Everyday Is Halloween
The twinplex was still dark when Aton locked Unit A behind him. Unit B was quiet. Aton’s new neighbor was up most of the night, busy with some noisy labor, the results of which he now beheld. On the porch steps, enormous gourds were painstakingly carved into silhouette portraits of PKD, Ed Wood, and Soren Kierkegaard. The jack-o’lanterns offered a scrolled message and a treat bag with Aton’s name.
At a red light, he unknotted the scroll’s ribbon. On black paper, in glow white ink, Angelique’s curvaceous cursive: “To cheat oneself out of love is the most terrible deception; it is an eternal loss for which there is no reparation, either in time or in eternity.” At the next light, he folded it into a small square and slipped it into his wallet. Almost immediately, he wished he hadn’t. He longed to look again, though he was familiar with the Kierkegaard quote.
Resisting the urge, he focused on the road. Good thing too, as he was nearly the ninth car in an eight-car pile up. Three teenagers blithely stepped into the Anthony Wayne Trail, and a bus driver lost control. The undead trio walked on in blah oblivion, unconcerned with the chaos they’d just caused. They crossed an overgrown field and disappeared into the pink dawn. The field was once a factory that exploded in a ball of fire and burned all night. Crumbling cinders were overtaken by a swathe of swaying weeds, high enough to swallow his youngest patient. Michelle was seventeen, but her companions weren’t much older.
Gasoline—an ominous scent.
The crumpled minivan leaked fuel. A woman—a coach—blew the whistle hanging from her neck. Her wife shouted: “It’s gonna blow! Get back!” Aton jumped into action. He ran with two other men who formed a relay, passing a small ghost to Aton, who carried her to the grassy berm. Another motorist waited with outstretched hands. The child clutched his lapel as he handed her off. He wiggled her loose, but it took some doing, like pulling an empty cicada shell from tree bark. That little hand—that miniature vice grip—saved Aton’s life. He was dashing back when the minivan exploded. A flying side mirror nearly took him out. The sound was enormous: breaking glass, roaring flames, and a woman screaming. Aton squinted through the smoke. What about the other ghosts—and their mother?
“Hey! Who’s got this car with the Toledo Hospital placard!? Is there a doctor?!”
Dr. Aton Verne ran towards the voice, his eyes burning, his nostrils burning. The injured mother howled from her back. Helpless anguish swirled with the choking smoke. He knelt beside the smallest ghost, cut her bloody shroud and cleared her airways. No pulse. Nonresponsive. The doctor performed CPR with the utmost care. With an infant, you have to act fast—but gently.
His breath was hers until her heart kicked in. He rejoiced at that subtle rhythm. So too, the grandmother who’d assisted him. With a sob, she adjusted the blinking witch pinned to her sweater; Halloween was safe now; the day had been saved. The doctor worked to staunch the bleeding. This little ghost would live. He could feel it in her heart, the way it kicked in like a revving machine. He’d felt his breath inside her body; he’d filled those lungs, and then he felt them fill up on their own. She hadn’t been alive long, but she was already in the habit of living.
The television was a vestigial god. The wonky antenna—a V—was topped with two blobs of tinfoil. It came on with a pop. The image wore an angora sweater, obscured and fluffy. Modern flat-screens showed the weather girl’s pores. High def defeated the whole point.
TV should have silly props, bad dubs, and plot holes. Storytelling should offer respite from reality.
While Aton coveted the artifact, he also liked it right where it was. Here, in his colleague’s office, with the crayon drawings and photos of gap-toothed children. The television was everything he loved about Eric, who lately looked like his TV: old and on the fritz, with a blob of tinfoil hair. Mere months into the apocalypse, Eric was already going gray.
Aton was mostly accustomed to misery, so he just found new hiding spots. A fuzzy TV consoled with a Creature Feature marathon. Camped in Eric’s office, in Eric’s squeaky chair, Aton pretended he was the other more competent doctor. The one who offered comfort.
They wouldn’t think to look for him here.
Aton’s hands were on his lap, inside his leather satchel, where he fingered soft paper; the sack’s pasted corners and zig zag mouth. A dense, luscious sensation built in his body—the piling of summer clouds; fluff overtaking the sky. Elongated pleasure of anticipation. He fondled the treat bag, full of mysterious orbs, and watched 1955’s It Came By The Sea. A radioactive octopus rises from the depths and ascends the Golden Gate Bridge. When he finally pulled the treat bag from the satchel, he wasn’t disappointed. On the black paper sack, in bone-white ink, she’d drawn Mrs. Frankenstein. The bride was seated at a vanity in just her bra and panties. On her plump thighs, where a woman might have garters, the missus slyly stitched her own flesh with needle and thread. Foil-wrapped chocolates were tiny anatomical brains; inside the rippled brains was a bloody filling that oozed between his teeth. Mmm. Raspberry, real and seed-flecked. Just at this decadent moment, the TV gave him away. It was the screaming bystanders. They’d never seen an enormous octopus take over a city.
Aton begrudgingly acknowledged his colleague. “You might’ve knocked.”
“I oughta knock on the door of my own office?”
Aton chuckled with a mouth full of chocolate and raspberry goo. Eric briefly relented, taking in the cozy moment, the TV, and the loosened collar. He felt sorry for Dr. Zombie. They all did.
“We have a drop-in: Verne. He’s young. Baby-faced but he started college early, like you.”
Their youngest patient was Michelle. Just this morning, she was nearly creamed by a bus and then a station wagon that veered to avoid the braking TARTA. Aton eyed the octopus. He didn’t have the bandwidth for a young patient. This could wait until Monday.
He said, “No drop-ins; there are too many zombies now.”
Eric reared. They were careful in this practice to never use that word. The patients were people. It was a hard rule. Dr. Aton Verne had drilled it into them.
“The kid’s referring doctor is actually a philosophy professor. You know her. Your neighbor?”
Aton leapt to his feet.
Foiled chocolate brains went flying.
The hospital hallways were festooned with skeleton balloons and orange-black twists of crepe paper. Eric struggled to keep up, his loafers squeaking on the glossy linoleum that was bright white, a wide expanse of spilled milk. There was no sense in crying, but Aton’s face was tight over his teeth. Embarrassment pulled at the corners of his eyes. That woman! Eric was on Aton’s shit-list too; squeaky shoes, squeaky chair, fritzy TV. He stormed into the exam room. The mother pulled her son close; a perfectly healthy teenager. A clean kid. A dirty trick.
“Dr. Angelique Lautrec mentioned you specifically because she says you specialize in…” Mom lowered her voice to a whisper, “A brain disorder.” Dr. Michaels reassured her. She needn’t worry. The condition was rare. That was a lie at this point. Succor was for suckers.
Dr. Verne said, “She’s not a doctor, she’s a professor. Have them schedule you for Monday.”
He was almost free, on the other side of a closing door, when the kid called after him.
“She thinks I’m an undead creepazoid.”
“No,” Mom replied. “She thinks he’s brilliant. Head and shoulders above his classmates at only sixteen.”
Sixteen? That would make him their youngest patient. If he actually was a patient. Dr. Michaels passed a file, and Aton dropped to the wheeling stool. Nate Halloran’s hair was clean and dread-free; there was no need for the comb that Dr. Michaels carried in the pocket of his lab coat to tidy it up and look for nits. There was a smattering of acne but nothing festering. The kid wore a George Romero t-shirt. That was mildly concerning. No. Halloran was fine: well-fed, clear-eyed, with color in his cheeks. What game was this? Was Angelique wasting his time? Was this a bizarre ruse? Aton tapped the clipboard with the pink nub eraser.
Kafka came to mind.
The kid said, “Teach tattled to my mom cuz I accidentally zombied an albino cockroach.”
“We don’t have roaches. He was at his Dad’s.”
“The roach was relevant. We’re doin’ Plato. Bug gets halved and looks for his butt.”
He dug into his denim pocket and produced his phone. Mom tried to stop him. She said the doctors were busy men, important men who didn’t need to see his disgusting video, but Eric was always game for a spectacle. He said, “Eh. We’re stalled, waiting on the scan, so we might as well.” He leaned in, and Dr. Verne wheeled closer. The two doctors groaned like teenagers, but that sputtered out as the bug lamented its fate. Antenna waving, the insect was desperate to change course.
The bug repeatedly backed himself into the other half of his body.
Dr. Verne said, “I saw the thought occur to him, this Frankenstein-style reattachment plan.”
Dr. Michaels agreed: “Yes, I caught that also.”
“Yep,” Nate said. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I just never saw an albino cockroach.”
In his Dr. Verne voice, Aton said, “His brethren are all pale when they shed their exoskeleton.” Dr. Verne frowned at Nate Halloran’s phone and spoke in his softest Aton voice. “Aw. Poor guy. He was in a vulnerable stage of existence.”
Nate said, “I’m at a vulnerable stage of existence.”
Dr. Verne lifted an eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”
“I’m just starting to not exist.”
The scan confirmed it. Prof. Lautrec’s instinct was correct. Nate Halloran was exactly on that precipice between existing and not existing. There was a dark speck in the kid’s gifted head. Blink and you’d miss it. Dr. Verne missed it at first. Maybe he tried to miss it.
Aton’s heavy jack-o’lantern head was slumped, chin in his hand, as he scrolled through a smattering of press, all painfully silly. This was an encroaching tragedy, but the media was being spooky and clever. Devoid. That was the word. Of what? Public service; compassion; the basic milk of human kindness. Black dread was setting in. There was no room for it because there were so many feelings already. One was a feathery flutter under his solar plexus. The closer he came to going home, the harder the flutter. It was a constant nuisance. An unacceptable discomfort. Why had he done this to himself? Would he never learn to follow his own wise counsel? He dialed his twin.
“Atom? Whatcha doin? Wanna watch Fiend Without A Face?”
“Um. Bub? We’re headed your way, but we got a whole thing. Old guard supposedly judges costumes when really they judge the couple, like whether I’m fit as a partner and shit.”
Atom said, “My Google alerts were popping off today. You’re a Halloween joke.”
When Kierkegaard’s clown tried to warn the theater about the backstage fire, the audience just howled in laughter. Good one, clown! The velvet curtain flamed, but nobody noticed. Aton tapped the pencil on the desk. Maybe he was the wrong guy for the job, but he was on it and he intended to stay on it. His office door opened. He groaned and hung up on Atom.
“Hey, why don’t you go home?” Eric suggested. “It’s your holiday.”
Apparently, decades ago, Aton had enjoyed a Halloween or two, so he was obligated to it forever.
Nah. He was gonna put in some lab time. That felt festive. He had a flutter to avoid. He had mice to infect. Some living essence would evaporate from their bodies. They’d veer crookedly and avoid the food. They’d starve until they were skeletal, until death came for real.
“Eric, you look haunted and hollow-eyed. Like one of our patients.”
“Ya know, Verne, it’s funny; we’re a real horde here, just dead on our feet, but you have a new spring in your step. You walked in as King Zombie. Now you’re glowing brighter than ever.”
Aton instinctively reached for the chocolate brains and popped one in his mouth. Eric was suspicious. He wanted to probe that sweetness like a cavity, but he didn’t have time for questions. An elevator was waiting.
Dr. Verne was unwrapping the note and another chocolate when Atom arrived with Shane. Aton shoved everything aside and tossed a file on it for good measure, but Atom immediately lifted the folder to expose Mrs. Frankenstein in just her undies.
Atom said, “What’s going on here, brother?”
He stole a brain chocolate and another for Shane. The two of them were shiny and well tailored, fastened into contraptions. A couple’s costume. They were American-made Detroit-born automobiles—Atom was a T-Bird and his pretty boyfriend was a Crown Vic. Atom pointed to his golden wings. Shane shifted uncomfortably: heavy was the head that wore the crown.
Leaves whipped into the windows, in a roar of rotors, as two helicopters circled. Pilots for a third bird raced to the roof with three styrofoam coolers: heart, liver, lungs. There’d been a record number of wrecks. If patients disrespected the roadways, things would unravel faster than the twins imagined. Aton hoped to protect this irksome couple-costumed Atom for as long as he could, which wouldn’t be long, the way things were going. Atom unwrapped another brain chocolate, slowly, making eye contact, the same way he used to steal toys. He urged Aton to go home for tricks and treats. Shane put pinched fingers to his lips, inhaling imaginary smoke. They’d just been to his place and Mrs. Frankenstein was in her wedding gown. She was bustling around, making it cute.
Shane piled on: “Brides love to nest.”
They double-teamed him like this, lighting imaginary joints and using words like nest and home and cute.
Aton pictured his neighbor in her overalls, boob hanging outta one side. She dripped red paint on a bloody wedding dress and asked him if he’d be her Frankenstein.
From behind his boyfriend, Atom gestured with two hands—a Crazy Eight infinity. An hourglass. Yeah, OK. Zombie mice could wait. The doctor could do with a night in. Some good smoke. He’d mostly made up his mind when Atom pointed a stern finger. He mouthed a warning: GO HOME. That word again: powerful command and soft invitation. Cozy little peaked roof of a sound—a moaning “om” tucked in tight between two letters.
“Everyday Is Halloween” was originally published in NoNothing Mag in October of 2022, as part of PZR’s Halloween Blow Out. As the Wheel of Fortune card in the Pink Zombie Rose tarot, this story will be included in Major Arcana, a collection of 22 Pink Zombie Rose stories.