An introduction to Kate DeJonge’s book, Nightmares: A Collection of Scary Stories. Kate writes:
The Nightmares anthology is 13 stories. 9 are short, and 2 are novellas (the last two chapters). They are all unique with no crossover characters, and several are true stories from my life as a psychic paranormal investigator. The true stories are listed as such in parentheses. The Muck Olla is based on a true, obscure Samhain character! I LOVE going down rabbit holes to find true tidbits that I can build on.
I seriously have dozens of stories in my head that are being put to paper daily. It might sound bizarre, but I dream these stories in their entirety and then wake up and rush to get all the details down. Of course, I have dry spells, but the kettle is hot right now!! As we enter into the Halloween season…
Written by Kate DeJonge
Edited by Stephanie Smith
Cover art courtesy of CocPARISIENNE/Anja
Copyright © 2021 Kate DeJonge.Christie Salinger counted herself lucky. She was attending school on a scholarship, living in residence with easy access to her first real boyfriend, and thus far had avoided putting on the freshman 10. She reached across the console to play with a twist of Ronan’s hair and smiled. They’d met in chem lab a few weeks into September, and we’re sharing more than notes by Halloween. That was a year ago. Now, they were driving out of the city to Ronan’s family farm, where Christie was going to meet his parents for the first time.
When the roads narrowed down to two lanes, and there were more fields than buildings, she rolled her window down and let the breeze play with her long hair. Ronan was quietly singing along to a song on the radio; eyes focused steadfastly on the road. Ronan was nothing if not careful.
“So, what exactly should I expect at tonight’s festivities?” she asked. He’d told her it was a family post-harvest tradition to celebrate on October 31, but he hadn’t mentioned the word “Halloween.” A big fan of the holiday herself, Christie was hoping for big bonfires and ghost stories and maybe a trail of carved pumpkins lining the drive.
“My family is traditional, Irish, or Celtic, if you will. We celebrate like pagans always have.”
“I don’t know what that means.” Christie laughed. “Are we sacrificing a goat?”
“You laugh,” Ronan smiled, “but our ancestors probably did. We haven’t strayed too far from that old path, but there will be no goat sacrifices, I promise.”
“Okay, so like what then?”
Ronan took a deep breath. He didn’t want to tell her too much because he knew that it was her favorite night of the year, and he wanted to surprise her with his family’s festivities. It would be a Halloween celebration she’d never forget.
“Think old fashioned,” he said finally, “apple cider, silly games, a bonfire…” his voice trailed off, and he looked to see that she was smiling at him.
“Go on!” she coaxed.
“I don’t want to spoil it all for you.” He said, placing a hand on her thigh. “My brothers will be entertaining, my mom’s a sweetheart, and Pops…well, Pops is a bit gruff but just ignore him. He’s good farm stock, as my mother used to tell us.”
“Okay.” The lilt at the end of the word betrayed her nervousness.
“Don’t worry, babe, it’s going to be fun! I promise!” They passed a tractor going in the opposite direction, driving half in the ditch to stay out of traffic’s way.
“There’s a good sign we’re getting close!” he said jovially and cranked up the radio.
Christie sat back in her seat and looked forward. She trusted Ronan, but something suddenly felt ‘off’ about this trip. Chalking it up to nervous anticipation, she gave herself a shake and willed the pit in her stomach to go away.
Smoke and sparks from the bonfire spiraled up toward the stars while Christie laughed at the show Ronan and his brothers were putting on. They were horsing around in the barn while she watched from a distance, seated next to their mother Maeve. The setting was both quaint and bizarre; there was a circle of large rocks placed around the fire, one for each attendant, but no warm blankets or other items of comfort one would usually associate with a late autumn bonfire. She rubbed her hands together and blew on them, wishing she’d brought a coat with her. Her hoodie was good enough for quick walks across campus, but she hadn’t sat outside on a chilly night in a long time. Maeve took an old kettle off the fire and poured hot liquid into a chipped mug which she passed to Christie with a smile.
“Is this your famous cider?” Ronan had warned her ahead of time that his father’s cider would be spiked with something akin to moonshine. They called it “Scrumpy”, another family tradition.
“Yes, it is, dear! I asked father to make it a little stronger this year; my boys can tuck it away like any sailor out there.”
Christie puzzled over the use of that analogy on a farm but accepted the mug with thanks and blew across the surface to cool it.
“Those boys,” Maeve smiled, shaking her head, “I don’t think they’ll ever grow up.”
“I sure hope not,” Christie said, laughing as Ronan was tossed into a stack of loose hay. He was on his feet again and tackling Rory’s much taller frame like a football practice dummy. Jason, the eldest, cheered and egged them on as he always did. Christie had never seen this side of Ronan and was pleasantly surprised.
“Is he like this with his friends at school?” Maeve asked, almost reading Christie’s mind.
“No!” she laughed. Ronan was usually a quiet man who kept mostly to himself. Seeing him acting silly with his brothers just made her love him more. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long to come up to meet you; your family is lovely.”
Maeve smiled proudly and patted Christie’s knee. “Well, Ronan has only good things to say about you, and you are more than welcome to anything you want while you are here, dear.”
Daniel came out of the farmhouse and onto the side porch with a large bag of apples.
“BOYS!” he barked, “It’s time to get started. Get the bucket!”
Christie twisted on her stone to look at Ronan’s father. She had heard many stories about him, and he looked exactly as she’d pictured: a large, sturdy man in a plaid lumberjack coat and denim overalls, with knee-high rubber boots covered in mud. His white beard was huge, at least ten years’ growth, and the hair on his head matched. He was the quintessential farmer. Christie imagined she could hear the man breathing as he heaved himself heavily down the wooden steps to join them at the bonfire. He set the apples down at Maeve’s feet and turned to look for his sons. Rory was carrying the ‘bucket’, a half barrel, and Ronan had another one made of galvanized steel. Jason, they said, was in the chicken coop gathering eggs.
Christie watched the proceedings, biting her upper lip nervously. Ronan said this was supposed to be a traditional Halloween celebration. She had expected black and orange decorations, jack-o’-lanterns, maybe spooky music and costumes. What were the eggs for? Why did the guys look so serious now?
“Well, my dear, we celebrate traditional Samhain like they did in the old days. It’s more magical than all the commercial bits and bobs in the Walmart aisles. Just you wait and see!” Maeve winked at her, answering her unspoken questions. Christie stared at her for a moment, the hairs standing up on her arms. She was feeling a little spooked.
“What are the old traditions?” she asked tentatively, realizing just now that she had come out to the middle of nowhere with her boyfriend and was now surrounded by strangers. Perhaps she should have told someone her plans before making the trip. She reached for the cell phone in her hoodie pocket, then frowned when Daniel looked at her and tisked.
“We don’t use them damn things while we’re having a conversation here, miss.”
Thoroughly embarrassed, Christie put the phone back in her pocket and blushed.
“It’s ok, dear, you don’t know the rules yet.,” Maeve said kindly. “Drink your cider before it gets cold, and I’ll tell you about our traditions.”
Rory pulled a hose over to the circle of stones and filled the half barrel with it. Jason returned with a basket of eggs and disappeared again. Ronan sat down on the stone to Christie’s left and reached to pull her into a side hug. Christie snuggled into him, grateful for his familiar touch. She caught Maeve watching them and almost pulled herself upright out of respect, but the look on Maeve’s face was one of sadness. This confused Christie, but she felt it wasn’t her place to ask about the woman’s personal thoughts just yet. Rory took a heavy oven mitt from a stone near the bonfire and lifted the cider kettle off its stand. He offered it around, pouring mugs for everyone, leaving Jason’s on the stone he would occupy when he returned from wherever he’d gone.
“Our traditions are very old.” Maeve began. “Older than anyone can remember. Our family has always celebrated Samhain exactly as our elders did. We do this so that our family survives the cold winter ahead, and to ensure our crops are bountiful next year. I’m sure you’ve seen apple bobbing before. We do it every year for the boys, to find out which one will marry next. We also roast hazelnuts when a new pairing occurs, such as you and our Ronan. The hazelnuts will tell us if you are meant to be, or not.”
Christie shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think I want to know things like that.” She looked at Ronan. “I don’t want nuts to tell us we aren’t meant to be together.”
“Hush, child.” Daniel scolded her. “Mother is still speaking.”
Christie sat up straight, the cider loosening her inhibitions. She wanted to tell him where he could stick his ‘hush’, but Ronan pulled her back and whispered in her ear. “Just ignore him; he’s not always like this; he just takes this celebration seriously. The fun is about to start.” Christie let him hold her and closed her eyes against her anger. She would be quiet for Ronan’s sake, for now.
“It doesn’t really matter what any of us wants, dear. We live by what the Muck Olla decrees.”
“The Muck Olla?” Christie repeated. She had never heard that name before.
“Yes, dear. We must give him offerings and allow him to divine answers for us to keep him appeased.”
“Wh-what kind of offerings?” Christie asked, memories of every horror movie she’d ever seen flashing across her eyes.
“Why, food and drink, of course!” Maeve chuckled, “and a few other things, but that’s neither here nor there, dear. And now, I see Jason coming back, and we can begin!”
Ronan quickly explained that the Muck Olla was an old pagan deity his family had always believed in, going back to the beginning of time, according to his father. Christie didn’t have time for follow-up questions.
Jason had an old boombox from the 80s on his shoulder and was dressed like a rapper. Maeve and the boys laughed at his pantomimed entry while Daniel watched on, arms crossed against his chest. Jason put the radio down on the ground and danced like MC Hammer while they listened to the one-hit wonder’s famous song. His brothers booed at the corny humor, but Maeve clapped along appreciatively. Christie leaned back into Ronan and asked him what was going on, her eyes circling the family suspiciously. When he told her it was costume contest time, she threw her arms up in the air. Of course, a costume contest! Christie suddenly thought that her own feelings of suspicion were hilarious. What had she thought was happening? An evil rapper cult meeting? She leaned forward to slap her knees and kept going, tumbling off her stone. She turned to Ronan for help, but her eyes kept going in circles. What was in that Scrumpy! When she finally found her seat again, it looked like everyone was laughing at her, but their mouths were grotesquely wide, and the sounds were distorted. Jason was still dancing, Ronan was holding her by the elbow, and she could not stop laughing. She wasn’t much of a drinker, but some part of her understood that this was not her normal reaction to alcohol.
“You got a lightweight there, son,” Daniel smirked.
Jason finished his dance and sat down. “Your turn!” He told Rory with a slap on the back. Rory went to the barn.
“Whasee doing?” Christie slurred. Her mug had been refilled, so she drank down some more. Jason stood to fetch the kettle, but his mother motioned for him to stop.
“It’s the mumming, dear. The Muck Olla enjoys little plays and such. It’s all part of the fun! No, Jason, no more for her. She’ll be asleep before the evening’s through!”
Ronan frowned, looking at his own cider. “How much did you put in here, Pops?”
“Just the right amount, same’s always.” Daniel huffed.
“Mumming…you said it was a cossume contess.” Christie said to Ronan, her brows furrowing.
Rory had returned, dressed like a vampire, complete with cape and fangs. He strode to the bonfire doing his best to make it look like he was floating. When he reached the circle, he pulled the cape across his face and said, “I vant to suck your blood! Bleh bleh bleh!”
“Lame!” Jason called out, but Christie was giggling again.
“Oh, so you tink I am fahnny, do you, little girl?” Rory asked, sliding toward Christie. “I am vampeer! You must respect me! I vill bite your neck!” Ronan blocked his brother as Rory bent over Christie.
“I don’t think so, bro.”
Maeve was enjoying watching her children switch through costume after costume until Daniel told them it was enough. He ordered everyone to the water barrel without declaring a winner. He disagreed with the way they chose to entertain the Muck Olla; he felt it was disrespectful. After several minutes of shoving and splashing one another, Jason was the first of the brothers to clinch a stem in his teeth and end the game.
“The Muck Olla has declared Jason will be the next to marry!” Daniel shouted at the night sky, and the boys beat their palms against the rim of the barrel. Christie stumbled and fell again. The sound of their beats reminded her of something, but she couldn’t remember what. Something tribal? She moved toward the barrel, but Ronan grabbed her wrist and shook his head. She’d missed the game, not that it mattered. The Muck Olla would only select an O’Shea to be wed next. She held her head between both hands and tried to step back toward her stone at the bonfire. She needed to sit down.
“Hey, was there something else in the cider, guys? I don’t feel so…“ She tripped over her own feet and went down once more with a thud.
Daniel heaved her to her feet roughly. “Go sit yourself down, silly girl!” he said angrily. “Ronan! Bring me the hazelnuts!”
“I don’t know, Pops; I think she’s had enough…” Ronan tried, but Daniel’s glare shut him down.
“You know we’re not finished ‘til we’re finished, boy.”
Ronan looked to Jason for help, but he wouldn’t meet his eyes. Their father asked if the field was ready. Jason nodded. That’s what he’d been doing after gathering the eggs.
“Then put the pan on the fire;, let’s see what the nuts have to say.”
Ronan dutifully stepped forward and took two hazelnuts from his father. The steel tub he’d brought from the barn earlier was heating up on the bonfire, his relationship’s fate mere moments away. He closed his eyes and uttered a silent prayer to the Muck Olla. He truly liked Christie.
“Don’t drag your feet, boy. Put ‘em in.”
Ronan watched Christie trying to settle herself back on her rock. He couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying or some combination of the two. He tossed the nuts into the tub and went to sit with her. Maeve stepped up and watched for them to begin jumping. If the heated nuts jumped toward one another, Ronan and Christie could stay together. If they jumped apart, though, the Muck Olla would only be satisfied if they parted ways. Jason watched her nervously. He’d had a girlfriend once, but only once. After that, Samhain, he’d avoided all romantic potentials. Rory had yet to experience love. Lucky him. Maeve jolted when they jumped and frowned.
“I’m sorry, Ronan.” She said sadly. “I had a feeling.”
Ronan sighed loudly and pulled his arms away from Christie. Mumbled apologies went around the circle, except for Daniel, who was standing in front of his stone stoically.
“What’s goin’ on?” Christie mumbled.
“Alright, that’s done. Stand up; you know what to do.” Daniel gazed into the fire while he spoke.
Ronan helped Christie stand, wavering drunkenly. She felt light-headed and gripped him for stability.
“Step forward.,” Daniel commanded. Everyone took a step closer to the bonfire, watching their patriarch reverently.
“Muck Olla, we thank you for your protection. We thank you for keeping our family safe. We thank you for our plentiful crops, and we thank you for the decisions that you have made for us this night. We offer ourselves to you now, to make your choice. We accept your price for all that you do.”
“Whuthafu is happening?” Christie asked more loudly; she was scared. Her vision was doubling and stretching, her head was pounding, and she thought she might vomit. She did not like Daniel or whatever the hell the nut thing meant. She wanted to go home.
“Ronan,” she clung to him, “I wanna go. Let’s go. I’ve hadda nuff.” He ignored her.
“Alright, turn.” The O’Shea family turned as one. Christie saw the rest turning their backs to the fire and followed suit. Sighs of relief sounded all around her, but Ronan gasped. Christie watched the others, desperately trying to understand what they were reacting to. It didn’t seem like anything had changed, but when she saw what they were looking at, she gasped. Ronan’s stone had moved backwards across the field at least ten feet. It must have weighed a hundred pounds, and no one had left the circle. How in the hell had it moved so silently, so quickly? She searched the darkness around them, looking for other people or farm equipment or any other explanation for what had just happened.
“I’m sorry, son, but I thank you for your sacrifice,.” Daniel said solemnly. The Muck Olla had made his selection.
“I thank you for your sacrifice.” The others repeated. Maeve cried quietly into a delicate handkerchief. Ronan walked past Christie to give his mother a hug,
“It’s ok, mom. I accept my duty to the Muck Olla. In the name of the family!” He shouted those last words, raising a fist toward the sky, his lips pursed together tightly.
“In the name of the family!” The O’Shea’s chanted back. Daniel embraced his son then pulled back, his strong hands still gripping Ronan’s biceps.
“In the name of the family.” He nodded.
Ronan stepped out of the circle and walked toward the barn, the rest of the family following behind him. Rory held a torch that he’d lit as they stepped away from the bonfire. Jason half-carried Christie, who was mumbling incoherently and crying. When they rounded the barn, she froze and shrieked. A huge scarecrow stood in the center of a pile of dark jack-o-lanterns among the cornstalks that had been left standing in the west field. Ronan climbed to the top of the pumpkin pile on steps made from hay bales, and Daniel used thick rope to secure him to the scarecrow. His head lined up with its ribcage where sticks forming arms jutted out, wrapped in straw for bulk, twiggy fingers pointing ominously into the surrounding fields.
“Jason!” Christie whimpered, “Whatter they doing? Why’s he up there?”
Jason bit his tongue, trying to decide what to tell her. He’d made a mistake when he’d dosed her cup. He was so sure the Muck Olla would choose an outsider over one of the families that he’d ground up two of his Ativan pills and asked Rory to put it in Christie’s cider. He’d told his brother it was the kind thing to do, that it would spare her some of the pain. Now she was resisting the drug, struggling to stand up and demanding answers while his brother stood in her place. He was about to say something when the woosh of the pyre forced them all to step back. Rory had touched the torch to one of the scarecrow’s hands, and the dry kindling spread the fire quickly. He touched the torch to one of the pumpkins, and the flames followed a wick that had been woven in and out of their faces. Within seconds, every eerie smile was alight, almost winking and laughing at the burning scarecrow above. Ronan’s clothing caught fire, and he screamed in terror.
“For the family!” Daniel screamed.
“For the family!” Jason, Rory, and Maeve returned.
“Nooooo!” Christie cried, breaking away from Jason and running for the pyre. This was not a Samhain celebration, no matter how fuddled her brain was. She needed to get her boyfriend out of the fire and away from these crazy people. To hell with family!
Her skull split open as Maeve slammed the hard edge of a pitchfork against Christie’s head. “It was supposed to be you.” She spat. Christie lay motionless, blood pouring from her face. Maeve rammed the fork into the ground and held it, the other hand placed on her hip. Rory and Jason watched her incredulously.
“Wel,l don’t just stand there gawking,” she scolded them, “Pick her up, put her on the fire!”
The boys did as they were told, waiting until they were just about touching the jack-o-lanterns to swing her body up high. She landed at Ronan’s feet and was engulfed immediately. The flames reached the massive pumpkin that served as the scarecrow’s head, and a deafening roar came out of its mouth, shaking every building on the farm with its power. Daniel put his arm around Maeve’s waist and smiled, watching the bodies blaze.
The Muck Olla was appeased for another year.
Written by Kate DeJonge
Edited by Stephanie Smith
Cover art courtesy of CocPARISIENNE/Anja
Copyright © 2021 Kate DeJonge.
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Portions of this book are works of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
First Edition 2021
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