Greta uses two fingers to scoop up a good-sized glop of green makeup from a ratty looking jar, then leans in close to the mirror. Where to start? Usually this is such an easy thing to do. Almost automatic.
And so much fun.
But today her hand remains frozen in place, and rather than slathering the thick grease paint on, she instead stares at her reflection.
And not in awe, by any stretch of the imagination.
Would you look at that old woman? A couple of more years and I won’t even be needing this stuff, she thinks, giving her head a sorrowful shake.
Her pity party is interrupted with the sound of bubbles and drums from her phone – her ringtone this time of year is set to the Monster Mash – and she turns to look at the caller ID.
“A stinkin’ thumbnail moon tonight. What’s up with that?”
“At least no werewolves,” Greta says, a smile in her voice.
“Well, I know about this time each Halloween evening, just before the sun is done for the day, you slide a little, start drifting into those dark thoughts. So this is your rah-rah call – get to it, Girl.”
“Yeah, yeah. You know me all too well.”
“We’ve been neighbors for eight years, Kiddo. You’ve got no secrets. Not a one. I know about that woeful past, and how it sometimes eats you up. But we don’t live in the past, now do we? SO get that goop on, Witchy Woman. And don’t you dare forget that old cast iron cauldron – there’s magic tucked away in there you know! Now hurry, the kids will be coming soon!”
She hangs up her phone and spins back to the mirror. Katy is just another part of her Halloween routine. Though it started out as a distraction – God knows she needed one back then – the neighborhood kids all loved it, and her house quickly became the most popular candy cache on the block.
She takes a deep breath. This year it will be her eighth witchy Halloween in a row. She lets herself wonder: if she’d known Katy before, could have been her eighteenth? Or even more?
No…of course not. Will was every bit as big of a cheerleader as Katy, yet she tuned him out for all of those years. She wonders now and again how he did it. And why. Though, he told her often enough – all he wanted was his wife back. His son’s mother. But his kind-hearted pleas, even when their son chimed in, were too hard to hear with all the noise vodka makes being poured over ice.
She takes another deep breath. Let it go, she tells herself. Katy said she’d take a tumble down this path, as she does each year at this time, and that’s exactly what she’s doing.
So knock it off, she thinks.
Turning back to the mirror, she begins to swath on the grease paint. After her face is good and green, she’ll next add the black mascara, the sharply pointed ears, and for the final touch, a funny little fake wart that she’ll stick to the tip of her nose. Nothing to be done with her long hair, it’s already plenty gray, thank you very much.
But her transformation into a witch is actually one of the last steps of her All Hallows’ Eve ritual. Over the course of the week prior to this, each day as she’s arrived home from work, she’s spent the waning hours of daylight putting the street side of her house through its annual Halloween metamorphosis. This year she started at the front near the sidewalk, which is her favorite part of the yard to lay out the little cemetery. Surrounded by a short picket fence, there are any number of people-sized mounds within, each with a Styrofoam headstone that have names like, “Drack. U. Lah – R.I.P” and, “Imma Goner,” printed on them. Along the front eves of her porch, and in the nearby tree branches, she’s strung thick gobs of spider webs, each sporting a batch of glow-in-the-dark spiders. Hanging here and there throughout the yard are the rubber bats, dangling, of course, upside down, while along the walkway, rubber rats give trick or treaters the evil eye. Or maybe they’re vying for their candy.
Sitting on either side of the porch is a large smart speaker that connects to her phone, as no Halloween is complete without the perfect spooky soundtrack. Next to the steps leading up to the porch is her wickedly carved Jack-O-Lantern, something she spends a great deal of time on each year. And this year was no exception.
But of it all, the giant black witch’s cauldron has always been, and will most certainly continue to be, the pièce de résistance of her little show for the kids. As with Katy, they really seem to see the magic that it holds within.
When the artwork to her face is finally complete, she moves to the closet, gently pulling out her witch’s costume – a satin black two-piece outfit, its skirt draping all the way to the floor. There’s a well-spaced row of thick, black buttons running down the front, and the full-length sleeves puff out right where they meet the shoulders. She holds it at arm’s length and welcomes a smile. And why not? She’s proud of it, as she made it herself, taking the idea from the one the Wicked Witch of the West wore in The Wizard of Oz. At the time, especially on her budget back then, it was an extreme extravagance, but she knew she had to do it. And it’s been well worth it, as the trick or treaters have loved it – she’s loved it – and it’s lasted all these years.
Slipping into the costume, she tops off her look – quite literally – with her tall, black witch’s cap. She found it at a garage sale a few years back, and with its wide brim and pointed tip, it was, and still is, perfect.
Though she knows it doesn’t need it, she straightens the hat one last time. Then, with a long sigh, and, against her better judgement, she steps yet again before the mirror. This time, however, it’s the full-length one mounted on the inside of the bathroom door. Her reflection, as it has so many times before, catches her breath, swells her heart, and gives her a touch of misty eyes.
If only Taylor could see her now. Halloween was always his favorite holiday, he absolutely reveled in it. He loved helping set up the decorations, carving the pumpkin, trick or treating (of course), and then, at the end of the night, sitting in front of the TV, his candy haul in hand, watching black and white scary movies with her and his dad.
Dabbing her eyes before the tears ruin her fresh makeup, she forces herself away from the mirror and swallows the memory, though its taste is quite bitter. Oh, Taylor, oh, Taylor…it was just not to be. And there is no one, absolutely no one, to blame but herself.
She falls more than sits onto the end of the bed, her head hanging low. It’s been seventeen years since that day, that awful day, she last saw him. Seventeen. Long. Years. He was fifteen at the time, a handsome young man in his second year of high school. Tall, athletic, and sweet, she knew one day, if he hadn’t already, he was going to break some hearts.
Pinching a crease in her skirt, she rubs it back and forth between her thumb and finger, trying her best to block it all out. But there is no magic spell in this witching hour, and the memories flood in, filling her heart with anguish. The room begins to swirl, her vision narrow, and her breath is stolen away.
She remembers stepping out of the kitchen in their old house – that wonderful house, though she didn’t realize it at the time – to discover Taylor and his dad, her loving husband, Will, standing in the front room, suitcases and a few boxes in hand. They said nothing, everyone knew there was nothing left to say, as all had already been said. The warnings had come time and again. But for whatever reason – and she’ll probably never understand why – she couldn’t to be bothered with listening.
So, with one last heartbroken look of disappointment – one they shared through glistening eyes – they turned and headed out the door.
She didn’t cry at the time – though she’s more than made up for it since. Rather, she just popped another valium, poured another vodka, raised her glass, and toasted them goodbye.
Or maybe it was good riddance. One can never be sure in the fog of addiction.
The fog remained thick as the days went along. Maybe even more so when the day came to sit in the courtroom. She saw Will, his eyes red, his shoulders slumped, just across the aisle with his attorney. They couldn’t see her eyes, however, as she’d worn sunglasses.
She was sure that way the judge wouldn’t know she’d already had a few too many, and it was only 10 in the morning.
But he wasn’t fooled in the slightest.
There were words spoken, papers signed, and then the gavel rapped down. She stood, holding onto the table for support, and watched as Will, her now ex-husband, gave her one last look and walked out the door one last time.
Until that moment, she’d pushed it all away, thought that it would all work out. But there, with the slam of the gavel, and then the door, she felt the impact of her choices, her behavior, and her selfishness. Where did it go wrong? How did it go wrong? Why couldn’t she change?
Why wouldn’t she change?
It was the first loose string on the fabric of her life, and though it continued to unravel, it would take seven years for her to hit rock bottom. And when she did, it was a crash landing, the wreckage of which was spread far and wide.
Most of it she’s chosen to forget – carefully tucking it away in the far corner of her mind, then shoveling a wheel barrel load of dirt on it for good measure. Yet, there’s one memory she’s never been able to shake, no matter how deep she dug the hole, no matter how many shovelfuls of dirt she tossed upon it.
The vision is clear today, though it was hazy at best then. She recalls waking up in the ICU. Even through the fog, it was bright. Too bright. To her side, clear tubes dripped sustenance into her arms while from somewhere behind, a gawd-awful beeping noise filled the room as if reveling in its reminder that, despite her best efforts, she was still alive.
As the gray began to lift, she noticed a nurse standing not far away. An expression of surprise washed across her face, and then she seemed to float over to the side of Greta’s bed.
”Well, look who’s back.” She gave Greta a slight smile as she spoke, then tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “It’s been a tough couple of days, Hon, but you’re going to be okay,” she cooed. “You are so very lucky your neighbor rushed in to save you.”
Okay? Lucky? How could she be okay? Or lucky? She wasn’t supposed to be there in that stinking hospital. She wasn’t supposed to be anywhere at all.
With that the tears began to flow. And there were so very many tears. Over her blubbering she heard the nurse doing her best to try and console her, but there would be no consoling that day, for Greta realized that as terrible as she was at trying to live life, she was even worse at trying to end it.
Concerned, they kept her a few more days, even having a counselor come in to “chat” with her a couple of times. She knew that her “physical” ailments were on the mend, but unless she could convince them she was “mentally” healing as well, she wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.
So she played the game.
But something, or maybe a series of things, happened on her last day. The morning started with the fire investigator stopping by with the preliminary report. It had been determined that the fire that burnt her house to the ground was being ruled an accident, the blame placed on a faulty oven leaking natural gas, thus resulting in the horrific explosion.
Whether fortuitous or not, she wasn’t sure at the time, but at least with her escape from what she believed to be the obvious, there would be an insurance payout.
But it was later in the day, her mind still lost in that mist of indecision – what to do next, what to do now – a quick movement in the tiny window of the door caught her eye. To this day she still believes that she saw Will’s face peering through, his expression the same as when she’d last seen him in the courtroom.
She has to, because that was her turning point.
A chance at renewal.
And the good news for her was that to begin again, she didn’t have to start by pouring her stash of vodka down the drain to avoid all that temptation. The fire had taken care of it for her. So, instead, her first step was to talk with an old friend who volunteered with AA, and had, on many an occasion, volunteered to work with her.
It was time to take her up on her offer.
She had her own version of Halloween during that time, as there were plenty, if not too many, demons and monsters to be dealt with.
But she did it.
Which took her to the next step. And the next, and the next.
And she never looked back.
Except, of course, at moments like these.
She brushes the memories aside – has to make Katy proud – and marches into the kitchen. Grabbing the large shopping bag filled with a variety of candies, she moves out to the porch so she can fire up the “magic” in the cauldron.
She always starts with the pouring of the dry ice from its insulated chest into the cauldron and letting it settle to the bottom. She next places in her “special” barbeque rack – it’s one she’s zip-tied little legs on such that it will sit far above the icy chunks – and then, atop that, she sets the treat bucket. She found out the “hard way,” which, of course, is how she’s learned most, if not all of the lessons of her life, that she needed the grill raised, as without the separation, the candy freezes. Finally, she turns on the blue LED lamp mounted just under the cauldron’s lip.
It’s ready, she thinks with a smile.
And now for the magic. She keeps her special long-handled spoon in a flute case, one she picked up at the thrift store. With its dings and wear, and the rusty hinges, it caught her eye, as it was perfect, and felt right for her needs. The spoon itself is “special” because she’s added a little squirt gun right on the end, and then ran a trigger cable up its backside. This “arrangement” allows her to give the dry ice a spray as she “stirs” the magic potion, something she does each time kids arrive for a treat, thus sending swirls of wispy smoke up through the blue light.
She loves the oohs and ahhs the kids give her when she does that.
By the time she’s filled the inner bucket with her treasure trove of candy, the moon has scratched a slender arch out of the darkening sky, and the voices of parents and their costumed children can be heard making their way down the sidewalks.
She gives the dry ice its first good squirt just as the gate opens and the first trick or treaters arrive.
“OOOOHH,” they say in unison, their eyes aglow in wonder, well before “Trick or treat” can escape their mouths.
The groups are large this year, which she thoroughly enjoys, and it makes her feel even better seeing parents – some actually dressed for the occasion – when they stand in waiting out by the gate while their younger children shuffle up the walk.
“Such great costumes!” she says to the aliens and ghosts and football players and mermaids that come to her door. “And just look at your parents!”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” says more than one. “You should see the Frankenstein dad!”
“He’s so coooool!” several chime in together.
And she continues to hear that over and over as the night moves along.
Then, just as she’s ready to turn out the porch light, the night having slipped by so very quickly and the candy running short, the gate creaks one more time. Up the walk comes the very monster she’s heard so much about throughout the evening, a tiny princess and an equally small dragon in tow.
“Trick or treat,” they say in their squeaky voices.
“Oh, my, aren’t you two just wonderful,” she exclaims, stirring her magic potion, the blue steam swirling up from the cauldron.
“OOOOHHH,” they say in that familiar tone, as they lean in closer.
Smiling with delight, she reaches in and grabs the last of the candy. She drops it into the buckets of the cute little trick or treaters (“Thank you,” they say, so very politely), then turns to Frankenstein. “Boris Karloff would be envious of that costume, young man. It is fabulous.”
Blushing, she places a hand over her open mouth. “Oh, silly me, you’ve probably never even heard of Boris. I’m showing my age here.”
But rather than say anything, Frankenstein responds by reaching up with both hands and pulling on the two “lugs” attached to his neck. There’s a loud “click” and he tilts the “mask” upward, exposing his real face.
“Of course, I know who Boris Karloff is, Mom. I used to sit with you and Dad watching those scary old black and white movies every Halloween right after I trick or treated the night away. Boris, Vincent Price, Lou Cheney, Jr. How could I forget?”
Greta’s world takes a spin, and she can’t seem to find any air to breathe. She drops to her knees, nearly tearing her precious witch’s dress – though, at that moment she couldn’t care less – and a river of tears began to flow. Mascara and greasepaint be damned.
“Tay…lor?” she cries.
“Yes, Mom,” he says. He offers her a hand to help her up, but she shakes him off, opting to stay at eye-level with the kids.
“Well, since you’re right there, I’ll introduce you to your grandchildren.” He places a hand on the girl’s head. “This little princess is Kelli”—he moves his hand to the boy— “and this ferocious dragon is Josh. They’re twins.”
“Wow, are you my grandma?” asks the princess.
Greta nods her head. Over and over again. “Can I hug them?” she asks, looking up to Taylor Frankenstein.
“Yes, if they are okay with it.”
And hug they do. Over and over again.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Dad passed away last month. Cancer. Before he died, he told me that you’d been sober for ten years now. And that I should look you up. Have you meet my wife, and your grandkids. Give you another chance. He still loved you, you know.”
“I…I didn’t know. Either…”
As she says that, a young woman comes into Greta’s teary-eyed view. She’s quite stunning, her skin a glimmering cocoa brown, and her jet-black hair, thick and braided, hangs down nearly to her waist.
“Mom, this is Mona. Though I tease her all the time and call her Mona Lisa. (Mona gives him a friendly tap.) We met while I was in California for a seminar, and I haven’t been able to take my eyes off her since.”
Greta stumbles trying to find words, and though she hates to let go of the kids, she rises to her feet and takes a step closer to Mona. “Can I have a hug?”
“Hey, how about me?” asks Frankenstein.
“As many as you can stand,” Greta replies. “As many as you can stand.”
As she wraps him in her arms, her eyes fall upon the cauldron.
Maybe, just maybe, there was a bit of magic in there after all.
After a long career of tinkering in telecommunications, Jim Bartlett switched to tinkering with words, both, of course, requiring a stretch of the imagination. He has since been fortunate to have a number of stories, ranging from flash to novella, featured in Fiction on the Web, CrimeSpree Magazine, Short-Story.me, Ontologica, The Scarlet Leaf Review, Fairlight Books and a number of other wonderful publications. Most recently one of his stories was featured in the print anthology, The Best of Fiction on the Web, 1996 – 2017. While mentally he strolls along a warm California beach with his wife and golden retriever (shhh, she doesn’t know she’s a dog), physically they reside on a special little island in the Pacific Northwest.