A man was murdered behind the pumpkin patch one Halloween not long after I was allowed to trick-or-treat by myself. No one knew who he was or what he was doing there that night, but no parent in town allowed their kids out alone again.
Inevitably, this meant everyone and their grandmother swore up and down they saw a ghost in that pumpkin patch every Halloween after that, which meant the pumpkin patch was never empty in the month of October. Good luck getting a good pumpkin after opening day. At least from the patch, anyway.
It wasn’t unusual to find pumpkins growing outside the pumpkin patch fence along the back roads, but they were usually pale or small or grew bent and sick. I probably wouldn’t have ever looked at them if I hadn’t missed opening day that year.
I hadn’t trick-or-treated in years, but my family always got a pumpkin. I wasn’t about to skip a year just because my parents were out with friends. I learned to drive that year and I figured that made me practically an adult, so I went out to get one myself.
I drove up and down the back roads peering into the ditches off to the sides. It was dark before I caught sight of a big, orange pumpkin shining in my headlights. I couldn’t believe my luck. How had no one seen this perfectly round, perfectly carvable pumpkin just sitting next to the road?
I took it home and carved a jack-o-lantern face into it. It wasn’t a master piece, but I’d done it myself and I was proud of it; so excited to be doing a lot of things on my own for the first time. It never crossed my mind to worry about where I’d found my prize. I kept right on enjoying my first solo Halloween feeling very grown up. I even blew out the candle in my jack-o-lantern before going to bed, just like I’d seen my mom do every year.
There was a story my mom used to read to me when I was little. It was one of a bunch of stories in a big, leather-bound book with a cracking spine and thick yellow pages. It read something like:
“There once lived a woman in a village on a hill, and a man in the valley below who loved her. The man went everyday up the hill from his farm in the valley to bring a plum to the woman he loved, asking her for her hand in marriage.
Every day she turned him away telling him it was because he surely could never give her plums all her life.
However, because the man knew she loved the plums, and because he loved her, he continued every day to climb the hill to take her a plum.
One day the man got sick, but he still wanted the woman at the top of the hill to have her plum, and so, shaking and weak, he took a plum from one of his trees and climbed the hill to her door. He was so tired when he got there that he sat the plum down and died.
The woman, worried because the man hadn’t knocked on her door at the usual time, stepped out to look for him only to find him there where he’d fallen. She was so heartbroken to find him dead and knowing he died alone because of her that she had him buried next to her house. She said she would always be near to him that way.
Time passed and where he was buried a plum tree grew providing the woman with fruit for the rest of her life.”
I never liked the story much. Even as a kid, I knew it ended badly, but my mother kept reading it to me because I was fascinated with the idea of a wish so strong it went on when the body couldn’t. I asked my mom if it could really happen, if a dead man could make things grow. She explained to me things like “decomposition” and “fertilizing”. This, of course, didn’t answer my question.
The bedtime stories eventually stopped, but the question stayed in the back of my mind. I got my answer that Halloween.
The first time I woke up that night I hadn’t been asleep very long. A soft, orange light flickered in the cracks around my bedroom door from the living room. I knew I’d blown out the candle in the jack-o-lantern, but I thought maybe I hadn’t blown it out right. I’d seen birthday candles relight before, so it didn’t seem too far-fetched for the jack-o-lantern candle to relight.
I got out of bed, went back into the living room where the pumpkin sat on the table in the middle of the room, and blew the candle inside of it out again. I waited just a minute to make sure it stayed out and then shuffled back to bed.
The second time I woke up, bleary eyed, to the smell of baking pumpkin. I could tell I’d been asleep for a while because my thoughts were so foggy that I thought there was smoke in the room. The light flickering around my door was so strong I was momentarily terrified the pumpkin had caught fire. I rushed out to the living room, hardly remembering I’d blown out the jack-o-lantern candle twice before already, and yanked the top off the pumpkin, ready to put out the blaze.
The little flame topping the candle waved at me as if happy for the attention. I blinked back at it and almost felt bad for having to blow it out again. I couldn’t understand how one little jack-o-lantern candle, peeking through the uneven eyes and mouth I’d cut could flood the room with so much light the way it had. Maybe I just wasn’t awake enough to see very well.
But the fear I’d woken up with and the smell of baking pumpkin were both still very fresh for me, so I once again blew out the candle. I waited, standing in the dark before finally deciding to settle onto the couch instead of going back to bed. If the candle somehow rekindled a third time, I wanted to be right there to snuff it back out for good. The last thing I wanted was to burn the house down my first night alone. My parents would never leave me by myself again. I went back to sleep watching smoke seep from the pumpkin’s face and dreamt of talking jack-o-lanterns.
The room smelled like burnt pumpkin and light glowed through my eye lids. I thought maybe my dad had tried to bake pumpkin seeds again and sat up to turn off the oven. Something dark moved across the wall out of the corner of my squinting eyes. And then I remembered my jack-o-lantern.
There it sat in front of me, the little candle flame twirling and twisting, winking in each eye in turn. My jack-o-lantern wasn’t just casting shadows of the furniture across the walls. The shadows were moving, dancing, taking shape.
I watched the shadow of my father’s recliner grow and begin to roll across the walls. The shadows of my mother’s favorite lamps stretched and bent to lope the other way. Other shadows began to writhe and rise and reach around the room creating shadow outlines of scenery that passed around the room. It was like watching the world move past outside the windows of a moving car.
The rolling recliner shadow took the shape of a truck flying over family portraits and framed paintings. The lamp shadows solidified into hounds, bounding over the ceiling and barreling after the truck. One broke away from the rest and dove in front of the truck. The truck and the hound melded together and shrank into the shape of a man running, the rest of the hounds running after him.
And then the shadows broke into dark wisps that swirled like streamers, reforming into the shape of a man again still running from the same loping hounds. Another form began to take shape following low behind the pack of hounds. The man fell over a hound that grew from behind the couch and the shadows broke again. They flew to one wall and fused into one round mass.
I watched, petrified, as a shadow hand sprouted from the darkening mass and slid across the floor toward the couch. Another rose up onto the ceiling, gripping the shadow of a ceiling fan blade. The fingers of the hand on the floor curled over the end of the couch as the hand on the ceiling pulled the blade out and away, seeming to pull back until the blade was freed and grew long and sharp. The shadow mass still on the wall parted and curled to smile down at me. The blade swung forward fast and I leapt off the couch to the floor.
The shadows burst and seemed to splatter onto the walls and floor and ceiling. Nothing happened for a moment. The light in the room began to fade until the shadows lost their definition. I peeked into the jack-o-lantern from my spot on the floor and the candle flame flickered once and then twice as if in sad apology before being still.
I glanced up and around. The shadows on the walls were back to normal. The light flickered as normal candle light did, but the shadows sat stationary. The little flame grew brighter for just a moment. A lamp shadow shaped into a man on the wall in front of me. He nodded one and raised a hand. I nodded back, uncertain of what he wanted, of what I’d seen. He dropped his hand and shrank back into the shape of a lamp and the candle went out, leaving me sitting alone on the floor in the dark.