“It’s Halloween,” Mary told Cook, while Cook boiled caramel and dipped apples and laid them on the table to dry, buttery and glistening in their new candy shells. Cook smiled indulgently and gave Mary a ball of caramel to play between her fingers, and shooed her out of the kitchen.
“It’s Halloween,” Mary told Mr. Evans the gardener, while he stuffed old clothes with hay and sticks and raised his new-formed scarecrows onto their stands, propping them around the grounds like watchful sentinels. Mr. Evans smiled, not quite as indulgently as Cook, and gave Mary a stick and some string to tie around it, and shooed her out of the garden.
“It’s Halloween,” Mary told Mr. Blake the coachman, while he oiled the hinges on the front gate so they would creak like such and not like so when the trick-or-treaters came to call. Mr. Blake smiled coolly and gave Mary an old horseshoe, heavy and red with streaks of rust like drying blood, and shooed her away from the gate, back toward the house.
“It’s Halloween,” Mary told herself, caramel and rust streaking her fingers, the stick shoved lengthwise into her hair so her ponytail held it in place, high and bobbing bright in the autumn wind. Atop the house, crows cawed their delighted caws into the air, and a curtain swayed, pulled aside and let go by an unseen hand. Delighted with herself, with the world around her, Mary tucked the horseshoe into her pocket and raced on.
• • • •
Growing up in the shadow of the Holston house means growing up understanding why people believe in ghosts.
Believing in the ghosts yourself is optional, which is a good thing, because screw that: nobody’s going to convince me that some peeping Casper is hanging around to watch me get my titties out at the end of the school day. Dead is dead. Dead moves on. But the Holston house . . . it makes you understand why people would believe. Why they might even want to believe.
It should have fallen down a long damn time ago, for one thing. It’s older than any other house in town, built when this was nothing but pastoral fields, evergreen woods, and horse farms for rich people. The Holstons had a butt-load of money by old timey standards, and to hear people who knew them before they died out, it was lot of money by modern standards, too. The kind of money that sees a pretty field and says “I should build a giant-ass mansion there for no good reason, just because I want to.”
I shouldn’t be too hard on them, dead old rich people that they are. This town exists because they built here—in case the name wasn’t clue enough. Holston, Oregon: A Nice Place to Live. The motto’s not wrong. It’s nice here. No crime, no drugs, nothing beyond a little teenage mischief that never seems to outlast high school. It’s so nice it makes me sick sometimes, like it doesn’t leave room for anything else. Guess old man Holston got what he wished for when he chose that motto. It’s the rest of us who didn’t have a choice.
When rich people decide they need to build a house, they also decide they need to buy food, and clothes, and entertainment, and all sorts of other good things that make a house a home. So people followed them, one after the other, and then those people built shops to sell their shit out of, and they built houses to keep their shit in, and eventually they turned around and went “shit, I guess I live here now.” And the Holstons loomed above it all in their ridiculous nightmare house, with its black iron grillwork and its red brick facades, and when they started dying, everyone sort of shrugged and figured they’d brought it on themselves, what with building a house that looked like it belonged in a gothic romance.
The last member of the family died long before I was born, but I still know them. Everyone knows them. You can’t grow up here and not know them, because dying wasn’t enough to make them leave. See, they died too fast, some sort of disease that started with the youngest daughter and swept through the rest of them like a wildfire. They didn’t change their wills, and they didn’t dissolve the trusts that were supposed to make sure that hard times for any specific member of the family wouldn’t deprive the rest of them of their precious ancestral home.
No one can buy it. No one can sell it. No one can demolish it. When it falls down—which it will, someday; everything falls down someday—we’ll be able to clear the land and reclaim it for city use, but so far, the annual inspections have failed to find anything, not even water subsidence in the foundation. The place is in perfect shape, especially when you consider that it’s been standing empty and unattended for seventy years. Deer crop the grass so short that it looks mowed. Rain washes the windows, and wind blows the debris out of the gutters.
It’s enough to make you understand why people believe in ghosts. Which, supposedly, the house has: Mary Holston, the youngest girl, the one who got sick first. They say she still walks the halls, lonely, looking for someone to play with her. Forever.
It’s also enough to make the place a beacon for bored teenagers on Halloween night, like the lone candle lit in the middle of a swarm of moths. We don’t have anything else to do out here in the sticks, and the adults have made it clear that while vandalism is a no-no, they don’t patrol the grounds of the Holston house. If they leave it to our devices for long enough, we might be able to bring the whole thing down.
Probably not, though. It’s going to outlast me. It’s going to outlast us all. Except for maybe little Mary Holston, with her ghostly garden growing in the shadows of the house where she died.
• • • •
We gathered outside the gates, a motley gang of bored kids who wanted the opportunity to smash things without anyone catching on. There was Elisa, with her spray paint and her bubblegum and her yellow hair and her tight black jeans, which always seemed like an invitation to stare and then feel bad about it later; Chuck, whose backpack bristled with eggs and jars of liquid that I could smell from where I stood, viscous and obscene; Aiko, with her baseball bat and her scowl that dared any of us to say a damn thing about it; Tyler, who always had bruises on his face and arms, and who never wanted to talk about them, but who could chuck a chunk of masonry with an artist’s skill, taking out windows from twenty feet away. We greeted each other with nods and gruff insults, trying to seem cool, trying to seem casual, trying to seem like our hearts weren’t pounding and our skins weren’t too tight, like costumes we’d already outgrown.
Or maybe that was just me. Elisa had never given any sign that she cared what people thought of her. Chuck’s father actually liked bailing him out of trouble, like he was reliving his own chaotic teen years one crushed mailbox and one egged house at a time. Aiko hated everyone, including her best friends, and Tyler . . .
Sometimes I thought Tyler was hoping we’d get into the kind of trouble that ended with us being sent to juvie for a nice long stretch. Not hoping hard enough that he was willing to go out and start something on his own, but hoping anyway. He’d probably get beaten to a pulp in juvie. Any of us would. At least there, we wouldn’t be related to the people doing the hitting.
“Emily,” said Aiko, in a voice like a razor blade. “You’re late.”
“I was getting supplies.” I held up my backpack. She looked at it with dull disinterest. “Matches. A glass cutter. The good stuff.”
“Why would we need a glass cutter?” asked Tyler.
“Because if we can get into the house before someone calls the cops on us, we could find better shit,” I said.
He thought about it for a moment. Then he nodded. “Cool.”
That the cops would be called was a foregone conclusion. Even with the adults turning a blind eye to our nocturnal activities—as long as we were just participating in the town tradition of trying to trash the Holston place—someone would eventually hear glass shattering or smell smoke and decide we needed to be curtailed, lest we get so excited that we started trashing a house people actually cared about. Teenagers were wild animals, at least in the eyes of the adults who pretended to give a damn about us. We had to be controlled, or else we would run rampant.
Elisa popped her gum. “How are we getting in?”
“Bolt cutters,” said Chuck, pulling them out of his backpack and brandishing them like a sword.
Elisa clapped her hands. Even Tyler smiled. Aiko turned to frown at the chained gates, brow furrowing.
“You see that?” she asked.
“Someone . . .” She paused, and shook her head. “Nothing. Just a trick of the light. Come on. Let’s get this party started.”
The end of the world is probably going to begin with those five words. Let’s get this party started. Just once, I wish someone would say “let’s not.”
• • • •
It’s Halloween, whispered the wind through the eaves, blowing against the pressing dark of the October night. It carried dust and fallen leaves, and as it blew, it left them tangled in the cobwebs, knocking the spiders from their holes, sending them tumbling down into the tangled overgrowth of the flowerbeds like fat black raindrops.
It’s Halloween, hooted the owl in the trees at the back of the property, wings mantled and yellow eyes wide, alert, staring at the house. It flexed its talons against the branch that bore it, splintering wood and bark alike, and when it launched itself into the air, it made no sound, but soared as soundlessly as a shadow.
“It’s Halloween,” breathed Mary, nose pressed to the glass of her bedroom window, eyes fixed on the figures coming through the gate. Five of them this year, five trick-or-treaters coming to play with her, to be her friends, and maybe even—if she was very, very good, and very, very lucky, and if they were very, very clever—to stay for a while.
Oh, how she hoped they would stay for a while.
“It’s Halloween,” she repeated, and hugged herself tight, watching her new friends come.
• • • •
This was the closest any of us had ever been to the Holston house. We were silent for a long while before Tyler finally put voice to what we’d all been feeling:
“There’s some bullshit going on here, and I don’t like it.”
Aiko, wary as a kicked cat, stopped and looked at him. “What do you mean?” she asked.
Tyler gave her a challenging look. “You can’t tell me you don’t see it too.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t see it,” she replied. “I want to know what you see.”
“The house,” he said, and pointed. “This fucking thing is what, a million years old? Older than my house, anyway, and my house has peeling paint on the corners and the gutters always have half a ton of leaves in them. This place . . . there isn’t a broken window. There isn’t even any graffiti. How can this place be in such good shape when nobody takes care of it? And when this shit happens every year?”
“Language,” drawled Elisa, popping another bubble.
“He’s got a point,” I said slowly, and tried not to squirm as their eyes turned toward me. Their combined gaze seemed to have a palpable weight, like a shroud. “Did any of you come out here last year?”
One by one, my friends answered in the negative. Tyler had been running with a different crew then, and had spent the night egging cars from the overpass. Elisa had been out of town following a little “incident” with the girl across the street. Aiko had been in New York visiting family. Chuck had been in some unspecified “somewhere else,” and refused to say more than that. I frowned.
“Okay, so . . . how do we know that anyone has actually done this before?”
“What do you mean?” asked Chuck.
“Maybe they were lying to make themselves sound braver.” It was a believable theory. Most of the kids who claimed to have thrown a rock or taken a swing at the Holston house were milquetoasts, the kind of people who cared more about homework than hooliganism. The real troublemakers always seemed to find something else to do when Halloween rolled around.
If the real troublemakers actually existed. I frowned, trying to find a face to put to that label. I could summon the vague image of a skulking gang of older teens in ripped jeans and leather jackets, hanging out behind the school and trying to look tough enough to take on the entire world, but it seemed like I’d never really seen them, only sketched the shadow cast by the things they had supposedly done. It was weird.
Maybe they skipped class a lot. I shook my head to chase my lingering unease away and turned to Chuck.
“Cut it,” I said.
“Who died and put you in charge?” he asked—but he clipped the chain. It fell to the driveway with a muffled clink, metal striking stone, and the gates, freed from the tension that had been holding them in place, swung majestically open.
The hinges didn’t creak so much as sigh, soft and distant and weary. It was like this was a place where rust had never dared to grow, where time itself played by different rules. We moved closer together without discussing it, taking a little thin comfort from the proximity of people we were sure of. These weren’t the distant shadows of the bad kids we were trying so hard to emulate, to grow up to become. These were my friends, assuming I could honestly claim to have anything of the sort. These were the people I had chosen to have my back while I rode off to become a Halloween legend.
“It’s open,” said Elisa, and popped another bubble. The sound was sharp and bright and somehow pink, gooey around the edges. Only Elisa’s gum could sound like that. “Who goes in first?”
“What, are you scared?” Tyler swaggered forward, passing through the gate and only stopping when he was easily ten feet onto Holston property. He turned to look over his shoulder, smirking—more for Elisa’s benefit than for the rest of us put together, I was sure. Everyone knew Tyler was sweet on Elisa, just like everyone knew Elisa would never do a thing to encourage him. Near as anyone could tell, Elisa was attracted to bubblegum, spray paint, and Elisa.
Which at least put her in a category with me and Tyler, so hey. She had good taste.
Slowly, the rest of us followed Tyler through. Elisa paused to produce a can of red paint from her bag and shake it to life, eyeing the wall around the gate with hungry eyes.
“You go on ahead,” she said. “I’m going to make sure anybody else who comes looking for a little Halloween fun knows that they didn’t get here first.”
“You want a lookout?” asked Tyler eagerly.
Too eagerly. Elisa treated him to a withering look. “Go play, little boy,” she said. “Maybe if you’re fast, you can trick-or-treat at the big house before the candy runs out.” She turned back to her wall, giving the can another shake, eyes far away, already picturing the masterpiece she was going to put there.
Tyler muttered something nasty under his breath as he slogged down the driveway toward the rest of us. Chuck gave him a sympathetic look. Aiko did nothing of the kind. Her attention was reserved for the house, taking in the undented wood and undamaged windows with an artist’s eye. And she was an artist, as were we all. Only our mediums differed. Elisa was a painter. Chuck was a performance artist, of a kind. Tyler was a dancer. Me, I liked to play the changes, a jazz musician with a hammer—or any blunt instrument—in my hand. Aiko?
Aiko was a sculptor, and to her, the house might as well have been an untouched block of marble, ready for the chisel.
“Let’s go,” she said, and her grin was a jack-o-lantern carved out of the twilight, eerie and bright and flickering with unholy fire.
• • • •
Sometimes the trick-or-treaters didn’t reach the door. They got scared, was what Cook said. They couldn’t handle the majesty of the grounds, or the way the windows seemed to watch them. They didn’t understand that the house only ever wanted to make friends, like Mary only ever wanted to make friends. Friends were important.
“It’s Halloween,” whispered Mary, shivering with delight, and stepped out of her room, space bending around her until she emerged through the wall to the side of the gate, passing easily through the brick and mortar. The trick-or-treater who hadn’t been able to make it to the house was standing at the wall, a canister in each hand, painting something wonderful over the brick.
It was big, and red, and white, and swirled like a peppermint candy cane, sweetness and sharpness, waiting to cut the roof of the mouth when bitten into wrong. Mary clapped her hands.
“What the fu—” The trick-or-treater spun around, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. A wad of something pink fell out, landing on the driveway with a splat.
Mary frowned. “Littering is bad,” she said. “You should pick that up. Mr. Evans says I’m not to litter the grounds ever.”
“Who the hell are you?” demanded the trick-or-treater.
Mary was beginning to suspect this wasn’t a good friend for keeping. “My name is Mary. I live here. What’s your name?”
“No one lives here, kid. This is the Holston house.”
“Yes,” said Mary patiently. “This is my house.”
The trick-or-treater stared at her, still not picking up the pink thing from the driveway. “No fucking way,” she breathed. “You’re dressed as Mary Holston? Your parents let you do that? Where are they? Is this some viral video bullshit?”
“You shouldn’t use that sort of language,” said Mary. “It’s not nice.”
“Yeah, well, neither is dressing up like a dead kid who—”
The trick-or-treater kept talking, but Mary wasn’t listening to the words anymore. They were bad words, wrong words, big lying words that people weren’t supposed to use around her. She needed to make the trick-or-treater stop using them.
So she did.
When she was done, when the screaming stopped and the trick-or-treater wasn’t saying things anymore, Mary looked at the picture on the wall again. The candy cane swirls were gone. Now it was pink and yellow and sad, like a memento mori for something that should never have died here.
Mary sighed, stepping back into the wall. Maybe the others would be more fun.
After a moment, the thing that had been Elisa climbed to its feet. It left the paint cans where they were as it stood there silently, waiting for the others to return.
• • • •
We all heard the scream, but when we turned to look, it was just Elisa by the wall, which already bore the outline of another of her grandiose grotesqueries. I waved hesitantly. She waved back.
“Bitch,” muttered Tyler.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Aiko, and eyed the door. “Emily? You have the lock picks. You want to let us in, or you want me to start bashing?”
That was one of the most polite things she’d ever said to me. I stepped into position, pulling the picks from my pocket and getting to work. The Holstons had been rich enough to afford good locks, but technology marches on; I was expecting something tricky but not impossible to pick, just hard enough to make me look cool in front of my friends. They might never be impressed by me—I was too plump, too slow, too reluctant to smash things when I thought we might get caught—but I could get into places, and so they’d keep on keeping me around. As long as I was willing to open doors, I was part of the crew.
Even here. The picks moved, and the tumblers clicked, and in half the time I’d been aiming for, the door was swinging open, revealing a hallway as clean as it was old-fashioned. I held my crouch for a moment, unable to shake the feeling that something about this was very, very wrong. We knew the quirks of architecture and geography that allowed the Holston house to look so well-maintained even when no one was actually taking care of it. They taught those in school, using them as examples of outliers. But here . . .
Were we supposed to believe that ravens flew down the chimney and swept the cobwebs away with their wings, or that raccoons wandered the halls accidentally dusting things with their tails, somehow not doing any damage in the process?
Chuck whistled, long and low. “It’s like a fucking museum in here.”
I had to swallow the sudden urge to tell him not to talk like that, not where the ghostly shadows cast by the moonlight flowing through the stained glass windows could hear us. Luckily, Tyler saved me the trouble, elbowing Chuck casually in the side. The bottles in Chuck’s backpack jangled.
“Someone’s trying to screw with us,” he said. “They came and cleaned the place up, and now they’re going to jump out at us. Let’s screw with them first.”
“You do what you want,” said Aiko. Her eyes were on the great stained glass circle of the window at the top of the stairs. She’d be able to reach that easily with her bat if she climbed up to meet it.
“What if the stairs are rotten?” I asked.
Aiko looked at me coolly, dismissively, the way she looked at everything. “I’ll still get to smash something,” she said. “The house or myself, it doesn’t matter.”
She walked away from us. Tyler whistled.
“Okay, forget Elisa,” he said. “I’m in love.”
“She’s out of your league,” said Chuck.
“She’s out of everyone’s league,” said Tyler.
“I can hear you,” said Aiko, and climbed the stairs to the sound of laughter.
Chuck hooked a thumb toward the nearby hall. Tyler nodded, and the two of them skulked that way. I looked toward Aiko, silhouetted against that big round window, and followed them away from the door, deeper into the house.
• • • •
The second trick-or-treater was in front of the star window with a stick in her hand when Mary stepped out of the wallpaper. Mary frowned. These weren’t good friends. They weren’t even good trick-or-treaters. It was Halloween, and not one of them had said the words. It was like they didn’t care.
If they didn’t care, Mary was going to make them care.
“Breaking things is bad,” she said primly.
Aiko shrieked and whirled, bat held defensively in front of her. She blinked when she saw Mary, a frown spreading across her face, wiping her terror away. “You’re just a kid.”
“This is my house,” said Mary. “It’s Halloween, and that means you don’t need to be invited to come for trick-or-treat, but even uninvited, you’re still supposed to act like a guest. Guests don’t break things. Guests are polite.”
She took a step forward. Aiko took a step back. The menace radiating off the child was like smoke, intangible but filling the air until her lungs ached and her head spun.
“Why do you want to break my things?” Mary asked. “It’s Halloween. We’re supposed to trick, and treat, not break things that aren’t ours.”
“Kid, this window isn’t yours. No one owns this house.”
“I do,” said Mary.
Unlike Elisa, Aiko didn’t scream. Her baseball bat made a clunking sound when it fell from her fingers and rolled down the stairs. Her body was quieter when it hit the floor.
Anyone looking closely at the great starscape of the stained glass window might have found the outline of a teenage girl, sketched out by distant points of light, screaming forever. But they might not. It could easily be a trick of the shadows, after all.
• • • •
There was no single sound that caught my attention as Chuck and Tyler were setting up their bizarre Rube Goldberg machine of jarred smells and pilfered antique kitchenware, clearly intending to bring the whole thing crashing down as soon as they had it stacked to their satisfaction. My role in this construction project was simple: I was the one who picked the locks on the china cabinets and eased open the ancient cupboards, keeping the boys safe from spiders.
For a couple of guys fixated on projecting their own version of aggressive, unrelenting masculinity, they sure were freaked out by spiders.
But something was different. Some small, indefinable quality of the air around us had changed between one breath and the next, becoming raw and wrong and unwelcoming. I turned away from the boys, frowning, trying to decide what was bothering me.
Tyler noticed, of course. Tyler paid too much attention to the wrong things, and always had. “What’s the matter, Emily?” he jeered. “You scared?”
“Suck my ass,” I replied genially. “Just because Elisa doesn’t want anything to do with you, that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk to me.”
“Elisa doesn’t want anything to do with you either, dyke,” he said. There was a darkness in his tone that matched the darkness in the house.
“Don’t say that shit,” said Chuck.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Whatever,” said Chuck, and added another jar to his stack.
I turned to look back at the pair of them, frowning. These were my friends? These were the people, out of the entire school, who I had decided were worth impressing, worth spending time with?
Sometimes I think most relationships are nothing more than a matter of stumbling from loneliness to loneliness until we find someone whose company is better than being alone, and then putting up with their jackass associates until we realize it’s not worth it after all. Elisa was hot and funny and could even be sweet, when no one else was around to see her doing it. Sure, sometimes I’d wondered whether she was like that with all of us—gentle and kind in private, flirty and rude in public—but I’d never wanted to think about it too hard, because if I did, I would need to decide how I felt about it.
I wanted to have friends. I wanted to have people who’d have my back if things went south. But somehow, “having friends” always seemed to mean getting stuck with people who didn’t really like me, and who I didn’t really like either, while Elisa did her own thing and told us about how sick it was later.
“I’m going to check on Aiko,” I said.
“Dyke,” said Tyler again.
I whirled. “I will shove one of Chuck’s chemistry projects so far up your ass that you’ll be burping stink bomb until you turn thirty-five,” I snarled. “There are words you don’t use. They’re not yours.”
“Nobody owns a word,” said Tyler, looking at me coolly. “I’m just saying it like I see it.”
“You see it like an asshole.”
His laughter followed me out of the kitchen and back down the hall toward where we had left Aiko. She wasn’t my friend either, but at least she didn’t go out of her way to insult me. Actually, she didn’t go out of her way to do anything, good or bad, where I was concerned. Mostly, she looked at me like she was trying to figure out my deal, like once she understood me she could decide what she wanted to do about me. There was nothing cruel in her gaze. Cold, sure, but not cruel.
Aiko’s bat was lying at the bottom of the stairs.
I stopped when I saw it, blinking, unable to quite process what I was seeing. Aiko carried that bat everywhere. She took it to class with her, and when new teachers objected, she’d go home and come back with a note from her parents explaining that her mental health was directly tied to her possession of the bat. Our school had a zero-tolerance policy for weapons, which meant if anyone came right out and said “but she could beat someone with that,” they ran the risk of doing away with the entire baseball team in the process. Aiko was clever. She knew where the cracks in the rules were, and she knew how to exploit them.
So why was her bat on the floor? Slowly, I bent and picked it up. I’d never actually touched it before, and on some level, I was surprised when I was able to. It should have been like Thor’s hammer, too heavy for a mere mortal to lift. It should have burned my hand. Instead, it was just an ordinary bat, with an ordinary weight, worn smooth by Aiko’s skin.
“Aiko?” I asked, in a small voice.
There was no reply.
Step by step, I climbed the stairs, moving toward the stained glass window—which wasn’t broken, wasn’t smashed, wasn’t even cracked. It showed a vast field of stars, silver and gold against a background of blue, and must have turned this hall into an eternal twilight when the sun was up. There was something strange about the way the stars were placed, like they made some sort of picture I could almost but not quite see.
When I saw what was on the floor, I stopped looking at the window.
Aiko was crumpled there, folded in on herself like a discarded doll, her face hidden behind the careless tangle of her hair. I ran to her side, dropping to my knees and shaking her.
She was utterly unresponsive, recalling and strengthening my first impression: that she was a child’s plaything that had somehow displeased and been cast aside, to be reclaimed later when the offense had faded. I rolled her onto her back. Her open eyes stared up at the ceiling, the black strands of her hair crossing her irises like cobwebs. I brushed them aside, unable to stand her fractured, unblinking gaze.
But she wasn’t dead. She was breathing shallowly, and her skin was soft and warm. She wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be dead. I had come here tonight looking for a little good, old-fashioned mayhem, the sort of Halloween pranks that would make us gods at school and maybe—just maybe—bridge the differences between us, making us the sort of gang that stuck together through thick and thin, and not only when it was easy and convenient. I wanted that. I wanted it so badly I could almost taste it, like sugar on my tongue.
There was a sound from the kitchen, short and sharp, the beginning and ending of screams compressed into a space too small to hold them. I didn’t move. I closed my eyes, and cradled Aiko close, and wished I were strong enough to lift her up and carry her out of here, away from whatever haunted this place where the gutters never clogged and the floors never mildewed. Something was wrong with the Holston house. Something had always been wrong with the Holston house.
For the first time, it occurred to me that there was a name for something shiny and untouched and perfect: lure. Or trap. Either would do. The adults we trusted, who were supposed to take care of and protect us, they’d sent us here, hadn’t they? They’d talked about what a wonderful target this house was, how no one cared about it, how we could wreak whatever havoc we wanted without getting into trouble. They’d set the bait and we had snapped it up like animals, rushing out without stopping to wonder why generations of teens hadn’t gotten here before us.
There was a footstep behind me.
• • • •
The last trick-or-treater had found one of her friends and was holding her, rocking her, the way Mama used to rock Mary, before Mama had to go away. Mary paused. She didn’t like remembering Mama, not really. Mama had gone outside the house before things . . . before things changed, and when they’d changed, Mama hadn’t been able to find a way back in. Cook said it was because Mama had been outside the gates, and outside the gates was a different world.
Mr. Evans said it hadn’t always been that way.
Mr. Blake said Mama had Done Something when she realized things were going to change one way or the other, and that whatever she had Done was the biggest trick and the biggest treat ever, because it was why they were able to stay here, Halloween after Halloween, no matter how much the world changed outside the gates. The Holston house would stand forever, because Mama had known her little girl was dying, and Mama had wanted to give Mary a house to haunt.
“It’s Halloween,” said Mary finally, to the last trick-or-treater.
The girl raised her head and turned, spitting words over her shoulder like an angry cat. “So do whatever you’re going to do. Get it over with.”
Mary cocked her head to the side.
This trick-or-treater didn’t have anything that she could use to hurt the house or break things. She’d opened the doors, but she had done it gently, kindly, doing no damage, leaving no mark behind. It was Halloween. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have an invitation. What mattered was that she had come, and Mary had been so very lonely.
“It’s Halloween,” she said again. “Do you want a trick, or do you want a treat?”
The girl looked at her, and said nothing, but there was hope in her eyes. Mary smiled.
Mary took it.
• • • •
She says she’s my sister now, and I guess she’s going to keep saying it until I forget it isn’t true. This is the Holston house, after all. There’s nothing here but time.
We stood by the bay window, watching as the people who’d been my friends walked toward the gate where the girl who’d been Elisa was waiting. They looked small and strangely naked without the paraphernalia of their mock wickedness. The house had swallowed it entire, along with whatever it had taken from them. Less, according to Mary, than it would have taken if I hadn’t agreed to stay; more than it would have taken if they’d listened to the things no one was saying, and chosen to stay away.
They would be good now. Good like the older teens, the ones we’d always been puzzled by, the ones who should have destroyed the Holston house long before we’d had the chance to go there. The ones who’d met Mary, who’d become her treats when she saw the tricks they were trying to play.
Maybe this is the last time. Maybe next year, when Halloween comes, I’ll be able to warn the naughty ones away, be able to tell them to go and throw eggs at some other, lesser house, one that’s a little less protected, a little less . . . aware. Maybe I can save them.
Or maybe they’ll find my body, the only thing allowed to decay in this haunted, hallowed place, dissolving into dust at the top of the stairs. Maybe they’ll meet Mary, enjoying the holiday highlight of her year, trading tricks for treats for the whole town to enjoy.
Holston, Oregon is a nice place to live. Its founders—what remains of them—make sure of that.
“It’s Halloween,” whispered Mary, and slipped her insubstantial hand into mine, and held me tight.
She says she’s my sister now. Give us enough time, and it will be true.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” I didn’t mean to ask the question. I asked it anyway.
She looked up at me and smiled. “With graveyard weeds and wolfsbane seeds, and empty graves all in a row,” she said. “It’s Halloween.”
“Yes,” I said, and the night went on around us, and the night would never end.
Spread the word!