Gerard tied a piece of thick blue string to his front garden gate, looping it over and over until the knot was so convoluted, he would need scissors to remove it in the morning.
Satisfied with his work, he cast a cursory eye over his bungalow. All the curtains were drawn, the midnight-blue front door was unadorned, no jack-o’-lanterns, no wreaths, nothing that could possibly be taken to mean he was participating in the fiasco.
The front door creaked shut as he hobbled inside. He never used to hobble, he used to stride and march, his three children waggling to keep up. He also used to dance, but only with Anne.
She would have hated this bungalow with its open-plan style. As he entered, their well-loved green sofa sat on the right, facing the incongruous plasma TV (a gift from his eldest son, Edward), and the kitchen units were nestled against the far wall so he could look into the back garden whilst doing the washing up. What the room lacked in furniture, it made up for in photos that fought to fill every scrap of wall available. Some were framed and properly positioned, but most were loose, overlapping and stuck on with blue-tack. A lifetime of memories. Anne’s deep-brown eyes gazed out at him from all sides, her wide smile warming him throughout the winter months.
That’s all he needed and all he wanted.
There was also something about the visibility of his single perfectly-made bed in the left-hand corner that made people uncomfortable. Not so they didn’t come round, but just enough that they only had the one cup of tea and a couple of biscuits before leaving him in peace.
He stooped down at the kitchen sink and grabbed the WD-40. After carefully oiling the hinges of the front door, he moved it back and forth with one hand, grunting at the absence of that infernal squealing. If only he could put some of it on his own joints!
Not one for cooking – Anne had been the chef of the family – he contented himself with baked beans on toast for dinner, using the blackened bread to soak up the red tomato juice. Darkness descended and he flicked from one channel to the other, determined to find something other than blood, guts and inane high-pitched screaming. Fat chance.
Scary stories were the last thing he wanted; life was frightening enough as it was. Earlier that day, Gerard had fought the hard lump in his throat as he said goodbye to his grand-daughter, Alina. She was so frail, swallowed by her bedsheets with tired blood-shot eyes pleading for someone to make it stop. Too young to fully understand what was happening to her, but too old not to be afraid.
“What did the doctors say this time?” he had asked Liz, his daughter, who stood in the hallway with her freckled arms wrapped around her thin frame. The gaunt face a mirror-image of Alina’s.
“They still don’t know,” she said, “She has to go back for more tests next week.”
He had stepped forwards and gathered Liz up in his arms like when she was a little girl. Her head rested on the spot just below his left collarbone, where he could kiss the top of her blond curls and murmur calming words into her ear. It’ll be alright. She’ll pull through. Don’t worry. He used to say those things, but not this time. This time, he kept those lies to himself.
Anne would have known what to say.
Presently, he abandoned his TV for the evening, poured himself a small tumbler of Macallan 18-year-old single malt (a gift from his other son, David) and thumbed open Birds of Prey by Wilbur Smith. It wasn’t the first time he’d read it, but it was one of his favourites. Full of swashbuckling adventure and some quite raunchy romance, rekindling memories that made his neck blush. Memories he needed reminding of since there were no photos. He smiled and fingered the scar on his left temple, a remnant from the time he had suggested photographing one such occasion. The spiced orange and citrus notes of his Macallan whisky permeated his senses as he began to be transported away, to—
Thud! Thud! Thud!
He almost choked on his whisky; the banging was so fierce the whole room trembled. Who the hell was that?! Children dressed as werewolves and pixies who didn’t understand which houses to leave alone?
He eased himself up off the sofa and ambled over to the front door, wishing all the while that he could stomp in a rage. He had barely opened the door when it was thrown all the way inwards and four – five - six! black cloaked figures hurried past him.
“Hang on a minute!” he said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You can’t just –”
“Calm yourself, Gerard.” The slightly slurred voice came from the hooded figure closest to him. A handsome young woman with full crimson lips, her wide smile revealed startlingly pointed teeth. “We aren’t going to hurt you.”
He could feel his throat constricting, but he’d be damned if he was going to stutter or stammer before these intruders. “What do you want?” he asked, “And, how do you know my name? – Hey! Stop that!”
Another figure had flung open his kitchen cupboards. He could see fur-covered hands pawing through the shelves, “Do you have any biscuits?” it asked.
“Of course, I have biscuits!” he said, trying not to look at the wrinkled snout protruding from the hood, “Top right-hand shelf.”
It grunted thanks before taking a seat on his sofa, in his spot.
“Who… what are you?”
The woman flashed those peculiar teeth. “A mis-match of ghouls, I suppose,” she said, placing one elegant long-fingered hand on her chest, “I am Elena; a vampire.” She gestured towards the creature destroying Gerard’s biscuit stash. “That is Jojo; a werewolf. Those three, Sinthe, Abby and Faye, are witches… and Bob is a ghost.”
Gerard nodded and closed the door. “That’s all very interesting,” he began, “But, why are you in my house?”
The three witches turned to face him. They were all almost beautiful, with bulbous sweaty noses dominating otherwise smooth, youthful faces. In unison, they chanted:
Come All Hallows’ Eve, at fall of night
If you disbelieve, we shall take flight
Adorn your home with blue string tight
For ghouls who wish to pass the night
Their final words fell into an eerie silence, broken only by the incessant crunching of biscuits.
“So,” Gerard said, “You’re staying the night?”
“Unless you disbelieve,” Elena said, one perfectly-shaped eyebrow raised in challenge.
Gerard tilted his head to one side. He shouldn’t believe, being an adult, but he did. He always had. Ever since, at the age of nine, he’d seen a real-life monster rear up out of the playground sandpit. He knew that there were things that lurked, watched and hunted. That’s why he couldn’t watch horror films or abide by Halloween.
“Are you going to kill me?” he asked abruptly.
“NOoooooooo.” Bob, the ghost, moaned at him. His fat, middle-aged face and black cloak quivered like a hologram, making the room behind faintly visible.
“Do not worry, Gerard,” Elena said, “Let me explain. Come dawn, we shall depart. There are hundreds of children and young adults skulking around our homes: crypts, forest groves, graveyards, alleyways and such. It’s… annoying. We prefer to lay low on Halloween and return to our business another night.”
Gerard nodded. “I suppose that does make sense.” He closed the door and walked over to his sofa. He looked at Jojo, with his hairy, snouted features and said, “That’s my spot.”
“Oh, uh, sorry.” The werewolf shuffled over, making room for Gerard, who returned to his rightful place. He picked up his tumbler of smooth Macallan and took a large gulp. At least Jojo hadn’t shown an interest in his whisky. He glanced over at Bob, who was inspecting the wall of photos.
“So, how long have you been a ghost, Bob?”
“I see.” Sensing that a conversation with Bob would get irritating very quickly, he left it there.
The witches were huddled in the corner to the left of the TV. They seemed to be exchanging something back and forth between themselves, all the while muttering and grumbling.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You have questions,” the witches chimed.
“Obviously,” he said, “This isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence.”
“Then ask, Gerard.”
“And will you answer?”
“Maybe we will and maybe we won’t.” Their subsequent laughter bordered on hysterical.
“Oh, ignore them,” Elena said. She swept round and perched on the arm of the sofa next to Jojo. Her cloak rippled oddly in the still air. “They’re always like this. What do you want to know?”
Gerard looked at the witches. “Do you cast spells, brew potions and all that?”
The witches threw their heads back and guffawed. Elena leant forwards. “No, they don’t do that.”
Gerard ignored their howls of mirth and tried to think. One of the witches passed something to the left and whatever it was, upset the recipient who tutted loudly.
What could he ask? What did he really want to know? Suddenly, the obvious smacked him in the throat.
“Can you heal?” he asked, “I mean, can you heal a human person who is sick?”
“No,” the witches said, pausing from their shufflings to look up, “We don’t do that.”
Gerard sunk back into his sofa. The brief tingle of hope quashed until Jojo turned his crumb-covered snout towards him.
“You could always ask the gnomes,” he said.
“Yeah, the gnomes that live at the bottom of the garden.”
“You must be joking.”
“No. They’re right good at healing, they are.”
Gerard frowned, “I’ve never seen any gnomes.”
“Have you ever looked?”
In answer, Jojo turned away and ripped open another pack of chocolate digestives.
A little while later, at the bottom of the garden, Gerard scoured the bushes and flowerbeds which ran along the small stream that divided his garden from the neighbours. Moonlight lit the ground well enough, but he saw no gnomes.
“Uh, hello?” he ventured, feeling more than a little ridiculous, “Gnomes?”
No response. The image of his grand-daughter’s hollow, miserable little face loomed stark in his mind, making him stay. He waited for a long time. Shifting his weight from one foot the other to stop his accursed legs from seizing up. Eventually, a low voice grumbled up at him from the water’s edge.
“What do you want, old man?”
Gerard found the owner of that voice easily enough. It was a stout female gnome (he assumed from the dark-green dress), about a foot tall with a collection of daisies in her thick brown hair.
“Hello. Thank you for coming out, as it were,” he said. The gnome folded her arms and glared. “Right, straight to business, of course. Uh, I wanted to know if you could help my grand-daughter. She’s very sick and the doctors don’t know what—”
“How much do you want her healed?” the gnome asked, the whites of her eyes flashed in the moonlight.
“I want it more than anything. Please,” he said, “She’s only seven.”
The look the gnome gave Gerard made his stomach squeeze. It was like she was weighing him, testing him with her eyes.
“You have lost someone you loved,” the gnome said, “Who?”
He hesitated, but answered. “My wife, Anne.”
Chill wind ruffled Gerard’s hair. He found himself holding his breath, waiting for the gnome to speak again.
Finally, it said, “I will heal your grand-daughter—”
“Oh, thank you!”
The gnome held up a palm to stop him, “I will heal your grand-daughter and in exchange… you will give me your memories of Anne.”
The roiling in Gerard’s gut sunk to his bowels. “W-What?”
“Such happy memories,” the gnome said wistfully, “Precious. As rare and unique as pearls washed upon the shore.” Her voice shifted, becoming harder. “I want them.”
Gerard stared. “You can’t have my memories!”
“That… is the price.”
A tingling of pins and needles began at his toes and swept up throughout his entire body. Give up his memories of Anne? He couldn’t! There had to be another way, but the gnome’s tone didn’t leave a sliver of room for debate.
He glanced back towards his home. A hollow sickness seeped into his gut. How would it feel? Would his heart ache at all when he gazed upon her photos? Would his head hold a whisper of doubt?
The woman who had blessed him with three beautiful children? Who had stood by him, even when she knew he was in the wrong? Who, after his father’s death, had dragged him out of his self-pitying black hole and made him laugh again?
The woman who had comforted him on her deathbed?
Erase her from his mind… He couldn’t do that.
“Time’s up, old man.” The gnome’s voice cut through his thoughts like a brutal whiplash. “What’s it to be?”
Gerard wiped the tears from his chin and asked himself the only question he had ever really needed to ask.
What would Anne do?
Gerard held open his front door and said his goodbyes to his guests shortly before the sun made its appearance. The three witches swept out first, muttering to each other and laughing. It was an oddly pleasant, tinkling sound. Jojo followed; grunting his goodbyes.
Then Bob. “Fareweeeeeeeell.” Annoyingly, his moan seemed to hang around for a few minutes after he had gone.
Elena was last to leave. She kissed him on the cheek, her fangs brushing his skin in a most unsettling manner, and whisked out, her cloak flapping around her svelte frame despite the absence of wind.
Finally, Gerard closed the door and surveyed the room. It looked not much different to how it always looked. These monsters, apparently, were very, very tidy. Elena’s teacup was washed and drying, upside-down, next to the sink. Jojo had hoovered up any and all crumbs. The witches had stayed in their corner the entire night. Upon inspection, he found a small circular disc on the carpet with the letters P, O and G inscribed over an orange flame. He decided to keep it in case it was an important witch talisman.
He looked in his cupboards and sighed. “I’ll need to buy some more biscuits.”
A few hours later, once he had calmed down from the night’s excitement, he laid down on his bed and closed his eyes, when—
Thud! Thud! Thud!
He leapt up and strode towards his front door, only realising when he touched the doorknob that his joints were not crying out in agony as usual. He had barely opened the door when it was thrown all the way inwards and Alina, with her golden hair flowing behind, hurtled into his legs.
“Grandad!” she shrieked, “I’m better!”
He gaped and bent down to pick her up, shifting her round to sit on his left hip. Her little freckled arms wrapped around his neck and her head found the soft spot of his shoulder. His eyes met his daughters, Liz, who stood dumbfounded in the doorway with tears streaming down her face.
“Come here,” he said, reaching out to her with his free arm.
She came and he squeezed them both close, his heart threatening to burst right out of his chest. He kissed the top of Liz’s blonde hair and his eyes roamed over the photos on the wall adjacent to the door. There was him holding Alina as a new-born. His two sons, Edward and David, grinning stupidly on a fishing trip from when they still lived at home.
“It’s a miracle,” Liz said into his shoulder. Her words stuttering out between elated sobs.
Another photo, this one was of him with his arms around a fine-looking woman with thick golden tresses and soft brown eyes. Abruptly, he noticed that this woman was in a lot of the photos. Odd. He looked very happy. Vaguely, he wondered who that woman was and why he had his arm around her.
The thought flickered once, twice… and was gone.