The route wound through the streets, with throngs of pumpkin-controlled people blocking off some intersections to force the van to make turns. Abby knew they were being funneled to the center of Caliche, to City Hall, but whatever might be waiting for them there defied even her ability to anticipate the worst.
She saw the occasional face she knew, child or adult, as they made their slow way through the smiling, waving crowds. Others in the van did, too, judging by Claude and Gerard’s periodic pained reactions. Fleur had looked out the windows at first, but now had her hands in her lap and her eyes pointed at her knees.
They were close enough now for her to see the clock tower at City Hall: 2:00 AM. Technically November 1st, technically the end of Halloween, but the thousands of jack-o-lanterns surrounding the van hadn’t gotten the memo. Neither had the town itself: all the businesses and houses were lit up like it had just turned dusk.
Claude slowed down even further, shielding his eyes with one hand. “The glare,” he mumbled, as all those glowing pumpkins pressed in on the van, orange light flaring through every window. The people shouldering the pumpkins were blank-eyed and slack-jawed until Abby would look at them directly, whereupon they would brighten up and grin cheerfully.
Abby wished she could think of something inspirational to say to her group. Not that she wanted to embrace the role of leader, or anything, but she knew what it would do: Claude would nod in agreement, Fleur would cheer up, and Gerard would roll his eyes. It wouldn’t mean much, but they’d bond for a moment. They’d have solace for a moment, in the midst of all this madness.
Bonding over a shared terror of the unknown brought them together, too, but there was such a thing as getting frostbite from cold comfort.
They rounded the last corner, the van barely moving, and City Hall sat in the town square. The path defined for them by the possessed citizens ended there. Claude drove the last hundred yards as slowly as he could, slower even than the throng forced him to go, until he pulled to a stop, surrounded on all sides now by the good folks of Caliche and their controllers.
The four of them sat there, saying nothing. Abby stared through the windshield. Everyone looked so happy to see them. She couldn’t think of the last time anyone was happy to see her.
The people outside started beckoning to them.
Abby took a deep breath and opened her door. “I’ll go,” she said.
Claude opened his door, too. “Not alone, you aren’t.”
“Good luck to you both,” said Gerard.
Claude rapped a palm on his armrest. “Man, get your ass out here.”
“You can stay, Fleur,” Abby said. “It’s okay. Get back on those speed-dials, if you can.” Fleur nodded and shrank down in her seat.
The three of them closed the van doors, and Claude locked the vehicle with the key fob. In the eerie silence of the beckoning crowd, the chirp of the alarm sounded massive.
They walked a short way to where the crowd had opened up into a small, circular space in which three people waited, the jack-o-lanterns on their shoulders almost standing at attention: Mrs. Porter, the mayor; Mr. Claremont, owner of the TV station; and Mr. Walden, the school superintendent.
As usual, their mouths didn’t move, the pumpkins doing all the talking.
“Thank you so much for coming,” said Mrs. Porter. “We appreciate this opportunity to speak with you.”
Political-sounding even when it’s not really her, Abby thought, then said: “So who are we speaking with?”
“You’re talking to the people in front of you,” said Mr. Claremont, “only with extra…friends listening in and advising. At least, they’d like to be your friends.” There was a peculiar, non-human noise when the word ‘friends’ came out of the pumpkin’s jagged slit of a mouth, a bent pitch like a bad auto-tune. Like the voice wasn’t designed to make the sound of that word.
Abby crossed her arms to keep herself from shivering. She knew it was a defensive pose, but didn’t care. Right now, feeling as vulnerable as she ever had, she craved all of the defenses she could get. Too late, she thought of the hydrocodone in her shoe. Just one, man. Just one, to make me not feel like my skin’s slithering off me.
“Tell us about these ‘friends’,” Claude said. “I only ask because so far they haven’t been too friendly to us.”
“It was,” started Mr. Walden, but then he glanced to the side as though the words wouldn’t come to him.
“…Growing pains,” Mrs. Porter finished. “When the friends were first brought here, they were disoriented and driven by their commands. They…overreacted. But they want to explain things to you. They want to be your friend, as well.”
“Hold on,” Claude said. “You can start explaining things by explaining what you just said. “Brought here? From where? By whom?”
“Yeah,” said Gerard. “And ‘commands’? Who gave them commands?”
“The friends cannot speak their summoner’s name,” said Mr. Claremont. “That’s part of their bargain. As for where they’ve come from, they don’t use this name for it, but you’d refer to it…
Claude gently put a hand on his heart. Gerard’s eyebrows rose.
And Abby thought of church as a child, and how boring it was, and how she couldn’t imagine anything worse than sitting on those pews, listening to a droning preacher and out-of-tune choir.
“Hell,” she said, and all three of the pumpkins’ spokespeople nodded together.
“Actual devils-and-pitchforks, lake of fire, eternal torment Hell.”
“It’s…not quite what you might imagine it to be from –” Mrs. Porter began, but Abby cut her off.
“This man,” Abby said, pointing at Claude, “is the most decent human being I’ve ever known. This guy,” she said, indicating Gerard, “is a dee-bag, but he’s stood up and done his part tonight when he could’ve turned tail and run. Our other friend is a teenager who’s scared of her own shadow. And me…” she trailed off.
“You fight for your friends,” Claude said, and tried to take her hand but she waved him off.
“You do your best,” Gerard said, and she shook her head.
“Quiet. Never mind all that,” Abby said, her voice thick. “It’s not true, anyway. It’s just…we’ve all screwed up our lives, but we can’t have screwed them up that badly. If you’re telling the truth, why,” she asked, slowly pivoting to look at the enormous crowd, “would things like you want to be friends with us?”
And every pumpkin-jacked person there spoke at once, softly, but that many assembled voices still packed a punch. Abby felt like her hair had been blown back, not just by the volume, but the words:
“BECAUSE WE’RE SCARED OF YOU.”
Today’s Words: 1153
Total Words: 20621
Notes: Still two days behind, but beginning to catch up. Things should be put back on track during the weekend.