you don't know jack

marianne troia

Staten Island, United States

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This image inspired a collaboration with Alison Pearce- who is a wonderful author and poet and has written the short story – You Don’t Know Jack

Seth kissed the top of his son’s head and tiptoed toward the doorway. As his hand reached out to flick off the light switch, the small bundle under the Ben 10 bedcovers stirred.
‘Yes, son?’
‘Can you please take away the pumpkin?’
‘The jack-o-lantern?’ Seth frowned, ‘Why? Mr Fitzpatrick made it especially for us.’
‘It scares me and…’
‘What, Matt?’ Seth prompted gently.
Matt was silent for a moment, fidgeting restlessly with the corner of his pillowcase, ‘It’s just that he gave one to Mummy too, right before she…went away,’ he finally mumbled.
Damn! Why hadn’t he remembered that? It had only been eleven months since Valerie had disappeared. She had been out trick or treating with Matt. According to the other parents, Valerie had been there one moment and had vanished the next. They had only been two houses away from home. The police didn’t know what to make of it. Seth didn’t know what to make of it.
For Matt, his mother had simply, gone away.
‘Okay, mate,’ Seth ruffled Matt’s hair and tucked him back in, ‘I’ll take care of it.’
Blowing out the stub of candle, Seth wrapped the whole pumpkin in a garbage bag. He had to admit on closer inspection that it was fairly malicious looking – the eyes narrowed and glaring, a blood red scar etched across its cheek. The garbage bag tucked under his arm, Seth let himself outside into the chill night air and tossed it into the bin by the house.
‘Evening, Seth.’
Seth turned with a start at the low, disembodied voice tinged with an Irish brogue. As his eyes adjusted, he could just make out the top of Jack Fitzpatrick’s bald pate and a hint of his bushy grey beard near the fence dividing their two properties.
‘You startled me,’ Seth laughed, striding over to speak to the old man.
‘I saw your sensor lights go on and thought I’d check to make sure everything was alright.’
‘Oh. Well, everything is alright. Thanks for your concern.’
‘My pleasure. Keep that pumpkin’s candle lit, the Devil and his minions prowl the darkness at this time of year.’
Before Seth could think of anything as a response, Mr Fitzpatrick had already skulked silently away. Shaking his head, Seth walked back into the house, carefully locking up behind him.
He thought briefly of the pride in old Mr Fitzpatrick’s eyes as he’d presented the ornately carved jack-o-lantern to Seth and Matt. Although he had only lived in the neighbourhood for two years and kept mostly to himself, he was a kind and friendly old man. Like Seth himself, Mr Fitzpatrick had probably forgotten the significance of the gift as well.
No matter. In order to save the old man’s feelings, Seth would tell him, if he asked, that the pumpkin had been stolen from the front stoop. Satisfied he could appease both parties, Seth headed for bed.

‘Come on, Matt! You’re going to be late for school again.’
‘I’m coming,’ Matt sighed theatrically as he met Seth at the open front door, ‘If my teacher didn’t give me so much homework…’
Seth turned to his son as the ritual morning excuses trailed off. Matt was standing in the doorway, his eyes fixed on the top stair, bottom lip trembling.
‘What is it, son?’ Seth dropped down to his knee, and clasped Matt’s shoulders worriedly.
‘You said you’d get rid of that awful thing,’ Matt whispered.
Seth poked his head around the door to see the jack-o-lantern he’d thrown out the night before grin evilly at him from the shadows gathered in the corner of the lattice covered alcove.
‘Oh! Umm,’ Seth shook his head, trying to fight off the sudden surge of disorientation he felt. He was absolutely certain he’d thrown the thing out, yet equally sure that this was indeed the very same pumpkin, ‘I…I will. Don’t worry about it.’
As Seth pulled his reluctant son out the door, past the hideous ornament, and down the stairs to the lawn, a figure stepped into the yard. Matt stepped behind Seth, his small hands clutching the bottom of his father’s jacket tightly.
‘Morning neighbours,’ the figure drawled as he continued towards them. Seth frowned. It wasn’t until the man got closer and took off his hat that Seth realised it was Jack Fitzpatrick. His beard, that only last night had covered the lower half of his face, had been shaved off. Without it, Mr Fitzpatrick looked like an entirely different man. A man you’d cross the street to avoid.
Up close, Matt couldn’t help staring at the round face that had always been obscured by excessive facial hair. Fitzpatrick’s lips were large and pouty, the grin revealing chipped and missing teeth somewhat disconcerting.
It was the scar that slashed across his cheek that held Seth’s bewildered attention. It was a thick, jagged scar that bisected his left cheek. The scar on the jack-o-lantern was an exact replica of it. In fact, without his facial hair, Fitzpatrick bore an uncanny resemblance to the hollowed out and carved gourd decorating their front stoop. Seth shuddered as the macabre thought ran through his mind.
‘Morning,’ Seth finally answered, ‘would love to stop and chat but I have to get Matt to school.’
‘Of course,’ Fitzpatrick flashed another grotesquely wide smile, ‘Just popped over to check on old Jack’s candle for you,’ he said as he jerked his head in the pumpkin’s direction, ‘Can’t have the light going out, can we?’
Fitzpatrick winked at Matt who immediately gripped Seth’s jacket even tighter. Unsure what to think or say, Seth shuffled Matt over to the car with nothing more than a brief nod at his neighbour.

October drifted by in excruciatingly long increments. Each evening Seth would destroy the lantern. He smashed it, chopped it up, burnt it and once even threw it into the creek flowing behind their house. Each morning, however, it was once more sitting on the steps.
Seth had set up a hidden camera to catch Fitzpatrick at it, but came up empty. The jack-o-lantern would be gone one moment and appear out of nowhere the next. His anxiety levels were pushing through the roof.
He seriously considered calling the police, but what could he possibly say?
“Hello, my neighbour keeps giving us creepy looking jack-o-lanterns that look eerily like him.”
It sounded ridiculous. And yet Seth couldn’t deny that something very strange was going on. He had never been a believer in the paranormal, but after reviewing the video tapes from the hidden camera every day, he had quickly changed his mind. He was also certain that Fitzpatrick had had something to do with Valerie’s disappearance, but he couldn’t work out how.
Strangely, as Seth’s fear and dread escalated, Matt’s decreased. After the first time Seth had tried to get rid of the jack-o-lantern, Fitzpatrick had taken to standing out the front of their house, waving benignly as they left each morning.
Matt had begun to shoot Fitzpatrick curious and then knowing looks. Seth noticed that Fitzpatrick looked oddly uncomfortable at this change of events. When Seth questioned Matt about the change in his attitude, Matt would simply shake his head grimly.
‘I’m just not going to let that mean old man bother me,’ he would reply, ‘He wants to scare us and we shouldn’t let him.’

Halloween dawned brightly. Only a few fluffy clouds broke the cerulean blue of the sky and the wind that had whistled violently around the town over the previous few weeks had died down to a light breeze.
Out of respect for the anniversary of Valerie’s disappearance, the other parents in the neighbourhood had elected to hold the annual Halloween party at the town hall. By late afternoon, the street had become unusually quiet and subdued as their neighbours packed up their families and headed into town for the festivities.
The wind picked up and gathering storm clouds brought early darkness as Seth and Matt sat before the fire roasting marshmallows and reminiscing about the vibrant woman missing from their lives.
Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the backyard. As Seth looked up, he was certain he’d seen a shadow standing outside the living room windows. Darting over as the crack of thunder rocked the house; Seth peered out into the gloomy backyard.
Shadows were everywhere, but none were human shaped. As he watched, the heavens opened, his view completely obscured by the silver curtain of rain.
‘What’s wrong, Dad?’
‘Nothing, Matt. Just checking to make sure everything’s tied down,’ Lightning and thunder raced across the sky again, ‘Sound’s like it’s going to be a big one. I think we’d better have some candles ready.’
‘Yeah, we better. I’ll help…’
They both looked up as heavy thuds sounded in one of the rooms upstairs. Seth felt the hair on the nape of his neck rise. Matt jumped up and grasped Seth’s hand.
‘It sounds like someone walking up there,’ Matt whispered, ‘someone really heavy.’
‘It’s probably nothing,’ Seth replied even as his senses screamed at him to flee, ‘the wind might have knocked something over. You stay here and I’ll go check, okay?’
Matt looked like he was about to protest, then nodded his head, sitting back down in front of the warmth of the flickering flames.
Grabbing a torch from the phone table at the bottom of the stairs, Seth began to creep upwards, his muscles tense with nerves. The wind moaned against the upstairs windows, making them rattle in their frames. Below those sounds, Seth was certain he could hear heavy breathing.
He crept closer to the bathroom where he was sure the sounds had come from. As the light from his torch played across the white tiled room, a large shadow flashed across the open door. Seth dropped his torch in shock, stifling a gasp. A low laugh engulfed Seth, its timbre setting his stomach to churn.
Scrambling in the darkness, Seth found the flashlight, but it wouldn’t turn back on.
Trying to orient himself in the suddenly impenetrable darkness, Seth crab-walked toward the sound of the laughter, ‘Is someone there?’
‘Not anymore.’
The malicious tone came from behind. Seth straightened up and turned towards the voice, ice gripping his heart. He could see nothing, and so was unable to fend off the tremendous shove that knocked him backwards into the bathroom, the door slamming shut behind him.

An eerie silence descended over the house as Matt’s father reached the top of the stairs. The wind and thunder stopped. The flames that had crackled merrily in the fireplace a moment before died down to mute embers.
Matt sat inside the tiny circle of light that remained, steeling himself for the arrival of the one he’d known would come. It bothered him that he could no longer hear his father, but Matt knew that he could not avoid the coming confrontation.
‘It’s Halloween at last, my boy,’ the harsh whisper seemed to come from directly above Matt, ‘Now you will be mine.’
Matt refused to look toward the sound of the voice. Mustering his courage, he replied with as much contempt as he could, ‘You don’t scare me. I know who you are.’
‘Oh, really?’
‘Yes. You’re Stingy Jack.’
Matt heard a sharp intake of breath, ‘How do you know who…’
Matt continued, feeling braver now that he had caught Jack off guard, ‘You made a deal with the devil so you wouldn’t have to go to hell, but God doesn’t want you either so now you’re stuck here. You’ve been selling souls to the Devil. You took my Mum away and now you want to take me and Dad…’
Now Matt was caught off guard as the disembodied voice laughed. The figure of Jack Fitzpatrick appeared out of nowhere and sat down cross-legged in front of Matt.
‘No, boy. Only the first part is true. I can’t enter Heaven or Hell, ever. I didn’t want your mother; I wanted you. She just got in my way.’
‘What do you mean?’ Matt felt chills run down his spine.
‘I am stuck on this earth, and so I need a body. Yours is just perfect. Your soul goes to Heaven, I get your body and your Dad will never know the difference. Everyone’s happy that way.’
Matt thought desperately about everything the old Irish groundskeeper at his school had told him. At first he couldn’t think of anything, and then the old man’s words floated through his mind as though someone had sent then to him.
“The only thing Stingy Jack is afraid of is silver as it was with silver that got him into trouble with God and the Devil in the first place.”
Matt remembered the old groundskeeper pressing an object into his small palm. His hand rose now to clutch the silver crucifix he’d been told to keep on at all times. He didn’t know how, but somehow, Matt suddenly knew exactly what to do with it.
Jumping to his feet, Matt pulled the cross from his neck and pressed it firmly against the scar on Stingy Jack’s face, ‘If this is not your body, then leave,’ Matt screamed over Jack’s anguished howls.
Jack began thrashing around wildly, but his movements were weak and uncoordinated. Matt kept the cross held firmly in place. The old man before him began to blur, the shape of his body stretching and distorting awfully until finally he inflated like a burst balloon.
A smoky coloured mist arose from where the body of Jack Fitzpatrick had just been sitting. It quivered slightly in the air before shooting up the chimney.
The grandfather clock in the corner of the room chimed the midnight hour. All of the lights flickered back on. Matt heard his father screaming his name, heard a door fling open and footsteps run down the stairs.
Matt rushed into his Father’s shaking arms.
‘Are you alright, son?’ Seth asked frantically, kneeling down to check Matt all over for any injuries.
‘I’m alright, Dad,’ Matt answered, ‘Everything will be alright now.’
‘What in God’s name happened?’
‘I’ll tell you everything, Dad. I don’t know whether you’ll believe me or not though.’
‘Tonight, I’m ready to believe just about anything!’
Matt looked down at the crucifix that he still held in his hand. It was glowing with a soft white light. He hurriedly put it back around his neck. He knew Jack was still out there somewhere, but now he knew how to protect himself.

©Alison Pearce 2009

photo of a jack-o-lantern taken in woodridge, new york 10/6/08.
camera used – kodak z710

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