Trick and Treat
Series: LOVING Parallel Series: Ray: Trick and Treat (a Halloween Tale)
Pairing: Ray/Nat…(leaving James)
Implement: Belt, hand
Warning: Scary in parts (Not really. Unless maybe…); some abuse.
Even though it was Sunday, Nat knew they had drawn a large crowd for Club Gypsy Cavern’s annual “Scary Carnivale”-- Auntie Mir always swore that more people came out for a good time when they could dress up for Halloween. She thought people had more fun when they had such a good excuse to leave their everyday lives behind. And she should know: she was The Amazing Miranda, the club’s resident seeress and fortune teller! Nat smiled into the lighted mirror as he dabbed his face once more with the setting powder and gave a final check to the oh-so-casual arrangement of his dark hair. Even looking carefully, he could no longer see the yellow and green colors of the bruise just under his right eye.
When he could hear the music onstage begin to swell and the enthusiastic clapping of the crowd, the young man jumped up practically bouncing with nerves to survey his costume in the long mirror. He was of medium height but seemed taller as he drew himself up proudly and stamped to continue his warm up. He wore the high heeled boots and formfitting costume of a Flamenco dancer, all black except for the crisp but curiously liquid white of his silk shirt. Moving his arms as for the Paso Doble, he was very pleased with the flowing sweep of the sleeves. His face became serious as he continued through the rhythmic tapping patterns of his warm up. He had a good face with strong lines and arresting gray eyes that often flashed black with emotion.
Grabbing his hat and whip, he reached the edge of their raised stage just as thunderous applause broke out for his three older cousins who were prancing and bowing with a swirl of their ruffled skirts. They rushed past him with happy smiles and quick “luck” touches whispering “Bona Fortuna, Nat! Luck, Little One!”
I’ll show you ‘little’!” he whisper-shouted back
at them. Then he heard his Uncle
Carlos introducing him, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Goblins and Ghosts, the
Gypsy Cavern is proud to present the finest young dancer in
The ringing thunder of the big gypsy guitars accompanied his leap into the spotlight and the first whirling patterns of his solo. Then he shook free his whip cracking it overhead-- a swirling ribbon of light punctuating the staccato beat of his feet. The crowd roared approval as that pattern ended in a series of spectacular leaps. Finally releasing the whip, Nat spun his hat into the audience. He was all fire and pride and life as he began the elegant combination of passes that showed off the sleeves of his costume and his own slender form. His feet were moving in the classic Flamenco heel-toe steps and stamps so fast they were almost a blur. At his gesture the explosive guitar and drum background crescendoed to silence. The front room went completely still except for the intricate rhythms of his feet on the boards of the stage. Then his dance finished with a whirling leap into a classic pose inspired by the last thunderous riff of the big gypsy guitars. The audience exploded into applause and cries of “Ole! Magnifico!” The music shifted again, and his three cousins joined him onstage for another bow.
To finish their show, Carlos again stepped up to the microphone. “Now, all you Ghosts and Goblins, please join us for the final Paso Doble…” The four young dancers went into the audience to bring shy partners to the floor, and other intrepid souls joined them. When it was time to change partners in the middle of the dance, Nat was surprised. A pair of strong hands grabbed his waist from behind and spun him into the center of the room forcing him to turn back suddenly to face a tall male figure all in mysterious black leather and masked as Zorro.
The intensity of the man’s dark eyes and imperious swirl of red-lined cape both tempted and dared Nat to follow the lead of his perfect steps. As the matador would worry the bull, so the man dared Nat to respond-- to make the dangerous passes that glorified love and life in the very presence of death. And Nat loved it. They moved perfectly together; the man’s cape and form were mesmerizing. Soon a circle formed around the two impromptu opponents with their audience clapping and urging them on. The music finished with a flourish just as the tall stranger caught Nat in strong arms and dipped him back almost to the floor.
“Wow!” said Nat intelligently when he was upright again. “You really know how to dance. That was great. Are you professional?” He was very conscious of the man’s warm hand at the small of his back.
“No,” the man’s laugh was slightly amused. “I just picked up a few things at Arthur Murry! And you’re really a gypsy? Your show was great.”
“Well, actually,” said Nat, “I am. At least half through both my mother and my father. But my mother is the dancer in our family. She taught my cousins and me, and we’ve all been in the show here ever since we turned 16. It’s the family business. Is this your first time at the Gypsy Cavern? I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
“That’s right, you haven’t. I’m new to the neighborhood. I just bought a big Victorian up the hill
“Are you new to
“My name-- my name is Raymond Jennings, but my friends call me Ray. I’m an architect, hence my interest in restoring a ‘painted lady’. Would you like something to drink?”
“Sure, I’d love some Pelegrino Water. I’m always thirsty after dancing in the show. My name is Nat.” Every time they moved and just happened to brush against one another, the two men were conscious of an electricity between them. Nat couldn’t believe the warmth and approval he saw in the taller man’s dark eyes or how comforting was his hand at the small of his back. Lowering his thick eyelashes in shy confusion, he knew it had been a long time since anyone had shown him this kind of interest.
“Nat!? That can’t be a gypsy name!” the tall stranger teased. “Do you dance here every night?”
“Oh, ‘Nat’ is short for my real name. It’s really Ignacio Michel
Pacheco, III, but that’s way too long, and everyone just calls me
Nat. And as for dancing, I’m
usually here Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, plus some holidays like
tonight. But I’m also working
on my Master’s in Education at
“I guess you do. Want to come and sit with me and my friends for a while? The night is young.” Zorro smiled at the younger man, who seemed more relaxed than he had been.
“I have to get out of my make-up and change soon, but I could sit with you for a little while…” Nat couldn’t help smiling back; there was something about the man that drew him…
While they were sitting down and Nat was being introduced to Ray’s fellow Halloween revelers, the dance floor filled up again as the more modern club music began to fill the room. Without warning, Nat was roughly pulled out of his chair and given a bone-jarring shake.
Nat’s eyes widened in apprehension and his cheeks flamed with embarrassment. “Sam!” There was pleading in his voice.
“You little slut!” It was the big drummer from the band. He had obviously been drinking, and his eyes were full of menace for the dancer as he gave Nat another shake. “You just have to flaunt yourself in front of the customers, don’t you? You’re just a low down gypsy ready to bend over for anyone, aren’t you? No matter what I do to teach you, there’s just no loyalty in you is there? Well, we’ll see about that!” With a final shake, Sam twisted Nat’s arm behind his back and started to force him away.
“Now just a minute, where are you going with Nat! Standing, Nat’s Zorro was taller than the drummer. “What’s going on here? Nat, are you all right?” He made a step towards Nat and Sam.
“I guess I have a right to take care of my own partner,” Sam growled.
“Partner! Nat, is that right? Do you want to be with this guy?” The man’s concern was evident.
“Yes, Sam is my partner…” Nat turned his face away in shame. Ray stood silent as he watched Sam hustle Nat out of the main club room. They disappeared through the beaded curtain.
Sam pushed Nat into the Staff “lounge” so hard he would have fallen if he hadn’t been able to catch himself on the table. “Why do you do this to me, Baby? Why are you always a slut? Why do you make me have to punish you? Did you forget so soon after yesterday that you belong to me?” Sam started to remove his wide leather belt as he slowly walked over to the appalled young man. There was no way for him to escape Sam’s menacing approach.
“Sam, I was just dancing at the finish of the show. You know we always do that. I was just drinking some water with those guys. I wasn’t trying to come on to them. You know I’m not like that!” There was a desperate quality to Nat’s voice.
Sam’s hand caught the side of Nat’s face spinning him half around. “Just shut up and drop your pants. Take your punishment like a man, not like some lying gypsy faggot.” Sam reached out and undid Nat’s pants, pulling them and his briefs roughly down. Then catching Nat’s arm, he pulled him over to one of the chairs and forced him across his lap. Nat fought briefly, but collapsed when Sam leaned on him and lifted his shirt, exposing his firm young butt. Though several angry red welts already marred the skin of his bottom, Sam did not hesitate to start spanking Nat with his hard big hand. Nat jerked from the force of the blows, yelping with pain when they landed on his already sore skin.
“This is what happens to little sluts who don’t remember the rules. I’ll make certain you remember, and I will always know. You. Are. Mine. And don’t you forget it.” Nat sobbed and tried to remember why he was with Sam. His father had wanted Sam and Nat to be friends: Sam was the son of an old friend; he came to work at the Cavern. He helped Papa Iggy and Mama Selena with the business. And when Nat had told his family he was gay, everyone was able to come to terms with it because Sam was gay too. They all thought it was very appropriate when Nat turned 18 that Sam and Nat should be together. Papa Iggy was glad because he knew Sam could help him run the business or even take over if Nat didn’t want to have an active role.
But then the elder Pachecos were killed in a car crash three
years ago, and Sam had just taken over in Nat’s name. Sam had never been
very romantic, but Nat had been OK with that because he was very busy with
dancing and school. However, after
his parents died, Sam had changed, had watched him, and had kept him close,
very close. The least little thing
seemed to make him jealous. And he
was drinking, and that made him mean.
As much as he loved
“Now, Baby, you know how much it hurts me to punish you. Why do you do it? Why do you keep on doing it… you know what happens… you have to make amends…” Sam had stopped the punishing rain of blows, but still held Nat over his knees in a vise-like grip.
Nat tried to control his hitching sobs. “B…But I didn’t d…do anything wr…wrong,” he wailed.
With that Sam’s florid face twisted red and ugly. Grabbing the young man’s neck in his free hand, Sam gave him another shake; then he picked up his belt, doubled it, and began to lay it on. “I’ll show you ‘wrong’!”
Nat thought he would pass out from the pain of the leather striking his already red and bruised flesh. Then, miraculously, the painful whipping stopped, and he was torn away from Sam’s hold and carefully set behind a furious Zorro. If he hadn’t been hurting so much, Nat might have laughed at the look of surprise on Sam’s face.
Ray pulled Sam up only to knock him down with a hard right to the jaw. Looming over the fallen brute, Ray said, “That is the last time you will touch or talk to Nat to harm him. I will be watching, and you don’t want to know what will happen if you do.” Ray’s voice was hard, cold, and full of menace. “Do you understand?” Sam nodded. “Now get out!” Sam scrambled to his feet and scuttled away.
Ray turned to Nat, taking the shaking young man into his arms, then sitting down with him on the old red sofa, and finally lifting him onto his lap. Nothing Nat could remember had ever felt so good. He burrowed into the warmth of Ray’s chest, and Ray kept rubbing calming circles on Nat’s back. Finally, he was breathing more normally and was almost asleep with reaction. “Why did you come to help me?” he asked. At first the tall Zorro’s eyes appeared as icy dark pools through the mask. Then they changed to something warmer.
“The more I considered it, the more I knew you didn’t want to be with-- that guy. At first I was disappointed because you were in a ‘relationship’. But then, I didn’t see why you couldn’t have a friendly drink if you wanted. And, after watching him march you out, I-- wanted to help you.” Ray’s voice was calm and full of wonder, full of concern. “I hope I did-- the right thing. He was abusing you!”
“Ray you were wonderful. Now I just have to get back my life. And Ray, I’m no longer in a relationship!” He reached up and pressed his soft lips to Ray’s. Their tongues dueled, each exploring every crevice and every ridge, tasting each other until they were both out of breath. “Wow,” Nat breathed. “What happens next?”
“How would you-- would you like to come home with me to my new ‘old’ Victorian? I’ve got some salve that might make your hurts feel better. And I have a big old monstrosity of a brass bed that is very comfortable and is certainly up to having visitors. I just want to make sure you’re OK, and I want to be sure that Sam doesn’t come at you again!”
“O.K., but would you mind if we left now? I’d just as soon not have to explain anything to anybody. We could go out the back door.”
Ray helped Nat stand and pull up his pants. He couldn’t help but notice how well endowed Nat was for someone so slender. Nat caught him staring and winked. To his great chagrin, Ray blushed! “Is there anything you need to take with you?” he thought to ask the younger man.
“Yes, I want my backpack and clothes from the dressing room.” Nat gestured with his chin and said, “It’s over there…” Just then, with a jingle of bangles and a floating cloud of colorful scarves and veils, a small gypsy woman appeared in the lounge.
“Nat! What has happened?” Her voice was full of concern and portent. “Sam just told Carlos he was leaving and would not be back… there was blood… Who is this?” Her body tensed, and her expressive eyes were riveted on Ray’s face as though she could see through his Zorro mask to the man beneath. The gaudy costume of her “profession” could not disguise the strength and beauty of her face, though wrinkled by time and now full of-- full of something like fear.
“Don’t worry, Auntie Mir!” Nat hastily responded. “This is Ray. He cared enough to help me-- Sam had been drinking again…Auntie Mir… please, I trust Ray: I know he would never harm me…” Nat swayed, not too steady on his feet and obviously in some pain. Ray swooped him up in his arms and held him nestled against his chest. His powerful dark gaze held Auntie Mir’s.
“You can trust me with him, you know,” Ray said as he held the young man close. “I haven’t known him long, but I-- care for him.”
The old gypsy’s face relaxed. “You promise you will see him right?”
The tall man in black replied, “Yes, I promise.”
With that, Auntie Mir reached out a hand towards Nat, then left as quickly as she had come saying over her shoulder, “Nat, I’ll make your excuses to the others. Remember, we all love you…”
Ray carried Nat into the dressing room, where Nat insisted
he was able to stand on his own. He
put his clothes and shoes into his backpack. Then, leaning on Ray’s strong arm,
Nat led the way outside through the back door. They found themselves in the alley
behind the club not too far away from where Ray’s dark blue BMW was
parked, and soon they were on their way to the other side of the
They were both surprised to see so many costumed “ghosts and goblins” out on the streets going from house to house and storefront to storefront Trick or Treating. Some were children with parents, some were older kids, but some were adults. And there was also the occasional homeless person walking along or resting on a grate.
Nat could not believe all that had happened. First the performance going so well, then their dance in the audience Paso Doble, then the gut wrenching episode with Sam. His seat still ached and burned. He’d probably have more bruises on his arms, face, and neck. He probably looked terrible… He stole a quick glance at his “rescuer.” He couldn’t believe he was actually going home with him, and Auntie Mir seemed to be O.K. with it. He gave a fatalistic sigh. She should know… It just felt “right.”
Suddenly, they were stopped at a red light. Ray reached up, pulled off his Zorro mask, and put it on the dash. He turned toward Nat with a rather serious smile and touched his passenger’s cheek. Nat leaned into the caress and enjoyed looking at the strength and beauty of the other man’s face which was now open to him. “Raaay,” Nat whispered. Then he asked, “Are we near your place?”
“We’ll turn up off of Haight at the next light. Then it’ll be just up the hill.” Nat considered Ray’s answer. He was excited to be with Ray, but he was really aching and tired, too. The promised comfortable bed would be nice. He found it fascinating how Ray’s eyes seemed to change from bottomless pools of black to a kind of warm brown, apparently depending on how passing lights touched them.
“It’s great seeing all the kids and even adults all dressed up for Halloween,” Nat said. “If we hadn’t had all the trouble tonight, it would have been fun to spend some time at the Scary Carnivale at the club… Or even to stay home giving out treats to the Trick or Treat-ers.” He chuckled. “I can never fool anyone with my costume, though. I’m always a Spanish Dancer or a Gypsy or a Gaucho! ‘LOL’, as some of my dashing internet friends would say!” Nat finished his attempts at conversation with a huge yawn…
“Hang on, imp. We’re almost there,” Ray replied as they turned up a more residential street. “It is kind of homey to see all the ‘ghosts and goblins’ out and about and having fun. You know, ancient folk lore says they can play until midnight. Then Halloween or ‘Hallows Eve’ turns into ‘All Hallows Day’, and no self respecting evil ghost or goblin wants to be seen with a crowd of Saints!”
Nat laughed a little, which seemed to please Ray. “You know,” Nat said somewhat archly, “that’s my name.”
“What? What’s your name?” Ray obliged.
“IMP, imp is my name: Ignacio Michel Pacheco. Kids used to tease me about it all the time, until everyone started calling me ‘Nat’: it used to get me in trouble because my temper always took me into fights,” Nat said with a reminiscent sigh and glancing at Ray to see if he had noticed. Ray rolled his warm brown eyes.
Your temper made you
fight…” Ray finally
turned the car into a longish half circle driveway slightly overgrown with
rambling bushes. “Well, here
we are! Home sweet
House!” He turned everything
off and hurried to open the passenger door for Nat as he struggled with the
seatbelt and his backpack. From
what Nat could see in the moonlight, the flowing lines of the house rose high
into gabled turrets and towers above rampant tall bushes and drooping dark
pines, the true
“Well, come on, Imp. Welcome to my home. Mi casa es su casa!” Ray started up the steps, but stopped just in time to give Nat a hand when he started to sway. “Here, let me help,” Ray said as swooped Nat up in his arms again. Though not feeling at all well, Nat was delighting in Ray’s strength.
“You know, you shouldn’t keep doing this,” Nat offered as Ray turned the key in the ornate double door with brass fittings and beveled ‘lights’ that seemed to be etched with exotic flowers and birds.
“What’s the matter, Imp? Are you leery of being carried over a threshold?” Ray brushed the top of Nat’s head with his lips as they pushed through the door, and Nat blushed. In fact, he felt his whole body suffuse with heat.
“Ray,” Nat started…
“Not now, little one. Let me get you back to the bedroom I’m using. Hopefully, it will be warmer there, O.K. Don’t worry, Nat. I don’t want you to worry about anything.” Ray was all business and concern; Nat felt confused, he felt happy, he felt cherished. He was also feeling better… a little more his feisty self.
“O.K. Ray. Whatever you say.” As his eyes became used to the gloom within the house, Nat was startled to see several huge white shapes floating along their way. “Ray, what are those white things?” he asked rather urgently.
Ray laughed. “Dustcovers. There are some big pieces, bookcases and such that came with the house. I haven’t done anything with them yet, because I’ll be painting and remodeling soon. Oh, here we are. Get that light switch, would you?” Nat felt himself being swung around within easy reach of a rather ornate switch. He flipped it up, and the room was flooded with light. There was an overhead brass chandelier with matching wall sconces placed at intervals all around the large room.
A huge bed with a tall and intricate brass headboard dominated the space. There was a comfortable old sofa and chair and a mismatched set of bookcases and chests. A modern flatscreen TV with accompanying sound system and video players looked curiously at home among the harmoniously motley group of older furnishings. What looked like a game table still held a coffee cup and plate, probably from Ray’s breakfast. A pair of running shoes and an open door marked the entrance to a walk-in closet. Opposite to the bed were two French doors which seemed to open to the garden.
Ray carefully deposited Nat on the near side of the bed and set his backpack down nearby. “Are you still feeling dizzy? Maybe you’d like to take a shower or bath, then we could have some tea or maybe Ovaltine, and I could put some of that salve on your bruises. How does that sound?”
“That sounds great,” Nat said. “How many rooms does this place have anyway? Do you live here all alone?” His questions were interrupted by another huge yawn. “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I better get into that shower…”
Nat stood up, but began to waver again. Ray gently pushed him back down on the bed. “Nat, let me help you.” Nat looked up into bottomless black pools that seemed to go on to infinity. “Raaay,” Nat whispered. Nat blinked, then smiled into the taller man’s warm brown eyes. “Thanks, I could use some help. I really am awfully tired. But you must also understand that I am my own man, and you can’t just take over! I have to live my own life, make my own choices… Tonight I chose… you!” When Nat finished by winking at him, Ray had to laugh.
“I knew there was a reason I just had to bring you home…” Ray moved to help him undress. First came the dancing boots, then socks, pants, and briefs. His bolero vest and flowing white shirt soon followed. Ray knew Nat was good looking: tonight he looked beautiful. He had a lithe young body with the long muscles of a dancer. His lightly tanned skin looked almost creamy in the light of the bedroom. His patrician neck was long and kissable, and the well defined muscles of his chest and abdomen begged to be touched. His big cock was beautifully set off by dark curls, and Ray knew his bottom was alluring and round, but also trim and firm. Ray could not resist pulling Nat into his arms again for another soul-searing kiss.
When Ray felt Nat begin to shiver, he broke the kiss and wrapped Nat in the burgundy terry robe that had been lying at the foot of the bed. Looking into the younger man’s honest and open eyes, Ray hugged him and said, “Nat. Imp. You are so very beautiful. Any man would want you. But you are tired now and hurt. Now you need to rest. We will have plenty of time-- our time together is just beginning. There is plenty of room in this big bed for both of us. Let’s just do what we need to do to get settled, O.K.?”
Leaning in to Ray’s strength, Nat murmured his agreement. “O.K., Ray. You lead the way…On to the shower…”
After the warmth of the shower, Ray spread the promised salve on Nat’s bruises, finally taking some of the sting away. Soon Nat was relaxing against the firm mattress of the big old bed, carefully tucked in, then held when Ray joined him. One minute Ray was kissing his ear, the next minute Ray seemed completely relaxed and silent in sleep.
Nat was tired. The pain of his bottom and under his eye no longer troubled him unduly. Even though he really had been through a lot tonight, now he was comfortable. He loved the warm feel of Ray “spooning” him. And, now, he was also wide awake: he couldn’t seem to relax enough to sleep. His senses seemed to sharpen by the second, and he could hear every gust of wind in the trees outside, every creak in the stately old house. To top off his growing list of creepy complaints, the eerie heavy feeling that Auntie Mir had trained him to recognize seemed to be pressing in from all sides. And he was sure he could hear voices, speaking and crying. There were slow footsteps and the sound of running. The sounds seemed to come close, then to fade away. He could hear what seemed to be gigantic wings beating the air and the sounds of birds crying in the night. There were “sounds” right outside the French doors to the garden. It was enough… Ray would have to wake up…
The next thing he knew, Nat woke up. He must have fallen asleep. All was very dark, except for the circle of light created by the very small and inadequate night light on the wall by the door. Everything seemed to be supernaturally quiet. The whole house seemed to be waiting and listening. Then Nat noticed something terrible… Ray was not there, and Nat was all alone in the dark. He began to tremble and had the impulse to burrow completely under the covers. Then he began talking to himself:
“You are Ignacio Michel Pacheco, III, and you will not cower under the covers like a child. You will stand tall, and proud, and strong, even before the unnamed terrors of the outer abyss.” Whoever or whatever they were. He had never been quite clear on that point. He pulled on the burgundy robe as he got out of the bed and drew himself up to his full height. He noticed it felt very cold near the bed. His pale face was stern as he chanted: “By the power of the white light I hold within me, by the power of the clean darkness of Anubis and Hades, I bid you hold and return to the formless depths.” When he touched the door to the hallway, it swung open with a small creak. Nat stepped through.
“Comes here one who walks in beauty, comes here the ghost chaser. Comes here one who walks in beauty; comes here the dark breaker.” Nat stepped slowly past the big old fashioned bathroom. He wished he had a flashlight, but he could see no one was there. He stopped to listen. “Ray,” he called softly. Nothing. He felt strongly that he should repeat:
“By the power of the white light I hold within me, by the power of the clean darkness of Anubis and Hades, I, Ignacio Michel Pacheco, III, bid you hold! And return to the formless depths from whence you came!” Nat listened again. He felt moved to add with emphasis, “Go Now!” Oddly enough, the hallway seemed a little warmer.
Suddenly, he was sure he heard several voices. He thought he heard footsteps, climbing something, perhaps a stair. Then the sounds seemed cut off, as though a door had closed abruptly. Because he was very afraid, Nat marched on. What door had closed, where? And where was Ray? He felt the further need to gather power.
“Comes here one who walks in beauty, comes here the sound crusher. Comes here one who walks in beauty, comes here the sun bringer…” Nat walked on with sure, strong steps. When he got to the end of the hallway, he chose to turn right toward the street and the big old kitchen where Ray had taken him to get a mug of tea just before they went to bed. He could see the lowering moon through the big kitchen window. The moonlight seemed to pool on the white of the double door modern fridge making it glow eerily in the darkness. Again he thought he heard feet on stairs, but these seemed much heavier. Then they stopped, too. Nat was getting frustrated, more his feisty self, and forgetting to be afraid. What had Auntie Mir always said? Oh, yeah, “use your fear”-- HOW? That was the question!
Well, maybe someone else was afraid, and he could scare that “being” back. After all, Auntie Mir always said he was strong in the power. What harm could it do to believe her? Lifting his shoulders one more time to stand as tall as he could, Nat stepped forward one step at a time. He was perfectly positioned to be touched by a flood of light from what looked like a recessed doorway at the far end of the kitchen counter. A shortish black figure appeared in the center of the light, crossed quickly to the glowing fridge. The open fridge door masked the rummaging that Nat could plainly hear. With arms full of plastic bags holding food of various sorts, the dark figure disappeared into the center of the light. It was instantly dark as midnight again. Nat remembered to breathe.
Carefully, fighting for every step, Nat pushed his reluctant body to the end of the counter. Just as he was trying to make himself take one step further, he spotted a box of wooden matches on the counter. With stiff fingers, he got a match and pulled it against the grit on the box. Light flared, and he could see a heavy door just about where he had seen the figure disappear.
Nat nearly jumped out of his skin when Ray’s arms came around him from behind, and his very sultry voice said, “‘This one comes in beauty,’ huh? Can anyone get in on that?”
Nat was outraged. “Where have you been? Do you know what has been happening? Did you see the dark figure? I’m pretty sure it went through this door… ” Nat began to move forward again, dragging Ray with him.
“Wait, Wait, Imp!” Ray pulled them to a stop within touching distance of the door. Keeping one arm around Nat’s slender waist, Ray reached over to the wall and flicked a switch to light up the kitchen. “First, I thought I could hear something, and I wanted to check it out in case someone had broken in. You were sawing logs when I left, and I thought it would be better to let you sleep. But now, oh great Spirit Warrior, are you sure you really want to go through that door? Maybe it’s more than we can handle on our own. We could call the police. What do you want to do?” He had to smile at the wide gray eyes looking earnestly up at him.
“If there is evil in the world, then of course, we have to confront it. And maybe someone needs our help. Wasn’t that what you were doing at the club, helping me? I’m scared, and maybe you are, too. But we have to move ahead. We can’t just stay ‘under the covers.’ And besides, now we’re together. Let’s go.” Nat reached for the door knob.
Shaking his head and still keeping firm hold on the intrepid Nat, Ray moved into the doorway with him. They faced a murky stairwell twisting down to lower depths that could possibly house utility or storage rooms. Judging by the reddish glow illuminating what they could see of the stairs, they realized there must be some kind of fire or light down in the lower level. And they could hear more than one voice talking, with someone laughing in the background. There was also crying. Nat’s fingers dug into Ray’s arm; Ray could feel him trembling and mumbling in a steady monotone about “coming in beauty”… but he was also tugging on the taller man’s arm, and the two men started down, slow step by slow step… together. The surreal concert of whispery voices and approaching and receding footsteps got louder as the two horrified men descended into a surprising scene.
The last turn of the stair brought them out onto a landing two steps up from the floor of the cavernous basement room. Across from them a ragged fire was burning odd bits of wood and branches in a huge red brick fireplace built into the wall. A large cast iron stove stood nearby in front of what could only be an old fashioned coal room. It was easy to see that if the stove were burning coal, it could easily heat the whole house. Two low-watt naked light bulbs swung back and forth overhead casting odd moving shadows below.
When Nat and Ray appeared, a stunned silence swept over the room, and the two men found themselves greeted by the frightened faces of approximately 15 to 20 children of mixed ages. Some were trying to sleep in improvised “beds” of cardboard, tattered bedding of all sorts, and the occasional sleeping bag and air mattress. Others were sitting close together in front of the fire, some were gathered around an old paint splashed and scarred three legged table where an assortment of “found” food had been laid out.
Ray found his voice first. “What the hell-- What’s going on here? What are you all doing here?” His hard questions ripped into the room like thunderbolts, and the stunned silence erupted into an agitated cacophony of sound, with some of the smaller kids bursting into tears.
“Ray,” said Nat with authority, “do something!” He hurried to kneel beside two sobbing toddlers who had been bedded down fairly near the fire. Putting an arm around each, he began to whisper softly to them.
Stepping down into the room himself, Ray made calming motions with his arms. “Quiet everyone, quiet. No one is going to hurt you. We’re O.K. We’re all O.K. Nat and I were just checking to see who was in the house with us.” He was beginning to get the room to calm down. “In fact, you all are going to laugh at this, we thought you were maybe some ghosts or goblins living in my creaky old house”
Some of the kids did chuckle at that, and one precocious camper replied, “Yeah, well we thought you guys were the “bogeymen”!”
“Well, we’re not,” said Nat getting up to go stand with Ray. “So why don’t one or two of you tell us who you are and how you came to be here.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Ray. “Who can tell us? Who’s the oldest?”
“That’s Mel… he can say.”
“Mel can do it!”
“Tell them, Mel!”
A rather tall boy who had been standing near the rickety food table came over to them. “Well, what do you want to know?” His belligerence sat oddly on an honest and open face, and he had an air of shouldering responsibility that would put some adults to shame.
“First off, who are you and all these kids. Why aren’t you at home or at some Halloween Party?” Nat asked.
“I’m Mel Jackman, and my family has been on the streets since May when my dad lost his job. That’s my little sister, Becca, over there. Me and Jimmy, that’s the tall redhead in the corner, found this place almost three months ago.” Ray and Nat traded looks of dismay, as Mel went on with the story. “This house was deserted and off the street. It was easy to open the outside door from inside by us crawling through the coal chute. We showed our folks, and we came here on nights we couldn’t get into one of the shelters.”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy, “and when more and more people started to hear about it, our folks decided that only kids could stay here so there would be room for everybody. Most kids get dropped off here in late afternoon. We all bring wood and food and more bedding so there can be heat in the fireplace, something to eat, and a bed for sleeping. Then we get back together with our folks during the day. If it’s not too cold. If we can.”
“Are you going to let us stay? You’re not going to call the cops, are you mister? It’s awful for the little guys when they get ‘taken up’…”
“Ray, we can’t turn these kids in.” Nat looked ready to battle any and all ‘bogeymen.’ “Isn’t there something we can do? They’re only using one big room on one floor, and this house is huge.” He was pleading for the kids with all the intensity he could muster, just willing Ray to come up with some way for them to stay. Looking steadfastly at this “stranger” who had helped him deal with a very low point in his life, Nat again felt himself drawn into the infinite depths of his eyes, black pools of darkness in this uncertain light.
“And will you stay for me, Imp?” Ray reached for Nat’s hands. “Will you help me find the ways to give these kids… life?”
“Raaay,” Nat whispered. He shivered as Ray seemed to look into his very soul, then nodded emphatically as he returned the strong warm pressure of Ray’s hands. “I will be proud to help, and so will some of my friends and cousins, and everyone at the Gypsy Cavern. We could…” His voice trailed off. Ray’s death-grip on his hands became suddenly almost hurtful, and he watched a look of terrible anguish flash across Ray’s beautiful face. A powerful gust of wind seemed to buffet the old house to rattle doors and windows. The fire flared; the feeble lights sparked, then died, leaving the entire house in darkness as black and thick as pitch.
Anguish was in the intensity of Ray’s voice as he cried out, “It’s Midnight!”
With a thunderous crash somewhere outside, the lights came back on. Ray gave Nat a very warm smile giving his hands a little shake, soothing small circles on Nat’s palms. As Nat looked deep into Ray’s warm brown eyes, he knew that here was someone he would be proud to be with, someone he could trust, even for the rest of his life. “What was that?” Nat asked still jumpy in shock. “It sounded as if the whole house was coming down. It’s a wonder the kids aren’t screaming bloody murder! Maybe we need to go out and check…”
“I think we need to reassure our young ‘guests,’ Imp!” The noise level in the room was beginning to rise again as the kids began to realize their fright. “What can we do to calm them down?”
Nat briefly searched Ray’s eyes again, then said with a smile, “For one thing, tell them they can stay; between the two of us, we should be able to work something out for them… and… marshmallows…”
“Marshmallows!? What do you mean, marshmallows??”
“We can roast some in the fire. I noticed there were two big bags of them next to the jar of Ovaltine I saw when we were making tea. I’m sure there’s something we can use for skewers, maybe coathangers… I’ll just run upstairs to get the fixin’s… You’ll be O.K. for a minute, won’t you?”
“I don’t know, Spirit Warrior! I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same again…” Ray said as he reluctantly let go of Nat’s hand. “First a potential Trick seems to be changing my life, then you want to involve me in Treating a motley group of street kids! This Halloween Trick and Treat just seems to prove I have a lot more to learn about life.”
His warm brown eyes and reassuring smile got answering smiles from the kids who crowded around. And no one noticed that a certain trick of light made the tall man’s eyes darken to black pools of infinity as cold and still as death.