Tony DeNelli had nothing against Halloween—for the little ones. Halloween was for children—not teenagers, so when his only teenage daughter announced that she and her friends intended to Trick-or-Treat again this year, Tony got a minor case of the ass.
“You ain’t a kid no more. You and your friends are too old for Trick-or-Treat and all you’re gonna do is get yourselves in trouble.”
But his objection was overruled by his wife, Heather’s mother, so Tony conceded the outing but little else. Two days later, when Halloween rolled around, Tony treated it like any other night. He was one to catch a couple hours sleep before going in on the evening shift, so that’s what he did Halloween evening.
When he awoke, he felt restless, anxious, and stepping into the kitchen, found Heather dressed in her costume. Tony did not like what he saw.
His wife Connie spoke first. “How’d you sleep?”
“Not worth a shit.” Then he gestured to Heather’s costume with a dark look. “What the hell is this?”
“This is my costume, Daddy,” Heather beamed. “Like it?”
“You look like a whore.”
The sparkle in Heather’s eyes dimmed with her smile. “I’m old enough,” she said.
Anyone who knew Tony, knew what was coming next.
“You’re old enough when I say you’re old enough, which you ain’t. Go change.
You can go out, but you ain’t goin’ out dressed like that.”
Heather’s faced stretched as her eyes widened and her jaw dropped.
“Wha—? Why? Why not?”
“Because I said so, that’s why.”
“Tony, it’s just a costume.”
“She looks like a slut Connie and she ain’t goin’ out lookin’ like that.”
“But Daddy, all my friends—”
“I don’t give a shit what your friends do. I ain’t raisin’ them! Now, if you wanna to go trick or treatin’, change into something more presentable for a fourteen year-old girl or you ain’t goin’. You will not leave this house lookin’ like that.”
Anger flashed on Heather’s face. She stormed out making all the disgruntled noises that teenage girls make when they can’t get their way and made a point of stomping up the stairs to her room.
“Tony, really.” Connie said. “Don’t you think you’re going just a little overboard? I mean, she’s growing up. She just wants to be like everybody else her age. Jennifer is going as a sexy nurse. It’s no big deal.”
“What the hells-a-matter with you, Connie? Did you see that costume? She looks like a freaking hooker! Wearing a skirt up to her crotch with her ass cheeks hanging out.” “She has short-shorts on underneath, Tony. Nothing shows.”
“Jesus Christ, Connie! I don’t care! That top was too low-cut for a girl built like her. Half of her was bulgin’ out. She’s fourteen, for Christ’s sake, not twenty-four. Do you know what dressing like that says to boys? To men?”
Connie’s tone hardened. “No, Tony, I don’t! Why don't you fill me in?”
“It says she can be had … that’s what it says.”
“Oh for God’s sake! You’re such a Neanderthal. That kind of archaic thinking went out a long time ago.”
“You believe that, huh? What fucking planet did you come from? I don’t give a shit what them feminist bitches say. Men are men. Period! And if they see a woman—or a girl—dressed like her? You better believe they’re going to think she puts out!”
“I think you’re being too strict.”
“Too strict? She wants to look like those half-naked women on those damn music videos. They all look like tramps! The revealing clothes and the grinding against each other, damn near havin’ sex right in front of everybody! I let her dye her hair blonde, didn’t I? Makes her look cheap, but I let her do it anyway … just to keep the peace.”
“I’m a blonde. You think I look cheap?”
“You’re a full-grown woman, capable of making adult decisions. She’s a teenager who ain’t.”
Connie gave him a cross look. “Yeah … Well I’m beginning to wonder about your decisions.”
“Don’t get wise. She ain’t goin’ out looking like no whore and that’s it.”
“Well?” Heather said, interrupting her parents as she ambled into the kitchen. “Is this okay?”
She had slipped into dark gray sweatpants and a light gray sweatshirt stained with “blood,” that matched red trickling down from the corners of her mouth. She performed a pirouette, mocking her father’s overbearing and uninformed attitude. He let it slide.
“That’s better. Be home by nine-thirty.”
“Nine-thirty? But all my friends…”
“It’s a school night.”
“Jesus, Dad! Why can’t I just this once—”
“Do you want me to make it nine, young lady? Just keep arguing with me.”
Heather unleashed an exaggerated eye-roll expressing her displeasure with her father and turned on her heel. “Fine!” she snapped, and set off on the three-block walk to Jennifer’s house. “You always ruin my fun!” The door slammed behind her as she stormed out in a huff.
Tony glared through the door for a moment as if it wasn’t there, debating whether he should drag her back considering her display of blatant disrespect. But he decided that would just make things worse. He let it go and turned to his wife.
“Look, Connie, I know you mean well, and it’s not her I don’t trust. She’s a great kid … except for the occasional backtalk.” He offered a withering smile. “It’s just that every time I turn on the TV or the radio, I hear about another young woman who disappeared, only to be found days later … dead. Some of those girls are in their twenties. What the hell does a fourteen-year-old know? Nothing! That’s what! She thinks life’s one big social event. She ain’t got the street smarts to avoid danger.”
“She just wants to have a little fun.”
“She can have all the fun she wants without drawing that kind of attention to herself. Most guys are civilized enough to let it go when they hear the word, ‘no.’ They ain’t the ones I worry about. There are animals out there that don’t bother to ask. They just take what they want. I ain’t havin’ my only daughter beaten and raped—or worse—‘cause of the way she’s dressed. And you know damn well I’m right.”
“Okay! Okay! You’ve made you point! Can we just drop it?”
“Yeah … sure.”
Connie’s expression softened. She moved to her husband, threw her arms around his thick neck, and gave him a hug. “I know you want to protect her, but she can’t live in a bubble. She has to experience life on her own terms. We did. She’ll be fine, ok? Now, since you didn’t sleep well, why don’t you lie down and take a nap before you go in. You’re grouchier than usual.”
Three hours later Tony climbed from bed, washed his face, and decided he should have a little more faith in his daughter. He trotted downstairs feeling every bit the overbearing parent she thought he was. He walked into the kitchen and looked around, but didn't see Heather.
“Where is she?” he said to Connie, suppressing a newfound anxiety. “It’s ten-thirty….”
“Oh, I’m sure she’s at Jen’s rooting through all her goodies. She should be home soon.”
Now Tony felt overbearing had its place. “Call her cell and tell her to get her ass home. She’s in big trouble.”
Connie huffed a bit more, but this time, Tony didn’t budge. She picked up the wall phone in the kitchen and dialed a number. A few seconds later she hung up and dialed again.”
“It’s going directly to her voicemail. I told her not to turn off her—”
“Call Jennifer’s house.”
Connie, now teetering on the edge of minor panic, offered no argument. She dialed a new number.
“Hi, Sandy. This is Connie. Is Heather still there?”
… A long pause.
“No, she’s not here. I.… No. What time? Nine fifteen? And Heather wasn’t with her? Oh my God! No, no, Sandy. That’s. … No. Look, I’m sorry, I have to go.”
As Tony listened to his wife’s conversation with Jennifer’s mother, every muscle in his body tensed as if the weight of the world had just descended upon him. Connie hung up the phone, her face ashen. She looked up at Tony—the sudden terror in her eyes unmistakable. With her heart in her throat, she managed to force out the words.
“I think we better call the police.”
Two uniformed officers spent an hour questioning Tony and Connie as to Heather’s description, her dress, her plans, and her state of mind when she left. The officers glanced at one another when they found Tony and his daughter had argued before she left the house. Finishing their interview with Heather's folks, the two officers made a beeline to Jennifer’s house.
They arrived to find a hysterical teenager, sitting on a kitchen chair in the middle of the living room, being interrogated by anxious red-faced parents on the edge. It was a scene right out of a noir novel. All that was missing was the harsh overhead lamp.
The cops separated Jennifer from her worked-up parents, calming the scene. Then they took Jennifer aside.
“Tell us what happened, Miss.”
Jennifer settled herself enough to talk to the officers, now that her parents had deferred to the two cops. “She made me promise not to tell. She was mad at her father. She told me she would be home in time. We met these guys.…”
“What guys?” her father bellowed.
“Please, Mr. Browning. Let us ask the questions, sir. Jennifer. Tell us about the guys you met.”
Jennifer bit a quivering lower lip. “We had just left my house … ten minutes, maybe. A car pulled up next to us and these guys asked us if we wanted to go to a party. Heather wanted to go, but I told her I didn’t think it was a good idea, but she said she was going with or without me and her father couldn’t tell her what to do anymore. I didn’t think she would really go without me, but she got in the car and they drove away.”
Jennifer fell into hysterics as she continued to detail as much as she could remember about the guys and the car. When the cops got all they were going to get from her, they went back to Heather’s house to talk to her parents.
“Apparently, Mr. DeNelli, Heather accepted an invitation from several young men to go to a party. She wanted Jennifer to go, but Jennifer knew her father wouldn’t approve. So, Heather went by herself. Jennifer said Heather was angry with you. Did something happen here that we need to know about?”
Two hours later, after Tony filled them in, the police left. Night turned into day. The police began combing the surrounding area at dawn, waiting only that long to begin the search in the expectation that the angry teenager would show up at home by then. Day turned to night and back into day with no results. Several days passed before a knock came at the door.
“Mr. and Mrs. DeNelli, I am Detective Burns. May I have a minute of your time?”
At the urging of the distressed parents, Burns stepped into the house and showed them a picture of a nearly naked young blonde woman, found just after sunup that morning. Her skimpy costume dress was gathered around her waist and her top lay in tatters beside her, torn from her body. She had been raped and beaten beyond recognition, and dried blood painted her throat from where it had been slit.
“I was hoping that you might be able to help us out here. This costume. Can you tell me if this is what your daughter wore that evening?”
Tony’s eyes devoured the photo as he held it in his hands. “No,” he said, denial weighing heavy in his answer. “She was wearing sweats. Not a costume like this. I would never let her go out wearing something like this.”
"We found sweat pants and a sweatshirt nearby."
Physical pain registered on Tony’s face as his heart leapt into his throat. He looked again and recognized the costume he forced Heather to change out of, and as he conceded the body’s similarity to his daughter, horror took him. He pulled the color 8 x 10 photo to his chest and began to sob.
“Couldn’t you at least have covered her up with something?” Tony cried. “Allowed her some dignity?”
Detective Burns stared at Tony and began to laugh, and enormous teeth shown from a half-moon grin that distorted his face like some horrific Jackolantern.
“Dignity? The way she’s dressed? Dignity? She looks like a whore! Just like you said! She got what she was asking for, and it’s your fault!”
The cop began to shake Tony with all his strength, as if to rattle some sense into him. “What kind of father are you?” He screamed, launching spittle from his mouth in flyaway strings. “What kind of father are you…. What kind of father—”
Then from somewhere distant, Connie’s voice floated in, layered atop the chaos.
“Honey? Honey? Are you okay?” she called, shaking her husband, trying to wake him.
Tony bolted upright, wide-eyed as his wife shook him. The sheets were soaked with his sweat and he trembled with terror. Dazed, he looked around, uncertain of his whereabouts or what was happening.
“Tony? You all right, honey?”
“I … I ain’t sure.”
“You were having night terrors … calling out. Jesus Tony … you’re crying!”
Tony wiped the tears from his face and swung his legs out of bed. Stumbling into the bathroom, he drenched his face in cold water. He stared at the mirror and saw a terrified man. Slowly he began to realize it had all been a dream. He walked back into the bedroom and told his wife what little he could remember of his fading nightmare.
“It was about Heather’” he said. “Something … bad happened.”
"Honey, she's fine. She's in her room. Go see for yourself."
Tony hurried to Heather’s room to see his only daughter sound asleep, her teddy bear curled up tight in her arms.
He began to weep.
A week later, Tony finished helping Connie with the dinner dishes. As they finished, Connie said, “Heather’s going out with Jennifer tonight, Tony.”
“I don’t want her out too late.”
“She’ll be home on time. She’s a good kid.” Connie grinned at her husband. “Much better than you were at her age.”
At that moment, Heather popped into the kitchen. “I’m ready. I’m heading over to Jen’s.”
Tony took one look.
“You ain’t goin’ out dressed like that.”
“Tony, it’s just a costume.”
“She looks like a slut Connie and I ain’t lettin’ her go out like that.”
“But Daddy, all my friends…”
“I don’t care what your friends do. Now, if you wanna to go trick or treatin’, change into something more presentable for a fourteen year-old girl or you can’t go. You ain’t leavin’ this house lookin’ like that.”
Heather stormed out making all the disgruntled noises that teenage girls make when they can’t get their way. She returned a few minutes later in gray sweats.
“Well?” Heather said as she reentered the kitchen. “Is this okay?”
“That’s much better. Be home by nine-thirty.”
“Nine-thirty? But everybody else…”
Something twisted Tony’s stomach, wringing it out like an old dishtowel as foreboding drained the color from his face. He looked at his wife, and the terror she saw in her husband’s eyes frightened her.
“On second thought,” he murmured, “I think I’m going with her.”