Mr. Hughes loved Halloween.
He once told me that it had been his wife’s favorite holiday, and he kept up the decorating to honor her after she’d died. An elaborate shrine to the dead, if you will. Instead of “Sweets for the sweet,” “Deads for the dead?” But I digress.
Every year, he created a different theme. Last year had been the best yet. A realistic cemetery erupted from his yard one morning. Bats hung from the trees, and giant spider webs stretched between tombstones. On Halloween night, he added a fog machine, and a hidden projector threw stalking specters against a nearly invisible mesh. Younger children were too scared to come close to the trick-or-treat bowl, but the older ones loved it – it was almost like a free haunted house.
He always made a costume that matched the decorations. One year, I helped him pass out candy, and he was surprisingly good at making me up like a zombie. I caught sight of myself in the mirror and it terrified me for a moment before I realized that it was me. The makeup was too realistic, too perfect. Made me think of the nightmares I used to have when I was in the hospital. I didn’t sleep that night. Or the next one. By the time I got to fifty-six hours, I was starting to hallucinate. I collapsed on the sofa and slept twelve hours straight. But at least I was too tired to dream. Another plus: my house was incredibly clean and my closets were more organized than they’d ever been.
The year after that, he did a werewolf scene. A disguised post supported a leaping canine monster, and I couldn’t tell you how creepy it was to go to my mailbox and be faced with a werewolf in mid-attack. Did I mention that it moved? It gave me the heebie-jeebies. Reminded me too much of the time my aunt’s big dog attacked me when I was little. Still have the scars on my jaw. I even go the long way around out of the neighborhood so I don’t have to drive past that monstrosity on the way to work. I couldn’t even look out the living room window in the evening – those glowing eyes haunted my nightmares.
Aside from his Halloween obsession, Mr. Hughes isn’t a bad neighbor. If you don’t mind obsessive grass mowing. At seven in the morning. But he always smiles and waves when he sees me. Although I suspect he might have been the one to complain to the HOA about my edging. That’s how the lawn service company does it. Not my fault, is it?
But this year, he’s got the most over-the-top tableau I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something, given his decorations. It looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno. Layers of ragged nylon fabric dance in the breeze of a fan, simulating flames. Damned souls writhe in the fires, and motion sensor-triggered sound effects wail in anguish. An enormous three-faced Lucifer head with pointed teeth and gaping maws was tethered between the two oak trees.
The night he put out the display, I woke up screaming. It had been months since that happened. I had to call my shrink at three AM. I think it’s probably been two years since the last time I had to do that.
Mr. Hughes. It was almost like he knew. Knew my most vulnerable spot, then gleefully sucker punched me. Was he trying to drive me insane? He couldn’t possibly know. But why? Why on earth would he choose this scene?
Surely, if he had been there, listening to my wife and kids screaming as the house blazed around them, he wouldn’t have done it. There was nothing I could have done as I lay on the ground, grass slick with my own blood, jagged bone ends sticking out of my thighs. I had tried to drag myself to the front door, but my legs were worse than useless. An explosion – later I found it was a gas line – shattered the windows and roared through the house like the Devil himself. I had been upstairs and got thrown through a picture window into the front yard. I lived. Not sure if it was a blessing or a curse. I had survived Hell, and for what? To be mocked by Halloween decorations? But this year, I could do something about it. I called up Mr. Hughes and offered to help with the final touches.
Sunday, Halloween morning, was cool and dull. Thin clouds lazed by, briefly exposing the wan sun. Clots of neighbors paused on the sidewalk, admiring Mr. Hughes’ pièce de résistance. A very realistic corpse had been added to one of the jaws of the three-faced Satan. The body’s head and neck vanished into dark mouth, and the arms were raised, hands against the teeth that were trying to chomp it down. The grass had been torn up, as if there had been an epic struggle. The character wore the kind of robe common to Christmas pageants – perhaps he was meant to be Judas? But I’m not really sure. Almost as soon as I’d arrived at Mr. Hughes’ house the prior evening, he’d offered me whiskey from an expensive, imported bottle. We each had a shot, then another. We went outside to look at the display, and he told me that this would probably be the last year of his Halloween extravaganzas. I agreed, fingering the length of clothesline I had in my pocket.
Watching from my darkened window, I could see that the neighbors’ concern increased to panic as Halloween evening stretched on, and Mr. Hughes had not appeared to pass out candy. I saw Mrs. Montoya, his other next door neighbor, standing on the sidewalk in front of his house, talking on her cell phone. I went to see what she was up to.
She ended the call before I got out there, and as I got closer, I could see that she was crying.
“What’s wrong, Mrs. Montoya?” I kept it formal – I didn’t know her all that well.
She sniffled before she turned to me. “Ernie seems to be missing – he hasn’t come out with candy, and he won’t pick up the phone. I’ve called the police. I’m afraid he may need to go to the hospital.”
Too late for that. “Really? Why?”
“He was diagnosed with an aggressive pancreatic cancer. He only has a few months to live.”
“I didn’t know. I’m very sorry to hear that.” You have no idea how sorry.
I sat on the curb and started to laugh. I was still laughing when the police arrived.