Nobody goes to the Old Fig Garden neighborhood on Halloween any more.
When I was a kid, papier-mâché witches rested tired broomsticks in the treetops. Vast front lawns were bedecked with Styrofoam tombstones. Elaborate jack o’ lanterns grimaced from front porches swathed in fake cobwebs. Parents would bring children to the area by the truckload as the last traces of day smeared the western sky every October 31st and watch as mini vampires and pirates scampered from one grand old house to another, collecting pumpkin pop tarts and dollar bills.
Now on All Hallow’s Eve the neighborhood’s gracious homes lie dark and unwelcoming. No cardboard bats flit stapled to the bare branches of the oaks. No store-bought zombie hands reach up from the piles of fallen leaves.
I know why. I was there the night everything changed.
Consuela, Tawnia, and I were the Three Musketeers that year, complete with wide brimmed hats decked with ostrich feathers and painted on mustaches. We had just scored a bag of fair-trade malted milk balls and five bucks each at a plantation style mansion, and we were cackling over how everyone had said we were too old for this now that we were thirteen. Boy, were they missing out!
“We are way too old for this,” said a deep guy’s voice from somewhere behind us.
“And we look like idiots.” That was a girl’s voice, low and unhappy.
I turned my head to see who was talking as we continued down the sidewalk. My friends did the same. We saw a group of four teenagers, older than us, sixteen at least, emerging from a pick up truck in the coolest costumes I’d ever seen.
The person striding in front of the group was short like me, and she looked like a five-foot tall rat walking on its hind legs until I focused and saw she was just a girl in a suit made out of brown-gray fuzzy blanket. Behind her loomed a huge grizzly bear who, when I blinked hard, was actually a very tall, broad-shouldered boy with long straight black hair and cheekbones you could cut yourself on. He was wearing what looked like a fluffy brown rug and a snout made from a pinecone. Next to him stood a six-foot tall bald eagle. Except the eagle was really an angular boy in a beaked mask covered with white feathers and large cardboard wings strapped to his arms. Behind them skulked a silver wolf – or rather a girl in a cleverly cut up bit of gray carpet.
“Idiots don’t collect candy and money for free.” The rat girl asked, pulling out a canvas bag and shaking it. “My candy stash is running low, and so’s my cash stash.”
Behind the yellow beak mask, the eagle’s voice was sharp. “Isn’t the whole point of Halloween to dress up as something you’re not?”
“My whole point is that shifters don’t celebrate Halloween.” The grizzly boy’s comment came out like a grunt.
I looked at Tawnia and mouthed, “Shifters?”
She shrugged, whispered, “Some kind of gang?”
“Halloween’s what humdrums do because they’re scared of things like us,” said the wolf girl with a touch of disdain. “I’m perpetuating negative stereotypes tonight against my will.”
“You look great,” said the rat girl. “Can’t believe how good you are with a needle, Wolfie. These costumes will score me—I mean, us some mega-goodies for sure. “
They went on talking, something about the full moon and shadow, walking about thirty feet behind us until the wolf girl hissed, “Shut up! Those mundanes will hear us.”
It took me a second. Then I realized - she meant us!
Silence fell. Tawnia, Consuela, and I moved closer together and sped up our pace. I wished the rapier at my side was made out of steel rather than wood. Consuela’s mom was listening to an audio book a few hundred feet down the street in her SUV, a phone call away. But something about the animal teens (I couldn’t help thinking of them that way) spooked me.
Don’t be silly, I told myself. That’s just Halloween. And you’re too old for that stuff.
As we approached the next house, terrible screams shredded the air. We halted as a stream of little kids in sheets and black capes ran thumping away from the dark dwelling, yelling for their mothers.
We couldn’t help laughing.
“Remember that time that lady dressed up like a zombie and jumped out of the bushes at us as we walked up her steps?” Tawnia asked. “That was awesome.”
“Whatever these people have planned will be no match for the Three Musketeers!” Consuela slipped her sword out of her belt to hold it high.
Tawnia and I did the same, clicking the foil-covered wood tips together. They gleamed in the moonlight as we shouted, “All for one and one for all!”
I felt a rush of happiness. We were too old to be terrified by silly tricks any more. Too old, I told myself, to be scared by older teenagers in better costumes talking weirdly. United, swords still out, we strode as one up the cracked walkway to a tall, crooked house, too full of ourselves to notice that it didn’t have any witches in the trees or pumpkins in the window. Nothing but a sliver of light leaked from behind the curtains as the wind sent the broken-seated porch swing creaking.
We marched up the steps in a martial rhythm, the four animal teens not far behind. The front door swooped open. Light blazed out, casting the looming figure of a man into silhouette.
We couldn’t see his face, but we were prepared and unafraid. We held out our bags and chanted, “Trick or treat!”
He was holding something long and narrow in both hands, and he did something to it that made a loud cha-chunk noise. I paused, not quite believing it. The lamplight from the doorway gleamed off the metal barrel. It was a shotgun. And it looked very real.
“Get the hell off my property, you stupid kids!” His voice was rough. His upper teeth flashed as he snarled. “Damned holiday – I’ve had enough! If my doorbell rings one more time, I swear something’s gonna get shot. Now leave me alone!”
That’s not funny, I thought, too terrified to move. I heard nothing but a frantic, chest-shaking thump that must’ve been my heart. It had to be a joke. A terrible joke.
Then the man pointed the gun up at the wooden roof of his own porch and fired. The report slammed into my head like a punch. The gun recoiled deep into his shoulder, and chips of wood rained down around us. “I said get out of here!”
Tawnia screamed, a high-pitched wail of pure panic I’d never heard from her before. She backed away, shaking her head, missed the first step down and fell over backwards. Her cry abruptly cut off.
Consuela whimpered, turned and ran after her, yelling “Tawnia! Tawnia!”
I couldn’t even turn to see if Tawnia was okay. Couldn’t walk backwards, couldn’t make a sound, couldn’t breathe.
The man’s eyes traveled from the commotion on the steps back to me. His eyebrows lowered, a deep line furrowed between them. “Didn’t you hear me, girl?
I opened my mouth. I wanted to say “Yes. Yes, I heard you. I’m sorry. I’ll go now. Bye, and thanks for not killing me.”
But no sound would come.
He lowered the gun to point it right at me. “I got a right to –“
The man stopped mid-word, his eyes popping open. As one, he and I turned our heads toward the menacing rumble.
There by the broken porch swing crouched an enormous wolf, much bigger than any wolf should be, its thick fur shining silver in the moonlight.
My skin erupted in goose bumps. If the sight of a gun had scared me stiff, that was nothing to the shocking otherness of the wolf. I’d never seen anything so beautiful, or so terrifying. Its eyes, an eerie blue, glowed radioactively at the man with the gun.
Not at me. At him.
The man inhaled noisily. His hand tightened on the shotgun. I had a sudden, insane desire to shout a warning to the wolf.
As the man swung the gun toward the animal, its eyes shifted from him to something behind him. It looked almost… pleased. The hair on the back of my neck rose.
I forced myself to turn, to look. A few feet away stood a grizzly bear the size of Consuela’s mom’s SUV. Its blond-tipped brown fur rippled over thick padded muscle. Its shining black eyes were fixed on the man’s back.
My throat went dry. My scalp to wanted to leap off the top of my head. I stumbled back, but the bear paid me no mind.
The man, aiming at the wolf, tightened his finger on the shotgun’s trigger. The bear stood on its hind legs with an uncanny silence and grace, lifted a paw bigger than a tire, and swatted the man on the shoulder.
It didn’t look like the bear put much weight or effort into the hit, but the man flew with a sudden unnatural jerk through the air. A yelp of surprise shot out of him as he sailed past his own front steps to thump down onto his walkway, rolling with a crunch into some dead leaves.
The wolf barked, high and happy, bounding up to the bear, who came back onto all fours and snuffled the wolf’s neck.
I was gripping the worn wooden handrail near the stairs. The bear was not ten feet away. Consuela and Tawnia were squealing periodically over by some bushes. They must have managed to crawl there while I was frozen. Consuela shouted, “Theresa, get out of there!”
But I was looking at the man on the ground. He still had the gun, and he rolled to his knees, lifting it once more. “Look out!” I yelled at the bear and wolf.
Then something else, something dark with a splash of white, swooped down swifter than any witch on a broom, bigger than any bat. The man cried out as a whoosh of air from powerful wings washed over us all. A bald eagle the size of a Pegasus snatched the shotgun from the man with its talons and flew away, silhouetted for a moment against the rising moon.
That was it for the man. He leaped to his feet and took off at a dead run down his walkway toward the street, yelling for someone to call the cops, call the sheriff, get animal control.
I was sitting down. My knees must have given way without me even noticing. I stared in numb disbelief as the wolf trotted a few steps closer, its unnerving blue gaze fixing me in place the way a pin sticks an insect. The bear sat down, as if I’d inspired it, and looked at the paw that had swiped at the man, flexing black claws longer than my fingers.
“Sorry they scared you.” It was the rat girl, still in her brown-gray costume, whiskers painted on her cheeks, coming up the porch steps to me. “But we couldn’t let him shoot you, could we?”
“But…” I managed to say finally. “What…?”
“Probably better you don’t tell anyone about us.” She walked up and leaned comfortably against the bear, who didn’t seem to mind. “They won’t believe you anyway.”
A beat of wings, and the eagle came to land on the handrail near my head. I felt the wood give under its weight. The bird fixed one piercing golden eye on me. Despite the cruel curve of its sharp beak, the razor sharp claws on its feet, I saw something in its gaze that told me I was no longer in danger. This creature had taken away the gun that had been pointed at me and dropped it somewhere to help me. I realized I was breathing again. I was okay, even if I was shaking.
The wolf’s ears swiveled toward the road, and a moment later I heard distant sirens.
“That’s our cue,” said the rat girl. She looked around at the animals around her. “Sorry guys. I promised you trick or treating, and we got crazy humdrums with guns again. My bad.”
The bear moved one huge shoulder in what looked like a shrug and got to its feet. The wolf yipped what might have been a laugh, and the eagle gave me one last penetrating glance, then took off into the air, spreading wings that looked as soft as eiderdown, as strong as ocean waves.
“Hang on, Sik,” the rat girl said. “I’m going to shift.” She took off the headband her costume rat ears were attached to and put it in my hand. I stared down at it, not understanding. “Just tell them he shot the gun, pointed it at you, then got scared, tossed the gun away, and ran off yelling like a crazy person. It’s basically the truth.”
She grinned, showing all of her small, sharp upper and lower teeth. “You can have my costume if you want. We’re about the same size. You could wear it next year. My gift to you.”
The air around her seemed to bend, the way it does on hot days in the desert. The thick material of her costume fell to the ground. She was gone.
A brown rat as big as a cat scuttled out from under the costume and leaped onto the bear’s back, running up to sit on its flat head like a figurehead on a ship. The rat girl’s beady eyes gleamed up at me. She plucked out one of her own long white whiskers and held it out to me, chittering what sounded somehow like farewell.
“Bye,” I said, automatically taking the whisker from her outstretched paw. Then couldn’t believe I’d said it.
The bear with the rat on its head lumbered down the porch steps, headed over to the wooded side yard, and vanished into the darkness. The wolf’s toenails clicked on the wooden steps as it followed. I stood watching as it neared the shadows of the trees. It stopped in a shaft of moonlight and turned one last time to look over its shoulder. The blue of its eyes blazed out at me, and I found my voice.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”
Then it was gone. I gathered up the rat’s abandoned costume and stumbled down the steps. My hands were trembling.
I don’t remember much about what I told the cops after that. Consuela’s mom called my Dad, and he made sure the cops had the man with the shotgun arrested.
They found the gun in the river a week later, and the man went to jail. No one ever trick or treated in that neighborhood again after all the parents heard about the crazy guy who’d threatened costumed kids with a gun. It’s kind of a shame. But I understand it.
I never said anything about the animal teens we’d seen, the shifters. It just sounded too crazy. But Tawnia or Consuela must’ve said something to someone, because among the kids the story grew that if you trick or treated in the Old Fig Garden when the moon was full, you’d turn into whatever your costume was.
We saw a lot of kids dressed up as rock stars and ninjas for a few years after that, but nowhere near the Old Fig Garden. Tawnia and Consuela and I told each other it had been a trick of the light. It was those kids that had saved us, but they’d been kids in costumes the whole time. Not animals.
I knew better. The January after the Old Fig Garden incident, I found a story on the internet about a man in Burbank who claimed he saw a girl turn into a giant tiger as she ran down his street one rainy night. He even had a blurry phone camera shot of what looked like a huge tiger in an old oak tree near a school. But everyone knew the photo had been doctored. Everyone but me.
That last look from the wolf’s blue eyes had decided my fate. When I grew up, I became a wildlife biologist and moved to Idaho to study the endangered wolf packs there. Every now and then I’d hear a crazy story about someone in the area turning into a wolf. But when I tried to follow up, the locals stopped speaking to me. I decided to move to Alaska so I could study grizzlies and eagles too.
I’ve never told anyone what I really saw and heard that night. For years I wondered if maybe I was crazy.
The police took the rat’s costume away from me as evidence. I never saw it again. But five years later, when I was cleaning out my closet on the way to college, I found my old musketeer cloak, with the rat-ear headband bundled up inside. Beside it was a long white whisker.