Costume Courage

Alexis enters the living room and my tea stops halfway to my lips. “What exactly is your costume?”

She’s wearing an artfully shredded polka-dot jumpsuit and a long, scarlet wig. Her face is plastered with red and white clown makeup and the whole ensemble is smeared with fake blood.

She spreads her arms. “I’m sexy Pennywise!”

“Sexy…okay.” I take several swallows of tea. “There is a lot to unpack here. Give me a minute.”

“Hey, at least I have a costume.”

“I told you, I’m sick. I’m not going to the party.”

“You don’t look sick.”

“Well then, I must be okay.”

“Sarah!”

“It’s fine!” I rearrange my blanket over my lap. “This way someone can stay and give out candy.”

Alexis pouts – or at least that’s the expression I assume she’s making under the clown makeup. She’s right: I’m not really sick, but it’s the only excuse Alexis and our roommates will accept for skipping a party. I was sick, though, which is part of the reason I don’t have a costume. The other part is that I just didn’t plan one. Nothing sounded right, and everything in the stores was just too: too sexy, too gory, too predictable, too gauche.

“Well, if you feel better, you can still borrow my cat ears.” Alexis says. Our other roommates meet her by the front door. Mel is in witch’s robes, complete with impressive Victorian boots; Kate is in 90s grunge gear.

“I’ll be fine.” I toast them with my glass. “Take pics for me?”

Alexis gives me a bloody thumbs-up and they whisk out the door. I settle in on the couch. Even the cat costume didn’t feel right, though I never could articulate why: it would give me an excuse to wear my favorite little black dress, the one that’s just a little too short, and flats with cat faces on them, shoes that my workplace doesn’t tolerate.

Still, a night in with tea and a classic Halloween flick just sounded easier.

The first trick-or-treaters arrive not too long after. It’s a horde of boys in assorted ninja, military, and vampire costumes. They grab candy from the bucket and hurtle away without saying thank-you. I roll my eyes and prepare for it to be that kind of Halloween.

I curl back up in my blanket. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Hocus Pocus. I know it by heart, but that just means I don’t mind being interrupted.

It also means I’m a tiny bit bored.

The doorbell rings again. I answer it and find a trio of middle-school girls: a Jedi, a Ghostbuster, and a Tinkerbell.

Fourth grade. Mom is fitting white shoulder pads over my red turtleneck. My brother watches in horror. “You can’t be the Red Ranger!” he says. “He’s a boy!”

“Trick or treat!” They hold out pillowcases. The Ghostbuster wields a handmade proton pack; the Tinkerbell has glittery green eyeshadow that would impress RuPaul. They’re all beaming.

Seventh grade. My friend Derek helped me build my proton pack. Our jumpsuits look so believable, I’m ready to go downtown and fight Gozer. Mom is confused. “A Ghostbuster? Don’t you want to wear something more…flattering? I thought you wanted to be a Spice Girl!”

“Wow, you all look great!” I drop candy into their pillowcases. “Did you make your costumes yourselves?”

“I did,” the Ghostbuster says shyly.

“I did my own makeup!” Tinkerbell blinks rapidly at me, shedding green glitter.

Eighth grade. My friends are going as the Spice Girls. I’ve finally convinced my parents to let me go as Ginger Spice, but Mom frowns through our group pictures. “All that makeup is going to give people the wrong idea.”

“You look great! Have fun!”

“Thank you!” they chorus. Tinkerbell twirls as they make their exit, giggling.

When I return to the couch, a text is waiting for me: a photo of Alexis and the others making silly faces in the back of their Lyft. Therapy-provoking costume aside, she’s obviously having a great time.

I don’t even have to look at the TV to know what part of the movie I’ve reached. I mouth along as Thackery explains the witches to the kids. “How bad could it be?” Max says.

Alexis sends a second text: a cat emoji with heart eyes.

“Okay, fine,” I tell my phone, and turn off the TV. My cat costume – especially those shoes – is actually pretty cute. I might even send my mom a photo.

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Mama Said

Julie hadn’t minded working late until autumn began. As long as she’d arrived home in the daylight, there was nothing to worry about in the walk from her car to the front door. Now that the sun was setting earlier, though, she arrived well after dark, and Mama always said to hustle inside on autumn nights after dark.

She’d never really believed it, just like she’d never really believed in the monster under the bed, but there were still nights when she had to get up during the witching hour and you can be sure she pulled her feet up into bed real quick, and pulled the covers over her head, too. Just in case.

Julie drove slowly down the driveway, ignoring what may or may not have been eyes gleaming from the fields. At the end of the drive, she gathered her bag and jacket, turned off the car, got her house key ready, and marched at a near jog to her front door. Something rustled in the grass, but she didn’t look. Mama always said not to look.

She closed and locked the door swiftly behind her. Inside, all was normal – in fact, better than normal: Todd had gotten the kids to bed and was washing dishes. A game show was on, and all the curtains were drawn.

“Hi, sweetie,” she called, hanging her jacket in the hallway.

“Hey,” he called back. “You just missed it – this guy only had one letter left and he blew it.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “What was the answer?”

“Eh, I forgot already.”

Julie did a double take at the contents of the sink. “Did they eat any of their vegetables?”

“Aiden did. Andrew threw a fit, though.”

One set of blinds in the living room had been left open. Julie tugged them closed, trying to avoid looking beyond the warm reflection of her living room into the dark Georgia night.

“The cat is in, right?”

“Oh, shoot – sorry, I was trying to get Andrew to bed –”

“Todd, it’s after dark!”

“I know, sweetie, I’m so sorry – I’ll go out and help you look –”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She went to the pantry and pulled out Magnolia’s bag of treats. “She’ll come running for these – ain’t no need for anyone to go outside.”

Though she could practically hear Mama’s ghost yelling at her not to do it, Julie unlocked the back door and opened it just wide enough to stick her arm through and rattle the bag. She tried to ignore Todd standing just behind her – he was probably trying to be comforting, but having her escape route blocked just made her more nervous.

The fields whispered in the night breeze; the dark forest beyond was only a jagged line below which there were no stars. Aiden had seen the ghost of a soldier walking there last spring; Todd had chalked it up to too much TV, but Julie believed him. She believed, like her mama before her, that every Southerner had seen a ghost at least once, it was just a question of how willing they were to admit it.

“Here, Magnolia…” Her halfhearted cry could barely be heard beyond the porch. Luckily, Magnolia heard the rattle of her favorite treats: she leapt onto the porch railing, practically giving Julie a heart attack, and trotted inside, meowing.

Julie stepped back, already breathing a sigh of relief that the door would soon be closed and the night shut out, when she saw eyes in the grass.

She froze, locked between curiosity and dread, staring out at the glowing eyes.

“What is it?” Todd whispered. He was much taller than her; he could easily see what had caught her attention. “Coyote?”

“Sure.” Julie backed away slowly, edging Todd back with her. The eyes had drawn closer. Julie closed the door and threw the deadbolt.

“It was just a coyote, right?” Todd’s eyes kept shifting to the blinds, as if he wanted to look outside but knew better.

“Ain’t it always just a coyote?” Julie rubbed the back of her neck; her heart was still racing. “I’m going to call the Parks, make sure their cats aren’t out.”

“Yeah.” Todd still looked distracted. She wondered if he would try to go scare it off with the shotgun, or if his mama had told him, like Julie’s had told her, that these things were always better off left alone. “Maybe I should call the Wrights. Just in case.”

“Yeah – just in case.”

Neurotransmitting

They almost saw me during the reception. We were dancing. I smiled wrong; I couldn’t remember the right smile, so I displayed a fake, scrounged from clouded memories of expressions. I’m empty where emotions were, so I impersonate. Sometimes I even wish they would notice.

The Monster Hunters’ Daughter

Bee’s final memory of her parents was of them silhouetted in the cracked doorframe, Dad standing, Mom kneeling and holding Bee’s hands. In the dim room behind her waited the family Bee was going to live with: Aunt Val, Uncle Greg, and Grandma Margaret. None of them had greeted her – Uncle Greg was watching news and Aunt Val was knitting. At least Grandma Margaret smiled a little, though she didn’t seem to be smiling at anything in particular.

Mom whispered her last words to Bee: “Don’t trust them. We’ll come for you.”

Then Bee was alone, staring at the people who Mom had said were family but who stared back at her with haughtiness that didn’t feel like family. Besides, who could you trust if not family?

But she still trusted Mom, so Bee waited for the day her parents would come back for her, like they promised. Mom and Dad were treasure hunters, and no matter what Aunt Val and Uncle Greg said, Bee never doubted her parents’ love: she’d seen the kinds of dangerous artifacts they recovered. They refused to take her on their expeditions, though. “Not ’til you’re 16,” Mom always said, usually over the top of a sealed and warded crate she and Dad were hauling.

Her aunt and uncle didn’t believe Bee’s stories – they supposed Bee’s parents just wanted to travel the world without their child. This attitude did not result in them showing Bee anything resembling love, though.

So Bee turned 16 uneventfully. Her only card was from Grandma Margaret, who wrote “Happy Birthday Beatrice” in shaky cursive. Her parents didn’t send anything, not even a message in Mom’s mirror-journal. Her notations of their finds – “Tier-4 cryptid remains, CD ~250/260” – appeared in Bee’s copy of the journal. It told Bee they were still alive, and Bee could tell from the frequency of notes that they were not only alive, but they’d found something huge.

Huge enough to make them forget her birthday, apparently.

She stayed up late reading the journal, hoping for a last-minute birthday message. They’d found three more high-level cryptids and encountered a Remnant, which fled when it saw them. Bee hoped they’d find another, maybe speak to it.

Finally, more lines appeared. Her heart leapt, but the words were boring – just cataloging relics. Still, Bee watched, just to know Mom was there. Then:

2nd Con relic, steel-?? alloy, Abyssal? CD ~18

Bee waited for the rest to appear. The Second Conjunction had been over a thousand years ago and its artifacts were incredibly rare, usually grouped where the Conjunction had flared strongest: France’s northern coast. The magic in the artifacts soured and strengthened over time – was that why Mom stopped writing? Had the artifact hurt her somehow?

She waited: three breaths, four. The date remained incomplete. Something had definitely happened to them.

Bee didn’t hesitate. She stuffed her backpack with water bottles, her dig tools, and food from the kitchen. Only when turned to leave did she realize Grandma Margaret was sitting at the table, alone in the dark kitchen.

“Where you headin’, kiddo?”

Bee stood straighter. “I’m going to find my parents.”

“What for?”

“They’re in trouble! They didn’t wish me a happy birthday, which – fine, whatever – but Mom’s been writing about cryptids, big ones, and then her sentence ended half-finished and I have to go!

Margaret flicked on the lights. She was squinting up at Bee. “What tier cryptids?”

How did she know about the tiers? “Four and five. And they found some…old artifacts.”

“How old?”

“Second Conjunction.”

“Hmm. All this is in that journal of hers?”

Bee nodded, stupefied.

“Let me see.”

Bee hesitantly handed over the journal. Margaret flipped through the pages, frowning, occasionally muttering “reckless” and “fool girl.”

“Well,” she said finally, handing the journal back, “that’s a Wholenuther problem.”

Something about the inflection confused Bee. Margaret smirked at her expression. “I don’t recommend him often,” she said. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants your folks deal with. But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”

“He calls himself Wholenuther?”

“And his price is puzzles. Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.”

“How do you know – ”

“Who do you think gave your mom that journal?” Grandma tossed her her sweatshirt. “Now get movin’ – Wholenuther likes flowing water, so start at the creek.”

“And Bee,” she called as Bee reached for the doorknob, “happy birthday.”

Transcript of a Tape Found Near The Depot, 09-01-35

It used to rain a lot out here. Not as much as some places, but enough that we kinda earned a reputation for it. They would joke that summer didn’t officially start until the Fourth of July because before then it would be in the 60s and raining.

The 60s sound downright frigid now. And rain…let’s see…it rained last December. Early in the month sometime. It’s hard to keep track of dates these days.

It used to be real green around here, too, green and beautiful. The hills had these huge forests all over them, and the downtown buildings stuck up between them like silver pillars. On those nice, sunny days – you know, the ones you got in between spells of rain that you just treasured because they were so damn rare, if you can believe it – on those days, the city looked like something out of the future.

Well, the future as we’d hoped it would be. Exactly the opposite of what we got.

I guess I should say why I’m recording this. Power’s been out for years, obviously, with the rivers too low to run the dams. Before that we were using the Internet to try to get aid, but it was bad everywhere. There wasn’t any aid to send. ‘Round August of the third really bad year, the weather forecasters just quit posting their predictions, because there hadn’t been any change to predict. All those websites just said “help.”

Anyway, some folks had their own generators, so here and there you could get Internet if you needed something real specific that no one else had been able to tell you. But the news just kept getting worse and worse, from all corners of the world. Finally, a year and half ago I suppose, even the folks with generators couldn’t get online anymore. The weirdest part was no one seemed to know why. You’d think with all that information that’d been careening around for so many years, we’d be able to figure out why the world had ended, but all we got were wild rumors about nukes and aliens and liberals.

I guess the real weirdest part was that we didn’t mind not knowing. What difference would it make? Still no water.

Christ, it’s hot.

There used to be huge forests out in the mountains between the city and the coast. I haven’t been out there to see if they’re still standing, but I can guess. There used to be a lot of farmland out there, too, but I know for fact that’s still there ‘cuz that’s where I got run out of. Maniacs cursing the “libs” – those are finger quotes there, listeners – loaded with boxes and boxes of ammo but not enough water to drown a fly. Probably no farming knowledge, either. Good riddance. That land must be looking real bad by now. They chased me out nearly two years ago and even then it was turning yellow. Well, some fields are always yellow, but they’re still green, you know? Still alive.

Oh yeah, the tape. So there’s no more Internet, no planes, hardly any trucks…none that can be trusted to transport stuff, anyway. Paper’s mostly used up. I built a converter for my laptop but I save that for when I boot up to look at my old pictures of my grandkids. They were five and two when the bottom fell out of the world. The oldest should’ve been in high school now if everything…well.

So this tape is my invitation, I guess. I found a whole box of them in a basement so I can record a bunch, put them out here and there, maybe someone will be able to play one.

I’ve found a good spot up in the hills west of the rail depot. It’s small, but the soil does alright, and it’s secluded, which I figure is the most important part.

So if you hear this, come out and join me. I got corn, beans, some tasty cacti, even a couple apple trees. What’s mine is yours, if you’re willing to put up with a cranky old lady made extra cranky by the end times.

Oh, and my name’s Missy. That’s probably important. Look for the blue flag on the split pine. I’ll see you soon.

The Summer Empire Traveling Players

Mist concealed the Calakmil as the Summer Empire Traveling Players approached. As they drew nearer, trees began to delineate themselves, dark and ragged against the fog. And something else appeared: a band of white demarcating ordinary grassland from the vast forest.

“Someone will meet us at the Wall?” Idris asked dubiously.

“Yes.” Izel consulted her letter again. “It says we’ll be guided to our destination from there.”

“Hard to imagine there’s a proper theater in there.”

“Our full payment awaits there regardless. It can’t be worse than Masul, right?”

She took the lead and the rest of company urged their nervous horses on behind her.

The Wall showed its age plainly. Along the base, roots punched through the cracks between the huge limestone blocks, while vines snaked down from the top. Still, nothing more exotic than a lily grew on this side of the Wall, as if the Calakmil was restraining itself out of politeness.

Which, given the stories, was entirely possible.

Two towering white trees, at least three hundred feet tall, stood where a gate would have been in an ordinary wall. Their pale branches arced across the entrance, shading it with their glossy, plate-sized leaves.

“Titantrees,” Jada explained from her seat on the players’ wagon. “It’s believed they grow so large because they house the souls of the Calakmil’s inhabitants after death.”

“So their afterlife is being trapped in a tree?” Sakae raised an eyebrow. She was their ingenue, young and opinionated, and prone to expressing those opinions unkindly when she was nervous. “Sounds uncomfortable.”

“Some respect, Sakae,” Jada said. “Would you speak thus about the Empire’s gods?”

Izel raised a hand. “Someone’s coming.”

Just beyond the titantrees, sunlight broke through the canopy in dancing shafts, but beyond that, the leaf-strewn path itself was shadowed.

“I don’t see any – ”

With a croak that startled them all, a large pink jungle frog hopped into the center of the path. It croaked again, then took off with long leaps deeper into the misty jungle.

Izel and Idris exchanged looks.

“Well,” she said, “the letter didn’t specify a human guide.”

“We are not following a frog.”

“It’s the Calakmil! We’re lucky our guide is something recognizable.” She started her horse forward.

“A frog is not a guide! I don’t care how much money –”

But the pink frog had stopped at the bend to wait for them. Izel waved to it and it proceeded onwards. Behind her, Idris heaved an aggravated sigh and clicked his reins.

She kept her eyes on the frog as she rode, even though they were surrounded by trees and vines and fragrant flowers that even they, who’d traveled the whole of the Empire, had never seen before. The mist dissipated as the sun climbed. Still the frog led them on.

They finally stopped at a broad circle of ten titantrees, much taller than the two guarding the Wall. Their curving white branches soared high above a soft, grassy clearing, in the center of which sat a stack of gold coins: the rest of their payment.

“Is this…our stage?” muttered Balam.

As if to answer him, the frog settled on a knobby root.

Izel dismounted. “Let’s set up.”

They opened the wagon, placed their props, and began to dress. The frog waited patiently.

“Where’s our audience?” Sakae hissed as she finished her makeup.

Izel nodded at the frog. “I think he’s it.”

“This is insane!”

“We’ve been paid to perform here, and we will,” she said firmly.

No one – and nothing – else had arrived by the time Idris began the opening monologue. Izel fidgeted with one of the coins to remind herself that this was a paid performance like any other, that there was nothing strange or concerning about being brought into the heart of a neglected magical jungle to perform a romantic drama to an audience of one frog.

Not strange at all.

It was a good performance, all things considered. Sakae had a shaky start, but Balam supported her well, and Jada had Izel and the stagehands stifling giggles as Balam’s narcissistic mother.

Idris delivered the conclusion. The actors bowed at the silent frog. Izel peeked around the wagon, waiting.

The frog looked up.

High overhead, the titantree boughs began to wave. There was no wind, and no creatures visible to disturb them…

Jada understood first. “Bow again,” she hissed, gripping her costars’ hands. They bowed and the trees rustled more, their leaves whistling.

“Well done, players,” Izel murmured, and she took her bow.

Moon Policy

My firm sent every available inspector to investigate the Brandt mansion the moment his lawyers called. Something had gone wrong on his estate on the rim of Tycho, rendering the house a total loss, but he refused to say what happened. It was our responsibility to find out.

I had always wanted to travel into space, to see with my own eyes what Earth looked like from a distance. Unfortunately, I was bad at science and atrocious at math, which narrowed my prospects significantly. Having a solid reputation for discretion and reliability, however, opened up certain other opportunities, which was how I ended up going to the Moon as a claims inspector for the rich and famous. The paperwork was a pain, but the views made up for it. Going up in the shuttle, gliding down the ladder in the EVA suit, watching your feet make contact with the surface of the Moon…even on my seventh mission, I knew it would never get old.

I was partnered with Chen. I paused while we unloaded, unable to look away from Earth. The Pacific was in view, shrouded by thin veils of cloud, fragile and elegant as steam.

The mansion was almost as impressive.

“I think I could fit nine of my house inside that,” Chen commented.

“I don’t even want to know how many of my apartment could squeeze in. Twenty?”

“At least. Plus another five in the garage.”

“Please, it’s not that small. That garage is only four and a half Fox apartments at most.”

Brandt had borrowed the style of the antique British great houses for his mansion, replicating a small three-story palace in space-friendly metals and polymers. The mansion’s windows were triple-paned, triple-reinforced, and equipped with alloy shutters that were designed to close automatically in case of breakage. Instead of a practical tunnel linking the entrance to the garage and shuttle pad, it had an honest-to-God front door and porch, encased in a thirty-foot-tall half-bubble of clear polymer and accessed via an airlock that linked with the rover that brought guests – fully dressed for the party, because who wanted to arrive at a Brandt function in a spacesuit? – from the shuttle pad. Visitors could step out of their car and walk up to the house like they were arriving on a red carpet, except for the constant risk of ruptures, breaches, or implosions.

None of which appeared to have happened here. The house, airlock, everything we could see from the outside looked undamaged.

“Shutters didn’t close,” I pointed out. I could even see a grand piano through one of the ground floor windows.

“Maybe the windows weren’t the problem.”

The exterior inspectors started up their buggy and careened off towards the rear of the estate, where they would inspect the other half-bubble that protected the veranda. We picked up our own gear and headed towards the airlock in easy, gliding leaps. “Forgot how fun it is up here,” I called.

“Eyes on the prize, Faye.”

“What?” I laughed. It wasn’t that funny, but everything became less serious in low gravity, even mysteriously ruined houses. “Who even says that?”

“I overheard West. Whoever figures out the cause is up for a big promotion.”

“In that case, more luck to you.” I took another flying leap, still gazing at the ever-changing swirl of silver and blue. “Promotion means sitting behind a desk all the time, never getting to come up here.”

“Also means less chance of a variety of terrible deaths.”

“You’re no fun.”

Chen keyed the airlock for entry. “After what happened here, how many of these billionaires do you think will stick around?” he pointed out. “This job may not exist in a few years.”

We entered the airlock and I sealed the door behind us. “Then I’m going to enjoy it while I can.”

#

The exterior guys found it first: dust buildup in the circuits that monitored the veranda’s pressure independent from the house. When they overloaded, it registered as a pressure loss, and the bubble compensated by drawing oxygen from the house. It happened gradually, giving Brandt time to evacuate and concoct some story to hide the fact that he’d broken his multi-billion dollar estate due to crummy maintenance.

West dealt with Brandt’s lawyers while Chen and I began the paperwork. He obviously pined for the promotion, but I was relieved. I barely registered the papers through my waking-dream memory of the empty mansion and the sunlit, ephemeral marble of Earth beyond it.