Halloween Haunts: A TIC-TACKING RITE OF PASSAGE by A.G. Mock
It was 1978—Friday, October 13th to be precise—when I was finally old enough to stay home alone while my parents went out to dinner and a movie. Or more likely, while they went disco dancing with my aunt and uncle who lived next door. You see, the four had been practicing their grooviest dance moves in the basement every Wednesday for months, the beat of “Night Fever” or “Jive Talkin’” barely stifled by the closed door. This would also be accompanied by the sound of poorly executed dance steps scuffing awkwardly across the unfinished cement floor.
(I once made the mistake of sneaking down to the basement for a bag of chips and saw my stepfather in his white suit with huge lapels and bell-bottoms, rolling his hands and pointing to the sky a la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Four decades later, I still can’t hear a Bee Gees song without conjuring that unsettling mental image.)
Truth is, I didn’t really care what my parents would be doing this Friday night. All I cared about was what I would be doing.
So many options!
My every waking moment since being informed of this milestone opportunity became occupied by thoughts of delicious independence. That, and fiercely self-debated deliberation over the plethora of amazing things I would plan for what was certain to be the most epic night of my eleven years on this planet.
Not to brag or anything, but the monumental lineup of events I finally settled on went something like this:
8:00 Happy Days.
8:30 Mork & Mindy.
9:00 Charlie’s Angels (Like most pre-pubescent boys in the ‘70s, my crush on Cheryl Ladd occupied much of my life in those days.)
10:00 The main event—October’s Fright Fest Feature Film—Creature from the Black Lagoon.
You see, I had it all worked out. And it was gonna be awesome!
So, popcorn at the ready, soda by my side, I nestled in for an evening of unadulterated freedom.
The first two hours went off without a hitch. Okay, so Happy Days was a rerun I’d seen twice already. But next came Mindy’s snobby friend, Susan, who tried to seduce Mork and steal him away. I couldn’t care less about Susan’s treachery. She was played by Morgan Fairchild, and that was manna from heaven for an eleven-year-old boy. It was also the perfect primer to an hour of crime-busting angels, who were up next.
By the time the ladies got their man and learned a valuable new life lesson—neatly summarized by Charlie, of course—I was more than ready for a pee break. I’d have to be quick though if I didn’t want to miss the start of the main event. So, I ran upstairs in my stocking feet, taking the steps two at a time.
At the top of the landing, I slid to a terrified halt.
The front door was wide open.
I caught my breath as I stared at a seven-foot by three-foot rectangle of nighttime glaring menacingly back at me.
You shut that door and locked it when they left, I assured myself. Did you, though? I questioned. Did you really?
I stood in absolute silence, listening.
All I could hear was the thumping of my own heart, which I was sure was trying to escape my ribcage.
“Hello . . . ?” I uttered after swallowing hard. I don’t know what I expected to hear in reply. Maybe, ‘Hey little dude, don’t mind me. I’m just a burglar.’ Or even better, the wispy, ethereal voice of a disembodied spirit proclaiming their presence.
Of course, I heard neither of those things. So I darted to the door, slammed it shut and locked it, checking twice. My heart was still drumming inside my chest as if it were leading a marching band, and I forced myself to breathe slowly in and out a few times to calm its cadence.
See? It’s nothing. Eyes darting wildly, scanning the rest of the room. We’re cool now, man. It’s all good.
My self-reassurance game was pretty weak. But it got me to the bathroom at the end of the upstairs hall and all the way back down to the TV room, which I thought was pretty brave.
I plopped back onto the couch in the nick of time, pulling the blanket all the way up to my chin for protection.
By the time the first black-and-white scene began to unfold, and Dr. Reed was digging out a webbed, skeletal hand from the rock, I had pretty much forgotten about the whole door incident. But then came the bubbles, and that scaly, clawed hand breaking through the surface of the water as the soundtrack blared in this dissonant, minor chord that shook the speakers on our Zenith TV.
My jaw set tight. My hands clenched. I pulled my knees up to my chest.
Was this movie really that scary? Or had the door thing completely freaked me out . . . ?
Suddenly, being alone wasn’t fun anymore and I wished my older sister hadn’t gone out. As a seventeen-year-old, Shelley was essentially an adult in my book. What I wouldn’t give for her to be on the other side of the couch, hogging all the blanket for herself and calling me a ‘stupid idget’ for being scared by such a lame movie. You knew she was being playful when she condensed ‘idiot’ to just two syllables. Like ‘midget’ without the ‘M.’ It was her approximation of being sweet.
Then I heard something else . . . something that wasn’t coming from the TV.
I turned the volume all the way down and listened with the intensity of a safe cracker.
Outside the front window, footsteps padded almost silently. Voices hushed one another. Someone said something in a whisper and chuckled.
The machine-gun fire came without warning.
It blistered the front window as I screamed, then exploded again in a second volley. I ducked and threw myself on the couch, cowering beneath the blanket. Now the window on the other side of the room exploded in sound, so loud against the nighttime silence it reverberated through the entire house.
I was caught in a crossfire.
Whimpering in a ball on the sofa, I just wanted this to end.
What was I thinking, expecting this to be the best night of my life?
I cried out for my mom. Like, actually cried out.
Then . . . I heard my sister’s voice outside. It scut through the cacophony of bullets raining down upon the house.
“Get out of here, you little assholes,” she yelled as the door of her beat up Plymouth creaked and popped open. I wasn’t looking, but I knew she’d be standing on our driveway with one hand on her hip, the other waggling a menacing finger. Shelley doesn’t realize it, but she learned that pose from our mom. “I see you, Stu Klatz. And you too, Jack Raker. And Big Dan Mercer—can’t miss you, you great big idiot. You’re all gonna come back and clean up this fucking corn tomorrow!”
The boys laughed out loud and ran.
Not machine-gun fire.
“Yeah. You know,” my sister confirmed upon finding me trembling in a sea of spilled popcorn and cherry cola on the couch. “They were tic-tacking.”
My face was blank.
“Oy vey.” She ran her hand dramatically over her eyes. “You’ve never been tic-tacking, kid? Just how little are you!”
By little she meant age. And of course, she knew full well she was 6 years older than me but liked to rub my childhood in my face every once and awhile.
With an exasperated sigh she explained how you sneak into the farmer’s field in September and snag as many ears of feed corn as you can fit into one of those big paper grocery bags. Two if you’re really ballsy.
“Then?” I asked, still not getting it, eyeing the popcorn and wondering how something so soft and fluffy could sound like a hail of bullets.
“Listen, you idget.” She rolled her eyes but sat cross-legged on the couch next to me, sweeping mounds of popcorn to the floor. “You let your stash dry somewhere. Has to be at least a few weeks. But make sure it’s hidden . . . if Mom finds it, your ass will be grounded and you’ll miss Halloween.”
I was concentrating like she was laying down an intricate plan for a heist.
“When that corn’s good and dry and the kernels are like little stones, thumb them off into another paper bag. They’ll make an unholy row when you throw a handful against someone’s window. It won’t break the glass, but it’ll scare the shit outta them.”
That part I knew firsthand.
“But listen. The more you have, the better.” She was very emphatic about this part. “That’s very important. It’s like a status thing, y’know? A kids’ pecking order. Only the big dogs can manage a huge stash, because thumbing off all those kernels can hurt like a MF.”
I chuckled, having recently learned what MF stood for.
My sister gave me a thumbs-up and I did the same in return.
“Oh—My—God,” she said and lowered my hand while thrusting her thumb closer to my face. “Stop being such a dork. I’m trying to show you.”
The thumb on her right hand was all calloused; huge blisters hardened over. Her left was exactly the same.
It took a moment for the penny to drop. But drop it did. And big.
I was brimming with excitement as I followed Shelley to the garage where she hefted a bulging, double-bagged sack that had been buried beneath a pile of rags behind my stepdad’s workbench. She shook it and it exploded into sound like a hundred maracas.
“I think it’s time I passed the torch. Besides, no jerk’s gonna terrorize my little bro and get away with it.” She threw me a coat and my Converse sneakers. “C’mon, little dude—it’s Tic-tac time!”
THE PECULIARLY NORTHERN TRADITION OF ‘TIC-TACKING’
It’s likely that most of you have never heard of tic-tacking. A few who may have grown up with this month-long Halloween practice, myself included, have probably forgotten about it long ago, only to experience a rush of sentimental joy at the very mention of its silly name. Yet ask anyone for whom this was a Halloween staple exactly how they learned about it, how they learned to do it, or how they knew what to call it, and you’ll be met with a lot of shrugging shoulders and silence.
Before writing this autobiographical short story, I asked many of my childhood friends—ardent adolescent tic-tackers, every one of them—those same three questions. Not one was able to explain how we learned of this peculiarly northern delinquency. The only thing we agreed upon was that the name must surely be a matter of onomatopoeia.
Even an online search via the mighty Google illuminates surprisingly little about the history of tic-tacking. A single results page offers barely a handful of relevant sites that even mention it. Interestingly, one of them does share a few scans of old newspaper articles reporting this mischievous practice as far back as the 1890s. But no one seems to know (or is willing to admit) knowing a thing about the actual origin of the practice.
In bygone eras with no internet, cell phones . . . or in the earliest days, no telephones at all . . . how did kids, spread thousands of miles apart, not only learn of this mischievous act, but know what it was called?
I leave that for you to ponder.
If you know the answer or have a tic-tacking memory of your own, please email me at EpochThrillers@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you!
A.G. Mock is a writer and publisher whose multi-decade career spans both the UK and the US. He currently lives on the American Gulf Coast with his incredibly patient wife, two peculiarly challenging but adorable dogs, and a cheeky ghost who likes to clatter about in the guest bedroom and occasionally lock them all out. His wife and dogs he treasures wildly; the ghost he can take or leave.
His debut novel, The Little Woods, has been touted as “the scariest book since The Exorcist” and has been an international Amazon bestseller since shortly after its release in February of this year.
A dark, coming-of-age supernatural suspense, The Little Woods unfolds through two parallel-running storylines set in the 1970s and 1990s, and will keep you turning pages until the very last.
Come out and play in the woods. We’re all here, waiting for you…!
THE LITTLE WOODS
“I could not put it down! Haunting imagery… supernatural phenomena… I highly recommend this book!” -bookstagrammer @shereadswithcoffee
Do you believe in Demons? You will.
A HORROR STORY INSPIRED BY REAL EVENTS
A group of boyhood friends in the summer of 1977. An annual rite of passage in a dark and alluring Pennsylvania wood. The channeling of a malevolent Presence.
And a childhood game about to go terribly wrong…
Two brothers in the summer of 1995, reunited by the unspeakable nightmare of their past. A bewitching tavern proprietress and psychic intuitive from New Orleans. The revelation of an apocryphal prophesy.
And a harrowing return to the woods haunted by something far more dangerous than a memory…
If you like the coming-of-age movie Stand by Me, are horror-stricken by Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or delight in the terror of Stephen King’s IT or Pet Sematary, then you’ll love The Little Woods.
Frighteningly suspenseful and emotionally charged from page one, The Little Woods unfolds through two parallel-running storylines—each chapter alternating between the horrifying events of 1977 and their chilling repercussions in 1995.
When both converge, the result is a taut and twisted climax of biblical proportions and an ending certain to leave you as satisfyingly on edge as you are shocked!
Will Ian exorcise the darkness that haunts him, or will it gain the power to consume us all?
Come play in the woods today to find out.
**Includes a personal note from the author about the real Little Woods that inspired the story, plus a free bonus chapter of The Shadow Watchers, Book Two in the New Apocrypha series.**
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: A.G. Mock is giving away 5 Kindle editions and 2 Paperback editions of his debut occult bestseller, THE LITTLE WOODS, exclusively for HWA members! Enter in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org to be entered into a drawing for one of these editions!