I read the text from Marcia for the third time, just to be sure I’ve read it correctly.
Can I ask you a huge favor?
Sure, what’s up?
Are you free on Halloween? Can you take Harrison trick-or-treating? I sprained my ankle and I’m still in a boot, and Phil just found out he has to work.
I roll my eyes. Phil always finds some way to avoid holidays. When we were kids, he'd often fake a stomachache as soon as his Christmas presents were opened so that he could ditch church and family brunch. And last Thanksgiving, he claimed that he and Marcia needed to visit her family and wouldn't be able to go to our parents' house. Turns out, Marcia told her family the same thing, and they spent the whole day at home. Harrison is the 7-year-old son, my nephew, and because his parents are so flighty, I barely know him. My most vivid memory of him is at age three, running naked around Marcia and Phil's house during his own birthday party.
If Marcia is asking me, she must be desperate. Aside from the fact that we don't speak outside of family gatherings, I’m not really the babysitting type. It’s not that I hate kids. I think they’re wild, hilarious little creatures. But I like kids when I’m walking my dog and they point and say, “Puppy!” or when I’m at work and they get stuck waiting with their parents, so they talk to me and tell me the details of their day. Being left alone to care for a child is a completely different situation. What do kids eat? How often do they need to drink water? If I forget to turn off the TV channel I was watching, will I corrupt them forever?
I weigh my next response and go with:
Wouldn’t he rather go with his friends?
Can you take him or not?
I don't want to do this, but it's not like I have anything else to do on Halloween, and I really should try to get to know my nephew a little bit. At the very least, maybe he'll give me some idea of what to get him for Christmas this year. So I say:
Yeah, sure. What time should I come over?
She replies with an all-caps thank you and a lengthy list of instructions that I assume she already had written out for whichever poor soul finally agreed to take Harrison. Harrison is allergic to peanuts. Of course he is.
Halloween is just a week later, on a Wednesday night. I ditch happy hour with my coworkers to get to Marcia’s house by 6:30 PM. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to wear a costume, so I threw a witch hat in the backseat this morning. When I pull up to Marcia’s house, I retrieve it and place it on my head. Examining my reflection in the rear view mirror, I deem myself sufficiently festive.
Moments after I ring the doorbell, a little boy with a shock of dark hair opens the door and immediately screams, “Mom, there’s a witch at our house!” Marcia comes hobbling into view and relaxes when she sees it’s only me. She eyes the hat, and I take it off before she can say anything. I’m glad I didn’t try a more elaborate costume.
“That’s not a witch, Harrison. This your aunt Courtney. You know her. She’s going to take you trick-or-treating this year!” Harrison’s bottom lip starts to quiver, and Marcia bends down to say gently, “Remember what we talked about?” He nods and stares at his feet for a few seconds before lifting his head and baring his teeth in the most forced smile I’ve ever seen.
To keep myself from laughing, I say, perhaps a little too brightly, “I like your costume!” I have no idea what his costume is. It involves a lot of cardboard.
“Do you hear that, Harrison? Courtney said she likes your costume.”
“Thank you,” Harrison says through his fake smile. “I’m a washing machine.”
“Well,” I say, looking at Marcia, who nods at me with wide eyes, “That is just the best washing machine costume I have ever seen.” It’s also the only washing machine costume I’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t feel relevant.
Apparently, I’m convincing, because Harrison quirks a real smile and hops off the front step, waving to his mom and saying, “See you later! Love you! I’ll bring you lots of candy!”
“Courtney, remember! No peanuts!”
“Got it! Bye!” I call over my shoulder as I rush to catch up to Harrison, who has bolted down the lawn and is nearly in the street already. He stops at the sidewalk and waits for me. He looks both ways, I confirm the absence of cars, and we set off at a quick trot. He is surprisingly nimble for a kid wearing a cardboard box, and I’m slightly winded trying to keep up.
“So, where are we headed first?”
“641 Sycamore Street,” he says matter-of-factly. “They don’t get a lot of visitors because they don’t put up decorations, but they always have the best candy.”
“All right then, which way is Sycamore Street?” Harrison points forward. Good enough for me.
As we walk, Harrison’s empty basket thumps against his cardboard costume. We pass families, groups of kids with a few haggard looking parents, and some rowdy teens, but no one else as lonely as us. “Hey Harrison,” I say, “I’m really happy that I get to hang out with you today, but can I ask you a question?”
He looks at me warily. “Okay.”
“Well, I know your mom hurt her foot and your dad had to work, but why didn’t you want to go out with your friends?”
Harrison is quiet, and I start to worry that I’ve committed a grave mistake. I try to recall Marcia’s list of instructions. Was there a bullet point about this? “I don’t have any friends,” Harrison finally replies.
I know how most people would respond to that answer. They would insist that he’s wrong, and that he has plenty of friends. But I know better. After all, I had no other Halloween plans. When I had to leave happy hour tonight, I apologized profusely, but the truth is that I was relieved to get out of there, and my coworkers didn’t really care anyway. They said okay and went back to their conversations. They didn’t even ask where I was going. If those happy hours weren’t the only thing on my social calendar, I doubt I’d go at all.
So instead of telling a 7-year-old boy that he’s wrong about his own lack of friendships, I say, “I’m sorry. That must make you sad.”
Harrison must have been expecting a different answer because he suddenly stops walking and looks to meet my eyes for the first time since we left his house. “It does.”
“You know what?”
“I don’t really have friends, either.”
“Nope. And you know what else?”
“I’d like for you to be my friend, Harrison. Will you be my friend?”
He beams, and all traces of his earlier grimaces and forced cheer disappear. “Yes. I’ll be your friend.”
I hold my hand out for a high five, and he smacks his little hand against mine. “Cool. We’re friends now. Hey, is this the house you were talking about?” I point to the street sign, Sycamore, then to the house number, 641. Harrison nods vigorously and bounces on his feet. We walk up the driveway. He wasn’t kidding—the only decoration is a wreath of leaves on the door. But the porch light is on, and when Harrison knocks on the door it opens right away.
“Trick or treat!” Harrison chirps.
The elderly woman at the door smiles down at him and says over her shoulder, “Bill? Did we order a new washing machine? One’s just been delivered!” Then she winks at Harrison, and he laughs, thrilled that she guessed his costume.
A man, who must be Bill, joins the woman at the door and squints his eyes down at Harrison. “Paula, is it just me, or does that washing machine looks a lot like our very best trick-or-treater?" Harrison giggles again, and Bill straightens up. "Washing machines don't giggle! I think that's our Harrison, although he's much taller this year. And who’s that with you? I didn’t know you had a sister!” As he speaks, his wife dumps an entire bowl of candy in Harrison’s basket.
“This is my friend, Courtney,” Harrison says, with a hint of pride in his voice. "She doesn't have a costume."
“Hi!” I say, peeking out from behind Harrison. “Are you sure it’s okay for Harrison to take that much candy?”
Paula waves off the question. “Harrison is usually our only visitor. He can have as much as he wants.”
Harrison chats with Bill and Paula for a few minutes, about school and how his vegetable garden is coming along. Eventually I manage to get them to bid goodbye, and when we reach the bottom of their driveway, I say, “Harrison! You lied to me!”
There’s a hint of panic in his voice as he says, “What? About what?”
I cross my arms in mock disappointment. “You said you had no friends, but I think I just met two very good friends of yours.”
His brow furrows in thought, and then he breaks out into another smile. “I have three friends!”
“You sure do. Where to next?”
He points across the street to another house with a light on and a lone pumpkin on the step. “Let’s go to all the houses that don’t get many visitors. Maybe we can make a few more friends.”
“That is an excellent idea, Harrison.” He gives me a thumbs up and grabs my hand before stepping into the street. My chest fills with a tenderness for this child I barely know, and I’m silently grateful for Marcia’s random request, for rescuing me from a hollow night out. I don’t know when I’ll see Harrison next, or if I’ll ever again cross paths with Bill and Paula or the other nameless residents we’re about to visit, but for tonight, we are all a little less lonely.