With a shrug, Diego set the tray down on the coffee table and sat down next to Charlie, who leaned into the taller boy’s warmth.
“That,” said Diego, looking about in wonder as he draped his arm over Charlie’s shoulder, “was epic. That was the most epic party I’ve ever been to.”
Amos came walking into the living room and pushed on Randall’s arm, indicating that he was ready to be petted.
“Are you glad they’re all gone, boy?” asked Charlie’s uncle. In reply, Amos’s tail thumped the floor, and the groan of pleasure that escaped his throat seemed answer enough as he leaned into Randall’s hand.
“I’m glad you liked it, Diego,” said Beverly. She held a mug of tea in her hand. The expression on her face seemed to be a mix of wistfulness and pleasure—or maybe something else. Charlie often couldn’t tell with Beverly.
“I thought that the trick-or-treaters would never end,” said Randall, shaking his head. “I worried we’d run out of candy. Just when you thought it was over—”
Amos barked once, sharp, then ran over to the north-facing wall, looking up at the small picture window high up near the ceiling, wagging his tail.
A yellow cat sat on a bare tree branch, peering down at the people in the living room as if holding court.
“Holy feline, that scared the crap out of me!” shouted Diego, clutching his chest.
Charlie snuck a glance at his aunt and raised his eyebrows. Was that a cat from the network? Or just some stray prowling around on the trees out front?
The slight shrug of her shoulders and the way she narrowed her eyes told Charlie she didn’t know.
The doorbell rang.
Amos barked again, then ran over to the front door. Randall and Diego jumped.
“I’m gonna have a heart attack!” Diego declared.
Charlie and Beverly looked first at the front door, then back at each other.
“Who the hell could that be?” asked Randall, starting to stand up. “Even the older kids should be done for the night.”
“Let me get it,” said Beverly, placing her hand on her husband’s knee before coming to her feet. Charlie knew it was a command, not a suggestion. Upon her secretive glance to him, he shrugged off Diego’s arm and followed his aunt to the foyer.
Two small figures stood on the front stoop, bathed in the yellow cone of light from the lamp above the door. They were dressed as ghosts, with pure white sheets stretched over their small bodies, ghoulish eye and mouth holes drawn in overly large ovals. Red droplets of paint, to mimic blood spatter, speckled their heads and upper bodies. As an added touch of the grotesque, twin ropes with frayed ends encircled their tiny necks.
Charlie’s skin prickled.
“Trick or treat!” cried the figure on the right, a boy’s voice. He couldn’t be older than five or six. The figure next to him, only an inch or two taller, stayed silent but held out an empty, plastic jack-o’-lantern. There was something demanding and greedy in its gesture.
“Oh,” said Beverly. “Hello. Isn’t it a little late for you to be out?” She craned her neck, and Charlie guessed she was looking for an adult standing beyond the front gate. The sidewalk appeared empty. “By yourselves?”
“No,” stomped the figure on the left. A girl. “We don’t have a curfew.”
Charlie watched as his aunt’s eyes widened before softening. “Well, I see. Charlie, do you think we have any leftover candy?”
“We won’t eat it. We just—” said the smaller boy.
The girl elbowed him so sharply that the boy teetered backwards. “Ow!” he shouted.
Charlie reached out and grabbed the bony shoulders of the ghost boy before he could topple off the porch, releasing his grip only when he was steady on his feet again.
“You’re not going to eat it?” asked Beverly.
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Anyway, about that candy,” demanded the girl.
Something isn’t right about this, Charlie thought. But it was Halloween, right? You were supposed to give out candy to anyone who came by. Wasn’t that the unwritten rule?
He glanced up at the upper branches of the trees but could see no yellow cat.
“Charlie, wait here while I check to see if we have anything left,” said his aunt, turning around and walking back into the house.
Charlie, guessing that his aunt was up to something besides looking for leftover candy, did as he was told.
“Are you having a good time?” he asked the small figures.
The two ghosts stood still and remained silent, their black, oval eyes staring up at him—more chills over his skin. There was something downright frightening about these two little kids, standing side by side in their macabre costumes, saying nothing.
A strong gust of wind blew overhead, and the massive trees surrounding the house bowed and straightened, bowed and straightened. A car door slammed somewhere down the street, and he heard what sounded like a group of teenagers laughing and shouting.
“We just had a really big party,” he said. “Lots of people. Lots of kids.”
More awkward silence.
Charlie summoned a Word and cast it outward, double-checking that the extra-strong wards his aunt set to run the perimeter of their property were still intact.
His Word bounced back to him, healthy and intact. Nothing breached.
Now that he thought about it, that was silly. Charlie could tell that these two little kids were neither witches nor Echoes. Plus, if they had broken through the wards, Beverly wouldn’t have left him alone with them on the porch.
Then why were the hairs on the back of his neck static with electricity?
“Here we are!” said his aunt, stepping next to him on the porch. She held a small, clay bowl in her hand. In the bowl sat three ridiculously fat chocolate bars, wrapped in shiny black paper and tied with ornate orange ribbon. They definitely did not come from the trick-or-treaters’ stash they’d been using; he’d never seen them before.
“Only take one each, now,” said his aunt, leaning over and holding the bowl down at eye level with the children.