Lois Wehre and her tuxedo cat Frankie lived in Grovers’ Mill, New Jersey, where Orson Welles set his Halloween radio broadcast about Martians landing, and where, to this day, Halloween is a big deal. Her house is Ground Zero for tourists, thanks to local teens who once attached a lighted “flying saucer” to her garage roof. Lois grew up in Missouri. Her father was a mean drunk who lorded it over Lois and her weak-willed mother, and worse. They made Lois’s life miserable. When the house burned down one night as her mother and father slept, Lois took her inheritance and moved across country. Some adult children just shouldn’t live with their parents.
- * * *
The wind-whipped whiff of smoke in the air, the flame-colored leaves, the shrieks of the children. Lois forgot to smile at the diminutive superheroes and frothy pink princesses who greedily plunged their hands deep into the candy bowl. “One piece,” she said, unheeded.
The night thickened, and the older kids would start arriving soon. They’d gather outside, trapping her in the house. Not this year. She turned off the lights and, clad head-to-toe in black, a dark scarf hooding her face, slipped out the back door. When she stood motionless at the inky corner of the hedge, she could watch over her house, invisible.
Soon a clutch of twelve-year-old boys walked up to the front porch and pounded on the door.
“That old bitch,” one said in a voice that hadn’t changed yet.
They slipped around the side of the house. Giggling and mock-shoving, they gathered in a tight circle, blocking the wind. A match flared, and the tip of a cigarette glowed as a boy sucked on it, then passed it to his friend. The match, dropped absent-mindedly, fell in an arcing pinpoint of yellow light.
“You sure she’s not home?”
“Danny, she’s not. Dare you to go inside.”
“Chicken.” The boy giggled and took a drag on the joint.
“I will if you will,” another said.
As the jostling boys sneaked into the back yard, a cache of dry leaves hidden under the rhododendrons began to flame.
“Wait,” Lois called, her warning carried away by a gust. She shot out of her hiding place as flames touched the base of the wooden porch. “Frankie!” she shrieked and ran toward the house.
Two older teenagers, football players by the intimidating heft of them, stepped in front of her. They were dressed all in black, too. She hadn’t seen them. The taller one wore sunglasses that made his eyes as fathomless as those of the pseudo-aliens decorating her neighbors’ lawns.
“Where you going?” he asked.
“The house is on fire! My cat!”
“What’s your hurry? It’s just a few dead leaves.”
She tried to dodge around them, but with one side-step they easily blocked someone her size. She shoved. They stood immobile, menacing.
“Please let me by. I have to—hurry!—” Her heart pounded. They didn’t understand how fast fire could move. One end of the porch was burning, and before long, the flames would reach the front door.
“Cats have nine lives.” The shorter teen snickered.
Lois tried again to shove her way between them, but they stood solidly shoulder-to-shoulder, teasing her. “Let me by!” She panted her words. “My neighbors will have seen the fire by now. You’d better get out of here.”
“Plenty of time. Hear anything?” the tall one asked. The other shook his head and grinned.
And, indeed, it was eerily quiet, except for the crackling flames. The rose trellis at the end of the porch sparkled with raining cinders. Shrieks of hilarity came from inside the darkened house.
“Those boys, they have to get out!” She gestured violently. “They’ll die in there.”
The teenagers glanced over their shoulders. “Hey, assholes!” the tall one yelled. “Get out of there. What’re you doing?”
The only answer was more high-pitched laughter.
“I think your little brother’s with them,” the other said. They turned and in long strides reached the porch, the flames licking toward them. They shoved open the front door. “You kids get the hell out. The house is on fire, you morons. Danny, if you’re in there, I’m going to—”
Lois ducked past them, but the tall one grabbed her arm. A column holding up one end of the porch roof collapsed, and the corner of the roof followed in sagging slow motion. Inside, the kids screamed and raced past her, nearly knocking her down. The teenager let go of her arm.
“Danny? Danny! Where is he?” he yelled at the boys.
The children glanced at each other. “He was with us a minute ago.”
“In the kitchen,” said another.
“No, he wasn’t!”
Lois ran to the back of the house and almost tripped on a still form. She turned on the overhead light. The boy was unconscious beneath an open cabinet door. “Must of cracked his head,” she muttered. She picked him up—heavy for her—and called, “Frankie! Frankie!”
A child where he wasn’t supposed to be, just like her daughter Kaye, where she wasn’t supposed to be, the night of that other fire. Kaye had a sleepover, but the girls quarreled after dinner, and Kaye came home while Lois was in the back yard, putting out water for the chickens. She never knew Kaye was there until the firemen carried out the third body.
Danny’s weight caused her to stagger a little. Frankie dashed between her legs, nearly tripping her as she reached the open back door. Being allowed outside at night was a rare treat, and Frankie wouldn’t miss this chance. He flew off the steps.
The teenagers arrived at the bottom of the stoop just as she did, and she handed them Danny like a gift. Then they heard the sirens.