Snowblind: Halloween ‘91
“Everything ends eventually, Bee,” my father said the morning after Labor Day. I couldn’t tell if he was referring to the long weekend or his life, but he affirmed his intent: “The universe needs to trim the fat.”
I nodded, happy he was talking, at least, and that I didn’t have to. I grabbed my purse by the door.
“The timing is great,” he added with a burst. “If all goes well, I’ll still be around for Halloween!”
I held the knob a minute, trying to untangle his words. Trim the fat? The universe? For an astrophysicist, his theories had reached a lofty plane. If all went well, he’d be around for Christmas, too, and the following year’s holidays, and even more after that.
“Be careful,” I said, sick of the few, irrelevant words I’d managed since his diagnosis, but I had nothing else. I closed the door and left.
After school, the bus dropped me off at the corner of County Rd. 42 and Morrow Rd. Fall’s arrival had dotted the fields surrounding our neighborhood with flecks of crimson and copper, little Pollock splatters lifting a steel sky.
I rounded the corner to find a U-Haul parked in our drive, and my heart stuttered. I knew my mother wasn’t helping with the mortgage anymore, but I didn’t think we’d have to sell so soon. We’d only been there two months. Everything in our garage was littered across the yard: boxes we’d yet to unpack, the lawnmower, my bike.
“What’s all this?” I called as I approached the house, poking my head inside the van. It was filled with Halloween décor: skeletons, tombstones, an enormous black tarantula, some sort of generator, clear tubs teeming with string lights and bones. It was an occultist’s paradise.
Hunched over like Quasimodo, my father emerged from the cab. “They’re mostly rentals,” he said, “but I bought the fog machine. A worthy investment.”
“So we’re not moving again?”
“Far from it, Bee. Just making space.”
I started toward the garage but stopped. In the corner, a mammoth grim reaper draped in feathery black gauze towered above the workbench. In a way, it fit right in. Our house was part of a new development in Apple Valley, a half-hour south of the Twin Cities. But some of the homes were still unfinished, cryptic even, like skeletons awaiting their skin.
I dug through a box as Dad hopped out of the van. Sweat covered the pale orb that had replaced his head of hair. It glistened like a crystal ball.
“Storage cube should be here any minute,” he said with a plastic femur in his hand.
“You okay, uh…exerting yourself like this?” I tiptoed around my words, always careful with him.
“Yup-yup, but it’s conditional on you helping.”
His windbreaker whooshed as he hopped toward me and his eyes sparked to life. “Apple Valley’s Grandest Haunted Garage!” He splayed his fingers and projected his voice. I stared back lifeless. “I’m still working out the name,” he said.
A heaviness settled in my stomach. Had the sickness reached his brain? He’d never been spontaneous. From the socks that matched his ties to the pH levels in his garden soil, his decisions were calculated.
He leaned against the van. “I’ve got two palettes of scaffolding in the garage,” he said. “On Halloween night, you and I are gonna give this street a run for its money.”
Inside, my cat, Gladys, was asleep in her wicker chair, part of a new furniture set my mother had bought for the house. I didn’t have a vote in the aesthetic, but I may as well have; she hadn’t been home in three weeks. She made a habit of avoiding her problems, and Dad’s cancer was her tipping point.
I slid down the hall to the bathroom. My parents hadn’t put up many pictures, but a small collage had been arranged above the toilet, probably because Dad spent so much time in there.
I scanned the old photos, all from Halloweens in the city. Me and Mom. Mom and Dad. The three of us in Labyrinth costumes: Mom as Jennifer Connelly, whom she already looked like, Dad as David Bowie, and me as a proportionately sized goblin.
In one picture, Dad sat on a hay bale on the front stoop. He’d dubbed himself the Dormant Werewolf. He waited out there in his khakis and blue plaid shirt with a vicious wolf mask on his face. When the kids rang the bell, they found him with his head down like a disarmed robot. I can still hear their screams, shrill in the cold air, as he’d howl to life and grab their arms with his furry rubber claws. He loved Halloween, and our new house was the over-sized playground he’d always dreamed of. But as I ran the faucet and wiped my eyes, I couldn’t summon the energy to play along. All that darkness, the festive fabric of his imagination, it only reminded me of one thing, and I wanted something brighter.
The next day, he had me wrapping the scaffold in black linens he’d rented from a catering company.
“That’s it…that’s…it.” He held the ladder as it quivered under my feet. His hands trembled. “We’ll need the bigger ladder for the spider.” He pointed to the tinselly beast on his workbench. An empty French press stood beside it, coffee grains flattened like hard-packed soil. “I want it up there.”
My legs shook as I craned my head toward the peak of the ceiling. I lunged for the scaffold.
“Ha! Let your old man take this one, Bee.”
Sweated inched down my back as I descended the steps. Dad was already fetching the bigger ladder.
“Shit!” He righted it beside me, opened its legs. “I should’ve done the ceiling first. The angle’s all tricky now.”
I backed away as he rolled his sleeves and clambered toward the high-vaulted ceiling. On his forearm, a cluster of red dots stood out like an emergency light. I couldn’t help but imagine him, the week prior at the Victoria Piper Institute, conjuring up the idea to build a haunted maze in our garage. I could see him all hooked up and taking notes on one of his brown pocketbooks, Mom nowhere to be found, the chemo flushing his veins.
“Be careful,” I blurted out.
I handed him the spider as he carried up the steps. Had he been healthy—had it been a quick lightbulb swap—maybe I could’ve stomached the inherent danger he was putting himself in. But he was still a patient, and I was crippled by the childlike glee that had so fiercely galvanized him. I put my hands on the ladder.
“When this is all done”—he looked down on me with a pale face—“tell your mother you did the heavy lifting.”
I nodded, playing into his delusion. I wanted to believe she’d come home, too, but I knew she wasn’t strong enough. Or maybe she didn’t care. I looked at the door that led inside our house, imagining Mom in her chair with Gladys on her lap. I could’ve gone in. I could’ve gotten her. What if he got lightheaded? Would she have helped me tame him if she saw him up there? Could we have caught him if he fell?
Pap! The staple went in like a toy soldier’s gun going off.
“Voila!” He descended the ladder, marvelling at his work. The spider loomed above, pendulum-swinging at the end of a thick string of fish line. “Who needs Jeff Daniels?”
“Arachnophobia, Bee. The movie.” He coughed and coughed, pounded his chest and winced. He looked away.
I felt my lungs constrict with his, stealing the air I needed to yell. But before I could open my mouth, my cheeks warmed up and the room got small, and then, I was opening the garage door and letting the sunlight bleach the concrete.
I ran out.
As October swept in, hordes of leaves dropped from the trees with every tender of breath of wind. Soon, the fields were a dead, barren brown, slick with rain. Inside, Dad rarely left the garage, and the few times I poked my head in there, or was summoned in to lend a hand, he’d made so many additions to his maze, it was like I was seeing it for the first time.
Until I couldn’t see it.
On Wednesday before Halloween, I heard the muffled beat of music coming from the garage. I stepped into the foyer and paused at the door. Tendrils of white mist seeped through the edges of its frame. They spun around my ankles, crawled up my shins as I opened the door and was hit with a brash, chemical-smelling cloud. Red and orange lasers cut through the fog like blood beams. I stumbled back blinded.
“Hello?” Dad’s voice fought to compete with his boombox. Ozzy crooned ‘Bark at the Moon’ so loudly I felt each syllable in my chest. The music stopped and I held my breath.
The fog was in my nose now, tickling my throat. How could he breathe in there? I readied myself to storm in, then screamed as a hand parted the fog and grabbed my shirt.
“Quick! Close the door!” he yelled and pulled me in.
My ears whined from the aftershock of the music, until I realized it was just the fog machine purring beneath the workbench.
“Glad you’re here,” he said, though I could only see his silhouette. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
Even in the thick mist I could see where this was going, and my blood heated up. No, I wouldn’t help him wire more bats to the scaffold, or chalk more ghosts onto the walls. It was my time to make a demand. Turn off the lasers. Burn the décor. Go to bed and get some rest. Forget about terrifying the local kids and soothe your own. Stay.
He said something but his voice was muted. I put my hands out, grappling with the fog like a zombie. My fingers prodded the nylon of his jacket. He laughed as I brought them to his face, fumbled around some cotton structure over his mouth.
“Sorry, not much visibility in here.” His voice was clear now. “Just how I want it.”
“What’s on your face?”
“Dust mask. Lungs have suffered enough, don’t-cha think?”
“Put it back on,” I barked, and lowered the mask myself.
“Listen,” he said, pausing to clear his throat. “Did I…” One of the lasers lifted behind him and landed on the flaccid spider above his head. He spoke softly behind his mask. “Did I do okay?”
I squinted, taking in the vague outline of the miniature labyrinth, the ghastly shapes rearing from its walls. Through the blanket of white I noticed he’d put up some purple string lights above the garage window. A gypsy’s beaded curtain.
Sure, I liked Halloween, but I didn’t need all of this. Besides, I’d understood his obsession to be nothing but self-serving from the start. I took a sharp, shallow breath. “You be the judge. This is for you.” I heard him move closer, stirring the fog like a thick, cold soup. I could feel his eyes on me. And then, when I finally realized what he was asking, he had me in his arms already.
The blizzard started shortly after school ended on the 31st. It came in soft, dusting the roads with a loose powder. After dinner, there was a foot of snow in the yard. Dad and I colored our faces with UV paint, turning us into green moons under the black light of the garage. Camouflaged in the nooks of the maze, he shot me a scheming smile as the first bunch of kids came tearing through, clutching one another as they hollered. But, after two or three groups, the traffic died down, and lines of disappointment quickly penetrated his face paint.
By nine, the snow on the driveway was knee-deep, whisking its way into the garage in icy blasts. I was cold—my toes ached—but I waited with him. Around quarter after ten, a young straggler stopped at the foot of the garage. He breathed through the grill of his Hannibal Lecter mask in thin white knives. He cocked his head.
“Trick or treat?” he said, before rattling his pumpkin pail and shivering back to the street.
Dad poked his head around the corner, looking outside. He shuffled his feet and hung his head before returning to his post.
By midnight I was nodding off, so I took his hand and led him inside. I shut off the lasers and closed the door. We had seven kids total.
“Storm troubles south of the Twin Cities leads the Governor to call out the National Guard…”
The TV woke me up. I rounded the corner into our living room expecting, as I sometimes still did, to see my mother fixed to the screen.
“Busses are canceled,” Dad said, hunkered by the VCR. Save for a coiled-up Gladys, my mother’s chair was empty. “Gotta count our blessings, though. We’ve still got our power.”
“…the worst storm in Minnesota history,” the news anchor continued.
From the window I could see Dad’s jack-o-lanterns on the porch railing. Snow bloomed from their eyes and mouths like Playdough smooshed through a mold.
“Hungry?” he said.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the yard, even though it hurt to look at the glistening white sheet. It was almost as high as the porch. A string of footprints cut down the front steps, carrying along the driveway’s edge to the road.
“Did you go out?”
He waited a minute, then said, “Your mother was here.”
I scrubbed the sleep from the eyes, making sure I was awake.
“She needed to fetch her parka from the basement, so I changed the furnace filter while we were down there. We’ll be warm as wafers up here.” He glanced out the window. “She said the snow was spectacular. I tried to convince her to stay for brunch.”
“She’s coming back?”
He fiddled with some chords, made a lot of noise.
I could picture my mother’s reaction waking up, wherever she was staying, not sure if the snow was real or a by-product of her hangover. I imagined her warming the station wagon first thing in the morning so she’d get to the house before I woke up.
“Also closed this morning: the I-35 Northbound near Albert Lee.”
On screen, WCCO cut to various clips from the city: cars stalled on the highway; suburban trees draped in snow as white as the ghosts still hanging from their limbs. I thought about the garage and the poor turnout last night. I looked at Dad. He was chipper as ever.
“You know, your mother might be right.” He put a tape in the VCR and stood up, knees cracking like old timber. “I thought this might be an omen, you know? A bad winter coming?” He sat on the couch as the TV went fuzzy, grabbed a blanket. “But it’s beautiful out there. You can’t argue that.”
As the static cleared and the opening credits started, I fixed my eyes on the door. I knew the knob wouldn’t turn, but I imagined the chilly gust filtering down the hall as it did; her boots stomping on the front rug, sending sheets of snow falling to the tile. I saw her red nose twitch as the ice thawed and dropped from her lashes. She looked rested and full, soothed, like something had shifted inside her.
But even more soothing was knowing that, regardless of whether that door opened, the parent I had on this side of it was snowed in so badly, any effort to dig himself out would be hopeless, at least for a day.
I straightened the blanket over Dad’s legs and joined him on the couch. As the cast and crew names came on screen, he scooted over and put his arm around me. We sat together all morning, the two of us in fear-laced silence, as the movie claimed its moment. As Jeff Daniels stole the show.
Chris Campeau writes short horror fiction and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in publications including the Globe and Mail, 34 Orchard, Transmundane Press, and The Furious Gazelle, and his first children’s book, The Vampire Who Had No Fangs, is available via Amazon and Indigo. He lives in Ottawa, Canada, and you can find him at chriscampeau.com.