“Guess he never heard of the aluminum foil trick,” Abby said. She and Fleur took off down the hall, but just as quickly as the alarm sounded, it shut off again as the door closed.
Abby turned and took Fleur by the shoulders, gently. “I’ve got to get the pumpkin and get outside, but they’ll see me and try to stop me. It’s almost over, I promise. I just need to do this one thing, and I need you to help me. Can you kick some butt for me one last time?”
Fleur nodded once, short and sharp. “Always,” she said.
Abby could hear the others from down the hallway heading their way. She patted Fleur on the shoulder and the girl took off running to intercept the employees. Abby herself ran behind, and as Fleur turned the corner, Abby went the other way and ducked into the cafeteria. She could hear Fleur yelling, “I tried to get out! I tried to go outside, but they’re here! They’re all around the building!”
Abby grabbed the suitcase and peeked through the roundel windows set in the cafeteria’s swinging doors. Parky was leading the group away from the nurses’ station, towards the front of the building, no doubt to check the barricades. Fleur looked back as the others walked away, caught a peek of Abby through the cafeteria doors, and flashed her a quick thumbs-up.
One silent push of the doors, and Abby was out in the hallway, hauling the luggage alongside. She got to the fire door and paused. No time to go back to the lunchroom storage and hunt for foil for her own exit. Oh, well — the time for subtlety was over, anyway.
She pushed open the door, squeezed through a small gap, and shoved against the hydraulics to shut it as fast as she could.
Not fast enough, as the siren gave a one-second blat before she got the latch engaged.
Abby sprinted beside the building, casting an eye to the town below as she moved. She could make out the traffic jam Fleur had reported as they drove out here: a snarl of a hundred or more headlights with shapes moving amongst them.
It almost looked like the figures down there, in the dozens of dozens, were fighting each other. Bodies collided and shoved and tripped and climbed on cars only to leap off on each other…from Abby’s vantage point, it looked like pure, violent chaos.
But even then, she could see the occasional figure break away and move past the front-most grouping of headlights. Those could only be pumpkin-people heading to the hill on foot. Beyond that, more cars approached from town only to stop at the pile-up and disgorge their passengers, who joined in the fray.
Base desires? she wondered. Easier to act out and fight each other than join forces and come after us?
Gee, and they had such high hopes for forming a new society earlier tonight. Who’d have thought thousands of evil creatures couldn’t work in harmony?
Abby reached the ladder to the roof and saw, with relief, that it had been lowered. She climbed as best she could with the unwieldy luggage in one hand, rung after chilly metal rung, and reached the roof surprisingly quick, all her cuts and scrapes throbbing. She tossed the suitcase ahead of her, and finished the climb, looking around as she boosted herself over the curved rails at the ladder’s top.
Dr. Godfrey stood on the edge of the roof at the front side of the building, looking on the cars and madness below. He swayed slightly, as if a tree in the breeze.
Abby paused where she’d landed, thinking of how to get his attention without startling him and driving him off the edge. One slip, and whoops, apocalypse. She left the suitcase where it lay, and walked softly, almost casually, to within audible distance.
“Dr. Godfrey,” she said, in a calm but firm voice. He stiffened at the sound, but turned to look at her, his face filled with sadness and fear.
“Abby,” he said. “Come here, would you please?” His voice cracked as he spoke, and Abby could tell he was firmly back in pistol-in-mouth mode. She tried to smile, to be reassuring, and walked the rest of the way to where he stood.
From here, she could see what he saw: citizens, their pumpkins absorbed to the point of being gentle, bulging curves against the sides of their necks. They milled around in front of Brightest Lantern, slapping hands against doors and windows, picking up and throwing rocks at the building, and occasionally bumping into each other and fighting.
She could also see the horizon, barely lit by a weak red glow.
“You want to make me into one of them,” Godfrey said accusingly. “What in Heaven’s name did I ever do to you to make you hate me that much?” A tear ran down his cheek. “I testified on your behalf, did you know that? I read your case, thought I could help you, and spoke to the judge in your defense. And this is how you thank me for saving you from prison. This is how you, and those other ingrates, thank me.”
Abby closed her eyes for a second and took a breath. “You told me,” she said, “when I first came here, that there would be a lot of pain to go through before it was all over. Well, fixing this problem is going to take some pain before it’s taken care of, too.”
He laughed, a bitter guffaw. “Don’t turn your therapist’s words back on him, Abby. That’s Psych 101. You think you can convince me with something that obvious?”
“Depends,” she said. “Is it working?” She took another step forward. “Can you at least step down off the ledge for me? Please?”
“You never ask directly,” he said. “You try to find out what the person has to live for. Honestly, you’d think someone intelligent like you would have picked up better techniques while you’ve been here. Or maybe everyone was right. Maybe you never intended to get well.”
“Maybe,” Abby said. “But you know what I did tonight? I had the person — the little kid — I hated most in the world at my mercy. And guess what — I bundled her up, reassured her, and hid her somewhere safe.”
Dr. Godfrey golf-clapped. “Good girl. You get a gold star.”
“Might as well take it back,” Abby said. “I also convinced myself I needed to pop an amphetamine to get through the night, and pressured other people to take one, too. One step forward, two steps backward, right?”
Godfrey shook his head, and started to turn back to look upon his work.
“So tell me what you have to live for,” Abby said, and he stopped his spin, wobbling slightly.
“Brightest Lantern would have shut down at the end of the year,” he said, his voice thick. “All this for nothing. I did my best to fix it, and look. Just look at how well I succeeded. And now you want me to do some other stupid thing to ‘make things better,’ and all it’s going to do is turn me into a monster.” He put his hands to his face, and she could barely make out his murmur: “I’ve ruined everything.” He began to sink into a pitiful kneel, hands still over his eyes, and Abby seized the opportunity. She closed the distance between them with a quick bolt, grabbed his elbow, and hauled him off the edge and onto the tarpaper roof with a rough tug.
Godfrey landed in a heap, and Abby danced around to interpose herself between him and the edge.
“Stay down,” she said, and looked back at the sky, where red was transitioning into orange, spreading more broadly along the skyline. “If you know what’s good for you, stay right where you are.”
“Jumping off and breaking my neck is what’s good for me,” he mewled. “Eating a bullet is what’s good for me. Why won’t you let me? Do I have to beg?”
“Are you trying to make me sympathize by using self-pity?” Abby asked. “I thought someone intelligent like you would be above something obvious like that.”
“You hate me, and everyone at the center, and everyone in town,” Godfrey said. “Why are you doing this? Why are you acting like you care?”
“I’m not acting!” Abby shouted, then, stunned by the realization, said more softly, to herself, “…I’m not acting…” She looked down at Godfrey. “And maybe…maybe I’m not that much better, but this is me trying.” She reached down, grabbed him by the ankle, and started walking. He had at least a hundred pounds on her, but the threat of having his knee hyper-extended forced him to butt-scoot along the roof after her as she walked.
“Stop,” he pleaded, “please stop.”
Foot by foot, they made their way to the suitcase. “Don’t you dare move,” she snapped, and left Godfrey in a cowering heap as she took two quick steps to the suitcase. She spun it to face him and grabbed the zipper tab.
From below came the sound of breaking glass and shouts of fear.
She moved the zipped to the first corner. A glow shone from the gap in the lid.
Hey, she thought. I’ve got a favor to ask, and I know I don’t have any right to.
The zipper moved across the length of the suitcase to the second corner. The glow became stronger. Godfrey whimpered as it illuminated him.
I just really hope you don’t answer ‘no’.
She pulled the zipper all the way to its starting position, and flipped open the suitcase. The jack-o-lantern sat there, docile as ever.
It made no move toward Godfrey, who babbled with terror at the sight of it. He began to move away, but Abby ran to the doctor, knelt behind him, and grabbed his arm in a hammerlock, keeping him in place. Godfrey wailed with a baby’s terror of everything.
“Hey,” she shouted, with a quick, anxious glance at a sky that had gotten no less darker. “What are you waiting for?”
The pumpkin sat there, its calmness a contrast to the sounds of battle below.
It’s turned on us. It knows if it does this, its plans are over. No, no no.
Godfrey mirrored her thoughts, writhing in her grip. “Nononononononono…”
Why won’t it move? Why won’t it —
“Move,” she shouted, and the pumpkin bobbed just a bit, looking from side to side as if unsure where to go.
And if Abby hadn’t been pinning Godfrey, she would’ve kicked herself.
‘Servitor’. Something that serves. Like a trained animal. Only does what it’s told, and it didn’t move earlier until Claude told it to. So it won’t do anything unless —
“I’m sorry,” she said to the weeping, gibbering Godfrey. Then, to the pumpkin: “Take him.”
In a flash, vines uncoiled from the suitcase by the dozen, and Abby shoved Godfrey towards them, backing herself clear. The green tendrils wrapped around his legs, and though Godfrey screamed and kicked mightily, it was no use.
The pumpkin wrapped his legs and chest and, as Godfrey began pulling himself along the roof with spastic, clawing hands, curls of tar working under his once-immaculate fingernails, the pumpkin hauled itself out of the suitcase, tiptoeing after him on a delicate thrush of fronds on its underside. The vines, meanwhile, did their work, moving up his chest to collar Godfrey’s neck and pull him back like a reined horse.
Abby couldn’t stop watching. She was vaguely aware of the noises below reaching a thunderous climax of shouts, screams, and shattering. But she just could not stop staring at the nightmarish spectacle before her.
The vines whipped around Godfrey’s shoulders and splayed his arms out so he lay cruciform on the roof, in a pose Abby knew couldn’t be a coincidence. Then they finished with his arms, shrouding them in verdant coils.
And then, only then, did the jack-o-lantern make its move. The vines pulled it along the length of Godfrey’s helpless body, ropes of green shifting and playing out to tug the pumpkin up his form, inch after inch. Godfrey screamed, hoarse from the tendrils clenching around his neck.
With a final shift of its bulk, the pumpkin settled itself on Godfrey’s shoulder. It yanked his limbs around until he sat upright.
Then its mouth and eyes flared with that eerie inner light, and it began to whisper.
From below, there was a change in the screams. It started small, at first, but the noises from the fighting below tapered off, and the screaming went from bravery and anger and aggression…to pure terror.
Terror, multiplied by the thousands.
Abby staggered to the edge of the roof and saw figures stumbling in the near-dawn, silhouettes with grotesque swelling on their necks that, as she watched, swelled and burst in sticky showers.
Further below, the traffic jam was witness to hundreds more being freed of their supernatural parasites, messy explosion after messy explosion.
Abby sank to her knees, pressed her face into the arms she folded on the roof’s edge, and let out a huge, hitching sob, that quickly turned into a scream of triumph. She wouldn’t look, wouldn’t raise her head. Abby hollered her joy, her relief, her tension, her ecstasy, and the last ashen particles of her anger into her curled arms until her ears rang.
At last, she stood to see citizens either passed out in heaps or wandering around the building drunkenly.
They were easy to make out in the first light of sunrise.
She turned back from the view to see Godfrey still rocking in place, still taken over by the final remaining jack-o-lantern. She stepped over to him, looked down at him for a moment, then knelt behind him, holding him through the rough green wrappings he wore.
And as the pumpkin slowly disintegrated, Abby whispered to him.
“It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay now.”
But her whispers weren’t loud enough to drown out the ones from the pumpkin, which continued until the last piece of it had turned to orange-green slag and melted away:
“You’ll never help anyone. You’ll never make anyone well. You’ll never change anything for the better.
“AND YOUR SOUL IS OURS.”
They had to leave him on the roof; no one was in any shape to finagle Dr. Godfrey’s unconscious form down the ladder. They left him with promises to fetch him as soon as they could.
Abby hugged Claude and Fleur, all of them weeping into each other’s shoulders, high-fiving, fist-bumping, then crying again. Claude picked up both Abby and Fleur in turn, spinning them around in the air, then putting them back down with a protest about his back…only to pick them up and spin them again in short order.
“How are the others?” Abby asked, as they wandered through the crowds of dazed but physically unharmed citizens.
“Dove got knocked out cold,” Claude said. “Parky’s looking after her and ignoring a couple of broken fingers he picked up himself.”
Fleur grabbed Abby’s arm. “Omigod, you should’ve seen her! She made us look like we were slap-fighting those things!”
“And not a scratch on her,” Claude added.
A woman in a pink terrycloth robe wandered up and almost ran into them. She shook her head, then focused on the group. “…’Cloudy’ Claude?” the woman asked. “What are you doing here?”
“Um…just, uh, helping out,” Claude said, nonplused.
“That’s so nice,” the woman said. “You were always such a nice guy. I’m glad to see you.” With that, she stumbled away.
The three of them made their way to the top of the hill, right where the driveway began to slope down. A couple more people came up to Claude, shook his hand, and expressed how nice it was to see him out and about.
“Can’t drive into town,” Abby said. “Not with that traffic jam. That’s gonna stop emergency services from getting in from that direction, too.”
“You’re not saying we go back down there?” Claude asked.
“Yeah,” Abby said. “Why not? A lot of people to help, a lot of work to do. We need to get our friend out of Godfrey’s house, and I need to help a little girl find her mother, to name a couple of things.” She nudged him. “Besides, your public awaits, it looks like.”
“Oh, hush,” Claude said, but he looked back at one of the people who’d greeted him, and Abby saw a tiny smile spread across his face.
“Can we…” Fleur began, but she shook her head and went quiet.
“Can we what?” Abby asked.
Fleur leaned over and whispered in her ear, and Abby reached out and gave the girl’s hand a squeeze.
“Of course we can,” Abby said.
Claude shook his head. “If we can’t drive, that’s going to be a long walk.”
“Yeah,” Abby said. She held out her arms, and her friends linked elbows with her. “But isn’t it a beautiful morning for it?”
And with that, they took their first steps down the hill.
Today’s Words: 2875
Total Words: 37702
Notes: See you tomorrow for the finale!