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Authors: John Everson

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BOOK: The Pumpkin Man
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The front door lock turned easily, and she pushed the heavy door open and searched with her hand for a switch on the wall. When she found it, the front room lit with a warm orange glow from a single table lamp near a couch. She and her friend stepped inside.

“Home sweet home,” Kirstin said.

“We'll see.”

The front room looked cozy. Flanked by floor-to-ceiling bookcases, the northern wall was dominated by a stone fireplace. In the center of the stones above the mantel was a black spiral. When Jenn looked closer, she realized it was a carving of a snake. She saw the sliver of a tongue from the thick stub that ended in the center. Not your usual front-room decoration, but whatever.

A worn but comfortable-looking couch rested against the eastern wall; above it were two candle sconces and an ornate tapestry stitched in swirls of purple and green and blue. The room looked rustic but warm.

“I like it,” Kirstin observed.

“Smells like cloves,” Jenn said.

“Or candles.”

They unloaded their suitcases from the car into the family room and then went to explore the other rooms. The kitchen was small, with fixtures that looked as if they'd been installed in the 1950s.

“Yikes,” Jenn said. “I think we've entered the Museum of Culinary Anachronisms.”

Kirstin turned the black knob on a white stove front, and she was rewarded with a whoosh and a tower of blue flame through wrought-iron grates. “Guess it works!”

“Good thing,” Jenn answered. “'Cuz I don't see a microwave.”

She pulled a long silver handle on the door of the refrigerator, and the door popped open with a clank, spilling cool air into the room. A single bulb lit the interior, and in the back of the top shelf was an Arm & Hammer box. Otherwise, the fridge was empty. She looked closer and found the thermostat and turned it from low to high before closing the door.

“I've never seen a refrigerator with an oval door,” Kirstin observed.

“Didn't you ever watch
I Love Lucy
?” Jenn asked.

“Black and white? Are you kidding?”

Kirstin suddenly looked alarmed, and she started back toward the front room. A moment later her voice resonated with pure fear. “Hey, there's no TV!”

Jenn yelled back. “Didn't you ever hear of reading? Looks like there's a great library.”

“Yeah, if you like witchcraft and the occult,” Kirstin muttered. “What kind of shit was your aunt into, anyway?”

When Jenn left the kitchen, Kirstin was on her knees in front of one of the bookcases. She was leafing through an old book near the fireplace and didn't look up when Jenn knelt beside her.

“Fucked up,” she said.

“What?”

“There's something here about a goat, and cleansing, and using stone knives to remove its guts.”

Jennica's forehead wrinkled. She put her hands out. “What the hell are you looking at?”

Kirstin handed the book over. Jenn turned it to look at the spine.


Maleficia
,” she read. The words looked as if they'd been burned into the leather with a brand rather than printed.

She opened it to the first page, and underneath the title the inscription read:
The Contents of which Endeavor to present to you the Secret Wisdom of the Night as it was given to Nathan Maldita at the Summer Solstice, 1793.
Jennica leafed further, and on each yellowed page English melded with Latin to present a series of what appeared to be rituals and spells.

“Weird,” she agreed, placing the book back on the shelf and pulling out one next to it, labeled simply
Deaths
.

“Cheery,” Kirstin observed.

“Mmmmm.”

Jenn opened the red leather cover to reveal page after page of illustrated death. The art was beautiful and horrible at the same time. The face of each victim was rosy-colored; warm Norman Rockwell–esque cherubs met their final moments as intimate rendezvous with knives, acid, ropes, guillotines and various blunt instruments. After each painting of torture, a short text description followed.

Jenn digested a particularly gruesome drawing of a naked man whose head was half severed and whose back and legs were spotted with blood and jagged wounds. She read the accompanying text aloud:

 

“Raymond Brown had the misfortune of severing his femoral and carotid arteries when he ran full tilt into a barbed wire fence after dark. The incident occurred on a Saturday night of the full moon.

“Earlier, Mr. Brown had found himself accosted in his home by three persons of indeterminate gender. Each wore hoods and
dark capes, and they urged Mr. Brown to leave his home at knifepoint. When he refused, his wife was brought before him by a previously unseen fourth person. She was forcibly disrobed, and as a knife was held to the throat of Mr. Brown, there before him on the floor of their cottage, his wife was taken in the biblical way by her captor. At this point, Mr. Brown was informed that he could either run as fast as possible through the west field or watch his wife be flayed alive.

“‘If I run, you'll leave her alone?' he asked, and the captor holding the knife to his throat had said, ‘Yes. But you must remove all of your clothes first.'

“The man stripped, and then, after being gouged by a knife to his buttock, he ran out the back door of the house. The three dark-hooded persons followed, poking at him with their blades whenever they could get close.

“‘Run to catch the moon,' they implored him. They laughed and stabbed, and soon Mr. Brown was bleeding in many nether places.

“He cried and ran blindly through the night. But his captors were not blind. They herded him with purpose toward the strands of wire they knew surrounded the field to the west. They counted on Mr. Brown's panic getting the best of him, and they were rewarded.

“He ran faster and harder; his legs moved in a blur through the night as the knife blades prodded him onward. When at last his flight ended, it was with an initial air of confusion. His pursuers had fallen behind, and he'd thought victory was at hand. He would be free, and he could circle back to rescue his Sarah. Retrieve his clothes. Then the cold metal bit his neck, chest, groin. His flight came to a sudden, painful stop.

“He began to scream but found himself choking as hot blood filled his throat. When he fell to the ground, his pursuers encircled him, watching. Then, as his eyes saw the light of the stars one
last time, they began to open him with their knives to retrieve the magic of his heart.”

“Whoa,” Jenn whispered, ceasing to read aloud. “Now that's
nasty!
” She kept leafing through the book, though, which appeared to include nothing but violent death.

“Soooo, you want to tell me a little more about this aunt of yours?” Kirstin said.

Jenn shrugged. “There's not much to tell. She moved out here like thirty years ago and didn't keep in contact with Dad much. I don't think they really got along. She was kind of wild, into all sorts of stuff. And Dad was . . . well, you know.”

“Dull?”

Jenn smacked Kirstin's shoulder. “No. He was kind of a hippie, too, but just . . . more conservative.”

“Like his daughter.”

“What are you saying?”

“That neither one of you really knew how to have a good time.”

“I don't consider
this
a good time,” Jennica retorted, holding the book out and open to a scene of evisceration.

“Well, apparently your weird old aunt did.”

Kirstin got up, walked over to the mantel above the fireplace, ran her fingers over a series of strange statuettes and candles. A black iron moon sculpture dominated the shelf, and above that was another sculpture, hung from leather strips nailed into the bricks, this one of three interconnected triangular shapes. It seemed to resemble nothing so much as a pentagram.

“Did you know that your aunt was a witch?” she asked.

“My dad always called her a spiritualist—and an herbalist,” Jennica hedged, pulling down another book from the shelf. This one was titled
The Seven Secret Plants of Power
. She'd been thinking of her aunt as a witch herself, but not really in an
“evil” way. Now that things were getting creepier, she found she favored her dad's definition. She didn't know if she was willingly being blind, though.

“Herbalist my ass!” Kirstin laughed. “Look around you. This room is filled with gargoyles, candles, books about death and dark spells, and there's some kind of Satanic symbol above the fireplace. Your aunt was a witch, Jenn. That's why your dad didn't like her. And I don't think she was Glinda the Good, judging from the look of this stuff.”

Jennica had flipped to a middle page in the
Plants
book, but instead of finding recipes for tea she found a picture of a man who had literally turned green. On the page next to him was the illustration of a peculiarly shaped leaf with the name
Persinambulus
, its Latin genus, and a description of how a single brush against its hairy leaves could poison a man so fast he might not know he was ill before he fell to the ground. The fine cilia implanted spores that quickly hatched and grew upon meeting the oily warmth of human skin. Within hours, the area of contact turned bright green. The new colony of plant spores fed and spread, and often the victim's body was fruiting a new colony of
Persinambulus
before he was even noted missing, leaves rising above his cheeks and neck, already ciliated and ready to seek their next victim.

She closed the book with a snap and pushed it back onto the shelf. “Yeah, maybe not,” she agreed.

“Is this her?” Kirstin asked. She'd pulled a photo album from the top drawer of an end table by the couch.

Jenn peered over her shoulder to see a smallish woman with dark wavy hair leaning against a man in overalls and a checkered shirt. The top of her head barely reached his shoulder. She looked privately amused, as if she were laughing at some in-joke while the photographer snapped the shot.

“That's Aunt Meredith,” she confirmed.

They flipped through a handful of pages with photos
featuring Meredith tending a garden and walking on a beach. There were also pictures of the man carving a Halloween pumpkin. The image triggered goose bumps on Jennica's arms as she thought of the pumpkin pieces in her apartment and her father's.

“Is that your uncle?” Kirstin asked.

“Yeah. I don't think I ever met him, but I've seen pictures.”

“Whoa!” Kirstin exclaimed as they flipped the next page. “Now that's some amazing work.”

The photo was a close-up of a jack-o'-lantern, but this was no ordinary triangle-nose-and-eyes type. It was intricately carved, rounded orb eyes above a nose and face that almost seemed animate. The mouth was small, gentle. The pumpkin looked like nothing so much as a small, mischievous boy.

The next page showed another pumpkin, this one carved in the likeness of a girl. Another looked so real it made Jennica shiver; it was the visage of an old woman screaming in pain, her mouth wide, her eyes squinted nearly closed. And the last page she flipped to revealed a series of pumpkins all in the shapes of feral animals.

“That is not the kind of dog I'd want to take home,” Kirstin said, pointing to the toothy snarl of a wolfish gourd.

“No,” Jenn agreed and said nothing more.

“Did your uncle carve all of these, do you think?” Kirstin asked. “'Cuz whoever did . . . was good!”

“It was him,” Jenn said and pointed out another photo. It was of the tall man's arm. He was holding a knife to a pumpkin on the kitchen table, the same table as was in the other room. On the table was stacked a pile of orange triangles, and there was a mess of what looked like orange seaweed slopped on newspaper nearby. Pumpkin guts.

They paged through the last few photos, and then Kirstin put the book away. Jennica sat on the couch in silence.

“What's the matter?” Kirstin asked. She'd felt the change
come over her friend as they looked through the album. It was like a cold wave. “And don't say ‘nothing.'”

“It's stupid,” Jenn said. Her face was serious, though.

“Try me.”

Jennica rolled her eyes. “Well, it's just that . . .”

“What?”

“They found pumpkin pieces in the apartment after my dad was killed,” she said. “And I found some by my bed last week.”

Kirstin looked confused. “Is your uncle still alive? Do you think
he
could have had something to do with . . . ?”

Jennica shook her head. “No. He died a long time ago. It's . . . Those pictures freaked me out a little, that's all. I'm just not feeling good about pumpkins these days.”

“Well, c'mon then.” Kirstin smiled and reached out to pull her friend up off the couch. “You wanna feel good? I've got just the thing. I saw it in one of the cabinets in the kitchen. It's one hundred proof, and it rhymes with Latka.”

Jenn laughed. “Weak.”

“Oh no,” Kirstin promised. “This shit's strong.”

“I meant the
Taxi
reference.”

Kirstin disappeared into the kitchen and returned with two glasses filled to the brim. “Drink up,” she said. “We'll unpack tomorrow.”

Jenn tilted the glass back and coughed. Fire lit the back of her throat. Her eyes went wide, but the heat of the clear liquid felt good coursing through her chest. She took another sip. And another.

It wasn't long before they were both slurring a bit. Jenn leaned back and stared at the dull white of the ceiling and sighed. “I miss my dad.”

“I know, hon,” Kirstin said. “I know. But now we've got to start a new life.”

Jenn snorted. “Yeah. A new life. In the house of death.”

Kirstin didn't have an answer.

C
HAPTER
N
INE

Jennica woke to sun streaming through pale curtains. She had taken what presumably was Meredith's old room, basically just tossing her suitcase to the floor and climbing into bed, but as she blinked and peered around blurrily to get her bearings she got a better sense of it than she had the night before. The room was painted a pale yellow, and a long wooden dresser with an oval mirror took up most of one wall. A closet door rose beside it.

BOOK: The Pumpkin Man
5.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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