by Laura Keating
“How about we play a game? Does anyone remember any games?”
The group sat in uncomfortable silence staring at the woman who’d spoken as the jack-o’-lantern Minni had carved earlier flickered and grinned wickedly. She hadn’t felt much like carving it, but it was necessary.
“We could play charades,” the lady tried again. “Or murder in the dark – the one where someone winks and if you see it you … die.”
It was raining outside, had been all night. It was hard to tell how late it was, how close to sunrise. The candle in the pumpkin had begun to sputter when Minni moved the curtain to peek outside.
A hand squeezed her shoulder and drew her back from the basement window. The building above had long ago burned away. Rain dripped from the splintered, tarpaulin-patched floorboards above onto the corner of the old mattress, soaking it. Four grown-ups sat huddled together on it. Three more hunched in the corner, staring at her, their eyes wide and scornful. Minni lowered her head and muttered an apology.
“Keep away from that,” said one of the men on the mattress, anxiously pulling on fistfuls of his blonde beard. She sat down next to him. He was younger, like her, but not young enough to be of any use. It hadn’t taken long to realise that he resented this fact. He glared out at the grey predawn light.
“The children,” said another man, also bearded but whiter. “They should have been back by now.”
“Will everyone just shut up,” hissed the younger man. Brad, Minni thought his name was, or Darren. She couldn’t remember. He was as unwashed as the rest of them, but with fewer lines on his face to fill with dirt he looked almost clean. Under the oversized pink ski-jacket he had picked up somewhere he still wore what must have been, at one time, a very expensive suit. His shoes were soft and black, but the toe flapped on one like a hungry mouth. The words Upper-Middle Management floated through her mind . . . but she couldn’t quite remember what that meant. That world seemed too long ago, the time before – but she couldn’t think about that now. She spent so much time trying to forget. It was better that way.
Minni curled her knees to her chin and began rocking herself on the mouldy mattress.
But she could not forget. It had been fun once, hadn’t it? Plastic masks and cheap capes; armour bought at big stores with bright lights.
Armour? No, it had not been that. Not then.
Costume. That was the word. A different sort of harvest back then.
They waited in the dim of the basement for the children to return from the harvest.
“Pin the tail on the donkey,” the older lady tried again. “Or blind man’s bluff? We could move that mattress back, chase each other around blindfolded.”
“I’m begging you to shut the fuck up,” said maybe-Brad.
Only the young ones could venture out on the harvest night. Wearing costumes of bones, twigs and layers of mud, thin capes and oversized shoes, they could almost blend it. Their high voices could screech and hoot and chuckle with those of the Others; their clumsy gaits in their strange attire shielded their natural strides. But it was the smell (or perhaps lack of) that was their best protection. The problem was that you never knew when you’d grown up. Some would stay back, too afraid, after their tenth year; others would risk it year after year, insisting just one more year, that the greater the number the better the harvest. Many never came back.
“It’s almost daylight,” said the older man, sharing facts they all already knew. “If they’re out in the sun, then the Others will know.”
“It’ll be okay,” said Minni.
“Bobbing for apples,” the lady said, practically cackling. “Remember apples? Nature’s candy.”
“Will you shut up!”
A rock plicked down a hole at the corner of the tarpaulin. The group held their breath, eyes fixed on the hidden entrance.
A shadow wavered there.
Minni wrapped her hand around her gun. She still carried her father’s old Smith and Wesson 0.35, more out of the habit than hope. She had eleven rounds total, five currently in the chamber. She had only ever fired it once and knew it wouldn’t do any good against Them. Still, she slowly thumbed back the hammer: It would work just fine pointed the other way.
“Maybe it’s the children?” whispered the old man, so quietly. “Hello?” His voice cracked. “Kids?”
Voices, muffled yet high enough to reach them, slipped between the charred floorboards above. A woman, older than Minni, but perhaps not by much (it was hard to tell with all her teeth and right eye missing) opened her mouth in a silent shriek, before cramming her fingers into her mouth, her back heaving. Minni had not realised she had raised her gun until a hand closed gently around her wrist. She looked around. Brad/Darren stared at her. Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head. She stared back, defiantly, but at last nodded. She lowered her gun and held his hand. They watched and waited together. Her stomach growled.
Starvation didn’t wait for an opportune moment to dig in.
She needed the harvest.
No one knew where They had come from. Some said the sky; others, under the earth; some thought they had been with them all along, waiting, watching.
It didn’t matter.
Their food, which they freely dispersed to their own once a year, was more sustaining than anything Minni or anyone else had ever known. If rationed out it could last them until the next harvest.
It was all that was left, in any case.
The voices returned, a little stronger this time. Someone giggled.
A small pale hand pulled back the corner of the tarp. Half-a-dozen small, misshapen forms stared down from the early morning gloaming, underlit by the red glow of the pumpkin. Minni could not make out their faces.
Masks or faces.
“Come and join the party,” the cackling lady said. “What have you got for us, what have you got?”
She might be fast enough for one other before herself, Minni thought, and cleared her throat as more little ones, bodies swaying, limbs nimble, began to gather around the door. The young man, Brad/Darren, squeezed her hand tight. The cackling lady grinned a broken pumpkin smile.
“Trick or Treat?”
Laura Keating has been published in several anthologies and places online, including Worst Laid Plans from Grindhouse Press, various Hundred Word Horror books from Ghost Orchid Press, and Cemetery Gates. Originally from Saint Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, she now lives in Montréal, Quebec. You can follow her on Twitter @LoreKeating and discover more at www.lorekeating.com