by Ray O’Bannon

Joey stomped down the rugged dirt road, shards of moonlight breaking through the cold bare branches to light his way. He swallowed the last of the whiskey and hurled the bottle into the trees. He wasn’t used to drinking and was hoping he wouldn’t be sick. But at least the liquor was calming his anger a little.

He had looked forward to the high school Halloween dance for weeks, busily working on his homemade costume while playing his favorite tune, Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon, over and over. He just couldn’t get enough of that tune. His werewolf costume turned out looking more like a giant hamster but he was sure Stella would enjoy it.

Then came the big night. His car wouldn’t start so he had to walk from the edge of town to Stella’s house. Fortunately, she only lived a few blocks from the high school. They headed off down the sidewalk together, a vampire princess and a less than fearsome looking werewolf. Marvin Harlington showed up just as they were nearing the school.

Marvin was the school’s star athlete, and although none of the kids really liked him, they were wise enough to stay out of his way. He pulled up that night in his new corvette, dressed as Count Dracula. A few minutes later Stella was by his side, posing for photos. Half an hour later, Stella no longer seemed to care if Joey even existed. By the time Marvin and Stella were dancing to the local band’s version of Werewolves of London, Joey was out the door.

Walking across the lot, Joey passed Marvin’s Corvette and noticed the rolled down window. Glancing inside he noticed the whiskey bottle wedged between the seats. Why should they have all the fun? He grabbed the bottle. Small, and only half full, but still… swiping it was the only revenge he was ever likely to get, so he thrust it into his jacket pocket and walked off into the night.

Passing his own house, he continued walking out past the edge of town, following the old logging road that cut through the woods. Completely focused on his anger, his hurt and his frustration, he wasn’t aware of how far he’d walked until he suddenly looked up to see Old Man McGrady’s shabby little cottage. And his heart stopped beating for just a moment.

Nobody knew Old Man McGrady’s first name, or how old he was. He had lived out in the woods for as long as anyone could remember, and in all those years no one had even seen the man smile. His scowling face often haunted Joey’s nightmares.

Joey had been seven years old when he and two friends had ventured out to McGrady’s cottage hoping for treats one Halloween night. There had been a jack-o-lantern glowing brightly on the porch rail, and the old man could be seen, dimly in the moonlight, sitting on his darkened porch, whittling. But as the children approached, he had stood up and glared menacingly at them.

“You kids git on outta here! I ain’t got no damn candy!” and he took a step forward. The terrified children turned and ran screaming. Each year they had joked about returning to pull some mischievous prank on the mean old man, but none of them ever actually dared. There were rumors about McGrady, unpleasant rumors, and parents seemed to avoid discussing him. Somewhere along the way, Joey began feeling that maybe there really was a boogie man, and maybe they called him Old Man McGrady.

He now stood staring with dread at the ramshackle little cottage. He was relieved to see no one sitting out front. The darkened windows stared bleakly back at him. But there was a jack-o-lantern glowing brightly on the porch rail.

And suddenly his fear turned to anger. Why put a stupid jack-o-lantern out front if you don’t have any treats? And maybe it was the whiskey that prompted him, but he suddenly found himself marching down the short stony path to the cottage. He quietly mounted the weathered wooden steps, blew out the jack-o-lantern, and then grabbed it and hurried off with his prize.

A short distance further down the road, Joey paused to examine the pumpkin. Crudely cut, there was something oddly unsettling about the thing. A part of Joey’s mind that was still only seven years old was whispering something about it being full of spiders. Joey threw the pumpkin as hard as he could. It smashed against a rotting tree stump, orange chunks scattering everywhere. Then Joey glanced up. Sitting on the tree stump was Old Man McGrady.

There was just enough moonlight for Joey to see his face. He was smiling; an eerie horrible smile that somehow reminded Joey of a reptile. “That’s three” spoke the old man.

“Bad business, making three mistakes on All Hallows Eve. Don’t you know that, boy?”

The old man was whittling the end of a stick with his small rusty pocket knife. His eyes looked like black pebbles in the moonlight.

“First mistake was stealing that whiskey.”

What the…? How could he know about that? And Joey’s inner seven year old started whispering something about the man being full of spiders.

“Second mistake was blowin’ out that jack-o-lantern. Don’t you know what them’s for, boy? They’s for destroyin’ demons! Folks say how they scare ghosts off but they don’t, they suck demons in and they burn ‘em up. Works just fine unless they blows out or some idiot like you comes along and busts ‘em!”

Old Man McGrady’s pocket knife now seemed larger than before, its surface gleaming coldly in the moonlight. The stick was becoming pointed, sharp.

“I… umm… I didn’t mean to…” Joey began, a cold sweat forming on his brow.

“Don’t matter whatcha mean, only thing what matters is whatcha do!” snarled the old man. “And three mistakes on a Halloween night, that’s bad, boy. Real bad!”

The man stood up, the humorless grin never leaving his face as he began to step forward. The knife now seemed very large and the stake came to a long wicked point. Joey stepped back, his inner seven year old screaming incoherently.

“You said three…” stammered Joey. “What third mistake did I make?” And Joey’s blood ran cold as the figure before him hissed its response.

“I’m not McGrady.”

The knife and stake melted into the old man’s hands to form long boney talons. He seemed to grow taller, his shoulders taking on an unnatural angle as he crouched on legs that now bent in the wrong direction. The creature’s face, silhouetted in the moonlight, seemed to have too many eyes and too many teeth as it moved silently forward.

And then there came a sound from somewhere behind Joey, the scratching sound of a wooden match being lit. The monstrous figure stopped its advance and screamed, a horrifying scream that would echo in Joey’s memory for all of his days. The thing suddenly began to decay, meat falling from the bones until the bones themselves fell clattering to the ground. From these scattered remains there rose a peculiar green mist that floated there for a moment before drifting past Joey and into the left eye socket of a freshly carved jack-o-lantern that now sat glowing on the porch rail of Old Man McGrady’s cottage.

Old Man McGrady stood beside the jack-o-lantern, silhouetted in his doorway by a faint light from somewhere inside. Flickering light from the jack-o-lantern illuminated his angry scowl, a tendril of smoke rising from the used match in his hand.

“You best git on home” he muttered. “Candle might blow out. And I ain’t got no more matches.”

The man turned and shuffled back into his cottage, the door slamming closed behind him. Joey stood stunned for a few moments, then turned and followed the moonlit road back to town.

The kids all say Joey’s been acting different lately. He seems more confident, doesn’t get pushed around as much. They say Marvin went looking for him, claiming he was gonna pound Joey for swiping his bottle. They even say Marvin cornered him in an alley downtown. But apparently nothing happened, and when anyone asks Marvin about it, he just starts cussing and changes the subject.

Most everyone figures the change in Joey is because he met Mindy a few days after Halloween. She’s new in town, and they make a really great pair. They go everywhere together. Her favorite song’s Werewolves of London.