Ethan’s Halloween Mask

swings

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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There’s something dangerous living near the power plant in Bridgeport, CT.

plant

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the area, but the people who live over here have been talking about it for the last couple weeks. No one can agree on what it is, but the one thing they know is a lot of pets have gone missing. Birds, too. The power plant’s on Long Island Sound, and there used to be seagulls and herons all over the place. Not anymore.

The Connecticut Post’s main office is only a few blocks away on State Street, but they haven’t published stories about anything out of the ordinary. Same with News 12. That doesn’t mean they haven’t heard rumors, though. A guy I work with, Dion Hargrove, called up the Post last week to tell them about something he saw over by the old Remington building.

The Remington building is right across from a walking park that runs parallel to the University of Bridgeport campus. The park’s beautiful during the day, but at night, like the rest of the area, it’s sketchy as all hell. If what Dion saw was after dark, he wouldn’t have thought much of it. He wouldn’t have stayed to watch. But at 11am on a sunny day, he knew what he was seeing was very out of place.

While Dion walked, he noticed a person crouching by the front door of the Remington building. He wasn’t too close, but it was a clear shot across the street through the chainlink fence. The person was wearing a heavy, green NY Jets coat, despite it being almost 80 degrees out and humid. In his hands was a cat. And he was eating it. Now, Bridgeport has its share of homeless people, many of whom are mentally ill. If you remember that story from Florida about the homeless guy who ate his friend’s face, well, he was originally from Bridgeport. But I digress.

As Dion watched, the guy buried his face into the poor cat’s belly and gnawed away. Then he looked up and saw Dion watching him. He dropped the cat and ran, but not before Dion could see something was very wrong with him. First off, he looked extremely overweight. That alone isn’t worthy of mention, of course, but there was something deeply unsettling about his bulk. It shifted under the heavy coat as he ran, but not with his steps. It moved on its own.

Right before the man turned the corner into the rear of the building, something fell from his coat. It was like a reddish-gray slab of skin. It trailed behind him as he turned, but then lifted on its own and disappeared behind the building.

Dion didn’t know what the hell he’d just seen, but he figured he probably had to call the cops. Bridgeport cops have an unpleasant reputation, but considering the guy was so close to the University, Dion was worried the he might try to hurt a student. The cops came and took his statement, but he never heard anything back. His call didn’t show up in the Post’s police log.

Dion’s report is the most detailed, but it’s not the only one. Not by a long shot. Boaters in Long Island Sound have complained about their motors getting snagged and ruined as they passed by the power plant. Nearby residents, aside from losing their pets, have made noise complaints about a low, screaming howl coming primarily from the area surrounding the plant, but sometimes as close as the street outside. And then there’s David Chung.

David was a student at the University of Bridgeport. He’d just moved into his dorm in August, and the security cameras showed him walking around the campus and heading off down the street to the beach.

The next morning, David’s body was found in the water near the power plant’s dock. There was a brief investigation, and it was determined he drowned while swimming and the damage to his body was the result of being struck by a barge delivering coal to the plant.

My friend in the police department, though, told me he’d seen floaters hit by those barges. David didn’t look anything them. To make matters worse, the official report didn’t mention the kid’s wounds. The holes. Holes all over his body that looked like they’d been sucked out, rather than punctured. And the report also neglected to mention the fact that David had been found wrapped in a heavy, green, NY Jets coat. The same one Dion Hargrove had described to the police.

To anyone who thinks this warrants more of an investigation, I implore you to spread this around. I want people to see what’s happening here and not let the violence get swept under the rug like in every other urban community. Because I know something very wrong is living near that power plant. Something that’s now moved on from birds and cats to people. And every night, as I shiver behind locked doors with my rifle, I can hear it howling.

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Know It All

meat

The hospital I’ve called my home for the last 30 years can only be described as an asylum. While the word has fallen out of favor, the situation inside has remained consistent. Days stretch in interminable swaths of gray and white; gray from the medication in the mornings, white from the medication in the afternoons. Only the blackness of night frees me from the consuming palate of mid-winter rain clouds used to paint my days away.

I am here by my own volition. The fact I used the law to enact that volition is a mere technicality. The fact I stole the volition of someone else to gain use of the law is another. At the end of the bloodbath – at the end of the steaming orgy of crimson and savagery – I’d gotten my wish. I’d never need to harm another living thing for the rest of my life.  

The sights and sounds which etched themselves into my soul on that May morning in 1986 still flash through. Between timed doses, gray melts into red. Red bleeds into white. To any other man, those flashes would be the proof of his madness; the seeping of illness into medicated docility. But I know far more than any other man.

On May 3rd, 1986, I awoke to find my young son in the room with me. We stared at one another for a moment. Then I rolled out of bed and went to the garage. By lunchtime, I had chopped him into 400 pieces. On May 4th, the front page of the newspaper featured a picture of his blonde hair stuck to the blade of my axe.

To those who read the story or saw the news, I was labeled a monster. To those who served the courts and reviewed the evidence, I was labeled insane. To me, however, the person who conversed with the pieces as they were liberated from my son, I was not a monster. I was not insane. I was a man who needed knowledge. My boy held the secrets to it all.

I discussed what lay beyond our universe with Aaron’s left foot. The foot laughed. It was Aaron’s small voice. It told me to ask the shin. More blows of the axe brought the shin into our discussion. But it could tell me very little; only that the knee had much more information.

And so it went.

The leftmost quadrant of Aaron’s lower mandible informed me I was close, and his upper-right incisor screamed with delirious laughter while it spoke of the secrets I’d learn from the uvula and tonsils. When the axe would no longer suffice – its blunt brutality too clumsy to properly extricate the tiny pieces with whom I needed to converse – my pocket knife and its keen precision continued the work. Three hours later, with 400 pieces of child organized around me by order of their knowledge, we began our formal chat. And I learned everything.

I write this today as a prisoner. As a patient. As a father. In this unmedicated interstice between gray and white, I can reflect on the red. Not the red of blood, but the red of It All: the rich, vermillion expanse of flesh and organs on which this universe is a scab.

On the last night of his life, an emissary from It All visited Aaron as he slept. It whispered its secrets into every part of him, and my son, who was the most caring, generous person I’d ever met, knew he had to share it with me. So he waited, patiently, for me to wake.

On the morning of May 3rd, 1986, I lifted my sleep mask to see Aaron floating above my bed, watching me. Bright sunlight streamed across us. The dancing reflection of light against the shiny crimson of his sclera dazzled me. Enthralled me. He opened his mouth, but remained silent. He tried again, but it was no use; It All was inside him. His mouth contained no cavity – only solid red streaked with veins. He brought his pinky finger to my ear and placed it inside, and the fingertip told me what I needed to do. Four hours later, I’d brought It All out of Aaron and into my mind. And now into yours.

Daily fogs of grays and whites desaturate what I’ve seen, but they cannot hide the presence of what I know is there. I am not insane. The red which courses through the arterial network of multiversal organs and flesh is beyond sanity. Beyond mind. But not beyond body. At the end of my life, whenever that is, I know I’ll get to touch Aaron again.

Even now, through It All, I feel him pressing against the walls, reaching for me, and speaking to me; each part of him singing choruses of thanks and praise. It’s the praise which gives me the most comfort as I sit, day after day, year after year, and wait. I wait knowing I am loved and appreciated. That’s more than enough. It’s the dream of every father to give It All to his son.

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Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

psl

I was 13 when I had my first pumpkin spice latte. Dad had taken me to Starbucks on the way to school, and as soon as we walked in, I saw their poster advertising the drink. Everything about the ad screamed “warmth.” The mug it showcased was a gentle beige, contrasting sweetly against the light-brown wood of the table on which it sat, surrounded by artistically-placed autumn leaves and festive gourds. The contents of the mug were centered in the image, showing off the perfect dollop of creamy foam with caramelly tints of espresso running through it. At the top, lovingly whispered by the deft hand of a skilled, caring barista, was a sprinkling of nutmeg.

It called to me.

I eschewed my normal caramel macchiato and requested a grande pumpkin spice latte. I waited anxiously with Dad by my side. He sipped his black coffee and suggested we sit for a little while. We were running early, for once.

I sat, shaking my leg with anticipatory excitement. The cafe smelled different that day. I’d grown accustomed to the thick, imposing aroma of dark-roasted coffee and the occasional hint of sweetness as a customer’s blueberry muffin was toasted. That day, though, gripping the reins of the dark roast and riding it to a new and alluring place, was something else. Something exotic. My head swam as I realized the exotic smell was, in fact, the spicy melange of ingredients within a pumpkin spice latte: the same pumpkin spice latte I’d soon taste.

After what felt like an eternity, my order was ready. Alexander, the barista, waved me over. I did my best to avoid sprinting, but my rush was obvious.

“Easy, princess,” Dad called. I slowed down a bit and giggled. I was his princess.

I reached the counter and accepted my drink. In the tiny mouth of the lid, I could see the sprinkled spices adorning the cap of warm foam. With my eyes closed, I inhaled the steam rising from the hole.

The scent was an embrace from a ghost; a non-corporeal expression of love and comfort. The first sip was transcendental. At that moment, I knew what it felt like to believe in something bigger than myself.

Each day before school, Dad would take me to Starbucks to get another pumpkin spice latte. Its effect on me didn’t dull, nor did it taste any less special. As early autumn reds decayed into late autumn browns, I found my mood better than it had ever been in my short life. I never knew it was so easy to be happy.

At 6:51am on December 1st, 2005, Dad and I walked into Starbucks.

At 6:52am on December 1st, 2005, my happiness was torn from my chest and dashed against the rocks.

The pumpkin spice latte was a limited-time product. Alexander told me it’d be back just in time for fall next year, then asked if I’d like to go back to my caramel macchiato. Entombed in disbelief and disappointment, I nodded.

The following days were a blur of grays. My vivacity had been strangled. Dad would ask, over and over, what he could do to make his princess happy. I didn’t need to tell him, though. He knew. And there was nothing he could do about it.

December slouched toward Christmas, a holiday I’d always loved. Not anymore, though. Now that I’d seen the world through a lens of happiness and warmth, nothing looked the same without it. Quite the contrary: it all looked fake. Vulgar. When I closed my eyes on Christmas Eve, I prayed for Santa to bring me blindness or death.

On Christmas morning, I woke up to Dad standing next to my bed. That was a little tradition he and I had. Before Mom passed away, they’d both come up and shake me awake and carry me downstairs to see what Santa had brought. Now that it was just the two of us, he wanted to keep the tradition going. Even in my despondence, I still appreciated it.

Dad held my hand and we headed down the steps. Tears had started to flow without my knowing. We reached the Christmas tree in the living room. Only one present stood underneath. It was small and wrapped with bright green paper. I looked at Dad with confusion. He just smiled and beckoned to the gift.

I sat, cross legged, under the tree, and tore away the paper. My soft weeping grew into pitiful bleating.

“Why would you do this?,” I whispered to Dad, my breath heaving with sobs. In my lap, beneath the shiny, torn paper, was a cheery, autumnal Starbucks mug. The same one from the poster I’d seen on that transformative day.

I was baffled and hurt, but Dad stood, still smiling.

“Come with me, princess.”

I obeyed and rose to my feet, following his long stride out of the living room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen.

Dad looked into my misty eyes and whispered, “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” He opened the cellar door.

A faint, but familiar and exquisite aroma entered me. In my surprise, I nearly dropped my present.

“Why don’t you go see what Santa brought you?,” Dad suggested.

I ran down the 14 steps with the same enthusiasm I had when ran across Starbucks to receive my first pumpkin spice latte. This time, Dad didn’t tell me to slow down.

I reached the bottom, turned the corner, and there, on a makeshift bar, was a new espresso machine. I gasped. Behind the bar, manning the machine, was Alexander the barista. He smiled and stared, wide-eyed, as Dad reached the bottom of the stairs and placed himself by my side.

“Go ahead, princess, tell the nice man what you’d like.”

My voice quavered at first, but I finished my request with enthusiasm and strength. “May I please have a pumpkin spice latte?”

Alexander, still smiling, nodded. He began to work. The coffee was ground and thick espresso drooled out of the machine into the bottom of the mug. With a hiss of steam, the milk was frothed. Warm milk joined the espresso in the mug, followed by a generous dollop of ethereal foam.  Then Alexander picked up a large shaker. I knew what had to be inside.

With three expert shakes, a pixie dusting of pumpkin spice kissed the foamy head of the latte. He picked up my mug and held it out. I walked up to the bar, carefully took the mug from Alexander’s hand, and thanked him. I noticed, for the first time, he didn’t have any legs and was strapped to a rolling stool.

“I’m sorry about your accident, Alexander,” I said with sincerity. He didn’t say anything, but kept smiling. I saw a small cut in his neck and wondered if his accident had made it so he couldn’t talk anymore.

“Merry Christmas,” I told him. He stared at Dad.

I took a sip from the mug, and, for the first time in nearly a month, it seemed like I could see in color again. The world felt right and I was happy.

My tears were drying as I took Dad’s hand. We turned the corner and headed up the steps. We reached the landing and Dad switched off the basement light. He always hated to waste electricity.

“You can have one every morning now, princess,” Dad informed me. “As long as I’m around, I’ll make sure you get whatever you need.”

I hugged him, feeling the warmth of his body against mine. It was nearly as pleasant as the mug against my palm. He was right, too. Things have been wonderful ever since.

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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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An Unlucky Samaritan

When I was 17, I was in a head-on collision with another driver. I think I was unconscious for a minute or two after the impact. When I came to, I was confused and couldn’t feel any pain. I couldn’t move much, though. Something was pinning me. A downward glance showed me what it was. There was a metal rod impaling directly under my knee, through what the doctors later told me was my patellar tendon. It had pushed through the tendon, lifted my kneecap, and driven itself up the length of my thigh. It wasn’t too deep inside; I could see it bulging under my skin.

A minute later, I felt everything. I screamed and screamed, thrashing for a bit before realizing any movement only intensified the pain in my knee and thigh. Then I looked out the cracked windshield and saw the other driver. His devastated skull sat on his neck like a mashed fruit. I could see his tongue lolling out of his ruined mouth. Without a lower jawbone to hold it in place, it hung down to his Adam’s apple. The remaining eye stared, unblinking, at the damage its owner had caused.

Another wave of impossibly acute agony surged through me, blurring my vision and forcing me to bite down on my own teeth until I felt at least one molar crack. Some part of my consciousness registered the fact I was hyperventilating and worked to calm my breathing. A couple moments later, the wave had passed. I realized no cars had come upon our accident yet. I tried to reach into the back pocket of my shorts for my cell phone, but there was no way the rod in my knee would allow that much movement. In exchange for my attempt, the unbearable pain resumed.

Once I’d regained my senses, I looked again at the remains of the other driver. There wasn’t much I could make out. It looked he he’d had a beard; hair was puffing out from the skin of what might have been his cheeks. Even though he was the one who’d caused me all this pain, I felt bad he was dead. No one deserved to have that happen to them. While I studied the gore with morbid fascination, the man’s neck jerked and sent the fleshy wreckage of his face flopping back and forth. He jerked again. This time, his shoulders and torso moved as well. I gagged as the movement forced his head downward and bits of his crushed brain oozed from the hole that was once his face.

The man continued moving as if he was enduring a terrible seizure. My pain came back. Unable to bear the sensation, I blacked out. It couldn’t have been very long. When I came to, there was something wrong with the man’s body. Something I couldn’t understand. The hole where his face had connected to his throat was stuffed with something. It slid out in a thick, wet mass onto the twisted steering wheel and dashboard. From my vantage point, about six feet away, I could only describe it as a worm or snake. Still, it was unlike either of those things. The body was grayish-white and oozed heavy, milky yellow discharge from gaping pores which covered the entirety of its length. That length increased as I watched with growing horror.

The return of the pain in my knee was unable to overcome the fear sweeping over me at the sight of the monster. Over ten feet had unfurled from the carcass and had draped itself along the dashboard. It was lying on surfaces coated with pulverized glass from the windshield, and I could see chunks of it sticking in its pores as it moved. The thing didn’t seem to mind. Once another few feet came out, I saw its tail end finally discharge itself from the man. The parasite squirmed off the dashboard and onto the crumpled union of car hoods. The viscous, milky slime clung to every surface it touched and kept the creature connected to the contacted surfaces by thin ropes. It uncoiled completely and its full length lay wetly on our cars. The smell coming from its body was thick and putrescent with a revolting, cloying sweetness. I struggled not to retch, not wanting it to hear me.

The pores stopped oozing. An unsettling, peristaltic ripple passed through the thing’s body. Ugly flatulent sounds leaked from each pore, and I saw something moving inside them. With an explosive jolt that caused me to jump in shock, bright red tendrils burst out of its pores. Each one was about as thick as a pencil and every pore contained at least 20 of them. They grew and grew in length, some laying flaccidly on the cars and some erecting themselves and flopping around like severed electrical cables.

I screamed when a couple of the tendrils brushed against me as they grew. But seconds later, every one of them pushed downward and dragged the main body onto the surface of the road. An 18-wheeler was driving toward us. It screeched to a halt and I watched an overweight trucker stumble out of the cab and run toward us. First he looked over and saw the dead man was far beyond help. Then he saw me and my look of pain and terror. He opened his mouth, presumably to say he’d call 911, but the tendrils leapt into his mouth and throat before he could get a word out.

The trucker grasped the thick cord of tendrils invading him and tried to pull. More shot out from the thing in the road and wrapped themselves around his fat form. Over the course of a minute, the main body had been pulled over to the trucker. Gradually, the tendrils retracted from the man’s mouth while the body forced itself into his throat. The putrid seminal fluid again began to leak from the creature as it pushed deeper and deeper. A little while later, it was inside. The man was soaked from head to toe with the vile substance. But he no longer looked afraid. He just looked calm. He turned around and walked back to his truck, leaving a trail of milky-yellow slime. I heard the engine start and the truck drove away.

Another car noticed us soon after. The paramedics were called and I was brought to the hospital. I never told anyone what happened. I assume everyone was confused about what the slime was, but I didn’t hear them talk about it. All they were concerned about was the wound in my leg, which required two years to recover. I never saw the parasite, or any hint of it, again. It was another five years before I’d conquered my fear of driving. I’ve done my best to forget about what I saw. No matter how hard I try, though, I still shudder when a truck passes me and I see the driver through his open window. I know that thing is still in one of them. At least one.

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My Trouble With Fairies

sparrow-in-the-tree

Growing up, whenever my brother would get hurt, I’d blame it on my fairy friends. My parents never believed me and I’d get punished. It didn’t help that my brother said I was the one who pushed him or punched him or scratched him. No matter how much I protested, at the end of it all, I was the one who got in trouble. So, at a young age, I learned I was the only one who could see the fairies.

For some time, it was a mixed blessing. Having friends only I could see meant there wasn’t anyone who could tell them to leave me alone or that they had to go home because I needed to go to bed. It was nice to never feel lonely. The issue, unfortunately, was that the fairies were mischievous. They’d rarely listen when I told them to stop doing something. They would just laugh and flit about and continue with their fun.

Most of the time it was harmless, albeit obnoxious. They’d flutter their little wings under someone’s nose and make them sneeze or they’d knock someone’s elbow against a glass and spill their drink all over the table. That kind of thing. On occasion, however, their activities were more serious – especially when it came to my older brother.

The fairies didn’t like how Todd would talk to me. I didn’t think much of it; I was the younger sister and he was my bratty teenage brother. I just thought that’s how the world worked. The fairies begged to differ. And they wanted to make it known. That’s why they’d scratch and hit him. It went on for years as his treatment of me got worse and worse.

On a Saturday morning when I was in bed being lazy and listening to the rain fall outside, I heard a muffled scream from Todd’s room on the other side of the wall. The scream was followed by retching and gagging and Todd streaked past my doorway and into the bathroom where he vomited loudly and often. My parents noticed the commotion and came to his aid. Mom’s shout was loud enough to cut through the sound of Todd’s puking and Dad swore. That scared me. He never did that.

I stood in the doorway while the fairies giggled and floated in an iridescent orbit around my head. I knew whatever they’d done to my brother had to be worse than things they’d done in the past. My father father stormed from the bathroom and entered Todd’s room. He came back a second later with his fist full of something. He stood in front of me, eyes glazed with rage and disgust.

“What the hell is wrong with you?,” he hissed, and opened his hand.

I shrieked with surprise and disgust when I saw what he held. It was the body of a small bird, a sparrow, maybe, that was cut up and bleeding. Dislodged feathers stuck to the blood and greasy white discharge oozing from its truncated rear half.

“Do you have any idea how sick your brother can get from this?,” Dad asked. Behind his rage was a tone of deep concern and even fear. His fear only amplified my own.

“I…I didn’t,” I stammered, and my eyes darted back and forth as I followed the hysterically-laughing fairies as they swept back and forth across the carnage in my father’s palm.

“Stay here,” Dad ordered.

“But…,” I tried to interject, but he grabbed my shoulder hard with his free hand and held me against the doorframe. The din of giggles stopped. I heard them whispering amongst themselves.

Dad leaned down and pushed his forehead against mine. When he spoke, his words were clear and smelled like the coffee he’d been drinking.

“You are not to say another word. You are not to leave this room. I am taking your brother to the doctor, and if your mother tells me you’ve said anything or set foot outside, I promise you will regret it.”

He squeezed my shoulder harder and I winced and tried to fight back tears. He stared at me for a full ten seconds without saying anything, then he let me go.

Dad turned the corner to head downstairs and I saw what was coming but was too afraid to speak up. As he started down, I saw the fairies hurl themselves against the bottom of his foot before it had made contact with the first step. His foot landed awkwardly and his ankle twisted, sending him face first onto the uncarpeted wooden steps. The sound of his face impacting with the stairs seemed louder than anything I’d ever heard.

Mom called from the bathroom where she was still attending to Todd. Dad didn’t answer. I peeked around the corner. He was on his belly at the bottom of the stairs. He was moaning and weakly flailing his arms against the hardwood. His legs were still on the steps, but they didn’t move at all.

Mom came out and down the hall, glaring at me before turning the corner and seeing her husband. She gasped and rushed to his aid. Not wanting to make them any angrier than they already were, I turned back into my room. I winced when I put pressure on my right ankle and limped back to bed, where I sat and stared at the fairies.

They were laughing again. They flew like a shimmering, animated constellation around the room, weaving in and out of closets and drawers and galoshes. My ankle throbbed. The fairies formed a line in the air and held the formation for a moment, then they made a beeline for the dusty corner behind my dresser. They burst into peals of uproarious laughter and blinked out of view.

As the faint sound of sirens in the distance entered my ears, I gingerly walked to where the fairies had gone. I noticed a tiny feather. And then another. And another. When I reached the dresser and peered behind it, there was a clump of feathers and some blood right next to a small knife from our kitchen. I felt a pang of confused, disconnected recognition, but was shocked back to my senses by a fresh wave of pain from my foot and ankle.

I sat on the floor with my back against the dresser. I pulled up the leg of my pajama pants and examined my ankle. It was swollen and red. The top of my foot hurt, too, and I drew my knee to my chest so I could get a closer look. Again, I felt confused and out of place. The sirens were loud and close but I wasn’t paying attention to them anymore.

I looked around for my fairy friends, but they were nowhere to be seen. For the first time, when I desperately needed to ask them a question, they were gone. My confusion grew teeth and fear pricked the skin of my back and neck. My ankle hurt, but that wasn’t what was scaring me. It was my foot. Because even though I watched the fairies trip my dad, for some reason, the imprint of his work boot was etched in the skin of my foot – and my heel was stippled with tiny handprints.

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