Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

Universal Horror

The game was the same as every year. Rachel could have called it in July, if she’d wanted. For every age-inappropriate costume that knocked on the door of their no-kids party—six-year-old sexy nurses, second-grade saloon girls—Bill had to do a shot. For every comic book or television character, Nalene had to do a shot. Usually David got drunk off ethnic-insults-on-parade—kids in headdresses, kids-as-pimps—but three months ago his girlfriend “Carrie” had given birth to a bouncing baby boy, so he wasn’t even at the party this year. David’s ex Jen always called animal-costumes, but, like David, she was starting over somewhere else.

Last Halloween, Rachel had had pirates and soldiers, a category she’d come up with herself, that had got her thoroughly sloshed by eight o’clock, in need of a restorative bump from Bill’s famous stash. This year she’d gone Russian roulette, just pulled a strip of paper from the salad bowl in the kitchen.

UNIVERSAL HORROR.

“But that’s everything?” she’d said, holding it up like she wasn’t going to fall for this.

Bill, their expert, groaned.

“Think thirties, forties,” he said, gesturing with his tumbler. “Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, Wolf Man. Phantom of the Opera.” He sung the last part, and gestured his arm wide and grand, to encompass the whole neighborhood.

“Kids don’t listen to opera anymore,” Nalene said.

Anymore?” Rachel said.

“Black Lagoon, Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein . . .” Bill was still reeling off.

And so the night began.

• • • •

The No-Kids Pre-November Drunkfest had started right out of college. Now Bill and Nalene and Rachel were the last hold-outs, the “loyalists” as David had called them when he was one: the diehards still sticking to their ideals of ten years ago, when they were never going to sell out, never going to buy in.

There’d been eight of them, then. Four couples against the world.

The only couple left standing now was Bill and Nalene.

“Our ranks are thinning,” Bill had been noting out loud since Rachel had walked over at five, and then he’d lift his tumbler to who they used to be.

Aside from David stepping out on Jen with Carrie the house-sitter, a development so ripped-from-the-sitcoms that Rachel could hardly even muster an ironic smile, Ali and Bethany had packed up and moved away (the farewell party had been epic, a throwback), were rumored to be pregnant-at-a-distance as well, having their progeny in shame. In a not-so-generic move, Ted had left Rachel in August for a willowy bag boy he’d found at the neighborhood grocery store.

Ted claimed not to be gay, to just be in love, but Rachel wasn’t stupid. He was being Ted was what it was: polite to a fault, careful of her feelings, trying to pull all the blame onto himself.

Instead of having the balls to just tell her it was over, that he’d never expected it to last this long, he was feigning infatuation, trying to make himself out to be a victim of love, caught in sudden headlights out on the highway of life.

It was pretty cliché, Rachel guessed. Except for the groping in the dark with a younger version of himself part. Really, it was pathetic—though Rachel did get a rush from trying to imagine how he had to hold his eyes when pointing his fingers to shove his left hand down into the hip-hugging pants of his bag boy. And it was delicious, too, how they probably had to be fast—breaks are fifteen minutes—and quiet, because the Coke machine they were pressed up against was high traffic, and the assistant manager of produce had already warned them once, about love.

So, for the first time in better than a decade, she was alone for Halloween.

And now the doorbell was ringing with the first trick ’r treater of the night.

Bill popped his plastic fangs in, said to Nalene and Rachel, “Bottoms up, ladies?”

Some things you don’t even dignify.

• • • •

It was a little mummy, all alone.

Rachel, at the door, looked back to Bill like he’d set all this up, hadn’t he?

“Like you came here to be sober?” Nalene said, nudging into the doorway with Rachel.

The rule was you take your shot after you shut the door. Because there were always parents watchdogging it at the curb, their flashlights forming yellow puddles of fear at their feet.

“A scary mummy,” Rachel said, holding the plastic bowl of candy out.

“That’s real gauze,” Nalene said, rubbing a trailing piece between the pads of her fingers. “Hospital grade.”

“Trick ’r treat,” the kid said, or something with that singsong lilt. There was no mouth hole, just too many layers of grimy white.

“Oh, yeah,” Rachel said. “Um, trick?”

She couldn’t remember the exact protocol. Did this mean she was asking for a trick, or promising one?

“Hey now . . .” Nalene was saying now.

Rachel refocused.

The little mummy had produced a foil-wrapped square skewered on a toothpick.

“Did you make this?” Rachel said, playing impressed (she had nieces and nephews), and took it, rattled the candy bowl like shaking up the secret candy from the bottom.

The little mummy’s gauze fingers went in, shoved around, came out with a single piece, and then he coughed under all that gauze, his mouth-fabric staining red.

“There’s your trick,” Nalene said, impressed. She called back to Bill, “Have you still got some of those?”

Bill looked around, said, “Blood capsules?”

The ritual over, the little mummy stepped off the porch.

Rachel looked around for the mummy’s mom, saw the dad instead in a Unabomber hoodie—costume? No? He stabbed a cigarette into the deep shadow his face was, was already casing the next house, holding his smoke in for longer than Rachel could have, like savoring every last gray swirl.

Not a neighborhood dad, Rachel figured. A weekend dad, bringing his kid to where the good candy was.

“Next?” Nalene said, leaning out.

It was early yet, hardly even dusk.

“Think he made it himself?” Rachel said, peeling the foil from the bite of brownie, letting it bloom at the top of the toothpick like a husk just opened.

Special brownie . . .” Bill said, balancing Rachel’s first shot over.

“It’s us who poisons them, right?” Rachel said, popping the brownie in, “not the other way around.”

“There’s probably Crayola in it,” Nalene said. “And cooties.”

Rachel chased the brownie with the shot.

It made her eyes water.

• • • •

Twenty minutes later—an astronaut they’d all had to drink for, as he filled no category, and a band of miniature pirates Nalene graciously claimed—Bill came back from the kitchen with the video camera.

“Liver Chronicles time . . .” he announced, as if there were more of them than there were.

“We still doing that?” Nalene said.

She was digging through the candy bowl for butterscotch. This was the one night of the year she allowed herself to indulge.

“Do you ever watch them?” Rachel called to Bill over the back of the couch.

“Every day,” he said, and plopped down. “I call them the Blackmail Tapes, actually.”

“There’s not enough of us to make it fun,” Rachel said.

“What the—?” Nalene said.

Rachel and Bill looked over.

She was extracting something from the candy bowl.

A bloody fingernail.

“Trick,” Bill said, and spit his fangs out into his palm, delivered them to a coaster on the coffee table.

“It’s fake, isn’t it?” Rachel said about the scabby fingernail.

Nalene was holding it up, inspecting it against the lamp.

“I don’t think I’m hungry anymore,” she said, and deposited the fingernail in the leather trashcan they used for umbrellas.

The doorbell rang again. Witches.

“That’d be David’s shot, for ethnic insult,” Bill said, getting the camera cued past last year’s confessions. “Witches have gypsy noses. Like in Oz. Tell me I’m wrong.”

“Magical creatures,” Rachel corrected. “That’s Ted.”

She took the shot, had to close her eyes to swallow it down.

“You all right?” Nalene said.

“Good,” Rachel coughed out.

“Who’s first?” Bill asked.

The Liver Chronicles were campfire stories, minus the campfire. Secrets you tell when you’re drunk.

“I don’t have any left,” Nalene said. “I didn’t last year either, remember? I just told that one about pouring nail polish remover on that cop car.”

“That wasn’t even you,” Rachel said.

“I was there,” Nalene said.

The rule was it had to be something punishable by law.

Bill turned the camera on himself.

“When I was sixteen,” he said, taking a long drink to let the tension build, “we used a sandwich bag for a rubber once.”

“Mixed company?” Nalene said, playing offended. “As in, there’s wives here?”

“Wives singular,” Rachel corrected, swirling her finger around to exclude herself.

This time when the doorbell rang, they looked that direction like it was already becoming a chore.

“Okay, okay,” Rachel finally said, and poured herself off the couch, collected the candy, swung the door back.

“Another mummy,” she said loud enough for Bill and Nalene.

That wasn’t exactly right, though.

“Have I seen you before?” she said down to the little mummy.

“Ask if he has another brownie!” Bill called.

“Here,” Rachel said, and offered the bowl.

The mummy hauled his arm up, sifted through. Rachel didn’t watch his fingers, but his one eye. He either had a filmy contact in—you can buy something like that for a kid?—or this was a real live mummy.

“Good gauze,” she said, just for herself, letting the back of her index finger brush the little mummy’s mummied cheek.

Dirty gauze,” Nalene said, suddenly there again, rubbing a trailing strip between her fingers, careful to avoid the stained parts that were supposed to be old blood. Or embalming fluid? She leaned down to look into the mummy’s face. “You’re not going to leave us any surprises in with the candy again, are you?”

“Leave him be,” Rachel said, and pulled the bowl away, her eyes trying to see the whole sidewalk at once. Trying to see the hoodie-dad, so she could tell from his stance whether he knew this was the same house or not. So she could tell if he was in on this or not.

“Good trick . . .” Nalene was saying to the little mummy.

Rachel backtracked, saw: the little mummy had three pieces of candy in his wrapped fingers, but his trailing gauze was still sticky on back, it seemed. It had collected a butterscotch.

“That was mine,” Nalene said, reaching for it.

The little mummy twitched the candy away.

“Where’s your dad?” Rachel said to the little mummy, looking past him again.

“Why?” Nalene said, tiptoeing to look. “Is he a candidate?”

Rachel shut the door.

• • • •

Because the little mummy’s costume had been so good, Rachel did the one shot she had to, since he was a monster from the thirties, but then she poured another, carried it with her the way Bill always held his cut-glass tumbler.

He lifted it to her, drank a sip, and raised the camera to her.

“Do we have to?” she said.

“Tradition,” Bill said, tracking her face.

Rachel crossed to the couch, sat all the way back into it, and shook her head like she wasn’t going to do this.

But she already was.

“There was one I never told,” she said. “Because, you know. Ted.”

“Is he in it?” Nalene asked, thrilled, her bare feet tucked under her on the couch beside Rachel.

“I couldn’t tell it because it wasn’t him,” Rachel said.

“Now we’re getting somewhere . . .” Bill said, and the way he put his fangs back in, Rachel could see him at seventy, with dentures.

“Don’t record this one, though,” she said.

“Just with this,” Bill said, tapping his temple with his middle finger.

“That means turn the camera off,” Nalene prompted.

Bill hissed a vampire hiss at her and clapped the camera in his lap shut.

“Thanks,” Rachel said to Nalene, then looked at the door like it was the only thing that could save her now. When it didn’t, she came back, chewed her cheeks in like she hated, and said, “Remember Craig D.?”

“Which one was he?” Bill asked.

“Davidson,” Nalene filled in. “The other was Morrison.”

“Morissey,” Rachel corrected. “We never dated, really. We just went out twice, I guess.”

“And you couldn’t tell Ted about this?” Bill asked.

“I could now,” Rachel said. “Let’s just say we were driving. And only one of us was watching the road.”

“Oh,” Nalene said, her lower lip sucked in, eyes hot.

“Second date?” Bill said. “What, were you a prude back then?”

Rachel flipped him off, kept going. “We were out in that industrial park place, just kind of taking random rights.”

“The road to heaven is paved with—” Bill started, but Nalene saw his hand-mouth motion coming, was already tossing a pillow at him.

“Go on,” she said.

“That’s it, really,” Rachel said. “Remember how there were all those rabbits out there, though?”

“You killed Thumper?” Bill said, impressed.

Rachel drank a sip, then just shot the rest.

She wasn’t going to make eight o’clock this year either, she knew. Not without help.

“We hit something. I felt it, like, in the floor. When we got back to my apartment, there was blood and hair on the front of that Camaro he had? The red one?”

“He had a name for it,” Bill said, looking past Rachel, at the door.

“I’m sure he did,” Rachel said. “Like I said, it was just that once. But then—do you remember that week? Right before finals, junior year?”

Nalene let her eyes scan all the internal headlines she always had on instant. “No,” she said, when she got to that week.

“I—I don’t know,” Rachel said.

“What?” Bill said, leaning forward, picking up on the seriousness in Nalene’s tone.

“That kid, the hit and run,” Nalene said, staring at Rachel, waiting for Rachel to smile, waiting for this all to be a joke. “We went to the vigil, remember?”

Bill looked up to the right corner of the room, nodded, came back with, “That thing at the flagpoles, where we all had candles but nobody lit them, yeah.”

“Because he was burned by the time they found him,” Rachel said, shrugging like it didn’t matter. “Whoever hit him, they went back. To hide the evidence. Right there in the road.”

“You can’t burn a whole body with gasoline,” Nalene said.

“You can burn paint off that body, though,” Rachel said.

“Returning to the scene of the crime,” Bill said, shaking his head at the stupidity.

“And so—” Nalene said, getting her words right, “and so you’ve, ever since then, you’ve been thinking it was you? That it was because of you?”

Rachel shrugged again.

“Even if it was Craig, then it was Craig,” Nalene said. “You were just an innocent bystander. You wouldn’t even count as a witness.”

“I’d probably count as something,” Rachel said, watching Bill’s fangs, on the coffee table again.

“I don’t think you’re in any real danger of him ratting you out,” Bill said.

They both turned to him.

“Craig Davidson,” he said, and when they both still just stared, waiting, he said, “Do y’all, like, live in this city?”

“What?” Nalene said.

Bill cocked a hanging hand around an invisible noose and kicked his head over sideways, tongue lolling. “Last Halloween . . .” he croaked, trying to roll his eyes back. “Best trick ever . . .”

And then the doorbell rang again.

• • • •

Rachel flinched hard enough that her drink would have spilled if it wasn’t already gone.

“Your turn,” she said, and climbed up from the suddenly-deep couch.

She was talking to Nalene, but it was Bill who rose, leading with his glass.

“Oh shit,” he said.

It was a squad of zombie cheerleaders. Sexy zombie cheerleaders, none of them past fourth grade yet.

On her way past, for the guest bathroom, Rachel picked the cheerleader’s den mom out at the curb, the side of her face lit with a cellphone, her skirt just as short as the cheerleaders’.

In the bathroom, Rachel just had to get her face close to the toilet to start vomiting. She splashed all her shots into the toilet, along with the crumbled, soggy bite of brownie.

And—what the hell?

Squirming blind in the puke water, trying to live, were four or five blind maggots.

Rachel threw up again, from deeper, and flushed before opening her eyes this time.

It’s for you!” Nalene was calling through the door with fake cheer. “You all right in there?”

Rachel wiped her face, pulled herself up with the brass doorknob.

No doorbell, but when there was a line off the porch like rush hour, you just stood there, waited for the next little monster.

“C’mon already . . .” Nalene said, hooking her arm through Rachel’s, dragging her to the front door.

The little mummy.

“Told you,” Bill said, and clapped his sixth consecutive shot down onto the coffee table. Because there’d been six zombie cheerleaders.

“How long was I in there?” Rachel said, looking back to the bathroom.

“Here,” Nalene said, thrusting the candy bowl into Rachel’s gut, pushing her at the little mummy.

“We know what you’re doing,” Rachel said to the little mummy. “It’s called cheating.”

The little mummy guided its trembly hand into the candy.

“And stickies don’t count,” Nalene said over Rachel’s shoulder.

The little mummy creaked something and Rachel nodded like she understood, was already dreading the next shot, then, as the door was closing, she keyed on the hoodie-dad out at the curb. A line of smoke seeped up from the shadow his face was, then dissipated up into the night

“Wait—” she said, trying to catch the door.

It opened again, onto a pair of teenage Wonder Women, their star-spangled bustiers dangerously loose.

“A twofer,” Rachel said, or, heard herself saying.

Because of the comic book origins, Nalene had to drink. Because of the skin-on-display, Bill had two more shots coming.

“And one for me,” Rachel said.

Because of the mummy.

• • • •

For the first time Rachel knew about since college, Bill passed out before the party was over. Before it really even started.

“He started at lunch,” Nalene said, positioning a couch pillow under his head. “Guess we’re getting old, right?”

Rachel didn’t answer.

“Not that you look it,” Nalene said, lifting Rachel’s hair on one side. “That brownie was good for you, girl. Ted doesn’t know what he’s missing.”

“I don’t have the right parts for Ted anymore,” Rachel said.

“World’s full of Teds,” Nalene said, and opened the liquor cabinet like the door to another world.

“Think I need a little boost,” Rachel said, touching the side of her nose Santa-style so Nalene would hear the snow in her words.

“You and me both,” Nalene said. “But sleepyhead over there—you know how paranoid he can get? He keeps his stash somewhere in the garage. Says it’s better if I don’t know.”

Rachel was too out of it to even be amused.

“We are getting old,” she said.

“You ever think about it?” Nalene said, pouring herself something opaque. “The biological clock, I mean? Tick-tick-tick?”

“I’m not a bomb,” Rachel said, and took Nalene’s drink from her, took a deep swig. “I’d be a terrible mom, though.”

“You seen some of the costumes out there?” Nalene said. “I don’t think there’s exactly a lot of adult supervision going on.”

Rachel took another bitter drink.

“I should buy some more water,” she said.

Nalene studied her, didn’t follow. Rachel didn’t explain. Her garage had some thirty five-gallon jugs of water stacked all across it. It was because she liked to watch Ted’s bag boy carry them out, try to fit them in the trunk.

Initially, her thought had been to tip him, not have enough money, then invite him back to her place for some real gratuity.

He was so pretty, though. So young. So unaware.

Let Ted keep him, she told herself. Ted deserves someone nice, someone good.

This time when the doorbell rang, she didn’t even flinch.

“I already know,” she said to Nalene, and killed whatever her vile drink was.

Instead of the mummy, it was a werewolf. Or, an adult werewolf mask on a kid who could maybe spell his name, if given three tries and a running start.

“I like you,” Rachel said, and squatted down, shifted through the candy bowl, finally came up with the swirly lollipop that somehow hadn’t been grabbed yet.

“You just want him to mess up his costume,” Nalene said, the two of them watching the werewolf cub waddle away.

“I don’t want one, no,” Rachel said. “I don’t deserve it.”

Nalene looked over to her, her eyes holding Rachel’s.

“Nobody deserves that,” Nalene said.

Rachel closed her eyes, the house spinning around her.

Next up was the Legion of Doom, or some superhero team.

Nalene curled her shoulders forward like she’d just been punched in the gut.

Rachel opened another bottle, started pouring.

• • • •

It was a ghost who found what was hiding in the candy bowl.

The reason it was a ghost was that he didn’t have gloves, just had little-kid fingers to reach out from under his sheet.

It wasn’t quite a maggot, but it wasn’t quite a fly yet either.

Worse, it seemed to be looking up at Rachel and Nalene. Like it was well aware what a vulnerable state it was in. Like it expected whatever they had to do, here.

Nalene opened her hands, the bowl falling for minutes, it felt like.

The next group of kids—soldiers, which would have been deadly last year—fell to their knees, stuffing their cargo pockets and cartridge belts with candy.

“What’s happening?” Rachel said to Nalene, clutching her forearm hard.

Nalene shut the door, twisted the deadbolt and smeared her hand across the bank of switches, turning the porch light off the same way people in movies close the eyes of dead people.

“We need that bump . . .” she said, which is how her and Rachel ended up in the garage, neck-deep in Bill-land.

Thirty minutes later, Nalene caught the back of her ankle on some hidden blade in what felt like the lawn maintenance corner, and it bled and bled, and then bled some more.

In the bathroom, on the sink, she collapsed in laughter.

Rachel had jammed cottonballs between Nalene’s toes like this was a pedicure.

Rachel caught the laugh, couldn’t stop. By the end of it, she was crying.

“I think I miss him,” she said, looking up to Nalene. “How stupid is that?”

Nalene, never mind her ankle, stood, hugged Rachel close and patted the back of her head.

“We’ll kill him,” she said. “You didn’t deserve this, girl.”

Rachel’s breath hitched and then she was really crying, Nalene stroking the back of her hair flat.

“There, there,” she was saying.

In the mirror, Rachel caught her face. She pushed away, looked harder at her reflection.

“I’m breaking out,” she said, turning her face sideways for the cloud of red at the corner of her mouth.

“Stress,” Nalene said.

“There was something in that brownie,” Rachel said.

“Like a reaction?”

“Like I don’t know. They’re not from this block.”

“Damn foreigners,” Nalene said, sure to use her family’s accent.

Rachel closed her eyes, tried to think.

Somewhere in the swirly center of that moment, the doorbell rang.

• • • •

“But it’s him!” Rachel said, Nalene holding her by the wrist, keeping her from the door.

“We don’t have any more candy,” Nalene said.

“I don’t think he wants candy,” Rachel said, and jerked away, cracked the complicated mechanics of the deadbolt—it was the kind with a key to turn it—and swung the door back fast enough that her hair sucked forward.

She was looking down at denim knees. At jeans.

She tracked up, up.

David,” Nalene said.

“And David, Jr.,” Rachel added, already looking past them, to the sidewalk.

“Is he—is he—?” Nalene was trying to get out.

David finished it for her: “Spider-Man.”

Rachel felt Nalene deflate beside her.

“You knew, didn’t you?” Nalene said. “Did Bill call, tell you?”

“Bill?” David said, craning around then saying it: “Oh, man. Party foul. Early ejection.”

It was what they’d all used to say.

David was holding a baby now, though. One he’d made. One he’d dressed up as a superhero. One too young to even gum any of this candy.

Rachel pushed past him, onto the lawn.

“Have you seen a mummy?” she asked.

“You mean Carrie?” David said.

“She thinks this cute little mummy has it in her for,” Nalene said, out on the porch with David now. “He stole all our candy.”

“Seriously?” David was saying behind Rachel. Like in another world.

Rachel was to the sidewalk now. Looking one way, then the other.

There were enough shots out here to drown a whale.

Walk far enough one way, and the parking lot of the grocery store would open up. Back the other way, there were just houses forever, cul-de-sacs and dead-ends and streets named after trees and presidents.

“Here, mummy mummy mummy,” Rachel said.

As if in answer, a pale piece of trash in the street flopped over in the breeze.

A strip of gauze.

Rachel stepped out, was squatted down to peel it up from the hot asphalt when her world went white and loud.

The car had stopped six inches from her face.

She stood holding the fluttering gauze, like that would explain it, and then Nalene was there, limping to the rescue, making things worse by yelling at the driver, who’d spilled his beer into his lap, was yelling too.

Finally David, his baby on his hip, was able to calm the driver, get him to move on past.

“Nothing to see here,” Rachel said to herself.

When Nalene guided her back to the porch, Rachel having to help Nalene stand, David didn’t follow.

This is how goodbyes work, she knew.

• • • •

“How did you not know about Craig D.?” Rachel said.

They were on the couch again.

“I don’t, like, stalk everyone I used to know,” Nalene said, holding her hair away from the coffee table so she could inhale a generous second line.

She offered the ceremonial straw to Rachel but the back of Rachel’s throat was already that hot kind of drippy, her thoughts already that grainy kind of cold.

“But you’ve got that memory,” Rachel said, doing her fingers to indicate Nalene’s big brain.

Nalene sighed back into the couch, either had no answer or no interest in answering.

The way they’d found the stash was by waking Bill. With the old trick of ice cubes on his closed eyes. He’d staggered up, fell halfway down, and for his few moments of groggy awareness Nalene asked him where the stash was, the stash the stash the stash.

Bill mumbled something about fishing, and tried to do his hands around an imaginary rod and reel but couldn’t seem to remember if he was right- or left-handed. It was enough.

Now they were here, deeper into the night.

“Think that’s the one they used?” Nalene said, pointing her finger in the general direction of the sandwich bag the stash had been sleeping in.

It took Rachel an instant to make the connection from this to Bill’s confession about the condom that wasn’t.

“He had to be lying,” she said. “No girl would ever let—” but lost the tail of the thought, once the words turned into an image.

“Girls he knew in high school . . .” Nalene said, and wowed her eyes out like not much would surprise her, here.

“Girls he knew in college . . .” Rachel said back, meaning the two of them.

Nalene threw a balled-up napkin at her.

This time when the doorbell rang, neither of them looked back to the door.

“Ali and Bethygirl,” Nalene finally said, her voice slurring. “Big reunion tour.”

Rachel did her hands around the idea of a pregnant belly.

They collapsed into spasms of laughter.

Nalene rose, did Rachel’s line, then wiped her nose on the back of her hand and looked at it, pressed it to her right nostril.

“I’m not letting you walk home like that,” she said to Rachel.

“You’re the one with the ankle,” Rachel said.

“I mean,” Nalene said, doing her fingers by her head to show, “your state of mind.”

Rachel shrugged, looked back to the door just when it chimed again.

“This is it,” she said, and vaulted over the back of the couch.

“No, don’t—” Nalene said, reaching across Bill, but it was too late.

Rachel opened the door hard, let its knob clap into the wall, shake all the pictures.

“Oh,” she said.

A fourth-grader in a white t-shirt, something clever written on the front in marker. Something saying what this lo-fi costume was.

Instead of staring until her eyes could rearrange the letters, she reached back for the candy bowl that wasn’t there.

“Oh, shit,” she said, and the fourth-grader snapped his eyes up to her about her slip then out to the huddle of parents at the sidewalk, watching. Lip-reading.

“No, no, here,” Rachel said, dropping to her knees.

Wedged against the sun-bleached stone frog guarding the top of the stairs was some chocolate doodad in wax paper.

Rachel held it up to the fourth-grader.

When he didn’t understand, she grabbed his hand, forced the candy into it, and folded his fingers back.

Now one of the dads was walking across the grass, to stop this.

Rachel straightened her left arm to lean against it better—what she’d always considered a Scarlett O’Hara pose for some reason—and waited for whatever was next.

• • • •

When Nalene couldn’t find the shot glass for the shot she owed the world—the marker on the fourth-grader’s chest had been T-SHIRT MAN—she just curled up around the bottle.

“This isn’t a good sign,” Rachel said, afraid to sit down now. She might not be able to haul herself back up.

“We’re getting old, girl,” Nalene said, and took a swig.

“Speak for yourself,” Rachel said, pushing away from the back of the couch. “I’m going to bed.”

When the deadbolt didn’t work anymore, she looked back to Nalene for help.

Nalene held up the deadbolt key, then slid it neatly down the front of Bill’s pants.

“You don’t think I’ll do it?” Rachel said.

“Let me,” Nalene said, and rolled over on top of Bill, her hand back down the front of his pants, her body trying hard to writhe him awake.

Rachel watched until she didn’t want to see anymore, then zeroed in on the banister, let it deliver her upstairs, to the guest room.

Piled on the bed and avalanching off it were the bags of yarn Nalene always had.

They were in plastic shopping bags.

Rachel lifted one, smelled the handle-part for bag boy scent. For Ted. And then she had to balance her face up to keep her eyes from spilling.

She turned around, fell backwards into the pile like a tea commercial.

The yarn was soft, the plastic crinkly and loud.

She blinked once, blinked again, and there was already crust in the corners of her eyes.

• • • •

It wasn’t morning yet, she professionally surmised. The window was still black.

Her mouth was tacky, tasted bad.

She’d left the hall light on, too. Now that she could see it, it was too bright.

“Stupid, stupid,” she said, and rolled out of the pile of bags, her hair and fingers trailing yarn. One red strand even hooked to the back of her earring.

When the light switch sucked the brightness back into itself, it brought a different kind of quiet with it.

Something was dripping downstairs.

Rachel reeled back through the evening, decided the sound had to be Nalene dry-humping Bill, the bottle a casualty of love behind her.

But this was thicker. The sound. Slower, more deliberate.

Rachel cocked her head over, swallowed, and for a bad instant flashed on Nalene and Bill tangled on the couch, each of their throats smiling, those bright red smiles arranged against each other for a last kiss.

She threw up, right onto the brand new carpet.

“Sorry, sorry,” she said, trying to wipe it away with her hands, and then a car honked once out in the street, like a date.

When it honked again, Rachel slung her face up, crossed fast to the window of the guest bedroom, pulled the miniblinds open hard enough that they stayed.

Stopped in the street, its parking lights orangey-yellow at all four corners, its headlights glowed down, was a cherry red Camaro.

The driver door was open, the driver leaned back against the hood, his legs crossed at the ankle.

A breath of smoke seeped up from his hoodie and he lifted his cigarette hand to Rachel, saluted her seeing him.

Rachel fell back, into the bags and the yarn.

“Nalene!” she said, her voice rising to a scream. “Nalene!”

Nalene was dead, though. She knew that now.

Rachel grubbed back for a shopping bag, poured its yarn out, breathed into the bag four times, five.

And then she realized her hands were on the handles of the bag. That she could put it on like a hat, snug it down tight at the neck. That it would be so easy. Just like it had been for Craig D.

“No, no,” she said, standing, shaking the bag away.

There was something else sticking to her hand, though.

The gauze.

When she pulled it away, it took a patch of skin with it.

Rachel fell to her knees, her mouth open in shock and pain, her left hand clapped over the torn spot on her right wrist, and then became sure something was about to stand from the pile of bags. Something draped in yarn. Something rotten under all that color.

She kicked back, away from the bed. Pressed her back against the wall.

“Nalene,” she said, quieter now, because Nalene couldn’t hear.

Would Nalene even know that was Craig D. out there in the street? That he’d stepped over, become something else?

He was asking Rachel to come with.

Just for a quick ride.

That had been his name for the Camaro: Quick Ride.

Rachel felt a laugh burble from her lips and held her hand over it, and in that moment there was a distinct knock, one-two-three.

From the door beside her. The closet.

When Rachel didn’t answer, it knocked again, harder. More insistent.

Shaking her head no about it the whole time, she stood, faced the door, and twisted the knob.

Because it was a dream, she was telling herself. Because at the instant in her dreams that a scary thing showed itself, she always shook herself awake.

It was time to wake up.

She pulled the door back, ready to fall into the next day’s morning—into November—but, instead of waking, she saw the scary thing.

The little mummy.

“Trick ’r treat,” he said, through the gauze.

Because that’s what they do for burn victims. That’s what they do for kids who weren’t really dead when they were burned alive.

The little mummy held his hand up to Rachel.

“I’m—I’m so sorry,” Rachel said.

The little mummy nodded, knew, its one eye even holding a teaspoon of pity for her, it seemed.

His hand was sticky. From the gauze.

“Oh,” Rachel said, when he turned, led her back into the vast blackness of the closet.

Rachel’s breath when she breathed, it was delicate and white, but just for a moment.

Then it was gone altogether.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels and six story collections. Most recent are Mapping the Interior, from Tor.com and the comic book My Hero, from Hex Publishers. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.