The neighbors two doors down are aliens. From space. We pretend not to know. They arrive at our door with bottle-green skin, their eyebrows small flitting tentacles, and their child, the individual we’ve always presumed to be their child, gripping their impossibly smooth three-fingered hands. The wife, we think, carries the trick-or-treat bag.
“We buried our landing craft in the hills southwest of town,” the husband tells us. “Ha ha. This is only a joke I make. Trick and treat.”
“It is not uncomfortable wearing the disguise of human flesh,” the wife adds. “One grows accustomed swiftly.” Their eyes are orange like the low October moon, and their pupils fluctuate in shape like wind-torn clouds. The furtive smell that lurks in their house and can never entirely be hidden, like ammonia and yet not, reeks unabashed in cool air.
We smile. We shape our faces into the neighborly smiles. We offer candy. Their child opens its mouth for a loud croak or belch, its three tongues rotating around one another. We tell the neighbors how convincing their costumes are.
“Yes,” the wife says sadly. “It is persuasive in the utmost extreme.”
“Our species has five sexes,” the husband says. “Mating with fewer is unsatisfactory. We have been lonely here. Good night.”
The couple from across the street are furries. He is dressed as a great electric-blue bear, and she as something from a computer game we have not played, most likely a fox. Their costumes have stains on which we do not remark.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we really were?” they say. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that’s how we met?” We can only agree that it would. We offer sufficiently convincing laughs. It is Halloween, and these are costumes. Everyone has agreed that these are not our usual selves.
Mrs. Wilson wears what she wears in her online profile picture, which naturally we have never seen. She has false lashes and glittered eyelids, her lips and shoes red as a stolen car. Her skirt is a narrow band of false leopard, and rhinestones spell MILF across her black lace halter. Mr. Wilson is dressed as an alcoholic. He wears his usual clothes.
“What are you dressed as tonight?” Mrs. Wilson asks.
“A white-collar criminal,” I answer. “Please don’t give me away.”
“A serial plagiarist,” my wife says. “My excuses are emotionally compelling.”
Mrs. Wilson unwraps a lollipop slowly. At last we shut the door. The next neighbor to ring our bell is from the Mafia. It requires only a slight change in his wardrobe, a few preferences he has forsaken, two or three relinquished habits that were never his own. His body language is familiar and unfamiliar, mixing what he has hidden with what he has failed to hide.
“Witness protection,” he says. “What a fucking drag.”
“I never understood where they were sending us,” his wife says. “Someone says Illinois, you think Chicago, right?”
“You’re good sports,” he tells us. “We should get together more often.” We agree that we should. We promise to check our calendars.
I wear my suit, my silk necktie, and my bespoke shirt, the clothes in which I go to the office and embezzle. I am respectable. Respected. My wife’s hair is mussed, her mascara smeared like flies on a windshield. She dangles a whip and handcuffs, her other fist clutching pills no one can see. There is lipstick on my starched collar, and it is not my wife’s. I smell of foreign perfumes. There is lipstick on my face. Something is written there that I cannot read. It is only a costume. Tonight is a holiday. I admit nothing.
The neighbors file through in their expected disguises. They are dressed as pornography addicts. They are dressed as cocaine addicts and bulimics. They are disguised as men who gaslight their wives and women scrupulously hoarding medication. They carry printouts of the many terrible things they have written online. They propound elaborate, implausible theories about Jews. “Butterfingers?” we ask them. “Or Baby Ruth?”
Some of our neighbors are disguised as Satanists. They apologize about our missing cat. “Great Beelzebub demands, like, tribute?” they say. “We hope she finds her way home?”
The widow Simmons is barefoot, wearing a nightgown stained by old blood. Her kitchen knife has rusted brown in places where it was not cleaned. Calling her widow is rude, and should never be said to her face. Her husband has only disappeared. The police cannot definitively say otherwise. She carries a severed head.
“Doesn’t it look like Harry?” she says. We admit that it does, although we remember Harry only slightly. He has been missing so long. What is left of the face certainly looks like Harry. The decomposition is extremely convincing, and the dirt. If Harry had actually been buried, had Harry in uncontroverted fact died, this, more or less, is what his head would look like. The filthy remaining strands of hair she holds resemble his. We compliment the verisimilitude.
“The longer he’s been gone,” she says, “the more fondly I recall him.” She refuses our candy quite graciously and returns to the sidewalk, leaving only the tiniest droplets in her trail.
“Not many children this year,” my wife says.
I say, “Maybe they’re shy.” The children do not come to most doors. They have learned to be wary of candy and adult smiles, to avoid streetlights when they can. They show no interest in the adults’ costumes; they have long known who we are, and what. We glimpse them filing through the underbrush, freezing like wild rabbits when they’ve been seen and moving forward stealthily when grownups’ attention shifts again. They dress for travel, for escape, slipping through unlit space on silent exodus, their watchful eyes reflecting the night.
“Seems like a lot of Hansels and Gretels this year,” I say. “Maybe a couple Red Riding Hoods.”
“I don’t understand kids’ games anymore.”
The Ellerby boy passes our walk, head down and purposeful in his ski mask and flak jacket, rifle muzzle held up like a minute hand nearing twelve. His rifle is well-cared for. The diligence involved is admirable.
“Tell your mother we say hello!” my wife calls after his departing back. There is no response but a slight flinch, as if an insect briefly troubled him. His footfalls fade, tock tick tock tick, and we are left to other sounds: the wind chimes in their respectable disharmony, muffled barks from unnerved dogs, and the ceaseless, arid whisper of fallen leaves, commenting like the dead. The undergrowth pauses and rustles and pauses again, a small animal or child passing.
Perhaps our neighbors, the aliens, should unearth their ship. It might hold some remedy for melancholy. Maybe we should seek that hidden craft ourselves, somewhere in the hills. That, perhaps, is what our daily lives have lacked.
“You miserable bastard,” my wife says to me. “Fuck you.”
“We agreed not to talk about this,” I say. “Let’s get through the evening.”
Our own son and daughter are upstairs, to the best of our knowledge, hiding razor blades in ripe apples. McIntosh, from our local orchard, organic. It demands a handicraft all but lost to place those blades, ensuring the cunning slit never catches the eye. Tradition is so beautiful. We understand, we accept, that our children only indulge us for reasons of irony. We would never offer these apples to strangers. They are strictly for admirers, or friends.
Some neighbors choose not to ring our bell. They pass silently, first by ones and twos but in greater numbers as the hour grows late, moving inexorably toward the courthouse on Main Street where they will converge. Their robes and hoods are pale as bleached bone, and rippling cloth makes them seem to float, vanishing and reappearing under the streetlights like ghosts. The torches they carry have not been lit. It is only one night a year. One night when we wear monsters’ faces.
We talk of our unlucky neighbors, the aliens, and whether any comfort can be offered. We discuss each option judiciously, without hurry, rejecting it in turn. We are sorry for our neighbors, who are strange and sad and difficult to assuage. We wish something could be done.
The neighbors in white robes pass more often, swelling their ranks, and others: shambling men clawed and fanged like wolves, men in homemade uniforms with armbands. No one’s come to our door for three quarters of an hour. There are public guidelines for trick-or-treat, a schedule discussed in advance. It should not be extended beyond reason. The moment of polite sweets is coming to its end. It is not for me to judge. We take away the bowl and put the porch light out. We lock the door and bolt it.
There are few stars left to be seen, but I can smell a faint tang that is not quite ammonia. I used to wonder if my parents, too, might be aliens, in mournful exile from some unmentioned star. It was nothing one could ask directly. It would explain so much. Why, for example, my face never feels entirely like my face, even on this night of nights. Why this awkward flesh feels so like a disguise.
“You know,” my wife says, “you look a little like Harry yourself.”
Glass shatters into brittle music and the streetlight outside our house falls dark. Someone on the sidewalk laughs. Every house is shuttered blind, the election signs buried deep in night, and the moon has hidden. It will not look. We hear rocks thrown at more lamps, hilarity and jeers as stones miss and hit. A few torches are alight, sending wild shadows before them. My wife is rummaging for something in the kitchen. A cozy glow rises over the rooftops, flickering like an old-time hearth, and I smell wood smoke wafting through the air like nostalgia, along with the more modern aromas of burning plastic and burning cars. The torchbearers are an assembly now, thronging our historic town square. They are a tradition. They provide fellowship and community to those who would otherwise feel adrift in today’s society, our modern world which has become so alienating. Those who prefer not to participate may lock our doors. The fires will most likely not reach this particular street on this particular year.
This is the night we show the world our real faces. In the distance, we hear the torchbearers beginning their song.
Jim Marino’s other stories can be found in Alaska Quarterly Review, Santa Monica Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. He lives and works in Cleveland.
Bally Cliff Farm Darnestown
Jim Ross jumped into creative pursuits in 2015 after a rewarding career in public health research. With a graduate degree from Howard University, in eight years he’s published nonfiction, fiction, poetry, photography, hybrid, interviews, and plays in nearly 200 journals on five continents. Photo publications include Alchemy Spoon, Barnstorm, Burningword, Camas, Feral, Invisible City, Phoebe, Stoneboat, Stonecoast, and Whitefish. Text-based photo-essays include Amsterdam Quarterly, Barren, DASH, Kestrel, Ilanot Review, Litro, NWW, Paperbark, Pilgrimage Magazine, Sweet, and Typehouse. He recently wrote/acted in a one-act play and appeared in a documentary limited series broadcast internationally. Jim and his family split their time between the city and the mountains.