There’s nothing quite like a Halloween tale about a scary skeleton, but would you believe me if I told you I knew a skeleton who wasn’t scary and who didn’t like Halloween? It’s not that he disliked Halloween, but he didn’t really like it, either. But regardless of whether someone likes something or not, it still sometimes happens, and so it turns out I do have a Halloween tale about a skeleton, after all, just a not-so-scary skeleton. Is that okay with you?
This story begins at the end of October, in a sister world much like ours, during a time when the town of Spinesville was all ready for Halloween, decorated with blow-up vampire lawn ornaments, giant fake tarantulas, wooden cut-out Frankenstein’s monsters, pumpkin carvings posed like gargoyles on house fronts, and more. It was a quaint little town, at the foot of a mountain, but at the moment now we pan higher up, halfway up the mountain, about a thirty-minute drive from Spinesville, to a cozy little cabin in the thick of a forest of pines.
Could this be the home of our mild-mannered skeleton? It most certainly could, and our friend Ned Theodore Ted lived there with his lavender butterfly friend, Talia. Their home was a quiet one, because there was scarce noise from any traffic, and neither N.T. nor Talia spoke. Because N.T. had no voice, he wrote down everything he wanted to say, and became quite an artist and writer along the way. And Talia—she was a butterfly, silly, so of course she didn’t speak!
Around this time, N.T. had been experiencing a bit of bad luck. He didn’t quite believe in fortune, but it was starting to irritate him how things kept getting messed up for him. For example, one day he went out to grab some firewood from the side of his house, but when he lifted up the tarp, several pieces were missing! He had just cut firewood the day before, so he knew there should be more of it. And the other day, he had been baking some pumpkin pie and accidentally burned it, and N.T. didn’t usually burn his baked goods, so he was confused as to where he went wrong. But, several pumpkins had appeared growing near his house recently, quite inexplicably, so N.T. had more pumpkins to use nicely available, which was perhaps his only real stroke of luck lately.
But definitely the most troublesome thing that happened to him around Halloween was that his paper-making machine broke. N.T. had built this paper-making machine several years ago when he first moved into his cabin, and he had never had an issue with it before. He had built it to last and took very good care of it, but when he went to use it Halloween Eve, so he could make more paper to use, it wouldn’t work! He took it apart and studied the pieces, and found that it was the result of a broken part. It was a part called a Handy-dandy-thingadoodle and he couldn’t just make one himself—he would have to go to the hardware store.
N.T. sat down next to his slightly disassembled paper-making machine and thought, with his tools scattered about him and dust powdered on him. N.T. didn’t have a car, because he biked or walked everywhere he needed to go. He could bike to the hardware store, but the closest store was thirty miles away, and the part was way too heavy and cumbersome for him to carry on his bike up a mountain. Then he thought of his neighbor Margaret, a kind old human woman who was his friend and boss. (Boss of sorts, that is—they both oversaw an area of pine trees that they had converted into a public nature walk area.) Margaret had a car, and he felt that he could go to her to ask this favor. After he cleaned up all the tools in his basement and washed up, N.T. sat down at his computer and emailed Margaret; she replied quickly and said that she would be happy to drive N.T. to town tomorrow to take him to the hardware store.
Before going to bed, he checked his paper supply—he’d have just about enough paper for one day, so if he wanted to continue to communicate, he would have to get the part put together quickly. He was excited that he’d be able to fix the machine, but also felt kind of nervous about the idea of driving into town tomorrow. N.T. had grown up in Spinesville, and had moved up into the mountain as soon as he graduated high school. Because he was the only skeleton in town, a lot of people had treated him like he didn’t have feelings. Of course, N.T. didn’t carry around the burden of their prejudice anymore, and he had forgiven them, so while he wasn’t necessarily afraid to revisit his old home town, he did feel a little bit anxious. Wouldn’t you?
The next afternoon, Margaret showed up to N.T.’s house in her old red car. As N.T. peeked out the window to check that she had arrived, he laughed to himself that of course Margaret would ride in such style. He quickly searched for his shoes, but couldn’t find them in his closet or sitting by the front door, so he had to leave without them. He grabbed his messenger bag and pulled the door locked behind him.
“Whoa, look at you! You’re wearing clothes!” Margaret said, sitting in the driver seat in a black leather jacket. Her car was turned off, and she had a hula girl on the dashboard and a leia hung on the rearview mirror; she had always wanted to go to Hawaii and had finally booked tickets to go for that winter. N.T. sat down in the passenger seat and waved in greeting, and then pulled out some paper to reply.
I’ll explain this to you while N.T. writes—N.T. usually doesn’t wear any clothes. I know that seems strange to us, because we’re humans and we wear clothes all the time. But hear me out: have you ever seen a dog and thought, “Why isn’t that dog wearing pants?!” or “Put a shirt on, Buster!” Probably not, huh? I don’t know why, but for some reason it’s just okay for N.T. not to wear clothes, because he’s a skeleton. Besides, he basically lives by himself in the woods, and he’s more comfortable that way. But today was different, because today N.T. had put on jeans and a hoodie. He wanted to get dressed today because he was going into Spinesville, and if he was wearing a hoodie, he’d draw far less attention to himself than if he was to go all-out skeleton in public. Honestly, he was feeling a tiny bit shy.
I’M NOT TRYING TO DRAW TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO MYSELF. I GREW UP IN SPINESVILLE AND A LOT OF THE LOCALS CREATED THIS IDEA OF ME IN THEIR HEAD AND THEN ACTED AS IF I WERE THAT PERSON AND TOOK OUT THEIR INSECURITIES ON ME IN HATEFUL WAYS… SO… NOT A GOOD TIME.
Margaret read N.T.’s response and nodded solemnly, then looked at N.T. and said, “That’s totally fair. We’ll make this trip as direct as possible.”
N.T. nodded, and Margaret turned her car back on so they could hit the road. “Now,” she said, as she took the first curve on what would be a winding commute, “I’m not condoning reading and driving, but, if you have something pressing you need to tell me, just tap my shoulder and I’ll see what you’ve written, okay?” She chuckled a little bit, and her wispy white hair flittered in the breeze from her car’s heat. N.T. held up a thumbs-up and nodded.
He stared out the window as Margaret drove, blues jams quietly playing on the radio, evergreen pine trees passing by endlessly. The road curved one way, then curved back the other way, then turned and before them was a glorious view of pine-covered mountains and a deep blue sky behind. His nerves began to quiet as he let his mind wander blankly, and before he knew it, they were approaching Spinesville, a sight just as he remembered.
As Margaret slowed and they coasted slowly through town, N.T. looked around at all the storefronts, the leaf-covered front lawns and porches with swings, the bales of hay and scarecrows posted in Halloween spirit, and the children who ran along the sidewalks dressed up as monsters and ghosts, and, well, skeletons.
Perhaps you may think it’d be cool to have little kids dressing up as you for fun, but for N.T., he didn’t think it was cool, and it actually made him a little uncomfortable. See, N.T. wasn’t a fellow who liked to have people notice him, because he liked to keep to himself. That’s just how he was, and when most people he knew growing up made somewhat of a mockery of his being a skeleton—which N.T. couldn’t help, at all—he started to feel a little disconnected from Halloween, and all the tales told of skeletons.
They drove past the town’s little library, by a diner called Mild Oats, and through a neighborhood or two, and then they arrived at Millie’s Hardware, and Margaret pulled her car into a parking spot up front. Millie’s Hardware sat atop a hill and overlooked a valley covered in trees changing autumn colors.
“Ready?” Margaret asked, her hand on the door handle, looking closely at N.T. He pulled his hood up and nodded, and they got out of the car together, and walking up to the building’s sliding glass doors, which were flanked with pumpkins and more bales of hay and mulch. Wind kicked up close to the ground and they blustered into the store.
When Margaret and N.T. entered, a few people turned and stared in shock or disgust. N.T. grabbed a cart from the rack at the front of the store, and as they pushed it, the one wheel rattled loudly. A man in a blue work apron behind the front counter squinted at them, and a woman walking by them did a double-take and then quickened the pace of pushing her cart. N.T. kept his head down as they walked down the length of the store towards the aisle with Handy-dandy-thingadoodles, and Margaret put a hand on N.T.’s back for moral support, and because she had a motherly presence.
“Oh my god, he’s back?” they heard a woman snap, and they looked up and saw a woman standing near the end of an aisle in a long pea-coat, glaring at N.T. N.T. recognized her as one of his old teachers from high school, and Margaret and N.T. ignored her as they passed. “Probably still on drugs and haunting innocent people,” she scoffed and walked away from where she was standing in a huff.
Finally they turned down the aisle with N.T.’s part, aisle ten, and searched a little before they found the right one. Together they lifted it into the cart and set it down. As they were headed back down the aisle, a young lady waved at N.T. and he stopped, not recognizing her. She was wearing a knit blue hat and a yellow jacket.
“Ned? Is that you? Hey it’s been forever!” She said this in a way that startled N.T. because she sounded—excited? Happy?
The lady approached them and smiled. “Sorry, maybe you don’t remember me; I was in your Advanced English class in high school! I was a couple years younger than you, but I was always a big fan of your writing!”
N.T. took out a paper from his messenger bag while Margaret stood there quietly, happy that at least one person from his hometown was being somewhat welcoming. N.T. scribbled on the page, I THINK I REMEMBER YOU. EMILY?
“Close, Emilia!” she corrected, smiling again and pulling a piece of hair away from her face. They stood in the middle of aisle ten, but since N.T. had come in, the store had cleared out a little, and so they weren’t in anyone’s way. N.T. nodded and wrote back, NICE TO SEE YOU! I’M ONLY IN TOWN FOR A MOMENT TO GRAB THIS PART. He motioned to the cart.
“Understandable,” Emilia said, shrugging. “Hey, though, I do want to tell you something!” Her words grew quicker and she smiled as she spoke. “So, you remember that essay you wrote back in high school? The Slanted Spines essay? Well, I was the person who peer-reviewed your paper that one day in class—we had like a peer-review workshop—and when I read your paper, it spoke to me so much, that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After you graduated the next month—I hope this is okay, now, in retrospect—but I started a school club called Slanted Spines.”
Margaret, who was intently listening, interjected, “What was the essay about?”
As though she had just realized Margaret was there, Emilia turned to Margaret and said, “Oh, sorry! It was about Spinesville… And how everyone in Spinesville feels like they have such a straight spine, and when they find someone that has a slanted spine, they all point and laugh and kick at that person until their spine gets even more slanted. But really, to the person with a slanted spine, all the straight-spined people have very crooked spines. And how depending on perspective, everyone has a slanted spine, but having a slanted spine isn’t bad, it just means you’re different, and that we should be peaceful and love others because our slanted spine affects how we see others’ spines, so we should love regardless, because we can’t judge. And it was about embracing our differences and cooperating with others, and when I read it, Ned, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
“That sounds like N.T., all right,” Margaret remarked, her eyes glistening proudly for a second.
“Right?” Emilia agreed. “And so I made this club for people to come together and feel like no matter who they were or how they felt, they were going to be welcomed and we were going to help each other and do some good things for other people. Which I think this town really needs: an example.”
N.T. stood there silently (of course) with his hand over his chest. WOW, he wrote. THAT’S ABSOLUTELY SO SPECIAL. He kept touching his face and his chest in disbelief and excitement. Margaret beamed, and quickly introduced herself to Emilia and apologized for not having done so sooner.
The group of them chatted a little more, and N.T. was floored by the compliment Emilia had given him. He had no idea that he had made any impact whatsoever on his high school or the community, and was honored that his writing meant so much to others in his hometown. Emilia gave him her card in case he ever wanted to drop by for one of the Slanted Spines meetings, which, although Emilia was no longer in high school, her little sister was a junior and was a member of the club. N.T. accepted the card and told her he’d think about it, and then pulled one of his drawings from his messenger bag—a drawing of a beautiful and rare yellow flower—and gave it to Emilia as a token of kindness and friendship. They said a little goodbye and Margaret and N.T. made their way out the store, having a brief yet awkward encounter as they purchased the part.
As they left the store and were met with a brisk October breeze, N.T. pushed the cart containing his new part to Margaret’s car. The teacher who he recognized in the store was also in the parking lot, loading up her car trunk, which was next to theirs. N.T. slowly approached her and the old teacher stopped moving, eyeing N.T.; he handed her a yellow flower drawing, too, which she hesitantly took and inspected, and then he went back to his cart and lifting it into Margaret’s car. He didn’t look back to see the teacher’s reaction, and Margaret revved up the car, and with that, they were on their way home.
“It’s so cool that that girl did all that! You were like a celebrity to her!” Margaret teased as they made their way back through Spinesville, headed to the mountains. N.T. nodded, and smiled as much as he could, thinking about how he wanted to do something for the club, now that he knew about it, like give them a scholarship or a donation. Margaret continued to tell him how proud she was of him as the buildings thinned out and soon they were back in the thick of the forest, winding their way up the roads, the clouds blowing quickly across the sky.
Not too long into their journey, though, something utterly strange happened. Something so strange that you may need to sit down, or make sure all your affairs are in order so you can really focus on the strangeness about to unfold and not be distracted.
So Margaret was driving along, singing some blues song that N.T. was ignoring while he got caught up in a silly fantasy, about a remote community called Slanted Spines where everyone was respectful and cooperative with one another, and the sun was beginning to dip, just a little bit, so that the sky was growing deeper blue, when suddenly Margaret shrieked and hit the brakes so hard that N.T. thought his spine was going to become slanted with how hard the seatbelt pulled him. When they had come to a complete stop, Margaret and N.T. both looked up, and through the smoke that emanated from her hood, they saw the silhouette of a man-shaped creature with a giant, bulbous head, dance across the road in front of her car.
“What was that!” Margaret shouted, panting ferociously. N.T. unbuckled his seatbelt and jumped out of the car after the figure, messenger bag quickly slung over his shoulder.
“N.T.!” Margaret yelled after him, but N.T. was already dashing into the forest, tailing the figure. N.T. was very familiar with this pine forest, so as he chased the culprit, he knew how the earth felt under his feet and how to dodge tree trunks and that he should watch out for roots which might trip him. N.T. was able to catch up with the figure close enough that he could make out a slender, human-like body dressed in black, and an orange, textured head without hair that looked like—a pumpkin!
Sure enough, as N.T. had hoped would happen, suddenly a root caught the pumpkin-man’s foot and he fell straight down with a hard thud. N.T. caught up and turned the creature over on his back so that he could see his face as he lay on the ground trying to catch his pumpkin breath.
The pumpkin could have been a mask, but as N.T. discovered, it was not. This dude really had a pumpkin for a head, with carved-out eyes and a mouth, and a stem at the top of his head, just like a jack-o-lantern! N.T. was somewhat shocked, but then again, he was a living skeleton, so he couldn’t really be too shocked.
Still on the ground panting, the pumpkin man was clearly too exhausted to keep up the charade. “You got me, you got me,” he wheezed, sitting up a little and looking at N.T., who took out his last piece of paper and wrote, WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?
“Okay, okay, you don’t have to chide me,” the pumpkin said. His voice was deep and kind of raspy, and made him sound tougher than he was. “Call me Jack, I’m the Jack of Tricks. You’re my victim this year.”
N.T. began to write something down, but Jack stopped him. “Don’t bother, bro. I know you’ve got questions, and I need a break right now so I might as well tell ya.” N.T. sat down cross-legged a few yards away from where Jack was sitting.
Jack began to explain a few things to N.T. “Since you’re so quiet, I gotta do the talking anyway,” he said, shaking his head. “The jig is up, huh? It’s Halloween now, anyway, so it’s gonna be over soon.” As Jack spoke, N.T. discovered that the bad luck he had been imagining was actually carefully-orchestrated sabotage. “Every Halloween, we pumpkinites—pumpkin people, that is—each pick someone outside of our society to torment with mischievous tricks in the spirit of Halloween. This year, I picked you, so I’d sneak around your house and move things or turn things off or do funny things to frustrate you. It’s my favorite holiday!” Jack laughed from his gut. Then he explained he had chosen N.T. on a whim, because he had seen him walking through the forest one day and had heard rumor of his existence, but while no other pumpkinite was brave enough to torment this mythical skeleton in the woods, Jack stepped up and took him on. “It turns out, you’re not even scary like everyone thought you were,” Jack said, sounding almost disappointed. He had been the reason why N.T.’s firewood was missing, the pie burned, the random pumpkins appeared, and why his paper-making machine broke, along with other smaller inconveniences. “And, to top it all off, I was going to spook you on your drive home, but then you caught me and made it lame,” Jack concluded.
N.T. was furious. This stranger, who randomly singled out N.T., thought it was entertaining to do harm to him and the people he loved? And then laughed about it as he explained it to N.T., all because it was his tradition to do so?
He pulled out his pencil and began scribbling while Jack blabbered some more. N.T. didn’t pay any attention to him, and was able to pen his emotions in the most reserved, compassionate way possible from years of meditation. Then he handed Jack the piece of paper with firmness.
DO YOU REALIZE WHAT GRIEF YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CAUSED ME AND MY FRIEND? N.T. had written. MAYBE YOU CALL IT TRADITION, AND YOU KNOW THIS AS YOUR WAY OF LIFE, BUT THIS IS BLATANTLY MALICIOUS. MY FRIEND HAD TO GO OUT OF HER WAY TO HELP ME BECAUSE YOU SABOTAGED MY PERSONAL PROPERTY WHILE I MINDED MY OWN BUSINESS. ARE YOU OKAY WITH BEING SOMEONE WHO DOES HARM TO OTHERS FOR YOUR OWN AMUSEMENT? FORTUNATELY, I HAVE FOUND GOOD IN THE BAD, REGARDLESS OF YOUR HATRED AND JUDGMENT, WHICH YOU ARE BLIND TO. FORTUNATELY, I AM GLAD I NEEDED THAT PART BECAUSE THERE WAS SOME GOOD TO COME OF IT AFTERALL. BUT YOUR TRADITION IS WACK. I HOPE YOU DISCONTINUE THIS “TRADITION” IMMEDIATELY.
Jack took a long time to read it, but when he finished, he was upset. “What the heck, man? Loosen up! What’re you all mad about?” The pumpkinite stood up and brushed himself off. “You’re still alive.”
YOU ENDANGERED OUR LIVES BACK THERE! SHE COULD HAVE SWERVED OFF THE CLIFF. N.T. wrote, then paused and looked up at Jack before handing him the paper. He added, HOW WOULD YOU FEEL? THINK ABOUT IT. N.T. stood up and handed Jack the paper, then turned and began walking back to the car. He could hear Margaret shouting for him in the distance, her calls echoing in the woods.
Jack read the paper and rolled his eyes, letting the paper fall to the ground. He watched N.T.’s walk pick up to a light jog, then picked up the paper again and reread everything N.T. had written during their conversation. He groaned and shoved it in his pocket, shaking his head. “Maybe you got a point,” he muttered as N.T. disappeared into the pines, then he turned to head home to the rest of the pumpkinites.
Back at the car, N.T. caught back up with Margaret. “Oh, there you are! What’s going on?” Margaret asked, breathy and panicked. N.T. shook his head and indicated that he was out of paper, and then nodded towards Margaret’s car, which was on the side of the road but had stopped smoking. They spent the next thirty minutes working on the engine—well, N.T. working on the engine, and Margaret helping how she could—before they were up and running again. Margaret was desperate to hear what happened, so she drove quickly and went straight home to her house, where she had paper immediately available, and warm bread and coffee.
“I don’t have the patience for you to fix your machine!” she said, pulling into her driveway. “I’ll just give you a ride home later. Let’s have some food, first.”
The two of them warmed up at Margaret’s house while N.T. relayed his confrontation with the Jack of Tricks, and Margaret read in shock. She had no idea pumpkin people even existed, let alone had such a trickster nature to them! She hoped Jack stayed away now that the holiday was over. They relaxed over comfort food, celebrating Halloween their own way, and later that evening, she took N.T. home, where not a single pumpkin was present.
N.T. thought to himself—I wonder why the pumpkins are gone? Did my message speak to Jack? He realized that maybe it did but maybe it didn’t, and that maybe he would never know, but maybe one day, he would know.
That night as he fell asleep in his hammock, Talia sleeping quietly on his ribcage, N.T. considered his “bad luck” and considered his “good luck” and decided either way, he was quite grateful for the day he had. He thought more about the Slanted Spines Club and fell asleep quickly, dreaming.
And so N.T. slept contently that night, tired from his Halloween adventure and many new ideas swirling, while we now fade slowly away from N.T. and his world, and think about our own world, and our place in it, until next time.