The Pumpkin Patch

by Thomas Scopel

First seen in Look What I Found.

Author's Note:

It was after viewing a missing child poster that this tale popped into my head. Lonely children often explore and find worlds of their own. Sometimes within those journeys, treachery reins. Included in the “Look What I Found” anthology by NorGus Press, I’ll only add that The Pumpkin Patch was the last thing little Johnny ever found.

The bus ride from Philadelphia to Sherrodsville, a small and quaint, history rich age-old town just outside of Boston, took no longer than usual, but being a night ride this time Martha felt it seemed exceptionally longer.
Seven year old Johnny, an abundance of early morning energy, met her at the door and barely gave her enough time to step inside before excitedly taking hold of her free hand and tugging somewhat vigorously, trying to lead her back outside. She expected this and smiled through tired, wrinkled eyes.

“C’mon Aunt Martha, hurry up!”She sat the suitcase down on the tiled foyer floor and placed her purse on top of it. Flopping to the side, her return ticket stuck halfway out of the side pocket. She didn’t care.

“Hey there sis,” Johnny’s father, peeking around the corner at the top of the foyer steps joyfully called out. “Want some coffee?”

“When we get back I suppose.” She winked, turned and allowed Johnny to lead her back outside, across the porch, down four porch steps and into the early morning sunshine. It would be another typical yearly visit and she relished it.

“They always grow there. We never planted seeds or anything like that. Dad says it’s our special little Halloween secret. I don’t know…but it’s kind of cool I guess.” With bright blue eyes sparkling from his innocent face, he rambled on. “It’s not all that far either. Found it a couple weeks ago when I was just out looking around. He proudly beamed as if he was an ancient explorer and had found a new land.

His grip loosened a bit as he led her around the house and into the back yard where they followed the rear edge of the lawn to a path nestled between two large oak trees just beginning to shed leaves, leaving them sporadically scattered about.

She followed him through a cluster of golden grass that at one time was high, but had obviously been trodden down by little feet and felt the dampness of early morning dew saturate her shoes.

Beyond the trees, Johnny’s tugging decreased and they slowed their pace. She looked around and took a deep breath appreciating the fall aroma filling the air, a far cry from the acrid city smells she was accustomed to. She savored the moment and playfully squeezed Johnny’s hand. He looked up at her. Genuine happiness filled his face and he squeezed back.           

They charted alongside a shallow trickling stream and Martha watched a leaf glide and fall into it before floating away.

“It’s just right over there,” Johnny announced, pointing across the clear water at a majestically standing oak tree towering above all else with branches reaching out in all directions. The sight reminded her of childhood days, when she was quite the avid climber, usually with a paperback book tucked in her back pocket. While she never pushed limits, she did climb high enough to be hidden in the foliage where she would read in peaceful content.
Admiring the tree, she faintly considered scurrying up onto the lowest and largest bottom branch, but her fifty something year old mind overruling with a successful you’ll hurt yourself argument.

Johnny let go of her hand, followed the gradual slope down the somewhat slick and muddy bank to the water’s edge. There were five sizeable flat stones, like a walkway, above the surface and leading across. Johnny stepped out onto the first stone, stopped and looked back. She was working her way down the bank. Confident she was following, he turned back and skipped over the remaining few rocks until reaching the other side.

“C’mon Aunt Martha,” his dainty, somewhat squeaky voice echoed through the thin forest and he waited and watched as his aunt gingerly traversed the stones, obviously unsure whether they were slick or not. When she reached the last stone, Johnny turned and ran through the fallen leaves gathered below the oak and stood by its trunk.

Martha finished the crossing and followed.

“See,” he exclaimed and pointed.

She peered toward where he aimed.

Nestled, directly below the halfway point of the branch she had considered climbing, variously sized and tightly scattered bright orange vine laden pumpkins rested silent. Partly hidden in grasses and dead leaves, had he not pointed them out, she may have overlooked and missed them entirely.

After an extended glance, she turned and gazed at the immense trunk of the tree and wondered silently its age. Inspecting the thick and peeling grayish bark, she followed the stalk up. Twelve feet or so up was what appeared to be a religious like symbol, a cross, deeply whittled, that time and growth attempted to hide. A reddish color sap seeped from the base of the carving, rolling down before clumping in a glob a few feet below. She looked up through the branches and a memory from long ago recalled.

At the time probably close to Johnny’s age now, she and three other girls were sitting around a campfire taking turns telling scary stories. Her tale was one passed down from her grandfather, about Halloween and of the children missing on the following day. The way she told it wasn’t all that scary. Grandpap had been much better at telling it, complete with changing voice and fearful laughing, and the girls had simply giggled.

Martha looked at the carving again and the tale seemed much more frightening. Shaking the thought from her mind, she turned attentions back to Johnny and the pumpkins.

“This is wonderful Johnny. You were saying that they always grow here?”

“Yep! I guess so. They were here last year too.”

“Well, they all look plump and ripe. Say! Do you have a wagon?” She inquired.

“Sure do. It’s in the garage,” he answered, eyebrows raised inquisitively.

“Why don’t we bring that wagon of yours back later and pick out a good one. We couuuuuld…” she teasingly dragged the statement on, pausing for a few seconds, ”carve a Jack-O-Lantern and put it on the porch. We could put a candle in it and it will glow into All Hallows Eve.”

“All Hallows Eve?” Johnny questioned, confused.

“That’s what they used to call Halloween a long time ago. It was supposed to be a night when spirits, goblins and witches were allowed to roam free.”

He looked up at her, unsure whether to be frightened or amused.

“Really?”

Taking a page from her grandfather’s tale she added, “some of the bad ghoulies would chase and take children. Heh heh heh,” she did her best witch cackle, which wasn’t all that scary. “It’s just a spooky tale. Halloween is supposed to be scary anyways right?”

With a grin Johnny shook his head.

“So, what do ya think? Want to carve one later?”

“Sure!” he exclaimed. “That would be great.”

He looked back at the pumpkins, mentally scanning each and took a step forward for final choosing.

The uncomfortable coolness of damp tennis shoes was starting to bother and she persuaded, “lets worry about finding one later, when we bring back your wagon.”

He didn’t argue and turned back.           

By the time they returned, Rick, her widowed little brother had already placed her suitcase in the spare bedroom before heading off to work. She quickly went to it and after placing the saturated shoes on the room’s heating register grate, she opened the suitcase, found her pair of fluffy pink slippers and slipped into them. She savored the warm comfort for a few moments before going to the kitchen.           

Johnny had already set bowls and spoons and a box of cereal on the table and was struggling with the weight of the milk carton, barely keeping control while splashing milk off the oat rings and onto the table. By the time he sat the carton down, a tiny moat ring had formed around the base of the bowl.

Martha sat down in the chair across from him and poured a small amount of cereal and even a smaller amount of milk. She quietly ate, occasionally looking at Johnny who between bites was busy reading the maze on the back of the cereal box. His mother had died during childbirth and it was probably the reason he appeared more mature than he should be. Although he had never known her nor the sorrow associated, Martha couldn’t help but to feel a pang of melancholy for him.

With breakfast over, Martha washed the few dishes and watched through the small window over the sink as Johnny followed the sidewalk to the garage’s side door. He turned the knob and went in, careful to close the door behind him. A few moments later the electric garage hummed, the door rattled open and he emerged pulling a little red wagon behind him. It was a cute sight and she went to get her shoes, hoping they were dry.

The hike seemed shorter this time and before long they were at the stream. Johnny made a valiant effort to remain on the first rock while tugging at the wagon, but slipped and submerged a foot into the water just over his ankle. He looked back at Martha, shrugged his shoulders and stepped off the side of the rock into the crisp water with the other foot. Merrily he sloshed across the stream, the wagon wheels flinging up water. Not wanting to be sprayed, she waited until he was nearly across before stepping out onto the first stone. By the time she caught up, he had left the wagon parked by the tree trunk and was well into the pumpkin selection process.

After choosing a plump, medium sized one, Martha pulled the scissors she had collected from the kitchen drawer, bent down, placed the blades around the vine and snipped. A loud scream bellowed, startling both of them. They looked up and saw a soaring loon carefully maneuvering through the tree tops and watched until it was gone.

Johnny went to get the wagon. The wheels tangled in the vines twice along the way and Martha finally told him to put it back under the tree, that she would bring the pumpkin to him.

The fruit wasn’t as heavy as she suspected and soon it was loaded. With a hearty tug, Johnny pulled and the pumpkin rolled to the back of the wagon and banged into the rear metal lip. Now upside down, neither noticed the light red tinged clear droplets seeping from the severed stalk.

It was early afternoon by the time the pumpkin was sitting on layers of the day’s newspaper. Martha wiped it down while Johnny went to the silverware drawer and retrieved two paring knives. He put one on the table and held onto the other, anticipating.

“We’ll need a spoon too,” she mentioned.

“Oh yeah,” Johnny blurted, “I forgot.” He dropped the knife on the table, went back to the drawer and claimed a large tablespoon.

Martha took the knife and cut through the top of the pumpkin. Johnny stood idly by as she sliced and lifted the round top. A stringy mess clung to the underside and she cut it loose before setting it off to the side and moving away so Johnny could take over.

“It needs to be scraped out good first,” she said, wiping her hands before spreading a thick cluster of newspaper alongside. “Just pile it all on this,” she faintly pointed to the location, turned and went to the stove.

Johnny pulled out a chair and climbed on with his knees. He leaned and looked into the fruit and couldn’t resist reaching into and playing with the squishy mess. Initially cool to the touch, his hands gradually grew more and more warm.

He was close to finishing the scraping when the whistle on the kettle began to blow. Martha turned from watching him and filled her teacup before taking a seat at the table. The pile of white seeds and pumpkin innards glistened grotesquely and after taking a sip from the cup, she rose, rounded the table, rolled and collected the clump inside the newspaper. After tossing the ball into the wastebasket she handed him a dampened washcloth. He quickly wiped his hands, missing most of the slime in between fingers in the process, and tossed the rag aside. She sat back down and they discussed the best place and type of face.

Johnny pulled the pumpkin closer to him, grasped the knife and put the point where the top of the first eye would be. He pushed and the sharp blade pierced the firm flesh, sliding completely in. Wiggling the knife up and down, he cut down, careful to keep an angle. Repeating the opposite side and cutting across the bottom, the triangle was complete. From the inside out he pressed, and the loose piece of pumpkin flesh gently popped out.
Sitting back on curled legs, he inspected the work and thought it was a rather good job. Martha agreed and he leaned forward again.

Again he located the point of the knife and pushed. This area was much firmer than the other had been and he pushed harder. It only took a second for his hand to slip over the handle. Unable to stop momentum, it wasn’t until his hand was resting against the pumpkin before registering that he had felt the sharp edge cut into his fingers. He let loose of the knife and jerked back and the knife fell to the table with a metallic ting.

Having watched the event unfold, Martha’s eyes flew open wide as Johnny slouched back. Blood dripped onto the newspaper and he turned his hand over to inspect.

Obviously at least two fingers were cut, but to what extent they were sliced was hidden by constant flowing blood.

Martha jumped up, grabbed the washcloth and wrapped it around the fingers. Pressing tightly, she looked in Johnny’s eyes. They were awash with fear and uncertainty. Tears were streaming down his cheeks by the time they had gotten to the sink.

“It burns Aunt Martha, it burns real bad.” His voice quivered.

“It’ll be better after we get it washed out,” she attempted to reassure.
The warm water stung and Johnny cried out. The blood rinsed away and Martha was relieved to see that the slices weren’t as deep as originally feared.

Johnny looked at the cartoon character covered bandages on his fingers and waited for Aunt Martha to finish carving.

“We’ll need a candle,” she mentioned testing the top’s alignment.

“There are some birthday cake candles in the drawer below the silverware one,” he excitedly replied.

“Those probably won’t last for very long,” she commented, “but they will work.”

She let go of the pumpkin’s stalk, leaving the lid resting slightly crooked, and went to get the candles.
Martha carried the Jack-O-Lantern out to the porch with Johnny closely in tow. Setting it on the wide banister sill, she centered and plunged a candle into the inside flesh and lit it. Johnny ran down the porch stairs and halfway out onto the sidewalk. He looked back at the glowing pumpkin’s face and waited for Martha to join him. Standing together, he couldn’t help but feel like he had let his Aunt down. She saw his face, sensed his dilemma and patted him on the back.

“How’s your fingers feel?”

Still burning, he held them up and gingerly wiggled each before shrugging his shoulders and lying.
“Oh, they’re alright.”

Martha hoped it wouldn’t scar him from future pumpkin carvings.

Martha opened her eyes. It was Halloween day. She glanced at the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. It was just after nine and she thought about taking Johnny to get a costume. She stretched and listened, half expecting Saturday morning cartoons to be loudly blaring from the living room television, but they weren’t. Recalling how late they had all been up, she assumed Johnny was still sleeping and quietly rose.

Passing through the living room, she considered turning the television on, but didn’t and continued on toward the kitchen. Her brother, Johnny’s father Rick was sitting at the table browsing the day’s newspaper and nursing a cup of coffee.

“Oh, you’re here?” He said, seeming genuinely surprised. “I thought that maybe you and Johnny were out and about this morning. I’ll tell you, that boy hits the ground running every single day. Probably out in the woods. He’s always exploring there. Usually comes back with something.” He pointed to a collection of rocks and a turtle shell on the corner shelf. Martha smiled and went to the coffee pot.

The two sat there talking and waiting for Johnny to come through the door with his latest exploit tale.

Two hours later, worry had settled in.

“He’s never this late,” Rick said. “And he never misses lunch, especially on Saturday. With my hours, it’s basically the only time we get a chance to spend quality time together. Hell! He spends more time with his babysitter Jen than anybody.” Concern had a firm hold on his face. “I’ll give him a few more minutes and then I’m going to go find him.”

Maybe he went to get another pumpkin, Martha thought.

Twenty minutes later Martha had changed clothes and was meeting her brother outside on the sidewalk.
An increasingly frantic Rick quickly led the way with Martha keeping in step, just as concerned. At the stream he began to heavily scan the area for Johnny. He stayed on the first stone, but completely missed the second. With no obvious concern for getting wet, he avoided the remaining few and sloshed across. His wet shoes slipped once while scaling the small embankment and he almost fell, but continued on until he was in the midst of the pumpkin patch. Johnny wasn’t there. Martha caught up and together they called out.

“JOHNNY!”

“JOHNNY!”

A loon screamed out and Martha glanced up into the branches of the massive old oak, half hoping to see Johnny lying on a branch looking down and laughing, playing some sort of demented Halloween prank. But he wasn’t.
She looked at the cross and followed the branch out. Just over halfway, directly over the center of the patch, was an old groove cut deep and running around the branch. She found it somewhat odd, but directed her thoughts back to finding the little boy.

They separated. Rick disappeared into the nearby wooded area and Martha followed the edge of the stream. Occasionally her brother’s voice echoing as he called out his son’s name, but it did little to mask his growing despair. Suddenly she felt lonely, secluded and distraught, and wondered if Johnny felt the same.

Making her way back to and through the patch, she consciously made every effort to avoid stepping on the scattered, stretched vines. At the place where she and Johnny had taken the pumpkin from the day before, she unconsciously looked for the cut vine, but couldn’t find it. Perplexed, she kept searching until a dejected looking Rick reappeared, shaking his head.

Trudging toward her through the patch his foot became tangled. Visibly angered, he kicked viciously at the thick tendril and broke loose. Out of the corner of her eye, Martha noticed a nearby pumpkin move and roll onto its side.            

The two made their way back to the house, each silently hoping that Johnny was waiting for them.
Traipsing the porch stairs, Rick took notice of his son’s previous night’s work and complemented on his carvings.
Carvings? Martha thought to herself and looked up, horrified to see two pumpkins resting silently side by side on the banister with faces beaming in holiday glory.

“We’ll do everything we can,” Mike Lement, the town’s constable, reassured. Rick forced himself to nod and Mike could see that he wasn’t all that encouraged. “Trust me Rick, we’ll find him,” he added, patting him on the shoulder before turning and going back toward his patrol car.

The next couple of weeks were a blur and Martha fought hard to remain steadfast and sturdy and optimistic. Her return bus ticket expired and she didn’t care, more concerned with both finding her nephew and carefully watching over a disheartened and depressed brother who made occasional references to suicide. Who could blame him? Losing a wife was bad enough, but to lose his son, the last remaining shred of their love, was horrendous.
It was early January when the chaos faded, replaced with realization. The holidays were over and her brother started to show signs of improvement. While hope remained, it was by a mere thread and was nothing more anyone could do, Martha returned home.

Martha sat in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal and glancing at the calendar hanging on the wall. Yet again another Halloween was upon, making it three years since the boy went missing and not a day went by without the thought. The prevalent decorative pumpkins practically everywhere were a constant reminder and her hatred toward them had only grown.

She gave faint consideration to phoning her brother, who had since thrown himself into work, having little time for anything or anyone else, but understandingly decided against it and began to weep.

After wiping away the tears, she stood up, carried the half eaten bowl of cereal to the sink and placed the carton of milk in the refrigerator. She hadn’t noticed the black and white photograph of a smiling Johnny on the backside of it under the heading MISSING.

October 29th, 1789

Gwendolyn Smith carefully plucked a sprig of wolfs bane, placed it in the small woven basket, moved forward along the garden’s perimeter around the large oak tree and stopped at the opposite end. Crouching down to a cluster of plants, she held the basket underneath and snipped a small piece of hemlock, letting it fall onto the sprig of wolfs bane and went over the spell ingredients in her mind.

Taking note of the approaching noise, she threw her long, unkempt black hair back, stood up and looked.
A cluster of people, led by William Gray, the puritan preacher, appeared from out of the edge of the woods and she waited on them to draw near.

“TAKE HER!” His deep voice bellowed.

Three stocky men stepped forward and grasped hold of her.

“NO MORE, WITCH! YOUR WICKED DAYS ARE OVER!” he cried out, holding and shaking a worn, black covered bible up over his head.

Hushed voices, some praising God and some agreeing with his words trickled throughout the provoked crowd as a man tossed a noosed rope up and over the bottom branch of the oak and stood waiting for the captive.
Gwendolyn thrashed about as the noose was placed around her neck, but it was no use, the men were far too strong.

William Gray didn’t look at her and began reading aloud from the bible.

She peered at him, eyes wickedly serious.

“I will return Mr. Willam Gray,” she spoke out, “I’ll always return on the one single night when you are powerless to stop me and I will have my revenge which will start with you and your family.” She laughed loudly.

The man holding the end of the rope gave a hearty tug and Gwendolyn was lifted off the ground. Through gurgling sounds she dangled, twitched and writhed, and the townsfolk watched until she became silent and still.

Wiliam Gray stopped reading and, using a finger, dictated that a woodpile needed to be created directly below her.

Suddenly, a loon screamed out as it flew close by the preacher and a fearful gasp rippled through the crowd.

The pile created, the man let loose of the rope and her body contorted oddly as it limply flopped over the top it. A flaming torch was tossed and the heap quickly caught hold.

Although some turned away, most watched with demented intent as flames engulfed the woman. Burning flesh filled the air sickening a few and some tapered off back to their homes.

With nothing but ashes remaining, William quoted a few verses through a beam of pride and when he was finished he took the knife from his beltline and began carving a cross into the tree’s trunk.

“No need to worry about her anymore, folks,” he attempted to reassure. “She’ll not harm us any longer and rest assured All Hallows Eve will pass uneventful tonight.”

With dusk closing in, what townsfolk were left dispersed in different directions and William watched them leave before continuing with the carving.

A loon cried out from high above and the knife slipped, deeply slicing open the knuckle on his index finger. He yanked away and watched yellow sap mesh vividly with bright red as it slowly trickled down through the carving.  

The following day was Sunday and the congregation waited at the church most of the morning before going to to see if he was still at the site. He wasn’t and various frightful speculations circulated.

No one took notice of the two tiny pumpkins nestled at the edge of the ash and covered with leaves.

 

End

 

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