I drove down a long gravel driveway, following the directions on my phone’s navigation app. The turn-by-turn directions had steered me out of the city limits and into a neighboring suburb that looked more like a farm than a subdivision.
I reached my destination and turned off my car. A modest ranch-style house spread out in front of me, a far cry from the high-rise condos and multi-story walkups I was better used to. I checked the address I’d made note of in my phone again and, confirming I was in the right place, I got out of my car.
My boots crunched on loose gravel as I walked up to the front door. The windows were shuttered and only a dusty red van in the driveway suggested that anyone was home. I knocked, and a woman with stern features and hair pulled back into a severe bun answered the door. She wore a long denim skirt that reached her ankles and a white turtleneck. A large silver cross hung around her neck. “Yes?”
I was startled by the woman’s appearance. I didn’t know why I’d expected Raleigh herself to answer the door. “Oh, um, hello,” I greeted, pulling myself together. “Is Raleigh here?”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, and I thought I saw the door close just a little. “Who are you?” she asked suspiciously.
“I’m Harper. Harper Dawkins. I go to school with Raleigh. She said I should stop by to pick up the psychology notes I missed today.” She actually hadn’t, but I wasn’t about to tell this woman that I’d shown up on her doorstep, unannounced and uninvited.
“Harper.” The way the woman said my name sounded like it left a sour taste in her mouth. “I’ll never understand why parents give their children such strange names. Of course my own sister did the same thing when she allowed Anna to start going by her middle name.”
I didn’t know if I should defend my name or let the insult drop. “Who’s Anna?” I asked instead.
The woman nearly rolled her eyes. “Raleigh. Anna Raleigh King.”
My features scrunched together. “Raleigh’s real name is Anna?”
“Yes.” The door seemed to shut even more. “Why are you here again?”
I fished a notebook out of my messenger bag as if it were evidence that I was telling the truth. “I go to school with your niece?”
The woman, apparently Raleigh’s aunt, finally let me in.
When I walked through the front door, I resisted the urge to duck my head. The low popcorn ceilings were high enough that slouching was unnecessary, but the décor was disorienting; the house looked like it had been built in the 1970s and hadn’t ever been updated. I felt my anxiety spike at all the religious paraphernalia I found inside. I’d never seen so many crosses outside of a church.
Raleigh’s aunt hadn’t instructed me to take off my shoes, but I did so out of respect or reflex.
As I passed a formal dining room I saw one of those word paintings, only instead of something warm and encouraging, a somber message from the Old Testament was scrawled across the wall: The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
“Third door on the right.”
“Huh?” I tore my eyes away from the Bible verse.
I could tell Raleigh’s aunt was rapidly losing patience with me. “Anna’s bedroom is down the hallway, third door on the right. Didn’t you say you came here for school notes?”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” I mentally shook myself. I needed to keep it together or this woman was going to boot me from her home before I ever got to see Raleigh.
I walked down the corridor and passed two open doors—a bathroom and the laundry room. The third door on the right was open as well. Inside the small bedroom, I found Raleigh reclined on a twin-sized mattress with an afghan covering her legs. Sunshine shown into the room, scattered by a white, lace drapery that resembled an oversized doily. The natural light bounced off of Raleigh’s hair, already the color of sunlight. It reminded me of a key scene from one of my favorite old movies—when Cary Grant finally tracks down Deborah Kerr after she fails to show up at the top of the Empire State Building.
I was struck by how peaceful and serene she sat, reading her book. She looked so … so normal. Beautiful, but normal, I decided on—like she might stand up at any moment.
I rapped my knuckles against the wooden doorframe.
Raleigh’s eyes lifted from the page. “Harper.” She closed her book.
“Hi.” I righted myself.
If my unannounced appearance fazed her, she didn’t let on.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
She touched the spine of the old-looking hardcover book. “Swiss Family Robinson.”
I admittedly knew next to nothing about her, and yet the book selection was unexpected. Something more somber and serious like Crime and Punishment or Wuthering Heights seemed more appropriate. Something in my face must have given me away.
“Haven’t you ever wished you were marooned on a tropical island, away from it all?” she posed.
“As long as I have sunscreen.”
Raleigh folded her hands in her lap. My eyes were drawn to the movement. I could see the twin lumps of her kneecaps hidden beneath the blanket. I immediately looked away, however; I didn't want her to think I was staring at her legs yet again.
“Can I help you with something?”
“Oh, right.” I laughed and shook my head. “I was wondering if I could take a look at your psychology notes from today.”
“You missed lunch, too,” she noted. “What happened?”
“The people I babysit for had a last minute emergency.”
Raleigh’s hazel-green eyes inspected me. “You must really be serious about school if it couldn’t wait a day.”
I felt uncomfortable all over again. “Yeah, I know,” I grunted. “But I don’t want to fall behind.”
“All of my notebooks should be in my backpack,” Raleigh said, gesturing to the bag hanging on the back of a desk chair that probably went unused beyond serving as a coat hanger. “I’d get it for you, but that would take a little longer.”
My smile felt tight on my face. I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable every time Raleigh made reference to her condition, even though she’d never been self-pitying about it. She was simply stating facts.
I dug around in the bag, flipping between folders and textbooks and spiral notebooks until I found the notes I had been looking for.
“Did my aunt freak out when she answered the door? We don’t get many visitors out here.”
“She looked a little skeptical,” I admitted, “but she seemed fine.”
I sat down on the floor with Raleigh’s notes and pulled my psychology notebook out of my backpack. I flipped both notebooks open. My own half-earnest attempt to pay attention during the professor’s lectures glared back at me in blue pen. Unlike mine, Raleigh’s note-taking was thorough and focused, and her handwriting was evenly-spaced letters and words. It was maddening how perfect even her notes were.
“You don’t have to copy those right now,” Raleigh said. “You can take them home and return them later.”
“No, this is fine.” I couldn’t admit that I wanted to spend more time with her—not to Raleigh and certainly not to myself. I was only doing this for school, I lied to myself.
I focused my energies on transferring the information from Raleigh’s notebook to my own. Half a page in, I hazarded a glance up at the bed. Raleigh stared back at me, her position unchanged since my arrival and her book still closed on her lap. I hastily looked away, bringing my eyes back to the pages of the notebook.
“Is everything okay?”
“With what?” I asked, looking up.
“The people you babysit for; you said there was an emergency.”
“Oh. That. Yeah, Sasha got sick at school.”
“Poor thing,” Raleigh murmured. “How old is she?”
“She just turned five.”
“That’s a fun age.”
There was something regal and reserved about Raleigh, yet sly and knowing. It made me wonder what secrets she was hiding. I knew all too well that everyone had secrets.
“Your real name is Anna?”
“That’s what it says on my birth certificate, but no one’s ever called me that—except my aunt.”
“She seems…” I searched for a word to describe the woman who’d answered the door. “Intense.”
“So do you.”
Raleigh picked at the yarn of the afghan while I resumed copying her notes. She looked up with new curiosity in her eyes. “How did you know where I lived?”
I winced. “I called the university pretending to be someone from your hospital checking up on the school’s ADA compliance.”
“Wow. You really are serious about school.”
“I have to maintain a certain GPA to keep my scholarship,” I shrugged in my defense. “There’s no way I would have been able to afford school on my own.”
“I get that. My parents are paying for me to be here, but before that I was on academic scholarship at Smith.”
“Oh yeah?” I hated my voice. It sounded too loud in my head.
Raleigh nodded. “My parents had been hoping I’d go to Boston College and be closer to home, but it had been my dream to go to Smith, ever since I was little. But then the accident happened. My parents were helping me make the two-hour trip into Boston a couple times a week for PT, but I think it got to be too much for them.” She shrugged delicately. “So, here I am in Chicago instead.”
“Why do you live all the way out here? Don’t they have accessible rooms on campus?”
The modest smile that she’d been accommodating enough to give me faltered. “I need help doing things,” she said simply. “And I couldn’t ask a roommate I barely know to do those things for me.”
I immediately felt bad for prying. I knew nothing about the daily challenges being in a wheelchair provided, and it showed in the naivety of my questioning.
“My parents are paying my aunt a stipend to help me out,” she continued. “She drives me to and from school and brings me to physical therapy downtown. I could probably take a bus or the L, but I’m still a little nervous about public transportation with my chair.”
I wanted to continue our conversation, but I hadn’t been invited. I was only here to get the notes I’d missed. “Thanks again for the notes,” I said when I’d finished copying the information. I tucked my notebook back into my school bag and returned her notes to hers.
“It's really no big deal,” Raleigh insisted. Her lips curled at the edges. “Besides, now you owe me one.”
Technically we were even because I’d given her my notes when she’d had to miss class for physical therapy, but I found I didn’t mind being in debt to her. I smiled back. “I guess I do.” I slung my bag over one shoulder and paused at her bedroom door. “Is it okay if I go out the front door? Or is your aunt going to freak out?”
“You'll be fine. She’s probably in her room praying or something.” Raleigh made a face. “’I’m sorry I can’t see you out,” she apologized. “Getting into my chair is this whole big thing and the hallway is carpeted, which slows me down even more.” It surprised me how unsure she looked. It was the first time I’d ever seen her uncomfortable.
I waved a hand. “No, no,” I dismissed. “I’m the one who showed up without warning you.”
“That’s true,” Raleigh noted, tilting her head. “Hey, have you heard about a Fall Harvest Festival out on County Road W this weekend?”
“Yeah. It’s kind of like an early Halloween-Homecoming-Oktoberfest hybrid party that Cook County puts on,” I confirmed with a nod. “They have pumpkin carving and hayrides, and kids get their faces painted and all that. I went freshman year with some of my friends.”
“Would you want to go with me?” she asked.
My heart fluttered in my chest and my throat constricted. “Oh, I, um.” I had no rational reason to say no. It was still too early in the school year to have fallen behind in homework, and I didn’t have to babysit for the Henderson’s on the weekends.
“Fall is my favorite season, but I’m afraid that I won’t be able to get my chair through the terrain on my own, and my aunt will be busy at a booth her church is hosting.” She tugged her lip between her top and lower rows of teeth. “And I really haven’t met too many people, and now that I’m saying the words out loud, I realize it’s probably a big inconvenience to ask you to drive all the way out here again.”
I couldn’t ignore how my once fluttering heart now seemed to drop into my stomach. I forced a grin to my face. “It’s no inconvenience at all. Besides, I owe you one, remember?” I assured her. “What time do you want me to pick you up?”
+ + +
“You know this is how scary movies start, right?” I announced uneasily. “Two college students on an abandoned county highway take a wrong turn and get cannibalized by a family of inbred hillbillies.”
My car bumped down the unpaved road. It was a foggy night, and I leaned forward, close to the windshield, to make out the road signs ahead. I didn’t often drive out to farm country, and the county highways were unfamiliar.
“I’m pretty sure I can list at least half a dozen movies that start off with that exact scenario,” Raleigh laughed.
Despite my discomfort, I was admittedly eager to spend time with Raleigh outside of school. In the few minutes before the classes we shared we never got the chance to really talk, and at lunch Lauren’s inane questions always dominated the conversation.
I put on my turn signal and pulled my car into a makeshift parking lot that doubled as a harvested cornfield.
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” she asked me.
“I don’t really like scary movies,” I admitted. My own life was scary enough without watching those kinds of films.
“That’s because you haven’t been introduced to the right scary movies,” Raleigh suggested, smiling brightly. “Don’t worry, we’ll have a movie marathon and I’ll have you hooked by the end. I’ll introduce you to all the classics: Friday the 13th, Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining,” she ticked off. “And don’t even get me started on Hitchcock films.”
“Wow. You really are a fan,” I murmured as I looked for a vacant parking spot in the plowed field.
“I just like movies,” she shrugged. “It’s one activity that I didn’t have to alter after the accident, kind of like reading books.”
“You bring the movies, and I’ll bring the popcorn,” I returned with an even smile.
I eventually found a parking spot and turned off the car’s engine. I was out of the vehicle and grabbing Raleigh’s wheelchair out of the trunk before she could even take off her seatbelt. By the time I reached the front passenger side with the wheelchair, Raleigh had her door open and her legs were swung out.
“What do you need me to do?” I asked. When I’d shown up at Raleigh’s house that afternoon, her aunt had helped her into my car. Her aunt had eyeballed my vehicle as I’d put the folded up wheelchair into the trunk, but hadn’t voiced whatever misgivings she was clearly feeling. I wanted to be useful and not an awkward bystander the second time around.
“Set the locks for me?” she requested. “I’d hate to roll away.”
I did what was asked and stood back. “Anything else?”
“I’ve got this part,” she assured me as she carefully hefted herself out of the passenger seat with just the strength of her upper arms. I couldn’t help but reflect on how jealous Lauren would be. “I’m usually pretty good getting out of cars. It’s the getting in that takes me some time.”
I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jacket and did my best to ignore how families and couples slowed down as they walked by us and openly stared at Raleigh as she maneuvered out of the car and into her wheelchair. I wanted to yell at them like Jenn had done to the red muscle car or at least to shoot them dirty looks, but I didn’t want to make a scene. Instead, I took Raleigh’s own advice and imagined that they were only gawking because she was so attractive. That part wasn’t hard to imagine, at least. She was beautiful.
That night Raleigh had retired her usual sundress and cardigan for jeans and a sweater. Her hair was pulled half up away from her face, but a few loose tendrils were purposely loose and framed her face. A pale pink lip-gloss colored her pouting mouth. Her hazel eyes looked even more dramatic off-campus. Her long eyelashes were expertly mascara’d and the smoky eye shadow perfectly complimented the color of her irises. The night was early, but I’d already caught myself staring at her several times and had to consciously remind myself that I wasn’t single.
My phone buzzed inside my purse with an incoming text. I’d turned off the ringer, but had left it on vibrate.
It was from my brother Damien. We rarely talked, only enough to keep tabs on each other. He still lived in the Memphis area with his wife Sandra and their kid, Austin. His messages were usually more verbose, but if it were an emergency he would have called me.
“Yeah. Perfect,” I said. I shoved my phone back into my bag without replying to the message and focused on my company instead.
When Raleigh finally settled into her chair, she gave an experimental push. Her gloved fingers curled around both wheels to see how easily she could operate the wheelchair on the bumpy terrain. “I might need a little shove,” she decided. “The ground is pretty uneven.”
“No problem.” I scrambled to position myself behind her, happy to help. “I’ve got you.”
Scattered hay crunched under my boots and the wheels of Raleigh’s chair as I pushed her out of the parking lot and towards the festivities. I could see long rows of pumpkins, or rather jack-o-lanterns, flickering in the distance. Excited children swarmed around us, darting from one activity to the next. Even though it was too early for Halloween, most of the little kids were dressed in costumes and some adults were, too.
“This is amazing,” Raleigh’s voice rang out. “Candied apples, apple cider, apple donuts. I love fall.”
I smiled at her enthusiasm. “What do you want to do first?” I asked.
“The haunted house, definitely.”
I spotted the sign for the haunted house off to our right. I hadn’t noticed it before. I’d mostly been distracted by the feeling of multiple sets of eyeballs on us and making sure I didn’t tip Raleigh’s wheelchair over. The line to the haunted house snaked around the corner of an old dilapidated barn. I didn’t know why people would pay to wait in line for the chance to be scared when that money could have been spent on caramel apples instead.
“Don’t tell me that getting scared on purpose is your idea of fun?”
She smiled broadly. “I take it you’re not a fan.”
I normally wouldn’t have entertained going inside, but I stupidly didn’t want Raleigh to believe I wasn’t up for anything.
“I suppose since we’re here,” I reluctantly relented. I tipped her chair back on its back wheels to push her over around a particularly deep crevice and wheeled her in the direction of the line waiting to be admitted to the haunted attraction.
They were letting in small groups of about six or eight go through at a time. The line moved forward in short bursts, and as the main entrance of the worn barn came in sight, the more I felt my palms sweat and my stomach churn.
I thought I was doing a good job of hiding my anxiety, but Raleigh seemed to sense that something was off. “You can still back out,” she observed over one shoulder. “I could probably get my chair through there without your help.”
“Not a chance.” I shook my head. “If you’re gonna do it, so am I.”
She saw right through my false bravado. “Because you want to go in the haunted house, or because you don’t want to look like a chicken?”
High-pitched shrieks rose above our conversation. I reflexively tightened my grip on the handles of Raleigh’s chair, but I continued to move forward in line.
This was a bad idea. The last time I’d been in a haunted house I’d been in the eighth grade. It had been summer in Memphis: hot, sticky, and humid. A group of kids from my school were going to a haunted wax house and I’d tagged along, desperately wanting to break into their inner circle and wanting to befriend one girl in particular, who in hindsight had probably been my first real crush.
The wax house had been highly air conditioned to keep the figures from melting in the southern heat, and my bare arms had prickled with goosebumps from the dropped temperature instead. The house had been dark and the hallways we had walked were narrow. The dioramas consisted of wax figures of creatures like vampires and zombies, illuminated by strobe lights. Everyone else had laughed and talked through the entire attraction, but I’d been tense and unsure, not wanting to embarrass myself in front of a significant faction of my class.
Everything had been fine until we had reached the very end. I could see the literal light at the end of the tunnel, and I knew I was seconds away from exiting the wax house unscathed. But just as I was about to step into the sunshine outside, someone had grabbed me from behind and whispered ‘Red Rum’ into my ear.
I’d turned on whoever had grabbed me and had swung with all the strength I could muster. I couldn’t remember much else except that I’d run out of the house, not staying behind to find out whom I had punched or if they were okay, and I certainly hadn’t stuck around to receive the ridicule of my peers. I was a social pariah and nothing except an extreme change of location would remedy that.
When Raleigh and I reached the front of the line, we were ushered into the converted barn. We moved deeper inside, making room for the people shuffling in behind us. It was dark in the barn. Too dark. Looking up, there was no sense of where the ceiling was. My body tensed all over knowing that someone could jump out at me without warning.
A spotlight turned on and shined down in the center of the room to illuminate a man I hadn’t realized was there. He was round in build with an impressive mustache twisted with wax at the ends. Someone in our group, a woman I’d guess based on the high-pitched noise, squealed. A collective, nervous laugh followed.
I had managed to not make a noise, but my hands had seized around the handles of Raleigh’s chair.
She patted a gloved hand over mine. “Scared yet?”
I leaned down so she could hear me over the nervous twittering around us. “Bring it,” I challenged with borrowed courage.
“Ladies and gentlemen, gather 'round!” The man in the center of the room had a booming voice, even without a microphone.
I pushed Raleigh’s chair purposefully forward, mindful not to run her into the couple standing in front of us. My phone buzzed again in my purse. I wasn’t one of those people who were constantly on their phone, but I was still tempted to check it in case it might give me a valid excuse to skip out on the haunted house.
I need to talk to you. It was another text from Damien.
“You’re awfully popular,” Raleigh remarked, noticing me on my phone again. “Unless you asked everyone you know to text you tonight to impress me.”
“Is it working?” I leaned closer to Raleigh’s face before I realized what I was doing.
Stop it, Harper. Remember your girlfriend?
I swallowed hard and stood up straight, hoping she hadn’t noticed. But the more I got to know Raleigh, the more I realized that things didn’t escape her notice.
The ringmaster continued to draw our attention, and I returned my phone to my purse. “Gird your loins, ladies and gentlemen, because beyond that door you will come face to face with the most gruesome, horrifying, nightmare-inducing frights this side of the Mississippi.” The spotlight audibly clicked and the yellow glow gained a sickly green hue.
“For those of the faint of heart,” the man dramatically lowered his voice, “I suggest you exit now before it’s too late. But for those of you foolish enough to continue, right this way.”
A hidden door opened across the room, bathing the immediate area with light.
“Last chance,” Raleigh sing-songed, sounding far too cocky for my liking.
I’d run out of smart comebacks, so I wheeled her chair in the direction of the open door as my response.
The barn had been partitioned into a number of separate rooms rather than a winding labyrinth with frights around each new corner. We moved from one scene to the next, each diorama more disturbing than the next.
The first room we walked into played on the farming theme of the barn. People dressed as farm workers populated the scene, but instead of cultivating vegetables or livestock, they were harvesting body parts. Each farmhand wore a uniform of overalls and a flannel shirt. Their faces were painted white and their eyes were heavily shadowed. Stage blood was spackled at the corners of their mouths. The creatures swung lazily like sluggish zombies as we went by. I tried to make myself as small as possible, hunching my shoulders and holding my arms tight against my torso so none of the swiping arms could touch me.
Another room had abandoned the farming motif for oversized dolls and toys. It was hard to tell which figurines were statues and which were real people until you walked by and they jerked to life. When a ballet dancer I was sure wasn’t real began to dance beside me, I sucked in a sharp breath and gripped the handles of Raleigh’s chair tighter. I didn’t trust myself not to take a swing at anyone who might jump out at me, or worse yet, who might try to grab me.
Raleigh leaned toward me, and I bent over to hear her better. “This is …”
“—a little impressive for the suburbs?” I finished for her.
Each passageway we went through was partially blocked by thick hanging strips of plastic like we were walking through an old-school car wash. With one hand on Raleigh’s chair and the other pushing the plastic strips out of the way, I was vulnerable to anything lurking just beyond the threshold. Each time we passed through a doorway, I sucked in a sharp breath and only exhaled when I was midway through the next scary scene.
Raleigh was mostly silent throughout the house, and with her back toward me, I couldn’t tell if she was having any fun. For myself, I was simply trying to hold it together until we got to the end of the haunted house without embarrassing myself too much.
We continued to follow the line in front of us into the next room. The doorway was dark and it felt like hundreds of fingers passing over the outsides of my arms. Raleigh made a noise that resembled a giggle. I swallowed down my own reaction. I could have sworn someone whispered my name, but I was sure I’d imagined it. The high stress scenario had me on edge and ready to believe that my surroundings were real instead of the fabricated talents of some local theater program.
In the next room, a manic clown—complete with a rainbow-colored, puffy wig and oversized red nose—stood over a bloody hospital bed. His face was painted in a permanent grin, which made the giant butcher knife he held in one hand even more out of place. He stabbed the hospital bed where a mannequin lay. Every time the knife struck, a woman’s scream pierced over a hidden stereo system.
“Jesus,” Raleigh shuttered. “That’s not right.”
Zombies and giant dolls I could handle, but not this. I spotted the exit nearby and I pushed Raleigh’s wheelchair faster than I had been before. Luckily there was no one in front of us or I might have mowed him or her down. Raleigh must have felt the increase in speed because her hands clutched the arms of the chair to keep from tumbling out.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed out when we finally reached the exit. “I had to get out of there. Hospitals wig me out.”
“It’s okay. I’m not a fan either. Too much time in them lately,” she noted, punching lightly at her legs.
“Oh, right.” I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d only been thinking about my mother and the numerous facilities she’d been in and out of over the years.
“Now that I’ve sufficiently terrified you, do you think we could carve a pumpkin?” Raleigh asked hopefully. “Or do you think that’s just for kids?”
I removed my hands from my jacket pockets and tightened my fingers around the handles of her wheelchair. “Oh, I’m positive there’s a pumpkin in there waiting for you.”
A large banquet-style tent had been erected in a harvested field. Fold-up chairs and long tables were set up with pumpkins of various sizes and decorating supplies on the tables. The ground was relatively flat like the rest of the festival grounds, but deep tilling ridges made my help necessary for Raleigh’s chair to navigate the uneven terrain.
I parked Raleigh’s chair at a vacant table and sat in a seat beside her. She immediately grabbed a squat, round pumpkin and thin bristled paintbrush. In lieu of letting children handle knives, paint and markers were laid out on each table rather than more traditional pumpkin carving supplies. Following her lead, I chose my own pumpkin—a tall, skinny gourd with a long, curved stem.
We sat silently as we set to the task of painting our respective pumpkins. Thinking of the clown from the haunted house, I concentrated on a bright red nose and wide, curving mouth.
“One need not be a chamber to be haunted/One need not be a house/The brain has corridors surpassing/Material place.” Raleigh’s words were a quiet murmur as though she didn’t realize she was speaking aloud.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You and Kelley should hang out. She loves stuff like that.”
Raleigh’s hazel eyes remained focused on her pumpkin. “Maybe I like hanging out with you.”
My lips twitched. “I didn’t mean it like that,” I quickly corrected. “I like hanging out with you, too.” It wasn’t a lie; I was having fun, even the haunted house hadn’t been that bad.
Although I focused on my pumpkin, I couldn’t help my periodic glances at Raleigh much like I did in the classes we shared. Her hazel eyes were trained on her own handiwork and the tip of her pink tongue peeked out from between equally pink lips in a look of concentration and determinedness. She was in her own world, oblivious to the pointed stares of others—mostly curious children who didn’t know not to gawk.
“How do you handle everyone staring all the time?”
“It took some getting used to,” she said. “But I’ve learned that the more at ease I appear with being in my chair, the more it puts others at ease about the chair, too. It’s nice when people start looking at me first and only realize I’m different afterwards.”
Her words brought to mind the first day of school when I’d met Raleigh and how uncomfortable I’d felt because of the elevated lab tables.
I painted the finishing touches on my clownish pumpkin. I scrutinized the finished product with the same critical eye I seemed to use with everything I did. The blue paint around the pumpkin’s painted eyes made the face look more melancholy than I’d intended.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” Raleigh rasped.
I frowned at my pumpkin. I was talented at a number of things, but art was not one of them. “Mine’s not very good,” I qualified.
“It’s not a contest,” she reassured me.
“Okay,” came my reluctant affirmation. “On three.”
We counted down together: “One ... two ... three.” I spun the still-wet face of my pumpkin in Raleigh’s direction, and she mirrored my actions.
While I had gone for a whimsical theme, Raleigh had stayed traditionally Halloween. But instead of a scary face, she’d gone for an intricate spider web that sprawled across one whole side of the pumpkin. The brushstrokes were impossibly straight, coming together to form a complicated geometric pattern.
“Wow,” I openly admired. “That’s really cool.”
Raleigh laughed. “Thanks. Yours is terrifying.”
“Hey! I didn’t want to go for scary,” I defended my art.
Raleigh’s smile was nearly as wide as the painted clown grin. “Then you succeeded.”
My phone continued to jump and jerk in my purse, buzzing with a number of incoming messages. I dug my phone out of my bag and skimmed through the new texts. I had messages from Kelley, Maia, and Jenn, each message questioning my whereabouts. Jenn had suggested we hang out over the weekend, but we’d made no concrete plans that I was consciously ditching. I had a third text from Damien, echoing his earlier message that I call him.
“Sorry,” I apologized, fingers already dancing over the text keyboard. “I should probably respond or they’ll never leave me alone.”
I typed out the words I’ll call you later before sending the duplicate message to Jenn, Damien, and my friends.
“We don’t have to stay if you have someplace you’d rather be.”
I looked up from my phone screen. Raleigh was chewing on her lower lip.
“It's okay if you have to go or something,” she repeated.
I turned off the vibrating feature on my phone and shoved the annoying device back in my purse. “Everything is fine,” I said with a reassuring smile. I slapped my hands on top of my thighs to shake off the unexpected guilt that had settled in my stomach. “Where to next?”
We spent another hour at the festival with me guiding Raleigh’s wheelchair from one corner of the pumpkin patch to the other, stopping at craft booths to browse and looking at the jack-o-lantern display. Conversation was easy and light, and for a few moments, I was able to ignore the constant surveillance of the other festival attendees. Raleigh might have been used to all of those eyeballs, but I was acutely aware of how people stared at us.
When we’d eaten our share of Indian fry bread and caramel apples, I steered Raleigh back to my parked car. I waited patiently while she transferred from her wheelchair to the front passenger seat. I smiled at the families who walked by us on their way back to their own cars. Quite a few children openly stared as Raleigh carefully hefted her body from chair to car, but at least their parents had some sense of decorum and tugged harder on their arms to hurry them along or hissed at them under their breath to stop staring in our direction. But Raleigh appeared unconcerned about all the attention, so I tried to put myself at ease as well.
When I stored her wheelchair in the trunk, a flash of red paint drew my attention. “I’ll be right back,” I announced.
Parked a few cars away was a candy red muscle car. It looked like the same body style as the car Jenn had yelled at, but I couldn’t be sure. The antique vehicle was coated with a thin layer of dust like the other cars in the lot. My own car had gotten dirty as well from driving down the gravel road that led to the cornfields. I touched my palm to the hood. The dirt was gritty and the metal felt cool to the touch. The car had been parked there for a while.
Before I could further investigate, I heard Raleigh calling to me from the car. “Harper! Are you ready? It’s getting a little cold.”
I stared for a moment longer at the antique car before hustling back to my own vehicle and my waiting passenger. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” I apologized, sliding behind the steering wheel.
“Are you into old cars?”
“That red car back there?” she clarified.
“Oh yeah.” I shook my head. “My dad had a car just like it.” I didn’t know why I lied, and especially why I had created that specific lie. I had no idea what kind of car my father drove.
Raleigh’s aunt’s house was only a few miles from the county festival. We sat in my idling car in front of the ranch home. A single porch light illuminated the otherwise dark driveway.
Raleigh twisted at the waist and unbundled her seatbelt. “This was really nice, Harper. Thank you for pushing me around.”
“Thank you for inviting me,” I countered. “I didn’t realize how much I missed doing things like that.”
Raleigh’s eyes were trained on the tops of her legs. “And thanks … thanks for being my friend.”
I swallowed down the lump that had appeared in my throat. “I know it’s not easy transitioning to a new city and a new school. Do you miss your friends and family out East?”
“Sometimes,” she admitted, with a bob of her head. Twin hazel eyes blinked back at me from beneath heavy eyelashes. The moonlight cast peculiar shadows and shapes on her beautiful face. “But Chicago isn’t turning out to be so bad.”