Today’s story comes from longtime October Ghosts contributor, Chris Pauley.
This comes from Chris as to why he was inspired to write Trick or Treat:
I was looking to do something that was a little different than your regular ghost story. So, I thought of what scared me the most. I couldn’t imagine losing a child. What could be worse? Well, what if you literally lost a child and his or her fate was ambiguous? Maybe they’re alive? Are they hurt? Are they scared? Do they need me right now? The not knowing – not really knowing what happened and not being able to do anything to help or to change what had happened would drive me insane. How does your life go on after that? How is anything ever normal again?
Trick or Treat
Written by Chris Pauley
“I saw him, yesterday.” She looked at me, waiting for a response. “When I was at Whole Foods. I was getting some dinner at the prepared foods counter – just some veggie lasagna – whatever, and I saw him out of the corner of my eye. “ She took a cautious sip of her green tea and continued. “I know what you’re going to say so you can just keep it to yourself. He was there, okay? I saw him!”
“Okay. I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“I did. I’m – God, I know how it sounds but if I don’t get it off my chest …” She blew some of the steam off the top of her drink and took another sip. “It’s stupid, I know. But he was really there. Wearing his 49ers jersey. He had his jeans rolled up at the bottom like he used to do. Remember? So he could show off his Star Wars shoes.”
I reached out and held my soon to be ex-wife’s hand.
“Jesus, I made such a scene.” Her face turned a crimson red.
“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want –“
She waved me off. “I called after him. I dropped everything, the basket of groceries, the lasagna – I scared the shit out of the woman next to me.” She started to giggle. “Just, dropped everything and ran after him. I ran down the aisle and there he was! Right in front of me. Only he was facing the other way. I ran up to up to him, spun him around and I was, like –‘Aaron! Aaron it’s me!’”
“Oh, no.” I winced at the thought.
“I did! Spun him right around ready to gobble him up – ‘Aaron, baby. It’s Mommy! It’s Mommy! I’ -…” Her eyes glazed over and seemed sink back into their sockets. All the flushed color in her face faded into a dull grey. She brushed a stray curl off of her cheek.
“I didn’t even notice the woman standing next to him – clearly his Mom. Didn’t even see her, I was so tuned in on him, you know? I mean, to who I thought was him but…” She let out an embarrassed cackle. “You should have seen the look on her face. No joke. I thought she was going to deck me. Just haul off and kick my ass! If I were her, if some nut case had come up and grabbed… I would have hit me. But she didn’t. She pulled him close to her, shielding him from me like I was radioactive. ”
“What did you do?”
“What do you mean what did I do? I was mortified! I blabbered out some half-assed apology and got the hell out of there.” She took another sip from her tea and then, with a smile “Not sure I’m going to be doing much shopping there for a while!”
They say that losing a child feels a lot like you’re drowning. I can definitely attest to that. The fear, the pain, the guilt becomes overwhelming and starts to pull you under like a strong rip tide. The more you struggle the worse it gets. The grief chokes the air out of your lungs. You can’t see anything past what’s happening to you right there at that moment. And much like drowning, when you start to go under, it’s quite likely you’ll also drag down the person who’s trying desperately to save you.
Often when the subject of my missing son came up in conversation, people felt compelled to talk or to offer their apologies and their well-intentioned compassion. Just nervous chatter, really. What happened to my son made other people jittery. I had been on the receiving end of this often enough, so I knew to just keep quiet. Let the moment pass. Lauren didn’t need me to say anything, anyway. Just shut up and be her soundboard. I owed her that much. We only recently started to be civil with each other again and I enjoyed spending time with her. She also didn’t need to know that I saw Aaron, too. I saw him all the time in fact. According to some of the other parents at my support group, this was fairly common, though I’m not quite sure they realize quite how often it was that I saw him. “It’s just a manifestation of what your mind wants to see,” they’d say. A cruel trick the mind plays on you to remind you of what’s been lost. “Were you having a good day today? Oh, that’s nice. Hey remember your son? Yeah, he’s gone now. Or is he? Hey look over there!”
The first time it happened to me, I was driving by the Dunkin Donuts where Aaron and I used to go get our glazed donuts every Saturday morning. I was driving by, my mind lost in the song on the radio when, out of the corner of my eye – BOOM! There he was. Walking out of DD’s with a box of sweets. I nearly rear-ended the guy in the pick-up in front of me, who made sure I knew how pissed he was at me by vigorously flipping me off in his rear view mirror. Of course by the time I looked back to where I had first seen Aaron moments before, he was gone. That didn’t stop me from walking up and down the blocks around the area for hours afterwards, popping into each store along the way to see if I could spot a glimpse of him. Anything. Any hint that my boy, missing now for over two years, might against all odds still be living in the same area as he did when he and his Mom and I were happy.
That night I had terrible difficulty sleeping. This wasn’t unusual. After Aaron disappeared I would often find myself awake at all hours of the night, watching re-runs of old sitcoms or re-reading the day’s newspaper. My mind wouldn’t keep still so I needed something to settle it. Anyway, that night I was more manic than usual. I was completely shaken by what I had seen – or what I had thought I had seen. I was only starting to come to terms with what had happened and seeing him… well… seeing him had brought back all the crazy thoughts and pains that I now associated with him. Lauren had already moved out so I had no one available to unleash my venom upon.
Aaron and I were trick or treating with some of his friends, the night he went missing. Lauren was working late so we decided that we’d stay out until just after the streetlights came on. Then we’d head back home to pop some popcorn and watch a scary movie. Aaron promised his mom that he’s save all the Peanut Buttercup candies for her. She was his favorite. Mommy made everything better. They had a connection that I always felt he and I were missing. He’d do anything for her; even give up his favorite candies because he knew she had a big sweet tooth.
Anyway, we were out trick or treating and it was getting dark. The streets and sidewalks were starting to fill up with little superheroes and zombies. Aaron was running up ahead with his friend Marcus while I hung back with Marcus’s dad, Lyle. Lyle was regaling me with a story about his fantasy football team when Marcus reappeared next to us without my son. It took me a moment before I realized that Marcus was alone. The neighborhood was safe. We were only a few blocks away from our house and we knew most of the people who were out that night. Aaron would be back in a moment.
This by the way, was the moment that continues to wreck me to this very day. Why the FUCK, didn’t I ask his little twerp of a friend where my son was? Why didn’t I stop everything right then and there and go look for him. Say something like “You know what, Lyle? I don’t give a shit about your fantasy team, nor do I care about the amount of points you left on your bench because you thought the Rams defense was ‘for real’. You’re boring as hell and right now I’m going to look for my boy.” But I didn’t say this. Instead I let another couple of minutes go by. And then, oh boy, and then when Aaron hadn’t yet returned…
“Hey, Marcus. Where’s Aaron?”
“Wasn’t he with you just a minute ago?”
“I’m sure he’ll be right back.” Lyle chimed in. “What house did you just come from buddy?”
Marcus pointed in the direction of the street in front of us. Nowhere specific. So I walked up to the first house on our right to see if he was there. Nothing.
“Aaron? Aaron, buddy, I can’t see you. Come on out!”
More kids in costumes were walking by. When did the street get so busy? Lyle and Marcus walked up to the next house to investigate while I crossed the street to see if I could spot my son. Nothing. I rang the doorbell and knocked on the door. A woman dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein appeared in the doorway with a big smile on her face. It faded when she saw me.
“Excuse me, have you see a little boy, about seven years old, wearing a green ninja turtles costume? He was carrying a yellow candy bag.”
“Um. I don’t believe so. But I’ll keep an eye out for him if you like.”
“Yes. Please. I’m sure he’s just a couple houses ahead, but… if you could do that, I’d appreciate it.”
“Of course, hon.”
It went like this for the next few houses. Each stop made me more and more uneasy. “C’mon, Aaron, this isn’t funny. Come on out please! Game over, okay?”
Aaron knew not to hide from us when we were away from the house. He learned that lesson years before when we went to the mall and he decided to hide from me inside a clothing rack at a department store. One moment he was there and then the next, he wasn’t. It wasn’t until I had spent several tense minutes pacing around in circles calling out his name and the store’s manager had gone to the back of the store to check the security footage that he revealed his hiding spot. I was petrified but he believed his little joke to be hysterical. He didn’t know that his game of hide and go seek made me feel like throwing up all over the floor. He couldn’t figure out why I looked so sweaty and pale and why everyone who was calling his name a moment before was now looking at him like he was a very bad boy and at me like I was a very bad, Dad. He didn’t know how scary that game was then, but he knew it now. And I was certain he wouldn’t be so cruel as to try the same thing again. And that’s when I started to panic.
Lyle and Marcus walked up and down the street calling out for him. More people on the street joined our little search party and before I knew it the police had been called. We checked every house on the street before we extended our search to the adjacent blocks. More police arrived as well as the fire department. Half a dozen different officers asked me what had happened and if I had any information that could help them with what might be going on.
“Does he have any friends or family that live in the area? Could he have gone to see them? Have you checked back at your house? Sometimes the kids just decide to head home and not tell anyone.” They asked me more and more questions and as time went on the questions they asked became more sinister. “Were you with him while he was walking door to door? How long was it before you noticed he was missing? Have you noticed anything or anyone suspicious in the neighborhood recently? Did anything happen that would make him want to run away? A fight at home perhaps?”
They wouldn’t say it out loud but their subtext was pretty clear: “You didn’t keep an eye on your son? On a night where every other stranger on the street is wearing a mask and tempting kids with candy, you didn’t keep an eye on your son?!”
The more questions they asked the more my head began to spin. Visions of my son running away from an invisible horror kept invading my brain. He was terrified. Tears streaming down his face and running away as fast as his small legs would carry him from a black dense fog filled with hungry skeletal fingers that would reach out and slash at his back. He was just out of reach but he was getting tired and he knew it. He couldn’t run forever and the moment he slowed down, even a little bit, the earth would slowly rise up over him. The more he struggled the worse it would get. He would scream and cry and beg for his Mommy and Daddy to come save him but no matter how much he wailed and cried the ground would engulf him and swallow him whole
“Have you called your wife? Is it possible that he’s with her right now?”
This question snapped me back to reality. Calling her was something that I had been avoiding. On the one hand it was possible, albeit unlikely, that Lauren, while driving back from work had seen, Aaron, picked him up, and had taken him home. Could she have been so thoughtless that she wouldn’t have called to tell me that she had him? It’s possible. I mean anything was possible. And really I would have rather believed anything other than what I had feared was happening. But still I hesitated calling her because if he was not with her, and deep down I knew he wasn’t, I would have to break the news to Lauren that her baby boy wasn’t with me. That he had slipped into the ether. I didn’t want to make that phone call. Telling her would make this all… real. Surely this was all a misunderstanding and we would find him on the curb in front of one of these houses eating from his candy bag and wondering what all the fuss was about. But after another hour of searching, Lauren called me wondering what was taking us so long and then the cat was out of the bag.
The rest of a night was a blur: more police interviews, endlessly walking down street after street knocking on doors, dozens of phone calls from concerned family and friends (how had the news gotten out so soon?) until a kind police woman named Jennifer told Lauren and I that there wasn’t anything more that we could do at this time, so we should leave. “We’re going to stay out here and keep looking.” She said. “But you two should go back home and try to get some sleep. We’ll call you the moment we learn anything.”
Go home? What were we going to do at home? Aaron wasn’t at home. I need to look for my son! That vision again filled my head: Aaron running for his life with death nipping at his heels. He was crying and afraid and he was alone.
“No fucking way am I going home.”
“I understand what you’re saying, sir but there really is nothing more that can be done right now. The best thing you can do for yourselves and for each other is to go home and get some sleep.”
I put up a fight. Leave my son? Insane. Absolutely insane. He was going to come home with me. He’d be so tired when we found him he’d want to go home to sleep in his bed with all his stuffed animals and extra pillows. He’d need me there to carry him home and tuck him in. And when he woke up we’d eat all the Halloween candy that he collected for breakfast. And afterwards if he were still hungry I’d make his favorite meal: blueberry pancakes. And when he ate his fill we’d curl up in bed underneath the sheets and watch Pokémon on my phone. And we’d hug him and kiss him and tell him how much we love him and how amazing he is and that he was never going to leave the house again. Ever. We’d live there, the three of us and we’d never let anything scary ever come near our boy again.
But eventually we left. We went home and cried, and fought and blamed each other and then cried some more.
It was a little more than a year later when he showed himself to me outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts. After that I started to see him more frequently. He’d be leaving the kitchen as I walked in or I’d see him running down the street in the morning to catch the school bus as I was pulling my car out of the driveway. Sometimes when I’m watching one of our old favorite movies like The Lion King or Star Wars, I’ll see him out of the corner of my eye watching from across the room. I’ve stopped trying to catch up with him. I’m happy for the moments that he makes an appearance. It makes the days a little more bearable. Also, I think by my letting him be, he feels more comfortable to stop by assuming it’s really him and not my brain playing those funny tricks. It’s just a guess but it makes sense to me.
Now, sitting here across from Lauren outside of our favorite coffee shop, I see that Aaron’s starting to show himself to her too. I feel happy for her. It’s a little crazy, I know and it’s going to torture her at first but I think she too will come to appreciate these little moments that he’s with her. She needs it. She misses her baby boy.
Maybe one day he’ll stay a little longer. Maybe one day he’ll be brave enough to say something. Or maybe one day I’ll realize that he was never there at all and that I’m starting to go a little nutty. Maybe. In the meantime I’ll take what I can get.
Chris Pauley: This is the third year that Chris has taken part in the October Ghost series and he is very thankful to Trevor for asking him to be a part of it. Chris lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young sons where he works as a commercial and voiceover artist.