Chapter 25 of OUR ORBIT
It was just turning dusky when Mr. Fletcher stepped outside with candles for the three jack-o’-lanterns lined up on the porch. Mrs. Fletcher, bent over a fancy dress at her sewing machine, gave Rachelle instructions: Chad’s treat bag should stay on the handle of the stroller. The children were not to eat any candy before they returned home. If the girls got too tired to walk back, they could phone for a ride from the Quick-Mart on the corner of Main and Elm. Two quarters were provided for this purpose.
In the white and silver robe Aunt Mel had borrowed from the Baptists, Rachelle steered their group up the sidewalk. The Fletcher kids were all happy-go-lucky, but the look in Meerkat’s eyes showed she was working up another mean remark.
Here it came. “So you got an angel costume?”
“Aunt Mel got it,” Rachelle said. “A pageant outfit.”
“You’re the last person who should wear an angel costume.”
“Don’t be nasty, Miri,” Kayla said.
Kids were pouring into the street. Rachelle set a slow pace for Kayla’s benefit. Others dashed past them up the sidewalk and driveways.
Miriam said, “I guess you’re a Halloween expert. Do you know how to trick and treat?”
“Nothing to it,” Rachelle said.
“So you did it before?”
“Last year I did.”
“Guess so.” Rachelle sighed.
“How come you never went before?” Kayla asked.
“We weren’t allowed,” Miriam said. “But she didn’t care.”
“All you do is yell ‘trick-or-treat’ when they open the door,” Rachelle said. She turned up the nearest walkway where a brick ranch house had its porch light on. A family of giant inflated spiders dangled from a tree branch.
“And say ‘Thank you’ when they drop the candy in your bag,” Kayla added as they mounted the step.
* * *
By the time they reached Main Street, the sky was dark, and the kids’ heavy treat bags were all hanging from the handles of the stroller. Also hanging were Kayla’s fairy wings, which she’d shed in order to put on her jacket. The magic wand had gotten lost along the way. Miriam was complaining her feet hurt, and Kayla admitted that, when she went trick-or-treating last year, her dad had carried her on his shoulders.
“This is as far as we’re supposed to go, anyway,” Rachelle said. “We can call your dad for a lift if you want.”
“But let’s have donuts first.” Kayla suddenly sounded more lively.
The Quick-Mart was a former local grocery. As in years past, the management was offering free cider and donut holes to children in costume. A woman in a black dress and witch’s hat sat at a picnic table by the entrance, dispensing drinks in 4-oz. paper cups to the red devils, superheroes, and Goths gathered around her.
“Here you go, my little pretty!” the witch said with a loud cackle. She extended a cup in Kayla’s direction. Her hands and face were dark green, and she wore a long green nose. Chad’s eyes went wide, and he burst into tears. Kayla stepped behind the stroller.
“Aw, don’t be scared,” the woman said in her normal voice. “I’m not a real witch.” She reached into a cardboard box with a pair of tongs and plopped a donut hole in Chad’s lap.
Rachelle handed out the drinks and helped Kayla onto the picnic bench. “You want to sit, too?” she asked Miriam. “Rest up before we go back?”
Miriam flounced up to the bench, tossing gypsy skirts from side to side. She shoved in next to Kayla.
“So now you won’t talk to me at all,” Rachelle said. “I guess that’s better than the mean way you’ve been talking.”
“Be nice, Miri,” Kayla said. “She’s nice to us.”
“Nice enough to lead us astray,” Miriam said. “I can see now. Halloween is an evil holiday. Look at these demon people. And who’s bringing us to sinfulness?” She nodded at her sister. “The sinner disguised as an angel.”
“Who says Halloween is evil?” Rachelle asked.
“Our parents never let us go out.”
“But we don’t have our parents anymore, do we? And your new parents think it’s just fine. Why don’t you believe them?”
“Josh says I should beware of your bad influence,” Miriam blurted.
“So Josh turns you against me behind my back.”
“Why did you come if it’s a sin?” Kayla asked.
Miriam wriggled. “I had to see it for myself.”
Rachelle raised her voice. “Josh went trick-or-treating from the time he was your age until he turned fifteen. So did Isaac. Does that make them demons?”
“How do you know? More like, he forgot all about it.”
“Don’t!” Chad cried.
“Don’t fight, you two,” Kayla agreed.
“Drink your cider. It’s time to get back.” Rachelle sank down on the bench. She faced away from the children like she was only near them by accident.
* * *
From the lower block of Main, a group of teenagers advanced on the Quick-Mart. Most wore hoodies pulled low on their faces, but the boy who led the way had a full-head zombie mask with a dangling eyeball. Rachelle watched them pass through the circle of light under a streetlamp, then fade into darkness as they came on. Five teenagers, familiar shapes and sizes. Familiar movements, too. Should she get up now and hustle the little kids away? Or hang back till the posse passed by?
When they entered the parking lot, the guy in the mask started a zombie walk with stiff legs, arms out, wrists limp. Two other boys exchanged punches and shoves. One carried a large lump under his sweatshirt like a hunchback. A pale girl kept pace with them, eye sockets blackened like empty wells. And a second girl brought up the rear in a narrow dress and featureless white mask. She wore a tall bi-color wig—the bride of Frankenstein.
They zeroed in on the picnic table. Rachelle bent over her cider. The zombie let out a series of roars and clawed at his gory mouth. “He’s starving,” one of the boys told the witch with the donut holes. “You better give him food, or he’ll eat one of those little kids.”
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Miriam glared at the teenagers. Kayla scooted closer to Rachelle.
“How old are you?” the green witch asked. “You got no business trick-or-treating.”
That’s right, Rachelle thought. They’re all fifteen except the zombie. He’s sixteen.
“We’re the children of America,” the first boy said.
“We’re not trick-or-treating,” the other boy put in. “Not tricking, anyway.”
“Not yet,” laughed the girl in the hoodie.
“Take pity,” said the bride of Frankenstein. “Then we’ll get out of your way.”
The parking lot had emptied except for this crew. Wielding her tongs abruptly, the witch dispensed donut holes. She did not offer cider.
Rachelle glanced up at the girl in the tall wig. Through the slit eyes of the blank white mask, their gaze met.
“Rachelle Winslow?” the girl said. She slid the mask up on her forehead and stepped closer. “Where’ve you been all this time?”
Of course it was Angie Renard.
The zombie continued to roar. He grabbed the donut hole his friend passed to him, smashed it against the front of his mask, and rubbed it to crumbs on the hideous mouth.
“So what’s up? How’s it going?” Angie asked. She spread her arms.
After a moment’s hesitation, Rachelle stood and accepted a hug. “It’s going kind of okay.” She moved away from the table.
“Just taking them trick-or-treating.”
“Ditch ‘em and come around back,” Angie murmured. She reached into the plastic pumpkin she carried and displayed the neck of a pint bottle, half-hidden under orange taffies.
By now, the zombie was strangling the girl in the hoodie. Her shrieks filled the air. The boys had returned to punching each other. One dropped to the pavement and yelped in mock agony.
“Okay.” Rachelle heard the words from her lips before she decided to say them. “I’ll meet you back there.”
“Don’t cry wolf,” the woman at the table scolded. “You’ll need real help one day.”
Rachelle turned to Kayla and Miriam. “Stay put and rest up.” She lifted Chad, who had struggled out of the stroller, and sat him on the bench between the girls. To the witch-woman she said, “We’ll get those jerks out of here for you. Can you watch the kids just one second?”
* * *
Angie had started down the passageway between the Quick-Mart and an apartment building next-door. The others followed close behind. Green shards of scattered glass glinted in the light at the far end. The girl in the hoodie turned to look back at Rachelle and cried, “God, she’s like a ghost! Look at her—all white!”
They gathered under a leafless stand of sumac in the corner of an eight-space parking lot. Behind a brown van, one of the boys shrugged a backpack from under his sweatshirt. He cast a cautious eye toward Elm Street and pulled out a six-pack.
A cool cylinder slid between Rachelle’s fingers and thumb.
The boys leaned their heads back and chugged.
“I thought that was you, Rachelle Winslow,” said the zombie boy. He pulled the mask off of his head. Like she’d figured, it was Angie’s brother, Damien. “You’re back in town,” he said. “Didn’t you move to Columbus?”
“I live here,” Rachelle said, “but I don’t go to school. I’m on distance learning.”
“Must get boring.”
“Why don’t you come over anymore?”
“She will. Won’t you, Rache?” Angie said. She threw an arm around Rachelle’s shoulders. “At least you’ll come and see me.”
Rachelle felt the foil halo teeter on her head. “I live with my aunt and uncle now. They’re old. I can’t give them any trouble.”
The girl in the hoodie laughed. “I give my grandparents trouble. Even my great-grandma.”
“You still a big Jesus freak?” asked one of the boys.
“Not like I was,” Rachelle said.
“Why don’t you drink, then?”
She looked at the can. Silver. It matched her costume. The boy reached out and pulled the ring, popping it open.
“I’ll finish it off if you can’t,” Damien said. “I’m drinking for two.”
The others joked, giving sips of beer to the zombie mask now riding on Damien’s hand.
Just one swallow, Rachelle told herself. Then I’ll go back. She raised the can, caught the sweet-bitter smell. One swallow left it half-empty. Then Angie pulled the bottle of schnapps from under the taffies. It was easy to take a quick gulp.
Nothing to it!
The sumac rattled in a gust of chilly wind, reshuffling the shadows that fell on the pavement. A dervish of dry leaves danced into the air at Rachelle’s feet. The bottle came round again.
“Your aunt and uncle have that funky store down the road from us, right?” Angie asked. “You can walk over easy from there. Cut through the woods.”
Rachelle pictured the Next-to-New Shop like a village scene in one of those Christmas snowballs. A place under glass, safe from all the world’s troubles. Like snow, her body was floating. Dark air caressed her cheeks. God, she had missed this feeling. Missed it like home.
Angie said, “I heard about that shit with your dad. That was harsh. You must worry about him.”
Not so harsh right now, though, Rachelle thought. Maybe it’s true. Things happen for a reason. She let her head loll back and looked up at the sky, surprised not to see a star moving from the East, one she could proclaim at the top of her lungs. In egg-shell-sis Day-o! Instead, with a whoosh of tires, a car sped by on Elm. In a flash, she remembered. “I’ve gotta get going. I have to take the kids home.”
Angie produced a pen and wrote her number on the inside of Rachelle’s wrist. “So you can’t lose it,” she said. “You’ve got no excuse not to call.”
Back down the passageway, Rachelle ran toward the storefront aglow like a jack-o’-lantern’s eye. She bounded on the memory of freedom, those wild times last year when she ran with the posse. A different lifetime. But who says it’s gone forever? A shrill spirit laughed from its hovering place by her shoulder. No excuse! No excuse! It sang, flapping silver wings to urge her on.
* * * * *