That October, their father suggested they wear an animal costume for Halloween. A horse or a donkey or zebra. One twin could be the front half, and the other the back.
“Won’t we have trouble walking upstairs?” they asked, horrified.
“Ah, right,” said their father. They saw, in the mirror, how his face fell and they felt a twinge of guilt for him. His best ideas never panned out.
Naomi used to handle the costumes and Lionel didn’t know how she came up with the ideas or made the girls go along with them. His only thought was to put them inside one costume. Save them all some trouble and money too, but the girls had raised an important concern.
So, what now, Naomi? he asked in his head, but his late wife did not respond.
He had shaved off his mustache long ago, before his wedding, but lately, he felt the ghost of it like a phantom mustache hovering over his lip. As if being a widower returned him to bachelorhood. He looked in the rearview.
“What will you be then?” he asked the girls. “It’s Halloween. You can be whatever you want.”
Their father was wrong. They could not be whatever they wanted. Not this year. What they wanted was secondary to what they needed to be, and that was: different.
Each of them had made the decision not to be matching. They’d been matching every year before then, in costumes their mother had made. But now they were seven, their mother was dead, and their father was helpless. They longed to be something—anything—for once, of their own.
Neither twin told the other about the vow she had made with herself, so it became a waiting game. She could not choose a costume until her sister did. But, of course, her sister could not choose a costume either. They were stuck and they more or less figured out what the other was up to because of it. Even this private pact became something shared.
When their father parked, they looked at each other and shrugged.
Hall of Hauntings was open all year. The adult costumes were horribly gruesome. Bloody werewolves, bloody doctors, bloody brides. There was blood everywhere and a million body parts. Swollen lips, bulging eyeballs, hairy man legs.
It wasn’t the most kid-friendly store. Lionel had forgotten that.
“Let’s stick together,” he said. “I’ll grab mine first.”
Lionel wanted to be a cow. It was the subtle gender swapping of it that was fun. He’d have udders. And fake eyelashes. It would be almost like dressing up as a lady. That’s what was great about Halloween. On a normal day, he had no desire to dress this way. But because he could on Halloween, he figured why not?
“Wait here,” he said as he went into the dressing room. He put on the cow suit quickly and came out to show them. He stared at himself for a minute, loving it. A cow was such a majestic, maternal creature.
“Girls,” he said. But his girls were not in the reflection.
“Shit,” he said. Then, “Sorry,” to apologize to them for the swear.
But no, his girls were nowhere behind him. His tail swept back and forth on the dirty ground as he paced and then ran.
“Girls?” he said, shouting now. “Girls!”
Silently, they walked away from their father and away from each other. They parted separate paths through the wigs and the face paints, passing a dress made of doll heads, two clowns with yellow teeth and bloodshot eyes. They wondered about this holiday. Why did adults return to these childish things? The dress looked so heavy. And all those doll heads would bang together whenever you walked. There was something about the clown’s smile that looked like their father. They hated that they thought that. But they did. The baby aisle was similarly confounding. Babies as lobsters being cooked in pots. A baby as what looked like a homeless man. A baby with a lump of poop it could wear on its head. Humiliating.
One sister strolled slowly with a hand out, touching every costume she passed. She’d stop to consider an option before finding its flaw. She could be a shark but that was boyish, a cat but that was boring, a giraffe with a long neck that would extend up from her head with a hole for her face. Disgusting, how a face would come out of a neck like that.
The other sister walked more deliberately. She thought she knew what she wanted. She’d eye a section and rush toward it and then stop, look at a costume and know that no, she was wrong. Even when she did find what she’d been looking for, the reality of it wasn’t what she had pictured. She rejected a watermelon, a vampire, a pilot.
Ok, each sister thought. Pick something. We don’t have much time.
When their father found them, they were inside costumes that they’d tried on over their clothes: a hotdog and an elderly man.
“I couldn’t find you,” he said, breathless. “Do you know how scared I was?” One daughter was blanketed by a hotdog bun. The other had a bald cap and a cane. They were beautiful, his daughters.
“Do you know how scared that makes me?” He meant to yell at them for leaving him in this store full of nightmares, alone. He meant to make his voice loud and foreboding.
To frighten them with his own catastrophic ideas of what might have been.
“Girls,” he said again and bent toward them. He could do it, be angry. Do it, he said to himself, in Naomi’s voice.
He saw them, all three, reflected: a cow, a hotdog, a shrunken old man. He didn’t know who was in which costume, but it didn’t matter.
The old man’s wire glasses slipped down her nose. He put a hand around each of their heads and pulled them into his shoulders. The hotdog smelled slightly of relish.
“Ok,” he whispered. “Ok,” he said, crying softly. “We’re ok. We’re ok.”
Their father paid for their costumes and they left, still wearing them. The girls didn’t know why he had cried like that. His eyelashes, as a cow, looked longer. Didn’t they? And they felt a little afraid of his udders—why? It was a small fear that they found fascinating. The way they felt about the tooth fairy, whom they no longer believed in but who remained—strangely—a greedy, invisible possibility. They kept thinking about it as they drove home. How, when he had bent down to hug them, his udders had been right there, rubbery, hollow.
They thought of their mother, too. They missed her. She would never have let their father dress in that cow suit.
Still, they had done it, found something different to be for a while. This is what it felt like. They tried to comfort themselves with that, looking at each other look different. But they knew that even inside their separate costumes, their thoughts were the same. And they didn’t feel any different, anyway.
When the car pulled into the driveway, nobody said anything. Inside the house, they each stood in a different closet with the door closed. They peeled off one set of clothing, and they put on the next.
Rebekah Bergman’s fiction is published in Hobart, Joyland, DIAGRAM, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Masters Review, among other journals. She is a contributing editor of NOON. Read more: rebekahbergman.com