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  • Writer's pictureKrista Jain

One Night in a Year

It was that time of year again. The season of pumpkins and spices was briefly interrupted by the rise of the dead, or they say. Even though Halloween was brief each year, it was Colin’s favorite. Though he didn’t share his friends’ superstitions. He was almost done with his costume and with each adjustment he made on the tight black arms and legs showing pristine bones like an x-ray, he would glance outside at the setting sun.

Instead of a mask, he settled on face paint. It was already sticky on his skin. The boy peered closer in the mirror and inspected the paint for any minor imperfections. Pleased with the result, he grinned and turned around where his mom sat watching him from the sofa. She matched his smile, rose and handed him an orange bucket. With a kiss on the head, she opened the front door and allowed him to bounce out a step before she reminded him to come back before midnight.

He agreed, taking note of five friends from the neighborhood and school walking towards him. Colin was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating alone. Once Mom closed the door, Colin turned and greeted his friends, though he couldn’t recognize all of them at once.

He cocked his head and squinted at the short vampire who’s dripping fangs stuck out from the mouth of the chubby-cheeked boy. Next came the superhero. The character was iconic, though the quality of the outfit was a little unfamiliar. He looked more modern compared to the old-fashioned ninja beside him. There was even another skeleton, though this one was under a mask! It almost made Colin wish he had a mask, though he was still glad for the paint. “Whoa, those costumes are totally awesome!” He cried.

The spaceman came off a bit muffled under his helmet, but everyone still understood him as he immediately directed the team down the street towards some lit houses. The grand adventure took off at once with the all-boys group chirping about their excitement.

None was more excited than Colin himself. His legs sprung up and down on the solid concrete after his friends. Voices young and old lingered all over the crisp, leaf-burning atmosphere. The sun was setting quickly and it was already growing dark, but Colin spotted light after flickering light from the adventuring night owls.

They visited each lit up house they came across, though he wasn’t sure if he envisioned the smell of the candy each time it landed in the bucket or if he could smell it beyond the wrappers. The shrill cries of trick-or-treaters welcomed them to almost every house.

Even though the objective of the trip remained the same, the boys talked and played without cease. Nothing became too unusual until they finally realized after half an hour that someone was following them. Colin thought they were trick-or-treating, but this person was alone.

When the group finally noticed, they slowed down and peered over their shoulders at the caped figure. “He’s scaring me! What do we do?” Whispered the chubby vampire. “We can’t let him follow us all night!”

The ninja gave the figure one last glance and leaned closer to the boys. “Who says that’s not a zombie or something?”

A shiver shook Colin cold, but then he recovered and denied the thought. “There’s no such thing as real zombies. Mom said so. Why don’t we ask him to go away?” Of course, Colin wasn’t as willing to talk to the stranger as he sounded, but it was too late to back down. At once, the boys started to shake their heads desperately and the robed stranger walked closer to them. As he passed under the streetlamp glowing an orange spotlight, pitch-black hair shown back. The stranger was also as short as the boys and had a youthful chin.

Then, in a flash, the stranger flung back the hood and looked them in the eye. It was a little girl. She smiled wide and narrowed her gaze at them. “Hey!” She cried out. The boys backed away as she flung her arms out on either side of her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m on a mission to find a group I can travel in. Can I join you?”

Did Colin hear that right? A lone girl wants to travel in the boys’ pack? He had so many questions and the flood of them made him dizzy. He scoffed and wiped his face, but made sure to be careful around the paint. “Where’s your mom? She left you here all alone with no friends to trick-or-treat with?” The bewilderment made him sound rude, though that wasn’t his intention. His mom would never allow him to go out by himself.

Either the hesitation in her pose meant he offended her or his yelling left her stunned, but she answered the question. “Mom’s asleep. I didn’t want to wake her to remind her about trick-or-treating. It’s all right. I know my way around.” Her light, squeaky voice didn’t match the heavy dark cloak she wore. At that, she brightened up and leaned towards the kids again. “So can I come?”

The spaceman piped in. “I don’t know why you would. This is an all-boys team and you’re a girl!”

Her eyes dropped, but the ninja intervened. “I remember when I was new to town and I had no friends. Let her come along. It’s not like we’re in a competition or nothin’.”

If any of the boys still disagreed, no one spoke up. They turned around and began walking again, cloaked girl in tow. Colin just so happened to be in the back with her and so she turned to him when he asked. “By the way, what are you supposed to be?” He half expected her to answer that she wasn’t in a costume. Besides the robe, she didn’t wear any makeup or accessories.

She looked down and picked at the cloak. “I’m a spirit collector! You know, like the grim reaper or something? Like it? I made it myself.”

Colin almost asked why she didn’t have anything else with her costume, but after hearing that she made it, he didn’t want to bother her. He accepted her as “Spirit Collector” and looked up at the next doorstep. The lights were on and the spooky door cover, though closed, seeped out some of the light from inside. Superhero took the first step up. Colin offered the girl a chance to go first, and yet again what she said threw him in a loop. “No thanks. I’m allergic to chocolate and a lot of artificial flavors. I won’t be collecting candy.”

The boy blinked hard and shrugged, but didn’t question it.

◊ ◊ ◊

The girl’s name was Akemi and she lived on the border of Colin’s neighborhood for most of her life before she moved away a few years ago. She was hosting a party with some of her old friends later, but she wanted to walk and enjoy the night in the meantime.

The group traveled and collected candy for hours. Before they knew it, there were no more houses to visit. Colin remained still as the others mentioned heading home with their haul. It was a successful one. Their buckets were full. But Colin couldn't bear to think the adventure was over. It had just begun. He looked forward to this night all year. He wasn't ready to return to the daily routines tomorrow. He wasn't the only one. Akemi invited the group to come to her party, to which they denied saying they would stay too late.

Colin didn't fight with them and slumped back to their houses. One by one, their team thinned until it was only him and Akemi. “You'll come to my party, won't you?”

He didn't know how to respond. As much as he would like to, his mother also wanted him back before midnight. “I...”

She turned away, her face staring down at the concrete. Colin's never seen anything so sorrowful before. He wished he could make his new friend happy again. “I can at least walk you home. If you want me to.”

That restored her more than he thought that would. She smiled. “There's a shortcut I know of. Come on!”

Before he could ask her any questions, she marched on. Her pace never faltered even after her feet left the concrete and entered wild grass. Colin, on the other hand, couldn't stop his knees from shaking. He pushed on anyway and followed. He remembered his mom's wisdom when she told him to be a gentleman, especially towards ladies of all ages. He wouldn't be a gentleman in the slightest if he let her go off on her own into the dark woods.

Akemi was romping and skipping like there wasn't a care in the world. If she wasn't scared of the thin, bare trees and the somber cry of owls, then why should he be? With every hesitation, he tried to feed those reasons to his mind, but it did little help. Akemi was beginning to giggle at his foolishness. It made Colin thankful of the paint covering his hot cheeks.

Akemi must have lived further out than Colin thought because they’ve walked for a very long time. Either that or the woods ate them up and gave him the illusion of movement. Luckily, it was the former. A house spired out of the trees. It was so dark Colin didn’t even notice it until it was right before him. It looked just like one of those haunted mansions for Halloween aesthetic. There weren’t any other decorations though, nor was there any road or street. “This can’t be your house,” Colin remarked. His tone filled with both dry disbelief and tremors induced from the scary woods.

Akemi didn’t miss a beat. She was already on her way to the door. “Yep! Mom takes her decorations seriously. Do you want to come inside?”

He couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity, yet he was the only one laughing. Akemi stopped at the door and turned at him. Then, his curiosity took over. Her games could only go on for so long. What would happen if he checked it out with her? As he stepped closer, she took that as an answer and opened the door.

Colin wasn’t expecting the warm beam of light and music to wash over her. It had to be her house. He rounded the corner and the door swung closed behind him. She wasn’t lying to him after all. There really was a party! The music wasn’t anything new though and the kids weren’t dressed in anything beyond Akemi’s style, but they were having a grand time talking and playing games. The comfortable room made him reluctant to going back outside again as he realized he would have to walk through the forest on his way home.

He allowed the room to calm him. Finally, he settled mentally. “I’m sorry I doubted you.” He said to the girl as she returned to his side. She blinked slowly and didn’t respond. Her change in reaction confused Colin, but then she cleared up and introduced her friends as they came to greet them. After becoming more acquainted with them, they asked him to join in a few games. Colin knew it was pretty late, but this was the last chance at a Halloween party this year. He’ll make it back before his mom gets too worried.

The kids were all very nice and interested in playing with Colin. They played so many games at will that they began to make their own. It was the best party Colin’s been to despite the lack of food and hip music. The dark mist hovering in the already dark room only added to the Halloween atmosphere. The orange and purple lighting became a well-defined beam through the fog.

Colin didn’t know what he did wrong, but the last he knew, they were playing with a bunch of masks. He brought one to his face, and as he did so, there was a deep boom that shook the house. Perhaps the mask gave him a weird perspective, but the children around him exclaimed and… flew away? They disappeared into the walls and everything fell quiet. Colin removed the mask and his legs nearly gave out from under him. This wasn’t the same room. He cried out and turned in a complete circle, but everyone was gone, even Akemi. He had to be in a dream. Things in dreams change all the time. But why hasn’t he woken up yet?

Slowly, he pieced it together. This was the same room, but it was different. It was old and rotted. Everything was falling apart, including the floor he stood on. Any furniture sitting in the ruined area was broken and filled with holes. The game table was gone, but the couch next to where the Halloween lights were a moment ago remained, though he knew it would collapse at a single touch.

He brought the mask up again. It was unchanged. The fur around the face of the wolf wasn’t even ruffled. Did this mask chase everyone away? No, it wasn't related to the mask at all. He vaguely remembered Akemi shouting something before she disappeared. “She's awake.” She cried and the others gasped. Who was she talking about in this case? Akemi told him earlier her mother was asleep, but that doesn't explain why the room was rotting.

The blood in his veins went cold and his legs trembled again, but this time for a different reason. Maybe the dead do return Halloween night. Maybe they were real. Colin squinted hard and shook his golden head, trying not to feel faint. He turned, grabbed his orange bucket from the game table, and leaned for the now crooked door leading back outside.

The rusted knob didn't turn. He was locked inside. A billowing rush of wind somehow swooped into the room. It took him a second to recognize it carried laughter, and not a child's either. An audible whine slipped through his lips. “No, ghosts aren’t real. Mom said so.” He needed to find a way outside. Perhaps he could find a loose window somewhere. With each step, the floor creaked and sank under his weight, and Colin winced at each sound, but nothing followed.

No wonder why the house wasn't near the town or any street at all. This was a haunted house for sure. What he saw outside was no decoration. Akemi, the ghost girl, tricked him with the appearance of a Halloween party. The dank hallways reeked of dust and he swore the empty frames on the walls were watching him.

Either all the windows were locked as well or they were hardened in place with years. He still hasn't explored up the stairs yet, but the weak floors down here were making him fret a lot as it was. Colin will fall a lot further if the floor broke under him from up there unless this place had a basement he was unaware of. Despite the danger with those thoughts, he had his foot on the first step before he could process what he was doing.

Somehow, the stairs held up and he reached the floor above. A slight breeze brushed by the crusted paint on his face again. Did he dare to hope it was the same wind he breathed in earlier? Behind the stairway was a window with billowing, moldy curtains on either side. It was open! Can he reach it before the spirits lock him in for good?

Colin nearly dashed for it, arms outstretched, but froze in his tracks after the first lunge. The floor whined. He had to be careful about it. Resisting his instincts, he tip-toed to the window. The wind continued to whisper, and the curtains teased him near. He made it and reached out, but his fingers grazed mucky glass. He checked again, desperately. Not even a crack let in the air that continued to beckon. As the questions swam through his mind, his spectator decided it was time to strike.

With a high-pitched scream of defiance, a ghostly wisp of a woman with a face full of wrinkles and split hair flew from the broken glass and towards his face. Colin released a scream of his own and fell back. The boy grasped at the guardrail to his left. The crackling beneath his feet echoed in his bones. The floor split open like a gaping maw, waiting to chow down.

Somehow, his grip held, though his orange bucket and the sweets he gathered during the night, took the plunge. Pain ripped through his hands as they slipped down the wood guardrail and he kicked for anything below him, anything at all! Colin tried to pull up, but his whole x-ray body dangled. He groaned and cried for help, though he knew it would do little to help him. If he fell, would that floor break open too?

The wisp above him returned, but it formed together into a familiar face, though it was white and transparent. Akemi stared down at the boy's black-and-white face. The wide eyes and lack of breath gave way to fear. He didn't bother calling her name. When she began to unravel, he thought she was letting him be.

But it wasn't like that.

Another crack and splintering of wood. A nearby shelf fell out of view and shattered glass. The clink and clattering rang through his ears and he almost missed the end of a rope lingering above his eyes. The boy didn't hesitate. He grabbed on and ignored the pain tiring his arms. Colin pulled up until he padded the floor with his feet.

The shelf lied under a cloud of suffocating dust. It shattered the window when it fell and now the transparent blades that didn't remain as part of the window mingled with the mess on the floor. Still, it was Colin's only chance and he braved the dangers of glass and heights for freedom.

As he landed safely on the grass outside the haunted house, Colin thanked his experience of climbing trees. He faced the dark forest, adrenaline still clouding his thinking. Something moved with a sigh behind him. Colin turned around.

Akemi lingered by the front doorstep, still pale and hovering in her ghost form. Her white face, full of pity, lingered on the grass. He couldn’t leave her like that. He searched for his wavering voice. “Hey,” He managed a step closer to her. Akemi lifted her head. “You’re the one who shattered the window and lowered the rope, right? What happened in there?”

The girl’s expression didn’t change. When she answered, her tone seemed very far away. “I wanted to see what today’s kids were like. I had a lot of fun with you and your friends, and I just didn’t want it to end.” She breathed a sigh from non-existent lungs. Either the night became colder or standing next to her made Colin’s hair stand on end. “Mother doesn’t want anyone coming in our old house. She was going to trap you here, but it was my fault. I brought you in. She told me not to intervene, but I couldn’t watch you suffer anymore.” She twiddled spectral fingers. “I didn’t want my new friend to get hurt.”

Colin didn’t know what to say, but what could he say to a ghost anyway? Her explanation both chilled him further and brought him relief at the same time. The disaster of being trapped inside by ghosts was almost too much to comprehend, yet he didn’t think anyone looked after him. “Thank you.”

The reply shook her and stopped. It was the last thing she expected from him, and to further prove his point, he smiled. Slowly, she matched it and fell beside him in human form again, taking their last walk out the forest.

Colin couldn’t bother to be scared of the dark woods with his new ghost friend by his side. Near the end of their journey together, he was beginning to fear it was all a dream, but as he looked back where she stopped where the street began, she dissipated into a foggy wisp and joined the mist around the trees. His mother wondered where he lost his candy bucket, but Colin told her he lost it on the trip. She wouldn’t believe his real story, but he was all right with that. He knew he would see Akemi again. He knew it was real and it only made him more excited for next year.

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