by Nicole Givens Kurtz
It’s time. Nestled beneath the rolling peaks from the mountain ranges, honeycombs of caves spread out in their like swollen slugs providing shelter from the weeping clouds. Raoul emerged from one of those caves. He scratched his scalp beneath his thick dreadlocked hair and squinted against the rain pouring across the lands.
The black, whispery rain fell, chasing all indoors, turning the roads further down the city to a glistening dark. Desperation clung to each drop, splattering on the surface. Once, a bustling metropolis existed, but now, only disappointment remained. A hush blanketed everything. Only the rain’s soft drumming resonated throughout the valley, its melody rising up against the thick, humidity.
“Great. Monsoon season.” Raoul, a tall, athletic man, shrugged against the cold rain, bouncing off the trees and splattered onto him. The bleak morning stretched onward, hovering in its gloominess. He adjusted his hood, flexing his feet inside his rain boots. Parts of him felt stiff and others felt foreign. The dark skin held hints of coily hair.
Yet, different didn’t mean bad, but new. Raoul jumped up and down on the balls of his feet, before hunching back into his sweatshirt. From inside the cave’s mouth, he peered out across the city’s broken landscape of abandoned storefronts, flooded and cracked sidewalks, and gloomy pedestrians. He couldn’t see their faces from this distance, but their bodies spoke for them. Bent over, slow moving, they creeped along in the squall as if their spirits had been drenched with sadness and despair.
Despite the mournful mood, his spirit was glad. Today held special, no, important, meaning. After a long sleep, he’d awakened. He stepped further out, yanking on an old cover to protect his hair. With fluid familiarity, he slipped his knife, comfortable in its scabbard, into his front pocket. Who knew what or who he’d run into on the path down or better yet, when he got to town? He’d travel light, risking the saturation he’d get in favor of being able to survive. He’d already missed far too much of the events, if the declining and decrepit structures could be believed.
With a deep breath, he could hear his momma’s wisdom in his ear. Procrastination was the thief of time, and he’d wait no longer. The moment had come. He set out into the downpour, eyes squinting against the rain, but his heart brimming with determination.
Today was Halloween.
Raoul made his way down the muddy slope, through the squall, and onto a well-worn foot path, leading into the city from the caves. The concrete buildings, tall but weak, pressed in against him. They spoke of another time when they glistened with neon lights and dancing pumpkins. Now, they sat mournfully dark and glum.
He peered out from beneath the shadow. His shoulders slumped at how subdued and empty it seemed. Once he reached Brower Avenue, he spied the tell-tale signs of life. Smoke swirls wafted up against the rain. The acidic whiff of hidden compost and hints of fire and food swept along the air. He slinked through the near-empty streets. His stomach rumbled, but he would wait. Treats would soon satisfy his gnawing cravings. Someone would venture out once the dark thickened, having forgotten the importance of this day. When they did, he’d be there to greet them with open arms, a raw hunger, and a sharp weapon.
Afterwards, he’d start on the door-to-door rounds, hoping to encounter those who recalled the importance of the day, the old ways, the best ways of which it appeared some had forgotten. No orange and black parades or décor. No singing skeletons or black cats screeching. No witches. Though, Raoul doubted the last to be actually true. Witches had a way of blending in or hiding in plain sight. There were most likely still witches.
The abandoned streets of a once major metropolis unfolded in front of him. Already nature had begun to reclaim what wfrs. Thick, leafy vegetation crawled over defunct vehicles and concrete, sprouting up and oozing over cracked sidewalks and curbs. Braving the rain, early morning critters scurried along the path, sleek and slick, they blended in with the shadows and rain. The only thing visible was a flash of teeth or a blink of swift movement.
He didn’t know what happened to the others. When he woke, the memories had a haziness. He felt disjointed and disconnected from the times before. He remembered the décor, but little else. As unreliable as his memory had become, he didn’t know if it was how it had been or if it was how he wanted it to be.
Some spoke of a virus. One warring country deployed against the other in an effort to gain the upper hand in a battle already slippery from bloodshed.
Raoul’s ancestors believed the countries had deserted their peoples, leaving them to fight in a debate that had long outlived its mouthpieces. Even his grandparents had been ancient to Raoul and the older ones—the survivors–didn’t know when the wars ended. At some point, no one spoke of it anymore.
No treaty was signed.
No declaration of peace was announced.
the eerie silence and burning stench of hundreds of thousands dead. Even within their semi-protected valley, many had perished.
Raoul shook his head to shake himself loose of his musings’ hold. He tucked his chin into his hoodie against the rain. It rested in the past, out of his reach. Instead, he focused on the day. The one constant since his youth.
Raoul shook his head. He stood straight, lifting his chin. These people would celebrate the festival again. The ones who kept to the old ways and honored him would provide treats. They would be spared his wrath. No tricks for them.
He had something to give those who tried to deny him.
The cold smile on his face captured droplets of rainwater as it slid across his lips. The wind had picked up and now the rain fell at an angle, slanting and slapping into the buildings. It sounded like dry rice. Must be growing colder. The thought killed his grin. Colder weather meant folks would retreat into their homes, huddle against the fire, against each other. No, he needed them out and, in the streets, celebrating the return of Halloween!
He made a right and tumbled down into a residential street. An uneasy silence blanketed the neighborhood. He reached an abandoned single lane bridge. Already drenched, the cold rain made his hands numb. He flexed them to work out the creeping cold. All around him, the wet earth waited in hushed desperation. His gaze swept over the darkened doors, shut tight against the rain and the unknown. So much so he could feel it, a tangible need crawled over his skin. He had to stop himself from digging into his flesh to make it stop. The last time he did, he needed to do it. He’d nearly bled to death.
That had happened to him. He frowned. A haziness rose from where the memory should be. It blocked his access to the information as if it had been hacked. He fingered the scars along his right wrist, but soon pushed the jagged memory away.
Only the hushed fall of rain, drumming against metallic shingles and tiled roofs. He walked past narrow, gloomy alleys and side streets, occupied by shadows and overflowing rain barrels.
There! The crunch of rain boots on gravel and loosened concrete. With his ears pricked in warning, he slowed down his movements. His muscles tensed He inched back into the shadows crafted from the bridge’s coverage. Would he get treats? His mouth salivated at the promise and prospect. Yummy goodness would quiet his complaining stomach. With gritted teeth, he fingered his blade’s scarred leather scabbard, before taking it out. Small, but effective. A sigh, a short breath above the rain pattering on the pavement.
One pumpkin. Two pumpkin. Three pumpkin! He sprang from the gloom, white teeth, and clean knife glaring, slicing through the dimness. Tearing at the fiber of apathy and disdain.
“Trick or treat?!” He roared, his voice echoing off the bridge’s underbelly.
A weathered old man stumbled backward, eyes wide, eyebrows drawn upward in terror and mouth agape in surprise at the sight of him. His booted feet dragged, skinny, almost skeletal legs, with shoes too heavy to move as quickly as their owner wanted. The rubber soles stumbled on the dry pavement beneath the bridge.
“What?” The man’s wiry and wrinkled arms shot up to protect his face. With his chin quivering, he didn’t seem to be able to form words. Strips of white hair lay plastered to his nearly bald head.
“Trick or treat?” Raoul repeated. His belly rumbled in impatience.
But patient he had to be. To rush would be dishonorable.
“Uh, treat,” he said, lowering his arms, drawing a shallow breath. He reached into his rain-soaked pants pocket and removed a vial. With his hands shaking so much his rings clattered against the glass, he passed it to Raoul, who snatched it with eager hands making him yelp.
“Happy Halloween!” Raoul said, before cracking open the vial and dumping its contents into his wide, open mouth.
Some of the scarlet liquid dropped onto his nose and cheeks. He shouldn’t be so careless with the treats. With dirty nailed fingers, he swiped the fluid from his nose and sucked them clean. He grinned at the man with a bemused expression.
But the old man had pushed on, not braving one single look back. His boots slapped at the water puddles. He hurried away, back out into the downpour. They faded in his retreat.
Raoul gave a dismissive wave of his hands. Unconcerned. No matter.
Lips stained and stomach still rumbling like thunder, Raoul blinked back the fiery hunger. Now he’d eaten something, his mental fog had cleared. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, drawing a thin watery red streak across it. Nowhere near sated, he sighed. His shoulders sagged. The treat had been devoured much too fast. He didn’t savor it. Licking his lips for the remnants of it, he searched his surroundings.
He would need way more treats before the night waws over, and he had to return to the caves, until next year. No reason to panic. Not yet. Plenty of evening left. A grin curled the corners of his blood-stained mouth.
Plenty of time.
The weather shifted and the shower with it. Now, it had become more of a mist. Great. People would start to wander out of their little hidey-holes, thinking the rains had stopped. No, only a small pause. The area stank. Desperation was a terrible aroma.
Raoul pushed on, into the drizzle, veering away from the protection of the bridge’s overpass. His dreadlocks felt heavy against his back, but he couldn’t risk them getting wet. The power he held came from them, and tonight he needed all of his mojo. Sweat mixed with rain seeped into his eyes. He no longer felt cold. His body’s heat had turned up in response to the fuel the treats provided.
He stalked down the vacant street. With the slap of his boots against the puddles, he made enough noise to send those who sought to avoid him scurrying. Not the best tactic, but as was custom, he would go to their residences. His face distorted into a grin as giggles spilled out of the alleyway. A light, lyrical sound against the drab day.
Soon, a pair of lovebirds appeared at the alley’s end. The woman, with kohl-smudged eyes, stopped short. In one hand, she clutched a red umbrella. In the other, the hand of her lover, a much larger male, with a dark shirt and beady little eyes peered out from underneath it. She wore a satchel style purse swung across her torso. Faded and tattered, it held all she had. The male stopped short but didn’t carry anything.
In this dark and dreary place? Foolish. Raoul’s eyebrows raised, looking closer. His eyes burned. Beneath the man’s clothes, a lithe and nimble body spoke to a somewhat healthy diet and engagement with nature. Still, a hollowness rimmed his eyes and matted hair had not been cleaned, cut, or styled in years.
The petite woman swallowed hard, so loud, Raoul heard it and chuckled, as she took him in. Her eyes lingered around his face, over his wet skin, and the smirk on his lips. The woman appeared to have been pried out of bed and thrust into the wet, cold day. She lifted her chin in greeting.
“You on the prowl?” the man asked, forcing Raoul’s attention back to him. “We don’t have any food.” His free hand rolled tight into a fist. With his other, he guided the woman behind him. “So, sawget gone!”
Raoul nodded and removed his hands from his hoodie’s front pocket. With a loud clearing of his throat, he asked, “Trick or treat?”
The man’s eyebrows hunched down into a V, a furry caterpillar above his tiny, dark eyes. Raoul felt the man’s scrutiny. The man let go of his lover’s hand and balled his own into a fist.
“Don’t nobody get down with that crap anymore. Look around! We’re drowning! The gods have abandoned us.”
Raoul’s vision burned as the man’s words wormed their way into his ears, slithering into his mind, where they laid eggs, hatching out raw anger. Abandoned? The word held little meaning for him, and he discarded it. Tonight was his, and he wouldn’t let anyone sway his opportunity. He wouldn’t stomach the insolence.
In the blink of an eye, the dagger appeared in his fist, and he leapt forward, screeching, “Then TRICK!”
He plunged the blade into the man’s chest, feeling the sharp blade glide through flesh, through weakened muscle, and then wedging itself into bone. A rib maybe?
The woman screamed, backpedaling from the stabbing, from the violence, from the blistering truth of her situation. It sprayed Raoul’s face and the upper sections of his sweatshirt in warm, scarlet streams. He wrenched the weapon free, and chanted, “Trick or treat! Trick or treat!
A crimson blur unfurled as Raoul and the man crashed to the drenched ground. Raoul stabbing him over and over again. Once spent, he pushed himself up to his feet. The dagger’s slippery handle had caused him to cut himself, too. In the opened wound, a golden-orange light glowed. Raoul sucked his teeth. “Damn.”
He wiped the warm blood from his face and licked it from his fingers. He even tongue-cleaned the dagger’s surface, careful to avoid its sharp blade, but eager to not waste the treat.
A whimper interrupted the moment’s enjoyment. He released an ahhh. His gaze flickered toward the woman, a scowl transforming his features. She stood tight-lipped shuddering. Crouched down on her knees, a jar in her trembling hands, the wet curtain of hair hid her face. Her arms strained from the weight of her treat. The slick black coat shined from either blood or rain. Maybe both.
“What have we here?” Raoul tilted his head sideways, turning to face her. Like a silly black cat, she’d been frozen to the spot, unable to flee when given a chance. He could unleash another trick on her, but no. That wouldn’t be fair.
And yet, she didn’t flee even now. “You.”
She swallowed again at his brusque tone, hoisting the glass higher. “I offer my apologies! We—I—didn’t recognize you in your new costume, Great One. Here is my treat!”
Raoul wiped a hand over his face. Beside her, the satchel’s flap laid open. The jar contained a deep, red liquid. She shook/trembled/etc. If the lid wasn’t screwed on tight, the treat would slosh all over her hands. She stared at the ground, watching her lover’s blood leak out and combine with the now misting rain. It coupled on the pavement, pooling and congealing.
Raoul let out a frustrated breath. Fresh. He could tell by the vibrant color, and its warmth. Tiny bubbles of condensation littered the jar’s top closest to the lid. They weren’t ruined by the sloshing.
The woman offered an ample treat, indeed. He took it with long, blood-stained fingers, and brought it close to his nose. He inhaled deep and full, pulling the scent into his nostrils as if air to breathe. The coppery aroma tickled his sweet tooth.
His lips curved upward. This treat came from multiple donors, not one soul. A true treat indeed! She’d been prepared but had allowed her partner to die. His rough hands snatched her to her feet.
Yes! This will do.
He leaned down closer to the woman’s face. She flinched, but only just. Now, so close, mint on her breath, fear lacing her tongue.
“Happy Day!” He stood—the jar clutched in his fist.
With a last warning look, he set about his journey.
More treats awaited.
He started toward the central part of the once vibrant downtown, exiting the neighborhood.
Raoul found a secluded spot between two buildings with a narrow space between them. With the flick of his wrist, the jar’s lid came off, landing with a wet smack on the ground. Huddled beneath a tattered awning being eaten away by mold and driving rain. He took a long drag of it, feeling the lukewarm blood glide down his throat and into his belly.
When he paused, he looked around the wet brick, spied a few huddled people on the sidewalk. Hidden by dark plastic tarps, he’d missed them, so intent on consuming his treat. Now, he heard them, scurrying beneath the weather-ravaged plastic like restless insects. Spaced out along the sidewalk like slugs, these people dared the rain, and slept on the cold, wet pavement, sheltered inside their makeshift cocoons. When these people emerged from their internment, it wouldn’t be as beautiful, winged butterflies, but as ghosts, spirits leaving behind rail-thin husks of their former selves.
They had no treats to give, and tricks had already been visited upon them by Fate. No, these people’s treats had soured.
Raoul drained the rest of his treat, even licking the jar’s rim. He burped—his mouth flooded once more with the strong taste of copper. Tense, he rolled his shoulders to ease the bunched muscles. Sighing, he set the jar down on the ground. He had to pace himself.
He had a long, fun night ahead.
Rain continued despite the arrival of night. Pitched in darkness, Raoul slithered along the homes and streets, ringing dilapidated doorbells and banging rusty door knockers. Thunder crashed. No one hid in the dark recesses or nooks and crannies of the city. They’d hidden behind doors and cloaked themselves in a sense of security. Nevertheless, they gave him what he craved, or he gave them a trick. Trickin’ wasn’t easy, but damn, it could be fun.
Sated and sleepy, Raoul made his way back from where he came. Skinned knuckles and weary limbs dragged him down. He trekked up the muddy slope to the caves. Each step took energy he didn’t have. Raoul’s costume neared its end.
Today was glorious! He tasted the faint flavor lingering on his hips. Treats given in the spirit of ancient times. The people hadn’t forgotten. They clung to the old ways—the nostalgia of when the town was great and filled with festivals, trickin’ and treatin’ galore.
With a deep sigh of relief, he reached the cave’s threshold. He dropped to his knees, exhausted but satisfied. Raoul’s lids grew heavy. With effort, he rolled over, putting his back against the slick rock. He tilted his head back, and at last, gave in to the exhaustion. His eyelids lowered and did not open again.
Sated by treats, full and growing sleepy, he settled into the cave’s shelter once more.
Next time, he’d get a new costume.
About the Author
Nicole Givens Kurtz is an author, editor, and educator. She’s the recipient of the Ladies of Horror Grant (2021), the Horror Writers Association’s Diversity Grant (2020) and the two-time Atomacon Palmetto Scribe Award Winner (2021 and 2022). She’s a Bram Stoker finalist for her contribution to Sycorax’s Daughters. She’s also the editor of the groundbreaking anthology, SLAY: Stories of the Vampire Noire. She’s written for White Wolf, The Realm’s The Vela: Salvation series, and Baen. Nicole has over 50 short stories published as well as numerous novels and three active speculative mystery series. She enjoys reading scary stories and watching true crime.
About the Narrator
Devante‘ Johnson is an American voice actor and motion capture artist based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is known for his work in video games, podcasts, anime, audiobooks and commercials. With a passion for all things fiction and pop culture, he has taken this love and poured it into his love for acting. Beginning his career with theater and improv work in 2014, Devante‘ is equally comfortable on stage or behind a microphone. Devante‘ also has a great love for science and martial arts, with black belts in Shotokan Karate, Kyokushin Karate, Judo and Taekwondo. When not working, he also enjoys reading, gardening, ballet and soccer.