Jay Caselberg

The August Editor's Pick Writer is Jay Caselberg

Feel free to email Jay at:



by Jay Caselberg

The wind was up again, blowing gusts and swirling eddies across the road, making his bicycle rock unsteadily beneath him. Billie pushed on regardless of the strands of hair whipping about his eyes. He had a mission.

Yagaski’s Pumpkin Farm was less than a mile away now, and he knew what he had to do. He would show them that he was no chicken. The big old barn sat out there on the roadside, its Jack O’ Lantern face picked out in triangular blocks of wood affixed to the barn’s side wall, staring out at the passers-by. It was the only place for miles around where they actually grew pumpkins. Vineyards scattered the length of the road, line after line of grapevines scoring light green tracks across the landscape in the warmer months, but now, October, their gnarled and twisted stumps stretching deformed wooden fingers all along the rows, death fingers in the darkness.

Billie glanced from side to side, looking out for people that might spot him, trying to quell the nervous fear nestled deep in his chest. He pushed at his pedals, willing his destination closer, wanting to get this over with.

“Prove you’re not a scaredy cat.”

Well, he’d prove it now. The big old barn on Yagaski’s Pumpkin Farm was legendary. People said it was haunted, that late at night you could see things moving; strange lights shifting behind the cracks and under the broad white door. He didn’t believe that stuff. Sure he didn’t.

He swallowed and pushed harder at the pedals, fairly whizzing along with the wind buffeting him from either side. The gloom was rapidly turning to deep darkness. Back in town, the lights would be coming on in half-curtained windows shedding yellow glow across faded wooden porches. Candles were being lit. Round orange faces with jagged grins showing flickering flame glow through windows, accompanied by half-shielded eyes peering out at the street. The faded pastel woods, the crumbling porches and peeling paint, the head poking out a screen door at the side, all added to the feeling of chill, especially at this time of year.

Up ahead, a pale shape grew out of the dimness ahead. Whatever it was, it was heading rapidly toward him. He swallowed again. There was no such thing as ghosts. He knew there was no such things as ghosts. He gripped his handlebars tighter as the white shape grew closer, slipped from a blurred impression to something more defined.

A horse! A big white horse out here on the road. It galloped down the roadway, tail flying streamer-like behind it. Where had it come from? He didn’t remember any horses out here.

As it bore down on him, he almost lost control of the bike, veering perilously toward the roadside. Then it swung out and around him, the whites of its eyes visible, teeth bared, tail flying and hooves pounding on the roadway.

Billie swung his head to watch it pass and then fade into darkness further down the road. He wondered where it belonged, where it had come from. Somebody was sure going to be unhappy, but he still couldn’t remember any horses out here. Right now, it didn’t matter though. The puzzle would wait till later. He had more important things to concentrate on.

“Show us you’re no coward. Go on. You go out there tonight, out to Yagaski’s Pumpkin Farm.” Jake’s face sneered at him, telling him he wasn’t going to do it. “You bring back something to show you’ve been there. Been in the barn. Don’t let the ghosts get you, though!” Jake laughed at him then, that contemptuous look on his face. He leaned his face closer, waving fingers in front of Billie’s face and going “Whoooooooooooh.” Billie would show them.

Half a mile left.

Billie frowned. There was another shape on the road ahead. No, it was two shapes, side by side. As they grew closer, he could see it was two more horses, manes flying, tails streaming, pounding down the road towards him. It was too dark to make the colors out, but this time he could tell they weren’t white.

As they neared, the details became clearer. One of the horses was deep chestnut, almost red, the other black, glossy and shining slick in what little light was shed from the moonless sky. He was ready for them this time and he steered closer to the side of the road and braked, getting right out of their way. He stopped, putting one foot down to stand as they thundered past.

Where were they coming from? He stood there, frowning, watching as they faded into the gloom. A hefty gust shook him where he stood, blowing his hair across his eyes and flapping his coat around him. Horses running free out here? It didn’t make any sense.

He waited a few moments just to make sure there were no more. Then he repositioned the bag across his shoulders and pushed off onto the road again. He could forget about the horses. He’d have something else to tell when he got back, but first he had to prove he’d been there.

With every yard closer to Yagaski’s place, he could feel his heart pounding more strongly in his chest. He bit his lip, forcing himself to concentrate on the road, on the movement of his feet upon the pedals, closer and closer. He couldn’t chicken out now.

Finally, he was there. He slid to a stop, his back wheel skidding sideways, throwing up a small shower of dirt and stones. He caught his breath. No, nobody could hear him on a night like this, with the wind sucking the sound from everything and replacing it with the noise of rushing air and whistling between the naked branches. He wheeled his bike down to a nearby tree, propped it against the trunk and stood watching, the sound of wind in the branches above him, the sound of his heart in his ears.

“Oh, man. What are you doing?” he said to the empty air.

Yagaski’s barn lay a little way off across the field. Wide, squat, the Jack O’ Lantern features blocked out on the flat white wall, the barn stared at him with its eerie face. Halfway across the field, there was a big tank or something, the domed top painted orange, meant to look like a pumpkin. Big black letters picked out the sign, just below the face:Yagaski’s Pumpkin Farm. Atop the roof sat a black weathervane spinning crazily in the wind, a witch riding a broomstick.

Billie stared, summoning the courage. He wasn’t a kid any more. This time he’d show them. The barn was set at a slight angle to the road, so from here, by the tree, he could see two sides. One side had the face and the sign, on the other sat the broad white door. That was his way in. Taking another swallow, he stepped away from his bike, away from the sheltering tree and dashed across the empty field. He made it as far as the tank before caution got the better of him.

Billie had never been this close to the tank before. It was a big metal thing, like a ball that had been cut in half and placed slap-bang in the middle of the field. Tufts of grass grew up around its base, as if it had been there for a long, long time. He wondered if it was hollow on the inside. He pressed himself flat against the orange surface and peered around the edge, looking for any sign of movement from the barn. Nothing. All was still, except for the wind, the occasional squeak from the turning weathervane and the too-loud sound of his own breath.

He lifted one arm, and the zip at the end of his jacket sleeve caught against the surface, scraping. Another surprise. This was no metal tank. It made the wrong sound. He pressed his palm flat against the cool surface. No, it was more like stone or something. Yet it wasn’t a big rock; it was something else altogether. How could anybody make something so big and so round out of stone?

He almost stepped back, but his objective was in sight, holding him there, daring him to run. No, he would not. An image of Jake’s mocking face swam up in his mind’s eye and he clamped his teeth shut and forced himself to keep looking around the edge of the big round inverted bowl he was leaning against.

Still nothing moved. The barn was quiet. There was no mysterious light issuing from beneath the door, no movement behind the cracks in the walls. Nothing. Steeling himself again, he dashed across the open space, pressed himself against the barn wall, the huge wooden face peering down at him. His heart thudded in his chest.

Billie stood like that for some minutes, trying to work out what he was going to do next. He had no idea what he could get to prove he’d been here. They’d had the pumpkin harvest. A few weeks ago there had been piles of huge orange globes stacked at the side of the barn, and neatly arrayed crates, one on top of the other, but now they must all be inside, those that were left. If there were any left at all, that was.

A pumpkin would be no good anyway. He could get one of them from anywhere. They’d never believe him if he brought back a pumpkin. He’d have to find something else. Something inside. He glanced up at the face, still watching him sidelong from the barn wall. Then he had an idea. If there was some way he could get one of those wood pieces off, that would be proof. If they scoffed, he could bring them out here, show them where it had come from. That would show them.

First, he reached for the jagged mouth. The large triangular lumps of wood were about his height, but they were big, too big. He tried working his fingers behind the top edge, but they were tight against the wall. Stretching up, he tried for the nose. One single solitary triangle of wood in the middle of the face, smaller than the others. That would do.

He could barely get his hands to its bottom. Quickly, he glanced around, but there was nothing to stand on. Even if he could reach it, he needed tools or something to lever it off. It had to be stuck fast too. It had been here ever since he could remember, through year in and year out, getting older and more faded as time went on. If he'd thought, if he'd planned he could have brought something with him. He cursed out loud, then remembering where he was, clamped his mouth tight shut.

Silence. Just the wind. Just the squeak, squeak, squeak of the weathervane. He breathed a sigh of relief.

This was a barn. There had to be tools inside, or even a crate or a box to stand on. He was feeling bolder now. He slipped around the side of the building, past the small bush growing in front and looked at the wide barn door. There was no way he was going to open that. Next to the big door was a smaller one, previously obscured by the building's side and the bushes growing in front. Billie stepped forward. The door was slightly ajar, and behind it lay . . . darkness. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it now. Plucking up his courage, he slipped inside.

Just inside the door, he waited, praying there was enough light, allowing his eyes to adjust. Dim shapes resolved themselves out of blackness. Square shapes that must be crates lay stacked one upon the other. Other shapes that he guessed were tools lined one wall. The musty smell of earth and old vegetable matter filled his nostrils, and something else, the smell of old sacking.

Outside the wind gusted, rattling the barn walls and above, through the roof, he could hear the weathervane turning. If the crates were empty, he could drag one outside. Otherwise, he’d have to clear one of them of its contents first. Once he had dragged it out and positioned it, he could return for the tools. He stepped toward the stack.

Just as he was reaching up, the door slammed shut behind him. Billie spun. It was the wind. It had to be the wind. Then, all of a sudden in the darkness, an orange glow blossomed in one corner behind the crates, growing steadily brighter, making him blink against the light. There was someone in here!

“So, a visitor! Not many visitors these days.”

Billie took a step back, his heart in his throat.

“Come to visit an old woman, have we?”

“I didn’t mean nothing. I—” He made a dash for the door. His hands fumbled with the handle.

“Stay a while, boy. Didn’t mean nothing, didn’t we? Well what are you doing here in Grandma Yagaski's place, eh?”

Billie turned slowly, barely able to swallow.

From around a stack of crates came a bony old woman. Her legs were like thin tree branches, hard and gnarled. She held her bony arms before her, twig fingers extended and moving. She peered at him with wide, dark eyes, above a long pointed nose. Lank tresses of gray hair fell about her ears.

Billie swallowed. “I just... I just—”

“Just what, nice round boy? Come to visit Grandma Yagaski? So few visitors these days. Especially not nice round boys like you.” She took another step forward, her fingers questing in the empty air before her. “Only this night, this Hallowed night, do I get to play, and I’m powerful hungry now.” She laughed—more of a cackle than a laugh—exposing blackened teeth that shone strangely in the light. “Don’t get many fat round boys since I left the Old Country.”

“No!” cried Billie, fumbling with the door behind him.

The old crone took another step on her bony legs and clacked her teeth together in a grin that sent chills up Billie’s spine. He scrabbled at the door edge now, trying to force his fingers around its edge. He couldn’t look at her. He heaved and pushed, but still the door wouldn’t budge.

It may have been the feel of those bony fingers on his shoulder, or the hot breath on the back of his neck, but it was enough. The door flew wide and Billie tumbled out to sprawl on the ground outside. He scrabbled on the ground for purchase, looking back over his shoulder to see the old crone silhouetted in the doorway, her head thrown back, teeth bared, cackling to the sky. He half crawled, half slid backward, away from the door, away from this creature who stood above him. Any minute now, she would leap upon him, and he knew what she’d do with those terrible teeth.

“No!” he yelled. “Get away from me!”

He wasn’t looking where he was going as he scrambled away. He stumbled, fell, stumbled upright again, all the time looking back over his shoulder watching the terrible old crone. He barely noticed the weathervane spinning crazily on the barn’s roof. He could barely believe his eyes as the barn itself rocked and trembled, pulling itself up from the hard ground to sprout long spindly legs, growing out from each corner. This couldn’t be happening. Still Grandma Yagaski cackled from the doorway.

“You’re mine, boy,” she said, pointing at him. “You’re mine.” She laughed. “Just like the old days!”

Billie started running. He ran blindly. He ran with fear, with the cold wind inside him, pushing him forward till he came up hard against something that stopped him dead with the crack of bone. He lay there panting, barely able to breathe. He’d hit a fence and broken something. He’d heard the noise of bones cracking. He turned on his back, feeling for pain, but there was none, just the dull throb of a bruise.

And then he saw what had stopped his flight. Stretching away on either side of him was a fence made all of bones, sprouting from the ground where before had been nothing. All along the top of the fence sat bleached white skulls, grinning into the night.

He couldn’t think about it. He couldn’t try to understand. He’d run headlong into a fence made of bones and crashed through it.

“Come here, boy!” yelled the old woman.

Billie forgot about the bones, forgot about the fence. The barn took one massive step on those strange birdlike legs. He screamed. He scrambled to his feet again and took off across the field, driven by the sound of the old crone’s laughter behind him. He ran, and ran. He crossed the roadway, into the fields, into the vineyard on the other side of the road and he kept on running till he fell panting between the vines, unable to run any more, the scent of earth and old wood all around him. He lay, staring at the sky, his heart thudding, his limbs trembling, waiting for the old woman in her barn to come stomping across the fields to tear him apart, but nothing came. Nothing at all.

Eventually, he regained enough breath to stand, and he struggled upright, panting, looking at line upon line of tortured vines stretching into the distance. His knees were weak. He felt sick. Wiping his hand across his face, he turned and tried to get his bearings. It didn’t matter about his bike. It didn’t matter about anything. He must be crazy, but he wasn’t going back there to see. There was no sign of the old woman, no sign of the barn.

They said Yagaski’s barn was haunted. Well now he knew. He could feel the trembling in his fingers and his knees as he started the long trudge home. Nobody would ever believe him. Especially Jake. Jake would just tell him he’d made it all up.

The shoulder bag bounced against his hip as he walked, feeling strangely heavy. He’d almost forgotten he was wearing it. It should have been light, not heavy. Hesitantly, he reached down and felt inside. His fingers met something hard and round.

Gingerly he clasped the object with his fingers and pulled it free. He lifted it to his face and immediately dropped it to the ground with a strangled cry. It was a skull, grinning up at him from the ground. Billie stood where he was, staring down at it, his mouth open.

Somehow, when he’d crashed against the bone fence, it must have fallen into his bag. He wasn’t crazy after all. The old woman, the hut, the fence, all of it was real. He leaned down, scooped up the skull, and slipped it back into the bag. He’d show Jake now. He’d show the others. Where else would he get a real skull but Yagaski’s barn? Though he could hardly believe it himself, he had his proof.

He barely slept that night. He sat up in bed, arms wrapped around himself, shivering against the wind buffeting his windows and staring at the bag lying on the end of his bed. Creaking branches outside the window brought shudders. He sat trembling, waiting, expecting any moment to hear the voice of an old woman cackling through the night outside his room.

Finally, the morning came. He raced out of bed, out of the house, carrying the precious bag folded within his arms. He crossed the street, down the road to Jake’s house, not even caring if they were awake. Jake’s mother answered the door.

“Billie, do you know what time it is?” Then she leaned closer. “Are you all right? You look awfully pale.”

“Yes, Mrs. O’Shea. Can I see Jake?”

She frowned. “Yes, okay. Jake!”she called out over her shoulder. “Get down here. Billie’s here to see you.” She turned back to look at him, a concerned expression on her face. “Are you sure you’re all right, Billie? Why don't you come inside?”

“No, I’m fine out here, Mrs. O’Shea,” he said, trying not to meet her gaze.

She held the look for a moment longer before disappearing back inside.

Before long, Jake appeared, his hair tousled and pajamas crumpled. When he saw Billie, he grinned. “Well? Where were you last night? Chickened out.”

Billie shook his head. “You’re not going to believe it. I got proof.”

“Yeah sure,” said Jake, that familiar sneer on his face. “So, come on. Let’s see it, Billie Boy.”

Billie unwrapped the bag, reached in his hand and pulled out what it contained.

Jake looked at him blankly and then his face broke into laughter. He pointed at Billie’s hand, then shook his head. “No way.”

Billie looked down. In his hand, he held not a skull, but a small round orange pumpkin. Cut into the side facing him, with neat sharp strokes, was a Jack O' Lantern face, its diamond toothed mouth grinning knowingly up at him.

Jay Caselberg is an Australian author based in Germany. His work, novels, short fiction, poetry, has appeared in many places worldwide and in several languages. He also occasionally writes as James A. Hartley and as Jackson Creed.

More can be found HERE