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The Boys Next Door

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Halloween had meant going trick or treating with Mum for as long as Lila could remember. Planning her costume, discussing in all seriousness every single detail of it, planning their route, endlessly negotiating how much of the sweets that Lila had gathered she could eat each day. Even for the past few years, since the birth of Lila’s little sister Mia, they’d left the baby with Grandma and had gone just the two of them. This year was different, though. Mum was busy with the night classes she’d been following and she’d entrusted Lila with the task of taking Mia out for her first time doing trick or treat. Lila was ten, now, almost too old for it, and Mia was a plump, bubbly little four-year-old. The disappointment of not upholding the tradition with Mum was only just overcome by the enormity of the responsibility on Lila’s shoulders.

“You don’t let go of my hand,” Lila instructed her little sister as they left the house. “And when people open their door, you say—”

“Trick or treat!” Mia squealed. She was dressed as an adorable miniature vampire, wrapped in a dark cape, with tiny fangs poking out of her mouth and fake blood trickling at one corner.

“Right. We say ‘trick or treat”, but what we want are the sweets, of course. When you’ve said ‘trick or treat’, people are going to give you sweets.”

“I want sweets,” Mia said, with all the longing a four-year-old was capable of.

“And you’ll have them,” Lila said. She gave her sister’s hand a little tug to get her attention. “But you’ve got to say ‘thank you’ after they’ve given you the sweets. Listen to me, Mia, this is important. You say ‘thank you.’”

“All right,” Mia said. “Can I have sweets now?”

“We’ve got to ask people for it. Come on.”

Their street was a row of terraced brick houses, with only the colour of their doors and the curtains at their windows to set them apart. Lila knew the people who lived directly next door to them, but not most of the others. The plan was to walk down their street, then do the street parallel to theirs, and finally walk back up to do the few houses they wouldn’t have already done, before they went back home. The first few houses predictably got them a fair amount of sweets. Their neighbours were old people with no grand-children, or grand-children who lived far away, and all they wanted was to dote on the trick or treating children. Mia was at first struck by uncharacteristic shyness and wouldn’t say the magic ‘trick or treat’ words, hiding behind Lila. By the fourth house, she’d been emboldened enough by their success that she begged Lila to let her say it herself.

“Okay,” Lila said. “You say it this time.”

The house they were approaching had a blood-red door. Lila didn’t know who lived there, except that they’d moved recently because she’d seen a lot of boxes being moved out of a car a week ago. She knocked on the door twice, then waited until Mia started to squirm, bored with standing in front of a door without anything to do. Lila would have thought that no one was home, except that she could see light filter around the curtains at the window.

“Maybe they didn’t hear us,” she said. She’d try knocking one more time, and if no one answered she’d know that the house’s occupants were either too busy or ignoring them on purpose.

She lifted her hand to do it, but the door opened before her knuckles could connect. A dark-haired boy stood in the doorway, older than Lila but not an adult yet. He held a knife in his right hand—not a kitchen knife, the kind Mum used to chop vegetables and meat, but a knife that looked like it was meant to hurt people.

“I—” Lila said, squeezing Mia’s hand hard. “Sorry, we got the wrong—”

“Trick or treat!” Mia yelled excitedly.

The boy silently looked down at Mia, and Lila fought the urge to shove her little sister behind her back. His expression didn’t look particularly menacing, although it wasn’t very friendly either. He had a white, blank face, with very dark eyes and a full mouth. Now that Lila had had more than a second to look at him, she thought that he had a face like those of the Greek statues she’d seen in museums. Perfect, but emotionless.

“Trick,” he said at last, as though he’d been contemplating his answer the whole time.

“What?” Lila said, while Mia blinked at him uncertainly, bemused by the way he’d gone off script.

“You asked, ‘trick or treat,’” the boy said. “A trick sounds more interesting. Show me what you’ve got.”

“But,” Mia said, a whine to her voice. “You’re supposed to give us sweets.”

“That’s not what you asked for, though,” the boy said. That bit of logic seemed to confound Mia, who shut her mouth.

“Well,” Lila said, “it’s fine. Sorry to have bothered—”

“Nick?” a voice called from the depths of the house. “Who’s at the door?”

“Some kids,” the boy—Nick—said with a shrug.

Another boy appeared at Nick’s shoulder. He was red-haired and wore glasses, which appeased Lila a little. She’d never known anyone with glasses who was mean. The new boy smiled at Lila in a slightly questioning way.

“Hello,” he said. “Did you need anything?”

He looked much kinder than the first boy, but Lila couldn’t see his hands and she wasn’t about to risk him having a knife too. She started to shake her head, but once again her little sister got ahead of her.

“Trick or treat?” Mia asked hopefully.

“Oh!” the red-haired boy exclaimed. “Oh, of course. This is Halloween. I completely lost track of the date, with all the—Nick, do we have any sweets?”

“No, we don’t,” Nick said in a completely deadpan voice. “What sort of extortion is that, anyway? Those kids show up at our doorstep with a code phrase and suddenly we have to give them sweets?”

“It’s Halloween, Nick. It’s a tradition that—Well, it’s mostly American but it’s got popular here too. Children wear costumes and they go from house to house, asking for sweets. If they don’t get sweets, they play a trick on the person, like throwing soap at the window. That’s what the phrase ‘trick or treat’ means. Don’t you remember seeing it on TV?”

“So you don’t want me to go around threatening people—” Here Nick started to wave his knife in a way that made all the hairs stand on Lila’s arms, but she didn’t dare draw attention on Mia and herself by moving. “—but children can practice every year a traditional form of racketeering that comes from the US? How come we never did it when we were children?”

“We—” The red-haired boy opened and closed his mouth, looking caught off guard by the question. “We were moving around so much, and you—” He seemed to change his mind about what he was going to say and looked at Lila and Mia instead. “You know what? I just remembered that Nick made lemon scones. We can give you some of those.”

“I made them for you,” Nick said in a low, hostile voice.

In his place, Lila would have run away, but the red-haired boy seemed unfazed. “And I want to share them with the kids. If they’re for me, I can do whatever I want with them, can’t I?”

“Fine,” Nick snapped. “Whatever.”

“Just go get the scones, Nick,” the red-haired boy said, smiling in a way that Lila recognized, with a mix of fondness and exasperation—the way an older sibling smiled to their younger sibling.

Nick stormed away, and the red-haired boy gave Lila a warm, reassuring smile. “Sorry about my brother,” he said. “I’m Alan. What’re your names, girls?”

So the boys were indeed brothers, even though they looked nothing like each other. “I’m Lila,” Lila said. “This is Mia.”

“You’re taking your little sister trick or treating, Lila? How fun.”

“Yes. Mum asked me to take care of her. To protect her.”

Lila cast the older boy what she hoped was a firm, warning look. Now that his brother had gone she could see that he wasn’t holding any knives, but it didn’t mean he was less dangerous than his knife-wielding brother.

Alan’s smile took on a wistful tilt. “I understand that,” he said. “I’m sure you take good care of her.”

“Lila,” Mia whispered, tugging on Lila’s hand. “Are we getting sweets? I’m cold.”

“Here are your scones.”

Nick had just popped out of the shadowed entrance hall; Lila hadn’t even heard him coming. He shoved in her hands a few scones, still warm from the oven, that Lila put in the pillow case that Mia was carrying with her.

“Thank you,” Lila said in her most polite tone.

“Thank you,” Mia parroted.

“You’re welcome,” Alan said. “Happy Halloween, girls.”

Nick rolled his eyes and started to say something loud and angry just as the door was closing on them. Lila didn’t hear what he was saying, and she didn’t care much to. All she wanted was to go back home, but she knew that Mia would be too disappointed if they stopped now.

“Next year,” she said, her voice trembling a little, “we’re skipping that house.”