“The demons there are whirling, and the spirits swirl about.
They sing their songs to Halloween. ‘Come join the fun,” they shout.
But we do not want to go there, so we run with all our might
And oh we will not go inside the haunted house tonight”
-Jack Prelutsky, "The Haunted House"
What went on in that town on Halloween night was secret, and the children were never allowed to know.
Parents sent their little ones to neighboring towns for trick or treating, and teens made pilgrimages elsewhere in the county for Halloween parties. No matter how willful or disobedient or downright sneaky a child might be, on Halloween they obeyed their parents' orders and stayed away.
They knew, instinctively perhaps, that this secret was not for them.
It would have stayed that way if not for the letter. Carol-Anne trembled when she plucked it from the mailbox and read the address. Then she raced upstairs and locked herself in the bathroom, holding her breath as she slid the flap open. A heart-stopping second passed while she read the first few lines, and then she squealed.
Running back downstairs she burst in as her surprised mother and father prepared breakfast and cried, "I got it!" They looked confused, so she held up the letter.
"I got the scholarship," she said. "I can go to Cal."
She waited for their cries of joy, but none came. Instead her parents looked as if she'd sworn at them.
Mom was the first to recover, managing a weak smile before a tentative query: "I thought we were going to talk about it first?"
Dad looked away, like he always did when he was upset and trying not to show it. He'd even gone a little pale. Carol-Anne suddenly felt weak in the knees.
Dad realized his mistake and leapt to cover it. "We're so proud," he said, hugging her with one arm. "Just surprised. We didn't even know you'd applied yet."
"It's wonderful news," Mom added, managing a smile with a bit more life in it. They clucked happily for ten more minutes, sliding in veiled references to further "talks" only every third sentence or so. But it was too late.
Carol-Anne went back upstairs one clunking step after another, locked herself in the same bathroom, and cried very quietly. No matter what they said now, there was no mistaking the look on Mom and Dad's faces: disappointment.
But that’s how it had always been in this town. Of the few kids who left for college every year, almost all drifted back, some within just a few months. It was a small community, and closely knit. Leaving was frowned on.
As far as most parents were concerned, the best thing that could happen to their children was to stay in town, marry someone from the town, and have children who themselves would stay in the town. Anything else was a betrayal. It was their second tradition, after the annual Halloween mystery, and in Carol-Anne's mind the two things were connected.
She'd always thought that her parents were different, or at least that they would make a special exception for her. Hadn't they always told her she could be anything she wanted? And now this.
So two nights later, she decided to get revenge.
Standing at the mirror, she smoothed her mask across her face and arranged her hair. The mask was a simple black domino across her eyes and a long, pointed beak for a nose. She wore a trailing black dress, a spidery black shawl, and a peaked black hat, but elected to leave the broom behind, not wanting it to slow her down. It was very much like the trick-or-treat costumes she'd worn as a child (in neighboring towns, of course). But tonight it meant something more.
She turned to the calendar. It was Halloween, and also her birthday. She was 18; the age of independence. And her first act would be to break the town’s one, sacred rule, which she’d abided by all her life. Every other kid was leaving tonight. But come hell or high water, Carol-Anne would stay.
Outside it was a clear, dark night, with a cold wind and a pale yellow moon. Her brother Thomas, two years her junior, tagged along after her, already dragging his feet. She’d used a combination of bribery and blackmail to coerce him into accompanying her. He'd never actually go through with the whole thing, she knew, but talking him into even this much made her revenge better.
Thomas dressed as the approximation of a ghost, blotchy white makeup covering his face underneath a white hooded cloak. He’d wanted to accessorize with some chains, but she’d vetoed them for being too noisy. He looked so dismal and skulking that Carol-Anne thought the next breeze might blow him away entirely.
"Wait for me," Thomas said, as his cloak snagged on a bush, but Carol-Anne walked on. They took the old wagon road through the woods to ensure that they wouldn't meet anyone, since they were both supposed to have left town hours ago, with the other kids. Thomas ran to catch up and was panting even from the short sprint, a scrawny, out-of-shape ghost too small for his own shroud.
"Why the hurry?" he said.
"We're meeting someone. I don't want to be late."
In fact, she could see him now: Up ahead at the old crossroads waited a man with horns and a bright red cape. As they approached, he leered like a monstrous clown. Of course, it was only a mask, ill-fitting because its wearer kept his glasses on underneath.
Daniel raised it a few inches and smiled. Carol-Anne didn’t smile back, but she did squeeze his hand in greeting. "You made it," she said.
"I told my dad I'd be in Summit tonight."
And normally they would be. Daniel least of all would want to miss the one night a year when even the most overbearing of parents was mysteriously indisposed, and the very young people were left completely to themselves.
But Daniel and Carol-Anne had grown up together, and the promise of the kiss she'd denied him so many times as kids playing in these same woods was enough to lure him away. (Probably he was planning on trying to get even more than a kiss, but it didn't matter as long as he'd be there to back her up when Thomas inevitably lost his nerve…)
Hand in hand, they followed the old road. The woods at night used to scare Carol-Anne, with their skeletal trees and eerie calls of night birds, but now she enjoyed it. If she were a real witch she'd build her cabin right here and spend all night creeping through the black woods, looking for children to steal. The thought made her smile.
Daniel was already taking liberties, trying to get her to cuddle up to him as they walked and whispering whenever he talked, so that his mouth could be very close to her ear. He'd probably make a real move before they even got to the house on the hill, but that was all right. Maybe she'd even let him. Why not, at this point?
Dawdling again, Thomas said, "I hear something out there."
"You're imaging things," Carol-Anne said.
"No, I hear it too," said Daniel, looking over his shoulder. "Someone's on the road behind us."
"Into the bushes, quick," Carol-Anne said. Thomas tried to object but Daniel stuck a hand over his mouth and actually picked him up and dragged him.
All three of them crouched in the brush and held their breath as an eerie spectacle came into view: dozens of ghostly, bobbing lights floating through the forest, a long and snaking parade.
Carol-Anne saw the lights flicker in the wind and realized they were candles. It was a procession of people, each holding a light in front of them, each wearing a handmade wooden mask with the leering face of a bird or a pig or a goat or a wild dog, primitive and lifelike at the same time.
Thomas tugged her sleeve and pointed, and Carol-Anne saw it too: their mother's dress beneath one of the bird masks.
The people walked two-by-two and took a long time to pass. Was it the entire town? They moved as if in a trance, utterly silent. The wood seemed colder, and Carol-Anne suddenly didn't mind Daniel wanting to get close. He squeezed her hand so tight she worried he might lose a finger.
When the rear ranks finally marched by she felt herself relax, but there was a heart-stopping moment when the man at the very end, the one wearing a black goat mask so lurid and strange that it was almost unrecognizable as an animal, paused, and seemed to look straight at the three teens.
Carol-Anne's every hair stood up. Thomas whimpered. Daniel's teeth chattered. Had they been spotted? Was he going to tell the others? Why was he just standing there?
Just when Carol-Anne thought she couldn't bear it another second, the man looked away and walked on. She breathed a quiet sigh. Daniel tugged at his own mask again.
"Did he see us?"
"Can't tell," Carol-Anne said. Then, after a second's hesitation: "Let's follow them."
Thomas fidgeted but didn't object. Daniel looked uncertain, but his footsteps didn't fail to follow hers as she tramped back out of the brush, picking dead leaves and debris from her dress. Her courage had briefly faltered at the sight of the eerie partygoers, but now her resolve hardened again. The entire town had walked within spitting distance of them and not seen a thing. It felt like a victory in itself. She was hungry for more.
They walked at half speed to make sure they didn't catch up to the grown-ups accidentally. The wagon road would take them past the little cemetery (as old as the town, though no one could say precisely who was buried there) and up the back side of the hill. It wouldn't be long now...
Carol-Anne gasped when the house on the hill came into view. It was an aging and cobweb-blighted place, tied to the mysterious Halloween tradition so firmly that the night and the place were practically the same thing, and in fact both went back to the town’s founding.
Every other night of the year it was abandoned except for an evil-tongued caretaker who tended the grounds and composed ever more colorful and startling obscenities to shout at those kids brave enough and curious enough to venture near.
Trying to sneak into the house on the hill (on any day other than Halloween, of course) was a rite of passage for town children, but the few who succeeded were always disappointed to find nothing there of interest.
But now it was different. Every door was open and every window was lit up, from the ground to the Queen Anne turret. The yard was alight with the flickering blaze of a hundred jack-o-lanterns, their jagged mouths and fiery eyes aglow to greet everyone.
Seeing the house so open and bright now was like seeing a dead person suddenly sit up and begin laughing. The masked people looped around the back of the hill to enter the house via the front door. Old Mr. Glover, the caretaker, greeted them. He wore a crisp new suit rather than his usual ratty coat, and a disarming grin rather than his usual scowl, looking a bit like a jack-o-lantern himself.
All this the teens could see from their hiding place near the cemetery fence, but the front and interior of the house were still hidden. That wasn't good enough for Carol-Anne.
She considered the wrought-iron fence, with its pointed spokes. It had been years since she'd actually tried to sneak in, and she didn’t remember the best way. As she was considering the puzzle, Daniel pointed. A few feet along was a gap where the foot of one bar was missing. It would have been impossible to see through the weeds choking the spot if not for a squat black cat sitting there with jack-o-lantern light in its eyes.
The cat scampered into the yard as Carol-Anne bent down; the gap was just big enough to admit her, if she took off her hat. She passed it through the fence bars and prepared to wriggle after it, but Thomas said "Wait!”
Carol-Anne rolled her eyes. The look of wide-eyed disbelief on his face made her sick.
"You're not really going in?"
"Why do you think we came here?"
Thomas squirmed. He didn't really know, of course. She knew Daniel didn’t understand either, and she hadn't tried to explain to either of them beyond daring and boasting and cajoling. Now Thomas' half-heartedness was getting the best of him, as it was always going to.
He backed away a few steps and stammered, "This isn't right."
"Aren't you tired of always doing what Mom and Dad tell you?"
"It's not like that," Thomas said, and now there was a note of real fear in his voice that surprised Carol-Anne. "That thing in the woods with the masks was strange. It felt...wrong. Whatever happens in that house, it's not good for us. We should go back."
Carol-Anne examined her brother's slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. He was pleading with her, she knew, and she even realized that on some level he was right.
But then she imagined what his future would be: He would never leave this town. He would become the favorite child and aspire to nothing to do with the outside world, and settle down with kids of his own, and his greatest fear would be that they would someday be old enough to question life here and perhaps want to leave, as he had never done.
Even now, as he turned back toward the woods and home with his white shroud fluttering in the breeze, his fate was sealed. Part of her wanted to follow him…but then she remembered her anger. Her parents had hurt her. The town had hurt her. She had to hurt someone back.
She turned to Daniel. "What about you?" she said. He hesitated. He had no more stomach for this than Thomas did. But while fear of the unknown was a powerful thing, so was a stupid 18-year-old boner, scarcely concealed by red tights.
Daniel stepped up to the fence with her. She was certain he appreciated the view as she bent over and squirmed through the gap. He followed, and then they were inside.
It seemed as if all the jack-o-lanterns had turned their goblin faces toward them, grinning in welcome and perhaps also in anticipation. Carol-Anne was unsure which way to go so as not to knock any over, but again then she spotted the cat, now perched atop a particularly large gourd, and she headed toward it.
The big old house loomed over them. Carol-Anne had never been this close to it before. She felt giddy and afraid. The cat jumped onto the sill of a certain first-floor window. Carol-Anne peered in and Daniel (after a second) joined her.
Flickering candelabras overflowing with wax lit the inside. Everything was decorated in purple and black, and the house teemed with people. They left their masks in a pile as they came in, and Carol-Anne recognized everyone: Mrs. Bishop, her geometry teacher, Elizabeth Howe, her babysitter when she was five, and Sam Wardwell, the sheriff's deputy. Even Pastor Corey was there. Carol-Anne had never seen him without his collar on.
Tables overflowed with food and drink. Daniel pulled up his mask and squinted. "What are they eating?"
Carol-Anne shrugged. "Looks like pork. Or veal."
"Doesn't look like that to me..." Daniel said. Whatever it was looked pink and glistening. Metal goblets sloshed with thick red fluid. Wine, Carol-Anne assumed, touching her hat. Real witches were supposed to drink blood and eat baby’s flesh on nights like this…she pushed the thought away.
Both teens jumped as the first note of a low, somber tune shook the walls. It was strange music, melancholy but also manic, as if the player might be mad with grief. It got down into Carol-Anne's bones and made her want to dance in uncomfortable ways. Even standing still she couldn't help but tap her toes, and she knew that Daniel felt the same. "Isn't that the church organ?" he said.
"I can't tell," Carol-Anne said, though she was sure it was. That's when she spotted her mother and father. They stood in a knot with three or four neighbors, laughing and eating. Her father took a large swig out of his cup and crimson droplets clung to the corners of his mouth. Daniel fidgeted. "Let's go," he said.
"I haven't seen enough."
"It's just a big party. There's nothing special about it." But doubt tinged his voice. Carol-Anne didn’t let him leave.
"Who is that?" she said. "With his mask still on?"
It was the same man they'd seen on the road, with the black goat mask. He sat at the head of the table, but ate and drank nothing and spoke to no one. Carol-Anne felt her heart turn to ice whenever his eyes passed their window. Had he seen them? If so, he betrayed nothing.
She was so fixated that it was a moment before she realized Daniel was tugging her sleeve again. "What are they doing?" he said.
At first Carol-Anne was not sure what he meant, but then she noticed too: Pastor Corey and Mrs. Bishop stood near the fireplace, arms flung around each other and lips locked in the sort of kiss Carol-Anne didn't think a minister should give anyone.
This happened in plain sight of Mr. Bishop, who for his own part was busy with Rebecca, the pretty nurse from the veterinary hospital, sitting on his lap. Everyone knew Rebecca was an item with her boss, Dr. Toothaker, but if Toothaker minded he didn't object, perhaps because he was paying too much attention to Elizabeth Howe. He had spilled some wine (or whatever it was) on the front of her dress and was attempting to clean it up by licking her cleavage.
Everywhere she looked Carol-Anne saw neighbors, teachers, and friends of the family in twos and even threes, not a one of them with whomever they'd come in with. Eager hands pulled buttons and belts and zippers before long. The window fogged up. All of the candles blazed higher.
Mrs. Carrier, the town baker, sat on Principal Proctor's knee, topless and letting him cover her bare breasts with kisses. Deputy Wardwell's trousers were around his ankles and Mary Bradbury, whom he used to bust on a weekly basis for trying to sneak into the town bars back during her own high school days, was on her knees in front of him. Carol-Anne could not quite see what she was doing, but the expression on the deputy's face left little to the imagination.
Everyone seemed drunk and delirious, but she suspected it had nothing to do with what was in their cups. Mouths gaped and hands wandered and eyes rolled. Naked flesh heaved. The townsfolk splayed out and bent over, crouching and kneeling and gyrating, lips and hands moving on each other.
But somehow this did not surprise her, or seem in any way wrong. The throbbing dirge of the organ pulsed inside her, turning on a hot, wet feeling with no name. Even standing where she was she gyrated her hips in time to the music and ran her hands over her own body, licking her lips.
Daniel tugged at her again and pointed. Yes, there was Carol-Anne's mother, her dress discarded and her legs wrapped around Daniel's father's waist. And for that matter, there was Carol-Anne's father with Daniel's older sister, Susannah, pumping away at her as she bent over in front of him. Daniel was wide-eyed. He pulled off his mask and dropped it. "That does it," he said. "I'm getting the fuck out of here."
"Stay," Carol-Anne said, catching his arm. She wrapped herself around him like a hanging vine. "Kiss me," she said, discarding her own mask too.
Daniel actually tried to push her away. "Don't you want to?" she added.
"Not here. Not with...all that."
"Forget that. Listen to the music. Can't you feel it? This part of you does, I can tell..." She cupped a palm against his hard-on and he just about bit his tongue in half.
"Carol-Anne, there's something wrong with you. With everybody. Let's get you home."
“That’s bullshit. Why don’t you lighten up? It’s a party, after all…”
She tightened her grip on him and dropped to her knees. He was right, of course; there was something wrong. She just didn't care. She pulled the red tights down, revealing his half-erect cock and the wiry thatch of pubic hair around it.
The night was, perhaps, a little too cold to be doing this outdoors, but she let her tongue slither up and down him before swallowing him. She was suddenly glad she'd taken the time to do her makeup, and picked this particular shade of red lipstick before leaving the house, as she liked imagining how her red, red lips must look like wrapped around him like this.
Daniel froze like an animal caught in headlight glare. He summoned some words that might have been a final objection, but they died in a pathetic groan. Carol-Anne grabbed his legs and pulled him as close as he would come.
The light of the jack-o-lanterns blazed around them as she knelt on the hillside, pumping his hard cock in one fist and feeding herself. Ecstatic cries came from inside. She could picture the person each voice belonged to. Her skin tingled and became entirely too hot for these clothes. Daniel throbbed. She could already taste what would come when he lost control, squirting into her and overflowing. The thought turned her skin to fire.
She tried to take off the rest of her costume but it kept getting stuck. She wanted to rip off the rest of Daniel's costume too, and she imagined stripping it away with her nails, as if they were a cat's claws. She liked the image of his young, naked body appearing through the slits as she tore at him. His cock dripped with wetness.
“That’s enough…” he said.
She made a noise deep in her throat: “Mmmmm…”
“Hang on, I’m going to…”
She grabbed the back of his legs tighter and pushed him up against the side of the house. Just a little bit more. She could already taste it. Daniel’s young body couldn’t help giving it to her. She pursed her lips as tight on him as she could. Just a little more…
The front door suddenly burst open, sending a mass of hysterical, naked people out into the night. Daniel jumped and tried to run, and Carol-Anne looked left and right for a hiding place, but when she saw what happened next she forgot the need.
Dr. Toothaker, naked and glistening, ran into the yard and fell to his knees, snorting and lowing and tearing up the ground. He seemed to want to scream, but what came out was a distorted, bleating cry, and now somehow he was changing. His outline shifted and stretched, and his features melted and ran away, like candle wax, and in a few seconds he was no longer a man at all but a great black boar, bristles stirring in the autumn wind.
Rebecca the nurse joined him, falling to the ground in a kind of fit and rising a few seconds later as a sleek black dog. Both of them ran, leaping and gamboling as they disappeared into the woods, and all the townsfolk cheered.
The few still wearing clothes lost them and then began shedding their human bodies too, until a jibbering, bleating, howling menagerie of pigs, dogs, cats, birds and goats filled the yard and spilled out onto the road, into the woods, down into the streets and all through the town, filling the night with their cries.
Daniel's jaw dropped. Carol-Anne felt stunned as well. With a start she realized they were right out in the open with the entire town only a few feet away, and she turned to run.
She would probably have made it, but at that moment the black cat leapt from its perch and flew at her, hissing and claws extended. She screamed and covered her face, and those in the crowd who were still human turned.
Daniel tried to run again but they were on him in seconds. (At least he'd managed to pull his pants up in the meantime…). They seized Carol-Anne a moment later, a large man in a pig mask throwing her down in front of the crowd.
Shocked mutterings traveled from one person to the next as they recognized her. A wind extinguished most of the pumpkin's glowing faces, leaving them belching curls of smoke out of their sharply cut mouths. Daniel hunched over, as if trying to hide, but Carol-Anne looked each person in the eye and was pleased to see most of them flinch. It wasn't until she saw the horror on her mother and father's face that she flinched too, though only a little.
Her father said, "Carol-Anne, you shouldn't be here."
She sat up straight. "You can't tell me what to do anymore."
"No, darling, you don't understand: You can't be here," her mother said, and perhaps it was the urgency in those words that made her turn, just in time to see the man in the black goat mask, its every tiny hair bristling while wetness gleamed at its muzzle, looming over her.
Her heart froze. Something awful was about to happen, she knew, but God help her, she couldn’t imagine what. The man reached out for her, and from the corner of her eye she saw her mother trying to push forward to stop it. It took three men, including Carol-Anne's father, to hold her back…
Then that cold hand touched her cheek ever so gently, and she went cold through and through, and then sleep came to her, and she didn’t resist.
Carol-Anne lay in bed and listened. The downstairs was filled with voices, sometimes talking and sometimes shouting, every few minutes someone new. She'd been in here all day and had no plans to come out now.
Thomas had come to check on her once, half-heartedly (he hadn’t yet told their parents that he'd snuck out with her, although she was confident he soon would), but other than that she'd seen no one. It wasn't until well into the afternoon that her father knocked on the door and sat at the foot of her bed. She glanced at him out the corner of her eye; he looked very old and very tired, in a way she'd never seen before.
After a few minutes in silence as both of them worked up the nerve for the conversation that had to come next, he said, "Last night wasn't something you were meant to see. It's only for the initiated."
"I know the rules," Carol-Anne said.
"It's not just about that. You weren't ready. No one prepared you. You don't know..."
He fumbled for words. Carol-Anne realized he was embarrassed. Not for himself, but for her, as if he'd put her into some kind of compromising position.
"You don't know the history," he said finally. "Our families came here hundreds of years ago to get away from persecution. They used to kill people like us: hang us from trees and burn us at the stake, the whole bit. We wanted a place of our own, with a future for our children. That meant secrecy. Without it, the outside world would destroy u, and our families, our children…"
Here he choked up, and Carol-Anne looked at him in surprise. Then he sighed. "Well, what’s done is done.”
"I guess so," Carol-Anne said. In truth, she understood a bit more than her father supposed. She remembered how the awful music had carried her away. It wasn't hard to imagine an older time, when people would seek out a place to let that music and those feelings grow.
For a second she could almost accept it, and want it for herself...but the feeling passed.
"There are laws,” her father said. “Things we have no say in. If you want to, you can stay and be initiated. There'll be a penalty for trespassing on the rites, but people will forget eventually. We can be a family."
"You can never leave. Anyone who is initiated stays here. We can't risk the outside world finding out about us."
"And my other choice?"
He stood, and the bedsprings groaned. "You can leave now. But if you do, you can never come back. And we'll never see you again. If you come back, we’ll have to deny even knowing you. To keep the secret.”
Carol-Anne had that gut-punched feeling again. Her father turned away, and she knew he was crying. He didn't even look back as he left. Maybe there are rules about that too, she thought, bitter.
The last scraps of autumn leaves clung to the branches of the tree outside. She'd woken to the sight of that tree every day for 18 years. She thought about how old it must be, and how deep its roots must go.
She even had a fever-yellow vision of what similar trees must have looked like in ages past, decorated with hanging nooses and the dangling bodies of people like her mother and father, limbs still twitching as the mob pelted them with stones and prodded them with farm tools—
But no, it was gone now. There was no vision. The tree was just a tree.
She thought about Daniel. Doubtless he'd been given the same choice. She wondered what he would do. As for her, she went to the closet and found her old suitcase, the one she hadn't used since the class trip in the 6th grade.
Deliberately turning her back on the tree, she began to pack.