Jack loved Halloween. It was his favorite time of year. He was fast approaching 50 and what scared him more than death itself, was the fact that even under the best of circumstances, he would only be able to celebrate a maximum of fifty more Halloween seasons in his lifetime. It was a far more harrowing thought than being worm food.
He worked the Night Shift at a metal fabrication plant in Allentown, PA. You know the place. The one made famous by the Billy Joel song; Blue collar all the way. He was only the second generation American-born in his family. His grandparents had migrated from Lithuania and Poland, most likely through Ellis Island, and definitely had been trying to escape some sort of persecution. They had told him many a haunting story from the “Old Country”, but Jack had never been scared of ghosts. As a kid his elderly Mom-Mom had tried to keep him from going out at night, by telling of an old witch that would gather up mischievous kids in a bag, and cook them up in a stew for disobeying their elders. Boy if she could only see him now, “Mr. Night Owl”. He was smart enough to see those tall tales for what they really were; cautionary.
Sure, he believed in strange and inexplicable things happening, all right, but he didn’t believe in a lot of the old superstitions, and furthermore he thought that if there were actually ghosts, they were just people trying to escape some past horror in their life; Their intention wasn’t to cause harm, but rather to seek assistance. Well, tonight everything he believed prior was about to change.
It was October 30, or All Hallow’s Eve, Eve. Jack was a simple man, and a single one at that. He didn’t mind working late nights or even holidays for that matter. His parents were deceased, and he had never planned on having kids. If he wanted to “dip his wick”, sort of speak, there was always some half toothless women, down on their luck, looking for a fling in the hay, cruising at the local beer gardens. Around here those places pretty much stayed open around the clock, except for the witching hours, when he was at work anyway.
The company, GDP Enterprises, had made its bread and butter designing rear wheel transaxles for the Delorean cars in the early 80s. Jack always remembered the single solitary time John Z. Delorean had visited the plant for a tour. The only times with more fanfare, that he could remember, had been when the Pope, himself, or Lech Walesa had visited towns nearby. Jack didn’t know how, but the company managed to stay open long after the downfall of Delorean. Probably because they paid shit wages, and had a very limited, and very specialized, crew of automotive engineers. Either that, or it was a front for money laundering. Either way, in these parts, factory owners weren’t interested in outsourcing labor to China. He didn’t really care. After all, he was a simple man, and his meager white-paneled 4-room house had been paid off, by his now dead parents, long ago. As long as the Yeunglings and the Rolling Rocks remained affordable, and the Eagles made it to the playoffs once in a while, things would be fine.
Jack had volunteered for the Night Shift as soon as a position had opened up. Being mostly an introvert, he enjoyed the thought of making money while the rest of the world slept. He liked knowing that when everyone else was running the rat race of rush hour, and tuning in to traffic jam news, that that was his free time. When he would wind down for the night with a few beers in the early morning sun, he would laugh to himself thinking of the people who were just starting their robotic day’s work. Life was good, indeed.
Of course it took him a while to swap around his Circadian rhythm cycle, but that was nothing some jet black curtains and a powerful fan couldn’t cure. In the winter months he would fall asleep to recordings of ocean waves or rain. Eventually he found that his body was much more suited to being awake at night and sleeping during the day. His imagination was healthy and sometimes he pretended with the white noise, that he was a stowaway on a transcontinental jetliner or in the belly of a pirate ship. Other times he pretended to be a vampire, or a reincarnated Mongol born in the wrong time zone. Either way, all these things suited him fine, and for the most part he slept like a rock.
He loved everything about the Halloween season. Although his name was technically Jonathan, he had always went by Jack. Between jack-o-lanterns and Jack Skellington, it felt right for him to associate with his favorite autumnal time of year. Tonight he wouldn’t be able to celebrate, but he did have the night after Halloween off, and he could make up for it then. He had absolutely fallen in love with the thought that the celebration cut across so many countries and cultures. It went by many different names, like Day of the Dead, Halloween, or Samhain, but it was the one time of year the dead could intermingle with the living.
His position as a Supervisor was mainly in title, and really all he had to do was make sure no shut downs or major accidents happened on his shift. If the machines were running normal, like they did over 90% of the time, his position became largely ceremonial.
Anna Jiompkowski, a pretty neighbor who had been sweet on him, had made him some homemade potatoe pierogis. He decided to eat them cold, rather than turn them into rubber with the break room’s microwave. They were equally as delicious. Just before 3am, “eternal” as he called it, he finished up the heel of a poppyseed roll —there was no need to worry about random drug tests with his tenure at the company— as he stared out the same window he had thousands of times before.
He had always seen the pumpkin patch that grew, seasonally, less then fifty yards out his window, and he always knew that the St. John The Baptist Catholic Cemetery was just a few dozen more yards away past that. But never, had he ever, until now that is, seen any shadows walking upright, out there at this time of night. Maybe the shadows, or his mind, were just playing tricks on him.
He swung his feet down onto the floor, from their resting position on his built-in workbench which faced the window, nearly knocking himself off balance from the high steel swivel chair he was perched on. The black dented lunchbox, handed down to him from his grandfather, hit the ground with a thud. Luckily it had repeated that same feat multiple times over the decades, and other than a few more paint chips, was left largely unscathed.
After calling in a check-in over the walkie to Reed Hunt, the other Graveyard Shift foreman who was in charge of the Westside hangar complex of the factory, he scooped up his trusty Maglite and made his way outside.
A few minutes after he had crept into the night, Jack didn’t realize just how far he was from the exit door that’d slammed shut behind him, as it had been designed to do. He would have to use his keycard to get back in. The shadows seemed to keep appearing and reappearing just on the horizon off his visible sightline, or just on the edges of his peripheral vision. Every time, he walked a few more feet, it was hard for him to know if he was imagining it or not, and by the time he turned around the factory building had grown much smaller in scale. By his calculations he was halfway to the cemetery by now. An ominous cloud internally lit up with a lightning bolt, like the flicker of a candle, but the thunderclap never came.
Jack skittishly skulked forwarded, the edge of the beam of his flashlight disappeared into the bank of dark grey clouds that hung above him. The smell in the air was odd, and one he had never experienced before. Of course there was the familiar sour smell of his own sweat, but also a sweet one too… maybe nutmeg or cinnamon. He could practically taste the metallic atoms in the air from the ionized rain clouds, and there was also a fresh fragrance of foliage, almost like newly cut grass. Whatever the smells were coming from, they weren’t entirely unpleasant, and actually a bit intoxicating. He was surprised to notice the pumpkins came out this far, as he never saw anyone plant, nor care, for them. “They must have been Wild, with a capital W”, he mused in his mind.
Jack finally reached the wrought-iron gate of the cemetery. The church it had been attached to only had one room, was dilapidated, and what long since been abandoned. The few headstones that were left, were blackened from weathering and the buildup of dead moss, crumbled, and barely legible. The ones he had managed to read, during the daylight, had been from the late 1700s to early 1800s. He was not going near that church. Believer or not, that building gave him the creeps in the daytime, much less in the midnight hour. He was brave and loved the excitement and thrill of scaring himself, but not way out here, alone, and not on a night like tonight.
That little nugget of Explorer deep inside his brain, told him to just step inside the tiny gate, that had already been left opened. He always wondered why they were only knee high. Yes, people were shorter back then, but even they surely could have just stepped over it. He guessed they were largely decorative in nature, and the same lure of adventure that had brought his grandparents to the good ol’ US of A, made him step over and inside of the gate, onto, unbeknownst to him, very Hallowed ground.
When he did, he felt a swirling sensation enrapture him, like the wiles of a scantily clad Siren. The torch-like light he had carried fell to the ground, and sputtered out. Lightning lit up the sky, which now seemed so close, just above him, that he felt he could probably reach up and touch it. This time a loud bang of thunder accompanied it. The smells of spices became stronger, and he could feel himself loosing his balance, although he never fell. It was as if he was just floating, suspended in mid-air.
Next a voice whispered in his ear. He could feel the warmth of this Thing’s breath on his ear, but he knew it was no mere mortal personage of this world. The strong smell of baked pumpkin seeds filled his nostrils, and he could feel the warmth of candlelight near his face. “What is it you see?”, asked the ominous voice that echoed around inside the chambers of his skull. It was neither spoken, nor telepathic, but lay pouncing off the walls somewhere in the world’s in-between.
As he opened his eyes, as if from a trance, he stared at the pumpkin patch in front of him. The factory itself, seemed to be very small now, and appeared to be slowly shrinking as the disembodied voice spoke. Before him was a field of hundreds, if not thousands, of creatures of all shapes and sizes. They were pumpkins. But these pumpkins had carved faces on them, of every imaginable expression and design. They scurried about on long tendrils of vines, some running amok, while others slithered along the grounds dewy surface. Inside each were hollow, save for a candle that lit up the visages frozen on their faces. An overwhelming feeling crept up along Jack’s spine and filled his entire body with a warmth that was both foreboding and comforting. Somehow these things were not a threat, but his body’s intuitions were telling him that they very well could be.
‘What do you see?”, asked the voice again, but this time its timber was deeper, more hollow, and demanded an answer. Jack slowly turned towards the candle light brandished upon his face, to address the inter-dimensional creature. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t release between his silent breathes and the harsh pounding of his heart, deep inside the cavity of his chest.
Jack could see inside the hollowed out pumpkin of the Great Pumpkin King. Each of its features carved with the skill of a thousand surgeons. Tiny blade marks perforated every inch of its interior. Strands of pumpkin guts and burnt-edged seeds dangled from the inner walls of its head. It stood high on stilt legs fabricated out of knotty wood and wore the rags of an old farmer. It was as if it had been fashioned as a makeshift scarecrow, and somehow had been cursed into existence. The most intense and humbling thing of all, was the fire that burnt from the thick candle nub inside it. The light seemed to penetrate Jack to his very soul, and the deeper he became fixated on its glow, the more he could see the multitude of souls that had been reaped to keep its fire eternally alive. It drew him closer to the Being’s face, like a moth to flame. The King, asked for a last time, as Jack felt as if he was falling inward towards its flame, like an errant volcanologists into an eye of a deep pit of lava. All sensations and thoughts of the material world and his earthly existence had left Jack’s consciousness. Only the question remained.
“Life!”, shouted Jack from the very base of his being. “I see life!… And I want mine back right now!”. His body shuddered and heaved as if being pulled by invisible ropes in an intergalactic tug-of-war. “LIFE!!!!”
The noose-like rope dragging him closer to the Great Pumpkin King’s countenance let go and Jack landed with a thud back on the worn out mattress he had splayed out in his living room, in order to sleep comfortably during the day time, between shifts. A dozen or so empty beer bottles clanked, as he instinctively frog-kicked himself back into existence.
Jack lay half strewn out on the mattress and half sprawled out on the floor. A long line of drool dribbled down the side of his chin. The mailman kicked his check under the door. That meant two things: It was well past noon, and it was already the first of the month. November 1st, to be exact.
Jack didn’t know where the last 36 hours or so had gone. He didn’t remember finishing his last late night shift before Halloween, and he didn’t remember getting drunk. He slapped his face hard, a few times, to make sure this was all real, and not a dream.
Then as he rose to his feet, he realized he was still fully clothed with his flannel shirt, ripped jeans, and steel-toed work boots. He stood up, to regain his composure, and knocked the pounding cobwebs from his head. As he did, he heard an unmistakeable squishing sound as his feet hit the cheap linoleum floor. An expression of someone stepping in dog shit registered across his face, and as he turned over the soul of his boot to exam it, he saw a fresh patch of mud and a single long leafy vine of a pumpkin stalk.
The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, briefly filled the air, and Jack could of sworn he heard a voice inside his head state empirically “We shall meet again!”
The following Monday, Jack put in an immediate request to be transferred back over to the Day Shift.