The Halloween I was thirteen I went all dirty pirate. I scavenged one of my old man’s shirts and my mother’s silk pajama bottoms. I painted my eyes red to match my headscarf. I even got hold of a plastic saber. My brother Ellis slicked back his hair, donned a leather jacket and motorcycle boots. After our parents went out to a party, we dropped acid. We got to cackling and almost forgot everything—until the doorbell rang.
When I opened the door, Ellis’s friend Nick leapt out of the bushes and grabbed me. I went psycho and scratched his arm up. He must have dropped acid too because his pupils were huge and round like dark moons, and his laugh cut through everything. The night seemed to be crawling with something but it was only Halloween and ghosts aren’t scary. Real trouble means real people with bad things on their mind. And that’s any holiday.
Nick wasn’t in a costume, just jeans and a t-shirt. He told me he liked me all pirated up which made me feel a nice kind of dirty I was learning about. The moon was fat orange and low like a squashed pumpkin when we started out around the neighborhood. Little kids were out in droves, freakishly short witches and ghosts. The drugs in my skull made them seem menacing. It was dumb but I couldn’t help wondering if underneath their costumes the kids were really dolls. Dolls dressed up in costumes meant to disguise bad intentions. Bad dolls with bad plans. Look out.
I took a couple of belts from Nick’s silver flask, and we began to giggle and run.
We raced all the way down to the Dewars’ house at the end of the street. Mr. and Mrs. Dewars were old, their kids grown and gone. A lot of the time it seemed like they were away, no car in the driveway or anything, but then a light would flash behind a curtain. Sometimes kids gambled and partied in their big backyard but the Dewars never appeared. Nobody knew what their deal was, even the adults, and no one bothered to find out.
I ran up to the porch and tried the door. Nick whooped up behind me.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Ellis said. He could be a stick in the mud.
“C’mon, give the girl a chance,” Nick said and took another belt on his flask. Nick was kind of a drunk.
The windows didn’t budge. My hand snagged on a sill and a splinter tongued me but I didn’t care. I was being brave because of Nick. It would have been better if Ellis wasn’t there, but without Ellis, Nick wouldn’t have been there. Another riddle I wasn’t prepared to solve.
I ran around to the back. The yard leapt open like a football field, on and on into the woods. I bounded up the back stairs and tried the door. It said try harder. I shouldered it hard enough to bruise, and it gave in. Inside held darkness tighter than outside. I went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Its light spilled onto the floor in a predictable shape. The fridge was packed full with eggs, milk, steaks, that kind of thing. It scared the shit out of me. I darted into the hallway. I heard Ellis call out but when I opened the front door no one was there—except down the street where bad little ghost dolls tricked on victims for candy. I closed the door as quietly as possible. I heard Nick and Ellis in the kitchen.
“There’s food in the refrigerator,” I said, thrilled to be the one delivering the news. Nick opened it and the light spilled back into itself.
“The Dewars must be home,” Nick said. He sounded excited.
I breathed the house in. It smelled like life. Not old people life, something new.
“This feels weird,” Ellis said. “Let’s get out of here.”
I turned on the light above the sink. The sink was clean, empty. There were dishes in the drying rack. It felt like the air was touching me.
“Calm down, man,” Nick said. “This is cool.” He grabbed my hand and swung me around. My stomach lurched. Maybe Nick wanted to kiss a pirate. Or maybe a doll hidden inside a pirate. That I might be a doll scared me more than most things.
I spun around and then ran up the stairs. You could smell even more life up there. Maybe the Dewars did prefer to live in the dark and somewhere they sat and waited for us. I tested out a little scream and bolted down the hallway into a bedroom. The covers were thrown open. I leapt onto the bed. Doll’s bed. I didn’t know why.
The sheets smelled of sweat, sweet clover sweat. I rolled around and wrapped myself up in blankets like a pirate mummy. But I made things too tight. I struggled to breathe and began to claw and punch like some crazy animal and thought here’s how it happens, here’s how I go. Panic broke and I sank into relief, down deeper into something lovely. It was beautiful to die like that.
When I came to, I was on the floor, head uncovered, free to gasp. Ellis knelt beside me, his face ghoulish. Nick hovered. They both looked scared.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Ellis said.
I tried to slow my breath down.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said. “You okay?”
He helped me unwrap. Nick held out the flask but Ellis pushed it away. “C’mon,” Ellis said. “The Dewars won’t be psyched when they realize we’re here.” He was shaky but in charge and it was okay.
“Are they really here?” I said. My voice sounded ragged with dust.
“Yeah, it looks that way. Or at least someone is,” Nick said. “Crazy, huh?”
We crept out of the bedroom into Voices. They came from downstairs. The Dewars. We all lurched still.
“Shit,” Nick whispered.
Ellis fierce put a finger to his lips. He took my hand.
The doorbell rang and I pissed myself a little. We seized back. The voices cut out. My crazy doll head clock-ticked out ten, twenty seconds until the bell rang again. The hallway light came on. Mr. Dewars appeared and walked to the front door. He was hunched over, his hair wisped around his little peanut head. Mrs. Dewars must have been in the kitchen. Somehow they hadn’t heard us. Maybe they had gone deaf. Or maybe they didn’t care. It was awful to wonder.
There were some trick or treaters at the door. Hungry little dolls. Mr. Dewars offered them a basket of candy.
“Only one each,” he said, all cranky.
“You can have two,” Mrs. Dewars said as she swept forward down the hall. She had on a ball gown, like a tattered one. One of her dead, old breasts was exposed.
The kids screamed and ran off. Mr. and Mrs. Dewars began to laugh the same laugh in echoes. Mr. Dewars reached out and adjusted Mrs. Dewars’ gown so that her other breast was exposed. Everything vibrated, even the air. The acid was strong, but the scene was there anyway. That scared me. I squeezed Ellis’s hand.
“Goddamn kids,” Mr. Dewars said as he shut the door.
“I thought it was Christmas,” Mrs. Dewars said. Then they both turned around slowly and looked up. They didn’t look surprised.
“You don’t belong here,” Mrs. Dewars said but she said it kindly, almost with apology. I shuddered.
“We’re sorry,” Ellis said, all shaky.
“You’re just children, like any children,” she said, squinting up at us. “I can cook you something if you like.” She pulled her gown up and covered her breasts.
“That sounds like you’re rewarding them, Marjorie,” Mr. Dewars said. He started to pat his pockets like he was looking for something. “I’d say we deserve a reward for not calling the police.”
Mrs. Dewars laughed and began to twirl in place like a dancer caught in a music box. “I don’t need anything, my dear.”
“I’d like some help around here. I’m getting too old to mow that lawn,” Mr. Dewars said in a mean tone like we had made the problem. He stepped closer to the bottom of the stairs. “I’m tired of kids coming around here, drinking beer in the backyard at all hours, doing bad things.”
“We don’t do that,” Nick said.
“Yes, you most certainly do,” Mr. Dewars spat back. “Where the hell did I put my glasses?” He slid his hand in a pocket and took out a pocketknife, straight out of Boy Scouts. “I’m tired of misplacing things.” Then he smiled.
Nick grabbed me and all three of us crashed down the stairs and into Mr. Dewars. He fell back. Mrs. Dewars screamed and clawed at me. I swung and slapped her and she growled. Nick opened the door, and we broke out into the night and charged down the sidewalk. I knocked over a little ghost doll as we cut through a throng of kids who were headed up the Dewars’ front walk. I didn’t know if I was screaming or not.
As we ran, I couldn’t tell anything apart. Ellis yanked us to a halt.
“That was crazy,” Nick said. He said it like we were in a stupid movie.
“What the hell? He needs help with the lawn?” Ellis said. He and Nick began to laugh.
Tears boiled in me. I didn’t know who had done something wrong, if anyone. Mrs. Dewars’ face was caught in my head, her breasts, the creamy brocade of her crazy, old gown. Mr. Dewars’ mean, blank mouth. They were dolls, out of sync with time. My teeth chattered. The night felt warm, good enough to lick. I was ready for something. I wanted to keep on but Ellis said no. He took me home. I was crushed with disappointment but unable to break out of obedience.
At our door Nick smiled before he bolted away. Our parents were still out at the party. Ellis got out candy and manned the door. I went to take a bath.
When I got undressed, I ran a finger along Mrs. Dewars’ scratches. They didn’t go deep, but they were there, the barest of marks, veins of trouble that meant things weren’t pretend. But I knew that anyway.