I had that dream again, last night. My wife was sitting, looking at herself in her dressing table
mirror. At first, the reflection showed her face. Then it showed a skull – a naked, disgusting skull,
with hollow eye-sockets, a hole where the nose should be, and rows of teeth, locked together in a
never-ending grimace. I woke up sweating profusely, gasping for breath, my heart pounding so
hard, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. At the same time, a voice was saying in my head
“She was here!” There was a kind of wonder in that, along with the horror. I reached over to the
other side of the bed, in a gesture of hope, but there was nothing there. It was as cold and empty as
I listened, in the darkness, for any sound from my son, David, but there was nothing there, either.
He'd apparently slept through what had been a night of horror, for me, completely undisturbed. I
muttered a little prayer of thanks – to whom, or to what, I don’t know – that this should be so,
turned over on my sweaty, rumpled side of the bed and tried to sleep again. Eventually, sleep did
come, as the cold, grey light dawn began to creep around the edges of the curtains.
I was up early this morning, even so, partly on account of David and partly because I don’t really
sleep that much any more, anyway. Every time I do go to sleep, it always ends the same way, with
that dream of my wife, or something very similar. I went out onto the front lawn to greet the
morning, before David got up, and saw my neighbour, standing on the driveway, in front of his
“Those bloody kids!” he exploded, as I walked up to him. “I left the car out last night, because I
wanted to start work on it early this morning, and the kids have stolen it!”
My neighbour, I should explain, has an old bomb he's always tinkering with, as a way of filling in
his time, now that he's retired. The neighbourhood kids had certainly interfered with it before, but
they’d never gone off with it.
“How do you know it’s the kids?” I asked.
“Of course, it is.” he said. “They’ve nicked it and gone off joyriding in it. Look at the date! It’s just
the time of year for that kind of behaviour.”
I had to admit he had a point there. It was coming up to Halloween and the neighbourhood kids
were definitely showing signs of restlessness. Even David was pestering me to be allowed to go
trick or treating, this year. Some of the older ones were obviously graduating to more serious
activities. “It’s still theft.” said my neighbour. “Halloween or not, I’m going to ring the police!”
Much as I agreed with him, I doubted the police would take it very seriously. The kids had probably
pushed it halfway round the block and left it there...pure nuisance value, that was all.
When I went back inside, David was up. He was sitting in the kitchen, waiting for breakfast. “The
neighbour’s hopping mad.” I said. “He thinks the local kids have stolen his car.”
David hardly appeared to notice my remark. At the age of six, the neighbour’s old bomb of a car
didn’t really mean that much to him. “Dad, please can I go trick or treating this year?” he started
asking, straight away. “You promised I could.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly promise,” I replied “I just said I’d think about it.”
Truth to tell, I was reluctant. He still seemed a little young to me – even if I went around with him
– and then there was the issue of honouring his mother’s memory to consider. Carolyn had been
strongly opposed to what she saw as imported, highly commercialized customs like that. “It’s not
traditionally Australian, Angus.” she used to say to me “They brought it in from the States and they
really only use it to sell a whole lot of merchandise. I don’t want him eating all of that sugar”
(Carolyn fought hard to keep him on a healthy, whole food diet) “and I don’t want him being
traumatized by all those stupid horror stories, or believing in a whole lot of primitive superstition,
either.” Carolyn had very strong views about a lot of things, which she was prepared to defend
fiercely, although she could usually be talked around to loosening up and having a bit of fun, in the
Thinking about Carolyn – especially with David there, in front of me – brought back, as it always
did, memories of the night she died. The memories were confused, which – in some ways – made
them even more terrible. I can remember waking up and smelling smoke. I can remember hearing
David, who was much younger then, screaming down the hall. I can remember leaving Carolyn,
lying in our bed – she appeared to be waking up, but more slowly than I had – and running down
the hall to David’s room. There was thick smoke everywhere, although I can’t remember seeing any
flames, at this point. It was hot as hell and there was a terrifying roar, coming from the roof. I
scooped David up from his bed. He'd gone quiet, under the heavy pall of smoke, and I was gasping
for breath, myself. I couldn’t think of anything except getting him outside, safely.
I ran up the smoky hall again, with David in my arms, across the living room and out through the
front door. As I made it onto the front lawn, the house literally exploded into flame, behind me.
Flames were coming out the roof, the windows and the door, along with that thick, black smoke.
The neighbours had already called the fire brigade, which arrived very quickly. I laid David down
on the lawn. I was exhausted, shaking, weak, close to passing out, myself. Someone began CPR on
David, to get him breathing again. Fortunately, they were able to do so, fairly rapidly.
I turned to go back inside, to see how Carolyn was doing. At that point, a section of the roof in the
centre of the house, over the kitchen and our bedroom, fell in, sending a huge cloud of sparks up
into the night sky. I was crying and screaming that I had to go back in, but some of the neighbours,
assisted by firemen and the police – who'd also turned up, by this time – restrained me. They
wouldn’t let me go – they forcibly held me back. I had to stand and watch, as the firemen fought to
bring the blaze under control, until, finally, someone could go in…
David, luckily, was too young to remember much of that horrific night, but he certainly missed his
mother, as I did, every day, from then on. There wasn’t a day spent around him, with everything he
said and did, that I wasn’t reminded, almost constantly, of her. It was like I was still sharing his
growing up, every step of the way, with her. And, at night, there were those dreams.
I was haunted by a dreadful sense of guilt. I wondered why I hadn’t taken more care of her, made
sure she was out of bed and alright, before I set off down the hall for David. I wondered why I
hadn’t been able to get out of the house more quickly, so I could have turned around and gone back
in to rescue her. These thoughts, and many others like them, tormented me night and day. I felt I
was living in an afterlife, where nothing was quite real. I travelled back and forth between a
shadowy, dreamlike place, where I talked constantly with Carolyn – excusing myself, justifying
myself, telling her how much I missed her and how lost I was without her – and the real world,
which was dominated by David and his developing needs. Somehow, he and I survived, we made it
through, but I still felt deeply divided between the world I had, with him, and the one I'd lost, with
Carolyn. One way or another, I told myself, I'd make it up to her for the way I'd let her down, the
way I'd failed her.
And now, here David was, sitting in front of me, wanting to be allowed to go trick or treating for
silly, bloody Halloween, which his mother would never have approved of. For a moment, I was
tempted to say a flat ‘No’ – no more discussion, no more argument – but then something came back
“Do you remember those pumpkins we harvested in the autumn?” I checked with him.
“Yeah...” David replied, a little uncertainly.
“Why don’t we go out to the shed, pick one and carve it into a Jack o’ Lantern? That’s one thing
people always used to do for Halloween.”
“Yeah, let's do that!” David was considerably more enthusiastic, once he heard the mention of
Halloween. But he still seemed puzzled. “What’s a Jack o’ Lantern?” he asked, after a short pause.
“You hollow the pumpkin out and carve it with a skull face. It has holes for the eyes and mouth
and sharp, pointy teeth, with gaps between them. Then you put a candle inside it and light it up. It
looks very spooky and you can use it for a lantern – a light in the night-time, to guide the trick or
treaters to your house.”
“Oh yeah, I'd love to do that!” David was completely convinced now.
We ate our breakfast in a hurry and went out to the shed. The pumpkins were lined up on a shelf at
the back of the shed. I use the shed as a backyard workshop. It's got a good roof, a concrete floor
and it's lined. It stays cool and dry, year round. The pumpkins were well-preserved – as bright
orange, round and firm, as when we harvested them from the old compost heap, at the end of the
garden, the previous autumn.
From the moment I opened the shed door, I had the strongest sense of Carolyn being with me. It
was like she was standing right beside me. I could feel her, hear her, smell the perfume that she
used…In reality, there was only David, but it was like she was standing between us, with her arms
around both of us, enveloping us with her presence. I wondered if he could feel her, too.
Carolyn used to make pumpkin soup and pumpkin pie with the pumpkins we grew at our old
place. I'd made pumpkin soup with them, since we moved in here, but not pie – I wasn’t much of a
baker – and, certainly, never a Jack o’ Lantern. I wondered if Carolyn would approve. I almost
asked her “Is this alright?”, except I felt foolish, suddenly, in front of David, about speaking to thin
air. But I got a feeling that she was coming around, that she was slowly warming to the idea of a
Jack o’ Lantern, in spite of her very strong views on Halloween.
I took the biggest pumpkin down from the shelf and put it on the workbench. David and I had
brought a spoon and a sharp knife with us. I cut the top off the pumpkin and he began to scoop out
the interior. The seeds came first, then the stringy flesh surrounding them, leaving a layer of firm
flesh around the walls. I inserted the knife and carved out an evil-looking, triangulated eye. David
did the same on his side, revealing skills with the knife which were at least the equal of mine. He
carved another triangle for the nose. The teeth were more of a problem. We drew them on the side
of the pumpkin with a marker pen, then cut out the triangular gaps between them, as best we could.
I left him to shape the tips, so they looked as sharp as possible, and stepped back beside Carolyn, to
admire him working.
I could tell she was deeply moved and extremely pleased. She slipped her hand into mine, as we
stood there, looking down at him. When he finished, he looked up at us, with such an expression of
contentment on his face, that she gave my hand a squeeze and whispered “Kiss him for me, will
you?” I bent down to kiss the top of his head and it felt like someone else took over. I kissed the top
of his head once, twice, three times, four…I buried my nose in his hair, like I was drinking him in.
When I stopped, Carolyn had gone. There was silence, emptiness, once more, where she'd been.
“That’ll do.” I said “You’ve done very well. Are you happy with that?” He nodded his agreement,
silently, wide-eyed in awe of his own handiwork.
“We’ll put that big candle from the table on the deck in it and light it tonight, to welcome the trick
or treaters...” I continued “and we’ll put some fruit and nuts out for them, too. I don’t think your
mum would've approved of us putting out lollies for them. That might be going too far. But I know
she would’ve been very proud of you and what you’ve done today. And next year, if we can work
the lolly thing out, we might just take you trick or treating. What do you think?”
“Yes, please!” exclaimed David “Can I light the candle?”
“Of course, you can.” I said.
Published on October 1st, 2022
©TheCaliforniaPoppyTimesNews. All rights reserved.