The graveyard was silent, but it was far from empty. The decorations marched in a straight line around the whole perimeter before passing through the gate. Once inside, they headed towards the center of the graveyard, and as they marched, they shrank, finally disappearing into a six-inch wide hole in the ground over which two girls were playing paddy cake.
Hayden and Conrad stood a few yards away from the gate, watching the silent parade. Crash and Hurricane sat down at Conrad's heels and whined. Several of the things they saw didn't look like decorations come to life. They were spirits of all kinds, and they radiated soft white light. The graveyard was as bright as day in that glow.
"Now what?" Conrad asked.
Hayden didn't answer. He was staring at the two girls. They looked enough alike that they could have been sisters, but one of them didn't look like she had ever been anything but a spirit. The other girl was Meghann.
Hayden looked around the graveyard. He saw Sky perched like a cat on top of a crypt, watching the proceedings with amused disinterest. Taren was standing not far from Meghann, staring down at his feet as his father lectured him. There were others whom he recognized; cops killed in the line of duty, victims in homicide cases he had worked, friends and acquaintances who had died of diseases, car accidents, suicides or drug overdoses. He hadn't realized there were so many, and he thought there probably weren't. It was because of Tisiphone.
He looked at Conrad. Conrad finally seemed to be realizing what he was seeing, and the look on his face was somewhere between paralyzing terror and overwhelming grief. He had an excuse to look away when Hurricane laid his ears back and growled. Conrad put his hand on Hurricane's head as he looked where the bullmastiff was looking. "Hush," he said gently.
Jack was pushing his Honda up the street. Bacchus was still nestled inside Jack's jacket, and he had his paws on one handlebar as if he were pushing, too. Behind them was a white shimmer that left the impression that it was in the shape of the motorcycle. There was a serenely grinning face in the headlight, if a grinning skull could be said to be serene.
Hurricane uttered one more deep, disapproving grunt as Jack and Bacchus approached, and then he shoved his head into Conrad's hand until Conrad scratched behind his ears.
"I think we found Carlin," Hayden said as Jack lowered the bike to the ground.
Jack's eyes blushed, first a pale pink, and then they rushed through shades of red until they reached a deep purplish red. He looked at the two girls. He put his hands over his mouth. Bacchus copied him. "Thank you, Mr. Detective. And you too, Mr. Journalist," Jack said after a while.
"You knew she'd be here," Conrad said. "Why didn't you just come here in the first place?"
"She'll run from me. She won't run from you. Well, she might run from the dogs. Where did you get them? They're ... weird."
Crash barked. Bacchus drew back against Jack's chest and hissed.
"Stop," Conrad said. Crash sneered but said no more.
"You should have told me she'd be here from the start, Jack," Hayden said. "You might have made things easier on yourself."
Jack shook his head. Bacchus did the same. "You don't understand," Jack said.
"You wanna explain it?"
"No, I just ... I can't. I just wanna take her back where she belongs. It'll stop the crazy decorations and all the other things."
"Other things?" Conrad asked. "What other things?"
"Um ... "
"You better start talking before I decide to have roasted cucumber for dinner and your cat turns into dog food."
"I see why they call you the angry one."
"Conrad, forget it," Hayden said. "Let's just get this over with. I'm tired."
Conrad shrugged. "Whatever."
"Come on, Jack."
Jack hesitated. "You better stay here, Bacchus," he said. He extracted the cat from his jacket and set him down on the motorcycle. Bacchus blinked his lazy wine-colored eyes and meowed. "It's okay. I'll be fine." Bacchus flicked his tail. Jack walked towards the gate.
"Stay with the cat," Conrad told Crash and Hurricane. "Make sure he doesn't run away."
The dogs looked at Bacchus. Bacchus blinked back at them. Conrad followed Jack to the gate as the line of spirits and decorations halted to let Jack through. Hayden put his hand on his chest and took a deep breath. It wasn't his stomach that was in knots that time. He watched Conrad pass through the gate. His knees were starting to shake. Jack turned to him and shouted, "Come on, Mr. Detective!" Hayden took another deep breath and walked to the gate.
As he walked past the spirits and through the gate, he could feel that they were in awe of him, as if they saw something more than a man, and he wondered what he looked like to them. They might have been seeing Tisiphone, marble pale and cold, snakes in her hair and tears of blood rolling down her cheeks, but he didn't think that would inspire anything but fear, even among spirits. Whatever it was, it allowed him and Conrad safe passage. The spirits' attitude towards Jack, however, was a little different. Hayden heard nasty names whispered as Jack went by. It seemed Jack's reputation as a trickster preceded him, and his fellow spirits weren't too fond of him. Hayden understood why Jack was worried. Carlin had no reason to trust Jack, and to get her to go wherever it was she was supposed to go, he was probably going to have to trick her, thus adding to his unfavorable reputation and losing whatever love Carlin might have had for him.
Carlin had stopped the game of paddy cake and was staring at the hole in the ground over which she and Meghann were playing. "It stopped," she said. "Why did it stop?"
Meghann put her hand over her nose. "Ew, it smells like vegetables," she said. She looked around for the source of the offensive odor. Her eyes got wide when she saw Hayden. She jumped up and ran to him.
Hayden didn't let himself stop to think about anything, not the fact that she was a spirit or that she was growing up in the afterlife. Just to have her run to him like that was all he needed to smooth out the knots in his heart.
"Jack O'Lantern, you little bastard!" Carlin shrieked. She stood up and put her fists on her hips. She looked sixteen instead of eight.
"Carlin," Jack said. He approached her timidly, and his eyes were a muddy tan with dark swirls.
"What are you doing here? Can't you see I'm busy?"
Jack went down on his knees and clutched his hands together. "Please, Carlin, you're making people scared. You have to stop. You have to come home, please."
"It's Halloween. This is what I'm supposed to do."
"But Carlin - "
"Go away, Jack."
Jack took off his gloves and showed her the ring with the face in it. "They've been watching me since you ran away. They told me that if I didn't find you in a hundred years they'd turn me into a human and make me die so I have to end up like my dad."
Carlin studied Jack carefully. She scrunched her eyes. "This is some kind of trick."
Jack shook his head. "This is the last night I have."
"One hour," the face said.
Carlin's expression softened. "Oh, Jack." She fell on her knees and threw her arms around him. "Oh, Jack, I'm so sorry. I had no idea they'd do that to you. Oh, those terrible, terrible bitches. But I can't go back. I can't."
"Why? Why did you run away?"
"Because people are trying to kill me. They think Halloween is evil, and they want to get rid of me. They don't understand, and I can't make them understand."
"If they make people stop trick or treating, I'll go away. I'll die."
"I don't want you to die."
"But I can't let the crones kill you like that. If you want me to come back, I will. I'm sorry, Jack. I should have told you why I left. I should have asked you to come with me. I do love you, Jack."
"I love you, too, but - "
She kissed him on the mouth. His eyes flashed yellow and then fell shut.
"That's gross," Meghann said. "He's got vegetable cooties."
"Girls have cooties, too, you know," Hayden said.
"They do. I've had them. They're pretty gross."
The face in Jack's ring started to fuss. Jack broke the kiss and stuffed his hands back into the gloves. "Take your spirits and get out of here," he said. "The crones will show up before too long, and it's best if you're long gone. Maybe I can convince them I couldn't find you."
"Jack ... "
"No. I want you to go. Nothing they do to me is as bad as what could happen to you. Even if I die, I'll end up just like I am now. You won't. Get out of here."
Carlin smiled. She stood up and was suddenly dressed as a drill sergeant. She blew hard into a whistle. "All right, you lazy bastards! Double time!" she shouted. The spirits began to move again, pouring into the little hole in the ground. Jack watched them with a sunset in his eyes. When they were gone, Carlin waved to Meghann and kissed Jack again before she disappeared.
Conrad scratched at the bandage on his chin. "I don't think that was what I was expecting," he said.
"What did you expect?" Hayden asked.
"I don't know. I just know it wasn't that. Are we done now?"
Jack looked around the graveyard. The spirits that belonged there were still there, but there were no decorations and no other spirits. "Yeah," he said. "Until the crones come for me. And I'd rather not wait here for them, if it's all the same to you."
Before anyone had a chance to answer, they heard Bacchus yowling. Crash and Hurricane started barking. A lone witch on a broomstick with a sickle in one hand was speeding towards Jack. Bacchus, Crash and Hurricane were chasing the witch. She swung the sickle at Jack, digging a deep furrow across his chest. She started a turn to come back and strike him again. Sky jumped down from the top of the crypt, tackling the witch off her broom and knocking the sickle from her hand. Bacchus reached her first and began to scratch at her face. The dogs soon caught up, and before too long, there were only little bits and pieces of cardboard.
The cut in Jack's chest turned black and hard as stone. His eyes went white, and he collapsed.
"Is he dead?" Meghann asked.
"I don't think so," Hayden said.
"How can you tell?" Conrad asked.
Robert stopped fussing at his son and went to Jack. He bent over the green skinned spirit, his ear close to Jack's mouth. "He's all right," Robert said. He stood up and brushed dirt off his knees. "But you might want to take him somewhere safe."
"We'll take him to my place," Hayden said.
Robert smiled. "I'm proud of you, Hayden." And then he was gone.
Hayden looked at Taren. He thought of a thousand things to say but couldn't voice any of them.
Taren grinned. "No need to say anything," he said. "I know. And I don't think you failed any of us."
Hayden looked down at his feet. He felt Taren disappear. Meghann kissed his cheek. "Bye, Dad," she whispered. And then she was gone too.
Sky squirmed away from Crash and Hurricane who were cheerfully licking his face. "It could be worse," he said.
"Thanks for being so optimistic," Conrad said.
Sky shrugged as he disappeared.
"Well, he's right," Hayden said. "It could always be worse." He bent down and scooped Jack into his arms. Jack moaned at the movement but didn't wake up.
"You need any help?" Conrad asked.
"No. He's pretty light. Get his motorcycle."
"But it's dead. Isn't it?"
"It'll be fine in the morning."
"Okay. Whatever. I don't think I'm ever gonna tell anyone about this Halloween."
"Why not? No one would believe you anyway."
"That's just the problem. This is too weird, even for me."