by Katherine Fast
This story was previously published in a short story book by the author. Check out more Halloween short stories, with more still to come, in our Terrific Tales section.
Grabbing as much as his pudgy hands could hold, Butch raised the treasure high in the air over his squatting figure and released a cascade of multi-colored objects that flashed like sparklers in the moonlight before lightly thudding on the forest floor.
“What a heist!” he hollered, sifting his fingers greedily through the pile of candy. “This is our biggest grab ever.” At thirteen Butch had the body and manner of a young Pit Bull. He glanced at Andy, and took a threatening step in his direction. “Hey! No eating until we divvy up.”
Andy stopped chewing for a second and then set to counting the pennies. He was two years younger and almost as big, but he was all peanut butter and marshmallow.
“Shine the light over here a sec, Butch. We got us some silver.” After sorting out the nickels and dimes he began methodically counting the pennies into stacks of ten, chewing constantly, stopping only to rub warmth into his fingers.
“That little girl’s mother was awful mad. Said she was calling the police,” worried Andy aloud.
“Right,” said Butch in a slow, sarcastic drawl. “Even the cops in this town are scared of the Arb at night. Quit whimpering and count. Ain’t no one coming out here tonight, and they’ll never find this place if they do.”
They were hidden deep in the woods to the west of town, across a reservoir far from the roads and the safety of streetlights. The local college owned the land and had named it the Arboretum, the Arb for short, where trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants were to be cultivated for scientific and educational purposes. Despite its erudite name, the forest had become wild and overgrown through years of neglect, and was now used only as a trysting place for lovers and a hideaway for budding young hoodlums. The boys had found the spot the spring before while harassing a pair of college lovebirds who were off for a private picnic with the Rubaiyat, a bottle of wine, and a blanket.
“I’m not so a-scared of the police as I am of Art,” said Andy, fumbling with a stack of pennies. “He said he’d have our ass if we ever bothered those girls again.”
“I’m the one who pounded his ass, or have you forgotten?” Butch shot a stony glance at Andy who quickly lowered his eyes. Yeah, he thought. You jumped him and kicked him low before he could move. His lips moved slowly as he concentrated on counting. He worried about Art, but then Butch said he worried about everything. He looked to Butch for reassurance.
Butch sorted the candy into piles of chocolate and non-chocolate, occasionally heaving an apple into the woods. He sure is strong, thought Andy, admiring the muscles in Butch’s arm, his confidence returning.
The night was clear and cold for the end of October, perfect for hunting unsuspecting little ghosts and goblins who gathered candy for them. The high full moon illuminated the clearing, allowing them to see without a flashlight, but Andy was afraid of the night regardless of the moon. He thought he could hear something moving in the woods. His eyes scanned the nearby trees.
“What’s that?” he said starting suddenly, toppling a column of coins. “Hear that?”
Butch looked up, irritated. “For crissake, shut up and count.”
Andy cocked his head, his eyes growing wider. “No really, Butch. Listen. Over there.” Pointing, he repeated urgently, “There!”
Butch stared in the direction Andy pointed and listened for a moment. Nothing moved. No sound. “Dead quiet, Sissy. Not even any crickets.”
“Why aren’t there any crick…”
A deafening crash shattered the night air. The boys jumped back instinctively, eyes fixed on the spot to their right where a huge black figure moved toward them through the woods. Andy grabbed for Butch’s hand, his heart pounding.
“C’mon, help me bag this stuff!” shouted Butch fending him off, cramming chocolates and pennies into sacks.
A high keening sound pierced the night air as the woods parted. The body of an enormous black horse and rider charged directly at them, hooves thundering amidst an ear splitting, mournful howl.
“He’s got no head, Butch. No head!” shrieked Andy covering his face.
They dove for the brush at the side of the clearing as horse and rider pounded down upon them, missing by inches. Butch, who had not seen the rider clearly, darted back for the abandoned loot. Grabbing candy in one hand and penny sack in the other, he turned, looked up and stopped short, gasping at the sight before him. The rider reigned up, horse rearing and snorting, wheeling about and turning for a second charge.
Butch froze, his eyes fixed on the spot where the rider’s head should be. Looking down at the rider’s hand he screamed “Omigod! He’s carrying his head!” Howling at the top of his lungs, he dumped the sacks lunged for cover, as the horse galloped over the exact spot where he had stood just seconds before.
Butch heard Andy whimpering a few feet away. “Shhhh. He can’t see us in here.” Andy closed his eyes and prayed the only way he knew “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thou …”
With a high manic laugh, the rider aimed the horse directly at their hiding spot and charged. The boys screamed in unison, scrambling frantically to escape. The dark of the forest closed around Andy as branches tore at this face and arms. His right foot caught under a root, and he stumbled and fell. His nose went numb and his thumb throbbed in pain. He heard Butch tear by and yelled for help, but his friend didn’t stop. Andy couldn’t move. Just like in the dream when he couldn’t run. He could not move! He felt a warm trickle run down his leg as his bladder betrayed him. The horse crashed through the thicket behind him.
Ahead he heard a scream. Butch. It had to be Butch. Grabbing a branch and pulling himself to his knees, he regained his balance. Lurching unsteadily forward he yelled, “Butch! Butch! Are you OK?” Then, desperately, “Butch, where are youuuuu?”
“Careful Andy, I’m down here. You gotta help me out. Help me, please, Andy.” He’d never heard Butch this scared before. His eyes searched the dark area before him.
“EEEEIIIEEEEIIAAHH!” screamed the black rider directly behind him. Andy whirled around to see the ghoulish form toss his head into the air with one hand and catch it with the other. Eyes and mouth open, no longer able to scream, Andy stepped backward and felt himself falling, falling, falling, out of control.
* * *
“Wake up Andy. Andy, Wake up. It’s OK, He’s gone.”
Andy stirred slowly, not knowing where he was, but aware of the pain in his arms and legs. Opening his eyes to the night, he focused on Butch and started to scream, but Butch clamped his hand firmly over his mouth.
“I said he’s gone,” Butch whispered fiercely.
They had fallen down a steep embankment into a vicious tangle of ancient blackberry thorns. The treacherous limbs engulfed them, tearing flesh at the slightest motion.
“Your face, Butch, it’s all bloody and swollen.”
“So’s yours, and you stink, too,” replied Butch in a disgusted voice.
“I couldn’t help it. You won’t tell will you?” plead Andy, who had never been able to control his bladder in times of stress.
“Nothing about any if this passes my lips or yours, got it? Nothing.”
“Where are we?” whined Andy, feeling a little safer now that Butch was insulting him.
“In a goddam bramble patch.”
“How’re we going to get out?”
* * *
As the two boys struggled painfully to disentangle themselves from the arms of the bramble, the headless figure rode the big horse slowly back to the clearing, chuckling softly, patting his steed on the neck. At the center of the hideaway he dismounted, put his head on the ground, and scooped up the sacks of candy and pennies. Lifting them high, he put the sacks down a hole in his neck where his head should have been. Chuckling again, he tucked his head under his arm, remounted and rode out of the Arboretum.
Keeping to the back roads to stay out of sight, the black rider stroked his horse. “Splendid tonight, Old Girl, I didn’t know you had it in you. Rearing and all. Must’ve been the moon. They won’t bother the girls again, at least not for awhile.” He reigned up in the shadows as one of the town’s cruisers drove by. When all was quiet, they continued a slow, circuitous route back to the barn.
Quietly he dismounted, put his head on the ground and rolled the barn door open. “Extra oats tonight, love,” he said as he led the mare to her stall. “Thanks to you, the little ladies will feast on chocolate and count their pennies tonight.”
Reaching up he pulled the sacks of candy and coins out of his neck and put them in the rear basket of a bicycle leaning up against the barn door. Reaching up again, he carefully unhooked the black choir robe and let it fall to the ground. Then very slowly he raised the wooden frame from his slender shoulders so as not to disconnect the wires from the small microphone and speaker inside. Carefully he folded the choir robe around the microphone and speaker and stuffed it into his riding pack. He left the crate in a stack of kindling against the wall, wheeled the bike outside, and closed the barn door behind him.
In one continuous motion, Art scooped up his basketball, tucked it under his arm, and quietly peddled away.
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