“No, fuck that, I’m going,” Frank said, staring out the window at the last few red-gold leaves fluttering on the tree branches. “It’s just a fucking stomachache, I’m not missing Halloween for a stomachache.”
A bad stomachache, he had to admit, but Frank was the king of getting sick; he knew what he could handle and what he couldn’t. He’d take a couple Gaviscon and avoid eating too much candy, and okay, maybe he’d even hold off on the beer. But he couldn’t miss this fucking party. It was going to be amazing.
Bob knew it, too, because he just heaved a sigh over the phone and Frank knew he’d won.
“What’s your Mom say?” he grumbled.
“She’s out of town with my grandma,” Frank replied triumphantly, grinning down at his knuckles. The new tats were vibrant and perfect, still slightly sore. The letters danced when he flexed an imaginary chord. D major, C minor. “We’re doing dinner tomorrow, and I’m finally getting a guitar, I’m telling you. Guitar this year.”
Bob hummed at him, but Frank could tell he was just as fucking delighted as Frank was. A guitar of his own. He didn’t have to borrow James’ or Ray’s anymore, he’d have his very own baby girl. He already had a name all picked out.
“Hey, how’s the house, man?” Frank said, changing the subject. “You guys get in okay? I still think I should come by and help.”
“Fuck that, it’s your party, you can’t set up for it,” Bob said indignantly, and Frank heard Toro’s squeaky voice somewhere in the background and then a wicked echoing thump.
“You’re there already,” Frank crowed, pressing a hand to his side and wincing. “Come on, fucker, tell me about it.”
“It is just as fucking creepy as we imagined,” Bob replied, a note of smug wonder in his voice. “Dude, you should see the paintings in here. And the stairs have this creak, it sounds like someone prying open a coffin.”
“Amazing,” Frank sighed blissfully. “Bob Bryar, this is going to be the best fucking Halloween ever.”
“No lie,” Bob said. “You rest up and get your costume ready, fucker.” Then he hung up the phone. Frank fell back in his bed and beamed up at the ceiling. Shit, he loved his birthday.
Most towns have one of those houses. A house with long dead grass in the front lawn, with broken windows that gape like mouths. Schoolchildren whisper about it and make elaborate dares to knock on the door or steal a sliver of paint from the walls, and there are a hundred legends about the dead men and women that lurk there, the ghouls that wait in the basement, the ghost that appears in the upper window. But the house in Frank’s town was totally the best of them all, Frank was fucking sure of it.
The Moundshroud House was past all the neighborhoods and well-lit streets, on the other side of the Ravine, which could have spawned a hundred ghost stories and legends of its own. The Ravine was a creepy dark slash of woods, pines and pale ashes that descended along deep valley walls, and there was a faint crackle of water below where an unseen creek tumbled through. Everyone knew the sunlight never reached the creek; the water that emerged as a relatively innocent and cheerful stream near the town park still had a cold subterranean smell to it, a hint of darker things.
The top of the house could just been seen above the trees of the Ravine – if Frank craned his head, he could see the shape of it now, etched dark against the deepening blue of the sky.
There had been a road leading to it, once, a twisted driveway that grown over into a faint footpath through oaks and birch trees, and now kids could only reach it if they were determined enough and crazy enough, which Frank and his friends just happened to be.
They’d tried to bust in last Halloween to explore; it was the sort of house that demanded to be left untouched except on that best day of the year, the creepiest crackliest day, dead leaves underfoot and a cold wind whistling through the drafty walls and busted windows. But they’d been confounded by unexpectedly staunch padlocks—the fuckers were covered in rust and should have collapsed with a good strong yank, but not even the pickax Brian had brought did any damage. They’d wound up just skulking around like they had in years past, smoking and gossiping and telling ghost stories, peering in dusty windows and poking around the withered remains of the garden.
This year was different, though. This year they had bolt cutters, and Bob and Ray and James had all chipped in and told Frank that they were fixing the place up for his birthday present, throwing a huge fucking bash, and Frank had been looking forward to it all month.
Which was why it was especially shitty that he felt so fucking awful today. He woke up at twilight and barely had time to finish his costume, had to stop in the middle of painting his shinbones to hunch over and put his head between his legs, breathing in deep, shaky gulps. Later he stared in the mirror over the bathroom sink. Fuck, he looked like a wreck. Shaking his sweaty hair out of his eyes, he covered the paleness of his face and the hollows of his eyes with stark paint. It would be okay. He just had to think positive.
This was fucking Halloween, and they were throwing him a party at the Moundshroud House, and tons of people were going to be there – girls, hot girls in tiny scraps of costume, some probably even in cool costumes, especially if they were the girls from shop class. And that guy from History with the splash of red in his hair and all the cool tattoos. And all his gang, even Brian and James, who had graduated last year, they were coming back to hang out with the lameass high school kids on Halloween night. Yeah. Frank definitely wasn’t missing this one. He’d missed enough holidays in his life being sick, but this one, no fucking way. This one was happening.
There were kids out already, robots and pirates and princesses, candy rattling and rustling as they ran past with their orange plastic buckets and pillowcases. Frank grinned at them, feeling the paint pull and flake on his cheeks, doffing his top hat. They giggled and shrieked and parted around him as he strode down the streets. He’d dug around in his mom’s medicine cabinet and found the Percoset from when she’d had that root canal in the beginning of the summer, popped two and was feeling pretty sweet, the October wind cool and promising on his cheeks.
By the time he’d gotten to the edge of the woods, though, there were sharp twinges of pain piercing through the haze of the drugs, and Frank had to stop now and again, rest his forehead against the trunk of a tree. And it was cold, he was fucking freezing, and tugging the black fabric of his tuxedo coat tighter around himself wasn’t helping. It was a pretty bitchin’ coat, he’d rented it last year to take Dakota to prom and then wound up having to buy it when he’d ripped it hopping over a fence. At the time it had sucked, sacrificing all the money he’d been saving for months, but now it made a kickass costume accessory, silk lines with all these fancy pockets inside the breast. But it was cold, and he only had a t-shirt on underneath the coat, and he couldn’t stop shivering.
“Fuck,” he wheezed and suddenly he was throwing up helplessly, and it fucking hurt, god, his stomach, why the fuck had he come out here? He should have stayed home, fuck, should have gone to the fucking hospital, because now he couldn’t walk at all, could only crawl away from his own vomit, panting, vision sparkling, and then he just laid down on the path and shivered.
“Oh,” a voice said, and Frank looked up, head strangely light. There was a guy on the path next to him, had to be a guest from the party. Frank squinted and it took a while in the fading light to get a good glimpse at the dude’s face, but Frank had always had good night vision, and anyway, this guy was so pale he practically glowed. “Oh, hell.”
“Are you going to the party?” Frank asked blurrily, instead of being smart for once in his goddamned life and just saying help help help, I think I’m dying, please go for help. Except the pain felt really far away, suddenly, so maybe it was alright after all. Frank sat up, dizzy and unbalanced, catching himself against the guy’s leg.
“The party? Yeah, I’ll be there,” the guy said gravely, crouching to kneel down next to him. He was in costume too, a totally badass steampunk-looking thing, all vests and buckles and Victorian air. Definitely hot. Frank had no idea who he was, but he looked sad. It didn’t make sense. It was going to be the best fucking party ever, there was no reason to be sad, especially now that the pain was fading. It was almost totally gone, actually, but Frank felt so light-headed it was kind of spooky, like the wind was going to blow him right off the path over the edge of the ravine, like he’d disappear into the darkness forever.
“Here,” the guy said, interrupting Frank’s kind of morbid digression and, wow, he had on some awesome fingerless leather gloves and now that Frank looked closer, one of those—what did those weird period romances his mom read call them? Cravens? Cravats? Yeah, cravats, the guy had a black one around his neck with this little skull pin underneath, and it was awesome, and Frank jerked back to awareness again when the guy smiled anxiously at him and shoved a candle in his hands. The candle was heavy and old fashioned, with faint outlines of honeycombs that Frank could feel beneath his fingers.
“Light it,” the guy said intently, voice wavering a bit, and Frank realized he was younger than he’d realized. Maybe Frank’s age, a bit older. “Hurry up, Frank. Light it.”
“How do you know my name?” Frank asked slowly, and the dude had such a weird expression on his face, Frank couldn’t quite put his finger on it. It wasn’t indifference and it wasn’t coldness, because the guy’s eyes were warm and worried, but there was something.... fuck, right, the candle. Shit, Frank couldn’t keep his thoughts in order tonight, fucking Percoset. He fumbled in his pockets for a lighter.
And, fuck, okay, fuck, his hands, there was something wrong with his hands. It was like they were chalk drawings, smudged pastels instead of real hands, and the wind was blurring the edges of them, like they might come untangled, unravel and blow away. The lighter in his pocket was insubstantial, had the same dim glow as his skin, and it wasn’t lighting anything. Suddenly Frank really didn’t want to turn around, because he thought he knew why the pain had finally gone away, and it didn’t have anything to do with drugs.
“Appendicitis is a fucking bitch, man. You should have gone to the doctor,” the guy said impatiently, biting his lip and staring intensely at Frank’s face. “You’re not dead yet, don’t worry. But seriously, light the damn candle. You don’t need the lighter. It doesn’t hold that kind of flame.”
“Wow, way to clarify, dude,” Frank muttered, scowling down at the candle and feeling faint and terrified. He couldn’t have appendicitis. It was his birthday. He was eighteen today and it was Halloween and his friends were throwing him a party. He was going to get Pansy tomorrow, get his very first fucking guitar, all his own. He flicked the wick of the candle mournfully with a blurry fingertip and was glad he couldn’t throw up, now.
“No one else ever needed an explanation,” the guy said, sounded puzzled. “They just sort of—” He made a fizzing noise and swooped his hands through the air, which was, if possible, even less enlightening, but Frank snorted and his mouth twitched into a grin, despite all the bullshit madness going on.
“Sorry, what was that?” he asked, trying to keep the giggle out of his voice. “Could I hear it again?”
The guy looked vaguely affronted, like he suspected Frank might in fact be mocking him or something, and then made the noise again, pursing his lips and blowing. Frank laughed outright this time, and suddenly the candle was shining in his hands, licking his fingers with a hot, dancing flame.
“Yeah, like that!” The guy beamed, snapping his fingers, and then held out a hand to help Frank up. “Come on, we gotta get going, we gotta get to the house.”
“What about—” Frank said uncertainly, glancing behind himself and immediately regretting it. His body was crumpled to the side of the path, small and curled in on itself. He couldn’t see any movement, couldn’t tell if the chest was rising up and down, or if it was still, if it was all over. Fuck, what would his mom do, what would she think if they found him here, why had he been so stupid.
“Don’t worry about it now,” the guy said, tugging him along, and Frank found he couldn’t help looking back. His body was way too fucking short, and scrawny, and had been a total bitch to keep up his entire life, but leaving it lying there was one of the worst things he’d ever had to do in his existence on Earth.
“Someone will come along,” the guy said gently. “They’ll take care of your body. But we gotta keep moving, Frankie.”
“Yeah, okay,” Frank replied dazedly, letting himself be led through the trees, cupping the candle close to his chest. Something told him he didn’t want to let the flame go out. That would be bad, worse somehow than seeing his own body limp and lifeless. “But the house is the other way, isn’t it?”
“Hmm,” his companion said, glancing back at him and looking sympathetic. “Yeah, but see, you can’t get there that way anymore.”
“Oh my god, do you get off on being fucking cryptic or whatever?” Frank growled, fed up, because seriously, what the fuck. He gave the guy’s hand a yank so that he stumbled backward, a comically startled look on his face. “Look, who are you?”
“I’m… You can call me Gerard?” the guy said weakly, watching Frank suspiciously, like he might try to gouge his eye out with the candle at any second, which sort of sounded like a good idea. Gerard was an okay name for a normal dude, but Frank fucking well knew ‘Gerard’ was anything but normal, and knowing his fake name gave Frank exactly Jack and Shit to go on. “Fuck, look, I’m sorry, okay! There are rules, here! I can’t just—I’m trying to help, but it’s hard to explain, okay? I can’t just pop you back in your body. We have to do this right, if you friends are willing, and it’s totally not going to be easy but I’ll do my best for you, honest.”
“I just want to know who you are,” Frank gritted out. “Are you, what, Death?”
“Ha! No, not me,” Gerard laughed, bright and startled. “I mean, I’m sort of related to her? I’m, like—wow, this is really hard to explain. And most people just, you know, go where I tell them after they’ve realized they’re on the brink of death and having an out of body experience.” He started tugging Frank along again. “Not that it’s not kind of cool having a real conversation or whatever, but we can talk and walk, right? Talk and run, actually, come on.”
And then they were off the path and weaving through trees and somehow skidding down the steep sides of the ravine, all the way to the bottom, through underbrush and bramble. They waded through the fast, cold waters of the creek, Gerard talking all the while and Frank following behind him, the candle hot and dripping in his hand, burning his fingers and staining his coat with small white beads of wax.
“Well, I mean, you know what Halloween is, right?” Gerard said, looking back at him anxiously. “You know the costume you’re wearing, what it means? It’s pretty fucking sweet, by the way, Baron Samedi, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Frank said cautiously, trying to keep his balance in the dark water. “From the Bond movie, Live and Let Die, right? I always thought it was badass, that he shows back up at the end, after Bond’d shoved him into that snake-pit.”
“Ohhh, I forgot about that movie! That was a good one,” Gerard said, sounding a little distant. “He’s in, uh, the new Disney one that’s coming out too, right? The Princess and the Frog, I think?”
“You watch Disney movies?” Frank replied disbelievingly, tugging absently on his jeans. The creek was full of submerged logs and half-fallen trees, and his left leg was caught on a clawed snarl of branches.
“You’re not actually stuck on that,” Gerard said impatiently, halting and waiting for him, his eyes narrowed to some point over Frank’s shoulder. “You’re a spirit, man, you aren’t actually tangible. Stop dawdling, we gotta move.”
Frank spluttered, because he wasn’t dawdling, okay, he was fucking stuck, it wasn’t like he could just—and then his hand went through one of the branches he was tugging. Maybe he was dawdling. He took a shivery breath and moved forward, through the bramble and rocks, to where Gerard was standing, his crooked smile visible even in the dim candlelight.
“And who doesn’t watch Disney?” Gerard asked incredulously, taking Frank by the elbow and hustling him along, glancing over their shoulders and frowning. “Anyway, yeah, that is a badass fucking costume, but you know what it means, right? I mean, in the movie it’s all kind of Hollywood, but the actual Baron Samedi, he’s a Haitian loa, one of the many ways you humans view death—one of the cooler ones, actually. Samedi’s all about the booze and sex and smokes, seriously. Most of his followers could get the guy to help them out with just a good pack of Cubans, a cup of coffee, and a bottle of good rum, Sea Wynde or Cruzan, you know?”
“I can get behind that,” Frank said, grinning. Fuck, he could use a smoke right now. And some rum. Sex, well, maybe later.
“Anyway, death is all about liminality, right?” Gerard continued, and fuck, how big was this fucking ravine? Frank could have sworn it only ran a couple hundred feet before it leveled out, but they’d been walking forever now, and they were still at the bottom of a steep valley, with strange stars overhead. “So’s autumn, really, between summer and winter, but anyway, right now you’re in transition, stuck between life and death, and that’s one of the most important transitions in existence, right? It’s all about being on a threshold between one thing and another. And Baron Samedi, he’s all about thresholds between life and death. I mean, on one hand, he’s pretty notorious for being a super, uh, sexual guy, on both sides of the fence. He’s also a big fan of wearing women’s clothes, sometimes, so really, you should be wearing heels instead of Converse All Stars, but that’s cool. But yeah, in Haitian lore, he’s also the only one that can take you from your grave to the land of the dead. Actually, he digs the graves, too, not physically, but—anyway, the point is he’s a type of psychopomp, a guide.”
Frank stared at him; he’d known from the start that Gerard wasn’t human, exactly, but something about the way he was able to rattle off all that without seeming to need a pause for breath was really hammering the point home. And he was still going.
“The thing is there’s actually, uh, a lot of us out there like that, you know? It kind of transcends religion. We don’t all have lore attached, but, you know.” Gerard did a kind of jazz-hand like gesture and smiled tentatively at Frank. “Ta da!”
Frank, groping for something to say, came out with, “What does death have to do with sexuality?” Gerard got a kind of startled look on his face, like he hadn’t expected Frank to actually have been listening, or at least not to that part of his monologue. But fuck, it was way easier focusing on Gerard’s words than on the terror suffusing Frank, on the way he could feel the water trying to tug him backward, away from Gerard, towards something darker than even the Ravine. And he didn’t really know how to deal with the fact that Gerard was some sort of mini-Death God, or whatever, so for now he was focusing on the sex. “I mean, I get wanting to fuck in near-death situations, adrenaline and all, but.…” Frank trailed off, abruptly remembering that that was sort of a come on, wasn’t it, since he was totally having a near-death experience right now.
Gerard didn’t appear to notice, though, or if he did he was unfazed by a ghost-kid hitting on him. “Oh man, you’d be surprised how often death and sex go together,” Gerard said, smiling at him and then glancing down at something in his hand, and suddenly there was an electric blue glow illuminating the curve of his cheek. “I mean, think about it, it’s all about the same sort of transition, the inevitable end to a cycle. From unlife to life to unlife. Sex is integral, I mean, look at Hathor, or Innanna and Ereshkigal. I mean, Samedi’s traditionally represented with phalluses—you missed that in your costume, too. Props on the top hat, though. Fuck, I can never get a signal down here.”
“Is that a cell phone?” Frank spluttered, finally managing to get a word in edgewise. “You have a cell phone? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Well, yeah,” Gerard said, clearly affronted. “I mean, I’m not like, in the 14th century here. Okay, yeah, we used, like, ravens or whatever to communicate for a while, which was totally cool, but cell phones are way more convenient if you’re in a hurry. Plus you get ringtones and internet service, and Tetris.”
“We?” Frank said, for lack of anything else coherent to say at the moment. “Who is we?”
“Well, it’s sort of a family business,” Gerard replied, looking behind them again. “Faster would be better, dude, and keep a watch on that candle.”
“I fucking am,” Frank growled; he’d had a hard time doing anything else, honestly. It felt so exposed, that small candle flame, the way it guttered in the breeze. It was a lot like how he imagined open-heart surgery, raw naked muscle never meant to see the air. “What the fuck kind of family are you in?”
“Well, I mean, my brother and me, we’re in the Moundshroud branch? Uncle Clavicle retired, and me and Mikey kinda got shunted into his section, which is cool – I spent a while in Germany, which was awesome, but Jersey, I dunno, it’s kinda like home. I grew up here, you know?”
“You aren’t making any sense, do you know that?” Frank inquired politely, and then clutched at Gerard’s arm, because fuck, the current was picking up, he could barely keep his feet. How lame would it be to drown when he couldn’t actually breathe anyway?
“Don’t worry, dude, you’re good, you’re good,” Gerard said soothingly, and looped an arm around Frank’s shoulders. “Okay, let’s climb now, you ready to climb?”
“I am so ready to climb, but what the fuck is going on?” Frank said, staggering gratefully out of the water. “Something’s coming, isn’t it? What’s coming?”
“Uh, let’s worry about climbing first, okay?” Gerard said with an unconvincing laugh, and began dragging Frank up the steep slope at what would have been a breakneck pace, if Frank had an actual neck to break. “Anyway, where was I? I just texted Mikey, my brother. You’ll meet him soon, he’s rounding up your friends and all, and then there are the Indulgences, oh man, but you probably won’t meet them tonight, I think they’re taking West Coast for a while. But it’s, like, well—”
“What do you mean, rounding up my friends?” Frank gasped out, and then they were staggering over the rim of the Ravine, into the matted grass of the Moundshroud House lands. Frank knew where they were now. They were next to the old silo, not too far from the barn and the house beyond it. Frank had wandered the grounds as a kid a couple times, peering at the house in delight, trying out the old rope swing in the barn and nearly breaking his arm for his troubles, but he’d had too shitty of an immune system to make the trek often. Fucking hayfever. Goddamned flu. But as a teenager he’d been out here a few times, smoked up smugly on the porch and went and prowled around the old barn with the gang, Bob and Ray and Alicia, Greta and James. There were all these posters on the walls there, scraggly and old, half-legible illustrations of tigers and elephants and clowns. Creepy as fuck. Totally awesome. Frank suddenly wondered if Gerard had been there the whole time, watching from an upper window of the house, if he’d actually been prowling along beside them.
“That’s how it works, man,” Gerard said regretfully, tugging Frank along, faster now. “Hurry, if we don’t get you to the tree soon, we’re fucked anyway.”
“What tree,” Frank started to ask, exasperated, but then they rounded the barn and he didn’t have to ask after all. There was only the one tree, a giant old oak with creaking, outstretched branches fanning outward against the night sky, and on each branch there was a jack-o-lantern. A hundred, two hundred, fuck if Frank knew, if he could count that dizzying, glowing mass of faces.
“Do you—” Frank gasped, letting himself be dragged along by a stony-faced, worried Gerard, “Do you hear music?”
The party was going on inside the house, waiting for Frank to arrive, but somehow over the thump of bass and shouts and laughter Frank kept hearing a different song, something faint and eerie and darkly cheerful.
“They sing, when the wind blows just right,” Gerard said, and then he was shoving Frank at the trunk. “Climb, ‘til you find the one that’s yours.”
“Oh, you did not just throw some cryptic bullshit at me, not now, man,” Frank said, exasperated, and then he saw the look on Gerard’s face and started climbing. “What did you mean?” he called down after he’d made it up about ten feet—he’d climbed this tree once, when he was twelve. It should’ve been easier, now that he didn’t weigh anything, but he had to climb with one hand and clutch his candle with the other, so it was taking longer than it should have. “What did you mean, about my friends? What do you need them for?”
He took a second to look around at the first tier of pumpkins, scattered amongst the last lacy autumn leaves. There were cheerful smiles and narrowed eyes; there were frowns and fangs and curled moustaches, there were vampires and cats and one with just a crescent moon and a winking eye. None of them were his. He knew that instinctively. The idea of touching any of them was almost, like—it would have been disrespectful, somehow. He kept climbing.
“I can’t—Frank, we can’t do it any other way,” Gerard said, out of fucking nowhere, nearly making Frank lose his grip on the branch. Fucker could apparently levitate, great. This night, man. Kept getting crazier. Frank readjusted his grip on the branch and glared at the—what’d he called Baron Samedi? A loa? Was that what Gerard was?
“Keep climbing, Frank,” Gerard said earnestly. “Yours is closer to the top.”
“Can’t do what any other way?” Frank growled, and hand over hand scaled the tree, only glancing now and then at the faces around him: a mermaid and a scowling leer and one with round, surprised eyes. Not his, not his. The bark tore at his hand, and the twigs caught at his face and clothes, and his candle was flickering now. The wind was whipping through the tree, cold and fierce, and Frank climbed faster, Gerard next to him leaping easily from perch to perch, face worried. Frank could hear the jack-o-lanterns singing more clearly now, a song about Halloween, about harvest and nights that ended and never ended, about scythes.
“There are rules we can’t break,” Gerard said, voice low and blending in with the song, somehow, just another verse. “We can’t keep you here unless we give her something in return.”
“Give her something? What—no. No. Not my friends,” he said, and started climbing back down the tree. “I’d rather fucking die, you asshole.”
“No, no, no no no, up up up, c’mon, Frankie, it’s not like that, I promise,” Gerard said immediately, frantic, and finally grabbed Frank by the arm and held him in place. “Just a year of their lives, that’s all, a year each.”
“Explain,” Frank said calmly, and now he could see it, a sliver of approaching darkness that blocked out stars and clouds. He didn’t care, though. It was his fault. He should have gone to the doctor, should have realized eighteen wasn’t too young to die. He wasn’t bringing his friends down with him. No fucking way.
“It’s not your choice, it’s theirs,” Gerard said, eyes glittering. “Mikey will ask them, they’ll say yes. They’re your friends, Frank, they love you.”
“I’m not,” Frank said, voice choked, and noticed Gerard had coaxed him back up another branch, that he’d moved upward without thinking. “I won’t, a whole year, no, it’s too fucking much, I won’t let them.”
“You’d do it for them,” Gerard said, voice sure and steady, and yeah, okay, Frank would, but that wasn’t fair, that wasn’t the point. “A year off at the end of their lives, that’s what they’ll agree to. It’s just, it’s a token exchange, you’ll get to live a full life. Seven years from seven friends, given freely at the end of a journey, she can’t let you go for nothing, there has to be an exchange, and me and Mikey can’t do it for you, no one else can do it for you. You’re so young, Frank, and you have so much left to do. I mean, at least try, right? She’s coming, just, please fucking find your pumpkin, Frankie. Please.”
“How do you know my name?” Frank asked, voice watery, and thought maybe Gerard flushed. He huddled against the trunk of the tree, the light of a hundred jack-o-lanterns flickering and dancing over his skin.
“You came around here a couple times,” Gerard said finally, voice barely audible over the rustle of dead leaves and the creaking of the dead branches. “I noticed you. You’re, well. You like Halloween. It’s your favorite holiday, and your birthday. I heard you talking about it, when you were young.” He reached out to the hand Frank still had clenched around his candle, traced a finger along the double Ls, the O. “These are new.”
“Yeah,” Frank said, and started climbing again, blinking back tears. “Fuck, man, this is fucked up.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Gerard said, voice cracking. Frank turned to look at him. “Mikey and me, we always try to watch over the kids, make sure they have long lives. We can’t do a lot, but we can do that, we’ve got lots of friends, lots of favors we call in. Samedi, you know, he doesn’t just work with the dead, he’s—”
“Life and death and sex, right. I remember. I guess that’s something,” Frank said, and gingerly raised his hand and wiped the back of it across his eyes, careful not to singe his hair, and then he saw it. A pumpkin with a smirk, with eyes that were open but still had giant Xs cut across them. His pumpkin, dark and unlit, waiting for him.
“Oh,” he said, and stared a moment at it. He was high now, higher than the gables of the house, almost as high as the rusted weathervane, and the wind was so strong, he could barely hold on to the branches and was hunching his entire body around the candle to protect it. He looked down, through the branches and leaves and swaying jack-o-lanterns, and there were his friends.
Ringed around the base of the tree, he saw them all. Bob with devil horns and James as, fuck, something in a purple tutu, with a tiara—his friends were so weird. And there was Greta shivering in a skirt and holding a sword, looking furious, and Ray in an army uniform or something, peering up at Frank between his fingers, like Frank was going to fall somehow and hurt himself worse. Brian had giant dog ears to go with his wounded angry puppy expression, and Alicia was next to him, holding hands with some dude Frank didn’t know, and she was fierce and glaring and wearing some kind of punk mummy thing, covered in belts. All of them, all his friends that he’d grown up with and loved since he was a scrawny little kid, all of them were there, around the base of the tree, staring up at him.
“Frank, you dumb fuck, I told you to go to the doctor!” yelled Bob, and Frank opened his mouth to call back but he didn’t have the slightest fucking clue what to say, other than ‘it’s my own fault, go home, be safe, don’t be like me.’
“They just took your damn body to the hospital,” shouted Alicia, and let go of probably-Gerard’s-brother’s-hand. “And it better not be a corpse when I bring you fucking flowers later, asshole. Put the candle in the fucking pumpkin or I’ll put it there for you.”
“I will climb up there and kick your ass,” said Brian on the heels of this, low and serious. Frank probably shouldn’t have even been able to hear it, but somehow the wind carried his words right up to Frank’s ear, like he was two inches away. Fucking wind. “Don’t even dick around right now, Iero.”
Ray just stared at him, and didn’t say anything. James had thick lines tracked through his mascara, tear tracks, and he wasn’t staring but glaring, and Greta raised her sword—where the fuck had she gotten a sword? That shit looked authentic—and Frank decided the better part of valor was to put the candle in the jack-o-lantern before his friends collectively chopped down the tree and somehow did him unbodily harm.
His jack-o-lantern flared to life, warm and familiar, and Frank felt immediately better just having the candle out of the wind. He clutched it to his chest and tried not to feel like he might have just done something terrible.
“So, can I just, like, jump down?” he asked Gerard, trying to keep his voice cool and steady. “Would I float? Floating would be pretty bitchin’.”
“Sorry, it’s not over yet,” Gerard said regretfully. Frank had time to say, “What?” and then the darkness surrounded them and they were carried off in a wave of tangled leaves and smoke and all Frank knew for a while was the sensation of tumbling, of clutching the pumpkin to himself frantically, of being buffeted not only on all sides, but throughout.
It finally got a little smoother and the smoke and fog cleared enough that Frank could finally fucking see again. There was moonlight glinting on the waves below, and tiny distant lights that had to be far-off ships. Frank had no idea how long they’d been travelling or how much ground and water they’d crossed. It was a good thing there was nothing in his stomach to vomit up, because he totally would have ages ago, he knew that much for sure.
“So now we run with her, and your friends keep up,” Gerard called apologetically, like he was just continuing a normal conversation, and the fucker was riding a goddamned broomstick through this mayhem, while Frank got jostled about with branches and leaves and other shit all up in his transparent midsection. He had never really contemplated what it would be like to have a bunch of dead plant material blown through himself, but it turned out it really sucked. Frank managed to ride a swirl of wind over to Gerard and snagged the broom handle, sending them into a brief uncontrolled spin. He was pretty sure he heard Gerard shriek, but whatever, Frank was mostly dead. He had better things to worry about than air safety at the moment.
Better, he thought as he tucked himself between Gerard’s thighs and leaned back against him. At least he was out of most of the stick-filled wind, now. And warm, very warm. For some reason he’d expected Gerard to have some vampire-corpse-type body temperature going.
“Sorry, what were you saying?” Frank asked smugly from his new perch, and then frowned. Fuck, he wanted a cigarette, but his pack was insubstantial and his lighter didn’t work. Out-of-body experiences sucked.
“Hnngh,” Gerard said, his voice high and weird. “Um, right. It’s, uh, dawn, they have to keep up with us ‘til dawn, and you have to keep your pumpkin lit ‘til then. Mikey’ll help them. I’ll, uh. I’ll help you. But it’s pretty cool, honest. You guys had a mummy, right? So we’ll probably hit Egypt, 1391 BC first. Mikey’s favorite mummy, actually – Thutmose VI was one of the last pharaohs to use the ‘ooh, it’s a big pile of rubble, don’t desecrate my tomb’ trick.”
“Look, do you actually think you’re talking sense?” Frank said drowsily, cradling his pumpkin. This was actually sort of nice. “Because none of what you just said made sense. At all.”
Gerard made a grumpy noise into Frank’s hair.
“You can’t just get an extra life that easy,” he said. “The world doesn’t work like that. You have to run, and be chased, through Death’s realms on Earth. It’s traditional, the journey, and there’s usually a stop in Egypt, especially if one of the people offering up a year has a mummy costume. Personally, I think Death just has a bit of a sense of humor; she likes matching costumes to places and times. Go figure. We’ll probably hit up some Germanic sites and definitely Caribbean ones, since you’re dressed as the Baron and your friend’s got that princess garb on. I dunno, maybe we’ll stop by some Nordic sites, too. It’s kind of a grab bag, really.”
Frank pondered pointing out that this, too, made no fucking sense, but for the first time all night he was warm and without pain, and Gerard’s arms were around him, holding him solidly on the broom as he rambled. He fell silent and just let Gerard prattle on. Sometimes Gerard leaned down to point out various random shit below them, the Strait of Gibraltar, a fleet of ships, some lighthouse or something, sounding excited and ridiculous, smelling like dead leaves and smoke and just slightly of cinnamon.
“Why are you doing this?” Frank asked drowsily, trying to wake up—this was important, this was life and death, right here. His friends were somewhere behind him, giving up precious fucking years of their lives just so he had this chance, and he really needed to wake the fuck up and figure out what was going on, not snuggle down into Halloween-Loa-Gerard’s arms and get a guided tour of the Mediterranean or whatever.
“I mean, the lighthouse at Pharos is only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world,” Gerard retorted, sounding a bit snippy. “And we’re flying further back in time and it will disappear soon, I just thought—”
“No, I mean—” Frank rolled his eyes. “Why do you guys do this? Why are you helping me?”
“Oh,” Gerard floundered, abruptly letting go of Frank’s arm and forcing Frank to clutch at the broom as an especially playful gust of wind buffeted them both. Gerard batted his hair out of his eyes and frowned. “It’s sort of… just what we are? We’re guides, and yeah, okay, things don’t always line up so nicely and normally I’d just be helping take you through to the Other Side. It’s not exactly common, you know, that we actually have a chance to save people. But we did, this time, and it was you. I know you appreciate what Halloween means, and I couldn’t just—”
“What I meant,” Frank said, staring down at his pumpkin, at the carefully razored stem, spiky and defiant. “What I meant was, Baron Samedi, he at least got booze and coffee and smokes out of his gig, right?” And sex, a little voice in his head said, but thankfully he managed to keep from saying that part out loud. “So, uh, I could get you some? If this all works out? Coffee, I mean. I could probably manage to scrounge up some rum, but it’d probably be godawful, not like that Sea Wind stuff or whatever.”
“Oh,” Gerard said, quiet and surprised, and Frank really wished he could see the guy’s face. “Oh, Frank, you. You don’t owe me anything. I just want you to live and get your guitar and make fucking awesome music. That’s it. I’m just glad I could help.”
Frank deflated and was about to topple himself off the broom to ride in the prickly, invasive wind again, because, fuck, he’d gotten shot down. On his birthday. During a near-death experience. That was just fucking cruel, was what that was.
“But,” Gerard said, sounding hesitant, “if you want to maybe go see that Princess and the Frog movie? We could, uh, do that?”
Frank clutched his pumpkin and blinked. Below them, he was pretty sure he saw pyramids, pristine and perfect in the moonlight, and a procession of torches and chanting men moving amongst the palms and sand.
“I mean,” Gerard hurriedly said, “I know the movie’s supposed to have some issues, and it’s like, okay, Baron Samedi’s not just a villain, come on, Disney, and then don’t even get me started on the issues of racial stereotyping and Randy Newman, but, well—”
“Dude, that movie doesn’t come out ‘til fucking Christmas,” Frank informed him, feeling oddly giddy.
“Oh,” Gerard said, sounding disappointed. “Oh, well. Uh, if you look down, I’m pretty sure that’s the court of Akhenaten and Nefretiti on the way to El-Amarna, which is kind of cool, right? One of the first monotheists and the heretic pharaoh of Egypt—“
“We could go see Dead Snow, though,” Frank said, carefully nonchalant as the scene beneath them whipped by. He wondered how Mikey and his friends were managing to follow them—they were going so quickly, so far into the past, it seemed impossible that anyone was following them, but at the moment it was hard to worry about that. “You know, the Norwegian flick about the zombie Nazis? It just came out in our theater, it’s pretty fucking sweet. If, uh, you like zombies. And subtitles”
“I know Norwegian, I don’t need subtitles,” Gerard said automatically, and then his grip tightened suddenly on Frank’s shoulders and then relaxed hastily. “And, uh, wow, yeah, that’d be pretty cool. I mean, I love zombie movies, like, Romero? Fucking genius, awesome way of looking at consumerism, and since we might see some real zombies tonight, you’ll get to see all the ways Hollywood gets zombies wrong, too, that’s cool, right?”
“Should I be taking notes?” Frank teased, and he had a feeling if he had been in his flesh-and-blood body his heart would have been thumping wildly. “No, who am I kidding, you’re like a walking, talking history book, you’ve got it all down somewhere in your head, right?”
Gerard flicked him in the ear and leaned forward and whispered into Frank’s neck, sounding fond and giddy, “Shut the fuck up, asshole, we’re almost to the Valley of the Kings. She’ll probably land us by the Nile and make us follow Thutmose’s procession from there. Hold tight.”
“I am, fucker,” Frank whispered back, and below them was the smell of desert air and green river and sweet incense, of second chances and of living history. He held on to Gerard’s arm and waited to land.