This also now has a podfic done by yours truly!
So if you'd like to listen to it read aloud you can download it here
The first time Jean sees him, the moon is hanging high and bright and larger than his nine-year-old mind can comprehend in the October sky.
It's light paints his back in contrasts of deep blue and pearly iridescence, cutting a lonely figure among the dry grass and pumpkin vines of late fall. There is no wind and yet the shriveled leaves littering the ground and the stalks of the corn in the distance seem to whisper to one another, nudging each other like old friends after a softly shared joke.
He stands, his face tilted up towards the moon crowding out the darkness of the night's sky with its size, still.
"Hello?" Jean approaches the figure cautiously, feet crunching beneath him. The figure turns, face still moonlight-pale, clothes silent as he twists.
His dark eyebrows rise when he sees Jean, small and young and curious down the dirt path cutting its way between pumpkins and gourds.
The boy is taller than him, Jean notices, and much older too, probably in his mid to late teens. The boy simply stares, astonished and silent.
"Uh, hi." Jean says again.
"Y-You...you can see me." The boy replies, eyes still wide with disbelief.
The boy raises his hands, looking down at his palms, then back up to Jean.
"Where am I?" He asks, his voice small. One of Jean's eyebrows raise.
"Aunt Rose's Pumpkin Patch and Cider Mill." He replies, a tone of "duh" coloring his words. "Are you lost?"
"Rose...?" The boy whispers, looking back up at the moon. "Yes... yes, I think I might be."
"Bad idea to get lost on Halloween," Jean says, mouth twisting into a frown. "Everyone says the place is "haunted."" He rolls his eyes at the last word. He's old enough to posture to others how stupid it is to believe in ghosts, but not old enough to be sure he's fully convinced himself of it.
"It's Halloween?" The boy asks.
"Duh." Jean replies.
"Jean!" The voice echoes high and feminine over the field from the farmhouse, lights glowing warmly and the sound of children laughing and parents talking wafting with it out across the empty field. "Jean, are you out here? Come back inside!"
The boy tilts his head. "Your name is Jean?"
"Jean Kirstein." He replies, puffing out the chest of his plastic-y doctor costume.
"My name's..." There's the slightest hint of a pause, a shadow passing across his face. "Marco." He finally finishes, followed by a decisive nod. "Marco Bott."
"Jean Auguste Kirstein!" His mother's voice, again, echoing through the crumbling leaves of the corn stalks. Jean winces. "Come back here, young man!" He rolls his eyes.
"Is that your mother?" Marco asks, an unfathomably sad expression twisting his features, casting shadows over his eyes and under his lips.
"Yeah." Jean sighs, glancing toward the farmhouse. "Brought me to this lame Halloween party. I don't care that all her sisters are here. I hate my cousins. I just wanted to go Trick-or-Treating like normal kids." He huffs.
"So you snuck out to the pumpkin patch?" There is a hint of a smile on his face now, shining in the moonlight.
"It was boring in there." Jean grouses, ruffling the back of his hair in annoyance. "Nothing to do."
"I thought you said Halloween was a bad night to get lost." Jean wrinkles his nose. He's not sure he likes this strange boy who stands out in pumpkin patches alone, staring up at the sky. "I hear the place is haunted..."
Taking in an indignant breath, he starts to reply. "I can take care of myse-"
"I will count to ten, Jean, and if you aren't back here...!"
"You should go back to your mother." Marco says, voice soft. He flicks his eyes down to the dusty path cutting its way through the field. Jean can see the way the moonlight casts shadows of his eyelashes across the spattering of freckles on his cheek. "And tell her you love her." He adds abruptly, as though the words have jerked themselves out of him against his will. His head jerks up, face confused. "I'm sorry, I-I don't know why I said that."
"Fine, I will. Not like there's anything to find out here either," Jean snarks, turning on his heel. The cheap fabric of his costume squeaks unnaturally in the chorus of soft, organic decay of the drying field around him.
"I doubt there ever was." Marco replies so softly that Jean will later think he didn't mean for him to hear it. "Happy Halloween, Jean."
Glancing out the windows of the farmhouse later that night amidst the bustle of the party, he can still see that strange figure, bathed in the bright light of a full moon, standing still and lonely in the pumpkin patch, head tilted towards the autumn sky.
The next Halloween, Jean is ten and dressed as Batman, his plastic pumpkin pail swinging at his side as he makes his way, house by house, down a suburban street, his mother trailing along behind him.
"Jean!" She exclaims the third time he trips on an uneven lip caused by a crack in the sidewalk or a concrete step or his own shoes. "Watch where you're going, sweetheart!"
Jean doesn't even realize his eyes keep drifting up, up, up past the spindly, bare branches of trees to the faint glow of the crescent moon beyond wispy clouds until he's tripping again.
When they get home, he flops down on the couch, tugs off his mask and empties his haul onto the living room floor. Scowling he rifles through, an inexplicable feeling bubbling up through his chest growing until he sweeps his hand across the pile of candy in frustration, scattering pieces of chocolate and suckers across the room in a spray of sugar and plastic.
He sits out on the porch, carved pumpkin alight with a flickering candle glow on his lap, staring up into the dark sky until his mother calls him in with a sharp voice to clean up his mess.
A year older, Jean is back at the Cider Mill, continuously adjusting the plastic crown perched precariously on his head when it threatens to slip off at each tilt of his neck. His palm is slick on the cool material of the fake scepter in one hand and he can't say why.
The moon isn't full this year, but it is getting there, still bathing the field in cold white light, Jean's king cape casting a long, fluttering shadow as he stalks out across the field.
He knows why he's out here, knows what he's looking for but won't dare think it to himself.
Jean's heart nearly stops when he spots a small figure, sitting, back resting against a singular tree piercing its spindly branches through the horizon skyline of the field. He can see the line of his jaw, a steep slash where it is tiled again towards the sky.
"Hello?" He calls tentatively, the thoughts of crazy, made it up, never happened spinning rapidly in his mind.
But the head of dark, short hair turns at his voice, the eyebrows rising in that same startled, surprised look he remembers, fuzzy and vague, but still remembers.
"J-Jean?" Marco says, voice rasping through the space between them, seeming to mirror the dry vines and dead leaves it dances across to reach him.
"So I didn't dream it up." Jean mutters to himself, still making his way toward the tree.
"I... I didn't think I'd see you again." Marco says as he approaches. His legs are cross in front of him, old, faded jeans dusty with earth, palms resting lightly on his knees. "You look older."
Jean sits down beside him without comment, dropping the plastic scepter to the packed dirt with a hollow clatter and takes off his crown to twirl it in his hands. The light wind rustles the line of corn in the distance where the pumpkin patch gives way to the next field over.
"Why are you out here alone on Halloween again?" Jean asks, tracing the ridges of the fake jewels superglued to the painted plastic in his hands.
"I wish I knew." Marco says cryptically and Jean pulls a suspicious face.
"You're a ghost, aren't you?" Marco turns beside him, silent and bright in the moonlight.
"I think so." He replies after a minute, eyes darting over Jean's face, studying him. "Yeah, I think so."
"Knew it." Jean says, his reply tinged with a triumphant note.
"You're the first one who's been able to see me, though." Marco admits. "Let alone talk to me."
"Nobody else? Ever?"
Marco tilts his head, considering.
"Well, I think I'm only here on Halloween." He confesses. "Since all the times I remember the pumpkins are always ripe. And only at night. I don't-" He pauses. "I don't really remember the sun at all."
"That makes sense." Jean nods, affirmative, certain in the way children often are once they've convinced themselves of the workings of the world.
"Does it now?" Marco asks, a smile pulling at his lips. "How so?"
"My babysitter, Rico, she's Puerto Rican." Jean explains. "She says Halloween, or "Día de Los Muertos,"" his tongue rolls softly around the syllables with ease, showing off, "is when the dead come back to visit the living because its when the two worlds are the closest together."
Marco pauses before he nods, considering, and glances back up at the sky. He doesn't reply.
Jean twirls his crown around in his hand.
"What's being dead like when you're not here?" he asks, curiously.
"I-" Marco starts to answer but stops, his brow furrowing. He looks down towards the earth between his crossed legs. "I don't know. I think... All I see is black. It's so... dark... And then sometimes I'm here in this field and the moon is so bright..." His voice is reverent and affectionate. "I like being here." He concludes. "And even more now that I have a friend to talk to."
"I never said I was your friend." Jean huffs, not venomous, simply with the amusing arrogance of a preteen boy. Marco smiles so understandingly, so selflessly; in a way that will someday make Jean ache deep in the center of his chest.
"That's fine." He replies, looking away, back towards the partial moon hanging silently in the sky. "We don't have to be friends. But I'm glad you came to find me again, Jean." His face is cast in that particular pattern of shadows that form when he looks confused and sad all at once. "It gets lonely, I think."
Jean glances back over his shoulder, towards the glow of the windows of the cider mill, then back.
"Yeah." He says softly.
"I like your costume, by the way." Marco says after a minute.
"I don't know, I think it's kinda lame." Jean says, stilling the spinning of his crown around his outstretched wrist. "My mom picked it out. Says my name is about glory so I needed an outfit to match."
"Your name?" Marco asks.
"Jean Auguste." Jean recites, moving his fist around in small circles to get the plastic of the crown spinning around his straightened arm again. "Jean means "glory to God", Auguste means "Greatness.""
"What's your last name mean?"
"Cherry stone." Jean snorts, scrunching up his nose. "Like a red stone. Dunno if that one fits." Marco laughs.
"I think it means something, though, that the names you were given mean something and the one you got stuck with doesn't."
"What's your name mean, then?" Jean asks. Marco pauses for a stretching, infinite moment, his long lashes spinning spider-web shadows that connect patterns in dots on his face.
"I finally remember." He starts. "Marco Feliciano. I had an Italian mom and a Swedish dad. Marco, "God of war." Feliciano, "Lucky" or "blessed.""
"What about your last name?" Jean asks. Marco swallows. And when he speaks again his voice is soft and dry like the stalks of corn across the field.
""Bott." Swedish. "To stay" or- or "to dwell.""
Jean's plastic crown clatters to the soil with a high, hollow sound and he watches it roll away into the tangle of vines before colliding with a large pumpkin and spinning to a stop in the dirt.
"I suppose," Marco continues, eyes forever cast upwards, "sometimes we can't overcome the things we're saddled with, no matter how much those who love us try to make it otherwise."
Jean is eleven years old and he doesn't understand the words. But they worm their way deep into his heart and settle, heavily, like Marco's last name.
There's a certain quality about fall that Jean starts to take notice of when he's twelve.
It is a whisper of change and movement, the roar of fire burning the forest so that seeds of jack pines may crack open, the crunching leveling of buildings in order to lay new bricks. But perhaps quieter than that; slower, he amends. Less violent. Like the last whispering breath on a deathbed, or the unassuming formation of wrinkles on skin.
Autumn is a time of change, he realizes, of transition. Autumn is the place where the burning, sweating burst of youth that summer sings begins to blend into the almost silent shivering slog of winter's whisper.
It is a place where two sides of the calendar clash together and each year wrench the landscape asunder with their meeting, like violent, passionate lovers.
Many things come together in Autumn, he begins to realize.
When he walks out into the pumpkin patch that Halloween, he finds Marco easily, standing nervously, leaning against the trunk of the same tree. His face is set in nervous tension, cautiously hopefully.
"Jean!" He greets and it sounds like the gasping exhale of someone who has held their breath too long.
"Hi." Jean greets back.
They end up sitting on the lowest bough of the tree together, side by side, gazing out at the empty, dying field dotted with polka dots of orange and white, pumpkins growing among the rotting leaves. They talk about Jean's school, how many fights he's been in, how much he hates math homework, and the pretty new girl in his English class with hair like the wings of a raven.
"It might be rude to ask," Marco says when the conversation lulls, "but what's your costume this year?" Jean grins.
"I'm you." He states simply, gesturing at the faded dirty jeans, the old button down two sizes too big, the center part of his hair, the comically too-large freckles dotted on with grease paint.
Marco eyebrows knit together and he looks down at his knees, feet dangling in the air.
"I told my Mom I was just a ghost." Jean continues, oblivious to the hunch of Marco's shoulders or the whiteness of his knuckles where he grips the tree branch beneath them. "Since she doesn't know who you are. She's kinda stopped trying to keep me from sneaking out here every year, since I always do anyway. I think she's just happy I come with her to the party and- Marco? Hey, uh..."
Marco's shoulders are shaking silently, head hanging down against his chest, tears sparkling in the moonlight as they drip to his lap.
"Uh, you all right?" Jean asks, honestly a bit freaked out to see an older boy crying. "You hurt, dude?"
Marco shakes his head but doesn't look up, bringing a hand to scrub furiously at his eye.
"I'm okay." He says. "I just- I'm flattered but I- I wish you weren't me for Halloween."
"W-Why not?" Jean asks, startled.
"Because..." Marco says, looking up. His smile is watery and aching, the sheen of tears filming over his eyes reflecting the moon like a mirror, setting them alight. "I've had to be with myself for Halloween for as long as I can remember. And it sucks." His voice cracks on the word. "I don't want to anymore. I'd rather be with someone else."
Jean considers Marco for a moment, this strange ghost who talks with such cryptic words about such vague things, but whose face, twisted with such sadness and loneliness, is something Jean simply cannot stand.
Wordlessly, he unbuttons the shirt and tugs it off, his arms pricking into goosebumps with now only a black tank-top against his chest in the chilly October air. He balls it up in his hand and brings it to his cheek, rubbing furiously. He tosses the button down to the ground below the tree where it lands with a soft fwump against the packed earth.
Ruffling his hair out of its part, he looks back up at Marco, the brown of the grease paint now smeared in lines and large splotches across his cheeks, his hair sticking up on end. When he grins brightly, two missing baby teeth make gaps in the line of his smile.
Marco, eyes still shining with wetness in the moonlight, smiles back.
When they get home that night, Jean tells his mother he doesn't want to dress up for Halloween anymore.
Jean strides out into the pumpkin patch, thirteen years old, and starting to look a little weedy. He's shot up about six inches since Marco last saw him and his steps are clumsy amongst the vines, as if his mind hasn't finished mapping out how far his body had extended.
"You've grown." Marco says as they walk from the tree, side by side, along the paths stenciling straight lines across the field.
"And you haven't." Jean says. "How old were you? When you died, I mean."
"Sixteen, I think?" Marco replies, pondering.
"Huh." Jean says, feet scuffing loudly against the dirt when he doesn't pick his feet up far enough.
"I'm remembering a lot more than I used to." Marco adds quietly. "But I'm scared of it. I'm not sure I want to remember everything."
"Do you remember how you died?" Jean asks.
Marco looks up to the dark sky, the barest sliver of a moon caressing the dark sphere of its unlit portion, slashed like a curved brush stroke across the darkness.
"No." He says and they keep walking.
When Jean greets him next Halloween, he is fourteen and his voice has dropped. The newness of gravelly way he says Marco's name makes him smile.
It's at fourteen when Jean starts to wonder for the first time if being a ghost means he can't touch Marco, if his hand would pass right through him as if through smoke, and also wonders why this is the first time he's thought about it.
"You're in high school now, right?"
They're both sprawled in the middle of the pumpkin patch, lying side by side, staring up at the cloudy sky.
"Do you have any friends?"
"You're my friend." Jean says softly. The cloud above him curves and twists as it makes its way across the moon.
"I mean friends who are alive." Marco clarifies. Jean doesn't say anything, just zips up his hoodie against the night chill. "Please tell me you do." The words are soft and tinged with a desperate note.
"I have three friends, one enemy, and an ex-crush that I don't know how to sort yet." Jean says finally. Beside him, Marco lets out a breath.
"What are their names?" Marco asks. "I'm just curious."
"Connie, Sasha, and Armin are my friends." Jean tell him. "I liked Mikasa. And there's a douchebag named Jaeger who I hate." Marco laughs.
"That's good to hear. No new crush since the old one fizzled out?"
When he replies, Jean's voice is like one of the clouds passing above them, wispy and grey, concealing a vastness beyond.
"All right." Marco replies. Jean turns his head to look over at him, studying, soaking in with a desperate hunger.
His sketchbooks at home have become increasingly filled with half-remembered renderings of the other boy's face, lit by October moonlight, mostly gazing up, occasionally tilted down, nearly always sad.
He sits for hours on cold December Saturdays, the side of his hand rubbed solid grey and shining with lead trying to capture the way Marco's cheeks plane delicately between his cheekbones and his jawline. He spends soggy March afternoons trying to trace the arcs of his eyelashes with sure broad strokes of a paintbrush. He spends muggy July nights trying to map the constellations, the galaxies, of freckles beneath his eyes and across his nose with his pens.
But nothing is quite as clear as here, every October 31st, beside Marco, with the perfect cast of moonlight―whether blinding or scant―and the crunch of the dead leaves beneath them and the chill biting at the tips of his fingers.
He feels real here. Beside Marco.
"My hand is really cold."
"Put them in your pockets, then, silly." Marco laughs and looks over, meeting his eyes. Jean turns on his side, the dead foliage crunching beneath him.
They just lay, eyes locked on one another, and Jean's heart seems to beat a bit faster. Marco's eyes soften, roaming over his face. There is an ancient, wandering sadness haunted by doubt that floods his eyes like drops of ink in water.
Slowly, so slowly, Macro brings up his arm and places his hand out across the dirt between them.
"Or you could try to hold mine. I don't know if it'll work."
Jean's hand is shaking as he reaches it out toward Marco's and they both try to pass it off as the cold but when Jean's fingers slide into Marco's his heart is hammering in his ears.
"I can touch you." Jean says, a bit breathless. "I thought I- I didn't think- I can-"
Marco's eyes are wide, staring at their laced fingers. Jean sees the tears start to well in them, and he shuts his big mouth and just squeezes his hand around Marco's, closing his eyes.
"You're so warm, Jean." Marco says and it sounds as if he's choking.
"Fuck it's cold." Jean bites out, fifteen years old and shivering in his peacoat. The circles beneath his eyes are darker, the lines of his cheekbones more defined.
"At least you have an actual coat this time." Marco teases and Jean hits his shoulder.
"Ouch!" Marco exclaims and Jean laughs, his smile tired but genuine.
"'S what you get for being corporeal." Marco sticks his tongue out.
They're sitting, once again, in the middle of the field, side by side, surrounded by the dotted orange mounds of pumpkins that pepper the brown and yellow and green of the rest of the landscape.
The moon is nearly full this year, setting Marco's features alight with an otherworldly glow beside him.
"How are your friends?" Marco asks. Jean shrugs.
"I don't see much of them anymore." Marco's brow furrows.
Jean just repeats his shrug.
Marco, once again, considers the dark circles beneath Jean's eyes and the thinness of his frame, the way Jean can't help but shiver every so often. Marco bites his lips and looks up towards the moon, huge and beautiful, dominating the clouds and stars that feebly scrabble for their attention.
"Can I ask you something?" Jean asks. Marco nods, not looking at him. "Why do you always seem so sad when you look up at the sky?"
The wind whistles through the distant corn stalks, licking a chilly stripe beneath Jean's collar along his neck.
"I think... I think that's how I died," Marco replies. His voice is the hollow rattle of dried corn husks in the wind. Jean studies his face, tiled―always tilted upward―towards the moon, watches the bob of his throat as he swallows. "Laying out here in this field. Alone. Staring up at the moon."
Jean's fingers slide into Marco's beside him, natural and easy, like they're meant to fit together. Marco's fingers are neither cold, nor warm, as if Jean is sticking his hand into water the exact same temperature as the air. It's only the solidity, the texture, and the beautiful picture the crisscross their knuckles make that assures him they are touching.
"Don't look at it." Jean says, squeezing his hand. He watches the tendon in Marco's jaw clench and the pained furrow of his brow cast shadows over his eyes. The barest glimmer of moonlight reflects off the tears in his eyes. "Marco, stop-"
"Why am I dead, Jean?" He asks, his voice cracks and waivers and Jean's heart aches at the sound. "Why did I have to die? I was only sixte-" His eyes widen halfway through the word, as if in some awful realization. The next words come out in a horrified whisper. "Where's my Mom, Jean? I- I don't remember the sound of her voice or the smell of her perfume-" The words are racing, tripping over one another, desperate and frenzied and Jean feels the muscles in Marco's hand tighten painfully around his own.
"Everything is so bright- a-and cold, Jean, so cold, I ca- I can't feel my hands-" Tears spill freely down his cheeks now, aglow with moonlight, looking so, so far away, voice splintering like frost across a leaf, breaths catching and sobs breaking between words. "I'm s-so alone and I don't know where I am-!"
Jean nearly leaps between them, throwing his arms around Marco, covering the shaking, heaving shoulders with strong arms, squeezing his trembling form against him. He squeezes his eyes shut against burning tears of his own.
Marco turns in his arms, tossing his own around Jean's waist, face buried in Jean's coat. His sobs are ugly, wrenching sounds that seem to claw their way from up Marco's chest and he can do nothing but shake and let them ravage him.
Jean keeps his arms securely around Marco, one hand coming up to stroke across his hair, soft and wispy like a spider web and murmurs soft, stupid, meaningless words that sound like "I'm sorry," into the nape of his neck.
When the moon is past it's high point in the sky and his sobs have dissipated into soft, tired sniffs, Marco finally speaks, quiet against Jean's shoulder.
"I miss you when you're not here, Jean." Jean's hand still rakes soothingly through Marco's hair, trembling ever so slightly. "I don't know how I do, but I do."
"I miss you all year." Jean replies reverently and it sounds like a confession. "Everything else feels like a dream."
He bites his lip, just shaking his head, and buries his face in Jean's shoulder.
Muffled against the fabric of Jean's coat, the reply sounds so broken Jean feels like he can't breathe.
"I can feel my hand when you hold it."
The windows of the farmhouse are dark this year, Marco notices, just like the sky above him. There is no moon in the sky, just dark clouds and the occasional glimmer of stars that struggle to peak through.
A tightness begins to twist in his chest as he begins to walk toward it. His feet catch in the vines of the pumpkins as he does and he is nearly tripping before he realizes he is running through the dark, empty field toward the farmhouse.
The blinding glare of car headlights halts him dead in his tracks as a grimy, rusting car rumbles up the dirt drive, swerving past the house and into the field, parking on the edge of pumpkin patch. The engine dies with a stuttering groan and the silence swallows all sound but Marco's panting breaths and the car door slamming as Jean, sixteen years old and beautiful, climbs out onto the crunching dry grass.
"Jean!" Marco breathes, running toward him again. "Jean, Jean, Jean you came!" and, God, the way he whispers the name makes it sound like a prayer.
"Of course I came." Jean says, gruff like the stubble on his cheek scraping across Marco's fingers when he reaches to cup the other boy's face in his hands.
"But the lights are out, I thought-"
"My aunt, who owned the place, died in July." Jean explains tiredly, hand reaching up to place it over Marco's. "It was still too soon for my mom and other aunts to want to be in the house again. But I-" His eyes squint in the darkness to make out Marco's face. "I wanted to see you. So I drove out here."
"Just for me?" The question is an exhale.
"I only get to see you one night a year, you idiot, of course I did." Jean's words are as soft as the thumb that slowly strokes over the hand on his cheek. "But shit, it's dark out here."
"There's no moon this year."
"Yeah. Oh, that reminds me. I brought you a present." Jean states, not pulling away from Marco, simply lacing their fingers together, as natural as breathing, an pulling him to the back of the car.
"Did you really have to pull up into the field?" Marco asks, eyeing the splattered guts of pumpkin seed squished beneath one of Jean's back tires.
"Didn't know if you could go past the edge." Jean mutters, amused. "Ghost and all that." He unlocks the trunk after some fumbling in the darkness and eventually it pops open with a creak. Reaching in, Jean pulls out a small, round thing, but in the darkness, Marco can't make it out exactly, except-
"A pumpkin?" Marco asks the shape finally registering, and Jean grins.
"Mhm, hold on, I'll show you."
The pumpkin under one arm, Marco's hand in the other, he slams the trunk closed with his elbow and pulls Marco around to the hood of the car, sitting on it. The metal groans but eventually settles under his weight. Jean pats the space next to him.
Once Marco's settled, Jean digs in his pocket, producing a lighter and yanks the cut out lid off the pumpkin. After a few fumbling clicks, the lighter catches and he sticks it through the carved gaps. The candle inside lights and blazes to life, illuminating the space around them in a soft, warm glow.
It flickers across Jean's face, throwing his features into sharp relief.
"Happy Halloween, Marco."
The face carved into the Jack-o-Lantern is simple and predictable with jigsaw square teeth and triangle eyes...but off to both sides, poked into the pumpkin are dozens and dozens of tiny pinpricks through which the light of the candle peek like stars through the clouds.
Jean's face is surprisingly soft, almost anxious as he wait's for Marco's reaction.
"Jean, I..." The fingers of his free hand trail along the smooth surface of the pumpkin and beneath he can feel the warmth from the candle inside rising up through the cool skin, warming the small space between them. "W-why'd you do this for me?"
"Special occasion." Jean explains. "We're the same age this year."
It is Autumn and the summer is losing its yearly struggle with winter and the air is cold around them.
It is Halloween and the legends say that tonight, with Jean's watch ticking through midnight on his wrist, the veil between the living and the dead is nonexistent.
It is October 31st and two lost boys smile weary smiles and kiss, bathed in the small flickering circle of a Jack-o-Lantern's glow.
Jean is seventeen and Marco is resting his head on Jean's shoulder, both of them staring out over the empty field, flooded bright in the moonlight.
"You know this is my last year, right?"
Marco's head jerks up. "What? Why?"
"I'm graduating in the spring. By next fall I'll be on the other side of the country." Marco's face seems to crumple. "I-I don't want to go that far, believe me." Jean adds, hurriedly, jaw clenched in distress. "But my mom's making me. The school I got accepted to there is giving me a huge scholarship and ever since Dad left money's been pretty tight-"
"You never told me your Dad left." Marco's voice is hollow. "When?"
"Three years ago." Understanding seems to fade into Marco's eyes like someone cranked a dial within him and he just grips tighter around Jean's arm, looking away.
"What'll I do?" Marco's voice is a small, fragile thing in the cold air. He bites his lip.
"I'll come back after I'm finished. If I had the money to come back for Halloween, I would, fuck, I would. But- after school. I'll come back."
"Four years without you..." Marco breathes, glancing around at the landscape as if it has suddenly become foreign to him, frightening in its alienness.
"It'll go faster for you." Jean assures, voice tight, his hands now so warm on either side of Marco's face. "I'll be back before you know it."
"Four years alone." Marco whispers, voice wavering. "I'm scared, Jean. I'm scared I'll start remembering. I don't want to remember. How dark and c-cold it was―how alon-"
Jean's mouth is suddenly hot and pained and desperate on his. Their mouths move together and it is harder and so much more afraid than last year's kiss. Jean pulls away after a moment to breathe against the line of Marco's jaw.
"You're not alone." He insists in a harsh whisper. "You're not alone. " He bites the words out between clenched teeth, sounding less like an insistence and more like a beg with each repetition. "You're not alone, you're not alone."
Jean's lips trail desperate across Marco's neck and collarbones, and the whispers twist and flow like a dead leaf spiraling to the dirt from "You're not alone" to "We're not alone" to "I love you, I love you, God, I love you." Marco can feel the wet brush of Jean's eyelashes when he bends back up to kiss him again and his fingers come up to grasp Marco's hair.
But Marco tugs from his grip almost violently, tears shining in his own eyes now.
"Don't-!" He punches out through gritted teeth, the pain in his eyes palpable. His chest is trembling with suppressed sobs. "Don't be in love with me, please."
"Please!" Marco cries, his face contorting, arms hugging himself and looking as if he's trying to fold in on himself. He is trembling and gasping so violently it's hard to make out the words. "You are so beautiful and wonderful and kind, Jean. Go live up to your name! Do something amazing with your life! G-Go to college, go fall in love with someone- someone alive, go change the world, but whatever you do, please don't end up stuck here with me!"
Jean is biting his lips so hard he thinks the warm slide down his chin might be blood but he can't tell it apart from the tears steadily tracking down his face.
Jean grits his teeth in a grimace of pain, eyes squeezing shut and leans his forehead against Marco's.
"Why do I have to chose?" He gasps quietly into the space between them, eyes closed. "I love you."
His shaking hands come up almost reverently to rest on Marco's cheeks, wiping away the tears on Marco's beautiful, speckled cheeks.
"Because there are some things we just get stuck with, remember?" Marco whispers. "No matter how much those who love us try make it otherwise."
Jean shakes his head hopelessly before leaning in to kiss him again, slow and desperate and aching.
"I love you too." Marco gasps against his lips and the sound of his voice cracking makes Jean feel like he's suffocating. "It doesn't matter, but I love you too."
Jean pulls back to wipe another tear from the corner of Marco's eyes, drinking in his anguished face bright and achingly beautiful lit by the October moon.
"Marco. It always matters."
Jean is twenty two when he next steps foot in the pumpkin patch. Gangly and tired and one bachelor's degree later, he walks briskly out across the silent field, hands shoved deep in his pockets against the autumn chill.
There is no wind, no rustle of corn, no sound at all besides the crunch of his footsteps.
It is dark again this year. There is no trace of a moon in the dark, pressing sky above him as his brow begins to furrow and the chill nips at the edges of his fingers like snapping dogs trailing behind him.
"Marco?" He calls, voice deeper now than the last time it vibrated through the chilly air of the field. "Marco, are you out here! It's me―it's Jean! I came back, like I promised! Marco...?"
The only reply is the scuffle of his boots in the dirt and plant debris as his footsteps increase in tempo until he is almost sprinting towards the shadowy outline of the large tree in the center of the field, shooting straight and solitary towards the sky.
"Marco! Marco, I came back, I came back!" He's almost yelling into the still field, the darkness seeming to press down on him from above, pinning him.
He reaches the tree, hands outstretched, colliding with the rough bark to halt him, the loud smack echoing in stinging jolts up his arms.
"Marco?" He whispers desperately into the darkness. The chilly scrape of the bark along his fingers scrapes as he tilts his head upwards. There is nothing among the void of sky there, sliced into pieces between the tangle of spindly branches. "Marco, where are you?" His breath hitches. "It's Halloween, you idiot. You're supposed to be here."
His jaw clenching, eyes squeezing shut he rests his forehead against the trunk, hands pressed to the bark below it.
"I missed you, Marco, God, I wanted to see you every goddamn day. Where are you?"
His fingers ghost over the tree desperately, as if the soft movements will lull Marco back into existence beside him, but his breath catches when his nail hits a deep grove in the bark.
His head jerks up, breath punching out of him in a white puff. Jean squints at the bark but it's too dark to make out the letters- those are letters.
With numb fingers, Jean digs in his pocket and clumsily fishes out his lighter...the same one he'd used to light the candle inside Marco's pumpkin all those years ago.
Hand shaking, it takes him almost five tries for the light to catch and hold, steadying into a tiny circle so small it can only illuminate a few of the letters he now sees carved in the tree at a time. His heart beating faster and faster, he moves the light over the straight line of words, carved deep into the bark, the light dancing and shaking with his hand.
I remembered how I died
He barely makes it to the end of the line before tears well in his eyes and the flickering flame of the lighter fizzes and blurs through their swimming filter. The strength leaves his hand like an exhale and he lets go of the lighter's tab. Darkness flows back in, buckling in on the lit space like Jean's knees as he collapses to the dirt.
He wonders, wildly, if this is how dying felt to Marco. Cold and dark and so alone it feels as if the hole in his chest will swallow him up.
There is no moon to light the empty field that Halloween. No wind to make the stalks of corn sway into one another or kick up the dead leaves in a quiet dance across the pumpkin patch out past the now abandoned building that used to be Aunt Rose's Cider Mill.
There are only the soft sobs of a lost boy echoing through the quiet darkness of Halloween night as it slowly, slowly passes, wondering if it was true in the end.
That maybe there was never anything to find here in the first place.
They call it Jak Lovers' Tree.
There are rumors about how it came to be, but it's been so many years that everyone who knew the real story has died, taking the details with them.
Now there are only shots in the dark about a long forgotten story of the old abandoned cider mill four miles past the Jinae exit off the interstate.
Only speculations about the words carved onto the single tree growing in the center of the overgrown pumpkin patch and about the solid but faded tombstone set into the earth at its feet.
Its a local tradition, now, for people leave things at the grave, even though no one knows who's buried there. The tombstone only reads the initials "J.A.K." for a name.
They don't leave flowers but instead Jack-o-Lanterns and autumn wreaths. Most people think the tradition started because of the death date: "October 31st" carved on the stone above the words: "I did all you asked and I still love you."
It's tradition now,―in the fall when the wind whisks in the first chill to wrap about people's necks like icy scarves and the night approaches when the great beyond looks back over its shoulder at the quiet now―to bring these small gifts and leave them at Jak Lovers' Tree.
It's good luck, they say, for enduring love.
You bring two gifts, though, the old ladies insist to their frowning hairdressers at the salon and disgruntled mailmen on Tuesday mornings. One to leave at the tombstone, and one at the base of the tree, where words have been carved over and over and over into the bark so deep they're still legible to this day.
I remembered how I died
It doesn't matter
I love you
That's what does
(Sometimes, people say, on Halloween when the clock strikes midnight, if you look out over the abandoned field, you can see a figure sitting atop the tombstone, tracing the words on the tree with his fingertips, tears glittering in the moonlight, and smiling.)
(Maybe it's not so bad getting lost on Halloween, after all...if you don't get lost alone.)