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I took risks when I was younger. I suppose we all do stupid, reckless things that could get us killed if anything went wrong. When this happens, you’re changed forever. Although you find ways to cope, your guilt lives in the space where your friend used to be.

It was the first week of October. The air turned cold, and the leaves dried crisp. The season carried a sense that a much-needed rest waited up ahead. I loved autumn for those reasons, but I loved the Fall Rock Festival even more. Usually, a whole carload headed to the city a hundred miles or so from our town. This year, my friends made other plans— everyone but Emily. 

I begged her to come with me. My plea held no ground until I promised to go alone. I knew her well enough to know her sensibility wouldn’t allow that. Although we weren’t best friends, she agreed to accompany me. 

Two hours down and two hours back. A simple trip I took every year. Except, I never drove. I always sat in the back and never paid attention to the directions. We managed to arrive on time, and we had a blast. The concert ended well past midnight. Now the drive home awaited us. With the windows down, we sang loud and laughed until tears flowed from our eyes. 

Halfway home, a yellow light flashed on the control panel. The car’s engine threatened to overheat, and the fuel gauge wiggled over the “E.” I asked Emily to watch for a convenience store, but there were none. We went five more miles. No exits. No gas. No way we were breaking down on the highway, not on this starless night. 

Part of a sign not covered by weeds reflected in our headlights. There was an exit up ahead. I steered toward the ramp, and I swear the sky drew darker when we turned on that country road. 

Emily’s discomfort with my decision became obvious. To be fair, I didn’t like it either, but what choice did we have? I assured her, most likely, no one would be there, just the automated pumps. Besides, we were together, what could go wrong? Her nervous smile made me sad. 

Another mile passed with no houses or buildings in sight. Finally, next to a cornfield, a service station’s sign flickered on and off to our right. I pulled in, and our headlights brought the weather-beaten structure into view. Rotten wood and loose bricks made it a miracle the place stood. 

The car rolled on fumes, and I stopped at the only pump— an old rusted one. I told her if it worked to fill up the tank because I was going inside to use the restroom. Puzzled, she stared at the ancient gas nozzle and asked me to grab her a soda and chips. 

A wadded ten-dollar bill made a clump in my front pocket, so I hollered for her to put five bucks in. I would spend the rest on snacks. As soon as I noticed the burly man behind the counter, I wished I hadn’t gone inside. He was massive, including his height, and I found it hard to breathe, imagining being crushed under his weight. 

He greeted me with a nod, and when I asked the restroom’s location, he jabbed his stubby finger in the air. This huge sweaty guy freaked me out, but not as much as his daughter. 

A child toddled around the corner in a dirty white dress with a plastic pumpkin covering her head. Two carved holes, both off-center and skewed, created a ghastly effect. I would have fled and not paid for the gas. Except, my 42-ounce beverage from my collector’s cup hampered my ability to run. 

The bathroom was filthy, and the door had a frail hook and eye latch for security. I doubted whether this would prevent anyone from bursting in if they desired, but I locked it. The girl’s tiny feet thumped in the hall as I hovered above the broken toilet seat. I hoped Emily was done because I wanted as far away from the nightmarish place as possible. 

I slapped the ten on the counter and grabbed two cans from the leaking ice bin next to the door. Keep the change, I hollered with my eyes focused on my car. Emily pointed, and I understood what I’d find when I turned.

The man followed me out, and he was close. My teeth clenched as I prepared for a fight. I would kick him hard, and while he doubled over and cursed me, I would run. That was my plan until Emily screamed. 

A loud clank came from the dumpster. Maybe a raccoon or a field rat had gotten inside. Then I spotted what had made Emily shriek. The little girl, in her soiled clothes, moved into full sight. Emily said her costume was horrid, and the girl growled. The man hollered, “Pumpkin, don’t you hurt nobody.” 

In a sudden burst, the girl he called Pumpkin scurried toward our car. I yelled for him to stop her, but he was gone. The shop’s light glinted off a piece of metal that she carried in her small hand. When she reached the car’s trunk, she sprang up and lunged at my friend. The carver’s blade jabbed in and out of Emily’s chest as I watched with disbelief. 

In her brutal attack, the plastic head fell off and rolled across the lot. She glanced at me— her face maimed and scarred like her skin had been burnt with fire. If this thing had ever been a girl, she wasn’t one now. The creature, who straddled my friend’s body, jumped up and teetered toward her mask. 

I raced to Emily. Her limp form swam in blood, but she was breathing. I heard her gurgle as she struggled to remain alive. I grabbed her arms and dragged her to the passenger door. So much blood covered her, my hands kept slipping. I hooked my arms under her shoulders and pulled her on the front seat. 

I stumbled around the hood toward the driver’s door with one thought; Emily needed a hospital. I reached for the handle, but Pumpkin was waiting. She snarled and lashed at me with the knife. The blade whooshed through the air as I shoved my foot at the center of her body. She sailed past the rear bumper and landed on her back. Trembling, I grabbed the latch and opened my door. 

The beast jumped on my back. I clung to the door frame with one hand and clutched the top of the seat with the other. Blood gushed down my face as the steel blade stabbed wildly. The headrest came loose. I spun around and pinned the creature against the car. 

The knife sliced down my temple and cut across under my eye as she carved my face like a jack-o’-lantern. All I saw was red, but the seat part was still in my hand. I forced the headrest’s metal rods into her chest, and I held her there, suspended until her last twitch. 

The man stepped out with a baseball bat. He cried out for Pumpkin, and I said, “She’s over here.” I glanced down at her. “She won’t be a problem anymore.” 

My car door slammed, and I pressed the pedal hard. I squealed out of that hellish lot, knowing Emily and I were 45 minutes from the nearest hospital. She didn’t make it. Emily died before my tires hit the highway. 

I had it all wrong, and I live with regret. The obvious threats don’t need to be worried about. It’s the little things we all disregard that sneak up and pounce in the dark. Those are the scariest things— the ones no one ever suspects.


  1. Took me a while to get reading this one. I like the fast pace and cut to the action. It leaves you no time to acclimatize to the screwed up situation. And I have to ask: is Pumpkin really dead?

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