CHAPTER 13

When the sun's descent painted the sky in deep reds and oranges, Eric gathered his supplies (cross around his neck beneath his shirt, knife in his jacket pocket, Maglite in one hand, baseball bat in the other), and assured himself that he wasn't being stupid; he was doing exactly what had to be done. "If you're here, mom," he said to his room, "I'm sorry. Please watch out for me. I'm only doing what I have to. I know you understand." He stopped short of saying, I love you; it didn't feel right to say it aloud to an empty room, almost like a violation. Besides, his mother knew he loved her. Mothers always knew things like that.

Tommy was already waiting at the corner of Jackson Drive and Mangle Lane in the same Michael Myers mask and jumpsuit he had worn the last three years. He did not have the comically large carving knife that went with the costume, but he was holding a pillowcase: the preferred method of treat collection for the serious trick-or-treater. Things inside the case pushed it out at odd, sharp angles.

"Hey," Eric said.

"Hay is for horses," Tommy said from behind the mask. "What's your costume, nighttime baseball player?"

Eric didn't laugh and felt suddenly very stupid. He had been so prepared, so confident, and one remark from Tommy had dashed that certainty. Good old reliable Tommy.

"For protection." Eric swung the bat in a small arc.

Tommy snorted. Eric wasn't going to show him the pocket knife. Once he saw what was in Tommy's pillowcase, however, his pocket knife no longer held the threatening power it once had.

"Check it out," Tommy said and opened his pillowcase.

Eric peered in, saw nothing but shadows, turned on his Maglite and shined it inside the bag. The light reflected off of an impossibly long metal blade that must be meant for cutting people's heads off. Eric gasped and Tommy laughed.

"It's my father's," he said. "He'll never notice I took it out of the kitchen."

"What is it for?"

"It's a carving knife, stupid. You know, cooking?"

"Why did you bring it?"

"Protection. What good is a bat going to do, anyway?"

Other items surrounded the knife. Thick rope bundled in an "8" snuggled next to a hammer that partially covered a mirror, on which rested an envelope and the giant knife—eight inches long, at least. "He won't suspect any of it," Tommy said about his father. "My dad was counting the eggs and hiding his shaving cream."

Tommy's amusement did nothing to calm Eric. "What are we supposed to do with that stuff?"

"You'll see," Tommy said. "And I have this, too." He pulled a plastic flashlight out of a pocket in his overalls. It seemed his outfit had many pockets. At least Eric had him beat with the flashlight. That plastic one might break if he dropped it while Eric's would endure extensive abuse.

"You think he'll show?" Eric asked.

"He better."

A group of kids in torn and bloodied bed sheets shrieked past them down Mangle Lane like a chorus of ghosts. They moved so quickly they could have been flying. Somewhere else a kid screamed and a cackle of laughs followed. The sun had almost disappeared and flashlight beams shook across the roads and houses as dark figures marched up strangers' front porches to demand something sweet.

A burst of wind plastered Eric's jacket to his body like a wet-suit. With it came a chill that seeped through his clothes, onto his skin, and into his body. The cold dug deep, burrowed into caverns of ice, buried hooks that would not shake loose. Halloween was always best when the weather tilted below fifty degrees but this weather stung with an extra bitterness that made Eric shift his weight nervously from one foot to the other. This Halloween didn't feel like the others; this one was nastier.

"You got to pee or something?" Tommy asked.

Eric was about to respond when the final member of the trio appeared out of the darkness amid a group of giggling trick-or-treaters. Ed blended with the darkness as he walked like it might swallow him if he turned in the wrong direction. Only his face shone brightly. Eric and Tommy's flashlights revealed Ed's secret: black jeans with a thick black sweater. He wasn't carrying anything. He stopped before them, hands in his pockets. He might have been wandering aimlessly.

"The sun is almost gone," Tommy said. "Thought you were going to fag out."

Ed shrugged and lowered his eyes. Eric remembered when the three of them used to play touch football all summer long and often in the winter, too. They had laughed so much back then. Ed hadn't laughed in a long time, it seemed. That bothered Eric not because he thought Ed should laugh; it bothered him because he knew there was nothing to laugh about. All the fun in the world had drained away, leaving the three of them alone with each other. And the house, of course.

"You bring anything?" Tommy asked.

Ed shrugged again. "Why?"

Tommy started to say something and then shook his head. "Whatever."

Eric squeezed the bat in his hands. It felt like it might snap in half or crumble into a million pieces. Ed was right. What was the point in bringing protection? The house had burned Tommy's hand without warning. It could destroy them easily. Fighting was pointless. The bat sagged in his grip and he almost dropped it—almost.

"Let's go," Eric said, amazed the words had left his mouth. Tommy and Ed appraised him for a moment, perhaps surprised as well, and then Tommy nodded and led the march down Mangle Lane.

Eric and Ed walked next to each other behind Tommy. They didn't say anything. Eric wanted to open the lines of communication with his friend, to get him to confide in him, to maybe hear him laugh again, no matter how far fetched that seemed. He tried to start the conversation a few times and aborted each time. Their footsteps echoed off the pavement. Kids in costumes dashed around them and vanished into the dark like momentary dreams. What was very clear, however, was that none of those kids was headed for Hudson House.

The trio stopped in the road before the dark and silent house. Eric expected (hoped) a parent or even a group of kids would stop and ask them what they were doing so that the plan—what plan?—would have to be postponed. No stray beams from flashlights touched the house. The world spun wildly behind them in typical Halloween fun and mayhem but that did not include them. They were completely alone on a street thriving with running and laughing kids and parents. They could not re-enter that world. They had surrendered that right when they first dared to test this house.

"Well," Tommy said. "Go on, Eric."

"What?"

"Lead us."

"Why me?"

"You went first before so it only makes sense for you to go first again. We shouldn't change anything from last time, not if we hope to really find out what makes this house tick."

"I don't want to know what makes this house tick."

"Sure you do. You just don't realize it yet. Go."

Eric stepped onto the gravel driveway expecting the rocks to snag at his shoes with those hungry, spidery mouths. The rocks shifted under him but did not part to reveal a hellish cavern.

The wind rushed through him again and deepened the inner cold that had taken root. The branches of the naked tree in the yard rattled like bones cracking against each other. Dried leaves kicked up around his legs in tiny tornadoes. Eric tried not to think about what he was doing (I'm going back into hell) and instead focused his Maglite on the ground a few steps ahead of him. Baby steps of bravery.

Each step, however, was a step closer to his grave. At only twelve years old, Eric already had an idea what people experienced when Death arrived in his black cloak, scythe at his side. Would he recognize the moment when the scythe finally swung toward him or would Death attack from behind?

"We have to leave," Eric said. "I forgot the ring."

"No going back," Tommy said.

"You said we needed to bring the ring back."

Tommy laughed. "We don't need the ring. Figured you'd 'forget' it. There's a better way."

Eric was afraid Tommy was going to say that. If the ring wasn't important, why had he first mentioned it?

The porch steps moaned beneath his feet. The wood sagged, threatened to break. Tommy poked him with his flashlight. What was the rush? If Eric tried to run, Tommy would tackle him and drag him up the steps.

Eric stopped at the top of the steps, flashlight focused on the hole in the porch. The light dissipated after a few feet into the hole. It could descend forever. He lifted his leg to step to the door and paused. The beer can that had glowed in the hole like a troll's eye was gone. Steve had said the house cleaned up its messes. Steve and his friends partied in the house, left their mess behind and discovered it completely cleaned when they came to party again. The house wanted to keep up appearances. Or keep the cage clean and ready.

Where did all the beer cans and garbage go?

Into the dark. Eric stepped over the hole, grabbed the cold handle of the screen door, opened it with a deafening screech from the hinges, and seized the doorknob to the storm door. The spray-painted pentagram loomed over him.

"The sun is gone," Tommy said. "Open the damn door."

Sometimes the front door is a real bitch and it won't open, Steve had said. Eric knew it would open easily. The house was expecting them.

Eric turned the knob and pushed. The door opened. He thought again of a coffin lid snapping wide. The stale air hit like a wave. Another smell fluttered beneath the musty air that Eric couldn't place, something sweet.

Tommy squeezed between Eric and the doorframe. "Smells like candied apples," he said. He pushed all the way into the house before stopping in the foyer. "You smell that?"

Tommy was right—the smell was clear now and growing stronger with every second they stood in the house. The smell of such a delicious treat should have relaxed Eric, conjured up images of July nights at the Orange County Fairgrounds, but instead the smell nearly made him gag. The smell was off like the way synthesized music is always faintly wrong.

The trap is set.

Tommy shined the flashlight on his own face. Pockets of light circled his nose and eyes, casting the rest of his face in shadow. The campfire ghost story trick was corny at best but Eric shivered despite himself. It wasn't right adding more creepiness to this excursion. "Well, let's go," Tommy said in his deepest tone. "It's time for a tour."

Eric told him to cut it out and shined his flashlight on Tommy's face, flushing the shadows away. Tommy laughed, clutched his pillowcase closer to him (what was he planning?), and beckoned for them to follow him with his bandaged hand. He was a marked animal returning to the beast that had scarred him.

Tommy headed for a door straight ahead, to the left of the staircase. Eric started to object when Ed tugged on his jacket from behind. "Let's leave him," Ed whispered. "We can run. Maybe the house will get us and maybe it won't, but we don't have to be stupid."

That wasn't friendship; that was each man for himself. They used to call themselves the three amigos—one for all and all for one. Now the three amigos had disintegrated, crumbled to pieces inside an abandoned house.

For a moment, Eric almost agreed. Running sounded good, sensible, safe. He couldn't do that, though—no matter the consequences. "We all have to do this," Eric told him. "It's the only way."

"I can't." Ed's voice wavered on the cusp of hysteria.

"You have to."

Tommy's flashlight washed over them. "You fags coming?"

Eric handed Ed the baseball bat. Ed took it eagerly. The loss of its grip left Eric forlorn. He had wanted to help his friend but he felt he had made another stupid choice. He slipped his empty hand into his pocket and clutched his knife. As long as they worked together, they would be okay.

"Shouldn't we go the way we went last time?" Eric asked.

Tommy snorted and pulled open the door. He entered the darkness beyond. Eric waited a moment for a scream or a scuffle or a splatter of blood. "Coat room," Tommy called. "Complete with scary coat hooks."

"Very funny," Eric said.

The coat-room door swung gently shut.

"We can leave now," Ed said.

Before Eric could respond, Tommy's shrill scream pierced the air and reverberated from the coat room like the door might explode off its hinges from the pressure.

All for one, Eric thought and ran to Tommy's aid.

Tommy's scream echoed outward from behind the door like the eye of a hurricane spiraling out its winds. Eric pulled his hand out of his pocket, almost dropping his knife, and grabbed the door handle. He swung it wide, expecting the woman in white with her bleeding arms to howl into his face. Instead, Tommy stood directly in front of him, flashlight turned upward on his face again. Eric tried to skid to an immediate stop but couldn't.

He collided with Tommy, finally silencing the scream, and they stumbled deeper into the coat room, smacked the wall and then fell through it. The darkness swallowed them and Eric tried to brace himself for an endless drop. Their fall ended abruptly on the tiled floor of the kitchen. Tommy's pillowcase of goodies clattered next to them. Maybe the mirror had broken. How much bad luck could they endure?

Tommy's laughter ignited a fire in Eric's belly. Why was Tommy such an asshole? "That wasn't funny," Eric shouted.

Tommy laughed louder and said repeatedly that yes it was funny, really funny, and that he had to get their attention before they were frozen in place forever at the doorstep.

"This is serious," Eric said. He stood, scanned the double sink beneath the boarded windows as a cold wave deepened his inner chill. They had fallen into the kitchen as if that's what the house had wanted. Part of the trap.

"Yeah," Tommy said. "Seriously funny." He checked the contents of his pillowcase. After a moment, he said, "We're good. Let's get on with it." He headed across the kitchen to the pantry door.

"Where's Ed?" Eric asked.

"Crying on the porch, I imagine."

The door between the kitchen and coat room swung gently back into place in slowing arcs. "Ed?" Eric called.

"Forget him." Tommy stood at the pantry door.

"We need him."

"Don't worry. He's not going anywhere. None of us are. Ever again."

The front door crashed shut. The house had them now.



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