`Just with us'

THEY romped out the door laughing, self-conscious and excited about their big white rabbit costumes and the whiskers and red eyes painted on their faces. Neighborhood girls, the woman decided. They were too young to drive. They had probably walked over. Somewhere between 12 and 14, she figured. They spotted the wan-faced woman and simultaneously, in the manner of close friends, approached her. They had been giving packages of candy to the people inside, they said, and had one left. They'd like her to have it. They still were laughing, full of the evening's fun.

The woman thanked them with the grownup's usual surprised formality and asked if they were with some group. Some church group maybe? No, ``we're just with us,'' they said, laughing at the answer.

The woman scanned their whiskered faces more attentively and declared with genuine surprise how nice that was. By way of explanation, she added that she was on her way to visit her father inside. Well, if she found candy in his room, she'd know they'd seen him, they said, beginning to clown a little on the moonlit lawn under the irresistible compulsion of the big white rabbit outfits. They looked as if pillow or towels from home had contributed to their rabbit-fluffiness.

For a split second it brought to mind the hilarity of nearly everything you did with your best friend at that age; of the new, giddy joy of being outside larking with your peers, no longer protected by adult chaperonage.

The woman thanked them again and resumed her way to the door. The familiar errand had long since lost its sadness, but tonight there was the contrast between the anticipatory excitement of Halloween in the air, and the dim hallways inside. She wished she had asked the girls their names, had asked them how they had decided to spend their Halloween here.

The father did, indeed, have an orange paper-wrapped package of candy at his bedside. When it was brought to his attention, he was obviously pleased and, with help getting the cellophane wrapping off a peppermint, he expressed delighted surprise at the taste.

She hoped he had seen the rabbit-girls. The old grief began to rise. How he once would have laughed with them, kidded them about the craziness of their costumes, made them know they were funny and special and appreciated. The way he had laughed at the antics of his own daughter and her friends at that age. The way, in fact, the woman had laughed helplessly at the young teen cut-upping of her own daughter and her friends. Now all far away.

When she left, the moon, which had obligingly been huge and orange early in the evening, had lost its festive color in its climb. But the night still was charged with young excitement, black capes swirling mysteriously around figures in the shadows, couples with matching green faces strolling home from parties.

Back at home, the woman looked at the candy package, held by the orange paper that groceries sell to wrap candy apples. It was tied with an orange paper ribbon. She thought of how the residents of the nursing home must have loved that; thought of how her own sometimes-forced smile when there brought a glad response or greeting, sometimes a timid invitation to a conversation.

She recalled faintly visits of her own, made with Girl Scouts or the sorority, to orphanages and hospitals and, once, to a nursing home. But never made ``just with us.'' She had never sat at a dining room table with her best friend and wrapped dozens, probably a hundred, packages of candy, and then on the big day added towel stuffing to make a funny costume funnier in joking anticipation of the laughter it would no doubt bring to tired, surprised eyes.

She thought of the two girls doing so, ``just with us,'' and noticed the green card tied to the orange ribbon. ``Happy Halloween'' they had written on probably a hundred little green squares.

The woman considered. Next Halloween it wouldn't take too long to wrap some candy packages for the people at the home. In fact, it would soon be Thanksgiving. The grocery probably still had some of that candy apple wrapping paper.

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