It was a crisp fall evening when the whole horrifying story came crashing back into my mind like the filthy water in a backed up toilet rising in slow motion as you struggle to shut off the valve before it overflows onto the floor. Onto your life.  My wife, my two children and I were wandering around the Topsfield Fall Fair enjoying the remnants of an Indian Summer, eating cotton candy and taking in the sights.  Everything was lovely until we wandered inside the Agricultural Pavilion and came unexpectedly on the Giant Pumpkin competition.  

It had been many years since I'd even thought of the murders, but the sight of those bloated, deformed squash brought it all back in an instant.  I felt the hair on the back of my neck start to prickle and a chill ran up my spine.  Instinctively, I gathered my family close and led them from the building without a word.  As we walked away I was quiet, lost in my thoughts.  I could leave the giant pumpkins behind, but I would never completely escape the memories. 

Mayflower Lane

'The Giant Pumpkin Murders', as the newspapers referred to the story, occurred almost 25 years ago, back when I was a kid growing up in Falmouth on Mayflower Lane.  The kids of Mayflower Lane and I had an idyllic childhood there on Cape Cod, summers on the beach: sailing down in Woods Hole and winters ice skating on the frozen cranberry bogs.  Our church had a tall white steeple and our school had a bell in a tower just off the village green.  The five homes that faced Mayflower Lane each housed a nice young family with kids. In those halcyon days we roamed everywhere together, a little pack of rosy cheeked ruffians.  Well, at least some of us were rosy cheeked, Caleb's family was pure English, dating back to the Pilgrims, but Jenny Bergman was a fascinating mix of Chinese and Swede, and Cheech Gonsalves  was from a Cape Verdean family that had been fishing the waters off Falmouth since the 1800's.  

For me the most special of my special friends was Elliot Camarra, who was the toughest tomboy New England had produced since Katharine Hepburn.  I called her Ellie and, to her eternal chagrin, she bore the burden of an almost uncanny beauty, a shimmering vision of clear perfect skin and unmistakable pale golden hair.  It was many years later that I realized that I had fallen in love with Ellie from the first time I laid eyes on her.  The only rings I've ever given any woman have all been to her, beginning with that silly butterfly ring that I won throwing baseballs at the fair one year and slipped onto Ellie's finger in childish mockery of courtly love.  I was too young and too ignorant to even understand the significance when that silly ring never left her finger that summer, even after it started turning her finger green as the salt water slowly leached it free of silver.

All in all, it was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life, and Mayflower Lane was at the sweet wholesome core of it all.  Or at least it was, until the Clowes mansion down at the end of the street finally sold after almost a decade on the market.  The Clowes place was a classic too in its own way.  A spooky old house with Victorian gables and turrets, and a huge basement that was rumored to have secret rooms and tunnels.  Dr. Clowes built it for his new wife back around the turn of the century, but she died giving birth to their first child, right there in the house.  After that the doctor never came back and the place sat idle for years.  The climate on the Cape is rough on structures and a house that isn't maintained goes downhill pretty quickly.  By the time the doctor died, the old mansion was already headed downhill, and after more years of neglect from the Boston medical school that inherited the property, it had degenerated so much that none of us thought it was livable anymore.  That's why we were surprised when one day a big yellow moving van arrived and began unloading furniture.

You'd think that a spooky old house like that would be irresistible to a pack of kids like us, but there was something uninviting about the place.  I mean, we snuck in on a dare once in awhile, enough to satisfy our curiosity, but it just wasn't the kind of place that was fun to hang out in.  I mean the young wife died there and after that, the old doctor just walked away and never looked back. Now animals had run of the house and it sort of stunk of neglect. 

The Butcher

The new owners showed up at night and it was a few weeks before we even got a glimpse of them.  We came to learn that they were from Lithuania. Bernice, was the mother and her twenty-something son was called Edvard.  They didn't speak English very well and weren't particularly fond of children.  Most of this was learned on the one formal "Welcome to the neighborhood," visit that my mother organized.  She baked up a batch of chocolate chip cookies and made Ashley and me dress up to accompany her.  Dad boycotted the whole thing, though I could tell he would be interested in hearing all about it when we got back.  

The three of us marched down Mayflower Lane and straight up onto their doorsteps.  There wasn't a doorbell or a knocker, so mom just rapped her knuckles against the weather-beaten wood door.  After awhile we heard shuffling and the door creaked open to reveal two pale hunched over gnomes, Edvard and Bernice.  At first glimpse it was difficult to even tell them apart as they were the same height, wore the same shapeless bathrobes and had the same gray wrinkled skin.  Edvard was a short, thick, fellow with powerful looking arms and an odd absent smile etched on his face. Bernice looked ancient to us kids, a squat menacing crone who shuffled when she walked, as though her feet couldn't quite clear the floor. They both looked shocked to see us and there was a long moment of stunned silence before Bernice twisted her face into some approximation of a smile and motioned us to come inside.  

The room had some heavy oak furniture positioned here and there, and a threadbare Turkish rug lay rumpled on the floor.  There was no apparent sense or artistry to the arrangements.  Mom offered the cookies to Bernice who led us into the kitchen where we found a huge antique wood burning stove that was clearly in daily use and a small table with two chairs.  Bernice elaborately seated Ashley and me at the table and presented us each with a glass of water and one of mom's cookies.  She and mom remained standing and Edvard was nowhere to be seen.  While we ate our cookies, Bernice showed mom her canning operation, beginning with the huge tub that served as a kitchen sink and ending when she opened the door to a large pantry and displayed a wall of glass jars containing pickled pigs knuckles, head cheese, smoked eels, homemade blood sausage and other culinary oddities.  She confided in us that back in 'the old country,' she had been a butcher. She'd been the only woman butcher in Vilnius, their home town. 

Bernice was obviously very proud of her macabre collection, but I couldn't help thinking of the formaldehyde filled specimen jars containing deep sea fish and squid down at the oceanographic aquarium. I think Ashley felt the same way because she kicked me under the table and wrinkled her nose in that way she had of letting me know she wasn't happy.  I kicked her back and we started to tussle until mom grabbed us both and, after some hasty goodbyes, marched us out of the house.  Once we hit the front lawn, she relaxed her grip and I got the feeling she was glad we'd given her an excuse to get out of that place.  Ashley made a mean comment about Edvard on the way home, but Mom told her that he had Down's Syndrome and that even though he looked different, it didn't mean that he wasn't a nice man.

Pumpkin Seeds

In the days that followed, we noticed that Edvard and Bernice didn't come out much during the day.  Edvard made one trek each afternoon down to the mailbox and back.    The first few times he made his mailbox runs, the other kids and I tagged along, as kids will, trying to make conversation and satisfy our curiosity at the same time.  Edvard was a sphinx however and he never even acknowledged our presence.  The only time we ever saw him show any emotion was the day his pumpkin seeds arrived.

One afternoon in May, Edvard's trip to the mailbox almost literally, bore fruit.  Our little gang of kids had just gotten home from school and when the bus dumped us at the stop, we saw that Edvard was already standing at the mailbox.  Usually he returned empty handed and sour faced, but today he had a large cardboard box grasped in his strong hands and an almost angelically innocent smile of pure joy spreading across his thick face.  As we approached him, he looked up at us and blurted, "My Seeds!  My seeds, they're here." He thrust his parcel towards us as if to prove his point beyond the shadow of a doubt.  The box was tied with twine and wrapped in brown butcher paper.  Where it had torn on a corner, we could see a flash of orange and the words "Giant Pumpkin," in creepy Halloween lettering.  

The following days confirmed what we suspected for our encounter with Edvard's mysterious package.  Early the next morning, he was out in the yard in an unprecedented flurry of activity as he vigorously turned over the soil in a large circle in the middle of the yard in front of the Clowes mansion.  The stooped little man was surprisingly strong and we watched as he lugged sacks of compost and manure up from the basement and began to prepare a raised bed of the richest soil.  He finished this mysterious procedure by laying a huge cargo net over the circle, then covering the entire area with fresh hay.  Nothing happened for a few days, while the newly fascinating Mr. Edvard waited. For something.  

On the morning after what Dad called a Blue Moon, Eddie planted his seeds with all the ritual normally accorded a religious event.  He first brought a five gallon bucket of worm casings and created  little mounds, as if he were building a sand castle.  Then he returned to the house and came back cradling a tiny pumpkin seedling that he had started indoors using a heating pad like an incubator to protect the young plants and accelerate their growth. With a tubular bulb planting tool, he made a hole for the seedling and gingerly settled it into its place.  To complete the job, he stuck his index finger straight down into the soil making a long skinny hole.  He dropped a single fresh anchovy into each hole, then tamped the soil, and watered it using an old galvanized watering can. 

What ever we had initially thought about the old man was now replaced by a sense of awe.  He might be weird looking, but he sure knew how to grow a gourd.  Edvard seemed suddenly to invite our visits, and within a week he had gone from being "that scary dude at the end of the street," to our friend and gardening partner Eddie.  Elliot led the charge here as, for some reason she'd liked him from the beginning. Every day most of us kids visited the gourd garden, finding an odd delight in the rapidly growing pumpkin vines.

Gone Missing

The summer passed too quickly as all summers do when you're young.  We squandered the warm days on the beach or playing in the marsh, always followed by an afternoon visit to the pumpkin patch to see how our giant pumpkins were doing.  As the gourds grew from baseballs, to basketballs to beachballs and beyond, Eddie pruned them one by one, reducing the number of remaining candidates with an eye towards the one with greatest potential. I felt a little twinge of sadness as my favorites fell by the wayside, but after each one was removed the rest seemed to grow even faster.

All was well, until the day that Jenny went missing.  One afternoon, she drifted off from the rest of the kids and then she was gone. Just plain gone.  She didn't come back that night, or the next morning either.  By then the adults had already called the local police and a search team plowed through the poison ivy and bull briar with their flashlights for half the night.  But they didn't find anything.  Not a single trace.

We were more or less in shock at that point.  Life came to a complete halt on Mayflower Lane for the first week, then we all had to go back to school, and the parents, except for Jenny's mom had to go back to work.  Slowly we began to go through the motions of normalcy 

As Halloween approached, we drew on that inner strength children have and began to forget for whole minutes at a time that our friend was gone.  The parents of course, were feeling extra protective, and restricted us to the length of Mayflower Lane.  They also admonished us to stay together, in effect almost throwing us into Eddie's front yard as the default meeting place.  Eddie didn't seem to really understand the gravity of Jenny's disappearance.  As we had come to know him, he no longer seemed dumb at all to us.  In fact if the subject was pumpkins, he was a veritable encyclopedia of semi-coherent wisdom.  He tried to speak too fast and sort of tripped over himself in a wicked stutter when he got to talking pumpkins, but it was clear that he knew what he was talking about.  When the subject of Jenny came up, he just sort of lost interest and wandered away to play with his plants.

At first Eddie's pumpkin was big, then it was very big, and then it was giant.  Throughout the late summer it was putting on weight at such a rate that you could almost see the monster growing.  Eddie told us that at this stage the pumpkin could gain as much as thirty pounds a day, which for some of the littler kids was a third of their total weight!  The single huge pumpkin that remained as the sole candidate not only got bigger, but it began to change shape.  The fleshy orange blob morphed as it grew from anything remotely resembling a symmetrical "Cinderella's Carriage" kind of a pumpkin into something stranger and more malevolent entirely.  On one side it developed a large round pustule with fat shoulders that from one angle looked just like a small head and shoulders, a kids-sized head, bent over as if it were laying over a desk with its arms cradling it in a nap.  The effect was uncanny in the yellow light of a late fall afternoon.  The night we all noticed it was the same night that Caleb disappeared.

Caleb was right there with the rest of us as we said goodbye to Eddie and headed back down Mayflower Lane.  We were planning to go play in the basement of Ellie's house, but by the time we arrived and settled in, Caleb was gone.  Ellie raced up the stairs to report this development to her Mom and Dad and, within a few minutes parents began to emerge from all the houses on our street at once.  Eddie was still in his yard putting the green tarp over the giant pumpkin to protect it from the frost.  When the adults all accosted him with their questions, he quickly became confused and stubbornly refused to talk at all.  Bernice, who had heard the commotion, emerged from the house and stepped in front of Eddie with her hands on her hips and a tough glare in her eyes.  "Where's my little boy," asked Caleb's dad.  Bernice turned sharply to Eddie and spat the question to him in a guttural Lithuanian snarl.  Eddie seemed to calm down as he looked into her eyes.  He shrugged his shoulders in a universal gesture and softly replied to Bernice in their native tongue.  She in turn faced Caleb's father and said firmly, "He don't know.  He saw him leave with the others."

There was a brief moment of electric tension in the small mob of Mayfair Lane parents, as if, emboldened by each other's presence, they considered pressing the issue into violence.  But neither Eddie nor Bernice moved a muscle, and after a bit, we heard somebody's phone ring, and Caleb's parents walked away to meet the police cruiser that had pulled into the Lane.  The group disbanded to begin searching vainly around the neighborhood.  Like Jenny, Caleb was just plain gone.

Ellie,  went missing the evening before the truck arrived to load the bloated pumpkin for transport to the Topsfield Giant Pumpkin contest.  None of the children had been allowed outside without an adult accompanying them since Caleb had disappeared.  Everybody on Mayflower Lane was more or less terrified during their waking hours.  The very air we breathed began to feel heavy and oppressive, as if even the act of breathing made you feel exhausted.  Somehow, we all knew that there was more to come before this nightmare was over and when Ellie failed to come down from her room that morning, we were already too scared to be surprised.  Several families had packed up some clothes and moved into hotels in town, as much to get away from the horror of seeing our normal surroundings in that horrible moment.

An Unexpected Harvest

Searchers had been scouring the area in ever expanding circles looking for signs of a struggle, torn clothing, or even, though no one wanted to admit it, bodies.  Nothing like this had ever happened in Falmouth before and a grim panic had seized the town.   There was a team of detectives already on Mayflower Lane when the truck arrived to load Edvard's giant pumpkin.  Without even intending it, the whole group of us somehow gathered around as Raz Parker backed his flatbed up close to the bulbous squash and positioned the A-frame crane over it.  We were all at a loss, stunned and horrified at the magnitude of what had occurred.  We'd searched everywhere in the vicinity over and over, and at this point, there seemed less chance that looking yet again behind the houses or in the salt marsh would yield a new, better answer.  

Raz and Eddie pulled up the corners of the cargo net under the pumpkin and clipped them into the dangling hook of the crane.  Once the cable began to tighten, the conversations stopped and we all turned toward the groaning hoist as it began to bear the full weight of the giant pumpkin.  "It's a big un" Raz muttered, watching the rear springs and shocks compressing under the load.  For a brief moment, the success of the operation seemed in doubt.  The front end of the truck rose up on its suspension and, implausibly, we could see light under the front tires.  The winch was squealing in agony as the pumpkin rose off the ground.  The combination of the cargo net and the matted hay cushioned the giant pumpkin but distorted it even more than normal, but it rose without breaking until it was high enough to rotate over onto the flatbed truck.  

What happened next is open to some speculation.  Whatever the exact sequence of events, it all happened very fast and nobody had the time to do anything other than what they did.  I was standing next to the my dad, with the truck between us and the pumpkin, so I couldn't see the ground at all.  My father was taller, so maybe he got a better look.  All I know is that suddenly, Mr. Gonsalves and Caleb's dad both saw something that made them jump.  They both lurched towards the swinging pumpkin at the same time, but Mr. Gonsalves held back and made a futile grab at Caleb's dad who ripped himself free and literally dove under the pumpkin to grab something off the ground.  We all heard the sound of the manila cargo net parting in a dusty explosion of  dry rot as it dropped the thousand pound gourd squarely on Caleb's father's back.  The man was crushed in an instant beneath the horrible orange mass. The sickening crack of splintering bones reached our ears almost simultaneously with the dull moist explosion as the vegetable contacted the ground. 

It took almost an hour to get Caleb's father out from under the giant pumpkin.  The misshapen gourd had burst when it hit the ground, flattening out into an irregular flat blot of orange pulp.  Caleb's dad was trapped underneath the thick outer skin of the vegetable and they had to hack through six inches of fleshy rind to get to him.  The paramedics told us that he was almost certainly killed instantaneously beneath the weight, but one of the cops later told Mr. Gonsalves over a beer that there were signs he'd struggled for awhile before succumbing.  One thing for sure was that, when they finally pulled him free, his right hand was clenched firmly around a long hank of yellow blond hair that we all immediately recognized could only have come from Ellie.

The police handcuffed Eddie right there at the scene and took him away in a cruiser as we all watched in stunned silence.  Bernice had appeared on the porch at some point, but she didn't even offer a protest as they led Eddie away.  With her hands set firmly on her broad hips she glared at all of us and shook her head slowly from side to side.

The Nightmare Was Over

I couldn't sleep, nobody could sleep.  Sleep seemed like a foreign country that night.

I rose from bed and slipped into my clothes on autopilot.  I can't remember consciously thinking of going outside., but I was, suddenly outside.  I thought briefly about turning around, but I was too agitated to stay still, and besides, the police had Eddie locked in a cell, and amazingly, unbelievable, but undeniably, he was the monstrous author of all our nightmares.  Dad had gotten a call from the Falmouth District Attorney that evening asking him to appear at Eddie's arraignment the next morning.  They'd dug up the soil around the pumpkin and found small bones, tissue and hair.  Of course the coroner would need to confirm that these horrible remains matched those of the missing children,  but they were pretty damned sure that they'd gotten their man.  The nightmare was over.

"So, Mayfair Lane was safe again," I thought absently to myself as I strolled to the front of the house.  My young mind couldn't get a grasp on the entirety of the events.  My friends were dead, gone forever and our gardening pal Eddie was responsible.  It was beyond reckoning, but the adults all said it was true.  Mayfair Lane was safe again, he'd heard the DA say it himself when Dad put it on the speaker phone to calm them all down.

Without thinking I was drawn like a moth to flame towards Eddie's pumpkin patch.  I wasn't thinking anymore, just acting on raw instinct as I pushed the iron gate aside and stepped into the yard of the Clowes place. It was a dark night, the new moon just a sliver above the trees.  I remember wondering dully if Edvard had waited for this night to harvest his pumpkin, the way he'd waited for the Blue Moon to plant it.  I decided he probably had, and I was immediately hit with a wave of nausea as I suddenly remembered the way we all listened rapt at his excited stuttering rants on the fine points of growing giant pumpkins.  I knew I was going to be sick as it occurred to me that he should have mentioned his unique notions of the best fertilizer for his obscene garden.  

When I finished retching I was distracted by a light in Bernice's kitchen.  She couldn't sleep either I was sure.  It was asking too much to try and feel any pity for her after what had happened today, but I realized in a thick witted way that she'd lost someone too.  Perhaps the notion of consoling her in some way passed through my mind, or maybe it was something else entirely, but the next thing I knew, I was heading resolutely towards her back door and the light that now flooded her kitchen.  When I reached the stairs, I hesitated a moment, then, following whatever crazed notion had led me this far, I marched up the stairs without even trying to be quiet.  I positioned myself squarely at her door and rapped my fist against the oaken doorframe.

There was no response.  Not a whisper from within, even though the kitchen was lit up as bright as day.  I knew she had to be there, because I'd seen her moving just moments before.  She'd turned on the light for chrissakes! She had to be there.  I don't know what I'd expected to come of this ill-advised quest, but this surely wasn't it.  I knocked louder, shuffling nervously from foot to foot in my anxiety.  There wasn't a sound coming from the house and in a sudden fit of pique ending my indecision, I turned abruptly towards the stairs only to plow into the surprisingly soft bosom of Bernice.

I let out a shriek and backpedaled crazily as my feet flew out from under me and I landed flat on my back before her.  The old crone bent over me menacingly for a moment then slowly extended her gnarled paw towards me.  "Come," she said, "Come inside for drink."  She hauled me to my feet, and without loosening her iron grip on my wrist, she pulled me through the oak door into her kitchen.  She half drug, half guided me to a chair on the far end of table, skillfully positioning herself between me and the door.  I could almost feel her watching me through the narrow slits of her eyelids as she shuffled around going through the motions of pouring me a glass of milk.

She slapped the glass down on the table and I watched fascinated as the white liquid slopped from side to side.  What was I doing here?  "Drink," she urged, "Milk. Fresh." She made an almost gentle motion with her arthritic hand, and I raised the glass to my lips like an automaton.  The thought came to me that it might be drugged, and I tried to make the motions of drinking without swallowing, an almost hopeless attempt.  

As my head tilted back in a fake drink, the blood froze in my veins and I felt my body go numb. My wandering panicked eyes were scanning the wall of glass canning jars in the pantry when a glint of silver caught a fleck of light and drew a second look. My stomach heaved involuntarily for the second time that night as I recognized the design of Ellie's butterfly ring wrapped snugly around the gray flesh of a human finger amongst the pickled meat in the jar.

My ears pounded, and I felt a flush of terrified heat spread up my chest and across my face.  Oddly, I couldn't feel my feet or arms.  The world felt like it was moving in slow motion and as Bernice approached I couldn't even rise to move away from her.  She knew I'd seen that ghastly artifact and I knew that random glance had sealed my fate.  She clamped her bony claw around my wrist again and pulled me toward the basement door with a superhuman strength.  

In the end it was just a fluke of human nature that saved me.  Some twisted moment of obscene cruelty that burbled to the cortex of Bernice's broken mind at the right instant in time.  That, and a desperate instinctual flailing grab at survival on my part.  Bernice stopped just before the basement door and turned to stare at me with a malevolent glare that still haunts my nightmares.  She turned to the pantry and reached up on the shelf to grab the glass jar containing Ellie's finger and ring.  She held it in front of my terrified eyes and began to laugh at a private joke as yet unspoken.  "Pigs knuckles," she said, her foul breath wrapping itself like a shroud around my face.  As I watched her laugh in my face, I suddenly knew that I wanted to live, I needed to live.  I needed to change this evil program and make it come out better.  I just couldn't let it end this way.

She slid the jar back onto the counter and reached for the cut glass knob on the basement door.  She took her eyes off me for an instant as she fiddled with the door lock and it was just time enough for a miracle.  With a strength I didn't know I had, I snatched the heavy glass jar off the counter with my free hand and swung it like a hammer into her forehead as she turned back towards me.  The hydraulic force of the liquid and flesh in the jar caused it to explode in a cloud of blood and glass and meat.  Bernice went down in a heap, pulling the basement door wide as she fell.  A thick spreading pool of dark blood rolled like a wave across the kitchen tiles.

For one small instant of perfect unreality it was perfectly quiet in the kitchen. Then from the bottom of the dark stairs I heard a soft mmphing sound.  I saw a light switch on the wall and, after checking that Bernice was still out cold, I flipped the switch and slowly descended the stairs.  I saw Ellie's terrified face as I got to the bottom.  She was in a cage-like room in the corner bound and gagged and her wrists were clipped to a hook in the ceiling. There was blood on her arms, and she was barely conscious, but she was alive. Joyously wonderfully alive.  The only sign of Jenny and Caleb was a pile of rumpled, but recognizable, clothes tossed carelessly against the cold stone wall.  Within a few seconds I had freed my helpless Ellie and we were up the stairs and out of that hell house forever.

When the police arrived, Bernice was still on the floor, wallowing in her own evil blood.  The wound I'd given her was more superficial than serious and by the time her trial date came up, there was only a thin white scar to remind her of the worst decision she'd ever made.  The Judge gave her three concurrent life sentences, so she'll have a long time to think it over carefully, and consider over and over again where she'd gone wrong.  

They let Eddie go once Ellie told them how he'd tried to help her when Bernice drug her across the yard ripping that lucky lock of blond hair from her head. That struggle had ended by leaving the telltale hank of Ellie's hair on the ground by the pumpkin.  He'd woken up and gone to check his pumpkin when he saw his mother dragging Ellie towards the house.  Without thinking, he'd tried to wrest Ellie from his mother's grasp only to have her fling him into the fence, knocking him out cold.  He'd seen his mother in the pumpkin patch at night burying her grim carnage, and was horrified, but unsure what to do or who to tell. The psychiatrist at his hearing said he had the intelligence of a five year old child, but he showed the courage of an adult. As it turned out, Eddie had suffered a lifetime of abuse and was as much Bernice's victim of as the rest of us.  He'd spent his entire life in Bernice's cages.  

Eddie settled back into the Clowes place and quietly lived out the few remaining years of his short sad life on Mayflower Lane.  He didn't grow any more pumpkins, which was probably a good thing all in all.

Epilog

The sun was setting over the Topsfield Fall Fair as we threaded our way back through the crowd towards the car.  My memories were less of a torment than they once were, and I rarely had nightmares anymore.  In fact, absent some reminder like the giant pumpkins tonight, I went months at a time without thinking about the whole thing.  Well, weeks anyway I thought as I held my wife's hand in mine and gently caressed the smooth stub of her finger and traced the thin wire outline of the butterfly ring surrounding it.

=====================&=====================

An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you
     Don't
         Watch
             Out!
Courtesy James Whitcomb Riley (1849 - 1916), and Lady Lo

For the record, this is my first attempt ever at a "skeery story," and it was kind of fun.  It was that rascal Poopsie who forced me to kill off the two children.  Many thanks to Ouroboros, Lometa, Momomom, C-Dawg and Chras4 for editing assistance and moral support. Boo!




Everyone touched by these events was changed forever. 
  I was one of the lucky ones who got to make new memories, though I've never been able to bury the old ones.   
-Ellie

"Mom? Mommmm?"

It never fails to amaze me. One minute you're Ellie, a jaded teenager with pink hair, and a split second later you're Dr. Elliot Camerra, and someone's calling you 'mom.' Sweet Jesus.

Sometimes I think about that when I hear her calling me, soft and a little sleepy. I think about this small person that my husband and I made, with her own thoughts, her own future stretching out ahead of her. Mostly, though, I just drag myself up the stairs to see what she wants. At six, she already has that delicate, ladylike air about her that I could never quite manage, or never maybe never quite wanted to. Pink, gauzy dresses and stick-on earrings in a hundred different shapes and colors. This week she's royalty, and in the dim glow of her nightlight I see that she's still wearing the sequined princess hat that I made for her. 

"What's up, kiddo?"
"Mommy, would you read me a story? 'm not sleepy at all," she declares firmly, before stifling a yawn.
"What kind of story?"
"A scary one, like we read at school. It was about a bad witch who got all burned up."

A witch, huh? Sitting in the pink, dimly lit little room, holding one of my six-year-old's hands in mine, I find myself remembering one horror story in particular. It's similar to a thousand other stories played out in this imperfect world of ours. The only difference is that it happened to me, to Michael, to the rest of the kids on Mayflower Lane.


A 'normal childhood' is almost a rarity these days, but incredibly, that's what we had. Looking back, it seems remarkable that our little community remained relatively untouched for as long as it did. Our parents had good jobs, gardens, and just enough money for the occasional luxury. And while they were gossiping over fences, doing those mysterious 'grownup things,' us kids had the run of our neighborhood and the surrounding woods. We rode our bikes, skinned our knees, and dared each other into brave, pointless little schemes. 

As a self-proclaimed tomboy, cursed with a girly 'prettiness,' I usually ended up spearheading these ventures (much to my parents' chagrin, I'm sure). Our little gang usually included Jenny, Cheech, Michael, Caleb, and me, with Michael's little sister Ashley sometimes tagging along. Our games reflected everything, from what we were reading in school to our childish, exaggerated interpretations of the news our parents discussed over dinner. We made worlds for ourselves every evening until well after dark in the woods and fields of Mayflower Lane. For those few hours we could be pirates, spacemen, gangsters, Indians, or any of a hundred other things we could think of. A normal childhood can be a pretty exciting thing.

'The Giant Pumpkin Murders." Even the name, the pride and joy of some particularly inventive journalist, is absurd. And the events of those few months could have been taken directly from a cheap Hollywood thriller. I was fourteen when it started.

I was fourteen when Edvard and Bernice moved into the old house at the end of the street. For years I had believed privately that that house was haunted, and that, of course, only added to its allure. It certainly looked the part, with hollowed out rooms and that peculiar, sour smell of decomposition. Of course, eighth graders were too old to believe in ghosts, so I kept my theory to myself. Edvard and Bernice appeared in our lives so unexpectedly, so quickly, that they never really belonged in the same world as school days, homework, or bedtimes. They came at night, a withered old Lithuanian mother and son who had lived together for so long that their faces were almost indistinguishable. 

Michael was the first to see them. His mother, almost as curious about the new neighbors as us kids, paid a visit to the old house a few weeks after they arrived. As far as anyone could tell, they hadn't gone outside once since they'd arrived. The whole gang waited in the bushes outside to hear Michael's description of them, and of the house. We had all been inside at one point or another for dares, me probably more than the rest of them, but the sagging, faded building had an all new attraction as the den of these two adults, so utterly different from our own moms and dads. Michael came out with strange stories of jars filled with bits of animals.  He's the one who nicknamed Bernice 'The Butcher,' though I suspected he was making most of it up to impress us. After all, how many of the stories you invent to frighten yourself actually come true?  I determined then and there to meet Edvard and Bernice. They couldn't be as strange as Michael claimed — you meet people like that in stories, not in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

I first saw Edvard only a few days later. It was dark, just after sunset, and I was playing alone out in the big field near my house, ignoring my mother's calls. A pale, wide face floated up in front of me unexpectedly, and I almost screamed. The eyes were dark, half closed, and his skin was oily and translucent. Despite my determination not to be labeled a 'girl' in the eyes of my male friends, without a doubt the worst fate imaginable to a 14-year-old tomboy, I had to fight to keep from running when that gray, misshapen mask appeared in front of me. After a moment, though, I could make out the rest of his body. His black clothes blended almost seamlessly with the darkening meadow, creating the illusion of a ghostly visage that had frightened me. More to redeem myself in my own eyes than anything, I reached out to touch his paper-white cheek. Time had so warped and shrunk him that he was almost my height, and seemed suddenly less frightening. Without speaking, he reached one bony hand up and laid it on mine, before turning abruptly and walking away. I stood for a few minutes, wide-eyed by not really scared anymore, and watched him shuffle up the road.

I didn't tell anyone about my unexpected meeting with Edvard. I'm not really sure why—the strange, silent interaction seemed too precious and unusual to submit to my peers' pre-teen criticism and speculation, and I figured my parents would just tell me to stay away from the old house, which I had no intention of doing. Instead, I started following Edvard around whenever he came outside. Instead of getting annoyed, he seemed completely unaware of my presence. That didn't bother me, and soon the rest of the gang was following him on his daily walk to the rusting mailbox at the end of Mayflower Lane. Our parents told us he had Down's Syndrome and that we should be nice to him, but I don't think any of them even began to trust him until the day his pumpkin seeds arrived.

Edvard grew giant pumpkins. As far as any of us could tell, that was all he did, but he sure was good at it. From the moment his seeds arrived in the mail he began to open up to us kids, and soon we spent most of our spare time hanging around this strange, wizened little man, this thirty-year-old boy who still lived with his mother. That was when kids began to disappear.

Jenny disappeared first. None of us could quite believe it, because things like that never happen to you, to your friends. People just don't disappear. That's what the police thought too, and the woods and fields we had played with Jenny in for years were searched again and again. We discussed the matter with Edvard, but he was strangely uninterested. As far as we could tell, nothing but pumpkins ever interested Edvard. And his pumpkin had already gotten huge. 

Then Caleb was gone. I don't think the horror of any of this hit me until I saw my mother's gray, haggard face the day he didn't come home from the old house with us. That night I couldn't sleep, couldn't stop shaking. I sat in a corner of my room and decided, with the fragile self-importance of children, that it was up to me to solve this. 

I don't think I've ever been as frightened as I was that night, but I was also angry, so angry that my whole body felt hot. A few nights later I went out through my window. I don't remember much about what felt like an endless walk down our street. I was barefoot, and I could feel the damp pavement under my feet. I headed immediately for the old house at the end of the road, unsure what I planned to do, but convinced that the two Lithuanians had something to do with the disappearances. I'm not sure what I expected, but it wasn't the sight of the house sitting, peaceful and completely silent, in the moonlight.

I pushed open the little white gate surrounding Edvard's pumpkin patch, and stepped soundlessly onto the dark, moist loam. For a moment I stood looking at the giant fruit, the moonlight gleaming on the eerie, misshapen globe. Something caught my attention, a shape huddled in the corner of the garden, rocking slowly back and forth. It was Edvard, both arms wrapped around his legs as his twitched and muttered to himself. For some reason I thought of our first meeting, and my apprehensions faded away as I walked slowly towards him. His small, glinting eyes fell on me, and his muttering grew more agitated.

"What is it?" I whispered, kneeling on the soft earth. He reached one hand towards me, his long white fingers curling around a few strands of my long blond hair. His eyes closed slowly and his rocking gradually ceased, though his lips kept moving. I suddenly realize that the little man was almost paralyzed with fear.

"Now... run..." he said almost inaudibly, choking the words out. His eyes were still closed, and he looked so strangely peaceful that I reached out to touch his hands. They were still clenched, belying the confusion I could see on his face, and the knuckles were a ghostly white. His voice, low and guttural, startled me as he spoke again.

"RUN!"

Soft and spidery, I felt two hands grasp my shoulders. I threw myself backwards, crying out as the hair Edvard had been grabbing was ripped from my head. I reached up to touch the sore spot, and my hand came away bloody. Shivering, I looked up into the cold, wire-thin face of Bernice. It took me a moment to realize that her face was twisted into a smile, an uneven, bloodless gash. She reached towards me, leaning down. Her hands looked like claws—I keep remembering that. I remember the sharp, earthy smell of the garden that night. The moonlight hitting her face from above hid her eyes in dark, sunken sockets. And I remember how, as her clammy hands brushed against my skin, Edvard threw himself at her with an animal whine. She staggered, a little off-balance, then shoved him bodily against the fence. His head hit it with a sickening crack and he collapsed instantly like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Bernice started dragging me towards the house, stunning me with a slap as I sunk my teeth into her hand. The last thing I saw was Edvard, crumpled in a corner of his garden, one white hand still clutching a few strands of my hair to his chest.

I woke to the bitter, fetid smell of decomposition. I was lying on my side in a darkened room, my head aching. I longed for it to be my safe, soft bedroom, and for a moment I savored the thought that it had been some vivid, horrible dream, but there were bits of straw poking into me, and a putrid stink in the air. 

"Can't be happening. Can't." I found my self whispering, over and over again, as if the words would somehow make it true. A bluish florescent light snapped on, and in the blinding glare I could just make out bars, blocking my vision. I was in a cage. The thought brought a sharp stab of raw panic, and for a moment I flailed against the bars hopelessly, until a low, croaking noise brought me back to myself. Bernice, looming larger than I remembered, was standing a few feet away. She was laughing.

She called me little one. That's another thing I keep remembering, how she used such an ordinary term of endearment. Always in the same sweet, scolding voice, just a little high-pitched. I remember that there was a jar in one of her hands as she walked up, laughing in a harsh, rasping screech. I found myself trying not to look at it, not completely sure why. She noticed, and pushed it up against the bars 

"Like my souvenir, do you? Pretty little thing." She was talking to me, but I couldn't hear anything beyond the vicious buzzing in my eyes. Inside the glass jar, gray and bloated, like some grisly seashell, was a human ear.

"What is it?" I asked, my hands shaking. I pleaded silently for there to be some other, innocuous explanation, something I could cling to. "Ah-ah, little one," she said, grinning and shaking a finger in some gruesome mockery of parental scolding, "Not what. Who."

Suddenly, I felt a sick, twisting, and above all helpless anger filling me again, mingled with an unshakable conviction that none of this was real. It couldn't be. They wouldn't let this happen. Whoever they were. I threw up, and as I was doubled over, splashing my disgust onto the dirty basement floor in a messy stream, Bernice moved closer to the cage.

"That's not very nice, little one. Ah-ah. You're going to have to clean that up." She wrapped her long, thin hands around the bars, watching me hungrily. I still couldn't speak, couldn't see anything but that jar with the gray, floating whorl of skin. With my head still down, I raised my middle finger towards her in a childish gesture of defiance, throwing out my small hand in a gesture she couldn't possibly misinterpret. She clicked her tongue, and I realized with a sudden, gripping fear that she was right beside me in the cage. She grabbed me by my outstretched finger, cold hands stronger than I had imagined. I squirmed and bit, but she ignored me completely. All her attention was on my hand, on my middle finger.

She pulled me up the stairs and finally came to a stop in the kitchen. I had gone limp, too exhausted to fight. She was bleeding where I had sunk my teeth into her arm, but it didn't seem to bother her. I wondered dully what she was going to do next, but couldn't summon even the energy to care. She brought my hand up to her mouth, rubbing a surprisingly soft cheek against my skin. Then, unexpectedly, she licked me. She ran her sticky wet tongue along my hand, from the wrist to the tip of my middle finger, then pinched a tiny fold of skin between her teeth. I tensed, closing my eyes and raising my shoulders, but she became suddenly very businesslike, and firmly held my hand flat on the table. Against the thick scarred butcher block table.

The sun was just rising, and it gleamed coldly off the blade of the little meat cutting saw she was holding. Everything was too sharp, too strange to be real, and I couldn't stop expecting to wake up. But as she began to lower it towards my hand, as I squirmed ineffectively to get away.

The light glinted off the little butterfly ring I always wore around that finger. Michael had won it at a fair, and he had given it to me. Not to Jenny, not to that pretty little Sue who lived two streets over, but to me. I was both scornful, and quietly, secretly, ecstatic. And somehow, each morning, I forgot to take that pretty little butterfly ring off. I wore it every day until that nightmarish night with Bernice.  You could say I wore it the rest of my life.

I had time to remember all that as she moved the blade towards my exposed hand. The cut was messy, intentionally so—I suspect Bernice could cut with a surgical accuracy when she wanted to. She hadn't this time, and I fell back onto the kitchen floor with warm, sticky blood gushing onto my shirt, my face, everywhere. A few spots had landed on Bernice's fingers, and she gently licked them off, holding up her horrific prize for inspection. I could just stare at my hand, at the hot blood spilling onto the grimy kitchen floor, pooling around me. I couldn't believe there was so much.

I didn't even struggle as she pushed me down the stairs, and back into the cage. I was shaking uncontrollably, and still bleeding freely, but something in the corner of the little pen grabbed my attention. It was the bright orange shirt that Caleb had worn almost every day. The one he had worn the day he disappeared. It had that slightly tattered look that favorite clothes tend to acquire, but it also had something they don't, usually — bloodstains. I staggered over, and underneath were more clothes, belonging to Jenny and Caleb. I could smell the rose-scented soap Jenny had always insisted on using. And it was right then that I knew they were gone. Jarred.  The room grew dark as I passed out on the stone cold floor.

When I awoke I was on my feet again.  My wrists were tied together and I was dangling helplessly from a hook in the ceiling.  There was a loose cloth gag in my mouth and I worked my tongue against it trying to push it out of the way. I remember hearing Bernice tottering around, then some interaction taking place upstairs. I could pick out Michael's voice, and tried to scream to him, but I could only whisper. "Please," I said over and over again. Please don't hurt Michael, please let me be wrong about Caleb and Jenny, please get me out of this nightmare. A thousand pleases.

Dimly, through a thickening fog, I heard someone drop like a log on the kitchen floor above me.  After an almost unbearable wait, I saw Michael walk come slowly down the stairs. I tried to call to him, but couldn't choke the words out. I can't  tell you how he got me out of the cage, how we escaped from that horrible house, or even what my parents' faces looked like when I walked in my front door. 

I know all that happened, but everything is blurred past recognition in my own memory. I know that Edvard had been arrested, but I was able to clear him. I know that I ended up marrying Michael, and that we each struggle with our memories of that night. I know that Bernice went straight to jail, where she had nothing but prison bars to wrap those long, thin fingers around. And I know that, afterwards, the rest of Mayflower Lane tried so hard to pretend that everything was back to normal, that it was, almost.


"Pleeeease, mommy?"

My daughter's voice brings me back to the present. I look into her eyes, shining in the dim light, and softly rub the stump of one of my fingers with my other hand. I shake my head, trying again to bury the sad little curl of skin, the stained pile of clothing, under the sweetness of my daughter's sleepy smile. And I almost succeed, this time.

"No, sweetie, I'm not reading any scary stories tonight. You don't want to have bad dreams."

The world is scary enough, baby.


GrouchyOldMan encouraged me to try adding another perspective to the story, so blame him...  :-) Milgracias to my mentor Momomom for her support...

From the files of Bay State Correctional Center, Norfolk, Massachusetts, Personal Statement of Bernice Chaplik, October 30, 1987:

I did not like America. I still do not like America. It is a loud, rude country, with children who are willful and impolite. Not like my sweet Edvard. But it became necessary to make the move. Lithuania is a beautiful country, but questions were being asked. You would think that no one would begrudge an old woman a few simple joys, but no. That is the problem with this modern world. There is no respect for the old anymore. No respect for professional skill and strength.

It was hard enough in Vilnius. The people are simple and good, but they are old-fashioned. They think their meat must only be cut by a man. "A woman does not have the strength to cut meat. Women are too weak, and it is a job only for the strong." Pfah. For years, my grandmother and even my mother killed the chickens at our home. What is it that requires more strength to kill a pig or a goat or a cow than to kill a chicken? There is nothing. You stop the animal from moving, and you put a knife in. Anyone could do it, even the weak.

But I was never weak. I was always strong. My mother and father taught me about strength. Father always taught me to be strong and not to cry out, no matter what. But Mother taught me another kind of strength. She taught me that sometimes you cannot be the strongest in body, but you can be strong of mind and use that strong mind to catch your oppressor at his weakest. So you can make yourself stronger. "Your father was stronger than both of us, Bernice," she would tell me. "But now he is in the ground. So who is stronger now?" And she would laugh so.

But they have both been in the ground for many years. And I am still alive.

It came time to make my way, so I decided I would be a butcher. I had learned so much about the craft from Father and Mother both, and I had not learned what many of the girls my age had, in finding and winning a man to care for them. What did I care? These girls were weak, with their primping and sewing. So I took my money from the farm and opened my own shop in the town. Oh, how they complained. "I will not trade there. Dragunos is a proper butcher, and he is a man, after all." But they changed their tune when the banker's daughter was found hanging from one of Dragunos' hooks, I can tell you that.

Things were comfortable for me after that, but it was not the end of my troubles in Vilnius. The war caused great difficulties for all of us. Meat became scarce, and always were soldiers in the town making demands. One of these soldiers came to me once and made demands. It had been many years since I'd had the attentions of a man, but he was stronger than me. His mind was weak, however, and he thought I would just weep like a girl after he'd been with me.

Killing a man is not much different than killing a pig. And I knew much about killing pigs.

But you know how it is during war, yes? Many people die, certainly, but many just disappear, especially soldiers. Fighting a war is hard work, and many soldiers will slip away from their comrades and try to make it home. Or they will be captured by the enemy and never seen again.

Families in Vilnius wanted meat with their meals, and in time, I was able to provide for them again.

In time, the war ended, and as if it were a gift from God Himself, I had my little Edvard. They would call him a special child now, and he was a special child, always I knew this. Oh, he was willful sometimes, as all children can be, but a mother knows how to discipline. At first, he did not like the cage, but I told him I was doing it because I loved him, and I think he accepted it. In time, I think he learned to prefer the cage to a bed, so I put him there every night, where I knew he would be safe and where he would not get into any mischief.

But others did not love my Edvard as much. The children were cruel to him, and some even said he was cursed by God because his mother was a butcher and did not have a husband. Even the adults said this, and they said it proved that I was unfit and weak. Vilnius was still a chaotic and dangerous place after the war, and many people, especially many children, were kidnapped by bandits and Russians and were never seen again.

You have had veal before, yes? I discovered a taste for veal after the war.

Oh, but I always kept Edvard safe and happy. He was a special child, and his mind was not as strong as many others, but he had a gift for growing things in his garden. We didn't have enough land for a farm, but Edvard kept a beautiful garden for me. He grew potatoes and rosebushes for me, but when he discovered how large he could grow a pumpkin--well, never had I seen him so happy and excited. Within only a few seasons, he was growing the largest pumpkins Vilnius had ever seen. It was a good time for us. Edvard was happy, and I was happy, and we had much meat on our table.

But the good times never last forever. I grew too old to be a butcher, but we still needed food for our table, and people started asking questions. They said Edvard and I should leave town or there would be trouble. So we went. We moved to America, where they say it is the land of the free. It is the land of the noisy and the expensive, I will tell you that, and there is certainly nothing free about it. We had to settle for an old house that was falling to pieces, but it was large, and it had a good basement where I could work. Thank God above for that much.

I had thought maybe we should live quietly and simply, and we did for a while. No one seemed to pay attention to us, but then Edvard planted a new crop of pumpkins, and the neighborhood children all began to loiter around the house, as if they were just flaunting themselves. And they were all frail, weak, and spoiled, not at all like people back home, like they had never worked hard in their life, and I hadn't had a good plate of veal or blood sausage in years.

The first one, the girl, was easy. I invited her inside for some of my chocolate chip cookies, then offered to show her my playroom in the basement. And she didn't even complain until after I had her in one of the cages. She barely even raised her voice when I cut her--just a sigh, and she was gone. It took me two days to clean and dress her properly. Hard work, yes? But a bit of good seasoning... Finest pork stew I'd made in ages, and you may be assured that I have made some of the best pork stews anywhere.

The first boy took a little work, but weak-minded children can be brought off-guard with a few quiet little tricks. They think they can help an old woman when she is calling, "Oh, little boy, can you help me, can you help me? I've hurt my leg so. Oh, I can't move it. Here, little one, hold me upright." Then a quick knock in the head. A bit too hard, though, and I had to work fast to get him cut up and canned before the meat went bad.

And then came the blonde girl. Always running around and jumping and acting loud. Pretending she was strong when she was just a child, weaker than any adult. She was bothering my Edvard when I came up behind her. Edvard actually tried to help her escape. What is this world coming to when a son will turn against his own mother? He fell and struck his head, and I considered letting that be his only punishment, but an unruly child must be disciplined, and I made him sleep in his cage without supper that night. As for the girl, well, she was a crude one. She made that rude gesture at me, and I thought, well, I'll teach this one a lesson, and I cut that finger off for her! Let's see her make that little sign again, yes?

After that, the heartless swine took my baby away from me, carted him off to the jail like a dog. I hated it, but it had to be done. He'd been getting weaker, and I had been worrying that I might have to discipline him a great deal more strongly. A mother hates having to think of doing that to her only child, and I decided that the police were a more merciful alternative. Still, I was half mad from grief, and I think that was why my own thinking weakened enough to invite the other boy inside. Or perhaps I thought another disappearance would make them set Edvard free. Who can say, I'm so old, I'd forget my head if it had not been sewn on by God. But letting the boy inside was a mistake--he was the most horrible of them all! Did you know he struck me in the head with a jar? Struck me in the head! Children in the country just do not respect their elders the way they should. Their parents let them watch too much TV, yes? It makes them all mad.

You have the rest in your files, yes? Why they would put an old woman in a place like this for so many years, I cannot say. But you know, after all of it is said and done, what I regret the most is this: I'll die in this American prison, never getting to eat a good meal again. That is what I regret the most.

Bernice Chaplik died on January 7, 1988, and was buried by the State of Massachusetts on the grounds of the Bay State Correctional Center.

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