Biographical Non-Fiction posted August 7, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
The neighbors you know and the neighbors you don't know.

Stranger Danger

by Sis Cat

That Halloween, our family received a trick instead of a treat. I forgot which Halloween--perhaps the time I dressed in red, white, and blue like Uncle Sam's black nephew--but it occurred in the early seventies in a suburb of Los Angeles before stranger danger killed the tradition of costumed children trick-or-treating door-to-door every October 31.

"Only visit the homes of families we know," our mother warned us.

"We will," my sister, brother, and I lied behind our masks.

As one of only two black families in our neighborhood, we knew if we only visited the homes of families we knew, our trick-or-treating would end in ten minutes. We turned from our doorway. Ghosts and goblins, witches and warlocks floated down Jamieson Avenue. The aroma of dried leaves, lit jack-o-lanterns, and sugared breaths filled the air. I called to my siblings, "C'mon, before all the candy is gone!"

Like bandits with pillowcases, we raided the homes of families we knew. "Trick-or-treat!" Next, we followed children to the homes of families we didn't know.

My turbaned sister, Joi, stuttered, "Ma . . . Ma . . . Mama said . . ."

I cut her off. "If it's safe enough for those kids, it's safe enough for us. C'mon."

My sister pursed her lips. 

We hit every house on the block except the home that belonged to the Powers family. I think they came from the South, because their brood of dirty blond children spoke with a drawl when they called us the N-word every chance they got. We would yell back, "Well, you're white trash!"

Like an out-of-body experience, I recall my sister, brother, and I, three black children, stood on the sidewalk in front of the Powers home on Halloween. We watched costumed white children approach the shaft of light cast by the open door and depart with smiles on their makeup faces and candy in their bags. My brother, Jaison, caped with a towel tied around his neck, nudged me. "Should we go to them?"

I turned and led the retreat. "Nah, let's hit the next house."

We arrived home, spread candy on our beds, and counted our loot. We slept with candy hidden beneath our pillows.

In the middle of the night, footsteps ran alongside my house and woke me. Muffled laughter faded in the distance. I opened my eyes, and I saw an orange glow from my bedroom window. The sun does not rise from the west. I threw off my blanket, padded bare feet across the floor, pulled back the curtains and saw--my house was on fire. I froze inside. The wall of the back porch behind my bedroom burned. I gazed at the blaze without comprehending what I saw. The heat warmed my face. Smoke reached my flared nostrils. I awoke from my paralysis and yelled, "Fire!"

Doors slammed open. Everyone poked heads into my room and stared out my window at the expanding fire.

Pound. Pound. Pound. Someone pounded on our front door. My family stumbled through the dark hall to answer it. An alarmed neighbor stood on our front porch. "I'm your neighbor who lives behind you. Did you know the back of your house is on fire?"

Like a clutch of chicks, we kids flocked after our mother as she hurried to the back porch. She gasped. The flames alongside the porch leapt to scorch the branches of the apricot tree above. My brother Jaison stood silhouetted against the flames. He stared at them. Mom yelled, "Jaison, get back in the house!" Our house was on fire and Mom told him to get back inside?

Our neighbor, who lived behind us and who had pounded on our door, stood on something to look over the cinder block wall separating us. He aimed a water hose at our porch. "Turn it on!" he yelled to someone we couldn't see. Water jetted across our back yard and struck the porch which sizzled and steamed. His children peered over the wall, their faces stretched in various expressions of wonder, like a row of jack-o'-lanterns. My eldest brothers, Dion and Terry, mobilized and hosed the fire, too. By the time the fire department arrived, the firemen found drenched embers.

In the morning, I knelt at the blackened hole in our back porch. Burnt matches lay on the ground. Sniff. I smelled lighter fluid. Our suspicions fell upon the Powers family up the block, the ones who called us the N-word every chance they got; the ones who knocked down our fences; the ones who threw garbage in our yard. We had moved to that neighborhood before they did, but they treated us as the outsiders, as if we didn't belong.

We never reported our suspicions to the police. We lacked insurance to repair the black hole that remained in the porch, like the black hole that remained in my childhood. Of all of the Halloweens I remember, I remembered this one the most.

As children, adults warned us about stranger danger. They told us, "Don't accept candy from strangers," or, "Never visit the homes of people you don't know." They don't teach us that sometimes the greatest dangers come from the neighbors you know instead of from the strangers you don't know. Our neighbors set our house on fire. We know they did it, but we didn't know the other neighbors who came to our aid, who pounded on our door, who extinguished the fire. I never thanked them nor learned their names. If we have more to fear from our neighbors, we also have more to love.

Story of the Month contest entry


Processing that someone hates you enough to want to burn you alive is difficult for a child to grasp. For these reasons, my most enduring memory of childhood--the Halloween night arson fire on my home--reoccurs in my writing over the course of thirty years. In 1986, the fire inspired my first published fantasy story "The Ghost Pumpkin Fire Brigade." (Available on FanStory in my portfolio.) In 1992, I attempted to write another story about the fire called "Spooks," but never completed it.

In 2016, when The Moth StorySlam announced a live, five-minute storytelling contest on the theme of "heat," I created another story about the fire in which I focused on the duality of neighbors and strangers. Although my name was not selected for me to tell my whole story, as a consolation prize I performed my story's first line in front of 440 people at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, California on August 3, 2016. The thunderous reaction from the audience who demanded to know what happened next inspired me to refine my story for upcoming storytelling events.

Stranger Danger image courtesy of Google Images.

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