A personal essay on a memorable Halloween from my childhood in Indiana.
| It was Halloween. Or, it might as well have been. As an elementary schooler, it was kind of hard to tell once summer break was over. But it was definitely autumn—I could tell because the corn fields were tall, and my yard had swiftly been overtaken with crisp, fallen leaves, leaving my family stranded outdoors in the fast-cooling air for days just to rake it all up. It was different now, though—now that my dad was away for basic training, and that my older brother had up and left. Where we had once all been out tending to the yard, it was now a matter of “What’s the point?” And with no motivation, and the rawness of their collective absence, the leaves stayed in place.
My dogs seemed to have some weird sort of fascination with leaves that decorated our yard. When it was time for them to go out, they would sprint out into the yard, nosing around for moles in the foliage and falling directly into the mess and rolling in it like idiots, caking their fur in flecks of the crimson and ginger that had broken away. I presume that they saw the change as a sign that winter was coming—exciting, considering that the summers in rural Indiana tended to not be so welcome for my black Lab Buck and Norwegian Elkhound Max. It was entertaining to watch—an easy distraction for eleven-year-old me.
It happened that I was outside playing with them, dressed in my iconic grey Old Navy sweat jacket. It was late in the afternoon, about 5 or 6 o’clock, and was waiting to be picked up by my girl scout troop, as every year we planned an outing before Halloween. The year prior we had attended the haunted railroad at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum—a wonderful event where I prided myself in being the only one pleasantly entertained while the rest of the girls had been escorted out as they had been terrified to the point of crying—however this year we would be attending the annual Connor Prairie Fall Festival, something I was very eager to attend. Although I wasn’t close with anyone, really, in my troop, I always enjoyed a trip to Connor Prairie, and there was nothing I loved more than celebrating for Halloween, so I, of course, willed myself to go.
I spent a majority of the night tagging along with my troop as a third-wheel—I wasn’t really friends with any of the other girls—though the night passed at leisurely pace, and as I enjoyed everything about autumn and Halloween celebrations, there was plenty for me to participate in, regardless of the way I felt about them. I remember the first thing that we all did was have our palms read by the fortune-telling Mystic. Although I’m most certain she gave me the generic spiel, “something big will happen in your future,” I was still amazed at how she was able to discern that I was a clarinetist simply by looking at my fingers. Following that, we attended a special effects demonstration, where I graciously volunteered myself as a canvas to the artist. My troop found much disgust in the faux bullet wound that he had fixed onto my forehead, yet I had found inspiration in it; seeing such a simple arrangement of tools create something so realistic looking, led to some of my most successful Halloween projects, such as the Zipper Face and Eyeless. The pinnacle of the night, however, was the main event: The Headless Horseman’s Haunted Hayride.
Considering that Connor Prairie is inspired by the 19th century United States, I had nothing but high expectations for the haunted hayride. My scout leaders had planned the night expertly—we had caught the next run right as the sun was beginning to set. Although it made the girls in my troop weary as to what was awaiting us beyond the slowly deadening woods ahead, I found it rather exciting. A part of me, however, couldn’t help but to think of my brother—perhaps if he’d been here with me, I wouldn’t feel by myself. I would have a friend to enjoy these things with, but without him, it was only my black sheep self being herded along with a flock of lambs I didn’t care about.
The towns folk would wander past the line as we waited for our turn to board, whispering about how their school teacher, Ichabod Crane, had gone missing that very night a year before, and some of them even probed at us to ask if we were sane, being foolish enough to venture into the woods on the night of a full moon.
“Oh yeah. Definitely; it’ll be awesome.” I loved messing with the actors—I knew they didn’t expect anyone to play along, what with how my troop had reacted to their questions, but I, however, enjoyed doing so. It’s not as if I had anyone else to talk to anyway.
“Well! Let us know if you see any sign of Mister Crane out there, won’t ya’?”
We did not find hide nor hair of Mister Crane anywhere in those woods. We did, however, find a formidable man garbed entirely in a black suit speeding through the dark of the forest after us on a midnight horse, with a dark cape billowing like fog behind him. He was quite unhappy at our group for trespassing into his woods, and chased us relentlessly, startling several of my troop members into screaming in surprise. As much as I enjoyed the show, however, I found that my stomach had inexplicably become upset, and so I tied my jacket around my waist in attempt to mask it over so I could continue my enjoyment of the show. As we were chased into the covered bridge, we had finally reached the astounding conclusion of the chase, the rider’s horse bucked and brayed loudly in frustration, unallowed to follow us through, and in a final effort to thwart our escape, the Horseman lobbed a giant pumpkin at us—thankfully, missing.
It was a quiet ride home. The girls were exhausted and either sleeping or just ready to sleep. I, however, was filled to the brim with adrenaline, despite my stomach pain, and ready to tell my mom everything.
When I got out of the car, I noticed everyone was in the driveway—my mom, grandpa, aunt, and my dad’s friend (and practically my uncle) Ryan. I found it odd, them all being here, considering how late it was—probably about 11-11:30 at night—though I figured maybe they’d had a bonfire without me. It was the weekend, after all, not like anyone had anything to do the next day.
“It was SO cool, mommy, we HAVE to go next year when daddy’s home! The horse was awesome, there was—did you see my bullet hole? Hey, did you guys have a fire without me, why’s everyone here—”
I’d noticed no one was saying anything, and that no one was making eye contact with anyone. I hadn’t even received a hug from anyone yet, let alone a greeting of any kind. I thought something was wrong, but before I could ask, I already kind of knew.
It must have honestly been pretty hard on my mom, knowing how excited I would be when I got home and was ready to tell her everything I had seen and done, that she would have to shatter my moment of joy to let me know that my dog had died while I was away. She didn’t tell me had died, though. She just looked down and stated—
“Max got hit by a car.”
Still smiling and overcome with exhilaration, I wasn’t sure how to react, so I responded with “I’m going to my room now—” and went inside.
And when I got inside, I started crying. Max would always be at the door when someone got home, waiting to greet them with tiny hops because he was too fat and arthritic to jump. I became swamped with memories of him, trying to remember the last thing I’d said to him, the last thing I’d done with him, wanting to feel his fur just one more time, wishing I’d been home for him. I’d been out having the time of my life and my dog had died.
I closed the blinds once I got to my room because I could see Ryan’s headlights on out behind the garden, illuminating where he and my grandpa were digging. Or trying to dig, anyway—there had been a drought that summer, so the dirt was essentially concrete.
I bawled into my pillow, angry and confused about what had happened, trying to make sense of it, wondering why I hadn’t felt something or known that something had happened. We had saved him—he was Max, our purebred Norwegian Elkhound, a show dog. He’d been neglected the better part of his life, left in a cage to grow obese and ungroomed and uncared for. And I missed him. And I missed my brother, and I missed my dad. I wanted to be happy, I wanted someone to be there for me, and I had no one, no one but myself and the pillow I was crying into.
My grandpa came in and sat on my bed. Ryan and my mom probably had no clue what to say or couldn’t bring themselves to talk to me just yet, but my grandpa was a tough guy. And without my dad being around, I guess he took it upon himself to fill that role. I’d never really had a real relationship with my grandpa up until that point. I just knew he was tough, and he cared about me, and that he worked too hard and was pretty sarcastic and straightforward. Sort of like myself I guess.
“Are you okay?” He sounded concerned, probably because I’d never cried like that before.
“Well neither am I. You want to go out there and try digging that? It’s like concrete.”
“I wish I’d been here when it happened…”
“No, you don’t, Sierra. He was in the middle of the highway; we’re lucky we could even get him.”
“What did he look like?” I was curious. I was a kid, after all. Morbid question, but I wanted to know.
“He looked like he exploded all over the road. He died instantly—didn’t feel anything.”
That’s the way to go, I guess. Exploding. Better than getting old and suffering from arthritis. He didn’t have to hurt anymore.
“I’m going back to help Ryan. Want me to get your mom?”
“No. I just need to think.”
So, my grandpa left me by myself. I was sad, I missed my dog, but he was dead, and there wasn’t much I could really do about that. And poor Buck—he’d have to play in the snow by himself now this winter. And my stomach still hurt—
I decided to take my thinking to the bathroom, however, upon settling in, I discovered the cause of my pain throughout the night. I had, to my displeasure, started my first period.
I was mad that my troop hadn’t said anything, but I also remembered that I’d had my jacket around my waist most of the night, so nobody had probably even seen what had happened anyway.
Considering I was now a human waterfall, and in clear desperate need of new pants and underwear, I camped out on the toilet a bit and texted my mom for assistance.
“Sorry you’re having a bad night schnickles,” she said, sounding genuinely upset, yet somehow amused at the same time.
“It’s fine. I just wish it was different…”
“Me too. But he died happy. And loved.”
And I still think about him. Max, my first dog. And the first time he was able to climb the stairs by himself. How excited he would get when it snowed, and how the snow would clump on his legs. How handsome he would be after going to the groomers and strutting around with pride to show himself off to everyone. His cotton fur—his curly tail—when he’d howl when ambulances would drive by and lay on the vents and hog up the air. He was my best friend, and he had been there for me when I had no one, like I had been there for him in the same context.
He did die happy. And loved.
And on the carpet, outside my door, I found a tuft of his fur that he’d shed. So, I picked it up and I kept it.