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Halloween Knight

Joey W. Hill


  By Joey W. Hill

  Laura’s minestrone soup wrapped around Sam like a hug. He grinned, tossed his coat on the washing machine, and stepped out of the laundry room into the kitchen.

  A cardboard sword, painted silver and purple, caught him in the gut. He staggered, clutching the imaginary intestines spilling forth from the wound, and crashed to the linoleum floor.

  "Sam’s here!" his executioner announced.

  "By the Blessed Virgin," Sam bellowed, "What manner of knight besets me in such a cowardly fashion?"

  The accused removed her plastic helm, revealing short, dark hair as fine as a cat’s, and a large gap between her front teeth. "It’s Celia, Sam. And it wasn’t cowardly, it was strategy."

  "Female logic," Sam grunted, rolling to his feet. "No honor, just practicality."

  "Thank the Blessed Virgin for that," Laura chuckled from the stove. She extended her wooden spoon and he sucked soup from it. "Did you stop by Master Mike’s?" she asked.

  "For just a minute. I told him I’d do an extra class for him next week. Hey, this is great. You should be a cook or something." He dodged her swat.

  "She is a cook, silly," Celia declared, putting her hands on her hips.

  Sam crossed his eyes at her and wrapped his arms around Laura’s waist, resting his chin on her hair.

  "Hey," Laura tilted her head and brushed his jaw with her nose. "You get any taller this year and we’re going to cut a hole in the ceiling."

  Celia giggled. Sam squeezed his sister and she capitulated, leaning back against him a little bit. "So, how were things at the Elvis is Dead diner today?" he asked.

  "The car joined Elvis," Laura murmured. "The engine cut out on me twice on the way home."

  "Crap. You want me to pray it down to Jay’s tonight?"

  His sister smiled. "And thwart the annual pilgrimage of the Children’s Crusade? Not a chance. I can probably nurse it through tomorrow."

  "Sam, come on. D wants to show you something!" Celia tugged at his hand. Sam grinned at Laura and let himself be hauled away.

  Two of his other knights were at the kitchen table. Demetrios ate soup while Larry drew on a piece of graph paper with Laura’s precious art crayons.

  Sam hid a grin. As usual, Demetrios was wearing his cowboy boots on the wrong feet. Tonight he wore them with his homemade armor, chainmail and swordbelt. D was Sam’s first Crusader. The little boy tripped across his grandmother’s yard one summer afternoon in his reversed boots to bring Sam a glass of his grandmother’s lemonade and to be ridden around on the mower. During the ride, he informed Sam that he was living with his grandmother indefinitely because his parents were crackheads.

  Sam discovered Larry in the food bar buffet line at the Palomino steak house. Larry was measuring food out onto his plate with the gravity of a NASA engineer. When Larry’s stressed-out dad lost patience with him and slopped gravy onto his perfect globe of mashed potatoes, the kid’s look of horror was worth the price of admission.

  Celia attended the karate class Sam assisted twice a week at Master Mike’s. On her third lesson, she informed him she planned to marry him in ten years, when her seven years caught up with his seventeen.

  "Lookit D’s mace," she crowed.

  Sam admired the weapon made from an orange spongy ball, an assortment of straws and a tomato stake. "D, this is great."

  "Sam," Larry looked up from his drawing. "You didn’t say anything about my helmet."

  "Fantastic," Sam wowed, plucking it from the chair. "Papier mache, right?"

  Larry nodded. "Yep. I made it in Afterschool."

  "You guys get better every year. What are you doing?"

  "I’m drawing a map so we can get to all the houses in the whole neighborhood before you have to take us home."

  "He really wants to make sure we don’t go by creepy Ms. Winslow’s house," Celia translated.

  Larry scowled. "I don’t—"

  "Where’s Aaron?" Sam detoured Celia away from a collision with Larry’s Type-A temper.

  "He was right here…" Celia twisted about, then looked to the hallway leading out of the dining room. "Uh-oh."

  Laura spun from the stove. "Oh, Sam---"

  "I’m on it," he responded, already headed that way.

  The lamp and TV turned on in his mother’s bedroom threw shadows out into the hall, illuminating the seventies-style bamboo-striped wallpaper. It made Sam feel like he was inside a tree, his mother’s bedroom a shabby, comfortable nest on one of its branches.

  Aaron was in the nest and well-launched into his pitch. "My dad brings me chocolate from Switzerland every time he goes, and it’s much, much better than this. So, if you give me yours," his hand hovered over the gold edged saucer and its three Godiva chocolates, "I’ll bring you some of mine."

  "How about you get back to the kitchen and I let you live until tomorrow?" Sam said.

  Aaron pushed his silver rimmed glasses into the bridge of his nose, crossed his arms over his narrow chest and eyed Sam with the room-filling presence of a four foot tall Lee Iacocca. "She was about to say I could have those."

  "Sam, he said he’d bring me better chocolates," Sam’s mother smacked the scratched wooden arm of her easy chair. "Let him have them."

  Sam fought the urge to choke life out of the nine-year-old. He’d need taped evidence to prove it was justifiable homicide. He crossed the room to his mother’s chair, shooting a glare at Aaron. "He doesn’t have any Swiss chocolates, Mom. He’s lying."

  "I am not. My dad---"

  "--Runs a tire store on the corner of 5th and Elon. His only contact with the Swiss is when he needs his pocket knife."

  Sam’s mother seized his wrist. Her fingers dug into Sam’s skin, marked by white ridges and faint bruising that never completely healed.

  "Why would he lie to me?" she demanded. She whacked the chair arm, harder this time. Sam caught both of her hands in his. Aaron’s eyes rounded and he stepped back.

  "Aaron didn’t lie to you, Mom. He maybe exaggerated a bit. He can’t bring you Swiss chocolate, but he’ll bring you any other kind you want. What would you like?"

  "Anything?" She peered up at Sam with wary eyes. Sam pressed his dark head to the top of hers.


  His mother jerked free and clapped her hands. "I want Reese’s Pieces, Reese’s Pieces, Reese’s Pieces," she sang.

  Laura materialized out of the darkness of the hallway. She met Sam’s eyes over their mother’s head. "Okay, Aaron," Sam managed. "You’re going to bring Mom some Reese’s Pieces tonight."

  Aaron edged for the door. He jerked a quick nod and vanished behind Laura. Sam dropped a kiss on his mother’s cheek. "I’ve got to go, Mom. We’re going to go get your candy."

  "Aaron is going!" She caught his shirtfront. "You hold me."

  Laura laid her towel aside. "Let me hold you, Mom. Sam’s going to get your candy."

  "No! Sam holds me like John."

  First Reese’s Pieces, then the reference to Dad. The pounding started in Sam’s head. He breathed in through his nose and let it out through his mouth. It was a quick focus Mike had taught him to stave off the migraines, the unpredictable rages, and the occasional desire to strip off his clothes and run naked through the streets in the dead of night, screaming like a berserker.

  Sam’s lips tugged in a wry smile at himself. His mother’s grip twisted into his shirt and he winced as she took out several hard-earned chest hairs. Sam closed his long fingers over hers.

  "Liesl," he said sternly, "We’re not going to have tantrums tonight. I’ll hold you for a minute, but then Laura will have to hold you. If you don’t behave, there will be no Reese’s Pieces."

  Laura looked away. Sam’s mom set her lips in a
pout, but it didn’t last long. She knew when he meant business.

  "I wish I had eyes like yours," she blurted.

  "You do, Mom." Sam pointed to the dresser mirror. "See? They’re the same color."

  She shook her head. "They’re different, Sam."

  She could mean his eyes had less age lines. Or she could mean something different, and Sam didn’t want to go there. He couldn’t dip his toe into the pool of self-reflection too often or he’d drown. Master Mike hadn’t taught him that; he’d learned that one all by himself.

  Sam scooped her up and bounced her playfully. She giggled and held on, and he dipped her a couple times and swung her slight body in circles to get her really laughing.

  Laura sat down on the flattened, faded floral print cushion of the easy chair and Sam deposited their mother in her lap. "I’ll see you later," he whispered against his sister’s cheek.

  She nodded and caught his forearm briefly in her chapped hand. He pressed his cheek tighter against her hair, then he let them both go.

  He hurried back up the brown hallway to a hushed group of youthful knights. "Sam," Aaron whined. "I didn’t mean—"

  "Sshh!" Sam froze. "The dragon’s loose."

  "Where?" "What dragon?" Four heads turned in different directions.

  "See the steam from his nostrils?" Sam whispered.

  "Ah, that’s just steam from Laura’s soup," Demetrios said.

  "No," Sam shook his head. "There’s too much of it for one pot of soup. See how it curls, like it’s been blown out from his nostrils? If it was coming from the pot, it would go straight up."


  The windowpane rattled fretfully, then began an ominous staccato.

  "Get under the table!" Sam ducked beneath it and Celia dropped with him. "He’s coming."

  A rumbling vibrated the floor and crawled up the walls. Laura’s framed drawings of herbs trembled against the chipped paint. The other three children scrambled beneath the butcher-block table. Demetrios clutched his mace by the sponge ball.

  "Sam," Larry whimpered. "What are we going to do?"

  "I don’t have my sword!" Sam hissed. "Celia, do you have yours?"

  "It’s not real!" she wailed.

  "It’s real," Sam assured her. "Remember, this is a dragon, and he believes in magic, too. You just have to believe your blade is real, and it will be." The rumbling got louder. The glasses stacked by the sink began to rattle. Celia’s knuckles went white around her purple swordhilt.

  "Okay, guys," Sam drew a deep breath. "Celia can’t fight him alone. I’m going to make a break for the stairs and get my sword. I’ll be back, I swear."

  "No!" Demetrios hollered.

  "Sam, don’t leave!" Light struck the window like a gleaming eye. Larry shrieked.

  "Hold him off! I’ll be back!" Sam rolled from beneath the table and sprang for the stairs. He clattered to the top just as the whistle of the six o’clock train that ran through the woods behind the house shattered the illusion. A chorus of groans rolled up to him.

  "Sam, we’re going to get you!" Celia threatened.

  "I didn’t believe it!" Aaron boasted.

  "Then why are you under the table, chicken lips?"

  Sam closed his bedroom door and grinned.

  He crossed the room and opened his closet. Sometimes, he imagined a secret alcove built at the back. Press a button, guitars crash, light erupts, and boom, the panel lifts, revealing his knight’s costume.

  Dad’s suit bag was a pretty good substitute for the dramatic alcove. He drew it out and unzipped it. He took out the black linen Jacobite shirt and pulled it over his head. The black tabard that went over that had a Celtic knot design sewn across the chest with yellowed plastic pearls. Black woolen leggings clung to his calves, making it easy to slide on the flexible black boots. He put his mace in the belt at his waist, strapped on his back harness and plucked his short sword from the mounting over his unmade bed. He twisted, turned, flexed, leaped and crouched, making adjustments until he was sure he had full mobility.

  He pulled his snug-fitting, chain mail coif on his head, slung his gray cloak over his shoulders, taking care to clear the hilt of the short sword, then bounded down the stairs. Ten minutes later, he shepherded his charges out into the spreading darkness and tuned into the currents that whispered with the breath of Hallow’s Eve night.

  Laughter and playful screams traveled the cool air. Ghouls and goblins scampered on the shadowed fringes of the streetlights. Sam responded to his kids’ chatter, quieted them down to go over the ground rules, then they joined the ranks of homemade princesses, Disney characters and broom-sworded heroes.

  By consensus, they followed Larry’s map the length of the street, but when they turned onto Medlin Drive

  , the children made a beeline for Ms. McGady’s driveway. Even Larry capitulated to popular vote with minimal grumbling.

  "Ms. McGady!" Sam called to her and waved, following his knights down her walk. A troop of satisfied characters from the Harry Potter books retreated through her begonia border. Ms. McGady, a thirty-something divorcee with dark Latin American eyes and riotous red hair that used to be brown, wore a bonnet and a white blouse with puffy short sleeves. Her long skirt twitched and a black cat peered around her ankles, eyes narrowed disdainfully. A Pekinese burst from behind Ms. McGady, knocking the cat over the threshold. The cat hissed and scrambled back inside, but the dog barked and waddled its way down the stairs. Sam crouched and the dog flung herself into his arms.

  "Hey, Calypso! What kind of guard dog are you?"

  "A fine one," Ms. McGady defended, her smile as warm and welcome as Laura’s soup. "It’s you, Sam. Animals and kids. They go to you like you’re the Pied Piper." She put her hands on her hips and surveyed his group. "I’ve found the costume to stump your Crusaders at last. Who am I this year?"

  "Heidi!" Celia crowed.

  "Nope." She crossed her arms under her bosom and winked at Sam.

  Don’t stare at her chest. You’re supposed to be a chivalrous knight, and she’s twice your age. You rake her leaves. Sam looked down at Cally’s shaggy blonde head. The Pekinese snorted happily and slavered her pink tongue up Sam’s nose.

  "Laura Ingalls," Larry suggested.

  "How do you know what Laura Ingalls looks like?" Demetrios demanded.

  "My sister watches it," Larry said defensively.

  "Best show ever put on TV," asserted Ms. McGady, "Still is."

  "Not better than the Batman-Superman Adventure Hour," Aaron mumbled around a sucker. Sam pushed Calypso aside and plucked the candy out of Aaron’s jaws.

  "Hey!" Aaron protested.

  "Didn’t we agree that we were going to check these before we eat anything?"

  "Mr. Grimmell gave them out," Aaron said. He turned to Ms. McGady. "You’re the Sun Maid Raisin Girl," he stated.

  Ms. McGady’s mouth fell open. "Aaron, you’re amazing. That’s exactly right." Celia, Larry and Demetrios groaned. Ms. McGady hid a smile and handed Aaron two packages of homemade cookies. She gave everyone else one, including Sam. "You’ll need your strength," she teased him with a wink. "You’ve got quite a handful with these five."

  Sam blushed and looked down at the cookies. They were carefully wrapped in cellophane. She had taped an address label to the gathering point over a spray of black and orange curly ribbon. His label had a magic marker drawing of a grinning pumpkin on it. "Thanks, Ms.—five?"

  He turned and surveyed his group. Larry. Celia. Demetrios. Aaron. A princess.

  The little girl who had joined his group might be four years old. Most of her body weight had to be snarled black hair and smoke gray eyes. She scratched her head and her crown slipped down over her left ear. She brought her cookies to her bud-shaped mouth and tried to eat them through the cellophane.

  "Hold on there, fair maiden." Sam dropped to one knee before her. Where the hell were her parents?

  "I’m not going to take them," he promised, and she grudgingly loosened her grip so he
could open the wrapping. "What’s your name?"

  "Melanie," she managed through the cookie he handed back to her.

  "Okay, Melanie. Where’s your mom or dad?" Sam discovered a bobby pin hanging off the back of her collar and used it to straighten and secure her crown.

  She pointed across the street. The begonia tramplers were at another door, and two men stood smoking on the sidewalk, waiting for them.

  "Ms. McGady, can you keep my knights entertained for just a minute?"