Halloween was here and I should have been overjoyed, but I was not. My parents looked at me proudly as I shivered in the passageway. I was dressed in my vampire costume and held my prized pumpkin.
Bobby Shaw, my next-door neighbour, trundled along the icy path, his Frankenstein costume as immaculate as ever, his pumpkin twice the size of mine. “Hello, Mr and Mrs Francis. Hello, Peter,” he said, his icy breath visible.
My mother fidgeted with my scarf, mumbling how cold it was, and embarrassing me by saying, “I don’t want my little angel to catch his death of cold, now do I?” She seemed to forget I was now ten years old and not a child anymore. She kissed me on the cheek and I reluctantly followed in the footsteps of Bobby, joining up with the other trick or treaters, who waited beneath the lamppost, stamping their cold feet.
“Did you have to bring the little twerp?” moaned Vernon Greer, the oldest and tallest in the party, who wore the mask of a ghoul. “He ought to be with kids his own age.”
Bobby Shaw slapped me around the head before he answered. “I didn’t have any choice, did I? My folks made me take him; besides, he has no friends his own age.”
“Well, he’s not coming with us,” insisted Vernon.
I acknowledged by now my role for the night. I was to walk well behind the group, and to receive only the candies that the others did not like. I followed the annual routine, waiting out of sight while the others collected their rewards. Woe betides anyone who never coughed up. Their windows would be pelted with eggs, or dog poo would be pushed through their letterbox.
I jumped up and down on the spot, attempting to ward of the cold as the swirling snow numbed my face. My eyes followed the large party across the road. They were led by a short, stocky man with huge sideburns, a top hat and cloak. In his gloved hand he carried a huge lantern, even larger than Bobby Shaw’s. Towards the rear of the group was a small boy with red hair, his face as white as snow. His eyes and lips were black like coal. The boy, who looked about my age, wore a skeleton costume.
I decided to introduce myself and jogged across the road. “Hello, I’m Peter.”
The boy ignored me and walked on, following behind the rest of the group. One by one, they looked over their shoulders, their faces seemingly hid behind masks. There was a mixture of ghouls, vampires, skeletons, witches, and ghastly-looking dwarfs. I scrambled after them, curious as to whom these people were.
I kept pace with the small boy, who continued to ignore me. “What school do you go to?” I asked.
Again, he chose to disregard me. The only sound that could be heard was the crisp footsteps, as they plodded through the laying snow. The man with the lantern led us into the grounds of a large house. He approached the door and pounded on it loudly.
A grey-haired man in a red, silk dressing gown answered, and regarded the group like something on the bottom of his shoe. His large Alsatian dog manoeuvred its head around the door and growled.
“Trick or treat?” The voice from the man with the lantern was deep and rasping.
“Beggars! Bleeding beggars, that’s all you are. Now, go away or I’ll set my dog onto you.”
The door was slammed shut in our faces. The man in the top hat turned and placed his hand upon the shoulder of a woman, who wore a witch’s costume and held a broom. The witch stepped forward, her wrinkled hand reaching out for the door handle. She stepped inside the house and a deep groan spread throughout the party, as they turned and walked away.
I was mesmerised and walked backwards, wondering what I had just witnessed. A loud scream, followed by a high-pitched yelping, caused me to jump. The strange group appeared unperturbed and continued on their way into the dark, bitter night.
Several houses later, a similar development occurred, with the householder most uncharitable. This time, one of the deformed dwarfs entered the house, and the screams followed. This happened on five occasions during the evening, and the group was whittled down gradually.
They walked on silently, heading away from my neighbourhood. I stopped and contemplated what to do. True, I was curious, but my parents I knew would be livid at me for leaving Bobby Shaw and the others.
The small, redheaded boy looked back at me as he followed behind the others, his eyes sad and forlorn. I ran after him when they crossed the main road and headed towards the woods.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
He opened his mouth as if to speak, but a scowl from the man with the lantern made him change his mind. The woods were enshrouded by a cold, swirling mist, and a hooting owl serenaded us as we advanced. Again, the party looked back at me one by one, their pale faces seeming to have lost substance. Rotten flesh clung to their bones, their gnarled teeth clearly visible.
I halted and watched when the strange people gradually vanished into the mist, apparently unconcerned about my presence. The small boy reappeared and walked slowly towards me, his face devoid of flesh. He reached out with his bony hand and I turned to run.
“Wait! Please, don’t be afraid.”
I cowered behind a tree and watched as he advanced slowly.
“Come, and I’ll show you where we live.”
I shook my head, my body trembling with fear, as well as the cold.
“Please, we’ll not hurt you… It’s been so long since I’ve seen someone my own age,” he stated.
“W-w-who are you?” I stuttered.
“My name is Jacob.”
“Your face… Is that a mask?”
“Come with me and I’ll explain everything.”
I cautiously followed Jacob deeper into the woods, until he stopped at an enormous tree.
“So, where do you live?” I quizzed.
“This is my home.” Jacob turned and walked towards the tree, before he vanished. “Come on, don’t be afraid.”
I walked carefully towards the tree with my hands held out in front of me, marvelling when I saw them pass through the growth. Another stride and I was inside a huge structure of whiteness, with many doors leading from the mist-filled room. Through the vapour, I made out the shape of Jacob waiting for me.
“Welcome to my home,” he smiled.
“But, I don’t understand. What is this place?”
“Peter, after midnight, you’ll not see me for another year… I long for the day I’ll not return here, but my time has not come yet.”
I was confused. “I don’t understand, Jacob… Who are you?”
The bizarre boy kept his distance, purposely I believe; not wishing to portray his hideous features to me.
“Peter, we live in different worlds. I am one of the undead, as is everyone who inhabits this world. When the time is right, Jack will offer me my liberty.”
“Why, you’ve surely heard of Jack-o’-Lantern, have you not?”
I looked down at my pathetic pumpkin and nodded.
Jacob continued. “Many many years ago, Jack was a drunkard and a trickster. One day, he tricked Satan into climbing a tree. He carved the image of a cross in the tree and trapped the Devil. Jack made a deal with Satan that he would never tempt him again, on condition he would let him down the tree.”
“He agreed?” I asked.
“Yes… Years later, Jack died and because of his sins was denied entrance to the gates of Heaven. Because he annoyed the Devil, he was also denied access to Hell. Instead, Satan gave Jack a single ember to help light his way through the darkness. Jack placed the ember inside of a pumpkin to keep it glowing, hence the legend of the Jack-o’-Lantern.”
“You said Jack would offer you your liberty? I don’t understand.”
“Every Halloween, we trick or treat; our reward being that any mortal denying us will be replaced by one of us. The remainder wait for another year, hoping they too will one day be free.”
“But, why you?” I asked.
“As I’ve already told you, Peter, I’m one of the undead. The people who live here were evil in your world…including me.”
“I too was denied the entrance to Heaven, because I killed my parents. I accidentally upset a candle and my parents perished, over one hundred and twenty years ago. Hell was never an alternative for me… You see, I live in hope that one year, Jack will choose me.”
“But, you said you killed your parents accidentally?”
“It matters not… Listen, you must leave.”
I was more curious than ever. “But, why did you invite me here, Jacob?”
“Because, I want you to be my friend. We can meet every Halloween.”
“I’d like that.”
I held out my hand and strained my eyes, trying to see his hideous features that were concealed by the mist. I felt nothing but pity for the small boy who had been trapped in his own hell for so long. Jacob refused my handshake, no doubt ashamed of his skeletal hands.
“Please, go before it’s too late,” he insisted. “Goodbye, Peter, my friend.”
Jacob pointed towards the exit and I followed the line of his finger. I trusted him and stepped through the wall and into the woods. The mist was now even denser and I had trouble getting my bearings. I advanced slowly, unsure if I was going the correct way. A rustling sound behind me caused me to increase my pace. I glanced over my shoulder to see someone approaching. “Jacob, is that you?”
A shrilling laugh came from the mouth of the white-haired witch. On closer inspection, I could see she carried a large knife. Hunched behind her was a dwarf, his decaying face contorted in anger.
I turned and ran for my life, blindly crashing into tree limbs and thorny shrubs. I dropped my lantern, my legs tired and my breath coming in short spasms. The twisted maze of roots took me by surprise and I plummeted to the ground. I turned on my back and saw the hideous witch and the dwarf stood over me.
“A tasty morsel for my cauldron,” laughed the witch.
“Yum, yum,” followed the dwarf.
She placed her spindly, bony fingers around my throat and brought the knife upwards. The dwarf held my arms down, his vile breath reeking of rotten fish.
“No!” came the scream from behind.
“Jacob!” I yelled.
“Go away, puny boy,” ordered the witch.
“Leave him be! He’s my friend.”
“Leave him be, he’s my friend,” mocked the dwarf.
The witch raised the knife menacingly. “He’s a mortal and it’s not yet midnight.”
“Put down that knife!”
The witch’s expression changed from ecstasy to disappointment when she turned to face the protester.
The bright glow coming from the lantern was evidence of his identity. “Your time has not yet come, Matilda, and you know the rules. Leave the boy be!”
The witch reluctantly released me and scampered off, the groaning dwarf following closely behind her.
Jack approached and held his lantern in front of my face, the gruesome face of the turnip even more terrifying than the owner’s disfigured features.
“Go, and do not ever speak of this night to anyone. The consequences for you will be dire; do you hear me, boy?”
I clambered to my feet, nodded rapidly, and looked past Jack, towards Jacob, who pointed towards the exit of the woods.
“I understand, sir.”
“Now, go. Run, you young scamp!”
I ran faster than I had ever run in my life, only stopping when I reached my home. I kept my word and never ever spoke of that Halloween to anyone. As the years progress and my hair turns grey, I still venture out at Halloween, accompanying young Jacob on his trick and treats, hoping that one day he will fulfil his wish and be chosen. I was not entirely truthful when I said I kept my word; after all, I’ve told you, haven’t I? Can you keep a secret?