by Emma March

Mrs. MacGregor swept the multi-coloured leaves from her back porch. Caesar, the orange tabby, played in the dust left behind, rolling about with glee. Cicero, the Persian, sat on a chair, in the sun, cleaning a paw. A peaceful, tranquil fall day.

Mrs. MacGregor had lived in the neighbourhood for almost fifty years. She and her husband, God rest his soul, had bought their house just after they were married. It was a lovely neighbourhood, with older homes, set well back from the street, most with front and back porches for gatherings or just for sitting. Mrs. MacGregor had always loved her neighbourhood. She had never wanted to move, even after Mr. MacGregor had passed on. It was home.

A well-worn wooden chair awaited Mrs. MacGregor after her chores and she sat down next to Cicero with a cup of tea. She stretched her long legs out onto the porch and let the afternoon sun warm her. She sipped her tea, Earl Grey, and closed her eyes. Fall had always been one of her favourite seasons. Mr. MacGregor's too. Just to sit and look at the beautiful colours of the trees. To listen as the leaves were brushed off their branches by the autumn wind. To enjoy the low sun in the sky giving warmth against the coolness of the afternoon.

The silence was broken, as it often was these days, by the Whitten children coming home from school. Four of them, all two years apart, shouting and banging about as they ran up the walk. They had lived in the big brick house next door to Mrs. MacGregor for two long years now. Mrs. MacGregor's peaceful times had passed since they moved in. The only tranquility Mrs. MacGregor could count on was in winter when she was inside, in front of the fire, with the windows closed tight. Cicero looked over to the next yard with a disapproving stare. Mrs. MacGregor nodded her head in agreement.

The children were not really bad children, but they were not really good children, either. They were loud children, noisy children, much as children could be sometimes. But it was something more. They often came into her yard without asking, retrieving lost toys, stomping through her gardens, looking to chase her cats. You could understand if that sort of thing happened occasionally, but with the Whitten children it happened all the time. They were always noisy. They were always breaking something. They were always stomping through the garden.

The problem was, Mrs. MacGregor had decided, that their mother did not teach them any better. She did not set a proper example. She was from one of those new- fangled schools that believed in letting children be children.

Well, Mrs. MacGregor was all for that if in fact they were children within the normal boundaries. Mrs. Whitten, however, told Mrs. MacGregor that boundaries constricted children's growth. Stopped them from truly experiencing life as a child. Hogwash, thought Mrs. MacGregor. She didn't like the children, but, she felt, perhaps given a better start, they could have been different.

It was Mrs. Whitten who was the root of the problem. No wonder her children were running wild. She didn't even behave properly. She was always coming over to Mrs. MacGregor's kitchen, wanting to borrow this and that, and then never returning it or replacing it. Then she would plunk herself down at Mrs. MacGregor's table and talk. Never asking if Mrs. MacGregor might have other things to do, other things planned. Mrs. Whitten would talk of her problems, her financial woes, the cost of living, discuss her problems with Mr. Whitten, things Mrs. MacGregor really didn't want to know. She would sit at the table, slurping her tea and staring unappreciatively at Caesar and Cicero who would try to play with her shoe laces. Mrs. MacGregor was very tired of her behaviour.

Now, how could children grow up to be proper citizens if they had an example like that? It was no wonder that all of the neighbours talked about the Whitten children. There had been complaints since the day they moved in. Not from Mrs. MacGregor, of course. She tended to talk only to Cicero and Caesar about her troubles. But everyone else mentioned it. At church, the discussion would often be about how Mrs. Whitten let the children run up and down the aisles during the service. Or how the children were never capable of sitting still long enough for Sunday school. Mrs. MacGregor nodded in silent agreement as they talked.

Mr. Harrison from down the block came by just last week to complain about the Whitten children. They had been into his garden, just as he was trying to harvest his vegetables, and made a right mess. Mr. Harrison barely managed to get four carrots out of the disorder left behind.

* * *

It was almost Halloween when it happened. Mrs. MacGregor had spent hours putting together a fall display with her clay pots. The pots had been a present from Mr. MacGregor a few years before he died. Beautiful fall leaves and berries were carefully arranged in the earthen pots and placed along her back porch. She had found three lovely pumpkins, which she had set up between the pots. Caesar looked extremely handsome as he sat next to them, happily basking in the last golden rays of the fall. Mrs. MacGregor sat with her cup of tea, Darjeeling, in her chair staring at the handsome display. It was something that she and Mr. MacGregor had done faithfully every year. She sat watching the sun set beyond the garden and slowly feeling darkness fall.

That evening, as Mrs. MacGregor was washing dishes she heard the crash. When she looked out the kitchen window she saw the figure of the eldest Whitten in the porch light, running out of her yard with a football in his hand. Her pots were smashed to bits in his wake. Pumpkins lay on the cement below the porch, their innards spread about. She sat at the kitchen table and cried.

What use would it be to go over there and tell Mrs. Whitten of the disaster? Nothing would change. She wouldn't chastise the child. They would talk. Discuss the matter. Feel better about it. It would not bring back her beautiful pots. Her pumpkins would still be strewn about the pavement.

Mrs. MacGregor started her Halloween baking that evening. Every year she gave the children in her neighbourhood a little extra treat, home made, with a note for the parents, letting them know who it was from. The treats were a big success. Even Mrs. Whitten had raved about them.

On the morning of Halloween, Cicero helped her as she made up the tags for the treats. She carefully lettered her name and drew assorted ghosts and goblins on each one. Cicero played happily with the orange string as she methodically attached each one. Occasionally she looked out the kitchen window, expecting to enjoy a glance at her fall display, only to be sadly reminded.

It was a beautiful evening for the trick or treaters. Over seventy children came knocking on Mrs. MacGregor's door, eagerly looking for sweets. She chatted to each one she knew about this and that, and put their treats into their Halloween bags. The Whitten children came late in the evening, and yelled for her to open her door. She went quickly to answer their calls of trick or treat and was greeted by two goblins, a witch, and a ballerina. She carefully placed the treats in their bags.

A little while later, after the calls of trick or treat had long ended, she turned off the front light, and moved the jack o' lanterns in front of the fire. She made a cup of tea, a soothing orange pekoe. She sat down in her favourite overstuffed chair. Caesar jumped into her lap. Cicero curled at her feet. She waited.

Mrs. Whitten had told Mrs. MacGregor, as she sat at her kitchen table that week, how she looked over the children's candy each year and then took a small candy tax from each of them. Part of the tax, she said, was always Mrs. MacGregor's treats. They were so delicious.

Mrs. Whitten also confided that her candy was consumed in the course of the evening, as she had no self control where sweets were concerned. Her children rationed the candy for the next few weeks, saving sweets to make the Halloween experience last into November. But not Mrs. Whitten -- she had never been able to do that.

Mrs. MacGregor had done her research well. Dear old Mr. MacGregor, God rest his soul, had been a pharmacist for thirty-seven years. Mrs. Whitten would not taste the poison and it would not take effect for a few hours, by which time she would have consumed all of the candy. After that, it would be impossible to tell which of the treats it had come from. She would die peacefully in her sleep and the children would not be too upset by the whole experience.

Mrs. Whitten should not have been so quick to tell Mrs. MacGregor all of her secrets. Mrs. MacGregor really didn't want to know Mrs. Whitten's secrets. Mrs. MacGregor especially did not want to know about Mrs. Whitten's gluttony.

But when she did know, what else could she do? The gluttony was the last straw. Maybe the children would have a chance now. Because it really wasn't their fault, Mrs. MacGregor thought.

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Mrs. MacGregor's Halloween, 16 May 1997