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Leaf Piles

Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches writing classes through Wordcrafters in Eugene and Fairfield County Writers' Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html. Story notes: One of the possible Wordos' Halloween prompts for 2020 was "Ghost guests."

At dusk, Anna went outside and grabbed a rake. The leaves weren't going to rake themselves.
It was Halloween. She dreaded the annual influx of goblins and witches and ghosts demanding tribute. Maybe if she mounded the leaves up in a barrier wall, the monsters would skip her house this year.
She raked, and not into barrier walls, but into big piles. She was seventy-six and tired of buying candy for other people's kids. Anymore, every holiday was just an excuse to buy temporary decor. Everyone she loved was dead. She didn't need holidays anymore.
Why couldn't she become the curmudgeon she was meant to be?
She had bought one pumpkin and put it, uncarved, on the front porch. Trader Joe's was swarming with pumpkins. White ones, bumpy ones, tiny ones. She bought one normal orange one, her concession to the holiday. And she had bought candy, lord help her, the Trader Joe's version of peanut butter cups, just to mess with the kids. I sneer at your desire for Reese's. Have some dark chocolate, you little buggers.
It was a crisp autumn evening, and she was wearing a sweater under her winter jacket. The leaves were heavy--maple, sweetgum, oak. The spice of autumn rose as she raked. She could have a bonfire, maybe. But she'd have to move the leaves to the back yard, where she had a firepit. That was her idea of a celebration. She loved looking into flames. She and Johann had spent many good hours by the fires they'd built in their fireplace, and more hours of summer evenings by the firepit. One of the reasons they had bought this house: a generous fireplace. Since Johann died, all the fireplace hosted were the ashes of their last indoor fire together.
She raked with renewed energy. A fire. Johann had been dead two years, and she hadn't lit a fire since he passed. Tonight, she'd change that. She put down the rake and got the wheelbarrow out of the garden shed. She wheeled it around to the front of the house and loaded it with leaves.
"Hey! Anna! Let me help you." It was Stan, the next-door neighbor.
Stan. The most irritating neighbor she and Johann had had in the thirty-eight years they'd lived in this house. Twenty years younger than she, always snooping, pushing, forcing help on her, treating her like the grandmother she never became. Her son had died in Iraq when he was nineteen.
Maybe she'd take advantage of Stan this time. He was younger, after all, only in his fifties, and stronger, though she worked out every day in her home gym to keep herself fit. "All right," she said, grudgingly. "I want to take these leaves around back to burn."
He grabbed armfuls of leaves and loaded more into the wheelbarrow. "All these years and I've never seen your back yard," he said. "And hey, it's my birthday today."
"Congratulations. Must be weird having a Halloween birthday."
"Candy from strangers. It's a good day. Plus, you know, ghosts."
"What?" said Anna.
"Halloween's the day ghosts can come back and visit, so I get to see my twin sister."
"Huh." Too much information, Anna thought. For twenty years she'd resisted getting to know Stan. He drove out of his garage every morning at eight, and drove home at five-thirty in his red Subaru Outback, the fourth or fifth red station wagon he'd had in the time she'd been acquainted with him. He had a dog, some kind of mutt, which he walked several times a day. That was all she knew or wanted to know about him.
"Full!" Stan announced, gesturing toward the wheelbarrow. "Shall I push it?"
"Sure," said Anna. "Thanks." She went before him and opened the gate in the tall wooden fence that guarded the back yard from the gaze of everyone. She and Johann had never invited Stan to any of the social events they held in the back yard. It would be strange to have him here.
"Wow!" Stan said. Anna looked at the back yard with new eyes. Johann had laid out the patio flagstones carefully, so that their shapes fit together and their colors made a pattern. Around the oval edge was her garden: the cement Japanese lanterns, the persimmon tree, the Japanese maple tree, the rhododendron and azalea bushes, still green, while the oak and maple trees had dropped most of their leaves.
Anna went to the big firepit and lifted the screen off it. Ashes. She and Johann had had a fire out here the night before he died in his sleep. He had been ill only two months. Pancreatic cancer moved so fast.
Halloween. Stan's birthday. A day for ghosts.
The sun had set, and the sky was growing darker. She went to the back door, opened it, and turned on the outside lights, the fairy lamps she had bought five years ago.
"Nice," Stan said.
She tried to push the wheelbarrow closer to the firepit. It was too heavy.
Stan came. "Let me," he said, gently, and wheeled it to the firepit. They both dropped armfuls of leaves on top of the old ashes.
The doorbell rang in the house. Curses. Halloween. She hadn't turned on the front porch light, but that didn't mean the little greedyguts wouldn't come. And she had left the front door unlocked.
"Excuse me," she said, and went in the kitchen door, down the hall to the front door. She turned on the porch light and opened the door, resigned, the bowl of candy in her hand.
A goth teenage witch stood on her doormat, holding a broom and a wand. "Trick or treat," she said.
"Lyra?" Anna asked. Was this the child of the good neighbors who lived on her other side? When had she grown so tall?
The witch looked up at her. "Treat, I think," she said, and Anna was not sure this was Lyra. Anna held out the candy bowl. The witch waved it away. "Light your fire," she said, making a circle with her wand, which sparkled. "You will get your desire."
"Thank you," said Anna, confused. The witch turned and walked down the front steps into the twilight.
Anna closed and locked the front door, turned the lights off, then grabbed the box of long matches from the mantel. She went out to the waiting firepit in the back yard.
Stan had loaded all the leaves into it, even gone back for another barrow-full. He stood, shadowed, by the pit.
Anna set a match to the leaves and flames flared. The smoky scent reminded her of winter fires, campfires, summer fires with Johann and their son.
Sparks flew up from the burning leaves, and shadows flickered. Three took form.
"Hey, sis," said Stan.
Johann drifted to Anna out of the darkness, holding the hand of a shadowy man, gone so many years, their tall son, Berndt.
Anna pressed her hands to her chest, waiting, wondering, hoping.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 10th, 2021


Author Comments

One of the possible Wordos' Halloween prompts for 2020 was "Ghost guests."

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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