The night was still and quiet. The street lay empty, cold, and secretive. All the houses had strings of different-colored lights pinned up around their yards, circles of dark yellow, bright white, red-and-green, and blinding blue marked out each property.
The yellow house in the middle of the block was squat but proud. Its eaves hung with spiderwebs, the cracked foundation sprouting little seedlings of spotted yellow madwort and flowering bugloss. The lights hanging from the trees and the tiny cupola at the top of the sagging roof were a bright, cheerful yellow.
Inside, the family had begun their Riot Gear night.
“Okay, Benji, remember your fl—”
“Yes Mom, I know. I don’t ever forget it, I don’t know why you always tell me not to forget it.”
The sandy-haired boy snapped his heavy-duty flashlight to his belt and turned to face his mother. She was wearing aeronaut’s goggles, black pants with the thighs zipped up, and a black jacket. On her hips were fastened a flashlight and two firework sticks.
“Hey, Mom, can you tie my necklace for me, I can’t reach it.” Emilia turned around and proffered her neck for her mother to secure.
“Everybody ready?” the second boy called. He was taller, stockier, and red-headed, and standing impatiently by the doorway. “Come on, guys, it’s getting late.”
He finished tucking his black sleeves into his gloves and turned to do his father’s. The father was balding and his hair color fading, but still retained the same fiery color as his eldest son’s.
“Hey, Lily, did you make sure Rosy was shut up in her crate?” the man shouted down the hallway.
The mother looked up. “Yeah. That stupid dog is going to be the end of the flooring in the laundry room if you don’t do something about it.”
Mr. Brady laughed and rezipped his gloves. Under his breath Toby said, “What are you going to do?”
“Probably nothing,” Mr. Brady replied.
“I heard that!” she called.
Emilia, Benji, and Mrs. Brady joined the other two at the darkened doorway. They all looked at each other and mutually nodded.
Outside the cold ate into a person and hollowed them out, bending them over and pushing them side to side. The darkness was heavy, enveloping, broken only by the bobbing flashlights and occasional string of lights in the trees.
Emilia and Mr. Brady had formed an alliance on the most recent game night, and took their slip of the coded message-book with them to the clump of dark yew trees by the street corner. There they found a hidden curl of branches, settled down, and began decoding. One or the other would pop up now and then to keep watch that no one was spying on them.
Benji and Mrs. Brady looked at each other as soon as Emilia and Mr. Brady melted away into the darkness. The older boy, Toby, set off at a run towards the Potters’ house, strung with the tell-tale blinding blue lights. Mrs. Brady offered her hand and Benji shook it. Her hand came away with his slip of the coded message in it, and she brought it toward her nose in the light of the street lamp.
“Excellent,” she breathed. “We may actually have it this time… of course it depends on Toby having the Crossroads bit and Emilia not knowing who does have the Crossroads bit.”
“Yeah,” said Benji, “Last game night I tried to ask Toby and he wouldn’t say a thing. I bet he has it.”
“What about Emilia?”
They started to run to the end of the street. The corner house was strung with red-and-green lights, which meant they had an alliance with Toby. As they ran Benji replied, “I haven’t asked her. She’s on Dad’s team, though, but she’s a fantastic double-crosser…”
Their words echoed and bounded away down the dark street and liquefied into the air.
Mr. Brady finished decoding his own piece of the message and held it to Emilia’s light. “Okay… it says… Oh! Emilia, tonight’s the night! Give me your necklace!”
She looked down from her sentry position in the yew tree, and ripped it from her neck, whispering, “Are you sure?”
“Keep your voice down!” he hissed excitedly. “Yes, I’m sure. Here, take it, read it.”
She took it from him and squinted at it. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Here, gimme. Let me see.”
He handed the necklace reluctantly up to her, its red-glass bottleneck still unbroken. “Okay but be quick. I want to win this round.”
“Thanks,” Emilia said brightly, hopping down on the other side of the tree. “Bye, Dad.”
“What? Hey!” he cried after her, as she sprinted down the street toward Toby in the Potters’ house underneath the blue lights. He sat back down with a sigh. She had her necklace, the codebook, her slip, and his slip. He patted at his neck and stood with a barely suppressed laugh.
Emilia ran joltingly and Toby met her by the Potters’ magnolia tree, “What do you have?”
“My necklace, his, both slips, and the codebook.”
“Nice!” He slapped her back. “Wow. Okay, we should bring it to Benji now.”
By the street lamp, Benji completed a left-handed scrawl on a piece of paper. “Here it is, Mom.”
“Yeah. Decoded. Done.”
“Hey, it says tonight’s the night for the necklaces!”
“Really?” Benji was surreptitiously unfastening his mother’s necklace as she turned toward the lamp for light. Then in a lightening movement he ripped the paper from her hands and dashed away down the street.
“Benji!” she shrieked. “Come back right now!”
He laughed over his shoulder and muttered, “All’s fair in love and Riot Gear night.”
Toby grasped him by the shoulder under the Potter magnolia tree and Benji handed him the necklaces and the papers. “Great work, Ben!”
Emilia and Toby and Benji crowded around the paper and simultaneously read the half-decoded message. Then they broke all five necklaces together, Emilia breaking three with her bare hands. The red shards fell to the gravel underneath the tree.
Toby read them aloud.
“And that night… but be sure not to… or else…” his voice drifted in and out through the thick magnolia leaves. High above, the stars flickered sharply and the black sky was quiet and empty. The glimmering many-colored lights in the yards reflected into the face of the sky as three children read with greedy eyes.
Finally Toby looked up, checked his watch, and said, “Oh, sorry, guys, it’s eleven. We have to head inside now. Sorry. Next Friday next I bet we’ll finished the round.”
“Best Riot Gear night ever!” Benji said. “I was so sick of the façade with Mom.”
“Tell me about it,” Emilia grumbled as they crossed the street and headed up the block. “I was stuck with Dad for a month.”
Then they turned and sat on the yellow glowing porch, listening to the buzzing cicadas and the purple cabbage leaves swaying in the dark night wind, waiting for their parents to walk home.