October is a long month, an extended groan in the middle of a dying season. Crisp leaves. Cool air. Grey stonewalls capped by rusted barbed wire. Muddy pastures littered with rotted pumpkins. Skeletal trees reaching toward a skull-faced moon.
As the season dies, things die with it.
Frankie found himself walking alone down a long dark road. He wore a denim jacket, cigarette pack a square bulge in the top front pocket. His boot heels made the only sound in the night. He would smoke if he could, but he somehow lost his lighter. He lost other things too along the way on this quiet journey. Answers to questions. Like how the hell did he get here? For now, all he could do was keep walking, pushing forward and hope something came up.
He closed his eyes.
He heard a voice, then—
—like a thunderclap echoing in his skull, and a memory flashed.
He saw a white house, its clapboard sides warped with age. In the backyard sat a swing. A dog house. The trees stood tall and full and green; the sun overhead, bright and warm. The back door suddenly opened, a woman leaned out. "Hey, Frankie... lunch is ready." She wore an apron. She smiled. Her smile was like candy, her face like home...
Frankie opened his eyes and the cold night returned. Memories of his mother filled his head and warmed his heart. But why that particular memory? Why his mother? And why way back when he was just a little kid?
He looked around. There was an empty field to his left, a distant row of trees stood naked in the night. He couldn't remember ever traveling this road before. But there must be a reason why he was going in one direction and not the other. He must be either heading toward something or heading away.
He let out an exasperated breath and it left his mouth like a ghost mist. His feet were numb but he could still feel the road as it came up to greet his boots, a reverberating thud like a heartbeat. Like the—
Like the tick of the grandfather clock that stood in the corner of the funeral home. Himself, sitting at the end of the receiving line, his father's coffin perched high upon a table. Grown-ups shuffling by, each dressed in black and offering their soft-spoken condolences. His mother sitting next to him, tears wetting her face, her smile now wax lips turned upside down, melting. "He was a good man," the voices kept saying. Tears painting so many faces, his own painted with guilt. Guilt because he wasn't crying and carrying on like everyone else. "So good that God decided to take him early." Guilt because all he could think about was how life wasn't fair. How could life be fair when there were several decrepit candidates shuffling by with their hunched backs and crepe paper skin that could have easily taken his father's place in heaven? But no, God had to poke his almighty finger into his young life and send his father tumbling off the construction site scaffolding onto the pile of bricks below. Guilt and then just plain anger because it felt like something had died inside of him and no one seemed to notice, no one seemed to care...
The night seeped back in and chilled his anger. Frankie glared at the moon. It glared back. It hovered in the night sky like a stained dinner plate. "When the sky grows dark, God sends the moon out to keep an eye on us." Something his mother had once said. But it was just a stupid moon, something far and unreachable, like every dream he ever had, every wish he ever wished for.
As he walked, he stared at the bright round disc until his eyes began to water. He remembered lying in bed at night, looking out his window and wondering if his dad was watching, wondering if his dad saw what he went through. How the kids in school just seemed to know, sensing it the way wolves smell sickness. How they circled and bit into his heart with hurtful words. "Frankie's daddy slipped and fell, now he's rotting down in Hell." Words that Frankie knew weren't true. His daddy was a good man. God took him because he was so good.
Once again Frankie felt the anger begin to well up inside of him, but it quickly drained as if someone had put a tube in his gut and siphoned it off. It was odd. He couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't quite right, that this was some kind of dream that he would soon wake up from.
He looked down into the ditch. It was filled with water and leaves. The moon skimmed across its surface. Frankie realized it was covered by a thin layer of ice. He was going to freeze out here if he didn't get to some place warm. The road ahead would eventually lead to a town or a farmhouse. He would use a phone, call someone. There had to be a place out here. Someone had plowed and planted these fields. Someone had harvested the crop, leaving the rest to rot in the dirt.
The smell of decaying pumpkins invaded his nostrils.
Another flash. He was older, no longer a kid. The first signs of a mustache on his upper lip; his look defiant, his walk tough. He could see his mom in the kitchen cutting vegetables, cooking too much food for just the two of them. She was still setting the table with an extra plate, even though it had been five years since the accident. "Ma, I'm going out with Nick and Tony, don't wait up."
"Aren't you going to eat something, Frankie?"
"Haven't got time, Ma, gotta go. It's Halloween."
"Gotta go. Always on the go. You're too old to be trick or treating. What kind of trouble are you going to get into now, huh, Frankie? I told you those boys are no good, but do you listen? They're hoodlums. You're father would roll over in his grave."
"Dad's dead, Ma. God came and got him, remember?"
"So you're a wise guy now. I'm your mother, you should respect your mother." He turned to leave then and his mother must have reached up to try and stop him from walking out the door, because her hand hit the extra dinner plate and sent it crashing to the floor. Frankie turned to see his mother bent over the plate in tears, her hands fumbling with the broken pieces. He wanted to help her, but he couldn't bring himself to touch the plate.
"Ma, I gotta go, the guys are waiting."
His mother waved a fragile hand for him to go.
"I love you, Ma." His mother didn't answer. "Sorry about the plate..."
The night and cold once again crowded in around him. He could still see the look of ruin on his mother's face. First her husband, now her only son. Frankie knew he wasn't a good kid, but he tried. He just seemed to get swept down the wrong path, like the garbage and dirt that collected at the sewer grates after a rainstorm. It seemed like it had been raining all his life, and he just went with the flow.
But he had more important things to worry about now, like how to get home. Nick and Tony must have gotten him cocked and left him out here on a prank. Whatever it was they were drinking must have wiped out half his memory. But he seemed to be sobering up now.
He stared across the empty field. The moon painted a silver sheen over everything. There were shadows between the furrows. The rotted pumpkins were misshapen, as if teetering on the edge of an abyss. Their shriveled vines appeared too thick. He knew it was just a trick of the light but he could have sworn one of the pumpkins moved, its vine (arm?) lifting up out of the mud, appearing to wave at him.
Frankie closed his eyes and winced.
They began with convenience stores. "Maybe that's why they call them convenience stores. When you need a few bucks, they're right there ready to give it to you. I call that pretty convenient." Nick laughed, and when Nick laughed they laughed with him—laughter that sounded hollow because they were already half dead inside. They were ready to knock over the place when the girl looked up from her cash drawer.
"Can I help you guys?"
Grace. Blonde hair, sleek-figured Grace. She had awakened something inside of Frankie the minute he laid eyes on her. Only Nick saw her first. And even if he hadn't, she would have been his anyway. That's the way things were. If Nick wanted something, he got it. And he didn't care how or who it hurt.
"Yeah, we'd like to buy a couple Slim Jims, a pack of Juicy Fruits and ask you out on a date."
"All three of you?"
"No, just the good looking one."
Grace was different. It was in the way her eyes seemed to light up over the smallest things, the way her mouth held her smile then let it go as if remembering that she didn't have the right. She was looking for something to make her feel alive. And Frankie knew what that felt like. He was also feeling something he'd never felt before. A lightness in his gut and a warmth on his skin. He was thinking that maybe he was in love. But she was Nick's girl and there was no getting around that...
There were more movements in the field. Several of the rotted pumpkin vines were now beckoning. A low mewling sound accompanied their movements, and the memories were coming faster, one on top of the other...
It had been raining one night. Frankie was in the backroom of the abandoned warehouse—the gang's meeting place—when Grace slipped in. She was drowned wet and in tears. Her left eye was still bruised from the week before. There was a fresh cut on her lip and a puffiness that extended down to her jaw line. Frankie's heart broke when he saw her, but it was anger that reached his lips.
"Why do you let him do that to you—and then come to see me? 'You're a good friend Frankie. You don't know how much this means to me.' Well, you don't know what you mean to me, Grace. It kills me inside to see you like this."
And Grace walked toward him, her tears making her green eyes even larger, magnifying the moment, perhaps letting her see the truth for the first time. And, suddenly, her lips were on his, the taste of her blood in his mouth, and he knew it was wrong, he knew there would be hell to pay, but he was halfway there already, what did one more misstep mean in a life full of bad moves and fucked-up opportunities? Besides, Grace was the best thing to happen to him since... he didn't know when. How could it be wrong? When he looked at her face he didn't see the cuts and the bruises or the craziness in her eyes, he saw only a way out of his stinking life. But the road to get there was just too...
Frankie stopped. He tried not to look at the things in the field. The movements were getting more active. The vines whipped back and forth now, and strange guttural voices called out to him. Fucking Nick and Tony, must have slipped him something stronger than alcohol. It was like a bad dream, only worse because this was a dream he couldn't wake himself up from.
He wanted to run, reverse the night, if possible. He was getting scared now. He turned to head back the way he had come and saw a pair of headlights in the distance coming his way.
And he froze, anticipating the sound.
"Hey, Frankie, Tony and I was thinking about knocking over the Tolland Bank Halloween night. Get this—we walk in around closing wearing monster masks. I mean, it's Halloween for Christ's sakes, who's gonna notice. The cops will be out in the streets making sure all the kiddies are safe, while we're stuffing our pillow cases with hundreds and fifties. It will be beautiful, man. Like candy from a baby. You in?"
And when he looked at Nick, all he saw were the times Nick had saved his skull from getting cracked, at school and in the alleyways. He couldn't say no. But he and Grace were planning to leave. The bus tickets had already been bought. They were going to stay with Grace's sister in New Orleans for a time, then work to get a place of their own. It would be a fresh start, a new beginning. He felt sick for what he was about to do, but this was survival. This was his life.
So he said, "Sure, I'm in," and Nick grinned, happy as a dog sniffing a bitch in heat, and said, "That's my boy." He went with the flow, as usual, all the while knowing in his gut he wouldn't go through with it. In fact, in that instant, as fire burned a hole in his gut the size of a fist, Frankie saw an opportunity to end this thing once and for all...
Frankie stood in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, as the headlights drew closer. He waved his hands for the driver to stop. He had to get out of there. Anywhere but there. And this ride was his ticket out. But the vehicle bore down on him and he saw the red lights dancing on top, and through the glare he realized it was an ambulance.
And he didn't hear the sound that followed. He only heard himself scream.
It was Halloween night.
"You did the right thing." The sweet whisper of Grace's voice in his ear.
She was in his arms again. They had rented a room at the Yankee Motor Inn—a haunt for hookers and heroin junkies on their way to their next john or their next fix. They had just finished making love when the door busted in. Nick was covered in sweat, his shirt soaked through with blood. But he still had the strength and presence of mind to hold a gun pointed at Frankie's chest.
"The cops, Frankie? You called the fucking cops?" Nick's eyes were nearly turned inside out with disbelief. "When you didn't show I almost called it off. But you knew I wouldn't, right Frankie? That was all part of the plan. You'll be happy to know I took two of them out before one got in a lucky shot. And still I managed to get away. But look at you two."
Nick wavered and Frankie almost lunged for him. But Nick remained in control. "Somehow I knew you'd be here. Right, babe? Our own special hideaway?" His eyes swung toward Grace. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
By now there were sirens in the distance and Nick took a deep, gurgling breath and coughed. Blood sprayed in a mist across the back of his hand. "You know, I should kill both of you. But time is short, I think I'll just settle for one." Nick swung the .45 and aimed it at Grace. "Not what you planned, hey, Frankie?"
And it was then that Frankie did lunge—he threw his body in front of Grace and heard the gunshot—pow! —felt the bullet punch him in the chest, heard Grace scream in his ear as he collapsed into her arms... and in the numbing fog that followed all he could hear were sirens, their high-octave wails descending like a heavenly choir... then everything faded like a distant memory...
Frankie didn't move as the headlights washed over him. The ambulance never braked, never even slowed as it passed right through him. A slight tingle rippled across his skin and it was if he had been reborn.
He turned and watched as the ambulance raced away, and through the brightly lit back windows Frankie saw two EMTs working furiously upon a patient. Beside them, sat a woman looking on, her hands clutched to her mouth, her blonde hair a ragged mess. Frankie could swear it was Grace.
You did the right thing.
The ambulance disappeared from sight.
Once again the strange voices in the field filled the empty dark. The rotted pumpkins raised their stick-like appendages and rolled their rotted bodies from side to side, and Frankie realized he wasn't afraid of them anymore. Like everything else, his fear just washed through him as if he had nothing left to hold on to it.
He stepped off the pavement and down into the high grass. A single strand of rusted barbed wire capped the low stone wall that bordered the field. He stepped over it and walked through the furrows.
Beneath the moon he could see faces etched into the skin of each pumpkin, at one with the rot and decay. Some of the pumpkins were split, and like toothless mouths the oozing gaps moved to try and form words. Gaseous voices seeped up from out of their seeded bellies. Vines tried to wrap themselves around his ankles, but he simply kept walking, stepping over the unharvested crop, as he moved across the field.
The moon was now hovering low in the trees, on its way toward slipping forever beneath the edge of the night. He now had a direction. There was a place.
Your father was a good man.
You did the right thing.
Frankie knew he had to get there before it was too late.
Kurt Newton's fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Dark Discoveries, Not One of Us and the anthologies Revisiting the Undead, Shadows Over Deathlehem, O Unholy Night in Deathlehem and A Tree Lighting in Deathlehem. His third short story collection, Bruises, will be published by Lycan Valley Press Publications.
Production by Mjae & Desmond
Music by John Skipp
Image by Benjamin Balaz
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