This particular holiday always carries a certain scent – that crisp, burnt, cool scent that settles in one’s clothes. As Mary rounds the corner to the kitchen, she finds her daughter Erica entering the room rear end first, pulling a wide pumpkin by the stem. She laughs and reaches down to help her, hoisting the pumpkin to the table.
Erica is dressed in a mock brown-leather, touch-the-knee dress, with beads draped every which way about her neck and wrists, moccasins on her feet, and a black wig centered on her head. She has a leather string wrapped about her waist. Her lips are painted cherry, and she smiles at Mary, proud of her own display. She is an Indian princess.
Her little brother George runs into the kitchen to join them.
“What are you going to be, George?” Mary asks, knowing that he has changed his mind daily for the last week.
“I’m gonna be a ghost!” George says excitedly.
He grabs a clean sheet from the laundry basket on the floor, puts it over his head, raises his arms, and fills his voice with BOOs, chasing Erica around the kitchen table. As Erica screams, with George chasing her, Mary freezes, suddenly turning pale and sick, with her eyes on
George – the ghost. She reaches out to grab him.
“Stop it!” she yells at him. “Stop it now!”
She yells so loudly and unlike her self that George, with the sheet in his hand, stops in place, looking like a statue of a little boy with his mouth open and empty. Erica stands behind him, silently, without moving. George begins to cry, and Mary sits down in a chair. The children watch her. George wipes his pudgy hands over his face.
Erica fidgets. “Are you all right, Mom?”
Mary nods, yes. She doesn’t look at the children.
Erica steps closer, saying, “Jimmy Hayes turned green right before he barfed in gym class, Mom. That’s how you look now. George, doesn’t Mom look green?”
George nods and keeps his distance.
“I’m fine, honey,” Mary says. “I’ll go to the bathroom and freshen up. Then we’ll carve that pumpkin face. George,” she says, turning around to take his hand, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you like that.”
“I didn’t mean it.” He pants and gasps. “I was just playing ghost.”
“Did he scare you, Mom?” Erica asks.
“Let me go to the bathroom,” Mary says. “We’ll talk when I get back.”
In the bathroom, Mary sits on the edge of the bathtub. She runs the cold water, dabs it on her face and forehead. She closes her eyes. She sees ghosts. They take her back in time.
One Halloween, when Mary was seven, she was playing with her friends in the front of a house that belonged to an old man they all called Elephant-Pants. Elephant-Pants lived in a small brown house surrounded by tight clumps of overgrown thickets and lilac bushes. Maple trees branched over the yard and the roof of the house. Elephant-Pants wore baggy bib-overalls and had dark-chocolate skin that hid the age that his slow step revealed. The children were both frightened and fascinated by the old man. One of their favorite pastimes was spinning stories about the black cat perched in the window of his house and the spooks that lurked in his attic – the skeleton bones in his basement.
On that day Mary and the neighborhood children trampled crunchy leaves and galloped quickly on broomsticks, pretending to be witches: Heeheehee aha, my little ones! Everyone knew that witches boiled children in huge black cauldrons. They tied each other to trees and stirred huge round kettles with their broomsticks, imaginary flames blazing. Elephant-Pants strode by as they played, carrying a bag of groceries in his arms, and all of the little witches-to-be began to taunt him, curling their tongues and squealing. Elephant-Pants walked on as they scattered about him. The black cat stretched in the sunlight in front of the old man’s house and, startled by the flight of children, it stood to arch its back and snarl. Elephant-Pants escaped inside.
The children continued to play, waiting for the day to slide into night. When dusk came they gathered outside of Elephant-Pants’ house and hid in the thickets. They had a plan to spook the old man, and when he emerged, with the cat trailing at his heels, he didn’t see them in the growing dark. He walked to where his newspaper was laying on the ground, and as he stooped down for it, the children jumped out of the thickets, hooting and booing and screaming like banshees. One of the children, in the midst of all the noise, picked up a rock and blindly hurled it. The rock hit the old man, and as he fell, the children fled.
His neighbor, Mrs. Woods, had heard the commotion and gone outside to find him on the ground. She helped him back inside and patched his wound. She was the one who told Martin’s mother what had happened. She had seen Martin running away with the others, and she knew each child within two blocks by face and name. Martin’s mother told Sally’s mother, who told Molly’s, who told Steven’s, who told David’s, who told Mary’s.
When Mary returned home, soiled and out of breath, David’s mother had already called hers, and her mother snatched her hand as soon as she entered the door and pulled her into her bedroom. Mary looked at her mother. Her face red and blotched with anger. She didn’t speak. Mary knew she was mad, but she didn’t know what to say, except that she hadn’t done it; she wasn’t the one who threw the rock; she never would have thrown a rock at the old man. She wouldn’t throw a rock at anyone.
“Momma, I didn’t…”
“I don’t want to hear it, Mary,” her mother said. “You’ll wait here for your father.” She glared at Mary. “He’ll be home soon.”
Her mother left the room, and Mary sat. She didn’t make a sound. The minutes ticked by – slowly tick slowly tock. She swung her legs and bit her fingernails. She hoped her father wouldn’t spank her, or ground her for Halloween. Occasionally she pinched herself. She finally heard her father’s car grinding to a halt in the driveway. She heard the heavy car door slam. She heard him walking up the sidewalk, his heels occasionally scraping the cement. The screened door opened with a creak and slapped shut. She heard distant voices in the kitchen, and then she heard nothing.
When the door to her room opened, Mary’s eyes widened, moistened. Her father entered, closed the door behind him. She sat still as he sat beside her.
“Heard ya had a run-in with the old man today,” he said. “That right?”
Mary nodded yes. She didn’t understand why he was smiling; she watched his face.
“Old man get hurt?” he asked.
Mary nodded yes again, blurting out, “But I didn’t throw the rock.”
“Settle down,” her father said. “Even if it was you, which I know it wasn’t, I told your mom that even kids know it’s all right to stone a nigger now and then. Keeps em in place. And we all got a place, honey. Did you know that? Did you know that we all got a place?”
Mary sat with her mouth open, her little lips puffed out. Her mother had told her never to say that word, or to even think it – nigger. Her mother said that God created everyone equal. She hadn’t wanted to hurt Elephant-Pants. They were playing. She never meant to hurt the old man. She sat with her mouth open, silent. She didn’t want to tell her father that her mother told her to never say that word.
“Ready for the big night?” he asked her in her silence. “Trick or treat!”
Mary nodded. She didn’t know why, but she felt sad, sitting there, with him beside her, grinning. Rain began to fall. She heard it plopping on leaves. The wet smell reminded her of earthworms.
“Well, let’s go eat,” her father said, “and then we’ll check out that costume.”
He opened her bedroom door and the smells of supper floated in. She followed him from her room into the kitchen. Her mother said very little during the meal. Occasionally she looked at Mary, made her squirm. Mary was quiet; she didn’t feel like Halloween anymore. She looked at her mother, who looked like she wanted to cry but was holding back the sob.
Mary walked down the dark streets alone that Halloween night. Most of her friends had been grounded over the incident. Few trick-or-treaters were left on the streets, and those who remained straggled on tired feet, with heavy bags hanging from their arms. Mary’s feet were sore, but she didn’t really mind, and never before had she gotten so much candy! She hummed loudly as she walked to ward off goblins, suddenly feeling a hand on her shoulder. The wind picked up around her, and she stopped walking, stopped breathing. She didn’t want to turn around. She knew it was a witch, with gnarly fingers and a wart on her nose. Tears swallowed her eyes and her throat tightened. She didn’t want to look. She couldn’t move. She was frozen – stuck.
“Kind of jumpy, aren’t you?”
She heard her father’s voice and lurched forward with a start.
“Whoa whoa whoa!” he said. “Looks like you’re expecting goblins.”
“You scared me, Daddy!” She looked up at him, trying to catch her breath.
“Look at all those goodies!” He looked in her bag and grinned. “Pretty good pickins, I’d say.”
She nodded. “Where you going?”
“I’ve got an errand to run,” he said, “and then I’ll be heading home. Which is where you should be going. It’s getting late.”
“Can’t I go with you? We walk home together,” she begged, taking her father’s hand.
“Not tonight, honey.” He dropped her hand. “You head on home. And tell your mom I’ll be there shortly.”
“Okay,” she grumbled.
She watched as her father turned and quickly loped away, melting into the darkness. Hidden night birds cooed while bats slanted through the black. The wind bent the trees forward, and she thought they might stretch out their branches, grab her, hold her for the spooks. Crickets chirped loudly, their songs growing scratchy and eerie, turning in her ears. She was cold and as she strained her eyes to see up the block, to the vacant lot on the corner and the wide field beyond, where her father had gone, she thought she saw a flicker. Then she was sure she had, and she began to walk toward the light.
As Mary neared the lot on the other side of the field, she saw a bonfire sparking. She felt the fire’s warmth mixing with the damp wind. She stepped nearer to the brightness and gasped. The fire flamed like a volcano, with people circling it – all of them dressed like ghosts. She thought that they must be having a Halloween party of their own. They were saying something that she couldn’t understand. She tried to move closer, to find her father, but she tripped and fell, and the circle of ghost-people broke and turned towards her. All she saw was white sheets and black eyes. She was so scared that she wet her pants as she screamed.
“It’s all right; she’s mine!” a voice said. Mary knew it was her father.
She scrambled to her feet and scampered toward the voice. The fire blazed in her eyes and stung them. The heat licked her face; her legs and arms tingled. She twirled around in the midst of the ghosts. Where was he? She turned around and around, and then she suddenly stopped, looking on the ground before her. She screamed again, loudly, and silence echoed in her.
Elephant-Pants lay on the ground in the dirt before her – fire sparks landing to sizzle on his skin. He didn’t move. His eyes were open, white. They seemed to swallow the night sky. Blood formed a puddle about him, dripped down his face. Stones were scattered around him on the ground. Mary could not look away. She couldn’t breathe. Her stomach turned over and she felt cold, as if the icy look in his eyes was crawling through her skin.
She spun around, mutely. The ghosts ringed around her and her father moved towards her, firmly placing a hand on the nape of her neck. She shivered in his arms and cried, choking and sobbing, her fear petrified in her tight, shaking body. He took her hand and led her from the field.
When Mary and her father returned home, Mary ran to her mother and wrapped her arms around her as if she never would let go.
“My goodness,” her mother said, “what’s wrong with her?”
“This one’s got an imagination,” her father said, winking at her mother. “Thought she saw some ghosts.”
Mary returns to the kitchen to find George and Erica sitting at the table, watching the pumpkin, waiting. She smiles, kisses each of them on the cheek, and pulls up a chair between them.
“Are you okay?” Erica asks.
“I’m fine,” Mary answers.
“Are you afraid of ghosts?” George looks at her intensely.
“I think I am,” she says, finally acknowledging her own father’s legacy. She looks at her children, and at the sheet that George had donned, now lying on the floor. “One day, when you’re a little older, I’ll tell you a story about your Granddad and me.”
She gives each of them a caramel apple and, sitting with them as they smack their lips with sweetness, she silently says a prayer for the man she had known as Elephant-Pants. She then says another prayer – that the ghosts of the past might not always haunt the future.
Jane Hoppen lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she works as a technical and fiction writer. She has had fiction published in various literary magazines, including Story Quarterly, Feminist Studies, Room of One’s Own, The Dirty Goat, PANK, Western Humanities Review, Gertrude Journal, Platte Valley Review, The New Sound, Superstition Review, Forge Journal, Rio Grande Review, Meat for Tea, Thrice Fiction, Helix Magazine, and Hippocampus Magazine. Her first novel, In Between, is being published by Bold Strokes Books in 2013.