Bullies

By Kevin Grauke

“Why does Hurstwood give up?” Dennis stared at the blank, blinking faces of his students for five silent seconds while his phone pulsed against his thigh. “Why does he resign himself so easily to the comfort of Carrie’s rocking chair, with its static simulation of forward progress?”

After watching and waiting for ten more quiet ticks of the inaccurate clock above the door, he gave up, shutting his Norton Critical Edition of “Sister Carrie,” which was the only signal his students needed: they immediately swung backpacks onto their shoulders, pulled phones from their pockets, and began making their way to the door as he half-heartedly reminded them to read the first ten chapters of “McTeague” before next class. After the last of them slouched into the hallway, he plucked his own phone from his khakis and punched his voicemail, hoping that it might be good news—ideally, someone from the press now looking at his monograph, “Heterocapitalism and Nineteenth-Century American Realism,” someone very excited.

But it wasn’t; it was Siobhan, his ex-wife, which meant that it was about Karl, their four-year-old son.

“Call me ASAP,” she said. “Something happened at the Hundred Acre Wood this morning.”

*   *   *

Had he done something terrible, he would’ve understood why she had asked for a divorce, but he hadn’t done anything, and even she admitted as much.

“I just don’t want to be three anymore, that’s all,” she’d said while Karl nursed at her breast. “I only want to be two.”

Since this came only a couple of months after they had brought Karl home from the hospital, Dennis first thought that she might be suffering from postpartum depression, but she wasn’t crying or losing weight, and she was sleeping fine, when Karl let her. In fact, no matter how much he hated to admit it, she seemed entirely rational and full of excitement and energy.

Determined to learn the reason, he peppered her with questions: Is there someone else? (No.) Am I not attentive enough to your needs? (Of course not.) Am I bad in bed? (You’re fine.) What is it, then? Eventually she answered, and he wished he’d given up on an explanation while still in the dark. She told him how exciting it had been at first, being an undergraduate involved with the graduate student teaching her American literature survey course. “You were so cute with that little beard,” she said. And after they both graduated, it was still good. He got a tenure-track job, and she enrolled in law school right before they got married. “But then after I got hired at Appenzeller & Moffett,” she said, “I realized something. No matter what happened, no matter how much time passed, I would never stop thinking of myself as still your student.”

“But that’s silly,” he said, and he blanched at the tone of his voice. Was it the same patronizing one that he used in the classroom?

“I thought having a child would change things, but it didn’t. In fact, it just made it worse because I realized how young I still am.”

“And what? How old I am?” Had he not been worried about disturbing Karl, who was clenching and unclenching his tiny fists against Siobhan’s skin, he would have shouted this.

She switched Karl to her other breast. “Well, yeah, sort of.”

“But I’m only eight years older than you,” he said, wishing now that he’d paid attention to what she’d said about maybe dyeing the gray at his temples.

All she did was shrug at this, but it was the sort of shrug that could erase worlds.

So, the August after Karl’s first birthday, they legally separated, with joint custody. With a mind toward his stability, they agreed that they didn’t want to shuffle their son back and forth between them; instead, Karl would grow up in the house on Fannin Street while they each took weekly turns living there with him. For his off weeks, Dennis rented a studio apartment within walking distance of campus. Living amidst his students occasionally made for awkward moments in the neighborhood, but for the most part he grew accustomed to the arrangement, despite missing Siobhan terribly. He loved her no less than he had on the day they married, if not more, but what was a man to do when his wife no longer wanted him in her life, hold a gun to her head?

Drunk one night after a department party thrown for a visiting poet, he called her at the house on Fannin Street and asked her what, if anything, he could have done to save their marriage.

“Not that it would have made any difference, but you could’ve at least put up more of a fight.”

“Is it too late to now?” He was lying on the floor of his studio apartment, staring at the ceiling fan spinning sickly above him.

She laughed, but not unkindly. “How much did you have to drink tonight, anyway?”

*   *   *

Though Siobhan hadn’t sounded upset in her message, Dennis punished himself with thoughts of awful possibilities as he listened to her line at Appenzeller & Moffett ring—a fire, a gas leak, a shooting, a . . .

“Dennis,” she said, and her voice echoed in that way that meant she had him on speakerphone, which he hated.

“What happened?”

“That little bitch Olivia Shelley hit him again. This time she smashed him in the head with a metal truck and cut his scalp open.”

Dennis saw an oozing slit above the ear turning Karl’s blonde hair a bruised and blackish red. “Is he okay?”

“Miss Caroline said it scared him, but he’s fine now. I called Lydia, and she was nice enough to pick him up and take him back to her place.”

“Should I go get him?”

“No, no. I wasn’t calling about that.” Suddenly her voice was close, as if her lips were against his ear; she had picked up the receiver, taking him off speakerphone. “I know it’s not your week, but I’m going in to meet with Miss Caroline at three tomorrow and I thought you might want to be there, too.”

“Absolutely,” he said immediately, not caring that he would have to cancel a committee meeting that had taken him forever to schedule. “I’ll be there.”

Part Two

Following Miss Caroline down a gauntlet of smiling Jack-o’-lanterns, happy ghosts and non-threatening vampires, Dennis took pleasure in being there with Siobhan (looking so beautiful in a black blouse, charcoal skirt, and black pumps) for the first time since their initial tour of the premises. In an empty classroom, he and Miss Caroline took seats in tiny chairs at a tiny table, but Siobhan, after unsuccessfully attempting to fold her tall frame small enough, remained standing as she proceeded to rebuke Miss Caroline for her inability to provide a safe learning environment for Karl.

Miss Caroline, with her hands pressed together and held in a thoughtful pose, reassured Siobhan—and Dennis, who received a glance at this point—that everything was being done to guarantee the safety of not only Karl, but of all the students at the Hundred Acre Wood. “Quite frankly, though, you have to expect a certain degree of this sort of behavior from children this age—it’s perfectly natural.”

“Quite frankly,” Siobhan echoed, “I expect my son to be safe from lunatics like Olivia. That’s what I expect.”

Miss Caroline stood, and after glancing around as if to make sure that they were, in fact, completely alone in the empty room, she said, “Do you want to see what I’m trying to deal with here, Ms. Hancock? Truly?”

Siobhan smiled in a way that made Dennis thankful not to be on its receiving end. “I know it’s difficult to keep all of us parents straight, but my last name’s Nijman. His”—she pointed at Dennis—is Hancock.”

“My apologies, Ms. Nijman. But Olivia did this to me yesterday.” She pushed up the sleeve of her blouse to give them both a view of the two crescents of red dashes on her forearm. “If it’s up to me,” she whispered, “she’ll be out of here by the end of the week, but I don’t know if that’s going to be possible. I just hope she doesn’t have rabies.” She laughed, obviously trying to alleviate the tension.

“You know what I hope?” Siobhan asked. “I hope that Karl doesn’t come out of preschool irreparably scarred, either physically or emotionally. Or get sent to the emergency room.”

“Of course,” Miss Christine said, quickly regaining her seriousness. “But as you must know, Karl does make himself a bit of a target, despite being bigger than everyone else. We’ve talked before about how a child’s consistent refusal to join in can make him a bit of a target, especially for the more aggressive types.”

“Don’t you dare try to make this about Karl,” Siobhan hissed. “This isn’t Karl’s problem. It’s Olivia’s. And Olivia’s parents’. And yours.”

The door opened, and a kinky-haired woman stuck her head in the room. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Miss Caroline, but we’ve got a situation in the Polka Dot Room. I could really use your assistance.”

As she moved toward the door, Miss Caroline said to Siobhan, “I promise that I’ll be talking to Olivia’s parents.”

“When?” Siobhan asked, following behind her. “I want to know when!”

But she didn’t get an answer; the kinky-haired woman had already whisked Miss Caroline away.

Slinging her arms in the air, Siobhan turned back toward Dennis. “Where were you just now?”

“What? You’re the attorney.”

“That has nothing to do with anything, Dennis, and you know it. This is a parental issue.”

“What good would both of us going at her have done?” He stood up from his tiny chair.  “It’s not like I would’ve said anything any different from what you said, anyway.”

“Going at her? Is that what you’d call what I was doing? I’d call it fighting for my son.”

“You know what I mean.” He followed her into the hall, wishing that she’d said our, not my. “Next time there’s an issue it’ll be my turn, okay?”

She softened. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and there won’t be a next time.”

Outside the Bumblebee Room, they peered through the window in the door to spy on Karl, who was sitting by himself with his thumb in his mouth while his classmates churned and thrashed around him.

“Do you see Olivia?” whispered Dennis.

“I don’t see that ugly little pig anywhere. Maybe she and her parents were killed in a wreck on the way to school this morning.”

“Nice,” Dennis said, pretending to be offended by her motherly viciousness.

“Oh, wait, what am I saying? They’re too good to ever drive their daughter to and from school themselves. Simon’s mother does that for them. She keeps her after school, too. Apparently their jobs are more important than ours.”

“Maybe that’s the problem right there.”

“Exactly.” And when she turned and smiled at him for the first time in longer than he could remember, he felt grateful—unpleasantly so—for the injury Karl had suffered.

*   *   *

The following night, Siobhan called to tell him that Olivia had pushed Karl off the top of the slide that afternoon.

“He’s okay,” she said, “but he got the wind knocked out of him. When he couldn’t breathe, he thought he was dying.”

“Did Miss Caroline see it happen?”

“Of course not. But she said that she’s”—here Siobhan’s voice became a nasally imitative whine—“still trying to schedule a meeting with his parents.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“I wish.”

For the next thirty minutes they discussed their options. They could pull Karl out and attempt to enroll him in a different school, but with it being late October, that would be difficult to manage, if not impossible. Besides, they agreed that they shouldn’t even have to be considering such an action. Why should Karl be the one to have to run away?

“Were you bullied at that age?” Siobhan asked.

“Not at that age, no,” Dennis said, not wanting to talk or think about his school days. “I didn’t get lucky until later.”

“I just wish he’d realize that he’s big enough to break that girl over his knee and paralyze her for life.”

“Well, I don’t know if I want him swinging that far to the other extreme,” Dennis said, but he knew how secretly proud he’d be to hear of Karl, for once, being the cause of another kid’s fear, pain, and tears. Already, though, so early in his son’s life, he understood that this would probably never be the case.

“I do. I want him to.”

“There is one thing we can be thankful for, though.”

“What’s that?”

“At least our son doesn’t have to sneak up on a glass of water to get a drink.”

Siobhan laughed, and together they joked about Olivia until their anger and frustration cooled, ridiculing her looks (her pug nose and slightly crossed eyes) and prophesying the inevitable downward trajectory of her future—high school dropout, meth addict, low-dollar prostitute, serial killer.

“She’ll be the next Aileen Wuornos, except not as pretty,” Siobhan said.

“The next Night Stalker, but with not as nice of a complexion.”

“The next Jeffrey Dahmer, but not as good of a cook.”

“How about a female John Wayne Gacy, except not as svelte?”

“And not as good of a painter.”

They continued on for a while, growing steadily sillier, until Siobhan realized how late it was and said that it was time to call it a night, much to Dennis’s disappointment. The last hour had felt more like their earlier, happier days than anything had in a long time.

“Oh, hey,” Siobhan said, just before hanging up, “Karl’s finally decided what he wants to be for Halloween tomorrow night: a cowboy.”

“Really?” Out of all the possible costumes that Karl had mentioned at one point or another—Elmo, Curious George, Clifford the Big Red Dog—Dennis couldn’t remember having ever heard a cowboy as a possibility.

“It’s because of Woody on ‘Toy Story,’ I’m pretty sure. Oh, and one more thing: he said he wants you to take him trick-or-treating, not me. He told me that I needed to stay home to hand out candy to the other kids.” She laughed. “The little sexist.”

Dennis smiled at learning of his son’s request, and after wishing Siobhan good night, he went to bed with his heart thrumming at the thought of them becoming three again.

Part Three

Late in the afternoon on Halloween, as Dennis stepped into the house on Fannin Street after having failed to ignite any student interest in McTeague’s primal desire for Trina, Karl greeted him with a bandage on his cheek.

“What happened to you?”

“Olivia bit me.”

“She did?”

“She did,” said Siobhan, entering from the kitchen. “And guess what? Miss Caroline still hasn’t talked to Olivia’s parents. They’re just super busy, she said. But guess what else? I don’t give an S-H-I-T. One of them needs to get their A-S-S up there. I reminded Miss Caroline that I’m an attorney, so I think I finally got her attention.”

“I hope so,” Dennis said. “because this is just getting ridiculous.”

“It’s your turn, remember?”

“Don’t worry,” he said, only now remembering what he’d said. “In the meantime, Karl and I should get moving. The sun’s almost down, and the doorbell will start ringing any minute.”

While Siobhan readied their cowboy for trick-or-treating, Dennis busied himself with going through the mail that still came for him at this address—credit card offers and catalogues, requests for donations from his undergraduate alma mater, coupon fliers from nearby grocery stores, an envelope from the Hundred Acre Wood. . . . Had they sent something regarding the situation with Olivia? He ripped it open. No, it was just the student directory, a good month later than promised. He flipped through it to verify that their information was accurate, and there it was:

Karl Hancock-Nijman (Bumblebee Room)

Parents: Dennis Hancock and Siobhan Nijman

Address: 1217 Fannin St.

A tiny ripple of satisfaction coursed through him upon seeing their names grouped together like this.

An idea came to him, and he flipped forward, searching. There it was:

Olivia Shelley (Bumblebee Room)

Parents: Davey and Marisa Shelley

Address: 3526 Houston St.

Davey? What kind of name was that for a grown man? He folded the directory into his pocket, happy that his move had revealed itself to him so simply: he would stop by and have a talk with the Shelleys.

“There’s a new sheriff in town,” said Siobhan, walking in behind Karl, who was now decked out in blue jeans, a jean jacket over a white T-shirt, black boots, a blue bandanna tied at his neck, a red cowboy hat (from a pony ride that Karl had chickened out of a quarter of the way through, Dennis remembered), a silver star pinned to his chest, and ballpoint stubble dotting his jaw.

“Howdy, pardner,” Dennis said.

“You have a great time with Daddy, okay?” Siobhan handed Karl a plastic grocery bag to carry his candy in.

“Where’s my gun?” Karl asked, raising a hand to pick at the fresh bandage on his cheek. “Cowboys shoot guns.”

“Woody doesn’t have a gun, does he?” Siobhan drew Karl’s hand away from his face and then made a gun out of his thumb and index finger. “Use this.”

Leaving Siobhan standing beneath the porch light’s glow, Dennis stepped into the purplish air of the fading dusk, holding Karl’s hand. It was quiet except for the occasional shrieks of excited children in the distance. Watching the shadows of older trick-or-treaters dancing along the sidewalk at the far end of the street, he thought of his own father escorting him the year that he’d gone as a werewolf, the year that he’d turned eight, how the spirit gum holding the fur onto his face had itched and then stung, making him cry, and how his father, instead of taking him home, had continued leading him door to door, introducing him as Weepy the Wolfboy.

“Will I get a lot of candy?” Karl asked.

“Lots.” In the wind he could smell someone burning leaves, which was against city ordinance. “Are you excited?”

“Uh huh.”

“Me, too,” Dennis said, glad that, later, he’d be telling Siobhan how he’d taken the initiative and talked to the Shelleys. “It’s going to be fine now,” he’d say.

They made their slow way down Fannin Street, stopping at each house with a porch light shining. They passed a princess, a pirate, a ballerina, a ninja, and a ghost—all deadly serious in their quests for candy. As a succession of front doors opened onto the unfamiliar interiors of their neighbors’ homes, Karl was greeted by smiling faces above hands that dropped so much candy into his bag that it became difficult for him to carry. By the time they got to Crockett Street, Karl was complaining that the cowboy boots hurt his feet, so Dennis agreed to carry both him and his bag. The trick-or-treaters had thinned considerably by this point. They now stopped at only every third lit house or so. Once they reached Bowie Street, Karl said that he was ready to go home.

“Just a little more,” Dennis said. “Don’t you want more candy?”

“No.”

Dennis kept walking. Travis Street was quiet and empty; only a couple of porch lights were on. Karl started crying.

“Hang in there, pardner,” Dennis said.

Under the streetlight at the corner of Travis and Houston, he set Karl down and sat next to him. “Let’s take a little break. You want some candy?”

Karl nodded his head and wiped at his tears. “Uh huh.”

Dennis unwrapped a tiny Snickers bar and handed it to him. He watched him eat it and then handed him another. Casually, he asked, “Why did Olivia bite you today?”

“Because she doesn’t like me,” Karl said through a mouthful of chocolate.

“Why doesn’t she like you?”

“I don’t know.”

“She pushed you off the slide a couple of days ago, too, right?”

Karl nodded. “Can I have more candy?”

Dennis handed him a tiny Milky Way. “Do you ever hit her back when she hurts you?”

Karl shook his head, chewing.

“Why not?”

“Because hitting people is wrong.”

“Well, you’re right, but if someone hits you first, it’s okay to hit them back.”

“It is?” Karl looked up at him with a surprised look on his chocolate-smeared face.

“Just do this.” Dennis clenched his right hand into a fist and punched the air in front of him.

Karl rose to his feet, flailing clumsily with both arms. “Like that?”

“Sort of. But what’s most important is to remember that it’s okay to hurt anyone who ever hurts you. If you hurt them worse, they won’t ever try to hurt you again.”

“What if they die?”

“They won’t.”

“Can I have more candy?”

“In a minute,” Dennis said. “This is serious.”

“Okay.” Karl stared at him.

“You can’t ever let a girl hurt you, okay? You’ve got to be a big, strong boy. Do you understand?”

Karl nodded. “Can I have more candy now?”

Dennis held an open bag of M&Ms toward Karl, then pulled out the directory and checked the house number again. “If you’ll walk instead of making me carry you, I’ll give you all of these. How about that?”

“Okay.” Karl took the bag. “I can walk.”

Part Four

3526 Houston looked nearly identical to 1217 Fannin—tan brickwork with a large window to the left of the front door, three smaller windows to the right—except that the trim appeared to be lime green rather than forest. The porch light was on, and a crudely carved Jack-o’-lantern flickered next to the doormat.

“Last house, and then we go home, okay, buddy?” Leading Karl toward the porch, Dennis felt a little surprised that his calm courage had still not abandoned him. He reached out to ring the doorbell, rehearsing in his head how calmly and professionally he would bring up the issue.

“Jackal antler,” Karl said, getting on his knees to peer into the pumpkin’s glowing face.

As he watched the door open, Dennis took pleasure in knowing that, at least for a little while longer, he knew whose house he was at and why he was there, but Olivia’s father had no idea what was going on; to him, Dennis and Karl were just another father and son seeking candy on Halloween. He took even greater pleasure, though, in the sight of Mr. Davey Shelley, who, in his baggy gray suit and jokey broomstick-and-black-cat tie, struck even less of an intimidating figure than he himself did.

“Trick or treat,” Dennis said, holding out Karl’s bag.

Mr. Shelley smiled as he dropped a handful of candy into the opening. “You’re a little old, aren’t you?”

“You’re Davey Shelley, right?”

“Uh, yes?” He squinted through the porch light’s glare. “Do I—”

“Our kids go to the Hundred Acre Wood together.” Dennis pointed at Karl, who was whispering into the Jack-o’-lantern’s triangle of a nose.

“Oh, really?” Mr. Shelley’s face relaxed, and his smile from earlier returned. “Olivia’s still out trick-or-treating with my wife. She literally just walked in from the airport, so they got a bit of a late start.”

Dennis nodded. “Has Olivia’s teacher called you? Miss Caroline?”

“Not that I know of, but I have to admit I’ve gotten bad about remembering to check the land line for messages.” He laughed. “Why? What’s up?”

Dennis felt his composed expression just barely able to contain the energy quivering only millimeters below the surface. The guy was at least two inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter. “What about Simon’s mother? Has she said anything to you?”

“Okay,” Mr. Shelley said, his amiability fading slightly. “I’m obviously missing something here. Is there something going on that I need to know about?”

Bending over first to set down the bag of candy and then to pick up Karl, Dennis felt suddenly woozy, as if all of the blood in his head had drained down into his legs. Once Karl was balanced in the crook of his right arm, Dennis peeled the bandage away and traced a finger around the oval of teeth marks. “Do you see this? Olivia did this today.”

Olivia did that?” Mr. Shelley shook his head in disbelief. “Oh, no, she’d never do something like that.”

“Oh, yeah?” Thrilled, Dennis felt his anger ignite like a clean flame. “Well, she also pushed my son off the top of the slide a couple of days ago, knocking the wind out of him, and a couple of days before that, she bashed him in the head with a truck. And this is just what I’ve heard about. God knows how many other times she’s hurt him.”

“You’ll have to pardon me,” Mr. Shelley said, growing steadily more serious, “but who exactly told you that it was Olivia who did all of this?”

Karl raised his arm and pointed his finger gun at Mr. Shelley. “Pow, pow.”

Dennis pushed Karl’s arm down. “My son did.”

“Your son did.” Mr. Shelley nodded his head. “Well, you know as well as I do that you can’t exactly trust what they say at this age.”

“Are you calling my son a liar?” Dennis asked, enjoying the opportunity to say something as dramatic and confrontational as this.

“No, what I’m saying is—”

“She bit Miss Caroline, too. On the arm. She showed us the teeth marks.”

“Come on, now,” Mr. Shelley said, smiling again, though less agreeably now. “Don’t you think I would’ve heard about this by now if all of this was happening?”

Dennis lowered Karl back to his position in front of the jack-o’-lantern, raised up, and then, luxuriating in the justness and clarity of his fury, leaned closer to Mr. Shelley, and so that Karl wouldn’t hear, he whispered, “What the fuck do you think Miss Caroline’s been calling you about?”

Mr. Shelley held up both of his hands. “Hold on, now. There’s no need for that sort of language. I think this is something we should deal with at the school, not here.”

“No, this is something we need to deal with now. Either get your kid under control or find a new preschool,” Dennis said as calmly as he could manage, “because if anything else happens to my son, Davey, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

Mr. Shelley blinked. “Are you threatening me?”

“Am I threatening you? You figure it out.” He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now—a period, not an exclamation point—but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. When their bodies came to a stop in the darkness beyond the glow of the porch light, Mr. Shelley was on top of him, and thinking of everything that he’d ever talked himself out of, all the stands he hadn’t taken, Dennis threw the first punch of his life, and just as soon as his knuckles mashed the rubbery flesh of Mr. Shelley’s nose, he felt blood splash onto his face, warm and thick as soup. Grunting, straining, they flailed and pushed and punched at each other, and throughout it all, as he landed, blocked, and absorbed blows, Dennis was thinking: I’m in a fight! I’m in a fight! Hardly caring whether he might get hurt or not, he gritted his teeth and battled on, aiming for Mr. Shelley’s nose again, wishing only that his flabby muscles were capable of more.

But then it stopped, as if they had telepathically agreed to a truce, and Mr. Shelley rolled off Dennis and onto his back, his hands cupped over his face.

“Oh, my nose,” he muttered.

Part Five

Giddy with shock and excitement, Dennis clambered to his knees and then to his feet. In disbelief at what he’d done, he smeared the blood—not his own, another man’s!—from his face and onto the lawn’s dead grass. And though he knew that it had lasted only a few seconds—ten? fifteen?—he marveled at his victorious exhaustion as he hurriedly stumbled to the porch, scooped up Karl and his candy, and ran toward the street, his heart punching against his ribs.

Behind him, Mr. Shelley yelled after him: “I’m calling the police!”

Realizing that he’d never mentioned Karl’s name, Dennis, without slowing down, yelled back, “You don’t even know who I am!”

It was only after they had turned onto Travis that Karl said anything. “Were you and that man fighting?”

Swelling with love for his son, Dennis slowed to a jog and kissed Karl on his unbitten cheek. “We were just playing.”

“A game?”

“Uh-huh.”

Karl giggled. “That was a funny game.”

By the time they reached the corner of Bowie and Crockett, Dennis’s legs and arms were fiery with pain, but he hardly noticed. What he’d just done was not something that he should be feeling good about, he knew that, but good was how he felt, and it went down all the way to the center of himself, though he also knew that if Mr. Shelley had been even just a little bit bigger and stronger, things would have ended much differently.

After passing under a streetlight, Karl touched Dennis’s shirt. “You’re dirty.”

Dennis looked down at the dark spots of Mr. Shelley’s blood. “I am, aren’t I?”

Undramatically—no siren, no swirling rainbow of lights—a police car abruptly rolled up beside them, and the glass of the passenger window sunk into the door, revealing the shadowy outlines of two officers.

“Evening,” said the closer officer, who was a woman.

“Evening,” Dennis echoed, slowing to a stop while trying to ignore his galloping, fearful pulse.

“We’ve been getting reports of some houses getting egged over in this area. You seen anything?”

“No, ma’am,” Dennis said, with much relief. “My son and I haven’t seen anything. It’s been a quiet night around here.”

The officer reached up to a searchlight on the side of the car, turned it on, and swung it around onto him, blinding him with a blaze of white. “Are you bleeding, sir?”

Dennis shielded his eyes. “Oh, no, ma’am. A vampire got a little carried away with the fake blood, that’s all.”

Without another word, the searchlight clicked off and the squad car drove away. Staring into the milky glare of the searchlight’s afterimage, Dennis waited for the darkness to return, and when it finally did, he started walking again, toward home, smiling at the thought of his narrow escape.

“Was that a policeman?” Karl asked.

“Uh huh.”

“But she was a girl.”

“Girls can be police officers, too.”

“They can?”

“Of course,” Dennis said, but he was only barely listening; instead he was thinking about telling Siobhan the news.

“Maybe Olivia will be a policeman when she grows up.”

“Maybe. What about you? What will you be when you grow up?”

“I think a cowboy. A cowboy with a real gun.”

And then there it was: their quiet little house on Fannin Street. The porch light was off, but the flame in the jack-o’-lantern was still burning. He reached into his pocket for his keys, but then he stopped, having an idea. “Let’s trick-or-treat Mommy.”

“Really?” Karl giggled.

“Shhh.” He lifted Karl high enough to reach the doorbell. “Ring it.”

Karl pushed the button, giggling more. “We’re going to scare Mommy, aren’t we?”

“We are.”

After setting Karl down, Dennis crouched and blew through the jack-o’-lantern’s eye, extinguishing the candle. Any second now Siobhan would open the door and see only two shadows standing in the darkness. He wondered how long it would take her to recognize them, her son, the little cowboy, and his avenging father, her former husband.