Toinette Nickerson proved to be a fairly mischievous child even at 4 years of age. She teased the cat, hid thumbtacks in grandma’s rocking chair cushion, and replaced the sugar in the sugar bowl with salt. At first, her family chuckled that she was “such a scamp” as her Aunt Delia called her, but her pranks escalated in both frequency and severity as she grew older. A missing tricycle, a broken wagon, and a stolen princess tiara at Halloween were eventually superseded by missing money, a broken windshield, and a stolen wallet when she was in high school. It was interesting that she became a delinquent when most young ladies were obsessed with just that; acting like young ladies. But Toinette bought herself a black leather bolero jacket, and kept a pack of Lucky Strikes in the breast pocket with her Zippo lighter that she flipped open with one hand. She could talk tough with any of the guys in shop class, and dated a few of the football players, though none of the stars.
High school came and went!...she managed to graduate with a C- average. College never exactly came… Toinette wasn’t really interested, motivated, or gifted enough to think about college. And so the usual events tumbled one after the other in her humdrum, small-town, rustbelt life. Barmaid in a roadhouse and dating a biker, then a bass guitarist in a local band, then a gas station mechanic who was both a biker and a drummer in the same band.
And then the first kid, and another, and another …all with an aluminum siding salesman she met at the roadhouse. Things (and years) flowed along with some ups, some downs, nothing very dramatic…or exciting either. Toinette found herself accepting that she had become a woman, mellowing, and even responsible in many ways especially because of her three children for whom she tried to set a good example. Her own parents before they died were often surprised at her growing maturity, chuckling at how even she had become …well, “motherly”. Her figure thickened, she kept earlier hours, she and her husband bought a station wagon…and a swing set…and were saving up for an above-ground pool for the kids. Eventually, they actually bought the roadhouse and ran it together…fairly successfully, especially after the new highway was rerouted right by it.
Everything was going great, until that one Halloween. The rumors were that Toinette had been telling the children about her own childhood Halloweens and the pranks that she and some of her naughtier friends from “the wrong side of the tracks” had practiced on the neighbors. Old Mrs. Kenbright had her porch covered with wet toilet tissue and bags of dog poop that had been set on fire. Mr. Bandy had stepped on the rake they left on his front steps, and it flipped up and broke his glasses and chipped his false teeth. And they had taken Kimmy O’Connor’s tricycle and left it five blocks away in the parking lot of the Piggly-Wiggly…. But it was never seen again. Toinette’s children laughed and laughed, mostly because she had a fun and frisky way of retelling her misadventures… but she also managed to strip the events of any empathy for the victims or seriousness in the consequences. And there were consequences. Mrs. Kenbright’s trellis actually caught fire, and it spread up the right side of the house, charring the magnificent, ancient oak tree that had been planted there 150 years before. Mr. Bandy, in his late 70s, was severely bruised for weeks afterwards, and died suddenly of a heart attack only three months later. And little Kimmy was never really very cheerful or trusting again after her beloved tricycle disappeared. One would think that children were much more resilient, or forgetful in the face of loss, but Kimmy was one of those more sensitive and introspective children. From that Halloween night on, Kimmy was described as having a “sad streak”, becoming untrusting and withdrawing from most of her friends. She ignored the new tricycle her father bought her claiming that her “old one was lost somewhere out in the world” and was crying to come home. She woke up constantly from nightmares screaming that her tricycle was lonely and afraid in a field in thunderstorms….or that “it was being killed by bad men with sticks and rocks”. Whenever it snowed, she would sit in her bedroom window with her little hands pressed against the brittle glass, rocking back and forth obsessed that it was lying in the frozen mud wondering why she hadn’t come to save it. She was inconsolable and grief-stricken as only sensitive children can be who have none of the callouses and maturity that adults use to make sense of or ignore the cruelties that befall the innocent in our world.
Toinette had started out as not one of those innocents. Whether by birth or by training, she had never been heartbroken or betrayed by the casual and careless world, and if she had been, she certainly didn’t let it inconvenience her for more than a moment or so. Some people don’t mind the pain that others feel. They don’t see the devastation in the eyes of another person in the face of terrible loss. And even as she grew and aged, and matured with a family of her own, that lack, that flatness if you will, still remained inside her, because of course, as you well know, people are pretty much what they are. After the first few years of childhood, it’s almost impossible for someone to be other than what they have become. Their characters have set in stone, so to speak….for good or ill. Is that why Toinette took her children out trick-or-treating that one Halloween evening and suggested that they might do a few “innocent pranks”, even when they had been given candy! At the Bancroft’s house, she tiptoed up on the porch and showed her children how to soap the windows over on the side where it wouldn’t be noticed till the next morning… and at the Carterette’s, they smashed the huge pumpkin that Nellie had carved herself and named King Chuckles…. right in the bushes, his smiling face caved in and broken, half-smiling still and yet now, unbearably sad. Toinette and her children scampered off into the dark, going from one house to another as the night drew on, and finally she realized they were forgetting to even ring doorbells and collect the “treats” that they had started out for. She herself seemed to be returning to her own childhood as she dragged her breathless kids along on an increasingly frenzied rampage.
It was getting later, much later than most parents would have allowed their children to be out, and so reluctantly, Toinette decided it was time to head home. Her eldest asked if they were going to ring bells for any more candy, but Toinette knew that they would be met with concerned and even disapproving looks if they wandered up onto porches at that hour, especially with her youngest being a toddler and her oldest no more than 6. As they rounded the corner of one of the streets, she noticed a darkened house up a remote and winding drive that looked abandoned. She stopped and asked the children if they’d like to have one last adventure where they could play all the pranks that they could think of. Her children stared at the house in the faint and fading moonlight and the middle one sniffled a little about being scared. Toinette told her not to be a baby, and she began marching up the gravel drive, grown over in many places with weeds and ivy. Toinette picked up some stones in her free hand and handed them to her children saying that if the house was empty they could throw them through windows!...much more fun than soaping them. And she said to the kids, wasn’t it fun that they had dressed as ghosts because they could go into the house and run about pretending to haunt the place, making scary sounds, and breaking furniture and anything else they found inside. They could scream and shriek and moan like hideous monsters as wildly as they liked! Wouldn’t that be fun? Wouldn’t that be the very best fun??... and her children stared at her, both excited and a little frightened by their Mommy’s strange voice.
As they walked up to the huge house, right up to the dilapidated porch that had once been so wide and grand but now was falling away, Toinette gathered them all together. She hugged them and laughed and encouraged them to be scary and wild. They looked back down the long drive, winding and black into the thick bushes and leaning trees, and marveled that they had been brave enough to come all this way. “See?”, said Toinette. “Look how far we’ve come, and we’ve been ghosts all night long. Just like when I was a little girl playing tricks on people and scaring them!”… and then, suddenly, for a split second she heard her own voice…outside of herself. And she thought for just one instant… just one, of Nellie’s pumpkin looking sadly up at her as the candle flickered out… and of Kimmy’s little tricycle, so many years ago… looking back over her shoulder at it sitting in the single lonely light of the parking lot. Waiting to be taken back to the loving arms of a little girl who would never see it or hold it again.
And it was in that moment, that moment of remembering other Halloweens over the many years, that Toinette heard a small twig snap behind her… and the children…. And then, for the first time, it was her turn to be afraid…
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