“A Question of Identity”

tiger, mask

At Manhattan’s KGB Bar last week, members of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America read from their works suitable (grim, gory, ghostly) for the spooky season. I read the last section of my short story, “A Question of Identity,” published at Halloween a few years ago by King’s River Life. There’s a summary paragraph to get you into it, then the conclusion.

“A Question of Identity” is about two nine-year-old girls—neighbors and best friends—who receive mysterious packages containing Halloween costumes. Tamika Greene, is Black. Hers is a fox costume. Blonde, blue-eyed Jen Nielsen receives a tiger costume. Done trick-or-treating, they have the bright idea to exchange costumes, go to each other’s houses, and see how long it takes their families to notice they’re the wrong girl. Trouble is, they never do. We start at Tamika’s family’s dinner table.

Mr. Greene was famous for quizzing his children over dinner, and he started right in. “What do you know for sure?” he asked his older son, who responded with the details of a recent football player-trade.

Asked the same question, the younger brother said, “The Forty-Niners are going to the Super Bowl this year for sure!”

“Now, see,” Mr. Greene explained, “you’ve drifted away from the solid land of facts into the swamp of opinion and wishful thinking. You don’t know for sure about the Forty-Niners. Can you help your brother out with a for-sure fact, Tamika?”

“Uh, a football field is a hundred yards long,” Jen said, “not counting the end zones?”

The young man rolled his eyes, but Mr. Greene said, “It may not be a new fact, but it is definitely a fact. Good job. Now, Tamika, what do you know for sure?”

Thinking back to Tamika’s nature book and the pictures of the Big Cats, Jen said, “Tigers can’t purr. They chuff, like this” She demonstrated. “The only Big Cats that can purr are cheetahs and mountain lions. Pumas.”

“How interesting. Why is that?”

And she explained, sort of.

Two houses away, Tamika was presented with a plate of so many aromatically spiced vegetables that she barely realized there was no meat. After the dishes were done, Jen’s sister Gail invited her to her room to draw fashions. Tamika, having only a pair of rowdy brothers, had never spent an evening this way and was delighted.

“Your drawing has really improved,” Gail told her. “Have you been practicing?”

Tamika smiled slyly.
Over the weekend, Tamika’s brothers took Jen to a football game, and when some of the boys asked who she was, she heard them say “my sister,” and nobody blinked. Maybe the increasing number of blended families made this plausible, even to kids. Or, especially to kids. When Mrs. Nielsen saw Tamika in Jen’s best new dress, she nodded and said, “Very pretty.”

It was fun having a whole new wardrobe. The girls read each other’s books and, like budding anthropologists, observed how the other family lived. And yet . . . and yet . . . it wasn’t home. The Greene and Nielsen families had different rhythms, their houses didn’t smell the same (maybe because the Nielsens were vegetarian, Tamika thought), the night noises were unfamiliar. Even the touch of the other mother’s hugs wasn’t quite right.
Monday morning, the girls met at the bus stop and exchanged lunches. “I’ve been thinking,” Tamika said. “We have to visit Mrs. Lachlan.”

“When she was our teacher, you always said she was a witch.”

“Yeah. I hope I was right.”

After school, the girls slipped down the block and around the corner to Mrs. Lachlan’s house.

They told their former teacher the whole story. At the end, Jen started to cry. “Make it stop. I don’t know who I am anymore.”

“Are those your costumes in the bag?” Mrs. Lachlan pointed at the folded-over shopping bag between them.

“Yes. We thought maybe there’s something . . . wrong with them,” Tamika said.

Mrs. Lachlan gave Tamika a look. “Enchantment? Not likely.” She laid the costumes over a chair. “It’s true they’re special.” She examined the masks and pinched her lower lip. “Now this is what we’ll do.”
Tamika trotted home in full fox display, and Jen stealthily walked to her front door dressed in her tiger bodysuit, wearing her tiger mask, and swishing her tiger tail. Her key worked—finally—and she walked inside.

“Just in time.” Mrs. Nielsen peered around the kitchen doorway to look at her. “Dinner’s in the oven. Set the table?” Jen bounded up the stairs to her room, took off the costume, and returned in jeans and t-shirt.

At the Greenes’ house, Tamika was glad to be back in her own room. One of her brothers, standing in the doorway, blocked the light from the hall.

“Hey, little sis. How you doin?” He looked her up and down. “Halloween’s over.”

“Maybe for you.” Her tail twitched. When he walked away, she took off the costume and mask. She twirled and twirled and laughed and laughed. Her bed, her closet, her desk, the view of the sky from her window. All these familiar things whizzed by.

At the dinner table, passing a platter of roast beef, one of the brothers asked, “What the heck was that noise before we came down? Sounded like dog with a cough being strangled.”

“It didn’t sound like a dog to me,” his brother said. “More like a, I dunno, a fox or something.”

Tamika tore into a slice of roast.

“Knife and fork, please, Tamika. What’s gotten into you?” her mother asked.

Mr. Greene frowned, as if overtaken by the uneasy feeling some facts were slipping out of his sturdy grasp.
Down the block, Jen leaned on the kitchen counter, watching her mother peel about a hundred carrots. Remembering the Greenes’ meaty dinners, she chuffed with pleasure.

Gail breezed through, grabbing a water bottle from the fridge. Mrs. Nielsen stopped her, saying, “Before you go up, would you please put more corn in the squirrel feeder?”

“Mom,” Gail complained, “nobody feeds squirrels. In colonial times, people got a bounty for squirrel scalps.”

“That’s disgusting,” her mother said. “It’s uncivilized.”

“Right here in Pennsylvania,” Gail said. Pushing her luck, she added, “And they ate the squirrels too.”

Grrr, Jen breathed.

Their mother said, “Well, Gail, if you don’t want to do the corn . . . You know they love it. They come right to you.”

I’ll do it,” Jen said. Her fingers stretched wide and the tips curled in. And her nails . . . how they’d grown.