Tuesday, September 13, 2016

As Is Customary - A Remotely Spooky Halloween Story by Josh Underwood (Re-posted Elsewhere)

Night had swept the day clean and stars were the only residue left behind to pepper brightly the swath of darkened sky that hung over Lexington. The ember-like burn of the sunset had long since been anchored down behind the mountains. Near the outskirts of the city, the hills hummed with the sound of nocturnal insects and the yammering of twilight scavengers. Kevin Holt sat on the porch of his home with a grimace pulled tight over his face.
He knew they would be coming. So he waited. As he did every year on that night – stooped in his rocking chair – his shotgun stuffed with shells.
He spat a mixture of tobacco and saliva into the gravel and rolled his tongue over the grain of his teeth.
“They'll be coming any minute now.” said Holt, speaking to a shadow that lingered behind the screen door of the house. “Now that the sun has gone down, they'll come out.”
“Why don't you just give it up, Kevin?” The shadow replied, it was his wife Meryl. “How long you gonna fight this battle?”
“Every year Meryl. Every year they come stalking up my drive with their evil intentions, hellbent on forcing their devilish ways on good hard-working Christians.”
“It ain't as bad as all that.” Meryl sighed. “Come on inside now, why don't you just let it go for once? Who's hurting?”
Kevin stood, his chair belligerently scraping the porch. “Those of us that fear the lord!” He jabbed his arthritic digit into the air. “Those of us with a strong moral core! Those of us who have enough sense to know not to let the Devil in on his unholiest of nights! Those of us...” He trailed off and his shoulders slumped. He spat again into the night. Meryl had gone back into the house and left him alone to his ranting. He walked over to the door and peered inside. She had gone back into the kitchen.
The old man looked over his shoulder, and after making sure he wouldn't be seen, knelt to retrieve something from beneath the step of the porch. He chuckled as he found what he had prepared and left there the night before.
“This year'll be the last. I'll fix it to where they'll never come back.”

“SpearPOINT Marduk Report:”
Spoken into OverDruid Nimrod's Syntax-Bridge, the phrase – originating from the Alpha-Orionus Span just beyond Betelgeuse – still carried its demanding tone even from light-years away.
The creature turned its head to the sky. The large, glassy black orbs that protruded from its pale, otherwise featureless face glimmered in the moonlight which sparsely penetrated the surrounding trees.
The Marduk, its body not completely compliant with the atmosphere, produced a long, unwholesome and dissonant tone. The vibrations of the call caused the surrounding crickets to halt their efforts – and the Marduk was left in a chilly silence – save for the wind and the creaking bark of the forest.
The Syntax it had brought was malfunctioning – so in return it could not converse in the native language of the planet it had come to.
The OverDruid spoke again through the transmitter. “SpearPOINT Understood: Syntax-Bridge malfunction. Contact translation protocol unABLE. Proceed and make contact As Is Customary?”
A chortling cackle in retort came from the Marduk – an eerie vocal clucking that resembled a backwards mask of human laughter.
The Marduk's slender legs and limbs picked carefully through the woods – a ghostly vibrant contrast to the vacuumous night.

Thomas pulled on his pumpkin mask, the final ornament of his costume. The smell of the latex and the condensation of his breath on the inside of the mask an always pungent reminder that the time was near. He smiled under his new face.
He had already put on his skeleton body suit, becoming an amalgam of the holiday – nothing in particular yet everything that it represented all at once. A mishmash that made him happy. He could hear his brother's rowdy friends downstairs getting ready to go out into the evening and cause trouble. After coming home from school he had seen the rolls of toilet paper and the spray cans hidden in his brother's room. Todd, his sibling, hadn't noticed him snooping so Thomas had been able to avoid persecution.
“We're going out mom!” he heard Todd yell.
“Don't forget your brother!” demanded the parent.
There was a roar of discontent from Todd and his hoods.
Thomas lowered his jack-o-lantern grin. He didn't like going out with Todd either, but it was the only way his mom would let him trick or treat. His heart was brave for Halloween – and his want to fulfill the night's purpose was stronger than his dislike for his brother. He grabbed up his plastic candy bucket, a jack-o-lantern as well, and rushed downstairs.

“Look Mouth,” Mouth was Todd's nickname for Thomas. They all walked down the street together. Todd and his friends weren't even dressed up. They looked ugly enough, Thomas observed, peeking out through his pumpkin eyes. “just try to keep up okay? And don't whine and cry when we get to that geezer Holt's place.”
Thomas stopped and tilted his head. He hated going to Kevin Holt's farmhouse. It always meant trouble. Kevin was Todd's favorite person to pick on. It didn't make sense to Thomas, as it was that Mr. Holt was extraordinarily ill-tempered and completely terrifying to the ten-year-old.
Thomas stopped and fiddled with the stump atop his mask – struggling perhaps with a rite of passage that the preteen boy could never comprehend.
“I said keep up Mouth!”
Thomas pointed at a group of children on a nearby doorstep. A parent opened the door dumping copious amounts of sweets into their outstretched hands.
Todd grunted. “Alright kid... Guys hold up!” There were more groans from the boys. “Let my little brother get some candy or my mom will ride me into the wall.”

“SPEARpoint Report:”
The Marduk leaned out from behind the corner of a house, just so that its head dangled around the edge at an unnatural height, to observe the lit street beyond. A series of clicks and pops vibrated out from its throat muscles – a shapeless utterance.
“UnderSTOOD:” Began The Nimrod. “As is Customary – Inhabitants augment their appearance for practical or ritual purpose. UNDERstood: Also gift-giving-receiving Social and otherWise.”

Thomas was happy enough. His plastic pumpkin was filled with candy. Halloween had been set free in his mind and he merrily tromped along behind his brother, until he remembered their mission's end. His Autumnal victory was cut short as they reached the long driveway which led through the cow fields and to Mr. Holt's farm. As the boys began their trek Thomas stayed behind.
“Come on Mouth!” Whispered Todd Sharply.
Thomas shook his head – the toothy grin of his mask wobbling.
“Just leave him!” One of the other boys said.
Todd shot his brother a worried look. “Just stay here, okay? We'll be right back.”
Thomas sighed as he watched the teenagers walk off into the fields – where there were no more streetlights.
After awhile of waiting Thomas began to grow uneasy. He thought about walking home but was afraid to go alone. He was also afraid of being alone right were he was. To put his mind at ease he sat down with his plastic pumpkin and began to dig through his candy. He had gotten some good pieces. Full ones too, not the fun-sized cheap bits from the dollar store.
As he was wrist-deep in sugar, Thomas stopped rummaging and held very still. A sound had pricked his attention – or rather – a lack of sound – as he realized the static hum of the chirping crickets had abruptly ceased.
He stood up and dusted off his costume. The boy turned and his mask began to shake, the only betrayal of his abject terror as he saw the impossibly tall and slender figure looming over him. Thomas gripped the handle of his treat bucket strictly– trying to instill in him some sense of will as sanity began to quickly peel back from his brain.

“REPORT: Establish Contact – As is Customary.”

The thing stooped downward and held out a gesturing finger to the boy. Thomas was quickly losing his footing in reality – sweat was pouring out from under his mask. The creature looked back and forth between Thomas's mask and the plastic pumpkin he held in his hand. Several times it did this until it reached out and slowly pulled up on the mask, revealing Thomas's face, eyes wide and mouth agape with fear.
A bubbling noise came from the creature as it slid the mask over its own head.
“MARDUK – Understood.”
It had been enough for Thomas – he forgot about his brother and his candy. Dropping his bucket he ran as fast as he could in the direction of his neighborhood.

Kevin Holt could hardly contain himself. He squatted down in his hiding spot, watching one of the Devil's own walk up to his porch. The lanky teenager, in some sort of bodysuit, had already begged himself a whole bucket of candy and was wearing a pumpkin mask to hide his face.
“Can't hide your face from the eyes of the Lord!” he screamed out. He struck a match and ignited the cache of home made fireworks he had stowed nearby.
The sound was immense – a crackling cascade of popping shots and sparks. The visitor howled in dismay as it was disheveled by the noise. It turned immediately in the direction of Holt but then bounded in the opposite direction with long strides, disappearing into trees.
“That's right you Satanic son of a bitch! You won't ever come back this way again! Don't you tread on me!”
The old man laughed until he fell flat on his back.

Todd and his friends all cringed simultaneously when they heard the explosions.
“Holt has a gun! He's shooting at us! Run!”

“UNDerstood – ATTEMPted CONtact met with LOCAL HOSTILITY – As is Customary – Retaliate with Show of FORCE.”

Holt wiped his eyes and sniffed. He got up and turned to go inside but something caught his eye, just along the edge of the trees. The trick-or-treater was standing in the foliage staring directly at him.
“Get on out of here! Can't you take a hint! Get before I call the police!”
It was something about the way the costumed stranger stepped out from the trees that caused Kevin's resolve to pause. Delicately, with a calculated mixture of agile certainty and tactical menace. The old farmer tried to move but found his knees locked in fear. Fear of what he asked himself? Just a greasy little punk with a stupid dime store mask? Then, as the pumpkin-faced thing slowly began walking up the porch steps, and he saw its glistening, unnatural skin in the moonlight, he knew. It was fear of the Devil. The last thing he saw was the inordinately long, gray fingers of the thing before they pressed his teary eyes into the back of his head.

“MARDUK responding. Local hostilities disMissed. Attempted to make contact, As is Customary – to no diplomatic end. NEUTRALization is suggested.”

“Received: PLANET species inDIcative of TRIBAL-lvl governing and mentality --- QUE for TERmination. PREPARE total invasion scenario NI.BI.RU. And await further instruction -”

“Agreed. Received. MARDUK proceeding with SHOW OF FORCE.” The Marduk removed its fingers from Kevin Holt and hoisted his body up off the floor, carrying it into the woods.

In the morning Meryl Holt opened the door to the farmhouse and put a hand to her brow. She looked out over the hills and called for her husband, who had never come in after his ridiculous fireworks show the night before. She had heard the racket from the bedroom upstairs and refused to have any part in it, but since then become concerned by his absence.
She squinted against the light of the rising sun – completely unaware of the mess at her feet.
She took a step forward into what was left of a ragged Halloween mask, a pumpkin. She grunted to herself and bent over to pick it up, but paused just before reaching it, noticing the thick red fluid seeping out from beneath.

Meryl Holt screamed as her husband's head rolled down the porch steps – she had thought the mask was empty – after all – there were no eyes to see through the holes of the jack-o-lantern.