Summary: The trials of a formerly retired superheroine are destined never to be done, especially when the heroine in question was foolish enough to agree to serve the seasonal lands...
Time didn’t pass in the Seasonal Lands the way it did in the Calendar Country. It wasn’t a matter of one day following another in a steady, predictable way. Sometimes, Velveteen went to bed at sunrise, slept for a full eight hours, and woke to find the sun rising, or the sky set to deepest, darkest, horror movie midnight. Other times, she’d wake to find Hailey and Scaredy pounding on the door with pillowcases in their hands, screeching “Trick or treat!” and beaming like they hadn’t seen her in weeks. She’d long since given up any attempts at actually figuring out what day of the week it was, and months didn’t matter here; it was always harvest time, always the ripe and reaching autumn, where the air tasted like bonfires and drying hay, and the moon was a bloody jack-o-lantern set against a cloud-strewn sky. She could have been there for only a few weeks. She could have been there for years.
The worst part was that she was no longer sure she cared which it was. She didn’t like living in a Halloween world, exactly. She missed having skin, internal organs, bones--she’d never really thought of bones as something that could be missed, but not having them was surprisingly inconvenient. She didn’t miss using the bathroom, or menstruation; the fear of spending an eternity as a rag doll was slightly reduced by the thought that she wouldn’t spend four days out of every month bleeding uncontrollably for the rest of time.
Halloween hadn’t turned her into ice and taken away her ability to grieve for the people she’d been forced to leave behind; it hadn’t lied to her, claimed to be her friend, and left her to die of hypothermia in the snow. Halloween hadn’t severed her connection to her innate power source; it hadn’t asked her to choose between her own happiness and the fate of all the people who could have shared her powers, the ones who’d died before they had a chance to live. All it had done was put her in costume, which it had been doing since she was a child, and equip her with an ever-growing army of demonic scarecrows.
Odd as it was to consider, of the three seasons she’d been tapped to visit, Autumn--and by extension, Halloween--had been the kindest of all. Sure, that kindness often came with hidden razor blades tucked inside, but at least it was there. At least it was something.
More and more, Velveteen was coming to realize that if she was going to stay in the Seasonal Lands at all, she was probably going to stay in Halloween.
The knowledge sat in her belly like a caramel apple eaten just before bedtime. She didn’t want to choose Halloween, the holiday that had kidnapped and tormented her as a child. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who could be happy there. But she was, and nothing she wanted or didn’t want would change that. Masks could be put on. Masks could be removed. The essential nature of the face beneath them wouldn’t change.
No matter how much she wanted it to.
“Fucked-up forever,” she sighed, and picked up the scythe, and waded into the field of cursed wheat to find the Reaper who was ruining her afternoon.
Around her, Autumn continued.
The line between real and unreal has never been exact where the superhuman community is concerned. When discussing a group of people including the living embodiment of the idealized fairy tale princess (The Princess), a human rainbow (Polychrome), the Spirit of the American West (Jack O’Lope), and the daughter of Santa Claus (Jacqueline Claus), “real” and “unreal” are less immutable laws than guidelines, meant to be respected when possible and politely avoided when not. Despite this, however, the less plausible factions within the superhuman community have never descended into pure illogic, as might be expected: instead, they’ve set up systems of law and custom to moderate themselves, understanding, on some level, that the world is not equipped to do it for them.
Convincing a magically- or seasonally-powered superhuman to go against their code of ethics is considered close enough to impossible as to not be worth trying if there’s any other alternative. Some have been known to switch sides in the middle of a battle when the villains proved to be more in alignment with their personal ideals. A winter-themed hero will always fight for winter; a fairy tale-themed hero will always follow the most logical narrative path; a trickster hero will always keep their word, no matter how inconvenient or dangerous this choice may prove for them. Some scholars believe this is because the forces which power and control these heroes are fickle: if denied their full natures, they might choose to desert their current avatars and seek someone more inclined to follow the rules.
When this line of thought is applied to the Seasonal Lands, whose occupants, whatever their origins, have been reduced and remade into something less than human, while also elevated to something more than metaphor, it must be asked what the true consequence would be for going against their natures. They are, after all, those natures written in flesh, or something similar; they are not individuals as much as they are ideas. Should Persephone divorce her husband, whose myth shapes and defines her own, what would become of her? Should Santa Claus, who represents generosity in Winter, refuse a gift to a deserving child, would he be allowed to retain his mantle? Or his daughter, Jacqueline, whose position is directly tied to acts of kindness and charity--gifts not of the material, but of the insubstantial? Could either of them survive a moment of true selfishness?
This leads to the question that has vexed scholars since the discovery of the Seasonal Lands. Are those who are called to the seasons--or other, non-seasonal positions of magical power--innately suited to the roles they assume, or are they shaped by the positions that will one day claim them? Jacqueline, who was born to Christmas, or Mischief, who was born to Halloween, are easy: both of them represent an aspect of their holiday given human form. Without their holidays to define them, they would no longer be necessary. But what of the others? What of the ones like Hailey Ween, or Scream Queen, or the rarely-mentioned but oft seen Lady Moon?
Each of these “Spirits of the Season” has claimed, at some point, to have mundane origins: to have begun life, not as ideas, but as individuals who later went on to accept the invitation they were offered to transform themselves into something both less and more. As none of these supposed transformations has occurred within living memory, it’s unclear how the process works, or whether, indeed, the process works at all.
Which brings us to Velma Martinez, codename “Velveteen.” Should she fail to return from the Seasonal Lands, what will we learn? And what, in the end, will we have paid for that knowledge?
In the end, the Reaper was like all the rest: a paper-thin manifestation of the fears of children from the Calendar Country, who had no idea that sometimes their bad dreams took on physical form and went looking for haunted farmland to bother. Velveteen emerged from the wheat, dragging the body of this latest foe by the collar of his coat, and tossed it into the nearest ditch.
“Now’s when you stay down,” she said. She paused and added, “Asshole.” The Reaper--which had never really been “alive” in the strictest sense of the word, and was now decidedly not alive--didn’t move. Anyone watching would have agreed that this was the right choice.
Someone applauded. Velveteen turned. Hailey Ween, Halloween Princess, was sitting in the branches of a gnarled old oak, ankles crossed, orange and green crepe skirt smoothed down just so, clapping her heart out. She grinned when she saw Velveteen looking.
“That was awesome,” she said. “You’ve been getting better and better, but using your scarecrows to flush the Reaper out of the wheat, so it wouldn’t have the advantage? That was genius. I have to say, I’m super-impressed. I always knew you’d be good at this job.”
“What do you want, Hailey?” Velveteen folded her arms, watching the other girl. She’d never been able to find it in herself to forgive the Halloween Princess, or to start trusting her any farther than she could throw her. Yes, Hailey was devoted to her holiday, and yes, Hailey currently considered Velveteen a part of that holiday, but she was the definition of a fair weather friend. As soon as the wind changed, Hailey would be an enemy again. And the wind was going to change.
It always did.
“You.” The lithe teenager slipped out of her tree, dropping to the ground. She reached into thin air and pulled out a wand, topped with a pumpkin where a star would ordinarily have been. “Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
“No, but you do, don’t you?” Velveteen frowned. “You’ve never let me near anything that might tell me what time it is back in the real world.”
“That’s because we needed you to commit to being here, to being now, and not keep marking off days like you thought this was some sort of prison sentence.” Hailey’s face softened in an almost indefinable way. “This hasn’t been so bad, has it? You’ve been happy here. I know you didn’t think you were going to be, but you have. You’ve had tricks and treats and you’ve enjoyed them. Don’t lie to me. I’ve seen you smiling, when you didn’t think anyone was looking. This has been a good home for you.”
Velveteen slowly unfolded her arms, resisting the urge to grab the other girl and shake her until she started talking faster. “Am I...am I done? Is this the end of my stay?”
“Not quite. But you’re close. It’s time for the masks to come off.” Hailey took a step toward her, reaching out with a hand that was shaking slightly like she was fighting to keep her composure. “May I?”
The urge to say “no” was strong. Velveteen had been beaten, frozen, transformed, and starved by the Seasonal Lands. She sometimes felt like she was living in a series of worlds that had never heard of the concept of bodily autonomy, and wouldn’t see the sense in respecting it if they had. This was a small thing, but it felt strangely intimate, invasive in a way all the bigger things had not been.
“Yes,” she said, and Hailey leaned up, questing fingers finding the sides of Velveteen’s face, and pulled.
There was no pain. There was only the sense of something being lifted away, something so light it was almost weightless, which still somehow managed to be so heavy that when it was removed, Velveteen stood straighter, breathed easier, like a filter had been removed. The air was a welter of new scents and flavors, apples and candy corn and bonfire smoke like ashes on her tongue. Her skin felt too loose. Barely daring to breathe, she looked down at her hands. The fabric covering them suddenly looked like gloves, instead of a casing intended to keep her insides from spilling out.
Gingerly, she grasped her left hand with her right, and pulled. The fabric came off as easily as it always did in her dreams, and then she was looking at her skin, her own skin, brown and smooth and hers. Those were her fingers, long and slim, like they were meant to play the piano or, or, or make great art, not punch evil-doers and fight for justice. Laughter bubbled in her throat. She swallowed it down, ripping the glove from her other hand and shoving them both into her pocket before staring, disbelieving, at the reminder that once upon a time, she had been a human woman; she had been free.
She could feel her body inside the heavy velvet costume she was wearing, and it took every ounce of self-control she had not to start scrabbling at herself, looking for the zipper she knew had to be there. She was herself again, she was herself for the first time in who even knew how long. No snow, no rags, no flowers bursting from her skin. Just her, Velma Martinez.
Even thinking of herself as an ordinary woman, instead of a superhero--which was a sort of metaphor even before the Seasonal Lands got involved--was enough to make her eyes fill with tears. She blinked them away, taking a moment to make sure she wasn’t about to break down sobbing in the road, and looked toward Hailey. The teen was holding a simple velvet domino mask, very much like the one Vel herself had always chosen to wear with her official costumes.
“There you are,” she said, and smiled, a little wistfully. Vel realized with a start that while Hailey had chosen the life she had, had chosen the unending Halloween, the graveyard dances, the hollow trees, the company of owls, the act of choosing had meant giving up some other things she might have wanted, once upon a time and very far away. Hailey would never grow up. She would never have the chance to decide whether or not she wanted to have children of her own, to hold their hands as she led them through the ancient rituals of trick-or-treat and ghost-in-the-graveyard. She’d given her future to the holiday that loved her, and while she might not have had any real regrets, the ghosts of what she’d never have still lingered around the edges of her smile.
“Here I am,” Vel agreed. She looked at her hands one more time before asking, “Does this mean I’m not a tourist anymore?”
“It means the trial period is over,” said Hailey. “You can choose us, or you can leave us, but you can’t stay for long without the season starting to digest and transform you. I just want you to know that I didn’t have to tell you that. I could have taken your mask and not said a word.”
“So why didn’t you? You were perfectly willing to trick me into staying here when I was a kid.”
Hailey grimaced. “Yeah. When you were a kid. It’s different, for kids. Maybe you would have taken my job, and been a little girl for a hundred years, until everything you’d ever known was gone. Or maybe you would have grown up over the span of a season and become something terrible and new. Either way, you wouldn’t have had as much to mourn for. Adults are...adults are different. They have things to mourn for. They have things to miss. You can’t steal an adult and expect them to adapt, not the way you can a child. You have to come willingly now, if you’re going to come at all.”
Vel was quiet for a moment. Then, carefully, she said, “I think where I always get it wrong with you is expecting you to react to things like a human being. You’re not a human being anymore. None of you are.”
“Haven’t been for a long time,” said Hailey, almost cheerfully. “Come on. You’re a visitor now, and that means the rules are different for you. We need to get you in and out before the clock strikes twelve.”
“When will that be?”
Hailey’s face darkened. “Whenever Scream Queen decides it’s time. So come on.” She started walking down the endless Ray Bradbury road toward the forest. After a moment’s hesitation, Vel followed.
Somehow, it wasn’t a surprise when they took two steps into the forest and were walking out of it, onto the dark, gothic street of the nameless city where Trick and Treat lived. Streetlights glowed every ten feet, orange as jack-o-lanterns, and the sidewalks were thick with children ranging from toddlers to teens, all clutching their pillowcases or plastic pails, faces concealed behind rubber masks.
At least, Vel thought they were masks. After watching a goblin trade a popcorn ball to a witch for what looked like a rock, and then pop the rock directly into his mouth, she realized she couldn’t be sure any of these kids were wearing masks. Maybe they were just wearing fancy clothes and looking for free candy. Maybe the ones that looked human were the ones hiding their faces. It was impossible to say, so she decided to stop trying. The magic was in the laughter, not in the species of the child doing the laughing.
Most of the kids waved or smiled at Hailey when they saw her. She waved and smiled back, bright as a button. She was glowing slightly: the perfect babysitter, always visible, never in danger of being hit by a car. “Aren’t they the sweetest?” she asked, glancing at Vel. “About half of them are kids from the Calendar Country who think they’re dreaming. The rest live here. They’ll grow up to be incredible monsters someday.”
“How many people have you been an imaginary friend to?”
“Never enough, and so many that if I let myself remember their names and where their bones are buried, I’d never stop crying.” Hailey rolled her eyes. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve never killed a trick-or-treater. Time and your world take care of that. The ones who don’t die of old age get hit by cars or crushed by falling masonry or whatever, and they never come to see me again. Not even in their dreams.”
Vel was quiet for a moment before she said, “I’m sorry.”
“So am I. But sorrow doesn’t belong here. It’s a beautiful Halloween night, and we have places to go and people to see before the clock strikes twelve. Come on.” She started up the walkway to the nearest house. It was a whitewashed colonial, trimmed with gingerbread swirls. The roof was remarkably purple.
Lacking anything better to do, Vel followed her to the porch. Hailey rang the bell and rocked back onto her heels, waiting.
The girl who answered the door was slightly younger than Hailey. Her hair was deep purple, save for the orange skunk streak that ran from her temple to the back of her head. She was wearing a tattered black dress and a green apron, and her eyes widened when she saw the pair, shoulders stiffening.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.
“We’re not here for you, Mischief,” said Hailey. There was nothing gentle in her voice now. She sounded older, somehow, and disapproving all the way down to her bones. “Go get your parents.”
Mischief turned and fled.
“You didn’t have to scare her,” said Vel.
“Yes, I did,” said Hailey. “She lives here. She’s not like you. She doesn’t get to leave. The Calendar Country nearly killed her parents, and they had each other. She grew up there, and it never made sense, and it never wanted her. So now she’s here, and she gets to live with the fact that half of Halloween thinks of Trick and Treat as trick-or-traitors, who turned their backs on us when we needed them. They’ll never be full guardians again. They’ll live here, until their daughter is old enough to try to prove herself to the holiday, and then they’ll decide whether they want to stay in an empty house haunted by the ghosts of all the times they failed her, or whether they want to pass their mantles and let someone else take up their roles. I’ll be honest. I’m hoping they choose the latter. This holiday needs the roles they’re no longer fit to play.”
“What would happen to them if they did that?”
“We’d die,” said Trick, stepping up to the door. She was an older version of her daughter, dressed in black slacks and an orange sweatshirt. She carried a plastic cauldron filled with candy, and paused to offer it ceremonially to her visitors.
Hailey took a huge and greedy handful before elbowing the motionless Vel in the side. “You have to take at least a piece,” she said. “If you don’t, you’re shaming the hospitality of the household, and that can open them up to all kinds of nastiness later on. There are rules. Even here, there are rules.”
Vel reached out and cautiously took a single piece of candy. The wrapper crinkled under her fingers like dead leaves. She slipped the candy into her pocket.
“This isn’t a social visit,” said Hailey, as Trick lowered the bowl. “Your husband home?”
“He’s with Mischief, trying to calm her down,” said Trick. “She’s terrified you’re here because it’s time for one of us to go.”
Hailey sighed. “I told you we’re not going to start trying to replace you until she’s come of age. You have years yet. If she’d grown up here, she’d know that I don’t lie about things like that.”
“I know,” said Trick, stepping to the side to let them into the house. “But she didn’t grow up here, and we have to live with that. Enter as you will, there is no danger here.”
“There is now,” said Hailey, and stepped inside.
Trick waited for Vel to enter before shutting the door and putting her bowl of candy on a nearby table. Then she turned, looking at the velvet-clad superheroine frankly. Finally, she beamed, offering her hands.
“Velveteen,” she said, and there was a warmth in her voice that Vel had never heard there before. “It’s so good to see you. Oh, don’t look so surprised. I know we were never friends, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t followed your career with interest. You had to be something special, if you were being courted by three out of the four Seasons.”
“This is her last night,” said Hailey. “She chooses a holiday home by midnight, or she’s back to the Calendar Country, and she may never darken our door again.”
“So soon?” Trick’s eyes widened. She gave Velveteen another look before smiling, this time sympathetically. “You must be awfully warm in all those rags. Would you like a place to change?”
“As long as all I’m changing is my clothes, please,” said Velveteen.
“The bathroom’s right through there,” said Trick, indicating the hall. Velveteen--Vel, she was still undecided; she could still be Vel--nodded understanding and appreciation before heading quickly out of the living room, leaving Hailey and Trick behind.
The bathroom was surprisingly ordinary. The fixtures were shaped like bones, and the wallpaper was a cheery mix of candy corn and skulls, but the light was bright, and there were no cobwebs. Vel smirked to herself as she removed her frilly doll dress and began unzipping the sack that had been her Halloween skin. Trick and Treat might be home for good. That didn’t change the years they’d spent in the Calendar Country, or the impact those years had had on them.
Then the false skin dropped away, and Vel stopped thinking about wallpaper or regional traditions. All she could do was stare at her reflection, and blink back the tears that were threatening to overwhelm her.
She was still wearing her costume. Even after everything she’d been through, everything she’d become, once it was stripped away, she was still wearing her costume. The burgundy velvet was torn in places, tattered, bloodstained. Not all the blood was hers. The bandages that had been intended to keep her from bleeding to death were gone, and when she poked her fingers through the hole in the side of her leotard, she found smooth, fully healed skin. There didn’t even seem to be any scarring. She choked back something that was neither sob nor laughter. How about that for a medical plan: be snow, be flowers, be a rag doll, and you, too, can survive a life-threatening injury without any unsightly reminders.
“Vel?” Hailey’s voice was accompanied by a knock at the bathroom door. Vel jumped, whipping around to face the noise. “Hey, I know you’re probably all excited by having, like, internal organs and a vagina and stuff again, but we don’t have much time. Come out as soon as you can, okay? We need to get this done.”
Vel took one last look at herself in the mirror, took a steadying breath, and gathered her discarded Halloween husk in her arms before opening the bathroom door. Hailey was gone. Vel walked down the hallway to the living room where Hailey was waiting, seated on the couch between an uncomfortable-looking Trick and Treat. The Halloween Princess smiled wistfully at the sight of her.
“Look at you,” she said. “All bright and battered and half-starved. We’ve ridden you hard, haven’t we? But don’t worry. This is the last sales pitch, and then the last trial, and then, boom.” She hooked a finger in her mouth and pulled it out again, making a popping sound. “It’s off to the Hall of Mirrors to tell the big guns what you’ve decided. Whether you’re going to stay with us, or leave forever.”
“What do you think?” asked Vel.
“Me? I think you should listen to these two.” Hailey indicated Trick and Treat with a sweep of her hand. “They’re our final testimonial.”
“You’re the last animus in the world,” said Treat. His voice was low and earnest. “That’s never going to be easy. After what Supermodel did...there are always going to be people who’ll see you as a monster. People who’re just waiting for you to turn rabid and bite. That wouldn’t happen here.”
“You’ve been training or fighting or running away for your entire life,” said Trick. She sounded sorry; she sounded the way Vel had always imagined a mother would sound, genuinely regretful for the pain that hadn’t been avoided. “That’s not going to change. People are always going to want something from you, or think you have to be something that you’re not. They’re never going to leave you alone. They’d leave you alone here.”
Vel snorted. “Oh, because Halloween has been so peaceful and kind to me.”
“It can be,” said Trick. “Time is what we want it to be. For every night we spend patrolling this city and protecting tourists, we get a week with our daughter. We’ve had more time since we came here than we’d had in her entire childhood. She’s growing up slowly because she wants to, because she wants this time as much as we do. If you stayed here, you could have a hundred lazy nights for every one you spent working.”
“What happens when I want to stop?” Vel asked. “Before you said that if you quit, you’d die.”
Trick and Treat exchanged a look. This time, it was Treat who spoke. “We weren’t born in the Calendar Country,” he said. “We started here as children and grew up because we wanted to, and our roles didn’t forbid it. If we stop being Trick and Treat, the holiday guardians, we aren’t anything. We’ll just fade away. You, though. You were born. You have flesh and blood and a family. You might not be able to go back the same as you were, but you wouldn’t necessarily die.”
“If you were me, if you had to make this choice...what would you do?”
Trick smiled wistfully. “I’d be a human girl. I’d live in a complicated, confusing world that doesn’t follow narrative rules, and I would never look back.”
Treat didn’t say anything. Hailey stood.
“There you go,” she said. “You’ve heard from me, the human who chose Halloween, and you’ve heard from the holidays who chose to be human for a while. Now it’s time for you to go and give your answer.”
“Go where?” asked Vel.
Hailey pointed to the door.
It was too easy. After everything she’d been through, everything she’d done, it was too easy. It was almost a relief, in a strange way, when she opened the door and the street was gone, replaced by an endless, fog-shrouded forest. She looked back, and the living room was also gone. There was only the forest, and the doorframe in which she stood.
“Here we go,” she said, almost cheerfully, and stepped into the fog.
She hadn’t gone three feet before a snarl split the darkness. It was something like a roar and something like a growl and something like the sort of thing nobody wants to share a dark, creepy forest with. Vel stopped dead, feeling suddenly small and exposed.
They’d forced her to freeze her way out of Winter and fight her way out of Spring. Why had she expected Autumn to be any kinder?
Then the beast came pacing out of the gray, and she no longer had time for questions. She only had time to turn and run like hell.
It was a mixed-up thing, much like its roar: it was werewolf and bogeyman and bat and rat and most of all, great black Halloween cat. Vel knew what it was even before it opened its mouth and laughed at her, calling mockingly, “Told you you hadn’t seen anything yet. Told you I still had some tricks up my sleeve. Fight me, or die, doll-girl.”
Scaredy Cat’s taunts did have one effect: Vel ran faster, still clutching her husked-off Halloween skin. She had no desire to fight the former Halloween guardian, not here, not ever. He would chew her up and spit her out. He had claws, weapons, natural advantages. All she had was an old costume and a bunch of...dead...leaves...
Velveteen stopped running. The answer to everything had been in front of her the entire time. All she’d needed to do was acknowledge it.
Scaredy Cat reached the place where she’d stopped less than a minute later. He dug his terrible claws into the ground and bared his terrible teeth, swinging his head in a low arc, nose testing the ground. He could smell her. She hadn’t run. So where was she?
The rock hit him in the top of the head. He looked up, and there she was, crouched in the branches of the nearest tree. He snarled.
“Don’t growl at me,” she said. “Hailey does this shit all the time. She’d make a great superhero. We’re all about the dramatic entrances. Tell Scream Queen I’m done fucking around and being tested. I have a solution that works for us both.”
The great beast dwindled, drawing back into itself, until the little boy in the homemade cat costume was standing in its place, watching her through narrowed eyes. “You were supposed to be a hunt and a chase and a kill,” he said accusingly.
“And now I’m not,” she said. “Sorry. Not my problem. Tell Scream Queen it’s time.”
“Tell me yourself,” said Scream Queen, stepping out of the trees. Her arms were full of dead roses, and her eyes were full of shadows. She looked to Scaredy. “Run along, little boy. This isn’t your place and it isn’t your problem, and if you didn’t get your moment in the sun, well, that’s too damn bad.”
Scaredy Cat glared, but he was smart enough not to argue with the woman who controlled his season. Sullen, he turned and walked away into the wood. Scream Queen looked back to Velveteen.
“Well?” she said. “I warn you, I don’t have much patience for grandstanding. There’s only room for one prom queen in this wood, and it’s me until someone bigger and badder comes along.”
“I’m not grandstanding,” said Velveteen. She sat down on the branch before easing herself down to the ground. Human flesh and blood broke a lot more easily than ragdoll floppiness. “I just didn’t want to come down until the big bad whatever the fuck Scaredy actually is was gone. What is he?”
“The thing children fear when they walk in the woods. Fewer woods, less fear, less reason to have something that dangerous running free. It’s almost midnight, little girl. What do you have to say to me?”
“I want to go home.” The words seemed somehow fragile, small, like they belonged in a different sort of story. A rabbit-eared headband wasn’t so different from a red hood, not really, and there were wolves in this wood. Velveteen squared her shoulders, refusing to shrink in on herself, and looked Scream Queen in the eye. “I want to be able to be Velma Martinez, not just Velveteen. I want friends, and a bed, and a chance to live my life on my own terms, not because the story says so. I want to be myself again.”
“I see. You realize that by saying this, you’re denying me my treat, and I’m within my rights to trick you.” Scream Queen’s smile was toothier than it should have been. Whoever handled Halloween’s orthodontia must have been making a fortune. “What’s to stop me keeping you past midnight, and making your choice a foregone conclusion?”
“Did I say I wasn’t giving you a treat?” Velveteen snapped her fingers. Something else dropped from the tree and moved to stand beside her.
It wasn’t a woman, although it was shaped like one: it had two legs, two arms, a torso, and a smiling muslin mask of a face. It crinkled when it moved, like dead leaves crunching together. It wore a frilled dress, like all good dolls did, and as it turned its blank button eyes toward Scream Queen, it was impossible to avoid the sensation of being watched.
“See, I was in Halloween when I learned that if I animate something that’s supposed to be a superhero, it gets their powers. Dolly here is supposed to be me.” Velveteen looked at her creation. “Dolly?”
The rag doll waved her hand. A corn jenny scurried out of the woods on cornhusk legs, pressing herself against Dolly’s ankle. Velveteen turned back to Scream Queen.
“She can watch the corn for you,” she said. “You don’t need me.”
“And when you stop animating her?” Scream Queen asked.
Velveteen shook her head. “I already did. This is Halloween. She’s a living doll. Your narrative says she won’t die until she’s done her job, and it’s her job to protect the corn. You can let me go.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Scream Queen, and stepped closer. “Last chance, hero. Stay or go?”
Velveteen looked at the doll she’d made from her own shed skin. Looked at the haunted wood around her. And finally, reluctantly, looked back to Scream Queen. “I want to go home,” she said again.
“Very well,” said Scream Queen. She snapped her fingers.
Velveteen collapsed. The rag doll remained standing.
Scream Queen raised an eyebrow. “She was telling the truth, huh? Well, then. Let’s take care of this, shall we?”
She waved her hand. A door formed from the branches of the nearby trees. Together, Scream Queen and the doll hoisted Velveteen’s body and tossed it through, into the void beyond. Then, still together, they walked into the trees, and Halloween, went on around them, eternal as only a holiday can be.
First there was no door and then there was a door, a paradox of a thing, standing unsupported in the middle of a suburban lawn. The door opened against the wind--a wind that was too cold, a wind that smelled like blood. There was a long pause, like the world was waiting for something, before the body of a woman tumbled out of thin air and collapsed on the grass. She lay there, motionless, unaware of the world around her.
For better or for worse, Velveteen had come home.