"How's the house look? Did you get the decorations set up okay?"
"Oh, I'll show you! Wendy came over and helped me with the bigger stuff. We got the spider web to stretch from the gutters to the railing!"
Jess hurried out her front door, smiling at amused expression on her husband's face. Ten feet away from the porch, she held her phone up and tilted it from side to side so that the front facing camera could take in the decorations she painstakingly put up the week before.
"Am I getting the angle right?" The FaceTime window that showed her phone's view was so small, it was hard to make out.
"Yeah, you're fine. Dang, you outdid yourself this year."
"Well, Halloween is my favorite holiday." She brought the camera back down so that he could see her face. "I wish you were here to see it in person."
"Leave it up. I'll be home in a month and I can see it then."
She rolled her eyes and laughed with him, "Very funny. What about you? Are you doing okay?"
"Yeah, the group's doing good." He glanced over his shoulder. "Looks like our meeting's about to start, so I should head out. But you have fun tonight. Don't give the trick-or-treaters too much candy. You know you'll regret it when they come to school sugared up."
"I know. Be safe. I love you."
"I will. Love you too!"
After the call disconnected, Jess slid her phone in her pocket and surveyed the yard. She and Derek had moved into the small, two-bedroom house the year before. Squeezed in between two larger homes and surrounded by a picket fence, there was just enough room on the front lawn for the tall oak tree whose leaves covered the grass in a carpet of bright oranges and reds. If Derek had been home, he would have insisted on raking them all up, but aside from clearing off the thin walkway that lead to the front porch, she had left them for added ambiance.
"Don't worry. I'll get 'em this weekend," she murmured.
A pediatric surgeon who specialized in repairing cleft palates, Derek would often travel to third world countries to meet with missionaries from their church and provide care for the native population. During his last trip, Jess realized that she'd started talking out loud when he was gone. Sometimes it was little asides she would have made to him when she saw something silly, and sometimes it was responses to what she could imagine him saying if he'd been present. They used FaceTime, texting, email - whatever technology they could - to stay in touch as well, but something about saying things as if he was there made her miss him a little less when he wasn't.
The sound of laughter pulled Jess from her thoughts and she turned to see a few small groups of children tottering down the sidewalk in their costumes, parents in tow. With a grin, she turned back towards the house, wanting to make sure everything was perfect before the first trick-or-treaters arrived. In addition to the large, cottony spider web that stretched over the left side of the porch, there were three jack-o-lanterns resting on the steps and to the right of the front door, a scarecrow sat on a wooden stool in front of a cauldron. Four fake tombstones had been arranged in staggered rows on the right side of the yard and a formless ghost fluttered underneath the lowest limb on the tree.
"Gotta light the jack-o's and turn the cauldron on and we're in business."
Flipping a switch at the back of the plastic cauldron resulted in a cascade of smoke bubbling over the side. She'd left a box of matches just inside the front door and lit the candles inside the pumpkins, before retreating inside to check on the rest of her preparations.
"Candy bowl is full and by the door, dinner's in the oven, movies are ready and the front porch is set. Just gotta grab my costume."
When Derek was home, they would coordinate their costumes and go all out, but that year she had decided to simply borrow one of his lab coats and an old stethoscope. The coat sleeves were so long they nearly covered her hands, but she pushed them up enough to pull out her phone and take a selfie in the bedroom mirror. Texting the photo to Derek, she returned to the living room just as the doorbell rang.
"Trick or Treat!" Two boys and a little girl were standing just outside the door, the little girl eyeing the cauldron curiously.
"Look at you guys! A fairy, a wizard, and - what you supposed to be, Sweetie?"
The little boy in front of her rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically, "I'm an insurance agent like my dad!"
"Oh of course you are. How silly of me. Well you all look great! Here you go." Dropping a couple candy bars in each other their plastic bags, she stood and waved to their parents before going back inside.
She had time to pop in a movie and take the lasagna out of the oven before the next group of trick or treaters arrived. To her delight, her house proved a popular stop throughout the evening. Ghosts, goblins, princesses and pumpkins gradually shifted to zombies, vampires and a variety of pop culture figures as it grew later and the kids got older. One young "corpse" was especially entertained when she used her stethoscope to "listen" to his chest and announced that she couldn't find a heartbeat.
In between trick-or-treaters, she watched her favorite scary movies. First The Conjuring, then Friday the 13th, and finally Hocus Pocus so that she could actually sleep that night. By quarter to midnight, the street had emptied and Jess went out onto the porch to blow out the jack-o-lantern candles and turn off the cauldron. The street really was deserted, the decorations on each yard and house the only indication that it wasn't any other night. Inhaling the scent of coming rain that drifted through the air, she turned to go inside when a flash of movement caught her eye.
A short figure, it had to be a child, was walking down the middle of the street.
"Hey there!" Jess called coming down the steps. "What are you doing out so late?"
The figure turned towards her slowly, the nearest street light illuminating the young face. It was a little girl, Jess guessed she couldn't be more than nine, dressed as Elsa from Frozen and so pale that she was practically transparent.
"Are you lost, Sweetheart?" Jess paused at the edge of her yard. The little girl nodded. "Well, why don't you come inside and we'll call your parents?"
The girl's eyes were wide with what Jess would have sworn was fear, and for a moment she thought the child might run away. Squatting down so they were closer in height, she held out her hand.
"It's alright. I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to make sure you get home safely."
At the mention of home, the girl hung her head and took a few slow steps forward. Jess opened the small gate in the fence and guided her inside to a seat on the sofa, reaching for the remote to mute the television set.
"Can you tell me your name? What about your phone number?"
Jess waited as the child slowly lifted her head and spoke in a soft, light voice, "Home. Safe."
"Yeah, that's what I'm trying to do. Get you home safe. Can you tell me where that is?"
The little girl didn't reply, but took the remote off the coffee table and pushed a few buttons. Jess watched her for a couple minutes - waiting to see if she would say anything - then reached over and squeezed her knee, shocked by how cold the skin beneath her fingers felt. How long must the little girl have been outside? And why was such a young child on her own?
"I'm gonna get you some water, okay?"
Pulling a blanket from the back of the couch, she draped it around the frail shoulders before walking into the kitchen. Jess knew she needed to call the police, though she wished she knew more about the little girl before she did so. Keeping one ear open for any sounds from the living room, she looked up the non-emergency number on her phone and dialed, filling a glass with water as the line rang.
"Augusta PD, is this an emergency?" a robotic-sounding male voice answered.
"Hold please." There was a click, followed almost immediately by another and the robotic voice was back. "This is APD."
"Hey there," Jess tried to keep her voice low, so the girl wouldn't be alarmed, "my name is Jessica Miller. I'm a teacher at Gracewood Elementary School, and I found a young girl wandering around my neighborhood. I think she must be eight or nine, but I haven't been able to get her to tell me her name or how to get in touch with her family."
"Can you describe the child to me?"
"Like I said, I think she's eight or nine. Blonde hair. She's dressed as Elsa."
"Where are you now, Ma'am?" There was a sudden edge to the operator's voice.
"At my home." As she was relaying her address, there was a suddenly blaring from the living room that made her jump.
"And is the child in the home with you?"
"Ye - " Jess took a step to the side so that she could see into the living room. The movie had been stopped and the set turned to the news and unmuted. She couldn't see the back of the little girl's head, but maybe she had lay down. Taking a few steps towards the living room just to check, her heart dropped. "Oh no."
"What is it Ma'am?"
"The child is gone?"
"She was just here!" Jess whirled towards the door, but it was closed. She would have heard it open and close if the child had left, wouldn't she?
"Ma'am, have you been drinking?" The dispatcher was beginning to sound doubtful.
"No! She was just here, I swear!"
Jess ran to the front door and threw it open, but the street was just as deserted as it had been when she'd stepped outside before. Inside the house, the blanket was in a pile on the couch cushion.
"She was just here." Jess repeated, as much to convince herself as the man on the phone.
"Why don't you call back if you find her?" The irritation in the dispatcher's voice brought heat to her cheeks.
"Yeah, all right."
"You have a good night, Ma'am."
"Yeah. Yeah you too."
She searched the house, wondering if maybe the girl had gone to the bathroom or hidden in one of the bedrooms, but there was no one else in the house.
"It just doesn't make sense," she muttered.
It was only then, standing behind the couch, that the words the news anchor was saying penetrated the confused thoughts whirling through her mind.
"We have some tragic news regarding the disappearance of eight-year-old Kaylee VanWick. Kaylee was first reported missing this afternoon. Her mother arrived to pick her up from school and the second grader could not be found. Staff at Craig-Houghton Elementary School claim that their safety protocols, requiring students to be signed out before they are allowed to leave the premises, were followed, but have been unable to identify the adult that Kaylee left with. A statewide Amber Alert was issued and the VanWick family offered a reward for any information that might lead to the recovery of their daughter. Sadly Kaylee's body was found just two hours ago. Police are still investigating the crime scene and will be holding a press conference tomorrow morning where they will release more information."
To the right of the frowning anchor's face was a picture of the missing child. When she saw it, Jess's heart stopped.
"That's not possible."
More images of the missing girl flashed across the screen. One with her snuggled between her parents on the couch, one of her blowing out birthday candles, and one of her posing in a halloween costume - dressed Elsa from Frozen.