The Word


“Man, this looks good!”, thought Ryan when he was finished. Sure, black wasn’t his colour, the hat heated his head like hell, and don’t even get started on the pantyhose, but the person in the mirror wasn’t him. It was his emo-gothic-whatever sister, down to dark crimson nail polish and the pale complexion enriched with dark lipstick and eye shades. When he started playing around with Emma’s closet, he expected a close resemblance, but achieved utter perfection.

Being the little brother finally paid off. Ryan was only a year younger and shared the same face with Emma, along with height and body shape, he still in his tweens, she keeping the tomboyish appearance that soon would give place to a nice young woman. They could share clothes if one liked what the other dressed. But not shoes, apparently, Ryan’s toes cramped inside the weird high ankle boots. But it did look good. So good he could probably pass by her even with their parents. And what if?…

He wasn’t allowed in her room, of course. But Emma was in the hospital, ill from a sudden appendix misbehave and couldn’t do much about the invasion. She was out of danger, already free from the problematic disposable organ, but would be in the hospital another two nights. Apparently, besides the appendix, there was also something about her gallbladder that they would have to check out. Ryan catwalked to himself in front of the mirror trying to get his sister’s mannerisms, which he nailed in just a few attempts. Her voice wouldn’t be a problem, he was used to imitating it to perfection since he was ten. What was at first just an innocent attempt of preparing for the upcoming Halloween became the seed of a wicked idea.

Walking in those boots were by far the most awkward thing Ryan had ever done. He was wearing full makeup and fishnets right then, but the boots still held first place. It was also really hot under all those thick black fabrics. The fake tattoo sleeve his sister liked so much was nothing but an annoyance, squashing his arms like someone was constantly manhandling him. He took the bus to school to the same crossed looks Emma always got. He tried to pay attention to someone realizing it was him instead of her, but those usual strangers wouldn’t be a real test. The four people down the hall would. Emma’s friends, the group with whom she spent most of the hours in her day, inside and outside the school.

“Hey, Em! Finally got rid of your dumb shadow, at last!”

Dumb shadow. Ryan heard Emma saying the same thing before. He hasn’t anticipated that. He got the looks and the voice, but he would have to get the lingo as well. It was a stupid idea. As soon as he talked they would see right through it and he would be forever remembered as the kid who dressed as his sister. But it was too late to back off now.

“Yeah, he had an appendicitis and gall stones, will be at the hospital a couple of days.” That’s it, he thought, my social life is over before it even started. But the answer came as if everything was normal.

“Wow, he really hit the jackpot! Too bad there’s nothing life-threatening there, right?”

“Hey, don’t talk like that. He might be a dumb shadow, but he is still my brother.”

“Ok, ok, sorry, Em. Don’t get emotional on us. Let’s go, we don’t want to be late to Mrs. Keenan class.”

Huh. Who would have thought? It worked. He opened Emma’s locker – he had found her journal earlier that year and copied the locker code, just in case – and traded the backpack for one of the books in there.

“Not that, Em. Geometry. Jeez, and we thought you wouldn’t mind your little brother going away for a while.”

Throughout the day, Ryan got more and more confident, borderline cocky, trying all the expressions typical from his sister’s group. One of the teachers got a little suspicious with Emma not raising her arm to answer as quickly as she apparently always did. Emma was a good student, who would’ve thought? Anyway, he avoided his own friends, just to be sure. It was so much fun, being into his sister’s skin, hearing all the secret stuff she talked with her gang. The stuff itself wasn’t all that interesting, it was quite boring in fact. But being able to do it, such a thrill!

The classes finished, they were all talking again near the lockers, preparing the backpacks to leave. One of Emma’s friends was retouching his makeup when he asked, “So, everything good for later?”

“Sure”, said the others, “we’re ready to finally doing it. Right, Emma?”

“What? Yeah, sure, right, let’s do it.” Do what? All the recently built confidence vanished and he struggled to keep his mind in the game.

“Forget your stupid brother, Em, he’s out of danger, isn’t it? See you later at the usual place.” Where? He should have read more of his sister’s journal to prepare for the part. They were all walking towards the exit, he had to think fast.

“Hey, Jordan, can I go to your place so we can walk there together?” Jordan was the only one of Emma’s friends Ryan knew where lived, so he was also Ryan’s only chance of not blowing it.

“Yeah, whatever. Just don’t be late, I’m leaving at seven.”

Seven. Like, beginning of the evening seven, when it was already dark outside? Maybe he should get some excuse, like going to the hospital visit his brother or something. But the way they were talking, it didn’t seem like something that could be postponed. And, despite the fear, Ryan was also dying to know what Emma and her friends were did every day. Oh, man, what was he getting into?

The walk was mostly silent. Ryan shot a few questions to try to get more information from Jordan, but after a few crossed looks he resigned to just letting things happen. They were already way past his usual “activity radius”, the places where his gang used to hang out when they finally turned on what appeared to be the last curve. There was something strangely familiar with the route, but he couldn’t guess where they were going until he saw the tombstones approaching. He walked by there once, with Emma, when they were taking a shortcut to someplace. It was broad daylight, but he was already scared. Emma didn’t seem to care at all.

“Oh, come one, don’t be a baby. It’s just like a park, only quieter.”

“It’s quieter because it is a park with dead people underground.”

“How do you know the parks you go to don’t have dead people underground? This one just make sure you know it by placing markers.”

“Yeah, but it makes me uncomfortable.”

“What do you think can happen? A zombie attack? That’s why mom never lets you watch those movies, you tend to believe in everything.”

Well, it was even more frightening in the evening, without a single light pole illuminating. They walked until even the lights from the surrounding streets couldn’t be seen anymore. The other three were already there, emptying their backpacks on the ground. Chalk, candles, matches, a strange-looking chalice and a bundle of black clothes he couldn’t identify.

“Finally! What took you guys so long? Everything is pretty much ready here. Em, do you got it?” It? What was she supposed to bring? Yeah, there are so many little details in impersonating someone, even one’s own sister. Ryan could feel the sweat building up under the makeup. He tried his best to keep in character and appear to know what was happening. Before he could think of an excuse, Jordan spoke.

“She does, we got it last week.”

“So the old man from that shop wasn’t lying?”

He lowered his sister’s backpack and was getting ready to search it for the thing before saying he forgot it home, whatever it was. But there was a book in there, one that wasn’t there before. And he should have noticed. It was a large book, one of those old hardcover editions where the publishers really want to impress the readers. The cover was in high-quality black faux-leather with embossed red golden letters and even had those metal corner protectors. It was heavy, how couldn’t Ryan notice it on the backpack before? And apparently it was also quite important. Upon seeing the book, the whole gang gasped and approached as if they were being presented to a newborn, looking at it with the utmost respect.

Ryan couldn’t read the cover. It wasn’t written in the alphabet he knew, or even in some of those he could recognize. He motioned to open it, see what it looked like inside, but a hand firmly placed itself over it to prevent him.

“Not yet. Let’s get ready.”

So they got ready, which meant drawing a large circle on the ground with the chalk, and a five-point start inside it. Then, they placed the candles on each of the star’s points, the chalice right in the middle, and started getting dressed in the black clothes that revealed to be cloaks. All the while, Ryan held the large strange book, unsure way to do.

“What are you waiting for, Em?” He carefully left the book over his backpack and put on the last cloak. Jordan lit the candles and Stacy asked Ryan to pass her the book. Actually, she said “the word”, and looked firmly at the book.

“Now, the scepter”, she said once the book was open and balanced on one of her hands. Ryan must have been unable to hide his confusion this time because all four turned to him with fiery eyes.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t bring it!”

“Damn it, Em, get your head in place! Forget your stupid brother, this is more important, you know it!” Did he? Everything there looked way too ominous. He thought Emma’s gang was into listening to bizarre music and bothering people on the streets, but that had all the elements of a ritual Ryan wasn’t so keen on participating. Luckily, he now had the perfect opportunity to get out.

“I’m sorry. It turns out I care about my brother more than I thought I did. I’ll go back home and get it, be back here right away.”

Stepping out of the cemetery brought a feeling of relief like nothing Ryan ever experienced before, even if he was running as fast as he could and had forgotten to take off the cloak. The empty house, usually not a problem, now seemed about just as menacing as the setting he just fled from. He thought about calling his parents with the excuse of checking on Emma, just to hear their voices and, maybe, get calmer, but they would be suspicious. He was sitting on Emma’s bed, replaying the strange evening in his head, wondering if he should call one of her sister’s friends and try an excuse to don’t come back, but that didn’t seemed an option. It was even hotter now under all those thick fabrics, the makeup, and the cloak he wasn’t supposed to still be wearing. They would be expecting him back any moment now, with whatever was still missing from their ritual. He had looked inside every one of Emma’s closets and drawers already.

Under the bed, of course. He hadn’t looked under the bed! Amidst a few boxes and a lot of socks, there was the thing. One rigid piece of about fifty centimeters, adorned to look like it was made of wood, but from the weight it was clearly some metal. It had ornaments looking like two snakes were tangled from the bottom, finishing in a horned ring, and above it all two concentric circles and an eye-like curve with a straight line inside it all. It also had some markings, looking like the same strange glyphs from the book.

That was the first moment Ryan got worried for his sister. Not her being in the hospital, he knew that was just protocol after two consecutive, albeit minor, surgeries. But what kind of sect was she into? And those friends of her, not just odd people wearing makeup. They were into some serious stuff, the kind of thing parents get worried about. She wasn’t like that. Before turning into the black-wearer annoyance she was then, they were quite close, Emma and Ryan. What happened? Probably influence from the wrong people.

Some fierce knocks on the door downstairs brought Ryan back to reality. He went down still wearing the full costume, cloak and all, and with the scepter, disturbed by the images of the evening still in his head.

“Where were you? ‘Right away’ means not stopping to wonder about life or sick brothers, you know?” Stacy took the scepter and the four of them turned to go back to the cemetery. Ryan stayed immobile.

“What now?”, said Jordan.

“Maybe she should’s go with us”, said Stacy. Ryan liked that idea quite a lot.

Jordan looked at him. “Em, what’s happening? It was your idea, all of this, you taught us what to do, where to be, what to bring. You said that tonight was the perfect time, the only time. And we need five people. Forget about Ryan, he’s OK.” Ryan didn’t move.

“Em, look, I understand you being emotional, I really do. But we might not have another chance on this. I can see your mind is not into it as it should be. I’m sorry, but I just decided to leave you behind. And you know we won’t be the same tomorrow, so don’t expect to be part of the group after tonight.”

It was her idea? So she was like the leader of that unfortunate gathering? And now, thanks to Ryan, it was all lost. Emma would come back home to find herself expelled from the gang he apparently formed, casted aside when being part of something seemed to be so important – at least that’s what all the grown-ups said. Good one, Ryan. Knowing your sister’s secrets was so important that you had to mess with her life?

Ryan thought being home that dread evening would make things better, but all he could think about was the problems e caused. And in his sister’s name. Not even removing the makeup and the clothes, and returning finally to his own self, granted him some solace. He rolled in bed the whole night thinking how a quite innocent Halloween costume idea turned into a tangle he couldn’t undo.

Emma was to be discharged the next morning. He was already on his way to school when he changed his mind and headed to the hospital. No amount of explaining would prevent his sister to be utterly pissed at him but, maybe, being there would somehow soften her heart. He heard laughing while he approached the room, which was a good sign. When he entered, the whole gang was there, and Emma was already in her emo-gothic-whatever persona.

“Look who it is! My obnoxious smart-ass brother!”

Their parents weren’t around, they were all laughing, and Stacy even had the strange book with her. Ryan couldn’t look more confused if he wanted to.

“So, you thought I was just some brat who dresses funny, huh?” Ryan didn’t answer. “You really believed I would be in the hospital and not tell my friends?” They all laughed hard. Jordan put one of the cloaks on Ryan and Stacy handed him the book.

“Go on, big shot, you can open the book now”, she said. Ryan looked at the heavy volume in his arms and, without knowing what else to do, opened it. It was filled with the same unknown characters it had in the cover, but every couple of pages had an illustration, picturing seemingly innocent childish images. He even recognized some of it: dragons, elephants, and deities from the oriental countries. He was still quite rigid, turning the pages with a certain reverence, as if afraid to disturb some ancient power.

“Relax, Ryan, it’s just a child’s tales book from Thailand.”

“What?”, he said finally. “And all those things on the cemetery, the candles and”, he removed the cloak as if it was cursed or something, “these things!”

“It’s not nice to prick around other people’s things, you know?”, answered his sister. “Jordan saw you leaving home dressed like me yesterday, and we decided to teach you a little lesson.”

“So you don’t do those things?”

“What things?”

“The rituals!”

They all laughed hard again. “Is that what you think of us?”, said Stacy, “Of your big sister?”

“Despite what you might think of out fashion choices”, Emma continued, “we are quite normal teenagers. We like our music and our movies and our inside jokes, but that’s about it.”

“She might not look like one”, Jordan said, “but your sister is actually quite the nerd. She’s the top student in our class. If she’s not with us, she’s probably at a library.”

“Like the one where I found the book you’re holding”, she laughed. Ryan evolved from scared to confused to ashamed, while they explained how they pranked him by playing with the prejudice usually shown to people who dress like them, even little brothers.

“And what about the scepter?”, he asked after swallowing what was left of his pride.

“Just an arts and crafts project Jordan did a while ago. He sneaked it in my bedroom between classes yesterday.”

Their parents came back from signing the discharge papers, Ryan unable to say anything. When they turned to park home, their mother turned to the back and said, “I know we are still a bit far from it, but have you thought on what you would like to wear for Halloween?”


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