Honorable Mention

Red Sun, Red Sky, Red by Judy Freni


The last day of October. Halloween. The scariest night of the year. She was rushing to get home to light her two jack-o-lanterns, their frightening, grinning faces her favorite memory of the suburban Halloweens of her childhood. She had left work later than usual and heading west across Twenty-Eighth Street, through the wholesale flower district, she could see the sun slipping behind the Fashion Institute buildings on Seventh Ave. A flaming half ball of light, it was almost to the horizon. The sky burned red around it.

“Red sky at night… ” she said aloud, quoting the old saying.

Outside a florist what seemed like hundreds of pots of red, yellow and orange autumn mums were being hoisted onto the tan shoulders of young Latinx men still wearing summer wife -beaters in the autumn chill. Others were wedging the fronts of hand trucks under the first of the next season’s live evergreens. Every day they put the plants and trees out on the sidewalk in the morning and took them all back in again at the end of the day.  

The air smelled like fall: damp earth and mold, pungent flowers, and wood smoke from a fireplace in one of the renovated loft tenements in the neighborhood. One of the men who always stood on the sidewalk selling the floral remains of the day, jumped in front of her with a saggy bouquet of baby’s breath and yellow roses, brown around their petals’ edges. “Three dollar, three dollar,” he said. She waved him away and kept walking.

The window of the fake flower place on the south side of the street caught her eye and she stopped to look. Halloween on floral steroids. The window was blazing with orange and red and metallic gold accents. Artificial black flowers that didn’t exist in nature seemed to grow before her eyes. Jack o’ Lanterns leered at her. Black crows sat on the branches of dead trees and a coven of witches hanging from the ceiling on invisible thread flew broomsticks across a full-moon night sky twinkling with tiny stars. White spider webs stretched across the front of the window. They sparkled with strands of faux jewel dew. She was sure at least one witch turned its ugly head and gave her an evil wink.

A man suddenly stood next to her. She sensed him before she saw him. Could tell by the way his cool breath hit the top of her head and stirred her hair that he was many inches taller than she.

“Beautiful,” he said and she wasn’t sure for a minute if he meant her or the display window.

She turned and saw that he was pointing at the storefront, his face in profile. Handsome in a hawk-like way. A high-bridged, narrow nose.  A sharp chin, and chiseled cheekbones contoured by shadow. Boots, tight jeans, a black turtleneck sweater. Clean shaven, both face and head. The finger that pointed toward the window wore an enameled black ring with some kind of scroll-work or lettering on top.

“Yes,” she said. “Perfect for Halloween.”

He turned to face her, smiled, just a flash of very white teeth, and for a long minute she felt glued to the sidewalk, like her body couldn’t move a muscle. The feeling passed and she stepped away from him, toward the avenue half a block away.

Behind her he cleared his throat. She looked and saw he was holding out a rose. So deeply red it was almost black, perfectly formed, not a petal wilting, the stem dense with thorns. Its thick, heavy scent filled the air. Like no rose she’d ever smelled before.

A shiver went through her. She shook her head. “No thanks,” she said.

He looked down at the sidewalk.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

He raised his head and looked straight at her. His eyes blazed red. Was it just a reflection of the last rays of the setting sun?

She wasn’t sure.

“I could if I wanted to,” he said, crushing the rose in his hand. The petals drifted to the sidewalk. A thorn caught his thumb and pierced it. A drop of blood as dark as the rose. He gazed at her as he put it to his mouth and sucked. “You know I could.”

She stared back at him. Their eyes connected and hers were held tight. She could not look away.

“Yes,” she said. “I know you could.” Her lips parted slightly and she inhaled the cold night air and the lingering perfume of the rose.

His eyes shut down and hers were released.

“But I won’t,” he said. He paused for a few seconds. “For now.”

He dropped the rose’s thorn-covered stem on the sidewalk, walked away from her and disappeared around the corner.

“But I….” she said.

The air was still, without a breath of air, but the petals suddenly blew into a tiny whirlwind. One flew up and tangled in her hair. She could still smell just a hint of its fragrance. She reached up and touched it and both she and the petal shivered.

She walked quickly to the train. Her jack-o-lanterns were waiting in the dark of her apartment. Waiting for her to light their candles and make them the magic of the night.

She was almost sure she’d see him again. She prayed she would. Tonight. Halloween.

Judy lives and works on the very scary Upper West Side of New York City. She has a husband (not scary), two elderly and witchy lady cats and more than one broomstick. She loves the dark and Halloween is her favorite holiday.


Published 10/29/20

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