“Uh, I just remembered I have to be at the Tree House,” Barrel says, turning around.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Snow tells him. If she didn’t have the box in her arms, she would’ve snatched his skeleton jacket.
Barrel whines, “I don’t wanna do this alone. They’re not gonna want me around!”
“If you tell them what you told me,” Snow says, “I’m sure they’ll let you stay around.”
Back when they were digging up the box, Snow was asking Barrel why they were called Boogie’s Boys. “We used to work for a guy named Oogie Boogie,” he explained.
“I remember him.” Snow shuddered. “He came one year and kidnapped Santa and nearly destroyed Christmas Town the next year.”
“Yeah, he was pretty evil.”
“Wait, you worked for him?”
“Why? Didn’t you know he was evil?”
He focused on pulling the box out of the earth. “He found the three of us wandering around the cemetery,” he finally said. “We were orphans who’d gotten lost in a forest near our hometowns and ended up here. He found us and said he’d give us a place to stay if we worked for him and treated him like a king. So we stayed and worked for him.”
Snow stared at the mahogany box in thought. “Didn’t anyone in town offer you guys a home?”
He nodded, brushing some dirt off the dark brass latching. “Jack did once, later on, but we didn’t listen to him when he told us Oogie was evil, and as payback we would prank him and the town.”
She managed to look up at him, though he kept looking down. “Didn’t you ever try to leave Oogie?”
He shook his head. “We were too scared. We woulda been on his list of people to get rid of. But when Jack first beat him, we were hoping we wouldn’t have to do anything else bad, that we could live in town. But the town still thought of us as bad kids and wouldn’t have anything to do with us, and then it got so bad we thought it would be better if Oogie were back, so when Jack left after Halloween, we brought back Oogie. He was more terrifying than before, and this time he wanted to take over all the holidays.” He fiddled with his lollipop. “He told us that if we helped him take over the seven holidays, he’d give us a huge reward. Then Jack came back.
“He told us what we were doing was wrong and that we should stop or he’d punish us once he stopped Oogie. We were too scared to leave Oogie, so we stayed and kept messing up the towns. When Jack defeated Oogie, we ran away from town and stayed in the Tree House, and we haven’t been back into town since – except to steal food.”
Snow stared at the box again, taking this all in. She was so absorbed in her thoughts she didn’t even start when she saw Frost crawl down her red sweater sleeve toward the red-brown wooden box. “Ghost spider!” Barrel shouted, dropping the box and scooting away with wide eyes.
She giggled. “He’s not a ghost spider, he’s an ice spider. His name’s Frost.”
In response, Frost attached a thread to Snow’s finger, dangled a few inches down, swung a bit, then jumped to the box. He began weaving another message between the brass latching.
Barrel crept closer. “What’s it doing?” he asked, looking at the silver web being spun.
“He writes messages. So far, he’s been pretty helpful.”
“What’s he writing now?”
They both hunched over the box, watching Frost weave quickly. It was his longest message yet; it took about five minutes, but finally he wrote out: “Both take box to town.”
And now, they both (with Frost) walk into town through the side gate, Snow carrying the box and Barrel worrying. While he worries, he chews on his lollipop, now down to a small orange and black blob on a stick. Seeing Barrel nervously eat his lollipop makes Snow realize she hasn’t had anything to eat since breakfast when she snagged a cinnamon muffin. Her stomach growls as she and Barrel near the Town Hall.
“Can’t we come back tomorrow?” he begs.
“No, you can’t,” she tells him, climbing the steps.
He moans and hurries after her. He pushes the door open enough for her to squeeze through, then he stays right behind her as she walks inside. At the other end of the room is a stage, where three men of varying sizes and all wearing green suits discuss something with the Mayor, who judging by the back of his head must be using his gray, worried face. Barrel and Snow can see Jack sitting in the front row, surrounded by a colorful guy with feathers, a man with skin like melting sludge, a corpse man, and a creature with spider hair and snake fingers. They’re all talking at him, but not one is listening to him or the others, and as far as the two can see he’s holding his skull like he has a headache. (No surprise if he does have one.)
“Come on,” Snow whispers over her shoulder, walking forward with the box. Barrel, being incredibly nervous, walks faster, and ends up crashing into her. They both fall, sending the crown box flying and bouncing open. Two golden crowns with inlaid onyx, topaz, and diamonds roll out. Snow watches them roll – stopping at a pair of black shoes. A bony hand reaches down, and Jack brings one of the crowns to his astounded gaze.
“The crowns,” he whispers. He looks from the crown in his hands to Snow and Barrel, still sprawled on the ground. Looking around, Snow sees everyone’s stopped what they’re doing and staring at them, all conversation ceased. Snow can feel the pointy tips of her ears heat with embarrassment.
Barrel climbs off Snow and is scrambling to his feet, desperate to get out of there, when Snow sits up and snatches his arm. “Oh, no you don’t!” she says.
“What’s he doing here?” the feathered guy says accusingly, pointing at Barrel.
“He’s here helping me return the crowns,” Snow replies matter-of-factly.
“Stealing them is more like it,” the corpse man mutters, crossing his arms. Barrel squirms uneasily.
Snow glares at them. “He is not!” she insists. She gets to her feet, pulling Barrel up with her, and tells them, “He really does wanna help! Just listen to him!”
“Barrel,” Jack says, walking a few steps forward, “is this true?”
“Um, well…” Barrel looks anywhere but straight ahead, twirling and bending the stick of his now-eaten lollipop.
Snow turns to him. “Tell him,” she whispers.
Barrel’s dark eyes meet her pale gray ones before he summons enough courage to look Jack in the sockets and mumble, “Yeah.” Snow nudges him and he repeats louder, “Yeah.”
Jack half-smiles at the crown, then at the kids. “Thank you,” he says. He makes them both gasp when he rushes forward and throws his long arms around them in a huge hug. “Thank you so much! You found the crowns!”
“Uh, Jack?” Mayor speaks up, still in his worry mode. “Can you really trust him? After all he and his siblings have done?”
Jack releases them and looks back at his two-faced friend. “Right now, I don’t care much about what he’s done. If he’s willing to help, I’ll take it. I’m stressed enough as it is.”
“See?” Snow smiles at Barrel. “Told you he’d be willing to listen.”
“Listen to what?”
Barrel blanches. “Uh…”
She pushes him forward. “He has something to tell you.”
Jack looks at Barrel, curious. “Really?”
Barrel looks like he wants to shrink inside himself, like a turtle. It’s still eerily silent, everybody else watching. Feeling pity more and more for Barrel with every passing silent moment, Snow pipes up, “Anything else you need me to do?” – partly for Barrel’s sake, partly because she wants something else to do in town.
“Now that you mention it,” Jack says, hands on his hips, “we could use your help some more.” He glances around the room and says, “You could help the Three Hydes-” he points to the men in green suits, “-decorate the Town Hall.”
“We still need to pick a theme,” pipes the smallest of the Three Hydes in a high-pitched voice.
Jack groans and slumps, bringing a hand to his head.
“You need to pick one soon!” the Mayor shouts, waving his hands.
“Speaking of which, Jack,” says the corpse man, “you still need to tell us what kind of refreshments you want at the reception.”
“And where the reception is going to be,” adds the feathered guy.
“And who’s going to give speeches,” adds the spider-hair man.
“Mmhmm,” agrees the melting man.
Snow’s afraid that Jack will snap at someone – instead, he says rather calmly, “I’ll let you know about that after I see the doctor.”
“Okay,” says the corpse man, “but you have to let us know soon, ‘cause we can’t do anything else until we know.”
“I know!” Everyone jumps when they hear Jack yell. He sighs and repeats much more calmly, “I know, Ned. I just...I need more time.” He sounds desperate now.
Ned nods. “Okay. We can wait.” Snow thinks he’s just saying that to make Jack feel better, because as soon as Jack turns his back, Ned turns to the others around him and begins muttering, making gestures here and there. Clearly, they’re still trying to figure out wedding details. The Mayor gathers up some papers and blueprints and nearly sprints around the side of the pews and out the door, a couple slips of paper escaping from his arms.
Jack starts walking down the center aisle, but then stops and remembers, “Oh, Barrel! Did you want to tell me something?”
“Um…” Barrel looks back at Snow, who gives him a reassuring smile and nod. He looks at Jack and sighs. “Yeah, I should tell you,” he tells him in a monotone, shuffling forward.
“You can tell me on the way to Doctor Finklestein’s lab.” Jack strides out the Hall, Barrel hurrying along behind.
Snow watches them until they disappear outside, then turns and walks up to the Hydes. Now that she’s near them, she can see a lot of big brown boxes lying around, some with wax candles and various candle holders, others with fabrics and drapes. She approaches the biggest of the Hydes, who’s five feet tall. “Um, do you need any help?” she mumbles.
He stares down, scratching the side of his head. “We’re having trouble deciding on a theme,” he says.
“We narrowed it down to a few,” adds the middle-sized Hyde, sitting on top of the nearest pew and dangling his legs. Snow guesses he’s about two feet.
“Old castle with cobwebs and chandelier theme, a mysterious theme with red and black curtains and candelabra, and a pumpkin patch theme with big pumpkins from Behemoth’s patch and scarecrows and autumn leaves,” lists the smallest Hyde, standing near Snow. He’s barely a foot high.
Snow purses her lips in thought. She doesn’t know much about weddings, but none of these themes seem…romantic enough. Of course, maybe Halloween Town weddings were different and required unique themes? She isn’t sure. “Um, have you talked to Jack?” she asks in a quiet voice.
“He said he didn’t care what the theme was as long as it related to him and Sally,” the middle Hyde answers, hopping down from the wooden seat.
“Did you talk to Sally, then?”
The big Hyde speaks this time. “She said she was fine with whatever we chose.”
Snow thinks back to her encounter with the kind-hearted ragdoll. ‘She probably just said that to make them happy,’ she guesses.
“We need to pick a theme soon,” the big Hyde says, “so that when they pick a place for the reception, we can start decorating.”
“Mhmm. Um,” she twiddles her fingers as she asks, “what do Jack and Sally have in common?”
“Oh, don’t get Jack started on that,” says the smallest Hyde. “He gets a goofy expression on his face and he won’t stop talking about her.”
They all laugh. Then, out of nowhere, something pops up in Snow’s mind. “Do you guys know why Jack’s called the Pumpkin King? Is it something from a legend?”
“Funny you should ask us,” says the big Hyde.
“We’re the town’s historians,” says the middle Hyde.
“Keeping track of everything from legends and myths to important events,” says the smallest Hyde.
“Cool! So, do you know?”
The middle Hyde takes a couple steps closer to her. “Not off the top of our heads,” he explains, “but there’s a book about the earliest Halloweens, where we get our traditions today from.”
“Did we lend that book to someone?” the smallest Hyde asks.
“Did we, Peter?” says the big Hyde.
Peter, the smallest Hyde, shrugs.
“Yes, we did, Benjamin,” the middle Hyde tells the big Hyde. “Remember we lent it to Doctor Finklestein?”
“Right,” says Benjamin, “because he wanted to look back at the early inventions.”
“Do you know if he’s done with it?” Snow asks.
“We’re not sure,” replies Peter.
“But you’re welcome to borrow it if he’s through with it,” says the middle Hyde.
“In fact, you can go up to his lab right now and see if he’s done,” suggests Benjamin. He turns to the middle Hyde. “John, why don’t you take Miss…”
“Oh, my name’s Snow.”
“Why don’t you take Miss Snow up to the lab, then come back so we can pick a theme and get to work.”
“Okay.” John offers his little hand up to Snow, “Come with me, Miss Snow.”
“Um, okay.” She takes his hand and lets him lead her out of the Town Hall. They’re both silent until they pass the stone fountain with what Snow finds out is a serpent of sorts. Then, she braves the question that’s been on her mind for a while. “Why did you guys wait so long to get everything ready for the wedding?”
“We thought it would be better to wait until after Halloween had passed,” John explains, “so that we could focus on one event at a time. But after Halloween was over, everyone had their own ideas of how to do the royal wedding, and no one got anything done and instead have been stressing the bride and groom out, pestering them for ideas.”
“Oh.” More silence. She looks up as they pass through a gate. There’s a round, lopsided building on top of a hill. She figures that’s the Doctor’s lab.
John lets go of her hand. “This is where I leave you,” he says.
Snow turns to him. “You’re not coming up there with me?”
He shakes his head. “I must get back to Town Hall and sort through the items in the boxes. We’ll need to sort out what we’ll use and not use and hope we pick a theme in time.” He turns and exits through the gate, waving and calling over his shoulder, “Good luck, Miss Snow!”
‘Why would he say ‘good luck?’’ she wonders. Pushing aside the thought, she takes a deep breath, then turns and walks up the hill and knocks on the door.
She waits patiently for a few minutes before she hears something coming from the other side of the door. Pressing her ear to the wood door, she thinks the whizzing and whirling noises sound like a machine of sorts. It’s getting louder – it must be getting closer. She gasps when she feels the door open up, knocking her off balance. When she rights herself, she sees a bald man with a duck bill-like mouth sitting in a mechanical wheelchair. “May I help you?” he asks slowly.
“I, um, wanted to know if you were done with a book?”
“What kind of book?”
“Who’s that?” she hears Barrel’s voice call out.
Snow pokes her head in, sees a spiraling ramp. She spots Jack and Barrel at the very top. “It’s me, Snow!” she shouts back.
“Hi, Snow!” calls Barrel, waving at her with a new orange-and-black lollipop. Jack waves, too.
“What brings you here?” Jack calls.
“I wanted to borrow a book from Doctor Finklestein about the early Halloweens!” Snow shouts back.
“Oh, I gave that to Jack already,” says the doctor in the wheelchair.
“It’s true!” Jack says. “It’s in my bookcase at my house! I can take you back to my house so you can read it!”
Snow thinks back to earlier today when she was in his house. She vaguely remembers a book of Halloween history. “Is it the one by the snowglobe?”
“I think so. I’ll take you back when I finish business with the doctor!”