My sophomore year in college, I rented, along with a couple of friends, a house within walking distance of the University in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a large house, at least for the price we were getting, a little rundown, but we didn’t care. And it had a basement. A strange basement, with an ancient cast-iron furnace with pipes that snaked up through the floor, and there were some weird things down there. “I shouldn’t tell you this,” the lady showing us the place told us, after I insisted we see the basement, “but the residents a couple of years ago used to make videos down here.” She looked around nervously, whispered, “S&M videos…”
A couple of weeks before, in a drunken fugue, I’d blurted out to my good friend my idea to move off campus, to have a house where we could be as loud as we wanted to be. We’d stayed up all night talking about it along with this girl we’d maybe a week ago from one of the other dorms that had been hanging out with us a lot. Young, and high, and spontaneous, I suggested the three of us find a place and we all agreed.
The house was rented to us by the law firm that owned it next door, but the firm closed by 5PM and we were free to have people over and throw parties without risk of eviction, despite our reckless habits. I wanted to throw a Halloween party at our new house, but, it didn’t happen that way.
In the basement, there were old things in boxes, nothing extraordinary, just forgotten desktop items and trinkets. Looking up, one could see a crimson handprint on a support beam, clearly paint, but meant to look like blood, and there were others one could find, if one really looked. Deeper in, moving past the yawning furnace, the concrete walls crumbled into dirt and there was a small, dark area with strange graffiti scrawled over what was left of the walls: dull suns with grinning faces, laughing demons, zags of lightning. And, once inside this chilly area, turning to go back, one could see a wall built from wooden planks, leather straps and chains hanging across it, hundreds of tiny nicks in the wood, where someone had practiced throwing a knife.
Halloween night, by the time I got off work at my shitty job bussing tables at a 24-hour diner, all of my friends had already left for the party they were attending down the street. I hurried into a makeshift costume, which was really just my bathrobe and a noose hanging around my neck, and drove to the party. When I got there, everyone was already so drunk I didn’t even bother trying to catch up with them. I left, disgusted and disappointed, and returned to the house alone.
Sitting on the couch in the living room, drinking a beer and watching TV restlessly, I heard something crash in the basement. I jumped to my feet, crossed the kitchen, and opened the rickety door. I looked down those steps into the dark. I flicked the light on and it was only slightly less dark. I was stopped on the first step by a scratching sound—something scratching down there in the dark. I was suddenly scared, even though I knew I shouldn’t be; I was an adult now, and drunk; I had nothing to fear. I took the steps one at a time.
When I reached the bottom, I knew the sounds I’d heard had come from the back area with the crumbling graffiti and the knife-nicked wall. I brandished my beer bottle like a weapon. I could still hear that scratching sound, faintly, but still there. I walked around the unsettling face of the furnace and approached that dark area where the S&M videos had been shot. I thought there might be movement in there, flickering of some kind.
There was a crash, a startling thud. I lost my nerve, turned, and ran up the stairs, slipped, skinned my shin on the steps, and flung myself back up through the door and into the kitchen. I slammed the door behind me.
My friends had just come home with some people, yelling and screaming and drunk. I went to the freezer, swigged vodka straight from the bottle, and went to join them. Soon, I lost myself amongst my friends and the night drained to its inevitable conclusions.
We were evicted from that house after only a couple of months. The girl I’d barely known and so impulsively invited to live with us became my wife years later.
- – -
When I was in 6th grade, I went trick-or-treating with my friends for the last time. At each house, we were appraised by the adults on the other side of the door: “Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” We all nodded shyly and held out our bags for candy, which was still given out, however reluctantly. Then, when we were safely on the street, we’d scoff, and kick someone’s jack-o-lantern, smash it with our sneakered feet.
One of my friends had dressed up as “Pumpkin Head,” hollowing out a real pumpkin, carving eye-holes in its side and a leering grin to put over his head as a mask. By the time we’d hit maybe a dozen houses, he was complaining of a headache, and feeling dizzy, and his mask quickly became another casualty of orange guts in the gutter.
We stayed out much later than we should have, ringing doorbells even when the lights were off, and then running away laughing. We came around the corner, sometime after midnight, and there was a group of older boys at the end of the street, standing in a circle around something. We were close to the park and there were fewer streetlights in this part of the neighborhood. The older boys were wearing masks and appeared to be taking turns kicking at whatever it was they were surrounding. One of the boys looked up and pointed—he was wearing a wolf’s mask—and we turned back and ran.
- – -
When I was in 4th grade, I was fascinated with the children’s books Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I used to herd my friends into the window wells around the side of my house, which were shadowy even in the daytime, and read to my friends, as dramatically as possible, trying to scare them.
That Halloween, obsessed with Legos, I wanted to be a pirate Lego man. My mom helped me construct the costume, sewing my clothing and taking me out to buy the necessary accessories. I spent the entire night telling people I was a Lego character, but none of the adults understood, insisting I was just a pirate.
Later that night, lying awake in bed angry, I drifted into nightmares. In one of them, a demon with blue-tinted skin sat on my dresser; nodded to me, grinning.
- – -
Just a few weeks ago, while walking around in the afternoon, I was looking up at a flock of birds when I saw one of those bird’s wings suddenly cease flapping, and the poor creature plummeted to the earth. I was sure it was dead before it struck the ground.
One moment: alive.
The next: dead.
And so I’ve known Halloween was coming…