A strange curse opens the door to vendettas on Halloween. [all parts added, apologies for the wait]
[size=2]Giving up on any trick-or-treaters materializing on her front porch, Jennifer Matthews settled into the comfiest end of the couch under a fall-themed afghan when the first intrepid soul rang the doorbell. Taking a break from mindlessly scrolling through Netflix selections, the yawning thirtysomething made her way to the door in zombie-like fashion. Apropos for such a sleepy Halloween. More than two decades had passed since the holiday elicited anything more than a glimmer of interest. At least the entire godawful bag of seasonal “Cauldron Skittles” won’t totally go to waste, she figured, lazily unlocking the deadbolt.
On the other side stood a solitary, three-and-a-half foot nurse, complete with stethoscope draped around her neck and the requisite Florence Nightingale hat no modern healthcare professional has worn in ages. Jennifer grew a motherly glow, instinctually sympathizing with the miniature medical worker’s evident lack of friends.
“Well, hi there,” she said.
“Trick or trade!” the nurse replied, offering Jennifer a bite-size Snickers from her pumpkin pale.
Jennifer’s smile morphed into a smirk. “Don’t you mean treat?”
The rose-cheeked youngster’s expression remained stoney, betraying no hint of embarrassment at having bungled the Halloween greeting.
“Oh, you want to give me a piece of candy?” the chilly mom asked, eager to speed up the transaction. “Not a fan of Snickers, huh?” She graciously accepted the unorthodox offering and fished a cold package of rainbow candy from the popcorn bowl situated atop the nearby piano.
Watching the virgin bag of Skittles tumble into her pale with an expanding grin, the little redheaded Clara Barton became strangely attentive. Now smiling wide enough to reveal prominent holes where two front teeth should reside, the child’s expression took on an intense, almost sinister air.
“Thank you,” she responded with unnerving seriousness.
No sooner than the sound escaped the young doll’s lips, a tremor shook Jennifer’s core and traveled straight down her limbs, leading her to step back in confusion. The warning signs of heart attacks and strokes ticking off in her brain as she grappled with the wholly unfamiliar sensation. Grabbing her chest, she labored to calm herself while the useless mini-nurse continued her clinical evaluation in silence. Breathing deeply, like she’d learned in Lamaze class 15 years ago, Jennifer teetered across the living room and leaned awkwardly against the lip of the sofa. Preoccupied with the alien murmurations fluttering through her extremities, she nevertheless found time to begin freaking out over the trick-or-treater’s unannounced entry into her house.
“Sweetie,” she huffed. “I’m not sure what’s happening. Could you go grab your mommy?”
The child stayed planted, her head cocked slightly sideways like a curious cocker spaniel. Was there a hint of... glee in her eyes?
“Honey, go get your mom—” she repeated with renewed urgency. The uninvited guest finally spun on her heels and motioned toward the exit, only to halt at the door and nonchalantly pull it shut. A fleeting moment of normalcy spiraling back into weirdness.
Now acting perfectly at home inside a stranger’s house, the petite intruder casually waltzed over to the piano bench and took a seat, her legs rocking back and forth expectantly. More than a little confused, with mouth hanging helplessly open, Jen looked the dictionary illustration of nonplussed. Whatever Halloween shenanigans were transpiring she wanted them to end — now.
“What are you doing in my house?” she managed between audible gasps.
“You’ll see,” the doe-eyed girl eagerly assured. “Soon.”
The omen sounded a thousand times more ominous delivered in the delicate five-year-old falsetto. Jennifer’s stomach turned, taking a roller-coaster dive. A light spiderweb tickle crept up her legs, past her groin, coiling around her midriff before hugging her breasts. Expecting pain, the 38-year-old suburban housewife instead found a gentle, albeit distressing, tingle spreading across her entire form. But she would soon describe the strongest, most distinct sensation with one word: sinking.
What the hell was happening? Had Jennifer lifted her eyes, she would have witnessed her first clue.
“It’s working! Thank god,” the beaming grade-schooler proclaimed, jettisoning an annoying babyish lisp she’d come to despise. In mere moments, the tips of the girl’s swinging toes would begin brushing against the carpet. Once frightened by the accompanying physical symptoms, she barely flinched this time around. The light shone at the end of the silly little kid tunnel and the finer freedoms of adulthood beckoned. She could almost taste them.
Meanwhile, Jennifer underwent the same magic in reverse. With any prelude of middle age already erased, the pilates enthusiast reentered her prime. Skin tightened, wrinkles smoothed away like a real-time airbrushing, and her boobs started winning their battle with gravity. Basking in the short-lived phase proved impossible, however, as Jennifer’s vision blurred and she struggled to maintain her balance. Regaining her current physique had been a goal for the last decade, but the forces at work had other plans.
“Don’t worry,” the giddy 11-year-old nurse advised, a congregation of ruddy strawberry freckles disappearing from the bridge of her nose. “It happens pretty quick.”
As the visitor calmly greeted the indisputable signposts of puberty — a pair of humble ridges insinuating themselves on her chest, string-bean arms lengthening, face surrendering its sinless softness — Jennifer tumbled down through her 20s in a state of panic. An awesome decade, no doubt, but decidedly less fun when experienced in the wrong direction at high speed. Bewildered by the foreign sensations, she had no time to appreciate other fantastic changes taking place. As if the process weren’t unbelievable enough already, wardrobe alterations were also underway. Through watery eyes, Jennifer could just make out the young trespasser’s changing clothes. No longer decked out in nurse garb, the little girl — no, that description no longer fit — teenager appeared to acquire more grown-up attire. A black cami open-knit top and a stylish, knee-high dress.
“How... how are you doing this?” Jennifer stammered, unable to tell whether any similar sorcery was affecting her fuzzy mohair sweater and mom jeans.
But the interloper was too immersed in a glorious growth spurt to reply, reveling in the twin satisfactions of reentering maturity while watching Jennifer cede hers. As the grandfather clock in the hallway ticked forward, the trading partners began to approach the same age, in the vicinity of that coveted number — 21. The college juniors shared a passing moment of sisterhood before the enchantment sent both shooting off in opposite directions. As the “little” girl hailed her newfound adulthood by running her hands down her much taller figure, taking special pleasure in the full return of her modest but welcome breasts, Jennifer plummeted back into her perky, if ungraceful, teens. Shapely childbearing hips began to collapse. A cluster of zits swarmed her forehead and cheeks, fading just as quickly as they appeared. While the trick-or-treater’s transformation decelerated into more subtle changes, Jennifer’s nightmare was just entering its most dramatic chapter.
In seconds, the spell picked off puberty’s beautiful presents with precious little warning. First robbing from her chest, second her voice, followed by height. The blast swiftly reduced the saucer-eyed brunette pre-teen into a surprisingly squat child engulfed in a Forever 21 sweater. (No irony there.) The abrupt demotion prompted an unexpected eruption of laughter from Jennifer’s guest.
“Oh my god, I’m sorry,” the 35-year-old apologized, tossing her long, fiery-red hair over her shoulder. “You always seemed like the poster child for Planet Fitness. I just figured you’d always been a skinny little thing.”
Jennifer glanced down tentatively to view the damage at the close of trading, getting a much closer view of the floor than she was used to. And was that.. the frill of a dress? Mohair top gone, she discovered an uncomfortable, skin-tight periwinkle material hugging her round, irresistibly squeezable belly. Arms bare except for a makeshift corsage, Jennifer reached up to her head and felt the unmistakable outline of a cheap Walgreens tiara. Memories of the childhood costume came streaming back in high definition. Every detail was reproduced with amazing clarity — the emerald “jewels” spray-painted on, metallic silver finish, the way it started itching by the end of the night.
Wearing the world’s most sheepish expression, she finally tilted her head to view the human skyscraper. What she saw was a woman, about average height with a few extra pounds, but a pretty face, basking in the glow of a long-awaited release.
Jennifer hesitated to run a trial on her new vocal cords. “I’m... I’m a little girl? How did...?” the words tumbled out in a stuttering soprano. Tears welled.
“God, it feels good to finally be out of kiddie land,” the woman exclaimed, eyes closed, sucking in a lungful of sweet, adult air. “You have no idea.”
“But... ” Jennifer half-heartedly protested, suddenly suffering a childlike reluctance to challenge an authority figure. “I can’t be a little girl.”
“Oh, you most certainly can,” her captor coolly explained. “I’m afraid that’s how this works. My name is Christine, by the way. I used to live just down the street from you, but let’s just say I’ve been on... hiatus.”
The mysteries only mounted inside Jennifer’s soft little cranium. I don’t remember any Christine on Larkwood. Or did she?
“Sorry again about the laughing. That wasn’t very polite of me,” Christine continued, bending down to look her victim in the eye. Schadenfreude melting into empathy, she placed a finger under Jennifer’s quivering chin and lifted her head. “You’re absolutely adorable like this. A real peach. If I were your mom, this would be all over Instagram right now.”
Never had a compliment fallen on deafer ears.
“You want to know what happened,” Christine stated the obvious. “And now is the part where I tell you. Those are the rules.”
The curvy perpetrator left her crouch and returned to her throne at the piano, lingering at a crowded collage of framed photos clustered above. Maddeningly perfect pictures from Jennifer’s monthlong church trip to Scotland last year, a series of her daughter, Chloe, ranging from diapers to her latest dour school photo, precious few of her husband, and a smattering of requisite cat pictures. Back still turned, Christine began with a cryptic opener.
“No one really knows who started it or how long it’s been going,” she prefaced. “Could be centuries. Who knows. But it’s real, as you can see.”
Picking up an undoubtedly embarrassing picture of Chloe as a naked infant with her powdered rear on display, Christine paused. Why do parents torture their kids with these? she thought, laying the offending snapshot facedown behind the music stand.
“What are you talking about?” Jennifer squeaked, now a full decade younger than her girl in the photos.
“It doesn’t have a name. You could call it a curse maybe, or a spell. Maybe a fucked up chain letter from some wizard,” she resumed. “But it only happens on Halloween night. During that window, when kids are out trick-or-treating, you can pass it on. You can’t reverse it or get rid of it. You can only pass it on to someone else.”
Jennifer’s Martha Stewart-modeled living room became a grade school classroom as Christine slowly paced and Jennifer listened intently from her inferior vantage, trying hard to take mental notes in her young, easily distracted mind.
“You pick a house, pick a person, ring the doorbell like I did, and say, ‘trick or trade.’ If they accept it, the curse is transferred and you swap ages with them. It doesn’t matter if they’re in their 20s or their 80s. You take on their age and they... well, you’ve probably figured that out by now,” she said, adding a perfunctory snort.
Jen could guess the answer to her next question, but she ventured anyway. “How old... am I?”
“Hate to break it to you, princess,” Christine responded with a faux-sigh. “But you’re five years old now.”
Jesus, Jennifer thought. Just hearing the words spoken out loud raised goosebumps on her arms and sent a wintry shiver up her back. Nothing about her current predicament conformed to the world she knew, and Christine’s matter-of-fact delivery wasn’t helping matters.
“At midnight, reality sort of catches up and roles shift around. Except for the person who chose you, the rest of the world has no clue. As far as everyone else is concerned, you’re the right age,” the lesson proceeded apace. “Which is why you don’t remember me right now. For the last year, I’ve just been some little girl down the street you probably ignored. But after tonight, you will.”
The mind reeled. Moments ago she was alone in the house, sifting through overwrought Nicholas Sparks movies, wondering if she and Dan should refinance the mortgage. Now, just minutes later, her chief concerns were how to reach the kitchen counter, kindergarten 2.0, and getting anyone to take her pipsqueak protests seriously. Listening to the users manual for this curse and considering the radical shift this Christine witch had visited on her, she didn’t notice her puny fists balling.
“But why!” she finally interrupted. “Why did you do this to me?”
Christine regarded the apple-faced child for a moment, as she formulated an answer. “Honestly, Jennifer — Jenny — I’ve always found you sort of stuck up. Like you were too good for this neighborhood. Remember the block party two summers ago that you vetoed because some people might step on your precious, manicured lawn? You always acted spoiled, like you were Eva Gabor and this was your Green Acres. I guess I thought some downtime might serve you well,” Christine opined.
“So that’s it?” Jenny growled, petulant. “Some stupid neighborhood rivalry rubbed you the wrong way and you thought, ‘Oh I know, I’ll turn Jennifer into a little kid’?”
“See, there you go again,” Christine said tisk-tiskly. “I think this might be good for you.”
“There I go again?” The tiny royalty balked. “You could have picked anyone in this town. Criminals even! But instead you—“
“Shhh, sweetie. I know it’s rough,” the relaxed instructor commiserated. “How do you think I felt? I just spent the last 365 days learning my ABCs, swinging on playgrounds, and going to bed at 8. I sang along with Barney the Dinosaur for christsakes. You know how much I craved just one cigarette? Or one night of normal, boring sex?”
Jenny fumed, hearing the surreal preview of her 2017. “This isn’t fair!”
“I know, right? Life’s like that, I guess. It blessed you with a sweet husband, this cool house, and your brand new Lexus out there. While I wound up a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. To tell you the truth, a lot of us were kind of jealous of your gorgeous figure too. Did you really need to wear those hoity-toity v-neck things to every PTA meeting? Enough with the cleavage,” Christine paused in her airing of grievances for a snicker. “Of course, I guess you haven’t got much to show off now.”
Jen found herself asking if this night could manage to get any worse.
“On the plus side, no PMS. No shaving your legs. And no bills,” the lecture continued. “And kids today have way cooler toys than we did.”
“Wait a second,” Jennifer stopped her mid-thought, only now catching up. “You said earlier you can only trade ages on Halloween.”
“Well, there’s still an hour of trick-or-treating left,” Jen realized, feeling much smarter than her five meager years. “I could go out right now.”
Christine sighed, obligated by the rules of the curse to answer all questions. “Yes, you could.”
“You weren’t going to tell me!” Jenny stamped her feet, hoping for far more effect than her stubby appendages could muster.
“I was getting around to that…”[/size]