By William Louderback
Kristoff (real name Sebastian) flings the door open wearing full death’s head face paint. In fact, he might have used up an entire palette of black and white.
“Hey Seb, can you leave me alone?” I tap my pen on the stack of lab documents I’m halfheartedly attempting to finish. On this particular Friday afternoon, I hadn’t exactly felt like staying behind, working on my research, but I had begrudgingly accepted it before Sebastian decided to shove his face in the door.
“That’s Kristoff, or Kris to you, Alicia Kinsmuth.”
“Silence,” I mumble, “at least I don’t have to deal with changing my handle to sound cool for my mediocre thrash band, only to end up naming myself after a Frozen character.”
Seb fakes offense and starts to close the door, before murmuring out “Halloween party tonight. Down in the valley, where Diamond Park is.” I wave him away.
A few minutes later, after I finish writing and signing my stack of forms, finally able to start off the weekend right, I push the lab door open and glance down the hall. The hospital hallway is empty. No sign of the season, either, it’s the fifth and only the check-in desk has little paper Jack-O-Lanterns on strings, under shiny purple and black streamers. Christ, a Halloween party on the fifth. Who is Seb going with so early? The real question of his antics I always hesitate to ask myself is why he ever asks me. We were close in middle school, some people even sneered that we might be dating, k-i-s-s-i-n-g-you-know-the-elementary-school-drill. The thought of us ‘together’ had always made me wince.
But we drifted completely apart in high school, just his awkward nods and occasional waves with his lips parted a little, teeth gritted like he could have said something. He waited until college to try once more to resurrect the seventh grade days. Our shared love for the season makes him think I want to hang out again for some reason, and he tries to hang one way or another every time he leaves his dad’s camping gear rental (almost bought out by an REI before the Pendleton family down by the barn lobbied hard enough). I just wish he could accept our mutual respect—tenuous as it is—as his closest bet to friendship. I’ll enjoy my colored leaves and my crisp autumn afternoons, he can enjoy the midnight costume raves and extreme haunted houses.
I walk home through the downtown strip; a mirror to our split personalities. Uncarved pumpkins and gourds line the small municipal strip between sidewalk and just-repaved road. Bat and witch jelly stickers cling to the inside of the never-full hair salon like cheap stained glass. Cardboard crates of two separate designs, filled up with pumpkins, barricade the outside of the homegoods and grocery store. Pale blue skies over golden grain and smiley scarecrows alongside purple and green graveyards with zombie hands crashing up through the ground, side by side, printed on crate after crate, roughly alternating. Oddly, it almost worked.
I pass the Pendleton barn every time I cut through the private field to link up with the public trail, and today is no different. The barn is big, once upon a time painted red, (brown-gray now,) surrounded by fall trees. It looks like a greeting card they sell at the front of a CVS. I wasn’t the only one who thought so, as dozens of photographers, from professional to indie to Instagram came every year in droves to snap a dozen shots, often with graduates, loved ones, or themselves, gazing contemplatively into the distance. Today, there’s a craft store pack’s worth of fake fabric leaves scattered on the trail’s overlook crest, and it pisses me off to think of the environmental and aesthetic damage. Stupid influencers, probably, I think. They’ll drive Mrs. Pendleton up the wall in her old age, the only remaining caretaker of the scenic spot, who—put kindly, has loosened a few screws over time. I think she lost it when the governor wouldn’t designate her barn state-protected historic land, and they were almost ready to plop an actual CVS down in its place.
When I unlock the front door, my brother drops his iPad to his lap, where it’s knocked aside as soon as he stands up, electrified by some idea in his head. I just glance at the iPad. If it weren’t for its blue foam armor, it could have cracked, even on the beige carpet from the 1990s.
“Didja talk to Kris today? Didja?”
“What… no…” then the actual events of the day came back to me, and I corrected. “Well… yes, briefly.”
“We’re going tonight! Aren’t we?”
I was dumbstruck. My brother was in fourth grade and there was no way he knew about the Halloween party. I had half a mind to walk right up to Seb’s and chew him out a little bit for dragging my brother into his often reckless plans. Clearly, Nolan understood my look.
“Bristol talks to me.”
“Sebastian’s nephew is in your class.” Seb has a nephew in fifth grade from his uncle’s remarriage, and the kid is known for acting like he’s all grown up.
“No. During recess. And after school care on Fridays.” My hand drags across my forehead. “And his older brother is so cool! So we’re going, I talked you into this, and there’s no trying to get out of it!”
“God no,” I mumble.
Nolan drags me by the jacket sleeve, out of the house at five. He wagers between his short legs and general lack of direction that two hours may be required to reach “the place of the happening.” Diamond Park, I tell him, tapping on my phone to show him Apple Maps. He refuses it, citing the ‘spirit of adventure,’ and I roll my eyes and let him act as tugboat down the street, until a few pins and needles in my arm make me shake him off.
We climb up a nameless slope towards Baines, a rather large hill on the edge of town and a favorite spot for motorcyclists. A guardrail hangs on our left, road on our right. “And if there was a demon, I’d fight it, hand-to-hand, I’d vanquish it!” I smile and nod as Nolan fantasizes enthusiastically. I don’t like Nolan walking this close to the street. I don’t like that Diamond Park is in the opposite direction.
He stops me at a trail entrance, not too far from a building transitioning into a silhouette as daylight faded. The structure, an old fire tower, was vacated before I learned the word ‘kindergarten’ and now creaks and totters, peeling rags of paint onto its empire of hardened sandbags and weedy plastic refuse. A few of Seb’s band mates have been inside, and they’ve exchanged talk of shooting a music video there. I’m not sure why childish graffiti and empty plastic bins are interesting.
The trail is darker, under shade of trees, like a spooky Halloween postcard; black cats and witch’s cauldrons. Only the fog is missing, but I guess it’s a perfect way to set the night’s mood from here on out. Nolan seems to think so. He talks about werewolves and ‘haints’ and La Llorona and Slenderman with all the giddy excitement of a kid who loves all things horror while still blocking his closet door at night. There is a small fire up ahead.
The fire is in a pockmarked steel pit, filled with sticks and gas station firewood and fed snacks of abundant dead leaves. The ‘party’ is about ten people ranging from my age to about sixteen, poking/staring at the fire, sitting up on the table part of a wooden park bench with a stack of red Solo cups and a Gatorade cooler. I integrate as best I can while my brother begins the enthused telling of ghost stories to the fire pit teens.
I spend half an hour glancing from Nolan to my phone and back, keeping watch over him and scrolling until the buzz of a data warning. I’m bored—there’s no faces I can recognize, and I’m not drinking anything in the jug cooler without knowing what exactly is in it. Soon, but not soon enough, a guy who announces himself as Dylan rises up and claps his hands. Sebastian rises up along with him.
“And now,” Dylan announces, “time for the great Harvest Moon Ritual.”
I think; they’ve done this, what, at most two years? Not much of a ritual, if you ask me.
I stop taking Dylan seriously by any modicum when he pulls out a Ouija board. I hear at least one cackle from behind to echo my sentiment. Still, my neck is craned up at him, my body twisted halfway around. Seb begins, talking through his dumb skull makeup. Maybe that’s what he is. A numbskull. It cracks me up a little, and I don’t try to hide it. “Please,” Seb (“Kristoff”) says, “your silence.” I make a face like a dog caught with a shredded Nike, but he isn’t looking at me. “For this ritual, you all must gaze into the flame, and imagine the image of the Harvest Moon within. I shall summon the spirits as you do so. For as you know, one hundred and twenty years ago to the day, a classroom perished in a schoolhouse fire within these very woods, and their spirits are restless to this day.” I cringe, mainly because I’ve perused enough accounts of town history: in the library, the police department’s public records room, the courthouse, the historical society, and countless internet news archives and webpages to know that there was no schoolhouse here, and certainly no schoolhouse fire anywhere around. That stuff makes the papers, and the only one Seb insinuated was up several states and across Lake Michigan.
I roll my eyes, then turn myself over to look into the fire, though, and focus on the fire ring’s pitted edges. How stark the black looks with the contrast of bright orange and pale yellow, I notice. There’s murmuring and quiet jokes around: Seb asked for their silence, and all but the staunchest refused.
The sky has almost fallen entirely to darkness now, and I can barely make out the white chalk graffiti on the side of the pit I’m facing. It looks like a cross with stuff written in each incomplete ‘box,’ like a hieroglyphic factoring equation. The strain of making out the little scrawl is making my eyes hurt, so I look up. I see Nolan has turned away from the fire as well, and I wave and smile to him in solidarity, only slowly realizing he’s not looking at any one of us. His gaze is cast upwards instead. I turn and see it—Seb’s half blocking me and I have a bad angle, but sure enough, there’s a glow on the horizon and a large column of dirty gray smoke pluming up into the Harvest Moon sky. I look back to Nolan, who has a look of resolve. He rolls up his striped sleeves. He tells me as he runs past, but I don’t have to hear it—he’s going to slay the demon.
Chasing him into the underbrush, call after call fails heeding, and the campfire smoke has made my voice hoarse. I plunge into the darkness for a dozen or more yards, but he’s gone. I click open my phone’s flashlight, but nothing appears in the tinted haze of my weak light. Running back for support is the only intelligent option.
I grab Sebastian by the shoulders before he can get a word out. “How could you do this?” I’m angry, and he’s the easiest target. “You got your brother to drag him out here-”
“Alicia, calm down, and at least tell me what the heck is going on.”
“Nolan. Nolan just ran off in the woods because-” I’ll be wasting time if I tell him, ”while you were looking at your fire, he took off on us. I don’t know what you were thinking, bringing a kid out here who’s only two weeks past ten!” I know somewhere that I had brought him out there, that I’m assigning blame, but anger at Seb feels more productive than wallowing in fear and my own blame.
No one is talking now. Excited, panicked chatter has given way to a graveyard silence.
“We can find him.”
My reply; “You’re idiotic,” just as much to him as myself.
“No, come on.” But he needn’t tell me. I’m running twice as fast and I’ve grabbed the one other thing on the table. A plastic stand-mounted LED torch. It’s hazard yellow with bonus reflective tape, bigger than a soup can, and LITEBRIGHT is written in black on one side. I ignore the angled stand mount dangling below it and carry the miniature sun by its handle. The beam is shockingly bright and thick as the darkness, I’m just as likely to blind Nolan as find him. But I, feeling nothing like a wiseman, chase on after the glow in the sky, running low, the smell of the fire I left fading and a new fire taking its place in my nostrils. It can’t be more than a half mile away, and I’ll keep running.
Last December, I was late for my Psych course, taken as an additional resource for my premed course. I ran the entire way from home to campus, and there were puddles frozen over from the night before. Now there were slippery spots, loose dirt and occasional mud patches. Then, I had to skip and dance around them, pirouetting over curbs and around mailboxes, newsstands. Now I leap past the bramble and small oak galls seemingly designed to trip me, weave around trunks and thick brush. Now I stumble, often trip, once fall into a seamless crawl but never go all the way flat. Branches and dry weeds whip past me and I hop over knotted trunks and skiddy patches of small rocks in the eddies and miniature sheers of the slope. Unseen bugs and night frogs scream in my ears. Downhill, I dodge trees and knotted downed branches as I pick up speed. I couldn’t stop if I wanted to, so I assure myself a quick slow-down for my safety when it flattens out. Can’t help Nolan if I’m lying next to a leaf-obscured fissure with a broken leg. Just up ahead, I think, you’ll be safe there. Just up ahead, the last layer of dense underbrush. Tearing through it is child’s play at my speed. My footing is lost as soon as their bony roots are gone. With the greeting of a valleyed field and navy sky, I can’t even realize I’ve made a mistake before I’m tumbling down a shallow ravine. A rock strikes my back, I’m hurt, but not bad. The angle isn’t extreme and the fall is about ten to fifteen feet total. I land with a jagged bit of stone under my shoulder. My flannel pulls and my t-shirt tears. I’m bleeding. Ignoring the pain, I rise to my feet—at least my shoes are still on—and I nearly fall back again.
I must have skirted my way around, flanked the smoke in an arc, because the trail is way off to my right, and I’m behind the barn enough outsiders with cameras consider world-famous. The postcard barn that is currently roiling with smoke, cracking and popping with flames.
With a curse under my breath and a maniacal swing of the hefty light, I begin calling out for Nolan again. My voice is less hoarse now, either because the smoke is downwind or I’ve lost all inhibition. I run along the side, hoping against hope I won’t give out and fall over, on my face. “Nolan! C’mon, get over here!” No reply. “Nooo-laaaaan!” I sigh and I drop the flashlight. Decide to close my eyes and listen, hear nothing. Even the fire’s almost silent now in the back of my head, like a loud air conditioner you just get used to. The only thought remains; I should’ve taken the trail, but I didn’t know where the fire had been and I hadn’t been thinking straight. Now I can.
I pick up the torch and carry it up the dusty path leading uphill. My phone still has a little data, and I know for a fact that the hill gets service, (why else would all the influencers take time after the shoot, clearly picking captions and image tags?) Bored to tears, I’d looked over their shoulders. Pitch blackness awaits me, and the flashlight, which must’ve been low to start with, begins to dim. Saving the battery, I switch it off, shutting off my world’s light switch. Navigation blind is no easy task, but when you begin to see the difference between black and navy, it’s not so bad, and I could always look back and reorient myself on the leveling line of the smoke cresting the trees. Finally, I find a place where upon reaching down, I touch something ‘wrong.’ A cheap fabric leaf. I bet to myself that it’s colored bright fall hues. I sit down in the former photoshoot spot and try to remember morse code. I soon decide any signal is better than none. Blinding, I remember. Bright and thick, like a solid beam of white. The lamp had only begun to dim when I’d last turned it off.
“Nolan!” I call again, flicking the laser of white on and off again and again. “Nolan Kinsmuth!” My calls are sharper, shorter so as to not waste breath. Just as I’m at a pause, staring off at the smoldering barn of a billion photoshoots, something taps me on the shoulder.
After I pull my face up from the dirt, and I’ve learned how to breathe and beat my heart again, I look up and see him, right there.
“The others didn’t come with you, did they?” A gush of relief overloads me and systematically puts out the dozens of my own fires that were wreaking terror in me.
“I ran too fast for them,” I bubble through laughter. I put my arms around him, angry at absolutely nothing and no one. “Did you kill your demon?”
“No. I never even got there. I guess it was the old barn after all.” I smile, curious about his own adventure, but not enough to ask now.
“I wanna sleep.” I lead him into a safer corner of the underbrush. I don’t want a firetruck to hit us, I tell him. He sleeps, I remain watchful. Without werewolves and ‘haints,’ kid-stealing La Lloronas and Slendermen, It’s still too much to close my eyes.
The firetruck comes first, lumbering past with a deep, rasping motor, just an F-250 in red and white getup and a sturdy box back. There’s nothing left for it to save, but I watch it give it a try. The driver and the rest of the crew—four in total—never notice us.
Then, as daybreak lightens the threadbare autumn canopy, the SUVs and sedans and dear-God-so-many-Subarus show up. People exit with cameras, watch in confusion. Some leave without their photographs, some snap even more shots. For once, some are locals.
It takes an EMT, in a truck not all that different from the fire wagon, to find us, and the middle-aged paramedic who discovers Nolan and I hurriedly ushers us back to the ambulance. I assure him that Nolan is fine before I’m struck with the realization that I don’t know. “Maybe. Check up on this one.” I pass Nolan to him, and he’s still too sleepy to register much. I’m invited to sit on the back of the white and orange EMT wagon and a second paramedic gives a warm cup of something to drink, probably hot cocoa or, heck– if they’re festive, maybe it’s cider. I slide my flannel back so the shoulders folds over the subtle bloody stains on my back, wrap myself in a provided emergency blanket—more of a tinfoil mass—for the lower back gash, and let the two EMTs check up on Nolan. They have enough on their hands without me.
It’s the early morning of October the sixth, I don’t know when, since my phone died overnight, but shortly after six am. The air is chilly and my back hurts. Last night was harrowing. Despite the thought-obscuring pound of my apprehension returning, I can read Nolan’s body language, how he looks at the EMTs and the tone of voice he uses with them. I read him like a book in big block print. Nolan’s excited for the spookiest ‘spooky season’ ever. Next time I’ll promise him a haunted house tour—any of them, all of them, I don’t care. He asks to borrow an EMT’s phone. I watch passively as it’s handed to him—an iPhone 11 in a cardinal red case. There’s a sticker with a cartoon of a campfire on it, the kind you impulse-buy in the checkout line of a CVS. Or an REI. Nolan watches a video ridethrough of a Minecraft roller coaster, on a map with an orange sky and giant scary faces made of blocks. The coaster cart rides into Jeff the Killer’s mouth. I stop watching, now I’m the one looking up. A woman is talking.
“I’m sick and tired of it,” she screams, “it was every hour of every day and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had no need for it, and if the town mourns the loss of a landmark, I’ll remind them its cost.”
The uneasy voice of a reporter, the voice you don’t hear on CNN or NBC, only on local channels seen by residents and motel guests alone, run by Sinclair Broadcast Group or something. He is saying things that I do not hear as words, but as a droning in the back of my head. I hear the woman only.
“No respect. The new ones don’t care like the old ones did.” Mrs. Pendleton—I’m sure of that—picks up a craft-store leaf half-buried in the dirt and glares at it scornfully. “No respect. I had to. You know I had to. To stop the madness.” Her voice takes on a raspy grave tone.
“All of this is madness,” I mumble as I bury my face in the space blanket.