage, shaken. These things didn’t happen in this neighborhood. Not that they had ever seen before.
Funny thing was, the HEPA filter hadn’t been replaced, either.
Nicholas Dolern holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. His short fiction has appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review. When not writing, he can be found enjoying a good movie or an even better book.