Lanterns: Day Thirty-One – The End

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.

“Not yet.”

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.”

“Why not?”

“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.

***

EPILOGUE ONE

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.

***

EPILOGUE TWO

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.

***

EPILOGUE THREE

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.

–END–

*****

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.

Happy Halloween!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Thirty

“Guess he never heard of the aluminum foil trick,” Abby said. She and Fleur took off down the hall, but just as quickly as the alarm sounded, it shut off again as the door closed.

Abby turned and took Fleur by the shoulders, gently. “I’ve got to get the pumpkin and get outside, but they’ll see me and try to stop me. It’s almost over, I promise. I just need to do this one thing, and I need you to help me. Can you kick some butt for me one last time?”

Fleur nodded once, short and sharp. “Always,” she said.

Abby could hear the others from down the hallway heading their way. She patted Fleur on the shoulder and the girl took off running to intercept the employees. Abby herself ran behind, and as Fleur turned the corner, Abby went the other way and ducked into the cafeteria. She could hear Fleur yelling, “I tried to get out! I tried to go outside, but they’re here! They’re all around the building!”

Abby grabbed the suitcase and peeked through the roundel windows set in the cafeteria’s swinging doors. Parky was leading the group away from the nurses’ station, towards the front of the building, no doubt to check the barricades. Fleur looked back as the others walked away, caught a peek of Abby through the cafeteria doors, and flashed her a quick thumbs-up.

One silent push of the doors, and Abby was out in the hallway, hauling the luggage alongside. She got to the fire door and paused. No time to go back to the lunchroom storage and hunt for foil for her own exit. Oh, well — the time for subtlety was over, anyway.

She pushed open the door, squeezed through a small gap, and shoved against the hydraulics to shut it as fast as she could.

Not fast enough, as the siren gave a one-second blat before she got the latch engaged.

Abby sprinted beside the building, casting an eye to the town below as she moved. She could make out the traffic jam Fleur had reported as they drove out here: a snarl of a hundred or more headlights with shapes moving amongst them.

It almost looked like the figures down there, in the dozens of dozens, were fighting each other. Bodies collided and shoved and tripped and climbed on cars only to leap off on each other…from Abby’s vantage point, it looked like pure, violent chaos.

But even then, she could see the occasional figure break away and move past the front-most grouping of headlights. Those could only be pumpkin-people heading to the hill on foot. Beyond that, more cars approached from town only to stop at the pile-up and disgorge their passengers, who joined in the fray.

Base desires? she wondered. Easier to act out and fight each other than join forces and come after us?

Gee, and they had such high hopes for forming a new society earlier tonight. Who’d have thought thousands of evil creatures couldn’t work in harmony?

Abby reached the ladder to the roof and saw, with relief, that it had been lowered. She climbed as best she could with the unwieldy luggage in one hand, rung after chilly metal rung, and reached the roof surprisingly quick, all her cuts and scrapes throbbing. She tossed the suitcase ahead of her, and finished the climb, looking around as she boosted herself over the curved rails at the ladder’s top.

Dr. Godfrey stood on the edge of the roof at the front side of the building, looking on the cars and madness below. He swayed slightly, as if a tree in the breeze.

Abby paused where she’d landed, thinking of how to get his attention without startling him and driving him off the edge. One slip, and whoops, apocalypse. She left the suitcase where it lay, and walked softly, almost casually, to within audible distance.

“Dr. Godfrey,” she said, in a calm but firm voice. He stiffened at the sound, but turned to look at her, his face filled with sadness and fear.

“Abby,” he said. “Come here, would you please?” His voice cracked as he spoke, and Abby could tell he was firmly back in pistol-in-mouth mode. She tried to smile, to be reassuring, and walked the rest of the way to where he stood.

From here, she could see what he saw: citizens, their pumpkins absorbed to the point of being gentle, bulging curves against the sides of their necks. They milled around in front of Brightest Lantern, slapping hands against doors and windows, picking up and throwing rocks at the building, and occasionally bumping into each other and fighting.
She could also see the horizon, barely lit by a weak red glow.

“You want to make me into one of them,” Godfrey said accusingly. “What in Heaven’s name did I ever do to you to make you hate me that much?” A tear ran down his cheek. “I testified on your behalf, did you know that? I read your case, thought I could help you, and spoke to the judge in your defense. And this is how you thank me for saving you from prison. This is how you, and those other ingrates, thank me.”

Abby closed her eyes for a second and took a breath. “You told me,” she said, “when I first came here, that there would be a lot of pain to go through before it was all over. Well, fixing this problem is going to take some pain before it’s taken care of, too.”

He laughed, a bitter guffaw. “Don’t turn your therapist’s words back on him, Abby. That’s Psych 101. You think you can convince me with something that obvious?”

“Depends,” she said. “Is it working?” She took another step forward. “Can you at least step down off the ledge for me? Please?”

“You never ask directly,” he said. “You try to find out what the person has to live for. Honestly, you’d think someone intelligent like you would have picked up better techniques while you’ve been here. Or maybe everyone was right. Maybe you never intended to get well.”

“Maybe,” Abby said. “But you know what I did tonight? I had the person — the little kid — I hated most in the world at my mercy. And guess what — I bundled her up, reassured her, and hid her somewhere safe.”

Dr. Godfrey golf-clapped. “Good girl. You get a gold star.”

“Might as well take it back,” Abby said. “I also convinced myself I needed to pop an amphetamine to get through the night, and pressured other people to take one, too. One step forward, two steps backward, right?”

Godfrey shook his head, and started to turn back to look upon his work.

“So tell me what you have to live for,” Abby said, and he stopped his spin, wobbling slightly.

“Brightest Lantern would have shut down at the end of the year,” he said, his voice thick. “All this for nothing. I did my best to fix it, and look. Just look at how well I succeeded. And now you want me to do some other stupid thing to ‘make things better,’ and all it’s going to do is turn me into a monster.” He put his hands to his face, and she could barely make out his murmur: “I’ve ruined everything.” He began to sink into a pitiful kneel, hands still over his eyes, and Abby seized the opportunity. She closed the distance between them with a quick bolt, grabbed his elbow, and hauled him off the edge and onto the tarpaper roof with a rough tug.

Godfrey landed in a heap, and Abby danced around to interpose herself between him and the edge.

“Stay down,” she said, and looked back at the sky, where red was transitioning into orange, spreading more broadly along the skyline. “If you know what’s good for you, stay right where you are.”

“Jumping off and breaking my neck is what’s good for me,” he mewled. “Eating a bullet is what’s good for me. Why won’t you let me? Do I have to beg?”

“Are you trying to make me sympathize by using self-pity?” Abby asked. “I thought someone intelligent like you would be above something obvious like that.”

“You hate me, and everyone at the center, and everyone in town,” Godfrey said. “Why are you doing this? Why are you acting like you care?”

I’m not acting!” Abby shouted, then, stunned by the realization, said more softly, to herself, “…I’m not acting…” She looked down at Godfrey. “And maybe…maybe I’m not that much better, but this is me trying.” She reached down, grabbed him by the ankle, and started walking. He had at least a hundred pounds on her, but the threat of having his knee hyper-extended forced him to butt-scoot along the roof after her as she walked.

“Stop,” he pleaded, “please stop.”

Foot by foot, they made their way to the suitcase. “Don’t you dare move,” she snapped, and left Godfrey in a cowering heap as she took two quick steps to the suitcase. She spun it to face him and grabbed the zipper tab.

From below came the sound of breaking glass and shouts of fear.

She moved the zipped to the first corner. A glow shone from the gap in the lid.

Hey, she thought. I’ve got a favor to ask, and I know I don’t have any right to.

The zipper moved across the length of the suitcase to the second corner. The glow became stronger. Godfrey whimpered as it illuminated him.

I just really hope you don’t answer ‘no’.

She pulled the zipper all the way to its starting position, and flipped open the suitcase. The jack-o-lantern sat there, docile as ever.

It made no move toward Godfrey, who babbled with terror at the sight of it. He began to move away, but Abby ran to the doctor, knelt behind him, and grabbed his arm in a hammerlock, keeping him in place. Godfrey wailed with a baby’s terror of everything.

“Hey,” she shouted, with a quick, anxious glance at a sky that had gotten no less darker. “What are you waiting for?”

The pumpkin sat there, its calmness a contrast to the sounds of battle below.

It’s turned on us. It knows if it does this, its plans are over. No, no no.

Godfrey mirrored her thoughts, writhing in her grip. “Nononononononono…”

Why won’t it move? Why won’t it —

“Move,” she shouted, and the pumpkin bobbed just a bit, looking from side to side as if unsure where to go.

And if Abby hadn’t been pinning Godfrey, she would’ve kicked herself.

‘Servitor’. Something that serves. Like a trained animal. Only does what it’s told, and it didn’t move earlier until Claude told it to. So it won’t do anything unless —

“I’m sorry,” she said to the weeping, gibbering Godfrey. Then, to the pumpkin: “Take him.”

In a flash, vines uncoiled from the suitcase by the dozen, and Abby shoved Godfrey towards them, backing herself clear. The green tendrils wrapped around his legs, and though Godfrey screamed and kicked mightily, it was no use.

The pumpkin wrapped his legs and chest and, as Godfrey began pulling himself along the roof with spastic, clawing hands, curls of tar working under his once-immaculate fingernails, the pumpkin hauled itself out of the suitcase, tiptoeing after him on a delicate thrush of fronds on its underside. The vines, meanwhile, did their work, moving up his chest to collar Godfrey’s neck and pull him back like a reined horse.

Abby couldn’t stop watching. She was vaguely aware of the noises below reaching a thunderous climax of shouts, screams, and shattering. But she just could not stop staring at the nightmarish spectacle before her.

The vines whipped around Godfrey’s shoulders and splayed his arms out so he lay cruciform on the roof, in a pose Abby knew couldn’t be a coincidence. Then they finished with his arms, shrouding them in verdant coils.

And then, only then, did the jack-o-lantern make its move. The vines pulled it along the length of Godfrey’s helpless body, ropes of green shifting and playing out to tug the pumpkin up his form, inch after inch. Godfrey screamed, hoarse from the tendrils clenching around his neck.

With a final shift of its bulk, the pumpkin settled itself on Godfrey’s shoulder. It yanked his limbs around until he sat upright.

Then its mouth and eyes flared with that eerie inner light, and it began to whisper.

From below, there was a change in the screams. It started small, at first, but the noises from the fighting below tapered off, and the screaming went from bravery and anger and aggression…to pure terror.

Terror, multiplied by the thousands.

Abby staggered to the edge of the roof and saw figures stumbling in the near-dawn, silhouettes with grotesque swelling on their necks that, as she watched, swelled and burst in sticky showers.

Further below, the traffic jam was witness to hundreds more being freed of their supernatural parasites, messy explosion after messy explosion.

Abby sank to her knees, pressed her face into the arms she folded on the roof’s edge, and let out a huge, hitching sob, that quickly turned into a scream of triumph. She wouldn’t look, wouldn’t raise her head. Abby hollered her joy, her relief, her tension, her ecstasy, and the last ashen particles of her anger into her curled arms until her ears rang.

At last, she stood to see citizens either passed out in heaps or wandering around the building drunkenly.

They were easy to make out in the first light of sunrise.

She turned back from the view to see Godfrey still rocking in place, still taken over by the final remaining jack-o-lantern. She stepped over to him, looked down at him for a moment, then knelt behind him, holding him through the rough green wrappings he wore.

And as the pumpkin slowly disintegrated, Abby whispered to him.

“It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay now.”

But her whispers weren’t loud enough to drown out the ones from the pumpkin, which continued until the last piece of it had turned to orange-green slag and melted away:

“You’ll never help anyone. You’ll never make anyone well. You’ll never change anything for the better.

“AND YOUR SOUL IS OURS.”

***

They had to leave him on the roof; no one was in any shape to finagle Dr. Godfrey’s unconscious form down the ladder. They left him with promises to fetch him as soon as they could.

Abby hugged Claude and Fleur, all of them weeping into each other’s shoulders, high-fiving, fist-bumping, then crying again. Claude picked up both Abby and Fleur in turn, spinning them around in the air, then putting them back down with a protest about his back…only to pick them up and spin them again in short order.

“How are the others?” Abby asked, as they wandered through the crowds of dazed but physically unharmed citizens.

“Dove got knocked out cold,” Claude said. “Parky’s looking after her and ignoring a couple of broken fingers he picked up himself.”

“And Gladys?”

Fleur grabbed Abby’s arm. “Omigod, you should’ve seen her! She made us look like we were slap-fighting those things!”

“And not a scratch on her,” Claude added.

A woman in a pink terrycloth robe wandered up and almost ran into them. She shook her head, then focused on the group. “…’Cloudy’ Claude?” the woman asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Um…just, uh, helping out,” Claude said, nonplused.

“That’s so nice,” the woman said. “You were always such a nice guy. I’m glad to see you.” With that, she stumbled away.

The three of them made their way to the top of the hill, right where the driveway began to slope down. A couple more people came up to Claude, shook his hand, and expressed how nice it was to see him out and about.

“Can’t drive into town,” Abby said. “Not with that traffic jam. That’s gonna stop emergency services from getting in from that direction, too.”

“You’re not saying we go back down there?” Claude asked.

“Yeah,” Abby said. “Why not? A lot of people to help, a lot of work to do. We need to get our friend out of Godfrey’s house, and I need to help a little girl find her mother, to name a couple of things.” She nudged him. “Besides, your public awaits, it looks like.”

“Oh, hush,” Claude said, but he looked back at one of the people who’d greeted him, and Abby saw a tiny smile spread across his face.

“Can we…” Fleur began, but she shook her head and went quiet.

“Can we what?” Abby asked.

Fleur leaned over and whispered in her ear, and Abby reached out and gave the girl’s hand a squeeze.

“Of course we can,” Abby said.

Claude shook his head. “If we can’t drive, that’s going to be a long walk.”

“Yeah,” Abby said. She held out her arms, and her friends linked elbows with her. “But isn’t it a beautiful morning for it?”

And with that, they took their first steps down the hill.

*****

Today’s Words: 2875
Total Words: 37702

*****

Notes: See you tomorrow for the finale!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Nine

They got Dr. Godfrey settled in his office with a cup of coffee Abby insisted on making for him over Gladys’s protests that she should be the one doing anything in the cafeteria. Fleur sat with him, smiling, patting his hand, and nodding whenever he made a cryptic pronouncement.

“He got so scared in the car,” the girl said about her volunteering to watch him.

Abby had stashed her suitcase in the cafeteria, and debated ripping off the bandage and just showing Parky the pumpkin. But he seemed so trigger-happy about the idea of the jack-o-lanterns, she didn’t want to risk him splattering the pumpkin before she could explain what was going on.

Claude was trying to tell them, but it seemed the others’ suspension of disbelief had a very low limit. Jack-o-lanterns invading and taking people over? That was okay. The invasion coming from the depths of Hell, and people merging with the pumpkins, ultimately being taken over by the souls of the damned? That raised an eyebrow, not to mention some healthy skepticism.

That Dr. Godfrey could have had anything to do with it? Parky, Dove, and Gladys flat-out refused to accept that, no matter what.

So for the moment, they played nice and polite, when all Abby really wanted to do was have Claude and Fleur pin Godfrey to a cafeteria table while she unzipped the suitcase and got this whole mess settled. She toyed with the idea of just leading a frontal charge on the employees, but Parky’s martial arts and Navy combat training meant he’d disassemble Abby and her group in seconds.

Play nice. Less than forty-five minutes to go, and we’re here playing nice.

Wish I could summon up some of that old anger.

Abby hadn’t had much time to think about anything , but that burning-out of her former easily-raised ire puzzled her. Her extinction-level tantrum at their prison-house still weighed on her, and while she could recall how furious she felt then, the big red button in her head that triggered said fury was not only broken, it seemed like her head had been re-wired so that it had never been there.

It worried her, and made her think about PTSD and what other psychological awfulness might be waiting for her on the other side of this deranged night.

The cafeteria was line-of-sight from where Claude held court with the employees, so they’d see her retrieving the suitcase. She’d already piqued their interest by taking it to the cafeteria and not bringing it back —

“What’s in the luggage?”

“Er…tampons.”

— however, she’d managed to deflect any interest for the moment. Fetching the suitcase again would draw their eye for sure.

And likewise, they’d see her and Fleur leading Dr. Godfrey into the cafeteria, and given the employees’ unwavering defense of him, that would likely set off their radar as well.

Should’ve just done it outside. But what if the pumpkin ran off?

She had an urge to knock Parky, Dove, and Gladys unconscious, and for a moment thought her anger was coming back, but realized the urge came from a cold, clinical understanding of the easiest way to solve the problem.

Cold obviously didn’t understand judo flips, and neither did Clinical.

So Abby put on her best smile and went to join the discussion.

“But if there are twenty thousand people coming up that hill, we can’t defend this place,” Claude was saying, and Abby smiled inwardly, as well. “We need to go now.”

Parky pooh-poohed the idea. “We fought them off here. That many people in Caliche? They stomped those pumpkins. There are going to be stragglers, pockets of resistance, and that’s what we’ll go get help for when the sun’s up.”

“Man, I am telling you that’s going to be too late! We were down there, in town! We saw what was going on. What do we have to gain by lying about it?”

Dove said, “You’ve got this weird grudge against Dr. Godfrey. Was it because he left on vacation, and wasn’t here to run group therapy?”

Abby interrupted. “If he was on vacation, why did we find him at home?”

Dove shrugged. “Vacation, stay-cation, what difference does it make?”

“We don’t have a grudge against him –” Claude said, but Gladys butted in.

“Good. He’s a sweet man. I won’t hear a bad word said against him.”

Claude paused to take a breath. “…How can we convince you that sunrise is too late? C’mon, let’s look outside, or go look from the roof. You’ll see them coming for us.”

Or maybe not, Abby thought. With the pumpkins combining with the people, they don’t glow anymore. We may not be able to see them storming up the hill.

How long to force down the barricades at the front door? How long until they swarm over us in a wave?

The sound of running footsteps stopped the argument, and they all looked up to see Fleur heading their way.

“Abby!” she shouted, but slowed as she noticed the others. “Um, Abby — it’s, um, I mean…it’s…” She blushed under the scrutiny of the group.

“What’s wrong?” Abby asked, but felt a dread growing inside her, coiling up the length of her spine.

“I…I have to go to the bathroom,” Fleur blurted out. “I’m scared!”

Abby stared at her for a second, then let out a breath. “Okay. All right, let’s go, then,” she said, but turned back to the group as she left. “We’re picking this up again when I get back.”

The two of them headed down the hall, and Abby hissed at Fleur, “Seriously? The bathroom? You just about scared me to death. I thought you were going to say –”

“Dr. Godfrey ran away,” Fleur whispered back. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I just couldn’t think of how to tell you, y’know, secretly, and…”

“Oh, God,” Abby said as they rounded the corner. The dread that had receded sprang right back into position, clenching her vertebrae, drilling into her skull. “How? How did it happen?”

“He was getting freaked out,” Fleur said. “He stood up, and I stood up to try to stop him, but he shoved me and I fell and the next thing I knew he was gone and I don’t know –”

Abby cut in. “Okay. We’ve just got to find him. I didn’t think he’d be able to go anywhere, though.”

“Why?”

Abby looked at Fleur. “Because that coffee I gave him was full of hydrocodone.” She wiggled her right foot, having gotten used to the lump under her arch that was no longer there. “He should’ve been zonked out by now.”

Fleur ducked her head. “He didn’t drink a lot of it. He said it was too bitter.”

“So much for the miracle of Splenda,” Abby groused. “Regardless, we don’t have time to go on a big hunt. We’ve got to find him, and find him fast.”

Just then, the air was split with a piercing siren, one Abby knew well:

The fire exit had been opened.

*****

Today’s Words: 1179
Total Words: 34827

*****

Notes: Two days left, and still on target to finish by the deadline!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Eight

Claude saw her coming, made a quick U in the parking lot, and had the passenger door open before Abby reached them. He and Fleur were shouting, cheering her on as she ran, the heavy suitcase banging her thigh with every step, the wounds she had from her fight for that suitcase burning all over her body in the cold autumn breeze.

The cars pursuing them drew closer, cop cars flashing their Visibars as hard as they’d go, and the civilian cars blasted their headlights like dozens of angry will-o-wisps barreling down the street.

Abby hopped in the car, suitcase squashing her lap, and hollered, “Drive!” before she’d even closed the door.

Claude got the car moving, peeling out and throwing gravel, and pulled onto the road a hundred yards ahead of the vehicles hounding them.

“You’re all scratched up!” Fleur shouted as Abby closed the wildly swinging door.

“It’s cool,” Abby called back. “You should see the other guy!”

“Trouble getting the suitcase?” Claude asked, eyes flicking frantically between the road ahead and the car’s mirrors.

“It went about as well as everything else tonight,” Abby said. She looked back over her shoulder. “I can’t believe it! I thought you were going to lose them!”

“Yeah, well…” Claude said.

“I just can’t believe it,” she said again. “Didn’t you at least try the thing where you lightly touch the brake then accelerate?”

Claude was too focused on the getaway to look at her, but she saw the corner of his mouth twitch up.

“Man, shut up,” he said. “If you make me wreck this car, then where’ll we be?”

Abby became aware of the unutterable tension twanging through her body. She made a conscious effort, and sank into the leather upholstery, sighing under the weight of the suitcase. “…God, I’m so glad y’all are okay.”

“Us too,” said Fleur. “Um, to see you.”

Abby looked back at the silent member of the group. “How are you holding up, Dr. Godfrey?”

He looked up at Abby. “We’ve seen what they’re turning into,” he said, then went back to thinking.

“Along the streets,” Claude said, “and once when they tried to cut us off. The pumpkins are…melting into the people, combining with them.”

“Yeah,” said Abby. “The good news is, it’s not permanent.” She gave them a quick rundown of her encounter with Laycee Vandenberg, and they were appreciably grossed out.

“I just don’t –” Claude began, but a car even smaller than theirs pulled out in the intersection ahead and stopped. Claude slewed around it and kept going. “If they figure out how to drive semis, we’re cooked. But no, the way these things keep changing, I just don’t see how they can keep it up. First they’re mindless, then they parrot us, then they’re making plans to live among us…so why break those plans to live like savages? What do they think they’re doing?”

“We’ve seen what they’re turning into, Abby,” said Godfrey again, as though speaking to her for the first time.

“What –” Abby said, but Fleur caught her eye.

“He’s,” said the girl, who then made a moue and shook her head.

How far gone can he be, Abby thought, before the pumpkin won’t touch him? Without thinking, she ran a hand over the vinyl surface of the suitcase. The thing inside moved, just a bit, and she gave a start.

…It could have been a rock in there. They could have swapped out a rock, and I wouldn’t have known, and we would have been shafted. But they were so sure they could take me down, they got cocky.

No, prideful. That’s one of the seven deadly sins, after all.

“So where to?” Claude asked, taking another corner, still in the mode of eluding rather than seeking a stopping point. “I don’t think there’s anywhere in town we can get to where they wouldn’t be on us in seconds. Not enough time to get to the next town, either.”

“I don’t know,” said Abby. “I don’t want to let this thing loose in the car, no matter how docile it acts. But I just can’t think of anything, and we’ve got less than an hour until…”

“Um, you guys?” Fleur piped up. “Why don’t we just go home?”

***

The hatchback took the hill well. On the highway out of town, Claude had floored it and put some more distance between them and their chasers. Halfway there, Fleur looked back and laughed.

“A wreck!” she shouted. “I think they had a pile-up!”

Cresting the hill, they pulled around to the side of Brightest Lantern, only to find someone had closed the garage door after they’d left.

“The hell?” Abby said. “Stop, let’s get out.” Claude pulled up in front of the garage and they exited the car, Fleur leading a shuffling, disoriented Dr. Godfrey by the hand. Abby and Claude jogged to the front of the building, but stopped. “See the shadows on the glass?” Abby asked, pointing at the doors. “They’ve been barricaded. It’s got to be someone uninfected…why would the jack-o-lanterns block themselves inside?”

They trotted back to the garage, and Abby started battering the metal door with her fists. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

After a few seconds of banging, someone hit the door from the other side, and she stopped. “Who goes there?” demanded a tough male voice.

“…Parky? Parky, it’s Abby! Let us in!”

She could barely hear a whispered voice. “They can imitate voices. Remember when it was talking like me?”

Gladys?” Abby called. “Gladys, are you okay? They still had you the last time I saw you…they used you to lure us down into town!”

“I don’t remember that,” she heard Gladys whisper.

“Ask her something only she would know,” came another whisper, this one louder — Dove.

“Okay,” said Parky. “Abby, I’m going to have to ask you a question to prove you are who you say –”

Abby rolled her eyes. “Parky, I swear to Christ, if you don’t open this door, I’m going to kick you in the nuts so hard you’ll have three Adam’s apples!”

There was a pause. Moments later, she heard the chain inside rattle as Parky hauled open the door. “Good enough,” he said, when he saw her, and smiled. All three employees, sans pumpkins, came out to hug and escort the others in, and to rejoice on seeing Dr. Godfrey.

Once safe inside, Parky led them to the nurse’s station. “Dove and I snapped out of…whatever they did to us…long enough to find each other and make a plan. We ran across Gladys, freed her, then the three of us went on a pumpkin hunt and cleared the facility of the rest of them.”

“And the babies,” Dove said, wrinkling her pert nose.

“Yeah,” Parky said, and squeezed Dove’s shoulder. “But what it comes down to is: I think we’re safe for the moment. Come daybreak, we can head out for the next town and get help.”

Claude said, “We have some things to tell you, but trust me…waiting until daybreak is the worst thing we could do.”

“I don’t understand,” Parky said. “We’re safe here. For right now, this is a pumpkin-free zone.”

Abby coughed and moved the suitcase behind her back.

*****

Today’s Words: 1216
Total Words: 33648

*****

Notes: And now on to the weekened! The current plan is to finish the novel by Sunday, then write the epilogue on the 31st. This may actually happen!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Seven

“You should see your face,” giggled Laycee. She hopped out of the van and landed not on her feet, but on a flurry of vines that erupted from her pants-cuffs. They flared out as they touched the asphalt, keeping her wavering and aloft a few inches off the ground. As she moved closer, the vines beneath her slithering across the pavement in a ever-entwining mass, Abby could see changes in Laycee’s pumpkin passenger: it had begun to absorb into the skin of her neck and shoulder, looking more like an engorged orange boil or the malformed head of a conjoined twin than a perching gourd. Laycee’s own head had a fixed lean to it as the pumpkin fused and merged with her flesh.

Abby stepped back as Laycee drew nearer. She kept her eye on the suitcase, and was relieved to see its side still tented from the pumpkin inside.

“Poor Miss Abby,” crooned the monstrous little girl. “Can’t cut it as a teacher, but too proud to quit. How many kids did you mess up from being so awful at your job?”

“…Is Laycee even in there anymore?” Abby asked the creature.

“Sure I am, Miss Abby,” Laycee said in stereo, her mouth moving in time with the voice coming from what remained of the jack-o-lantern’s semi-fused mouth. “Are you okay? I’m gonna go get the nurse.” Laycee laughed again. “Actually, just wait a few more minutes, and I’ll get the coroner instead.”

“And what happens when you’ve finished burrowing inside her?”

“Then we’ll be together forever. Oh, I’ll call all the shots, but Laycee gets to ride along and watch me.” She wiggled her fists back and forth in front of her eyes, boo-hoo. “She wants me to tell you she’s sorry. You’re not a drunk whore like her mommy says.”

Abby snorted and put a hand on her hip. “Well, her mom’s half-right. We can smell our own. So let me ask you — what’s the point of this? Bad psychological warfare? I’m supposed to lose it because you’re coming at me with the little girl that ended my career? That’s, like, the twelfth or thirteenth most messed-up thing that’s happened to me tonight. Try harder.”

Laycee raised her palms and shrugged. As she did, Abby could see the tendrils wrapping her arms were likewise merging with the girl’s flesh — vines into veins. “Maybe we have a flair for the dramatic, too, like your big oratory across town to our brothers and sisters. Sure, we could have just taken the suitcase, let the servitor-pumpkin inside loose, torched the van…all perfectly respectable ways of breaking your spirit. But we wanted you to see how close you were to succeeding before you lost. And we wanted you to know how badly you lost when it happened.” Laycee touched her tongue to a thumb. “When I was alive, I loved children oh, so much. And now I get to be one. The things I’m going to do once the sun rises…the things we’re all going to do…”

“Funny way of showing how grateful you are to be back in God’s presence again,” Abby said. She tamped down her revulsion as best she could, but couldn’t quite keep the quavering frown from her face.

“Oh, that,” Laycee said, waving a dismissive hand. “Some of us are more…high-minded than the others. Most of us are going to celebrate our freedom and indulge every urge we’ve ever had. As for God, well…there’s plenty of time to get back in His good graces, now that we’ve got our second chance. Ever hear of a deathbed repentance?” She flicked her human eyes to the clock tower. “Just about time for you to make one, by the way.”

And just as she finished speaking, Laycee thrust out an arm. Before Abby could react, a single vine lashed from the girl’s sleeve, nicking Abby’s cheek with its needle-tip. Laycee reeled the vine back in and looked at the crimson drop hanging from its end.

“Eww,” Laycee said, sounding so much like a little girl it turned Abby’s stomach. “Blood. Gross.”

Abby ducked as Laycee raised her arm again, and dodged the vine that whistled overhead. Her back zinged her in response.

“Death of a thousand cuts,” Laycee said. “No…twenty thousand at least. One for every one of us you were stupid enough to think you could stop.”

Lash, lash, and lash again, as Laycee put both arms into play, closing in on Abby, riding on the squirming mass of tentacles enshrouding her shoes.

“You know what she did?” the girl-thing asked as she attacked and Abby caught rips in her coat and jeans. “That last day, when you passed out and knocked your head on the desk? She kept the class calm while the nurse and principal examined you and tried to wake you up. She got the kids out in the hall and read a book to them, and got them all to hug each other so they weren’t so scared. Such a good little girl. Better than you deserved, you souse.”

Every time Laycee landed a hit — and she connected more than not — it stung like a construction-paper cut.

“What do you want me to — ow! — say?” Abby gasped, able to avoid the vines less and less. “I’m not — nnghh — giving a thing like you my confession. I’m not telling you that I’m trying to be a better person. You — eee! — you can’t understand what being a better person is.”

She spun as a vine whickered past, and Abby felt a line of red pain open up across the back of her neck.

“But if you can hear me,” she said, pulse thumping in her ears, “I’m sorry, Laycee. I’m — aghh! — I’m sorry. Forgive me or don’t, I just have to say –”

Laycee got close enough that her feet-tendrils lashed out and got Abby by the ankles. They gave a mighty yank, and Abby’s feet went out from under her. She landed flat on the pavement, and her skull cracked against the hard ground. Abby saw stars.

There’s that deathbed penance,” Laycee crooned. She moved over Abby slowly, deliberately, like an egg-laying wasp that’s just paralyzed its prey. Vines snuck out from her sleeves, her cuffs, her collar and midriff, and pinned Abby down, ankles, knees, stomach, and neck, one by one, with aching, methodical movements. Abby thrashed her arms as best she could to avoid being pinned entirely, and Laycee laughed at her efforts. “Oh, keep your arms,” the creature said. “For all it’ll help.” She looked Abby in the eyes. “Never good enough, even up to the very end. Half-Ass Abby, always a failure.” More vines, more than Abby would have thought possible, snaked forth, tightening their tips into sharp ends. Two moved before Abby’s eyes, two at her temples, two at her ears, and one at her carotid artery.

Laycee got in extra-close, their noses nearly touching. “I want to see it,” she said, singsong. “When I push these into you, inch by inch, I want to see the light die in your eyes.”

“…I want to see something, too,” Abby panted. “Whether or not Gerard had a good idea.”

From her jacket pocket, she pulled out the stun gun, planted it clean in the middle of Laycee’s sternum, and pushed the button.

Laycee arched her back and screamed, an echo of rage like Abby hadn’t heard since the mother-pumpkin had attacked. The girl herself screamed wordlessly, jaw ratcheted open, eyes bugging out. Abby could feel the residual voltage passing from Laycee’s body to hers, Abby’s muscles going through short, quick tremors.

With a whip-crack, the vines holding and threatening Abby withdrew back under Laycee’s clothing as one. The girl tried to fall back, but Abby stayed with her, keeping the stun gun in place, her thumb pressing down on the button so hard Abby feared something would break.

And as she watched the monster shimmy and shake, Abby could see the half-pumpkin at Laycee’s neck begin to swell, electricity dancing along the crude gaps of its eyes and mouth. The blue arcs combined with the orange glow make the pumpkin start to turn purple like a huge, vile blood blister.

Then it burst.

Abby and Laycee both were showered in pumpkin guts, and through her goop-covered eyelashes, Abby could see green crud slopping out of the gaps in Laycee’s shirt and pants.

And it was all over but the dripping.

Abby cradled Laycee’s body to hers. The girl breathed, seemingly asleep. Abby swept away a glop of pumpkin from Laycee’s neck. No injury was present: the skin was smooth and unblemished. To all appearances, the pumpkin’s destruction had left no physical injuries.

Abby wiped the excess sludge from Laycee’s face, and the girl stirred as if in a dream. “…Mommy,” she whispered.

Abby leaned in and kissed Laycee on the forehead, tasting rotten fruit. “Go back to sleep, baby,” she said, and Laycee settled into her arms with a contented sigh.

She lifted her and carried her to the van. As safe a place as any for now — they could come back get her if things went well, and the pumpkin-people wouldn’t find her right away if…

Abby ran a hand through her own seed-and-pulp-clotted hair, and tried to think positively. It was a new habit, and she wasn’t quite used to it yet.

She laid the girl down on the back bench seat and, before she left her, buttoned up Laycee’s coat. It was cold out, after all.

Abby walked back to where she’d dropped the stun gun and put it back in her pocket, giving it, too, a quick kiss.

Sorry to go through your pockets, dude, Abby thought. It’s just that Godfrey’s back was turned, and well…

She looked up at the night sky as blue crept into its black.

Thanks for the save.

She limped to the van and retrieved the suitcase, sliding the door shut. Say what you will about being electrocuted by association…at least it had made her back feel better.

A screech of tires came. Across the street, she saw the hybrid, Claude at the wheel, whip in by the pizza place.

A few blocks away from them, sirens just becoming audible, came the cop cars. And behind them, a line of even more cars, civilian and otherwise, in pursuit.

Abby gripped the suitcase’s handle as hard as she could, and ran to her friends, the end of the world snapping at her heels.

*****

Today’s Words: 1764
Total Words: 32432

*****

Notes: A day behind — not where you want to be when closing in on the end of a novel! I should catch back up tonight, though…

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Six

“What does it feel like?” Dr. Godfrey wondered aloud, breaking up the somber atmosphere in the car. During the ride, Fleur had scooted as far away from him as possible in the back seat, and the sound of his voice made her turn to him with an annoyed glare.

Abby didn’t feel like talking, but Claude took the bait. “What does what feel like?”

“When they do that — when one of those pumpkins…takes you over.”

Claude considered this. “Guess you’ll be finding out soon enough.”

Godfrey considered that. “…I wonder if it hurts.”

Fleur finally broke off from eyeing him and went back to looking out the window. “I hope so,” she muttered.

They rode in silence again for a couple more blocks before Abby spoke up. “You forgot your next line.”

“What?” Godfrey asked, confused.

“About how you never meant to hurt anybody. Or how you only had the best of intentions. Or maybe how it was all for the greater good. Y’know, some B.S. like that.”

Godfrey looked at his lap.

“They got everyone else at Brightest Lantern. Did you know that? Dove and Parky and Gladys. Was that part of the master plan, too?”

“…You can’t make me feel any worse than I already do,” Godfrey pouted.

“Oooh, psychology,” Abby said. “Yeah, well…that may be the case, but it doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop trying.”

“What I want to know is,” Claude said, “how do you even get the idea to try something like this? Where do you find out how to do it? Just…just how, in general?”

Godfrey sat there quietly as the car jounced over a speed bump. “…You know how they say when you pray to God for something, sometimes He says ‘no’? I always hated that. Because the only people who say things like that are people who never have anything go wrong in their lives. They want to pretend they sympathize, when they’re really thankful they aren’t suffering like you are. So instead of trying to help, they shift the blame to God and act like they have some huge insight into why He does what He does.

“So sure, at first I did what I was supposed to do. The treatment center was bleeding money, and I prayed and prayed and prayed.

“And then I decided I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

“I researched online. I took trips out of town to weird bookshops, whose smell I’ll never get out of my clothes. I used my credentials to interview murderers in prison, claiming I was working on a book about ritualistic, occult killings. And gradually, I put a plan together.

“This last week — during the ‘vacation’ I made sure everyone knew about — I went through with it. I fasted. I meditated. I chanted. I painted my garage with symbols and signs that made my eyes ache to look at. And a few hours ago, I said the very last of all those impossible-to-pronounce syllables.

“And the lights went out.”

The car hit another speed bump, and Abby could’ve sworn she saw Claude turn the wheel ever so slightly to hit it on purpose. She looked out the windshield, and there was the clock tower in the distance once again. 5:00 AM. Maybe two hours to go, for good or bad.

“They came to me,” Godfrey said. “Probably while you were still up on the hill. Claremont, and Walden, and –”

“And Porter,” Abby said. “Yeah. We had our own run-in with them.”

Godfrey nodded sadly. “They told me the plan had changed, but the agreement hadn’t. I would get to live in my gilded cage, and the people of Caliche would come and visit me as ‘patients’.” He grunted, a tiny sob. “The look on Porter’s face when she said, ‘They’re going to tell you all their problems…'”

Claude let out a small rumble from his throat and adjusted his hands on the wheel.

All along the streets, Abby could see the shadows of people in their homes, going about their parodies of daily activities, misshapen lumps on all their shoulders. They cruised by one house where a man mowed his lawn in the semi-darkness, he and his pumpkin’s backs to them as they drove past.

“Are they really doing things, or are they just pretending?” Godfrey asked.

“Or re-learning,” Abby said.

A set of headlights moved into place behind them, then another: two cars behind them, driving side-by-side, occupying the whole road one block back.

“…Here we go,” Claude whispered.

“How far do we have to go?” Abby asked. “Three blocks?”

“Around about.”

Both cars began flashing red-and-blue at them.

“Pumpkin cops,” Claude said. “Sweet Jesus.”

“Make the next right,” Abby said, brain churning its gears, “fast and sharp. Get far enough ahead of them so I can jump out without their seeing. I’ll get to the van on foot. Try to lose them, and meet me…I’ll be a block over, behind the pizza place. Okay?”

“I do not like that plan at all,” Claude said, and Fleur agreed.

“Well, tough titty,” said Abby, “because here’s that corner. Punch it!”

Claude stomped the accelerator and the modest hatchback put on a sudden burst of speed, throwing them back in their seats once more. They whipped around the corner with a squeal of tires as the cops’ flashing roof lights receded in the rear-view mirror.

Abby pulled the door handle until they drew close to some bushes in someone’s yard. “Now!” she shouted, and opened her door, diving out and rolling in a heap in front of the biggest bush, which she quickly crawled under. She could see Fleur lunging over the seat and pulling the door shut as the hybrid sped away. Seconds later, the cop-o-lanterns blew past without slowing.

She lay there on her side in the cover of the scratchy bush, panting, counting the time.

Two hours. Sixty seconds, 3600 seconds, two hundred…and…ten, six…two hundred and sixteen thousand seconds. 432,000 seconds left. 431,999, 431,998.

She gave herself another thirty seconds of getting her wind back and deciding nothing was broken.

Then she stumbled to her feet and started to run.

***

Everyone in Caliche seemed enraptured with the idea of play-acting. Abby passed house after house, each one with a car in the driveway and a family bustling inside. In one yard across the street from where she sprinted, a boy and his pumpkin tried to play fetch with a dog that wouldn’t come near them. It snapped and growled when they approached.

“C’mon, Patches,” the kid’s jack-o-lantern pleaded,” be a goo–” *sound glitch* “–ood boy!”

As she moved down the street, house lots broke up into houses-repurposed-into-businesses, into a couple of convenience stores where pumpkin-laden customers filled their gas tanks and bought heat-lamp burritos, and finally she reached the center of town, where she saw something that made her screech to a stop:

The Brightest Lantern van sat where they’d left it, unguarded. Its wheels still popped, it listed forlornly to one side, there in the middle of the street in front of City Hall. A few pumpkin-people hurried in and out of the municipal building, but no one noticed her.

So it’s a trap, then. The jack-o-lanterns from Dr. Godfrey’s house had to have let someone know we were on the move. Or did they think sending a couple of black-and-whites after us would be enough?

She jogged across the lawn, feeling horribly exposed, until she reached the van. She looked back at City Hall, and while no crowds rushed towards her, the sight of the clock — 5:30 — sent a pang through her ribs. She dropped down and peeked under the van in case something lurked there. All clear. She couldn’t see inside; it was still too dark despite the streetlamps and lit-up businesses in the town square.

It couldn’t be this easy. But no matter how hard it might actually be, it had to be done.

Abby dusted her hands, took a deep breath, yanked open the sliding door, and —

“Hi, Miss Abby.”

Sitting on the suitcase, prim and proper and pigtailed, was little Laycee Vandenberg.

*****

Today’s Words: 1363
Total Words: 30668

*****

Notes: Posting early today, as tonight is dedicated to watching the final season premiere of Rectify. See you tomorrow!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Five

Abby launched herself at Dr. Godfrey, intending to nail him with a flying tackle, but her shoes lost purchase on the mix of carpet and broken glass, and she wound up taking him down at the knees instead.

Result, either way.

She managed to grab the wrist of his gun hand as they fell in a tangle, and she rapped it against the edge of the coffee table as he struggled beneath her.

“No,” she said, filled with a weird calm despite everything going on. Abby continued to strike his wrist against the dull cherry-wood edge of the table. “No,” she said again, as though addressing a dog who had just done a wee on the carpet. At last, he let go of the gun, which thudded to the floor. Shoving Abby from himself, Godfrey butt-scooted a few feet away, holding up his hands.

“Abby,” he said, “it’s me. It’s Dr. Godfrey. Don’t hurt me.”

“I know who you are,” Abby said, and pointed at the pistol. “How about you don’t hurt yourself, first?”

Dr. Godfrey looked at the gun, then at her…then burst into tears.

“…Oh, God,” he sobbed. “I’ve ruined everything. Destroyed everything.”

Abby let him cry for a little bit, looking out the ruins of the window to check the color of the sky. When the worst of the heaving, shuddering jag was over, she stood, took the couple of steps to where he sat, and slapped him twice, front- and backhand.

With a gasp, Godfrey took his hands from his face. Snot had run down into his graying beard and moustache, and his eyes were red and veiny.

“We know what you did,” Abby said. “But it’s not too late to stop it, I hope.”

“Stop it? There are twenty thousand peop–”

She reached down, grabbed his shoulders, and gave him a deeply satisfying shake. “I can read the City Limits sign, Doctor,” she said. “You don’t know what we’ve been through tonight, and you obviously don’t know how little we’re still willing to put up with. Gerard,” she said, and paused to swallow a sudden lump. “…Gerard is dead. Do you understand me?”

Godfrey shook his head. “Gerard…his heart. All those relapses, all those binges. We thought he might live a few more years if he de-stressed and stayed clean…”

“Was part of his therapy making him run for his damn life all night long?” Abby snapped, crossing her arms. Hitting Godfrey was useful, but she didn’t want to overindulge.

He started to blubber again, and she figured one more slap wouldn’t be too excessive.

Godfrey touched the pink palm-print fading from his cheek, and stared up at her. “What do you want?”

She reached down, grabbed his tie, and slowly pulled until he stood upright. “We’ve been told that there’s one condition in your deal with the Devil that they can’t break, or the deal’s off. You need to tell me what that is, and then we need to make sure it gets broken. And fast — we’ve only got until sunrise.”

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I can’t think…”

“Dr. Godfrey,” she said, and brushed his lapels in a way she was pleased to see made him cringe, “you know all that therapy I’ve been going through to help me deal with my anger?”

He nodded with a hard swallow.

“The good news is, I think it worked. The bad news is, when all that anger went away, I think something worse showed up to take its place.” She gave his tie a sharp tug. “Now talk.”

Godfrey fretted. “I…let’s see. They promised me patients, as many as I needed, as many as I’d need to keep the center in business forever. But I –” he met her gaze, “–I thought I was being clever. You always hear about how, if you make a deal like that, they’ll always find some way to trick you. So I came up with the one condition: that I wouldn’t become a patient, too. But of course, they found other ways to betray me, didn’t they? Those evil, evil…”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Abby. “I know. Believe me, I know.” She rubbed her temples. “So…you don’t get taken over by a pumpkin, then. That’s what makes people into patients. So all we have to do is catch a pumpkin and…oh!”

“What?” he asked, the look on his face showing he hoped it wouldn’t be another slap.

Abby grinned so hard it hurt her cheeks. “We don’t need to catch a pumpkin. We’ve already taken care of that.” She grabbed his arm. “Come on, time’s wasting.”

“Wh-where are we going?”

“To fight City Hall.”

Outside, Gerard still lay where they had left him. Claude’s arms had given out, and Fleur hadn’t known CPR, so they had to abandon him. The two sat at the hybrid’s front bumper, holding each other, faces desolate.

Abby and Godfrey lifted Gerard between them and took him to a quiet back bedroom, laying him out on the mattress. Godfrey did the hand-pass to close Gerard’s eyes, and Abby folded Gerard’s hands over his chest.

Back at the car, the three survivors hugged each other. “We have to get the van,” Abby said, when the cold night air had cleared their heads. “We need that pumpkin-hostage thing.” She filled in the rest as they got in the car.

Claude started it up, but paused before putting it in gear. “Look,” he said, pointing through the windshield.

Abby turned her attention to across the street.

“No,” Claude said, “higher.”

Then she saw them: two loose jack-o-lanterns up in the branches of a big oak in the neighbor’s yard. And as she watched, they jumped down to the lawn below and scuttled off into the darkness.

“Punch it,” Abby said. “The spies are reporting in. Do side streets as much as you can, but man, haul ass.”

“Copy that,” Claude said, and gave the gas all he had. The small car jerked forward with more thrust than anyone expected, banging them back in their seats.

They were blocks away, well towards the center of town, when Abby shouted, “Dammit, I forgot the gun!”

*****

Today’s Words: 1029
Total Words: 29305

*****

Notes: Less than a week to go!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Four

First thing to do was find transportation. Dr. Godfrey lived in the northernmost part of town, where the nicest houses sat. Reaching there from where Abby’s group currently stood would make a nice afternoon hike, but when a force of twenty thousand-some-odd invaders were on the verge of setting up a permanent beachhead, one wanted speed above all else.

Luckily, being in a small town worked out yet again.

“Check the trucks,” Abby said as they moved up and down the street, lying low, testing door handles gently in the hopes of not triggering any alarms. “Especially the ones with gun racks in the back window. Those’ll have owners hoping the intimidation factor means they won’t have to bother locking the doors.” She pulled up the handle on her third Dualie so far, but no luck.

“Got one!” Fleur called, and Abby and Claude hustled from their side of the street to where Fleur and Gerard were working to check out her success.

Not a big intimidator pickup, like Abby had hoped for. In fact, it was as far from intimidating as one could wish: a tiny hybrid hatchback.

“Oh well,” Abby said. “At least it’ll run quiet.”

They piled in, Claude behind the wheel, Abby on shotgun. The keys were ‘hidden’ above the visor. Claude fired it up and they got moving.

“Any idea on what to expect?” Gerard asked.

“Nothing,” Abby said. “Either this whole ‘condition’ the pumpkins have to meet means they’re staying away from Godfrey, or they’re guarding him above and beyond what they put around us.”

“You’ll just talk them to death again, right?” Fleur chimed in.

Abby shivered at the thought. “I wasn’t even sure that would work the first time,” she said. “I guess the spirit just moved me, or something. But I don’t know if I can pull it off again. And if anyone’s there who really can’t stand me, well, they won’t listen to me at all…”

The buildings and stores and homes all being lit up lent a weird, otherworldly vibe to the night as they cruised up the street to Dr. Godfrey’s neighborhood. Twice they passed cars driven by the possessed, but Claude touched the gas pedal just as they could have gotten a good look at each other. So far, no one had done a U-turn in pursuit.

“…I’m gonna close my eyes, okay?” Gerard said. “Guess that Coke didn’t wake me up as much as I hoped.”

They were maybe five minutes away. “Okay,” Abby said. “Happy catnap.”

She thought about how he was finally, maybe, possibly getting on the wagon for good after so many relapses. She hoped he would.

And if nothing else, she’d be damned if he showed her up. As long as he stuck with sobriety, so would she.

“I’m hoping,” Abby said, “that Godfrey will still be full of remorse when we get there. If he’s changed his mind, or if he’s thrown his lot in with the pumpkins, then I don’t know what we’ll do.”

“We’ve got a car now,” Claude said. “There’s always the fallback of getting out of town. Who knows, maybe at sunrise they’ll be too busy celebrating to notice us escaping.”

“Time to find out,” Abby said. “Here we are.”

They pulled into the semicircle drive in front of the house with the brass plaque reading GODFREY by the door. Abby and Claude got out, and Abby heard Fleur talking in the back seat.

“Hey,” Fleur said. “Wake up. We’re here. Hey, Gerard…Gerard? Wake up. C’mon, wake up!”

Abby could see her shaking him. From the way his head lolled from side to side, Abby felt a chunk of glacier shear off and splash down in her guts.

“Claude!” Abby cried, and the two of them got the door open and Gerard out on the cobblestones of the driveway even as Fleur screamed and tore at him.

“Wake up! Make him wake up!”

Claude got him on his back and, with much economy of motion, checked his breathing and felt for a pulse at neck and wrist. Then, without further prelude, Claude shucked his coat and cardigan and started CPR.

Abby could only stare. Lying. Messing with me. Lying. Messing with me. Ly–

Claude grunted the numbers as he thrust away at Gerard’s sternum with his stacked palm-and-fist. Fleur had backed up against one of the hybrid’s tires, knees drawn and hands clasped over her mouth. She wasn’t crying, not yet.

We save him, but it takes so much time the pumpkins win.

We don’t save him, and it takes so much time they win.

We leave him, and we find out later we could’ve saved him if we’d just worked a couple more minutes.

Claude looked up at her and, as if channeling Gerard, seemed to read her mind.

“One-two-go-four-five. One-two-get-in-side. I’ve-got-this-four-five.”

Abby broke away and sprinted to the front door, almost tripping over the doormat. She tried the door latch, but it was locked.

She looked around wildly, spotted a large potted fern, and wondered if there might be a key hidden in it.

And then realized she didn’t have time to look.

Abby hoisted the heavy pot, feeling her back start protesting again after a few hours of blissful quiet. She stumbled to the front of the house and heaved the pot through the big front window, shattering it. She lost her balance, tumbling to the ground, but righted herself and ran to the bared windowsill.

She picked out loose shards as quickly and efficiently as she could to give herself barely enough room, then climbed through a broken window for the second time that night. Her shoes crunched on glass as she entered Dr. Godfrey’s home, and she wondered how much time she’d have to waste looking for him.

She didn’t need to worry. Godfrey stood there in the living room, staring at her. He wore a nice suit, as though getting ready for a fancy dinner.

He also had a pistol in his mouth, and his finger on the trigger.

*****

Today’s Words: 1009
Total Words: 28276

*****

Notes: Finally caught up! Now it’s time to slack off, not write tomorrow, and start the whole problem over again…

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Three

“Think about it,” Abby said, and Claude seemed willing to agree, if only to stop her from launching into another tornado of destruction. “The jack-o-lanterns were summoned to attack people and, once they were helpless, torture them by constantly whispering every failure, every mistake in their ears, without end. And once they stopped…”

Gerard poked his head around the door. “The people were wrecked, like Dove was after we stopped her.”

For once, Gerard being on the same wavelength as Abby didn’t bother her. She nodded in appreciation.

“Parky, too, once his pumpkin came loose,” said Claude.

Abby got to her feet and leaned against a tilted mattress. “And they both said — and this is something that’s been eating at me, and I finally know why — they both said words to the effect of, ‘I should be a patient at Brightest Lantern.” She looked at a finger that was throbbing, saw she’d broken a nail during her rampage, and grimaced. “Multiply that by thousands and thousands of people in town, and what do you get?”

“A whole bunch of people who need — want — help with their mental issues,” said Claude.

“And who profits?” Abby asked. She pushed away from the mattress and paced. “The treatment facility that has trouble filling even ten percent of its beds.”

Fleur piped up, addressing the two men. “Dr. Godfrey was crying on the phone. He was saying he was sorry, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this…things like that.”

“Damn,” said Claude. “…But how? Not ‘how did he do it,’ but how could things have gotten to this point? He couldn’t have been this desperate.”

“No?” said Abby. “You try to do something, and no matter what, you fail. You fail and fail and after a while, you get desperate enough to destroy everything in the name of ‘making a change’ just so you don’t have to fail anymore. I understand that mindset better than you can imagine.” She chewed distractedly at the edge of her broken nail. “Anyone who knows the stories knows you don’t make a deal with the Devil. You always get screwed over. But maybe that was the other side of the plan. Make everyone in town crazy, and no one knows you’re a failure anymore.” Abby stopped and yawned, long and loud. Everyone else caught it and yawned themselves.

“…That’s no good,” Abby said. “We’ve got maybe three hours until sunrise, and a lot of work to do if we’re going to stop this.” She jogged out of the room and returned a few minutes later with a small green box with LOSE-4-GOOD printed on its side.

“Take one,” she said, shaking out a card of pills and popping those pills from their plastic blisters. “We need to stay awake. Every rich family has someone hooked on diet pills — amphetamines. It’s like, a law or something. These will wake us up until we either…well, succeed or not.” Claude took a pill, and Fleur, but Gerard balked.

“I can’t,” he said.

“Like fun you can’t,” Abby said, and thrust the pill at him insistently.

“I’m serious,” he said. “All that stuff you were tearing me a new one over in my room? I was telling the truth. I’ve turned over a new leaf, I didn’t have a stash, and I can’t take any drugs. Especially not speed.”

Abby looked at him a moment longer, sizing him up, then shrugged and took the pill herself. “Okay.”

“You believe me?”

“If you’re telling the truth,” she said, “then…sure, man. If you’re really going clean, then…yeah. I’m even proud of you.” She reached out to pat him on the shoulder, but pulled back, feeling awkward. “Just…go downstairs and chug a Coke, or something. Get some caffeine, at least.”

Gerard nodded, blushing a bit, and left the room.

Abby turned to the others. “Okay. Walden said there was a condition of the deal with Godfrey they couldn’t break, or it was game over. We need to get to Godfrey, talk to him, and convince him to tell us.”

“Except we’re surrounded,” said Fleur, looking ready to flinch for having pointed out a flaw in Abby’s plan.

“I didn’t forget,” Abby said. “Don’t worry. Before we talk to Dr. Godfrey…I’m going to talk to those folks outside.”

***

The citizens of Caliche had been kind, ever so kind, to put Abby and the others in a house where they could all find warmer clothes that fit them. Now, dressed in comfy layers and coats, they walked out of the house into a chill night they barely felt.

Abby felt even less. Since her wave of annihilation upstairs and downstairs, she was gripped by a weird calm. Anger had gone, it seemed, and left nothing in its place.

She was fine with that. Anger was good for demolition.

It had no place in surgery.

“Hi there,” she said, walking across the leaf-crunchy lawn to one of the people and its pumpkins who formed the chain of bodies around the house. “Red rover, red rover, let Abby come over?”

The townsfolk tightened their grips on each other’s hands.

“So from what I understand,” she said, stepping closer, “y’all are all scared of me and my friends. To tell you the truth, at first I thought that was silly — we four basket cases, too angry or worried about peoples’ opinions or freaked-out or doped-up to be any threat to anybody — what’s to be scared of?

“But I’ve had a little time to ponder, and here’s what I’ve come to realize. You’re right to be scared of us.” She looked up and down the line. “Oh, not because we’re armed or anything like that. We could smash pumpkins all day, and for every one we splattered, you’d send a dozen more against us. If your name’s not Legion, it damned well should be.” She grinned. “No, the reason you should be fudging your pants at the sight of us is because of what we represent: something superior to you.”

Abby spun and raised her hands in mock dismay. “Oh, but how can we possibly be superior, frail little humans like us? We can’t animate jack-o-lanterns and take over helpless people and be all scary with our stabby, pointy vines, can we? And you’d be right. You’ve got us beaten in numbers, and beaten in evil superpowers, and all that. But it doesn’t change one simple fact:

“You’re weak.” She marched right up to the closest person. “And I’m not just talking about you,” she said, staring a pumpkin in its fissured, glowing eyes, then sliding her gaze to the dull eyes of its wrapped-up victim, “I mean you, too. Both of you, weak as anything.”

Abby jabbed a finger at the pumpkin. “Let’s start with you. Damned to Hell, but so stupid you think God’s going to reverse His decision. People don’t go to Hell by accident, idiots. They are sent there because they are supposed to go there. And you believe that an all-knowing, all-seeing presence made a mistake? Do you not understand what ‘omnipotent’ means?” She flopped her hands and danced around. “Ooh, look at us, God, we want to be freed from our damnation because we really, really want it, and we’re going to hold these peoples’ breath until they turn blue if you don’t!”

The pumpkins didn’t react, but Abby could see vines loosening and tightening — fidgeting, almost — along the chain.

“And as for you,” she said, turning her attention to one of the humans, “you good, kind, Christian folks of Caliche…give me a break! Singing hymns out of one side of your mouths and whispering gossip with the other. Canned food drives for homeless people you’d wear gloves to touch. Emotionally stunting your kids and expecting strangers to raise them for you.” She fished the LOSE-4-GOOD box from her pocket and dropped it on the grass. “Your polite, under-the-table drug addictions. Rushing into marriage and rushing even faster to divorce because you can’t get your own mental problems under control before trying to mesh them with someone else’s. Pretending everything’s normal when you’re falling apart inside, terrified someone might know you’re not perfect like they are, while they’re all thinking exactly the same thing….”

She paused for breath, leaning forward, hands on hips. No one and nothing spoke.

Abby straightened up. “…And I’m not saying my friends and I are perfect, that we have some moral high ground over you. I’m not. But I am saying we have strength you’ll never have, none of you, alive or dead. We screw up — again and again. I’ve fallen more times than I can count; so has my friend here,” and she jerked a thumb back in Gerard’s direction. “Sometimes we fall, and we climb back so slowly it looks like we’re barely moving. Sometimes we fall, and we lose sight of which way is up, and we wander for ages.

“But we climb. We fall, but then, by God, we start to climb. We don’t wallow and expect someone else to fix everything. We don’t pretend that gravity is backwards and falling means flying. And yeah, sometimes we do entertain thoughts like that, and sometimes we lose our grip and slide down despite our best efforts.”

She looked their captors over once again and closed her eyes. “The worst beating you can get is the one you dole out to yourself. But if you can survive that kind of beatdown, nothing can stop you. How about you, any of you? How many times have you taken a punch from one of those nasty little shadows inside yourself?” Abby opened her eyes. “And did you ever hit back? Did you ever even try to raise your arms, to block it?” She turned and looked at her friends, one by one, seeing not them, but what was inside. “Well, we did. We took the shots, we got back up, and we’ve been fighting ever since.”

Abby turned back to the chain of people and jack-o-lanterns. “We are still standing. We are strong. And we are your betters.”

She took one step back: the only one she needed to take.

“On your knees.”

As she watched, the members of the chain let go of each other and collapsed to the lawn. She couldn’t tell if the pumpkins forced the humans down or if the humans broke control and caved despite the pumpkins’ commands. But they all went down, and they all stayed that way, shivering and twitching on the grass, all whispering things she was glad she couldn’t hear.

After watching them for a moment longer, Abby spoke once more. “Let’s go.”

She didn’t need to look back to see if her friends followed; they all walked right by her side.

*****

Today’s Words: 1802
Total Words: 27267

*****

Notes: Tonight’s post (if I have time to get it done) will catch me up!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

Lanterns: Day Twenty-Two

“What are you talking about?” Abby asked.

“I heard them,” Fleur said, “when I was in the van. They were talking about how they had been summoned from Hell, and…and if there’s really a Hell, and what happened to my parents and brother, I…” She met Abby’s eyes, and Abby had never seen such despair in her life.

Meanwhile, Claude and Gerard were still having at it. “Don’t think I didn’t hear you pause when they were offering us ‘respect,'” Gerard shouted. “You’d really sell us out just so people wouldn’t make fun of you?”

“You don’t understand,” Claude yelled back. “There’s no way you can understand!”

“And you don’t have a clue how much the world has changed,” Gerard countered. “You stripped naked on TV? People aren’t making fun of you — the way the Internet is, you’re probably a hero to them!”

“Come on,” Abby said. She took Fleur by the hand and led her into the kitchen, pulling closed a sliding door. Fleur leaned against the counter, wiping her eyes.

“I don’t mean to cry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I feel like I cry all the time, now, ever since…”

“It’s okay,” Abby said, and tore off a paper towel from its wall dispenser, handing it to Fleur. The girl daubed her eyes then blew her nose.

“Now…explain to me why you think you’re going to Hell,” Abby said.

Fleur sniffed and, in a small voice, said. “Thou shalt not kill.” Then, as an afterthought: “Thou shalt honor thy mother and father. That’s two. Two I broke.” She wringed the paper towel in her hands. “I didn’t mean to, but…it doesn’t matter if you mean to, does it? It only matters if you do it, period.”

“Fleur,” Abby said, “you’re not a bad person, okay? You’re just sick. And you’re getting help. That’s what matters.”

Voice shrunken even smaller, Fleur whispered. “I don’t want to be a pumpkin. I don’t want to come back, and take over someone’s body, and…I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for what I did. Why doesn’t anyone understand that?”

Abby stood in front of her and took her hands, feeling the wet paper towel clutched between them. “If God knows everything — y’know, by definition of what God is — then He knows you didn’t do it out of evil or anything like that. If anyone understands, it’s the guy whose understanding is the only one that matters. You hear me?”

Fleur nodded.

“And you’re not going to Hell,” Abby said. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

Fleur nodded again, and she pulled her hands away from Abby’s to wipe away fresh tears.

“Always crying,” Fleur said. “I cried at Brightest Lantern, I’m crying now, and when Dr. Godfrey was crying on the phone, I did it then, too…”

Abby’s head snapped up. “…Wait, what? When did you talk to –?”

Fleur lifted a hand to her mouth. “Oh! I didn’t say! When I was in the van, I went through the whole list of people on speed dial, then I started over. And I got Dr. Godfrey a second time, not his voicemail. And he was crying and saying how he was sorry, and something about how it wasn’t supposed to be like this, and…”

Abby stood very still and very quiet. Pieces clicked together inside her mind.

“…but then I heard the people talking about Hell, and it distracted me and he hung up. But I wanted to tell you that I’d gotten someone on the phone, even if it wasn’t for very long. And I wanted you to think I’d been, y’know, kicking butt, so…”

Abby turned on her heel and walked out of the kitchen, Fleur trailing off.

“…Abby? Did I do something wrong?”

Gerard and Claude continued to argue. “Well, fine,” Gerard said. “If there’s no such thing as aliens, and no such thing as Hell, then how do you explain them?”

Abby shoved her way between them without a word, killing the momentum of their feud as they shared mutual indignation over her rudeness.

Abby went to the window, pulled aside the curtain, and looked for a long minute at the jack-o-lantern-infested people encircling the house.

“…Abby?” someone said, their voice so timid she couldn’t tell which one spoke.

Then Abby started to speak, hardly aware she was doing it. She strode to the fireplace, grabbed some random ceramic knickknack from the mantelpiece, and smashed it on the hearth. Her voice started soft, but built in volume as she found more things to crush and break and fling at the walls: little family pictures in their store-bought frames; Precious Moments figurines; souvenir crystals and geodes from vacations across the South. All of them shattered and destroyed while Abby cursed, spewing out every bad word known to man in every order and configuration possible, volume increasing to an unending scream of fury. The world went red: there was only Abby and her oldest lover, anger.

You want to be a bartender? Mom had asked, with that same old disappointment in her voice. You want to be a cab driver? You want to be a courier? You want to be a telemarketer?

So when the chance to be a teacher came up…

She abandoned the living room and went to the kitchen, flinging plates and cups and ‘Bless This Mess’ cross-stitches, still keeping up her litany of shouted abuse. No one followed her; they looked for safe haven instead.

All you need is a Bachelor’s. You’ve got one, right?

Yeah, but it’s in Archaeology.

Doesn’t matter. The district is gagging for teachers. You’ve got a degree, so all you need is a couple months worth of classes, and to pass some exams.

Anger was her only friend. Anger was her only comfort, her security blanket, her shield, her brick wall against the world. And now, her sword.

It was hard. No one had told her how hard teaching would be. All those kids, depending on her. All that pressure from the parents and the higher-ups and the more experienced faulty.

She was going to fail, no matter what she did. She just wasn’t good enough. And the knowledge of that made her so furious.

Upstairs now, ripping up sheets, throwing the lid from the toilet tank like a discus, stomping every toy in every kids’ room into plastic shrapnel.

If you’re going to let everyone down, might as well let them down so hard they cut ties so you can never disappoint them again.

Going to school drunk? Oh, just watch. That’ll be the tip of the iceberg.

Breaking windows. Ripping up carpet.

Abigail Fogarty, said the judge, I’ve dismissed the charges against you, as I believe they are spurious and born of an over-emotional reaction. I also believe in second chances, and I believe you might just have something to offer this world. You are intelligent, but oftentimes it’s the intelligent people who talk themselves into doing the dumbest things. Therefore, you are to be remanded to the custody of the Brightest Lantern Recovery Center for a period of one year, during which you will be placed on a course of alcohol treatment, drug treatment, and anger management. Do you understand?

Yes, your honor, she said through gritted teeth.

Obscenities pouring from her mouth, locking together like vile Lego bricks in an endless chain of verbal abuse.

Hello, Abby. I’m Dr. Godfrey. Welcome to Brightest Lantern.

Everything’s going to be all right now.

***

They found her upstairs in the shredded-Dacron ruins of a comforter, her breathing steady and calm, her eyes unfocused. In the quiet aftermath of her rampage, only Claude was willing to step into the room with her and speak her name.

Abby looked up at him. “Dr. Godfrey,” she croaked, her voice predictably hoarse. “It’s that rat-bastard Dr. Godfrey.

He’s the Summoner.”

*****

Today’s Words: 1312
Total Words: 25465

*****

Notes: Might actually catch up today…!

*****

I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!