Is this quest enough to sustain you? Is this accumulation of curses really worthwhile? Has everything progressed perfectly, with no loss or sorrow?
– Anonymous, “The Holder of Remorse”
October, a month of chill, darkness and rain, has burst out in full glory.
Leaves crackle underfoot. Wind whips hair and hoods. The sun shines wheat-gold.
Anticipation hangs in the air like last night’s fog, lifted just in time.
“Welcome, welcome to our biggest and best HalloFest! Before the trick-or-treating and candy-eating, before the sun sets and costumed ghouls come out to play, we do. We have for the past one hundred and forty-nine autumns.”
The other ninety-nine adults in town beam at Mayor Rotas, hale and hearty at 100.
“You may wonder why our kids have never been invited. Then again, perhaps not. We don’t want them underfoot, especially after drinking Mrs. Todd’s cider. Right, Betsy?” In the middle of the crowd, Arepo’s best hairdresser cackles. “Besides, if they spent all their energy cavorting with us oldsters, they’d be too tired for tonight. All you parents counting on loot? Be thankful. The rest? Be prepared.”
“Our usual fun abounds: the arts and crafts fair, beer and cider tasting, costume judging, the round dance, the pumpkin-chucking contest. And, of course, food.”
Claps and cheers.
“We also have two new additions: Tales of Terror with our very own Lich-brarians, and Madame Fortuna, Revealer of Destiny. They’ll perform a live show at 1:30. Whatever your pleasure, don’t forget the drawing at 4:30.”
Silence from those assembled.
“We had a near-tornado this spring, and a near-drought this summer. Lots of us got sick. No one died, though, before their time.” He swallows hard. “The virus couldn’t lick us. Neither could a blaze at the Benjamins’, put out right away by the brave men of our volunteer fire department. We’ve been lucky. No. Blessed. As long as we keep holding fast and remembering who we are, we’ll prevail. We are the citizens of Arepo, one hundred and fifty strong for one hundred and fifty years. So today, eat, drink, and be merry. Happy sesquicentennial, and happy Halloween!”
The applause for their leader has never been louder, their grins never wider.
Yet the Mayor doesn’t see or hear.
He’s looking and listening past them, to the great house across Sower’s Field.
His breath slows. His eyes moisten. His hat threatens to fly off in a sudden gust. He knows he could let it. Abandon it to whim and wind, like so many other things.
Gripping the lectern with his left hand, he yanks his fedora down with his right.
When he finishes speaking, the ninety-nine rush the potluck.
They’ve brought their best fare: the Adamses and cinnamon apples, the Bakers and homemade rye, the Stewarts with chili and mulligatawny, the Turners with turnovers. Those who can’t cook worth a darn and/or have names unrelated to food bring more beverages. The Longs, who don’t drink, dole out coffee and tea.
As much as the townsfolk pride themselves on their communal spirit, at events like this, it’s first-come-first-serve. Runners like Tommy Hendricks, a track star home from university on fall break, grab hot portions while shufflers such as the elderly Martins earn tepid ones. Most get pleasantly warm vittles. Just right.
Waiting for the queue to die down are Mayor Rotas and Arepo’s assistant librarian. They’ve sat at one of the empty round tables, across from each other. Meanwhile:
“Yo, Evets. You cut in line.”
“I was here before you, Renaud.”
“The hell you were.”
“Say that again and I’ll break your face.”
“Now!” The old man’s voice cuts through the air with surprising strength. “We have enough for everybody. No need to behave like those who aren’t of age.”
Mr. Evets and Mr. Renaud, a Ford and a Chevy dealer, bow their heads.
Chatter buzzes. The few remaining flies and hoverflies buzz around the desserts. Mr. Dyer spills his cup of cider, which he commandeered far too early. Betsy Todd tried to hold him off, but it was impossible to deny a Vietnam veteran.
“You haven’t eaten, young lady,” Rotas warns his companion.
“I’m more worried about you.”
“I can wait.”
“You sure? You’re shaking.”
He can’t deny that.
“I’m twenty-five. You’re four times that. Sorry, sir.”
He winks. “No offense taken. Can you carry our plates and – ”
“Walk? It’s a balancing act, but I’ll manage.”
Something has slipped beneath her chair, to the assistant librarian’s chagrin.
“Manage? Nonsense. Let me.”
Her gaze flicks from his face to the tabletop, covered in a flapping PVC cloth.
Rotas hoists himself up and leaves. She retrieves her hand-carved shillelagh.
She’s never wanted others to notice her cerebral palsy. Yet they always have, and she holds one obvious sign – her late grandfather’s mobility aid. From two hefty leg braces and crutches, to one brace, to none, and finally the cane. Momentous progress. Yet to the infant called defective, the schoolgirl called retarded, the teen called speed demon, and the college freshman called dropout, it’s never enough. However, today she’s her truest self. Her liabilities morph into assets.
She’s been a witch for the past four years. Ever since she moved back home.
“Hey, hon!” Ellen Paige, head librarian and undead monster, saunters up to her.
“Can I join you?”
Her plate brimming, Ms. Paige plops it down, then plops herself in a folding chair.
“I’m glad you’re here. The crafters tried to talk my ear off. Join the club, they say. Never mind that I can’t crochet, can’t knit, and can’t glue with anything stronger than Elmer’s. If gardeners have a green thumb, I have a red one from pricking it all those years ago, when I tried to learn how to sew. Just because I’m a woman of a certain age.” She shakes her head. “I turned sixty in June, but I’m no pillow stuffer.”
“Sixty? No way. You don’t look a day over forty.”
“And you look like you had your Sweet Sixteen not too long ago.”
“LOL! I’m twenty-five, but thanks for the compliment.”
“No problem. I’m glad no actual kids are here. The Mayor has the right of it.”
“Hah! There’s alcohol here. Anyhoo, I’ve got some chillers on the docket. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ ‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.’”
“Anything other than Poe?”
A pout from Ms. Paige. “What would you suggest?”
“Some stuff from Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars.”
“No. He swears too much.”
“That he does. Let’s compromise. You read one story, then I’ll read one. If I come across obscenities, I’ll say the PG-13 versions. ‘Frick,’ ‘spit,’ and so on.” The younger lass would rather let the frick flags fly. After all, no young ones, no problem.
“You’ve got a d – ”
The Lich-brarian, a pumpkin muffin halfway to her mouth, stands up so fast and hard that her metal seat topples over. Rotas has returned bearing a full plate.
“Hello, Ellen,” he says and bows. “If I’d have known, I’d have brought you one too.”
“Oh, no. I’d do the same for you. ‘Age before beauty,’ as the old saying goes.”
“I do believe it’s ‘beauty before age.’”
“Fiddlesticks. You’re the Mayor.”
At the sound of Ms. Paige’s too-loud voice boasting a too-important piece of info, heads turn. Feet scamper. A table hosting three people gains five more. No longer is the witch alone, or almost alone, with her thoughts and someone who might understand them. Instead she finds herself at the misguided mercy of the group.
They say the right things: Hi! How are you? How’s your parents? On vacay? Don’t they know what day – forget it. Hope they have a good time. They also avoid the right things: politics, religion, her disability, her failed studies. They don’t steer clear of the virus, though. Whether or not they have it, those at HalloFest can’t stop talking about it. My mom. My grandpa. Intubated. A long bout. Dead. No, not from here.
In the midst of it all, the one who yearns to be seen is glad she’s not.
Their collective pain breaks over her in a tidal wave. She can’t float above it. Nor can she let it in. It would drown her in seconds. So the assistant librarian does what she does best: listening. Sometimes she adds “yeah” or “uh-huh,” but these are mouth noises. When she gets tired of making them, she falls silent.
Why is it that on Halloween, I feel so close to others, yet so far away?
On second thought, I feel like that every day.
The seven people around her – well, six, Mayor Rotas isn’t talking, either – continue sharing their recent misery. The witch knows it’s rude, but she looks at her phone. If she’s going to read from Full Dark, No Stars, she has to bring up the e-book.
How long would it take me to do “1922?” Let’s see. . .Holy crap! It’s 191 pages long.
“Big Driver” is even longer – forty-eight chapters. “A Good Marriage?” Twenty. Even if these stories wouldn’t take me hours to get through, they bring up touchy stuff.
That leaves me with “Fair Extension.” Perfect. I’ll read excerpts.
“. . .The Hugheses had their third child last week,” the girl hears her supervisor say when she comes back to the real world. “A girl. Kaitlyn Rose. Isn’t that sweet?”
“How much did she weigh?”
“Seven pounds, three ounces is what I’ve heard.”
“How’s her mom?”
Charlie Dillon, sitting cattycorner from Mayor Rotas, suddenly frowns. “Why is it that every girl’s name nowadays ends with –lyn? Kaitlyn, Bricelyn, Brooklyn.”
“If they’re not Presidents. Taylor, Kennedy, Lincoln. No Nixon, though.”
“Or Obama.” Dillon snorts. The others glower. No politics today.
“Anyhoo,” says Ms. Paige, “who’s up for Tales of Terror?”
Charlie groans. “‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ again?”
“And ‘Fair Extension’ by Stephen King,” her loyal helper adds. “Abridged version.”
“Hmm. Never heard of it. Think I’ll stick to the beer and cider table.”
“I’ll come,” says the smooth-faced realtor next to Ellen. “I love Poe.”
“As long as you’re done in time for the round dance, I’m in,” says her sister.
The assistant librarian, having finished her lunch while checking the length of Mr. King’s offerings, is about to push herself up and head to her assigned post.
Dillon looks at her: an occurrence so rare it might as well be a full solar eclipse.
“Ain’t you the one with the zodiac name? Virgo?”
“Don’t understand it,” says Charlie, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Don’t care to.”
“Need help to the tent?” Ellen asks. The girl leans on her cane. “No? See you soon.”
She’s glad to hobble away. There’s only so much chit-chat she can stand. She knows its functions: bonding, entertainment, friendship. She’s also amused by how much chit-chat sounds like shit-shat. Out it comes, then down the mental john.
Once inside the canvas-topped meeting space which will soon host the drawing, she takes her place in one of the sturdier chairs up front, to the right of the lectern. A space heater bathes her in drafts that could bake pizza, but she’s grateful. People in the back rows won’t be so lucky. A caged light bulb, burning bright, is strung and affixed to the tent’s roof. No bugs circle around it. They’re still on the food.
Centering herself, she inhales the aromas of damp earth and limp grass. Fall is her favorite season. Summer’s heat, although gone, is not yet forgotten. Winter’s frost, though on the horizon, has not yet arrived. Autumn lies on the threshold of life and death. No wonder her zodiac sign, and her name, is that of the Balance.
Showtime. The rest of the Fest may be tempting, but she has serious work to do.
First she lets her superior take center stage.
“Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous HEEEAAARRRRT!”
When it comes to screaming, Ellen Paige ranks at the top of the CHAAARRRT.
It’s the one part of Edgar Allan’s famous yarn that actually scares the audience. They learned it in school. Anything having to do with school is loathsome for all the wrong reasons. “Heart’s” horror, once black as fresh ink upon parchment, has been bled pasty-white by countless repetitions, oral reports, and teachers’ lectures.
“Let’s hear it for our lovely Lich-brarian!” Mayor Rotas cries.
The applause she receives ranks between “golf game” and “fundraising banquet.”
“I hear that her assistant, the witch to my left, now wishes to regale us.” He looks toward her. “Would you like to stand up here, or shall I give you the mic?”
“I’ll sit and hold it. Thank you, sir.”
He surrenders the screecher. The touch of his wrinkled old hand is gentle.
“Sorry about that,” she says as the feedback fades. “Thanks for coming, and thanks for listening. I’ll be reading one of my fave stories off my cell. Bear with me.”
A few boos and hisses. Good-natured, but folks here aren’t used to such things.
“It’s called ‘Fair Extension,’ by Stephen King. It’s pretty long, so I’ll skip some parts. I could read ‘The Raven’ or something, but I want to switch things up this year – ”
The bulb flickers, enough to make people wonder if it’s going to pop.
“Meet Dave Streeter,” she amends. “A man with three things: a will, a wish, and a woe. Meet George Elvid. A pudgy peddler with pointed teeth, ready and willing to offer him – a ‘Fair Extension.’” She blinks. The girl can’t believe her own ears.
Where did that brilliant summary come from? Not her lips.
Yet the story streams from them like water from a cataract, fairy dust from a magic wand, light from the sun. No uh’s and um’s. No tripping over phrases. She knows, intuitively, which parts to omit and which to keep. No brain-racking required.
The attendees straighten in their folding chairs. They lean forward as if they’re on a roller coaster. No longer are they in a cold tent in the middle of a colder field.
They’re on the Harris Avenue Extension in Derry, Maine – yes, that Derry, from IT. They’re men and women with terminal cancer, using the same barf bag, awaiting the same end. They meet the same peddler Dave Streeter does, and make the same bargain. What kind of pill do they give Elvid to seal the deal? Crestor? Singulair? Perhaps Viagra for a good time, or Lunesta for a good night’s sleep afterward. In any case, they’re in the clear, and so are their MRI’s. As long as they pay on time.
The one thing different is the one to whom they do the dirty. Transfer the weight.
“Who Do You Love?” asked Bo Diddley. Stephen King asks, “Who Do You Hate?”
The narrator, despite everything she’s gone through, hates no one. She’s simply tired. With the gravitas of someone older than her quarter-century, she concludes.
One beat. Two beats. Three. Then a standing ovation.
Its volume is nowhere near that of Madison Square Garden or Wembley Stadium. Yet the fifteen souls who sat through Poe’s prose in hopes of something better have gotten their wish. They didn’t have to haggle with Mr. Elvid, either. All because of a rookie storyteller who overcame her stage fright and delivered.
Mayor Rotas needs not ask for applause. It comes in waves, ebbing and flowing for five minutes. 300 seconds. Folks who had no interest in Tales of Terror come and peek in the tent to see what the fuss is about. They spot vacant seats and decide to join in. They may have missed this show, but they won’t miss the next one.
The young lady of the hour, careful not to fall over, curtsies in her witch’s rags.
“Thank you.” The old man means it. “You’ve brought us unexpected scares, even today.” Chuckles from the larger crowd. “There’s more. What would Halloween be without a soothsayer? They say the veil between this world and the next is thin on October 31. Why not take a look at what the future has in store?
“I present to you Madame Fortuna, Revealer of Destiny!”
As she yields her place, the assistant librarian gapes. Revealer? More like revealing.
Carrie Fontaine is costumed in veils, scarves, and a gypsy getup so sheer it would be transparent if not for its navy-blue hue. Its neckline plunges to depths unseen outside of Mount Everest’s crevasses. Fear not: Fortuna fills them and then some. Bells on her fingers and bells on her toes – er, sandals. She shakes a tambourine.
Carrie’s affected accent is the female version of Dracula’s. “Come one, come all.”
Several males in the audience look like they might do just that.
Her predecessor? Not impressed. Blah, blah, she thinks, sulking.
“Greetings,” Carrie says as “grittings.” I am Madame Fortuna. I’ll reveal your fate.”
“I was going to bring fake gold coins for you to give me as payment. With the virus around, I thought I’d leave them at home. Besides, you know what that looks like?”
Merry howls. Not ha-ha but BWAH-HAH, aided by Betsy Todd’s famous beverage.
“Who dares to come for free?” The BWAH-HAH’s turn to hee-hee’s. “Anyone?”
Tommy Hendricks, State U’s stellar sprinter in the 100M, dashes up front.
“Very good. Would you like to behold your work life, love life, or family life?”
“How about school? Will I pass my math midterm?”
“The future remains cloudy. . .but. . .a light over your textbook shall shine.”
“Come on. I need more than that. If I flunk, I can’t run, and I’ll let my team down.”
Madame Fortuna pauses, then gives him a red-lipsticked smackeroo.
“Thanks.” The “a” comes out three octaves higher than the rest of the word.
Tommy bolts back to his seat before anyone notices the fly of his jeans is crooked.
Catcalls and whistles. “Carrie! Carrie! Carrie!” She beckons with bejeweled fingers.
The gawkers threaten to surge forward. She lifts her hand. “One at a time.”
Charlie Dillon tries to jump over an empty chair, faceplants, scrambles to his feet, runs up to Fortuna, and falls to his knees. “Marry me!” More howling.
“That’s not in the cards,” she blurts out, forgetting her Lady Dracula persona.
“Why, ‘cause I’m a broke farmhand? You think you’re too good for me? Well, I got news for you, missy. You’re nothing but a no-account, lowdown, dirty – ”
The caged light bulb acts up again. Not only a flicker, but zzzZZZ, zzzzzZZZZZZZZ.
“Let’s have a woman up here,” says the soothsayer, voice trembling. “Please.”
The Mayor signals for someone to “help” Dillon out of the tent. Tommy Hendricks volunteers. To her surprise, so does Ellen Paige’s assistant as Fortuna’s next mark.
“What’ll it be?” Carrie croaks. “Work life, love life, or family life?”
“Life in general. An impression.” Will I get a break and leave this podunk for good?
“The spirits say – Look. You’re struggling, but we all are. Life sucks. It has and it will for a long time. You shouldn’t give up, though. We need you, and you need us.”
Carrie bites her lower lip. She’s revealed the worst possible fortune: a true one.
“Our town isn’t heaven, but it’s not hell either. Stay here. Hold.”
Shivers rack the spine of the aspiring writer, who yearns to break free.
“Are you all right, Miss Fontaine?” Mayor Rotas asks.
“Call me Carrie. I’m fine, but I’d rather quit early and get my costume judged.”
Boos from those who want the show to go on, to see Madame Fortuna up close.
“Enough. We don’t want any tussles or other unpleasantness.” Muffled grumbles. “Let’s partake of other activities for a while. Why not chuck a pumpkin if you’re full of vinegar? Rest up for the round dance. Browse our local crafters’ wares.”
“A matter of perspective, Mr. Evets,” says the Mayor, frowning at the Ford dealer.
“For once, I agree,” yells Duane Renaud, owner of Renaud’s Chevy.
“The matter’s closed. Thank you to our two learned librarians and our finest flower seller-turned-fortune-teller. Your time and talents are invaluable.”
“And your – !” A yokel thinking with his phallus instead of his brain shuts up.
The spectators disperse. The tent has been deflated in atmosphere if not structure. The air is that of an underage drinking party broken up by the cops. Speaking of which, the off-duty police eye their friends and neighbors warily.
Carrie turns to her rescuer. “I owe you one.”
“No, you don’t. You needed help.”
“Why is it that grown men and women act worse than toddlers at stuff like this?”
“Blame it on the alcohol. And adults who want to be kids for a day.”
“So true.” Fortuna smiles. “You’re. . .?”
“The star sign?”
“Mom loved astrology when I was born. Then she loved Jesus and normal names.”
“Well, Libra, what do you say we watch the idiots vying for our attention try to throw pumpkins half their size and twice their weight three times the distance?”
Libra takes her cane in her right hand and Carrie’s palm in her left.
Of all today’s traditions, the round dance is the oldest and most beloved.
Before Betsy Todd concocted her first gallon of witch’s brew, before Ellen Paige channeled Edgar Allan Poe or Marcus Newman hurled his first fall gourd, the locals did a reel. Even the children, who weren’t yet forbidden from the festival.
Both the dance and the occasion date to the town’s founding.
However, their origins are murky even to current librarians. Ellen and Libra, after spending a week combing through Arepo: A History and other official documents, could only come up with this line for their one-page newsletter:
The Halloween round dance, now an hour and a half, used to last until midnight.
This meant that in the good old days, it took nine hours. Longer if it started right after lunch, which was unwise. If children were at the first festival, they’d fall asleep or go home long before the clock struck twelve. Maybe in 1871, they began the dance at 6:00 or 7:00 PM. Even so, how on earth had they found the stamina to last for 540 minutes? Nary a soul knew. They still don’t, 150 years later.
What the 150 local spirits lack in terms of facts, they make up for in rumors.
The most common one is that the original residents, from the Mayor to the tiniest tot, sold their souls to the devil in return for prosperity. Then they saw the error of their ways and broke their contract. This would explain today’s bare downtown, crumbling barns, fields left fallow for not mere seasons but multiple generations.
Others say not even a pact with Satan beats the real problem: lack of faith in God. If He’s in charge of happy families and healthy farms, best to be in His good graces.
The problem with this theory is that almost everybody is. Arepo’s non-digital forms of entertainment are its two churches and two taverns, locked in an ongoing battle for immortal souls. If you’re not a Baptist, you’re a Catholic. If you don’t go to Pete’s Pub for a beer, you head across the street to Jack’s Joint. It’s like the Tim McGraw song. If you’re searching for salvation, it’s “Drugs or Jesus.”
Many choose both, but that doesn’t explain the round dance.
The grimmest rumor of all is that it’s a morbid ritual. The sole survivors win.
“Good afternoon!” cry Matt Moreau and Darcy Short, hand in hand. “I hope you’ve digested your lunches, ‘cause if you join the round, you’re in it for the long haul.”
They beam at each other like Romeo and Juliet. They are, minus the finale. For a year they’ve stuck together like the sides of a PB&J. At the 2019 festival, virus or no virus, they saw each other on opposite ends of the dance circle. After countless reversals, speed-ups, slowdowns, and breakaways from fallen contestants, they clasped hands at last. Destiny or determination? They’d say both.
“This year’s special,” says Matt. “It’s our sesquo-uh-150th anniversary. That means there’s an extra-special prize for the HalloKing and HalloQueen besides crowns.”
Darcy gestures to the huge gift baskets on a nearby table, also bearing cups of water and salt tablets for those who sweat too much despite October’s briskness.
“The last man and last woman standing after ninety minutes get these. All our neighborhood businesses pitched in. There’s fresh muffins in here from the Good Morning Bakery, pie from the Family Table Restaurant, fruits and veggies from our farmer’s market, and a gallon of hard cider from Mrs. Todd. As an added bonus, there’s gift certificates for McDonald’s in case our food’s not good enough.”
Derisive snorts. Who went all the way to Kane City for limp Big Macs, anyway?
“I warn you. Our reel ain’t for the faint of heart. That’s why this is over here.” Matt glances toward the beverage station. “Need a drink? Drink. You’ll have to drop out, but better that than get dehydrated. Gotta go? Go.” He flicks his hand toward a portable stall from Nature Screams, Inc., also out of Kane City. “The same thing applies. You won’t have a chance during the dance. Hopefully you won’t have to.”
“We’ll start out slow, then speed up,” says Darcy. “Toward the end, beware.”
“If you need medical attention, my mom’s here,” Matt says, gesturing to a nurse.
“And if you need detention, there’s my dad.” Darcy waves to an on-duty cop.
No one laughs.
“Places, everybody, places!” She watches as the participants form their circle.
After checking a jury-rigged PA system, last year’s HalloKing smirks. “Here we go.”
The soundtrack for the 150th annual round dance begins with classical waltzes: Strauss’ “Blue Danube,” Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” and Chopin’s “Minute Waltz.”
More recent tunes in this time signature continue the trend. “Tennessee Waltz” is a hit, along with The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” No one withdraws.
“You all doing okay?” The dancers cheer at Matt. “Great. Now we’ll pick up the pace. We didn’t do reversals last time, but from now on, they’re fair game. Darce?”
“Guess what?” she chirps. “It’s 3:30. Who’ll make it to 4:00?”
From the decibel level of the ensuing roar, all sixty participants will.
Carrie and Libra, over in the pumpkin-chucking area, hear it and turn their heads.
“Shit.” The former grabs the latter’s hand. “I totally forgot. Come on.”
“I don’t dance,” Libra says to no avail. Her arm is nearly yanked out of its socket as Carrie pulls her up from a folding chair in the spectators’ section. Clutching her cane, she canters across the uneven ground a half-pace behind Carrie’s mad dash.
“Hang on! We’re here!” The florist flashes a rosy grin. “Sorry we weren’t before.”
Darcy frowns. “Too late. We finished the first round. You snooze, you lose.”
“That’s okay,” Libra’s about to say, but Carrie won’t have it.
She insists that since no one’s dropped out, or at least it seems that way, she and her new ally should be able to participate. Darcy counters that they’d still have an unfair advantage. Matt, trying hard not to peek at Madame Fortuna’s décolletage, suggests the two of them call out reverse at random intervals during the next round. His girlfriend says that’s her job. The two bicker under their breaths for a tense sentence or two. Finally Darcy snaps, “Fine.”
Carrie and Libra take their positions: Libra to Matt’s left, Carrie to Darcy’s right.
Despite her Miss America smile, made possible by a Kane City orthodontist, Miss Short stares daggers at Miss Fontaine. Libra wonders if they should switch places.
“Time’s a-wasting,” Darcy says through clenched teeth. “Next round starts now.”
No more waltzes. Time for faster and harder songs. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears proves itself a fitting theme for the contest, followed by the eerie “Doodle Let Me Go” from the end credits of The Lighthouse. As they rotate, the revelers sing along with those particular lines at the top of their lungs. Carrie and her partner call for them to go clockwise, counterclockwise and back again.
Libra can’t help but wonder: In the old days, they did this for nine hours straight?
“No one’s out,” marvels Matt. “All right. I’ll give you a real test. Riverdance.”
The track he selects is none other than “Reel Around the Sun,” or at least the best parts. Not only do the contestants ease through the group tap-dancing section but speed up during the solo. They also trip over their own two feet. At least ten people hit the hard-packed earth, faces full of topsoil, mouths full of humble pie. Those upright yell in triumph, one step closer to a gift basket’s mouthwatering haul.
“That was a workout, wasn’t it?” asks Darcy, wiping sweat off her own brow. “I got tired watching you. Lucky for me that track wasn’t on last year’s playlist.”
“Lucky for us,” Matt says.
They lean closer together. Sweethearts’ quarrels are easily forgiven and forgotten.
“Let’s not tell them what time it is,” Matt whispers in Darcy’s ear.
“Great idea. Let’s also play that African drumming song you found on YouTube.”
“For how long?”
“Until there’s two left or it’s time for the drawing. Whichever comes first. Loop it.”
“The hell? That’s thirty – ”
“Shh.” She lays a finger to her boyfriend’s lips. He gives it a tentative lick.
“In a good way.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Matt announces, “this is it. All or nothing. Do or die.”
To his left, Libra winces.
“You know what?” Darcy turns to Carrie. “I’ve changed my mind. You’re in.”
Carrie inserts herself between two dancers. Matt raises his eyebrows at his lady love, then at Libra, who shakes her head. He then boots up the conga instrumental.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Like the thrum of a heart, it sustains their bodies.
Beats fall like rain on asphalt as other congas embellish the base rhythm. Far apart, so near they roll together, all essential, none predictable. Beneath them, the pulse. Although immutable, it forces the circle to whirl harder, move faster, last longer.
The thirty-eight people left won’t go down without a fight.
Watching them, Libra understands its appeal. More than entertainment and more than competition, it’s a part that stands in for the whole. The dance is Arepo, Arepo the dance. All are invited to join in. Some can’t. Some don’t. Some don’t care, while others care too much. The strong survive. The weak head for the ground. The weakest, those who can’t hope to keep up, sit out and hope no one notices them.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
What is it about the word community that sets Libra’s teeth on edge? Is it the way stores like Walmart use the term, although the nearest one’s in Kane City? Was it the way that Arepo Community High School used it? They promoted anti-bullying strategies all the time, but was she bullied? All the time. They also invoked the C-word when cops and anti-drug speakers came, as well as grief counselors. Kid getting teased? Invite them to be part of our community (even if you don’t want to). Did some drunken juniors die in a car crash? We need to mourn as a community (even if we never knew the fools). A suicide or two? What a loss to our community (not really, unless you’re a star athlete like Kate Ng or a genius like Alex Inman).
Community is a lie. Libra will reveal the truth.
The dancers change course abruptly, throwing two of their number off balance.
They jerk themselves in the opposite direction, causing a chain reaction of falls.
Libra gives the dead time to raise themselves, the living to link themselves.
The conga raindrops keep pattering. She lets them lull the remaining “rounders” into a false sense of security. Need the dance be as brutal as life itself?
Several people’s jaws slacken. They try and fail to get their bearings.
More pitch forward, stagger sideways, attempt to avoid the inevitable.
And then there are five, Carrie Fontaine among them. Her hair streams wild.
“Have mercy,” someone shouts. For the moment, Libra does.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
In sixty seconds, she counts seventy beats – a resting pulse.
Yet the caller’s heart is not at rest. It’s not pounding in her chest, but through it.
Jerk. Whirl. Shrieks of delight and terror.
Broken handholds, broken hearts.
“Stop it. You’ll kill us.”
Libra pretends to listen, waits for two more thumps, then pulls the curtain.
Let the bodies hit the floor. “Reverse!”
The last remaining man and the last woman balance on one foot. The rest sprawl on the ground, trying to keep their hearts in their ribcages.
Darcy, face pale as a bedsheet, storms over to Libra. “You witch.”
“We almost didn’t have any winners.”
“So? I thought the final round was supposed to be hard.”
“Not that hard. Who do you think you are? You’re a – ”
“A welfare moocher and a retard who can’t walk right, let alone dance.”
In Libra’s mind, Darcy’s jaws split wide open in the reverse bear trap from Saw II.
“Sticks and stones stitch up my bones,” Libra’s mouth says.
“Nine reversals.” Unlike Darcy’s voice, Matt’s is awed. “Never seen anything like it.”
“Uh, yeah! Did you see how she fucked everything up? Make her apologize, hon.”
“That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” cries the realtor from the lunch table as she comes up to Libra. “And your story wasn’t half-bad either. Thank you.”
Once she’s out of earshot, Darcy leans into Libra’s face. “You hate us, don’t you?”
Libra thinks of denying it, then decides it would be pointless.
“You think you’re too good for us?”
“No. I know I am.”
Darcy pivots on her heels, grabs Matt’s arm, and pulls him toward the prize table.
“Steve Evets? Carrie Fontaine? Congrats to our HalloKing and HalloQueen!”
Matt takes one and a half steps backward. He’s never seen Darcy with a rictus.
She hits a button or two on his laptop and plays Queen’s “We are the Champions.”
“I know we’re in a rush, but we gotta hurry. The drawing’s coming soon.”
“Darce, it’s 4:08.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Silence. “I apologize. What I meant was that I wanted everybody to have enough time to get water, use the port-a-john, et cetera. Go, go, go.”
The crowd goes, except for Carrie and Steve, who wait for the final outcome.
“Nice going. What about the coronation and the speeches?” asks Matt.
“Those suck. Put your crowns on your own heads,” Darcy barks at the champs.
Carrie shrugs and coronates herself with a simulated citrine tiara. Steve, seeing the onyx rhinestone HalloKing’s crown, thinks it’s too girly and shoves it away. He does take a gift basket, hoisting it into his arms like it’s nothing although it weighs twenty-five pounds due to all the fruits and vegetables. He then leaves.
“No gratitude,’” mumbles Carrie. “Oh well. Thanks, Matt and Darcy.”
“Hey, you’re the ones that made it. No thanks to the retard here.” A withering glance.
Suddenly, last year’s HalloQueen finds herself kissing dirt.
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