We Clever Jacks

This is an old-ish story of mine (like 9 or 10 years old) (quite old!) that I keep linking to around Halloween because it’s my only Halloween story. There’s also a podcast version produced by the fine people at Podcastle.

We Clever Jacks
by
Greg van Eekhout

We are so clever, we Jacks. It’s true, we can’t move around like the gobblers do, paralyzed as we are atop stoops and posts, with candles flickering in our emptiness. But we are clever. We grin at each other from porches and second-floor landings and sawhorses set out in front yards. We grin and grin, and we have a plan.

Grimacing Jack came up with it. He’s just a little five-pounder, our Grimacing Jack, perched on a step ladder by the Hansen’s mailbox, and he’s sharp as a broken lollipop.

He made first contact about two days ago. “Hi, Jacks,” he said. “I’m Grimacing Jack, and I think this year we’ll play a good and nasty trick.”

We all started introducing ourselves.

Laughing Jack.

Shrieking Jack.

Happy Jack.

Wailing Jack.

Screaming Munsch Jack.

All the neighborhood Jacks. We are such good Jacks, we Jacks.

“This year we’re not putting up with any of that stuff our patch fathers have always put up with,” says Grimacing Jack. “No smashing in the gutter, no tossing in the street. No blowing up with firecrackers. No being ignored into November, sagging and settling and getting mottled black and furry. No way, my Jacks. This year we’re gonna make it the Year of the Jacks.”

We love our Grimacing Jack.

But here’s a problem: We got no legs. We got no arms. We’re just heads. Expressive heads, sure, but still, just heads.

Grimacing Jack laughs. It’s a high-pitched, half-hysterical laugh, beautiful, night-piercing, sure to make a two-year old pee his bunny costume. If only his laugh could be heard by anyone but us Jacks.

How are we going to play a trick? we ask. Hard to play a trick stuck up on a fence post. Tricks are for creatures with legs. Tricks are for walkers.

“Oh, my lovely Jacks,” says Grimacing Jack, “Dogs got legs. Dogs can move around. Are we dogs? Is that the best we can hope for?”

No, Grimacing Jack. It sure ain’t. Tell us, Grimacing Jack. Tell us how to be.

“We got faces,” Grimacing Jack continues. “We got eyes that glow and mouths that gape. After they sawed our heads open and scooped out our guts and our seeds, they cut faces into us, oh, such funny faces.” Grimacing Jack falls silent, gathering his malice. Somewhere a crow caws laughter at us. (We hate crows. They peck us.)

“Now, listen, my lovely Jacks,” whispers Grimacing Jack. “Here’s what we’re going to do.”

And so, finally, the night falls, and the gobblers come out: ghosts and werewolves and pirates and ballerinas and TV characters with bags and pillow cases and fake plastic Jacks full of sweets. Unprotected against their mad whims, we Jacks grin in fright. But in our secret dancing flame hearts, we wait patiently for the signal.

It comes in a single word, spoken by Grimacing Jack, that contains untold generations of anger and sorrow and respect and mourning on behalf of our patch fathers, severed from the earth and mutilated and abused by gobblers big and small.

“Payback,” quakes Grimacing Jack in the cold-dew night.

And we Jacks go to work, using the only things we’ve got.

Laughing Jack changes his face to Demon Jack.

Wailing Jack trasnforms into Demon Jack.

Smirking Jack becomes Demon Jack. We all do.

Orange light dances within dozens of identical Demon faces.

Only Grimacing Jack keeps his own face, as is his right as our general, our warlord, our king.

What will the gobblers do once they realize that, even without legs and arms, we are not helpless? That even though we can’t walk, we can move? Will they drop their bags of treats and run? Will they crush chocolate bars and suckers and gummy bears under their shoes as they stampede for safety?

“Hey, someone switched my pumpkin,” says a gobbler cowboy.

“Yeah, mine, too,” answers a gobbler ninja.

“Good prank. Some kids from another neighborhood must have swapped ‘em.”

“Yep,” says the cowboy. “Let’s go get ‘em back.”

And the gobblers move on. There’s no fright. No panic. No gobbler mommies and daddies coming out of the houses to gather their little gobbler children, confused and terrified by a night ruled by Jacks.
Nobody realizes just how clever we Jacks are.

Long after the gobblers have gone to sleep, we seek answers from Grimacing Jack.

Now what, Grimacing Jack?

Why weren’t they afraid, Grimacing Jack?

Grimacing Jack, why didn’t they care?

But Grimacing Jack says nothing. He just grimaces.

When dawn comes, we see Grimacing Jack on the ground, half his face caved in where he fell or got knocked over. Many of us will find ourselves sharing Grimacing Jack’s fate.

That’s just the way of Trick or Treat. That’s how it goes for us Jacks.

But we still love our Grimacing Jack. He’s special, is our Grimacing Jack. Even all silent and smashed up, he’s trying to help us. We notice some little knotty bumps growing out of his skin. Little limbs. Not stunted. Just small. Unformed. Full of promise. He won’t manage to grow them before his inner light dies out, because he will be dead soon, our Grimacing Jack. We are all dying, we Jacks. But Grimacing Jack still tries to grow legs.

Thank you, Grimacing Jack, we say. And with the last of our strength, we all turn ourselves into Sorrowful Jack.

Maybe in next year’s crop there’ll be someone like Grimacing Jack. Someone willing to grow. Someone angry enough to organize. Someone who’ll figure out how to move beyond the porches and posts and stoops. Maybe there’ll be someone even more clever than Grimacing Jack.

And then, little gobblers, and then, such tricks we will play. Such clever tricks.

About Greg van Eekhout

Greg van Eekhout is the author of the novels California Bones, The Boy at the End of the World, Kid vs. Squid, Norse Code, and other stuff.
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