Lisa Valle glanced around nervously, her eyes darting from the line of trees in the distance to her three children fidgeting at the picnic table beside her.
Her fourth and youngest child, a 9-month-old girl with soft curls and doe brown eyes, snuggled in her arms.
"I am worried everywhere I go," the Arnold mother said earlier this week as she pulled her daughter closer to her chest. "Especially being here today."
Despite her fears of getting caught in the cross hairs of a serial sniper who has been terrorizing the greater Washington area this month, Valle and her family spent a breezy, sun-washed morning at Green Meadows Farm, which opens a pumpkin patch and petting zoo to the public every October.
She came so her children could ride the ponies, go on a hayride and maybe even milk a cow named Buttercup. She came so they could pick a pumpkin out of the patch to decorate for Halloween. She came, quite simply, because it was a beautiful day -- a day to be outdoors, not cooped up inside -- and the odds of a bullet finding its way to this eight-acre farm in Jessup seemed pretty slim.
Still, "I'm keeping my eyes open," she said.
While Valle has ventured away from familiar geography for a day of fun, scores of other parents have chosen to limit their outdoor activities.
Anxiety over the random shootings that left nine people dead and three injured as of Tuesday evening is casting a long shadow over the Halloween season this year, with many schools calling off field trips and families shying away from traditional seasonal outings and events.
The shootings that began Oct. 2, claiming victims in Washington and Ashland, Va., and in Montgomery, Prince George's, Prince William, Fairfax and Spotsylvania counties, have prompted many people to stay close to home, to the detriment of some local businesses.
Pumpkin patches, for example, have registered slumped sales, and a number of fall festivals and other attractions have claimed poor attendance or been canceled altogether because of the sniper shootings.
"I'm going bankrupt," said Debbie Carter, 40, manager of Green Meadows Farm, which opens to the public only during the month of October.
Carter was tense and twitchy as she issued directions over a walkie-talkie, organizing the dozen or so groups of children that had arrived last Friday morning for a tour.
On a typical day, the farm's parking lot would be jammed with yellow school buses, SUVs and minivans with thousands of people walking through the farm's entrance.
Ever since a 13-year-old boy was shot outside Benjamin Tasker Middle School in Bowie on his way to classes Oct. 7, however, that number has plummeted to about 600. The boy, whose name is being withheld, remains hospitalized.
In response to customer fears and the decreased turnout, Carter hired a security guard and decided to extend the farm's one-month opening by an extra week.
"(Sept. 11, 2001) was a cupcake compared to this," Carter said, explaining that attendance was down by several thousand after last year's terrorist attacks compared with tens of thousands this year. "But I understand why people are afraid to come out."
Elsewhere around the area, the trickledown effects of the random sniper shootings have also resulted in sparse crowds.
Horizon Organic Farms and Education Center in Gambrills is dealing with hundreds of tour cancellations due to the shootings, said Kristy Gregory, the education manager.
On Saturday, Annapolis Harbour Center canceled a Halloween event largely because the center is an open mall, and there was a concern for children's safety, according to a spokesperson in the Harbour Center's management office.
"We are absolutely being affected," said Renata Davis, project coordinator of the Pumpkin Patch, a fundraising event sponsored by Annapolis Area Ministries Inc., which benefits a Native American tribe of pumpkin growers and the Light House, Anne Arundel county's only homeless shelter.
Although this is the Pumpkin Patch's first year in Annapolis, sales are "definitely down" from what was originally projected, Davis explained as she stood in a grassy lot lined with pumpkins great and small outside of St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran Church.
So far, about a third of their 900 pumpkins have sold, and Davis is hoping business will pick up in the next week.
But with the threat of random shootings by an elusive sniper fresh on people's minds, no one knows exactly what to predict, and the question of how to celebrate Halloween night continues to loom large for parents.
Some parents are banning their kids from trick-or-treating, opting instead for indoor parties. Others are allowing their kids to go door-to-door, but only within the tight cluster of nearby streets.
Many parents said they would chaperon their children, including preteens and teenagers who like to think they have outgrown parental supervision.
In neighborhoods where Halloween parties are an annual event, most are being held as planned, but with some added security touches.
Suzanne Tubis, 46, of Arnold said it would have to be an incredibly dangerous situation to cancel her community's annual Halloween get-together at the local playground, a tradition that has been going on for about 60 years.
"Our neighborhood is fairly tucked away," Tubis said. "It would really be a long shot for anything to happen."
Nevertheless, the blacktop area where the party is being held will be brightly lighted.
"Last year we kept it a little bit spooky," said Tubis, the party's organizer. "It's not going to be as spooky this year."
In other words, things are spooky enough.
The sniper attacks have indeed pushed parents into a delicate balancing act, with many of them trying to figure out how to be cautious without being paranoid.
In every corner of the county, parents have found themselves asking how to make their children aware of the random danger without scaring them. How do residents go about the business of daily life with school lockdowns and canceled soccer practices?
"I decided yes on the trick-or-treating," said Anne Froble, an Edgewater mother of three. "But we're sticking close to home."
Like so many others, Froble said she has avoided going to parks and public functions since the shootings began. And when running errands or pumping gas, Froble thinks like a target.
"We dance around like a bunch of cuckoos," she said. "We're always moving quickly; we're always rushing.
"My daughter asked me the other day if we were running to the car because of that crazy guy," Froble said. "She's 3 years old."
Said Carole Gilmour, 35, of Arnold, "It's a much different world than it was when I was growing up."
Gilmour said with the attacks on America last year and the sniper shootings this month, she has been concerned not only with keeping her sons safe but also with protecting their childhood. She, for one, said she will not let any sniper spoil her children's Halloween.
"We're going trick-or-treating," she said firmly.
"Of course, we're going to be prudent, but we have to let our kids be kids."