Tricksters by Amanda Lang


9:00 p.m.

I linger on the steps of my front porch, hugging the candy bowl with a heaviness in my chest. The last of the trick-or-treaters crunch down my leaf-littered lawn, returning to the shadows of the sidewalk. Teenagers, tricksters, they jostle each other, hooting and whooping it up—and good for them! I’d join them if I wasn’t six decades north of my childhood. I shuffle past my clan of shakily carved jack-o-lanterns. I’ll keep the candles burning a while longer. Maybe there will be stragglers. The gang of candy-bag ruffians I ran with never went home before midnight.

Grinning at antique memories, I settle into the creaking wooden bones of my rocking chair. The street beyond the oaks rests in moon-dappled peace. But an old man can hope, can’t he?—one more glimpse of sneaky mischief, of giggling monster-shaped shadows streaking through the night. This is the hour when the gang would trade pillowcases full of Atomic Fire Balls and candied apples for sacks of soap and toilet tissue pilfered from our mothers’ powder rooms. The neighborhood never saw us coming, not even dressed as spacemen and masked cowboys and skeletal grim reapers in inky-glittery robes. They’d wake up November 1st to find their windows soaped and foggy, their yards haunted with slow-wavering streamers, like the tattered remains of bedsheet ghosts, and Halloween would last another day.

Somewhere distant, a young lady screams. Sharp and sudden—maybe a goblin or a vampire leaping out at her from behind a parked car.  It’s the perfect goof for when the walk home turns spooky.

I listen a moment longer but the spiced autumn air settles back into silence.  With a sigh, I balance the candy dish on the porch railing and flip the switch on my transistor radio, same model I had as a kid. Another tradition—one adopted later in life—I dial up the volume on K-TP3’s annual radio play, already in progress. This one’s a classic: the old escaped maniac on the loose with a hook, the kind who terrorizes nubile couples necking in backseats. They’re even playing it as breaking news, complete with crackly police bulletins. I chuckle. Might fool the kiddies, but old-pros like me are wise to the tricks and gotchas of the season.

As the newscaster interviews snappy detectives and weeping survivors, I munch left-over chocolates and watch pumpkins and porchlights blink out across the neighborhood. One after another, signaling the time for treats has expired. Somewhere closer, another scream.  

“In the interest of public safety, please tell our listeners what you saw tonight…” says the newscaster.

A dramatic pause darkens the airways, then a voice reminiscent of poodle skirts and strawberry phosphates says, “We were up on Lookout Lane when the killer snuck up on my boyfriend’s car with a machete…”

I shake my head, chuckling again—in my day it was a hook.

“He was wearing a clown mask, and he tapped his blade along our windows. Tap-tap-tapping right up until he—”

My porch light blacks out. The radio goes dark, too. A power outage? Oh, good grief. What prank is this?

A soft tapping drifts along the breath-held air.

Tap-tap-tapping. Drawing closer.

The doorbell rings inside my house.

I startle, my heart clenches like a fist. I didn’t see anyone sneak onto the porch, but a short inky-glittery shape stands on the welcome mat. The plastic scythe is his young cloaked hand is like the ones they used to sell at the corner Five-N-Dime. He withdraws it from the doorbell.

Standing, I clutch the candy dish against my hammering chest and laugh the laugh of old fools. The trick-or-treater faces me, tiny eyes gleaming up at me from behind a cartoon skull mask.

“Nifty costume, kid. Had one like it myself once.” I step closer, my hand trembling over the candy, ready for those three magic words.

The little reaper tilts his head, silent.

Behind me, something tap-tap-taps

I start to turn around, but the kid rushes out into the yard—and my eyes widen like the moon. The candy dish tumbles from my shivering fingers.

Oh, how strange. How wonderful and strange.

The yard is haunted. Hundreds of gauzy streamers hang from the oak trees, tendrils of a simpler time. They sway in an endless autumn breeze, parting like a veil to reveal a gathering of dime-store monsters taking shape among the sidewalk shadows. How can it be?—the old gang. These days they’re elderly men in their graves. Yet they face my house with mischievous eyes and sagging pillowcases full of treats.

Or is it tricks?

Impish and gleeful, they point at me. Beckoning me?

Too late, I realize they’re pointing at something behind me.

Tap-tap. A machete bursts through my chest.

In my day it was a hook…

I collapse to the porch, meat and bone and blood.

“Gotcha,” says the maniac in the clown mask as his blade slides free. Should have seen that coming.

Chuckling, he steps over me and blows out my jack-o-lanterns. But instead of flickering to darkness, the eerie swaying nightscape flares around me. Misty and white, as if someone soaped the windows of my soul.

As the killer stalks away with his glistening tapping blade, my gang of Halloween tricksters storm the porch around me. A cowboy, a spaceman, heck, all the best hooligans on the block. I try to protest as they haul my old bones upright—but as I look upon what should be my elderly ruined body, my eyes widen.

Oh, how wonderful and strange!

I’m cloaked in a miracle of ink and glitter, and my wrinkleless young hands grip a plastic scythe and a pillowcase.

The night is young again. What are we waiting for?

They won’t see us coming!

A gang of monster-shaped shadows, we jostle and hoot and live it up out on the streets of our endless Halloween.

Amanda’s horror stories have appeared on The Other Stories podcast, and in the anthologies When the Sirens Have FadedThe Year’s Best Hardcore Horror, Volume Six (upcoming), and Gothic Blue Book VI: A Krampus Carol (upcoming).