Pumpkins rattling in the bed of a wagon. Paper crinkling around hot apple turnovers. Hay crunching under the weight of children crowding around the teenage girls serving them hot cider. Marjorie’s friend Raylene hummed through a bite of caramel-drizzled donut, nodding as she licked the fine dusting of brown sugar and cinnamon that clung to her lips. She’d waited over half an hour for this, inching past pies and cakes and generous jars of jams and butters made with fruit grown right there in Wilson’s Orchard. Raylene had suggested the outing—clearly intending it as a date but never technically using that word—and Marjorie, just fifteen days shy of her fifty-third birthday, had acquiesced in spite of the fact that she hadn’t been on a first date since her late husband Greg bought them tickets to Dune in 1984. She was twenty-one then, and broke, and the fact that he took her to Dune charmed her, as Raylene’s pumpkin patch charmed her, because she hadn’t expected to be known so well, so soon. She had been smiling gently since they arrived and was cradling a cup of apple cider to her chest, inhaling the warm, fragrant steam, when her phone started buzzing in her coat pocket, where she couldn’t feel it. Raylene had to tell her.
“What? Oh. Sorry, I thought I turned it off.”
“It’s been ringing for a full minute.”
“Stupid thing,” Marjorie muttered, shifting her cup to her right hand so she could take the smartphone out with her left. This particular phone was brand new—a much-needed upgrade that she’d been putting off for years while she debated getting rid of her phone entirely—so it still felt large and unwieldy to her, its smooth, flat face looking more to her like a tinted window on a car, maybe, or a sheet of thin black ice on the road. She flashed the screen. “See? Unknown. Probably just some telemarketer.”
Raylene groaned softly around her donut. “You want some?”
Its last shallow curve appealed to Marjorie, and she broke off a piece just small enough to tuck into her mouth like a marshmallow in front of a campfire. While Raylene ducked behind her toward a trashcan, Marjorie found herself longing for the smell of leaves burning inside of a steel drum and the sound of crackling as paper was tossed into the flame. This orchard was just remote enough and just spare enough for her to feel that she’d stepped back into her childhood and found herself standing at the edge of a wooded forest, crunching acorns with her boots. From where she stood, she could see hundreds of apple trees, dozens of dirt paths, and two large pumpkin patches speckled with orange fruits that appeared to glow in the soft autumn light. “Shall we?” she asked, finding Raylene suddenly beside her.
Without discussing it, they agreed to go the long way around, winding past the pond, then picking their way through the orchard itself, taking great care not to step on one of the many fallen fruits left to rot along the path. Raylene leaned close to whisper, “Smell that fermentation,” and wished aloud that she’d brought a bit of whiskey to spike their apple cider. Its warmth had begun to dissipate, but Marjorie still clung to her cup, finding its presence soothing, oddly, and familiar. In the course of their walk she’d learned that Raylene had two brothers (one older, one younger) but didn’t have any nieces or nephews and had lost both her parents to pneumonia within two months of each other. “They hadn’t spent more than a day apart in sixty years.”
Marjorie smiled tearfully. Greg had died just three years before—from kidney failure, not pneumonia—and she’d never let go of him. Sometimes, she still curled up in his big red chair and read him the newspaper. She wondered what he would say of this middle-aged woman who wore ripped jeans and bomber jackets and thought nothing of turning fifty in December. Careful. She’s the kind that likes to make herself at home.
Raylene had just picked up a pumpkin. “What about this one? I could see it with a face.”
Marjorie shook her head. “Too soft on the bottom. It’ll rot in less than a week.”
“You’re right.” Raylene nodded, turning the pumpkin over. “Good eye.”
Pickings were slim, and what pumpkins were left were typically small and misshapen, the lingering little runts that had survived weeks of culling by adults and children alike. Marjorie had thought there’d be more left, and walked around the patch with one hand in her pocket, toeing the smaller ones sullenly with her boots. Nobody else appeared to be interested in the pumpkins. The families had all gone for a ride on the tractor train, and when Marjorie heard any of them at all, it was only because a kid had tripped and skinned his knee on a rock. Raylene was kneeling, lifting a decent-looking specimen by the stem, when Marjorie’s phone started buzzing again. “Geez,” Raylene said. “Someone’s persistent.” She eyed Marjorie carefully. “Do you have a boyfriend I don’t know about?”
Marjorie shook her head, frowning down at her phone, which told her she’d received over six hundred texts from an unknown sender. I know you’re with her, the first read. I know you lied to me. Marjorie’s mind immediately flashed to Sharon, her work friend and technical assistant, to whom she’d lied in order to skip brunch and spend time with Raylene. But Sharon would’ve been overjoyed—ecstatic, really—to hear that she was going on a real date; she couldn’t possibly have written Ann said she saw you at the Co-op. Marjorie dismissed the possibility that these texts were meant for her after she read that. She didn’t know any Ann, and furthermore she’d never been to the Co-op with Raylene, so no one could’ve seen them there. Marjorie tucked her phone into her pocket, determined to ignore the texts and enjoy her time with Raylene, whose bright and complicated happiness seemed even more attractive after the little scare she’d had. She marveled at the ease with which Raylene inched into traffic and headed toward Marjorie’s house, as if she’d done this a thousand times before. This could be my life, Marjorie thought, then turned to look at Raylene and realized it already was.
It took them the better part of the afternoon just to carve, hollow, and rig the pumpkins on Marjorie’s porch with lights, and in all that time she forgot the messages only once: early, around 1:30, when Raylene gasped and said they should roast the pumpkin seeds and eat them as snacks. This prompted a bubbly half hour in which they sifted through the pumpkin pulp, plucked out the seeds, then attempted to rinse them off in a plastic colander ill-suited for the job. Cheeks flushed, hands sticky with juice, Raylene leaned in and with a faint smile invited Marjorie to meet her lips with her own. The kiss was gentle, close-mouthed, and lingering, and when it was over, Marjorie was so surprised that all she could say was, “I’ll heat up the oven.”
Raylene smiled at the jars of cardamom pods on the counter, brushing her thumb over the little red dish where Marjorie kept her plums. “You have a beautiful kitchen,” she said.
Marjorie shrugged, suddenly shy. “Greg liked to cook. I’m afraid I’m pretty helpless.”
“I doubt that.” With wet fingers, she touched the oyster shells stacked in one corner of the windowsill, where their dark, nacreous shells appeared almost bruised in the light. Marjorie liked their white ripples, their way of looking just like an eye encased in bone, and collected them like some people collect vases or coins. Greg had treated her to oysters whenever there was reason to celebrate: her promotion to Audio & Lighting Engineer at The Englert, his cleanest bill of health to date, the birth of their only granddaughter, Lily. Every occasion called for a different recipe. Fried oysters with tomato remoulade. Grilled oysters with a citrusy fennel butter. Smoked oyster chowder, and the best: raw oysters with a shallot rosé mignonette. “You ate raw oysters in Iowa? That’s brave,” Raylene said.
“I haven’t died yet.”
Raylene pointed to the pumpkin seeds, smirking. “These should go in the oven.”
While the seeds baked, Marjorie and Raylene dug around in the basement, looking for the Halloween decorations Marjorie had collected over the years. “Greg used to do all the organizing down here. I can’t find anything anymore.” He’d fancied himself a tinkerer, and the basement was littered with his unfinished projects: stalled watches halfway fixed, rocking chairs minus the rock, pebbles he’d forgotten to run through a tumbler to unlock their little gems for their daughter, Anita, the professional jeweler. “Anita was always a princess for Halloween—she loved tiaras. All those little stones, you know.”
Raylene brushed the dust off a box. “You said Anita was coming to visit?”
“She’s flying in on the 29th.” It was a tradition of theirs: dinner on the 30th—for Marjorie’s birthday—and then trick-or-treating with Lily. “It’s safer here than in New York, you know. Plus, Lily being here gives me a good reason to go out. It’s never as fun staying in and playing haunted house.” Marjorie put on a pair of slinky glasses and pulled the eyeballs straight ahead of her until the steel coils began to creak. She thought this would make Raylene laugh, and when it didn’t she finally heard the disappointment in Raylene’s question and knew she’d been hoping to ask her out to dinner for her birthday. She sifted through the decorations, searching for something to say.
“What is this?” Raylene lifted a kind of marionette out of the box.
Marjorie laughed, as if it should be obvious. “That’s Mr. Chainsaw. Greg liked to rig it so he’d dance down the steps whenever someone opened the front door; really freaked the neighbors out.” Mr. Chainsaw was a grinning, dancing skeleton standing just over two feet tall and wearing a brown plastic apron with a set of miniature gardening gloves. His chainsaw could be controlled with wires that pulled it up and down. Raylene mimicked the roaring sound as she faked slashing at Marjorie, who shielded herself with her arms. “Oh no, Mr. Chainsaw, don’t hurt me!”
“Give me all your candy!”
“But I don’t have any candy! All I have is pumpkin seeds!”
“That’s right,” Raylene breathed. “I almost forgot.”
Once the pumpkin seeds had cooled and Mr. Chainsaw was in position, Marjorie set out a pair of comfortable sienna-colored floor cushions so she and Raylene could sit on the floor of her living room and share a bottle of hard cider she’d bought at the Orchard. Marjorie was quiet then, listening to Raylene describe her job in the Admissions Office and thinking, all the while, of how loud her house used to be, of the rocks turning into gems, of Anita playing with her friends in the front yard, up in her room, and back in the kitchen, where Greg had taught them how to make pancakes, letting them clatter the bowls and whisk the eggs and spill milk on the floor; she hadn’t invited anybody new into their house since he died. It had been silent.
Raylene pointed to the sunset. “What color do you think that is?”
“Coral. Persimmon. Rust.” Marjorie’s phone beeped, but she ignored it.
“Whoever that is, they must really want to talk to you.”
“Oh, I think it just needs to be charged.” Marjorie didn’t check. She couldn’t bear it.
Her unwillingness to acknowledge her phone seemed to signal something to Raylene. She said, “Well, I should probably head out,” then finished her cider, glancing around the living room as if it were a fantasy she’d been indulging in despite knowing it could never really come true.
“You could stay a while,” Marjorie said, but Raylene shook her head, disengaging.
“It’s okay. I have to feed my dog, anyway.”
“You have a dog?” Marjorie followed Raylene into the foyer.
Raylene’s smile flashed and disappeared. “Yeah. Lucky. The dumb lug.”
Only then did Marjorie think to grab Raylene’s arm and prevent her from saying goodbye. When her fingers closed on the cool brown leather of Raylene’s jacket, Marjorie wasn’t quite sure what she’d say or how she’d fare under Raylene’s reserved yet hopeful scrutiny, but somehow she found the sense of mind to ask Raylene out to dinner that week. Her relief when Raylene said yes made it easier to face the messages on her phone.
Marjorie made herself a pot of tea, snuggled into her favorite blanket, and began the slow process of unraveling the story behind these texts: they’d been sent by a woman; this woman was dating or had dated another woman, Sophie, and it had gone badly or perhaps was still going badly (she couldn’t be sure). What she did know was this: the texts were completely untraceable—there was no name, no callback number, nothing, just that day’s date (October 15th) and the timestamp (11:42 a.m.) indicating that all 653 messages had arrived at the exact same moment, like a swarm of bees. Her phone wasn’t supposed to do that. In fact, technical support said this was impossible, and yet—they couldn’t find Unknown either. Her messages had left her phone, bounced around a satellite, and arrived unexpectedly in a stranger’s coat pocket, where her cries of love and longing and frustration were wasted. Marjorie read the messages again and again, but always came to the same conclusion: that it was over.
Whatever relationship Unknown thought she was having, it was with a void.
Marjorie never stopped thinking about the messages. On her morning walks, as the winter light stretched like icicles through the clouds, she considered the corners of her town, seeing it as if through Unknown’s eyes. Here, the store where she’d picked out a birthday card; there, the café where she’d waited two hours just to realize her girlfriend wasn’t coming. Marjorie recognized all the landmarks: the bar on Market Street, that park with the swings, even the small hospital where Marjorie had seen the very same handprint as the sender (on a window by the children’s ward, on the inside of the glass, where Marjorie thought a febrile child had pressed their hand in farewell). Unknown’s texts referred to many dinners, parties, and dates that may or may not have happened, and may or may not have been happy; one even mentioned a concert that Marjorie had worked at the theater just that spring. She might’ve seen them there, Marjorie realized—their upturned faces might’ve swelled with laughter and gone quiet without her even knowing.
She threw herself into work at the theater, preparing for four different shows: one modern jazz-inspired ballet produced by the university, one reading and Q&A with a visiting writer, and one screening each of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with original scores performed live by the Alloy Orchestra, a group famed for composing on unusual instruments like sheet metal, garbage lids, and pots and pans. Of the four, the jazz ballet required the most attention, necessitating that she sync light cues to music in 5/4 and 7/4 time, whereas the writer just needed a spotlight and a microphone, and the Orchestra would most likely take care of itself. Matters were made worse by the ballet director, who didn’t know what he wanted. “Maybe a pink filter here?” His hands waved toward the dancer’s face. “Or the orange?”
Sharon dutifully replaced the optical filter on the third floor light stage left.
Up in the balcony, Marjorie muttered into mint tea, “Insufferable.” She shut her eyes for a moment, thinking again of Raylene’s hands: how they felt touching her own, how they’d hovered just above her cheeks, afraid to touch down for fear of smearing her with sticky pumpkin juice as their lips touched. She found it charming—that hesitation, that desire to get it right. Marjorie had made so many mistakes, when she was young and new to love, and this felt like that, like she had to relearn the rules, be careful not to get too attached too soon. She didn’t realize when her phone was ringing. Sharon had to wave up at her from the orchestra.
“Marge! Hey, Marge! Your phone’s blaring! Want me to get it?”
“Nevermind. It’s probably just a wrong number. I’ve been getting a lot of those.”
Sharon plopped herself down by Marjorie’s jacket. “I’m this close. This close,” she hissed, pressing her thumb and pointer finger together as Marjorie drew near. “I can’t stand it anymore.”
Marjorie nodded and retrieved her phone from her coat pocket. “He is tiresome,” she said, hesitating over her phone, which she’d yet to unlock. She felt sure it would be Unknown, but as it happened, that missed call was from Raylene—she’d called twice, actually, then left a message to see if they were still on for dinner. Marjorie’s pleasure at hearing this was marred by the fact that, immediately after playing Raylene’s message, her phone queued up a voicemail left by Unknown the night before: Sophie…Sophie…please, pick up….
Sharon leaned forward, worried by the strain on Marjorie’s face. “You okay?”
Marjorie shook her head. “I just need to make a call.” She retreated into the dark stairwell next to the stage, where she could ramble on in private about how work was really hectic and she couldn’t do dinner with Raylene that night. Or the next night. “I’m sorry.”
There was a long pause. “It’s okay if you’ve changed your mind.”
Marjorie sighed. “I haven’t.” She tried to make this clear to Raylene, keeping her tone low and affectionate as she explained that this just happened to be the busiest week of the season. She wasn’t lying. “Look—why don’t you come to the show tomorrow? It’s at eight.” She shut her eyes happily when Raylene said yes.
Sharon was stretching when Marjorie came back out. “I’ll need a wheelchair pretty soon.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not infirm. You don’t know my body.”
“Indeed, I don’t.” Marjorie dropped her phone into her pocket.
“You’re blushing,” Sharon said, pointing to her cheeks. “Was that a man on the phone?”
Marjorie smirked, knowing what Sharon would do, waiting for the slow, happy smile that would spread across her face when she said, “A woman, actually.” Marjorie had been waiting for this, for this moment of comfort, and finding it made it possible for her to relax, to breathe a little after a stressful week. Time passed quickly then. Music jittered out of the speakers, dancers leapt off the stage, and pretty soon it was the next day and the show was about to begin.
Doors opened at 7:30 p.m., when Kent, their volunteer doorman, stationed himself happily in front of the theater like a shepherd guiding his flock through the gates. The show was sold out, and Marjorie had to climb up toward the balcony to pick Raylene out of the crowd. “I might have to duck out,” she said, after leading them to their seats.
“Have you had dinner, at least?” Raylene frowned, slipping out of her jacket. Underneath, she was wearing a black fringe dress with a small pearl necklace. Marjorie was so unprepared for this sight that she just nodded and blushed as one of the ushers came by with a program and gave her a wink. Evidently amused, Raylene scanned the program.
“Am I going to like this?”
Marjorie smiled. Then, when Raylene looked unsure, she said, “Just wait.”
Soon, she was enraptured of the film, of the sweet, gentle Maria who captures the heart of the young, naïve Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist who profits off the hard work of others in his employ. Much of the plot had eluded Marjorie when she last watched the film, but this new restoration, paired with the orchestra’s score, made it very clear that this film was less about class and privilege and more about chaos—that driving force that leads men to lust, machines to break, and cities to flood where no one can escape the flooding alive. Marjorie felt the drums pounding, the metal screeching in her heart, hollowing her out to better accommodate the sound. All at once she realized that she wanted to live exactly like this: in silence, in the theater, accompanied by an orchestra that could translate her every thought into great and terrifying music; there would be no miscommunication then, no chance of her saying the wrong thing or pushing Raylene away, only this hand holding onto hers, only this touch keeping her warm and this fear of the word Sophie… Sophie…Sophie…
Hermit thrushes had built nests in Marjorie’s backyard. She heard them singing, their high notes rising through the branches and piping into Marjorie’s bedroom, which overlooked the west side of Hickory Hill Park. Raylene had commented on it early one morning, asking, “Does one of your neighbors play the flute?” while listening to their melancholy tune—Oh, holy, holy, sweetly, sweetly. Theirs was an eerily human music. Marjorie taught Raylene how to hear it right: a single whistle followed by a series of notes in varying pitches, in a minor key, so that the thrush seemed almost to echo itself. She often lingered in bed, listening to their singing, but was awoken the day of her birthday by Lily’s boisterous call, “Grandma! Grandma!”
Anita followed Lily into the room. “I couldn’t hold her back any longer.”
Marjorie chuckled, sitting up in bed. “Hey there, Lily Pad. Who’s this?” Lily was showing off her favorite doll, telling Marjorie to say hi to Mr. Toad—he was shy, she said. This was Toad from the popular children’s book series Frog and Toad, and when Marjorie saw this doll, her first thought was that it was sad to see the two separated, after all the pages they’d spent quietly sitting together. She pinched the doll’s foot. “We must get Mr. Toad a friend.”
Anita settled in the armchair by the window. “There’s a Mrs. Toad back home.”
“Is there?” She tickled Lily’s stomach. “How incongruous.”
Anita smirked; the fragrant steam of her coffee had turned the tip of her nose faintly pink. Her legs were crossed at the ankle, and she’d straightened her naturally curly hair already, though Marjorie couldn’t figure out where she’d found the time. It was wise of her to move to New York, Marjorie thought—that city was more her speed. Anita always had a million projects. “She asked me to make some dresses so she could dress Mr. Toad up.”
“That’s my granddaughter—always ready for Halloween.” She strummed her fingers over Lily’s leg. “Guess what Grandma’s costume’s going to be.”
“Talk about incongruous,” Anita muttered into her coffee. “Let me guess—Ariel?”
“Princess Wensicia, actually. From Children of Dune.”
“Ahh, yes, Daddy’s favorite.” Her smile faded at the mention of her father. “You okay?”
Marjorie glanced up thoughtfully, wondering why Anita was the only one who ever asked that question. It seemed to her that she hadn’t been really okay for a very long time—since before Greg died, perhaps before he was diagnosed—and that she had instead been performing a kind of simple diminuendo, lowering her voice, softening her vowels, in preparation for that slow, lonely glide into the unknown. Until she received those messages, she’d been content to go quietly, even peaceably, bringing nothing with her, not even music; and then came the shrill, insistent buzzing, sounding like an alarm on her hip. No, Marjorie thought, she couldn’t tell Anita about this, so she ducked the question, asking Lily, “What would you like for breakfast, Lily Pad?”
Lily flung her arms open. “Pancakes!”
“How about pumpkin pancakes?”
With a gasp, Lily jumped up and ran down to the kitchen to get started. Marjorie laughed.
Her birthdays were always more or less the same: breakfast with her family, a little cream in her coffee, a nice long walk through the park, then a couple hours in between lunch and dinner when she could just sit at a piano and play Lily some music; sometimes, she chose Shostakovich, Fugue No. 4 in E minor; sometimes, she chose Mozart, Requiem in D minor. And then again, she sometimes liked to go to Nodo inside the Ace Hardware on N. Dodge St. and order a corned beef and pastrami sandwich to eat while she walked around the graveyard and visited the Black Angel under the gray Iowa sky. This year, she traded her coffee for tea, her walk for a romp through the leaves in her backyard, and her somber fugues for the gayer waltzes of Chopin. These were some of the few pieces that Anita still knew how to play, and when Anita took over, Marjorie started to guide Lily through a neat and happy waltz, letting the girl stand on her shoes so she wouldn’t fall. In the midst of this, there came a knock at the door.
Raylene had come to take her to lunch. “Am I too early?”
Behind them, Lily ran up the steps, excited to see Mr. Chainsaw in action.
Marjorie laughed. “No, no—we were just playing. Come in.” She guided Raylene into the foyer, touching her sleeve lightly as she leaned in for a kiss. Anita saw this from the living room, and when she came and joined them, she had a look on her face like this was the most interesting thing that Marjorie had ever done. Introducing Raylene was surprisingly simple—even Lily, who didn’t always take to strangers, slowly edged up to Raylene and plucked the thin white threads on her thigh, where her jeans had frayed. “We were just going to go to lunch,” Marjorie said.
Anita was quick to protest. “Stay, stay. We’ll order in. Do you like Wig and Pen? They’ve got a carnivore pizza that has all the meats.”
Raylene glanced at Marjorie. “Sure,” she said, very carefully, in case Marjorie objected.
Marjorie wasn’t quite prepared for this, but she accepted it easily and with a kind of grace that pleased her, because she hadn’t expected Raylene to fit so readily into all the facts of her life. Raylene held up well during Anita’s dutiful interrogation, detailing how they met (at the Saturday farmers market in the Chauncey Parking Garage: Raylene had been buying fresh mustard greens; Marjorie, turnips) and what their first date was like.
Anita’s last question was a simple one: “Where do you live?”
Raylene pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “A few blocks that-a-way.”
“That’s pretty close. Maybe we’ll come trick or treat at your place.”
Raylene smiled. “I’m actually going to a party. But I’ll leave some candy out for you.”
Anita didn’t know if she liked this answer. “Is this a costume party?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be going as Annie Oakley, Little Sure Shot.” She mugged a bit for them, pointing her fingers like mock pistols and engaging in a little shootout with Lily, who aimed with one hand and clutched Mr. Toad with the other. When Raylene faked falling, Anita shot Marjorie a quick smile of approval. Yes, Marjorie thought, Raylene would do. When the doorbell rang and Anita followed Lily to the door, Marjorie paused a moment to think of her happiness, of the hand pressing hers, the receipt being signed, the plates clacking against the counter as everyone helped themselves to sausage and pepperoni pizza. It was a good birthday—the best in recent memory—and for that afternoon at least she didn’t think of Sophie or Unknown or the bright, brief joy she’d felt when she woke up in the morning and thought Greg was there beside her. Instead of dwelling on it, Marjorie took the board games out of the bureau, breezed through Lollipop Woods, and got mired in Molasses Swamp, too warm and loud and pleased with herself to hear it when her phone started to ring. This time, Unknown didn’t leave a message.
Trick-or-treating started at dusk, when the candles in Marjorie’s pumpkins lit up. Outside, wayward teenagers were roaming around, half in costume, half in jest, wearing vampire masks to hide their identities while decorating houses with toilet paper and robbing children of candy. Lily had been head-to-toe ready since 10:15 that morning (she’d dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and required nothing in the way of real make-up), but Anita took her time, mixing her face paints and gluing her eyebrows in order to transform herself into Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. This process was slow and methodical, so after Marjorie attached her own elaborate headpiece, she sat off to the side and watched as her daughter become the evil witch from the movie. Anita was still gluing on her nails when she asked, “How heavy is that thing?”
Marjorie brought her hand to the back of her head, where thin gold wires extended out of the crowned dips of her headband, shivering like the filaments of an incandescent bulb whenever she moved or breathed. “I’d say three pounds. Maybe four.”
Anita lifted one hand, studying her nails. “Let’s hope there isn’t any wind.”
Thankfully, the night was cool and dry, and the streets were lit with small orange lanterns flickering like ghosts in the moonlight. Marjorie walked in the grass, listening to the earth squish, while Lily walked hand in hand with Anita. “Mommy,” she said, “are there wolves in Iowa?” She was staring at a dog then, peering down his chocolate snout as he sniffed her tentatively.
Anita said there were no wolves. “Just corn. Lots and lots of corn.”
“That’s not true,” Marjorie said. “We also have fossils. And…football players; they might as well be animals.” Only last week, one of them had been caught urinating on a statue in the Ped Mall. And just a week before that Marjorie saw a group of tailgaters playing beer pong on a table they’d dragged out onto the sidewalk. It was 7:00 a.m. then, and she was walking to the river to meet Raylene. She was tired, and cold, and declined the tailgaters’ offer of a game, but gladly accepted the thermos of coffee Raylene handed her upon arrival. That was a good day, she thought.
Lily tugged her sleeve. “Grandma, can you hold my basket? My arm’s getting tired.”
“It isn’t even six yet.” She took the basket, weighing it contemplatively.
Anita tilted her head. “You’re thinking of going to that party, aren’t you?”
Marjorie smiled softly, glad that she’d been caught. “I’m just not sure I want to meet all of Raylene’s friends while I’m pretending to be somebody else. What if they don’t get it?” Marjorie’s Halloween costume painted her as a manipulative, fair-haired, middle-aged princess continuously plotting against her enemies; to look at her then, one would think she was a murderer, employing genetically modified tigers to hunt children through the desert. Princess Wensicia wasn’t who she wanted to be, wasn’t the right costume for her. She’d only worn it out of love for Greg, who listed the princess third in his top ten characters from Dune. Marjorie wished he could’ve seen her then. He would’ve known what to do.
“Lily won’t notice if you go,” Anita said. “She’s all about the candy.”
Marjorie nodded to herself, as if finding the courage. “I’ll walk back with you, then go.” It would be quite some time before Lily tired of filling her basket with sweets. Her riding cloak had pockets stitched inside the flaps and a large hood into which Lily snuck half a dozen Crunch bars and Snickers without Anita noticing. Marjorie saw their wrappers gleaming when a pale, ethereal light fell on them inside a haunted house. Poltergeists were hovering over them, she realized. The house’s architect had rigged them to descend from the rafters and glow in the dark. Like Marjorie and Anita, Lily seemed to find these ghosts soothing, their soft green glow like that of fairies in a forest clearing. Anita lifted her face, and when the light touched her cheeks it looked like she was staring at herself in an enchanted mirror. Marjorie watched Anita and Lily disappear into her house and then set out alone to the party.
It was a mile, maybe a mile and a half, across the train tracks and down by the river to the party. Marjorie wondered when the trick-or-treating would end and watched as the small children living next door toddled into the street, chasing after a golden, rounded truffle. She stopped about five blocks from her house when she saw the pale red siding of a house she’d passed many, many times before. Unknown had said she lived in a red house: no, it’s the Red House next door. I have my light on. Marjorie had imagined a tidy, one-story house, one with a porch swing and gas stove and rhododendrons out front, but this house was larger—emptier—the windows darkened as if in protest of the holiday. Just looking at it filled Marjorie with panic. Quickly, she walked down the road, turning left and then left again to check all the houses. To find the one Sophie had found on a night not unlike this one: bitter and cold and terrifying.
She stopped on the corner of East Bloomington and North Johnson. She’d been there before, on that late night walk when she’d seen the handprint in the window of the hospital. Mercy Hospital, its ambulance doors opened wide outside of its emergency room. There was a red house directly across the street—tall, handsome. Its paint was blood red. Its pale white columns as lustrous and polished as bone. This was where Unknown lived, she thought. In this house, on the first floor, in what sounded like a state of perpetual anticipation. Had it killed her? Marjorie wondered. Had all the waiting finally driven her mad? If only she knew. Marjorie wished she’d picked up the phone, wished she’d heard it ringing while she sat playing Candyland with her family. She’d changed her ringtone since, chosen something grand, orchestral, and easily recognizable: Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the dramatic allegro cued to burst from her phone whenever Unknown called. She’d been waiting for that sound all day, taking care to always keep her phone within earshot. When it didn’t come, Marjorie turned away from the red house. She walked a block, maybe two, and then paused to listen to her phone, its silence broken only by the distant cries of children whose voices followed her into the night.