OYSTERBACK, Md. -- The orange and black crepe paper streamers flap in the chilled night air. The candle inside the jack-o-lantern is guttering down, making the wide grin look mean and sinister. It's as if old Jack sees something that you don't, those triangular eyes shifting this way and that with each spurt of the flame. That skeleton in the community center doorway is only paper, isn't it? It's a trick of the breeze, the way those bones dance and beckon to you. It's as if the skeleton is talking to that ghost hanging in the tree, the one that's supposed to be a sheet, but now -- with the mist rising -- it looks kind of like a spirit walking.
Candy corn dreams
The littlest trick-or-treaters, so full of sugar-powered energy and mischief a couple of hours ago, are now collapsed in drowsy heaps. Former mermaids and Power Rangers and pirates and little princesses sleep open-mouthed in daddys' arms.
An angel and a vampire are pushing wide old brooms around, making little piles of glitter and candy corn and paper cups on the empty floor. Delmar P.'s Accordionaires have packed up and gone, along with several witches, a goblin, Elvis and a duck blind that won first prize for best costume.
Outside, under the yellow-leafed trees, a gang of kids, too old for this baby stuff with the costumes and candy, but not too old to come down to the community center to see what's happening, has congregated in the darkness, and the mood is on them to plot some harm, orange ends of cigarettes glowing in the dark, the hiss of a contraband beer can being opened. Not really bad kids, you understand, just too many slasher movies and hopping hormones and too little parental supervision. Still, they jump a little when the voice comes out of the darkness.
"Some night, huh?"
It's Junie Redmond, hidden inside the rubber head of his Cryptkeeper costume, sitting on the fence in the darkness. They don't know how long he's been there, or what he's heard, but they sort of try to hide the beer cans. "Yeah," Junie continues casually. "Some night. You know, it's nights like this when the Crab Bait Killer walks."
"Oh yeah," Huddie Swann says, "and it's like he's suddenly appeared in the darkness, standing over there under the old oak." But you understand, these are cool kids, not afraid of anything, and they just stare sullenly. "The Crab Bait Killer," Huddie says, enjoying the sound of the words. "It was a night like this when we seen him, wuttnit Junie?"
"Oh, yeah. It was back with them Harbeson boys: Levin and Daniel. They lived in that old shack back down there in the marsh."
Even though no one wants to, they all look down the marsh, where the weather-beaten frame of an old shanty leans crazily toward the water; its gaping windows look like empty eye sockets in the moonlight.
"Lived out on that old marsh, just the two of them. Crazy old men. One cold night, just like this, Levin had a big fight with Daniel.
Took an old tonghead and stove in the back of Daniel's head," Junie says conversationally. "Just like you'd smash a pumpkin."
"And then, Levin took Daniel and chopped him all up and salted him down for crab bait," Huddie adds. "Used him all up on his trotlines."
"He baited up real good," Junie sighs. "Levin caught lots a crabs off ol' Daniel that fall."
"Then one night, Levin was settin' all alone down in the shanty, and he hears something comin' up outta the water."
From the river, there is a splashing sound. Probably just a bluefish, but a couple of kids jump.
"And he heard something that sounded like a person creeping up on the marsh."
Just then the wind rustles across the grass.
"And he heard something rattle at the shanty door latch. Levin opened the door. It was Daniel, come back! He was all black and shapeless and nasty, makin' this weird noise. He come back to get Levin."
One of the tougher boys mutters an obscenity under his breath, but everyone else is stock still as a light seems to flicker in the empty windows of the shanty.
Of course, it is just a trick of the water and the moon.
"Junie, you see that?" Huddie asks, horrified. "You see that light?"
"Oh, m'gawd! I think Daniel's walking again!" Junie cries.
A dark, limpy figure emerges from the shack, slowly shambling up through the marshes toward the community center. It's sort of limping and awkward, like its been dead and come back from beneath the water.
"It's coming this way!" Junie cries.
"Run!" Huddie shrieks.
One girl gives a little squeal, and two of the younger ones cut and run right there. The big ones stand their ground.
At least until the thing in the marsh gives a shriek. It's a high, unearthly wail, a sound that cuts through the night and right into your bone and blood. The dark shapeless form keeps on coming though, right toward them. It shrieks again, a sound like souls in hell.
Heading for home
Kids scatter in all directions. Gone, just like that. Not, of course, that anyone actually believes this stuff, but hey, it's time to get out of here and go home where it's safe.
Junie lights another cigarette, the flame casting his face into an eerie relief. He and Huddie don't move, but watch the thing approach them until the lights from the building fall across it.
"Works every time," Delmar P. says, folding his accordion against his chest. "Worked on us 20 years ago, works now."
"Not only that, they left their beer," Junie says, handing cans to Delmar P. and Huddie. "Still nice and cold."
"Here's to the Crab Bait Killer," Huddie says, lifting his beer.
Far off, down on the marsh, a small, lonely wind laments across the empty grass.
Helen Chappell is the amanuensis of Oysterback.