Eleven year old Gabbie thinks that Halloween is about dressing up, decorations, bobbing for apples and trick-or-treating. She doesn’t believe that it is the night when the spirits of the dead can walk the earth. That’s just a ghost story, or is it?
Eleven year old Gabbie gazed at the pumpkin, the size of a basketball, sitting on the kitchen table. “Please Katya,” she said. “You have to help us.”
“Have to?” Katya said. She turned to face Gabbie and it took a second for her heavy blonde hair, which hung down to her waist, to catch up with her. She had been looking after Gabbie and her eight year old sister, Poppy, for two months now. Gabbie’s mother had told Gabbie that Katya was twenty two, but Katya’s pale blue eyes seemed far older than that.
“Mum bought it especially for Halloween,” Gabbie said, “and she was going to make the jack-o’-lantern, but stuff came up at her work.” Work stuff was always happening to her parents. They had important jobs.
“We have to have it for the party,” Poppy pleaded. She had already put on her skeleton costume of black tracksuit pants and a black t-shirt with bone shapes cut out from white card pinned to them. Earlier that afternoon, Gabbie had painted Poppy’s face white with black around her eyes, nose and mouth to make it look like a skull. Combined with Poppy’s curly black hair, it was a weird look.
“Do you believe in Halloween, Gabbie Greeneyes?” Katya said. Gabbie’s real surname was Westcott but everyone who met her noticed her flashing green eyes, even if they forgot the rest of her face.
Gabbie sucked on her lips and thought about the question. “I like the dressing up and the decorations and the bobbing for apples and trick-or-treating.”
Katya held the pumpkin by its stalk, squinting at it as she twisted it around. “But do you believe that the spirits of the dead can walk the earth, tonight?”
Gabbie shrugged. “That’s just a ghost story.”
Katya tapped her fingers against the pumpkin. “I will cut this for you, but first you must close all of the windows, not one gap must be left for a spirit to creep through.”
“Are you trying to frighten us?” Gabbie said.
“Because you’re good at it, if you are,” Poppy added.
“Soon it will be dark and unquiet spirits will rise from their graves,” Katya said. “Not all of them are wicked, but the evil ones prey on those who are careless.”
Poppy giggled and dashed out of the kitchen. Gabbie walked after her, frowning. The trouble with Katya was that you could never tell when she was joking because she said everything with the same solemn face.
Gabbie watched over Poppy’s shoulder, double checking that all the windows were shut. She knew her little sister liked to do things for herself and would throw a major tantrum if anyone tried to take charge. The last room they checked was the bathroom. Poppy tugged a stool over to the window and climbed onto it. She yanked on the window and it shut with a clunk.
“I need to go,” Poppy said, pointing at the toilet.
Gabbie left her to it and returned to the kitchen.
“We need the sharpest knife,” Katya said. She examined the blades of the knives kept snug in a wooden block on the work bench, with only their black plastic handles showing. She pulled out a wicked steel blade that glinted in the late afternoon sunlight. “Your mother likes sharp things.”
Katya is strong, Gabbie thought, as she watched her thrust the knife deep into the pumpkin, near the stalk. Orange flesh spurted from the wound. Katya grunted as she worked the knife in a circle, slicing off the top of the pumpkin. It came away like a lid. She took a big spoon and scooped out the inside of the pumpkin in dollops that she dropped into a bowl. “Pumpkin soup,” she said. “Nothing is wasted.”
The delicious smell of fresh pumpkin filled the air and Gabbie’s mouth watered. “Can I cut out its face?” she said.
Katya shook her head. “The knife is sharp. I would feel bad when your father counted your fingers and found one missing.” She gripped the pumpkin in one hand and placed the point of the knife against the skin. “I think the left eye will go here.” She thrust the knife in.
“Not fair,” Poppy screamed from the doorway.
Katya swiveled sharply. The knife slipped. She screamed almost as loudly as Poppy.
“You started without me,” Poppy yelled.
Katya held up her hand and Gabbie stared at it. All the fingers and the thumb were still attached, but one of her fingers was bleeding. Gabbie watched as a drop of blood fell from it and landed inside the pumpkin. Katya didn’t notice it.
“You’re cut,” Gabbie said.
“You have the eyes of a hawk, Gabbie Greeneyes,” Katya said. She wrapped a tea towel around her damaged finger.
Gabbie had learned first-aid at school and had badgered her mother into buying a first-aid kit. She dug it out from a kitchen cupboard and set to work bandaging Katya’s finger. Once the blood was cleaned away, the wound was not too deep.
“Do you want to have it checked by a doctor?” Gabbie said.
“It is nothing.” Katya shrugged. “Did I bleed into the pumpkin? If I did, we must throw it out. It is bad luck to keep it.”
“You didn’t,” Gabbie said, with complete honesty. She thought Katya was talking about the pumpkin flesh in the bowl that they were going to make into soup, and not the jack-o’-lantern.
Katya sighed. “I finish cutting the face.”
“What can I do?” Poppy said.
“Stay silent,” Katya said. “You have done enough.” She worked swiftly with the knife, cutting out eyes the shape of squashed diamonds, a triangle nose and a grinning mouth full of jagged teeth.
Gabbie went into the bedroom she shared with Poppy to put on her costume. Poppy followed her and flopped onto the bottom bunk with a comic book. Gabbie guessed she had decided it was safer to stay out of Katya’s way.
Gabbie took out her theatre makeup kit and sat in front of their dressing table mirror. Her black hair was straight and cut into a bob rather than curly like Poppy’s. It framed a face that was round and ordinary except for her green eyes. She smiled and picked out a pot of green face paint. In a few minutes, her face matched her eye color.
“Green suits you,” Poppy said, looking up from her comic book.
Gabbie took out her modeling putty and fashioned a black wart. She glued it to the end of her nose and her eyes crossed when she tried to look at it. She put on her black dress and spread the cobweb shawl, which she had spent the last week sewing, across her shoulders. She popped the black conical witch’s hat on her head and gave an evil cackle. It came out more like a croak. I’ll work on that, she thought.
The doorbell rang. “They’re here,” Poppy yelled. She dropped her comic book and dashed into the hall.
Gabbie went to greet the first of their guests. They were the twins from next door, Josh and Allie, who were a year younger than her. They were dressed as identical vampires with sharp fangs and black cloaks with a blood-red lining.
The next to arrive was Andy from the end of their street, who was in the same class as Gabbie at school. He swaggered in with a hairy brown rug, chewed up at the edges, draped across his shoulders. It smelled of dog. “I’m a werewolf,” he said.
Gabbie almost fainted at her next arrival. Her best friend Clare stood on the doorstep in a blood-stained white t-shirt and a torn pair of jeans, with her blonde hair caked in blood. Clare’s father smiled and waved to them from his car parked on the street before driving off.
“Did you have an accident?” Gabbie gasped.
“I’m a zombie, silly.” Clare grinned and lurched down the hall with her arms stuck out.
The last of the light was fading when their final guest, seven year old Billy, was dropped off by his mother. He wore a helmet with a plastic visor covering his face and a silver suit made of tinfoil. “I’m an astronaut,” he announced. He spoke into a special box that made his voice sound squeaky and metallic like a radio message from a distant galaxy. Gabbie wasn’t surprised. Whatever the occasion, Billy turned up as an astronaut.
His mother squeezed his arm. “This is Halloween, dear. You’re a zombie astronaut.” She kissed him goodbye and left, looking anxious.
Gabbie led Billy through to the kitchen where the other children were gathered with Katya.
“Can we go trick-or-treating, now?” Poppy said.
“In this country, what is the word for people who threaten others and demand things from them?” Katya said.
“Politicians,” Andy suggested.
“It’s a tradition,” Gabbie said.
Katya sighed. “Come; let us terrify your neighbors.”
They returned to the house with bags filled with treats. Katya closed the door behind them and double-checked it was shut. “It’s time to light the lantern,” she said.
Gabbie took up her post by the kitchen light switch while everyone else gathered around the table. Katya gripped the stalk and lifted the lid off the jack-o’-lantern. She lit a candle and placed it carefully inside then replaced the lid.
Gabbie switched the light off. The children gasped and let out oohs and ahhs. The room was dark except for the orange glow of the jack-o’-lantern sitting on the kitchen table.
A breath of cold air tickled the back of Gabbie’s neck. A moment later the candle flame inside the jack-o’-lantern flickered as though the lantern was winking at her. We shut all the doors and windows she told herself and forgot about it.
She became swept up in the party, helping to organize the games. These were followed by a blood-curdling banquet of purple sausages shaped like fingers, snot green baked beans and jelly with marzipan eyeballs floating in it.
Once the food was cleared away, Katya took out her balalaika, which looked like an odd-shaped guitar. She played fast, bouncy tunes that had them all hopping and skipping around the kitchen. At half past eight the doorbell rang and she gave them a rare smile. “You are tired and over-excited, and now I hand you back to your parents. This is good.”
Once all the guests had been collected, Poppy went off to bed. “I’m not taking off my costume,” she said.
“You’ll have bent bones, tomorrow morning,” Gabbie said.
“Don’t care,” Poppy said.
Gabbie helped Katya clean everything up. She wished her parents had been at the party. Tomorrow, she would tell them how amazing it had been, but it wasn’t the same as them being there. They were attending a Halloween Ball thrown by people who her father did important work for, and she would be in bed when they returned.
By the time everything was washed and wiped, it was Gabbie’s turn to get ready for bed. She went into the bathroom to clean her teeth and was shocked to find a green face with a warty nose staring back at her from the mirror above the sink. She bent over to wash off her makeup and a draught of cold air tickled her neck. She shivered and looked up. The window was open, not much, but enough to let a sliver of breeze in.
Gabbie marched into the bedroom. “Are you awake?”
“No,” Poppy said.
“We closed the bathroom window didn’t we?” Gabbie said.
“I opened it a crack after you’d gone,” Poppy said.
“Why?” Gabbie said.
“Well Katya told us that the spirits of the dead can walk the earth, tonight,” Poppy said, “and Granddad has only been dead for six months, and I figured if he was lonely he could climb in.”
“Katya told us we had to close all the windows,” Gabbie said.
“Does it matter?” Poppy said. She turned away from Gabbie and after a second or two pretended to snore.
She’s probably right, Gabbie thought. It was only one small window, and anyway Halloween was just a bit of fun. She went back into the bathroom and shut the window properly.
Gabbie dozed in the top bunk and awoke when she heard her parents return. They talked with Katya in the hall but didn’t put their head around the door. Gabbie went back to sleep.
The next time Gabbie woke, something was tapping on her bedroom door. She climbed down from the top bunk and went to investigate. Poppy slipped out from the bottom bunk and joined her. The clock on their dressing table said it was half past two in the morning.
Gabbie opened the door. A pair of glowing orange eyes and a grinning, jagged mouth stared down at her. She started to scream, but the sound caught in her throat and she stayed silent. The jack-o’-lantern floated two feet above her head. The flame inside it flickered and one of the eyes winked at her. It turned its face away from her and moved off down the hall, bobbing up and down in the air.
“What do we do?” Poppy whispered. Her words were slurred and her eyes were heavy with sleep.
I should call out and wake up our parents, Gabbie thought, but a voice whispered inside her head that the jack-o’-lantern promised fun and adventure. The jack-o’-lantern swiveled in the air to look at them and winked again. “Let’s follow it,” Gabbie said.
They slipped on their sneakers and pulled on jackets. The jack-o’-lantern peeped around their door keeping an eye on them. Gabbie picked up her witch’s hat from a chair and popped it on her head.
They followed the jack-o’-lantern as it floated down the hall and into the kitchen. The back door was always locked at night. The jack-o’-lantern paused in front of it. The lock clicked. The handle turned. The door opened. They followed the jack-o’-lantern outside. A cat hissed at them and fled over the fence.
The street lights were distant globes of yellow suspended in the dark. Orange light spilled from the jack-o’-lantern and lit up the ground below it as it bobbed and weaved along, always one step ahead of Gabbie and Poppy.
They danced across the lawn of the house next door. The jack-o’-lantern hovered in front of the door and the door handle turned. The door swung open and the twins Josh and Allie stepped out to join them, swirling their vampire cloaks.
The jack-o’-lantern danced away down the street and the children danced after it, Gabbie first, Poppy next, Josh third and Allie bringing up the rear.
A deep growling voice emerged from inside the jack-o’-lantern, and it began to chant. “The pumpkin leaps, and the pumpkin jumps, and the pumpkin creeps and the pumpkin clumps.”
Gabbie looked closely at the bobbing jack-o’-lantern. She imagined a body underneath it making the movements it was chanting about. She matched her own movements to the chant, leaping, jumping, creeping and clumping. She glanced behind her. Poppy, Josh and Allie were copying her.
At the end of the street, they jumped over a fence and landed in a back garden. The jack-o’-lantern floated above the back door, which opened to reveal Andy wearing his hairy rug over the top of his pajamas.
They climbed back over the fence. The jack-o’-lantern bobbed away, chanting. “The pumpkin hops, and the pumpkin twirls, and the pumpkin flops and the pumpkin whirls.”
Gabbie pictured the body beneath the bobbing jack-o’-lantern as she set off after it, hopping, twirling, flopping and whirling, and as she twirled and whirled, she saw the other children in a line copying her movements with Andy now bringing up the rear, tripping over his rug.
Clare’s house was their next stop, and Clare joined on the end of the line of dancing children, dressed in her blood-stained white t-shirt and torn jeans.
The final stop was Bobby’s house. He came out wearing his astronaut’s helmet. A thought tickled at the back of Gabbie’s mind. They were all wearing bits of their Halloween costume. She noticed Bobby’s face, beneath his visor, was half asleep and dreamy. She glanced at the faces of the other children and they also looked glazed. Were they all dreaming?
The jack-o’-lantern bobbed through the deserted streets, chanting out the movements that Gabbie performed, and the line of children behind her copied. I should scream out at the top of my voice and wake up the neighborhood, Gabbie thought, but she stayed silent. She didn’t want the dance to end, and a voice whispered inside her head that the most exciting part was yet to come.
They entered the park. A half-moon in a clear sky washed the trees in pale silver light. The clipped grass crunched beneath their feet as they skipped across the lawn that led down to the lake.
The jack-o’-lantern chanted. “The pumpkin skips, and the pumpkin hobbles, and the pumpkin trips and the pumpkin wobbles.” It danced them down to a wooden jetty that stretched out into the lake to where the water was cold and deep. A breeze blew across the water and boats clunked softly in their moorings.
The glow from the jack-o’-lantern stained the timbers orange as it bobbed along the jetty. The line of children skipped after it, the timbers bouncing beneath their feet, beating out a steady rhythm.
The jack-o’-lantern had almost reached the end of the jetty. Beyond it was the deep, dark water of the lake. We’re going to turn back now, Gabbie thought. A gust of wind plucked the witch’s hat from her head and blew it into the lake. She felt a fog clear from her mind and she realized she had been in a trance.
The jack-o’-lantern chanted. “The children stumble and the children flail and the children tumble and the children wail.” At the end of the jetty, it swiveled to look at Gabbie. She stared into its glowing orange eyes and saw they were hot as flame and cold as ice.
“Stop!” Gabbie yelled and dug her heels into the timbers, but the line of children behind her pressed against her back and she slid towards the edge.
In the moonlight, Gabbie saw for the first time the outline of the body beneath the jack-o’-lantern. It had a scrawny chest with jutting out ribs, and long spidery arms and legs. Its thin boney fingers beckoned on the children, boney fingers that had made doors appear to open by themselves.
Gabbie lunged at the creature. Her hands slapped into its chest. She shoved hard and it took a step back into thin air. Its hands flailed as it lost its balance and it toppled into the water.
Gabbie peered over the edge of the jetty. For a moment the jack-o’-lantern floated on the surface then water flooded into its nose and mouth. A hiss of green steam emerged from its eye holes and was blown away by the breeze. The jack-o’-lantern slid beneath the surface and disappeared.
“What are we doing here?” Josh said. He and his sister Allie shivered and huddled together in their cloaks.
“I dreamed we were playing follow my leader,” Bobby said, his metallic astronauts voice emerging from his helmet.
“And you came up with these weird chants,” Andy said.
“And you said them in a scary, deep voice,” Allie said.
“Do you have a special box like Bobby’s helmet,” Clare said.
“Are we still dreaming or have we woken up?” Poppy said.
“The jack-o’-lantern was an evil spirit and it was trying to make us dance off the jetty and drown,” Gabbie said.
Poppy’s eyes narrowed. Her nose wrinkled and her lips twisted. This was her thinking hard expression. “We were following you, Gabbie, doing whatever you did and you were lighting our way with the jack-o’-lantern.”
“Didn’t you see me knock it into the water,” Gabbie said.
“You tripped and dropped the lantern off the end of the jetty,” Poppy said.The others nodded.
Gabbie sighed. They wanted a sensible explanation rather than the truth. “It’s cold and it’s nighttime,” she said. “We should get back. We’re going to be in a whole heap of trouble.”
“Especially you,” Poppy added, unhelpfully.
“That was a great game,” Clare said. “I wish I remembered more of it.”
Gabbie stayed at the back of the group as they trudged back through the park. Had things happened in the way the others thought? She didn’t believe it. Evil spirits existed and now she was sure she had met one. And I beat it, she thought, and grinned.
Copyright © 2014 by Aldred Chase
All rights reserved.
Image by Tracy Ducasse. Licensed through Creative Commons.