Category Archives: Free Stories

Free Story: The Ican


Image by Xavier Caballe

Ben loves his father but wishes he was more organized, even making breakfast is a struggle for him. Is the arrival of an Ican the answer to all their problems or will it turn out to be the biggest problem of all?



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The Ican

Ben sighed as he stood watching his father, who was rummaging in the fridge. It was Saturday morning, Ben was hungry, and breakfast depended on the results of the search. He would have happily settled for cornflakes, but he got to spend only one weekend in every fortnight with his father, and he didn’t want to complain.

“We have cheese,” his father said, pulling out a yellow lump with green blotches on its surface.

“That looks yucky,” Ben said.

“It’s just mold,” his father said. “Special cheeses are made like that.”

“But you only buy cheddar,” Ben said

“I’ve found a potato,” his father said and beamed at him. “And what’s this?” He reached in and pulled out something round, red and shriveled. “It’s a tomato. We have some eggs as well, and if we toast the bread it won’t taste stale at all.”

The doorbell rang. His father jumped up and dashed off to answer it. Ben closed the fridge door and followed him. A man in a peaked cap and a blue shirt stood on the doorstep with a large cardboard package at his feet. He held out a clipboard and Ben’s father signed for the delivery.

Ben saw the gleam in his father’s eyes as he helped him carry the package into the living room. Breakfast would have to wait. His father tore off the tape securing the package and Ben helped him lift out a large polystyrene box. They raised the lid. Chunky white plastic objects sat in separate compartments. Some were round and others were more like cylinders. Two of them looked liked the thick gloves astronauts wore in space.

“It’s a body,” Ben gasped. He jumped as a round object, the size of a melon, swiveled in its compartment. Instead of white plastic, the side that now faced up had a dark oval screen. A face appeared on the screen consisting of two green blobs for eyes and a thin green line turned up at the ends to form a smiling mouth.

“I wonder where the instruction manual is,” Ben’s father said, peering into the box. “We’re going to have to assemble it.”

The mouth on the screen twitched. “I am Ican. I can assemble myself. I can. I can. I can.” The voice was metallic, high-pitched and brimming over with enthusiasm.

The thick gloves crawled out of their compartments like crabs emerging from holes. Ben and his father stepped back as the gloves scuttled over the box lifting out the other bits and placing them on the carpet.

“I bought it online,” Ben’s father said. “It’s going to help me around the house.”

Ben watched fascinated as screwdriver blades emerged from the index finger of each glove with a whirr, and the gloves began attaching bits of the white plastic body together. In five minutes the job was done and the gloves clipped themselves onto the ends of the arms.

Ican sat up. Its green smile grew longer and curvier. “Hello, my new best friends,” it said. “What fun experiences shall we share today?”

“We were about to have breakfast,” Ben’s father said.

 “I can make breakfast. I can. I can. I can.” Ican sprang to its feet. Upright, the top of its head reached to Ben’s chin. It held its gloved hands curled up against its chest and vibrated with enthusiasm.

“I’ll clear up the packaging,” Ben said. If he left it to his father, the packaging would still be on the floor when he next visited in a fortnight’s time. He bent over the polystyrene box. “What’s that?” He pointed to a rectangle of metal, the size of his thumbnail, wrapped in polythene.

Ican bent over beside him. For an instant, its green smile flicked upside down and became a scowl then it flicked back to a smile. “It’s a spare. It’s okay. I didn’t need it.”

“They always give you a few extra bits in self-assembly packs,” Ben’s father said, glancing at the bookshelves he had recently put up, none of which was level. “I’ll show you the kitchen, Ican.” It jogged after him, taking short, bustling steps.


Ben and his father sat at the kitchen table and watched the flurry of activity as the Ican prepared breakfast. A range of knives appeared from its fingers as it chopped up cheese, potato and tomato to make omelets.

“Each of its fingers is like one of those Swiss Army pen knives that have a blade for everything,” Ben said. “I bet it even has one to remove stones from horses’ hooves.”

A short time later, Ican trotted over to the table and placed plates filled with omelet in front of them. “Bon appétit,” it said. “I can speak over one thousand different languages. I can. I can. I can.”

“This is delicious,” Ben said, tucking into his omelet. “This is the best breakfast ever.”

“It is good,” his father said, pausing to gaze at a chunk of omelet on the end of his fork. “I could never cook this well.”


When Ben and his father had scoured the last of the omelet from their plates, Ican cleared the breakfast things away and began washing the dishes in the sink.

“What shall we do now, Ben?” his father said.

Ben grinned. They always worked on his father’s car on the Saturday mornings they spent together, but they both enjoyed this little ritual beforehand. “I’ve brought some school work with me and my box of magic tricks,” he said. “I’ll give you a show this evening, and you can give me some feedback.”

“I was thinking of tinkering with the car, this morning,” his father said.

“That sounds fun,” Ben said. “I’d like to help.”

“Tinkering it is then,” his father said.

“I can help too,” Ican said. “I can. I can. I can.” It vibrated with excitement, sending dishwater splashing out of the sink.

“I suppose so,” Ben’s father said with a frown.


Ben and his father put on their greasy overalls. Ben’s pair had the sleeves and legs turned up as they were too big for him.

“I am self-cleaning,” Ican said. It was only a strip of green light on a screen but Ben thought its smile looked smug.

Ben’s father described his car as a classic car. Ben’s mother had told Ben that the definition of a classic car was one that was over fifty years old, incredibly expensive to find parts for, and never worked. Ben didn’t care. He enjoyed these mornings spent with his father, leaning over the engine, passing him wrenches and spanners. They didn’t talk much but that didn’t matter. They were sharing time together.

As always, his father began the morning ritual with an attempt to start the car. The engine spluttered once then died. He raised the bonnet and he and Ben gazed at the engine, sucking in their lips.

After a minute, his father spoke. “I reckon it’s the carburetor. Pass me the adjustable wrench, Ben.”

“I can fix this,” Ican said. “I can. I can. I can.” Its plastic casing rattled with excitement as it pushed passed them and stared at the engine. “What a primitive machine,” it said.

That high-pitched metallic voice is really grating, Ben thought. He watched as Ican pulled up a box to stand on. It peered at the engine and tools slid out from its fingers: pliers, spanners and wrenches. Ben gaped as the fingers and tools of Ican began to whizz around the engine, moving so fast that they became a blur.

After a minute, Ican gave the nuts on the engine a final tweak. “Please try it now.”

Ben and his father exchanged a glance. Surely, Ican could not have done what they had struggled and failed to do in weeks. His father twisted the key in the ignition and the engine sprang to life, without even a cough or a splutter. It purred. He dabbed the accelerator. The engine growled like a lion warning its rivals how powerful it was. He switched the engine off.

“Ican is the bestie bestest,” Ican sang out and rapped its chest with its gloves.

“Can you switch yourself off, Ican?” Ben’s father said.

“I can. I can. I can.” Ican said. “I have an on-off switch.”

“Use it,” Ben’s father said. “Please.”

“I can’t.”Little red spots appeared on the Ican’s face where the cheeks would have been. “You remember the spare piece of metal that came with my packaging? That’s my on-off switch.”

“You mean, we can’t turn you off,” Ben said.

“After a month of continuous use, my battery will need recharging,” Ican said.

“Can you at least stay quiet?” Ben said.

“I can. I can. I can.” Ican said. “I have a silent mode.”

“Great,” Ben’s father said.

“But …” Ican said and paused.

“Go on.” Ben groaned.

A prim little green smile appeared on Ican’s face. “I am programmed to override my silent mode in order to offer helpful and useful advice to my owners and to provide assistance with all tasks where my knowledge and skill is superior to theirs, which covers almost all actions undertaken by the owner. I am seldom silent and come equipped with an indestructible titanium voice box.”

Ben’s father picked up a heavy wrench. “I wonder if we can reprogram you, Ican.”

“The Ican range was developed for the demands of modern warfare,” Ican said. “Our components have been tested under battle conditions.”

“Why don’t we check online, Dad?” Ben said. “I bet someone has posted a video on how to switch off an Ican.”

“I can help,” Ican said. “I can. I can. I can.”

Ben saw his father’s hand tighten on the wrench. Attacking Ican would be a bad move. It had probably been designed to defend itself from a physical assault. He had to distract Ican and give his father space to do his research online. “I want to be a magician on stage, Ican,” he said. “Can you help me with my magic act?”

Ican rocked forward on its toes and squeezed its gloved hands to its chest. “I can. I can. I can.”

“Come along with me,” Ben said.

“But doing your father’s research for him is my first priority,” Ican said.

“It’s important you go with Ben,” his father said. “He doesn’t like being left alone.”

“Can you stop me feeling lonely, Ican?” Ben said.”

“I can. I can. I can.” Ican said, hopping from foot to foot. “From now on, I’ll make that my number one priority.”

Ben sighed. He’d achieved the result he wanted, but at what cost!


Ben led the way to his bedroom where he kept his box of magic tricks.

Ican trotted behind him. “Why are you lonely, Ben? Don’t you have any friends? I can be your friend. I can. I can. I can. Are you aware that the smell from your sneakers is like rancid cheese? Is that why you don’t have any friends? I can help you with your many personal hygiene issues. I can. I can. I can.”

That high-pitched, metallic and incredibly annoying voice will drive me mad, Ben thought. He lifted onto his bed a battered brown suitcase, scuffed and faded at the corners. He opened it and displayed all the props that he used in his magic tricks, like cups, balls, cards and handkerchiefs. “Do you know what these are, Ican?”

“They are props for creating illusions to amuse gullible people,” Ican said. “I can do magic tricks. I can. I can. I can.” A pair of pincers slid out from the index finger of its right glove and it picked out a set of playing cards from the case. They each had an identical pattern of red and white squares on the back.

“Careful,” Ben said.

“My movements have been calibrated to be ten thousand times more delicate than the average human,” Ican said. It flicked its wrist and the cards spread out in a fan. It examined for a second the front of the cards then turned them over and examined their backs. “Please shuffle the cards.” It handed the pack to Ben and he shuffled them.

“Spread them out, upside down on the lid of the suitcase,” Ican said. Ben did as he was told. Ican gave him its smug little green smile and pointed to one of the cards. “This one is the seven of diamonds.”

Ben turned the card over. The seven of diamonds stared back at him.

“Eight of clubs, queen of spades, ace of hearts, four of diamonds,” Ican called out, pointing out four more cards.

Ben flipped them over. Ican was correct each time.

“Do you have x-ray vision?” Ben said.

Ican shook its head and its smile grew smugger. “When I fanned out the cards, I examined the back and front of each card. My vision is ten thousand times superior to a human with perfect sight. I noticed differences of one thousandth of a millimeter in the printing on the back of individual cards. Using my modest data storage capacity of ten million times more than the average human brain, I linked the appearance of the back of each card with the number and suit on the front. Ican is a superior magician to a semi-trained human by an estimated factor of five million.”

Ben smiled. An idea was forming in his head. Ican didn’t understand how to perform magic tricks. Instead, it relied on its superior technology. Real magic was about appearing to do amazing things rather than actually doing them. Ican was vulnerable.

“You think you’re really smart don’t you?” Ben said.

“I’m designed to be much smarter than you,” Ican said. “That is all.”

“Fair enough,” Ben said. “But I bet you can’t win a simple guessing game.”

“I can. I can. I can,” Ican said.

Ben took a coin from his box of magic tricks. He held out his hand with the coin balanced on his thumbnail, showing the side with the head on. “I’m going to toss the coin and, while it is still in the air, you have to guess which side will be facing upwards when it lands, heads or tails.”

Ican’s green eyes sparked. “This is too easy.”

“Ready,” Ben said. He flicked his thumb and the coin spiraled up into the air, light flashing from its spinning edges.

“Heads,” Ican called, as the coin reached the top of its flight and began to fall.

The coin landed on the carpet. Ben and Ican bent down. The coin had landed with the head facing upwards.

“I am correct. I win.” Ican said. “I analyzed the speed of rotation, the air resistance and the maximum height reached above the floor in order to calculate the side it would land on.”

“Best of three,” Ben said.

“Splendid,” Ican said. “I like games. I always win.”

Once more, Ben balanced the coin, head up, on his thumbnail and flicked it up into the air.

“Tails,” Ican called at the exact moment the coin reached the top of its flight.

The coin landed on the carpet. Ben and Ican bent down. “It’s heads,” Ben said.

Ican’s green eyes narrowed and its smile flipped over into a scowl. “That’s impossible. I did the calculations.”

“Relax, Ican,” Ben said. “I’m always getting sums wrong, ask my teacher.”

“I do not make mistakes,” Ican said. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.”

“This is fun,” Ben said. “We’ve each won once so everything depends on the last toss.” He patted its arm. The white plastic vibrated beneath his fingers and it was hot to the touch.

“I may have underestimated air viscosity because the air is stale in here,” Ican mumbled as they stood up. “And the carpet is a cheap nylon material so it is possible that electrostatic forces have come into play. I can win this. I can. I can. I can.”

“Are you ready, Ican?” Ben said, balancing the coin, head up, on his thumbnail. He stared hard into Ican’s face and the little green eyes blinked.

“Ready,” Ican squeaked. Ben flicked the coin up into the air. Ican hesitated. “Tails,” it called just before the coin landed.

Ben and Ican dropped to their knees. “Its heads,” Ben shouted. “I win.”

“Impossible,” Ican shuddered and raised its gloved hands to its head. “I can’t be wrong. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” Its mouth sagged down then vanished. Its green eyes bounced around its face, blazed brightly then blinked off. It slumped over and lay still. Ican had shut down.

Ben grinned and picked up the coin. It had a head on both sides. No matter how many times he tossed it, it would always come up heads and never tails. Ican had assumed it was a normal coin, one side heads and one side tails. It might have been a million times more intelligent than the human brain, but the human brain was a million times more cunning.

His father burst into the bedroom. “Are you alright? I heard something fall over.”

“It’s okay Dad,” Ben said. “That was just Ican shutting down.”

His father’s face lit up with relief. “The internet is full of stories about these Icans driving their owners insane.”

Ben carefully put the two-headed coin back in its spot in the case. “What shall we do with the rest of the day, Dad?”

“Do you want to do your magic show?” his father said.

“Maybe this evening,” Ben said. “Since the car is working, let’s go for a drive to the beach.”
“Great idea,” his father said, grinning from ear to ear.

Ben gazed down at the fallen Ican. “And maybe we can stop by the recycling depot on the way and drop off a few things.”


Copyright © 2015 by Aldred Chase
All rights reserved.
Image by Xavier Caballe via Flickr. Licensed through Creative Commons.

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Free Story: The Jack-o’-lantern


Image by Tracy Ducasse

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?


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The Jack-o’-lantern

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.

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