Becoming crotchety and embittered is all a matter of how you look at nostalgia. At least that’s what I used to think. Course when I was a ways younger than I am now I couldn’t imagine myself being nostalgic about nothing.
A softened heart means a softened head, I used to convince myself I believed that. That was the armor I wore to defend myself from the hurt the world tried to inflict on me. Ended up working for a while. Got me through flunking out of school—laziness more than dimness—and through being drafted.
My hardness, I told myself, was really me and not an affectation I put on.
As opposed to most, I believed my grumpy-old-manhood was due more to what my general outlook on life had always been rather than believing the world needed to get off my lawn.
Helen counterbalanced me. She had heart and love enough for us both and then some. For whatever reason I got a lion’s share of that love, more than I deserved. Then her life ended, as lives are wont to do.
Solitude and sorrow showed me my armor was just a front and not me. Nostalgia crept in.
For the first time these reminiscences weren’t all lamenting the past or saying “It was bad, but it’s worse now.” I found in my childhood things that were bittersweet (an improvement), joyous, and innocent. It was shocking and pleasing, but it would not do to dwell on it. Old men stuck in the good ol’ days were asking for Alzheimer’s to shove ‘em back there for good.
I treated the past, even the good bits, like Charlie chasing me through the jungle. For a while that strategy worked. Then Halloween came.
Helen handed out treats on Halloween. She did it right. We weren’t ever the full-size candy house, but she’d give the kids a few fun-sized bars each. It was enough such that we were the miserly old folks that ought be avoided, or worse egged. This was my first Halloween. The kids wouldn’t know that Helen had passed and expected the same kind of reception. For a moment I considered hiding out. If I got egged so be it. I had a power washer. Then I realized: I have nothing better to do.
Helen was a chocoholic. Having no idea how much I should buy, I just followed her example.
As dusk settled and kids started making their way to houses both inviting and uninviting, both decorated for the holiday or bedecked in Clinton and Trump lawn signs; I watched as they meandered, heading my way.
Usually, as Helen, my counterbalance, relished greeting the youngsters I did whatever struck my fancy. We’d only trade off if she needed a health break and so she could eat, but during our years in this house I had at least a vague notion of what Halloween trends were. Not that I was ever in the loop past the age of thirty, but at least making note of costumes nudged me one step up from being clueless. Though it made me long for classic, traditional costumes, the timeless ones. There was that nostalgia again. That notion, in its simplest form, had just struck me when the doorbell rang for the first time that night.
Few kids dress up as ghosts these days. Seeing one on my doorstep shocked me. A white sheet, black eyeholes, pillowcase in hand.
“Trick or treat,” a meek voice said just above a whisper.
Questions rushed to the tip my tongue but would not leap forth. Something stopped them. An eerie foreboding with a bloody taste of nostalgia took hold of me.
I am eight years old. My mother insists on several snapshots of me and a group of friends. I am dressed as Dracula à la Bela Lugosi. The friend on my left and three behind me—or maybe that’s my brother and his friends, I don’t know—are all hazy.
The only one in sharp focus is Billy, the ghost under a white sheet right next to me.
We’re out trick-or-treating. The Ghost breaks away from myself and a still-hazy.
I see my one friend, I can’t tell if he’s the Wolfman or King Kong. The ghost is gone.
Dead of night. My mother and a friend of hers, frantic. The police are there.
Billy was never seen again. My armor sealed away that the ghost had vanished.
The ghost was on my doorstep. What a horrid coincidence, I thought to myself.
Or it’s a hallucination.
The ghost spoke.
“Hello, Dennis,” it said. It was Billy’s voice. Even after all these years, I recognized it. Presumed dead for nearly six decades but it was him.
My hands clammed up, my grip on the candy bowl slipped they were so moist. Stupefied I made to offer him a chocolate.
“Would you like to go with me?’
Again questions were left stranded on the tip of my tongue. I asked myself but one: What do I have to lose?
Dropping the bowl of candy bars on the porch I took his small, frigid hand. A weakness in my armor found, I let bloody nostalgia take me away.
Bernardo Villela has published a novella The Isle of Helyr, and three short story collections, The Bloodmaster Trilogy and Teenage Death Songs, Vols. 1 & 2; and has short fiction included in stories in Coffin Bell Journal, The Dark Corner Zine, 101 Proof Horror, A Monster Told Me Bedtime Stories, Page & Spine and forthcoming in 42 Stories Anthology and Rivet. You can read more about these and various other pursuits at www.miller-villela.com.