's 2015 Horror Write-off:

" Take a Handful "

Submitted by Robbie Lyons (

Jerry’s tongue stuck comically from the corner of his mouth as he fiddled with his eyepatch, eventually switching it to the other eye for tenth time in as many minutes.
He’d only been trick or treating for a street or two and he was already regretting going as a pirate, a decision that had seemed completely ingenious to him until he saw at least five more scallywags circling his cul-de-sac before he’d so much as left his garden. Even in passing, he’d heard the staid “trick-or-treat” replaced by a hearty “shiver me timbers” or a high-pitched “arr!” so many times that they seemed almost mocking to him. He was precociously keen to avoid plagiarism and every piratey turn-of-phrase he’d heard uttered had taken the wind out of his own sails that much more.
Hmm...wind out of his sails...sails...perhaps that could work! Yes, and maybe when Mrs. Peterson opened her door he could say-
“Oh my goodness, look at you! Aren’t you just the cutest thing?”
“S-set sail for...uh?” he stammered, startled by the sudden opening of a door he’d forgotten that he’d already knocked on.
Mrs. Peterson’s kind, curious face smiled down at him and her head cocked slightly as she waited for him to finish.
There was of course the customary tussling of hair and ‘old people candy’, all handfuls of peanuts with a smattering of Werther’s Originals. Oh well, it had been expected and perhaps there was a diamond somewhere in all that rough. He smiled sweetly and meant it genuinely, though he was eager for Mrs. Peterson to wave to his mum, standing at the gate, so that he could totter of to sweeter pastures.
When he reached the gate, his mum waved goodbye to Mrs. Peterson and directed him to the next house, asking him if he’d said his ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with a kind insistence before resuming their game of trying to guess who was who underneath rubber masks and painted faces.
He wondered briefly, as he looked round the blustery street at the groups of kids laughing and trading candy, why he was doing this with his mum and only his mum, the same as every year. Loneliness like Jerry’s could be a strange and slightly alien thing to a boy of seven years old and no matter how many years of it passed him by, trudging up darkened driveways alone at the end of October always seemed to be where he felt it most.
Jerry wasn’t sure who lived in this next house, but it was dark and the driveway was empty. All they had in the way of Halloween decorations was a single, clumsy jack-o-lantern that offered a dopey smile to passers-by. Its flickering grin made Jerry unaccountably uneasy and he was about to march right past the house when he heard his mum check the time with a sigh. Her stern rule of “bedtime at nine” was unflinching, even on this autumn eve, and there couldn’t have been much more than a half hour left to Jerry’s night. His bag was still distressingly light in his small hand and he knew that half of its meagre weight was accounted for by apples alone.
“I’m not gonna get anywhere by skipping houses,” he chided himself, “and it’s Halloween! If their house is creepy, maybe they have something really good!”
And so he pushed that gate open, gravel crunching under his feet and after only two nervous glances over his shoulder at his waiting mother, found himself at the door before the idiotic gape of the lantern.
He knocked and switched his eyepatch, from right to left this time. He had his line rehearsed now, and had practiced it a hundred times under the spotlight of his mind’s eye. He’d throw back his head, strike a heroic pose and confidently announce, “Set sail...for candy!” He smiled. They’d be throwing the stuff at him.
If they ever opened the door that is. He switched his eyepatch back and knocked again. After a few more minutes, his shoulders sank and he turned round to give his mother a questioning glance. She was beaming warmly and gave a small laugh, nodding with her head to the ugly lantern at his feet. No, not the pumpkin...the big bowl next to it!
It was a thing of beauty. The kind of treasure trove a seven year-old poet would write wistful dreams of. The green and white plastic of the large bowl brimmed, overflowed with wrappers of every shape, size and colour. Chocolate, gummy sweets, milk bottles, jelly babies. Not a single apple or peanut in sight. Just a small white placard whose neat cursive script seemed to suggest rather than demand,
Take a handful
He paused, astonished, before slowly lifting his eyepatch with a shaking thumb. He’d half expected the stuff to vanish in a puff of smoke or (worse) turn to apples and peanuts once he saw it with both eyes. But it remained. The wrappers cheerfully sparkled up at him in the flickering lantern light. Eagerly, Jerry grabbed the biggest handful of the nicest stuff he could see and hastily dropped it into his bag, a pirate-themed candy bag, with a wooden pattern and transparent porthole on the side. He felt himself smile with pride at the multi-coloured booty now visible through that porthole. It was a real start.
But there was more. His digging had revealed heretofore unknown treasures. Marzipan, nougat, Mars bars, Curly Wurlys! How long had it been since he’d had a Curly Wurly? He felt greedy for a moment, but it was soon rationalized away. He had very little and in less than half an hour now his chance would be gone. The other kids would be out until ten, eleven. He saw Johnny Miller, from his class, with a big black garbage bag and even that seemed to sway and bulge with every step. He looked again at his meagre bag, his half-filled porthole, the green and white bowl. Who could deny him this?
He felt uneasy...guilt, probably. He had always been a good kid, even if others hadn’t been good to him. And he’d overheard the stories, told by the older boys in the yard every October. But...he just wanted something. Something sweet, to make him smile for a change.

When he heard his mum talking, saw that her back was turned as she chatted with some neighbour or another, he knew he wouldn’t get another chance. Stifling just a twinge of guilt, he tipped the bowl into his bag. Waves of candy rushed down, swelling his ship with cargo, until all that remained on the porch was a grinning fool of a lantern, an empty bowl and a handwritten placard, now face-down on the varnished wood.
The bag felt reassuringly heavy in his hand. When he got back to his mum, he told her that nobody had been home, told her about the bowl. But he said he’d only taken a handful. As they walked down the street towards the next house, Jerry turned to see that the goofy little jack-o-lantern had gone out. The unpainted porch stood in darkness.
A week ago, during the last day of school before mid-term, Jerry had sat near ‘The Gang’ in the playground, close enough to overhear, far enough to avoid attention. They weren’t really a gang, he thought, just some kids like him. But they were noisy enough to overhear and funny enough to enjoy hearing. Jerry usually sat near them while he worked through his plain cheese sandwich at lunch.
At this time of year, when the trees die and the light fails, The Gang didn’t tell jokes or discuss comics and games. They were children and children feel the pull of the October country more than anybody else. The Gang told stories in October that they could never tell at any other time. Stories of their elderly aunt’s houses, where the stairs creaked terribly under the weight of long shadows. Stories of their granddad’s beaten up old car, which he swore screamed every year on the night its previous owner was horribly murdered in the backseat. Stories of dogs that growl and cats that hiss at nothing at all when it’s cold and dark only to be found dead the following morning, only fur and bones.
All of these tales were, of course, absolutely true. Johnny Miller used to say, as did his wizened grandmother, “Not a word of a lie, may the Devil swallow me sideways if ‘tis.” And in October, these tales WERE the absolute truth. In fact, if anything, they became truer and truer, building in depth and power as the month rolled towards a climax on Halloween night. After that, the spirits and ghouls, the dark things, went back over the winter horizon to stay where they might for another year. In November, things were safe again. In October, anything was possible.
Jerry was never a brave lad and he carried these tales with him in his heart, back to his lonely bedroom in the dead of a still night. They terrified him, as they should, and brought exhilaration and wonder in the same breath, as they should. He enjoyed them, seasonally, all except one. Whenever it was told, he turned his mind away from The Gang, to his books or his drawings. He had no wish to hear it again, though he’d had no warning the first time and he could tell it verbatim, just from the nightmares.
They called him The Candle Man. Or Mr. Trick. Or Daddy Long-Legs. His name changed every year, though his story was the oldest of them all and always remained the same. He was a bogeyman, a spectre. He was no vampire, no werewolf, for these were monsters and they had rules. The Candle Man was just a thing in the dark. The fear of the unknown.
In a way, The Candle Man couldn’t be more typical. He was always described as tall, dark and so thin he could hide behind a street-lamp. He had a candle but it was dark and dead, because his head was a cheap jack-o-lantern whose flame had gone out. Thin wisps of black smoke escape the upper corners of his gaping mouth and staring eyes. His carven mouth was full of human teeth and whether they were his own or not, they were black with cavities and plaque. His fingers were spider legs, and they moved all on their own so that he was never ever still. His shoes were old, but polished and gleaming because he only wore them once a year; on Halloween night. They clicked loud and fresh upon the pavement when he crept about the streets. They were what you heard first when he came for you because he never said a word.
But as terrifying as The Candle Man was to young Jerry for his horrific appearance, it was his behaviour that kept Jerry up at night. A vampire wants to drink your blood, a werewolf wants to eat you. He wasn’t yet old enough to be truly afraid of these things. The Candle Man...’got’ you, just like that. He was just young enough to understand that perfectly. Jerry had never heard the end of a Candle Man story, just the beginning...
Be a good boy or your Mother will grieve,
When the Candle Man gets you on All Hallow’s Eve...
That’s what confused Jerry. How do you ‘be good’ on Halloween? Wasn’t it the time of trick-or-treat, of masks and of fun? He asked his dad once who said Halloween was a time of ‘lemonality’, which means that things are all topsy-turvy, but then he also said mum was a vampire. People go a bit mad on Halloween. does the Candle Man decide what’s naughty?
It had barely been five minutes since Jerry left the dark porch and the empty bowl behind and he was already nervous. It had been easy to get lost in the magic, of the thought of a big bowl of candy just for him, but the second he was out the gate the stories, the realization, hit him hard. What he had just done...was naughty. It had to be, he could feel it. He’d broken the rules of Halloween, stolen all the candy! Oh no, The Candle Man would get him for sure!
...but Jerry took a deep breath, steadied himself. He was seven years old. He’d be eight in January! It was time to grow up. The weight of his sugary conquest, its gleam through the porthole, reassured him. This was real. There was no Candle Man. It was time to grow up...right?
Mum checked her watch and sighed, scanning the darkness of the street. Most children were quite a bit farther ahead, isolating her and Jerry somewhat. This was not a good thing. She didn’t want Jerry’s father cornering them alone.
“Okay baby, we can do three more houses alright?”

Normally Jerry would have protested. He was too busy scanning the dark himself to answer properly, so he gave only a half-hearted nod. He wanted to go home, but to insist on it might make her suspicious. He didn’t know if she’d be angry at him for...stealing that candy. He wanted his mum on his side in case the Candle Man came after him.
“Okay...easy. Just three more houses,” he thought, “No problem. Knock, smile, set sail.”
Jerry didn’t know this street very well and didn’t know the people who lived here. They must have really loved Halloween though. The first house was not only decorated by a (kind of awesome, he had to admit) prop tombstone and lit by three, four...five jack-o-lanterns! Who has the time for all of that? Nervously, he approached the door, feeling all the while that the jack-o-lanterns mocking glow knew all his secrets.
The door was opened by a boisterous man, tall and fat, dressed in a dirty hockey mask and coveralls. He was friendly and gave a fair amount but Jerry’s eye was constantly drawn to the pumpkins. It was like he was trying to catch them...doing what, he couldn’t say.
Still, Jerry smiled back and thanked the man (who waved goodbye with a plastic machete) before hastily moving back towards the road. The wind suddenly picked up into a brief, howling gust that deafened him to everything. The drive couldn’t have been more than three or four metres long, but it felt like an eternity of cold, biting wind. He was almost running when he hit the gate, gripped by a terrible feeling of being followed.
“Oof, careful baby!” laughed his mum as he collided with her, “it’s only a bit of wind.”
She took the opportunity to hug him and he was grateful for it. Then she smiled and crouched down to his level, pointing and saying,
“Look at that. Spooky, huh?”
Jerry started when he say that every pumpkin on the house had been snuffed out, the prop tombstone blown over. He tried to count the dead gourds, making six every time, but in the dark it was hard to be sure.
Two more houses then. This next one was dark, lonely and undecorated. Mum nearly suggested skipping it, but Jerry was already through the gate as the words left her mouth. He just wanted to get this over with and get home, where it was warm and safe. His hands were shaking as he knocked on the door, the sound louder and harsher than he intended.
The door was opened by a very old woman, her face a pinched mass of wrinkles and faulty beauty products, her mask the scariest he’d seen all night. Wordlessly she used a hairbrush to point to a small, rusty sign that read “No Soliciting”, before slamming the door in his face.

Already in a state of high nerves, this silent ghoul and sudden crash shook Jerry. As the slamming died away in his ears, he thought he heard something else...something in the pitch-dark alleys at the side of the
Fresh and polished clicking, a determined and deliberate stride...the Candle Man was coming. Jerry was sure of it. He couldn’t think. When he next became aware, he was panting in his mother’s arms, obviously having run up the drive.
“Shh, it’s okay love. Never mind that cranky old...” she sighed, “We still have time for one more house, let’s pick a nice one eh?”
Jerry wanted to scream. He wanted to say “No! No, it wasn’t the old lady that scared me, it was HIM, the Candle Man! He’s coming for me because I stole candy from that house!”
But he couldn’t. Pale and shaking as he was, he couldn’t do it. So he nodded weakly and staggered out of her arms through the first gate he could find. He was sure that he was going to his end, but didn’t think it could be stopped. He felt as if he were dreaming, feverish. This was just a story, The Gang was telling this story...
He hadn’t even looked at the house whose door he was about to knock on. But the strength had left his hands, so his fist unfolded and he reached for the bell.
Then he saw it.
Sitting on the edge of the white doorframe, just above the doorbell, was an enormous black spider. It must have been 8 inches across, huge and hairy, its legs slowly tapping in sequence like great...thin...oh God. This was no spider...spider’s bodies do not end in long, bony wrists that extend around the corners of dark and lonely houses. And even if they did, they would not give out the thin, ghostly wisps of smoke that poured upwards into the night sky from that black alleyway.
When Jerry’s mother found him five minutes later, she nearly panicked. Here was her son, her only beloved son, unconscious on a stranger’s doorstep on a darkened Halloween night. She nearly cried tears of relief when he awoke, shaken but unharmed. He told her everything then, how he had taken the bowl of candy, how a monster was chasing him, how he begged her to save herself.
She smiled, wet-eyed, worried and proud all at once and told him that all he had to do was put the candy back. It was obvious that he felt guilty about what he’d done and if putting things right made him feel better, then she was raising him right.
And so, Jerry did. He went back to that house with his mum and met a child, no more than a toddler in a bedsheet, staggering away from the unpainted porch empty-handed and disappointed. Jerry stopped, opened his bag to the sniffling baby, smiled and said “Yarr, take a handful landlubber.”

The rest he returned, barring his own handful, his story told and his lesson learned. And from the whispering shadows of a tall and spindly oak, empty eyes watched Jerry and his mother depart home for a well-earned rest. Restless spider-leg fingers undid the wrapper on an ancient piece of hard candy and popped into a mouthful of cavity-spotted teeth. The hunched and skeletal figure uttered a sigh of satisfaction at another job well done.

Then a car passed the tree, and its headlights showed only the empty smile of an extinguished jack-o-lantern by the roadside.