A Halloween story of a ghost town and its inhabitants.
By Stephen A Abell
Number of words: 2690
Long distance love affairs are the pits. The thought whirled around Clarks head, making him angrier with every minute.
The plain truth of the matter was he loved Tammy. Everyday without her was painful. Thank God for Yahoo Messenger. Nothing could replace having her beside him, to hold, caress, kiss, and make love to, whenever the feelings arose; wanking to a web-cam was just so shallow. He missed her presence: He loved her.
So, when her application to Harvard University was accepted he was quick to show his support and enthusiasm. The fact she would be over six hundred miles away never bothered him.
“No problem.” He said, and meant it. “I love drivin’. I have a great car an’ all I need is the right music and I’m flyin’ to you.”
They worked out a route of back roads where he could put his foot down. If he averaged ninety miles-per-hour he should make it to her within seven hours.
Now, on this dusty and dirty two-lane highway he was cursing those glib words. It was a problem.
The detour was a hundred miles back. There were two signs giving directions, neither of which led back to his route. Instead of turning round and heading back, he put his foot down a little more. He knew Harvard lay nearly due east from their hometown; since the detour, the road had only varied slightly a couple of times from that direction. Somewhere up ahead, his mind reassured, this unused slice of tarmac will intersect with our usual route.
In the rear-view mirror, was a billowing wall of soft brown dirt, kicked up by the tyres. Smiling, he remembered the Dukes of Hazard television series and pictured Tammy in a pair of Daisy Duke shorts, his smile grew.
Ejecting the CD, the radio blared into life. Static filled the cab as it automatically searched for life. The first station birthed from the white noise held soft strings, rhythmic steel guitars and the voice of an angel; a quiet steady drumbeat kept them company.
His eyes caught the needle on the fuel gauge, it pointed to quarter full. Time to fill up, his mind nagged. The car sped by red, burnt orange, amber and the deep brown leaves of the trees. His anger started to subside. It was late October: All Hallows Eve. He loved this time of year. The heat of summer had subsided and a chill was stalking the land, reminding everybody how good it was to be alive; invigorating and fresh. Even the blue skies looked crisper and clearer; and when you put in the myriad colours of the, splendidly dying, trees then all was well with the world.
He blazed past a town sign, too fast to read. It did not matter though, as soon as his tank was full and he had directions, he would be back on the road to Tammy.
Five minutes later, with his tank full and directions back to his original route, the pump jockey asked him a strange question. “You like horror films?”
“Yeah,” was Clark’s hesitant reply, “why?”
“Well, if you’ve watched a few you’ll know about the old man that always warns the teenagers ‘bout the danger awaiting them.”
A strange, unnerving feeling was in the pit of Clark’s stomach. “Yeah?”
“Well, when you get to the next town, drive straight through. Don’t stop. There ain’t nobody there, anyhows: It’s a ghost town. People, hereabouts, have strange stories 'bout the place, and none turn out well. People have gone missin’ from here an’ surroundin’ farms an’ houses.”
Clark forced a smile to his lips; it looked lost and alone. “This is because it’s Halloween isn’t it? You’re tryin’ to scare me.”
“It ain’t ‘cause it’s Halloween. It’s ‘cause you have a love waiting on you. And, yeah, I want to scare you.
“If you’re interested, I’ll pour you a strong coffee an' I’ll tell you the story.”
“You have my curiosity, and the coffee sounds good. Might give me some inspiration. I’m a writer, aspiring to be, that is.”
“Name’s Shane. There’s a kitchen in back an’ a couple of chairs. Let’s see if I can be your muse.” A dry laugh escaped the attendants grin.
The coffee was rich, strong and hot; just how he liked it. The warmth fought off the chill.
“A couple of miles before you enter the next town,” Shane started, “you’ll pass a farm on the right. The man that owns the place is a good man. He’s over in Boston visiting relatives. Goes every Halloween. Think it’s so’s his five kids can go trick-or-treatin’. Ain’t much for kiddies to do 'round here. At last count we had just over a hundred an’ fifty livin’ 'round town. Most of us are spread over the countryside; not the best place to go walkin’ at night.
“Anyways, before him, his dad ran the place; did a good job too. His crops did so well that at Halloween he’d let the people hereabouts take as many pumpkins as they wanted. A tradition his son keeps today.
“It's rumoured the family originated from New Orleans. He arrived with his wife and two girls. The son was born after the accident of October ’67.
“The girls, both in their late teens, were visiting friends an' accepted a lift home from a couple of boys. But, as youngsters are like to, on arrivin’ home they didn’t go straight in. They took themselves into an old barn that stood behind the house. An’, I guess that they’d been foolin’ 'round, making noise, and laughin’, ‘cause their dad comes barging in. The boys, scared the man might beat them, and with good reason, I’d say, took off out the back door, jumped into the pick-up and screeched up the dirt track. They didn’t notice the kerosene lamp they’d knocked over. The flame ignited the dry straw, which caught the dry, rotted, hollow wood of the barn.
“The girls didn’t stand a chance.
“By the time the firemen arrived the barn was ash an’ the fire was just black smoke.
“Distraught an’ angry the father drove into the town an' after banging on a few doors, he saw the truck parked outside a house. He knocked on the door, but the couple inside insisted their son had been with them all night. He walked away, gently crying an' muttering some foreign words under his breath.
“A few days later on Halloween the town was deserted. Ninety-seven people vanished. The FBI an’ a few other agencies shut the town down for a couple of months. They interrogated everybody here but we knew nothing. Our town had been growing, people were moving in. Afterwards, they moved out. Nobody settled here since. We tore down the last empty house five years ago. Gave it back to the earth, you might say. Only the people born an’ bred here stayed.
“The farmer became a dad again. His son went to university. While he was away, his mother passed on. This destroyed his father: On the day after the funeral, his son found his body hanging by a noose from an old tree.
“Tonight, all our doors will be locked an’ our blinds drawn. I’m not sayin’ that there’s anythin’ out there but, I’ll err on safety's side. Suggest you do the same. The fastest you can drive; drive through that godforsaken town.”
Shane raised his body from the chair, walked over to the sink and tipped his full mug of cold coffee down the hole.
Clark was lost for words, his mind still trying to register the tale. Trying to size up the man standing before him. Could it be real? Or, just a spook story for Halloween?
“Best get you on your way, before the sun sets. Gets dark awful quick out here without those city lights.”
As Clark positioned himself behind the steering wheel, he thanked Shane for the coffee and the story.
“Ain’t nothin’. Don’t get many new faces 'round here.” He smiled. “Now, you take care an’ get to your lady in one piece.” With that, he turned and walked back into the store. Clark saw him flip the Open sign over to Closed, then heard the click as the pumps turned off.
As he played God with the automobile, his eyes caught the digital display. The clock flashed 5:25pm.
Time for some good driving music, and time to fly.
Twenty minutes later, he was passing the farm. In the dim twilight he could see the pumpkin crop and behind them the dark outline of a house, nestled in nighttime shadows,
His foot briefly hesitated on the accelerator.
The pumpkin patch was just a memory fading in his rear-view.
As night enshrouded the speeding vehicle, he flicked the headlights to full beam. Rounding a corner, he saw the town emerging from the darkness. Seeing the buildings dark outlines without any streetlights gave him a creepy feeling. He could almost hear the silence over the thumping, heavy bass pulsing music. What he did hear over Whodini’s Haunted House of Rock was his front right tyre blowout.
The car skidded manically over the road. His muscles tightened as he fought the vehicle. The wheels left the hardtop, a few times, threatening to roll the car. After an eternity, he wrestled it over to the roadside. With shaky hands and numb fingers, he killed it.
Minutes passed. Taking deep breaths, he regained control of his trembling body. Letting out a long sigh he popped the trunk and clambered out of the car on shaky legs.
Grabbing the torch from the boot, he flicked it on and strode to inspect the damage. The tyre was shredded and the alloy was beyond repair. “Ah well, at least you’re alive.” He muttered with relief as he retrieved the jack and tyre iron from the trunk.
As the first nut loosened, he heard a strange scraping sound. Quickly grabbing the torch, he shone it towards the noise. There was nothing to see but the road. Just tree branches in the breeze, he reassured himself.
As the nut hit the ground, a different noise assailed his ears. Similar to a dry twig snapping, but not quite, there was something different about it. There it came again, a little louder this time, followed by the scraping noise.
His hands trembled as he shone the torch back down the road. Again, nothing. Then, in the distance, out of the torches reach, something moved. It appeared to be a flame, like a lighter. It flickered and danced in the darkness. Iciness stole into his body and surfed through his veins.
Something was very wrong here. Switching the torch off, he slowly climbed into the car and locked the doors. He looked into the rear-view mirror and cursed; the boot lid was blocking his view. The clacking and scraping sounds were very clear. It sounded like thousands of dry twigs snapping. Looking in the wing mirror, he saw hundreds of dancing flames; they were getting closer.
As they drew nearer, he began to make out shapes; he bit his tongue to stop from crying out.
Or, what was left of them. Rags of rotted cloth and strips of discoloured flesh hung loosely from their bones. A large pumpkin sat in place of a head, cut into a Jack-o’-lantern, and what Clark mistook for lighter flames were their eyes.
The leader of the group shambled abreast of the passenger door and carried on by, without any recognition. Others wandered past with the same aplomb.
A skeletal tap on the passenger door startled him. Hesitantly he turned and looked at a smaller Jack-o’-lantern face. As he watched, the corners of the designer mouth turned up into a smile and the flames burned a little brighter. A small, white, hand of bone waved to him before its owner was pulled away. Clark had felt his own hand rising in reply; he let it fall, heavily, to the leather seat. It had been a little girl; he could see the dress. Her mother, a taller pumpkin-head also wearing a dress, had pulled her away. As he watched in awe and wonder the mother’s free hand reached out to a man’s and lovingly wrapped around it. They were a family.
Many families walked in this macabre procession. An uneasy easiness crept into him. These people were not dangerous. Dead, yes. Dangerous, his mind said, no.
As the last of the walking pumpkin corpses filed past, he unlocked the door and eased into the night. Retrieving the spare from the boot, he changed the wheel in record time. Loading everything into the trunk, he glanced into town and sadness melted into his heart.
The dead acted out life. They moved down the street, hugged each other like long lost friends, and shook hands like business acquaintances. Some entered houses, and he knew they would walk into the front room and sit in a favourite armchair, check the fridge for food or drink. Mums and dads would put their kids to bed, maybe tell them bedtime stories. A sad smile tickled his mouth. They may even tell them there are no such things as monsters, and they do not live in closets or hide under beds.
He had to get away from this place before the sadness crushed his heart.
As he turned the ignition key, Whodini erupted from the speakers. Clark’s hand shot out to the volume and turned it down. The specially burned CD was a compilation of his favourite oldskool raps about Halloween and horror movies. X-files ambient mix wove its way from the speakers. He ejected the CD. The music felt disrespectful to the memory of these people.
Pushing the stick into gear, he set off. The car wrestled to veer right and Clark knew his muscles would be aching before the drive was over.
As he cruised down Main Street, a few of the ragged pumpkin-heads waved or tipped their heads, as though wearing hats. He replied in kind.
Sanity is a right turn away, the mantra played in his mind.
He saw the turning and slowed the car, starting to rotate the steering wheel. Clark had time to make out three Jack-o’-lanterns in the cab of the pick-up as it blazed round the bend; their eyes riotous fire, their slashed mouths smiling.
Everything exploded: Crumpling, screaming, smashing, ripping, tearing, metal, glass and flesh.
As unconsciousness released him, he felt a cold hard stroking movement on his face. One of the corpses was touching him. He could feel many boney hands holding him down, pinning him to the cold pavement below.
The stroking hand traced a route to the back of his head, and raised it. Clark found his voice and started to shout his protests. His mind laughed at his plight, do you think pumpkins can hear? Better yet, understand English. Can you speak pumpkineese?
Insanity was taking a hold. The laughter in his head pushed through his mouth. Manic, worried and very afraid.
Something wet and sticky landed on his cheek. Another drop, his forehead. Another, his lips. His tongue darted out. Pumpkin juice and flesh.
The laughter in his mind grew louder trying to drown out the screams from his mouth. The Jack-o’-lantern slid easily over his face, as though it were tailor made. The laughter and the screaming stopped.
Understanding replaced everything. Instantly he knew these people. Knew where they came from. What they felt. What they wanted. Prayed for.
He knew what he had become.
The crying started.