by Andrew Grace
It was the pumpkins, Jennifer believed, that would one day seek revenge. Every holiday demanded its sacrifices. Fir trees for Christmas, roses for Saint Valentine’s day, turkeys to mark a day of Thanksgiving. Countless pigs were slaughtered in honor of the nation’s independence from Britain—to say nothing of the fingers and noses lost to errant firecrackers—and, of course, large orange gourds were mutilated by the millions to celebrate the evening before All Saints’ Day.
Producers labored year-round to satiate the demand for these sacrifices. And when the moment came, the moment when market forces and spiritual energies aligned, they chopped down the greenest fir trees, plucked the reddest roses, wrung the necks of the fattest turkeys, and pushed the plumpest pig parts through the grinders. Then, of course, they yanked the largest, brightest, creepiest pumpkins from their stems, their umbilical connections to Mother Earth.
And for this, this desecration disguised as hallowed ceremony, Jennifer knew the gourds would have their revenge. She could, quite literally, see it in their faces. In their flaming eyes. In their wide, silent screams. In their pointy teeth. She could see their mindless fury.
But that wasn’t why she refused to perform the ceremony at home.
Jennifer wanted to carve her Jack-O-Lantern in the park because she believed it was sacred territory, or maybe profane territory. She didn’t particularly care which. Samantha didn’t want to carve pumpkins outside because Duluth, Minnesota is cold in late October, like every other state’s mid-December cold, and the cold made her impatient. Samantha’s pumpkin stood next to Jennifer’s on one the few remaining patches of crisp, green autumn grass in Lester Park. Samantha stood a few feet away from the space her friend had deemed “the altar,” while Jennifer sat firm on the grass with her legs stretched wide to either side of her pumpkin. For a breath, Jennifer held a large chef’s knife above the gourd as if she were a surgeon preparing to make her first incision. Then, she plunged two-thirds of the blade into the top of the doomed vegetable and began to saw an irregular circle around its stem. The tip of her tongue stuck out of her mouth as she worked.
Samantha exhaled a couple of pointedly steaming breaths into her cupped hands and rubbed her shoulders. “Why are we doing this outside in the freezing cold again?”
Jennifer finished cutting her circle in silence. Leaning forward to put both hands on the knife’s handle while she pressed her knees against the pumpkin, she drew the blade free. In a series of jerky motions, she pointed the knife up toward the moon and then jabbed it in the direction of the enormous oak trees that lined the path the girls had taken to reach this particular clearing.
“Yeah,” Samantha replied, “you’re being cryptic again, Genevieve.”
Jennifer cringed. Samantha only called her Genevieve when she was annoyed, when her patience for her friend’s “melodramatic tendencies” was wearing thin. It took all of Jennifer’s courage twenty minutes earlier to face Samantha’s disbelieving stare and insist on the park for their pumpkin carving in the first place. Now, she struggled to find some hidden reserve of fortitude for responding to her friend’s pestering. She yanked the top of her pumpkin free from its fibrous veins. “Do you ever wonder if trees raise their branches like that to worship the moon?”
“What the f?” the standing girl muttered before really looking at the trees where the sitting girl pointed her knife a moment earlier. She was sixteen, and the disillusioned part of her brain registered that the trees’ branches climbed toward celestial bodies to absorb the sun’s rays in a process known as C) photosynthesis. But the greater portion of her brain, the portion that clung to the romance of mystery, had no trouble discerning a multitude of steadfast arms raised in ceaseless devotion to divine Luna in the night sky.
“Huh,” she said and plopped onto the grass with her sneaker-clad toes resting on either side of her pumpkin.
Jennifer was busy ripping the pumpkin’s seedy, stringy guts out with a spoon, so Samantha leaned forward to grab the chef’s knife from the ground next to her friend’s knee. When she sat up again, she felt a freezing wind cut through the oversized red sweatshirt she chose instead of her winter coat that night. The sweatshirt belonged to her brother, Bjorn Houckem, in name only. It was emblazoned with the name of a prestigious institution of higher education in Northfield, where her older brother was seeking his Bachelor of Science in Biology. The dry, barren branches of the oak trees rustled in the wind as Samantha shivered.
“I think the word ‘rustled’ should be defined as ‘the sound that trees make during their long, slow prayers to the moon.’ Fall and winter are holy times because the moon’s power is at its peak,” Jennifer said without raising her head from the pumpkin guts on the grass in front of her.
Samantha blew her hair out of her eyes. Jennifer was being theatrical again. It felt like she was doing this kind of thing more often lately—insisting upon the kind of rituals and games they played as kids. Back then, the treasure hunts, art competitions, and pageants were always Samantha’s idea, not Jennifer’s, but now, as they began entering adulthood, these things seemed to have taken on a new meaning for Jennifer. Samantha knew all of this was partially—more than partially—her fault. That’s why she was here, sitting on the ground in the freezing cold, allowing Jennifer to indulge in this ‘ritual’.
“So, how does it work when they’re covered in leaves?” asked Samantha as she began taking haphazard stabs at the top of her pumpkin.
“That’s the thing,” Jennifer replied, “they sprout leaves when the sun is ascendant to hide their faces from its jealous rays. Then, they shed them as the moon grows in power to, um, revel in her glory or something.”
“So are fir trees, like, heathens then?”
Jennifer sat up and put her spoon down on the grass. At five-foot-six, she was taller than her friend by several inches, but in her mind’s eye, she was still the smaller one. She was still the littler one, the girlier one, the babyish one, chasing after the daughter of her father’s best friend. When they were kids, Samantha always seemed to know about the things Jennifer didn’t understand. The books the older kids were reading. The movies their parents watched. And, of course, boys and sex. When they hit puberty, Jennifer shot up, but her friend rounded out. And if Samantha secretly longed for her friend’s slimmer jean size, Jennifer openly envied the breasts and hips, the softness and curves that separated her gangly girl’s body from her friend’s smooth womanly figure – a womanly figure that Jennifer was convinced her Swedish mother had conspired to deny her. She was so accustomed to thinking of her friend as more knowledgeable, more mature, and all around more decisive that sometimes she couldn’t tell if Samantha was just humoring her.
She studied Samantha as her friend made a sequence of deep stabs into the top of her pumpkin, wrenching the knife out after each thrust. She puffed up her left cheek and tapped it with her index finger. Her finger rested on the bubble for a moment as she resisted the urge to let it burst until she opened her mouth to answer the shorter girl’s question.
“Sure,” she said. “They stay green all year and their branches point to the ground. But they’re not just heathens. They’re heretics who believe the moon is an evil spirit placed in the sky to tempt right-thinking trees away from the sun. And a long time ago, some mighty maple bribed the humans to chop down the fir trees during the longest night of the year when the moon is ascendant.”
“So that’s how we got maple syrup?” Samantha was still looking down at her pumpkin as she wiggled its stem back and forth to slide the top free from its jagged incisions.
Jennifer spun her hollowed-out gourd around in her hands, looking for the perfect surface for what she had in mind. “Yeah,” she said.
“Kind of makes me wish I liked it more.”
“Everything tastes better with arboreal genocide.”
Arboreal, Samantha thought, B) Of or relating to trees. Jennifer had been using these kinds of phrases a lot lately. Arboreal, bucolic, parallax, syncopated – some days, talking to Jennifer felt like prepping for the SAT.
Perhaps it was just the tenor of their discussion, but Samantha felt an odd surge of bloodlust as she began yanking the guts out of the newly lobotomized pumpkin. She eschewed the spoon at her feet in favor of her nails, periodically wiping her hands through the grass to clean them. Meanwhile, Jennifer wielded a small serrated tool designed especially for the task of gifting jack-o’-lanterns the faces they needed to express their anguish. She favored a triangle-centric design. Two equilateral triangles pointing down for the eyes and a slender, acute triangle pointing up for the nose. Sharp triangles for teeth gave its mouth a predatory edge, and like a rabid beast, it seemed ready to share its pain with unwary fingers and earlobes.
Sensing the opportunity to escape the chill night air if she worked quickly, Samantha carved two small holes for eyes and a third, larger hole below them. Toothless, it howled in silent frustration. When it was done, Samantha set it aside, put her instruments in a pile with Jennifer’s, and wiped her hands through the grass again. After the third pass, they were still covered in a dry, sticky film and the thought of rubbing them clean with her sweatshirt flit through her brain, but she was loathe to commit the precious garment into the tender mercies of their antiquated washing machine. She took the more sensible route and rubbed them on Jennifer’s coat while her friend was engrossed in staring at the demonic grin in front of her.
“What the hell?!” Jennifer shouted as she recoiled in surprise. Her knees failed to rise from the ground at the same speed as her torso and she tumbled over.
Samantha paused to make sure her friend wasn’t really hurt before she started laughing. She wiped the start of a giggle-induced tear from her eye. “I was trying to get pumpkin guts off my hands.”
“Use your own damn shirt, you skank!”
“And endanger Carlton? Never.”
“What about your t-shirt?!”
Samantha looked down toward her stomach and pulled at the grey tee shirt peeking out from the edge of her beloved hoodie. It was a shirt for the Duluth East cross-country team, which she quit the year before. She finished wiping her hands on it as she admitted aloud that she “hadn’t thought of that.”
Once she maneuvered back into a sitting position, Jennifer leaned over to grab Samantha’s jack-o’-lantern and place it next to her own. She smiled at their contrasting expressions, then shivered as if noticing the near-freezing temperature for the first time that night.
“Now all that’s left is settling on our costumes,” she announced.
“Our costumes?” Samantha replied.
“Yeah, I figured we could do the age-reversed Hook and Pan thing or try zombie poets again.”
For most of middle school and junior high, the girls went trick-or-treating as Captain Hook and Peter Pan in costumes originally pieced together by their mothers and continually modified by themselves. When Jennifer hit her growth spurt in the eighth grade, they decided to give her the fake beard to accompany the green leggings and pointed hat. In turn, a claw-handed Samantha played Captain Hook as the boy who refused to grow up. Despite snippets of what they believed to be delightful banter about ticking clocks and fairy dust, most of the parents handing out candy assumed they were Robin Hood and Generic Lady Pirate #34. When they tried again in the ninth grade, they stitched a makeshift Tinkerbell to the shoulder of Jennifer’s tunic and whitened her beard while Samantha hung a plastic crocodile snout from her neck, but the few comments they received implied they were getting too old to ask strangers for candy.
The next year, as sophomores, they agreed they were too old for conventional trick-or-treating but too young for a good party, so they settled upon the zombie poet experiment. Dressed in thrift store garb that smelled like it originated at the turn of the century, even if it didn’t quite look that way, they traveled from door to door reciting the works of Lord Byron and Edna St. Vincent Millay and handing out candy to their bewildered neighbors. For good measure, they painted their faces and hands a greenish-grey or a greyish-green and applied fake sores and bite marks to their necks, cheeks, and foreheads. While reciting “She Walks in Beauty,” Samantha would slur the start of the second stanza before moaning “Braaaains…” Exhausted and giddy after traversing more than six miles, they pronounced the experiment a success. But Samantha had never intended to revisit the results.
“I was thinking about going as a cat,” she said.
“A cat?” Jennifer replied.
“Yeah, I’ve got a tail and some ears. I was just gonna wear them with, like, a skirt and sweater. Black ones, I guess.” Samantha loved cats. And she wanted to wear a simple costume to their first real Halloween party. And it was a perfectly reasonable plan. And even if the skirt she had in mind was a bit shorter than the ones she usually wore, it wasn’t like she was planning to disrespect the spirit of Halloween by getting all skanked up or something. And she had nothing to feel bad about. So why were her eyes glued to her toes?
It took Jennifer several moments of silently staring at the top of Samantha’s downturned head to grasp what her friend just said. Samantha Houckem, who once constructed matching dinosaur costumes for them out of cardboard and spray paint, who once said “your Halloween costume is more important than your favorite playlist”—that Samantha Houckem—wanted to don cat ears and call it a costume for their first Halloween party. Jennifer responded in a voice heavy with exasperation and puzzlement, “Oh Sam, that’s so lame.”
They took the tree-lined and moonlit path back through the park to Samantha’s enormous yellow Suburban, an ancient hand-me down from her father. They drove through the dark and pothole-filled Seven Bridges Road as it crossed and re-crossed Amity Creek until they reached Skyline Parkway. Then, they rode over the dark and gravel-strewn pass as it rose up the ridge that overlooked the magnificent lights of the city below and the black abyss-like lake beyond it. They exited onto Glenwood Street near the summit of its long, steep ascent and drove into Woodland, where Jennifer lived with both her parents and their cat, Ms. Marbles, whom Jennifer reminded everyone she had named when she was very young.
Through the ominous path, over the dilapidated bridges, across the splendorous expanse, and into the quiet neighborhood, Jennifer never stopped haranguing Samantha about their costumes. She proposed that cat costumes were boring. Samantha countered that she liked cats. Jennifer already knew this because Samantha, whose mother was allergic to felines or at least claimed to be, spent three or four nights a week at her house with Ms. Marbles on her lap. She had done so for most of the last decade. So, Jennifer proposed that people always assumed the girl in the cat costume was slutty. Samantha countered that that was their fault for being dumb, not her fault for liking cats. This was one of her standard rhetorical strategies, and Jennifer was appalled that she still didn’t have a successful rebuttal for it. So, Jennifer proposed that there would probably be several other girls dressed as cats, and Samantha countered that that was good because one of them could be the slutty one. Jennifer started to explain that that wasn’t what she meant but gave up on that line of argumentation in favor of proposing that costumes with a theatrical element would be more impressive. Samantha countered that there wouldn’t be anyone at the party she was interested in impressing. And Jennifer asked how she could know. And she replied that she wasn’t interested in impressing anyone at the present time. So, Jennifer finally proposed that it would mean a lot to her. She meant that she felt uncomfortable at parties and that pretending to be someone else, even just a little bit, made it easier for her to socialize, but she didn’t explain all of that; she just hoped her oldest friend would be able to infer it from her plaintive tone and wide, pleading eyes. Samantha countered by sighing and saying she would think about it.
And she did think about it as she drove back through the short, staggered streets near the University and as she drove along the steep wide streets toward Norwood, where she lived with her mother and her stepfather, Scott. She thought that this was the problem with childhood friends. Change looks like a threat. Growth looks like a threat. Individuality looks like a threat.
She didn’t want to look like a threat. Not to Jennifer. She didn’t feel threatening. She felt alone.
She thought that this was the kind of thing that she would normally talk to Jennifer about. She thought that she couldn’t talk to any of her other friends about it because they were all Jennifer’s friends too, and she was pretty sure that they liked Jennifer more. She thought that she didn’t want to be Jennifer and she didn’t want to be the person Jennifer wanted her to be and she didn’t want to be the person she already was inside of Jennifer’s head. She thought that she didn’t want to be the person she already was inside of her own head either. Then, she parked the Suburban alongside the curb so it wouldn’t block her mom or Scott when they wanted to leave in the morning. She reclaimed her jack-o’-lantern from the backseat before sliding out the driver’s side door from an elevation that seemed ridiculous in contrast to her legs.
Shifting around to keep her balance as she hit the ground brought the pumpkin to her face, and she stared into its vacant eyes. She felt uncommonly pleased with its simple expression. She rushed inside, wiping her shoes with exaggerated swipes on the mat in the entryway, below the wall-mounted coat hangers overflowing with jackets, scarves, hats, and bags. Her mother and Scott were seated in the living room, watching the ten o’clock news. The opening music was still rolling, which meant she was just in time. In three months of owning a car, her curfew had grown from a minor annoyance to a considerable point of tension between herself and her mother.
Her mother tilted her head just enough to glimpse Samantha before refocusing on the television as she asked, “how was pumpkin carving?”
“Cold,” Samantha replied. “I need a candle. Do we have any candles?”
Her mother suggested looking in the drawer next to the kitchen sink, the one to the left. Moments later, Samantha passed back through the entryway with a pair of tea lights and a box of matches to where she left her pumpkin on the stoop. She lit both candles before inserting them through the lantern’s mouth. Like a reverse dragon, it inhaled fire. Then, she set the pumpkin back on the stoop and took several steps down the front walk before spinning around to look at it again. With the glow of the candles emanating from its eyes and its large, round mouth, it no longer expressed toothless frustration. Instead, it wailed in silence about a deep, burning sorrow.
Samantha grinned from ear to ear, completely oblivious to the cold for the first time all night.
The next day was Monday. Kim’s party was on Thursday. Jennifer had three days to convince Samantha that cat costumes were lame. She stacked up the strengths of her case against the obstacles. She divided a sheet of paper into two columns in her mind. She stopped using real paper for this kind of thing in the seventh grade.
In the Strengths column, her mental pen scratched six points in short straight lines.
- Cat costumes are objectively lame.
- Halloween is about being awesome, not trying to be cool (i.e. actually being lame).
- Zombie poets are awesome.
- A zombie poet can always recite poetry if you suddenly feel shy or awkward or have nothing else to say but feel the need to say something because you’re at a party and people you don’t know very well are looking at you.
- The last time we wore lame Halloween costumes we were in the fourth grade, and the fourth grade was terrible, and it was probably because of the lame costumes.
- I really need you to wear the same costume as me or I’ll have to spend all night explaining my costume to people who don’t get it by myself.
She reviewed the strengths column with a critical eye, looking for overstatements or missteps, but everything seemed right. Cat costumes were truly lame. Zombie poets were, indeed, awesome. And the fourth grade was so terrible that they usually referred to it as “that time we had Mrs. Bennett, and everything sucked.” As in, “Remember that time we had Mrs. Bennett and everything sucked and Timothy Johnson said your mother was a whore and you didn’t know what that was but you cried anyway and then Mr. Parsons yelled at you for crying and everyone chanted crybaby behind your back for a week until Melissa Paulson wore that black and white sweatshirt and everyone started calling her fat instead.”
She proceeded to fill out the Obstacles column in the same straight, short letters. It wasn’t going to do her any good if she lost her head and started getting sloppy with mental ink.
- Samantha didn’t like losing arguments.
- Samantha was better at arguing than her.
- After Timothy Johnson called her mother a whore, Samantha was the one who spread the rumor that his parents were cousins and he was born with a tail that had to be surgically removed.
- Samantha really liked cats.
Jennifer tried to review her list of obstacles just as she had reviewed the strengths of her case, but it was always difficult for her to anticipate the obstacles Samantha could create. The first and fourth points were clear enough on their own. With the second point, Jennifer thought about how she relied on conclusions drawn from past experiences, while Samantha could wield an entire suite of rhetorical strategies – changing the premise of the debate, questioning the validity of her evidence, favoring abstract reasoning over concrete examples or vice versa as it suited her, or dismissing the discussion outright with phrases like “whatever” or “if you say so,” the intonations for which she had honed for years into a discourse-killing blade sharp enough to split atoms.
Jennifer really only thought about the third point for fun. Not only did the incident put a hold on any romantic interest in the snot-faced little jerk among the other girls in their class that lasted through the eighth grade; it also led to a rash of attempts among the other boys and a few of the girls to pull down his pants in hopes of seeing the scar left by the tail-removing surgery.
Yet, she wasn’t certain that the thing about Timothy Johnson’s tail belonged on the list of obstacles. She just liked thinking about it from time to time. So, she replaced it with a different obstacle.
- For the past year or so—ever since Samantha swallowed a bottle of pills between ninth and tenth grade and had to spend two weeks in the hospital—she wasn’t sure that she knew her friend at all.
She was the only person not legally or genetically related to Samantha who knew about the incident, but she hadn’t been allowed to see her friend in the hospital. Waiting at the Houckem-Marshall residence on the day Samantha was released, she had no idea what do with herself. Her hands were empty and her legs crossed as she waited on Samantha’s bed, sitting on top of the quilt Grandma Houckem sewed for Samantha when she was three. Was she supposed to bring a gift? Was it a time of celebration? Was it a time of mourning? How was she supposed to feel? To the extent that she could feel anything after the weeks of anxious sleep deprivation, she felt furious. She felt furious with Samantha for letting her despair fester in silence, for trying to kill herself, for abandoning their friendship, but mostly for making her feel furious when she was supposed to feel love or pity or relief. And she felt furious with herself for being mad at her friend, for being mad at someone who was so depressed, someone she didn’t understand anymore. And, for now, she just wanted something to do with her hands. She pulled at the corners of Samantha’s blanket, then straightened them in a rush of worry because the room had to be perfect. She rested her right hand in her left with the palms up, then the left hand in the right. Then she flipped them, setting her left palm atop the back of the right. She regretted not buying a gift, some colorful object with which she could fidget. She wanted to zhoosh a bow, tighten a corner, squeeze something.
When Scott, Valerie, and Samantha arrived at the house, they entered without exchanging any pleasantries loud enough for Jennifer to hear. She heard the muted shuffling of shoes being removed and a suitcase being repositioned. She continued to wait on the bed, feeling more anxious than ever, wondering how long it would take Samantha to walk down the hall to her room. The hallway carpet muffled the sound of sock-covered feet so well that Jennifer and Samantha never worried about attracting attention when they raided the kitchen for chips, ice cream, or soda after midnight, so Jennifer was left to stare at the door, willing it to open at the touch of her best friend’s hand.
Her pulse shot up when the knob twisted, accompanied by the quiet, familiar creak only the two of them knew. The face that came into view just past the edge of the door looked just as familiar as it was totally alien to her. The lines and colors, the size and the shape, matched her memory of Samantha’s profile, but the expression didn’t fit the person inside her head, the Samantha she knew. She stood up from the bed and the embraced her friend. The action helped her suppress the urge to shake the shorter girl, just as hiding her face in the long, dark hair that smelled of unfamiliar shampoo helped her suppress the torrent of cruel statements that threatened to spill from her suddenly dry lips. “What were you thinking?” “What the hell is wrong with you?” “How could you do this to me?” Her brain refused to fabricate anything consoling, comforting, or humane, as if all her synapses were flooded with vitriol and acid. She needed to purge them somehow, flush the system clean. She tried bursting into tears, but one hiccupping half-sob later and her face felt salt-shaker dry.
Meanwhile, Samantha felt limp in her friend’s arms. Her own arms stayed at her sides, and her left hand gripped a stuffed bear named Mister Winkles. The bear had been a gift from Jennifer on Samantha’s fifth birthday. He sported a purple bowtie, and the fur on his right paw was growing threadbare. Samantha wore red and black pajama pants beneath a large grey sweatshirt. Mid-August was too humid for the outfit. It smelled unwholesome but looked like hugs should feel. She was tired. She was tired of people fussing over her. And she was tired of hurting people who loved her.
She wanted to sleep in her own bed, beneath her grandmother’s quilt, snuggling the teddy bear given to her by an old friend.
After feeling Jennifer’s mouth open and close three times without quite getting through the word “why,” Samantha asked, “Is there a reason good enough?”
“Of course not,” Jennifer replied.
“Then let’s assume that I wasn’t being reasonable.”
“And I’m better now.”
Laying together on the twin bed they sometimes shared as little girls, Samantha wanted Jennifer to leave, and Jennifer wanted to feel like it was okay to leave.
Over a year later, Jennifer still never knew when anything was okay. And she still never wanted to ask Samantha “why.”
Not about anything.
Certainly, not about Halloween costumes.
Besides, asking Samantha why she wanted to abandon fifteen years’ worth of Halloween tradition would just give her friend the opportunity to establish and fortify obstacles. As soon as Samantha started talking, Jennifer would be at a deficit. But if she could get Samantha focused on the strengths of her position, then her friend might lose sight of the obstacles she intended to raise all together.
“I want to impress a boy and he likes poetry.” Jennifer was standing behind Samantha in line for the salad bar. She guessed the line would give her three minutes in an advantageous position. Samantha couldn’t maximize her defenses without turning around, and the bustle of the line combined with the mental space devoted to deciding what to put on her salad left her distracted and susceptible. So, Jennifer started her campaign with a long shot. She made something up.
Samantha would see through the ruse before she could blink if she were focused, or at least looking at Jennifer, but under the circumstances, the statement made her pause both mentally and physically. Holding her tray still, she asked who the guy was.
Jennifer kicked herself for failing to anticipate this. The problem with childhood friends is that they know everyone you know. She couldn’t hesitate though.
“Denton,” she said. It was the first name to pop into her head. They sat next to each other in orchestra, right before lunch.
Samantha remained still for a second. Then, she shuffled forward with the line.
“You would have an easier time wooing Denton with a simple declaration that the two of you were going out.”
“I didn’t say that I wanted to go out with him. I said I want to impress him.” Jennifer was proud of this improvisation. She almost believed it.
“Okay, but, I mean, why?”
It was working. Samantha was committing her forces to the decoy. Jennifer picked up a plate and pushed her tray along the bar toward the lettuce. She had less than two minutes before Samantha would find a chance to rally during the silent walk to the table.
“You know, he’s always saying these ridiculous things, and he probably thinks I’m just, like, boring and quiet all the time.”
“Why do you care?” Samantha asked while dropping several uninspected cucumber slices on top of her lettuce.
“It just bugs me when people get the wrong impression.”
“So, you’re going to convince him you’re exciting and fun by reading poetry at him?”
“Like I said…”
“He likes poetry. Of course, he does.”
Samantha grabbed the first bottle of salad dressing her hand encountered and squeezed a glob of it on top of her lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, black olives, and sunflower seeds. Then she lifted her tray and marched toward their customary table.
Jennifer felt her early victories slipping away. Samantha usually spent at least twenty seconds selecting a salad dressing. Jennifer often made fun of her for it, and today, she had been counting on that time to let her decoy slip away as she ambushed Samantha’s forces with her primary assault. If only she had ten more seconds to think of something else to say.
By the time she caught up with her opponent at their usual bench, Samantha had prepared her counterattack.
“Wouldn’t it impress him more if you were the only one spouting poetry at him?” She asked. It was the classic pivot, but Jennifer felt ready for it this time.
“If we go in matching costumes, it will look like I’m a fun and exciting person who takes Halloween seriously.”
“You are a fun and exciting person who takes Halloween seriously. Possibly too seriously.”
Jennifer pouted. She knew Samantha was trying to win the argument, but Halloween was sacred. The idea that she took it too seriously was inconceivable. It was inconceivable to her. It was inconceivable to her friend. The one she knew. The one in her head. But she didn’t have time for linguistic, identity, or existential crises. She shook her face back into neutral and countered that she knew she was a fun and exciting person who took Halloween seriously, but she wanted to convey that information to others.
“Just be yourself,” Samantha said with a shrug.
“That. Defeats. The. Whole. Purpose!”
Samantha took a large bite out of her salad and looked into the empty space to her left.
She swallowed hard. “Touché.”
“So, you’ll join me?”
“I’ll think about it.”
Crap, Jennifer thought. This is why she didn’t like debating with Samantha. Sam knew all the outs. Just when you think you have her cornered, she reveals that you’ve been debating inside a sphere the whole time. When she says she’ll think about something, any further attempts to pester her about it violate her right to peaceful contemplation.
Jennifer took a bite of her salad and wondered how long she had to let her friend “think about it.”
On Thursday night, she struggled with her make-up. She still didn’t know what Samantha would wear. On Tuesday, Sam said she was still thinking about it. On Wednesday, she suggested that Jennifer needed to chill out a bit because they had all the stuff they needed no matter what. That afternoon, she missed lunch because she had to finish a physics project before sixth period. Jennifer grimaced when she heard the news from a mutual friend. It was obvious that Samantha was avoiding her, but she reminded herself that her friend skipped lunch once or twice every week to take care of the most recent thing she neglected. Jennifer added some more purple to the wound she was painting on her neck and thought, “I guess I’ll have to wait in line behind her stupid little history paper.” Then, she chided herself for being unfair. The phone was right there, and she hadn’t picked it up to demand answers, so who was she to complain?
Still, it would’ve been nice to know more about Samantha’s plans. The problem with zombie poets is that everyone thinks you’re just a zombie in weird clothes. When you recite a stanza, they ask you if you have a quiz tomorrow or something. And eventually, they ask where you bought your outfit and if it’s special for Halloween or something because “it’s, like, really interesting.” “Interesting” did not carry a positive connotation. But if a single zombie poet is a girl with bad make-up in thrift store clothes who has a quiz tomorrow, two zombie poets are an act, a shtick, a force with which to reckon. The clothes were clearly intentional, and if the clothes were clearly intentional, then the verses must be part of the costume too, and if someone went to the trouble of memorizing poetry for a costume, then they probably weren’t just skimping on the gory face paint. Understated flesh wounds must contribute to the soulful aesthetic of a deceased-yet-ambulatory Emily Dickinson who craves nothing more than to access the pure, unsullied language of the deity, except perhaps to dine on the sweet, pulpy brains of the nearest child.
In sum, Jennifer wanted to know how much fake blood she should smear across her neck. The phone was right there. But she was pretty sure she had enough. No need to overdo things. Besides, it was time to get her basket ready. A loaf of French bread. A few select poems transcribed in Jennifer’s sharp, straight hand onto some tea-stained paper. And a bottle of sparkling grape juice for hospitability.
“A book of verses… a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and…”
It wasn’t Dickinson, but it felt appropriate.
The doorbell rang again as she dabbed half-heartedly at her cheek with another smeared cotton round. It had been ringing every seven minutes or so since the little kids started trick-or-treating dressed as gnomes, or fairies, or tiny devils. Around six thirty, Jennifer covered door duty while her mother spent some time in the make-up strewn bathroom. She handed mini-Three Musketeers bars to the world’s smallest ninja and a pair of princesses. She was pleased to see that one of the princesses appeared to be a boy. He was around eight. Too young to be ironic.
When the doorbell rang at seven thirty, Jennifer’s mother called for her. She stepped out of the bathroom expecting to find Samantha in the hallway. But the hallway was empty, and Jennifer could hear voices coming from the front door. Evidently, her friend—and chauffer—was waiting outside. She peeked once more at the mirror, poked at the make-up smudge around her left eye, turned off the light, and headed down the hall. She passed through her family’s small dining room—more of a dining nook really—into the almost as small kitchen before she could see the front entrance, where her mother was chit-chatting with her best friend, who was dressed as the world’s most clichéd cat-girl. Black tights. Black skirt. Black, V-neck sweater. Black liquid eyeliner for whiskers. And black cat ears atop a black headband.
“Mew or treat,” she said. She held up both hands with her arms folded from her elbows near her waist and her fingers folded over into her palms. They made passable symbols for cats’ paws. Jennifer’s mother, who often acted as if Samantha was her own daughter, put her hands together as she unleashed a delighted guffaw at the black-clad human-feline hybrid.
Jennifer just said, “Hey.”
Samantha had forced a big, stupid grin onto her face beneath the two-dimensional whiskers, but her eyes were almost moist with pleading. Jennifer averted her own eyes before muttering that they should get going.
As they strolled down the front walk toward the Suburban—Samantha glancing at Jennifer and Jennifer staring at her basket—they almost collided with a pair of trick-or-treating tweens. The shorter of the tweens was disguised as an eye-patch wearing pirate. Her companion sported an explosion of bright green feathers and a plastic yellow beak that was secured to her face with an uncomfortable elastic string. All four girls murmured apologies under their breath, though the tweens barely interrupted their march toward Jennifer’s door. Samantha reoriented herself and stepped forward again, but she stopped when she realized that Jennifer’s eyes were still directed at the pair of younger girls. She made an inquisitive mewing noise to get her friend’s attention.
With her face still turned away from Samantha’s, Jennifer winced at her friend’s out-of-character attempts at acting precious. The more she tried to convince her that dressing up like a cat was cute or fun or anything other than some lame attempt at conformity, the more Jennifer resented everything about it. She resented how uninspired and insipid the costume was. She resented being left in the dark all week. She resented Samantha’s cloying attempts to make everything seem all right. And when she yanked open the passenger door, she resented the loud screech that tore through the night.
Samantha slid into the driver’s seat across the console from her with that astonishingly graceful ease Jennifer always envied. She closed the door and started the car without saying anything further. Her face had adopted the neutral expression she often wore when she thought no one was looking – eyes forward, mouth closed, chin up. Both girls remained silent as they pulled away from Jennifer’s house and began the short drive to Kim’s place. Houses along both sides of the street glowed amidst the porch lamps, jack-o’-lanterns, and strings of orange or red holiday lights. Samantha drove slowly, and Jennifer kept her head lowered against the window as she watched gaggles of children dart from house to house.
They accelerated on Woodland Avenue, cruising past the outskirts of the University, where they saw a group of college students hustling between buildings – a man in a toga, a very tall little red riding hood, some kind of period-specific zombie, two people without discernible costumes, and a black cat.
“This seems a little silly,” Samantha said at the first stoplight without changing her expression.
“How so?” Jennifer replied. She recognized Samantha’s bid to sound like the more mature one, the more sensible and reasonable one, so she decided to play the confused one who asks a million questions.
“You’re mad at me.”
“What makes you think that?”
“You’re not talking to me.”
“What’s there to talk about?”
“Oh bite me, Genevieve, maybe we could talk about the fact that you’re mad at me because I want to put on cat ears ten minutes before getting in the car instead of memorizing poetry for three days.”
“The light’s green.”
“The light. It’s green,” Jennifer said, lifting her head away from the window and pointing a finger at the stoplights.
“Right. Damn.” Samantha shifted back into gear and accelerated into the intersection. “I just don’t understand why it’s such a big deal?”
“Why didn’t you tell me what you were planning?”
“I told you on Sunday. You just didn’t want to listen.”
“Tell the truth, but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.”
Samantha tilted her head to the left for a moment and thought A) Elizabeth Barrett Browning; or, B) … “That’s Dickinson, right?”
“Does it matter?”
“That depends. What else have you got?”
Jennifer had been memorizing the most Halloween-appropriate passages from Dickinson’s poems all week. She planned to wield phrases like “As if a Goblin with a Gauge – Kept measuring the Hours” and “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted” before slurring into “Braaaains!” But she had stumbled upon a few passages that spoke more pointedly to her growing frustration with how she felt Samantha was treating her.
She recited, “She dealt her pretty words like Blades – How glittering they shone – And every One unbared a Nerve or wantoned with a Bone.”
A grin spread over Samantha’s face. “Excellent! ‘Pretty words like Blades,’ I love it. We should get tattoos.”
She looked over at Jennifer, hoping to see a dent in her friend’s armor, some acknowledgement of how hard she was trying. She stared at Jennifer for a minute before the younger girl realized she was being subjected to such intense scrutiny and finally looked up. She looked up. She lifted her head away from the window. Then, she reached over and yanked the steering wheel hard to the right.
The Suburban swerved into the right lane, through the shoulder, and up against the curb before Samantha could straighten the wheel and slam on the breaks.
“WHAT THE HELL GENEVIEVE!?!” Samantha shouted. “All Nine Hells, Genevieve! What, in all the hells, was that about!?!”
Jennifer touched the side of her face, which had bounced against her window when the car was jostling along the curb. There was no blood, and it didn’t hurt. But she was having trouble focusing. That was probably adrenaline, right? Or the shouting?
“The Soul has Bandaged moments,” she said, “When too appalled to stir – She feels some ghastly Fright come up and stop to look at her.”
She looked into Samantha’s eyes. Samantha looked back into hers. Jennifer saw something behind her friend’s brown irises, something beyond the anger and the fear and the confusion of that moment. She had seen pleading in those eyes back at the house. She had seen a longing to be forgiven mixed with the refusal to apologize. Now, she saw a different kind of pleading, a pleading with a callous and chaotic universe. If everything could just make a little more sense, then maybe…
“There was a man,” she said. “In the middle of the road.”
Samantha slumped back into her seat. “Jesus. Really?”
Jennifer leaned around the left side of her seat to look back at the last intersection.
“He’s still there.”
Samantha leaned around the right side of her seat to follow Jennifer’s gaze, and sure enough, there was a tall man in the middle of the road. An absurdly tall man. An aggressively tall man. Unseemly tall. He was wearing a ratty suit below a wide bulbous head. No, that wasn’t quite right. He definitely had a lit jack-o’-lantern for a head.
“He’s just wearing a pumpkin on top of his head, right? With his real head in his shirt?”
“I mean, he must be, of course. And with the shirt too.”
“Right. Anything else would be absurd.”
“Definitely. Like, pumpkins-seeking-revenge-against-their-human-oppressors levels of absurd.”
Jennifer opened her door, ignoring the atrocious screech, and slid down to the soft grass on the other side of the curb. Samantha followed her, crawling over the console to exit on the passenger’s side. Woodland Avenue traversed the mile of parkland, streams, and ponds that separated Jennifer’s neighborhood from Kim’s, and their abrupt stop left them somewhere in the middle of it. Large copses of trees cluttered near both sides of the road. Birch trees and young oaks denuded of leaves stood in the shadows of towering pines as the moon beamed overhead. They defied the heretics with branches that stretched upward and outward in faithful worship.
Samantha was shaking. She looked away from the road too long. She nearly ran a man down with a half-ton of steel, aluminum, rubber, and electric wiring. Even the electric wiring must weigh something. She felt sick. Her legs were giving out. She reached out to put her arms around Jennifer. It wasn’t enough. She leaned her head into Jennifer’s shoulder, squeezing tighter against the opposite arm. Jennifer’s dress smelled musty, but its fabric felt thin, dry, and scratchy. Samantha wondered if she was wearing a long-sleeved shirt under it. It felt so uncomfortable against the skin.
Then Jennifer was shouting, “Hey! Hey you, asshole! Get out of the road! You’re going to get yourself killed!”
As she shouted, she waved her arms in the air, forcing Samantha to adjust her grip and turn her face toward the road. The shabby, pumpkin-headed man in the middle of the road continued to stand still. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pumpkin head swiveled in their direction. The mouth was a long oval, maybe two inches wide, that reached halfway around the head on either side. There was a narrow slit with an upward tick for a nose, and the eyes were large, imperfect circles. There were additional slits for eyebrows. One was gently curved, and the other fiercely straight. Everything was illuminated by a three-inch pillar candle, and the whole expression looked more than a little quizzical.
The man was standing almost a hundred feet away but still felt intimately close in the empty street. Staring into that glowing, inquisitive face, Jennifer lost her voice. The street was silent again. In a series of sharp, jerky arm movements, the man successfully set a white-gloved hand on top of his head. He pulled at the pumpkin’s stem and lifted the circular top free. Doffing it like a bowler hat, he set it back down and bounced to the far side of the road.
The girls watched in silence as he disappeared beyond the streetlamps. Samantha started to feel the chill in air again. She felt certain it would be a cold November.
“Let’s go trick-or-treating,” she said.
“What? Why? What about the party?”
“The party will still be there. We’ll just do a couple of blocks on the other side of the park and then get to the party by eight thirty. It’ll be fun. If college kids are going to run around in togas and weirdos are going to wear pumpkins in the middle of the street, then someone needs to honor the spirit of All Hallows’ Eve properly.”
“By demanding candy from strangers?”
“And shouting weird poetry at them.”
Samantha was being absurd. More than that—she was being theatrical. She wasn’t just offering to go trick-or-treating; she was committing to the role. Jennifer smiled.
“Whatever,” she said, already walking toward the first house.
At the first house, a large ranch house with atrocious blue-vinyl siding, Samantha held up her imitation paws and said “Mew or treat.” But before the weary forty-something woman with an old ice cream bucket full of mixed Mars products could shoo them away with a fistful of candy, Jennifer held forth her basket with the bottle of faux-champagne, the loaf of bread, and the sheets of poetry and began to speak in a solemn voice: “I watched the Moon around the House, until upon a pane – she stopped a Traveller’s privilege – for – braaaaains…”
The next two houses on the block had already turned out their lights. But a small house with a trio of jack-o’-lanterns still had its porch lamp on, and when the girls rang the bell, a handsome young man opened the door. He was tall, very tall, possibly six-four or six-five, and his short blond hair was pleasantly rumpled. He wore a tattered, red UMD Bulldogs sweatshirt. The girls had no idea how long it had been since he shaved, but they were both certain it was the right amount of time. In the living room on the other side of the handsome young man, they could see the back of a woman’s head resting against the top of a couch. Long, straight blond hair fell over its back. She seemed to be watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
“Mew,” said Samantha.
“Braaaaains…,” said Jennifer.
“Let’s see,” the handsome young man said, “a black cat. And… a Victorian zombie.”
“Zombie poet,” Jennifer objected. “I mean, zombie Dickinson.”
“Oh,” the man replied, “it seems like a zombie poet should do better than monosyllabic expressions of hunger for the cranial meat of the living.”
Jennifer blinked a few times and said, “When Winds hold Forests in their Paws – The Universe – is still.”
The trio stood quietly in the doorway for a moment. In the background, Buffy Summers stabbed a vampire with a wooden stake, and its body exploded into a cloud of dust. The young woman on the couch turned around as a car commercial began to play on the television. She rested her left arm on the top of the couch. She had a small, straight nose shaped like a perfect triangle.
“Did Dickinson even have a cat?” She asked.
“Of course, she did,” the man replied. “All poets have cats. It’s like a law or something.”
“I don’t know if the living Emily Dickinson ever had a cat,” Jennifer said. “But zombie Dickinson follows this one around and devours the slow-witted children who are drawn to her.”
The girls left in an exchange of “Happy Halloweens” and the announcement that the show was back. They traveled door to door for a few more blocks. Samantha alternately mewed and hissed at the people who opened their doors to strangers for one night each year, and Jennifer stuck to reciting lines that featured goblins or haunted chambers. At eight fifteen, they walked back to the Suburban.
“That line about the forests, the one you used at the hot guy’s house,” Samantha said as they walked, “what was that all about?”
“I don’t know,” Jennifer said. “I’ve just been thinking about the trees and the moon a lot since Sunday, and I liked the image of the wind holding the forests like some kind of divine emissary from the moon.”
“The wind held the forests in its paws.”
“In the poem, the wind has paws.”
“So, of course, in the land of poetry, the moon’s emissary would be a cat.”
“Because of the law about poets and cats?” Jennifer asked.
“Something like that,” Samantha replied.
Standing on opposite sides of the truck, both girls looked up at the moon. The wind stirred the trees on either side of the road. In that quaint, residential neighborhood where they found themselves trick-or-treating and the oak, birch, and maple trees outnumbered the pine three-to-one as their branches shook in ecstatic reverence, Jennifer wondered what Samantha was thinking, and Samantha didn’t know what to think.