You

The idea for “You” came from a coworker’s desk calendar of practical jokes, one of which was to leave notes for people that just said — wait for it — you. And what better time to leave prank notes than Halloween? “You” was accepted (and paid for) by Brutarian Quarterly for the Halloween 2001 issue, but it’s not clear that this issue ever appeared. It still counts as a sale though! They’re my rules, I make ’em up …

There wasn’t anybody at the front door, just a big jack-o’-lantern with a kitchen knife stuck through the side. Hank could see the blade through the thing’s gaping mouth, the metal blackened by the flame of the stubby candle that guttered within. He stepped out onto the porch, the old boards creaking and groaning beneath his feet. Whoever had left the jack-o’-lantern had rung the bell and then vanished into the night like a coward.

He noticed a piece of paper pinned to the creamy orange rind. With one hand steadying the pumpkin, he yanked out the knife and dropped it off to the side, then picked up the note. It said, in big black letters, YOU.

Was that supposed to be a threat?

He blew out the candle, picked up the jack-o’-lantern, and took it inside. He put it on the kitchen counter, then went back for the knife; but it was gone. Whoever had left the pumpkin must have taken it while he was in the house.

Hank returned to the kitchen and spent a moment looking at the jack-o’-lantern. Probably just some kids picking on him; maybe they figured he was some kind of weird hermit or an axe murderer or something. He remembered his own childhood, when he and his friends had harassed old lady McGill simply because she never came out. They would ring her bell and run away, leave flaming bags of dog shit on her porch, unscrew the bulbs of her outside lights … whatever they could think of. Never anything as overtly threatening as this jack-o’-lantern trick, though; they were just having fun. But times had changed.

He had become old lady McGill.

And the kids had become psychopaths.

====

Raking leaves the next day, Hank kept an eye on the sidewalk. Everyone was a suspect. Those kids riding by on their bikes—were they laughing at him? The mailman going house to house—why was he grinning? His neighbor across the street, cutting back her hedge—was she sneaking glances his way?

He paused a moment to wipe sweat from his forehead. Halloween was only two days away but it still felt like summer. Where was the snap in the air? Where was the threat of snow? It felt more like June than October.

Hank looked around for the big trash barrel with the leaves in it, then remembered that he’d left it on the other side of the house. He dropped his rake and plodded around to fetch it. When he grabbed the handle and pulled, he felt something heavier than leaves shift inside.

Another pumpkin.

This one was very small, the kind Marjorie used to make into pies. He reached in, lifted it out, and looked it over. It had been carved into a tiny, delicate jack-o’-lantern, but its face was distorted by the kitchen knife that had been plunged into it, its tip protruding from the opposite side.

At least they’d had the sense not to put a burning candle into a pile of dry leaves; this jack-o’-lantern was unlit. He pulled off the note. YOU. Not very imaginative. Kids raised on movies and television should be able to come up with a few different threats.

He yanked the knife out and put it in his overalls pocket, then stood a little while, thinking. Whoever left the pumpkin must’ve come from the forest around back, or he would’ve seen them cross the front yard. There were lots of paths back there; the town was laid out like a horseshoe with the woods in the middle, so you could generally get places faster on the trails than on the streets.

Especially with those mountain bike things they had these days.

Hank took the pumpkin to his composter and dropped it in. The black plastic barrel stood at the edge of the woods, where it got plenty of sun from its southern exposure. He stared at the trees, thinking that they shouldn’t be shedding brown leaves when the days were so warm; but even though it felt like summer, the trees knew better.

He went to the trailhead that let onto his backyard. Snowmobiles emerged here in winter, roaring across his property at all hours; last year he’d had enough and put up a barrier to stop them. Perhaps a frustrated snowmobiler had left the pumpkins? Certainly they knew the trail network well enough to find their way to his yard.

Maybe he’d take a walk in the woods. The warm weather had to break soon, so he might as well enjoy himself and do a little exploring. He headed up the trail, swishing and crunching through the dry leaves. Pines provided flashes of green, but just about everything else was brown.

He came to a fork in the path. He went left, following a trail that used to skirt the apple orchard of a big farm. Most of the land had long since been sold off for cookie-cutter subdivisions, but a few of the old trees still stood, laden with yellow fruit getting ready to drop. Many times, old Farmer Ted and his dog had chased Hank and his friends away from those trees; now they stood forlorn, the apples available for the taking, but nobody was interested anymore.

He kept walking and left the orchard behind as the trail wound along the edge of a bog. He stopped at Miller’s Pond, his old summer swimming hole and winter hockey rink. It seemed to have shrunk, and someone had been dumping trash in what remained. He stood a while, remembering it as it used to be: sparkling water, verdant trees, shouts and splashes filling the air; or a slab of ice, enormous banks of hand-cleared snow, the clacking of sticks against pucks, the swish of skates.

But it was hard to ignore the stench of rotting garbage; besides, he had to get back and finish raking the leaves. He headed home, pausing for a side trip to the orchard. He took off his flannel shirt and filled it with apples. When he got home he dumped them into a box and brought them to the kitchen sink to wash them.

A jack-o’-lantern sat in the basin, with a big knife jammed into it, pinning a note that said, of course, YOU.

He pulled out the knife. It looked the same as the one he had put in his overalls. He reached into his pocket, but it was empty; the knife must’ve slipped out while he was walking, which meant his pumpkin-carving friend had followed him into the woods and found it on the trail. While Hank was picking apples, the guy had waltzed into his home and left him a present.

How long had he been away? Hank looked at his watch. Crap, he’d spent over four hours mooning around in the forest! He’d thought he’d been gone an hour or two at the most, which just showed what happened when you got thinking too much about the past.

Hank brought the pumpkin out back and tossed it into the composter.

Then he went inside and, for the first time in years, locked his house up tight.

====

When Hank woke up the next morning, there was a pumpkin sitting on his nightstand, glaring at him. The candle inside had burned all the way down to a waxy puddle; the room still stank of combustion. There was the knife, there was the note. YOU.

The windows were all locked; the doors were both bolted and chained. So how had the guy gotten in? More to the point, how had he gotten out?

Was he still in the house?

That unnerving thought prompted Hank to look in every room, every closet, the garage, the basement, the attic. He stuck his head into any space that could fit a body and a few that couldn’t, but found no one.

So who was leaving the pumpkins? A ghost?

Maybe it was time to call the police. They might consider the jack-o’-lanterns a prank, but breaking and entering was serious and the guy was getting bolder. Hank picked up the phone, but he didn’t dial the number. He knew what would happen: The cops would look at the locked doors and windows, they would look at his record, and they would laugh in his face. Besides, calling the police was exactly what old lady McGill would do, and he was not old lady McGill. So he threw on some clothes, took the jack-o’-lantern out to the composter, and tossed it in with the others.

And suddenly he had a brainstorm: He would fight pumpkins with pumpkins. He would go to the vegetable stand up the road and buy a truckload of the things and put them on every inch of his porch. And then the kids would know they were outclassed, or the ghosts would be dispelled, or the psycho would completely freak out, or whatever.

It would work. He knew it.

He just had to get it done before Halloween.

====

Hank walked up to the farm stand. Ellen Smith was putting bushels of late fall produce out below the canopy of the little office. She waved to him as he passed; he nodded and went to inspect the pumpkins. Before long her husband Carl appeared. “Morning, Hank,” he said. “You’re here early.”

Hank shrugged. “I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.”

Carl nodded, smiling faintly. No doubt he had already been awake for hours before Hank had cracked his eyes open. He watched in affable silence for a while, then said: “Buying more pumpkins, huh?”

Hank looked up. “More pumpkins?”

“You must be making a lot of pies. Most people who buy pumpkins just cut them up and put them on the porch. Not you, though. You got more appreciation for the vegetable than most folks.”

Hank stood. “How many pumpkins are we talking about?”

“Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Five or six. Don’t you remember?”

“I told you he looked a little glassy-eyed when he came by before,” Ellen said, stocking corn on a table nearby.

“Guess you had a few before you bought them pumpkins, huh, Hank?” Carl said, winking.

Hank said: “When was this?”

“Three or four days ago, I guess.”

“You’re sure it was me?”

“Yep.”

Pause.

Hank said: “You haven’t been leaving jack-o’-lanterns around my house, have you, Carl?”

“Why on earth would I do that, Hank? That don’t make sense.”

“I’ve been finding jack-o’-lanterns all over the place. With notes on them.”

Ellen said: “Notes?”

“Uh-huh. Stuck on with a knife.” Hank had saved the last one in his jeans pocket. He took it out and showed it to them. The knife hole went right through the middle of the O in YOU. “This one was right on my nightstand when I woke up this morning. House was locked up tight, too.”

Carl studied the note. “This sounds kind of serious, Hank. You talk to the cops about it?”

“They’d tell me it was just kids.”

“It’s a little demented to be kids.”

After a moment, Ellen said: “Maybe you’re leaving them for yourself.”

“What?”

“The pumpkins. Heck, you don’t remember buying them. Maybe you don’t remember carving them and sticking notes on them, either.” Pause. “Well, you said the house was locked. How else do you explain it?”

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Carl said. “You might want to lay off the sauce, Hank.”

“I ain’t had a drink since Marjorie died,” Hank snapped. “And I ain’t bought any pumpkins this year, either.”

“I’m pretty sure our boy dropped them off at your house,” Carl said, folding his arms. “I mean, since you don’t got a car and all.”

“You guys are flat wrong.”

“Suit yourself,” Carl said. “Come on, Ellen. Let’s finish setting up.”

As the two of them walked away, Ellen called back over her shoulder: “It was you! Check your pockets!”

====

Carl had said Hank bought the pumpkins three or four days ago, which would’ve been Saturday or Sunday. If he went to the store, he’d usually just stick the receipt in a shirt pocket and forget about it. So Hank searched all the shirts in the hamper, coming up with a few receipts, like from the grocery store and the gas station where he got his newspapers. Nothing from the farm stand, though. Nothing from any liquor stores, either, thank you very much. Then he went through the clean shirts hanging in the closet. Still nothing. Then he thought about the shirt he was wearing. Had it been hanging up, or had he pulled it out of the hamper? He couldn’t remember, so he stuck his hands in his pockets.

And found a receipt for six pumpkins.

Hank sat on the edge of his bed, looking at the receipt. Had he really walked all the way to the farm stand and bought the pumpkins? He didn’t remember doing it. Which meant maybe he also didn’t remember carving them up, writing notes on them, and leaving them for himself to find.

He took the knife from his nightstand, turned it over and over in his hands. Had he seen it before? Did it belong to him? Part of an old set, maybe?

He went to the basement and rummaged around until he found Marjorie’s old kitchen knives. They were still in the block, but several were missing, including the butcher knife; the handles on the remaining knives were identical to the one he’d brought from upstairs. He slid it into the big slot. It fit perfectly.

The other missing ones were paring knives. He was probably using those for carving the jack-o’-lanterns.

He slowly climbed the stairs, hardly aware of moving his feet. So … he was having blackouts, during which he was getting out his wife’s old knives and carving up pumpkins with them. What was wrong with him? Did he have some liquor hidden around the house? Did he have some kind of disease? Was he going crazy?

He didn’t see the jack-o’-lantern until he was almost on top of it.

This was the biggest one yet, with a gaping, leering face and a garish crimson candle that cast weird light down the stairs. The pumpkin sat on the kitchen floor; he was eye-level to it before he noticed it, and was so shocked he almost fell down the stairs. When he had recovered his balance, he picked the thing up and brought it to the counter. There was the note, as usual. He tore it off and ripped it to pieces, then yanked out the knife and started hacking at the orange flesh. Pulp and seeds flew as he attacked the jack-o’-lantern like a murderer mutilating his victim. By the time he regained control of himself, he had reduced the pumpkin to mush. Panting, he dropped the knife into the sink and staggered over to the kitchen table, slumping into a chair.

Tomorrow was Halloween.

He probably had a good trick cooked up for himself.

====

October 31. The kids started showing up around five, a stream of movie characters occasionally interrupted by the supernatural creatures—witches, ghosts, goblins—that Hank considered the only true Halloween costumes. As he doled out candy, he kept an eye on the clock, hoping to ward off any blackouts.

The parade of kids started to taper off around nine o’clock; after eleven, when there had been no more visitors for a while, Hank put the remaining treats into a kitchen cabinet and started shutting off lights.

The doorbell rang.

Damn it, he wanted to go to bed; he was exhausted. He grabbed a handful of candy and strode toward the front door. As he reached for the knob, the clock in the living room struck one.

One.

No wonder he was so tired. The last time he’d checked, only a few minutes ago, it had been around eleven-thirty; he’d lost over two hours. He opened the front door slowly, feeling a little quiver in his stomach. He was afraid, he realized: Afraid of himself, of what he’d done that he couldn’t remember.

The door swung wide. No one was there.

He stepped onto the porch and looked around. The streets were deserted, although he could hear voices shouting in the distance: older kids chasing each other with eggs and shaving cream or whatever it was they used these days. He went inside. As he bolted the door, the bell rang again, so it had to be coming from around back. He went to the kitchen, removed the chain from the door, and turned the knob. It felt icy cold in his hand, as if it had been buried in a snowbank. He stepped away as the door swung inward, the knob slipping from his fingers. It banged hard against the inside wall, but he hardly heard it.

Because Marjorie stood on the back step.

Her dress was soaked and frozen, clinging to her like a stiff wet rag. Bits of ice stuck to her hair and eyebrows; her trembling hands held the sixth pumpkin. Blood from a gash on her forehead sheeted down her face, dripping onto the jack-o’-lantern; bad as it looked, though, the blow hadn’t killed her. All it had done was knock her unconscious, which kept her from getting out of the car.
Hank, dead drunk, had managed to open his door and crawl up the steep embankment, where he collapsed on the shoulder. The folks who picked him up and took him to a gas station hadn’t realized there was a car half-submerged in the culvert. When Hank came to in the back of an ambulance, Marjorie had been trapped in the icy runoff for nearly an hour. By the time he managed to convey this to the paramedics, she was already dead.

He got off easy. More serious charges weren’t pursued and he ended up with probation.

Which had run out on Halloween.

Which wasn’t much of a penalty for killing his wife.

He wrenched himself back to the present. He had retreated all the way to the front door. Marjorie was coming slowly up the hallway, moving jerkily on her frozen limbs. Hank whirled and fumbled with the bolt, but he couldn’t seem to work it, as if his fingers had gone numb. As if, perhaps, they had been submerged in icy water for a long, long time.

He turned, pressing his back against the door. Marjorie was closing in. She held out the jack-o’-lantern, as if offering it to him; but this time, the note said ME.

Hank felt the temperature dropping. He began shivering; the more he trembled, the steadier Marjorie became, as if she were drinking in the warmth of his body. “M-M-Marge,” he said, stuttering, “I’m s-s-sor—”

Before he could get the words out, she raised the jack-o’-lantern up high and smashed it over his head.

====

Hank awakened on the hallway floor with a pain in his skull. He sat up and looked around. Dashed pumpkin fragments surrounded him, their dried tendrils gumming them to the runner like orange barnacles. The knife was there too, gleaming in the red light of dawn. He didn’t remember anything after the doorbell had started ringing last night. He rubbed his head and discovered that his hair was crusty with pumpkin pulp, and he found a nasty cut that had probably come from the knife.

What had he done?

He got unsteadily to his feet and tottered into the kitchen. The back door yawned open, letting in cool morning air. He slammed it shut and headed up to his bathroom. He felt tired and disjointed; he needed a shower to put himself right.

He switched on the bathroom vanity light. One of the bulbs popped, blinding him momentarily. As his vision swam back, he thought something was wrong with his reflection. When he could see clearly again and got a good look at himself, he started to scream.

In the mirror, Marjorie’s face screamed back at him.

====

When the police brought Hank out of the house, he was still screaming. Blood streamed from his fists, which he had used to smash every reflective surface in the house.

As they neared the patrol car, Hank caught a glimpse of himself in the mirrored window. Marjorie’s icy, angry face glared back at him. He tore free from the police and launched himself at the glass, beating on it with his fists until the cops pulled him down and sat on him in the grass. They rolled him onto his back. Their mouths moved like they were shouting at him, but he couldn’t hear them; and he couldn’t hear the sirens, or the murmuring voices of the neighbors who had gathered to watch.

The police were all wearing mirrored sunglasses.

And Marjorie screamed at him out of every shiny lens.

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4 Comments

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