The Meaning of Halloween
“Trick or Treat.” Sidney repeated the words, then pointed to Meikare. Teaching the Amawaka boy bits of English helped pass the time. Even the Brazilian rainforest got tedious after a month of daylong marches.
Meikare grinned but said nothing.
“Come on, kid. You’re going to like this.” Sidney pulled a fun-sized Snickers bar from the pocket of his cargo shorts.
Meikare reached for the candy, but Sidney closed his hand.
“Trick or treat,” he repeated.
The ten-year-old’s grin straightened into a hard line. His hand blurred, drawing the machete that hung at his waist.
“Whoa.” Sidney stepped back, dropping the candy into the grass.
The boy shoved against him. Sidney, already unbalanced, fell to the ground. Meikare brought the machete around in a vicious arc, neatly beheading a long, striped snake. The snake’s fangs bit convulsively at the empty air.
Meikare knelt and picked up the fallen Snickers bar, handing it back to Sidney. “Trickertreat?”
“Yeah, I think you earned it.”
Oket, Sidney’s guide, squatted nearby, rearranging supplies.
“I’m going to give your grandson a Snickers bar,” Sidney said. “It has nuts in it.” Were nut allergies even a thing down here?
Oket regarded Sidney with disinterest.
“And he killed a snake.”
The guide nodded and turned his attention back to the supplies.
“Okay then.” Sidney handed over the treat, smiling as Meikare shoved the chocolate into his mouth. “Happy Halloween, kid.” He stood and stretched. Sweat rolling down his skin. October 31st should not be this damned hot. Sidney wished he were back in Pittsburgh.
Truth be told, he wished he’d never come. This was supposed to be an adventure.
“You go in under the radar. You and one guide,” the company rep had said. “You verify the mineral deposits, do some sightseeing, and there’s a big fat paycheck waiting when you get back. A lot more than you make teaching geology.”
Sure, the whole thing was a bit hinky. The indigenous zone was off limits to mining. But Sidney wasn’t mining. Just scouting and taking samples where Nav-Corp was already sure the rare earth deposits would be. Besides, weren’t adventures supposed to be a bit hinky?
It turned out Sidney didn’t much like adventure. The rainforest was mostly mosquitoes and humidity. And the mineral deposits were not such sure things after all. To top it off, they were a week and a half behind schedule, and he was missing his favorite holiday, Halloween.
Oket drew his own machete “We go,” he said. The guide spoke English but was so taciturn it hardly mattered. This strong-silent act had been why Sidney hired the man. The other guides had bragged. Oket simply said, “This is my world. You listen. I keep you alive.”
They had a system. Oket walked ahead to scout the best route and get rid of any immediate dangers. A few minutes later, Meikare would follow, babysitting the soft American. Sidney had to admit he liked the arrangement. Despite his early misgivings about Oket’s grandson coming along, he soon realized he preferred the boy’s company to the old man’s.
Meikare spoke almost no English but had the decency to smile and nod a lot. “Trickertreat?” the boy asked.
“Maybe later, kid.”
“Okay.” Okay was the first word Meikare had learned, and he used it often.
Sidney figured they would hike a few hours before Oket doubled back and called out “We sleep” or “We eat.” So, to pass the time, he talked about home. “Back in my world, it’s cold in October. The leaves turn colors, and you rake them up into piles and jump in them.”
Meikare nodded and smiled.
“On Halloween, people give out candy by the pound. As long as you’re dressed up and know the magic words.”
They reached the top of a rise and paused for breath. A narrow valley spread out below them. Within the green expanse, Sidney spotted a burst of red and gold. He blinked, waiting for the colors to resolve into some flowering tree or maybe a flock of exotic birds. “That’s an oak tree,” he finally said. “And the leaves are changing.” Sidney really couldn’t be sure. The tree was pretty far away. But the shape and color seemed right. “That’s impossible.” Or maybe not. Sidney was no botany expert. He only knew it looked like home.
He tapped Meikare on the shoulder and pointed toward the colored leaves.
“Okay,” the boy said.
“We go,” said Sidney, pointing again.
Sidney could see the boy wanted to run ahead and ask his grandfather. Oket would scowl and turn back to his chosen route. If Sidney argued, Oket would simply answer, “I keep you alive.”
This is ridiculous, Sidney thought. I paid good money for a guide; shouldn’t he take me where I want to go? Then inspiration struck. “Trick or treat?” he asked, and patted his pocket.
“Trickertreat okay,” said Meikare.
Sidney pointed toward the tree again. “We go there, then trick or treat.” Suddenly, going to that tree was all Sidney wanted. To stand under branches full of fall leaves and perform the ancient ritual of Trick-or-Treat with his last two snickers. A little taste of home.
Meikare hesitated, but the lure of chocolate proved too much.
The forest thickened as they moved downhill, swinging their machetes. Sidney expected Oket’s harsh voice at any moment, but it never came. Abruptly, there was nothing left to cut. They stepped into a clearing. It wasn’t large, only twenty yards or so. In the center stood Sidney’s tree. It was perfect. Pure Norman Rockwell. Red-gold leaves hung from the tree limbs, practically glowing in the afternoon sunlight. More formed a circular carpet beneath the spreading branches.
Sidney stared, a dopey grin on his face.
Meikare pulled on his sleeve hard enough to make Sidney take a step back. The boy pointed up the hill and tugged again. He looked unhappy. “We Go.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell Oket I made you come. I wanted you to see this. It’s what I was talking about. Halloween.” He said the word again, pointing at the tree. “Halloween.”
“Trick or Treat?” asked Meikare.
They ate the last candy bars while looking at the tree that shouldn’t be there. Meikare licked chocolate from his fingers and turned back to the path.
Sidney knew he should follow, but he was not quite finished with his little miracle. With a whoop, he ran to the carpet of leaves, kicking them high in the air. Surrounding himself in a shower of red and gold. Leaves swooped and twirled. But they did not fall.
More leaves rose from the ground, arching themselves through the air. Beneath them lay a second carpet. This one of bones. A leaf landed on top of Sidney’s hand. He felt a pinch, like a doctor’s needle. He grabbed the leaf, crushing it. The thing was leathery. Its body cracked as Sidney squeezed. He tossed it to the ground. The top of his hand welled blood. Two more of the leathery things dove onto the wound. Another landed on his cheek, biting.
Sidney flailed, scraping the creatures off as fast as he could. More bites stung his arms and legs.
Meikare stood frozen at the forest’s edge, his eyes wide, mouth still rimmed with chocolate. Sidney moved toward the boy. He had made a mistake, that’s all. He had forgotten this wasn’t his world. This was Oket’s world and Meikare’s. If he could get back to them, they would know what to do. They would save him.
He stumbled forward one-step, two. Shrill cries rent the air like a children’s choir gone mad. Sidney looked up at the thousands of reddish-gold shapes hanging from the branches above him. No. Not hanging, Sidney realized. The things above him crouched, waiting for prey. Waiting for me. They burst from the branches then, filling the air. Shrieking as they came. Red and gold shapes poured over Sidney. Tiny needle-sharp teeth tearing flesh, draining away his life sip by sip.
Meikare ran. Tears half-blinding him as he stumbled through the forest. He found his grandfather, grim-faced with anger at the top of the hill. The boy dragged the old man down to the clearing, but they were too late. All was quiet now. The leaf things once again hung unmoving in the branches. Where Sidney had last stood lay a mound of leaves, more red than gold, rising from the forest floor as if raked up and ready to be jumped in.
Meikare knew his forest home could kill. His grandfather had taught him to avoid a thousand dangers. And more importantly, that there were always more to learn. Now, it was Meikare’s turn to teach his grandfather about this new threat. He even had a name for it. The one his American friend had taught him. He pointed to the beautiful tree whose leaves bit and killed and pronounced the word with slow precision. “Halloween.”
Frank Oreto writes in deepest darkest Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His stories have appeared or are upcoming at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Pseudopod, and the Corpus Press anthology series In Darkness Delight amongst many others. When not telling lies and writing them down, Frank spends his time creating elaborate meals for his wife and ever-hungering children. You can follow his exploits, both culinary and literally, on Twitter and at his Facebook page.
A sampling of anthologies and magazines featuring stories by Frank Oreto include: Beyond the Veil, edited by Mark Morris; In Darkness Delight: Fear the Future; Unnerving Magazine 16; Vastarien Volume 4; The Year’s Best Hardcore Horror 4; In Darkness Delight: Creatures of the Night; plus a bunch of audio adaptations at various podcasts, like Pseudopod, Tales to Terrify, The No Sleep Podcast, and Centropic Oracle.