Associate Director, Membership Management, Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab, MIT
I hadn’t expected it to get this cold. The sun has dropped below the horizon, and what little warmth there was in the breeze has evaporated. Two little figures shuffle out ahead of me, their satin capes rustling as they move along the sidewalk. Other costumed figures move past us. The crisp air has all the children excited as they rush from house to house, comparing treats and showing off their costumes, but the cold is really getting to me. It’s seeping up the sleeves of my jacket, and up my jeans.
“Jillian, Todd. Come on.” I clap my hands. “Let’s get back home.” They turn around in the sidewalk ahead of me and stand unmoving. “Come on,” I repeat, and the little witch throws up her arms in disgust. The vampire next to her looks at his watch.
“So soon?” At seven, Todd is old enough to realize that Trick-or-Treating won’t be over for a while. “We’ve only been out half an hour.” I curse the phosphorescent numbers surrounding Mickey Mouse.
“Dad.” Jillian lifts her half-full plastic pumpkin for me to inspect. Tears form in the green makeup around her eyes. “I want more candy.” Her single-minded desire makes me resentful. My knee hurts. I’m tired. I want to go home. I never should have let Annie talk me into taking the kids out.
“You’ve got enough candy. We’re going home.” Any other part of the neighborhood would just lead us further away from the house, and we would have to walk that much more to get back. Besides, the kids ate too much candy anyway. Annie spoiled them.
* * *
Jillian is crying when we reach the house. She realizes that there’ll be no more candy tonight. Todd is sullen, accepting the situation, unhappy but unwilling to let it show. In the light of the foyer, as I wipe smeared makeup from Jillian’s eyes, I can see again what a wonderful job Annie did with the kids’ costumes. I feel a little guilty, know that I would have never done as much, that I wouldn’t have the patience. Jillian’s little face looks remarkably aged by the face paint, and it gives her a peculiar look of wisdom that is unnerving from a four-year old. It’s a look that I’ve seen somewhere before.
I pull the plastic fingernails off of Jillian’s fingers and pile them on the magazine stand, to free her hands for eating candy. Todd reaches into his pocket and pulls out his plastic fangs, sets them next to the nails. He didn’t wear them; they cut into his gums, he said. When I pick up Jillian’s pumpkin, I realize the kids have a lot less candy than I thought they had. I pull out a box of Milk Duds, tear into the little yellow package, and pop one of the candies into Jillian’s mouth.
“Back so soon?” Annie is at the top of the stairs, leaning against the wall. She has her arms folded in front of her, the sleeves of her sweatshirt pushed back off of her forearms so the material bunches above her elbows like cartoon muscles. I can tell by her tone of voice that she thinks I haven’t lived up to my end of the bargain. We’d agreed that she’d do the costumes and I’d take the kids out. She’d spent two weeks on the costumes, run out on lunch hours to buy fabric and stayed up late cutting and sewing. She’d spent three hours this afternoon just doing the makeup, telling Jillian stories and jokes to get her to sit still long enough. Sometimes Annie’s energy makes me feel so hopeless, like there is no way I can keep pace with her.
“It got cold.” It seemed that no matter how long I kept the kids out tonight, it just wouldn’t be long enough. I resented this in Annie, the way she makes me feel insufficient. I look into her eyes and she holds my stare and her silence. There are people coming onto the porch outside, and I try to think of something I can say before they ring the bell. The bright chime splits the silence, explodes our bubble of tension before I can come up with anything. I turn away from Annie, the kids, and open the door.
I try to muster the appropriate amount of enthusiasm, pretend to be frightened by one of the children’s masks, hand out treats, but it all feels forced and artificial and the Trick-or-Treaters retreat quickly with their candy. I turn around to face Annie again. They are all three looking at me, Annie glaring from the top of the stairs, and the children between us, waiting. Jillian looks close to tears again, so I lift her pointed hat and kiss her on her still-green forehead. When I look up, Annie has disappeared.
* * *
I scoop a handful of bubbles from the surface of the water and hang them on Jillian’s nose. She snorts out something halfway between a sneeze and a laugh, and swats the suds from her face. She’s laughing now, and I feel a little better. I’d turned off the outside light and locked the door when Annie vanished, then divided the candy left in the bowl by the door between the two kids, which made Jillian’s pumpkin nearly twice as heavy. The extra candy made Jillian happy, but Todd was still moping. He’d washed off the face paint and fake blood and put himself to bed.
Annie bought all chewy candy–chocolate bars and caramels. She isn’t the kind to hand out apples or popcorn balls; she wants the kids who come to our door to get real candy, and we always have kids who come back two or three times, getting more as Annie pretends not to notice.
I pour shampoo into my palm and rub it into Jillian’s hair. Annie dyed it black for the evening, and only after I work up a good lather does the temporary wash start to come out and Jillian’s natural blond start to show through. It’s a mystery to me where she got her hair; everyone in my family is brunette, and in the ten years that I’ve known Annie, she’s never introduced me to a relative that was anything more than a dirty blond–not at all the amber-gold of Jillian’s hair. It’s been the cause of more than one mailman comment to Annie.
“Okay,” I say to Jillian. “Play porpoise.” She holds her nose, squeezes her eyes closed, and dives under the water, writhing around as I run my hand vigorously through her hair to chase out the suds. She breaks through the surface of the water and ends her performance by clapping her hands like a seal’s flippers and crying, “Orrt! Orrt!” It’s a routine she does with enthusiasm, even if she hasn’t quite yet learned to differentiate between her marine mammals.
I lift her out of the tub by her armpits and set her on the rug, where she jogs in place and shivers until I cover her with a towel. She seems, for the moment anyway, to have forgotten the trauma of earlier in the evening. I doubt Annie will be so forgiving. Or Todd, for that matter. Jillian wraps the towel around herself in miniature imitation of her mother, and I help her fix a towel turban-like on her head. As I do this, a rivulet of water runs down the side of her face, and I can tell by the dark little streak that I haven’t quite gotten out all of the dye.
* * *
When Jillian is tucked safely in bed, I cross the hall and look in on Todd. As I crack the door, I can see his eyes glisten for a second in the hallway light before he pretends to be asleep. “Hey, kiddo,” I say softly. “What’s keeping you up?”
He knows he’s caught, gives up the act and sits up. “Nothing.” He’s got on his serious face.
I cross the room and sit next to him on the bed. “Hey, I’m sorry about the Trick-or-Treating. I guess I just wasn’t feeling well.”
A little hint of surprise plays across his face, as though it were the furthest thing from his mind. “Oh, that’s okay.” He curls his knees up under his chin. “I get sick if I eat too much candy, anyway.” I strain to see his expression in the dim light; I can’t tell if he’s rationalizing for his own sake or trying to make me feel better. He is quiet then, serious, and I suddenly know from where I recognized Jillian’s wisdom-look. He shifts his chin from his knees and turns to look at me. His face is full in the light of the hall for the first time, and I can now see the tinge of fear that hides behind his serious look. “Dad,” he asks me, “do you think there are vampires for real?”
I stifle a laugh of relief that it’s not the Trick-or-Treating that’s bothering him after all. “Well, I’ve never seen one,” I say in the way that we try to teach our children to be open-minded. “Have you?”
“Nope.” I can tell that I’m not being the reassuring voice that he wants right now. He rests his chin on his knees again, and looks at the foot of the bed. “It’s kinda fun to pretend sometimes, but I sure wouldn’t want to be one for real.”
I flash back to a childhood of horror novels and B-grade movies as I put on my best all-knowing-father voice. “It’s all make believe, Todd. All make believe.”
* * *
When I get to the bedroom, Annie is still awake, reading in bed. I can tell that this is a no-win situation so I keep quiet, and start to undress. She looks up from her book. “Are you going to take a shower?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Are you?”
“I should. I’m not going to want to in the morning.” Her last minute dashes to work have become notorious between us.
“Why don’t you go first,” I suggest. “After Jillian’s bath, there probably isn’t much hot water left.” Maybe I can win some points this way.
She is up and into the bathroom without another word. I finish getting undressed, stretch out on the bed, and listen to the water run in the shower for a minute. Before I can decide what to do while Annie is in the shower, the water is off and she is back in the bedroom, patting the water off her arms. She wraps the towel around herself, the original to Jillian’s copy.
“That was quick,” I tell her.
“I wanted to make sure you had plenty of hot water.” A no-win situation with Annie is always a no-win situation.
“Your son is scared of vampires. I told him people don’t turn into monsters, but I don’t think he’s convinced.” She doesn’t need to look at me to know that I am smirking.
“I can’t say I am either.” She disappears into the dark hallway.
* * *
When I get out of the shower, Annie’s not back in the bedroom yet. I wrap the towel around my waist and walk down the hall. I can hear soft voices behind Todd’s door. He’s still using his serious voice, but he doesn’t sound upset.
For lack of anything better to do, I walk down the stairs in the dark and make sure the door is locked; I’m sure it is, but I check anyway. With my hand still on the doorknob, I notice something glowing faintly on the magazine stand. Todd’s fangs–I hadn’t noticed earlier that they were glow-in-the-dark. I pick them up, and they seem to float in the air, my hand invisible in the dark. I put them in my mouth, work them open and closed with my jaws. They’re too small for my mouth, and Todd was right, they do cut into your gums.
I walk back upstairs, the plastic and blood taste filling my mouth. Annie is still in Todd’s room, and I pass by, go back into the bedroom, get into bed and turn out the light. There, in the dark, I can hear Annie and Todd’s voices as muted whispers through the walls. They talk for a while, and then I hear their voices rise as they say their goodnights. I hear Annie close Todd’s door, cross the hall and check on Jillian. As Annie’s footsteps move toward the bedroom, I close my mouth over the plastic teeth; it stretches my lip to do it, but I can get my mouth closed.
Annie comes into the room and gets into bed without turning on a light. She lies on her side, facing me but not touching. She is silent, and I feel like she is trying to look at me through the darkness, search out my profile. After a while, she says, “He’s not mad about the Trick-or-Treating.”
“Mmm,” I say, not opening my mouth.
“Todd,” she says, thinking I didn’t hear. “He says he’s not mad.” She is silent again, for a moment. Then quietly: “I still am.”
I turn my head toward her, look across the dark space between us. I listen to her breathing. In the seconds of dark silence, my secret grows enormous in its demands to be revealed. Then, when I can resist no more, slowly I open my mouth.