Out in the courtyard, out among the lawn furniture and uncomfortable cement benches, surrounded by the greenery of the Pampas grass and elephant ears, stood Alex “Parky” Parkinson, Brightest Lantern’s best security guard. Always in a freshly-cleaned uniform, never without a smile. Always quick with an encouraging word to the residents, never showing anger. Always doing his duty with purpose and drive, never living down to the hired-security stereotype.
But tonight, standing stiffly in the harsh glare of the motion lights, Parky didn’t have a smile, or any kind of expression at all. Parky didn’t even move.
Somewhere, Parky had picked up a…passenger.
The pumpkin, twice as big as his head, perched on his shoulder with perfect balance. It was a jack-o-lantern, but its eyes and mouth didn’t look like they’d been carved from the gourd so much as they’d fissured in its surface like cracks in a calloused heel. Weak yellow light shone from those features steadily, without the flicker of a candle.
From the bottom of the pumpkin, vines had sprouted by the dozens, vines that had twisted and coiled all over Parky’s body: thick ropes around his chest, helices tightly spiraling down the length of his polyester-clad arms and legs, and a viciously snug collar around his neck.
Parky’s eyes may have been blank and his expression null, but the jack-o-lantern was eyeing Abby and the others, that was certain. Eyeing them with wicked intelligence and malign intent.
As she beheld all this, Abby thought of dark figures carrying lanterns at shoulder-height, and lights in the shape of eyes & mouth smeared against frosted glass, and the fact that despite all the hard work others had put into the victory garden, there didn’t seem to be any pumpkins on the ground anymore. She tried not to think of these things, because thinking of them made dots connect in her mind, and as those dots connected and made awful shapes, and as those shapes were filled in with ghastly colors, she feared dropping to her knees and never, ever stopping puking.
The jack-o-lantern shifted, just a hair, and Parky’s left leg jutted out before him, clumping down and pulling the rest of his body along. Too crude to be called a step, but it brought the Parky-thing closer to the open courtyard door all the same. Parky’s eyes were still dead as a beached jellyfish.
Always under the control of the thing wrapped around him, never to return.
Abby snapped her head to look at Claude, who stood there, mouth open, still holding the door ajar. Fleur had backed to the far wall, fists pressed against her eyes, mouth in a painful grimace.
“Close it,” Abby said. “Close it.”
“Yeah,” Claude said. “Close it, yeah.” But he stayed frozen.
The Parky-thing took another vine-yanked step that moved it closer still…but it wasn’t enough movement to maintain the motion lights.
The courtyard plunged into darkness again. This time, with the door open and the emergency lights not reflecting against its glass, Abby could see the glow of the jack-o-lantern’s face out there in the night.
“Close it,” Abby said. “Claude, close the damn door.”
Parky-n-Pal got a little closer, and Abby could hear something: a buzz, like rapidly-whispered words.
It’s making him walk. Is it trying to make him say, “Hi! Can you help me? My car broke down,” too?
With a burst of breath almost like a sob, Claude slammed the door shut at last, blinking and shaking his head. Fleur uncovered her eyes with a gasp, gaze whipping back and forth between Abby and Claude.
Claude stayed where he was, arm tensed against the latch. “Y’all need to go,” he said.
“We need to go?” Abby asked.
“I told you this door was broken,” he said, voice as tense as the rest of him. “That…that whatever-the-hell is learning how to walk. Learning how to open a door isn’t that much harder.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Fleur said, and stepped close to Claude.
“All right,” Abby said. “You two stay here and I’ll –”
“No!” Fleur cried, eyes wide. “I don’t want you to go, either. We said we wouldn’t split up. We promised!”
Abby took a deep breath. This girl, this mental, shattered girl was two, maybe three years older than the kids Abby taught…had taught. How do you explain rational action to someone who’s scared out of her wits and filled to the brim with teenage hormones?
“Fleur,” she said, putting a hand on the girl’s arm, feeling her skin-and-bone frame through the Hello Kitty sleep-shirt, “somebody has to do something. Do you understand? Gerard could be in danger; him, or one of the staff.” Fleur had her eyes screwed shut, and Abby thought the girl was seconds away from clapping her hands over her ears. “I don’t know what’s going on tonight,” Abby continued. “I don’t understand it at all. But I know it’s not something I want to let continue while I hang out here and do nothing. It’s something I don’t want to…to spread.”
Without another word, Abby broke away and ran down the corridor. If there was one thing she knew about dealing with kids of any age, it’s that she could only do it for so long. Miss Abby: Teacher of the Decade.
Fleur’s wail followed her as Abby reached the end of the hallway and rounded the corner.
Abby tried to think logically, even as logic, tonight, was sitting in a corner hugging its knees and soiling itself. From here, she could keep going straight to the cafeteria or take the next right to the hallway with Gerard’s room. Dove and/or Gladys could have barricaded themselves in the cafeteria, so she decided to check that first.
Besides, if a pumpkin pounced Gerard, that could only be considered a mercy…if one were truly thinking logically.
The double-doors of the cafeteria swung open easily at the push of Abby’s palm, and she throttled her sprint to a slow walk as she entered. The emergency lighting was sparser in here, and the half-moon made the skylight next to useless. Long, modular tables stretched off into the dark, and the various dispenser machines — ice cream, coffee, juice — lined the walls like medieval torture devices.
Abby walked with soft steps to the closest table, placed her hands flat on its cool mica top, and peered into the dark as best she could, not wanting to call out, wondering if coming in here had been a mistake after all.
The person that grabbed her from behind had snuck up with even softer steps.
Hiding. Hiding and waiting for me, and I didn’t look at the corners closest to the door, Abby thought, even as she yelled and drove an elbow back into the grabber’s gut. They let go, but didn’t grunt, didn’t curse, didn’t make the slightest sound other than the light, sibilant chatter they’d been making all along, masked by the big cafeteria’s room tone.
Abby turned, table edge pressing into her butt, to see Gladys, the cafeteria manager’s face illuminated in yellow by the jack-o-lantern on her shoulder.
And this time, the lantern was close enough Abby could make out the quick, rushed whispers spilling from its cracked mouth:
“So old. So stupid. So useless. No wonder your grandkids never want to visit.”
In that nauseous yellow light, Abby saw a tear trickle down Gladys’s cheek.
Today’s Words: 1235
Total Words: 4835
Notes: Sleepy again. I should maybe write these notes before I wear myself out writing a segment of the novel…!