We are excited to post another contribution for Humor Meets Horror Month. A short story by J. Michael Radcliffe – Donna Cavanagh
Watch your back, its Scarecrow Jack!
The horrible Pumpkin King!
When the frost is new, he’ll come for you,
The terrible Pumpkin King!
With eyes glowing red, you’ll soon be dead,
The dreadful Pumpkin King!
In the cold night air, you will despair,
Beware the Pumpkin King!
Jack trudged through piles of dry leaves that had accumulated on the sidewalks. It was a chilly fall morning and he was on his way to school after missing the bus. A pair of older boys had stolen his books again and hidden them in different places around the neighborhood. It had taken him almost an hour to find them all, and by then he had missed the last bus to school. It would be the third time this week he was late. Mr. Perkins, the principal, would be sure to phone his parents again. Jack’s father had been furious the last time and spent the better part of an hour lecturing Jack about how disappointed he was that his son was a weakling. Apparently Jack must be doing something to bring this abuse upon himself, or so his father believed.
The boys and girls in his village had always made fun of him, but today had been even worse than usual. For years he had been teased unmercifully and his father had told him to ‘be a man’ and to ignore the taunts. No matter how hard he tried though, it still hurt. He tried to make his heart a stone, to feel no emotion, but it never worked.
Jack had always been small for his size, and his straw colored hair was unruly no matter how hard he tried to tame it, but his eyes were the most unusual of all, for they were an odd golden-orange color. At fifteen he was thin and lanky and the boys and girls at his school had taken to calling him ‘scarecrow’; once a group of boys had even tied him to a makeshift pole in the farmer’s field of pumpkins. They had placed a paper crown on his head and taunted him for hours.
“Bow to the Pumpkin King!” They laughed as they threw rotten tomatoes at him and danced around the pole. “Watch your back, its Scarecrow Jack! What a loser!”
After the bullies left it had been hours before anyone responded to his cries for help, and he still had scars on his wrists from where the rope had cut into his skin. The farmer was furious with Jack, warning him to stay out of his fields or he would set the dogs on him. It didn’t help that the farmer’s son was the ringleader of the group that night.
Jack’s day at school was uneventful, although he was ordered to serve after school detention for arriving late. His pleas had fallen on deaf ears and Mr. Perkins had spent several tense minutes on the phone with Jack’s father. His father felt it appropriate that Jack walk home, as punishment for embarrassing his family yet again.
The light was beginning to fade as Jack walked home, and the cool autumn breeze stirred the leaves around him. The streetlamps began to flicker and come to life and a misty rain began to fall. As he walked down the lane he shivered; the forest loomed dark on his right, while fields of pumpkins stretched far out of sight on his left. The wooden split-rail fence was in disrepair, and it was not uncommon for children to take a shortcut through the fields on their way home. Jack did not want to anger the farmer however, and decided to stay on the main road.
The sound of a twig snapping in the shadows made Jack freeze. Years of running from bullies had made him wary, and he listened closely for any further sounds. After a few moments he heard the crunch of footsteps in the leaves. Jack bolted for the fence, not caring any longer about angering the farmer. He cleared the fence in a single leap and ran quickly between the rows of pumpkins. The sun had now set and it was a crisp, cold night, the frost just beginning to form on the leaves and vines in the farmer’s field. He looked over his shoulder and was terrified to see a pair of glowing red eyes floating in the air twenty paces behind him.
“YOU CAN’T RUN, LITTLE JACK, I’VE COME FOR YOUR SOUL,” bellowed a gruff, disembodied voice that echoed across the field.
Fear surged through Jack and he took off across the field like a scared rabbit. As he leapt across a small stream that cut through the field, the glowing red eyes stopped their pursuit and fell to the ground. The sound of laughter could be heard as Billy, the farmer’s son, and three of his friends guffawed at the sight of Jack running across the fields. They congratulated themselves and decided to go back into town for hot chocolate, leaving their long wooden pole with two red lanterns attached lying in the field.
Jack ran until he could no longer hear any sounds of pursuit, but he was afraid to stop running. He stumbled onward for what seemed like an hour, tears streaming down his face, and realized he had lost his bearings; he could see nothing but row after row of fat pumpkins.
He staggered onward until finally, exhausted, he collapsed in a heap amongst the giant pumpkins. He shivered in the cold as he sobbed uncontrollably. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be in this field – his mother had warned him hundreds of times not to wander this far out from the farm houses. “The Pumpkin King will catch you and steal your soul,” she used to say.
An old wives’ tale used to scare children into doing as they were told; Jack knew the story was just a myth. But the sight of the disembodied red eyes had truly scared him. His heart was still thudding in his chest and his breath was coming in ragged gasps. He huddled in the midst of a group of pumpkins and decided to hide until he was certain he was safe.
The morning dawned cold and foggy, a dense mist covering the fields. Jack stretched and looked around, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
I don’t remember falling asleep.
This part of the field did not look familiar at all, although it had been dark and he had been running for his life.
Where am I? I was hiding among the pumpkins, but this is open field.
Jack stood up and looked around, and saw a crowd of people in the field not too far away down the hill. There were a dozen or so of them, including the farmer and his son, gathered in a circle and pointing at something.
“Poor thing,” said a matronly old woman in a thick shawl. “Must’ve been terrified to die out ‘ere, all alone like that.”
No one paid any attention as Jack walked up to get a better look. As he drew near, he could see the body of a young boy, probably in his teens, curled up among the pumpkins. The boy was about Jack’s size and had the same shaggy, straw colored hair. The frost covering his skin glistened in the early morning sunlight, and as the mist receded, Jack could see his own face looking back at him, the orange colored eyes locked in a vacant stare.
“No! It’s not me! I’m not dead!” he said to the old woman, who looked right through him.
“I’M NOT DEAD!” he shouted to the people, but no one heard him.
His anger blossomed and surged out of control, the years of repressed hatred boiling forth in an unstoppable flood as he saw the smirk on Billy’s face. The people in the crowd began shifting and looking at each other, as if something was very wrong. The mist around them began to thicken into a cold, dense fog, and the farmers’ dogs began whimpering in fear.
“Not right, I tells ya,” drawled the old farmer. “Not right som’un dien out ‘ere – it’ll wither the crops!”
“CROPS!? You’re standing over my body and all you are worried about is your CROPS?”
That was the last straw for Jack. Without knowing exactly how it happened, he lashed out in anger. The green vines began to squirm and writhe along the ground like a mass of snakes. Cracks appeared on the surface of the giant orange pumpkins, small at first, but growing larger, until cruel faces were formed. Angular slits opened up and glowed a fiery red from within, matching the orange-red glow coming from Jack’s own eyes as he floated into the midst of the crowd. The crowd didn’t notice that the small frozen body of Jack Thatch had disappeared, melting down among the vines; they were too busy staring in terror at the appearance of fiery red eyes and jagged toothy mouths opening in laughter. In seconds, what had been a crop of prize winning pumpkins was transformed into a legion of grotesque, orange monsters.
The people screamed in panic as the field around them came alive. Some tried to run, but green tendrils shot out from the vines and curled around their legs. The old farmer swung his pitchfork down hard, trying to cut a path to safety, but he was quickly overwhelmed by the vines and was gone from sight in an instant. Billy had tried to run to safety, but a thick, spikey vine had wrapped around his throat, silencing his scream before it could escape.
After just a few moments, they were all gone. The evil, grinning faces of the pumpkins receded and soon the field returned to normal. Only the echoes of the dead remained, whispering on the wind that the Pumpkin King had returned.
About the author:
Michael Radcliffe lives in rural Kentucky with his family, where he spins stories out of the wisps of magic around him. Their home is guarded by six ferocious felines, who diligently patrol the grounds hunting for irks and weedles. His writing is supervised by Idris, a temperamental dragon, who critiques Michael’s stories about dragons, wizards and magic. Michael’s twitter name, @Alderdrache, comes from one of his books and means “elder dragon.”
For more information about the creatures and characters that inhabit Michael’s books, visit his official website: http://www.theguardiansapprentice.com
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