by Nicholas T. Brown
Photography by Jesse Ryan Brown
Laura’s husband brought home three pumpkins, one for each of them, and set them on the front porch rail. “We’ll carve them later this week,” he said. “It’ll be a contest. Special prize goes to the winner.”
“Does the winner get to rake the back yard?” Laura said.
“Loser does that,” Steve said. “I have a treat for the winner.”
Haley, recently thirteen, rushed to pick hers. She was a skinny, auburn-haired girl with striped socks pulled up to her knees. “I want this one,” she said. “The one with the big lump.”
“That might be hard to carve,” Laura said.
“Not the way I’m gonna do it,” Haley said.
Laura turned to Steve. “Who decides the winner?”
“We’ll get Mrs. Staley to choose.”
Mrs. Staley had lived beside them ever since they moved to the neighborhood. She spent most of her time in her garden, jabbering to the stone gnomes. “All right,” Laura said. “I’ll take this small one. My jack-o-lantern will be dainty.” She placed her hand on the pumpkin and felt a hum, like a rush of blood, as though the pumpkin’s innards were alive. The sensation traveled up her arm and into her neck before she pulled her hand away.
“These were just cut from the vine today,” Steve said. “Grocer told me so. We should let them sit a while before we carve them.”
Upstairs, Haley’s phone rang, and she ran to get it. Steve wandered out back to tinker in the shed. Laura had a soup bubbling on the stove, but for a moment she didn’t go back to it. She knelt and studied her pumpkin at eye level. Amid the bumps and ridges, she could almost see a face.
That weekend she tried to sell a house to a young couple. They both looked terrified. The young man gulped when Laura mentioned fixed interest rates and balloon payments. “We like the area,” he said, “but we can’t commit to anything right now. The way the market is….”
“The market will always fluctuate,” Laura said. “This might sound crazy, but sometimes the market can be whatever you want it to be.”
The couple started at her. Something was odd about them. They were both very pale—albino, maybe. Blue veins ran beneath their skin. Laura gave them her usual routine: this house has a strong foundation, a good roof, lots of character. The local schools were top-notch. The woman stood in the fireplace and looked up the chimney, as though she might find something up there.
“We’ll let you know if we change our minds,” the man said.
In the driveway, Laura noticed the couple hadn’t arrived in a car. “Do you need a lift?” she asked.
“No, we can walk,” the man said. He and the woman started down the county lane, alongside the cemetery with its rickety fence and rolling hills. It was twilight and they were a long way from anywhere. Laura waved as she passed them in her minivan—she meant to reiterate her offer—but they didn’t wave back.
Steve came home on Monday with straw in his shoes. He kicked them off at the door, cheap brown penny loafers with actual pennies in them, and left a trail of yellow down the hall. Laura followed it and found him in the kitchen, making a sandwich.
“Where did this come from?” she said.
“Where did what come from?”
“This straw in your shoes.”
“Looks like you were on a hay ride, or something.”
“A hay ride?”`
She studied him: no bloodshot eyes, no liquor on his breath. His suit was slightly rumpled, but that didn’t prove anything. “Why are you repeating all my questions?”
“Why am I—hey, don’t get like that. I don’t know where the straw came from. It’s autumn. There’s, like, straw around, y’know? It’s the season for it.”
He was cheating. She knew it. So was she, but that didn’t stop the anger rising in her. That night, after dinner, with Haley tucked away in bed, she straddled him the way she had done during their honeymoon fifteen years ago, just to see how he would react.
“Aw,” he said. “Can we save it? I’m exhausted.” And he rolled over and went to sleep.
Sometime after midnight, Laura shuffled downstairs for a glass of milk. Through the window she noticed something moving in the backyard— something low to the ground. It was Buster, their beagle, digging in the backyard, something he hadn’t done since he was a pup ten years ago. But this time it was different. He wasn’t digging under the fence, but in the middle of the yard. As if looking for something. An old bone from years ago? Laura called his name sharply: “Buster!”
He looked up slowly, without his usual alacrity, and then returned to his digging: steady, rhythmical, through the leaves, through the dying grass, into the soil. As though digging for a body.
Later that week, Laura went upstairs and pushed open her daughter’s bedroom door. Newspapers covered the floor, and Haley hunched over something in the middle of the room like a mad scientist.
“No, get out!” she screamed, and Laura jumped back, as though she’d caught her daughter masturbating. A moment later Haley’s face appeared in the crack of the door.
“I’m working on my pumpkin,” she said. “You can’t see it yet.”
“Okay. Dinner’s ready.”
“I’m going to win Daddy’s special prize,” Haley said. “Whatever it is.”
“So you think,” Laura said.
Haley thrust a piece of paper under her nose. “Report card day. You have to sign it. I made straight A’s.”
“Good job, honey,” Laura said, and took the paper downstairs. Something about the report looked odd. Then she realized: all the writing, both the subject names and the letter grades, was done in Haley’s hand. Haley had swiped a blank report card and filled it out herself. Laura smiled—she almost felt proud. She signed it, but decided to stop by the school tomorrow and straighten everything out. Confronting Haley now would only cause a scene. She would wait until she had proof.
The next day, Laura spent her lunch break in bed with Tris: twenty-five, fresh out of law school, rookie at a local firm, earning more money than he knew what to do with. He had a hairy chest, the scent of young testosterone, and nothing in his fridge but flat soda and moldy cheese. Laura lay beside him on a mattress without sheets.
“My husband’s cheating on me,” she said.
“Imagine that,” Tris said.
She leaned on her elbow. “Did you ever go on a hay ride this time of year?” she asked.
“Every year in college. High school too. You know what happens on those things.”
“You get laid?”
“A hand job, at least.”
“I figured,” Laura said. “I never went on one, myself. Seemed—silly, I guess.”
“Times were different when you were growing up,” Tris said. He liked to rib her about their difference in age.
“I’m not that much older,” she said.
“Thirteen years,” he said, getting up. His buttocks were golden and tight and perfectly formed. “You were in eighth grade, sitting through sex ed, before I was even born.”
“Jesus,” Laura said. She started getting dressed.
“Hey, where you going?” Tris said. He held up a joint. “I got some snacks for us.”
“No can do. I’ve got to meet my daughter’s teacher.”
“Your daughter?” Tris said. “How old is she?” In the half-light, his barrel-shaped chest seemed a little too wide, a little too hairy. He hadn’t shaved, either, which lent his face a wolfish quality. When he smiled, his canines poked down farther than his other teeth.
“She’s, uh—she’s the age I was when you were born.”
“No kidding,” Tris said, and wrapped Laura in his arms. He smelled raw and overpowering, like an animal. “Can I call you later this week?”
“No,” Laura said, slipping away. “No, I’ll call you.”
The teacher was a wrinkled woman in an ankle-length black dress. Chalk stains marked her back. She was erasing the board, the kids long gone, when Laura entered the classroom. Haley was, at that moment, rumbling along the bus ride home. Laura decided not to mention her daughter’s forgery, but instead asked about Haley’s performance in general.
“Smartest kid in class,” the teacher said. “She got perfect marks, I believe.”
Hmm. Maybe Haley hadn’t altered the card after all. “I have a question about that,” Laura said. “Hang on.” She rifled through her purse for the card, which she had never given back to Haley. It should have been in there. “I’m just trying to find the thing,” she said.
“Let me check my gradebook,” the teacher said, flipping open a red book on the desk. She ran her gnarled finger down the column of names. “Let’s see, Haley… there it is. Yes. Straight A’s. Not always the best dressed, but certainly a good student.”
Laura glanced down at the teacher’s blocky, cramped handwriting. She couldn’t find the damned report card anywhere. “Well,” she said. “I guess if everything’s okay….”
“All good,” the teacher said. “Like I said, Haley’s the best.” She waved her hand, and a piece of straw fell out of her sleeve, onto the desk.
“What’s that?” Laura said.
The teacher hummed and put stacks of papers into her satchel.
“There’s, ah, some hay on your desk,” Laura said.
“Hmm?” the teacher said. “Oh, I see. Must have blown in from outside.”
Laura turned to the windows, which had been closed when she entered. Now they were wide open. “Okay,” she said.
She walked out of the classroom, around the corner, and when the teacher emerged, Laura followed her. Halloween posters lined the hallway: zombies, vampires, werewolves. The school was having a junior-high dance/costume party. Haley had never mentioned it.
Outside, the teacher got into a lime-green Volkswagen and went east on Elm Street. Laura followed in her minivan. Something about that straw had aroused her suspicions. Surely this wasn’t Steve’s mistress—this ancient schoolmarm? No. But there was some kind of connection.
The teacher parked at a grocery store, walked across the parking lot, directly to the canned goods aisle, grabbed two large tins of something Laura couldn’t recognize, and then got in line at the register. Laura checked the shelf. Pumpkin. Canned pumpkin. That’s it. Probably making a pie for her grandkids. Laura felt foolish all of a sudden, following an old lady around a store like a psychopath. Leaving the store, she bumped into a metal grocery cart. “Laura!” a voice said.
It was the young couple from last week, the ones who had declined the house. They were paler than before, now wrapped in flannel jackets. Dark sunglasses hid their faces. Laura barely recognized them.
“You guys are bundled up like it’s Siberia,” she said.
“Grocery store gets cold,” the man said.
“And bright,” said his wife.
“Given any more thought to the house?”
“Actually, we found another place,” the man said. “It’s not as nice as the one you showed us, but it’s a lot cheaper. And big enough for the two of us.”
“Well, congrats,” Laura said.
“We’d love to have you for dinner sometime,” the wife said. “Maybe this week?”
Laura squinted into her sunglasses. Was she being serious? Laura had met these people only once, didn’t know them at all. She was just their real-estate agent. Maybe they were new to the area—didn’t have any friends yet. “Okay,” she said. “Should I bring my husband?”
“Absolutely,” the man said. Their shopping cart held steaks, pork chops, cold cuts, chicken breasts. Stacks and stacks of meat.
“Give me your number,” Laura said, reaching into her purse.
“Oh, we don’t have a phone,” the man said. “Just stop by—say, Wednesday? We’re past the cemetery, not far from the house you showed us. It’s a brown tree house. You can’t miss it.”
“A tree house?”
The man smiled. “Not that kind of tree house. Not like a child’s hideout. I mean a house made out of a tree.”
“Is that so?” Laura said. She edged around their cart, toward the store exit. “I’ll tell my husband about it.”
“We look forward to seeing you,” the woman called.
Lying in Tris’s bed, with its smell of unwashed bachelor, Laura said, “Come to this dinner with me.”
Tris called from the bathroom: “Are you crazy?”
“Probably,” Laura said. “It’s this couple who live in a tree house. I don’t want to tell my husband about it. You have to pretend we’re married.”
Tris stood naked in the doorway. A blanket of brown hair, almost like fur, covered him from neck to ankles. “Why don’t you wanna tell Steve?” he said.
“I don’t even want to go,” she said. “I’m just curious about this house.”
“A tree house, eh? Okay—it should be fun. Honey.”
The next day they drove out past the cemetery, beyond the house Laura had shown to the couple. She realized she didn’t even know their names. Finally, with fields and woods on both sides, Tris said: “I don’t see any tree house. Why don’t you call them?”
“They don’t have a phone,” Laura said. “They walk everywhere. They stopped by my office one day; that’s how we met.”
“Who doesn’t have a phone?” Tris said. A moment later they saw it: tall, misshapen, covered in bark and leaves, a door carved into the front with a brass knob on it. “Holy shit,” Tris said. “It’s like a goddamn hobbit-hole!”
They parked and got out. Laura carried a bottle of wine and a store-bought pumpkin pie. For a moment she imagined Steve and Haley at home, carving their jack-o-lanterns, eating popcorn and watching TV. They thought she was working late at the office. “This better be good,” she said as she knocked on the door.
The wife opened it. At night, her white skin seemed elegant, and a garland of leaves sat atop her dark hair. “Welcome!” she said, and ushered them inside.
The place was cavernous, lit by dozens of candles throughout the room. It smelled like pulp and sap. Laura ran her fingers along the wall and they came away sticky. The dinner table was surrounded by shadowy spots which she realized were doorways to other rooms. There was no sign of electricity.
“This is my husband, Tris,” Laura said. They shook hands.
“What a place,” Tris said.
The man emerged from one of the doorways carrying a bubbling pot. “Just in time for dinner,” he said. They all sat around the table. Laura felt like she was in a dream.
They ate from wooden bowls, using wooden spoons. Chunks of meat floated in the murky soup. Laura took tentative sips; Tris gulped his like a starving man.
“So how did you find this place?” Laura asked.
“A friend tipped us off,” the man said. “The previous renters had to leave abruptly. Perfect timing.”
“And what do you pay—if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Well,” the man said. His hair was slicked to one side and his cheekbones cast shadows over his face. “We don’t pay with money.”
“The owner stays gone most of the year,” the woman said.
“I see,” Laura said.
“I think it’s great,” Tris said. He had opened the wine, and now slurred his words. “Real cozy. But I have to ask—what do you do about a toilet?”
The couple looked at each other. “It’s down the hall.” They gestured to a portal that led into total darkness.
Tris grinned. “Okay. Be right back.” He disappeared down the hall. The couple sat there in silence. Laura stared into her soup. What the hell was she doing here?
“So, what do you guys do?” she asked. The couple looked at each other, then smiled at Laura like they didn’t understand.
“What do we do about what?” the man said.
Laura laughed. She checked her phone for the time, but the battery had gone dead. Her insides felt jumpy. Tris had been gone several minutes when the noise—a long, agonized groan—floated down the hallway. “What was that?” Laura said.
“I didn’t hear anything,” the woman said.
A moment later, it came again. “That!” Laura said. She jumped up, grabbed a candle from the table, and entered the dark doorway through which Tris had disappeared.
She went down a hallway. Bumps in the floor tripped her, overhead twigs scratched her head. Strange engravings decorated the walls. The groan came again, closer this time. The couple hurried behind Laura, shuffling on delicate feet that sounded like broomsticks tapping the floor.
Laura came to a door with a faint light glowing from underneath. “That’s the bathroom,” the man said behind her.
“Tris,” Laura shouted. “Are you okay?”
“I’m sick,” Tris said. “I threw up everywhere.”
“Let me in—I’ll help you.”
“No,” Tris whimpered. “You can’t see me this way.”
“Honey,” Laura said, “I’m your wife. I know you intimately.”
“You can’t see me this way,” he repeated.
The woman patted Laura’s shoulder. “Even spouses shouldn’t know everything about each other,” she said. “We all need a little private time now and then.”
“But he’s sick,” Laura said.
Tris shouted through the door: “Just leave me, leave me!”
“This is absurd,” Laura said. “How do you expect to get home?”
“He can stay the night here, if he wants,” the man said. “We’ll give him a lift tomorrow.”
“Yes, yes!” Tris shouted.
“You don’t have a car,” Laura said.
“We can call a cab.”
“You don’t have a phone.”
Something dark crossed the man’s face—a flash that passed almost as soon as it arrived. It might have been a flicker of the candle. “Well,” he said, “He doesn’t seem to be coming out, does he?”
“And it’s getting late,” the woman yawned. Her mouth was a black hole lined with blue teeth.
That jumpy feeling had moved up Laura’s insides, into her throat. It was time to leave. “Tristan, are you sure?” she asked.
“Leave me!” he bawled.
Without another word, Laura walked back down the hallway, into the sap-sticky living room, and out the front door. No goodbyes, no thank yous. She left the pumpkin pie unopened. The minivan’s tires spun leaves into the air as she raced up the dirt path, out of the woods, back onto the road, and then sped away from the tree house as fast as she could. She was halfway home before she realized she was still holding the candle.
She tried calling Tris the next day. No answer. In the evening, under pretext of going to a bookstore, she visited his apartment and knocked on the door. No answer. She went to a café and sipped hot cocoa and rationalized things. Tris had wanted to stay in the tree house. He and the couple were probably enjoying another soup right now. He would make it home tomorrow, for sure. Or maybe he had come home and left again, was at the grocery store or taking a walk. Tris was a grown man who could make his own decisions. Laura had to remember that.
That night, after dinner, Buster the beagle resumed his digging, this time in the living room, behind the couch. Occasionally he looked up at the family, seated around the room with magazines and books, and gave a whining plea for help, then went back to work.
Haley was reading a Poe story for school. “How can I concentrate with him doing that?” she said.
“He already dug up the back yard,” Laura said. “What’s he looking for?”
“It’s this brisk weather,” Steve said. “Animals get weird about it.”
“He’s never gotten weird before,” Laura said.
“Maybe he wants you to carve your pumpkin,” Haley said. She and her father exchanged glances.
Laura smiled—she hated when they shared inside jokes against her. “What’s all this secrecy about?” she said.
“No secrecy,” Steve said. “But we were supposed to have the contest last week, remember? Haley and I finished ours. You haven’t even started.”
“I’ve been busy,” Laura said. “I’ll carve mine this week. What’s the special prize?”
“You’ll find out,” Steve said.
Buster kept digging at the carpet, and then a moment later stood before Laura, tail erect, head cocked sideways, eyeing her, before giving a single shrill bark.
“Go on,” Laura said, nudging him with her foot. He slinked away reluctantly.
After two days with no contact from Tris—even though, in the course of a normal week, they often went longer than that—she decided to visit the tree house and inquire.
It was a grey and windy morning. As Laura drove past the cemetery, a feeling of desolation overcame her, so that she almost quit caring about Tris, or that weird couple, or her job, or family, or the damned jack-o-lantern contest. Something inside told her to keep driving and not look back.
For a while, she did just that. Then she passed a sign for Kingswood and knew she had gone too far. She turned around. On the way back, she drove slowly. The tree house should have been easy to spot—last time, they’d found it at dusk with no problem. But when she passed the cemetery again, she knew. The house was gone. Maybe it had never been there.
She went straight home and, with shaking hands, poured herself a bourbon.
That evening, Laura grabbed a knife from the kitchen and sat on the front porch with her pumpkin—the dainty one. She rolled it around in her hands. She would carve something simple: triangle eyes, jagged mouth. Nothing too fancy. Let Haley take the prize, whatever it was.
As she raised the knife, something caught her eye. Next door, in Mrs. Staley’s yard with the stone gnomes, some dark shape moved low to the ground. Laura squinted. It was Mrs. Staley. She had fallen.
Laura ran across the yard. “Mrs. Staley! Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” the old woman said. “I’m just playing.”
“Oh, I’m not crazy,” Mrs. Staley said. “Just a bored old woman waiting for my friend to arrive, and the garden is a lot more fun than the TV, let me tell you.”
“I see,” Laura said.
“You should spend more time outside,” Mrs. Staley said. “Here, look at this.” She pointed into the azaleas. “Down here,” she said. “You can’t see anything from up there.”
Laura sat down—she was wearing old jeans, anyway. The garden was soft. Under the azaleas stood a stone gnome, about two feet high, with a little hat and a pipe. “See that?” Mrs. Staley said.
“How cute. He lives under here, huh?”
“If you want to hear him talk, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and roll around in the dirt. That’s what I was doing. You have to be five years old again.”
Laura inhaled the rich scent of earth. “You’re supposed to judge our pumpkin-carving contest,” she said. “Has anyone told you about that?”
“No,” Mrs. Staley said. “But I’d be glad to help.”
A car pulled into the driveway and they both scrambled up. Dirt smeared Mrs. Staley’s face. Before them sat a lime-green Volkswagen—the car of Haley’s teacher. “I think your friend is here,” Laura said.
The teacher hobbled up the driveway carrying a pumpkin pie. “Hi Gladys! And hi Haley’s mother, who I did not expect to see again! You a neighbor?”
“Indeed I am,” Laura said.
“Marvelous job on Haley’s costume. She won our contest last week.”
Laura tried to mask her surprise. “Thank you,” she said.
“We’re going in to talk grandchildren,” Mrs. Staley said. “Sorry, Laura—senior citizens only.” The two women laughed.
“Enjoy your pie,” Laura said.
Haley’s costume? Laura had never seen any costume. She remembered the posters in the school hallway. But Haley had never mentioned the dance. Why not? Just like the unnecessarily forged report card—why?
Laura left the pumpkin and knife on the kitchen table and went upstairs. Haley wasn’t home yet. Her room was immaculate. No more newspapers on the floor. She had even made her bed this morning. Laura stood in the middle of the room, deciding what to do. She didn’t want to open any drawers or closets. Let a young girl’s secrets remain secrets, she thought.
She was almost out the door when she noticed it: a bit of yellow on the floor. She bent down. Straw. A single piece of straw.
Haley and Steve were both at the table when she came downstairs. They grinned at her. “I didn’t know you were home,” Laura said to Haley.
“Just walked in,” Haley said.
“Sit down,” Steve said.
Laura reluctantly took a seat. “What’s up?”
“We’ve both done our jack-o-lanterns,” Steve said. “Did them last week. And we learned quite a bit from them, didn’t we, sweetie?”
“Sure did,” Haley said.
“But now,” Steve said, “they’re halfway rotten. So, honey, you’ve got to carve yours. We can’t wait any longer.”
“I’ll do it on the porch,” Laura said.
“No, do it here,” Steve said. Haley giggled.
Laura studied the two of them—here was this inside joke stuff again. She picked up the knife. “Okay, then. A quick one. Just to join the gang. Mine won’t be very good, but it’ll do.”
“On the contrary,” Steve said. “I think it might be the winner.”
“Mrs. Staley decides that,” Laura said. She sliced a circle around the pumpkin, pried the lid off, and began scooping out orange guts. Her husband and daughter watched very intently. “You guys could help with this part,” she said.
“Nope,” Steve said. “You’ve got to do it.”
She reached into the shell and felt something odd—almost like a piece of paper. She pulled it out, dripping with slimy goop, and held it before her face. It was a piece of paper. It was Haley’s report card, the one Laura had misplaced, shiny now with jack-o-lantern brains.
Laura tried to laugh, but her mouth was dry and sticky. “Hey,” she said, “what is this?” She shook the report card and pumpkin seeds fell out of its folds. “How did this—how did you guys do this?”
They smiled, as though waiting for her to realize something.
“Looks like you’re the winner,” Steve said. “Let’s go see what we have in the shed.”
Laura screeched her chair back and stood up. “No,” she said.
Haley giggled again.
“Oh yes,” Steve said. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
Nicholas T. Brown lives in Orlando, FL, with a rotating cast of animals.