On the last Halloween there ever was, Ottawa Arnaut picked his way along a bridge. The sun was just breaking from the horizon, and already it felt oppressively hot. Within a half hour no living creature could remain outdoors.
Looking back at his little sister Hazel, Ottawa pointed at an off ramp. “We’re almost there. Drink some water.”
Hazel’s curly red hair sprouted from under a silver bonnet. Plucking a water bottle from her belt, her bright green eyes looked past her brother.
“What candy do you think they’ll have?” she asked, drawing heavy breaths with each word. Sweat stood out on her freckled forehead as she drank. “Red Rippers? Or Mint Graverobbers, maybe?”
Hazel had never tasted candy in her life, and they both knew it. At length the boy said, “They’ll be thin on candy, Haze. Might be more tricks than treats this year.”
Walking along the span, they avoided chunks of asphalt that had slumped into decay. Burned-out cars huddled against a guardrail as if caught in a driving rain.
“Pirates hit the forth-southbound convoy last night,” she nodded. “I know, I heard it on the scanner. But someone might have candy from an old shipment.”
Ottawa glanced up at a sea of ashen clouds, felt rain in the closeness of the air. “We’ll go straight to Flagler Jenson,” he decided. “If anyone has candy, it’ll be them.”
A huge frowning archway marked the mall’s north entrance. Behind it stood a recessed tile wall, riven with cracks like a mouthful of shattered teeth.
“This place is fall-aparty,” observed Hazel, watching as crows flew in and out of chinks in the wall.
“Its bones are solid,” said Ottawa. “Anyway, time to mask up.” Unhooking a tube from his belt, he screwed one end into a regulator. With a flourish he fit the breathing apparatus over his nose and mouth.
“Do I have to?” asked his sister, knitting her brow.
The boy thumbed a switch on his oxygen tank, breathed in the cinnamon-tasting air. “You don’t want to catch the virus, do you?”
Heaving a sigh, Hazel unfolded a piece of cloth from her belt. Weeks before, she’d yanked out the stuffing from a pillow, spray painted it brown, and glued it to an old ski mask. The result was strangely unsettling, though she looked more Sasquatch than werewolf when she pulled on the mask.
“Put yours on too,” she prodded.
Reluctantly, Ottawa pulled out a carnival mask she’d made for him out of an old shoe insert. The mask had two eye holes cut in it and was showered in glitter.
“They’re candy-hunting goggles,” she explained, slipping a breathing mask over her mouth. “They’ll help you find candy even when there’s none.”
“No loot here,” growled a man standing behind the counter. He was a foot taller than Ottawa and wore a full-face diving mask. A constant swish of air sighed through a purge valve at his chin. “Try your luck over in the pet shop.”
“I realize you don’t have fresh candy,” said Ottawa, pushing the glittery mask onto his forehead. “But I’ll happily pay for an overlooked morsel.”
A cloud of asbestos hung between them. Through it, on the back wall, Ottawa read a painted sign: “Flagler Jenson Halloween Sale! Lithium battery fan shirts 75% off!”
Hazel stood beside her brother, her eyes barely clearing the countertop. She was transfixed by a parade of pumpkin cutouts marching up a column. The attendant regarded her with bloodshot eyes.
Ottawa put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Haze, why don’t you go browse the store?”
“I shouldn’t leave you alone with him,” she muttered, her voice muffled by the mask.
“Go on. Pick out a t-shirt.”
Hazel looked at her brother askance. But seeing that he meant it, she tossed her hand. “Fine. But yell if you need me.”
Shooting the clerk an angry look, she set off through a clutter of clothing racks and empty peg boards.
“Listen, friend,” said the boy once she was gone. “You’ve got no candy and, strictly speaking, I’ve got no money. Yet I’m here asking: what’ll it cost me?”
The man cocked his head to one side. “I might have a handful of Deathsdoor Sweets,” he said after a pause. “For two hundred.”
The bottom dropped out of Ottawa’s stomach. He set his jaw to stop from gasping. “What else do you have?”
“That’s it, friend. Take it or leave it.”
A handful of sweets would last Hazel a week if she was careful. But the only thing he owned of value were the filters in his oxygen tank.
“I know what you’re thinking.” The man shook his narrow head. “People always come in here hocking their filters. But we have a strict policy against it.”
Dropping his voice, Ottawa said, “Surely you know this is our last Halloween.”
At that moment Hazel looked up from a rack. Although she hadn’t heard him, she sensed something was wrong.
The man replied in a low voice: “That may well be, days getting hotter as they are. But candy is a poor reason to forfeit what time we have left.”
“I’ll choose how I pay out my life.” Tears started to Ottawa’s eyes. Swallowing, he added, “Please, sir.”
Something softened in the clerk’s face. Giving a nod, he ducked into the storage room. Waiting until Hazel was behind a standee, the boy plucked out all three air filters from his device.
“Here you are,” the clerk said on returning. He handed Ottawa a small nylon bag in exchange for the filters.
“Thank you,” Ottawa uttered, barely able to speak. He felt instantly lighter, as if floating an inch off the floor.
“Take care not to let it overheat,” the man warned him, looking at the oxygen tank. “And friend, Happy Halloween.”
This story took 1st Place in our Halloween Flash Contest!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Hobson is a science writer living in the Washington, DC area. When he's feeling ambitious, he'll plunk the word "fiction" into that job title. Besides writing, Chris enjoys reading golden age sci-fi and shooting hoops. He is currently drawing up plans to build a Donkey Kong arcade cabinet as his quarantine project. You can find him trying to avoid twitter @chrisrothhobson.