Fiction by Jeannie Prinsen
Supper was done. After Russell went down to the parlour to watch the news, Vera started putting things away. She looked at the clock. Twenty after five. Mike down the road usually brought his children around on the early side – the littlest one got cranky as all get-out if he stayed up too late – so she’d best get everything ready now. She went to the pantry and rummaged around. Mercy, surely Russell hadn’t forgotten – she’d underlined it on the list and everything. Wouldn’t that be so like her brother: just as careless as when they were youngsters.
“Russell, did you get the candy?” she called.
No answer. And no wonder, the television blaring and his hearing aid right there on the table. A lot of good it was doing him there. She went down the hall to the parlour. “For heaven’s sake, Russell, I’d be better off talkin’ to the four winds. I said did you get the candy! For tonight!”
“It’s in the cupboard.”
“Which cupboard? No, don’t get up—”
He shuffled past her into the kitchen, opened the cupboard door above the stove, and pulled out a paper bag.
“You can’t keep it there, it’ll go all soft.” She snatched the bag from his hands and emptied it onto the table. “My stars, what did you get these big bars for? They’re awful dear – and the kids don’t need them big ones. My land, they’ll be stuffin’ their faces enough tonight as it is.”
“Oh, the little ones look so miserly,” said Russell. “We’re only gettin’ two or three kids tonight – might as well give ‘em nice big ones.”
“Well, if we’re only gettin’ two or three kids, why did you get ten bars?” Vera demanded, her hands sorting chocolate bars on the counter: three Kit Kats, three Caramilks, and four Coffee Crisps. “Tell me the last time we got ten kids at this house at Halloween.”
Russell shrugged. “You never know. Anyway, you and me can eat the ones that are left. I like a bit of candy now and then.”
“They’ll go bad before we get ’em all eaten.”
He didn’t reply. He started down to the parlour again, then turned round and went over to the corner and clicked on the outside light switch.
“What are you turnin’ that on now for? It’s bright as day outside still.”
“We might forget. I don’t want people comin’ up into the yard and it all dark.”
“Well, Mike brings his boys long before dark, and that’s all we’re expectin’.”
“Just in case,” said Russell, heading back down the hall. “I wouldn’t want someone turnin’ back because they think we’re not givin’ stuff out.”
Vera shook her head. There were mules less stubborn than he was. She might as well be talking to the stove half the time.
She put the dirty dishes on the counter by the sink, wiped the vinyl tablecloth and dried it off, and put the bars in a bowl in the middle of the table. Then she washed up the dishes – never much of a job with just two of them. And they’d had soup so there was just the one pot. She looked at the clock again: ten to six. Then she heard a rig of some kind rattling up the lane. Mike’s truck, likely. That lane’s worn down right to the rock and awful rutted, she thought grimly. Awful hard on cars. She’d told Russell they should get a few loads of gravel on it but he’d said no, no, not till next spring.
She went down the hall and said, “I think they’re here.”
Russell got up and shut off the television by pushing the power button on the front like he always did. Vera knew it was hard on the knobs doing it like that; they should use the clicker that came with the set. But he had to do it his way, of course.
Vera headed for the front door, but Russell said, “No, don’t open it yet, don’t let on we know who it is.”
They heard the outside door open and the little boys talking excitedly. “Dad, don’t let them see you, they’ll reckonize us. Make Hunter wear his head, Dad, he keeps taking it off.”
Then a man’s voice. “Yeah, he finds it hot, don’tcha, buddy? Don’t worry about Hunter, he’s fine. Just go on and knock.”
Grinning, Russell made for the door. “Well, now, Vera,” he said loudly, “Seems to be somebody in the porch, who could it be?”
Vera couldn’t help smiling at the giggles from the other side of the door. Then a knock.
Russell opened the door halfway, and three little figures came into the kitchen. One was some kind of superman in leotards and a red cape. One was a pirate with an eye patch and a cardboard sword covered in foil. The littlest was a spotted cow, or perhaps it was a dog, holding the head part under his arm. Taylor, Mason, and Hunter – goodness, what were Mike and Sarah doing when they named those boys? Probably watching the soap operas. Vera once said they might as well have called them Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick-Maker. Russell had got quite a kick out of that.
“Well, who are these little spooks, I wonder, Vera?” said Russell.
Little Hunter – he was three – came right over to Russell’s knee and said, “Me’s Hunter, and they’s Taylor and Mason. Do you gots any candy?”
Russell laughed and pulled him up onto his lap. “I got lots of candy for you and your brothers right here.” The other two boys moved quickly to look in the bowl.
“People don’t usually give out big ones,” Mason said, wide-eyed.
“Looks like your bags are pretty full already,” said Vera. “Just one each.”
“Now, Vera, what odds how many they take?” said Russell.
Mike pushed the door open and stepped inside, smiling. “Evening,” he said. “Guess it’s safe to come in since Hunter’s already let the cat out of the bag. Do as you’re told, boys, just one.”
“Aw, two’s fine,” said Russell, ignoring Vera’s frown. “Here, lads, you each pick out two and put them in your bags. Mike, you want a couple for you and Sarah?”
“Lord, no thanks,” said Mike, settling himself onto a chair in the corner. “Sarah already says I’m putting on the pounds. How are you feeling, though, Russell – no more of those chest pains?”
“I’m as right as rain,” said Russell, jiggling Hunter on his knee, “so long’s I take my pill every mornin’.”
“And every mornin’ when I ask him did he take it yet, he says he didn’t,” said Vera. “Stars, I don’t know what would happen if I didn’t remind him.”
“You just ask me before I even have a chance to take it, is all,” Russell said. “But that puts me in mind, Mike, there’s a rattle there in the rear end that I wondered if you could give a listen to.”
Mike laughed. “We’re talking about your Chevy now, I hope. Want to bring her to the garage in the morning and I’ll run her up on the hoist?”
“Yeah, but maybe you can just come outside now for a second and I’ll start her up so you can hear what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Sure,” Mike shrugged. “This is our last stop anyways. Come on, boys, what do you say to Vera and Russell?”
Their thank-yous offered, the little boys followed their father out the door, Russell right behind them. “Put your coat on, it’s cold,” Vera said, but he just kept going.
She went over to the window that faced the yard so she could see what they were doing. The boys were climbing into a wheelbarrow Russell had left beside the shed. Now they’ll tip that thing over and then they’ll all be bawling, she thought. Russell should have put it away. Shouldn’t even be doing anything with the wheelbarrow, by rights, with that heart of his. And here they were, well into fall, and he hadn’t asked Mike about the snow shoveling. Mike had said something last spring about helping with that, but Russell hated to remind him. Vera had a mind to mention it herself but Russell said no, no, Mike’d remember when the time came. Russell was so lackadaisical about these things. Couldn’t he see you had to think ahead and take care? The first snowfall would sneak up on them and he’d be out there with the shovel, and what would happen then Vera didn’t want to think.
Russell had started up the car, and now he was down behind it with Mike. Lord, be careful, Vera thought. It could slip out of gear and run them both over. And he shouldn’t be haunching down like that, too much strain. She watched as the two men straightened up and then stood there talking. Mike was shaking his head and smiling and Russell was talking away, and then they both laughed. What could that be about? Then Mike piled his boys into the truck and drove off down the lane.
Vera stood on the doorstep for a minute while Russell put the wheelbarrow in the shed. My, it was getting chilly at night. She heard the far-off sound of geese honking – and here it was the end of October. Most of them had long gone by this time. Who would have thought even geese had their planners and their idlers among them.
“Did you lock the car?” she said when Russell came in.
The evening was quiet. Vera did a little crocheting on a blanket she was making for the church Christmas bazaar. Russell sat in the lazy boy and went through the paper again, dozing off a bit now and then. At about nine Vera put her crocheting away and got up. “You want a bite of somethin’?” No reply. “Russell, I said you want a bite of somethin’ before bed?”
“Gimme one of them bars that’s left over.”
“Doesn’t matter. Want to half it with me?”
She broke a Kit Kat in two and they ate it at the table. “There sure is a chill in the air tonight,” she said. “And I heard geese. A little late – they’d best get a move on.”
“First of November tomorrow,” he replied. “Where’s the time go, eh.”
After they’d finished the bar, she put the leftover ones away in the pantry. “You done outside?” she asked unnecessarily, as she went over to the corner to turn off the yard light and lock up for the night.
“Hold on, someone’s comin’,” Russell said. She was about to say that couldn’t be, when she heard a car rumbling past the house.
“Must be Mike back,” she said.
“Doesn’t sound like Mike’s rig. Maybe we’re gettin’ more Halloweeners – how many of them candy bars are left?”
“No one’d come this late, surely.” Vera flicked the yard light back on and cupped her hands around her face to peer out the kitchen window. “Goodness, who’s got a big black car? And what are they parkin’ up by the barn for instead of up front here?” She looked over at Russell; he was sitting at the table, calm as calm.
Then a knock came on the outside door. But whoever it was didn’t just knock once and wait, they kept rapping away. “My land, what is it?” Vera cried. “Should we open it at all, do you think?”
“They might chuck eggs at the house if we don’t,” said Russell.
“Oh, goodness, they wouldn’t, would they? How many of them are there?”
“Only one way to find out.” Russell went out and opened the outside door, and someone stepped into the porch. It was a man, Vera assumed, because of the height of him. He had on a black skidoo suit and black boots and gloves, and one of those black stocking caps that pulled down over the face like a mask with holes for the eyes. Except you couldn’t see his eyes because he had dark glasses on under the mask.
“Well, now, you’re a little bigger than the other trick or treaters we got,” said Russell. “Would ya like to come in, sit down a minute?”
The man nodded, but instead of taking the chair in the corner he walked right across the living room and sat down in Russell’s lazy boy. My, he was a big fellow, or at least he looked big in that black get-up. Vera moved aside and stood uncertainly by the stove, not knowing what to make of it. She realized her heart was pounding and she looked anxiously at Russell, but he just pulled up a kitchen chair and settled into it. “So would ya like a chocolate bar?” he asked.
The man nodded slowly again. Russell passed him the bowl with the three bars left in it, and he took them all and stuck them in the pocket of his skidoo suit.
“Been visiting a lot of houses tonight?” Russell asked.
The man nodded.
“Gettin’ a good haul?”
He nodded again.
“Cat got your tongue, eh?”
He shrugged, then crossed one leg over the other and leaned back in the lazy boy chair. Vera found it hard to look at him, with those dark glasses shining through the holes of the mask. She couldn’t tell if he was staring straight at her, or sitting there with his eyes shut. There was something scary about not knowing that.
Then all of a sudden he got up and started moving around the kitchen, looking at pictures on the wall. He even went right up to the Ashford’s Feed Mill calendar and studied that.
Vera looked at Russell again, and a panicky feeling blossomed up inside her and made her feel cold and weak. This wasn’t just someone from around, out for fun; this was someone bent on no good – she knew it. It wasn’t unheard-of for someone to come into a stranger’s house and pretend to be well-meaning and then rob them of everything they had, or worse. And if that creature suddenly turned on them – well, she could just imagine the strain on Russell’s heart, he might collapse right there in the kitchen.
“Russell, why don’t we call Mike and ask him to come up here,” she said loudly, trying to make her voice sound firm. “He could be up in no time.” But the fellow didn’t move; he just stood there looking at the wall.
“Lord, Vera, there’s no need of that,” Russell said. “It’s just someone havin’ a little fun.”
“I think we should call the Mounties,” she said. There, that got the fellow’s attention, made him turn round anyway. Vera stepped into the hallway and picked up the phone. She didn’t know what she would say when she got through – she’d never called 9-1-1 before. Funny how her fingers weren’t working right. She couldn’t seem to find the nine, for shaking so much.
“Vera, what in blazes are you doin’?” said Russell, snatching the phone out of her hand. “Are you out of your head, callin’ the Mounties? They’ll think you’re a ravin’ lunatic. It’s just a little fun, that’s all, what’s wrong with that?”
Before she could answer, the porch door slammed – the fellow was gone. Vera hurried to the window and saw headlights swinging around in the darkness and the black car going down the lane. She sat down, her knees suddenly about to give way under her. She didn’t know if it was relief or terror she felt the most.
“Vera, you’re the livin’ end,” Russell said, shaking his head. “What was that all about, now?”
“Well, who knows who that was?” Vera cried angrily. “Could’ve been somebody out to rob us – somebody just out of the Pen lookin’ for a place to hide. And you with your weak heart? He could’ve killed you, Russell, givin’ you a scare like that.”
“Except I wasn’t the scared one, Vera,” said Russell. He shook his head again. “I’m goin’ to bed. See ya in the mornin’.”
Vera turned off the yard light again and locked the door, her hands trembly. She went into the front room facing the road and looked down the lane to be sure there were no car lights lurking. Then as she came back through the hall she saw the red light blinking on the message machine. How had she missed hearing it ring? It must have rung the very second she’d picked up the phone to dial the Mounties – strange. She clicked the button and there was Sarah’s voice. “Hi, Vera, this is Sarah. Mike will probably kill me, but I don’t feel right about him going up to your place tonight. He and Russell seem to think it’s a great joke, but if it was me I wouldn’t find it so funny. So if he’s still there, you tell him … tell him to get himself home!” She laughed. “Sometimes it’s like I’ve got four kids, not three. I hope everything’s okay, I hope you’re not too upset. The boys said you gave them those big chocolate bars – that was nice of you. Anyway, that’s all. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
Automatically, Vera pressed the erase button; then she thought she should listen again and make sure of what she’d heard, but it was too late now. She felt a flush rise on her neck imagining what Mike would have thought at her going to call 9-1-1. He would think she was a raving lunatic like Russell had said.
Suddenly she was so angry she wanted to throw the phone right against the wall. Just throw it. She started up the stairs; if there was a line of light showing under Russell’s door she was going to barge right in there and give him a piece of her mind.
But the upstairs was all in darkness. She fumbled for the light inside her bedroom; when she went in she slammed the door so hard the pictures on the wall went crooked. Then she walked back and forth between the door and her bed, twisting a handkerchief in her hands and feeling her heart jumping in her chest like a hammer.
What in the world was wrong with people? Full grown men playing silly tricks like that. Didn’t they see there was no place for that kind of behaviour? Didn’t they see you had to be sensible and take care and prepare for what might happen later – or sooner, for that matter?
She went to the darkened window, but of course all she saw was her own reflection, pale and startled-looking. There could be someone outside at that very moment and she wouldn’t even be able to tell. But somehow even the thought of a big, silent man in black didn’t feel as frightening as the general dread that seemed to be right there in the room with her. The truth was: Russell could be gone – fast with a heart attack or drawn-out like the way Daddy had – and she’d be all alone. The bedroom across the hallway would be empty. For that matter, she could be gone just like that, too – why ever had she always been thinking she’d be the one left behind? One way or the other, there were just the two of them now, and how long would that last?
She looked around desperately for something to do. Those pictures on the wall that she’d shaken out of place – she could straighten those. And they were awfully dusty, too; she really ought to wipe them. There, that was better. She stepped back. There was one snap of the four of them: Daddy, Mama, her and Russell. Vera must have been around six and Russell five. He had on that old cowboy hat of Daddy’s and a red bandanna and was laughing to beat the band, while she looked so serious. He always was so different from her – easy going, nothing bothered him. Laughing at her fidgety ways, saying she was fussy and what-not.
She sat down on the bed, suddenly feeling as exhausted as if she’d done a full day’s work. Except it hadn’t made a speck of difference: whether those pictures were clean or coated with dust, there wasn’t a single thing she could do to slow time down. And that was a hard notion to have staring you in the face late at night.
She stretched out with her clothes and shoes still on and lay there on top of the comforter. She knew she should get up and turn out the light – it was silly to waste power like that – but she didn’t. She couldn’t have said, the next morning, how long it was she’d lain awake, but sleep must have come because eventually she felt herself stirring with the daylight, her body stiff and chilled. She went to the kitchen and put the kettle on. When Russell came down for breakfast she put his tea and porridge in front of him without speaking. He looked at her a few times as if expecting her to say something, but she could be quiet if she wanted to. No law against that, surely.
Finally he said, “You’re quiet this mornin’.”
“I suppose you and Mike thought that was a great trick last night,” said Vera, not turning from the counter where she was waiting for the toast to pop up.
“We didn’t mean any harm,” said Russell. “If I’d of known it’d upset you that much, Vera, I wouldn’t of done it. I just thought it’d be kinda comical. It was me come up with the idea, don’t blame Mike.” Then he chuckled. “It was kinda funny to see Mike high-tail it out of here when you got on the phone to call the Mounties.”
Vera didn’t reply.
“You still want to run into town this morning?”
“I’d tell you if I didn’t want to.”
Usually when they drove to town Vera would make a lot of comments about properties looking run-down or people driving too fast, but today she just looked out the window in silence. The panic and anger of the night before were gone and now she just felt tired. And weak, and old. Somehow she had thought everything was so safe – so nicely in hand, if you were just sensible and kept an eye out. But things could happen: things you didn’t expect, or even things you knew were coming but that seemed far off. Now she realized that maybe she could no more have everything nicely in hand than she could reach out and take hold of that cloud there.
“Oh, I hate the thought of winter comin’,” she said.
“Hmm,” said Russell. They were silent a little longer, and then he said, “Winter’ll come and winter’ll go, Vera. Things will happen when they’re supposed to. No sense gettin’ too worked up about it. Just live life.”
“That’s all very well for you,” Vera retorted. She looked at the sky again and saw another checkmark of geese moving across her field of vision. Even slacker than last evening’s bunch, she thought; how would they ever keep up with the ones that had planned ahead and gone south long ago? Yet they didn’t seem in a hurry at all, just steady and purposeful. She watched them until she could no longer make them out. Then she looked at Russell, at his hands resting lightly on the steering wheel. Just live life, he’d said. Was it really possible to go around that way every day of the week – not afraid? Maybe some people were just like that and some not. She didn’t see how in the world she could ever be that way. Not at her age, surely … and yet Russell was only a year younger. She stared at the sky and wondered.
They picked up a few things at the IGA and then Russell went off to the drugstore to get his pills refilled. Vera walked down the block past the Bi-Way. She had no thoughts of getting anything, but a bin out front marked “GREATLY REDUCED” caught her eye. She rummaged through it, just to fill the time.
Then it was as though something possessed her. She could hardly have explained it otherwise than that. She picked up what she wanted and stepped inside the store to pay.
There was barely anyone around, and no one she knew. She went straight to the checkout. The cashier was on the phone and didn’t get off while she rang in Vera’s purchase. For once Vera didn’t tsk-tsk or clear her throat; she was glad the girl wasn’t paying attention. “So I’m like, if that’s what you want, fine,” said the cashier, dropping the change into Vera’s palm without so much as a thank you kindly. Vera stuffed the Bi-Way bag into her purse and went back out onto the sidewalk. And there was Russell, just heading towards the car.
They pulled into the yard just before noon. “Darn, I forgot to check for the mail,” said Russell as he got out. “You go on in, I’ll carry in the groceries in a minute.”
Vera unlocked the front door and went inside. Through the window she could see Russell walking down past the orchard toward the mailbox. Her heart was hammering under her breastbone the way it had last night, but this time it was with a giddy kind of excitement. She pulled the bag out of her purse and took out the Halloween mask. Land sakes, it was ugly. Just touching the bulgy eyes and deformed features and that long matted gray hair gave her a crawly feeling.
She stepped into the hallway and pulled the mask over her head. It was rubbery and sticky and felt dreadful on. And when she looked in the hall mirror she gave a little jump, it was that horrible a looking thing. A giggle escaped her and she clapped her hands.
She hurried back into the kitchen. She grabbed hold of Russell’s lazy boy and dragged it around so that it was facing away from the door. Then she sat down in it and leaned back, spreading out the long gray hair over her shoulders.
It seemed like forever till she heard Russell slamming the car trunk shut and coming in the front door with the IGA bags. “Just the phone bill is all,” he said. There was silence for a moment. “You got some bee in your bonnet about redecoratin’, Vera? Lord, could you not wait five minutes till I could help you move that chair?”
Vera stayed perfectly still. Any second now he’d come around in front of her. She hardly knew the fluttery feeling inside – she hardly felt like Vera any more. She smiled behind the mask and sat there motionless, waiting.