Last Halloween at 11:25 pm, the doorbell rang. I’d just gotten into bed. Thinking I could ignore it and go to sleep, I clicked off the TV and pulled the covers up. The doorbell sounded again. And again. And again.
I threw off the covers, put on my bathrobe, and stormed out of the bedroom. If it was a group of kids playing a prank, I told myself, even their parents wouldn’t be able to identify their bodies. I unlocked and opened the front door.
On the doorstep was a young boy wearing a Native American headdress and an ornately-beaded leather vest and pants. He was clutching a bag of candy to his chest. No one else was around.
It was unseasonably cold that night, and without any adults around, I couldn’t let the kid stay out there and freeze. He looked miserable. I held him by his shoulder and guided him inside, then I picked him up and placed him on the couch. I didn’t know what to do. Calling the police seemed like the only safe bet, so I dialed the non-emergency number. While I waited on hold, I heated up some water to make the kid a mug of hot chocolate.
The kid stared at me while I stood in the kitchen. He didn’t say a word. I felt bad for the little guy.
The receptionist at the police station answered and I told her what was going on. She said she hadn’t heard about any missing kids, but as soon as a car was free, one would be sent over. She cautioned it might be a while, though. Apparently Halloween’s a busy time for them over there.
With the water boiled and the instant hot chocolate made, I went over to the kid and sat down next to him on the couch. I placed the mug on the table across from us. After cautioning him that it was hot, I figured I needed to talk to him.
“Nice costume,” I told him. It wasn’t really that nice. Pretty culturally insensitive nowadays. But whatever.
“Thanks,” he replied.
“So, um, did you lose your parents?,” I asked.
The kid shook his head.
“How about your brothers or sisters? Or friends?”
“Want to try the hot chocolate? It’s really good.”
“I don’t like chocolate.”
“Oh, okay.” I picked up the mug and started drinking, wondering if the kid was slow or something. Who doesn’t like chocolate?
We sat in silence for a little while. He kept his eyes on the unpowered television while I did everything in my power to not appear creepy. I never know how to act around kids.
“Did you have a good time trick-or-treating?,” I asked, then realized it was a stupid question. He’d gotten separated from his family or friends, for fuck’s sake. How good could it have been?
The kid, to my surprise, nodded. “I got what I wanted,” he said.
“Oh? And what was that?”
The doorbell rang and I hopped off the couch and answered it. Two officers. I invited them in and they saw the boy on the sofa. They greeted him and asked the same questions I had. He had nothing to say to them, though. In fact, he looked angry – almost like he hated them.
After a few minutes of getting nowhere, the officers said they were going to bring him back to the station. There still hadn’t been any reports of a missing child.
As they were about to leave, there was a call on the police radio. Something about a murder on 113 Chestnut Place. The three of us stood very still for a moment. I live at 115 Chestnut. My neighbors, Paul and Lynn Chesney, had lived there for decades and were the curators at the local museum.
The officers answered the call on their radio said they were nearby. They were told backup would be there shortly.
“Wait here,” the cops ordered, and the kid and I just looked at each other while the two men left the house and headed next door.
“Don’t worry, it’s okay,” I promised the boy. He looked flat. Unaffected. Then he turned and looked straight at me.
“Bring this to the MTIC. It all belongs to them.” He handed me his bag. I was extremely confused for a second, wondering why the local Mohegan tribe would want Halloween candy. I opened the bag and gasped.
A bloody, stone knife sat atop a pile of beautiful, beaded vestments, ornate carvings, and other, old-looking artifacts.
“Your neighbors have been keeping these from us. We tried to get them back, but they just laughed and mocked our efforts. But they’re too important to give up – especially after we’ve been forced to give up so much.”
I stood like an idiot, holding the bag as sirens approached and the commotion outside grew.
“Give it to them,” the kid shouted with a deep, adult voice that was entirely out of place coming from his small body. And with that, he vanished. The headdress and pants and vest dropped in a pile on the rug. I spent a good 45 minutes convincing myself I hadn’t gone nuts.
Hours later, an officer came back for the boy. “What happened over there?,” I asked the cop. I already knew, but I needed confirmation.
“Looks like the couple got killed in a robbery attempt,” he told me. “Their daughter came home from a Halloween party and found them with their throats cut. I’m sorry.”
I let out a long sigh and nodded.
“Where’s the kid?,” the officer asked.
I had an answer ready. “There was a family going door to door with a picture of him. I guess he’d run away. But he’s back with them now.”
The cop shook his head. “And they didn’t even call us? Christ.” He paused. “Well, okay. Goodnight. I’m sorry about your neighbors – we’ll have officers in the area until whoever did it is found.”
I thanked him and closed the door. It was almost 5:00 am. It was too late to go to bed; I had work in a couple hours. So I sat down at my computer, and with the kid’s bag on the desk next to me, I mapped out directions for my drive to the MTIC.
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.
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.
I’m surrounded by corpses. People I knew. People I cared about. For hours, I sat in the stillness of this supermarket-cum-abattoir and waited. The growls and groans outside waxed and waned as each wave passed by. Waves of former friends. Waves of strangers who I never had the opportunity to befriend. Limitless potential gnawed away by the ravages of plague.
After some time, the movement started. Bodies. Body parts. It didn’t matter. That which was once animated got reanimated. A severed head blinked and opened its mouth. A puddle of viscera convulsed in peristaltic spasms. A pile of fingertips and toes wiggled. And corpses, more-or-less whole, stood.
Dylan began to squirm in my lap, still leaking. His bleating, which had been cut off by his father 80 minutes ago, resumed. It was lower. More guttural. The optic nerve protruding from his left eye socket slapped wetly against his soft cheek. My boy was awake, and my last act as his mother would be to feed him. It’s what I was here for, no matter the shape he was in. I put my thumb in his mouth and waited for his few, sharp little teeth to sink in.
His cool tongue prodded at the digit. But his jaw didn’t close. He didn’t bite. I spoke to him, encouraging him to go ahead. He shook his head and tried to spit out my thumb. I persisted. Dylan vomited a pink froth of blood and breast milk onto my hand. Still, nothing.
Three of the reanimated bodies had started lurching toward us. I knew if Dylan wasn’t going to be the one to change me, they would. But they’d tear me to shreds. Just like the others had done to his father while I was locked in the bathroom. I started to panic. I didn’t want to be torn apart and have Dylan left alone to squirm pathetically on the supermarket floor forever.
The three were practically on top of us. I’d failed. Their teeth were coming. An image of Dylan struggling in the dried tangle of my twitching entrails six months from now brought an involuntary sob. I begged him to bite me. He just growled and choked.
The first one moved in to bite. Then he stopped. He stared at me, teeth snapping together over and over, drooling shards of enamel and blood and saliva onto my shoulder. The other two did the same. Then they turned around and walked away. Nothing. They didn’t want me.
A surge of relief combined with confusion and sadness. My boy didn’t want me, either. No one did.
Time went by and waves of fresh dead entered the supermarket. They inspected me, and, like the others, rejected me. I gave up on trying to make Dylan bite. He’d never eaten anything that solid before in his life. I knew it was useless. He seemed content to thrash and flail and leak and cool.
During the quiet moments between waves, I heard soft crying. I knew who it was. As I was running out of the bathroom after the initial attack to check on Dylan and my husband, I saw a young store employee shutting herself in a small closet near the floral department.
Dylan drooled and moved his jaw as the sounds of the teenager met his ears. It had been hours since he’d eaten. It was then I realized what I had to do. It’s what any mom would do for her son.
A couple minutes later, I had control of her. She was easy enough to knock unconscious. Easy enough to tie up. But I knew if she changed, Dylan wouldn’t want to eat any more.
She yelled very loudly as I cut off a piece of her calf. I placed it in Dylan’s mouth. He tried to chew, but it was just too cumbersome. He wasn’t used to something that solid. I sighed and gazed into my son’s eye. I took the chunk from his mouth and cut off a fresh piece.
After I’d chewed and spit it into his mouth, I could swear he smiled at me. And that was when I knew our mom/son connection wasn’t broken. Even though the rest of the world didn’t want me, Dylan still did. That’s the only thing that matters.
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.
I was 13 when I had my first pumpkin spice latte. Dad had taken me to Starbucks on the way to school, and as soon as we walked in, I saw their poster advertising the drink. My eyes widened.
The mug was a gentle beige, contrasting sweetly against the light-brown wood of the table on which it sat, surrounded by artistically-placed autumn leaves and festive gourds. The contents of the mug were centered in the image, showing off the perfect dollop of creamy foam with caramelly tints of espresso running through it. At the top, lovingly whispered by the deft hand of a skilled, caring barista, was a sprinkling of nutmeg.
It called to me.
My usual caramel macchiato forgotten, I requested a grande pumpkin spice latte. I waited anxiously with Dad by my side. He sipped his black coffee and suggested we sit for a little while. We were running early, for once.
I sat, shaking my leg with anticipatory excitement. The cafe smelled different that day. I’d grown accustomed to the thick, imposing aroma of dark-roasted coffee and the occasional hint of sweetness as a customer’s blueberry muffin was toasted. That day, though, gripping the reins of the dark roast and riding it to a new and alluring place, was something else. Something exotic. My head swam as I realized the exotic smell was, in fact, the spicy melange of ingredients within a pumpkin spice latte: the same pumpkin spice latte I’d soon taste.
After what felt like an eternity, my order was ready. Alexander, the barista, waved me over. I did my best to avoid sprinting, but my rush was obvious.
“Easy, princess,” Dad called. I slowed down a bit and giggled. I was his princess.
I reached the counter and accepted my drink. In the tiny mouth of the lid, I could see the sprinkled spices adorning the cap of warm foam. With my eyes closed, I inhaled the steam rising from the hole.
The scent was an embrace from a ghost; a non-corporeal expression of love and comfort. The first sip was transcendental. At that moment, I knew what it felt like to believe in something bigger than myself.
Each day before school, Dad would take me to Starbucks to get another pumpkin spice latte. Its effect on me didn’t dull, nor did it taste any less special. As early autumn reds decayed into late autumn browns, I found my mood better than it had ever been in my short life. I never knew it was so easy to be happy.
At 6:51am on December 1st, 2005, Dad and I walked into Starbucks.
At 6:52am on December 1st, 2005, my happiness was torn from my chest and dashed against the rocks.
The pumpkin spice latte was a limited-time product. Alexander told me it’d be back just in time for fall next year, then asked if I’d like to go back to my caramel macchiato. Entombed in disbelief and disappointment, I nodded.
The following days were a blur of grays. My vivacity had been strangled. Dad would ask, over and over, what he could do to make his princess happy. I didn’t need to tell him, though. He knew. And there was nothing he could do about it.
December slouched toward Christmas, a holiday I’d always loved. Not anymore, though. Now that I’d seen the world through a lens of happiness and warmth, nothing looked the same without it. Quite the contrary: it all looked fake. Vulgar. When I closed my eyes on Christmas Eve, I prayed for Santa to bring me blindness or death.
On Christmas morning, I woke up to Dad standing next to my bed. That was a little tradition he and I had. Before Mom passed away, they’d both come up and shake me awake and carry me downstairs to see what Santa had brought. Now that it was just the two of us, he wanted to keep the tradition going. Even in my despondence, I still appreciated it.
Dad held my hand and we headed down the steps. Tears had started to flow without my knowing. We reached the Christmas tree in the living room. Only one present stood underneath. It was small and wrapped with bright green paper. I looked at Dad with confusion. He just smiled and beckoned to the gift.
I sat, cross legged, under the tree, and tore away the paper. My soft weeping grew into pitiful bleating.
“Why would you do this?” I whispered to Dad, my breath heaving with sobs. In my lap, beneath the shiny, torn paper, was a cheery, autumnal Starbucks mug. The same one from the poster I’d seen on that transformative day.
I was baffled and hurt, but Dad stood, still smiling.
“Come with me, princess.”
I obeyed and rose to my feet, following his long stride out of the living room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen.
Dad looked into my misty eyes and whispered, “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” He opened the cellar door.
A faint, but familiar and exquisite aroma entered me. In my surprise, I nearly dropped my present.
“Why don’t you go see what Santa brought you?” Dad suggested.
I ran down the 14 steps with the same enthusiasm I had when ran across Starbucks to receive my first pumpkin spice latte. This time, Dad didn’t tell me to slow down.
I reached the bottom, turned the corner, and there, on a makeshift bar, was a new espresso machine. I gasped. Behind the bar, manning the machine, was Alexander the barista. He smiled and stared, wide-eyed, as Dad reached the bottom of the stairs and placed himself by my side.
“Go ahead, princess, tell the nice man what you’d like.”
My voice quavered at first, but I finished my request with enthusiasm and strength. “May I please have a pumpkin spice latte?”
Alexander, still smiling, nodded. He began to work. The coffee was ground and thick espresso drooled out of the machine into the bottom of the mug. With a hiss of steam, the milk was frothed. Warm milk joined the espresso in the mug, followed by a generous dollop of ethereal foam. Then Alexander picked up a large shaker. I knew what had to be inside.
With three expert shakes, a pixie dusting of pumpkin spice kissed the foamy head of the latte. He picked up my mug and held it out. I walked up to the bar, carefully took the mug from Alexander’s hand, and thanked him. I noticed, for the first time, he didn’t have any legs and was strapped to a rolling stool.
“I’m sorry about your accident, Alexander,” I said with sincerity. He didn’t say anything, but kept smiling. I saw a small cut in his neck and wondered if his accident had made it so he couldn’t talk anymore.
“Merry Christmas,” I told him. He stared at Dad.
I took a sip from the mug, and, for the first time in nearly a month, it seemed like I could see in color again. The world felt right and I was happy.
My tears were drying as I took Dad’s hand. We turned the corner and headed up the steps. We reached the landing and Dad switched off the basement light. He always hated to waste electricity.
“You can have one every morning now, princess,” Dad informed me. “As long as I’m around, I’ll make sure you get whatever you need.”
I hugged him, feeling the warmth of his body against mine. It was nearly as pleasant as the mug against my palm. He was right, too. Things have been wonderful ever since.
I spent three years as an IT contractor at the US military base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. Our firm had been hired to perform a massive upgrade to all the information systems on the base. It was only supposed to take a year and a half. As these things usually go, it went enormously over budget and took twice as long as we’d estimated. I didn’t mind. One of my dreams growing up was to travel to Africa, so when I was presented with the opportunity, I jumped at it. Since I don’t have much family and wasn’t in a relationship at the time, I had no strings attached when I boarded that plane with my colleagues.
The base offered free basic housing and other facilities to their visiting contractors, which some of us took, but I wanted to live in town and embrace the culture. Djibouti City was nearby, extremely inexpensive, and replete with all the cultural experiences I ever wanted. I met wonderful people, learned a little French and Arabic, and discovered their local cuisine is not only some of the best on Earth, but far less fattening than American food. I must’ve lost 25 pounds while still eating like a king. As our IT project dragged on, I almost wished it would take forever. I just didn’t want to leave.
But, of course, all good things must come to an end. In April of 2005, with our task complete, we were on a plane back to Burlington via a New York layover. The team was given a month off to reconnect with everything back home. Those of us who didn’t have homes or families to come back to were put up in hotels until we could find places of our own. The hotel room was so much bigger and nicer than the tiny apartment in Djibouti to which I’d grown accustomed. It felt downright decadent to get to sprawl out and get comfortable. And as much as I loved the Djiboutian food, knowing a bacon cheeseburger could be room-serviced up to me 24 hours a day was a damn good feeling. I took advantage of it many, many times.
After being home for three days, though, a rather unpleasant situation arose. I’m not going to get graphic because we all have our own intimate knowledge of such a thing, but I’ll just say I was terribly constipated. Three days stretched into four, then five. I was extraordinarily uncomfortable at that point. Most of the advice online said to wait it out and make sure I was staying hydrated. I drank bottle after bottle of water, but, to my chagrin, my desired result continued its elusion.
Day number six was a repeat performance of the previous five. On the seventh day, I didn’t rest. I hauled my bloated self over to the drug store and bought some laxatives. Just the thought of the things grossed me out, but the promise of their efficacy did great work to quell my emotional misgivings. I went back to the hotel, read the directions, swallowed the suggested dose, and waited.
The medication acted quickly. Again, in an effort to avoid the all-too-familiar details, I’ll simply say the pressure and discomfort ended abruptly. The only pain, as I’d expected, was located on the, well, exit. Unfortunately, here is where I must start a period of elaboration. I assure you, it is not scatological. It is, however, profoundly disturbing.
As I went to clean myself, I noticed an obstruction in the area. It was not what I, or likely you, are thinking. No, as I learned rather quickly, it was far, far worse. I peered down between my legs and saw the most horrifying sight in my 42 years of life. Dangling into the the bowl was a thick rope of tangled, grayish-white worms. I screamed with such terrific ferocity that I immediately damaged my vocal cords, causing the outburst to sound as if it were produced by a dilapidated chainsaw. I flexed the muscle through which the creatures were hanging, hoping to dislodge them. Nothing.
Needless to say, I was panicking. I had no idea what to do, but I knew I had to get the things out of me. All my life, I’d been terrified of bugs and insects of all sorts. Having these monsters infesting me was beyond any level of abject horror I could’ve imagined. The next move I made, I would later learn, is not a recommended method of removal.
I reached behind me and grasped the writhing column in my fist. I involuntarily retched as I felt the thickness of the parasitic invaders against my palm. All bunched together, they were the diameter of toilet paper tube. I squeezed the atrocious things and pulled as hard as I could. For a moment, my only respite from the terror was the impossibly acute agony produced by my pulling action. A tearing sensation of pain exploded right below my sternum – practically in my chest. With dawning realization that the creatures were far deeper in my body than I could deal with myself, my panic mixed with deep helplessness.
Remember, this was 2005. Personal cell phones were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. While I had one in Africa, I’d turned it in upon my arrival home. It wouldn’t have worked on our network, anyway, and my company had yet to give our group new Blackberry devices. What that meant was I had to get up and walk to the bedside telephone. I distinctly remember the wet slapping of the repulsive rope on my bare thighs as I waddled across the room. I dialed the front desk, not 911 for some idiotic reason I can’t remember, and simply said, “medical emergency in room 1142.” I stood there, naked from the waist down, with a tail of twitching parasites hanging out of me.
The hotel staff who’d been trained in CPR and other basic emergency services arrived first. Without knocking, the used their own key to barge in. Each of the three looked puzzled, and, within a span of ten seconds, realized why they’d been called. One by one, they turned varying shades of white. The largest of the group, a man with a name tag labelling him as “Jeremy,” sat down on the bed and promptly fainted backward. The other two, “Maria” and “Tyshawn,” did their best to maintain composure. They asked me if I was having trouble breathing or experiencing chest pains or blurred vision. As the procedural questions dragged on, the real EMTs arrived.
Hardened as EMTs are, one of the two men who arrived audibly whispered “Jesus fucking Christ” when he saw why they’d been summoned. Wrapping a towel around my waist, something I hadn’t even thought of in my panic, they helped me onto a stretcher and we went down the elevator and into the waiting ambulance. At the hospital, the ER doctor in charge of me just said, “well that’s a pretty bad case, huh?” I nodded, stupidly.
A few doses of specialized medication and two days later, I expelled the invading creatures. I was told I probably got them from eating contaminated food in Africa. Also, apparently I was lucky that I didn’t have to have surgery. Sometimes when they’re as deep as mine were, surgery’s the only option.
So, it’s almost 11 years later. I had a few scans in the months that followed my hospital stay to make sure I didn’t have anything new growing inside me, but each time I was clean as a whistle. Still, as you might imagine, I’m haunted by the experience. Worst was the feeling of how thick and heavy the tangle of worms felt in my hand. That, and how impossibly long the things were. I swear, I was convinced they’d made their way into my chest and were coiling around my heart, ready to squeeze the life from me. But all is well, I keep telling myself. Nothing is out of the ordinary.
It’s interesting, too, because the worms themselves don’t scare me anymore. I’m traumatized by the experience and the stress resulting from it, of course, but as the years went by, I could easily study the things online and in textbooks without shrinking away. In fact, I’m almost drawn to them. Today, I’d venture to guess I know more about that genus and species than even some experts in that field. It’s strange how our experiences can shape our interests, isn’t it?
A couple years ago, I quit my job in technology. Using the money I’d been saving, I started a food truck. The customer base started off small, but it grew pretty quickly thanks to word of mouth and social media. My customers love the cuisine and regulars line up every day to enjoy the outstanding Djiboutian food made by the quirky white American. As the business flourished and customers came in droves, all the diners were happy to report to me how they finally found a diet food that works. Even though hearing that warms my heart, I still experience a pang of jealousy that makes me feel a little empty inside.