Traditions are important. No matter how insignificant, how stupid, or how cruel. We hold to them.
My hometown, a small, rural place, has its own traditions. And, as is the way with small, rural places, traditions are held to more strictly than elsewhere.
And, if ever there is a day meant for traditions, it is Halloween.
My family was not native to the area. We’d moved there when I was a child, only six years old. This meant that I would forever be the new kid. Even if I stuck around until I was fifty.
This lack of local blood meant that I was not privy to what I saw as the town’s greatest tradition: The decorating of the Post Office.
Every year all the teenagers, now too old for trick or treating, would flow into the streets and respect a tradition as ancient as any of the old widows handing out candy.
Every year, Halloween day would come, kids would put on costumes and knock on doors for their prize of candy. Home owners would light candles in pumpkins and hang up tissue paper ghosts from trees. Night would set on this image. This perfect slice of Americana.
And, then, the next morning would reveal the work done in darkness. Those same pumpkins and ghosts, along with every plastic skeleton or vinyl witch, would be missing from their yard or porch and lined along the roof of the Post Office. Or hung from the flagpole, or smashed on the sidewalk.
I knew who did it. I always heard them talking. And I wanted in.
This happened every year. As one group grew too old and got married and had children of their own, the next batch would fill the ranks of this silent, Halloween army. How these vandal soldiers were selected was as much a mystery to me as how they performed this yearly operation. I could not comprehend the silent politics used in this selection. Never once had I thought it was as simple as just showing up and helping.
But my chance came when I was fourteen. It was 6 PM when they came to my door.
There were four of them. I knew them all, but only considered one a friend. Caden was the leader of this pack.
They were dressed in the low effort costumes of teenagers that had almost forgotten it was Halloween: plastic vampire teeth too small for the mouth or fake blood running from eyes. Caden carried a rusty hay hook as his costume, the sleeve of his sweater pulled up almost enough to cover his hand.
I was at the door dropping candy in the plastic grocery bags and discolored pillow cases of kids still young enough to go door to door.
“Hey,” Caden said. “After dark. Meet us at the park. We’re doing the Post Office.”
Their looks were conspiratorial, as though everyone in town didn’t know what that meant. I returned their looks with a barely contained grin.
I arrived at the park that night to find that the whole operation was much less covert than expected. Loud groups huddled together, laughing at one joke or another. I had expected an orderly army, but here there was only chaos.
At different intervals, with no prompting, these individual packs of teens would break off from the whole. One would take this street, another that.
I found my friend and his three subordinates.
“Are you seriously wearing a mask?” the one with the cheap vampire teeth asked me.
I quickly tore the fabric hood from my face, grateful for the dark hiding my red cheeks. “It’s Halloween,” I said in defense.
That just made them laugh harder.
“It’s a cool mask,” Caden said and the rest fell silent.
We chose a street and began our work.
I never really felt like one of the group, but they did cheer me with excited whispers any time I crept onto a porch and claimed a trophy for our growing pile.
Occasionally, whenever he decided we had enough pumpkins, Caden would stab one of the jack-o’-lanterns with his hook, usually through the eye, and throw it down into the street where it would burst. In the darkness of the unlit streets it almost looked like a head. Perfect for Halloween.
We would all cheer him on as he did so. “Kill it! Kill it!” we whisper-shouted in the dark. Then we would go and find another gourd to replace the one destroyed.
We stole pumpkins and stuffed ghosts, and one member of our group claimed a lawnmower from an open garage.
Sometime after midnight our prizes were silently paraded through the empty neighborhoods of the town toward Main Street. A pile of precariously stacked trophies balanced on a lawnmower with a procession of all sorts of monsters dragged behind.
The work had already begun when we arrived.
A small group was on the roof, and I wondered how they’d climbed up. From the ground the others were throwing up pumpkins and those on the roof would catch them and arrange them however they pleased. If they missed one they would let it fall back to the ground and everyone pretended like it was on purpose.
“We should get up there,” Caden said.
“Yeah,” someone agreed. “Think we can get the lawnmower up?”
“Hey,” Caden looked to me. “Wanna go?”
“How?” I asked, embarrassed by my inexperience.
“It’s easy.” He took me by the shoulder and led me to the building.
It was easy. A boost up on a trash can and a short jump to the sloping roof.
Once up I went to the front of the building and watched the crowd of my peers below.
I almost thought were watching me. They seemed to be standing in orderly rows, looking up with eyes glowing in the moonless darkness.
They were hungry eyes, I felt. But others my age always seemed hungry for something I never understood.
They started chanting. “Kill it! Kill it!”
I thought maybe Caden was going to throw a pumpkin from the roof.
I never saw the hook. Not after it pierced my neck, or even my eyes.
I never got to appreciate the scene the next morning when the sun rose to reveal the Post Office and its rows of jack-o’-lanterns and ghosts and witches and zombies. Never saw the lawnmower perched atop the roof. Or the corpse. All taken from homes around town.
A lovely Halloween tradition.
James is a South African born writer with an American accent, because children are cruel and laughed at the way he said “orange.” He was the last kid in his class to learn to read, so once that was remedied he quickly made up for lost time and read everything he could get his hands on.
Eventually someone said, “Hey, James, read this fantasy novel.” He did, and still hasn’t managed to crawl out of that rabbit hole, though he has found others to fall into. The first story he ever wrote was horrible but everyone pretended it was great, so now he can’t feel good about himself unless someone is praising his work. He lives in Utah with a dog and a growing collection of porch cats.
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