It was Halloween 1999. I sat in the front seat of the Dodge Caravan, my dad in the middle of a championship rant about punctuality. I was late coming out of my friend Dylan’s, and he felt this reflected some kind of moral failing on my part. I just thought my dad was being a prick, so I kept my mouth shut.
Our neighbourhood’s streets were mostly deserted. The slow-motion flicker of passing streetlamps putting me to sleep. My father started his rant again as he took in the evening’s mischief. Drunk and costumed teenagers were huddled at several street corners, planning their next moves. I vaguely registered my father insisting I never become like them. I hadn’t considered it until that moment. Years later, drunk on a corner, dressed as a zombie cowboy shot in the forehead during a misguided duel, I misremembered my behaviour as my father’s explicit instructions.
We turned onto the main boulevard which led to our house and immediately it was clear something was wrong. There was a line of about a dozen vehicles blocking the way. At that point, the night had run its course. I was just looking forward to going to bed. My father, unable to help himself, put the car in park and told me to sit tight, maybe he could be of assistance. I started to protest but my dad gave me a look that said, “don’t you dare, not after making me wait for you.”
I chose to say nothing.
Dad left the car and the momentary blast of cold air felt nice. I waited for a while. It took longer than I thought it would, so I made a choice. I left the car, determined to see what happened.
As I walked the line of cars, I got disapproving looks from older couples, probably coming home from their own parties, wondering what this kid was doing walking in traffic. I paid no attention to them. What I remember most is walking by a Volkswagen Jetta with three college girls listening to loud metal music. The one in the back seat opened her window, her face snapping into existence in a cloud of cigarette smoke as she leaned half her body out into the light of the streetlamp overhead. My breath caught when I saw her. She had a halo and angel wings on but very little else. Her eyes were blacked out by some kind of lens, and she had painted red streaks on her cheeks, as though she had been sobbing literal heart break through her eyes. The sight of her was thrilling and horrific. The feeling I was hoping to get from watching horror movies at Dylan’s, only so much better. Before I could say a word, she growled at me, smiled in a way that spread the edges of her mouth across the length of her face, and disappeared back into the dark recesses of the compact car. I walked faster after that.
At the front of the line, I found a circle of men concealing whatever it was that was blocking traffic. I could hear bits of their conversation.
“Let’s get it off the road”
“Someone’s already gone to call for help.”
“Well what the fuck would you call it?”
“Is that a costume?”
“I didn’t hit a kid. Hey! That’s not a fucking kid.”
“No one’s saying you did anything on purpose. You hit something. I don’t know what but, shit.”
That last one was dad. Ever the diplomat, but this must have been bad for him to swear. I pushed my way through some legs and caught a couple of guys just enough by surprise that they didn’t immediately try to stop me.
It was about my size, but its arms and legs seemed too long for its stocky body. Its face, the only thing I could clearly see, must have been a mask because its elongated mouth flanked the sides of its scrunched-up eyes and up turned receded nose, the skin, loose and the same colour as the pavement. I gasped at the sight of it and drew attention from the men in the group. My dad and I spotted each other at the exact same moment. I expected anger and disappointment but what I got instead was fear. Maybe concern? He was by my side in three strides putting his hand over my eyes and leading me back to our car. He only looked over his shoulder once to shout “get it off the road, okay? We have families to get home.”
In bed that night, unable to sleep, I went over the same three thoughts I would mull over for years.
If that was a costume, it was amazing. Pristine.
If it was a kid, they weren’t from around here. I checked and checked; nothing had been reported.
And then there was my dad. He was never scared of anything, but this made him doubt himself in a way I thought was impossible for him. He never liked Halloween; he couldn’t stand it after that.
Truth is, he didn’t get his hand over my eyes fast enough that night.