“Trick or Treat?” the trio of monsters chimed as the screen door opened.
A zombie, a werewolf, and a vampire stared up into the face of a middle-aged woman with curly hair wearing a purple “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” sweatshirt. They only registered her appearance momentarily. Their ten-year-old attentions immediately prioritized the large ceramic bowl in her hand, or more accurately the contents of the dish. The monsters’ eyes greedily scoured the vast assortment of Three Musketeers, Ring Pops, and Skittles like treasure hunters with only moments to choose what to take from a trove of riches.
“Happy Halloween!” the woman replied. “Wow, that make-up is spooky!”
“Thanks,” Drew said.
Drew Haribou had lost count of the compliments he’d received on his face paint. The rest of his ensemble was rather unexceptional. He’d chosen to wear a natty long-sleeved t-shirt, jeans that had completely worn through in the knees, and his usual sneakers. His mother had made a comment about being worried at how easily his clothes could pass for those of the undead, but she was always saying things like that. Drew knew that what really sold the costume was what his older sister had done to his face.
Shannon was really into makeup, but not like his other friends’ sisters. For as long as he could remember, Drew’s sister had been obsessed with horror films. She particularly enjoyed old monster movies with practical effects and spent a considerable amount of time learning to transform herself, her brother, and anyone else who’d let her into horrifying apparitions using makeup and face paint. She hoped to go to Hollywood after she graduated and work on a Wes Craven movie.
She’d modeled the design of Drew’s zombie after one of her and her brother’s favorite movies, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It had taken over an hour, but she’d given the exposed skin on his face and hands the distinctive gray/green tone as the undead corpses from the film. Shannon also made his eyes and cheeks appear gaunt and sunken using darker shades underneath his eyes and cheekbone. For good measure, she’d created a vibrant red gash across his forehead. He’d been delighted when she finally held up a mirror for him to see the results, and his friends Brent and Ryan had been noticeably jealous when he joined them to start an evening of accumulating candy.
They’d spent the first two hours in the Bent Creek Subdivision. Bent Creek was a large, upper middle-class neighborhood within walking distance of where each of the boys lived. Their efforts had yielded positive results so far, and the pillow cases they used to hold their loot were well over halfway full. Nonetheless, each boy knew there was still more to obtain before All Hallows Eve came to a close.
“Well, y’all grab a handful,” the woman said encouragingly.
The boys didn’t need further invitation. Drew, Brent, and Ryan got as much candy as they could fit their fingers around, and deposited the sweets in their pillow cases. The woman smiled, and stepped back inside her home as the boys hurried down the porch steps towards the next house. The street was bustling with other children dressed as movie characters, superheroes, and monsters. The trio had to dart around other trick-or-treaters to get to the next house which was unoccupied, but had a bowl of jawbreakers sitting on a small table by the door. The boys descended on the treats like hungry jackals.
The friends hadn’t spoken much as they’d ventured door-to-door. The work of gathering candy was to be taken seriously after all. They moved from house-to-house quickly and efficiently with little conversation in between. However, the house with the jawbreakers was the last one on the street, and they’d already combed the rest of the neighborhood. The boys huddled beneath a street lamp to formulate their next steps. Drew removed a green apple taffy from his pocket and popped it into his mouth. It was his favorite candy, and he was normally well stocked even outside of Halloween.
“What about Bellegrass?” Ryan asked.
“Naw, it’ll be picked clean by now,” Brent countered.
“What about King’s Mill?” Drew suggested, chewing on the fruit flavored sweet.
“I think they start turning off their lights at six. By the time we get there, we’ll only have a few minutes.”
“I know,” Ryan said, his face lighting up, “What about Mars Hill?”
Mars Hill was a more rural neighborhood about ten minutes from Bent Creek. The houses were further apart, but the residents celebrated Halloween with gusto. Every home featured extensive decorations and many offered free haunted forests or hayrides. Because the houses were harder to hit in bulk, the boys hadn’t wanted to start there, but it was well-known amongst the local children that they continued to encourage trick-or-treaters late into the evening. Moreover, Mars Hill had a reputation for its delicious homemade treats, and, now that they had accumulated an abundance of candy, it would be nice to branch out into cookies, cupcakes, and other baked goods.
“Remember those pumpkin cupcakes from last year?” Ryan asked.
“And the triple chocolate brownies Mrs. Adams made?” Drew said, almost salivating at the memory.
“It’d be fastest if we cut through The Forest,” Brent said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah, that’ll save us going to get the bikes,” Ryan agreed.
Drew nodded, but he had some reservations. He wasn’t scared necessarily. The Forest, as it was locally called, referred to less than twenty acres of overgrown pine situated between several adjacent neighborhoods. The wooded area would likely one day be another middle-class subdivision, but for the time being, was the closest thing the local children had to wild terrain. Drew and his friends spent a lot of their summer running around beneath the trees. There was even a ramshackle clubhouse that was constantly changing hands between the various tribes of kids.
The forest had never been scary. It wasn’t particularly large, and there weren’t any dangerous animals. Drew was more concerned with the practicality of finding their way through the dark. Even though the moon was full, the trees would shroud much of its glow, and none of the boys had flashlights.
“You think we’ll be able to see?” he asked skeptically.
“It’s not that dark, and we pretty much just need to cut across,” Brent reasoned.
“Yeah, come on, let’s get going,” Ryan said, swinging his bag of candy over his shoulder like an old-fashioned burglar getting ready to run away with his loot. Drew shrugged and followed his friends. They worked against the flow of costumed children still traversing Bent Creek, until they passed the brick sign marking the entrance of the neighborhood. They crossed the road and stood before a dense tree line. Without any prompting, Ryan bolted ahead into The Forest.
“Come on!” he shouted back.
Drew and Brent hurried after their friend. Ryan was still running far ahead, and was hard to see besides the occasional red flash of the inside of his vampire cape. As the other’s hurried to catch up, he seemed to go faster, but shouted over his shoulder,
“First one out wins!”
Drew and Brent shared a quick look then both sped up. Ryan kept a healthy lead, but the others held their pace, sharply darting around pines and thorny bramble. Seeing that he likely wouldn’t catch Ryan through pure speed, Drew suddenly veered to the right, away from Brent. He’d remembered a bike trail that Anson and Beau Chenault had cleared nearby that would be faster than running through the dense woods.
He heard Brent yell something over his shoulder, but he ignored his friend and ran faster. As he hurried deeper and deeper into The Forest, he was relieved to see that it was better lit than he’d expected. The moon blanketed the overgrown woods with a pale glow that didn’t fully illuminate the trees, but created enough light to see his immediate surroundings. He passed the small dogwood where his friend Evan had buried his dog the year before. There was a small cross carved into the base, and when he saw the marker, Drew knew he was close.
However, as he ran farther into the woods, he was surprised to see unfamiliar terrain. Instead of weeds and bramble covered pine straw he noticed dense green moss coating the forest floor. He also realized that there were less pines than he remembered and more towering, ancient trees that seemed very out of place in the small patch of undeveloped acreage. Drew came to a stop and looked more closely at his surroundings.
He had no idea where he was.
Drew would have said that he and his friends knew every inch of The Forest, but where he currently stood was completely alien to him. He felt like he was standing in woods lifted from a primeval fairy tale.
“Ryan! Brent!” he called.
There was no answer. Drew felt as if his stomach suddenly fell to his feet, and a cold sweat broke on the back of his neck. He turned around and quickly tried to retrace his steps. After two minutes of running though, he still couldn’t even manage to find the dogwood tree.
“Guys! Are you there?” Drew called again.
“Are you lost?”
Drew whirled around towards the sudden, unfamiliar voice. He didn’t see anyone, especially not his friends. The voice had come from behind him, but the only thing he saw was an immense, and unusual Oak. The ancient tree was taller than any Drew had seen in The Forest, but what made it all the stranger was the vast network of anaconda-sized branches that trailed upwards, but then dipped down to the ground where they wove together like a complex living spiderweb.
As he stared at the tree, a shape crawled from one of the dark crevices between the interlaced boughs draped with Spanish moss. Drew’s breath caught in his throat as the dark figure scrambled from branch to branch like some massive insect. However, as the form came into view, he felt himself relax. When his eyes adjusted, he saw that what he’d initially taken for some wild animal or worse, was actually another boy about his age.
The boy was clutching a sack almost as full as Drew’s, but his costume was hard to determine. He was wearing brown pants and a red t-shirt, but his makeup rivaled Drew’s. His arms and face were a chalky white, and the unearthly color had even been applied to his eyelids. He had unusually long and pointed ears, and it was impossible to tell were the prosthetics began. Drew was also unable to tell if the boy’s features were naturally pointed or if there were other subtle practical effects at work.
The boy came to a stop a couple of feet away, on a wide flat branch, big enough to sit comfortably. He placed his sack in front of him and the top folded over revealing a hoard of sweets that rivaled Drew’s. He tilted his head and smiled.
“I’m happy to see you. I’ve been out here a long time.”
“Are you lost too?” Drew asked.
“No, but I was one time.”
“What is this place? I’ve never seen this part of The Forest before,” Drew said thoughtfully.
“I found it a couple Halloweens ago. I was playing with my friend and got turned around. It’s kind of cool though. I come here after trick or treating now,” the boy said reminiscing.
“Are you from around here?”
“My name’s Aden,” the boy offered a slight wave, “what’s yours?”
“Drew Haribou. So, you’ve found your way back to the neighborhoods before?”
“Oh yeah,” he nodded over Drew’s shoulder, “you just go straight back that way for five minutes then veer left.”
“Phew,” Drew sighed, pulling another green apple taffy from his pocket and inserting it into his mouth, “I’m glad you know the way. I was getting scared for a minute there. Hey, that’s good make-up,” he said pointing at the boy’s arms.
“I like yours.”
“Thanks. Well, I’m going to head out. My friends have probably already started again without me.”
“Before you go, do you want to trade?” Aden reached for his bag of candy. He opened the sack wider, and Drew saw that in addition to the typical Kit-Kats, Crunch Bars, and Hershey’s Kisses there were a variety of intricate treats that clearly didn’t come from a nearby store. He saw a small bag of cookies that consisted of seven layers of wafers, frosting, and caramel. He noticed a box resembling a circus cage that held a detailed chocolate gorilla with vanilla teeth. Drew’s eyes widened at the assortment of homemade wonders.
“Wow, did you already go to Mars Hill?” he asked.
“I’ve been all over,” Aden said, “but I’ll trade if you want.”
“Really?” Drew asked, surprised the kid was even interested in his candy when he had such a good stash.
“Yeah, it’ll be fun,” the boy leaned a little closer, “I’ll let you pick three then you can give me three.”
Drew considered this for a moment. Most of the candy bars and other treats he’d accumulated were hardly original items, and the bulk of his haul ensured that he had multiples of most. He could afford to let some go for some of the wonders Aden had gathered.
Aden grinned and gestured for him to help himself to the bag. Drew didn’t need further permission. He stepped onto one of the lower branches, so that he could reach the sack, and began rifling through the contents. For his first choice, he picked the chocolate gorilla, which he quickly deposited into his sack. As he returned to make his second and third choice, Drew noticed Aden slowly recede so that he was now sitting comfortably in a dark recess of the tree’s conflux of branches.
Drew ignored the other boy, and continued to rifle through the sack of treats. The next item he decided on was a small glass jar holding what looked like several handmade malt chocolate balls. He briefly unfastened the lid and breathed in the rich cocoa scent. Drew refastened the jar, and transferred the sweet morsels to his own bag. He returned to Aden’s sack and thought carefully on his final choice. He eventually settled on a hollowed-out chocolate pumpkin the size of an orange, the interior of which seemed to contain green jelly beans.
When he put this last item in his bag, Aden’s voice from the dark crevice made him jump slightly. He’d been so consumed with picking the best treats he’d almost forgotten about the other kid. He looked up and saw only the boy’s feet sticking out from the shadowy web of limbs.
“Good choices,” Aden said appraisingly.
“You can go through mine now,” Drew put his own sack on the branch beside Aden’s.
A pale hand reached out of the shadows and began rummaging through the contents, but not with the same intensity as Drew’s search.
“Where do you live?” Aden asked from his place in the tree.
“Over on Orchid Row. We’re at the end of cul-de-sac. With the green door.”
Aden’s hand pulled a green apple taffy from the bag which surprised Drew. It was just like the one he was currently chewing, but seemed a rather common choice compared to what was in the strange boy’s own bag. Nonetheless, he watched as it quickly receded into the dark. The white hand swiftly reappeared, and continued to search through the pillow case full of candy.
“Find something good?” he asked.
“I think so. What’s your family like?” Aden asked.
“Well it’s just Mom, Dad, and Shannon. She’s my older sister,” Drew replied, wishing the boy would hurry up so he could still try to make Mars Hill. As he thought this, he saw Aden pull another green apple taffy from the bag and secret it away into his perch amongst the branches.
“What does your sister like to do?”
“She’s into movie effects. Like scary movie prosthetics. She wants to be a makeup artist. She’s the one that did my costume.” Drew held out his arms to showcase the zombie paint, “It’s from “Dawn of the Dead. We’re going to watch it later.”
To Drew’s surprise, Aden took one last green apple taffy from the sack, and this time his hand didn’t reemerge from the darkness. Drew was glad he’d finished. He was ready to get out The Forest, and away from this kid who was honestly starting to creep him out. He reached up and collected his bag. Even though he’d come off well from the trade, he was feeling strangely uneasy.
“So just five minutes back that way, then veer left?” Drew turned and looked in the direction of his supposed exit.
“Well, I’ll see you later then.”
There was no reply. Drew turned around and saw that Aden’s legs were no longer resting on the dark crevice, and there was no sign of his bag of treats. He craned his head and looked around. He hadn’t heard the boy move or get down. Drew shrugged and turned to leave. He walked for about five minutes and was surprised to find that he began to once again recognize the setting. There were fewer sprawling oaks and more young pines. He was further relieved when, as he finally began to veer left, he recognized the dogwood tree with the small cross carved in the base.
Drew checked his watch by the light of the moon, and saw to his dismay that it was almost nine. He was well past his curfew. Drew groaned and, instead of taking the trail to Mars Hill, turned back towards the subdivisions. He hurried along and within ten minutes found himself standing at the end of his own neighborhood. The street lamps were still on, but the sidewalks were completely empty. His sneakers echoed on the pavement as he tried to think of an excuse for his mother.
Drew finally made it to the end of his cul-de-sac and walked up towards the familiar green door of his home. He shifted his bag of candy to his left hand and reached for the knob. To his surprise, the door was locked. He hadn’t brought his key with him, and sighed as he was forced to knock. He wasn’t going to hear the end of it.
His mother came to the door. When she saw him, her eyebrows knitted together in dismay. She didn’t open the door all of the way and, instead, leaned out almost cautiously.
“Young man, it’s far too late to be out trick-or-treating.”
“Sorry, Mom. I got lost in the woods.”
“What?” she asked.
“I got turned around in The Forest with the guys, and I came back as soon as I got out,” Drew explained.
“Are you confused, young man? Do you need me to call someone?” Drew was surprised to hear the note of wariness and concern in her voice.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Is there someone there?” Before she appeared, Drew recognized Shannon’s voice. The door opened slightly wider, and he saw his sister wearing her pajama pants and a Blink 182 t-Shirt. But his heart almost stopped when he saw who was standing beside her.
Drew Haribou was staring at himself. It was like looking in the mirror. His doppelganger was wearing his zombie costume still, but the paint had been removed from his arms, face, and neck. Drew stared into his own eyes, scanned his own face, noticing the slight scar on the stranger’s cheek from where he’d fallen off a horse at his grandparents when he was seven. The other version of himself stared back with an eerie smile.
“I think you need to go home now,” his mother said.
“But…it’s me. I’m your son,” Drew said, feeling sick suddenly.
“You shouldn’t play tricks on people like this. Now, go home before I have to call the police.”
“Come on, Shannon. Let’s go watch Dawn of the Dead,” the other Drew said to his sister.
Drew could only stare, in stunned horror as his mother started to shut the door. As it closed, the strange doppelganger turned back and looked right at him. Without breaking eye contact, he reached into his pocket and produced a piece of green apple taffy. He winked at Drew, and popped it into his mouth.
“Wait!” he started, but the door slammed shut and the porch light turned off.
Drew backed away from his home in confused panic. It was a joke of some sort. It had to be. He tried to return his breathing to normal, then started towards the house again. Whatever trick his family was playing wasn’t funny. He stopped though when something caught his eye. There was a window near the front door, and his reflection elicited a sudden and involuntary moan.
He looked down at his arms and saw that they were no longer coated in the zombie makeup his sister had prepared; they were now a chalky white. He reached up gingerly and felt the pointy tip of his ears. He searched for an edge or some end of the prosthetic, but found none. Drew let his hand fall and stared in shock at the reflection that perfectly mirrored the boy from the tree. He looked back at the door one more time, then turned, and started running.
He ran out of his neighborhood and back towards The Forest. His sack of candy still bounced over his shoulder, but the uncomfortable weight was an afterthought. If he could only get back to the tree, maybe he could reverse whatever had happened. To his surprise, as he ran deeper and deeper into the woods, he found that he could easily retrace the way to the before unknown region of The Forest. It felt like no time at all before he was standing at the base of the immense oak tree with the curling web of branches and limbs. He stared up at the ancient growth in confusion. He let his sack of treats fall to the ground.
The bag rolled over and the topmost contents spilled onto the moss-covered ground. The chocolate pumpkin filled with jelly beans rolled out against his sneaker. He reached down and retrieved it. The treat felt warm in his hand, and the chocolate immediately began to soften at his touch. He looked back up at the tree. He felt inexplicably tired all of the sudden, as if there were small weights on his eyelids. The tree seemed strangely inviting.
Drew stepped onto one of the lower branches, and worked his way up to a natural nest formed by several larger limbs woven together. He crawled into the strangely comforting darkness and curled into a ball. He bit into the chocolate pumpkin and found the sticky sweetness deeply nourishing. Drew closed his eyes and reasoned that he would just rest awhile. When he felt better, he would figure this out. There had to be a way back.
If not, perhaps someone would come along who would want to trade.