By Jen P
“How you plan on getting’ all these home?” says the farmer who owns the pumpkin patch. He’s in his mid-fifties, in good shape for his age, tanned, and dusty from hauling gourds out of the field all day.
Any other day, Cecilia would be admiring his sturdy frame, imagining what he’d look like naked beneath her purple mandala sheets; but the scarecrow in the field behind him has her full attention. It’s unlike any scarecrow she’s seen—twice the size of most, and dark as if shaded by a different light than the world around it. Its body is made of sticks and tattered burlap, flapping heavily in the breeze. Dried pumpkin vines climb up its support beam on either side, giving the semblance of legs if she lets her eyes blur out for a moment. But what makes the scarecrow oddest of all, is its head: a sun-bleached deer skull, with great, curved antlers. Three sharp offshoots jut up from the major curved point of each horn, and a break in the jaw adds to the eeriness.
“Ma’am?” says the farmer, louder to get her attention.
She shakes her head. “Sorry. Yes. I’ll come back for the rest, if you’ll just sit them somewhere off to the side for me.”
She points. “That’s some scarecrow you have there.”
He turns to look at it, as if he’s forgotten the hulking thing stands constant vigil in his field. “Oh, that’s Marvin,” he says. “We call him ‘the guardian of the patch’. Don’t do much about the birds, but he sure keeps the kids from sneakin’ in and smashin’ ‘em in the night.”
“I bet,” she says with a chuckle, handing him a wad of cash. “Keep the change. I’ll be back in an hour.”
With a wet splat, the guts land on the table, missing the bowl. Cecilia scoops arm-deep into the vibrant orange dome, driving the spoon into the soft meat and separating it from the pumpkin’s harder walls. This will be the third jack-o’-lantern she’s prepped this afternoon, and it won’t be the last. The tiles in her kitchen are littered with a hundred more: large and small; narrow and bulbous; bumpy and smooth; orange, white and green.
It took her four trips to get all the pumpkins home, but she believes it will be worth it. Every year, she competes to have the best jack-o’-lantern display in the neighborhood; and every year, she loses to Duke Bartram on Shady Oak Lane. But not this year. This year, she’s carving each of her Parker Street neighbors’ faces into a separate pumpkin, down to the Johnson’s newborn girl.
She wipes the sweat off her brow, leaving a trail of orange slime across her forehead, but she doesn’t notice. She hollows out gourd after gourd with such determined fury, only a dark red line dripping down the side of the tenth pumpkin alerts her to the fact that she has cut her thumb.
“Damn,” she mutters, sucking at the wound. It tastes both metallic from the blood and sweet from the fruits she’s gored mercilessly for the past hour.
She puts down the knife and runs her hand under cold water at the kitchen sink. It’s deeper than she’d like to admit—may even need stitches. But she can’t stop now or she’ll never finish before dawn. The judges come tomorrow, Halloween morning, and they expect fresh pumpkins, not day-old rotters, or she would have done the work last weekend. She sighs deeply as she looks out the open window over the sink. The crackle of fall leaves on the sidewalk and the laughter of children getting off the school bus does nothing to brighten her mood, because across the street, Evalee Price already has her pumpkins up. She’s carved ten classic jacks to line the brick walkway to her front steps, with a more elaborate filigreed design etched onto a three-foot-tall beauty by the front door. It won’t win, but at least she has a complete look.
Afraid to waste even the mere minutes required to retrieve the Band-Aids from the upstairs bathroom, Cecilia wraps her thumb tight with a paper towel, secures it with tape from the junk drawer, and gets back to work.
As she carves and guts like a machine, a buttery-sweet scent wafts in from the open window behind her. Evalee has begun baking her famous pumpkin pies from the leftovers. Must be nice to have such low aspirations for the contest, she thinks. Cecilia needs the $5,000 prize after her last exhibit failed to sell even a single piece. It won’t be but a month or two before her bank account runs empty from basic expenses, and that’s not counting what she owes the art studio, or her mortgage.
That’s not saying she doesn’t enjoy Evalee’s pies, though. She tried to bake her own last year—carving always seemed such a waste of good food—but she threw the bitter results in the trash. Better to leave the baking to the bakers and the carving to the true artists, she thinks, smiling at the thought of Evalee’s elegant but simple display.
Elegant but simple, much like Evalee herself.
Evalee’s husband George, though… now there’s a mysterious fellow.
It’s deep into the darkness of night that Cecilia finishes cleaning out the last pumpkin; and the slight glow of sunrise illuminates the neighborhood by the time she cleans the last sliver of pumpkin skin off the cherubic face of Baby Daisy Johnson. She takes a step back, admiring her work through glazed eyes; they’re perfect, all of them. From the Villanuevo couple and their three sulky teenagers, to Carl Smith and his elderly mother, it might be Cecilia’s best work, she thinks. She smirks at the one non-resident among them: the devil-horned face of Duke Bartram. The judges should get a kick out of that.
She spends the rest of the dawn’s early hours arranging the families along her porch, in the grass, on stacks of hay, and in and around the large oak tree in her front yard. She started to arrange them in a neat line according to where they lived, but decided that was too on the nose for the discerning judges. As she stands at the street, admiring her handiwork, she turns to the sound of a door cracking open behind her. It’s George on his way to work at Butler and Meyer, the law firm whose tacky billboards clutter all the roads around town. He gives a silent nod, and his lips quirk at the edges when she nods back. Then he gets in his silver Lexus and drives away.
Now, all Cecilia has to do is clean up and wait for the judges. She laughs to herself at the thought of baking more pies again, and tosses the two-hundred pounds of pumpkin guts into the large trash bin around the side of her house.
The wind picks up, scattering leaves across the stony path leading into her backyard garden, and a strip of fabric flutters in the wind, caught on the lock at the wooden gate. She narrows her eyes; it’s brown burlap, like the kind used at the pumpkin farm.
When she tears it from the iron lock, it gives off an odd smell—like rotten fruit and dust.
Too tired to think much of it, she drops it in the trash on the way back by. She has more cleanup to do than she previously realized, as a line of sticky droplets marks the path she took from the kitchen out. She hoses off the exterior and mops inside, then scrubs everything from the sinks down to the floors in the kitchen. After that, she showers, puts on some tea, and sits in the creaky old swing on the porch to wait for the judges.
Duke Bartram didn’t stand a chance.
By noon, she holds a giant blue ribbon in one hand, and a check for $5,000 in the other. With great pride, she takes down her fall wreath and hangs the ribbon on her front door, then plants a sign by the driveway that reads:
Pecan Hills Annual Jack-o’-lantern Competition.
Cecilia thinks they could have been more creative with the wording, but it doesn’t matter. She won! She beat Duke for the first time in the five years she’s been competing. Second place was never good enough, and now he’ll know how that feels, the old jerk.
In her kimono and slippers, she stretches out on the swaying swing, and sips a glass of ten-dollar champagne while she watches the neighborhood prepare for the night’s festivities. With a glance at the Price home, she smirks at her own upcoming festivities. She’ll pick up George from the airport parking lot at 10, then she’ll drive back here and park in the garage so no one sees him come inside.
Cecilia feels some guilt, of course, but stopped respecting marital vows the day she discovered that her own husband had dipped into her savings to buy an abortion for his young lover. Hence the nasty divorce that won her this house and the freedom to sleep with whomever she chooses. And George Price creates the kind of magic in the privacy of Cecilia’s bedroom that Stepford-perfect Evalee can’t possibly appreciate. The fact that she sleeps just across the street, oblivious, is half the fun.
The only thing that will make this day better, is delivery from Cecilia’s favorite Thai restaurant. She picks up her cell phone and places the order.
Soon, the day turns to dusk, and the waning sun brings with it knock after knock of neighborhood children begging for candy in costume. Despite not having any children of her own, Cecilia loves seeing the little ones’ faces light up at the fistfuls of candy she drops into their bags. The larger, un-costumed kids who just want candy? Not so much. But she hands them a piece or two with a smile on her face anyway.
The last children to come to her door are the Price twins. At seven years old, the boys already look so much like their father, she can’t help but smile at them even though their mother waits stoically at the bottom of the steps. They’re dressed as little toy soldiers—their muddy face paint faded from a long night of trick or treating, but otherwise still adorable.
“Bang, bang,” says the taller of the twins, but she can’t remember which of the two is Thomas or Timothy.
“Happy Halloween,” she cackles, scooping a fistful of candy from her plastic cauldron. Then over his head, she says, “Evening, Evalee.”
“Happy Halloween,” Evalee says in her cool, distant way: with a close-mouthed smile and a dip of her chignoned head.
The boys take their treats and tromp down the steps after their mother. From inside, Cecilia watches them cross the road to their home, then notices the curtains rustling at the kitchen window and gets up to close it. But even after the window is closed, a draft teases the fringes of her long black scarf. She could have sworn that was the only window open, and her eyes narrow as she retraces her memories of the day.
No, that was the only open window.
As she steps into the hallway, she freezes. The back door stands wide-open, the source of the draft. Beyond, the garden is shrouded in shadow, and a chill runs down the length of her spine. There’s no way she’d be so careless as to leave a door open.
Though her rational mind knows it’s unlikely, she wonders if one of the times she closed the front door tonight, the air pressure forced the door open.
That has to be it.
Broom in hand, eyes darting to every shadow and dark object she passes, she creeps down the hallway and shuts the door, careful to lock it. A thorough search of the house—all the windows, under the beds, in the closets, and even inside the larger cabinets—reveals that she is indeed alone and secure, and she sighs a breath of relief.
She slides an old record out of its sleeve. It’s Boston’s self-titled album, her favorite “getting ready” music. She makes sure the record player is running properly before climbing the stairs and beginning the process of removing her makeup and costume. She has but an hour before she must leave to pick up George, and he doesn’t like it when she’s late. He says it makes him “jumpy”.
Brad Delp’s voice wafts up the stairs from beyond the grave, while she rubs the warts and green paint from the tip of her nose with a makeup remover wipe. The witch costume was a silly nod to her new lifestyle as a Wicca practitioner, though she keeps it quiet. The judgmental neighbors don’t need to know. What would prissy Evalee think? Besides, she’s only just bought her first tarot deck, and hasn’t found the kind of ease with her spirituality that her crystal-toting coven-mates have yet. The Wicca is probably just another of her many phases, but at least it makes her feel… something.
The whole house groans with the force of the wind outside, but that’s not uncommon for an autumnal night in South Carolina, so Cecilia tries not to let it bother her. She cleans her whole face and brushes her teeth, then runs a brush through her long red waves. A new gray hair makes her scowl.
On the floor below, the back door whines open, but she doesn’t hear it over the music and wind. Nor does she hear the third step from the bottom creek with the weight of a heavy foot.
She scrutinizes the crows’ feet around her eyes, and thanks the goddess for the invention of BB Cream, before turning on the sink to splash water on her thirty-eight-year-old face.
Only when a cold breath lands on the back of her neck, do her eyes rise to the mirror. The rest of her body remains stiller than a corpse with fear.
Though she sees nothing behind her in the reflection, her hair parts with the power of the unseen thing’s breath. It cannot be her imagination, yet without the proof in her eyes, her mind won’t give itself fully to the panic. Her body, however, relieves itself on the bathroom floor.
Boston plays on.
It’s in those frozen moments, she notices the smell: the slight stench of rot and field dust, like on the burlap shred she found on the fence. An image rushes to the forefront of her mind—the pumpkin patch scarecrow.
“Marvin,” she whispers.
The breathing stops.
She turns, expecting to see that dusty monstrosity in her bedroom doorway, but it’s as empty as the reflection suggested it would be. No shadow darkens the floor; there’s no lingering scent of rot. It’s too easy for her to write the whole thing off as an overactive imagination on this creepiest of all nights, yet the urine on the white tiles behind her won’t let her forget.
She sops up the mess with a dirty towel, throws it in the wash downstairs, then gets in the shower. The cut on her thumb stings under the hot water, and the wound reopens and begins to drip watered-down blood through the drain. Weary with fear and sleep deprivation, she struggles to remember the basic steps of lather and rinse, but she refuses to close her eyes. She keeps reminding herself that soon she’ll be with George. Smirking, she thinks how silly this will all seem once they’re both undressed. She’ll turn on a good porn, bring out her favorite riding crop, and then she’ll feel a bit more in control of her own fears.
Now dressed, in a slip dress and a warm, but slimming leather coat, she steps into her sexiest heels and grabs her cell phone from the countertop. Her thumb is wrapped so tight with a Band-Aid that she’s cut the circulation off, but the bleeding hasn’t stopped. She decides she’ll pick up liquid Band-Aid on the way to get George.
Downstairs, the record player gives a terrible screech as if the vinyl has been angrily ripped from the player. She stops applying her lipstick mid-swipe, and her eyes widen with terror. She closes her eyes and tells her mind to stop playing tricks on her. It’s just her imagination. She’s tired. There’s nothing to fear.
A shatter follows. Realizing that weather she’s imagining it or not, the monster won’t go away, her eyes pop back open and she tries to form a logical plan. Maybe its name will have the same effect as last time.
“Marvin?” she calls.
The answer she receives is the crack of old sticks bending like arms, and the scrape of dead vines against the hardwood floor below.
“Marvin!” she shouts. “Marvin, leave me alone!”
There’s a whisper in the air—a heaviness. The house gives a windy groan, then goes dead-silent, as if smothered by the scarecrow’s presence. She hears a scrape, then the clunk, clunk, clunk of inhuman feet on the stairs.
Cecilia slams the door and locks it, then backs towards the window, tripping on her heels as she goes. She kicks the shoes off on the rug. The window is the only way out, and there’s a short stretch of roof she can slide down to reach the ground. But that’s if she can get the damn thing open in time. She painted it shut years ago.
After struggling for precious seconds, a bang resounds on the door and she gives up. She picks up the lamp on the bedside table and smashes the window, shrieking as the glass spatters everywhere. She smashes the larger pieces away, then grits her teeth and climbs through, cutting up her palms on loose bits of glass. She shreds her stockings, and her jacket tears as it catches on a hanging nail, but she’s out the window, surprised the thing hasn’t broken through the door yet. But she doesn’t question it. She jumps off the roof and lands on the grass with a thud. Her right leg screams in pain, but she hits the ground running.
The only house with the lights still on is directly across the street—Evalee’s. Somewhere near the front of her house, a window shatters, so she doesn’t hesitate. She hobbles across the street in her holey stockings, groaning in pain and dripping with blood.
The air is thick with fog. She chokes on it like poison, but a dry rasp permeates the eerie quiet and quickens her steps. Soon, she’s hobbling down Evalee’s path of laughing jacks, pulling herself up the porch steps, and banging on the door beside the giant filigreed pumpkin. The curtains part, and Cecilia breathes a sigh of relief as Evalee looks down upon her tattered form.
“Evalee, please let me in!” she begs. “There’s something…” Realizing how crazy she sounds, she changes the word. “…someone after me.”
Evalee smiles—not one of her usual, half-bored smiles, but a genuine show of contentment, as if all is right in the world.
“Evalee!” Cecilia demands.
Bile rushes up through Cecelia’s esophagus as Evalee deadbolts the door and slides the chain lock into place. Evalee snaps her fingers and the house lights shut off like magic, followed by the jack-o’-lanterns blowing out one by one, leaving Cecilia in the silent dark. Evalee’s still smiling as she drops the curtain and disappears inside.
Cecilia’s breath quickens and she turns so her back is to the door. She realizes her mistake in ever screwing George, but it doesn’t matter now. Her only regret is that she can’t warn him what his wife is capable of. Then again, maybe he knew all along.
Suddenly, the filigreed pumpkin bursts to light. She shields her eyes, blinded for a moment, but when she lowers her arm, she wishes she could not see the looming form before her.
The black burlap of the scarecrow’s body flaps in an unseen wind, blocking the world beyond, as long arms curve towards her. Fingers of snapping wood stretch longer and longer to reach her pulsing throat, and she lets out a dead-waking scream. The scarecrow’s bone-white head cocks to the side, as if made curious by the sound, but it wraps its hands around her throat and silences her. Her eyes bulge as she chokes, clawing and fighting against the creature’s relentless grasp. It brings her closer to look into her soul with its black sockets for eyes.
With a quick tightening of its fists, the scarecrow silences Cecilia Carver for all eternity.
Evalee Price loads her children into the car, all three of them clad in black. Though her husband and Cecilia died on the same night, their murders were not linked, nor ruled murders, officially. Cecilia was found hanging from that gaudy chandelier in her foyer; her death ruled a suicide. While George’s fall, from the top of an airport parking garage, was ruled a terrible accident.
The children, she decided days ago, do not need to know what really happened to their father, or that he was a disgusting, cheating bastard.
At the funeral, she folds her lace-gloved hands in her lap and summons a few tears, playing the mournful wife to perfection. It isn’t all fake, she admits to herself. She will miss the warmth of George’s body beside her at night, and the friendship they once shared. But that was spoiled the day he started lying to her about redeye flights to meetings that did not exist.
As she leaves the cemetery, she spits on Cecilia’s grave.
Before she takes the children home, she drives to the pumpkin farm outside of the town line and parks in the empty lot. The farmer comes out to greet her, confusion on his weathered face.
“We’re nearly sold out, Ma’am,” he says when she rolls down the window. “That contest about cleared my stock.”
“Oh no,” she pouts. “The boys always wanted to see the place, and I promised them they could carve another pumpkin since theirs were smashed by unruly teenagers on Halloween.”
The boys pout dutifully in the backseat, used to playing along with her lies. It is a game they have played for years. As expected, the farmer nods, understanding her made-up story all too well. She knows he had a problem with teenage vandals before he put up the scarecrow—her real reason for coming.
“I may yet have a few,” the farmer says with a polite smile.
“Thank you,” she says, forcing a demure grin.
Her heels sink into the soft ground as she crosses the field. When she reaches the scarecrow, she removes her hand from her pocket and replaces the missing piece of bone onto the deer’s jaw. With a whispered spell, the bone fuses to the skull, and she steps back, dipping her head in a silent bow of respect.
The air crackles with the power of the demon as it leaves the scarecrow’s body.
Her work here complete, she turns. “Boys, have you found the perfect pumpkins to carve?”
“Yes, Mommy,” they chime in unison.
She senses the farmer’s discomfort at her sons’ unnatural coordination, and smiles so broadly she reveals her expensive veneers.
Tell us what you thought in the comments, and check in on Fridays during the month of October for even more scary stories. Later, Geeks!