This story is by Rowan Rook and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Even though a year had passed since Emma had seen Clyde, his face looked exactly as she remembered it. Unkempt amber hair framed painfully familiar features. His lips seemed as tender as they had during the first and last kisses they’d shared. His soul shimmered in his speckled blue gaze.
She smiled, and he smiled, too.
Clyde’s voice drifted through the otherwise silent bedroom, and Emma savored it like a favorite song replayed on the radio after years of static. That sound – so deeply embedded in her memories – was all the proof she needed that he was really there.
“I shouldn’t have come,” he said, his smile wilting.
Emma searched for his gaze through the dusky flickers of candlelight. He was right. Maisey and the rest of her friends would think her insane if they knew about her visits with her former fiance. Her reputation would never recover from the scandal. “I don’t care,” she decided. “This is what we want, so what does it matter what everyone else thinks? You’re the only one I need.”
“No, Emma…” His features tied themselves into an anxious shape she’d never seen before. “I…don’t want this anymore.”
Her joy disappeared as if she’d been dunked beneath the autumn ocean. Her mouth opened, searching for words and failing to find any that made sense.
“You’re miserable, Emma,” he sighed. “We both need to move on.”
“No!” Emma startled at the volume of her own voice. “I waited for you, just like I will next year! I don’t mind, as long as we have Halloween night.”
Three knocks echoed up through the floorboards from the front door below.
Emma held Clyde’s stare for a few seconds longer, sucking down the hurt with a deep breath. “Don’t you go anywhere,” she ordered. “I’ll be right back.”
Emma pounded down the stairs, the house moaning beneath each footfall like a living thing.
Her visitors were probably the same damn kids who pranked her each year. She lived in the so-called Halloween House, after all. The neighborhood entertained itself with tales of strange voices, inexplicable shadows, and slamming doors. Boys and girls in costume had taken it upon themselves to knock on the door during the dead of Halloween night as proof of their bravery.
She grimaced with an anger that wasn’t entirely directed at the children when she reached out for the doorknob, already imagining the shouts she’d use to shoo them away. If those brats were searching for a good scare, she’d give it to them. This was the one night of the year she shared with Clyde. No one was going to ruin it for her.
When she swung open the door, it was a woman who stood on the unlit porch.
Emma swallowed down the venom she’d been about to spew, “Maisey?”
“Hey there, Emma,” Maisey’s grin seemed painted onto her face. “How’s your holiday?”
Emma gawked at the familiar stranger. Her best friend. They’d once shared so many hours together. Working with their church’s activism groups, window shopping downtown, settling on the couch with popcorn and bad horror flicks while they giggled like schoolgirls. An unexpected lump climbed into her throat. “Halloween…isn’t much of a holiday,” she stuttered.
Maisey craned her gaze to look inside the house, frowning, “why are all your lights out?”
“Because some of us head to bed at a sensible hour,” Emma lied, irritation dowsing her nostalgia. Maisey couldn’t have chosen a worse night to show up.
Maisey shivered with what was perhaps just the cold. “Oh, sorry! I guess you really aren’t into Halloween. I just wanted to make sure you knew about the dance in the Strafford’s old barn.” She smiled, “actually, I was hoping you’d join me.”
“Thanks,” Emma didn’t quite manage to mask her annoyance, “but I need some sleep.”
“How can you sleep in that house, tonight of all nights?”
The two women froze, the heat in Maisey’s voice surprising both of them.
Maisey blushed, brushing off a strand of bangs that clung to her brow. “I don’t understand how you’ve managed to live in a haunted house for so long. Everyone who came before you eventually lost it in there. Halloween is supposed to be especially bad, so…I thought you’d want to get out for a while.”
Emma snorted, “do you really think I’m that much of a coward?”
Hurt flashed across Maisey’s face. “It’s just…I’m worried about you, Emma. You’ve been spending more and more time alone in there. I hardly ever see you anymore. You don’t even come to church.”
Emma shrugged, “I’ve just been busy. My freelance work keeps me glued to the study.”
“But you haven’t been the same, since…” Maisey’s tongue tangled around the words that came next, prodding them and testing them like an aching cavity.
Emma glowered at her, daring her to speak them.
Those words – weapons as sharp as any knife – wilted in Maisey’s throat. “It’s been three years,” she compromised. “They always say time heals, but it seems like you’re hurting worse and worse as it goes on.”
The color flushed from Emma’s face. “Don’t you judge me! You don’t know what it feels like to lose someone like that!” Her hands shook on the doorknob. “It wasn’t fair! He was healthy! It wasn’t fair, so I’m not going to act like it’s all right!”
“Sometimes bad things just happen, Emma,” Maisey searched for her friend’s gaze. “For your own sake, you need to move on. He would want that for you, too.”
Emma shook her head, “I won’t just leave him behind.”
“Clyde is dead, Emma!”
Maisey’s own eyes opened wide with shock when the words left her mouth.
The women stared at each other in silence. The house’s innards creaked with its own quiet breath. Candlelight caressed a single bedroom window.
“He’s dead…” Maisey refused to look away. “But you aren’t, Emma. You aren’t, but it feels like you died too! You left me behind.” Tears welled at the corners of her gaze. “How is that fair?”
Emma opened her mouth to shout, but stopped. Something about her friend’s swollen eyes, her sunken lips, her pallid skin, held her in place. Maisey looked just like the reflection of herself she’d seen in the mirror that night.
She breathed, sucking cool autumn air into her constricting throat, “I’m sorry.”
Emma closed the door, submerging the Halloween House in its own darkness.
For a while, she only stood there, listening to Maisey’s footsteps fade away.
Emma stared at Clyde in the mirror. His face looked so much like Maisey’s, so much like her own. The glass showed him standing behind her, but no breath warmed the back of her neck.
“What happened to me wasn’t fair,” he agreed, “but there was nothing anyone could have done.”
“But if I would’ve been here…” Emma bit her lip to hold back her whimpers. Three years had passed since she’d returned home from Maisey’s house to find Clyde lying still and cold on the bedroom floor. Dead. A heart attack had assaulted the seemingly healthy young man, and no one had been there to help him. It…didn’t feel right, to go on living when he didn’t have that choice.
Clyde’s reflection shook his head, “all we can control is what happens next. It’s okay, Emma. You don’t need to keep waiting for me.”
Tears dripped from Emma’s chin.
Not long after Clyde’s death, she’d realized he’d never really left her. The haunted house they’d lived in still held him…and perhaps her regret held him there, too. He lingered in the shadows on the walls and the silhouettes in the mirrors…but it was only on Halloween night that she could see his face and hear his voice. Just one night each year…
It feels like you died too!
“Okay,” she whispered, “I know I have to say goodbye.”
As unfair as it was that Clyde was dead…she wanted to come back to life.
She placed her hand against the cold surface of the mirror.
The man beside her stepped forward and did the same, his hand slipping through hers. She shivered with a warm sort of sorrow that wasn’t entirely hers.
“Goodbye Emma,” Clyde said. “No matter where I go, I’ll always love you.”
“I love you,” Emma said, “so now it’s your turn to wait for me.”
She smiled, and he smiled, too.
Two sets of misty eyes met in the glass, until the first suggestion of sunlight drifted in through the window. The man in the mirror slowly faded away like the stars in the morning sky, his gaze watching hers while their final seconds together ticked away into the chilled November dawn.
Emma held tight to her smile for him, “I’ll keep on living for the both of us.”