Darkness had swallowed the day by the time Edwyn Herbert had finished, and a burnt odour lingered in the air.
Edwyn stood with the first in his arms, a cradled baby, and gazed out into the night. He sniffed the air and tasted it, like a dog. Halloween always had this flavour. An explosive excitement, ready to ignite. The realm of possibilities — dismissed under the summer Sun — now wrenched wide open.
He carried them out to his truck with great care and lay them in neat rows. Or as neat as he could manage — what with their different sizes and shapes. The first few he pushed to the back of the bed until they nestled against the rear of the cab. The last few he worried wouldn’t fit, but he managed to wedge them in behind the raised tailgate. They sat and stared at him with their myriad faces, from the stupid to the scary. None had been complex — Edwyn had learned that lesson his first year. Artistic flair doesn’t matter. That it gets done does. Don’t waste time on neatness or prettiness. Get the job done.
He took his bumper pack of tea candles — 400 in total — and his 15 or so different lighters, and got behind the wheel. A couple had those fancy bendy necks, so you didn’t scorch your fingers. Edwyn had once relied on one lighter, and it had burned him. In a figurative sense. It died after the third house, and he had to make a mad dash to the 24-hour store over in Eaken Valley.
Edwyn pulled his knitted hat down over his ears and started the engine. The truck’s twin headlights sliced through the crisp gloom, somehow enhanced by the chill in the air. He wore no gloves. They’d only get in the way, and — as much as he understood the importance of his work — he didn’t want to get a burn.
It didn’t take him long to find the first offender. He had a planned route — a route he’d stuck to for the past seven years. He’d charted it with a scholastic eye. Not a single house in Montestra Grove went unvisited. He supposed he’d have to adjust, once those developers built on that land they’d purchased up by the old church. If they ever got around to it. But in the meantime, Edwyn stuck to the tried and true order of roads.
Edwyn drove past the home and killed the truck’s lights. A lone house on the outskirts of town — it used to be a farm before the profitability of such a venture died a grim death. He shook his head. They lived out here by themselves and had no protection. Who dared to laugh in the face of danger in such a brazen manner? He parked about 100 metres or so away, and got out. He shut the door with a gentle push. He kept his eyes on the building — a five-bedroom affair with a garage — as he rounded the side of the truck. Lights on downstairs, the upstairs lay in shadow. Whoever lived there hadn’t gone to sleep yet — why would they have? Halloween night still had a few hours left.
Sure, he could wait until people had gone to sleep so that he wouldn’t get caught. Amazing, in Edwyn’s opinion, how few people appreciated his efforts, almost as if they didn’t want help. But if people wouldn’t look out for themselves, you had to do it for them. Part of being a human being, part of being a member of society. But to leave it until later on would allow a certain element of risk into the equation. Leave it too late, and the witching hour would fast approach. Plus, not everyone went to sleep at the same time. On Halloween, some stayed up until the small hours.
No, best do it now whilst midnight remained a while away. It gave him ample time to visit every home in town, like some out of season Santa Claus. He pocketed two of the lighters, a handful of the tea lights, and hoisted one from the rear of the truck bed. It had a crooked smile — didn’t they all? — and two mismatched eyes. As if it had a raised eyebrow, in a sceptical question.
Edwyn crept up to the house’s porch, footsteps light on the pavement. He crouched as he passed the front garden. This close to the window, the lights from within flickered and danced. Television. A movie. Some horror flick with a damsel in distress and a muscular hero. Bass booms and thuds punctuated the musical score. Jump scares and tension payoffs.
He didn’t climb up onto the porch — his heavy footsteps would be a dead giveaway. Instead, he leaned through the rail, knees in the grass. He placed his present on the wooden slats and pulled the top of its head off. He dropped the handful of tea lights and lit them with his lighter.
The face of the jack-o’-lantern flared into life, features aflame.
Edwyn grinned back at his creation — it’s alive! — and placed its skull back on. At an angle, so that the smoke could escape and fire wouldn’t break out. He’d once almost burned down someone’s home, one dry autumn a couple of years back. That had not been a good Halloween indeed. After a moment’s admiration, he fled for his truck. It wouldn’t do to linger and risk capture. To spend the night in a cell for peeping would mean his duties would go unfinished. And who would protect Montestra from the evil spirits then?
The neighbourhood got denser from here on out. Edwyn would have to be careful of watchful eyes through lounge blinds. But, on the flip side, lots of kids and teenagers would be out. They made for a great cover. And the homeowners would be less trigger happy with phone calls to the police on such a festive night. Kids, after all, would be kids.
He parked behind a silver hatchback and a black people carrier. Edwyn understood the importance of camouflage. He got out and surveyed the street, one hand on the roof of his truck. A couple of pumpkins, here and there. His fingers tapped the rhythm to This Is Halloween. But most homes had none. Edwyn sighed and pulled a jack-o’-lantern from the bed. Time to get to work.
The houses here in town had no porches, so he’d have to set them on the paths or driveways. But as long as each home had one guardian, all would be well. The spirits feared the power of the pumpkin, no matter its placement.
The first home he went up to lay in complete shadow — no lights, decorations, or anything. Could be an empty shell, with no one inside. But why take the risk? Edwyn stole up the driveway and placed the pumpkin on the front step. The wide eyes of the face seemed owlish and surprised. Edwyn lit the candles then made a break for it.
He hesitated for a moment as a pack of kids walked past. He leaned against the side of his truck and tried to obscure the view of the bed full of pumpkins. People tended to look at you weird with this many carved jack-o’-lanterns. Only the farmer between here and Eaken Valley — from whom he bought the pumpkins — didn’t seem to judge. And Edwyn understood his annual mass-purchases had something to do with that.
A skeleton, a wolfman, and a vampire passed him, bags and buckets of sweets in hand. They chatted and laughed, pushed one another and giggled. Their loud voices rang down the street, boisterous and unconcerned with opinions. How he envied them. Edwyn nodded and said, “Happy Halloween.”
They didn’t respond.
Once they’d gone out of earshot, Edwyn resumed his duties. He plucked a fat one with triangle eyes — one of his favourites — and tucked it under his arm. He headed for a home on the other side of the road. Horror-themed decorations hung from the gutters. Skeletons and plastic bats. But not a single pumpkin in sight. No protection from the dark forces that tried to pierce through the veil as it thinned. It made him frown. Didn’t people know anything?
He made it halfway across the road when a commotion in the periphery of his vision caught his attention.
A blur of movement.
Hushed voices, filled to the brim with excitement.
A childish giggle.
A squeal of laughter.
A theatric whisper, loud enough for him to hear: “Go, go, go!”
A scuffle of footsteps, frantic against the tarmac.
He spun around and caught the briefest glimpse of a skeleton costume and a twirled cape. The skeleton boy turned, mask raised. He curled his hands around his mouth and yelled, high-pitched, mid-pubescent. “Happy Halloween!” He pulled his mask down and they disappeared into the tenebrosity of the night.
Right as the first of the firecrackers went off.
Edwyn screamed and dropped his pumpkin, which split as it hit the ground. It exploded across his feet, as the jack-o’-lanterns in the back of the bed exploded in a rain of fire. Rapid-fire pops and bangs, intermittent with flashes and orange disintegrations of flesh. He cringed away from the crackles, as every bad memory of high school swam to the surface of his mind. His emotions and his nerves thrummed. No longer did he feel like the man he’d become. No. Fifteen years old once more, the punchbag — verbal and physical — of the halls. He cupped his hands over his ears and scrunched his eyes shut, squatted down into a protective ball.
It seemed as though the machine gun fire went on for hours.
When it died down, Edwyn opened his eyes and blinked. He brought his hands down and with shaky steps, got to his feet. He looked around. Several blinds and curtains open. Scowls and frowns drilled into him. Glasslike and dead eyes. Emotionless. He knew what they thought. What’s this grown man doing, in the middle of our street? Why is he cowering like a stupid little baby? What’s wrong with him?
Of the carved pumpkins, about a fifth remained. Edwyn brought his clenched fist down against the truck’s tailgate. Tears brimmed his eyes, and he couldn’t quite catch his breath. His respiration came in hiccoughs, as he fought back the emotions. They stung the back of his throat like bile. He wanted to swear out loud but stopped himself. To curse on All Hallows’ Eve would not be sensible. And Edwyn treated this night — with its thin veil — with the respect it deserved.
To hell with this town.
He’d take his pumpkins and set them to guard his own home, instead. If they didn’t care for the tradition’s significance, did they even deserve the protection? You could only do so much for people. You could inform them, show them the evidence. You could even go out of your way to do things for them. But, at some point, you had to throw your hands up in the air and say to hell with it.
With both hands, he scooped the shredded guts of the jack-o’-lanterns out of the bed and onto the road. The mess slapped onto the tarmac with splats and splodges. The vegetable gore littered the road — entrails, seeds, and slime. Edwyn shrugged. Let them clean up their mess. The few pumpkins that remained contemplated him with their empty eyes. Did they regard him with sadness? Or disappointment? Or even with an air of I-told-you-so compassion? We knew it would come to this. But you had to learn for yourself, Edwyn. He slammed the tailgate back up and got into his truck. Only the two pumpkins and the ruination of jack-o’-lanterns told that he’d ever been into town. Well, that, and the tear tracks on his face.
Edwyn wiped the moisture from his cheeks and started the engine. His fingers smelled like the innards of a pumpkin. A smell that had always made him feel safe, secure. He rubbed his hands across the legs of his jeans, flicked the truck’s lights on, and pulled away.
Tonight, Montestra Grove could fend for itself.