And without further ado, let's launch right into Part 2 of...
Every Day is Halloween (Part 2)
by Kit Daven
After Rebecca disappeared, Esther started lying more to her mother. She lied about her phone being missing. She lied about where she spent her time during the day. White lies were one thing, but now Esther was being purposely deceptive toward her mother. Even though Esther felt ashamed for doing this, she knew searching for her best friend was the right thing to do.
Whenever Esther’s mother drove her somewhere, the library or the movies or the comic bookstore, Esther sneaked out. She’d search for as long as she could before returning to the drop-off point just as her mother arrived to drive her back home. Being masked made it easier for Esther to avoid her mother’s looks, but she didn’t want her mother to know. Some things Esther needed to learn to handle on her own.
With the temperature rising into the low thirties, Esther stayed home, camped in her bedroom at her desk. Video chat was open on her laptop, but no one appeared on the screen. Beside the laptop, Esther reviewed the phone monitoring app on the burner phone. So far, no texts had been sent; no posts or calls either.
Hope that means Lefty hasn’t cracked the security screen. Jerk!
New to the account as of last week, a GPS tracker. The effort made by Rebecca’s parents only led police to Rebecca’s purse, which they found abandoned one street over from St. Jacob’s church. When Mrs. Chow told Esther the news, Esther had to pretend she didn’t know about the monitoring app or the GPS tracker, and her gut twisted into a tighter knot than usual.
“You still there?” Esther mumbled at her laptop, hearing the dull murmur of a movie playing in the background.
Carter wandered back into view on the screen and collapsed in his chair.
“Huh?” he said as he leaned forward, resting his head on his hand.
“IMHO the police aren’t doing squat to find Rebecca,” she complained. “Searched in the area the other day, woods near the cemetery. Couldn’t see anyone dressed in red. The ghouls didn’t even notice me…at first.”
She remembered the way the ghosts and ghouls swivelled their heads toward her, cataract eyes leering.
“But no one approached me. Weird, eh?”
Esther figured it had to do with her appearance. She satisfied their need for death dominance in the world by embodying Death itself. Yes, she reflected them in image, and by proxy, she represented their philosophy, religion, agenda—whatever those might be. They wouldn’t bother her anymore. No one would; not the dead or the living.
“Find anything?” Carter asked.
Nothing red had ambled among the headstones and mausoleums beyond the iron fence. Only gauzy white and grey blurs had zoomed about the trees, ghosts and orbs chasing each other. And at a distance, a couple of skeletal soldiers had sat on a columbarium, taking turns scratching out the names on the tarnished plaques and laughing.
“No.” Esther pouted. “She could be anywhere. Anywhere! Alone, frightened…trapped! There’s still a chance she’s alive. I won’t give up on her. I won’t.”
“So what’s next?”
Esther brought up an image on her computer, a screen capture of a digital map of the town. Using her photo editor app, she’d placed red dots at certain places in the downtown area.
“She’s probably at the ice cream shop. The one with the Rocky Road to die for. Her words, not mine.” Esther tried to sound cool and casual, but her voice stuck in places. She did her best to gulp them away, to hide her urgency. “There’s a room in the back she always sneaks into whenever she goes to the washroom. It’s near the kitchen. They keep sprinkles in there. C’mon, let’s go. There’s time before the sun goes down.”
“Na-uh,” Carter said glumly. Even without his mask, he seemed more withdrawn than usual.
Mm, if I kissed you, Esther wondered, Would that bring you back to life?
Carter’s focus drifted somewhere off-screen. “It’s too hot. And it’s too dangerous.” Then his lips moved, and faraway sounding words became his own. “‘Living? Not a word you’d know a lot about, is it Mr. Bannister?’”
Esther recognized the movie dialogue. “Watching The Frighteners again?”
“How many times now?”
Too many, I’m sure, Esther thought. “Chat later,” she told him and hung up so she wouldn’t have to watch him watch something else.
She tried Addie next. Oddly, Addie wasn’t lurking online. Her status always said ‘Inactive’ yet she was usually present. Instead, her status read ‘Offline’. She always had a profile pic, a drawn cartoon of herself.
Esther frowned at the placeholder default image. Nothing of Addie showed up except old messages and her name, and she didn’t respond no matter how many times Esther sent her gifs. Addie simply wasn’t there anymore, only a digital shadow of her.
Only a handful of other students she knew were online. None of them wanted to brave the search in a heatwave dressed head to toe in a costume. Esther regarded the Death robe hanging from the door of her closet, freshly washed the evening before. She’d yet to clean the skull mask, so she wiped it down with a wet cloth. Black paint on the plastic bubbled up in places inside the eye sockets. Instead of leaving them, she tried to pick them away.
Maybe this’ll make the mask more convincing. Maybe there’s something hidden underneath, buried treasure, or just a body.
She knew what she wanted to find. Something heartwarming and vivacious, something uplifting. All she discovered was more dull white plastic, a wall of impassable fake bone. She touched up the spots with black nail polish.
Slipping into the safe harbour of her costume, Esther covered up every part of herself, giving in to the ritual of dressing this way. She became the costume as she tiptoed partway down the stairs, then stopped to listen for her mother. Through the railings of the banister, Esther spotted her mother reclining on the sofa, feet on the coffee table. Zombie makeup stained the sleeve of her blouse where her arm draped over her face, blocking out the daylight.
As soon as her mother started snoring, Esther crept down the stairs and out the front door into the humid weather. She would deal with the consequences of her mother realizing she had gone out alone later.
Death streaked past the ghouls and the ghosts and headed downtown. Death searched the ice cream parlour first, asking everyone questions about Rebecca. No one had seen her there. The next day, Miss Tess’s hair salon. Death asked Tess and the ladies sitting in the salon chairs if they’d seen Rebecca; no one had. The next day, the comic store near the cinema. The day after that, Bea’s Teas cafe. More questions. No answers. Rebecca hadn’t been to any of them. Not hiding, not cowering, not showing off her legs and arms or flicking her ponytail.
Finally, Death attended St. Jacob’s Church. Someone there must’ve seen what had happened to her during the potluck.
Death strolled down the aisle toward the altar, red and white Vans squeaking on the shiny black and white linoleum. On one side of the aisle, a man knelt before a pew, his hands clasped together in prayer. On the other side sat two young women dressed in regular clothes and zombie makeup, twins with smudged eyes and blood smeared across their lips.
No one’s even trying to be creative anymore.
The women watched as Death approached the priest, and Death enjoyed their bearing witness. “What happened to Rebecca Chow before she disappeared?”
Father Juan shook his head solemnly. His soulful eyes sagged with unshed tears. “She mingled with the other students. Lingered at the food and beverage table, showing off her pretty dress, like the other girls she spoke to.”
“So it’s true what the newspaper reported. She wasn’t wearing a costume? No zombie makeup?”
He sighed, nodding his head again. “She looked normal.” With a gentle cough, he pointed toward the side of the building where a hallway led toward the back. “The girls she chatted to said she excused herself to go to the washroom. Then she was…” He bowed his head in shame, as if he’d been the one to make her disappear.
“Just like that? Gone? No one saw her at all?”
Behind her, the man sat up on the bench, finished with his prayer. “I saw her.”
Death turned about and faced him. The man bowed his head in reverence. Weariness deepened the wrinkles around his eyes, weighed down his shoulders and every part of his being.
“Where did you see her?”
“At the potluck,” he mumbled. “I was there with my son.” Pointing toward a stained glass window, he sniffed. “Out there. I saw Rebecca dancing in the church graveyard in her red dress, looking…”
The man sucked in a deep breath. It took all his energy. “Amazingly alive. Beautiful!” He said this word with such desperate longing.
Death was about to march back down the aisle and out the door when she stopped herself. Addressing Father Juan again, she asked, “Is the graveyard protected by sigils and stuff?”
Father Juan shook his head.
“Don’t you think it should’ve been?”
Father Juan finally cried a bit.
Not yet satisfied, Death asked one last question. “If Last Rites is about the living saying goodbye to the deceased, then why in hell are the dead coming back?”
The question stumped Father Juan. He blinked profusely before he answered. “They’re…Well, I suppose…” He frowned and finally admitted, “I don’t know.”
Dissatisfied, Death fled the church and searched the tiny graveyard beside it. English ivy snaked about headstones blurred by time. Among the graves, a mausoleum stood. Death entered and found the spirits of several faded priests huddled together in a corner, whispering among themselves.
“Did you see Rebecca Chow dancing out here?”
The faded priests grinned. They needn’t say anything. Death knew they’d seen her. She also knew they had no intention of helping her.
* * *
By the end of August, the days had shortened. Esther appreciated every moment of daylight as she continued the search for her bestie. In the evenings, the chill of autumn descended, and she started texting Rebecca on her laptop like old times.
Rebecca never replied.
Then, a week before school started, Esther and Carter chatted online. After a couple of hours, they came to an undeniably grisly conclusion: No one had given Rebecca Last Rites. Even worse, the ghouls had devoured every part of Rebecca until nothing remained; that’s why no one could find her.
By the end of the summer, the ghoul tulips decimated from decay into black ash that floated away bit by bit on the spectral breeze. In death, the blooms hadn’t lasted well, short-died compared to their spectral human counterparts. And no ghost blooms returned to take their place.
Contemplation of their quick decay led Esther to several theories. Perhaps they lack a soul. Hm, or maybe it’s their size? They’re smaller than people. Or maybe I just didn’t have enough sacred power to give effective Last Rites? Nothing makes sense anymore.
By the first day of class, she gave up wondering why. She couldn’t figure out how to prove her theories, and with so few friends remaining, she preferred to focus on Carter and Addie. That was until she arrived at school and discovered from the Vice Principal that Addie hadn’t enrolled in the new school year. Addie and her family had moved. Where to? No one knew. Carter hadn’t any clue either.
To be sure Addie had gone and wasn’t just hiding, Esther visited Addie’s house after school. On the other side of the cemetery, the ‘For Sale’ sign erected on her friend’s lawn looked pristine and bright against the boarded-up windows of the first floor and the overcast sky. Esther suddenly wanted to move away. She didn’t know why. Everywhere was the same. Halloween forever.
The dark windows above revealed little, but with some effort, and a few splinters, Esther found a gap between two boards at the side of the house and peeked inside. The kitchen was empty of furniture. She imagined the rest of the house empty, too.
When she wandered back to the front of the house, Esther froze. Mishu, the black cat, sat on the sidewalk in front of the house.
“What do you want?”
“Cooome,” Mishu moaned. She stood and limped across the street toward bushes along the cemetery fence.
Esther didn’t want to follow the dead cat. She needed to go home. Her mom was waiting for her.
From the woods, someone called out in a low, bowel-clenching voice, “Rebeccaaaaah.”
Esther followed Mishu against her better judgment. “Who said that? What the hell do you know about Rebecca?” she called out into the darkness. The voice didn’t reply.
Mishu disappeared beneath the bushes. A moment later, she hobbled across the mowed grass inside the cemetery.
“I can’t squeeze through there,” Esther complained. Mishu sat and said nothing.
Eventually Esther noticed two iron pickets were missing from the railings, creating a big enough gap for her to squeeze through. Once inside the cemetery, Esther shouted at Mishu. “Where’s Rebecca! What did you do to her?”
Mishu silently guided her to the middle of the cemetery and stopped near a squat mausoleum that was still big enough for someone to curl up inside, to hide in. The door was open a crack, and a shovel leaned against the wall.
Hope burst through every part of Esther at the thought that her bestie was still alive. She reached for the door. “Rebecca! ‘Becc—”
A stirring. Behind the mausoleum.
Lefty strolled into view. Leaning against the mausoleum, he folded his arms across his chest. Clamped between his front teeth, a half-smoked cigarette smouldered.
Two more skeletal soldiers wandered out from behind the mausoleum, each of them snapping the bones in their necks. Both waited quietly in their ill-fitting World War I uniforms.
Esther couldn’t remember the ranks based on their insignia, but since both of them only wore one pin on each lapel, she reasoned Lefty outranked them. She also couldn’t make out what they chattered to each other about. The way they leered at her, though, their jaws unhinging in grand laughter, she knew what they said hadn’t been kind.
Instinct sank its teeth into Esther. Stung, she bolted toward the path leading to the gate on Wolfe Street.
The lower ranked soldiers caught up to her, knocked her down. Together, they dragged her back to the mausoleum where she saw a long, oblong mound of freshly dug earth nearby. Esther tried to wriggle free from the soldiers’ cage-like grips, but they squeezed harder, the flesh beneath her robe feeling like it might split.
Mishu climbed up onto the mound of earth, tried her best to curl up, but the bone sticking out from her haunch twisted her lower torso awkwardly.
Lefty strolled toward the mound and nodded at her. Through clenched teeth, he encouraged her with a rickety clap. “Go on! You know what-t-t-to dooo!”
Esther shook her head, wishing he could have a bad day for once and stop being humoured by everything.
“Saaay wooords,” Mishu insisted.
Esther imagined someone buried there, but not Rebecca. Clinging to the possibility her bestie was alive somewhere, waiting to be rescued, helped keep her focused. “W-why? W-who’s buried there?”
The soldiers pushed her down onto her knees, no matter how much she resisted.
“C’mon, numpt-t-ty,” Lefty said. “St-t-t-op being so cushy. Say the wooords.”
Tongue rooted firmly to the top of her mouth, Esther remained quiet. She refused to say Last Rites. They’d have to kill her first, because resurrecting tulips was one thing; doing that to a person, quite another.
Could be anyone down there? she thought. Anyone from the neighbourhood. Maybe even…
“Say the wooords!” screeched Lefty. With a dramatic flair, he took a long haul off his cigarette. Through the curls of smoke about his skull face, the cigarette blazed orange. Then he held it out, like a weapon, intending to burn her with the lit end.
Esther didn’t care. She refused to say Last Rites.
Lefty snorted, his jaw swinging sideways a little, smirking.
Mishu twisted her head toward Lefty, her neck sounding like popcorn kernels popping. “Maaake heeer saaay wooords.”
“I’m working on it-t-t, cat-t-t. Hold yer t-t-tooonguuue.”
Esther endured their hostile glares, their threats. Mishu growled in disgust, but Esther still refused. Grinding her teeth, she withstood the ache in her biceps where the other soldiers held her firm. They could do anything to her, as long as whoever they buried stayed dead.
Lefty took a final drag on the cigarette and flicked it onto the roof of the mausoleum, where the glowing end slowly extinguished. He towered over her until their faces almost touched. Esther had never been this close to a ghoul. She’d always thought his eye sockets were empty, cast in shadow, but something much darker stared back; something ancient and seething. She swore she glimpsed everything that had ever existed glaring back at her.
Lefty’s teeth curved upward beneath his jutting cheeks the way skull teeth do, and yet she could tell he wasn’t actually smiling anymore.
“We died for discovery,” Lefty hissed. “We died for freeedooom, for creating new exist-t-tences in new lands, for our famiiiliiies, and what-t-t do the living dooo? You squabble in your coffee shopsss; you change our storiesss to suit your moodsss. You change who we aaare because our darkness scaaares you. You scarper back int-t-to your cushy hooomes. Our darkness isss your darkness, yet-t-t you backmash deny it-t-t. We’re here t-t-to stop yooou. T-t-to force you back intooo the darkness and learn how t-t-to t-t-tell the t-t-truth agaaain. Or diiiiieee.”
Oddly, his words both haunted and calmed Esther. In the retreat of her robe, buried beneath her costume, she’d recognized her own darkness—an unwillingness to stand up for herself the way she did for her friends.
Lefty patted the pocket at the side of his jacket. He pulled out the phone he’d taken from Esther and tapped in a security code. “Say the words!”
Esther shuddered. On her home screen, a picture of her and her mother, both without masks, both very much alive.
“Say the wooords, or yer mum’s a dead ooone.”
The threat felt like sleet slicking Esther’s insides. She couldn’t live without her mother, and she looked to the mound of earth and reconsidered the identity of who might be buried there. “How do I know she isn’t already dead?”
The tips of Lefty’s finger bones tapped on the screen of the phone. As the phone rang, he held it up to Esther’s ear. On the second ring, her mom’s voice strained with worry: “Esther! Where are you? Is everything all right?”
Choking back tears, Esther sucked in a deep breath.
“Hey, mom. Just over at Carter’s. I should’ve left a note. I’m sorry. Just leaving now.” Esther hoped her mom didn’t detect the wobble in her voice.
“You should’ve. I was about to call the police.”
“I-I’m sorry.” With another deep breath, Esther regained control of herself. “I-I’ll be home soon—”
Lefty hung up. He stared at the phone, fascinated by it. An agitation in the darkness of his eye sockets suggested excitement. He knew he had power over her.
“H-how’d you figure out my security code? Hell, how do you even know how to use it at all?” Esther found her courage again, trying to stall for time.
“Kids these daaays,” Lefty whispered, and nodded at a ghoul near the front gates.
In the glow of a streetlight, Esther recognized the boy with the unfortunate cowlick. He sat on the ground against a tombstone playing on his phone. No doubt adept in using a phone, the boy’s presence still didn’t explain how Lefty knew her security code.
Lefty laughed. “Ghosts can spy on you just-t-t about anywheeere. The higher the vantage point-t-t…” This time he pointed to the woman in the paisley maxi dress. The ghost hovered high in the air, above the front gate, sitting cross-legged in meditation.
Growing impatient, Mishu hissed, “Saaay wooords nooow orrr motherrr diiiies!”
The soldiers holding her down both gave her a shake.
Esther gulped. “R-rest in p-peace,” she finally mumbled, not wanting any harm to come to her mother.
Lefty towered over her, grinning from ear to ear, the darkness in his eyes fixed on her as he slipped the phone into the pocket of her robe. Esther knew he didn’t need the phone anymore. He knew where she and her mother lived.
Resurrection didn’t happen in the snap of a finger, but she wanted very much to be far away from the mound of earth and whoever they’d buried there when it did. She didn’t want to witness anyone claw themselves out of their own grave.
Her flesh still throbbed after the soldiers released her. Relieved, she scrambled to her feet, and darted among the headstones, fled through the gate and down the street. Inside the front door, she found her mother pacing the front hallway, phone clenched in her hand.
She ran to her mother. They flung their arms around one another, crushing each other in desperation.
“I’m pissed at you,” her mom said softly. “I know you were looking for Rebecca.”
Any other year, Esther relished the opportunity to dress up more than once during Halloween. There was the school dance, the community centre haunted house, Rebecca’s party, and Halloween itself.
But when she saw the ghoul version of Mrs. Avery sitting on her front stoop petting Mishu, Esther wondered if Mrs. Avery had been buried in that mound in the cemetery. She couldn’t be certain, so Esther daydreamed about abandoning the Death robe and skull mask and taking a chance at just being seen as her regular self this Halloween.
For at least one minute, maybe two, she’d let herself expand and fill that ephemeral space with her exuberant, vibrant self, so hungry with hope for the future. Then the dead could claw her to death.
But she wore the death robe. She wore her skull mask.
This year’s Halloween dance ended up being like every other school dance since last Halloween, except for the zombies. Her fellow students acted less enthused than her as they swayed to the dance music on the gymnasium floor.
Disco lights and dance music melded into a noisy background while she sat on the bleacher next to Carter. They sat so close she could feel the heat from his arms through her robe. Despite zombie makeup making his pouty lips appear cracked and bloody, he was still handsome. But his eyes stared off at nothing and he didn’t say a word.
Esther wished she could climb inside him, occupy his space, and he hers. Then they would know each other’s thoughts and feelings. They wouldn’t have to talk; just think and feel and know. Together, they could create a world inside their minds, one where Rebecca and Devesh were still alive, and Addie still lived in town.
She pressed her thigh against his. “Wanna dance?” she finally asked him.
“Nuh,” Carter replied.
* * *
Back home in her bedroom, Esther realized the calendar hadn’t flipped a page. October 31st hadn’t come back around. This Halloween didn’t exist. The one from last year still did. It just kept going and going, trapping everyone in its eerie ennui. Bored, she stared out the window and wondered. What else is there to do? What did I do last year?
She remembered the haunted house at the community centre, but that got cancelled. Rebecca wasn’t around to throw her backyard Halloween party, which left…
Plastic pumpkin in hand, Esther sneaked out the bedroom window and walked down Wolfe Street. Few of the houses’ lights were on, but it didn’t matter. She’d never seen a moon so full and bright before.
Only a handful of people bothered to hand out candy this year. Esther scored herself a bunch of bite-sized chocolate bars when one lady poured the contents of her handout bowl into the pumpkin, shut the door, and turned out the porch light.
Treats in hand, Esther wandered back toward Hope Cemetery, where flickering lights beckoned her across the street and through the back gate. As she wound among the headstones, she spied lit lanterns on the ground, casting spots of orange that flickered over the dark grass.
Deeper into the heart of the cemetery, long tattered pieces of toilet paper hung from branches, turning the trees into phantoms. They appeared to be descending on a small clearing, where Esther discovered more lanterns and a bench with spirals burnt into the wood.
She sat down quietly. Uncertain, she withdrew a chocolate from her plastic pumpkin and nibbled on it. Struggling through every sweet morsel, she thought of the mound of earth she’d given Last Rites to.
It had to have been Mrs. Avery. There aren’t any new ghosts or ghouls around.
“Watcha doing here, backmaaash?”
Lefty strode toward the bench where she sat, boots clomping on the ground. Tented pant legs brushed against each other with a whoosh. He propped a foot up on the bench, resting his arm on a bent knee.
“What the hell does that word even mean?” Esther asked him.
Between his bony fingers he pinched an unlit cigarette that smelled of fresh-rolled tobacco. The moonlight haloed him in a silver glow.
“It-t-t means you’re a no good scoooundrelll,” he told her.
Since he was being honest, perhaps tonight he might finally tell her what had happened to her best friend. “Is Rebecca dead dead? Or is she one of you?”
Lefty simply grinned. Esther tilted her masked face to one side, trying to interpret his smile from another angle. She finally realized he didn’t have any other expression, just that stupid, unfaltering, bony-assed grin. She supposed he wouldn’t ever change.
Esther fetched another treat from the plastic pumpkin, peeled back the wrapper, and handed it to him. He ate it with gusto. The chocolate smeared over his teeth and glooped down the bones of his neck, disappearing somewhere in the cavern of his uniform-covered ribs.
He snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “You’re not dressed up for Halloween!”
Surely, he knows I’m wearing a costume. Maybe he’s never seen me without it?
“Neither are you,” Esther retorted. Sometimes I don’t remember what I look like.
Lefty laughed, his jaw hinging and sliding as he tossed his head back. His spine cracked as he stood up again. “You’re wrong, numpt-t-ty. I’ve got a costuuume.”
He pulled out something bulky from his jacket pocket and unfolded it. Longer pieces swept down, and as they dangled in front of her, Esther recognized the shapes of arms and legs.
That can’t be real. No, it can’t be.
He pulled the fabric over his head, sliding it down over his uniform like a smock. It clung to his shoulder and draped everywhere else, two arms and two legs curling at the edges whenever he moved. At the back of his neck, a hood lay bunched up.
Esther gulped as Lefty hopped up from the bench and jumped around, laughing to himself. “See, I’m aliiive.”
Esther closed her eyes. It’s fake. It’s got to be fake. It’s just a costume.
“Now’s your t-t-tuuurn. Put-t-t on a costuuume.”
Esther clenched her teeth. “I am wearing a…”
She stopped herself. She hadn’t shown her true living self for such a long time. If Lefty was tricking her, she’d find out the moment she removed her robe and mask. If he saw what was beneath the robe, what could he really do to her?
Every day had become drudgery. Every day, a slow slog of waiting for something that never came, of trying to muster up the energy to do something different other than chatting with Carter about movies he’d watched a hundred times before. Her mind just churned in ever-changing memories and fantasies.
“I do have a living costume,” she admitted softly, the tension melting away at the thought of truly freeing herself.
“C’mon! Show me, then. If there’s a t-t-time of year t-t-to look aliiive, All Hallow’s Eve is the t-t-time.”
As Esther stood, Mishu stumbled out of the wood, crooked tail held high. Esther ignored the cat as she removed the death robe. But that wasn’t enough. There had been so much space in there, she’d developed layers. Next she pulled off her jersey with the painted bones on the sleeves, then her jeans and red and white Vans.
She wasn’t sure when to stop. The cold clamped down on her. She rather enjoyed its bite, so she took off her underclothes too. Standing nude before the dead, she lacked shyness. Self-consciousness seemed laughable. Yet, somehow relief was denied her.
Lefty marched around her, examining her. Finally, he stood at attention. Raising an arm, he saluted her. The darkness in his eye sockets whirled in a frenzy of intrigue, curiosity, hunger.
She held her breath as she removed the skull mask. For a year, she’d been wearing it, waiting to be free of it, to be free of the shell, to exude her very essence into the world.
“There you go,” Lefty rasped. “You’re aliiive now tooo.”
But she wasn’t. She still felt shrivelled. She struggled, starved for something.
No, I can’t be alive, Esther thought. She stared at her arms and legs, not recognizing herself. This, whatever it was, was just another shell. Then the October air truly chilled her. She shivered. Something of herself was present after all.
“Daaance,” Mishu said, as she knelt down in the grass and hummed an eerie, quirky tune.
What do I have to lose? Esther asked herself. A voice inside her answered back: Nothing! Nothing at all, you fool!
She’d been too caught up in survival to notice that the world had kept going. No matter what she did or didn’t do, who left her and who stayed, no one was really paying her any attention because they were trying to survive, too. And if no one saw her, masked or not, then it didn’t matter if she danced.
Lefty started jumping about the gravestones, the hood of the skin costume flapping up and down. Something long and tapered fell down his back, but Esther couldn’t quite make it out as it bounced around. She followed his lead, jumping up and down, awkwardly at first, like she’d never truly danced before.
Grinning, Lefty tossed his officer’s hat onto the ground. He grabbed at the hood and rolled it up over his bared skull. At this new angle, the moon cast him in shadows. No matter how much Esther squinted, she couldn’t figure out what fabric his costume was made from, but when she got close and saw the long, tapered thing that bobbed behind him, she flinched.
It’s a…a ponytail. With blue…
Lefty raised a knee and swirled about, and Esther gaped at a version of Rebecca staring back at her. Neither her cheekbones nor her jawline matched up exactly, but she recognized the almond shape of her eyes and her wide feathered eyebrows.
Other ghouls and ghosts came to watch or join in the dancing. Among them, Lefty’s army buddies whooped, throwing their hats into the air, peeling off their uniforms to the bone. Their rattling and chattering added an extra layer of cadence to Mishu’s humming.
The woman in the paisley maxi dress eventually showed up and sat cross-legged next to Mishu in the grass. She clapped a haunting staccato. The young boy with the cowlick parked himself on the bench and used his phone to film everyone dancing.
Esther danced and danced, feverish with despair.
I’m not safe here. I’ll never be safe, will I?
Worn down, Esther mustered what little energy remained inside her to keep up the charade. Then, from between two trees, something slunk forward. It glistened beneath the moonlight. Slicked wet from head to toe, the lithe form spun in grand, graceful circles, joining in the dance.
Esther finally glimpsed the red she’d been looking for.
Rebecca had been beautiful. Now she was dead dead, stripped clean of any costume. Nose missing, flesh gone, she bared her brilliant white teeth. Esther cringed at the viscera, the muscles and tendons sweeping over and around Rebecca’s bones, what was left holding her together.
And Rebecca’s grin…
Esther finally recognized the grin for what it was—a clenching of the teeth, an unbearable pain permanently etched in the very core of Rebecca’s being. Esther felt it in herself as well.
Dryness tickled Esther’s throat, but she said her friend’s name. “Rebecca?”
Rebecca stopped and swayed. The whites of her eyes glimmered in the moonlight as she tilted her head, hand on her hip. “Do I know you?”
Esther’s face pulled tight, teeth clenching. Even her best friend had forgotten what she looked liked. Lips parted to scream, but no sound came. She grinned broader.
When Esther’s grin was wide enough, cavernous enough, she climbed inside the shell of herself, expecting to find nothing. Instead, she found something dark and gritty that smelled both sweet and vile, and it slid through her fingers in clumps.
Fertile earth stuck beneath her fingernails as she dug deeper and deeper into the muck. Darkness pressed around her, more palpable and real than anything else she’d ever experienced within the robe. This darkness cradled her in decay and earthworms older than time itself. She burrowed down until she felt something roundish and tapered to a point that fit in her palm.
Through the dirt, she glimpsed the white flesh of a tulip bulb.
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