Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Halloween 2021 story contest.
“Pa won’t like it.”
“Pa don’t like nothing we do anyway so what’s the difference?”
"Come on, Odie. You know I don’t like being in the dark, especially when the winds howlin’ like a bitch out there.”
“Stop yer whinin’, Dolly, or I’ll tell Pa you was cussin’.” Odessa lit the first candle when she said it and the flame lit up Dolly’s watery eyes like a kaleidoscope. Dolly had always possessed the gift of crying on command and only Odessa was sharp enough to see through it.
“You know that don’t work on me. Now stop bein’ a sissy and hand me the other candle.” It was her little sister’s other gift she needed, not phony hysterics.
Dolly pursed her lips together and crossed her arms over her slender chest, gripping her own arms in mock defiance, but Odessa knew she would do whatever she told her to do. The two sisters only had each other and in their destitute Appalachian town, that was something to hold on to. Growing up in West Virginia taught them fast and young to survive and to count on no one but themselves, unless you had a blood relative who had some integrity. Integrity wasn’t a trait they saw often in their own home, but they knew of a few stray folks who didn’t drink and gamble and pass on trauma with a fist.
Their father, John Young, Jr. was the one who taught them his often-slurred life-modo that if you didn’t have someone you could trust with your life, you were liable to get swindled in all kinds of dreadful ways. John was an alcoholic, just like his father and his father before him. He was a man who found it impossible to hold onto the little bit of money he made at the lumberyard and that was before he got laid off in 1871 for his bad back. His boss said he was rightly sorry to let him go, but truthfully, they had been looking for an excuse to get rid of him anyway.
The girls had a well-off aunt who lived in Pennsylvania and she sent a few dollars to John every month out of pity for her nieces. Their Aunt Adeline was newly widowed and tried to visit the girls as often as possible. Her husband was the brother of Dolly and Odessa’s mother, but the girls hadn’t known much about her until her husband died and she started coming around. Dolly liked her, but Odessa thought their Aunt seemed bored and sad when she visited. Not an uncommon demeanor for someone who grew up in the rural sprawl of Appalachia, but Odessa thought it was more than common melancholy.
Aunt Adeline had just recently visited and the vigil the girls were fussing over could be credited to the influence of their mysterious Aunt.
“Get yer talkin out now, Dolly. We have to be completely silent if we want this to work,” Odessa said sternly. She took the candle out of Dolly’s hand.
“I wanna see if the Robertsons are giving out treats for Halloween,” Dolly pouted.
“You know no one ‘round here sees fit to celebrate. The church won’t have it. They’ll put something out for All Saints Day, if we’re lucky.”
“But Aunt Adeline said—“
“Aunt Adeline don’t know nothin’ about our town. When yer rich you can do as you like, get it? We have to follow the rules.”
“But we ain’t followin’ Pa’s rules now… he said we shouldn’t listen to nothing Auntie says. Just-“
“-take the money and shut it. Yeah, yeah I know what Pa says. But he’s not here is he? Auntie’s from abroad. She knows about the world. We should take ‘vantage of that.” Odessa struck a match on the side of their father’s old rusty match box and held it up between their faces for ambiance. To an observer, God willing there weren’t any, the room would have shown complete darkness except for two floating white orbs that were their frightened, still-child-like faces.
“Why you wanna get out of here so bad, Odie?” Odessa heard real sadness behind the question. Her sister, even though she was younger by three years, didn’t offer up genuine emotions very often. Odessa sometimes wondered if she felt anything at all. Her fears, distastes and peculiarities all seemed put-on to Odessa, as if Dolly was really a sour old man living in a little girl’s body.
“What kind of question is that?” Odessa said, lighting the candle.
“We do alright,” Dolly said quietly. Odessa placed the lit candle on the table between them.
“Are we ready to go dumb?” Odessa whispered.
“Dumb Supper? Are we ready to go dumb? Silent?”
“Oh.” Dolly was barely holding onto her tears now.
“What’s with you? You act like you weren’t there with us, bouncing up and down next to Auntie going, ‘What’s next! What’s next! I thought you wanted to do this too?”
In the candlelight, Odessa could see her sister’s face flush pink and then the tears cascaded down her dirty cheeks, making streaks of clean skin like tiger stripes.
“Please don’t leave me, Odie! I can’t stand to be here all by my own. Pa don’t barely ever even come home no more and I’ll-I’ll starve! That’s what! If you leave I’ll starve, now how would you like that?”
Odessa blinked at her sister a few times, letting the words melt into understanding in her brain.
“Oh Dolly!” Odessa cackled. She couldn’t help but laugh a deep belly-laugh. She clutched her stomach and doubled over, guffawing and trying to catch her breath.
“It’s not funny!” Dolly screamed and stood up. The chair fell over backwards and they both jumped a little at the hard sound.
“It is funny because you’re so stupid, you know that? I told you I’d take you with me.” Odessa stood up, walked to her side of the table and took her sister in her arms. Dolly was only a few inches shorter than her. She would probably be tall like everyone said their mother had been. She ran off before they were old enough to remember. “Do you think the man who’s supposed to be my soul mate would be so cold hearted that he wouldn’t even offer to take my sister away too? That’s the whole point, silly.”
Odessa could feel Dolly’s warm tears seeping through the front of her old blouse, but her sobs were getting softer. “Shh. Auntie said that if we do this dinner right, he will appear, and then he will marry me and take us away from here,” Odessa breathed into Dolly’s soft blonde hair. She always smelled good, in that way that babies do. Dolly had never lost that smell and Odessa breathed it in deeply, savoring the comfort of familiarity.
As she held Dolly, she tried picturing him again, but his face was always changing. He was more of a feeling than a physical being, but Aunt Adeline said that was normal. She said Odessa wouldn’t know who he was until he walked through the door on Halloween night during Dumb Supper. She said it was how she had found her husband and how her mother had found hers.
Adeline Walsh, nee Butler, from Ireland, or “The Old Country” as she fondly called it, was proud of her heritage and would talk excitedly about her many alchemist ancestors to anyone she felt she could trust. When Adeline first told the girls about the rituals and spells she had learned as a girl, she made sure their father was out for the night, which was no obstacle since he was rarely at home anymore. She took six slender, cream-colored candles out of her carpet bag and set them about the room; one on every windowsill, and one on the wooden dining table.
Odessa and Dolly stood in the corner, watching, with eyes round as four dark wells. They were rigid with fear, but all that dispersed when Adeline began the elegant process of lighting each candle while whistling a high-pitched, melancholy tune from Ireland. The fear that had been fluttering around in their stomachs and crawling up their spines quieted down. They walked towards the center of the room involuntarily as Adeline also moved towards the midpoint to light the sixth candle.
“What song is that, Auntie?” Dolly asked with reverence.
“Tis a Celtic hymn,” Adeline said.
They of sat down at the table, their eyes fixed on Adeline’s smiling face. Her smile was tight and glacial. Adeline held a long finger up to her lips. “Shhh.” She lit the candle and the room, already quiet, became heavy with silence, like a blanket of snow had fallen over the cabin. Dolly pressed her lips together so tight it hurt. Later, she would realize they had bruised.
Adeline stood and started setting the table. She put out a tin plate, a spoon, a fork and knife in front of each chair. The fourth empty chair was set backwards, facing away from the table. Adeline’s hands moved around like dancing spiders and suddenly a meager place setting had appeared in front of each of them, plus one extra setting. Odessa eyed the empty seat suspiciously and felt the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck start to wake up and reach for the heavens.
Adeline took her seat again and pointed at Odessa. Odessa’s lips twitched in an effort to question what she was meant to do, but Adeline’s ice-chip eyes caught hers and answered the question wordlessly. Somehow Odessa just knew what was expected of her and so she stood and walked to the old kitchen counter. Her feet, even clad in her boots, tiptoed silently over the floor. She knew where every creaky board lived and avoided it.
She picked up a bowl with a fine silver ladle protruding from the black liquid within it. She knew the ladle must have come with her aunt. She had never seen something so beautiful in their house before.
She gripped the bowl with two hands and turned back towards the ceremony. For one biting second, she almost dropped the bowl. It had seemed in the flash of the candle light that a person had been looking in through the front window. She thought she saw glowing eyes of a color she could not comprehend. The eyes blazed with all the colors and none. It was a violent emptiness.
Odessa recovered and walked back towards her aunt and sister. She handed the bowl to Dolly. Her sister took the long shiny handle into her tiny hand and pulled a mound of black pudding out of the bowl. They all stared at the dripping ladle with wonderment and followed its course as a small amount of its innards was deposited on to their three flat plates.
Dessert first, Odessa thought. It was just as her aunt had described it. Everything must be done backwards. Adeline had told them it would not become clear to them until they saw a demonstration and here they were witnessing the bizarre supper that had seemed like childish fun in the daylight. Now, the gelatinous globs of pudding seemed more than ominous.
The ladle paused over the last plate; the one that sat in front of nobody. They all stopped breathing as the ladle in Dolly’s hand started to dip towards the table. Odessa was afraid she would drop it, but didn’t dare say a word.
Dolly looked at her aunt, suddenly terrified, but Adeline nodded kindly and Dolly was able to muster the strength to add a small drop of the pudding onto the plate. She brought the ladle back to the bowl quickly and set it down on the table beside her plate.
They all took a moment to look at that final dark place setting. Odessa noted the spoon, fork and knife facing the wrong direction, their round and pointed edges facing away from the candle and towards the backwards chair that awaited its occupant.
Aunt Adeline, Odessa and Dolly passed bowls and pitchers in silky silence. They kept their eyes on their plates, not looking at each other or the empty chair. They ate and drank with slow, silent determination; first the pudding, then the decadent bits of rabbit and potato that Adeline had prepared, then the soup and a hunk of fresh bread. All was done without a sound.
Without realizing it, Odessa and Dolly had the same thought simultaneously: that it was the most wonderful, outrageously expensive meal that they had ever had and yet they could not taste it. The empty chair was like a black hole. All senses, were focused on the blankness of it. The teeth chewing through meat and the throat swallowing soup was a formality, a process and the fear of ruin was all encompassing.
Finally, Adeline spoke. “Now, girls, is when the final toast would end the ritual to bring the host.”
Odessa and Dolly whipped their heads towards their aunt, startled and unreasonably agitated at the sound of a voice.
“But Auntie-“Odessa tried.
“Yes, I’ve broken it. Now is not the time to bring him. It must be done on Halloween night or the boundaries of the spirit world will not be thin enough. You must do it alone. It must be you and your sister, for it is the both of you who need something from him.”
Later, after dishes and bowls and cups had been cleared, washed and dried, Adeline took Odessa out onto the porch steps with her to talk alone.
“Your sister has something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Without her, it will be nearly impossible for you to conjure your savior.”
“She has the gift. It’s nothing to do with me. You know we are of no blood relation, but when I first met you both, even as little children, I could sense it. She must be the one to initiate the final cheers when you repeat the process alone. Make sure your father isn’t home. There can be no interruptions or all is lost.” Adeline turned and walked away from the cabin and into the misty woods that surrounded it.
Odessa watched her go, and was ashamed of the jealousy she felt burning in her cheeks. This was supposed to be her way out. What did her little sister have to do with it? She would not leave her here, of course, but relying on her not to make a mistake was distressing.
All of that came and went a year prior to Odessa turning sixteen. Now, alone in their cabin with candles lit and darkness shifting around them like ink, Odessa looked at her sister from across the flame and frowned. Could Dolly manage this, she thought.
Dolly looked back at her with eyes so big they seemed to expand, pushing out the other features of her face. Odessa was drawn in, could picture her feet standing in the soft pink of Dolly's lower eyelid as she peered over into the blue abyss and then tipped over, all fears and doubts gone forever.
Odie, a voice called from inside her head. Dolly was talking to her, but not out loud. Odessa tried to say something back but didn’t know if it had worked. Dolly’s eyes were unchanging.
Are you ready, Odie?
Odessa nodded. She passed Dolly the basket with a white napkin over it. Dolly lifted the napkin, taking care not to rustle the wicker weaving. Inside were three soul cakes. Dolly had to bite her lip from saying something out loud. Her father had expressly forbid them from celebrating Halloween. For a man with many sins, he feared the church with a passion that went beyond the bounds of irony. Dolly couldn’t imagine where Odessa had gotten them, or rather, how she could have afforded them.
Odessa smiled thinly, but her eyes sparkled with mischief. Dolly thought of the Robinson’s and suspected Odessa had gone to them to ask for the cakes just for her. Odessa hated asking for favors, but she knew how much Dolly loved sweets and how rarely she had opportunities to enjoy them. Dolly smiled back at her sister and felt the spastic hand of worry squeeze her heart.
Dolly placed a cake on her own plate first, then Odessa’s and, finally, the plate in front of the backwards chair.
The girls ate in silence. They were meant to keep their eyes down, but Odessa couldn’t help but glance up at Dolly repeatedly. She wanted to have faith in her sister, but she was worried. Aunt Adeline told them that the Dumb Supper ritual was one that was not just celebrated in Ireland. She said she had come to know many ladies of stature in America that had found their true loves through the Halloween spell. Either the soul of the man they would someday meet and fall in love with would appear, or a real, live man would walk through the door dazed, unsure of how he got there. That man would stay for a drink and love would bloom.
Odessa asked if the men who appeared were always good hearted. She wondered what would happen if your one true love was unkind or selfish or not what the young lady expected in some way. Would she know right away? Aunt Adeline told them that only a wicked heart could conjure a wicked man, and if the lady’s true purpose was to find her soul mate, than her soul mate would appear. She said it was all about intention.
At last, the meager stew they had prepared was consumed, the candles were burning low and all that was left to do was to have the final cheers. Then they would wait. If all went well they would be on their way to a new life before their father stumbled back in at dawn.
Odessa and Dolly looked at each other solemnly. They raised their cups, which each contained a finger of moonshine. Aunt Adeline had pointed them towards their father’s stash under the floorboard in his bedroom before she left. She said alcohol must be sipped for the final cheers to show the spirits that they meant business.
The silence pressed in on Odessa’s ear drums and she wished it would just be over. In that moment she wished they had never started. Without taking their eyes off of each other they brought the chipped ceramic cups to their lips and let the liquid burn down their throats. Their eyes remained locked and Odessa watched as a tear rolled down Dolly’s cheek. The sputtering candle flame made it look red like blood. At the time, she believed it to be a result of the strong homemade liquor.
As the moonshine lit up their bellies, the candles in the windows and the sixth candle in the middle of the table sputtered out one by one. The silence intensified and Dolly squeezed her eyes shut and started shaking.
Odessa stood up. She wanted to call out to her sister, but wasn’t sure if they were allowed to speak yet. The intense pressure tightened like a vice and Odessa gritted her teeth against it and started to panic, feeling real fear that her head would pop. She pictured a fractured pumpkin on the ground, its guts spilling out around it.
Then, it stopped. Odessa opened her eyes slowly and looked around, but saw nothing but darkness. A loud bang and shattering glass made her scream out loud and she cupped her hands over her mouth. She realized the door had swung open and the glass from the windows had exploded inward.
Odessa lunged for Dolly’s chair and fondled the air until she found her thin arms. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness somewhat and she could see that her sister still had her eyes clenched shut and her hands were over her ears. She was rocking back and forth violently.
“Dolly? Dolly? Are you okay?”
Dolly’s eyes flew open. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“For what?” Odessa said, shaking her sister slightly. Odessa saw movement behind her sister’s head. She looked towards the open door and saw a figure standing there. It was the size of a man, but she couldn’t make out his features. Odessa gasped.
“What the hell is all this!” their father’s voice rang out through the dark cabin.
“Pa?” Odessa said, breathlessly. Their father shambled in through the door, bumping into the armchair and nearly toppling over. He was more drunk than usual. As he got closer, Odessa could smell the liquor on him and his eyes were so heavy they were nearly closed.
“What deviltry is this? What have you little bitches done?”
Odessa pulled her sister towards her, intending to step between them, but when she looked down at Dolly’s face she saw a vicious sneer spreading over her lips.
“Get away from us!” Dolly screeched. The sound was piercing and Odessa saw their father flinch back. Dolly started towards him and he recoiled again. Then, his shock wore off and anger filled him up again. He whipped the back of his hand up and out in an arch and back handed Dolly across her mouth. Blood spattered out onto the wooden floor. Dolly went down and nearly landed on her face, but Odessa caught her and they crumpled to the ground together.
“I’ll teach you. I’ll teach you your place, you nasty little bitch!” he spit and started towards them again. Odessa tried to think, tried to make her brain focus on how to protect herself and her sister, but all she could do was stare and shake her head, clutching Dolly in her arms.
A hand, long and black with nails like talons slipped over their father’s shoulder like a lover’s invite. She saw her father stop and turn his head slowly to look at it. Everything, so chaotic moments before, slowed down. Their father looked like he was wading through molasses. His mouth was caught in a comic O and his drunken eyes were now wide open as he looked at the claws gripping his shoulder. The nails sunk in.
Their father screamed and everything sped up again. A face appeared behind his head. The demon was a head taller than him and its leathery black wings shot out and banged against the walls of the cabin. The thing had no eyes, just holes with something stirring down deep inside of them. It had no horns, just a head without features. There was no mouth, no nose, just those hungry blank eye holes.
Odessa whimpered as she watched the demon slip a second hand around their father’s other shoulder and pull. It snapped his arms back and off like someone tearing into a roast chicken. The sound their father made was like the whistle of a kettle. The veins in his neck jumped out and tried to get away as his face grew redder and redder. Finally, the claws dug into the wrinkled flesh of his face and snapped his neck.
“Don’t be mad, Odie.” Odessa lowered her eyes to the sound of the timid little voice and saw her sister looking up at her with a sheepish smile on her face.
Their father had gone limp and the demon turned to go, dragging his body behind it.
“I called it,” Dolly said.
“What?” Odessa sputtered.
“I was afraid, Odie. I didn’t want you to leave me, so I thought…if we could just be rid of Pa things would be better. Maybe we can go live with Auntie now.”
Odessa began to weep. Her mind kept replaying the image of her father’s purple veins bulging from his neck as he wheezed and struggled. Then there was that blank face, the empty eye sockets.
The sound of enormous wings beating the air could be heard from outside the cabin. Dolly got up and fished the broom out of the closet. She started sweeping up the broken glass and while the broom raked away the damage, Odessa wrapped her arms around herself and curled up on the floor, listening to her sister humming the tune her aunt had taught them.
Written by dgrady237