It was Allegra’s first Halloween alone. Her new house was tall, rugged—a three-story brick stack in the wind. She bought it for its Victorian shabbiness: the black iron fireplace with little engraved leaves, the wooden staircase twisty, groaning, coated in moth-eaten carpet—the rusty-screwed shutters were peeling blue, swinging open and shut, open and shut.
“It has character.” That’s what the real estate agent said, her big white teeth rounded like tombstones. Character? It did, certainly it did. Teetering atop it all, Allegra’s bedroom was a sigh of modernity—Ikea furniture, withering swiss cheese plants, gold-tinged fairy lights and heavy-bass speakers.
The cellar was the house’s only sticking point; dead mice prone to manifesting in corners, the floor icy and damp, wind whistling sharply through unlocated drafts. Allegra made a pact with herself that the cellar would be used only in dire straits, for the rest of the time it would be serenely locked and tucked away. Forgotten like baby years.
She’d been back from work for an hour when her letterbox made its loud, slamming noise. They’d been putting them through her letterbox all week, printed notices from the local mummies and their “Halloween Safety” Facebook group. The flyers had orange backgrounds and illustrations of black smirking pumpkins. The bullet points were marked by little witchy broomsticks: “ALWAYS check spy hole BEFORE opening door! Don’t send children trick or treating ALONE! Say NO to unwrapped sweets!”
These were women obsessed. They loved the snot of their children, parading them around like dogs at Crufts, suited and booted in the latest designer gear that fit for entire weeks at a time. Still—though generally not one for superstition—Allegra was glad of the flyer’s calm, eye-rolling effect as the evening darkened and the cellar door began to stare, the shutters rat-a-tatting upstairs.
The Facebook mummies knew she didn’t have children. They’d done a welcome visit four weeks ago, just two days after she’d moved in. It was the three main matriarchs who’d asserted themselves, arriving on Allegra’s doorstep with fresh pastries, quilted jackets and plasticine grins. It was only 9am—9am on a Saturday, too. She’d opened the door with crusty sleep eyes, mind still stuck to dreams, staring at them like inexplicable apparitions.
When her pathetic number of thank yous (for the pastries) and apologies (for her state of dress) didn’t send them away, she reluctantly let them in for chipped mugs of old coffee, black and smelling like gravy. They got the gist fairly quick: Allegra was chubby, single, embroiled in niche academic studies and not taken with small talk or smiling at baby pictures.
Allegra had enjoyed Halloween in previous years. She’d dressed in costumes that were funny in a wry way, turning up at house parties as zombified Margret Thatcher, axed Jeremy Clarkson. On these evenings, Allegra would drink too much red wine and sway at the party’s edges, feeling superior to the other women in their sexy cat and nurse outfits—not so much because they were slutty, but because they weren’t original. This year was different, yes, different—but that was no reason to feel nervous or depressed. Allegra liked her own company, being alone was an art form she’d finally got a grip on.
She settled into the evening with brandy, hot chocolates, and Shirley Jackson short stories. The house shrugged against the rain whipping the windows outside, the rooms all aflutter with groans and drafts as the wind tried its patience.
Allegra rose intermittently to open the door to trick or treaters who came in shivering huddles. She made a point (to spite the mummies), of never checking before opening the door. She felt very old when she saw that kids no longer wore bin bag witch dresses with fake rubber noses, but instead came as Marvel superheroes and Netflix cartoon characters. The children accompanied by parents had to huffily turn down Allegra’s unwrapped chocolates (more of her petulance) but the kids who came alone seemed as happy as she to break the flyer rules.
A few hours in and Allegra was drinking the brandy straight, her throat warm like fire or a womb. She was half-watching some bargain-bin horror movie when her wooziness began projecting the faces from the screen into new locations in her room. She blinked to clear them, in some corner of her mind there was a rattling tapping, unrelenting and distant.
She dozed off, nightmares chilling her skin in half-sleep; Allegra could hear bangs on the cellar door, like someone trying to get out. Upstairs it seemed someone was pacing, pacing, pacing. Worst was behind her, a figure stood at the back of the sofa bending over her like a shadow, and yet she couldn’t turn. The house phone ringing broke her paralysis. Brrrring, brrrring.
Shrill, like a knife through the silence. She let it ring out but it began again, somehow more insistent than before: Brrrring, brrrring. She looked at the clock, its hand past eleven, and got up to disconnect the landline. The ringing cut out. Allegra exhaled and went to dress for bed, then padded downstairs in her slippers, nightie and dressing gown, rummaging in the kitchen cupboard—her hand closed around an ice-cold glass as the doorbell went. Long pause. And then again, quickly followed by three short, sharp knocks.
She thought about not answering, and even when she did decide to answer, she considered checking the spyhole beforehand, but a jolt of brandied courage and a flash of orange flyer convinced her otherwise. The door opened to a policeman in her porch light, he was soaking wet and hollow-eyed.
“Hello, I’m sorry for calling so late. Are you Allegra Crain?” He asked, his face cracked with a polite smile. Behind him, the night was an inky blur, the rain like murky seawater.
“Yes—and yes, this is very late to call. Can I help you?”
“I know, I’m sorry about the hour.”
“It’s okay. Please, how can I help?”
“Well, I was wondering if I could come in, for a minute, Miss Crain?”
Allegra felt microscopic goosebumps shudder along her arms, she pulled the dressing gown tighter around her, hand twitching with the urge to slam the door. “May I see some identification, please?”
“Of course.” The man produced something that looked like a black passport case, the Metropolitan police badge was on one side with his identification card on the other. Sargent Laurie Quint. The picture was grainy, hard to make out—Allegra looked from the blurred pink face in the picture to the pale man in front of her.