Chester Burke senses that it is Halloween before he observes the illuminated Cheshire cat smile in the living room window. He does not pay much attention to the wall calendar in his apartment nowadays. Since he retired from corporate America a decade ago, he has had no deadline but the one imposed by Uncle Sam every April. It occurs to him that even that date is more a suggestion than a hard reality. His Social Security income is barely enough to cover the rent, let alone to excite the interest of an overworked taxman. Chester is in that phase of life where fewer people each year take note of his existence. Though slower and stooped, he is not particularly hideous in appearance, and yet on the whole people avoid looking on him if they can. He may topple over at any moment, after all, as the aged are inclined to do. God forbid, if the man shuffling passed him at that moment were to lay eyes on him, that man’s moral conscience might push him to help. If there is nothing seen, then there is nothing to do. Chester senses that the next man to give him much attention will be wearing the long, white coat of a coroner. He will tag Chester’s big toe, and write on a clipboard.
Chester glances across the yard at the Cheshire cat smile. The jack-o-lantern is candlelit as always, but it seems bigger this year. The smile is also more ferocious. Society seems to have lost that subtle line between trick or treat. Gone is the benign playfulness with the soft hint of danger. Now, there is simply the danger: Screaming, garish monsters, like something from one of Tom Savini’s dreams, or masked killers wielding blood stained machetes. It is not that society is darker than before so much as it is harder to excite a response from people. With everyone under fifty seemingly mesmerized by their iPhones, it frankly takes a lot of gruesome howls and squirting pus to knock them out of their stupors.
Before he sees the flickering grin, he has sensed already the cold death in the air. The winter chill does not really settle in until mid November, but she makes her first appearance a few week prior. This is the night she takes a stroll through the big house to make sure it is set for the cold winter to come. If there is any summer to be found still, she will sweep it out the back door, and leave it for the rats to devour. All those brilliant colors and balmy nights will be shut out until May.
For Chester, if he feels the impending winter season as a bristling chill on his skin, then all the more he feels the winter of his years in his bones. So many years he had prided himself on his small waistline and his quick gait, but his almost ascetical commitment to physical fitness did not deter indefinitely those old man aches from carving out a nest deep inside him. He stoops not because he is lazy, but because he does not have the strength to stand up tall. The years of a man’s life are like a smart, conniving host. When young, they invite you into the sprawling mansion, introduce you to the many decorative rooms and beautiful ladies to be explored, and offer you a well-cushioned seat on which to settle. Then, when older, they lock the doors to all those decorative rooms, and redirect the women elsewhere. At the end, they tie you to your well-cushioned seat, and steal your cash and your gold plated watch.
Chester mostly stares down at his loafers, as he shuffles down the sidewalk. He kicks away the fallen, brown, maple leaves. It is not that the leaves are in his way so much as it is something to do. He may have no control over the gnawing little rat inside his bones, but he can knock aside dead leaves.
He looks up occasionally when he hears a costumed trick-or-treater laughing or scampering across the street. He never encounters them on his side. Children are well tuned to their parents. If the parents look away from geezers like Chester, then they will too. Moreover, it is considerably more fun to play with make believe devils and monsters. The smallest children cannot tell the difference, but anyone over five or six pretty much knows that the costumes are just that. Old Age is not one of those costumes parents purchase for their younglings at Walgreen’s. It is not something a person can take off before diving into the candy. The children know that, and that is why it is so scary for them.
Chester reaches the bus stop just as the light post switches on. The post does not illuminate much more than the graffiti tagged bench and bus route sign. The rest of the street descends within seconds into a cold and still darkness only occasionally interrupted by the distant sound of happy trick-or-treaters.
Chester takes his seat on the bench. As always, he is by himself. No one seems to use this bus stop anymore, and he believes that it is only a matter of time before it is removed from the route.
Actually, he is not really alone. He hears old paper snapping in the breeze. He looks up at the post, and sees the faded and scratched MISSING notice that had been put up there three months before. The volunteer search party had meant well, but it defies reason to glue one of the MISSING notices to a spot almost no one frequents. If you want to get people to notice that a twenty-something woman has vanished, then get that information into the hands of Anna Burns over at The Redwood Democrat, or paper over the mannequin Cowboys and Indians at the Western Star.
Chester sighs. The smiling lady with the red, curly hair on the MISSING notice hardly looks like the Joanne McKinney he had come to know at the county Parks and Recreation Center. Oh, it definitely is her. He does not doubt that, but the photo does not capture her vibrant personality. Her smile is too demure, for the Joanne he knew was a salty, wisecracking gal with a devilish grin. Like all the social workers, she had the proverbial heart of gold, but unlike the others she never treated him like an “old man.” Chester never heard much about her private life, but he suspects that she was too much of a spitfire for the young men around these parts. She was not the kind to be crushed into the earth by a local culture clinging to old-fashioned ways. Perhaps, that is why she has been largely forgotten, notwithstanding the MISSING notices still clinging to light posts around town. She never really fit in, and therefore most of the folks turned their gaze to something more comfortable as soon as the initial shock of her disappearance had passed.
Chester misses their friendly chitchats over coffee. He misses her boisterous laughter, which he can hear still in his mind, and he misses having a ready ear for all his tall tales from when he worked in corporate America. His sorrow is palpable, but even more so he feels regretful whenever he looks up at one of her MISSING notices. Besides the Parks and Recreation Center, she had worked at a church run charity of some sort, and several times she had asked him playfully to do some volunteer work there. It would have been something to do, and an opportunity to meet more people, but he had declined each time she asked. He did not want to tell her, but deep down he really did not feel comfortable spending time with any church organization. They are just not his kind of people.
He does remember once asking her to elaborate on the charity work. She said that they gave out food and clothes to the needy. At that time, there was a particular need for shoes. Though he still declined to volunteer, he did give her a pair of his old loafers. She gave him a thumbs up when he handed her his donation, and they talked about getting together for coffee next week. That was the last time he saw her.
Perhaps, Joanne would be around still, if he had gone to that church with her. Apparently, that was the last place she was seen. If he had been with her, he senses he would have kept an eye on her the whole time. He was starting to think of her as the daughter he had never had. If she was in danger, he would have seen it coming.
Or so he tells himself. The truth is he has no idea. All he knows is that he has considerable regret for never having taken her up on her request. Though he has no stomach still for the Jesus Freaks, in retrospect he could have stood at a counter and passed out shoes to the needy.
Lost in thought, Chester does not feel the tear slide down his cheek. He cries for his friend, but he also cries for himself. Like the needy folks who shuffle up to the counter for a pair of someone else’s shoes, he is fading a bit more into anonymity as each day passes. Old Age is like trying to walk with one shoe missing. It is difficult to stand upright, let alone to go from A to B without conjuring Dr. Frankenstein’s Igor, and the poor hobbler cannot but appear “passed his prime” or perhaps even “out of sorts.” He is not a man anymore. He is a “disabled man.” He is “declining.” Except for the occasional saint like Joanne McKinney, no one wants to be reminded of his own mortality by hanging out with the shoeless freak.
The bus roars out from the still darkness, and for a moment Chester awakens from his sadness. He watches the bus come to a stop in front of him. Every night, the driver takes a ten-minute smoking break at this spot. Chester staggers onto the near empty bus, takes his usual seat near the back, and stares listlessly into the darkness outside his cracked window, until the driver has exhausted his lungs. He expects the same to happen now. He pushes himself up from the bench, and waits a moment for the portly driver to step outside clutching a Marlboro and a lighter like one of those trick-or-treaters does a Snickers. He nods amicably at the driver, who looks through him like he is not even there. As the driver has never nodded back, notwithstanding the hundreds of times Chester has taken this route, this too is a part of the routine.
Just before he steps inside Chester catches something odd in the corner of his eye. His intuition tells him to leave it alone whatever it is. Best to hop inside where it is warm, cozy, and above all predictable. Get back to his apartment in approximately twenty minutes depending on traffic, stir himself a cup of hot milk and cocoa, watch that cute Chinese girl they’ve got on the local news, and fall asleep with his achy feet up on the coffee table.
But he does not do that. Maybe Joanne’s dead smile up there on that MISSING notice touched him more than he had realized. Maybe, just a second ago, he heard in his mind Joanne yet again asking him to volunteer. It will be something to do, and an opportunity to meet more people. Why not just give it a try? Or are you chicken? She always play punched him in the shoulder whenever she called him a chicken, and he would feign indignation. Then, they would share a hearty laugh, and go back to their coffee clutch. He loved her for crossing the line with him. No one else did that. All the others were too concerned he might roll off the table, shatter into pieces, and accuse them of “elder abuse.”
So instead of stepping onto the bus, Chester turns his head to check out what has been captured by the idling bus’s headlights. Now is when he feels the tear that has been sliding down his cheek. He also hears his own heartbeat. It is an old Bongo drum with frayed stitches at this point, but someone inside his chest is pounding it furiously and without consideration for his advanced age.
He grips the metal bar on the side of the open bus door. He can pull himself inside if he changes his mind, but he is not going to do that. Deep down, he already knows that. Though he cannot say why, he senses that it has something to do with having declined Joanne’s invitation one too many times.
He sees the backside of an abnormally tall, thin, stooped man. He is wearing a wrinkled, stained, black trench coat. The stains could be dried mud, but the gnawing rat in his gut tells him that it is blood. He also has on a black fedora that looks as if it has been scratched and chewed by raccoons in a dumpster. He is definitely down on his luck, perhaps even homeless, and his haggard pace suggests that he is even older than Chester. He is definitely “passed his prime,” whatever his prime may have been.
Worse, the tall man has a pronounced limp. With every difficult step he looks like he is about to stumble to his face. Chester focuses on the tall man’s feet. His right foot appears to be inside a large, squishy, oddly shaped shoe. His left foot appears to be wrapped in stained butcher paper, but is otherwise shoeless. Since the right shoe (if indeed that is a shoe) props his foot up several inches higher than what a normal heel would do, it actually makes it harder for him to walk than if he were altogether shoeless. He is not only “passed his prime” but apparently “out of sorts.”
The people who turn their eyes from a geezer like Chester will avoid this tall man like he is one of those creepy lepers in the New Testament. It seems Chester has found someone more pitiful than himself.
It will be something to do, and an opportunity to meet more people. Why not just give it a try? Or are you chicken?
Chester releases his grip on the metal bar, just as the tall man limps out from the headlights. Chester can no longer see him, and he cannot hear his haggard steps on account of the idling bus engine. He is pretty sure that the old timer is across the street, though. Given his direction he is likely headed toward the red kissing bridge at the end of this street. A lot of moonshiners and “colored” folks live in the country out beyond the kissing bridge. The bus roars through this countryside on the way to the retirement community on the other side of town, but Chester is very mindful of the fact that some folks never get to roar passed the low hanging trees and the quiet brooks out there. They have to remain all night where the dark forest chill burrows into their bones. For them, camping out is not a getaway, but a lifelong sentence in a natural prison yard. All that timeless serenity out there is a threadbare veil beneath which lurks a world of howling coyotes and rapacious coons.
Why not just give it a try? Or are you chicken?
Chester staggers across the headlights. He is not sure what he is going to do when he catches up to the tall man. Unless he is prepared to take him to his home, and to give him a pair of his loafers, there is really nothing he can do for him. He is not going to hesitate, though. He lost his friend because he refused to act. He is not going to make that same mistake again.
When Chester reaches the sidewalk, he stops a moment, and stares down in the general direction of the kissing bridge. He cannot see the tall man, but now that he is further away from the idling bus he can hear the heavy steps. With every limp forward the tall man crunches dried maple leaves with his wrapped, left foot. Then, he slides the right foot. The shoe is not only propping him up too high. It is a heavy weight that he has to drag with his right foot. In effect, it is a ball and chain, and for a moment Chester imagines a taller, indigent version of Jacob Marley’s ghost.
Chester hurries down the sidewalk. It makes no sense that the tall man can be so far ahead, given how slowly he walks, but Chester does not think about that. Instead, he thinks about the fast gait he used to have back when he was able to run track. He thinks about when his shoulders stood upright and strong. Maybe, it is all in his mind, but for a moment at least he really believes he can move as fast and as strong as when he was young.
Reality slaps him down, when he reaches the mouth of the kissing bridge. He is taxed beyond measure, and forced to lean on the red painted pine to catch what is left of his breath. He stares into the covered bridge while clutching his chest, and he sees nothing at first but the light hanging down from the middle rafter. The covered bridge acts as a wind funnel, and so even the slightest breeze has a kick inside there. The blue light swings side to side, and as a result the ghoul shadows cast on the pine seem to dance with abandon. A cold wind howls through the tight space beneath the rickety gutters. It continually reverberates from a whisper to a haunted scream, and the rhythmic sound underlines the ghoul dance further inside. All that is needed is a bonfire to complete the scene, and Chester begins to imagine just that when he sees how the swaying blue light illuminates the red painted panels. The tired, red paint is all at once living, vicious, even bloodlike. The paint seems ready to burst off of those panels and to coalesce into a crackling blood flame.
Chester wonders if he had imagined the whole thing. Surely, Chester did not run passed the tall man, and there is nowhere else he could have gone. Nevertheless, the tall man appears to have vanished, and the only plausible explanation is that this detour had been from the start…
Just then, Chester sees the tall man step out from the dark shadows and into the light cast by the swaying lamp. He had been lost among those ghouls apparently while hobbling down the center of the covered bridge. He stops directly underneath the lamp, and he leans precariously to his left side. He may be rubbing his left leg, or catching his breath. Regardless, the tall man seems unable to continue much longer.
Chester wants to scream out, but he is too tired to give voice to his words. He will have to reach the tall man, if he is going to help him. He still has no idea what he is going to do if and when that happens, but he pushes forward anyway. He staggers down the center of the covered bridge, clutching at his chest intermittently with his right hand, and reaching out to the tall man with his left. His overtaxed knees throb, and his ribs seem about to burst through his sides. He lower lip hangs heavily, as he gasps for air, and his eyes seem about to burst out from their sockets. Chester is a tired, old man, but even more so he is desperate. He is willing to push himself to the brink of death, because he wants so much to do now what he declined to do before.
Chester stares down at his shoes after awhile, for he is too tired to continue to face forward. He falls hard to his knees as soon as he steps into the light. Though he uses his left hand to stop himself from falling to his face, he senses that that will happen soon enough anyway. He is totally spent. He simply cannot force enough of the pine-scented air into his aged lungs. He feels his skin tightening around his thin bones. His eyes seem now to float outside of their sockets, as he beholds the ghouls dancing around him. Is he the bonfire? It seems possible, given how his flesh burns, or at least feels that way.
For all the ghouls that Chester sees, what troubles him the most just then is what he does not see. The tall man has vanished again, if indeed he was ever really there. Chester arches his head back as far as he can, but all he sees is the blue lamp swaying above him. The lamp swings side to side in the shape of a broad Cheshire cat grin. Chester remembers the illuminated jack-o-lantern he saw earlier tonight.
* * *
The tall man limps out from among the ghouls. He is exhausted, and the pain in his left leg is unrepentant hellfire. He is able to breathe a little easier, though, for the arduous task is over. The tired man whom he had lured away from the bus stop is now a corpse. The corpse slips in and out of the blue light, depending upon where the lamp has swung at any given moment, but it is unmistakably there. The dried up maple leaves already are swirling about his flesh like flies, and the screaming winds are pushing his eternally expressive face further into the road. When that bus starts up again, and charges through this covered bridge, it will smash over his flesh like it is not even there. The police will be able to identify him afterwards, but his head will be too crushed to be of any use. If the tall man is going to take advantage of this new opportunity, then he needs to act very quickly.
The tall man stands over the corpse. He looks over his shoulder to make sure no one is about to enter the covered bridge. If someone had looked back at him just then, he would have seen a towering, if stooped, figure in a tattered trench coat and fedora with the scrunched face of a cockroach. He keeps the top of his antennae very carefully hidden beneath his fedora, and as a result he looks more like a beetle eyed prune face than an insect. He has no hands, but rather two stumps where his hands would be. They are wrapped with the same butcher paper as his left foot. Thick pus oozes out from his limbs continually. It is actually closer in color and texture to hot tar, but when illuminated it can look like blood. He is always on the lookout for that thick and absorbent butcher paper that may be found in old styled slaughterhouses. The paper does not really stop the discharge, but it keeps him from leaving behind a garish trail wherever he goes. Sometimes, he deliberately lures victims like this sad sack beneath him, but usually he wants to be left alone. To that end, he has no desire to leave behind a trail of tar crumbs for an enterprising detective or exorcist to find.
Slowly, methodically, the tall man bends down. He grips his stumps about the head of the corpse. He is much disabled without fingers, but his overall arm strength remains considerable. He twists the head side to side until it pops out from the neck like a wine bottle cork. Warm blood spreads like a fan across the road. The corpse is fresh still. If he had been able to wait awhile longer, the blood would have been cold, thicker, and considerably less messy. He hates leaving behind a horror show, but he does not have that much time. The bus driver back there is going to finish his smoke and resume his route any moment now.
The tall man drops the head to his side. The head faces upwards. It is a mask of horror: Wide opened eyes staring emptily at the swinging lamp above, a nose that had been bloodied by the road, and a mouth contrived and contorted by an inability to take in enough air at the end. The tall man does not look at the face. For all of the violence he has committed over the millennia he has never found any joy in the sick aftermath. He has no stomach for gore. It is untidy, and if there is one Biblical verse that truly resonates with every scavenger it is the one that says, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” His own physical and spiritual disability is garish enough. He does not need to see the faces of his many victims etched into his dreams as well.
Steadying himself on his right leg, the tall man lifts his left heel over the head, and then slam it into the face. His left heel burrows deeply into the forehead, and his toes end up protruding out from where the dead man’s chin had been. Of course, it is not a perfect fit. It very seldom is, but the skull beneath is about the same size as the redheaded woman’s skull beneath his right foot. That should take care of the limp at least for a while.
The tall man hears the bus pulling away from the curb. It is time to move on. He is not inclined to get emotionally involved with his victims, and his prune face is incapable of anything approaching a smile. Nevertheless, he thinks it is a good thing that in a way he has brought Joanne McKinney and Chester Burke back together. He imagines it is like finding shoes in two separate dumpsters that had been at one time a pair. They are supposed to be worn side by side, and he is ever so happy to oblige.