T H E G A T E S
In Which We Encounter a Small Boy, His Dog, and Some People Who Are Up To No Good
On the night in question, Mr Abernathy answered the door to find a small figure dressed in a white sheet standing on his porch. The sheet had two holes cut into it at eye level so that the small figure could walk around without bumping into things, a precaution that seemed wise given that the small figure was also wearing rather thick glasses. The glasses were balanced on its nose outside the sheet, giving it the appearance of a short-sighted, and not terribly frightening, ghost. A mismatched pair of sneakers, the left blue, the right red, poked out from the bottom of the sheet.
Mr Abernathy looked from the dog to the small figure, then back again, as though unsure which one of them was going to speak.
"Trick or treat," said the small figure eventually, from beneath the sheet.
Mr Abernathy's face betrayed utter bafflement.
"What?" said Mr Abernathy.
"Trick or treat," the small figure repeated.
Mr Abernathy's mouth opened once, then closed again. He looked like a fish having an afterthought. He appeared to grow even more confused. He glanced at his watch, and checked the date, wondering if he had somehow lost a few days between hearing the doorbell ring, and opening the door.
"It's only October the twenty-eighth," he said.
"I know," said the small figure. "I thought I'd get a head start on everyone else."
"What?" said Mr Abernathy again.
"What?" said the small figure.
"Why are you saying "what"?", said Mr Abernathy. "I just said "what"."
"I know. Why?"
"My question exactly," said the small figure.
"Who are you?" asked Mr Abernathy. His head was starting to hurt.
"I'm a ghost," said the small figure, then added, a little uncertainly: "Boo?"
"No, not 'What are you?' Who are you?"
"Oh." The small figure removed the glasses and lifted up its sheet, revealing a pale boy of perhaps eleven, with wispy blond hair and very blue eyes. "I'm Samuel Johnson. I live in number five hundred and one. And this is Boswell," he added, indicating the dachshund by raising his leash.
Mr Abernathy, who was new to the town, nodded, as though this piece of information had suddenly confirmed all of his suspicions. Upon hearing its name spoken, the dog shuffled its bottom on Mr Abernathy's porch and gave a bow. Mr Abernathy regarded it suspiciously.
"Your shoes don't match," said Mr Abernathy to Samuel.
"I know. I couldn't decide which pair to wear, so I wore one of each."
Mr Abernathy raised an eyebrow. He didn't trust people, especially children, who displayed signs of individuality.
"So," said Samuel. "Trick or treat?"
"Neither," said Mr Abernathy.
"Because it's not Halloween yet, that's why not."
"But I was showing initiative." Samuel's teacher, Mr Hume, often spoke about the importance of showing initiative, although any time Samuel showed initiative Mr Hume seemed to disapprove of it, which Samuel found very puzzling.
"No, you weren't," said Mr Abernathy. "You're just too early. It's not the same thing."
"Oh, please. A chocolate bar?"
"Not even an apple?"
"I can come back tomorrow, if that helps."
"No! Go away."
With that, Mr Abernathy slammed the front door, leaving Samuel and Boswell to stare at the flaking paintwork. Samuel let the sheet drop down once more, restoring himself to ghostliness, and replaced his. He looked down at Boswell. Boswell looked up at him. Samuel shook the empty bucket sadly.
"It seemed like a good idea," he said to Boswell. "I thought people might like an early fright."
Boswell sighed in response, as if to say: "I told you so."
Samuel gave one final, hopeful glance at Mr Abernathy's front door, willing him to change his mind and appear with something for the bucket, even if it was just a single, solitary nut, but the door remained firmly closed. The Abernathys hadn't lived on the street for very long, and their house was the biggest and oldest in town. Samuel had rather hoped that the Abernathys would decorate it for Halloween, or perhaps turn it into a haunted house, but after his recent encounter with Mr Abernathy he didn't think this was very likely. Mr Abernathy's wife, meanwhile, always looked like she had just been fed a very bitter slice of lemon, and was looking for somewhere to spit it out discreetly. No, thought Samuel, the Abernathy house would not be playing a very big part in this year's Halloween festivities.
As things turned out, he was very, very wrong.
* * *
Mr Abernathy stood, silent and unmoving, at the door. He peered through the peephole until he was certain that the boy and his dog were leaving, then locked the door and turned away. Hanging from the end of the stair rail behind him was a black, hooded robe, not unlike something a bad monk might wear to scare people into behaving themselves. Mr Abernathy put the robe back on as he walked down the stairs to his basement. Had Samuel seen Mr Abernathy in his robe he might have reconsidered his position on Mr Abernathy's willingness to enter into the spirit of Halloween.
Mr Abernathy was not a happy man. He had married the woman who became Mrs Abernathy because he wanted someone to look after him, someone who would advise him on the right clothes to wear, and the proper food to eat, thus allowing Mr Abernathy more time to spend on thinking. Mr Abernathy wrote books advising people how to make their lives happier. He was quite successful at this, mainly because he spent every day dreaming about what might have made him happier, including not being married to Mrs Abernathy. He also made very sure that nobody who read his work ever met his wife. If they did, they would immediately guess how unhappy Mr Abernathy really was, and stop buying his books.
Now, his robe heavy on his shoulders, he made his way down the stairs into the darkened room below. Waiting for him were three other people, all dressed in similar robes. Painted on the floor was a five-pointed star, at the centre of which was an iron burner filled with glowing charcoals. Incense grains had been sprinkled across them, so that the basement was filled with a thick, perfumed smoke.
"Who was it, dear?" asked one of the hooded figures. She said the word 'dear' the way an executioner's axe might say the word 'thud', if it could speak as it was lopping off someone's head.
"That weird kid from number five-hundred-and-one," said Mr Abernathy to his wife, for it was she who had spoken. "And his dog."
"What did he want?"
"He was trick or treating."
"But it's not even Halloween yet."
"I know. I told him that. I think there's something wrong with him. And his dog," Mr Abernathy added.
"Well, he's gone now. Foolish child."
"Can we get on with it?" said a male voice from beneath another hood. "I want to go home and watch the football." The man in question was quite fat, and his robe was stretched taut across his belly. His name was Reginald Renfield, and he wasn't quite sure what he was doing standing around in a smoke-filled basement dressed in a robe that was at least two sizes too small for him. His wife had made him come along, and nobody argued with Doris Renfield. She was even bigger and fatter than her husband, but not even half as nice, and since Mr Renfield wasn't very nice at all, that made Mrs Renfield very unpleasant indeed.
"Reginald, do keep quiet," said Mrs Renfield. "All you do is complain. We're having fun."
"Oh," said Reginald. "Are we?"
He didn't see anything particularly amusing about standing in a cold basement wearing a scratchy robe, trying to summon up demons from the beyond. Mr Renfield didn't believe in demons, although he sometimes wondered if his friend, Mr Abernathy, might have married one by accident. Mrs Abernathy frightened him, the way strong women will often frighten weak men. Still, Doris had insisted that they come along and join their new friends, who had recently moved to the town of Biddlecombe, for an evening of 'fun'. Mrs Abernathy and Mrs Renfield had met in a bookshop, where they were both buying books about ghosts and angels. From then on their friendship had grown, eventually drawing in their husbands as well. Mr Renfield didn't like the Abernathys, exactly, but a funny thing about adults is that they will spend time with people they don't like very much if they think it might benefit them. In this case, Mr Renfield was hoping that Mr Abernathy might buy an expensive television from Mr Renfield's electrical shop.
"Well, some of us are having fun," said Mrs Renfield. "You wouldn't know fun if it ran up and tickled you under the arm." She laughed loudly. It sounded to her husband like someone pushing a witch in a barrel over a waterfall. He pictured his wife in a barrel falling into very deep water, and this cheered him up a bit.
"Enough!" said Mrs Abernathy.
Everyone went quiet. Mrs Abernathy, stern and beautiful, peered from beneath her hood.
"Join hands," she said, and they did so, forming a circle around the star. "Now, let us begin."
And, as one, they started to chant.
* * *
Most people are not bad. Oh, they do bad things sometimes, and everyone has a little badness in them, but very few people are unspeakably evil, and most of the bad things they do seem perfectly reasonable to them at the time. Perhaps they're bored, or selfish, or greedy, but, for the most part, they don't actually want to hurt anyone when they do bad things. They just want to make their own lives a little easier.
The four people in the basement fell into the category of 'bored'. They had boring jobs. They drove boring cars. They ate boring food. Their friends were boring. For them, everything was just, well, dull.
So when Mrs Abernathy produced an old book that she had bought in used bookstore, and suggested, first to her husband, and then to their slightly-less-boring-than-the-rest friends the Renfields, that the book's contents might make for an interesting evening, everyone had pronounced it a splendid idea.
The book didn't have a name. Its cover was made of worn black leather, emblazoned with a star not unlike the one painted on the basement floor, and its pages had turned yellow with age. It was written in a language none of them had ever seen, and which they were unable to understand.
And yet, and yet. . .
Somehow Mrs Abernathy had looked at the book and knew exactly what they were meant to do. It was almost as if the book were speaking to her in her head, translating its odd scratches and symbols into words that she could comprehend. The book had told her to bring her friends and her husband to the basement on this particular night, to paint the star and light the charcoals, and to chant the series of strange sounds that were now coming from each of their mouths. It was all very odd.
The Abernathys and the Renfields weren't looking for trouble. Neither were they trying to do anything bad. They weren't evil, or vicious, or cruel. They were just bored people with too much time on their hands, and such people will, in the end, get up to mischief
But just as someone who wears a sign saying "Kick Me!" will, in the normal course of events, eventually be kicked, so too there was enough mischief being done in that basement to attract something very bad, something with more than mischief on its mind. It had been waiting for a long time. Now that wait was about to come to an end.
Copyright © John Connolly 2009
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