The Pumpkin Man
by Ben Markley
“Jess, are you sure he’s coming?”
She turned to me, her springy antennae flailing comically as she did so. She wanted to be a pirate for Halloween, but her mom insisted she go as a butterfly.
“Just wait,” she said. “He’ll show up.”
Max blurted a poorly stifled laugh.
“You didn’t have to come,” Jessie said.
Max took the sucker out of his mouth, pinching it between two fingers like a cigarette.
“Somebody’s gotta keep an eye on the old married couple.”
That’s what he always called us.
Max wasn’t the brightest fifth grader, but he needed to feel smarter than somebody. As a couple of third graders, Jessie and I were easy targets.
“Well, nobody asked you to,” Jessie said. “You just don’t have any friends.”
You never had to wonder what Jessie thought of you.
“You’re just mad you don’t get to kiss your boyfriend,” Max said. “Everybody knows the Pumpkin Man isn’t real.”
Mueller’s Patch had always been creepy, but the Pumpkin Man elevated the place’s reputation to supernatural proportions. Every Halloween, the folklore re-emerged. Some said he was a giant, talking Jack-o-lantern; others said he was an escaped convict that Mueller was hiding from the authorities. One popular story said it was the ghost of Mueller’s ancestor that turned thieving children into pumpkins (there were suspicions that Mueller started this rumor himself).
Jessie had a particularly fantastic story. She said the Pumpkin Man was a magic genie that would tell the future if you brought him a basket of candy on Halloween night. I wasn’t totally sold on the idea at first, but Jessie believed in things so hard, it made you want to believe too.
All the same, we had been in the patch for two hours with no results.
“It’s getting kinda cold,” I said.
“Yeah, are you guys done?” Max said. “I’m bored.”
“We’re not leaving until he comes,” she answered.
“What if he doesn’t show?” I asked.
"What if he doesn't?"
"But what if he doesn't?"
If I had been aware of the word 'hypothetically' at that age, I would've said that.
"Quit talking like that," she said. "He won't come if you keep talking like that. He doesn't appear to non-believers."
Max shook his head.
"I’m telling you, he’s a fake."
Jessie turned to Max.
"No pictures," Max retorted.
"He's like a vampire," Jessie explained. "Cameras can't see him."
"Yeah, right. You just made that up."
“I did not.”
“Whatever. I’m going home, and Dan’s coming with me.”
I really wanted to. I was freezing.
“No, he’s not.”
I really wanted to.
“Fine,” Max said. “He can come after you guys are done kissing.”
My face flushed.
“Don’t stay out too late, you two,” he said, puckering his lips like a seahorse as he walked away
The next half hour was remarkably tranquil by comparison.
“Do you think he’s really made of pumpkin?” Jessie asked.
“I bet he is,” she continued. “A man made out of pumpkin.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Pumpkins don’t have bones.”
“That’s why it’s a mystery.”
“But if there really was a big, orange monster out here, don’t you think the police would’ve shot it by now?”
We sat in silence for a few minutes.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” she said quietly.
“Of course I do.”
The next thing I felt were her lips on mine, just briefly, just slightly, but definitely there.
Surprise. Confusion. Euphoria.
Then, as she pulled away, one of her coiled antennae caught itself in my hair.
A shock of hair ripped out as I reflexively jerked my head back. I fell backwards, striking my elbow on a rock, and cried out. The euphoria was blotted out entirely.
Her eyes were scared, sorry, and holding back tears. She tried to help me sit up, but I shrugged her off.
“What’d you do that for?” I said.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“What’d you kiss me for?”
“You’re the only one that would come out here with me,” she said quietly.
“Well, I didn’t come out here to get kissed!” I said. “I don’t even know why I came out here!”
“What do you mean, Danny?”
I jumped to my feet.
“I mean this is crazy! There’s no such thing as a man made of pumpkin that sees the future and eats candy!”
I stomped away, still ranting.
“We’re not an old married couple! I only came out here so you wouldn’t wait here alone. There’s no such thing as the Pumpkin Man. He’s just a big, fat, orange fake!”
Things were never the same after that. From third grade to graduation, I treated Jessie like garbage. When I wasn’t ignoring her, I was mocking her to her face.
I changed too. I became sarcastic, then suspicious, then cynical, then angry. I lost friends as fast as I made them. Nothing held my interest. As I looked down at the world, everything looked orange.
But not Jessie. The more I changed, the more Jessie stayed the same. Something unavoidably authentic permeated her, something that not even the most superior ennui could penetrate, something that either didn’t exist in me or had rotted away long ago.
Sometimes I dream about that night at Mueller's Patch. Sometimes the Pumpkin Man comes, a titanic, orange genie sprouting out of the ground, and Jessie marches right up to him in her butterfly wings and lifts her humble offering in homage to him.
Sometimes he doesn't come, and Jessie and I spend the whole night sitting in that patch until her head falls on my shoulder and she falls asleep, her springy, little antenna brushing against my cheek.
But every once in a while, I’m alone in the patch. No Jessie, no Pumpkin Man.
I don’t know which one I’m waiting for, but they never come.
Ben Markley is a young writer in Lawrence, KS. He believes all good writing is a gift from God. As for bad writing, he also believes in the forgiveness of sins.
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