The scarecrow approached the center of the grave yard, alone. The plan had been for William to meet him here. He didn't know if he could count on the boy to show up, but he hoped he wasn't going to waste too much time waiting.
As he passed the rows of stones, he came across a tall, thin figure leaning his back against a tree. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. His features were hidden by the tree's shade.
The scarecrow put his hand to the sickle inside his shirt. He had spent the entire season managing to stay hidden. He could stand stock still and hope, but he knew this man had already seen him. He strode forward purposefully. People usually reacted with fear, but sometimes they chose to fight back on sight. He planned to give the man no time to decide on a course of action.
He was only a few steps away from the man now, and the scarecrow was surprised he had not reacted yet. As he came within arm's reach and raised the sickle into the air, the man took the cigarette from his mouth and tossed it.
“Neat trick,” the man said.
The scarecrow was so surprised by the statement, he let the sickle hang in the air for an extra moment.
The man was gone. Before him stood William, the ghost. “Don't you think?” The boy asked.
“Pretty neat trick, don't you think?”
The scarecrow put the sickle back into his shirt. “I see you're exploring your abilities at a fast rate. The ability to appear as who you want, where you want, when you want is more than a neat trick, William.”
“It's fun,” the boy told him. “I can have a lot of fun now. And I can learn a lot of things.”
The scarecrow motioned for the boy to follow, then began to lead the way through the rows. “What else have you learned since our last meeting?”
“Things,” the boy said. “Like, I learned the witch didn't need to eat me for survival.”
“She's selling me, I mean my body, at the fall festival.”
The scarecrow stopped. He had things he wanted to show William, but this was more important. “What do you mean?”
“She had these boxes of stew, and she was selling them to the people in town. I could tell it was made from me-- I could feel it!”
“I'm sure you could,” the scarecrow said, pondering. “The spirit and body are a marriage made at birth, a bond not easily broken. Was she selling to a lot of people?”
“She was pretty busy. It's over now, though. The festival ended this afternoon.”
“A town full of cannibals,” the scarecrow said, mostly to himself. “Unwitting, but still. It may be why this town was chosen.”
“For the Harvest. I'll tell you more later, but I'll need to look into a few things first. For now, come with me, please. I have something I wanted you to see.”
The boy followed the scarecrow through row after row of tombstones. Upon a hill was a small growth of trees. The scarecrow took a position in their shade and pointed to the graves below.
William followed his direction, but the night was so dark, he could barely see what was happening. Vaguely, he could make out movement below the gravestones.
“Go closer,” the scarecrow told him. “They can't see you.”
Curious, William descended the hill. The scarecrow was probably right about them not being able to see him, and even if they could, they wouldn't be able to harm him. Still, he couldn't help but feel nervous and kept his distance.
There were three creatures over a grave. They were almost like small, twisted men. They were bent far over their work. Their spines stood out from their gaunt, pale backs. Two long, thin arms supported them as they continuously dipped their faces to the earth. They almost looked like birds hunting for worms.
One of them heard something and raised its head to look around. As much as their bodies looked like those of men, their faces were as far removed as possible. Their eyes were close enough together that they were almost joined. Their brow protruded in a hard, sharp edge. Their mouths were an open round hole surrounded by tentacles that nervously plucked at the air.
William turned and ran back up the hill. The scarecrow met him with a smile.
“Nothing to fear, dear boy.”
He knew the scarecrow was right, but he also knew that if he still had a heart, it would be hammering away. “What are they?” he asked.
“Ghouls,” the scarecrow answered. “I thought you ought to be familiar. You know, ghosts and ghouls. Halloween creatures,” he said, savoring the term.
“What are they doing down there?”
“Looking for corpses. In their attempts to get to the bodies below, their actions provide a valuable service in loosening the soil.”
“Bodies? What do they want bodies for?”
“Oh, well, much like your townsfolk, they have a taste for the flesh of the dead.”
“They eat them?”
Suddenly a new voice spoke up from the shadows. It was low and gravely. Whoever was speaking was mumbling so badly, they were hard to understand. “Among other things,” the voice added.
“Jack,” the scarecrow acknowledged with a very short nod.
The old man stepped out of the shadows. He had a handkerchief tied around his head. It held a packing in place against the side of his mouth.
“What happened to you?” William asked.
“Our friend Henry decided to exact a toll on Jack for his little trickery at the asylum,” said the scarecrow.”
“Oh,” the boy said. “Good. Maybe he learned a lesson.”
“Maybe I did, wee one,” Jack said. “Maybe I learned not to leave my tools laying around after a job. Next time I'll put them away properly before they can come back and hurt me.”
“I'm not afraid of you, Mr. Jack. I'm already dead, thanks to you.”
“Ye shouldn't be afraid o' me, boy,” Jack mumbled. “Ye should be coming to me for help.”
“How could you help me?”
“I could help ye stay out of the pit, seein' as none done it but me.”
“Jack, what are you on about?” The scarecrow had been planning on having a fun evening, and Jack's sour attitude was ruining it as usual.
“There's a new player in town. Old Scratch, he come up from below, looking for prey. Young, untarnished pray, like ye present company.”
“Old Scratch,” the scarecrow mused. “So it is true. However, I think you may be wrong about his intent, Jack. It seems the old witch has been feeding the townspeople their compatriots.”
“What in hell does that mean?”
“The people visiting the town's fair. Their dead friends and neighbors have been hidden in her stew, and it sounds like they've been buying it by the gallon.”
“Abomination!” Jack said, happily. “No one's safe after an act like that. So, they pig out on each other, then 'e comes up and has himself a smorgasbord on them.” Jack made a sound then. It was a bubbling gurgle coming from deep in his throat. The old man winced and held the packing tighter to his face, then started to make the noise again.
William couldn't believe his new laugh was even worse than the old one.