(Ninham, New York, early 1990s)
Dark figures tramped down the middle of the moonlit road.
“Vampires!” Helen’s seven-year-old daughter grinned at them.
Helen’s insides tightened. Something about the dozen or so vampires—surely teenage boys dressed in black, with painted faces—didn’t feel right. They weren’t laughing, rambling or shouting silly things, but striding in a phalanx toward her and Jane. Helen glanced behind. No one else was on the road.
Jane tugged Helen’s arm, as if it were a bell pull that could make her ring out: Yes, vampires are cool. But Helen didn’t respond; she’d just noticed how lewd the clown smile she’d lipstick-ed around Jane’s mouth might seem to someone with a twisted mind.
“Don’t look at them,” she whispered.
“Why?” The small lips inside the clown smile frowned. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” She shepherded Jane along the road’s gravelly shoulder. Nothing will happen, Helen thought. Nothing too horrible ever did in this safe neighborhood. Besides, it was early. Troublemaking would start later.
The vampires veered off the road and surrounded Helen and Jane, growling and muttering. Helen tucked Jane under her arm and drew herself up. Do not show fear, wildlife programs had drummed into her. A pack of predators will ignore prey who don’t run from them. But what if you’re the only prey around? The other kids and their parents were probably in the more populous, luminously decorated Lake Agor community, where she and Jane had been headed.
“Happy Halloween!” she said, as cheerily as she could.
“Not so happy for you,” the blue-faced vampire said.
No one had threatened her in her adult life, but as a kid—a rowdy tomboy—it’d happened a lot. She remembered what to do.
“Not so fun for you, either,” she said, in a mock-threatening tone. On impulse, she added, “We’re friends of the powerful witch, Mrs. Reimling.”
Guilt flicked through her at maligning her ninety-year-old friend, but many kids called Mrs. Reimling a witch, and maybe these teens would be superstitious enough to back away from her and Jane.
“No one can help you.” The blue-faced one nodded, and the vampires began walking sideways around her and Jane, as in a folk dance.
I’m not scared, Helen repeated to herself. But her throat dried and her head prickled. The vampires blurred like people seen from a turning merry-go-round. Only a few details stuck out: a red tie knotted like a noose around a neck; a bloody knife balanced on an ear; many hooked fingernails.
She swallowed. “Lovely dance, but please excuse us now.”
The vampires jumped closer and landed with a loud stamp. She yelped, and Jane clutched her hand.
“It’s okay,” Helen whispered to her.
The vampires laughed, jostling each other. They stank of beer and rot, as if they’d rubbed a dead animal on themselves. Menace poured from them.
The two houses Helen could see over their heads had dark windows: nobody home. No one would hear her cry for help. Even if they did, people ignored screams on Halloween.
“Here.” Jane held out her pillowcase with its small lump of treats in the bottom. “Take my candy and leave us alone.”
The vampires shrieked like vultures, spewing beery saliva.
“Foolish little clown,” the blue-faced one said.
“We have to go now.” Helen tried with her shaking hand to push him and the next vampire apart.
“Not yet.” The blue-faced one shoved her shoulders. She flew backward, out of Jane’s grip, and hit the wall of vampires behind her. Several hands pushed her forward. She tried to brake and stumbled over her own sneakers.
Jane’s high-pitched “Stopitstopitstopitstopit…” whistled around her.
The blue-faced one hurled Helen sideways. “They get a turn, too.”
She seized a vampire’s shirt so they couldn’t push her away again. With her other hand, she clawed his cheek, his white make-up sludgy under her fingernails.
“Hey!” He threw her off. She fell over someone’s stuck-out leg, twisted, flailed and ended up on her back. Headlights lit the sky above the vampires. In unison, they looked up the road. “Cop car!” one yelled, and they took off, dust and gravel spraying Helen and Jane.
“We’ll be back, ‘my pretties!’” the blue-faced one shouted.
Up the hill, a siren whooped.
“Mom!” Jane bent over her, yellow wig-locks dangling around her clown face.
Helen whipped onto her stomach and pushed herself to her feet. She didn’t want the police stopping to check on her. She wanted them to chase the boys, who were streaming down a side street. She pointed at them, as the police car neared. Its tires screeched around the side street’s corner. It wouldn’t catch them—surely, they were scattering through yards by now—but could keep them at bay by patrolling.
“Come on.” Helen pulled Jane down the road, the way they’d come.
“Are you okay, Mom?”
Was she? Nothing hurt, though parts of her felt numb, and ice seemed to encase her head, freezing her thoughts, distorting her vision. But she must not upset Jane more than she probably was. “I’m fine. How’re you doing?”
“Why were they so mean?”
Don’t explain, Helen thought. Reassure her. “It’s Halloween.” Her smile almost cracked her rigid face. “They were just pranking.”
“It wasn’t funny.”
“No.” Unlike Helen’s pranks in this same neighborhood: she and her friends had tackled other trick-or-treaters, fought for their candy bags, dumped people’s lawn furniture into the lake; let Mr. Hill’s chickens loose—well, maybe her pranks weren’t so funny, either. Did that make her like the vampires, her slowly thawing brain wondered? No. The vampires were about to do worse. But she couldn’t think about that now. Must focus on Jane.
“I’m sorry this happened,” she said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yeah. Can’t wait to tell Angie!”
Helen laughed with relief. The worst horror had skipped over Jane. Better leave it that way. If she asked Jane to keep mum, the debacle would seem more…important. And Jane would tell Angie anyway. Soon the whole second grade would know. Helen winced. She’d get calls from the mothers of Jane’s friends. Those who’d argued with her against trick-or-treating would feel vindicated.
“Don’t exaggerate what happened.”
“I won’t have to,” Jane said eagerly.
Helen sighed. At least Roger was working late tonight. She wouldn’t tell him what’d happened till he got home; by then, he wouldn’t find the boys and get himself in trouble.
She steered Jane onto their own narrow, tree-lined road.
“We already trick-or-treated here,” Jane said.
“We’re going home now.”
“What! I’ve got hardly any candy. That’s why the vampires didn’t want it.”
“You can have our candy. There’ll be tons left over.”
“It’s not the same!”
It wasn’t, Helen remembered. Trick-or-treated candy was magic, even the stuff she’d hated, like Mary Janes. Candies her parents gave out had no cachet. But still, she had to get home and call the police, report what’d happened. Then she’d close the curtains, sit by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and recover.
Helen sighed. Jane had anticipated Halloween for months; how horrible to be dragged home so soon. Helen, as a child, wouldn’t have stood for it. She’d have sneaked back out and trick-or-treated on her own. Or joined one of the bands of unsupervised kids that used to rove around on Halloween.
“Let’s just do Cow Lane,” Jane said.
They stopped and looked at the little lane running through the evergreens. It was a dead-end, inhabited mostly by older people. Helen’s plan had been to go there last.
“You’ve got to see Mrs. Reimling,” Jane said. “It might be your only chance.”
“Eavesdropper.” Clearly, she’d overheard Helen say she was worried Mrs. Reimling might not live much longer. The elderly woman wasn’t a witch, as Helen had told the vampires, but was eccentric and, this past decade, reclusive as well. Helen still waved hello when she saw her working in her yard; Mrs. Reimling would just grunt and walk away. Only on Halloween was she herself again: she’d give out home-baked jelly doughnuts, read Helen and Jane’s palms and wave dried herbs under their noses. Best of all, she’d reminisce about “the old days,” when Helen had played in Mrs. Reimling’s large woodsy yard, fished with her in the nearby pond and told her things she could never have told her parents. Tonight, Helen longed to tell her about the vampires. Mrs. Reimling would have some fiery imprecations for them.
But it wasn’t safe to linger outside. You risked our child’s life, Helen imagined Roger booming, to chat with Mrs. Reimling?
“We’ll see her next Halloween,” Helen said, and tugged Jane’s hand.
Jane wouldn’t budge. “The vampires would never go down Cow Lane.”
That might be true. Only a few trick-or-treaters bothered with it: the houses were far apart, the driveways too long, and many of the people gave out apples and raisins instead of candy. The vampires, if they managed to shed the police, would go where there were more victims to plague.
Besides, she might have been wrong about them. They might not have gotten more violent. She’d pushed them, after all, before they’d pushed her.
“Look!” Jane said.
A cloud had unveiled the full moon, and Cow Lane glowed like a moonbeam they could follow to the white Necco wafer that hung temptingly low in the sky.
“Beautiful,” Helen said.
“I mean that.” Jane pointed.
Helen squinted at a blob about fifty feet down the lane. “A stone?”
“A cat! I want to see it.”
She shook off Helen’s hand and trotted toward it. The cat would flee, Helen thought. Only shy, feral cats ran loose in their neighborhood these days. Pet cats, like children, had lost most of their freedom.
The cat sat still and watched Jane approach. What if it bit her, alarmed by her clown make-up? Helen caught up with Jane and grasped her arm. “Let me pet it first. Then you try.”
Helen squatted near the cat. It was a pale gray tabby, small, though not a kitten. It stretched its neck toward her. She touched the soft fur behind its ears, and a thrill ran up her arm. The cat stood and rubbed against her hand.
Gingerly, Jane patted its back. “Its tail’s so short.”
Bitten off, Helen thought. But it was an old wound: fur had grown over it.
The cat purred and twisted, guiding their hands to its itchy spots. Its orange eyes sparkled in the moonlight.
“He’s a boy,” Helen said, just noticing.
“I know,” Jane said, with sophisticated scorn.
The cat slipped from their fingers, strolled a little down the lane, then turned and stared at them.
“He wants us to follow,” Jane said.
Helen stood and looked around. No sign of vampires or anybody else. The cat, moon, love for Mrs. Reimling and Halloween called to her. Roger could lump it. “Okay.”
They walked down the lane after the cat. Trees creaked in the wind. Jane’s brown silk costume, made by her grandmother, rustled over her thermal underwear.
At the first driveway, Helen paused. “Are we still trick-or-treating?”
“I’d rather follow him!”
From the darkness, a great-horned owl hooted.
“Meerrrow.” The cat turned, backtracked and walked up the driveway.
“Yay!” Jane whispered. “We can do both.” She and Helen followed him to the house’s front door.
The cat hid under a juniper bush when Jane rang the doorbell, but once she’d collected her loot, he led them back to the lane and, to their surprise, up the next driveway. Again, he waited in the shadows and retook the lead when they’d left the door.
“Amazing,” Helen said. “He understands trick-or-treating.”
“Let’s call him Follow Fellow and follow him everywhere.”
Helen nodded uneasily, knowing he might suddenly abandon them and break Jane’s heart. But if he stuck with them till home, they should take him in and try to find his owner. Adopt him if they couldn’t. She wouldn’t say this to Jane yet, of course.
“What’s that spicy smell?” Jane asked.
“Someone’s burning leaves!” Helen inhaled the intoxicating scent. “People used to do that every fall.”
“How come they stopped?”
“It pollutes, so it’s illegal now. Strange that someone would try it tonight, with all the police out.”
The scent grew stronger as Follow Fellow led them to two more houses, and stronger yet as they neared the right angle bend in Cow Lane, where Mrs. Reimling lived.
He walked past her driveway without looking at it.
“Hey,” Helen called to him. “This way.”
He ignored her and took a few steps down a path into the woods next to Mrs. Reimling’s yard.
“He wants us to go to the pond,” Jane said.
“It’s dark there.” Helen edged down the slope of Mrs. Reimling’s driveway. “Follow Fellow! Over here.”
“Her lights are off,” Jane said. “She doesn’t want trick-or-treaters.”
That was odd. Her porch light and a jack-o’-lantern in her window were always lit on Halloween. Was she away? Maybe ill?
The great horned owl—or its mate—hooted again; Helen couldn’t tell from where. The cat walked farther down the path to the pond, then stared at Jane over his shoulder.
“We can’t lose him!” she said.
“I know, but—”
“There they are!” someone yelled, up the road. Other voices yipped, howled and bellowed.
“The vampires!” Jane threw her arms around Helen’s waist.
Footsteps marched closer, as fast and loud as Helen’s pulse. She should have taken Jane home! How could she have been so irresponsible? “The path, quickly.”
She grabbed Jane’s pillowcase of candy and hustled her down the steep, uneven path. Trees lashed and rattled around them. Leaves in the underbrush crackled as if creatures were slinking through them. The smoky scent grew intense. The cat was a pale flutter ahead of Jane.
Whoops and jeers broke out. The vampires were almost at Mrs. Reimling’s driveway.
“Faster,” Helen hissed.
At the bottom of the slope, she and Jane hurried past a stand of alders and willows and reached the pond. It was black except for the reflected moon. Smoke tore at Helen’s throat; the fire must be in the swamp next to the pond. She muffled a cough with her hand.
“Where are yooooo, little clowwwwn?” someone called from the road.
“They’re talking about me,” Jane said.
“Shhh! They won’t hurt us.” But they might, Helen thought. The vampires weren’t here by chance. One or more of them must have followed her and Jane, seen them turn down Cow Lane, then gathered the others and brought them here. She pictured them drowning Jane, and her heart lunged. Where can we run? Beyond the pond was a sparsely wooded hill; the vampires would easily catch them there. The swamp was closer; she and Jane could hide in its tangled vegetation—but what if the fire spread?
“Follow Fellow’s running away!” Jane said.
Helen squinted through the smoke. A small, gray splotch sped along the path between the pond and the swamp. He’ll know where to hide. She gripped Jane’s wrist and ran after him.
At the corner of the pond, the cat left the path and glided into the swamp. Helen and Jane followed him, fighting through saplings and underbrush, making a trail of broken twigs and damp footprints the vampires might find. This is no good, Helen was about to say, when they stepped onto a well-traveled deer trail. Here they could go faster, make less noise and fewer tracks. The cat looked back at them with glowing eyes. He’s so smart, Helen thought. He turned and ran along the trail.
She threw Jane’s pillowcase in the opposite direction, as a decoy. “We’ll get it tomorrow,” she whispered and pulled Jane after the cat.
Too soon, the deer trail ended in a thorn thicket that surrounded them on three sides. The cat had vanished. Firecrackers exploded. Jane screamed. Helen clamped her hand over Jane’s mouth too late: Surely, the vampires had heard her. How close were the explosions? Helen couldn’t tell, with the smoke and wind and ringing in her ears.
The great horned owl hooted again.
“I want to go home!” Jane sobbed.
“We will. Soon.” Helen hugged her close so Jane couldn’t see the panic in her face.
The cat! From a low archway in the thorns, his eyes gleamed at them. Helen dropped to the ground. The cat ran through a tunnel in the thorns. “Crawl after Follow Fellow,” she said to Jane. “I’ll be right behind you.”
In the tunnel, Jane’s wig caught on thorns, and Helen couldn’t free it. “Keep going,” she said, hoping the vampires wouldn’t spot the blond frizz.
The thorns ended. Helen clambered to her feet after Jane. The smoke was thicker and tang-ier here. They had U-turned toward the fire. The cat leapt a brook and jumped from tussock to tussock. Should they stop following? But no animal would head toward a fire unless a human were tending it. And Follow Fellow was their guide, their talisman, sent to save them. With a grateful sob, she hoisted Jane onto her hip and, eyes watering, sloshed through the cold water and mud after him.
The smoke grew denser. She worried it would hide the cat but, strangely, he became clearer. His stripes darkened. He seemed to grow, as if absorbing the smoke. How could this be? She rubbed her eyes with her free hand. I must be smoke-giddy.
He veered into a stand of reeds taller than Helen. Through them, she heard the crackle of fire. Go back, her husband’s voice said. Are you insane?
But she couldn’t stop herself. She hitched Jane higher on her hip, swiped reeds aside and followed the cat. The reeds glowed orange and her face warmed as they neared the fire. She smelled creosote.
“Are we going to burn?” Jane cried in her ear.
“Of course not.”
Helen barged through more stalks into a clearing. In its center was an untended bonfire so bright she didn’t see, at first, the cat in front of it.
“Don’t look!” she said.
Jane buried her face in Helen’s neck.
The cat was as big as a lynx and as red as the fire. His eyes were like burning leaves. His spine arched and hackles rose. Helen tried to step back, but her muscles melted; she couldn’t lift her feet from the mud, could barely hold Jane.
Screams, bestial noises shook the air above them. Jane locked her arms around Helen’s neck. “Mommy.”
Helen gasped for breath. The smell of creosote strengthened. The lynx grew, before her stinging eyes, into a panther. It hissed at her, fangs bared, and raised its forepaw. Its claws were on fire.
She had to find a weapon. Where? What? The only thick branches were in the fire.
A mane of sparks sprang from the panther’s neck, crackling around it. The panther—no, a lion now—roared, its huge tongue dripping blood. Helen tottered. She was going to faint. Sparks grazed her cheek.
“Something’s stinging my head!” Jane cried.
Helen slapped a spark from Jane’s hair. Anger cleared her mind; her muscles flexed. No one was going to hurt her daughter. “She loved you!” she yelled at the beast.
It crouched to spring. Helen hugged Jane tighter and darted into the reeds. She tore through them till they ended at a jungle of branches and thorns. Head down, she bashed into it. Sharp points raked her skin and hair but didn’t slow her.
She burst onto the pond path, near the slope to Cow Lane.
“Help!” a child’s voice cried from the lane. “Please help us!”
Helen flew up the slope, so light with adrenalin she couldn’t stop at a woman lying in the lane, but skimmed over her. A little boy in a bee costume whipped out of Helen’s way. On the grassy bank across the lane, her feet finally stalled. She turned, panting. The woman looked unconscious, the boy terrified. Helen peered at the path to the pond. No beast, no roar; she barely smelled the fire. What did this mean? Had she hallucinated the whole thing? Crazed by fear and toxic smoke?
“You’ve got to help them!” Jane said.
“Right.” Helen set her onto the bank. “Stay here.”
Her heart hydroplaned in her chest as she knelt by the woman. “Can you hear me?” She shook her lightly. The woman didn’t respond; blood trickled from her forehead down her cheek.
“Vampires attacked us,” the bee-boy sobbed. “Mom fell.”
With both hands, Helen shoved the woman’s stomach upward, not sure if that was CPR or Heimlich. “Wake up! Please! Say something!”
The woman’s eyes blinked; she huffed air.
A siren blared and turned staccato. Helen prayed a neighbor had heard the attack and called the police.
“Run!” yelled a voice in the yard above the bank.
“Split up!” cried another.
The vampires’ footsteps pounded over grass and pavement. Headlights rushed down Cow Lane and illuminated the blue-faced one running toward Helen. She scrambled to her feet and scooped the bee-boy to her side.
“Don’t move,” she told Jane.
The vampire thundered through the candy strewn on the road and plunged down the path to the pond.
The police car pulled up; two cops jumped from it.
“Where’d he go?” they said.
The bee-boy pointed to the path. “The worst vampire!”
The cops stopped short at the gauntlet of roots and rocks. They frowned at each other.
“He’s halfway to the county line by now,” the taller one said.
The other shook his head. “We got to tend to this woman.”
Find the vampire! Helen wanted to beg, but knew they wouldn’t.
The shorter one crouched by the woman and took her pulse. “Ambulance coming, ma’am. Don’t worry.”
“They’re demons,” the woman wept.
Helen started to turn toward Jane, but an animal screech paralyzed her. It came from the swamp and was joined by a human scream. Screech and scream dueled each other, climbing into the sky.
“Holy hell.” The short cop stood up. “What’s that?”
Was the cat—the lion—killing the vampire? The shrieks cascaded into silence.
Footsteps coursed up the path. The vampire ran into the cop’s arms and sobbed wildly. The tall cop seized his wrists and cuffed him. Blood, purple in the dimness, dripped over the boy’s melting make-up, sunken eyes and torn lips.
“A tiger,” he gasped, “attacked me.”
“Like you did this lady?” the tall cop said.
“No. I mean it. A red tiger. With fire eyes. Do something! Kill it!”
“What’re you on? Besides beer.”
“Officer, about that tiger—” Helen said, but the tall cop shoved his captive past her and into the back of the police car. The short cop knelt by the woman again.
“Mommy!” Jane dashed to Helen.
“My brave girl.” She hugged her tight. Jane must be traumatized. How could Helen ever undo the damage?
“Don’t tell anybody about the cat,” Jane whispered, looking up. “They wouldn’t understand.”
Helen studied her. Jane’s eyes shone with concern for her mother. No fear or confusion marred her small face. Was she even more resilient than Helen used to be? “You’re right.” She kissed Jane’s forehead. “We won’t mention Follow Fellow. But I should tell them the vampires knocked me down, too.”
Another cop car had arrived. Neighbors materialized, asking the police and each other questions. An ambulance siren echoed between the hills. Helen steered Jane through the babbling neighbors to the side of the lane.
“Mrs. Reimling!” Jane said.
The old woman stumped up her driveway toward Helen and Jane. Her hair stuck out like an alder catkin around her wrinkled face. She smelled of burning leaves and creosote. Wait a minute—had that been her bonfire?
“There is the villain.” Mrs. Reimling pointed at the boy in the car. “He shot my Bobby.”
“He what?” the nearby cop said.
“Bobby used to walk up from the pond. I would feed him now and then. He liked spaetzles.”
“Are we talking about a person, ma’am?”
“Better than a person. A cat.”
Helen and Jane glanced at each other. Was Bobby Follow Fellow?
“You witnessed our suspect kill your cat?” the cop said.
“Ya.” Mrs. Reimling spat on the ground. “With a slingshot last Halloween. I buried Bobby in the swamp.”
“Did you file a complaint?”
“I did something more useful.”
The crowd parted for the ambulance, and someone called the cop away.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Reimling, but—” Helen tried to calm her voice. “—what did Bobby look like?”
“Gray tabby, paler than most.” Mrs. Reimling’s mouth crinkled, as if she were about to cry. She folded her arms and hung her head. “Short tail, so I called him Bobby.”
“We saw him tonight!” Jane said.
“I know, sweetheart.”
“You know?” Helen said. “Meaning Follow Fellow—Bobby—is a ghost?”
“Was. He’s gone now.”
The lane rolled under Helen’s feet. “So I wasn’t hallucinating? He really did turn into…a fire beast?”
“He would not hurt you. He was a good cat.”
Helen’s head throbbed. “I’m confused. Are you saying—”
“I must put out my fire now.” Mrs. Reimling limped down her driveway.
“You did this?” Helen followed her. “But how? Why?”
Mrs. Reimling waved, without turning around.
“Mom!” Jane grabbed Helen’s hand and pulled her to a stop. “She doesn’t want to talk. She’s sad.”
Mrs. Reimling hobbled through her back yard, into the swamp.
The racket of neighbors, police, paramedics and radios suddenly sickened Helen. She no longer wanted to report the vampires; it could involve hours in the police station. She had to get home, settle her brain and make sure Jane was as well as she seemed. The police had forgotten her, anyway. “Let’s go.”
She and Jane walked hand-in-hand up Cow Lane.
“Follow Fellow was only trying to help us,” Jane said, when they were away from the noise and flashing lights.
“What do you mean?”
“First he saved us from the vampires by leading us into the swamp. Then he scared us away from him so we’d find that woman and help her.”
Helen considered this. “It’s possible.” Or had Follow Fellow, guided by Mrs. Reimling, tried to use Helen and Jane to lure the vampires to the bonfire? Where the fire-beast could punish—even kill the boys? Helen imagined the headline: Teens Die in Fire They Started.
The great horned owl hooted from the spruce tree in their yard.
“I hope Follow Fellow comes back next Halloween,” Jane said.
“Me, too,” Helen lied.
© 2018, Mia Brech