Stave One -- Marley's Ghost
Marley was dead, to begin with -- not the overtly-mournful, histrionic Jacob Marley who Dickens wrote a lot about. Or even Bob Marley, although the skunky odor of this particular Marley's apartment might suggest otherwise No, this was Billy Marley, one of those many high school friends who'd faded from memory. He was dead and particularly pissed off that I didn't even know about his passing.
"How could you not have heard?" his high-pitched nasal voice a far cry from Jacob's deep resonant proper received pronunciation (according to the many film versions of the story). "It even made CNN, for God's sake! Guy with gun trips, accidentally kills self outside race track."
"You always liked to play the ponies," I said, one of my few memories of Billy as an adult.
"I always lost! Playing a trifecta based on liking the horses' names. Ignoring odds. Listening to wild hunches. What really got to me was those damned computerized betting terminals they'd installed. That blasted machine was my; target. Maybe, if I had used a living bet-taker, I might do better -- standing in line, thinking things out. So I took my Winchester double-barrel, slipped on a mostly-empty Slurpee cup someone threw away, missing the trash can by two feet, slipped, and trying to use the gun to balance myself, unwittingly blew my brains out."
"A shotgun," I asked. "Not an AR?"
"Too cliche," he scoffed. "Beside two slugs would prevent that vile contraption from allowing any more stupid bets. But you know the story. You're been visited by my ghost and tonight you will get three visitors."
"What for?" I did realize the irony of being visited by a Marley's ghost -- if not the genuine Victorian article.
"Halloween used to be a special night for you. What happened?"
"Billy," I said, realizing the truth in his statement, "I am no longer a young man. Joints ache. sore ligaments make once-simple tasks tougher, old sprains all haunt me on a rotating basis."
"You're talking to a guy with gray matter over in the next county." He held up an apparently invisible note. "But I'm going to mix things up a bit -- One, or maybe two of your visitors, will be quite alive. One, a ghost, and one ... something different."
"All in one night?"
"We ghosts can be very convincing." A smug smile on his face, I saw the entry wound on his chin, inches from his jaw I did not want to see the exit wound.
"So the first will be," I began, and he was gone. I looked outside the window, half expecting to see the scene of lost souls, chained but able to fly -- so much for birds being free, I thought. But no, only my porch the light would be turned off, a sign I was not giving out candy.
Stave Two -- The First Visit
The refrigerator door opened and a twist-cap was opened, unleashing an effervescent fizz. Then the squeal of the liquor cabinet door opened and closed. Lorna, a woman I'd known online for a quarter century but never actually met entered the room. She flattened her hand and bonked me square on the forehead.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"Today I had a particularly rough round of treatment then I'm whisked through the ether. No," she said, in the voice that was always much softer than the Internet made it sound, "I am not a ghost. The one good part of it is I'm in a state of temporal grace so all the no alcohol rules don't apply."
"Gin and tonic," I said, remembering her mentioning her preferred drink.
"So what's my function?"
"Halloween present, I guess."
"You have candy, not to give out, but to prime yourself for midnight's insanity?"
"Of course," I replied, adding. "a few more just in case I change my mind about turning the light on."
A car pulled into the yard and the doorbell rang.
"Expecting anyone?" Lorna asked, a slight chortle in her voice.
I opened the door and a woman, roughly Lorna's and my age walked in. She drew her arm back and took a swipe at me with her fingertips hitting between above my ear and temple. I looked at her. It had been forty years, but I started to recognize her as my cousin Aimee.
"How the fuck did you get Abbie out of Aimee?" she asked, referring to a character in a novella I'd written years earlier. "A few broken bones, bruised organs. But far from dead."
"You should see all the characters he based on me," Lorna chimed in. "I doubt if any of them were anywhere near completely heterosexual. And their clothing -- a lot of stuff I'm allergic to. Only one from you -- consider yourself lucky."
"But you know," Aimee continued, her Appalachian accent gaining a warmer tone,"those picnics. Had I been single ... or divorced and we'd gone off in the woods, who knows?"
"He never could pick up hints," Lorna commented. "But a cousin?"
"I'd use protection," Aimee said. "Wouldn't want to bring another Charles the Accursed into the world. Saw a video about him on YouTube. Poor guy -- richest man in the world and an impotent imbecile."
"You're one big, happy family." Lorna remarked, holding in laughter.
"We used to be," Aimee replied, looking down.
"My folks divorce and Dad's death, a lot of animosity you're probably unaware of. When your folks died, a big part of it died with them. And now my aunt, your cousin."
So many vibrant, active people now memories. "I still miss it. That house. The mini bike. The air hockey."
"You never visited for Halloween," Aimee said, seeming to understand the topic.
"After the disappointing Fourth of July, I was afraid most holidays in your town would be that dull.
"Strict no 'boom-boom' law," Aimee informed Lorna. "Y'know, guys and their fireworks."
Lorna nodded her head. "I guess it's time we be off."
Lorna vanished and Aimee went out to her car. She drove away, leaving me even more confused. I thought it over. I could be frustrating at times. Maybe both felt a need to vent that frustration.
Stave Three -- The Second Visit
"Strange lookin' sort of typewriter." a child's voice said. "I'm your Uncle John, by the way. Thanks for writing that memorial. Tho' I must say it was more about you than me."
"You died in 1920 of the influenza."
"Peculiar typewriter," he said, still dazzled by my laptop computer.
"They had typewriters back then?"
"Mister Twain died ten years afore me and he was very fond of his."
"But you read it? The 'Press?"
"One of our kinfolk helped me with the big words. We have a very huge, constantly growing library. Mind you, a lot of your writing is kinda wrong for a four-year-old to read. But being posthumously self-taught, I do okay -- and I don't think you did me any harm. I do have to wonder about your taste in women, tho'."
"Did you celebrate Halloween?" not caring to discuss my 'tastes' with the ghost of a four-year-old.
"We did -- nothing as grand as you or your Daddy's. But you did a little daydreaming in the first grade. I'm not saying you're one hundred percent right. But that daydream did set your mind in a good Halloween mood."
"Whatever," he replied, shaking his head. "Ya see, it isn't the path you pick, but how well you walk that path. Lately you've been driftin'."
I remembered my first Samhain in the online Pagan group I'd joined one April. By Summer Solstice, I'd made high priest. The high priestess who founded the group was an ambitious woman, talented, but whose real life was an ongoing disaster. Getting involved with a string of Mr Wrongs. Biting off way more than she could chew. Finally Lime Labs, who ran the venue, banned her for owing them five thousand dollars for back pay on server space. Yes, they were a business, unconcerned that she was the heart and soul of the cultural/educational group. Just, much like a loan shark, they were all, "gimme my money, man!"
Her several attempts at restarting things gave me hope, which were quickly dashed by her long "vacations" from the Internet.
"Tell me more about this," he asked.
"Well, we don't overtly proselytize -- like the fire and brimstone preachers of your day do. Then we all should write our own 'Book of Shadows,' our rituals and core beliefs. I'd written mine very early on and recently considered self-publishing it. That idea fizzled. But why? I had all the material. The illustrations -- screen captures of the group's "old days" might prove tricky to format. But I was afraid. Novels and collections of short stories leave the writer reasonably anonymous. This is a growing but not mainstream religion. Publishing this would be much more personal."
Uncle John smiled. "You seem to have found your way." And with that, he was gone.
Stave Four -- The Third Visit
This was a strange place. My hometown in its grimier old days when I worked downtown, She approached. A couple inches taller than me. Slim. Dark red hair -- sort of redwood? She seemed in a perpetual state of bemusement.
"Are you someone from my future?" I asked. "Maybe," she chuckled. "Maybe not. I am the sum of every entirely fictitious character you've ever written. From Daphne to Althy."
"Do you have a name?" I asked as we moved into the old rail terminal, now largely abandoned except for a few stores and a vending machine with several brands of pop and iced tea, the gallery, its pews and ticket windows gone, replaced by a tennis court.
"Give me a name." she said, putting a quarter into the vending machine slot. "Iced tea?"
My mind scanned through my years of writing. I vetoed some for not being entirely fictitious -- even ones never published but based on Lorna -- including ones she'd give me a hard bonk on the forehead if she'd ever read. Finally, "Jodi," I said.
"Isn't Jodi you?" she asked, her eyebrows raised, handing me the dark green can of tea.
"Quite the opposite," I said, laughing, throwing the old-style pop-top into a garbage can. "Jodi was created over a decade before I found the Internet. One year, the online writing group I belonged to had a Halloween party where we came as one of our characters. Some were surprised when Jodi turned out to be me. When I learned the 3D venue allowed multiple avatars, I created a 3D Jodi, causing my high priestess to wonder which was the real life me."
"You enjoy the masquerade writing provides."
"I recognize you," realizing her physical appearance. "The shelf-stocker at Bezos Foods, who I probably have no chance with."
"Why do you say that?" her question reminding me of the old Eliza program.
"Real-life human beings are much more nuanced than those in fiction. Besides the obvious -- significant others, children, there are inner differences. Personal demons, interests we wouldn't share. I dislike tattoos and piercings, but your employer almost seems to require them. Besides, there is the age difference, which most people would find creepy."
"So I wouldn't end up in your basement, stripped naked and strapped to some torture device?"
"Only if you asked nicely," I joked.
"Your shyness is your downfall," she replied, a smirk on her face. "Your body may be old but your sense of humor is mature but not hardened. And no jokes there!"
"Aren't you supposed to be warning me of some potential disaster? Lorna, for instance? I realize I never really had a chance with her, our realities being so different. But she has been a good friend."
"Do I see an empty deck chair on a tropical cruise or one with Lorna sipping a gin and tonic? I'm no doctor. Just a composite of your fictional females. Might someone who had read one of your books recognize you, thinking you're as bold as any of your characters? Probably not, but, I am simply puzzle pieces of you that you need to put together." And she disappeared -- at least not accosting me this time.
Stave Five -- Conclusion
Billy, I thought, why didn't I know about his death? I realized that I avoided obituaries -- afraid of reading a familiar name,an old crush, perhaps. I preferred to think of them as the young, slim teenagers they'd been--not as old ladies my age.
I also realized I took disappointments way too personally. When a favorite member of a writing group I hosted dropped out, of a critique group I hosted, I ended the group saying the dwindling numbers made it untenable. When my high priestess lost her server space, out of loyalty I failed to seek out any of the groups which branched out due to other people's frustration with her flakiness.
I would need to finish compiling my Book of Shadows and self-publish it, paying special attention to the Samhain (pronounced "sowen") chapter and all I wrote about that poetic allusion to death, in which our lives, like the year, are reborn with the Winter Solstice.
And I would need to get more candy -- to hand out in the evening.