Cover of Bloodstained Oz
Cover of Under the Overtree (Leisure Horror)
Halloween is upon us, and we have a treat for you. James A. Moore, author of such novels and novellas as Under the Overtree, Serenity Falls, Blood Red, Bloodstained Oz (with Christopher Golden), Fireworks, Deeper, Vendetta, and Subject Seven has written a Halloween story, just for you. “Harvest Gods, Revisited” is a brand new, never before published tale set in the same world as Moore’s novel, Harvest Moon and the short story, “Harvest Gods”, and has a distinctly E.C. Comics flavor, which makes it the perfect way to end this series and usher in the night.
And now, down with the lights, and up with the curtain, as we present to you, “Harvest Gods, Revisited”…
* * *
Harvest Gods, Revisited
By James A. Moore
Sometimes people are cruel. That lesson comes to everyone sooner or later, I suppose. It came to me when I was very young. It came to the boy down the road from me a few hours ago.
I watched, of course, because that’s what I do. One can hardly make judgments without a good reason, after all.
His name is Ray Larkin, and like all children, he lives for certain events. Ray was the boy who best loves Halloween.
Was. I suppose time will tell how he feels about the season in the future but just now, at this moment? Well, decide for yourself.
* * *
Ray settled into the classroom seat with barely bridled impatience. Lunch was done, and there were still two more classes to endure before freedom came his way. Two more classes before he could prepare for Halloween. Halloween on a weekday. It should be illegal as far as he was concerned.
At seven years of age, Halloween held a special place in Ray’s heart. Everything was scary, yes, but fun scary, not bad scary. There was a difference, as he’d learned a long time ago, when he was seven. When his dad died, Ray was too young to much understand what that meant, but in time he got to understand that part of what that meant was his mom was sad a lot of the time. Mom was a good woman, and a great mom. No two ways about that, but she sometimes waited until he was asleep—or thought he was—and crawled into her bed and cried for a long time before she fell asleep herself. He thought maybe he understood about her loneliness, but not as well as he thought he would someday. His Grammy and Grampy had told him that he would understand someday, but for now he just had to know she was missing her husband, his father.
And then his mom met Lawrence. Lawrence was a big man—well, relatively. Most men were big next to Ray, who was only nine, after all—with a nice suit he liked to wear and a smile that was warm and friendly as long as Mommy was around and not always as pleasant when she left the room. That was okay at first, because Lawrence made Mommy happier and she didn’t cry as much.
And then it wasn’t as okay. Then it became a problem, because Lawrence started coming around more and more often. And when Lawrence came around, Mommy smiled more and Ray started not being quite as important. He knew Mommy loved him. That wasn’t really it. More it was simply that she had to be shared with a man who didn’t know how to smile with his eyes and almost never smiled at all when he was alone with Ray. He’d tried to explain that to his Grammy once, but she shook her head and leaned in close so that no one else could hear, even though there was no one else in the house, and said “Your mommy needs to have Lawrence in her life, Raymond”—she always called him Raymond when it was time to discuss serious matters—“and she needs you to understand that. Lawrence is the key to your mommy being happy and we all want her to be happy, don’t we?”
Well, there was simply no arguing with that. So Ray left everything alone. He kept his peace and he swore to himself that he would do nothing to stop his mommy from being happy.
Lawrence was a nice man, really, but he was also too serious. He didn’t like to have fun. As a result, Mommy stopped liking fun, too. Or maybe that was one of those things he would understand when he was older, like why his mommy needed Lawrence in the first place.
Instead of going out to Chuck E. Cheese’s for dinner once or twice a week, they stayed home to eat. Instead of watching Disney movies on DVD once a week as a treat, Ray and his mother only watched them when Lawrence was out of town. He did some kind of work with cars. Most of the time he stayed in town and went to an office a few miles down the road and came home by five-thirty in the evening. But maybe every other month he left town for a couple of days and they got to watch new movies. It was always fun. Ray started living for those times, because Lawrence didn’t like the TV in, and when it was on, he always had it set for one of his news channels.
The news was boring, and mostly it made Lawrence go on and on about the liberals, and how they were trying to take over the world for the bleeding hearts. Ray wasn’t exactly sure what a liberal was, but he suspected it was something to do with the library. He started dreading the idea of going to the library, because the last thing he wanted to see was a man whose heart was dripping blood while he was trying to decide which book he wanted to read. He was getting very good at reading, because that was almost all that Lawrence ever wanted him to do. The only exception was that his mother was teaching him to play the piano. He maybe would have hated that, but it was a little fun and sometimes Mommy sang and she had a perfect voice for singing as far as Ray was concerned.
The thing was, come Halloween, Ray got his mother all to himself for a few hours. Lawrence didn’t like Halloween very much, either, but he allowed that Ray did and Mom insisted that she should take him out.
So, yes, Halloween was only hours away and he wanted it now.
Of course the hours crawled. But eventually they passed. Sometime later, much later according to Ray’s patience, he was allowed to run for home and get ready for trick or treating.
That was the plan, at least.
Ray took off from the school and made a beeline through the woods, heading for his neighborhood and planning to get home as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for Ray, the Beldam Woods were not always the nicest place to use as a short cut.
In very short order he was lost.
Within half an hour he was on the verge of tears, shivering in part because the weather was very cold and also because the woods were pretty darned scary at the best of times. The Beldam Woods were an ancient lot of trees, most of which had already been stripped of their leaves and all their colors. The trees were skeletal figures that loomed over his tiny body and creaked in the winds blowing from the north. There was a threat of winter weather come early and he knew that, too, because it was all they were talking about on the news the night before, and he’d have remembered it too, if he hadn’t been so determined to find the quickest way home for Halloween.
Seven years old, just the right age to forget all about things like safety until it’s exactly too late.
Ray wandered around and around, his feet kicking through the thick blanket of dried leaves as he got colder and colder. The air was dry, too, and he wanted something to drink. He also wanted to pee something fierce—that was one of Lawrence’s favorite terms, something fierce—but was afraid to get spotted breaking the rules. What if someone saw? What if someone told his mom? Trick or treating might get taken away and then what?
No. He had to hold it in. That was the only option.
Ray was on the verge of tears, cold and miserable and so desperate to go potty, when the stranger showed up. He was an old man, tall and lean and weathered. His skin was almost as wrinkly as the leaves on the ground and his hair, while long, was thin and wispy around his head.
He carried a small pumpkin in one hand, and walked with a cane. The old man looked at Ray for a moment, his face set in a dour expression of disapproval. Ray found himself desperate to disappear. If he could hide away, maybe the man would simply go away.
Instead the man continued to stare at him.
“Would you be ‘Raymond?’” the voice was as creaky as the trees and almost as cold as the air. Just hearing him speak was enough to make Ray shiver. Still, he was caught by the dichotomy of his mother’s rules: He was not to speak to strangers. He was also always supposed to be polite. The two orders did not work well together and Ray was forced to choose which to follow. He finally decided that since the man knew his name he must not be a complete stranger. There were several friends of his mother that he had met before when he was very, very young, and didn’t really remember. They always seemed to remember him and to be surprised that he had grown so much. Maybe then, the old man was one of those sorts. A non-stranger that he didn’t remember.
He answered, “Yes sir,” in a very small voice.
After another long moment of looking at him the man squatted until they were closer to the same height and looked Ray in the eyes. “Your mother is worried about you. You weren’t on the bus.”
“I tried to take a short cut.” He meant to explain more, but the tears started. A moment later he was crying like a little kid and the old man was suddenly holding him. He hugged hard, unable to stop the tears. And a few minutes later, all cried out, he looked on as the old man stood up.
“Come on then, Raymond. Let’s get you home to your mother.”
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” It was a little late to point that out, but it was one thing to talk and another to actually go somewhere with a stranger. His mother might be even angrier and as it was, Halloween trick or treating might be taken away from him.
“My name is Mister Sticks. Your name is Raymond. We are no longer strangers.” The old man shifted the pumpkin to his other hand for a moment and then changed his mind. “Here. You hold this for me, won’t you? And then I can lead you home.”
The gourd was nearly perfect. It was just the right size for Ray’s hands, and the skin was a bright orange that was the color he always looked for when he eyed the pumpkins at the market. The same color as the one he’d picked last week and they’d carved just last night.
He took the pumpkin and nodded his head seriously. This was, of course, a serious display of trust. Ray could have dropped the thing, and then where would they be?
“Why didn’t you take the bus, Raymond?”
“Because I wanted to get home sooner. I wanted to see my mommy.”
The old man looked at him with one eyebrow raised. “You don’t see your mother often?”
“I do, but today is special. I get her all to myself.”
The old man nodded. “I have to share my mother, too.”
“You do?” He tried to do the math. The man was very old; his mother must be even older. Ray couldn’t begin to imagine how old the lady in question might be.
“Oh, yes.” Mister Sticks nodded his head. “With my brothers.”
“I have to share my mommy with Lawrence.” He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness from his voice.
“Is Lawrence your brother?”
“No. I don’t have any brothers. He’s my mommy’s boyfriend.”
“You sound disappointed. Is it Lawrence that makes you sad? Or not having a brother?”
He had to think about that. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Charlie at school had a big brother and liked to talk about him all the time. Eric at school had a little brother and was always talking about what his little brother did that was funny. Lawrence was never funny.
Mister Sticks smiled then and nodded knowingly. “You’d rather have a brother than Lawrence.”
Ray laughed. It was all he could think of to do. The man was right, but not completely.
“Or maybe you’d like to have your father back and have a little brother.” Mister Sticks, who had been leading him through the woods very calmly, suddenly stopped moving and looked down at Ray again, his old, blue eyes staring hard. “Your mommy could be with her husband, and you could have a little brother, someone to show how to be a big boy. Am I right? Is that what you’d like?”
Ray looked around, suddenly feeling guilty, though he had done nothing to make him feel that way. Maybe it was just knowing that someone could so easily understand his desires, even when he couldn’t figure out how to say them himself.
Finally he nodded his head. Guilt or not, it was true and his mother told him he shouldn’t lie.
The old man nodded his head. “I could make that happen, you know. I could bring your daddy back for your mommy, and they could give you a little brother, maybe a little sister. And you could spend more time with your mommy, too. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. Yes I would.”
“What would you trade to have that, Raymond?” Mister Sticks was looking away again, like the answer didn’t really matter, but Ray wasn’t fooled. He knew the man was still listening. Ray was not silly or stupid or even a little slow. He knew exactly what was happening, even if he lacked the right words to fully understand and express it. This was a deal. He knew that, like when he traded his bologna sandwich to Deidre at lunch because Deirdre liked bologna more than she liked grilled cheese and grilled cheese was the best stuff ever as far as Ray was concerned.
“I don’t have anything to trade.” Ray sighed. A little brother would be neat. A daddy? That would be pretty cool, too, especially if it meant his mom never crying herself to sleep again.
He thought hard as they walked. The woods looked like they were thinning, he could see the sun between the branches and that hadn’t happened since he got lost. And there was a thrill in his chest at the thought of getting home to see his mom. Still, there was unfinished business here, wasn’t there? What could he trade for a brother and a father? What would he be willing to trade?
“How about Lawrence?”
“What about him?”
Ray looked at Mister Sticks and swallowed. This was it. This was the bargain chance. “What about if I let you have Lawrence?”
“You’d let me have your mother’s boyfriend? What if she likes him?”
“Well, she’d have Daddy, right?”
“Well, yes, of course. But are you sure you want to trade? Once we agree, there’s no going back.”
“Yeah. Deal.” Ray smiled and held out his hand, and Mister Sticks took his hand and shook. The old man’s skin was dry and hot and almost as rough as the wood on the trees around them.
The leaves hissed and the wind roared and for a moment the old man’s face was wrong. He looked too weathered, his eyes and nose and mouth fading into the shadows until he almost looked like a jack-o-lantern.
And then all was well again.
Mister Sticks led the way and in only a couple of minutes they were free of the woods and walking up to the back yard of the house where Ray had lived his entire life.
Ray ran fast, heading for the front door of the house. He moved around the side of the place at high speed, because he knew for certain that he would be in trouble because he was so late already. He might have used the back door but his mommy always left that locked, just in case someone should try to sneak in.
And as he rounded the corner of the house he saw the school bus just coming up the road. His mother should have been outside and calling his name, but instead there was just the bus rumbling as it slowed down. The number 83 was clear on the side. It was his bus, not the one that came by later to drop off the older kids.
Ray looked behind him to see if Mister Sticks was there. It was always possible that the man could help him explain to his mother—but even as he thought that he knew that what had been said between him and Mister Sticks had to remain a secret.
Ray moved around to the front of the house exactly as his mother was opening the front door. She saw him and looked no further. The bus had stopped and kids were already piling out and that was enough of the equation to make sense to her.
Somehow he had gotten home in time, despite the old man telling him that his mother was calling for him. Ray frowned for a moment, puzzled, but then decided to merely be glad he was okay and that Halloween was not ruined.
Half an hour later he had changed into his costume—this year he was Captain America—and they were ready for the sun to set, the better to go trick or treating. Four other mothers came to the house and brought children the same age and even younger than Ray. The group would be going together, because, as his mom said “youneverknowwhosoutthere,” which as near as he could figure meant that there was less chance of getting hurt if you walked with other friends. He could have told her that all by himself, because she’d taught him as much years before.
House after house, with a group of kids who were all alien in their masks and oddly familiar as well. He knew it was Jay under the Darth Vader mask, but the voice and the face together made a wonderfully dizzying confusion ring in his head. That, too, was part of the fun. Of course the candy that was starting to make his bag feel heavy was a nice part of the night as well.
But this year was different. This year he saw a few grown ups in costumes as well. The strangest was the man with the pumpkin head. He knew the stories, of course. Just last week at the library—look out for liberals!—Missus Sue had read the tale of old Hattie the witch and her three sons….
Ray’s skin crawled. He’d heard the term before but never expected to feel it for himself. His skin tried to slither away and hide, because the name of the old man he’d dealt with was Mister Sticks.
Mister Sticks, the oldest son of the old witch. Also known as the Pumpkin Man.
He spun in a circle, looking for the man with the jack-o-lantern head.
And the world spun madly with him as he tried to catch a breath, tried to find out where the giant shape with the pumpkin head and the old clothes had gone. He even wore an old Pilgrim’s hat with a wide brim, like all the old stories said.
But Momma said that the stories were all just fairy tales. Make believe, like ghosts on Halloween and witches….
Ray looked at his mother, where she was talking with a woman he knew, but couldn’t for the life of him remember by name. She was just Tory’s mom as far as he was concerned.
The two women kept speaking as he tried to raise his voice. And behind them he saw the man again, standing above them, on the branch of an old Oak tree that dominated the front yard of the Stack family’s house.
The man looked down, and held up one finger. He placed that finger over the glowing slash of a mouth that dominated his pumpkin face. His white hair was as thin as it had been when he was just a man, and it moved against the faint breeze.
The fires that burned inside of that face looked cold instead of warm, and Ray felt himself shiver.
He reached for his mommy, so very, very afraid.
And then he collapsed.
Are you expecting to hear that I killed a little boy?
I didn’t. I have before and I likely will again, but I rather like Raymond. He was innocent and he wanted a lot of the same things I wanted when I was younger.
Mostly he wanted the attention of his mother, and to have his father close by.
The only thing in the way was Lawrence.
Getting rid of Lawrence was easy. You’d be surprised how many people are susceptible to fear. And the light I carry with me is an ember straight from Hell. Rest assured, I can be scary when the mood strikes me.
Lawrence died screaming.
Long before I answered to my current names, I was known as Jack and then Jack of the Lantern. To this day my visage is celebrated come Halloween. Through my incarnations I have learned a few tricks as it were.
One of my gifts in this world was granted by the boon the Devil himself offered me when he handed me the ember from Hell to guide my way through the afterlife. Hellfire can feel a soul, can burn the sin right out of a soul, no matter how innocent or corrupt.
Lawrence is gone. He will be remembered. He left his girlfriend with a child, you see, and she will raise that child, because she does not believe in coincidences, nor does she believe that she could ever give up a child for adoption. She is, in short, a good woman with a good heart. She is raising one child already. She will raise a second without giving it a moment’s thought. I know this, because I can see the intentions within her soul.
Lawrence would have made a good provider. He might even have made a good father, but he was not a good man. I know that, too. I saw it in his eyes when he was dying.
Now why would I care about that?
I don’t, not really, save in that I see something of myself in the eyes of a child who is currently recovering from a deep scare he received on Halloween night.
Even a little sin can make me a frightening sight. It’s a gift, I suppose.
Of course, that hardly makes me an innocent. I don’t judge anyone. I merely observe and from time to time I remember that I am a Harvest God. I will gladly offer prosperity in exchange for a sacrifice.
Witting or not, young Raymond offered me a sacrifice. I accepted it. In return, he receives a brother or sister that his mother is already carrying.
Next he gets his father back.
I wonder if his mother will scream when she sees what time has done to her dead husband, or if she will recognize him at all.
– END –
“Harvest Gods, Revisited” copyright (c) 2011 by James A. Moore. No authorized reproduction permitted