I’m not sure if I’d actually seen a “Hallowe’en Tree” before I’d written this or not…but, I know I’ve seen them since. At the time I’d written this, there was a really cool “Hallowe’en store” in the mall I used to frequent. And it was really neat. Had a laughing clown at the entrance? I no longer remember…but I’d like to think so. Maniacally laughing toy clowns add so much to the Hallowe’en experience, don’t you think? I used to visit that narrow store a fair amount back in the day. It’s long since gone and I no longer frequent malls. Hands—or claws—down, Hallowe’en is my favorite holiday of the year.
But somehow, I’d come up with the idea. I’d never heard or seen of one before this timeframe, and Bradbury published a book with that title in 1972, so I know I’m not the first to employ the title. But it did capture my imagination, so I wrote the following. That’s all I got.
This story has never been published.
The Hallowe’en Tree
© F. P. Dorchak, 1989
Trick or treat
Trick or trrr—
Trick or trr, orr trrr, or trrr—
Hollow screams filled the corridor. The interior corridor, throat-like and threatening, was closed off for the night by iron bars. The corridor swelled…shapes and shadows angled inward like needles in a death trap. At the far end of it was an opening illuminated by a variegated light.
Were also stood a tree.
The tree shuddered.
It speared into the kaleidoscopic luminescence, and on its branches hung ornaments of darkness…spider webbing covering it from base to crown. Candles burned about it…grinning but unmoving pixies and goblins mocking the coming of their cousin in December. On several of its branches hung…things…shrunken heads and shriveled bodies…skeletons with flesh yet clinging…torture victims. One of these, no bigger than a toy doll, writhed a screaming and voiceless head…its mouth nothing more than a torn-open hole lacking its muscled organ—having been freshly ripped out only hours before….
Trick or treat, I say!
Trick or treat!
“C’mon, Jenny! Let’s go!” Turner said, waiting uneasily for his girlfriend. She had entered Jessi’s Place, a women’s apparel store in the mall that specialized in the naughty and nice, some twenty minutes ago, and he was always just a little more than embarrassed at being seen in those kind of places—with or without a girlfriend.
An elderly couple passed Turner, who, hands in his pockets, smiled nervously back. He bid them good day. The couple scowled, heading silently to the Super Pets pet store up ahead. Stopping momentarily to admire the kittens in the display window, they glanced back, spearing guilt into him like a practiced preacher in a soul-searing come-to-Jeee-sus saving.
“Hey, what’s the rush, lover boy?” Jenny asked, popping out of the store and jumping up beside him.
“Oh, nothing. Just that you succeeded in embarrassing me yet again. Look,” he said, motioning toward the elderly couple up ahead. They were just entering the pet shop.
“Oh, scared of some old fogies?”
“No-no-no—they gave me this weird ‘you’re a pervert‘ look when they walked by—as I was waiting for you, I might add.”
Jenny broke into a golden laugh Turner loved to listen to.
“So? You like what I get, don’t you?” she said, snuggling seductively up into him and sliding a leg between his legs.
“You bet I do, but I’m still embarrassed of going into stores like this, okay? And you love it!” he said, needling her in the side.
“Cry baby!” Jenny said, “Don’t be such a whiner!”
“C’mon, let’s go—there’s this new store in the mall I wanna see!”
“New store? What kind?”
“Vhy, a Halloveen store, my dear; let’s go!” Turner, made Lugosi-esque pirouettes, then took off down the ramp.
Turner and Jenny admired the rocking clown laughing before them. Trick or Treat was the name of the Halloween gift shop, and the rocking clown with its mechanical laughter did more than its share in bringing in the customers. The store sat between an empty store on one side and the House of Frames on the other, in one of the less travelled sections of the mall’s ramps.
“Isn’t this clown great!” Turner asked, unbridled boy-like enthusiasm radiating from his face. He leaned in, examining it more closely. Jenny wriggled her face, watching Turner with great amusement. Boys will be boys. He always behaved this way around things he enjoyed most in life…biking, horror movies, Christmas—and her. It was one of the ways about him she really liked, despite her never quite getting into the whole Hallowe’en thing, not so much for any one reason, but more because it just didn’t do much for her. She could take it or leave it. In fact, she only got into it because she loved Turner and liked doing things with him—which was also the reason why Turner put up with her and her nice-and-naughty shopping sprees. Oh, he loved what she got from there…just not being there when she got em….
“I guess so,” she replied, “but what’s the attraction?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I just like it. It’s great!”
“What’s so great about it?”
“Everything! Are you kidding?”
Jenny smiled in return, folding her bag a little tighter in her grip.
“C’mon, Jen, let’s go inside!”
Before she could respond, Turner had already disappeared inside the dark store, which was barely twice the width of a standard corridor. Standing outside, Jenny looked at the blood red lettering of the marquee, then down the length of the store, which resembled…a throat.
Something just didn’t feel right. Felt…ghoulish…and not in a good way, either….
“Jenny, look at this! My bud, Fred—”
At that moment a scream pierced out the length of the store, and from the ceiling dropped a banshee prop that flew from one end of the shop to the other.
“This is great, I could live here!”
“Could you now?” came a male voice from behind. Turner spun to meet the voice. He came face to face with a pleasantly mannered gentleman with thinning gray hair and a gaunt face.
“So, you think you could live here, hmm? Is that what I just heard?” asked the man.
Turner exchanged looks between Jenny and the man.
“I-I was just—”
“—no-no, I take it as a compliment! I’m sorry for intruding. I’m the Troubadour. I own this…shop,” he said, making a grand sweeping gesture. Jenny muffled a laugh, and Turner felt hot under the collar. “I’m amused that you find my place so appealing! I’ve spent my whole life trying to come up with the best and scariest toys around…and I do believe I’ve finally succeeded. What do you think, young sir?”
“Well, I think you’ve done a great job, Mr. Troubadour—”
“—please, just ‘Troubadour.'”
“Troubadour, sorry. Hey, some of this stuff even looks unnerving in the daylight! I’ve never seen such lifelike masks, such high quality stuff—and I love that screaming banshee!” Turner continued to rave on about the place, but Jenny came up around him, interrupting.
“And who might this lovely creature be?” Troubadour asked. Turner gave Jenny a cozy hug.
“This is my girlfriend, Jenny. I’m Turner. Jenny, this is the Troubadour.”
“I know, I was standing right behind you. Please to meet you, Troubadour.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy your visit here,” Troubadour said, “in my world. I must attend to the needs of others, so feel free to roam. Oh, and do try to make a point to visit my Hallowe’en tree to the rear. I think you’ll find it most…horrifying.” Bowing out, he all but disappeared into the store’s interior.
“What a positively creepy—but sweet—man. I like him,” Jenny said.
“You like him? Whoa, that’s definitely a first with the Guinness Book o’ Records!”
“But the rest of this place gives me the creeps. I didn’t think a place like this could do it, especially during the day, but it has.” Jenny looked around nervously.
“Yeah, well, that is the point to places like these, you know. You’re supposed to get the creeps…in a fun way! Now let’s go find this Halloween tree!”
Together they ventured deeper into the throat.
Mall traffic had decreased considerably as evening arrived, leaving only the hardy or late shoppers traversing its floors. Inside the Troubadour’s shop even his masses thinned out to one or two independent stragglers. The setting October sun, though not seen, was felt inside.
The last couple left the shop, a bag of tricks dangling from a feminine hand. That only left one individual in the narrow gift shop, and the Troubadour watched him closely. The browser seemed happy with himself, enjoying the tricks and gadgets, but the Troubadour felt the emptiness of his soul. He felt the missing piece in the man’s puzzle…and grinned.
Oh, yes, he could fill that void…with something else…
The man approached the Hallowe’en tree, and store lights flickered off. The man looked up.
“Oh, don’t be alarmed, dear sir,” the Troubadour said, suddenly behind the man, “there’s no hurry at all. I merely want to discourage any new approaches. Take your time, my good man!”
“Thank you,” the browser replied with an uneasy smile before going back to his examination of the tree’s ornaments. He liked the idea of a Hallowe’en tree, and it certainly did fit the bill, even if was somewhat horrific. Examining the ornaments more closely he found some of them to be tacky…at least in public place, anyway. He found effigies of tortured bodies that didn’t strike him as particularly funny—or tasteful. Reaching out, he touched several of them…and grimaced. They felt waxy…weird.
Looking to others, he smiled. He liked the skulls and spiders—especially the webbing that encompassed the entire tree—but felt suddenly too watched. He turned around…and was startled to find the Troubadour standing directly behind him.
“Is there something I can help you with, young sir?” the Troubadour asked. He seemed aglow with the mall’s backlighting.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” the man said, “you can not sneak up on me like that.”
“Sorry, but this is a Hallowe’en shop…and things are meant to scare. If they don’t, then I haven’t done my job. Now…is there anything else?”
The man returned his attention to the tree.
“Well, maybe you could answer me this. Why are some of these ornaments so, well…”
“Tasteless? Tacky? Disgusting?”
The man turned back to the Troubadour.
“Yes. Why did have you put such disgusting and horrible things on this tree? Hallowe’en is supposed to be scary, yes, but it’s also meant to be humorous.”
“Do you know the origin of Hallowe’en, sir?”
The man shook his head. “Something about spirits of the dead rising, and all that, I guess.”
“It’s much more than that,” the Troubadour said, folding his hands up before himself. “A time of communion and celebration…originally called All Hollow’s Eve, by the Celts, who celebrated it. They could only contain so much of their meager crops and cattle, so when the colder months approached, what was not able to be kept was slaughtered or left in the ground unharvested. The Celts believed that all crops had to be harvested by the 31st of our month of October, and anything left in the ground at that time was poisoned and contaminated by a hobgoblin called Pooka.
“The Celts were a very superstitious people and believed in reincarnation, among other things. All Hallows Eve, the last day of their year, was a time that belonged neither to the past or the future; to this world or that. The veil of separation between the living and the dead was lifted, and spirits and the living communicated with each other. Families put out extra settings and left chairs empty at their tables for these spirits.”
The young man eyed the Troubadour…eyed his attire and his manner.
“Also called the Samhain Festival by the Irish,” the Troubadour continued, “it was also a time when the living and the dead engaged in sexual union.”
The man blinked, dumbfounded by the unexpected onslaught of a history lesson. He turned back to the tree.
“But what does all that have to do wi—” the man said, as he turned back to the Troubadour.
Razor sharp teeth pressed into the man’s face, ripping it off….
Sharing an apartment together had made more than just sense, it made harmony. Turner and Jenny had made their decision a little over a year ago, and neither had regretted it. Dating exclusively for eight months prior to the move in, they’d both arrived at the same conclusion on their own. It made good sense, considering they took turns between each other’s apartments—sets of clothing, tampons, and shaving equipment in two sets of bathrooms and closets. Since neither apartment was large enough for the both of them, they set out for a slightly larger place, and within a month were comfortably living in sin.
Now they slept; the events of the trip to the mall and rest of the day had already long whisked through their minds. Jenny hugged close to Turner, who slept on his side.
In the living room lay a small, empty bag with the crimson letters Trick or Treat stenciled on it, alongside it another bag with the lacy writing of Jessi’s Place across it. Turner had found out just what it was she’d bought there.
The light of the waning moon shined in through the blinds, illuminating a display case full on knickknacks and ornaments. On one of the higher shelves the light found a porcelain statue of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow. It stood with a menacing grin (which had initially prompted Jenny to not buy it, but, as usual, Turner insisted) stretched out across its orange face, stark, yellow eyes staring into the darkness. Both arms were outstretched on a faux wooden support, hands dangling at the wrists. This statue had not been cheap, and was, as a result, the only thing they had purchased at the Hallowe’en store. It had been sitting underneath the Hallowe’en tree, and had been a toss-up between that and a graveyard paperweight featuring floating bones amid a rising corpse.
From within the bedroom came muted sounds of sleep-talk and a cough. The two stirred little. Jenny renewed her position around Turner, who pulled her in tighter.
A subtle shudder rattled through the display case, and the scarecrow broke free of its restraints. It clapped its hands together in a stiff effort, arms outstretched. It then shoved a crystal cross that was next to it off the shelf. It belonged to Jenny. Then it returned to its previous position, its arms back up onto the faux wooden support….
Turner and Jenny strolled down the leaf-blown lane that ran from their apartments and into a nearby park. Arm in arm they joked and toyed with each other, kicking up leaves.
“I want a dog!” Jenny suddenly exclaimed.
“Where’d that come from?” Turner asked.
“Nowhere. I just decided I wanted one,” she said nonchalantly.
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“Oh, what’s the problem?”
“Actually nothing. I was just wondering what it’d be like when you’d want kids!” Jenny looked at him a moment longer, then burst out laughing.
“When it’s time—you’ll find out, stud-dog!”
“C’mon, you! Race you to the park!”
Jenny took off, kicking through another pile a leaves, and Turner took a shortcut, soon to intercept her at twenty yards.
The Troubadour stood at the counter, watching the couple that perused the racks. He had something specially for them.
The man was examining a packaged, right-hand glove with blades on the end of it, when his wife noticed the tree.
“Henry, come over here and look at this, will you!”
Henry looked up, putting down the bladed glove.
“What is it?”
“Come over here and look at this—it’s rather novel, I think.”
Henry came over.
“A Hallowe’en tree—how imaginative!”
They both positioned around it, examining it.
“It’s my pride and joy,” came a voice from behind them. The couple spun around.
“I’m the Troubadour,” the Troubadour said, taking a bow, “and am the owner of this humble place of business…and the designer of the tree. You like it?”
“Why, yes. My husband and I find it to be a most novel idea.”
“Why novel it is. I think it gives equal competition to that other tree, don’t you think?” Henry and Margaret looked to each other.
“Yes, well, do you know about the origin of Hallowe’en? Let me tell you a little about it, I’m sure you’ll find it amusing.” Margaret found something unsettling about one of the ornaments hidden deep within the center of the tree, and began to explore, when Henry grabbed her hand.
“Margaret, honey, don’t be rude. I for one would like to hear this story.”
“Sorry, dear. Continue, please, Mr. Troubadour.”
“Please, just ‘Troubadour.'”
House of Frames framer, Tina, finished ringing up the hundred and twenty-five dollar order for the four picture set of “Nature’s Best,” an order placed by a single customer for his family. Closing up the register, she took the print back with her into the rear room.
The radio played to the heavy beat of a popular dance tune, and she swayed to it, placing the prints in a pile with others. The weekends always piled up orders. There was an easy several weeks work there.
Going back to her original work, Tina picked up her Echo knife and continued cutting where she had left off. Finished, she measured off another piece of overlay to the first, giving it a layered look, and pushed the finished piece away to make room for the new one.
Humming to herself, she failed to noticed the sound that came up from behind her….
“That was most intriguing, Troubadour, wasn’t it Margaret?”
Margaret was still trying to calm her stomach from the last part to the story.
“You mean, they actually had…you know…sex…with the dead?” Margaret asked.
“Yes,” Henry jumped in. “It’s called necrophilia. Really, Margaret, I’m surprised you weren’t aware of the word. It’s something that has been occurring since the dawn of time, practiced mainly by offbeat, religious cults, and the mentally deranged, though I’m not sure there’s a real distinction there—”
“Your husband is correct. I’m sorry if I offended you, Mrs. Houser. Please allow me to make it up—please….”
Margaret took on a more composed look about her, wondering if they had mentioned their last name in the course of their meeting, but pushed the thought back in her mind, shrugging it off.
“Really, that’s not necessary,” she said.
“Oh, but it is. It offends my sense of fair play to unintentionally offend without restitution. I have something in the rear which I think you may find perfect for your situation. Please, come with me,” he said, with a grand, sweeping gesture.
“Situa—” Henry began to say, but he was cut off by the Troubadour’s much practiced politeness and insistence.
“Please, follow me. It will only take but a moment.”
A couple entered the House of Frames. Seeing no one at the counter, they decided to review the walls of prints and portraits.
They made their way leisurely around the center rack until coming to the opposite side of the store, where they spotted the newest addition. It took a few moments to sink in…but the screams…they came.
Perched, above eye level and between portraits of Elvis and “Donna,” hung the glassed-in frame of Tina the framer, her face wholly unrecognizable because the rest of her body was squeezed in with it into the confines of a twenty-four, by thirty-six, by half-inch, frame. Of course, the couple didn’t need to recognize her face, or the blood and gore that trailed down the wall from the picture….
The Troubadour led Henry and Margaret into the back room, the heavy curtain they passed through falling back into place behind them. Inside, the room felt and sounded thick, like the walls were padded with soundproofing. Margaret looked to Henry uneasily, but Henry kept a stiff upper lip.
“Just exactly what do you have for us, Mr. Troubadour?” Henry asked.
“‘Troubadour,’ please. I have something you have both been trying so unsuccessfully to acquire, but of course.”
Henry let loose a constricted laugh.
“And just how might you know what it is that we have been ‘trying to acquire,’ as you put it?” Margaret said, nervously clutching closer to her husband.
“It is my business,” he said, almost appalled by the naïveté of their question. “But just a minute.” The Troubadour ducked behind a barrier.
“Henry, let’s get out of here—I don’t like this!” Margaret said, whispering.
“Here it is! Just for you—and just in time!” the Troubadour said, his voice alive with excitement as he reemerged from behind the barrier. In his arms was a tight little bundle.
Margaret’s eyes popped open wide and she screamed, clutching a hand to her throat. Henry was open-mouthed and stiff.
“Just what is this?” he demanded. He felt like he couldn’t take full breaths.
“Why it’s a baby, Mr. Houser, your baby, a cure for the plaguing infertility you two are experiencing. And it’s just for you,” the Troubadour said, exaggeratedly holding it out to them.
“No! We don’t want it! Take it away!” Henry yelled; Margaret tried to scream, but was unable to.
“Let’s go buy a dog! What do you say?” Jenny asked, squeezing the words out between a mouthful of salad and Coke. Turner put down his burger, wiping his mouth.
“Today? The eve o’ Hallowe’en? We don’t even really know if the complex will let us keep one.”
“Do you even know what kind you want?”
“Yeah—one with hair! Does it matter? We can go browsing and see what we like!” Jenny bubbled, taking a sip from her Coke.
“Be reasonable, Jen, as a kid you never had to raise the thing, but owning one is a bit different. It helps to read up on the stuff before charging into it.”
“Well, fine, but how do we even know what kind we’d like if we don’t look? Then we can read up on it. How does that sound?”
Turner felt out-reasoned. But he wanted a dog, too. And Jenny was too cute for her own good.
“Hey—and what with Hallowe’en tomorrow, you can consider it your Hallowe’en present from me! I’ll even pay for it!”
“Whoa! Then what are we waiting for—eat up!”
Turner and Jenny found themselves back at the mall, and though it was Hallowe’en eve, and on a weekday, it was much the same as a weekend: people, people, people, and a few stores thrown in for good measure. This was the last minute rush, gifts and costumes out in full force, several specialty stands in the middle of the flow of the mall ramp traffic, heavily costumed monsters and ghouls roaming and heckling.
Turner and Jenny found the pet shop and spent a good hour playing with various dogs, but nothing really suited them.
“Maybe we should check out real kennels, Jen.”
Jenny was ignoring him, tapping a glass wall, behind which was a Dalmatian puppy.
“Hey, Jen, stop it, you’re not supposed to be doing that. C’mon, let’s go check out the other pet shop in here, then check out some kennels, if there’s any still open.”
“But isn’t he so cute!”
“Yeah, but I’m not sure about a Dalmatian, though. I’ve always been partial to Labs.”
“Yeah, I know—but he’s so cute!”
“So are Labs, and I haven’t seen any here.”
“Okay. But I just can’t resist a cute puppy!”
“All puppies are cute. If we had your way we’d be buying every puppy in here!”
“So?” Jenny said, puppy-eyeing and pouting. Turner took Jenny’s hand and led her out.
“Bye!” Jenny called back to the playful puppy.
On their way to the other pet shop, they passed by the Hallowe’en store. Still a bit down from it, they could see the entrance—which seemed somehow darker and more ominous than when they had last been to it, almost two weeks ago.
“Is it just me…or does the store look, well, I don’t know, darker? It seems dead—pardon the pun—which is odd for a day like today.”
“Don’t do that,” Jenny harped, “squinting isn’t good for your eyes.”
Turner shrugged off her comment.
“No, it’s not you, looks that way to me, too. Wanna go in?”
“I think you need glasses—”
“Hey, off my case.”
Jenny chuckled. “Okay, sure,” she said, “let’s go in—it’s kind of an obligation, considering what today is.”
The two walked on, passing buy a now empty store.
“Hey, were did the House of Frames go?” Turner asked. Stopping, they peered into the darkened room where the frame store used to be, out-of-business signs covering the huge window panes.
“Don’t know. That is odd,” Jenny said. “They hadn’t put up any clearance sale signs, or anything, last time we were here. And every time we did come by it was always doing great.”
They continued past.
At Trick or Treat’s entrance, the clown again greeted them with its cockeyed and maniacal laughter…and inside it did look darker. It was also empty of people…not even the Troubadour could be found.
“How odd, Jen, there isn’t a soul in here—and on the eve of Hallowe’en?”
“Yeah, real creepy.” They left the lights of the mall behind them.
“There’s that Hallowe’en tree again,” Turner said, pointing it out. “It looks evil, doesn’t it, in that lighting I mean.”
“I never really liked it, anyway,” Jenny said.
“Well, I’m going to take another look at it; I kinda think it’s neat.”
Jenny took her time following him back, looking at other things along the way, but still keeping close to him.
Turner found that the tree seemed larger, more robust…and not only that, but the ornaments seemed to have increased almost ten-fold. The tree nearly covered in ornaments.
“Geesh, where did all these things come from?”
Suddenly he recognized that one of the ornaments looked like—
“Turner…will you please come over here…and take a look at this, please?”
Turner left the tree and quickly came to Jenny’s side.
Sitting at the entrance…and staring in at them…was a black Labrador Retriever.
“Turner…I don’t like this—please, let’s get out of here—now.”
“Uh, I hate to break this to you, honey, but it is sitting in front of the exit, and I don’t think I want to test its attitude.”
A dull glow emanated from the dog’s eyes.
“And I don’t think it’s just a prop, Jen.”
Jenny and Turner looked around the shop.
“The curtain!” Jenny said, pointing to the rear of the shop. “There’s got to be a way out through there!”
“Let’s go…but be slow and careful and keep our eyes on the puppy.”
The two backed away towards the curtained section, and Jenny the first to duck behind it.
“Quick, let’s get the hell out of here!” Turner said, taking the lead and sprinting to the rear, but halfway down he tripped.
“Are you all right?” Jenny asked.
Brushing his leg, Turner looked to what it was he’d tripped over.
A bloodied pocketbook with the initials M.M.H on it.
“Turner, this is getting really creepy. Is that real bl—”
Hurriedly getting back to his feet, Turner grabbed Jenny.
“I don’t know and right now I don’t care. Let’s go before that thing from hell gets us, okay?”
Pushing through to the end of the enclosure they found the emergency exit, which easily pushed open. The handle-less door slammed shut behind them, and they spilled out into a lit corridor, collapsing onto the floor.
“Goddamn, that was too close!” Turner said.
“And did you see those eyes on that dog—that thing?—they were glowing!”
There was a sound at the door they’d just disappeared through, and both fell silent. At the bottom of door they heard sniffing.
“Let’s get out of here!” Jenny said, pulling Turner with her as they scrambled back to their feet and away from the door. They both sprinted down the corridor into the main mall area.
The dog continued sniffing…and ten inches of tongue lapped out from under the door…explored…then retracted back under the door.
“Look, there it is!” Turner shouted, pointing. The mall information booth. A security guard leaned up against the counter, talking to the girl who worked behind it.
“Hey, can someone help us?” Turner said as he and Jenny rushed the counter. “There’s a huge dog back at the Trick or Treat store, and it’s after us.”
The guard looked to them with a blank stare. Information Girl looking on cluelessly, apparently more concerned about her nails and hair…and the cute rent-a-cop before her
“A dog? Where?” asked the security guard.
“Back at that Hallowe’en store,” Turner said.
“It was real creepy,” Jenny added.
“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” the guard said, as he cast Information Girl a quick glance, straightened up, took out his walkie-talkie, and began talking into it.
Turner and Jenny related their story.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha—” cried the clown as the trio approached.
“There, over there. Be careful!” Turner said. He and Jenny let the guard do his thing, and go first. The guard took out his nightstick.
“Shit, I hope he gets paid well to do this without a gun,” Jenny said.
They watched from around a corner as the guard entered, then disappeared, not reappearing until a minute or two later. Returning, the man reholstered his stick, his face a grimace.
“I didn’t see any dog in there. Why don’t you go take a look for yourselves.” He stood aside for them. Turner and Jenny looked at each other. “Go on. You might be surprised.” Walking forward, they glanced back at the guard, who stood with an annoyed look on his face and his arms crossed. When they got to the entrance, they looked at the laughing clown.
And a store full of people.
And the Troubadour…who stood at the counter, a blissful expression covering his face. The expression changed to one of curiosity when he spotted Turner and Jenny.
“May I help you?” he asked. Jenny and Turner stood speechless…turned back to the security guard.
“Next time, you might want to consider if your doggy sighting is the product of an overactive imagination playing Hallowe’en pranks…but I’ll check the rest of the mall anyway,” the guard said, leaving.
The Troubadour continued to stare at them, but this time the blissful expression was gone.
“The guard told me you two had spotted a dog in my shop. I’ve been here all morning and haven’t seen a thing—”
“Liar!” Jenny blurted out. Turner grabbed her, quieting her down.
“It’s all right…I think we just confused stores—we’ll be leaving now—” Turner said, pulling a fuming and protesting Jenny along with him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing! You know damned well he’s lying!”
“I know…but why put ourselves in a battle of his word against ours…why not just check it out later?”
“What do you mean—check it out at night? After closing? Are you high?”
“Maybe a little—but have you got anything better to do tonight? And I wanna know what’s going on here, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I can think of a few things I’d like better—like living! We could get caught for trespassing, let alone killed by some Cujo cousin!”
“Wait a minute…what’s your real reason? You’re not that stupid, you watch too many horror movies to know better than to go off half-cocked like this—especially at night!”
Turner grinned. “I saw something back there. On that tree—that damned Hallowe’en tree. It wasn’t pretty. And there was that bloodied purse.”
“Yeah, but that purse could have been another of the Troubadour’s tricks. What did you see on the tree that bothered y—”
“What does that prove?” Jenny asked as they hurried out of the mall. “He could just trying to be cute—”
“Oh, and you think that hellhound was also trying to be cute—not to mention we had just been talking about my preference in dogs before we walked in. I don’t know about you, but somehow I don’t think hellhounds are Labrador Retrievers. Black Labrador Retrievers.”
“C’mon, Turner, this is a joke, right? All Hallows Fools Day, or something?”
“If it is, it’s certainly on us. First we go into that store and it’s totally empty, then wer find a dog with glowing eyes, then we come back with a guard—only to find the store just as packed as every other store, but no dog, oh, and that weirdo who says he’s been there all day when we know full well he wasn’t. You tell me what’s going on. Did you see that sick smile of his. He knew. He fucking well knew!”
“Okay, so there’s something odd going on. But why should we go nosing around? Aren’t we the characters in movies that get killed off? That’s why we have cops, they get paid for stuff like this. ”
“Ho! And like they’re going to go in and harass a store owner on the basis of our testimony? We can’t even get your basic mall rent-a-cop to believe us. Reality check, Jen,” he said, rapping his knuckles on her head.
“Okay, knock it off,” she said, maneuvering her head away from his knuckles. “I see, already. I just don’t want to do it.”
“You don’t have to—I will—you’ll be keeping watch.”
“You ready?” Turner asked, throwing on a dark jacket.
Jenny came out of the bathroom.
“I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” she said.
Both headed for the door.
“Wait,” Turner said, turning around and heading for the display cabinet.
“We need to take this back with us.” Reaching out, he grabbed the pumpkin-headed scarecrow, holding it out for Jenny to see.
“Because I don’t trust it. And remember how we found that cross of yours on the floor the day after we bought it? I don’t trust anything we bought from that place—”
Suddenly, eyes aglow with a yellow fire, the scarecrow pulled loose from its support, grabbing Turner’s hand.
The scarecrow opened its mouth and sank its orange teeth deep into the top of Turner’s hand.
“Turner! Oh my God—what’s happening!”
Turner went spinning into tight little circles of pain, trying to pry the porcelain evil off his hand, but it bit deeper. Turner actually heard it growl. Running into the kitchen Jenny pulled open a drawer of silverware and snatched out a knife. But holding it in front of her, she thought better and put it away, running back into the living room where Turner was now trying to smash the thing into a wall. He felt the creature scraping bone.
At a loss for what to do without hurting Turner, Jenny shoved Turner into the door. Turner’s hands flew up before him as he impacted the door. There were breaking sounds as Turner and the scarecrow connected with the door.
Turner found himself on the floor…dazed and hurt…Jenny at his side.
“Are you okay?” Jenny asked, “what the hell’s going on here?”
Turner brought his hand up before him. Sure enough, the thing had made an indelible impression upon his flesh.
“Oh, Turner, you’re going to need stitches,” Jenny said looking at his hand. Loose flaps of skin hung down around the wound. Wearily, Turner looked up.
“Is there any question, now…about what it is we need to do?”
Jenny shook her head. “No…I guess not. But your hand, that thing—”
“Later. It’ll…all…have to wait until later. He knows we’re after him now, and he’ll be ready.”
Turner got to his feet as Jenny ran off to the bathroom in search of antiseptic and clean rags.
“The mall’ll close in about an hour, so we better hide now,” Turner said, holding open the door for her.
“Where are we going to hide? The bathrooms?”
“You got any better ideas? We’ll hang around the court way there, then hide back in the hallway—bathrooms, offices, whatever.” They walked a little farther. “Are you ready for this?” he asked, turning to face her.
“After what happened back at the apartment, I guess anything is possible—I’m glad I only bought you one thing from that store!” They chuckled and hugged each other.
“Turner, what are we going to do if we do find something?”
“I don’t know. I don’t plan on trying to save the world right now, just finding out some information, something solid to give the cops—then I’ll let them worry about it.”
“I’m scared,” Jenny said. She wrapped herself around him. “I love you.”
“I love you, too—and I’m just as scared.” They kissed. “Let’s try to get a quick view of the shop before we go any further, okay?”
Sitting on a bench, Jenny and Turner noticed that the mall crowd was running thin. Looking to his watch he saw it was ten o’clock. A security guard, different from the one they had previously dealt with, came out from the service hallway.
“Closing time, folks. Let’s go.”
Getting up, they both went down towards the exit, but when they saw the guard disappear, they spun around and ran back for the service hallway.
“Which bathroom do we hide in?” Jenny asked, the innocence of her question causing him to smile.
“Does it really matter?” They took to the women’s.
“Wait! I want to hide in yours!”
“For real? Okay, but let’s get out of sight—now!”
Getting inside the far stall, and lifting their feet onto the toilet, they sat silently.
“Now what?” Jenny asked.
“Okay,” Turner said in a whisper, “I think we can give it a chance.”
Lowering their legs, they slowly stood up, listening for anyone who might happen by.
“You think an hour is enough?”
“Maybe, maybe not, but sooner or later—”
“Yeah, I guess,” she said, straightening out her clothes. Turner checked his zipper.
“Well, I always wanted to make it in a restroom!” Jenny said, giving Turner another kiss.
“Hey—remember where that got us last time!”
“Yeah, but you started it!” She gave Turner another hug. “I still can’t believe what happened tonight. Did it really happen?”
Turner held up his hand.
“Well, here’s the proof, if you should doubt it.
“Let’s go get this over with.”
All the mall lights were off, and they were lucky that the Hallowe’en shop wasn’t by the intersection with the theaters. Too many prying eyes.
They made their way along the shop entrances in leaps and bounds, ducking and hiding. Rounding a corner, they spotted the shop, its lights off, the stupid laughing clown silenced and cantered to one side.
“So far, so good. Let’s try to keep it that way,” Turner said, whispering. “You have the camera?” Jenny fished through her pockets.
“Yep. You have the tape recorder?”
“Right here,” he said pulling it out. “Okay, keep your eyes and ears open. Love you.” Kissing her, he shot out towards the iron gate that closed off the shop.
Coming up to the gate, he peered in. It was dark, except for the lit Hallowe’en tree at the very rear. There was nothing suspicious to be seen. He tested the gate. Firm; no give.
“Well, what’d you expect, anyway?” he asked himself. Then a light went off in his head. He headed back for Jenny.
“What’s the matter?” she whispered. He looked slightly embarrassed with himself.
“Well, not that I expected an open invitation, but the gate’s locked. Then I thought, what about the fire exit? You don’t remember any fire alarms going off when we left through it, do you?”
“No. But that doesn’t mean anything. It could be a silent one, just going off at the fire department itself.”
Turner nodded. “Yeah; Shit. Well, maybe it didn’t close all the way when we last left.”
“Yeah, right. Then why didn’t that dog come out after us?”
“I don’t know, just thinking out loud. Figure might as well try it, anyway.”
They made their way to the back door. Turner examined it…it didn’t appear flush with the frame. His eyes lit up.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know, all this was your idea and you didn’t even consider how we were supposed to get in? Great move, Super Fly,” Jenny said, whispering loudly.
“Shush.” He looked at her, mentally asking the question of whether or not the alarm would sound off. Jenny said nothing, giving him a shoulder shrug.
“Well, here goes nothing,” Turner said. He groped at the door and found, somewhat to his amazement, that it opened easily enough. No alarms. He peered inside.
“You stay here.”
Jenny grabbed him. “Are you kidding? Am I supposed to trust someone who can’t think his way into a trap, to get himself out?”
Turner began to protest, but Jenny put her hand over his mouth and gave him a stern look.
“Okay, okay.” Turner carefully and quietly led the way in and they both took out their mini flashlights.
“What are we looking for?” Jenny asked.
“You’ll know when you find it,” he said without looking up. Then stopping, he looked back up to her. “Sorry, but I don’t know what else to say. Something ‘not right,’ I suppose—”
“Oh, big help, it’s a frigging horror store—”
“Come on, just look, okay? I think you’ll know when you ‘find’ it.”
Jenny continued her search. Frustrated, Turner quit his search and went to the curtain. Jenny saw what he was doing and followed.
They peeked through the curtain.
And found the Troubadour.
He was by the tree, praying to it or something, and behind him, by the gate at the front, was a humongous, dark shape. It…carried something. The Troubadour turned, going towards the thing.
“Oh my God!” Jenny said, whispering, “Does any of this qualify as ‘not right’?” Turner motioned her to be silent. The Troubadour made some gesticulations and the shape came through the gate.
“Did—did you see that!” Turner said, barely able to contain his excitement. This time it was Jenny who was quieting Turner.
“Damn it, Turner, what have we gotten ourselves into? What the hell are we going to do now?” Turner backed away from the curtain, taking Jenny with him. That stood silently for a moment, looking to each other.
“Turner, that thing went through the gate—not around it—through it! We’re dealing with out-and-out pure evil here!”
“All I know is that we’ve come this far and we can’t turn back now. It’s up to us, Jen. Could you really just leave this alone and let it continue? Let him/it go continue doing whatever he’s doing—or, worse yet, go elsewhere and continue doing what he’s/its doing? Besides, cops deal with witches and Satanism all the time now—”
“Sure, but somehow I doubt they deal with real demons that actually walk through real gates!” she said, perhaps just a little too loudly. “But, you’re right…it’s just not right.”
The curtain flew open.
“Good evening, my curious ones. Would you care to compliment my little get-together?” asked the Troubadour.
Turner and Jenny started for the rear exit…but there stood a large black Labrador between them and it.
“Oh, come now,” the Troubadour said, “I’m not going to do anything to you…at least for the time being…I have too much to show you! Very rarely do I have such an opportunity to royally entertain and explain! Come, come!”
The dog walked forward, and Turner and Jenny followed the Troubadour.
Outside, in the shop, they found the huge shadow they had seen come through the gate, and immediately froze in their tracks. Tried to back away.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” the Troubadour said, “it wouldn’t hurt a hair on your head…unless I command it to. Come over here, please.”
The Troubadour motioned the both of them to come over to him, and they did. They sat on a bench the Troubadour directed them to. The dog remained at the curtain, staring in at them intently.
“Allow me to introduce my companion,” The Troubadour said, referring to huge dark form lurking before them, “This is Render. Well, that’s its nickname anyway. Its real name is forbidden to utter without incurring its immediate wrath, so we all just call it ‘Render,’ and be done with it. Rather suiting, don’t you think?”
Turner and Jenny shifted uneasily.
“At the risk of being obvious, what does it do?” Turner asked. Jenny didn’t need to hear that question.
“Ah, I’m glad you’re interested, dear Turner! I was just about to show you some of its amazing talents! Talents I’m sure would amaze someone like you, one who could live here, as you’d so put it—by the way, I do apologize for the incident with your hand. Sometimes my creations get rather willful…and you were going to get rid of it, were you not?”
Turner remained silent, rubbing his still raw wound. The Troubadour returned his attention to the beast.
To the their utter amazement, the monstrosity rose. The thing that caught them by surprise was that they thought it had already been standing. The beast grew in size, towering above them as much as the ceiling would allow, its thick and powerful trunks (legs?) remaining hunched and bent. Jenny hid her face into Turner’s shoulder. As the creature rose, part of it entered the light hitting the Hallowe’en Tree, and the two saw the creature as the nightmare of oozing sores and slime that it was: scaly skin that surely had the texture of worked metal, rippled, its strength hideously unfathomable. At the end of another set of long and powerful trunks (arms?) were the armament of twisted claws that clicked and grated as the fists was flexed. Its eyes were yellow and oozing of some bodily fluids…its mouth a gaping orifice of blades and slime…slime that appeared to have a vapor of some sort arising from it.
“It’s horrible!” Jenny said, screaming.
“Oh, my dear, beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, don’t you think?” the Troubadour said.
The beast turned towards her and its face cracked into—what tried very hard to be—a smile. It chuckled horribly, rocking the room, and Turner and Jenny felt a breath that was hot and fetid. Both gagged. The Troubadour turned back to the creature.
The smile from the beast disappeared.
“Now you’ve met Render. Now meet, what was anyway, Miles Hayford. Miles had everything—Render, lift—except for happiness.”
Render lifted the dead body of Miles H. from the nearby shadows.
“Miles had, in my case, anyway—not his—the good fortune of entering my shop. And my ever-humble profession is to play that ever so sweet song of desire to those who require it. I am a soul-catcher; a dream-maker. I take the souls of empty lives and, to use a blatantly unwholesome word in your world, prey upon their dispossessed spirituality. I have no need of fulfilled lives…they add nothing to the pain and suffering of my entourage and hardly fill Render and the tree at feeding time.”
Turner had had a question…but couldn’t quite get it out of his frozen vocal cords. But the Troubadour noted his concern.
“Feeding time?” Troubadour asked. “Well, it is actually quite simple. Render takes the poor, unhappy soul—which has already been accomplished in this case, hence the limp form of Mr. Hayford—and the Tree of Samhain takes the physical. Render, hcktya.”
Render again formed that same sick smile across its face. The Troubadour shifted his position farther away from the tree, and Turner and Jenny stood up, also backing away, ever mindful of the red-eyed hellhound.
Render lifted the body of Mr. Hayford and brought it between its talons.
The tree began to swell.
In fact, it actually looked like it was breathing.
Then Render brought his claws together…and squeezed Miles’ body…Render’s entire form vibrating with some sort of energy. Blood spattered and bones and organs burst. Render chuckled its deep and evil chuckle that again shook the small enclosure.
Blood and gore sprayed everywhere, but mainly on the tree, and the tree swelled larger, and grew, becoming more robust.
Turner and Jenny watched as the all the blood and gore of Mr. Hayford was sucked toward the Tree of Samhain…then sucked up the blood like a hungry babe, each intake enlarging the tree, creating a more vibrant appearance. Jenny turned her head away in disgust…Turner couldn’t look away.
Miles Hayford’s body was squeezed to an unrecognizable pulp by Render…looking more and more like a limp banana skin after banana consumption than a human corpse. There were bodily fluids and flesh all over the floor and immediate area, but when no more blood flowed, Render lifted the carcass above the tree, and shook out any remaining spoils. It looked almost comical in the activity. Turner and Jenny looked back to the Troubadour, who was as swelled and vibrant as the tree itself.
“You—you’re the goddamned tree, aren’t you?” Turner said. “You’re a goddamned part of it!”
The Troubadour smiled.
“I am, indeed. I saw you that day, meddler, and I sensed your need.”
“I don’t have a need!” Turner shouted back. The Troubadour motioned to the hell-bound Labrador.
“Oh, but, yes you do. No matter how small, a need is a need is a need. You may not be a pair of empty lives, but you pried where you shouldn’t have. That, too, exacts a toll.”
“Oh, God, what do we do!” Jenny asked, looking to Turner and pulling herself in closer to him.
“It’s simple, my dear—you die.”
The same sickening smile formed on the Troubadour’s face.
Render immediately began to compress Hayford’s form. Then it gathered up the remains in its claws and began to work it…kneading it into a smaller and smaller bundle of gore like kneading bread. Fluids flowed over its claws until the body of Miles Hayford was no larger than an ordinary tree ornament. Render held it out to the two, on the tip of a claw, and Turner and Jenny saw the horrifyingly disfigured and transformed body.
Render gave the ornament to the Troubadour, who toyed with it in his hands. “Nice work, don’t you think? Now we place it in its rightful place and proceed onto our other tasks.”
The Troubadour placed the Hayford ornament in the tree, about a third of the way up and on the outside. There was no need to conceal things any longer. Outside, a clock in the mall tolled midnight. The Troubadour turned to his captive audience.
“Midnight. Happy Hallowe’en, my friends!” Troubadour said.
“But it wasn’t that late when—” Turner began.
“Time has a way of warping around Render. It won’t be a concern of yours much longer…just enjoy the ride.” Troubadour turned back to his tree.
“Let me hear my children!” the Troubadour said, in a loud, sing-songy voice, and the souls on the tree began to howl…calling out in all their pain and suffering.
The Troubadour closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and fed off all their torment.
Then he opened his eyes.
“Ah, my work here is nearly complete—except for the addition of two more ornaments,” he said, turning to Turner and Jenny.
Jenny and Turner could see the diseased and yellow glaze forming over the Troubadour’s eyes as he continued to feed off the tortured anguish of the souls on the tree.
“It is better if you put up a fight, you know,” the Troubadour said, going into demonic laughter.
Turner and Jenny watched in horrified amazement as the Troubadour grew, quickly gaining in size, his features distorting. He bellowed down to the couple.
Turner shot for a nearby chair and threw it at the dog. “I don’t need a dog!” he shouted, as the chair flew through the air and struck the animal.
The creature shattered like porcelain.
From behind him, Jenny shrieked.
He turned around to find Jenny high in the air…and in the clutches of Render.
The Troubadour laughed, standing alongside Render.
“RENDER, HALT,” the Troubadour boomed.
“No!” Turner shouted.
“YOU SEE, A NEED, IS A NEED, IS A NEED. EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE NO NEED FOR A USELESS MUTT, YOUR GIRLFRIEND HAS A NEED FOR YOU, AS YOU HAVE A NEED FOR HER. YOU ARE BOTH MINE, AND THERE IS NOT A THING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT. FIGHT—FIGHT! IT IS SO MUCH BETTER THAT WAY!”
Render brought the girl up to his mouth. Parts of Jenny hair caught fire and fizzled out. Render opened its mouth, bringing her in.
The Troubadour closed his eyes and inhaled deeply of their fear.
Quickly eyeing the room, Turner grabbed a metal support from a display, and, which sent the display toppling, and attacked Render. Render ignored the attack, as unfeeling as a concrete slab, and extended a steaming, barbed tongue to Jenny’s head.
It licked off half her hair in a single swipe.
Jenny howled in pain, blood raining down her head.
Turner attach on Render useless, he turned on the Troubadour. Without opening his eyes, the Troubadour struck.
Turner was hit with a backhand the size of Idaho and was sent spinning end over end to the other side of the room.
“RENDER,” the Troubadour commanded, his voice momentarily wavering with desire, “HCKTYA!”
Turner sprang back to his feet and lunged. Not for Jenny, not for the demon, not even for the Troubadour.
He leapt for the tree.
It toppled it over and he felt the screams and energy of the countless dead…their souls screaming through his soul. He also felt pain like he’d never felt before…felt his brain, his very mind…splitting open and flowing out a cracked egg.
Claws grabbed his head. Searing breath scalded his face and neck
Then it was all gone.
It was all gone…except for the splitting headache and blood.
He looked around, noticing a ringing in his ears, and angled his head up and around.
The Troubadour. No longer was the Troubadour the size of a mountain, but of a dwindling giant.
Turner looked for Render—and Jenny. They were nowhere to be seen. He looked back to the Troubadour, fighting to remain conscious…alive.
Standing in the middle of the shop, hands to his head, the Troubadour was clearly trying to ward something off…something that flew about him in dizzying circles. A thing that screamed with the pain of ages…the pain of many….
And that Pain fed hungrily.
It took out huge chunks from the Troubadour and it tortured. It paid back.
Turner watched as pieces of the Troubadour simply disappeared…vanished…as if he were actually being devoured alive…but the pieces were being taken away slowly and painfully…the suffering incredible…on other levels of reality….
Turner crawled away from the mess. He found Hallowe’en Tree broken on the floor before him…amid a mess of Turner didn’t know what. Didn’t want to know. He had broken the trunk of the tree in half as he and it had hit the floor.
But where was Jenny?
Crawling on, he felt sharp stabs of pain in his side. Great, probably broke a few of his own ribs in the process. Screw the ribs—where was Jenny?
“Je—” he started to shout, but his voiced choked off by emotion and pain, “Jen-ny! Jen-ny!” Still no answer. “Jen-ny!” Still nothing but the agony of the Troubadour filling the air. Pulling himself farther into the mess, his hands bumped something soft and warm. Looking through his bloodied-and-tear-stained eyes, he saw her stilled face.
Turner pulled himself up to her and grabbed her face. Smothered her in kisses.
“Jenny, please-please-please, don’t die—please, don’t die!”
He pulled her loose from the debris around the table and tipped-over displays, and she finally began to stir.
She opened her eyes…dully at first…but eventually focused in on him.
“Tur-ner…what…hap-pened? Did we make it?”
Turner grabbed her and hugged her, allowing his vision to stray to the Troubadour—or what was left of him. He watched what was left of him collapse and fizzle out of existence.
“Yes, we made it. We…made it.”
The souls hovered over the area where the Troubadour had been before also disappearing. Turner found out that he could make out faces in the swirling soul-entity. One was the formally attractive frame-maker from the House of Frames.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, helping Jenny to her feet. He pulled out a handkerchief and put it around her torn scalp. Together, they painfully managed to drag themselves out the rear emergency exit.
On the floor, the tree shuddered…its needles falling loose…and spontaneously combusting. Seconds later the rest of the tree went up in a blinding flash…and the remaining screaming souls of the dead scattered to their rightful places….
Trick or treat
Trick or treat, my pretties!
Short Story Links