“And we end our tour of the city’s most haunted ranch at the pumpkin patch. What you see before you is a very special breed of pumpkin. It is said to only grow if the seeds were planted under the light of the full moon, and the field was soaked with cattle blood.”
I looked across the acres of pumpkins. Of course, the tour guide had to be teasing, but some part of my brain wondered how many cattle it would take to sow the entire field.
“That’s disturbing.” Chelsea squeezed my hand, staring out at the field.
“Relax. They didn’t actually do it.”
The tour guide continued, unaware of our whispered conversation. “As you know, a pumpkin was included in the purchase of your tour tickets.” He stopped his spooky recitation to call out to a family attending the ranch. “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to keep your dog off the fields. Thanks.”
The woman he’d spoken to shot him a glare, but picked up the small terrier and carried it as they continued their explorations of the ranch.
I couldn’t help but agree with the tour guide. The last thing I wanted was to step in dog poop as I found the perfect pumpkin to carve.
“Feel free to take as long as you like. And remember, a white pumpkin guarantees an extra spooky Halloween!”
At the end of his speech, the tour dispersed, mingling amongst the squash.
“We don’t have to get one,” my girlfriend insisted.
“Why not?” I asked, eyes already scouring the acres for a good place to start my search. Farther back, I was pretty certain. The closest rows had already been picked over.
“Fields sown with cow’s blood? It’s creepy.”
“It’s not real.” When I could see she wasn’t convinced, I took both her hands in mine and smiled. “I tell you what. I’ll take pictures of you for your Instagram page.” I dropped one hand to hold two fingers next to my face. “Hashtag pumpkin spice!”
“Shut up, Jake.” She used her empty hand to shove my chest, but I could see she was stifling a laugh. “Fine. We’ll get pumpkins. But only because they’re free.”
I pumped my fist once, then turned back to the field, keeping hold of her hand as we started our stroll through the gourds. She would have been happy with the first pumpkin she saw, but I had to have the perfect one. I already knew what I wanted to carve into it: Zero from The Nightmare Before Christmas. The image would be all the more perfect if I found a white one.
“There’s a big one,” Chelsea pointed out after a moment.
I followed her finger to a massive blot of orange about ten rows over. Once carved, she might be able to fit inside. “Think we can fit it in the back seat?”
She shook her head adamantly. “For a picture, silly.”
Right. “Let’s go!”
“Brutus!” The name was called out from some distance behind us.
I turned to identify the voice – the same woman the tour guide had addressed before. Her arms were empty and dog-less. She repeated the call, aiming her voice over the fields.
I couldn’t help but think she should have listened to the guide and kept her dog with her. Or better yet, on a leash if it was bound to run off like that.
I snapped a few pictures of Chelsea sitting on or peeking out from behind the massive pumpkin before we continued our search.
“Maybe we should split up?” I suggested after a moment.
She looked at me incredulously. “Have you never seen a horror movie?”
“They’re not real,” I shot back. “Besides, it’s the middle of the afternoon in a public place. What’s going to happen?”
“Ask Brutus.” She jammed a thumb over her shoulder at the woman still searching for her dog.
It was her own fault. “We’ll stay no more than five lanes away, okay?”
I shrugged. “Okay.” I liked having her nearby anyway.
I kissed her on the forehead, then darted back into the depths of the pumpkin patch. There was nobody around. Utter privacy to find the perfect pumpkin.
On the way, I spotted two smaller and similar-sized pumpkins growing next to each other. I scooped them up, one in each hand. “Hey Chelsea!”
Before she could roll her eyes or reprimand me, I continued. “Look! I’m you!” I bounced the pumpkins alternately in front of my chest.
“Jake! Stop that!” Her voice dropped to a fierce but loud whisper, heard clearly from my spot rows away. “There are children-” She cut herself off, eyes landing near the edge of the field. “What is that?”
I couldn’t see what she was looking at, so I put the pumpkins back where they’d grown and headed to where she was looking.
The ground was painted with a weird, silky blackness.
She met me there.
“Feathers.” Probably crow, if I had to guess.
“I can see that, idiot.”
I stepped toward them, nudging the center of the pile with my foot.
“Leave it alone!”
The wing fell away, revealing the carcass of the bird underneath. The chest was tangled in pumpkin vines, but the bones underneath the flesh were clearly visible. It hadn’t been dead long enough for the maggots to find it yet, but it looked somehow drained of anything liquid within.
I didn’t want to admit that the carcass disturbed me, so I slid my gaze across the horizon. Standing next to the dead crow had given me a new angle on the field. One which revealed my ultimate prize.
A white pumpkin.
It had grown in the shade of another, larger pumpkin, but it was big enough to carve in its own right. A little wider than my laptop, and almost as tall as my chest. It was perfect.
“Come to papa,” I said as I practically pranced to it.
“Great. You found your pumpkin. Can we go now?”
“You know, it’s a shame,” I said as I hauled my white pumpkin onto the kitchen counter top.
Chelsea heaved her orange one into its place on the counter next to mine. “What’s a shame?”
“These poor pumpkins. All that pumpkin spice, drained away by poachers every year, just to make your frappuccinos.”
“Ha. Ha.” Now that we were back home, her sense of humor started to return. “I think I’ll do Mr. Oogie Boogie.”
“Copying me, then?” I asked as I stepped around the center island, toward the knife block.
She smirked. “Hey, it was my idea first. You’re copying me.” She leaned over my pumpkin, repeatedly pushing a tack through the paper to trace out the lines of my chosen image.
Meanwhile, I set out the knives and headed into the garage to get the drill set.
When I returned to the kitchen, she was visibly confused, staring at my pumpkin. “Did you hear that?”
“I was in the garage,” I reminded her. “I didn’t hear anything.”
Brow still furrowed, she leaned over and pierced the skin of my pumpkin with the tack again.
“What did you hear?”
She shook her head. “I – I don’t know.”
“Maybe it’s haunted,” I teased, lifting the power tools high so their cables dangled like chains off a ghost. “Ooooooh!”
Chelsea laughed. “Sure.” She rounded on her own pumpkin and set to work tracing.
I pulled the thin knife from their place on the counter and turned to my white pumpkin. I eyed it up and down a moment, then set the tip of the blade a few inches from the stem, measuring how far I wanted the lid to go out. Time to dig in.
The moment I pierced into the heart of the gourd, an unearthly shriek filled the kitchen. It was something between an animal screaming and a woman wailing.
Startled, I let go of the knife, blade still embedded in the pumpkin.
The shriek ebbed, leaving my girlfriend and I staring at each other and the gourd.
“What the hell?” I finally managed after catching my breath.
Chelsea shook her head. “Air pressure?” Her eyebrow lifted as she looked at me, telling me she didn’t believe what she was saying.
Inside a pumpkin? Was it possible?
I stepped toward my project again, gripping the knife with one hand and the stem with the other, and pushed again.
Maybe it really was just air, and the pressure had been released by the first stab.
I slowly worked my way around the gourd, until the whole top had been severed from the rest. What would the guts look like? I hadn’t thought about it until that moment. I’d never carved a white pumpkin before. If orange pumpkins had orange guts, then I reasoned the inside must be some version of white or gray, right?
It turns out, neither. I lifted the top off, revealing the strands of goo and seeds within. Bright, blood red.
“Is that… normal?” Chelsea asked, lifting her own orange top off and sticking her hand in the goo.
“I dunno. Google it?”
She gave me a look that said I should know better than to suggest that, then lifted a gooey hand between us. “Really?”
It didn’t matter anyway.
So I stuck my hand in, pulling out a bright red handful of the strands, freckled with the white pumpkin seeds. After a couple of scoops, my hand brushed the edge.
I gave my own shriek, recalling my hand and jumping back.
Chelsea screamed as a response to mine. “Oh my god! What is it?”
I crept toward the pumpkin again, but I couldn’t tell what was inside. Just that stringy, red paste. “I thought I felt something.”
“I don’t know!”
“Maybe we should stop.” Chelsea looked at the carnage my project had already produced, splattered across the countertop. “It’ll be pretty just like that.”
I wasn’t going to give up that easily. “It’s just a pumpkin.” I probably imagined the whole thing.
Chelsea slid her pumpkin to the other side of the counter. “Go for it, then.”
I forced myself to put on a brave face, but still had to convince my hand to delve back into the goo.
The walls of the rind were definitely moving. Swelling, then compressing, sliding across the back of my hand as they went, slick with pumpkin innards.
It was just my imagination. I kept going.
Swell, compress. Swell, compress. It was almost rhythmic, but accelerating. Like the heart of an increasingly panicked person as I moved my hand around inside.
Then my thumb touched something. Something coarse and hard. Cylindrical, but flexible, like a flattened rope. How could it have gotten in there? I’d heard of vegetables growing around objects, but that was the occasional carrot through an engagement ring. I’d never heard of a pumpkin consuming an object as it grew.
I closed my eyes and wrapped two fingers around it, pulling it out into the light.
The object formed a loop, not larger than my fist, with a clasp on one side, connecting the circle. I shook it to try to free it from the goo.
A metal disc had stuck itself to the rope. Freed by the shake, it dangled from a tiny link attaching it to the rope.
Chelsea was apparently as fascinated as I was. “I think there’s something written on there.” She leaned over and peered at it, her own project forgotten.
I dropped the thing onto the counter and turned for a paper towel without wiping my own hands clean.
When I returned, I realized what the object reminded me of.
A collar for a tiny dog.
I wiped the red goo off, cleaning it as best I could.
“What’s it say?”
I thumbed the metal plate, clearing it, then turning it over to reveal the text.