around the halloween tree

Malcolm gave up on the party as soon as he arrived.  One look at the crowds— a menagerie of drunk witches, monsters, superheroes, and American presidents— and he was ready to leave.  But his friends had had the opposite reaction.  They disappeared into the mob, leaving him stranded and mercilessly titled as the designated driver.  

A silver lining came along in the form of the massive house their party was being held in.  A dozen fully decorated rooms that the party couldn’t hope to fill.  He just had to find a quiet place to ride it out.  

Weaving through the crowd, he darted down a hall and away from the party.  Tacky cobwebs and strings of lights adorned every doorway, and every surface had been claimed by plastic spiders and plaster skeletons.  Someone had gone room to room and left the flavor of pumpkin spice lingering on the air.  

The few people he ran into were in no state to appreciate the decor— either already too intoxicated or too tangled up in someone else.

The decorations could only support his mood for so long.  He should have just hung up his costume as soon as he couldn’t get the wax for his vampire teeth to stick.  It should have been the only sign he needed to stay home.

 The sound of silver bells reached his ears, the sound a holiday or two too early.  Malcolm followed them like a ghost hunter chasing a speck of dust in the dark.  He was suddenly eager to be free of Halloween.

Malcolm tracked the ringing to a den tucked into the back of the house.  A Christmas tree— dusted with fake snow and circled in white lights— sat out of place amidst the Halloween decorations.  But in the place of oversized snowflakes and shiny baubles, someone had replaced every ornament with improvised ghosts, skulls, and pumpkins.

The only thing left of Christmas were the bells lining the lowest branches of the tree.  A white cat languished on the tree’s skirt, batting the bells dangling above his head.  There was a woman sitting cross-legged beside the tree and stealing pets from the cat while he was too busy to claw her.

She was dressed in a white toga, a flower crown tangled through her dark hair.  A bracelet of leaves and petals spun around her wrist.  Persephone was the name that came to his mind.

His eyes caught on the speckled, starry sky of freckles on her shoulders and the space-dark stare on her face.  

A moment later and he realized she was looking at him expectantly.

Too much of him wanted nothing more than to talk to her so instead he asked, “can I pet the cat?”

She smiled at him and beckoned him over.  “His name is January.  What are you supposed to be?”

It took him a moment to realize she was talking about his costume— a questionably accurate Victorian outfit.  “I was supposed to be a vampire,” he said lamely.  “The teeth didn’t stick.  You’re Persephone?”

“Very good,” she nodded as he sat down beside her.  “But you can call me Ophelia.”

“Malcolm.”  He reached out to January, who swatted at his hand like it was a fly.  “Not a party person, either?”

Ophelia shrugged.  “I like decorating the house for them, but they lose their charm pretty quickly.”

“You did all this?  Is this your place?”

“My family’s,” she said, going back to scratching January’s chin with a fervor the cat didn’t mind.  “My mother makes me watch the place when she’s away, and that includes when my brothers throw their house parties.”  Her attention slipped back into a place a universe away.

He stole a long look at her.  “I used to like Halloween, you know.”

She met his gaze.

“When you’re younger, it’s this huge exciting thing because you get candy, but the older you get, the more it’s about all the time you get to spend around your friends,

“But then, one day, you can’t be with the people you used to be with, and you miss those memories, even if you’re with people you enjoy being around.  And every year it just compounds.  A long chain of people you won’t see again— memories that you can only share with yourself.”

Ophelia didn’t say anything at first, looking up at the tree and away from him.  “We used to celebrate Halloween together,” she started.

“My family, I mean.  I used to put up these decorations with my brothers and my mom.  And we’d spend the night watching gory horror.  I never had any trouble falling asleep afterward, no matter how scared I got.  I miss those times.”

Malcolm wasn’t sure what to say.

“But I don’t believe it just gets worse and worse,” she continued, “someday I’ll have new traditions, with new people.  Like this tree, my Halloween Tree.  It’s the first time I’ve ever made one.  I think I really like it.”

He nudged her shoulder on an impulse.  “I like it too.”

Ophelia grinned and nudged him back.  “Then let’s give Halloween another try.”

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