Story by Stephen Woodworth
Illustration by Bradley K. McDevitt
“Uh-oh. Looks like we got a possible infraction east of town.” Ryland, the rookie, handed me the printout from his computer. “Anonymous tip. You want to check it out?”
I skimmed the paper. A neighbor had seen the usual paraphernalia: pumpkins, black crepe, possible latex masks, although that hadn’t been confirmed.
I sighed and glanced at the clock on my cell phone screen: 8:43 PM, October 30. Damn. I’d held a naïve hope that we’d make it through the last four hours of the month without an incident.
“I suppose it’s about time you did your first raid.” I donned my trilby hat and took the black satchel from the bottom drawer of my desk. “Put on your jacket and straighten that tie.”
“Yes, sir.” Ryland slid on his sport coat. “So, what’s in the bag? Is it for me?”
He grinned, I frowned. “If you’re lucky, you’ll never find out,” I replied and shoved him toward the office door.
— ♦♦♦ —
The route eastward out of Nashua took us through the city’s center. Although it was a Friday night, the downtown area remained subdued, almost deserted, as the populace avoided any appearance of celebration out of an excess of caution. Bars and restaurants were virtually empty, yet they all stayed open despite the lack of business to emphasize that they were not observing a holiday. No decorations adorned the windows of local shops; they deferred putting out Thanksgiving cornucopias or Christmas trees until the second week of November just to be safe. Even the night crew of highway workers we passed wore electric green safety vests instead of the more traditional orange.
Everyone knew the importance of obeying the Seasonal Culture Laws. Well…almost everyone.
We drove our unmarked Ford out into the New Hampshire woods. Bursts of orange autumn foliage, in addition to red and gold, impinged on the beams of our headlights as we wound between stands of maples and oaks, adding to the impression that we were delving into an unruly wilderness that respected no laws of hubristic humanity.
I radioed for a couple of state troopers to meet us at the location in case we needed backup, although, in a worst-case scenario, the police would have been little help. Following our GPS directions, we turned off the two-lane highway into a crooked, unpaved driveway, rutted and muddy with rainwater, until we came to a two-story19th-century farmhouse clad in clapboards and skinned with flaking white paint. We parked near the two police cars at the far end of the clearing that surrounded the residence. The night was cold, the sky black with cloud cover. I’d worn a wool overcoat, but Ryland shivered in his thin sport coat as we got out of the car.
A female trooper in a forest-green jacket stepped forward from her cruiser to meet us. She wore a flat-brimmed scoutmaster hat and long dark hair that had been twined into a thick braid down her back.
“Here’s the search warrant you requested, Inquisitor.” She handed me the folded document. “Never seen a judge issue one so fast, particularly in the middle of the night.”
I tucked the paper in my inside coat pocket. “Our department has special dispensation.”
“No sign of activity since we got here,” the trooper reported. “You want us to go in with you?”
“No, stay here and be prepared to call for assistance.”
“You mean more backup?” She sounded incredulous. “What’ll your signal be?”
“You’ll know it if you see it.”
She nodded, dubious. “Your call. We’re here if you need us.”
She and three other officers hung back as Ryland and I climbed the steps of the house’s veranda and rapped on the front door. There was no porch light on, and we could barely see one another, but when we got no answer after a second knock, I could sense Ryland’s unspoken expectancy. He was waiting for me to tell him to ram the door open.
As if the occupants had overheard our silent exchange, we heard the deadbolt click, and a woman with dark hair and a narrow face opened the door just wide enough for us to see her worried expression. “Yes? What do you want?” she asked.
“Janice Travers? Sorry to bother you, ma’am.” Ryland flashed his I.D. “Department of Cultural Security. We were wondering if we could—”
“We need to search the premises.” I presented her with the warrant. We didn’t have time for Ryland’s good-cop niceties.
The woman shook her head, trembling. “I don’t understand…”
She reflexively retreated as I pushed the door further open and crossed the threshold. I caught the smell at once: the bittersweet burnt-sugar odor of singed pumpkin. “Is the kitchen this way?”
I headed toward a room on the left without waiting for her reply. She hurried to get ahead of me. “Yes. Is there something wrong?”
She looked to be in her late thirties, no makeup, dressed casually in jeans and a checked flannel lumberjack shirt that she wore loosely over a black T-shirt. In a way, I pitied her. She was barely old enough to remember a time when what she was doing was not forbidden.
“We heard there might be certain…contraband items here,” Ryland explained, as we moved from the polished hardwood of the entryway onto the kitchen’s shoe-worn green linoleum.
I stomped on the foot-pedal of a wastebasket by the sink. Its lid flipped up to reveal a clump of seeds and orange pulp among the garbage. “You had pumpkins here.”
Travers glanced into the can as if to confirm the evidence against her. “Yeah … I was making a pie.”
“A little early for Thanksgiving, isn’t it?”
“I had a craving. So?”
“Mind if we look upstairs?”
“Of course. I mean, no.” She led us toward the living room staircase as if it had been her idea.
I made a show of checking the master bedrooms. “Where is your husband?” I asked, knowing perfectly well she was divorced.
“Gone.” She bit at her thumb.
Kids’ clothing littered the bunk beds of the next room. “And the children?”
“They’re with their dad this weekend.”
“Indeed.” The smell of scorched pumpkin swelled when I opened the next door. Janice Travers flinched as I switched on the light but said nothing.
The room’s sparse furnishings had been pushed to the perimeter, clearing the center of the wooden floor. I noted that, unlike those of the other windows in the house, the shades and curtains here had been drawn. In the middle of the floor sat a metal washtub half-full of water. Red apples bobbed on the liquid’s surface.
“I was washing them,” Travers blurted.
I nodded. “For another pie, no doubt.”
When I advanced toward the closet at the far end of the room, she finally cracked. She blocked the door, pleading. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. Look…I’ll get rid of everything—you can have it.”
Ryland gently pulled her away. “It’s okay. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
“We’ll see about that.” I yanked open the closet. My grip tightened on the handle of my satchel as I saw the contents. Plastic skulls and spiders, paper cutout werewolves and vampires, orange and black streamers wadded into balls—all piled into the small space with haphazard haste. Many of the items must have dated to the last century before it became illegal to manufacture them.
It might as well have been a cache of nuclear warheads. For an instant, I thought I saw the walls waver as if made of water, but the impression quickly dissipated.
Seated amid all the forbidden holiday trappings were two toddlers: a girl wearing a pointed black hat with her face painted green and a boy in pajamas decorated with felt bones, his head made up to resemble a skull. They sat cross-legged on the floor, perfectly still, perhaps hoping I might mistake them for cloth figures stuffed with straw. And in their laps, they held grinning jack-o’-lanterns that still reeked of smoke from the recently extinguished candles inside them.
I beckoned to them. “Come out, little ones.”
The witch looked to Travers. “Mommy…?”
“Don’t!” Travers lunged for me, but Ryland restrained her. “Please, they had nothing to do with it. It was my idea, something I did as a kid. It’s harmless.”
“Harmless?” I gestured to the diminutive skeleton and crone. “Necromancy! Witchcraft! You have no idea of the dangerous forces you’re toying with.”
“But it’s just pretend!”
“For your sake and ours, I wish it were. Ryland?”
He took a pair of handcuffs from his jacket pocket and bound the woman’s arms behind her back. “Janice Travers, you are under arrest for violating Section 3 of the Seasonal Culture Security Act. You have the right to remain silent—”
She shook her head and wriggled in his grasp. “No! You can’t—I swear, we’ll never do it again!”
“No,” I agreed. “You won’t.”
The little skeleton jumped up, the jack-o’-lantern rolling off his lap to spill its lid and tea-light on the floor. Tears streaked his clown-white cheeks. “Mommy! Don’t go!”
Both he and his sister bolted from the closet to grab hold of their mother’s waist. Weeping, she struggled vainly to embrace them as Ryland held her cuffed arms behind her back. “It’s all right, babies. Mommy will be back soon.”
Ryland failed to shake the youngsters loose as he tried to pull Travers away. “We may have to call for backup after all. What do we do with the kids?”
“I’m afraid the children will have to be submitted for re-education,” I called the state trooper on my cell phone.
“What?” Janice Travers looked at me like I was the monster. “That’s insane! It’s all just pretend. It was supposed to be fun.”
The police officers came in, and two of the men grabbed the boy and girl, hugging them to their chests as the toddlers kicked and screamed. Ryland dragged Janice Travers from the room as she sobbed, over and over, “It was fun when I was little. I only wanted it to be fun!“
“You want us to bag all that for evidence?” the dark-haired female trooper asked, referring to the contents of the closet.
I stooped to pick up an antique postcard that lay on the floor. A pumpkin-headed scarecrow figure grinned beside a humped black cat.
“No. This place is tainted. Have your local fire brigade stand by.” I tucked the card in the breast pocket of my overcoat.
The two police cruisers took away Janice Travers and her children, heading in opposite directions. When they were gone, Ryland and I pulled out the cans of kerosene that we’d brought with us from the trunk of our car and dowsed the home’s interior with it, beginning with the upstairs closet. Ryland lit a cigarette with the match that he used to torch the house and smoked pensively as we watched it burn. When the fire engines arrived to put out the flames, we left.
It was after midnight by the time we returned to the department offices to file our report. I set my black satchel on my desk; fortunately, I hadn’t had to open it…yet.
Ryland hadn’t spoken since we’d made the arrest, but I could tell the night’s raid had preyed on the rookie’s conscience.
“Was all that really necessary?” he asked at last, as I’d been expecting. “I mean, that stuff the lady had…it all looked pretty innocuous to me.”
I nodded. The newbies never understood. Not until they’d seen the danger for themselves.
“Do you know what today is?” I said.
Ryland shrugged. “November 1st?”
I smiled. Barely in his twenties, he’d been born after the calendar change, had never even heard the H-word. It gave me hope that, within a few generations, we might obliterate all memory of the infernal holiday.
I took the postcard from my coat pocket and told him to read the florid yet fiery orange script beneath the picture.
“‘Happy Hall-o-ween’?” he said, sounding out the unfamiliar noun. “What’s that?”
So, I told him.
— ♦♦♦ —
In our hubris, we thought we’d gotten rid of all the old pagan holy days. Over the centuries, we’d sent our sly missionaries to the far corners of the Earth to vanquish the ancient deities and systematically co-opt or negate their rituals and festivals. Lammas and Walpurgisnacht, the equinoxes and solstices—all effectively neutralized.
All but one.
For the Old Gods were more cunning than we’d understood. Even as we strove to degrade their Samhain into the mockery, we named All Hallow’s Eve, they wove their worship into our secular celebrations, thereby preserving and passing on their sacred rites for generations. Every time we had our children hollow out gourds to make leering idols or sent them round to gather a sacrificial offering of sweets from the neighbors, we were unwittingly indoctrinating them, teaching our offspring to make obeisances to the once and future masters of humankind…and prepare for their ultimate restoration to the celestial throne.
“You see,” I told Ryland, “the pagans believed that, on certain days of the year, the barrier between our world and the realm beyond grew thin and permeable, permitting passage between these planes of existence. And they were correct. But not every year. We now know that decades or even centuries could pass before another portal might open. Yet every Halloween holds the threat of possible demonic incursion.”
Ryland’s face scrunched with skepticism. “And so, they wiped it off the calendar? How did they think that would help?”
“The ancient gods rely on human worship to summon them—to open the door at the proper time. If no one practices their prescribed rituals, the barrier, though thin, remains closed. We hoped that, by stifling observance of the festival, humanity would eventually forget the old rites, thereby ensuring that the wall between the worlds would never be breached.”
“They didn’t tell us any of this in training…”
“Because it has to be seen to be believed.”
“And you’ve seen it?”
“I was there during the Salem Incident that compelled the government to pass the Seasonal Culture Security Act in the first place.” I laid a hand on my black bag. “That’s why I carry this.”
“About that…you gonna show me now?” He motioned for me to pass the satchel to him.
“There are some weapons that should only be handled in the heat of battle.” I checked the wall-clock. “With any luck, we can get through the next twenty-one hours and forty-two minutes without an apocalypse. Maybe you should lie down and nap for a couple of hours—we may have a long day and night ahead of us.”
“If you say so, Mr. Inquisitor.” Ryland shed his coat and tie and stretched out on the couch normally reserved for witnesses waiting to be interrogated. “Happy Hallow—”
“Don’t,” I snapped. “As far as you’re concerned, it’s November 1st.”
But the charade was useless. The calendar date did not fool the Old Gods. They knew perfectly well what day it was.
— ♦♦♦ —
Things remained calm throughout the daylight hours on Saturday, though an air of expectant tension prevailed in the city. The streets remained largely deserted, the citizens holed up and battened down as if for an approaching storm.
Ryland and I stayed in the office, reading email updates from other regional Department divisions in the rest of the country and from the enforcement bureaus and ministries of foreign governments. Like us, they had made sporadic arrests, but no significant arcana events had occurred. Perhaps, we thought, this was not a portal year after all.
Then, at 10:47 p.m. that evening, we received a call from the Nashua P.D. Suspicious activity around an abandoned textile mill. Officers had spotted young people with grocery and garbage bags sneaking into the building. The police asked if they should investigate, but I told them that they should under no circumstances enter the premises until we got there.
The old mill was a coal-stained, brickwork dinosaur, a relic of the smokestack economy that hibernated in the city’s former industrial district on the banks of the Merrimack River. In an attempt at gentrification, the mill had been converted to a mall, a warren of small craft shops and bookstores, but that, too, had failed during the last recession. Mournful “FOR LEASE” signs still plastered the property as Ryland and I pulled up our Ford in the disused parking lot. In the darkness, a police car slunk past without siren or colored lights; I’d instructed them to remain on patrol in case we needed them.
We were not alone. A few other cars had parked on the cracked asphalt as well, scattered about the lot so as not to draw too much attention. An SUV with only its fog lights illuminated rolled to a stop a few yards away from us, and a group of college-aged kids piled out, all wearing long, dark raincoats. I frowned at their suppressed giggles as they crept toward the mill’s entrance.
“Well, Ryland, you act like a frat boy,” I said. “Think you can pass for one?”
“You know me, boss. I’m always ready to par-tay.”
He got out from the driver’s side of the Ford, and I followed, satchel in hand.
An unshaven youth in a down jacket and knit cap stopped Ryland at the door to the mill. “Dude, where’s your costume?”
Ryland indicated his suit. “I’m going as a Cultural Security agent.” He flipped open his I.D. “Pretty cool, huh?”
The bouncer put a hand to his forehead. “Oh, sh—”
Ryland put a finger to his lips. “Don’t want to spoil the surprise for your friends. If you’re nice and let in me and my pal—” He jerked his head toward me. “—we might just forget we saw you here. Deal?”
The kid threw up his hands and turned away.
I pulled the brim of my hat low over my face to hide my age as we moved toward the entrance. Someone with bolt-cutters had removed the padlock from the roll-down metal security door and forced open the sliding glass double doors beyond. The bass beat of trance club music bludgeoned us as we sidled through a crowd of undulating bodies packed so tightly, they barely had room to move, much less dance. The air was heavy and humid with the smell of cigarette and marijuana smoke, sweat and alcohol.
We shuffled into what had once been the aborted mall’s main corridor, and the scene was worse than I’d feared. Whichever sniggering sophomores had concocted this travesty must have learned about every taboo associated with the holiday from either banned books or loose-lipped grandparents. I’m sure the fact that it reeked of the forbidden and profane made it even more enticing for them.
The revelers had shed their coats to become a pandemonium of lascivious vampires, lustful devils, decayed and decadent zombies, all trussed in leather and ripped fishnets and showered by the stuttering silver light of strobes. At a folding table draped with orange and black plastic, a bartender made up like Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera filled plastic cups with beer from a keg. The celebrants had broken into the vacant stores on either side and, in the front windows, had erected lurid dioramas of bloody manikins carving each other up with butcher’s knives and chainsaws. Blasphemous insignia—inverted crosses and pentagrams, ancient sigils and ankhs—had been plastered on the walls with abandon, as if they were nothing worse than bumper stickers. And, everywhere, the vacant, glowing grins of jack-o’-lanterns, who seemed to delight in the debauchery.
One could not have found a more enthusiastic bacchanal on Bald Mountain.
A girl made up like a Gothic rag doll jostled me as she leaned back to let her dance partner lick salt for a tequila shot off her bare bosom. Ryland took the opportunity to catch my attention, shouted something that I could not hear over the sneering synthesizers of the electronica. When I didn’t respond, he gestured as if using a telephone. Should we call the cops to make the bust? he wanted to know. There were far too many people here for the two of us to arrest.
Before I could answer, the decision was made for us. The interior darkened and the music slurred with distortion, although I think I was the only one who noticed. Apprehensive, I looked up, and the atmosphere above the churning sea of dancers became strangely unfocused, the light refracting as if passing through an unseen prism.
My breath caught in my throat. I had seen that telltale haziness before. The membrane between universes had stretched as thin as cheesecloth.
There would be no time to call the police, nor any point in doing so. I shook my head at Ryland, mimed a catastrophic explosion with my hand. He paled.
The room grew darker still, and the sound emanating from the speakers slowed to a menacing basso mumble. The dancers around us stopped and looked around, perplexed, probably wondering if the electricity had browned out. In the deepening gloom, the sliced-open eyes and mouths of all the jack-o’-lanterns suddenly flared from dim candle-yellow to a glaring, spectral white. The college kids whooped and whistled their appreciation, mistaking the phenomenon for a special effect. A few let out mock screams followed by laughter as a great shadow squirmed inside the sphere of haziness, beating against it like a hatchling eager to escape an egg.
The screams became sincere a moment later when the creature broke through the diaphanous barrier. Nine feet tall, its stilt-like limbs were the bark-skinned, mistletoe-infested branches of trees, yet its head resembled the bone-white bird’s skull of a plague doctor’s mask. It seized a nubile co-ed, snagging her lace bodysuit with twig fingers as it clacked its beak about her shrieking head, the caverns of its eyes bottomless with lust. The other masqueraders stampeded toward the exits, trampling one another in their panic for escape.
I opened my black bag.
Inside lay a glass cylinder, enclosed by engraved silver caps on both ends and appliquéd with protective runes. A dark, viscous, iridescent material oozed within the container, twisting in upon itself like a serpent restlessly seeking an exit. Though black, it radiated a glow at the edge of the visible spectrum, shading into the ultraviolet.
I hesitated to touch it. During the Salem Incident, it had cost so many lives to capture and imprison the thing, and, in truth, I could not be sure that the desperate scheme I had in mind would work. But I knew of no other force strong enough to combat the being that had just been freed and whatever else might come through the open portal.
I scooped the cylinder out of the bag and hurled it toward the bird-headed creature, where it smashed on the floor.
As it spilled out of the shattered container, what had seemed to be liquid crystallized and expanded, spontaneously freezing into a solid. It grew into a hulking djinn with the jutting spiral horns of a nyala antelope, but its snub-nosed snout bared teeth as jagged as a jackal’s. Its arms forked at the elbow into two sets of three-clawed hands, yet the lower half of its body ended in a legless mist that hovered over the ground like a looming thunderhead.
No doubt thirsting for revenge, it sought its captors with darting, reptilian eyes. Fortunately for me, it spotted a luckless college boy who was trying to stand after being mowed down by the herd of frantic partygoers. The boy’s zombie makeup added a touch of Guignol grotesquerie as the djinn scissored his head off with one snap of its talons.
Ryland slogged against the tide of fleeing humanity to come shout in my ear. “What the hell?”
I pointed to the djinn. “Watch!”
As I’d hoped, the djinn’s attention had homed in on the bird-headed monstrosity. It, in turn, threw aside its less-than-virginal sacrifice and fixed its hollow gaze on the rival deity. I’d learned that, as a rule, the Old Gods are jealous gods. They don’t like competition, and they will always take on the most formidable adversary first, knowing that they can easily deal with us paltry humans afterward.
The bird-creature squalled like a pterodactyl as the djinn charged at it. There was a cracking of wood and an ozone smell of electrical discharge as they grappled like warring daikaiju, each trying to push the other back through the gauzy portal in order to have our world all to itself.
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and looked at the display, praying.
The two titans tumbled together into the portal’s blear, their silhouettes becoming indistinct and insubstantial. A shudder of air whooshed over us, and the creatures disappeared.
I exhaled and slipped the phone back into my pocket.
Ryland looked ashen, broken. “My God…”
“No…not your god.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “Now do you see why we have to do this?”
He swallowed hard and nodded. I doubted he’d ever be the same. I know I wasn’t after Salem.
Moans and cries still rose from the survivors who lay scattered like jackstraws around us. A huge crowd still pushed and shoved and clawed at each other as they tried to get out the double doors of the mill’s entrance, unaware that the threat had passed.
I surveyed the disastrous holiday detritus that remained and shook my head. “We’ve got to evacuate this place and get a demolition team in here at once…”
Ryland tapped my arm but could not speak. He didn’t need to—I saw what had rendered him speechless.
The mirage-like miasma of the portal remained. It rippled like a pond into which an enormous stone has plunged.
“But that’s impossible…” I fumbled my cell phone out of my pocket again. Before I even saw the screen, though, I realized my dreadful miscalculation.
Daylight Saving Time.
To save a few pennies on electricity, every spring we in the northern hemisphere set our clocks forward an hour to take advantage of the season’s extra hours of daylight. But our tinkering with time does not deceive the Old Gods any more than our manipulation of the calendar months.
I thought it had passed midnight, safely ending the dreaded holiday. But, since the 2nd would be the first Sunday in our 31-day November, we hadn’t yet set our clocks back. In Standard Time—real time—it was only 11:00 p.m.
There was still a full hour of Halloween left.
A head the size of a pharaonic monument wavered into view, its face the visage that every jack-o’-lantern both mimics and mocks. But this face was the orange of hellfire, and it was not smiling.
I hung my head, let the empty black satchel slip from my fingers.
Our feeble, futile meddling with the calendar was about to end.
Soon, every day would be Halloween, and we would all be condemned to celebrate it.
— ♦♦♦ —
I created you to do a lot of great things with what you’ve got. But the people down there…well, to show them greatness scares them most of the time. It’s the reason I moved up here – they weren’t ready for me, they’re not ready for you…