|Photo courtesy of https://www.redbubble.com/people/scavengereye/|
I'd been wandering around the main drag and square of the active little town for a while tonight, trying to avoid the rambunctious young adult crowds meandering through the streets. Who would have thought that Halloween would be such a big player in Papillion, Nebraska, of all places? Famous for flat, boring landscapes, and definitely "not for everyone," Nebraska had lived up to its recently adopted tourism slogans as I'd driven through the state. I'd had a bit of car trouble earlier in the day, and as I'd entered Papillion, driving northeast on Interstate 80, it had completely stalled out. I called the local towing company and had my car taken to the local repair shop (one and the same organization, unsurprisingly), realizing I would be forced to deal with this issue instead of making it to Iowa tonight. It was just as well. There was already a wintery chill in the air, and the clouds, though still sparse, were flying across the waning moon, alternately obscuring and revealing its half hidden half smile every few seconds.
The local mechanic said that the repair wouldn't take long, but that he didn't have the part in stock and wouldn't be able to get one until tomorrow. He seemed really eager to close early as well, and when I asked if he had plans for the evening, he gave me a strange look, then declared "it's Halloween," as if that answered the question entirely. I asked him if there was a motel nearby that would have a room for the evening. He replied in the affirmative and offered to give me a ride, as it was near where the street party was happening.
"Street party? You mean, a Halloween party?"
He nodded. "Yup. It's the best shin dig of the year!"
"And, uh, they close off the streets? The whole town attends, I take it?"
"Pretty much. There will be games, and costume contests, and a concert! I'm going as the Cowardly Lion this year. All I need is a little... cah-ourage!" the mechanic replied, giving me his best Bert Lahr impression. Honestly, it wasn't half bad. I smiled at him and wished him luck.
As we pulled into a parking lot on what must've been the main drag of Papillion, I realized he was going to need luck to stand any chance in the costume contest. The street was blocked off and already filling with a mystifying menagerie of creatures from science fiction, fantasy, and pop culture. Stepping out of the pickup, I was assaulted by the scents and sounds of a carnival as well. Popcorn, caramel and candied apples were clearly in view, steam lightly billowing off of the vat where the apples were being dipped as well as puffing out of the popcorn machine every time a snack bag was snatched. Music was in the air as well, with the theme from The Munsters fading out as The Monster Mash was fading in.
"The Fairfield Inn is over there," the mechanic said, pointing to the opposite end of the drag. "Hey, drop by the balloon pop booth later. I'll give you a couple of darts for free!" He gave me a friendly wave before making his way into the crowd, carrying a medium sized duffle bag over his shoulder, presumably containing the aforementioned lion outfit. I made my way down the drag, dodging kids and adults alike as they frolicked with zeal.
Entering the motel, it only took a moment for the clerk to get me the keys to a room on the third floor. I was about to dump my stuff when I realized that I was operating on an empty stomach. Candy and carnival fares were not what I was in the mood for, so I slung my backpack over my shoulder and went back downstairs to see if there were other options. The clerk was amazingly unhelpful, not understanding why I would want anything other than what was bound to be offered at the street party. I thanked the lad for absolutely nothing in this case, and made my way back outside.
Which brings us back to the wandering around, looking for a place to eat while trying to stay out of the way of random ghoul encounters. After what seemed like hours, I turned down a lane that ended in a tavern called Pomona’s. It looked cozy, almost quaint with smoke curing out of not one, not two, but three different chimneys. The facing was a mixture of wood and stone, and the windows were somewhat shadowed, their crosshatches giving off a dull gleam in the pale moonlight. The door itself was a dark, heavy wood. It smelled like… well, I was never very good at distinguishing woody smells. I’ll just say it smelled old, but not in a rotten way. And it was, indeed, heavy as I pulled the old fashioned handle to release the latch.
Stepping inside, I was greeted by a pleasant warmth. I hadn’t realized that it had dropped into the 30’s since the sun had set. I closed the door (with effort) and glanced around the interior. It was dimly lit, with the brightest spots being fireplaces at either end of the large room as well as a larger hearth directly across from the entrance. The room itself was large and mostly square, with lots of four-sided tables scattered randomly around the area. The bar extended from the far left corner, with seats leading to the edge of the fireplaces on both the left and center walls. I noticed that the place was mostly empty, unsurprisingly, since practically the entire town was out on the main drag currently.
A group of costumed characters was seated around a low table next to the fireplace on the center wall. My entrance had apparently interrupted a conversation as it drew their collective attention. The one dressed as Frankenstein gave me a friendly wave, as if inviting me to join their group. I looked around hesitantly, feeling awkward and self-conscious for some reason, when the guy stood up.
“Bro, don’t just stand there! C’mon over here and have a drink with us!”
That… was unexpected. The guy was over seven feet tall if he was an inch, with a build that would leave Arnold Schwarzenegger with severe feelings of inadequacy. Still, he seemed friendly enough, with a goofy grin and emphatic gesticulations of affability. I made my way between the empty tables and took a seat next to the big guy.
“Bro! Whatcha drinkin’?”
“Oh, uh… I’m not sure. What’s… good… here…” My voice trailed off as I glanced at the rest of the group around the table. If the first guy’s Frankenstein costume was good, the others there were equally impressive. There was a vampire, a werewolf, and a mummy as well, and all of them looked like they’d put a lot of effort into their outfits and makeup.
“Dude, EVERYTHING’s good here! We’ve got the place to ourselves tonight!”
“T.M., ye’ve GOT to calm doun,” the werewolf said. I was surprised by two things: first, underneath that impressive mask was someone that was distinctly female based on the pitch and tone of her voice, and second, she was SEVERELY Scottish. “Nae more BROs or DUDEs tonight, if ya please.”
“Gah, don’t be a buzzkill, Morrie. You should hit the gym with me next week! Improves your entire outlook on life, dudette!” The werewolf rolled her eyes as she took a drink of whatever was in her tankard.
“We all go zrough phases, Morrie,” said the vampire, at least I assumed he was supposed to be a vampire. He had the classic pale skin, luminescent eyes, and fangs, but also had what appeared to be a really poorly done fake beard. “I’m sure T.M will werk zrough zis in ze next few years or so.” Well, his Transylvanian accent was laid on a little thick, but I let it pass in honor of the night.
“That’s, like, easy for you to say, Vasile. You’ve, like, gone all hipster this year,” said a distinctly valley girl voice from the other end of the wide hearth. I hadn’t noticed anyone standing there, as there was a shadow cast by the edges of the fireplace, but a girl that couldn’t be more than sixteen emerged from the darkness to take a seat at the other end of the semi-circular array of chairs. She was wearing a full-blown black cowl with the hood drawn back, bunching at the base of her neck, allowing her strawberry blonde curls to cascade evenly over the front and back of her narrow shoulders. Bright, blue eyes with the lightest dusting of freckles on high cheek bones completed her profile. I wondered what she was supposed to be…
“Well, Amanda, one must try to keep wiz ze times. Speaking of zat, where did I put my vape stick?” The vampire named Vasile started moving glasses and plates around on the low table in an effort to locate it.
“Yeah, keep with the times… gag me with a spoon!” replied Amanda. “You should totally have someone do your beard for you next time. It’s, like, grody to the max!” She appeared to be about to offer to fix it, but thought better of it at the last minute, and picked up a snifter full of a light amber liquid. It looked like either brandy or cognac, but certainly the proprietor here wouldn’t serve that type of thing to someone that was CLEARLY a minor.
“Damn, I can’t find it anywhere!” Vasile said, straightening up. He gave a speculative glance at my backpack, as if I’d somehow swiped and stashed the thing without even knowing it existed, then turned to look at the mummy. “Have you seen it, Merkha?”
“WHAT? WHAT DID YOU SAY?” the mummy almost screamed at the vampire.
“TURN UP YOUR HEARING AID, MERKHA!” the vampire yelled back at the mummy.
“BURN UP THE PRETTY MAID? WHAT DID SHE DO?” the mummy yelled back at the vampire. Amanda took the mummy’s moment of confusion to gesture toward him. I couldn’t tell what happened, but I heard a slight crackling coming from the mummy’s direction. A moment later, the mummy looked around, in a slightly different state of confusion, and said, at a normal volume, “I didn’t even know the maid was here today…”
I realized then that Amanda must be the witch of the group, using her “magical powers” (a.k.a. sleight of hand) to mess with the mummy’s hearing aid. I had to hand it to her — it was a pretty slick trick, but I was pretty sure I’d seen better.
“He geits worse every year,” Morrie the werewolf said.
“It’s cuz the dude never works out,” Tim stated, flexing his bicep. I finally noticed the fine stitching scar marks he’d put at various places on his exposed limbs. I couldn’t decide if his makeup or the werewolf’s was better. I’d put money on either of them to win the costume contest.
At the same time, the mummy would give them a run for that money. He (I assumed it was a he), looked ancient. The bandages in which he was wrapped looked to be authentic linen, although they appeared to be so well aged that they were dusty and brittle. They were more patchwork than I would have expected, although all the colors were extremely faded, ranging from pale gray that might’ve been white at some point, to ruddy brown, to sea foam green, to a tired royal blue. The parts of his skin that were exposed were dry and wrinkled, resembling the wavy sand dunes from whence his namesake certainly originated.
The only thing that ruined the illusion for me was the fact that the poor old guy obviously couldn’t hear. No, if there was anything other than simple presentation in the costume contest, he wouldn’t be winning it.
“Who gets worse every year, sweetie?” the mummy named Merkha said to Amanda. “And aren’t you just the spitting image of my good friend Mandy the Witch?”
“YOU get worse every year, duh. And I AM your good friend Mandy the Witch.” Amanda the witch said to him, with a gentler tone in her voice that I’d expected. I think she genuinely cared about the old guy, although I couldn’t imagine them actually being good friends given the difference in their ages. She took his hand, all the same, and patted it affectionately.
“Aha! Zere it is!” Vasile exclaimed, picking something up off the ground. He’d apparently located the missing vape stick, and, putting it to his lips, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. He blew the vapor back over his shoulder, and I was shocked to see it coalesce into a vaguely human form.
“Hi everyone, sorry I’m late!”
“Bonnie!” everyone except me cried in unison. It reminded me of the “Norm!” greeting the bar crowd from “Cheers” used to give to that beloved character. But… was I imagining things? Had the lack of food, drink, and high amounts of stress during the day finally gotten to me? The thing that was taking a seat next to me was definitely NOT corporeal.
“Hit me again, would you Vas?” Bonnie said, which prompted the vampire to take another long drag but this time exhale in a slower, steadier pace. The vapor seemed to fill in the form of an ethereal lady with long, flowing hair and a slightly tired-looking face. She gave me a smile and introduced herself.
“Hello there, I’m Bonnie. Excuse me if I don’t shake your hand, but… it’s a skill I never quite mastered.”
Her appearance here must’ve been an elaborate trick, some kind of laser light show setup. If so, Bonnie was a shoo-in for the costume contest, despite the competition around this table.
“Well, Bonnie,” I said, “I’ve got to admit: As impressed as I am with everyone’s costumes, yours is the clear winner. No offense to anyone else,” I said, my gaze drifting around the table, “but however you’re doing this clearly deserves to win the prize.”
Bonnie smiled at me, and the smile seemed full of a sadness that I couldn’t understand. “Thank you. That’s one of the reasons we came here this year.”
“Oh? You guys aren’t locals?”
“Bro, does this town look like a place where we could party on a regular basis?” T.M. asked, giving me a friendly slap on the back that almost sent me sprawling across the low table. Vasile caught me as I flew forward, moving at an inhuman speed, and helped me back to my chair. As he did, I noticed that his eyes were actually glowing, faintly radiating reds, oranges, and yellows, as if fire was kindling in his irises.
“So, where are you guys from?” I asked, straightening myself up as I tried to recollect my calm. The sense that something wasn’t right was growing in me moment by moment.
“Aw over,” Morrie the werewolf replied. “We shuid nae get aheid o’ oorselves. Let’s do proper introductions. I’m Morag, or Morrie, an I’m originally from Scotland.”
The giant beside me went next. “I’m The Monster, but bros call me T.M.. I’m from England. At least, Doc Frankenstein said so. I’m not really where were all of me is from originally, but all of me is bro at this point, dude!”
“And I,” the vampire next to me said, “am Vasile, originally from ze Transylvanian region of Romania.”
Bonnie was next. “I’m from Ireland, although I think I’ve finally lost my accent.”
There was a pause in the introductions as the focus went to the mummy. Finally, he said, “What?”
“We’re doing introductions,” said Amanda.
“Oh! Sorry about that. Let’s see. I’m…” he looked to Amanda for help.
“Murkha,” she whispered to him.
“Yes! That’s it. Murkha. I’m from Egypt! And I’m old! Frighteningly old!” He raised his wrapped arms and hands towards me, wriggling his fingers, as a whispery “oooOOOooo” slipped out of his mouth. I couldn’t help but smile.
“Did that scare you at all?” he asked.
“A little. The ‘oooOOOooo’ was pretty creepy.”
Murkha smiled in a self-satisfied way, leaning back in his chair as he crossed his arms over his chest. “See? Still got it, you whipper-snappers! Take notes! This was a free lesson from the master!” He closed his eyes and seemed to doze off immediately.
Amanda shook her head, a smile playing across her lips as well. “And I’m Amanda, originally from the Valley, but, like, WAY before it was the Valley.”
As they finished their introductions, I realized there were only three serious options.
1. They were some kind of acting troupe and were pulling my leg in a big way.
2. They were some band of escaped lunatics that thought they were classic Halloween monsters.
3. They WERE classic Halloween monsters.
I was about to challenge them with these thoughts and demand to know what was going on when I heard the intro to “Thriller” blaring over the loudspeaker from the main drag. Apparently I wasn’t too far away from it despite my stumbling about.
“WHAT? WHAT’S THAT?” yelled Murkha the Mummy, who had apparently turned down his hearing aid again.
“It’s time to go to the contest,” Amanda replied as she waved her hand to adjust his hearing aid again, helping Murkha to his feet at the same time. The rest of the group rose and headed toward the door.
“Zat’s definitely our cue,” Vasile said. “We really do enjoy ze costume contests. It’s one of ze main criteria we use to select where to gazzer each year.” Vasile took my hand and shook it in what would have been considered a warm manner if his touch weren’t ice cold at this point.
“Nice to meet you, lad,” Morrie the werewolf said, giving me a toothy, wolfish smile.
“Later, bro!” T.M., The Monster called to me, offering me another friendly wave.
“Like, good chatting with you,” Amanda the Witch said.
“Yes! Take care, lad!” Murkha said. I also heard him ask “Who was that, again?” of Amanda as they headed out.
“Thank you for spending a moment with us. It’s so rare in these times to get to do that,” Bonnie the Banshee said to me. I noticed that she was evaporating as she exited, but Vasile gave her another puff to refresh her countenance.
I watched them walk back toward the main drag as a group, and felt a kinship with them unlike I’d felt with anyone in a very, VERY long time. I only hesitated a moment before making a decision, grabbing my backpack, and jogging out of the tavern to catch up with them.
“Hey everybody! Wait up! Would you mind if I tagged along with you?”
They stopped in their tracks, and as one, turned back to me, mouths agape. Their collective surprise warmed my heart so much that a huge grin forced its way onto my face. As it did, a rustling came from my backpack.
“I… I’m not sure you understand—” began Bonnie.
“Oh, I understand,” I replied as I dug the undying carved turnip from my backpack and moved to the front of the group. The turnip’s faint glow illuminated the path ahead as I started walking slowly toward the main drag. “I never got a chance to introduce myself. I’m Jack. Jack o’ the Lantern. Very pleased to meet all of you!”