Sylvia wanted to be a ghost for Halloween.
There were only five days left until her school’s annual Halloween Parade, and Sylvia was ready. She had already chosen a long, flowing sheet (the whitest she could find) and picked out her favorite shoes (pink ballet flats with butterflies on top). She had even practiced shouting BOO! until it was just the right amount of scary. Everything was perfect.
There was just one problem. Sylvia’s best friend Mary was a ghost every year, and she didn’t want Sylvia to be one, too. It was odd because Mary was usually so excited to learn what Sylvia was going to be for Halloween. They were meeting today at their regular spot, an old oak tree in the park, and Sylvia was eager to see her. When she arrived, Mary was waiting on a branch halfway up the tree, like always.
“You always have such pretty costumes, Sylvia. Why would you want to be a plain old ghost like me?” Mary cocked her head as she peered down at Sylvia from her perch. “I really liked that fairy princess costume you had last year, the one with the big, glittery wings. It made you look as if you could really fly with them.”
Sylvia shifted in her seat on the lowest branch of the tree so she could see Mary better. “I did really like all the ruffles on the pink dress I wore. But you always seem to have so much fun being a ghost every year. Why don’t you want me to be one too?”
Mary looked at Sylvia like she was dumb. “I bet you could say you wanted to dress up as anything in the world, and your parents would go out and make you the prettiest costume in town as soon as you told them. And now all you want to wear is a bedsheet?”
“You wear a bedsheet.”
“It’s not a bedsheet! It’s a parachute!” Mary flapped her sheet superciliously around her.
“It is, too!” Sylvia laughed as she ducked the acorn that came sailing toward her.
“Whatever. I still think it’s a waste. The one time out of the year you can wear any beautiful thing you want, and you choose that over fairy wings.” Mary sighed, swinging her legs back and forth over the open air that separated them. “You’d better go home before you miss dinner. Come back tomorrow so you can show me your costume before the parade. Don’t forget!”
“I won’t!” Sylvia promised as she hopped down, “But we’ll have to meet in the morning instead of after school. I’ve got piano lessons tomorrow.” She turned to wave goodbye before she lost sight of Mary beneath the leafy canopy. “Anyway, you probably need to go home soon, too. See you tomorrow!”
Mary waved back, swinging harder on her tree branch. Sylvia didn’t know how Mary could be at ease when she was so high up in the tree, but Mary never seemed to worry. Whenever Sylvia came to talk to Mary, she was always up among the leaves with her sheet wrapped around her. She was a good friend.
That night, Sylvia’s dreams were filled with thoughts of the Halloween parade. All her friends and family would be there, and everyone would agree that she was the cleverest, prettiest, scariest ghost they had ever seen. She would be at the head of the parade, riding in a long black limousine. Even Mary would have to agree that Sylvia made a good ghost when she saw that!
When Sylvia trotted outside the next morning, costume in tow, she found the world awash with morning dew, scoured clean by a brisk breeze. She’d have to be fast to make it to the park before the bus came. Even though the sun had just barely lit the tips of the oak tree’s branches, Mary was already there, only her head visible as she huddled beneath her sheet. She stared interestedly at the bag Sylvia carried.
Sylvia proudly reached in and pulled out her pink ballet flats and her long white sheet. Mary wasn’t very close to the bottom of the tree, but she seemed to have no trouble seeing as Sylvia lifted the articles aloft. She nodded appreciatively at the shoes.
“They’re such a pretty color, and they look brand new, too,” complimented Mary as Sylvia beamed excitedly. “But the rest of the costume . . . it’s still just a sheet.” She wrinkled her nose at the plain white fabric.
Sylvia shrugged and hung it carefully on a tree branch as she took off her sneakers so Mary could see what the pink flats looked like on. “My mom said there’s really tiny patterns in it if you look closely. I think it’s pretty. And besides, ghosts aren’t supposed to be super fancy, right?”
“Right,” muttered Mary under her breath. “But your whole costume is basically just that one sheet,” she said aloud. “What if something happened to it? What would you do then?”
Sylvia stopped what she was doing to think about it for a minute. “I’d probably just use one of my old costumes again. There isn’t really time to try to find the exact same fabric again. Halloween is only four days away.”
Mary’s expression changed, as if she were thinking carefully about something. She focused again on Sylvia below, who was taking pains to make sure her shoes stayed clean of any mud. “Would you wear the fairy costume again?”
“Maybe. I think that one is the easiest to get back out since it’s the one I wore last year. Do you think my shoes will be the nicest in the whole parade?”
Mary ignored her and looked out from her vantage point in the tree. “Isn’t that the bus coming over there? We’d better go if you don’t want to miss it. I’ll be right behind you!”
“Oh no!” Sylvia exclaimed as she hurriedly tried to switch shoes again. “How close is it? I can’t be late again!” She stuffed her ballet flats into her bag and rushed off towards the bus stop, leaving Mary behind, sitting in her tree.
That evening Sylvia opened her bag, expecting to be welcomed by clean, white fabric, but all that greeted her were the black soles of her ballet flats. Sylvia’s mind flew, thinking of all the places she had been that day. Had she left it at school? Did she put it somewhere else? Had someone stolen it? How could she have been so careless?
The clouded sky outside somehow seemed darker that night without the white sheet in Sylvia’s room, and the next morning was no lighter. Reluctantly, Sylvia told her parents that she had lost it, lamenting her grievances to Mary as soon as she got to the old oak tree.
“I know where it is.” Mary said, plucking a leaf off of a nearby twig and studying it. “It’s stuck up in the top of this tree. You must have left it behind the other day because you were in a hurry, and the wind carried it up into the branches.”
If Mary helped her get her costume back, then maybe Sylvia could still be a ghost after all! She looked eagerly up at Mary. “Can you get it for me? Can I still wear it to the parade tomorrow? Thank you so much for finding it!”
Mary cast a sideways glance from underneath the edge of her own sheet as it lay hanging over her forehead. “I could, but it’s not very easy to get to. It’s really high up. It might be dangerous, you know. I could fall.”
“Oh.” Sylvia looked downcast. “Never mind, then.”
“Here, why don’t we make a deal? I’ll get your sheet down for you, and you give me those pretty wings from your fairy costume. Then we both get something for our trouble.” Mary offered.
“I don’t know. You said it was too high, and I already told my mom and dad I was going to be a fairy princess again this year,” Sylvia said, suddenly uneasy about the expression in Mary’s glassy eyes.
“Hey, you’re the one who’s so worried about a bedsheet, not me. I’m just trying to help you out; I don’t care. But there’s only three days until Halloween. If you don’t make up your mind by tomorrow, you won’t be able to be a ghost for the parade. That is what you really want, right?” Mary asked. She tossed her leaf into the open air and watched its swirling descent to the earth.
It was what she wanted. “Okay,” Sylvia replied, “but I won’t be able to give you the wings today. My dad was supposed to get my costume from the attic this evening.”
Mary huffed impatiently. “Alright. Come back again tomorrow afternoon.” She turned away from Mary so that she was facing the tree trunk. “But don't forget to bring them when you come!”
Sylvia thought about her costume all throughout the next day. Something about Mary had seemed different than normal, and it was kind of scary. Maybe she should just let it go and be content with going as a fairy princess two years in a row. And after all, if she gave the wings to Mary, she wouldn’t even be able to be a fairy princess anymore. Was it worth giving up being a fairy princess forever so she could be a ghost just this year?
And yet, Sylvia’s dreams of being the best ghost at the whole parade kept coming back to her. All of her plans for the Halloween Parade had seemed to disappear into smoke yesterday, and here was this one small chance that she could still get her costume back. She had been planning this for a while now, and she hated the thought of giving up now that Mary said she had found her costume. After all, there were only two days left until Halloween.
As the sun inched closer to the horizon, Sylvia determined that she wanted to be a ghost no matter what. Resolutely, she retrieved the wings from their box and put them on over her coat so she wouldn’t have to worry about carrying them. With the flimsy wings trembling in the breeze, she slipped out the back door into the fading twilight.
When Sylvia came to the foot of the tree, Mary was waiting for her with her sheet draped over her shoulders, sitting in the middle of the tree like always. “I almost didn’t think you were going to come. Why did you wait so late? If you don’t get any sleep tonight, it won’t be my fault.”
“I couldn’t come any earlier.” Sylvia fibbed, climbing onto the lowest hanging branch. “I want my costume. You can have the wings.”
“Whatever you say. Now, come up and we can trade!”
Sylvia balked. “Up to where you are? I can’t go that high, especially not in the dark! Can’t you come down to me instead?”
“Who’s to blame for the dark, do you think?” Mary said. “I found your precious bedsheet and climbed all the way to the top of this tree just to get it for you. The least you can do is climb up a few measly branches.”
“But I’ve never been up higher than the first branch. Why won’t you-”
“I just can’t!” Mary shouted. Her face contorted as Sylvia flinched. “I mean… Sylvia, please. It’ll be faster for you to come up than for me to go down with a giant sheet in my arms. You want your costume as soon as possible, right? Besides, it’s getting dark faster now. Stop wasting time.”
It was late, and Sylvia knew the later she stayed out the angrier her parents would be once they found out. All she had to do was climb a little higher to get her sheet. Just a little farther and she could still be the best in the whole parade tomorrow. Sylvia reached for the branch above her.
“You’re so slow. Come on, it’s not that high up,” Mary scoffed as she watched Sylvia laboriously pull herself onto the next branch. “Keep going. I want my wings and you want your sheet, right? So, hurry up, I haven’t got all night.”
Sylvia panted as she strained to make out her fingers against the bark of the tree. “But it’s so dark! I can barely see anything. I don’t want to fall!” She gasped as she felt the wind tease under the edge of her wings. The only thing Sylvia could make out in the moon-drunk darkness was Mary’s sheet as it wrapped around her, a pale, distorted shape that reached out to haul Sylvia upward another branch.
“Boohoo,” the shape muttered. “I fell before, and nobody cared. But once I get my wings, I won’t have to worry about that anymore. I’m going to fly away and be free from this stupid tree.”
“I can’t go any farther,” Sylvia whimpered, partially glad it was too dark to see how high up they were. The pallid bundle twisted to face her.
“Fine. I guess this is good enough. Here’s your sheet, now give me those wings.” A mass of fabric was shoved into Sylvia’s arms, nearly knocking her off balance. She could feel it was ripped almost into rags, and it smelled like dirt and mold. Sylvia recoiled as Mary impatiently plucked at the wings.
“This . . . This isn’t my sheet,” Sylvia mumbled. “You ruined my costume.” Her mind reeled. Had she snuck out in the middle of the night for nothing?
Sylvia swayed as Mary tugged harder, trying to pull the wings off of Sylvia’s body. Why was she here again? Was Mary helping Sylvia, or was Sylvia just here for Mary? Sylvia felt hot tears finally seep past her eyelashes as she wished she was safe in her bed. She should never have come. She wanted to be away from Mary. She hated the feeling of Mary’s cold, hard fingers digging into her skin. She would take her wings and go home.
Suddenly, Sylvia was yanked sharply to the left. Mary had managed to drag the armband of the left wing halfway down towards Sylvia’s elbow. Sylvia flailed as she tried to re-center herself, becoming even more unsteady as Mary tried to take advantage of Sylvia’s twisted position.
“Stop!” Sylvia cried as fear strangled a collar around her throat. “Stop!”
“No!” Mary shrieked, “I’ve had it with you! You’re so spoiled and you don’t even care. I’ve never had any pretty costumes. I’ve never been able to go anywhere I wanted. All I wanted was to fly, and look where that got me. I’m stuck in this stupid tree while you sit there with wings on your back. Give them to me!”
There was nowhere for Sylvia to go. She could feel her grip on the bark getting weaker as Mary’s frantic actions shook the unstable branch they were both clinging to. All Sylvia knew was that she wanted to get away from Mary, and to get away as fast as possible. She shoved Mary backward and glanced around, looking for another way down. Nothing but leaves bleeding into the night sky inches from her face. She took a desperate breath as Mary regained balance and reached out for her again. Go away! Get away! There was only one thing she could do. Sylvia flew.
She flew on wings made of wishes and glitter-stained cellophane. She flew right before Mary’s eyes, flew as Mary never had before in her life, as Sylvia never would again. Her hands still clutched the dirty, torn sheet, letting it obscure her vision as it billowed out around her like a broken parachute. And still she flew, caught by the rushing wind halfway between the sky and the ground.
A scream shattered the night. A barn owl raged at the waning moon.
Sylvia could hear Mary scrambling behind her, could feel her thin fingers straining futilely through her hair, pulling at her coat, clawing at her back as her wishes ran thin. Or maybe those were branches. Or maybe that was grass.
Day dawned pale and cold. The parade was finally happening, and all of Sylvia’s friends and family were gathered, waiting for Sylvia, the star of the parade. She came in a long, black car at the head of the procession. She wore a pink dress, the one with ruffles that made her look like a little princess. She wore her favorite shoes, pink ballet flats with butterflies on the top. And, over top of it all, she wore a long, flowing sheet, the whitest they could find.
It was Halloween day, and Sylvia was a ghost.