Terry's Halloween Gift

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

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Small steel towns have their secrets. On a Halloween night, a young girl finds out that some of those secrets masquerade as enemies, while others are surprising friends.

The year was 1969. Katie Martino, nine years old and her best friends in the world, Carol Garbinsky, Diane Nelson, and the only boy in the neighborhood, Tony Prichard, tagged one another, “You’re it!” then ran to the safety of the telephone pole, the “base” where no one could touch you. They had invented a hide-and-seek sort of game out of the usual “It tag.”

Growing up on the main drag of Duss Avenue in the small steel town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania had its challenges. A busy thoroughfare, cars and trucks sped by at all hours. There were no playgrounds nearby to play in and the closely- packed homes had only small patches of grass as their front yards, and sometimes even tinier, weedy patches in the back. Cement sidewalks ran the length around the blocks with faded hopscotch in chalky pinks and yellows.The children learned to use their imaginations in the small, cramped quarters, and there was never a lack of things to do, or mischief to get into.

A steel town was an interesting place for kids and like all small towns, had their secrets.

Halloween and autumn hung in the air with the smell of wood smoke, tart apples, and dried leaves. The days were getting shorter, the streetlights coming on long before the children wanted to say goodnight to one another. Nighttime had a slight nip to the air, and sweaters came out of last winter’s storage.

This Halloween would be extra special for Katie. Dad had promised he’d think about letting her go out alone with her friends for trick or treats.

Mom always made such a big deal out of Halloween. Every year shewould begin planning Katie’s wardrobe weeks in advance even thoughthe local five and dime had shelves stocked full of costumes, princesses, pirates, and super heroes. She could have been any of these, but Mom insisted on elaborate, hand-sewn items, cleverly put together.

“What’re you gonna be for Halloween this year?” Tony asked Katie, as he huffed and puffed running alongside her before scrambling into the bushes to hide from Carol.

“I’m going to be a fortune teller,” Katie called back over her shoulder, and quickly ducked into a small alley behind some trashcans. She counted to twenty when she heard Carol’s voice calling in the distance.

 “Okay, I give up guys. Where are you?” Carol screamed out.

 Katie emerged first, dusting dirt from her dungarees. Diane and Tony gave up their hiding spots, coming from opposite directions.

“This game’s boring,” Tony said, approaching the girls. “We need to find something else.”

Diane, the tomboy of the group, and one year older, agreed. “Let’s ride bikes,” she offered. “My parents got me a new one, and I’m dying to try it out. It’s supposed be the fastest bike ever.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, rubbing his hands together with his best mad-scientist impersonation. “Then we can ride past the Gardner place and see which one of us will be the brave one today.”

“So, what are the rest of you gonna be for Halloween?” Tony asked. They were standing in front of Katie’s house and he picked at the hedge bush in the yard, flinging bits of greenery at the girls. “Katie’s gonna be a fortune teller,” he crooned and stuck his tongue out at her. “I’m gonna be an astronaut, Neil Armstrong,” he proudly stated.

“That’s boring,”Carol chimed in. “I’m too old for all this ‘Halloween stuff’ anyway,” she said. “My parents want me to hand candy out this year.” Her voice had a steel edge to it.

Katie looked at her friend, feeling badly for her. Carol’s parents were odd. They seemed to want her to age before her time. She never played with dolls, and her mother made her do chores like a grown up. I’m glad my parents aren’t like that.

“Yeah, it’s baby stuff,” Carol said, kicking at a rock with her toe.

“Don’t you still want to go with us, though?” Katie asked.  “We’ve got the rest of our lives to hand out stupid candy. Your parents shouldn’t force you to stay home.”

Carol’s face darkened, and she took off running from the group. Her house was down the block a little way,and she disappeared into her front door with a bang.

“Ha, ha,” Tony laughed. “You made her mad again, Katie. When’re you gonna learn?”

Katie looked down the street after her friend. The house was closed up tightly like a fist. It struck her as odd that none of them were ever invited there, and they never played in front of her house.

“Go get your bike, Katie,” Diane said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with mine.”




“I dare you,” Tony said, whizzing past Katie on his Schwinn Stingray for at least the tenth time. “Just run up and knock on the stupid door. You’re such a chicken, Katie. I’ve done it a zillion times.”

Katie sat upon the blue sparkled banana seat, the one her daddy had recently put on her bike. Deep scooped handlebars with blue and white streamers dangled from the ends. “Leave me alone, Tony,” she said, flying past the place Tony had referred to, barely glancing at it.

The dark, creepy insulbrick house stood off to the right, its’ weeds waist high, and hedges surrounding it like sentinels. The shutters were drawn and no furniture adorned the front porch. The sagging roof, in need of a few shingles, had a chimney that leaned to the right at a crooked angle. No cars were ever parked nearby. Nobody ever saw a soul walk in or out of the place.

Tales had gone around the neighborhood that a crazy man lived there, so deranged, so ugly, his elderly mama wouldn’t let him leave the house in the daytime. Gardner was the last name, but other than that, nobody knew much else. The neighborhood children would play silly games, seeing who would be brave enough to knock on the door and run. Other times they would wait until after dark, sneaking around the back of the house to catch a possible glimpse of the madman that lived there and supposedly roamed at night.

Some evenings, in the darkness of her bedroom, Katie peered out the window, the one that faced the back of the Gardner home. She pretended she’d see someone come out onto the back porch, maybe howl at the moon or turn into a bat. At other times, though, she would obsess over the poor, tortured soul who never showed his face. She felt sorry for someone so lonely and wished somehow she could befriend him.

“I’ll go knock on the door then,” Tony said, a mischievous grin on his face. “It’s not like anyone’s gonna answer.”  It was getting a bit darker now, the sun going down quickly, thunder rumbled in the distance and a light, misty rain began to fall.

Diane dismounted her shiny, new bike, and stood beside it. “Go ahead Tony,” she said. “Show Katie it’s no big deal.”

“Come on, guys,” Katie said. “We’d better be getting home.” Katie didn’t want to bother the people who lived there. As frightening as the house looked, her mother had always said that everyone had a story. Who knew what might be going on inside?

“Baby,” Tony taunted. “Katie’s scared,” he said, while propping his kickstand up, and approaching the steps to the drooping front porch.

Thunder crashed overhead, and Tony abandoned his plan.

“Ha, ha,” Katie laughed. “Who’s scared now?” But she shivered a bit, staring at the darkened windows before her. She could have sworn she saw a blind lift ever so slightly.




The next morning Katie buttoned up her jacket, picked her book bag from the chair in the living room, and kissed Mom quickly on the cheek. Diane was waiting for her outside and they walked the short distance to Carol’s house. Usually standing on the porch, she was nowhere to be seen. The girls stood there a few minutes.

“We’ll be late for school,” Diane said, hefting her books higher in her arms. “What’s taking her so long?”

A scarecrow thin woman, apparently Carol’s mother, opened the front door a crack and whispered in a barely audible voice, “Carol’s sick today.” She closed the door quickly. Raised voices punctuated the morning silence from inside the house. Even with the windows and doors shut, someone was screaming loudly from the sound of it, a man’s voice, barking harshly.

Katie flinched, looking at Diane for answers. “Come on, let’s go,” Diane said, shrugging her shoulders.



It bothered Katie all day. Even at recess, when the others were playing dodge ball on the playground, she sat off to the side, wondering about Carol. What was it she’d heard this morning?

Carol lived alone with her mother and father. She had two older brothers who moved away years ago. Katie saw Mr. Garbinsky, Carol’s father, on several occasions walking home from the steel mill disheveled and irritated, a scary-looking man. He kept his head down and didn’t speak to a soul as he passed their home. When Katie called Carol’s house to talk with her friend, if her father answered, he would growl angrily into the phone and hang up on her.

Katie asked her dad about him, but Daddy would always shrug it off and say things like, “Don’t worry your pretty little self about that man, honey.”

It was hard to concentrate in the afternoon and several times one of the nuns smacked her desk with a ruler, bringing her out of the reverie. At the end of the day, when she met Diane, it still nagged at her.

“I have some homework from arithmetic class for Carol,” Katie said. “I’m going to bring it to her.” She hitched the book bag higher on her shoulder.

“Oh my,” Diane said. “You sure are brave going into her house.” Diane shivered. “Did you know her dad is mean to her mother?” Diane had a smug look on her face as if this type of top secret knowledge made her very important. “Oh yeah, my dad works with him. Says he doesn’t talk to anyone much, but overheard him bragging one day about hitting the missus.”

Katie looked over at her friend, horrified. The thought of anyone hitting a woman was too much for her. Her own dad was so kind and gentle. The best man she knew.

“Don’t say anything to anyone,” Diane said in a hushed voice. “I wouldn’t want to get Carol in trouble.”

A chilly wind, the icy fingers of a beckoning winter blew as the girls walked along. The skies hung low and gray when Katie walked up the steps to the Garbinsky home.

“Go ahead, Diane. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Are you sure, Katie?” Diane looked concerned.

“It’s okay,” Katie answered, and knocked lightly at the front door.

After rapping several times, the door opened a tiny crack. Carol’s face was half -visible and her eye widened in surprise.

“Hey,” Katie tried to sound cheerful. “Hope you’re feeling better. I brought you some homework so you won’t be behind tomorrow.”

The door opened just a bit farther. Carol’s hand snaked out to grab the papers. She was already closing the door when a voice whispered from inside, “Who is it?”

The stick thin woman from the morning opened the door wider and a ghost of a smile touched her lips. Wonderful smells emanated from inside the home, some type of home baked bread or muffins.

“You’re Kate, right?” Mrs. Garbinsky asked, unable to meet Katie’s eyes.

“Yes, ma’am,” Katie answered. “Nice to meet you.” She put out her hand as her parents had instructed her to do.

A tiny, cold hand shook Katie’s. “Would you like to come in for some banana bread?” The woman spoke so quietly it was hard to hear her.

“I’d love that,” Katie said. “Would you mind if I called my mom though to let her know where I am?”

Mrs. Garbinsky led her to a telephone on a stand in the dark hallway. Katie looked around at the décor of her friend’s home. Pretty glass figurines adorned shelves between stacks and stacks of neatly piled old books. Aside from the dim lighting, it appeared Carol’s home was rather warm and inviting.

Carol showed her friend to the kitchen, pulling out a chair for her, while her mother took the heavenly- smelling bread from the oven. Carol and her mother spoke in hushed tones, and it was apparent they were trying to be extremely quiet.

“Father’s sleeping,” Carol indicated toward the stairs, almost like she’d read Katie’s mind. Mrs. Garbinsky sliced into the bread, laying a pat of butter off to the side of the dish she put in front of Katie.

It struck Katie as odd, the fact her friend called her dad, “father”. It sounded stiff and formal.

An hour quickly passed, Mrs. Garbinsky apparently so happy to have someone to talk with, she made Katie promise to return sometime. Even Carol seemed to relax as their conversation had gone on.

That night, Kate asked her mother about the Garbinsky family. Mom knew nothing about the strange, quiet family and told Katie the usual: Everyone has a story.

Katie switched tactics and tried prying facts from her mother about the Gardners who lived behind them. Was their son really so ugly and crazy to boot? Mom told her to mind her own business and stop fretting over the neighbors. “Remember,” Mom said again. “Everyone has a story.”

That night, as Katie lay in her bed unable to sleep, she imagined becoming friends with the strange man inside the Gardner home. What would it be like? Hello there, sir, I’m Katie. Mind if I sit and chat with you for a bit? Yes, that’s right, I won’t hurt you.

She stared into the darkness. There probably wasn’t anyone really living in that house anyway.



Halloween was just two days away. Katie tried her homemade costume on for at least the tenth time. The flowing patchwork skirt, and peasant blouse was perfect. She had a turquoise bandana to tie upon her head, large dangling hoop earrings, and an armful of colorful bangles. She would be the gypsy queen for a night. Katie pranced and flounced in front of her mirror talking with a strange foreign accent.

She looked up to see Dad standing in the doorway, a camera ready in his hands. Just at the right moment, he flashed a picture of his little girl. Katie took a graceful bow, breaking into a fit of giggles.

“Dad,” she said, serious now. “Are you going to let me go out alone for trick or treat this year with my friends? I am nine, you know.” She batted her eyes at him. “Tony will be with me and Diane. I promise not to go too far.”

Her father appeared to be in deep thought. The camera dangled in one hand, while he stroked his chin with his other. “Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we?” he said. “I think you could go to most of the nearby streets with your friends if it’s alright with your mom, that is.”

Katie ran over to her dad, giving him a big hug. “Thank you, Daddy, oh thank you. I feel so grown up.”



The wind picked up a bit on Halloween night. It was six p.m. Pumpkins glowed on porches, the sweet smell of candles inside them. Porch lights came on one by one, and a light drizzle began to fall.

Katie pouted on her front porch. Why did it have to rain tonight?

Diane approached, dressed as an Indian Princess, with Tony tagging along behind in his astronaut gear. Just seeing her best friends in the world, Katie’s spirits lifted. Who cared if the weather wasn’t perfect? They were going to have fun tonight!  The best part, it would be their first time alone without any parents to supervise. Each of them had gotten dire warnings from mothers and fathers. Don’t go near strangers. Only go to houses you know. Don’t eat any candy until it’s brought home and gone over.

Other children were already milling about, ghosts, goblins, witches, fairy queens. They came with their pillow cases ready to be filled with treats, oh so many treats.

Katie and her little group struck off, while she stole a glance down to Carol’s home.




House after house, Katie, Diane, and Tony trudged up long walkways, and steep stairs. After an hour into the night, Diane said she was tired. They neared her house and saw Mrs. Nelson sitting on the porch, a basket of Hershey bars and Mallow Cups on her lap.

“Hey, Mom.” Diane said. “I think I have enough candy, so I’ll stay and help you now.” She sat down withher mother, removedthe Indian headdress, stretched out her long legs, and kicked her moccasins off.

Mrs. Nelson tossed a few candy bars into Katie and Tony’s bags. They waved goodbye and started off down the block.

“Wow, we got a ton of stuff,” Tony said. He held up his bulging sack of treats. In his other arm he carried his space helmet which had been off most of the night.

“Mmm, I know,” Katie said. “I can’t wait to spill mine out. Of course my dad will pick through and steal his favorite candy first.”

They were nearing Tony’s house now. “You gonna be okay?” Tony asked. “I mean, walking the rest of the way to your house, or you want me to walk you there?” He kicked at the ground with his foot.

“Oh my goodness, Tony.It’s only around the block. No big deal. There’s a lot of people still out. I’m not scared. See you in school on Monday.”

Katie walked away, not realizing which direction she was pointed in. The Gardner home stood off to the right, its pointy shrubbery swaying lightly in the wind. Out of the corner of her eye, Katie realized the porch light was on. She would have missed it if she had gone the other way.

Nobody was on the porch; no kids were walking up to knock on the door. There was a single candle burning in a small ceramic pumpkin at the top of the stairs. Katie gulped. Would she be brave enough to walk up to the door? Would her curiosity win and she’d get her wish tonight? Decisions, decisions.

She noticed other families walking across the street.  She looked at her watch. Seven forty five. Halloween would be over in fifteen minutes.

With heart hammering in her chest, mustering all her courage, Katie began mounting the crumbling cement stairs to the Gardner porch. The door and windows looked sealed securely, like the entrance to a tomb. She didn’t think anyone would really come to the door.

There was no doorbell, so she rapped lightly upon the outside wooden door frame. Nothing.Katie knocked again ever so lightly and waited. As she was about to give up and turned to walk away, the door creaked open and a wizened old face smiled toothlessly at her. The woman was bent over from age, her gnarled fingers wrapped around a bowl filled with candy. The door opened wider, and a youngish man, probably in his twenties, stood next to the old lady. He was heavyset, and pasty white skin filled with freckles covered his face. His mouth drooped at an odd angle.  Blue eyes stared out at Katie, and a wide smile broke out onto his homely face.

“Go ahead, Terry,” the old woman said. “Give the young lady some candy.”

The young man scooped his chubby hands into the dish, pouring several large candy bars into Katie’s treat bag. She could hardly breathe and wondered if she was dreaming.

His grin widened, and he said “Happy Halloween” in a voice which sounded like a child’s.

“Thank you, honey,” the old lady said, more to Katie than to her son. “I wanted my boy to see the kids on Halloween night. It’s been a long time since he’s been outside, he was pretty sick there for a while. You’re the only one who came tonight, bless you, young lady.” A tear fell from the corner of the crinkled eyes. She put a trembling hand out to Katie.

“I’m Elsie Gardner,” the woman said. “This is Terry, my son.” Again, the biggest smile filled the young man’s face, eyes dreamy and faraway. Katie shook his hand, thanking him for the candy.

“Well, happy tricks or treats to you,” the woman said to Katie, as the door began to close.

Katie walked down the steps in a daze. They’d never believe it. Tony, Diane and Carol would never believe she’d been there. She glanced back in the direction of Tony’s house, but it was locked up for the night. As Katie walked the rest of the way home, swinging her bag of candy, her step felt light and her heart glad. Mom was right, there were stories going on behind closed doors. Some you may never know. But tonight she’d gotten a glimpse into the life of a man who would never be “normal” whatever that was. Never again would she look at the Gardner house the same way. They were just people after all. Like her, Mom, Dad, Tony, Diane andCarol.

Katie’s house was in view. She seemed to be the only one out this late. As she neared her next door neighbor’s house, a man stepped out of the bushes. It was Mr. Garbinsky. He had startled her, and she took a wide berth around him. It was then she noticed him staggering and cursing under his breath. His hand reached out to grab at her skirt, and Katie screamed.

He pulled her roughly toward him, his breath smelling strongly of alcohol. Katie tried to scream again, and found she had no voice. His rough whiskers scratched against her cheek as he bent to her face. In a blind panic, Katie tried kicking his shins, and wriggled to break free of his grasp. He held on tightly to her, words emanating from his mouth that Katie had never heard before.

Just as Katie felt surely she’d pass out, another man approached, yanking Mr. Garbinsky off Katie. He shoved the man roughly, and Katie almost fell with him as Mr. Garbinsky tumbled to the ground. She looked up into the face of Terry Gardner, the young man she had met only moments before. He motioned for her to run, and kicked Mr. Garbinsky in the ribs with his workman’s boots. “Call cops,” he murmured in that childlike voice of his.

Katie ran as fast as she could, forgetting all about her bag of treats. Mom was waiting at the door, and her expression changed to panic as she saw her daughter’s face and torn skirt.

“My goodness, Katie, what happened, Honey?”Mom grabbed her tightly, hugging her.

“A-a man jumped out of the bushes, Mama.” Katie scarcely could breathe and she started to shake. “I- I ran as fast as I could.” She was crying now.

“Ray!” Mom screamed. “Ray, someone’s been after Katie.”

Dad ran into the room, a sick look on his face. A look of regret and pain.

“Call the police, Ray,” Mom said, cradling the sobbing Katie in her arms.




“Young lady,” the cop with the kindly face said. “Would you please tell me what happened?”

Katie sat at the kitchen table with her mother’s warm, crocheted afghan pulled tightly about her, a cup of hot cocoabefore her. Mom and Dad sat on either side of her, while Dad said over and over, “I never should have let her go alone.”

Katie didn’t want to tell on Mr. Garbinsky. Apparently when the cops checked the spot near the next door neighbor’s house, he was already gone. What would happen to her friend’s father if Katie told? What would happen to Carol and their precarious friendship? Yet she knew in her heart, lying was wrong.

The biggest surprise was her backward hero. Had Terry Gardner really come to her rescue, like something out of a movie or book? Nobody would believe her, not even her parents.

“I-I’m not sure,” Katie said. “It w-was a strange man. I never saw him before,” she lied.

“There’s a lot of crazies out on Halloween,” the cop said, scratching some notes into his note pad. “Probably not anyone local.”He looked into Katie’s eyes. “Are you sure, young lady?”

Katie nodded, holding onto her hot chocolate with both hands, not looking up at the policeman.



On Monday morning, Katie told her parents she didn’t feel well and would they mind if she missed school? She didn’t think she could face Carol.

It had been a strange weekend. Mom and Dad questioned her over and over yet she wouldn’t say much about what had happened Halloween night. What should she do about it all? She sat on the edge of her bed and said a little prayer.

“God, I’m not sure what I did was right. You know the truth, and I feel just awful about lying to my parents. But I don’t want to get Carol in trouble, either. Please help me do the right thing.” Katie clasped her hands before her, eyes squeezed shut. She shivered thinking of Mr. Garbinsky and his foul-smelling breath. She was suddenly frightened that he might come after her again. Katie crawled back under the covers, hearing her parents talking in hushed tones in their bedroom. Dad would be leaving for work shortly.

A knock sounded at their front door, and Katie sat bolt upright in bed. It’s him…. Don’t be ridiculous, her mind told her as she heard her dad’s footsteps down the hall.

 “Huh, it’s the strangest thing,” she heard him saying. “Nobody was there, but Katie’s Halloween bag was at the doorstep.” He walked into Katie’s room.

“Honey, this is your bag, right?” Dad held it up in one hand. Katie nodded, but her stomach turned over. “I think someone left it on our porch,” Dad mused. He looked thoughtfully at Katie then walked out of the room carrying the bag with him.

Katie lay back down, snuggling under the covers. Terry Gardner must have picked up her precious bag of treats the night she was attacked. Her odd hero had come through for her once again.

All day long, Mom fussed, taking Katie’s temperature, giving her ice cream in bed. Katie finally got up and walked into the kitchen, finding her treats neatly stacked on the kitchen table.

“I thought you might want some of these,” Mom said, coming over to her, pushing her bangs out of the way with her hand, and caressing Katie’s face tenderly.

“But look, here’s the strangest thing.” Mom motioned to the pile of candy, and sitting on top was a crudely drawn card made of construction paper, colored with red, yellow and orange crayons. On the front of it, someone had drawn a picture of a girl carrying a sack. Her hair looked like the way Katie wore hers. When she opened the card, the words thank you were scrawled crookedly in black crayon.

“Katie, what’s this all about?”

Katie smiled. Her new friend had given her the greatest gift anyone could ever give: her safety. And he had shown her that differences in people weren’t so bad after all.

She told Mom about the Gardner home then. She told her about Halloween night and how she met the scary man who lived there. How he had been the one who helped her.

Katie also told her parents the truth about Carol’s father. Cops came to the Garbinsky home, and took him away to a rehabilitation facility for a time. Katie lost one friend, but knew she had gained another.

She would see Terry Gardner a few times after that. Katie told the neighborhood kids he wasn’t the creepy ghoul everyone had imagined. He became a sort-of legend in their town. Children stopped tormenting him and he began to come out onto his porch as they rode their bikes. His crooked smile and homely face didn’t scare them any longer.

Small steel towns have their secrets. And sometimes they are wrapped up in the strangest of packages masquerading as friends. . .


Submitted: October 31, 2020

© Copyright 2022 Karen L Malena. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:


Ann Sepino

Awe, I'm so glad Katie told the truth and Terry got a happy ending. Oftentimes, the 'gentle monsters' in stories don't end their arcs on a good note. It's great to see one that does. Thanks for writing and sharing this. :)

Sat, October 31st, 2020 1:25pm


Thank you so much Ann for the lovely comment!

Sat, October 31st, 2020 7:48am

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