Anna felt her heart thrum in her ears. Her pulse twitched under the skin of her neck. The caffeine wasn’t helping –as Dr. Greenberg had gently reminded her during her appointment two weeks before –but Anna pushed that thought on the backburner as she gulped down her Americano in her travel cup. She had about four or five Americanos a day, but promised Dr. Greenberg she’d reduce it down to three. Not today though. She needed to be alert. She needed to be ready.
She ran her finger along the wooden edge of her knife block. She pulled out a slicing knife and a paring knife, and placed them delicately next to each other. She lined her kitchen table with newspaper and taped down the edges. She realized garbage bags would be neater. She’d have imprints of the daily headlines on her table when she was done. “Gruesome Murder at the Humber.”“Four Die in 401 Collision.”She’d have to scrub with vinegar to get the messages off.
Anna grabbed the first pumpkin from the pile and dropped it on the table. She had thirty of them. Fifteen sugar pumpkins and fifteen Jack o’Lanterns. She hated that people called them Jack o’Lanterns even before the pumpkin had a candle inside. She grabbed the slicing knife and stabbed the pumpkin at the top, two inches from the stem. She sawed a circle, surgically, making sure not to slice her finger. She pried the stem from the head, then dug her hand in, pulling at the seeds and strings inside. As she scooped the innards into a lime-green Tupperware container, she whispered the history of the Jack-o-Lantern:
“Legend has it that Jack was a man who tricked the devil and lived to tell the tale. The devil waited and waited for Jack to die, because he would make sure Jack payed for his misdeed. When Jack died, the gates of heaven were closed to him, and so were the gates of hell. The devil stood behind the gates of hell and told Jack that he had to wander purgatory for all eternity. The devil then laughed and threw a piece of burning coal at Jack, so it could be his light in the darkness of purgatory. Jack carved out a turnip that he had in his bag and put the coal inside of it. He wandered the afterlife with his lantern, hoping to find a way back home.”
Anna had done a lot of research on Samhain, commonly known as Halloween. It originated as a Celtic tradition, where villagers would celebrate the harvest at the meeting of summer and winter. They believed that the veil between the living and dead was thinnest at that time. This terrified her, more than anything.
Anna had been diagnosed with multiple conditions throughout her lifetime. Panic disorders, anxiety disorders, paranoia, with multiple phobias and delusions. She was also theorized to be schizophrenic by one doctor, but she never went back to her. The specialists all agreed that the common denominator of her condition was that she was in a persistent state of dread.
“You appear to be in a state of primal fear at all times,”said Dr. Vaughn. “You have lost all sense of instinct. You brain is expecting a ‘fight or flight’situation at every corner.”
Another specialist, Dr. Rickards, spoke to her pleadingly over the phone. Anna had skipped their appointment after throwing out her prescription of Valium. Valium made her slow and like her head was stuffed with cotton balls. After the effects of the pill had worn off, she felt betrayed. How could Dr. Rickards do that to her? “I didn’t prescribe you Valium to make you vulnerable. It’s to help you cope. To relax, to rest. It could really help you,” Dr. Rickards said. Mouth firm, Anna said nothing into the receiver. She heard the exasperation through the earpiece. “Why do you want to be afraid, Anna?”
Anna was afraid of a lot of things. According to specialists, friends, her mother, and strangers on the internet, these fears were irrational. It was irrational to never go swimming in a lake, because she believed that there were monsters beneath the surface waiting to pull her under. It was irrational to avoid walking in parks alone, because she believed that packs of wolves could have roamed in from the country,and were lurking around small clusters of trees. It was irrational to check every chocolate bar by breaking it in two, just in case someone hid a razorblade inside.
Anna didn’t think she was irrational – she was prepared. They were the ones who were walking with blinders on, thinking that the only dangers to worry about were drunk drivers and high cholesterol. ‘They’re wrong,’she thought, stabbing the paring knife into the pumpkin angrily. She knew that Samhain the most dangerous time of year. She knew what to do to keep herself safe. She looked at the rough canvas of the pumpkin and carved a face from her nightmares.
By the time all of the pumpkins were carved, it was almost four. The kids would start trick or treating in two hours, when the sun was setting. Anna washed her hands that were stained with orange and flecked with pulp. She had enough time to prepare the house before they arrived.
She closed all the windows and shut the curtains. She double-locked the front and back door, and blocked the mail slot with a strip of duct-tape. She plugged up the drains in the sinks and bathtub with rubber stoppers, and covered the tap heads with cloths and shower caps. She sealed each with duct tape, as she did with the toilet lid, leaving herself a camping port-o-potty for emergencies. Evil spirits could find any way to enter a house, even through the pipes. She covered all the mirrors with black garbage bags, careful not to break them. Mirrors could be portals to the other world. Evil spirits could travel from across the veil and creep through the glass. But if they couldn’t see their way out, they couldn’t come through.
She wanted to decorate the outside of the house before dark. She pulled ona rubber mask that she had bought from Dollarama. The Halloween stores were too overwhelming with their fake gore and teeth hanging in rows. The mask was cheap and plain, with an ash gray face lined with stitches and bloody streaks. She placed it over her head, adjusting it so she could see through the slits for eyeholes. Her hot coffee breath pooled into the mask. She wanted to peel it off immediately, imagining that the mask would fuse into her skin and she’d suffocate – or worse, be forced to live her life as a dollar-store monster. But she knew she had to wear it if she went outside.
It was another rule about Halloween. Spirits wandered the earth that night, so the living had to disguise themselves as the undead to walk amongst them. If they didn’t, the spirits could find them and steal their soul. She kept the mask on as she filed in and out of the house, lining her front and back porch with Jack-o-Lanterns, placing a lit tea candle inside each one. She decorated her yard with simple orange and black garlands. She hung signs along the fence with the words “Happy Halloween”and “Trick R’Treat”written in Comic Sans. She specifically chose decorations that wouldn’t mock the dead. No fake skeletons, no plastic zombie hands, or cardboard tombstones.
All of the research she conducted was thanks to her most recent therapist. Dr. Greenberg told her that fears could be lessened, even conquered, by the power of logic. “We fear what we don’t understand,”he said, pointing his pen at Anna from across the room. “We give our fears more power than they deserve. We amplify it. Knowledge is a way that you can take that power away.”
“If you fear planes, know that the statistic for plane crashes are miniscule. Your chances are one in 29 million. If you’re afraid of spiders, know that most of Canada’s spiders are non-venomous.Anna, you may not be willing to let go of your fear, but you can lessen it.”
So, she listened. She researched everything about Samhain, about its rituals and warnings. She found out that if a spider falls into a candle flame, it means witches are near. If a bat flew into your house on Samhain, it meant your house was haunted. Jack o’Lanterns needed scary faces carved into them to ward off evil spirits, and to reveal the faces of vampires trying to trick their way through your doorstep.
The sun was beginning to set when she placed a large tin bucket chock full of bite-sized chocolate bars and lollipops. Taped to the bucket was a sign: “Please take one! Thank you”.
She hurried into the house, shut the door, and ripped the mask off. She patted her face. It was slick with sweat, but otherwise, normal.
She wasn’t going to answer the door for trick or treaters. She was afraid that the children pulling up their masks would have eyes sewn shut with thread. She imagined they had demonic smiles beneath the shadows of their black hoods, and they would claw at her hands as she dropped lollipops into their open pillowcases. What if they were possessed? She couldn’t risk it.
Anna locked the front door and finished preparing. She burned sage in a clay bowl to cleanse the house, pushing the smoke into the corners. She poured salt along the edges of the entrances. She unplugged her landline and took the battery out of her cellphone. She wanted there to be no way a spirit could contact her. She brought her espresso machine, the port-a-potty, a flashlight, and her two last Jack o’Lanterns into the bedroom. She opened her closet doors and yanked the clothes off their hangers to reveal the cracked white wall. Nothing could surprise her by hiding behind the shield of dresses and coats. She had taken apart her Ikea bedframe, and tossed the metal slabs in the corner of the room. Nothing could lurk beneath the bed and grab at her ankle when she was close. The boxspring and mattress was pushed against the wall, facing the only door, which was locked and lined with salt. She burned more sage. She breathed it in, cleansing herself, and coughed into her sleeve. Her watch read 6:30. She was tempted to look through the curtains outside, to see how far the sun had set. She made herself another Americano and sat in the middle of her mattress, on guard for whatever the night brought. She had until sunrise.
To keep herself awake, Anna had her notes spread across the mattress. Every piece of information about Samhain was collected in her hurried scrawl. She read over the papers, only stopping when the sound of the doorbell jolted her. Shestared at her bedroom door and waited for it to burst open. It was only the trick or treaters who ignored her sign on the candy bucket.
She read over her notes that focused on the kinder rituals of Samhain. During festivities, young women would try to predict who they would marry. They would look for their future husband’s initials in apple peelings tossed on the floor. They would stand in a dark room in front of a mirror and wait to see his face over their shoulder. They would go to bed with hope in their hearts and hope for their future to reveal itself in a dream. It all sounded so innocent for a night when the dead lurked outside your walls.
Villagers sometimes wanted to talk to the undead. They put candles on their doorsteps to guide the spirits of family and friends back home. They would set tables filled with food and drink, so that their loved ones could come and join them for dinner. Anna thought it was comforting at first, and considered doing the same. She did miss her grandparents, her aunts, and some friends who she had lost over the years. She thought of telling Dr. Greenberg at their newest session. She had dinner with a spirit on the most terrible night of the year! Dr. Greenberg would definitely call it a breakthrough.
Two nights ago, she had a dream that it was Samhain. She walked into the dining room to see thetable lined with a feast of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and honey glazed carrots. There were bowls full of butterscotch pudding and plump milk buns. The candle flames flickered and a breeze stirred the room. She turned her head and saw her grandmother sitting at the table, tucking into the butterscotch pudding. Her heart swelled with emotion. She hadn’t seen her grandmother for years, and was shocked that setting the table actually worked. She stood there, and cried about how she missed her.
Her grandmother spoke to her sweetly, smiling about coming for a quick visit, like she was dropping by for tea and a game of Gin Rummy from the afterlife. Then, she noticed something felt off. The warmth had evaporated from the room. Her grandmother sat stiffer in her chair and her words grew bitter.
“I never liked you,”said her grandmother. “Did you know that?”
Her grandmother looked at her with hard eyes. She was smiling, but it wasn’t the smile she knew. It seemed like she was being mocked.
Hurt and confused, she heading for the door of the dining room. Her grandmother let out a harsh laugh that sent a chill through her. She looked back at the table and saw the back of her grandmother’s head, the short white curls that ended at the neck of a loose pink cardigan. A horrible thought entered her mind: ‘That is not my grandmother.’
The candles flickered and she turned around, too afraid to confront the stranger in her dining room. Too terrified to wait for the stranger to reveal its face.
That night, Anna woke up panting, and couldn’t get back to sleep. The dread had followed her through the dream. She threw out the groceries she bought for the feast and vowed that she wouldn’t set the table. She wouldn’t have a breakthrough, she would only survive.
Anna had calmed down considerably, until the doorbell rang once more when it was approaching midnight. Then it rang over and over again. She covered her ears and stared atthe bedroom door. She could hear voices outside.
“You’re out of candy!”
“Trick or treat!”
“Give us candy!”
They knocked on her door and rapped on her front window. She sat on the mattress and held her breath until they stopped. “Just teenagers,”she told herself.
She gasped as something that slammed againstthe bedroom window. Then there was another slam, like a hand smacking the glass. She turned on her flashlight with a shaking hand. She moved slowly to the curtain and saw egg yolk running down slowly.
“She’s in there!”said a voice.
Someone cackled outside and threw another egg. It missed the window. She heard the thunks as they whipped moreeggs at the front door. They shouted at each other, pushing to destroy. She could hear them smashing things in her front yard and yelling with excitement.
“Kick it! Kick it!”
She peered through the curtains and saw four teenagers in full costume kicking at her Jack-o-lanterns. They tossed the sugar pumpkins, letting them arc in the air and land with a dull thud on the pavement. They stomped on them, snuffing out the candles.
“No,”she whispered in a panic. “No! Stop!”
They were destroying her wards against evil. She felt acid rising up her throat. She bit back the need to vomit. She had to stop them. She smacked the window.
“Stop! I’ll call the police!”
The teenagers turned to the window. She wasn’t sure if they could hear her through the glass. One in a hockey mask laughed and proceeded to unzip his pants and urinate onto one of the pumpkins. The other three laughed and clapped. She smacked the window, again. They waved and flipped out their middle fingers. She was furious. They ruined all her hard work. She marched to the door of her room and stopped at the white line.
No, she couldn’t leave the house. Especially without the wards. If she opened the doors the evil spirits would rush in. And what if, she thought, they were already outside –outside and destroying her wards. The boys could be possessed. They could be demons who were trying to take down her defenses. That’s why they weren’t leaving her alone. They didn’t want candy. They wanted inside.
Another smack at the window. She hurried back to her mattress and held her flashlight to her chest. She prayed that her other protections would work. The salt and the sage would save her. But as she heard the teenagers toss pumpkins onto her lawn and howl into the night, she waited for her other defenses tofall. She swore she heard the windows creak and the doors shake. She could hear spirits tapping from the mirrors, coaxing her to tear off the plastic. Look at me, they begged. Look at me. Look at me.
Her fear raged at every sound, even after the boys melted into the night. She kept her eyes on the door, but kept turning to see the Jack-o-lanterns’faces projected onto her wall, looming, about to swallow her on the bed. The hammering in her ears was exhausting, but she couldn’t sleep. Dreams were another place they could reach her. She drank more espresso, shaking with caffeine and worry. She felt her heart stutter beneath her shirt.
Sometimes Anna wondered if hearts had a set amount of heartbeats. If that were true, she would die early. Her heart had plowed through its numbers. She imagined it would race and race and race until it stopped, with the abruptness of a dirt road meeting a cliff. She often thought about how much time she had left, when would she reach the edge.
She looked at her watch. It was almost seven. The sun would rise any moment. She could hear her neighbours wake up, move about their business outside. A car would pull out of the driveway and crawl down the road. Birds chirped. She stood at the edge of the window, looking every few seconds over her shoulder in case anything was amiss. She watched as the sky started to lighten from black into navy, as the sun crested over the rooftops.
She sat down on the bed, expecting to feel relief. She had made it through the whole night – she had survived. But as she stared at the ceiling, body wracked with exhaustion, she knew that she was still afraid.