30 years ago today, my neighbor’s son disappeared.

ghost

30 years ago, my neighbors across the street, Mr. and Mrs. Stein, endured a terrible loss. Their son, Adam, disappeared on Halloween. It was assumed he was kidnapped, as there was a rash of kidnappings in the area at the time. The kidnapper was never found, though. Neither was Adam.

Today’s the 30th anniversary of his disappearance. To the Steins, the wounds are still fresh. They refuse to decorate their yard, despite all the houses on the street going out of their way to be as festive as possible. They don’t give out candy, despite the rest of the houses on the street trying to one-up each other by giving out better loot than their neighbors.

The Steins mourn quietly in their dark house; the television being the only light emanating from their window. Kids are advised by their parents not to knock.

I’ve always felt bad for them. I’ve lived here for 40 years. I remember the frantic search and rescue efforts that swept through our town. Even though I was barely 20 years old and living with my unemployed father while working double shifts to pay our mortgage, I did my part and joined the search. It was the least I could do.

Like all futile searches, it ended after a while. Adam was presumed dead. The Steins grew old and the neighborhood changed around us. New families moved in and old ones either died off or moved out. Aside from me and the Steins, I’d say the average age of the homeowners here is 35. And they all have lots of kids.

A terrible rumor started to spread a couple years ago. I know who started it – an older kid named Chuck Demopoulos. He told his younger brothers and neighborhood friends that Adam’s ghost haunts the woods behind our street. He said Mr. Stein killed him and chopped him up into little bits.

When I learned about the rumor, I was disgusted. The disrespect was so vulgar and uncalled for. I prayed the Steins wouldn’t hear about it, but I’m sure they must have. It was pervasive. I called Chuck’s father and told him what I heard, and I suspect Chuck caught a beating for it. Still, I’m afraid the damage had already been done.

Despite pitying the Steins, I don’t express my sympathy by refusing to decorate my house and yard. I love Halloween. Always have. I like to see parents beaming from the street while their kids nervously ring doorbells and collect piles of candy. The spirit of the season keeps me feeling young, despite being well past my prime and dealing with high blood-pressure.

Being an old timer has its perks sometimes. I have Halloween decorations they don’t sell anymore. Ghoulish stuff like hangman’s nooses – things that are too politically incorrect for stores to sell. I firmly believe Halloween shouldn’t be sanitized. It should be scary and unsettling.

That said, there needs to be an emotional component, too. Not just blood and guts for the sake of blood and guts. There needs to be poignancy. Something that’ll stick with you after you see it.

That’s why Adam helps me decorate.

After Dad died in 1989, I emptied out his safety deposit box. There was an envelope with note a note and a Polaroid photograph. All the note said was, “I caught him snooping around the cellar. I had to teach him a lesson.” The photograph was of fresh cement drying on the basement wall.

In the middle of the night, I went into the cellar and opened the wall. Adam’s body was inside. My instinctive reaction was to call the police, but I was terrified I’d be arrested. They’d never believe the note.

So I sealed the wall. After a while, I stopped thinking about the dead boy in the bowels of my house. Many years later, after talking with Mrs. Stein about Adam on a Halloween afternoon, I knew what I had to do.

I took his remains out of the wall in 2014. He was only a skeleton. I separated the bones, splashed them with fake blood, and incorporated them into my Halloween decorations. At first, I was worried. As the days went by, though, I realized I didn’t need to be concerned. The bones blended in with the rest of my decorations. Just more festive material in a neighborhood chock full of it.

This morning, when I went out to get the paper, Mr. Stein was doing the same. We met in the street and chatted for a while. We talked about the Cowboys game from last night and he mentioned his wife made a spectacular coffee cake that he’d bring me a piece of later. I smiled and told him that would be real nice.

Before we parted ways, Mr. Stein said, “I never told you how much Shannon and I appreciated all the help you gave us back when we lost Adam. We knew how busy you were. It’s been 30 years today, you know. 30 years.”

I felt guilt and sadness wash over me. “I’m sure he’s in a better place,” I told him.

He nodded, and I saw tears in his eyes. “He was a good boy. I know wherever he is, he’s watching over us.”

We hugged briefly, then went back to our respective homes. I walked up the driveway, past the ghosts dangling from my trees by their nooses, and headed up my front steps. I looked at the skull hanging above the doorway. It was pointed at the Stein’s house. Watching.

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Tainted Candy

candy

I won’t let my kids trick-or-treat this Halloween. Not after what happened last year. Not when half the town’s parents are still in mourning and every other week you see cribs and twin-sized beds by the curb for anyone to come by and pick up. They’re stark reminders that the losses cut deep around here. The pain’s still there. And even if those wounds have started to heal for some, they’ll always, always itch.

Last year, kids received tainted candy. 55 got sick, 31 died. It was all over the news, so I don’t need to go into a background story that you already know. My girls were lucky; they’re both allergic to peanuts so they just gave the candies to their friends. Friends they don’t have anymore.

I remember my shift in the ER when the kids started trickling in. It took a few days. The first one was on November 3rd – a four-year old named Regina. She was having trouble breathing. At first, we thought it was an allergic reaction, but none of the treatments seemed to work. As she got worse, it was only after we’d scoped her to get a look inside her lungs that we realized what was happening. By then, though, it was too late. She died on the table.

Three more young kids came in that night. They all died.

The next day, the trickle became a flood. Older kids joined the younger ones with trouble breathing. These seemed worse off than the kids from the night before. The initial symptoms had given way to the secondary ones before death, so we had to deal with the shock and terror they were experiencing as their condition progressed.

The CDC representatives arrived not long after ten more had died, and they were able to quickly trace the source to contaminated candy. The local chocolate producer was determined to be at fault, and a speedy investigation revealed exactly how the candies were contaminated. The business was shut down. The owners are still tied up in court cases for their negligence and refusal to comply with proper importation safeguards.

Like I said, after a year, it’s all still fresh in the minds of so many families. They’ll go their whole lives associating the holiday with death and devastation, rather than fun and excitement. Out of respect for that, few yards are decorated for Halloween nowadays. There are some pumpkins on front steps, but no real displays. Well, there’d been one.

A Japanese family who’d moved to town in August had been mostly unaware of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. They’d bought the house across the street from me. Excited to celebrate Halloween in America for the first time, they decorated their front lawn with skeletons, pumpkins, monsters, and spiders. A couple neighbors visited the next day and carefully explained to them what had happened the year before. The decorations were down within an hour.

It wasn’t that anyone was truly angry that the decorations were there. Most of them were fine. Had they just left three of the four things up, no one would’ve complained. Hell, some people who were lucky enough to not have been touched by the tragedies might have appreciated a little Halloween spirit. But for some, seeing that one thing was just too much. Even I, who hadn’t lost anyone, cringed a little when I saw the setup.

It made me think back to that night on November 3rd when Regina came in. I remembered the scope going down into her lungs. I remembered how we stared at the screen in a combination of horror and fascination.

It wasn’t a skeleton or a pumpkin or a monster that had killed those children. It was the spiders. The millions of tiny, black spiders whose eggs had been in the cocoa powder decorating the finished chocolate and peanut-butter candies.

The kids who’d suffocated before the spiders had exited their lungs were the lucky ones. It was those in the waiting room or car or ambulance who hacked and coughed up clouds of them as they died who had it worst.

The Japanese family apologized profusely as they removed all the decorations. It was obvious they were mortified. As I watched them out the window, I saw Giichi wave his wife, Ai, over to get a close look at the lawn. Her eyes widened and she put her hand over her mouth. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but I knew what it was.

Ever since last November, there’ve been webs all over the place. They’re small – only the size of a quarter – but immediately recognizable as being from the same Honduran spider that’d been accidentally imported by the chocolate shop owners. The town’s infested with them. I try not to get too close to the corners and eaves of my house because I know they’re there. Harmless, but there. Just another cruel reminder. One of many.

I haven’t touched a piece of chocolate in over 350 days. I dread having to use the scope when I’m at work in the ER. And nearly every night I dream about how it all happened, only to jolt awake with the feeling of spiders squirming through my lungs and sinuses.

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Ethan’s Halloween Mask

swings

My cousin Ethan and I grew up together, but I never liked him very much. His family was rich, so he always had the best stuff. Mine wasn’t. I didn’t.

On Halloween, 1985, we were going trick-or-treating together. I was the Terminator, he was Freddy Krueger. His mask cost almost a hundred dollars and it looked exactly like Freddy’s face. The scars, the sneer; everything was just right.

I didn’t have a mask. My parents couldn’t afford one. I had torn aluminum foil taped to the side of my face. It was meant to look like the Terminator after some of its skin had been ripped off. A few splotches of ketchup on the foil were supposed to look like blood. As soon as it dried, it looked very little like dried blood and very much like dried ketchup.

Despite my terrible costume, I was still excited to trick-or-treat. We didn’t have candy very often at home, except maybe on Easter. My parents encouraged me to go to as many houses as I wanted to get all the candy I’d be able to eat. It felt good to know they wanted me to be happy.

Ethan and I went out at sundown and visited house after house. Every time, the homeowners would gush over Ethan’s mask. They’d tell him how scary it was. How realistic. Then they’d turn to me and ask who I was supposed to be. I’d answer, then they’d say something like, “oh of course, how could I have missed it!” I could tell they felt sorry for me. One even handed me an extra few pieces of candy.

When we were done, our pillowcases stuffed with treats of every sort, we began the long walk home. As we went, Ethan rooted around in his bag of loot. I could hear him grumbling and complaining through his mask. Then he started throwing candy on the street. Stuff he didn’t like.

“Go ahead and pick it up if you want it, Bill,” he called out, heaving handful after handful into the gutter. “I know you can’t afford to let anything go to waste.”

I didn’t say anything, but I reached into my pocket and pulled out the lighter and one of the two cigarettes I’d stolen from my dad. I’d been smoking on-and-off for the last few months, and even at 13, I knew it was bad for me. I just didn’t care. It made me feel good.

I stayed a few steps behind Ethan as he tossed more candy away, and as much as I hated myself for it, I ended up picking a few pieces off the ground and putting them in my bag. Ethan caught me once and laughed. “You’re going to be as fat as your mom if you eat all that.” I kept my mouth shut.

“Is that why she got fired from the restaurant? Did she eat a customer’s food?”

I knew Ethan was joking. He did it often. I’m sure in his mind, he thought he was being harmless and playful. Still, I’d told him more than a few times to leave Mom out of the jokes. She had diabetes. And she hadn’t mentioned it to anyone other than my dad and me, but the doctor told her she might end up losing her foot. That’s why the restaurant let her go. She couldn’t walk around and wait tables anymore.

“Change the subject, Ethan,” I said. I knew he heard me, and he didn’t talk for another minute or so. Until he did again.

“You think her and your dad still f**k? I wonder how he manages to get it in there.” He cackled, then insisted, “ok, ok, ok, I’m sorry, I’m done. Promise.”

I seethed as we took a shortcut through the elementary school soccer field.

“Let’s stop here for a minute,” Ethan said. We’d gotten to the school’s playground. “I bet I could scare the s**t out of some kids if they come by.”

He sat on one of the swings with his pillowcase on his lap. He kicked his legs and the swing moved back and forth. I stood there, hating him.

“I think I see some kids coming over the hill,” I told Ethan. “I’m going to hide behind the slide and sneak up on them if they come over to you.”

“Go for it,” Ethan told me, his voice deep and distorted through the mask.

I left Ethan on the swing set and walked over to the slide. I watched him swing as his hateful words rang in my ears. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered Mom smiling from her spot on the couch as she encouraged me to go out and have fun. She was such a good person. So, so good. She’d never said anything negative about Ethan. In fact, she’d always complimented him on his grades and his wins in basketball and even his looks. “You’re going to be a handsome man, Ethan,” she told him. “I bet we’ll see your face in a magazine someday.”

Even after her kindnesses, Ethan still felt it was okay to trash her.

I heard him laughing to himself from across the playground. I didn’t know why, exactly, but I had a pretty good idea. I reached in my jacket for the other cigarette, knowing the smoke would calm me down. But it had come apart. My pocket was full of loose tobacco and paper. Loose tobacco, paper, and the lighter.

Ethan was still laughing as I fingered the lighter in my pocket for a second, then pulled it out. I walked up behind him. He didn’t know I was there as he shouted out, “ok, one more thing and I’ll never say anything about her again – but unless your dad’s got a big dick, he’ll never manage to –”

I flicked the lighter near the back of Ethan’s neck, right where his hair and mask met. The hair went up quickly, using his hairspray as an accelerant. Then something happened that I didn’t expect. The mask burst into flames.

Ethan jumped off the swing and ran in a loose circle, trying to pull the mask off his head. I saw it ripping under his fingers. He couldn’t get a grip. The material bubbled. His screams, barely muffled as the molten chemicals clung to his skin, echoed off the brick walls of the elementary school.

After a few seconds, he fell and rolled around on playground, pushing his head into the sand to put out the fire. And he succeeded. But the damage was done.

He turned over on his back, no longer screaming, but gasping in shallow, hyperventilated breaths. In the moonlight, I saw the mask was completely fused to what remained of his skin. One of his eyes had apparently burst, but his other darted around almost like he was confused and wondering where he was.

I saw something moving on the other side of the field. Kids were coming. I yelled to them to call an ambulance, and I waited, unsure of how I felt, until the paramedics got there.

I took complete responsibility for setting Ethan on fire. I said I’d been sneaking up to scare him by flicking the lighter near his face. And yes, I got in a lot of trouble. But everyone believed it was an accident.

Ethan’s face was destroyed. He had skin grafts and bone grafts and all sorts of reconstructive surgery. He never recovered. Not physically, not emotionally. He killed himself in 1990. His parents had a very expensive funeral. I was invited. They’d forgiven me for my part in his accident years before. In fact, their subsequent lawsuit against the mask company is the reason why Halloween masks are now made of flame-retardant materials.

Mom died a few years before Ethan, but not before complications from her diabetes took her left leg. Dad and I were with her in the hospital at the same time Ethan’s parents were there to see him through another round of reconstructive surgery. They visited Mom, Dad, and I while Ethan was still under, recovering after a successful set of grafts.

We chatted for a little while about Mom’s hopes for recovery, and then the topic moved to Ethan. Ethan’s mom was gushing about a plastic surgeon that had recently joined the hospital after working in Switzerland. He was the best, apparently. He’d taken on Ethan’s case earlier in the year, albeit remotely, and wrote a substantial article about the new techniques he’d be employing. In the world of plastic surgery, it made a big splash, if only for its ambition.

Ethan’s mom reached into her purse and pulled out the publication. She flipped it open to the page that showed various photographs of Ethan’s burns and the notes and explanations the surgeon had written to accompany the article. I could tell Mom was holding back tears. I knew why, too. Her eyes met mine, and she couldn’t hold back any longer. She began to weep. Dad and Ethan’s mother held her while she cried. I just watched.

Mom was thinking that she’d been right all those years ago. She’d been right for all the wrong reasons, but right nonetheless. Just like she’d predicted, Ethan’s face had finally made it into a magazine.

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