She thought they were prepared for a delightfully frightening Halloween.
The pumpkins were ready for near-last-minute carving so the jack-o-lanterns wouldn’t collapse into grotesque puddles of decay in the hot days leading up to the thirty-first. She and Brian had purchased their candy early, when the stores were well-stocked and they could choose the most popular treats. The candy was stored in a carton in the garage — hundreds of tiny packets of M&Ms.
Cobwebs and orange lights adorned the front porch. Skeletons and headstones rose out of the lawn — a graveyard disgorging its contents.
The neighbors had told them to expect up to one hundred and fifty costumed cherubs.
Jill and Brian had never experienced Halloween in a beach town, but all their neighbors said it was widely celebrated.
Their new coastal home offered the best of both worlds. The house was within walking distance to the shore. At the same time, the exclusive development was sequestered from the druggies and beach bums that delivered a plague of petty crime in neighborhoods closer to the water.
There were a few other less than perfect attributes. In a more rural area, there was a regular invasion of skunks and raccoons, an occasional coyote and more possums than Jill wanted to think about. The raccoons were cute enough, although they got into the garbage if you didn’t secure the lid.
Like a lot of coastal towns, it also had more than its share of bleeding hearts. Quite a few of her neighbors supported free needle exchange programs. No wonder the homes close to the beach had so many problems caused by addicts. Giving out needles attracted them the way open trash cans drew the raccoons and possums. But that’s why her neighborhood was so perfect. All of that filth was kept at a distance.
She first noticed the problem ten days before Halloween. The flaps on the carton of candy were open. Had Brian been sneaking treats? She looked inside. There seemed to be a few less packets, but she couldn’t be sure. She closed the flaps and put a pair of pruning sheers on top of the box. If they were moved, she’d be on to him. She smiled. He had a much bigger sweet tooth than she did.
A few days later, the sheers had moved and one of the flaps was open. This time, there was definitely some candy missing.
Brian denied it. She poked his ribs. “We have plenty. You don’t need to lie about it.”
He insisted he wasn’t. That afternoon, he left for a business trip to Denver.
The following day, the sheers were on the floor. She hadn’t heard them fall. It would have scared her half to death, alone in the house. She was not equipped to deal with a wild animal on her own.
She peered inside the box. Easily a third of the candy was gone, the box littered with crumpled packets.
How had a wild animal found its way into the garage? She walked around the perimeter, looking for openings. Nothing. It could be anywhere. Boxes from their old house were stacked on one side, the result of downsizing with not enough attention to purging unneeded items. There was a pile of camping gear they’d probably never use again, including a tent and three poorly rolled sleeping bags.
She went to the workbench and opened the box of rat poison. It was surely enough for a possum. They were so ugly, and small enough to sneak in through vents in the rafters. She shuddered, thinking of their pointed faces and beady eyes.
She’d get that little bastard. She slit open a handful of M&M bags. She dropped a few pellets into each bag and placed them on top of the box, well away from the rest of the candy inside, so there was no chance of it leeching into the sealed packets.
The following day she went to lunch with friends from her old neighborhood. She forgot about the candy and the invading possum.
That evening, she drank a glass of white wine with her dinner. She refilled the glass before settling in front of the TV. She watched a family drama, sipping wine, fighting a desire to sleep.
A thud came from somewhere near the front of the house, ending her drowsiness. She lowered the volume on the TV. Had it been inside, or farther away, a car bumping into a curb? She put down her glass and went to the front window. The skeletons and gravestones gleamed white and gray under the streetlight. There was no movement.
She walked back toward the family room and paused.
There couldn’t be anyone inside the house. She’d checked all the locks before dinner.
She walked slowly toward the garage door, her mind suddenly alert to the possum. If it had eaten the contents of the M&M bag and fallen on the floor, she didn’t want to see it. She should leave the garage door locked and let Brian deal with it when he returned.
But the hot weather would cause decay. The stench would be unbearable.
She turned the deadbolt and grabbed the knob. She turned it slowly, opening the door and immediately flicking the switch for the overhead light. The smell of something like sewage and vomit washed over her. She stepped back, pressing her hand across her nose and mouth. She pushed the door wider.
Lying on his side near the box of candy was a man with uncombed blonde hair and gray-tinged skin. Vomit coated his lips and beard and spilled onto the neck of his t-shirt. His legs were splayed, his arms flopped at awkward angles. Beside him were five empty candy bags.
His eyes were open, staring directly at her, unmoving and unseeing, but accusing, nevertheless.