They’d been scheming for a couple of weeks, the four of them, meeting after school, texting far too late into the dark chill right before Halloween. Nels was a master planner; he could be counted on to come up with the best party ideas, or just stuff to do on Saturday nights. He could put together impulsive hi-jinks, outrageous and funny–at least to Casey, Tran and Marika. He stirred up their excitement with his words. Not even as tall as Tran, he seemed bigger and taller, and thick messy hair flopped over his forehead, almost hiding eyes. His friends and associates described him as “magnetic” and it wasn’t far off. Others gossiped, said sure, he was creative but sort of nuts, sometimes cool but also tacky. At times, unnerving. That energy infused him with a mixture of danger, mystery and ebullience, resulting in unusual scenarios which he sketched in his journal and colorfully imagined– quite cinematically. He wanted to be a director some day despite his father’s likely ridicule. That he was a theater nut softened his extreme reputation at school.
“Yeah,” he said quietly, rubbing his palms together, “I have the plan at last for Halloween. That mute woman. You know– on the peninsula, Ms. Swanson.”
“Sophia Swanson…why her?” Marika was braiding Casey’s hair but her hands paused. His words brought up a sense of unease, not excitement. She was widowed after her husband drowned and she hadn’t spoken for over two years.
Tran thrust his long, skinny legs out, closer to the heat of the fireplace. “She’s an interesting one. But maybe too chancy–she isn’t our usual Halloween target. Why not play it safer? I graduate this year, remember, and don’t need bad press.”
“Well, wait a sec, her husky-mix dog doesn’t run loose and she’s likely to be alone, so little risk. Nothing actually will be damaged, right? ” Casey hands felt the braiding progress and she indicated Marika could finish. “It depends on what you have in mind, Nels.”
“You know I believe a good scare is good fun, and there are advantages out there, like approaching by the lake in a boat, or walking up the dirt road and waiting until after midnight. Nobody goes out there to trick or treat. So we can be the first!” He opened wide his arms. “She could use a real Halloween moment, don’t you think? To shake things up?”
His booming laugh careened off vaulted ceilings of the large split log house. From the corner of his eye he saw his mother from her spot in the dining room. She got up, walked by them and upstairs, waving a cheery goodnight as she ascended. She went to bed early when Nels’ dad was on trips, which was often.
“So, what’s the plan already?” Tran asked as he jumped up, restless with interest already.
Marika shook her head, frowning, but she knew she’d join in. They’d been the Birch Woods Clan, BWC, since fifth grade, well over six years–a silly name they’d come up with during a childish secret ceremony so long ago. But it kept them loyal even now.
Casey checked out her braid, got up, and stood by Nels. Her man, first and last.
“Here’s the beauty of it…” Nels began, and they all stood at attention before him as if compelled, even though they weren’t, not really. And they’d never been caught, even if many suspected they did the crazy Halloween deeds. They knew how to act fast and get out in time.
“Here are your groceries,” Will said and handed the two bags over to Sophia.
She smiled gently, lightly bowed in her dancerly fashion, her hands set in prayerful mode as a thank you. He liked to watch her move in simplest ways, as she’d been a dancer for decades; perhaps one day she’d return to it. She managed her life alright despite not speaking. Will was kind to shop for her if she had a more challenging day. Sophia marveled that he had time or interest. At 74, he was not without impediments. And his wife Anna’s long recovery from a stroke didn’t seem to faze him much. The lines around his observant eyes just deepened and his dear face seemed thinner. His spirit stayed positive.
The chapel-house–so named since it’d been a historic chapel before the Swansons renovated it–was warm and fragrant. Scents of eucalyptus and clove as a white oak fire smoldered teased his nose. A smell he thought of as “the old chapel” lingered and made him think of thin, yellowing hymnal pages, winter’s damp woolens and bodies packed together in an iron wood stove kind of heat. And Daedalus– called Dae– her elegant big dog, wagged his luxurious tail, licked at his hands. It was not easy to leave her inviting domain but he had to hasten back to Anna. Their lives were changed but still good, if harder than they’d planned when he’d left his post as editor at The Clarion.
How fortunate I am, Sophia thought, to know this man and Anna. He had always and was now looking out for her yet ran these errands and stayed a few moments to catch up. She liked to visit them in town.
“So what’re you doing for Halloween tomorrow? I see you actually carved a jolly pumpkin for the porch. Coming out for the library’s family event? Or to the Bluestone for pumpkin cookies and coffee, at least?”
Her eyebrows shot up–she smiled, shook her head slowly.
He knew better than to ask. She didn’t naturally gravitate to social events; it was nearly impossible to communicate as it was. Sophia pointed to a DVD cover on the mantle. He couldn’t make out the title but knew she liked the classics, so nodded. Likely some old Boris Karloff. At least that–she could find some laughs here and there.
They exchanged a few more words and he took his leave after she gave him a quick hug. She was thirty years younger than Will was, but he appreciated her litheness, that long ginger (threaded with white) hair about her face (usually pulled back), appreciation in those strong arms. She needed to find someone to love her, someone who merited shine of her talent and smarts and beauty, he mused. He shut the door behind him with a tip of his hat.
Sophia wavered at the fire, undecided what to do next, leaned her forehead against the hand carved mantle. The flames sparked and leapt until they became a scarlet canvass upon which she saw herself dancing, dancing to Stravinsky’s breathtaking “Firebird Suite.” She straightened her back, lengthened her neck and thew back her shoulders, trying to keep back any release of nostalgia with its tears. Reaching for her ever watchful Daedalus, she ruffled his fur then got to the simple task of putting away the food. But the night stretched ahead like a hall of mirrors as gusts shook the pines beyond the safety of her home–and in every intangible mirror she saw Thomas drowning and drowned, his empty boat shattered as lightning illuminated the restless north woods waters.
TZ and Frank were glad to help out a friend with the library’s “Kids’ Fright Night Party” but they were keen to get down to the lake so after an hour they were done. It hadn’t rained. Though a prescience of snow slipped along the wind’s edge, it was a clear, starry night. If they were lucky they’d enjoy a last bonfire with the others.
By the time they arrived at the Ring Lake’s rocky shore, the bonfire was big enough to be glimpsed from town center. Buckets and buckets of water were lined up, circled around merrymakers. There was the requisite illegal beer, pot smoked, and costumes that people sported spanning from the ridiculous to frightening. They had opted for simplest masquerades: ghostly beings, created with white grease paint and a few holey sheets.
“No one comes as that, anymore!” Marika laughed. “Good one–if simple-minded!”
“You make a good Cleopatra, how fancy if overwhelming,” TZ admitted. She wanted to like Marika but it wasn’t easy. her group was so over-the-top, and you could only give offer so much attention before it wore you out.
Frank asked, “Where are the other mighty BWCs?”
“Ha ha, we don’t go by that, anymore! The guys are eating and Casey is dancing over there, wild creature. As usual.”
“She is dressed as a leopard…” Frank said admiringly.
“What are you four up to later?”
“What could you possibly mean, TZ?”
“Duh, your usual Halloween trespass and scare tactics. You never miss a year.”
“Can’t even prove it, can you?” Tran said as he sidled up with a hot dog in both hands then gave one to Marika.
Frank put an arm around Tran. “No, but so far nothing really bad has happened so there’s no reason to collect evidence, right? I know you’re up to something!”
Tran shook off his arm and gave a hard laugh. “Spoken like the cop you will become!”
“More likely a lawyer, or forest ranger…” Frank retorted as he strode closer to the bonfire.
“See you fools around, don’t get too crazy!” TZ shouted over her shoulder as she caught up with Frank.
Marika spine tingled all the way up to the nape of her neck. TZ and Frank had gotten close to Sophia Swanson, helped her out. It made her wonder even more if this was the right person, an okay thing even in so-called fun. But Tran had left already and was chatting up another girl; he was in high gear, as was Nels. She took a big bite of the charred, mustardy hot dog and looked for Casey. Her best friend, Casey: Nels’ girl, his most loyal and avid accomplice. What was Marika doing in this sticky web? Maybe it’d be the last Halloween mischief for her. She was 17; this was all getting old. She went to the fire, faded into the chattering, laughing groups. She had been drawn to the party’s gaiety, but for a moment she leaned closer to the scorching heat, closed her eyes, dreamed of escape, of growing up and having a real life.
Sophia looked up at the original clerestory windows in her loft. There was already a constellation or two to be seen up high, tiny dots of light for a heavenly map beyond treetops. They’d added a huge floor to ceiling window in the lakefront wall. They…she and Thomas. She had bargained hard for it so she could have a light-filled dance studio, and use it secondarily for painting. She got a tall wooden stool and watched as the panorama revealed itself though a gateway to the world.
Often she often did this: sat with hands flattened on thighs, eyes riveted by first a slow approaching sunset, then the 20 or so minutes of the stirring blue hour. She was calmed by it, sky above transformed in sheerest colors, the lake alive with the bloom of hues. The woods and water, their powerful green and blueness. Then: it was as if wind and waters of that horrible night so ferocious returned, and the rising in her of memory of his anger, his going out in his boat. Not coming back. Her growing muteness the response she had to give when first responders arrived.
She still could not swim though she was good at it. She avoided looking at Stump Island beyond the peninsula where the boat had crashed against earth, roots and stone, useless. It was too magnetic a scene even as it repelled her. But if she didn’t look out from her snug home she’d never enter it like any other person who loves the freer life of water, wind, minerals and plants. Which she did. Only from a distance since then, a voluntary jail. Hands pressed against a barrier of glass, eyes filling with beauty, heart quivering, mind wondering.
Cabins and cottages along the shoreline blinked on one by one in navy twilight. Hers could be easily seen from the water, but not quite her body at its post in shadow. There were excited shouts here and there; a late, last speedboat careened to a nearby dock. The night was just beginning for some, revelries intensifying. Dae put head on paws, mobile furry brows like additional commentary as his eyes searched the night. Sophia gathered her shawl and loosened it about her, then stood and spun around three times, head back, hair flying. And heard tree branches suddenly scratch and brush the chapel house, her house creak and crack. At least she had an escape with a good movie, “The Raven”– for some silliness.
Sophia started down the stairs but Dae stood, ears standing upright; he stayed stock still. Then lay down again, watching. Sophia ran lightly down the stairs and found the movie to begin. When he barked once, twice, then again, she only turned up the volume. He was always barking at night creatures and twinkling lights rippling on water’s surface.
But he didn’t quiet down. She paused the DVD and ran to see what he saw. Dae was focused on the scene beyond the window; he didn’t acknowledge her.
And she saw it, too. Fire. Fire on the water.
On or above it? Reflections were impossible to separate from original sights in growing darkness as the elements merged together. But the fire was moving, two–wait, four fires. Or red lights, lamps? No. It swayed and flared as did fire. Torches, then. Each held by someone in a boat. Dae barked more loudly but Sophia heard boisterous voices–and they were making a chant or a kind of song strange to her ears. Ominous rumbling slipped across water. She ran to get the pole that opened the clerestory windows high above and hooked a latch, then opened two. Now she could hear better; they came closer and closer. There was a drum beaten rhythmically as the boat approached the peninsula and the torches, large and held aloft, burned brighter, bigger. She stood at the window and listened intently, her shawl tight about her, Dae readied with body tensed, head high and still.
The odd rhyme was repeated loudly, almost yelled out:
“Four spirits move–into the night,
ghost beings–made of anger and fright,
and Thomas arrives –for Halloween,
Thomas Swanson–go to your queen!”
Sophia stumbled backwards.
The boat came to rest at the shore and they got out, dressed in white, torches held far above so faces were unseen. The ghastly chant continued as they moved toward the house. My god, were they conjuring him, these people? Had he the will to taunt her through them? Sophia stepped farther back, Dae barked wildly, dizziness overtook her as nausea stirred. She felt it, a terrible scream, but could not let it out, and stumbled across the floor to a corner here she tried to breathe slowly, tried to be rational. But she was failing and they were coming. And she had no voice with which to call for help.
The doorbell then, heard it it ringing insistently. Every cell in her body resisted it; she froze. Dae ran downstairs growling at the heavy pounding, more noise and then there were footsteps on the stairs and she thought, this is going to be the end of me...
Shortly there came before her one she knew so well.
TZ took her hands. “Sophia! It will be okay, stand up, it’s going to be okay, it’s stupid pranksters!”
She gathered Sophia into her strong young arms.
“It’s kids, a bad prank on you and I’m so, so sorry! Frank’s out back, he’ll get them if they’re still on your property!” She gave Sophia a little shake, her own five feet eight length plus full mental powers trying to gain a little control of this woman who, at six feet, looked frail now. But TZ knew Sophia; the woman had an extraordinary will and would come around.
“I need to go and help him,” TZ siad and left with Dae.
Sophia roused herself. She had to see what was going on so followed in a moment, then flipped on outdoor floodlights and slid open the sliding glass doors to the large patio. Dae was racing after the intruders in full voice, TZ not far behind him.
The apparitions had vanished, torches flung into the fire pit sunk into the wide stone deck–burning bright, plumes of smoke curling and with stink of kerosene, the only evidence of their presence. For the boat was gone, as well.
Frank jogged back from the front of the chapel house with Dae trotting beside him, both panting. TZ straggled. Frank’s palms pushed against his thighs and he bent over, head hanging. Then they gathered about the fire pit and TZ and Sophia poured water from watering cans over the hissing flames.
“I called police, they’ll flush them out,” he said. “I’m know who they are. Unbelievable–but that’s what they do on Halloween.”
TZ shot him a look. No need to further worry Sophia–they could inform her of any outcomes later.
But they knew she wanted to ask: why? Why would anyone do that when Thomas’ death had even been investigated, she had been heavily questioned, and it truly haunted her yet? And the little gang of BWC was made of those who gave little or no thought to consequences of their decisions. Or so it seemed. Nels, that is Nelson Hartman, talented, angry son of a high powered businessman who was rarely around. And Tran? Chinese-American, moved there with parents and grandparents who never quite adapted, and for good reason: deeply embedded racism. But Casey was, well, Casey–she didn’t care for most rules and expectations, was entirely loyal to Nels.
Then there was Marika who’d broken down when Frank grabbed her arm, begged him not to turn her in, she was done with BWC, old friends or not.
“Besides, I saw something out there, it was ….” It was more than she could say, apparently.
He left her sniffling at the side of the road though it was a bit harsh of him. It wouldn’t do to have Sophia see her in such a state. Let Marika ask for any forgiveness later. Frank knew the others would collect her–unless the cops got them first. Someone–he thought Tran was also less than all in–had just left, taken the boat rather than be caught. Daedalus nipped one of them–he heard one cursing at the dog as they dashed down the road, their sheets flying. How ironic that they’d had the same simple costume idea for worse.
Frank put an arm around the shaken woman–someone he admired and respected. Who was looked straight into his eyes, subdued and angered.
“We just felt you might be on their list–they do something crazy every year…a pact they made, I guess. Trying to make a creepier night of it…I don’t get it. But that was beyond mean. They’ll face charges if you press them.” He scrubbed the top of his head in exasperation. “We all worry about you out here.”
TZ shushed him. Of course he didn’t “get” the mini-terrorizing; Frank didn’t have a cruel bone in him. But at times he talked too much when staying quiet could help more. She beckoned to Sophia they went inside where she seemed to come back to herself.
After they’d had a fresh mug of coffee with cinnamon scones Will had brought, and they’d told her about the costumed kids at the library and showed pictures, and shared their week-end plans and asked if she wanted more leaves raked yet, which she shrugged about, Sophia gestured to the sofa as if to ask them to stay and see the film. Dae, however, jumped up beside her and lay his length there, put his head in her lap. TZ and Frank said it was time to go, they had more plans. Sophia waved goodbye, her silhouette clean and strong in the doorway.
“She always looks like some amazing…goddess…” TZ said.
“Yeah, a frozen-in-time-goddess. A famous dancer whose life was put on a long pause, such creativity and big emotions shut down…”
This was what TZ liked about Frank, He looked like a lumberjack but was so much more.They got into his truck, said nothing more of it all.
After they’d gone, Sophia went up to the loft to the tall widows. She studied the water’s surface gleaming like silver here and there in moonlight. Was that movement another boat, a sudden light another torch? Was that chilled mist hovering over the little island a thing she could not define? She pressed her nose against the glass, breath obscuring her view. Was Thomas still languishing in autumn waters? She heard him sometimes, felt his presence always, his rage and brilliance, his love and restlessness. She and Dae mused on the night’s events, shivered one after the other.
Sophia got the clerestory pole with its hook, closed the latches of both high windows so that all was shut out–please, Thomas, leave me–for one more night.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson