Prompt: The last moment of childhood. Words: Halloween, refrigerator, pier, strengthen, voices, surprise, contribute, bird, iron, requirement.
It was amazing how wrinkled a rarely-used article of clothing could become throughout a move. Rory’s Princess Leia dress had found its resting place in the new house underneath a pile of vinyl records in the basement, but as to how it had gotten there, her mother, Diana, had no clue. She hadn’t guessed that Rory would want to be Princess Leia for two Halloween’s in a row. She had run it through the washing machine and was in the process of ironing it when Rory came into the laundry room, fussing over a Hershey bar that had melted in the bus on the way home from school. It was unseasonably hot for Northeastern Pennsylvania at this time of year, and the air conditioning on the bus was broken.
“Just put it in the refrigerator for a while,” Diana said. “I’m sure you’ll get plenty of others tonight.”
“But I wanted chocolate now,” Rory cried, only half-joking.
“You didn’t tell me that your period came,” Diana teased.
Rory shouted an embarrassed “Mom!” from the other room and disappeared into the basement. Playing Super Mario Brothers seemed safer than talking hormones with Mom at that moment. Her mother had told her she was a late bloomer, as she was already thirteen and still had not bled yet. Most of the girls in her class had gotten theirs in the sixth grade. Her mom seemed to think that was too early. “Goldilocks,” Rory muttered. Either everyone was too early or too late – no one was just right.
Diana did not hear her daughter’s last remark and let out a sigh that was somewhere between at peace and mildly disturbed as she stepped back and admired her handiwork. She and Jacob had agreed to separate that morning, but Halloween seemed like a rotten time to tell Rory. Rory was fast approaching the age (by Diana’s opinion) of being too old to trick-or-treat. She wanted her daughter to enjoy the last one she would have as a child; yes, at thirteen, she was still a child. Only at fourteen would she be a true teenager.
Diana was holding it together much better than she had thought she would, mostly because she had to for Rory’s sake. She and Jacob had grown apart gradually, but it was still hard for her. He spent most weekends with his band, of which he was the lead guitarist. Diana’s priority was their new house and Rory, but his was his music and probably always would be. He would never come out and say it – it was one of those things that Diana had come to know for herself through his actions that always contradicted his words. His promises that he never kept. His money that was never “real,” but always on credit cards. Diana had been pulling both their weights financially through her job as a pharmacist at Walgreens. It had been hard to tell him to leave, but Diana only had the resources for one child. She needed a husband, and Jacob had never been good at that role.
There was still the question of where Jacob would go. Back to Liverpool to stay with his brother, or to live with one of his band mates here? Diana hated to think of Rory traveling across the Atlantic without her to visit her father on occasion, but it would be inevitable if he chose the first option. Diana pushed those thoughts away for now. She needed to process them when she could be by herself.
“Rory, we still need to do your hair!” Diana called at the door to the stairs. She couldn’t hear Rory’s answer above the Nintendo music, a detail that had always sent Jacob into a rage. He hated that Rory was so into video games, but Diana did not see how that was any worse than him and his music. Both seemed to rob an individual of any sense of responsibility, a sense of needing to contribute something of value to the world. Ah, but music is valuable, Jacob had always insisted. Then why didn’t he get paid more substantially for it? She had to wonder. All he seemed to get for it was broken equipment or just enough gas to get him to wherever he needed to go play next.
“Rory? Did you hear me?”
“Yeah, Mom, coming!” The Nintendo music stopped abruptly, and Diana presumed she had paused her game. She rushed up the stairs. “Should I put on my dress first?”
“Yes, it’s hanging up in your room now. I’ll wait.”
Once Rory was finished changing into her costume, she traipsed to the kitchen and plopped down in a chair in front of Diana. “I still don’t get why you won’t let me dye my hair brown. It just seems wrong for Princess Leia to be blonde,” she complained.
“Your blonde hair is beautiful. I bet the real Princess Leia wished she had been blonde. Her brother was.” Diana began to brush Rory’s long locks that almost reached her waist.
She was reminded of one of her first dates with Jacob at the pier in Blackpool, when he had smoothed one of her own blonde locks behind her ear. “Such a pretty bird,” he’d said tenderly, before leaning in. That was the first time she had heard the Liverpudlian expression for “girl.” That was also the first time they had kissed. Diana realized that her eyes were moist, and she blinked.
“Even Luke’s hair got more brown in Return of the Jedi,” Rory argued.
“Yes, well, I’m sure if the actor had a daughter with hair as beautiful as yours, he wouldn’t let her dye it either.” It was tiring to argue with an almost-teenager, but Diana gave it her best shot. Sometimes she managed to say something that made Rory pause before cracking up. It always felt good when she could make her daughter laugh like that.
“Shh, don’t talk about him as an actor, Mom. It’s Halloween. There’s no actor. Luke Skywalker is real.”
“Just for tonight?”
“Yeah. Just for tonight.”
“All right. I’ll buy that. But,” Diana poked Rory playfully in the back of her neck, “we’re still not changing your hair color. Blondes have more fun, anyway.”
“What does that really mean, Mom?” Rory asked, much too young for the innuendo that oozed from her voice.
“That they get more candy,” Diana answered quickly.
She made a part down the center of Rory’s head, dividing her hair up evenly between the two sides before styling it into Leia’s signature style. It took her about twenty minutes to perfect. Thoughts of Jacob drifted in and out, interrupted now and then by her daughter’s banter. “All done,” she said, prompting Rory to take a look in the bathroom mirror.
Something about doing Rory’s hair had weakened Diana’s resolve. She wanted to call Jacob, to tell him it had all been a mistake. But she didn’t have a chance before Rory was back in the kitchen, digging through the cabinet under the microwave for her pumpkin bucket for collecting candy. “Oh! That reminds me, Dad picked up a little surprise for you yesterday. Since you’re Princess Leia, it only makes sense…” Diana went to the coat closet and reached for the Walmart bag hastily hidden near the back of it, behind the vacuum cleaner. She held it out to Rory.
It was a candy bucket in the shape of a stormtrooper helmet. Rory giggled as she opened it. “Dad is such a geek.”
“Like father like daughter,” Diana teased. Then slowly, she frowned. Maybe Jacob contributed more than she thought. The stormtrooper pail had been inexpensive, but it was a memento of Rory on his mind during his errands the previous morning. There was no doubt that he loved their child. Diana wondered if she had been too hard on him, had expected too much for him to be like her friends’ or colleagues’ husbands. What if some men just weren’t meant to be breadwinners?
“Mom? Are you okay?”
At Rory’s question, Diana realized she had been tearing up. She sniffled and turned away to find a tissue. “I’m fine, honey. Just allergies,” she said.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang.
Must be trick-or-treaters, Diana thought. I’ve made us late with all my reminiscing. She went to the door and opened it up, freezing in shock when she saw her husband standing there.
“Jacob. What do you want?”
At her father’s name, Rory hurried in to the living room.
“Dad! What are you doing here?” She had assumed he was away at a gig. That was always where he was, when he wasn’t at home. Even on weeknights, the bars were pretty packed on Halloween, which meant live music, at a lot of them, was a requirement. He had never seen her dressed up in-person for Halloween, had never been there to go through her “loot” after she and Mom went through the neighborhood. He’d only seen it all in pictures.
“Rory, I need you to go downstairs, please. Can you play your game for a few more minutes?” Diana looked at Rory, and Rory knew better than to protest. She could hear the tension in their voices. She had never seen her parents speak to one another like this before. Why didn’t her dad just come inside? Why was he standing outside the door like a vampire who wasn’t invited into the house? Rory turned and went back downstairs, but she turned the volume down on her game in hopes that she might hear something that would clue her into what was going on.
“You haven’t told her yet?” Jacob whispered, wringing his hands and leaning against the doorway. Diana hadn’t moved or indicated it was okay for him to come in, and he didn’t want to overstep his bounds, even if he still thought of the place as his home.
“It’s Halloween!” she whispered. “What are you thinking, showing up here like this?”
“I just…” He paused and let out a long, slow breath. “I was sitting over at Rob’s, and I couldn’t stop thinking about you two. I wanted to see her in her costume, for once. And I want to know what we’re supposed to do. Where we go from here, Diana.”
Finally, Diana stepped aside and allowed Jacob inside the door. “I thought you had a gig tonight,” she said.
“The casino double-booked us. The other band is playing.” Jacob stopped just inside the door and put his hands in his jean pockets.
Downstairs, Rory was not focused on her game at all. She had accidentally let Mario fall to his death twice before pausing the game again, hoping neither of her parents would notice the silence. They were still talking in low voices. Her dad was never around on Halloween. But it didn’t feel like something to celebrate, this time. Something felt very off. Her mom had seemed distant somehow in the kitchen. She was physically there and talking to Rory, but it also felt like she was talking from a long way away. Kind of like that time Rory had been on the phone with her grandma while she was vacationing in Jekyll Island with her parents, and her grandma had been asking her questions, but she had given only half answers because all she could think about was getting in the pool and the stuffed flamingo she had won playing the claw machine at the pizza restaurant across the street from their hotel. She hadn’t wanted to talk on the phone, but she did it because she was trying to be polite. It was expected of her. Similarly, she’d felt like her mother was going through the motions in the kitchen with her hair.
Her stomach rumbled. It had been feeling strange all day. She hated to leave in case she missed something, but the feeling grew so strong that she ran to the bathroom. When she got there, she felt fine. But in the full-length mirror on the door behind her, she noticed a small, dark red stain on the back of her dress. “No,” she whispered, pulling her underwear down to confirm what she already knew.
The volume of the voices upstairs had strengthened. Rory could hear them even with the bathroom door closed. It sounded like they were talking about money.
Rory stood against the mirror, frozen.
She wasn’t sure what to do, but something told her that trick-or-treating was not in the cards that night.