Authors: Nate Gubin
Tags: #Fiction & Literature
"Greetings. Why, may I ask, do you approach the gate?"
Hugh dug his pass out and handed it to him. "I'm crossing over, for Halloween."
The gatekeeper inspected the pass, shaking his head. "You're mistaken, this pass is stamped with a rejection." He took a step back, stretched out his arms and sang, "No, no, no. You may not go."
Hugh jumped to his side, frantic. "No, you see, they stamped it approved, after they stamped it rejected."
The gatekeeper studied the pass closely and nodded. Once again he threw his arms to the side and sang, "Approved, approved. The council hath approved this man to pass. La-dee-dee-da-do-da-dee-da-do ..."
Hugh stepped around him and made for the gate.
"Just one moment, oh spirit of All Hallows’ Eve. It is customary to listen to a brief performance before passing into the Land of the Living. And without further ado I give you
in its entirety." He took a step back. "Pray, a brief moment of silence to allow the air to still before it takes on the resonance of my voice."
The gatekeeper stood poised, ready to sing. Hugh interrupted the moment. "Excuse me, I'm actually in kind of a hurry."
"But it's the custom, I get to sing."
"Nobody said anything about it. I'm on a real tight schedule." Hugh stepped past him and tugged at the gate, but it didn't budge.
"How about just the first two acts?"
"I really need to get over there." Hugh shook the iron bars and the gatekeeper deflated.
"Nothing? Not even ‘Nessun Dorma?’"
"Sorry, I need to get going. How does this open?"
have the power to open the gate, for I am the gatekeeper. Entrusted with the portal from the Kingdom of the Dead to the Land of the ..."
Impatient, Hugh shrugged. "Could you just open the gate, please?"
"Fine, but can I at least sing a few bars as you pass through?"
Hugh waited, tapping his foot, as the gatekeeper faced the gate, arms outstretched. "Only
know the secret word that opens the gate, and that word is ... open." They heard a clank and a creak, but the gate stayed solidly shut. The gatekeeper broke from his pose and pulled on it. "Sometimes it sticks. It's the fog from the Land of the Living. All that moisture makes things rust." He sang loudly, reaching the top of his tenor range, “Aperto!”
The gate moaned open, as if the entire Kingdom was complaining that a soul was leaving. The gatekeeper offered Hugh the way through with a grand sweep of his hand. As Hugh stepped through, the gatekeeper did his best to belt out some notes that conjured up feelings of both anticipation and worry for what lay beyond.
At sundown on Halloween, Hugh had crossed into the fog that separated the living from the dead.
As the gatekeeper’s song trailed off in the distance, Hugh wandered between worlds, not sure which way to go.
He began to jog but suddenly stopped. Searching in the soupy fog, he changed directions and stumbled forward. Panic came over him. Was he lost, running in circles? "Hey! Is anybody out there?" His jog speeded into a run, but still there was nothing but endless white. He worried over too much wasted time.
Is this a joke, a scam? Will I spend the entire night lost in the fog?
Hearing something, he stopped. Off in the distance was the faint melody of birds singing the day’s last song. He ran toward it and the fog got lighter, thinner. He saw a tiny sliver of golden glow on the horizon ahead of him. The sun. He could smell the air, the moisture of life touching his skin.
He stopped and caught just a wink of the sun before it ducked down for good. There was a tear in his eye as he whimpered, "I missed you."
Realizing he needed to change into his warm-up suit, he quickly unbundled it and slid into its slippery electric white-and-green shimmer. The presence of something massive sneaking up behind him startled him, and he quickly turned.
The full moon of Halloween had climbed out of its cave. Shining down, it began its relentless pursuit of him.
He stumbled out of the fog and into a tangle of dead branches, burrs and thickets. Tripping and stumbling in the dark mess, he fell and then scrambled to his knees, where he discovered himself face-to-face with his own gravestone.
It wasn't his monument alone. It was a combined gravestone for all the casualties in the horrific highway accident. Six feet below his trembling knees, the last of his earthly presence was sunk along with that of about a dozen "circus artists." A single casket, more of an industrial tub, was heaped full of a mix of body tissues recovered from the crash site, basically everything that wasn't bus or car.
The stone was parted down the middle. On the left-hand side was the list of the dead whose biologically irregular appearance had afforded them a life of entertaining in towns across the country. A lovable bunch, their names were carved into stone along with the loved ones they had left behind.
Rudy Hernandez, Husband, Father, Midget Dog Boy. Rudy's beloved wife, Cecilia, Wife, Mother, Voluptuous Latin Dwarf. She performed burlesque under the stage name Micro Mamacita. Survived by eight children, all of average stature with no inherent freak qualities.
Ivan Von Himmel, Husband, Father, Human Skyscraper. Seven feet tall, he made extra money in the off-season washing windows, changing lightbulbs and cleaning gutters without the encumbrance of a ladder. Left living were his wife and twin sons, both of average stature. Klaus, the youngest, had one thigh bigger than the other, but it was decided at an early age it wasn't enough to qualify him as a freak. Klaus thought his single thunder thigh was special, though, and he used it to scare the kids with normal-sized legs into believing he had the power to kick them into the next county. After college, his mother helped him channel his passion for scare-mongering into a career selling life insurance.
Two-Ton Tanya, Sister, Lover. She was the requisite fat lady of the troupe but she always had trouble keeping the weight on. It was a lifelong battle to resist her cravings for undressed raw vegetables and sparkling mineral water. Instead, she was forced to load up on chicken-fried white bread and bakery batters mixed into ice cream. She was survived by three sisters and a cat, and although she never took a husband, there was a long roster of lovers who would miss her all-too-brief dalliances in their towns.
The list of departed freaks and their families went on and on, so much so that the engraver had to shrink the font toward the bottom of the stone. A buildup of blown dirt and thatch had almost obscured the quote at the bottom of the left-hand side:
Here lie the remains of freaks, mutants and monsters. Uncommon vessels holding beautiful souls.
Then there was Hugh's side of the gravestone, with just his name. For some reason his parents didn't want to be acknowledged on the stone. Underneath his name in a smaller font and surrounded by parentheses were just two words:
He reached out and touched his name, his fingers tracing the cold shoulders of the letters. “Is that all that's left of me?” he thought.
An owl above hooted and woke him from his meditation. Up from his knees, he worried, “I don't have much time
He jogged through the graveyard toward the iron gate. His joints weren't used to the weight of the living world. He slowed from a jog into more of a herky-jerky lurch as he exited out onto the dark streets of the village.
Nothing seemed familiar. His hometown had changed in the three years since he left it. He remembered it being a picture-perfect hamlet full of bustling well-wishers. Maybe he was remembering it wrong. Maybe it was always a desolate place with expensive houses behind high fences and stone walls. Those fond memories of couples arm-in-arm, taking an after-dinner stroll and saying hello to the neighbors, maybe he had embellished those memories ever so slightly.
There was nobody around, no cars to hail, no easy way to figure out where he had to go, what he needed to do to find Lily. After some deliberation he decided it would be best to head downhill, down into town, down toward the old house.
A new road had been built in Hugh's absence. A four-lane freeway now scraped through the countryside and he slid down its sculpted shoulder and out onto the grooved concrete. Not sure which way to go, he guessed and headed left, following the road. This was not how he had envisioned his night in the Land of the Living. Back in the Kingdom, when he allowed himself to dream about it, he had imagined a triumphant return. A crowd of people to greet him, a celebration with cheers and music, hugs and ...
"Damn it." This was taking too long. The walk to town could take him twenty minutes. "Where is everybody?" He swiveled his head back and forth, up and down the abandoned road. Maybe he could hitch a ride. Nobody thumbed a ride in this part of the country, but he was desperate.
Back to that dream about how things were supposed to have gone. He would push through the hugs and the backslaps, the surprised faces, and there in a small clearing, dressed in a strapless sparkling wrap of a dress, would be ...
Headlights and a loud roar overtook him. He spun with his thumb out and stumbled in front of the rocketing semi. The screech of a swerve, the chunk-chunk-chunk of locked wheels skipping over concrete, a loud thud, and Hugh was airborne.
Inside the cab of the truck, the tweaked driver shoved his tall boy of Bud Light down between the seat cushions and blinked between all the mirrors. "Did I just hit somebody?"
He shook his head and rubbed his burning eyes. "Naw, no way ... Didn't happen." He nodded to himself. "Yeah, my eyes are playing tricks on me again. I must have imagined that." He put the truck into gear and drove off. "Yeah, it's just like all those other times I imagined I hit someone."
The truck's taillights disappeared over the horizon.
Down in the trench along the center of the median, a tattered and torn stretch of white-and-green satin lay motionless.
Two earnest EMTs hustled Hugh's limp and lifeless body onto a gurney and loaded it into the back of the ambulance. Nick closed the doors while Vern got behind the wheel, fired up the siren and peeled out.
In the back of the ambulance, Nick fitted an oxygen mask to Hugh’s face and listened to his hollow chest with a stethoscope. He checked for a pulse and shook his head. Nothing. He shined a penlight in Hugh's eyes, and the pupils did not respond. Finally he unzipped the Celtics sweatshirt, grabbed Hugh's chalk-white left nipple and twisted it as hard as he could.
Hugh didn't move.
"Kill the siren, Vern! This guy’s toast, worm food, casket filler, dirt nap city ..."
"What?" Vern asked.
Vern looked back at Hugh's corpse. "He's been dead for a while. Look at him, he's all bloated and pale. It's gross. I bet he smells."
"Naw, he doesn't smell. I mean, he smells, but not like death. He kind of has that old church smell. I wonder how long he's been dead?" Nick covered Hugh's head with a sheet and picked up a clipboard. "Do I fill in the time of death or do I just put in some question marks?”
“Put down D-O-A, it stands for dead—“
“I know what it stands for,” Nick scribbled on the chart.
The oxygen mask was left on Hugh's face. Sweet oxygen and gentle wisps of minty medical vapor tickled his nose as he was rocked back and forth on the cushioned ambulance bed. He tried to breathe it in but his lungs wouldn't inflate. He had to be content to lie under the bright white sheet tented above his eyes and sense that life was moving around him. He focused on the vibrations of the moving ambulance, the stick of his clammy skin to the vinyl gurney.
Eventually enough oxygen sifted through his brain tissue and made him remember something. With a shrieking gasp of inhalation he sat up. The sheet fell to his waist and he coughed out a cloud of dust and sucked in the sugared air.
Vern white-knuckled the steering wheel and tried to look back. "What is it? What is it?" He looked back and saw Hugh, hands grasping his chest, wheezing with a manic smile.
Nick huddled in a corner of the ambulance, shaking in horror. "This isn't happening, this isn't happening."
Hugh yelled, "I am alive. I'm alive! Hey, can you guys drop me off at forty-nine Victoria Street?"
Vern screamed and jerked the steering wheel from side to side. The ambulance careened up onto two wheels and then crashed through a fence, coming to a sudden stop on its side.
"Man, I hate Halloween,” Vern whimpered as he escaped with Nick and ran into the night.
Hugh tried to free himself from the sideways ambulance. His waist and legs were lashed to the gurney with medical grade tethers.
Not far away from where the ambulance crashed, nestled under a freeway overpass, a worn-out-looking man was close to death. He was stretched out in a cardboard box that once held a large chest freezer. The box was replete with a plastic bag stuffed with packing peanuts for a pillow and some landscaping fabric for a blanket. The frayed bum had drunk eleven dollars’ worth of booze that day and hadn’t eaten a penny’s worth of food. He hadn't eaten in weeks. Judging by the pain in his organs, the shaking and the fever, he was pretty sure he was dying. It had taken him a lot longer to drink himself to death than he had imagined it would. Maybe it wasn't that long, maybe it just seemed like forever because it was so meaningless and sad. He wasn't sure when he'd black out for the last time. He hoped it would be soon.