“No, Mommy!” protested six-year old Sarah Reid. “It’s too scary! People will get scared!”
Beth Reid looked at her daughter’s eyes peering out from the holes cut in the old sheet. The ghost costume was a Halloween classic and Sarah liked Casper the Friendly Ghost. Seemed simple enough to a busy adult but kids were never simple.
“I know what to do,” said Beth as she rummaged through a desk drawer that was only opened to stuff in things that had no place else to go. She soon found a big red Christmas bow, which she stuck on top of Sarah’s head.
“What do you think?” she asked hopefully as she held up a mirror. “Now they’ll know you’re a friendly ghost, not a scary one.”
“Okay!” Sarah agreed as she picked up the plastic Jack-o-lantern with the open top, imagining the candy that would soon overflow. “Let’s go!”
The eastern sky still held traces of ashy gray behind dark screens of skeletal tress as Beth and Sarah joined the parade of monsters, princesses, comic book characters and last-minute-anybody’s-guess presentations wandering along the suburban street. The smoky smell of the fallen leaves swishing around the bottom of Sarah’s costume and the radiant, golden beams of candlelight shooting from the Jack-o-lanterns made thoughts of cackling witches and bristling black cats impossible to avoid. The spooky chill it gave Sarah was, well, spooky but deliciously fun.
“Okay, baby,” said Beth as they came to Mrs. Jorgenson’s house, their first stop. “Remember what I told you. Ring the bell and shout, ‘Trick or treat!’ when she opens the door. I’ll be watching.”
Sarah started up the walk but didn’t let go of Mom’s hand. “Come with me,” she pleaded, pulling as hard as she could.
“All right,” agreed Beth. She was in no hurry to not be needed.
The door flew open before Sarah could reach for the bell, releasing a flood of laughing, well-disguised characters of various shapes and sizes, all clutching bags starting to bulge with the evening’s haul. “Hi Mrs. Reid!” chirped one or two as they passed. “Hi Sarah!”
Sarah didn’t recognize any of them. She hoped Mrs. Jorgenson hadn’t heard them call her name.
“My!” exclaimed gray-haired Mrs. Jorgenson, a slight, jovial woman who sometimes babysat Sarah and her brothers when Mom and Dad went out. The heavy aroma of a dinner that included cabbage filled the little house and Sarah could see Mr. Jorgenson sitting in the dining room, reading a newspaper. “What a pretty little ghost! I like your bow,” she added as she slipped two candy bars into the Jack-o-lantern. “Now let’s see. You must be… Joey Fein?”
“I give up,” sighed Mrs. Jorgenson, virtually overcome by exasperation and bewilderment. “Who is in there?”
“It’s Sarah!” she announced, struggling to lift the sheet without letting go of the Jack-o-lantern.
Sarah soon picked up on the confusion between what was genuine and what was pretend. Mrs. Jorgenson certainly saw Mom standing there, yet she really seemed perplexed…
Sarah decided that confusion and good-natured deception must be part of the fun.
They went laughing from house to house, marveling at the transformation Halloween had wrought upon the neighborhood, stopping to guess at who lurked behind disguises or gab with neighbors, friends and classmates. As the night went on, Sarah inched closer to flying solo up to the bright, friendly porches and doors but could never quite keep up her nerve.
Before long they found themselves around the corner and halfway down the block. This street gave her a little shiver. There was one house with a big, shaggy hedge and broken pavement that was scary even in the light of day. In fact, all the kids were told to stay away from it. They never went down the street by themselves and always walked on the other side.
“Hi, Beth,” called a voice from the darkness. It was Mrs. Fein, with Joey in tow. Sarah knew it was Joey because the helmet of his homemade Stormtrooper costume was falling apart and it was easy to see his face.
“Hi Rachel,” said Beth. “Did you get that permission slip for the field trip?”
Sarah sighed, knowing the two of them would talk forever. The wind was getting chilly and her pumpkin head was full and heavy. It was time to go home.
“Can I go across the street, Mom?” asked Joey, who was old enough to do things like that with a minimum of supervision. Permission was granted and Sarah was alone with the two forever-talkers.
That’s when she realized they stood at the foot of the broken pavement leading through a gap in the shaggy hedge and up to the dark old porch of the scary old house.
As the two moms talked and talked Sarah got an idea. She’d been to a lot of strange houses that night, only to discover fun inside. The spooky houses usually turned out to be the most fun of all. Maybe this one was fun, too.
Getting up all the six-year-old nerve she could muster Sarah slipped away from the talking moms and glided up the walkway, feeling like a real ghost. The sheet did its best to bunch itself up under her feet as she climbed the steps but she soon made her way to the darkened doorway and found the bell.
Beth and Rachel were shaken from their mom-talk trance by the blaze of the porch light and a little voice shouting, “Trick or treat!”
“Sarah?” called Beth. “No, honey! Not this house…”
It was too late. The door opened. A dark silhouette stood out against the light from within.
Beth and Rachel were on the porch with magical swiftness, hearts pounding, ready to face what they expected to find at the door. They were surprised to see a stout, middle aged woman clutching a handkerchief. Her eyes were red but she forced a smile as she spoke to her little visitor.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t have any candy.”
Noticing the perplexed looks on the faces of the two mothers, the woman explained. “You expected to find Charlie, didn’t you? I’m his sister, Doris. Charlie’s been sick. I came down from Doylestown to stay with him three months ago.”
“Oh,” said Rachel. “Well, we won’t bother you. Come on, Sarah.”
“You don’t have to worry,” said Doris. “Charlie passed away last night. His doctor said the stress of the appeal was too much for him. He always was sensitive. Anyway, the conviction was overturned. His name is coming off the registry.”
“I see,” said Beth coldly. She had followed the media accounts of the case closely. She was not happy with this piece of news.
“There was more to it than the news reports said,” Doris went on, her voice tense and exhausted. “It wasn’t as simple as they made it out to be.”
“Is it ever?” challenged Beth. “Come on, Sarah.”
Sarah wasn’t exactly sure what to do. She knew this was serious and Mom was mad at the lady on the porch. Mom told her not to talk to strangers. Did she get the lady in trouble?
She took a Hershey bar from her Jack-o-lantern. “Here, Mrs. Doris,” she said. “Everybody should have candy on Halloween!”
“Thank you, dear,” said Doris. “Thank you very much.”
“And here’s one for your brother,” said Sarah, handing over a Three Musketeers bar.
“Oh, but, I told you… my brother isn’t here.”
“If he’s a good brother he won’t mind if you have it,” said Sarah, who did not yet understand what passed away meant. “Is he a good brother?”
The lady couldn’t answer. She just nodded and went back into the house with her candy bars.
The mothers were quiet as could be as they walked down the broken pavement and back through the gap in the hedge. Sarah couldn’t imagine what could keep them from talking.
“Fine!” Beth finally said. “I’ll bring her a casserole tomorrow. You have to bake her a pie!”
“I can do that,” replied Rachel.
They both acted mad but they were both going to make something delicious and bring it to the lady. At first Sarah was confused but then she realized she had stumbled upon one of life’s great truths. Grown-ups pretended way more than kids.
“Come on, Little Miss Sunshine,” said Beth, taking Sarah’s free hand and leading her back around the corner. “It’s a school night and you still need a bath.”
Sarah hated baths but looked forward to the warm, sleepy feeling she got when she was all dried off and in her pajamas, ready for bed. She had a whole pumpkin head full of candy. The old, dark house was no longer a mysterious menace. Mom and Mrs. Fein had a new neighbor. And she hadn’t scared anybody.
It was a good night’s work.