Wednesday, October 31, 2012
It was an old cemetery. No one was ever there. The place sat forgotten on a tiny knob of a hill behind the Goodyear Tire store and Bob’s Big Boy. Lydia and Gary dared each other to leapfrog over the few headstones still standing. Some of the graves had sunk into the ground, the dirt appearing soft and disturbed over them. On a few of the older plots, the cousins found shiny handles and pieces of carved wood.
They took one last look at each other before the jump. “Coffin maker, coffin taker, rise from the ground and let your spirit fly unbound,” they chanted, leaping across the grave on the last word. Their high-pitched laughter rode the wave of fear that one of them might land too short with a foot sinking into the soft, decayed earth. They had sworn to try to save each other, even if it meant that they, too, would be sucked into the bowels of the graveyard. There were a few close calls, but they survived.
“Look! ” Gary pointed to a grave a few rows over. In the graying afternoon, and amidst the ruin around them, a dash of color stood out. They walked over to examine the bouquet of plastic flowers. “They’re pretty.”
Lydia lifted the bouquet from the shelter of the tombstone. “Yeah, real pretty.” The arrangement included flowers of all colors. A gold ribbon wound through it, giving it a valuable appearance. She looked around her. Dusty weeds sprouted on most of the graves. Further in, near a leafless tree, she saw another spot of color. “Over there! ”
A little dirty, the second bouquet was no less glorious. They squinted and scanned the cemetery, running from one end to the other when they spotted the flowers. One of the ribbons said In Remembrance, but that was okay. They ended up with four bouquets to take home to their mothers.
On the walk home, they scavenged in the industrial dumpsters near the rail yard, but didn’t find anything interesting. “At least we got the flowers,” Gary said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Lydia looked away. His nose produced rivers of yellow snot. Year round.
Lydia picked up her bouquets. “It’s getting dark, we should head home.” An Indian summer lingered well into October in Santa Fe, where it usually snowed for Halloween. Prospective ghouls, witches, vampires and werewolves knew they would not have to wear parkas over their costumes that night. “I’m going as a gypsy. Mama said I could wear make-up and earrings.” She looked at Gary to see if he was impressed.
He hunched his bird-thin shoulders. “I have to use last year’s.” Gary was eight, and pale, and blond, and all the kids picked on him. Except for Lydia. Even she couldn’t resist sometimes. Today wasn’t one of those days.
“Maybe we could make you look like a pirate,” she said.
Gary lowered his head to the bouquets cradled in his arms as if he were sniffing them. “If Mama says it’s okay.”
Their mothers, who were sisters, sat at the kitchen table smoking and drinking coffee. Lydia and Gary held the bouquets behind their backs, looked at each other, and then presented the plastic flowers.
Lydia’s mom worked in a bar and had people skills. She handled the flowers gingerly, but smiled. Gary’s mother had conducted seances until the parish priest warned her not to. She turned red in the face and swept the bouquets off her lap as if they were on fire. She grabbed Gary’s thin arm, and shook him. “Where did you get these?” He turned frightened eyes to his cousin.
“Lydia?” Her mother tried to look stern, forcing the corners of her mouth down in that way she did when she didn’t want to laugh.
Gary’s mother squeezed his arm harder. Lydia could see her fingernails digging in. “You got these from the cemetery, didn’t you?”
“Let them explain, Frances,” Lydia’s mom said. She and her sister stared into each other’s eyes. Frances loosened her grip on her son.
“I thought you’d like them,” Lydia said. “They’re pretty.”
“They’re from graves,” Frances said. “For dead people.”
“Nobody was using them,” Lydia said. Her mother’s lips twitched again.
“It’s a sin to steal from the dead,” Frances said. “They’ll come for them. They’ll pull your feet at night ”
Gary and Lydia looked at each other, horrified. They hadn’t thought about this. The dead weren’t real. It was just pretend, all the stuff about the dead.
“The dead,” Francis repeated, staring off into space, “the dead want what’s theirs.” She took a deep breath. “Take them back.”
Lydia looked at her mom, who stared at her sister, deciding. “Take them back, honey. Run as fast as you can.” She reached for another cigarette.
“It’s the thought that counts,” Lydia heard her mother say as the cousins ran out of the room.
Lydia and Gary ran the eight blocks to the cemetery in growing darkness. They searched for the right graves, frightened and out of breath. Puffs of mist from their exhalations hovered like tiny ghosts in front of them.
“Which graves?” Lydia asked, panicked. Gary’s teeth chattered, and his nose ran unheeded.
In the far corner, near where they’d found the second bouquet, a man stepped away from the tree. One minute he wasn’t there, and then he was. Lydia and Gary had never seen another person at the cemetery. He wore a hat, and a long, flowing coat, and stared down at a crooked tombstone. He turned and glared in their direction. Then, he moved towards the children, slow at first, and then taking giant steps. The cousins stood frozen. The man raised both arms in a pleading gesture, his hands opening and closing like pincers.
Lydia flung her flowers at him. “Here! Take them.” She ran in the opposite direction. Gary followed with his bouquets still tightly clutched to his chest. They ran hard, the chill night air burning their throats. Lydia looked over her shoulder a few times, but it was already dark. Somewhere along the way Gary had dropped his flowers.
Their mothers said no more about the dead people’s flowers, and the cousins dressed for Halloween with shaking fingers. Trick-or-treating in their own neighborhood never yielded much, so Lydia’s mom took off work, and drove them across town to the new housing development.
Built to house a new generation moving into Santa Fe, these homes had real sidewalks, attached garages, doorbells, and front yards bereft of broken glass. Flocks of neighborhood children scurried from door-to-door, while their parents, usually fathers, chatted at the curb. Lydia’s mom sat and smoked in the car. She’d roll forward as they worked the street, her progress occasionally blocked by the cars of other commuting trick-or-treaters.
They returned to the car to exchange pillowcases brimming with candy for empty ones. “That’s quite a haul. Don’t you think you’ve got enough?” her mom asked the children’s retreating backs as they ran off to collect more treats.
Halloween was not only great for all the free candy, but for the glimpse it gave of the inside of other people’s homes, of how they lived their lives. The people who answered the doors were young, and bursting with laughter. Sometimes they wore masks and costumes, and made ghoulish sounds to frighten trick-or-treaters. In one, several women sat on the laps of their boyfriends. At the next house, a man and a woman came to the door.
“You don’t have a mask so you don’t get any candy,” the woman said to Lydia.
“Of course, she can have candy,” the man said, and tried to grab the bowl from the woman. “See, her face is painted.”
“No!” The woman stamped her foot. “You’re supposed to have a real costume. Not some cheap make-up ” They struggled with the bowl, and it spilled to the ground.
“Look what you’ve done!” The woman strode off, while the man scooped the candy up.
Her face burned beneath her Halloween makeup, but she held her head high, and grabbed Gary by the elbow, dragging him away. “Let’s go!”
“Here,” the man said. He held handfuls of candy. Gary tried to return, but Lydia held onto him. “I’m sorry,” the man called after them.
Lydia stomped down the pristine sidewalk. She marched forward, with Gary still in tow, neither looking to her left nor to her right. They passed several houses and reached the end of the block. The homes here were still under construction, but one had its lights on.
She stopped and took a deep breath. “Last one?” Gary shrugged.
A tall man in a long coat opened the door. A hat shadowed his face. His hands dangled loosely at his sides. No light shone behind him, and no bowl brimming with candy was visible.
“Trick-or-treat,” Gary chanted in his tinny voice, his eyes focused on his open bag.
“Give you something good to eat?” the man said, his voice icky sweet. He smiled, revealing a mouthful of jagged, yellow teeth. He pointed at their bags with long, dirty fingernails. “But you have so much, already.”
He leaned to his right inside his house. “An object of beauty, perhaps?” He held two plastic roses in his hand, and dropped one into Gary’s bag. Only then did her cousin look up. The man held the other rose out to Lydia, and recited, “A waxen rose upon the grave will not wither or decay.”
He laughed, exhaling the damp smell of grave dirt into the children’s faces. His laughter hammered at their backs when the cousins ran down the sidewalk.
“What is that man screaming about?” Lydia’s Mom asked as they tumbled into the car.
“Go, Mom. Please go!”
Lydia’s mom pulled away from the curb. “It sounded like he was saying the dead want something. Pretty spooky house, huh?”
Lydia and Gary leaned into each other, holding hands, and said nothing. They could still hear the man’s laughter echoing inside the car. The sound of it followed them home, and seeped into their dreams along with his screams: the dead want what’s theirs.
This story has been reprinted several times in anthologies such as After Dark, and most recently I posted it in the Red Room.