6:30 A.M. June 10
The Public Trust.
Tiny drops glistened in his beard like amber sap on the frosty needles of an evergreen. “Black as night and sweet as sin,” Gary said, lifting another soggy hunk of pancake from a pool of syrup–a sticky wisp of maple sweetness following it all the way to his lips.
Fran poured the coffee and set the pitcher on the table. “Sugar and cream’s on the table, hon. Black and hot and that’s as far as my job description goes,” she said. “Last time I checked anyway,” she added, glancing back over her shoulder. “You’ll have to take it from here. Think you can handle it?”
Gary ripped the tops of three sugar packets and dumped them in. “Ah . . . perfect. Thanks Fran. People think I come here for the food. But you and I–we know better, don’t we?” He winked.
Fran rolled her eyes and turned back toward the kitchen. Gary tapped his spoon and looked up at the county sheriff across from him poking at a pile of greasy hash browns.
“Not hungry or what?”
The sheriff pushed a sausage link through the grease and from one side of his plate to another.
“Yeah, go ahead Gary. I can read your mind. Spit it out. My coffee’s gettin’ cold. Wipe your chin.”
“Shoulda had Fran warm it up while she was here.” He turned toward the kitchen, “Fran! Fran! You’re needed back here!” Then back to the sheriff, “That woman can warm me up any time.”
The sheriff looked up. “Anyway . . .”
“Anyway . . . How long we been havin’ Sunday breakfast together, Jim?”
“Long enough to call it a habit, I guess.”
“Little over ten years.”
“I never bring work to the table, Jim.”
“Nope. I know.”
“But this time . . .”
“No,” the Sheriff said. “Fran! Could we get a hot pitcher over here?”
A shout from the kitchen, “Whatcha got there is hot enough!”
“What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“There’s no evidence this was a serial kidnapping.”
“I’m going to run the story anyway, Jim.”
“Yep,” the sheriff said. “I figured you’d get around to it sooner or later.” He put his fork down and met the editor’s eyes. “I don’t think it’s right, though. If you ask me, which I know you’re not. I think it’ll just end up scarin’ a bunch-a-folks. I don’t have any answers yet.
“It’s all off the record at this table, Jim. Okay? You know that.”
He knew. “Yeah, ‘course I thought of it. But far as I know, killers don’t usually have the patience to wait one whole year between. Shit, though Gary. I’m just the son of a cranberry farmer. I ain’t no profiler.”
Gary said, “Four years now–first part of June. Ages ten to twelve. Not that many missing children reported in this county Jim. But when they are, it’s always June.
“Can’t argue with you. But that don’t make it the same guy. More kids turn up missing in June than in any other month. That’s a statistical fact. Look it up. There’s somethin’ about spring that jumps sickos’ motors.” The sheriff dropped his spoon into his empty coffee cup. “Fran!”
Somewhere deep in the belly of the kitchen, the waitress ignored him.
“There’s an ancient idiom chiefly describing the effects of slinging excrement into the blades of a motorized fan.”
“That story hits the press and shit’s gonna hit the fan, Gary. The phone. The whole thing. I wish you wouldn’t do it. I ain’t got the answers for this one. And I ain’t got the staff to handle all the calls either.”
“That’s not an idiom.”
“Well what is it then?”
“An urban slang phrase, I think is what you’d call it.”
“Whatever it is, it’s gonna make my job a living hell.”
“I know,” Gary said. “I know. And I’m sorry. Really.”
4:30 P.M. October 31
Giggles and Grief.
Alone this time, Mari stepped from a crisp afternoon sun and into the shadows of the haunted house. She hadn’t rounded the first corner before she felt it. A presence. She stopped–waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness–listening to the sound of her own heart . . . and something else, someone else. Behind her, a figure rose from the shadows, a bloody stump reaching for the back of her neck.
Mari turned. “Hi Mr. Hanson.”
The ghoul, who was also suffering severe head trauma, stepped closer.
“Who’s . . . (heavy breathing) . . .Mr. Hanson?” it growled–somewhat like Christian Bale in the Batman movies, thought Mari.
“Only you, silly,” she said. “What is that stuff on your head?”
An appendage popped from the gory stump as the undead fingered the hole in his head, probing a clump of glop hanging there like sap coagulating on a wounded pine.
“Mari!” said the flustered zombie. “How did you know I was back here? How did you know it was me?”
“Heard you breathing.”
“Huh. It’s syrup and brown sugar. . . and a little ketchup I think,” said the dejected spook. “Mrs. Johnson put it on.” He slunk back to his corner.
“Don’t worry Mr. Hanson; you’ll get the next kid. Maybe try holding your breath next time.”
“Whatever, Mari. Better move along now. Have fun.”
Mari turned, but she didn’t think she would. Nothing was much fun anymore. Not really. Not without Kelsey. Everything seemed to bring thoughts of her friend these days. Inseparable, last year they had walked this very PTA sponsored haunted house together–Mari jumping and screaming and Kelsey frustrating the spooks with her uncanny senses. Both of them giggling, shushing, and poking the other.
“Kelsey?” Mari had asked after stumbling down the exit ramp and back into the low autumn sun. “Didn’t any of that scare you? Even just a little?”
“Nope. Not really,” Kelsey had replied, tickling Mari in the ribs with the stump of her middle finger–a finger she had cut off as a toddler on an exercise bike chain. Blind kids have more accidents. “Want to get a caramel apple?”
“Sure, but why not? I mean, why weren’t you scared?” Mari said. “And stop poking me with that. I hate that.”
“I know,” Kelsey said, giggling. “That’s why I do it. What was the scariest thing for you?”
“The vampire, I think.”
“Would it have been as scary for you if the lights were on?”
“Well, no. Probably not.” Mari said. “Not as much anyway.”
“So think of it that way. I’m blind, stupid. Remember? The dark doesn’t scare me.”
“Oh, yeah. Forgot.”
“Again,” Kelsey said.
“Don’t be. That’s what I love about you. C’mon, lets get an apple. Then let’s check out the Pumpkin House. I love pumpkin guts–especially Old Man Drake’s. You know what they say.”
“Yeah,” Mari said. “He totally weirds me out.”
“I know,” said Kelsey. “Me to. Let’s go.”
Kelsey had been the coolest person Mari had ever known. It had been five months now, and sometimes she still couldn’t breath. The middle school counselor said that was normal. It was grief. Still, none of that made it hurt less. The counselor said that was normal too. It was grief.
Today, Mari stepped from the ramp and into the sharp sunlight alone. She squinted, blinking tear onto the matted grass at her feet. Mari thought she might find a caramel apple next.
5:30 P.M. October 31
The Pumpkin House
The Pumpkin house was the mutated brain-child of one Allen Franklin, master gardener. It wasn’t originally called the Pumpkin House either but Squash Alley. Allen thought it would be a nice way for local gardeners to show off their fall harvests. What better time than during the Halloween festival at the fairgrounds?
Kyle Drake changed all that with his first entry: a pumpkin the shape of a water-cooler jug. Since then, Drake had done nothing but improve. It was simple enough to do. Just stick a small, young squash into a mold and let it grow, filling up the space allowed it and whala! Richard Nixon. That explained the shapes.
The legend though, that was different. Nobody knew how the stories got started. Still, every year kids swore they knew someone who knew someone who found things while carving pumpkins they’d gotten from Old Man Drakes pumpkin patch. Disturbing things. Icky things.
Always, somebody’s cousin’s, neighbor’s, brother’s, friend found something—and they always swore it was true. Katie’s aunt’s cousin’s neighbor’s twelve year old niece found: a slimy piece of an ear, the upper half of a nose, the gristle of a thumb knuckle, a rotting eyeball–all buried within the stringy orange slime of a pumpkin . . . a pumpkin purchased from none other than the dubious Old Man Drake. True story. Swear to God.
Mari was thinking of this very legend when she stopped–her hand caressing the back of the Abe Lincoln’s head. She touched everything now–Kelsey had taught her to look with her fingers as well as see with her ears. And so Mari had learned that Kelsey was right. The haunted house wasn’t so scary when you could hear Mr. Hanson’s asthmatic lungs squeaking in the corner.
Five minutes later, Mari, out of breath herself now, found her mother and insisted on buying the Abe Lincoln pumpkin. It was ten dollars, but she absolutely had to have it. Her mother didn’t understand. Her mother couldn’t read braille.
6:30 P.M. November 2
The sheriff ate his breakfast quickly and asked for the check. He implored the editor to do the same.
“What’s the rush Jim? C’mon, what gives?”
“Might be nothing. Hurry up. You’re coming with me this morning.
“Check out a lead on those spring kidnappings.”
Gary stopped. “Okay, spill it.”
The sheriff said, “You know Mari Clausen?”
“Yeah, her parents own the drug store.”
“She brought in some evidence Halloween night. Said she pulled it from Drake’s garden. Said she read a message in braille on the outside of one of his Pumpkins.”
“What?” Gary said. “What did it say?”
“Not sure. Can’t read braille. Got an expert looking at it right now.”
“Alright, wise-ass–what does she say it says.”
“She says–you’re not gonna believe this–she says it’s a message written specifically for her. She says it says, ‘Mari, come find me under Drake’s Pumpkins.’”
“Shut! Up!” Gary said, incredulously.
“And why do you believe her. How did you ever get a warrant?”
“She brought in a decomposing human hand.”
“So makes you think its from our spring kidnappings?”
“It was missing a finger.”