Cheating at Checkers

The house had an unlived-in air. The atmosphere was dank and musty, as if it had been years since anyone had set foot inside. Only the sitting room was warm and dry, but even there the faded wallpaper was peeling from the walls, hanging down in strips that reached towards the dusty wooden floor.

"Woooo!" wailed the white-draped figure, waving its ghostly arms at the man who sat in the high-backed armchair.

"Terrifying, Kenny," the man said, without turning around.

"Oh, come on," said the boy, pulling the sheet off his head to reveal a freckled face and rumpled brown hair. "It's Hallowe'en, Leonard!"

"Joy," Leonard said, without enthusiasm, turning a page of his newspaper.

"Fine," sighed Kenny, slumping to the floor by the fireplace, where a fire crackled and spat.

When Kenny said nothing else, April raised an eyebrow. "Are you going to spend the rest of the evening sulking?" she said, long legs draped over the arm of her chair.

"No," he said, rolling onto his back. "I'm just bored. I wish we could do something," he complained. "Like... like trick-or-treating! Anything!"

April gave a short laugh. "Trick-or-treating? Us?" she asked. "How do you think that would turn out?"

"I know," the boy muttered. "I know."

April returned to her crossword, but she was not solving the clues; instead, she was colouring in every square until the white blocks were indistinguishable from the black.

"Why are you doing that?" Kenny asked, propping his head up on one arm and watching her.

"It passes the time," she said, not looking up, intent on her work.

There was silence in the room except for the rustling of Leonard's out-of-date newspaper as he turned a page. From outside, they could hear the sounds of children's voices. It was dusk, and the trick-or-treaters were out. Kenny pushed himself to his feet and strolled over to the window, leaning on the sill. He looked out across the overgrown garden to the other side of the street. On the doorstep of the house opposite were three fat, orange pumpkins, carved into faces with varying degrees of skill. Kenny watched morosely as a ghost, a witch and what looked like a giant banana rang the doorbell and were greeted by a smiling woman with a bowl of candy and chocolate.

"But couldn't we – " he began, turning back to the others, but Leonard cut him off.

"No."

"But we – "

"We can't, and you know it."

"Things were so much more fun before," said Kenny, glaring at his unhelpful companions. Neither of them paid him any attention. "Don't you remember trick-or-treating?"

"It was fun," April agreed, lowering her crossword thoughtfully.

"I never went trick-or-treating," said Leonard. "It wasn't such an important ritual, in my day."

"That's so sad!" said Kenny, looking at the older man with dismay. "Trick-or-treating is so much fun! You get all dressed up and you go around to houses and you get so much candy! I mean, sometimes you get apples and stuff, but mostly you get lots of candy, and chocolates, and – " He broke off, lost in happy reverie. April and Leonard caught each other's eye and grinned.

"But you learn to avoid the apple people. Dentists, mostly," Kenny went on, shaking himself back into the present. "And you get to know which crazy old ladies try to give you cat food instead of candy. And then you get home and your parents tell you not to eat all your candy at once, so you pretend to say yes and then eat 'til you're sick." His eyes shone. "It was great."

"But times change," said April, softly.

"I know," said Kenny, resting his forehead against the glass, watching another group of children being sent away with sweets.

A cat slunk into the room and made its languorous way over to the chair where April sat. She reached down and scratched it behind the ears. It purred, rubbing its head against her hand, its tail curling into a question mark.

Kenny gave a loud sigh.

"There's no need to mope, Kenny," Leonard said at last, lowering his newspaper. "You know we'll have some company eventually. It always happens."

"I guess," said Kenny, not much cheered by this thought as he watched the children disappear down the street.

"Want to tell stories?" he suggested hopefully, looking at the others.

"No," they both said.

Kenny looked downcast. "But I know this one about – "

"Kenny, we've already heard them all," April reminded him.

"Oh. Yeah."

He returned his gaze to the window, letting his eyes trail along the neat hedges of the houses across the road. Their own garden was wild and overgrown, long in need of some proper attention. Things scurried and scuttled in the undergrowth.

"You guys are no fun," Kenny said, kicking his foot against the floor. A cloud of dust rose from it.

"Hey, anyone want to play a game of checkers?" he asked, his face brightening.

"Ask Sybil," said April, still scratching the cat's head.

Kenny looked down at the cat, and shook his head. "She cheats," he said, seriously. "Don't you, Syb?"

The cat gave him a disdainful look in answer and turned her back on him.

"All right, all right, I'll play," said April, rolling her eyes in response to Kenny's pleading look. "Get the board out."

Kenny hurried to unpack the board, digging through the ancient chest in the corner of the room until he found the dusty old game. He laid it out on the floor, setting all the pieces in place. April swung her legs down and slid to the floor to join him. She quickly plaited her long, auburn hair, throwing it over her shoulder to keep it out of the way.

"You want to be black?" he asked.

"Always."

They began to play, engrossing themselves in the game. It was dark outside now, and the three of them were soon lit only by the fire which burned in the grate, fading into embers as yet another All Hallow's Eve died. They could hear more trick-or-treaters now – bigger groups of children, and no doubt the occasional gang of teenagers, half-heartedly dressed up, hoping for loot.

"Do you remember making jack-o-lanterns?" said Kenny suddenly, his hand poised over the board.

"No," said Leonard.

April, too, shook her head. "My parents were convinced I'd accidentally chop my head off if I were allowed near a knife. I got to scoop out the inside, but they only let my big brothers carve the faces."

"You guys missed out," said Kenny, shaking his head.

"I think we're dealing adequately with the trauma," commented Leonard from behind his paper.

They fell silent as the game continued. April grinned as she hopped over five of Kenny's pieces and claimed them.

"I win," she said, triumphantly removing the last red piece from the board.

"You always win," Kenny said with a sigh.

"Can I tell you a secret?" she said, beckoning him closer.

Kenny nodded, leaning towards her.

"I always cheat," she whispered.

At that moment, there was a loud knock on the front door that made Kenny jump. April's head snapped up. Leonard froze.

"There they are," whispered April, a slow smile spreading over her face.

"Like clockwork," Leonard agreed. Kenny was alert now, and all three of them waited, motionless, their heads turned towards the entrance hall. It surprised none of them when the door creaked open slowly, its hinges screaming in protest after long disuse.

"Hello?" called a nervous voice from the doorway. None of them answered.

"Hello?" The same voice, louder this time. There were footsteps in the hall now.

"See, you guys?" came another voice, high and nervous. "I t-told you it wasn't haunted. Can we go home now?"

"Children are so predictable," said Leonard, delicately folding his newspaper and laying it aside. "It's the same thing every Hallowe'en… Every year for a hundred years, they come to see the haunted house. Prove to their friends that they were brave enough to visit." He allowed himself a small smile. "Better go and give them their money's worth."

April grinned more broadly, and cocked an eyebrow at Kenny. "Ready to do a little haunting?"

He nodded eagerly, glowing with excitement.

One by one, they stood up. Then, just as they had for so many years, the three figures slipped out of the room, the solidity of the wall no impediment to them as they moved to greet their guests.