Halloween is different this year. It’s different in a good way because this year Chloe has a friend to go trick-or-treating with, but it’s also different in a bad way because suddenly nobody wants anyone to go trick-or-treating. There’s a party at school instead, which is cool and all but it’s not the same. It’s not even on actual Halloween, for one thing, which is a flat-out crime in Chloe’s book. What’s the point in a Halloween party if it’s not even on Halloween? Also, it’s at school, which, ugh. School is for learning and being bored, not dressing up in costumes and having fun. The only one there Chloe even really likes is Maxine, anyway. The others just groan and mumble mean things when she raises her hand too much in class. Like it’s her fault she’s smart. So sometimes she just doesn’t bother, even though she knows the answer, but it doesn’t work because they’re still mean.
At least at the party she and Maxine will be able to hang out at school together for a change. School would be a lot more fun if they were in the same grade. They sit together at lunch every day and they spend all of recess together, and that’s always the best part of every day. At the party, they’ll be together the whole time.
It’s the whole point of their costume.
So even though it’s not really Halloween yet, even though they can’t go trick-or-treating, even though they’re going to school on a Saturday afternoon, Chloe is still super excited. She’s hopping up and down in her room, waiting for it to be eleven o’clock already so Maxine will get there so they can put on their costume. She’s already wearing her half of it, mostly. Her dad won’t let her put on the cookie until they get to the party, because he thinks she’ll mess it up even though she swears she’ll be careful. Duh, like she’s going to mess up her and Maxine’s amazing Halloween costume? So for now she’s wearing her new white sweatshirt and black sweatpants and jumping on her bed because her parents are talking downstairs and Maxine isn’t here yet and there’s no one to tell her not to.
She watches the clock until it says 11:00, and then she jumps off the bed and goes to wait at the top of the stairs. She sits with her chin in her hands and stares at the door, willing the bell to ring.
“William, ‘hon, are you sure this is a good idea?”
Chloe rolls her eyes at the muffled sound of her mother’s voice filtering up from the kitchen. She sounds worried all the time these days.
“Joyce, sweetheart, it’ll be fine. I promise. I’ll keep an eye on them.”
“It just… It doesn’t feel right. So soon after…”
Chloe wrinkles up her face. So soon after what? Something happened, she’s smart enough to figure that out, but nobody wants to tell her what. All the grown-ups have been acting weird for weeks. Like they’re scared of something. Something scarier than vampires and zombies and witches and whatever else comes back from the dead on Halloween. Nobody will tell her what, though, not even her dad, not even though it seems sometimes like he wants to. She thinks maybe it has to do with a big fire someplace far away; she saw a big fire on TV a while ago. Just for a second, before her mother grabbed the remote and turned it off and told her to go play in her room. The TV hasn’t been on much since, not even for cartoons.
“I know. But they’re just kids. They should be allowed to have some fun.”
“I suppose you’re right…”
“Besides, if we spend the rest of our lives hiding in fear, then the---”
The doorbell rings and Chloe’s down the stairs like a bolt of lightning, hair flying back over her shoulders like a cape. “I’ll get it!!” she hollers.
“Chloe, sweetie, careful not to let the cat out!” her dad calls out seconds before she reaches the door.
“I know!” she shouts back, rolling her eyes. Still, she pauses and glances around. Bongo is napping on the back of the couch and shows no signs of wanting to get up anytime soon. Chloe stands on her tiptoes and reaches for the lock.
“And don’t forget to ask who it is,” he reminds her, poking his head out into the hall.
“I know,” she grumbles. “I know, I know, I know.” It’s Maxine and her dad. She knows it. Her parents know it. Everybody knows it. Still, rules are rules, at least when her parents are watching. “WHO IS IT?” she shouts through the door.
“Good lord, Chloe, I swear everybody on the block can hear you hollerin’.”
William chuckles. “She does have a set of lungs, doesn’t she.”
Chloe rolls her eyes again, because what’s the point in asking who’s there if nobody can hear you?
There’s a soft voice on the other side of the door, probably Maxine trying to answer, but it isn’t loud enough. A louder, deeper voice cuts in. “It’s the Caulfields. We’re here to drop off Maxine.”
Chloe gives her dad an “I told you so” look, then unlocks the door and throws it open. “Hi, Maxine!” she beams. Maxine is clinging to her father’s pants and looking shy, but her smile is big and bright and she’s wearing the same white sweatshirt and black pants to match Chloe’s like she promised, so Chloe couldn’t be happier to see her. “Come on!” she reaches out and grabs one of Maxine’s hands, prying it free easily, and tugs her into the house. “Wait’ll you see the rest of our costume! Daddy and I--”
“Chloe Elizabeth Price, where are your manners?” Joyce scolds, coming out of the kitchen and putting her hands on her hips. “Aren’t you going to even say hello to Mr. Caulfield?”
“Hellooooo Mr. Caaaauuuulfield,” Chloe singsongs over her shoulder, pulling a giggling Maxine up the stairs after her.
“Hello, Ryan,” William adds, stepping in front of the door. “Sorry about Chloe; she’s a little over-stimulated today.”
“Am not!” Chloe yells down from the stairs without stopping.
“You know how kids get about Halloween,” he continues, ignoring her interruption. “Where’s Vanessa?”
“Waiting in the car. You’ll drop her off by four?”
By the time Chloe gets Maxine into the upstairs hallway, the grown-ups are already done talking and the Caulfields’ car is driving off down the street. Maxine makes for Chloe’s bedroom, but Chloe tugs her the other way. “Where are we going?” Maxine asks, a worried look coming over her face though her smile still lingers.
“Daddy’s hiding our costumes in his closet. He thinks I’m gonna break ‘em or something.” Chloe shrugs. It’s not impossible: things do tend to break around Chloe. Still, the lack of faith is a little insulting.
When Chloe twists the doorknob to her parents’ bedroom, Maxine’s eyes go wide as saucers. “Are we allowed?” she asks in a hushed voice, glancing nervously over her shoulder toward the stairs.
“They’re our costumes, duh,” Chloe replies, simultaneously answering and dodging the question. “I helped and everything.”
Maxine looks unconvinced, but Chloe hasn’t let go of her hand so she follows her into the room, still looking around like she’s waiting for a trap to spring. Chloe heads straight for the closet, flinging the door open with her one free hand. A triumphant grin spreads itself across her face. She points at the shelf at the top of the closet. “There!”
The way Maxine’s jaw drops makes Chloe feel a big surge of pride. There’s nothing she loves more than impressing her best friend.
“Chloe, that’s… That’s the coolest thing ever! They look so real!”
“I know, right?! This is gonna be the best Halloween ever.” Even though it’s not really Halloween. Whatever. It’ll be the best Halloween ever anyway. “C’mon, let’s get ‘em down.”
“How’re we going to do that?”
Chloe hadn’t thought that far ahead. She’s taller than Maxine - Maxine’s so itty-bitty - but she’s not tall enough to reach the top shelf. She’s pretty sure even if Maxine gave her a leg up she still couldn’t reach the costumes, and Maxine’s not that strong anyway. “I dunno. Get something to stand on?”
By the time the third and so far loudest thud can be heard from upstairs, William is setting down his coffee and making placating hand gestures toward his wife, assuring her that: “I’ve got this.” He stands at the bottom of the stairs and listens. There’s an awful lot of noisy shuffling, giggling, and shushing, so clearly the kids haven’t managed to break their necks yet.
“You girls need help?” he calls upstairs.
There’s a brief silence, or at least as close to silence as is possible with these two. Which is to say that they start whispering to each other loudly enough that the neighbors can probably hear every word. Finally Chloe calls back down: “...No?”
William smiles to himself and shakes his head with a chuckle. “Mhm.” He starts up the stairs as the shuffling and bumping sounds recommence. He’s not at all surprised to find the door to his and Joyce’s bedroom open, nor is he surprised to find the girls staring guiltily back at him in the midst of a mess. He’s a little surprised and honestly a little impressed by the scope of their assault on the closet, however. Considering Chloe’s only seven and Maxine just barely six - and on the small side for her age at that - it’s hard to believe that they would be physically capable of moving so much furniture around.
Maybe Joyce has a point about not leaving the pair of them to their own devices for so long.
William puts his hands on his hips and gives his daughter a look that’s just stern enough to make her pause but not stern enough to actually make her look remorseful. “Now, what have we here?”
Poor little Maxine is hiding behind Chloe already, clutching her sweatshirt for protection. It’s sweet how protective Chloe is of the younger girl, and lord knows she needs it. She’s such a frightened little mouse; the world will eat her alive if she doesn’t have someone boisterous and fearless like his Chloe to defend her. William drops all pretense of scolding and gives her a big, reassuring smile. “It’s okay, Maxine,” he promises. “I’m not mad. But what do you say we clean up this mess before we get your costumes down?”
“But, Daddy, we’ve gotta go soon…” Chloe protests.
“So the sooner we get started cleaning, the sooner we can get you two ready to go out.”
It really is amazing what the girls can do when they join forces. He’s going to have to start keeping a closer eye on them or next time he’ll find them ripping out the floorboards to build a tree fort.
“Oh, my, aren’t you two just darling?” For a couple of hellions, they really do make quite the cute pair in their matching costumes. As soon as they’re safely down the steps, William right on their heels, they’re hugging to complete their costume and show it off.
“Sweet as a couple of cookies,” William agrees, looking only slightly haggard after sorting out whatever trouble the girls were getting themselves into upstairs. The man’s a saint, honestly. She doesn’t know what she would do without him.
“Mhm, I’m sure.” Joyce smiles as William comes over to pat her arm and kiss her on the cheek.
“We’re not just cookies; we’re a chipwich!” Chloe hugs Maxine even tighter to prove her point. If she’s not careful, she’s going to hug the poor girl’s head off one day.
“And what a chipwich you are!” William agrees. “Hey, why don’t we take a picture? That way Maxine’s parents can see you two in all your chipwichy glory.”
“Fiiiiiiiine,” Chloe whines, rocking back and forth impatiently, dragging a giggling Maxine along with her. “But just one, okay? I wanna go!”
“Okay, okay, just one,” William chuckles, starting to search the kitchen. “Joyce, hon’, what did I do with that disposable camera?”
“Your Polaroid is right on the living room table.”
He raises an eyebrow at her in amusement. “You’re calling my Spectra disposable?” He laughs and resumes his search. “If I use the disposable one, the photo place can make two copies. Ah! Here we go!” He holds up the small, cardboard-covered camera victoriously, like it’s a trophy. The girls cheer.
“Oh, wait, wait, hold your horses,” Joyce sighs with affectionate exasperation as William walks over and prepares to take their picture. “Chloe, your hair is a mess.”
“Don’t ‘mom’ me, young lady; if you didn’t get up to so many shenanigans you wouldn’t be running late. Now hold still.” Chloe rolls her eyes - they’re going to have to have a talk about that nonsense, and soon - but otherwise doesn’t fuss while Joyce runs a comb through her hair. She doesn’t let go of her friend, either, except to loosen her hold a tiny bit and take a step back when Joyce takes her chin in hand and turns her head to inspect her face. Joyce lets out another sigh, more exasperated than the last, licks her thumb and starts rubbing at a smudge on Chloe’s cheek. “Honestly, you girls…”
“Ew, Mommy, yuck!” Chloe lets go of Maxine for a second to wipe her face dry when Joyce straightens up to assess her work from a distance. Apart from Chloe’s glowering, it’s a marked improvement. Her daughter would be lovely, if she could sit still for ten seconds. She despairs for the inevitable fate of that white sweatshirt. Before stepping aside, Joyce gives Maxine a quick look-over. She seems to have escaped their adventure comparatively unscathed, fortunately. Joyce gently straightens out her pigtails, only slightly unkempt.
“Much better.” Joyce nods her approval and steps back, letting William swoop in with his camera. The two girls embrace again as they pose for the camera, Chloe resting her head against Maxine’s. They really do look sweet. Innocent, even; not at all like the couple of troublemakers that make such an awful mess and racket every time they set foot in the house. If only some of Maxine’s mild-mannered quiet could rub off on Chloe, instead of Chloe turning Maxine into a hellraiser the way she does…
“Cheeeeeeeese!” the girls chorus.
It takes about four times longer than usual to get the girls to the car. Normally Chloe’s running straight for it, but today she keeps stumbling, clumsily walking sideways and dragging her - already clumsy under the best of circumstances - friend along with her. “You girls know you don’t have to hug the whole time, right?”
“But if we don’t, people won’t know we’re a chipwich!” Chloe explains, not letting go of Maxine.
It’s sweet, really. He’s never seen his daughter be so attached to a friend before. She’s usually sort of bossy and belligerent with her friends, rather than cuddly and affectionate, but Maxine seems to bring out a softer side of her. She’s actually being a little clingy (a lot clingy) today but Maxine doesn’t seem bothered in the least. She’s holding on every bit as tightly.
He does stop them and make them take off the cookies to get into the backseat of the car. Chloe complains the entire time. “You don’t want your costume getting crushed by the seatbelt, do you?” he asks her.
“No, but Daddy--”
“Sorry, Kiddo, but that’s just how the cookie crumbles. You take it off, or we don’t go anywhere.”
Chloe doesn’t even laugh at his dad joke for once, choosing instead to pout as he buckles her and Maxine into their respective seats. As he pulls out into the street, he glances back at her in the rearview mirror. She’s got her arms folded over her chest and her lower lip is sticking out a mile. It’s a bit funny, but he wisely doesn’t laugh. He hopes her sulking isn’t going to ruin the surprise he’s got in store for them, but his worries are relieved when he hears giggles coming from the backseat a couple of minutes later. He checks the mirror again and can’t suppress a smile when he sees that Maxine is making silly faces at Chloe to pull her out of her funk. It’s clearly working.
That girl is a godsend.
“We passed the school.”
William lets a mischievous note slip into his voice. “Oh? Did we?” He almost laughs aloud when he catches Chloe’s suspicious look in the rearview mirror. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, you’ll still get to go to the party and show off your costume to all your friends. I just thought you and Maxine might like to show off your costume somewhere else first.”
Chloe’s eyes narrow even more before they shoot open wide. “Wait! The parade??”
William grins. “Bingo.”
“Parade?” Maxine’s whisper is so quiet he almost misses it.
Excited again, Chloe starts bouncing on her seat. “Ohmigosh, really? I thought they canceled it!”
“Canceled what?” Maxine asks, a little louder now.
“The Halloween Bizarre!”
“Bazaar,” William corrects gently. “And no, it didn’t get canceled. Just… toned down a little. But it’ll still be fun, and I know my Chloe would never forgive me if she missed the annual costume parade.”
“Oh,” Maxine says, fidgeting with her hands.
“Daddydaddydaddy you’re the best!”
“And don’t you forget it,” William teases.
Honestly, the town might as well have canceled the Halloween Bazaar for all the enthusiasm put into it. Main Street, normally a riot of costumes, candy, and color this time of year, is oddly subdued. There are more American flags waving over doorsteps than there are jack o’lanterns, more police uniforms than Halloween costumes.
Even the Kiddie Costume Parade is eerily somber. There are far fewer participants than normal this year, a handful of restless children with their parents hovering over them, clutching their hands like they’re afraid they’ll disappear. Nobody running around and shouting. No werewolves growling, no zombies shuffling, no princesses twirling. Hardly any smiling. Virtually no laughter.
Jesus. Maybe this was a bad idea.
Chloe’s “Bizarre” isn’t as scary as it had sounded to Maxine, though that may have something to do with the protective circle of her friend’s arms around her. Nothing seems quite as scary when Chloe is around, even though Chloe herself is a little scary sometimes: loud and brave and unafraid of breaking the rules.
Like right now. Nobody said they couldn’t make noise, but it feels like there’s a rule against it anyway with the way that everybody’s glaring at Chloe. Glaring at them both, since Chloe’s tugging her along as usual.
Maxine doesn’t like it when strangers look at her. She never knows how to react; it makes her want to hide. It’s especially bad if they look angry or annoyed, which is how people seem to be looking at her now. Chloe doesn’t seem to notice. It’s like she doesn’t even see the way that people look at her, or maybe she just doesn’t care.
Which is sort of terrifying, but it’s also exhilarating. It’s like Chloe is invincible, and when they’re together Maxine can feel invincible, too.
Maxine gives in to it. If Chloe doesn’t care that people are giving them scolding looks, then Maxine can make herself not care, either. She holds Chloe a little tighter and keeps shuffling through the thin crowds, doing her best to ignore the dirty looks the grown-ups give them as they step out of their way. William doesn’t seem bothered; when she glances back over her shoulder at him, he’s giving her an encouraging smile.
Chloe keeps talking loudly into Maxine’s ear the whole time as she drags her all over Main Street, telling her about all the Halloween Bizarres William has taken her to over the years. Maxine’s been once or twice before, but she doesn’t really remember that much about them. She’s never been in the parade, certainly.
“And then there’s the pumpkin carving; did you ever carve a pumpkin?”
Maxine shakes her head. She’s not even 100% sure what “carve” means. “Uh-uh. Mommy and I paint pumpkins,” she offers.
Chloe gives her a skeptical look. “Not the same thing. When you make a jackalantern? You cut a big hole around the top and when you reach inside…” She glances around, then leans in conspiratorially. “You pull its guts out.”
“Ew!” Maxine wrinkles up her nose. She’s pretty sure that pumpkins don’t have guts, but… What if they do? “...Do you really?”
“Not, like, guts guts. But it’s real goopy and gross inside.” She lets go of Maxine with one arm to make a squishing gesture with her hand. The noise she makes to accompany the gesture makes Maxine’s nose wrinkle again. Chloe laughs. “Oh, we gotta carve a pumpkin. I wanna see your face when we pull its guts out.” She stops short, jolting Maxine to a halt. “Daddy?” she shouts back. “Where’s the jackalantern contest?”
William looks a little taken aback. “Oh, uh, sorry Sweetie, I don’t think they’re doing that this year.”
Chloe’s jaw drops a mile. “Whaaaaat?”
“The town decided to… keep things simple this year.”
“But-but… But how are we going to win, then?” Chloe sticks out her lower lip. “I wanted me and Maxine to make the scariest jackalantern ever,” she pouts.
Honestly, Maxine is a little relieved. She doesn’t really want to have to touch a pumpkin’s guts. Still, her friend’s disappointment is as contagious as all of her other moods.
“Sorry, ‘hon. We’ll go to the store later and get you a pumpkin, ok? We can carve it at home. We’ll have the scariest jack o’lantern on the block!”
“On the planet,” Chloe insists, still sounding grudging.
William fails to suppress a chuckle. “Of course. The scariest jack o’lantern on the planet.”
“Hmph.” Chloe’s arms tighten around Maxine’s shoulders and she starts shuffling down the street once more. “Next year, Maxine,” she promises. “We’ll carve the best jackalantern and win the contest.” A genuine grin breaks out over her face, easing the knot of tension that had been slowly building in Maxine’s stomach. “We’ll have to start planning now, though. So we can make the best one ever.”
William is relieved that Chloe seems relatively unfazed by how much of a dud the Bazaar was. As he once more persuades the pair to temporarily remove their cookie costumes so that they can be buckled safely into the car, he again thanks his lucky stars that Maxine found her way into his daughter’s life. Any other year, such a disappointing Bazaar would have had her sulking all day, he’s sure. Instead, she spent the whole time wrapped up - literally - in her friend, talking her ear off about all the Halloween fun they were going to have. Not just that day, but for years to come. Chloe seems to have planned out every Halloween from here until William’s retirement at the very least, and every plan revolves around Maxine.
It’s cute, and Maxine seems, as always, happy to go along with Chloe’s plans. As he pulls into the school parking lot, William wonders a little sadly how many of those future plans will dissolve with the inevitable challenges of adolescence. When Chloe’s in High School and Maxine’s still in Middle School, will Chloe still want to go trick-or-treating with her? Will she still want to do anything with her at all, or will she have friends her own age who tease her for being friends with the younger girl until she finally just stops? Will she have a boyfriend she’d rather dress up and go to parties with instead?
He inadvertently shudders at the thought as he opens the car door. The girls bound out of the backseat and immediately start clammering to be put back into their costume. He helps them shrug their cookies back onto their shoulders, and when they promptly fuse back together into a chipwich a sliver of his worry slips away. Seeing the two of them like this, so happy to be together, it’s hard to believe that anything could ever separate them.
He lets the two of them run ahead - as much as they can manage with their arms wrapped around each other - laughing and squealing with excitement as he follows them toward the gymnasium.
The party is, at least, a bit livelier than Main Street. There’s music playing, and they’ve bothered with food and decorations. For something thrown together in just a couple of weeks, it’s actually not terrible. Some parents even seem relatively relaxed, able to take their eyes off of their children for whole minutes at a time. William lets the girls wander off into the crowd without too much concern; he can always hear Chloe from a mile off, anyway, and he knows Maxine won’t let her get into too much trouble.
“Oooh, candy corn!” Chloe lets go of Maxine with one arm so she can grab a fistful of the candy from a large bowl. “Candy corn is the best,” she declares as she starts cramming the sugary treats into her mouth. They’re definitely the sweetest: truth be told, they always make her stomach hurt if she eats more than a couple, but she always eats more than a couple anyway. It’s something she can only do once or twice a year, so she can’t help but want to indulge herself as much as possible.
Maxine wrinkles her nose slightly. “Yeah?” she says doubtfully. “They make my teeth hurt.”
“Oh no, you’re right…” Chloe turns to her friend, revealing a mouthful of candy corn arranged in her mouth like snarled teeth. “Ah fink ah need t’ go to de den’ist.”
Maxine laughs so hard at her joke that she would be doubled over if she weren’t still holding onto her. Instead she ends up laughing and snorting against Chloe’s shoulder. Chloe starts laughing, too, so hard that the candy falls wetly from her mouth and they laugh even harder.
“Ohh, grooooosssss…” Maxine groans, pulling away as her laughter subsides to an occasional giggle. She picks a wet piece of candy corn off of her shoulder. “Ew! It’s all sticky.”
“Sorry,” Chloe grins, not feeling sorry in the least. If anything, she feels proud that she made Maxine laugh that hard.
Maxine seems to notice that Chloe doesn’t mean her apology, because she gives her an unconvincing glare and sticks her tongue out before taking the candy and sticking it to Chloe’s cheek. “See?” she giggles. “Told you it’s sticky.” The candy stays in place for a good five seconds, surviving Chloe’s indignant scowl, before it drops to the floor. The sound it makes when it hits the ground sends them both into a fresh peal of giggles. “I didn’t know candy corn could be messy,” Maxine laughs.
“Anything can be messy,” Chloe assures her confidently.
Taking her words for the dare that they are, Maxine scans the snack table. She picks up a cupcake and raises her eyebrows.
Chloe snorts and rolls her eyes. “Too easy.” She gives Maxine an evaluating glance. “Bet you could make it neat, though.”
Maxine smiles proudly in answer. She hands Chloe the cupcake and picks up another for herself. As Chloe attempts to shovel an entire cupcake into her mouth at one go, smearing a generous glob of icing across her face and hands in the process and dropping a substantial portion down the front of her shirt, Maxine splits her cupcake across the middle and sandwiches the icing between layers of cake, eating it in neat bites while only losing a few crumbs.
“Not bad, Maxine,” Chloe grins, her teeth so full of chocolate cupcake that when Maxine sees her she can’t help but groan in disgust and start giggling again. “What else you got?”
They shuffle further down the snack table. “Chips?” Maxine suggests.
Chloe doesn’t hesitate before diving her sticky, icing-coated fingers into the bowl of chips and pulling out a handful. Crumbs, some as big as whole chips, scatter all over the table and floor as she does. “Like this, you mean?” She shoves as many chips in her mouth as she can, crunching with her mouth open and letting massive crumbs spill all down her shirt and onto the floor.
“Ugh, how do you even make chips gross??” Maxine’s giggling too much for her words to have any bite.
“It’s an art.”
Maxine’s eyes light up suddenly. “Oh, I’ve got it.” She points to a bowl full of bright colors and squiggly shapes. “Gummy worms.”
Now, there’s a challenge worthy of Chloe’s skills. “Hmmm…” Chloe lets go of Maxine to better contemplate her foe, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. Gummy worms are already kind of gross on purpose, but they aren’t exactly messy. Even if she puts a whole bunch in her mouth at once, they aren’t going to be sticky until they get wet and they won’t break up into pieces easily. Maybe if she chews them up really well first, that would give her something to work with…
Chloe’s concentration is broken when Maxine suddenly steps close to her and burrows into her side, hiding her face against Chloe’s shoulder. She’s confused momentarily, until she looks up and sees a couple of girls from Maxine’s grade walking up to the table.
“What’re you supposed to be?” asks one of the girls, someone Chloe has seen around before but whose name she doesn’t know. She’s dressed like a princess, but she looks like a bully. “Tweedle-dee and tweedle-dumb-dumb?”
The moment William hears the commotion, he knows who he’ll find at the center of it. He breaks off a conversation with another parent mid-sentence and races toward the sounds of the scuffle. Sure enough, there’s his daughter in the middle of a ring of stunned children, pinning a girl half her size and dressed in pink ruffles to the floor. Already drafting an explanation for Joyce in his head, William steps right into the fray and peels his daughter off the smaller girl. She continues flailing her arms furiously, struggling to get free. “Take it back!” she howls, pointing at the girl still lying on the ground. “Take it back!!” Chloe hardly seems to notice that she’s being restrained.
The other girl, to her credit, looks more flabbergasted than upset, her eyes wide and angry but far from tearful. She sits up as another adult rushes over; judging by the look of unbridled fury on his face, he must be the princess’s father.
William guides Chloe back over to Maxine, who’s nearly crouched beneath the snack table and looking awestruck. Seeing her friend seems to make Chloe realize that the fight is over; she quiets down immediately, though her face is still red and she continues to steal glares at her opponent. She clutches Maxine and loudly whispers, “Are you okay?” Maxine answers with a nod. Before William can begin to ask his own questions, the other father has swiftly comforted his child and made his way over to him, his look of anger not at all diminished.
“Your daughter,” he says accusingly, pointing at William, “attacked mine.” His daughter hovers just behind him, stealing leery glances at Chloe and Maxine.
William attempts to remain calm. “We should ask the girls what happened before we jump to any conclusions,” he begins. “Let’s not--”
“Your daughter attacked mine,” the man insists. “Look at her!” He gestures at his child, still cowering behind him. “Her dress is torn!” He points now not at William but at Chloe. “That kid is vicious. We should sue.”
William’s blood elevates from a simmer to a rolling boil. He forces his voice to sound as even-tempered as he can manage through clenched teeth. “Did you witness the fight? Did you see how it started?”
“I saw your… animal of a child, ripping mine to shreds!” He thrusts his finger toward William’s rapidly purpling face. “When I get home, I’m calling my attorney.”
“Do whatever you like,” William spits back at him, more venom in his voice than he would normally allow. “But if you ever call my daughter an animal again, you’ll be the one who gets ripped to shreds.”
The man snorts in contempt. “Figures. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
It must be true, because William has the sudden urge to throttle this man the same way that Chloe throttled his daughter. He suppresses this urge and kneels to talk to Chloe instead. “Okay, Kiddo. Talk to me. What’s the story here?”
Chloe crushes Maxine close to her and scowls in the direction of the tattered princess.
“Like she’s going to tell the truth?” the man scoffs.
William ignores him. “What happened, Sweetheart? Why were you hitting that girl?”
“She’s a bully,” Chloe mutters sullenly.
The man laughs coldly. “Your daughter is the bully. Look at my Jilly; she’s trembling! Look at her dress!”
William doesn’t break eye contact with Chloe. Chloe may have her shortcomings, but lying has never been one of them. “Why is she a bully? What did she do?”
Chloe pulls Maxine even tighter. Maxine buries her face in Chloe’s shoulder. “She was mean to Maxine,” she whispers. “She called her bad names and pulled her pigtails. She said our costume was stupid and that we’re weird.”
“That does sound like she was being a bully,” William concedes, fighting once more to keep his voice calm even as anger knots in his stomach. “But that doesn’t make it right to hit her, okay?” Chloe opens her mouth to protest and he continues before she can. “I know you just wanted to protect Maxine. That’s a good thing. You’re a good friend. But violence isn’t the answer when someone’s being mean.”
The anger in Chloe’s face weakens a little, taking on an edge of guilt. “I know… But… It just made me so mad...” She rests the side of her head against her friend’s. “She made Maxine cry.” When she says it, she sounds like she’s going to cry herself.
William’s gut twists. “Which is wrong, and you were right to stand up for your friend. But next time, come find me and tell me what’s happening instead of fighting, okay?” When Chloe gives a reluctant nod, William stands and turns to face the man who’s been uttering angry protests all through this conversation. “So. I’ve talked to my daughter. When we get home, we’re going to talk more.” He gives Chloe a brief but meaningful glance. “There will be consequences. Now, I suggest you talk to your own daughter. If you’re looking for topics, I’d start with bullying.” He reaches out his hand to Chloe and she takes it without complaint, following him through the gymnasium without taking her other arm from around Maxine.
Chloe knows, deep down, that her father is right and that fighting is wrong. But sitting in the backseat of his car, looking at Maxine’s brave face wiped clear of tears, dark blue eyes shining at Chloe’s with brilliant admiration, it’s hard to feel anything but proud.
With the cookie costumes stashed in the trunk of the car and no more parties or trick-or-treating ahead of them, there’s no real reason to hold onto Maxine anymore. They’re buckled up in their safety belts, so it’s not like they could hug anyway. Chloe kind of wants to keep hugging her even so. She hated seeing that bully making fun of her friend. The bratty girl had made fun of her, too, she realizes, and that was annoying but it wouldn’t have made her try to beat her up. That by itself, she could have ignored. But when Maxine’s eyes started watering and her lower lip started quivering, it was like a switch flipped in Chloe’s brain. She doesn’t even remember tackling the girl. Suddenly she was just sort of on top of her, doing her best to pummel her. Whatever she could do to shut her up, to keep her from making Maxine sad.
Chloe’s never thrown a punch before. Her hands hurt. Her whole arms hurt, actually.
She’d do it again in a heartbeat.
“Thank you,” Maxine says in a whisper. Her hand is sitting on the seat between them. On an impulse, Chloe reaches out and puts her hand over Maxine’s. It’s almost as good as a hug. The smile Maxine gives her then, all by itself, is enough to make whatever punishment is waiting for Chloe totally worth it.
So, Halloween is different this year. No trick-or-treating, hardly any candy or decorations, and she’s definitely going to get in trouble for getting in her first-ever honest-to-goodness fight. But as long as she’s got Maxine to spend Halloween with, Chloe knows that different can be a good thing.