Before my husband died, our daughter, Veronica, was diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. We brought her to countless specialists and nearly all of them came to the same conclusion. The condition is rare, but certainly not unheard of. We were devastated. The doctors suggested that we not start her on medication right away. They were concerned the chemicals might interfere with the development of her brain. At five years old, when proper brain development is critical, they didn’t want to chance it. Only if the hallucinations became severe would they prescribe antipsychotics.
Paul said it might help if we could identify the hallucinations over the course of the next year so we might know what to expect before she started school. This was pretty hard for me to agree with. I’d wanted her to start kindergarten right away. She’d demonstrated she was smart enough and more than capable, but eventually I caved. I just didn’t want to admit that Veronica needed special attention. We needed to separate her hallucinations from the normal, everyday make-believe that every kid her age does.
We started to pick up on a few outliers. One was a big dog who played with her while she was supposed to be sleeping. The other was a fish who followed her around and talked to her about cartoons. Most disconcerting to both of us, though, was the dark man with no eyes, nose, or ears who said how much fun it would be if she ran out and played in the street. More than once, Paul told me he’d chased after Veronica after she opened the screen door and ran toward the busy road.
After the third time, Paul got up at dawn, called in sick, and spent the day putting up a fence. It was summertime, and as much as I wanted to keep Veronica indoors, I knew sunshine and fresh air were too important for her to miss out on. Still, whenever Veronica played outside, she would make a beeline for the fence and start crying whenever she couldn’t go beyond it. I remember sitting with her on the grass next to the fence as she sobbed and talked to the fish about how the dark man was mad at her and had told the dog to be mean when they played. Then she screamed for a long time. When I finally got her to tell me what was wrong, all she said was that the fish got hit by a car and died. I did my best to console her, but it was useless.
Paul and I had a long talk that night. We decided her condition might be bad enough to require the medication we’d desperately tried to avoid giving her. After a trip to the doctor, who listened intently to all the observations we’d made, he agreed her condition was potentially severe and prescribed the drugs. We were told to observe her very, very carefully. The medication could cause the hallucinations to get worse before they got better.
Three days into Veronica’s medication experiment, her hallucinations became violent. I’d never seen our daughter so frightened. Over the course of two terrifying days, she’d describe to us how the fish turned into a monster after he died and made her water taste rotten; how the dog would hurt her whenever she was alone; how the dark man without the nose, ears, or eyes scratched her tummy so hard she’d start bleeding. Then she lifted her shirt. There were fresh scratches all over her belly. I looked at her fingernails, and sure enough, I could see tiny scraps of skin and blood underneath. Paul and I were at a loss.
The stress of Veronica’s episodes strained the relationship between me and my husband. I could tell his depression had reemerged. Still, I cared more about my innocent daughter than my adult spouse. The doctors asked that we begin to taper off Veronica’s medication to see if things got any better. I couldn’t see any difference. Veronica was always scared and kept scratching herself when we weren’t around, usually when she was asleep.
Paul and I began trading off nights where we slept in Veronica’s room to keep an eye on her. Still, I’d find blood on her sheets and clothes and under her nails whenever I’d check. Each of her hallucinations had become violent. The fish would bite her, the dog would lie on top of her so she couldn’t breathe, and the dark man would scratch her. I seriously wondered if Veronica needed to be institutionalized.
Paul shot himself in the head on a Sunday morning while Veronica and I were in the kitchen eating breakfast. I won’t bother detailing the shock, the feeling of betrayal, and the sheer sensation of helplessness that followed. I was left alone to care for a dreadfully ill daughter.
A couple weeks after his funeral, I was cleaning the house with Veronica by my side, proudly displaying the new mittens her aunt had purchased for her in hopes that she might stop scratching. So far, they’d worked pretty well. For whatever reason, Veronica was in one of her rare good moods as we went through the house. I was boxing up small stuff that had belonged to Paul. It hurt too much to see it every day.
Veronica chattered idly about sleeping a lot better lately with no bad dreams and the dog not getting on top of her anymore and the fish being kind and funny again. I told her how nice that was and we brought the box I was carrying out back to Paul’s shed. I thought about asking her if the dark man with the scary face was still asking her to hurt herself. Before I could speak, I saw her furiously scratching her belly. I sighed. Thank goodness for the mittens.
After trying about 15 of the 30-or-so keys Paul had kept on his keyring, I finally chose the right one for the shed. I opened the door and Veronica ran inside to explore. She turned left, I turned right, looking for a place to put the box. Veronica giggled and exclaimed, “now I’m on top of you!” I turned toward her to see who she was talking to. Crumpled up in the corner, underneath Veronica, was a dog suit.
30 years ago, my neighbors across the street, Mr. and Mrs. Stein, endured a terrible loss. Their son, Adam, disappeared on Halloween. It was assumed he was kidnapped, as there was a rash of kidnappings in the area at the time. The kidnapper was never found, though. Neither was Adam.
Today’s the 30th anniversary of his disappearance. To the Steins, the wounds are still fresh. They refuse to decorate their yard, despite all the houses on the street going out of their way to be as festive as possible. They don’t give out candy, despite the rest of the houses on the street trying to one-up each other by giving out better loot than their neighbors.
The Steins mourn quietly in their dark house; the television being the only light emanating from their window. Kids are advised by their parents not to knock.
I’ve always felt bad for them. I’ve lived here for 40 years. I remember the frantic search and rescue efforts that swept through our town. Even though I was barely 20 years old and living with my unemployed father while working double shifts to pay our mortgage, I did my part and joined the search. It was the least I could do.
Like all futile searches, it ended after a while. Adam was presumed dead. The Steins grew old and the neighborhood changed around us. New families moved in and old ones either died off or moved out. Aside from me and the Steins, I’d say the average age of the homeowners here is 35. And they all have lots of kids.
A terrible rumor started to spread a couple years ago. I know who started it – an older kid named Chuck Demopoulos. He told his younger brothers and neighborhood friends that Adam’s ghost haunts the woods behind our street. He said Mr. Stein killed him and chopped him up into little bits.
When I learned about the rumor, I was disgusted. The disrespect was so vulgar and uncalled for. I prayed the Steins wouldn’t hear about it, but I’m sure they must have. It was pervasive. I called Chuck’s father and told him what I heard, and I suspect Chuck caught a beating for it. Still, I’m afraid the damage had already been done.
Despite pitying the Steins, I don’t express my sympathy by refusing to decorate my house and yard. I love Halloween. Always have. I like to see parents beaming from the street while their kids nervously ring doorbells and collect piles of candy. The spirit of the season keeps me feeling young, despite being well past my prime and dealing with high blood-pressure.
Being an old timer has its perks sometimes. I have Halloween decorations they don’t sell anymore. Ghoulish stuff like hangman’s nooses – things that are too politically incorrect for stores to sell. I firmly believe Halloween shouldn’t be sanitized. It should be scary and unsettling.
That said, there needs to be an emotional component, too. Not just blood and guts for the sake of blood and guts. There needs to be poignancy. Something that’ll stick with you after you see it.
That’s why Adam helps me decorate.
After Dad died in 1989, I emptied out his safety deposit box. There was an envelope with note a note and a Polaroid photograph. All the note said was, “I caught him snooping around the cellar. I had to teach him a lesson.” The photograph was of fresh cement drying on the basement wall.
In the middle of the night, I went into the cellar and opened the wall. Adam’s body was inside. My instinctive reaction was to call the police, but I was terrified I’d be arrested. They’d never believe the note.
So I sealed the wall. After a while, I stopped thinking about the dead boy in the bowels of my house. Many years later, after talking with Mrs. Stein about Adam on a Halloween afternoon, I knew what I had to do.
I took his remains out of the wall in 2014. He was only a skeleton. I separated the bones, splashed them with fake blood, and incorporated them into my Halloween decorations. At first, I was worried. As the days went by, though, I realized I didn’t need to be concerned. The bones blended in with the rest of my decorations. Just more festive material in a neighborhood chock full of it.
This morning, when I went out to get the paper, Mr. Stein was doing the same. We met in the street and chatted for a while. We talked about the Cowboys game from last night and he mentioned his wife made a spectacular coffee cake that he’d bring me a piece of later. I smiled and told him that would be real nice.
Before we parted ways, Mr. Stein said, “I never told you how much Shannon and I appreciated all the help you gave us back when we lost Adam. We knew how busy you were. It’s been 30 years today, you know. 30 years.”
I felt guilt and sadness wash over me. “I’m sure he’s in a better place,” I told him.
He nodded, and I saw tears in his eyes. “He was a good boy. I know wherever he is, he’s watching over us.”
We hugged briefly, then went back to our respective homes. I walked up the driveway, past the ghosts dangling from my trees by their nooses, and headed up my front steps. I looked at the skull hanging above the doorway. It was pointed at the Stein’s house. Watching.
Working in a funeral home doesn’t have many perks, so when one presents itself, it’s important to jump on it. That’s why closed-casket funerals are the best. You know the ones I’m talking about. People who died in car accidents. Fires. Shotgun suicides. Anything that destroys the face and head of the deceased. No one wants to look at hamburger meat in a suit.
I was in charge of preparing the carcass of a middle-aged woman who’d gotten half her head blown off in a gas explosion. We didn’t even offer her family the option of an open casket. She was really fucked up.
The family gave us the dead lady’s favorite dress and some of her jewelry. This is where the perks I mentioned come in. The bereaved are always so trusting. Over the course of the three years I’ve had that job, I must have pawned $10,000 worth of necklaces and engagement rings and all sorts of other sentimental crap.
I figure it’s a victimless crime. The families think it’s in the coffin with their busted-up relative, so they’re happy, and the dead person’s dead, so they don’t care. They’re in a better place, right?
Anyway, you should’ve seen my face when I got the jewelry to bury with the gas-explosion lady. One locket caught my attention immediately. It was huge and looked like solid gold. I opened it up and saw pictures of the dead woman and others who looked like her mother, grandmother, and maybe even great grandmother, all smiling happily for the camera. The locket had space for five or six pictures. I figured it’d be perfect for my girlfriend. She loves big and gaudy shit. We live three towns over, so there wasn’t a chance she’d get caught wearing it.
I pocketed the locket after everyone had left and I finished working on the dead chick. I wheeled the coffin into the fridge and headed out.
Liz was making dinner when I got home. I figured I’d wait until bedtime to give her the present. We ate, watched a movie, and got ready to turn in.
After Liz got out of the shower, I surprised her with the locket. As I’d expected, she loved the thing. It looked comically large on her tiny frame; the golden heart full of pictures was the size of a deck of cards against her chest. I thought she looked ridiculous, but she couldn’t get enough. She opened it up and flipped through the photographs. Then she closed it, sat me down at her desk chair, and unzipped my pants.
Toward the end of one of the greatest blowjobs of my life, the sound of the dangling locket banging against the hardwood floor was starting to break my concentration. But then Liz did something she’d never done and went all the way down. And I mean all the way. And that was all it took.
When the world had unblurred and I could move my body again, I patted Liz’s head and told her I didn’t want to know where she’d learned to do that, but if she wanted to do it every time she should feel free. Liz remained with her head between my legs. She didn’t move.
“Ok Liz,” I said, starting to feel over sensitive and uncomfortable. Still, no response.
“Liz?,” I asked, starting to worry. I realized she wasn’t breathing. “Oh my God, what the fuck!,” I yelled, and pushed her back. She separated from me and collapsed on the floor. Her eyes and nose were bleeding. Panic filled me as I stared at her motionless body.
Her bloody face was horrifying, but that wasn’t what I was focusing on. It was the locket on her chest. The bright gold locket that now glowed dull red. It opened on its own. My eyes widened as I saw that the oldest picture, the one of the great grandmother, had changed. Her smile had become a scowl of rage. Page after page turned and I saw the once-smiling women were all frowning with hatred and indignity.
The photo of the women I’d stolen the locket from was next. Her expression was one of seething animosity. My paralyzing terror kept me rooted to the chair, and I wondered how it could possibly get any worse. Then the page turned again. There was another picture. One that hadn’t been there until right that very moment.
The photograph was of Liz, with blood streaming from her eyes and nose. In the picture, carved across her forehead with vicious precision, was the word “THIEF.” Only once the word started to appear on her forehead in real life, invisibly etched by some malevolent, ghostly hand, did I begin to scream.
I have an African grey parrot named Perry. He’s been part of the family for 25 years. I’ve known him my whole life. When my parents were alive, they taught him a bunch of words and phrases and he’d always make us laugh.
Lately, though, he’s been saying things we never taught him. Certainly not things we’d ever say, either. Nancy, my wife, was in the kitchen with her friends the other day when they all heard Perry squawk, “it bathes in tears and reigns beneath our feet.”
They all laughed and wondered what the hell I could’ve been watching on TV for the bird to pick up a phrase like that. They continued their lunch, but ten minutes later, Perry started again:
“It reigns beneath our feet. It reigns beneath our feet. It reigns beneath our feet.”
Then he squawked and screamed and rattled his cage so hard that he almost fell off the table. Nancy checked to see if he was okay, and he chirped and allowed her to stroke his head with her finger. He seemed no worse for wear.
That night, after I’d gotten home and Nancy had told me about Perry’s weirdness, I let him out of his cage to fly around the house. He was always well behaved and never knocked anything off shelves or shit on things we cared about. He stepped out of the cage and onto the table, but he didn’t take off. He just stood there, looking around.
“Go ahead, Perry,” I coaxed. “Go get some exercise.”
He remained stationary, but he watched me; the pupils wide in his beige eyes.
“You okay buddy?,” I asked. I was concerned for the little guy. He’d always been in great health and never acted weird. This was entirely unlike him.
Perry cocked his head and stared into my eyes. For some reason, I felt a chill run down my spine even before he spoke – almost like I knew he was about to frighten me.
In a deep tone I’d never heard from him in all my years, he uttered, “beneath your feet.”
Something knocked on the floor directly below where I was standing. I jumped about a mile and stepped away from the bird, who hadn’t moved. “Still beneath your feet,” he said.
The knock came again. It was a hundred times louder and so powerful my ankle twisted under me and I fell sideways onto the couch. The floorboards where I’d been standing bulged upward. One had cracked. Nancy came running downstairs asking, “what the hell was that?” I told her to go in the kitchen and call the police – someone was in the cellar.
Nancy and I waited by the door for the police to arrive. They got there quickly. We let them in and they went into the basement. A couple minutes later, they came back up. “No one’s there,” they told us.
“Wait, then what –”
The older cop cut us off. “Can you come look at something with us?”
“Okay,” Nancy said, “but what is it?”
“Just come downstairs.”
We followed the cops into the basement. Neither Nancy nor I go down there very often. I was a little embarrassed by how gross and dusty it was until I saw marks in the dust-covered floor and countertops.
“Are those footprints?,” I asked, more to myself than to anyone around.
“That’s what we thought,” said the younger officer. “But they look pretty weird for footprints.”
We got to the part of the cellar that was under where I’d been standing. The cops aimed their flashlights at the wood above our heads. An indentation was clearly visible. It almost looked like a punch, but the shape wasn’t of any hand we’d ever seen. It looked like it had too many knuckles; too many bones.
“What the hell?” I traced my finger over the indentations. I shivered.
Upstairs, Perry squawked. The floorboards around the indentation began to leak. Liquid dripped into my mouth and I sputtered. It was salty and reminded me of the taste you get after crying for a long time.
“Did something spill upstairs?,” the older cop asked.
“Yeah, maybe the bird knocked something over.”
“Is that him making all that noise?”
I nodded. “He’s been weird all day.”
We headed back upstairs and the cops told us to call if we have any other concerns about someone being in our house. Nancy and I thanked them, and they left.
I stared at the damage to the living room floor. Perry hadn’t knocked anything over, but there was a small puddle on the wood. He’d gone back into his cage and sat in the corner, quietly clucking. I approached the cage. There were little, wet footprints around it. They were his prints. It looked like he might’ve lapped up some of the water that’d been on the floor while we were in the cellar.
“What’s going on, bud? You having a rough day?” I tried not to think about what had happened. There had to be a reason for it. Maybe the wood had warped. The basement’s always been damp and gross. That had to have been it. The wood warped and trapped moisture was dripping out of the fracture point. But then there was Perry.
Perry stared at the bottom of the cage, still clucking. He didn’t look up. I reached out to pet his head, but he struck my finger with his beak. Not hard enough to do any damage, but with enough force to let me know he wanted none of my affection.
I looked at my pet with sympathy, wondering if he was just getting old and losing his mind. He remained in the corner, trembling slightly. Something caught my eye. There was red on the cage where he was sitting. I looked closer. It was blood.
“What happened, Perry?,” I asked, and reached inside to pick him up, knowing I was in for a pecking. Before I could grab him, he spoke in that same, chilling voice:
“It will bathe in blood and claim the sky.” He paused, then slowly spoke. “Twenty…. seven… days.”
I picked up my bird to see how badly he was hurt. But before I could assess his wound, I saw what was in the corner where he was sitting. Something entirely unexpected.
Perry, my male, African grey parrot, had been sitting on a bloody, black egg.
It’s been 24 hours since all this started. Perry seems no worse for wear, but he fights whenever we try to pick him up. He does everything he can to remain by the egg. I don’t know what’s happening to him and I have no idea what he means with any of the stuff he’s saying. Whenever he talks now, it’s just “26 days” followed by the word “hours.” The number of hours keeps going down. And I haven’t heard it, but Nancy swears she hears soft knocking coming from the basement each time Perry makes his announcements.
“My wife’s going to be the death of me.” The thought preoccupied me for almost eight weeks. All she cared about was sex. And it’s not like I’m some kind of Adonis or even particularly good in bed, either. Something just clicked one day and she became utterly insatiable. I’m 90% sure it’s because of that vegan diet we started two months ago with all the mushrooms and stuff, but the diet’s effect on me was nothing compared to how she reacted. She never seemed interested in analyzing the reasons. She just knew what she wanted, and that’s all there was to it.
At first, I thought it was great. She’d be waiting for me in bed when I got home from work, we’d have a few minutes of fun, and that was that. For me, at least. Dianna, it seemed, needed more than I could give her. I felt pretty bad because I wasn’t able to provide it.
I know part of my terrible performance had to do with my diet. It’d been awful. Since I’m so busy with work, I’d been stress eating fast food and other processed garbage. Even though I was eating the vegan stuff too, I’d supplement it with Burger King. I’d gained weight, I felt awful, and I was tired all the time. When Dianna’s insatiability became apparent and my own inability to satisfy her was weighing heavily on my confidence, I set out to get healthier. I mean, it was the least I could do; not only for Dianna, but for my own well-being.
It’s worked, too. The last week has been incredible. I’ve taken time off work. I’ve exercised every day and all my meals are healthy, vegan, and loaded with good stuff like kale and quinoa and tons of local mushrooms. I think Dianna was pleased with the positive changes in me, although her sex drive was still astronomical and hard for me to match. I felt better about myself and I enjoyed our lovemaking a lot more. There was just less pressure, if that makes sense.
Last night was our anniversary, so I wanted to do something special. Something non-vegan as a treat. I made steaks with portobello nouveau and peppercorn cream sauce. I remember laughing to myself as I reduced the pan sauce and plated our meals. Dianna always used to be allergic to mushrooms. Deathly allergic, in fact. I don’t know what compelled her to serve them for dinner a couple months ago when we started doing the vegan thing, but the difference it made was staggering. Ever since she went to bed that night, she’s been a different woman.
I brought our meals up to the bedroom. Dianna was waiting for me. She looked beautiful. Sexy, too. She was sprawled across the bed on her back, presenting herself to me. It was her favorite position ever since her sex drive skyrocketed. I told her to hold her horses; she could wait until after dinner. She didn’t reply, but she let me feed her bits of steak and mushrooms. I emptied her perfect mouth of the food I’d put there at dinner the night before and replaced it with our anniversary meal. My head spun with love and affection as I carefully pushed a piece of juicy steak down her throat. I marveled at how the hot meal warmed her mouth.
After dinner, I could no longer resist my wife’s allure. We made quiet love in our candlelit bedroom. When we were finished, as I was tucking her into bed, I noticed small growths in her armpits and behind her ears. I turned on the lights and looked more closely. Tiny, stringy mushrooms. New life. I smiled. We were going to be a family.
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.