Everyone tiptoed on eggshells around Gracie, especially her dad. You just never knew what to expect. One minute she might act like her normal, friendly self, and the next she would be picking nasty fights with her family and friends, or just bursting into tears. Ever since her mother died ten months earlier, her behavior had become erratic.
That’s why, when Gracie asked Mandy to accompany her to Mrs. Wilson’s house to trick-or-treat, Mandy was too afraid to say no. Instead, she pleaded, “Do we have to Gracie? I’m tired and I still have homework. Please can we just go home.” She took a step closer to Gracie and whispered in her ear, “Besides, my brother said that Mrs. Wilson’s house is haunted. It’s creeping me out.”
Gracie stomped her foot and bellowed, “You’re supposed to be my best friend, Mandy. Why can’t we ever do what I want to do?” Tears sprang to her eyes, and she covered her face with her hands, ashamed of how mean she was behaving towards her friend. She stood for a few minutes without moving, took some deep breaths and said, “I’m sorry Mandy. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Please come.”
What she hadn’t told Mandy was that she could swear she heard her mom’s voice calling to her, beckoning her to Mrs. Wilson’s house, and she was terrified to go alone. She couldn’t tell if it was real or if she was imagining it, but she knew she had to go.
Mandy looked at her distraught friend and a wave of sympathy washed over her. She held Gracie’s hand and began swinging it like they used to when they were seven years old. She nodded her head, “Okay, I’ll come with you.
As they turned towards Mrs. Wilson’s house, Mandy thought about the conversation she had with her mother that morning. Sitting at the breakfast table, staring into her bowl of Cheerios, Mandy had whined to her mom, “Gracie’s not fun anymore. She’s always in a bad mood. I don’t even know if I want to go trick-or-treating with her.”
Mandy’s mom sat next to her and put her arm around her shoulders. She said, “Don’t say that honey. You and Gracie have been best friends since kindergarten. You’ve gone trick-or-treating together for seven years. Don’t give up on her.” She paused for a moment and pushed up her glasses. “Just think about how sad and angry Gracie must be feeling and how much she suffered during her mom’s long illness.” She stroked her daughter’s hair and murmured, “Gracie needs you now more than ever.”
Mandy sighed deeply and asked, “When is she going to be okay again, Mom?”
Her mother shrugged her shoulders and poured her another glass of milk, “It will take as long as it takes.”
When they approached Mrs. Wilson’s house, the girls stopped for a moment to assess it for creepiness. What they saw was a bright, well-kept house decorated with cheerful pumpkins, and though there seemed to be nothing unusual about it, it had a certain aura that made the girls feel uneasy. Mandy stealthily pulled out her phone and texted her mother, “We’re at creepy Mrs. Wilson’s house. Call the police if you don’t hear from me in five minutes.”
Mandy slipped the phone back into her pocket, and the girls clutched hands as they slowly trudged towards the door. “We don’t have to do this,” mumbled Mandy. We can still turn around and go home.”
“No,” replied Gracie. “I do have to do this.” Gracie’s hand began to tremble as she pressed the doorbell. A minute later a melodious voice rang out, “Who is it?”
Feeling anxious, the girls squeezed each other’s hands as they sang out in unison, “Trick-or-treat.”
Mrs. Wilson opened the door with a warm smile on her face and a bowl of candy in her hands. She looked at the girls and exclaimed, “Wonder Woman and Scarlet Witch. How cute are you?” She then winked at Gracie and said, “We’ve been expecting you. Come on in.”
Gracie furrowed her brows, a bit taken aback that someone she hardly knew would invite her into the house. As she puffed up her chest to say absolutely not, she risked a quick peek into the living room and what she saw caused her to freeze like a block of ice. Her bag of candy dropped to the ground and spilled all over the porch. Her eyes flew open wide, and the color drained from her face. There, sitting on Mrs. Wilson’s couch, was her mother, and she looked beautiful and healthy.
Gracie’s mother’s face lit up when she spotted her daughter and she crooned, “Come on in honey. It’s okay. It’s really me.”
Gracie’s heart began to race, and she clutched her head in disbelief wondering if this is what it feels like to go crazy. She wanted it to be her mother so badly, but she couldn’t understand what was happening. She took a few, slow tentative steps towards the couch, stopped, and then ran the rest of way. She threw her arms around her mom only to discover they passed right through her and she was hugging herself. She blurted out, “Is this for real?”
Mrs. Wilson turned to her and smiled kindly, “I sometimes have special guests pay me a visit on Halloween Eve. Today, you and your mom are my VIP guests.”
As reality set in, Gracie collapsed to the floor and began to sob, I’m sorry Mommy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, her voice escalating with pain until her mom yelled, “Gracie Lynn Spencer, stop it right now!” Gracie snapped to attention as she always had when her mom called her by her full name and sat poised to listen. Her mother looked her in the eye and said, “there is nothing for you to feel sorry about.”
Gracie’s breath was coming in gulps and she rasped, “But I wasn’t at the hospital when you died. I went to Sophie’s birthday party instead. I knew how sick you were but I went to the party anyway. I never said good-bye. You must hate me. I hate me. I will never be happy again.”
Gracie’s mother gave her a stern look. “No” she snapped. “I could never hate you. Not in a million years. You have nothing to be sorry about. You’re just a kid that wanted to go to a party. You just wanted to feel normal for a change. You didn’t make the decision on your own. Your father and I wanted you to get a break.” She took a ghostly breath, “that’s why Dad drove you there.”
She looked down and dabbed at her eyes, “You didn’t know it would be my last day. Nobody did. When I passed, I felt your love swirling around me. I know you loved me, and I love you to heaven and back. So,” she huffed, “you need to get rid of that guilt that’s weighing you down and begin to process your grief. It’s okay to be sad and to miss me, but don’t you dare feel guilty. Got it?”
The tears continued to pour down Gracie’s face as she choked out, “I got it.”
Gracie’s mother smiled sadly, “I have to go now, sweetheart, but I couldn’t leave this world without giving you this message.” She turned to Mrs. Wilson,” Thanks for inviting us today. Now I can move on in peace.”
She blew Gracie a kiss and murmured, “Good-bye Sweetheart. Have fun, be happy, and tell your brother and Daddy I will watch over you always.”
“Gracie sat on the couch and sniffled, “Bye Mommy. I’ll never forget you.”
For the next few minutes, Gracie sat in stunned silence as she watched her mother’s image slowly disappear. When it was all over, she felt the weight of her guilt began to lift off her shoulders and float away. She was free. Gracie continued to sit on the couch deep in thought until suddenly she turned to Mrs. Wilson and gasped, “Oh my God, I left Mandy standing outside by herself. I’ve been in here for like an hour. She must be so worried.”
Gracie raced outside just in time to see Mandy bending down to pick up her candy. Gracie joined her on the ground and blurted out, “I’m so sorry for taking so long. You must have been so scared when I went into the house.”
Mandy wrinkled her nose and asked, “What are you talking about? We just got here. I don’t know what happened that you suddenly dropped your bag of candy, but let’s just pick it up and go home.” When they were done cleaning up, Mrs. Wilson gave them each two full-sized Hershey bars and waved good-bye.
As they skipped to the end of the walkway, Mandy pulled out her phone to text her mother that they were leaving Mrs. Wilson’s. She noticed they had only been there for three minutes. She remarked to her friend, “Mrs. Wilson is really nice. I don’t know why my brother said her house is haunted. He’s so dumb.”
“Yeah,” said Gracie. “I really like her. You know, before my mom got sick, she used to say we should have tea with Mrs. Wilson. My mom was worried she was lonely.” Gracie looked down at the ground, “but we never got the chance.” She kicked an empty soda can on the sidewalk and suddenly perked up, “Hey, I know. I’ll visit her next weekend. Maybe I’ll bring some muffins.”
Mandy shrugged her shoulders, “That’s nice of you. Maybe I’ll join you.” “By the way,” she added, “my mom is making fried chicken tonight. Wanna have dinner at my house? Afterwards we can trade candy.”
“Yeah,” said Gracie. “I think I’d like that. Let me just call my dad.” And as she took her phone out of her pocket, she truly smiled for the first time in a very long time.