A DARK HARVEST TALE
Cornstalks crackle as the October Boy shoulders into a small clearing. Moonlight fills that scooped hunk of the world, where stalks are rat-gnawed nubs trampled by a larger predator… a predator the Boy scents.
The scent is immediate. It hangs heavy as a shroud. The cool north wind combing the fields this Halloween night cannot banish it. The Boy’s viney fingers twine tightly around the hilt of the butcher knife that fills his hand, as if he’ll have to cut himself free of the stink before he can move so much as an inch.
But hesitation — real or imagined — is not a quality contained within the growing armature of the October Boy’s body. He steps forward, his carved pumpkin head twisting on its braided-vine neck, beams of orange light spilling from his triangular eyes as he examines the shorn clearing.
There’s a thing on the ground in the center of the circle. Another carved head, but one not like his own. Lanternlike, it burns. Flickering in the darkness, tongues of fire licking moisture within its hollowed confines. Casting a grinning shadowface that stretches across trampled stalks to the the Boy’s severed-root feet. Spilling those predatory scents in this territory marked as his own, a stench that is nothing like the wild October scents of cool fall nights and cinnamon-laced gunpowder that have marked his birth and will mark his death.
The candy heart trapped in the Boy’s woven chest beats faster as he travels the grinning map cast at his feet. He closes on the thing in the center of the circle. The shadowface gleams, its reflection contained on the polished surface of his blade as the Boy bends low. Yes, fire lives inside this carved head. Yes, the hollowed mouth spits moist crackles. Yes, a rabid grin spreads wider than any mouth can stretch, and its eyes are wells roiling with flame, and it is both exhibit and proof of a madman’s art. But this strange Jack o’ Lantern is nothing like a brother to the pumpkin-headed creature that holds the knife. This face — what remains of it — is not a carved product of the dark earth. It is a construct of flesh and bone. A human head, cored and hollowed — a half-dozen candles flickering within scraped red confines. Grinning a lipless grin over purple gums, a grin with bloodstained teeth rooted in a mouth that laughs no more.
But somewhere out there in the darkness, the October Boy hears laughter.
It lingers until it is eclipsed by another sound.
The sound of gunfire.
* * *
The Boy whirls away from the flickering Jack o’ Lantern. But there’s nothing out there to see but night, and stars, and the dull glow of the town waiting beyond.
He is alone in this clearing. The predator who lurked in this place is gone. Only the killer’s trophy remains. In the end, this matters little to the October Boy, for tonight he too is a trophy. One that travels on two legs, destined to be slain if he makes a single misstep. One that knows this clearing is but a brief stop on a run that is a dead heat, with odds that never fall in his favor.
Another booming blast beckons him. And another. The October Boy cannot linger here, not if he wants a chance at staying alive. He is built for movement. This is what he must do to survive the human gauntlet that waits ahead in the night.
So the Boy turns his back, following his shadow away from the light cast by the mangled skull.
The black road waits.
A whisper through the corn, and he is on it.