It isn’t often that Nora leaves the house on Halloween night; it’s a dizzying world beyond her walls, full of loud, busy people who seem to know no decency, of technology she cannot even begin to understand. The planet has become alien to her, uninhabitable for its sheer foreignness, but just as unbearable is the entrapment of her afterlife, and at least the rules of Halloween are always the same. She is afforded twenty-four hours beyond the prison Charles had built for her, a pretty gilded cage. The children dress in their costumes and prowl door to door for sweets, every year, every decade. Perhaps this earth has not changed so very much.
Familiar now too are the compliments on her lovely period ‘costume,’ on the special effects makeup at the back of her skull, and indeed the murmur of resigned thanks that leaves her trembling lips after a flash of inevitable confusion. It makes her want to scream, to shriek about the evils wrought upon her by vile reality, but she bites her tongue and burrows only further into the comfort of denial.
I am dead. I am dead, and the world went on living without me. And that is the real tragedy. Nora Montgomery has been all but forgotten, living only in whispered infamy by the few who regard her as the matron of true Hollywood horror.
Walking, wandering, aimlessly, skirts blowing with each passing of an automobile that moves too fast and looks more like a spacecraft than a car, she comes at last upon a park, a park that she can remember as a field, and she perches like a bird on the edge of a wooden bench, legs tucked like the lady her mother had always chastised her into becoming. The glimmer of moonlight against the pond stirs something in her, something not quite forgotten, but faded, and she reaches to catch the glimmer before it can disappear like smoke into the night sky. Helen. Dark-haired, doe eyed Helen whose chin only ever came up to Nora’s shoulder, always brave and reckless and rowdy where Nora was prim and proper, always the gentleman in a game of house or in helping her across the street. Helen, who wore trousers to the scorn of every man and woman in Los Angeles. Helen who had begged Nora to run away with her. Helen who she had refused.
I can’t...I’m engaged, the wedding’s in a month, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do this with you. It’s time to grow up.
Dabbing away the memory of lying with her in this very field turned park, of weaving flower crowns and daisy chains on the bank of the pond with the same glimmer of moonlight on the water, Nora crumples her handkerchief in her hands, watches with watery eyes as she worries it between her fingertips.
“Careful… Your mascara’s going to run.”
Jerking her head at a voice that rings out like a gunshot— gunshot, gun, shot, dying, death, dead, dead, dead —she nearly startles from her perch, wide baby blues full of uncertainty staring at the stranger half hidden in shadow, heart drumming against her ribs with the fright.
The dead have nothing to fear.
“Scoot over, sugar; I don’t bite. Not unless you’re asking.”
Sliding across the weathered wood, she almost doesn’t notice her skirt tail catch on the splinter that had been irritating her thigh, not until the figure slinks nearer and crouches down at her knee, thin fingers unhooking the fabric with a surprising deftness. The stranger, a woman with dead, frizzy hair and a scrawny frame beneath the hangings of her cheap fur coat, joins her, and Nora can’t help but remark, “You look like a streetwalker.”
The answering laugh is like the crack of a pistol’s hammer, and she feels the vibration in her skull with a flinch.
“Happy Halloween to you too.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“I’m not asking.”
In the silence that stretches between them, Nora takes a moment to examine the bottle blonde in her periphery, coughing in forced protest as a cigarette is brought to life. She’s skinny, like a stray dog with its skin stretched over its bones, and it gives her a hungry look that is dulled only by the sorrow in her dark eyes that mirrors that in Nora’s own. She watches, privately transfixed as she shrugs out of her coat.
“What’s that? On your arms?”
“Say, you really have some stellar fucking manners, princess.” There’s an exhale of irritation, a flick of ash scattered to the wind. “They’re called track marks. From the needles.”
“I see.” The disapproving sniff is hard to miss.
“Pull the stick out of your ass, sister. You’re the one spending your one night off with a junkie in the park.”
The silence turns to ice between them as Nora glares ahead, her moment of lucidity ebbing with distaste, and finally, feeling her disgust begin to overwhelm, she stands to go. The hand at her wrist, however, gives her pause.
“Stay… I could use the company.”
I could too. I am so lonely, so lonely that it would kill me if I weren’t already dead, so lonely that I wish I could entirely cease to exist and end this suffering once and for all…
Sinking back down, she watches the smoke curl from the end of the junkie’s lit cigarette. “How did you know?”
“You’ve got a hole in your head the size of fucking Nebraska.” The silence winds back between them, stretching like a cat until that rough voice sandpapers it away. “Got a name?”
“Mrs. Charles Montgomery. Nora...Nora, my name is Nora.” The correction comes with a clearing of the throat and a flushing of cheeks, and she can’t help but look back down at her hands, twisting the damp fabric in their grasp.
“Sally,” is all she gets in response.
“Can I…” The sudden timidity in her voice seems to catch Sally’s attention, hollow face turning to gaze back at her, and she can see now the fresh tears that have fallen over her cheeks. “Can I...have one of those?”
Wordlessly, Sally retrieves another cigarette from a weathered looking pack and places it gingerly between Nora’s lips, offering her a light. The unexpected gentleness of the gesture, its quiet chivalry, does not go unnoticed. “Thank you…”
“Don’t mention it, princess.”
Sputtering after her first draw, Nora pardons herself meekly, but when she looks to her companion she finds the woman’s attention elsewhere, settled back on the shimmering glass surface of the water. It surprises her, how much she wants her focus back on her. “Do you always come here? On Halloween?”
“No. I have a routine laid out for me, a fucking agenda, that takes up most of my night. Finished early this year, so I took a hike.”
“Do you?” The sudden interest in her , after so many eons of no one asking after her, makes Nora’s stomach flutter, and she blames the lightheadedness on the acrid fumes she’s been inhaling.
“No. I don’t...I don’t like to leave the house.” The house. The only one in her world.
“That’s a shame.” Is it? The cool night air feels a few degrees warmer than it had before, and she fixes Sally with an almost sheepishly questioning gaze.
“It’s too different. Everything moves so fast, I… It overwhelms me.”
“It’s quiet here.”
This time the silence teems with static, arcing in the stillness between them and giving Nora electric butterflies. It’s here, at the site of her forgotten forays, that the world seems to make sense again.
“Nora is a pretty name.”
“It’s old; no one...no one uses it anymore.”
“I like it.”
“Sally is lovely.”
“It’s a dog’s name.”
“It isn’t!” Her shrill protest shocks even her, and she’s quick to demure, to swallow her willful nature, her boldness, to lock it away in the tiniest cupboard of her being. Nora has always struggled to hide her fire.
“Looks like we’ve got a live one,” Sally teases, and her watery grin seems to light up the night like moonlight on water a hundred years ago.
“Mother always said I was too...brassy,” she murmurs, picking at the lace of her dress.
“You’re just fiery. Passionate. I like it.” She can feel the other woman’s eyes on her now, her hungry, starved gaze raking over her skin, but the nausea she knows from Charles doesn’t come, only a knot low in her belly that warms her all the way to her fingertips, and she returns Sally’s smile, ducking her head. “Hey, don’t hide… I wanna see that pretty grin.”
The half scoff half chuckle that escapes Nora is anything but ladylike, and she blushes accordingly, turning her face away even as Sally’s body pivots in her direction. “That’s very flattering.”
Oh… That hits her lower than she expected, the sly confidence, the fingers now fiddling with her earring.
“I should, ah… I should be going. It was nice to meet you, Sally…”
“McKenna. Sally McKenna. Don’t...leave yet. Please.”
The junkie’s voice is unexpectedly soft, fragile as a robin’s egg, and Nora finds herself caught back up in that tearful gaze, skin on fire with the intensity; just as unexpected are the pair of lips against her own.
Sally tastes like cigarettes, but so had Helen, once upon a time.
“Will you come back next year?”
Maybe things had never really changed at all.