Hector Skinner worked by candlelight, but not for the ambience.
If the kids—the monsters the news assured him stalked the night—saw his kitchen light, they would bang on his door. First, they’d demand entry with the authority of a police raid. Then, they’d insist on payment. First, the candy. A plastic pumpkin containing the best teeth rotters he could buy sat on the front stoop. But one thing would lead to another. Then, they’d request cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and money; they’d want it all. And if he didn’t have it? Well, then he’d pay. What price, Hector couldn’t say.
No, he’d not advertise his location with the flick of a switch. But the jack-o’-lanterns were different. Their dim glow promised to ward off the evil of October’s final evening. He’d already covered his front and back porches, back door, and downstairs windows. Only his front door remained, and he’d soon be ready. His wrists ached with the repetitive motions—a small price to pay for safety.
Hector finished the final cut, and the scalp of the pumpkin popped off with a thunk. A clingy, vegetal perfume puffed into the air as he grabbed his spoon and began to dig out Jack’s innards. He hummed along to the soft music of the radio, even though he didn’t recognise the song. If only to still his shaking limbs and stop himself from fleeing to the pantry. He would end up locking himself in for the night.
By the time Hector had hollowed out the pumpkin, night had descended. The streetlights flicked on and cast their yellow glow across the leaf-strewn pavements. It would begin soon. The more minor children, accompanied by bored parents, had finished their rounds. The parents had taken notice of his door sign—PLEASE DON’T DISTURB TAKE A PIECE AND MOVE ON—and obeyed. But the next wave would soon be out in full force, and no mum and dad would be there to keep them in line—little hellions.
Hector snatched his trusty butcher’s knife and stabbed into the space where Jack’s left eye would soon be. His tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth while concentrating on his carving. Then, finally, he popped out the piece, and the first feature of the pumpkin’s face took form.
He lined up the knife for the second eye and touched the tip to the skin of the jack-o’-lantern.
The music on the radio cut out with a click.
Over the airwaves, a man cleared his throat. “This is an emergency notice to all residents of Burnstone.” An official voice snaked through the radio’s twin speakers on his kitchen table. “We have some terrifying breaking news, ladies and gentlemen.” Hector’s grip tightened on the knife’s handle, and his lips pressed together. “We have received a report of disaster from Burnstone Insane Asylum.” Hector’s eyes widened. Burnstone had an insane asylum? How long had they kept that one quiet?
Knife still in hand, Hector turned the volume dial higher with orange-slaked fingers.
“Burnstone Insane Asylum is home to such madmen as Argo Kage, the babysitter killer.”
Hector gripped the butcher knife so tight his knuckles grew white.
The disc jockey took a deep breath. “I regret to inform you—my excellent listeners—that Kage has escaped.”
Hector gasped, and his bladder loosened. He stared at the radio without seeing it.
“Kage, responsible for the deaths of over 100 people, is still at large. Residents of Burnstone are urged to lock all windows and bolt all doors. The police have requested that you do not, I repeat, do not go outside tonight. Report anyone suspicious to the authorities, for they could be the killer.”
Gooseflesh prickled up all over Hector’s body. All the moisture in his mouth evaporated. He had to detach his tongue from the roof like velcro.
“More news is expected soon, dear listeners, as Burnstone PD’s finest are on the case. I’ll keep you updated as soon as I hear more. In the meantime, stay safe out there, dear listeners. And stay alert. The next person to come to your door could be a psychopathic axe murderer who skins his victims alive. Whilst you secure your residences, here’s a song to fit the mood.”
Hector turned the volume down and listened, ears attuned to every creak and groan of the house. No footsteps crept down the stairs, no doors squeaked, and no heavy breaths panted. Instead, he waited, and the microseconds tick-tick-ticked away. His heartbeat pulsed in his eardrums.
Hector let out his held breath, which came out in a whoosh. He licked his lips and returned to his jack-o’-lantern. If anything could keep him safe and frighten the evil spirits away, the distorted flickers from his a—
Clear as glass, a high-pitched giggle from the front door cut his thoughts off.
Hector jumped and almost dropped the knife onto his foot. But, instead, he let out a wounded yip, like the yowl of a dog. Then, he ducked behind the kitchen counter and stared down the hallway towards the door.
Report anyone suspicious to the authorities, for they could be the killer.
Through the frosted glass, the glow of the porch’s pumpkin went out.
His breaths burst in and out in ragged gusts, and his veins pulsed beneath the surface of his skin. “Oh no no no.” Hector didn’t even register that words came out of his mouth. “No no no no.” He looked over his shoulder, through the kitchen door, to the rear porch. Realisation thudded down with the weight of a serial killer’s boot. The ones out there had gone dark too. His rabbit-in-headlights eyes darted here and there. Then, one by one, his window Jacks extinguished into nothingness too. “No.”
Low and quiet, a soft scraping came from the front door. From behind, a schizophrenic tattoo tapped against Hector’s back door. Fingernails scratched at every window. Scree-ee. Scree-ee.
The next person to come to your door could be a psychopathic axe murderer who skins his victims alive.
Hector’s moment had arrived. Hadn’t he always understood that this juncture awaited him down the road? Now he had to ask himself, what kind of a man would he be? The type who rolled over and surrendered? Or would he be the sort to go out swinging?
Hector gritted his teeth. “No.” He reaffirmed his grip on the butcher knife. He clung onto the tool—the weapon—for dear life. He squeezed a hold of it, so fierce the tips of his fingers tingled with pins and needles.
With a deep breath, he crept down the hall towards his front door. Hector felt his way along the wall in the dark. The knife scratched into the wallpaper with a soft, tearing sound.
And still, the sounds persisted. The letterbox clapped with metal hands. A sandpaper groan slithered into Hector’s home. “Let me iiiinnnn.” A phlegmy, watery breath. “Let meeeee iiiiiinnnn.”
His body odour pungent in his nostrils, the back of his neck cold with sweat, Hector reached for the door handle. His fingers trembled, and his hand shook. He licked his lips, now sore from biting.
In the faraway background, the disc jockey laughed and admitted that it had all been a joke. A simple Halloween prank, and—whoo boy—you guys fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. You guys are too easy; you know that?
Not a single word of it penetrated Hector’s ears.
Hector threw the door open with a warrior’s battle cry and thrust the knife into the darkness. He aimed for the space where the killer’s gut would be.
That high-pitched laugh tittered once more.
“Trick or tr—”