“I heard that someone wanted a scary story before bed,” the steps creaked as Papa carried Kaleigh upstairs, “So this is going to be really scary, okay?”
“Okay,” she yawned, “but I’m not really tired.”
She swayed in his tree-trunk arms. Her head rested on his shoulder, his shirt smelled smoky like the grill, like the hot dogs they had for supper.
“Not tired, huh?” he chuckled.
Papa set Kaleigh down onto her bed. She flopped over on her side and her sun-burnt face melted into the puffy, cool pillow. An air conditioner hummed down the hall.
“Let’s see, this happened not too long ago,” Papa began as he turned the bedside lamp off. Kaleigh’s moon and stars nightlight flickered to life. He removed Mr. Barrington, Kaleigh’s favorite stuffed bear, and sat down in the tiny seat usually reserved for tea party guests.
“Not too far from here, lived a little girl named…Carly.”
Kaleigh yawned a second time and rolled her eyes.
Her gaze landed at the window behind Papa’s back. The sun had just sunk down into the bubblegum and sherbet sky. It was practically still daytime. I bet other kids are still up.
Papa planted Mr. Barrington next to Kaleigh and pulled the frilly covers up to her chin, “Carly always wanted to stay up late. Past her bedtime.”
“That sounds like fun.” Kaleigh looked down over the neighborhood, the street lights hadn’t come on yet, but the neighboring porch lights formed an arc that led her eyes out of the sleepy cul-de-sac.
“Sounds like somebody I know,” Papa laughed and checked his watch.
Kaleigh watched for the shooting star headlights of vehicles passing on the main road beyond. The past few nights she had fallen asleep counting the fireflies chasing one another across the front yards. There were no fireflies tonight.
“So, one night, after her mom and dad went to sleep, Carly got out of bed and decided to watch some TV.”
Kaleigh’s eyes had glazed over, her focus snagged on Mrs. Gilinksy’s white wooden fence. Something wasn’t right. Someone had left the gate open. It swayed in a slight breeze. Mrs. G’s not going to like that.
“So, she snuck downstairs, got a snack, even though she had already brushed her teeth, and tiptoed into the TV room.”
Something caught Kaleigh’s attention, past Mrs. Gilinsky’s yard; movement in the woods.
“Oh, and I forgot to mention, it was a rainy, stormy night. The wind was whistling and rustling the trees and stuff outside,” Papa started making wheezy thunderstorm noises.
Kaleigh squinted. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. There really was something moving out there. At first it was just some of the bushes shaking and shivering. Then it transferred to the low hanging branches that reached out, scraping the road like bony fingers. They whipped aside revealing a shadowy mass, a blob with arms, way too many arms, that spilled into the street.
“Carly quietly flipped through the stations.”
A car sailed by, its headlights briefly silhouetted a group of four or five kids. They looked like big kids. No big kids live on our street.
“She found what looked like an old-timey, scary movie.”
But here they came anyway. In the fading light they looked like they belonged on Grandpa’s black and white TV. She couldn’t make out any faces. They seemed to be wearing costumes. Are they Trick-Or-Treaters? They were carrying sticks and bags. They stopped in the street in front of Mrs. Gilinksy’s. Hers was the last house on the curve. They turned their heads one after another toward the open gate. They can’t be Trick-Or-Treating, can they? It’s still summertime.
“Carly jumped every time the thunder rumbled outside.”
There was a big one leading the group, the steps going up to the porch bent as he climbed. With an arm that looked like a shaggy, wet dog, he knocked on Mrs. Gilinksy’s door. The rest of the pack clambered up behind. There was a pause.
“She heard tapping on the window behind her. She thought maybe it was just the rain.”
The group on the porch was illuminated for only a second as the front door opened, then they pushed and climbed and scraped over one another to get inside. The door slammed and all the lights went out. Kaleigh lifted her head and gasped.
“Not trick-or-treaters,” her focus never leaving the window.
“No, no, not them,” Papa yawned this time and checked his watch again, “The tapping came again. Carly quickly turned the TV off.”
Kaleigh dropped back down, her head was heavy on the pillow. She thought about Mrs. Gilinksy’s little white dog Corky. He would bark any time someone knocked on the door, or opened the gate, or walked past the house even. Kaleigh wished she could have a little dog like Corky, but every time she went near him her eyes would get all itchy and she’d start sneezing.
“Carly thought she saw a pale face reflected in the blank television screen.”
There was some movement outside, like darkened fireflies in the night, Kaleigh squinted, she couldn’t quite see them, but she knew they were there.
They were coming closer.
They appeared in the dim light as they hopped over the little white fence. They probably stepped on Mrs. G’s flowers. She’s gonna be so angry. Kaleigh would never make that mistake again.
“The pale face was smiling at her.”
There was a straggler, a small one falling behind, he was dragging something that looked heavy. A big bag. It got caught up on the fence, he had a lot of trouble trying to get it over, the fence collapsed and he shambled on.
“Uh-oh,” Kaleigh whispered, her eyes widening.
“That’s right,” Papa said, “Very…creepy.”
The group staggered across the lawn of the neighboring house, the one with the crazy man who sprays the squirrels with his garden hose. He calls them tree rats. He was home like usual. Kaleigh could see the flashing lights from his ginormous television, he was probably yelling at the baseball players. He was always yelling. The group climbed the steps and crowded in the glow of the picture window.
“She peeked over the edge of the couch…”
Kaleigh could see a little better now, although her eyelids had begun drooping. She blinked. It looked like these big kids just decided to go out like it was Halloween, but they didn’t have any real costumes. No superheroes, no cartoon characters, not even a ghost. She didn’t recognize what they were supposed to be. It’s like they just used whatever sacks and trashy old fur coats and wood scraps and rope that they had lying around.
Papa was still talking, but his voice was fading, he was sitting so far away now…her eyelids were so heavy. She closed her eyes for just a second.
“…Carly hid under the blanket and waited…”
Kaleigh opened her eyes. She didn’t see them leave the squirrel man’s place. But the house was now completely dark. The baseball game must be over. She propped herself up on an elbow and scanned the front yards. The group was now right next door at the Russells’ house. Her view was obstructed by the overhanging roof on the Russells’ porch, but she could see their hairy legs and nasty feet and the shiny trail of foot prints behind them. They must have been banging on the front door; the porch light was vibrating, then it flickered and went out.
“…she peeked out and the front door was swinging open…”
The lights were on, but Kaleigh knew that the Russells were away on vacation. Papa had been feeding Sprinkles, their cat, and Kaleigh had been helping, giving out too many cat treats and cuddles. And then sneezing for hours after. They better not scare Sprinkles. I wish he could’ve stayed here with us.
She wanted to mention something to Papa but when she opened her mouth, a yawn erupted instead. Papa was talking so soft now she couldn’t understand him. The air conditioners hummed. She blinked once. Then again. All went dark.
Kaleigh opened her eyes and sat up in bed. Mr. Barrington tumbled to the floor. Papa’s chair was empty. The orange glow of the streetlight had taken his place and crowded around the rest of her room. There were banging noises coming from below, like wild hammering with tools and thumping with hands. Her tea set rattled on the tiny table.
She heard Papa heading down the creaky steps, he was yelling, “Go away! I’m calling the police!”
The thumping continued. Glass cracked and shattered. Howling tore through the walls and ceiling. Papa screamed. Heavy footsteps exploded, running in all directions. Was the house shaking?
Kaleigh sat there frozen except for her heart, clutching her comforter, staring out her bedroom door. Shadows twisted and writhed in the hallway. A hot breeze tickled her face. The staircase creaked fast.
She slid out of bed on the far side, away from the door. She ducked down as the lumbering shadow crossed by the open doorway. It paused, reflective red eyes scanned the empty space. She tried to quiet her breathing, but it was coming in short bursts. There was a deep gurgling growl. Hungry. The floor squealed as its weight shifted. Away. The shadow moved down the hallway.
Then Kaleigh sneezed.