As the sun retreated from the sky and the last rays of light died in the air, Marla’s small body began to materialize on top of the cracked asphalt. Her hips appeared first, the round bulbs of her pelvis spiraling out of obscurity as spinal vertebrae sprouted to climb up to her shoulders and bare skull. The tiny skeleton curled on the street in the fetal position, with her eye socket rooted to ground.
The skeletal fingertips twitched and jerked against the rough blacktop as the skull softly swayed side to side. As the bones began to animate, muscle and flesh blossomed along their edges like moss, overtaking the form as veins and arteries snaked up through the tissue. Hair budded from the fresh scalp until the wily mass of strands draped over Marla’s little shoulders.
Within seconds of dusk, the entire child body returned to the street, complete with the torn clothes. She lifted her head slowly from the pavement, her ejected eye clinging to the ground before popping up to dangle along her shredded cheek. Her right hand flopped half detached as it dropped from her bloody forearm. She stood on crooked legs with flaps of flesh shaved down and hanging over her knees.
Marla stood straight in her broken body, eye wagging with each movement, under the growing moonlight. The headlights of a large truck blazed up over her. She turned the eye still in her head to the vehicle before it drove through her in a swirling puff of steam. The edges of her form wavered before snapping back into shape.
Marla turned unaffected by the truck driving through her, or the staggered series of cars that followed. She moved instinctively to the southwest corner just as she did every year. She stepped onto the curb, with one shoe on and one bare, scraped foot, as the contorted figure of her mother shambled toward her through the streetlight.
Abigail’s head cocked at an extreme angle, and her spine warped in sympathy. Blood had poured from her gaping headwound, drenching her face and clothes in a waterfall of red. Her feet splayed out in divergent directions, causing her to hobble even slower than the twisted corpse of her daughter.
“Hello, my beautiful girl,” Abigail whispered in a rasp as she wrapped her arms around her shattered child. “Welcome to our night.”
“I missed you, Mommy,” Marla said as she cuddled into her mother’s blood-soaked sweater.
“I missed you, beautiful.”
Abigail took Marla’s destroyed face in her hands, allowing the suspended eyeball to roll along her palm. Marla smiled sweetly with the facial muscles she had left.
“Don’t look at me like that, Mommy.”
“I’m sorry, baby. If I had known you hadn’t buckled your seatbelt, I would have never left the parking lot.”
“You don’t have to say that every year, Mommy.”
“You just had to get a new costume that night.”
“The one I had looked stupid.”
“No, it didn’t, but I wanted you to have a good Halloween.”
“It’s OK, Mommy. We can have another good Halloween tonight.”
“What should we do tonight?”
“I want to go see Daddy and Jakey.”
“No, baby. We don’t go see them.”
“The same as every year. We don’t know how long it has been. It would make me sad to go and see Jake all grown up or your daddy as a grandpa.”
“It hasn’t been that long. Jakey will still be little. Just like when we left.”
“We don’t know that, Marla. We don’t go see them. Now, come now. Let’s do something fun.”
“Can we borrow bodies?” Marla perked up, and the tear in her cheek deepened as she grinned.
“Oh, that sounds like fun. What do you want to do with them?”
“I want to go trick-or-treating! But, this year, I want to be the momma and you be the kid.”
“Are you sure? It’s way more fun to be the kid.”
“No. It’s better to be the grown up.”
“That’s what all kids think. Until they become grown ups. But I suppose you never have to worry about that.”
“I still want to be the momma.”
“OK, baby, you can be the momma. You can even pick the bodies.”
Marla leaped in excitement then took her mother’s hand in her attached arm, her other hand waggling loosely on threads of traumatized flesh. The two mangled forms moved unseen through the darkness as scurrying trick-or-treaters began to flood the streets.
Marla let her eye move over each group of figures in the night. The child body would have to be young to still have an adult escort. She watched a parade of tiny princesses march down the sidewalk, mothers snapping pictures with their phones like paparazzi. She looked over a group of unchaperoned tweens running by giggling under their masks.
Finally, she caught sight of a young boy marching down the street. He smiled euphorically under his pirate’s eyepatch, swinging a hefty bucket of candy at his side. Behind him, his mother weaved absentmindedly as her eyes fixated down on the glowing screen of her phone. She gripped a large travel coffee mug tightly with the other hand, taking compulsive sips every couple steps.
“Them,” Marla said, pointing confidently, knowing the living could not see her.
“The pirate and his mom?”
Marla nodded enthusiastically, her hanging eye bouncing up and down.
“Well, I’ve never been a pirate before,” Abigail laughed. “OK, darling, you know what to do.”
Marla stepped in the path of the distracted mother and placed her palms together out in front of her. As the woman turned Marla’s fingertips into mist, Marla swung her arms, as if swimming in the water, and dove right into the mother’s chest. Somewhere behind her, Abigail did the same to the young pirate.
“This feels weird, Mommy…I mean, son,” Marla said moving her arms in the strange new skin.
The living flesh felt awkward, heavy, confining. Marla and Abigail took a moment to shift and fidget, finding their bearings locked back under the bars of the bones. Marla took an awkward step forward and nearly toppled over. She realigned herself over her feet and brought the hefty cup to her lips. The acidic taste of the liquid bit her tongue, and she immediately spat it out.
“Eeww! What is this?” Marla held the cup out to her mother in the pirate costume.
Abigail reached the young boys hand’s forward and took a sip.
“Oh,” Abigail said, knowingly. “That is not coffee at all. That’s wine.”
“Wine? Why would she have wine in a coffee mug?”
“Because being the kid is more fun, dear,” Abigail laughed.
The two moved forward in staggering steps until walking became more familiar. With each passing house, they moved more naturally until they strode like all the other living people. They approached the next house with the porch light on and hesitated at the base of the driveway.
“What is it?” Marla asked, awkwardly juggling the coffee mug and oversized smartphone.
“I haven’t trick-or-treated in decades. Even in decades when I was alive. I’m nervous, I think.”
“That’s silly, Mommy. Son. Just go up there; ring the bell; and say, ‘Trick or treat!’”
“OK, I’m going.”
“What do I do?”
“While I trick-or-treat?”
“Yes. You follow me and stand here waiting for me. That’s it. Just don’t drink that cup. You’re having enough trouble walking in that body already.”
“Maybe the kid does have all the fun.”
Marla watched her mother toddle up the concrete in the little pirate body and stood drumming her fingers on the cup she was not supposed to drink. When Abigail disappeared around the edge of the house, Marla took a deep sip on defiant principle then winced as it burned down her throat and pooled heat in her stomach.
Marla would never grow up to understand adults.
She turned the cup over and dumped the wine in the street. The red liquid looked just like all the blood that had poured out from her head when she went careening through the windshield so many Halloweens ago.
“That was weird,” Abigail laughed as she skipped back with a heavier bucket.
They moved house to house, repeating the same pattern around dark, curved blocks. With each stop, Marla grew more anxious. She tapped the mother’s toe on the hard ground. She crossed her arms and wished she knew how to operate the phone she shoved into her back pocket. Other children began to grow scarce on the street.
“I think that’s enough now, Mommy,” Marla said. “I mean, son.”
“Oh, come on. I can get this kid even more candy. Look at all the porch lights on that street.”
“No, I don’t want to anymore.”
“Not having any fun, beautiful?”
“Next year, I want to be the kid again.”
“I thought you might say that.”
Abigail smiled and took Marla’s hand, strange in the reversal of the angle.
“Well, let’s go put them back where we got them, and we’ll have a little time before our night is over,” Abigail said.
They walked the borrowed bodies back along their meandering trail to the driveway where they started. Marla drew her energy toward her center then thrust it upward. As she appeared wispy and disfigured again beside the mother, she felt herself expand into the freedom outside of the flesh. She watched the mother return to the surface disoriented, looking confused at the empty coffee mug in her hand.
Taking her mother’s ghostly hand once more, Marla followed her through the quieting streets. Jack o’lanterns flickered with dying candles on the porches. Music thumped out from lingering Halloween parties. The light air would have been crisp and the leaves would have crunched under their footsteps if they could feel either.
Abigail led Marla back to her spot in the middle of the intersection. She did not think of the way she could hear the front end of her car collapse or the way she saw the body of her child go flying past her head and through the windshield. She never saw Marla’s actual body on the street; she never left the driver seat.
“Are you ready to sleep, darling?” Abigail said.
“Yes, Mommy. It was a good Halloween.”
Marla crouched down on the pavement and lined herself up just as she had materialized, still clinging to her mother’s hand like an afterthought.
“Yes, it was, but next year, you can be the kid again.”
“Sounds good, Mommy. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, beautiful. I’ll see you next year.”
Abigail bent down and pressed her lips to her daughter’s cracked forehead, even as the cars continued to drive through and over them. Before Marla turned to plant her eye socket back on the pavement, she watched her mother hobble away into the night, back to her place. With each step, a layer disintegrated from Abigail’s form, as if she was melting into wisps in the air. Marla faded too. She felt herself shedding coherency until she dropped her head, and they both blew away before the sun pierced the sky.
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