The Pumpkin Lady
by Keith Pyeatt
Late afternoon on October 31st, the air was crisp and rich with moisture from shriveling vines and drying leaves as the Pumpkin Lady picked her way through the patch. She'd walked those rows a hundred times over the past months, but the harvest disturbed familiar paths and turned up fresh dirt that made it easy to stumble, especially when trying to spot a hidden splash of orange in the fading sunlight.
Every harvest left behind at least one overlooked pumpkin, and she finally found it in the corner of the field, nestled in a depression and covered by thick vines. It was overripe and on the small side, but it had a perfect shape, the evenly round kind people liked. She fished a knife from her pocket and severed it from the vine, relieved she'd have homegrown seeds for next season's planting. This year, for the first time, she'd forgotten to hold back a few choice specimens for seed. As she carried the pumpkin up the dirt road to her house, the last of the sunlight slipped from the sky, releasing the day to All Hallows Eve.
Her manufactured home sat crooked on a crumbling foundation alongside a dozen other ratty houses, most of them boarded up and abandoned years ago. Her husband had bought the land to put in a housing development after they first married, but the economy went sour, the development died on the vine, and they became pumpkin farmers instead. The wooden porch creaked as she crossed to the front door. Inside the air was chilled, a not so subtle reminder that she'd forgotten to have the propane tank filled. It was too late to call anyone about it now, but she had blankets enough to get her through the night.
She set the pumpkin on the kitchen table and again admired its shape. Over the decades, she'd raised tens of thousands of pumpkins that kitchen knives and unskilled hands turned into jack o' lanterns, but it'd been years since she carved her own. She needed to gut this one for the seeds anyway, so she figured why not, pulled her knife from her pocket, and took to it. As she worked, she remembered supervising her children back when they carved pumpkins and, years later, when they helped with the harvest. Now the fruit of her vines were grown and moved off, and they only called on the odd occasion to see if she was ready for a nursing home yet.
She found a candle stub in a kitchen drawer, set it burning inside her jack o' lantern, and carried it to the living room window. They used to let it stare out into the night, but she turned this one to face into the room. What few neighbors she had left stayed to themselves, and there hadn't been a trick-or-treater come around in years. Why waste the glow? She stepped back to admire her work, stared into the flickering triangles of the jack o' lantern's eyes, and made a decision. This pumpkin was the last she'd ever grow. Fifty years was years enough.
She sighed, but it was more relief than resignation. She'd always thought the decision to let the patch go to weeds would be difficult, but it had come easy. Her next decision was even easier. Without a need for vines next year, she didn't need seeds either, at least not for planting, but she had something else in mind. She spread them in an oiled pan, sprinkled salt, and roasted them in her electric toaster oven. They gave the house a nice aroma, but the chill was beginning to penetrate. She rummaged in the back of her pantry and pulled out a nearly forgotten bottle of cheap whiskey. It was half-empty, but there was enough to celebrate retirement and keep her warm. Minutes later, she was snuggled in her easy chair with a tumbler of whiskey, a warm snack, and a jack o' lantern for entertainment. It grinned at her as she munched its seeds, and she noticed the edges of the cuts she'd made to give it a face were already puckered and drying out. They reminded her of the way her own features had puckered with age.
The seeds tasted off to her, but she was hungry enough to keep eating. Maybe her old mouth wasn't tasting things right again, or maybe this was the way seeds from an overripe pumpkin tasted. It didn't matter much when she washed them down with the whiskey. By the time she finished the last seed, the jack o' lantern smile had begun to look a little too familiar. She snorted in surprise when she realized why, and she set the whiskey on a side table out of easy reach. She'd had enough. More than enough. The room was beginning to spin, her stomach gurgled uncomfortably, and her thoughts floated around the image of her smile carved into a pumpkin. She scoffed at herself for the strange thought, leaned her head back, and drifted to sleep, cussing the effects of bad seeds and cheap whiskey.
Her own coughing woke her. The room was hazy with acrid smoke that burned her eyes and throat. Erratic light pulsed from inside the jack o' lantern, spilling out its eyes, nose, and grinning mouth along with wisps of smoke. It looked alive and...evil.
She shook her head to clear the cobwebs of sleep. The pumpkin was smoldering from the sputtering candle inside it. That's all. She must not have cleaned the rind well enough before lighting the candle. Or maybe the old thing was rotting under the heat. She felt awake now, but her thoughts were still as hazy as the room. She needed fresh air.
The Pumpkin Lady struggled to her feet, made it outside and down the porch steps, and wandered out into the moonlit night, breathing in cold Halloween air. When her thoughts cleared, she found herself in the patch looking down on the spot where she'd discovered this year's forgotten pumpkin. Enough moonlight fell to see the vines were particularly thick here, like a blanket, and she'd grown chilled again, worse than before. She sunk to the earth as gracefully as she could and nestled into the soft depression where the pumpkin had rested. She pulled loose vines around her, and they seemed eager to help cover her and offer warmth.
Her stomach groaned, the taste of the seeds soured her mouth, and the air was ripe with decaying vines and moist dirt and traces of the pumpkin smoke that clung to her clothes, but she was comfortable enough and not surprised when another big decision came effortlessly to her. My season is over. It's harvest time for this tired body. And with that thought, the vines stirred and squeezed the Pumpkin Lady with what felt like affection. For a moment.
It was a week before her remains were discovered and two more weeks before the media stopped running stories about the murder and elaborately gruesome disfigurement of an old woman. The press and the rest of the country came to know her as "The Jack O'Lantern Corpse." The locals still called her The Pumpkin Lady.