Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween: The Beginning

I posted this on my Facebook this morning, but figured I'd put this up here, too. It's no secret I love the original Halloween film, including many of the sequel. So I had this idea, and thus, this little short story was born.

Hope you enjoy...and Happy Halloween!


The land was bad, had been since as long as could be remembered. The Native American tribe, the Pashawakas, had long since avoided the area in southeastern Illinois, after experiencing their own run of horrors many years ago. They simply dubbed that vast plot of fields and thick groves as “tainted with evil.” The first white settlers who had the opportunity to interact with the mostly peaceful tribe wouldn’t get much else for an explanation, except that the Pashawakas never set foot there, even to hunt. Too much innocent blood had been spilled.

The shaman warned the settlers that the evil that resided there would sleep for 30 years or so, only to awaken hungry for violence, for bloodshed. And it was always the same. Loved ones would slaughter loved ones, whole families found butchered and mutilated. 

One of the first settlers to ignore the morbid stories was Thomas Hadden. In 1840, he brought his young wife and two children to the area. With just a wagon and two mules, they staked their claim, and while the initial first few months was difficult, Thomas managed to build a simple three-room log cabin before their first winter. That spring, he started tilling the fields for beans, corn, and a variety of squash, including pumpkins. What they didn’t consume, he planned on selling to nearby settlements. They’d also built a small barn and coop for their pigs and chickens. After that summer, a year since their arrival, the Hadden family thought their hard work would pay off, and Thomas made plans to build a fine home in the next few years. 

Over the next several years, other settlers moved into the area and it grew into a community of sorts. Talk began of forming an official town, with a name and mayor, but Thomas Hadden, while pleased and excited by the growth, wasn’t a politician, just a simple farmer. He had no such aspirations, but he supported the future of the unnamed but developing town.

The harvest season approached, in 1848, and it proved as it always did to be a busy time for the many farmers, including the Haddens. The crops were plentiful and the general mood amongst everyone was one of contentment, if not eagerness to expand and name their town, and elect a mayor and sheriff.
Some had suggested calling it Haddentown. After all, it was Thomas and his family who had settled in the area first.

However, in late October, horror struck the peaceful community. The curse the Pashawakas had warned those first settlers of had awakened. For reasons unknown, one night Thomas Hadden’s son, aged 14, got up from bed and went outside to the woodpile stacked against the side of the cabin. Taking the axe, he went back inside and murdered both his parents while they slept. Splattered with blood, Benjamin Hadden entered the room he shared with his younger sister, Adelaide. When she saw him covered in blood, holding the axe, she screamed before he cleaved her skull.

Summoned by the screams, nearby farmers investigated the disturbance, only to find young Ben standing out front of the family home clutching the bloodied axe, his face blank and emotionless. Later, some would claim his eyes were the most frightening aspect of the horrific scene, deep and black, as if the Devil himself now inhabited the boy.

When one man, a close friend of the family, moved to go inside the cabin, Ben lunged with the axe. Another man holding a shotgun opened fire, and Benjamin Hadden slumped to the ground, his head all but vaporized by the blast. 

It took the still unnamed community quite some time to recover from the horrible tragedy, but eventually they did. Explanations for why Benjamin Hadden, seemingly a fine young man, would do what he did that night went unanswered. While many people had heard the stories told by the local Indians, they scoffed at it as native superstition. Instead, they believed that the Hadden youth went inexplicably mad, or perhaps even possessed by Satan himself.

One year after the tragedy of the Hadden family, the town finally elected a mayor (which had been Thomas Hadden’s good friend, Daniel Strode), and it’s first Sheriff (the man who shot and killed Ben Hadden), Jess Brackett. 

All they had to do was to choose a town name. There had been many suggestions, but only one that most thought fitting. No one objected. 

Ten years after Thomas Hadden and his family settled in the area, making it their home, the town became first known as Hadden’s Field. 

Some time later, the town name was slightly changed.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Pumpkin Man

I thought it would be fun to share my first-ever Halloween story, "The Pumpkin Man." Not to be confused with horror author John Everson's fantastic novel bearing the same title, my short story was originally written in the mid-to-late 90's. I cleaned it up a bit, changed a few things, but because I'm in the process of editing my horror novella, MISTER JACK (another Halloween horror tale), I can't spend too much time on this one. I came across "The Pumpkin Man" yesterday while digging around my files looking for something else, and uncovered this short story from my early years writing horror.

Enjoy, I hope...and beware the Pumpkin Man!

The Pumpkin Man
Copyright 2015

Garrett Everson started at the old man in mild disbelief.  “You’re kidding, right?” he said, grinning.  His ten year-old son, David, stood beside him, peering up at the elderly shop-keeper.  He wore faded blue jeans and a gray sweat-shirt.  Perched atop his head was a Pittsburgh Steelers ball cap, covering much of his unruly strawberry blonde hair.  His father was also clad in worn Levi’s and a sweater. It was a chilly fall day, even in the South, although it was much chillier up where they used to live in western Pennsylvania. Gary told him a few days ago during their move into town that he’d have to get a haircut before his first day at the new school.  David had protested, but then Gary told him he wore his hair a little shorter these days, too. 
     “That’s correct, Mister…?”  The shop-keeper began, smiling, holding a broom and wearing an apron. 
     “Everson.  Mister Everson,” Gary replied.  “Call me Gary…please.”  He stretched out a hand to the old man, who gripped it with strong fingers.  His skin felt dry and leathery, like a snake. He introduced his son, David, and the old man, who said his name was Lester Haynes, shook his hand, as well. 
     “We just moved into the house off of Route—“
     “Yep, the old Brecker place,” he said, going back to sweeping the floor in front of the small produce market’s check-out counter.  “I heard about y’all movin’ in last week.  Reckon it’s about time a nice family moved in to that purdy ol’ house.”  He chewed on a wooden match stick in one corner of his mouth as he swished the broom back and forth. 
     Gary didn’t want to get side-tracked.  They still had more unpacking to do and Halloween was tomorrow.  David and his eight year-old sister, Lori, who was at the house helping her mother organize the kitchen, pleaded for a pumpkin of their own to carve this year.  Both kids said they would even use their saved allowance money to buy them.  Gary discussed it with his wife, Connie, and they agreed to it.  At the time, there seemed to be no harm in doing so. 
     Now this, Gary thought.  This is gotta be some kind of a small-town joke.
     “So you’re saying you’re all out of pumpkins?”
Gary asked.  “I know Halloween is tomorrow, but surely there must be someplace in town to get one?”
     “Nossir,” Lester Haynes stated.  “We just don’t sell ‘em.”
     “Well, Mister Haynes—“
     “Lester, if you please.”
     “Okay, Lester,” Gary said, “do you know where we could buy one?  I’d think the closest supermarkets gotta be in Athens.”
     Lester had stopped sweeping.  His smile was gone.  His eyes, the color of tarnished pennies, fixed on Gary with an almost malevolent intensity.  “I said we don’t sell ‘em.”
     Gary was beginning to feel irritated.  This seemingly kind old-timer’s sudden change in attitude made him a little uncomfortable.  He glanced briefly down at David, who shifted from foot to sneakered foot, hands thrust in his jeans pockets.  He looked up at his Dad, eyes wide, brow crinkled with disbelief and confusion. 
     “Okay, no need to get hostile,” Gary began, holding out a hand.  “I didn’t know.”
     The strange glint in Lester’s eyes lessened somewhat.  His smile didn’t return, but he continued to gnaw on the wooden match.  “I guess no one told y’all that carvin’ pumpkins is against town ordinance.  Been law since…well, since I was a boy.  Been law not long after this town was founded over a hundred and fifty years ago, matter a fact.”
     “You don’t celebrate Halloween?” David Everson asked.  He couldn’t help it. 
     For a minute, Gary envisioned Lester blowing up in anger, going off about how Halloween was a Satanic holiday, and that they all needed to be “born again” or “come home to the Lord,” and all that other evangelistic nonsense.  He was relieved when Lester grinned broadly at the boy.  He even reached down and clapped a hand on his shoulder, patting him on the back. 
     “Now, son, don’t you worry,” he said, chuckling.  “You’ll get to go tricker-treatin’ like the rest of the town young ‘uns.  Hell, I used to love gettin’ all that candy when I was a boy…”
     “Why?” Gary had to know.  This was ridiculous.  A law against carving pumpkins on Halloween?  He looked down at David once again, noticing the look of disappointment spreading across his freckled face.  He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder, squeezing gently.  He wanted to reassure him with that it was okay, they’d find them pumpkins, not to worry. 
     Lester stopped laughing and glared at David’s father.  Then, when it seemed he might get angry, he propped the broom against the counter, and turned to head toward the back of the market.  “I better go spray down some of them vegetables,” he stated, grinning at them over his shoulder.  “I just got in some nice bunches of collard greens that go all limp if they don’t get watered every so often.”  He waved a hand at them and strode through a doorway into the stock room.  He could hear Lester muttering to one of his stock boys followed by an uproar of laughter. 
     Probably cracking a joke about the ignorance of us city-folk, Gary thought dully.  A real belly-aching, knee-slapper, for sure.  . 
     “C’mon, son,” he said, “let’s get outta here…”
     “But Dad,” David began, “we gotta find a pumpkin.  Halloween’s tomorrow and—“
     “We will, we will,” he told him, walking towards the open door.  “I promise.”
     David nodded, and they exited Haynes’ Market.
     Someone was standing on the wide wooden porch, leaning against the weathered railing, waiting for them.  He wore khaki-colored pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a straw hat, and pointed-toe cowboy boots.  He was in the process of cleaning his sunglasses when they clomped onto the boards. 
     Immediately, David noticed the gleaming badge and holstered revolver.  Cool, he thought.  Gotta be the sheriff.  Maybe he’ll let me see his gun.  That would be way cool!
     “Mornin’, folks!” the man said.  “I don’t think I’ve met you yet.  I’m Sheriff Jeb Whalen.”  He stuck out one sun-reddened, calloused hand towards David’s father. 
     “Gary Everson,” he said, taking the proffered hand, pumping it.  “This is my son, David.”    
     Sheriff Whalen flashed them a big toothy grin.  “Nice to meet you both,” he said.  “And welcome to Grady.  If there’s anythin’ I can do for y’all, please let me know.”
     “Well, actually, Sheriff,” Gary said, scratching the back of his neck, “There is something I’m finding a little hard to believe…”
     “Let me guess,” the sheriff said.  “Pumpkins, right?”
     Gary nodded.  David had been staring at the sheriff’s revolver, huge and silvery tucked inside the dark-brown leather holster, wondering if it was a .357 or a .44 Magnum, when he heard the sheriff begin to tell the story about the pumpkins.  He squinted up at the tall man with the ruddy face.
    “It is law, Mister Everson,” he stated.  “No doubt about that.  But first let me tell ya’ll how that came about.  Then, maybe you might understand.”  He shrugged, grunting.  “I’ve been sheriff in Grady for twelve years.  Came from Alabama.  There’s a lot of things I don’t understand either, but when it comes to the law, we’re all expected to follow it.  May not agree with it, but that’s the way it is. 
    Gary was about to ask why the law was never changed, when Sheriff Whalen began to tell his tale.  Gary didn’t interrupt.  After all, the man was still smiling.  “I heard this story from Lester Haynes’ brother, Luther, who’s been dead and buried for…oh, well, almost ten years now,” he said.   “Lester doesn’t like to talk much about it, and that’s a whole other story, but Luther was kind to me after I got the job as the new law man in town.  He explained it all to me over a couple of cold beers after work one night.”  The sheriff gestured to a long wooden bench on the other end of the porch.  “Y’all might want to have a seat, Mister Everson.  This may take a few minutes.  Please.”
     When they sat down on the bench, the sheriff continued, “Back in early 1800’s to about 1825, I believe—there was a man by the name of Thomas Grady.  Founded this good town.  Had a lot of money, a huge plantation with lots of slaves, but also was known for something else.  He was a doctor, but not the kind you’d think.  Sure, he had all the tools of the trade, but he was also a healer using his mind and his hands.  Rumor at the time had it he used other things, too, things conjured up out of dusty old books written in a funny language, but it was never proven.  You see, the townspeople killed him and burned his house down.  They figured him for a witch, or…what was it they call them male witches?  Oh, yeah, a…warlock, that’s it.  A warlock.”
     If David had been any younger, Gary would have politely told the sheriff his son didn’t need any scary stories to give him nightmares.  As it was, though, David was an avid watcher of old horror movies and loved the Goosebumps books.  He let the man go on.
     The sheriff fished a pack of Benson & Hedges out of his shirt pocket, saying, “Hope y’all don’t mind if I partake.  My wife won’t let me smoke these here coffin nails around the house, so…”
     Gary had given up smoking five years ago, but shook his head.  He just wanted to hear the rest of this intriguing story.  Being a writer himself, he was, admittedly, interested in this juicy little tidbit of town history. 
     He lit the cigarette, smoke trailing out of his nose and mouth. “But it wasn’t really the fact that Grady possessed some kind of powers that got him killed,” he went on.  “You see, there was this young girl who was mentally ill.  Her parents took her to him to see if he could heal her, cure her of her affliction.  Apparently, he did just that.  Or so he thought.  That night, after they took her home, she went on a murderous rampage and slaughtered her family with an ax.  She was found outside the house with the ax buried in her forehead.”  He paused, flicking ash off the cigarette.  “Of course, Grady had some enemies in town.  The town preacher and his flock didn’t care to Grady’s doctorin’ one bit, and when this unfortunate incident with the girl happened, well, that brought everthin’ to a head, to say the least.  A lynch mob formed, mostly of the people from Reverend Cobb’s church, and they went out to the Grady place.  Some had guns.  When Grady was tryin’ to talk it out, one of the townspeople accidentally shot him.  They thought he was dead and dragged his body into the mansion.  And set fire to it.  But he wasn’t dead.  He woke up as his house was burnin’ all around him, and tried to get his wife and little girls out, but the fire was too intense.  He was burned alive.  They all died in the fire.”
     Sheriff Whalen looked down at his boots, taking a long drag off the cig.  He dropped it onto the boards and mashed it under one toe of his boot.  “Now, y’all probably wonderin’ what all this has to do with makin’ a Jack O’ Lantern for Halloween.”  He pulled out another cigarette and lit it.  “Well, y’see, Thomas Grady and his kin died on Halloween night, and his house had a big ol’ pumpkin with a candle inside sittin’ in one window.  Not long after that terrible night, some of the slaves had claimed to see his ghost wanderin’ around down where the remains of his house were.  And soon the stories of the Pumpkin Man came about.”
     “The Pumpkin Man?”  Gary asked, eyebrows raised, lips crinkled in a half-grin. 
     “Some claim it was the slaves, who were auctioned off later on to other owners, that started the stories, but no one knows for sure.  But a year later, on Halloween night, a terrible fire swept through town, nearly wipin’ it out completely.  Several people died.  Reverend Cobb’s church was razed, as was his house.  No reasonable explanation for the fire was found, but some of the slaves said it was their old master Thomas Grady, the Pumpkin Man, seekin’ revenge for those who’d wronged him, and didn’t believe.”
     “Didn’t believe?”
     Sheriff Whalen shook his head, wispy smoke billowing out of his lips, hanging around his hat like a cloud.  “Didn’t believe in him, that he didn’t harm the girl, only tried to help her.  Didn’t believe in other things, things that weren’t spoken about in God’s book.  And this created plenty of fear and paranoia in the heart ‘n soul of most of the townspeople.  The reason for the name, Pumpkin Man, was because one of Grady’s largest crops on his plantation was pumpkins.  Accordin’ to some of the slaves, one of the first times Grady’s ghost was spotted was among his tangled, over-grown squash plants.”
     David was silent, spell-bound.  Gary expected him to be bursting with questions, he certainly was, but his son obviously wanted to hear more of the tale.   “So then the no-pumpkins law was created, right?” Gary commented, dryly.  He didn’t intend to sound cynical but up until the supernatural part, he enjoyed the story.  The rest he considered to be pure nonsense.  He enjoyed horror stories like anyone else, but the only monsters he believed in were the human ones, like serial killers such as Charles Manson or Dahmer. 
          “Not right away, Mister Everson,” the sheriff replied, showing no reaction to Gary’s thinly veiled cynicism.  “First thing was to get the town back together, bury the dead, and all that.  A town council was formed to deal with these strange events.  One of the first things they did was to make the no-pumpkins law.  At the time, they didn’t know how to deal with the tragedy, felt like they had no form of protection against this.  And they got it in their heads that to celebrate some harmless pagan holiday once a year was to bring the wrath of Thomas Grady’s spirit.  It was a long time before children were even allowed to wear costumes and tricker-treat.  In fact, it wasn’t ‘til the early 1900’s, if I recall correctly.”
     Gary remembered Lester Haynes saying about how he used to be fond of dressing-up and collecting all that candy, but kept his mouth shut.  He wanted the sheriff to finish his story so they could be on their way. 
     “And things went on undisturbed for many a year,” he continued, finishing his second cigarette, stubbing it out on the wood rail beside him.  “Of course stories, ghosts bein’ sighted an all, still came about year after year, but nothin’ like the tragic fire of 1826.”  The sheriff paused for a moment, retrieving the crumpled Benson & Hedges pack out of his shirt pocket.  Gary noticed his hand trembled slightly as he shook one cigarette out.
     “Then in 1983, the year I came on as sheriff here in Grady, a family moved in to the house you’re now livin’ in, Mister Everson,” he said, lighting his third smoke.  “I don’t mean to cause y’all any discomfort, but a month after they came to town, on Halloween night, the father went nuts and murdered his entire family; a wife, son, and daughter.”  He took a couple long pulls, almost nervously.  “I found him in the living room with his head nearly blown off with a shotgun.  He’d taken a knife to his family before he’d done himself.”
     “Jesus!” Gary muttered, wondering if this part of the story was something David should be hearing.  Good thing Lori didn’t come with us, he thought.  She’d be wailing about wanting to move back to Pittsburgh. 
     “My investigation didn’t take long,” Sheriff Whalen explained.  “A couple phone calls to some relatives, and I came to find out that the Brecker family moved down from Chicago, apparently to ‘get away from it all’, whatever the hell that means.”  More nervous puffs on the cigarette.  “They’d been goin’ through some money problems and figured they needed a change of scenery, time to get their lives in order.  Mister Brecker didn’t have a police record, but his sister—who was good friends with Brecker’s wife—told me he had a drinkin’ problem.  Combine the stress within the family, the booze, and the move, it was pretty obvious to me that was what caused him to lose his mind and do what he did.”
     “So why are you telling me this, Sheriff?” Gary asked, feeling a little confused and angry.  “You don’t sound like you follow all this Pumpkin Man stuff.  Why go and tell us this story?  It doesn’t frighten me, but has probably scared the hell outta my son!”
     “I’m not scared, Dad,” David protested.  “I think it’s a cool story!”
     “Quiet, son!”
     He closed his mouth, sullen.  He hated when his Dad got like this.  He thought once they left the city, and his Dad got more time to write his novel, he’d act less what his mother once called “a moody asshole.”  Now, however, it appeared to him that his father was creeping back toward that Moody Asshole state.  Sheriff Whalen had been nice all along—unlike that old guy inside the market—and was only trying to explain that weird pumpkin thing to them.  David had to admit, though, the story about the family that used to live in their house did make him feel a little uncomfortable. 
     The sheriff’s faint grin vanished, and he stared at Gary.  He took one final drag off his cigarette and dropped to the ground, where he crushed it with his boot heel.  He slowly shook his head.  “Only tryin’ to help, friend,” he said.  “Didn’t mean to upset ya’ll.”
     David expected his father to say something, but Gary remained silent.  Instead, he placed a hand on his son’s arm.  “Listen, sheriff,” he began, his voice less strident than before, but still tinged with anger, “I didn’t intend to blow up at you.  I just felt that last bit was a little…well, over the mark.  I’m sorry if I seemed rude, but we’re new here and don’t know or understand your way of life, not to mention your laws.”
     Sheriff Whalen nodded.  “I can understand that, Mister Everson.  But I—“
     “We’ll try, Sheriff.  Gary interrupted.  “Okay?”
     “Yeah, I guess that’ll have to do,” he replied.  David couldn’t tell if the sheriff was relieved or slightly frustrated.  He thought maybe a little of both. 
     “C’mon, son.” Gary started for the four steps leading off the porch, the boards creaking under his thumping footsteps.  David followed, glancing over his shoulder at the tall, lanky form of the sheriff, still leaning against the porch rail.  He was lighting another smoke, and just for a few seconds, Sheriff Whalen met David’s gaze.  David saw the man’s hand cupping around the end of the cigarette as he lit it.  It trembled.  But it was the expression on his face that troubled David more than the slight palsy of his fingers.
     Sheriff Whalen looked worried.

     “Didya believe that story the sheriff told us, Dad?” David asked, as his father drove the Ford Explorer out of the dirt and gravel parking lot belonging to Haynes’ Market.  For a moment, Gary didn’t answer his son.  Actually, he wasn’t sure how to reply.  Normally, David, always eager about things he didn’t completely understand (which probably accounted for his straight A’s in school), would continue to ask his father until he received a satisfactory answer, or go to another source, which meant his mother, teacher, or the computer he had in his room.  He wasn’t a nagging child, just curious and intelligent.
     Gary let a long sigh filter out from between his pursed lips.  What was he to tell him?  Gary was a published writer, had produced a series of novels ranging from early American history to mainstream, contemporary fiction.  But this farce, this small-town tall-tale was too much.  In fact, it disappointed him.  He’d had an idea about what life was going to be like in Grady, Georgia, but now there was a blackening cloud hanging over that mental picture.  He and Connie were even considering having another child, after he finished working on his next book.  But now, he wasn’t so sure. 
     Gary kept his eyes on the two-lane road ahead, but could sense his son fidgeting in his seat next to him.  He decided on an answer.
     “David, there are some things in this world that are a little hard to swallow,” he said.  “And that was definitely one of ‘em.”
     “Yeah, but the sheriff seemed like he was—“
     “I’m not saying he was lying to us,” Gary retorted, then realized he sounded defensive, that his tone was too harsh.  When he spoke again, he softened his voice.  “I like Sheriff Whalen, son.  He’s a good man for being honest with us.  But sometimes you can’t accept things that just make no sense.  We’d be complete, total fools if we did.”
     David peered at his father under the tilted-up brim of his black and gold cap.  Gary was momentarily struck by the look he saw there.  Fear.  Before, David said he thought the story the sheriff told them was “cool”.  Was he lying?  Was it the fact that some people were supposedly killed (and he was going to have words with the realtor) in their house that bothered him so?  He had to admit, if it was true, it would disturb him.
     “Hey, son, don’t believe that silly old ghost story” Gary said.  He cracked a wry grin, nudging him in the side with one elbow.  “It’s almost Halloween.  Telling scary stories goes with the territory, right?”
     “Yeah, I guess.”  He didn’t sound fully convinced, but he did give his father a big smile. 
     “How about we head over to Athens and scare us up a couple of pumpkins,” Gary said.  “What do you say?”
     David didn’t reply right away.  Then, he said, “As long as I don’t have to pick out Lori’s pumpkin.  You know she’s gonna cry about it not lookin’ right. Girls!”
     Gary broke into laughter, and so did David.  He slowed the Explorer down, flicking on the turn signal.  As they started down the highway in the direction of the next town ten miles away, father and son were still chuckling.

     The rest of the day was uneventful and pleasant for the Everson family.  A little after one o’clock, Gary and David arrived home with two pumpkins they had purchased at the new Publix supermarket on the outskirts of Athens.  There had been a huge display at the front of the store and David selected one of the largest ones.  Gary grabbed a smaller one for Lori, hoping she wouldn’t complain that her brother had a bigger pumpkin.  She probably would, though.
     When they hauled the bright orange squashes into the house, however, Lori squealed in delight over the one her Daddy picked out.  In fact, it had a better, rounder shape than David’s.  Her brother ignored her, saying he was going to carve a wicked face on his pumpkin.  He didn’t say a word about the conversation with the sheriff.  Before they’d pulled up to the house, Gary asked his son not to mention anything Sheriff Whalen said around his sister.  Not until he had a chance to talk to Mom about it.  David told him he wouldn’t.
     After lunch, they did more unpacking.  The kids wanted to carve their pumpkins, but both parents told them they’d have to wait a few hours.  Around four o’clock, the family gathered in the garage.  Gary flipped up the double-wide door, so they wouldn’t suffocate.  Old newspapers were spread on the floor.  David and Lori placed their pumpkins on the paper, and Gary gave them each a kitchen knife, telling them to be very careful.
     David attacked his pumpkin, cutting into the top, and pulling off the little “cap” with the stub of stem in the middle.  Lori was having trouble piercing the tough skin with her knife, and Gary helped her before she hurt herself.  By the time he got the “cap” cut out for her, David was already halfway done scooping out the pulpy, pale-orange innards.  Lori made a disgusted face when she grabbed a handful of the sticky, slimy goop.
     Half an hour later, both kids had finished.  Actually, David had completed his long before his sister, but both were happy with their end results.  Gary and Connie stood behind them, admiring both pumpkins.  David’s had fierce, slanted eye-holes, a small triangular nose-hole, and a huge gaping mouth filled with dagger-like teeth.  Lori’s was a happy, more traditional Jack O’ Lantern, with a smiley mouth full of square teeth. 
     While Gary and Connie prepared dinner, both kids went to their own rooms to work on their costumes for trick-or-treating later.  Outside, in the backyard, Gary dumped charcoal briquettes into the grill and thought about telling Connie what the sheriff told about the No-Pumpkins law, the Brecker family murders, and the spooky-tale about the town’s founder and namesake, Grady.
    What would she say? he thought, squirting lighter fluid over the coals.  She’d probably object to the kids going out tonight.  And that would be a disaster.
     Gary fished matches out of his jeans and lit the charcoal.  As the fire grew, he surveyed the large backyard, the screen of pine and oak trees bordering their property on three sides.  He looked at the small tool shed off to the side, wondering if Mr. Brecker had built it.
     A sudden breeze blew across the yard, rustling the tree branches, chilling him.  He wore just a T-shirt, and thought about going inside for his sweater.  He stayed outside, warming himself over the grill, while the coals grew white-hot.  Gary didn’t believe all that supernatural crap, but the thought of some guy murdering his family in the same house…
     Stop it! He silently scolded himself.  Just don’t think about it.
     He should tell Connie, but not right now.
     Later, perhaps, or tomorrow, he thought.
     Yes, he would.  He made that promise to himself.
     Then they would decide what to do. 
     What Garrett Everson didn’t know was that it was already too late.

     After a quick dinner of hotdogs and hamburgers, potato chips, and baked beans, David and Lori donned their Halloween costumes.  David was dressed as a ninja warrior, with a plastic samurai sword, and a pair of nunchuckas he’d made from an old broom handle.  Black plastic tape was wrapped around both pieces and connected with two nails and a small strip of plastic wire he’d found in their old garage.  David had been planning his outfit for months.
     Lori opted for the less violent, more peaceful costume.  She was dressed as a fairy princess, complete with a sparkling silver and gold wand.  Both kids had large plastic orange pumpkins to haul their sweet treats in as they went from house to house.
     Downstairs, in the kitchen, Gary helped Connie straighten up the kitchen.  Suddenly, a short, sharp scream came from the second floor.  Gary bolted past his wife, almost knocking her to the ground.  He pounded up the stairs, reaching the landing in seconds to find his son decked out in his black ninja garb.  Lori was standing in the doorway to their bathroom, her tear-streaked face pale and flushed with red splotches.
     “Daddy, he ambushed me when I was trying to get ready!” she shrieked.
     David, his voice muffled through the lower half of his ninja mask, replied, “God, what a baby!  It’s Halloween!  No fun if you don’t get scared, Lori!”
     Gary shook his head.  Kids, he thought.

     The Eversons, along with at least a dozen other town families, took their kids to the main section of town, where there were plenty of houses to trick-or-treat.  They met some of the other townspeople and everyone seemed very friendly.  Before they left, Connie had set a bowl of candies out on the porch, but when they got home two hours later, the bowl was untouched.
     “Kind of strange, huh?” she said, brow crinkling.
     “Yeah, it is,” he replied, but to himself thought they don’t want to take their kids to the old Brecker house, that’s why.  Or maybe it’s because of…
     …the Pumpkin Man.
     “What’s the matter, hon?”
     “Nothing,” he said, “Really, it’s…well…”
     Connie stepped over to her husband and placed a hand on his arm.  She looked into his eyes, and when she did that he couldn’t lie to her.  He tried to look away, to tear his eyes away, but couldn’t.  He had to tell her.  Now.
     “It’s about the house, this house,” he began, letting out a long, deep sigh.  And he told her about the Brecker family.  He intentionally left out the story of Thomas Grady and the ridiculous Pumpkin Man. 
     Nevertheless, she was upset.  “How could you not tell me!?” She cried.  “A family died here, regardless of what happened!”
     “Maybe he’s lying—“
     “Oh, come on, Gary,” she stated, throwing up her hands.  “Why would he lie to you?  There’s no reason for that!”
     “Christ, Connie, would you stop—“
     “NO, I WILL NOT!”
     Then, she fell silent.  Tears glistened her eyes, and she brought her hand up to her lips, biting her knuckles.  She got up out of her chair, left the kitchen, and headed up the stairs for the bedroom.  He stayed in his seat, hand gripping his head.  He could feel a throbbing headache coming on.
     Briefly, Gary heard Connie’s voice upstairs, and then one of the kids talking.  He hated arguing with her when the kids were around.  That wasn’t good.  Not at all.
     God, I need a drink, he thought, and got up to find something in one of the cabinets.  He found some bourbon, and as he was pouring it into a small glass, he heard his wife’s footsteps trail into the bedroom.  And the door close.

     Sometime later, he awoke to find himself slumped over the small kitchen table.  His right hand was resting on the table next to his head.  When his eyes focused he saw the empty whiskey bottle and glass with an inch of the caramel-colored liquid in it.  His headache still throbbed.  His throat and tongue felt like a layer of crust had dried on them. 
     Lifting his head off the table, he sat back in his chair.  Dizziness claimed him and he squeezed shut his eyes until it passed.  When he opened them, he realized the kitchen was dark.  He must have turned off the lights not long after he started drinking, but he didn’t remember doing it.
     His bladder was full and he suddenly felt the urge to piss badly.  He really didn’t want to go upstairs, so he padded across the kitchen floor to the downstairs bathroom.  He almost reached the door, nearly tripping over some scattered boxes in the dark, when he heard the shrill noise, like tires screeching across pavement. 
     A scream.
     For a few seconds, he stood stupidly in the doorway, wondering if he should pee first, or if the scream was from Lori or his wife.
     What the hell are you doing? a voice spoke up inside his head.  Get your ass upstairs, you moron!
     Gary started for the stairs, this time falling headlong over a box.  A bright burst of light exploded in his eyes, and pain enveloped him.  He couldn’t breathe.
     “OH MY GOD!  NOOOOO!”  It was Connie.  She sounded hysterical.
     Grunting, he pulled himself up.  He trudged forward, kicking aside more boxes.  He found the stairs, grasping the banister, and ascended the steps as fast as he could.  He felt woozy, sick, trying not to slip or fall.  He stumbled once, nearly losing his balance, but kept his hold on the wooden rail.  A few seconds later, he reached the second floor.
     His wife stood outside the door to their daughter’s room, her back to him.  She held something in her arms.  It was unlit and shadowy in the hallway, but what she held like looked like a bundle of towels, until she spun around at the sound of his thudding footsteps, and he saw…
     Oh God, no!  No no no no!
     …it was Lori in her arms.  Something was all over Lori, all over Connie, dripping onto the carpet with a tiny, hollow plip-plop-plip-plop sound.  It was dark in the hall, but Gary knew what it was.  Blood.  His daughter wasn’t moving, and it was her blood!
     “Gary, my baby…my baby!” Her eyes rolled up in her head.  She fell forward, and Gary didn’t have a chance to catch her before she hit the floor.  The bundle that was his little girl rolled to his feet.  He saw her face.  Or, rather, what was left of it. 
     Crumpling to his knees, he bent over the body.  Tears burned in his eyes.  “My God! Lori…”
     Although it was dark, there was enough faint light to allow Gary to see.  His hand brushed her cheek, felt the warm, sticky gore there, and recoiled in horror.  Flaps of skin dangled like pieces of a gruesome mask.
     Suddenly a thought:  David.  Oh, no…
     Gary pushed off the floor, bracing himself against the wall.  He scrambled past the bodies of his unconscious wife and dead daughter and slammed into the door of his son’s room.  The door flew open, banging into the wall on the inside.  No, I’m not too late.  No, I’m not too late.  No, I’m not too late,  his tortured mind chanted over and over.
     David’s bed was empty.
     The window was open.
     Gary peered out and saw a flicker of movement near the tool shed.
     “David!” he yelled, so loud he thought his throat would rupture.  He heard laughing from inside the shed.  Low, hoarse cackling.
     “No!” he vowed, dashing out of the room and down the stairs.  He nearly slipped and fell, could’ve broken his neck and killed himself, but he was beyond that.  The only thing on his mind was getting to that shed and stopping whatever was about to happen.
     Gary left the house through the kitchen back door and ran across the yard.  When he came within ten feet of the shed, he stopped.  The sliding door was open and the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling was on.  At first, when he approached the opening, he didn’t see anything inside, except for the lawn mower, some garden equipment, and other tools.
     Then, it stepped into view from one shadowy corner of the shed.  The thing was tall and black as was the sack he held in one long, dark hand.  Its eyes were yellowish-white, and they fixed on Gary.  He realized a heartbeat later the sack was his son, still wearing his ninja outfit.
     “No, please,” he muttered, starting forward, hands reaching out.
     “You didn’t listen, did you, Mister Everson?” it said, the voice like a banshee wail.  “You didn’t heed the warning…”
     Gary stopped as the thing raised its arms and his son’s head, which had been turned to one side, lolled around to the front.
     He screamed.
     His son’s face had been skinned.  Seeing Lori had been bad enough, but this horror, revealed to him in the sickly yellow light of the shed, was more than he could take.  The thing held up a large, old-looking knife, the blade rusty, smeared with blood.  Gary could see where it made a rough triangular cut around his son’s eyes and nose.  His lips had been sliced off.  Blood collected in a growing puddle at the thing’s feet.
     It had carved him like a pumpkin.
     He felt weak.  Darkness spotted his vision.  He knew he was about to pass out.
     The thing dropped the body of his son to the ground.  Gary grasped the edge of the shed doorway to keep from falling.  He stopped hearing himself scream.
     The thing started for him, raising the big knife.  Gary smelled burnt flesh.  As his vision blurred and he saw the blade flash down towards him, he thought, Grady is the Pumpkin Man.
     His last thought, though, before he let the darkness swallow him was for his wife. 
     Connie, I’m so sorry.

     “Such nice folks too,” the deputy commented, one of five that Sheriff Whalen employed.  The sheriff turned to look at the short, stocky man.  He nodded.  He couldn’t believe it either.  The Eversons, all horribly mutilated.  The father and son found out back behind the house in the tool shed and the mother and daughter in the house, on the second floor.  An old knife had been found next to Mr. Everson’s bloody, out-stretched hand.

     “Wife and I met ‘em just last night,” Deputy Monroe stated.  “Had their kids out trick-or-treatin’.  In fact, my boy was gonna have his boy over to—“
     “Gus!” he blurted.  “Just shut up, please!”
     The sheriff liked Gus Monroe a lot, he was a good deputy, but he sure ran his mouth.  He sighed, reaching for his pack of cigarettes, trying to ignore the sting of tears in his eyes.  Everyone was having a hard time dealing with this incident and Gus was no exception.
     “Listen, Gus,” Sheriff Whalen said, lighting his smoke, and patting him on the back.  “I didn’t mean to yell.  Just been a rough mornin’”
     “That’s OK,” he said.  “No harm done.”
     The deputy sauntered off inside the house to help with the rest of the clean-up.
     Sheriff Whalen watched the coroner’s truck pull away.  He’s got a lot of work to do, the sheriff thought, grimly. And so do I.
     Just like the Breckers, but how many before them?  He didn’t want to know.
     He walked up to the house.  He finished the cigarette and slapped out another.
     He had tried to help them, but they didn’t listen.  He wasn’t going to let that happen again.  Not to another family.
     Sheriff Whalen lit his cigarette, inhaled smoke deep into his lungs, and exhaled noisily
     Instead of shoving his lighter back into this pocket, he looked at it for a second and then back at the two-story house with the wide front porch.  Sheriff Whalen decided he was going to pay this house a visit sometime.  Alone.  Not tomorrow, not in a week, but sometime soon.  When the investigation was done. 
     The house is mostly wood, he thought. 
     It would burn to the ground.



Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dead Shot

For your enjoyment (I hope), this short story was my first professional sale, debuting in the long defunct horror Web zine, MALEFICA.

Dead Shot
Copyright 2012

Like countless times before, I lay waiting for the target to enter my crosshairs.  I lowered my heart rate, controlled my breathing, and slipped my finger inside the trigger-guard of my weapon.  The cool groove of metal was a familiar friend, as was the sharp odor of well-maintained gunmetal.

But some weird shit had been going down lately.   I hadn’t mentioned any of this to my superiors at HQ; to do so would’ve surely meant the end of this hardcore operator.  Numerous ultra-risky but successful missions behind enemy lines in various global hotspots meant nothing in my line of work.

To go fucking crazy, lose your finely-honed edge, meant getting capped by one of your own.  Put out to pasture, adios amigos.

Sprawled under my protective camouflage-net canopy, clad in a Ghillie suit, I was virtually invisible in the early morning light.  I recalled the first time it happened, about a month ago, when I saw the dead man in my sights.  I’d been a heartbeat away from squeezing off a high-velocity 7.62mm round into the cranium of a hard-ass Colombian drug-lord when it happened.  One second it was just fucking Esteban in my sights, the next, Esteban and Mr. Partially Decapitated Skull.  I remembered him, of course, from a mission several months ago.  A hard-ass Taliban shooter named Ahmed something.  I’d fucking took him out with a clean and easy headshot.  My kill was now totally screwed because I’d lost my focus, my heart jackhammering I thought it would burst out of my chest like the thing in the first Alien movie.  But there he was, standing next to Esteban and grinning up at me—fucking up AT ME—with half a face, pulped sickly gray brain-matter and shattered skull glistening, torn crimson flaps of flesh dangling past its slack jaws.

I blinked my eyes, pulling my face away from the Unertl scope mounted atop my Mk12 sniper rifle.  I wiped hastily at sweat droplets beading my forehead.  Fuck.  Ahmed the Grinning, Half-Headed Idiot was still there.  He even had the balls to raise one sickly gray hand at me, but Esteban didn’t notice, just stood there smoking a thin black cigar.

Needless to say, mission aborted.

I lied to my superiors.  No big deal.

Until it happened again.  And again.

And again.

The last few times I had even more surprises, lucky me!  Instead of one appearing like magic, there were two from different missions.  Unrelated kills, but I guess I deserve it, right?  I’m not a saint but I’ve always been a good soldier.  Never heard of this happening to a hardcore operator like me before, and I’d even thought briefly of talking to a shrink, but knew that wouldn’t go over well sitting on the proverbial fucking couch spilling my guts.  I’ve killed so many I’ve lost count.  I see the faces sometimes, in nightmares.

Apparently, that’s all changed now.  If it were all the same, I’d rather have the goddamned nightmares, than this madness.

Was I going bananas?  Heading down the nuthouse trail?  I suppose so, but I didn’t feel on the edge of insanity.  I remembered reading somewhere that most crazy people never even realized they were cracking up.

Before this current mission, I’d decided if it continued I was out.  Go AWOL, to hell with the consequences.  I’d rather take my chances running from my former Black Ops employers than be locked up in Black Site cell waiting for my cup full of mind-numbing pills. The most likely scenario would be having me put down like a rabid dog.

With growing dread, I knew things might not be going to go that way.  Recent developments seemed to suggest that.  I soon discovered I was correct on that point, fuck it all.

My current target appeared right on schedule.  I sighted in the scope’s crosshairs solidly on the head, and my buddies came out of the supernatural woodwork.  They were so happy to see me.  It would’ve been a Hallmark moment, except for the gaping toothy grins, splattered brains, and dangling red flesh.

They brought friends.  Lots of friends, God bless ‘em!

I very nearly lost it, crazy guffaws of laughter spewing out of my mouth.  Then I regained control and thought: What the fuck!  I focused on my target, the reason for being here at this moment, and squeezed the trigger.  Not my best shot—okay, I was a little distracted—but it had the desired effect.  X out another bad guy.

Then I started firing rapidly at the corpses.  Not the smartest thing, I knew, as I fired off one round after another, watching the bullets puncture already dead flesh.  Bodies writhed and jerked, crumpling to the ground.  But damn it all if they didn’t brush themselves off and climb right back up again.

Headshots, you fucking idiot!  No body shots, just headshots!

I wasn’t concerned about the bullet-riddled comrades of Now Deceased Bad Guy spotting my position, yet.  The netting and camouflage blended me into my surroundings.  The Mk-12 barely made a sound, thanks to the Wonderful World of Sound Suppressor Technology.  The shots came off not much louder than a muffled belch or fart.

However, I was growing concerned at the increasing number of dead, those loyal fans, my ever-loving victims.

Dozens of those dead and decaying cocksuckers now stood below at the bottom of the shallow ravine.  I couldn’t view them all in the scope so I detached it from the rifle and dropped it on the ground.  My situation had quickly gone from Truly Fucked Up to Seriously Up Shits Creek.

I still had plenty of spare ammo, as well as my 9mm sidearm, but maybe not enough to kill them all…before they got to me.

I considered cutting loose, running like hell.  Keep running.  I got to my knees.

Fuck that shit.

It wouldn’t stop, ever.  I knew this like a dying man knows he’s sucking in that last and final breath.

Crouched under the netting in my niche, I set aside the still warm and smoking Mk-12.  I reached for the crumpled pack of Camels in my breast cargo pocket, and my battered Zippo.

Shuffling, rustling sounds suddenly came from the undergrowth a dozen yards behind me.  I could smell them, even as I fired up my last cigarette and took a long drag.  They reeked worse than days-old road-kill, rife with decay.

I pushed back the netting, and stood up.

They greeted me with open arms.