“I make my own candy apples” she said, and her hair looked just like cobwebs. She smiled and one of her front teeth was brown and striped with rot. I realized that Winston was staring at her, mouth open, eyes wide with a look that could have been fear or awe, about to scream or about to wet his $9.99 Wal-Mart-brand Spider-Man costume. He was four and a half this year, just old enough to understand that trick or treating meant candy, not yet old enough to believe that old ladies with fourteen cats and a disregard for oral hygiene weren’t really wicked witches.
“What do you say Winston?” Winston said nothing. She was smiling at him and waiting expectantly, rheumatoid-twisted fingers proffering a small golden delicious shellacked with slimy red sugar. I noticed her fingerprints in it, and suddenly felt a little queasy myself.
“Come on Winston, we don’t have all day. Listen to Daddy: what do big boys say?”
It was mouse quiet, the way he gets when he’s lost inside his imagination and running on autopilot. But at least it was something. Now we could take the disgusting thing and politely be on our way. I had every intention of chucking the apple into the trash as soon as we were around the corner. Winston probably wouldn’t mind, and if he did I’d just trade him a Reese’s cup for it. Winston was devoted to Reese’s cups.
I tapped him lightly on the shoulder (boy needs a little prodding every now and then), and Winston reached out with candy-filth covered fingers, grasping at the wooden stem impaling the apple. His hands brushed hers for a second and they both shivered, and then the apple was falling, dropping through the air, bouncing on the smiling jack o’lantern imprinted into the plastic fronds of the doormat, rolling off into the leaves and dirt and coming to rest near a late-fall wilted potted begonia. Shit.
In less than a second Winston was screaming, fresh young lungs pumping like hell’s own bellows; deep throaty “waaahs” followed by snorting, choking, sucking “huck huck” gasps. He hadn’t even wanted the thing until he couldn’t have it.
The old woman was immediately distraught. Her wrinkled hands were shaking as she tried to bend over and pick up the apple. I guess her back wasn’t in good shape, and neither were her knees, because she was stumbling and shuffling, and moving in stop motion, all the time her hands making small patting motions at Winston, who wasn’t going to stop crying for anything. I felt my face flush with embarrassment and twist into a frown as I knelt down and picked the be-grimed apple from the ground. If it had been unappetizing before, it was completely inedible now.
“I’m sorry honey. I’m sorry. We’ll get you another one. I’ve got more inside.” She was trying to comfort him, but he was practically seizing from the deep emotional pain of his lost candy apple. I knew from experience that when Winston lost something his depression had a soul-wrenching and practically existential pallor to it. Trick or treating was pretty much done for the evening.
“I *huck* DON WUN ANUTER *huck* CAPPLE!! (it almost sounded like he said ‘crapple’)”
“Come on Winston, let’s leave the nice lady alone, you’ve got plenty of candy already, and you can eat it when we get home.” I was already crouched over Winston and pulling/herding him away from the door. My head hurt.
“Thankyoum’amIappreciateitsorryfortheinconveinancewe’lljustbegoing” I said to the old lady as I pushed firmly on Winston’s felt covered lower back.
“Nonsense.” Her voice was firm and surprisingly clear, with that undertone of steely female authority that no well-raised male can refuse. I hadn’t pictured it coming from such a frail face, from such a desiccated form.
“I have more apples inside [I DON WAN A CAPPLE!] and if the young man doesn’t want another apple I’m sure I can find something else.”
Winston quit crying immediately, and underwent the impressively immediate transformation from furious disappointment to wide-eyed expectation, possible only in young children and dogs. But the snot kept running down his upper lip.
“do you ave any Reesies?”
“Maybe I do. Why don’t you come in while I go back to the pantry and see what I can find? It’s cold out here and even a superhero can catch the flu.”
Winston’s acolytic obsession with Reese’s cups interrupted our getaway. If I tucked him beneath my arm and ran away he’d only wail and moan for the rest of the night. He might have been able to maintain his righteous indignation into the next day. It was just easier to give up and go along. It’s no use fighting children or old people, especially not when they’re collaborating.
The house was musty on the inside, as if all of the overstuffed furniture and yellowed wallpaper had become imbued with the essence of overripe apples and old newspaper. Her home was the quintessence of a spinster’s; small crowded rooms with dated sofas and ancient appliances, sepia tone photographs and impressionist paintings on the walls, ceramic figures and large books on the shelves. It felt like a great aunt’s place; a house inhabited by the kind of person who dreams of being a grandmother, and lives with the reality of being deeply alone. Comfortable but sad.
She told Winston and I to sit down, make ourselves comfy, rest by the fire (in her hearth popping logs and gnawing at orange-red embers), wait while she found something, that she had some old candy stashed away somewhere. Winston sat down in front of the fireplace. He liked to stare into fires. I walked around and looked at her curios. I could hear her puttering in the next room. Opening doors. Shuffling paper. Clinking glass. Something hissing. Probably a cat.
The room looked normal, looked like you would expect, though there were a few things off. A dusty dog skull on a shelf. A sickly looking dark purple flowered plant slumping into itself in a far corner. A thick yellow-white candle dribbling rolls of fatty wax onto a table. A small tray with ten silver hooks tied to catgut line, all laid out in a row. I put it down to the oddities of the elderly and the fashions of October, mixing with the ghosts and goblins in my head.
“This is a very nice place you have here Mrs.…?” I was feeling a little odd standing here, with my candy catatonic son staring into the fire, and a stranger going out of her way to please him, so I tried to make conversation. I shouted to her from the edge of the throw rug, partly because I didn’t want to invade her privacy anymore than I already had, and partly because I supposed her hearing was bad. Maybe a little because I didn’t want to see what was in the kitchen.
“Mab. Miss. Mab…Dear.” I heard something clatter hollowly in the other room.
“It’s very nice of you to look, but please don’t go to any trouble for us.” I shuffled my feet on the rug, and looked at the spider web of water stains spreading across the ceiling.
“It’s no trouble, really. I get visitors so rarely, and I do love the season. Love the the young ones’ outfits. The little monsters are my favorite. Such imaginations.”
“Well, they must have had some pretty interesting costumes back in your day. I bet you cut quite a figure when you got dressed up.”
“Not as such, no, dear. I was always just myself. That seemed to be enough. In fact, most times, the families didn’t even need to see me. They just left it on the stoop, knowing I’d come by and get it in my own time. But that was quite a while ago. Quite a while.” The way she said it made my neck twitch.
There was a momentary pause in the sounds of movement coming from the kitchen. When she spoke again her voice was lower. I realized then that she had a strange way of speaking. Almost like she was talking more to herself than to anyone else. Like adults sound when they speak to children.
“And of course if I don’t give a treat, I’m just asking for a trick, now aren’t I? And I don’t want to be tricked, no I don’t.”
“Oh, we wouldn’t do anything like that, and besides Winston’s a little young for toilet papering houses!” I chuckled at the thought of my 4 year old son in a leather jacket and a pompadour, hurling rolls of TP over Miss Mab’s house. The tension in me disappeared.
The shuffling resumed in the kitchen. I could hear the sound of something being stacked and the floor creaking as if under a heavy weight.
“You shouldn’t take chances with tricks, dear. It isn’t worth the cost.”
There was a good thirty seconds of silence while I tried to think of something else to say, the previous line of conversation seeming somewhat dead. I was starting to get antsy when I heard her stumble in the pantry. A soft thumping sound, like a heavy quilt falling on the floor. I had visions of the old lady breaking her hip and I was about to go in there to help her. I was. I even had my hand on the doorjamb…I just hadn’t quite gone in yet.
When she came around the corner, she was disheveled, but smiling, her wispy hair floating away from her face at odd angles and her glassy grey eyes staring almost through me. She had a faded box of Baby Ruth candy bars in her hands. The labeling was odd. She wasn’t joking when she said they were old, I guess.
“Here they are. Knew I had them somewhere. A little out of date, I suppose, but things like this never really go bad. The preservatives and all, dear.” She smiled her green-brown smile and held the box out to me. I didn’t want to take it all, but that was obviously her intention, so I didn’t put up a fight. The box was filmed with ashy dust that felt almost greasy under my fingertips.
She smiled to herself and said, “I remember when I was the one getting the treats, rather than giving them. Seems like so long ago, but sometimes it seems just like yesterday.”
“Well, making your own candy apples is a lost art these days, I’ll tell you that. Every house we go to is practically working for Hershey or Mars. Or they give out tooth brushes.” Winston looked over his shoulder and made a face.
Miss Mab stared at me with a cocked head. Her wrinkled hand fussed with the shawl over her shoulder.
“Oh, the apples are a new thing to me, dear, but I guess its all relative. Back when I was…younger…the people would give out eggs and bread, or little honey cakes. Called soul cakes. Dates and raisins and dried apples mixed with oats and honey. Sweetest things you’ve ever had. All the sweeter because those making them had so little to give. A real sacrifice is something you can truly appreciate, something to be savored.”
She looked wistful.
“Not like today.”
I felt uncomfortable again. Awkward. Winston was still staring at the fire and Miss Mab was staring at me. I started to say something, then stopped. Miss Mab looked at me, and her eyes seemed suddenly more focused. My tongue seemed to be growing in my mouth, absorbing all the saliva like a sponge. At that moment Winston saw the box of candy in my hand. He rushed over and tried to grab it. While he plucked at my fingers, Miss Mab tousled his hair and lightly pinched his ear.
“No tricks dear. Remember, that’s the bargain. I gave you boys treats, so no tricks.”
He looked at me and nodded slowly, seeming to be a child made of nothing but giant blue eyes. With one motion I was opening the door and ushering Winston out. I wanted my child to be home and safe, and I wanted to be home and safe and I wanted to get away from the heavy weight of Miss Mab’s gaze behind me. Something made me stop. Maybe it was a desire to be an adult, to prove that I didn’t think little old ladies were wicked witches. Maybe it was because I wanted to be scared.
“Miss Mab,” I said, and my voice caught in my throat, cracked like I was thirteen again. “what kind of tricks did you used to play?”
She smiled, but it wasn’t a smile, it was her showing me something that I didn’t want to see. It was her telling me that those teeth were for little boys and girls and people who forgot to lock the doors, people who forgot to carry a flashlight in the woods, people who forgot the past. And suddenly she wasn’t old and palsied; she was a taught wire vibrating from an unsated hunger.
“Oh, Dearest. I think you can already imagine. I think you remember how we could make children go missing and put something else in their place. I think you remember how we could make the winters so cold that your blood froze before you were dead, and how we could come and visit people in their dreams every night, and how they’d wake up screaming. I think you know how we could get inside their heads and sing those little voices like stinging ants that would make them hurt those they loved. I think a part of people remembers that almost as well as they remember what they dressed up as when they were four and half.”
Her voice was kind and soft, and her hand was on my arm. I grabbed Winston and we ran all the way home.