The Flesh Eater at Sharp's Farm
|From Cathy McGraw's photostream|
Kat woke up Saturday morning and wasted no time putting on the outfit she'd chosen the night before: her favorite pair of Levi's, one of her dad's black t-shirts that he'd tossed out but still looked good, and an old purple hoodie with holes in each pocket so that her fingers always poked through when she shoved them down inside. Kat ran downstairs to eat a few bites of the pancakes her dad had made—his usual Saturday breakfast. She ignored the funny looks he gave her for eating so fast.
"Why the rush?" he asked, leaning back against the kitchen counter to watch Kat insert forkful after forkul of warm pancake bites, each one dripping with butter and Mrs. Butterworth syrup.
"Whafdyoumeh, whatheruh?" Kat chewed fast and swallowed everything down with a big gulp of orange juice. The pancakes struggled to her stomach like a brick moving slowly through a shuttle tube at their local bank's drive-up lane. "We're supposed to go to the pumpkin patch today, remember?"
"Oh yeah," he said, rubbing at his chin like it had just dawned on him. The funny little smile on his mouth told her he'd know all along anyway. He was always joking with her like that. Stifling laughter, he went to the kitchen doorway and yelled up the stairs for her older brother to hurry up and come eat something. "I'm sorry, Kat. You're too easy to joke with." He shook his head then bent down to kiss her on the forehead. "I shouldn't do it."
"It's okay." She watched him pour his second cup of coffee and ate the rest of her pancakes, still in a rush to get things going. When her brother Carl came down in the wrinkled sleep shirt he always wore and his big baggy flannels, she rolled her eyes. "You don't care about Halloween anymore."
"So what?" Carl shrugged, not looking at her. He eyed the pancakes and went to grab a box of corn flakes from the cabinet instead, then proceeded to pour the last few drops of milk into his bowl. Next came half a bag of sugar, most of which ended up on the kitchen floor—a cracked and grayish linoleum that used to be white with blue checks. "Halloween is for kids."
Kat ignored his cutting words, which had been meant to relegate her to infant status, even though he was only fourteen. The problem was, Carl thought he was a man already. He'd gotten a job that summer working at the pool, and ever since then he thought he was a god or something. A god in ripped flannel pants from K-Mart. Kat 'humphed' behind Carl's back while he walked to the table, and her dad gave her a 'be nice' look.
"I still like Halloween," Dad said. He grabbed a chair and sat down. "In fact, I like it about as much as I like Christmas."
The kitchen went silent. No one talked about Christmas. Not any more.
Kat took her plate and washed it under the sink and then shoved it in the open dishwasher. They left it open all day until it was full, then closed it and turned it on right before bedtime so there would be clean cereal bowls in the morning. She heard Carl crunching away at his sugar-coated corn flakes and it sounded to her like a cockroach chewing on a candy bar. "I like it more than Christmas," she said into her shoulder. The room grew even more quiet. She expected her dad to tell her it was wrong for a person to like Halloween more than the day Jesus was born, but he didn't, he just sipped away at his coffee.
"It's okay to like whatever you wanna like," he finally said, and Kat knew that what he really meant was it was okay to not like Christmas anymore, not after your mother had left and moved to California on that day. It had been two years, but it felt like two seconds. The pain never left. Kat had even been sent to an expensive therapist for a few lousy and embarrassing sessions. Carl had flat out refused seeing a therapist. There were some fancy words he'd used to describe how he'd never go for that kind of stuff—words Kat couldn't and wouldn't repeat, but that she'd felt like saying too at the time.
"Well, I'm ready to go right now."
Carl groaned and shoved the rest of his cereal in his mouth, then drank down the sweet milk. He didn't even bother removing the spoon. It fell against his nose as he gulped and his adams apple went up and down, up and down.
In the old Ford truck, Kat looked out the window and watched the autumn landscape fly past. Focused in on nothing special, the world blended into an orangey-gold blur, with blue sky in the distance. Her dad's old truck hit every bump in the road, but she liked it. She liked it much more than the time she'd ridden in her friends' parents' brand new Chevy. Maybe she was weird for liking old things, but she couldn't help it.
Her dad pulled up to Sharp's Farm and they all got out and stretched their legs. Carl had put on a pair of jeans so ripped you could see his boxers underneath. When he stretched, his whole kneecap jutted out for the world to see. "The world's gonna think I can't afford to keep you clothed," Dad said, and Carl made up some excuse that it was his favorite pair.
"So what's the plan?" Dad looked at them both. "Do we hit the hot cider and doughnuts first, or the hayride, or do we just walk out there and enjoy the view?"
She'd planned this out last night before bed, just like the outfit. "We take the hayride, walk around, find the perfect pumpkin, then come back and get cider and doughnuts."
"What's the perfect pumpkin?" Dad asked. Carl just looked at Kat like she was a baby. She figured he thought it was stupid to want something like that when you could have money or cool cars or the best ripped jeans, but this meant a lot to her. Ever since she saw that story a year ago about a kid that found the largest pumpkin in the local pumpkin patch then carved it into a fantastic castle scene with witches and vampires, she knew she had to beat the record. That it would be her in the paper next time instead. Sometimes they put those funny local interest stories in big name newspapers and even sometimes on morning news programs like GMA so that everyone—everyone in the entire country—could see.
But she didn't want to tell Carl or Dad about all that. They'd only laugh.
When they got out to the fields, all spotted with different shades of orange, Kat hopped off the hayride and announced the next part of her plan. She didn't look at Dad when she talked. "Okay, so the next thing I didn't tell you is that I have to find this perfect pumpkin all by myself. That means you guys stay here in the middle of the field and let me go way out there where the big pumpkins are. Okay?"
Dad eyed the far edges of the field for a long time. His mouth tightened, which meant he was about to say no.
"Dad, I just don't want anybody bugging me when I do this. You guys will try to talk me into some cute pumpkin that's easy to carry, but I don't want that." I want Mom to wake up in a few weeks and see me again and feel sorry about what she did and come home in time for Christmas.
Dad's mouth relaxed a little. He was about to say yes, so Kat made a head start for the field before he could change his mind. When she looked back, he was still standing there looking worried. Carl wasn't though. He'd already picked out a few strange gourds that would probably make ghouls or ghosts or something worse like the boogie man's head.
It was so quiet out in the farthest field. You couldn't even hear the tractor rumbling around. Kat stepped around the waxy skin of pumpkins so large you'd need a chainsaw to carve them. Dad would have to help her with that part, if he wasn't too mad about having to heft the giant thing home.
Her feet stumbled over the thick and prickly vines that ran along the dirt. One caught on her jean's hem and she almost tripped, but she righted herself quickly and kept moving along in her search for the biggest pumpkin. There it was. Much biggest than all the rest, sitting by itself at the very far corner of the field. It was high as her waist almost, and wide as the fire pit they had in their backyard for fall cookouts. That's when she realized she'd have to roll the thing herself. But she'd do it. No one was going to tell her what she could and couldn't do. Sometimes when you wanted something you had to fight for it. Sometimes when people told you they didn't want you, you had to give them reasons to come back, because maybe they made a mistake. Maybe they were just confused and didn't really know anything.
Grunting, Kat pushed on the pumpkin so hard it wobbled in place a few times. She wanted to shove it over on its side, but saw the vine was still connected. Her stomach flopped. The vine was so thick you could call it a rope, and it felt like one too.
"No way. I am not calling Dad over here to help."
Placing a foot down on the vine, Kat pulled hard to see if it would snap or at least tear, but instead she felt it wrap around her ankle. It must be the spiky skin, they were so prickly the'd grab anything. Then another one did the same thing to her other ankle. Telling herself not to panic, Kat tried to ease both legs free. The vines tightened even more. She felt them pulling her toward the pumpkin, like octopus arms pulling food to its inner mouth.
Before she could take a breath to scream for help, Kat saw the pumpkin open up so that all its gooey insides became visible. The strands, the seeds, the tendons of orangey flesh trembled with a desire to eat her right there and then, and there even appeared to be a tongue inside, flapping and throbbing with anticipation.
"No!" Kat struggled to break out of the vines' hold, but the more she tried, the more they gripped. Other vines flung up to aid in the pumpkin's quest to eat her, and that's exactly what she knew it was about to do because she had seen the skeletal bones of small animals decaying inside its great, open belly. Kat realized a pumpkin that size must need more than soil and rain to live on. It needed protein and blood. And it would eat her. And no one would ever know. Not until much later—too late.
"Dad," she screamed. "Dad! Carl!!" Why did her voice sound like a mouse? Why did it leave her lips and die into the air like smoke in the wind? She was being pulled down and could feel the wet, cold guts coming up around her all the way to her waist. She screamed again as loud as she could, and this time she thought she heard her father's voice. But who knew? Who knew when all you could really hear was the slimy slurp of slithering vines and cold, sinewy jaws quivering to devour you? A top came down on her head so that she was made to bend over; father, farther until she was on her knees. That or her neck would break.
The pumpkin sealed itself and the whole world became a dark, almost bloody red orange. Kat was suffocating. She knew that this was it, and all because she'd wanted her mother to come back. To love her like everyone else's mother did. Now she'd be in the news for sure. But as a dead person, not as a pumpkin carving genius.
Kat heard a loud thunk that broke through the dark flesh. The thunking continued, over and over, until chunks of pumpkin fell out and some of its guts too. She sucked at whatever air came in, but it still wasn't enough. She felt like she might suffocate any minute now. Maybe it was too late. Maybe . . .
Sunlight hit her face, and a soft autumn breezed worked to take away the black spots. Kat blinked and looked up at two faces that she loved more than anything in the world. "Dad, Carl." Her voice sounded gravely and hoarse, like she'd been screaming at a pep rally for ten hours straight.
"You okay, kid?" Dad looked like he might cry. There were pumpkin guts and seeds all over his boots and hands. Carl's too. That's when Kat realized she had everything she needed right there in front of her. That even if her mother did come back she wouldn't love her the way Kat needed her too. You couldn't make someone love you. And you couldn't make them come home if they didn't want to. It just didn't work out that way.
You had to want what you had, and let go of what you didn't have. The people who loved you, loved you no matter what.
She never said much about the day she almost got eaten by a giant pumpkin. It seemed rather . . . well, impossible. Folks just didn't believe in stuff like that. But sometimes at Thanksgiving, and Christmas, when someone had the nerve to offer her a slice of pumpkin pie to go along with the pecan she'd made on purpose just so no one would ask, she'd shake her head and say, "No thanks," and leave it at that.
But she did make Sharp's Farm put up a sign so that no one would go out to the farthest field. They laughed at her and said all kinds of crazy things, but she did not back down. Neither did Dad. Reluctantly the people of Sharp's gave in and put up a wooden sign that read, "Dangerous. Killer Pumpkins." Like it was a real joke or something. It didn't matter. If it saved just one person's life, it was worth it.