She had been nervous all night. It was the bane of the modern parent right? So many boogeymen to look out for. She remembered when she was a child getting dressed up in homemade costumes and being released upon the neighborhood to trick or treat until their pillowcases could hold no more. Where was the parental supervision then? Only for the babies. And they were off the streets by the time the big kids were allowed to go out. But not until after dinner. Waiting. Watching the clock. Now? Can we go now? And then finally, Yes! Off they went!
There were the McPhersons who always gave out full size candy bars. You hit them first. No way did you want to reach their house and see the porch light out. The international signal for "you lose, no candy left." There was old Mrs. Domingo who made homemade popcorn balls. Normally you weren't allowed to eat homemade treats but Mrs. Domingo was "safe" so as long as you knew which treat you got from her you could have it. But no one else. That was the start of parents worrying about razor blades in apples and poison in the popcorn. Before she had kids of her own she realized what a ridiculous fear that was, it didn't really happen, she wasn't going to be that mom.
But then she had kids and no matter how ridiculous she thought it was 10 years earlier that first Halloween night she sat on the floor and sorted the candy into "tightly wrapped safe to eat" and "torn this must be killed with fire" piles. And there was no way a popcorn ball from Mrs. Domingo would even make it in to the house. Just watch the news, the neighbors always said, "they looked like such nice people." Never trust the nice people.
So much changed when she became a mother. The things you thought your parents were silly for worrying about now filled your nightmares. Plus all new ones. Online predators. Social media bullying. The pressure to pass standardized tests that started in kindergarten! It was insane. So much to worry about all the time. She wasn't as worried about Caleb as she was Natalie. Not just because boys seemed to have an easier time than girls. Though that was part of it. But Caleb had always been more easy going. Natalie was unique. She needed handled a little differently and it was hard to get people to understand.
Everyone thinks their child is special, different, exceptional. But until you had a child who was really different you just didn't get it. They had thought Caleb was gifted, until they had Natalie. And now they knew that though Caleb was smarter than most of his second grade class and probably most of the third grade as well, Natalie was in a whole different league than her kindergarten classmates. Her mind just worked on a different level. She saw things they would never even imagine. It was challenging.
This was the first year they had let Natalie go trick or treating in the neighborhood. Before this they had gotten away with convincing her that a quick run through the mall and then home to watch Halloween movies was more fun. It was definitely more controlled. Bored mall employees handing out candy to hordes of children walking in a circle. You knew each store would have something. You knew it would be well lit. You knew the candy was safe. It was all safe. But Natalie had figured out that Caleb got to go out through the neighborhood with his friends so she wanted to go as well. The mall was suddenly baby time and she was no baby.
So this year when Caleb joined his best friends and their parent chaperones she and Barry took a deep breath and headed out with Natalie. They had a plan of attack. They would go out for an hour and then head back to pass out candy at their own place. It would be fine.
And it was. Mostly. Natalie had been very excited and practiced her "Trick or treat" over and over as well as her, "Thank you, happy Halloween!" She knew that if a house had its light off that meant they didn't have candy. She knew that sometimes people would answer the door in costumes and there might even be a scary surprise at a house or two. Maybe some spooky decorations or even something that would jump out at you just for a little safe scare. She was ready. She was no baby.
The first house had gone extremely well. But they knew that it would. It was Miss Jennings' place and she was excellent with children. Even, and maybe especially, with the exceptional ones like Natalie.
"Trick or Treat!" Natalie practically shouted it at her.
"Oh and who are you today?"
"I'm Marie Antoinette, see my neck?" And with that she cocked her head to the side to show the red line all the way around her throat.
"I see, very authentic." Miss Jennings never missed a beat.
"Did you know that Marie Antoinette never said 'Let them eat cake?'"
"I did know that. Did you know that cake in those days wasn't cake like we eat now but really a very expensive egg bread?"
"I did! Did you...."
And with that they rescued Miss Jennings from a night of trivia, "Say thank you, Natalie, so we can keep going."
Natalie laughed, "Thank you! Happy Halloween! Eat some cake!"
And the night went on. Most people marveled at her costume. She really did look very pretty in her princess style dress. Those that asked who she was were shown the neck and most people got the joke right away. She got many compliments for creativity. Though it was assumed it was her parents who were the creative ones. What five year old would add the decapitation touch? They just didn't know Natalie.
They had one tense moment where Mr. Peterson had asked to speak to them after Natalie had received her candy. "Do you think it's appropriate for her to have that costume? Don't you think it's in bad taste for a young girl?'
"This is who she wanted to dress up as. It's Halloween."
"She's a little girl. You are the parents. You need to put your foot down for what is and is not appropriate."
She had smiled at Mr. Peterson, "Yes, thank you for your opinion. We will take it under advisement. Happy Halloween."
As they were walking to the next house Natalie had asked why he was upset. "He just thinks maybe your costume might be a little scary for a young child."
"I'm not a baby."
"We know that, Nat. You are not a baby. But some kids your age might be a little frightened of the thought of having their heads chopped off."
"They should be. It is scary. That's why it's a good Halloween costume! People should be a little scared."
They decided this was a good place to call it a night and went home to sort candy. Not a bad haul really. Natalie wasn't much a candy lover she much preferred salty treats so this would probably last her until Easter. Or until it got bundled up and taken in to the office to get it out of the house. Caleb's candy would have to be locked away and doled out piece by piece or he would eat the entire bag in one night. They had learned that the hard way.
But when Caleb came home he didn't have his candy. His friend James' parents were full of apologies, they had let the boys go ahead a few houses, just to feel like they weren't being chaperoned. They had loved it. Until a couple of older boys had jumped out at them and stolen their bags of candy. The dads had given chase but couldn't catch them. They were so sorry.
Caleb was devastated. A whole evening's haul gone. Natalie listened to the whole story with wide eyes. "Why did they take your candy? Why didn't they just get their own? That's not nice at all." How do you explain to your five year old that there were people out there like that. They watched as she went to Caleb and they whispered together. Normally it was the big brother comforting his little sister but tonight she was the one to go to him. It made them feel good. They were doing something right as parents. Natalie handed Caleb her bag of candy. "You can have mine, we will share."
After they got the kids cleaned up and tucked in they sat on the couch with a glass of wine. They watched a little TV and then she said, "Kids. I would have thought the snatch and grab candy thieves wouldn't be out with so many parents around."
"It just makes it more challenging. They know they have to do it fast. Get the candy and move on. And scare them badly enough that nobody tells."
"What do you mean, nobody tells? The kids had their candy snatched, they told."
"No, I mean, nobody tells who it was. You know Caleb knows at least one of the boys. They are the older brothers of the kids he was trick or treating with. Had to be. That's always the way it works."
"You think he recognized them? Really?" She was starting to feel the panic rise in her chest.
He looked at her face and the realization hit him as well. "Oh my god..."
They ran down the hallway to check the kids' rooms. Caleb was sleeping soundly, tucked in just how they had left him. And next to him on his nightstand sat his missing bag of candy.
They walked to Natalie's room. She was sound asleep. An angelic smile on her face. Peaceful dreams. A smear of dark on her mouth. "Please let it be chocolate, please let it be chocolate," was the mantra repeating in her mind. Though she knew it wouldn't be.
Everyone thinks their child is unique. Different. Special.
They had no idea...