He pulled the car off the main road onto a dirt and gravel one that was really only slightly worse paved. The car slowed as it rolled over the uneven surface, the driver searching the fenceline that separated the road and the trees for an opening.
The grass hadn't turned brown yet, and in the crisp, cool air of October, it seemed almost more green than it had during the heat and humidity of the Summer months. Even the sky seemed a more intense blue because of the season. The Autumn colors had begun to fade and many of the dying leaves had dropped, scattered on the ground. There was still enough foliage on the trees to obscure a clear view of the woods and fields beyond the fence and initial tree line. In a month, that would no longer be the case.
It had been an hour since he had seen any buildings or even old abandoned farm houses and skeletal barns. And it had been even longer since he had seen a car. The road ran almost parallel to the fence which was about twenty yards in from the main road. He drove with the window down, resting an elbow out the window and lazily propping his head with his hand. It was an affectation; he was intently scanning the length of the old fence from a breech of some kind.
The car rolled along a bit farther and stopped. He wasn't precisely sure where he had to go but knew it was close. Giving up on finding a break in the fence, he put the car in park and turned off the engine. He slid the key out of the ignition and dropped in on the seat next to him. Reaching around behind his seat, he pulled out something about a foot long wrapped in cloth. He then grabbed an old, battered overcoat and placed the parcel in one deep pocket. Without rolling up the windows or locking the car, he got out and put on the coat. Then started toward the fence.
As he approached the trees, he saw rusty barbed wire strung across the top of the fence. It was actually in better condition than the wire of the fence which had rusted through in spots. The fence was about three and a half feet high and was fastened to the trees with heavy spikes. Many of the posts had rotted through at the base and were suspended in the air, nailed and entwined by the fence wire. When he got to the fence, he pulled a pair of gloves and a heavy duty set of pliers out of the coat and wrenched the spikes out of a tree. He moved along to the next tree and repeated the action. The fence sagged under the weight of the suspended posts and he merely stepped on the top of the wire and pressed it to the ground under his foot. Then without removing his foot, he quickly hopped over and entered the fields and trees beyond.
It shouldn't be too far from here. He had come too far and was concentrating too much on his search to be anything but optimistic. Failure was not an option.
He walked through the tall grass, streaked with fading yellow, and over the scattering of leaves and dead sticks. It smelled like Autmunon the cusp of changean odor of life, exuberant and vital, yet in its last days before dying. A passing that was just barely detectable. But in the lifesmellnot the warm, bright, humid smell of Spring, but a colder, crisper, clearer sense of lifethere was a hint of loss. The cool air permeated everything, giving it a coldness that heightened the senses rather than dulling them as Winter would. The sharp sound of walking through the deaddying grass and the quiet rush of moving through the yet living grass carried almost too clearly to his ears. All this he pushed out of his mind, the sensory experience distracted from his purpose for being there.
He walked slowly and deliberately but never lagging. The area was sparsely populated by trees and randomly strewn brush. It surrounded him with the Autumnal vibrancy of lifea vibrancy that masked its nature as the bustle and preparation for escape, dormancy, or death. He didn't reflect on the poetry of nature. There was no time for reflection. Tonight was for action.
His eyes scanned the landscape. The spot would be in a more secluded part of the woods and a general path of direction would need to be determined before pressing on. He saw a patch of trees that appeared to lead to a gradual slope, descending deeper into the woods. That was the way. He headed into the trees.
Halloweens of years past.
Sitting alone in the backseat of the big (alltoobig) car, and father sitting alone, silent in the front seat, taking long deep drags on an unfiltered cigarette. Father always kept the window tightly rolled up and the doors locked, only cracking it occasionally to toss out a twisted, flattened, spent cigarettehe always used the ashtray but, as was his habit, always threw the chainsmoked butts out the window. Every year they would drive for an hour until they got to the Place. Each year it was the same place. It was almost deserted except for the old man who sat slumped in a battered lawn chair, selling pumpkins. Presumably. He had never seen anyone else buy a pumpkinor even someone there looking at the pumpkins. Only his father and him. And the old stubbled man, draped in his chair appearing almost dead, with his unlit, wetchewed cigar dangling apathetically from pale, thin lips. He wasn't a vendor reallyhe was the Keeper of the Pumpkins. And those pumpkins were gnarled, off-color, wartlike things that were beginning to softrot. Looked like they would ooze from hidden, pusridden cavities if one so much as touched them on the soft side. (It always seemed to be the side facing away from the sun.) But they were cheap, goddamn cheap, as his father would say in his gravelly voice between drags on one of his everpresent cigarettes. Father said little. Ever. He would find a pumpkin that looked slightly less diseased, less damaged than the othersone that might be saved with a little carving knife surgery. And then father would pick up a pumpkin that was conveniently near to where he was standing and say that this was the one the boy wanted. (To no one in particular, since the pumpkin vendor was oblivious to anything until a crumpled bill was pressed into his dry, cracked hand.) Each time the old man mumbled the same thing: "Come again." Nothing else. No Thank You. Nothing. He didn't even look up. It was just as well.
The woods became thicker and it was early evening. Goldred rays of sunlight slanted knifelike through treetops and diffused, mottling the trunks. Dead leaves and branches rasped and snapped underfoot. As he walked deeper into the woods, the light was slowly being squeezed out of view and it grew darker. The floor was less strewn with grass and leaves and was composed mostly of damp earth and thick fallen branches. The darkness had finally come to match the crisp, cold air. In about an hour, night would fall and it would be too late. It needed to be done before dark.
The tree branches overhead were like a dome, making it seem almost as if he wasn't outdoors but inside some kind of woodland tunnel. The formerly sharp sounds had more of a muffled quality. The gradual sloping had stopped and he was in an almost bowl-like depression. The center almost looked like a clearingthe trees were more spread out, though their branches still obscured the waning sunlight. Across the space was another wire fence. This one was in better repair than the previous one but seemed much older. The posts were roughly hewn, squarecut pieces of timber, sunk into the ground and holding up better than the ones attached to the other one. This time he was able to push over a section of the fence, the posts yielding easily in the
damp soil. This was the direction, he was sure.
The trees grew thicker again for a bit, then thinned out. The ground again became scattered with leaves and sticks. The forest floor became rolling hillsprobably once uneven fieldsstretching before him. Long, yellowing grass lolled lazily in the slight breeze of dusk. Barely noticeable, the wind was just enough to give an additional chill to the air. Having emerged from the woods, it grew a little lighter, though darker than when he'd steered onto the gravel road and passed the first fence. Nightfall was maybe half an hour away. At most.
He strode over the coarse ground, occasionally coming upon ancient, moss-covered, wind-eaten tree stumps; scars on the landscape that some farmer had the motivation to create but not remove. They had just been left for some sort of natural resurrection. So far it hadn't happened.
Ahead the fields sloped down to another depression. Close. He began to walk faster, anticipating reaching his destination. Another fence zigzagged across the land. This one was a rough hewn, post and rail fence. Glacial stones were pyramided around each post to give it added support and in many places the rails had split into long, ugly, knifelike splinters. This was the final fence.
It was almost excitement as he jogged a few steps and, placing his hand on top of a post, swung his body over the rail. Once over, he paused, surveying the landscape. He was close to what he had been coming to find. So close he could feel it. He paused a moment longer and inhaled deeply and sharply, the cold air sucked deep into his lungs. It was almost enough to make him cough. Almost enough to make his feel alive. As if that mattered.
Halloweens of years past.
When they got home, father would unceremoniously drop the pumpkin on the table and, in between thick, phlegmy coughs, tell him to put some goddamn newspapers down. He would go on coughing until he lit and gasped down another cigarette. Father always seemed to cough when he entered the house (got to get the poison out) and always tossed the butt in the same spot behind the bushes before he came in the front door. It seemed more like he did it to induce a coughing fit so he had an excuse to light up to stop it. Then father would disappear.
He set out again, heading more assuredly beyond the fence. The sun that had not been visible for several minutes, obscured by trees, was now only a flat dark red disk, low in the sky, manifesting itself through its diffused redglow rays. And those rays were becoming a deeper and deeper sort of redthose last red, dying rays of a cold Autumn ember sun. The lengthening shadows created a chill of their own and seemed to darken the landscape much more than had the interlocking tree branches in the cold heart of the woods.
Night was only a matter of minutes away and earlier anticipation melted into the apprehension of running out of time to finish what had been set in motion. Heart beated faster and he began to walk faster as the window of time slipped awaysand, cruelly, mockingly sliding through fingers.
Shadows thickened and flowed, silently cloaking the terrain. They seemed to converge at the edge of a small abandoned field. Once it probably had well-defined edges and straight rows but had devolved into an amorphous scar on the earth, held in place by a random mass of brushlike vegetation. So much plant life had birthed and died over the years that the decaying flora had mounded up almost a foot taller than the local topography of the untended garden. And rising out of the groundcover in the center of the field, like large squat blisters, was a family of pumpkins.
Success and nostalgia washed over him. It was here. He had reached his destination. Memories seeped into his mind.
Halloweens of years past.
He would get some old newspapers from the attic and methodically spread them across the table. He would place the pumpkin in the middle of the table and look at it. It would sit there like some tragic, cancerous growth doing its best to live while all around reacted with repulsion or indifference. Even he would begin to feel an icy reproach for the stunted child in the middle of the table. He would waitnot patiently or impatiently, he would just withdraw and waituntil his mother saw fit to acknowledge his existence and bring him the knife from the kitchen. He knew where It was kept, all sharp and gleaming, in the kitchen rack. But it was in the kitchenHer Kitchenand no one entered Her Kitchen, not even father when he would get drunk and bang around the house. Father never hurt anyone but himself but even he knew not to ever enter Her Kitchen. Not after the time she threatened him with the knife. The sharp gleaming one from the rack on the counter. (Even as a child, he knew she acted as she did because of the little pills she took to stir up the chemicals in her head.) So he waitedit would be a very bad idea to go into Her Kitchen to get the carving knifebesides, she would eventually crack the door and look out, expecting someone conspiring an assault on Her Kitchen. She would peek out and survey the dining room, see the pumpkin, the newspapers (she didn't seem to see her son, only the props on the table), then slip back behind the door. She would return with the carving knife. But not the sharp, gleaming one from the rack on the counter, but instead a dull one that was scratched and scored on the blade. The same knife every year. The same old, dead man with the cigar; the same deserted lot of rotting pumpkins; the same long drive in the big car.
The seconds of memory were stolen from his life and then forcibly sliced away so he could return to the present. The sun was so low that its dullred rays could be stared at without discernible effect on the eyes. Time was everything and like everything, it was fading.
The sinking sun no longer gave off much heat and the contrast of the fading glow and temperature made it seem just a bit colder than it was. A portent of Winter, the dusk of the year, warning of coming night. Each day the night would become longer and colder and blacker. The season would lock the earth in deep, deep sleep until the time came for Spring's unlocking. It was the heart of Autumn, All Hallows Eve, that was the point when nature realized it was past the waning pulse of life and left with only the final drifting away. That was why tonight was the night. And it was getting darker.
But stolen moments return.
Halloweens of years past.
He also knew where this other knife was kept. It was in the drawer full of rubber bands and paper clips and screwdrivers and other miscellany that got thrown into it, mostly for convenience, so she would not have the burden of throwing anything away. Once he dared ask why he had to use this knife. She leaned over the table, so close he could smell her stale breath, and stared straight into him. He could see the chemicals swirling deep within her eyes. "I can't afford to let you kill yourself." Almost as an afterthought, "And the other one is mine." She turned and slid back into Her Kitchen, leaving an almost perceptible cloud of chemicals behind to fog the room. All by himself he would carve the pumpkin. He never left a goddamn mess. He would carefully roll the pumpkin's tainted pulp in the slickened newspaper and discretely dispose of it. The pumpkin would be set in a neutral, unassuming spot. Then the knife would be left in the center of the table. Alone.
He walked to the center of the mass of pumpkins and knelt down. He focused on one directly in front of him. It wasn't chosen at random or out of conveniencehe had been drawn to it. All along. He had not chosen the pumpkin, it had chosen him.
Somewhere in the air he detected a hint of burning leaves. The kind of smell that disappears when you try to concentrate on its nature and origin. But you never forget the smell of burning leaves from childhood, so the slight scent was enough. Enough to release more old memories. Memories with odors of their own, odors of unfiltered chainsmoked
He raised the pumpkin in both hands, bringing it up to eye level, and slammed it to the ground. Again and again. In utter silence.
The pumpkin must have been rotten inside. After the still-somewhat-thick outer skin of the shell cracked, the pumpkin collapsed in on itself, revealing a blackened, fibrous inside that pulped into a bloody mash of pumpkin viscera.
He lifted it and brought it down more slowly, more softly. A weak denouement after the climax of murder; a falling action for no reason other than itselffor a feeling of trying to extend a moment. An impossibility. Merely a gesture. He sat staring at the mangled, pulped remains of the diseased vegetable between his hands. Exhaustion. He touched the grey mash that slicked his fingers and touched it to his tongue. Salty. Like blood.
He wiped his fingers on the rough ground and its deaddying grasses and vines. He finished by wiping the rest on his clothes. The shattered pumpkin remains almost steamed in the gathering shadows of the fading ember sun. Slowly and deliberately, he inhaled and exhaled, seeing wisps like smoke curl from his lips in the cold, darkening twilight. Almost smiled at the accomplishment but didn'tnot much time left. As shadows thickened to shrouding darkness, he went to work.
Feeling began to well up inside him, a subdued excitement that was trying to bore to the surface. He was close. So close he could almost see the swirling chemicals in the air.
Another pumpkin. This one was about the same size as the firstonly slightly less sicklybut seemed to sit next to the smashed pumpkin and eclipse it. It seemed more imposing, almost evila sleeker, purer evilin the swirling chemical fog diffusing before his eyes, staining the air like ink billowing in water.
He was down to only a few minutes before night would fall completely. But it mustn't. Not quite yet. He pulled the wrapped object from the coat and slowly, methodically, ceremoniously unwrapped the cloth winding sheet. The moon had begun to rise, greeting the final sinking of the sun. Pale disks reflected on either side of the sharp carving blade. The thick choking fog was almost overwhelming as he tried to focus on the pumpkin sitting before him. The sickly orange gourd seemed to be self-importantly mocking him. Daring him. Sanctimonious
again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again
ribbons of swirling chemicals and gutted pumpkin misted in the air before him. He cut over and over, stabbing and slashing; annihilating the object of his hatred.
He sat, heaving from the throes of his climactic act, before him strewn the remains of a once-living thing. Through the dissipating mist, he could see that this pumpkin was not a hollow bowl of blackened pulp, but was full of a thick, sickly sweet smelling viscous substance. It flowed over the ground until it had swollen into a thick, congealing puddle. It was almost dark but he could see in the pale moonlight that it was, indeed, steaming.
As the last shreds of chemical fog wafted away, he bent low over the pumpkinsubstance and drew it deep into his lungs, savoring its metallic scent. His heart (that was just now beginning to slow from its slamming into his ribcage and falling back into his chest) again quickened its pace. Once again his tongue quickly darted out and caressed the substance. Copper. Salt.
Not quite done, he twisted his head around to see if it was absolute night. A faraway haze of deep red razor outlined some distant terrain. Seconds, those hourglass grains sucked by gravity through his fingers. It would be better had he the luxury of time. He didn't, he had to act. And it's always easier to act when forced into a deadline.
He chose a small, unimposing pumpkin. One that seemed to hide itself behind the others because it didn't want to be noticed. Unloved and incapable, itself.
Quick, deep parallel cuts. Not floundering manifestations of self-loathing, but deliberate, well placed, vicious slices deep into the veins. An unemotional suicide. Death within numbness, not suffering. To realize suffering, one needs reflection. No reflection, only action. Cold inevitable action.
And as the pumpkin slowly ebbed its still-living, yet fading fluid, he sank untouched, dead in a welling pool of blood.