by Mark Rich
"Those idiots and their defamations!"
The man with the glowing red head dug his clawed fingers into the pale frame of the keyboard, his teeth clenching.
As he bent forward the computer screen's white glow lightened the radiant flush of his face. The webpage reflected on his eyes.
"Jack's Page," it said at top.
The image of his face, with its raging fires visible beneath his skin.
As a child, he was called Jack by other kids--not by his friends...although there were few he could call friends, even halfway truthfully--and there had been not a one who lasted as a friend longer than a season or two. But the others ganged up, and caught and tackled him, then carried him around at night until he grew so angry his head glowed orange, and the candies they forced into his mouth dripped out, the melting streaks making horrifying patterns of darkness against the lanterns of his cheeks.
"There is no such a thing as the kind of creature they say I am," he said. "I was never, and I am not!"
His eyes flashed over the accusations, the lies, the blots flung thoughtlessly against him--here, on the Internet, where all the world could see. Utter falsehoods, rash attacks: they had said it for years--for decades--and they had said it without grounds, having no proof, no single ounce of spilled blood for evidence. He ate babies? What a fabrication! Let them bring forth the proof! Let them produce the remains of his supposed feasts!
Yet now he reached for the candy dish where he had piled his snacks; and as he grew more calm the glow in his cheeks subsided; and he ate slowly, and closed his eyes at the savor of transformed petroleum goodness shaped as arms, legs, torsos, necks, heads...savored the bloodless plastic flesh of the dolls churned out of the factories to the East. All the toy and doll shops stocked their shelves, thinking they would be parents and children who would be wandering shopping down those aisles.
Dolls: people had called them babies, yes, once...
He clicked off the computer. Fools, all of them.
As he headed for bed he heard the hammering at the door.
"Jack!" the drunks outside called, in the dark. "Jack, oh won't you come out to play tonight? Won't you come out to play?"
He stood in the living room, his hand reaching for the pull-cord of the lamp there, listening. Children of his youth--had they grown up at all? Hardly! They still wanted to take him onto their shoulders, especially during this cold, windy part of the year...take him on their shoulders, to force vile sweets between his lips, and to parade him down the town's darkened streets, taunting and jeering.
He turned off that last lamp, and lit his way to bed with his anger.
Fiction by Mark Rich has appeared in publications ranging from Talebones and Electric Velocipede to Analog and Amazing Stories. Two collections of his stories are appearing this winter, from RedJack Books and Fairwood Press. He lives in the Coulee region of Wisconsin.
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"O'Lantern" © 2008 Mark Rich. Used by permission
of the author.
Raven Electrick © 2000-2008 Karen A. Romanko. Illustration © 2001 Karen A. Romanko.