“For about 30 years, Halloween was taken over by pranksters. By the ’30s, pranks were causing cities millions of dollars of damage. They considered banning Halloween in many cities, but instead, parents got together and came up with party ideas for kids, and a lot of them involved dressing up and costuming.

by Paul Mannering

When the answering machine clicked on after six rings John Kessel nearly screamed.

‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’ Helen’s voice sounded so bright and chirpy. Just de-fucking-lighted you had called. Christ, how long had it been since they updated the phone message? Four years? Five? John took a deep breath and spoke after the tone.

‘Hon? You there? Pick up baby… damn. I couldn’t get anything. Macintyre’s is cleaned out. Got his storm shutters up and a crowd of folks banging on them trying to get in. I didn’t have time to check anywhere else. Listen carefully. I need you to find some. We need to have enough to get us through tonight. We have to get through this night, it’s only one night. Please pick up… Well I hope you got enough. Remember what happened to the Dyersons last year. I’ll call you back in half an hour okay? Call me.’

John hung up the phone and wiped his hand across his face. The office was nearly empty this morning. Only two employees had made it in and both were looking strained, the whites of their eyes showing like horses eyeballing snakes. The hot blonde receptionist Kelli-May sat, sobbing quietly at her desk, a growing collection of crushed Kleenex like soggy origami under her fingers. John stared at her red-rimmed eyes and wondered if she would give him a blowjob in the bathroom for a sachet of sugar.

‘Folks are trying to get out early this year,’ Tom Svenson, fat, balding and sweating in the cool air conned office was peering out the window. From there he had a view across the carpark, and onto the main street.

‘Stupid assholes,’ Tom said and sipped his coffee. ‘Shit,’ he grimaced. ‘There’s no artificial sweetener left either?’

The laugh in John’s throat collided with the lump that he could not swallow. The explosive hyena cackle came out as a squeak.

John cleared his throat, ‘Tom,’ he said keeping his voice calm and level. ‘Please come away from the window and shut up.’

Tom gave a half-hearted shrug, let the blind fall back into place and returned to his desk.

He counted the rings this time, one-Mississippi… two Mississippi…three…Mississippi… All the way up to the click and, ‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’

‘Where are you? I can’t get out of work, you know that. You only have to do this one thing. This one thing, for this one night of the year. I just need to know if you got enough. We cannot run out. We just can’t!’

John jammed the first knuckle of his fist into his mouth and bit down hard. He could not lose it, not today. Not today. Today he needed to keep it together. ‘Helen. Darling,’ he spelt it out for her, ‘They crucified the Dyersons. Remember? On their own garage door. Please call me. Please.’

Hanging up he felt a momentary jolt of guilt, he would get home and she would have enough. Everything would be okay. It had to be.

An hour later John called again. The answering machine beeped, he hung up straight away and fumbled for a cigarette. Lighting it he took a long drag and then watched his hands shake until the tube had burned away to grey-white ash.

‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’

‘Honey? ‘ John hissed into the phone. ‘Where the hell are you? I’m going into an emergency meeting. I’ll be in there till two o’clock. Call my cell. Leave a voicemail. Just don’t forget what you need to do. I don’t care where it comes from, or how you get it. Just get as much as you can!’

The meeting was pointless. John, Tom and others from other offices in the area came together and talked. Ideas scattered like birdshot and no one listened to anything anyone else had to say. John heard nothing he had not already heard before, nothing that made a damned bit of difference.

When they had talked themselves into an exhausted silence he walked out and headed for the bathroom. The office bathroom consisted of two stalls and two urinals. Part of some nineties bonding bullshit meant that it was unisex. John pissed and was zipping up when Kelli-May came in and headed straight for the far stall, her head down, gaze averted.

‘Hey, Kelli-May.’ She flinched at John’s voice. He went on, wanting to see someone else suffer. ‘Would you suck me off for a packet of sugar?’

John immediately regretted his words. It was a sick joke, a sick, crass abuse of a woman who was losing her mind at the same increasing velocity as the rest of the town. She spun on her heel and stumbled towards him. Kelli-May fell to her knees and crawled through the damp piss-spray on the tiles and discarded scraps of toilet tissue.

‘Oh…Oh…Oh…’ she gasped like a dying fish. John stepped back, horrified at her gaping, gagging mouth. She reached up, fumbling at the front of his pants, the hem of her skirt darkening in the puddles on the floor.

‘No, no…’ John pushed her away. Sickened at his cold disregard and the surge of arousal he felt, he scrambled for the door and fled. Behind him Kelli-May wept on the floor and screamed that he could do anything. Anything he wanted, if he would just give her a little sugar.

Back at his desk John sat trembling and snatched up the phone. ‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’

It was easier to blame Helen, to pour his self-disgust down the phone line. ‘It’s after two! You haven’t called. Please! Please! Be out searching. Don’t get suckered by those street vendors, their stuff isn’t real. They can tell the difference you know. You have to have the right stuff, and you have to have enough. If we run out before the nights over then we are dead. Screwed and damned.’

John’s head twisted as Kelli-May walked past. She went to her desk as he spat vehemence into the phone. He watched as the young woman sat, opened her desk draw and withdrew a compact, black pistol. John’s mind boggled, ‘Oh my God!’ he screamed down the open phone line.

Kelli-May put the open muzzle of the gun in her mouth, like a hard cock and John was sure that her tongue played around the muzzle as it went in. The explosion a moment later shattered more than Kelli-May’s skull.

The phone crashed down as John leapt across the open office space. Tom collided with him, and Kelli-May’s slumping body slid to the floor as they both dived for the gun.

‘Leave it Tom!’ John yelled, prizing Tom’s fingers away from the revolver. Tom was crying, his feet almost drumming against the floor and then stomping as he kicked the firm cushion of Kelli-May’s dead breasts.

Victorious John held the gun aloft. Breathing hard, a hysterical grin etched on his face. ‘Back off!’ he screamed to the almost empty office.

With inexperienced hands John cracked the gun open, fumbling with the revolving chamber he checked and rechecked the empty cavities.

‘Selfish bitch!’ John crossed the room in three long strides, shoving Tom aside he took his turn kicking Kelli-May’s cooling corpse. Spent, he turned away and tossed the gun onto the desk.

Tom slumped against the wall beneath the window. ‘One bullet. Only one bullet.’

‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’

John was grinning into the phone. A cold wet finger was brushing against the outermost fringe of his self-control. At any moment he would burst into hysterical giggles.

‘Kelli-May shot herself. Right here in the office. I didn’t think there were any guns left. There was only one bullet in it. I checked. Can you believe it? I actually checked. I don’t know where she got the piece, but she got out…. Oh man… she really got out….’

‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’

Laughter had fled, John now felt only a bone deep weariness. ‘You won’t believe this but Kelli-May’s still lying here. We called

emergency services, no one is picking up. No one. Guess there are a lot of others who can’t face tonight.’ He sighed and let his gaze pass over the dead woman’s exposed thighs. Tom had fled soon after she died. There was no reason to stay here anymore. No illusion of normalcy to be maintained.

‘I’ll be home soon. Christ I hope you found something. I’d pray but that has never worked before. See you in… about an hour.’

John hung up and walked out of the office. He would not be coming back. No one would. From tonight, there was no return.

‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’

Shouting to be heard over the car horns, the shouts, the screams and the sound of breaking glass, John left another message.

‘Hey! Where are you!? I have been calling all day! I’m stuck in traffic! Seems there was a rumour that an open route out of town had been found. People are just about killing each other trying to get to it! I’ve not seen any stores open, they’ve all closed up. God knows what we’re going to do if we have too many more years of this…. Hey! Get off my car you-!’

His cell phone snapped shut as a grey haired man drooling in slack-jawed terror sprawled over his car hood. Traffic in town was chaotic. Since it started, five years ago now, people lived in denial until this one night of the year. Then they went crazy; first trying to escape, though no one had ever gotten out. Every time anyone left they came back, often confused and babbling. All the roads out of town just brought you back. By the second year the hoarding had started. People started killing each other over a rumored stash by the third year. Last year, the fourth of this hell, had been the worst. The Dyerson’s were just one of many families who did not make it through that night.

‘Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave us a message after the tone and we will call you back.’

John had battled his way out of the traffic, the car was venting steam from a punctured radiator and a deep ticking sound in the guts of the engine sounded terminal. ‘I’m almost home. Please pick up… please…. I’ve got nothing. Nothing at all. I hope you had more luck. It’ll be dark soon. I’ll be home before dark. You know what they will do if we don’t give them what they want. They will tear us apart! We have to get enough and give them what they want! It’s the only way to be safe for another year.’ He snapped the phone shut and drove the last few miles into the suburbs. The lawns and gardens still pristine and cared for. The children’s toys abandoned and the houses boarded up.

John stopped and got out of his car, a child’s bicycle lay abandoned in the street. He took a deep breath and lifted it carefully, wheeling it over to the sidewalk and leaned it against a lamp post.

Looking around he thought he heard a child’s giggle, but they couldn’t be seen. You never saw them any more. Not until after dark on this one night of the year.

Resisting the urge to scream and throw the bike into the nearest tree, John returned to his car and drove home. Letting himself in he yelled for Helen and checked the answering machine.

‘You have eight new messages… BEEP!’ he stepped away from the machine as his recorded voice droned in the background.

A key fumbled in the lock and a moment later Helen burst in, slamming the door shut behind her. She locked and bolted it. Panting in terror she wailed, ‘Oh god! I just got home!’

John stepped out of the kitchen doorway, his face dark with angry accusations. ‘It’s getting dark Helen. I think I saw them. They’re starting early this year. The bastards. What did you get? Where is it?’

Helen burst into tears, ‘I tried! I’m sorry! I tried! There was nothing! Nothing! The stores were empty! You were supposed to get something!’ she lunged forward and smashed her fists against John’s chest. ‘You! Were! Supposed! To! Get! Something!’ she sobbed in time to her punches. John stood and took it, he felt empty inside and Helen’s lashing out was nothing compared to the torture that was sure to come.

‘Jesus. Oh Jesus. What are we going to do? What the Hell are we going to do?’ John stumbled back, turning slowly, an overwhelming sense of loss and shock chilling him.

Helen’s eyes narrowed with cunning, ‘We can hide. In the basement. Turn out the lights, lock the doors and windows! They can’t get in! They won’t find us!

John sneered at her. His hand clenching into a fist ready to beat the stupid out of her. ‘They burn the houses. If you don’t answer the door they burn you out. Remember that? How can you forget? It’s been five damned years of this!’

Helen sank to her knees sobbing, sliding down John’s body the way Kelli-May had before she punched her own ticket. ‘Oh God…! They will drag us out and nail us to the wall of our house. They will crucify us like they did Tim and Emily last year!’

‘There has to be something! There has to be something here we can give them!’ John looked around, the place was bare but panic and his up welling terror wouldn’t let him quit.

Helen’s hysteria turned to cold fury, ‘I told you! I told you! I tried! And I tried! There is no damn candy anywhere in this godforsaken town! I’ve looked everywhere!’

John could hear screams from somewhere down the street. He ignored Helen, thinking aloud as he paced up and down their living room, ‘If we had a gun, we could hold them off. If we had a gun, we could kill ourselves before they come. Oh Christ…Oh Christ. What are we gonna do?’

Helen opened her mouth to say something and then they heard the sound they both dreaded. A sharp, enthusiastic knocking on the front door. They both froze, their eyes fixed on the wooden door. The knock sounded again, regular and insistent. Outside John and Helen could hear other children. Laughing children, moving down the street from house to house, touring the neighborhood and now they knocked again. Helen started screaming as John stumbled to the door, he ignored her. They had no choice. With numb fingers he unlocked the door and let it swing open.

‘Trick or Treat!’

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