You don’t steal from a pumpkin patch, especially not one run by a hundred-year-old Romanian with an affinity for Old World curses.
But it isn’t like you had any other choice. Technically, yes, you could have gone without a jack-o’-lantern this year. But you haven’t had a job since April, trick-or-treating was canceled, and Halloween is Connor’s favorite holiday. You had to do something. He’s having a rough time as it is with the whole remote learning thing, and while the grown-ups have put together a “virtual trick-or-treat” over Zoom, the actual candy is going to be whatever you have at home, which right now is Cookie Crisps cereal and half a thing of Rolos you’ve been stretching out over the last month and a half. You just wanted—no, needed—the kid to have one fucking normal thing to celebrate the holiday.
That’s why you scaled the fence of Lemke’s Pumpkin Patch and Hay Ride at 1:52 a.m., feeling like a teenager out past curfew. That’s why you snuck past the tarp-covered hay bales, looking like stranded whales in the half-light of the moon, past the pumpkins like so many warts upon the earth, using your phone’s screen to light your way, cupping your hand over it like a lantern hood. Until you found the perfect one, not too big to carry but big enough to carve, a little lopsided but that’s what gives it character, with a brown, scratchy scar over where you know the left eye’s gonna be.
Using the X-Acto you brought from home, you worked down the stem until a single, sharp twist was enough to free it from the vine. And you were most of the way to the car, burning with a mixture of adrenaline and relief and shame, when you tripped over a vine you could have sworn wasn’t there a second ago and went down hard, right on the chin, shaving off the last millimeter of your tongue when the impact snapped your jaws together, the skin peeling off your palms and mixing your blood with the dirt of the lot. And of course the perfect pumpkin went rolling off into the darkness, and of course your phone went skidding after it, your face and Connor’s beaming from its blue-lit surface, a selfie dispatch from happier times. And then the phone was trapped underneath a cracked, brown leather boot, casting its light up into the face of old Lemke himself.
“Thief! Thief!” he was shouting in that Old World–inflected accent of his. “You thought the old man wouldn’t notice, eh?” And you couldn’t move, the fire in his eyes held you pinned to the spot as he frothed and raved. “Who are you? Who—” And suddenly he stopped, and your smiling face and Connor’s were reflected from his one good eye, and he was stooping down, bracing himself on a quivering knee as those knotted fingers of his strained for your phone.
You’re not sure why you did it. It’s true that you’re stretched so thin that even a $100 fine would ruin you, but there was something else, an animal fear, or maybe it was the shame of the thing. In any case, as your eyes searched for a way out, they lit on a display of little pumpkins, their devilish expressions painted rather than carved, and without thinking you’d grabbed one, sent it hurtling through the air.
You only meant to knock the phone out of his hand, of course, but there’s a reason you never played a sport past little league. Instead, you caught him square in the skull, and he dropped the phone all right, but now he was shrieking, blood running like hot caramel between his fingers as they clasped his temple. Unbalanced, he tumbled backward with an ominous, dry-timber crack. You snatched the phone off of the ground and, so that the night wouldn’t be a total waste, took the seconds needed to locate your perfect pumpkin where it had rolled off among a pyramid of gourds, part of a photo-op backdrop.
But when you turned back around, old Lemke’s good eye was on you, squinting from the blood but still piercing in its gaze. His forehead was already swelling, giving him a lopsided look, and he had raised a finger that was like the withered stem of a jack-o’-lantern, pointing, stabbing it in your direction. As that yellow claw of a fingernail could pierce your heart, transfix you from five feet away. He was shrieking something in a language you don’t know, but it didn’t matter since you were already running, pumpkin under one arm, the other digging in your pocket for your car keys, and you didn’t look back until you were safe in your own driveway.
And now it’s over, and your mind can set aside the existential threat of the evening and return to the protracted trauma of day-to-day survival. Except now it’s 4:12 a.m. and you still can’t sleep, can’t stop thinking of that blood-smeared eye and its look of utter hatred, and then the power goes out. You know this because the clock display turns black at the same moment the heater dies, blanketing the apartment in stillness. So it’s easy to hear the shuffling footsteps in the hall, hear the doorknob turning, that barely audible metal-on-metal sound. You’re just thinking of reaching for the bat you keep under the bed when you feel the dry, knotted fingers close over your shoulder. And then it’s looming over you, and its eyes are fire, the left one slightly distorted by a scar, and its jagged grin is lit from within by orange flame, and it isn’t making a sound, and its long fingers are wrapped like vines around your skull, and it’s twisting, and you really should have known better than to steal from a pumpkin patch.