I met the Devil once, many years ago, on Halloween night. Quite a claim, I know. You might think it dubious—and it’s perfectly understandable given the circumstances. After all, I’m not a particularly religious person. I was raised Catholic, but over the years I’ve slowly retreated. And any dwindling belief I may have in God only remains so one day I can look him in the eye and tell him to grow up.
With that said…
The night was cold and dark – appropriate for Halloween – when I hopped out of my car to head into a convenience store. I was young, but old enough that my place on Halloween night was at home with some movies, some rum-spiced cider, and a bowl of candy for the kids. My trick-or-treating days were well behind me.
There was a man leering just outside of the entrance to the store—very tall and very thin. His hair, which was grey and buzzed short, was peeking out from under his navy blue knit cap. His features were sharp, as if drawn by a 1940s cartoonist. His eyes were beady, and small; black pupils as dark as a raccoon’s. He wore flint grey, fingerless gloves, and clutched a smoldering cigarette. I remember as I approached him that though he was stationary, bundled up against the cold in dark denim everything, his body appeared to be swaying, as if his physical form were made up entirely of hazily-remembered dreams. I could feel myself growing noticeably uncomfortable with each step that took me closer to him. I tried to keep my head down to avert a potential glance from his direction, but I was too afraid to take my eyes off him, for fear that he would vanish and reappear behind me, running his fingerless-gloved hands across the back of my neck. As I got closer, the man thankfully did not look in my direction, and even stepped idly out of my way to allow my access to the store. I never actually saw him move, however—not in the way another man moves. I didn’t see his height rise and fall for each step he should have taken. No, he just glided; he…slithered. And he did not look at me.
I whipped open the door and hastily moved inside. Almost instantly forgetting what I had intended on buying, I walked the aisles and examined the store’s array of items. Slowly my mental shopping list began to come back to me, and I tossed item after item into my basket. And all the while, through the dark tinted windows of the storefront, I could see the man. For long periods of time, he did not move—not an inch. Slowly, and robotically, he would bring his cigarette to his lips, take a deep inhale, and then let the smoke leak out of his mouth like a bleeding wound.
Otherwise he was still.
Admittedly, I walked throughout the small store two or three times, hoping that the man outside was waiting for a ride, or a bus—hoping that if I stalled long enough he would be gone by the time I was to exit the store again. But he remained in place, just outside the doors, cigarette smoke framing his body in a haze.
I paid for my items and made my way towards the exit. I stepped out and immediately began busying myself in my grocery bag, as if there were something of great importance within. I wasn’t but ten steps to my car.
“Lotsa kids out tonight,” the man said. His voice was almost reptilian, and I instantly pictured a long, forked tongue sliding out of his mouth. Part of me – no, scratch that—all of me – wished I had forgone social politeness that night, simply ignored his strange, out-of-nowhere comment, and continued the trek to my car.
Instead, I turned with fear in my eyes. “I’m sorry?”
“Kids,” the man said. He was looking straight ahead, out into the road. I followed his gaze. Kids of every size, shape, superhero, and monster were parading the sidewalks, dancing off front stoops only to hop up on another. Halloween was in full swing.
“Yes,” I said..the only thing I could think to say.
“I’ve always liked Halloween,” the man continued. He took another slow pull on his cigarette – almost deliberately slow – and let the cloud of smoke linger about his face. “People dress like monsters, but the real monsters…they masquerade as people.” He looked at me finally. “You get?”
I gulped. I clutched my grocery bags tight in my hands. The wind whipped and struck my face, causing my eyes to water. I could smell the man’s cigarette. It was stale and dingy, but sweet in a nauseating way, like a bag of garbage on its third straight day under the summer sun.
“Good kids, though,” the man continued, motioning towards the costumed children scattered all around them. “Treats only, no tricks.” He smiled a razorblade smile. “You ever run around on Halloween night in years past? You know…causing havoc? Tossing toilet paper, throwing eggs?”
“No,” I lied.
“No?” he asked. He didn’t so much knowingly laugh as allowed one to escape his dry throat. He grinned with black teeth. “You never filled Mark Prudhomme’s mailbox with a week’s worth of Danger’s shit? Ten years ago, wasn’t it?”
“No,” I lied again, as images of Danger, my old dead yellow lab tore through my mind like a tornado.
“That’s a good thing,” the man said. “Someone do something like that? Not a very good person. Not a person with value, or purpose. You can try to call something like that innocent—a foolish act by a foolish kid who doesn’t know any better.”
He hacked and spit something pure black on the ground. A trick of the light, I’m sure of it now, but at the time I thought I saw it overturn and scamper away on a million legs. “You ask me, though? I say it’s a seed of something hidden…something worse.”
“Goodnight, sir,” I said and turned away from him.
“Say, perchance will you be passing Vine Street?”
“No,” I lied again, not turning back towards him. “I’m not going that way.”
“No?” the man asked, surprised. “Well, you take Station Road home, don’t you?”
“Y-yes,” I answered, the word out of my mouth before I could fully realize the ramifications.
“Sure you do,” the man said. “You take Station Road all the way home to that little two-bedroom single on Greentree—the one with that basement bathroom where you have to jiggle the toilet’s handle if you want it to flush. Greentree passes right over Vine. Mind if I ride along? Cold out here.”
No. No, no. no.
“Sure,” I said, and to this day I don’t know why. Maybe because I knew I didn’t have a choice—that I wasn’t in control; that even if I had flipped off the man, dove into my car, and burned rubber for the next half mile, I would look in the rearview mirror to see him calmly blowing smoke rings in my backseat.
I fell heavily down into the driver’s seat and began grabbing trash and CDs and the Sports section from the passenger seat and tossed it all into the back. The man opened his door and slid in.
I started the car and backed out of the parking lot, into the road, and then set off for Vine Street.
“Cold out there,” the man said again. “Be nice to warm these old bones.” Another hoarse laugh escaped from his throat. He leaned over, his hand outstretched, his fingernails swirling yellow and brown. “John Rio.”
I shook his hand, and the bones in his fingers felt like cold steel. “Gordon. Hughes.”
I kept my eyes on the road.
Riding with the Devil does funny things to one’s mind—I remember thinking that. As we shared that car ride, I fully knew who John Rio really was. And I knew that John knew I was in on the secret. And yet I still played it cool, took it easy, and didn’t let him bait me into showing fear. Pride is a mortal sin, after all. That I do remember from my pre-“heathen” days.
We passed two boys, who appeared to be no more than thirteen years old. The man took notice of them as we passed by, even hunching up in his seat to stare at them as the car moved steadily down the road away from them.
“Chuck Ilson and Drew Lucas,” the man recited. “Know them?”
I shook my head at the man’s back.
“Little pains in the neck, they are. Chucky Ilson’s been stealing money from his mother’s purse – $5 a week – for the last year. And Drew Lucas, why, he likes to watch his older sister sometimes when he doesn’t think anyone is looking.”
I swallowed hard.
John sat back into his seat. “Kids,” he muttered. He lit a cigarette, but did not roll down his window.
“You know a lot about this town,” I said.
“It’s one of my favorite places to visit,” John said. “I like it here—and other small towns like it. They’re always a surprise—small towns, I mean.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, though my tone suggested I didn’t care to hear his answer.
John dumped the ashes from his cigarette into his open hand and rubbed it into his fingers, leaving behind thick black, oily smears. “Big cities get a bad rap,” he said. “High crime, corrupt agencies, whores—all that. And sure, that stuff goes on. But at the end of the day, it’s really not so bad. Big cities – all those people, close quarters; different races, sexes, creeds – they’re expected to produce violence. It’s a way of life. Lock two animals together in a room, sooner or later, one of them is going to be licking the other’s blood off their fur. But small towns…you people are supposed to be sane. You never went to the cities because you wanted quiet lives. You wanted a drama-free environment. You wanted silence, more breathing room, and permanent parking places for your cars. No, the real worst of humanity is born in small towns, like this one. And they thrive here.”
“And why do you think that is?” I asked.
“Well, why do you think?” he asked me, incredulously. He grinned through his words, as if we were in the midst of a riddle game. And maybe we were. “Where better to hide than a small town? Where better to satisfy whatever…particular urges plague a person? You look across the street and you see a manicured lawn and bright white shutters. But you don’t see past the front door, do you? You don’t see what’s really going on.”
“But you do? You’re all-seeing, all-knowing?”
“I don’t like to brag,” he said, and his snickering sounded like a purring wolf.
“So you know me, then?”
“Since before you were born, Gordon,” John said. “I’ve known you since before your grandfather was even a thought.”
“What’s my mother’s name?”
“When did my father die?”
“Four years ago. Liver cancer. Should’ve cut down on the bourbon breakfasts.”
“My third grade math teacher?”
“Mr. Fisher. Oh, how he hated you.”
“What am I thinking right now?”
John grinned his wide, jack-o’-lantern grin.
You sleep like the dead, like the very stones in your north field, his voice echoed within my mind.
“How are you doing this?” I demanded.
“Well I’m glad you find it impressive, but believe me, I’m capable of so much more.”
“Why don’t you just go find another small town?”
“Why, Gordon,” Jack began, “what makes you think I’m not in fifty other places right now?”
“You don’t belong here,” I began, desperately. “This is a good place—a good town.”
“No such place, Gordon,” he said. “No such thing as a place that’s all good. Not even heaven is all it’s cracked up to be.”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I know my neighbors. We’re good. We’re not like you say.”
“Oh no?” the man asked, his voice tinged with intrigue. “What about Charlie Bowles? He’s a neighbor of yours, right?”
“Ever watch him when he’s alone with his daughter?”
“Watch him,” John insisted, almost happy to do so. “Look at the way he touches her hair, rubs her shoulder.”
“Stop it,” I said.
“And not thirty feet from your front door!” John spouted.
I concentrated on the road. My hand gripped the steering wheel.
“Yeah yeah, small towns…” John trailed off, looking back out the window. More costumed kids flooded the sidewalks and flanked front doors. “When’s the last time you went trick-or-treating?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s been a while. Maybe ten years. Probably more.”
“Ever miss it?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “Maybe not so much that, but—“
“Childhood, and all childish things.”
“Yeah…” John said, letting the single-syllable word last for centuries. And then: “Hey, stop the car a second.”
“Stop the car.”
I slowed to a stop. John rolled down the window.
“Trick-or-treat!” he called to a group of kids standing on the sidewalk. The kids eyed him hesitantly at first until he stuck out a hand suddenly filled with candy. The kids rushed over in droves, their bags extended eagerly. John laughed merrily and dropped treat after treat into their bags. “Enjoy, kids!”
They began to disperse.
“Oh, and, Tony?”
A boy turned.
The boy nodded.
“See you soon.”
John grinned and I pulled away.
“What the hell was that?” I demanded.
“Yeah? For who?”
“Why, for me, son. That’s why I’m here. Kids aren’t the only ones who invade the night to trick-or-treat. I’m right out there with them. I keep an eye out on my property at all times. Even that which isn’t yet mine.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I like to take inventory on Halloween,” he said. “It’s the perfect time, after all. Everyone’s got a costume on. Even me.”
We came to Vine Street. I stopped at the stop sign and put the car in park. “Just come out and say it,” I said.
“ ‘Thanks for the ride?’ ” John asked.
“No, me. You chose me, right? For the ride? Am I your property? Is that what you’re telling me?”
John said nothing.
“What, I’m gonna…lose my mind one day and shoot up an office? Steal money from someone? Stab my best friend in the back?”
“Hold yourself in pretty high esteem, don’t you?”
“Do you think I’m evil or something?” I pressed. “Is that why we’re sharing this car ride?”
The man laughed a wheezy laugh—dry winds blowing across a desert.
“I know what you are,” I said. “So let’s stop dancing around. You were waiting for me at that shop. You’d knew I’d be there.”
“Thanks for the ride,” John said and slid out. He lit another cigarette.
“Tell me,” I said. “I gave you a courtesy. Now give me one.”
“Happy Halloween,” John said and walked off into the darkness down Vine Street. I watched him go until the darkness had completely enveloped him, and even after, I still remained there. I’m not sure why.
I’ve thought about John Rio a lot since meeting him. Not every day, though maybe I should have. When the nights are colder than usual, I do. I remember his lizard smile and his rotten teeth. Every time I have to jingle the handle on my basement toilet to get it to flush, I picture grey smoke leaking out of his mouth and clouding his face.
Each subsequent Halloween has been jarring and nerve-wracking for all the wrong reasons. I expect to see him around every street corner, or waiting for me in my bedroom when I turn in for the night. I sometimes wonder if he’ll be in my backseat, or behind me on the bus. In my nightmares, maybe.
And lastly I wonder why it is he came to me in the first place. Am I headed down a dark path? Am I doomed? Will I commit an act so atrocious and wrong that there is no saving myself?
John Rio said that Halloween was about wearing masks. On Halloween, humans dress as monsters, but on every other day of the year, it’s the complete opposite. I thought at the time he was talking about himself. Now I’m not so sure.
Maybe he was talking about me.