On the night before Halloween, here’s “The Day After Halloween”–a short story that was first published in the 2011 anthology Jack-o’-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy.
The Day After Halloween
By Joe Nazare
Night, like no other. October’s closing ceremony.
Drew McCormack stands gazing out from his front porch, joined only by the uncarved pumpkin propped on the gray wooden ledge. Curling his forearm to read his wristwatch, he sees that just two minutes have passed since last check. 9:48—which he once again translates to LATE.
“Dammit, Robbie,” he grumbles, but really he’s cursing himself. He should never have let the boy go out tonight.
Originally, he balked at the idea of Robbie heading out alone. It was too dangerous—too many up-to-no-gooders no doubt finding welcomed cover in nightfall. But Robbie was determined to hit up some houses. With oversized pillowcase already in hand, he implored his father to trust him. He was going to be fifteen years old, for crying out loud. “Besides,” Robbie clinched the deal, “you need to stay here in case anyone comes.”
Grudgingly, McCormack agreed. But he insisted Robbie stick to the immediate neighborhood. And that he get his butt back home as soon as he filled his makeshift goody-bag. “Be careful,” he called out as the boy hurried off.
That was nearly ninety minutes ago. Now, standing lookout on the porch, McCormack slowly exhales his unease. Rocking his body weight side to side, he vacillates between anxiety and anger. He squelches the urge to go searching for Robbie, realizing that he has no idea what route the boy chose, what house he could be at right now. And McCormack hates the thought of leaving his own home unattended, with so many beggars and mischief-makers surely afoot.
As if on cue, a figure swoops across the sidewalk in front of the house, momentarily framed by the break in the hedgerow. McCormack focuses first on the weapon in hand, a disconcertingly authentic-looking butcher knife. Next he registers the Halloween mask—literally, the wan, stoic visage of Michael Myers. This incarnation of the methodical slasher, though, has launched into an uncharacteristic sprint, a hastening that could signify either flight or pursuit. A frown elongates McCormack’s mouth as he listens to the Dopplering clomp of Michael-mask’s boots; he’s been reminded once more that on this particular night, anything goes.
And it seems like forever since Robbie went.
Meantime McCormack’s outstretched neck has started aching. Vertebrae crackle while he swivels, then tilts back, his head. As his chin thrusts forward, his view naturally lifts skyward. It’s a moonless night, casket-black, and against such a pitch backdrop he can just discern the cirrocumuli. McCormack pictures the inky gossamer strands as a tattered shroud, or a newborn’s caul.
“Anhhh.” He waves a hand in dismissal, wipes away such mental images. This unhallowed evening has given his thoughts a morbid cast. And it really was no time for fancy, not with more practical concerns pressing. The only shape he should be trying to make out is Robbie’s.
Leveling his sightline, McCormack refocuses on the street stretching past his home. Even when devoid of passersby, the scene hums with the anticipation of activity. Constantly, eruptions of disorder feel eyeblink-imminent.
Despite or precisely because of such charged atmosphere, the homes lining the roadway lie quiescent. Case in point: the Franks’ white colonial directly across the street. None of the strung holiday lights shine, the shades are drawn, and the front door looks nailed shut at this late hour. McCormack wonders if Robbie’s itinerary tonight has led him to a series of such sheltered residences. Wonders how much trouble he’s having trying to fill his pillowcase.
The house neighboring the Franks’ on the right, the Millers’, forms another unshining example of introversion. Swaddled in night and silence, it betrays signs of occupancy only via the faint blue flicker leaking through the slats in the shuttered windows of the upstairs bedroom. McCormack imagines the Millers huddled together there, and supposes he could be inside his own living room right now watching the TV as well. Rather than standing sentinel here on the porch and fraying his own nerves. But he had his fill earlier this afternoon. Honestly, he has little stomach for the limited fare dominating the airwaves. Endless repeats of the same horrorshows. Exploitative schlock, all of it.
A banshee shriek pierces the night, rending McCormack’s thoughts. He whips his head to the left, spots the black muscle car screaming up the block. The din of the car’s passengers, whose hellraising yelps mark them as teenagers, is matched only by the music blaring from the radio. The bass sounds as if it’s been raised full-tilt, and pounds steady as a war drum. McCormack fights back queasiness as the noise pulses through him, but still manages to identify what he’s hearing. It’s that “Number One With a Bullet” song that Robbie liked to play ad nauseam on his own stereo, though nowhere near as loud as this.
The only saving grace, McCormack figures, is that this carload of cacophony will soon zoom past earshot. But as if to spite that expectation, the car promptly squeals its brakes. McCormack’s own hands squeeze down in conjunction, into fists so tight that his knuckles feel like they might erupt from the skin. Fighting the tremble mounting in his right arm, he braces for confrontation.
The car veers from its path down the center of the roadway, effortlessly jumping the far curb. Mouth agape, McCormack watches the bat-wielding passenger riding shotgun stretch his torso out the open window. More thug than slugger, the teen executes a single, booming swing that obliterates the Franks’ curbside mailbox. Gathering speed even as it sacrifices traction, the car continues in a diagonal vector across the Franks’ and then the Millers’ property. A four-wheeled rape of nature, it mows down flowers and tramples Walt Miller’s perennially envied rosebushes. The driver spins the wheel, and the fishtailing vehicle trenches what look like brown quotation marks in the lawn. Engine growling, the car then accelerates back onto the blacktop and the whooping teens speed off in the same direction from which they came. In all, the blitzkrieg has lasted less than fifteen seconds.
His jaw now clenched, McCormack snorts his fury over such wanton destruction. No-good punks, acting as if this day sanctioned mischief.
For years now late-October lawlessness has been a growing problem here in Sedonia, but tonight’s incidents are of a different order altogether. What McCormack just witnessed across the street makes tossed eggs and t.p.’d trees seem like the quaint rituals of a bygone era. And he knows it’s not just the particularly brazen nature of the present desecration that bothers him; it’s his own inability to do anything about it. And even if he had the temerity to march into the sheriff’s office tomorrow to make a complaint, would anyone really care?
He supposes he should be grateful he hasn’t seen anything worse transpiring. Be thankful he resides in the rural Midwest, since he can only imagine how riotous things must be in the big cities nationwide. In his mind’s eye he envisions all the mummies and skeletons, all the grotesques and other assorted ghouls filling the city streets tonight. He recalls how for decades good citizens way up north in Detroit have battled annual arsonists given to lighting buildings rather than pumpkins. God knows what sort of bonfire must be blazing there this evening.
But all that urban madness lay many miles over in all directions—days away as the crow flies, as it were. His concern right now is much more localized.
He scans the now-lifeless street once more. A small, internal voice chides him to relax, things will work out fine. He tries his best to heed that voice. Maybe he has magnified the cause for concern here. Besides, hasn’t Halloween historically proven a day of needless worry? Parents, don’t let your trick-or-treaters accept apples—madmen are splicing razor blades into them. Don’t let the kids take candy from complete strangers—it could be laced with poison. Or, more recently, the epitome of post-9/11 paranoia: keep your loved ones out of shopping malls on Halloween—terrorists have planted explosives there.
Like some pathetic attempt to douse flagrant thoughts, a soft rain starts falling, trickling onto the porch roof overhead. The precipitation rustles the oaks in McCormack’s front yard, unmooring brittle leaves that fall in graceful kamikaze swirls.
Influenced by such scene, McCormack presumes that the low scratching sound he suddenly hears represents the scurry of wind-nudged leaves across pavement. But the noise continues to morph, until McCormack identifies it as the scuff of sneakers.
He spots them just as they turn up the walkway. Dark sneakers, two pair, sported by the two approaching figures. Both are clad in denim jackets and jeans, their only concession to costume the matching goblin masks covering their faces in pale green deformity. Their lanky frames suggest they are really too old to be trick-or-treating. Nonetheless, they’re the first to venture onto the property tonight, which has McCormack cursing his luck. He should’ve known he wouldn’t get through the evening without any visitors.
The masked duo exchanges whispers while stalking toward the house. But then wide goblin eyes lift toward the porch, and the pair’s progress falters as they are no doubt surprised to find McCormack stationed outside his front door. He doesn’t even give them a chance to speak, just offers a solemn shake of his head. They are halted in their tracks now, and McCormack can almost intuit the flow of their thoughts—the debate whether or not to accept such dismissal. The standoff, though, lasts only as long as it takes the goblins to give him a good look up and down. Apparently deciding to try their luck elsewhere, the grotesque twins do an about-face and steal back off into the night.
McCormack’s scowl outlasts their departure. Their unrewarded visit is just another reminder of how ill-prepared he is for this day. But he thinks of the chaos that desperate, last-minute shoppers must be raining down upon the town’s lone supermarket tonight. No, he was right to stay clear of that zoo.
Again, the sound of shuffling feet, loud this time, with no pretense to stealth. So the goblins have changed their minds and decided upon mischief. McCormack swallows, readies himself for them.
But his stiffened body sags with relief when he sees who it is, finally: Robbie, with his brimming sack slung over his shoulder, like some Santa who has mixed up his holidays. The cheeks of his ghost-white face puff out air as he hurries the last steps for home.
McCormack inwardly revels at the sight of Robbie’s safe return. His son—it doesn’t seem right to deem him a boy any longer—really is his entire world since Keira’s passing two years ago. Still, he can’t keep the sharpness out of his voice as Robbie mounts the porch.
“I know…I know,” Robbie says between gasps. “It took a lot longer than I thought. I had to go past the neighborhood. Try houses of people we don’t know, houses that looked deserted.”
Chafing once more at his own enforced stasis, McCormack mutters, “Alright, let me see.”
Robbie unshoulders and holds open the stuffed pillowcase. McCormack peers inside, immediately spotting the full bag of Milky Ways lying on top. He glances up at his son, who offers a sheepish grin in return. In the past McCormack has hounded his chocoholic son about eating such junk; now, though, it just seems silly to worry about. These few sweets weren’t going to cause Robbie’s teeth to fall out.
So McCormack doesn’t say anything, merely paws aside the bag of candy bars to make sure the rest of the sack contains more appropriate fare. And sure enough, he finds bottles and bottles of Evian. Cans of Chef Boyardee macaroni. Cans of soup. Even a tin of Spam. Strictly nonperishables—just as McCormack had instructed.
Robbie stares at his father, clearly hungering approval. “You did a good job,” McCormack tells him, smiling thinly. Meantime he’s happy to note the pink returning to Robbie’s cheeks. “Now hurry up inside. Take all this down to the cellar.”
As his son steps forward to oblige, McCormack realizes what Robbie isn’t toting. “Hey, where’s your—” he starts, then catches himself. “Never mind.” Because he’s spotted it. The pistol—which forms a matching pair with the one still clutched in McCormack’s right hand—is tucked into the waistband of Robbie’s jeans, partially draped by his unbuttoned flannel shirt.
Before proceeding indoors, Robbie stops to nod at the house’s façade. “We gonna board up the windows tonight?”
McCormack stares at the house, pondering, then shakes his head. “Not tonight.” Worry has drained him; any extra fortifications will have to wait.
“Go on, I’m right behind you,” he tells Robbie. He stops, though, and doubles back to the front of the porch. Sweeps the pumpkin up into the crook of his arm. Waste not…
Before he can cross over to the doorway, he feels a subtle breeze wafting across the back of his neck. Despite the unseasonable balminess of this October-terminating night, he shivers.
Instinctively, he turns his head left, telescoping his gaze toward the far western horizon. It’s faint from this great distance: an orangey glow radiating up against the black vault of sky, like a sunset trying to reverse itself.
McCormack, who for seventeen years up until today has served as a social studies teacher, suddenly can’t help but to recall the Old World roots of Halloween. For the ancient Celts, the harvest festival “Samhain” marked the End of Summer, and was considered a time when the dead crowded the same plane as the living.
So maybe today’s a typical Halloween after all…
Chuckling hollowly, McCormack steps inside to join his son in setting their stores against the long, dread winter on its way.