The teeth were too big for Maggie. The wax gums slipped along her molars and stabbed her flesh until she couldn’t bear it and took them out.
“Why’d you go and do that?” Brother Daniel asked. “No one’ll know what you’re s’posed to be.”
“They hurt.” she said, dropping the little rubber fangs into her pillow case candy sack. Her mouth relaxed. She was glad to get the things out. Other than the pain, the foamy spit that stuck inside the rubber fangs moved in and out with each breath and made her feel like the rabid dog that had been on tv last night. But altogether, Dan was right. Without the fangs, her basilisk costume fell into a well of scaly obscurity. Even with the teeth in, she’d had to explain to both Missus Dodson and dim little Craig Elner from next door that she was absolutely not a dragon to go along with her brother’s knight getup.
“I guess it doesn’t matter anyhow. We ought to head back soon.” Daniel fidgeted with his wrist watch. It had been a present for his birthday earlier that month and he had not stopped setting alarms and timing mundane activities – eating cereal, practicing times tables, using the bathroom. Maggie hated it, for it was a traitor and blared out the exact second their nightly hour of television was over. Mother sometimes forgot her rule about the tv and, on those occasions, Maggie could catch another episode of Dateline.
Dan’s watch, on the other hand, never forgot the hour tv rule.
“Another 21 minutes and 37 seconds. We should be able to hit a few more houses.” “Can we go to Mr. Riley’s? He always gives out the big Kit-Kats.”
“You know he doesn’t live there any more.” They’d reached the corner of Walnut and Forks Street. Dan held onto his sister’s scaly sweatshirt to keep her from stepping off the curb and in front of a Subaru.
“I know, but still.”
The truth was she missed Mr. Riley. Yes, he was old and pale like a peeled potato, speckled with sunspots, and smelled like chalky vitamins. But he’d had a small dog that couldn’t see and would bump into Maggie’s shins when it wanted to be held. And Mr. Riley had a library
like the one from Beauty and the Beast. He’d let her borrow any book she wanted, even his pretty antique hardbacks. Maggie rarely read any of these, but it was nice to have things. Having Mr. Riley for a neighbor was like having two houses and twice as much stuff. She wondered if he was as good a neighbor to Jesus and Grandpa Henry as he had been to her. She also hoped that the newest resident of Walnut would share Mr. Riley’s generous spirit.
The house was dark. Mr. Riley’s carnival glass lamp no longer glowed in the front window. Instead, a yellow cat, similar in size and shape to the pumpkins she and Dan had carved that evening, glared at them from behind the glass. The cat’s eyes followed them up the stone steps like a painting in a haunted house. It obviously was not blind like Mr. Riley’s dog. Dan knocked.
Maggie watched the costumed kids charging up and down the street. A cluster of clowns stood under a stop sign, rummaging through the jack-o’-lantern buckets. Maggie had always wanted one of those buckets. Or maybe even ones shaped like Frankenstein’s head. But these fell
into the category of “wants.” Wants came from Maggie’s allowance while Mother handled the “needs.” Besides, Dan told her they could carry more candy in a pillowcase. And candy was really what the night was all about.
A breeze blew the cold scent of wet leaves over her skin and rattled the wooden chimes that hung over the porch. The hollow notes sounded like bones to Maggie and she felt a prickle in the center of her spine.
“C’mon. Let’s try another.”
Maggie knocked herself. They were here and they would get their treat, by gum. She felt her precious 21 minutes slipping away, but found she was too determined to move on. Not until her knock was answered and she got what she came for.
Or until the watch beeped.
Maggie waited. Her eye returned to the window and saw the cat was gone. Without so much as a footfall from within, the door swung open. A woman stood in the shadow beyond. She rubbed a translucent hand over her eye. Her white hair stood out to one side, as though she was a photo taken in a gust of wind. Maggie expected a voice like a screeching tire from the old woman, but was surprised when a deep, warm drawl rolled from her withered lips.
“Sorry bou’ that. Dozed off a’front the telly.”
Dan and Maggie hesitated a moment before stuttering, “Trick-or treat?”
“Right right.” said the woman. She patted the sides of her plaid nightgown and glanced in the empty space around her. Then, she trotted away into the dark. “Bowl’s in the den. Come in then, if ya like.”
Maggie didn’t like – not the odd way the woman talked, nor the prospect of venturing into a stranger’s house – but her treat was in there and if she was going to get it and more before that blasted alarm went off, she couldn’t hesitate again.
The hall was dark but a soft glow led her into the den. A fire was burning in what used to be Mr. Riley’s library. Maggie did not remember Mr. Riley having a fireplace, but it must have been there. A single rocking chair wavered in front of an ancient television that, to Maggie, looked like a portal to a black and white farm where a tornado swept over the fields.
Shelves that had once been overcrowded with books were now sparsely dressed with oddities. There were books, yes, but old sodden looking ones that Maggie would never think to borrow. A large stuffed crow peered from above, its mouth open as if it were screeching at them. Countless jars with every color plant and flower lined the shelves in no order, like teeth crowded in a small mouth. Some of these plants, too, looked as though they had eyes. Dark and piercing like needles behind the glass. Hungry eyes. Ready to bite.
The woman hobbled over to her chair, her cat slipping between the shadows beside her where the firelight didn’t reach. Dan watched the animal, as though it were a spider on his bedroom ceiling. As though he did not trust it to look away in case it vanished or pounced.
Maggie only had eyes for the woman and the large ceramic bowl she lifted onto her lap. Maggie hoped for Kit-Kats or Twix bars. When her eyes finally fell on the “treats,” she bristled.
“That’s right.” said the woman, although right came out royt. “Better for ya than all that rubbish.” she nodded to Maggie’s pillowcase, then lifted her cloud grey eyes to Maggie’s young, unscourged ones and smiled. “And just as sweet.”
Maggie wanted to oppose this vehemently, but Dan stepped between her and the woman’s thunderstorm stare. He took an apple, dropped it into his sack, and hurried back into the hall. “Thank you!” It seemed Dan was similarly aware of their time constraints. “Go on.” the woman tipped the bowl to Maggie.
“That’s not candy.” the little girl said. Now she was bitter. Now she had a point to make. “No.” the woman took one of the fruits herself and pressed it to her nose with a deeply, graveled inhale. “It’s better. Sweet and cold and natural as you or I. That there -” again nodding to Maggie’s sack. “That’ll rot your teeth right out of your pretty little head. It’ll rot you, all right.”
Once more the woman offered the bowl. The apples hardly looked appetizing. Yellow splotches stained red and dirt danced around the stems. They looked as though they had been taken from the ground around a tree rather than plucked from one.
Maggie made a face. “No thanks.”
“Your mama hasn’t taught you manners yet, eh?” Maggie said nothing. The woman took Maggie’s hand and pressed the apple into her palm. Her thumbnail dug into the little girl’s wrist until she closed her hand around the fruit. “There now. Good girl. If I were you, I’d eat this before having any junk. That stuff is nothing but rot.”
Maggie followed Dan down the porch steps. He ate his apple as they carried on. He implored her to try hers.
“Honey-crisps are real good, Mags. Best kinda apples there are.”
“Mr. Riley wouldn’t have given us apples.”
Dan didn’t argue. They tried another house and took some Nerds from a bowl left out on the porch and went home. They beat the watch by two minutes.
At the kitchen table, Dan and Maggie took up their post trick-or-treat ritual of trading goodies. Two of Dan’s Kit-Kats for one of Maggie’s green Laffy-Taffies – his favorite. A Snickers bar for a Blowpop and so on. When all was sorted, Maggie dug in, ripping wrapper after wrapper and sucking chocolate from her fingers. Dan didn’t touch his pile. He went to the living room and watched the street grow quiet. Soon, there were only teenagers stumbling between parties. The girls wore small costumes that did not look warm enough and the boys carried masks in their hands. They bored Dan. When he returned to the kitchen, Maggie had already eaten a good portion of her sweets. And, Dan thought without much anguish, a few of his own.
“Don’t ya want any?” Maggie asked, Twizzler mush swishing between her teeth and staining her lips.
“Not now. I’ll save it.”
Maggie shrugged and ate some more. She went to bed late. Sugar and delight curled her lips as she slept.
The next morning, Maggie stood in the bathroom mirror. She pushed a bottom tooth forward with her tongue and felt a whip of satisfaction when it popped back into place. Losing a tooth meant the tooth fairy. The tooth fairy meant a dollar and a dollar meant a candy bar from the gas station.
Dan was in the living room, watching cartoons and eating oatmeal.
“Work.” he said.
Maggie explained the situation. Her brother got up and led her back to the bathroom where he took the floss from the drawer and tied a string of it around the wiggly tooth. He wrapped the other end around the door knob.
Maggie asked with her mouth open. “Ih ih gon hur?”
“Not too much.” Dan said and slammed the door.
There was no pain and no blood. But a shriek rattled the bathroom walls and made Dan go white.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?!”
“It’s not me.” Maggie said as the shrieking continued.
Maggie let her mouth hang open and Dan peeked inside. He was glad to find no blood, but in her gum where the tooth had been, a small black eyed face blinked up at him. “Wha ih ih?”
“There’s a – a…”
The tiny face opened and shrieked again. Dan jumped away from his sister. Maggie scrambled unto her stool and looked again in the mirror.
The tiny creature in her gums seemed just as surprised to see her as she was to see it. “Is this normal?” she asked her brother. Dan had turned a pale green and was shaking his head and quivering. “Should we pull it out?”
The creature wailed in protest. Dan covered his ears. His lips had turned white and Maggie thought he might hit the floor soon.
“Well what then?” she asked her tiny resident. The creature poked its head from her gum socket. He was smaller than her baby teeth, but similar in color. His dark eyes blinked at his own reflection. He opened and closed his mouth repeatedly.
“You’re hungry?” Maggie asked. It nodded.
Maggie went to the kitchen and leaned her head into the fridge so her guest could view its options.
“We have eggs.” Shriek. “Toast?” Shriek. “Lunch meat?” Shriek. “Oatmeal?” Shriek. Maggie closed the door and ran a hand over her face. The pillowcase of goodies was still on the table. She took it to her room and dumped it on the bed. “You want candy?”
Maggie couldn’t see, but she thought she heard the creature clapping its tiny bone hands. She put the old woman’s apple aside on her nightstand and sat among the treats. She smiled and began to eat.
Dan stood in the doorway watching.
“He likes candy.”
Dan glowed with sweat but said nothing.
Maggie munched on her goodies until she’d had her fill, but when she stopped the creature shrieked so loud it rattled the bed frame. She ate more and each time she laid back on her pillows or tried to wash the sugar down with a glass of water, the noise from her gums became unbearable. Her guest cried and stomped and kicked in her mouth. It hurt her gums and her ears, but she didn’t want to eat anymore. The candy sat like a balloon full of concrete in her gut. The guest, however, would not let her stop.
Eventually, Dan had to bring in his own pillowcase and dump it on the bed, like an offering in church. Maggie continued to eat. Soon, she was weeping. She would pause, beg the little resident to be satisfied and it would retort by gnawing on her tongue.
When Dan’s candy too grew sparse, he rode his bike to the gas station and bought what he could with their allowances. It was a lot. Candy was cheap after Halloween. “I think we oughta try and pull it out.” he said.
The creature stuck its jaws into Maggie’s cheek. Dan got the pliers. Maggie sobbed as he yanked, his foot on the bed for support. The creature held tight, ripping the flesh from Maggie’s cheek with every pull.
“It hurts. It hurts.” she cried. Her other teeth had grown loose and small bony hands crawled out from beneath each one.
Maggie ate a whole bag of fun size chocolates when the second tooth popped out and another angry, bone face shrieked for Skittles. Pretty soon, Maggie’s wails of pain and exhaustion were on par with her guests’.
“Please.” she cried over and over. “Please. Please stop it. Please let me stop.” They didn’t. Maggie ate. Her stomach felt tight and hot. She threw up in the bathroom sink. They still didn’t let her stop. Her jaw tired from chewing, but if she slowed down, the creatures bit her lips.
A third tooth fell out and a third creature joined their hungry chorus. Maggie stopped unwrapping the treats and began swallowing them whole.
Dan tried to pull the creatures out once more, but they pierced their claws into the back of Maggie’s throat. She coughed blood onto her sweat tangled bedsheets. The candy was running out.
Still, they did not relent.
“I – I don’t know what to do.” Dan held his shaking sister. Her head burned his chest, and her blood stained his shirt as the creatures’ screams stabbed the children’s eardrums. Dan pet his sister’s hair and blinked his watery eyes. On the nightstand, a soft splotch of read glowed beyond
the tears. He reached for it. The apple was cold. The yellow-red skin seemed too perfect to be real, like it was painted by a master. A perfect, untouched talisman.
He held it out to Maggie and told her to eat. Her teeth felt weak – not up to the task, but Dan pushed it into her face.
Her teeth ached in protest, but the screaming stopped. When she pulled her lips away, the bone colored golems wiggled into the apple’s skin. They burrowed in and coiled their rotting bodies into the fruit until they looked like maggots.
It was quiet. The room was sour with the smell of sweat and tears and plastic tasting chocolate. Maggie’s remaining teeth were loose, but the hands that had pushed from underneath were gone. They were all gone.
She labored to the bathroom. Her face was a Pollock of chocolate, blood, and vomit. Dan helped her into the shower. She puked twice more and watched the sludge ooze down the drain, but she felt lighter. Slimmer. She swished with mouthwash, not wanting to risk brushing.
“It was her.” Maggie said to her brother as he tucked her into his bed, as hers was spoiled. “It was the woman in Mr. Riley’s house. She’s a witch.”
“Hush, Mags. There’s no such thing. Besides,” He kissed her head. “It’s over now.” But Maggie felt it wasn’t.
When Dan left her in the dark, she thought she felt eyes slipping in and out of the shadows. Starring from a large, yellow head.
The front door hit the wall when mother came home. “I brought take-out! Who’s hungry?”
One of Maggie’s baby teeth gave a wiggle.