The Long Halloween of Horace Slater (short fiction)

Life in Rockwood

Rockwood spread across the desert, and aside from the trailer park and a few clusters of houses here and there, it was a long walk from door-to-door on Halloween. Some parents drove their kids around, but it was a lot of work for not much candy. Especially since the next town over had an annual carnival with a bounce house for the kids and reasonably priced alcohol for the parents.

There were a still few diehards who’d make the rounds, but these exceptions were usually done before dusk. Except for Horace Slater, who came out long after darkness fell to prowl the night in search of tricks and / or treats.

He’d been doing it for the last 72 years.

Horace had been too old for trick or treating in ’46, and there was something peculiar about a 17 year old in his official Roy Rogers cowboy costume, a touch too snug, palling around with a bunch of children at least a foot shorter than him.

To Horace’s credit, he’d saved Billy Jackson from getting hit by a car while crossing a darkened street. Witnesses said that Horace had been run over, but he got up, dusted himself off, and carried on for the rest of the night. He’d come home, gorged himself on his candy, and promptly died.

The medical examiner said he’d been dead for a few hours before that, and no one was surprised. He’d always loved Halloween.

People were a touch surprised when he dug himself out of his grave the next year to indulge the obsession. Such things weren’t worth troubling over in Rockwood, and everyone kept a handful of candy at the ready for when Horace dropped by.

Everyone but Edna Babble.

Edna had never cared for Halloween. It wasn’t because of some religious objection. Edna was only passingly religious. She went to church now and then. She had a cross hung up in her kitchen. But everyone knew she kept her eyes open when the pastor called for a prayer, and if she caught you catching her, she’d stare you down in a way that somehow made it seem like you’d done something wrong.

Edna never cared for Halloween because Edna never cared for much. Her husband had smoothed her rough edges, but he’d died eight years earlier. The time since had not softened her.

Halloween didn’t help any.

And an undead teenager prowling around her property didn’t aid her disposition.

She parted the blinds and scanned the darkness. “I know he’s out there.”

John Junior said, “Mom, come away from the window.”

“Oh, he’d like that.” She popped her dentures lose and sucked them back in place several times. “That little shit thinks he’ll get away with it again. But not this year.” She laughed, which sounded less like a laugh and more like a cough. “Not this year, Horace.”

John Junior said, “Or you could just leave out a bowl of candy, like everybody else does.”

Edna scowled. “Oh, he’d like that. Defying the laws of nature, man, and decency and getting rewarded for it. That’s the problem with your generation. No discipline.”

Horace Slater had been dead and buried thirty years before John Junior’s birth, but everyone under fifty was lumped into the same group of nogoodniks and ne’er-do-wells in Edna’s estimation. It all went back to Woodstock and the seductive corruption of Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie.

John Junior gently pulled his mother away from the window. “Just watch some TV with me, mom.”

Edna was a wiry, shrunken old woman, but she was stronger than she looked. She fought back, slipping out of his grasp, resuming her vigil. “Ain’t nuthin’ good on anyway.”

“He’s probably not even coming,” said John Junior. “He can’t be much more than bones at this point.”

“That won’t stop him,” she hissed. “And don’t think I’m going to give some layabout shambling corpse candy just because it’s easier. So you can take that bag you brought and just throw it away.”

The paper bag of candy sat on the kitchen table.

“It’s crappy candy,” he said. “Candy corn and circus peanuts. It’s more like a punishment than a reward.”

She grunted, hunching on her stool, staring for the slightest trace of Horace.

Someone knocked on the back door, twice in slow succession. Edna leapt off her stool, grabbed her shotgun and ran to the backdoor. She was getting up there in the years, but her war with Horace always gave her a little extra pep.

She threw open the door. A flaming bag of dog poop sat on her porch.

“Don’t step on it, Mom,” said John Junior.

“This isn’t my first rodeo,” she replied. “Get some water, boy.”

He complied while she stood on the porch, scanning the darkness. She spotted something lurking behind her row of jojoba bushes. The figure hid in the shadows, but the moon reflected off his white cowboy hat and red fringe shirt.

“I see you, Horace Slater!” she shouted at the undead thing as it slinked deeper into the dark. “Get on now! I don’t have nuthin’ for you!”

John Junior dumped a pan of water on the flaming dog crap.

“He’s getting slower,” she said. “Still moves like a shadow when you can’t see him, but if you keep your eyes on him . . . ”

She grinned and danced a jig.

“We got him, boy. This time, we got him.”

The familiar sound of eggs splatting against her windows wasn’t enough to squash her enthusiasm.

“Go to the front door. Watch out for him.”

“I don’t know if–”

She grabbed him by the collar. “If you’re here, help me. If not, you can go home to that no good wife of yours.”

“Betsy’s never been anything but nice to you,” replied John Junior.

Edna’s face scrunched up. She pulled a box off the refrigerator and sorted through its contents.

“I don’t need your help anyway. I got everything I need from Nayni Carita. Them Mexicans know all about how to deal with angry spirits.”

“I thought Nayni was Venezuelan. And since when did Nayni know anything about anything like this?”

“She googled it for me,” Edna replied. “Ordered all this stuff. A vial of sacred salt. Some sage. Crow feathers.” She held up a mummified body part. “Whatever the hell this is.”

“I don’t know if you should be messing with that stuff.”

“I’m not too happy about it either, but what choice have I got? I’m sure the Good Lord will see the sense of it.”

She didn’t mention forgiveness. Edna’s version of God was every bit as ornery as her, and when Judgment Day came, she looked forward to sitting by His side and telling everyone how much they had disappointed her.

“Now all we need is a piece of the son of a bitch, and if I know him by now. . . . ”

She grabbed the shotgun and ran to the front door. Horace was throwing toilet paper onto her ironbark tree. He was already shambling into the night upon hearing the door open, but she got off two shots before he was gone. One went wide, but the other winged him in the shoulder. It didn’t slow him down as he melted into darkness.

Edna laughed. “Get me those pieces, boy,” she said as she ran back into the house.

John Junior reluctantly did so. He found a dustpan and swept a few scraps of withered gray flesh and bright red cloth. Horace’s white hat floating in the blackness.

“You’d best call it a night,” said John Junior. “She’s in a worst mood than usual.”

By the time he returned Edna had begun the forbidden ritual. She’d drawn a circle in her kitchen with the sacred salt, placed the bits of Horace into it, and started stripping out of her nightdress.

“Jesus, mom.” John Junior turned his back to her wrinkled, boney nudity.

“Don’t be a prude, boy.”

She lit the sage incense, paced around the circle three times, waving the feather and mummified whatsit. “By the power of Veles, by the will of Yama, by the command of forgotten Dis, I summon thee, restless spirit.”

The entire house trembled slightly as a shadow materialized in the circle. It congealed into something more tangible, first a blackened shape, then a rotting humanoid in a pristine cowboy costume, clutching a pillowcase full of candy in one gnarled hand.

Edna cackled, staring Horace in his decayed face. His eyes had long ago rotted away. His jaw clung to his skull with a lingering strands of sinew. Most of the teeth had fallen away, and a few maggots writhed from his nostrils.

“I got you, you son of a bitch.”

John Junior turned around and recoiled.

“Put your clothes back on, Mom.”

He covered his eyes until she slipped back into her nightdress. Only then did he dare look at the wretched undead thing standing in Edna’s kitchen.

The cowboy hat sat at a weird angle on Horace’s head, and his boots clomped as he shifted from foot to foot on twisted legs. A low wheeze exited a hole in his throat, and his jaw cracked as he snapped it shut once, with seemingly great effort.

“Now what?” asked John Junior.

She shrugged. “Now nuthin’. I got him. And I’m going to keep him.” She danced a short jig. “You hear that, Horace? You’re mine, and you’re going to spend the rest of eternity in this kitchen.”

Horace’s head shifted to one side as a low groan came from somewhere within him.

“Mom, you can’t leave him here,” said John Junior. “What if you want to have company over?”

“Hmmph. Horace is all the company I’ll need.”

“He’ll stink up the place.”

“I don’t smell nuthin’.”

“I’m not bringing Betsy or the kids over with this thing here.”

“Good riddance.”

“It’s cruel.” It was his last effort and one doomed to fall on deaf ears.

“Serves him right. Tromping around in the night, frightening helpless old women. You dance with the devil, Horace, the bill comes due.”

She went to the living room and sat on the couch.

John Junior studied the misshapen creature imprisoned on the other side of the kitchen table.

“Are you in there, Horace?”

Horace turned his eyeless gaze toward John Junior. A worm fell from his socket to land on his shirt. He wheezed and reached out a hand, his bones cracking as he did.

John Junior stepped back but Horace wasn’t reaching for him, but for the bag of candy on the table.

John Junior glanced at his mother, smiling in the dimly lit living room. The TV cast strange shadows on her wrinkled face.

“I can’t really do that, Horace,” whispered John Junior.

Horace lowered his arm, reached into his pillowcase, and withdrew a fun-sized Snickers. He stuck it between his jaws without unwrapping it and chewed slowly twice before the candy fell to the floor.

“You might consider conserving that,” said John Junior.

Horace found a grape lollipop and crunched into it with one of his few remaining teeth. The tooth impaled the lollipop, and it hung there while he stared ahead blankly.

He reached for the candy corn and circus peanuts and hissed.

Edna was no longer smiling. The fleeting joy she’d received from capturing Horace had already left her. She was not a joyful woman by nature. John Junior couldn’t leave the pitiable undead thing with her. No soul had sinned so gravely as to deserve that.

“I won’t be able to stop her if she catches you again,” warned John Junior, handing the sack to Horace.

His crooked fingers grasped the sack, and the house rattled again as the circle was broken. A hot wind swept through the kitchen, blowing away the salt circle. Horace shambled toward the back door.

Edna leapt up. “Boy, what did you do?”

John Junior intercepted her. “Mom, it’s better this way.”

The backdoor creaked as, unseen, Horace was gone with supernatural speed. Edna fired a few shots wildly into the dark.

“He learned his lesson,” said John Junior. “He won’t be back.”

“Oh, he’ll be back,” she said.

A joyless smile crept across her face at the prospect. She disapproved of Horace Slater, but she disapproved of most things. That was what kept her going.

But Horace didn’t come back to Edna’s. Not the next year. Or the year after that. Or ever again.

Edna would often tell the story about how she’d scared the dead back into his grave and how everyone should thank her. And folks would listen politely at the tale.

No one would mention that the candy offerings they left every year were still being taken by some twisted figure in a white cowboy hat and fringe shirt.

And if some suspected that John Junior hid a bowl of M & Ms in Edna’s Jojoba bushes every year out of sympathy for that shambling undead thing, none bothered telling Edna.

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One Comment

  1. thebibliomancer
    Posted October 31, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Its always good to see another short fiction on your site

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