Rest Stop Stories Episode 15: Salem Halloween
Amber had known before she arrived that it was going to be crowded. It was Salem on Halloween night. A worldwide tourist destination. And it wasn’t like she’d never been in a crowd. She’d grown up outside of Boston, a Saturday afternoon in Faneuil Hall was commonplace for her.
But she hadn’t expected the energy. It was like a buzzing fog that had enveloped her even before she stepped off the commuter rail at Salem station, the electric, exhilarating atmosphere already catching her as she walked out of the squat cement station and into the costumed crowds.
So now here she was, standing by the Samantha statue on a tiny patch of green. There was just enough space between her and the people around her that she could catch her breath, but nothing else. Music floated through the air around her, different melodies mingling above the roar of the crowds.
Amber took a breath and let it out slowly. A group of costumed superheroes were posing in front of Samantha and she could see Batman engaging with a red-faced protestor. The protestor’s shirt yelled REPENT, SINNERS AND WHORES in blocky black letters and Amber was about seventy percent sure that it wasn’t an ironic costume.
Her stomach growled. She really should have brought a snack, shouldn’t she? Her mom had suggested she pack some granola bars, but Amber had forgotten until she was already on the train. There were lines outside of all the bars, but Amber was too young to go inside anyway. Flying Saucer Pizza was packed, but maybe something else nearby would have a shorter line.
Amber started walking, crossing Washington Street with a crowd in elaborate costumes. Her witch hat, which had seemed whimsical and fun on the way here, now made her feel underdressed and self-conscious. She hadn’t wanted to wear a full costume on the train, but now she was kind of wishing she’d thought a little more about the jeans and jacket she was wearing.
A costume might have provided more warmth as well, she realized as a sharp wind cut through her jacket.
Essex Street was packed with people and more were flooding into the cobblestoned area. Amber tried to edge her way to the side of the street, but the crowds by the shop doors were just as dense as they were in the center of the road. She pushed through, murmuring apologies to the people she pressed against.
There were too many people. What had she been thinking, coming here alone? At first the crowds had been exhilarating, but now she could feel the beginnings of panic bubbling in the pit of her stomach.
It wasn’t panic, it was hunger. She’d get a slice of pizza and find a place to sit down, then decide what she wanted to do. The first mistake had been arriving with no plan. Once she had a plan, she’d feel more in control again.
She brushed against a couple of Pokemon as she passed CVS. Even the drugstore had a line out the door. But she was on Essex Street, right in the heart of things. So the mass of bodies would have to ease up, right?
The Grim Reaper knocked her into the side of the building. “Sorry, love,” he said from the depths of his hood. “Lost my balance.”
“It’s fine,” Amber said, pressing a hand against her bruised arm.
The Grim Reaper slipped back into the crowd with his friends and Amber pressed on. She spotted another takeout spot, but then her eyes trailed over the curving line outside. Nope.
She could smell body odor on the icy wind. Why had she thought this would be fun?
Someone was leading a ghost tour, their polished voice detailing the atrocities of the witch trials as she passed. Amber touched her plastic witch hat. Was she both unfashionable and tasteless in this? Someone in the tour group wore a bright yellow shirt that read I GOT STONED IN SALEM.
At least she had company in her tackiness.
The Peabody Essex Museum was just ahead and there seemed to be a gap in the crowd outside it. Encouraged, she pushed her way through the crushing crowd, then took a deep breath as she reached the small space.
Amber jumped and failed to stop a small scream from escaping. A man stood a few feet away, glaring directly at her.
“Repent, oh sinner, from your wicked ways,” he said, striding over to her. “Leave this idolatry behind.”
“Please leave me alone,” Amber choked out.
This wasn’t fun. Nothing about this was fun. She was just a teenager trying to have fun on Halloween. She should have had a firepit with her friends, not jumped on a train to the most crowded tourist attraction in the country.
The man reached for her wrist and she jerked away. “Sinners can only be saved by the cleansing fires of the Lord,” the man said, his eyes wild with passion. “Let us save you, child.”
The crowds around her formed a wall now, impenetrable and with no means of escape. “Please-” Amber choked out as the man grabbed for her again.
A hand reached out and grabbed his, roughly pushing it aside. “She said leave her alone, asshole.”
A woman was standing beside her now. She was tall and probably in her twenties, with long black hair and elegant black clothes. The man glared at her. “Leave, witch,” he spat out.
The woman moved her fingers lightly and a few small sparks crackled from her fingertips. “I said to leave,” she said. “Take your sign, take your hate, and get out of this town.”
The man’s eyes went blank. Without acknowledging Amber again, he turned and pushed his way into the crowd, quickly vanishing.
Amber turned to the woman, her heart racing. “Th-thank you,” she said.
“I hate those guys,” the woman said, brushing her long hair back behind her ears. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Amber said, though she was still shaking. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
The woman smiled at her. “Yeah, but you look like you’re ready to fall down. And you’re shivering.”
Amber smiled sheepishly, her mind still on the sparks the woman had casually created. “I…who are you?” she asked. “That was incredible.”
The woman laughed. “I’m Kayleigh,” she said. “And I’m just your average Salem witch.”
Ten minutes later, Amber was sitting across from Kayleigh in a booth in a nearby pizzeria. She didn’t know how Kayleigh had managed to get them a seat when the line had been halfway across the street as they arrived, but it was warm and she had a fragrant slice of pizza in front of her. So she wasn’t going to complain.
She looked at Kayleigh, who was shaking red peppers onto her own pizza. The older woman was cool and elegant in a way that made Amber feel like a child. And she had magic. Like, actual magical powers.
“How did you do it?” Amber asked again.
“What, this?” Kayleigh asked, twirling her hand over the table and emitting a small shower of sparks. “Years of practice and training.”
“Can I do that?”
The question caught Amber off guard. “Because I want to be able to take care of myself,” she said, too surprised to lie. “I want to be able to keep guys like that from messing with people.”
Kayleigh smiled and Amber felt like she’d passed some kind of test. “I mean, you could,” she said. “But it’s Halloween night in Salem. It’s a big commitment. I’m talking years of your life. And you will lose things that are important to you. Not everyone will understand or even believe you.”
“I still want it,” Amber said quickly.
Kayleigh looked at her for a long moment. “Tell you what,” she said, reaching into her pocket.
She pulled out a card and handed it to Amber. “This is my business card. I want you to go home tonight and think about it. I mean, really think about it away from Halloween and Salem. I want you to imagine how it fits into your life now and how it won’t. And if you still want to do this after you’re done thinking it through, you give me a call.”
Amber took the card with a shaking hand and tucked it in her pocket. “Now, eat your pizza,” Kayleigh said with a smile.
An hour later, Amber was sitting on the packed train as it pulled out of the station on its way back to Boston. She could almost feel Kayleigh’s card in her pocket.
A witch. She’d met a real witch and now maybe she could be one too.
Would it keep her from going to college next year? Or from being with her friends and family?
And if it did, would it be worth it? To have that power and confidence? She could protect herself and the people around her. She wouldn’t be helpless.
Her mind hummed the whole way home. First the train, then the T, then the quiet drive home.
The next morning she woke up and saw Kayleigh’s card on her bedside table. Before she’d even gotten out of bed, Amber was dialing her number.