I filled the plastic buckets up with Kit Kats, Snickers, and M&M'S, inwardly scolding myself for my unoriginal choices. I should've gotten some jelly beans to brighten up my pile. Some Jolly Ranchers maybe? Shaking my head, I tossed the last packet I'd picked from the store (A gleaming silver bag of HERSHEY'S Kisses with the words "MILK CHOCOLATE" written underneath in capital letters) along with the other candies, reminding myself that not every child was going to want chocolate.
But I guess I could just give the leftovers to her.
Had it been last year, or the good years before that, she would've liked it even.
(Had it been last year, or the good years before that, she would've liked everything about today.)
“Wildberry?” My voice came out almost softer than a whisper. I wondered if she had heard me at all. Her paintbrush halted in mid-air as if it had suddenly failed to recognize the crimson paint coating its tip, and wanted nothing more to do with it. She tilted her head ever so slightly from her half-painted canvas, golden hair falling from her shoulders like weary sunflower petals. The two mugs of hot chocolate were starting to grow heavy in my hands, but I didn’t dare move as I watched her.
Sunlight was fading behind marigold feathers, shedding its last glow on the little angel, warming up her pale skin. She sat on a wooden stool that was once mine, facing away from me, facing away from everything in the room, really.
When did she start liking these vapid walls better than the fortress of breathing trees and the tiniest chance of befriending a fairy? When did she start choosing painting over going to the festival with Becka and Remi and Jamie and those other kids whose names my memory had blurred out over time? When did wild berries become so unlike their sweet flavor, so unlike their vibrant colors, so unlike… themselves?
I shook my head because I knew exactly when.
I was there the whole time.
Now, I could only guess the expression painted on her once sunny face, hoping it was as mellow as the gilded meadow on her canvas. My heart swelled a little as I realized that she was still painting something beyond these plain walls.
“I miss her,” she said in a small voice, shoulders slumping as she let out a sigh. The mugs settled on the dining table; a deep chocolate scent spilled into the thick air, reminding me to breathe.
I tried to search for words of comfort, but there was nothing I could say to scare away the pain. There hadn't been anything to say for weeks now. And I felt like I was seven again, too little for the world, too afraid to do anything on my own.
"I know, little berry," I breathed, taking the softest steps towards the sitting girl as if the strong floorboards would collapse if I was anything but gentle in her presence.
(Or maybe my heart would.)
She didn't look at me and kept staring at her unfinished painting, scarlet hues reflecting in her indigo eyes. She reached out and gave a small tug to her lamp, which lit up with a painfully loud click. A beam of light glided out and waltzed on her canvas, pointing out spots where the paint was still wet and unfinished. I blinked once, twice, then a third time to adjust to the new brightness.
My hand caressed the softness of her golden hair, and the little angel shuddered under my touch. I felt my breath hitch in my throat, but my fingers, having a mind of their own, kept themselves buried in her warmth. (I thought it was because I was too surprised to pull them out.) The angel shifted slightly in her seat as if unsure where to hide. For the first time, brave wild berries curled away from kisses of autumn air, fresh sprinkles of rain, tender rays of the sun, and everything that ever made them feel sweet and alive.
My heart sank faster than a broken rowboat on an endless rushing stream.
"W—Why are the trees still so bright and beautiful when all the leaves are dying?" she asked, her voice trembling as if it was taking everything in her not to choke out a sob, "How can they be so cheerful when they're losing a part of themselves?"
My hand stilled just above her head, hovering like a blind canary not knowing where to perch.
"Little berry, look at me," I said, almost surprising myself with the steadiness of my voice, "Please."
She shifted her gaze from her painting to me. Her once bright blue eyes were now duller than I remembered, but they were her blue eyes still. The same blue eyes I'd known since she was as tiny as blackberries.
"Everything's dying, mom," she said, sniffing, "Why do kids even go trick-or-treating when the trees are basically covered with corpses?"
I traced my fingers on the apple of her cheek, searching for answers in scattered freckles that mirrored mine.
"Little berry," I said after a moment of thought, "Remember when Halloween used to be your favorite holiday? Remember when the other kids waited impatiently for December, but you were always counting the long days until October? You loved that everyone was here for Halloween and not out of town visiting their families like they would on Christmas. Because you just wanted to be around your friends, recounting your favorite tales, chasing street lights in the fresh air. And, of course, you loved Halloween because of Becka. She was such a sweet girl."
The little angel took a sharp breath at the mention, indigo eyes widening in fear. Her fingers clutched both sides of the stool, and her feet curled hard into the ground. For once, I was glad my little angel didn't physically have wings as she might just fly away if she did. I watched her for several moments before slowly stretching my arms out.
"Can I hug you, little berry?"
Closing her eyes, she gave me the tiniest of nods and slumped forward like an ice sculpture melting in roaring flames. I let out a relieved sigh, knowing that her skin, though paler than ever, was still warm to the touch. Keeping her eyes closed, she didn't say anything; it was almost like she was sleeping.
"She loved candy," my daughter mumbled after a while, straightening herself as she recalled the early days with her best friend, "She loved candy so, so, so much."
"Yes, little berry, she did. And trick-or-treating was the only way to get her outside, remember? You even gave her your Jessie costume just because you wanted your friends to meet her so badly. If it weren't for you, Becka would've never known how much fun trick-or-treating was. She would've never known that sometimes it's nice to be surrounded by people, to tell stories, to sing in front of crowds."
She flinched at my last words.
"Whittany," I said, finally calling her by her birth name. "It's not your fault, and you know that. Becka loved playing at that Café. It wasn't your fault she stayed too late that night and decided to drive through the storm. It wasn't anyone's fault, little berry. And yes, the leaves are dying. But just because we can't see it doesn't mean that the trees aren't doing everything to keep themselves alive. Inside, their roots dig through the grounds, pulling the last drops of water, holding the earth together before winter freezes the land. And the reds and browns you see aren't just dying leaves. Those are the reds of berries waiting to be harvested and the browns of squirrels storing nuts for the cold."
"That doesn't change the fact that leaves are dying, mom," Whittany sighed, shaking her head.
"But you're keeping them alive, aren't you, Wildberry?" I gestured at the red and orange trees on her half-painted canvas.
I could almost feel her fighting back an eye roll.
"I know that it sounds cheesy, but the truth is you're keeping everything alive with you, little berry. Not just the leaves, but Becka as well."
Now, my daughter was really rolling her eyes. I felt my lips curve into a smile. Up until then, I thought she'd completely forgotten how to do that.
"Glad to know that you still have it in you, little berry," I chuckled as I ruffled her golden hair. Whittany let out the tiniest of giggles, and I made a mental note to thank the moon and Saturn and whatever rocks and gases that, for centuries, floated around the universe just to let us know we're not alone.
"But I mean it, Whittany. Becka lives in you. Look at you, you're at home talking about leaves with your mom on a night that the carnival's in town. Doesn't that sound like something Becka would do?"
My daughter nodded with a bashful smile. We both knew that Becka was the opposite of Whittany: shy, reserved, and just loved to stay at home. When they were thirteen, I always had to tell Whittany to stop teasing Becka for being "besties with her mom", as she put it.
"I'm starting to act like her, huh?" my little angel asked, her lips curling as if she was about to smile until she remembered something. Furrowing her eyebrows, she shook her head.
"But I'm not ready to go back to being myself, mom," She breathed, looking down at her palms, "I'm just not eight and always looking forward to Halloween anymore."
I took her hands in mine and waited for her to look up before smiling at the only person that mattered in this world.
"I'm not asking you to, my little Wildberry. All I'm asking is for you to share this hot—well, warm chocolate with me. And let me be your friend for the night. Is that okay?"
I held my breath as everything went quiet for a moment. Moonbeam splattered inside the room, coloring the walls a light shade of blue. The sound of children's laughter seeped through the window as pleasantly as the steam of sweet pumpkin soup on peaceful mornings. Whittany glanced outside for a second before nodding with a small smile on her face.
A loud knock from the front door made her jump, but she chuckled as soon as she realized.
"I think kids trick-or-treat for the same reasons you did when you were eight. Because they want to be around friends, recounting favorite tales, chasing street lights in the fresh air. And right outside our door, there might just be a little girl who gave her best friend her favorite cowgirl costume just so they can have fun together."
The angel blinked once, twice, then a third time before grinning the grin she always did when Becka was around. The last time I saw her grinning like that was when she came home late last month, cold and soaking from the rain. I remembered the calling and the waiting and the praying. (Especially the praying.) I was so worried that I almost forgot to be mad at her. But as soon as the door slammed shut, I made sure to give her an earful of what she'd already know. Her promises of "Don't worry, mom." and "I'm always gonna come home, mom." echoed through the darkness like a sad ghost. She was shivering, so I held her until my clothes sucked up most of the freezing rain, until the temperature in my body dropped to match hers, until both of us were shivering together. She never stopped beaming, though. She grinned from ear to ear the whole time we stood there. It was like she had never been happier. And as angry as I was, I began to smile along with her. "Becka did it, mom!" she laughed, wiping away the rain and tears from her face, "They loved her!"
Another set of loud knocks jolted me to my feet.
"Well, I'll be right back," I promised my daughter, "The kids are counting on our candy. That little girl especially."
Taking gentle steps out of her bedroom, one foot at a time, I felt lighter than I did for weeks.
I smiled because I knew Whittany would be alright.
And if not, I would always be right there to hold her.
"Mom?" the little angel chirped from behind me, "I wanna meet that kid and make sure she doesn't make fun of her best friend for being besties with her mom."
I chuckled as I held out a hand for my little girl, who was almost taller than me now. I wanted to tell her that she was so, so, so brave. But she already knew that.
"Okay, Wildberry. Just don't scare her away."
Whittany laughed, shaking her head, her blue eyes closing almost completely. I felt my heart slowly piecing itself back together like autumn leaves falling under the sunlight.
And to think that I was once those kids who liked Christmas better than Halloween.