The term Jack O' Lantern first appeared in print in 1750, and referred to a night watchman. The Jack O' Lantern legend can be found in many forms, and is a traditional 18th century Irish Halloween tale where a man named Jack beats the devil but ends up cursed to walk the earth until Judgment Day, carrying a coal from the fires of Hell to light his way. I've messed with it here to suit my own strange little purposes.
Written 10 days to Halloween, 1 hour time limit.
This is enough of an excuse.
(c)2000 B Stearns
Hear that? It's time winding down. It's me winding down. I'll be doin' it for a while.
I know it's been a good long time--long enough for the world to move on. But it still gets dark every night, and light every day, or so I hear. I only see the dark parts, and they see me.
Me? I was a musician, depending on who you ask. A singer. I did all the regular rock n' roll life stuff. The drinking, the dope, fucking the groupies, who cared? The same tired excuse followed us all around. It's the seventies, it's the eighties, it's the nineties, whatever. We all had our excuses. Looking back now, nothin' I did was all that bad, not bad enough to land me in Hell. I always believed nothin' anybody could do was bad enough to earn 'em Hell, and nothin' you did was ever good enough to deserve Heaven either. I was raised otherwise.
And there's my problem.
I know something, now, and I'll let you in on it: whatever you believe, that's what you get.
Buddhists, Fundies, Taoists, little green men, doesn't matter. Me, I was raised Catholic, baptized, the whole bit. So that's what I got. I believed all of it, I practiced it most of my life, then I let it practice me after awhile, then I dropped it altogether. Funny how they call it practicing, right? Practice what? Who the fuck is keeping tabs?
You'd be surprised. Or maybe not. I'm not here to warn you, or steer you down the righteous path, or nothin' else. I been dead too long to start the hypocrite dance. So get what you want out of it, and don't come cryin' to me. It's All Hallows Eve, and I get to talk once a year, and walk the same road, that same dark and windy road I went running down on Halloween a long damn time ago. It's still cold. Bein' dead don't keep you from the cold. And I'll be walkin' it until somebody decides enough's enough. Judgment Day, maybe, or whatever people start callin' it when it finally happens. I'll be here.
My career was over--I'll admit that much. And I didn't care, not really. What I was doing, out getting fucked up on Halloween night, is beyond me. I'd given that shit up, given everything up, and maybe I was just bein' nostalgic for the old party days. I wasn't alone at first, but I was by the end. Everybody is, you know.
Shit, am I getting cryptic again? You do that, when you're dead.
Anyway. Oh, the light? Sorry. It grates on the nerves after awhile, doesn't it? I can't put it out. Don't tell me you'd rather have it dark. I'll tell you what it is, if you hang around that long. And what're you doin' out here walking, anyway? You deserve what you get. You deserve what you believe.
I was clubbing with some friends that night, that last night I was ignorant. I was probably ignorant of a lot of things after that, but not of the important things. I hadn't had alcohol in who knew how long--like I said, I gave it up. I made promises. But one Halloween out acting like an asshole doesn't get you Hell. No, fuckin' around with the wrong demons does. Both the ones in the bottles and out, babe. I had them both. We were wandering place to place, messin' around, and I got recognized a couple of times. I wasn't dressed up or any other crazy shit.
Yeah, you can still curse when you're dead. No matter what you believe. Heaven's a little to the left of center, and I'm aimed somewhere else. I'll get to that.
We kinda got split up, it got late--later than I thought--and the bars started to close down. Last call went out, and by then it was the Day Of The Dead, or the Feast Of All Saints, depending on where you're from. On what you believe. I was sittin' at the bar, waiting for someone to come back--we were all supposed to meet up there by the end. I was the only one who showed. I found out later they all got waylaid one way or another. Not their fault. It was a setup, and I was too gone to know it then.
Somebody comes up and sits next to me, just sits there. After a moment I notice him and asked him what was up.
I couldn't see him that well. It was the inside of a dark bar on Halloween, and I wouldn't have believed it anyway. It was loud, folks were starting to break it up and head out. But I heard him say, "Time to move on, Steve." Some of the lights come up and I had a look around. There's just a few folks left and I got ready to take off, figuring I'd been ditched. I'd snag a cab and get home.
I turned my head again, and the guy is gone. Just gone. He would've had to get past me to go anywhere, so I don't know how he did it, or how he knew my name. Then again I realize I'm drunk and maybe he was never there.
I headed off, and the next thing I know the goddamn streets are empty. I looked for a cab, I saw a handful of 'em. But suddenly there weren't any. There's barely any traffic, then there's none. It doesn't matter anymore, but it shouldn't have been possible. All of a sudden I'm on some side street, and the streetlights are blown out and I realize I've gotten turned around. I tried turning back and getting headed for some civilization again, but there wasn't any. That's all there is to it. I'm walkin' along this back road, tired as hell and trying to figure out where I got myself lost.
Then the guy's there again. Just starts walking alongside me like he'd always been there.
The truth? I think he always was. And I don't mean just that night. I think that night I was on the fence and he decided to get that undecided vote. It was an election year, you know. Now I'm always on the fence, and I always will be.
So I ask him who the fuck he is and where he came from. I didn't recognize him--I never saw his face. He had a dark coat on, but no hood--I still can't tell you. There was no way to see his face. It was dark, there was a sliver of moon and nothin' else. Maybe there was no face to see. It's just details. He says he's come to collect, and I said 'if you're gonna mug me, you're mouth's writin' checks that your ass can't cash.' I was always the smartass, you know? Tough guy. And by now I've had even more time to practice. By then I'm not hearing any traffic at all, just middle of the night silence. I'm so lost by then, I don't even realize how lost. And what was walkin' beside me had me a lot more lost by the end. Bastard.
He didn't say anything--just kept walkin' next to me, right in the little bit of shadow I had. That little sliver of moon was followin' us down the road, to my right, and he was in my shadow, hands in his pockets, just walkin' there. I figured I'd pissed him off. He dropped back a bit after that, just walking. I saw something in the road, some light, and at first I thought someone dropped something. Took me a couple of minutes to get to it, and when I saw what it was I started lookin' around for a house.
There was a Jack O' Lantern sittin' in the road, all lit up. Just sitting there, grinning at me, standard Jack O' Lantern face, somebody with no imagination or a kid who couldn't do better than three triangles and a slash of mouth. I stopped to look at it, and there's no houses. We got woods bordering the road by then on one side, and vacant lot and train tracks on the other. I know by then I'm fucked, I don't know how far off a main road I am, and here's this pumpkin in the road.
I looked back and the guy is gone again. I didn't even care where he got to, so long as he wasn't buggin' me.
The thing was about the size of a basketball, so I picked it up. I needed the light. And if the guy who wanted to collect came back, I needed something to throw. Recognize it? Yeah, this here that I got, it's the same pumpkin. That's no candle in it, though. Don't ask how I got the same one. That's another thing.
It was right about here, actually. You've got another good couple of miles before this road ends and you have to decide where you're going. You're about as drunk as I was, and you're as lost as I was. But you still got a choice. I'll show you where to turn off.
Anyway, I picked it up and went along. I heard footsteps again, and there he is, following me from a few steps back. There's a tree right up here, or there was...there it is. It's been dead awhile. Here comes the part that's hard to believe. The stupid fucker fell for it too, or I thought he was dumb at the time. He knew what was what. He started on me about collecting again, so instead of throwing the pumpkin at him, I said, 'you climb that tree over there, you can have whatever I got. That's it, I'll make you a trade'.
Now you know I was drunk.
He must have been too, because he scaled the damn thing. See, I made a pact there, by offering a trade. I started it, I spoke it aloud, I believed it. I made the bastard a wager.
He scaled that tree, like no human should've--I know better now. I saw him go up, into those dead branches, all stark and black against the sky, against that sliver of moon, and I got some kind of warning, I think. Some part of me said I'd better do something while he was up there. I felt like a stupid kid, but I did it anyway. Because I knew. I got to the trunk and got my pocket knife out, some dumbass little thing I usually never carried. I set the pumpkin down and scratched a cross right into the trunk, real quick at first to get the pattern. Then I peeled the bark away and made a proper thing of it. A real cross.
That's when he started screamin'. And I mean screamin'. He was up in the higher branches, shrieking like some mountain cat. Tellin' me he'd see me again, he'd collect, I was fuckin' with the wrong man. But he didn't come down. I knew he wouldn't, I knew he wouldn't come down past that symbol, because he believed like I did. He believed.
I picked up the pumpkin and ran like hell, and that road--this road--ended finally. In a way.
Is he still up there? No. Look. There's just enough moon. You'd see if he was up there. He got down eventually, I don't know how. I don't care. I got him out of my shadow.
I lived awhile longer, and I was a little more careful for awhile. I stayed in on Halloween anyway after that. But it didn't save me. I was still on the fence. Just enough good, just enough wrong. Voice of an angel, hands of a devil. Go on and laugh. You're the one walking the road now.
I died--well, it's not important when. It was of natural causes, and you can decide what natural means to you, I guess. The fact is, there was nowhere to go. One place didn't accept me...and the other place wanted me and wouldn't do it either. He was there, and he had plenty to say, the guy I'd left in the tree. He sent me off with this and told me I knew where to go. At least he had words for me. And this.
The light. Yeah, the light. It's a...token of his appreciation, for finding a way around. I gotta tell you, walking the road is better than shoveling what's in the pumpkin, friend. Walk carefully. A little eternal light goes a long way.
You ever see this pumpkin in the road, this or any other, don't pick it up. Get off the fence. Believe.
Here's a break in the woods, here. Truth is, our time is up. I'm lookin' forward to puttin' this thing down one eve and walking the rest of the way. But you go on. You fuck up, I'll see you again. You can have this route. I'm winding down. But I'm not all that lost.
Go on, before my light's the only one you see.