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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.
Thanks to everyone who took the time to email in their feedback on “The Final Question” in Cemetery Dance magazine. If you have any comments or even a suggestion for a question you’d like to see answered by your favorite authors, feel free to email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re new to the magazine or if you haven’t ordered your copy of Cemetery Dance #61 yet, the premise of “The Final Question” is simple: each issue we’ll ask a handful of authors to answer the same question and then we’ll publish their responses exactly as we receive them.
Normally this feature is limited to the magazine, but we wanted to do something special for our website visitors this Halloween, so here you go!
The special Halloween question is: What is your earliest Halloween memory?
One Halloween was a big mistake for me. I had a bunch of my friends over, and I put on my Houdini manacles. I was supposed to break free from them, to show my friends what a good magician I was, and I couldn’t get out of the goddamn things. So I fell down on the floor and writhed around, and all my friends gathered and looked down at me and laughed. I got mad at them, and I said, “Get the heck out of the house! You’re not wanted here now.” So I sent them all home.
My earliest Halloween memory – the year I was five – is all the more clear in my mind because my father had bought a home movie camera to record all the important moments in the lives of his kids. Christmases. Birthday parties. Easter Egg hunts. And, of course, Halloween. The camera was one of those Keystone 8 MM silent wind-up dealios with the excruciatingly bright lights that turned every documented event into a cheerful marathon squint-fest. My mother, a very creative soul, always made our costumes. This was the year my older sister was a witch, I was a fairy princess, and my younger sister was a bunny. My younger brother was stuck in the playpen, squinting and watching his older siblings in the pre-Trick or Treat parade of costumes back and forth across the living room floor, grinning for the camera. I envied my older sister’s excellent, bright yellow yarn witch wig and my younger sister’s gloriously full white yarn bunny tail, but I love-love-loved my glitter-covered star wand.
I wrote about my most vivid (and scary) Hallowe’en memory for CD’s October Dreams, but my clearest first memory of Hallowe’en is rather mundane … I remember getting candy corn for the first time and trying then (as I still do today) to bite each triangular piece into thirds on the lines where the colors change. How mundane is that?
I was obsessed with skeletons. When I got older, my brother and I would use face paint and make-up and take great joy in rummaging through my father’s box of old clothes for hobo getups — but my very first costume, when I was perhaps five, was an out-of-the-box, store-bought skeleton costume (the only one I ever had) that I never forgot. The mask alone scared hell out of me (and, I hoped, everyone else): bone-white with large hollow eye holes and a set of grinning bone-teeth that were nothing short of creepy. The mask was too large for my head, of course — but the body of the costume was the kicker, satin-black to blend with the night, with printed white bones right down to the splayed bony feet. I looked, and felt, like a vintage jointed cardboard skeleton come to life. They don’t make them like that anymore. At least I hope so — if I saw me coming, I’d run the other way!
I was no older than four or five. After Trick-or-Treating, my folks went out to a party. My kindergarten teacher, Cathy Cavanagh, was watching my brother and me for the evening. We scooped the brains out of an overdue yet innocent pumpkin while the original Halloween played on TV. Needless to say, the movie scared the crap out of me. Jack-O-Lantern finished, movie over and a couple of games later, I went to my bed, which was right up against my bedroom window, for a long stretch of nightmares. I was just drifting off when a tap came at the glass. I opened my eyes and screamed at the horrific sight of a bleeding Frankenstein snarling at me from outside. My brother got in some trouble for that one.
In England, we tended to concentrate on Mischief Night and Bonfire Night (4th and 5th of November) but there were some kids — particularly those whose world existed within the four-color confines of the American comicbook and the stories of Ray Bradbury — who were aware that there was something else to be had . . . another special day; one with something more than mere firecracker mayhem to entice and inveigle. That special day was All Hallows Eve . . . when witches rode the cool winds on brooms and the dead left their soily resting places to walk the night-time streets once again.
Of course, my childhood imagination created all manner of spectral happenings and I’ve written about many of them. But the first real memory I have comes from much later . . . when I was in my early 30’s. For it was then, armed with thermoses of coffee and hot milk and little packs of sandwiches and chocolate biscuits, that Nicky and I took the boys — then aged seven and five — up to nearby Knaresborough Rocks to watch for witches.
I write this stuff for a living, of course (at least, I do when PS Publishing lets me have an hour or two off for good behaviour!) . . . so I’m probably not a good judge. But I reckon the best rush you will ever get out of Hallowe’en is through the eyes of a child alongside you. It could be your child, could be someone else’s — doesn’t matter. Just watch their eyes, wide like saucers, their mouths dry with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Unbeatable.
We repeated that excursion other years — in fact, it became a staple in the Crowther household — until the commercial side of Hallowe’en took over and Olly and Tim went out trick-or-treating. But, you know, for a long time after — all the time we were in Harrogate, in fact, years after the kids had left home — Nicky and I still went out to Knaresborough Rocks, scanning the dark skies . . . looking for witches. I think I even saw one once or twice. . .
Simon Clark: My parents, for a Halloween treat, allowed me to stay up late to watch a TV ghost story. Possibly, I was aged five or six. I don’t remember the show’s title now (it might have been from the Mystery & Imagination series; if I’m misremembering then I might be combining childhood Halloween memories, which for me adds to the emotional potency of that night). The series graphics were of a frantically beating dove, shown in ghostly negative, then an ominous thudding heartbeat would begin. And then….
….and then I’d had enough. Terrified, I scrambled off to bed before the film had even properly started. Oh, but the dreams – and the nightmares – those opening credits triggered…
Bev Vincent: I grew up in rural Eastern Canada, where the houses were spread out along the main highway. We set out in a group of five or six and wandered abroad for hours, covering three or four miles in each direction. Because of the latitude, it got dark early. Our parents didn’t appear to worry about the fact that we were gone until eight or nine o’clock.
Since it was a small community, everyone knew everyone else, so part of the game was to guess who the masked visitors were. At some places, every young person in the community had a specially prepared treat with his or her name on it. Usually the treats in those places were homemade: fudge, Rice Krispie squares, things like that. Nobody had to worry about apples with razor blades or candy with needles, though we knew those things happened in far-away places. We all coveted nickel bags of potato chips, though. That was the barometer of the evening’s success: how many bags of chips we acquired.
We had plenty of time for shenanigans. We had fights with ripe cat-tails, which could be thrown like hand grenades and would explode to cover you with seeds that looked like feathers. Setting off fire crackers and soaping windows were the standard tricks. Hiding or knocking over yard implements. One member of a political organization had his garage wallpapered with posters for the opposition party, I recall. It was all good clean fun and the night seemed to last forever. In my memory, it now seems straight out of a Ray Bradbury story and I regret that my daughter wasn’t able to share that magical experience, since Halloween in the suburbs in the 1990s was a different creature altogether.
I reckon one of my earliest Halloween memories was in 1966. I was six years old and the Batman TV show with Adam West was the big thing that year. Every kid in our neighborhood was Batman crazy. Dozens of Caped Crusaders were running around, leaping across ditches and climbing up porches. I guess the neighbors were a little confused, wondering if they were handing out candy to the same kid over and over again. I don’t think there was a single Robin in the bunch. Who wanted to be stinking Robin anyway?
I remember I had my mom cut the bottom half of my plastic mask off — the man face part — leaving only the cowl. All the other kids thought I was kinda weird because of that. But at least I wasn’t huffing and puffing and sweating under my mask. At least I could breathe!
I was 5 or 6, had never really been out after dark on the streets in the neighborhood. A perfect Halloween night — cool, blustery breeze, leaves hissing in the maples and scuttling down the streets. I was a “hobo,” complete with a beat-up old fedora and a mascara stubble, applied by my mother. What I remember most is the thrill of being out at that time of day, how the neighborhood seemed so different, the taste of the autumn night air. I got a lot of Mounds and Almond Joy bars — at that time, they were all made at the Peter Paul factory in town, long before it was taken over by Cadbury, and eventually moved, just a few years ago, to some other location. I didn’t think of Halloween as necessarily scary then, just different, fun and once-a-year unique. Scary came later.
There’s an invention for today’s dog owners called an invisible fence. It’s basically a radio signal around the perimeter of the yard, and if the dog steps too close to the signal, it triggers a device in the animal’s collar and delivers a small electrical shock. Perfect Pavlov conditioning, just like I learned back in ninth grade psychology class. But it seems a bit cruel to me. The dog’s bound to be zapped a few times before it catches on. Dogs aren’t always as quick as we are. Hell, growing up we had a mongrel lab that would probably never have figured it out: Atlas would have barked at air, then -zap!-. Another bark and charge then -zap!- again. I loved that sweet, dumb animal.
Still, I guess for most dogs the gadget would work eventually. Inflict a little pain and terror at the start, and then you’re forever spared the eyesore of a chain-link fence around your front lawn.
“The Big Street”
When I was growing up, my parents invented their own kind of invisible fence for me and my sister. All parents build some version of this fence—never talk to strangers, keep close to home after sundown, that kind of thing. But my parents had a gift with words and storytelling that zapped those lessons into my young mind with a special permanence.
My father taught Shop—excuse me, Industrial Arts—at Kensington High School, so I guess that’s where he built up his skills with the cautionary tale: don’t feed your hand into the disc sander; keep your un-goggled eyes away from the jigsaw blade, and other Greatest Hits. But listen to his rendition of that old stand-by, “The Big Street”:
He walked me and my sister Pam to the divided road on the north end of our community. I was six, and Pam was three years older. He stopped us at the curb of McNeil Road, just close enough where we could hear the cars zip by, feel the hot wind of exhaust or maybe get hit by a stray speck of gravel tossed up by a rear wheel. A half-mile down, on the other side of McNeil, was a small shopping center: a single screen movie theater, Safeway grocery, People’s Drugs, and a Dairy Queen, among other highlights. In the other direction visible from the top of this hill was Strathmore Park, with swings, monkey bars, and a fiberglass spider with bent-ladder legs. We could visit these wondrous places anytime dad drove us there, but we were never, ever, to cross the Big Street on our own.
“Now, let me tell you about a boy who used to live the other side of the road,” our father said. “About your age, Nathan. He crossed back and forth over this Big Street all the time.” He swung his arm in front of him, parallel to the road. “Looks like a pretty good view of the road in both directions, doesn’t it?”
We both craned our necks and followed the swing of his arm. Pam nodded first, and I did the same.
“Well, you’d be wrong. Some of those cars come up faster than you think.” As if to confirm his point, a blue truck rattled past. “When you do something a lot, you get pretty confident. Over-confident. This boy, he’d run across early that morning without a hitch, like usual. On his way back, he was standing right where we are now. Looked both ways, I imagine, or maybe he forgot that one time—we don’t know for sure. What we do know . . .”
Dad dropped to one knee, the toe of his right sneaker perfectly aligned with the edge of the curb.
“See right there, where the gutter doesn’t quite match the road? Not too close, now, Nathan.” He stretched his arm out like a guard rail, and I leaned against it to peer over. The blacktop of the road had a rounded edge, about an inch higher than the cement gutter, but the asphalt was cracked or split in a few places. One spot, it looked almost like somebody’d taken a bite out of it. I guessed that was where Dad wanted me to look.
“His foot likely got caught in that niche, and the boy tripped into the road. The black van might have been speeding, might not. But it wasn’t entirely the driver’s fault, was it?”
I swallowed hard, my throat dry. I’d have loved a Misty or a dip cone from Dairy Queen, but I sure didn’t plan on crossing the Big Street to get it.
“See that dark patch in the road?”
I leaned forward again, and my T-shirt felt sweaty where my chest pressed against Dad’s outstretched arm.
“County trucks cleaned things up, best they could, but you can’t always wash away every trace of blood.”
A shadowy stain appeared beneath the rumbled flashes of painted steel, chrome, glass, and rubber tires, a stain wet and blacker than the grey-black asphalt, in which I could almost distinguish the outline of a boy, just my size.
“I’d heard the story before,” Pam told me that afternoon. We had separate bedrooms in our small house on Bel Pre Court—a luxury a lot of our friends didn’t enjoy—but I was in and out of my sister’s room all the time. She even let me use the bottom shelf of her bookcase to store a few Matchbox cars, a robot, and a plastic astronaut.
“Really? Did you know the kid who got hit?”
“No, I heard it before from Dad. Two years ago.”
Pam had fanned baseball cards in front of her on the bedspread. She’d invented this game of solitaire: traded players, constructed her own all-star teams, grouped them in batting orders, then shuffled the cards to start again. Often she waited long minutes between each shift of card, as if the game required intense, chess-like concentration. She never could quite explain the rules to me, but I didn’t mind: I wasn’t that keen on sports like Pam was, and I was happy she still managed to talk with me while she played.
“The kid wouldn’t need to cross the road,” Pam said.
“All the good stuff’s already on his side. Movie theater, playground, burgers and ice cream. Why cross?”
I hadn’t thought about that. “Maybe he had friends over here.”
“Nope. The friends would all be visiting his side, where the fun stuff is. They’d be the ones who got whacked by the black van.”
She said “black van” in a sing-song voice. I didn’t understand why she’d make a joke, go so far as to imagine more kids killed while crossing McNeil Road.
“I saw the stain on the road,” I said.
Pam switched two baseball cards, then flipped another one face down. “Probably a car broke down on the side of the road, leaked a little oil. Check our own driveway, and you’ll find a few stains there, too.”
“Not like that stain,” I said.
“He showed us where it happened, Pam.”
Pam had pretty much destroyed our father’s story with logic. She was three years older, obviously a little more worldly than I was. But I don’t think I was naive to side with my Dad. More than logic, it was the story that convinced me. The confirming details of the cracks in the asphalt, the boy-shaped stain on the road, summer’s heat and the rushing cars making me dizzy—just like must have happened to the careless young pedestrian in Dad’s account. Maybe it wasn’t true, okay, but it could be true if somebody didn’t follow the rules. Accidents happen. We may not all have friends who’ve chopped off a digit or two with the buzz-saw in Industrial Arts class, but if a couple circles of red marker on the shop tile, scrubbed into faded realism after hours, help the teacher point the next day and shout, “There! There’s where the fingers rolled off and bounced like link sausages onto the floor!”—well, strictly true or not, such lessons are worth learning.
No way was I going to cross the Big Street on my own.
The next summer, Mom staked a claim to her own span of our invisible fence. Dad came up with most of the stories, so in retrospect I’m grudgingly proud of Mom for thinking this one up.
A deep stretch of woods formed a natural barrier behind our house. Dad had a few gems about kids getting lost, bitten by snakes, or swollen and itchy from a patch of poison ivy—all of which generally kept us from setting up camp in there. We wandered into the woods sometimes, peeling bark off trees, flipping logs to look for ants or pill bugs, poking a stick at a rock to make sure it’s not a bullfrog. As long as we didn’t go near Stillwater Creek, we didn’t get in trouble. The creek had its own persuasive power: it was muddy, shallow, and stank of sulfur, so Pam and I steered clear without being prompted.
But Mom, overcautious, decided we shouldn’t venture into the woods at all. One rainy day, she called us into the living room where she typically sprawled out on the sofa and watched her “plays” on CBS. “Turn down the television, would you? I’ve got something serious to talk with you kids about.”
With the rain outside, and the shades pulled down, the living room was pretty dark. The main light source was the television, which reflected a kind of campfire glow on Mom’s face as she talked. “There are dope fiends in the woods,” she told us. “I heard about them from Mrs. Lieberman.”
I have to explain a few things about my Mom before I go any further.
When I was three years old, my baby sister was born. I remember playing with her, in particular a game where Pam and I lined up plastic bowling pins around the rim of Jamie’s crib. She’d wait for us to finish, then knock them over with her tiny fists, and laugh and laugh. That’s mostly what I remember, the laughing.
Jamie had to go to the hospital when she was about fourteen months old, after a really bad cough developed into something more serious. Apparently they put her in a croup tent, a plastic covering that kept away germs and allowed doctors to regulate her oxygen. I never visited her in the hospital, but my parents later told me how much Jamie hated that tent. I imagined her beating at the plastic covering with her fists, but too weak to laugh or even breathe.
I don’t remember what my parents said the last night they returned from the hospital. I know they must have agonized over how they’d break the news to us, my Dad no doubt holding back his natural tendency towards the grisly, giving us the soft version of Jamie drifting painlessly off to sleep and never waking up; how babies were innocent and always went to heaven, so she’s with God now, and we’ll always have our memories; Mom convincing us that we’re all right, that we’d never get that sick, and Mommy and Daddy would always be there to protect us, and nobody’s dying, not anytime soon that’s for sure, we promise; and all the time both of them trying not to cry themselves, knowing if they messed this moment up it could haunt me or Pam for the rest of our lives.
I know they worked really hard on what to say, and I’m sad I don’t remember any of it. But I was only four, and memory keeps its own protective agenda for a child that age. Just the bowling pins, and the laughter.
There’s a Polaroid of me and Pam taken the day of Jamie’s funeral. Pam’s in a frilly peach dress, holding a small bouquet of daffodils. I’m wearing a tan suit—a handsome little gentleman, in a heart-breakingly tiny clip-on tie. We’re standing next to the grave marker, which has a hole in the center where Pam will soon place the daffodils. According to my father, before Pam had the chance to fit the stems into the grave marker, I kneeled down to peer deeply into the hole. “Jamie’s down there,” I said, then waved. “Hi, Jamie!”
But I was talking about my mother.
After Jamie’s death, not right away, but gradually, my Mom became more and more withdrawn. She didn’t have a job, and never learned to drive, but she used to go shopping with my father, or went with us on day trips to visit relatives in Silver Spring or Tacoma Park. She also maintained a small garden out front, and played bridge twice a week with neighboring housewives. After the tragedy, she told Dad she didn’t feel like talking with family about Jamie, not for a while at least, and somehow that ended her drives to the grocery store, as well. The bridge games slipped to once a week, and then just the gardening. And then not even that.
Agoraphobia roughly translates to “fear of open spaces,” but that’s not exactly right. It’s a kind of depression that, in my mother’s case, at least, was more about avoiding interaction with other people. Dad and Pam and I were the notable exceptions. She didn’t want to see anyone else, and she didn’t want anybody else looking in—which explained why she lowered the living room shades, even during the middle of the day. Eventually she refused to leave the house for any reason—certainly not for the psychiatrist visits that probably would have helped her, if people hadn’t frowned so much on therapy in those days, or if my Dad had been strong enough to force her into treatment. His version of “strong” was letting her have her way, adding cooking and cleaning to his breadwinning duties, with Mom on occasional assist with the child care when absolutely necessary.
But more often than not, it was us kids doing things for her. Mom spent most of her time on that sofa, to the point that it’s hard for me to recall her in motion. Certainly she must have moved from the bedroom to the living room on occasion, definitely needed to use the bathroom like the rest of us. But mostly things were brought to her: a cup of water with ice and a bendable straw; Diet Rite Cola in the tall glass bottle; two peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch, the crust removed; and a small plate of Oreo cookies with a mug of milk for her afternoon snack. She had a remote for the television, but mostly watched the soaps and local news on channel 9, and if either Pam or I were passing nearby when she wanted to switch, she’d have us turn the channel.
Mom’s other entertainment was newspapers, with a special fondness for the crossword puzzle and the Word Jumble. She’d store the day’s puzzle folded over like a napkin on her TV tray, next to a plate of food, and worked during the commercials or during an especially slow-moving plot on As the World Turns or The Edge of Night. Some days she didn’t finish the puzzles, or didn’t skim her way through the rest of the newspaper sections. Stacks of newspaper piled next to her beside the sofa, beneath the TV tray, and at her feet; Mom could never keep straight which stack was the most current, so when Pam asked for today’s Sports page or I wanted to read the comics, we each had to choose a pile to sort through.
Dad taught summer courses. Even between terms he went to school on a nine-to-four schedule to use their shop equipment for woodworking projects he solicited via purple, mimeographed ads stapled to telephone poles throughout our neighborhood. All for the extra money, of course, but just as likely because the day-dark house bothered him in ways it wouldn’t bother little kids who didn’t know much better.
At least, not usually. But that overcast, rainy day when Mom told us about the dope fiends, the bleak, shadowy living room gave her words the chilly certainty of a midnight-whispered campfire ghost story.
“The police found needles in the woods,” Mom said. We stood next to the couch and Mom sat up, a striking change from her usual horizontal posture. “Just thrown on the ground where kids like you could step on them in your bare feet. They found rubber tubing, also. These dope fiends tie tubes around their arm to make the veins stand out, then use the needles to inject drugs into their bloodstream.” She lifted her crossword-puzzle pencil and mimed jabbing it into her forearm.
Due to my twice-yearly doctor visits, I was already plenty scared of needles. I never escaped without some vaccination or another—for polio, German Measles, chicken pox, whatever. After losing Jamie, Mom wasn’t taking chances with me or Pam. I hated the awful tension when the nurse squirted a faint arc of fluid over the sink before she plunged the stinging needle beneath my rolled-up sleeve. The needle was too long and thin; I worried it could snap off inside my arm and hurt forever.
The idea of tying a tube around your arm sounded even more complex and painful to me. Who would do something like this on purpose?
Fiends, of course. A much better word than “addict” for kids. The word addict scares adults, because it’s all about loss of control—our fears that we’d drink or gamble or screw against logic, throw money we don’t have into greedily programmed machines or wake up late mornings with a monstrous hangover and an even more monstrous bedroom companion. Kids don’t fear addiction (they don’t have much control over anything to begin with); better for them to visualize some tangible bogeyman, like the monster under the bed or evil trolls who live beneath storybook bridges.
“I know you kids would never be foolish enough to try drugs,” my mother continued. “But if you run across a group of dope fiends, they may force their drugs on you. Chase you down, and whoosh!” She jabbed her pencil in the air towards Pam for emphasis, then towards me; I jumped back in nervous reaction.
“The police haven’t caught any of the dope fiends yet, so they’re still out there.” She pointed at her main sources of information: the television, in its rare moment of flickering silence; disorganized towers of newsprint; and the end table telephone, her daily link in epic half-hour conversations with her two remaining friends, Mrs. Lieberman and my Aunt Lora. “If I hear anything more, I’ll let you know. Until then, I want you both to stay out of those woods.”
I nodded first, without waiting to see Pam’s response.
This was before a president’s wife told us to “Just Say ‘No’,” before “Your Brain” sizzled sunny-side-up in an MTV frying pan. But even then, in the post-hippie 1970s, drugs were dialed pretty high on a kid’s panic-meter. I was too young to grasp the concept fully, of course, and stirred my own fears into the mixture. When my mother mentioned the “paraphernalia” found in the woods—hypodermic syringes, rubber tubes, empty glass vials of medicine—she may have said something about medicine caps. Or maybe the “dope” idea was suggestive enough. My third grade mind somehow latched onto caps, conflated it with the image of a cartoon child in the corner of a schoolroom, a pointed dunce or dope cap rising from his head. I imagined predatory older boys donning these caps as the proud symbol of their gang. They patrolled the woods behind our house, seeking new initiates—would toss syringes like darts at your exposed arms or neck, then would force you to the ground and press their ignorance into you, lowering it like a shameful cap onto your struggling head. Ignorance was even more terrifying to me than needles. I was a slightly
overweight boy, uncoordinated at sports and generally unpopular at school. To be stupid—to be unattractive and awkward and picked-on and stupid—was the worst fate I could imagine. Smart was all I had.
And yet I was stupid enough, later that summer, to let Aaron Lieberman and my sister talk me into visiting those woods to search for abandoned needles.
Catching Hell (Novella Series #20)
by Greg F. Gifune
“Keep your voice down, they’re probably still on our asses.” Billy struggled to his feet and did his best to force the emotion and fear away.
“Let’s go, get up. We’ve got to keep moving.”
They followed the stream a while, running when they had the wind and walking when they grew too tired. Although they neither saw nor heard any sign of the townspeople, they continued on without stopping for close to half an hour.
Just when it seemed the forest was endless, they reached a break in the trees and found themselves standing before an enormous field of tall,
untamed grass, the waist-high blades swaying gracefully in the rain and wind. Perhaps two hundred yards away, an old and obviously abandoned barn stood rotting in the middle of the field. Beyond it and the far side of the field was more forest.
With jagged spears of lightning stabbing the ever-darkening sky and thunder throttling the earth, they ran across the field. Into the open. Into the rain. Wading through the grass, their legs grew weaker, their chests burned and they were barely able to breathe. But still, they forced themselves forward until they’d reached the barn.
The building, long deserted, was rotted and littered with numerous wounds in the roof and walls. Rain trickled through the openings, running in constant currents through the cracks and spattering the dirt floor to form small pockets of puddles throughout.
Billy and the others scrambled through an opening where the main door, a large sliding panel, had once stood. It now hung to the side and had nearly broken free of the building altogether. They collapsed to the ground in unison, their labored breath audible above the sounds of the mounting storm, pounding rain and constant trickling and dripping.
After a moment, Billy regained his feet and inspected their surroundings. Although the barn hadn’t been used in some time, it retained something of a livestock and manure smell, and remnants of hay and old bags of feed lay scattered about the dirt floor and in the corners of a few dilapidated stalls. He looked next to the high roof, squinting as raindrops splashed his face. Glimpses of the darkening sky shown through the multiple fractures, but otherwise it looked intact and would provide sufficient sanctuary, albeit temporarily. He moved to the remains of the door. Outside, the field they’d crossed was empty. If the townspeople had followed them, they were either hidden in the forest or crawling unseen through the tall grass.
“Are they coming?” Alex asked breathlessly.
Billy ran to the opposite wall, found a hole and checked the hundred or so yards of field in the other direction. It too was empty, the forest beyond it dark and blurred by rain. “I don’t see them anywhere, but we can’t stay here long, there’s no way to defend or secure this place. Too many breaks in the walls and roof, too many ways in, too many directions to keep an eye on. Hurry up and catch your breath.”
Stefan pulled his loafers off and rubbed his bare feet. Hardly conducive to running, the shoes had already caused the beginnings of several blisters. “And where, exactly, do you suggest we go?”
“There must be something beyond those woods.”
“Right. More woods.”
“Sooner or later they’ve got to come out somewhere.”
“I don’t care how far we have to go,” Alex said, “just so long as we stay ahead of those crazy freaks.”
Suddenly, from a dark corner of the barn came a deep but quiet male voice, barely discernable over the relentless rain and occasional thunder.
“They’re not crazy,” the voice told them. “They’re damned.”
The Corpse King (Novella Series #21)
by Tim Curran
Here were cadavers of every age and sex packed in sawdust and hay, sunk in wooden casks and barrels of brine. Here were babies pickled in bottles and salted limbs heaped in cupboards. Staring heads had been salted and women injected with preservative. They waited against the walls like mummies and leered from corners with rictus grins. A great assemblage of charnel harvest awaiting the highest bidder, supply and demand. Like the grisly pantry of a cannibal.
Clow grinned. “Aye, I look around me workshop and see coins spilling from every recess, I do. Would you agree, Mickey Kierney?”
“I would,” Kierney said, pulling a lid off a cask and pouring a bit of grain alcohol from a dusty bottle onto the bobbing head of a woman.
“And look here, would you?” Clow said. “Me latest offerings.”
He approached a table with two small forms shrouded in a graying sheet. Carefully, he pulled the sheet back. There were the cadavers of two four-year old twin girls laying there, cold as clay, eyes gummed shut, tiny stiff hands pressed over white bosoms.
“Oh, me fine darlings, look at you, look at the wonder of you,” Clow said, pouring himself a tin cup of gin and toasting them. “Your mother decided she would strangle you, did she? Decided life was better without you, eh? Well, no matter, me and Mr. Kierney will whisk you off to the medical college at first light. You’ll be in good hands there, I say. Better than the moss and crawlies of the churchyard, I be thinking,” Clow stroked their sunken faces, brushed a stray strand of hair away from the one on the left and cooed to the other, drawing a finger over her seamed, blackened lips. “Sssh, sssh, me doves, me lovies, me fine little darlings. We’ll have none of that now, will we? Samuel Clow will take fine care of you, he will.”
Together, Clow and Kierney gently lowered the bodies of the girls into a vat of brine to hold them over until delivery. Their blonde curls skated over the surface a moment, then sank from view.
“Bless ye, me angels,” Clow said, closing the lid.
Youth is a cliff. You leap, and repair the broken bones later.
When you’re older, you draw the map, retrace the steps, and find the cliff’s edge again and wonder: would anyone ever jump if they knew how far down it went?
Ask Haversham about cliffs and broken bones.
If she could talk, she’d tell you all. I bet she knows the Throat of Manhattan — that cavernous well that drops to the pitch black boulevards of Deep City. I bet she knows the inhabitants of the lightless world–who exist below the squalid tunnels of the city — those people who are less than human (some say) because they’ve lived for generations in the dark.
There she is now — see her? Sitting in her wheelchair, far from the subway platform, half in shadow, half in light. Old beyond years. Shriveled. Her eyes, clouded. Her lips curled slightly in an unintended snarl.
What does she think when she watches that girl — does she remember being young?
Haversham is all white hair and translucent wrinkled skin; her hands, scored with the lines and veins of old age; she makes strange movements with her hands when the arthritis doesn’t knot them up as if they’re snakes wriggling in mid-air.
In her lap, the little gray cardboard shoe box, its lid tied down with twine.
But who is she, really? — when the lights go out and her whisper is against your cheek. Do you smell her sour milk breath? Do you feel her curled hand reaching toward you as if she wants you to listen?
Do you really want to know what’s inside that plain shoebox, what secret she’s keeping? Does it hold photos of her youth — or wads of dollar bills — or even the brown shoes she once went dancing in when she could walk?
Haversham, with her little knit blanket and flower-print dress and scrawny bird-head and the way she tries to speak, but can’t seem to form the words she wants to say — almost as if she doesn’t know language anymore.
And if she could speak — will you stop to listen?
My name is Mina, and my brother’s name is Leo. Leo mostly raised me — even though he’s just a year older than me, he managed to be cook, thief, nurse and even my protector. Our father could do none of this.
Our father is Howard and he’s blind and prone to fevers and muscle pains. Our mother — Marguerite — died when I was young.
In those days, we lived under Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, but not so far down that we are in Deep City. That’s important to know, because it means we’re still above the darkest part of the underworld that opens beneath Macy’s and Saks and Bloomingdales and, yes, even the Excelsior Hotel off of Sixth Avenue.
We fell through some cracks, once upon a time. My father feels we jumped, but I think we were shoved.
by Frank Darabont
“Yes? May I help you?”
Howard froze in the open doorway, letting the wind howl through the long, narrow shop like a wounded beast. The scabrous old man behind the counter was grinning — not smiling, but grinning and rubbing his hands together with a predacious glee like John Carradine in a bad movie. He was positively ancient, a bald fossil in green tweed, sporting a pink roadmap of eczema on his scalp. He reminded Howard of a praying mantis.
A rumble of thunder rolled down Hollywood Boulevard and rattled the windows in their frames. Howard stepped inside and closed the door, shutting out the gale. It wasn’t a dark and stormy night, not yet, but it was getting there in a big, ugly way.
“May I help you?” the proprietor persisted.
“Uh, yes, I hope so.” Howard hefted the battered black typewriter case onto the counter and opened it to reveal the equally battered and black IBM Selectric II within. “I’m afraid my typewriter broke down this morning.”
Broke down, hell. It had self-destructed with an oily belch of smoke and a prolonged, wheezing death-rattle. The sound it made as it expired was that of an old dog farting.
Howard saw no point in relating all the sorry details. “I’m not really sure what the trouble is.”
“How tragic,” murmured the old man, and leaned over the carcass of the machine with a look of overwhelming sadness. Then his grin returned, so sudden and unexpected that Howard took a nervous step back. “You’re a writer,” he croaked. It wasn’t a question so much as the accusation of a hooded Inquisitor.
“Well, yes,” Howard admitted.
“I spotted it right off, didn’t I? I am Cyril Pratt. And you are…?”
“Howard. Howard Walpuski.”
“Feel free to browse around, Mr. Walpuski. See what strikes your fancy. Will you be using the dearly departed,” he nodded at Howard’s IBM with the solicitous air of an undertaker, “as a trade-in?”
Howard shrugged, non-committal. The truth of the matter was he had the sum of his wordly wealth riding around in his wallet in the form of five wrinkled dollar bills and an RTD bus pass. He noticed the faded REPAIRS MADE ON CREDIT sign mounted on the wall and gestured vaguely in its direction. “Actually, I wondered if you might be able to—”
“Affect repairs?” spat the old man. Again, it sounded like an accusation: Zoo, you vant your typewriter repaired, schweinhunt? Und on credit, no doubt! Hmmm…you haff relatives in Argentina, perhaps? Howard felt his face redden, suddenly sure that Pratt knew he had only five bucks to his name, knew about the phone company threatening to disconnect him for non-payment, knew about the nasty letters his bank was sending him with the words INSUFFICIENT FUNDS and OVERDRAWN screaming at him from every paragraph, knew…well, everything.
“Yes,” Howard stammered. “Affect repairs.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we? We’ll just have to see if repairs are in order.”
Pratt removed the carriage housing cover and poked his nose into the IBM, prodding around with his index finger, whistling and grunting softly under his breath.
Howard turned away and pretended to browse the typewriters that lurked in the shadows on musty shelves and pedestal displays, hating himself for letting the old man make him feel ashamed and small, praying that the Selectric could be mickey-moused into functioning again. He had a deadline to meet, rent to pay.
He’d been to damn near every typewriter shop in the city, lugging the beastly black IBM till the muscles in his neck and shoulders sang arias about muscular aches and pains. Most of the repairmen had simply smiled as politely as possible, shaken their heads, and shown him the door. One guy had actually laughed in his face and said, what’d you do, buddy, use this sucker to barbecue? Howard had resisted a blinding urge to remove all the man’s teeth with one mighty swing of the typewriter; he’d simply thanked him and left, the back of his neck flushed and hot.
There was no reason to hope that Pratt would be any different, none at all.
Howard glanced at the counter and was shocked to find the old man staring at him. He was suddenly sure Pratt had been watching him all along, studying him instead of the typewriter. He pictured himself lying on the counter in the IBM’s place, the top of his head removed like a carriage housing cover, Pratt peering inside his skull and poking his finger around, making those soft sounds under his breath.
“Yes,” said Pratt, “I think repairs are called for. Much needed repairs.”
Howard’s face lit up. For a brief moment he even found himself liking the old guy. “Great! How long do you think it’ll take?”
“Major repairs,” continued Pratt, ignoring the question. “Beyond just the obvious. The typewriter is the least of it.”
Howard blinked. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Answer me this. If you had an infinite number of monkeys randomly hitting the keys of an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, do you know what you’d get?”
Of course Howard knew; this had been standard in every philosophy course he’d ever taken in college. “You would eventually get all the great works of literature?”
“YOU’D GET BULLSHIT, THAT’S WHAT YOU’D GET!” screamed Pratt, causing Howard to jump several feet in the air. “And do you know why you’d get bullshit?”
“Why?” blurted Howard.
“Because monkeys can’t write!” Pratt unfurled a long, gnarled finger and jabbed it in Howard’s direction. “You, Mr. Walpuski, are like one of those monkeys. You just keep hitting the keys, and all you keep producing is bullshit.”
Howard’s mouth dropped open like a trapdoor. “Now wait just a damn minute…”
“Yes, I will affect repairs. On credit, of course. You need pay only a small deposit now, say perhaps . . . five wrinkled dollar bills?”
This stopped Howard cold. He had just been working himself into a good rage, too — had, in fact, promised himself to grab the nasty old codger by the frayed lapels and shake him till his head fell off — but this brought him up short like a bucket of water between the eyes.
“Fuh-fuh-fuh-five . . . ?”
“Wrinkled dollar bills, yes. The remainder of my fee will be 10% of all your earnings from the three novels.”
“Yes, of course,” said Pratt, waggling three fingers impatiently in front of Howard’s nose. “My work is guaranteed, you know. For three novels.”
Before Howard could respond, Cyril Pratt tucked the big IBM effortlessly under his arm, case and all. He strode to a door near the back of the shop and threw it open, revealing rickety wooden steps leading down into darkness. He spared a glance over his shoulder. “Well? Come, come! I haven’t got all night, you know!”
Blue November Storms
by Brian Freeman
The five men lay motionless on the roof of the hunting cabin, and they stared at the full moon and they talked about everything, their breath turning to fog in the chilly night air. The cabin known to them as The Summer Place sat at the top of a rocky hill, perfectly perched so the men could look down on Beacon Point Lake where the moon’s shimmering reflection glazed across the water’s dark surface.
These five friends had built the cabin when they were in high school, but now, twenty years and five lifetimes later, none of them could remember what had compelled them to start the project in the first place. During their formative years they were called The Lightning Five because of their prowess on the football field, but the nickname had stuck with them for the rest of their lives for another reason. They had done something as teenagers that people still talked about—although no one else knew what had really happened on that humid August day when they were eighteen.
A certain amount of pressure grew from knowing the truth, and holding that pressure inside could make a person implode.
But tonight wasn’t about pressure, it wasn’t about myths. The men hadn’t yet spoken of what they had done twenty years earlier or why they had never let the complete story be known or why a girl had died and yet they were still called heroes. Tonight was about escape and destiny.
And little did the men know, this was going to be their last trip together. Ever.
But before they could come to The Summer Place for the last time, one of them had to return from the dead.
Her name was Sondra, and when she asked me to kill Whitey, I said yes.
What else could I say? If you could have seen her, if you could have watched the way her pouting, glossy lips formed the words, or if you looked deep into her sad eyes, or heard that sorrow in her sweet, pleading voice-you would have said the same thing.
Sondra was beautiful. Her dark hair was so black that sunlight got lost inside it. Her eyes were the same color. Her long fingernails were red, matching her lipstick. She had Russian facial features; a Slavic forehead, chin, nose and cheekbones. She was slim, but had a heart-shaped ass and perfect tits. No boob job for her. No way. Sondra’s breasts were one-hundred percent real. You could tell it by the way they moved when she walked. Or arched her back. Or just breathed.
Damn. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? I hate to make her sound like a piece of meat. She wasn’t. Sondra was much more than that. And I’m not one of those guys, in any case. I respect women. Like the great comedian Sam Kinison used to say-what are you gonna do without women? Give sheep the vote? You’ve got to respect women. And I did. But put that aside for a moment. Sondra was what she was-a surefire cure for erectile dysfunction. She put Viagra to shame. You know those women that you see-the exotic ones that you could never ever get? Not in a million years? She was one of those women. And I got her.
She was the type of woman that men would kill or die just to be with one time. She inspired the imagination. She was who you closed your eyes and fantasized about when you made love to your wife for the five hundredth time. Straight guys wanted to fuck her. Gay guys wanted to be her friend. And women… some women wanted to do both. Well, except for those that instantly hated her-and maybe even some of them wanted to be with her, too.
Sondra was her real name, too. A lot of those girls-especially the Russians-use stage names. But not Sondra. She didn’t have to. Her presence was more powerful than any name she could have taken.
Shit. I’m not a poet. I’m a fucking dockworker. I don’t know how to make it any more palatable for you. I don’t have the words or the ability. What you need to know is this-Sondra was sex, plain and simple. She exuded it. It was in her aura, in her pheromones. It dripped from her pores and followed in her wake like a vapor trail. Sondra was desire and lust, and I wanted her from the moment I saw her.
Was it love? I don’t know. Maybe I thought so for a little while, but even now, after all this time and everything that happened, I just don’t know for sure. I’d been in love before. More than once. I knew what it was like. How it felt. What it did to a man. In the short time I was with Sondra, it certainly felt like that. But it also felt like something more-or maybe, something else.
I don’t know if I loved her, but I was damn sure crazy about her.
And that’s why I said yes when she asked me to kill Whitey.
Saying it, making the promise, was easy. Doing it was harder.
In the days since I awoke from the white haze, the world has been a blur of blinding lights and muffled noises and distorted memories fading in and out of reality, in and out of my dreams and nightmares. Machines beep and hum. Voices carry down the hallway. Somewhere, someone screams for reasons I can only begin to imagine.
I’m trapped in my own little hell.
A personal inferno.
The lights are bright during the day. At night they dim so I can sleep. That’s never a problem, although my dreams are haunted by visions of the recent past. Nothing solid. Every moment is like gazing into a broken mirror. Echoes of confusion. Flashes of movement. But those echoes grow louder and the flashes become brighter with each passing night.
I’m eighteen years old, and the doctors say I’ll recover from my wounds.
Right now my side aches, as if the bullet is still in there. I feel the burning, like a white-hot knife is being jabbed into my flesh.
The drugs create a fog in my head, but I can’t imagine the pain without them. The pain comes in waves, blinding me, branding my mind.
I can’t remember much. Not yet.
But I know a way to recover the memories, to rebuild what I once had.
I told the doctors how I can remember what happened, with a little help from them.
I told the doctors I used to write every day.
The act of putting words on paper has helped me through a lot of difficult times. My fears and dreams, spoken through other people’s mouths. My fears and dreams, acted through other people’s bodies. Nothing real, all fake, all make-believe, yet all reflections of reality.
After some discussion, the doctors have decided it’s what I need to do now: I need to write.
My memories are distant and disjointed, but I’ll try to make this as coherent as I can.
The doctors tell me to write, so that’s what I’ll do.
I’ll write about the day my life changed forever.
I’ll try to explain The Showdown, if I can discover what that really means.
I’ll write this down like any other story I’ve ever dreamed up.
Like any work of fiction that has ever lived inside my mind, and inside my mind only.
What I can’t remember, I’ll piece together along the way.
Friday Night in Beast House
by Richard Laymon
Mark sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the telephone.
Do it! Don’t be such a wuss! Just pick it up and dial.
He’d been telling himself that very thing for more than half an hour. Still, there he sat, sweating and gazing at the phone.
Come on, man! The worst that can happen is she says no.
No, he thought. That isn’t the worst. The worst is if she laughs and says, “You must be out of your mind. What on earth would ever possess you to think I might consider going out with a complete loser like you?”
She won’t say that, he told himself. Why would she? Only a real bitch would say a thing like that, and she’s . . .
. . . wonderful . . .
To Mark, everything about Alison was wonderful. Her hair that smelled like an autumn wind. Her face, so fresh and sweet and cute that the very thought of it made Mark ache. The mischief and fire in her eyes. Her wide and friendly smile. The crooked upper tooth in front. Her rich voice and laugh. Her slender body. The jaunty bounce in her step.
She’ll never go out with me. But jeez, he thought, why not ask? It won’t kill me to ask.
Before today, he never would’ve seriously considered it. She belonged to another realm. Though they’d been in a few classes together since starting high school, they’d rarely spoken. She’d given him a smile from time to time. A nod. A brief hello. She never had an inkling, he was sure, of how he felt about her. And he’d intended it to remain that way.
But today at the start of lunch period Bigelow had called out, “Beep beep!” in his usual fashion. Alison hadn’t dodged him fast enough, so he’d crashed into her with his wheelchair. Down she’d gone on the hallway floor at Mark’s feet, her books flying.
“Jerk!” she yelled at the fleeing Bigelow.
Mark knelt beside her. “Creep thinks he owns the hallways,” he said. “Are you all right?”
“Guess I’ll live.”
And the way she smiled.
“Can you give me a hand?”
Taking hold of her arm, he helped her up. It was the first time he’d ever touched her. He let go quickly so she wouldn’t get the idea he liked how her arm felt.
She knows my name!
“You’re welcome, Alison.”
When she stood up, she winced. She bent over, lifted the left leg of her big, loose shorts and looked at her knee. It had a reddish hue, but Mark found his eyes drawn upward to the soft tan of her thigh.
She fingered her kneecap, prodded it gently.
“Guess it’s okay,” she muttered.
“You’ll probably have a nice bruise.”
She made a move to pick up one of her books, but Mark said, “Wait. I’ll get ’em.” Then he gathered her scattered books and binders.
When he was done, he handed them to her and she said, “Thanks, Mark. You’re a real gentleman.”
“Glad I could help.”
He stared at the telephone.
I’ve got to call her today while it’s fresh in her mind.
He wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans, reached out and picked up the phone. He heard a dial tone. His other hand trembled as he tapped in her number. Each touch made a musical note in his ear.
Before pushing the last key, he hung up fast.
I can’t! I can’t! God, I’m such a chickenshit yellow bastard!
This is nuts, he told himself. Calm down and do it. Hell, I’ll probably just get a busy signal. Or her mom’ll pick up the phone and say she isn’t home. Or I’ll get the answering machine. Ten to one I won’t even get to talk to Alison.
He wiped his hands again, then picked up the phone and dialed . . . dialed all the numbers.
His arm ached to slam down the phone.
He kept it to his ear.
Yeah, but nobody’ll pick it up. I’ll get the answering machine.
If I get the answering machine, he thought, I’ll hang up.
Hang up now!
Oh my God oh my God!
“Hi,” he said. “Alison?”
“It’s Mark Matthews.
“Ah. Hi, Mark.”
“I, uh, just thought I’d call and see if you’re okay. How’s your knee?”
“Well, I’ve got a bruise. But I guess I’m fine. That was really nice of you to stop and help me.”
“Oh, well . . .”
“I don’t know where Bigelow gets off, going around
crashing into everybody. I mean, jeez, I’m sorry he’s messed up
and everything, but I hardly think that’s any excuse for running people over, for godsake.”
“Yeah. It’s not right.”
There was a silence. A long silence. The sort of silence that soon leads to, “Well, thanks for calling.”
Before that could happen, Mark said, “So what’re you doing?”
“You mean now?”
“I guess so.”
“Talking on the phone, Einstein.”
He laughed. And he pictured Alison’s smile and her crooked tooth and the glint in her eyes.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
“The same, I guess.”
“Are you nervous?”
“You sound nervous. Your voice is shaking.”
“The answer is yes.”
“Uh . . .”
“Yes, I’ll go out with you.”
I can’t believe this is happening!
“That’s why you called, isn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah. Mostly. And just to see how you’re doing.”
“Doing okay. So. I’ll go out with you.”
OH MY GOD!!!
“How about tomorrow night?” she suggested.
“Sure. Yeah. That’d be . . . really good.”
“On one condition,” she added.
“Don’t you want to hear the condition first?”
“I guess so.”
“I want you to get me into Beast House. Tomorrow night after it closes. That’s where we’ll have our date.”
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.
Staring out through the open door of his house, Peter Kerlan loosened the top two buttons of his flannel shirt, then finished the job, leaving the shirt open to reveal a gray athletic tee-shirt underneath. Across the street the Meyer kids were re-arranging their newly purchased pumpkins on their front stoop — first the bigger of the three on the top step, then the middle step, then the lower. They were jacketless, and the youngest was dressed in shorts. Their lawn was covered, as was Kerlan’s, with brilliantly colored leaves: yellow, orange, a dry brown. The neighborhood trees were mostly shorn, showing the skeleton fingers of their branches; the sky was a sharp deep blue. Everything said Halloween was coming — except for the temperature.
Jeez, it’s almost hot!
Behind him, out through the sliding screen door that led to the back yard, Peter could hear Ginny moving around, making an attempt at early Sunday gardening.
Maybe it’s cold after all.
He opened the front screen door, retrieved the morning newspaper he had come for, and turned back into the house, unfolding the paper as he went.
In the kitchen, he sat down at the breakfast table and studied the front page.
The usual assortment of local mayhem — a robbery, vandalism at the junior high school, a teacher at that same school suspended for drug use.
In the back, Ginny cursed angrily; there was the sound of something being knocked against something else.
“Peter!” she called out.
He pretended not to hear her for a moment, then answered, “I’m eating breakfast!” and began to study the paper much more closely then it deserved.
On the second page, more local mayhem, along with the weather — sunny and unseasonably warm for at least the next three days — as well as a capsule listing of the rest of the news, which he scanned with near boredom.
Something caught his eye, and he gave an involuntary shiver as he turned to the page indicated next to the summary and found the headline:
Hornets Attack Pre-schoolers
Another shiver caught him as he noted the picture embedded in the story — a man clothed in mosquito netting and a pith helmet holding up the remains of a huge papery nest; one side of the structure was caved in and within he could make out the clumped remains of dead insects—
Again he gave an involuntary shiver, but went on to the story:
(Parkerton, Special to the Herald, Oct. 24) Scores of pre-schoolers were treated today for stings after a small group of the children inadvertently stirred up a hornets nest which had been constructed in a hollow log. The nest, which contained hundreds of angry hornets, was disturbed when a kickball rolled into it. When one of the children went to retrieve the ball, the insects, according to witnesses, “attacked and kept attacking.”
Twenty eight children in all were treated for stings, and the Klingerman Pre-School was closed for the rest of the day.
The nest was removed by local bee-keeper Floyd Willims, who said this kind of attack is very common. “The nests are mature this time of year, and can hold up to five hundred drones, along with the Queen. Actually, new drones are maturing all the time, and can do so until well into fall. With the warm weather this year, their season is extended, probably well into November. The first real cold snap will kill them off.”
Willims continued, “Everyone thinks that yellow jackets are bees, but they’re not. They’re hornets, and can get pretty mean when the nest is threatened. At the end of the season, next year’s Queens will leave the nest, and winter in a safe spot, before laying eggs and starting the whole process over again with a new nest.”
As of last night, none of the hornet stings had proved dangerous, and Klingerman Pre- School will reopen tomorrow.
Peter finished the story, looked at the picture again — the bee-keeper holding the dead nest up with a triumphant grin on his face — and gave a third involuntary shiver.
At that moment Ginny appeared at the back sliding door, staring in through the screen. He looked up at her angry face.
“I can’t get that damned shed door open!” she announced. “Can you help me please?”
“After I finish my breakfast—”
Huffing a breath, she turned and stormed off.
“Aren’t you going to eat with me?” he called after her, hoping she wouldn’t turn around.
She stopped and came back. “Not when you talk to me with that tone in your voice.”
“What tone?” he protested, already knowing that today’s version of ‘the fight’ was coming.
She turned and gave him a stare — her huge dark eyes as flat as stones. She was as beautiful as she had ever been, with her close cropped blonde hair and anything but boyish looks. “Are we going to start again?”
“Only if you want to,” he said.
“I never want to. But I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“How much more of what?”
She stalked off, leaving the door open. After a moment, Peter threw down the paper and followed her, closing the sliding screen door behind him and dismounting the steps of the small deck. She was in front of the garden shed, a narrow, four foot deep, one story-high structure attached to the house to the right of his basement office window.
“Well, I’m here,” he said, not at all surprised that she momentarily ignored him.
Jeez, it is hot! he thought, looking up at a sun that looked summer-bright, and then surveying the back yard. The colored leaves fallen from the tall oaks that bordered the back yard looked incongruous, theatrical. There was an uncarved pumpkin on the deck of the house behind theirs; it looked out of place in the heat.
Peter turned to stare at Ginny’s little garden, to the right of the shed, which displayed late annuals; they were a riot of summer color which normally would have been gone by this time of year, killed by the first frost which had yet to come.
“I’ve been weeding by hand,” she explained, “but I’d like to get some of the tools out and get ready for next spring. I’ve been having trouble with the shed door again.”
He stepped around her, pulled at the structure’s wooden door, which gave an angry creak but didn’t move.
“Heat’s got the wood expanded; I’ll have a look at it when I get a chance.” He gave it a firmer pull, satisfied that it wouldn’t move.
“Isn’t there anything you can do about it now?”
“No.” He knew he sounded nasty, but didn’t care.
She reddened with anger, then brought herself under control. “Peter, I’m going to try again. We’ve been through this fifty times. You’re punishing me, and there isn’t any reason. I know it’s been rocky between us lately. But I don’t want it to be like that! Can’t you just meet me halfway on this?”
“Halfway to hell?”
She was quiet for a moment. “I love you,” she said, “but I just can’t live like this.”
“Like what?” he answered, angry and frustrated.
“No matter what I do you find something wrong with it — all you do is criticize!”
“I…don’t,” he said, knowing as it came out that it wasn’t true.
She took a tentative step forward, reached out a hand still covered in garden loam. She let the hand fall to her side.
“Look, Peter,” she said slowly, eyes downward. “I know things haven’t been going well for you with your writing, believe me I do. But you can’t take it out on me. It’s just not fair.”
Male pride fought with truth. He took a deep breath, looking at her, as beautiful as the day he met her — he was driving her away and didn’t know how to stop.
“I…know I’ve been difficult—” he began.
She laughed. “Difficult? You’ve been a monster. You’ve frozen me out of every corner of your life. We used to talk, Peter; we used to try to work things out together. You’ve gone through these periods before and we’ve always gotten through them together. Now…” She let the last word hang.
He was powerless to tell her how he felt, the incomprehensible frustration and impotence he felt. “It’s like I’m dry inside. Hollow…”
“Peter,” she said, and then she did put a dirt-gloved hand on his arm. “Peter, talk to me.”
He opened his mouth then, wanting it to be like it had been when they first met, when he had poured his heart out to her, telling her about the things he had inside that he wanted to get out, the great things he wanted to write about, his ambition, his longings — she had been the only woman he ever met who would listen to it, really listen to it. He had a sixth sense that if he did the wrong thing now it would mean the end, that he had driven her as far away as he dared, and that if he pushed her a half step farther she would not return.
He said, “Why bother?”
Again she reddened with anger, and secretly he was enjoying it.
“I’m going out for the day. We’ll talk about this later.”
“Whatever you say.” He gave her a thin smile.
She turned away angrily, and after a moment he heard the screen door slide shut loudly, the front door slam, and the muted roar of her car as she left.
Why did you do that? he asked himself.
And a moment later he answered: Because I wanted to.
The soothing clack of the rails almost had him asleep. His newspaper lay crumpled in the empty seat beside him; the lights in the train car had flickered off in the middle of the sports page and he finally gave up, leaning back against the stiff headrest and turning to watch the night outside. They were passing endless cornfields under a mounting harvest Moon; under the strong white light the stalks looked dry as paper, stiff at soldiers at attention.
Something caught his eye ahead in the field of corn, towering above it — an orange and yellow shape that resolved itself into a scarecrow topped by a pumpkin head.
As they drew abreast of the figure a fire ignited behind the triangle eyes, the sickle mouth, and it turned its head to look at him. As the train left it behind, Corrie watched the scarecrow move one of its long arms to point directly at him…
(Later on our protagonist is compelled to get off the train and look for the scarecrow…)
The night was still and cold, the chill of pre-winter with the sharp bite of a hard apple. Dry cornstalks crackled beneath his feet. Far off, amidst the lights of Orangefield, he heard a dog howl mournfully, hungry or afraid.
The moon was rising above the cornfield to his left, making everything whiter, colder…
Why had he come here, this was madness–
He heard something rustle in the stalks to his left, off the path. He stiffened, waiting for a cold wind to brush his face, but the corn stalks were perfectly straight, unbowed.
He heard the rustle again and thought of that dog; he did not like dogs…
The wet whisper brushed his ear at the exact moment a dry arm was thrown around his shoulder. He felt heat, and saw the glow of the orange face between himself and the cornfield. It had stepped swiftly out of the ranks —
“Let’s walk, shall we?”
Petrified with fear, he turned to look into the pumpkin face inches from his own. He felt heat from a candleless glow within; saw wet seeds adhering to the scraped inside of the head, through the sharply-etched nose, eyes, smiling mouth.
The scarecrow laughed, pulled him closer with boneless fingers. It made a dry, ticking sound as it walked–