THE THING ABOUT FEAR

Screams split the night air. Unimaginable horrors lurched through the streets, chasing after their prey. One of the things caught sight of Jordan and came quickly across the lawn towards him, roaring. Its face was deformed, melting like wax, large pustules weeping blood. Jordan shrieked with laughter and excitement, then sprinted after his friends, his bag heavy with the night's haul, bouncing at his side. The monster fell behind, turning to scare a new group of children.

"What a crappy mask!" scoffed Ricky, his own (Frankenstein) pushed up over his hair. "It's like they don't even try anymore." This brought about a general muttering of agreement from the others (with a few swears thrown in for flavor). Jordan personally thought the costumes were pretty good this year, but Ricky, being the oldest, was default leader of their gang. Disagreeing would only get him a heaping helping of razzing and maybe an Indian burn.

They went at a leisurely pace down the street, flanked by flickering jack o' lanterns, pint-sized monsters and heroes running about. Jordan felt a tugging at his bag and caught Buck poking around, his fingers already stained with chocolate.

"Whaddya got, Jordan, lemme see…"

"Buzz off, Buck, jeez!" He shoulder checked Buck into a pile of leaves, and they all stood around laughing for a bit as he struggled to escape. Mulch was, of course, the loudest.

"Go on, Spider-man, swing your fat-ass outta there!"

Eventually Buck freed himself. He gathered his candy and pulled off his mask, sweating and panting heavily. "Some friends you all are!" Jordan punched him in the shoulder, and they hurried on to the next house.

The night went on, their bags grew heavier, and, eventually, the novelty wore off. Jordan's Chewie costume was turning into a real sweat-lodge, and he had to admit the adults really weren't scary anymore. They reached the end of the block and, after much deliberation (and whining on Buck's part), decided to go back to Ricky's house. There they could empty their bags into one mountain of melting chocolate and tooth decay, and spend the night trading, eating, and watching the monster flicks on TV.

Ricky led them down a side road, leaving the fantastical world behind. The night grew quiet, a chill wind blowing. Dry leaves skittered across the street like creeping spiders, and the glowing grins of hollowed-out pumpkins gained a slightly creepier feel.

"Shit," Mulch muttered. Ricky thwapped him on the ear, knocking his thick glasses askew.

"You always gotta swear? It's not as effective if you do it all the time."

Mulch flipped him the bird, then ducked another swing. "I'm just sayin," he said, adjusting his glasses. "It's creepy is all."

Ricky snorted. Buck pulled a sucker out of his mouth long enough to snicker, "Pussy." Mulch kicked his shin.

"Come on, guys," Jordan said. "It's Halloween. It's supposed to be scary."

"Yeah." A strange light had appeared in Ricky's eyes. "Yeah, it is." He stopped in the middle of the road and turned to face all of them, a manic grin on his face. "Come on. Let's take a short cut."

He took off down the road. Jordan shared an apprehensive glance with the others, then hurried to catch up.

Ricky led them to the edge of the neighborhood. Bottin Street was uncharacteristically empty and quiet. On the other side was a chain-link fence, and beyond, a dark park. They all knew what that park was, and did their best to appear nonchalant as they followed Ricky across the street.

"We can cut through here," Ricky said. "My house is just two blocks on the other side."

"No way," Buck said in a shaky voice, all pretense of bravado lost. "I'm not going in there. In the dark."

Mulch was quick on the draw. "Pussy!" But then he glanced through the diamond holes in the fence. Crumbling, tilted tombstones stood mere feet away like posted guards, marching away into the darkness. "Nah," he said casually. "I'm too tired to hop the fence."

Ricky folded his arms. "So you're all too chicken?" He turned to Jordan. "How 'bout it, fuzz ball?"

Jordan stared into the darkness. The jaundice glow of the streetlights barely reached past the second row of graves. He wasn't scared of the dark; hadn't been for years. And he didn't really believe in ghosts or anything like that. No, what he was really afraid of…

"It's not safe." he said finally. "We should stay in the neighborhood. Where people can see us."

Ricky blew a raspberry. "Never took you guys for such a bunch of babies." He glanced at them all. Buck was openly terrified; Mulch was making a show of not caring; Jordan felt torn. He looked up to Ricky; had looked up to him for a long time. If Ricky thought him a sissy…

With a sudden strong sense of determination Jordan slung his bag over his shoulder, grabbed the fence, and clambered quickly over it. He landed heavily on the other side, leaves crunching beneath his feet. Behind him Jordan heard Buck give a theatric gasp. Ricky gave an appreciative whoop. Jordan turned, grinning.

"You guys coming or not?" He trotted confidently into the cemetery. He was just past the third row when he heard the sound of laughter and sneakers on sidewalk. He whirled around just in time to see Ricky, Buck, and Mulch disappear down the road.

"Dammit." Jordan muttered. "Shit." He glanced over his shoulder. Nothing but pale tombstones and willows swaying in the darkness. Jordan shivered.

"Assholes." He should've known they'd do this. They'd run off and wait down the block, until he came running after them, panting, nose running, wide-eyed and terrified. And they'd laugh 'till their stomachs hurt.

Well, screw 'em. Jordan could just imagine it when he didn't turn up, and after an hour he still hadn't come back. Buck would freak out first, Mulch would start swearing, and Ricky– Ricky would feel like a jerk for ditching him. They'd come back, maybe even hop the fence. Spend all night looking for him. Eventually they'd wander back to Ricky's place, and ta-da! There he'd be, sitting on the porch, happily waiting with his candy. They'd never call him a coward or chicken or pussy again, because he cut through the graveyard. They didn't even want to jump the fence.

And with that triumphant image firmly fixed in his mind, Jordan stomped off into the darkness.

Not that there wasn't good reason to be scared about wandering alone at night. In the past few months people had started disappearing in the town of Grenfield. Jordan had watched on the news as manhunts were organized and tearful relatives pleaded with the kidnappers (but who said there were any?). He had been firmly forbidden to wander the streets by his parents; it had been an epic struggle just to be allowed to trick-or-treat tonight. Jordan couldn't help but feel he was betraying his parents by pulling this stunt; and as he thought that, a sudden sick feeling trickled into his gut. What sort of mess would be stirred up by Ricky and the others when they couldn't find him? What if his parents got involved? What if a manhunt was organized for him?

Jordan quickened his pace, just short of jogging through the field of tombstones. Panic was catching up with him now. It was dangerous; people were disappearing. And he was all alone. Where better for a creep to hide out than in a graveyard? On Halloween. Suddenly it seemed a lot darker, the wind a lot colder, every rustling leaf and creaking branch a footstep. Jordan hoisted his candy bag over his shoulder and started jogging. He could barely see the dull glow of the streetlights through the trees ahead. He had forgotten how big this graveyard wa–

Something was following him. He could hear it, moving quickly, breathing loudly, panting. A thrill of fear shot through him, and despite himself he whirled around, not wanting to see what it was but needing to know anyway.

A dark shape, small and low to the ground, trotted towards him. Jordan froze, holding his breath. It stopped a few feet from him and didn't move. Jordan was about to turn and run when it gave a small yip.

Relief flooded through him. He exhaled loudly and crouched down, hand extended. The dog lowered its head slightly and took a few steps closer. He could see its tail wagging slightly.

"C'mere, boy." Jordan smiled. It wouldn't be so bad walking through here with a companion; no one would attack him if he had a dog with him.

The dog was a foot from him when it stopped and rose up on its hind legs. Jordan gave a soft cry of surprise and laughed. He wondered if it was trained; it was just standing there, almost like a circus bear, panting. It looked like it might be a brown lab…

There was a sudden cracking noise. Something dark and wet splattered on the ground, and the dog's hind legs split in half, making four, spindly and thin, like a crab. The dog's body shuddered and shook, a deep rumbling coming from its chest. With a popping like knuckles the body extended, growing taller, towering above Jordan's crouched form. Its forelegs lengthened, scythe-like claws pushing through the paws, swiping at the air. The dog opened its mouth, yawning wide, until it split open like a Venus fly-trap, jaws snapping, long tongue licking at the air. A very un-dog-like roar issued from its throat.

Jordan didn't react like an adult. An adult would deny what was happening, would try to rationalize it, and end up dead. Jordan didn't try to do that. He knew very well what it was standing in front of him: a monster, plain and simple. And monsters killed people. Jordan knew that and accepted it.

He heaved his heavy bag at the thing, striking it square in the torso, sending it stumbling back with a squeal. Jordan was already sprinting in the opposite direction, towards the haven of the streetlights.

He snaked between tombstones and around trees, trying to put something between him and it. He could hear it scrabbling after him, thin legs scratching and tearing at the ground, knocking over heavy tombstones. It howled a howl no dog would ever emit.

Something cut the air behind his neck, very close, ruffling his har. Jordan shrieked and ran faster than he thought possible, a burst of adrenaline coursing through him. He had to make it– was almost there– he could see the fence, the lights, the houses beyond– safety–

Jordan's chest slammed into the fence and he bounced off it. He landed on his back, looking up to see the dog-thing towering above him. With a scream he rolled to dodge a swiping claw. Jordan leapt to his feet and hurdled, practically threw himself over the fence. He rolled down the small hill on the other side, landing hard on the sidewalk. His elbows and hands were scraped, bleeding. He staggered to his feet– to see the creature scrabbling over the fence like a spider on a window. Jordan spun around and ran across the street. His knee twinged and nearly gave out– he could barely run. It was right behind him and Ricky's house was still two blocks away. He zeroed in on the closest house– a white two-story with dark blue trimming and a lawn covered in leaves. He hobbled as fast as possible up the walk, to the porch, pounded on the door.

"Help! Please, someone, open up! Help me!"

Jordan glanced over his shoulder. The dog-thing was nowhere to be seen. Where had it gone?

The door swung open. A woman in a bathrobe with goldenrod hair stood in the hall, a look of confusion and concern on her face.

"What's going on? Are you alright?"

Jordan flung himself into her, giving in to the reality of the situation: he was a frightened child, and here was an adult. Safety.

"Sshh, come on, now," she said softly as he sobbed into her robe. Arms around him, she led him inside, into the warm security of the house. A kind-looking man with dark hair was sitting in the living room, in front of a crackling fireplace. Jordan was seated on a couch, comforted by the woman while the man prepared him a cup of hot cocoa.

"Everything's going to be alright," the woman crooned. The man brought him the mug of cocoa. Behind him trotted a brown Labrador.

By the middle of November, were one to find themselves driving along the road that would pass through the town of Grenfield, they would encounter a road block, with a sign leading them on a detour two miles out of their way. If they were to ignore the sign and proceed further along the road, they would find that the bridge crossing Campbell Creek had been washed out. If, by an amazing display of determination and stubbornness, one were able to cross the Creek and continue down the road, their process would be halted after another two miles by a concrete blockade. Any further process would be immediately and efficiently terminated by armed military personnel, but those in the know would continue on to an incredible sight: A concrete wall 200 feet high and 10 feet thick, with guard towers and constant patrols. Beyond the wall they would find Grenfield, burning, in chaos. The town was under quarantine.