31 Oct The Halloween Funeral
“The Halloween Funeral”Written by Eli Pope Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 26 minutes
In some strange kind of way, I suppose it was appropriate that Nicholas passed so near Halloween. He loved the dressing up and scaring friends, going to spook houses nightly for the week ahead and then staying out all night the night of. It was the only time I remember him having any type of darkness inside him. It was a happy darkness, but it differed from all of us others. Throughout the rest of the year and the opening of the next—he mirrored us, the rest of the siblings. But Halloween, that was his time of the year. The leaves falling, the colder and wet chill that hung in the air at night. The goosebumps he could give us as he told haunted stories just far enough away from the streetlight that it made the fear more evident, more plausible. Many times, I wanted to lift my body vertical and run like hell towards the front porch of our old and tired home. But it was that. It was home. Some of our friends lived in houses, parents always busy doing selfish things, but our father had given us himself as part of the package of the home. Even though I was different, not from the same blood, I was family held in the same order of Pop’s love. It had been a hard time when we lost him. Not that far back, but that’s another story for another time.
Nicholas was the oldest. He loved music and while one couldn’t call him a musical master, your heart would be drawn into whatever he played and sang. He’d taught us all silly old songs like “Froggy Went a Courtin’” and others that seemed to have been born from a time far before his time, but he loved them. You could see it in his expressions his face wore as he played and sang.
I knew the news hadn’t held the time to truly sink into my psyche. I was in shock and barely believed it was true. Our mom was devastated, unable to conceive he was really gone. She cried and looked up at me with lost eyes and I melted. I felt her pain. I knew she loved Nicholas with endless love. I also knew she held the very same love for each of us.
We all attempted to give her comfort, but it only seemed to take hold temporarily. She would smile when we shared happy memories, but almost immediately the powerful pain of loss would overtake any memory no matter how happy it had been at the time. Her dementia didn’t help. She would seem to understand one moment, until the next erased the previous and took her back to zero. I saw a patience in my brothers and sister like I’d never knew existed. All the years of our past were quickly flooding through all of our memories. After all, our ages were scattered and spread about. We’d all mostly moved away, starting our own lives and families many years ago, only meeting at holidays for most of us. It’s, of course, to be expected, no matter how much one wants the past to remain the same.
It was usually a pleasant time to get together and meet. But this one was a great failure at that attempt. You can’t sit around the bonfire and share memories of growing up in quite the same way when the gathering has brought the family back together to share such a horrible loss. With mom having entered a new stage in her life, her eighty-nine years had ushered in a permanent loss mental awareness, condemning her to a sentence of never totally being able to grasp the intricacies of what life was bringing around us, she was living with Janey, our only sister and the youngest of the rest of us. Her husband had welcomed both of her parents to live next door to them when age overtook their ability to maintain the twenty acres of timber outside a town too far from the kids to regularly travel to check on them. The move had been very tumultuous the ten years prior to now. Wounds opened between family members but now long-healed. Life with family who love each other—make it possible to bridge differences and scab over reckless scratches that nick the skin.
Three days until Halloween.
Plans for saying goodbye to a man like Nicholas should stand out. Especially when it came so near a time of the year he loved so much. And he was a man now. If truth be acknowledged, he was an old man. Janey being the youngest of the bunch, was fifty-two. Brian, fifty-four, Sam, fifty-six, Max was fifty-eight, and Steven, or Skeezix, as he was known, had just turned sixty-three. He was now the oldest of the brood now that Nicholas had just turned sixty-seven on the fifteenth of October, his favorite month, had passed.
From all the different places the siblings now lived, enjoying their trailing years in life with kids of their own, had come from as far as Alaska, Georgia, and different spots of Missouri, to meet and gather their collective grief to send Nicholas’ body and soul off for that final journey and reminisce of their shared pasts along with their accompanying spouses and grown and nearly grown children. Skeezix and his wife Mallory had brought their young granddaughter, Solara, a little angel in her own right who does her very honest best to bring happiness to the mix of memories and sorrow and loss.
Janey and her brothers sat around their mother’s living room making their first mutual attempt at collecting thoughts of how to properly sendoff Nicholas.
“It can’t just be church and black clothing; Nicholas would hate this!” Janey spoke.
“Hate it? Hell, he’d haunt every one of us for doing that to him.” Skeezix replied.
“Can I say one thing?” Max quietly asked. “The Timber—” He said in almost a broken whisper, the speaking it aloud almost bringing instant tears.
The siblings almost answered in a harmonious and unanimous answer. “Perfect!”
Brian spoke out and in a most logical tone almost shattered the other’s collective smiles at the entire thought of the idea. After all, none of them had stepped foot on the sacred land for ten years. “What if the owners say no?”
“They surely wouldn’t—I mean—we wouldn’t be there long or leave a mess or….” Janey sniffled, lifting the hanky that had been held in her hand dabbing her eyes almost constantly since getting the saddening news.
“I’ll make the call to them and ask if that’s okay?” Max replied in almost the same hushed tone as when he’d spoken those two words, “The Timber,” that none of us had heard from his lips or any of the others for so, so long. It was as if they’d become taboo, not allowing that memory to reenter any of our minds other than quiet and personal thoughts up to this point. There was no longer a dry eye in the room. The siblings’ spouses were also affected by the soft but resounding term the families land had been known as since—since ever.
Max made a few calls before getting the owners number, before quietly standing up and moving to the other room as he punched the numbers in and drew the phone to his ear. The rest of the room hushed their discussions in an attempt to hear hints of what was being discussed. Shocked eyes from the one-sided dialogue quickly gave the answer to those hints at the conversation.
“…but… we… no… it’s not like that at all, sir. We wouldn’t be destructive of the property at all, we… we… just want the… the family to be allowed to access the riverfront from what used to… hold on, Mrs. Wilke… that’s not necessary to use that kind of language… we just want to be able to gather our family and spread the ashes along the river… please…” His head lifted from the kitchen as he looked out across the space between him and us. His eyes glistened with moisture mixed with redness. No one was certain the flush red color was from sadness or building anger. The answer became shockingly evident mere seconds later.
“Well, you can just kiss my hillbilly ass you piece of… worthless…” Max stuttered before pulling the phone away from his ear and staring at the screen before sealing his wonder if he’d been hung up on. “You ass!” The others all looked at each other realizing that indeed, the answer was obviously a resounding no.
“You tried, Max, and we thank you for that. It would have been perfect; Nicholas would have loved it.”
Sam looked up with the only smile in the room. “Oh, this is perfect.”
“What in hell do you mean, Sam?” Janey asked. “This is perfectly awful!” she finished.
“I agree,” Brian added.
“I think I’m seeing something totally differing your thoughts, guys. Sam appears to have another way of getting around this—um—challenging—problem.” Skeezix’ smile mirrored Sam’s. “I’m seeing the wheels turning inside the head of the retired military man he is. I see another covert mission being cooked up.” Skeezix’ grin continued to grow.
Sam turned and winked at Skeezix. “Affirmative, Skeezix, you are indeed correct. Operation Hallow Sendoff is already simmering. Give me some time to knock out the logistics, this mission isn’t scrubbed just yet. Who is game to come with and run a quick late-night recon of the area?”
All the remaining siblings hands began to rise in a volunteering stretch to the sky with following sounds of “Me! And Aye, aye.” As the outstretched arms remained stiff in the air while the spouses eyes showed anxious worries fused with unwavering support.
“Promise to be careful.” Kate, Brian’s wife, called out.
“Yes, guys—we don’t want this to turn into a two-fer at the end of a shotgun.” Mallory echoed, her husband Skeezix, smiling wide.
Janey spoke up quickly, “So what time are we heading to—operation Hallow Sendoff?”
“Oh no, Mrs. Janey, dear—I’ll go, you’re not. You sit this one out and stay with Momma C.,” Brock said to his wife.
“I’m going!” Janey retorted.
“We’re all going, Janey—when the mission is laid out. This is just a reconnaissance mission to prepare the actual Hallow Sendoff. And I mean all of us. Momma C. too.”
“Just how in hell is that gonna work?” Questioned Brian.
“By thorough planning, Brian. I’ve been through tougher missions. Nicholas is getting this sendoff with all of us present and accounted for.” Sam said with an evil grin.
The sun dropped behind the trees as Sam drove the truck north towards the small town of Ash Grove. Skeezix sat in the front passenger seat while Brock, Max, and Brian sat squeezed in the back seat of the crew cab. Brock leaned up and excitedly spoke, “This is some crazy shit! I’ve never done anything like this before.”
Sam smiled. “This is nothing, you should have been with me in the ‘sandbox’. That was some crazy shit! You never knew what you were going to encounter.”
Brian leaned up beside Brock. “Nic would love seeing us all together like this. It’s the one thing he hated, us spread out all over the place and not talking.”
“Exactly,” Skeezix replied as he turned, stretching his arm around Brian’s shoulder. “I’d like to think this was all in his plan and he’s now enjoying seeing this. Of course, he would have loved to actually be here too.” A small tear crept from his eye.
Max just sat watching the scenery blur into the distance from the window. It was like he was in another world of his own. He looked down and scrolled through his phone. His fingers pushed a couple of buttons and then his gaze moved back to quietly staring out through the glass of the window. It wasn’t but seconds before the sound of guitar strings being strummed began filling the cab of the truck. It was a recording of Nic. All conversation that had been going on—ceased at once. The tune was melancholy and echoed through the air with a sense of magic as if he were sitting beside them playing his favorite guitar. Suddenly there wasn’t a dry eye in the vehicle and then his voice softly began singing, “It’s all one can do—to get along—in this crazy world.” His words quietly faded as the strings of the guitar plucked out a small solo along with the rhythm. “Sing the song—come on—sing along— drown out this mad world—and make it right….”
When the music stopped, it took several minutes for the brothers to regain their senses. Max looked up. “I heard him play this song while we were sitting down by the Sac. The place we all played in the river as kids. I secretly recorded this. He would have stopped playing had he known.” Max smiled. “I’ll never forget this day. I’ll never forget this song—I’ll never forget Nic. The river is where he needs to be.”
“It’s gonna happen, Max. I promise. On Halloween night, just like he’d want.” Sam replied.
The truck pulled slowly across the old cement bridge, just downriver from the spot. The sun was just beginning to hover over the cusp of the horizon, glimmering through the tree limbs lining the fields. A calm washed over the brothers sitting in the truck’s cab. The entrance to the Timber, the old homestead that was no longer the family’s, seemed quiet. Sam did notice some faint blue lights up in a tree looking beside the entrance. A camera, he thought to himself. Damn the technology! He continued slowly passing the entrance. Everything looked so much different now. He glanced up into the rearview mirror to his two brothers in the back and then over to the passenger seat. “This may be a bit tougher than I thought. The new owners are from California, aren’t they?” He asked.
“Yup. One of the offshoots of L.A. I believe. I remember them telling Pop that they’d sold their ordinary ranch-style house for three times what he was asking for this place, and his Cali home only sat on a small lot.” Skeezix stated.
Sam quickly replied, “Yeah, I’m afraid in their big city paranoia that they may have cameras everywhere throughout the property.”
“What’s that mean, Sam? We gonna have to scrub the mission?” Brian asked.
“We ain’t scrubbing the fuckin mission, Brian. Nic is getting his send-off from the Timber down the Sac,” Max quickly answered.
“We aren’t walking away, guys, just means we need to come in from upstream or across the river from John’s Chapel side,” Sam stated. “Plans have to be fluid and able to change flow and direction. We just met our first change. Don’t freak.”
Sam pulled the truck into the neighbor’s drive and to the right to talk over other ways to proceed.
The brothers pulled back into their sister’s driveway and no sooner than the truck rolled to a stop, Janey was out the door and down the porch steps to greet them. “Well? Did you figure a plan out?”
“We have,” Max said as he eyed the other boys. “We’re gonna go upstream from John’s Chapel with a couple of flat-bottom boats. We’ll put in at Shane’s Gap where Doug will leave us the boats. He wants to come. I think he should. He was really close to Nic, like family.”
“I agree. He was like another brother to Nic. He knows the area better than any of us, grew up here all his life.” Janey said.
“Janey—” Max started, “craziest thing—we saw gigging lights floating down the river—”
Janey looked over, “What’s crazy about that? We all liked gigging; the whole damned area likes gigging.”
“A little late in the season, ain’t it?” Max questioned.
“You have been away for a long minute, haven’t you?” Janey smiled. “It ain’t just about the fish or frogs—you know that.”
In unison as if it were a well-practiced response, Janey and the other boys all said in unison, “It’s about fun and family!” They all smiled but then all fell silent at the same moment. The somberness took the place of the now stolen smiles. Janey was the first to fall apart.
“Nic loved family—and the river—and… I… I… miss him—”
Max, who was usually more withdrawn than his siblings, quickly moved in and took Janey into his arms. “I miss him too, sis. We all do. Just like we all miss Pop.”
All the brothers encircled Janey and Max, joining in a family hug.
Sam was the first to speak up. “We only have two days to get this send-off of Nic’s put together. We have to figure out how to get Mom there and our kids. This can’t turn into a nightmare, this is—after all—our oldest brother we’re sending off. We have to do this right. Pop is watching over us.”
* * * * * *
There were all the arrangements that needed to be made like the cremation, the vessel to hold Nic’s ashes, sharing any ashes with family members who felt they needed to hold on to some small part of Nic for comfort. There was music, the eulogy—just a million things it seemed that needed done before Halloween. Nic was such a big part of their blended family that it just felt like perfection for this oddly different Halloween needed to be flawless. There would be no ghouls this year. No children holding out bags for candy while dressed like goblins, clowns, astronauts, or soldiers. No vampires or ghosts. It would be family saying goodbye instead of the standard evening filled with smiles and “trick or treat” being timidly spoken by toddler princesses or boldly by superheroes like Batman or Wonder Woman. The entire scenario still seemed surreal and unbelievable. The entire family was in shock. Especially their mom. Her psyche was suffering, her memory struggling to even comprehend what had happened. The same questions and statements repeated as if the memory banks of it all were too full to hold anymore.
“Is… is… Nic… gone?” She would ask. “Did he die? Where was I? Was I with him?” She would look up in the saddest confusion. It broke all of their hearts to have to give the same answers over and over. Answers that were not the ones she wanted or needed to hear to satisfy her feelings of confusion. It was as if there were a scratch embedded in the vinyl of the record album forcing the same audible things to be repeated infinitely on a loop. The entire family resembled a brokenness in different ways. Most were functioning, taking the place they needed to fill to get the mission accomplished, but the truth was, it was difficult for even the toughest of the clan. The family didn’t need any more loss. Recuperation and time. That was what everyone needed. Poor Solara, the youngest of the family, Skeezix and Mallory’s granddaughter flitted between sadness and the love of seeing family members she hadn’t seen since last Christmas.
The simple truth was—Nic was gone. He was up with Pop and, certainly, the two were looking down on them wishing things could be much different than they were.
It was here. Late afternoon of October 31st. A day that normally brings excitement and costume final finishes. Impatiently waiting for the sun to take its dip into the horizon as children practiced their scares and smeared their face paint into scary green witches and psycho-blood-smeared clowns, glitter-soaked perfect princesses, and bandage-wrapped mummies. Instead, Janey and her brothers were putting Nic’s ashes into the case of his favorite Gibson Les Paul Jr. A guitar he loved to make music with. The siblings placed mementos of things they knew Nic loved. Last-minute goodbyes on tiny sheets of paper that they hoped in some way he would be able to acknowledge their memories of good times shared and the pain they would now feel. Promises to keep them in their hearts and minds. Objects like a flashlight, because Nic had an almost hoarders conscience of needing twenty of them if he had one. They shared more painful smiles between them as they closed the lid for the last time. They knew Nic understood, even though he would hate the feelings he was giving them by his leaving them. It wasn’t by choice, if able he would have stayed until the last one leaving, closing the door quietly behind him before turning the lights out. But that isn’t the way life played this act out. The oldest had been the first to leave, a plan which is likely the way it’s supposed to play out but didn’t seem right this time.
Mom was loaded in the truck and waiting, all the siblings spouses and their kids too. A rather large troupe in five vehicles. The procession wouldn’t play out like a normal one. No police or funeral home escort leading the way. No hearse with a long box in the back. Just a Gibson guitar case that weighed more than normal and rattled with loose items within. Somber faces painted the windows as they took off in a line, but that was the only scene of normality in this last parade to being sent off. No grave, no graveside service, no normal pastor giving any sermons of how God’s plan was being painfully played out like the final act of life. This was Halloween after all. The Streets were not filled with sad faces waving goodbye as the line of vehicles made the drive carefully through the neighborhoods. The sidewalks were lined with costumed kids carrying pillowcases and plastic pumpkins. Sparkles of candy and fun filled their eyes while tears filled the eyes sealed inside the vehicles slowly passing them. One confused face of a beautiful little girl sitting by the window watching through the glass at all the spooks holding hands of their normally dressed parents peered out in wonder.
The drive was periodically silent. No one knowing how to speak out when tightly packed next to others likely feeling the same imprisoned silence. Occasional sniffs and deep-taken breaths followed by quiet sighs. Nic would have hated this part too. He would have wanted to be on the outside with all the dressed-up children begging for candy from house to house. Popping out from the bushes scaring friends of his.
No—Halloween would never be the same. Never again.
After pulling out of town and the parades of kids in outfits filling the front yards and sidewalks, the darkness began to swallow up the interior of the vehicles traveling down the highway on their way to their destination. Max had gathered the group together to explain the mission and the necessity for moving quietly to the boats and while floating down the river to their destination. The riverfront of—the Timber, a place that on this night, they were not being welcomed. None of them understood why in the world Larry or Wilma Wilke would have acted like they had when asked about sending Nic off at that particular site on the river. The place Nic had grown up with them playing, adventuring, and learning about life. But they had, so they must be very quiet since they would be illegally trespassing on property that was once owned by their family—for many generations. The thought that haunted Pop when he was forced to be the one to let the property leave their family. It had been a source of family disagreement since the last time he’d set foot on the property. They’d all known he felt as if it were a failure on his part even though it hadn’t been. At eighty years old, no one could expect someone to be able to take care of a house, several barns, and all the property. All the kids had grown families in places far off. The tradition of sticking around the family property and carrying on had been the failure of not passing the land down. It was on the kids, not Pop. No one planned on moving back, their lives built on different lands in different places. The siblings had all agreed the Wilkes family with their three young children—were the perfect family to sell the property to. They would be the new torch holders to carry on their traditions.
But now—now it felt totally different. Sure, they’d been wonderful when Pop died shortly after becoming the new owners. They’d let us come back and send him off in a similar way. But now there was something different. They had been anything but kind upon being called.
But—traditions should be carried out. One way—or the other. The Wilkes had made the only choice possible for Nic’s send-off. A covert way spun into a very clandestine mission in order to send their oldest and very loved brother off to the next level—the best way they knew how—come hell or high water.
Sam pulled up to John’s Chapel. He exited the truck. He looked the part of the military man he was. Black khakis, black pullover shirt, black grease or paint smeared over his entire face. Nothing but the whites of his eyes peeking through the darkness of this hallowed eve. In truth, Sam’s attire looked like a military Halloween costume—and it made every one of his siblings nervous as hell. He looked entirely too much the part of a covert squadron leader on a mission over in Iraq. It brought the seriousness of their mission to each one of them involved—even nine-year-old Solara. The view of Sam brought a sudden silence to each one of the family. He had told them how moving quietly until they were finished and clear of the “war zone” was necessary. None of them had taken him seriously—not until he stepped from the truck, his eyes shining out from the darkness like a walking zombie’s. This was happening—and it was no game. It was all of their final goodbyes to a valued family member, Nic, a brother who shouldn’t be the ashes inside that Fender guitar case.
The flat-bottom bottom boats were exactly where Doug had said they would be. There was nothing but faint water splashes in the dark as each person quietly loaded themselves into one of the vessels. The brothers each helped load their boat and then collected together to retrieve Mom and carry her over, attending to her, helping assure her confusion that swallowed her from the day she was told what happened. She now sat in the front seat not fully aware of why she was there or exactly what was happening around her. She looked around, searching the faces of those who surrounded her. Her eyes hollow and drooping from the anguish she couldn’t understand.
Sam stood on the bank as the last person was placed aboard the rocking metal vessels. All eyes instinctively searched his, somehow acknowledging that he had last minute instruction on how the dark full-moon hallows evening would play out.
He wiped his eye with his finger that was cloaked in a black glove. “First off—I love each and every one of you.” His smile barely shown through the darkness. “I hate the reason we are here. I know you too share those same feelings. Nicholas was—well—Nic was—Nic. No one will ever be able to replace him. The world is so much less the place it was three days ago. He will be missed. I’ll never forget him. I wouldn’t be who I turned out to be—without knowing him. Skeezix—um, Steve—you and Nic were never a “step” brother to me. You were flesh and blood from day one. You both were anchors in my life. Teachers.” He paused and then smiled. “Not always teachers of the things we needed to learn but loved teachers none the less. Brothers through and through. Pop felt the same way. Mom—” he said as he looked over directly at her. “Thank you for falling in love with our dad. And he did love you, with all his heart. If it weren’t for that shared love, I wouldn’t have learned and loved the way I was taught, through you and Nic and Steve.” He sniffed, it was a side of Sam that his siblings had rarely, if ever, witnessed.
Sam’s melancholy tone changed instantly into his military voice as if a switch were flicked. “We need to all be silent as we quietly paddle down river. I’ll lead and we’ll beach and exit at Joe’s property. From there we will walk quietly in a single file line. There will be two barbed-wire fences we will breach before holding up and gathering on the far side of the second wire. Max—you and Skeezix will aid Mom. Brian—you are in charge of Nic’s remains. Mallory—it’s of utmost importance that you make sure Solara is quiet. Are we all clear?” He finished in question.
There were nods barely seen from everyone. “Let’s move out.”
This was a first mission for most everyone in the family. Brian waited until all exited from his boat before he reached for the handle of the guitar case. It rattled as he gripped the handle and lifted it, turning it from flat to upright. He glanced up, acknowledging the sound and then nodding.
As Sam began to lead, he ran into the first orb weaver spider web. He gently brushed the web and spider from his head. He looked back to make sure everyone else remained silent. A small whisper from Solara to Mallory was the only sounds heard. “Grandma—are there spiders out here?” She asked.
“Your uncle Sam will clear the way of any in our path. I’ll make sure you don’t run into any webs. I promise.”
Solara tugged on her grandma’s shirt again. “I told you, Solara, I’ll not let any spiders get in your path.” Mallory quietly spoke.
“Grandma—it’s not that—look behind us—there’s lights on the river.”
Mallory turned and looked behind them. She suddenly stopped. It caused everyone in the line to bump into the one in front. Sam turned to see what was going on amidst the ranks.
“What’s causing those lights to float on the water? It looks like a car or something?” Solara asked.
The line stopped, each person hearing what Solara questioned and turned to peer behind. The heads turned in delayed unison much like a line of dominoes spilling one after the other after the first one being tipped into the second. The two tiny lights did indeed appear like headlamps on an auto. They moved very slowly as they appeared to hover above the river’s surface. Silent and steady. A splash from the water could occasionally be heard, much like the sound of a spearhead being launched through the surface like someone gigging for fish. The line stood quietly watching as the beams of light moved closer and closer.
“Is it Pop, Grandma? I thought he was—you know—passed?”
“No, sweet pea, it can’t be your great-grandpa, it may be a neighbor out fishing.”
There were quiet breaths of feared anticipation as the glimmering lights moved closer and closer. Would they be seen from the outer glow of the lights when the boat passed? Closer and closer it silently approached. Just as the lights were about to become even with the line of quiet family members—the tiny spider dropped onto Solara’s head causing her to burst out with a shrill scream—the sound of Halloween echoing across the water and bouncing up into the trees in reverberation. Gasps from the others rang out in hushed silence as the lights eerily floated past without a sound. There was no boat below the lights. There was nothing that could be seen as it passed. No sound but the continued occasional splash of the water’s surface being breached.
“What the fu—” slipped from Skeezix’s lips before he could catch the words and reel them silently back in. “Did you see that shit? Or… not… not see that shit?” He finished in question.
Solara was busy shaking her entire body, attempting to knock whatever landed on her head off. All other eyes watched in quiet frightful question as they watched the halo of the two lights hover on past them, seemingly not noticing or paying any attention to the scream of a child nor the line of frightened people at a near silent standstill, eyes statuesque as if glued to the river the pull of a magnetic force leaving them powerless to do anything but watch in disbelief. Even Sam, the experienced army machine unable to force words past his lips to hush his niece or offer phrases of comfort to his stunned virgin troops as the glow slowly disappeared in the distance as it became dimmer and dimmer, the splashes dissipating into the silence of the full moon’s glow bouncing off the slow-moving rapids over the shallow rock bottom near the Timber.
Coyotes out in the distance, cried to each other as if they were searching for a lost pup in darkness. One would holler and another would answer. The night became suddenly bitter with a cold breeze, feeling as if the night of the Halloween’s dead were now waking and walking the fields to the east and the woods across the river. It felt as if they were walking towards the river down the trails cut through woods, still likely kept manicured as if Pop were still there to caretake them, keeping them clear of fallen limbs and weeds.
Janey spoke quietly, “I’m not sure this was such a great idea—”
Sam answered, “This is exactly what I would expect Pop and Nic to help make happen. They’re up there laughing their asses off at us.” He paused. “It’s about time to cross the river.”
Max looked up to the moon and judged by its position that it must be about eight o’clock. “It’s still early and we are basically running on time—barring any more surprises—” he nervously smiled. He turned and faced his family. “Another fifty yards or so and we’ll quietly ford the river. It’s almost November—the water is gonna be chilly—just sayin’. Let’s get moving again.” He turned and began pushing through the brush as silent as a bear moving through the forest.
Sam was definitely built for this kind of activity. With his darkened grease-painted face, his eyes appeared the same as the light beams floating down the river—absent of any vessel carrying them. Just the white light invisible of anything except their roundness glowing in the dark.
The boys and later Janey had practically been raised at the Timber. When Pop’s father—Popper, was alive, he would take them down and they would all stay in sleeping bags in the tin shack, a garage that had doubled as Popper’s living quarters. Popper bounced back and forth between town, Springfield, where his sweet wife, Nanny, lived, and the Timber. This was the place he loved. He loved bringing his son with him too. Pop had grown up much like his boys, enjoying the outdoors and playing in the stream of the Sac and the fork where the Little Sac met up near the old cement bridge. It was a time the kids all loved and expected to live the life forever in the world of the Timber. Memories were made that weathered the time of growing up and moving off. Pop’s kids grew their own families and spread out to distances across the country, scattered miles and miles from the memories made. Arrowheads from Indian tribes found in the plowed dirt of Popper’s gardens, copperhead snakes ambushed as the large limb left lying under the old, rusted Lincoln’s hood was lifted up to catch them basking under it, heated by the sun shining down. Skeezix proudly wore a straw cowboy hat for years that Pop had wrapped a skinned and dried copperhead skin around it’s brim. Targets placed at distances that grew as all of their shots from various rifles and handguns became more accurate through practice. Tree houses built out in the large trees throughout the acreage, forts that kept them protected from the Indians they imagined were certainly hiding in wait to capture and scalp them. Kids who had the freedom to roam that most all of their friends weren’t lucky enough to own. The best friends of each who were fortunate enough to have parents that would place their children’s trust with Mom and Pop to come with us and share in our adventures.
Nic had been the one who had the most difficult time blending into the mixed family. Old enough to grow resentment in another man attempting to father him when his biological father lived too far away in a world that he and Skeezix no longer fit. Nic was fourteen and had been the man of Mom’s house. He saw Pop as the adult stealing his ability to be the man of the house. Skeezix ten-years old and desperate for a father figure to be in his life. The three new stepbrothers all looked up to Skeezix who before they came along was just the youngest with no responsibilities. Chaos was bound to happen at times when one world breaks and another is found and formed from another slamming together into one. The Timber helped it all meld together. Nic eventually accepted and grew to also love Pop. He also learned to love the land like the rest of us, finding it to be the sanctuary it was. Yes, this was the proper place to send him to his new world, the next level, just as it had been the proper place to spread Pop’s ashes—down the river he loved so much. Nic’s death was yet another way—like Pop’s, to bring our family that was scattered hundreds of miles from each other—together once more. A painful way to get that done, and not a way any of them would ask for, but the collateral gift from such a heartfelt thing, did have that one silver lining hidden within. The fact it was only less than a year after Pop’s death and tonight being Halloween, gave the whole affair a twist that would likely stay fresh in all the minds of each attendee—forever. Even Mom’s, whose memory was becoming a struggle to keep.
All of these thoughts mingled together in Skeezix’s mind as the frigidness of the Sac River numbed his feet and legs as he waded across, his eyes focused on the once familiar gravel shoreline he’d grown up enjoying. He and his siblings skipped flat rocks in competitions of who could float their rock the farthest across as each attempted to count the jumps it made—leaving multiple growing rings on the smooth surface of the water. Catching crawdads and once getting hold of their bodies, avoiding their pincers grabbing hold, chasing Janey around the shore as she screamed in feigned fear knowing we would never actually let them latch on to her. Changing our minds about swimming for the day as we watched the serpent snake its way across the water towards us in curiosity, chasing us from its territory until the next day when its scaled body was no longer the focus of our memory. Cutting grapevine into cigarette-sized sticks and smoking them, puffing out rings of smoke into the air and watching them grow as they rose up to the sky, believing they would rise enough to become part of the puffy clouds above. These were memories that would never leave us. Shared memories. Nic would now become one of those memories that would be bittersweet but encased in their forever’s. Skeezix had told Mallory his wishes when his end came. His ashes were to be scattered across the rocky shoreline of Kaena Point in Oahu, Hawaii. But tonight, tonight he wanted to add to those wishes. He would tell her he wanted part of his ashes to be scattered down the river like Pop and Nic’s.
Doug and Pastor Jim were the only outsiders invited to attend. Doug because he was such a good friend of the family and Pastor Jim because he had at one time been Nic’s mentor of faith. He’d drawn Nic away from his wild and drug-induced days of rebellious youth. The last of the hippy days. A funny memory popped into Skeezix’s head of a discussion he’d shared at the park where the family met for a picnic before the funeral today. He talked about the Marihuana Tree, a tree that everyone had known as the marked spot of the “Hippy Movement” of Springfield and met at back in the seventies. They had gathered in tents and had a “sit in” by the largest and oldest tree, smoking pot and holding signs of peace and love. Solara had overheard the conversation and inquisitively asked her grandpa about it.“Grandpa—will you tell me about the Marihuana tree?” Skeezix’s wife and his sister-in-law Katy giggled at her asking her grandpa about “the Marihuana Tree.” The two women quickly broke into what seemed like a well-practiced song.
The two immediately harmonized, “Grandpa—please tell me ‘bout the mari—huana tree—eeeee—won’t you pleeeease—”
The entire family-filled picnic table broke into unanimous laughter. It had to be planned because someone caught it on video, and it quickly became a Reel on Facebook. It was the one thing that broke the sadness of the occasion for the picnic.
Pastor John began the service. Mom was seated in a lawn chair that Brian’s wife had carried from the boat. The family all circled around the guitar case, all in reverent silence other than the sound of sniffs and sighs that would be expected.
“Friends—and of course family—this day is not the usual kind of—Halloween that one is used to attending. While we are all sad of the loss that brings this—unusual, hallowed eve, we do acknowledge that Nicholas Lawrence Saint will always remain in our hearts. His time here on earth didn’t seem to be long enough to quench our thirst of his presence, but he had greater plans for him by our Creator that needed to be filled— he will be missed and remain loved and remembered for all the kindness and love he shared—”
As the pastor’s words were spoken, the leaves in the trees began to rustle from the winds that began picking up. It was almost as if the surrounding world of the Timber were speaking out in the only way they could. The appearance of the mysterious lights on the river upon their entering the loved grounds that would likely never be able to be explained or understood, to the quiet but oddly strong wind that suddenly encircled them, seemed understood by all to be the spirits the loved ones lost. Conjured up from the wishes of the unknown souls that likely somehow still resided within its perimeters, sent to remind each of those gathered, that Nic was not entirely gone from their lives. Once the pastor’s words were complete, each sibling stated a short message to the brother they lost before Max lifted the guitar case and led his brothers and sister to follow him towards the water’s edge. Janey held a candle that was scented of coffee, a drink Nic loved to partake of hot or cold, it never seemed to matter how long it had sat near him. She lit it and the aroma quickly blew around the huddled family as if directed to encase them with its smell of being fresh-brewed. The brothers all stood holding the guitar case as they gently placed it on the Sac River’s surface, holding it until Janey placed the candle on its lid. Mom’s pained cries echoed above all the other’s as her oldest son’s ashes within its vessel was gently released to flow down the river until gravity would eventually pull its water-soaked tomb into its depths. The flicker of the candle’s flame was like a beacon disappearing into the night as they all watched through blurred eyes. As the siblings stood in quiet reverence, the family on the sidelines all drew a deep breath as their eyes suddenly lit up from a pair of lights floating towards them from behind those standing in the water. Before the brothers and sister could turn to see what the rest of the family took notice of—a bright halo of lights passed through them on its way following the disappearing glimmer of the candle as it was slowly swallowed up by the river. No words spoken, no ghouls or goblins seen. No new owners had stormed the temporary sanctuary of the Saints hallowed and loved grounds of the Timber. The full moon silently slipped out from behind the puffy clouds that had temporarily hidden it from sight. The lonely howl of a wolf in the distance was the last sound heard as the Saint family and friends began to gather their thoughts and commenced the trip back to the boats to complete their Halloween funeral for Nicholas Lawrence Saint.
The unknown glow of light slowly hovered down the river’s surface until it too was swallowed up by the darkness of the night.
“We did it. Nic is in your hands Pop. Happy Halloween. I guess we’ll meet here at the Timber again at some point.” Sam spoke quietly as a tear slipped down his cheek and dropped into the river as he pushed the boat back towards the river’s center.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Eli PopePublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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