Disclaimer: Most of the characters in this story are the property of Disney and are only used for fan related purposes. Any original characters featured are the intellectual property of their creators.
Jack and the Lantern
On Hallowe'en the thing you must do/ Is pretend that nothing can frighten you /And if somethin' scares you and you want to run/ Just let on like it's Hallowe'en fun.
-19th Century Halloween postcard
It all began the night before Halloween, at the end of October in 1898, when Kloppman gave the boys leave to stay up late if they chose to, swapping stories and trying to scare the bejeezus out of each other. For Hallowe'en was a time of spirits and ghosts, myths and tales, a time to be afraid and a time for those tough boys to prove they weren't afraid of nothing.
Pretending he was tired, acting as if he was too old for the festivities for All Hallow's Eve, Jack Kelly hung his hat off the end of his bunk, looped his bandana over the edge and turned in for the night. He would've been damned to admit Hallowe'en spooked him even a little, and there were too many bad memories for this time of year.
Placing his pillow over the back of his head, he drowned out the sounds of the younger boys squealing in fright, and the satisfied laughter of the older boys who continued in the tradition of telling the traditional stories of the Devil, of ghosts, of witches, of evil beings worse than anything the downtrodden newsboys dealt with on a daily basis. For once, being an orphan or a runaway didn't sound half bad, especially since there was no chance of you losing your soul by selling papes.
Jack fell asleep early that night on purpose. So early, in fact, that he missed the spirited telling of his least favorite Hallowe'en tale of them all. He missed the story of poor Jack and his lantern.
He missed it, but the story certainly did not miss him.
Jack Kelly woke up on Hallowe'en to the sound of stifled murmurs, a quick hushing and a pit in his stomach he couldn't quite explain. And then he yawned and stretched, rubbing his eyes, closing them again and rolling over in a bid to ignore the whispers and get a few more minutes of sleep before Kloppman came clopping up the stairs to wake them all up.
Except the whispers were proving hard to ignore, the murmurs growing louder, the hushing even more so, and Jack cracked one eye open—
—and managed to stifle his cry of surprise before he could be accused of screaming like a little girl.
He wasn't alone in the bunk anymore.
Both of his eyes sprang open and Jack scrambled to crawl out from underneath his blanket. His heart beating faster than it should've been, he stared wide-eyed and wild down at his pillow—at his pillow, and the head-shaped something that was resting on top of it. At first sight, it was a vegetable, and at second he decided it was a turnip. Jack flipped it over with his hand and understood why he'd thought he wasn't alone: someone had carved a face into the center of the thing.
Someone had made a vegetable lantern—a Jack-o'-lantern—for Jack. He was less than amused, and his scowl said as much.
Because, you see, Jack had always been, well, a little nervous when it came to All Hallow's Eve. The one day of the year when the veil was pierced between the living and the dead, the one day of the year when all sorts of demons and devils came calling, when all that could keep you safe was the right words, a cross and a bit of fire… he shuddered and quickly turned the turnip over so that it wasn't looking up at him.
When he was young boy, long before his father was… gone, Francis Sullivan Sr. used to find a twisted delight in telling his only son all the stories: about witches, banshees, púcas and hobgoblins, about all the creatures that darkened the nights and lingered in dreams (and nightmares). Though they weren't in the old country anymore, though they were in the new world now, Sullivan brought his Irish family's peasant traditions with him and he went on to instill his superstitious beliefs into his boy.
So, yeah, Francis Sullivan Jr. believed in all the stories. He crossed himself, he tried not to lie or steal (too much, or unless he had to), he believed. Jack Kelly, though… Jack Kelly didn't.
But he did on Hallowe'en.
He knew the story of Jack and the lantern, of the clever deals made with devils, of unrest and no peace. When all you lived for in this life was a scrap of bread and a couple of dimes a day, a fella got used to the idea the peace would come at last. Somehow, in this crudely carved turnip, Jack felt his chance at peace ebb away.
Though, he thought as he angrily shoved the turnip aside and climbed out of his bunk, that might've had something to do with the way that the murmurs exploded into teasing and the hushing blossomed into sly laughs that Jack decided to ignore as he approached the washing up station and reached for the shaving cream.
Maybe the other boys in the bunkroom realized that it was too early to start in on Hallowe'en tricks; that, or maybe they could see that their joke rattled Jack more than they expected. Either way, the laughter didn't last long and, following his lead, the boys started getting up and getting ready. Jack gave the first few who approached him a dirty look, silently deciding they'd all had a hand in the trick, but stopped when Racetrack cracked a grin and made a cross warding himself against his fellow newsie.
Because he was the first one out of bed and gone to washing up, he was the first one done and he reached for his bandana while some of the others were still climbing up and out of their bunks. Looping his trusty red neckerchief—he had the feeling he would need all the luck he could get—he tied into a sure knot. When he was done, he went to grab his cowboy hat.
His hat seemed heavier than it should've been—which was explained when he tried to take it down of the end of his bunk and put it on his head. As soon as he reached for it, the hat moved and the carved turnip head fell out, landing on the floor with a thump. It didn't even have the decency to split or crack or even break. And Jack realized that the tricks weren't done yet, and he had a whole room full of boys to blame.
He left the damn thing on the floor where it fell and stormed out of the bunkroom without a word (though he did stop to jam his cowboy hat on his head). The second round of laughter that erupted from the other boys followed him all the way down the stairs.
For one of the first times in his life, Jack was on the opposite side of the laughter and he didn't like it, not one bit. In that moment, he made a deal with himself that, the next time the urge to tease and poke fun at the Delancey's came over him, he'd ignore it and leave the oafish brothers alone.
But only once. He wasn't a saint, after all.
He'd managed to forget all about turnips and Hallowe'en and his childhood fears while he went out selling, and he was feeling pretty good as afternoon turned to evening and the day was almost done.
At least, that is, until he walked back to the bunkroom and, reluctantly almost, looked over at his bunk—because the damn lantern was waiting for him again when he finally made it back to the bunkroom after selling the morning and evening editions of the paper.
It wasn't on the floor anymore, either. Someone—and if he ever found out who, he'd soak 'em!—had picked it up, dusted it off, stuck the remains of a spent wax candle inside and rested it against Jack's pillow, almost as if it were really a head. The candle was lit, small, eerie shadows being tossed around the room, and Jack was torn between being angry at finding it there and just plain glad the lodging house hadn't burnt down.
There was a sort of mocking quality to the turnip's smile, too, and he found himself hating it even more; the lit candle made it even worse. Giving it a look of great disdain, Jack licked his fingers and snuffed out the small flame before plucking the candle out and throwing it across the room. He wanted to pick the turnip up next and give it a throw but he managed to control himself in time. Besides, he would have to clean it up if he made a mess, or else he'd have all sorts of questions to answer when the other boys saw the splattered turnip.
Not that it didn't deserve it, though. Someone was messing with him, and he couldn't be too sure it wasn't the damn turnip.
But who could it have been? The candle hadn't been burning long, and he had walked up the bunkroom stairs alone. Had it just burst into flame? Or was something even more sinister at work?
God, he hated Hallowe'en.
The bunkroom was empty so no one was around to watch him glare evilly at the smirking vegetable lantern or see him take his frustrations out on a dribbly piece of old wax. Of course, that also meant that no one was around to have propped the lantern up against his pillow like it was, but Jack tried not to think about that. Those thoughts weren't safe to think on All Hallow's Eve.
The bunkroom was empty because of the Hallowe'en festivities going on below—which was exactly why Jack was in the bunkroom and not downstairs himself. Kloppman usually talked the old biddies at the Children's Aid Society into allowing the boys a small festival for the holiday, a tiny gathering in comparison to the Thanksgiving feast the coming month, but a fun affair to take the bite off the coming cold weather. Even the boys who knew nothing of Hallowe'en were more than glad to take advantage of the good food and merry-making allowed for the evening.
But not Jack.
Thoughts of witches at their cauldrons, black cat familiars circling their legs, a banshee's screech, the Devil plotting his downfall, goblins cackling, ghosts waiting to steal his soul… his father's voice, long forgotten but not long enough, he could hear it now, warning young Francis to be fearful on All Hallow's Eve, to protect himself, to hide.
He'd never had cause to run and hide before. Then again, he'd never woken up with a carved turnip lantern on his pillow the morning of Hallowe'en before, either.
What was he supposed to do? He was Jack Kelly. He was strong, he was brave, he'd spent almost his whole life living on the mean New York streets… so why was an old Irish superstition coming along to spook him now? The boys would never believe him, they would never understand why an old, carved turnip would sent the sixteen-year-old boy running away like that.
And then he knew what he could do. He didn't have to go to the festival and let the other boys see he was so nervous. He didn't have to stay alone in his bunk, either, with a turnip for a bunkmate and an inability to fall asleep so that Hallowe'en would be over and All Saints' Day would begin. Because he knew there was no way he'd be able to fall asleep now.
But there was someone he could go see, someone he knew who wouldn't poke fun at him. Because she believed, too. There were times when Stress jumped at her own shadow when she was nervous or spooked. She knew all about ghosts and goblins and witches. She would understand why a phantom lantern made him worry about the state of his mortal soul (because, well, Hallowe'en was the only time Jack ever had to worry about that).
First, though, he made sure to grab the turnip and tuck it under his arm before leaving. Knowing the damn thing, it would find its way after him if he didn't.
He made it all the way to Bottle Alley without any interruptions. Sure, some of the people out on the street looked twice when they saw he was carrying a rather large turnip with a face carved into it, but no one said anything. No witches swooped around from around the corner, no black cat's ran in front of his path, no taunting Devil appeared to drag him to Hell.
All in all, he was feeling a little better by the time he made it to the Girls' Home. Maybe he'd been a little hasty. Maybe Hallowe'en wasn't as big a deal as his father used to make it out to be. Maybe a turnip was just a turnip, a lantern was just a lantern, and some of the younger boys in the lodging house were silly enough to take a Hallowe'en tale just a little too far.
There was a crowd in front of the Bottle Alley Home for Girls, a group of girls standing on the front porch and many more gathered around as if watching something both interesting and intriguing. Jack felt those blasted nerves of his return as his stomach dropped. What was going on there? Gory imaginings of witchcraft and sacrifices and all sorts of Hallowe'en horrors ran through his head as he ran forward, chiding himself for being a coward, rewarding himself for being brave enough to run ahead and see what was going on.
Pushing his way through the group, he stopped at the edge of the porch when he saw one solitary figure that was the source of the crowd. Her back was to him but he could just make out her profile—and what she was doing. Mumbling something under her breath, the girl was holding onto a large, jagged shard of mirror with the use of two cloth-wrapped hands to protect herself from the sharp edge. He could see the way her cats' eyes were focused intently on the mirror, the way her pale face reflected back to her. Her light brown hair wasn't tied back; the curls were loose and wild, and the wind kept them flowing back.
If he didn't know better, he would've thought Stress Rhian was a witch in her own right. Just then, standing under the harvest moon, she certainly looked like it. All that was missing was the broomstick and the cauldron.
Unable to help him myself, Jack walked up the steps and reached out to tap her on the shoulder just in time for her to move her head and show that Jack's face now reflected in her looking glass. The girl caught sight of his image, smiled wildly and laughed out loud. "I can't believe it, it really works! Look, there's Jack," she said excitedly, pointing at his reflection with the piece of cloth still wrapped around her right hand, "right there."
Puzzled, and not quite understanding why she was talking to the mirror when he was standing right behind her, he said, "Yeah. Right here."
And all the girls around them started to laugh. Soft, lady-like giggles at first, and then full-blown laughter. It was just like that morning and, against his better judgment, Jack started to scowl again. Okay, he amended, maybe he'd give the Delancey's two free passes.
Surprised and just a bit startled, Stress whirled around, a mix of emotions washing over her face as she saw him there: pleasure, then happiness, sudden worry and then… embarrassment? "Jack! You're really here!" Her voice sounded higher than normal, almost nervous, and she found a reason to look away from him when she realized she was still holding onto the large piece of mirror. "Um," she said, "what's this doin' here?"
As if on cue, another girl, darker-skinned with long dark hair pulled back into a braid, she rushed forward and took the mirror from Stress; she, too, wore two pieces of mismatched cloth on her hands to protect them from the sharp edges of the looking glass. A smaller group of the girls broke off, following the path of the mirror, while the rest of the girls laughed and continued to tease her for no reason that Jack could see.
"Hush, you," Stress told them, her pale cheeks spotting red as she stuffed the grubby rags she'd been holding into the front pocket of her skirt and grabbed his elbow and began dragging him away from the crowd of girls who were alternating between watching the dark-haired girl talk to the mirror and Stress talk to Jack.
He wanted to ask her what she was doing with the mirror and why his appearance had made those normally somber and solemn girls twitter like a flock of birds but he took one look at her face—the red had faded to a faint pink but there was no denying she was inexplicably embarrassed—and he decided to let it go. Besides, his problems were far more pressing at the moment.
As soon as they made it to the mouth of the alley, far enough where the laughter didn't echo and their conversation could go unheard by the other girls, Stress let go of his arm, noticed his scowl and said overly brightly, "Whatcha doin' here, Jack? I thought you'd be at the festival down at your lodging house."
"I was," he said defensively. The turnip under his arm seemed heavy all of a sudden and he second-guessed his coming down to Bottle Alley. As far as he could see, it looked like Stress got swept into Hallowe'en, too.
Stress raised her eyebrows, knowing there was more to it than that and too impatient to wait for him to continue. "Then watcha doin' here?"
Jack couldn't find the right words to explain why the discovery of a carved turnip on his pillow bothered him so much, why it annoyed him that the other boys found it funny, why he'd left the Hallowe'en festival behind him with the turnip… so, instead, he just removed the lantern from under his arm without a word and lifted it up high so that she could see the face carved into it.
Stress blinked. "Oh, it's… well, it's nice," she said politely. "Did you make it yourself?"
That wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting. "It's been followin' me, Stress," he confessed, nonchalantly placing his ink-stained hands over the spot where the turnip's ears would be… if it had any.
"That's funny, I don't see any legs on it."
Lowering the turnip, he scowled again at the amused quirk to her grin. She was his last hope—if she didn't understand, no one would. He tried again. "Look, I know ya know the stories. Your mother told ya 'em just like my pa did. And this damn thing won't leave me alone."
It was obvious that the something about a carved turnip was rubbing him the wrong way, and just as obvious that the reason Jack was nervous had nothing really to do with the vegetable. Just in case, she thought it best to remind him: "It's a turnip."
Jack eyed the lantern coldly. "It's a Jack-o'-lantern."
And then she thought she might've understood. "Is that why you're worryin'?" She laughed, a high-pitched peal of laughter that sounded a lot sweeter than any of the taunts and teases he'd heard from his boys—or Stress heard from the other Bottle Alley lodgers. She bent slightly and ran one of her fingers down the ridged side of the turnip. "C'mon, Jack, it's just Hallowe'en fun! What's the harm in that?"
And he had to admit, begrudgingly maybe, that she was probably right. Hallowe'en fun… Had it really taken him to Hallowe'en night to realize that? Away from the other boys and the bunkroom, everything didn't seem half as spooky; just like when he was out, busying himself by selling his papers, it didn't seem nowhere near as worrying as it had when he was alone in the bunkroom. And maybe he just needed to hear it from an Irish lass like Stress. If she wasn't letting the stories worry her, why was he still fretting over a bunkroom joke?
Jack followed her gaze and eyed the lantern again. Suddenly, the turnip didn't seem so fearful; after all, it was just a vegetable with a crude carving of eyes, nose and a mouth. Shoot, he could eat it if he wanted to, and what could it do then?
Besides, it wasn't like he was the Jack who made such a rash and foolish deal with the devil or anything...
"Yeah, I guess you're right," he admitted, turning the turnip around and lifting it up so he could get a better look at it. The two circular eyes weren't even the same shape and the mouth was crooked and cracked after having the candle shoved all the way inside. Really, how could he have been so, well, afraid of something like this? "Yeah." He nodded, then, feeling relieved and a little ashamed for worrying so, looked back over at Stress. "What was all that business with the mirror? Ya looked like a witch up there, and ya seemed pleased when I appeared in the glass. Somethin' ya want to tell me?"
It was Stress's turn to look ashamed and embarrassed and childish. She glanced over his shoulder where the girls were passing the cloth rags and the mirror off, their laughter almost carrying to where she and Jack stood. Shrugging, Stress didn't quite meet his eyes as she said weakly, "Like I said, Jack, it's just a little Hallowe'en fun."
And for the first time since he woke up to a turnip staring at him, Jack allowed himself a real smile. So he wasn't the only one who believed the stories, after all.
End Note: This is my entry for the Halloween theme for the NML Challenge Site. This is something I wanted to crank out before NaNo starts tomorrow :) I still have one more thing I want to do - a Spot story, if I can get it done in time - and, since I just wrote a Jack/Sarah one-shot the other day, I decided to throw Stress and the Bottle Alley girls in this one.
Now for the actual Halloween parts -
In case you're not familiar with one of the myths behind a carved vegetable—in this case turnip, but more familiarly pumpkin—lantern being called a jack-o'-lantern, this is it in a nutshell. A greedy man named Jack (sometimes a thief, hence our Jack's nervousness) managed to trick the Devil into agreeing never to claim his soul. However, after he dies, he's too sinful to go to Heaven and Hell can't take him. He's forced to wonder the Earth looking for a final resting place, his only guide a never-dying ember of flame (some say a gift from the Devil) in the pit of a carved vegetable lantern.
As for the mirror game, it was custom during Victorian era Halloween parties for young America, English and Irish girls to stand around a looking glass and try to get a vision of the man she's going to eventually marry ;)
And, of course, that last line is a bit of a mocking reference to my epic fic, "a Maldicao de Diabo" where Jack actually did make a deal with the devil. You know, I just can't help myself sometimes.
- stress, 10.31.10