(CW: Violence, gore, death)
Screams pierced the night behind the rusty gates of Willowbranch Acres. The large construction work lights lit the seasonal banner strung up from the porch sign at the entrance. The word Hallowbranch dripped in dark red on a burlap banner. Behind a corn stalk wall the lady checking tickets shouted, “Have fun, scream away. If anything happens, locate your closest stand!”
“It’s just this way,” Iris said after taking a glance at the corn maze map on her phone. The path they were on seemed to stretch onward, its end obscured by the dark. Pathway lights just barely lit the ground. The distant moonlight shined on everything else.
Fast pacing through the mowed path, Warren, with his long legs, kept up.
“There?” Warren pointed at a poorly lit sign Iris hadn't even noticed.
Hallowbranch wasn’t like Fear Farm in Arizona or Spooksvalley California with their haunted houses and terrifying characters in killer costumes. Hallowbranch was a local festival with activities, refreshments, live music, and the promise of a good time all through the night.
It was a little later. Beers had been acquired, and pints were being carried half empty in hand. Iris and Warren headed to their next destination, the pumpkin carving booth. Taking a left turn before the sign, they entered a square and immediately joined the line as festival goers selected their pumpkins from a wooden wagon before settling up by one of the tables in the middle.
“Are you by any chance…” Warren began, casting a slanted look down at Iris. “Pumpkin obsessed?”
“Don’t know what you're talking about.” Iris took a sip of her beer and turned to the festival goers as they carved their art into their pumpkins. She watched them with newfound wonder.
Warren shook his head and flicked a loose strand of her hair dyed the color of copper.
“You sure this doesn’t have anything to do with your obsession?”
“No,” Iris denied. “It was a spur of the moment thing.”
“Mmhmm, sure, sure.” He nodded concurring. They had met at a coffee shop they both frequented. They saw each other enough times that Iris went for it and talked to him. That had been a couple of months ago, and it wasn’t until two weeks ago that Iris stopped being a brunette.
Warren then winked. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“I’m serious,” she said. He acknowledged with a nod and a ghost of a smile.
Iris slapped his shoulder. “I didn’t dye it to match the damn pumpkins. I swear.”
He smiled, dark eyes twinkling with amusement. Iris decided to change the direction of the conversation, asking. “Have you ever carved pumpkins before?”
“I think I painted tiny ones just like these when I was a kid in art class.” Warren glanced around, wetting his lips before bending his head down closer to hers. Hushed, he admitted, “I used to smash them when I was a teenager.”
Iris snorted. “Rebellious. Were they rotting at least?”
“Eh,” Warren rubbed the back of his neck. “Some were…” He let his answer hang in the air. Some were not, she concluded.
“What about you?” He said, nudging her playfully. “Do I have competition? Do I need to worry about your pumpkin art being better than mine?”
“Oh no,” she said, hand to her heart. “You have nothing to worry about. My family isn’t into celebrating Halloween, so I’ve only done it once.” A long, long time ago. Were it not for an old photo somewhere in a picture book as proof, Iris would’ve passed it off as a dream.
“Years ago, when I visited my aunt. I created my Pumpkin King, and oh!” Iris smiled, reminiscing. “How much I loved him.”
“Pumpkin King,” Warren repeated with a mirthy laugh. “You named him and everything.”
Iris rolled her eyes. “I was like seven. Leave me alone.”
“I assume you were the Pumpkin Queen? Was there a coronation and everything? How was the wedding?”
Iris shook her head. “I was too young and obviously wasn't ready for marriage. I told him I’d marry him when I was older. Anyway, I returned home, like, two days later and never saw Pumpkin King off to his bitter end.”
Leaves behind them rustled, and speedily Iris stepped around Warren, turning face to face.
“Well,” he said, not thinking too much of it. “Now you can make Pumpkin King Jr. and promise your unborn child to him.”
“Maybe,” said Iris, distracted by movement in the stalks. He didn’t seem to mind. Straining her eyes on the space between the crops, she only saw darkness. So, she shrugged it off and moved to pick out her tiny pumpkin.
A folk-rock band performed inside the open barn. Their music was like the dead haunting a graveyard late at night. Its loud melody reached across the farm. The porta-potty door creaked open, and Iris stepped with her head bent and arm deep in her coffin-shaped tote bag.
“Lose something?” Warren questioned, guiding her to the barn with a hand on her back.
Iris continued to rummage through her belongings. “You gave me your pumpkin, right?”
Warren’s brows knit. “Er, yeah. Why?.”
“I can't find it. I can’t even find mine.”
“What do you mean?”
Growing frustrated, Iris shook her bag as if the pumpkins would jump out from under all the other contents.
“It’s not here,” Iris moaned.
“Maybe they fell. . . or we left them back–”
“No, we took them. I placed them in here.”
Warren didn’t look too worried while an uneasy feeling settled in Iris' stomach. Had she been so careless and lost them? She needed to start paying more attention.
“They’re just pumpkins, Iris. It’s okay.”
It wasn't. She wanted her little pumpkin. They carved them so cute! Warren etched a cat face onto his, and sure, Iris might have forgotten the nose on hers and made the mouth a little too wide and the teeth too jagged, but they made them together. They were a reminder of their time at Hallowbranch. Even if they eventually spoiled, a decent picture would have been nice.
“Don't frown,” Warren said, sliding his hand around her torso. “How about this? We can either see the band up close for a bit and then retrace our steps to look for them, or we can do it the other way around. You tell me.”
She thought about it. Not noticing, they stopped by the skirts of the cornfield with some way to go till the barn.
The band on stage now was a duo. They sang low with disheartened voices, filling the late night with a gloomy air. It had become darker and chillier. Murky clouds blended with the sullen sky, hiding away the main source of light. The air moistened by the hour, and a light fog roamed on the ground, drifting down rolling hills beyond the farmland.
Iris turned to Warren, the answer on the tip of her tongue, when the stalks behind him rustled. The maze wall seized her attention. Squinting to peek through the leaves, Iris saw nothing but pitch black. An orange light flashed by. Obscured by the dense corn stalk, she didn’t catch a glimpse of it again.
“What?” Warren mimicked her, squinting in the general direction Iris stared at. “What are we looking at?”
“I thought I saw something. It could’ve just been my imagina–”
Whispers and giggles came from the dark within. Innocent, childlike.
“Did you hear that?” Iris breathed out, eyes widening.
“I keep hearing shit from inside there.” Pointing a finger to the foliage, Iris exhaled a heavy sigh. “And I thought I saw something.”
Warren hummed a curious huh.
“How about,” he started. Iris felt his hand push her by the hips. “We go in and…”
Her protest went through deaf ears as Warren nudged her off the mowed path. Iris planted her heels on the ground. Warren chuckled, arms hugging her stomach. He lifted her up and carried her forward.
“And check it out,” he finished saying, putting her down.
Iris shook her head against Warren’s chest, not wanting to stray away from the festival's lit paths.
Among the thick corn stalks, their vision was filled by plants enclosing them. Crops crammed every inch of the pasture. The air was scarcely breathable in there. Such denseness made it taste like sand and stale dust.
Warren kept walking further, one step at a time. He pushed aside stalks for them to trudge forth until the music left behind became a distant murmur. The crickets sang right next to their ears.
“It might've been staff members working, fooling around maybe,” he whispered in Iris’ ear. His breaths blew heat on her already hot neck. “Or it could’ve been other folks messing around in the dark.”
To their left, corn stalks pull apart.
They didn’t see anything until they dropped their gaze lower to the ground. Illuminated by foul-smelling rotten pumpkin pails with candles shimmering inside were two small bodies standing side by side in tattered burlap jumpsuits. Both wearing jack-o-lantern masks.
Iris gasped as Warren spouted out “Fuck” in surprised.
“What are you doing here?”
The kids didn’t answer. Their jack-o-lantern masks covered their eyes with a hollow black, pitless and empty.
“Wh-where are your parents?” Iris asked with a slight tremble in her voice. The eerie sight of them unnerved her. Anxiety burned at her stomach. An uncontrollable shiver made its way up her shoulders, and she had to shake them off.
Warren held her with a firm grip.
“Well?” Warren asked.
Iris never liked kids. They said weird shit and did shady stuff with no sane reason to back them up. One couldn’t hold them accountable, but Jesus H. These ones sure knew how to pick the perfect setting to fuck around.
They tilted their heads in unison.
It was their masks that filled the pit of Iris' stomach with an icky sense of revulsion. One had round dents for eyes, and its carved filed-down teeth were uneven. The mouth cavity stretched to the sides of the pumpkin. The other had triangle eyes and a smaller nose to match and a pair of fangs in its wide mouth.
Moving her gaze from them, Iris turned to Warren, and the pumpkin masks lit ablaze.
“What the hell,” Warren spurted out. His words meshed in a rapid-fire burst. He took a step back.
“A promise was made and never fulfilled,” one of the pumpkin-headed creatures said, voice little and wispy. It boomed in the night, nonetheless, resounding over the crickets.
At Warren’s retreat, they had turned their bodies to Iris.
“What?” Iris' heartbeat in her throat. “Warren, we should go.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw something swing down quickly before it thudded against something hard. Warren cried a hurt yell and fell to the ground, toppling her over. Iris scrambled to turn on her back. Through the dry roots of the stalks, she caught glimpses of a tall rawboned man donning a jack-o-lantern mask. Orange fire flickered from its carved holes. The long staff in his hands lifted and dropped with violent force. It whacked Warren’s head, the sound ricocheting on the ground. Warren’s grunt was meek. He tried to stand up, only to be hit again, his body bouncing off the ground from the blunt force. Without a beat, the man quickly raised and swung the stick again. This time, Warren’s head made a deafening wet crack, rupturing the dark. No noise followed it. Only an empty solitude.
Iris felt her pant leg soak up something warm, her shoe sliding on a puddle. The pungent metallic sourness of blood clouded her senses. Consumed by it, Iris couldn’t scream or yell. Her heart beat fast, thumping in her chest, stomach, and head. Numb at the limbs, she forced herself to get up when she heard dry leaves crunch beside her.
She took off running and pushing through the corn stalks. The realization that she no longer felt the weight of her bag on her shoulder caused her to trip on the roots prodding from the soil. She continued to trip every few steps. It took her longer to get out than it took to get in. When she finally burst out of the field, fog had risen from the ground and veiled the path. Making a wild guess, Iris dashed to the right, eyes frantically scouting for any soul to cross. A staff member, someone with a phone, anyone that could help.
Going around another sharp corner, she entered a square. Mounted in the middle was a scarecrow.
Hoping it was a cast member, Iris cried, “Help!”
The scarecrow stayed motionless as she approached.
“My friend got hurt. Somebody hurt him. Please! There were these pumpkin people. One was tall, and they–” A sob caught in her throat. Iris glanced around. With the fog and the onslaught of tears, she couldn’t discern much of the soundings. Distraught, Iris gripped the roots of her hair and wailed, “I-I-I don’t know! They hit him on the head. Call for help. Call security. Call someone!”
The scarecrow hadn’t moved at all. Iris nudged its leg and pushed, but it hung lifeless. Screaming, Iris shoved the scarecrow. It fell to the ground with a quiet thud. Its hat fell, and the severed head rolled away. It rolled once, twice, three times before rocking to a complete stop. Upside down, the jack-o-lantern head lit and began cackling.
Its laughter was taunting when it spoke with mirth. “Hello, you.”
Rustling came from within the field.
Slender fingers combed through Iris' hair and yanked it up. The grip was so tight, Iris screamed, eyes shut in pain. The rawboned man that attacked Warren loomed over her. What looked like wooden limbs creaked when he turned and began walking into the cornfield again, dragging a kicking and screaming Iris along.
Eventually, they came to an open area, leaving the cornfield behind. They neared a woodsy area with naked trees and a carpet of discolored leaves. Jack-o-lanterns of various sizes and shapes were strewn about. Some were packed on the ground, and others hung from branches, all glowing faintly. Dim enough to shroud what lay between the trees but sufficient enough to light what imposed just ahead. A mighty jack-o-lantern sat by the base of a large tree. Thick branches curled around it as if holding it in place. Tall and wide, it posed like a dark cave, not a speck of light inside.
The rawboned man dragged Iris before it, her hair still in his clutches.
The mammoth jack-o-lantern awakened with an orange radiance kindling from inside. Flames crackled loud, the fire's warmth caressed her skin. Iris bore witness as the jack-o-lantern’s mouth widened by itself. And from the fire came out another pumpkin-headed person. This one tall with a flesh made from a smoother wood. It was meatier, not lithe or stick-like. The herculean body was more like that of a man. Branches seemingly sprouted from his body. On top of his pumpkin head, the stem curled up toward the starless sky. Its face was the ugliest thing. The pumpkin head was bigger, shaped more like a structured face. When he opened his mouth, he revealed crooked fangs, too many to be of any human genetic.
He laughed deep and hollow.
“What the hell are you?” Iris asked, tears clouding her sight, wetting her cheeks.
“You don’t remember me?” The he-thing tilted his head. “You made me a promise once, long ago. You don’t remember?”
Iris squeezed her eyes shut.
A spark went off in her mind. But he looked so different... His carved face was not like the one she had carved when she was little. This one was twisted and menacing. But in her gut, she knew. No matter how otherworldly it was, how impossible, she knew this jack-o-lantern-headed creature.
“You’re the Pumpkin King,” said Iris.
The Pumpkin King nodded, stalking toward her. In his hands, equally long-limbed as the rest of him, he carried a pumpkin, seemingly the size of a soccer ball.
“And you, my bride, finally,” The Pumpkin King said, holding the pumpkin above her head. Glancing up at the hovering pumpkin, she noticed it had a carved-out hole on the bottom and was hollow on the inside.
“My wife, your head,” the Pumpkin King declared. “My queen, your crown.”
With the pumpkin right in line with the crown of her head, the Pumpkin King began to lower it.
“No, no, no!” Iris shook from head to toe. “Wait!” She yelled, fearful for what could come next. She was able to scream before the pumpkin engulfed her head, masking her vision with darkness before her head filled with a searing pain.