We were walking down the road towards the full moon.
A blue pick-up truck passed us. In the back of the truck were a witch, a fairy, and a ghost. I was Little Red Riding Hood. My sister was sixteen, so she wasn’t anything at all.
By the time we got to the school, the Halloween party was already half-over. There were no more goody bags, or chocolate or even candy corn. All that was left were hard orange toffees wrapped in waxy Halloween paper, and black jaw breakers. The punch was warm and watery pink, with the cherries all sunk to the bottom.
“Go play with your friends,” my sister said. She was standing under a bunch of balloons, fingering her pack of Camel cigarettes.
“I don’t think you can smoke in here.”
“Go play with your friends.”
I went over to the apple bobbing. The apples floated in the slightly scummy water, little nicks taken from their skins. The most popular girl in my class, LaWanda, stood with a few girls off to the side of the bucket. She wore a butterfly costume, and her shoes were delicate pink leather ballet slippers. LaWanda was a born-again and believed in Christian charity. That meant she wouldn’t let the other girls be mean to me. “The other girls think you’re weird and that, no offense, you dress funny and you’re a little dirty too. But I told them that Jesus says we must love everyone. Everyone, not just the people we like. You’ve heard of Jesus, right?”
My ignorance was a continuing source of amusement to the kids in my class. Like not knowing about Donny and Marie. And not knowing what religion I was. Baptist? Episcopalian? Church of the Nazarene? Even I was amazed by how little useful information I had about the world. When I told Sharlene that a rattlesnake wouldn’t attack you if you didn’t scare it, she laughed right in my face. Hippies believe in being nice to snakes, I heard her tell LaWanda later. Snakes, coyotes, chickens and horses. They knew all those things better than me, even the girls from town.
Lawanda motioned to the bucket. “Are you gonna try it?” she asked. “We all did. Didn’t we?” The other girls nodded in agreement. I knelt down at the bucket and held my hands behind my back, the way they told me to. The water was almost the same temperature as my skin. I reached for the apple, pretending that when I catch it, it will taste as sweet as caramel.
Above me, I heard one of the girls say “I can’t believe she really did it.”
LaWanda said as they walk away. “She just doesn’t know any better.”
As they left, I wondered what I was supposed to know. That 5th grade was too old for apple bobbing? That someone spit in the water? What secret ignited their laughter? Another thing I didn’t know.
Living on a commune with 20 adults, I did know some things they didn’t. I knew what boys looked like. Boys and men. And I knew how babies were made and even the right words to describe it. Penis. Vagina. Fucking. But the other girls just wrinkled their noses. They didn’t want to know.
“That’s not true,” they said.
But when I talked about the house itself, they listened. It was a known fact that our commune’s house was haunted. Two people had already gone missing. The story was that a rancher brought his new wife here but she hated it. He planted roses all around the ranch house to try and make her happy. But one day she just disappeared.
My sister heard the story during the month she went to high school, and she told it to me, changing her voice for the different parts.
The rancher says “But you can’t leave honey, I planted roses.”
But the wife goes “‘Later for this Jack” and she’s gone.
When I asked my sister how she knew the husband’s name was Jack, she rolled her eyes and said ‘later for this jack’ was just an expression. Like far-out.
After the apple bobbing, I stood by the punch table, drinking the watery punch. It was certainly made with white sugar, and chemical preservatives too. Red food dye. When my mom said the car was broken down and there was no way she could drive me into town I started to cry. She didn’t really want me to come to the party. But when my sister said she’d take me, that we’d hitchhike or walk the few miles, my mother didn’t said no.
Why did LaWanda invite me? What did Jesus say about inviting people to parties and laughing at them? I finished my glass and went to the haunted house. At the entrance were fake spider webs and rubber bats dangling from fishing line. I didn’t think any of these things were as scary as the black widow spiders in the commune’s barn or the rattlesnakes we’d seen moving in the grass by the garden.
Inside the haunted house, creepy music was playing, and glow-in-the-dark witches and skeletons hung from the walls.
The closest we came to this kind of haunted house was the night the adults all dropped acid, and we played catch with a glow-in-the-dark rubber ball in the attic.
The second person to disappear from our house was the rancher. Apparently he stayed there for years after his wife left. Heartbroken, my sister said. Then one day he was gone too and after a while, the farm was sold. But people said they were both still here, as ghosts or bones or both.
When I told the kids at school stories about our house, about the mysterious creaking of floor boards, or strange sounds, or the tingling feeling that climbed up my neck in the middle of the day, I didn’t tell them that these were usually the sounds of sex or the surprise of finding someone I’d never seen before in the kitchen. In one way people disappeared from our house all the time. Our father was gone, a quarter of the people we’d started the commune with were gone, gone to San Francisco or back East, gone to get a real job in a city somewhere.
Around the edge of the haunted house were boxes to stick your hands in. Monster brains, said the label on one. “Spaghetti,” the kid in front of me announced. The kid next to me put his hands into a box labeled Witch’s Eyeballs. “This one’s just grapes.”
After they left I put my hand in the Witch’s Eyeballs box. They didn’t feel like grapes. We didn’t eat grapes on the commune, or iceberg lettuce because the farm workers weren’t paid enough. I thought about some farm worker out in the hot dusty sun, working for almost nothing, just to pick this grape that I was touching between my fingers. I put the grape into my mouth and bit into it. It tasted sweet and a little rotten, all at the same time.
My sister was waiting by the exit of the gym. “Are you ready to go yet?” I looked around and saw Lawanda’s wings fluttering in the far corner, surrounded by her small cluster of friends.
Outside she lit up a cigarette with her little pink lighter. She waved goodbye to some people leaning against a truck in the parking lot.
“You have fun?”
“It was alright.”
“To think I was ever excited about coming to California. You think California you think ocean. Leave it to our parents to try and find themselves in the middle of Cowshit California. I didn’t even know California had cows. I’m starving. Let’s get something to eat.”
We walked to Rusty’s Drive-in and she helped me decide what to order because “we don’t have all night to decide OK?” She ordered me a hotdog and root beer float, and it turned out to be just what I wanted.
We sat on the edge of the parking lot, watching the cars and pick-up trucks driving in and out. In the cars were teenagers, out for a cruise, and families from the carnival, on their way home.
“Finally, some normal food,” my sister said. Since she didn’t go to high school anymore, she didn’t even get the free lunch program. She only ate what the adults ate. Soybeans and rice and lentils and whatever we could grow in the garden, which was mostly zucchini.
We started walking the few miles home and about halfway there I threw up. I was a known puker. Every roadtrip we’d ever taken we’d had to pull over sometimes two and three times so I could get sick.
“I’m sorry.” I said. The Halloween taffy, the grape, the mustardy hotdog, the rootbeer float, with its creamy fizzyness, it was just one sour memory now.
“You can’t help it” my sister said, just a cigarette burning in the blackness.
I couldn’t help it, I could never help it. That was the difference between my sister and me, between being big and being little. When we still lived in the city, she used to sneak the TV set out of my parent’s closet, so we could watch before our parents got home from work. We weren’t supposed to watch TV anymore. Already things were starting to change, we were starting to be not like other kids.
Our favourite show was the Twilight Zone except I spent most of my time watching between my fingers, trying hard not to ask too many questions. But sometimes I couldn’t help it. It drove my sister crazy that I couldn’t follow the plot but it was hard to understand the story when you saw everything in flesh-tinted slivers.
One day I told my mom. In my defense I was sure I could get our mom to change her mind, because after all, how could she say TV was rotting our brains when she couldn’t even tell we were watching it? But after that my mother took the TV power cord with her to work everyday and my sister didn’t even let me in her room at all. That was our last summer in the city.
I could tell my sister was probably remembering the exact same thing because she sounded mad when she said “I cannot believe you just threw up everything I bought you.” She flicked her cigarette off into the ditch.
“You’ll start a fire”
“Ask me if I care.”
My mom told me my sister stayed up all night the night that I was born. In the photographs she is always holding me, pointing to the camera, showing me where to look. When my sister talked about how things used to be, she talked about our old life in the city when we were an ordinary family, before we’d even heard the word commune. I could hardly remember any of that. But I remembered watching TV, lying behind her, leaning against her shoulder, almost ready to see the next scary thing.
Some days I knew my sister would always be there to protect me. And other days I could see she meant it when she said she couldn’t stand it another minute. When she said that all she needed was a hundred dollars and then she was going to split for San Francisco. A hundred dollars and then it was going to be “Later for this Jack.”
We were walking down the road away from the moon and almost home when the headlights came up behind us. The lights made our shadows huge on the road. The truck sped up and suddenly, there was a hissing, and spitting noise at my feet and around my head. Snakes I thought. Firebreathing rattlesnakes.
In the spark and burn of the fireworks, I could see my sister running down the road after the truck.
“You fuckers!” she screamed. “You shitty bastards!”
“Are you happy now?” she said, as she walked back towards me. I could see she was crying too. “Have you had enough fucking Halloween yet?”