Today and tomorrow, I have a special treat for you--a terrorifically long short story by new-to-this-blog author Kit Daven. Enjoy Part 1 of ...
Every Day is Halloween
By Kit Daven
Esther knelt before the retaining wall and clipped off six new tulip blooms before their tangerine blush drew unwanted attention to her home. She wasn’t the only one who worried about the flowers, though. None of the other houses on Wolfe Street bothered to garden after the first week of spring.
Her bestie, Rebecca, who lived a few houses down, had helped her parents dig up all their rose bushes. In Rebecca’s words: “Frickin’ no way we’re choppin’ off every flower as soon as it blooms. My mom’ll be in tears all the time.”
Farther down, where Wolfe Street dead-ended at the edge of a jetty of trees, even Hope Cemetery looked dreary. The caretakers had removed flowers and wreaths from every grave site. It was safer that way. Less to worry about. Less work.
For Esther, the risk of nurturing the tulips was worth the effort. This way she could enjoy, however briefly, a remnant of the world that existed before Halloween had come to town last year, before Halloween came to stay. She just had to be quick about disposing the blooms.
Each bloom she cut fell and rolled gently over the ground, remaining vibrant after its decapitation.
It’s not right, them dying this way. They ought to go in their own way, in their own time, like nature intended, Esther thought bravely. She scratched at the skull mask covering her face, knowing she’d never say those words out loud. Not now; at least, not until Halloween ended.
Esther wished life didn’t have to be this way. She missed walking with Rebecca to school, joking and laughing and acting like fools. Now, if they didn’t want to be bussed or driven to school, they had to walk in groups. They had to look over their shoulders, be mindful of every little thing they did or said or wore as they walked past the cemetery’s back gate.
Whenever they started down the dirt path at the end of the road, they had to rush angst-filled through the woods to avoid encounters. Only when the path veered away from the cemetery’s iron fence and exited onto Hazel Street did they feel relief. And they always had to be dressed in some kind of Halloween costume, so they wouldn’t get heckled or yelled at, pinched, punched…or worse.
This morning, no one wandered the streets. This absence had provided Esther a rare opportunity earlier, before the decapitations. She’d snapped a photo of the tulips with her emergency phone and returned it to a secret pocket in her black robe. Later, after school, she would settle down with her laptop—her preferred device for communication—and share the image with her friends. Eternalizing the blossoms on their stalks this way wasn’t quite the same as enjoying them in real life, but it was close enough.
A stirring in the bush beside her neighbour’s garage. Mishu, a skinny black cat, crawled stiffly out from beneath the branches and limped toward her. The cat stopped at the retaining wall and leered at the row of rigid headless stems among the others tipped with fat buds, ready to bloom in the next day or two.
Esther counted the buds. A dozen more blooms to behead. A dozen more rectangular holes to dig, each with its own pile of dirt next to it; little graves big enough to hold one blossom.
Mishu wheezed a raspy growl of disgust.
With a shiver, Esther did her best to ignore Mishu’s dissatisfaction.
I’m safe. The pumpkins on the stoop are holding it together. They haven’t rotted entirely yet.
To be sure, she glanced at them over her shoulder. Squirrels had gnawed at the eyes and mouths, creating irregular shapes. The sacred symbols carved on the inside, however, remained whole and functional, protecting the front door to her house. Other sigils marked the windows along the side of the house and an altar in the backyard shielded the back door.
Tomorrow morning, I won’t bother to take a picture of the tulips. I’ll just get on with the beheadings. Maybe if I get up early enough, Mishu’ll be clawing at Mrs. Avery’s door. Or maybe she’ll be wandering all the way down at the other end of the street, past Rebecca’s place, past Devesh’s. I’ll make more time with the tulips; I will.
But Mishu was here, now. Staring at her.
On impulse, Esther clasped the chin of her mask. She meant to push it upwards a bit on her sweaty face but stopped herself. The skull mask hid most of her features, except for her eyes, clear and bright, a dead giveaway that she was very much alive.
Mishu didn’t seem to notice.
Or maybe you don’t care. Just as long as we all look dead, that’s enough, right? One of these days, Esther promised herself, I’ll move my mask around, see if you’ll screech and make the dead come running. Or maybe you’ll attack me.
Esther hiked the robe’s threadbare sleeves past her elbows so they wouldn’t snag on the bricks in the retaining wall. The long sleeves of the black jersey she wore beneath revealed painted bones on the fabric that were cracked and faded and needed repainting soon.
Esther endured the scrutiny of Mishu’s milky almond eyes as she gathered up the decapitated blossoms and laid them in their individual graves. One by one, she covered each with a pile of loose dirt, then gently patted the mounds flat.
Mishu purred with delight—a raspy, unearthly sound. “Saaay wooords.”
Esther’s breath hitched. Hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Hearing Mishu speak human words again unsettled her, and Esther flushed with a warm kind of fear. Her instinct to cool down dulled her reasoning at first, but she stopped herself from doing anything dangerous. Instead, she pulled the sleeves of her black robe back down, adding an extra layer of protection and security.
Weird! Why would she wanna give Last Rites to a flower? Esther thought.
Culling the tulips, burying them: that was important. By squashing out life, she proved to Mishu that she shared this value with the cat, even if deep down she didn’t. Otherwise, Mishu and her friends might swarm her house like they had the day after Halloween last year…
“Esther! Get your butt down here! The doughnuts’ll be gone if we don’t get to the market five minutes ago.”
Esther flew down the stairs, slipping into her favourite fall jacket. She patted the front pocket, felt the outline of the emergency phone there.
I wanna kiss Carter.
The thought popped out of nowhere as she tugged on a pair of red and white Vans and laced them up. Weird! I mean, there’s cuter guys, right?
Esther’s mother led the way out the front door onto the stoop. Esther followed her and shut the door, sucking in a breath of cold air while listening to the whir of the locking mechanism behind her.
She admired the pile of leaves in the side yard that she raked into a bigger pile whenever more leaves fell from the trees. Also impressive was the pumpkin she and her mom had carved together. It sat beside the stoop looking dopey with its wide, toothy smile and perfectly slanted eyes.
She waited for her mom to climb down the step toward the car in the driveway, but her mom stayed on the stoop.
Esther peered around her mother and gawped at the strange-looking people dressed in old clothes, dirty clothes. They trailed out of the back gate of the cemetery and along the street. Grief ringed their eyes.
“Must’ve been a big funeral…” Esther mumbled until a man dressed in a black suit and a top hat turned slightly. Tiny beams of sunlight sliced through his body.
“Mom?” Esther tugged on the back of her mother’s jacket. “Mom? Why can I see through that man? Mom? Mom?”
The procession shambled toward Mrs. Avery’s house first, her property being the closest. Esther watched her English teacher squatting in front of the bay window there, yanking out weeds. The closer the cemetery people got to her, the more they perked up. When the man in the top hat was within arm’s reach, Mrs. Avery jumped up, yelped, and ran back into the house like she was a young girl again.
Esther’s mother gasped. “B-back in the house.”
Across the street, the people in the procession heard her. They turned to stare at her. Some walked toward her; others flew across the ground. Esther clutched her mom’s jacket.
Esther spun around. Her fingers hovered before the keypad; her mind blanked.
“Unlock the door! ESTHER!”
Esther couldn’t remember the key code.
“Saaay wooords!” Mishu’s voice, more forceful this time.
Esther didn’t think it was possible to say Last Rites for flowers, but she knew better than to deny the request. After a deep breath—another give away of her being alive—Esther whispered, “Rest in peace.”
Mishu’s wide eyes made a soft, sandpapery sound when she blinked her approval. Then, as though losing interest, her gaze wandered away from Esther and toward Mrs. Avery’s house across the street.
The black cat stood with a creak and limped down to the sidewalk, the tip of a thigh bone jutting from her haunch. Dried blood matted the fur along her ribcage. Esther estimated Mishu had been dead for as long as she’d been reported missing to the Hope Times by Mrs Avery, about two weeks now; and by the looks of her, probably hit by a car.
* * *
Esther found her mother in the kitchen, sitting at the bistro table, deeply absorbed in a magazine. Inky coffee steamed from the Rick & Morty mug she white-knuckled. Dressed in a silk blouse with jeans and no makeup, Esther couldn’t help but worry about her mother’s lack of a costume.
The last time Esther’s mom had gone into the office, she’d worn a lab coat with dress pants and dark makeup around her eyes. Fake blood had dripped from the corner of her blackened lips, giving her a dead mad scientist vibe that passed the scrutiny of Mishu and the other corpse folk.
“Working at home today?” Esther asked, helping herself to a slice of pumpkin bread.
“Yup.” Her mom looked up sleepily, then set the mug down near a yet to be read edition of the Hope Times.
Esther slipped her mask off, feeling naked as she sat at the bistro table. “Watcha reading?”
After a moment, Esther’s mom raised the magazine so Esther could read the lead article headline on the front cover of Living Today: Ghoul or Ghost? Where Do Your Loved Ones Fall on the Death Spectrum?
Esther snorted at the absurdity of the media. Or did the media reflect the absurdity of the world? She couldn’t tell. Maybe her mom was absurd for reading opinion pieces.
“Hm, insightful opinion, yeah.”
Esther laughed. Her mother glared at her over the magazine. “Care to share?”
“Just that, I mean, how does expressing an opinion actually do anything? Actions actually get things done, you think?”
Her mother blinked a few times. “When did you get so smart?”
Esther didn’t feel smart. She felt exhausted, and she’d been pretending to be someone else going on six months: always acting, always role-playing, always hiding; the edges of her existence ever-so slowly beginning to blur.
She wasn’t the only one to notice this. Rebecca, even Carter and Addie, moaned about feeling nebulous, wanting to retreat from the shell of their costumes and go somewhere. By the dark circles around everyone’s eyes, Esther guessed they were living their lives online.
Her mother finally eyed her costume. “Remember when you used to wear other costumes, a new one almost every day?”
Esther nodded, remembering that of all her costumes, the Death robe had been the first one she’d bought. She’d worn the black hooded robe and the skull mask to her first high school Halloween dance, back when they thought Halloween was normal. She’d scoffed at Rebecca’s sexy nurse costume. But then, Rebecca didn’t trip over her short skirt’s hemline when she danced, the way Esther did with her robe because it dragged on the floor. Thankfully, she’d grown taller since then. Now the robe hung just above her ankles, her alter ego ratty and faded, helping her fit in even more with the treacherous dead.
Once they’d figured out it was safer to wear costumes, she and her friends had a lot of fun coming up with new ones. More costume shops opened up in town, and as the months passed by and Halloween persisted, the demand for costumes grew. Prices went up, and yet it was still more convenient to buy them than make them from scratch, because fabric had become scarce.
By mid-winter, Rebecca fought the winter-blahs by suggesting they trade costumes. This began a feverish trend in the high school that lasted a month. Then just before spring, a fatigue came over them, and everyone settled into wearing the same costume day in and day out.
Esther didn’t mind. In the early days, being creative had helped her to cope. It kept her mind off the dead, as did puzzling out who was who at school, until it all became tedious. Now, she’d settled into the embodiment of Death, and Rebecca into a dead version of her sexy nurse outfit because, in her words, “I’m not hiding this hot bod.” Esther preferred the predictability of it. Her friends were easily identifiable again, beacons of safety among so much uncertainty.
“It’s easier this way,” Esther told her mom. “Less to worry about, you know. Less work.”
“Mm, I like the efficiency of that.” Her mother glanced at the time on her phone and frowned. “Rebecca’s running late. Speaking of Rebecca, I may need to work Saturday. Are you getting together with her this weekend?”
“No.” Esther unfolded that morning’s newspaper and glanced at the Lost & Found column on the left side. At one time, the column had been buried in the back classified ads, listing pets and bikes. Nowadays, it mostly featured people.
“Rebecca’s dad’s birthday is on Saturday. Then church Sunday,” she explained.
“I get a weekend free of taxi service? Sweet!”
Esther stopped midway through the column, numb to the repetition of the word ‘missing’. Most of the names she didn’t recognize, and if she did, that’s because she’d heard about them in the media. No one she knew directly or even indirectly had gone missing until now.
Esther coughed up a bite of pumpkin bread and spit it out on the table.
“What is it?” Esther’s mom asked, only mildly alarmed. Last year, she’d been just as upset to read about the missing people and those same people later found either ‘dead dead’ as she called it or turned to ghouls. With the passing of every month, her alarm had lessened, fading into an accepting ennui about the fate of the living world and its decreasing numbers.
“It’s…” Esther had a difficult time saying the person’s name. She didn’t want to. Mrs. Avery hadn’t been her favourite neighbour or teacher; still, she was someone she actually knew firsthand. She affected both her and her mother’s lives directly. Her mother had spoken to her often, even had tea with Mrs. Avery.
A knock at the front door broke Esther’s concentration. She set the newspaper down in front of her mother, grabbed her backpack, and left her mother to read the announcement. While opening the front door, she heard her mother swear.
On the stoop, Rebecca stood fussing with the straps of her backpack. Her nurse uniform smelled of soap, and she’d hand-drawn a Sally-esque skull on her face, teeth spanning her upper and lower lips. Her bleached hair swooped high into a perfect ponytail, as Esther expected. Oddly, though, Rebecca wore nothing on her legs or arms. No white stockings with blood stains and gashes, no long gloves marked up in the same way, not even any FX makeup.
As they started down the street, a short, stocky wolf ran toward them. “W-wait! Wait up!”
“Devesh,” Rebecca acknowledged him coldly.
Rebecca didn’t like Devesh much, but Esther did. He always talked about interesting obscure subjects; then he’d disappear for days and whenever he returned, their conversation magically resumed, like time hadn’t passed.
“Hey!” Esther said warmly.
“D-did you hear?”
Esther and Rebecca exchanged a knowing glance. With a sigh, Esther answered him.
“Yeah, we know Mrs. Avery’s gone missing.”
* * *
Esther hoped to avoid detection as she, Rebecca, and Devesh neared the back gate of Hope Cemetery. They stayed close to one another on the far side of the street for as long as possible. Unfortunately, this tactic didn’t work. Several ghouls outfitted in soldier uniforms leered at them through the iron pickets, making howling sounds--Wooo! Awooooo!
Devesh trembled, eyes wide, chin quivering. “See you at school!” he shouted as he raced toward the woods and vanished between the trees.
“Seen ‘em before,” Rebecca whispered. “On the other side of the cemetery, near the war memorial. See that one on the gatepost? He keeps staring at us. Creep!”
Esther peered at the soldier sitting atop the granite gatepost. One of his legs hung down while the other was bent, the heel boot cradled in a loop of yellow caution tape tied off around the stone. The caution tape was all that remained from last year, when the town didn’t know what else to do but barricade the cemeteries.
The ghoul rested his hand on his knee, a cigarette pinched between his fingers. Dark eye sockets stared at her as he took a long haul. Smoke billowed out of his skull, from his ear holes, the slits where a nose had been, his eye sockets, even his neck just above the stiff buttoned collar of a dusty shirt.
“Maybe cover yourself?” Esther suggested. While she admired her friend’s bravery, she resented Rebecca for being so careless. She put both of them at risk.
“It’s too warm,” Rebecca complained. “I’ll just sweat all day.”
Esther might have told her friend to get used to sweating, but her curiosity about the ghoul tempered her annoyance. Squinting, she noted details about the soldier uniform, like the two pins on each lapel of his jacket.
Turning her back to the cemetery, she discreetly retrieved her phone to search the Internet for information on the uniform. She tried to be quick, but her thumbs were clumsy typers.
“Hey! Put that away before a ghoul tries to steal it!”
Esther couldn’t. She saw how the dead soldier fixated on Rebecca’s tawny, unblemished skin. He gazed at Rebecca’s legs and arms with that same love-hate expression her mother got whenever her dad visited every other weekend. Her mom still loved her dad, but she hated him for making her feel that way, and for leaving.
Rebecca huddled next to Esther. “Let’s go!”
Researching on the Internet calmed Esther, gave her focus. Then she found what she was looking for: World War I Canadian uniform…Insignia…Two pins designate a Lieutenant. Interesting. No name tag though. Guess Lefty’ll do.
While trying to show Rebecca what she’d learned on the phone, Esther shivered as though something else besides the ghoul soldiers watched her.
Rebecca tugged on Esther’s robe and whined, “C’mon, let’s go!”
Esther regarded the ghouls again. A ghost had joined them—a smudgy looking woman dressed in an ankle length paisley maxi dress floated in the air next to the soldier sitting on the gatepost. She held her hand up to her mouth, whispered in his ear, not having died long enough ago to show signs of fading.
Esther pocketed her phone and led Rebecca through the woods and out the other side. Hazel Street was a busy bus route, so they crossed at an intersection. Only a few more blocks and they’d be at Howell High. Esther imagined Devesh had run all the way there because no wolf waddled ahead of them, only a ghost.
A gently faded lady dressed in a stately Victorian gown glided toward them along the sidewalk. The ghost’s gaze fell on Rebecca. Her clouded eyes squinted, lecherous and hungry looking. She showed no signs of moving out of the way, and when their paths met, the ghost veered toward Rebecca, lingering close, smelling like rotten potatoes.
Rebecca shivered as the ghost leaned in, snarling, gliding her tongue along the edge of her lower teeth. Finally, as the woman turned to leave, she dragged a dark fingernail along Rebecca’s naked arm before she whooshed away into the woods.
“She touched me, Esther. I felt her.” Rebecca was almost in tears. She cringed as she showed the red mark on her forearm.
“Cover up,” Esther insisted, hoping Rebecca had stashed leggings in her backpack.
“No! On sheer principle, I absolutely refuse,” Rebecca fumed. “You know, Cosmopolitan wrote a truly insightful article. Dead Gaze: Understanding the Dead’s Fascination with the Living. They know we’re not dead, but they force us to cover up anyway. Assholes!” She examined her arm again. The mark was already fading. “I mean, they’ve killed people for wearing nothing. If this is the worst they’re going to do to me dressed the way I am, then you know what that means? All this time I could’ve been wearing…less.”
Esther stayed quiet the rest of the way to school, not caring that they arrived late. No one else cared either, because a vigil was being held for Mrs. Avery in the gymnasium.
“But she’s only just missing,” Esther mumbled, disappointed that everyone presumed the worst about Mrs. Avery.
“Shh,” Rebecca said sadly.
* * *
After school, Esther agreed to walk with Rebecca only if Rebecca agreed to wear the tights she had in her locker and one of Addie’s hoodies. Outside Esther’s home, they parted ways. Esther waited until Rebecca turned down the driveway to her home before she trudged up the walkway to her house and got a whiff of herself.
Ew! Time to wash this robe.
Esther stopped by the retaining wall, taking in her mother sitting on the stoop. Dressed as a cowgirl, complete with hat and boots and a flimsy plastic cowgirl mask, Esther’s mother stared off down the street at nothing in particular, a carving knife in hand. Beside her sat a new pumpkin. Clean cut eyes and a wide saw-like grin revealed fresh sigils on the inside. And when she finally noticed Esther, she raised the knife and pointed it at the retaining wall.
The tulips Esther buried had returned. They floated above the stems, darkened to a burnt orange. She reached down to touch them. The petals remained soft, their edges gently curled and wrinkled.
“That’s never happened before,” her mom mumbled.
“Mishu made me give them Last Rites.”
“How’s that possible? They’re flowers.”
Esther shrugged, bothered by how the ghoul tulips wobbled about in a gentle breeze while nothing else around them stirred.
The sun grew hotter; the tulips, more translucent. Esther did her best to weather the warming days by wearing tees beneath her Death robe. Without thinking, sometimes she’d shove the robe’s sleeves up past her elbows. Revelling in the sun on her skin, she’d catch herself and hastily push them back down again.
None of the dead ever approached her the way they did Rebecca. None of them gazed at her the way they did at any of her friends, who continued to bare their arms and legs in protest. Esther disapproved. She deliberately covered herself up to ensure her safety, to feel calm and secure, to go through life without the world roiling about her.
And yet, deep down, she envied her friends’ willingness to expose something of themselves—such a small superficial part, admittedly.
Better than nothing at all, Esther thought, remembering the sun’s kiss. So warm! That has to be better than nothing, right?
But she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Hiding beneath her robe, even though it made her feel smaller and smaller, felt comfortable and right; so when her mother washed the robe, and it fell to pieces, Esther did as well.
“I’m not buying you another costume,” her mother insisted. “There’s three days of school left. Dress up in your regular clothes, okay? Just be a zombie like your other friends. We’ll look at new costumes when the sales come round again.”
“I don’t want anything new!”
Esther grieved over the loss of her hooded sanctuary. It was the last thing she’d worn when the world was still normal. She’d been wearing regular clothes when the ghouls came after her and her mom. Only when they’d covered themselves in bed sheets did the ghosts leave them alone.
When tears failed to convince her mom to buy a new robe, Esther refused to go to school.
The next day, her mom brought home the next best thing, a few metres of black fabric. By that evening, Esther had sewn herself a new hooded robe.
The robe didn’t quite drape the same as the other one had. However, it turned out to be just as short because her Esther used some of the fabric to create a secret pocket. Come morning, she slipped into it, sank beneath the weight of the fabric, swam in the space within. And she didn’t care one bit that none of her friends noticed the new robe during classes, not even Rebecca.
After last class, on her way to her locker, Esther glimpsed her reflection in the trophy case. Death walked among a horde of zombies. She appeared like a shadow, invisible now even to her friends.
On the way back home, Esther didn’t want to breathe too deeply. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself. That might make her feel bigger than she thought she ought to be. She didn’t want to overshadow Rebecca, who’d started wearing her cheerleader uniform instead of costumes. Though her arms were half-covered, the skirt showed off her long legs. She wore her hair in a high ponytail, the very ends dyed blue now because, in Rebecca’s words, “I needed a change.” Another change, Rebecca had succumbed to wearing very basic zombie makeup.
“Oh, hey, wanna come to the potluck tomorrow?” Rebecca asked. “Father Juan said I could bring you. We’ll end last day of school with a party!”
“Mom has something planned for me at home,” Esther replied.
“Oh, okay. Staying in again,” Rebecca remarked coolly.
“Ghoul at one o’clock,” Esther announced, spying a young boy a distance down the street, on the other side. She also heard a thumping nearby—a kind of shuffling sound, faint, almost rhythmic.
Rebecca curled her nose. “Look at him! He’s tiny. We can take him.”
“And do what with him? It’s not like we can kill ‘em,” Esther mumbled. “He’ll just come back as a gho—”
“Seriously, ditch that dumb robe!”
Esther cringed at Rebecca’s dark mood. The darkness inside her robe expanded, and Esther sighed in relief, retreating into that extra space. There had been a time when she loved lifting Rebecca’s mood, back when they didn’t have to worry about dying.
Rebecca huffed sadly. “Costumes aren’t safe anymore, Es.”
The very thought made Esther shiver. “Wearing a costume, well, it’s at least safer than not wearing one at all. Right?”
Rebecca bowed her head. “You heard about Devesh, right? He always wears his costume, and it didn’t stop him from going missing.”
Thump-whoosh. Thump-whoosh. That sound again.
“Seriously, you need to use your phone like a normal teenager.”
Esther frowned. She had noticed Devesh wasn’t in school this morning, but she didn’t think anything of it. She’d just missed a day herself. Students took mental health days just as much as the teachers did nowadays.
Esther ground her teeth. “He’s probably at home washing his wolf—”
The ghoul boy veered toward them, eyes wide and white, the bottom of his lower jaw hung open. Esther guessed his age to be about ten. A wild cowlick disrupted the front of his hairline, and he breathed in a harsh, rapid way as he crossed the street at an angle.
Esther was certain he was the source of the strange sound. She pointed at him. “Check it out! Someone’s dressed him in clean clothes.”
“He sounds like my pug dog,” Rebecca laughed.
“Asthma, maybe,” Esther suggested, imagining the kid when he was alive, his mother grabbing an inhaler for him. “Ah, no!” She shuddered, grasping the gravity of the new clothes. “He’s got living parents.”
Rebecca hugged herself. “Ew! I can’t believe people do that!”
Esther had read a lot of stories about parents giving Last Rites to their recently deceased children so they could live with the ghoul or ghost version of them.
Better than without them entirely, I guess, Esther thought, preferring the idea of letting go of her deceased ones. Then she remembered reading stories about families who’d made sure their loved ones stayed dead dead, by denying Last Rites.
The ghoul boy wheezed, ambling along the sidewalk past them, his brand new sneakers gently squeaking…
He wasn’t the source of that noise. Something else was, somewhere behind them; something that had been far away but sounding closer now.
Esther walked a little quicker, Rebecca keeping up until muffled notifications stopped them. Simultaneously, they withdrew their phones. Rebecca’s was in the pocket of her skirt and she read the notifications first.
“Nooo,” Rebecca sobbed.
Unsettled, Esther fumbled to get past the lock screen. Finally, she read the direct texts coming in from Carter, Addie, and others:
Devesh! They got Devesh!
those f#cking bastards!!! why him?
He’s the werewolf, right?
OMG!!!!! Such a sweetie… Miss him xoxo
a wolf of a guy ;)
RIP dude :(
More notifications chirped, a tickertape of grief that made Esther’s head throb. She turned down the volume and thought of Devesh, the boy who lived at the far end of her street, who usually kept to himself, who was short and barrel-chested and whenever Esther remarked on his big feet, her mom would say, “You watch! He’s gonna grow into those feet of his. He’ll be a handsome guy one day.”
When Halloween started up and didn’t stop, Devesh was the first one to tell everyone to create wards using ancient protective symbols. Nobody listened to him, of course. Then the media started informing everyone that pentagrams and crosses in altars did indeed create and protect sacred places.
No one else acknowledged Devesh’s foresight, but Esther had, and she’d never seen a guy squirm so much.
She didn’t want to read about the details of Devesh’s death here, on the sidewalk, with something behind them getting closer. Rebecca did. She stopped and scrolled through notifications. “Oh…my god…Ohmygod, Esther!”
Thump whoosh. Thump whoosh.
“Keep moving,” Esther urged Rebecca, trying to stay calm, tears welling in her eyes.
“They…oh my god!” Rebecca hunched forward to stifle a sob. “H-he got swarmed by a bunch of ghouls.” Rebecca took a deep breath. “N-near the war memorial. They…They tore him apart.”
Dead dead, Esther thought sadly. Concerned for their safety, she peered over her shoulder and spotted the ghoul that had been following them all this time.
Lefty gave her a curt nod, all smiles and teeth, the hollow of his eye sockets shadowed by the visor of his officer’s hat. Bits of mummified flesh still stuck to one cheek. Mostly he was chiselled, pitted bone and stained uniform. At this distance, she picked up his stench: pine wood and damp earth.
“Put your phone away!” Esther whispered, dragging Rebecca through an intersection and along the sidewalk next to the woods.
“He was wearing his w-w-wolf costume,” Rebecca whimpered.
Disturbed by that bit of news, Esther grabbed Rebecca’s phone and shoved it into her skirt pocket. “We need to stay alert.”
“His wolf costume! H-how? I mean, someone said he was out w-walking his pooch, and they just…They just...” Rebecca shuddered. “They peeled off his wolf fur, and one of them danced around with his costume, wore it like a cape. Why would they do that? Ghouls have never done that before.”
The disintegration of the new world order made Esther shiver. She’d hidden herself better than anyone else. That should’ve been enough. It had been enough. But perhaps safety was an illusion.
Rebecca stiffened and wiped away her tears, finally cluing in at the sound of the footsteps close behind them.
“Keep your voice down,” Esther insisted, hoping Rebecca would hold it together.
Instead of crumbling under the pressure of fear, Rebecca got loud and aggressive. “I’m so sick and tired of this!”
“When is this Halloween shit going to end? I swear, one of these days I’m going to just wear my regular clothes. My favourite mini skirt, you know, before I outgrow it. I mean, seriously, what is their problem with us?”
Esther knew the answer. “We make them uncomfortable. We’re too different from them.”
Esther didn’t give Rebecca the satisfaction of swearing. There wasn’t time. She grabbed Rebecca by the hand and dragged her into the woods along the path, where they both ducked behind a wide tree.
Hugging the trunk, Rebecca peered around it. “Oh, shit! It’s him again,” she whispered. “When Carter and I went to the library the other day, he called me backmash, whatever the hell that means.” Rebecca trembled. “He wants to hurt me, doesn’t he?”
Craning her neck around the tree trunk, Esther made out the figure of Lefty at the edge of the woods. He patted the side pocket of his jacket.
“He kept telling me how ugly I am,” Rebecca rambled. “Same with his girlfriend, the ghost in that gad-awful maxi dress. I swear, she sounded just like how Addie used to mock me for bleaching out my hair, but then it turned out she was jealous. She wanted to bleach out her hair, but her mom wouldn’t let—”
“Shut. Up.” Esther didn’t mean to be so harsh, but was glad when Rebecca finally realized someone was following them and snapped her mouth shut.
Lefty strolled along the path, boots striking the packed earth. Up close, Esther noticed dirt crusted the thick heels and stretched laces. He was the source of the thumping sound. He’d been following them a while.
In a thick, gravelly spectral intonation, Lefty spoke. “There you aaare!”
Bony fingers reached around the tree trunk and grabbed Rebecca by the wrist. With a sharp tug, she tumbled out onto the path and screeched.
Esther jumped out from behind the tree, holding her cell phone high. Poised to strike the ghoul in the teeth, she yelled, “Hey! Lefty!”
The soldier laughed, his lower jaw sliding to one side, turning his intense smile into a smirk. His head bobbed, and a throaty chuckle floated into the air as he pulled Rebecca closer.
“She doesn’t-t-t look riiight.” Lefty’s front teeth chattered on the hard consonants. His voice diminished on that last word, a reflection of his biological decay coming to an end soon. One day he’d become the ghost of who he’d been alive.
“Something ugly about-t-t her, yeaaah?” And yet fascination clouded his revulsion. He tilted his skull face to examine Rebecca’s arms closer, then her legs. He reached just below the hemline of her skirt and gave her flesh a pinch.
“Yowch!” With a violent wrench, Rebecca twisted free. As she ran through to the other side of the woods, she yelled back at him, “Perv!”
Esther wanted to run after Rebecca, but she knew if she did, the soldier might screech and raise the alarm, calling forth his cemetery friends to join him in the chase. Creating interference was the most she could do for Rebecca, so she raised her cell phone a little higher, straightening her arm.
The sleeve of her robe slid down her arm, revealing her bare flesh. Lefty’s gaze swivelled, but not toward her living flesh like Esther expected. Instead, he gawped like a raven at the glitter on her phone’s protective case.
At lightning speed, he snatched the phone. It tumbled from her grip into his.
Given how she’d seen ghouls on digital devices that didn’t exist when they were alive, it was only a matter of time before Lefty figured out her security protocol. And when he did, he’d see pics of her in costumes and not wearing them, in the flesh, alive. It might give him ideas, like the ones his friends had when they attacked Devesh.
Esther tried to grab the phone. Unfortunately, he was much taller than her, and he held his lanky arm upward, the cuff of his uniform slipping down all the way to the elbow.
No fake jersey with painted bones here, she thought as she saw congealed decay in the hollows of his bones.
Esther followed her bestie, ran all the way home—a blur of Death frightened by the dead. By the time she got home, she was sweaty and out of breath. Not wanting to alarm her mom, she paused a moment at the retaining wall to compose herself.
She glimpsed the ghoul tulips bobbing above withering stems, their petals damp and turning muddy. Decay edged the petals, curling back. The tulips had become several shades lighter than what they had been.
Later that evening, Esther grappled with telling her mom about the emergency phone being stolen. She knew it was the right thing to do, but more than anything, she wanted to get her phone back, so she talked to her friends first.
“All the pictures I’ve taken on it, gone,” she moaned to Rebecca over video chat on her laptop.
“You didn’t back up the files?”
Esther shook her head sadly.
“Ah, my sweet Luddite,” Rebecca said, then mumbled, “It’s my fault.”
“No, it isn’t. I didn’t have to attack Lefty with my phone,” Esther assured her. The last thing she needed was Rebecca feeling guilty. “My mom’s going to kill me for losing another one. I should tell her. But I don’t want her worrying about me.”
Rebecca perked up, eyes squinting; she had a plan. “I got a spare burner you can use as a decoy. We’ll set up the stolen phone on my parent’s tracking app to monitor the activity. If your mom calls or texts you, then make up some reason you can’t return her message, like the battery died or something or other.”
They reached out to their small circle of friends online and informed them about the stolen phone. Hearing her friend’s outrage and assurances calmed Esther.
“Yuh’ll get yer phone back,” Carter said.
Even quiet, lurking Addie spoke up for once: “If anything weird gets posted anywhere, I’ll let you know.”
Rebecca, however, only got more irritated. Finally, the dam broke. She fumed and ranted. Her face filled the entirety of Esther’s laptop monitor.
“I swear, last day of school, I’m dressing normal. No costume. No FX makeup. I’m going to wear my red dress and do smoky eyes. Who do they think they are bullying us like this? We have a right to live in this world the way we want. They’re dead. They’re useless. The living keep this world running. Fascists!”
Rebecca’s rant gained momentum in emotion but lost impact when her ideas degenerated into a mess of online buzz words.
Knowing not to intervene, Esther let Rebecca rant while she slid down her own spiral of panic. She’d have to find another way to appease the dead, one that didn’t rely on her robe or skull mask.
Even though a part of her longed to be free of the costume, she’d learned to rely on it as a second skin. Crawling out from beneath it, leaving the darkness behind so she could feel fully alive, seemed an impossibility. They would simply attack her and keep attacking her. Her costume—any costume—at the least, gave her a chance to find somewhere else to hide, wherever that might be, while the dead attacked it instead.
The Hope Times
Rebecca CHOW, a fifteen-year-old ninth-grader at Howell Heights, was reported missing by her mother, Nancy CHOW on July 1st. Rebecca went missing during the Student Celebration Potluck at St. Jacob’s Church, held the evening of the last day of school, June 30th. She was last seen wearing a short red knit dress with black pumps. Rebecca has long bleached blonde hair with blue dyed tips and brown eyes. She is 5’ 3”, 115 lbs, and is Asian/Caucasian. If seen, please report her whereabouts to our hotline.
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