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Sam lost everything important to him on Halloween night, ten years ago. He has spent his teen years trying to reclaim a sense of hope by following the tenets of chivalry. Now, on this Halloween night, he will be plunged back into a situation where his actions will change a life forever.

 

Halloween Knight

© Copyright 2009 - All Rights Reserved

Laura’s minestrone soup wrapped around Sam like a hug. He grinned, tossed his coat on the washing machine, and stepped out of the laundry room into the kitchen.

A cardboard sword, painted silver and purple, caught him in the gut. He staggered, clutching the imaginary intestines spilling forth from the wound, and crashed to the linoleum floor.

"Sam’s here!" his executioner announced.

"By the Blessed Virgin," Sam bellowed, "What manner of knight besets me in such a cowardly fashion?"

The accused removed her plastic helm, revealing short, dark hair as fine as a cat’s, and a large gap between her front teeth. "It’s Celia, Sam. And it wasn’t cowardly, it was strategy."

"Female logic," Sam grunted, rolling to his feet. "No honor, just practicality."

"Thank the Blessed Virgin for that," Laura chuckled from the stove. She extended her wooden spoon and he sucked soup from it. "Did you stop by Master Mike’s?" she asked.

"For just a minute. I told him I’d do an extra class for him next week. Hey, this is great. You should be a cook or something." He dodged her swat.

"She is a cook, silly," Celia declared, putting her hands on her hips.

Sam crossed his eyes at her and wrapped his arms around Laura’s waist, resting his chin on her hair.

"Hey," Laura tilted her head and brushed his jaw with her nose. "You get any taller this year and we’re going to cut a hole in the ceiling."

Celia giggled. Sam squeezed his sister and she capitulated, leaning back against him a little bit. "So, how were things at the Elvis is Dead diner today?" he asked.

"The car joined Elvis," Laura murmured. "The engine cut out on me twice on the way home."

"Crap. You want me to pray it down to Jay’s tonight?"

His sister smiled. "And thwart the annual pilgrimage of the Children’s Crusade? Not a chance. I can probably nurse it through tomorrow."

"Sam, come on. D wants to show you something!" Celia tugged at his hand. Sam grinned at Laura and let himself be hauled away.

Two of his other knights were at the kitchen table. Demetrios ate soup while Larry drew on a piece of graph paper with Laura’s precious art crayons.

Sam hid a grin. As usual, Demetrios was wearing his cowboy boots on the wrong feet. Tonight he wore them with his homemade armor, chainmail and swordbelt. D was Sam’s first Crusader. The little boy tripped across his grandmother’s yard one summer afternoon in his reversed boots to bring Sam a glass of his grandmother’s lemonade and to be ridden around on the mower. During the ride, he informed Sam that he was living with his grandmother indefinitely because his parents were crackheads.

Sam discovered Larry in the food bar buffet line at the Palomino steak house. Larry was measuring food out onto his plate with the gravity of a NASA engineer. When Larry’s stressed-out dad lost patience with him and slopped gravy onto his perfect globe of mashed potatoes, the kid’s look of horror was worth the price of admission.

Celia attended the karate class Sam assisted twice a week at Master Mike’s. On her third lesson, she informed him she planned to marry him in ten years, when her seven years caught up with his seventeen.

"Lookit D’s mace," she crowed.

Sam admired the weapon made from an orange spongy ball, an assortment of straws and a tomato stake. "D, this is great."

"Sam," Larry looked up from his drawing. "You didn’t say anything about my helmet."

"Fantastic," Sam wowed, plucking it from the chair. "Papier mache, right?"

Larry nodded. "Yep. I made it in Afterschool."

"You guys get better every year. What are you doing?"

"I’m drawing a map so we can get to all the houses in the whole neighborhood before you have to take us home."

"He really wants to make sure we don’t go by creepy Ms. Winslow’s house," Celia translated.

Larry scowled. "I don’t—"

"Where’s Aaron?" Sam detoured Celia away from a collision with Larry’s Type-A temper.

"He was right here…" Celia twisted about, then looked to the hallway leading out of the dining room. "Uh-oh."

Laura spun from the stove. "Oh, Sam---"

"I’m on it," he responded, already headed that way.

The lamp and TV turned on in his mother’s bedroom threw shadows out into the hall, illuminating the seventies-style bamboo-striped wallpaper. It made Sam feel like he was inside a tree, his mother’s bedroom a shabby, comfortable nest on one of its branches.

Aaron was in the nest and well-launched into his pitch. "My dad brings me chocolate from Switzerland every time he goes, and it’s much, much better than this. So, if you give me yours," his hand hovered over the gold edged saucer and its three Godiva chocolates, "I’ll bring you some of mine."

"How about you get back to the kitchen and I let you live until tomorrow?" Sam said.

Aaron pushed his silver rimmed glasses into the bridge of his nose, crossed his arms over his narrow chest and eyed Sam with the room-filling presence of a four foot tall Lee Iacocca. "She was about to say I could have those."

"Sam, he said he’d bring me better chocolates," Sam’s mother smacked the scratched wooden arm of her easy chair. "Let him have them."

Sam fought the urge to choke life out of the nine-year-old. He’d need taped evidence to prove it was justifiable homicide. He crossed the room to his mother’s chair, shooting a glare at Aaron. "He doesn’t have any Swiss chocolates, Mom. He’s lying."

"I am not. My dad---"

"--Runs a tire store on the corner of 5th and Elon. His only contact with the Swiss is when he needs his pocket knife."

Sam’s mother seized his wrist. Her fingers dug into Sam’s skin, marked by white ridges and faint bruising that never completely healed.

"Why would he lie to me?" she demanded. She whacked the chair arm, harder this time. Sam caught both of her hands in his. Aaron’s eyes rounded and he stepped back.

"Aaron didn’t lie to you, Mom. He maybe exaggerated a bit. He can’t bring you Swiss chocolate, but he’ll bring you any other kind you want. What would you like?"

"Anything?" She peered up at Sam with wary eyes. Sam pressed his dark head to the top of hers.

"Anything."

His mother jerked free and clapped her hands. "I want Reese’s Pieces, Reese’s Pieces, Reese’s Pieces," she sang.

Laura materialized out of the darkness of the hallway. She met Sam’s eyes over their mother’s head. "Okay, Aaron," Sam managed. "You’re going to bring Mom some Reese’s Pieces tonight."

Aaron edged for the door. He jerked a quick nod and vanished behind Laura. Sam dropped a kiss on his mother’s cheek. "I’ve got to go, Mom. We’re going to go get your candy."

"Aaron is going!" She caught his shirtfront. "You hold me."

Laura laid her towel aside. "Let me hold you, Mom. Sam’s going to get your candy."

"No! Sam holds me like John."

First Reese’s Pieces, then the reference to Dad. The pounding started in Sam’s head. He breathed in through his nose and let it out through his mouth. It was a quick focus Mike had taught him to stave off the migraines, the unpredictable rages, and the occasional desire to strip off his clothes and run naked through the streets in the dead of night, screaming like a berserker.

Sam’s lips tugged in a wry smile at himself. His mother’s grip twisted into his shirt and he winced as she took out several hard-earned chest hairs. Sam closed his long fingers over hers.

"Liesl," he said sternly, "We’re not going to have tantrums tonight. I’ll hold you for a minute, but then Laura will have to hold you. If you don’t behave, there will be no Reese’s Pieces."

Laura looked away. Sam’s mom set her lips in a pout, but it didn’t last long. She knew when he meant business.

"I wish I had eyes like yours," she blurted.

"You do, Mom." Sam pointed to the dresser mirror. "See? They’re the same color."

She shook her head. "They’re different, Sam."

She could mean his eyes had less age lines. Or she could mean something different, and Sam didn’t want to go there. He couldn’t dip his toe into the pool of self-reflection too often or he’d drown. Master Mike hadn’t taught him that; he’d learned that one all by himself.

Sam scooped her up and bounced her playfully. She giggled and held on, and he dipped her a couple times and swung her slight body in circles to get her really laughing.

Laura sat down on the flattened, faded floral print cushion of the easy chair and Sam deposited their mother in her lap. "I’ll see you later," he whispered against his sister’s cheek.

She nodded and caught his forearm briefly in her chapped hand. He pressed his cheek tighter against her hair, then he let them both go.

He hurried back up the brown hallway to a hushed group of youthful knights. "Sam," Aaron whined. "I didn’t mean—"

"Sshh!" Sam froze. "The dragon’s loose."

"Where?" "What dragon?" Four heads turned in different directions.

"See the steam from his nostrils?" Sam whispered.

"Ah, that’s just steam from Laura’s soup," Demetrios said.

"No," Sam shook his head. "There’s too much of it for one pot of soup. See how it curls, like it’s been blown out from his nostrils? If it was coming from the pot, it would go straight up."

"Nunh-hunh!"

The windowpane rattled fretfully, then began an ominous staccato.

"Get under the table!" Sam ducked beneath it and Celia dropped with him. "He’s coming."

A rumbling vibrated the floor and crawled up the walls. Laura’s framed drawings of herbs trembled against the chipped paint. The other three children scrambled beneath the butcher-block table. Demetrios clutched his mace by the sponge ball.

"Sam," Larry whimpered. "What are we going to do?"

"I don’t have my sword!" Sam hissed. "Celia, do you have yours?"

"It’s not real!" she wailed.

"It’s real," Sam assured her. "Remember, this is a dragon, and he believes in magic, too. You just have to believe your blade is real, and it will be." The rumbling got louder. The glasses stacked by the sink began to rattle. Celia’s knuckles went white around her purple swordhilt.

"Okay, guys," Sam drew a deep breath. "Celia can’t fight him alone. I’m going to make a break for the stairs and get my sword. I’ll be back, I swear."

"No!" Demetrios hollered.

"Sam, don’t leave!" Light struck the window like a gleaming eye. Larry shrieked.

"Hold him off! I’ll be back!" Sam rolled from beneath the table and sprang for the stairs. He clattered to the top just as the whistle of the six o’clock train that ran through the woods behind the house shattered the illusion. A chorus of groans rolled up to him.

"Sam, we’re going to get you!" Celia threatened.

"I didn’t believe it!" Aaron boasted.

"Then why are you under the table, chicken lips?"

Sam closed his bedroom door and grinned.

He crossed the room and opened his closet. Sometimes, he imagined a secret alcove built at the back. Press a button, guitars crash, light erupts, and boom, the panel lifts, revealing his knight’s costume.

Dad’s suit bag was a pretty good substitute for the dramatic alcove. He drew it out and unzipped it. He took out the black linen Jacobite shirt and pulled it over his head. The black tabard that went over that had a Celtic knot design sewn across the chest with yellowed plastic pearls. Black woolen leggings clung to his calves, making it easy to slide on the flexible black boots. He put his mace in the belt at his waist, strapped on his back harness and plucked his short sword from the mounting over his unmade bed. He twisted, turned, flexed, leaped and crouched, making adjustments until he was sure he had full mobility.

He pulled his snug-fitting, chain mail coif on his head, slung his gray cloak over his shoulders, taking care to clear the hilt of the short sword, then bounded down the stairs. Ten minutes later, he shepherded his charges out into the spreading darkness and tuned into the currents that whispered with the breath of Hallow’s Eve night.

Laughter and playful screams traveled the cool air. Ghouls and goblins scampered on the shadowed fringes of the streetlights. Sam responded to his kids’ chatter, quieted them down to go over the ground rules, then they joined the ranks of homemade princesses, Disney characters and broom-sworded heroes.

By consensus, they followed Larry’s map the length of the street, but when they turned onto Medlin Drive, the children made a beeline for Ms. McGady’s driveway. Even Larry capitulated to popular vote with minimal grumbling.

"Ms. McGady!" Sam called to her and waved, following his knights down her walk. A troop of satisfied characters from the Harry Potter books retreated through her begonia border. Ms. McGady, a thirty-something divorcee with dark Latin American eyes and riotous red hair that used to be brown, wore a bonnet and a white blouse with puffy short sleeves. Her long skirt twitched and a black cat peered around her ankles, eyes narrowed disdainfully. A Pekinese burst from behind Ms. McGady, knocking the cat over the threshold. The cat hissed and scrambled back inside, but the dog barked and waddled its way down the stairs. Sam crouched and the dog flung herself into his arms.

"Hey, Calypso! What kind of guard dog are you?"

"A fine one," Ms. McGady defended, her smile as warm and welcome as Laura’s soup. "It’s you, Sam. Animals and kids. They go to you like you’re the Pied Piper." She put her hands on her hips and surveyed his group. "I’ve found the costume to stump your Crusaders at last. Who am I this year?"

"Heidi!" Celia crowed.

"Nope." She crossed her arms under her bosom and winked at Sam.

Don’t stare at her chest. You’re supposed to be a chivalrous knight, and she’s twice your age. You rake her leaves. Sam looked down at Cally’s shaggy blonde head. The Pekinese snorted happily and slavered her pink tongue up Sam’s nose.

"Laura Ingalls," Larry suggested.

"How do you know what Laura Ingalls looks like?" Demetrios demanded.

"My sister watches it," Larry said defensively.

"Best show ever put on TV," asserted Ms. McGady, "Still is."

"Not better than the Batman-Superman Adventure Hour," Aaron mumbled around a sucker. Sam pushed Calypso aside and plucked the candy out of Aaron’s jaws.

"Hey!" Aaron protested.

"Didn’t we agree that we were going to check these before we eat anything?"

"Mr. Grimmell gave them out," Aaron said. He turned to Ms. McGady. "You’re the Sun Maid Raisin Girl," he stated.

Ms. McGady’s mouth fell open. "Aaron, you’re amazing. That’s exactly right." Celia, Larry and Demetrios groaned. Ms. McGady hid a smile and handed Aaron two packages of homemade cookies. She gave everyone else one, including Sam. "You’ll need your strength," she teased him with a wink. "You’ve got quite a handful with these five."

Sam blushed and looked down at the cookies. They were carefully wrapped in cellophane. She had taped an address label to the gathering point over a spray of black and orange curly ribbon. His label had a magic marker drawing of a grinning pumpkin on it. "Thanks, Ms.—five?"

He turned and surveyed his group. Larry. Celia. Demetrios. Aaron. A princess.

The little girl who had joined his group might be four years old. Most of her body weight had to be snarled black hair and smoke gray eyes. She scratched her head and her crown slipped down over her left ear. She brought her cookies to her bud-shaped mouth and tried to eat them through the cellophane.

"Hold on there, fair maiden." Sam dropped to one knee before her. Where the hell were her parents?

"I’m not going to take them," he promised, and she grudgingly loosened her grip so he could open the wrapping. "What’s your name?"

"Melanie," she managed through the cookie he handed back to her.

"Okay, Melanie. Where’s your mom or dad?" Sam discovered a bobby pin hanging off the back of her collar and used it to straighten and secure her crown.

She pointed across the street. The begonia tramplers were at another door, and two men stood smoking on the sidewalk, waiting for them.

"Ms. McGady, can you keep my knights entertained for just a minute?"

The woman smiled. "I wouldn’t steal a girl’s chance to be rescued by you, Sam. Go ahead."

Sam cleared his throat. "Okay. I’ll be right back, guys." He whisked princess and cookie onto his hip and headed across the street.

"Sirs?" Both men turned as Sam approached. "Melanie here says she belongs to your group."

Sam put her down and she toddled into one man’s leg. He caught her upper arm. "Melanie, I told you not to wander off," he muttered.

"Cookies, Daddy. Want one?"

"No, I don’t want one. Jesus." Her dad rolled his eyes at his friend, then turned his attention back to Sam. "Thanks. I drew the short straw with my wife tonight. She’s at home watching reruns while I’m out freezing my ass off."

Sam nodded. "Melanie’s a nice little girl." He motioned to Ms. McGady’s porch. "I take some kids out every year. My name’s Sam, if you want to use me next year. I live in the green house on Terrace Street."

Melanie’s dad snorted. "Holiday daycare. Pretty lucrative business."

Sam shook his head. "I don’t charge. Er,... she’s wandering off again."

The man whirled on his heel and caught the child by the arm. "Dammit, Melanie, if I have to tell you to stay close one more time, we’re going home. You’re lucky I took you out at all this year."

Sam stiffened. "With all due respect, sir, the whole point is that it’s supposed to be fun for them."

Her dad scowled. "Listen, smartass –"

"Joe, come on," his friend intervened. "Let’s not get into this. The kids have moved on."

Joe cast Sam a sullen glance. "When you get a job and pay a mortgage, you can lecture me about my kid. Until then—"

"You’re right, sir. Absolutely right." Sam turned his back on him, but gave Melanie a parting wink and his cookies. He knew better than to be judgmental. He knew better, but it didn’t stop him from doing it.

He headed back across the street. Ms. McGady had his Crusaders bobbing for apples in the metal washtub on her porch. Sam made it two steps up the walkway to them, then time and motion stopped.

He heard the Voice.

He knew it anywhere, even in the most crowded hallways at school. A tight place in his chest always listened for it, probably the same way the shepherds of Bethlehem always listened for angel’s voices after they had gotten to hear them that one unforgettable night.

Sam turned and watched Jennifer Lind Meriweather come down the street. Her friend, a tall, elegant girl named Marcie, was dressed as a 1920’s flapper. Jennifer sauntered beside her in jeans and a pale blue, fuzzy sweater that showed her delicate collarbones. She had her left hand hooked loosely into her back waistband, and her beige bra strap was revealed by the slide of the neckline. She withdrew a cigarette from her lips, and tossed back her rust-gold hair. The satin sweep rippled across Sam’s memory, taking him back ten Halloweens.

He had dressed up like Superman. Before his mother could tell him to put a coat over the costume, he slipped out of the house to join his friends. Jennifer Lind was one of the friends. Sam loved her beautiful hair and her small nose. She dressed like Lois Lane, so he knew they were meant for each other. Now he knew she had dressed up like her mother, a paralegal in one of the big city firms. At seven years old, he did not know that secretaries as well as roving female reporters dressed in silk blouses, carried notepads, and stuck pens behind their ears.

They ran from house to house. Every light was on. The adults exclaimed over their costumes, played with them, and beamed them on their way. Jenny and Sam became a team, racing other kids from door to door on opposite sides of the street. They pulled out extra pillowcases and left their full bags of candy at the street to go back to the same doors, blending with another group to get more candy. If the adults knew, they didn't let on.

It was a Leave It To Beaver memory. Jenny Lind seized his hand, and her rust-colored hair brushed his cheek. Then it happened.

He and Jenny had slowed to a walk, panting for breath. Tires squealed behind them. Sam spun and three big kids hung out the window of a hot rod, wearing gruesome rubber masks and screaming like demons. Raw eggs struck Sam in the face and chest. He spun away in reaction, but one of the boys leaned out and grabbed a handful of his bulging Superman pillowcase. Sam couldn’t get his wrist free of the twisted neck of the case, and he screamed in terror as he was dragged with the car. The boy in the mask yanked, hard, and the fabric uncoiled. Sam skidded across the pavement on his knees, his wrist and lungs burning. The car screeched away in a black ball of smoke.

Sam’s blue tights were ripped and his knees bled. Tears blurred his vision. A shaken Jenny Lind cried as eggs dripped down her mother’s borrowed blouse. The boys had tried to get her candy, too, and missed, catching her mother’s costume pearls instead. The beads were all over the street and rolling down the gutter to the storm drain.

Sam unclenched his hand, feeling the memory of Jenny’s touch fade. He could not stop Jenny’s tears. He could not get his candy back. He could not stop the ache he felt inside every time he saw her. That night of terrible loss had bound his heart to her, a remembrance of sweet possibilities. He still felt seven years old in her presence, as if he could reclaim those possibilities if he could only make up for that one night.

Jennifer walked by without noticing him, the sway of her hips gradually vanishing into the night, her path erased by bands of trick or treaters crisscrossing the street behind her.

"Sam! Sam!" "He’s fallen under a spell!" "The fairies have gotten him!" "Ms. McGady, get another bucket of water!"

Sam snatched Larry and Aaron up under each arm as Celia and Demetrios shrieked and dashed out of range. Calypso danced around them excitedly, barking. "The fairies told me to eat you unless you give me half of your cookies!" Sam demanded.

Demetrios brandished his mace. "I’ll defend my cookies with my last dying breath."

"Your breath makes people die," Celia retorted. "You should defend a fair maiden with your last dying breath, not cookies."

Larry wrinkled his nose. "Girls are just trouble. Right, Sam?"

Sam grinned and dropped his charges. "You’re right, Larry. But they’re the best kind of trouble around." He nodded goodbye to a chuckling Ms. McGady and led his group back down the walk. Celia’s hand crept into his while the boys quarreled over who had the most candy so far.

"You really like that girl, don’t you, Sam?"

I’d die for her. He hadn’t had the courage to speak to her since that Halloween night ten years ago, but his soul belonged to Jennifer Lind Meriwether. Sam accepted it the way he was able to accept nothing else and, in some twisted way, he felt it was an anchor, holding him to sanity.

"Sam," Celia tilted her face up to him. "You know I’ll marry you in ten years, if you want me to, but if you like her, that’s okay. I don’t want you to be lonely waiting for me."

Sam squeezed her hand, hard. He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he settled for lifting Celia off her feet and carrying her on his shoulders the rest of the way down the street.

About fifty houses later, when the boys started complaining about the weight of their pillowcases and Celia grew quiet, Sam headed for D’s house. He dropped Larry off with D, since Larry was spending the night. Demetrios’s mace dragged the ground with a rasping noise as the two boys made their way up the walk. Sam waved at Demetrios’ grandmother as she opened the door.

Celia lived two blocks away. When they got to her house, she gave Sam a long hug before running up the walk to her mom. Sam nodded at Mrs. Friedrickson. She looked pretty relaxed tonight. Maybe she’d spend some time with Celia and let the kid tell her about her Halloween, rather than holing herself up away from her daughter with a TV remote and a National Geographic for her ‘personal quality time’, like she usually did.

Aaron didn’t have much to say during the four-block walk to his house, but Aaron was not a chatterbox like most kids. He did a lot of thinking. Maybe plotting was the better word. A smile tugged at Sam’s lips.

"Sam," Aaron stopped in front of his porch stoop. "No one gave me any Reese’s Pieces tonight."

"Oh." Sam pulled at his sleeve, straightening a fold of shirt bunched beneath the back harness. "So, you’ll just have to get some at the store."

"But I can’t. Mom’s traveling, and Dad won’t have time to take me. No one will take me." Aaron shrugged. "Your mom won’t really remember anyway, will she?"

Sam stopped working at his sleeve. "Aaron, why do you do this stuff? Why do you make promises you won’t keep?"

"I meant to, Sam, it’s just…nobody gave me any Reese’s Pieces tonight. Hey," the boy brightened and pulled out Ms. McGady’s cookies. "I’ll give you these if you go to the store for me."

Sam shook his head. "No deal, Aaron. You promised my mom Reese’s Pieces. You get them tomorrow, or next Halloween I’m not taking you."

"But—that’s not fair!" Aaron’s bottom lip poked out. Sam sighed. He sat down on the top porch step, presenting his back to Aaron, and ran his hand over his hair.

"Are you really mad at me, Sam?" Aaron touched his shoulder.

"I don’t know," Sam said. "It’s really important to me that you keep your promise."

"Why?" Aaron sat down next to him, his hip pressed against Sam’s, as if he hoped physical contact would bring exoneration.

Sam crooked an elbow on his thigh, braced his chin on it and considered the younger boy. It was hard to know what Aaron could and couldn’t understand. Maybe nine was old enough to understand all of it. Aaron watched him with large, apprehensive eyes and Sam’s throat got tight looking at him, at his future. Why did things have to change? Why couldn’t Aaron be a manipulative little kid that exasperated and amused, but did no real harm? Why did they have to learn about consequences and grow up?

"Aaron, you know how sometimes things happen to you that make no sense?" Sam asked. "Things that hurt?"

"Like what?"

Like maybe your mom and dad make promises to you they don’t keep, Sam thought. So Aaron did it, too, unintentionally doing exactly what they did to hurt him. Parents had a bond to their kid's soul that could never be broken, that affected your actions in ways you could never imagine happening.

"Just things. You know ’em when you feel ’em." Sam nudged the boy’s hip with his own, but his eyes stayed serious. "You need a place to go, in here," he pressed his fingers against Aaron’s chest, "Where you can figure it all out. It’s tough to go there when you’re not telling the truth to people—" he held up a hand before Aaron protested. "or to yourself." Sam shook his head at Aaron’s expression. "You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?"

Aaron looked down at the tips of Sam’s boots and fidgeted. "I’ll get the candy, Sam. Somehow. I promise."

"I know, Aaron." Sam stood up and drew the boy with him, hugging him. To his surprise, Aaron hugged him back, looping his arms around Sam’s hips and pressing his cheek to his ribs. Sam smoothed a hand over his curly brown hair. Aaron drew away after a silent minute and straightened his glasses.

"Bye, Sam."

"Good night, Aaron."

Sam waited while Aaron unlocked the door with the key around his neck and listened for the latch.

It was about 9:00. The midnight tournament was at Snow’s Cut campground, only a couple miles if he took the railroad tracks behind D’s house. He headed in that direction, and contemplated what was ahead to dispel the shadows that had come from his talk with Aaron. It was going to be a good tournament. Sam liked it okay when they did the tourneying in front of crowds, but he liked it best like it would be tonight, just the players. Being lost in it was better than performing.

He slipped behind D’s grandmother’s harvested vegetable garden and skidded down the steep incline of the path that led through pine trees to the railroad tracks. The rails reflected the moonlight, creating a silver path. He walked between them, and imagined Jennifer walking with him. He’d hold her hand while she tried to walk on the metal rail, and catch her if she slipped, or they’d each walk a rail, holding hands in the middle to steady each other.

It was a good fantasy. He stuck with it for awhile, until the woods truncated for the Howe Street intersection. The neon sign of Patel’s Railside Convenience Store colored the rails gold and violet. Sam turned off. If Aaron made good on his promise, Sam's mother would get two bags of Reese’s Pieces. Sam believed Aaron really would try, but he knew promises sometimes got broken, despite the best intentions.

The store light was garish after the moonlight. Sam quickly found the candy, paid for it and returned to the stillness of the tracks. The candy clicked in the pouch on his hip. He tightened the noose on the bag to still the rattling, but the weight was still there, a few ounces as distracting as a feather resting on his nose. It filled his mind with voices and images, and brought the dull headache back.

His mother had held him in her arms that Halloween until he cried himself out. Then she emptied the large plastic pumpkin they used to distribute their own treats and smiled. "John, honey, go get the car keys. We’re going to the store, and Sam’s going to fill this up with any candy he wants, except Reese’s Pieces. All those Reese’s Pieces are mine."

She knew they were his favorite.

"Nunh-unh!" He wiped at his eyes and lunged for the pumpkin. She was twirling around in her gypsy costume and did not see him. The plastic pumpkin bounced off his forehead.

"Oh, Sam, Sam—" she knelt in front of him, her hand folding over the bump. "You poor thing. What a night. Are you okay? Mommy’s just being silly. You can have all the Reese’s Pieces."

Sam was relieved to see the faint trail that led off the tracks. It wound through a half mile of woods and would end up behind Snow’s Cut.

He liked the hushed stillness of the real woods. He came here when he could, laid flat on the cool earth and listened. He stopped being a person and became part of something that made a lot more sense, the smell of earth and decaying leaves, and the sway of trees against a blue sky.

Harsh laughter shattered the temporary peace of the picture. Sam stopped. It was the kind of laugh someone made when they weren’t really laughing, when they were convincing themselves or someone else that they were having a good time. He peered through the darkness and focused on a dim mushroom of light off to his left, near the ravine. Probably someone fooling around, drinking. Sam took another step, and heard the Voice.

Jen was probably with some of her friends. There was no reason for him to go check it out. Sam turned, turned again. He should make sure she was all right, though. Of course, if she was making out with some guy, he’d feel like crap for the rest of the night. Sam sighed and headed toward the light.

He crept up to the firelit clearing and crouched in the shadows at the edge. Jen faced him across the open space. She stood, one hip cocked and an arm wrapped loosely around her waist as she held a cigarette in a hand extended toward the ground. Her thumb flicked the butt, but there was no ash. Her attention was on Reginald Bartlett, who tended the fire at the center of the clearing. A duffel bag hung from the tree branch over his right shoulder.

Reg was a self styled badass, a menace to anything weaker than himself. Since he was over six feet tall and 200 pounds, that was a lot of menace. What in the hell was Jen doing in the woods with him? And not just him.

Todd Ingle leaned against the tree behind her, the perpetual smirk with which he infuriated teachers apparently permanently frozen on his flaccid, drugged-out face. Jason Darby squatted on the ground, digging a shallow trench around the circumference of the clearing with a hand spade.

Jen wasn’t paying any attention to them. Her eyes rested on Reg in a way that knifed Sam somewhere below his intestines. Fine. He could go now. She was fine, he felt like manure. The universe was as it should be.

"Hey! Don’t fall asleep on me!" Reg flicked his wrist and whacked the duffel bag with his tree branch poker. A squall came from inside, followed by a staccato of hissing. The bag jerked, bulging out the fabric. Sam saw the pale glint of a claw pierce the bag. The hissing subsided to a growl, then a pitiful mewling.

Sam’s attention darted to Jen. The boys were laughing, but she wasn’t. She managed a half smile for Reg, but her eyes weren’t joining the party. She didn’t like it. Good. Maybe she’d get out of there.

"Is this supposed to be more fun than Tracy’s party?" she asked. "What are you guys going to do, shaving cream him?" Jen shifted to the other hip and tossed her head. Her hair tumbled over her right breast. Sam didn’t like the way Todd’s eyes followed it, like he was looking at something he had already bought.

"Tonight’s a night for power," Jason scoffed, sitting back on his heels. "That’s baby stuff. Todd, where’s the rope?"

Todd pushed away from the tree and brushed Jen’s backside with his arm.

"Hey, watch it." She twisted out of his range, but he crowded her, laying an arm around her shoulders.

"Aren’t we more fun than Tracy’s party?"

Jen blew smoke in his face. "Not really," she said. He backed off, coughing, but the smirk didn’t waiver. He picked up a coil of rope. The stench of oil flared Sam’s nostrils.

"He-ll-oo? Is anyone going to answer my question or are you guys in a trance?" she snapped.

"C’mere, Jen," Reg invited. He held out a hand.

The cat quieted, but its thrashing brought Sam the smell of its fear. Sam eyed the bag. There was the possibility he could make a dash into the clearing, pull it down and make a run for it while they were still off balance. He was sure he knew the woods better. The sack was tied to the branch with a simple bowline, easy to pull off. The muscles in Sam’s jaw tightened. Either that cat was getting away, or he was going to get the piss kicked out of him. Sam just hoped the odds would be three against one, not four.

Jen skirted the duffel bag. "You should let him go, Reg. He stinks. He’s messed himself."

"Soon enough." He caught her hand. Sam could see both of their faces from his spot. His mind calculated the intent in Reg’s even as his heart imprinted every emotion crossing Jen’s. Neither expression brought him a great deal of comfort.

"I’m glad you came with us tonight, instead of going to Tracy’s," Reg told her.

A light stain rose in Jen’s cheeks and she looked off to the right, directly at Sam. As usual, she didn’t see him. For once, it was a blessing.

"Well,…" she shrugged. She looked back at Reg and there was something softer to her smile. "I’m glad I came, too. I’m just not into this cat thing, Reg. What are you going to do to him?"

"Girls are so soft," Todd scoffed.

Reg’s mouth lifted in what passed as a grin. He looked like he was baring his teeth. He stood up, his chest brushing Jen’s as he rose. She had her cigarette to her lips. His fingers closed over hers and he grazed his index finger over her lips.

"You talk too much, Todd," Reg said. He pinched the butt from her grasp and flicked outward, sending the cigarette spinning.

"Fire in the hole, guys."

Flames spouted out of the ground. "Jesus!" Todd leaped back and Jason kicked the last section of oil-soaked rope into the trench. The fire grasped it and enclosed the clearing in a circle in the space of a breath, strobing everyone with flickering shadows.

Sam scrambled backwards to maintain his cloak of darkness. Jennifer shrieked and stumbled forward into Reg.

"Thanks a hell of a lot, Reg," Jason snapped. "You nearly burned the---"

"Oh, shut up. Get the other stuff ready." Reg put a hand on Jen’s neck. Her eyes moved from the lick of flames to his face. Her eyes were as round as the moon riding overhead, and almost as much white was showing.

"Hey, Jen, it’s okay," Reg chuckled. "Relax. We’re just doing a little magic. Do you believe in magic, Jen?"

Smoke tendriled around them, blurring Jen’s features and her reaction. The cat meowed plaintively.

"Are you kidding?" Jen made a breathless hiccup that might have been an attempt at a snort. "That cigarette had a good bit of drag left to it, you know."

Sam saw Reg’s grip tighten on her collarbone, and then his thumb rubbed over her jugular.

Jen pulled back, but didn’t step out of his armspan. "You guys are acting really weird. What are you going to do with the damn cat?" Her voice cracked over the profanity.

Reg grinned. His eyes were lost in caverns of shadow. He looked demonic. "No Halloween is complete without somebody’s cat getting sacrificed."

Jen swallowed. She stepped away from him. "No way," she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "No way. I don’t want any part of that. C’mon guys, this is dumb."

"When you sacrifice something," Reg murmured, "You gain power. You get to be invincible for awhile."

Sam tore his attention from Jen and Reg. Jason and Todd were spreading a pea green army blanket inside the circle of fire. Todd reached into a mesh backpack, like the ones used to carry books to school, and withdrew four black candles and a silver bowl.

Fear crawled into Sam’s stomach. Ms. McGady, Laura’s kitchen and the innocent touch of Celia’s hand were suddenly unreal. He had stepped into a nightmare, and become part of the dark landscape of Reg’s mind.

"There are other ways to get power," Reg purred. He moved in on Jen again. When he touched her shoulder, she flinched. Sweat made the armpits of Sam’s shirt cold. His fingers dug into the forest floor. Reg put his lips to her ear.

"There’s sex."

"What?" She stared into his face.

"Jason’s been reading about it," Todd offered.

"I didn’t know you could read," Jennifer retorted, but her voice was high and thin. She fumbled in her pocket, brought out another cigarette, dug in the other pocket and drew out her lighter. She clicked out a flame, but her fingers shook. Reg put his hand over them. Either the act or Reg’s touch calmed her, because she seemed cooler when she tucked the lighter back in her pocket and took the cigarette from her lips to exhale.

"Now, what the hell are you guys talking about?"

"A woman lays on the ground—" Jason began.

"Naked," Todd said. Jen narrowed her eyes at him.

"She holds candles on her body," Jason continued, "Like she’s the altar. You sacrifice an animal over her and all the ritual participants do it with her to increase the rush."

Jen cleared her throat. From ten yards, Sam saw the tremor in her fingers when she brought the cigarette back to her lips.

He had never used a mace and sword against someone except in tournament. Sam closed his eyes and breathed. He had to figure out what to do, and then do it. Without hesitation, without doubt.

Jennifer turned and faced Reg straight on, so all Sam could see was Reg’s face above the back of her head. "You guys are thinking I’m this living altar, right?"

"C’mon, Jen, you’re not a virgin." Reginald said. "Doesn’t it turn you on, even a little bit? Just imagine it." He shoved the sack, hard, and the cat screamed. Jennifer jumped. Todd took a step closer to her, outside the range of her vision. Jason pulled a handful of short cords from the backpack.

No moment required more discipline than the moment before a charge. Tension prickled over Sam’s arms. The beating of his heart accelerated until it was the roar of drums and the blood-firing vibration of trumpets. He curled his fingers around the handle of the mace at his belt and began to work it loose.

Reg put his hand against Jen’s cheek, keeping her attention on him. "We’ll paint you up with old Mephistocles’ blood here and then each of us will jump you. Think of the way it would feel. You would be like a goddess."

"The book says you get a high, better than the best drugs you’ve ever done," Jason rasped, holding the cords behind him, where only Sam could see them.

"Me—Mephistocles?" Jen looked toward the bag. "Isn’t that Ms. McGady’s cat?"

"Yeah," Todd laughed. "We knocked the bitch over for her cookies and the cat bolted. We stumbled on him getting away and Jason stuck his butt in the duffel bag."

"You…you didn’t hurt Ms. McGady?"

"Hell, no." Todd snorted. "Just knocked the cookies out of her hands and shoved her back on her ass."

Sam narrowed his eyes and took a tighter grip on the mace.

"C’mon, Jen." Reg stepped closer, touched her hair again. One step more and he’d be occupying the same space. "What the hell’s all that special about your life now? We’ve got to take power now, feel like the gods we are, even it’s just for a little while. Don’t you want that? What have we really got to look forward to, except this moment?" His voice lowered, but Sam heard him like the whisper of a ghoul through a graveyard. "I’ve been thinking about being with you for a long time. This will make it really special."

Jason rolled his eyes at Todd and stuck a finger down his throat. Todd ignored him, watching Reg and Jen with the intensity of the gang rapist next in line. Sam shifted. If he jumped out now, he could maybe distract them enough to give Jen a chance to bolt. The only problem was, Reg’s words had apparently hit a nerve. Jen wasn’t acting like she wanted to bolt anymore.

She gazed up at Reg, her cigarette accumulating ash. He bent his head and kissed her, and her arms slid up around his beefy neck.

Sam swallowed shards of glass. He didn’t want to watch, but somehow he couldn’t help himself as Reg’s hands slid down her back, and lower. It suddenly felt as if his soul occupied Reg’s body, and Sam could feel Jen’s body under his palms, and it was his mouth stealing the breath from hers.

Jen’s free hand clamped down on Reg’s neck and she jammed the lit cigarette into his ear. Reg howled. Jen shoved away from him and tore the sack from the tree. Reg grabbed at her, but she flung the duffel bag over the line of flames. It rolled past Sam into the shadows, and Mephistocles burst from it with a yowl of fear. The cat streaked away.

The momentum of Jen’s throw had knocked her to her knees. She scrambled for flight. Reg snagged her by her beautiful hair and fell upon her, his knees in her back. "Bring me the rope, Jas!" he snarled.

Jason lunged to Reg’s aid. Sam leaped over the ring of fire, roaring his battle yell, and swung the unspiked mace at Jason’s head. It slammed into the boy’s temple and Jason fell to his knees. Sam swung again, hitting the soft base of the skull, and Jason toppled face forward at Todd’s feet.

Todd froze, his face a mask of confusion and fear. Sam ripped his short sword free and leveled mace and sword on Todd. He had done it a thousand times in practice, but it felt like the first time he had ever done it. His heart triple-hammered beneath his tabard. He hoped he hadn’t hurt Jason too badly, but he couldn’t afford to look.

Jennifer screamed and thrashed in Reg’s grasp. Reg struck her in the face when she tried to turn on her back. Blood came out of her nose and Sam made an animal-like noise he didn’t recognize. His concern for Jason vanished. He wanted to go to her, but first there was Todd.

"This doesn’t have to be your fight, Todd," Sam managed hoarsely.

"Get him!" Reg screamed. Jennifer bit his hand and he cursed, punching her again.

"Todd," Sam snarled, bringing the other boy’s attention back to him. There was sweat shining on Todd’s forehead. He looked as scared as Sam felt. "This can end here, Todd," Sam said.

Todd looked between Sam and Reg. Sam kept the mace swinging, but he made his eyes his weapon, channeling his fear into ferocity, like a cornered lion. Come on, Todd, get the hell out of here.

Todd bolted.

A potent silence settled over the clearing as Todd’s trampling retreat died away. Sam turned to face Reg and Jennifer. The world narrowed to their white faces and the leaping, crackling flames enclosing the three of them.

Things had come full circle.

He hadn’t protected her ten years ago. He hadn’t gotten his candy back. He hadn’t stopped the drunk driver from running head-on into his parents’ car that same night.

An impulsive moment of love shouldn’t end in bright lights, screaming metal, and a father’s death scream. Reality dropped its comforting mask of indifference that night and revealed malevolence. Sam was now 17 and his mother was forever 7.

The fire leaped, fueled by what built inside Sam. The next few moments were a strand of the Fates’ tapestry woven only for him. He could do it now. He would protect Jen this time. He had to. She didn’t have anyone else.

"It’s time to let her go, Reg." His voice sounded strange to him, higher than usual, the child speaking through the body of a boy who was almost a man.

Reg sneered. "Throw away that stick, and we’ll see about that."

"I won’t drop my weapon."

"Chicken?"

Sam shook his head. "I have nothing to prove to you."

"Oh, yeah?" Reginald made a quick lunge and grabbed one of Jason’s ropes. Sam started forward, but Reginald drew a switchblade. It caught the moonlight and spun open in that way that was oh-so-cool. In the movies.

"Come closer and I’ll gut her." Reginald teethed the blade and bound Jennifer’s wrists behind her.

"Why would you do that?" Sam took another step forward. Reginald brought up the knife.

"Because I can." The moonlight caught Reg’s dark brows and shadowed his features, turning the boy into a monster. He rose. "Drop the sword and mace and get out of here, Sam, or I’ll hurt you so bad you’ll wish you were dead." He spat on the ground near Jen’s face. "Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill her. Someone with her rep isn’t going to run to the police."

Sam’s eyes flicked to Jennifer. Her torn sweater rode up over her bra. Blood ran over her lips and crusted in the hair snarled across the lower half of her face. Her body quivered with terror and shock.

Sam drove the sword into the ground and flung the mace out of the clearing. He let the momentum carry him around in a spin and forward, narrowing the gap between himself and Reg. The side of his foot connected with Reginald’s outstretched hand and knocked the knife out of his fingers. The blade plunged into Reg’s sneaker.

There were no movie pauses for short witticisms. Sam spun in a second kick and hit Reg’s head. Reg fell to his knees. Sam followed with a sharp drive into the boy’s massive solar plexus. Reg went flat on his back across Jennifer.

Sam pulled the short sword from the ground and held it to Reg’s throat. Jen stared up at him with wide, frightened eyes, like a terrified animal. He couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. She looked like she was hardly breathing. Sam knew he wasn’t.

The adrenaline reversed its flow and he fought the sudden dizziness and thundering roar in his head. Reg whimpered as the point of the sword pressed into flesh. Jen sucked in a breath. Sam steadied his stance and blinked, bringing them back into focus. Jen’s cheek pressed into the mud of the forest floor, and her nose was swelling.

Sam took a step back from them both and jumped as his heel hit something behind him. He looked down and saw the Norman Rockefeller tin with Ms. McGady’s cookies. He stooped and picked it up, keeping an eye and the sword on the wheezing Reg.

Sam flicked his attention over the cookies, took in their careful wrapping and curly ribbon tassels, and his body began to shake. He wanted to hurt Reg, hurt him in a way that would make him hurt every day for the rest of his life. His hand trembled on the hilt, his other hand knotted into a fist on the tin. A sword wasn’t good enough. He needed to beat Reg’s face, over and over again until it was unrecognizable.

A sound launched itself, and came forth as a guttural cry of rage. He swung the blade over his head.

Reg screamed, or maybe it was Jen, but all Sam saw was Reg’s mouth opening on an O of terror as the blade came down on him. Sam thrust it with all his strength into the narrow strip of earth between Reg’s elbow and his chest.

Sam flung himself to one knee beside Reg’s other side and grabbed a twist of sweatshirt, yanking him halfway off the ground. The hilt rocked back and forth with the force of the drive.

"Do you see this?" Sam thrust the tin in Reg’s face. He knew he was screaming, because of the force of air it took him to get the words from his lungs, but in his head it was a whisper, the strongest sound in the universe. "This is a fucking miracle, and you pissed on it, Reg. You pissed on it. What-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you?" He yanked him up and down with every syllable, his hand screwing harder into the neckline of shirt. Reg gagged and grabbed his wrist, whimpering, babbling, but none of it made any sense to Sam. Either Reg was beyond English or he was.

"Sam."

He stopped, because he always did when she spoke. Always. The promise of her voice was something Sam could count on, believe in, even choked with tears and terror as it was now.

"Sam." He looked at her. His face was so close to Reg’s that the other boy’s hair brushed his forehead.

"Sam, please stop." Tears ran out of Jennifer’s eyes, over the bridge of her nose. "Help me, okay?" She jerked Reg’s body with a sob. "I’m really scared. Please, stop."

Sam dropped Reg and the tin. What was he doing? Jen trussed like a calf to be slaughtered and him trying to murder Reg Bartlett on top of her prone body. This wasn’t him, who he was. He closed his eyes, not worrying about Reg, and drew three deep, focusing breaths to steady himself and to calm the blinding ache in his head.

He opened his eyes, and stared into Reg’s face.

"Get out of here. Now."

Reg stared at him. Sam stood up and hauled him to his feet. "Get out of here," Sam repeated.

"I don’t…" Reg looked back at Jennifer. "What…"

"Get the hell out of here!" Sam roared.

Reg stumbled over to a groaning Jason. Sam fell to his knees by Jen’s side and untied the cord with shaking hands. He barely noticed Reg and Jason getting to their feet and crashing away into the woods.

Jen didn’t say a word. He needed to say something, make her feel okay. He helped her turn over and sit up. When he opened his mouth, nothing emerged.

Just speak, dammit. Say something profound after ten years of not saying a word to her, of thinking about her every second of every day.

"Are you okay?" he blurted.

She shook her head and passed the mud-stained sleeve of her sweater under her bloody nose. She winced and Sam caught her hand. "Here, don’t do that. Your nose might be broken."

"Me—Mephistocles—"

"He’s okay. He got away." Sam placed his hands under her arm and elbow and helped her to her feet. Her leg shook against his. She was going to fall down. He didn’t think about it. He just bent and scooped her up in his arms, cradling her under her back and knees.

Her body felt like cotton, not the cosmetic kind Laura bought in the store, but the natural kind his first grade teacher brought to class when they were studying agriculture. All natural, silken soft, with a billowy fullness that made him want to squeeze his fingers in it and feel it envelope and give way to the pressure, all at the same time.

She shivered so hard she shook Sam’s body. Or maybe he was shaking. He needed to get her and her broken nose to a hospital, fast. Jen looped her arms around his neck and put her face against his skin. He pressed his nose in her hair. It smelled like blood, and decaying leaves, with a faint, fragrant trace of shampoo.

Life was like this, tragedy or magic balanced on the pinhead of a moment in time. Magic had won, this time, and he held its purest essence in his arms. Because it might be the last time, he’d carry her as long as he could.

Sam tightened his grip on her, and exited their nightmare with heaven in his grasp.

* * *

They called her parents at the hospital. Most of the emergency staff were in costume. Casper the Ghost gave him a blanket for Jen, and Freddy Krueger brought her an ice pack to hold on her nose. Sam held it for her, so her fingers wouldn't get cold.

At length, Jen started to cry again, in gulps. He dropped the ice pack into the chair next to him and put an arm around her shoulders. "It’s okay, Jen, hush, it’s okay…"

She nodded, then shook her head and sobbed some more. He held her with both arms.

"You have the worst case of hat-hair I’ve ever seen," she quavered at last. He had pushed the coif off when they reached the hospital.

"You sound like Elmer Fudd," he teased gently. "I’m glad we’re both okay," he admitted.

"You were so great, Sam," she choked.

"You were so great," he said. "You saved Mephistocles."

She laughed, a shaky sound with a load of relief and a little bit of hysteria in it. "My totem."

"Your what?" Sam released her reluctantly when she shifted.

She brought her hand up to her double pierced left ear. The second hole had a tiny cat-shaped earring.

"I love cats. I collect them. You know, figurines and all? Ms. Carlson, that English teacher who’s so into Indians, says that everybody has an animal spirit that guides them, and sort of matches their personality. God," she looked away. "I sound like an idiot."

Sam imagined her in front of a big bay window, curled up like a feline on a sofa kissed by the morning sun, while he fondled her neck and hair. "You don’t sound like an idiot," he said.

She shrugged and wrapped her arms around herself, rocking a bit. "So is this how you normally spend Halloween?" she asked. Her red-rimmed eyes coursed over his costume and she choked on a chuckle. "Rescuing damsels in distress?"

Sam smiled. She had such gorgeous green eyes, even though they were raccoon-like now, with smeared mascara and eyeliner. Somewhere over the years she had gotten a small scar on her chin. He wanted to ask her how it had happened. He wanted to know everything about her, but he could tell the horror of the past two hours was still haunting her.

Instead, he opened his mouth and told her about his young Crusaders. He told her about all the training in martial arts and medieval tournaments. He told her about his mom, and about his memory of the last Halloween he had spent with his parents, and with her.

For ten years, he hadn’t been able to even say hello to Jenny Lind Meriwether in the halls at school, as if he was a knight ensorcelled, unable to break the spell of silence laid upon him by the events of ten years ago. Now, the enchantment was lifted, but her green eyes, emeralds in a pond of cream, were still able to bespell him. They drew words from him he did not think he could have said aloud, even to himself.

Maybe she listened because it took her mind off everything else, but she listened, and as long as she listened, he would tell her anything she wanted to know.

She reached out tentative fingers, touching the design on his chest. "What’s this mean?"

"It’s a Celtic cross."

"The pearls look strange," she sniffled and lifted her hand. Sam stopped it with one of his. He caught the drip of blood with the gauze pad Freddy Krueger had given him. "The pearls are kind of like dimestore things," she observed, "and the rest of the outfit is so authentic."

"No," he shook his head. "The pearls are the most real thing on the whole costume."

Jennifer’s eyes widened. "My pearls from that night."

Sam nodded. "My lady’s favor," he said quietly.

She stared at him. "God, you’re unreal." Her eyes filled with tears again.

Sam flushed and looked down. "Sorry, it was dumb. I didn’t mean—"

"No." Her hand fluttered beneath his gaze and brushed his cheek, raising his face to hers again. She dropped her hand. "It’s just, it works for you. All of this," she motioned to the costume. "What you did tonight. It’s like you aren’t pretending. It’s like this is really who you are. You look at me, and I feel like---" she stopped, her color rising all the way to her hair line. "It—you make me feel like some kind of maiden, a damsel in distress." Her whisper, the most potent sound in the universe, filled his ears. "You make me feel like a virgin, and I haven’t felt that way in a long time."

He could have stopped breathing right then, and her words would have filled his lungs for hours. He managed a half smile and raised the ice back to her nose.

"My sister says a virgin is just somebody who's never been in love." He put a hand against the side of her head to help him steady the ice, and yes, to feel her hair. It did feel like satin, and it reminded him of the gauzy curtains that floated in the summer breeze coming through the window of a white bedroom.

She hiccuped over a sob. "I guess that makes me a virgin, then." She looked up, looked directly at him, pinned him with green sorceress eyes that demanded truth. "How about you?"

He shook his head. He made himself hold that gaze, even though it took ten times more bravery than facing Reg. "I haven’t been a virgin since the day I met you."

Jennifer glanced away. The emergency doors opened to admit a gurney and two interns, and the open doors gave Sam a view of the parking lot. "Uh-oh," Jen said. "That’s my parents’ car. I guess I’m in for it."

The spell was broken. She had released him. For one incredible moment, he had gone on one proverbial knee and offered her his heart. Maybe it didn’t matter so much that she didn’t offer him the same. Maybe it was enough to let her know his heart was hers for the asking. Sam wrapped the ice pack in a towel, twisted it so she’d have a warm handle to hold it by, and rose. She grabbed his hand.

"Sam," she took a deep breath. "I want to see you. Don’t disappear on me again, okay?"

I’ve always been here. "I won’t." He squeezed her fingers. He wanted to bring them to his lips, kiss them, but he was out of knightly courage.

She worked her fingers in between his, lacing them together, not just the loose, easy-to-slip grasp. "I mean it, Sam. I want to see you again. I mean, be with you, go out with you. I mean," she flushed and looked away. "If that’s okay with you?"

A star burst in Sam’s chest and sent super sonic heat rays through every aching muscle.

"That would be great," he grinned.

"Okay." She let out a breath. The double doors bounced against the cement block walls, admitting a pair of adults, vexed and worried-looking enough to leave no doubt as to their identities.

Jen glanced at him. "You better get out of here," she cleared her throat. "This is going to be worse than dragon-slaying."

Sam smiled and raised her hand, pressing his lips to the skin, and feeling all squoozy inside at the slight tremor he felt in her fingers, the way her eyes suddenly got a little softer. He slid back down next to her and picked up the ice pack.

"Did I mention dragons are my specialty?"

THE END

This story is dedicated to the two Teds in my life, both modern day knights in a world that thinks it has outgrown knights, when it actually has never needed them more.


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