"Alone. That was the word with teeth. The most awful word there was. Hell was just another way of saying it."
- Victor Standish
My Twelfth year was a bit like Twelfth Night, the eve that church-goers call the Eve of the Epiphany … a fancy adult word that describes what the donkey felt when the two-by-four smacked him.
The twilight wind moaned from the northwest, and entered the woods and bared the golden branches, and danced over the dying day, and led a swirl of scarlet and gold leaves. Had they dreaded this day?
If so they danced now that it had come. And away with a raspy ballet of spiraling leaves, high in the dim light of the Harvest Moon went wind and leaves together.
None of the trudging people beside me noticed the dance of the dying leaves … or me, for that matter. I studied the troubled eyes of those who could not see what I saw. After a bit of thinking, I decided I had been wrong about them. They were not alike, but different one from another, because they held different dreams … or the corpses of them in those sad eyes.
If I managed to live long enough, would my eyes deaden into the black pools they were? For me it was still very difficult to draw away from the call of my dream. It was like a warm fire, or a hard-earned sleep, or like a haunting song from one of those sirens Ulysses dared to let himself hear. Yet there was a stillness all about it, a stillness full of Christmas lights … my dream of home. Not a place but a person who would want me just for me not for what they could get out of me.
Typical of my luck, my Greyhound bus had broken down in the most remote part of the state of New York. But at the time, anywhere out of Cleveland was all right by me. It had been a long hike to the only house in the diseased landscape. I’m not being colorful here. The whole countryside looked like it had been passed over by one of those famous plagues that had finally made Pharaoh toss the children of Joseph out of the country.
I always identified with those wanderers. Having your mother abandon you in the roughest cities in the country, then pick you up when her latest bad boy love had ditched her will do that to a kid. At least that was what I thought was happening at the time.
I was wrong, of course. So sue me. Parents don’t make it a habit of explaining the screw-up’s of their lives to their kids. We just have to play catch-up, try to make sense of the madness the best way we can, and deal with the fallout while keeping our heads low. Childhood, despite what adults keep saying, is no picnic. Mine sure as hell wasn’t. But on the plus side, it wasn’t boring.
I made my way carefully in the deepening dark. A twelve year old kid was very small, and this night seemed very large and full of hidden dangers. I have always known I was an outsider, a stranger no matter where I roamed among those who were still men. There are horrors beyond life's edge that most don’t suspect, and once in a while a wandering stray calls them just within range. Yeah, all too often I was that stray.
I learned to walk on cat-feet by living on the streets of too many hard cities for six years … since I was seven. I knew why dogs howl at the dark and why cats prick up their ears after midnight. I shuddered, for all too often I heard the beating of black wings and the scratching of half-seen shapes on the pavement hidden by shadow.
We walked into an uneven clearing, whose floor was veined with gnarled roots. A huge mansion towered over us like the cast-aside skull of some forgotten and damned god, its twin blank windows looming over us as if they were the eyes of a lost soul searching to see if we would feed its hunger. I smiled of salt. I had gone hungry for so long that a meal of my scrawny body wouldn’t fill a ghost.
The owner of the place met us at the door of his broken-down mansion as if he had been expecting us. I didn’t like the look of him as he sat smiling in his weird-shaped wheelchair. I couldn’t quite make out his face in the dim light. All I saw was that big smile as if he was the big bad wolf, and we were all Little Red Riding Hoods.
And he smelled funny.
Not “Ha-Ha” funny. Damn odd funny.
The six other stranded bus passengers hugged the heat of the room’s fireplace.
But not me. Something struck me strange about the dark room with all its dusty mounted heads of bears and deer on the wall.
It should have been roasting hot in this place. And here I was still shivering.
Of course, I had eased into the far corner. Even the shadows around me seemed cold and unfriendly. I might have only been twelve years old, nearly thirteen actually, but I hadn’t survived all by myself for years on the mean streets of ten cities by being trusting.
So there I stood.
No one's life should be rooted in fear. You take one look at a new baby, and you just know deep down we are born for wonder, for joy, for hope, for love, to marvel at the mystery of life, to be awed by the beauty of the world, to hunt for truth and meaning, to pick up a scrap or two of wisdom here and there, and by our treatment of others to brighten the corner where we are. But life on the streets beat the truth into me: the predators out there don’t give a damn for your dreams … or you for that matter.
Our host at the far end of the dining table called out to me. “Come, boy, warm yourself by my fire. It was a long walk from your broken down bus to my estate.”
“Name’s Victor Standish, sir. And I’m just fine right here.”
I strained to make out his features, but the shadows, that didn’t seem to be cast by anything, swam with a life of their own around his face. All of this had gone from strange to spooky. I smiled bitterly. Story of my life.
“Where’s our driver?” I asked.
The old man cackled, “He asked me where the phone was. He seemed in a hurry to contact his superiors.”
I snorted, “He had that many quarters?”
“Show some respect to your elders, boy!”
“Respect is earned. And the name’s Victor Standish.”
He shifted in his wheelchair angrily. I went even colder. His body squished when he moved. And that blasted wheelchair blocked the only exit out of here.
“Tonight is a rare night … Standish.”
His words were spoken oddly … as if human speech itself was a thing foreign to him. My hands went to my pockets. I fingered the ice cold ball bearings I kept in both pockets. He smiled wider, and I saw his teeth were pointed.
My fingers closed around two ball bearings as he laughed.
“It is Samhain, summer’s end, Standish. The Celtic New Year began this nightfall.”
“Funny. You don’t look like a Druid.”
His eyes narrowed, but he kept on in that strange way of his. “In your ancient Welsh tradition, this evening was called Three Spirit Night, when all manner of beings could wander between realities.”
I went much colder at his use of “your,” as if he did not belong to the human race. He wheeled his chair closer to me by only inches, but he still felt much, much too close.
He wheezed low, “You really should have sat with your fellow passengers. It was over so quickly for them.”
I flicked my eyes to them.
Oh, crap. Some were slumped on the floor. Some were sprawled across the table. Some sat bonelessly in their chairs.
Their eyes were … melted, flowing down their withered cheeks like candle wax or mucus. And their shadows were gone … as if they had been eaten by the fire.
“You hold in your fear well … human.”
The fingers of both hands picked the largest ball bearings they could find.
I glared at this … thing. “You killed the bus driver, too?”
“Oh, yes, quite dead is he. You I kept to play with.”
“It’s been a long day, sir. I’m all played out.”
“I think I’ll eat your sharp tongue last.”
There was nothing in that for me but pain, so I just asked, “H-How did you get here?”
He laughed wetly, “You think me some space creature?”
He turned for a moment to stare into the fire with eyes that seemed to be looking at things I was just as happy not seeing.
“In a way, I am from beyond the stars.”
He turned back to me, and the shadows were cast back by the fire’s glow. For just a moment, I caught a glimpse of a wet, scaled face, more insect than fish. His eyes were rheumy and totally empty of anything remotely human or merciful. Then, the shadows happily returned to mask that nightmare face again.
I fought back a shiver. He saw me. He chuckled in a squishy gurgle.
“It began with the meteorite. That black seed of my birth landed in the far end of this estate on the night of Samhain in 1843. Men could not approach the site for weeks because of the intense heat.”
Again, he squished that inhuman laughter. “And by then, the trees and the wild life were taking on strange shapes and smells.”
He wheeled closer still. “Men of your so-called science finally came to investigate. Those who managed to survive their sudden illness to race home did so only to die in convulsions in their beds.”
Ever closer he wheeled. And I saw that tentacles, not fingers, grasped the wheels. “As fate would have it, the lovely wife of this estate’s owner was pregnant at the time.”
The wheels squeaked as he rolled right up to me. “She did not survive my birth. I emerged quite hungry you see.”
He squished a growl, “As I am hungry now!”
I tore both hands out of my pockets, shooting two ball bearings into his open, drooling mouth. “Eat this!”
He choked in wet husks. I darted around his chair. Crap. Three tentacles shot from his middle right at me. Another kid would have died then.
But I was Victor Standish. I knew parkour. I did a full Arabian cartwheel right over those snaking things. As I flew over him, I saw razored teeth in a second snarling mouth in his damn stomach. I sent two more ball bearings into that one as well.
He squealed in pain. Better him than me. I landed behind his wheelchair with a light bounce. I grasped the handles of the wheelchair with both shaking hands. I shoved the nightmare creature with all my strength along the wooden floor. You don’t get expert in parkour without building up a lot of chest and arm muscles.
I ducked those middle tentacles as I ran. What did it take to kill this thing?
I whizzed past the dead passengers and shoved this squirming mockery of a man into the blazing fire. His screams were … something I still have nightmares about. But I’m still alive to have them.
I turned to run when the damn thing started crawling out of the fireplace though he was going up as if he were made of dry driftwood. I tore the poker from its iron sheath and smacked him three times hard on what was left of his head. He slumped half out of the fireplace to lie still even though he was burning like candle wax.
He smelled awful. I ran out of the room, which was going up in flames all around me. I was scared down to the marrow of my bones, but I keep telling myself that as long as I have laughter, I’m not without hope. So I managed to yell over my shoulder.
“By the way, Squishy, Trick or Treat!”
If I had only known that the trick was on me, and the punch line would come for my soul in the haunted French Quarter of New Orleans. Sometimes we laugh at the very time when we should be crying. And we wish for all the wrong things.