Annie slipped her cold hand into mine, her small body stiffening as we turned onto the main street of the neighborhood. I gave her arm a little pat. “It’s okay, baby. This is normal.”
“But there’s so many—“ Her eyes went black and glossy, taking in the hordes of children marauding through the street, kicking up dried leaves and slinging fat sacks of candy. Their parents sauntered a few paces behind, sipping from coffee tumblers what I gathered, from their uninhibited laughter, to be alcoholic beverages. The cool air crackled with the mischief sanctioned only for this night.
“This is normal.” I tried to inject some cheerfulness into my voice. Yes, this is normal. We are just a normal mother and daughter out for trick-or-treating.
“It’s cold. And it’s so—“ She looked up at the sky narrowed by dark tree canopies. “Open.”
“You’re just not used to being outside. Isn’t it nice, having a little change?” I adjusted her scarf to fit more snugly around her neck.
“When I look outside, it always looks so nice. But now I’m out here—“
“You’re doing great.”
Annie and I infiltrated the crowd mostly unnoticed, besides a few smaller children who cowered closer to their parent’s side when she passed. One gangly teenage boy wearing a cowboy hat pointed at her and shouted his appreciation for her “disgusting costume.” Annie’s blue complexion shifted towards yellow. I squeezed her hand, making her look at me, before it flamed red.
We walked through a pretty yard and up a stone path to a porch tangled with fake cobwebs. While waiting behind a group of children, I scanned them, like I always did, searching for a sign that they were like my Annie. It seemed unlikely she’d be the only one. Wouldn’t it be nice to find a group of three, maybe four, that’s all. She’d have playmates and I’d trade notes with their parents. “Did yours nearly bite your nipple off while nursing?” “Ahh yes! I remember those days!” “Did you ever have an incident, you know, so bad you had to skip town?” “Yes! And if you think your story is bad, wait until you hear mine.” We’d laugh over coffee, knowing we weren’t the only ones, that we weren’t so strange. I could ask, “Am I doing this right? Raising her like I am? Is this right?”
A little boy turned around and fixed his eyes on Annie. He was around her age, wearing a crazy white wig, oversized black glasses, and a lab coat—a mad scientist, I guessed, though in real life they really looked more normal, no different than anyone else.
“Are you a baby?” he asked, a neon blue sucker rattling between his teeth.
“I think it’s obvious she’s not.” I held tighter to Annie’s hand.
“My mom doesn’t take me up to houses anymore. Only the babies do that,” he said, proudly, then pointed behind us with his sucker. “She waits back there.”
“Then you should go to her. Now.”
His lips trembled. I hadn’t meant to say it so harshly, but I didn’t have to look at Annie to know she was turning an ever deepening shade of red. I could feel the heat coming off her skin. Of course, I’d made sure she was fed before going out, but I couldn’t take any chances. The boy studied Annie more closely, then quickly shuffled passed us.
We took our turn at the house. The middle-aged woman wearing a witch’s hat shrieked when she saw Annie, comically feigning a heart attack, then praised her grotesque costume. “I’d bet you’re a real pretty girl under all that. Your mom should work for Hollywood!” As we walked away Annie’s chin dipped down and I couldn’t see her face. I took a sharp breath to fight away tears. What had I been thinking, taking her out like this? What a terrible idea. But what was the alternative? Hiding her away in that stifling basement day in and day out? Was that to be the entirety of her life, of my life?
Annie searched the contents of her bag. “What is this stuff?”
“Candy. Children enjoy it.”
She opened a Jolly Rancher, licked it, shuddered, then carefully rewrapped it. “You mean normal children.”
“That’s what I mean. Maybe it’s time we go home.”
We exited the throng and turned down a quiet side street where I let go of Annie’s hand. She skipped ahead, then darted behind a dumpster. When she emerged I saw the back legs of a very large bug being slurped up into her mouth. She bobbed her head happily as she crunched the body between her teeth. I’d seen her do this a million times, but in this instance, it put me in a very grim mood.
Annie, being the perceptive girl that she is, returned to my side and took my hand. “Did I do good?” she asked.
“I’m so sorry.”
“I think I did good. When that boy, that woman—I wanted to, you know, I wanted to really bad. But I listened to my brain, like you taught me. My brain said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it.’ And I didn’t do it. That was good, right?”
Her complexion was a soft blue, like the morning sky. I kneeled down, grasping both of her shoulders. “You did so, so good,” I said.
She giggled and ran ahead for more hunting. Since there was no one to ask, I appealed to the moon, shining over us in its waxing phase. Am I doing this right? I listened for a response, but all I heard was Annie’s laughter. I popped the Jolly Rancher into my mouth. When was the last time I’d allowed myself something so sweet? I tucked the rest of the candy into my coat. If she didn’t want it, I should enjoy it. Why not?
Carol Gore is the author of the 80’s horror inspired novella, INFESTED (Unnerving Books 2020.) Her short fiction has appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Wyldblood Magazine, All Worlds Wayfarer, and others. She lives in the rural south with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @CarolAGore and Instagram @rolgore.