Rotting Pumpkins

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The farm near our house had a jack-o-lantern pumpkin patch on Halloween. It was pretty cool to look at; a whole field filled with meticulously-carved pumpkins with their grotesque faces glowing from the candlelight within. There was candy strewn about in little baggies, and kids of all ages visited either before or after they trick-or-treated to get some extra loot.

We moved in across the street from that field a couple years ago. At first, we loved the idea of the jack-o-lantern patch. It looked quite haunting and really spoke to the Halloween spirit in me and my wife. But when Halloween was over, the farmer didn’t take the jack-o-lanterns away. He left them to rot.

I assumed it was to fertilize the ground for whatever crop he’d plant in the spring. It made sense he wouldn’t want all that organic material to go to waste. The problem was, they’d attract animals. Animals and bugs. In the unseasonably-warm November we had last year, the smell of the rotting gourds brought critters from far and wide to the field, and when they were done eating, they’d wander the neighborhood.

Being a small town, there was little anyone could do to stop the farmer, whose name was Ruben, from doing what he wanted on his property. We had to deal with the deer and skunks and coyotes and foxes and flies and bees and bats all eating and shitting and fucking their way across the town until no more pumpkins were left.

Last year, I approached Ruben while he was setting up the jack-o-lanterns. He was a friendly guy, there was never any doubting that. I explained the issue and he listened and nodded. He said a few other people had told him the same thing, and he’d fixed the fences over the summer so that wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

“Besides,” he told me with a smile, “last year was just a test run. This Halloween, everything’s going to be just perfect.”

On Halloween, the jack-o-lantern field looked even better than it had the year before. Even though the arrangement was the same, Ruben had hired some artists to collaborate and create truly monstrous designs for the pumpkins. They were awesome. I even did a walk through by myself in the early afternoon before the candles were lit just to take it all in. I felt like a kid again.

As the evening was coming to a close and we’d given out the majority of our candy to the neighborhood children, we were getting ready to turn off the light and lock up when we heard sirens approaching. I looked outside and saw a procession of police cars and fire engines and ambulances heading toward us. I stepped out on the porch and watched as they passed our house and took the sharp left into the driveway of Ruben’s farmhouse.

I sat on the steps with my wife and watched as lights were flipped on and the field was partially illuminated. “Oh my God,” I whispered.

In the harsh, overhead lights, I saw bodies on the ground among the glowing jack-o-lanterns. Small ones. Small, costumed ones. Kids. “Oh my God,” I repeated, louder.

Paramedics and rescue officials descended on the field and worked to resuscitate the still bodies. One by one, they gave up. Parents were arriving in droves and the sound of wailing and hysteria filled the air. My wife and I held one another as little bodies with sheets over them were loaded into ambulances.

The next morning, it was all over the news. “32 children dead in an apparent poisoning.” Ruben was arrested and questioned. He refused to speak to the investigators and he was held without bail.

Funerals were held and pumpkins began to rot. It was another unseasonably-warm November, and on cue, insects began to discover the field. Clouds of flies drifted in and out, blanketing the field in a gray haze as they left their eggs in the pumpkins’ softening flesh.

In the following days, toxicology reports on the autopsied children came back. Whatever had poisoned them was still unknown. They’d exhibited all the outward signs of a poisoning: cyanosis, hemorrhage, paralysis, etc. – but no toxins were found in their bodies. Tissue samples were held for further testing, but the corpses were released to the families.

Two weeks later, the air was still thick with flies and bees. We still hadn’t had a frost, and things that crawled and flew feasted on the pulpy remains of the jack-o-lanterns. From the house, I could see their deformed, hideous faces; faces which no longer evoked a feeling of holiday fun. They were faces that mocked the dead.

The incredibly warm autumn continued. 20 degrees above average, according to the weather man. Flowers were blooming and the cherry trees had blossomed a full five months ahead of time. The pumpkins were still there, but mostly formless, having succumbed to rot and the ravenousness of vermin. As the hot November slouched into December, the luckiest of us had started to forget about the tragedy that had befallen the town. But we still got reminders – especially on December 2nd, when Ruben broke his silence.

My cousin, Ron, works for the police department as a mechanic. He doesn’t have any access to criminals or official information, but he talks to cops a lot. And the cops like to talk.

Ron came over on the 2nd before any news had gotten out about what Ruben was saying. It was clear he was uncomfortable. Lillian and I sat and listened while Ron relayed what his buddy had learned from the detective.

The Ruben I knew was nothing like the man being described by my cousin. He’d blanketed himself with cuts and scars of indecipherable symbols and words. Every inch of his flesh was carved or mutilated in one way or another – something he’d done with his fingernails over the course of the time he was in jail.

The detectives learned that Ruben was ready to talk when he began to scream the names of each dead child. Just after midnight on the 2nd, he shouted each first, middle, and last name until his voice was hoarse. Detectives stood on the other side of his cell and transcribed what he said. They didn’t understand most of it, but it was better than nothing. The main takeaway was a date and time. December 5th, 11:00 pm.

No one could figure out what he meant by it, so there was a lot of speculation. All the police could do was park a unit over by the farm overnight just in case he had something planned. On the 5th, I sat with Lillian and Ron on the front porch and stared at the black field in front of us. 11:00 came, and nothing happened. We waited for a few minutes. I saw the cop across the street standing next to his car, smoking a cigarette.

As we were getting ready to go inside, I saw something flicker in the field. A tiny flame. “Look,” I told the others, and pointed. They saw it too. More flickers came into view.

“Hey!,” I yelled to the cop, and kept pointing at the field. The cop snuffed out his cigarette and walked around the barn to take a look. He got to the side of the field, then raised his radio to call for backup.

As we watched, the flickers intensified, as if they were from new candles that’d finally started properly burning their wicks after sputtering and threatening to go out. After only a couple minutes, more police cars arrived. I got up started to cross the street. I needed to see what was going on.

“Don’t,” said Lillian as she grabbed my hand, but I shrugged her off and headed toward the fence. I heard Ron walking behind me.

The police arrived and lit the field up with their search lights. We could see the rotten pumpkins sitting in the field, all with single candles sticking out of them. They were shaking. One by one, candles fell and hit the dry straw. The straw ignited. Police officers called for emergency assistance from the fire department, but there was no chance they’d get there in time. The fire began to rage.

Entombed in flame, the rotten pumpkins started to burst. Only after their pulpy bodies had disintegrated did we see what was inside. “Oh my fucking God,” Ron half whispered, half prayed.

In the place of each pumpkin, there was a small, human-shaped thing sitting with its head down and its knees clutched to its chest. The heat intensified further and I backed up, but I still saw it all. One by one, the things rose on sturdy legs and stood erect. They were growing, and soon they reached the size of the children who’d died.

Their skin began to char, and they walked out of the flames toward the crowd of police officers. Without any idea what to do, but terrified out of their minds, some began to shoot. The bullets did not stop them. Round after round tore through the fire-spawned children, exiting their backs and legs and heads in a geyser of gore, but they walked ever forward.

Soon, the officers who’d fired fell to the ground. They didn’t move for a second, but then they started to rot. Just like the pumpkins. Other officers backed away. I’d backed all the way up to my house, and I watched from the doorway with my wife and cousin. We were horrified.

A procession of children walked down the street, followed by the police cars. Firefighters worked to put out the blazing field, and after a little while, they’d succeeded.

Ron turned on his police scanner and we sat in the living room, listening with horror as news of dead cops and other officials came in:

“The children have reached the prison.”

“The children have burned through the cell of Ruben Rendell.”

“The children are carrying Rendell back the way they came.”

“Oh fuck,” I said, and opened the front door. They were coming back down the street – a procession of blackened, smoldering kids carrying a burning man. Ruben. And he was screaming.

“IT’S ALMOST DONE! IT’S ALMOST FINISHED!”

He screamed with peals of hysterical laughter as he burned. The children carried him to the field and placed him in the center. They then placed themselves in the same spots as the pumpkins from which they’d emerged. Most had gone out, while some still glowed with dull, red fire.

Before Ruben burned to death, he unleashed one final scream:

“PLEASE ACCEPT THIS OFFERING! IS THIS ENOUGH? IS THIS WHAT YOU NEEDED? SEE ME THROUGH! SEE! ME! THROUGH!”

There was no sound from him after that final word. Nothing but the crackling of dying flames.

The following days were a whirlwind of investigations, media visits, and speculation. No one knew what happened. No one knew what Ruben had done. And for a while, it was still a mystery how the kids had been poisoned in the first place.

A mystery, that is, until Jasmine McCray, the mother of a child who was fortunate enough to have been too sick to trick-or-treat, found a small letter in her son’s toy chest. It read:

“For a special night of Halloween fun, draw this little picture on a piece of paper and swallow it, then come to Farmer Ruben’s pumpkin patch to trick-or-treat. You will never, ever want to leave.”

The picture was of an inverted star. A pentagram.

Jasmine’s son told her Ruben had given them to kids at recess one day after he talked to the classes about what it was like to be a farmer. He came to them individually and made them promise to throw it away after they read it and not to tell their parents.

Jasmine gave the letter to the police, and then told the media. While the superstitious residents of the town took that as an answer to what had happened, skeptics like myself couldn’t believe it. Even after what I’d seen, I couldn’t believe something supernatural had occurred.

But then the photographs came in. The aerial photographs from the news helicopter the day after the holocaust at the field. Clearly marked in carbon and ash was the shape of a pentagram – the exact shape the pumpkins had been arranged in. No one had noticed it from the ground.

And at the center of the pentagram, where Ruben had screamed his final, pleading prayer, four words were burnt into the dirt. The answer to the old farmer’s prayers.

“NOT ENOUGH. NEVER ENOUGH.”

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Shadows on the Wall

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Growing up, I was convinced I’d be abducted by aliens. I lived in constant, sleep-deprived fear as every strange shadow and every reflection of light on the wall signified the beginning of what I knew would be my end. Logic told me the shadows were just piles of dirty clothes or my coat rack; that the reflections were just from passing cars on the street below. But logic fails in the face of terror. If it weren’t for my older brother, Jason, with whom I shared the bedroom, there was a very real chance I would’ve lost my mind.

I remember my 13th birthday with the same detached sense of helpless violation as a victim of sexual assault. The day itself had been fine. Pleasant, even. My parents, who were always caring and supportive, did their best to make sure my birthday was enjoyable. They knew I was stressed. They knew I was anxious. I’d never told them why, though. Only Jason knew, and he promised to keep it a secret.

After the festivities, I went up to my room to play video games. I had two hours to play before lights-out. Jason sat on his immaculately-made bed, which was in stark contrast to my messy one, and watched, offering pointers as I died over and over.

Two hours went by quickly, and Dad came in to say it was time to go to sleep. He sat next to Jason on the bed and let me know he was proud of me; how I’d been brave despite having a hard time and that things would get better. He wished me a happy birthday and kissed me goodnight, switching off the light on his way out of the room.

For a little while, I felt pretty good. Like I said, I never told my parents exactly what had been bothering me. They’d ask every so often, but they wouldn’t pry. They could tell I was struggling. I heard them cleaning up downstairs, comforted by the fact they were still awake and alert. With a sense of security I hadn’t felt in a long time, I drifted off to sleep.

After a couple hours, I woke up and glanced at the clock. 11:26. I closed my eyes again. Before I could drift off to sleep, though, I noticed something. The room smelled bad. It wasn’t a scent I could identify in the slightest – it was heavy and medicinal, but organic, too. Strange. Alien.

My eyelids lifted to the sight something shuffling toward my bed. I tried to shout and bolt away, but nothing worked. No movement, no sound. Only my eyes could receive my commands, and they stared, bulging out of my skull, as thing stood over my supine body.

I knew it’d finally come to me; this was the day I’d anticipated and dreaded for years. I tried to make out the features on its face. All I could pick up on was hideousness. Deformity. A head with its upper-left quadrant missing. A mouth with no lower mandible and a shriveled tongue lolling down to its skinny neck.

“Robbie,” it gurgled.

It knew my name. It had been studying me and it knew my name.

“No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

Its head came down and touched my forehead with the remains of its upper lip. As it tilted, maggots tumbled out of the cratered skull and landed on my face. They squirmed and tumbled onto my pillow. I felt them writhing against my ears and the sides of my neck.

“I’ll miss you.”

It turned and walked toward Jason’s bed. I tried over and over to scream as panic suffused the entirety of my being; the dark world around me blurred and I knew I was going to pass out. I knew I was going to fail my brother and not be able to warn him before the creature reached him. Before I lost consciousness – before I passed into a dreamless morass of black – I hated myself for being so useless. For being so weak.

My mother’s shrill, panicked shriek catapulted me back into reality. The room was bright. It was morning. Mom stood over Jason’s bed wailing and sobbing and I heard Dad thundering across the hall from their bedroom. He burst into the room and immediately saw what Mom did. I watched his knees tremble, as if he were about to fall.

I didn’t move. Everything from the night was coming back and I knew – I was certain – Jason was dead. My big brother was gone. The certainty was overwhelming and searing tears of leaked down my cheeks onto the pillow. Something wriggled against my neck. I gasped and leapt to my feet.

Everything went slowly for the next few minutes.

I turned and saw the ring of maggots around my head print on the pillow. Dad was crossing the room to take me in his arms when he saw the bugs on my pillow and in my hair and whispered, “oh my God.” He picked me up. He hadn’t done that in years.

I rode out of the room in his strong arms. “Don’t look at your brother’s bed,” he ordered. I couldn’t help myself. I looked as we exited. One glance was all I needed.

Jason’s body was on the bed. He was wearing a stained and dirt-encrusted blue suit. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, as I took in his injuries: the torn lower mandible. The caved-in skull. The desiccated, green-gray skin that was mostly gone.

Mom’s wracking sobs had escalated to hysterical screaming. As Dad and I rounded the corner and headed downstairs, we heard her shouting, “how did you come back? Why are you here? Who did this?”

Dad whispered in my ear as we walked. “It’s okay sweetheart. It’s okay. We don’t know who did it, but it’s going to be all right. It’s not your brother anymore. It’s just the body he doesn’t need. He’s still in heaven, okay? He’s still in heaven.”

I started to shake and Dad’s voice cracked with emotion as he spoke those last words. “He’s in heaven.” It sounded horribly, horribly familiar. I closed my eyes and saw a coffin. I saw my parents standing next to it, sobbing. I saw a large, framed picture of Jason and a room full of friends and family.

But I also saw the toys I was playing with. And I saw Jason sitting next to me. We played while everyone else cried. He grinned and said, “Don’t be upset, Robbie. I’ll be here to help while you grow up. You don’t have to feel sad.”

My aunt, Lindsay, came up to me and stood in the exact same spot where Jason was sitting. I remember thinking it was strange she could do that, and then she knelt down and said, “he’s in heaven” before walking back to my cousins and uncle. Jason winked at my confused face, then we kept playing with our toys.

“Jason died,” I whispered to Dad.

He nodded and I watched as he eyed the muddy footprints from the back door which led up the down the hall and up the stairs to my room.

“You were probably too young to remember, but he loved you so, so much.”

I thought back to all the fun we’d had in our room over the years, all leading up to the video games on my 13th birthday the night before.

“You’re the same age he was now,” Dad said, and tears freely flowed down into his beard. “You’re all grown up.”

Something from the previous night buzzed in my ear. “No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

And then it clicked. And my screams joined those of my mother in a terrible, dissonant chorus.

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The Job I Couldn’t Leave

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In February of 2004, I was employed as a housekeeper for a wealthy real-estate developer. I’d been gone for a few days; my uncle had died and I’d traveled from New York to Florida on short notice to help with the arrangements. I came back one day earlier than I’d planned. My boss was quite irate when I told him I was leaving in the first place, so I thought an early return might help put me back in good graces.

I got to the penthouse around 3am, ready to get a jump on the day’s work. According to the schedule my boss had given me, he’d be home later the following day and expected the place to be spotless. “I don’t care if you’re still in your funeral clothes while you scrub the toilet,” were his final words to me before I left for Florida.

When the private elevator reached the residence, I was surprised to see all the lights were on. Like I said, he wasn’t supposed to be back for almost 30 hours. None of the other staff were scheduled, either.

A strange sound caused me to jerk my head in the direction of the dining room. I couldn’t identify the noise at all. It was like a mewl and a groan and a gasp all at once. Whatever it was, it was very unsettling. I waited and listened. There was a voice. A familiar one. My boss’s adult son.

I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I felt a little better. At least it hadn’t been a burglar. I put my supplies on the counter and headed toward the dining room.

The doors were shut. Almost shut. One was slightly ajar, and I could see movement on the other side. That strange sound came again, this time quieter. More like a sigh. Gooseflesh rose on my arms and neck. I tiptoed over to the doors and peered inside. Had the son not coughed the moment I stifled a gasp, they would’ve heard me.

My boss sat at the head of the table with his face between the legs of a dying girl. Her throat had been cut. The sounds I’d heard were her pained, gurgling breaths. The son, whose back was to me, held the girl down as her flailing tapered off. Her head came to rest with her eyes fixed in my direction; eyes that locked onto mine. Eyes that screamed “help” with silent desperation.

She didn’t move after that. I swallowed a scream.

I heard my boss grunt, “bring her mother out to clean it up.”

His son crossed the room and unlocked the gold and black-glass cabinet that’d stood in the corner for as long as I’d worked there. I couldn’t see him opening the door, but I heard a terrible, howling wail as the woman trapped inside was released and saw the remains of her daughter.

“Oh shut up,” my boss yelled at her. Then he chuckled. “My boy’s going to put another one in you soon enough.”

The whole scene had lasted less than two minutes, but those minutes were indelibly etched on my consciousness. On my psyche. On my soul.

I left the residence as quietly as I’d entered. In the lobby, I saw the lone, overnight security officer who’d let me in. Abdullah. He’d always been kind to me. “Please, please, please don’t mention I was here,” I begged. He looked bewildered, but then he nodded. He hated our boss as much as anyone.

The moment I exited the building, I called 911 from one of the few remaining pay phones and told the dispatcher what I’d seen. I didn’t give my name and I disguised my voice as best as I could. Then I waited by the subway entrance until the police cars and ambulances arrived.

I got home where I tossed and turned and cried for sleepless hours as I pictured the poor girl, who couldn’t have been older than nine or ten, bleeding out as she was so hideously violated. Even now, 12 years later, the scene is as sharp in my mind as it had been that night.

The next day, I got the newspaper, ready to see his awful, smirking face on the cover with a headline declaring him a murderer. But there was no such thing. I flipped through each page, poring over the stories and looking for his name. Nothing. I rushed to my computer and searched online. Headlines about his TV show and his business dealings were all over, but nothing about an arrest; nothing that even hinted at an investigation.

Sickness washed over me as I realized his money and influence had certainly kept his crime quiet. I sobbed at home all day.

The following morning, after I’d somehow slept for a couple hours, my phone rang. “Why the fuck aren’t you at work,” a voice screamed. It was him. I couldn’t speak at first. My mind was blank. After nearly a full minute, I stuttered, “I…I’m sorry. I’ll be in as soon as I can.” He hung up.

Everything went gray as I realized I couldn’t leave the job. If I did, he’d know it’d been me who called the police. If I even momentarily showed fear or uncertainty, he would figure it out. I had to go to work. I had to do what he told me until I was absolutely sure he’d never learn I’d discovered his secret.

So I went to work. I went like nothing was wrong at all, aside from how I claimed I was still mourning the death of my uncle. It was an excuse, but it was one he bought. “Get your shit together,” he demanded. And I did. My first order of business was to clean a stain on the dining-room table that he said had shown up out of nowhere.

As I scrubbed and held back a scream of indignant anguish, I did everything I could to pretend I was somewhere else. Anywhere but where I stood. And, for the most part, it worked. All I had to do was lie to myself and pretend I didn’t hear the nearly-inaudible sound of muffled crying coming from from the gold and black-glass cabinet in the corner.

Tainted Candy

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I won’t let my kids trick-or-treat this Halloween. Not after what happened last year. Not when half the town’s parents are still in mourning and every other week you see cribs and twin-sized beds by the curb for anyone to come by and pick up. They’re stark reminders that the losses cut deep around here. The pain’s still there. And even if those wounds have started to heal for some, they’ll always, always itch.

Last year, kids received tainted candy. 55 got sick, 31 died. It was all over the news, so I don’t need to go into a background story that you already know. My girls were lucky; they’re both allergic to peanuts so they just gave the candies to their friends. Friends they don’t have anymore.

I remember my shift in the ER when the kids started trickling in. It took a few days. The first one was on November 3rd – a four-year old named Regina. She was having trouble breathing. At first, we thought it was an allergic reaction, but none of the treatments seemed to work. As she got worse, it was only after we’d scoped her to get a look inside her lungs that we realized what was happening. By then, though, it was too late. She died on the table.

Three more young kids came in that night. They all died.

The next day, the trickle became a flood. Older kids joined the younger ones with trouble breathing. These seemed worse off than the kids from the night before. The initial symptoms had given way to the secondary ones before death, so we had to deal with the shock and terror they were experiencing as their condition progressed.

The CDC representatives arrived not long after ten more had died, and they were able to quickly trace the source to contaminated candy. The local chocolate producer was determined to be at fault, and a speedy investigation revealed exactly how the candies were contaminated. The business was shut down. The owners are still tied up in court cases for their negligence and refusal to comply with proper importation safeguards.

Like I said, after a year, it’s all still fresh in the minds of so many families. They’ll go their whole lives associating the holiday with death and devastation, rather than fun and excitement. Out of respect for that, few yards are decorated for Halloween nowadays. There are some pumpkins on front steps, but no real displays. Well, there’d been one.

A Japanese family who’d moved to town in August had been mostly unaware of the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. They’d bought the house across the street from me. Excited to celebrate Halloween in America for the first time, they decorated their front lawn with skeletons, pumpkins, monsters, and spiders. A couple neighbors visited the next day and carefully explained to them what had happened the year before. The decorations were down within an hour.

It wasn’t that anyone was truly angry that the decorations were there. Most of them were fine. Had they just left three of the four things up, no one would’ve complained. Hell, some people who were lucky enough to not have been touched by the tragedies might have appreciated a little Halloween spirit. But for some, seeing that one thing was just too much. Even I, who hadn’t lost anyone, cringed a little when I saw the setup.

It made me think back to that night on November 3rd when Regina came in. I remembered the scope going down into her lungs. I remembered how we stared at the screen in a combination of horror and fascination.

It wasn’t a skeleton or a pumpkin or a monster that had killed those children. It was the spiders. The millions of tiny, black spiders whose eggs had been in the cocoa powder decorating the finished chocolate and peanut-butter candies.

The kids who’d suffocated before the spiders had exited their lungs were the lucky ones. It was those in the waiting room or car or ambulance who hacked and coughed up clouds of them as they died who had it worst.

The Japanese family apologized profusely as they removed all the decorations. It was obvious they were mortified. As I watched them out the window, I saw Giichi wave his wife, Ai, over to get a close look at the lawn. Her eyes widened and she put her hand over her mouth. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but I knew what it was.

Ever since last November, there’ve been webs all over the place. They’re small – only the size of a quarter – but immediately recognizable as being from the same Honduran spider that’d been accidentally imported by the chocolate shop owners. The town’s infested with them. I try not to get too close to the corners and eaves of my house because I know they’re there. Harmless, but there. Just another cruel reminder. One of many.

I haven’t touched a piece of chocolate in over 350 days. I dread having to use the scope when I’m at work in the ER. And nearly every night I dream about how it all happened, only to jolt awake with the feeling of spiders squirming through my lungs and sinuses.

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Psalms of Savagery, part 1: Lisette

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I’m an IT contractor for the FBI. I learned about a serial killer whose crimes are being actively hidden the by the Bureau and by state and local police departments. I believe it is my duty to bring these crimes to light. The files I’ve taken detail the criminal acts and the evidence associated with them. I will share portions of the files over the course of the next week or so, starting with this one today. People can’t live under a false impression of safety.

On May 3rd, 2016, Lisette Jan Aronowitz, 43, was found dead by her husband at their home in Bethesda, MD. She had been crucified. Nails had been driven through her hands and feet, anchoring her to the brick wall above the fireplace. It is assumed Lisette was alive during the crucifixion.

The victim’s eyes and teeth had been removed. Her eye sockets were filled with the excised teeth; top teeth in the left socket, bottom teeth in the right. These injuries are also assumed to have been inflicted while the Lisette was alive.

Death appears to have been the result of internal injuries from repeated blunt-force trauma to the abdomen. Bruising patterns suggest a cross-shaped object.

There was no indication that Lisette had been sexually assaulted. However, blood, hair, and semen were found at the crime scene. Each sample was contained in small, individual ramekins on the floor below the victim. The victim’s left eye was in the ramekin containing hair while the right eye was in the ramekin containing blood.

Federal databases have no record of the DNA found at the scene. Fingerprints, while numerous, were also not on record.

The autopsy of Lisette yielded a great deal of evidence with little-to-no clues about who the murderer may have been. In the place of each tooth, small pieces of frankincense resin had been inserted below the gum line. The interior of the eye sockets were coated in myrrh oil. A cut had been made in the soft palate, where a gold coin was found. The obvious biblical connection was not overlooked.

While the killer’s general motive remains a mystery, a small amount of illumination was gleaned from the contents of 83 small incisions in the flesh of Lisette’s back and buttocks. Inside each incision was a plastic-wrapped piece of paper, on which one word, number, or punctuation mark was written.

A cursory examination of the words suggested another biblical connection, and when they were fed into a pattern-matching database, their source was revealed.

Psalms 64: 1-2, 9-10

1 Hear me, my God, as I voice my complaint; protect my life from the threat of the enemy. 2 Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked, from the plots of evildoers. 9 All people will fear; they will proclaim the works of God and ponder what he has done. 10 The righteous will rejoice in the LORD and take refuge in him; all the upright in heart will glory in him!

The case is still under investigation, but the official report made no mention of the ritualistic nature of the murder. All inquiries into the case are being denied. Further, the lack of details released have prevented any connections being made between Lisette’s murder and the murder of at least four others.

But I have the details. And in the coming days, so will you. 

Will be continued.
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Jill-O-Lanterns

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In 1987, a plastic surgeon named Harris Wilhelm Tristemon killed his wife, Jill Texana-Tristemon. Harris was never caught, but it was widely assumed it had to have been him. Only Harris had such expertise. Only Harris had such meticulous attention to detail. Only Harris had such devastating psychopathy.

I know.

I’m his brother.

I shared with the investigators every incident I remembered from our childhood and adolescence: All the animals Harris had killed. All the classmates he had assaulted. Every punch, every slap, every grope. By late 1989, the investigation had yielded nothing. Harris was gone.

Last month, in the small town of Zermatt, Switzerland, an American expatriate named Jill Pepo was found murdered. While Zermatt is small, crime is not alien to them. Neither is murder, although it is exceedingly rare. That said, the circumstances surrounding Pepo’s murder were hideous enough for officials to demand silence during the investigation. There was concern the growing immigrant population would be blamed. Despite the lockdown, some details leaked. I found them online.

Three weeks ago, a Canadian businesswoman, Jill Moschata, was found dead in her hotel room in Düsseldorf. Again, the hideous details were kept bottled up to avoid sparking a xenophobic panic. Again, those details were leaked.

Again, I found them online. That time, I wasn’t the only one.

A few true-crime aficionados had noticed the similarities between the Zermatt and Düsseldorf murders, and one old-timer made the connection between them and the killing of my sister-in-law. The fact the victims were all named Jill was not overlooked.

Once Jill Cucurbita, a Mexican national in upstate New York, was found murdered, all the cases were officially connected. International investigators descended on all the crime scenes. They were looking for evidence to connect my missing brother to the crimes. All they could find were the same wounds. The same cuts. The same disfigurations.

According to an ICPO and CIA estimation, 11,225 people could have made the same travel arrangements to put them at the scenes of the crimes in Zermatt, Düsseldorf, and New York. That number ballooned to unknown hundreds of thousands if the suspect drove, rather than flew, from Switzerland to Germany. This all meant they had no suspect. No one aside from Harris, who everyone assumed had changed his identity decades ago.

Last Friday, I received a piece of mail containing 13 photographs. There were three from each murder scene. They detailed the incomprehensible brutality of the Jill-killer’s process. The skinning. The scooping. The carving. The candle burning inside empty, grinning skulls.

The 13th photograph was of my daughter, who’d been named in memory of my beloved sister-in-law. It was a very recent picture, which appeared to have been taken when she was playing in the backyard. Our fenced-in backyard.

All the pictures were given to the CIA, and we’ve had round-the-clock surveillance of our home ever since. The police presence has done little to allay the fear my wife and I are experiencing. Jill, despite being only four, knows something bad is going on. Something involving her. We can’t tell her, though. We can’t even hint.

Still, it’s hard to keep it a secret from our daughter. She sees the police officers outside. She sees the expressions of anxiety on her parents’ faces. Worst of all, it was she who found the jack-o-lantern that appeared on our kitchen table in the middle of the night. One that was carved with artistic, surgical precision, to look exactly like her.

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Elf on the Shelf

elf

Grandma would always warn me that the elf on the shelf was watching to make sure I wasn’t bad. Growing up, even when it was nowhere near Christmas, the elf would observe me. The elf would judge me.

With my brother and cousins around all the time, it wasn’t easy to be good. But I tried. I tried really hard. When I’d make a mistake and be mean to one of them, I felt the elf staring at me. It would remember that moment. I’d picture it waiting until I was in bed, then running and tattling to Santa. No matter how much I screamed and sobbed to it, the elf wouldn’t answer. It would just watch and wait for me to do something bad again. It knew me too well.

On the fourth of July, I burned Marisa with a sparkler. I didn’t do it on purpose. I mean, I meant to burn Marisa, but I didn’t want to hurt her. I just wanted to see what would happen. Unfortunately, she got hurt pretty bad. Grandma had to take her to the hospital, but not before she got out the belt and whipped me until I couldn’t sit down.

After Marisa’s mom came over to give me a beating of her own, I was left watching Neil, my little brother. Grandma was still at the hospital. Neil watched TV while I tried to walk off the pain from the beatings. Before Dad died, that’s what he’d tell me to do. “Walk it off, you little faggot.”

I walked a lot.

When I got to the living room, the elf was watching me. It knew. Its wooden mouth was open, almost like it was screaming accusations.

“You’re a bad kid.”

“No one likes you.”

“Santa thinks you’re terrible.”

“You’ll be a bad man when you grow up.”

It didn’t actually speak, of course, but it was obvious that’s what it meant. It was the same stuff Grandma said to me, day in, day out. And somehow, I always made sure to live up to it. Try as I might, I couldn’t be good. At the age of eight, I was already certain I was rotten to the core.

Months went by and my best efforts yielded punishment. If I wasn’t accidentally knocking over a vase in the kitchen, I was tracking mud into the hallway. It invariably ended with my pants around my ankles and my grandfather’s old leather belt smashing into me as I tried not to scream. Screaming would only make the beatings last longer.

When it was finally over and I inched my jeans and underwear back up, I told myself I’d be better; that I’d be a good kid from here on out. And for a while – for the entire month of November and into December – I was.

Grandma, Neil, and I went to get our Christmas tree on December 4th. We came home and decorated it while cookies baked in the oven. I remember Grandma lifting me with her strong, solid arms so I could put the star on top. The star had been her daughter’s. My mother’s. It was one of the only things left that had belonged to her.

On December 5th, after Neil and I had gotten home from school, we were playing around. Like all brothers, we played rough. With him being six and me being eight, I was quite a bit bigger. When we were wrestling and I was spinning him by his arm, I made a mistake. I let him go and send him right into the Christmas tree. It fell onto the hardwood floor. Ornaments broke. Lights went out.

The star shattered.

In an instant, I was panicking. I knew Neil would tell Grandma. I knew the elf in the other room would learn what I’d done. I’d been good for so long that I’d started hoping I might get Christmas presents. After this, though; after breaking the one thing Grandma had left after her daughter was killed by Dad, I’d be doomed. Grandma would beat me senseless. The elf would tell Santa. I’d get nothing. And Neil would taunt me with his presents.

Something sparked inside me. What if the elf hadn’t seen what happened? What if Neil didn’t tell Grandma?

I was very busy for about an hour, but I finished. Grandma would be back from work any minute. I knew I might not fool her, but I’d fool the elf. That was most important; it was he who talked to Santa. Not Grandma.

I wore Neil’s face into the living room and looked at the elf on the shelf. He stared back with his black, judgmental eyes.

“I’m sorry I knocked over the tree and broke the ornament,” I said, doing my best impression of Neil’s high voice. I thought about his body cooling on the kitchen floor and his blood making a mess everywhere. Maybe Grandma would believe he fell on a knife if I cried hard enough.

Under the mask of my brother’s skin, I peered at the elf through the eye holes. The skin tasted awful, but I had to breathe through my mouth because the nose holes didn’t line up right. I wondered if the elf believed me.

“I’m sorry, elf,” I squeaked again. I heard the garage door rising and a car pulling inside. Grandma was home. I felt a new rush of panic. I glared through the cold mask at the arbiter of my Christmas fortune. The door connecting the garage to the kitchen opened and I heard my grandmother’s shrill, hysterical shriek.

“Elf,” I whispered, as tears mixed with my brother’s blood and cascaded down my face.

The elf on the shelf cocked its head at me as its mouth opened and closed. It spoke.

“You’ve been very bad, Neil.”

I fell to my knees in fervid, incomprehensible relief. Some part of me heard Grandma still screaming, somehow even louder when she came into the room and saw me. Again, the elf spoke: “You’ve been terrible, Neil.”

Grandma whirled around and looked at the elf, but then shook her head back and forth like she was trying to get ahold of herself. I stood up. Not wanting to ruin the illusion for the elf, I held the mask to my face until I left the room and sat down in the kitchen. Grandma didn’t try to hit me. She didn’t touch me at all. I plopped the skin back on Neil’s head and told Grandma he fell. She didn’t answer.

It didn’t matter, though.

20 days later, in my own, warm room at the hospital, I got some very nice Christmas presents. The doctors and nurses were so kind and gentle with me. One even hugged me after I’d opened my gifts.

The gifts weren’t exactly what I’d hoped for, but they were better than nothing. So much better. I giggled to myself as we hugged. When the nurse asked what I was laughing at, I lied and told her I remembered a funny joke. She smiled, and I was surprised to see a tear running down her cheek. I didn’t think much of it, though. All that mattered was I’d won. I’d finally fooled the elf on the shelf.

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