Stingy Jack

Jack O’Lanterns were never part of my Halloween. Gran didn’t allow them. She didn’t approve much of any modern All Hallow’s Eve traditions, but especially not the carved pumpkins.

“A Devil’s gift to a damned soul,” she’d say. Her Irish lilt was always thicker when she was was reproachful. “As long as I’m under this roof, there won’t be any of that.”

“But Gran,” I’d attempt to argue year after year, “they’re just pumpkins! Besides, weren’t they made to scare away evil or something?”

She’d huff and wave a hand at me before reciting the tale of Stingy Jack, a nasty drunkard who was unwelcome in both Heaven and Hell. He’d been doomed to spend eternity wandering the darkness of Purgatory, his only light source coming from a carved out turnip containing an ember from Hell. The sight of other jack o’lanterns was said to draw him, as he was always seeking out other souls to share in his misery. Especially those with sin in their hearts, just like his.

She’d end it with a short poem while making the sign of the cross over herself.

If e’er you see the flickering light

Held high in hollow turnip bright

Turn ye ‘round, and fast away

For Stingy Jack has come to prey

No matter what I said, she wouldn’t change her mind. My parents weren’t any help, either. They thought keeping the peace with my very Catholic grandmother was worth more than a cut up pumpkin that would rot in a week.

“You get to do everything else, the costumes and such,” Ma told me. “Gran bites her tongue about that, so you can meet her in the middle.”

I doubt I would have cared so much, if at all, if Gran hadn’t made such a big deal out of it. Like Ma said, she was able to tolerate everything else that accompanied Halloween, but jack o’lanterns were completely off the table. Especially if they were lit. She’d cross streets so she didn’t have to walk in front of them or make the sign of the cross if she couldn’t avoid them. Going out after dark during the entire month of October was a challenge in finding the routes that had the least amount of smiling, glowing gourds.

And that poem. I’d hear her muttering it, like she was trying to ward off this “Stingy Jack”.

If e’er you see the flickering light

Held high in hollow turnip bright

Turn ye ‘round, and fast away

For Stingy Jack has come to prey

It was embarrassing. My friends poked fun at me for it when they saw how she acted and, being twelve, I blamed Gran. If she weren’t so weird, I could have the same normal Halloween as everyone else, complete with jack o’lantern.

That was the year I decided I’d had enough.

I wasn’t proud of the fact that I was sneaking money from my parents’ wallets even as I did it, but I told myself it would be worth it. It was only $10, after all. They wouldn’t even miss it. I told Ma I was going to hang out with some neighborhood friends and rode my bike all the way to the convenience store. They had a small selection of pumpkins out front, all a bit dented and scratched, but I picked one out and paid for it. I kept it tucked in my sweatshirt the whole ride home and ran up to my room with it.

You would have thought I was smuggling nudie magazines instead of a tiny pumpkin.

That night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I grabbed a knife from the kitchen and cut into the orange rind. I’d seen enough friends do it to know I had to scoop out the insides, which was a messier process than I’d thought it would be. I almost panicked at just how much stuff came out and ended up flushing it, little by little, down the downstairs toilet.

A prickling sense of guilty relief crept across my neck as I watched the last bit of pulp and seed wash away.

I carved a crude, single-toothed face into the front of the pumpkin and, as my final touch, put one of Ma’s tea light candles inside. When I lit it, it cast a shadowy image of its face on the wall.

I was so pleased, both with my jack o’lantern and with the fact I hadn’t been caught.

There was an undeniable scent of pumpkin in my room, though, and I slid my window open just enough to sit my creation on the sill. I didn’t see any other jack o’lanterns still lit at that late hour, which made mine stand out even more in my mind. A chilly wind blew in, causing the candle flame to dance, and I sat on my bed, my comforter pulled around my shoulders, and I watched it with a smile until it was time for sleep.

I left my window open to finish airing out my bedroom. I’d blown out the candle, but the pumpkin stayed in its spot. I liked opening my eyes and seeing it there: my (private) show of defiance.

As I drifted to sleep, I heard a muffled sound outside. It was distant, like it was coming from across the streets.

Soft, slow footsteps.

When I woke the next morning, I carefully hid my pumpkin in the back of the closet, where neither my parents or Gran would likely find it.

I boasted about my little stowaway to my friends at school. It was such a stupid thing to be proud of, but that didn’t stop me from bragging about it. I’d never really done anything to defy my parents before and it gave me a little thrill.

Gran must have sensed that I was up to something, because at dinner that night, she studied me from across the table.

“Aren’t you smiling like the cat who caught the canary, Sam,” she said conversationally.

I shrugged.

“Something happen at school?” She asked.

“No,” I replied, keeping my eyes on my meatloaf. “Just a good day, I guess.”

“Well, that’s good, love,” she smiled warmly before looking from Ma to Dad. “The Glosters put out another one of their jacks. Did you see?”

“Yes, Mum,” Ma said with a sigh.

“I tell them every year…”

I stopped listening at that point. I was convinced the Glosters added another pumpkin to their patch every year because she kept going over to remind them of Stingy Jack. At least I wasn’t the only one who handled her superstitious nonsense by doing the opposite of what she wanted.

I loved Gran, but it was beyond time for her to join us in 20th century America.

As I had the night before, I waited for my family to go to bed before opening my window and resting my pumpkin on the sill. I lit the candle inside of it and sat in bed reading while it shined beside me.

I’m not sure if I heard the footsteps or the breathing first.

I was halfway through an action filled chapter of my sci fi novel when I became aware of the crunch of gravel and a low wheezing coming from outside. At first, I thought that it might’ve been Mr. Henderson, our elderly neighbor who enjoyed walking when he couldn’t sleep, and ignored it.

But Mr. Henderson never came up the driveway.

The steps were slow and plodding, and they were getting closer. I sat up slightly, my book still half open in my hands, and turned towards the window.

The breathing took on a raspy quality.

Slowly, I set my book aside and slid out of bed. The hardwood floor was icy against my bare feet. My heartbeat started to quicken as I crept towards the open window where my jack o’lantern smiled down at the front yard. Carefully and cautiously, I peeked out of the corner of the window.

It was dark outside, darker than I’d ever seen it. No street lights, no lights from the neighbors, just inky black, and a single, bobbing spark coming slowly up the drive. A lantern. It swung slightly with every heavy footstep.

Gran’s voice whispered in the back of my mind.

If e’er you see the flickering light

Held high in hollow turnip bright

Turn ye ‘round, and fast away

For Stingy Jack has come to prey

Goosebumps sprouted up my arms and back.

In the glow of the lantern, the outline of a person was becoming visible. Tall and stooped, terribly thin, wheezing with every step.

I whimpered and backed away from my window. My jack o’lantern suddenly seemed too bright! The steps had stopped, but the breathing continued. It sounded almost like a growl. My heart thudded against my ribs and I had backed up all the way to my bedroom door. I couldn’t take my eyes off the window.

The footsteps had stopped, I realized, but that deep throated, snarling breathing was getting quicker, more eager. And then came the scratching.

Nails digging into siding.

A soft light stretched up towards my window, growing brighter and brighter as it was carried up the front of my house. Fear, ice cold and sharp, lodged itself in my throat. I gaped, open mouthed, but unable to scream.

A shape rose from the darkness, almost filling my window. The light from my pumpkin and the lantern illuminated a long, haggard face, grayed and aged by misery. His eyes, deeply sunken, stared in at me, and his lantern lent them a malevolent, hungry spark.

If e’er you see the flickering light

Held high in hollow turnip bright

Turn ye ‘round, and fast away

For Stingy Jack has come to prey

I never screamed like I did then: the screech of a terrified child. I was shoved inward when the door flew open behind me, toward the reaching hand of Stingy Jack, but Gran caught me by the collar and pulled me back again.

Gran didn’t hesitate for a moment.

She was shouting the Lord’s prayer and lunged at my window faster than any seventy-something year old woman should be able to. There was a sharp, furious growl.

The last thing I saw as my parents came running in to crouch in front of me was Gran hurling my small jack o’lantern into Stingy Jack’s face.

I pushed past my confused parents to follow Gran as she stormed out of my room and down the steps, still shouting her prayers. I begged her not to go outside, but she shook me off and threw open the door.

Pieces of pumpkin covered our front walkway, but nothing more.

My parents thought Gran and I had gotten into a fight over me having a secret jack o’lantern and she’d thrown it from the window. I tried to tell them otherwise, but they didn’t seem to believe me, even if they didn’t stay mad at Gran. I guess if I wasn’t upset with her, they didn’t see a need to be either.

Gran just said she’d done what she had to do.

Sometimes I think it might have been a night terror. Mostly, though, I’m positive of what I saw. I don’t know why, out of all the houses decorated for Halloween, he’d have come to mine. Maybe because I had stolen and lied and been proud of it; Gran always said he liked the company of other sinners best. Maybe it was because her belief was so strong that it had acted as some kind of beacon. Maybe it was a bit of both.

I don’t know. I’ll never know. I’ll also never have another jack o’lantern. Every time I think it might be time to try and overcome a twenty year old fear, I just think of those footsteps and breathing outside my window. I just think of that face lit by a turnip lantern.

And I remember my Gran’s voice.

If e’er you see the flickering light

Held high in hollow turnip bright

Turn ye ‘round, and fast away

For Stingy Jack has come to prey

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