I could barely remember the last time Beverly and I celebrated Halloween. Between churches frowning on pagan traditions, and rumors of poisoned candy and razor blades, we started skipping the holiday over the years, and just focused on Thanksgiving instead. The last time I asked my wife about giving out candy for the kids, she refused, explaining she could never look at costumes of witches and devils after she heard horror stories of children kidnapped for ritual abuse. She was afraid of attracting evil spirits. I never asked again.
The most my wife let me do was help our church set up the pumpkin smashing contest for the kids the weekend after Halloween. It was the pastor's idea, to gather leftover pumpkins from around the neighborhood, and let the children destroy them with wooden bats to create compost for the community garden. Of course, a lot of the pumpkins had to be cut up in advance, as we found out the first year we tried this with small children.
This year, Beverly surprised me when we met with our church group the Sunday before Halloween to plan the festivities the weekend after. Following tradition, the women's ministry had baked gingerbread and pumpkin cookies to give out as treats. Normally, Beverly would help with the baking but would never take any home to give away. This time, she asked me if she could.
"Rob, I know we don't usually do this. I want to make sure I have your blessing. But there is a man who just moved into the neighborhood. He recently went through a bitter divorce. And he has one little girl and some boys he's trying to raise by himself."
"No need to explain, my dear," I assured my wife. I knew she didn't believe in Halloween, and divorce was even more upsetting to her.
"The pastor tried to reach out to Mr. Brandon," she continued, "but he wouldn't respond or talk about it. I'm just worried about that poor girl! I can only imagine how much she misses her mother. If he takes them Trick-or-Treating, I want to have something nice to give those kids."
"That's fine, Bev. We can give out cookies this year. Like the other families."
I smiled and hugged Beverly, and promised I would help her. We held hands and prayed. She had her heart and mind set on making the Brandon family feel welcomed. I could only thank God for blessing me with such a wonderful wife, who always thought of other people.
* * * * *
On Halloween night, poor Beverly was nervous. It had been too many years since we last did this, and she was afraid to say the wrong thing.
"Honey, just let the kids say 'Trick or Treat.' Then you offer them cookies. You don't have to say anything about their costumes. Just say hello to their dad."
"That's what I'm afraid of. Please, Rob. Make sure you don't say anything about church, unless he says something first. The pastor said he didn't want to preached at. Okay?"
"You worry too much, dear. I won't say anything. I'll shake the man's hand and you let the kids grab some cookies. Are you sure they're coming?"
"Yes, Diane down the street helped the kids dress up. Only cute costumes, nothing spooky or creepy." Beverly arranged the cookies on a plate and placed them by the door.
An hour later, we finally heard knocks and shouts of "Trick-or-Treat!" Bev and I opened the door to find a tiny ballerina, a baseball player and a pirate on our front porch, escorted by Mr. Brandon and an embarrassed, sulking teenaged boy who obviously resented being there.
The same way Beverly just melted for the little ballerina, I immediately felt compassion for the oldest son. Divorce was always hard for boys at that age, and too many fathers ignored it, to avoid confrontation. I remembered my promise to Beverly I would be tactful.
Bev bent down to offer the plate of cookies to the little troopers. "What a beautiful ballerina! Here, would you like a pumpkin cookie? Or gingerbread?" The little girl smiled shyly, while her brothers quickly snatched up the treats.
"Wow! I see we also have an All-Star World Series champ. And a mighty pirate!" I added, smiling at them. I reached out my hand to Mr. Brandon, but he was too busy wrestling with his sons.
"Stop grabbing, Kevin, that's rude!" He looked at me, exasperated, "Sorry, the boys, they're -- Stop it, Justin! Or I'll whoop you when we get home! I'm sorry!"
"Don't apologize. It's Halloween. The costumes, the candy. Kids go a little crazy." I turned to Mr. Brandon, struggling to find the right words. "That's nice of you to bring your kids around. I know it's always more trouble than you plan for. I respect you taking the time."
The teenager hiding behind them was secretly poking Justin the pirate, teasing and scaring him.
"Stop screaming!" their father yelled.
"Hey, young man!" I said, trying my best to keep things pleasant. "Since we've got a baseball player here. Would you like to join us in smashing pumpkins this weekend?" Beverly shook her head a little and nudged me, but I kept going. "Each year, we let the neighborhood kids take turns bashing leftover pumpkins with bats. It makes a big mess, but we recycle everything for the local garden. Would you like to join us?"
Mr. Brandon asked, "This isn't with your church is it?"
"Well, that's one location where the Pumpkin Patch drops off their donations. But if you're not comfortable around that crowd, we can smash some on the corner lot, by the garden. It's all going to the same place anyway."
"Sure, I'll think about it," said Mr. Brandon, eager to herd the kids back home.
As they walked away, I watched his teenaged son lingering behind, keeping his distance.
"The kids will love it! Even your oldest son." I called out to Mr. Brandon. "Teenagers are welcome. He's invited, too!"
Mr. Brandon stopped dead in his tracks, turned around and glared at me.
"What did you say?"
"Uh, I was just saying this isn't only for the young children. The parents join in the fun. And the high school volunteers who set up the pumpkins and manage the bats. Your older son is welcome to come if he wants."
"How dare you!" Mr. Brandon came charging at me and landed a hard punch that almost broke my jaw.
The last thing I remember was slamming my head against the gate, where I passed out to the sound of Beverly screaming and kids crying.
* * * * *
I awoke in the hospital room, barely able to see out of my left eye.
Beverly and her church friends had formed a prayer circle at the foot of my bed. They all looked relieved.
"Sweetheart, it's going to be okay. You didn't know."
"Where -- What happened?" I had a pounding headache and felt dizzy.
"The pastor explained that Mr. Brandon's wife fled the state with their oldest son. She lost control on a bridge, and her car dove into the river." Bev held my hand. "The mother survived, but their teenage boy drowned. I'm sorry, honey, I told you not to say anything!"
"But I saw him! I saw his son standing there. He was --"
Beverly became flustered, and ushered the church women out of the room. "I'm sorry, Robert's still a bit delirious. He's babbling the same nonsense. Let me get the nurse."
The crowd parted, leaving behind a young man, lurking in the corner.
I felt my face turn white as a ghost, before I lost consciousness again.