The Ritual

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"Need any help?" she asked, ducking a bowl of thick, brown batter

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"Need any help?" she asked, ducking a bowl of thick, brown batter.

Her grandmother, who'd been paging through a cookbook, said, "No, dear, we've got it all under control."

"Go watch TV with your sister," her mother said. She tapped her feet as she observed a pan of biscuits like there was music.

The kitchen smelled like heaven. Cora wanted to stay and watch and maybe lick a spoon or two like she used to when she was younger, but she left as her mother had asked. She and Willow did have their own Halloween tradition. The first trick-or-treater would be here any minute. They needed to get their costume ready. Cora poked her head into the living room. Her sister lay sprawled out on the couch watching a horror movie.

"I can tell you how it ends," said Cora.

Willow turned the TV off. "I already know how it ends. Are you ready?"

Cora didn't have to respond. Of course she was ready. Every year on Halloween, Cora and Willow dressed up as the creepy, old Mrs. Stern. Willow would sit on Cora's shoulders covered by a long cloak Cora had found in a costume shop in the City. Willow would slip on a mask, also bought from the same shop, and they would say the line, "No more candy," using one of those voice changers. There was nothing more horrifying than there being no more candy. It was all in the fun of Halloween.

There visitor arrived at six-thirty when the rain had lightened to a drizzle. Willow swayed on Cora's shoulders as they went to the door. "Slow down," she said. "I need to get the mask on." The doorbell rang again. Willow said, "Okay."

Cora opened the door in a way she hoped was eerie. Willow's sign had failed. On the Emerson's doorstep stood two girls and two boys about Willow's age holding plastic bags. They weren't in costumes.

Before Cora could say the line, Willow said, "You guys, I said I'd call you."

"What's this?" one of the girls asked. When she smiled, her cheeks dimpled.

"Is it supposed to scare us?" the other asked. Unlike the first girl she didn't smile, but asked, "Who's under there?"

Cora felt Willow sway again as she took off the mask. "My sister?" she said.

"Wow," said one of the boys. "It's so lame." He laughed.

"It's right out of a d-rated movie," the other boy said.

The group laughed.

"Uh, it was my sister's idea," said Willow.

Cora could pinch her, but she had a better idea. Concentrating on one of the girls, the one who'd wanted to know who was under the cloak, she did a quick spell. One minute, the girl's hair was in two neat blonde pigtails resting on her shoulders, the next minute they were at her ears, lifting up as if being pulled by the wind.

Her friends all said, "Whoa" at the same time and backed away.

"Wha-what's happening?" she asked, looking cross-eyed at her hair, which was now standing straight up at the top of her head.

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