The trip to Fleur’s house took a good four hours. That it sat in the fancy part of town, along with Dr. Godfrey’s home, was the bulk of the walk. Other time was taken up with confused passers-by asking questions, most of which Abby and the others only felt comfortable answering, “I don’t know!”
The rest of the delays were from people happy to see Claude out in public again. Handshakes, hugs, back-claps, and more than a few selfies slowed the three’s progress to a crawl. But Abby couldn’t begrudge Claude his recaptured glory. He looked so happy.
“So okay,” Claude said. “What went wrong for them?”
“Hmm?” Abby had stopped to tie her shoes.
“The,” and Claude looked around to see if anyone was too close and listening in, “pumpkins. They had the town; they had us. But when it came down to it, we had to fight off a few hundred of them during that last siege, not tens of thousands. So what happened?”
Abby straightened up. “You looking for tips? Thinking about mounting your own invasion?”
Claude waved at a couple across the street who shouted his name and said to Abby, sweetly, “I don’t seem to have any problems taking over the world, thanks very much. But seriously…I know you’ve been thinking about it, too.”
“Yeah, I have,” Abby said. “But all I’ve got are guesses. I think –”
“Sorry,” Fleur jumped in. “But I was thinking, too. Can I…?”
“You go right ahead,” Claude said.
“Um, okay. So when they come here, they’re like animals, just following commands, and acting on instinct. Y’know, like that one that was like a mama bear protecting her cub pumpkins.”
Abby and Claude nodded.
“So, yeah, so then they attach to people. And they have to, like, reach inside them to find out what’s bad inside that person. And that’s when they touch that bit of God. I have a cousin who’s, y’know, like a Quaker? And that’s their big thing, that there’s a little piece of God inside everyone. So that shocks them, and some of their victims have more, I don’t know, assertive personalities, and they get all muddled up and decide to try to live on Earth, and try to get back in God’s good graces.”
Abby and Claude kept nodding, Abby mostly because this was the longest, most sustained bit of verbiage she’d ever heard coming out of Fleur.
“But they can’t. God sent them to Hell, and He’s not going to go back on His decisions. And they have to know that. And then, I’m guessing that they were supposed to just mess up peoples’ heads then go away. But the longer they stay, the more they and the people start to combine. And the more they combine, the more the evil people take control and become, well, evil. And that many evil people together…”
“Can’t work,” Claude said, and Fleur smiled. “Cowards won’t want to participate. Selfish people won’t help if it doesn’t benefit them instantly. They’d all resent the bossy people trying to run the show. The killers would want to kill, nothing else. They let their true selves free, and those true selves were what made them fail at life in the first place. Hey, how’s it going?” he broke off from theorizing to wave at another fan.
“I think you two were on the same wavelength as me,” Abby said. “I still wonder about some things but…”
A trio of twenty-something women walked up to them, gossiping amongst themselves. “My God,” said the blonde in the middle to Claude and the others. “Did you hear about City Hall? They found Mayor Porter, Superintendent Walden, and Mr. Claremont hung inside. Like, with nooses, like the Old West.”
One of her friends said, “What happened last night?”
Abby shrugged. “Wish I knew.” The three ladies posed for a photo with Claude, then went on their way.
“Well,” Abby said, “that’s one thing I was wondering about solved. I guess we know the shot that started the Failure Revolution.”
“They didn’t deserve to die,” Fleur said. “Not because of that.”
Abby thought of Walden, and how his hatred for her shone through even as he was possessed. If she were going to start a new life after recovery, he would’ve made sure it couldn’t have happened in Caliche.
“…Mmm,” she said, after a moment. “Yeah. You’re right. Nobody deserved to die because of that.”
They reached Main Street, which would have taken them right by City Hall.
“What do you say we take the long way around?” Abby asked.
It was close to noon by the time they reached their destination. All three munched on convenience-store burritos and sipped at sweet, bubbly sodas. Unhealthy, obviously, but on the scale of indulgences as a reward for saving the world, a minor vice.
At last, they stood before Fleur’s house. Its charred, skeletal remains still stood months later after Fleur had burned it down.
She handed her lunch to Abby and stepped from the sidewalk, walking hesitantly across the scorched, brown lawn until she reached the perimeter of the house.
Abby and Claude tried to watch without being obvious about it. “They still haven’t torn it down?” Abby whispered.
Claude said back, softly, “The estate’s all tied up. Rich people die, it’s messy enough. They die like…this…and, well.” He shook his head. “Lots of sleazy relatives trying to influence our girl. I know Parky had to escort a few of them off the premises when they’d ‘visit’.” He took a sip of his huge soda. “Guess it’s coming to a head soon enough. She’ll be eighteen next year.”
Abby did a double-take. “Seriously? I always thought she was…”
“Younger? Yeah. I bet most people who meet her get that impression. I think she may have always had that…aura around her.”
Fleur picked her way through the burned frame, onto the scorched foundation. Some water pipes had melted, others still jutted up into phantom rooms. As she moved, trickles of black ash drifted down from what hadn’t caved in of the upper storey.
“Should I –?” Abby asked, but Claude put a soft hand on her arm.
Further away from them now, Fleur tiptoed over wreckage until she reached a backmost area of the ground floor. Two beams had fallen but wedged against each other, and in that cradle an immense amount of falling debris had been caught.
Anyone sitting under that spot would have been spared a crushing death. Meanwhile, the falling beams would have torn out a section of roof, allowing smoke to vent away and flames to spread elsewhere.
Fleur stood looking at that confluence for a long moment, then sat underneath the ‘V’ formed by the beams. They could see her lips move as she gazed around, as though she saw the remains of the house for the first time.
When Fleur slumped and put her face in her hands, Abby didn’t need a hint.
Abby made her careful way through the ruins until she reached Fleur. The girl looked up at her approach, a surprising lack of tears on her cheeks.
“Hey,” Abby said, and Fleur patted a spot of pitted, ash-streaked concrete beside her. Abby sat.
“…I used to stare into the fireplace when I was little,” Fleur said, after a couple of minutes of companionable silence. “My favorite part was when I’d close my eyes and the flames would still be there, dancing in the dark inside my eyelids.” She reached down and flicked a pebble, which skittered along the foundation until it pinged into something unrecognizable but metallic.
“Mommy…” Fleur cleared her throat. “…My mother always said I’d ruin my eyes, staring like that. But I didn’t, did I?” She looked over at Abby. “I ruined something bigger than that.”
“Can’t ruins be rebuilt?” Abby asked.
Fleur played with one of her ringlets, twisting it and tucking it behind her ear. “Sometimes they have to totally destroy something, so something new can take its place.”
Abby looked around. “…I’m sorry, Fleur,” she said. “Everyone at Brightest Lantern always treated you like you were a delicate little snowflake, and I just followed along. You deserved to be dealt with like a normal person.”
“I’m not, though,” Fleur said. “I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t think it’s possible.”
“Because,” the girl said, voice rising, “I burned up my family playing with matches. I burned up my family because I thought fire was so pretty.” She stood and stared at the vertex of beams and debris. “Why didn’t it kill me, too?” she said, and hit one of the beams as hard as she could. Nothing moved, nothing shifted, but Abby got the hell out of the way anyway.
“Why didn’t you kill me, too?” Fleur demanded, hitting the beams again and again, though they refused to yield. Not even a trickle of ash came forth.
Abby could see the blood dripping from Fleur’s knuckles as she pounded away, shouting “Why! Why! Why!” She ducked in behind her and grabbed Fleur’s arms at the elbows, preventing her from any more self-harm. Fleur fought against her for a few more seconds, still demanding an answer of the freak wreckage, until at last the tears came, just when Abby thought the girl had shed her lifetime supply of them.
“I don’t know why,” Abby said, shushing Fleur as she bawled and dripped snot onto Abby’s shoulder. “I don’t know.”
A sobbed garble of words from Fleur, muffled by Abby’s coat. “Nobody knows. Nobody knows, do they?”
Abby hugged her tighter.
Claude came over and embraced the two of them as they stood there in that place of death, that place of inexplicable life. Fleur’s tears tapered off, and she wiped her eyes, looking at Abby with clear sight. She looked her age, for the first time since Abby had met her.
“…I want to sleep,” Fleur said. “Can we please go somewhere where I can sleep?”
Claude put his arm around her and led her away. “Best idea I’ve heard all morning,” he said. “I could sleep for a week.”
“I could sleep for a year,” Fleur said.
“Shoot, I could sleep for…”
As they walked to the curb, Abby looked back at the wedged beams and the killing pile of junk they kept aloft.
“Nobody knows,” she said to herself.
Sleep, she thought. I don’t want to sleep.
I don’t want a drink, even though I should. I don’t want a cigarette. I don’t want pills or coke or pot.
I don’t want to scream at someone until they break down.
What do I want?
She reached out and gave the beams the tiniest poke. They made an alarming creak, and black dust sifted down.
Maybe it’s time to start figuring that out.
Abby turned and ran to catch up with her friends, walking together under the perfect clouds of a November sky.
One year later, come October, there wasn’t much celebration in the small Texas town of Caliche. Churches promoted ‘Fall Festivals’ and ‘Harvest Hoedowns,’ and people seemed happy for the alternative.
Brightest Lantern Recovery Center continued to run thanks to an influx of new patients. None stayed long-term, but the flow stayed steady enough to keep the lights on.
Dove Tranh turned herself in for elder abuse, losing her nursing license and serving a year’s probation. She kept to herself and left town when her sentence was up, never to return.
Alex Parkinson quit his job as a security guard to pursue a class-action suit against a popular theme park, the winnings from which he parlayed into forming a consumer protection board that carried out independent inspections of roller coasters and other such things.
Gladys, a woman whom everyone adored, but whose last name remained an eternal mystery, retired to spend more time with her grandchildren.
That Halloween, local celebrity ‘Cloudy’ Claude Jeffords could be seen entering the cemetery and taking flowers to a small, modest grave marker. He placed the flowers on the ground and stood there a few minutes, hands in pockets, looking at the ground.
As the sky darkened, Claude turned and walked away, returning to his ongoing project of rejoining the living.
Two years later, come October, there was more of an urge to celebrate in the small Texas town of Caliche. People decorated their yards with skeletons and spiders and ghosts and goblins.
Conspicuously absent were jack-o-lanterns.
The town saw a new run of good fortune, as the Travel Channel, Discovery Channel, SyFy, and others came in droves to interview people for an endless series of specials on Caliche. It only took one citizen telling one passer-through to start the rumors going, and the story of two years ago, of how the town passed out en masse only to wake up with odd memories from strangers in all their heads…
It was the biggest case of past-life regression ever seen, and it was TV-ratings and movie-option gold.
Brightest Lantern came close to shutting down again, as people re-adjusted to their new collective delusion of reincarnation and other lives. But a mysterious benefactor set up a trust to keep the center running indefinitely.
No one at Brightest Lantern knew, or would admit they knew, what the ‘BrightPointe Foundation’ was, but they all gave thanks for it.
That Halloween, a tall, willowy young lady with brown curls and haunted eyes could be seen entering the cemetery and taking flowers to a small, modest grave marker. She placed the flowers and then sat cross-legged in front of the grave for a good hour, lost in thought.
As the sky darkened, she stood and walked away. Those who saw her in town thought she looked familiar, but they couldn’t quite place her.
Three years later, come October, exultation of the spooky and scary was back in full swing in the small Texas town of Caliche, complete with an uncarved pumpkin on a porch here and there.
Those pumpkins didn’t survive the night, falling under the bats and boots of kid vandals.
And as October 31st began, Abby walked the halls of Brightest Lantern. She’d started the day with breakfast and her ritual viewing of Claude’s daytime talk show, ‘Parting the Clouds.’ Every weekday, he’d have on someone who’d made huge mistakes in their life — sometimes celebrities, most often ordinary folks — and they’d discuss how they had turned their lives around.
When the show launched, he’d sent Abby a framed photo of himself smiling and giving a thumbs-up, autographed, To Abby, My #1 Fan!
She’d sent him a photo of herself flipping off the camera, autographed, Here’s A #1 For You!
He called not long after, and the two of them got to laughing so hard they could barely speak to catch up.
Abby said hello to the nurses as she passed their station, and gave a smile to Dr. Ingalls, the new director, hired by the BrightPointe Foundation after an exhaustive search.
She paused before making the last few steps of her morning walk. This part was always the hardest, no matter how many times she did it. She stopped to feel for the reassuring roundness of the three-year chip in her pocket.
She was getting better every day, and this part of her morning, easy or hard, was a piece of that.
She walked into the lobby where a young man, skinny and nervous and edgy, sat in one of the big puffy chairs.
“Hi,” she said, and closed the distance between them, stepping around the big leather sofa. “I’m Abby, one of the counselors here. Welcome to Brightest Lantern.”
“I don’t want to be here,” the kid said, looking at the floor.
“I understand,” she said. “Court-ordered stays are rough. But I think this place will surprise you.” She held out a hand. “Ready to get started?”
The kid slapped her hand away and stood abruptly, fists clenching, eyes darting around the room as he looked, panicked, for a way out.
Abby raised her hands. “It’s okay,” she said. “Let’s just take it slow. Things aren’t as bad as they seem right now, I promise –”
The boy lunged at her, fists raised.
And just like a security guard she used to know, Abby grabbed one of those fists, pivoted and pulled, and flipped the kid over her shoulder and onto the sofa, where he landed with a woof of breath. Abby kept the hold for a second, just so it sank in that he could’ve been slammed onto hard tile instead of comfy furniture.
“Now,” she said. “Let’s take a deep breath, and then we’ll get started settling you in.”
A tear leaked out of the boy’s eye. “What if I don’t want to?” he said, the last dregs of his bluster draining away.
And just like a nurse she used to know, Abby smiled.
“Then you’ll leave me no choice but to be nice.”
That Halloween, a former bartender, cab driver, courier, telemarketer, teacher, and current drug and alcohol counselor could be seen entering the cemetery and taking flowers to a small, modest grave marker. She placed the flowers, then knelt in front of the stone, kissed her palm, and pressed it on the stone’s engraved BRENT, right between the engraved GERARD and MERCHANT.
As the sky darkened, she stood and returned to her car, leaving the grave marker where it was, as it continued to soak up the chill & the warmth, and the light & the dark, of another year’s journey around the Sun.
Another year of chances and choices, for good or bad, for better or worse.
Today’s Words: 2962
Total Words: 40664
Notes: Woo-hoo! This is officially the first Halloween novel to beat its assigned challenge of being finished on 10/31 with a word count in excess of 40K!
Thanks to everyone who’s been reading along. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride, and that you’ll join me next October.