Trick or Treating False Key
by Serena Schreiber
We younger children, I gripping my plastic samurai sword and Bella tripping on her too-long kimono hem, crept closer to the dark house while our older siblings lit cigarettes and loitered outside the garden wall. Lumbering after us in a masked turtle costume, Nick complained, "Wait up, Tyler!" Bella and I both shushed him.
I heard my brother Xander laugh from the sidewalk. "Later, losers." Already bored, he and his friends would move on to their teenager party, leaving us to our fate.
It was a dare, the annual one, to trick-or-treat the Rockefeller house, and we were the dumb fish who had taken the bait. Proof we'd been inside the decaying mansion could buy us entry to the older kids' party and games like Spin-the-Bottle. Reaching the front door was our first challenge, so we made our way over the coquina pavers, slick with moss, past the sculptures lining the pathway--nightmare figures screaming, cowering, and kneeling. I checked my back jeans pocket to be sure my penny whistle was there. At the first rustle in the underbrush, Nick cried out. "Oh!"
"It's just a cat," Bella said calmly.
"The witch's cat!" His cape fluttered out as he ran for it.
"What a baby," Bella muttered, shaking her head.
Privately, I agreed with Nick. Several freakish cats emerged, meowing in strangled harmony. So, the stories were true. Three, four, five cats--all had six toes on their forepaws. What other stories were true about the old lady? I shuddered. "Come on," I said. "Let's get this over with."
We climbed the porch steps. A plastic jack o'lantern flickered in the window. Next to the door, the shell-shaped name plate read "Rockefeller." With a jolt, I remembered the family from class--something to do with oil? Supposed to be stinking rich, weren't they? Couldn't be. The place was a dump. I knocked.
"She's not a witch, you know," Bella said.
"Of course not." I said, my voice edgy. "Don't believe everything you hear."
"She's a mermaid," she whispered.
I laughed. "Don't be stupid." I knocked again, louder this time, and rang the bell, but heard no sound.
"No, really. Trapped on land. She sings and carves people." She hugged her bulging candy bag to her chest. I liked the freckles that danced across her nose from one cheek to the other and the shiny, red ponytail which bounced when she talked.
I grinned. "You mean with a great, big knife?" I held up my make-believe sword.
"No, like an artist. With a hammer and chisel."
I stared at her, uncomprehending.
Impatiently, she huffed. "We just walked past her artwork."
"Whatever." I shrugged. "She's not home."
"Maybe she's in her workshop. Let's go see."
I shook my head. "No way." I'd seen plenty of scary movies, and I knew this was the deciding moment. "Let's go the party." Maybe play Truth or Dare.
Bella smirked. "Baby."
Apparently, Truth or Dare was happening now. Fine. "Where's the workshop?"
"How do you know?"
"I've been here before."
Admiration battled unease as we followed the wraparound porch to the back of the house. Maybe this would turn out okay. We'd get some candy and have an excellent story to tell.
"Okay. And then we go to the party." I'd attempted a devil-may-care attitude, but her words nagged at me as we picked our way around the house. "What do you mean, trapped?"
"Crimes against her kind. Using her powers for evil."
The property appeared small from the front, but in fact, stretched way back into the distance. Between us and the far end, a vast expanse of underbrush flowed around dozens more weathered, pearlescent sculptures glinting dully in the moon wash. Beyond these, a long, low shed crouched under live oak trees. Light streamed from an open door.
"So she is a witch!"
"She's an artist. You know, misunderstood." She stepped off the back porch and waded through ferns, avoiding the crowns-of-thorn on her way to the shed. As we neared, I heard silvery singing over a rhythmic tap-tap like metal on stone--tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. A cat pushed past me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I'd never hated cats before, but I kicked out at it. It hissed.
Bella whirled around, her pretty face pale against her pink lipstick. "Tyler, no! Don't touch the cats!"
From afar her came an elderly voice. "Bella, is that you?" A lady stood outside the shed--white-haired and squinting behind owlish glasses. She held a mallet and a sharp tool, reminding me of blunt force and stabbing. Clearly, I play too much GTA.
"What are you doing here so late?" she called out. "Who's your friend?"
"Hi, Granny. It's Halloween. Did you forget?"
I whispered, "She's your grandmother?"
The woman smiled. "Everyone calls me that. Pleased to meet you, Tyler. Come on in."
Granny retreated into the shed and I followed her and a couple of the creepy cats inside. Granny gestured at open bags of candy on a stool near the door. "Take plenty, I don't get many trick-or-treaters."
Bella said, "Well, maybe you would, if you'd answer the door." I helped myself to gummy spiders.
"Too much work to do." Granny set to work again, resuming that rhythmic tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. Her tools moved in millimeter increments between each pair of taps, chipping along a charcoal line drawn on the vaguely human-shaped hunk of stone which rested on the ground before her.
I plopped into a lawn chair near the door to watch, working my way through the bag of candy. The gummies were the best I'd ever had--soft and fruity. I couldn't stop eating them.
Bella peered into the eyes of a seated sculpture. "Is that the pizza guy?" she asked.
Granny nodded. "Jeffrey. The cats got overambitious. He'll need a fair amount of work."
"So, Clara is finished?"
"Completely roughed out. Should be ready for Christmas."
I felt a drowsy and content, watching Bella and the old lady moving around the shop, discussing the artwork in varying stages of readiness, and which tools would be used next.
Granny returned to her chiseling, and the tapping sound filled the shop like a gentle rain. My eyes felt heavy, each blink longer than the previous one.
When I opened my eyes, Bella stood at the sculpture called Clara, running her hands over it. Its arms extended over head as if reaching. The entire figure leaned forward, as if taking a step toward me. Bella murmured something--another language? I saw tears welling in the statue's haunted eyes and running in pearly streams down her face. The statue met my gaze, and I swear she was begging forgiveness. I blinked, Clara blinked, and the eyes went blank again.
Bella whirled around and caught me staring. She looked as shocked as if I'd watched her undress through an open window. I think she'd forgotten I was there, and she glared at me. "What are you looking at?"
"Have some more gummy worms," she said, but not at all friendly. She gave me the half-eaten bag, which had slipped from my fingers.
Granny had stopped chipping. "Maybe he's had enough."
Bella wheeled around. "He saw. He knows!"
Granny put down her tools and turned to me. "Tyler, do you play music?" She had taken off the owl-glasses and fixed me with her bright blue eyes. A single word arose in my mind, Run.
"A bit," I said, trying to stand up. "I think I'll head out now." But the cats encircled my legs, rubbing against me and licking ferociously at the bare skin between my knees and sneakers. I felt bound to the chair.
"But, Granny," Bella whined.
"No," said Granny. "Off you go." I took the hand she offered, and with a surprising amount of strength, she pulled me out of my seat. "And you too," she said, pushing away the cats with her foot. "Away with you. Gluttons!"
I chanced a glance at Bella, whose face had darkened like a storm cloud. The air around her fizzled. "Granny," she began again, but the old woman cut her off.
"We don't do children!"
I swear blue sparks flew from her eyes, and the steel in her voice made me flinch, but Bella seemed unfazed.
"Except for the ones you choose, you mean," Bella muttered.
Granny opened her mouth to speak, closed it, and then spoke in a gentle voice. "Lagom är bäst."
"I'll get my own. I don't need you."
Granny said, "Weren't you going to a party tonight? Let's fix your hair."
I lingered, expecting Bella to protest but she perched on a stool and produced a hairbrush from her tiny purse. Granny pulled out the chopsticks wedged Japanese style in Bella's ponytail and brushed her auburn hair smooth until it shone, humming a strange tune as she did so. Bella closed her eyes and relaxed while Granny did her thing.
"Don't be in such a hurry to grow up." The old woman had redone Bella's hair. "Plenty of time to learn all you need. And we don't practice on friends." The piercing blue eyes turned to me. "You are a friend, aren't you, Tyler."
I didn't think it wise to contradict.
She fished something out of her pocket. "This is for you. Happy Halloween." In her slim, fair, outstretched hand she displayed a small, irregular pearl.
I took it and left the shed--how did it get so late? Clouds scudded past the bright moon, and shadows crossed the vast yard. Cat tails moved through the long ferns, bits of movement at the corners of my vision. Granny started singing the strange melody again, and Bella joined in.
I pulled the tin whistle out of my pocket and matched the notes. The seated and kneeling figures hummed a deep rumble and swayed with the grasses. Opening their pearly eyes, they stood. Like marionettes rising they cast herky-jerky shadows around the yard.
Bella came out to see. "Granny, look!"
By now I had the melody and the magic in my flute. I marched through the yard. Clara, quicker than the others, fell into place behind me, then Jeffrey and the other figures trudged into our Conga line, humming a bass harmony to my piccolo melody. I played, the figures shuffled forward, and our clumsy procession filed around the house.
Outside the front gate, I turned right toward the party--I couldn't wait to see the look on Xander's face. Alas, alas, Clara could not pass. Her pearly eyes implored me.
I remembered Granny's gift and slipped the pearl into Clara's open mouth. A vertical, hairline crack formed between her eyes, which shone with hope as the gap lengthened down her face. When it reached her chest and widened to an inch, Clara's real face, exposed behind the mask, nodded. I jammed my plastic sword into the split. She gasped. Using my sword like a crow bar, and praying it wouldn't snap, I levered the crack wider. It extended the length of her stony torso, splitting her shell in two. I heaved and opened her up like an oyster.
Once the main pieces fell away and crashed to the ground, Clara stepped out of her prison. With her dusty ballerina costume and dazed expression, she looked like an earthquake survivor.
"What did you do?" Bella loomed like a storm. Jeffrey and the others retreated when Granny appeared at her side.
"You can't take her." Bella hissed.
But Granny said, "Back by midnight."
"C'mon," I said to Clara. A pack of zombie kids was lurching down the street to the Roosevelt house, shaving cream cans at the ready. I grabbed Clara's hand and dragged her away.
Behind me I heard, "Trick-or-Treat."
If you enjoyed this story, you might like "Oyster," the prequel. Read it and more in our latest anthology, Somewhere South of Normal.