“Now this,” I said, “is a piece of strange candy.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” Carol answered. “Jenny saw it too, and she said no way she was eating it. She put it right back in there. Said you could have it.” Carol smiled faintly, saying if you dare. A faint smile was about all she could muster this Halloween. It had been a tough year.
“Hm,” I replied, looking more closely at what I’d just taken from the bottom of the bag of treats. It was a small hand, five-fingered and ghostly-white. It sparkled, as if covered with small grains of sugar, but instead of being grainy it felt very smooth. “Weird,” I said. “Do we know where we got this from? A haunted house, maybe?”
“No idea.” Carol cuddled up next to me on the sofa. “I do know it’s not wrapped, so I wouldn’t let anybody eat it.”
“Beware the poisoned hand.” I dropped it back into the bag, which our eight-year-old had decorated with colorful stickers of bats, black cats, owls and witches’ hats. Jenny had done her work this night, dressed as a fairy princess along with a brigade of neighborhood zombies, ghouls, Batmen, vampires and walking pumpkins, and gone on to bed pretty much exhausted. Leaving me and her mom to prowl through the trick-or-treat bag, after Jenny had taken out the best “loot”, as she called it, the little individually-wrapped candy bars, the small bags of M&Ms and the Reese’s cups. Smart kid we had. She put everything she wanted in a smaller plastic bag on the kitchen counter, and I was sure she’d know if anything was missing. Therefore, no looting through the “loot” tonight.
We lived in a small town. Not too small. But a place where there were not too many streets and not too many houses and not too much stuff to get in the way of life. It was a good town, and we lived in a good neighborhood. I had gone out with my wife and daughter tonight and walked many streets in search of the prime loot. Of course you always got strange candy that seemed to collect at the bottom of the bag, and no kid would touch it and no adult ought to. That was part of Halloween, as well.
It had been, as I said, a tough year. It seemed colder this Halloween than it did last year. A little darker too, and for sure it was quieter. Maybe I should say, more solemn. The family photographs in our house were diminished. It was the way things were.
Carol and I talked about our day tomorrow. A Saturday. We could take things easy. We had nowhere to go, and no particular plans. It was supposed to rain early in the morning, and get chilly. Winter was on the way. I thought of bleak days and trees without leaves, and I realized I wasn’t ready to think about those things yet.
It was nearing midnight. Time for my horror movie. Yes, that’s what I did near midnight every Halloween. I watched a horror movie, usually an old one, from my DVD collection. And I had a bunch. Carol was tired, and she wasn’t a big fan of horror movies anyway, so I kissed her and said goodnight and when she went upstairs I looked through my collection for the flick I had in mind. There it was: “The Haunting”, the first version, 1963, in glorious and spooky black-and-white. I’d seen it before, several times. Last year I’d watched it. It was familiar.
I put the DVD into the player, settled back on the sofa and started the movie. I heard the wind blow past the house, like a keening cry. Yeah, suitable for Halloween all right. Except Halloween was almost over, all the witches and black cats and ghoulies and ghosties of the night either already asleep or headed to dreamland.
When did I reach into that bag and take out the sparkly white hand?
I don’t remember, but I did take it out. Maybe it was when you got your first view of Hill House, that beautifully gothic pile of fright. Maybe. But I was suddenly looking at the strange candy, and I wondered who had dropped it into the bag. I sniffed the thing.
Eleanor…Eleanor…it knows my name…
A great movie. But I had the strange candy in my hand—a ghostly hand in my hand—and I begin to think that not only was it beautiful, with its long tapered five fingers…and that it smelled good…but that maybe it tasted good too. Not poisoned at all. Just…different. Unique. I’d never seen anything like it before. So…well, I mean, I didn’t want to die, but…still…it was just a piece of candy, shaped like a hand. What was the big deal?
Man or mouse? Kind of ridiculous to be afraid of it. I mean, I wasn’t afraid of it. So I bit off one of the fingers first. Crunchy. Definitely…peppermint? No, not quite. Minty, yes, but…a little cinnamon in there too? Oil of clove? I thought it tasted like something I’d had a long, long time ago: a pair of wax lips. The taste of that was memorable, and yet…unexplainable.
No harm done. I ate the whole thing. Crunchy crunchy. Now back to the drama, and the black-and-white fright, and the suffering spirit in Hill House who walks alone.
It was nearing midnight, as I said. Midnight, almost. A few ticks of the clock away, and then Halloween would really be gone.
Only I was no longer in my living room watching a movie on the bigscreen.
Had it happened when I blinked my eyes? Had it happened when I looked away from the screen to check the clock? Had it happened sometime between the beats of my heart?
No longer in my living room. I was standing up, in another room. Was there in this room the faintest odor of gunsmoke? It was a small room, like a hotel room. Dark. Sad. The windows had their blinds pulled down and closed tightly, like old wounds stitched up but not quite healed. The windows looked like they had not let light and life into this room for a long time.
And sitting in a chair before the darkened windows and the closed blinds was a man, about middle-aged, with gray hair. A lock of hair hung over his forehead. He glanced at me, incuriously, and then away again. His face remained in shadow. He spoke.
“Tell Maggie that she is not responsible,” he said. “Tell her I loved her, but that I was weak. I could say it was the gambling. I could say it was a lot of things, but it was really only me. She tried to be strong for both of us, and that was a blessing I failed to see. Tell her that, will you? Tell her she is not to blame for what I did…that was my choice. She is Margaret Ballard, at 309 2nd Avenue South. Will you tell her?”
“Yes,” I said. Or think I said. Margaret Ballard, 309 2nd Avenue South. “Yes, I will.”
And suddenly the man and the chair and the room and the windows were no longer there. Suddenly I was standing in the middle of a curving road, with woods on either side. The wind moved around me; the wind pushed me forward in the dark. And standing there on the side of the road were two figures, a young boy and young girl, maybe sixteen or seventeen. They were holding hands, and they were smiling because it was obvious they were very much in love.
“Hey!” said the boy, who had curly dark hair and the fiery look of someone who enjoyed being a rebel. He looked like he could bite the wind in two and ride on a shooting star. The girl hugged close to him, and he pulled her even closer until they were nearly one.
“Tell my Dad and Mom we’re okay,” he said. “It was over real quick. I was dumb. Took that curve way too fast. But we wanted to get away, so bad. So awful bad. Tell them not to be so sad, okay? Tell them we were in love…really in love, like everybody says you ought to be. We couldn’t just stop being in love, could we? And tell them we’re still in love, and we’ll always be. Okay? That would be Mike and Ann Frazier, at 622 Overbrook Road. You tell them, and you should tell Lynn’s folks too. Gerald and Kathy Bannerman, at 4114 Millview Street. And tell them…maybe they could bring some flowers out here? You know…just to show they heard us.”
“All right,” I said, as the wind moved and turned and twisted, and I saw behind the lovers the scars on the trees and the foliage still broken. 622 Overbrook Road and 4114 Millview Street. “I’ll tell them,” I said, and I saw the boy kiss the girl’s forehead very tenderly, and I thought yes you will always be in love.
And then I was standing on a corner downtown, and as far as I could see the traffic lights were green and yet there was no traffic for it was nearly midnight on Halloween and our town was asleep.
Except for the little boy with light brown hair who stood in the street, and he smiled at me as if he knew me, and maybe I knew him too but I couldn’t quite remember his name, and maybe I had heard about this tragedy sometime in May.
“Tell my mom I’m sorry I can’t be the man of the house anymore,” he said. “But tell her she has to stop being so alone, and she’s got to get out and find people again. It didn’t really hurt when the car hit me. It was an accident. I was running where I shouldn’t have been. But tell mom I want her not to give up, and not to want to follow me. Tell her I said I always wanted to fly in a plane, but I never got to…but…when it happened…it kinda felt like flying. Tell her I love her, and I said go live your life like you should. And to go start playing bingo again, maybe she’ll win another jackpot! She’s Mary Waldron, at 744 Clark Street. You’ll have to knock real hard, ‘cause she stays in the back.”
“I will,” I told him. 744 Clark Street. “Yes,” I said.
Just that fast the scene changed. I was standing in Midpoint Park, with all the lamps aglow, and an old man with white hair was sitting on a bench. He was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with a thin black tie. He looked very comfortable, his legs splayed out before him.
“Well, well,” he said, and he sighed. “The passage of time. Oh, mercy me. What a life!” He glanced at me and smiled. “I had me one,” he confided. “Now you go tell Teddy that his Grandpa Nicholas will never forget him. Not a chance of it! He’s such a young boy, he doesn’t understand, and John and Amy have tried to make him understand…but he just can’t. You go tell Teddy that his Grandpa Nicholas wants him to grow up and throw that football a country mile. The football I bought him. He’ll know. Tell him I’m happy, that I miss him and I’ll never ever forget him, and things are as they should be. Oh, tell John and Amy I think they ought to put the swimming pool in, Teddy would like that. John and Amy Phillips, at 2561 Viceroy Circle. Got that?”
“I do,” I answered. 2561 Viceroy Circle. Got it.
“You’re done now,” he told me. “Go home.”
Did I wake up? Did I come to? Did I return home from a far distance?
I don’t know, but I was sitting on my sofa looking dazedly at the image on the bigscreen. Halloween was over. It was maybe seven ticks past midnight. I heard the wind keen again outside, and I guess I thought I ought to get to bed, because I turned off the TV and the DVD player and I went upstairs. And on my way up I was thinking about this weird dream I must have had…and I remembered vividly all the addresses I was given, and what to say, and to whom. And weird…very weird…was the fact that I could still taste the strange candy in my mouth, and I thought I had met one spirit for every finger of the ghostly hand.
I checked in on Jenny. She was sleeping soundly, even as rain began to tap at the windows. I looked in on the empty room, just out of habit. Then I went to the bedroom where Carol slept, and I was so weary I only took off my shoes before I got into bed. She nestled her body up beside mine, she sighed, and I got to sleep a little while later after thoughts of the ghostly hand and the five spirits had faded.
What time did the doorbell ring? Early. Just after seven o’clock.
I got up, and Carol sat up groggily and said, “Who can that be?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I staggered out when the doorbell rang again, “but whoever it is better have a real good reason.”
At the door was a slim man in his thirties, with reddish-blonde hair and a determined expression. It was raining lightly, and he was wearing a dark green jacket that made the water stand out in beads on its fabric. His glasses were flecked with rain.
I opened the door, a little bit angrily I guess, and I asked, “What is it?”
“Yes. Can I help you?” I was aware of Carol coming up behind me, yawning and rubbing her eyes. A great way to start a lazy Saturday, for sure!
“Mr. Parker,” said the man, “she says she’s doing just fine. She says she’s not hurting anymore…and she wants you to know how much she loves you. Both of you,” he added, glancing at Carol.
“What?” Carol asked. “What?”
I listened. I was stunned. But I listened.
“She says it really was no big deal when she lost her hair. No biggie, she said. And…she wants to say to Jenny…she hopes she got some good loot.”
“What?” Carol grasped hold of my arm. Tears bloomed in her eyes. I put my arm around her, and held on tightly. We became one, as I had seen two other lovers recently become. In that moment we needed each other, and maybe I needed her more than ever.
We had lost Beth, our fifteen-year-old, to cancer in April. A sad springtime. It had been a tough year. Our family photographs were diminished by the loss of one member.
“That’s all, I guess,” the man said, and he started to move off the porch and down the steps to the street where his car was. But he paused in the rain and looked back, and he said, “Oh…one more thing. She says…where she is…no one walks alone.”
Then he went on to his car.
And I let him go.
I let him go without asking if from his child’s bag of treats he had taken last night a piece of strange candy, and thought it smelled like peppermint. I let him go without asking if he had eaten that strange candy, and what number on the fingers I might have been.
He got into his car, and drove away.
Carol had her head against my shoulder, and she was shaking because though she didn’t understand, she knew we had just received a message from a spirit who had come through some kind of passageway between the living and the dead on Halloween, with the intent not on fright but on freeing their loved ones from pain, sadness, loss and doubt, if just a little bit.
I remembered very clearly all the addresses I’d been given, and all the messages I had to deliver.
I kissed Carol’s forehead, very tenderly. We will be in love forever, I thought.
Then I told her I had some places to go visit this morning, some very important places, and she and Jenny could go with me if they liked, and on the way I would try to explain as best I could about the night and about the strange candy.
And I would tell her as best I could about the mission I had been called to complete. A mission of the heart and the soul. A mission of mercy. A mission of love that knew no boundaries, to five different houses on five different streets, in our little town where there was not too much stuff to get in the way of life.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert McCammon. All rights reserved.