Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 13

                “Peace and stability are overrated.” You lift the pumpkin up, for the briefest moment considering dashing it on the ground. “But I think I’d like to carry what happened in here with me. It’s raised some questions I may never remember to ask otherwise.” Puckering your lips, you let out a quick gust of air. The candle inside the pumpkin dances briefly before sputtering out entirely.

                Instantly, the sounds of flaming jack-o-lanterns doing battle with the hordes of shadows ceases. The shadows, along with most of the scenery, have grown murky and indistinct. The whole world is fading away. Or maybe you’re just fading from it. You like that second version better, it doesn’t come packaged with guilt over what’s happening to Sheryl and your bosses and coworkers, an entire world’s worth of people, based on your decision.

                “Questions, you say?” Victoria has a quizzical look in her eyes, meanwhile Jim is trying to… huh, it’s hard to tell. He’s running along the ground, near where the fight was, sniffing… oh for heaven’s sake he’s trying to snort the shadows. This is why we pay more attention to Victoria, who is starting to speak again. “What sorts of questions?”

                “It’s hard to put into words, everything is still jumbled up and half-fried with electricity. If I had to pick one though… Victoria, do you have the power to undo someone’s death? Not just raise them, but make it as if they never died in the first place?”

                Victoria shakes her head slowly and solemnly. “I can cross between the veil of those who have departed and those who remain, and I can even bring a soul back with me when properly equipped, but what you are describing far transcends my ability. Even the head of the Willowbrook family would be unable to manage such a feat. Moving souls, repackaging them, that is the work of the arcane. What you’re describing demands the power to fracture the very nature of reality itself.”

                “Great, so maybe I am crazy after all.”

                “I never said that, and I never will.” Victoria reaches out and puts a gentle hand on your shoulder. “You misunderstand me, Merlin. I did not mean to imply that what you’ve described is impossible, only that the beings with the power to do it are much older and stronger than people like me. You’ve seen much, and unlike Jim you don’t run from the weight of what you’ve witnessed in mind-altering substances. Trust your judgement, if it says something is real, then believe that to be true.”

                “Thanks,” you tell her. “But you’re wrong about Jim. He was like this before we started getting mixed up in crazy situations. The first day I met him he was setting up a hybrid growhouse/moonshine distillery.”

                “How did that work out?”

                “Well, there’s a reason we weren’t in the dorms when you met us,” you reply. Jim has given up on snorting shadows, not that there are really any to snort left. Everything around you looks like a painting that just had water tossed on before it was dry. Colors running together, bits and splotches are swirled about. Sometimes you’ll catch sight of something familiar, like your old apartments, or the break room at work. None of it should be there, but none of it should be in the first place. The wish is unraveling, and as it does you say a silent goodbye to the life you had here. For someone else, someone wiser, or more cautious, it would have been a good fit. But you’re unwilling to trade glimpses of the miraculous for a life free of unexpected peril. You can still remember bits of such a life with Sheryl, though they’re fading fast, and while you have to admit it was a good life, that doesn’t make it your life. No, you got mixed up with a human hurricane of drugs and chaos and formed a crush on a living avatar of Halloween. You’re not the kind of person who expects, or maybe even wants, to go out peacefully after a long life.

                The colors have all blended together now, and as they do the world falls away to white, glaring emptiness. It’s so stark it hurts your eyes so you blink, and suddenly you’re back home. It looks a little different, though thankfully it seems Wilbur hasn’t let Jim completely destroy the place, but there’s no mistaking the familiar setting of your apartment living room. And there, sitting on the coffee table, is your jack-o-lantern, the last wisps of smoke already rising and fading from its candle.

                “And we’re home.” Victoria lets out a big sigh before falling onto the couch with more grace than anyone really ought to be able to manage.

                “Ahem… I believe that means it’s time to return something else to it’s rightful place.” Jim sticks out his hand, and seemingly from nowhere Victoria produces a plastic pumpkin-shaped pail. Only there’s no candy inside. What you can make out from the baggies on the top makes you realize the DEA and probably NASA would kill to bust the owner of such a stash, which Jim gleefully grabs before bolting to his room. “Be back in a jiffy!”

                “What are the odds he remembers how to work a doorknob when he’s done?” You ask Victoria, taking a seat near, but not quite next to, her on the couch.

                “Higher than they should be, the man has a talent for that, if such a thing can really be called a talent.” She pauses, paying you a careful glance. “How are you feeling, Merlin? The world we just left was a false one, but you still spent months there. I’d be surprised if there was nothing in it that you missed.”

                “I’ll need a little time to sort out how much was real and how much was delusion, but being back where I belong helps. I already feel better.”

                “Well, take as much time as you like, so long as it doesn’t exceed a single year,” Victoria says. “You’ll need to be in top form to repay your debt next Halloween.”

                You don’t even have a chance to ask her what she means, the confusion on your face is so evident she explains without prompting.

                “Did you think breaking into and disrupting another’s magic was easy? It took a great deal of effort and resources, ones which my family will expect to be compensated for. Don’t worry, there’s never a shortage of ways to earn your keep, especially with a family like the Willowbrooks.

                Well, that’s going to be a big old sword hanging overhead for the next twelve months, but it’s not like you’re really surprised. You know what Victoria is, sort of, and how her world operates, and you still chose to come back with her. And honestly, she was probably going to get you mixed up in something anyway, so this doesn’t change much. For now, you’re home with your friends again, and you don’t have to do any shitty office work tomorrow. That’s not a bad outcome, all things considered.

                “Happy Halloween, Victoria,” you tell her.

                “Happy Halloween to you as well. For what it’s worth, I am glad you chose to return. This place wasn’t the same without you.”

                Seeing as she’s probably about to follow that up with something creepy, we’ll cut it off right there, leaving with a nice moment for…

 

The End

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 12

                Even Jim thinks a Molotov cocktail is dangerous, and you’ve seen him willfully ignore poison warnings. If even he sees and issue, maybe it’s best not to chance that one. And a cell phone just seems like it lacks the necessary punch to breach a wall of living shadow. No, if you’re doing this, you’re going all in. Because you might die, but damnit at least you’ll go out with a flaming fucking hammer.

                 Snatching up the liquor-soaked cloth, you wrap it around Jim’s hammer, which still feels more solid than a prop should, then grab the lighter and flick it on. Overhead, the lamp flashes out again, and this time there are no more signs of it coming back on. Looks like you made it just in time as you press the open flame to the cloth.

                There’s a whoosh of flame as it catches immediately, apparently Jim doesn’t use high quality fabric for his costumes, and you start swinging that bastard for all you’re worth. The shadows, already reaching out for you, lurch away from the flickering fire, even going so far as to part. It’s not a big hole, but at this point you’ll take what you can get. Grabbing Jim’s arm, you point the hammer forward and push through, ignoring the grasping fingers that run along your back as you shove your way to freedom.

                Once you both are through, there’s no stopping. You take off at a run, not even sure where you’re going, just positive you don’t want to be there anymore. There don’t seem to be any more lampposts, the only light in the graveyard is from the overhead moon and your sputtering makeshift torch which is rapidly going out. In the distance, you see something solid and point yourself in that direction. It’s like being lost on an ocean of shadow, whatever looks like land is worth chasing after. As you and Jim draw near to it, the sound of shadows lumbering on your heels, you realize it’s the mausoleum from earlier, although it looks a whole lot creepier now.

                Shit, the hammer dies out just as you arrive, and the shadows seem to only be getting faster. You take a deep breath readying for whatever is about to happen, and look at Sheryl’s phone… just as the time turns over to midnight.

                The front door of the mausoleum explodes off its hinges, flipping through the air and crashing into the grass. From inside come dozens of flaming faces, jack-o-lanterns crawling on bright green vines, chasing down the shadow monsters and biting them with their fire-filled mouths. After the first wave has poured out, another figure steps into view. She looks just like the picture from the book, wide-brimmed hat, dark dress, and of course the dangerous smile. That last one flashes wide as she scans the area and sets her eyes on you.

                “Merlin, you really went out of your way to be a pain this year, didn’t you?”

                Victoria is stunning, and not just because she’s strolling through an army of flaming pumpkins. Memories and pictures didn’t do her justice, there’s something about the real thing that’s impossible to replicate. Casually, unbothered by the wailing shadows all around you, she walks forward and gives you a brief, but strong, hug. “Try not to make us worry so much on your next silly adventure.”

                “Sorry,” you mumble, struck with relief and the experience of seeing her in a one-two punch of dumbfounded. “I’m still not really sure what’s even going on. Jim said I made a stupid wish?”

                “The wish was fair, given the trouble life was handing you. And in truth, I don’t entirely disagree with the way it manifested. Removing Jim and I from your life was a necessary component in making it peaceful and stable. Both of us are… chaotic influences, to put it nicely. Still, I wasn’t quite willing to let one of my people go that easily.”

                “So, was this…” you pause to wave your hands at the graveyard, the city, the whole damn world, “Was any of it real?”

                Victoria looks past you, to the headstones and trees, then beyond them, to the twinkling lights of the city. “Are you real? Am I? When one deals with the realm of the unnatural as frequently as I do, you come to understand that “real” is something of a spectrum, and a shifting one at that. This place is real to you, Merlin. Whether it remains that way is something you’ll have to decide.”

                From behind her back, even though both her hands were at her side a moment ago, Victoria produces one more jack-o-lantern. The face carved into it isn’t particularly scary. If anything, it looks sort of bored. Or peaceful, maybe.

                “What do you mean I have to decide, didn’t you come to bust me out?”

                “I don’t have the power to do that,” Victoria tells you. “No one does. The only one who can end this wish is you. And I didn’t come to tear you from a world you might love, I came to offer you a way home. I can’t force you to take it. For all I know, this world has everything you want. It might be utopia. You can stay here, if you wish. Live a normal life, away from the madness you’ve grown accustomed to. Marry a nice, normal girl, raise a family, all the things people not dealing with aliens and clones and the like get to do. This jack-o-lantern is your wish made manifest. If you leave it be, it will continue to burn. Midnight will pass and my power will wane, forcing Jim and I home. And without us interfering, things here will return to normal.”

                “But what if I do want out?”

                “Then you have two options.” Victoria extends the pumpkin, and you take a firm grip on it. “Blow out the candle, ending the wish. We all return home as we are. Or you can smash the pumpkin to pieces, unmaking the wish. It will be as if this never happened for you. Just in case there have been any incidents you’re happier not recalling. But whatever you desire, you need to make the choice soon. I’ve slowed time as best I can, however eventually the minute will be up. If you haven’t made a choice by then, this world will continue on.”

                The way home is sitting in your hands. All you have to do is bust a pumpkin or blowout it’s candle, and life will go back to the old way. That is, if you’re sure you want it to. After all, you did make this wish for a reason. There’s something to be said for a peaceful life. Better make the call soon, or it’ll be made for you by the ticking clock.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 11

                “The light!” You grab Jim by the shoulder and drag him across the graveyard, toward the nearest lamppost. Together, the two of you get in the direct center of the dim yellow light, not nearly bright enough given how dark the graveyard is. It’s like the very air is turning murky, the very world shifting into shadow. Is this whole place coming undone? For that matter, you still don’t even know what this place is.

                “Jim what did you mean when you said we were in a wish?”

                “Huh?” Jim has used the short time you weren’t looking at him to pull a medium-sized liquor bottle out from somewhere on his costume and is chugging it liberally. Once he notices you looking at him, he lowers the bottle and offers it to you, which you quickly accept. If you’re getting murdered by shadow creatures, you’re damn sure not doing it sober. “Oh right, the wish. Yeah, we’re stuck in your wish.”

                You nearly choke on the mouthful of liquor, swallowing it only thanks to college-level amounts of chugging practice before you hand the bottle back to Jim. “I’m sorry, my wish? This is all something I did?”

                “Wow, and people say I’ve messed up my brain. Yes, it’s your wish. Remember, we ended up buried in that weird maze outside of town, found a few relics, and one of them was a magic lamp that granted wishes. You were all stressed out because the hunt for a job after graduation was going really bad, so you wished for a secure, peaceful life.”

                And you ended up working in a shitty cubicle job. Well, it was secure and peaceful, no question about that. “So it was a Monkey’s Paw situation?”

                “No way, I was the only other person there and you need at least four participants to do a proper Monkey’s Paw.” Jim stares at you for a moment, then smacks his head. “Oh, the story! Sorry, thought you were talking about the sexual position. Sure, it was a Monkey’s Paw thing. You got ripped out of reality, and once I escaped the cave I brought Victoria the lamp. She said she could pop you out, but it would take a lot of mojo. Anyway, here we are.”

                What a place to be, at that. Surrounded by shadowy figures that are slowly drawing in closer, the circle of their bodies so tight you can no longer see past them. You’re not even sure there are multiple bodies anymore, it seems like one solid seething mass of shadow reaching out with disgusting claws. Occasionally you catch sight of an eyeball or two, and it’s all you can do not to throw up as the world spins in those moments. These things are unnatural; they don’t belong in this peaceful, stable existence. But neither does magic, or Jim, or Victoria’s influence. They pushed your wish-world, and your wish-world pushed back.

                The good news is that the light is holding them at bay for the moment. The bad news is that with every passing second, the lamp is growing dimmer. Every now and then, it even flickers for a few heartbeats. Their presence is disrupting it, weakening it’s power. If the lamp lasts another full minute, it will be impressive, and you’ve got at least three to go. Not the greatest situation.

                Your staring is interrupted by the sound of fabric tearing from behind you. Turning around, you find Jim ripping off a shred of his cape. Once it’s free of the rest, he pours some of the liquor onto the strip of fabric, high heresy for Jim’s code of drinking ethics, and then stuffs it into the mouth of the bottle. From his pocket, he produces a lighter which he twirls once before setting on the ground.

                “What… are you making a Molotov cocktail?”

                “Shit yeah! These things don’t like light, they’re sure not going to like it when we set the whole ground on fire. That’ll cast a ton of light!”

                See, this is why you make the plans. “Um, Jim, those are extremely dangerous, and there’s a good chance that if you threw it close enough to hit the shadows you’d set us on fire too.”

                “Wait, people can get hurt here? Isn’t this your wish-world?”

                “Apparently I need to make more precise specifications when wishing on evil lamps,” you tell him.

                “Oh wow. And you let me make this? These things are really dangerous. Not cool.” Jim stops stuffing the strip of cloth in, leaving most of it still damp and sticking out of the bottle. “But I think we need to do something.”

                As if on cue, hell, maybe actually on cue for all you know, the overhead lamp flickers again, this time for a few full seconds. By the time the light comes back on, the grasping hands are halfway to you before shrinking back from the dim glow of the dull yellow light. Jim’s right, you’re not going to survive in here long enough to meet with Victoria. Running to another lamp might buy you time, but you’re surrounded on all sides. If you want to see midnight, you have to bust through this wall of living shadow.

                Glancing around, you take stock of your items. A half-finished Molotov cocktail, a lighter, a formerly-enchanted hammer, and a cell phone. Not exactly a sawed off shotgun and a chainsaw hand, but you might be able to make something work. The phone screen puts out light; if you crank the brightness to its max you may be able to punch a hole in the surrounding shadows. Then again, it’s just one cell phone, and there’s a lot of shadow. Maybe Jim was right about fire. If you wrapped the liquor-soaked cloth around his hammer and lit it on fire, turning it into a makeshift torch, that could be enough to get you to freedom. Again though, you run into the problem of a limited range. Heaven help you… there is also the option to use Jim’s plan. Finish the Molotov, hurl it at the ground, and pray you get through whatever gap it creates without lighting yourself up.

                The lamppost flickers again. No time for debate, there’s barely enough time for action. Let’s see if you pick the right one.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 10

                So, when faced with a world twisting nearly beyond recognition into a realm of horror and huge shadow-monsters knocking over solid stone, your plan is to pick up a tree branch and whack them with it?

                Bold move.

                Snatching the branch off the ground, you begin racing toward the hulking figures. It’s stupid, and insane, and will probably accomplish nothing, but you know what? It feels right. This is what’s been wrong all night, you kept racing away from the crazy and dangerous situations. That’s not you. You barrel in headfirst like an impossible moron, trusting in luck and your friends to keep you safe. Idiotic a plan as it is, it at least feels like something you, the real you who doesn’t work cubicle jobs or eat microwave sad-meals (unless you’re super drunk and the delivery places are closed), would do.

                Amped on adrenaline, you let out a loud yell of triumph as you slap at one of the shadow monsters with your stick. It does nothing. Less than nothing, really. You still can’t make out many of their features in the dim light, but you do see the stick pass harmlessly through its back. Maybe they aren’t real after all? That thought lasts all of five seconds until one of the shadow creature’s arms whips back, striking you in the chest. The force of the blow sends you literally flying through the air, until you land heavily on the grass and slowly roll to a stop.

                Given the pain in your torso, it’s safe to conclude that those things are real, or at least real to you, which is fundamentally the same from your perspective.  Also, they hit like fuckers. That was a glancing blow and you’re lucky to be alive. If you’d hit a tree instead of sailing through the air, that might have been lights out for good. Victoria probably isn’t going to be too happy if she pulls a corpse out of whatever this place is, and even dead you’re not sure you’d be beyond her wrath.

                Unfortunately, the sounds of more headstones being knocked over betrays the fact that those shadow monsters are approaching, and fast. A lone punch from one of them sent you through the air. If they all gang up on you, it’s as good as over. Scrambling through the grass, you try to pull yourself to your feet. If you’re going down, it’s not going to be on your back. Before you make it all the way up, however, a new noise splits the air. The sound of thunder, so close and loud it’s like lightning hit mere feet away, despite the cloudless sky overhead. Then you hear some of the dumbest, most beautiful words to ever grace your ears.

                “Whenever big-breasted co-eds, or awesome roommates, are in trouble, Godpunch Lightning-Fucker will be there!”

                There’s only one man who can speak those words without a trace of shame in his voice, and as you cast your eyes about it’s easy to spot him. The dude is literally glowing with power and floating several feet off the ground. His costume looks a little different than last year, but there’s no question about it: Jim is here, dressed as Godpunch Lightning-Fucker and rocking some Halloween costume magic.

                “Jim!” You yell at him, as if he didn’t know you were there, overwhelmed at seeing a familiar, friendly, face at long last.

                “Hey man!” Jim holds out his hammer, letting out a blast of energy that wipes out the approaching line of shadow creatures without effort. “Been a while. How are things going, and are you holding anything stronger than booze by chance? Victoria cut me off from my stash until this was done.”

                Yup, that’s Jim alright.

                “What the hell is going on here? Where are we, how did you show up, and what are these things?”

                Jim stares at you, his glowing eyes blinking several times. “So that’s a no on the enhanced party favors then? Guess it’s fine, we should be able to head back soon enough anyway.” The blinking starts again, only this time it’s not Jim’s eyes, it’s his whole body. The glow is starting to short out, fading away a little with each interruption. He drifts downward, his feet hitting the ground as he lands near you and the glow vanishes completely.

                “Balls, I forgot that wasn’t going to last. Really should have kicked more ass when I had the time.”

                You follow Jim’s gaze to the destroyed headstones, where the shadows are beginning to form back together into solid masses.

                “Dude, buddy, I need you to focus for a minute. What the hell is going on right now?” You grab him by the shoulders, all but pleading with him to give some answers.

                “Right, shit. Sorry, keeps slipping my mind that you’re in the dark. The short version is that we’re in a wish, and Victoria is back home trying to punch through to bring us out. She juiced my costume earlier tonight, but apparently magic doesn’t work so well here. Part of why getting you out is such a bitch. Not really sure how I got here, I was supposed to come over with her at midnight. Godpunch is summoned by reckless bravery though, so if you did anything truly stupid that might have been enough to yank me through.”

                Okay, that didn’t make a lot of sense, but at least it was something. Victoria is busting you out, this world is some kind of wish, and most important of all you’re not crazy. Yanking out the phone, you check the time. Five minutes left.

                “So if magic doesn’t work here, what the hell are those things?” You point to the shadow monsters who have nearly reformed. Oh, and there are twice as many this time, isn’t that just a fucking cherry on top of this shit sundae.

                “How the hell would I know? Victoria just said the place would have defenses. I’m going to take a wild swing and guess they’re that.”

                Crap. What are you going to do? “Crap, Jim, what are we going to do?”

                “Dude I literally just rode in on a lightning bolt of magic and I’ve barely had any drugs today, how am I the one you’re asking for a plan? Let’s just try to not die for the next five minutes.”

                Huh, near-sober Jim makes some oddly good points. Come on, think! You can try to outrun these things, they’re faster than they should be but not full on sprinters. Maybe you can outwait the clock by keeping ahead of them. Then again, they do seem to be sticking to the darker parts of the graveyard, so it’s possible they can’t go into light. If you and Jim hunker down under one of the lampposts, you may just last long enough to get out of here. And, of course, there’s always the tried and true classic of hiding. Strong as these are, you don’t get a very wily vibe from them, so that might be enough to buy you five minutes. 

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 9

                Finding an exit is actually pretty easy, turns out Sheryl was right when she analyzed the layout and guessed where a back area might be. Once you two are outside, it’s a quick matter to hail a cab and tell the driver to take you to the nearest graveyard. From the look on his face, he clearly thinks you’re up to some shady shit (and really, is he wrong?) but you’ve got money to pay the fare so he takes you where you want to go.

                Quick a drive as it is, there’s still some distance to cover, and by the time you arrive at the graveyard’s iron gates the clock on the cab’s dash reads fifteen until midnight. Grabbing some bills from your pocket, you thrust them into the cabbie’s hands and hop out. Behind, Sheryl begins scooting over to get out on the same side but you carefully shut the door before she has a chance.

                “The hell are you doing?” Crap, you forgot the window was half-rolled down, and it’s all the way down now that she’s got a hold of it.

                “Look, Sheryl, I’m grateful for the help you’ve given me tonight. I’m not sure where I’d be without having you at my side through this shit. But from here on, I think I need to go alone. Whatever is waiting for me in there is probably going to be dangerous.”

                “Seems like all the more reason to have backup,” Sheryl points out.

                Slowly, you lean forward and kiss her gently on the forehead. In the course of getting shocked, you regained a few flickers of the life you two shared together. Enough to make this decision an easy one. “I have no idea if you, or any of this, is real. In case it is though, I want you far from danger. Don’t worry about me. One way or another, I’ll be alright. Whether I like it or not.”

                You pull the last of your cash from your pocket and slap it into the cab driver’s hands. “Take her wherever she wants to go, just get away from here.”

                Sheryl reaches out, grabbing you by the hips and pulling you in close. She kisses you on the lips, quick and fierce, before releasing you from her grip. Surprisingly, Sheryl doesn’t object as the car pulls away from the corner, though she does watch you from the back window until it pulls out of sight. A piece of you aches to see her leave, but that time you spent together feels surreal, unstable in your mind. The further you get from it, the less the memory hurts. It was a long, unexpectedly lovely dream; however, the time has come to wake up.

                You march up to the gates, expecting them to be locked. To your surprise, they swing open at your touch. After five steps inside, you hear the loud clang of them slamming back together. You check to see if they’re locked, although it’s largely formality. They are, and you knew they would be, because that’s how these sorts of things play out.

                Walking along the cobblestone path between grave markers, you keep your eyes peeled. It would be nice if you had a way to keep track of the time until midnight, but with a busted phone and no watch you’re out of luck. Just in case, you reach into your pocket to see if any of your phone is salvageable, and are shocked to find a cell phone that is both entirely whole and not yours. It is familiar though, and that’s because you’ve seen it plenty of times tonight. Sheryl slipped you her phone, that’s why she grabbed you by the hips. The kiss was a distraction, probably. It’s locked, but the bright glowing letters can still be seen without getting inside. Twelve minutes to go.

                Something rustles from behind you. Resisting the urge to spin in place, which is honestly impressive at this point, you turn slowly to discover a few rogue leaves being blown across the ground. Creepy, sure, but compared to eyeballs along a ceiling it doesn’t pack much of a punch. You keep walking along, lampposts on the path lighting your way. It’s peaceful here. Probably the most peaceful place you’ve been since deciding to leave your apartment. Actually… it’s a little worrying how peaceful it is. Shit, did you pick the wrong place? Is this an area Victoria can’t access? Something should have happened by now, right?

                And then, as you look at Sheryl’s phone, the clock reaches 11:50. Ten minutes to go, and the peace around you shatters. Snarls fill the air, each sounding like they are coming from behind a gravestone. A pale oak tree begins reaching toward you, long branches warping into gnarled fingers. The shadows are swirling despite the moon’s unmoving position. Shit is going down, in other words, and you’re standing out in the open like a dumbass.

                You bolt forward, debating whether this is a good sign or not. Victoria deals in the creepy, so the world turning this spooky feels like it should be familiar, yet something about all this feels off. It’s not Victoria’s brand, this is too chaotic, too wild. But it’s all around you, and midnight is still ten minutes away, so you’re going to have to deal with this. Maybe things will be okay, maybe it’s just trying to scare you off.

                The outline of hulking, shadowy figures bring your feet to a sudden halt. You can see them a ways off, lumbering about, knocking over anything they touch. It’s too dark to make out details of their form, and that’s a mercy you’re grateful for. Unfortunately, there sure seems to be a lot of the things. And they’re heading in your direction.

                Glancing about, you search for anything that might be useful. Nearby is a mausoleum, which seems like a morbid but effective hiding place. There’s also a small patch of trees, these thankfully unanimated, you could try going high and hoping they don’t spot you. And on the ground you see a hefty branch, one just about right for acting as a club. Maybe it’s time to stop running and start fighting back against these fuckers.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 8

                “Are you sure about this?” It’s not the first time Sheryl has asked you this question, but it’s likely to be the last. Together the two of you have yanked the power chords out of several lamps, wound the exposed wires around you, and plugged them all into one surge protector. Sheryl is holding the plug for the protector several inches from a wall socket, and from the look on her face she’s clearly hoping you’ll take the out and do something less outright insane.

                “I’m sure. I can’t keep scrambling around, trying to find breadcrumbs. I need to know what’s happening if I’m going to have a shot at getting through this.”

                “For the record, you do know you sound like you’ve completely gotten aboard the crazy bus, right?” Sheryl asks.

                You nod, keenly aware of how deranged you sound. Hell, how deranged you might be. That’s the other reason you need to do this. If what’s happening is really just your brain freaking out from being shocked, then another session should make it worse. Should that not happen… well, at least you can safely rule out a potential cause for the night’s events, even if that leaves you with two unpleasant options. Because if it’s not the shock that did this, then either monsters are real or you’re a fucking nutbar, and both of those come with serious implications.

                “Hang on, nearly forgot.” Sheryl hops up from the surge protector and runs over to a shelf. Her hand darts along until it closes on a small leather-bound book.  Bringing it over, she motions for you to open wide. “Bite down on this. I might be remembering this from a movie, but I think it will keep you from biting your tongue when your body spasms.”

                Holy shit, that hadn’t even occurred to you. You really haven’t thought this plan through at all, huh? Without hesitation you open wide and bite down. The book tastes musty, which you didn’t know was a taste, but it’s probably better than the flavor of your own tongue’s blood.

                “I’m keeping this short and sweet. We can do more rounds, but I’m not risking this for too long. If you don’t like it, tough. Find someone else willing to do this.” With that, Sheryl heads back over to the surge protector and picks up the plug. She looks to you, and you tilt your head forward, giving her the signal to do it.

                The plug goes in and your whole nervous system seems to light up, your teeth chomping deeper into the book’s leather cover. Ohhhh shit this hurts. Last time it was one quick shock and a fall, but now you’ve got a continuous current coursing through you. Sparks fill your vision and your head starts swimming. Why in the hell are you doing this again? You cast your mind about, trying to figure out what would compel you to do something Jim-level stupid…

                And there it is. A trove of memories about Jim that come bursting forth. Fighting aliens, dealing with your clones, racing through ancient mazes, that time he turned your costume into a bong and-

                The electricity cuts off as Sheryl yanks the plug. Shit, shit, it was all there and it’s starting to slip. You were close to something, you know you were. Frantically, you nod at Sheryl to keep the shocks going, but she looks wary. Still, she inches the plug forward and puts it back in, drowning you in pain once more.

                Pain… and memories. With everything in your body thrown out of whack you can finally access the part of your mind that’s been walled off. Jim ruined your costume, and you had to get a new one, so you got some dust sprinkled on a wizard hat, entered a costume contest, and ended up hanging out with that girl from your high-school… Victoria.

                As soon as your mind locks onto her, the floodgates open. How could you ever have forgotten her true nature? She’s Halloween royalty, your friend, and a not-so-secret crush you’ve been harboring for years now. Victoria’s voice was the one you heard, telling you to run. If you had to bet, that book was probably left by her as well. She’s trying to break you out of whatever this is, and apparently midnight will be her best chance. You need to find her, help her, and that’s a daunting task. But at least you know what you’re after now, and that you’re not crazy.

                Except more memories are pouring in. Not of Jim or Victoria, but of you… dying. Eaten by a demon, dissolved by a slime monster, torn apart by wild chupacabras, each time only to be hurled back into your body with a vague sense of the danger awaiting you. What is this? What the-

                Again the power cuts off, and this time Sheryl is at your side, yanking the wires off your arms. “I think I saw you smoking that time, so we are officially done with this shit. Did you get what you needed?”

                Letting the book slide from your mouth, you test your voice and find it responsive, if a bit drier than usual. “I did. I remember. Not all of it, a lot is still murky, but enough to know what I’m trying to do. I need to get home.”

                “If you’re not heading to the hospital, which I still really wish you would, that’s probably the next best idea. We’ll get you back to your place and let you sleep this off.”

                You begin to protest, but then reconsider. Maybe your apartment is exactly where you need to be. It’s where Victoria would know to look for you, and it’s where all this started. Then again, she did tell you to run, so maybe it’s somewhere to avoid. But if not to there, then where? Where can you go to make it easier for Victoria to reach you? Somewhere spooky seems like the best bet, she’s always at her strongest when things are scary. Perhaps a graveyard? That’s in line with her general style. Or somewhere haunted, like a historic mansion or abandoned building.

                “Are there any graveyards or places famous for being haunted around here?”

                “Branch out a little they said, talk to the cute intern they said, and this is where that shit gets me.” Sheryl isn’t exactly muttering under her breath, however the words clearly aren’t meant for you. “There’s an old farm that’s supposedly haunted not too far out of town, it was even on a ghost hunting show. As for graveyards, I think there’s a small one nearby in the historic area of the city. If we get a cab, we could probably make one of them by midnight. Assuming we can find a way out of this place, I mean.”

                The clock is running down, you’re only going to get one shot at this.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 7

                Nothing seems to be following you as you duck under a thick rope meant to keep people out, though you do have your eyes scanning about, hunting for any signs of moving shadows or sudden monsters. It’s thanks to that alertness that you notice a sign for the Occult section and quickly steer Sheryl and yourself into this new area of the library. The place is musty and the tomes are large, perhaps out of a desire to create ambiance or maybe because people don’t peruse this section all that much. And why would they? Everyone knows magic, like all things supernatural, isn’t real. Or at least, it isn’t supposed to be.

                “Slow down for a second, I need to get my bearings if you want me to try and figure out where the exit might be.” Sheryl sets her feet, halting the both of you, and starts looking around the room. “Help me out here, check for any halls that make sharp turns to the south. Those are going to be our best bet.”

                You comply, because it’s not like you’ve got any better ideas at the moment. Granted, your version of searching involves more frantic, darting glances to the ceilings and walls in case anything tries to sneak up on you, but you’re also looking for halls in the process. It’s not a hall that catches your attention, however, nor is it another monster. No, it’s a book on a nearby shelf, pulled out just the slightest bit from its brethren so it stands out. On it’s spine there is no title or author, only a single image etched into the leather.

                The image of a Jack-o-lantern.

                Before you even realize your hand is moving, you’ve snatched the book off the shelf and dropped into a nearby chair. You don’t even know what you’re hoping for, which is sort of a theme of your life when you get down to it, but your fingers are a blur as you turn page after page, waiting for something to leap out at you. And holy shit, do you ever find it.

                “The Lady of Autumn.” You don’t mean to say the words out loud, they just sort of slip out. Sheryl walks over from the other side of the room to stare down over your shoulder. On the page is an illustration of a woman cloaked in shadow, wide hat and billowing gown hiding all but the barest glint of a dangerous smile. She’s surrounded by pumpkins… make that jack-o-lanterns, now that you look more closely. The moon above her is full and bright as her outstretched hand seems to beckon you into the page.

                “Damn. I was not expecting your buddy to have based that webcomic on lore this obscure.” Sheryl leans in closer, studying the page. “I’m a big Halloween fan, and I’ve never heard of any of this stuff before. Halloween has High Families, and people with titles? After we get you to the hospital, I’m coming back and checking this book out.”

                While Sheryl is rattling off facts that are somehow both foreign and familiar to you, your eyes keep scouring the page for something specific. There was a part of Jim’s comic that didn’t add up, even Sheryl noticed it and she doesn’t know the guy. A word he used, way beyond his altered mind’s vocabulary. It’s a straw, you know that as you grasp for it, but a straw is still something solid enough to put your hand on. Then, you see it. Down near the bottom of the page.

                “It is said that the Lady of Autumn’s power is at its greatest on All Hallows Eve, and reaches its true zenith at midnight.” You start to reach for your busted phone out of habit, but Sheryl is quicker on the draw.

                “Right now is about ten past eleven,” she tells you, reading from the bright screen. “Is Jim going to release a new comic when the time arrives or something? I have to admit, that’s some pretty clever marketing if so. Hiding a hiatus in a plot thread centering on lore almost nobody knows. That’s some Gravity Falls shit right there.”

                “Jim doesn’t plan anything that far ahead. Jim can barely plan which shoe to put on next while already wearing one. This isn’t him.” No, it’s not is it? Save for scoring illegal substances, at which your old roommate was a damn wunderkind, Jim rarely put this much planning or forethought into anything. But someone did. One of you was crafty. Almost never fearful or panicked, always ten steps ahead, gliding over problems like she knew they couldn’t touch her. Your eyes are nearly burrowing into the picture on the page. Maybe you’re imagining it, or losing your mind, but the shadows don’t seem to be obscuring the Lady of Autumn’s face quite so well as they did before. And there’s something familiar to that grin.

                Carefully, you hand the book over to Sheryl, taking a few steps away to get your bearings. The last bits of your screaming episode have begun to fade; you’re starting to think more clearly again. And the most obvious realization is that whatever is going on, you might not be able to get out of it. You tried that, you got decades away from this, only to be pulled back here. So if you can’t get out, then perhaps you’re better off going through.

                “Sheryl, I’m not going to the hospital.” You sound uncharacteristically resolute in the declaration, good for you! Unfortunately, her eyes narrow as she looks up from the book, instantly weakening your resolve.

                “Really? Because I just watched you suffer a migraine so awful you couldn’t stop screaming, so the hospital sure seems like where we need to be going.”

                “It won’t help. Whatever is going on with me, I can’t keep running from it. I need to hit it head on. Until I get my memories back, I don’t think this is getting any better,” you tell her.

                “That’s what we came here to do. But then the computer crashed and you had your freak-out, so unless you’ve got any fresh ideas I’m all out. We don’t know how to trigger your memories.”

                Walking over to a desk lamp on one of the library’s tables, you flick a switch on, then off, several times. “Not true. We do know one way that has jogged my memories already.”

                Credit where it’s due, Sheryl doesn’t need any more explanation than that. “Are you out of your fucking mind? You want to electrocute yourself again?”

                “You don’t have to stay for this.”

                “Oh eat a dick, like I’m going to let someone fry themselves and just go drink at a bar.” She takes a deep breath and steadies herself. “Look, why don’t we keep looking through these books. We’ve literally read a single page of this one and gotten good information. Or, if you insist on trying to roast yourself, at least let me hang around to cut the power if it looks like you’re in trouble.”

                You’ve seen a determined stance like hers before (but where?) so you know she’s not going anywhere. Research or electrocution seem like your best options at the moment, which says a lot about how shitty this situation really is, but the clock to midnight is ticking down. No time to waste.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 6

                The screaming startles you, it’s so sudden and fierce you can’t fathom what sort of creature would make that kind of noise. And then you realize: the screech is coming from your own throat.

                “Hey, whoa, are you okay?” Sheryl is staring at you in concern, but there are no words you can form that will explain this.

                What’s going on? What’s happening? You were passing on, moving to a new realm, and then something yanked you back. You can still feel it all there, though. The years of marriage, the fights and love and anger and trust and boredom and adventure, all of it’s still there when you look at her, but so are the recent memories of just hanging outside the office with her for the first time. But no… it was real. You know it was real. You had kids for Christ’s sake! A boy and a girl named… what were their names? Oh sweet God what were your children’s names? It’s slipping, all of it, turning muddy and impossible to grasp. You’re losing it, like the memories you came here chasing, like who knows how much before. Maybe you really are crazy. What evidence do you really have that anything unnatural is taking place? An electrical shock and a busted computer, hardly damning evidence.

                With your mind fracturing under the weight of what you’ve just lost, there’s only one choice. You know, without question, that trying to hold onto this will break you. So you take a deep breath, say a silent goodbye, and let it all fall away. After a few seconds, the pain in your head lessens, and the memories become vague, the details too blurry to feel any true loss. Not long after that the screaming halts too. As you come around, you realize that Sheryl has her arms around you, holding you close. It’s familiar in a way you can’t let yourself realize, so you begin to slowly rise to your feet, wiping away the tears you didn’t notice you were shedding.

                “Glad to see you’re back with the functioning,” Sheryl said. “But what was all that?”

                “I don’t… I’m not… my head hurt. Really badly. Probably a leftover from getting shocked and falling down this evening.”

                “Yeah, I’ve read lots of comics where electricity gives people super powers, however super migraines were not a part of that package. We need to get you to a hospital.”

                That doesn’t sound like a bad idea. If nothing else, it will be well-lit and full of people, so more monster attacks seem less likely. Or, on the off-chance you really are slowly shedding your marbles, maybe someone there can help you get your head on straight. Fine a plan as it is, however, there’s still the issue of actually getting out of the library. You can’t go back to the party area, either things will happen the same again or it will be different and you’ll know you’re crazy. Neither of those is something you can handle at the moment.

                “What if we go around back to find an exit,” you suggest. “A place with this many books is bound to have a shipping area for receiving new items, maybe we can find an open door near there.”

                “Worth a shot, I guess. Are you sure you’re up for it?” Sheryl is visibly concerned, which is pretty fair given that she just saw you totally lose your fucking shit for a while, but seeing the expression still makes something in your heart hurt.

                “I will be, once we’re out of here.” Both of you probably know that’s a lie, however its one best dealt with once the current crisis has passed.

                Racing through the halls, ignoring any noises you hear as best you can, the two of you go deeper into the library. It’s time consuming; this place is pretty massive, even if a half-dozen areas are roped off. Unfortunately, one of those roped off areas apparently contains the route you’re looking for, because after several failed attempts to find freedom you and Sheryl have come up short yet again. Even worse, in these sections of the library far from the revelry, the lights have been kept low. Every time your eyes fall upon shadows you tense up, waiting for them to move. None of them do, though, making that crazy diagnosis seem more and more probable by the second.

                “Okay, that’s the last open area path and we’ve come up empty,” Sheryl announces. Bless her, she’s been keeping track of your routes and failed attempts while you’ve been too busy staring at shadows to think properly. “Looks like if we want out, we’re going to have to break some rules and head into one of the sealed off sections.”

                “Is that safe?”

                “It’s a library, not Hogwarts, they just don’t want kids fucking around and getting lost in here.” Sheryl turns back to the nearest hallway, mumbling something under her breath and ticking numbers off on her fingers. “Based on the way these halls have gone around, I’d say our best bets are heading into Historical Documents, the Occult, or the area where they store old newspapers. Microfiche or whatever. The shitty screens they show in movies.”

                “You… you pick.” After what happened last time, you’re not sure you can handle another poor choice. She’s been the one tracking all this route information, she has her shit far more together than you do, it makes more sense for Sheryl to decide where to go next.

                Sheryl’s mouth is hanging open, probably in shock. No, wait, that’s not right. It’s not hanging open, it was starting to speak and it froze, along with the rest of her body. Everything around you is still, actually. No hum from the lights or rustle of the old building settling. The world has gone silent and frozen. Dead.

                Then you see the shadow as something runs across the light overhead. You glance up, expecting to find nothing, but you’re extremely wrong. Something is on the ceiling. A lot of somethings, with a lot of eyes all staring down at you. Holy shit. Holy shit you have to get out of here. As you begin to run toward Sheryl, the world snaps back into motion. There’s no time to stop and discuss, looks like you’re going to be making the choice after all.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 6 (Dead End)

                You lead the way deeper into the party area, keeping Sheryl close by. All around are the sounds of cackling witches and screaming ghouls, playing over a few speakers set up at key positions. The two of you wade past plastic skeletons, half-filled buckets with floating apples inside, and large displays of horror books. It’s as your passing one of these book displays that you see movement, but it’s too late. A pair of black gloves reach out and grab both you and Sheryl.

                “Gotcha! Okay you two, go sit in the reading nook until the game is over.” The black gloved person, an older woman wearing a Frankenstein costume, releases her grip on you both.

                “Sorry… what?” You are as eloquent as always.

                “Those are the rules for the Annual Hide and Seek Tournament,” Frankenwoman explains. “Don’t worry, there are snacks and games set up, so you won’t be bored while we find everyone else. Usually they all go hide in the second floor stacks anyway.”

                Laughter bubbles up from your lips as your entire nervous system floods with relief. Next to you, Sheryl is making a similar noise. You meet her gaze, and then notice that during the scare your hands intertwined. Both of you linger on that for several moments, yet neither makes a move the break the grip as you head toward the reading nook.

                Five years later, although not to the exact day, the two of you hold hands once more as you stand at the altar, professing your vows to one another. Sixty years after that, she holds your hand at your bedside during the final hours. It’s a time that should be scary, knowing your end is near, but all you really feel is thankful. If not for that crazy shock that triggered what you’ve convinced yourself was a wild delusion all those years ago, you may have never met your wonderful wife, or have been surrounded by your children and grandchildren as your last breaths draw near. This was a good life, and you have no regrets as you face the end. Well… maybe some part of you wishes you understood what those odd memories were about, but that was a fancy of youth that’s long since lost its importance.

                You’re beginning to fall asleep, and somehow you know you won’t be waking up again. Just before you slip off, you feel Sheryl’s lips against yours, one final kiss for the journey onward. All things considered, this is one of the best ways you could ever hope to meet a…

Dead End

But then…

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 5

                “Godpunch Lightning-Fucker sure does seem to have a lot of adventures centering around chesty women and drugs.” Sheryl is sitting in the chair next to you, reading the comic as you click from page to page. “Should I take that as an indicator of how you two spent your college years?”

                “I’m pretty sure mostly just the drug part was true. Jim would hook up sometimes, but I could never really pin down one feature he was drawn to, and definitely not something as obvious as that. I think this might be a place where art and life diverge.”

                The two of you are seated in a large bay of computers, which is empty save for you as everyone else in the library is taking part in the big event downstairs. There’s candy, party games, and prizes for literary themed costumes. Honestly, this library fucking rocks, and if not for your sudden mental crisis/potential breakdown it would be a really cool way to kill an evening, especially with Sheryl around for company.

                “Well, at least he’s consistent. Unlike his sidekick; I can’t figure out what the hell is going on with that guy.”

                “Sidekick?” You’ve been scrolling through the pages quickly, searching for anything that seemed familiar rather than studying them in depth. To be fair, there are only so many hours in a night and Jim managed to whip up a huge backlog to this web-comic before it was optioned. Apparently Sheryl is a faster reader than you though.

                “Yeah, the nameless guy who shows up early on. First he’s a wizard, and that’s fine given that we have a dude with a magic hammer and an enchanted bong as the main character, although don't get me started on that idiotic incantation catchphrase. Then the sidekick shows up again later on wearing a devil outfit, but in one scene he casts a spell like he’s still a wizard. And now he’s wearing some sort of gunslinger ensemble? Seriously, could your buddy not decide on what he wanted?” Sheryl reaches over and taps on the glass screen, pointing to a character you somehow missed.

                No… no you didn’t miss him. As you squint your eyes, trying to make out the form that refuses to come into focus, you realize that something kept you from seeing the sidekick. Maybe the screen, maybe your own mind, maybe something else entirely. But whatever it is, it’s still working. No matter how you shift your eyes, the figure on screen refuses to come into focus. Instead of continuing to fight that losing battle, you let your mind drift, mulling over the clues Sheryl provided. So the sidekick starts as a wizard, then dress like a devil, and finally end up a gunslinger? That… itches in your mind. It’s something, you know it is, you just need to keep pushing.

                Your hand is furiously clicking at the search bar when the sound of what seems like a book falling heavily to the floor reaches your ears. Thankfully, Sheryl turns toward the noise as well, meaning at least one part of this day isn’t in your head. Both of you flip around to look at the rows of books outside the computer bay, but there’s no movement. It is a big library after all, and it’s not like no one else has permission to be here. That’s what you try and tell yourself as you finish getting to the final pages of Jim’s comic.

                Sure enough, the whole thing is blurry. “Sheryl, can you read these?”

                “Sure, the art style isn’t any worse than when it started. Not really any better either though, which is odd given how many of these he obviously drew.”

                “I can’t read it,” you tell her. “I couldn’t see the sidekick either. I have no idea what that means, I just know it’s the first semi-lead I’ve had in a while. What’s happening on these pages?”

                Sheryl gives you another long stare, and then leans closer to the screen. “We skipped a big portion, but it looks like something happened to the sidekick. Godpunch is talking to the Lady of Autumn, trying to figure out what they should do. She says she has a plan, but her power will need to be at its zenith – wow I’m surprised the writer of this knew that word – before she can act.”

                Another loud thud, and then another, and another, all coming from different areas in the dark rows of books.

                “Who’s the Lady of Autumn?”

                “Could you not see her either? She’s been there since the beginning. A little overly vague and mysterious for my tastes, but she does move the plot along. Hang on, I bet if I go back a few pages we can see what happened to the sidekick.” Sheryl reaches over you, going for the mouse, just as a shadow momentarily blots out the light. It’s like a brief cloud passing overhead, except that you’re inside, and the ceiling on this floor is twenty feet high.

                Both of you glance up to see nothing there, which is far less comforting than it should be. More noises are coming from the rows behind you now. Only they don’t sound like dropping books anymore. They sound more like footsteps. Heavy, angry footsteps.

                “Do you hear that?”

                Sheryl pats you lightly on the arm. “It’s Halloween, people are just trying to scare us since we wandered off alone. Relax.”

                You want to believe her, but the noises are getting louder, and suddenly you’re keenly aware of just how vulnerable the two of you are up here. People, you need more people.

                “Come on, we need to get out of here.” As gently as you can, you take Sheryl’s hand from the computer and begin leading her back toward the stairs.

                “Wait a second, I was only a few clicks from-” Sheryl is cut off as the computer you were both sitting out lets out a series of pops, crackles, and suddenly spews forth a stream of sparks. “-nothing, I guess. Okay, yeah, maybe we should get around more people.”

                The two of you dart down the stairs, ears trained and ready for anything sneaking up on you, racing to the ground floor and the safety of a crowd. Except… there’s no crowd to be found. Just more emptiness. All the decorations and games are still set up, but there isn’t a soul to be found. Despite knowing what will happen, you still try the front door and find it unyielding.

                “This has just gotten officially creepy,” Sheryl says. “Maybe they all went to the basement to tell scary stories or something?”

                “And locked the doors?”

                “I’m grasping at straws here, the ideas aren’t supposed to make a lot of sense,” Sheryl shoots back. “Look, whatever is going on here sure seems to be centered on you, so how about you figure out what we do now.”

 

                She’s not wrong, and this place isn’t getting any less creepy. What now?

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 4

                No need to reinvent the wheel here. You’re scared, you need people around, and you could damn sure use a drink. The bar fulfills all of that criteria, so you start booking toward the downtown section where Sheryl and her friends are all meeting up. Grabbing a cab would be nice, but you aren’t eating nightly microwave meals and living in a shithole because you’re rolling in cash, now are you? Thankfully the walk isn’t too long, at least your apartment’s location is decent, and it takes even less time because you’re half-running in your adrenaline hopped-up state.

                Finally you arrive at the bar, getting some wary eyes from the bouncers who let you through despite the fact that you’re sweaty and still wearing office clothes. You make your way in the door and scan the room for Sheryl, a task instantly complicated by the fact that everyone here is in costume. After bumping past someone wearing a massive Staypuft Marshmallow Man outfit and a whole crew of Ninja Turtles, like, way more than there ever were on the show and that’s including Venus De Milo, you stumble through and see a friendly, familiar sight. No, not Sheryl. The bar. In a few strides you make it over and begin the dance of trying to get a bartender’s attention without seeming pushy.

                The exercise is particularly futile tonight, as you’re competing with people in elaborate costumes that more naturally catch the eye than your button-down and slacks. Add in that the bartender is male and some of these outfits are quite… entrancing, and it’s no wonder his eyes keep sliding right past as you desperately signal that you just want a beer. Just when all hope seems lost, you hear a familiar voice nearby.

                “Let me get two more.”

                By the time you’ve fully turned, you find Sheryl already standing there, two cold dark beers in hand. She’s grinning, clearly aware of the ordeal you were dealing with, and she hands you one of the drinks. “We figured out early on that it’s faster to let us gals make the drink runs. Nice costume, by the way. Did they just let you out of the office?”

                You’re about to explain… no, you’re about to fumble over your words horribly as the truth and lies mash in your mouth once you realize how crazy the story of your night so far has been, but mercifully you are saved from yourself by the realization of what Sheryl is wearing. The shirt is cut a little lower than one would expect, and some accessories have clearly been put together on a low-budget, however there’s no denying that she’s rocking a very respectable Han Solo costume. It’s such a stunning sight that it momentarily knocks the stupid out of you, and you say the first words that pop into your mind.

                “Have you ever forgotten something that you knew you needed to remember, but didn’t know how?”

                Sheryl blinks in surprise, taking a long sip of her own beer. The two of you are moved slightly away from the bar by the natural flow of traffic, and when she speaks again the general din of nearby noise is diminished. “Sorry, I was mentally bracing myself for a bad lightsaber innuendo, not something so existential.”

                “Been getting a lot of those?”

                “Enough that I’m happy to have a change of pace. So you forgot something? What, like at the office?”

                “No. At least, I don’t think so. Further back than that. Something from college, maybe a lot of things, honestly. I had… an electrical accident, and it felt like my memory was getting jogged. But then it all slipped away. I’d rather not roast myself in an attempt to remember, although I don’t have a lot of other great ideas.”

                Sheryl stares at you for several seconds, perhaps for the first time noticing how disheveled you look. “How important can this really be if it’s from college? You got a degree and got out, which means you handled the main job.”

                “I won’t know for sure until I can remember it.” You pause, realizing how crazy this must sound to someone who wasn’t in your head, who didn’t see that shadow monster shoving the machines. Here, in the bar, it’s hard to imagine any of it was real. Maybe the whole thing was just a post-electrocution delusion. Except that voice, the one that called you Merlin. It sounded so familiar. “But I feel like I really need to remember, even if I don’t know why.”

                “Okay,” Sheryl says. “If it’s that important, I’ll try and help. Beats listening to my friends talk about their great new post-college jobs anyway. So if you want to jog a memory, there are several schools of thought. You can recreate the mindset you were in, trigger it via sense memory, or search out external records. Given how quickly you’ve been downing that beer, I’m going to guess you were a drinker in college?”

                “I may have put a few beers away,” you admit.

                “Then there’s our path to the mindset. If this is something you lost via blackout, maybe we can get it back the same way. Plus, this bar has $2 well shots all night, so we can get there on the cheap. As for sense memory, is there anything you can pick out about the weird memories? A smell or scene that we can find something similar too and see if that brings things back?”

                That’s a tougher one. There wasn’t much clear during the electrical mind scramble. Just uncertainty, and the voice, and flickering images under the static. One of them seemed a little more distinct though, a big, dark looming shape like-

                “A haunted house.” The words spill out before you can think them through, which might be a good thing. Things you think about seem to have a way of slipping from your mind lately. “I can’t remember much, but there was this huge mansion, filled with people in costumes. Probably had to be a haunted house attraction, right?”

                “No shortage of those tonight,” Sheryl says. “Lastly, external records. Obviously that’s a long shot, since not many people are recording the actions of drunk college kids, but if you have a friend who took pictures or videos maybe they can help?”

                “My best friend, Jim. He was there for everything in college, although I don’t know that his memory is going to be much better than mine. Still, might be worth a call-” As your hand slaps at your left pocket, you feel the crunch of movement and recall just how hard you fell down when the breaker box shocked you. Sure enough, the debris you pull out certainly looks like a phone, or bits of one, but it’s not going to be making any calls.

                “Bummer. Do you know his number?”

                You shake your head, who actually memorizes phone numbers anymore? But… but maybe there is still something. “Jim used our lives as inspiration for his web-comic during the first year. There might be something in the backlog that touches on the thing I’m trying to remember.”

                “Okay, well I’m definitely going to want to hear more about this web-comic making roommate, but for now I know of a library with lots of computers down the street. They have Halloween events every year, so I’m sure they’ll be up and running. We can go read a web-comic there.”

                Sheryl has nearly finished her beer, and so have you. Time to toss these empties and decide on a new course of action.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 3

                Screw this, you aren’t going to wait around for someone else to solve your problem. Damnit, you’re a junior-level intern, you know how to get things done. Pausing to lock your door (bold choices are all well and good but you don’t exactly live in the safest neighborhood) you take your flashlight down several flights of stairs, past the empty entry hall, and into the basement. It’s darker here, no surprise given that this area lacks windows, and even less shockingly you’re the only one who’s ventured down. Most people are probably either out having fun or too drunk to care that the power is down.

                As you make your way through the musty room, you feel a pang of envy in your heart for those people. Halloween used to be a fun holiday, before real life and responsibility soured it like so many other former joys. This is different though. At least, it feels different. Some part of you keeps insisting that Halloween is special. Or it used to be special. But no matter how you scour your brain for a reason this particular holiday would carry more weight than others, you come up empty. Just more drunken blurs like so many others from college. Wow, you may have had a drinking problem back then, now that you really think about it.

                The soft thunk from a nearby washer draws your attention and your flashlight as your heart starts hammering in your chest. Peering inside, you see a blob of wet clothes that have settled near the bottom. Right, people probably had laundry going when the power died, and it’s going to shift as the weight of the water seeps in. Steeling your nerves, shaking off the memory of fleeting movement outside your door, you turn from the washer to the breaker box. The sooner power is restored, the sooner you can head to bed and get a jump on work tomorrow. Maybe if you really push through, you’ll get off in time to go do something with your afternoon. Probably not though.

                Yanking open the breaker box cover, you shine the flashlight onto the worn-out circuitry and immediately spot the problem. Not a terribly hard task, the power around here blows often enough that almost everyone has a passing familiarity with how to fix it. Reaching out, you grab the thrown breaker and jerk it back into position.

                The lights flicker on as power flows back into the building. Unfortunately, the decrepit nature of the breaker box has finally caught up with it, and the power is flowing into you as well. Electricity lights up your nervous system, filling your eyes with sparks and crackles as you struggle to yank your hand away, an issue impeded by the fact that your muscles seem to have seized up. Finally, with one concentrated jerk of effort, you fling yourself back from the breaker box and land heavily on the floor.

                Everything around you seems to have dissolved into a sea of crackling lights and blurry images. Your eyes can’t focus, and your ears are ringing as you mentally grope about for anything approximating solid ground. All of it feels wrong, though. No… all of it is wrong. What’s going on? Why are you in this building? Why are you working this shitstain of a job? Where are your friends? But… what friends? Jim, of course, except you know where Jim is, he moved off to turn his comic into a movie. And Victoria… were you ever even that close? You can’t remember, you just know something is wrong, even as you fail to find any proof to point to.

                As you’ve been rolling about on the ground, your vision is starting to clear as your mind becomes more muddled. Now if only the ringing in your ears would vanish as well. The room is dark again, and judging by the sparks the breaker box is throwing off that’s not going to change anytime soon. More noises come from the washers, no doubt clothes resettling after you made the machines briefly function again. Except that as you glance over, you catch sight of something in the beam of your flashlight. The shoulder of a hulking, shadowy form slowly walking forward, shoving the heavy washing machines out of the way with its methodical pace.

                Your heart forgets to beat and your lungs freeze as you take in the shoulder of something that to see full on you instinctually know would break your mind. It’s a hallucination. It has to be. The breaker box shocked you, and now you’re seeing things. Very realistic, terrifying things that are moving real world objects. You just need to think straight, if only this damn ringing would stop…

                And then, it does, as the sharp noise crystalizes into words, words being screamed at you from somewhere unseen.

                “For the love of Samhain, get a move on Merlin! Run!”

                That’s all it takes. Not even you know why for sure, but at the sound of that familiar female voice urging you on, the danger of your situation finally snaps into reality. Without wasting another moment, you grab your flashlight and bolt up the stairs. The idea of heading back to your apartment never even crosses your mind, you need to get clear of this place now. Somewhere safe, ideally with other people around. Oddly, the office is the first place that springs to mind. There’s a night shift there, and it’s hard to imagine anything supernatural happening in a place that dull. There’s also the Halloween parade in downtown, a spot that has to be jam packed with bodies. Or you can always fall back on the tried and true destination of your past: a bar. Specifically, the one that Sheryl invited you too. A familiar face might be nice, and at least you know there won’t be a shortage of crowd to blend in with in a bar on Halloween.

                Racing down the entrance hall, you burst through the apartment building’s front doors and into the street. A scream nearly tears from your lips as you see all the monsters about, before you remember that this is a holiday where everyone wears scary costumes. You need to get your shit under control, so pick a destination and try not to cause a scene on your way there.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 2

                “Evening, Wilbur.” You greet the cheap plastic skull that sits on your dining room table, one of the few pieces of decoration in this sparse studio apartment. There’s also a signed drawing from Jim of his comic’s main character, Godpunch Lightning Fucker, as well as a framed photograph of you, he, and your friend Victoria. You haven’t actually seen Jim in months, not since his web-comic was optioned and turned into a real strip, which was then grabbed by a hungry movie studio. From what you’ve seen online, the shoots are going well, even if Jim has gotten in trouble for passing out in a few public places.

                Although your one window mostly looks out on a nearby brick building, there is a small sliver that shows you the city beyond. Right now, it’s a sea of twinkling lights, since you were at the office all the way to sundown. The last shards of sunlight were fading when you entered your building, and it seems they vanished entirely during your fourteen story walk up the narrow stairs. You pause to appreciate the view before heading to the freezer and yanking out a microwaveable meal.

                Mr. Parden had been pissed that you put him on the backburner. It was only by promising to come in tomorrow, off the clock of course, and work that you managed to somewhat ameliorate the situation. Too bad, you might have liked to go out tonight. Sheryl had even dropped off a Post-it with the name of the bar they’d be hitting. But there was no way you could show up hungover tomorrow, even if you were technically unpaid while in the office. If the work you turned in wasn’t perfect, you’d be out on your ass, and finding this job had been hard enough to begin with.

                As your meal turns in the microwave, slowly approaching the point of being edible but never actually reaching it, you look at the framed photograph once more. It’s from Halloween, actually. How did you forget that? Plain as day, there you all are. Jim dressed as Bowser, Victoria as a witch, and you wearing that cheap wizard costume you cobbled together at the last minute. Except… where’s the hat? There was a hat, you know there was, that’s what kicked off all of the… the what? Did something happen that night?

                Loud buzzing from the microwave breaks your concentration and chases away whatever odd thoughts you were entertaining. Grabbing your “food” you head over to the couch and turn on the television, trying to distract your senses as much as possible while you shovel food into your gullet. There’s a handsome announcer dressed in a cheap Dracula outfit, talking about a Halloween parade that’s going on later that night. It sounds like fun, yet another thing you might like to participate in but ultimately know you can’t. Those crazy, drunken wild times that you never seem to quite remember were part of college. With that piece of life behind you, it’s time to grow up.

                You’re just finishing up the microwaved food when the entire room goes dark. No, not just the room, there’s also no light coming from anywhere else in your apartment either. However, you can see light from other nearby buildings through your sliver of a view, so it looks like only your building is affected. Probably everyone plugging in lights and spooky decorations for their Halloween parties flipped a breaker. Geez, don’t they know some people have to work in the morning?

                After half an hour of waiting, you begin to suspect that perhaps the maintenance man is also taking the night off. Wouldn’t be the first time he got deep into revelry and left all of you tenants to fend for yourselves. You know what apartment the guy lives in, and it’s not too far away. Maybe he just needs someone to wake him up. Then again, you also know where the breaker box is, the damn thing hangs above one of the washing machines in the basement, impossible to miss. It might just be easier to go fix the problem yourself so you can have a little time to relax tonight.

                Going to your closet, you yank open the door and grope around. For an instant, in the pitch black darkness, you forget what you’re looking for. You almost expect to find some cobbled together rack of trophies and keepsakes from a myriad of impossible adventures. But you don’t find any of that, because that would be crazy. Instead, your hand closes around the cold metal of a flashlight, and when you turn it on there’s nothing to be seen but your few sets of work clothes, freshly pressed and waiting to be worn.

                You head over to the front door, flashlight making the trip much easier, and pull it open. More darkness there. Except for the flash of movement you see out of the corner of one eye. It’s fleeting, so quick you’re not sure it was even there in the first place, and if not for the weird skittering sound that echoes from the walls you would probably be able to dismiss it as a trick of the light. When you sweep your flashlight around though, there’s nothing to see. Just more empty hallway leading to those damn narrow stairs.

                Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is there, watching you. You take deep breaths and assure yourself that it’s all in your head, a strategy which makes you feel more sane but does nothing to lessen the sense of being watched. You know what? None of this is really your problem in the first place. You pay your rent; it’s the building staff’s job to deal with these sorts of issues. You could go back in and leave it to them. Or wake the handyman up so you know he’s on task. Or just go deal with the breaker box so that the building will have light and these creepy sensations will go away. Really, any of them are good options, but standing in your doorway like a dumbass isn’t, so time to choose a path.

Halloween 2016: Choose Your Spooky Outcome: Chapter 1

Welcome to the 4th Annual Choose Your Spooky Outcome Novel, done over the 13 nights leading up to Halloween. Let's get this out of the way real quick, since some people have missed it years previous:

This is a sequel, so if you want the story to make sense you should go read the first one here, second one here, and the third one here.

Now, If you're reading this as it's happening, then be sure to vote for the choices you want made. If not, enjoy the story! Here's how it works:

It will run from October 19th – October 31st (13 days of Halloween). Every night I put up the newest chapter, along with a poll for you to make your decisions. Polls close at Noon CST on the following day, so I can write the next installment. Post goes up at night, rinse, lather, repeat.

There will be Dead Ends, choices you make that get your character killed. If people pick one then I’ll give you the Dead End, then redirect you to the other choice that didn’t kill you, because I think we all cheated at those books as kids and I see no reason to change that. However, if you all can get to the Halloween without a single Dead End, I’ll post a special bonus story or chapter as a prize.

Happy Haunting!


                Someone drank all the coffee. Again. How hard is it, really, to uphold this basic element of human decency? If you finished off the pot, then you make a fresh one. Not the biggest fucking hurdle in the world to clear, and yet here you are again, staring at an empty pot with nothing more than a thin brown film in the bottom.

                Biting back a few choice curse words, you rinse the pot in the sink, grab a new filter and the can of grounds, and start the water heating. Maybe by the time you come back, there will be some precious caffeine in there to get through another shitshow afternoon.

                Heading back to your cubicle, you pass the rest of the office drones. Most of them are bent over their desks, trying to look busy as they idly piss away the hours until quitting time. It’s a sentiment you understand well, on any other day you’d be doing much the same. Unfortunately, you’re not like them. Nope, you’re a recent college graduate, an intern, and that means all the work they don’t want to do slides downhill until it reaches your desk. Day after boring day, hour after boring hour, just slugging away in the hopes that this will land a real job. Looking back, maybe you should have turned down the diploma. Things never felt this stagnant in college.

                Resting on your desk, dropped there in the three minutes it took you to deal with the empty coffee pot, are a stack of W-HJ7 forms. A gift from Mr. Parden, no doubt, one of your managers who never actually seems to be around physically, only existing in e-mails and mysteriously dropped off sets of documents. Shifting the stack to the side, you log back into your computer and prepare to start dealing with this fresh bundle of pain in the ass.

                There’s a sound of a throat softly clearing from just over your cube. Lifting your head, you find Sheryl standing there, looking down at you. She’s as pretty as anyone can be under the florescent lighting, no great shocker given Mr. Durn’s reputation for hiring pretty assistants. From the office scuttlebutt, he’s had to settle three harassment lawsuits over the past five years, and from the constantly annoyed expression in Sheryl’s eyes you have a feeling lawsuit number 4 isn’t that far off.

                “How can I help you, Sheryl?” You don’t quite manage to sound sincere, but she wouldn’t have believed you anyway so it’s fine. No one actually wants to help one another, or be here in the first place.

                “Mr. Durn needs you to update the expense projections for next quarter by this afternoon. You’ve got an hour or so, tops, before he’ll want them on his desk for approval.”

                “I’m not sure I can do that. I just got a stack of work from Mr. Parden, and you know he always expects a tight turnaround on his forms.” That’s putting it lightly, last time you took more than three hours you had several strongly worded e-mails in your inbox, with the last few CCing HR so they knew you were “screwing up” too.

                “Not my problem. Work some magic and make it happen, Mr. Durn hates being kept waiting almost as much as he abhors hearing that some other manager’s tasks were given higher priority. You know what a pissing contest this place is.”

                You do know, quite well at that. Since starting here, you’re pretty sure the managers have spent more time trying to prove their importance than actually getting any work done. Much as you like to think things would be different if you ran the place, everything just sucks so hard, you know you’d probably get drawn in as well.

                “I guess let him know I’ll do my best,” you tell Sheryl, caving in like you always do. These days, anyway.

                “Maybe I’ll find a better way to phrase it than that. They hate things like ‘doing your best’. They all call it an excuse for failure.” Sheryl starts to turn, and you notice a brief flash of orange on her brown suit jacket.

                “Hey! What’s that?” You tap your own chest, pointing to the spot where the orange is on her.

                For a moment, Sheryl’s eyes start to narrow and you realize too late that out of context this probably looks like idiotic harassment. Then she glances down at her outfit and smiles. It might be the first time you’ve seen genuine joy on her face. Hell, it might be the first time you’ve seen anyone in this office happy at all.

                “It’s a pumpkin, duh.” She turns back all the way so that you can see the bright orange broach properly. “Didn’t you realize that today is Halloween? I love this holiday. The fun of costumes, candy, and booze; the sense of magic in the air; the history and power that comes from everything around this time of year.”

                You start to think back to your own Halloweens, but nothing really stands out. Just a few drunken blurry memories with your roommate, Jim. But Sheryl still looks cheerful, so you nod along anyway. “Yeah, it’s a great holiday.”

                “The best,” she corrects. “Some college friends and I are doing a bar-hop downtown tonight. You can come out and join us, just no talking about the office. Assuming they don’t keep you here all night.”

                Sheryl’s smile fades as she heads back to Mr. Durn’s office. Having a nice conversation was an unexpected pleasant surprise, but with her leaving it’s time to face the reality of your shitty situation. You need to pick a project to work n, because even giving your all you may not be able to manage even one of these on time. Mr. Durn or Mr. Parden, one of them is going to give you an earful before the day is over, at least try and keep it from being both. Time to pick a project and get to work.