Bacchus sat on the back of the couch above Jack's head, occasionally opening one eye and lifting his chin off his paws to look at Jack and Hayden as they waited for the crones to come. He always had a look on his face like he was satisfied but still concerned. Jack was alive, if that was what a spirit could be, and Hayden hadn't left him alone for a second. Being a cat, there wasn't much Bacchus could do for Jack, but as a loyal familiar, he could and did make sure that Jack was being taken care of.
As they waited, it began to storm. The tricks that the flashes of lightning played on Hayden's eyes seemed only that - tricks. He dismissed them without going though the painful, wracking guilt that usually sent him running into the kitchen in search of cigarettes and bourbon that weren't there. Bacchus lifted his head and looked at Hayden.
Hayden shrugged. "My own demons," he said. "What can I say?"
Bacchus shrugged back at him and put his chin back on his paws. He didn't close his eyes. His ears twitched, and his fur began to bristle. The crones were coming.
Thunder crashed with a burst of bright white that made Hayden's eyes ache. It sounded like a tree right outside had been struck. There was the brief sound of rending wood then silence but for the rain pounding on the roof. For some reason, Hayden thought of being below the deck of a ship during a storm in the middle of the icy grey Atlantic. If he listened hard enough, he could hear the screams of the crew above as the mast toppled over and buried them under the heavy wet sail. The boat was going down.
Jack sat up suddenly, his eyes flashing sick green waves, much like the sea that Hayden felt rushing in on him. "Oh fuck I'm gonna die," Jack said.
Bacchus stood up and jumped down into Jack's arms, rubbing his gums on Jack's chin.
"That's overreacting a bit," Hayden said.
"Overreacting? They're gonna make me flesh and blood! They're gonna make me die! I didn't do what I was supposed to do!"
"Sometimes what you're supposed to do isn't the right thing do to."
Jack put his arms around Bacchus and buried his face in the cat's neck, making a mournful sound that might have been something like the sound his mother made when she came for the dead.
A chill seeped into the room. Jack cowered into the corner of the couch, clutching Bacchus like a lifeline. The cat yowled. A milky fog wavered over the living room. Hayden rubbed his eyes, thinking it might go away, but the mist remained. It took its time shaping itself into three old women with long white hair and eyes as black as coal and as shiny as the chrome details on Jack's Honda.
Why do you bitches always come in threes? Hayden thought wearily. He tried to ignore the tremor that crept through his bones at the sight of them. He desperately wanted a cigarette or anything he could clamp his teeth down on to keep from screaming.
The crone on the left, closest to Hayden, pointed a crooked yellowing index finger at him. "Think not thoughts ill of us, blood avenger, or we'll have your snakes twisting down that nasty throat of yours," she said. Her voice, though ancient beyond all reason, was clear and strong.
Hayden shrank back in his chair. "Da, Frau Oma," he muttered, fearing for a moment that she wouldn't like being addressed in German or being called Mrs. Grandma, but she smiled and gave him a little "that's better" nod.
The crones turned their attention to Jack, who was still trying to dig himself a hiding place in the cushions.
"Jack O'Lantern!" the one in the middle said.
Jack froze. He knew he couldn't hide, but maybe if he stayed very, very still, they wouldn't notice him. Bacchus growled.
"Silence, Bacchus," the crone on the right said. She waved her hand, and Bacchus's mouth vanished.
The cat's eyes bulged, and he put his paws up to where his mouth had been.
"Now, Jack," the middle one said. "We had charged you with a simple task and gave you more than ample time to complete it. We are at the end of that time, and yet, we find you empty-handed. What say ye, Jack O'Lantern?"
Jack raised his hand and pointed at Hayden. "Advocate," he said.
"Christ, Jack," Hayden said. "What the hell do you think having me as an advocate will get you?"
"Tell them what happened. They'll believe you more than they will me."
The crone on the left nodded towards Hayden. "Speak, advocate," she said. "What tale have you?"
"Well, I - "
"No. Start from the beginning."
"That was the beginning."
"Of Jack's part. We would hear your tale."
Hayden took a deep breath and told them everything that had happened that day, starting with his dream of giving Meghann bullets. He couldn't tell if they believed him, but they certainly seemed to be enjoying it. Tiny smiles lifted the wrinkles at the corners of their mouths, and their eyes glinted with glee. When he got to Carlin, they frowned, and their eyes saddened. When he told them how Jack had decided to let Carlin go, big salty tears raced down the fleshy canyons of their faces.
"Oh how sweet," the middle one said. "That is truly love! Oh, poor Carlin! Poor Jack! We had no idea."
Jack pulled himself out of the couch a little. "So does that mean - "
"Silence. Let us confer."
Jack slapped his hands over his mouth to keep the crones from making it disappear, but they turned into milky fog again. Jack dropped his hands to his lap. Bacchus shook himself and got his mouth back. "I think I'm screwed," Jack said.
"I'm sorry. I tried," Hayden said.
"No. It's my fault. I wasted their time."
"Does time matter to them?"
"You'd be surprised how much time matters to them."
"How's your chest?"
Jack looked down at the jet-black furrow that marred his fresh green skin. He touched the edges of the wound. "It doesn't hurt," he said. "It probably will when they make me real."
"I'm not so sure that's what they're gonna do."
"Why wouldn't they?"
"They didn't know why Carlin left."
"I didn't know why she left."
"Exactly. They have to take that into consideration."
Hayden watched the fog. He was pretty sure that he would try to do something stupid if they were too hard on Jack. He just wasn't sure what that would be. Trying anything was probably stupid, but Jack wasn't to blame for Carlin running away in the first place. Letting her go was the best thing for her. Maybe Jack didn't handle his responsibilities well, but that was hardly something to be condemned to die for.
The fog began to swirl and bubble and turned a shade closer to egg nog than milk. The crones reappeared. Their tears had dried, and their faces showed no sign of emotion. The one in the middle raised her right hand and leveled her index finger at Jack. Jack and Bacchus trembled and pressed back into the corner of the couch.
"Jack O'Lantern," the crone said. "You have disobeyed us and wasted one hundred years, though we find your reason for letting Carlin go rather touching. So the sentence we pass on you is this: you will never enter the world of spirits again. You will remain here, wandering the world of flesh until the days end. If Carlin returns of her own free will, with no tricks from you, we may reconsider, as the only thing that could possibly cause her to come back is her love for you. We will continue to monitor you through your advocate. We demand that you return here once a year, on Halloween, and that during that day, you remain indoors and take no part in festivities of any kind. Bacchus may remain with you." She turned to Hayden. "Do you find that fair?"
Hayden nodded, glad to be spared the trouble of trying to save Jack's life. "What happens when I die?" he asked. "Who's gonna look after him then?"
All three of the crones smiled soft motherly smiles. "Your line will always be responsible for him," the one on the right said.
"But I don't have kids."
Their smiles deepened and actually touched their eyes. "The sentence is passed. It begins now. Fair thee well, Jack O'Lantern." They melted into creamy fog, and the fog dissipated. Outside, the storm had stopped, and Hayden could feel that the temperature had plunged well below freezing. It would begin to snow before too long.
Jack looked down at the ring on his middle finger. The face had solidified and no longer seemed interested in talking to him. The edges of the band had turned dark bronze as the ring tightened on his finger. Bacchus uttered an inquiring meow. Jack dropped his hand and looked despondently at Hayden.
"You aren't gonna die, Jack," Hayden said.
"I guess I deserve what I got," Jack said.
"I'm exhausted. I'm going to bed. You can stay here as long as you want."
"Thanks, Mr. Detective. And I'm sorry."
By the time Hayden woke up at eight, there were six inches of snow on the ground, and it fell from the sky in steady, thick blankets. He didn't bother to turn on the TV to check the weather reports. It would snow all day and stop by midnight. The meteorologists would never figure out why because it wasn't nature that had been controlling the weather the last two days. But Hayden didn't think it was his responsibility to tell anyone what it really was. He sat in the living room, watching the snow and the sleeping green spirit on the couch.
Jack woke up around noon and left an hour later, zinging through the snow with Bacchus tucked into the front of his jacket. Hayden worried for a little while, but he was pretty sure Jack would be just fine, if not even better off than he had been before. He didn't have the crones breathing down his neck, and if he could find Carlin again, they could be together with nothing to worry about. Hayden looked forward to seeing Jack again and hearing about all the trouble Jack would find himself in during the year.
Later in the afternoon, when the snow wasn't falling as heavily, Hayden went out. In the sale aisle at the drug store, he found a pink plastic pumpkin with round black eyes and a dog toothed grin. He bought a bag of candy, filled the pumpkin and went to the graveyard.