Sample Chapter for
“Town in a Pumpkin Bash”
At first he thought he had wandered into a graveyard.
He’d been looking down, careful of his footing in the darkness, and only when he glanced up and around, spooked by a sound in the woods nearby, had he noticed the tall, arched headstones on either side of him. Sprouting from a flat, open space, they stood like black sentinels against the shadowy landscape, lit only by the angled beam of his flashlight and the muted glow of a rising moon, a few days past full, its face smeared by a swath of thin fog.
Instinctively he took several steps back, horrified that he might have just walked over someone’s dead body.
On somewhat safer ground, he stilled himself and listened. There had been a sound, a whistle or low whisper, from a stand of trees to his right. He was sure of it. He lifted the flashlight and shined it in the general direction of the trees, flicking it around. “Hello?” he called into the darkness. “Is that you?”
He shifted the light from tree to tree, searching the shadows, but saw and heard no one.
Not for the first time, he wondered if this was a good idea. The message had been vague at best. Meet here, in this isolated pumpkin patch in Downeast Maine, an hour before midnight. It was an urgent matter, the message had said, though no more details were provided. But the implications were too tempting for him to ignore. So he’d left the university early, letting a grad student take his late class, and had been driving ever since, first east toward Boston, then northward along the coast, past Portsmouth and Portland, Freeport and Waterville, and eastward again to Bangor. He stopped only a few times, to gas up and grab something to eat at a fast food joint. But he was quickly back on the road.
Once east of Bangor, he’d let the GPS guide him as close as possible to his destination, though no street address had been provided. Just a mile marker. It had taken him awhile to find the dirt road, but finally he’d spotted the small vertical white sign, and the turnoff just beyond. After that he’d crept along at ten or fifteen miles an hour, thinking all the time he was probably on private land, or had gotten himself turned around somewhere, or had fallen victim of some sort of cruel prank. But his desperation edged him on.
He’d eventually parked where he’d been instructed—or as close as he could determine—and had come the rest of the way on foot, over a low ridge and through several stands of trees and dense shrubbery, approaching the pumpkin patch from the rear.
That’s when he’d stumbled into the graveyard.
He turned the flashlight back toward the tall, thin headstones, playing the beam of light across their shadowed surfaces. What’s a graveyard doing out here in the middle of nowhere? he wondered, confused. The message he’d received hadn’t mentioned anything about it. He knew there was a cemetery on the other side of town, just off Route 192. What was that place called? Something with rock or stone in the name? Stone Hill? Yes, that sounded about right.
It was where they’d buried Susan Jane Vincent.
Just the thought of her made him queasy. He hadn’t attended her funeral. Instead, he’d smartly skipped out of town a few days before, which had seemed like the best decision at the time, given all that had happened back then. It must be . . . what? A little more than two years ago now? He took a moment to dig into his memories to confirm it, but yes, she had died two summers past. It seemed like forever—and just yesterday.
He could still remember the last time he’d seen her, though he quickly shook away the unpleasant memory. Her death had caused a massive disruption in his life, both good and bad. She’d been blackmailing him, so her murder had ended that financial burden and the humiliation of her never-ending demands. But his career also had taken a hit. Though he’d managed to keep most of the details from his employer and co-workers, the rumors had been damaging enough. Since then, he’d worked hard to rededicate himself to his craft, re-establish his reputation, and put some major distance between then and now. But admittedly it had been a struggle, and over the past year he had experienced a number of setbacks. Someone had started spreading rumors about him again, though he couldn’t determine who or why. But word had gotten around. His career had stalled. His creativity had faltered. His books weren’t selling. His classes were poorly attended. His future looked bleak.
He knew he needed to find a way to break through the barriers that were holding him back.
So here he was, just outside Cape Willington, Maine, standing in a dark pumpkin patch a few minutes before eleven o’clock on a Friday night, exhausted after a seven-hour drive, feeling wired and on edge, and wishing he were anywhere but here.
And now he had just trespassed on someone’s private burial plot, a particularly distasteful development.
The tall stones were abnormally thin, which caused him to suspect their true nature. On an impulse he took a few tentative steps forward, shining his light across their granite-gray surfaces. But he knew almost at once they were not made of any sort of rock or stone. Instead, the surfaces looked painted on, and they had writing on them. Not engraving, but bold lettering applied in an almost comical hand. He focused in on the epitaphs:
“Here Lies Old Man Winter, the Coolest Cat Ever,” one headstone read. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Argued in the Cemetery,” said another. And on a third: “R.I.P., Reginald I. Periwinkle, a Man of Initial Worth.” And another: “C.A. Ghost, a Spirited Fellow.”
His brow furrowed. They were complete nonsense.
Joke lines, he thought.
He reached out and pushed at one of the headstones. It teetered back loosely.
They weren’t real.
It must be some sort of Halloween gag, he realized. Decorations of some sort.
He heard the sound again, more distinct this time—a low whistle from the trees off to his right.
Nervously he shifted the beam of the flashlight around, surveying the landscape. “Who’s there?” he said into the darkness. “Is that you? I’m here, just like you asked.”
Again, no response.
He swallowed hard. Was this some sort of game?
“I’m coming over there,” he said, as if in warning, and started off toward the trees. “Give me a signal or something so I know where you’re at.”
He moved at a cautious pace, stepping carefully on the uneven landscape. and keeping a watchful eye for any sort of movement or signal. When none came, he veered toward a particularly large oak, which stood out among all the other gray trunks.
He had just stepped into a low area when the heel of his boot struck hard earth. He shined the light down toward his feet, and saw that he stood on some sort of dirt road, which ran along the edge of the trees. He shined the light along the road to his left. It curved around the line of trees a little further on, where he saw a pile of pumpkins and more evidence of Halloween decorations—probably for some sort of activity, he thought, like a hay ride.
Something moved in the shadows off to his right.
He swung around, the light moving with him, and crouched warily as he turned.
A figure had emerged from among the trees.
It seemed to shiver in the moonlight, a flowing thing that almost glowed against the dark backdrop. Its shape was indistinct, the facial features hidden, and it rippled along its lower extremities. A few moments later he knew why.
It was a ghost.
Or, rather, someone wearing a ghost costume.
It’s some sort of a prank, he realized as his hopes crashed and his stomach heaved in on itself in despair. I’ve been lured out here for nothing. I’ll probably get robbed—or worse.
He heard several things at once—the shift of fabric, the creak of a branch, the deep echo of a heavy truck passing along a distant road, the faint sound of a dog barking somewhere, the closer rustle as a breath of wind kicked up a few dead leaves that rattled past his feet
A faint click, as if someone had flicked off the safety on a handgun.
There was a spark of light, a crack of sound, a slap on his chest as if he’d been punched. He felt a strange warmth spread across his chest—and then the ground was rushing up to meet him at a speed he never thought possible.
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