One afternoon in the car pick-up line at Winding Creek Intermediate, several parents gathered at Diane Lippincourt’s car to discuss something, and as far as he could tell, the talk had started then. They called to mind jungle monkeys hooting all hell at a snake in the understory. He leaned back, comfortable in his minding-my-own-business. The sky threatened thunderstorms. It was the day before Halloween.
He was pleased to be above their rumormongering, having other things toward which to direct his attention. For instance, his current preoccupation: a box of textbooks from college. He’d found them when digging for Halloween decorations and had been thumbing through them in his office above the garage. The highlighted lines and marginalia caused a time warp. Gothic equals sublime minus transcendence, whatever that meant, distracting him all afternoon. He’d run a stop sign on the way here, the other driver flicking him off.
There was something about the Lippincourts, who lived across the street, some mischief that had befallen them recently. He didn’t keep up with all that, but he was fairly certain the police had been involved. He did know that Diane no longer powerwalked in the evenings and that Tim, her husband, who paid a crew to mow his lawn, installed motion detector lights.
The bell rang and doors swung open to a horde of kids. Diane and her daughter, who was Molly’s age, hurried off hunched against the wind.
Molly and Kara hopped in without so much as a “Hello, Father.”
He pulled out and nodded at Mrs. Mayweather, the elderly history teacher who directed the pick-up line with a bullhorn and an orange reflective vest. “Let’s keep it moving!” she shouted, squinting into his backseat windows.
Despite the coming storm, he drove the long way through the subdivision, which had grown festive with inflatable jack-o’-lanterns and sheets hung from trees. It was his favorite time of year.
“So what knowledge did my demons acquire today?” “Nothing,” Kara said. She was nine.
“We learned nothing today,” Molly, eleven, confirmed.
He gripped the wheel. Both girls were going as demons for Halloween.
Kara snatched a bag of sunflower seeds from the console.
“It’s going to storm, isn’t it?” Molly said.
“Looks like it.”
“Halloween better not be cancelled tomorrow,” Kara mumbled.
“It won’t,” he assured them. There was Diane and the others and he couldn’t be
sure, but being a dad meant headbutting obstacles. “Not a chance,” he said. “Good,” Molly said. “It better not be.”
“Yeah,” Kara said. “That would thuck.”
She’d stuffed a handful of seeds in her mouth. “Don’t do that,” he said. “And
don’t say suck.” “Uhmmm.”
They came to a stop and he looked at his daughters. Kara with chipmunk cheeks, eyes watering with laughter. Beside her, Molly holding a single seed and cracking into it with her pointy teeth. Last summer Meg caught Molly gnawing cherry pits. My canines aren’t sharp enough, was her explanation.
He faced forward, all come over with love and affection. “My precious demons.” “Witch demons,” Kara clarified, drooling over herself.
Before picking up the girls that afternoon, he’d put down the textbooks and clocked out early so he could rake leaves. He was pissed at the storm winds for making a mess of his piles, which he hadn’t bagged because Molly and Kara sometimes like jumping in them.
The girls considered the leaves for a moment.
“The lawn looks very nice,” Kara said.
“It sure does,” Molly said, scooting out of the car. “But we should watch out for
He reraked and bagged the leaves. When the storm clouds came overhead the
temperature dropped and a couple raindrops fell, but it all quickly blew off, leaving
behind a fierce sunset and a sense of something missed. He sat on the front steps, sweaty and itching. Across the street, he noticed Tim Lippincourt standing at a window. Tim’s yard featured zero decorations.
Just then some young punks rode by on bikes too small for them. There were four of them, older than Molly by a few years. The bikes were strung with lights and they weaved around each other down the street and around the curve, where Meg’s car turned the corner and pulled in the driveway.
She said, “You didn’t save me a pile?”
Before bed, Kara and Molly modelled their costumes. Matching hideous red demon faces and hooded robes that looked like graduation gowns.
In the morning he was happy to see the yard free of leaves and their scarecrow upright. Meg had an early meeting and would drop the girls off at school. He went up to his office, where he flagged some emails and returned to the textbooks.
It occurred to him that he missed the structure of a syllabus. He missed the way lectures made the world resonate under the heady notion that you might know a thing or two about it. But then you find that those notions burn off to expose a sticky actual life. You rake leaves or do some other futile thing in a nice neighborhood where people like you get worked up about some drama and then try to find a way back to the norm. That’s how time passes. Except there are seasons when you resist the passing and wonder if, like spirits of the dead, the bygone can be summoned back.
Gothic equals sublime minus—
Meg was calling him.
“Nope.” He shut the book. “What’s up?” “Just saw something strange at the school.” The talk, he thought. “Everything okay?” “Have you heard of Pig Throat?”
“Throat,” she said. “Tonight.”
Apparently there were some high school kids in a hardcore band called Pig Throat who would be terrorizing the subdivision. “Like dumping buckets of blood from the trees, kind of thing,” she said. “This is according to Diane. You know they had their garage door graffitied a while back.”
He went to the window and peeked out at the Lippincourt house, quiet and sunlit.
“What kind of blood?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
“I mean...” he said.
He could hear her keys rattling. “I’ve got to go,” she said. “We’ll talk later.” “Wait—what was graffitied?” he asked. The Lippincourt garage door, once gray
like all the others, had been painted crimson after the incident.
“I don’t know. I’m at the office.”
When they hung up he decided this would be an obstacle that he would
headbutt. He sent Meg a text: We’re goin. Screw Miss Piggy Throat. She responded, What if its pigs blood???
He intended to get the scoop on Pig Throat in the car pickup line that afternoon but was disappointed to find no sign of Diane Lippincourt.
He googled pig throat winding creek on his phone and found a music streaming site with recordings of what sounded like tool chests shoved down a stairwell. He could be a cool dad and have that opinion about hardcore music, because screw them.
Moments before the bell, Mrs. Mayweather stepped outside and propped open the doors. She wore a witch hat.
“Happy Halloween,” she said to him. She glanced up, as if tuning in to something behind the clear skies.
“Hey—got a question,” he ventured. “Does pig throat mean anything to you?”
The history teacher leaned over in confidence. “It’s always something,” she hissed.
Molly and Kara’s excitement sizzled. They had much to say about what they’d learned — subject/verb agreement and plate tectonics — and who was going as what for Halloween. According to Molly, Krystal Lippincourt was absent.
“We’re not afraid,” he whispered to Meg as they set the table. “We’re not the Lippincourts.” She agreed, which surprised him, and it was decided they would go as a family. The girls slurped spaghetti by the forkful, their lips and fingers red with marinara.
Defying the “stick together” rule, Molly and Kara sprinted from door to door, pausing only to give their opinion on the handouts: the house with the raisons was roundly cursed. The whole evening, he glanced up into the trees and down the dark spaces between houses, suspicious of movements just at the edge of his periphery. Eventually, the girls wore themselves out, leaving him and Meg to hold their jack-o’-lanterns.
The threat of trickery gave the night an appropriate uncanniness that made him giddy. Beneath a streetlamp not far from home, he had an insight: the thrill of the night was gothic in nature because this awe at the uncanny — the sublime — was experienced at throat level. There was nothing grand — no transcendence — about watching his sweaty daughters shove candy in their mouths beneath the masks. And the moon, as it turned out, was just shy of perfectly full but was nonetheless huge and orange and sagged with beauty.
When they returned home he considered the dark Lippincourt house and felt sorry for the family, likely holed up watching the Cosby Show, while his own girls counted candy beneath the glow of a horror movie as the last of their sugar high wore off.
Later, when he peeked in on them sleeping, Molly rolled over and muttered something. Her demon mask rested on the pillow.
After Meg fell asleep, he got a beer and went up to his office. He read a couple pages of Gothic & the Sublime to rediscover what that nagging line might have meant to him
when he first scribbled it, but it was unclear and already his earlier insight had dulled quite a bit. He drank another beer.
Gothic & the Sublime featured etchings from early gothic novels: castles, suits of armor, pale maidens fainting at shadows. But it was the wild boar that enchanted him. In the foreground, the pig-like animal hovers above the ground, its body contorted as if possessed. In the upper right corner a castle towers in the distance with a single window lit.
The sounds he heard issued from the etching itself, a rustling leaves — but in fact they came from outside, and there was laughter. He went to the window and saw movement in the bushes at the edge of their yard.
He hurried downstairs.
Under the swollen moon he stood barefoot in the grass beholding his lawn, scattered with leaves. The bags had been gutted, the scarecrow turned on its head. They’d got him, the bastards.
It was cold and his outrage quickly petered out. It was just leaves, and he was tired. He’d all but forgiven the prank when he noticed on the doormat two slices of deli meat, brownish and matter-of-fact. He grabbed them and flung them from the porch.
To the bushes he whispered, “Are you Pig Throat?!”
Just then, the motion lights at the Lippincourt house came on, followed by a light inside.
He and Tim would confer, he decided, maybe even make a fuss and set things right. As he stepped across the street he glanced back at the windows of Molly and Kara’s room.
He knew so little about his daughters, and before long he would know less. This truth, he realized, had been occurring to him in the slow and inexorable way of a drifting landmass: no cause for alarm except in the reckoning.
He could do nothing but hang tight, barefoot in the street, and hope that in whatever dream world his sleeping daughters moved through they were the ones causing terror. That come morning, rubbing crust from their eyelids, they might half- remember giving chase to some small harmless thing.
Charlie Peters lives in Birmingham, Alabama, where he is a runner despite the humidity and a writer in spite of distractions.