Fiction: Autumn Folk
By Scott A. Cook
11:55pm. Five minutes to Halloween.
Scanning. Three-quarter of an acre. Back yard.
Scanning. Tree line. Back of the property.
Scanning. Everyday. Watching. Waiting.
It would come. I never doubted that for a one single second.
I live alone. One story Floridian house. Solid concrete walls laden with fake shudders created out of quarry stone. The ones from up North. Maybe Pennsylvania. Paint job is white with salmon-burgundy trim. Two beds, two bath, living room and a kitchen. One year, I decided to paint the outside of the house by myself. Bad idea. I painted the back stairs Mountain Moss then quit, hoping the neighbors didn’t notice. Each room in the house is full of kitsch and fabulous unmatched furniture. A tiny sub-basement and a three-quarter screened in back porch finish off my quaint little home. FYI: If you went down into the sub-basement, which I refuse to do, there is a crawlspace for any plumbing issues. Some places are born evil. No need to validate that.
The sprawling back yard is fenced in on both the east side and west side of the property. It has a few trees sprinkled about: oaks, maples, elms. The trees are lush, towering, encroaching. Unfortunately, they don’t change into a beautiful palette of burgundy reds, orange marmalade and bright greens come autumn time. It’s one of the reverse consolation prizes of living in the Sunshine State. At least there’s no snow (but the hurricanes are gut-busting). The grass in the back yard has been planted and replanted at least fifteen times and the final result has produced more or less what anyone would call weeds. Boo.
For more years than I care to admit, I’ve had one eye straining to the side, always watching the tree line between the fences at the very back of the property. It’s mostly populated with cabbage palms, sumatra oaks and fringetrees with plenty of tubulars running wild. Dense. Tall. Foreboding. The tree line has no fence to mark the end of the property and right behind it is a wide dirt alley serving as a road between blocks of houses. Dangerous. Invasive. Deadly. I’ve only been back there once in all the time I’ve lived here. Somethin’ ain’t right. Anyone could walk right by my house at any time, day or night. Night. They sometimes come at night. Sometimes.
My house is haunted. I knew that before my name went down on the dotted line. I’m not afraid of the ghosts. I allow them in. Safe. Familiar. Awake. Their music is nostalgic and hypnotic. I hear it in the middle of the night, rolling over half awake trying to discern if it’s coming from my dreams or my living room.
I choose to haunt my own house. The apparitions are mine to conjure. After twenty years, I will never leave here. I couldn’t. My world. My house. My haunts.
SANCTUARY OF WONDERS
I pray. Every morning and every night. It started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every morning I ask God to protect me from the virus, help my career, forgive all my friends who ghosted me for no reason, then add special prayers; one for my BFF and one for my parents now in heaven. I think they're in heaven. Whatever.
I have a very rare autoimmune disease. CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyradiculoneuropathy - say that ten times fast). I’m a severe, advanced blah, blah, blah case. No cure. No immune system. Can't stop its progression. After 7 years, this foul, ravaging disease has left me with irreversible muscle atrophy, zero proprioception and two feet we can now medically refer to as ‘drop foot’. The doctors say as long as COVID-19 is out of control, I must stay quarantined as much as possible. That was three years ago. I'm still in quarantine. True story.
I’ve lived through two spinal surgeries. Cervical Myelopathy. The second surgery left me unable to walk without durable medical equipment but hey, I have a brand-new spine made out of titanium and steel. Whoo-hoo. No more sit-ups. No more rollercoasters. I can now say I’m the proud owner of two walkers, one a shiny race car blue, and a power wheelchair, Indy 500 style.
I'm a professional choreographer. Well, I was until recently. I owned a musical theatre company, taught dance at a private college and toured productions all over. My autoimmune disease, two spinal surgeries and the go-fuck-yourself pandemic stopped all that jazz right in its tracks. Boom-da-boom. Just like that.
Following the spinal surgeries, a few things became crystal clear:
Fact: I was now crippled.
Fact: My professional dance career was over.
Fact: I cannot cross the living room without my walker to go to the bathroom.
Fact: Bad things happen to good people. I’m a really good person. Something really bad happened.
One day, in the stupor of medications and transfusions, I decided instead of telling stories on stage, I'd tell them on paper. I was going to be a writer. Bam-diddle-bam. Just like that. I started writing the summer after my second spinal surgery and I haven't stopped since. If you ask me my genre, it's horror. Dark psychological horror. I've been obsessed with the macabre since I was a little kid, sneaking into the empty den on Saturday mornings to turn the TV channel to Monster Movie Matinee. I wanted to be the Wolf Man so damn bad. One Halloween I actually was. What a rush!
I smoke. That's why I choose to write my stories on the back porch all the time. Coffee and smokes fuel my imagination. I've smoked for forty plus years but I smoke like a sissy. I don't inhale. No, really. I take a drag, hold it in my throat, exhale. Sissy style. No one believed me. Ever.
Almost overnight, my screened in back porch and my supine back yard became my Sanctuary of Wonders. An elegant, overpriced writer’s desk. Jacked up laptop. Small refrigerator for cold drinks. Trinkets and treasures all over the soft pine walls painted with typical California Rust. Tall oaks. Queen palms. Pink flower bushes. Gratuitous Spanish moss. Giant pineapple plants. Mexican pots over running with four-leaf clovers. Three stair steps leading outside. Two black lawn chairs. One ominous tree line. I’m usually on the porch over twelve hours a day. Writing my horror novel, eating dinner or just staring out the porch screens. Watching for the unfamiliar. Waiting. Watching. Waiting.
I’ve been typing away so many times in my Sanctuary of Wonders when out of nowhere, I contemplate what would happen to me, a severely crippled man who can’t walk or run, if someone, or something, ever came out of the tree line at the back of my yard. Not a kid. Not a mom with her stroller and her baby. Not the electric man fixing who-knows-what-now up the cable pole in the alley. No. Nobody from the alleyway. I mean something much more sinister. Something inthe tree line. It waits and plans and waits and plans and waits. One day, when the sun begins to drop, dusk becomes tropical gorgeous but something will be wrong. I’ll feel it there. Watching me. Feeding on my fear. My expectations. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Waiting for what?
Autumn had arrived. The temperature had dropped. The nights were longer. Halloween was a smell that was in the air all the time for me but especially now; a smell of expectation that some devilish demon would finally appear to me. Spooky holiday candles were lit and a scary movies playlist was fired up every night, giving me a heightened sense of some gruesome, fearful reality. The big “what if” of the tree line was so prominent in my mind from watching those horror films, dripping its delicious dread of bad outcomes.
The tree line. It had never changed in twenty years, however, every autumn, after all the summer rains had ceased, the overgrowth flourished thick, always needing a trim. Not to look spiffy but so I could see. See if anything was crouched there between the palms and the pineapples in a nondescript mask and greasy overalls, wielding a sharp kitchen knife ready to descend upon my Sanctuary. Come up the three wooden steps, slash open the screen door, methodically step inside and slice me up like an old-fashioned pumpkin pie. AKA Michael Myers (a whole other nightmare story).
What would it be like to feel that massive blade pierce your skin? Slide down to your heart or liver or lungs and pull you to the floor, crippled or not, so you could watch your life seeping out of you into dark pools of blood. Warm? Painful? Satisfying? Guess it would depend if you accepted the moment or fought the inevitable darkness. Only those without vision would make the wrong decision. Evil is not extinguishable.
Yes. Autumn was here. So were the Autumn Folk. Everywhere but only if you were not afraid to let them in.
It was a beautiful, cool morning and I was writing in my Sanctuary. Moving like a lightning bolt. Whatever came to mind. I would scribe my tales on my cell phone then email my masterpiece to my laptop. Not the most efficient system.
7:50am. New poem: “Pumpkin Pie”.
Now I realize...
Passing time 'til I die early,
Dark thoughts, deep thoughts, so much worry.
Missives, Medicines, MRIs,
Put them altogether, make a pumpkin pie.
Ok. It was not the best morning writing I’d ever done. Sometimes the truth fairy just pours out of me. Didn't someone once say ‘the truth will set you free’?
I call bullshit.
8:34am. Crumpled. Trash can. He shoots. He scores.
I never heard the low rustle in the tree line at all.
I was still in bed but I already knew it was going to be a better writing morning. Thank God for the coffee timer. The aroma smelled particularly good today.
7:01am. I popped my pills, sipped my water, sat up for five deep breaths and off I went hobbling with my zippy race car blue walker, ready to sketch out my scary stories. Sometimes I got so excited about writing down the terrors in my head, I would trip with my walker. This was one of those mornings. Kitchen counter. Crash.
7:16am. I hobbled outside to the back porch with my coffee in a thermos, made it down two steps without a walker collision, and shimmied into my cushioned seat on the porch. By habit, I arranged my coffee, my cup, my smokes and my cell phone around the desk, ready to notate my tales. Maybe work on my third horror anthology. Oops. Pray first.
7:34am. Three Latino boys in different colored wind breaker jackets appear in the dirt alley behind the tree line. Distinguishable, even through the overgrown foliage. They would pass through the alleyway every single day on their way to school. The boys, no more than fourteen at the oldest, were always on time, like clockwork. The reason - they smoked a little Mary Jane before heading to class. Which begs the question of how, at that age, can you afford to buy enough weed to do this every day? I didn’t want to know.
It was a welcome routine: I would stumble, trip or whatever to the back porch around 7:15am, carrying my thermos-protected coffee with flavored creamer, pour some joe, light up a cigarette, say my prayers then start writing. Before long, I'd hear young, innocent voices in the distance. Sometimes laughing. Sometimes serious. Sometimes silent. Dead silent. Walking into the head space of their secret society.
If one is truly aware of their environment, signs of a storm coming will always materialize as a small grey cloud or hue of burnt yellow over the entire sky dome of the earth. If you are not privileged to this, it will slip right past you, leaving you unprepared for the CAT 5 hurricane coming to level your existence. That's how it started. A small grey cumulonimbus cloud whispering muddled words. I heard it sharp and clear that day. Awake. Danger. Now.
7:17am. Coffee, smokes, cell phone, prayers. The town church bells chiming the quarter hour, always two minutes late. It was a strong writing morning. A chase and death sequence for my new psychological horror novel.
7:41am. I was plowing through a great character sequence when I didn't hear it. Maybe just running late.
7:55am. I stopped writing. Turned off the autumn instrumental music on Spotify. Nothing. I heard nothing at all. I scanned the tree line. Up one side west, middle and other side east. Nothing. I listened harder. Only back yard birds bickering.
The boys had not come through the alley today.
I went back to my writing as the sky above turned a sour smoky grey. One tiny cumulonimbus cloud appeared, spawning darker clouds. Circling. Birthing. Omniscient. My one strained eye was on the tree line. I felt dread in my heart, so heavy, so real. I prayed. Hard.
And then, I saw it. Or rather, I didn't see it. I heard it.
Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St. Clement's
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St. Martin's
I stopped my writing, straining to hear. My imagination or something more portent?
Here comes a candle
To light you to bed
And here comes a chopper
To chop off your head
It was there. Low and sickly. A deserted child's voice. Female. White frilly dress. Hollow black eyes. I heard her soft cry; a radio transmission, seeping without fear into my right ear. It was coming from the tree line. Suddenly, I heard two children. Call and response. I knew the second voice. It belonged to my haunt. She sang in my left ear. She was very close to me. Afraid.
This bewitching, ethereal melody was far more than ghostly amusement. It was a warning. An omen. A prophecy of things to come.
I grabbed my walker and stood, looking out my porch screen for the voice. The chanting stopped.
8:14am. I was digging through my memory banks, hunting down that damn nursery rhyme for clues to its meaning when I heard a twig snap ever so slowly in the tree line. Then another. Then another. Then another. The sound was heavy and thunderous in my mind. If I looked, I knew I would have to take responsibility for what could happen. I weighed the options. I decided not to look to the tree line. Not yet.
8:17am. No more twig snapping. That frightened me even more. It had come, but It had not left.
It. It. What was It? I didn't want to know but habit would eventually make me scan the tree line. Then what? Would It be staring at me? Would I stare back? There was only one way to know. Look. Not yet. Look. Not yet.
But I did.
As usual, up one side west, middle and other side east. Nothing. Repeat, look harder. Slower.
Up one side west. Middle. Other side east. Halt. Reverse. Middle. There. Between the spaces of heavy bushes and trees, I saw colors. Colors that were never there before. Red-yellow-grey something. Something.
When I caught the colors, It simply stared. Burning me. Teasing me. Waiting for me to move. I didn't.
That’s when It stood and I stopped breathing.
It wasn't any of my three pot smoking boys. Not the electric guy. Not a mother with her stroller passing by. It was a Man.
The Man moved to a more open space between the trees, his hunched figure clad in a dirty grey mechanic jumpsuit. There was half dried mud on the legs of the jumpsuit; dark brown spots ground into his knees. He was still blocked by tree branches but I saw one unmistakable feature that I'd never unsee again.
He was wearing a Jesus mask.
A hideous, deformed Jesus. Long, thick, oily brown hair flowing to his shoulders, prominent puncture wounds on his forehead seeping with red blood, one severely drooping eye and a mouth full of rotting yellow teeth with two forward fangs. Like a piranha.
I was stuck solid to the planks. I had been preparing for this moment for twenty years. Now I froze.
Without warning, The Man prowled out of the tree line, aiming straight at my back porch. I grabbed my walking cane next to the writing desk, ready to defend myself. Without warning, he jolted backwards and stopped. Something invisible had hit him or pulled him. He had stepped into the sun, beyond the shadow of the tree line. Not good. Not safe. The Autumn Folk. They're here.
He just stood there, making no sudden movements. No movement at all. I don't know what possessed me, but I lifted my hand in a slow manner and waved at this bizarre prophet of God from my trees. He did not wave back. He simply stood and stared. I waved one more time. Nothing. Foreigner on strange soil? Nursing home escapee? Homeless and hungry? What does he want? Does he want anything?
He stood. I stared. An eternity of words passed between us without a single sound. Somehow, I knew he knew me. Knew my moves, my motivations, my emotions. The icy chill of dark recognition ran down my spine.
How long had he been watching me? Days? Weeks? Years? The Autumn Folk were very patient.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his finger twitch. Small but significant. He was real. He was just like me. He put one finger to his lips. I thought I heard a “shhh”. Our secret. Our terrifying, abominable secret.
The Man started moving backward like a demon ghost floating into the trees. The foliage consumed his figure and they became one until he was just the blurry colors I first saw. Our encounter was only seven minutes but it felt like an entire year.
The colors backed into the alley and floated west, disappearing through the murk of the trees. I swear I saw shining metal throwing glints of sunbeams through the saplings and the palm fronds. Maybe he was armed. Little did I know.
The dream felt real or maybe I found another dimension to seek The Man.
I was happy when I approached the tree line. It was raining and everything sparkled like fairy dust in the wind. Somehow, I could walk again. Walk perfect like any other human. I crossed my back yard lawn, wondering how I was moving, floating without effort towards that dark place I had watched for twenty years. My ears were filled with a whispering wind, blowing gentle through golden wheat fields on a summer day. I thought I heard distant words.
As I got closer, the leaves of the tree line changed from brilliant green to charcoal black with shimmering red cinders. I kept moving, needing to know why I was headed there. Closer. Closer.
I blinked and I was right under the trees that stretched to my right and my left. In this reality, they kept going as far as the eye could see. No neighborhood houses or next-door orange groves. Just a line of trees I knew, didn't know. Green to black to red.
I hesitated. What was in the tree line that was seducing me, calling me? The whispering wheat became soft words.
I stepped one foot into the trees and closed my eyes. Something vicious and warm grabbed me.
I knew it was The Man, but all I saw were tree branches bending, consuming me, leaves surrounding my head, my eyes blinded to what must be right in front of me. A Jesus mask.
The whispering turned into a deep, arctic wind. It pitched and howled madly. The trees were tightening down on me but next thing I knew, they pulled me off the ground, feet leaving familiar dirt as I floated up into the height of the trees.
The leaves around my eyes opened. My blurred vision cleared. I was high off the ground, looking down on the infinite dirt alley. Twenty years of demons wailing in the trees materialized before me on that dread filled path.
I saw Frankenstein, Dracula, Charles Manson, Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, a strange looking toad man, Nosferatu, a woman carrying two AK-15s. A host of other frightening characters joined the lineup, stretching down the misty pathway. I couldn't move. I could only see. The terrifying array of characters just stared at me, laughing with maniacal voices, each with their own motive to kill.
A massive gust of wind whipped through the alley and up to me, tossing me wild to and fro. The evil apparitions below began to dissipate into dust, their features trickling to the ground from face to feet. Left in their place was my entire family, dressed in rags, faces and features melting like lava into nothingness. The smell of burning flesh permeated the air. The Man appeared and blessed each member of my family with holy water. He was wearing the horrific Jesus mask. So sad, so hideous, so deformed. He looked up at me hovering.
His voice was guttural but neither male or female. More like a defensive animal backed into a cave with no exit. Injured. Abused. Defensive.
The trees began to lower me towards the ground. I panicked.
“No. I don't want to see,” I said.
Louder. Come. See.
The trees stretched me out just above The Man.
“Please. I can't.”
Louder. Come. See.
The trees bent me down further and further until I was face to face with The Man. The air was volcanic hot, the burnt flesh-tissue scent overwhelming. Ashes filled the sky, growing into stormy darkness, clouds whipping by at an enormous rate. Lightning and thunder rang out everywhere. I felt I was about to die.
The Man leaned forward, screaming. See. Look.
He whipped me around to face my family. Each body burst into flame then fell to ash. He turned me once more and as I feared, The Man began to take off the Jesus mask.
I did, did not want to see. He pulled the mask up slow. I saw a rounded chin of flesh. Two pouty, beaten red lips. Cracked. Bleeding. A faint smell of musky patchouli and myrrh.
“No. No. No. No. No. No. No!”
I awoke, wrapped sideways in my sheets. Sweat. Heavy breath. The sensation of floating still upon me, as if I could just lift my arms and fly. I knew this was only the beginning of the tree line appearances.
I hate being right. I was cursed with an internal wisdom that whenever I encountered certain situations, I already knew their dramatic ending, no matter how long they played out. Can I get a Hallelujah?
I knew the ending of my encounter with The Man. Or so I thought.
The morning following my nightmare, I tried hard to focus, to resume my routine.
7:00am: coffee, smoke, cellphone, prayers.
7:35am: no boys; keep writing.
7:55am: no boys; be patient.
8:24am: no boys.
I put down my cell phone, sipped my coffee and stared along the tree line; up one side west, middle and other side east. No boys, second day, no sounds, no colors. Nothing yet. I looked away, back to my writing.
It was clear to me. The Man had scared the boys off for good. Maybe frightened them enough to never, ever return. Threatened them. Beat them. Or even worse. There was danger in the tree line now. I had heard it. I had seen it. It was malevolent, patient and ready. I feared for the boys. I feared for me. I feared The Man.
4:07pm. Afternoon. The long shadows of oak trees and Queen palms played across my back yard. The temperature was perfect and the evening would be even better. I was almost done writing for the day when it exploded like a bomb. The snapping of a tiny twig. I looked up to the tree line. I saw nothing. I looked away. Another twig. Then another. Then another. When I finally found the courage to look once more, The Man was there, much closer to me now, at the edge of the long afternoon silhouettes playing on the grass. I waved. He stared. I waited. He didn’t move.
For the first time in forever, I grabbed my race car blue walker and took my writing inside, praying he couldn’t follow me there.
My haunts knew he was there. They were gone. It was just me now.
10:13pm. Night. It was, by far, my favorite time of day. That’s when I came alive and only feared the dark for the creatures I made up in my mind then put to paper to become real. Fantastical, evil, malicious and poised to destroy me, and other characters, in a variety of violent ways. Only now they had come to the tree line. The Autumn Folk. My fear was different now.
I was on my back porch. Smoking too fast and staring at what was just a small portion of the tree line I could see, lit by my two weak flood lights. The rest, dividing itself east and west, faded into blackness. My part of the alley behind the tree line had no street lamps. Only a few tinges of safety lights piercing through the black void from a grammar school a block away.
My back was to the east side porch screens. Tall and open. I smoked. I stared. I listened. I smoked. I waited. I stared. Nothing. No signs of any life amongst the tree line.
“Let me in.”
The raspy growl came right behind my head, like an arrow through my brain, so close I felt the warm, heavy breath on my neck. I threw myself forward to the floor and flipped around.
The Man was pressing the Jesus mask into my porch screen, rocking back and forth.
He stared. I caught my breath.
“Let me in.”
I made my way to my chair, crawling then pulling it away from the screen. I was scared to my core. I held the chair tight in self-defense.
“Who are you?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“Let me in.”
“I'm not letting you in.”
The night was one long shadow. He could move wherever he wanted to go but he didn’t. Not yet. The smell of burning flesh wafted by me gently. So familiar.
“Because I don't know who you are.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don't.”
And then I was floating towards the ceiling, just like my nightmare about the tree line. My head brushed the roof of the porch. I tried to scream but something held me so tight I couldn't even breathe. Giant monsters arose out of the ground outside, all over my lawn. Just like the ones on Monster Movie Matinee. Giant, hulking, gothic. I blinked to make them go away but they stood their ground. Denizens of Hell. Guardians of The Man.
The Man, still clad in the Jesus mask, slithered around to the back screens near the doorway.
“I love Halloween,” he said as he looked to the demon creatures behind him, then commanded, “Let. Me. In.”
“Are you going to hurt me?”
“Only if you want me to.”
Trick answer. I used it in my horror books all the time. I couldn’t think straight.
“If you let me in, I’ll go away.”
I pondered the riddle this maniacal being spoke. Would he just tear through the screens and perform my worst nightmares on my weak, diseased body? There was no running, not even walking away from him.
I floated in silence then something came out of my mouth, all on its own.
“OK, you can come in.” The second I said it, I panicked.
I descended from the ceiling and stumbled to my walking cane. With extreme caution, I moved towards the screen door. The Man's face was pressed to the screen again. The yard monsters backed up, almost bowing to the Man’s victory.
“Let me in.”
“Promise you won't hurt me.”
“We already discussed that.”
“I won't hurt you. Only if you want me to.”
The latch popped. The Denizens of Hell vanished. The Man moved back and I opened the screen door. He came slowly up the stairs.
I didn't know how to respond or act. I swiftly moved backwards, one eye on The Man, up righted my chair then sat up at attention. He put one foot inside the door and stood, staring at things around the porch. On the walls. Staring at my life.
“Please sit down,” I said. He moved to a chair, saying nothing and stared at me with that hideous Jesus mask. It seemed fused to his flesh. I dared a question, preparing for a violent reaction.
“Why do you wear a mask?”
“It scares people away. Why do you write?”
“It scares ghosts away.”
His answer was evasive. I pushed.
“Why do you wear a mask?” I asked again.
“You didn’t hear me?”
“Loud and clear. Now, the truth.”
The Man paused. His breathing became labored and he shifted in his chair, twice, before he answered.
“No one should see what's under here. Years of demons, decades of aching dreams, infinite loneliness. It's deformed my soul. It's scarier than the mask. I think so. I know so.”
“Let me be the judge.”
“I've been judged enough,” he yelled.
The Man stood, opened the door to leave then turned back. He wanted in. He wanted out. “When you get hungry, resist. It's much too easy to just keep eating,” he murmured.
“No. No. Please sit. Don't leave. I don't want to see. I’m sorry. Please.”
The Man cocked his head out the door, looking at the tree line, as if communicating with the dead. I could swear I heard a choir of inhuman voices singing to him. The wait was unbearable.
“I'll stay,” he finally said.
He locked the door, wandered about as if lost then sat down. With no warning whatsoever, he began reaching up with both hands to his face and ever so slowly, took off the Jesus mask. I almost passed out. Instead, my fears bellowed through my terrified voice.
“What the fuck are you …how?”
The mask fell to the floor as his drowning eyes looked up. His face. It was mine. He was me.
“Would you have invited me in if I knocked?” he asked.
I wouldn't have. No matter what. He held his face. The face that was perfectly mine.
“I thought so. So much pain. Pain, pain, pain,” he said.
His head went down and he seemed to cry. When he looked up, there were no tears. Strange. As I waited for his words, I noticed his eyes had changed. They held danger. A danger I could never have imagined in all the books I'd written. My fear was at fever pitch. I was staring into the mirror of a twisted inner soul. My soul. Impossible. Possible. Real.
“Read me a story, Writer,” The Man said.
“Read me a story. From your Dark Chronicles.”
The words slashed at my heart. That journal was my secret hiding place. A ruinous realm of real monsters. Monsters I had created, fought and buried. Not a living soul knew it existed. Not a one.
“I don't know what you mean,” I said, looking right at him as I lied.
“Then read me a story, Writer.”
When The Man saw I couldn't answer anymore, couldn't move, he looked around my Sanctuary of Wonders at all the things that were my life. Candles, books, statues, two metallic wall hangings of peacocks from my grandmother. A smattering of a life on all the walls around the porch.
He pointed to the peacocks. “Where did you buy those?”
“I know you didn't. I remember those from her Florida home.”
He remembers? His words echoed and bashed the sides of my skull. He remembers Nana? The peacocks? My mind started slipping, falling down the dark tunnel where fantasy and reality mix.
“How did the peacocks get here?” The Man asked.
Mesmerized, my mouth opened on its own.
“I broke into her house after she died. What’s a little breaking and entering to keep a good memory?” He smiled and shook his head. I knew, somehow, he remembered, too.
“We loved Nana with all our heart, didn’t we?” The Man said.
Filled with uncontrollable fear, I knew then I was going to die tonight. I blacked out.
11:55pm. Five minutes to Halloween.
12:10am. Halloween. I awoke in my chair, The Man just staring at me. Waiting. My face was wet from drool. It took me a moment to realize where I was and what had happened. What was about to happen.
“Read me a story, Writer,” The Man said.
Think. Fast. I had so many hand written journals of half-baked thrillers and horror stories in piles all over the porch. Pick one. Whip up an ending. Maybe then The Man would just leave, never knowing it was not from the Dark Chronicles.
I reached to my left. My hand landed on a pile of hardback notebooks. I lifted one up. A thriller. I opened the notebook, rifling through pages. The Man moved swift and smacked it out of my hands. Real hard.
“No. The Dark Chronicles.”
“This is the— “
“I can’t. Please.”
“Pretend I'm not here.”
“I said I can't.”
“But you already did. It's just you and me now. Read.”
His riddles were wrapping themselves around my subconscious. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t hide. Everything felt too late. I was trapped.
“OK. I’ll read.”
Without breaking cadence, he reached into his mechanic jump suit and produced my Dark Chronicles. I was shell-shocked. Had he violated my Sanctuary before tonight? Stolen my most private, dark journeys for his mere amusement? I took the journal from his hand, shaking, not knowing how I could possibly speak any of the words in these insidious pages out loud. I did not want to give these phantasmal sentences life. Again.
“Page 66,” he said.
I screamed my response.
“No. Stop this right now. You can’t— “
“Page 66. Just start in the middle.”
I rifled through the pages in a daze, hoping I would wake up soaked in a hot sweat from this nightmare. My index finger brushed page 66.
“There! Start there.” I looked down and the words on the page swam, swirled and suddenly became real. I spoke in a dream.
“The Christmas shopping in Sangerville Mall had been nostalgic and fun. Being home after all these years wasn't as bad as I thought. At least until I asked about the money grandpa had left in his will. The millions that had been illegally confiscated from him after he died and squandered on everyone in my entire family. Everyone except me. The fight that ensued was real. The escalation was fast. The outcome was disowned. Get out. Now. So very Catholic.”
I stopped and closed the journal, panting.
“You're not done,” The Man said. His voice was filled with anticipation.
“Yes, I am.”
“You skipped the ending. Endings are always the best part.”
My eyes welled up with tears of dread as he stared at me with fiendish violation. The ending. The ending. Just read it. Make this diabolical twinner go away. I found my place in the book, bile rose in my throat and I prayed I wouldn’t vomit all over myself as I read.
“To be damned and disowned on Christmas Eve is a mortal sin, much akin to stabbing the Baby Jesus under a lighted tree on Christmas morning. But Jesus loves me this I know so Jesus and I will be back tomorrow for Christmas dinner. Save us both a seat.
“It was a cheap motel a few miles away. The room was mauled, the bed stunk of piss and whiskey but I wouldn't be there for very long. Jesus kissed my forehead, held my hand and we spooned as we both fell fast asleep.
“The following day, mid-afternoon, Jesus and I returned to The House That Jack Built for Christmas dinner, peered through the frost covered windows and saw my entire family at the dining room table eating and laughing. We smiled at each other as we barricaded the only two doors into the house, emptied the contents of several gasoline cans all over the wooden structure and burned that fucker to the ground, with my entire family in it.
“As Jesus and I stood holding hands, I smiled and watched the inferno suffocate my childhood forever, hearing my family’s screams mixed with raw white flesh crackling and splitting. I wondered, as the flames leapt higher and higher, if the people who raised me ever once even cared that their sins had destroyed a life. Today, I had learned to kill. And I didn’t feel bad about that at all.
“And Jesus and I lived happily ever after. God bless us, Everyone!”
I shut the journal and watched it fall in slow motion to the floor. I was done. I had been desecrated. I had nothing left. If The Man wanted more, he'd have to kill me. I really didn't care.
“The holidays. So revealing,” The Man said, smirking as if he had one more tiny secret.
“I did what you wanted. Now get out.”
“It wasn’t much of an ending. Tit for tat.”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up. The Man’s tone changed entirely. Confident. Stately. Deadly.
“You want to know why I’m here,” he said.
“I came here for one reason. To end the war. To end my pain. My pain of watching you. Tit for tat.”
The tree line exploded into glorious gold and ruby flames. The heat wave slammed into the back porch like a super nova. I didn’t even flinch.
“I don't understand. What more you could want?”
“You understand perfectly. Page 99. The very last page.”
He stood. Tall. Menacing. Final.
“Read to me or fight me.”
I was a crippled man. He knew it. He picked up the journal off the floor and flung it at me, answering his own demand.
I opened the journal to the very last page of writing. I was going to die anyway. Out it came as I stuttered, spit, and snotted all over myself.
“Good things happen to bad people. It can never be explained. You can only hope you will awake from the damage of shattered dreams. But you won’t. Jesus told me I’m a really, really good person. And he apologized for his Dad’s very bad decisions. Jesus is such a nice guy.
“My family. The people who raised me. I must confess, I never got to know any of you. You all died. But you injected yourdreams into me, letting me die from your poison. As I got older, I could feel myself crawling under my own skin, trying to get out. Another me. Attacking me.
“Who wants to live forever? Nothing I tried to fairytale as a child ever came true. So much death so early. Jesus and I should have left with all of you that Christmas but he said he had plans with his Mom and Dad that night. Oh, well. Maybe another time. Another holiday. I’ll see what Jesus thinks.”
I stopped and bent over, pulling the journal to my chest as I cried. The fire of the tree line crackled and rose high into the night as if applauding. I slid off my chair with no strength, onto the floor, panting and heaving. The journal fell from my hands. I couldn't speak. Not a single sound. The Man had stolen my voice.
“Lord, you wear me out. They had dreams and plans for you, ya know. For everyone. You just couldn't see past your own nightmares.”
He picked up the Dark Chronicles from the floor, putting the unholy journal back inside his jumpsuit. His voice became crystal clear as he spoke faster. Moving toward something. Something.
“As you stated on page 73 of the Dark Chronicles, it started when your sister ran away with her crack head husband-to-be. Dreams - gone. Next came you. No need to hash that over. Dreams - gone. Your sister was one hell of a role model.
“Next, your brother, your mother, your father, your uncle, his wife and on down the list. No one was ever on the same page. They became dead to you. Next thing I knew, they actually were dead. That's a lot of funerals.
“Death didn’t stop there but that’s another story.”
The Man's muscles tensed. His face pulled back in jovial frustration as if he were reliving all of my prize-winning kills. The smile never left as he considered me. Like magic, my voice reappeared.
“I did what you wanted,” I said.
“And now I'm going to do what you wanted. Tit for tat.”
The Man's hand shot out from his arm, lengthening into a sort of scaled, alien texture as he grabbed my right leg. The other arm, deformed the same way, grabbed the back of my hair. His strength was not of earth. He flung me outside into the back yard in one shot. My head bashed the door frame as I tumbled down the three steps and lay helpless. The tree line roared in triumphant revere. Blood trickled into my mouth. Warm. Inviting. Salty. He stepped through the door and was on the ground in an instant, the Jesus mask back on his face again.
“No one can hide forever,” he said as he loomed over me.
“I wasn't hiding.”
“Liar!” His bellow shook the entire earth as he grabbed my collar and pulled me backwards toward the tree line. The flames leapt out like searing tongues trying hard to taste my fear, my pain. Grass and chunks of dirt flew up into my mouth. I choked and spit and shrieked.
“Please. I'll write it again. I'll change the ending.”
“Yes. Yes, you will.”
He dragged me so close to the fire, my hair singed. The putrid smell of my burnt mane filled me. It was almost over.
“Stop this!” I screamed.
“Precisely. Tit for tat.”
He gave one giant heave to my body and I flew through the air into the thick, delicious flames of the tree line. Shadows of my dead victims filled the spaces between the blazing whips. The heat was tremendous, almost welcoming. The trees I knew and trusted for twenty years, bent and twisted upon me, consuming my flesh, holding me down as I screamed my sins out loud and burned. My list, long. The pain, intense. The ending, pure.
The Man looked up into the gigantic fury of Hell consuming the tree line. He considered and smiled, as he screamed.
“Humiliation, lies, deceit, murder, ripping, tearing, seething into Nothingness. How much Nothingness exists in people?” he said. The answer was obvious.
“All of it.”
The Man moved closer and closer to the tree line inferno, as if searching for me. He quietly whispered into the flames.
“Jesus never loved you.”
Then The Man, the flames and I were gone.
Autumn again. The temperature had dropped. The nights were longer. You could smell Halloween in the air.
Scanning. Back yard. Back porch. House. It all looks so different from this side.
I’m still writing uninterrupted every single day, well, except for one graceful thing. My three pot smoking boys had returned to their secret hiding place. Behind the tree line. I was so happy to see them every morning.
My house is still haunted and I’m still not afraid of my ghosts. Not even the ones in the tree line. Not even me.
I continue to rewrite the ending of the Dark Chronicles. It will never be finished. As I sit in the dirt and the rotting leaves below me, scribing my visions, I see every assailant I ever imagined or lived with, sitting right next to me. Peering between trees, pulling back branches, only stepping as far as the shadows allow us to go. Everyone except The Man. He’s not here. I think he's waiting again. Watching. Tinkering with someone else’s devil.
Yes. Autumn was here. So were the Autumn Folk. Everywhere but only if you were not afraid to let them in.
Scott A. Cook is Artistic Producer of the professional musical theatre company, TheatreWorks Florida. The critically acclaimed company has won numerous awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and Broadway World. At 56 years old, he has created over 180 stories for the stage. After years of working in theatre, Scott is now following his dream of writing. Transitioning from stage to page seems a natural progression; a stage director pays immense attention to detail, just as an author does of any well written story. His favored genre is dark horror fiction in the vein of Stephen King, Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft.