The first notice went up on the public bulletin board in the front of Himmelreich’s Hardware store on Willow Street on the first day of October.
By order of Mayor Stephenson Brown, Orchard Grove Community Trick or Treat Night will commence on October 31st from 6-8pm.
Underneath the blocky bubble letters was a crude, childlike drawing of a jack-o-lantern, which gave the whole thing such a decidedly unofficial look that most people wondered if it was just a prank. And then Mayor Brown himself went on the KLTV News at Six and confirmed that Orchard Grove was, in fact, bringing back Halloween.
The old timers in town were beside themselves. Bill Poland, the owner of Buried Treasures Second Hand Shop, was the first and loudest of the protesters. He hung a hand painted banner across his store that proclaimed “Save Our Children, Ban Halloween,” and within a day, signs just like it were everywhere and in greater numbers. Two weeks before Halloween, Bill and a small faction of the older Orchardians attended a city council meeting and demanded to be heard. Bill made an impassioned speech about the preservation of the town’s history, and the destruction to our way of life if we allow our children to put themselves in such danger as collecting candy from strangers.
It didn’t work. It was an election year, after all, and Mayor Stephenson Brown desperately needed something big and flashy to earn back the younger voters’ good favor. Since he’d cut all funding for the Calabrese Social Hall Restoration project and dashed all of their millennial hopes of a viable concert venue, Ole’ Stevie wasn’t a fan favorite lately. But the old timers could riot in the streets for all he cared; he was going to provide spooky fun for all the little boys and girls and their parents who voted in local elections.
It was the Monday evening before Halloween. Steve had promised his wife Alice that he would be home by 7:30 so that she could attend a Paparazzi Jewelry Party at Donna French’s house. Steve didn’t ask what constituted a Paparazzi Jewelry Party, but he knew better than to be late coming home.
At 6:52 PM, Steve left his office and waved to Estelle Parson, his elderly secretary. Estelle stood with her arms folded, staring daggers at him.
“What?” he asked, quickly rubbing his nose in case of any clinging indiscretions.
“You know very well what,” she spat, turning around to fetch her coat from the rack.
“But... I don’t.” Even after a full four year term in office, Steve couldn’t quite understand Estelle. Some days she was perfectly pleasant; doting on him like a concerned grandmother. But often she was sullen and mean for seemingly no reason, snapping at him for trivial things and blatantly mocking him to folks waiting for meetings with him. He always figured it was best to ignore such behaviors. He had no choice in the matter, anyway; Elaine was a government employee, and she came with the office.
“You’re makin’ a big mistake, Mayor. Bringin’ back trick or treating.” Estelle wagged a finger at him. “You don’t know what you done.”
Steve sighed. “Oh, Estelle, you’re not one of those anti-Halloween people, are you?”
Estelle huffed. “No I ain’t. I got grandkids. I like fun. I take ‘em trick or treatin’ every year down in Dupont.”
“Well, won’t it be nice to take them out around here? You won’t have to drive anywhere!”
“Oh, come the 31st, I’ll be drivin’ as far away from this place as I can get. You mark my words.”
With that, she disappeared into the evening, making sure to slam the door extra hard behind her.
Steve chuckled as he fished around his pockets for his car keys that were decidedly not there. By the time he’d torn his desk apart to find them it was 7:05,, and he’d just barely make it home in time. Which is why he groaned audibly when he realized that Bill Poland had just walked through his office door.
“Hiya, Mr. Poland.” Steve plastered on what he hoped was his Sympathetic Bureaucrat smile and extended his hand. Bill did not reciprocate.
“Mr. Mayor, I came one last time to implore you to-”
“Mr. Poland, I’m going to stop you right there. You made some very good points with the town council, but I’m afraid that we’re going ahead with our trick or treat plan.”
Steve made a move towards the door once again, but Bill grabbed his arm and held tight.
“I’m warning you, Mr. Mayor. Trick or treating is the worst thing that could happen in this town.”
It was such a dramatic statement that Steve wasn’t sure how he was supposed to react.
“Mr. Poland,” he began.
“You can call me Bill.”
“Ok. Bill,” Steve said. “I’m running late to meet my wife, so unless you have a good reason to be here, I must ask you to leave my office. You can call Estelle in the morning, and I’d be happy to schedule a meeting.”
Bill Poland looked defeated, but there was glint in his eye that Steve couldn’t quite place. Steve softened and sighed.
“Bill. Level with me. Why is this such a big deal? It’s just some harmless fun.”
Bill shook his head and stared a hole through the red shag carpet. “It ain’t harmless, Mr. Mayor. There’s a reason we banned trick-or-treat an’ all that in Orchard Grove all those years ago.”
“And it’s because it causes trouble. It gets all out of control and come November first, there’ll be such a mess that it’ll take weeks to recover.”
Steve had a sudden realization. “Oh! You’re worried about property damage! Of course! You're worried that the teenagers will get crazy and destroy your store!”
Bill looked blankly back at him. “Well, somethin’ like that, yeah.”
Steve clapped a hand on Bill’s shoulder and gently nudged him towards the door. “Bill, I can assure you that safety is our number one priority. We’ll have a police presence, constant supervision, the works. Nothing will get out of hand. You’ll see. It isn’t 1974. Kids have technology to distract them. They have far less time to go make mischief.”
Bill turned, shoulders slumped and head down, but then paused in the threshold.
“How old’s your daughter now, Mr. Mayor?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Millie’ll be seven next month.”
“You takin’ her trick or treatin’?”
“Of course! She’s actually a first timer. We’re usually at my wife’s mother’s place in Hastings around this time of year.”
Bill whipped around to face Steve.
“Why ain’t you goin’ this year?” It wasn’t a question. It was a demand.
For a moment, Steve was taken aback at Bill’s sudden brashness. “Alice’s mother is in Colorado right now, Bill. Her sister is ill.”
Something flashed in Bill’s eyes. Steve couldn’t be sure, but he could have sworn it was fear.
“Ah, well,” Bill sputtered. “That’s a shame. Please tell Alice she’s in my prayers.”
With that, Bill was gone. Steve checked his watch. If he sped home, he’d only be 10 minutes late. He only hoped Alice would find Bill Poland’s visit an acceptable excuse.
Even though the campaign to re-ban trick or treating in Orchard Grove had somewhat subsided throughout the next week, the signs remained up. By Halloween Eve, the palpable excitement over decorations and costumes buzzed like electricity through the chilly town streets. Carol’s Five and Ten had to restock their candy aisle four times already, and the Salvation Army had been picked clean of anything costume-worthy. Alice had the forethought to take Millie to the big box Halloween store at the Dupont Crossings Mall. She was the Mayor’s daughter after all, so naturally she should have the nicest costume. That evening, Steve took his family to the little pizza place just off the town square, mainly so that he could keep an eye of the volunteers from the Orchard Grove police detail as they marked off the parade route. In a booth by the front window, Millie chatted excitedly about her brand new Cinderella dress between bites of pepperoni pizza.
“Daddy, it even has a hoop in it so it’s all puffy! And it twinkles when I spin!”
“That’s great, Princess.”
“I can’t wait for trick or treating. Mayleah and Kylie and Dax and everyone else are gonna be there! Are you gonna let me eat aaalllll my candy, Mommy?”
Alice winked at Steve. “Only if you share it with me only and not Daddy.”
Steve glanced out the window and watched as Police Deputy Eric Eldleson leaned against a lamp post and lit a cigarette.
“Daddy, why wasn’t our town allowed to have Halloween before?” Millie sipped her soad, wide eyed and expectant.
Steve shook his head. “I really don’t know, Princess. That’s just how it’s been. One time a very very long time ago, the people decided that they didn’t want it anymore.”
“Rachel Kline mentioned that it had something to do with an incident that happened years ago, but she didn’t really know the exact details,” Alice added.
“Yeah,” Steve nodded. “It was 1974. I guess a bunch of teenagers damaged a lot of property. You know, typical mischief night stuff. I’ve read some of the files, but they’re pretty vague. It cost an arm and a leg to rebuild, though.”
Millie sniffed. “But that was like, 100 billion years ago! Why couldn’t the kids now have Halloween?”
“Dunno, Millie. But hey, make sure to remind your friends that I’m the one who brought it back!”
Millie nodded and continued to busy herself with picking cheese bubbles off her pizza.
Just then, something curious caught Steve’s eye.
“Hey, Alice,” he said, pointing across the street. “What happened to Buried Treasures?”
The windows of Bill Poland’s Buried Treasures Second Hand Shop had been completely covered with layers of plywood, and a thick, padlocked chain covered the front doors.
“I don’t know,” Alice shrugged. “You tell me.”
“Aren’t you the mayor, Daddy? Shouldn’t you know?”
Alice laughed. “Yeah, Steve. Aren’t you the mayor?”
Halloween day started gloomy and damp. By nightfall, though, the skies had cleared, giving every little ghost and goblin and their nostalgic parents a canopy of bright stars and, as an added treat, a bright full moon. Main Street glowed under orange and yellow string lights, homemade cobwebs and fake rubber bats. Crispy leaves and a hint of smoke from a distant bonfire scented the night air and as Steve breathed it in, he couldn’t help but smile. This was what it was all about; Halloween night in a small town, and he had made it happen for everyone. The parade had been a roaring success, and now the streets were flooded with Spongebobs and Freddy Kruegers and Dorothys and Wicked Witches. Many of the businesses along the square remained open past their hours to provide candy bags and hot cocoa. Nimble Winery had even set up a booth with mulled wine for the grown ups.
The notable exception to the merriment was the absence of Bill Poland and the rest of his Anti-Halloween crew. Since he had boarded up his store yesterday, three other businesses had followed suit. Now Halloran’s Hardware, the Yarn Barn and Biddy Bell Bakery were boarded and chained just as tightly and unceremoniously as Bill’s place had been. The old timers were nowhere to be seen, and for that, Steve was relieved. He didn’t think that they would intentionally ruin the night for the Orchard Grove children, but the thought had definitely crossed his mind once or twice.
Millie tugged on Steve’s hand. “Daddy! Look! There’s Gwen and Violet! Can I go say hi?”
At the same time, Police Chief Denny Brand tapped Steve on the shoulder. “Mr. Mayor, can I have a quick word?”
“It’s okay,” said Alice as she grabbed Millie’s hand. “Go be the Mayor. We’ll be right over there.”
Alice gave him a quick peck on the cheek and allowed Millie to drag her down the street towards Gwen and Violet Anderson.
Steve had known Denny for years. They’d worked together at the county courthouse nearly 15 years ago when Steve and Alice relocated from Colorado. He was a great guy; it was actually Denny who convinced Steve to run for mayor in the first place. So as soon as Steve looked at Denny’s expression, he knew something was wrong.
“Den, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Steve clapped him on the back.
“No pun intended, right Mr. Mayor?” Denny’s voice wavered.
“Denny, what’s going on?”
Denny shook his head. “I really can’t explain it. But there’s something inside the antique store.”
“Something? You mean someone?”
“I don’t know. The Patterson kid, y'know, Dave’s son? He heard sounds coming from inside and assisted that I come right over to check it out. Well, I get over there, and…” he trailed off as if couldn’t think of the right thing to say.
Steve smiled. It was hard to try to be sensitive when the man that stood before him was so obviously shaken, but this seemed like a gross overreaction to noises in a store.
“Den, I’m not sure what you’re telling me here. You heard some noises coming from Bill Poland’s place? At most you may have to worry that some teenagers broke in there, but it’s probably just Bill walking ar-”
“You don’t understand, Steve. I went over there to have a look around, and I heard...I don’t know how to explain it. It wasn’t a human sound. It was this awful screeching.”
“Rats. Maybe it was rats. Have you called Bill?”
Denny sighed and looked at his feet. “That’s the other thing. Bill’s daughter called this morning. The one that lives in Tuscon, you know? She says she’s been trying to call Bill since Wednesday and it’s going straight to voicemail.”
“Well, you know, sometimes people get busy.”
“Steve. Bill calls his daughter every day. Especially now that she’s gonna have that baby any day now.”
Steve nodded. “Okay, you have a point. You want your guys to break in? It’s your call, man. You don’t need my permission to do a welfare check.”
Denny shook Steve’s hand and went back towards the square, presumably to round up a few of his boys. Steve began his short trek to find Alice and Millie. But as he passed by Buried Treasures, he stopped. The air seemed to shift as Steve leaned against the plywood-covered window while straining his ears.
It was barely audible, but it made Steve jump.
Whhheeeecchhhhhhh whhhheeeeeeeeeccccchhhh ccchhhhhh.
“Hello?” Steve called.
But that time he was met with silence.
Steve suddenly realized how ridiculous he was being, and he chuckled out loud.
Too many late night scary movies, Mr. Mayor, Steve thought to himself as he gently tapped the wood before continuing down the street.
He froze again, but this time he noticed that the small service entrance door to the far right side of the boarded-up window was slightly ajar. How hadn’t he noticed that before?
Without thinking, Steve pulled the door open even more and walked inside.
He immediately regretted it and turned to leave.
You’re being ridiculous, Mr. Mayor, Steve thought to himself. It's just a dark store. No need to get weird.
He pulled his phone from his breast pocket, turned on the flashlight, and swept it around the room. Nothing seemed amiss; Bill had always been meticulous about the arrangements of his so-called “displays,” and his overly crowded collections of antique furniture, pictures and dusty trinkets stood just where they always had.
“Hello? Bill?” Steve called. It seemed as though the stillness inside the store swallowed his words. “Bill? It’s Mayor Brown. Are you here, sir?”
Steve listened for another moment before finally deciding that nothing here was out of the ordinary.
Something rushed out of the darkness, bringing with it a sudden smell that gagged him. Steve unintentionally screamed, and his phone clattered to the ground. As it did, his flashlight glanced off a giant, hunched shadow hovering behind a wingback chair. Suddenly, the wwwheeech sounds engulfed him.
“W...w….wha….” But Steve’s blood had turned to ice, and he could no longer make words. The smell was getting worse, too, slowly shifting into a rotted, metallic stench that made Steve think of roadkill.
“I warned you,” something growled into the darkness. “I tried to tell you, Mr. Mayor.”
What am I saying? Steve thought, momentarily coming to his senses just long enough to think clearly and retrieve his phone. This is insanity!
“Yessss, indeed,” a second voice hissed. “We warned you.”
Steve raised a trembling hand and shined the light in the direction of the first voice.
He screamed so loudly that he was sure they’d be able to hear him in DuPont. He screamed and screamed and was sure that he would never stop. Towering over him was a thing; not quite a man, but much more than a beast. It was covered in patchy fur stained red, and its face was nothing but hollow, black eyes and teeth that dripped with bloody viscera. Steve could instinctively feel multiple pairs of eyes watching his every move.
He knew them all.
“Bill.” The air around him was suffocating. “What is this?”
The creature did not move. It wheezed as it continued to stare almost pityingly at its Mayor. Finally, it spoke again.
“Only happens once a year. We controlled it for so long, Mr. Mayor. We just sent ‘em away. For their safety. But you... ruined it.”
The Bill Poland creature crept towards Steve. He felt the room closing in on him, and he was powerless to stop it.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Why’d you leave the door open, Mr. Mayor?”
It was the last thing Mayor Stephenson Brown heard before the world went dark.