Saturday, May 25, 2019

Original Fiction: "Banner's Lot" by David Castlewitz

Editor's Note: This week we offer some hard s-f in an extra-terrestrial setting that manages to go in a direction you might not expect. Enjoy this well-written story. - Lou Antonelli
From his command car at the back of the four-carrier convoy, Greg Banner watched several views of his surroundings, which floated in white-bordered windows across his heads-up display. As Captain of the Home Guard, he’d elected to lead this mission himself. The quarry had taken refuge in a High Spirit settlement and he suspected that Lieutenant Kahn, his diminutive assistant, didn’t have the stomach for what needed to be done if the remote settlement didn’t give up the fugitives.
The center window in the floating display showed a sweeping aerial view of the landscape. Why anyone wanted to live so far from the main colony, surrounded by the grit and sand of a near-desert, puzzled Banner. But High Spirit was a religious fanatic’s dream. Led by Angus Nelson, the outpost had been granted autonomy by Far Gone’s Colonial Command.
A pair of overhead drones sent close-ups of the landscape, of emptiness and rolling black hills, and a herd of sand dogs that had been brought to the planet during the early years of Far Gone’s settlement. The animals bounced in the air, scampering like children at play.
High Spirit’s domes stood not too far off. Reflective solar collectors sat between the homes, wind-driven water pumps rose above most of the structures, and night-nets, designed to thwart the desert bats that swarmed after dark, stood like sentries poised to unfurl their metallic snares. 
By now, Banner reasoned, the settlement should know that he approached. Maybe there’d be a contingent sent to greet him, to question his motives, or thwart him. Two prisoners had escaped the main colony. As members of High Spirit, this is where they'd go.
The convoy stopped and Banner disengaged his heads-up display, slipped off his safety harness and pressed the lift button at the right hand side of his cushioned seat. Above him, a panel unlatched and slanted up and out at a forty-five degree angle. Banner pushed with a gloved hand to open the escape door fully. He didn't like this design. He much preferred gull-wing doors, like those on troop transports, which disgorged a squad of six in seconds.
Clinging to U-shaped handles on the side of the turret, one boot firm on the waffled running board below, Banner looked at his immediate surroundings, ready to respond to any danger.
Several guardsmen milled alongside the four vehicles up front, where the main highway intersected a dirt road leading to the settlement. On inspection tours, Banner had often passed by this spot without any thought to where that dirt road led. He never liked those long drives across  barren plains to the mining concessions near the mountains, the fisheries at the coast, and the vast agricultural concerns that dominated the only arable land outside the colony’s main compound.
None of the twenty-some guards carried weapons. Though irritated, Banner didn’t criticize the officers under his command. This was a level three excursion, not an armed assault. Still, shouldn’t protocol be followed? In the two years since being posted to Far Gone, Banner had yet to instill a sense of alarm or danger in his hundred-and-something strong home guard. They still acted like a police force for an orbiting space colony, attuned to blending with the populace and quelling nothing more dangerous than a bar fight or neighborhood flare-up.
He marched to the front of the convoy, his long arms swinging, long legs making a show of pulling his bulk forward with a sense of purpose. Lieutenant Kahn stood where the dirt road made a “T” in joining the paved highway, his stubby arms on his wide hips.
Banner thought Kahn better suited to running a prison than being his second-in-command for field operations. The dark-haired guardsman looked tough, his white tunic tight around his barrel chest, with decorative steel chains dangling from the breast pocket flaps. He wasn't an agile soldier ready to dash into action.
“What’s wrong?” Banner asked, folding his arms across his chest, his bulky jumpsuit bunched up at his chest.
Kahn nodded at the dirt road where two stone mounds, one on either side, each tower reaching no higher than an average person’s kneecap, were joined by a wavy line of red sand and yellow grains of cornmeal.
“You stopped for that?” Banner said, pointing, bending slightly for a closer look at the obstacle.
“It’s a religious symbol,” Kahn said. “We should wait here for someone to fetch us.”
Banner stepped towards the flimsy line in the road, ready to kick it apart. That’s what Kahn expected of him. All his subordinates expected him to live up to his reputation. Bloody Banner, they called him. Higher-ups as well as underlings mouthed the epithet, even when he didn’t hear it spoken aloud.  Because of what had happened fifty-some years ago on a far flung planet at the edge of man’s reach for the stars.
“We should just wait,” Kahn reiterated. He pointed at the distant water tower, which wavered in the haze. “I saw the pennants change.”
“We’re going in,” Banner said.
“It’s a ceremony day,” Kahn argued, his voice breaking. Red-in-the-face, he put himself between Banner and the line across the road. Banner shoved him aside and kicked at the yellow grains of meal and red bits of sand. For good measure, he booted apart both stone mounds. Then, one arm in the air, he called for the advance to continue. He didn’t care if he’d just lived up to his reputation. Let them call him Bloody Banner. He had a job to get done and no inconsequential religious symbol would deter him.


Not Vanguard.
Vanguard, where Banner made his lifelong reputation fifty-some-odd standard years in the past, was a much different settlement than High Spirit. Vanguard had tall, interlocking fences, and overlapping watchtowers. Vanguard sat near a dense forest populated by wild aboriginals and equally wild animals. High Spirit, with its domed huts and scattered windmills, its lack of a wall or even fragile fences, was so much different. It sat in the middle of nothing, with the wood it might need and the native animals it might study far off on the other side of the distant hills. As for aboriginals, a small village of native bipeds lived within High Spirit’s ring of domiciles.
Not like Vanguard at all, Banner thought.
That place: Vanguard. He’d made his reputation there, so why shouldn’t he always think of it? His critics did. They didn’t forget that he was “Bloody Banner.” Nor did they forget why. He didn’t forget, either, though he sometimes wished he could close that chapter forever, turn the page as if reading an old printed tome in somebody’s quaint household library.
High Spirit's nearest buildings came into view without magnification. Banner turned off the side windows in his heads-up display and enlarged the center one. The aerial view sent by the overhead drone dimmed on command. He concentrated on the village's outskirts, to be sure this quiet community didn’t suddenly erupt. He’d faced this sort of thing before. Hunkered down in trenches, poised in below-ground bunkers, the defenders migh put up a fight, as if their puny resistance could save them.
Banner chuckled, recalling the times he’d had to annihilate some rogue community that didn’t pay their taxes or tried to establish an independent entity or just challenged a legitimate colony’s authority. Odd, he thought, that when he slaughtered those feeble opponents no one thought to label him a killer. But what he’d done on Vanguard had earned him his nickname: Bloody Banner.
He squeezed shut his eyes, blocking out the light from his heads-up display, but futile in erasing visions from the past. As Captain-Governor of Vanguard, with the colony's supplies running low, and with everyone on half-rations and no relief in sight – no news from the rest of the empire in many standard months – he’d made the decision to save as many of the colonists as possible. He sent nearly six thousand colonists chosen by lot into the surrounding wilderness, where every one of them died. That twice that number lived on, surviving a long winter and a wet spring, didn’t salvage the reputation he earned.
He often thought he should’ve been praised, not derided.
The small convoy spread out, with two carriers going left and two going right. Doors angled open. The troop carriers rocked back on steel treads while their two forward wheels sprouted spikes that dug into the gritty soil, anchoring the vehicles.
Standing outside his command car, Banner patted the heavy pistol he’d strapped on before exiting. He lifted the visor of his helmet. Guardsmen under his command spread out in front of the huts on the village’s perimeter. They carried long-barreled weapons, which were more suitable for an infantry advance than a police action. Why hadn’t Kahn issued pop-pop guns, which had short barrels and carried a serious punch for near-range combat?
The road led past the outer huts and then stopped. The village had no paved streets. A few rutted paths fanned out from the perimeter, but there were no vehicles nearby, not even pushcarts or wagons, let alone mechanized vehicles.
Banner crooked a finger at Lieutenant Kahn, who lumbered over, not seeming to be in any hurry.
“Take two and find the headman,” Banner said.
Kahn pointed at a flat-roofed building on the other side of the water tower. “He’ll be in the temple.”
“Then take two and follow me,” Banner said, annoyed with himself for not thinking of that. If the symbols at the crossroad meant there was a religious ceremony in progress, then the temple would be the logical place to find the inhabitants and their leader.
“You can tell it’s their temple,” Kahn continued. “The torches. The crossed triangles above the doors.”
“Yeah,” Banner said. “I can tell.” He hadn’t recognized the building as anything special. Just another structure built of brick and wood and stone, the materials quarried illegally from the mountains. The symbols  -- the three crossed triangles -- meant nothing to him.
Banner marched towards the temple. He stopped when he encountered stones piled atop one another, at either end of a line made by yellow grain and red pebbles. Like what he’d seen outside the village.
Banner stopped mid-stride, heeding Kahn’s cry.
“If we wait here, someone will come out.”
“Are they all in there?” Banner asked, jabbing his thumb in the direction of the temple. They had to be packed in like slivered meat. The building didn’t look big enough to hold more than thirty people and the latest intel pegged the settlement's population at two-hundred –plus, not counting the aboriginals that lived in their own section of High Spirit.
Movement on the catwalk surrounding the water tower caught Banner's eye. As he suspected, some villagers had been assigned to keep watch. How many more hid in underground bunkers? How many waited to pounce?
Banner glared at Kahn, annoyed that he had to count on his second-in-command's willingness to fight. The two dozen guardsmen under them would follow Kahn's lead. They were his soldiers and the only way to find out if they'd fight was to give the command to attack.
But he hesitated. He could defend himself and his command, but he couldn’t take decisive action without provocation. Colonies had their rules that even the Captain of the Home Guard had to obey.
Not like Vanguard. Only rule there was that of survival.
“Someone will come out,” Kahn said.
“How do you know?”
“We crossed the line back there. They’ll confront us.”
Banner spat, but didn’t cross the line between the pillars of rock.
The temple doors opened inward, a left and a right door swinging apart from one another in a near simultaneous motion that left a wide dark gap. Candlelight flickered in the deep dark. It reminded Banner of the nightly ritual practiced on Vanguard when guideposts were turned on for the expected supply ship, which didn't arrive for more than a sidereal year due to a miscalculation from a software glitch.
A robed and hooded figure filled the dark space between the open doors. Banner approached, no longer willing to heed the religious significance of the stone pillars and the red-yellow line of demarcation.
“This is a trespass,” the hooded figure said.
Banner ignored the complaint. He presented his credentials as Captain of the Home Guard, showing this hooded entity his SimPak, the all-purpose communications device he carried. A stylized icon rose from the black screen. A virtual banner unfurled listing Banner’s rank and authorizations.
“I am Ang,” the hooded figure said. “Not as impressive as your electronic broadcast, but as existential.”
Banner checked a window floating to one side of the SimPak. Names scrolled past, white on black. A face appeared, along with the name, “Ang Nel.” A brief resume popped into view next to the window, slanted backwards for easy viewing, a voice-over option icon blinking for a few seconds to get Banner’s attention.
“Then you know why I’m here,” Banner said.
“I know that you’ve violated our sanctity.”
Banner looked at his feet. Bits of yellow grain clung to the rounded toes of his heavy boots. “Two of your people were caught proselytizing.”
Ang Nel pushed back his hood, revealing long straggly gray hair framing an oblong face, an old one of massed wrinkles and weary blue eyes, his small ears standing apart from the sides of his head and poking through the flowing waves of hair.
"We have every right to preach our ways.”
“Not in the main settlement,” Banner said, and stepped towards the robed figure. The dark at Ang’s back deepened and the flickering lights on either side of him grew brighter. Banner couldn’t his forward motion, one boot step after the other. Until he stood at the edge of a staircase and he realized that the temple was hollowed out from the ground, the structure around it merely a covering. Faint forms drifted in the murky underground, with candles aloft, robes over heads, small hands like twigs reaching from inside voluminous robes.
“What,” Ang began, “exactly were my missionaries doing?” He continued to seem to be floating in the air.
“Proselytizing,” Banner answered.
Ang grinned, his tiny teeth lined up like pearls. “But what did they do? What specific action did – “
Banner cut him off with a wave of his hand. He took off his gloves and rubbed his fingertips with the palm of the opposing hand. A faint odor of lavender assailed him. It seemed out of place.
“You don’t know what they did, do you?” Ang asked, grinning again. “You’re just following your orders, aren’t you?”
Banner swallowed. He glanced back at Kahn and at the guardsmen with him. They were his backup. They stood with weapons in the ready position.
“You’ve come on a holy day,” Ang said. “Our naming day for the sons and daughters born this year. You've violated its sanctity.”
“Are your missionaries in there?”
Ang stepped out of the dark interior, stepping off a raised step. Behind him, a crowd of worshippers slowly emerged from the temple’s interior, their candles snuffed out by two pinching fingers as they moved into the light. The smell of lavender increased in intensity, the passing bodies emitting it from their pores, Banner imagined.
It reminded him, this passage of bodies and the scent of a flower, of Vanguard and the exiles marching by at the main gate, so many of them emitting foul smells that came from fear and unwashed bodies.
Why did everything remind him of something?
The robed figures stood in a ragged oval that stretched from the front of the temple to a spot near the water tower.
“Look for yourself,” Ang said. “I invite you. Which of these are the missionaries?”
Banner nodded to Kahn. “You got the pics?”
Kahn carried a palm-sized pad in one hand. He projected two images into the air and ran his fingers across the contrast and color saturation controls to make the pictures easier to see in the daylight.
Banner followed his lieutenant to the middle of the assembly, which twitched and shivered when some of the people moved their weight from foot to foot, crossed or uncrossed arms, took hold of children by their side or wrapped an arm around the waist of a loved one. Again, memory assailed Banner, though there’d been no such gathering on Vanguard. There, a random process sent messages to those selected for exile and many of those to-be-exiles reported to the main gate without incident.
 “Remove your hoods,” Banner shouted. Ang nodded and everyone dropped their hoods to reveal their faces. The pictures shimmered in Kahn’s hand. He stepped close to the lineup and moved the projection from person to person. The images pulsed red, one after the other. No one matched.
Head bowed, Kahn slipped away. He’d purposely wasted time, Banner surmised. The missionaries had escaped the settlement during the useless chatter, the needless lineup, and Kahn's mockery of an inspection.
“I could burn the place down,” Banner seethed. “If they’re hiding – “
“You’re a troubled person,” Ang said.
Banner turned his glare from the settlement’s leader to Kahn, who stood nearby, hands clasped at belt buckle level. On Vanguard, none of his lieutenants would’ve dared cross him. They wouldn’t have plotted to give anyone a chance to escape. They followed orders, just as he followed his.
“We could heal you,” Ang said.
“Where are the missionaries?” Banner demanded. He hadn’t brought grenades and exploding rockets, along with shoulder-held launchers. He wouldn’t need much to demolish the temple. The brick would explode from the heat and the wood would succumb to the flames. Whatever was inside, in the chamber in the ground, whether stone or more wood, could be consumed in seconds.
“They’re not hiding in the temple,” Ang said. “You can destroy it. It won’t bring you what you want.”
Banner seethed, annoyed now by the man’s calm. He glanced at Kahn. Why did his lieutenant seem to tremble? Why did the guardsmen accompanying them stand meek and without protest, doing absolutely nothing?
He could test them. Should test everyone. Pick two members of the community and shoot then. Shoot his lieutenant. Club Ang to death. What alternative did he have now? He'd had had none at all on Vanguard. That was his very first colony command and he’d squandered success because he saw no reasonable way out of a bad situation.
The drone hovered overhead. Banner pulled his wafer-sized control pad from a pouch on his belt. He spoke his commands and the drone ceased to hover. It arced skyward and began a wide-area scan. If the missionaries had escaped, they’d be spotted. It they weren’t found by the drone then they had to be in the temple.
“You’ll be put on report, Lieutenant,” Banner said, turning to Kahn. The guardsmen looked at one another, looked at their lieutenant, looked at their captain. Banner didn't know if they'd support him. He was new, an interloping captain running roughshod over their lieutenant, a man they’d served far longer.
But he'd made his move. Just as Kahn had made his by slowly scanning the settlement's populace to match their faces to the pictures of the two escapees. Ang had moved as well. They posed gambits, like players at a board game.
“Your settlement,” Banner said to Ang, “could be razed.”
“That would be unfortunate.”
Banner said nothing. Ang and these people were nothing to him. The exiles who perished on Vanguard meant more. They were his past. He longed to understand it.
Why should Ang and his settlement have anything to do with his future?
In silence, he continued to stand like a statue, like a stoic on trial, neither confessing to sins or defending himself from recrimination.
Ang approached. “We can help. I can help. Help you.”
Banner shook his head.
Ang drew near. “Do you want to live with this all your life? Whatever years you have left? Plagued by your decisions?”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“Bloody Banner.”
Ang must’ve overheard something. Perhaps Kahn had voice the sobriety to one of the guardsmen.
“Tell me,” Ang said, “why you’re called that.”
Banner couldn’t avoid Ang’s blue eyes, which deepened in color the more they made contact with his own. It would be easy, he thought, to break off now, to turn away, to deny that Ang had any power whatsoever.
“You don’t have to spend your life berating yourself for the past,” Ang said.
“Is this what you do?” Banner countered. “Play mind games?”
“Do you want to be cured?”
“Captain,” Kahn said. “I got a report from the drone.” He pointed skyward. “There’re two figures moving across the plains, towards the mountains.”
Banner ignored the news. He concentrated on Ang and considered what had been offered. He didn’t have to suffer as he had for the past fifty-some years. How many more years did he have? Another fifty? Grow old at the age of two hundred standard years and still be plagued by what had happened in his youth?
“You make the choice,” Ang said.
“You just want your missionaries to escape,” Banner said.
Ang grinned, his teeth again two perfect lines, one atop the other. “I do want that. And I want my settlement to thrive. But I also want to help the weary and the injured, the mentally sick with grief because of their past.”
Banner blinked, but Ang didn’t disappear. This wasn’t a dream. He’d come to this rugged settlement of domed huts on the arid plains. He couldn’t deny what he saw or what he heard.
Ang put one hand into a pocket of his robe. He extracted his fist. He opened it to reveal two oval stones, one white and one white with a green stripe.
“What’re those?” Banner asked.
“I keep these with me. For decisions to be made. Like choosing lots. The white stone means that you join our settlement and learn from us.”
“And the other?”
“The other, if selected, condemns you to suffer, for suffering is what you want.” Ang sucked in a breath, the effort visible when his robe rose and fell across his chest. “You choose. Which do you want?”
“Put them in a sack,” Banner said. “Or one in either hand. Is that what I do, choose one or the other without knowing which one? Like this is ordained? Like you’re some sort of magician?”
Ang shook his head. He pushed his hand towards Banner and said, “You choose which stone you want. A white stone that saves you or a green-striped stone that doesn’t.”
A spark of truth erupted in Banner’s mind. This was nothing like what had happened on Vanguard. There, he hadn’t given each colonist a choice, a selection of one stone or another; or the drawing of the proverbial short straw. There'd been no lottery conducted in an old-fashioned way. There'd only been an algorithm running on a maintenance system drafted to do the job. The men, women and children chosen by lot had had no say in their future. They hadn't even tried their luck.
Banner had a say, though. He looked at the two stones in Ang's hand. One lay across a stitched line in the palm. The other lay close to the root of the index finger.
“The white one saves me?” Banner asked.
Ang nodded and Banner took the white stone from the open palm. Why not grab at what could be a last chance for solace?
He heard his name being shouted. He felt Ang’s strong arm across his shoulders. He walked into the cool refuge offered by the underground temple. He didn’t care if the missionaries escaped or if Lieutenant Kahn took charge and continued the search.
When he started out on this mission, he didn’t know why he hadn’t just handed it over to an underling. But now he understood.

The End

About the Author: After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction in all its many forms, including SF and fantasy, magical realism, and contemporary narrative. He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology), Gaslandia (a dieselpunk anthology), and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Original Fiction: "New Witch in Town" by Robert Allen Lupton

Editor's Introduction: After first publishing a time travel story, followed by a futuristic story, this week we expand the variety of our offerings with what is best described as humorous horror story. It's an entertaining tale of what happens when there is, as the title says, "A New Witch in Town>.

I sat in the front row of Mrs. McAlister’s fourth grade class. The shiny apple on her desk slowly rotted into slurry. I glanced around. Janet Oberon, the suck-up who brought the apple, watched her gift decay. She gasped when the first worm poked its head through the browning red skin.
The apple was bright and new a few moments ago. I heard a soft snicker. The new girl, Mabel, spun her index finger in a small circle and mumbled under her breath. She caught me looking at her and winked. Janet shrieked when the apple’s skin ruptured. Maggots and worms floated in putrid applesauce across the desk and dripped onto the floor.
It was great. Best day ever. Mrs. McAlister puked in the trash can. She sent Janet to the principal’s office for bringing a rotten apple to class. I told my friends, Mark and Sammy, at lunch. They’re in Mrs. Johnson’s fourth grade class.
I said, “It was Mable. She wiggled her finger and cast a spell on the apple.”
“Ronnie, you’re a moron. It’s close to Halloween and you been watching way too many Harry Potter reruns. You think the new girl’s a witch? Oooohhhhh.”
I shoved Mark. “I saw what I saw. I’m gonna talk to her.”
Sammy complained, “Not this week. Halloween’s Friday. This is the last year we can trick or treat. We gotta make plans. Gotta payback Buddy Oberon and his friends.”
Sammy had a point. Buddy and his two asshole buddies, Preston and Rich, were the town bullies. They were juniors in high school. They’d picked on us for years and stole our candy the last three Halloweens. Bastards.
“I know, but I’m still going to talk to Mabel.”
“Go get her, lady-killer. When you’re on the ground with a bloody nose and no Halloween candy, remember I told you so.”
Mabel sat reading on the steps of the portable building we used for a classroom. I walked up and said, “You’re new. I’m Ronnie. I know what you did to the apple.”
“I don’t know shit about no apple.”
“Yes, you do. You wiggled your finger and said an enchantment or something.”
“You mean like a spell. You think I’m a witch. How old are you? You’re ten, maybe eleven, and you still believe in witches. Imagine that. Hang around a couple of months and Santa Clause will bring you some presents. I think I saw the Easter Bunny run under the building.”
“Hey, I don’t mean anything. I saw what I saw. I thought you might want a friend.”
“Maybe, I do, Ronnie. Maybe, I do.” She twitched her nose like the witch lady on television and I almost fell over myself backing away.
“Oh, Ronnie, don’t make it so easy. Introduce me to your friends.” She closed her book, stood up, and we went to find Sammy and Mark. The bell rang right as I introduced them and we walked to class.
Sammy said, “We’re going to work on our Halloween costumes at my house after school. You can come if you want.”
“Thanks, I’ll check with my mom.”
Red-eyed Janet was back in class. She broke her pencil three times, her pen leaked all over her dress, and a fly landed on her face several times. Whenever I glanced at Mabel, she just smiled and winked.
Her mother consented and Mabel walked with me to Sammy’s house. Mabel and I passed the signboard at the High School. It advertised the Halloween Ball this Friday night. I asked, “What’s the deal with Janet?”
“Janet lives down the block from us. She’s been really mean to me. Told the other girls not to play with me. She walks her stupid little dog and lets him poop in my yard.”
“So I’m right and you made the apple rot. You are a witch.”
Mabel looked around and said, “Not smart to piss off a witch. Ask Janet. I’m not a witch, not yet anyway. I’m more of a witch in training. If you tell anyone, my mama will turn you into a toad.”
“Can she do that?”
“You wanna take a chance.”
“No, what’s a witch in training? Can I learn?”
“If you don’t have the blood, you can study all you want, but your spells won’t work. Until I’m a woman, my spells only work on inanimate objects and insects. Last week, I learned to control flies.”
“Become a woman. You mean like sex?
“Don’t be gross. No, I mean when I mature enough that I’m not a child anymore.”
“Oh, you mean when you have a period.”
“I’m so not having this conversation.”
I knocked at Sammy’s and we went to his dad’s basement workshop. Our work was laid out on the workbench. Mabel looked at the tattered and torn clothing. She picked up strips of cloth stained with red paint. “Zombies, you guys are going as zombies.”
Mark answered, “Yes. Gloves and old shoes and makeup, lots of makeup. Makeup doesn’t restrict your vision. We want to see everything. The big kids in this town will kick your ass and steal your candy if you aren’t careful. That asshole, Buddy Oberon, is the worst. He blacked Sammy’s eye last year. We’re going to get him back. I’m thinking we’ll put mousetraps in our candy sacks.”
Sammy said, “That’s stupid. It won’t kill him and he’ll know who did it. We gotta think of something better than that shit.”
I had an idea I’d been saving. When Sammy said, “Shit,” it appeared in my mind as clear as a vision of Christ himself, dressed in a gold sequined jumpsuit surfing down from the clouds on a sunbeam and singing Onward Christian Soldiers.” I had the perfect plan.
“I got it. Laxatives. Laxatives and stool softeners. We’ll fill the candy with laxatives and reseal the packaging with superglue. When Buddy and his pals eat the candy, they’ll spend a week on the crapper.”
Mark laughed, “What a shitty plan. I love it.”
We worked on our costumes until dark. We made a fourth zombie outfit for Mabel. She was a wiz at makeup.
School was slow the next day. During the afternoon, a fly kept buzzing my ear. I gave Mabel a dirty look. She giggled and gestured for the fly to leave me alone. She guided it under Janet’s dress. Janet shrieked and jumped on top of her desk. Mrs. McAlister sent her to the office. Another good day.
Buddy stopped his car in the street next to us that afternoon. “You little shits better be fast this Halloween. I got a date for the Halloween Ball and I don’t have time to wait all night for you to fill your sacks. You could just bring the candy to the school parking lot. That might save you an ass-whipping, but I doubt it. Don’t hold out on me. See you Friday.”
Mabel and I bought plenty of candy. No one thinks twice about selling candy to kids. Mark and Sammy didn’t do so well. People ask questions when a couple of ten year old boys want to buy twenty packages of chocolate-flavored laxative.
The pharmacist said, “You boys know this isn’t candy. You don’t want to eat this stuff.”
Mark shook his head. “I told him my brother was in Africa and you can’t buy good laxatives in Africa. He told me to bring a note from my mother.”
“So you didn’t get any?”
Mark pulled two boxes out of his pocket. “I stole these, but I don’t think it’s enough.”
He unwrapped one of the packages and the chocolate had melted into sludge. He threw it in the trash. I said, “Well, my plan went to shit. Anybody else got anything?”
Mabel asked, “Buddy is Janet Oberon’s big brother, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Then I’ll help. I know a spell my mother uses to help people who can’t poop. I can put the spell on the candy and people who eat it will crap like they drank a bottle of castor oil.”
Mark and Sammy looked at me. “Yes, she’s really a witch. Actually, she’s a witch in training, but if she says she can do this, she can.”
Mark said, “Prove it.”
Mabel picked up a chocolate peanut cluster and smiled. “Okay eat this. Maybe, you’ll be able to get off the toilet by Halloween. I dare you.”
“Okay, if it doesn’t work, we’re no worse than we are now.”
Mabel said, “I’ll memorize the spell tonight and put it on the candy right before we start to trick or treat.”
I walked Mabel home. We held hands.
On Halloween night, we added long coats to our costumes so people would think we only had one candy sack, but we each carried one for real candy and another for Buddy and his boys. Mabel finished our makeup and piled all the candy on the work bench. She inscribed a chalk circle and pentagram around the candy. She lit red candles and placed them at the pentagram’s points. She chanted for a few minutes and then pulled a sharp knife out of her pocket and pricked her finger. She squeezed a drop of blood into each candle’s flames. The flames belched green smoke that smelled like an outhouse. Suddenly a breeze blew away the smoke. That wasn’t good. There’s no wind in a basement.
Mabel smiled and washed her hands. “Don’t confuse which sack is which. It’s almost dark. We going trick or treating or what?”
I shoveled the candy into four sacks and joined the other kids. It was a good night. Folks loved our costumes. We had quite a haul by nine o’clock. We hadn’t seen Buddy. Mark suggest we hide our good candy and walk around until Buddy found us. We hid our bounty under the broken down car in Mr. Wilson’s driveway.
It felt strange to walk around and wait for Buddy. I felt feathery touches on my neck and face. Shadows flitted just out of my vision. I slapped phantom fingers away from my face. Mark complained, ‘Is it raining? Something keeps touching me.”
Mabel said, “It’s my fault. The spirits know I’m here. They know I cast a spell because they can smell it on me. The barriers between the spirit world and ours are weaker on Halloween. They won’t hurt us, but they want to be near the action.”
Sammy shivered and touched his neck. “You sure they won’t hurt us?”
‘Pretty sure, but it is Halloween, after all.”
We had to jump out of the way when Buddy’s car screamed to a stop. “Happy Halloween, you little shits. Trick or treat.”
Preston and Rich jumped out the car and the three of them circled around us. They were dressed in slacks and sport coats. Preston said, “It’s your lucky night. We don’t want to mess up our clothes before we go to the Halloween Ball. Just put your candy sacks on the ground and back away.”
Mark threw his sack on the street and ran. He stopped and yelled, “Kiss my ass.”
Buddy said, “Little boy, that blows your free pass. I’ll find you tomorrow.”
I put my sack on the ground and so did Mabel. Sammy put his sack with ours. We moved away. Preston reached into a sack and pulled out a chocolate bar, ripped off the cover, and ate it. He tossed a bar to Buddy.
Buddy ate it and said, “Stolen candy tastes the best. Don’t stay out too late.”
They jumped in the car and drove toward the high school. I said, “We’re gonna follow them. I got to see this.”
Mabel asked me. “They won’t let us in the gym. Only kids in high school can go to the dance.”
Sammy smiled. “We’ve been sneaking into the gym to shoot hoops for years. We’ll hide in the rafters and watch. You’re not afraid, are you?”
“You mean because I’m a girl. You want me to turn you into a toad or just give you pimples? Your call.”
The four of us climbed through a window in the janitor’s closet. We taped the door latch so it wouldn’t lock behind us and climbed into the rafters. There’s a catwalk between the lights and cranks that raise and lower the basketball backboards. The backboards were raised high against the catwalk. We hid where we could peak over the backboards and people couldn’t see us from below.
Buddy, Rich, and Preston came in with their dates. They dumped all the stolen candy into a bowl where the punch and other snacks were on display. Buddy’s date ate a piece of chocolate.
“Holly shit. Everyone down there is going to eat the candy. There’ll be more poop on the floor than in a pigsty. Mabel, you’ve got to cancel the spell.”
“I don’t know how, but even if I did, I’d need to draw a pentagram. I left the red candles in Mark’s basement. Maybe my spell won’t work.”
Preston poured a bottle of pure grain alcohol in the punch. The high school kids danced, drank punch, and ate candy. Everyone ate candy and they seemed just fine. Maybe the spell didn’t work.
It worked. Buddy was first. The cramps hit him in the middle of a slow dance. He ran for the men’s room. Rich didn’t make it off the floor. He bent over and poop ran down his legs. We could smell it in the rafters. Rich’s date looked shocked and angry, but her anger vanished when the cramps hit her. I hope her parents didn’t spend a lot on her dress.
Preston threw up and then ran for the bathroom. He slipped on his own vomit and liquefied shit stained his trousers. The carnage escalated.
“We gotta get out of here,” whispered Sammy. Mark backed carefully down the catwalk, but the smell was too much for him. He gagged, held his hands over his mouth, and vomited on the crowd.
No one came after us. They were busy with their own problems. Mabel said, “I’ll try to stop this.” She waved her hands and began to chant. Spirits slowly congealed around her. They changed from misty apparitions to cold, half-solidified, gelatin forms floating through the rafters. They kept touching me and bestowed slimy caresses as they drifted around us.
Mabel said, “They’re spirits. They won’t hurt us. When I tried to cancel my spell, I accidently summoned them. They aren’t demons, they’re the spirits of my ancestors. I’ll ask them to help us.”
Sammy continued to crawl toward the ladder at the end of the catwalk. “I just want to go home.”
The spirits continued to solidify. They looked like us. By us, I mean zombies. Their clothes were tattered and torn and their faces and hands looked like they had leprosy. One opened its mouth and I could see the ceiling lights through the holes in its head.
It hugged me. I froze and whispered, “Mabel, make it leave me alone. Can you make it leave me alone?”
She nodded and with a gesture summoned the spirit to her. “These three are my friends. Leave them be.”
The creature extended its rotting hand. The hand dissolved into mist, drifted forward, and engulfed Mabel’s face. She inhaled the evil smoke and her eyes rolled back. Her body quaked with a small seizure. Her eyes opened, she breathed out the smoke, and it reformed into a ghostly hand. Mabel said, “This spirit is my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother from a very long time ago. People hung her in a town called Salem. The spirits will stop the shitstorm. The people will stop vomiting and pooping. She says they won’t clean up the mess. I don’t blame her. The spirits require payment.”
Mark reached in his pocket. “I’ve got eleven dollars.”
“They don’t want money. They want a servant. Someone has to go with them. It should be me. It’s my fault we need their help.”
I said, “Piss on that. If they want someone, give ‘em Buddy. This is his fault.”
I waved my arms and the spirits surrounded me. One reached for me, I slapped its slimy hand away, and pointed at Buddy. “Not me. Take him.”
The spirits looked at Buddy and the reincarnated witches with rotting faces didn’t just look happy, they seemed absolutely gleeful. They turned to Mabel for reassurance and she said, “Take him.”
The spirits dove from the rafters and reverted to the consistency and stench of greasy smoke. The filthy wraiths flew above the floor. They didn’t slow down when they came to the wretched partygoers; they flew right through them. The victims shivered at the brief moment of ghostly contact and passed out.
In moments, Buddy was the only one awake. He wiped his face and backed away from the zombie ghost witches solidifying around him. He slid down the wall. He tried to stand, but he was too weak and the floor was slippery.
Mabel’s ancestor seemed to be in charge. The old woman zombie ghost witch shoved her hand into Buddy’s mouth and her arm spun like small whirlwind. It vacuumed Buddy inside out. He deflated like a balloon. He disappeared feet first. His feet and legs vanished into his body. His hands and arms went next. It was gross and fascinating at the same time.
His head went last. The flesh flowed from his bones and the skull melted. His brain splashed on the slop-covered floor.
The witches faded into the mist and vanished. The other partygoers began to wake up. Some of them vomited again, but Mabel said that was because of the stench, not because of her enchantment.
We inched our way to the ladder. Mabel and I took one last look at the muck and mire splattered dance floor, the sewage stained dresses, and the lakes of human manure scattered across the hardwood floor. Buddy’s brain grew smaller and smaller. It dissolved and mixed with the excrement and vomit. The sludge looked the same and I couldn’t tell where the crap ended and Buddy’s brains started.
Mabel said, “We have to go. Are you okay?”
I pointed at the last vestige of dissolving cerebellum. “I’m better than okay. Look. I always knew that Buddy had shit for brains.”

-The End-

About the Author: Robert Allen Lupton is retired and lives in New Mexico where he is a commercial hot air balloon pilot. Robert runs and writes every day, but not necessarily in that order. More than seventy of his short stories have been published in several anthologies including “Chicken Soup For the Soul – Running For Good”, and online at,,,,, and

Over 300 drabbles based on the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and several articles are available online at His novel, Foxborn, was published in April 2017 and the sequel, Dragonborn, in June 2018. His collection of running themed horror, science fiction, and adventure stories, Running Into Trouble, was published in October 2017.

His annotated edition of John Monro’s 1897 novel, A Trip To Venus, was released in September 2018. His stories have received five honorable mention awards from “Writers of the Future.”