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Halloween Head - Paul Robinson

Everyone loves a good Halloween party. But what if you're not on the guest list? And you've been away for a very long time?

Halloween Head
By Paul Robinson

            He realizes how much he's missed the season of late October: the Ray Bradbury days shining with a pale gold light, purple shadows stretching out at dusk like watercolors bleeding across a wet page. The trace of seasoned wood smoke in the air.
            And Halloween. God how he missed that! Restless spirits. Phantom lights. The creepy old place that stands in every town; long abandoned but crawling with ghostly legends. Ominous clouds drawing across the face of the full moon at night, framed by inky black branches. And now he's back in time for the holiday. He didn't miss it.
            These are his thoughts as he walks through the streets of his old hometown, unnoticed. Looking at jack o' lanterns. Inside the pockets of his leather coat, he runs his icy fingers over the old inkbottle filled with graveyard dirt. He feels the smoothness of the bottle but doesn't notice the chill that emanates from the stopper.
            The night air is cool. In week or two people's breath will frost and ice crystals will crunch beneath their feet. But not tonight: tonight is a mild October evening, the final, moist breath of summer still lingering in the air.
            Most of the pumpkins are dark now with guttered candles, though a few still flicker. But outside a newer house, one of the many unfamiliar structures dotting his old streets, he sees jack 'o lanterns that aren't even real pumpkins but ceramic caricatures, lit up with electronic lights. Celebrities, and goofy faces. Cartoon characters. There are lights on in the house but he glides up the front steps anyway, into the shadow of the porch. He stops, looking down at the artificial pumpkin.
            Mickey Mouse.
            Bringing up a boot heel over it, he hesitates, then slowly lowers his foot. It would be pointless to kick the thing. Anyway, it doesn't really matter. He looks around, and moves back down to the sidewalk. A long, hollow sigh.
            Halloween used to be his favorite time of year. Now, it all seems wrong. Everything, he realizes, seems very, very wrong. Doubt creeps into his thoughts. Again.
            What am I doing here?
            For a while he can't answer his own question. Then from behind him, he hears the faint noise of a party. A peal of laughter and muffled thumps from a stereo carry briefly across the night breeze.
            Down the block is an old wooden house blazing with orange lights. It's the kind of pleasant, old-fashioned home that used to be common around this neighborhood--two story, big porch, and ancient shade trees. The sight of it moves him cautiously down the sidewalk. In between the streetlights. 
            Up close, the house is even more inviting. At least a dozen carved pumpkins, with real candles in them, still flicker in between the pillars of the front porch. They're all variations on the traditional, grinning face: triangle noses and square teeth. Glowing paper-bag lanterns line the short walk to the steps. A plastic green skeleton dangles from a noose, twisting slowly from the branch of an elm tree in the front yard.
            The music has stopped, briefly. Then the unmistakable screech of a turntable needle pulled across vinyl splits the night and laughter is heard. He can hear a lone voice inside saying something like, All right, all right. A second later the music starts playing again. For the first time that evening, the young man smiles. Not only is someone still using a record player, they're playing a song he knows: Oingo Boingo's No One Lives Forever. Perfect.
            At the front window, a darkened shape moves behind the blinds. The silhouette is obviously someone in costume, wearing something that makes him (or her) look seven feet tall. Interesting, he thinks. What is that get-up?
            He shouldn't be seen, he knows. Not yet. But he can watch, though. Watching won't hurt anything.
Moving around the side of the house, where lighted windows form two bright rectangles in the dark, he stands in the shadows and gazes inside. Strings of pumpkin-shaped holiday lights have been strung up in the windows, glowing a cheerful orange. Black paper bats have been tacked up along the far wall of the room. Fake cobwebs dangle from the ceiling lights.
            More than perfect.
            But the best thing is the costumes the party guests wear. There are no pimps and prostitutes, no cavemen, no guys in drag. Everyone is dressed like a creature of the night--an old-style Halloween.
            He sees a very believable werewolf attempt to drink a bottle of beer through his muzzle and a beautiful, pale vampire in a spooky black dress helps him. There is a movie-perfect green-skinned Frankenstein's monster, dancing with his stitched-together bride and her skyscraper-tall hair. Several well-done zombies of both genders. Assorted ghosts, vampires, devils, and witches.
            One person has a fantastic version of The Masque Of The Red Death, with a red silk gown and plumed hat, complete with a leering skeleton mask. As an extra touch the Red Death carries a cigarette in a long ivory holder as if Lon Chaney himself had just arrived from a long-ago film set.           
            Then he sees the tall figure he had glimpsed through the blinds. The costumes are all excellent, but this one takes the cake.            
            It's the Headless Horseman. With a smart, authentic-looking Hessian military uniform, the Horseman also wears a cloak with a tall, stiff collar rising up around the space where his head should be. The illusion is stunning--the man in the leather coat has never seen the headless body routine pulled off so expertly. There is no telltale covering of the shoulders to disguise the fact that they actually start quite a ways below the 'severed' head.
            The man's smile splits into a wide grin, and for a moment he feels like a jack o' lantern himself. As the music plays, a beautiful, shroud-wrapped banshee with a ghastly white face dances with a grinning, ragged scarecrow with black buttons for eyes. And for just a moment--a brief second of make-believe--they look like the real things. The banshee seems too ethereal as her shroud floats out as she spins. The uncanny scarecrow's limbs flail as if there are no bones inside that animated body of straw.
            The man in the leather jacket blinks and the dancers return turn back into mortal human beings wearing costumes. But now that the notion has entered his head, he allows himself to fantasize. Don't the stitches of Frankenstein's Bride seem to actually thread right through her skin? And the hair of the werewolf...it looks too natural and sleek to be artificial. 
            Why not, he thinks. Maybe it really is a Dead Man's Party.
            He fingers the inkbottle again, gripping it tighter in his pocket. Darkness seems to close a bit tighter around him, but it's only a cloud passing in front of the harvest moon.
            A crazy idea pops into his head. Maybe, I could...
            Then he remembers why he can't. This is the only chance he has. At midnight he will be able to see his family. His friends.
            The girl he loved.
            But now, watching the party in full swing, he begins to have doubts. These doubts aren't new--in the back of his mind, they've plagued him for some time.
            After all, it's been years since he left. Time enough for everyone to adjust. He knows his parents still miss him, but a brief reunion can't make up for all the things he left unsaid. It would reopen old wounds--whether it would heal them is another question.
            And the girl--they were madly in love. She was everything to him, and he just…rode away. No goodbyes, but so many regrets. She deserves someone who can be there for her. More than anything, he wants happiness for the people he cares about.
            Will a midnight surprise make them happy?
            There's also a danger in his plan that chills him: the longer he takes to move on, the greater the chance he never will. He's already spent a lot of time trying to make this visit work--what will happen if things don't go the way he envisions them? Will he try again, over and over, until...
            A vial of graveyard dirt won't be necessary after a while. He'll never leave. Looping himself over the years like a scratch in a record, till he becomes nothing but an illusion. Then, oblivion.
            Now it's midnight. He doesn't need to hear church bells to know--the time is now. And he only has one hour. One, single hour.
            As the sound of the party washes over him in the darkness, he pretends to think it over. But he's already made his mind up.


            Later, most of the guests remember him. He showed up just as the party really started to get going: a pale young man done up like an accident victim, wearing a scarred leather motorcycle jacket with a Nine Inch Nails logo painted on the back. No one knew him, but a few people thought he looked familiar. He didn't speak much, keeping to the corners with a beer. Looking happy.            
            He did speak with Jason, the host of the party. In a dark corner of the living room, next to the stereo, the young man complimented Jason's Headless Horseman costume. It was a clever illusion; a black scrim hid Jason's head, painted with a reverse image of an empty collar stretched outward instead of inward.
            "Man, I couldn't figure how you did that till I got up close. That's awesome."
            "Thanks. Yeah, up close doesn't work so good. I made everybody stick to a theme this year--spooky costumes only. So I had to come up with something cool."
            As they talked, Jason wanted to ask the young man about his makeup, which was a pretty convincing cracked skull. You could even see the brain peeking through. Something made him stop, though. He wasn't scared, not really. But something told him not to ask too many questions.
            All he said was, "Your costume's pretty cool, too."
            The young man smiled, and Jason felt a strange, warm sadness radiating from his mysterious guest. "Thanks. I did it myself."
            No one remembered seeing the young man leave. But the next morning, Jason found something sitting on the front porch railing. An old ink bottle, strangely cold to the touch. There was nothing inside it.

About The Author:
Paul Robinson is currently finishing a novel of magic realism. He's had non-fiction published in music zines such as Glorious Noise and Harmonium. Otherwise he's a graphic designer, illustrator and photographer scraping for work in these dark economic times.

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