Jess rebuffed her husband’s insistence with a toss of her hair, effectively ending his hopes for that evening. Pots and dishes clattered noisily into the sink, much louder than was absolutely necessary, as though to put an end to the past half-hour of unsuccessful persuasion to get her to dress up like an idiot and make a fool of herself on the last day of October.
“But everybody else in the street is partying over at the Davidsons’ place,” Harvey objected, making a histrionic plea to the back of her head. “The MacGregors, John and Willie, Old Eddie, Marsha and Vince…”
The auburn ponytail wagged in silent rejection. Boiling water streamed and pea-green detergent squirmed into the sink. He watched it bubble miserably. It looked as though that chick from the Exorcist had just puked in his best wok.
“If you want to go, then go.” she finally met his stare with half an eye cast backward over her shoulder, like a pinch of salt to blind the Devil. “No, really.”
“Nah, forget it. We’re supposed to be a couple, and if I turn up there alone, people will ask. And no mater what I tell them, gossip will start-”
“No, seriously, Harve. I mean it. I’m not going to give you a hard time over it. If anybody asks, just tell them the bloody truth – I’m not into it. Okay? Don’t let me stop you doing anything you want to do.”
He hesitated, unsure how to take this unexpected concession. “Well, what will you do then?”
“Read, watch TV. I don’t know. Look, we don’t have to be joined at the hip, 24/7. This isn’t the Stepford Wives, for Chrissakes.” She touched a warm foamy finger to his cheek. “I’ll even wait up for you…as long as it’s not too late. Just don’t come sneaking in the window in a monster mask to put the shits up me later, okay?”
“I wouldn’t do that. Well, then, I’d better start getting ready.”
As he went upstairs to get changed, he knew this concession would require an equal and opposite favour from him in return before too long, but that could take care of itself. He had been looking forward to cutting loose at their new neighbours’ housewarming-cum-Hallowe’en fancy dress evening for two weeks now, and he was determined to enjoy himself. He’d make it up to her when he got home, after all.
Jess searched across the cable channels for something that didn’t have anything to do with the current silly season, and people dressing up as pirates and devils. Despite being a horror movie fan, she felt stubbornly against the notion tonight and flicked away rapidly from the predictable John Carpenter and Rob Zombie offerings. Some low-key, soft-focus softcore thing about aristocratic ladies and serving men caught her attention, and it was in front of that she curled up on the sofa. It might even help to get her in the mood for Harvey coming back.
The night unfolded quietly, as she had hoped. In the distance, a few fireworks popped and peppered the sky with rainbow-coloured flak, but that was all. Outside, the street was as quiet as the grave. She made herself a mug of tea and toasted some scones during the commercial break, and settled herself back on the sofa again. The tartan throw was wrapped around her legs, earthing her to comfort and contentment, normality and peace.
The doorbell buzzed, a harsh, electronic burp across the living room.
“Go to hell,” she murmured into her tea. Trick-or-treaters of any age or persuasion would find themselves hopelessly out of luck at the Grenville house tonight. Besides, Harvey would be responsible for cleaning off any rotten eggs or whatever from the windows the next morning.
The bell buzzed again, longer, insistent. The TV light must have been visible through the curtains out on the street, and she cursed herself for not simply having gone to bed with a book instead.
Jess snapped the TV volume off with a snarl. So, someone wanted to play, did they? She’d give those kids a mouthful they wouldn’t forget in a hurry. She didn’t care whose kids they were, or what this would do for her reputation as a bitch or a killjoy – she was entitled to her peace and quiet, and her opinions, like anybody else in Pinetree Avenue. It was a free country, dammit.
She stomped to the front hall and grabbed up her husband’s old college ice-hockey stick that stood up in the umbrella stand. Flung the door wide, the stick held just out of sight, to find a middle-aged pair of suits blinking back at her from the top step. A man and a woman, dressed for a Sunday morning at Church, not quite what one expected to find out and about on Halloween.
“Good evening, madam.” the man said, and actually tipped his hat to her. “I do hope we’re not intruding upon your evening?”
Caught off-guard, Jess dithered. She pushed the stick away against the wall. “Er, no. Well, I mean, I’m not right in the middle of anything if that’s what – ”
“Forgive us, but we were passing by and we couldn’t help but notice that your house is the only one in this block not to be festooned with Hallowe’en decorations.”
“Uh, really? You know, I never actually noticed. It’s just not my thing. I kind of blank all that stuff out, you know?”
She tried a smile, but it turned into a flickering tic. She didn’t want to look nervous. She had no right to be nervous, this was her home. Her space. She shifted her weight to the other hip, filled the gap in the doorway with her body. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but what can I do for you?”
The woman adjusted her gold-framed spectacles, peered a little closer.
“Would it be of any great inconvenience if we took up perhaps five minutes of your time on this evening?”
She hadn’t heard a car pull up, so these grays had picked a strange night for a walk. Jess almost felt obliged to entertain them for that reason alone, for braving the painted parade of sniggering middle-class kids and horny teenagers, and for being as persistently uninvolved in the whole commercial Hallowe’en foolishness as she.
Besides, if they were religious nuts, they might provide more stimulating interest than the imagined preoccupations for the English aristocracy for loutish stable boys with hairy backsides. She always enjoyed arguing with hardcore believers, having been brought up in an agnostic household where all religion had been regularly criticized as one of the worst evils ever to have afflicted humanity. And after all, it was 2010 AD, and her husband was at the other end of a mobile ‘phone, two miles away. What’s the worst that could happen?
“Okay,” she conceded. “But my husband will be back before long, and we do have plans this evening-”
“Oh, of course, my dear.” the woman agreed, head-nodding as she shuffled past, “We will take up very little of your time. It’s just so rare to find kindred spirits these days – others who refuse to follow fashion and buy into the commercialisation of superstition.”
She shut the front door and followed them both into the living room. The man was standing agape at the television screen, and the bare breasts and quivering buttocks thereupon. She hastily turned it off, shrugged, didn’t even waste her breath trying to justify herself. Why the hell should she?
“Please, grab a seat, if you like.” she gestured to the sofa.
Jess studied them both as they arranged themselves carefully on the cushions, side by side. She wore a lace collar and a floppy silk necktie, fair hair rather fussily arranged. He looked like the proverbial Mr. Average – grey in hair, and grey in face.
“Thank you, thank you. My name is Mary, by the way, my dear. And this is Matthew.”
“We shan’t impose for long,” he assured her, “We just thought we could share a few points of view with you, if that was convenient.”
She spread her arms, indicating openness. “Well, speak your minds. It’s a free country, eh?”
The woman nodded, removed her spectacles. “You know, it is a strange affliction of modern society that wherever there is a pure notion, there is someone somewhere who sees the chance to make a big fast buck out of it all.”
” Big fast buck.” the man repeated. Jess wanted to laugh at her fleeting mental vision of a steroid-enhanced Bambi on roller skates, but wiped the shadow off her mouth. She had been told she had a sarcastic smile at the best of times.
“I mean, Easter. A simple tale of death and resurrection becomes a multi-million dollar global market in chocolate and plush toys.”
“And of course, Christmas.” Jess added, nodding.
“The obvious sin,” the man said, showing the merest hint of a thought of his own.
“But, on the other hand,” Jess countered, “Isn’t Christmas just the biggest birthday bash of all time? I mean, that’s what we do to celebrate the births of mere mortals the rest of the year – give presents, mess around, get drunk and get fat. Why not give it large for the man who was supposed to be the son of God?”
“The festivities are one thing,” the woman said. “But the message is forgotten. Everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator – the mighty dollar. The list of zeroes on the bottom line. And then we come down to this night.” she turned aside and wrinkled her face, as though she had just swallowed something indigestible. “The Eve of All Hallows. The night before the feast day of All Saints.”
Jess leant against the living room wall, unwilling to sit. This pair weren’t proving to be half as entertaining as she had hoped. They had clearly begun to feel the chill while out and about, and had simply fancied a quick heat in the first house that didn’t look as though it would be jumping with half-drunk ghouls and skeletons gyrating to the sounds of Alice Cooper and KISS.
“Now,” the man went on, “The concept of dressing up – going abroad in disguise – is a very ancient one, of course, and at no other time of year is it more valid than now. When the forces of darkness are at their strongest, and spirits ride free – by wearing strange clothes and masks, ordinary folk may not be recognised by these demons, and therefore keep themselves safe from harm.”
“Whereas these days it’s just another excuse for a big party, eh?” Jess concluded. “Honestly, I’ve nothing against parties in general. But I like to choose the why and the where, and not just blindly rush along with the crowd.”
“A bold and individual stance.” The woman chewed thoughtfully on the leg of her spectacles. “And very commendable it is too.”
“However,” the man went on, commencing the tirade which Jess had been expecting; “Even this concept has been degenerated by heathens. Not content with worshipping the dollar, this pagan dedication to Satan and his minions is tolerated by irresponsible parents the world over. They allow their children to play with darkness and evil, to open the portal to the path to Hell, and they themselves open up their own souls and minds to the infestation of the Prince of Darkness. They go out in disguise not to deflect evil, but to identify with it – to absorb it – to wallow in the blackness which the Lord of Flies has inflicted upon the earth.
“This is the one night of the year when Satan’s grip is strongest – and what do these fools do? – they play into his hands! Truly, there is no hope for some people. They take on the roles of devils and witches, they gratify themselves with chaos, with vandalism, with threats upon the innocent – they become the agents of evil! How Satan must laugh, and how God and His angels must weep in sorrow.”
Jess sucked her cheeks with a duck-like cluck. There really wasn’t any rational argument to any of that which would be listened to with any concern for logic or rationality whatsoever. She knew it was all harmless fun, as far removed from the worship of the Devil as Christmas was from the true birth of these people’s Messiah.
“That’s a very strong opinion,” she said at last, unwilling to deliver the argument he was perhaps expecting. “That’s maybe why I like to keep out of it. It does seem to upset a lot of people.”
“I knew we would find someone here who understood,” Mary said, not understanding at all. “We were so struck by the – forgive my usage – ordinariness of your house as we were passing by. The lack of grinning pumpkins – the lack of fancy lights, the ridiculous Happy Halloween wreaths and banners. We knew that we had found the one home in this block not to have succumbed to the will of Satan.”
“I guess I just always saw this one as being more for the kids.” Jess admitted. “I rather grew out of it all when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and started to discover boys instead.”
Her smile didn’t bring much reciprocation from the other pair.
“I would assume, then, that you have none of your own?” Mary surmised.
“No, not yet. Harvey and I both work. The time’s just not been right. But there’s plenty time yet. I’m only twenty-nine, and besides, Harve can be as big a kid at times. Like tonight, he’s off to one of our neighbours, dressed up as a skeleton.” she bit her lip in the ensuing stone-faced silence, feeling uncomfortably awkward. The antique clock on the wall ticked with a suddenly audible thunk. The grey bores had outstayed their welcome. “Well, it’s been an interesting chat, Mary and Matthew. But I have a lot of things to do before Harvey gets back.”
She stepped towards the sofa, expecting the couple to rise and make their excuses. But they remained seated, still an arm’s length apart, still staring at her like some real-life American Gothic.
“So…if you would excuse me?” she beckoned generally to the door. Reluctantly, it seemed, the man arose, and the woman slowly followed him. Jess wanted them out the house, out now; wanted only to run a deep hot bath and relax after that curiously unnerving visitation. She would have preferred getting called a killjoy bitch from some gang of bratty boys looking for free cake and cola; at least she knew where she stood with them.
As she gladly shepherded Matthew and Mary out into the front hall, she asked; “By the way, I can’t say I’ve seen you around in the neighbourhood before.”
“No, you wouldn’t have.” Mary replied matter-of-factly.
“You mean, you just happened to come for a stroll down Pinetree Avenue on Halloween night, to discuss the commercialisation of religious festivals with me?”
Matthew smiled at her widely, his first show of real emotion since his arrival. “Why not. It’s a free country, yes?”
“Yes.” Jess agreed. “Yes, it certainly is. Well, let me wish you both a very good night.”
Mary made no move toward the front door, but picked up the previous thread of conversation: “Well, in fact we had other business tonight. Business not entirely concluded.”
Jess fingered the mobile ‘phone in her jeans pocket. It was always set to speed-dial Harvey’s number, something she was now very grateful for. The silence was stretching.
“Then please, don’t let me hold you back from your business.”
Mary said, “We won’t.”
Matthew reached past her to the door and turned the key.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“We don’t want to hurt you, my dear.” Mary assured her gently. “Please, come back inside with us. It’s safer in there.”
“Unlock my door at once. And get your freaky asses the hell out of my house now, before I call the police.”
“Please, my dear. We’ve done nothing wrong here. You invited us in to your house voluntarily. We only want to protect you. This won’t last all night.”
“Protect me from what? What isn’t going to last all night? Who the hell are you people?”
Matthew said, “Did you know, in the Middle Ages, they burned witches and heretics at the stake. It was the judgement of the Lord that the unrepentant be purified by fire and flame. During mass burnings, it was not uncommon for the smell of roasting human fat to carry ten miles or more across the countryside.”
“That’s not funny.” Jess spat, wishing her lips weren’t quivering as she spoke.
“Nobody’s laughing.” Mary agreed.
Jess burst past them back into the living room, aiming for the kitchen, gripped by instinct and fuelled by adrenaline. The contents of the cutlery drawer would succeed where harsh threats had failed.
“Wait-” Matthew cried after her. She had always expected that Harvey would be with her in such a situation – his ex-sportsman’s physique and speed was a constant comfort. But she was on her own, and she had to do the right thing, first time. She pulled the drawer almost off its rails, the steel inside smashing about as the drawer jerked to the end of its runner. She knew the couple could only be seconds behind her.
She seized the handle of Harvey’s favourite cleaver – never before had she been so grateful for her husband’s enthusiasm for cooking – and flattened herself against the far wall, beside the ‘fridge, and the telephone. She yanked down the handset and listened to silence flooding into her ear as Matthew appeared in the kitchen doorway, a grey shadow in the lamplight.
“We’ve cut all of the telephone lines.” the grey man soothed. “It’s better that way. It ensures that the judgement shall be swift, and total.”
“What judgement?” she yelled back at him, cleaver in both hands now. “You take another step towards me, bastard – I swear – I’ll cut your fucking leg off. And your head. And your bitch’s head too, for that matter. Are you listening to me?”
Mary appeared at the man’s shoulder. “It’s beautiful,” she said softly, “You should come and see.” her fingers wrapped around the man’s shoulder, caressing and kneading as though in a state of subdued arousal. Matthew gestured towards the trembling figure in the corner of the kitchen, but Mary shook her head. “She won’t be any trouble. Will you, my dear?”
“Don’t take another step.” The cleaver flashed, thudded an inch and a half into the leg of the kitchen table. “Or that’ll be your head, next. I’m not joking.”
“I quite believe she’s capable.” Matthew said to Mary. The woman shrugged, fiddled in her jacket pocket and removed a dull grey rod, extending it past Matthew into the kitchen.
Jess only stared as the silenced barrel of a Glock-17 opened up in front of her. Normal life and sanity had removed themselves from Pinetree Avenue now. This kind of thing didn’t happen outside of movies and stupid TV cop shows. She struggled to remove the cleaver, then with a cry yanked it free. A muscle or a tendon or something in her shoulder complained sharply, but she ignored it. She scrambled forward, aimed at Matthew’s brown leather-shod foot.
The Glock spat and the front of Jess’s thigh burst like a tomato, throwing warm red spray up into her face. She twisted and howled, fearing the pain that she knew would – unbelievably – come. The cleaver skittered underneath the table and Mary’s court shoe descended onto her scrabbling fingers, grinding them into the stone tiles. Hands seized clumps of her woollen sweater and she found herself dragged, pulled like a bag of shopping, across the living room. Her head swam. She wanted to be sick, her vision faded to black and back again, galaxies of stars burst inside her eyeballs, threatening to explode through her skull. Something was prodding her in the thigh, something cold and hard, and looking down she saw the blue of her jeans streaked with red. She wondered why it didn’t look real, like so much ketchup. Maybe it was all really just a big Hallowe’en prank on somebody’s part. If this was Harvey’s idea, then he’d better brace himself for an industrial strength smack in the face when it was all over, and get used to doing nothing without her, ever again.
She was dropped by the far wall, underneath the main window, eager feet shuffling around her.
“Oh yes,” Matthew sang above, “I see what you mean. It is beautiful. Oh, Mary…what a sight.”
Jess tried to push herself up from the floor. Her hands skidded over blood, saliva, tears, sweat. Her thigh burned now, hotter and hotter, and she fancied she could even smell smoke and fire. She groaned, found the energy to slap a hand up on the windowledge and push herself to her knees.
“Look, my dear.” Mary whispered in her ear. “Please, look here.”
They pulled her to her feet and rested her against the window, which looked down along the length of Pinetree Avenue. In the distance, someone was having a huge bonfire. The sky itself was alight, the air thick now with the scent of smoke and an unpleasant, greasy tang, like a bad barbecue. It prickled at the back of her throat, making her gag. She tasted vomit, swallowed bile. Her cheeks glistened with tears.
“What luck to find so many, all gathered in one place.” Matthew smiled, eyes dancing with the flames.
“So many?” Jess gurgled. “So many what?”
“Witches.” Mary replied. “What else?”
Jess blinked, tried hard to reassemble her thoughts into some semblance of coherence, to grab back the receding coat-tail of reality. To awaken from this stupid god-damned nightmare.
Everybody else in the street is partying over at the Davidsons’ place.
Matthew stepped over the shuddering, bleeding mess at his feet while Mary continued to watch the conflagration of heretical souls from the window. He removed a cellphone from his pocket and dialled a number.
“I need to leave a message for the Archbishop. Pinetree Avenue has been cleansed. Yes, this is Matthew. Matthew Hopkins.”