CUSTODY • by MacKenzie Tastan

Stella took a deep breath of crisp autumn air and thought about how little Halloween had changed in the neighborhood where she grew up. Bands of costumed children roamed the streets as the last of the natural light faded. The time for trick-or-treat would soon be over. As she approached the last house on the block, she recognized a familiar scarecrow.

“Boo!” the scarecrow shouted as he hopped down from his makeshift perch.

“Good one,” she said.

“Can’t you at least pretend to be scared, Mom?” the scarecrow whined.

“Nope, it’s got to be genuine. It will be good practice for when you go with your dad.”

“Is he really coming this year?” he asked eagerly.

Stella shifted her weight from foot to foot uncomfortably and shrugged. “I hope so. He told me this would be the night.” She knew that being stood up by his father again would break Damien’s heart.

“That’s what you said last year,” he said glumly.

“I know, Sweetheart, I’m sorry. I wish I had something new to tell you, but I don’t. He’ll get in touch when he can.” He nodded tacitly. “I think we have time to hit one or two more houses before trick-or-treat ends. What do you say?”

He perked up at the mention of more candy. “What time is it?”

She checked her phone, “Seven fifty-five.”

“Sure, we can do at least three more houses!” He ran up the nearest driveway and rang the doorbell. An elderly woman in a witch hat answered with a bowl of king size Snickers bars. “Jackpot,” he said and the woman chuckled. 

Standing in the empty cul-de-sac, staring up at the well-lit porch, Stella felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She shivered as she realized the street was completely silent. There were no children laughing, no cars driving by, not even the buzz from streetlamps overhead. She pulled her fleece tighter around her and blew out a long breath, watching as white mist floated out of her mouth into the air. Her son trounced down the slope of the house’s front yard and beamed at her, putting the king size candy bar in the pillowcase with his other candy.

“Damien,” she whispered, “he’s here.”

The boy’s eyes widened and he glanced around anxiously. “Where is he?” The streetlight above them guttered and a figure stepped out from the shadows. It was hard to see him clearly, but she recognized the tall form with bat-like wings stretched wide on either side. It had been years since she’d seen her son’s father. Every year she took the boy trick-or-treating and held her breath. It was the one night of the year when the veil between this world and the next was thin enough to pass through.

“Dad!” Damien cried as he ran to embrace the figure. His father lifted him up and swung him around as if he weighed nothing at all.

“My boy,” the demon said in a deep gravelly voice, “you’ve gotten so tall. I hardly recognized you.”

“We waited for you last year, but you didn’t come.”

“I’m here now,” his father said gruffly.

“Hi Lucien,” she said, stepping in to avoid an argument.

“Stella, you look as beautiful as ever,” he said, his yellow eyes glowing brightly in the dark.

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she said simply, hoping he couldn’t see she was blushing. She’d already made that mistake once. “I have a bag packed for him at the house. I wasn’t sure what he would need. Should we go and get it?”

“Everything he needs will be provided,” Lucien said. “But if you’d prefer, we can retrieve it. What do you think, Damien?”

“Maybe we’d better go get it. What if I don’t like the pajamas or something in the underworld?”

A low rumble emanated from the demon and Stella realized he was laughing. “Lead the way then,” Lucien said. The boy skipped down the sidewalk toward their house.

“He seems happy and healthy,” the demon said, risking a glance at Stella.

“I do my best,” she said, “but it’s hard to know what a half-human child needs sometimes. Are you sure he’ll be alright in your world? You’ll make sure he’s safe and happy?”

“I swear that I’ll return him to you unharmed a year from today.”

She nodded. “I have a story prepared to tell my family. My mother was always pressing me for more details about you.”

“What will you tell her?” he asked, amused.

“That you’re from an important family in Argentina and it’s hard for you to get away, but you want to spend time with him,” she said.

“And when he disappears?” he asked.

“I’ll tell them that he went to stay with you. You’re his father. It’s perfectly logical.”

The boy bounded back out of the house carrying a green duffel bag over his shoulder, “I’m ready, Dad.”

Lucien reached down and ruffled his son’s hair with one clawed hand. “Alright, say goodbye to your mother.”

Damien wrapped his arms around her midsection in a bearhug. “Bye, Mom. I’ll see you next year.”

She planted a kiss on his forehead. “Be careful and listen to your dad, okay?”

“I will,” he said. The boy skipped over to stand beside Lucien, who put his hand on his shoulder. The streetlight overhead sprang back to life and for an instant father and son were illuminated in pale golden light. Lucien stretched his enormous wings and they were gone.

Stella made her way into her house in darkness, listening carefully before turning the key to unlock the door. She was thankful that no demons had followed her home this year.

MacKenzie Tastan is a bestselling author of children’s nonfiction. Her short stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, the Momaya Press Short Story Review, and Illumen Magazine. She lives in Ohio with her husband and pet rabbit.

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