Halloween had always been one of Jack’s favorite days of the year, and it had come at last.
After climbing off the school bus, he bounded along the walkway to his house. Gold and crimson leaves scurried across the cement in his wake, spiraling up in the cool, autumn air.
His heart pitter-pattered as he twisted the silver knob of the front door and ran inside. Silence greeted him as usual. With a grin, he shed his holey green windbreaker and stepped around packing boxes that littered the living room carpet from the move-in a month earlier. Before Jack made it to his room, the bitter scent of whiskey wrinkled his nose. His heart plummeted into his tattered sneakers. Stalling for time, he stooped and untied his shoes instead of kicking them off the way he normally did.
“Dad?” Fear knotted Jack’s stomach as he searched the usual places with a frown: the couch in the den, the hallway floor, the chair closest to the window in the kitchen, the big bedroom. His chin quivered, but it steadied as his fingers pushed open the bathroom door. The stench of sickness drifted out.
Dad raised his shaggy head from a pool of vomit and held a large hand up to the light spilling over him from the hallway. “Shut that damn door… middle of the freakin’ night.” Groaning, the large man rolled toward the tub and curled into a ball.
Eyes downcast, Jack shut the door and waited until Dad’s breathing hit that deep, steady stroke of sleep.
Shoulders slumped, tears stung Jack’s eyes as he trudged to his bedroom. Once inside with the door closed, he snatched the picture of Mom from the nightstand and flopped onto the bed amongst the jumbled mess of covers. Jack closed his eyes and held her to his chest.
Teenagers racing their cars had lost control and mounted the sidewalk where Mom had been enjoying her evening stroll. She died before the ambulance got her to the hospital. Her image lingered in his memory, but the picture gave him comfort that he’d never forget her warm smile. The blanket stored in a bag in his closet still carried her sweet scent, fresh like a spring rain.
“I miss you, Mom.” The familiar words drifted out in a whisper.
After kissing the picture, he smiled and sat up straight again. His gaze followed the path of his hands as Jack replaced the frame on his nightstand. With renewed enthusiasm, his thoughts turned to his costume. If Dad couldn’t take him trick-or-treating, he’d go by himself. At eleven years old, he wasn’t a kid anymore.
From the far reaches of his closet, Jack withdrew the Yoda mask he’d found at a garage sale the week before. It had cost a whole dollar, but he considered the awesome rubber mask worth every penny.
The cream colored shirt belonged to Dad, not that Jack thought he’d remember lending it. From the bottom drawer of his dresser, he pulled out a brown pair of cords, and the last component lay across the back of his chair. Jack had begged the next door neighbor, Mrs. Higgins, for the burlap sack she kept over one of her plants.
Sack in hand, Jack sped down the hallway to the kitchen, withdrew the scissors from the overflowing junk drawer and set to work cutting a vest out of the burlap. Two arm-holes and a big circle for his neck to poke through completed the task. Perfect.
A peanut butter sandwich cured the rumble in his belly as he waited for darkness to fall. Other than the mostly empty jar of Skippy, the cupboards were empty. Jack would have to raid Dad’s wallet and go grocery shopping the following Saturday. The weekends used to be his favorite time of the week, but not anymore.
At seven o’clock, Dad still hadn’t emerged from the bathroom. With the door open a crack, Jack listened for breathing. Satisfied Dad would be okay for a while, Jack pulled on his costume, retrieved the spare pillowcase from the chest at the end of his bed and rushed out the front entrance.
Cool, damp air swirled around him and ghostly clouds danced across the silver moon—a perfect night for Halloween. House after house, Jack knocked on the door and held out his sack for the treats that poured in by the handful. By the time he made it to the end of Raven Street, his arms ached from carrying his heavy load, and sweat pearled along his forehead under the mask.
In the distance, a group of boys from his school crouched together and peered over a cedar hedge.
Curious, Jack plodded over to them. “What are you doing?”
The closest boy, red-haired and willowy, cranked his head to the side. “Shut up, would ya?” In the eerie light of the moon, shadows fell over the boy’s eyes and highlighted a pizza’s worth of pimples on his cheeks.
Jack squatted beside him. “What’s in there?” He parted the bushes a little, but found only a dark yard beyond.
Pizza Face cupped a hand over his mouth. “This is Mrs. Flynn’s place. The guys dared me to go up and knock on her front door.” His eyes met Jack’s, and through their shadows, fear shone out.
“What’s wrong with Mrs. Flynn?” Jack pushed up his mask and scratched his head.
Another boy leaned toward Jack, his black hair falling over his eyes. “She’s a witch, moron. What are ya, new?” The three boys snickered and shoved one another.
“I uh—I just moved in last month.” Jack’s face warmed as he pointed his thumb over his shoulder.
The black haired boy whispered to Pizza Face.
Laughter rose up from the three of them, causing spiders to crawl up Jack’s spine. He jumped to his feet and turned to leave.
“We dare you to go,” the black haired one said to Jack. “Bet you’re chicken.”
“I’m not chicken!” Jack peered over his shoulder at them, swallowing the lump in his throat.
Pizza Face gestured toward the black house. “Go on, then. Prove it.”
Heart thundering in his ears, Jack pulled down his mask and stared at the crooked, iron gate that stood between him and Mrs. Flynn’s walkway.
“Bock, bock, bock,” chanted the three boys, flapping their arms.
Jack raised his chin and shoved the gate open, wincing when it gave a mournful screech. His eyes swept the path as he walked through. So many trees overhung the property, that only a few dots of moonlight made it through to the gloomy landscape. After a few seconds, his eyes adjusted to the lower light. Gnarled bushes formed a winding corridor to the slanted stairs of her porch. A chilled wind ruffled the downy hairs on the back of his neck, and his breath hitched.
Each step forward took effort. A glance over his shoulder revealed three sets of wide eyes watching him over the hedge. Only a few more paces and he’d reach the stairs. Come on. You can do this. She’s just a lady. The mantra repeated in his head. His feet shuffled forward another inch.
“Good evening, young one.” The gravely voice came from behind him.
Jack squealed and turned to face the monster his imagination conjured. His bag of candy dropped to the ground and spilled its payload into the grass beside him.
An old woman in a long white dress stood a few feet away on the stone walk. Her wiry gray hair hung down to her waist, the top pushed back from her wrinkled face with a red hair band. “You must be new to Crossroads. Most fear me.”
Jack’s fingers fidgeted with a scratchy thread from his burlap vest. “Wh—why, ma’am?”
“Because I’m a witch, haven’t you heard?” She threw her head back and cackled, a sound like glass breaking.
The moisture evaporated from Jack’s mouth. He backed up. “I don’t believe in witches, ma’am. I mean”—his gaze darted left and right for paths of escape—“you’re not really a witch. Right?” He glanced around the woman for the boys, but they’d disappeared.
“My name is Mona.” She took a step closer, cocked her head and reached a hand out as if caressing Jack’s cheek from afar. “You’ve lost something precious. You wear it like a scar upon your soul.”
Jack pulled off his mask and averted his eyes. A twinge of pain tugged on his heart.
“You’re in luck, young one, for I’m feeling generous on this beautiful Samhain.”
Brow wrinkled, he asked, “What’s Samhain?”
Mona stared down at him as if he’d just shed his skin. “Why, it’s the magical night when the veil separating the world of the living, and the realm of the dead, is thinnest.”
“You mean… the dead are… out there somewhere? Like, we can talk to them?” Jack leaned forward, as if the action would somehow make her words true. Dad had told him that once the corpse rots away in the grave, that was it—people didn’t exist anywhere, not in heaven and not in hell. He said all that religious mumbo-jumbo was nonsense.
Mona dismissed him with a flick of her fingers. “No time to explain. Wait here. I have a gift for you.”
With a nod and a tiny smile, Mona passed by Jack with such fluid grace he wondered for a moment if her feet touched the ground under that long dress of hers. Up the stairs she went, the swishing of her dress the only sound breaking the silence, and disappeared through her front door.
Jack edged toward the iron gate, but the tiny bit of hope she’d planted in him had already started to grow. Did Mona know how to find Mom? Could he really see her again just the way she looked before? He paced three steps one way, three steps back, his Yoda mask still crumpled in his fingers.
A few minutes passed before Mona returned and thrust her hand out to him. The shiniest, reddest apple Jack had ever seen sat in her palm. “Eat the flesh of this fruit and plant the seeds in a place rich with moonlight. You will find what you have lost.”
Wide eyed, Jack reached a tentative hand toward the beautiful apple, but she pulled it back.
“Hear me, now, young one. The path will only appear when the sacred light falls upon your chosen place, and my gift will not last forever. Knowing this, do you still want it?”
Daring to hope for the impossible, Jack nodded, dropped his mask and took the offered fruit. He cradled the cool apple against his chest as if even the movement of air could shatter its fragility.
Mona picked his candy out of the grass and replaced it in the pillowcase, along with his mask. Offering a tender smile, she handed it to him. “Be well, young one. Go with my blessings.”
Jack ran through the open gate without stopping to see if the boys were still waiting for him. Breathless by the time he made it back to his house, he heaved the door open, dropped his candy and locked himself in his room.
He didn’t believe in fairy tales, but had lost so much he wanted to believe Mona’s gift could give his Mom back to him. After staring at the apple and turning it around in his hands, his eyes closed and he bit into the ruby skin, praying to whatever spirits may have been listening. Sweet juice exploded into his mouth. As if starving, he devoured every speck of bright white flesh and licked his fingers afterward.
Sated and calm, Jack went out the back door into the yard. From the garden shed, he retrieved a small shovel and chose an open piece of grass where the largest patch of moonlight painted a circle. Arms tense, he dug a hole, planted the core, and covered it with a generous helping of dirt.
Uncertain what to do, Jack sat down cross-legged on the damp grass and waited. A few minutes passed, and then an hour as the moon climbed higher in the sky. When nothing happened by the time the grandfather clock in the house struck midnight, tears wet his cheeks. Was Mona playing a prank on him? Maybe she was just a crazy old lady.
Despite the crushing weight on his chest, Jack could hardly bear to walk away from the only promise of happiness he’d had in two years, but cold seeped into his flesh. He debated for only a moment before trooping to his room, where he pulled the blanket from his bed, and returned to the back yard. After arranging the blue fleece near the hole, he laid down on it. Cuddled in his quilt, Jack eventually drifted off to sleep.
Jack woke shivering under a coating of dew. The half moon still shone through gray puffs of cloud.
“Jack?” The mellow voice sounded hollow and distant. “Where are you, sweetheart?”
“Mom?” Jack leapt onto all fours and gaped.
In the place where he’d planted the apple core, a twisted framework of tree roots had formed a ladder down into a narrow hole in the earth. Only the top rung showed above the grass, and bright emerald moss grew around the opening as if it had been there for years.
Breaths coming short, Jack peered inside. Through the darkness, a tiny, flickering light shone. “Is anybody down there?” His voice echoed back to him.
Mom’s faint voice came again from the depths. “There you are. I can’t come up, so you’ll have to come down. Be brave, Jack. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
With shaking hands and Jell-o legs, Jack mounted the ladder and started down. The shaft didn’t smell of mud pies like he expected; only the scent of wood filled his nose. After a few minutes climb, a shadow moved behind the ladder. Jack froze and squinted in the dim light. A black spider the size of his thumb scurried upwards along the grainy surface. The walls looked funny, like they were lined with wood. No, not lined, a tree-trunk surrounded him. Had the apple core really grown into a mammoth underground tree in a few hours?
The further he went, the harder his heart pounded against his ribs. He climbed hand over hand, foot over foot for what seemed like a mile. Legs and arms aching, he stopped and shifted his body to look down. The light below had grown larger, brighter. “Coming, Mom.”
Energy burned in his legs as he neared the bottom. Jack descended faster, his mind whirling with hopes. Amber light and warmth engulfed him as he stepped onto a huge rug. What would he say to her? Would she want to know about the ‘A’ he got on his science project? Would she still look the same? After what Dad had said, he wondered if she’d be nothing but a skeleton. A few deep breaths and his growing courage allowed him to turn around.
Before his eyes, lay his old room in Benton Hills. A familiar star-lit sky twinkled beyond the big window. His old bedspread, with a giant picture of Buzz Lightyear on the front, decorated his single bed.
Beyond that, Mom stood with her hands clasped in front of her looking just as he remembered. His breath came out all at once at her rosy appearance. She wore the same pretty white dress they’d buried her in, with long sleeves and sparkly beads along the cuffs. Her dark brown wavy hair tumbled around her shoulders. Deep blue eyes stared back at him, and her unique scent perfumed the air.
It’s really her.
She walked around the bed and held out a hand. “Take your time, sweetheart. It’s all right.” A weird bluish light surrounded her, and a bright smile spread across her lips. “You’ve gotten so big.”
Jack pinched himself a few times to be sure he wasn’t dreaming. When it hurt, his heart sang. He ran to Mom, wrapped his arms around her waist, and sank into the comfort in the safest place he’d ever known. A sense of rightness settled over him, one he’d almost forgotten.
“We don’t have much time, Jack. What should we do?”
Questions clogged his thoughts, but he didn’t want to waste a single moment with her. A glance at his old bookshelf gave him an answer. “Can we read in bed the way we used to?”
Smiling, she nodded, turned and pulled back the covers. “Hop in. I’ll pick out one of your favorites.”
Side-by-side, they leaned back against the blue head-board. Jack’s shoulder pressed against Mom’s as he listened to the sound of her voice reading from the first Harry Potter book. Sleep tugged at his eyelids, but he resisted.
The touch of her cool hand on his arm broke his trance. “You need to go now, Jack.”
Panic wrapped around his chest like an iron fist. “But why?” He sat up, grasped her hand and begged her with his eyes. “Why can’t I stay here with you?”
“Because this is a magic place, where neither of us belong. Find me again when the moon is high.” Mom kissed his forehead, climbed out of bed and disappeared through the door.
Jack leapt from the bed to follow, but the exit she’d used vanished, replaced with a solid wall. “No! Come back. Please?”
Scrubbing at his frustrated tears, he pounded a fist against the fire truck wallpaper. He took a few moments to gather himself before returning to the ladder and climbing up. I’ll come back tomorrow night. I promise.
Jack’s feet dragged as he trudged into the house through the kitchen.
Dad sat at the table with a mug of steaming coffee cradled in his hands. “Where the hell’v you been?”
“I—uh…” Jack shot a glance to the door, and back to Dad. He’d never believe the truth. “It was a nice night, and I kinda fell asleep outside.”
Dad raked fingers through his salt and pepper hair and stood. He sniffed at Jack as he came closer. “You been sleeping in that blanket of hers again?” His words came out stiff and jagged, like barbed hooks. “You smell like her.”
“No, I—I haven’t touched it since you told me not to.”
“Where is it?” Dad launched past Jack and went into his bedroom. Clothes and books flew everywhere as he searched.
Jack’s chest heaved as he watched from the doorway, helpless.
The growling man withdrew the bag from Jack’s closet and pulled the blanket from it. The muscles of his arms bulged under his shirt as he tore the white cloth into strips.
Tears trickled down Jack’s cheeks. “Stop it. Please! I saw her. She’s in the ground. Come with me, and I’ll show you!”
Eyes fierce, Dad stopped and stared at the mess of cloth at his feet. “You just had a dream, kid. Told you before, she’s dead and gone. Now forget her, like I have. You’ll be better off.” He stormed out of the room and left Jack with the torn pieces of Mom’s blanket and an empty heart.
“I’ll never forget her.” Jack’s whisper fell on silence.
Jack fidgeted in his seat at school all the next day. Worry about the cloud cover hiding that night’s moon kept his mind away from the math problems on the board. When the teacher threatened to call Dad, Jack tore his mind away from the apple-tree ladder and pretended to pay attention.
As he feared, no moon shone that night, hindered by dark, slate clouds and heavy rain. Tears wet his pillow until he fell asleep.
The next few weeks of clear weather allowed Jack free access to the ladder, and to Mom. They laughed and sang. Played board games, taking turns rolling the dice. Jack played the robber and Mom, the cop, as she chased him around the room and over the bed. Sometimes they sat in happy silence, their fingers entwined. She never allowed him to stay very long so his sleep wouldn’t suffer, something he argued about at first, but soon accepted. A smile arched his lips all day long, except when under the scrutiny of Dad.
Each time Jack returned to the house, he snuck along the hallway on tip-toes. Air freshener he’d stashed in the garden shed took the scent from his clothes just in case the booze didn’t keep Dad unconscious.
When winter fell over Crossroads, few opportunities arose for the moon to open the path for Jack. Alone in his room most nights, books helped him pass the time until he could see her again.
On Christmas Eve, Jack found a clear, twinkling sky and a full moon beyond his window. His heart swelled along with his excitement. Dad wouldn’t take him to get a Christmas tree, but he didn’t mind—the only present Jack ever wanted was in his back yard.
Once Dad’s snoring drowned out the TV in the den, Jack tip-toed to the kitchen and pulled on his jacket beside the back door. A tug to free his boots from the pile of shoes sent the brooms in the corner sliding along the wall. They crashed into the pots lining the counter, clanging to the white tile below.
As footsteps pounded the floor, Jack scrambled to get out of his jacket, but didn’t make it in time.
“Where the hell d’you think you’re going?” Dad’s gruff voice came from behind him, thick with sleep and slurred by alcohol.
“Anywhere but here.” Jack winced the instant the words passed his lips.
Dad’s hand grabbed Jack by the collar and whipped him around until they were face to face. “That’s a lousy thing to say!”
Jack’s eyes narrowed and anger swelled in his stomach. “You’re always drunk and you yell all the time.” He took a deep breath and stared into the emptiness of Dad’s gray eyes. “I hate you, and I miss Mom.”
Dad’s hand released him and swung wide before smacking him across the face.
Jack cried out and stumbled sideways, raising fingers to his aching cheek. Pain burned across the bridge of his nose and down his neck.
Dad stared at his hands as if they’d become snarling beasts.
Holding fingers against his throbbing nose, Jack rushed out the door. Tears and cold stung as his gaze landed on the ladder that once again rose out of the frozen, snow-covered earth. Chest heaving with his sobs, Jack plowed through the frozen crystals in his sock-covered feet and climbed down faster than he ever had.
At the bottom, Mom gathered him into her arms, sat him on the side of the bed and rocked him until he quieted.
“I’ve been selfish,” she said after a long silence. “I see, now, that coming here isn’t good for you.”
Jack wriggled out of her embrace. “Don’t say that. Please!”
She smiled, wiped the tears from his cheek with her soft fingertips. “This time with you has made me so happy, but we both knew this wouldn’t last forever.” She placed a gentle kiss on Jack’s forehead. “Your place is with the living. Dad needs you, and you need him. I won’t stand in your way anymore.” A tear sparkled on her dark lashes. “We’ll see each other again, someday, I promise. You have to let me go, now.”
“No!” Jack wailed, jumped up from the bed and pressed his hands to his ears. “I hate him. I’m not going back there. I’m staying here.” He fell to his knees and wrapped arms around Mom’s legs.
She stood. “I know it’s a lot to ask because you’re so young, but you’ve always been strong, and right now he isn’t. Reach out to him.” She stroked his hair and pried his arms away before moving away. “Goodbye, Jack. I love you.”
Jack blinked. Mom disappeared along with his old bedroom, replaced by a frigid blanket of white and a blustery wind. “No! No, no, no!” Shivering, he dropped to the ground and dug into the snow with his bare hands. Sobs wracked his body as he scoured the yard until his arms shook too badly to continue.
Chilled down to the bone, Jack collapsed into the hole he’d made in the snow. Numbness travelled from his fingertips up his arms. His legs below the knees seemed to be missing. Heart aching, Jack closed his eyes and let the relentless shivers rattle his body.
“Jack?” Dad’s voice came from the distance. “Damn it, son. Where are you?”
Jack didn’t move. He wasn’t sure if he could, even if he’d wanted to. “Goodbye, Mom.” His eyes closed and darkness descended.
Blips of light and a blaring sound reached Jack in a moment of consciousness. Warmth. A large hand wrapped around his. Something sharp in his arm, followed by cold liquid rushing inside him.
A steady beeping drew Jack from the depths of sleep. He blinked at an unfamiliar white ceiling. Sunlight painted a golden strip along the wall to his left.
Jack turned his head toward the deep tone. “Dad?” His voice cracked.
The bulky man nodded, and pulled his chair closer to the bed. His eyes, though wet and rimmed in red, didn’t have the distinctive gloss booze usually gave them. “I’m so sorry.” He shook his head and gripped Jack’s hand.
“I don’t want to forget her.” Jack licked his dry lips. “I won’t. And you shouldn’t either.”
Dad rested his forehead on the bed, silent sobs heaving his shoulders. Jack had never seen him cry, not even on the day the police came to tell them she’d been killed. Not even at her funeral.
After a few minutes, Dad looked up. “I will never—never raise my hand to you again. I promise you that.”
“It’s okay, D—”
“No, it’s not okay. First thing when we get home, the whiskey goes down the drain. You’ve been the man of the house for far too long. Time for me to step up.” He straightened and gave Jack a warm, steady stare. “I’ve set up a grief councilor for the two of us.”
Jack leaned toward Dad and squeezed his hand. “She’s happy, you know. We’ll see her again, I know it.” She promised.
“I sure hope so.” Dad smiled, returning his face to the way it used to look. Jack had missed him with his entire soul.
A small sound drew Jack’s gaze to the doorway. Mona stood there with a subtle grin. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
Dad nodded a greeting to her. “This kind lady’s the one who found you.” He stood. “Can’t thank you enough.”
Jack’s eyes flew wide. “You found me in the snow?”
“I did, young one, and not a bit too soon, either.” She swept into the room in a light blue dress. Her eyes sparkled as she sat on the edge of the bed and placed her hand on his cheek. She glanced at Dad for a moment before meeting Jack’s eyes.