It was the first year Ms. Rogers also handed out candy. Every other year at Halloween she either left her lights off completely and didn’t answer her door, or she handed out pamphlets she bought from Reverend Mauler for a penny a piece. She usually bought a hundred and fifty, and when all of the black and Hispanic children from North Oleander swarmed on her nice, clean neighborhood – many of them not even bothering to wear costumes -- she would toss them into their plastic grocery sacks with a sour feeling of satisfaction and use the leftovers for snapping under the windshield wipers of her co-worker’s cars the next day.
Sometimes her house got vandalized, but she didn’t care. She didn’t believe in candy extortion, and she knew that if every American who considered himself a true Christian simply closed his door on Halloween, the holiday would dry up like a mud puddle in July. It had worked for both St. Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s days in Oleander, and it would work for Halloween, too. The rest of the nation would catch on soon enough, and Satan and his Catholics would just have to find some other country to corrupt, said Ms. Rogers every October to anyone straddling the fence.
But this year, in addition to her pamphlets, she also had three bags of Knickers bars. Full Knickers bars – not the minis. She had gone down to Reverend Mauler’s office after Bible Study on Wednesday, and he had told her his new thoughts on the matter.
“Missus Rogers, I have been doing some heavy prayin’ this month, and the Lord has told me that this Halloween is gonna be diff’rent,” said Reverend Mauler. “The Lord doesn’t want the lechers and the pagans to win by corrup’tim the MAHNDS of innocempts only intrested in their haul of dirty sweets. This year, the Lord wawants us to compete.”
“How do you mean, Reverend?” asked Ms. Rogers prettily. She was wearing her very best frock, and she knew that Reverend Mauler couldn’t help but notice how beautifully she had sung today during the opening hymns. His piano was a little bit off-key, but she always corrected with her voice. She didn’t expect him to say anything, of course. That would just be massaging her pride and there was no greater gift to our Lord than humility. But he surely noticed.
“AH mean just what AH say,” he said, leaning over his big box fan. She could smell his BO like it was a rancid chicken pot pie just out of the oven. Bible Study certainly took it out of him, but she had never known a holier man. And that included her Uncle Phil, the TV minister. “Evu-hry year, when children get our good little messages in their punkins, they throw them away without EVEN reading them. For they have been raised by their parents to know nothing but ignohrance and BLASPHEW-MY. I have seen it with mah very own eyes.”
“What should we do about it, Reverend?” asked Ms. Rogers passionately.
“We must show them what trick or treat really means! The REAL treat is the glory of sahlvation and the REAL trick is the eternal fah-yer of Hell. Our message must be tied to the best piece of candy they get -- to overpower them -- and so their little hearts will someday remember how much Jesus loves them. We will feed them better than their own parents, on chocolate and the HOLY Spirit, and they will soften unto the fold!”
“Amen!” said Ms. Rogers. And that very day she had gone out and bought the best looking candy she could find. It wasn’t bribery. It was Jesus.
But she was starting to regret her decision.
The first person to ring her doorbell was about sixteen little Mexican children, some of them wearing bedsheets, but most just dressed up like little Mexican children. Only one of them seemed able to speak English.
“Gimme some candy,” he said. There was a thin wisp of mustache on his upper lip.
“And what are you supposed to be?” asked Ms. Rogers.
The children all snickered.
“Come on, lady,” he said, “Or we gonna egg your house.”
“This holiday is an abomination,” she said.
They didn’t move.
Frowning, she reached into her Tupperware bowl and dropped candy bars into all of their bags. There were two different kinds of pamphlets taped to each Knickers. She gave all of the children in this group the first one. It had a picture of Jesus wearing a red cape with a cross on it and flying over a little town, smiling and waving. His big blue eyes simply sparkled with light and compassion. The cover said: Jesus Christ, World’s Greatest Superhero! Inside, there was an illustrated parable about the Gadarene swine and information about Reverend Mauler’s Youth Program and his Holy Ghost Explosion Fall Carnival.
“Wowie, BUEN caramelo,” said one of the smaller ghosts. He was quickly elbowed and silenced by one the larger goblins.
“Remember that Jesus loves you!” said Ms. Rogers, swallowing every primordial instinct that told her otherwise. “The Devil may walk the streets tonight, but the light of Christ’s love will protect you from his snares!”
Some of the children nodded, but they quickly started to walk away like she had leprosy and her hair was on fire.
Ms. Rogers closed her door and leaned against it. She put her ear up to the latch and listened to see if her message had taken.
“I’m gonna eat mine now,” she heard one child say from the front yard.
“What’s this piece of paper, homes?”
“Just toss it, man. It’s fucking old lady trash.”
Ms. Rogers was only thirty-seven! She hadn’t a single wrinkle! The ungrateful little wetbacks!
She peeked out through her curtain. The ghouls and ghosts were ripping her pamphlets off of the chocolate bars and leaving them crumpled on her lawn. But before she could get outside to yell at them, they were already gone into the night. She immediately ran to her Bible, flung it open at random, and quietly began to pray for safe deliverance.
The next time the doorbell rang and she opened the door, she almost had a heart attack.
“And what are you supposed to be, little boy?” she asked after finally regaining her composure. She realized that she must have screamed out loud, because the boy seemed stunned and was so slow to answer.
“I’m a porn star!” he said finally, brightly, and proudly.
“A what?” she asked.
“A porn star! My specialty is extra-powerful come shots! Pow!”
He must have been an eight-year old kid, but at first she thought he was a demon sent straight from Hell to rape and impregnate her with Satan’s spawn. He was almost naked, except for a giant gold wristwatch, tennis shoes, and a pair of jogging shorts. From inside them, a two-foot long rubber phallus was dangling down to his ankles. Someone (presumably a parent) had drawn hair on his chest and a Neanderthal brow on his forehead with a magic marker, and he had a Baby Nero’s Pizza cap seated on a wig made up of brown, curly ringlets.
She quickly dumped a candy bar into his bag, specifically giving him one of the second pamphlets. This one had a little girl roasting in an open flame while a leering, oozing incubi licked at her toes. You Are Never Too Young for Hell, said the cover. Inside, it talked about the evils of television, rock music, and science, and the impending ever-present possibility of death and damnation, even for mommies, daddies, and unborn fetuses. There was a 1-800 number to call if you felt the sting of Satan’s lash and wanted more information on how you and your family could get saved.
“Do your parents know you are out here…wearing such…filth?”
“My Mom says I have to be in by ten o’clock. I’m out with my big brother, though, so I don’t have to worry about no one beating me up. He says I’m supposed to distract you while he puts shaving cream all over your windshield and lets the air out of your tires.”
Ms. Rogers leaned out her door and looked at her driveway. Two teenagers with handkerchiefs on their heads screamed glittering strings of expletives and dropped their shaving cream cans with an explosive clatter. Her Plymouth was indeed sitting on its rims like a tired water buffalo.
“Run, Benny!” said one of the hooligans, and they both took off far down her street before she could even think to move. Too far to deliver unto the Lord, that was for sure.
“I have to go now,” said the porn star. “Thanks a whole bunch for the candy! My brother says that I’m supposed to toss your salad, but I don’t know what that means.”
The little boy picked up his giant latex penis and took off after the teenagers, running like a duck with hemorrhoids and yelling shrilly for them to wait up. Five minutes after she closed her door, she heard the tell-tale sign of eggs hitting it and knew she was going to be in for a long night. She guessed they hadn’t gone very far after all.
On and on it went, each hour more densely packed than the last. It eventually got round that she was giving away full Knickers bars, and then it seemed every child in Oleander had to make his way to her doorstep. She got good at spotting repeats, and made sure to give them a different pamphlet and no chocolate bar the second time around. Every thirty minutes she would scamper out onto her lawn and pick up discarded pamphlets and put them back in the bowl or throw them away if they were too torn up. It was tedious, and unfulfilling, but she wasn’t about to go against the wisdom of Reverend Mauler. She was spreading the Good News, and even if only one out of every ten children actually read what she gave them, she figured it was ultimately worth it.
Finally, like listening to microwave popcorn pop, the kernels of children grew further and further apart until they eventually stopped altogether. With the exception of one little girl dressed up like Mary Magdalene whom she chased off of her lawn with a broom, the rest of the evening was uneventful. She made herself a bowl of chili and some hot chocolate and sat down to watch inspirational Christian television. She was nearly out of candy, and would have been completely out of pamphlets if she hadn’t scrounged throwaways. She made up her mind that next year she wasn’t going to answer her door at all, and the Reverend Mauler would just have to hand out candy for the both of them.
At eleven o’ clock, at the very beginning of Crosstalk (her favorite faith-based political roundtable), the doorbell rang one final time.
She almost didn’t answer it. If she hadn’t been too tired to put on her nightgown and wasn’t still wearing her smart pink pantsuit and heels, she wouldn’t have. But she supposed that any children whose parents were letting them stay up this late to beg for candy needed the stern guidance of Jesus and His Apostles more than ever. So she swung her legs off of her coffee table, grabbed one of the last Knickers bars out of the bowl, and went to her door.
Standing there quietly -- his arms at his side -- was a perfectly ordinary, clean-cut, white, middle-class young man. He was maybe 19 years old. He had on a green button down shirt tucked into his khakis, brown loafers, blonde hair, hazel eyes, and he was almost smiling -- but not quite. One thing he didn’t have was a bag for candy.
“Hello,” he said. “Trick or treat.”
“Hello, young man. Where’s your costume?”
She should have been suspicious, and would have been, if it weren’t for his laugh. It was clear and strong -- jolly without being malicious.
“Costumes aren’t what Jesus wants for us, ma’m. I am who I am, and that’s just all there is to it.”
She held out the candy bar to him, her mouth suddenly dry. He was gorgeous, is what he was. Long, curly eyelashes, a tall, lean body that looked perfect for pitching hay or fastballs, and the most beautiful clean white teeth. She flushed bright red as she realized she was staring. Staring and thinking things she shouldn’t be.
“Amen to that,” she said, drawing herself up tight and proper, “But have some candy, anyway. I’ll only throw it out.”
“I don’t care for sweets,” he said, casually taking her hand and lowering it. She felt a tiny jolt in her stomach. His hands were smooth and warm and as well-kept as the rest of him. He gave her a little squeeze before he let go. “That’s not really why I’m here.”
“Why are you here, if you don’t mind?” she asked. “It’s late. I was just about to go to bed.”
She winced. Too much information. Why did she tell him that?
The boy smiled sympathetically as if reading her mind. He shook his head, and took something from his pocket. It was a book.
“I know it’s late, ma’m. I was just about to give up and go to bed myself. I’ve been walking all through your neighborhood, going house to house and trying to speak to anyone who’ll listen to me about the spiritual peril of this year’s pagan death ritual.”
He held up his book. It was a handsome, well-worn copy of the King James Bible in paperback.
“I just want to know if you have Jesus in your heart,” he said.
Ms. Rogers giggled, and tore off the pamphlet from the Knickers bar she was holding.
“Oh my,” she said, “Aren’t we just two halves of the same coin?”
She handed it to him. He read it, lowered his Bible, and then thumped himself in the head comically.
“Well, don’t that beat all?” he said. He hugged his Bible to himself, and gave her a playful shrug. “I suppose I’ll be on my way, then. Tomorrow’s Sunday and all, and I wouldn’t want to be groggy for church.”
Before he could turn to leave, she suddenly and impulsively put a hand on his shoulder.
“Wait! Would you like to come in for a mug of hot chocolate? It’s getting cold out there, and I wouldn’t mind giving you a ride.”
He nodded enthusiastically.
“I WOULD like a mug of hot chocolate, thankya Jesus. Nothing makes a hard, fruitless night of evangelizing worth it like the company of a fellow believer. But I don’t think you’re gonna be giving me a ride in that thing, if you don’t mind me saying so.” He hooked a thumb at her Plymouth and she remembered the four flats.
“Oh, pooh. Well, the chocolate’s already made, anyway. You can at least go home with something hot inside you. I’ll just get you a mug. Come in.”
She opened the door wider and let him by. As he brushed against her, she could feel his hard muscles under his clothes, and she had a brief vision of what it would be like to be with him. She had only been with one man – Turner Dobbs -- and that had been a long time ago, back at Fort Stockton Christian University when she was only a girl. They had gone out for snow cones after a hard night of studying, and Satan had suddenly ambushed them in the dark parking lot of the Tastee-Stick. She didn’t know what came over her. They had done it right there on the floorboards of Turner’s Chrysler LeBaron, and once it was over, she realized that it had been both painful and humiliating, and she never wanted to do it again. He tried to call on her afterward, but she wouldn’t see him. There had been the month of fear -- sheer, sharp, agonizing dread -- and then nothing.
But here she was, fantasizing about this random stranger who wasn’t even old enough to rent a hotel room. She didn’t even know his name.
“My name’s Paul,” he said, stunning her. “Paul Miller.”
“I’m Regina Rogers,” she said. She gave a little curtsy. “How do you do?”
She stared at him for a second and then went into the kitchen and poured him a cup of cocoa from the pot. She brought it back into the den and then sat down next to him on her couch.
“I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to find new souls out here,” he said, “The minute people find out you are concerned about their invisible, eternal vesicle, the doors just slam right in your face.”
“It’s a bit easier with children” she said, “But you saw my car. Even they can be difficult when they put their will to it.”
“So what exactly do you do for a living?” asked Paul, sipping his hot chocolate and crossing his legs.
“I work at the Claims Office for Yancy Insurance. It’s a good job. Lots of benefits.”
He laughed again – that clear strong laugh – and then put a hand on her knee and squeezed it.
She tensed up and considered slapping him, but then realized it was only a friendly gesture. It was her mind that was making such lustful thoughts, even now hoping he would move his hand a little higher. He couldn’t possibly be attracted to her. He was a lean, handsome, virile young man. And who was she? Nothing but a dried up old spinster. And yet why didn’t he take his hand away?
“You are all alone here?” he asked softly.
“Indeed I am,” she said, “It would be lonely, but I keep myself good company.”
“So how long have you been saved, ma’m, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’ve been working for Our Lord since I was your age. I’m not one of those zealous converts that peter out after a few years of hard work, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Nothing of the sort,” said Paul. “I just wanted to know. Do you consider yourself full in the faith? Filled up tight with the penetrating bliss of belief and understanding?”
“Oh my yes,” she said, “To the hilt.”
“Then I guess there’s no point in giving you my witness,” he said, “I could probably learn a thing or two from you, though.” He turned to face her head on, drained the rest of his chocolate, put his other hand on her knee, and started to stroke them.
She gasped and her whole body went weak and limp.
“Well, Ms. Regina,” he said, “The hot chocolate was delicious, but I’ve really got to be going. It’s been slim pickings out here, but you’ve revitalized me. Given me some hope that the night hasn’t been wasted. Do you think I could leave you with my blessing?”
He raised his hand over her head tentatively, his fingers making a loose fist.
“Of course,” she said in a meek little voice. She lowered her eyes, closed them, and made herself open to his prayer. And to whatever else he wanted to put inside of her.
“Thank you, ma’m. Maybe I could come back some other time and we could do some extra hard praying together?”
“I’d like that,” she said, “I’d like that a lot.”
Paul cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Dearest Jesus, Lord of All creation...Captain America…the Sultan of Swat…Little Lucky Lindy and his little dog, too. Bless this woman and give her something special on the other side. Haymen. Yeeha.”
He snorted and then laughed. It was more like a bray. Regina frowned. Something was wrong. She lifted her eyes, peeked, and saw that his hand was wide open and hovering just inches from her forehead. Nothing unusual about that. But there was something on it she didn’t notice before. Something that almost made her heart stop for the second time that evening. Maybe that would have been for the best.
Glaring at her from the center of Paul’s palm was a glowing brown eye.
As the ice in her lungs thawed and filled with vapor for a scream, the eye blinked, and seemed to widen. It started to protrude, bulging out as if connected to something deeper in his wrist. It was wet and sticky, and she could see yellow crust around the edges. Eye boogers. And then Paul’s hand was on her skull and she knew no more.
It didn’t matter what the Slorp put the soul in. Just as long as the body was empty for midnight, when the gate was flung wide open and the departed made their move. The Slorp was being paid handsomely for the night’s work – a whole wheelbarrow full of fresh young meat. Slorp were independent contractors, but Halloween was a great time to work. He liked working for the newly dead. They knew where all the goodies were and they were too busy fighting each other to worry about their hirelings much.
Now that Ms. Rogers was taken, he no longer needed to manifest a human form and so he reverted back to his favorite shape – something like a furry crab with a toucan’s beak and about 600 different eyes on stalks looking in every direction at once. He held her essence in his claws for awhile, and then started juggling her back and forth from eye to eye like a magician with a deck of playing cards, scanning the room. Finally, he settled on something suitable. The candy bar still in her pocket.
Christians were the easiest and he picked them out whenever he could. They were so busy trying to convert you they didn’t realize you weren’t exactly human. Plus, they never wore costumes, so he never got confused as to what they were. Slorps weren’t very good at discerning between living humans, the newly dead, demons, angels, djinn, Lorpoos, or anything that wasn’t a Slorp. If he tried to empty a demon, for instance, he was liable to end up banished to some shitty outer plane where the best you could hope for was grubs, maggots, and pencil shavings to chow on for eternity.
It was a good test. Nothing but a stupid human would claim it was a Christian, especially on Halloween. It was like painting a target on the fuselage of your biplane and starting a world war. Christians had so much raging desire boiling just underneath their surface, it was embarrassingly easy to pluck out something from inside them, become it, and then manipulate them into letting you inside their secret heart. Not even remotely a challenge, really. He never knew what they thought he said and was doing as he prepared them to be emptied, but it was certainly amusing.
The Slorp (whose given name would drive you insane, even if it were reducible to symbols) put his claws together and spit through them, aiming Ms. Roger’s soul at his intended target with the precision of a seasoned gunfighter. There was a wet smack, and the Knickers leapt out of her pocket, spun in the air, and then landed on her carpet. Thanks to temporal conservation, Ms. Rogers didn’t just suddenly become the candy bar – she had always been the candy bar. He picked it up in one pulsating, segmented pincer. A treat.
But first: business.
With his other claw, he grabbed the body of Ms. Rogers by the back of her suit jacket and lifted her onto her couch. He fluffed a pillow and put it under her head. Her body was catatonic but still operating at 100%. She looked like she had fallen asleep watching the idiot box. All over town, there were empty people awaiting possession by the newly dead who the Slorp had already visited. Sometimes entire families. Their souls were now in furniture and in books, in bracelets and in teddy bears, and there they would stay, unless transferred to something else. Which was unlikely. Inanimate objects were the bottom rung, and souls had a tendency, like water, to seek the lowest level.
The Slorp scuttled out onto Ms. Rogers lawn and put the flag on her mailbox up – this year’s sign to the newly dead that the house had an empty body inside. The world was already getting thinner as the clock slowed down for midnight. He didn’t want to be around for the rush: it was as ugly as an Oklahoma land grab.
Scanning both directions of the street, he tossed the Knickers bar into the air, chomped down on it like a vicious bird, and crunched its sweet juice down his gullet and into his processing gland, effortlessly separating the soul from the candy like an ectoplasmic threshing machine. There was a whiff of brimstone and a satisfying bleat from his anal tendrils as he let one rip. And then – like the crab he resembled -- he was off to find someplace slimy, dark, and preferably underwater to hole up in. The nip in the air said Christmas was coming.