The Saints of October – Part Two By Nick Manzolillo
The October darkness is regulated to the sun setting a little earlier each evening. Ernest, clearly inspired by the brief yet dramatic intrusion of the Halloween kingdom, prances around Jack’s house and garden with an extra dash of hop to his step. Jack never realized how dull the man’s afterlife must be. Juliette keeps her thoughts to herself but there’s no hiding her delight when Jack feeds her bits of the chicken and fish he grills on the back porch, this month being the last true hurrah for outdoor cooking in this region.
The third week brings with it a steady breeze laced with the memory of summer’s dying breaths. Reports of vandalism throughout the county are low, save for a graveyard being trashed and a few coffins dug up. Despite being thirty miles away, Jack felt uneasy upon reading about that in the newspaper, until he saw that graffiti tagging was present and young, living kids from the local high school were suspect.
The pumpkin gallery along Jack’s walkway joins that of his porch. Sailboats besieged by storm clouds look real enough that the hairs on the back of your neck tingle with a touch of growing electricity. Construction trucks, cranes and mythic backhoes rust at an abandoned storage facility. Alice from Wonderland floats in a mess of flowers; some of which appear to have human features. Fauns and Satyrs dance in fields and pods of dolphin leap from the sea. Slices of life insignificant as a concept come to life between their orange shells and the glow of flame. The subject is irrelevant but through the pumpkins, each carving is a proclamation that impossible formats are the first to yield. Jack’s been visited by a handful of scholarly art critics and admirers in the past, and he’s nodded his head to every poufy deduction they’ve made, allowing them to snap a picture or two for their blogs.
Fact of the matter is, Jack’s sending pretty pictures to people, the remnants of people, that see nothing but grey, black husks and pale flickers of light that suck away their memories of life piece by piece until the only thing they have left are the pretty pictures he carves them. Jack sits on his porch alone, smoking a pipe Ernest freshly packed. The scarecrow and cat are in the backyard, growing with the weeds and grass; Jack knows he should join them soon, for their company is fleeting. But living alone as he has, for as long as he has, he needs his quiet moments even now, where he must be careful to act independently at the risk of living three whole seasons filled with regret.
He walks his pumpkin pathway, swinging his head back and forth, his smoke billowing into the air. The streetlights are beating back the scavengers of the sunlight as it disappears over the distant hills. The wind brushes the smoke away from Jack’s lips, and the leaves crinkle around him. The series of street lights before his house flicker and shut off. The crinkling of the leaves becomes that of footsteps, and Jack only has a moment to become suspicious of the organized leaf pile stacked behind his pumpkins. How did that get there? The leaves surge forwards and something has Jack by the ankles.
His pumpkins are smashed aside and he can feel several of them break beneath his weight as he’s dragged onto the grass, beneath the barren frame of a maple tree. The leaves are crimson, and beneath them is something thin and wiry with arms layered in thin spikes that dig into Jack’s leg and his chest, as a slow burn from needle pricks spreads through his bloodstream. The leaves are swirling around him and another leaf pile, like a navy seal in a ghillie suit, is moving along the opposite side of the pumpkins. The leaves, Jack’s never stopped to think of what lurks beneath them. Something’s seeping into his brain, reaching for his thoughts. Leaves pour down his mouth and his thrashing arms only clench and crumple bits of nothing as the thing that hides in plain sight throughout the October days and nights constricts itself around his chest.
“He knows now,” a voice says and Jack is left wheezing, moaning in the midst of a leaf pile that children would salivate over the idea of jumping into. Standing over him is the pale man that visited him last year. His red and blue sweater is old and torn in places, as are his loose, brown pants, and he may as well be wearing a scarecrow’s rags. He’s not trying very hard to look, and act, like a person. His eyes are too wide, and his teeth, when he speaks, are almost slanted sideways, cohesively, as if they’re perfectly crooked. “Do you know now?” he asks as his hands form fists and Jack realizes he has no fingernails, only stubs of white meat.
Jack’s chest aches and he feels as though those summer hornets have returned to jab him a few times out of spite. “I thought you’d like it…” Jack says of the pumpkin, sitting up, kicking away the leaves around him. His gaze falls on the porch, and the soothing pumpkins that dwell there. He spies Juliette’s tail, unfurling in the air as she sneaks around the back row of carvings. She’ll keep him safe, now. Those pumpkins of protection, there goes the consequences of learning more about the Halloween kingdom. Pumpkins are protection, sure, just not from them.
“Like it? We loved it, but you took it back.” The emissary folds his freakish hands behind his back. “It was to stay in our house until the night we are waiting for. What enters our halls belongs to us. You’ve made a mistake, attempting to trick us. What are you planning, little pumpkin carver? What spells have you been attempting to learn in the midst of the solstices?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. You want another pumpkin? I could make you a dozen by Friday.” Jack isn’t sure what this thing’s talking about. The pumpkin’s missing?
“We are the leaves on the ground, the crows in the sky. We thought you a fascinating curiosity, pumpkin carver. I can see your creation is not here, however. I can smell your confusion…troubling.” The pale man leans forward evermore and he’s like an owl, that’s it, with those eyes, stretching forwards like that.
“You think I took my pumpkin back?” Jack doesn’t get it but then again he always thought the October leaves were just a cute part of the month-long décor. Turns out they were hiding something, all along. Spying on him worse than the crows and spiders. All those children that jump into leaf piles, what if one of those things is waiting? How many of them exist in the Autumn world?
“You host the spirit of a man that died on All Hallow’s Eve, and a spell caster of a domesticated race. I don’t taste your lies, but your pumpkin is missing. You are the only one that could have taken it. Make no mistake.” The pale man nods at the three crushed pumpkins Jack knocked over. The thing in the leaves had him, but it was Jack’s body that did the crushing. Maybe the October vermin can’t harm his work, after all. “It’s a paradox we’re in. We don’t trust you, all the same. We know who your dead are. We know who you loved, and lost. We do not interfere with the Eve, but we can still make them suffer, regardless.”
“You asked me to make you something.” Jack scrambles to his feet as Juliette moves behind the emissary from the kingdom. A wind strikes low along the ground, scattering all the leaves closest to Jack. If any more of those hidden things are lurking about, Juliette will clear the yard of their disguises.
“I’ve done what you asked. Hurting…any of them…it’s cruel and it’s unjust. You are beyond the wicked, you do that.” Jack wants to curse, find his knife and show the pale man what it means to threaten somebody’s loved ones, even if they’re already gone. “I never believed you lot were evil. Thought that was for all the fearful folk, put innocents to burn at the stake.”
“You don’t understand.” The pale man hardly seems to register Jack’s words. “Your magic, as you say, as you know it, is all over your creations. As small, and as petty, as man’s magic can be. Our power lingers in the houses we choose to inhabit. Your creation spent three fortnights in our house. With our power. Then you, or one who steals your hands while you sleep, has taken your creation with both of our power formed around it. That kind of combination speaks of black rituals that bend the reality both you and I, know. As it stands, I will make you an offer.”
Juliette hisses from behind the pale man, who does not turn to address her. Jack understands her warning, whether they be genuine devils or not, you don’t go making bargains with entities like this. There may not be such a thing as a good old heaven or a tiresome, wicked hell, but demons, deals and trickery are more reaffirmed in reality than anything else. Jack tells the pale man how it is. “I have done nothing wrong, and I don’t believe I owe you a damn thing.”
“Your pumpkin. Your magic,” the pale one sneers and Jack assures himself, evil or not, beings like this could care less about him. “Your family.” Those sideways teeth show their ugly selves. “Find it. Destroy it. Dig deep, or for when you see them come the Eve, they will be weeping as they visit and then leave. They will weep and suffer through the winter.” Then pale one lets it slip that the kingdom’s eyes are on Jack even during the off season. “As you do,” the pale one reminds him.
“And what if one of you did it? The mischief children, the ones that wear masks come Devil’s night, they attacked my friend. How about you go sic your leaf monster on them?” Jack growls, but there’s no leverage. No genuine threat he can make except for pleas for the case of his innocence.
“Do you think me a man, pumpkin carver? Do you think me a mere messenger? I am the kingdom. I am their voice. We are one. Shadows stick. The devil’s children are mindless, save for their tricks. The mask maker does not interfere with us. He is a mere servant, to us, like you.”
Jack holds his tongue. How can it be that there is an afterlife where you cannot rest? Where you suffer, endlessly…surely there’s a lie here. A trick. The ghosts do not speak on Halloween. “I don’t trust you. You can’t do this.” At Jack’s words, the pale man turns and walks away. Then he starts melting. His skin turns to milk, oozing over his ragged clothes as he takes just three steps before collapsing into a lumpy pile that soon oozes and seeps into the grass. Soon there’s nothing left.
“Juliette…what was that? What’s he making me do?” Jack stares at his pumpkins, and thinks of all the work he has left to accomplish. He thinks of the smashed pumpkins, and how he must strive to recapture their beauty on another canvas of altered dimensions and weight.
“You won’t be alone,” Juliette says, slowly padding over to him as he continues to stare at the oozed over clothing on the lawn. He has his October friends, October enemies, and worst of all, an October mystery, to suck up the last couple weeks this glorious month has left….
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