The Joking Jack-o'-Lantern


A jack-o’-lantern grinned from the porch, its eyes glowing with orange candlelight. No one remembered carving it, but there it sat, spreading Halloween cheer as night fell and revelers came out.

Susan and Jerry stood on their porch, decked out in their holiday best. For Susan, that meant hours of meticulous research and craftsmanship had been poured into her screen-accurate costume. For Jerry, it meant dumping some fake blood on dirty clothes and calling it a day. Susan tried not to let it bother her. Jerry just wasn’t a Halloween guy. He was far more into Christmas lights and Thanksgiving turkey.

But for Susan, Halloween was everything — the best of all the holidays, with feasting and gift-giving (well, candy-giving) and drinking all wrapped up in cosplay and creepiness. It was the ultimate holiday, and she loved every minute of it.

Usually.

“How many damn pumpkins do we need?” Jerry said, his waving hand taking in the gourd-bedecked porch. There was a smirk on his face, but Susan wasn’t amused.

“There’s only four.”

“Five.”

She glanced around, her gaze sliding over the impish jack-o’-lantern at the top of the stairs. She didn’t quite remember putting it there, but she jerked her shoulders. “Five, then. What’s the big deal? The kids love them.”

“If you say so,” Jerry said, flopping down into his camp chair. Susan suppressed a sigh of irritation as he cracked open a beer and emptied a bag of candy into a bucket.

She forgot her annoyance as the kids came flooding up the sidewalks. There were dozens of them, wide-eyed and excited, dressed in a rainbow of costumes — superheroes and villains, monsters and magicians, witches and ghosts and zombies. Half of them were already pumped up on sugar, and the rest were running on pure adrenaline as a night of candy-coated childhood celebration began.

This was Susan’s favorite part of Halloween — the kids and parents and friends wandering the street, making the neighborhood merry with laughter and shouts, filling the night with color and light.

What could beat this?

“Outta beer. I’ll be right back.”

Jerry ducked inside the house, leaving Susan to deal with droves of children alone.

“At least grab some more candy!” she shouted. “Asshole,” she added quietly.

“You said a swear,” the princess in front of her said, her little face solemn.

“Our little secret,” Susan said, slipping the girl an extra candy bar. The girl grinned and ran back toward the sidewalk. She bumped into a pint-sized sheriff on the way, and a brief scuffle broke out. It ended with a broken tiara and a tearful, bloody-nosed lawman who could only be soothed by the last handful of candy. Grumpy parents hauled their trick-or-treaters away and mumbled darkly about the lack of safety.

The jack-o’-lantern’s eyes glowed brighter.

Jerry finally returned, collapsing into his chair with a six-pack and a candied apple. Susan had spent all weekend making the treats, and the bastard didn’t even have the decency to bring her one while she refereed fights and passed out sugar bombs to packs of unruly kids.

“Did you at least get the candy?”

Jerry blinked. “You’ve got a full bucket.”

“It’s gone now!”

“How much are you giving them?”

Susan glared and stomped inside. “Lazy jackass.”

She grabbed two more bags and swung through the kitchen. She poured two fingers of her favorite whiskey — she usually saved it for after the trick-or-treating — and downed it in a single gulp.

There was a queue of kids lined up on the lawn by the time she got back, all of the little buggers grimly determined to wait for the candy so they could be sure to get something from every house on the block. Greedy brats. Jerry was laughing with a friend — the parent of a blue dinosaur — and Susan clenched her teeth as she ripped open a bag.

Candy spilled everywhere. The little goblins pounced, cheerfully ignoring her pleas to take just one piece.

“Yeah, right,” a witch cackled.

“Whatever you say,” a frog prince croaked.

“Ha ha ha!” a Joker chuckled.

They scooped up handfuls of chocolaty goodness and ran.

“Fucking monsters,” Susan muttered.

A diminutive Captain America caught her this time. He looked at her with wide, reproachful eyes. She bought his silence with two Snickers.

The night crawled endlessly on. Jerry drank and laughed while Susan labored, cleaning up spills, breaking up tussles, herding lost kids and endlessly refilling the candy bucket. She felt her anger begin to boil and bubble. She glared and snapped. The kids began to shy away, coming timidly up the walk while their parents waited anxiously at the front gate. Something somewhere inside her — the little part of her that still loved Halloween — whispered that something was wrong. Why was she so upset, so angry? Sick kids, a few bumps and bruises — these things always happened on Halloween. It came with the fun.

She glared at Jerry. Just look at him, relaxing while she did all the work, not a care in the wide world as he lounged around in his pathetic costume and got hopelessly drunk. Of course something was wrong. She was dating a damn freeloading moron.

Finally, the last of the trick-or-treaters trotted away — Susan was pretty sure the sneak had come around at least three times. It was nearing midnight, and she’d never been so ready for Halloween to be over.

Jerry belched and stood up to stretch.

“Fun night.”

“Shithead.”

He blinked. “What?”

“I’m standing here, cleaning up vomit and God knows what else after dealing with goddamn demons all night, and all you can say is ‘fun night’?”

“Yeah? It wasn’t so bad. Just like any other year.”

“Five fights, three sick kids, four lost kids, and two punks who tried to smash our decorations? There’s nothing normal about that!” Susan said. She was shouting. She couldn’t help it. Her favorite holiday had been twisted into shambles, and she couldn’t contain her seething anger anymore. “And all you do is sit there and laugh and drink while I do all the work!”

“You love this stuff.”

She didn’t remember reaching for knife — Where had it come from? Hadn’t she put it up after carving the pumpkins? — but suddenly it was in her hand, and Jerry was backing away, his eyes wide as he stumbled.

She pounced.

The jack-o’-lantern looked on, its eyes burning merrily in the night.

There were two bodies when the police arrived, and only four pumpkins on the porch.

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