Carla loved Halloween. Or wanted to anyway, now that Hal had died.
She’d sweated and puffed as she’d hauled his six-foot behemoth of plywood out of the cobwebbed and dusty shed. Avoiding the mouse turds that she liked to pretend were black rice, Carla had tugged the wheel inch by dirty inch, freeing it from the space behind the garden tools and unused tomato stakes. She’d cleaned up her husband’s vision and returned the wheel of fortune to its annual place on the porch.
The effort of the lugging and cleaning and sweating would be worth it. The kids were counting on her. Carla wanted to do right by Hal. Getting this legendary monstrosity up and ready for Halloween—her first as a widow—was the way she intended to do that.
The fun-sized bars, spider rings, and glow-in-the-dark stress balls were in a large plastic bowl that contorted to the stretched shape of a pumpkin, as if sliced in half and squished to keep a flat bottom. Carla kept the quarters in her witch robe pockets, and the king-sized bars were inside the front door on the little wooden stand where she put her house keys. Someone hitting JACKPOT was always a big deal, and Carla intended to continue Hal’s tradition of the elaborate presentation. She’d tried to make it perfect, tried to ignore the unpredictable waves of feeling incompetent as she navigated the world without her husband. The wheel shone, the lights glowed, and she’d even gotten the spooky music set up on the speaker she’d propped in the front window. Heavy things, dirty things, things with plugs, they were all her responsibility now.
The treats were well-stocked. She hated running out of candy, hated turning the lights out before nine. She’d promised herself to make it to at least eight; if she needed to cut out then, that felt respectable. A decent first-year solo attempt.
As she put on her witch’s hat and cloak, she tried not to think about the other costume she’d donated. He’d been adorably cute and silly in his hot-dog costume. Describing himself as “Hal the Hot Dog” to the little kids—and winking at the men from the neighborhood who called him “Hal-o-weenie”—Hal was a hit. Local legend grew up around Hal and the wheel, kids telling their younger siblings and neighbors that if you got SPIN AGAIN, you’d be destined to get JACKPOT not that Halloween, but the next. Peter and Mariana’s friends always made a point to stage their photos in front of the wheel, using it as the meetup before and after trick-or- treating. Until they grew too old for such things, and they spent their time stressing over grades and applications instead of coordinating costumes. Years later Carla had sent the leftover candy to Peter when he graduated West Point and was deployed overseas. Chocolate didn’t fare well in the hot desert, so Carla had sent the kinds that wouldn’t melt. Now Peter was living in Arlington, and he and his sister alternated visiting on holidays on either coast.
Her daughter was all mystical since she’d moved away from New Jersey to California and took weekend trips to Sedona. Mariana had sent Carla a moonstone crystal, told her it was good for “seasons of change,” and instructed her to leave her west-facing windows open on Samhain so Hal’s spirit could pass through the veil. Carla had banished the rock to Hal’s desk in his home office. There she’d stored the Christmas-decoration bins instead of hauling them up to the attic again. A younger version of her would be appalled that she would leave Hal’s office so cluttered, as if the boxes obscured the tomb quality of leaving his books, files, and his ashes. When they’d talked about these plans years ago, Hal had told her he didn’t care where she put him, whatever made her feel best. At the time that felt kind. But now she was here and Hal was dust, and she didn’t know what would make her feel better.
She planned to keep the windows shut tight, despite the cool air and her hot flashes. She had no intention of sending Hal away.
Neither of Carla’s kids had any kids of their own. Yet. Maybe one day. Halloween was not a visiting holiday.
They’d had so many friends at the visitation.
After Hal’s funeral both of the Haggertys came up to her and pressed their hands in hers, and after Barbara’s nudging Bill said he’d be happy to set the wheel up for her if she needed help.
Standing on her porch next to the wheel by herself, arms crossed over her chest, pained with grief, Carla didn’t want Bill’s help. She didn’t want anyone’s help. She wanted Hal.
The one saving grace of the evening was that no one had landed on LIL CANDY AND A LIL JOKE. At least the universe had been kind to Carla by not making her read any of her dead husband’s terrible puns.
He’d known they were corny too. He’d asked her to paint a kernel of candy corn on that part of the wheel, and she’d smiled, outlining it in black and filling it in with yellow, orange, andwhite. She’d kissed the top of his balding head and told Hal, “You’re my favorite corny comedian.”
It was easy early on. The little kids with their parents were always the most fun. This year there were lots of fairies and pirates and some new cartoon that she didn’t recognize that, according to an expert seven-year-old dressed as the “red one,” not the “blue one or yellow one,” was originally a video game and then got a limited streaming series with hopeful plans for renewal of a second season starring the secondary characters, who were also secondary colors. The red whatever-he-was got SPIN AGAIN and was immediately thrilled he’d be destined to be a JACKPOT winner next year. Carla gave him an extra fun-sized candy and a thumbs-up.
Troublemakers with hearts of gold had always been her favorite. Hal would have especially loved the little cowboy who galloped all the way up the hill and the front-porch steps, punching his felt horse in the head. He stopped long enough to spin the wheel and neighed in delight when he landed on LIL CANDY. Usually she only offered three pieces, but she offered the chaotic cowboy his choice of five. Hal would have gone inside to find a carrot for the horse. She could only do so much. And this felt like a lot. This town felt like a lot.
Donna Lincroft, down the street, always gave king-sized candy bars, but she also carried a Birkin bag to Pilates, and Carla felt like the big candy was more for show than the spirit of the holiday. Old Mr. Dapper, on the corner of the busy street, gave out cans of soda, and the strategic kids timed their route so they’d get a mid-mission refreshment. Mr. Dapper had learned to keep the recycling can out so the kids could drink and dump—few wanted to carry the heavy treat with them. Every now and then a group of teenagers in their own football jerseys would shake up a can and spray each other, and they’d return home with sugar-soaked helmets and uniforms for their mothers to clean.
Hal had known how much Carla loved handing out candy to the kids, feeling their excitement and energy and wearing her witch hat to the door every time the doorbell rang.
“We need something bigger,” he’d said, “something to convince them it’s worth the trip up the hill.” He’d paced the front yard, assessing the space they had on the porch and the angle down to the end of the driveway and street.
“If we put something there,” he’d pointed to the spot where she had her geranium boxes, “they can see it from where Haggerty sets up his table by the curb. They won’t be able to resist.” Bill Haggerty had filled out paperwork in the village office and secured a street-party road closure permit so that the flat end of the street would be closed to cars, and the kids could have run of the entire road without traffic. Barbara Haggerty had started ordering pizzas on Halloween, setting up a table and handing out slices on paper plates, the grease oozing through the underside.
So when Harold had suggested the game of chance, drawing out the circle on a piece of printer paper he’d tucked into a clipboard, Carla decided she’d support the idea, even though it seemed a little extravagant. But also a little exciting. A game welcoming you—maybe chatting with your neighbors for more than a few seconds, interacting with the kids on her front porch, the pumpkin lights strung through the banister, and the idea that something was designed just for them…that felt lovely.
They’d spent hours brainstorming ideas, letting Peter and Mariana have a say in how many pieces of pie they should divide the wheel into. Hal had suggested twelve, like a clock, but Peter and Mariana thought that was too much for “little” kids to read. They’d erased half the lines and settled on six. What each section would be labeled was the subject of more debate. While they’d all agreed that there should only be one JACKPOT, there was much argument around whether it should be skinnier and harder to win (Peter) or everything equal and fair (Mariana). In the end Carla had gotten a quarter out of the coin jar and flipped it (tails, everything equal and fair). Peter had felt like he’d won as well when, inspired by Carla’s coin flip, he’d decided that a different slice should be labeled $$$. (Peter had insisted they not write 25 CENTS to account for potential inflation.) Hal’s idea to label a slice for JOKES was vetoed by both kids, who thought that felt like punishment, but Carla had intervened and brokered a compromise LIL CANDY AND A LIL JOKE, which made Hal grin, as he’d already collected dozens of jokes about pumpkins, ghosts, and vampires.
By 7:58 Carla was itching to be finished. A light rain had started, and the wind had turned colder, reminding her of her excellent plans to take a hot shower before putting on pajamas and crawling into bed. Just as she was standing up to unplug the lights, a mom with twin eight- or nine-year-olds started huffing up the hill.
The girls were ahead of their mother by a house length, aiming their pumpkin flashlights and speed-shuffling through the leaf piles while their mom used her phone as a flashlight as she texted while walking in the middle of the road.
The girls were identical—their faces, their costumes, their treat bags. They could have been fairies or princesses or something else entirely. Carla didn’t care anymore.
“You each get one spin! Come right up!” Carla’s voice sounded high and tight. Like a wicked witch who hates children but needs them anyway.
The girls argued over who would go first. Carla didn’t have the patience for it.
“Okay, so I decide who goes first, since it’s my wheel. You, go ahead.” Carla pointed at the one who was closest. The princess/fairy/whatever stuck her tongue out at her sister and dropped her treat bag onto the porch. Using two gloved hands, she gripped the sides of the spokes and did her best impersonation of every game-show contestant ever in existence.
“Let’s go, let’s go!” she shouted, clapping her hands together and stomping her feet in a complicated rhythm.
The pointer came to a sudden halt in the middle of the JACKPOT slice.
“JACKPOT!” she shrieked, piercing Carla’s eardrum.
Carla didn’t have a lot of energy left in her for the JACKPOT fanfare, but she mustered what she could.
“WE. HAVE. A. WINNER!” Carla started ringing her own doorbell over and over, and the little girl clapped her hands. Opening the screen door, Carla grabbed one of the king-sized bars from the table and offered it to the jubilant child.
The girl held the monstrous Kit Kat to her chest and jumped up and down.
“I won! I won!”
The waiting twin shoved her successful sister out of the way, demanding her turn just as the mother made her way to the bottom of the porch steps. Carla looked down the hill, relieved no one else was on the way up. As soon as these two were done, she could clean up and turn out the light.
“My friend just moved in next door to the older couple with the pizza?” The woman questioned her own statement as her other child pulled the wheel, spinning it around and around, the sound of the clackers and pegs making a loud buzz. The sound echoed in Carla’s head.
“That’s nice.” Carla didn’t think the Haggertys were that old. Maybe a few years older than she and Hal.
“She said you’re old townies too—said you’ve done this for years. We love that. It’s why we moved here. All this old townie stuff.”
“Ugh,” the child said as the spinner landed on SPIN AGAIN. Carla said ugh in her head as well as she realized she’d have to stand here another minute, waiting to be done.
“That’s okay, honey. Spin again,” the mother said.
The child took the wheel in both of her hands and spun, and Carla waited for the wheel to slow and stop.
Carla thought the universe felt cruel. She’d almost made it through.
LIL CANDY AND A LIL JOKE.
“I don’t want a joke, I just want candy.”
Carla thought that sounded fine. She wouldn’t argue, like Hal, that they couldn’t get the candy without the humor.
“Oh, no, let’s get the joke,” the mom told her kid.
“Idon’twantajoke thisisadumbgame Iwantabigcandy.”
Carla wondered what Hal would have thought of this kid. She should act her age, not like a toddler. No, that’s what Carla thought. Hal would have blamed the mom.
“Peyton, that’s rude.”
Maybe Hal would have been wrong about the mom.
“You spun for lil joke and candy, and even if it’s dumb, that’s what you’ll get.”
Hal was often right. While Carla thought the jokes were dumb, she didn’t like this lady telling her kid that.
“But Sissy got a KING-sized candy, and that’s what I want too, and my foot slipped and I want the same as Sissy.”
Sissy held onto her king-sized Kit Kat for dear life. Carla reached into her witch’s robe pocket; the few remaining quarters clinked.
She pulled the stack of joke cards out and read the top one silently. What do you call a scary hot dog with nothing in it?… A Hollow-Weenie.
That made her miss Hal. She flipped to the next one.
How does a ghost eat a hot dog?… By goblin it.
That made her miss Hal too. How had she never noticed there were so many hot-dog jokes? She flipped again.
Just read it, she could hear Hal in her ear. So she did.
“What happens when you turn flying mammals into hot dogs?”
Sissy stood rapt with attention while Peyton ignored her as she stomped her foot and whined to her mother.
“Things go from bat to wurst.”
Next year she’d have to get rid of the jokes. They were all terribly corny and awful and reminded her of how much fun Hal made stupid things. Without him this just felt awful. And dumb.
“I don’t get it.” Sissy wasn’t a fan of the puns.
“It’s not a very good joke. Just a lil joke.” Carla grabbed the pumpkin shaped bowl and thrust it at Sissy. “Okay, here’s your lil candy options. Take two.”
“I don’t want lil candy. I want a king-sized like Sissy.”
The mother had her hands on her hips, her eyes locked on Peyton. Carla waited for the mother to respond, the pumpkin bowl extended between them. Peyton sniffed, an impressive pout on her face.
“Can she spin again? Have another try?”
Carla wasn’t sure she heard the mother correctly at first, then realized she had most definitely heard her, just like she’d heard everything else she’d said in the three minutes she’d been standing on her porch.
“Well, she can certainly try again next year,” Carla said. “But she did get the SPIN AGAIN section this year, and legend has it that whoever gets that will get a king-sized next year. So you have that to look forward to.” She motioned with the pumpkin bowl of candy again, her fingers cold and numb. She wondered if she had enough energy to stand in the shower. She hated it when she felt so tired she would sit on the tiled floor, letting the water hit her back and head.
“But I don’t want it next year, I want it this year. I did get SPIN AGAIN, I should get another turn.”
“You already spun again, that’s how it landed on LIL JOKE AND LIL CANDY. You already had two turns, sweetie.” Carla remembered to use endearing words even though she had little fondness for this kid or her mother. “I have a bunch of lil candies here, I’m turning off the light after you leave, so why don’t you take three, which are about the same size as the king, and I’ll see you next year when you spin again.”
The mom said, “If you’re turning off the light, why don’t you just give her whatever king-sized candies you have left? Then she won’t be upset.”
Carla had been upset every day for the last nine months. She missed Hal. Missed his cheer. Missed his way of bringing lightness to everything so life didn’t feel so damn hard.
The loser child was crying, huge tears pouring out of her glittered eyes, her chest heaving as she pouted with such ferocity that Carla worried she might hyperventilate. The winning child was gloating, clutching her king-sized bar to her heart and executing pirouettes on one foot.
“We came all the way up here. Can you just make it worth it? She’s so upset.”
Carla thought living with discomfort and being upset was a good life lesson. She was living proof.
“It’s a game of chance. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you win big. There’s no losing, just smaller wins.”
“But her sister got a king.”
And Pat Sajak was older than Hal, and he was on TV every night with Vanna, smiling and encouraging people to spin and win and guess words and phrases, and here Carla stood on her cold porch with her homemade jackpot Halloween wheel, and Hal was cremated and sitting in a box inside. Where should Hal go next? In the ground? In a marble mausoleum that looked like a post office with little boxes of bodies?
“Maybe next year you will be happy with what you win.” Carla was done. “Now it’s after eight and we witches have important business to tend to this evening, so I thank you for leaving now before my coven arrives.”
She plopped three candies into Peyton’s treat sack, turned around, and walked into her house. She waited until the crying child was in the street before turning out the porch lights.
Carla went to sleep in a stuffy room in a lonely bed and dreamt of stairs that shifted and walls that turned on hinges and being lost in dark hallways, clutching a pillowcase. She couldn’t find what she was looking for. She left the windows closed all night and left Hal on his desk next to the moonstone.
At book club the next week, Carla’s Halloween altercation was the first topic of discussion. The twins’ mom had told her friends, and the story had morphed to a tale where Carla had cursed the children and threatened to eat them, dropping them into a boiling stew.
“First of all,” Deidre said, “the millennial moms are ruining this town.” General murmurs of agreement and dismissiveness about the complaints the newcomers had about the playgrounds and library and schools, which had all been good enough for their kids when they’d used them twenty years ago. “Second of all, Carla is a vegetarian and hasn’t eaten a child in years!”
The group erupted with laughter and then started telling her all the things she should do. Stop using the wheel. Keep using the wheel. Don’t let anyone change the fun. Change the fun and remove the JACKPOT. Visit Peter or Mariana for Halloween and take a trip so she didn’t have to be here for the holiday at all. Too much to remember about Hal. No one to appreciate Hal. We all loved Hal.
Carla smiled and sipped her chardonnay, and thanked them all for being so kind. “I’ll persevere,” she said. “I am going to change some of the slices. Hal and the kids picked those. I’ll do mine and it will be different, and we won’t have any arguments.” And the first of the ideas started to trickle in, squeezing between the lonely places. Carla felt like Halloween could be hers again, just a little.
During the shortened days of the winter months, Carla sunk into a bit of depression, and her future Halloween plans became dark. She talked about it with her therapist, who suggested she increase her SSRI and take a trip to California to visit Mariana. Carla knew that was a better plan than making Halloween chocolates with laxatives, like one of her favorite book heroines, Mercy Thompson. Or brownies loaded with shit, like Minny Jackson in The Help. Even edibles to get the whole neighborhood to chill out. The problem with all those ideas was that she wanted the parents to feel the repercussions. Not the kids. It wasn’t the kids’ fault.
When Mariana brought her on a road trip to see Sedona and the Grand Canyon, Carla found the first of her inspiration. Arizona was very different from New Jersey—the people, the scenery, the stores. A color palette of red and brown and a yellow that felt more golden than should be allowed. New Jersey was often tan or gray. She made the purchase while Mariana was taking a work call outside the little shop, arranging for a case shipped to her back home. Carla bought a green aventurine crystal and never said anything about the other part of her purchase to her daughter. She loved her idea and didn’t want anyone else offering an opinion.
As the days grew longer from March through June, Carla conducted research and sketched the rest of her own ideas. Fresh paint purchased for new wheel sections, fresh treat purchases online, and her own fresh ideas made the promise of the next Halloween feel bright and hopeful.
Once everything was purchased and safely delivered by the beginning of September, Carla sat outside in her shorts in the late summer sun in her backyard, painting the wheel entirely white and then outlining it into new sections. Stretching her legs out on the browning grass, she didn’t notice or mind her dead lawn or her violet varicose spider veins because there was no one there to see them but her.
Angling her witch’s hat as she examined her reflection in the mirror, Carla was pleased with the way the glow-in-the-dark necklaces looked perched and wrapped around the peak and brim. She tucked the speaker into the window and thumbed her phone until her playlist crooned. “Thriller” was first, last, and appeared several times in between.
The little ones were first to arrive, right after 5 p.m., on schedule. Children and their parents were excited to see the wheel’s new transformation, the bright colors and mysterious pictures in each segment with odd words and abbreviations.
“DOTS!” Carla called out as a robot watched his spin stop.
“Are they Dippin’ Dots?” the robot asked as Carla rustled in her bowl for the corresponding treat. She pulled out a cellophane-covered sheet of dots and presented it to his silver-gloved hand.
“These were a favorite when I was your age,” Carla said. “You rip the dot off the paper and eat it. You’ll get some paper too. That’s part of the fun.”
“You eat the paper?” The robot studied Carla’s face to see if she was joking.
“Just what’s on the back of the candy dot. This paper is delicious.”
The robot grinned.
His sister, a black cat with sparkly ears, spun the wheel, which landed on Fun Dip. Carla handed the packet over to her little furry paw and explained how she would rip open one side to get the candy stick, and the other side for the sugar, how licking the stick would get you more sugar, the wetness letting the powder stick. The little cat practiced her licking directly on the paper packet.
“Yup, perfect,” Carla told her.
Word of the new treats and sections of the updated wheel started making their way around the neighborhood. Kids flocked from everywhere.
The candy necklaces you eat were a hit, as were every item she’d termed FOOD. Gummy burgers and gummy hot dogs, which seemed more plastic textured than sugar, despite the ingredients promising to be entirely edible. Mini soda pops the size of her pinky, edible wax bottles offered liquid candy inside them. Doll-sized cardboard juice cartons full of lemonade. The carrots that looked like penises that she handed out and deliberately said, “Eat your veg.” She was surprised how popular the Big League Chew was, with several teens tucking it in their cheek to chew and spit into her mums.
“Just not on the porch, please,” Carla asked. “We don’t want to step in your cud.”
One of the tween bunnies didn’t understand the instructions after spinning and landing on PIXY STIX, so Carla decided to just show her and ripped the top off and downed the sugar. Her witch’s hat tilted askew as half the sugar hit the back of her tongue and half went right down her throat.
After Carla stopped coughing she said, “Maybe put it on your tongue, not the back of your throat.”
The bunny nodded and thanked her, hopping down the steps.
The vampire clan was the first to get the drawing of the smoldering stick, with no text in the section to explain.
“Okay, so there’s actually two kinds of candy cigarettes,” Carla explained, showing them their choices. One looked like a cigarette, but it was soft and you could eat the entire thing. The other was also edible but came in a paper sleeve with some sort of powder between the gum cigarette and the outer wrapping, which allowed for either three small puffs or one giant puff of fake smoke.
“Why are you giving thigarettes to kidth?” the shortest vampire asked, the pretend fangs garbling her speech.
“Candy cigarettes are not addictive,” Carla reminded them. “Real cigarettes and vaping are highly addictive and will kill you. Eat candy in moderation. Brush your teeth. You’ll be fine.”
She’d hoped that the mother and her twins would come back again, as she had an entire speech planned about why there was no JACKPOT. At one point she thought she saw them pass her driveway, the twins this year in different costumes from each other, the mom still trailing behind, her face illuminated by her phone as she avoided looking at Carla and the porch. She watched them walk by, ignoring her. She let the speech dissolve.
A few of the kids who had been hoping for their JACKPOT win this year after getting SPIN AGAIN last year muted their disappointment. The red-whatever from last year was this year dressed as an orange-whatever, and Carla told him he matched his replacement jackpot treat. She made a big deal presenting the “off-menu” treat she’d shipped from Arizona.
The prize from the desert crystal gift shop was a major hit. A real lollipop, with a real scorpion inside. The insect caught in sugared amber, the label promising that the sucker was made in the USA and was entirely edible. Apple, banana, strawberry, and blueberry-flavored candies encased the non-venomous arachnid, which the label promised was “perfectly safe to eat…if you’ve got the stomach for it!” The shopkeeper had assured Carla that kids all over Arizona loved them. The local elementary school ordered them in bulk for their end-of year party each year.
By 9 p.m. Carla was satisfied with her Halloween. She left the wheel propped against the porch, turned off the music and the porch light, and went inside.
Carla was looking forward to going to bed but stopped at Hal’s office first. Carrying the moonstone upstairs, she left Hal’s ashes on his desk. She thought about bringing Hal with her to Arizona when she visited Mariana in a few months, spreading his ashes in the desert near the vortex sites. Maybe he’d like the view there more instead of old books and papers.
Carla placed the moonstone on her bedside table, next to the green aventurine. Her curtains fluttered in the light breeze, the west-facing windows open while the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest. Carla dreamt of spirits crossing over from one plane to another, making their journey toward what came next.