Ben had been keeping an eye on the house across the street for several days now. It was already October tenth, late in the month for the tent to go up. Usually the man started earlier, there was always so much work to be done. His house, a simple, one-story, cookie-cutter like all the rest of them in Ben's die-cast neighborhood, was the Halloween House.
Ben didn't know the man's name.
He'd moved into the house three years ago, about a month after Ben turned nine. The Harrisons lived there until they moved to California, after Caleb died. Caleb had been Ben's best friend, and they'd spent ages of time together over years of living across the street from one another. Ben knew that house inside out, but not anymore. Not since the new owner moved in. Not since it became the Halloween House.
He had come alone. No sign of a family. He was somewhere between forty and sixty, Ben guessed. In a neighborhood full of activity, of parades and porch parties, gardeners and joggers, kids on bikes and daily dog walkers, Ben rarely saw him leave his house. Not even to drive to work, to go to the grocery store, to mow the lawn. All those things happened, Ben assumed, but he'd never seen them.
Lots of times Ben wanted to be alone, too. In fact, that's how he preferred it. But it was weird how the man suddenly emerged around the first of October, blossoming like a flower, the only one to bloom in the fall. He came to life to prepare for Halloween.
It started with a tent. No one else in the neighborhood put up a tent.
The tent took up the whole lawn, a dormant swath of grass cut in the middle by a concrete path leading to the front porch. Ben thought of it as a circus tent, but it wasn't as fancy as that. It was the kind folks put in their backyard during summer for some extra shade, but at least four times bigger. Aluminum legs—lots of them—staked to the ground. White canvas roof, peaking in the middle, at a height Ben guessed would accommodate two of him, stacked on top of each other. The tent was a few inches longer than the stakes, so the man folded the excess bit of canvas along the ground inside the tent and then stacked a row of concrete blocks on the length of it. Ben understood the dual purpose of the blocks: it kept the tent standing against the cold, October winds, and it kept the snoopers out. There were always snoopers.
Lucas Janis tried to snoop last year. He was the one who discovered the concrete blocks and the zippered and padlocked front panels.
"Guy's a freak," Lucas had said. "All that work. Just for one night."
Ben didn't disagree.
For the last two Halloweens, right around six o'clock, the man removed the padlock, unzipped the panels, and opened the front flaps, just an inch or so. Then he would light the two pumpkins—masterfully carved demons—that sat on each side of the tent opening, flickering expressions that changed depending on the direction of the breeze.
For the last two Halloweens, the man himself stood just inside the tent flaps, always wearing a dark gray suit, bright red bow tie, black hair slicked back, white makeup over an already pale face. If you had the nerve to ask him what his costume was supposed to be, the man's response was to silently pull up his suit sleeves and reveal a series of black, wiry stiches lacing his wrists.
If you wanted candy, you had to enter the tent. You had to make it all the way to the porch, where the bowl sat. There was never risk of one or two kids emptying the whole bowl into their bag, because kids didn't go to the man's house for candy.
For the last two Halloweens, the man guarded the entrance, and he never let someone through more than once during the night. Ben had no idea how he did it, but the man remembered every masked face, every costume, every parent with their clutching, wide-eyed child.
Ben had never been inside the tent.
Other kids had, lots of them. Hundreds, even. Last year, Ben's block received more trick-or-treaters than ever, maybe twice as much, because of the man's house. Many of Ben's friends had been through, and when Ben asked them what it was like, they never seemed to be able to describe it. Ben heard things like "scary," "couldn’t see well," and "I thought I was gonna shit myself," but there was never any detail. Not really, anyway.
He didn't have a good answer as to why he hadn't been through yet. He was okay being called a pussy by his friends. He'd rather be called names than disrespect Caleb. There was just something wrong about the man turning Caleb's house, the one Caleb died in, into a Halloween spectacle.
Just over three years ago, Caleb asphyxiated in that house. Ben didn't even know what that word meant until his parents explained it to him. Carbon monoxide poisoning, another series of words Ben hadn't known. The water heater had done it, and Caleb's room was situated right next to it in the basement. The same room Ben himself had spent countless nights in.
This year was going to be different.
This year, Ben was going inside. But on his terms, which meant before Halloween night, before the motion-activated props were ready to pounce at you, before the strobe lights and fog machines twisted your sense of reality, before the screeching music gnawed at your bones.
Ben was going to break into the tent when all things were still. A haunted house in the daytime isn't so scary, after all.
Ben toyed with making his move on a few different nights, but never amassed enough nerve. By the time the thirtieth of October rolled around, it was his last chance, and in the nearly three weeks Ben had been thinking on it, he still didn't have a plan. All he could come up with was I'll just sneak in. Shouldn't be hard to yank the bottom of the tent up and step over some cinder blocks, after all.
It was a Thursday night.
After his parents were asleep, he grabbed some supplies from under his bed: Steelers jacket, flashlight, box cutter.
Then he was out the side door and over the fence.
The wind was just short of fierce. It was bitter cold and fanged right though his jacket. He stepped around the edges of light cast from the street lamps.
The man's house was dark.
Ben crossed the street and reached the tent, which looked blue under the moonlight. The canvas sides rippled like a sail in the wind, and all Ben could think of was ghost ship. Ben's breathing quickened as he approached the front flaps.
Zipped shut and padlocked. Just as he expected.
He took a few steps to his left, into the man's lawn, and pulled at the base of the tent. The canvas was thick and heavy, and when Ben pulled on it, the tent didn't give. The concrete blocks on the inside kept it secure to the ground.
Screw it, Ben thought.
He pulled the box cutter from his jacket pocket and thumbed the blade from its home.
Don't think about it too much.
Whether it was good advice or not, it did the trick. On the count of three, Ben stuck the blade into the canvas and pulled down. The canvas opened to him, soft as flesh, revealing a gaping wound that bled darkness. He kept slicing until the hole was big enough, and then Ben stepped through.
It was warm inside. Maybe it was just the instant relief from the chilling wind, but it was almost hot, like when you pulled the blankets over your head. Hot and dark. Sunday school memories flashed in his mind.
Jonah and the whale.
Ben was deep in the belly.
Keep going, he told himself. This is your only shot.
Ben fished out the small flashlight from his pocket, but it slipped from his sweaty palm and fell into the blackness.
He reached down and felt for it, but his fingers touched only the dry grass of the man's lawn. Searching. Searching. Nothing. He was on his knees, inching forward. He breathed harder, almost wheezing. Then his fingers found something.
It was cold and felt like flesh.
Ben knew it was only a prop, but he fought back a scream as he jerked back to safety.
Yet in this darkness, Ben had a sudden, suffocating thought, so real and certain it was surely the truest thing he'd ever known.
There is no safety here. Not on the inside.
Then, a light.
At the far end of the tent, a flashlight beamed. It swept and swooped along the inside of the tent, illuminating for only milliseconds an array of pretend horrors, until, more quickly than he expected, it found Ben's face. He sucked in a breath and held it there.
"What're you doing?"
Ben had never heard the man's voice before. It was a tired voice. Deep and gravelly.
"Just..." He had no words. Then, "I'm sorry."
"You couldn't wait one more night?"
He couldn't see him, not really. Just the barest hints of a figure behind the light.
Ben said nothing.
The flashlight beam moved to the tent wall behind Ben's head to the hole.
"You cut your way in?"
"I'm really sorry," Ben mumbled. This was bad. Maybe he could race back through the hole and disappear before the man figured out who he was. Where he lived.
"I'm sorry," Ben said, a fraction louder.
The flashlight turned off.
An eternity of maybe ten seconds passed.
Then, the man's voice returned. Closer this time. Slurred. Tired.
"I'm putting the finishing touches on my display tonight," he said through the hot darkness. "And then I'm going to test everything. So if you want, if you really want, you can be the first to go through."
Was he drunk? Ben wasn't sure, but something was off.
Ben was quiet.
"Go on," the man said. "Go back the way you came. Through that hole you made. I'm going to turn everything on, and then I'll come unzip the front. If you're still here, you can go through. But just once."
"I can't see," Ben said.
"I can't see my way out."
The flashlight came to life, and Ben saw how close the man was. Maybe fifteen feet away. Ben got a better idea of the tent's innards. It looked like a huge graveyard, with tombstones of varying shapes and sizes rising from the dead grass. There were other things—large, dark, looming things—that Ben couldn't make out. And lengths of rope, strung at waist-level, creating a winding path for the trick-or-treaters to follow.
The beam finally shifted to the hole, and Ben rushed for it, scrambling over the cinder blocks and back outside. Once he was on the safe side of the tent, the light went out.
Ben stood on the lawn and waited. The wind hardened his cheeks and chipped away at his resolve. Then, the tent started coming to life. Ben peered back through the hole as strobe lights flashed dizzying patterns. Smoke machines kicked on and a thick fog rolled along the ground and began to rise. Like a smoke bomb, Ben thought.
Next, the music.
It wasn't the traditional kind of Halloween music, organs moaning long, low notes. This was sharp, fast, panicky music. It wasn't even music at all, really, just a series of noises that made Ben's skull hurt. Metal scratching on glass. Styrofoam pieces rubbing together. Record needles dragging over vinyl. Over and over, the noises overlapping.
A couple of minutes later the front panels unzipped and opened.
The man stepped outside, and the tent exhaled a cloud of fog behind him.
Ben saw him as clearly as the night allowed. He was already dressed for Halloween, though that was still a day away. Dark gray suit, bright red tie, white makeup, hair slicked back. A mannequin from another time. Ben wondered if the stitches on the wrists were already there, or if he'd add those tomorrow.
"You're still here," the man said. "Didn't think you would be."
Ben smelled alcohol. It wafted from him like bad cologne.
He took a step back.
"You live across the street, right? I think I've seen you."
"Yes," Ben replied. Stranger-danger alarms screamed in his head.
He stumbled on his feet just a bit, caught himself. "My daughter used to love Halloween," he said. Then he swept an arm in a grand gesture at his decorations. "It's why I do all this, you know." He said nothing else, and the air hung heavy between them.
Don't ask what happened to her. Don't ask what happened to her.
Ben took another step back toward the street. Toward his own house.
The man leaned forward. "So what's it gonna be? You going through or not?"
Ben told the truth. "I don't know."
A rattling cough. Even in the moonlight, Ben saw his face soften and eyes grow wide. Sorrowful.
"Some things you can't un-see," the man said. "But you pull back the sheet, and there it is, and from then on it's tattooed on the inside of your brain. A forever-thing. And then you change. Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse." Another cough, punctuated with a glob of spit to the ground. "I've got a couple of forever-things in my brain. My wife. My little girl. The last time I saw them is the only time I wished I hadn't."
He searched Ben's gaze until Ben moved it to the ground.
"I need a couple of minutes to set up the final piece, and then it'll be ready. After that, go through if you want. If you don't, that's okay, too. But remember—you can't ever un-see it."
Then the man was gone, back inside, through the fog and into the flashing lights and raging sound. Ben waited a couple of minutes. Despite all the noise and all the lights, there was a stillness in those minutes that chilled Ben more than the wind. A stillness that was scarier than anything that could jump out at him.
In the end, Ben left because of Caleb. It just wasn't right to have all this pretend death in a place where his best friend died for real. But that wasn't the only reason he didn't go inside the tent. He had too many years left in his life to have a forever-thing tattooed on the inside of his brain.
The next morning, when Ben walked to the school bus, the terrible sounds were still coming from the tent. They were there when he came home from school. When Halloween night arrived, Ben and a handful of other costumed and eager neighborhood kids waited outside the tent for the man to stand at the flaps and nod his permission. But the man wasn't there. Ben didn't tell them about what had happened last night. He figured he might later.
Finally, Lucas Janis decided he'd go in, and the group seemed relieved to have a volunteer. As Lucas disappeared inside, Ben felt stillness again, and this time, there seemed a kind of sadness attached to it. A desperation, like the strangling quiet of a person buried alive. The feeling made Ben a little worried about Lucas, but not enough to go in after him.
When Lucas finally emerged with a cocky grin on his face, he only described the last part of the experience. Turns out, the man was in there after all, but he was waiting at the end with the candy. Lucas said he was sitting in a chair, just inside his doorway, with the big bowl of candy near his feet, placed in an ocean of blood. His arms were hanging over the edges of the chair with his sleeves rolled up, revealing prosthetic wounds on his wrists. Deep, rubbery gashes, perfectly done. There was even a razor blade in the pool of blood on the floor, completing the effect.
And the man didn't move, Lucas said. Not a millimeter. Not even when he expected him to, like a sudden jolt and scream just as Lucas reached for the candy.
Lucas peeled down the wrapper of a full-size Snickers bar.
The man had never given out full-size bars before.
Lucas took a large, satisfying bite and proclaimed this year to be the man's best decorations yet.