SO FEW CHILDREN -by Ray O'Bannon

The knife had plunged in smoothly, deeply, anxious to finish it's work. Regina had winced at that horrible hollow sound as the blade sank downwards. She always winced. Carving pumpkins had always upset her terribly, something about that cold wet 'thwap' as the knife cut through the rind, and she always fought to ignore that ridiculous little voice in the back of her mind that was screaming "No, you mustn't stab it, mustn't kill it, you MUSTN'T!" But of course she had to carve the pumpkins. Otherwise the children wouldn't come, and what sort of Halloween would THAT be?

She now sat waiting at the kitchen table, staring past the curtains into the cold October night, wondering. Where had all the children gone? Regina had seen Halloween arrive in this small Wisconsin town so many times... why, she could still so clearly recall running up and down this very street herself as a child, could still smell the fresh plastic scent of her Halloween mask, could still remember so many details of those magical evenings. But year by year there had been fewer and fewer kids out enjoying the thrills of the holiday. And as time swept by, Regina couldn't help feeling a little lost. It wasn't that the holiday had lost any of it's special magic... you could still sense it in the smell of the fallen leaves, see it in the glow of the pumpkins... Halloween was here. But so few children ventured out into the starry night to welcome it. So very few.

Not that she hadn't gotten at least a taste of the season's magic this year. Shortly after sunset there had come a timid thumping on her front door, and she had found a small green vampire on her doorstep. From behind the mask came the muffled voice of a nervous little boy, speaking that solemn invocation that officially summons the dark magnificence of Halloween... "Trick or Treat!" She had tossed a Hershey bar into the sack he held out, and had waved to the parents who waited protectively on the sidewalk. Later there had come a skeleton and a pirate, both laughing merrily as she gave them their candy. She could hear 'The Monster Mash' playing on the car's radio as the parents drove away with their little monsters. And after a while there had come a barely noticable tapping at the door. Regina had opened it to find a very small, very nervous little princess. The child glanced back a final time for reassurance from the couple waiting on the sidewalk, and then bravely squeaked "Tricker Treat!"

Regina tossed three Hershey bars into the little plastic pumpkin and watched the child skip happily away, singing some song that she was probably making up as she sang, and would completely forget by tomorrow. And Regina couldn't help smiling to herself. Halloween still had it's power over the young, and there would always be a few of them willing to brave the darkness and scurry from door to door in the night. Even here in this little town. Even after all those murders.

Regina didn't like thinking about all those children who had been reported missing on Halloween. There had been three the first year, five the next, and nine the year after that. Eventually the whole town began to approach Halloween with a different attitude. Children still went out gathering candy, but only under the watchfull eyes of their parents or older brothers and sisters. And every year seemed to bring fewer of them to Regina's doorstep. She tried not to focus on such dark thoughts as she stared out into the night. Her eyes drifted to the pumpkin glowing warmly on the porch steps. Such a lovely color, and such interesting shapes as the candlelight danced across the porch steps. But in the back of her mind, Regina could still hear that horrible sound. 'Thwap'.

And she was suddenly twelve years old again, and back in her sixth grade classroom at Madison Elementary. Orange and black decorations lined the walls, and through her tears she could still see the children's laughing faces as she stood clutching the carving knife. There had been a contest to see which lucky child would get to carve the pumpkin on Mrs. Freemont's desk. Regina was horrified when she was chosen the winner and handed the terrible glistening knife. A few of the meaner kids began laughing as she refused to cut into the pumpkin, and eventually the entire class was pointing at her and calling her all sorts of terrible hurtfull things. The school principal had stepped into the room, but only to tell Mrs. Freemont she was needed elsewhere for a moment. And once left unsupervised, the children had left their desks and surrounded Regina, taunting her visciously. She cried pitifully as they grabbed her hands, forcing her to plunge the knife down, forcing her to chop into the pumpkin again and again and...

No, no. Mustn't think about such awfull things on such a special night as this, she told herself. After all, she'd gone to so much effort. And although most all of the children were escorted by their parents, there was always the chance that one or two might be brave enough to show up by themselves. Regina always had a special treat waiting for those brave few. Beyond the bowl of Hershey bars sat a large plastic punch bowl and several little glasses shaped like skulls, waiting to be filled with the rich warm apple cider that still simmered on the kitchen stove. Several children's board games graced the coffee table, waiting to be played. And a small box behind the sofa held the 'special' treats... puppets, whistles, toy airplanes, all sorts of things. But there hadn't been any fearless little monsters to invite inside. She had only gotten to share a few moments with some of them befor their parents wisked them away, and now she sat staring out the kitchen window. A few stray leaves blew across the empty street, and Regina decided with a vague sense of disappointment that it was nearly time for bed. She rose and crossed to the stove, turning off the burner under the cider. And there was that horrible sound again, but it wasn't just a memory. It had come from the front porch. 'Thwap'.

The dark form stood staring at the ruined pumpkin. Regina could sense his laughter as he pulled the meat cleaver back out of the shattered mess and began to cross the porch. Not a teenager, she decided, since they seldom wore costumes. But large enough to pass for one, and wearing a costume from one of those terrible hack and slash films. The meat cleaver was obviously real, and the boy hadn't bothered to bring any sort of bag to gather candy. Regina stepped back from the window, feeling a sudden dread that the child might have seen her. How silly. But she was suddenly nervous, and a wave of apprehension tingled her spine. She reached for the bowl of Hershey bars and began to approach the front door. Through the frosted glass panels Regina could see the dark figure moving closer. He reached the doorstep but didn't call out "Trick or Treat." And somehow Regina hadn't expected him to. An overwhelming sensation of danger had overcome her as she stood motionless behind the door. The boy raised an arm and drew it back as though preparing to knock, and Regina held back a tiny scream. Waves of terror washed over her. "What in the world is wrong with you?" she tried to ask herself, but there was no denying it. Some primal instinct was screeching "Run, Get away from him, RUN!" She held a trembling breath as the figure's arm began to fall forward. Would it come smashing through the wood, reaching in to clutch her throat? Or merely knock, demanding that she open the door and stand helpless before this oddly menacing visitor. To her amazement, the arm stopped.

The boy stood frozen for a moment, his fist only inches from the doorframe, and then he pulled back his arm in hesitation. This overwhelming sense of danger that was suffocating Regina... could he feel it to? Was he equally aware that something horrible beyond imagining was just on the brink of happening? It seemed even the bleak star-filled night was holding it's breath, waiting.

The boy's fist relaxed. He stood there in the darkness, as though considering something, and then began to reach for the doorbell. His outstretched finger nearly touched the button, but he again stopped and seemed to hesitate. Then he thrust his hand deep into a pocket and turned away from the door. Regina let out a ragged gasp as the dark figure crossed the porch and faded off into the cold October evening.

She made her way back to the kitchen, trying not to tremble as she seated herself at the table. Gazing out at the empty street, she gradually grew calmer. And after a while she felt more like her usual self again. But of course there was a definate sense of disappointment. So few children again this year. The rich warm apple cider would again go untasted, and the board games would be returned to their boxes without having brought any laughter. The special treats would continue to gather dust behind the sofa. And in the basement below, the shackles would again encircle no little limbs. The meat hooks would bear no weight. The metal basin in the corner would remain dry. And the carving knife from the cafeteria of Madison Elementary would once more go unused.

"Well, nevermind", Regina mumbled softly, nibbling a Hershey bar. "There's always next year."