Children's Fiction, Middle Grade Fiction, Short Story Middle Grade

FICTION: Pumpkin Jack by Nigel Quinlan

They picked me to race Pumpkin Jack on Halloween night. It shouldn’t have been me. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. They picked my big brother last year. Joe went out and he raced Pumpkin Jack while we sat in our house, huddled together and crying, listening to the screams from the street outside. It should have been some other kid from some other family this year. Not us. Not me.

They say they choose by drawing names at random from a hat, but I’m not so sure. I think it’s because Mum and Dad think the Council should stop picking kids to race Pumpkin Jack every year. They think it’s crazy and awful. The Council say if a kid doesn’t race Pumpkin Jack on Halloween night then Pumpkin Jack will kill us all, and anyone who says otherwise is irresponsible and dangerous. So they picked my brother, and then they picked me.

It was dark when they led me out to the field at the top of the village. A cold wind was blowing, making the flames of their torches roar. The smoke stung my eyes. Branches creaked and leaves rustled. The world seemed full of things moving and creeping around me.

The men and women of the Council wore dark robes that I would have laughed at in the light of day. Walking along the dark, cold windswept road, those ordinary people I’d known most of my life, friends and neighbours I’d seen on the street every day, now seemed strange and sinister and pitiless.

At the pumpkin field they planted the torches in a circle and raised their arms and started to chant. I stood on the outside and watched, and waited, helpless and shivering in the bitter cold. I was supposed to race, but my muscles were frozen and stiff. I should jog and stretch and warm myself up, but what was the point? I was going to die. Pumpkins3Pumpkin Jack was going to kill me, and if he didn’t he’d kill everyone on the village. I was the sacrifice to keep Pumpkin Jack happy, just as my brother had been before me, just as others had been before him, going back years and years and years, to the night when a boy named Jack had been murdered for stealing a pumpkin, and who came back a year later looking for revenge.

The Council chanted and sang and swayed. I didn’t understand. The story was that Pumpkin Jack crawled out of of his grave every year, but this looked more like a summoning. Why would the council summon Pumpkin Jack? This was wrong. It didn’t make sense.

I didn’t have time to think about it. The singing stopped. The Council dropped their arms and melted back into the darkness, leaving the ring of burning torches in the middle of the field, and me, the runner.

The wind blew. Dead leaves swirled. Flames danced and the smoke made my throat raw and sore. All around me the pumpkins lay waiting. At the centre of the circle the earth began to move. Long narrow fingers thrust like knives out of the ground. Two narrow arms, thin and knobby and twisted, dressed in fluttering filthy rags. A headless body and long thin legs like gnarled sticks with creaking knees, it climbed out of the earth like a giant spider and lurched blindly, hands groping, until it found a pumpkin and lifted it up and impaled it on its neck, twisting it twice to secure it there. The surface of the pumpkin burned and two round eyes and a nose and a cruel, jagged grin appeared, all lit up from the inside with a horrible glowing light. He looked at me, and tilted his head slightly as if waiting for me to begin. I nearly fainted with terror.

Oh, yeah. Run.

If I didn’t run, if I didn’t race him, leading through the village and out into the darkness at the other side, he would kill every single person there. I hated the village now, for making me do this. But my Mum and my Dad were there. I couldn’t let Pumpkin Jack have them. So I ran.

He came after me, head glowing, feet clicking on the road, rags flapping. I could see the lights of the village, waiting for me to lead Pumpkin Jack safely through and away. My life was now reduced to the time it would take to run along that tiny street and past those little houses and out the other side. Then Pumpkin Jack would get me.

I couldn’t think about how unfair and wrong this was. I could only run, the cold wind at my back pushing me on.

I expected the street to be empty, the people huddling inside. That’s what you were supposed to do. That’s what they told you to do. Lock your doors, draw your curtains, don’t look out, not even a peep. Block your ears. Hide, trembling with fear, because if Pumpkin Jack caught the runner too soon, it would be death for all of us.

But the street was lined with people, and they were watching eagerly as I stumbled into the pool of light cast but the first streetlight. Some were the village Council, their hoods thrown back. Most of them were strangers, men and women I’d never seen before. What was going on? Bewildered, I slowed down. Fireworks exploded above me in glares of green and red and yellow.

The people started to shout at me, to yell and cheer and clap. I spun around. I saw them laugh and point. I saw them shake their fists angrily and scream at me to run. I saw them hold wads of money, and pass them to each other. Betting. They were betting on me. On Pumpkin Jack.

Pumpkin Jack. He came lurching out of the darkness, grinning, eyes burning, reaching for me. I screamed, and ran. The crowd howled.

This wasn’t a sacrifice. This wasn’t about saving the village. This was a sport. The Council raised Pumpkin Jack and picked a runner all for the entertainment of these monsters. My brother. All those other boys and girls.

Murderers.pumkins2

I ran faster than ever, pumping my arms, my legs striking the ground so hard it sent sharp jabs of pain up through my knees. If I was going to die, I wasn’t going to do it in front of them. Pumpkin Jack’s feet clicked on the road behind me. I could feel the heat from the fire burning in his head on the back of my neck, feel his bony fingers reaching for me, clutching at me like living blades.

I ducked, and heard the air whistle as his fingers cut through the space where my head had been a moment before. I veered across the road, dodging and diving. He was right on top of me, slashing and stabbing, playing with me, waiting for me to stumble and fall. It was as if we were dancing together, Pumpkin Jack grinning, the crowd yelling, and me breathing hard, bleeding from the cuts where his claws had cut me.

I gathered my strength and crouched, and in a burst of speed sprinted away, down the street, towards the darkness at the far end of the village. Half the crowd groaned with disappointment, half cheered, and they began swapping money as the night closed around me. Pumpkin Jack was still on my heels, but I wasn’t scared any more. I was angry. I was raging.

I didn’t really think about it, I just picked up the brick that was lying on the side of the road. It must have fallen out of a lorry or a trailer full of builder’s rubbish. It had been  there a week, and I’d noticed it and wondered if I’d be brave enough to pick it up and use it, if I made it that far.

Well I had made it this far, and maybe I wasn’t brave but I was furious. I held the brick up and turned and flung myself at Pumpkin Jack, swinging the brick as hard as I could. I think I took him by surprise. The brick smashed into his forehead. A huge chunk of pumpkin fell off. The brick was lodged there and wouldn’t come out. Pumpkin Jack’s hands closed around my throat and squeezed. The ghastly light flickered in his one remaining eye. I could see something change, as if I’d knocked something loose.

Inside the pumpkin head there was a face. A ghost-face, white and transparent like fog on a windowpane.

Joe. My big brother. I said his name. The hands around my throat loosened and I dropped to my knees. Pumpkin Jack stood over me, uncertain.

There was no Pumpkin Jack. It was always the runner from the previous year, resurrected and set to chase a new runner. It was horrible. It had to stop.

We snuck around the village where the people were partying on the street, drinking and dancing and laughing while all the good people hid in their houses. At the pumpkin field the torches had almost burned out, leaving only sparks and embers and thin trickles of smoke. It was enough. Pumpkin Jack raised his arms. Out of the ground came more thin bodies covered in rags with fingers like knives. All the Pumpkin Jacks. All the runners. We picked up the pumpkins and placed them on our necks and our grinning faces burned through.

We turned, and my brother and I led them back to the village, feet clicking on the road, flexing our fingers, grinning our grins, a terrible light burning in our heads, ready to join the Halloween party for one last big race through the street with Pumpkin Jack.

End

Nigel Quinlan

Nigel Quinlan

Nigel Quinlan is an Irish writer born in Limerick in 1970. He has worked in libraries and bookshops all over Ireland before washing up in the midlands village of Cloughjordan with his wife and his two children. He writes stories for local festivals and acts with the local drama group. His first novel, THE MALONEYS’ MAGICAL WEATHERBOX is a middle grade fantasy based on a short story he wrote as a teenager while minding his parents’ petrol pumps.

Find Nigel’s website here

You can also read our review of The Cloak of Feathers here.

You can also read Nigel’s other short story on STORGY Kids ‘Mushephant’ here.

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