“Help me! Please!”
The shout and accompanying pounding scared the crap out of me. I clamped down on the shriek that rushed up my throat and looked at Anna, who stared up at me, bug-eyed fear showing right through her adorable little vampiress get-up.
“Trick-or-treater?” I said, pointing at the still-full candy bowl. Anna’s eyes lost their fear as she squinted at me, tipping her head to one side in a move so reminiscent of her mother it made my heart hurt, even after two years. It was a look that said that even at six Anna knew trick-or-treating didn’t work like that.
The pounding continued.
I turned and took three quick steps to peek through the patterned window set in the front door. A small fist pounded on it as I watched, and beyond it a small, low head turned away from me to look back toward the road. Everything was distorted through the shapes and designs pressed into the pane, but I could make out a shock of dark hair under a small, round hat. The face was in profile as well as distorted, but even through all that I was pretty sure it was—
“It’s a clown,” Anna said. “A little clown, like me, Daddy!”
My head whipped around and I spotted my daughter standing on the couch, leaning over the back to press her face to the window looking out on the side of the porch.
“Anna! Get down from there!”
“But Daddy! She’s just little, and she needs help.”
“We’ll help — just get down and sit right there, okay?”
Having a house outside of town meant we had a hell of a yard for Anna to play in, but it also meant we were pretty isolated. That thought alone made me hesitate to let any trouble in the house with my little girl. But if this really was a child in trouble...
Anna spun about, dropping to sit on the couch as I turned back to the door. I could tell she was barely listening to me, as caught up in the plight of the little girl on our porch as she was every injured bird we saw or hungry dog that showed up at our door. I, on the other hand, turned back toward the door feeling a little more trepidation, very aware of the ‘trick’ portion of everyone’s favorite Halloween phrase.
“Hello?” I called through the closed door. “Can I help you?”
The girl’s shouts had been slowing, apparently winding down as her strength flagged; now, though, her voice rose with renewed vigor.
“They’re coming! They’re right behind me, let me in! Please!”
I hesitated, still uncertain, and her shouting degenerated into sobs of desperation and fear.
Anna sounded like she was on the verge of tears herself, and that was enough to get me moving; but when the pounding ceased and a small palm was pressed to the outside of the glass, only to slide down the pane as the child outside apparently fell to her knees in despair, that was enough to get me moving with alacrity.
I tore the door open to find a small heap of brightly-colored cloth on the welcome mat, a smudged and tear-streaked clown’s face at one end. Her eyes were open but she didn’t look at me; rather, she stared blankly out into the night, nearly catatonic with fear.
“Oh my God, are you alright?” I said. “Let’s get you on the couch!”
I scooped her up, finding a solid little frame inside that billowing, riotous clown suit, and raced to deposit her onto the couch. Anna slipped to the floor to make room, then screamed, pointing, as I lay the little newcomer down. I spun to face Anna, then followed her finger to the still-open door.
“Trick-or-treat,” said the man filling the doorway. He reached to the side and the doorbell rang. “Smell my feet,” he said. “Give me something good to eat.”
“What?” I said, my confusion at the childish phrase battling for dominance with my terror.
The bell rang again.
“Trick-or-treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.”
He was big, in a white collared shirt and jeans, his face a flat, wide slab curiously devoid of emotion. His hand fell to his side as he continued in his strange, deep monotone.
“Give us the girl.”
“No!” I said, startled at his directness.
“Or invite us in,” said a new voice, a woman. Beyond the man’s thick shoulder I caught a flash of long blond hair.
“Yes, we’ll take her ourselves,” said a third voice. “Just —”
That voice cut off at a gesture from the big man, who kept his dark eyes on me through the open door.
“Yes,” he said, “just invite us in. Please. We’d take her ourselves, but we can’t unless you invite us in. Please,” he nodded, “may we come in?”
“No!” I said again. The door was open but they hadn’t crossed the threshold for some reason. Polite home invaders? I didn’t care why, just as long as they stuck to it as I reached for the phone.
“I’m calling the poli—”
My hand stopped in mid-reach, caught in a small, cold grip. I looked down to find a tiny clown’s face, the make-up smeared and tear-streaked, split by a wide grin. A grin that seemed to hold far too many sharp, pointed teeth. One little hand held my own while the other arm wrapped about Anna’s head, that hand across her mouth below eyes bulging with terror. The hand holding mine gave a powerful jerk and I stumbled, my face drawing down nearer the nightmare holding my daughter.
“But I was invited,” it said, rank breath washing over my face before a tiny, brick-hard fist smashed up under my chin and I knew no more.
I woke to an open front door and an empty house.
Anna would be fifteen now.
I’m still looking.