by Norman Partridge
A Midwestern town. You know its name. You were born there.
It’s Halloween, 1963… and getting on towards dark. Things are the same as they’ve always been. There’s the main street, the old brick church in the town square, the movie theater—this year with a Vincent Price double-bill. And past all that is the road that leads out of town. It’s black as a licorice whip under an October sky, black as the night that’s coming and the long winter nights that will follow, black as the little town it leaves behind.
The road grows narrow as it hits the outskirts. It does not meander. Like a planned path of escape, it cleaves a sea of quarter-sections planted thick with summer corn.
But it’s not summer anymore. Like I said, it’s Halloween.
All that corn has been picked, shucked, eaten.
All those stalks are dead, withered, dried.
In most places, those stalks would have been plowed under long ago. That’s not the way it works around here. You remember. Corn’s harvested by hand in these parts. Boys who live in this town spend their summers doing the job under a blazing sun that barely bothers to go down. And once those boys are tanned straight through and that crop’s picked, those cornstalks die rooted in the ground. They’re not plowed under until the first day of November. Until then the silent rows are home to things that don’t mind living among the dead. Rats, snakes, frogs… creatures that will take flight before the first light of the coming morning or die beneath a circular blade that scores both earth and flesh without discrimination.
Yeah. That’s the way it works around here. There are things living in these fields tonight that will, by rights, be dead by tomorrow morning. One of them hangs on a splintery pole, its roots burrowing deep in rich black soil. Green vines climb through tattered clothes nailed to the pole and its crosspiece. They twist through the legs of worn jeans like tendons, twine like a cripple’s spine through a tattered denim jacket. Rounded leaves take succor from those vines like organs fed by blood vessels, and from the hearts of those leaves green tendrils sprout, and the leaves and the vines and the tendrils fill up that coat and the arms that come with it.
A thicker vine creeps through the neck of that jacket, following the last few inches of splintery pole like a backbone, widening into a rough stem that roots in the thing balanced on the pole’s flat crown.
That thing is heavy, and orange, and ripe.
That thing is a pumpkin.
The afternoon sun lingers on the pumpkin’s face, and then the afternoon sun is gone. Quiet hangs in the cornfield. No breeze rustles the dead stalks; no wind rustles the tattered clothes of the thing hanging from the pole. The licorice-whip road is empty, silent, still. No cars coming into town, no cars leaving.
It’s that way for a long time. Then darkness falls.
A car comes. A door slams. Footsteps in the cornfield—the sound of a man shouldering through brittle stalks. The butcher knife that fills his hand gleams beneath the rising moon, and then the blade goes black as the man bends low.
Twisted vines and young creepers root at the base of the pole. The man’s sharp blade severs all. Next he goes to work with a claw-hammer. Rusty nails grunt loose from old wood. A tattered leg slips free… then another… and then a tattered arm….
The thing they call the October Boy drops to the ground.
* * *
But you already know about him. After all, you grew up here. There aren’t any secrets left for you. You know the story as well as I do.
Pete McCormick knows the story, too… part of it, anyway. Pete just turned sixteen. He’s been in town his whole life, but he’s never managed to fit in. And the last year’s been especially tough. His mom died of cancer last winter, and his dad drank away his job at the grain elevator the following spring. There’s enough rotten luck in that little sentence to bust anyone’s chops.
So it’s not like the walls have never closed in on Pete around here, but just lately they’ve been jamming his shoulders like he’s caught in a drill press. He gets in trouble a couple times and gets picked up by the cops—good old Officer Ricks in his shiny black-and-white Dodge. First time around, it’s a lecture. Second time, it’s a nightstick to the kidneys. Pete comes home all bruised up and pisses blood for a couple of days. He waits for his old man to slam him back in line the way he would have before their whole world hit a wall, maybe take a hunk out of that bastard Ricks while he’s at it. But his father doesn’t even say a word, so Pete figures, Well, it looks like you’re finally on your own, Charlie Brown… and what are you going to do about that?
For Pete, it’s your basic wake-up call. Once and for all he decides he doesn’t much care for his Podunk hometown. Doesn’t like all that corn. Doesn’t like all that quiet. Sure as hell doesn’t like Officer Ricks.
And maybe he’s not so crazy about his father, either. Summer rolls around and the old man starts hitting the bottle pretty steady. Could be he’s noticed the changes in his son, because he starts telling stories—all of a sudden he’s really big with the stories. We’ll get back on our feet soon, Pete. They’ll call me back to work at the elevator, because that chucklehead Kirby will screw everything up. That gets to be one of Pete’s favorites. Right up there with: I’m going to quit the drinking, son. For you and your sister. I promise I’ll quit it soon.
It’s like the old man has a fish on the line, and he’s trying to reel it in with words. But Pete gets tired of listening. He’s smart enough to know that words don’t matter unless they’re walking the hard road that leads to the truth. And, sure, he can understand what’s going on. Sure, the nightstick that life put to his old man makes the solid hunk of oak Officer Ricks used to bust up Pete look like a toothpick. But understanding all that doesn’t make listening to his old man’s pipe dreams any easier.
And that’s what his father’s words turn out to be. The bossman down at the elevator never calls, and the old man’s drinking doesn’t stop, and things don’t get any better for them. Things just keep on getting worse. As the summer wanes, Pete often catches himself daydreaming about the licorice-whip road that leads out of town. He wonders what it would be like out there… somewhere else, far away from here… on his own. And pretty soon that road finds its way into another story making the rounds, because—hey—it’s September now, and it’s about time folks started in on that one crazy yarn everyone around here spins at that time of year.
Pete catches bits of it around town. First from a couple of football players waiting to get their flat-tops squared at the barber shop, later from a bunch of guys standing in line at the movie theater one hot Saturday night. And pretty soon the story picks up steam at the high school, too. Again, Pete only hears snatches of it—in the bathroom out back of the auto shop where guys go to sneak cigarettes, in detention hall after school—and sure it’s pretty crazy stuff, but the craziest thing is that those snatches of conversation all fall within the same parameters, and that simple fact is enough to start Pete thinking this might be the rare kind of story that actually makes the trip from the campfire to the cold hard street.
“Got me a bat. Brand new Louisville Slugger.”
“That ain’t what you need. It’s too hard to swing a bat when you’re on the run, and you’re too slow as it is, anyway. Just look at that table muscle hanging over your belt. You couldn’t catch my great-great grandma rolling her ass uphill in a wheelchair with a couple of blown tires if your life depended on it.”
“I don’t have to catch your great-great grandma, stupid. I don’t have to catch anyone. All I have to do is plant myself in the right place. I’ll let my chuckleheaded cousins do the catching. They’ll flush that sucker like a prize buck, corral him in a blind alley. And that’s where I’ll be waiting… all ready to take my cuts.”
“Fat chance. You spend the night of the Run hanging out in some stupid alley, you might as well set up housekeeping there for a whole goddamn year.”
“Uh-uh. You boys’ll be the ones who end up hanging around this jerkwater town for another year, not me. I’ll have a walking nightmare’s carcass chained to my bumper, and I’ll be across the Line and gone for good by the time you take your first piss of the morning.”
Pete’s been thinking about that conversation for the last few days, putting it together with all the other stories he’s heard. Adding it up one way, then adding it up another… just to see if he can make it come out any other way than the crazy spookshow equation it wears for a face.
And, hey, just lately Pete’s had plenty of time to think about all that stuff. Because it’s the tail-end of October now, and his father’s had him locked in his bedroom for the last five days. Nothing to eat in there. Only water to drink, and—when the old man’s feeling generous—maybe a glass of OJ that’s a long way from fresh-squeezed. You want sufficient opportunity to become a believer, well, there you go. Try feeding a five-day hunger with some OJ that tastes like a cup of freezer-burn, and nothing to wash it down but a bunch of words you can’t get out of your head.
But even with all that chewing around inside him, Pete can’t quite buy into the stories he’s been hearing. Oh, sure, he can believe the part about the kids and the crazy stuff they get up to with their baseball bats and pitchforks on Halloween night. After his run-in with Officer Ricks, he’s certain his hayseed hometown could breed a nasty little square dance like that. But the other part—the spookshow part—Pete’s not so sure he can make the whole trip there.
You can’t really blame him, can you? I mean, think about it. Remember when you were just a little kid, the first time you noticed your older brother locked up tight for five days and nights during the last week of October? Remember the first time you heard that the whole deal had something to do with a pumpkin-headed scarecrow that runs around on Halloween night? It wasn’t exactly easy to believe that one no matter how scared you were, was it?
Not until you experienced it yourself, of course.
Until you were the guy locked up in your bedroom.
Until you were the guy who saw what went down when you hit the streets on Halloween night.
But Pete hasn’t seen any of that. Not yet. Like I said, he just turned sixteen. Tonight is his first crack at the Run. So it’s not really surprising that hisdisbelief isn’t completely suspended. But he’s getting there. And the more Pete thinks about it, the less important the whole spookshow equation seems. The way Pete sees it, what he believes or disbelieves doesn’t really matter much when you look at the big picture.
Do that, and other stuff starts to matter.
Uh-huh. What matters is that his old man has kept him locked up for five days. What matters is that he hasn’t had anything to eat. What matters is that he’s dead cold certain it’s been just that way for every other guy in town between the ages of sixteen and nineteen. The high school is closed—has been for five days. The streets are empty. And guys all over town are pacing crackerbox bedrooms in the wee small hours, gearing up for Halloween night like bulls penned up in tight little chutes.
Pete sits on his bed and thinks about that. Right about now, it seems like a pretty full bucket of validation. So he lets his mind tote that sucker, and he gets comfortable with the load.
He thinks about baseball bats and pitchforks, and butcher knives, and two-by-fours studded with nails, and a couple hundred young guys hitting the streets as darkness falls.
He thinks about a scarecrow running around with a pumpkin for a head.
He thinks about what running down that scarecrow might mean for a guy like him.
Then, as the old Waltham clock on his nightstand ticks down the dying embers of Halloween evening, he stops thinking about all that stuff.
After that, he only thinks about a couple of things… the really important things.
He thinks about the door to his bedroom swinging open.
He thinks about what he’ll do when he steps outside.