(A Halloween Short Story)
By Brian Bogart
The majority of the trick-or-treaters had already abandoned the streets, divvying up their spoils of war and sorting their favorites into piles in the safety of their homes. An hour earlier, the sidewalks were clogged with ghouls, ghosts, goblins and witches, alongside the occasional movie slasher and fantasy characters. Now, the soft flicker of light from late-night television peeked from behind the closed curtains of a few homes and the dim, glowing smiles of the occasional jack-o-lantern watched the empty sidewalks.
Rick and Johnny ran with glee and purpose down the sidewalk, wearing smiles that would charm the most world-weary con man. With most of the children retiring for the night, it meant that the leftover candy would be theirs for the taking. Even the occasional old lady giving out something healthy would not sour their thoughts of the treats that awaited them. There were still two streets to go and Johnny had brought an extra mask and bag, just in case.
Rick pulled down his hockey mask and he reached into his pocket. He pulled out a small tube of the good stuff- “Real Vampire Blood”. He twisted the top and squirted under his eyes and each hole of his mask. He gave the remainder to Johnny, who applied a liberal amount to the latex wounds on his cheeks and forehead. They gave each other approving nods. They made their way to the next line of houses, Ricky swinging his plastic machete with mock ferocity and Johnny doing his best dead man’s shuffle.
The first three houses were a bust. Rick kept knocking while Johnny jaunted through the grass, peeking through the windows. The indoor lights were off and soon the porch lights followed suit. The only sign of life in the last house was a barking dog and an angry man yelling sleepily about having to work in the morning. Johnny ducked, out of instinct, below the living room window, nearly falling into the shrubbery. Both of them ran, fighting the urge to burst out laughing.
“Maybe we’ll have more luck down there!” Rick said, pointing to the house on the corner.
While the house was nondescript, the lawn was anything but.
Each tree was strewn in fake spider webbing, the fuzzy cotton kind found at most stores in October. Wisps of the material danced across the yard, the wind whipping around the dying leaves that still clung to the limbs above. Each side of the driveway was lined with cheap plastic pumpkins and miniature cauldrons, lit up with the artificial glow of decorative bulbs. An old bed sheet masquerading as a ghost hung beside the doorway, the frame of the door itself adorned with stickers of spiders and black cats.
Rick approached the door, admiring the amount of detail of all the decorations, right down to the abundance of fake blood splashed on the ghost. He wished his parents would let him decorate their yard like this but the most festive thing they had allowed was a small pumpkin that Johnny had brought over the week before. The two boys had sat in the kitchen, quoting horror movies while they carved sinister eyes and a sharp-toothed grin into it. They ignored his parents arguing about the mortgage and his older sister’s cigarette smoking, caught up in the bliss of holiday spirit.
Johnny was two steps ahead of him, positioning his bag before him. He motioned for Rick to ring the doorbell, his eyes wide with anticipation. With all the latex on his face, he looked like a burn victim begging for some skin cream.
“Come on,” Johnny said, moaning with impatience. “I bet they have lots of candy. We’ll hit this house again on the way back.”
Rick pointed his machete at the ghost and then his friend, bringing it across his neck in mock anger. Johnny laughed, rolling his eyes. He marched up to the doorbell, nodding his head. He pressed it and the boys nearly laughed out loud as a tinny rendition of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme began to play in chip tune. Johnny swore he could see Rick smiling, even with the hockey mask firmly in place.
He pressed it again, tempted to do so repeatedly- creating an impromptu remix of the tune. The sound of the doorknob squeaking as the door crept inward halted that idea. They each presented their bags, prepared to chant the holiday phrase in unison.
This house was a sure-fire bet. No apples or bananas or- like the first house they had visited- Yoplait yogurt. One orange creme flavored and one strawberry. Those were okay to bring to school or as a snack, but tonight was Halloween. Anything other than proper candy was blasphemy.
A short, stocky woman answered the door. Her long hair was concealed beneath a large, pointy hat and the most ridiculous make-up and fake nose they had ever seen. The black eyeliner made her eyes seem overly large and the green face paint was so thick, clumps of it threatened to fall into their sacks if she leaned forward. The nose was crooked, obviously sculpted from putty. She had forgotten to paint it to match the rest of her face.
Still, Johnny admired her attempt and was glad it wasn’t some annoying “sexy” costume of some sort. It seemed that was all Halloween was for some adults- a time to look cute or attractive. Where was the blood? The guts? It was a slap in the face to everything he loved about the holiday. The only person that could get away with such silliness was that horror movie host, Elvira. He would give her a free pass, only because she seemed to like the same movies he did.
“Trick or Treat!” they shouted, with grins that would make a jack-o-lantern trade its orange for green, with envy.
“Well, look at you two. Jason Voorhees and maybe his victim, back from the dead? You guys look great.”
“Thank you, but if anyone is a victim- it’s YOU!”
Rick waved his plastic weapon around, pointing to her bowl of candy and motioning for her to fill their sacks. Johnny laughed and shuffled side to side, gurgling and growling. It sounded like he was drowning. He cleared his throat and tried again. The second one was much better, more in line with a Romero flick or The Walking Dead.
“Braaaiinnns,” Johnny said.
She reached into the bowl, retrieving four handfuls of candy. Some Snickers minis, SweeTARTS and Extreme Sour Warheads were the highlights of their bounty. The lady rustled Johnny’s hair and he groaned. Not like a zombie, but because it made him feel like a child. He was older than Rick by a whole year and a half, who was only ten years old. He was practically a teenager, not a kid.
“Happy Halloween, kiddos,” she said. “And stay safe. It is getting pretty late. Wouldn’t want any spirits tagging along to curl into bed with you.”
Rick and Johnny shook their heads and she closed the door. Johnny reached into his bag and pulled out a candy bar.
“Hey, trade you two Snickers for the Warheads?” he asked.
“Ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma,” Rick replied “No way. Mother says you’re trying to rip her special boy off. How about one of those and a roll of SweeTARTS? Then tomorrow I can force you to do a Warhead challenge, like on YouTube. We can use my mom’s camera to record it. If you have the guts.”
Rick thrust his machete towards his stomach. Johnny doubled over and pretended that the mock blow had spilled his intestines into the street. He dropped to his knees, miming a person trying to scoop them up and put them back in.
“My guts. My precious guts! Well, I did have the guts, but now it seems I can’t contain myself!”
Rick reached down, offering his hand. He shook his head. Johnny could see his friend rolling his eyes behind the hockey mask.
“Come on, you big dork. Let’s get more candy before I swap this plastic thing for a real knife or something. Worst victim. Ever.”
At school, Johnny was learning about a writer named Ray Bradbury. A line from the book they were reading stated that October was a rare month for boys. In class, the words seemed silly to some of the students. It garnered a few sarcastic laughs. It spurred bickering among the girls because it should be rare for them, as well. The teacher reassured them that it was, followed by a discussion of context and reading comprehension.
Walking together with his best friend, marching house to house- Johnny agreed completely with Bradbury. Those words made perfect sense. He was a wise man, to write about childhood magic like this.
Rick was a good friend to have, too. He was a bit of a wise-cracker, but that might have been due to his home life. His family always seemed so angry. The tension in the house was thicker than the cheap slime Johnny would buy from the grocery store’s gumball machine every Friday. It wasn’t as much fun, though.
He wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Rick’s parents seemed to ready to split at a moment’s notice. Biding their time, as his mom was keen to say. The mortgage argument when he was visiting was just a distraction from the bigger problem. He wondered if the constant joking was Rick’s way of handling that. If so, Rick was a stronger kid than he appeared. Stronger than Johnny would be, if his parents were on the verge of separating.
Rick was a few feet ahead of him, pausing every few steps and glancing around. It was like he was stalking the next house, listening for any pesky campers begging to be another helpless victim. Johnny stumbled forward, grunting under his breath like the living dead. Rick stopped as they turned the corner, causing them to bump into one another. Rick put his arm out, gesturing for them to wait.
“Listen. Do you hear that?” Rick asked.
Somewhere on the other side of the Faulkner’s perfectly trimmed hedges, were low, guttural noises. They were faint, but it sounded like the sobs of an upset child. The sounds paused, as if aware that they were listening. There were whistling noises, similar to a wind funneling through a hollowed pipe, followed by more muffled crying.
“What’s wrong? Is everything okay?” Johnny asked.
Rick shook his head and took the initiative, as he often did in worrisome situations. He slid the plastic blade in the homemade sheath clipped to his belt. He straightened his shoulders and took a few steps towards the noises. He peered to the side of the hedges and his eyes widened in disbelief. Johnny rushed over, the curiosity sending tingles up his calves when he walked.
A young boy, perhaps a few years younger than them, sat on the edge of the sidewalk. His legs were pulled tight to him, his arms wrapped around them, rocking back and forth. His head was cocked downward, resting between his knees and his chest. He was wearing a Halloween mask of some sort, a misshapen and bulbous one, two sizes too large for his head. It almost looked like-
“A pumpkin!” Rick said, his voice warbling between surprise and laughter.
“”Hey, kid- you alright?” Johnny asked, giving his friend a polite punch in the arm.
The boy was obviously distressed and upset. Laughing at him wasn’t going to help matters. Rick’s reaction might upset him even more and who knew what the kid was crying about? Someone could have taken his candy or maybe he was injured. Rick gave Johnny an apologetic glance and squatted down by the curb.
The boy raised his head, the sobbing giving way to stifled sniffles instead. It wasn’t a mask, but an actual pumpkin. Both of the boys’ mouths hung open in astonishment. It was as if the poor kid had shoved his head into a pumpkin, or maybe some other children had played a silly but cruel prank.
The boy reached towards each side of the engorged melon, trailing his fingers along the curves. His fingernails dug into the flesh of it, scratching and clawing. Flecks of orange chipped away, scattering to his lap and the ground around him. The squishy sound it made as he continued to dig was unnerving, but it wasn’t the worst part.
The inhuman smile of the pumpkin seemed to mock his frantic motions. The carved slots masquerading as eyes glared at them, large and cavernous. He pleaded with them through the black and sunken holes, with no hint of his actual eyes within.
Thin and stringy strands of goop leaked from the corners, sliding down like tears along the ribbed surface. The boy let out a wail. It was a garbled breath that expelled more of the slimy mush from the maniacal grin, followed by the sharp click-clack of pumpkin seeds hitting the sidewalk at their feet.
Johnny tried not to stare into the carved face, forcing himself to look away even as he dropped to his knees and placed a trembling hand on the boy’s shoulder. Rick did the same, tilting the pumpkin to one side. He searched for his neck, for the hole his head must have entered in the first place.
There was no sign of entry point; just the yellowed, pus-like sinew of the pumpkin’s innards, cross-stitched and interwoven together against the collar of his shirt. His head lolled from side to side, as if to stress that point. His fists bashed at the sides of his head in frustration, leaving behind small dents. There were short popping sounds, like the smack of chewing gum being blown.
“Hey. Calm, buddy. Calm. Let us help you,” Rick said.
“He might have the right idea, though. If we can smash into it, break it open-”
The boy froze, then nodded his head. Johnny swore he saw the dim glow of a candle, somewhere deep within the shadowed cavity of the pumpkin’s permanent expression. He patted the top of his head. Dried, brown tendrils spiraled from the rotten stem. They bobbed with each movement of the boy’s head, like errant strands of untamed hair.
“Good. Okay. We need you to relax and lay back. Turn your head to the side, too.”
“Do as Rick says. And lay perfectly still. Close your eyes, if it helps. It will just take a moment. We will get you out of there real quick,” Johnny said.
“Maybe we should pull it off, instead. Might be safer,” Rick said. “I’ll hold him by the shoulders and you can pull the opposite way.”
The boy did as instructed, stretching out on the sidewalk, laying flat with his head in the grass. Johnny grasped the side of the pumpkin with both hands, watching Rick get into position. He gave Johnny an affirmative nod. Johnny took a deep breath, closed his eyes and pulled.
The boy squealed, clutching at the sides of his head. Rick could hear the sloshing around of the pumpkin’s innards when his friend pulled. The pumpkin’s “brains”, as some people called them. That word sent an unexpected shiver through his limbs as Johnny yanked again. And again.
“Stop!” Rick screamed. “Just stop. This ain’t working, man.”
Johnny let go, mid-pull, nearly falling on his backside. The kid’s breathing was heavy. There were soft spots embedded in the surface, lining up perfectly with where his hands had been. The discoloration of rot was beginning to set in.
“Crap,” Johnny said.
“Sorry, I just- it looked like it was hurting him. Might have hurt his neck. Or worse.”
“Well, it looks like the pumpkin’s old enough. Maybe just chip the corner, smash one side. Then we can just peel off the rest. It would probably be easier, anyway. Safer, at least.”
They looked at each other and then back to the little boy. His chest was rising and falling in sharp, rhythmic spasms, gasping for air. He lay motionless, otherwise. His hands were resting back to his sides. His carved face stared into the dark October sky. The light from the street lamp across from them peeked through the trees, casting shadows over his prone body. It made his face appear sunken, despite the plump swell of the pumpkin’s outer shell.
“I pulled. You can stomp,” Johnny said.
The words felt sinister as he spoke them. Wrong. He didn’t mean for them to sound so callous, only authoritative. But what is done is done, and something needed to be done. This boy was freaking out. His gasping and wheezing hinted at that, he was probably already in shock. It was similar to when his mother had been in a car accident last year. It had taken her more than ten minutes to calm her breathing and another ten before she started sounding like his mom again. The police officer had been reassuring, explaining that shock was the body’s response to being injured. Whether that injury was real or imagined, even if just a “close call”- it didn’t matter. She only suffered minor bruising. It was the thoughts that it could have been much worse, even killed someone, that caused her reaction. The kid was probably going through the same thing, wondering if he’d ever get his head out of there.
Rick stood over him, bending to reach the boy’s head. He felt the outside of the pumpkin, where the shell seemed the weakest. He sunk his fingers into the dented flesh and prodded. A crack began to form in the rind. He pushed his thumb against it, trying to ignore the mushy coating and stringy sinew just beneath the surface. As he removed his fingers, an overwhelming scent escaped with them. The smell was like rotted vegetable and soured pumpkin spice.
“Oh, God. That’s worse than when my sister spilled a holiday latte in the car over the summer and never told anyone!” Rick said, holding his nose. “It’s on my fingers, too.”
“Quiet, dude. Let’s just get this over with. Kid- hey, kid. Show us where your head is in this thing. We’re gonna crack it open and get you out of there. Okay?”
The boy raised his hands, lifting his face towards Johnny. He fumbled around the outside of the pumpkin, waving his hands all around it.
“No. Your actual head. Inside. We don’t want to hurt you. We’re trying to be careful. Show us,” Rick said.
The pumpkin boy moved his head, patted the front of his face. Then the sides. He threw his hands up in the air and rested his head back unto the grass. It was impossible to read the emotionless grin staring up at them, but Johnny guessed it was one of defeat. His hands rested firmly on his chest. He looked like a slumbering vampire awaiting the stake. It was a horrible thought.
“Just do it, Rick. Just the corner. With the edge of your shoe.”
Rick lifted his leg, looking down at the tip of his sneaker. He placed the corner of his foot on the side, shifting his weight. He could feel the heaviness of the pumpkin under him, how thick the outer layer was. It didn’t feel malleable, like it did with his fingers. It felt as sturdy as the gravel and tar of the street itself.
He pressed down.
A sound escaped the gaping grin, a whoosh of air gurgling from deep within. Rick gave Johnny a concerned look before raising his leg again. He gauged the placement of his foot and closed his eyes. He placed one hand on his knee, bringing it down with a short and emphatic stomp.
The pumpkin shell burst, with a deafening pop. Chunks of the rind shot high into the air, bits of orange soaring in front of the children’s eyes. A large piece of it landed on Rick’s shoulder. Yellowed gunk seeped from beneath his shoe, pulp and seeds alike.
Johnny stood, his eyes wide in confusion. Rick opened his, afraid to look down. He counted to five, taking a deep breath. He forced himself to look.
The pumpkin was squashed on the left side, the eye hole stretched out of shape, melding into the sticky mess that poured into the grass. The right side was split open at the gouged nostril area, the elongated smile divided into two separate, smaller ones. The boy’s chest heaved. His torso shook as his arms and legs flailed. They tapped against the sidewalk and curb in desperation, like a twisted version of Morse code.
The pumpkin began to wither and collapse with each erratic movement. On the last convulsion, the boy sprung upwards, his shoulders hunched and head lolling from side to side. The orange color seemed to fade as globs of the pumpkin’s innards fell from the crushed face. It drained onto his clothes in a thick, red blood and stringy, yellow mess.
“Thank you,” the boy whispered.
He paused, a thin stream of blood bubbling from between the teeth of his gap-toothed grin. Then his body collapsed, slumping forward and slamming back to the ground. The pumpkin head shattered completely on impact. The smell of sour and death hung in the air. The stem bounced into the neighbor’s yard as orange fragments settled into the grass. Shards of the rind were all that remained. There was no head.
There was no thinking. No contemplation. The world around them whirred by; houses, Halloween decorations and streets lights blended together along the edges of their vision. They focused on moving forward, not looking back. Home. The police. The candy they left behind was a necessary casualty. A small price to pay to put distance between them and what they had seen. A boy, a pumpkin and something that should not be.
The blurred scenery as they ran gave way to the flashing lights of a police car. Rick screamed, waving his hands and jumping in place, before barreling ahead of Johnny. Johnny followed, ignoring the hammering in his chest and dizziness swimming behind his eyes. He felt the urge to vomit. He bit down on his tongue to suppress the urge, but the sting in the back of his throat remained.
“You boys alright?”
An older officer approached them, slamming the car door behind him. He shined his flashlight in their eyes, cautiously accessing the situation from a distance. Rick ran towards him, nearly colliding with him.
“There’s a boy- you see, he had a pumpkin- on his head, and now, the pumpkin’s gone- he’s not okay.”
Johnny remembered his mother’s babbling, when she was in shock. If the situation was different, he would have laughed. Rick was holding himself together better than his own mother. It may have been a jumbled mess of words, spilled out in one exasperated breath- but at least it was fairly coherent.
“Slow down. How about you two just show me what the problem is?”
The boys led him down to the corner, eyeing each other nervously. Rick took the lead when they got close to the curb, pointing and shaking his head. Tears streamed down his cheeks, unable to speak. His hands were visibly trembling. The police officer aimed the beam of his flashlight to the curb and the grass beyond.
There was no evidence of the boy to be seen. No clothes, no body left behind. Only the bits of orange pumpkin rind and spilled guts. Their bags of candy were gone, as well.
The officer bent down on one knee, picking up a handful of the remains. He brought the pulp to his lips, sticking his finger in his mouth. His face scrunched and he laughed.
“Well, this pumpkin went bad. Yuck. You know, you boys really shouldn’t go around smashing other people’s pumpkins. I know it’s a rite of passage this time of year- but it is technically destruction of someone’s property. Vegetable or otherwise.”
Rick and Johnny stood together, side by side. They muttered a few “yes sirs” and “no sirs”, promising to not do it again. The officer offered them a lift home, warning them that they were out too late. Especially at their age.
They knew what they saw. Johnny and Rick had felt the young boy’s skin while they held him in place. Warm and real, just as real as their own. They had heard him crying, the concern in his muffled screams. That was real, too.
Just as real as his final words.
It was a heartfelt whisper, begging to be heard. Like a prayer among the dead leaves and autumn breeze, finally answered.
October is a rare month for boys. It can be cruel and sharp, like hushed secrets shared between friends. Especially, on Halloween. Your participation while you play in those shadows is seldom understood. Coincidence and the supernatural keep secrets, too.
Your presence in such things is merely incidental, but it is rarely forgotten.
Brian Bogart is an American author, residing in Northern Ireland. His love of genre fiction started at an early age, consuming every horror and fantasy book available. He has been published in various degrees online and contributed a short fiction piece, “TOCSIN”, to The One Million Project (OMP) Thriller Anthology in an effort to raise money for cancer research and the homeless. He loves to share his enthusiasm for the horror genre with others and help promote other authors.
His latest story, alongside many other authors, can be found in the pages of EPIC FANTASY SHORT STORIES, coming soon from Flame Tree Publishing.
Purchase OMP THRILLER here: Amazon UK
Preorder EPIC FANTASY SHORT STORIES anthology here: Flame Tree Press
Kendall Reviews http://kendallreviews.com/tag/brian-bogart/
Official Blog https://www.dreamdarklyblog.wordpress.com