“Betsy and Melvin can’t keep her away from him,” Grandma says to Aunt Lettie, as they stand at the counter in Grandma’s kitchen, chopping up the last of the green tomatoes. “They just need to make sure she only sees him at church or around the family. He won’t try anything that way.”
I am sitting on the bottom step of the staircase with a Nancy Drew book in my hand, but the kitchen door is open a crack so I can hear everything they’re saying. My cousin Lena is fifteen now, four years older than me, and she likes Bill, the boy who lives on the farm next to Aunt Betsy and Uncle Melvin. She’s not allowed to date yet, but since Bill lives right next to her, she can see him whenever she wants, and that has Aunt Betsy worried.
“Teenage boys will find a way,” Aunt Lettie says to Grandma, and she makes a kind of a snorting noise. “Just like the Mitchell boy did last year.”
“So sad,” Grandma said. “That Satan is an old tempter.”
Aunt Lettie won’t tell me what Josh Mitchell from our church did to get sent away to boarding school in Nebraska, even though I have asked her three times, so I hope she will say it now. But she just goes back to talking about Bill, how his parents are too loose with him because they let him go to the movies last summer, and Grandma says she believes she’ll tell Betsy to bring Lena and Dorothy over after school next week, while Aunt Betsy is helping Uncle Melvin harvest the beans.
I hear the front door open and Dorothy comes into the kitchen. I can tell it’s her from the way her shoes clomp on the floor, like a herd of cows, Grandpa says. Aunt Lettie and Grandma stop talking about Lena and Bill.
“What are you going to be for Halloween this year, honey? A princess?” Grandma asks.
Dorothy is her youngest grandchild so Grandma still treats her like she’s in kindergarten, even though she’s nine now.
“No, I’m going to be a bride, and Rachel Ann has to be my groom,” Dorothy says.
Grandma and Aunt Lettie both laugh at that, like it was the cutest thing they ever heard.
“I do not have to be your groom!” I say, as I walk into the kitchen. Since I turned eleven on September fifth, this will be my last Halloween—Aunt Lettie says that twelve is too old to trick-or-treat. At school, I am finally in Brother Smith’s classroom with the junior high and high school kids this year. I like being in the older classroom, but Brother Smith scares me, the way he stares at you and says, “What would Jesus do?” and how he is always talking about hell.
“It’d be nice if you did what Dorothy wants since it’s your last trick-or-treat together,” Aunt Lettie says. She turns away from the counter and reaches for a dishtowel to dry her hands. Her face looks serious, but her blue eyes are sparkly and I guess she is imagining Dorothy being all happy and cute on Halloween.
“It’d be okay for Rachel Ann to wear pants, don’t you think, since it’s just a costume?” Grandma says. “She’d look more like a groom that way. I’ll bet Paul has some dress pants he’s outgrown.”
“Wear boy’s pants?” I ask, wrinkling up my nose. I’ve never worn pants, only skirts, because the Bible says women shouldn’t wear men’s clothes. My cousin Paul is thirteen now and is in the eighth grade at our school, and the thought of wearing his pants makes me feel kind of weird.
“Why does Brother Smith say that Halloween is the devil’s holiday?” Dorothy asks.
Aunt Lettie and Grandma give each other a look, and Grandma raises her eyebrows.
“We agree with Brother Smith on most things,” Grandma said, “but I don’t see any harm in costumes for one night. I did it when I was growing up. It’s kind of a family tradition. You know it’s not real, honey? That we just pretend about the ghosts?”
“Oh, I’ve known that forever!” Dorothy says, slapping the back of her hand against her forehead. She grabs my hand. “Please, Rachel Ann, please be my groom. Pretty please with sugar on it.”
I look back at Aunt Lettie and Grandma, who both smile and nod their heads.
“I guess I’ll l do it,” I say. Then I sigh and walk out of the kitchen. I sit down on the stairs again with my Nancy Drew book, but instead of reading I think about the other plan I have for this Halloween. I am going to rescue somebody from hell, and that somebody is my great-aunt Ivy.
Aunt Ivy is Grandma’s sister, and even though she lives right next door to our school, I only talk her when we trick-or-treat, because she isn’t saved and it’s not good to associate with infidels very much, even if they are your relation. Since this is my last Halloween, it’s my last chance to witness to her. I never thought of doing that when I was a kid, but now I am older and I have to be more accountable about spreading Jesus’s message of salvation to the world, so they won’t all go to hell.
Last week, I picked up a Bible tract from the back table at church, and I’m going to put it into the orange plastic pumpkin bucket I always use for trick-or-treating, then hand it to Aunt Ivy when she gives me my Halloween treats.
I plop my book face down on the steps and lean back, squeezing my eyes shut and letting the sunlight from the window hit my face. My stomach gets butterflies just thinking about my plan, but this year will be my last chance, and it would be tragic for her to go to hell just because I was too much of a chicken. I think of Aunt Ivy in her garden beside the school playground, bent over hoeing her potato rows, with wisps of gray hair flying around her face. Will she really go to hell? In hell, the flames burn day and night and never go out. Right now, people are somewhere underneath me, deep down in the core of the earth, burning in those flames.
Halloween Day is cool and sunny. After school, the wind whips my braids into my face as I wave goodbye to Lena and Dorothy and get into Aunt Lettie’s car. Dorothy waves back, but Lena stands with her back against the brick wall and pretends not to see me. Now that she’s older, she likes to ignore me sometimes, like I am still a little kid, even though I am in her class. She is slim, but her breasts are round under her knit shirt. Her dark wavy hair is blowing around her face, and she reaches up with one hand to hold her hair behind the back of her neck. She is beautiful, I think, and I can see why Bill wants to date her. When she turns and glances at me with her brown eyes, there is something soft about them, like a deer’s eyes.
All day I’ve been nervous about trying to save Aunt Ivy, but I am also getting excited about trick-or-treating. Because it’s my last one, it seems more special. I had fun putting my costume together, even if it was Dorothy’s idea. Grandma talked Paul out of some of his old church clothes, so I’m wearing his white shirt, a red necktie that I learned how to tie myself, a blue suit jacket and black dress pants that are a little faded in the knees, with a pair of his old black dress shoes. I’d have liked the suit jacket and the pants to be the same color, but Paul’s blue pants were way too big around the waist, even with a belt. Grandma gave me one of Grandpa’s old hats, a black one with a gray ribbon around the band, and I tucked my hair up into it.
When I first tried on my costume and looked into Grandma’s bathroom mirror, I was surprised to see that I looked pretty good in these clothes—not like a boy, really, but like a different-looking girl.
At six o’ clock, I pull Paul’s church clothes off their hangers in my closet and dress for trick-or-treating. I take the Bible tract out of my dresser drawer and put it in the front pocket of Paul’s black pants. Then I hear the front door open downstairs.
“Rachel Ann, where are you?” Dorothy yells.
Dorothy is standing by the door in what looks like one of Grandma’s white church dresses, with a white shawl thrown over her shoulders and a bouquet of pink silk flowers in her hand. She has a lace door curtain clipped into her hair with Grandma’s big pearl clips. Her friend Hannah, Bill’s little sister, is there with her and Aunt Betsy, wearing some kind of long yellow prom dress with a hot pink jacket and high heels.
“Well, here’s the lucky groom,” Aunt Betsy says. Her round cheeks have pink dots on them, like one of those plastic baby doll heads with the painted cheeks.
“Yay!” Dorothy grabs my hand and pulls me toward her. “Let’s practice fake-kissing.”
“Let’s not,” I say. I glance out onto our small porch and see Lena and Bill standing out there holding hands. Uncle Melvin has decided to allow them to hold hands but that’s all, Aunt Betsy told Aunt Lettie last time we were at Grandma’s. I could tell by her voice that Aunt Betsy does not approve. I’m surprised to see them here, but then I realize that there’s no way Aunt Betsy is going to leave Lena at her house alone on Halloween night with Bill next door.
Lena glances at me through the door and grins, nudging Bill. “Hey, look at Rachel Ann,” she says.
“Wow, does she look different,” Bill says. His voice is in that awkward phase where it is mostly lower but sometimes goes up again when you don’t expect it.
Aunt Lettie takes pictures of me and Dorothy and Hannah with her pocket Kodak. Dorothy makes me put my arm around her waist for the pictures.
“Hannah can be our bridesmaid,” she says.
“Lena, Bill, come on in and shut the door, it’s getting chilly outside,” Aunt Betsy says, glancing nervously toward the porch. When I see Bill walk through our doorway, it makes me realize how tall he is. He is skinny too, but mostly good-looking, with curly dark hair and dark eyes like Lena’s.
“Hello, Miss Kirkland,” he says, and shakes Aunt Lettie’s hand.
My pumpkin bucket is on the kitchen table, with its black handle that’s chewed on one side from when I was little. Looking at it, I wish that I had something more grown-up-like to put my treats in, like one of those black and orange Halloween bags I saw at the Rexall Drug last week.
“I’m going to go fix my hat.” I pick up my pumpkin bucket and carry it to the hall bathroom, then I pull the Bible tract out of the pocket of Paul’s black pants and slip it into the bucket. The tract has a red cross on the front and big black letters that say “Heaven or Hell.”
Why don’t Aunt Lettie and Aunt Betsy try to witness to Aunt Ivy, I wonder. They probably already tried and it didn’t work. God has laid it on my heart to witness to her tonight, so I must be the person God has chosen to save her. That thought makes me shiver. I touch my hand to my hat, sliding it around a little on my head, so I won’t have told a lie about needing to adjust it.
“Rachel Ann, it’s time to go,” Aunt Lettie calls. Out the small round window above the shower, I can see that it’s almost dark now. I head back into the living room, and we all tromp out to Aunt Betsy’s green Chevy station wagon. Dorothy and Hannah want to ride together in the back, so I get into the middle seat, and Bill and Lena climb in beside me. Before the dome light in the car goes out, I see Bill take Lena’s hand and hold it on top of his knee.
We stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s house first. Grandma opens the front door and exclaims over our costumes, even though she’s already seen mine and Dorothy’s. Grandpa is sitting in the kitchen next to a big plate of orange-frosted sugar cookies and a bowl of giant red apples. There are big Snickers candy bars too, and Grandpa gives one to each of us.
“Where did you find yourself such a good-looking groom?” he says to Dorothy, and he winks at me.
“On the farm next door to us,” Dorothy says, in a high-pitched lady voice. “Like the way Lena found Bill. Only my groom’s name is Richard George Chalmers.”
“My name is not Richard George,” I protest.
“You deserve an extra Snickers for this performance,” Grandpa says, and he hands me another candy bar.
“No fair,” Dorothy says, in her regular voice, the whiny one.
“Dorothy, sweetie, do you need some help with the cookies?” Grandma asks.
I put a bag of cookies and an apple into my pumpkin bucket, trying not to smoosh the Bible tract.
“What’s in your bucket?” Bill asks. I didn’t even realize he was standing behind me, but because he is so tall he can see right down into my bucket. He reaches his big hand down and grabs the Bible tract.
“Heaven or Hell,” he reads. I grab it from him and shove it back into my bucket, and then he shakes his head and gives me a look like I’m a dumb little kid. He walks back over to the table where Lena is stuffing sugar cookies into a baggie.
“Rachel Ann’s giving out Bible tracts for Halloween,” he says to Lena. “She’s got the trick-or-treat thing backwards.”
I turn away and pretend not to hear him, but my cheeks are burning. Why do he and Lena even have to be here, if they’re too old to trick-or-treat? Nobody else is paying attention—Dorothy is twirling around in her dress to make her curtain veil swing out in circles, and Hannah is click-clacking around in her heels on the hard tile floor. Aunt Betsy is talking to Aunt Lettie and Grandma, moving her hands a mile-a-minute, and Grandpa has already left the noise and commotion of the kitchen for some place quieter.
I’m mad at Bill for grabbing the tract, but mostly I’m mad at myself for trying to keep it a secret. The Bible says not to be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, but I guess that I am. Then I wonder, if Bill thinks I’m stupid for giving out a Bible tract on Halloween and he’s a Christian, what will Aunt Ivy think?
We get back into the car and drive to the Fitzgeralds’ from church, and to Mrs. Dawson’s, who has three house cats that circle her feet while she hands out Tootsie Pops and Sweet Tart candies in their clear plastic rolls. At the Millers’, Lena says she’s staying in the car, but Aunt Betsy tells her to get out and come up to the door with the rest of us. Lena rolls her eyes and gets out, but she and Bill stand beside the car and hold hands while the rest of us go up the sidewalk to get popcorn balls and another apple.
“Just Aunt Ivy’s house, and then we’re done,” Aunt Betsy says. “How’s your treat stash coming along?” Although we have only been to four houses, my bucket is halfway full. I re-position the tract and curve it along the rounded edge of the bucket. I’ll be glad to get it out of my bucket, but I’m scared to give it to Aunt Ivy. Maybe I could just leave it on her kitchen table or in her bathroom. I’ve seen Bible tracts left on toilets before. But if I don’t hand the tract to Aunt Ivy, she won’t know that I care about her soul. Brother Smith says that what makes somebody want to be a Christian is to see the love of Jesus shining through your eyes. I squeeze my eyes shut and listen to Dorothy and Hannah’s shrieks and the hum of the car engine, trying to picture that love coming out of my eyes.
“Please, God, please help me be a good witness,” I pray. “Please help Aunt Ivy hear Thy words and be saved so her soul won’t go to hell. Please make me brave, God.” I try to imagine that the prayer has made me stronger.
I follow Aunt Betsy and Aunt Lettie up the concrete sidewalk to Aunt Ivy’s house, with Lena and Bill several yards behind the rest of us. The air has gotten cooler, and the moon is full against the dark sky. I can see the shadowy slide and the swing set on our school playground next door, tall triangles that tower like giants over the small merry-go-round in the middle. I wonder what it is like to be Aunt Ivy and look over at the playground from here every day.
The front door opens, and there’s Aunt Ivy, standing in the yellow porch light.
“Here come my favorite trick-or-treaters,” she says.
“Hi, Aunt Ivy,” Aunt Betsy says. “We brought you a lovely bride and groom, and some sort of other fancy lady here.” She puts her hand on Hannah’s back, mostly to keep her from tripping on the porch steps in her high heels.
“Come in, come in,” Aunt Ivy says. We walk into the house, and Aunt Ivy waits to hold the door for Lena and Bill. They glance at each other, but they come inside too.
Aunt Ivy has the usual amount of Halloween loot piled up on her kitchen table. There are plates of cookies and bags of caramel corn. There is a huge bowl of Brach’s mixed candy and this year there are even orange frosted jack ‘o lantern cupcakes.
“Let me wrap that in plastic for you, honey,” Aunt Ivy says to Dorothy, as she tries to stuff a cupcake into her pumpkin bucket.
I start to reach for a cupcake and then I remember the Bible tract. If I put more treats in my pumpkin bucket now, it will be hard to get the tract out. I stand near the table and pretend to be deciding what I want. I’d like to give the tract to Aunt Ivy when nobody else is watching, but that’s hard to do with so many people around. Aunt Betsy and Aunt Lettie are chatting with Aunt Ivy like they see her every day, and I wonder for a minute if she might really be a Christian, she seems so normal. Brother Smith says that Satan is a deceiver, and I am probably being deceived by Satan right now because he doesn’t want me to give Aunt Ivy the tract.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Dorothy says. Her mouth is so full of Brach caramels that it looks like they will come flying out any minute.
“Dorothy, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Aunt Betsy says. Dorothy swallows and presses on her throat to try to make the caramels go down.
“I can’t go with my veil, it’ll fall in the toilet,” she says in a clearer voice.
Aunt Ivy laughs at that. Aunt Betsy frowns, but she follows Dorothy to the bathroom to help her with her costume. Hannah trails along behind her.
“Where’s Lena?” Aunt Betsy calls to Aunt Lettie.
“I’ll check on the porch.” Aunt Lettie heads for the front door.
Now is my chance. I slip the tract out of my pumpkin bucket and take a step toward Aunt Ivy, who is sitting on a chair next to the kitchen table. A strand of her gray hair has fallen out of its bun and is wisping all soft down the side of her face.
“Here,” I say, and I shove the tract at her before I lose my nerve. My face is burning and I can’t think of what to say, so I just stand there looking down at Paul’s scuffed up dress shoes.
“What’s this?” Aunt Ivy asks. I glance at her as she turns the tract from the backside to the front. She reads the words, “Heaven or Hell.” My heart is thumping and I want to run out onto the porch and down the sidewalk.
“Oh,” Aunt Ivy says. “Thank you, Rachel, that’s very sweet of you.”
I want her to say, “Thanks, but I’m already saved,” or, “I want to get saved right now.” But she just looks at me, and her green eyes are shiny and I can’t tell whether she is happy or about to cry. Then I turn and rush out the door onto the porch without even filling my bucket.
“Hi honey,” Aunt Lettie says. She is standing next to the porch swing, like a knight on guard beside a castle drawbridge as she watches Lena and Bill hold hands on the sidewalk. Lena is talking to Bill, gesturing with her one free hand, the way Aunt Betsy does.
“Can you stay outside for a minute with Bill and Lena?” Aunt Lettie says. “I need to ask Aunt Ivy for her cupcake recipe.”
I nod and sit down in the swing. When the door closes behind Aunt Lettie, Bill and Lena glance up at the porch. I look away and pretend I’m not watching them. Then Bill pulls Lena by the arm and they hurry down the sidewalk and across the yard, in the direction of the school playground.
I don’t know what to do then. Aunt Lettie told me to stay with Lena and Bill, but she didn’t know they were going to the playground. Should I go in and tell Aunt Betsy? I imagine her storming out of Aunt Ivy’s front door, yelling at Lena in front of Bill and maybe grounding her. Then it would be my fault, and Lena would be mad at me forever.
All of a sudden, I hate Bill more than anybody. None of this would be happening if he weren’t here. It would serve him right to get grounded from Lena, the way he yanked that tract out of my bucket, and now, the way he has pulled Lena off into the dark.
I get up from the swing, making sure Paul’s shoes don’t squeak on the porch floor. Lena and Bill are already out of sight. I head down the sidewalk, and as I round the corner of the house, I can see Bill’s tall outline and Lena’s smaller one running toward the slide, their hands and arms forming a shadowy link between them. I wait until they are under the slide, then I sneak behind them. It’s good I’m wearing these dark church clothes, or they would spot me for sure, with the moon being so bright. I crouch down on the grass behind the bars of the merry-go-round.
Under the slide, Bill holds both of Lena’s hands. His tall body bends down, and Lena tips her head up toward him, and I gasp, because he does it—he kisses her on her lips. Lena wraps her arms around him, and he pulls her close to him, until they are only one shadow underneath the metal triangle that glints in the moonlight. A minute goes by, maybe two, and I think, how long can they stay like this? My face feels hot and I am breathing hard.
“We should get back now,” Lena says, and her voice wavers in the night air. I can see a space between their faces now.
“Just another minute, baby,” Bill says.
Maybe Brother Smith was right about Halloween being the devil’s holiday, because it seems like the temptations of this night will never end. My heart is thumping as I slip from my place behind the merry-go-round and hurry back toward Aunt Ivy’s house. I have to get back before Lena and Bill find out I followed them. I have to tell Aunt Betsy, but what will she do? I run up the sidewalk toward the porch and sit down in the swing, panting. I shove my feet against the porch, trying to calm down so I can think.
Lena and Bill appear like ghosts at the end of the sidewalk, turning into real people as the yellow porch light touches them. They are swinging their hands between them as they walk. I push the swing faster and pretend not to notice them.
“Hey,” Lena says, stepping onto the porch. “What are you still doing out here?”
“Just swinging,” I say, in a voice that sounds too high to be mine.
“Oh,” Lena says. “Cool.” Then she turns to look up at Bill, and when she does, my breath catches in my throat. Her brown eyes are moist and shining, and for a minute I think that while she was under the slide kissing Bill, a sliver of that bright moonlight must have slipped into her eyes. Like Aunt Ivy’s eyes, I can’t tell whether she is about to cry or so happy that she can’t stand it.
“Hey baby,” Bill says. He squeezes her hand, and then he opens the door for her and they both disappear into the kitchen. From inside, I hear laughter and the sounds of people bustling around as they get ready to leave.
It’s wrong to kiss when you are fifteen, or even sixteen or seventeen, but all I can think about is that look in Lena’s eyes. A longing comes up in my throat for something, I don’t know what, and I press my face into the elbow of Paul’s jacket, brushing my lower lip against the scratchy fabric. What did it feel like, when Lena put her mouth against Bill’s? I shiver in the thin suit jacket.
“Rachel Ann, honey, there you are,” Aunt Betsy pokes her head outside the front door. “All right, everybody, let’s go,” she yells back into the house. I stand up from the swing and brush the wrinkles out of Paul’s pants. I know then, whether it is right or wrong, I can never tell Aunt Betsy.