Hope your Halloween evening’s going well. Hope your Halloween late-night goes better.
Remember, it’s still Halloween ’til the sun comes up…
Bringing in the Pumpkins
© Copyright 2011
The air was cold enough to bite me as I stepped outside. Halloween was over. The night was quiet, the kids were in bed. Every light in the complex was out.
Time had killed the candles in the jack o’lanterns, and their darkness only made the unlit night feel heavier. They scowled at me as I scooped them both in my arms. The rushing wind of the night came off as the sound of reproach.
I made my way down the stairs. It wasn’t unusually quiet; it was a school night, and people would be bitchin’ to the cops if anybody was throwing down. Nah, all the partying had been taken care of Saturday. Still the quiet was eerie. Everywhere.
The security lights buzzed as I shuffled to the dumpsters. Usually there’s a strong smell of pumpkin coming from those things this time of night, but I can’t catch any whiff of it. There’s something else, something kind of rotten. Drunk puke? I don’t know.
I can’t hear anything as I walk, except the soles of my shoes shuffling against the flat cement and the humming of the lights. None of the windows I pass have any light in them, and I don’t catch even a hint of movement. No rustling curtains, no floorboards creaking from soft footfalls on carpet. Nothing. I don’t even hear people talking. I mean, it’s late, but it’s not that late.
All the jack o’lanterns are gone, too. My complex is usually full of the things come Halloween. Not out of holiday zeal or anything. It’s just that in Middle Tennessee, you can pick up a pumpkin in autumn like you can pick up apples. There’s so many of them grown around here, you don’t even have to look to find one.
But cheapness begets aloofness, and they’re dumped pretty quickly come November light. They’ve all been trashed tonight, probably tossed out back before the porch lights were turned off.
But I don’t smell them, that faint sweetness that’ll turn to dusty mold in a day or two. Just…something. Something a little more awful than the usual dumpster stench.
The wind keeps whistling, through the steps and the empty trees. I’m starting to leave the sanctuary of the security lights, entering into the howling darkness of the patch of trees that surrounds the dumpsters.
Still haven’t seen anybody. Not that I’m worried. I imagine muggings are pretty rare this far out of Nashville. Still, the breeze almost sounds like a voice, and it would be comforting to see a human body attached to the sounds of whispering in the wind.
And I can’t shake the feeling that I hear whispering around me. Following me. It doesn’t get louder or quieter as I move. It just…stays with me.
The moon gives a little light, but not enough to see very well. The path I walk is mostly by memory. I can only barely see the outlines of the trees themselves, shivering in the chilly wind.
I think I see something moving near the trash. Something rolling along the ground. A pumpkin being tossed away?
I should probably be a little embarrassed, but I find myself breathing with a little relief at the thought of seeing another person. It’s silly, but I can’t stop feeling like I’m alone out here.
More movement, more things rolling along the gravel and thunking against the walls of the hollow containers. I hurry my stride, eager to break the stretch isolation.
The pumpkins feel heavier in my arms. I have to struggle to keep hold. They roll around, almost like they’re trying to break free.
The concrete walkway ends, and gravel crunches under my sneakers. My breath fogs so thick I see it even in the dark.
I hear a deep, gruff whisper: “Shall we cast you out?”
I hear it plainly, beside me. It’s loud enough to make me jump. I drop the pumpkins and spin around.
My whole body clenches, not to flee but not really to fight either. My hands curl into fists, but there’s no one around to hit. I keep spinning, but I don’t see anyone.
It’s a while before I’m confident enough to keep going. I reach for the pumpkins, still looking over my shoulder for anyone who might be creeping just out of sight.
The pumpkins aren’t there.
I pat the freezing ground, don’t find them. I look into the night, see something rolling away to the clearing within the trees. The pumpkins.
I hear someone talking, casually, conversationally, by the dumpsters. They are closer than the complex at this point, and I jog to catch up. Strangely, the pumpkins don’t slow down. It actually seems like they’re picking up speed as I do.
That smell again. That odor of something rich and awful, something that can grow strong enough to become truly wrenching in its stench.
Most folks don’t throw their jack o’lanterns in the dumpsters themselves. Usually you’ll catch a mound of them in the grass behind the trash, left to rot and feed the weeds. Right now they’re scattered everywhere.
All looking in one direction.
I stop so suddenly I almost fall over. They’re all hear, dark and angry. Beyond them is the pile, and suddenly I know what it is I’m smelling.
The wind howls through the frosty night, carry the crisp smell of dead flesh.
A pile of human bodies is stacked high in the grass. Bodies of people I know, people I see by the mailbox and the leasing office.
People I live beside. People who fill the buildings which lie dark and hollow behind me.
The pumpkins watch me carefully. I see the two I carried – one with a face like a skull, the other that of a bat. The bat makes an excited, chittering sound to the skull. The skull looks to me and asks:
“Shall we cast you out?”
I don’t do or say anything. I just stand there, unmoved by earth or wind. I just watch the pumpkins. The pumpkins watch me too.
The skull speaks again: “Shall we cast you out?”
The pumpkins glower, brightly unlit. After a forced breath, I take a step back.
The pumpkins turns, so slightly, tracing me as I retreat.
I take another step. Finally, another.
They do not try to stop me.
I see them as I am halfway down the hill. Three hundred carven faces, grinning and scowling against the fading Halloween.
They lined the clearing, and I could barely make out their outlines as I reached my door. They watched as I opened the door, stumbled inside. Likely heard as I threw the deadbolt.
Cast me out? No, please. Just go in peace.
They’re still out there now, as the sun threatens to rise. I see them from my window, rolling and turning, speaking in whispers too old to be heard by those who haven’t learned to listen.
I wonder if the day can drive them back, or if they will simply stand vigil against the light as well as the dark.
I refuse to think of what they will do to me. For now I’m safe, and they attend to their duties against the dawn.
They will stand firm while the deposers will soften and rot. They will stand before the mound, their carved fangs hungering against any others who stand between them and their duties. They are the keepers of the dead.