KIND STRANGERS • by Jeff Jeppesen

A firm rap on the door, the dog barks but he’s locked up in the bedroom so he won’t frighten the spooks and goblins; irony. I struggle around the couch to keep up with Maggie and her big bowl of candy. She’s only seven but she wanted to hand out the goodies with me instead of walking the neighborhood. This is not her neighborhood; she’s only spending the week here while her mother is down south on another business trip. Maggie’s got on a blue Disney princess dress; I don’t remember which one, Sleeping Beauty? I pulled her auburn hair back into a pony tail earlier in the evening buts its coming undone. Her face is smudged with chocolate.

I open the door and notice that the porch light needs a new bulb, judging from the hum it makes, like a bee-hive buzzing.

“Oh Daddy, they’re so pretty!” Maggie exclaims, brown eyes wide.

On the porch, bathing in the electric glow, is a striking pair that takes me by surprise. A father, or grandfather maybe, and daughter, both dressed up for the holiday it seems. The father is skeletal, regal with hair that looks made of real silver. Damned good wig. He’s dressed in a dark formal suit with sea-foamy lace at the cuffs and throat. One eye is hidden behind a tooled leather patch. I sure don’t recognize him as one of my neighbors.

The little blonde girl, smaller than Maggie, is in a silky, breezy gown. Scraps of pale gauze flutter about like wings, in a breeze just for her. She is no true child. If asked, I would place her age somewhere around that of her guide, but couldn’t tell you why. If asked, the one word to describe her would be “unbound”. Her eyes are catlike, green; deep and chilly above a careful, warm smile. I am suddenly much colder and ashamed of my shabby tee-shirt and jeans. Maybe I should have shaved, put some shoes on.

“You are another princess,” the girl says to Maggie. “Come play.”

That humming invades my head, I barely hear Ralph the dog barking his ugly head off from deep in the house. I feel so distracted but there’s something, some memory trying to surface. I know these people from somewhere, just not from around here. There were stories my Scots-Irish grandmother told me when I was a boy, tales about a tall people, sharp as crystal. The man’s face is drawing into the beginnings of a sneer. He doesn’t like me appraising him or his companion. He does not like scrutiny.

“They look amazing, yes, Maggie. But you have to stay close and help me pass out candy to all the other kids that haven’t been by yet. Let this little angel make two choices. Tilt the bowl for her to see.”

Those eerie green eyes shift to the candy-bowl instead of my Maggie. The man smiles, silver moon breaking through cloud, and I feel like the red dot of a laser-sight has moved away from my chest.

“Two choices!  Splendid!” His voice is deep like thunder miles away. He spreads one white, spidery hand across the lace spilling from his vest. “Such generosity I have long missed. Of course the little princess must stay with her father this holiday, Daughter. I am sorry but we will find a playmate for you elsewhere.”

He gazes intently at me with his one eye so blue so blue so blue. The memory is close. I just roll with it. Granny said they were fascinating and cunning but fascinated too, with us plain folks. Sometimes playful and sometimes cruel, fickle and prone to flattery, yet never forget that they will never forget who walked these hills first. Are they good or bad, she repeated my question. They are other, just other.

“Will we see you again around here, Kind Sir?” I stammer.

“Perhaps next year about this time, then,” he replies with a lonely sadness that slices me. Why wasn’t I invited to go with them? Is there still time? “We do not get out very often these days. Opened doors may soon close but they always swing open once again. It is a cycle, an endless cycle. Know that I will be unable to forget your generosity towards my daughter, young man.”

He nods once, takes his little one by the hand and steps back from the cone of electric light. The humming ceases almost instantly, Ralph stops yapping. My mind feels clearer.

By the time another rayon and plastic Iron Man and his mother trot up the cracked sidewalk to the porch, Maggie seems to have forgotten the strangers.

Next afternoon, when the report of William Jeffors, nine, from one block over, still not returned from trick-or-treating with friends and siblings, comes over the local news, I start to think again about moving to a newer, better neighborhood. But I wonder if closed doors can just reopen anywhere. I think, instead, it’s time to tell Maggie a few of my grandmother’s stories.

Jeff Jeppesen is an IT professional and writer living in Warner Robins, Georgia. His work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons, Every Day Poets, The Houston Literary Review, Illumen, Not One of Us, Liquid Imagination, Falling Star Magazine and Shot Glass Journal. Jeff is also an Associate Editor at Every Day Poets.

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Planet Oz: The Novel — Lost on a planet with only her laser rifle and T.O.W.T.O.H., Dorothy must fight false rulers and her own self-doubt before she can escape from Planet Oz.

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