Jack o' lantern

Halloween Engagement


Cole Parker


Dirk had been feeling restless, a restlessness that had been growing for weeks.  He was 14, nearly 15, and it felt to him that he was at a crossroads. 

He was standing in the center of an intersection, alone, with four roads stretching away from him, all available, all open to him to take.  One choice would be to walk back on the road that had led him to this point, back into the life he’d had as a child, back to the comforts and pleasures enjoyed in his youth.  Or he could walk straight ahead, out of the intersection and forward from his childhood path, continuing forward on the same road that had taken him to where he now stood.

The straight-ahead path would be a confirmation of all he’d learned, all the experiences he’d had to this point.  It would be an acceptance of all the lessons and guidance he’d had from his parents and teachers and his friends, as well.  It would be a repudiation of all the temptations he’d had; it would be a march forth toward the vision of his life his father had had for him, that his mother still supported.

Or he could take either of the two side roads.  Where would they lead?  What sort of life did they offer?

He had to decide for himself which way to go.  It was that decision, he knew, that need for a decision, that was causing him to feel so unsettled.  He needed to decide the course of his life, and all he really had were questions.  He’d seemingly been at these crossroads long enough.  His restlessness came from knowing he had to make a choice, but not knowing what to choose.

He looked down the road to his right, to where he could see a large office building with a room full of cubicles, men and women in each, looking at computer screens, answering phone calls, going back to their screens again.  Somehow he knew that they were all trying to impress a boss who had fifty other interns and newbies trying to do the same thing, a boss who had his own interests at heart and little time for the mass of youth under him or her with their problems or their successes.  He could see that the company they were all working for was out for profit, and that any concerns they had for either their employees or customers or the planet itself were secondary to that.

Looking further down that path, he could see a large warehouse and men working on forklifts, then punching time cards.  He could see men on roofs, laying shingles.  Then the day moved into night, and he could hear the faint sound of music, of voices, men and women laughing, some of the same men and women he’d seen before.  Raising his head, he sniffed and thought he smelled beer.  He’d tasted beer once and found it dreadful, bitter and disgusting, but older kids at school told him he’d get used to it, and it made everyone looser and happier.  He could see bright lights there, too, and even hear an occasional police siren.  Was that what the working world after school was like?

He had no interest in spending his nights in bars with booze-laden flirting and one-night sexual inclinations and invitations, young women hitting on him and young men only out for one thing.  Was this what young adults did after working hours?  It held no appeal for him.  Would it do so when he was a couple of years older?  He hoped it wouldn’t.

He turned 180° and looked down the left fork.  There he saw a police car, a woman holding an icepack to her cheek, and a man being handcuffed.  Further away, he sensed something that seemed vaguely like a row of tents in the mist, with men all dressed the same moving in and around them.  Strange, he thought, nowhere else could he see any mist.  He listened closely and realized he could hear something that sounded like faint gunfire and then a distant explosion, followed by a far-off sound of several airplanes.  He saw a trail of people dressed in rags with bundles of their possessions on their heads and in their arms marching one by one down a dusty road; a troop of soldiers dressed for battle marched down the same road going in the opposite direction, toward rather than away from danger.  Then, there came the lonely sound of taps.  He looked up and saw the vapor trails of three jets rapidly fading away in the blue sky, scattered by a wind that couldn’t be felt at ground level. 

The juxtaposition of the troops walking one way and the citizens the other brought what he was witnessing into clear focus: the soldiers were putting themselves in harm’s way for the citizens, fighting for them.  The military was supporting ordinary people, people unable to fight the sort of battle that was required.  Picturing it gave him a sense of excitement.

Some of the eyes of the soldiers showed weariness or dull apathy, but they all showed varying degrees of fear, although there were some, some few but some, whose eyes were bright with purpose and hope.

His father, when he was still alive, had been dead set against him going in that direction.  The man had been an attorney and believed that a son should follow the path set by the father.  He’d said time after time that Dirk needed to get a strong foundation at a prestigious college, get a degree in a prestigious occupation like the law or architecture or finance, choose a profession that would make everyone who knew him proud and would make him proud of himself.  That he should create a beautiful life for himself.  His dad saw service to others as something for others to do, but it was not for his son.

Dirk looked straight ahead of him, and there, standing tall in bright sunlight—far in the distance and appearing as a chimera rather than anything substantial—he could see a tall tower climbing out of a majestic, red-brick building that he recognized as the library of an Ivy League college his father had always extolled. Several young people in black robes and square, flat hats seemed to be parading near the library.  He thought he heard Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance march being played by a symphony orchestra.  There were smiles on most of the young people’s faces, but also something of the same fear he’d seen in the eyes of the soldiers.  Had these young people realized that the delay they’d engaged in to make their own decision about their future now had to end, that they needed to take that final step into a career they were uncertain about—which was the same thing he was feeling, even if his need wasn’t so imminent?  Were they now worried about what job to take, and for some, whether it was even available to them?

Dirk turned in a full circle.  All these paths and more would be open to him in a short time, and he felt he should be deciding now which to take, beginning to prepare himself now for that chosen road and what he’d encounter as he walked down it.  All of these paths offered possibilities.  All of them had drawbacks.  He took a first, hesitant step back the way he’d come, back toward the comforting, cosseting familiarity of his youth; his restlessness increased fourfold.  No, he knew he had to look forward, not back.  He stopped and looked around at a life of getting a job, of working, and perhaps a time of debauched frivolity.  Then he looked at local or national service and finally at intellectual growth and financial prosperity.  And he realized, he just didn’t know!  How could he know what was right for him? 

An idea occurred to him.  He could take a cautious step in each direction and see how his senses reacted, see whether he could be guided forward or away from any of these directions, just as he’d been when he’d thought to delay the decision he’d have to make soon by retreating back into his childhood.

He wasn’t to learn what he wanted to know, however.  It was then, while he was on the precipice, that his mother knocked on his door.  “Dirk!” she called.  “I’ve called you twice for breakfast.  Get up already!”

[  [  [  [      ]  ]  ]  ]

“No, not this year,” said Don, Dirk’s best friend.  “We’re too old, and besides, Beth has invited me to her party.  She asked you, too.  Don’t you want to go?”

Dirk didn’t answer directly.  Don didn’t press him, but simply waited.  Dirk had been like this recently, seemingly lost in his own thoughts so often.  They continued their walk to school, passing by many houses with jack-o’-lanterns on their porches—wearing wide grins or evil eyes and sharp teeth—giant spider webs in their trees, plastic ghosts filled with pumped air swaying on lawns and the occasional ghoul leering at them from a front window.  Every year the decorations seemed to get more expansive.

Finally, Dirk said, “I don’t know.  I kind of want to go trick-or-treating, but what I’d really like is to be eleven again and feel the excitement I did then.  Last year, when we went, when we were almost fourteen, we got some looks and some grunts and not a lot of friendliness.  This year it would be worse.  But not going means we’re giving up on being kids who can do that.”

“We’re not those kids any longer, Dirk.  You know that.”  Don spoke in a kindly, supportive voice.  He wasn’t the kind of friend who took every opportunity to tease or taunt or belittle his buddy.

Dirk nodded without speaking.  Then, “But I don’t want to go to the party.  I don’t feel like it, somehow.  It feels like it would be too final, too much like saying goodbye to what we were, too much like moving on to something I’m not sure I’m ready for yet.”

“Is it the gay thing?  I’m sure there will be a lot of flirting there—and maybe more,” Don asked, speaking quietly.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with that.  And I don’t mind seeing boys and girls making out.  It isn’t that.  This is just me.” 

“Well, I’m going to the party.  Missy is going to be there.  So is Evan, and I have to be there to intercept him if he’s prowling around her.”

Dirk laughed.  “She likes you.  If she did let Evan get close, it would just be to make you jealous enough that you’d actually ask her out.”

“How do you know?”

Dirk smiled as they turned onto the street where they could see the high school dead ahead.  “You don’t see how much time she spends looking at you.  I do.  Believe me, she likes you.”

“Well…”  Don didn’t finish, not really knowing what to say, wanting to think about what he’d just heard.

[  [  [  [      ]  ]  ]  ]

“You’re really not going trick-or-treating tonight, or to the party?” his mother asked.  She’d noticed his moods lately and was concerned.  She knew he’d been invited to a party.  She knew Don was going.  Dirk sitting home alone bothered her.  It didn’t surprise her, but it did bother her.  He wasn’t acting like his older brother, now at college, had acted at this age. 

But she had too much to do at the moment to worry about him.  His deciding to stay home actually solved a problem for her.  In fact, as much as she was concerned about where his head was lately, she’d been hoping Dirk would want to be by himself to accommodate the mood he’d been in.  However, she didn’t want him to stay in to answer the door to a bunch of wee goblins and princesses; she felt that would probably be asking too much.  But perhaps she could ask him to do something else. 

“Can you do me a favor, then?  Toby needs an escort.  I can’t call Danny’s mom to see if he could go out with him because those two have been fighting lately, and Toby said he was just going to go out alone.  I don’t think a seven-year-old should do that.  I’d really appreciate it if you’d walk with him.”

Dirk looked up from the magazine he’d picked up and was pretending to read when she’d entered the room.  Before that, he’d been simply staring at the TV, letting thoughts circulate through his head, as they were doing more and more these days.  The TV set was off.

“Sure,” he said, feeling the urge to be out of the house, away from the walls that seemed confining.  He needed to be outside, out in the open.

Toby came downstairs dressed as a hobo, carrying a pack on the end of a broomstick over his shoulder.  He had on an old homburg hat his grandfather had worn years before, whiskers that an eyebrow pencil had effected, and a raggedy, oversized shirt and drooping pants that his mom had obtained from a charity shop and made even more ratty looking.  Toby’s blond hair peeked out from under the hat, and his cute face, even with ersatz whiskers, was adorable.

“I’m coming with you,” Dirk said, smiling at the vision in front of him.

“Oh, that’s neat!” Toby enthused, his face lighting up.  His older brother was his idol, and he loved spending time with him.  Lately, Dirk had been different, almost unapproachable.  Tonight, Toby would have him to himself, and Dirk looked like he used to, smiling and happy.  Toby grinned and said, “Let’s go!” and pulled on an old, throwaway, ragged coat of Dirk’s from years earlier that his mom had found in the recycle box and rescued just for him for tonight.

They were late leaving the house.  Toby had taken awhile to get ready, and dinner had been late, his mom getting home from the office over an hour later than what was usual.  There were still kids out, however, mostly with parents standing back on the sidewalks as their kids approached front doors, just not as many as Dirk was used to seeing.  Also, it appeared that the later hour appealed to the older kids who still weren’t ready to give up the Halloween tradition.  They saw few kids Toby’s age out this late.

They hit many houses, working farther and farther from home, Toby seeming eager stay out all night long.  Finally, looking around and seeing the neighborhood they were in wasn’t as nice as the one where they lived, and seeing only older kids now trick-or-treating, Dirk felt this was a good time to return home.  Toby had a full sack of goodies, and it was a good time to stop, even if Toby was still as energetic as when they’d set out.

“OK,” Toby said, surprising Dirk when he told him it was time to go home.  “This bag is getting heavy, anyway.”

Dirk reached down and took it from his brother, noting it was indeed heavy.  They turned around and headed back.  The street they were on was darker than it had been when they’d come down it, most of the houses now having turned off their porch lights.  The moon, which had being lighting the night with its soft, silvery glow, evidently feeling it had done its duty for the evening, had withdrawn behind some thick clouds.  The pleasant breeze that had now and then stirred the leaves still in the trees this late in the fall, and ruffled the ghost costumes of young kids, had now suddenly turned cold.

Dirk zipped up his jacket.  Toby seemed fine in the hobo coat he’d worn; he had been sweating in it earlier. 

They walked down the street that was suddenly deserted, and Dirk noticed the streetlight in front of them flickering and then going out, making the area in front of them look not only dark, but somehow sinister, perhaps because of the flicking candlelight still coming from scores of watching jack-o’-lanterns wearing sadistic grins.  Toby must have noticed it, too, Dirk thought, because he reached up and took Dirk’s hand.

They kept walking, approaching the dark place left by the broken streetlight, and when they were in it, Dirk suddenly stopped.  Appearing out of nowhere, three older boys confronted them.  They weren’t wearing costumes.  They looked to Dirk like high-school seniors, but he didn’t recognize any of them.  He didn’t like the look of happy anticipation on their faces, like cats having found a bowl of cream ready for licking.

“Well, what do we have here?” the largest of the three asked, rhetorically.  “I do believe these innocent young children have been kind enough to come to our turf—to have come uninvited— and bring us a gift.  How thoughtful of them.”

Toby stepped closer to Dirk, leaning against Dirk’s leg.

The teen who’d spoken glanced at his buddies, then back at Dirk.  “Give it,” he said, his voice now a growl, his eyes on the bag of candy.

Dirk hesitated, but Toby didn’t.  “NO!” he said, standing up to his full height of and even four feet.  “That’s mine.  Go get your own.”

The teen smiled, a smile without humor.  “But that is my own.  Give it!” he repeated and stepped one pace forward.  As did his friends.

Dirk’s restlessness, his mood, his whole being, suddenly changed.  Without thought of place or consequence, he set the bag of candy on the ground behind him, snatched Toby’s broomstick from him, slid the bag filled with Styrofoam from the end and dropped it to the ground, then took a batter’s stance.  “Come and get it,” he said, and to Toby, who had now retreated to stand behind him, it was a voice he’d never heard from his brother before.

The teen looked at him and smiled.  “If that’s how you want it,” he said and turned to his friends.  “Get him.”

The two boys looked at their leader, then at Dirk, and hesitated.  “NOW!” said the teen, and the two boys, acting as they’d done for some time, obeyed.  They both came forward, if tentatively, and Dirk swung the broomstick.

Dirk was a strong boy, an athlete who’d played both football and baseball on the freshman teams at his school.  His first swing took the leading attacker across the side of his head, and with a yowl, the boy crumpled to the ground.  Unfortunately, the broomstick snapped in two.  Dirk was left holding only a two-feet long piece.

The second attacker tripped over his comrade and also fell, hitting the sidewalk hard and bumping both his head and elbow.  He moaned and didn’t jump back up.

That left Dirk facing the leader of the group, a boy a few years older than himself, taller and heavier.  Dirk was standing in front of Toby and the bag of candy, holding a short dowel with a sharp, splintered end.

The older teen smiled again, then reached in his pocket, withdrew a switchblade, and clicked it open.  “This is going to be fun,” he said and stepped forward.

Dirk was surprised, not at his opponent, but at himself.  He expected he’d feel fear, but instead what he felt was an overpowering need to protect his brother.  What happened to him—from the knife and the older teen—seemed not to matter much.  Toby was seven, a little kid.  He was what mattered.

Dirk held the broken broomstick in front of him.  The older teen advanced slowly, weaving, changing hands with the knife, bouncing a little on his feet, his eyes locked on Dirk’s, though Dirk’s were looking at the knife.  The older teen advanced and pulled back, advanced and sidestepped, waiting for a good opening.

And that was when the scene suddenly changed.  It was a voice from the dark that changed it.

“Hey, Blaine, buddy, what’s this?”  It was a soft, young voice, and then a figure emerged.  It was a boy of indeterminate age, one who appeared to be possibly a bit older than Dirk but younger than the older teen.  He was wearing what was apparently a costume, but on him it didn’t really look like a trick-or-treating get up; it was a set of military fatigues that fit him perfectly, with a nametag sewed onto the breast and with the name Edwards printed on it.  He had black hair cut short and almond skin that glowed in the semi-darkness.  He walked up to the other three, his gait easy and athletic, then stopped where he was just off to the side of Dirk and the boy he’d called Blaine.  He spoke again. 

“Looks like a fair fight to me, Blaine.  You’ve got a knife, he’s got a stick.  You’re bigger than he is and older, too.  Well, maybe this isn’t so fair.  Maybe we need to even this up a little.  What’a you think?” 

So saying, he moved so he was standing next to Dirk, partly shielding him.  With his eyes still on Blaine, he said, “Hi.  I’m Ted.  Don’t worry too much about old Blaine here.  He’s about to put his knife away and walk off.  Watch.”

With that, Ted took a quick half-step toward Blaine, going into a semi-crouch as he did, both hands open and in front of him.  Blaine immediately took a full step back, then suddenly turned and loped off.

Dirk took a deep breath.  He glanced around and noticed that somehow the other two boys were also gone.

The crouching boy straightened up and turned to look at him.  Toby peeked out from behind Dirk, then reached up and took his brother’s hand.  Dirk squeezed it, then looked at the other boy. 

“Thanks for that,” he said and took another long breath.  He felt the adrenalin that was still coursing through him and did a quick, involuntary shudder.  “Why did that guy run off?”

Ted turned to look over his shoulder in the direction Blaine had gone, then turned back to Dirk.  “Blaine’s a bully.  He backs down if there’s any threat to him.  He tried it on me when I was younger and couldn’t protect myself.  Beat me up, threatened to do it again.  My brother found out and put him in the hospital.  Old Blaine didn’t learn from that, though.  He kept up the bullying and even found a couple of sycophants to help him.  Probably figured he’d be OK if he outnumbered whoever he went at.”

“But… ?” 

Ted interrupted Dirk’s question.  “My brother’s in the Marines.  He’s a sergeant and teaches hand-to-hand combat to recruits.  He taught me.  Blaine tried me on for size again when my brother was off at Parris Island, South Carolina.  Blaine pulled a knife on me, too, maybe to scare me, maybe more.  But I’d practiced with my brother on how to defend myself and how to disarm someone with a knife.  Blaine came at me, and he ended up visiting the emergency room again, this time with a broken wrist.  Blaine’s really a coward more than anything else.  I knew he wouldn’t attack me again tonight.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” Dirk said.  “For Toby, too.  Do you think he’d have hurt Toby?”

“He might have.  Cowards do all sorts of nasty things when they have the upper hand.  But I was watching you.  You didn’t know what you were doing; I doubt you’ve ever been in a fight.  But you were standing your ground, not backing down, not running away.  I was very impressed.  You didn’t even look scared.”

“It’s funny.  I wasn’t.  I only was thinking of Toby.”

Ted was silent after that, looking at Toby, and Dirk said, “We’ve got to get home.”

He picked up the bag of candy.  Toby hadn’t let go of his hand.

“I’ll walk with you a ways,” Ted said, “if that’s OK.”

“Sure.  I’d appreciate that.  You’re right, I’ve never been in a fight.  And to tell the truth, I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid.  I just knew I had to protect Toby.  That was all I was thinking.”

Ted didn’t respond; he was silent and thoughtful.  The streets were now entirely deserted, and almost all the porch lights were off.  It took awhile, but eventually they were back to familiar houses and streets, and Dirk stopped.

“We can make it alone from here.  Thanks so much for what you did, and for protecting us going home.”  He then shook Toby’s hand loose from his and extended that hand to Ted.

Ted reached out and took it, but didn’t let go, instead holding it firmly while he spoke to Dirk.  “I want to talk to you a moment.  OK?”  He went on without waiting for an answer.  “You wanted to protect Toby.  And you weren’t even scared.  Do you know what makes a great policeman or a great soldier?  It’s just what you have: the ability to put yourself in harm’s way to protect the weak, the innocent.  I know that feeling, too.  I’m joining up when I graduate from high school.  I want to join my brother.  I saw what you did tonight, how you acted, and I heard why you did it.  The military needs people like you, and me, too.  You should think about that.”

Ted paused, then, watching Dirk, and finally asked, “Do you think you might like that?”

Dirk nodded.  “Yeah, maybe.  Funny, but I’ve been puzzling about what I want to be when I’m older, and I’ve considered the army.  My father was against the military, for me, but I do like the idea.”

Ted nodded and then smiled.  “So you’re thinking about the armed services.  A lot of kids our age do that, imagine going up through the ranks, getting medals, getting to be a hero, maybe becoming a general, a politician, things like that.  Glory and honor and fame and fortune.”

Dirk was frowning and then shook his head.  “No, that isn’t it at all.  It’s not recognition I want.  It’s the feeling I had tonight when I was standing between Toby and danger, putting myself in that position.  Risking everything for someone who isn’t able to do that for himself.  Mattering that way.  Knowing that what I’m doing means something.  I don’t know, I can’t really explain it very well, but when I was facing that Blaine kid, I felt, well, useful in a way I haven’t before.  I wasn’t thinking about myself.  I was thinking about saving Toby, and that was all that mattered.”

“I think you explained it very well,” Ted said.  “But maybe that’s because I know what you’re feeling.  I feel the same way.  I want to help people, too.  Rescue them, prevent them from being harmed.  Like I just did for you—with Blaine.  Although, truthfully, I probably didn’t have to do that.  Blaine’s a coward.  If there’s any chance he might get hurt, he backs off.  Just the fact you were willing to put yourself in his way and that you had something of a weapon, that would have been enough.  He was dancing around, giving you time to get scared and try to run off,  but he never did attack.  He saw your courage, your commitment, and that was enough.  If he’d been serious, he would have attacked right off.”

“Still, you did step in.”

Ted nodded.  “I wanted to.  I want to save people from harm.  I want to be like my brother, someone doing something for those who need help and protection.  I don’t know for sure what that’ll be yet, but probably the Marines.  I might apply to the police department, but that doesn’t interest me nearly as much.  The Marines would let me go anywhere in the world, where some of those people have no hope at all without people like me, and like you, who are willing to risk their own lives to help them.  That appeals to me.”

Dirk was moved, hearing the passion in Ted’s voice.  He felt that same passion for that same ideal, and listening to it being spoken by another with such emotion just made it all sound more reasonable, less like a childhood fantasy.

Then he had a thought, and his spirit sagged.  “That sounds perfect.  But I don’t think I can do it.  I wish.  But…”

“But what?”

Could he explain?  He’d told Don, but no one else.  Not even his mother.  But Ted seemed almost like a soul mate with the same urges and feelings he had.  That somehow made it feel OK to voice his doubts. 

“But…I’m gay.”  There, he’d said it.  Well, with Toby there, he’d actually whispered it, leaning closer to Ted so Toby wouldn’t hear.  Afterward, he could barely keep his head up, afraid of how the other boy would react, but he forced himself to meet Ted’s eyes.  He had to.  He had to know what Ted’s reaction was.

Ted smiled.  “Hey, that’s not really a problem.  My brother is, too, and he says things are changing rapidly now.  The military has lots of turnover, and the kids coming in now mostly were in high school when tolerance and acceptance became the new standard in this country.  The older guys, well, there’s still some resistance there, but the high command has made acceptance an order, and in the military, you do what your commanders dictate or hit the road.  My brother says he’s had very few problems.  Of course, being who he is and doing what he does, there aren’t many guys who’d mess with him.”

“Still…”  Dirk wondered if that were true.  Wondered about basic training, about some places not having the tolerance others might.

Ted reached out and put his hand on Dirk’s arm.  “You have a while to think about it.  During that ‘while’, you can learn what I’m still learning about self-defense, and that might make you feel better about yourself.  I could even teach you stuff myself, and you could join the gym I go to.  I should tell you though, just to be fair and above board, that I’m—”  He stopped, looked at Toby, and finished with, “Like you.”

Dirk’s enthusiasm rose again.  “Really?  Yes!  I’d like to learn self-defense,” he said.  “I’d love you to teach me.”

They exchanged phone numbers and looked at each other perhaps longer than necessary after doing so.  Then Ted told him he’d call him tomorrow so they could talk some more, and Dirk smiled.

The walk home, with Toby still holding his hand, was peaceful.  The moon came back out to make a curtain call, and the cold, sinister night became softer and gentler.  Dirk took a deep breath of air, looking around at the familiar houses.  He realized how often he’d done that that night, taken in a huge gulp of air, but it had been a night to do that, a night he’d think about often in the future. 

The two brothers entered the house together, one looking forward to the joy of sorting and sampling of his new riches, and the other feeling a settled contentment he hadn’t felt for weeks.  Dirk now felt comfortable about where he was going, and if it would have disappointed his father, well, that was too bad, but it was his own life to lead, and he was going to do it in a way that would make himself happy.

And there was Ted to think about as well.

The End

Jack o' lantern