by W. Todd Kaneko
When I agree to go to the store with my best friend Georgie, what I don’t know is that he will ditch me, leave me in the parking lot with no way to get home. I also don’t know that I will meet a girl whose name I will never learn, whose face I will unsuccessfully try to picture for the rest of my life. For now, Georgie’s older brother has gathered some of his high school friends in the woods near their house where he has several cases of beer stashed for Halloween night. He has given Georgie and me a couple of beers because he fears that we will tell someone’s parents. The others do not acknowledge our presence—two eighth-grade boys trying to fit in with a group of high school seniors. Some of them wear costumes and some of them don’t. I’m the Lone Ranger and Georgie is a punk rocker in his brother’s leather jacket and a barbed dog collar, his hair colored black and spiked with Aqua-Net. Before the night is over, their father will know they have been drinking, but I won’t know this until I talk to Georgie at school on Monday. And even then, I will be too busy thinking about the girl to care much about my best friend and his brother anymore.
When the beer runs out, Georgie’s brother collects some money to bootleg more. Georgie complains that he only got to have one beer—I tip my cowboy hat and give him what’s left of mine because I know he really had three, and I haven’t yet learned to like the swampy taste of beer. He takes it, saying we’ll always be best buds, but not knowing that the woods will one day be cut down. The dank, mildewed trees will be replaced by buildings full of computer programmers and software testers when the first Microsoft campus is built. After Georgie downs the beer, he crumples the can against his forehead. His brother starts up the truck—a ’76 Chevy LUV, blue with a gold stripe along the side, a custom set of wheels, and a hula dancer on the dashboard that gyrates savagely when she is driven off-road. There isn’t room inside for me and Georgie so we climb into the back and hunker down so that no one can see us.
We ride through dark neighborhoods populated by ghosts and witches who wander the streets with pillowcases full of candy. A tiny werewolf lopes down the sidewalk, a large flashlight gripped in one paw—the moon remains veiled by a thick mantle of clouds tonight, so he has no reason to howl. A pair of vampires, their dark cloaks swelling out behind them, move in a slow slide up a driveway toward a yellow townhouse. A pumpkin-shaped pail swings from the hand of a small skeleton tottering along behind them. As we pass my house, I see the ceramic jack-o’-lantern my father bought when I refused to carve one with him this year, and I don’t yet notice how its phony electric smile gleams too brightly on our front porch.
Georgie looks pale, ghost-like under the streetlights. His sleepy eyes are red, his mouth slack, his head rolling from side to side with the motion of the truck. I think he’ll be okay, but his parents will one day intervene on his behalf, sending him to a teen-survival camp in eastern Washington in a futile attempt to get him sober. This will be at the end of eleventh grade, nearly two years after we stop hanging out. His parents will invite me to the intervention, but I won’t go—Georgie, who will have changed his name to George, will be surrounded by new friends and an endless supply of little plastic bags full of marijuana and cocaine. When we see each other in the halls between classes at Redmond High School, I will nod and he will answer with a glassy stare as he passes me. I will see him in the back parking lot where he will spend his lunch hours and the occasional second period in the back seat of a maroon Camaro, the flickering glow of a lighter illuminating his face, and the muffled, pungent sounds of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” grating against the closed passenger windows. I don’t yet know that I will soon lose touch with him, and I will never know how his life turned out.
When I discover that I am alone in front of the Safeway grocery store, somehow I am not surprised. I feel a couple of raindrops and I’m dreading the long walk home when something glides toward me through the parking lot. At first, it’s a rickety ghost with chains that rattle and clatter; but as it rolls closer, it becomes a lone shopping cart drifting slowly toward the store as if returning home to roost for the night. And as it emerges from the darkness, its movement slowing, I see someone sitting in the basket. She hugs her knees to her chest and holds her head down. I step off the curb to meet the cart and stop it with my hands on the basket and my foot steady over the front wheels. She looks at me, her face hidden behind a small green mask dotted with pink sequins.
“Have you seen an Indian princess?” she says. “Or a Chinese Elvis?”
I tell her that I haven’t seen anyone other than the zombie who bought beer for my high school friends. A guy in a hockey mask growls and waves his machete at us to the amusement of two nuns with a case of Heineken. A Volkswagen Bug releases a horde of clowns and demons that howl and shriek, and at the far end of the parking lot, the Taco Bell drive-thru overflows into the street with goblins and ghouls hungry for burritos and mexi-fries.
The girl in the cart shakes her head. “We were supposed to go to a party,” she says. “But they must have went without me.” She unlatches the end of the cart and scoots toward me. I steady the cart so she can get down, and as she pushes her weight groundward, I can’t help but picture the two of us sprawled on the pavement in a colorless flash of pain and clanging metal. When her sneakers hit the ground, I know we are both safe for the moment as we stand face to face, my fingers and foot still holding the cart in place. She doesn’t lean backwards, away from me—the way the girl with whom I will have my first date will move in order to avoid kissing me after the spring formal in tenth grade. I can feel the warmth of her body. When I let go of the cart and step away, my face feels hot and my stomach a bit unsettled.
“Who are you supposed to be,” she says. “Jesse James?”
I tip my cowboy hat and tell her that Jesse James wears a bandana to protect his identity from the law, and the Lone Ranger wears a mask because he lives on the fringes of the waking world. He can never again live in normal society. I tell her that I’m the Lone Ranger, and she smiles at me from behind her own mask.
“Good,” she says. “I might have been afraid of Jesse James.” What I can see of her face is covered in white make-up with a smattering of yellow and green glitter freckled across her chin and her cheeks. Two enormous insect wings crafted from gauze and a couple of coat hangers sprout from her back. Her legs are sheathed in green tights and her short green skirt does little to cover them. She looks at the pavement and sticks her hands in the pockets of the green down vest she wears over her light green turtleneck. “I’m Tinkerbell,” she says. “Clap if you believe in me.”
I clap my hands much like my seven-year-old son will clap when my wife and I take him to see Peter Pan at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. His eyes will go wide as he stands on his seat, annoying the people behind him, and I won’t protest when my wife makes him sit back down. When he is ten, he will ask his mother if the three of us might see the play again and she will refuse. My presence will cause her great discomfort during the period of our separation. By the time he is fourteen, my son will have lost all interest in Peter Pan, and my wife will be living with another man. And I don’t yet know any of this as I clap for Tinkerbell in the parking lot. When she smiles at me, I clap harder and she laughs. I clap until a couple of bloody football players come out of the store and glare at us. I stop clapping and Tinkerbell covers her smile with one hand. Looking at the ground, she asks me how long I’ve been in front of the store. It feels like I’ve been here forever.
The raindrops have quickened into a light sprinkle, and Tinkerbell says she has to go to the bathroom. I follow her into the store where she walks up to a man jangling his keys in one hand. He is about my father’s age, big around the middle with a bushy beard. There are only two words on his nametag: “Mike” and “Manager.” I wonder if he really is the manager, or if he is just dressed up like the manager for Halloween.
“Do you have a bathroom?” Tinkerbell asks.
“There’s only one,” says Mike the Manager. “You and your boyfriend will have to take turns.” Tinkerbell’s body straightens. I can’t see the look on her face, but I can feel the bottom of my stomach wrinkle and drop the way it will when my wife begins to shrink from my touch at night, preferring the edge of our bed to me. It is the feeling I will get as my son and I carve our first jack-o-lantern—as I realize how my father must have felt as he placed an electric pumpkin on our front porch instead of the one we should have carved out together. I stare at Tinkerbell’s back, at her lopsided wings. Mike the Manager says that the bathroom is in the back, and that we can use it if we promise not to touch anything. I look down at my shoes, unsure if I can face Tinkerbell when she turns around. When I raise my eyes, she is already walking back to the bathroom.
I follow her past the cold cases, the TV dinners, the frozen waffles, and the family-size boxes of fish sticks, toward the sign in the back that reads, “Employees Only.” We push through the swinging doors and it takes a moment for our eyes to become accustomed to the darkness, but when our vision returns to us, we see the sign that points us in the direction of the restroom.
“You’ll wait for me, Kemosabe?” she says.
I say that I will, and she disappears into the restroom. I hear the lock click and I am alone in the dark with the many boxes of merchandise stacked along the walls. Breakfast cereals, candy bars, potato chips, wine coolers: it’s all waiting to be taken into the store where it will be shelved by the night crew. I will spend a lot of time stocking shelves with merchandise just like this when I get out of the Army, but first I will polish boots and run hills and learn to shoot a rifle. I will eventually serve in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm and be surrounded by guys who will say that we are serving in the Vietnam of our generation, but all I will do is load and unload trucks. I won’t spend enough time overseas to feel like I served in Vietnam, and when I get out, I will enter the University of Washington where I will earn a degree in construction management. The Army will have prepared me for my undergraduate career by teaching me how to load and unload trucks, which I will do for a grocery store very much like the one in which I wait for Tinkerbell.
I put two wine coolers inside my jacket, and when Tinkerbell emerges from the restroom, she asks me if I have to go. I say that I don’t and that we have to leave. I can feel my heartbeat in my stomach. I can feel eyes peering at me from the darkness, eyes belonging to store security, the police, and my father. I can feel Georgie’s eyes watching me, egging me on, telling me that Tinkerbell will like me because I am brave enough to take what I want.
“What’s all this stuff?” she says. Her fingers trail over the boxes of cereal and candy bars.
It’s just stuff, I tell her.
“I don’t have any money,” she says.
For a moment, I can hear the footsteps of policemen coming down the frozen foods aisle. I peek back into the store, but there is no sign of anyone. I am about to tell Tinkerbell again that we have to leave when she bursts past me and takes off running toward the front of the store, her ponytail bobbing up and down in rhythm with the gauzy wings on her back, her green arms and legs pumping, her form growing smaller as she moves away from me. She’s Tinkerbell fluttering away into Neverland, and I am an eighth-grade boy who will grow up into a man all too soon. I run after her and the shoppers and checkers look up as we break free of the aisles and sprint out into the watery night. Our sneakers hit the pavement in a wet steady rhythm as we dash across the parking lot. On the other side of the bushes is the street, and beyond that, a stretch of road that leads to the Redmond Elementary School playground.
Tinkerbell stops on the other side of the bushes to look back. Mike the Manager stands outside with a boy who probably goes to school with Georgie’s brother. They look around at the parking lot, and Mike the Manager turns his eyes up at the rain clouds. Then he shakes his head and they both go back inside. We run down the street to the safety of the school playground.
“I went to this school,” she says. I tell her that I did too and she doesn’t answer. My son will eventually attend this school as well, and when I visit his third-grade teacher—who will be ten years my junior and quite pretty—I will be fascinated by the glint of youth that my wife and I both will have long since lost. The trees eventually give way to the baseball field. Tinkerbell and I walk through the outfield, and I follow her past first base and down the steps to the four-square courts and the blacktop where I used to play wall-ball with Georgie. Tinkerbell stops and looks up at the sky, frowning behind her mask. Her wings, once gauzy and translucent, have grown heavy. “Where are we going, Kemosabe?” she asks.
I tell her we’re going to stay dry. We walk around the building, past the gymnasium to the giant fortress that stands just outside the kindergarten rooms. It’s made of railroad ties and plywood. A rope ladder connects the ground with the upper platform where a couple of fire poles and a giant slide await our presence. A steel bar runs parallel to the ground from an outside wall, then turns and digs itself into the sawdust at our feet. “I used to play on that bar at recess,” Tinkerbell says as she ducks her head to enter the fortress. I sit down with my back against the far wall, and after she takes off her vest she sits next to me in the sawdust and pine needles. She shakes the water out of her ponytail and some of the wetness splatters my cheek. The raindrops drum faster on the platform overhead. On Monday, I will learn that Georgie’s father smelled beer on the kids who fled out of the woods to take shelter in his garage. My best friend will be grounded for a couple of weeks, and his brother will be grounded for a month. I’m not thinking of Georgie and his brother at all as I sit in my fortress with Tinkerbell listening to the rain outside.
I pull out the wine coolers, and Tinkerbell’s eyes grow wide when she sees them.
“Did you steal those?” she asks. I tell her that I got one for her and one for me. She looks at the bottle I have extended to her, and then looks to the rain outside. For a moment, I think that she is going to grab her winged vest and fly back out into the night, but then she takes the bottle. “You’re more like Jesse James than I thought,” she says. She twists the cap and the wine cooler starts fizzing. She squeals and points the bottle away from her as it bubbles and froths down the neck and over her fingers. I open mine and it fizzes too. The wind blows and the perfumed night air, smelling faintly of blackberries and oranges, gently tickles my nose. At once, my mouth is full of wine cooler, the dry sweetness prickling my tongue and the insides of my cheeks. Tinkerbell takes a quiet sip and her chin shudders. Then she looks at me and smiles.
“I have something, too,” she says. She sets the bottle down at arm’s length and picks up her vest. “But you have to say ‘trick-or-treat’ and hold out your hands.”
I set my wine cooler down between my legs and cup my hands. She produces several handfuls of candy from her vest pockets and gives me a Three Musketeers bar and a package of M&Ms.
“My parents think I’m out trick-or-treating,” Tinkerbell says.
I tell her that I’m in ninth grade, and she says nothing. Actually, I say, I will be in ninth grade next year, and she says that she will be, too. The M&Ms bag crinkles as Tinkerbell’s fingers dig through it. She chews noisily, teeth grinding into candy coated chocolate and peanuts. The wind presses against the walls of our fortress. Tinkerbell smells like rain and when she turns to look at me, our faces are separated by just six inches of thick, wet air. Her breath tastes like chocolate. The rain sounds like a scampering host of goblins and fairies splashing against our roof and the blacktop outside. I take off my hat and we bump noses. I move my head to the left. Tinkerbell’s mouth is soft. Gentle and clumsy. We touch lightly, searching for something, and we find one another. As we kiss, I want to clap my hands louder than I have ever clapped before, louder than I will ever clap again. Instead, her hand finds mine, our fingers interlock. The moment only lasts for a couple of seconds, but the softness of our touch expands through my body, overshadowing everything that I will feel in the future, and nearly extinguishing everything that came before it. Then she disentangles her fingers from mine, and the warmth of our clasped hands is replaced by the crispness of the air and the distant rumble of thunder. We sit for a while, and when Tinkerbell finishes her M&Ms, she stands up.
“I’m going home, Kemosabe,” she says.
She stands up and I help her put on her vest. I pick up a few candy bars that have fallen from her pockets, but when I try to give them to her, she stops me.
“I’m going home,” she says, backing away.
I wish her a happy Halloween, and she smiles.
Then she disappears into the rain.
When I get to school on Monday, I will put my backpack inside my locker. As I swim against the current of kids rushing down the halls of my school, I will probably see Tinkerbell, but I will not recognize her. I will hold my books tight against my chest until someone knocks them from my hands—and as I chase my biology notes around the hall, I will wonder if she is near. If she is watching. If she will help me gather my things. Beyond Monday, as I move through high school and throughout adulthood, I will think of her as I unload Army trucks and stock shelves. I will study the faces of every girl in every college class, hoping for a glimpse of her glitter-specked chin. I will smell the rain as the judge pronounces my wife and me legally married, and then again when he declares us divorced. But I will never mention Tinkerbell to my wife, or to my son, or to anyone else for that matter.
Still, I don’t know any of this as I walk home shivering as water runs down my face and neck, soaking through my clothes. I walk past Georgie’s house and I see that the porch lights are off. The party is over, and Georgie has passed out drunk in his bed after having been lectured by his parents about the dangers of alcoholism. When I get home, I take the ceramic jack-o’-lantern from our doorstep and put it away in the hall closet where it will be safe for exactly two years. It will be safe until Georgie and his friends steal it and throw it from their car window, spraying shards of ceramic pumpkin across the road.
W. Todd Kaneko lives and writes in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His stories and poems can be seen in Puerto Del Sol, Crab Creek Review, Fairy Tale Review, Los Angeles Review, Southeast Review, Blackbird and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from Kundiman and the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop. He teaches at Grand Valley State University.