Abby paused, holding Claude’s eye a second longer. “And you’re sure about that?”
“Of course,” he said, but broke eye contact first. “…Why wouldn’t I be sure?”
Abby looked at him for a beat, then turned to the others. “Okay. To get the van, we need the keys. And the big problem is…” and she pointed at the empty hookboard next to the filing cabinets, “Parky always takes his keys with him when he makes his rounds. So, my best estimate: inside, three loose pumpkins, plus Parky and Gladys. Outside, three other possessed people. We’ve got to find Parky, kill his pumpkin –”
“Traumatizing him,” Gerard added helpfully.
“– and get the keys,” Abby finished, with a glare at Gerard, who pretended to study a crack in the ceiling. “I don’t want to split us up again, but anyone who doesn’t want to go hunting should stay here.” No one spoke up. “Okay, then. Time to get us some keys.”
The corridor was empty and quiet as Abby pushed the door open, and the four residents crept out into the red-tinted gloom.
“When are the lights coming back on?” Fleur wondered.
“As soon as someone figures out what caused the blackout,” Gerard whispered back. “The town’s dark, too, right?”
Abby nodded, somehow having found herself leading the group. She’d have preferred Claude at the head of the line, but he was off his game, just like she knew he’d be at the idea of leaving Brightest Lantern. He’d put on a brave face — to keep Fleur calm, most likely — but Abby knew he was roiling inside.
And that was a bridge that would need crossing, sooner rather than later.
She could still see him on that live broadcast, five years ago, doing a remote transmission from the town square in Caliche for an anti-cancer benefit. He started talking about what good the people there were doing, and how much money the fundraiser had collected, and how great it was to be a part of all this.
But even on TV that night, you could see the stress in “Cloudy” Claude Jeffords’ eyes, and the tension in his posture, and as he turned suddenly to the topic of his wife, who’d died not more than a year ago from cancer — obviously going off-script to tell his tale — you knew something was about to go down.
“Every broadcast,” he said back then, “I wear one of these suits.” He tugged at his tie. “And they’re so uncomfortable. Like a straightjacket.”
Abby came out of her memories as Gerard whispered, “I see something.” Everyone came to a halt at once as if choreographed.
“Big or small?” Abby asked.
“Big,” he said. “Human. Just walked across the T-junction ahead. And not slow and jerky, either.”
“Pumpkin on it?”
“The last thing we need is them speeding up,” Claude hissed. “Group room’s that direction.”
“And our fire exit for smoke breaks,” Abby said. “Is it letting those three outside in?”
“Mmph,” Claude grunted, dismayed. “Come on, hustle.”
They moved, quick but quiet, down the hall to the junction and made a right. The fire door appeared unmolested; Abby figured the alarm would still sound under emergency power, and the jack-o-lanterns weren’t bright enough –yet — to figure out the aluminum foil trick, so no one had gone in or out.
Which left the group therapy room at the end of the hallway, its door ajar.
Claude again: “Mmph.”
“You just saw the one person?” Abby asked Gerard.
She hefted her trowel, and she knew without looking the others had their weapons ready as well. Fleur had found another stapler, and had it hinged open and ready. As one, they walked to the group room.
Claude stepped past her, Parky’s baton at the ready. He held up a hand to pause the others, and walked, with delicate steps, to the doorway. He peeked in for just a second, then stepped back. He didn’t look at the others, and seemed stunned.
Abby waved a hand in front of his eyes after a few seconds, and Claude grimaced, waving for her to look for herself.
She wanted to shake her head, peering up at Claude and seeing how weirded-out he appeared. Let somebody else look instead of her. Let someone else know something awful that she didn’t, for once this evening.
But she looked anyway.
Parky lay on the floor, his pumpkin having disengaged itself. Parky gazed at nothing, eyes blank and breath shallow, as the pumpkin squatted close by…
At least, that was Abby’s best guess. The gourd heaved itself up and down, and out of its underside dropped a slimy mini-pumpkin, with its own eensy glowing eyes and mouth. The main jack-o-lantern then moved to the side, its shell contracting and expanding, and another tiny pumpkin began to emerge from its bottom.
There were three of its offspring on the floor already.
Abby pulled away from the door herself. For a teetering half-second, she thought this would be it. This would be what made her walk away, stroll out into the night, and let whatever happened, happen. Part of her plan hinged on getting to town and helping the folks in Caliche stamp out this…invasion? Infestation? There were only a couple of pumpkin patches in town, one on either end, so how many people could possibly have been taken over?
But if the pumpkins reproduced, and reproduced this quickly…Caliche had to be gone by now. There was nowhere to go, and no one to help. It was a question of survival now, not resistance.
Drive to the seashore, swim to an island.
She heard sounds coming from the group room: Parky, mumbling to himself like Dove had done.
“Shouldn’t have let you get on that rollercoaster. It’s all my fault…”
Claude leaned in. “When I was blocking the door, he walked right up to it. We could hear his pumpkin whispering something about that. ‘You killed Caroline,’ and some such.” He looked at Abby. “Hey, are you listening? Is this like what happened to Dove?”
Abby’s grip tightened around her trowel. The keys would be in his right front pocket. The keys, then the van, then the road.
“Abby…?” Fleur this time, nervous and confused.
Abby ignored them all. She walked through the door, into the room, picking up speed as the bloated pumpkin and its mewling, slimy spawn waddled in place to look at her.
Keys, van, road. But first…
She didn’t even hear herself screaming as she went to work.
Today’s Words: 1099
Total Words: 12347
Notes: Tonight’s constant accidental typing: “pumpking,” which, come to think of it, is a pretty good portmanteau for the monsters in this novel…!