Douglas Gwilym Presents

Frank Oreto is a short story author with tales at Pseudopod, Metaphorosis, The J. J. Outre Review, The Overcast, Centropic Oracle, and elsewhere. His stories tend toward the darkly improbablethe weird and impossibleand are good for a chuckle and a gasp. We’re proud to feature his work.

(Click here to hear the story read by Douglas Gwilym, or right-click and save it for later!)

“Decoration” by Frank Oreto

The bloody head squelched as Hank forced it onto the pike. He gave the head an appraising look. Gruesome enough, but balance was important too. “Hmm, I wish there was someone to hold this up for me.”

Voices erupted from behind him. Hank turned to the gaggle of adolescents staring wide-eyed at his house.

“Okay, so who wants to help?”

Hands shot up. He settled on Freddy. A skinny eleven-year-old, almost skeletal enough to pass for a Halloween decoration himself. Hank handed him the pike and stepped back to the sidewalk. Freddy held the gruesome prop and beamed with pride.

“Oh my God.” Freddy’s Mother joined the group. She was a pretty woman, with high cheekbones and brown eyes that sparkled with humor. She’d gotten divorced about the same time as Hank but seemed to handle it better.

“Hey, Dianne. You okay with your boy helping out?”

She grinned. “Of course. He loves it. But honestly, Hank, I don’t know how you do it. This stuff gives me the willies.”

“That’s the idea,” Hank said. “Right kids?” The children cheered in affirmation.

Hank looked at the pike. “Could you lean it a little to the left, Freddy? Yeah… right there.” He had to admit it was a pretty scary effect.

“You know, you got some competition this year,” said Dianne.

“Who, Pete Williams down on Maple? He’s mostly into hay bales and happy scarecrows.”

“No, a new guy over on Beaumont Street—the house that backs on to the ravine. It’s not like what you do. A little less gruesome, but the effect is really spooky.”

Within moments the crowd of children launched an expedition to this exciting new wonder.

Hank took pity on Freddy. He took the pike and shoved it into the earth. “Catch up with your friends.”

Dianne watched her son jog down the street. “Whatever happened to loyalty?”

Hank laughed. “Can’t blame them for being curious. You got time for a drink? I got a little red wine, or maybe one of my pumpkin beers. If you’re in a seasonal mood.”

“Thanks, but I need to get dinner ready.” She looked back at Hank’s home and gave him an encouraging nod. “It looks good—scary I mean.”

Hank took in his handiwork: foam core tombstones, rotting hands thrusting from faux graves. It was good. Fog machines, strobe lights. He even had a flying ghoul that would moan as it swooped back and forth over trick or treaters. This was going to be a banner year. So why did everything seem a little tawdry?

Because Dianne said he had some competition? “It’s only Halloween decorations,” he said to himself. But a cold lump filled Hank’s stomach. Maybe I’ll take a walk after dinner. Check things out for myself.

Nine o’clock found Hank on Beaumont Street, a four pack of pumpkin ale in his hand. He recognized the house, a red brick two-story with a tiny front porch. The yard was almost a half acre. A rarity for homes this close to Pittsburgh, but the front lawn had always been choked with shrubs and brambles.

The new owner had manicured the dense growth into a fairy-land maze. Narrow paths led off into tunnels of greenery. A pyramid of jack-o-lanterns blocked the central sidewalk leading to the front door. Trick or treaters would have to take one of the paths.

Hank stepped on to the nearest one. Shadows swallowed him, and after a few feet, he felt claustrophobic. His head bumped into something hard hanging from a branch. “Dammit,” he muttered. This wasn’t scary, just dangerous.

“Hello.” A voice came from the house. “Is someone there?”

Hank felt guilty, then angry at himself for the feeling. “Hey, sorry to bother you, I was just dropping by to say welcome to the neighborhood.”

“Let me find the switch.” The voice sounded friendly. “I’m the one who needs to apologize. I didn’t make it easy to navigate out there.”

Above Hank, A constellation of glass balls—blue, green, yellow—flickered into life. The light was gentle, not so much banishing the darkness as sculpting it, shaping the shadows into something beautiful. The flagstones making up the path were etched with complex patterns. Hank recognized a few shapes he’d seen on heavy metal t-shirts. The rest looked like bizarre geometry diagrams. Tiny jack-o-lanterns lined the path’s edge.

It should have all been too pretty to be frightening, but Hank felt that tingly frisson at the base of his spine. It was the faces staring out at him from the foliage. They were placed perfectly, far enough away so at first you barely noticed. Then as you concentrated the horrible details came into focus. Hank reached past dark leaves to touch a hollow-eyed mask made of stiffened cloth. Below and to the left, a stone carving jutted out its rocky tongue in an obscene leer. There were more, each horrible in its own way.

“Over here.”

Hank followed the voice. The twisting path finally led back to the old central sidewalk. The glass balls hung like clusters of grapes all around him. More faces peered from the foliage. Hank felt overwhelmed with emotions, the foremost of them being jealousy. This was no cheap thrill. It was an experience.

A thin man in a tweed vest and matching pants stood on the porch smiling. He had close clipped blonde hair streaked with grey at the temples and wore round wire-rimmed glasses. He held a mug in one large hand.

Hank swallowed his unkind feelings and attempted a smile of his own. “Wow, this is something.” He stepped up on the porch and shook the hand extended to him.

“I’m Elliot Greer,” the man said. His grip was firm. Cords of lean muscle standing out on his forearm. “So, you appreciate my little hobby?” He gestured at the display in the yard.

“Oh yeah,” Hank said. “I do some Halloween decorating myself. My house is in the paper most years. Maybe you saw my place. It’s over on Greenmount?”

“No, sorry. I’ve been so busy moving in and getting all this set up. I haven’t had much time to get to know the neighborhood.”

“Well, mine’s a bit more gruesome. Bloody skulls, zombies. The kids love it. Yours seems almost Christmassy.”

Greer stepped from the porch. He stroked the side of a blue globe filled with thin strands of stretched glass. “Actually, these are quite apropos of the season. They’re called witch balls. The idea is that evil spirits become so fascinated by their beauty they trap themselves inside. A handy thing to have around on Halloween.”

Smartass, Hank thought. Stop it. You barely know the guy. “Witch balls huh? Still, a little pretty for my tastes. What I really like are the masks and sculptures. Creepy as hell.”

Greer nodded.

“Where’d you get them anyway? I hit all the stores: Target, Walmart, Halloween World. You got a source online?”

“Africa.”

“What?”

“Most, I acquire in Africa, some from South America and the Subcontinent. You can still find interesting work in the Middle East, but a lot has been destroyed in the name of religion.

“Sure,” said Hank, nodding. “I guess I won’t look for them on eBay then, huh?”

“No, I suppose not. But, I’m probably boring you. Once I start going on about my collection….”

No, you’re embarrassed for me. Hank stared down at his shoes and remembered the beer. I should just take it home, but he probably saw it already. “Hey, I brought over a welcome gift.” Hank held up the four pack. “Pumpkin Ale. It’s good stuff.”

Greer didn’t reach for the gift. He gave Hank a pained smile. “It sounds intriguing, but I’m on a special diet. Rather hideous really, mostly leaves and sticks I’m afraid. He held out the steaming china mug toward Hank. “Believe me, I’d prefer a good ale.”

The stuff smelled rank. “Are those ashes floating in there?”

Greer looked sheepish. “Yes. It’s burnt joss paper, an Asian thing. My diet is more folkway than medical prescription. When you collect the esoteric, you pick up a few odd beliefs along the way.” He lifted the cup to his lips and sipped. “You wouldn’t like it.”

“I’ll stick to beer,” said Hank.

“Maybe, I could try one in the future?”

Hank took the words as a welcome chance to escape. “Sure. I better get going. More work to do on my place. Halloween is coming fast.”

“I’m well aware,” said Greer. “I look forward to seeing your… decorations.”

Maybe he imagined it, but Hank thought he heard derision in those words. “Hey, before I go, I was wondering, aren’t you a little worried?”

“What do you mean?”

“All those kids tramping through your yard, right down the middle of your collection. Things might get damaged.”

Greer looked thoughtful. His eyes darted from one part of the yard to another.“I believe I have enough.”

It was an odd response, Hank thought. “Some of the older kids like to do a little mayhem on purpose. I got four words for you: full-sized candy bars. None of those baby pretzel bags. You keep the little monsters happy and you should be okay.”

Greer nodded. “Thanks for the advice. Happy Halloween.”

“Happy Halloween,” said Hank. He walked out the way he’d come. No sooner had he stepped onto the street then Greer’s yard went dark again. Hank could still see the witch balls and half hidden faces in his mind’s eye. He had to admit Greer’s collection was amazing, and that it pissed him off. I don’t get one thing that I can be the best at? He popped the top on one of the pumpkin ales and took a long sip.

So, who’s the bigger asshole, he wondered. Greer for being so pompous, or me for being jealous. He turned and walked home. Maybe he’d pick up an extra fog machine tomorrow.

#

Hank opened the Halloween edition of the Collier Run Daily and stared at a photo of Elliot Greer surrounded by glowing witch balls. “No big deal,” Hank said to the empty kitchen. “I’ve been in the paper plenty of times.” Today was Halloween, Hank’s favorite day of the year and he was determined not to let Greer ruin it for him.

The weather that night was perfect, chilly but not cold, with enough breeze to blow the leaves around. Hank wore a vintage Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. He usually opted for something horrific, but last year Dianne came over and sat with him on the porch. Hank figured she might have sat a good deal closer if his shirt hadn’t been soaked in stage blood.

Jack-o-lanterns glowed from front porches up and down the street. Hank opened a pumpkin ale, switched on the fog machines, and waited for the monsters. At first, things went great. Ghost and goblins traipsed up the steps awestruck by Hank’s handiwork. Parents oohed and ahhed like always, but this year there was a difference.

“Wow, you really outdid yourself, Hank”

“Thanks, it’s a labor of love.”

Then came the kicker. “Did you see that place over on Beaumont?”

Not everyone brought up Greer’s amazing decorations. But enough did that Hank turned those mentions into his own sad little drinking game, taking a deep swig of beer every time Greer’s collection came up.

The second fog machine was a bad idea. A thick mist covered the porch steps. A tiny Luke Skywalker tripped and cracked his shin on the cement. His mother—Princess Leia gone to seed—rushed up the stairs and helped the boy up. She glared at Hank, ignoring the chocolate bar in his hand.

“Your house is a menace,” she hissed.

“Oh, come on, Luke there can’t be more than two. You should be holding his hand.” Hank regretted the words as soon as he said them. Too much beer, he thought.

“Screw you,” Leia said. She picked up the weeping Jedi and stalked down the street. Hank tried to turn off the fog machine but couldn’t find the right cord in all the mist. He finally unplugged the whole power strip. The mist cleared, but when he turned the juice back on neither fog machine would work. Worse yet, the flying ghoul got tangled in its own wires and spent the rest of the night spinning in place, making a noise like a sick sheep. Hank didn’t bother unplugging it.

Instead, he drank more and blamed Elliott Greer.

Dianne walked over around nine. She looked up at the bleating ghoul. “Are we experiencing some technical difficulties?”

“You could say that. It’s not been the best evening.”

“At least we have candy,” Dianne held out a handful of fun size snickers.

Maybe the night didn’t have to end bad. Hank made room for her on the porch step. An empty beer bottled wobbled beside him. He tried to steady it but misjudged the distance and sent it tumbling down the steps. The bottle shattered with a crash. Hank’s lunge almost sent him tumbling after it, but Dianne caught his arm.

“Goddammit, this just isn’t my night.”

Dianne looked at the collection of empty bottles. “Maybe we should have a little coffee with our candy.”

“Or maybe, I can drink what I want to on my own porch.”

Dianne’s warm smile froze.

“Oh Jesus Di, I’m sorry. It’s just the fog machines broke down, and that stupid flying ghoul got hung up. The damned thing cost me a hundred bucks.”

“So, you got drunk because your toys didn’t work. Makes sense.”

“Dianne, really. I apologize. I’ll make that coffee.”

“No. Your porch your rules. Have another beer. I’m going home.”

“Come on. Don’t be like that.”

Dianne walked down the stairs stepping carefully over the broken glass. “Happy Halloween, Hank.”

Hank watched her go. She was right. He was acting like a baby. “I think I’ll get that coffee.” He stood up and walked to the door. As he turned the knob, laughter rent the night and an egg burst against the wall inches from his head.

Hank flung himself inside and pulled his home-security baseball bat out of the umbrella stand. He rushed back on to the porch, scanning the streets for attackers. A block away, dark laughing shapes disappeared between two houses.

Hank shook his head. What the hell was he going to do, send some teenager to the hospital for throwing an egg? Besides, there’d been at least four shapes, and they hadn’t looked small. Like he’d told Greer, the bigger kids could get up to some real mayhem on Halloween. Hank let that thought linger for a minute.

Maybe one more beer after all and a walk. Probably should take the bat along. Never can tell what you might run into.

Beaumont Street was dark. It was after eleven, and most folks had blown out their pumpkins and gone to bed. Only the Greer residence still glowed with the light of witch balls and jack-o-lanterns.

I wouldn’t have bought that second fog machine if it hadn’t been for Greer. Wouldn’t have drank so much either. I’d be sitting with Dianne right now. Hank knew blaming Greer was bullshit, but alcohol and jealousy were more than a match for his common sense.

Hank looked up and down the street. He’d changed into dark sweats, hoping to look like just another teenager to anyone gazing out their window. He held the bat close to his leg and stepped onto the nearest path. Even through his drunken anger he couldn’t deny Greer’s collection was amazing. The realization only pissed him off more.

He brought the bat up to his shoulder and swung. If he had a plan at all, it was to smash a couple of the—no doubt expensive—witch balls and run. Go home and let the thought of Greer sweeping up bits of his precious collection tomorrow lull him to sleep.

Something changed as Hank shattered his first target. Colored glass rained down, and Hank’s heart filled with a fierce joy.

“Pretentious little shit,” he grunted, as he swung the bat in short, vicious arcs. He wasn’t running away. The plan was forgotten. Hank pushed forward, stomping jack-o-lanterns to orange pulp, kicking over sculptures Greer had acquired on the god-damned subcontinent. It wasn’t about the decorations anymore. It was about the divorce. His wife living with that banker in Harrisburg. It was about being two months late on the mortgage, it was every failure and indignity Hank had ever suffered in a life full of them. He knew his problems weren’t Greer’s fault and didn’t care. He had a target now, and he couldn’t stop if he wanted.

Someone shouted. Arms like cables locked themselves around Hank’s neck and squeezed. He tried to swing the bat, but his arms didn’t want to work anymore. Hank felt himself lifted and thrown. He landed hard on wood. Blood rushed to his brain. The first thing he saw was Elliot Greer, his back turned, staring up at a blue-green ball of glass. Hank didn’t see any others. Did I smash them all? Jesus.

The second thing Hank noticed was the pistol in Greer’s hand.

Greer turned. His face red with rage. He didn’t raise the gun. “Who sent you?”

Hank stared up at the man. Not understanding the question and afraid whatever he said would be wrong.

“Xiǎnshì zìjǐ, datgelu eich hunan, Arată-te?” Greer moved closer, shouting more indecipherable questions at Hank with each step.

“Please, I don’t understand,” Hank said. “I’m sorry, just don’t shoot.”

Greer looked down at the gun seeming almost surprised to see it there. “Who are you?” he asked.

“What?” Fear still burned bright, but another emotion mixed with it. Hank was insulted. “Hank Swafford, I live on Greenmount, I came over with beer.”

“Hank? The Halloween-decoration guy?”

There it was again—decoration. “Why do you have to say it that way. Halloween decorating is my thing. I’m good at it. I used to be the best, at least around here.” Anger gave Hank the strength to sit up. He still held the bat. “Then you showed up with your masks and god damned witch balls.” He used the bat as a crutch and was almost upright when Greer gave him a vicious kick in the ribs. Hank toppled, gasping for breath.

Another kick sent the bat spinning into the yard. Greer stood over Hank, and now the gun was most definitely being aimed. “You destroyed my defenses because I upstaged your paper-mâché tombstones. What is wrong with you?”

The black hole of the gun barrel filled Hank’s vision. “Jesus, I’ll pay for it all. Have me arrested. I deserve it.”

“Stand up.” Greer looked down at his wristwatch, then out into the yard. “I said stand up.”

“No. Call the police. I’ll just wait here.” The last of Hank’s beer-fueled haze had burned away. Greer was going to kill him. “This doesn’t have to get any worse.”

Greer rubbed a hand across his face. “Oh, I’m afraid it does. Now, stand up.”

Hank didn’t move.

“I’m not going to kill you, but I will wound you in some very nasty places if you don’t stand up right now.”

Hank stood.

Greer gestured to a rocking chair on the porch. “Sit down. There’s a cup of tea on the table beside you. Drink it.

Hank lifted the cup. He recognized the foul smell from the first time he’d been here. “What’s in it?”

“Burnt paper, remember? Some herbs. It gives, perspective. Now, drink it, or I’ll put a bullet in your crotch.”

Hank put the cup to his lips and drank. It tasted better than it smelled, like smoked wine.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it? Finish up.”

Hank lifted the cup and drained it. He looked past Greer to the one remaining witch ball. The light it gave off took substance. Glowing geometric shapes spread out from the ball in all directions—spheres within cubes joining and releasing to form new and more complex patterns. “You drugged me.”

“No, just a little Taoist magic. Gives you yin-yang eyes. Let’s you see what others can’t.”

There was no darkness. Hank saw the world with a clarity that came close to overwhelming him—the grain of the boards that made up the porch, the soft inner glow of the atomic processes that held it all together. “I can see… everything.”

 “Yes, it’s not something you’ll thank me for. Now listen to me. You have no idea what you’ve done, so I’m going to tell you. I’m a thief, Hank, but not some simple smash and grab man. I started with tombs, and I learned things. I learned you can steal secrets more valuable than gold.”

“What’s that noise?” Hank asked. It was far away but distinctive—the electric whine of cicadas as interpreted by a children’s choir.

“Ignore it.”

“Something’s coming.” Hank stood despite the gun. He couldn’t help himself. This must be the way prey felt when the big carnivores showed up. He had to get out of there. The side of the pistol whipped against Hank’s jaw. Greer pushed him back on to the rocker.

“Don’t worry, we have a little time yet.”

Hank wiped blood from the corner of his mouth. He didn’t try to stand again.

“I was a very successful thief,” Greer said. “I plundered temples, even robbed a god or two.”

“You’re crazy.” But Hank’s voice lacked conviction. And his ears buzzed with the whine of cicadas.

“Made some enemies along the way, as you’d expect. A bad lot. But I had my secrets. Knew how to keep a few steps ahead. That’s the key. Keep moving. Boats are good. They don’t like running water. Flying’s even better. There are rules to the game though, and one night a year I have to sit tight on solid ground. Do you see where I’m going with this, Hank? Can you guess what that night is? Here’s a hint, it’s a time of year when you like to decorate, and it’s not Christmas.”

“Halloween?”

“I knew you could do it.” Greer was shouting now, the gun pointed up at the night sky. Hank lunged past the man toward the sidewalk. Greer laughed. He kicked the back of Hank’s knee, sending him sprawling. Hank tried to crawl. Glass from shattered witch balls gouging his hands and knees. A foot slammed into his crotch from behind, and he fell to his belly and retched.

“Just a few more words, Hank.” Greer squatted and lifted Hank’s chin until they were gazing eye to eye. “So, how do I keep my enemies at bay on that one night? Not guns, Hank. Bullets wouldn’t phase them a bit, I’m afraid. But I had my defenses. I was always ready, this year too. I rented a new place in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. There’s a creek behind the house. Like I said, they don’t like running water. I put up my defenses in front, a maze of distractions, wards, and traps. The only thing I didn’t account for was you.”

Greer shook his head. “You and your pathetic decorations. The good news is I can still get away. It’s going to be tricky. I’ll need your help. I think you owe me at least that much.”

“What do want me to do?”

“Only to be here. I have to stay a little longer. Let them feel my presence. Thanks to you I have to leave everything behind. No baggage. It’s the only way I’ll stay ahead of them. Even traveling light, they’d still catch me. That’s where you come in, Hank. You’re my diversion. Someone they can take their anger out on when they discover I’m gone. The time it takes them to rip your soul apart is my head start. I think you’ll agree that’s fair.”

Greer cocked the pistol. He looked at his watch, then sniffed the air. The wind bore the smell of ozone mixed with raw sewage. “It’s time,” said Greer. “Look at me. You told me you liked things on the gory side.”

Greer shoved the barrel of the gun beneath his own chin and pulled the trigger. The report was muffled, but the results were spectacular. A geyser of blood, bone, and brain erupted from the top of Greer’s skull. But Hank had yin-yang eyes now, and he saw more. Amidst the viscera rose a living light, the soul of Elliot Greer. It circled the remaining witch ball twice and then shot upward through the trees.

Greer’s corpse—the baggage he had to leave behind—toppled to the ground.

Now the things hunting the man would come and take their disappointment out on Hank. He could hear the creatures advance, smell their stench on the wind.

Hank rushed to the front door. He wouldn’t be anyone’s diversion. Greer said the creek behind the house offered some protection. He would go there.

The door wouldn’t open. Hank slammed his shoulder into the thick wood, but it didn’t budge.

An icy chill struck Hank like a blow. The electric cicada whine rose into howling storm. Hank turned. Something dark rushed up the pathway toward him. The yin-yang eyes had revealed the inner light that filled all things. The creature approaching had no light. It was a void clawing its way through reality to get to the enemy it sought. Hank pressed himself against the door. He was going to die. No, it would be worse than that. His stupidity had brought Hank to the notice of creatures who considered death only the opening act.

The thing stopped. Hank didn’t dare move. Didn’t breathe. The void scudded toward the last glowing witch ball, weaving through the complex geometry of light the ball gave off. The creature circled the witch ball once, twice, then flowed inside it. There was a whistling sound. The sphere glowed white then faded to a dull black.      

The god damn balls work. Hank cursed himself for taking a bat to them. There was time now. He’d circle the house to the creek.

He made it three steps before they found him. Creatures filled the yard. More of the clawing voids, but other things as well. A cloud of metallic white butterflies each wing edge a razor that rang against its neighbor filling the air with the sound of bells.

A giant man, naked and grotesquely obese dragged himself forward. Clawed children hung from his mountain of flesh tearing away bloody mouthfuls and smacking their lips.

“Greer’s dead,” Hank yelled. The things in the yard didn’t care. Elliot Greer would get his head start. As the creatures pressed forward, Hank had to admit it was a really scary effect.

THE END

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