Shadows. Big, pitch-dark, looming. Pooling beneath the bushes and spilling out into the street. Scared away in tiny circles of lamp post light, but whispering around those yellow perimeters as if planning an attack. A take-over. Swallow the light, submerge the world. That’s what they wanted.
Or, at least, that’s the story my sister used to tell.
She loved ghosts and monsters, spiders and snakes, witches on broomsticks and black cats with backs arched high as rainbows. She liked to tell scary stories in sinister voices, a flashlight under her chin casting her face in severe separations of light and darkness. Once we went camping with our Aunt Diane and my sister spun myths out of the woods that felt so real I thought I saw the shadows shift or caught a pair of red eyes blinking between the trees.
“It’s just embers,” Aunt Diane said when I told her, “from the fire.”
A breeze shimmied the branches that arc over our street. Leaves dropped down like snowflakes. I tugged my jacket tighter around myself, wishing I’d thought to fix the broken zipper before the trick-or-treating began. My girls seemed unfazed by the cold. I think they relished in it. Olivia thrust her arms out, bare in her Egyptian queen costume, and spun to fast her white skirt billowed up. A second gust of wind swung the fabric back and plastered it to her skinny legs. Kate skittered up after her.
“Stay together, please,” I called. Olivia waved me off, but still lingered in the street until Kate waddled up beside her. I was a few paces behind, the same distance I always kept, far enough away not to cramp Olivia’s eleven-year-old style but close enough to keep her safe. Safe from the shadows, I always told her. The shadows that looped between our neighbor’s houses and slinked across their lawns. It’s the kind of story my sister would have told her. The kind I always hated, but couldn’t get out of my mind.
“Another year, another witch,” said Beth as she strode up beside me. Aubrey, her daughter, blew straight past us and crashed into Kate, little arms latching around my child’s waist. She was dressed in a black dress down to her knees; a sheer purple cape rippled behind her and her pointed black hat was crooked on her wild curls. The fourth witch costume she’s ever worn, because every year has to be a little bit different. The last time Beth had a say in her costume was when she was four.
“She looks cute,” I said.
“I see you’re chaperoning Cleopatra and…” Beth trailed off, her head titled as she tried to place Kate’s costume. “A biker chick?”
“Aunt Jessica,” I supplied.
“No, that’s Kate,” Beth said.
“Dressed as my sister.”
“She’d get a kick out of that.”
“As if she’d need the ego boost.”
We lingered at the bottom of the Chan’s driveway. Our children morphed into a mob at the stoop, a gaggle of superheroes and zombies crowded around Mrs. Chan. Our girls broke from the group with a princess and a vampire, kids from Olivia’s class whose names I couldn’t recall. Their mothers were strolling beside the curb, checking their watches, preparing for the dreaded ten minute warning. The shadows were growing longer, the sky deepening from navy to black. A crowd of teenagers was bustling out of a house down the road trailing old pillow cases instead of plastic pumpkins, their makeup so dark they nearly blended into the night.
The kind of makeup Jessica used to wear, the kind she told me to wear every Halloween because if you look like the shadows then they won’t come after you. Only she didn’t just wear it on Halloween, she wore it so much that Kate demanded deep purple-red lipstick for her Aunt Jessica costume.
“Hey,” Beth said. She nudged me with her elbow. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” I said. Beth raised her eyebrows, a sure I know you’re lying. “It comes and goes,” I said. “You know? Just…comes and goes. But I’m okay.”
We hit the corner. The girls had gotten their candy and were perched on the curb rifling through each other’s hauls. For a moment, with Kate’s face turned away from me and her dark hair tumbled over her shoulders, she really did look like my sister.
The girls all rose when the princess’s mom told her it was time to go. Beth and I waved to the mothers, whose names I realized I also didn’t know but I was pretty sure rhymed with one another. We turned then, our girls trailing behind us, though I paused when I heard only two pairs of footsteps instead of four.
Kate was still standing at the corner, haloed in the yellow glow of a streetlight, her back to us.
“Kate, come on,” I called. She turned, looked surprised to see me. She spared one glance toward the shadows before trotting to catch up with me. I put my arm around her as she neared me. “Did you see something?” I asked, looking over her head to see if there was something there.
“Aunt Jessica,” Kate said.
But Kate didn’t answer me. She merely shrugged and started to skip ahead of me. She stopped suddenly, like she’d just remembered something. She spun around and started walking backwards. “Are you gonna tell the scary story this year?” she asked.
I glanced over my shoulder again, trying to see something in the shadows, but there was nothing there. I sighed and turned back to my daughter.
“Did Aunt Jess ever tell you about the shadows?”