by Vicki Weisfeld
This was Before. Before the night-shrieks, before the shredded pets and eviscerated birds, before barred windows and barricaded doors. Before the Hunt.
Tingles of anticipation coursed through nine-year-old Jen’s body as she unlocked her front door the day before Halloween. Upstairs on her bed was a shiny black box, and under rustling sheets of black tissue was a Halloween costume. Jen shrieked with disappointment.
“The nerve,” Jen blamed her mother immediately, “buying a costume without me!” Warily, she lifted out the tiger suit. It felt luxurious and real as could be. “Still.”
From the bottom of the box, the mask gazed at her. Not the never-quite-fitting plastic approximation of a face. Round and flat. That won’t work. She tried it on, snapping the elastics behind her head. Immediately, it molded to Jen’s small nose and high cheekbones. Rounded ears popped up. See-through material turned her eyes amber. The surrounding white ruff of fur widened her face. She looked in her dresser mirror and a tiger glared back at her.
Her phone buzzed. Her best friend, Tamika. “Tamika! I’ve got a costume!”
“Me too! It was in a box on my bed.”
“Me too! Mine’s a tiger.”
“Mine’s a fox. The tail’s super-amazing.”
“Did you try on the mask? I look like the real thing!”
“I can’t wait til school tomorrow.”
“Me too! No dress code!” Tamika said.
“Thanks for the costume!”
Riffling through the day’s mail, Mrs. Nielsen said, “Sorry. I haven’t gotten around to that yet. After supper?”
“No, it’s upstairs.”
“It is? Maybe Dad got it. Or Gail.”
Over dinner, Jen’s dad appeared pleased to receive credit for something, even if he wasn’t sure what. Gail said, “Whatever.”
The next day, while Tiger and Fox waited for the school bus, Tamika gave a similar report. “Nobody knew where it came from.” Tamika’s older brothers said “Cool” and started talking about football.
A shiver of excitement ruffled their pelts. Their tails swung.
“Last house,” Jen shrieked at the end of their prescribed route. They ran to the porch yelling, “Trick or treat!”
“I know you girls,” said their former teacher, Mrs. Lachlan. “Tamika and Jen, my most promising students.” She studied them. “The costumes suit you. You’re truly Fox and Tiger.” She laid a hand on each girl’s shoulder, and the fox and tiger tails twitched.
Near their houses, Jen halted. She prowled around Tamika, saying, “Mrs. Lachlan gave me an idea. Let’s switch costumes!”
“All done, Jen?” Mrs. Nielsen asked. “Well, come in then.”
Tamika growled tigerishly and slipped past her.
Maybe she didn’t see me.
Would Mrs. Nielsen be embarrassed at her mistake or even angry?
When Jen arrived at the Greene’s house, Tamika’s older brothers weren’t home yet, and Mr. Greene was watching the news. She stood around. She scuffed her paw in what she hoped was a foxlike manner. She rummaged in her pumpkin, inventorying the chocolate.
“Go upstairs and take off your costume, sweetheart. Brush your teeth,” said Mrs. Greene, busy at the front door. Jen sat on Tamika’s bed eating candy. She took off the costume and lay down to read a nature book. She soon fell asleep.
Meanwhile, no one at the Nielsen house seemed to notice Tamika growling softly in the corner then disappearing upstairs. Tamika was dozing when Mrs. Nielsen cracked open the bedroom door and asked, “Brush your teeth?”
“Mmmmm,” she said, and slept.
The next morning, Jen stumbled downstairs wearing the fox mask. The family was already eating. Mrs. Greene fetched a pan of bacon and eggs from the stove. “Sit, Tamika,” she said, filling the empty plate. “You’re running late.”
Mr. Greene fixed her with a stern look. “Tamika, breakfast. No time for chatter this morning.”
Under the mask, Jen frowned. She was short, had long, straight blonde hair and blue eyes. Tamika was the tall one, her skin the color of milk chocolate and her hair mass of springy brown curls.
“Eat,” he said.
Tamika ate a bowl of breakfast cereal alone in the Nielsen’s kitchen. She took her bowl to the sink just as Jen’s older sister Gail thundered down the stairs. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
Finally, someone who sees the problem.
“You’ll be late! Your bus will be here in five minutes! Get going!” Gail slammed out of the house yelling “Later!” and hurried to catch the high school bus.
Upstairs, someone—probably Mrs. Nielsen—had made Jen’s bed and folded the tiger costume. Tamika took off the mask and lay it on top. She put on one of Jen’s new school outfits; now Mrs. Nielsen would really be mad. She grabbed Jen’s backpack and hurried downstairs.
Mrs. Nielsen stood by the door. “Here’s your lunch. Where’s your jacket?”
“I don’t have a—a—”
“Right there in the closet. Grab it. You’ll freeze this morning.”
Tamika slipped into Jen’s jacket, put her arms through the backpack straps and took the lunch Mrs. Nielsen held out to her.
At the bus stop, Jen and Tamika exchanged jackets and backpacks and lunches. They were thoroughly confused and, admittedly, a little teary.
“Your mom had to know,” Jen said.
“Even your sister didn’t recognize me,” Tamika said.
“Are they all crazy?”
“Maybe a Halloween witch put a spell on them!” That made as much sense as anything.
If their families were confused, their teachers and schoolmates were not. Jen was called Jen; Tamika, Tamika. Perhaps the world was wobbling back to normal.
Jen said, “See you tomorrow,” as Tamika peeled off at the Greene house. Jen hurried up her front walk and found the door locked. Her key didn’t work. She rang the bell. After a long wait, her mother half-opened the door.
“Hi, Mom!” The door wasn’t opening.
“Hi, Tamika. I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong house. This is number twelve; you’re number eight.”
“Mom,” Jen wailed, but the door closed.
She sat on the top step of the porch and glanced toward number eight. There sat Tamika, head in hands. A cold drizzle began. Jen stood up and motioned toward the sidewalk. They met in front of number ten.
“Why are they doing this?” Jen asked.
They did. Their keys worked. They were inside.
That weekend the Nielsen family was going to a concert, and Tamika would have to dress up. Jen’s mom suggested she wear a shiny sky-blue dress. “Totally,” Tamika said, holding it up to herself in the mirror.
Jen wore clothes from Tamika’s closet, too. She told Mrs. Greene she’d dropped her toothbrush on the bathroom floor, and Mrs. Greene brought her a new one. Tamika had Jen retrieve the brushes and comb she needed.
Both girls helped with chores and did their homework, perhaps with more cooperation and less complaining than at home. The biggest challenge was that the Nielsen family was vegetarian and, on Friday night, Mrs. Greene served fried chicken. Jen looked at the piece on her plate as if it were still alive and squawking. “Is there a smaller piece?” she asked, and Mrs. Greene exchanged the drumstick for a wing. She cut off the two awkward elbows, leaving a mini-drumstick, and gave it a tentative bite. Not bad.
Mr. Greene was famous for quizzing his children over dinner, and he started right in. “What do you know for sure?” he asked his older son, who responded with the details of a recent football player-trade.
When asked the same question, the younger one said, “The Forty-Niners are going to the Super Bowl for sure this year!”
“Now, see,” Mr. Greene explained, “you’ve wandered away from the terra firma of facts into the swamp of opinion and wishful thinking. You don’t know for sure about the Forty-Niners. Can you help your brother out with a for-sure fact, Tamika?”
“Uh, a football field is a hundred yards long, not counting the end zones.”
The young man rolled his eyes, but Mr. Greene said, “It may not be a new fact, but it is definitely a fact. Good job. Your turn, Tamika.”
Thinking back to Tamika’s nature book, Jen said, “Tigers can’t purr. They chuff, like this…” She demonstrated.
“How interesting. Why is that?”
And she explained, sort of.
Two houses away, Tamika was presented with a plate of aromatically spiced vegetables. She missed meat. Later, Gail invited her to her room to draw fashions. Having only rowdy brothers, Tamika was delighted.
“Your drawing has really improved,” Gail said. “Have you been practicing?”
Tamika smiled slyly.
It was the weekend. Tamika’s brothers took Jen to a football game and introduced her as their sister. Maybe the increasing number of blended families made this plausible, even to kids. Or, especially to them. When Mrs. Nielsen saw Tamika in Jen’s best new dress, she said, “Very pretty.”
The charade was fun and yet…and yet…they weren’t home. The families had different rhythms, their houses didn’t smell the same, the night noises were unfamiliar. Even the other mother’s hugs weren’t quite right.
The girls met at the bus stop Monday and exchanged lunches. “We have to visit Mrs. Lachlan,” Tamika said.
“When she was our teacher, you called her a witch.”
“I hope I was right.”
After school, the girls ran to Mrs. Lachlan’s house.
“Hi, Mrs. Lachlan,” Tamika said. “We have a problem.”
“Come inside and have some cider.”
They told the whole story. Jen started to cry. “They don’t see me.”
“They don’t know who we are,” Tamika said.
“And your costumes are in the bag?” Mrs. Lachlan indicated the folded over shopping bag between them.
“We thought maybe something’s…wrong with them.”
Mrs. Lachlan gave Tamika a look. “It’s true they’re special.” She laid them out and stared at them, fingers pinching her lower lip. “Here’s what we’ll do.”
Tamika ran home in full fox display, and Jen marched up to her front door wearing her tiger suit and mask, swishing her tiger tail. She walked inside.
“Just in time.” Mrs. Nielsen peered around the kitchen doorway. “Dinner’s almost ready. Set the table?” Jen bounded up to her room and changed into jeans and t-shirt.
At the Greene’s house, Tamika was still in her costume, luxuriating in her own room when her brother appeared.
“Hey, little sis. How you doin’?” He stared. “Halloween’s over.”
“Maybe for you.” She felt her tail twitch. When he walked away, she took off the costume and mask and twirled and twirled, laughing.
At dinner, one of the boys asked, “What was that racket a while ago? Sounded like a dog being strangled. Baark, baark, baark.”
“Not a dog. More like, I dunno,” his brother said, “fox or something.”
Tamika tore into a piece of chicken.
“Knife and fork, please, Tamika.”
Down the block, Jen leaned on the kitchen counter and chuffed, remembering the Greenes’ meaty dinners. Gail blew in.
Mrs. Nielsen said, “Gail, would you please add corn to the squirrel feeder?”
“Mom,” Gail complained, “nobody feeds squirrels. In colonial times, people got a bounty for squirrel scalps.”
“That’s disgusting,” her mother said.
“And they ate the squirrels too.”
Grrrr, Jen breathed.
“Well, if you don’t want to…”
“I’ll do it,” Jen said. Her fingers stretched wide and curled in upon themselves, and her nails… how they’d grown.
This was Before.
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