The witching hour always strikes like a bolt of lightning, jostling me from sleep. The air grows thick and the low hum of a cool wind raps against my window, but I dare not move. The thrum of night is deep and ominous, punctuated only by the distant chime of the ice cream truck, its seductive melody ringing louder, reaching farther with every passing moment.
I bury my head under the pillow and squeeze shut my eyes. I wish I could tell myself it’s a dream, but I know better. This is no dream. The man in the bloody apron always comes when the clock strikes three and the night is darkest.
Some nights, I manage to block out the enchantment; but other nights, the pull is too strong. And tonight is one of those nights. Like a doll tugged upright by invisible strings, I sit up in my bed and stumble to the window. Down below, I see dozens of tiny figures—all bare-foot, all in patterned fleece and white cotton night gowns—meandering towards the ice cream truck. Like a flame at the center of a dark room, the children wander towards the only source of light they know, begging to bask in the glow.
The melody’s magic is dizzying, but through the maelstrom I see a crimson-spattered apron on a tall, waifish frame, peeking through the truck’s large window. As the first child approaches, long, grey, spindly fingers curve around a moss-green sugar cone. The man with the bloody apron scoops the char-coloured substance onto the cone and passes it to the first child, patting him on the head and then beckoning the next.
Each child greedily takes their share, lapping up what looks like little more than melting mud. But with each taste they grow more ravenous, overtaken by an almost religious fervor as they sink their teeth into the blackened cream, their mouths splitting into Cheshire grins and their eyes widening like red, veiny saucers.
As the charcoal cream dribbles over their hands, they devour the cones and lick off each finger. Some even gnaw down to the bone, their palms a swirl of blood and spelled dessert. Their skin turns waxy and grey—like that of the man with the bloody apron—their hair sprouting like the foliage of a shaggy plant. Their backs arch and their nails thicken into dull claws, until they each fall into a crouch and stare up into the starless sky, eyes blank and mouths agape.
Like crazed beasts they run through the street, jumping on cars and tearing out flower beds. Some of them scale tree trunks, swinging from the branches and leaping at one another as lions leap on prey.
Teeth chattering, I resolve to tell my older brother, shaking him from his sleep. Taking his hand, I pull him to the window. “Look!” I say, frantic, and point to the neighbourhood children wreaking having below.
He rubs his eyes and squints as he leans close to the window. He chuckles then, dropping his heavy hand on my head.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he chides, then looks down at me with a tired smile. “It’s only a storm. It’ll pass by morning.”
Taking me by the arm, he pulls me back to my bed. I stare out the window but see no rain nor hear any thunder. All I hear is the chime of the ice cream truck, and the endless cackle of the man with the bloodied apron, echoing in the endless night.
The witching hour has only begun.