The older teenagers clustered up to the door of the house and rang the bell while Matthew kept back in the shadows.  He didn’t feel comfortable around them.  Having just turned thirteen, this was supposed to have been Matthew’s last round of trick-or-treating, his goodbye turn around the neighborhood, his night of closure before he hung up his costumes for good.  You only got to do this until a certain age, after all, at least properly.  Tonight was supposed to have been special.  But for some reason his parents insisted his older brother act as an escort—at nineteen, Rex didn’t want to end up saddled with Matthew any more than Matthew wanted to be saddled with him.  Then Rex’s dumb friends had shown up after they set out, turning it all into something else entirely…

Rex’s friends: Barry, Audrey, and Rose.  Barry was the shortest and the wiriest, with the most energy; he kept trying to make himself taller by pushing up on the creased toes of his red sneakers.  Audrey was tall and angular, shrouded in long, beautiful red hair—Matthew never thought it quite fit right that Rose didn’t have the red hair.  Rose was round and broad, all brusqueness and confidence and leather jackets, with the air she could kick anyone’s ass who needed kicking.  In his room, Matthew kept a folder with meticulous dated records of which of the two girls Rex claimed to be dating at the moment, and which was just “a pal.”  The designations switched rather often, a circumstance Matthew didn’t approve of at all.

Rex, of course, was Rex.  The same proto-thug who always loomed above anyone else, the same jerk of a sibling who, when they buried their family cat two months back, stood by the graveside making unfunny cracks at the expense of the deceased while Matthew cried his eyes out.

Matthew very strongly felt that they should not be bothering the old man.

Rex and Matthew’s parents were acquainted with every single person in the neighborhood except the old man.  The old man kept to himself, barricaded away behind the window shutters of his peeling house.  He didn’t have any family, except apparently for a nephew who stopped by every once in a great while.  No one knew how he occupied his time.  If you asked the local children, they would tell you he kept a secret room, wallpapered with the flesh of ten-year-olds.

Matthew remembered those stories.  The others couldn’t care less.

Rex kept his finger on the bell until the door swung open.  “Trick or Treat,” he said in a brusque, straight-down-to-business manner, opening the pillowcase he carried and giving it a few shakes for emphasis.  Like the rest of them, Rex wore street clothes, didn’t even bother putting on anything fun or spooky in blatant, defiant breach of the rules.  But the rules were important.  No good would come of it, Matthew knew.

Matthew peered around the others at the stooped, gangly figure who stood in the doorway with a bowl of treats, too uneasy and embarrassed to step forward to claim any candy.  He became grateful that he, for one, could hide behind the anonymous sheet of his ghost costume.

“You lot shouldn’t be out here,” the old man said, with a crooked smile which didn’t come off as quite natural.  Although his tone sounded friendly enough, something angry peeked out from behind his placid, watery gray eyes, shot through with red and magnified by his thick glasses.  “You’re too big for it now.  This is autumn, when things in their prime have to give way to make room for new growth.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rex said.  “Now how ’bout you give with the goods, huh?”

Too big for it.  It was true.  Matthew’s face burned under the sheet.  Ashamed at the company he kept and maybe just as much at himself, he twisted to look anywhere but the doorway.  His gaze fell on the scarecrow.  An ugly, man-sized figure sitting on a bench right at the side of the old man’s walkway, hunched over with its thick brown glove-hands on its knees.  Its bulging sackcloth face stared straight forward, scarred all over with runs of stitching, leering at Matthew.  The boy shivered.  He studied the scarecrow closely for signs of movement or breathing, satisfied himself of its lifelessness.

“Shouldn’t be out here,” the old man muttered while he begrudgingly distributed candy.

After a minute the door closed and they departed with their loot, Matthew coming away with nothing more than a feeling of queasiness.  A cold, low wind nipped at his ankles, blowing a handful of dry leaves past his shoes, and he turned to look over his shoulder at the old man’s lit house.  From its bench, the scarecrow grinned back at him with its crooked stitched smile, its head now turned in line with its left shoulder.


“You know my cousin used to have a scarecrow costume like that?” said Rex as they left the old man’s driveway.  “Used to sit out in front of his place completely still, waiting for the children to troop by.  Then he’d jump whoever was escorting them.  Scared Matthew so badly once he actually pissed his pants.  Jake and I laughed so hard.  You remember that, Matthew?”

Matthew did.

Everything carried on in much the same manner until three houses later.  When they stopped to discuss whether to continue on straight or turn down Durgen Avenue, they realized Barry was missing.

“It’s a prank,” said Rose, blowing into her cupped fingers.  “Has to be. He’s somewhere up ahead, waiting to jump us from behind one of these tacky fake gravestones or something.”

Audrey glanced at her, dark shadows under her eyes.  “He’s not the type.”

“Okay, everybody just relax,” Rex ordered, an edge in his voice. He took out his big pocket knife, opening and closing the stout blade like he did when he became stressed.  “Barry probably just ducked off to, you know, take a leak.”

“Where?” demanded Rose.  “In somebody’s front yard?”

“Well if it’s in their front yard then he’s probably taking a dump.  The point is he’ll catch up.  Come on.”  Hiking his candy-filled pillow case up over his shoulder, Rex started forward, passing around a group of little goblins and skeletons shepherded by their mother; the others didn’t hesitate long in following.  The mother observed them warily.

Matthew couldn’t personally claim he’d ever spotted any real goblins or skeletons, but he knew they existed.  After all, the Book of the Pumpkin outlined the rules quite clearly.  The Book of the Pumpkin spoke about the thin barriers to the spirit world, especially on All Hallow’s Eve.  It spoke of specters and ghouls.  It spoke of Death.

Although the sheet over his head severely restricted his peripheral vision, Matthew couldn’t help but peek at the row of houses down Durgen Avenue as they passed, and his eyes caught on one of the lawns.  Something stood there, beneath the dead limbs of a tree.  A dark, watching figure.  And although in shadow, the figure struck Matthew as rounded, stuffed somehow, holding a long stick which glinted all down a curved length at its end.  A scythe, he thought.  A scythe used for cutting down trick-or-treaters past their expiration date.  As the figure tilted its head at Matthew, the lights inside the house winked out, throwing the lawn into darkness.  Bare tree branches clacked against one another as the wind rose again.

The boy quickened his pace, trying to discount it as a glitch of imagination, the mind playing strange tricks at night.  He knew what to expect from spirits, from ghouls, from skeletons and even witches.  But the book said nothing at all about scarecrows.  He’d found the Book of the Pumpkin—a faded yellow paperback with clusters of loose pages, held together by scotch tape and smelling of leaves and faint earthy rot—at a book sale a year prior, hidden between larger volumes.  It didn’t list any author or date of publication, but it held a great deal of knowledge.  The rules, the wards, the spells.  Whatever this thing with the scythe was, however, proved beyond even what the book could reveal—or the pages which spoke of it had gone missing.  And that scared him more than anything.

As he rushed forward, Matthew’s toe caught on something sticking up like a large cyst, one of many infections on a filthy trash-strewn sidewalk.  He went sprawling, scraping hands and knees on rough pavement.  The sheet of his costume tangled around him, blocking off the world.  Unable to inhale except in shallow gasps, he thrashed and rolled around until he found a gap.  As he pulled himself through into the crisp open air, his hand fell upon the object he’d tripped over: a sneaker.  A single, abandoned red sneaker, dirty laces undone, with no apparent owner in sight.  Matthew wondered what happened to the person who wore it; one did not simply lose a shoe without knowing.

Then, with a hard twinge of the stomach as he picked it up, he realized he knew this sneaker.  Its shape and color matched the ones Barry wore, right down to the crease across the line of the toe.

The dark crimson discoloration, a sticky patch on the lighter red of the sneaker’s side, might’ve been any kind of common stain, but Matthew couldn’t help but think of something very particular.  Rising to his feet in a hurry, he wound his limp costume around his arm and raced to catch up with the others.

“It’s a shoe,” he cried, darting in front of them and waving his arms.

“Shoe? What shoe?” Rex asked.  He looked annoyed.

“Barry’s shoe,” said Matthew.  Only then did he realize he’d dropped the sneaker in question when he bolted—it still lay in the street somewhere, out of sight in the darkness.  Try as he might, he couldn’t convince them to go back for it.  Rex just rolled disbelieving eyes and told him to come on.  Clinging to Rex’s arm, Rose smirked.  Only Audrey appeared concerned, but she remained silent and went along with the rest.

They shook down two more houses for candy.  Matthew continued to hang back, nervous, examining the sunken smiles of flat-faced jack-o’-lanterns which green-and-gray mold had already started to melt.

“Hold up,” Rex said, halfway to the next house, the bottom of his pillowcase bulging.  He fumbled for the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket.  “Let’s take a break.  I could use a smoke.  How ’bout you, Audrey?”

“I don’t smoke,” said Audrey.

“Wuss.  I know Rose smokes.  Time for a smoke, Rose?”

Rose didn’t answer.  Rose wasn’t there.

Somehow in his gut Matthew knew it happened when none of them were looking.  In the black, evil spaces between the streetlights.

“Fuck me,” Rex said.  He gave a tight smile, but his fingers trembled enough that he dropped the pack as he tried to get into it.  “This is a joke, right? You’re all trying to get one over on me.”  He turned to Audrey, furious all of a sudden.  “It’s you, isn’t it?  Are you in on this?”


“Don’t you mess with me, bitch!”

“I said—you know what? Go to hell, asshole.”  Turning on her heel, she strode off the way they’d come at a quick hard clip.  When Rex called out, Audrey gave him the finger without a single look back.  In a matter of moments the night engulfed her.  Matthew very much wanted to go home.

Rex railed at the dull orange moon overhead for a while before stooping to swipe up his cigarettes.  He took one out and lit it, huffing hard.

“Just you and me now, I guess,” Rex told his younger brother.  He thought for a moment.  “I think I know where they are. Jerks.  They’re at the old graveyard at the edge of town.  We were gonna top off the night by having some brews there.  They’re just trying to scare us, you know?  We’ll go show them.  Yeah.”  He sounded far from certain, but by the end he wasn’t talking to Matthew anymore.

Matthew’s stomach sunk and he worried his hands open and closed, gazing longingly in the direction of their house.  The graveyard.  He didn’t like the graveyard.  This night, the most damned spirits congregated there.

Movement registered in the corner of his eye, and he angled his head toward it, but not quick enough.  He thought he saw the barest glimpse of a bulbous silhouette lurching backwards behind one of the homes, dragging a body along with it by the arms.  Turning fast, Matthew kept right on the heels of his brother as they started off.  He didn’t know what else to do.

The two siblings walked for a good ten minutes before arriving at the entrance to the old graveyard.  The gates were chained, but not really meant to keep people out so much as cars, so Rex and Matthew slipped right through.  Matthew’s eyes adjusted to the lack of any light save the moon watching over them.  Worn headstones reared at strange angles.

“Right, if you see anyone, call out,” Rex said.  And then, before Matthew could react, his brother hurried away, jogging into the dimness between the lines of graves.  Left by himself, Matthew shivered.

He put his ghost costume back on.  Somehow, the narrower the scope of his vision and the less he had to see, the better he could manage.  If it didn’t exist outside of what manifested right in front of him, it didn’t exist at all.

“Hello?” he said.  Then, stronger: “Hel-lo?

No one answered.

Suddenly, Matthew got it.  They weren’t pranking Rex and him.  They were, all of them, just pranking him.  They wanted to keep him scared, keep him feeling like a child. They always intended to ruin his last real Halloween, right from the start.  In fact they’d probably even snuck away once Rex met up with the others and left him here all alone.  With a tightening throat, Matthew listened.



Nothing but the wind.

He was alone, he was, three people couldn’t keep from making any sounds whatsoever.  Desperate, the boy strained his ears, wishing he could remember even one of the protective wards laid out in the Book of the Pumpkin.



Then—a slow, measured shuffling. Feet dragging through leaves, but he couldn’t tell from which direction. Something screeched like nails across a chalkboard. Stopped. Screeched again. A metal edge dragging—being dragged—along stone.

Matthew thrust his hands over the holes in the sheet cut out for his eyes.  There.  Now he was completely covered.  Now he would be invisible.  He hoped.  He couldn’t move his legs anyway.  The shuffling and the scraping grew closer.  Ever more closer.  It was on him, oh dear god, it must be on him.

Matthew screamed.  Only the wind answered.  Then it died down in a lull and silence returned.

In slow increments, Matthew lowered his hands.  From out of the dimness directly ahead, Rex staggered.  His brother’s mouth opened and closed but no words came out; he grasped his throat with both hands, choking.  Cherry-colored liquid so dark it appeared almost black spurted out from beneath his fingers, ran down, soaked his shirtfront.  Rex made it two more steps before falling face-first onto the leaf-strewn grass, hands not making any attempt to break his fall.  He lay still.  In his shaggy hair, long strands of caught straw flailed in the breeze.

Whipping around, Matthew hurled himself out of the graveyard.  He ran like he’d never run before, block after block passing underfoot, never slowing until he spotted his own door, the warm, welcoming glow through the windows of his own house.

The first instinct, the instinct to rush to his parents, came strong, but he found himself pausing as he stepped onto the mat and his fingers touched the doorknob.  His brother had gotten killed on his watch.  He was going to be in so much trouble.

Other things nagged at him too.  Rules.  “Evil does as it does, and only those with the will to end it absolutely can do so.”  Such proclaimed the Book of the Pumkin.

“You can’t count on anyone,” he remembered Rex telling him once.  “You have to fight your own battles.  That’s a lesson you have to learn.”  They both sat on the big stump out in back of their old house, using pocket knives to whittle sharp points at the ends of sticks.  Matthew nodded.  A bully had beaten that crap out of him in the back of the school bus that morning, while nobody else moved even a muscle to help.  He admired his reflection in the blade of the sturdy knife Rex had bestowed upon him one day as a gift, imagining plunging it into the bully.  Later, once things had soured, after Matthew’s father found out about his pocket knife and confiscated the prized possession, it almost hurt more that Rex denied ever giving it to him than that his father started carrying it around openly and using it himself.

“But,” Rex continued, brushing wood shavings off his jeans, “for as long as I’m around you can count on me.  I’ll take care of it.”  And he did.  Two days later the bully showed up at school with his face looking like a bowl of lumpy mashed potatoes and he never bothered Matthew again.

Rex hoisted his sharpened stick over his shoulder with a grin.  “You wanna go spear some toads?”

“Yeah!” Matthew said.  So they went off to look for toads, much to the discomfort of the larger frogs in the area.  That was a good summer.  The last of the good summers.

Matthew turned, walking away from the light of safety filtering out from behind his front door.  Heading toward the garage, he knew what he needed to do.  How he needed to take care of it.  His Halloween remained unfinished.


Matthew approached the old man’s house, hauling a bucket heavy with liquid.  Every so often the motions of his stride would splash a little of the contents over the rim, onto his pants, the stuff giving off a sharp, heady stink.

It waited for him.  On the bench.  Right where it sat before.

The wind had died out for good at last.  Putting the bucket down, Matthew approached with great care.  He darted forward, poking the scarecrow’s chest.  The scarecrow didn’t move. Working up his courage, the boy punched the thing as hard as he could, but it continued to remain motionless.  No scythe—but something like that it could stash away easily enough.  In the shadows under the bench maybe.  It pretended, now.

Creeping in closer, Matthew examined its unnatural, stitched smile, the placid gray button eyes sewed in place with red thread bright as blood.  Something angry peeked out from behind them.  I don’t make the rules, they seemed to say.

That’s okay, Matthew thought in reply.  I don’t either.  He placed his empty candy bag down on the bench, then picked up the bucket, heaving a wave of gasoline all over the scarecrow and its seat.  More than a little splattered on the side of the house.

The scarecrow reared up, yelling something indecipherable, reaching for him with its blunt gloved fingers as the bucket clattered to the ground.  But it didn’t move fast enough.  Grabbing the long lighter from his back pocket, Matthew clicked the little black plastic trigger, touching the bead of flickering orange which sprung up at the end of the barrel to the scarecrow’s sodden sleeve.  The rush of heat and flame threw him backward and he scurried away on all fours, putting distance between himself and the shrieking figure toppled back on the bench, engulfed in a crackling pillar of fire which roared toward the eaves of the old man’s house, chasing the shadows away from all the crevices of the night.

“Trick or Treat!” Matthew screamed, his heart pounding with exhilaration as he found his feet, churning his legs under him as he ran, stumbled, found himself on the pavement again.  He hurt; he didn’t care.  Laughing, refusing to lose momentum, he crawled forward with his eyes on the ground.  His hand came down on a sneaker.  A red sneaker with a creased toe and a foot inside, connected to an ankle and then a pair of legs covered in jeans.  Matthew raised his head.  Looming over him, but not looking at him, were Rex, Barry, Rose, and Audrey, cans of beer in their hands.  Rex carried a bulky sackcloth costume slung over his arm, Audrey a homemade scythe crafted with tin foil and a broom handle.

Mouths thin white lines, eyes bulging, they stared over Matthew toward the source of the intense light which blanched all their faces as pale as ghosts.