a short story by David G Shrock
Susan studied her father’s slumped posture, his trancelike eyes staring at the newspaper piled with orange fibrous mush, and the knife. His hand clenched the handle so tight that she could see the blue veins rising on his wrist. She had never seen him like this before.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Dad,” said Susan. Tearing her gaze from her father, she looked down at the newspaper. In the corner, a pile of pumpkin seeds waited for roasting. Two chunks of pumpkin rested on an advertisement for a sporting goods store. The triangular shapes appeared like they might be eyes. “Where’s the pumpkin?”
“Jack ran away.”
A crash sent Susan hopping, her head spinning. She looked across the kitchen at the corner leading into the living room. From the other room came the sound of feet crunching over glass. Scrambling, she slipped across the tile onto the carpet with her father’s steps pounding behind. Rounding the corner, she screeched to a halt in the center of the room.
Behind the sofa, on the window sill, an orange pumpkin sat among shattered glass. Half of the window remained, jagged shards reflecting the lamplight against the grey outdoors. The pumpkin swiveled, bearing his jagged teeth and revealing his burning triangle eyes. The toothy grin moved.
Hearing the deep mumbling voice, Susan froze. Jack muttered an unintelligible chant, and his eyes raged with hate. And Jack was not alone.
Alice, her rag doll, held the round gourd in her arms. Susan recognized the same flat expression, the black button eyes over the narrow red mouth. The doll appeared no different, but walked on her own holding Jack in her arms, bouncing him across the window sill in a horrid dance. Jack made a guttural sound, nearly coughing, but laughing. Susan felt certain that the pumpkin laughed at her.
Knife waving, her father raced across the room lunging over the sofa. Hefting Jack, Alice dove outside clomping onto the porch.
Susan chased after throwing the front door open and stormed onto the porch. Hearing a commotion on the drive, she ran around the corner finding her brother sitting on the cement. Following the gaze, she spotted the pumpkin and her doll riding a skateboard. In Alice’s grasp, Jack leaned hard. Wheels howled as the skateboard bounded onto the street. Throwing a foot down, Alice pushed the board faster disappearing beyond the fence.
“Nathan,” said Susan, “get off your bum and help me.”
“That pumpkin,” said Nathan. Shaking his head, he climbed to his feet. “And your doll stole my skateboard!”
They ran. At the end of the drive, Susan spotted a car approaching. Screeching to a halt, she threw an arm out holding Nathan back. The two watched the car rumble by with Mr. Gardner behind the wheel. The old man smiled and raised a hand to the window.
After the sedan passed, Susan searched the street. Spotting the runaway pumpkin and her betraying doll speeding away, she tugged on Nathan’s arm. Together they sprinted by Mr. Gardner’s house and passed the corner coffee shop. Waiting for the crossing light, she searched for Jack but found only cars moving along the street.
“Jack couldn’t have gone that way,” said Susan. Traffic was too heavy for a speeding pumpkin on this end of Couch Street.
Nathan pointed down the quiet cross street. “Over there!”
The signal flashed an orange hand, but they checked for traffic and ran across leaping onto the sidewalk. Speeding around Mr. Thatcher, Nathan leaped over the waving cane.
Mr. Thatcher swayed sideways leaning on his cane. “Careful of the traffic,” he said.
“I’ve a pumpkin to catch,” said Susan.
Following Nathan, Susan ran into Tom’s Toys and squealed across the polished floor to a stop. Lining the shelves, stuffed toys stared back. Action figures stood trapped in their plastic shells dangling from hooks. Toy cars lined the top shelf.
Behind the counter, a teenage boy dressed in a red Tom’s Toys apron stood frozen. Jaw unhinging, he tried to speak but said nothing.
Spotting a trail of open plastic packages on the floor, Susan tugged Nathan into an aisle. Stepping over a cardboard box, she spotted several green army men laying on the floor. She found more plastic soldiers inside a ripped plastic bag. A toy red caboose sat on its side beside empty boxes. At the end of the aisle, an action figure stood on the floor, its plastic gun pointed at them.
Nathan glanced at the action figure and looked at Susan. Shrugging, she returned the bewildered expression. Stepping over the action figure, they crept into the back hall finding more empty packages strewn across the floor. Pushing the door open, they entered the storage room.
On the shelves, slumped cardboard boxes spilled plastic packages. Toys littered the floor, some in packages and others laying broken or crushed.
Kicking through the toys and packages, the siblings made their way to the back. Susan shook her head at the destruction of perfectly good toys. Glancing back, Nathan put his finger over his lips. Susan spotted the back door open a crack, and stood still.
A swishing sound breezed by the opening. Shoes clomped outside. And mumbling. Susan heard a deep voice sounding like Jack. Arms stretched out to the sides, Nathan carefully stepped over a smashed package. He reached out for the door, and Susan held her breath.
Pushing the door slowly, Nathan looked outside. He took a step and peered around the back of the door. “Excuse me,” he said.
Susan released her breath. Leaping over a package, she joined her brother at the door finding a small parking lot between shops. Behind the door, a tall man wearing a raincoat and hat peered into the back of a delivery truck.
“Sir,” said Nathan, “have you seen a pumpkin?”
The delivery man kept his back to them, mumbling and struggling with something in the back of the truck. Peering inside, Susan noticed the truck was empty. The man waved his arms about grasping at nothing. Something wriggled beneath the raincoat making a clattering sound.
Nathan stepped closer. “Sir?”
Spinning around, the man swung a baseball bat. Nathan ducked, and Susan leaped back. The bat clanged against the side of the building. Susan gazed at their attacker, her eyes growing wide.
Within the open raincoat, toys wriggled about crawling up and down the legs. Green army men marched in rows winding in and out of a skeleton made of plush animals, toy cars, and blocks. Action figures held frisbee knees in place attached to batons for lower legs and toy train cars forming upper legs. The soldiers crawled in and around the pelvis of numbered wood blocks and up into a torso of dolls held together by a ribcage of action figures. At the end of the sleeve, colorful building blocks gripped the bat.
Sitting atop the shoulders, Alice held Jack in her arms turning the gourd so his burning triangle eyes peered down at Susan. Jack made a guttural sound turning into a rumbling laugh. Susan peered up at her doll, pleading. Alice stared back with her button eyes.
Watching the green army men wriggling over the skeleton disappearing into the sleeve, Susan realized that Jack commanded the toys. Jack chanted in a strange language, and the toys obeyed raising the bat. The clumsy beast ratcheted the weapon higher.
Leaping up, Nathan snatched the bat away sending a spray of building blocks and army men flying against the wall. Twisting around, the beast took two clumsy steps, its feet of toy cars clanging on the asphalt, and stepped onto the skateboard.
Susan chased after, and Nathan fell in behind. At the far end of the parking lot, traffic rumbled on Couch Street. Spotting the skateboard veering away from the road towards a loading dock, she waved at her brother. “The road,” she said. “Force Jack to Couch Street.”
Nathan sprinted cutting off the skateboard, and Jack leaned the other way sending the skateboard rumbling back towards the road. Susan ran wide to block the other escape. Jack leaned hard spilling toys, but the skateboard headed straight for the road and bounced off the curb.
Tires screeched, horns blared, and a car smashed into the beast turning it into a shower of toys, the raincoat fluttering over a car and onto the road. Another set of screeching tires smashed the coat.
Reaching the street, Susan looked around at seven cars stopped at crazy angles. Drivers popped out, their worried faces taking in the toys strewn across the road. Chunks of pumpkin was all that was left of Runaway Jack.
Following orange streaks, Susan pushed her way through a circle of confused drivers. Spotting Alice sitting against the curb, she leaped over plastic army men and snatched the doll.
Alice flopped in her arms, and the button eyes offered nothing. Without the magic chanted by Jack, Alice was a normal doll again. Squeezing Alice close, Susan looked around spotting Nathan carrying his skateboard.
“What now?” Nathan said.
“Back to the patch,” said Susan. “We need a new pumpkin.”
“Okay, but how about I pick one out this time.”
“Not a chance.” Susan laughed. “But this time we’ll skip the carving. I don’t think Dad will go near another pumpkin.”