Hidden Bravery by Kimberly Wolkens

Hidden Bravery

+++Halloween is my favorite holiday. While other kids at school look forward to dressing up in costume for the school’s annual costume contest, I look forward to dressing up so that I can be unrecognizable to everyone. I like to hide behind a clever costume and just be left alone for the day. It’s the one day where the other kids are so distracted by all of the costumes, the Halloween party games played during the last hours of school, and all of the candy that I’m not teased. I’m not tormented by the seniors because of my glasses, ratty hair or messed up teeth. I’m not the socially awkward kid with the lame first lines used to try to make friends. I’m not the kid who cares to dress in name-brand clothes like the popular kids – or when I do wear the more expensive clothes, they’re usually bought at the second-hand store, and the popular kids somehow recognize their old castaways and embarrass me for wearing them.
+++It’s the one day a year at school when I kind of fit in, which is sad because I only fit in on the day we’re all pretending to be someone else.
+++It was around Halloween when my Grandpa moved just down the road from us after my grandma died two years ago. I see him almost every day. It’s at his house where he and I came up with ideas for my Halloween costume this year. We started planning during my summer vacation, when I had more time to think about it instead of focusing on homework. I told Grandpa I wanted something space-related because I had an astronomy class last year, and it is my new favorite subject, second only to art. So we spent one afternoon swapping costume ideas, weighing their pros and cons in terms of how easy it would be for me to carry the costume to school and how comfortable it would be to walk around in for Trick-or-Treating in the evening.
+++After talking about planets and rocket ships and astronauts and aliens, we decided to design a cool-ass space alien costume. After I left that day, he’d spent the evening looking through all of his old movies and TV shows he’d taped throughout the years and dug out anything space related. Then over the next few weeks we watched everything to get ideas for my costume. I liked the aliens that had big, oversized heads with big, almond shaped eyes. I thought having a paper-mache head would be an awesome mask, and I could layer paints to create other-worldly colors to look like something really out of this world. We could cut out big eye holes and cover them with black mesh that I could see to walk. A big, black cape would probably be pretty easy to find at the store around Halloween time, and I could use neon paint to make this black cape different from all the vampire capes I usually see at school. The costume would be topped off with a black turtleneck that went all the way up to the alien head, and black pants I had in my closet that weren’t too short yet.
+++I worked pretty heavily on the costume until it was time for Halloween, painting the head and cape until I was convinced they were perfect. The night before Halloween we packed up my alien head and cape into a box that would just barely fit into my locker and I wore the black clothes all day. I was couldn’t wait to put on my costume that afternoon. When dressing time came, I was the only one in that particular bathroom. I put on my alien head and my space-cape.
+++Sure enough, everyone wondered who the alien was. With this costume I could avoid talking to people by feigning an inability to communicate with Earthlings. I walked around the school halls feeling clever that once again, I had a costume that people were impressed with and I was able to hide my true identity for awhile.
+++I wore my full costume as I left school and headed home, taking my alien head off only after I was on my own little dirt road, safe from the other students. I had dinner with my parents and Grandpa, and made plans to go Trick-or-Treating. Alone, as usual. My dad gave me a big heavy-duty flashlight to carry with me for when it got dark, making me promise five times not to lose it, it was expensive. They would drive me into town where there was a higher concentration of houses, drop me off for a few hours and then pick me up at curfew at the same place they’d leave me.
+++I was dropped off in town about a half hour after Trick-or-Treating started. Most Trick-or-Treaters were little kids with their parents, dressed as princesses or clowns or comic book characters. Any of the teens that went were often in groups of two to five, usually dressed as something scary or sexy. You could almost always tell who was who, as they were more interested in dressing up as anything to score some free candy than to go all-out on their costumes, like me.
+++I walked around for a little while and just as it was becoming hard to see without a flashlight, I decided to take a detour to visit the town’s only cemetery. It was where my Grandma was buried, and I often went there when I was alone to sit on my Grandma’s grave, moving my fingers lightly over her engraved name and dates of birth and death. I would run my fingers over my Grandpa’s name and birth date, and the little dash next to it. It was where I went to grieve and to miss Grandma without feeling like I was being a baby. Then I’d sit and worry about the day my Grandpa would get a death date next to the dash.
+++When night fell I was sitting cross-legged on my Grandma’s grave with my alien head, flashlight and pillowcase of candy on the ground next to me. The owls starting coming out, making their ghostly who-who noises. The street along the front of the cemetery grew quiet as fewer people were out and about. I had an hour until I’d be picked up, so I stood up to try and get to a few more houses. It was pretty dark since there was no moon and very little light from a nearby streetlight made its way here. I put on my mask and was just about to switch on my flashlight when I heard a noise.
+++Laughter was somewhere in the cemetery. It wasn’t happy laughter, but evil laughter like you hear when your face is being pushed down into the snow by a senior as you’re walking home from school. Then I heard a muffled crack, like one would hear if they smashed a rock onto a sidewalk.
+++I abandoned my candy and walked carefully toward the sound, crouching behind taller headstones whenever I could. Soon I saw movement to my right. I stayed crouched and tried to make out what it was.
+++ I could make out the figure of a large, teenage boy in a varsity jacket. To my horror, he was knocking over the oldest headstones and laughing as they hit the ground. I saw one tumble over as he kicked it and crack into two pieces. A sharp, sickening feeling started in my chest and sunk into my stomach, making me feel like I was going to be sick. It was like the time I was walking home from school and walked past a house where a kid was chasing his dog around the backyard, beating it mercilessly with a stick and laughing as it cried.
+++ What this boy was doing was wrong. He was destroying the last physical piece of evidence that someone had to prove that they’d ever lived. Even if the stones he was breaking were no longer legible due to a hundred years of being outside in the rain and snow, they still proved that someone lived a life. This boy was acting like their resting place was his to desecrate, like nobody would care. It broke my heart to think about how someone might feel when they came to visit a loved one and saw the wreckage carelessly left behind.
+++ The nausea turned to fury as I watched this teenage boy stumble around, looking for the next headstone to kick over. He walked like he was drunk, giggling and mumbling to himself. I didn’t see or hear anyone else with him.
+++ I don’t know what came over me, but it felt like I was doing the right thing. I stood up and ran as quickly and as quietly as I could, gripping the huge flashlight in both hands as I raised it over my alien head. He was walking with his back turned to me, and I’m not even sure he heard me before I brought that flashlight down as hard as I could on the back of his skill. When I hit him, he tripped and fell down with an “oof.” Without thinking, I started to kick him anywhere I thought my foot would find purchase – in his legs, his side, his arms. At first he tried to get up, but I think I rung his bell with my first blow to the head, because he never got up and eventually just curled up into a little ball, yelling incoherently. I got a few more kicks in, then took off running as quickly as I could without tripping, straining hard to see through my alien head.
+++ When I’d gotten far away from the cemetery I stopped and looked back. The boy was not following me. Eventually I passed a local restaurant with a dumpster right behind the building. Nobody was looking and there weren’t any nearby lights, so I took my alien head and cape off and threw it into the dumpster for fear that he’d catch up to me before my parents picked me up, recognize my costume and pummel me.
+++ My parents picked me up at the pre-scheduled time. I clambered into the backseat as quickly as I dared, trying to act like nothing was up.
+++ My mom, never missing anything that’s out of place, immediately asked, “Where’s your costume? And where’s your candy?”
+++ I thought for a beat, then said, “Some seniors cornered me, and threatened to beat me up if I didn’t give everything to them.” I was sure she’d buy it. She knows how often I’m picked on.
+++ She looked down, “But they didn’t take your flashlight?”
+++ I looked down, as if I’d forgotten I still had it. “Oh, I guess not. It all happened so fast.”
+++ “Well that’s good,” my dad cut in. “That’s an expensive flashlight.”
+++ The next day at school, all of the kids were talking about the attack on the boy in the cemetery. He’d been beaten nearly unconscious by someone in costume, but it had been too dark to see much of anything. Others speculated he’d been attacked by a ghost. The police were having a hell of a time finding suspects because nobody saw anyone enter or leave the cemetery, and everyone walking around that night was in costume.
+++ I couldn’t help but smile a little to myself throughout the day when I’d hear stories of last night, some that were close to the truth and others that had clearly grown each time they were told. I had been brave, and I’d taken action against someone doing a very bad thing.
+++ And nobody knew it was me. Maybe it’s not so bad being able to fade into the background.

Kimberly Wolkens enjoys writing dark short stories and poems. She spends her spare time reading horror stories, writing about ghosts and other dark things, or camping. Her idea of the perfect day involves writing while eating cake and listening to 90’s grunge music. Tweets @up_north_h1ke.

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