Moira kicked spilled candy corn off her front step. The remnants of another weeknight massacre. This time, all in the name of a holiday.
She’d stopped keeping track of the holidays.
They meant nothing, after all. Just another day full of shit, another day without Norman in it. What was the point?
She looked over at the garden gnome that Norman had polished every St. Patrick’s day. The ghost of an old conversation floated back to her as she picked it up from where the kids had knocked it over.
Moira closed her eyes and savored the memory.
“It’s a gnome, Norm. Not a leprechaun. It’s not his holiday.”
“I know that! But don’t you think what matters is doing it?”
In the present, Moira sighed. This St. Patrick’s Day, she’d grab a rag and polish the years of grime away. So far, she hadn’t had the strength.
It was the day before Halloween. She’d picked up trash all week, and if those damn kids tried their tricks tonight, she’d give them more than treats.
Movement on the sidewalk at the mailbox caught her eye. Riley stood there, all tousled blonde hair and sleepy brown eyes. His hand-me-down sweatshirt needed elbow patches. She’d see to that soon.
“Don’t stand there gawking’ at me. C’mon.” She waved him forward, but he looked at his shoes. She put her hands on her hips. “What’s the matter with you?”
“He’s coming here tonight to get you,” he said.
She squinted in the morning sun. “Who’s coming to get me?”
“The Tricker-Treater,” Riley said. “He’s coming here tonight. I made a deal with him.”
“What?” Riley never spoke in riddles. He wasn’t one to loiter at the end of her driveway either. “Peanut butter cookies inside. Tell me later.”
“No, he’ll be here later. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Moira frowned. “Stop listening to your brother. Come inside and have some cookies with me and we’ll go from there.”
Without waiting to see if he’d follow, Moira headed back into the house. She went straight to the kitchen. The storm door slammed shut not too long after, and Riley pulled up a chair at the kitchen table.
Moira carried the plate of cookies over to him. Up close, he looked like the same old Riley as always. All she saw was the haunted glint in his eyes he got from spending time with Taylor. Now school was back in, all he had was Taylor until their mother got home from work. Retail was hell, Moira remembered. When Riley’s mother got home, the last thing she’d want to do was scold Taylor for tormenting his little brother.
Norman would have scared Taylor shitless, given the chance. He would have protected Riley.
Norman had always been better with kids.
“Lots of trick-or-treaters coming here tomorrow,” Moira said. “So what makes yours so special? Why’s he coming here tonight?”
Riley froze with his hand halfway to a cookie. “Not trick-or-treater. Tricker-Treater.”
Moira shook her head. “I said that.”
“No, like… hang on.” He scooted the chair back from the table and dashed across the room to where the landline rested. There was a small pad of paper beside it. He snatched up the paper and a pen and ran back to the table. His brow furrowed in concentration. Sticking out his tongue, he leaned over the paper and spelled out the difference for her:
He set down the pen and waited for her to read his writing. Moira shook her head again. He didn’t know how to spell it.
“No ‘or,’” he said. “Tricker-Treater. He’s both.”
Something icy pricked the back of Moira’s neck. She brushed her fingers over the spot and found nothing. Her gaze drifted back to the paper.
“Mmhm.” Riley grabbed a cookie and took a bite. He devoured it, careful not to make eye contact with Moira. It was a sophisticated strategy for a seven-year-old.
Moira leaned on the table and stared at him. “Riley.”
He scooted his chair away. “I gotta use the potty.”
“Do you, or do you not want to talk to me?” she asked.
He stuffed another cookie in his mouth, and when he spoke, he sprayed crumbs everywhere. “I don’t want to talk about him.”
“You mean the Tricker-Treater?”
“Yeah.” He choked on the cookie and coughed. Moira grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the sink. She patted him on the back and slid the glass to him.
Riley chugged the water and still couldn’t stop coughing. Moira took the plate of cookies from him, because no way in hell was he going to choke to death on her watch. Not if she could help it.
“You’d better head on home,” Moira said. “You’ll worry your mother sick.”
Riley scooted back from the table again. “Don’t call her. She doesn’t know.”
“She doesn’t know you’re here? Did you stay home from school, or did you skip?”
His eyes darted to look over her shoulder. Moira spun around. Nothing there. When she turned back to him, he was heading for the front door.
“I messed up, I messed up!”
She lunged for his sleeve and missed. He was through the front door and across the yard before she had time to try again. Damn it. What was wrong with that boy? He’d been in no hurry minutes before with a plate of cookies in front of him. The minute she’d mentioned his mother though…
Moira sighed and leaned against the door frame. Something was off with Riley, and she wasn’t going to let him out of her sight until she got to the bottom of it.
When he returned a few minutes later, Moira stood between him and the front door. “Riley, please. Tell me what’s going on.”
He chewed his bottom lip. “I don’t wanna. I’m scared. It never goes well.”
“What do you mean, ‘it never goes well’?”
“Every time I tell you, it… I messed up,” he repeated.
Moira sighed. She was getting nowhere fast. Whatever he had on his mind, it upset him so much he wasn’t making sense. If she couldn’t get him to focus, she would never figure out what was going on. And, seeing as how it involved her…
“Riley.” Moira grabbed his shoulders and held him there, stooping to look into his eyes. “Whatever you think is going to happen, I can face it better if you tell me about it, okay?”
His lower lip quivered. “Even if it’s bad?”
“Even if it’s bad.”
Riley gulped. “The Tricker-Treater is gonna stop by your house tonight. You gotta meet with him and do what he says, or else.”
Moira quirked an eyebrow at him. “Or else?”
He hesitated. “Like I said, I’ve told you about him before, and he… he always makes sure to catch you. Even if you run away, he finds you and he…” Riley’s voice trailed off into a sob. Shiny, fat tears bubbled over his lashes and rolled down his face. Moira pulled him against her and wrapped her arms around him.
Shit, she hadn’t meant to make him cry. Jesus Christ, that was the last thing she wanted.
Moira’s chest tightened. “It’ll be okay, Riley. We’ll figure it out together, all right?”
Riley pulled away from her. He shook his head. “I dunno.”
“I’m older and wiser. Humor me, huh?”
He sniffed and wiped his nose. Moira debated getting a tissue for him, but it was too late—he was already rubbing the snot with his sleeve. As perceptive as the kid could be, he was still a kid, and he was gross.
Sometimes she wondered what it would have been like to have children. Sometimes she watched Riley and was glad that time had passed her.
“You should run home now,” Moira said again. “Even if you did skip school, your mom won’t be angry as long as you’re safe.”
His gaze jumped over her shoulder again. She waited for him to refocus. He’d come there in such a hurry, and now he kept drifting away. The urgency had waned. That was good.
“Are you feeling all right?”
Riley nodded. “I’m… a little better now.”
“No more getting upset over the Tricker-Treater, okay?”
Hesitation, then another nod. A slow exhale. “Okay.”
“You want a few cookies to take home? You can share them with Tyler.”
Riley wrinkled his nose at the mention of his brother. “He doesn’t deserve cookies.”
“I suppose he doesn’t.”
Moira patted him on the head and went back into the kitchen. She eyed the half-empty glass in a pool of condensation, the cookie crumbs Riley had sprayed on the table. She looked back at Riley, still standing where she’d left him, and her chest ached. She flattened a hand against her collarbone.
She and Norman could’ve tried a little longer.
His head jerked up. “Huh?”
“You still want those cookies?”
“Um… no thanks.” He wiped his nose with the sleeve of his sweater again. “I’ve never stayed this late before. I don’t wanna see him.”
The poor kid was talking in circles again. Better send him off to someone much more qualified.
Moira propped a hand on her hip. “Go on, get outta here before I call your mom. And be careful tomorrow.”
Riley cast a long look at her before putting his hand on the door knob. That was all it took? No fight? No begging her for cookies, saying he had changed his mind?
She should have insisted he take some.
If he’d still demanded some, that would have been proof things were normal.
Instead, Moira frowned at the back of his head as he walked out and left the door open.
Moira tossed popcorn into her mouth and watched Bill Murray fail to woo Andie MacDowell. There was no reason for the network to broadcast Groundhog Day on October 30, but she wasn’t complaining. It had been one of Norman’s favorite movies.They’d gone to see it in theaters the day it came out, which seemed so long ago now.
Without Norman, time dragged on. How had it only been a year since his death?
Watching a movie she’d seen more than a dozen times soothed her ragged nerves. That the movie was itself a perpetual, familiar cycle was not lost on her. In fact, that was a large part of Groundhog Day’s charm—especially tonight, when there was so much on her mind.
Riley’s behavior had left her shaken and confused. Sure, he was a kid, but he’d always been perceptive, and she trusted what he said. He usually meant what he said. At that age, it was rare for children to have ulterior motives. Whatever Riley thought was going to happen to her, it was worth considering.
The Tricker-Treater was coming to get her tonight.
Moira’s gaze jumped to the glow of the streetlight that permeated her closed blinds. Outside, the air was cold and crisp. Inside, she was cozy.
She drew the knitted afghan tighter around her midsection. Andie had slapped Bill. Normally, the moment made Moira laugh. Normally, she wasn’t wound up like a coiled snake.
The chiming of her doorbell made her jump out of her skin. She jostled the bowl in her lap, spilling popcorn everywhere.
Why was she so jumpy? It was likely Riley and his mother, coming to check on her after their talk. Riley’s mom Adriane was nice—she apologized for Riley with baked goods and wine. When she wasn’t working, she tried to come over for tea and pour out her soul to Moira.
In another life, they could have been mother and daughter.
In another life, Norman might still be alive.
Another ache struck Moira’s chest. The doorbell chimed again, demanding her attention.
She set the bowl aside and stood. Whoever it was, they were insistent. She doubted they’d go away if she ignored them.
Probably some damn kids, anyway. God willing, they wouldn’t egg her when she opened the door—for their sakes’ as well as hers.
She didn’t feel forgiving.
Moira crept over to the door and pulled back the curtain on the window beside the door. She had to see who had come knocking.
There was no one there.
Puzzled, she let the curtain drop and stood on tiptoe to look through the peephole.
Moira stepped back. She flattened a hand against her chest.
The doorbell chimed again.
Icy dread stuck its fingers down the back of Moira’s shirt. Her hand settled on the cold metal door knob. After a breath, she twisted it and pulled the front door open.
The man—if the thing could even be called a man—stood at least seven or eight feet tall. It had to double over to fit under the awning of her porch. Pale red skin stretched tight over pointed features, most notably a bear skull. At least, she thought it was a bear skull. Norman would have known for sure. Norman always—
Coal-black eyes glittered at her as the thing bared its teeth—razor-sharp—in some semblance of a smile.
It wore nothing but a top hat, which it tipped before it spoke.
“I hope you were expecting me.”
His voice was low and smooth, like a jazz singer’s, and she shivered. Moira supposed she should have fainted or had a heart attack by then, but once he spoke, all her fear disappeared. It was like he had swallowed it up with his words.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Riley didn’t tell you? I’m the Tricker-Treater. Would you mind if I came in?”
Moira froze with her hand still on the door knob. What was she supposed to do? The Tricker-Treater offered the illusion of a choice. Was it merely that—an illusion—or would he let her decide how the evening would progress?
Moira let her gaze wander over the creature’s form again. He had the gaunt, emaciated look of a feral dog, and the tightness in her chest only tightened even further.
Nothing about him made her think he’d give her any choice.
“C-come in,” Moira said.
The Tricker-Treater kept his eyes locked on her as he stepped over the threshold and into the house. Moira swore he brought the smell of decay inside with him, but a moment later, it was gone.
Rotting pumpkins, she thought. That was the smell.
Moira gestured for him to sit on the couch. Eldritch horror or not, he was a guest.
The Tricker-Treater sat, bones creaking and popping as he did so. Moira tried her damnedest not to wince at the noises.
She sat in Norman’s favorite armchair and waited for the Tricker-Treater to speak.
“Has Riley… told you all about me?” he asked.
Moira paused. “How do you know Riley?”
“We made a deal. He’s a special child, isn’t he? Perceptive. Tenacious.” The Tricker-Treater flashed her another chilling smile. “Fragile.”
The blood dropped out of Moira’s face. “What are you getting at?”
The Tricker-Treater steepled his long, bony fingers. “It would be a shame if any danger were to befall Riley. If you could prevent such a tragedy, wouldn’t you want to, no matter what the cost?”
Moira rubbed the goosebumps on her arms. “Don’t you dare hurt him.”
“We made a deal,” the Tricker-Treater repeated. “He asked for money so his mother could be around more often. I told him I could give him anything he wanted—such as money—for a price.”
The Tricker-Treater’s eyes made Moira’s head swim. She broke eye contact. “So that’s why you’re here. You’re going to kill me.”
She should have known this was how she would die. Norman, with all his superstitions and wonder of the paranormal, had died of a stroke in the kitchen. A nice, normal death. Meanwhile, here she was, whisked away by a monster for the sake of a child’s wish.
“Not quite,” the Tricker-Treater said. “Well, only if I must.”
Moira’s head snapped up, and she met his gaze again, even though it dizzied her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The Tricker-Treater tapped his claws against the coffee table. Click, click, click. “If you play by the rules, everything will be all right.”
The sinking feeling in Moira’s gut returned. “What rules?”
The Tricker-Treater’s unnerving smile returned too. “Every game has rules, Moira. Do you want to play?”
Her stomach had dropped to her ass, and she didn’t think it would resurface anytime soon. Whoever this man—or creature—was, he wasn’t going anywhere until he got what he wanted from her.
“What happens if I don’t want to play the game?” she asked.
“And what happens if I lose?”
“Then Taylor wins.” The Tricker-Treater’s smile tore across his face. “And I take you away forever.”
Moira’s throat constricted. So he did want to kill her. Even if he acted like she had a choice, she didn’t.
Riley had already chosen for her. He had sealed her fate.
But what did Taylor have to do with it?
“Taylor?” she asked.
“To fulfill Riley’s deal, I must receive a sacrifice. He had to present me with someone he loves and someone he hates to play the game. I balance the scales. The loser dies.”
Jesus Christ, she thought, what had Riley done?
“He’s too young to make a deal like that,” she said. “You’re taking advantage of him.”
“I don’t discriminate,” he said. “A wish is a wish, and I must grant it. You must play the game, or die. These are my conditions.”
“What if Taylor and I both refuse? You only need to kill one of us, right? And you seem reasonable. You wouldn’t kill us to prove a point.”
“No.” The Tricker-Treater’s smile twisted into something darker, more feral. Moira wanted to scream, but panic kept her gaze fixed on his face. “In the case of two refusals, I take the wish-maker instead.”
Moira gulped. “You’d kill Riley.”
“Kill is such a boring word for what I do, but yes. Riley would become the sacrifice.” He steepled his fingers again. “But of course, you always have a choice.”
Did he think she’d let Riley die? She must have been Riley’s “someone he loves,” which meant the Tricker-Treater had to know she loved him too. She couldn’t damn him.
Only one thing to do.
“I’ll play,” Moira said.
“Wonderful. Let’s go.”
The Tricker-Treater snapped his fingers, Moira felt a tug, and the whole world went dark.
The reek of iron pulled Moira from unconsciousness. Her eyelids snapped open, pupils unfocused as they sought the light. Only a spare bulb hung overhead, struggling through the shadows. A familiar teenage form swam into view, fastened to a chair by ropes.
A shadow skulked off to Taylor’s left, and Moira’s gaze floated over to it. A long, lanky figure broke from the blackness and formed a solid shape. Sharp teeth glittered in the light as the creature grinned.
He snapped his fingers again, and the lightbulb shattered. Moira went to shield her face from the exploding glass, but ropes restrained her. The Tricker-Treater had tied her down too.
A brilliant light enveloped the room, blinding Moira for a minute. The light faded to a ball that hovered over the Tricker-Treater’s head. It was small, but somehow bright enough for her to make out everything in the room, including Taylor.
She looked back at the boy. Blood dripped from ragged scratches in his cheek and stained the front of his shirt. That must have been the source of the iron smell—Taylor’s blood.
Moira looked to the Tricker-Treater for an explanation.
“He struggled,” he said, “so I had to be rough. But he’s learned his lesson. Haven’t you, Taylor?”
Taylor groaned and twisted against the ropes. The Tricker-Treater clicked his tongue and wagged a finger at Taylor. He froze.
“Think it’s time for me to explain the rules of the game to you both,” the Tricker-Treater said. “But no cheating. Is that understood?”
Moira still didn’t know what was going on, but she nodded nonetheless. Whatever game he had in mind, she had to win, for Riley’s sake.
She didn’t know what would happen to Taylor, except that he might die. She’d cross that bridge when she came to it.
Across the room, Taylor grunted.
The Tricker-Treater gave a wet, hacking cough. Moira watched it rattle his prominent ribcage. Had he not been so frightening, she might have worried for him. As it was, she wished the cough had been worse.
The Tricker-Treater pulled another chair away from the table. It scraped across the floor with a sound that bit Moira’s eardrums. She flinched.
He lowered his long body into the chair and removed his hat, exposing his shiny, red baldness.
“I will now explain the rules, and I will not repeat myself. You both must pay attention if you want to win.”
“I don’t give a shit about winning,” said Taylor. “I don’t even want to play. I don’t give a shit about Riley.”
A muscle jerked in Moira’s jaw. What an asshole. Did this kid understand what he was saying?
“That’s not what you said to me earlier,” the Tricker-Treater said. “You agreed to play the game because you wanted him to live.”
Moira almost didn’t believe it, but the Tricker-Treater had no motive to lie.
The Tricker-Treater stretched a hand toward Taylor, and Taylor’s eyes widened. The Tricker-Treater’s razor claws glittered in the light.
“You’ll play,” he said, “or Riley dies.”
Taylor shut his eyes. “Okay, okay, but please don’t hurt me.”
“It isn’t me you should worry about.”
Moira swallowed a curse. As much as she hated to cooperate with this… thing, it seemed like they had no choice. If she didn’t play the Tricker-Treater’s game, Riley would die. She wouldn’t let that happen.
“What do I have to do?” she asked.
The Tricker-Treater’s smile widened. Moira withheld a shiver. Taylor flattened himself against the back of the chair, trying to get as far away as possible.
“Once I untie you both,” the Tricker-Treater said, putting his hat back on, “you’ll have fifteen minutes to choose a weapon and determine the sacrifice.”
Moira frowned. “Kill each other?”
“So vulgar,” he replied.
“I don’t want to kill an old lady,” Taylor said.
Like he even could if he wanted to, Moira thought. In her own way, she agreed—she didn’t want to kill him, and she didn’t want to die.
Riley couldn’t die, either. She’d do what she could, whatever she had to. It wasn’t a choice.
“Where are the weapons?” Moira asked.
Taylor gaped at her. “We don’t have to do this!”
“I detest idle chatter,” the Tricker-Treater said. “Such a waste of precious time.”
Moira stiffened at his words. Did that mean they’d started? Were they supposed to get going? Why was she still tied up, then? The Tricker-Treater had said—
A click of his fingers, and her bindings dissolved. Fuck, she had to get moving. She liked the word fuck, although Norman never had, and the way his face used to scrunch up when she said it to him—
“Moira,” the Tricker-Treater warned. “You don’t have time for reminiscing.”
She chose not to dwell on the discomfort of having him inside her mind in favor of finding a weapon.
But where the fuck were they?
Taylor was squealing something she didn’t care to listen to, because she didn’t care more than for any other reason. She didn’t want to kill him but they would soon be out of time, and if she didn’t do anything—whether he killed her or not—Riley was in danger.
Moira dragged herself out of the chair and looked around the room. It was still difficult to see, with the only lighting coming from the flames conjured by the Tricker-Treater, but they were surrounded by several different boxes of all shapes and sizes.
Taylor leapt up from his chair and dove headfirst into the box behind him, digging like a dumpster-diver in search of castoff treasures. Shit, she had to get a move on or he’d kill her with whatever he found.
Moira started with a box on her left, plain cardboard on the outside, unassuming enough. As she dug through a pile of moth-eaten clothes, the sharp edge of something bit the palm of her hand. She cried out. Upon further, much more hesitant, inspection, she discovered the source of the wound—a Japanese samurai sword.
That’s a katana, Norm corrected in her head.
Moira didn’t have time to smile. She wrapped her fingers around the base of the sword and pulled—
Right as Taylor came sprinting toward her with a hatchet in his hands. The metal glinted as he brought it down, right as Moria darted out of the way.
“Stand still, for Christ’s sake!”
He lifted the hatchet and swung it down again, with Moira only narrowly dodging it this time. She was close enough to hear the whoosh of the blade as it came down past her face. As she ducked to the side, so did Taylor. His third hit struck her shoulder. White-hot flames lit Moria’s muscle fibers and leaked pain down her arm. Warm blood dripped off her elbow.
Jesus fuck, that hurt.
Movement caught the corner of her eye and she whirled around, still clutching her injured shoulder. Taylor had raised the hatchet again. She had to get out of his way.
Still carrying the sword, Moira feinted left. Taylor took the bait and swung. She moved right, raised the sword, hesitated—
The light went out. Moira couldn’t see one inch in front of her face. Distantly, the Tricker-Treater’s claws clicked against a hard surface. Dragged against it, more like.
She jabbed with the sword, wincing as the blade bounced off the wall. She was almost relieved that she hadn’t hit Taylor.
Something rough brushed her calf. She jerked back, swallowing a cry. Something metal clattered to the ground, and Taylor yelped.
“Don’t move, Taylor.”
“Are w-we out of time?” As brave and seemingly bloodthirsty as he’d been moments before, there was no denying the way his voice shook. Hatchet or not, he was only a kid. He had his whole life ahead of him.
And she’d tried to kill him.
Moira let go of the katana. It, too, clattered to the floor. “What’s up with turning the lights off, huh? Not fucked up enough as it is?”
“I assumed it would be easier for you to kill him with the lights off,” the Tricker-Treater said. “That way, you wouldn’t have to see him.”
“Whose side are you on?” Taylor countered. His voice had an edge to it that scared her, sharpened by fear into pointed rage. It made him sound dangerous.
She didn’t think he had the strength to kill her, but fear could drive someone to do the unthinkable.
And she’d let go of her weapon.
“I believe in leveling the playing field,” the Tricker-Treater said. “Moira is, shall we say, more experienced in life, and Taylor has more energy. We correct this discrepancy with darkness.”
Moira swallowed. In theory, everything he was saying made sense. But all she could think about was that there must be something she’d overlooked—something the Tricker-Treater had overlooked. In other words, a loophole.
Some way to save Riley without having to kill his brother.
She had to pick up the katana again. Without it, she was powerless. And, there was still a chance that Taylor would rediscover his bravado, would run toward her again with the hatchet raised, would bring it down and—
The Tricker-Treater chuckled in the gloom, and Moira knew he’d been inside her head again. Shit, that was… inconvenient, to say the least. How could she try to find a loophole if he was listening in on everything she thought?
Get the fuck out of my head, she thought.
Again, the Tricker-Treater chuckled. “Manners, Moira. But… I would be remiss not to heed your request, as vulgar as it might have been phrased. All you had to do was ask.”
Moira gaped at him in the darkness—or, at least, she gaped in what she assumed was his direction. It was still impossible to see anything, and though the Tricker-Treater had claimed he was just leveling the playing field, Moira couldn’t understand how this was supposed to help her.
Distantly, Taylor whimpered. Could he be afraid of the dark?
“Please,” he said. “Turn on the lights.”
The Tricker-Treater’s claws clicked together as he contemplated Taylor’s request. “Moira, what do you think?”
What did she think? She thought this whole twisted game was a goddamn mess. She thought it was ludicrous that this… demon expected her to kill a child, or the child to kill her. She thought she would do almost anything to save Riley, because she loved him, but she wasn’t sure she could do this.
Most of all, Moira thought she had already lost. She had to change her mind somehow, or else she really would. Find the loophole, she reminded herself. There had to be an angle she hadn’t yet considered.
Moira shuffled her feet. The point of the katana bit into her shin, and she fought the urge to cry out. Warm liquid seeped from the wound—not too much, but not too little to escape her notice. The darkness heightened everything. Tentatively, she bent over and fumbled around for the handle, praying her fingers wouldn’t graze the blade. At last, they closed around fabric—the binding on the handle—and she pulled it up with both hands as she rose to a standing position.
“Moira,” the Tricker-Treater prompted again. And… the idea came to her.
If she could kill the Tricker-Treater, she could end the game. She’d win, without killing Taylor, and Riley would be safe.
Of course, she knew next to nothing about the Tricker-Treater’s fortitude, although he seemed like a formidable foe. She had to give it a shot. Anything was better than plunging the blade into Taylor.
“Turn on the lights,” Moira answered.
She tightened her grip on the blade and widened her stance to give her more stability. Sweat trickled down the side of her neck. Her heart beat so loudly it threatened to deafen her, but she stayed grounded. She didn’t have a choice.
The Tricker-Treater snapped his fingers, and the lights flickered on again. Moira coordinated her attack with the fluorescent flash. She ran full speed at the creature, katana thrust forward like a jousting lance. Taylor gasped, eyes widening in horror—until Moira jabbed the sword into the Tricker-Treater’s gut.
“Shit!” Taylor yelled.
The Tricker-Treater didn’t flinch. He didn’t scream, nor did he give any other indication that he had been struck. Instead, he wrapped his clawed fingers around the blade and looked right at Moira. The twisted grin he produced was the worst thing she’d ever seen.
“Well, now. Isn’t this exciting?”
Moira trembled, but she didn’t let go of the handle. If she did, she was afraid he’d find a way to turn the blade on her. Taylor crept closer to the scene, face ashen. He was trembling, too, even as he reached out to take the sword from Moira.
She shook her head vehemently. “You’re not responsible for this. Taylor, if anything happens—”
“It isn’t polite to speak about others as though they aren’t there,” the Tricker-Treater chimed in. He was still holding onto the blade, still the picture of tranquility even as the sword stuck out of his stomach and black blood dripped from the wound onto the floor. “I wonder if you two have forgotten your manners.”
“Fuck you,” Taylor spat.
Moira had to agree, though she couldn’t find the words. All she could focus on was the blood, the way it poured from the Tricker-Treater’s stomach even though the wound was technically still sealed up, and—
The Tricker-Treater flexed his claws, and his grin widened. The blade slipped out of Moira’s hands.
“Taylor!” Moira shouted.
The blade shot backward out of the Tricker-Treater’s stomach and whirled around to point at Taylor. He reacted a second too late. Moira stared in horror as the black-bloodstained tip pushed into Taylor’s chest. He stiffened, limbs flying out, mouth open, eyes the size of galaxies—
And then, his body dropped. It made a sick thwack as it landed.
Moira turned her head and puked. When she turned back, the Tricker-Treater was hunched over, holding his hat in his hands. He had the decency not to grin.
“Oh, dear,” he said. “This is… less than ideal.”
If she weren’t so afraid, she would have smacked him. “‘Less than ideal’? A child is dead! You fucking killed him, you son of a bitch.”
“If I hadn’t, you would have.”
“I wouldn’t have,” she insisted. “You’ve been inside my head. You must have known I wouldn’t.”
“Hmph.” The Tricker-Treater twisted his hat in his hands. He was having trouble looking Moira in the eye. “Well, this does present a challenge.”
She wrangled the urge to strangle him. “What are you talking about?”
“The rules of the game were clear. To save Riley, there must be a sacrifice.” He paused, as though waiting for her to remember the rules. “One of you must kill the other.”
“But we can’t now. Taylor’s dead.” Realization dawned on Moira, eclipsing the fear. “You killed him. That’s the loophole.”
“So it would seem.” If he was upset about Moira’s admission of looking for a loophole, it didn’t show. If anything, he was so lost in contemplation he paid her no mind. She could have attacked him then. Taylor’s hatchet lay on the floor not far from his body. If she leaned forward a little—
But what would happen to Riley? If she killed the Tricker-Treater, would she forfeit the game? She couldn’t wager Riley’s life on a spur-of-the-moment choice.
Instead, she had to bide her time and see what the creature decided.
“Unfortunately,” he said. “Riley must perish.”
All the blood drained from Moira’s face. Like hell he must, she thought. “What are you talking about? I played your stupid game. Taylor… well, that means I won. Those were your rules, remember?”
“Alas, Moira, that isn’t the case.” The Tricker-Treater clicked his tongue. “Neither of you did as I asked, as was required of you, so there is no winner. And, as there’s no winner, Riley’s life is forfeit. I’m afraid those are the rules.”
Moira’s stomach roiled. There had to be another way. She had to save Riley somehow, otherwise Taylor had died for nothing. She refused to lose Riley, refused to let his mother bury both her sons.
“Take me instead,” she pleaded.
The Tricker-Treater hesitated. “That wasn’t part of the deal. Your life is only forfeit should the other participant take it. As the other participant is dead, there is no reason for your life to end.”
His logic and politeness made her want to tear her hair out. “Taylor shouldn’t have died. I didn’t kill him. Doesn’t that change up your shitty rules somehow?”
Again, he hesitated. His face twisted up as though he were in pain. “I concede that Taylor’s departure was unnecessary, given the game’s objective. Reckless, even. However… there must be some punishment for you.” The Tricker-Treater looked pointedly at the hole in his gut. “You also broke the rules.”
“You never said I couldn’t attack you,” she argued.
His mouth twitched. “Fair enough. Hm… let’s do this. What do you think I should do to you, Moira? What sort of fate would be equitable?”
Moira’s tongue sat like lead in her mouth. How was she supposed to make such a strange decision? The question wasn’t one she’d planned for. He wasn’t in her head anymore, so she wondered if she could just throw something out there, something far from “fair,” in terms of extremity. Or, perhaps he already knew what he would do to her, and he was just playing another sick game?
“Tick-tock,” said the Tricker-Treater.
Moira swallowed. Hard. If Norm were here, he’d have the perfect idea. He was always so wise, her Norm, even when he was being silly. The last time they’d watched Groundhog Day together, he’d said—
Groundhog Day. Yes, that was the answer. It was the only way for her to atone, while still paying homage to her husband. And, it was the only way to make sure Riley’s mother got her son back—and got to keep Riley, too.
It wasn’t a fate Moira looked forward to, but it was a fate she accepted.
She gave the Tricker-Treater a watery smile. “Have you seen any Bill Murray movies?”
When Moira came to, she was covered in sweat. Sunlight streamed through the blinds, and birds chirped outside. Jesus. She felt like she’d been run over by a train.
Out of habit, even after a year, she rolled over to look at Norm’s side of the bed. She smoothed a hand over the blankets and sighed. “Miss you more than ever, hon.”
Outside, the distant hum of a mower pierced the air. She must have slept in much later than usual. A glance at the clock on her nightstand confirmed her suspicions, and she groaned. That would teach her to go through a whole bottle of wine by herself.
A weird pain flared in Moira’s shoulder. When she reached for it, the feeling vanished. She checked under her shirt. Nothing.
Must just be part of getting old, she thought.
It seemed like it was going to be a nice day, what with the birds chirping and sunlight and all. Maybe she’d crawl out of bed and do something fun for a change, bake some cookies to give to the neighbor kid, Riley. Maybe he’d share with his overworked mother. The poor dear was working more than she was home, and Moira knew she was exhausted.
An hour later saw Moira dressed and pulling fresh cookies from the oven, the smell filling the house like a bug bomb–albeit a delicious one. While she waited for the cookies to cool, she slipped on her shoes and went outside to fetch the paper.
Moira kicked spilled candy corn off her front step. The remnants of another weeknight massacre. This time, all in the name of a holiday.
She’d stopped keeping track of the holidays.