Mr. Edgar Mallory woke at noon, hours before he’d intended to rise. It was that damned dog again. He stumped over to the window and scowled down into the neighbors’ yard, and picked up the phone.
Then he set it down again. He already knew there was nothing the police could do unless the racket was occurring after ten PM, and of course it never did. The couple were home then. It was while they were both away at work that the animal was bored out of his skull and had to practice barking to entertain himself.
So Mr. Mallory had no help from local law enforcement. And he’d even consulted some reference works from his own shelves, volumes stained and layered with dust. But he could find nothing helpful there either. There were rules about these things; it wasn’t enough that the neighbors were annoying, when they were being annoying on their own property.
There would be no further sleeping today. He might as well have breakfast. He broke three eggs into a bowl, sniffed the milk and decided it was too fresh still. He poured a glass and stared at it until a delicate sour scent arose. Took a sip. Just right.
Mrs. Howard returned from work at 4:30. When she drove past in her lemon-yellow Lexus, she had the nerve to wave cheerily at him. He set aside the lead figure he was painting, took up his cane, came off the porch and walked to the fence.
The Howards’ house was a new one, in the latest suburban style, which is to say that the street side was mostly garage door. Mrs. Howard didn’t need to come outside, but she’d seen him approaching the fence as she pulled in to the garage, and Mr. Mallory knew she was curious and chatty.
Sure enough, she came out a minute later. “Hey, Eddie, how’s it going?”
“Mrs. Howard,” Mr. Mallory replied. He hated to be called Eddie. He had never told these people his first name – he could only assume they had peeked at his mail – and as far as he was concerned they weren’t close enough acquaintances to address him as Edgar, much less by that foul nickname. Mrs. Ivanov, who’d lived there before, in a nice old bungalow among slightly unkempt rose beds – now she had been a good, old-fashioned, quiet woman. He had permitted her to call him Edgar, and she’d asked him to call her Olga. But she was gone now, in a nursing home, and these people had torn down her little house to build their characterless home with its perfect lawn at the end of the formerly quiet cul-de-sac.
Mr. Mallory forced himself to smile. “I’m sorry to say, not all that well. I’m afraid your dog woke me again.”
Mrs. Howard’s own smile became a little strained. “Well, I’m not sure what you expect us to do about it. If you would just keep normal hours, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Madam, even when I’m not sleeping, I work at home. You work in an office, do you not?”
“I’m a loan officer at First Farmers.”
“If there were a dog in the next office, barking all day long, could you get your work done?”
“Anyway,” Mrs. Howard said, “I don’t know what you expect us to do about it.”
“There’s an excellent dog training facility in town, I understand. Or, you might use one of those electronic collars. I hear they’re quite effective.”
“And shock little Alex? That would be cruel!”
“It’s cruel to leave him alone all day. If you’d ever been – if you’d worked with dogs as much as I have, you would understand that they have a different sense of time. The day seems three times as long to Alex, and unlike you he has nothing to do during it.”
“Well, I’ll discuss it with Dan when he gets home.” Her tone of voice said clearly that no solutions were to be expected from the discussion. “Say, it’s Halloween soon! Will you be ‘in’ to trick-or-treaters?”
“Of course, madam. I take Halloween very seriously. It’s a very old holiday, you know; much older than Christmas. Its original name–“
“Our pastor says it encourages children to think demons and witches are fun. I don’t think these things should be taken lightly, do you?”
“Demons and witches should certainly not be taken lightly.”
Mrs. Howard smiled brightly. “I knew you would get it! We don’t want to be encouraging Satanism and paganism, do we? So our pastor’s had this idea, and I thought you could take it back to your church. Where do you go to church, by the way?”
“It’s a… small group. We meet at members’ homes.”
“Anyway, the idea was that instead of giving out candy, we hand out these pamphlets.” And she produced one from her pocket with a flourish.
She had it with her. Clearly she’d intended all along to talk with him about this. He read the title of the little orange sheet. “Put Jesus Back in Halloween.” He looked up. “Back?”
“I’ve got plenty inside, if you’d like to hand them out too.”
“Children will come to your house hoping for candy, and you’ll give them religious tracts?”
“Oh, no, we’ll give them dried apricots too. Dan’s a dentist, you know. We never give candy.”
“Really. I’m not sure most children would regard that as a proper treat.” Mr. Mallory opened the flyer, which contained a picture of children roasting in hell and a lot of tiny print. “I’ll just look this over, if I may.”
“Sure, just let us know. I’m sure you’ll see there’s nothing there a righteous man could disagree with.”
Mr. Mallory hauled himself up his front steps and inside, set the pamphlet on his desk, and crossed to the bookcase. He trailed a long forefinger across the spines of his books, took down a battered one bound in black leather, and sat down to look for precedents.
Another car pulled up at the corner, and two adults and a child got out. Mr. Mallory rose from his chair. It was dark out, so he didn’t need his cane. He stepped to the edge of the porch and waved encouragingly. Everyone should come here first.
The boy came shambling up the walk, keeping in character – very good. As the boy reached the top of the stairs – Mr. Mallory could smell that it was a boy – he shouted, “Trick or treat!”
It was a good costume, simple and nicely creepy. It was all form-fitting black, including a stocking cap, with halves of ping-pong balls sewn on to make white knobs on the joints and along the spine. The child even was hunched over, like some night-creeping thing. Mr. Mallory smiled.
“Ooh! How’d you do that?”
“Sorry?” The costume had recalled a pleasant memory. The mind wandered at his age. “Do what?”
“Make your eyes flash orange like that.”
“Ah, it involves lasers.”
“You have the best decorations. They look really real. And that grabby hand thing in the yard almost made me shit myself.”
“Grabby hand?” Mr. Mallory leaned to the side to call out. “Willis, behave!” He waved to the boy’s parents, who were waiting at the end of the walk. Then he looked down at the boy. “So. What’s the trick?”
“You said trick or treat. If there’s no treat, do you have a trick to play on me? That’s the deal, you realize. That’s the ancient bargain.”
“Nobody told me that.”
“Well, fortunately for you, no trick is needed at this house.” Mr. Mallory took two candy bars from the large bowl on the table beside his rocking chair, and dropped them into the boy’s bucket.
“Ooh, Twix! Thanks!”
“Now, you really should have a trick, just in case.” Mr. Mallory picked up an index card from a stack beside the candy bowl, and a piece of black chalk from a smaller bowl.
“How does it work?”
“If you don’t receive a satisfactory treat, use the chalk to mark this figure anywhere on their house. Now, I haven’t quite finished drawing it. You would want to close the gap in that line, see?”
“Okay. But then they just wipe the chalk off in the morning? That doesn’t seem like a very good trick.”
“Ah, but there’s more. This sign tells goblins to come and play tricks on them. That’s the rule; if they don’t pay up with a treat, the goblins get to enter their house. But you have to let them know that they’re allowed in.”
Mr. Mallory wasn’t sure whether the boy was the right age to take that seriously; they all looked so very, very young to him. But he seemed interested. “Definite real goblins.”
“What’ll they do to them?”
“It’s not quite like the good old days. If it’s just an unsatisfactory treat, probably just break a few things, pinch them while they’re sleeping, that sort of thing.” Mr. Mallory smiled. “Of course, if their offense is more serious, if, say, they were trying to help another deity encroach…” He sensed that the boy was confused. “Well,” he finished brightly, “they might just get dragged off to hell.”
“Honest?” The boy looked at the card. “That would be something.”
“Wouldn’t it?” Mr. Mallory smiled again, more broadly.
“Where are those lasers?”
“Look, your father’s calling. Best run along.” Mr. Mallory pushed the boy gently toward the stairs. “Take care, now! Don’t talk to any spooks.”
“Thank you!” the boy said, and ran back to his parents. Mr. Mallory looked up at his neighbors’ house. A large, furry head appeared briefly in an upstairs window. Alex wasn’t a bad dog; he just had an excess of energy. He’d probably be fine with an owner who stayed home all day.
It’d been a long time since he had a pet. But maybe he could care for this one. You know, if something were to happen to his owners.
A child’s voice drifted faintly across the night, disappointed, a little incredulous. “Dried apricots!?”
Mr. Mallory smiled.