When the alarms go off, we abandon our children on strangers' porches. Our Tigers, our Big Guys, our Champs watch from behind hollow eyeholes as we flee into the night, screaming and free. They cry out, "Daddy, daddy, wait!"
AWOOOO, we howl. Our own masks flap against our backs, rolled up and tucked into back pockets.
The Halloween Dads meet in the undeveloped land just beyond our neighborhood, but tonight we call it The Woods because it sounds badass and fearful and fun and everything else we gave up when we became dads. This night is for us. We put on our masks and become Werewolves, Vampires, Skeletons, Mummies, Serial Killers.
"Only two bars of reception out here in The Woods," we say, checking our phones. "Bummer."
Mummy laughs, nervously. "Wife just texted. You left Atticus on Mrs. Williams' porch. Have you gone crazy?"
The blue light of Serial Killer’s phone casts ridged shadows across his flakey mask. "Shit, I gotta go," he says. "The kid accidentally ate a peanut."
The rest of us hoot and make whip-cracking sounds while Serial Killer trudges back through The Woods. When he's out of sight, we make our first rule: No more checking phones. It's the first year of Halloween Dads, so we're just kind of winging it.
We know each other from HOA meetings, from neighborhood cleanups and barbecues. If we see each other in the grocery store, we say hi and sometimes remember each other's names. We keep it pleasant. We never talk politics. Even our shared frustration with Old Man Wasilewski's dog—who shits all over the neighborhood—results in a shrug. "What can you do?"
Werewolf pulls out a bottle of scotch from his jacket, and with a voice muffled by latex, says, "Vintage."
We stand in a circle, lift the bottoms of our masks, and take respectful sips from Werewolf's bottle.
"Oooh, that's delightful," we say.
The alcohol warms our blood, dislodges the cells that have been frozen from domestic chill. "But don't get the wrong idea," we're quick to say. "We love our wives. We love our children." Everyone agrees and we pass the bottle around. "Just need a break every once in a while, that's all. Just need a reminder of who we are and what we could still become." We're pretty sure Skeleton is crying underneath his mask. A harsh wind kicks up and blows through The Woods; it sounds like a screaming ghost, and we remember how scary The Woods were when we were ten years old. Have we really lived here our whole lives?
We talk about the ghost that used to haunt The Woods back then, a dim-glowing girl with no face. She lurches into our memories—a crawling, oily thing with stringy hair and hiccuping laughter. It's killing us to not look at our phones.
"Fuck this campfire shit," Werewolf says. He smashes the scotch bottle on a rock. "Don't worry. I'll come back and clean that up tomorrow."
We run back into our neighborhood, our blood now sizzling beneath skin. Tiny trick-or-treaters cower as we rush up to them. "Don't hurt me," they cry.
"Beware the advance of age!" we scream, shaking them by their bony, little shoulders.
"Beware the rising housing prices!"
"Beware the ghost with no face!"
A woman guards her child as we run up, but her fear becomes concern when we get close. "Rick?" she asks. "Is that you?"
We run away. AWOOOO!
The sun dips behind the trees and our rooftops with the out-of-date satellite dishes. Moms remove their children from the street as a wave of gossip runs up and down the street, rendering our self-discovery into madness. The Vampire picks up a flickering jack-o'-lantern and breaks it on the street. Skeleton jump-kicks a mailbox off its post, and we don't hear the metal scraping against asphalt so much as feel it."God, have you ever felt this alive?" Skeleton asks, and it still sounds like he's crying.
We piss in someone's Take One bowl until all the candy floats. We fling a rock through a window of a darkened house. It'll teach them not to be home next Halloween.
Faint barking echoes up the street and we remember Old Man Wasilewski's dog. We find it tied to its little doghouse. The creature's not even the size of a football. How it can produce so much shit is beyond us, and that observation makes us all scream our laughter into the sky. Steam rises from the noses and eyes of our masks, makes it look like our souls are departing, and maybe they are, because the next thing we know, the little dog is stomped into a red mush and we're running back down on the street, flicking the viscera off our heels.
"Shit, you guys," Skeleton says. "What are we doing?" He slows to a trot and we follow suit. "We've just done a horrible thing."
"We've all done horrible things," we say. "But we've also done a lot of great things. We're great dads. We're great husbands."
"We just killed a dog."
"Okay, new rule for next Halloween Dads: No more killing dogs."
Skeleton sighs. "You don't get it." He reaches up and tears his mask off. Underneath, there's nothing. His face has been replaced by a swirling void that sputters like black static.
The ghost with no face!
It has been with us all along.
We run. The ghost crawls after us. Its screams sound like our children's. The phones in our pockets buzz, but we've lost the ability to read text. The October night dries our tongues as we run open-mouthed, no longer able to articulate words.
Instinct takes us to the house that belongs to Serial Killer. The ghost's screaming isn't far behind. We pound on the door. Serial Killer answers. We push him out of the way, step into his home, and slam the door behind us. We can see his wife in the living room, watching TV and nestling their poor, allergic child on her lap.
"Fellas, what are you—"
We push him down. He cries when his back hits the tile.
"Who's at the door, Bill?" his wife asks. "Rick? Jerry? Ken? Is that you?"
We could take off our masks and show her, but we're scared of what we may be underneath.
We rip Bill's shirt open. We tear through his undershirt. We keep digging, pulling layers off until our hands are slick. Somewhere far away, Bill's wife is screaming. "What are you doing to Bill?"
Elbows-deep, we're finally becoming something new.
Ryan Bradford is the author of the novel Horror Business, as well as the founder and editor of Black Candies, a journal of literary darkness. His writing has appeared in Quarterly West, Vice,Monkeybicycle, Hobart, New Dead Families, and [PANK].
Illustration by Meghan Murphy.