By M.J. Downing
Denny Crandell, my classmate Robbie’s odd fraternal twin, showed up at my door on Duncan Avenue after six o’clock one evening just before Halloween, 1968. My friend Tim Rogers and I had been listening to WAKY on my transistor radio and reading comics in my room when the doorbell rang, and Dad, who’s turn it was to do dishes, called out,
“Get that, Andy boy!” and I ran to comply, heaving open the storm door. In the half light of dusk I almost missed him, because he stood back to the left side of the door, with his back to the wall of the house. A dry wind was blowing, had been for most of the day, like a storm was coming. I looked forward to being out in it in a while to walk Tim home on the chance of seeing my girlfriend Buffy, who was working on a project with Tim’s sister, Robyn.
“Baddaddy, badpunkin,” came his scratchy voice from my immediate left, shattering my brief reverie about Buffy, and I jumped, knocking the screen door open so that it sprang back and smacked me in the funny bone.
“Well, hey Denny,” I mumbled, rubbing my elbow, but he said nothing else, though it looked like he wanted to. His eyes darted all around, and his mouth worked fast, but nothing came out.
Denny was nowhere near the height of his twin Robbie, who stood at least five feet ten. Denny was the size of a small first grader and had been since I’d met him when he and Robbie started at St. Michael’s in the first grade with me. Denny was never in our class, though, and when he got to school with Robbie, he hopped on a short bus and went to a place for special kids.
Then, as now, he wore a tiny, blue ball cap with a bill that was too big, blue jeans, brown shoes, and a red denim jacket, buttoned to his neck. I could never remember seeing him in another outfit. The bill on his cap kept you from seeing his weak eyes and pointy nose, which made him look rather mole-like, I thought. He carried an old, plastic shoulder bag with “Pony Express” stenciled above the fading picture of a cowboy on horseback. That, he clutched to his chest, now, like a shield.
Denny kept to himself, mostly, and hardly ever said anything to anyone, even Robbie, and when he did speak, he’d give you a turn that’d make you jump, like I had, because his voice was odd and gravelly, and made him sound like an old man. I always thought he sounded like the Mayor of Munchkin Land, from The Wizard of Oz movie, and anything from that movie gave me the willies, bringing back memories of evil flying monkeys: something that sounds cute, in theory, but in reality is deadly if you think about it.
But, I’d gotten used to Denny, for the most part, though his look and incongruous voice freaked people out. Even my girlfriend Buffy, a champion of the downtrodden and budding scientist, looked at Denny askance when she had occasion to see him, like she was trying to work out what had gone wrong in his DNA or something, but she’s just intelligent and thinks like that. She’d never call him “mole-boy” or “retard” like the Ferris boys did, who lived near the Crandells off of Dil Road.
“Denny? What’re you doin’ here?” I asked, looking around for Robbie or his oldest brother, Tecter. That dry wind picked up leaves and swirled them up on the porch, making Denny jump. Either of them would usually have been at Denny’s side, I figured, but I only thought I saw someone out by the tall round hedges on either side of our front walk. Robbie or Tec would have come in. They were often around, with me or talking to my Dad.
“Badpunkindaddybad!” Denny repeated in more insistent tones, making little jumps up and down, in his agitation.
“Okay, buddy, okay,” I said, turning to him. Tim came to the door, blocking the light from the living room lamps, and I called to him to flick on the porch light. When he did, I saw that Denny’s face was paler than normal and that beads of sweat stood out on his forehead, and it was about fifty degrees out.
“Did you run here, buddy?” I asked. He nodded ‘yes’ but wouldn’t look me in the eye. He kept whispering his weird little phrase, “punkindaddybaddaddy,”
“Who came with you?” I added, and he pointed out to the hedges. There, with the porch light on, I saw a guy standing there, taller than me and painfully thin, a black kid in a jeans and a dark blue Roosevelt High sweatshirt several sizes too big for him though short in the sleeves.
“That’s Earl Mitchell!” Tim added, his deep voice sounding too big for my small house to hold. “Hey, buddy! It’s Tim Rogers, from school.”
Earl squinted at us as he came up the walk, studying me and half smiling at Tim. Hands in his pockets, he shivered as he came. I stuck out my hand to him, and Tim did the introductions.
“Earl Mitchell, this is my best friend, Andy McKinney. He’s Buffy’s boyfriend. Andy, Earl just transferred in to Roosevelt, the newest member of the Advanced Class.”
“Yeah,” Earl said in a soft voice. “They needed a black kid.”
“One with the highest PSAT scores in the county, though,” Tim added in tones of respect. Tim, Buffy, and Tim’s sister Robyn were all in the big A, the Advanced Class, but I wasn’t. I was a poor test taker, over thinking everything, though I had become a keen reader. Earl smiled at the compliment and gave Tim a salute and a grin.
“Yeah. I’m good at tests,” he said.
“And well read enough to join Mrs. Sudduth’s class on Bleak House that we wanted to get you into, Andy,” Tim said. They, being Buffy, mostly, hadn’t been able to convince the system that I was worth the investment.“Do you live in this neighborhood now? I live down on Clark,” Tim added.
“Live on Dil, down the street from that little guy,” Earl said, pointing to the porch where Denny had sat down on the top step, his short arms hugging his knees. He rocked back and forth, as though to comfort himself. “I was out walking, looking for whoever had just smashed another one of our jack o’lanterns and saw him running down the middle of Dil Road, saying something about pumpkins and dads. He’d come down that big hill, scared to death. Only thing I could get from him was that he needed to find Andy, so I followed him here. I was worried about him. Seemed like the right thing to do. You don’t mind, do you?” he asked, staring hard into my eyes.
“Not a bit, Earl. Good to meet you. Why would I mind?” I asked, looking him in the eye.
“In case you haven’t noticed, I am the black kid, the only one around here. Some folks haven’t adjusted to me and Mom living here, after this past summer and the riots and stuff. Like, we’ve had all our own pumpkins smashed on our porch every time we put one out, and it’s two days until Halloween,” Earl said. “I was getting tired of it.”
I knew not to doubt him. People out here in the suburbs were afraid that the riots of late last spring would spread, and, back then, I heard racist talk really ramp up, all around me, which had surprised me. With no black families living nearby, I had thought that most of my neighbors were not racists. though I listened more to my Dad, my Grandpa George, my boss, Mike French, all wise and good men. But the riots happened in May, after Dr. King’s assassination in April. Earl was right, I thought, to look for the source of the trouble.
An uneasy feeling settled in my gut, then. Thoughts of jack o’lanterns and my Grandpa, particularly began to stir. Hadn’t he told me scary Irish stories about beings called ‘jack of the lantern,’ like malevolent will o’the wisps, leading people to their dooms? I shook my head to clear the thoughts and turned back to Earl.
“Those were scary times,” I said, recalling, then, the fear I’d experienced at my Dad, a fireman, being deployed at the temporary riot headquarters of the Fire Department. He’d been there three days and nights all told, and Buffy, Tim, and I had been through and even scarier time with the only other Black kid at Roosevelt, Harper Maxwell, but that is another story. “I just hope that things change now and that everybody gets treated equally, like they oughta be.” I meant it, too, but Earl said nothing back to me, only nodded his head.
“Earl,” Tim asked, “did you ever hear Denny, there, say anything else?”
“No. All I could hear clearly was something about pumpkins and dads, like I said. The only other thing I could get out of him was that he had to find Andy, and to tell the truth, I’d heard about some of the things some guy named Andy had done around here, and, well, I wanted to meet him, so I came along with that little guy. I wondered, at first, if his daddy was the one taking our jack o’lanterns.”
“No, Denny and his twin Robbie’s dad isn’t around anymore,” I said. “But Robbie’s not like Denny, small, and, well, different.”
“Yeah, I wondered if he wasn’t a victim of hypoxia, some intrauterine growth restriction thing,” Earl said, and I looked at him afresh. He wasn’t just a good test taker.
“Like I said, Andy, he’s is genuine Advanced Class material,” Tim said with a laugh.
“What? I’m just fascinated by medical science!” Earl protested with a grin.
I turned and walked back to Denny, and asked him, “What do you need me to do, Denny?”
He gave me his weird little grin, shot up fast, and grabbed my hand and began to pull me out the sidewalk toward the street. I stopped him and made him stand there, while I dashed back into the house and pulled on my a heavy, black sweater and grabbed an old jacket that had been my cousin Larry’s. It was always too long in the sleeve for me, though I had begun to fill out the shoulders, from the training I did with Mike French, a former boxer. I grabbed Tim’s jacket, too, and called out,
“Gonna be out for a while, Dad, walking Tim home and knocking around for a bit, okay?”
“Your homework finished?”
“Yessir,” I said, hanging on the door frame, ready to bolt.
“Home by ten, boy!” he added, and I called back a “yessir!” as I headed out to join the guys, already out on Duncan, going to see what strange little Denny wanted. Denny tugged at Earl’s hand, crying, “daddypunkinbad!” until I ran out to join them, and he took my hand and took up the cry again. We walked down into the darkness at the end of my street, leaving the street lights on Ridge Road behind us. Denny’s hand shivered in mine.
“Don’t worry, Denny. We’re coming to see about daddy pumpkin dad. You just show us, okay?” I asked him, as I handed the spare jacket to Earl.
“You looked cold,” I said, and Earl shrugged the jacket on, which was loose on his thin frame, but it gave him the arm length he needed, and he nodded and said,
“Thanks. I’ll get it back to you later.”
“No rush. It was my cousin’s, and it doesn’t fit me,” I said, as we neared the weedy patch at the end of my street, where the darker line of the the creek lay in front of us. Across that creek stood, on its own small hill, the Spenser house, which I knew to be well and truly haunted. I’d been involved in some serious business there a year or more before, and it was a scary thing, thought it that had cemented my relationship to Buffy, again, another story. But that haunted house wasn’t as scary to me anymore. If Denny led me there, I wasn’t worried about it, though I could not imagine why he’d want to, not Denny. Not him nor his big brothers, Tecter and Robbie would be caught dead there. They knew my story well.
As we skirted by it and came out of the narrow path onto Dil Road, just beside the old wooden bridge that ran over the gurgling creek below, Earl pointed to a house on the opposite side of the street, where I could see the remains of a pumpkin smashed on the three steps leading to the door of the camel backed shotgun house. That house was lit well, now and had just been painted, which was a real change from the drab look it always had before.
Earl said, “That’s my house. The people we bought it from say that old place on the hill back there is haunted. The way it goes around here, is that you are the guy to ask about that, Andy,” Earl said, “though I don’t believe in hauntings and such.”
Denny’s tugging had turned in jumping lunges, pulling at my hand.
“It is haunted,” I said, distracted by the little guy, “in ways you can’t imagine.”
“I have to say, that Andy’s right about that, Earl, though I would not usually admit to believing in ghosts. See…”
I lost track of what Tim was saying, because Denny was panting and pointing up the hill, deeper into the dark. He was terrified of something, and when I bent low to try and catch his whispered words, I heard him repeat over and over, “Daddybadpunkin,” to the point where it was all jumbled together, sounding like, “badaddypunkindadbadaddypunkin.” I had never seen him like this, completely afraid. I’d seen him run from tormentors in fear, like the Ferris boys, but he’d run to Robbie or Tecter, and he’d never have to run far.
“Where are Robbie and Tecter?” I demanded from him, fear welling up inside me, with images from Grandpa’s story of evil jack of the lanterns flashing through it.
“Are those his brothers?” Earl asked.
“Yeah,” Tim answered.
“Maybe they went looking for their Dad, all of them, and the other two got into trouble,” Earl said. “I used to think I heard my Daddy’s voice outside, and I’d run out to find him, though he died in a rice paddy when I was little.”
“Tec and Robbie always take care of Denny, but they don’t share a father. Tecter’s father was some kind of cowboy or something,” I said trying to control my fear, and picking up my pace. The Crandells lived closer to Ridge Road, on a little side street, but Denny was taking us farther into the dark, away from the lights, up a hill. I had never been that far along Dil Road, except on shoe repair deliveries, and those were in broad daylight. I didn’t know where I might be going, and I began to shiver, like Denny.
I jogged along with him, leaving Earl and Tim behind me a few steps. Denny panted hard, trying to keep up with me, so I picked him up on instinct and ran harder up the hill. He didn’t protest at my carrying him, though I’d seen him squirm and wriggle to escape Tecter’s arms. Now, he just pointed up the hill, and I ran harder, because something was wrong, something had happened or was about to happen, somewhere, to his brothers, and Denny, without the company of his brothers, was farther from home than he should be. Jack o’lanterns and bad daddies grew together in my thoughts about dangerous beings that were abroad in dark places, luring people away, luring children away, though Denny had not been fooled by any will o‘the wisp creature, and he, too, was aware that, in the matter of hauntings, I was the guy to look for. That was not a pleasant thought.
Tim called to me to wait, but I ignored him, and I heard his heavy feet start pounding along toward me, though I was faster, even carrying Denny. And after we crested the hill, Denny pointed off to my left, into a dark growth of shrubs and volunteer trees. From the road, it looked like a scrub woods that grows up in a vacant place, but I could dimly see the line of a low roof back behind the growth, a place where dark things could gather and maybe grow. Denny squirmed, then, to get down, and when I put him on his feet, he ducked under an overhanging branch and disappeared into the dark.
On hands and knees, I went in after him, brambles tearing at my hair and clothing and scratching my face, but I pushed on, and found pretty soon that leaf mold, dirt, and tangled roots gave way to old, cracked concrete under my hands and knees. It was a sidewalk, overgrown with grass, and above and on either side of me, there stood a lattice work arbor, gray with age and overgrown with vines that had long since died. And the lattice work itself wasn’t all criss-crossed like usual: it had rows of star shapes and upside down crosses. The sight of those made me gasp, but I pushed on past them.
The dry October wind, heralding a storm, rattled everything around me, and I could not see Denny anywhere in the dark ahead of me, so I crawled on, down that serpentine walkway, into the deeper dark, pushing through or under bushes that overhung the walk. And I began to hear a humming sound, like something electrical ran near me. It was the sort of sound that you only notice, usually, when it is gone, like the sound of the refrigerator in your kitchen when the power comes back on, except this sound came from a place that didn’t look like any appliance would be found there. It was a small, low built house, and I had put my hand on the ancient wood of its bottom step.
When I did, a high pitched, irregular whining noise started. That, or I was finally near enough to hear it. And in that sound, below it, I heard a groan of fear and pain.
“Denny!” I called, and in a second, he was there with me, shivering, panting. He had come from the deep shadows of the broad wooden porch, pointing forward, into a deeper darkness yet.
“B,b,b,b,bad daddypunkinbad ,” he whispered, his other tiny hand shaking and holding onto my sleeve.
When I tried to stand up on the porch, its wood gave way beneath my one hundred and fifty pounds, and I was forced back onto hands and knees, crawling towards the door. I could barely make it out. The groaning, though, I could hear better, and the irregular humming and whining grew clearer.
“What is that sound, Denny?” I asked the tiny guy shivering at my side, and, seeing his face, I said with him, “Baddaddypunkin. Yeah, I get it.”
My only thought was to go forward, for the groans were from someone, probably Robbie or Tecter, and I could not just turn and leave. For one reason, I knew that I’d have to leave Denny there. He had sought me out to help him, so I knew that I had to do something. Someone did, and Denny had chosen me. I thought that I had better ask Tim or Earl to go back to my house and get my Dad or go to Earl’s house and call the cops, but Denny pulled at me to go on, so I did. I crawled through an open doorway, tested its floor and stood up.
There must have been massive holes in the roof which I could not see, for the dry wind whistled down at me, seeming to blow harder and add its howling to the whining sound and the irregular hum. Piles of dry leaves crunched below my feet as I crossed that floor holding Denny’s shaking hand. And I saw the first flicker of light, below me, in what had been the back of the house. Its floor had long ago fallen away, and below it was a cellar. It was lit around two figures I knew well: Robbie and Tecter Crandell were each splayed against opposite sides of the cellar walls, their limbs pinioned against cold stone by tendrils of flashing light that flickered all over them, like tiny cords of lightning. Only Tecter, the older and stronger of the two made noises. His were the groans I had heard, for his head rolled from side to side, always being forced to look up, though he fought it. Robbie had succumbed, and though his body hung loose in the flickering chains, his head stared up, eyes open but empty.
The apparition was above him, above them both, and though I’d seen apparitions, ghosts of several kind, some helpful, some malevolent, many just pitiful, I’d never seen anything like the thing that floated, glowing in the air where the ceiling should have been. Though it looked diaphanous, ghostly, its waving tendrils were connected to the bonds of lightning that held Robbie and Tecter like chains of steel.And those bonds, I knew, were drawing the life out of each of them. And at its center was a round, glowing orb that looked for all the world like a jack o’lantern: it had a mockery of a human face, that swirled and changed shape, though regular vertical lines creased it and helped it change shapes. Its eyes burned with a lurid light, and when they turned on me, I froze to the spot, as though it had nailed me to the floor.
Those wispy tendrils came towards me, and the whining hum rose in intensity as the buzzing, zapping tendrils caressed my face with mild static-like shocks. The Jack o’lantern’s face began to shift, and I cried out in pain as the shocks went deeper into my head, and I knew it was searching for a face that would make me succumb to its power. It drew on my energy, feeding off of me as it did Robbie and Tecter. It wanted my fear, my longing, my hopelessness, searching my every thought for a face that was fatal to me. It tried my dim memories of my own mother, dead when I was four, and I fought it off, managing to yell,
“No! You are not her! You have no love!”
So it shifted to other faces I loved, Dad’s, Grandpa George’s and Grandma Lee’s, my sisters, Mary and Gracie’s, and it locked on to Buffy’s face and saw its advantage. Somehow, it saw that I was connected to her in a way like no one else in my life, knew that I couldn’t deny her, and it sent its zapping charges deeper into my head, my body, drawing on every yearning I had for her. I dropped to my knees, growing angry and shouting “No! No! NO!”
Denny clung to my arm on the right, urging me to see it. “Baddaddypunkinbadbadbad!” his weird munchkin voice shouted into my ear. He could see it for what it was. It had no way to touch him. His simple childlike faith that I could help him touched me more deeply that the jack o’lanterns life-sucking tendrils could. So, I fought back and found that, with an act of sheer will, I could fight it, stop it from drawing on my energy, my strength. It was mine, and though I wished with all my heart to always share it with Buffy, she would never take it by force, any more than I would her.
I tore my eyes away from it, and saw that Robbie and Tecter, it had let go. They had each dropped into the dark of the cellar. The Jack had me. And I fought it, denying it with my will. I forced against it and saw its true face: a jaggedly, poorly carved pumpkin, indeed, cracked and rotten, as though it had first been smashed before it was taken up and held together by the lurid light within it. It was a desperate and weak thing that sucked life from those it could daunt with its semblance of a face pulled from memory, the one face they’d do anything to see again. Again, I had the experience of seeing something scary and realizing that it was pitiful. What strength it had, it abused, though at its heart, it was a weak thing, living on despair.
“Andy!” Tim yelled behind, and I heard the boards of the porch give way under his weight, though Earl’s voice came from nearer me, over my shoulder, and he said.
“Great Lord Jesus!” as his hands fell onto my shoulders. “That looks like the first pumpkin we carved!”
“Do not look at it!” I yelled, forcing myself to see the ensorcelled piece of plant tissue that had been taken over by a cruel spirit, a dark thing that had, perhaps, been given life by the racist hatred of an angry person’s act, for all acts of anger awaken other darker things that lie in wait for a chance to hurt. “Down there. Robbie and Tecter. Get them out of here while I hold this thing!”
With his and Denny’s help, I climbed back to my feet, heard Tim and Earl drop into the cellar and start rousing my friends, while I stared at the thing that hated me, feared me, and wanted to feed off of me. The static charges zapped and hurt me, but I would not let my energy go into its yawning emptiness. My energy, my force, my will, my love were mine to share, but to share it with this dark thing would only allow it to continue hurting people. I realized, then, that some energies will not feed evil. With and act of will, I looked into its snarling face, and told it,
“You must go and never return. These people are not your food. I’m sorry for the torment that drives you, that makes you hide in the darkness. I don’t know how or why you came to be, but you must go on, leave here. I make no effort to destroy you, and, beyond that, with God as my witness, I forgive you. Go.”
My words made it rail at me, its gash of a mouth opening and closing, its red eyes now slits of fire. Other cracks lit its inhuman face, and its eyes opened wide, looking everywhere but at me. I had no wish to look at itself, as I had forced it to do.
“Look at me,” I commanded it. “You are forgiven.”
And at the repetition of that kind, sweet word, the static shocks left me, and that being tore away from me, leaving me reeling on my feet, as it hurled its force at the nearest wall, smashing itself into tiny bits and taking down some of the old plaster and lath. It was gone, and I sat back down on my haunches, and Denny wrapped his tiny arms around my neck. He was shaking and breathing hard, but he’d stopped his whispered chatter. His simple heart had seen it for what it was, had seen his brothers drawn away by the face of a much yearned for father, though it was a different face for each.
Tecter had to half carry Robbie home, and the three of them stumbled along in front of me and Tim and Earl. I wasn’t in a hurry. I was tired, but I had a good hour or more yet to go before I had to be home. With any luck, I’d be able to spend it walking Buffy home, and that would be more than good enough for me. Her face was one I longed to see the most.
At Earl’s front door we all stopped and watched our stricken friends walk on to their rest. And, before he turned and went inside, Earl said,
“Brothers. We can’t do without brothers, you know? I’m glad I found some. See you tomorrow?”
“Yep. Come to my house in the morning and catch a lift with us, okay?” I said, with Tim nodding beside me. “We gotta stick together.”
Later, as I walked her home, that dry October wind lifting her golden bangs from her forehead and making her shiver, I told her what had happened. Buffy was a little disappointed that she’d been denied an opportunity to see a real Jack o’lantern, but each time we passed one, its features burning in the dark of front porches, she looked more closely and began to talk about the lives of the people who carved them. Homes where sadness had been the daily fare, where someone has passed on, leaving a gap in a family, where people were trapped in bad or sad relationships, all homes where the Jack o’lantern burned in its loneliness.
“You know, I think I’m better off just hearing about this one, Andy,” she said at last. “‘Cause it sounds good in theory, but when you think about it, it sounds really awful.”
“Yeah,” I said holding her to me, “like flying monkeys.”
She stopped and looked at me. “You are so weird,” but she kissed me, just the same.
One again your writing amazes me! Great read!