All Hallows’ Eve; Halloween; All Saints’ Eve; to the Celts, the last day of the year, a festival for the dead; to early Christians, a night when witches and warlocks ranged abroad, a good night for a large bonfire; to modern children, costumes, candy and ghost stories. To Margaret Olsen, it was the night on which she surrendered her virginity to the quarterback from Northridge (whom she never saw again); the night when, in a drunken stupor, she agreed to marry Ronny Olsen; the day when she tearfully filed for divorce 6 years later (thus correcting at least one of her former Halloween follies, the other of which being much more difficult to rectify); the night when she was, as she often said, “accident prone,” in the spirit of the wealthy industrialist who bribed a ticket agent with an obscene sum of cash just to book passage on the Titanic. Had she the foresight to realize what this All Hallows’ Eve had in store for her, she would have almost certainly gone directly to bed; alone. Five-sight, however, would have insisted that she carry out her plans as best she could. Having no sight except that which her chocolate eyes provided, she innocently, albeit anxiously, proceeded to make ready for Sharon’s costume party thus employing her five-sight through the proxy of her innocence, as was her custom.
Due to her usual month-end-tizzy, Margaret had forgotten to reserve her Halloween outfit and consequently walked into the costume shop right off the street and asked for a Cinderella ensemble. The clerk just laughed aloud, “Are you kidding, lady? The last one was booked in August.”
“Well, what do you have available?”
“About all we got left in your size are a couple of Old Hag costumes. You know, black dress, cape and pointy hat. You want one?”
“Does a mask come with it?”
“Used to, not any more. These babies have been out more times than Wilt Chamberlain,” he laughed, thinking himself clever, “But I can sell you a half-mask like this one,” pointing to the display, “for $9.95. You want it or not, lady? I got other customers waiting.”
She’d take the costume and the hag mask. “I guess half a hag is better than no hag at all,” she mumbled to herself as she pawed through her purse looking for some money. Several hyper-kinetic moments later, her right hand emerged holding a wallet decorated with lint, Kleenex confetti and a couple of trading stamps. She paid the clerk, grabbed her bag and left the store in something of a snit.
“Already it starts,” Margaret mumbled under her breath as she left the shop. “It’s only four o’clock and I’ve already started fouling up.” Her heels dug into the sidewalk percussively as she walked the half-block to the parking lot.
Things did not improve on the way home. Between freeway snarls, a noisy and breathtakingly narrow escape from a fender-bender, and a gas gauge teetering on empty, Margaret’s mood was all but mortally wounded by the time she reached home. After hanging up her coat, her first act was to walk briskly and directly to the liquor cabinet and grab the first bottle she came to: 190 proof Everclear. “Can’t use this one,” she said to herself with some irritation. “Got to save the high-test stuff for the punch at the party tonight.” At least she had bought it before the stores ran out, she sighed. The next bottle was bourbon. She decided that would do just fine and poured a couple of ounces in a tumbler. After a brief debate, she opted to drop a couple of large ice cubes in with the whiskey. “Ahhh,” she groaned after her first slug of the potent brew. She felt better already.
She carried the drink out to the living room and collapsed on the couch. Downing another immodest swig of bourbon, she laid back her head and took a deep breath. It felt so good just to relax for a few minutes. She closed her eyes and thought about palm trees and blue lagoons, a relaxation technique she had heard was helpful. Margaret was pleased and a little surprised a few minutes later when she realized how well it was working. She actually did feel relaxed and calm for the first time all day. In fact, she felt pretty good. She chuckled at herself for worrying so much about things: the costume, the traffic, the party. So what. It wasn’t like her life was threatened or anything. Come to think of it, everything she habitually worried about was really just small potatoes compared with the really big dangers: terminal disease, robbery, murder, rape. Immediately she regretted thinking about it. Disease, violent crime she could almost handle, but rape – the mere thought of it brought on an adrenaline rush, the kind that makes your knees tremble and gives you the pulse and respiration of a hamster.
The relaxation was gone now. It was replaced by an anxiety that was worse than she’d felt all day. “Terrific,” she growled at herself, “I finally get relaxed and I have to go and screw it up by thinking about the R-word.” She tried again to think of the tropical scene that had worked so well just a few minutes ago. No dice. This time the scene was dark and there were bumps and heavy breathing where nights aren’t supposed to have places. After a minute of that, Margaret sprang to her feet and looked for something to do quickly to get her mind off her fear.
The first thing she saw was the bag from the costumers. Since she really hadn’t taken a close look at her outfit in the shop, she decided that this would be a good time. If she needed to make any alterations, at least she still had time before the party. The costume looked as good on her as it would on any witch. The mask was actually quite good, too. It had huge, hairy brows and an even larger proboscis complete with warts and nasal hair. Really quite grotesque. The only problem was that it only covered her face from the mouth up. She would have to do something with her cheeks and jaw to make them fit with the mask or she’d look silly. She felt sure that she would find enough ways to look dumb at the party without bringing any along.
She wore the mask into the bathroom and, standing in from of the mirror, tried to imagine what kind of makeup she could use to best effect to integrate her smooth complexion with the grizzled caricature of the hag. Using mascara, eye-liner and several other arcane compounds, she began the transformation of her otherwise attractive face. When she had finished, she stood admiring her handiwork. It was actually quite good. Still, there seemed to be something missing. Suddenly she remembered the trick they used to gross each other out with when she was a kid. She went to her desk and retrieved a bottle of Rubber Cement. First she applied a strip of the cement to her left cheek. After it had dried, she pinched the flesh, creating a long crevice. When she let go, the gouge remained, held together by the cement. The scar thus produced looked positively disgusting and Margaret was delighted. Using the same technique, she added a few other blemishes at strategic points on her face and neck.
When she had finished, she was elated at the transformation. Returning to the living room, she admired herself in the wall mirror. She was amazed. Not only was she ugly and haggy but it was clear that she’d never see 90 again. Just to amplify the effect, she stooped over and walked around with a geriatric shuffle. The effect made her laugh. “Maybe my luck is changing,” she giggled, “Maybe getting stuck with this outfit was really serendipitous.” She began to practice cackling. As good as her costume was, it was well worth the effort to add a few finishing touches before the party.
Margaret spent over an hour perfecting her voice, witchy laugh, old hag walk and other mannerisms. When she finally noticed the clock, she realized that she was going to be late to the party. Ordinarily, she would have been happy to be fashionably tardy, but she had promised Sharon to bring the hi-test alcohol and help with the preparations. She reverted to her former frantic mode and rushed around for five minutes, gathering up the food, liquor and other props she was to bring with her. After one last look around to make sure she hadn’t missed anything, she was out the door and speeding down Highland Street toward Sharon’s. “Only 20 minutes late! Not bad, Maggie,” she chided, “You just never have a broom when you really need one.”
Sharon’s apartment was in the newly renovated, upscale Dunbar neighborhood, less than a mile from the edge of Grayling which was still a borderline slum. Margaret always felt uneasy driving through Grayling, especially at night. Somehow, Halloween didn’t improve the ambiance. It was, however, on the shortest and most direct route to the party and, being late already, she decided to go via Grayling anyway. She pushed the speed limit all the way and held her breath every time she ran a yellow light hoping there were no police in sight.
When she arrived at Sharon’s apartment building, she was thrilled to see a car just pulling away from the curb, leaving a parking place near the front door. Maybe her luck was changing after all. She parallel parked perfectly on the first attempt. This pleased her even more. By the time she rang for Sharon to let her in, she was positively beaming.
As Sharon opened the door to the apartment, she blanched. Just for one brief moment, in the dim light from the hallway, she fell for the disguise – hook, line and cackle. When she caught her breath, she choked out, “Jesus, Maggie, you look great … I mean awful … well, you know what I mean. Where in the world did you get that outfit. It’s perfect.” Then, further regaining her composure, “Here, let me take that stuff for you.” Margaret handed over a large shopping bag containing her contributions to the festivities, all except the alcohol which was tucked safely in her purse.
None of the other guests had yet arrived which made Margaret feel a little better about being late. They worked quickly to set up the finger-food and spike the punch. Sharon, feeling responsible for the condition in which her guests left the party, insisted that they use only half the rocket-fuel. She said that if they needed to, they could always add more later. Margaret agreed and, after pouring half the bottle into a pint fruit jar, which she then replaced in her purse, she emptied the remainder into the punch bowl. The two women tasted the heady mixture and agreed that it was every bit as good as last year’s.
Soon, other guests began to arrive. Some Margaret knew, others were associates of Sharon’s. It proved to be a good mix of friends and strangers. As the momentum of the party climbed toward full swing, Margaret forgot all the fears and frustrations of the day. It was a good party with good people and she was having the time of her life. She was, that is, until Franklin arrived — with a date.
She could hardly believe her eyes. After the way he had so unceremoniously dumped her less than two months ago, she hardly expected him to have the gall to show up at the party. And with a date, no less! At first she was stunned. Shock soon turned to hurt, pain to anger. She wanted nothing more than to hurt him back. In spades. Her imagination raced back and forth frantically searching for the means by which she could get even. Nothing suitable came up. Her next impulse was to disappear.
She walked swiftly to the back bedroom where she hid out for a quarter of an hour while she tried to figure out what to do. Sharon finally missed her and formed a search party of one to track her down. When she found her, she said, “Maggie, what are you doing in here?”
“I’ll give you one guess.”
“Franklin? I thought you knew he’d be here. Oh, God. I’m sorry, kid, if I’d known I’d have warned you. It must have been a terrible shock for you having him just show up like that. Look, I’ll just go ask them to leave right now. Okay?”
“No!” shouted Margaret, “not okay. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.”
“What, then? Are you going to spend the rest of the evening hiding in here?”
“No.” Then after a long pause, “I think I’ll just leave myself. The party’s pretty much ruined for me now anyway. Actually, there is another party I sort of promised to go to later. I guess I’ll just drop in a little early to that one. Sort of make up for being late to yours.”
“Oh come on now, you don’t have to do that. This is as much your party as it is mine. I don’t want this to spoil Halloween for you. Please reconsider.”
“I don’t think so, Sharon. I had a wonderful time for the first couple of hours. Maybe I can do it again at the other party. There, at least, I’ll have a chance to. I doubt if I could resurrect any fun here. Thanks for asking, though. You’re a dear.” She was already adjusting her cape for the cool autumn night.
“Well, if you’re sure. Call me when you get there though, so I won’t worry. Alright?”
“Alright, if you insist,” promised Margaret, cracking a tentative smile. “Thanks for being so understanding, Sharon. This sort of thing is really quite normal for me on Halloween. Earlier, I thought this year was going to be different. Apparently that was a premature assessment.”
They both laughed and kissed each other on the cheek before Sharon left to rejoin the party. Margaret just grabbed her purse and quietly slipped out the front door and down to her car.
There was, of course, no other party to go to nor would she have been in the mood if there had been. All she wanted to do was get home as quickly as possible. It was pitch black as she retraced the route taken on the trip over. There was no moon and, once she entered the Grayling district, few street lamps. It was a perfect night for Halloween.
A few minutes after she entered Grayling, the car began to sputter. Within a block the engine was dead and she was just coasting along. Margaret looked at the gas gauge and came to the horrifying realization that in all the melee she’d forgotten to get gas. As the car rolled slowly to a complete stop, she pulled over to the curb in front of a boarded-up store front and turned off the lights and ignition. The silence and the darkness caved in on her like going deaf and blind simultaneously. Already the fear was gripping her. Looking up and down the street, she saw neither people nor cars. Even the nearest street lamp was several blocks away with nothing in between but an immense expanse of darkened buildings and murky shadows.
What was she going to do? She couldn’t stay here all night. She thought about flagging down a motorist, if one ever showed up, but when she realized that she had no idea who they might be, she dropped that plan. Striving to regain her rationality, Margaret tried to remember if she’d seen anyplace open in the last few blocks. She looked back and saw only an occasional light, none bright enough to have been a cafe or bar or gas station. How about phone booths? Hadn’t she seen one on the left-hand side of the street recently? Yes, she was sure she had. She remembered that it was on a corner, right in front of a building that looked like a warehouse or something.
She determined that this was her only choice. She simply had to walk back there and call Triple-A for help. It was the only thing that made sense.
The first time she reached for the door latch, her hand refused to move. It was then she realized the depth of her fear. On the second try, she managed to get the door open but jerked it shut again as soon as the interior lights came on. The one thing she didn’t want now was to attract attention. Visions of sharks imploding on a feeding frenzy flashed briefly through her mind. “Stop that!” she shouted at herself. “Isn’t the reality bad enough without making things up?”
Now she virtually jumped out of the car and began walking briskly back up the street. Her heels sounded like sledge hammers against the sidewalk. Immediately she slowed her pace to quiet them down. “Maybe I should go barefoot,” she mused to herself. No, that was stupid. Just keep on walking. It would soon be over and she’d have something to laugh about tomorrow. Yes, it would make a great story.
Click, click, click, click, her heels were as quiet as they were likely to get and still she was sure she could be heard for blocks in every direction. She still saw no one ahead of her. There was some consolation in that at least. As long as she remained alone, she could stave off the panic that waited in the wings of her heart, crouching like a great cat, poised to spring upon its prey without warning. Still she kept it at bay.
Click, click, click, one block behind her now but how many more to go? She didn’t know. Was it three, four, five, more? She had no idea at all. Just keep walking steadily. That was the thing to do, and that’s just what she did.
Now she crossed the third intersection, looking right and left for anything encouraging. Nothing but even greater blackness. At the end of the fourth block, Quincy Avenue, she looked to the left and saw a spot of light. It was in the middle of the third block and too far away to identify with any certainty. It vaguely resembled a phone booth but she couldn’t be sure. Now she faced a decision: keep on as she had been or turn left toward what she hoped was a telephone and deliverance. She looked ahead and saw nothing at all inviting. At least she could see a light up Quincy. She had to go for it.
Turning left, she struck out for the distant glow. In less than three minutes, she was approaching the light. As she stepped up onto the curb at the beginning of the block, she could see it well enough to realize that it was not a phone booth. It was only a small bulb hung low on a telephone pole in front of a doorway. Her steps slowed then and within a few feet she turned with disappointment to begin retracing her steps.
Before she had walked ten feet, her heart came to a sudden, screeching halt. Ahead of her, about the middle of the next block, she saw a shadow move. It was about the size and shape of a man. Whoever it was seemed to be walking very slowly, purposefully and directly toward her. Her adrenal glands had to bring in a swing shift just to keep up with demand.
What was she going to do? What could she do? Still walking, though much more slowly, she was now at the end of the block, less than a hundred feet from the shadow looming ahead. On the spur of the moment, she decided to take a right at the corner. This put her on yet another dark street but at least there were no moving shadows ahead of her. “God, please let him just keep walking when he gets to the corner,” she whispered through clenched teeth.
Margaret was almost halfway down the block when she heard his footsteps in the vacuum behind her. Now he was stepping off the curb to cross the street (“so far, so good”); now he was walking across the street (“please keep walking”); up onto the curb of the same sidewalk she had just passed over (“just keep walking straight ahead”). She knew that if he continued straight ahead, his footsteps would be inaudible in a matter of seconds. Walking as quietly as possible, she listened to the measured steps behind her … one, two, three, four, five … she could still hear them clearly. He had turned behind her. The graveyard shift went to work at the adrenalin factory. No doubt about it: he was following her, or if that is not the word, then stalking.
What ensued was a violent revolution of the heart and mind. A psychic eves-dropper would have heard – “RUN! Run as fast as you can!“; “What are you crazy? That will just bring him down on me sooner. I need time to think.”; “Right, and you’ll still be thinking while he’s slitting your throat! Run, Margaret, it’s your only hope!”; “I don’t want to die in this stupid costume, with this ridiculous mask and make-up. Hell, I’ve never even seen Paris.”; “Shut up and run like Hell!” – or words to that effect.
Tears were beginning to form at the corners of her eyes, waiting, like the panic, to burst into the spotlight and wreak their own special form of havoc. Her control of these primal instincts was growing weaker with every step. Then, quietly, matter-of-factly, with a serenity that astounded her, she heard herself saying almost aloud, “These are the last few moments of my life. How do I want to spend them? Running like a frightened rabbit? Pleading shamelessly like I did when Franklin left? No! I’ve done enough of that all my life. This is my last chance to take a stand and I’m not going to blow it. He may do whatever it is he intends, but by God I won’t make it easy.”
At that very moment, everything became so clear to her. She was as cool as the black-box recordings of airline pilots about to crash. Her entire body relaxed, her gait became smooth, even and effortless, she knew exactly what she was going to do. Improvise.
Reaching into her purse, she calmly wrapped her fingers around the fruit jar containing the unused portions of alcohol. Methodically she unscrewed the top and slowly brought it to her lips. She took one small but throat scorching swallow, just for courage, then filled her mouth with as much as it would hold. Returning the jar to her purse, she retrieved a cigarette lighter she kept there, having quit smoking, for no reason in particular. Holding it close to her chest to hide the flame, she flicked it a couple of times, just to make sure it was still operable. Having determined that it was, she then moved the lever that controls the height of the flame all the way to the right. She was ready.
Margaret slowed to a complete stop. Taking a deep breath through her nose, her mouth still filled with hi-test alcohol, she turned and stood quite still. She could see his silhouette clearly now less than 20 yards away. When he saw her stop, he did the same. Then, to her own surprise and amazement, not to mention his, she began to shuffle forward in her now well rehearsed crone-walk holding the lighter at chest level with her right hand. Neither fast nor slow, it was a walk, not of assurance or determination, but of destiny. He remained where he was as she approached. Neither could see the other’s face, not at ten yards, not at ten feet or even five. Margaret slowed her pace with every step until at last she was just over arm’s length from him. She stopped, still as the night.
There they stood motionless, speechless, suspended in time for what an observer might have guessed was half a minute. Then he shifted his weight to his right foot slightly. She knew he was going to come at her now. With only the slightest effort she positioned the lighter directly level with and a few inches in front of her mouth. Just as his left foot moved forward, she flicked the lighter an instant before expelling the contents of her mouth.
As the spray of nearly pure alcohol flew past the flame, it ignited, creating a ball of fire that lit the street for half a block in either direction. As the last of the flame consumed itself, the man saw, for just the briefest moment, the hideous face behind it. The scream that emerged from his tortured soul is still echoing through haunted houses from Salem to Edinburgh. It was a sound no mortal was ever meant to utter but which, on certain occasions, is the only appropriate expression of the experience of the utterer at the moment. Such was the case here.
In the dim light of a distant street lamp, Margaret could see her former adversary running like a scalded whippet in a line so straight you could lay bricks by it, running until he was completely out of sight. All the while she, the Black Witch of Grayling, laughed as only witches can, sending gaggles of cackles careening off into the depths of All Hallows’ Eve.
So great was her amusement that all the way back to her car she staggered like a drunken buccaneer. Even after she had called the Triple-A on her cell phone (which she had conveniently forgotten about and left in her car earlier), even as she was driving back to Sharon’s party, even as she pulled into the same parking place she had left in despair less than an hour ago, she was still flooding the night with witchy mirth. She said nothing when she entered Sharon’s front door. She calmly, simply and silently walked directly across the room to where Franklin stood with his bimbette of the week and, when she had his undivided attention, flicked her BIC just one more time.