30 years ago today, my neighbor’s son disappeared.

ghost

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.

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There’s something very wrong with my parrot.

parrot

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 s**t 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.

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The Last of the Trick-or-Treaters

trick-or-treat-nyc

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?”

Again, no.

“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 f**k’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.

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Rotting Pumpkins

rotting

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 s******g and f*****g 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 f*****g 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 f**k,” 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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Tainted Candy

candy

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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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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Daycare Massacre

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This is going to get swept under the rug because of the Hurricane Matthew coverage. Even if it isn’t, whatever’s mentioned in the news will be sanitized for public consumption. People aren’t supposed to hear about this kind of thing – especially when you consider how frightened they are already.

There’s a daycare in Charleston, SC. It’s in an awful neighborhood. I was patrolling the area before dawn this morning when the owner ran out in the street and flagged me down. She was covered in blood. I got out of the car and called for backup. Officers Fitzgerald and Ndoma were a block away and got there a minute later. Ndoma stayed with the inconsolable, trembling owner while Fitz and I drew our weapons and entered the building.

There were six children inside. Unclothed. Dead.

I called for paramedics and a supervisor. Amid the chaos of hurricane preparations, by the time they’d arrived, Fitz and I had cleared the small building. If the owner of the daycare hadn’t killed the kids, whoever had was gone.

The news media, who would’ve been all over something like this, hadn’t even noticed our radio chatter. They were too busy reporting on the storm. To be honest, I couldn’t have been more relieved. The city didn’t need to know about this yet.

The daycare owner still hasn’t said a word. We have her in custody and it’s obvious she needs a psychiatric evaluation, but that’s off the table until at least tomorrow. We pulled the records of the children from the daycare files and are beginning to notify parents. The last two of the six bodies are being examined as I write this.

The hospital is being prepared for an influx of storm-related injuries, so the deceased were brought directly to the city coroner. The examinations are cursory and unofficial. I know the main guy down there. My father was the best man at his wedding. Whenever I wanted to know something about a case that was above my paygrade, he’d usually fill me in. Today was no different. I know what I saw, but were a lot of unanswered questions.

When Fitz and I entered the building and saw the victims, we knew the cause of death right away. The wounds were gaping and obvious. In fact, I don’t think I’ve blinked today without seeing them in that split second of darkness. To me, it was clear the owner couldn’t have done it. She’s 5’1”, and if you told me she was 90 pounds, I’d be surprised. Her mouth’s small, too. Yes, that’s relevant.  

Here’s the thing: at first glance, I assumed the kids had to have been killed by some kind of animal. The bites which prompted the massive blood loss must’ve come from something with large, powerful jaws. After we cleared the building, though, and Fitz was outside with Ndoma trying to get the owner to say what happened, I took a closer look at the wounds. They were too uniform. Too precise.

What I mean by that is the children were all bitten in the same spot. Everything between their legs, from navel to lower back, was gone. There were smudges on their thighs. Something white. It was more obvious on the darker-skinned victims, but nonetheless present on all of them. I was about to examine the fibers I saw sticking to the wounds, but I was interrupted by the paramedics and the coroner’s office. They needed to do their thing, so I left them to it.

I’ve spent the whole morning at my desk, filling out reports, and writing this account to help clear my mind. About an hour ago, I called my contact at the coroner’s office. He told me, like I mentioned above, that they’d looked over four of the six. It was, certainly, the bites which had killed them. They bled out in a matter of seconds.

I asked him what he thought could have done it, and he paused. To me, that meant he still didn’t know for sure. After a few seconds of silence, I asked about the fibers I’d seen.

“Red hairs,” he told me. “Wiry, red hairs. John thought they could’ve been from a chimpanzee, since they’ve been known to attack the genital area, but they usually do damage to other places too.”

“What about the white stuff?,” I asked.

“We’re not sure yet. The lab will have to do an analysis after the storm, but from what everyone over here can determine, it’s some kind of makeup.”

I thanked him and was about to hang up, but he told me to hold on.

“There’s one more thing. Something we found stuffed up around what was left of the caucasian boy’s bladder.”

I shuddered, but told him to continue.

“Well, it’s foam. When we pulled it out, it was just kind of a blobby thing. But then John washed it off.”

My friend trailed off and I heard him sighing deeply into the phone’s receiver. I gave him a second, but urged him on. He sighed again.

“Max, it was one of those red foam noses. The same ones clowns wear.”

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Ethan’s Halloween Mask

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My cousin Ethan and I grew up together, but I never liked him very much. His family was rich, so he always had the best stuff. Mine wasn’t. I didn’t.

On Halloween, 1985, we were going trick-or-treating together. I was the Terminator, he was Freddy Krueger. His mask cost almost a hundred dollars and it looked exactly like Freddy’s face. The scars, the sneer; everything was just right.

I didn’t have a mask. My parents couldn’t afford one. I had torn aluminum foil taped to the side of my face. It was meant to look like the Terminator after some of its skin had been ripped off. A few splotches of ketchup on the foil were supposed to look like blood. As soon as it dried, it looked very little like dried blood and very much like dried ketchup.

Despite my terrible costume, I was still excited to trick-or-treat. We didn’t have candy very often at home, except maybe on Easter. My parents encouraged me to go to as many houses as I wanted to get all the candy I’d be able to eat. It felt good to know they wanted me to be happy.

Ethan and I went out at sundown and visited house after house. Every time, the homeowners would gush over Ethan’s mask. They’d tell him how scary it was. How realistic. Then they’d turn to me and ask who I was supposed to be. I’d answer, then they’d say something like, “oh of course, how could I have missed it!” I could tell they felt sorry for me. One even handed me an extra few pieces of candy.

When we were done, our pillowcases stuffed with treats of every sort, we began the long walk home. As we went, Ethan rooted around in his bag of loot. I could hear him grumbling and complaining through his mask. Then he started throwing candy on the street. Stuff he didn’t like.

“Go ahead and pick it up if you want it, Bill,” he called out, heaving handful after handful into the gutter. “I know you can’t afford to let anything go to waste.”

I didn’t say anything, but I reached into my pocket and pulled out the lighter and one of the two cigarettes I’d stolen from my dad. I’d been smoking on-and-off for the last few months, and even at 13, I knew it was bad for me. I just didn’t care. It made me feel good.

I stayed a few steps behind Ethan as he tossed more candy away, and as much as I hated myself for it, I ended up picking a few pieces off the ground and putting them in my bag. Ethan caught me once and laughed. “You’re going to be as fat as your mom if you eat all that.” I kept my mouth shut.

“Is that why she got fired from the restaurant? Did she eat a customer’s food?”

I knew Ethan was joking. He did it often. I’m sure in his mind, he thought he was being harmless and playful. Still, I’d told him more than a few times to leave Mom out of the jokes. She had diabetes. And she hadn’t mentioned it to anyone other than my dad and me, but the doctor told her she might end up losing her foot. That’s why the restaurant let her go. She couldn’t walk around and wait tables anymore.

“Change the subject, Ethan,” I said. I knew he heard me, and he didn’t talk for another minute or so. Until he did again.

“You think her and your dad still f**k? I wonder how he manages to get it in there.” He cackled, then insisted, “ok, ok, ok, I’m sorry, I’m done. Promise.”

I seethed as we took a shortcut through the elementary school soccer field.

“Let’s stop here for a minute,” Ethan said. We’d gotten to the school’s playground. “I bet I could scare the s**t out of some kids if they come by.”

He sat on one of the swings with his pillowcase on his lap. He kicked his legs and the swing moved back and forth. I stood there, hating him.

“I think I see some kids coming over the hill,” I told Ethan. “I’m going to hide behind the slide and sneak up on them if they come over to you.”

“Go for it,” Ethan told me, his voice deep and distorted through the mask.

I left Ethan on the swing set and walked over to the slide. I watched him swing as his hateful words rang in my ears. Tears came to my eyes as I remembered Mom smiling from her spot on the couch as she encouraged me to go out and have fun. She was such a good person. So, so good. She’d never said anything negative about Ethan. In fact, she’d always complimented him on his grades and his wins in basketball and even his looks. “You’re going to be a handsome man, Ethan,” she told him. “I bet we’ll see your face in a magazine someday.”

Even after her kindnesses, Ethan still felt it was okay to trash her.

I heard him laughing to himself from across the playground. I didn’t know why, exactly, but I had a pretty good idea. I reached in my jacket for the other cigarette, knowing the smoke would calm me down. But it had come apart. My pocket was full of loose tobacco and paper. Loose tobacco, paper, and the lighter.

Ethan was still laughing as I fingered the lighter in my pocket for a second, then pulled it out. I walked up behind him. He didn’t know I was there as he shouted out, “ok, one more thing and I’ll never say anything about her again – but unless your dad’s got a big dick, he’ll never manage to –”

I flicked the lighter near the back of Ethan’s neck, right where his hair and mask met. The hair went up quickly, using his hairspray as an accelerant. Then something happened that I didn’t expect. The mask burst into flames.

Ethan jumped off the swing and ran in a loose circle, trying to pull the mask off his head. I saw it ripping under his fingers. He couldn’t get a grip. The material bubbled. His screams, barely muffled as the molten chemicals clung to his skin, echoed off the brick walls of the elementary school.

After a few seconds, he fell and rolled around on playground, pushing his head into the sand to put out the fire. And he succeeded. But the damage was done.

He turned over on his back, no longer screaming, but gasping in shallow, hyperventilated breaths. In the moonlight, I saw the mask was completely fused to what remained of his skin. One of his eyes had apparently burst, but his other darted around almost like he was confused and wondering where he was.

I saw something moving on the other side of the field. Kids were coming. I yelled to them to call an ambulance, and I waited, unsure of how I felt, until the paramedics got there.

I took complete responsibility for setting Ethan on fire. I said I’d been sneaking up to scare him by flicking the lighter near his face. And yes, I got in a lot of trouble. But everyone believed it was an accident.

Ethan’s face was destroyed. He had skin grafts and bone grafts and all sorts of reconstructive surgery. He never recovered. Not physically, not emotionally. He killed himself in 1990. His parents had a very expensive funeral. I was invited. They’d forgiven me for my part in his accident years before. In fact, their subsequent lawsuit against the mask company is the reason why Halloween masks are now made of flame-retardant materials.

Mom died a few years before Ethan, but not before complications from her diabetes took her left leg. Dad and I were with her in the hospital at the same time Ethan’s parents were there to see him through another round of reconstructive surgery. They visited Mom, Dad, and I while Ethan was still under, recovering after a successful set of grafts.

We chatted for a little while about Mom’s hopes for recovery, and then the topic moved to Ethan. Ethan’s mom was gushing about a plastic surgeon that had recently joined the hospital after working in Switzerland. He was the best, apparently. He’d taken on Ethan’s case earlier in the year, albeit remotely, and wrote a substantial article about the new techniques he’d be employing. In the world of plastic surgery, it made a big splash, if only for its ambition.

Ethan’s mom reached into her purse and pulled out the publication. She flipped it open to the page that showed various photographs of Ethan’s burns and the notes and explanations the surgeon had written to accompany the article. I could tell Mom was holding back tears. I knew why, too. Her eyes met mine, and she couldn’t hold back any longer. She began to weep. Dad and Ethan’s mother held her while she cried. I just watched.

Mom was thinking that she’d been right all those years ago. She’d been right for all the wrong reasons, but right nonetheless. Just like she’d predicted, Ethan’s face had finally made it into a magazine.

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My Wife, the Artist

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Jen and I love Halloween. We go all-out when decorating our house and yard. The neighborhood kids love to see what we put up every year and even their parents are impressed by the scale and sophistication of the decorations we use. We don’t just give out candy, we invite the trick-or-treaters into our home to see our setup. Pumpkins, spiders, skeletons, ghosts – you name it, we’ve got it. Our local newspaper even did a feature on us last year. “A Safe and Spooky Spot for Local Kids.” It wasn’t much more than a fluff piece, but it felt good to have our work celebrated.

A project Jen’s been working on over the last fifteen or so years is her “Halloween Town of Horrors.” It’s the centerpiece of our trick-or-treat trip around the house. The town takes up our whole dining room table and it’s a darker take on those big Christmas villages people like put out in December. The architecture is very Tim Burton-esque; lots of strange looking buildings, exaggerated colors, and blood splatters, while the townsfolk lurk in the shadows like little purple zombies and space aliens. As the years have gone by, Jen’s taken her Halloween town from a couple small buildings to the sprawling, populous nightmare-scape it is today.

This year, Halloween came and went. We had a blast. Jen’s Halloween town was a huge hit. Even adults from around the neighborhood came over to take a look. Jen loved the attention; she wanted to be an artist growing up, but, sadly, it wouldn’t pay the bills. As we cleaned the house, Jen picked up one of the townsfolk dolls. Its clothing had a little tear that needed to be fixed. Sighing good-naturedly, she gathered the rest of them into their box. I love those dolls; their aesthetic works beautifully with the town Jen puts them in. They range in size from a raisin to a lemon; some have distinguishable features, others don’t. It takes a while for her to make each one – between 2 and 5 months – but her effort always yields a product that’s perfect for Halloween. Until she can carry one to term, we both agree they shouldn’t go to waste.

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The Empty Cribs on Hawthorn Lane

pacifier

The bloody pacifier I found hanging from my tree belonged to Alyssa Harris, who went missing from her crib two nights ago. I figured it had to have been Alyssa’s when I saw it, but while I waited for the police to arrive, I realized it could’ve belonged to Matthew Roman. Or Muhammad Ahad. Or maybe even Hailey Davis. Over the last four years, they’d all vanished.

Hawthorn Lane developed quite a bit of notoriety in 2015 after Matthew and Muhammad disappeared on the same night. The Romans and the Ahads lived four houses apart, and as far as the detectives were able to tell, the children were abducted within minutes of each other. Both houses were securely locked and there was no sign of a forced entry.

As far as I’m concerned, though, the notoriety and brief rush of attention from the national news wouldn’t have happened if their disappearance hadn’t been on the anniversary of the 2012 abduction of Hailey Davis.

Hailey’s case was special, if it could be called such a thing. That’s because on October 1st, 2013, exactly a year after she went missing, pieces of her were found stuffed in the mailboxes of every family on the street who had, or were expecting, children. A swarm of investigators, both local and federal, descended on our quiet, suburban lane, and worked around the clock for months before admitting defeat. There was no evidence.

No fingerprints. No hairs. No mysterious DNA.

When the media came to town in 2015 after Matthew and Muhammad went missing, the rumors started. Rumors and threats. People from all over the country decided to get involved. They felt it was their duty. They began sending harassing letters and making threatening phone calls to the single adults who lived on Hawthorn Lane. These were people who’d lived here for years; people who had grieved alongside the parents and families who’d lost their children. But that didn’t matter to the crazies, who’d been thoroughly brainwashed by cable news into believing the abductor had to be someone from the neighborhood.

In December of 2015, a Georgia man named Alvin Stovall drove 300 miles up the coast, parked in front of Jose Partida’s house, and shot him to death when he came home from work. Alvin was certain Jose was the murderer of Hailey Davis and the abductor of Matthew Roman and Muhammad Ahad. He’d heard from a cable news anchor that Jose had a criminal record. That, as well as Jose’s name, was all Alvin needed to justify his action.

What the anchor had neglected to mention was Jose’s record was from 1977. And it was for nothing worse than being a passenger in a stolen car. Jose did his three months, got out on his 22nd birthday, and had been a model citizen ever since. He was my friend.

After Jose’s murder, the local police were ordered to keep a tight lid on any information pertaining to the disappearances. When Alyssa Harris was reported missing two days ago, it was printed on page four of the local newspaper. So far, there hadn’t been anyone from the major media outlets poking around. I know it’s only a matter of time, though. Yesterday morning, someone who looked like a reporter was tailing the police cars when they came to investigate the bloody pacifier. For the rest of the day, my phone rang and rang. When I answered, whoever was on the other line just hung up.

That alone was enough to make me worried. My name is Luis Goncalves. I’ve been on Hawthorn Lane for 40 years. I’ve lived by myself since Robert passed away in 1999. Jose Partida was my next-door neighbor. While I appreciate the efforts of our law enforcement officials, they weren’t able to stop Alvin Stovall from murdering my friend. They aren’t able to stop whoever is taking the neighborhood children. I’ve resorted to keeping my pistol holstered to my side all day, every day; even in my house.

I know that may sound paranoid, but look at it from my perspective. Someone is abducting and killing children on my street. An innocent man was gunned down because the news media has convinced a large group of people that Latinos are dangerous criminals. And yesterday morning, hanging from a small branch on a tree in my front yard, was a pacifier dripping with a child’s blood. I can’t take my chances.

All that said, there’s one more thing. I’m reluctant to talk about it, because it’s something I saw when I was experiencing a dizzy spell from my blood pressure medication. I’d blacked out from the medication before, so this could’ve been nothing but a hallucination. Still, these days, with everything that’s going on, I think it bears mentioning.

I was washing up after a midnight snack. The sink is in front of a large picture window that overlooks the front yard. Since it was dark out, I couldn’t see anything but the reflection of myself and the kitchen behind me. I was already feeling dizzy from my medication, but it wasn’t severe enough for me to have to sit, so I kept cleaning.

As I washed the last dish, the overhead light blew. The kitchen went dark. It took a moment for my eyes to acclimate, but I could now see the neighborhood outside. And there was something across the street, opening the Richter family’s mailbox.

A wave of dizziness went through me and I gripped the edge of the counter to steady myself, but I’m certain, despite what I’m about to write, what I saw was really there. It was a pale, nude man with freakishly long legs and even longer arms that protruded from his hips, rather than his shoulders. Despite him being bent down, it was obvious he was tall enough to peer through a second-story window.

He paused with the mailbox half open, then abruptly stepped away and turned around. In two, long strides, he crossed the street into my yard. He gazed through my kitchen window with massive, gray eyes. I stared back. A toothless mouth opened, stretching wide enough to fit a basketball. I reached for my pistol. Through the glass, I heard the sound of infants screaming from deep inside his throat. His mouth shut, then twisted into a grin. Then his long, spindly legs carried him away, down the street, and into the woods.

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Making Faces

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I was torn from my sleep by the sound of my daughter’s screams. I rushed across the hall and saw Jessie standing in front of her bedroom window. When I wrapped my arms around her, I noticed her pajamas were soaked with sweat. The screams tapered off and gasping sobs replaced them; her tiny body heaving as it attempted to take in more air than her lungs would allow.

I picked her up and carried her into my room. We sat on the bed and I held her until she’d calmed enough for me to ask what happened. She shook her head. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Please, sweetheart – I promise it’s okay. What happened?”

Jessie’s wide, blue eyes stared into mine, still leaking away the memory of whatever trauma she’d endured. She pulled my nightgown, beckoning me to come down to her level so she could whisper something in my ear. I obliged.

“There was a big girl in my window making faces at me.”

I lifted my head again to look at Jessie, still feeling the hot condensation from her breath in my ear.

“A big girl?,” I asked, puzzled. Jessie nodded and wiped her eyes on her sweaty pajamas.

“Come on,” I told her, forcing a smile. “Let’s get you in the tub. I’ll let you use my bath bomb.”

For the first time since the ordeal began, a smile flashed across her face. Finally.

As we waited for the tub to fill, Jessie held me around my waist. Her crying had stopped, but she still trembled. I stroked her hair and told her it was okay, over and over, while wondering what could have possibly scared her so badly. This type of episode was entirely unlike her. Quite the contrary; I’d always walk in on her sneaking peeks of scary movies on TV even though I’d told her, in no uncertain terms, that she wasn’t to watch them. But still, even though she’d seen some creepy monsters and murderers, they’d never given her nightmares.

When the tub was filled and the bath bomb was releasing bubbles and glitter and scents that delighted and relaxed Jessie, I helped her out of her pajamas and into the water. She sat there peacefully as her tiredness caught up with her again. Her eyes closed. I continued stroking her hair.

After a little while, knowing she needed to go back to bed, I shook her awake. She opened her eyes and saw me, prompting a smile. But then she stiffened, her eyes widening, and screamed again. I reached into the tub and grabbed her, trying to hold her close, but she pushed and clawed at me, trying to get away.

I cried out to her, “Jessie, what is hap –” and I stopped. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something behind me. Something at the window.

I whirled around, yanking Jessie against my back as I shielded her from something I hadn’t even properly seen. But soon I had. And my own panicked shriek drowned out that of my daughter.

Peering in through the bathroom window was a round, wide face. Pale white with small, jaundiced eyes, it pushed against the window screen until it fell out and clattered on the floor. The face moved toward us on a dowel-thin, articulated neck connected directly to its chin.

“Get out!,” I shouted, mustering up as much violence in my voice as possible.

The neck was blocking our path to the door, and the hideous face turned and stared directly at me before opening its mouth and saying one word: “Jessie.”

A paralyzing wave of incomprehensible terror bloomed inside me. The voice was low and droning, like a normal woman’s voice slowed and pitched down an octave. I felt Jessie stiffen against my back and she pressed her face against my spine, as if trying to hide inside me.

More neck came through the window, the vertebrae bulging against its tight skin as it swayed in the space around us like a long finger with a hundred knuckles.

“Jess……ie.” The voice was even deeper now; I felt it in my chest and bowels.

The face moved toward me and I struck it with my fist. My hand thudded uselessly against its forehead. Before my eyes, the face began to change. Its features elongated, then contracted. Its mouth stretched to its earlobes, then shrank down to a pinhole. The entire topography of its cheekbones and chin and jaw shattered, then reformed. A second later, I was looking at a terribly deformed version of my daughter.

“Jessie.” It exhaled heavily. Hot, stinking breath filled my nostrils.

The strength in my arms vanished. The stability in my legs evaporated. I dropped to the floor, helpless. Jessie was exposed.

“Jess…ie.” The long neck wrapped around my daughter like an anaconda and pulled her toward the window. Jessie, no longer screaming, struggled to breathe against its constricting grasp. Her face reddened. The terrible thing drooled black fluid onto the top of her head. Jessie stopped struggling. She, and the creature, disappeared into the night.

My body regained its strength and I bolted to the window. In the dim light of the crescent moon, I watched the long legs of the thing carry my daughter away into the woods.

I called 911. The police came. They investigated for days. I was the only suspect in her disappearance, but as days turned into weeks and weeks stretched into months, the trail had gone cold. Even if I was still a suspect, they had nothing to even hint at me being the reason for her disappearance. And, in fact, there was evidence to the contrary.

During the initial investigation, when every nook and cranny of the house was looked at, when every piece of furniture was upended, and when every inch of the property was examined, there were only two pieces of evidence; neither of which had anything to do with me, other than to help corroborate my story.

The first morning of the investigation, officers noticed a trail of glitter from the bath bomb stretching from the bathroom window all the way through the yard and high into the trees at the mouth of the forest. When an officer scaled one of the trees, he found glitter stuck to leaves 25 feet up. It was strange, they admitted, but in their words “glitter gets everywhere.”

While they were quick to dismiss that as direct evidence, they couldn’t explain the other thing they found. Smeared across the window in Jessie’s room was the greasy, distorted shape of a woman’s enormous face. When the lab analyzed the cells that’d been left behind, the results were “inconclusive.” The samples were deemed “non-viable.” To me, that meant they wanted to hide what they’d discovered. After a long while, the active investigation was closed.

It’s been six years since Jessie was taken. I live alone in the same house, and every night, I go to bed wishing my daughter would come back to me. Recently, I noticed my bedroom windows had started getting dirty faster than they usually did. I washed them and didn’t think much of it. Not until this morning.

This morning, I woke up to find the outside-facing side of every window covered in grayish, translucent grease. For a while, I struggled to understand what had happened. Then I got to the picture window in the living room. It, too, was filthy. But there was something in that filth. Outlined against the wide piece of glass was the impression of a large face and a thin, articulated neck. The same face I’d seen that night. And next to it, clear as day, was the print of another, smaller face.

Jessie’s face.

Supported by the same, terrible neck.

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Jim Jameson’s Pumpkins

pumpkin

Jim Jameson grew some of the biggest and most unique pumpkins you’d ever seen. You’ve probably noticed them online without knowing they were his. Every Halloween, when websites compete with one another to feature the spookiest content, you’d be hard-pressed not to see one of Jim’s mammoth pumpkins carved into some kind of jack-o’-lantern. He was a local celebrity around here before he died, which was a pretty sad day for the whole town.

The circumstances surrounding his death were well understood, but still bizarre and unfortunate. He’d been working on trying to grow bigger and bigger pumpkins for the shows and for his customers, and he’d been experimenting on the best ways to do it. The new method, which caused his death, was growing them in his greenhouse – suspended in the air by a series of cables. The pumpkins could grow and grow without having the ground to retard their progress. The method resulted in enormous, beautifully-symmetrical pumpkins.

Then, one day, as Jim was working in the greenhouse, a pumpkin the size of a small car fell from the ceiling when its cables snapped. Broke every bone he had above his hips. The rescue workers who extricated him from the mess of blood and pumpkin guts famously said they’d never be able to carve a pumpkin again.

Jim had no next of kin, so the property was sold off, along with everything on it. I was looking for a place in the area, and after a quick visit, I determined it was the best place for me. I moved in about a year ago.

Moving into the home of someone who’d died and seeing all their stuff sitting there more-or-less undisturbed, aside from the refrigerator being cleaned out and a few other maintenance-related things, was a strange experience. At first, it felt a little invasive going through Jim’s belongings. There didn’t appear to be anything too valuable; I figured whatever might’ve been there probably got taken by whoever cleaned the fridge. What I did find, though, were reams of paper and shelves of notebooks.

Jim was a meticulous note taker. Every possible pumpkin permutation was cataloged, diagramed, and explained in full. I learned about his cable system, his fertilizer combinations, and even his experimental work.

The experiments fascinated me.

Jim had seen pictures of fruits and vegetables that’d been coaxed to grow into particular shapes. Square watermelons. Star carrots. That kind of thing. But Jim’s ambitions were greater than simple shapes. He wanted something unique and memorable – something that would put him on the map for more than just big pumpkins.

One of the notebooks was filled with diagrams of a scarecrow-shaped mold in which a pumpkin could be grown. He detailed the various materials he’d need to use, the method of keeping the pumpkin properly watered, and even the various fertilizers he’d use at different stages of its growth.

Apparently he’d been working on this experiment since the late 1980s, but with little success. Molds were created and destroyed over the course of the years, with new materials being introduced or rejected depending on their efficacy. Same with irrigation methods. But fertilizer seemed to be the biggest problem for Jim. The plant wasn’t getting the right amount of nourishment as it grew to fill the mold, leading to parts of it dying off and rotting. For decades, he tried. For decades, he failed.

Whenever I had spare time, I read Jim’s notebooks. I was fascinated by his experimenting and the trials and errors he went through. I’d find myself wondering if his works could be published someday – I couldn’t imagine anyone being bored by the work he’d written about so passionately.

Early last October, when the farm was turning brown and the leaves were turning red, I cracked open a notebook of Jim’s from the year he died. I’d decided to skip a few because I was so anxious to learn if he’d had any success with his pumpkin experiment. At this point in his notes, he was writing about hybrid pumpkins: pumpkin/acorn squash hybrids, pumpkin/zucchini hybrids; all with the goal of solving the rot problem that’d plagued his work.

I flipped through the pages of the notebook, skimming the notes, until one word stood out from all the others as if it’d been written in red: radiation. I turned back a few pages and was blown away by what I saw. Jim had, over time, purchased and disassembled hundreds of smoke detectors. He was looking to collect the tiny amounts of americium-241 they had inside.

With wide eyes, I pored over the pages as Jim talked about incorporating the americium-241 into his fertilizer to induce mutations in the pumpkins. With each new entry, I saw that Jim began to have successes. He wrote about each complete, shaped pumpkin with unbridled enthusiasm. I started to notice a slight disconnect between the scientifically-meticulous Jim from before the success and the potentially-irradiated Jim after.

I finished that notebook and started the next one. The disconnect continued. More hypotheses about hybridization were detailed – including hybrids with ostriches and slugs and even dinosaurs. I groaned and dropped the notebook. The poor b*****d had gone nuts. I felt pity for the old farmer and part of me wondered if his death in the greenhouse was purposely self-inflicted. If my mind was going, I might’ve done the same thing.

I didn’t read his notes for a couple weeks.

On Halloween, feeling bored and waiting for it to get dark so I could give the trick-or-treaters the full-size candy bars I’d bought to be the best neighbor ever, I picked up another one of Jim’s notebooks. It was the last one he’d ever made entries in. The handwriting was terrible and the sentences were fragmented. Still, I could get a decent idea about what he was talking about. More nonsense about hybrids. More trials with the americium-241 fertilizer. There were drawings, too. Not just diagrams, but artistically-rendered representations of his pumpkins and the imaginary hybrids. Some were actually pretty cool, like one of a scarecrow pumpkin riding an ostrich pumpkin. Silly, yes, but well drawn compared to his scrawled handwriting.

The drawings tapered off as I got to the end of the notebook. On the last page before a series of blanks, there was a diagram. I held it up and turned it around, trying to make out what it could be. Then it clicked: it was a map of the property. I saw the barn and the house and the greenhouse, but there was something there I didn’t recognize; something in the middle of the field by the three scarecrows that’d been there for what looked like decades.

Still bored and now curious, I brought the map with me to the field. Sure enough, at the center of the triangle formed by the scarecrows, was a slight mound in the dirt. Easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it.

I kicked the dust around for a minute and saw a rope connected to a wooden hatch. I pulled it open, revealing a passage and a ladder anchored into stone walls. I realized it had been a well at one point. I jogged back to the house and grabbed a flashlight. It was getting dark and I knew it’d be pitch black down there.

I took care in climbing down the steps and reached the bottom after about 10 feet. Shallower than I thought. There was a narrow, low hallway with a dirt ceiling covered in the veiny stalactites of roots from the plants above. I stooped down and walked forward, brushing the roots out of my face and trying to put out of my mind the thought of spiders as their webs stuck to my face.

My flashlight beam illuminated another wooden door with a rope handle. I reached out, grabbed, the handle, and pulled. It was stuck. I aimed the flashlight around the door and noticed a metal rod sticking out of the wall, blocking the door from opening. I yanked the rod out of the wall and tried the door again. It opened easily.

The flashlight showed a small room, about five feet by five feet. At first, I thought it was empty. When I stepped inside, however, there was something against the wall next to the doorway. It took me a minute to figure out what it was in the dim light of the flashlight, but when I finally understood what I was looking at, I gasped. The thing began to move.

I stifled a scream as a creature the size of a man stood and stared at me; its veiny, whitish-orange skin covered in dust. It moaned.

I made a move to run, but the thing blocked my path. Now, I did scream. I tried to strike it with my flashlight, but I was dealt a heavy blow that sent me reeling. The last thing I saw before I lost consciousness was the thing walking out the door and down the root-choked corridor.

My blackout lasted the entire night. When I came to, I rolled around in pain and confusion. I was seeing double and was unbearably dizzy. I knew I had to have a concussion, but for the first couple minutes, I couldn’t remember why. When it all came flooding back, a spell of panic pushed my dizziness aside and I ran out of the room, climbed out of the chamber, and hauled myself into the daylight.

The farm was filled with police and emergency vehicles. One of the officers saw me staggering toward them and called out to his partner. They approached me just in time for me to collapse into their arms.

I woke up in the hospital some time later. I was indeed concussed and my skull was home to a fracture that could’ve killed me. There was commotion outside the door and I pressed the button near the bed to alert a nurse. When one finally came, she looked haggard and upset. I asked what was going on, dismayed by the slur I heard in my speech.

She sat on my bed, and without breaking eye contact, told me what had happened and why the hospital was full. I didn’t believe her, so she turned on the local news. The anchor was talking about the deaths in our town. The dead trick-or-treaters. The dead parents who’d tried to protect them. The dead police officers who’d tried to intervene.

The view changed to a charred and fractured area in the middle of Main Street. It looked like a bomb had gone off. The nurse turned off the TV.

The nurse said no one knew how any of it happened and some people were even doubting what they’d seen less than 24 hours ago. It was too surreal. A man-shaped creature with skin like a pumpkin screaming “where is my father?,” while devastating any person it came near. But the evidence was there. Especially in the victims. The dead were lucky. The living, though, were traumatized beyond comprehension.

While I thought my injury was bad, as more details of the event were relayed, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. But it was short-lived. Before she left to assist another patient, the nurse said one thing under her breath. It was quiet and almost sounded like she didn’t want to say it, but felt compelled to. I didn’t get all of it, but what I heard was enough.

“…shattered hips and jaws and orifices stuffed with pumpkin seeds.”

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