I live in a country where, unfortunately, Halloween is not a big thing. It’s almost not a thing at all, and this fact disappoints me to no end. I’m a bored 19-year-old living in a small town where everyone I know still acts like they did when they were 14.
So you understand why I was overjoyed to find out that, in a nearby, bigger town, there would be a Halloween party, and I was invited.
Well, everyone was invited. I found the site while randomly wasting time online. The web design was cute and well done.
I was full of expectations. I bought a few clothes in a thrift store, customized them, ordered some artistic make-up online and watched youtube tutorials for long hours, deciding to paint my face like a Calavera, or sweet skull, because it seemed simple enough.
I even did my makeup the day before to test if it would go nicely. Obviously, the test was more successful than the actual day of the party.
So I painted my face, wore my costume, took a few pics for Instagram and drove my ass for two hours in my mother’s borrowed car, since I didn’t have my own.
In my country, it’s spring during Halloween (how disappointing!), so the air was hot and damp. I had to keep the air conditioning in the Almost Freezing My Face temperature all the way, so my make-up wouldn’t be ruined.
Despite the hot weather, it was a nice drive. I felt so good, singing My Chemical Romance at the top of my lungs to get in the mood.
It was easy to find the address – it belonged to a small bookstore, with a beautiful wooden façade, and a second floor with a tiny balcony full of flowers, that seemed to be the owner’s house. The bookstore was located in a narrow but charming street, with many other cute little stores.
I arrived around 9 PM, and didn’t have trouble finding a parking spot. The street was totally empty, probably because the stores there closed early.
I could hear muffled sounds of music coming from the place, and the door was half-open. I walked as fast as I could to avoid the unpleasant dampness and stood by the threshold.
“Hi! I’m Evelyn. This is my husband Paulo. Please, come inside!”
As soon as I stepped near the door, a friendly voice greeted me. Evelyn was wearing a calavera mask, that was way more beautiful than my make-up. Judging by her body structure, she seemed to be a young adult, probably in her mid-20s.
On both sides of the door, were two huge bowls over tiny tables, full of typical candy. The decoration was beautiful; you could see electric candles that seemed very real all over, capriciously carved pumpkins, orange balloons and paper bats on the walls.
The main table was covered with a huge white cloth and had black markings to look like a ghost’s face. It was really cute.
There were around twelve people in total. It was weird for a party that had its own website, but it also would be weird to fit much more than that in such a tiny bookstore. Speaking of which, there were only three bookshelves in the whole place.
“Hi, Evelyn, I’m Adriana. Your mask is lovely!” I replied, happily. The whole place was so nice. For the first time in my life, I was actually really excited to meet new people. I kinda immediately felt that I belonged somewhere.
Evelyn softly grabbed a young guy by the arm, Paulo. While she wore a simple, everyday black dress and plain black ankle boots, the guy was more in the tenue de ville style. I estimated him to be in his late-20s.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Adriana. Please make yourself at home”, he said. His voice was beautiful and deep, like a baritone’s. And the mask he was wearing was simply amazing. It was a well-elaborated piece representing the Egyptian God Osiris.
It wasn’t hard to comply. I felt really at home. The selection of songs was really nice, and in the perfect volume to allow conversation. There were places to sit, a small dancefloor and a lot of hors d’oeuvres. Everyone could enjoy the party exactly the way they wanted to.
I ate a lot of delicious treats, talked about books, danced, laughed and even flirted with a guy wearing a plain white mask, except for a very detailed and impressive Ouroboros completely surrounding it. Everyone but me wore masks.
“Was it supposed to be a mascarade ball?” I asked the charming Ouroboros guy, Daniel.
He laughed. His voice was very sweet. “No, silly. We just happen to like it. You look amazing with your make-up.”
“Thank you! Hey, you know why there are only three bookshelves here?”
For a quick, almost unperceivable moment, he looked down uneasily.
“Well, it’s only a small selection. The rest of the books are upstairs to give room for the party. It’s where Evelyn and Paulo live.”
“Oh, so they own the place?”
“Yes. It was an inheritance from Evelyn’s mom.”
“That’s sweet. You’re friends with her, then?”
“Yes. We’re childhood friends.”
I approached the bookshelves and noticed they had a lot of brand-new looking books released in 2013 and 2014. Among them, a lot of classic editions of Stephen King and Agatha Christie.
“Hey, Evelyn, can I buy one of these?” I asked. I had my eyes in a really old printing of Peril at End House.
She seemed surprised. Too surprised. But gave me a warm smile.
“I’m so, so sorry, Adriana. I… actually ain’t selling any today. They… they are from my personal collection.”
“Oh, sorry for asking.”
I felt a bit weird, but it didn’t last. After all, I was having so much fun. Everyone was gentle and welcoming. It’s no overstatement to say I’ve never been treated like that before, and I never felt happier. I know, my life is pretty crappy and uneventful.
I took some pictures with my new friends, and really wanted to continue talking with all of them. But they didn’t seem to like me as much. Every time I asked if we could keep in touch, I got vague responses like “I’m sorry, I’m not on social media” or “Why don’t you give me your e-mail address instead.”
Around 3 AM, Evelyn announced the party was over. It was kinda weird. I think at parties people usually slowly disperse, but I figured they had to work the next day.
“Do you want some help moving back the shelves?” I asked, lightly touching her arm.
“The shelves?” She and Daniel shared a look. “Oh, no, I’ll do it tomorrow in a minute. Thank you so much, Adriana. You’re a good friend.”
I said goodbye to everyone and drove back. I was too happy to be asleep (and had a long nap in the afternoon), so I had no incidents.
The other day, I woke up with my mother insistently knocking on my door.
She got in.
“Adriana, are you sick?”
“No, mom. Do I look sick?” I asked, still asleep-groggy.
“You don’t. Are you hungover? Did you drink and drive?”
“Damn, mom, no! Why?”
“Sorry, angel. It’s just unusual for you to sleep in so much. Dinner is almost ready.”
I then noticed that I slept for 13 hours.
“Oh. Sorry, mom. Guess I was more tired than I thought.”
“It’s okay, angel. Driving is tiresome until you really get used to it. Come eat in 20 minutes,” she said, and left.
When I wake up, I always check my phone. I did it, and decided to scroll through my gallery and see last night’s photos. I wanted to look at it for hours and wonder if Daniel was cute under the mask.
But I couldn’t.
In the miniature, the photos looked normal, but every time I tried to select one, it would be a picture of myself alone in a dark place.
I tried taking a screenshot of the gallery, since the miniatures weren’t being affected by this glitch, but in the print they changed too.
I reset my phone, and then the miniatures were glitched as well.
I tried to go to the party’s website again, but couldn’t find it. I opened every page in my recent Firefox history but it wasn’t there.
I don’t remember the name of the bookstore, I don’t even recall seeing one in the front, so I decided to google their address. Something was wrong.
The headline in the first result made my heart sink. It was from March 21, 2014: “Terrible fire destroys Atena Bookstore; 9 people die and 3 are injured.”
With my lips trembling, I googled “Atena Bookstore” and the name of the city.
Then on November 1, 2014: “Shopkeeper in [REDACTED] Street claims to see movement inside burnt down Atena Bookstore; police suspects group of teenage ruffians.”
April 6, 2016: “Stores start to leave [REDACTED] Street; shopkeeper says it’s not safe anymore and police haven’t made any arrests.”
I wanted to go check it out immediately, but my mother would use the car that night, and the last bus to the city had already left. I had no friends to ask for a ride. Damn, I thought I finally would have some. So I waited for the next day.
I woke up early and drove, feeling my heart heavy with sadness. When I got there, I found a scene I didn’t want to see. Most of the cute little stores were gone, or closed for good, and empty. Trash piled up in the desolate street. And, worst of all, Evelyn’s house and the bookstore were burned to the ground. There was no beautiful façade, no flowers in the balcony, just the solid feeling of loss.
I entered through a fallen wooden door, full of ashes. There was nothing inside but rubble and three crippled bookshelves, the metal all retorted.
I sat in the car and cried for an hour, thinking of my friends, the lives that were stolen from them, and the life that was stolen from me with them gone.
The following year, I was bewildered to receive an email from Evelyn and Paulo, inviting me to their party again. I tried sending a reply, but the message wouldn’t go through. Reluctantly, I decided to go.
* * * * * *
“Adriana, I can’t believe you came,” Daniel ran to the door to hug me.
“Well, of course, I came, pretty boy,” I said, perplexed. After the initial shock, I have always intended to attend the party. Dead or not, they were the nicest people I have ever met.
“I suppose you already… did your research,” Paulo said.
“Yes, I know what happened. And I still really wanna hang out with you guys, even if it’s just once a year,” I said.
Daniel smiled sweetly and turned to Evelyn. “I’m so glad we got to find the right person.”
I stared at the three of them intently. “Why me? You guys didn’t know me, and I was pretty young when you died.”
“You know, Adriana,” Daniel said. “We were a group of outcasts. Always the nerd in funny glasses, the kid in old second-hand clothes, the tomboy with a perfect sister. And every year, on the only night we can walk freely into this world, a person comes to us.”
“We don’t know how it happens,” Paulo explained. “But our message reaches someone in the most appellative way for them, and they show up. They have a good time. But then they find out we don’t belong here and don’t come back in the next year.”
“Guys, I will always come back,” I said.
“I’m so happy we finally found someone like us,” Daniel said, and I knew he was smiling again. “Well, in a way, ‘cause you’re alive.”
“Okay, you guys. Great talk. But can I say it now?” I could feel Evelyn’s stare through her sweet skull mask, and she squeezed her own hands in a clear sign of anxiety. “I have unfinished business and I really need someone who is alive to help me. Will you do it for me, Adriana?”
“Will you guys disappear forever if I do?”
“No, silly, of course not,” Paulo sounded paternal. “We just want to bring peace of mind to a specific living person. We’ll still live where we live and come to this place every Halloween.”
“Then I’ll do anything to help,” I said, and Evelyn told me her story.
“Growing up,” Evelyn began, “my sister Layla was your perfect girl cliché. She was pretty and feminine, everyone loved her, her grades were great even though she was kinda dumb. She went to the exact college everyone wanted her to. She married someone our family entirely approved of. In a word, she was flawless.
“Layla made me stick like a sore thumb even more than I already did. While I believe this wasn’t on purpose, she never tried to make her younger sister feel accepted. She just said that I should try to be like her, so people would stop bothering me.
“The only thing I had was my mother’s tiny bookstore. When she died, I was devastated, and what kept me going was taking care of my beloved shop. Layla immediately said she didn’t want it and it was all mine.
“I had no experience with business, neither did Paulo. So, in just a few months, we were neck-deep in debt. Even before my mother’s death things were already looking pretty bad, finance-wise. We could lose the store, which was honestly the only thing I loved and cared about.
“So I made a mistake. I kinda used an ambiguity in my mother’s will to get all the money from the inheritance. You see, my sister had a wealthy husband. She didn’t need the money, I figured.
“I know that it was wrong, but after a lifetime of feeling lonely and diminished, I decided that it was only natural that I deserved all the money, especially because it was destined to save the business my mother dedicated her whole life to.
“So yeah, I stole my sister’s share in the inheritance. It was a modest amount. I’m sure her husband makes that kind of money in three months. But it could save my beloved bookstore, so why not?
“Borrowing money from her never crossed my mind. We didn’t get along, and weren’t talking in the last years before my death.
“Despite the money being almost insignificant to her, apparently what I did made her really resentful. To the point where she decided to burn down my books.
“I know she didn’t mean to kill me. I want to tell her I forgive her.”
* * * * * *
Evelyn gave me an address and I jumped in my car. The city wasn’t so big, so I only needed to drive for 25 minutes to get Layla.
I tried to come up with what I would tell her. Hi, your dead sister is here, please follow me?
Layla’s place was in a fancy neighborhood. The grass was really green and the houses were beautiful and modern. I rang the doorbell, and shortly after, a middle-aged maid in immaculate uniform showed up.
“Hi, how can I help you?”
“Hello… well, can I talk to Layla?”
“Layla? Are you… not from here, girl?”
Wait, what. Do you mean the souls of the dead can’t watch us and realize their sister moved away? I’m baffled.
“Actually, no. My sister was good friends with Layla a while ago and I knew her well… since I was around I figured I should visit her.” I internally applauded myself for coming up with such an acceptable excuse on the spot. I usually suck at improv.
“Oh, I see,” she seemed undisturbed by my Halloween costume and flashy skull make-up. “I’ll write down her new address for you.”
I took the piece of paper, thanked and left.
The second drive was only 15 minutes long, but the scenery abruptly changed. It was a poor area of the city, and the address indicated that Layla now lived in a decrepit apartment complex.
I parked my car, entered the building and climbed six flights of stairs, with an everlasting smell of a mix between urine and cheap instant noodles in the already unpleasantly damp and hot air. I was exhausted and sweaty when I knocked at her door.
I suppose Layla was in her early 30s, but she looked much older. Her hair was greasy, tied in a sloppy bun with a lot of frizzed strings sticking in her forehead. She had more wrinkles than she should have, and deep dark circles under her eyes. Eyes devoid of life.
I barely remember what I said to make her come with me, but five minutes after we first saw each other, she was in my car. The drive flew like a dream as well. When we got there, she broke down crying, and I noticed Evelyn was by the door.
“I forgive you, Layla. I really do.”
“Come here, sis.”
They hugged for a long time. Layla asked for forgiveness a thousand times. She actually kneeled in front of each one of the masked people and told them from the bottom of her heart how she regretted doing what she did. It was a beautifully sad sight to see.
“I was jealous, Eve. I always felt mother loved you more. I always felt you were stronger than me, because I lived my whole life to be a people-pleaser. I don’t even know who I am. What I am. I never had the time to discover myself because I was always kissing everyone’s ass and doing what they expected of me.”
“I understand, sis. I really do. I shouldn’t have stabbed you in the back and taken all the money”.
“Oh, it wasn’t about the money, Eve. It wasn’t that much. I just was really mad because I wanted to have mommy’s locket. But you got all her mementos. I had nothing to remind me of who she was and what she meant. It really got me to the edge of insanity.”
Despite the heavy emotional load, the party was fun. It was a healing moment. I enjoyed myself nearly as much as I did in the previous year.
Paulo explained to Layla and to me that the fire wasn’t entirely her fault. She set fire to a small part of the bookstore, just to really impair the business, but that specific place happened to have serious issues in the electrical wiring, so everything caught fire really quickly.
Besides Evelyn and himself, three employees, five customers, and two other people were killed or severely injured in the fire.
After a row of deep apologies, the party quickly lightened up. The chance of being in this world was way too precious for those people, and they all seemed to forgive Layla. I even though the relief in her face made her look younger. Obviously, it wouldn’t be easy, but she would now enter the path of self-forgiveness.
The last thing I heard from the sisters’ conversation was Evelyn encouraging Layla to reconcile with her ex-husband; she left him due to her extreme guilt, depression, and mourning.
Then Daniel took my hand and we went to the dancefloor. We slowly danced together. He felt so real. His body was warm and tender, and he breathed in my neck, his mouth smelling like candy. I shivered when he softly touched my face.
It was one of those precious, magic moments, when you just know it. When everything feels right, like all my stars aligned. Like I’ve been waiting forever for this.
“Have you ever kissed a ghost?” he whispered in my ear, gentle as ever.
“I barely kissed the living,” I laughed. My only kiss until now was when a guy I liked lost a bet with his friends and had to kiss the weirdo of the class.
Daniel took off his mask. One could say his face was horrifying. It’s true his skin was full of fresh blemishes and scars, but he was beautiful to me. His green eyes were intense, two pits of kindness. He seemed absurdly full of life; that night, every single one of them was more alive than myself.
Then we slow kissed and it was like the world stopped and I was traveling at the speed of light through all the secrets and raptures of the universe, both at the same time.
Daniel sighed deeply.
“Okay, Adriana. It’s time I tell you something. Technically, I’m not dead.”
“You’re… not… WHAT?” I asked.
“I’ll explain it to you, my dear. You see, I wasn’t here in the fire, per se. I lived nearby. So I called the firemen and got inside the house to see if Evelyn was still alive. She’s my best friend since forever, Adriana. I would give my life for her, and I almost did.”
“I wasn’t as hurt as the others. But I was so severely injured that I was placed in the ICU. And I stayed there. I am still there, in a vegetative state.”
He made a pause long enough for that information to sink in, then proceeded:
“My brain is dead. My soul has crossed the line between death and life. My body artificially resists, but I think it doesn’t want to wake up and deal with the trauma. With the loss of my best friend. With the loss of my damn face. For all those years, I thought I was better off dead. But now I wanna be with you. Adriana, I don’t care if you don’t wanna date me. I really just wanna be with you. I wanna live in the same world you do.”
“Daniel,” I said softly. Before I realized, tears streamed down my cheeks, and the tips of my fingers affectionately brushed through his damaged but tremendously beautiful face.
“Did you know that when the living direct prayers to us we can get their messages?” I shook my head lightly. “Well, my mother talks to me. Poor thing, I can’t reply, but I’m always listening.”
“You’re so special, Daniel. She sure misses you like hell.”
“She does, darling. She really does. She told me the doctors are recommending that I be… shut down. To euthanize me. She begs that I give them a sign if I still can.”
Again, I didn’t know what to say. I never experienced such intense emotions, least of all in such a short amount of time.
“But I can’t do it alone. My body is alive but it refuses to let me regain consciousness. So will you please visit me at the hospital? Will you please hold my hand with that warmth of yours and remind me that it’s still worth living? I’ll understand if you never wanna see me again after that. I know I’m gruesome.”
I kissed him.
“No, silly. You look amazing.”
* * * * * *
The next day, I went to the hospital. His mother had the saddest green eyes I have ever seen. She slowly, tiredly, moved her head up to face me.
“Who are you?” she asked, no emotion in her voice.
“I hope I’m the sign you’ve been praying for.”
And, with that short explanation, I took Daniel’s hand. His mother silently left. I started talking to him.
“Hey, Daniel, it’s me, Adriana. It’s time to wake up. I’ve been waiting my whole life for someone like you, you know? Someone who makes me feel like I’m not a creep or a misfit. So please, remember it’s still worth fighting to be in this world. Your mother loves you to pieces, and well, so do I. I’ve been thinking about you every day for the past year. Stupid, right? I didn’t even know your face. But I knew your heart. I knew your kindness. And now that I know you can still be here with me, I won’t give up so easily. So please, come back to where you belong. To the world of the living. To me.”
Daniel started showing signs of consciousness. I visited him every day until he could talk. He remembered being with me and a lot of details of the afterlife. We couldn’t wait to be together. When he was released from the hospital, we started making plans to move in together.
Yes, I know it was sudden. But most people will date one another for years and never feel the connection we have, the urge of being with someone you feel you knew your whole life — to the point where it’s illogical to waste time apart.
We started living together in a small but charming apartment, and even working together at his mother’s business. Daniel is still very self-conscious about his face, but I do my best to show support and to remind him of how handsome he is at all times.
This year, we went to the bookstore Halloween party together. It was great to see my friends again, and everyone was so happy that Daniel took hold of his second shot at life. Layla was there, too. She looked amazing, like someone that really has their shit together. She was able to get back together with her husband and is on therapy and meds to deal with her mourning and depression.
I’m glad for her. She made a terrible mistake and will carry the heavy burden of guilt for her whole life, but it was out of dumbness. She’s not evil. Everyone forgave her, so she deserves to rebuild her life.
When we got home that night, I saw someone I didn’t recognize in the corridor, seeming to be waiting in front of my door. Their clothes were ripped apart. I took my phone from my purse, ready to call the police, but the person heard our footsteps and turned.
They had no face.
I can’t explain how horrifying the person was. He or she had horrible injuries all over their body, and had a head, but the face had been taken off.
“So,” a terribly raspy voice came from the humanoid. “I have unfinished business with a living person. I heard you can help.”
I hesitated, but we decided to let them in. Looks like I made myself a name in the afterlife. And a new seasonal job.
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