Same Time, Next Year
The sky was a cold steel gray on the morning of Halloween. There was no sign of frost, but the wind blew cold across the Nebraska prairie, rustling through the tall grass and weeds by the side of the gravel road.
“Listen to me, Billy, calling in sick isn’t an option, ok?” Mary Jo brushed the hair from her oldest boy’s eyes and pressed her palm against his forehead to assure herself that he was really just faking and not running a fever.
“But, Ma...” His protest was half hearted, She wasn’t falling for it one bit. Billy just didn’t want to go to school that day.
“Shush” she whispered, giving Billy a quick hug before the school bus came into sight. At eight years of age, he could be her little boy one minute, then practically all grown up the next. “We’ll have a real Halloween, tonight, I promise.”
“It’s no big deal, Ma, really.” But it was a very big deal to an eight year old, and Mary Jo knew it. What she didn’t know, was how she would make good on her promise.
The twins didn’t share their brother’s sullen mood. Katy and Kelly were six year old bundles of energy, still as affectionate as beagle puppies. Being poor didn’t bother them, and Mary Jo wasn’t sure they even understood what it meant. In their excitement, anticipating the Halloween party at school, the two of them had been up and ready for school before daylight.
When the bus arrived, the twins gave Mary Jo big hugs and scampered away, eager to join their friends. They were dressed up as a pair of scarecrows. That was the best Mary Jo could do for costumes. Second hand overalls from the Goodwill Store in Lincoln, battered straw hats, old flannel shirts and some well placed corn husk “stuffing” completed the outfits. That was enough to make them happy, and they were adorable. Mary Jo wished she had a camera and film to record the moment, but like so many other things, they were beyond her means.
She smiled at Billy, as he got on the bus, but he refused to look at her. It broke her heart that he refused to dress up for Halloween. His third grade teacher made arrangements for a party, too, but that didn’t seem to interest Billy. Mary Jo didn’t have the heart to insist that he wear a costume. It was apparent that he was embarrassed. He was enough older than the twins, that he remembered how things used to be. Four years ago, life had been different for Mary Jo and her kids. In those days, there would have been trick or treating and a big party at the farm. Neighbors from miles around would be there. There would have been cold cider, warm doughnuts, laughter, fiddle playing and dancing.
When the bus was out of sight, Mary Jo started back toward home. Along the way, she paused at the the old burr oak which sheltered the family cemetery. Every day since her husband died, she went there and leaned against the rough bark of the tree and had a chat with him. Sometimes, she brought a handful of wildflowers, other times, she came empty handed, but she always had something to say, some little story to share, but, not that morning. She plunged her knotted fists into the pockets of her cardigan, and paced back and forth between the tree and his headstone. Finally, she kicked the stone and turned and ran down the hill and across the creek, to the old Bouton farm, or what was left of it.
When the tornado tore the house and barn to splinters, it had torn her life apart, too. She and the babies had huddled in a corner of the cellar. Now, that dark place was their home. All that was left of the farmhouse was the stone cellar below ground and a brick chimney above. All that remained of the Boutons were Billy, Katy and Kelly. It was Mary Jo’s obligation to keep the land for them. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but the children were the fourth generation there, and it was all they had.
Mary Jo got busy. There were chores to do, stalls to clean, animals which needed tending and a heap of firewood to be chopped and stacked. If the children were going to have supper, one old hen was destined for the stew pot. There was a lot Mary Jo liked about country living, but she never liked killing chickens. When all the other work was done, she cornered a big Rhode Island Red, and wrung its neck. It was quick, but the bird fluttered and fought all the way. She did what she had to do with practiced efficiency. When she sat on an old tree stump to pluck feathers, she glanced up at the overcast sky and decided it was time to say what she had to say to her husband. One of the good things about the solitude of rural Nebraska, she thought, was that a woman could talk to herself or her late husband without fear of ridicule.
“This is a fine mess you left me, Will Bouton!” She worked fast, and rust red feathers blew in the wind, scattering across the yard.
“Three babies, two sections of land, a broken down tractor and a load of debts!” Her favorite hound slunk away and hid.
“Will, you’re up there, I know you are, and you’re laughing at me!” Even now, after four years, Mary Jo could occasionally hear his laughter in the flutter of leaves, or a whisper in the wind. She looked up again and shrugged her shoulders. “I’m doing the best I can, babe, but it’s hard work, and I am so tired, and half the time I have no idea of what I’m doing. Why, why did you leave me like this?”
She had asked him that a thousand times. There was never an answer. He and his dad had been out mending fences that day, the day the big storm came up. His mom had run outside to take laundry off the line. Mary Jo grabbed the babies and took little Billy by the hand and sheltered them in the cellar. When the winds died down and the storm had passed, she and the children were alone in the world. Since that day, her sorrow had not lessened, but on days like this, she almost resented that they were beyond caring about her problems. She needed her husband, and the children sure needed their daddy.
Mary Jo kept plucking the chicken and voicing her frustration as the sky grew darker. She looked across the fields toward the western horizon, trying to assess how much time she would have before the rain would come. Storms could be sudden and fierce in Nebraska. When the children were away, she spent as little time as possible in the cellar. She liked being outside and hated it when the weather chased her into her hole in the ground. It only reminded her that in four years she had failed to rebuild the house. Money was tight and no banker would lend a young widow money to rebuild. They didn’t care that she worked harder than any man in the county or that she always paid her bills on time. They just wondered why she didn’t find herself a new man.
There was something slightly ridiculous about cooking supper in an iron pot in a fireplace open to the elements. The walls were gone, but the masonry was sound, and Mary Jo had become accustomed to roughing it. She was a mile from her closest neighbor, with no electricity, no plumbing and only an old fashioned pump for water. She coped with the inconvenience, and did her best, but Mary Jo lived in constant fear that someone from school, or the county would discover how she and the children were living and interfere. She never asked anyone for help, but she was certain that some well meaning person could get her thrown off her own property, or even take the children away.
She sat cross legged on the floor which served as a roof over their underground shelter, and pealed and cut up potatoes, an onion and carrots to add to the pot. Even when the first raindrops darkened the hearth stones, Mary Jo sat, watching the fire and talking to Will.
“I know it’s no big thing, but it means so much to Billy. Just tell me what to do. Give me some idea.” Mary Jo poked at the logs with a stick, exposing the glowing coals. "Halloween was always his favorite night of the year. You remember, don’t you? You always made it so special for him.”
Mary Jo wiped a tear from her cheek. She folded her cardigan, making a pillow of it, and curled up in front of the fire and closed her eyes. She had barely drifted off to sleep when she sat bolt upright. She was not sure if it was the wind blowing down the chimney, or something else, but she had felt a hot gust of air against her face, and was startled. But that was not the half of it.
“Oh, my!” She stared in disbelief. “Will?”
There he stood, leaning against the charred mantelpiece, as she had seen him do so often in life. “Will you give me no peace, woman?” There was a sparkle in his eye and a grin on his face.
Mary Jo stood and extended her hand to touch his sleeve. “You’re real,” she stammered.
He took her hand and pressed it to his lips. The gentle kiss was so real that she had no doubt. He was as substantial as he had ever been in life. She reached up and touched his cheek, felt the warmth of his skin, then pressed her face to his chest. He held her close, as he had always done and she listened to the beat of his heart. It was as strong and reassuring as she remembered.
She looked up at him and began to speak, but he placed a finger to her lips and quieted her. “Until midnight.” He had answered the question she had not yet asked.
“Only you can see me, darling. There’s nothing to worry about, nothing to be explained.”
“Will, how....I mean, why?”
Will brushed a strand of dark hair from her face and caressed her cheek. It was a familiar gesture. “I am here because you asked me, dear, and the how of it is nothing strange. It is All Hallows Eve, the one night of the year when we are free to, well, free to be here.”
The storm had passed to the North and what little rain there was had stopped, but the sun was well to the West, and Mary Jo didn’t know quite what to do.
“When do you expect them?” It was a little unsettling to have him know what she was thinking before she said anything, but she remembered that it was often that way before.
“I should go get them now. It’s about that time.”
“I’ll go with you, hun. Just act natural. They won’t know a thing.”
“Will?” Mary Jo looked into the eyes she never expected to see again in this lifetime and smiled. “Can you help me? Can you do something to make this night special for the children? I don’t even have bread, much less candy for the children. This won’t be much of a Halloween for them.”
“Trust me, babe. Just leave it to me.” The ghost of Will Bouton put his arm across her shoulders and the two of them walked down the lane, to watch for the school bus. By the time they reached the gravel road, he had given her instructions and she knew just what he wanted her to do.
Supper was solemn occasion. Mary Jo, Katy, Kelly and Billy sat at the little table in the cellar and ate by candlelight. It was not for effect, or something special for Halloween. It was their usual practice since they lacked electricity and Mary Jo was afraid to chance the hazard of kerosene lamps. No one questioned the presence of a fifth chair at the table. If the children noticed Mary Jo glance in the direction of the chair, they did not say so.
When the dishes were cleared away, Mary Jo read them a story. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” had been a tradition from her childhood. She took her time, as Will had instructed, and it was not until she heard a little knock from above that she announced that the time had come for their surprise.
“Follow me, and be very quiet, ok?”
Even Billy looked excited, and that warmed Mary Jo’s heart. She ascended the cellar stairs, opened the door at the top, and led the children along a path, to the rear pasture and the little hollow where Bouton Creek wound though a small meadow. As they approached, they noticed the smell of burning wood and saw a glow, which presently proved to be a small bonfire.
There were big shocks of corn, bound in the old fashioned way. In firelight, they appeared to be Indian teepees. Around the fire, there were curious figures, not quite life size. Had the children been closer, they might have seen that they were made of cornstalks and husks, but at a distance, they looked for all the world like Indians, smoking pipes. Rust red feather war bonnets completed the illusion.
Mary Jo sat the children on a log above the little meadow, and wrapped a blanket around their shoulders. They huddled together and watched in wonder as the spirits of Indians who once lived on the Nebraska prairie appeared to dance around the fire to the music of drums. Coyotes howled in the distance and the hoot of a lone owl added to the strange spectacle. The children were wide-eyed with the wonder of it.
When the fire finally burned out and the voices faded, Mary Jo led her sleepy children back to their home. It had been a long day for all of them. She tucked the twins into their beds and kissed them goodnight, then looked up and smiled. Katy and Kelly were so sleepy, they did not notice that she exchanged glances with someone only she could see. Billy had slipped under his covers, and Mary Jo saw him reach for the small framed photograph on the table beside his bed. It was a picture of the family, taken nearly five years before, when the twins were still babies. His father held Billy on his lap. Mary Jo never saw Billy do it before, but he kissed the picture and carefully placed it back on the table.
“Ma, that was the most incredible Halloween ever. I will never forget it”
“Me neither, honey. Me neither.”
Billy was still smiling when he closed his eyes. For the first time in a long while, he looked like the sweet little eight year old boy he was. He was happy.
Will took Mary Jo’s hand and led her upstairs and outside. Long into the night, they sat together in front of the outdoor fireplace in what used to be their living room. They talked and laughed, and even shed a tear or two. Mary Jo closed her eyes, content in his sweet embrace. The last thing she heard before she fell asleep sounded like the wind blowing through the cottonwood tree, but she was certain she heard, “Same time next year. I promise.”