Liam was the believing type, but even more so than your average 3rd-grader. Most kids at his age believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but Liam found those tales foolish and irrelevant, fictional characters conjured up to draw young hearts and minds into holidays. Liam surmised that his faith could only lie with a single idol. Like an agnostic questioning which deity out of Yahweh, Allah, and Buddha could be the one true god, Liam knew there could only be one authentic holiday totem. There couldn’t exist both a Santa and a tooth fairy, there could be only one. And for Liam, the one in question was The Pumpkin King.
Down the road from Liam’s house was a pumpkin patch that stretched on toward the horizon, below which the sun dipped each and every evening. This, Liam believed, was where his holiday deity arose to reward his disciples, young and old. The night on which this happened was All Hallow’s Eve, of course.
Now, Liam knew in his heart that this Pumpkin King was the one true idol, just as any tiny tot with their eyes all aglow knew that Santa Clause would slide down their chimney with his bag of goodies on Christmas Eve. But the kids at school thought Liam to be asinine for his childlike beliefs. Just like the world’s religions—where believers of a talking serpent poke fun of believers of a winged horse—the grade school believers of flying reindeer and Christmas elves jeered at Liam for his devotion to a pumpkin god.
“When are you gonna stop believing in that stupid pumpkin?”
“Hey, Liam! Watch me carve the pumpkin king’s face!”
“Santa’s real, my parents told me. But my parents said the pumpkin king isn’t real!”
On his two-mile walk home, the school’s fifth-grade bullies—Franky, Tyler, and Aspen—waited patiently for Liam to walk under the arched stone bridge. When Liam emerged from under it, he was greeted by a shower of cold and slimy pumpkin guts that rained down on his head, immediately followed by sounds of devilish snickering.
Word spread through the small South Carolina town that little Liam Henson believed in the occult and would be spending Halloween night in a pumpkin patch, awaiting his pagan deity. A notion that was met with judgmental stares and virtue-signaling gossip from those bible-belt dwellers. And soon, Liam’s parents stopped receiving invitations to local church functions. His older sister was shunned in school, believed to be some sort of witch who, like her brother, bowed to heathen idols.
The afternoon of Halloween soon arrived. The classroom was thoroughly decorated for the occasion; paper cutout jack-o-lanterns were strung together with yarn and tacked to a corked staff on the wall, a large black cat cutout was pasted to the classroom door, and a jack-o-lantern bowl filled with candy sat atop the teacher’s desk. None of the decorations in the school dared echo anything to do with witches or goblins or vampires or devils, something which would have drawn judgement from more than a few sets of parents.
Liam’s school held a trick-or-treating event within its walls. Costumed children lined up outside each classroom to receive their treats. Liam, of course, dressed as a pumpkin. He received the usual jeers from his classmates; if they weren’t making fun of his devotion to the Pumpkin King, they were laughing at the fact that pumpkin costumes were normally reserved for an infant’s first Halloween. It was not until Liam was kindly asked to refrain from the school-wide trick-or-treating, however, that he became most distraught.
“Liam, I think it’s best if you hang out in Principal Reviss’ office for an hour.” His teacher, Ms. Volskay… he hated her with a passion.
“Why?” Liam asked quite innocently.
Liam hated her for that, the way she’d never give a real answer. She acted as if she was the all-powerful overlord upon which the righteousness of rules rested. But she was only a part of the problem. The bigger issue was that Liam was a believer among nonbelievers, at least when it came to his Pumpkin King. These bible-thumpers just wouldn’t have it. The Easter Bunny and Santa Clause were fine to them; they were the mascots for Christian holidays, and were thus virtuous and pure. To them, the Pumpkin King was equal in nature to the god Pan, upon which their Satan character’s appearance was based.
And so Liam sat and seethed and stewed in the principal’s office. Principal Reviss offered him candy from the bowl on his desk. As Liam pathetically chewed on a piece of caramel, he thought of how much better the other kids had it in terms of quality and quantity of candy. It made his blood boil to think of it. Of how those commonplace zombies were rewarded for their lack of original thinking.
“Excuse me, I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” Ms. B, the school counselor, entered the room with a firm knock on the already-opened door.
“Not at all,” Principal Reviss replied. “Have a seat.”
Oh, god. Liam knew what this meant. Ms. B was about to ‘counsel’ him. Even at his age, Liam thought it to be a useless position that could be handled by anyone and everyone. Ms. B sat down across from Liam, next to Principal Reviss. As Ms. B adjusted her hair, Liam caught Reviss’ eyes wandering down toward her tights-covered legs. Such hypocrisy.
“Now, Liam,” said Ms. B in her thick southern accent, talking to Liam in a most passively degrading manner, “we wanted to talk to you today about certain things you’ve been saying around school.”
“Okay,” said Liam, uninterested.
“Liam… do you know what the word ‘gossip’ means?”
Oh, boy. Here we go.
“Yes,” Liam replied.
There was a pause. Ms. B was waiting for an answer.
“Go on, then. Tell me.”
“It means to go around saying things that aren’t true.”
“That’s right. Well, that’s sort of what this is about, Liam.” Another pause as Ms. B stared Liam down with demeaning puppy dog eyes.
“Okay,” said Liam amidst the awkward air.
“I hear you’ve been going around school, talking about a thing called ‘The Pumpkin King’. Is that true?”
“Because it’s almost Halloween. And every Halloween, the Pumpkin King comes out of the pumpkin patch and gives presents to all his believers.”
“Now, that’s not really true, though, is it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Liam, there’s no such thing as a ‘Pumpkin King’”.
“Are you a god-fearing woman?”
Ms. B was taken aback, and this was two folds; not only had young Liam turned the questioning onto her, but he was also asking an intelligent question, intelligent for his age. She couldn’t tell whether he was that mature in intellect, or if he was just repeating something he’d heard an adult say.
“I, uh,” Ms. B stammered, “yes, I believe in God. Go to church twice a week.” Liam grimaced at how she pronounced ‘twice’ as twass.
“And do you believe the story about the snake in the garden?”
“Of course. First story of the bible.”
“Is a talking snake in a garden less crazy than a talking pumpkin in a patch?”
“Well, Liam, it’s important that you understand the difference. The bible’s the word of god.”
This was going nowhere. Liam quit and spent the rest of the session staring at a wall as Ms. B rattled off baptist drivel and quotes about ‘dishing dirt’ that she picked up at a help site for counselors. She is child, Liam thought. Unenlightened, uneducated.
Evening soon came, and there was Liam’s older sister, Tara, wearing her glittery witch costume. She scolded him for his stupid beliefs that had garnered her so much flak in school and around town.
“I swear to god,” she said, “if I hear one more word from you about this stupid pumpkin thing, I’m gonna drop you off in the cemetery overnight.”
But Liam would not be spending the night in a cemetery. He’d be spending it in the pumpkin patch near his house. Tonight was the night, and it made him grin. All of the torments, the virtue-signaling religious fanatics, the bullying, the harsh words, the neglect… it would all pay off on this chilly Halloween.
Liam left the house, but unlike the hoards of children walking the earth that evening, Liam was not in a costume. He wore jeans and had on a fur coat to keep warm once the sun fully set. His lack of a costume drew confused stares from the adults who were handing out candy. The other children were too busy gobbling down chocolate to notice. Liam cut through several yards as he made his way to the patch. If he hurried, he’d be able to catch that reddish orange sunset in its full glory.
As he walked among swirling hoards of dead autumn leaves, he saw something out of the corner of his eye that he hoped was just his imagination. But it wasn’t. He saw them clear as day. Franky, Tyler, and Aspen, the three bullies, were standing on the side of someone’s house. And they saw Liam, too, who was obviously walking off toward the pumpkin patch.
In this moment, Liam wished he hadn’t ran off at the mouth so much about the Pumpkin King. The three bullies seemed to freeze in place as their hawklike eyes tracked Liam’s every step.
“Going to see the pumpkin man?”
One of them shouted it. Liam wasn’t sure which one. This was bad. They surely wouldn’t pass up a chance to get Liam alone in a pumpkin patch. Liam began to picture his head covered in pumpkin guts again.
Liam kept on walking, avoiding eye contact with his three tormentors. He could still feel the weight of their eyeballs against his back. But he didn’t dare look back, as it may have further provoked them.
Liam arrived in the pumpkin patch at the exact time he’d hoped. The sun was halfway below the horizon, and it gleamed a reddish glow that turned the sky around it pink. Liam perched atop a massive pumpkin and watched the sun set. Before he knew it, the sun was gone, giving way to a starry night sky that was complete with a bright orange harvest moon.
The air was chilly now and Liam’s teeth slightly chattered as the wind glided over the back of his neck. The occasional sound of a solitary, windblown leaf bouncing off of a nearby pumpkin would fill Liam with a small sense of hope. Each time it happened, he yearned that the sound was produced by the Pumpkin King’s arrival. Still, Liam did have some current satisfaction at the fact that the three bullies hadn’t shown up to torment him, at least not yet. Nevertheless, Liam kept his eyes peeled for the fiends.
The moon soon ascended to its peak in the sky. It must have been about 8 o’clock by now, and the trick-or-treaters were likely heading inside, typical of a Halloween night that fell on a weekday. But Liam was still out under the night sky. He was a patient boy and he’d wait until his idol showed up.
I rustling in the foliage nearby alerted Liam. He sat up and listened. The rustling sound was not far off. Was this the Pumpkin King? Liam surely hoped.
Liam nearly fell off the pumpkin he was sitting on. Just as he’d feared. Franky, Tyler, and Aspen had reared their fiendish faces in his pumpkin patch.
“Has the pumpkin king showed up, yet?” Franky jeered. He was the ringleader, and right now, he looked especially out for blood. Each of the three brutes held massive bags of candy, probably stolen off some younger kids.
“No comment?” Franky persisted.
“Bite me,” said Liam. And in this moment, it was as if a bomb had detonated. Liam wasn’t entirely sure if what he’d thought had actually exited his mouth. It was clear from the astounded faces around him that he had indeed said it.
“What did you just say?” asked Aspen.
Liam took a deep breath. “I said…” (Liam still could not believe this was coming out of his mouth) “…bite me.”
Franky snorted out a menacing laugh. “Wow,” he said. “Even after all this time, you still don’t get it.”
“What are we gonna do to him?” Tyler sneered.
“Hmm,” Franky pondered. Liam sat atop the pumpkin, trying to look as calm as possible. His fingers nervously twitched by his side, and he hoped they didn’t see. Any sign of weakness from him was like blood in the water. He wasn’t sure how he was getting out of this jam.
“I know!” Those words alone uttered from Franky’s mouth sent chills through Liam’s entire body. “He likes pumpkins so much! Let’s stuff him inside that one! Grab him.”
Before Liam could budge, Tyler and Aspen gripped his arms tight and yanked him off the pumpkin.
“This one’s perfect,” said Franky as he pointed at the large pumpkin. “Tyler, you got the knife?”
“Right here.” Tyler pulled a large, sheathed hunting knife and tossed it to Franky. Franky pulled the knife out of the sheath as if he were some middle-aged swordsman, grinning wildly.
“Perfect!” Franky exclaimed as he approached the large pumpkin. “Move.” Franky waved his hand wildly. Like houseflies, Tyler and Aspen parted from the large pumpkin, Liam in hand.
Franky knelt down in front of the massive pumpkin and viciously stuck the knife into its belly, ripping a gash right down the middle. The manner in which he stabbed it would cause one to imagine Franky as a future serial killer.
“Aw, yeah,” said Franky as he hacked away at the pumpkin’s flesh. Tyler and Aspen nodded and snickered as they watched Franky carve away.
Eventually, Franky had carved a large opening in the pumpkin, just big enough for a human body to be shoved into, but tight enough so that it couldn’t be taken out. Franky gawked at Liam with those crazed eyes, looking quite proud of his work.
“And now,” said Franky, “we insert our little pumpkin-lover. Good luck pulling yourself out!”
Tyler and Aspen yanked Liam toward the opening of the pumpkin. But they didn’t have to use much force, which seemed to puzzle them. Liam was being curiously cooperative and the fear had all but faded from his face.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Tyler, getting right up in Liam’s face. “At least scream a little. Cry for help. Something.” Tyler and Aspen came to a screeching halt. They scrutinized Liam’s unbelievably calm features, trying to make sense of it.
“Aren’t you scared?” Aspen asked. “Go ahead and cry for mom. ‘Cause she won’t hear you when your ass is inside that pumpkin.”
Liam’s relaxed demeanor persisted. But the three bullies also persisted. Tyler jabbed Liam’s shoulder with his fingertips. “Cry for help!” He jabbed again, repeating his command. Liam did nothing. Not even a flinch.
“The hell’s going on?” Franky asked in complete bafflement. “Is he tripping?” Liam wasn’t gonna give these little sadists the satisfaction.
“HOO-WAH!” All the air from Liam’s lungs exited his mouth in a single burst as Aspen’s fist smashed the sweet spot of Liam’s gut.
“Cry for help!” Tyler repeated as he, too, punched Liam, this time in the ribs. But Liam stayed defiant. Franky, meanwhile, looked to be growing impatient.
“Move,” said Franky as he approached Liam. Franky raised the knife, and Liam felt his eyes widening of their own accord. Franky grabbed the back of Liam’s neck and knelt down in front of Liam so that the two were face-to-face. He brought the tip of the knife up to Liam’s chin, holding it just a hairsbreadth away.
“Cry…for…help,” Franky commanded.
Then, suddenly, a change in the wind. No one could quite put a finger on it, but the atmosphere shifted. A new presence made itself apparent in the pumpkin patch, but wasn’t yet seen. And just about every kid who’d ever been bullied would have relished the way Franky’s eyes slowly began to fill up with fear. They widened as he watched Liam’s mouth slowly form into a sadistic grin.
“No,” said Liam. “YOU cry for help.”
Franky leapt to his feet and held the knife at the ready. He looked panicked, his head rapidly turning in all directions like that of a frightened songbird.
“Who’s there?” Franky stammered, his voice cracking. “Wh-Who’s there?! C-Come out or I’ll gut you!”
A cold wind began to move across the pumpkin patch, blowing dead leaves all around. And there was a sudden rustling noise coming from nearby, and one could see the leaves and vines moving around from something crawling among them.
“Over there!” Franky shouted, pointing in the direction of the rustling. He began to approach, his stooges in toe. Liam stayed put, not quite sure if the three even remembered he was there.
The three bullies then came to a screeching halt, the blood in their veins running wintry. Franky dropped the knife as he watched a thick pumpkin vine slither along the ground like a boa constrictor. More vines followed, all of them crawling to one collective, centric area in the middle of the patch. As this happened, Liam’s menacing smile grew wider and wider.
“What the hell’s going on?” Aspen shouted.
“I don’t know,” said Franky, “but I’m outta here.”
Franky began to run off, but he hadn’t made it ten steps before one of the pumpkin vines lashed out and snagged his ankle. Franky fell to the ground, landing right on his face. He was screaming like a little girl. Before the other two had the time to react, they too were accosted by the vines, which yanked them to the ground.
“Help! Help us!” They all shouted the same thing. With a grin still plastered to his face, Liam turned and watched as the Pumpkin King rose out of the pumpkin patch in all his glory. This had been a part of Liam’s plan all along. He knew his tormentors would show up. Just like last year’s 5th-grade bullies showed, and the year before that, too. For each year, the Pumpkin King demanded a sacrifice, and Liam never failed to produce.
The Pumpkin King arose, a ten-foot figure, torso consisting of thick, intertwined vines that wrapped around one another to form a tree trunk of sorts. The head of the King was a large and ripe jack-o-lantern, fluid in its expression. Once again a witness to the great sight, Liam fell to one knee and placed his palms in the dirt, showing his respect.
“HELP!” The three tormentors continued to shout in a pathetic sort of way, in the way that had made them laugh when their previous victims produced the same panicked screaming.
“Pumpkin King,” said Liam, “I have once again brought you nonbelievers.”
“NO!” shouted Franky. “We believe! We believe! We really, really believe!”
The Pumpkin King smiled down at Liam. He approved. And with that, the vines that held onto the three screaming brats began to drag them toward the King. They screamed and hollered like they never had before, but no one was coming. Like the mouth of a python, the Pumpkin King’s jaws unhinged and his mouth opened wide. Inside the mouth, floating around in the squashy guts and the seeds, were a few of the skulls and bones from past offerings.
The bullies all dug their fingertips into the dirt as they were dragged closer and closer to the Pumpkin King’s maw. Their petrified faces… more delightful than Liam had anticipated.
“PLEASE!” Franky shouted in a last ditched effort to save his skin. “Liam! Make it stop!”
And with that, the three bullies were slurped right into the Pumpkin King’s mouth, a loud squelching noise filling the air as their bodies became submerged in the piles of guts inside. Their screams, too, became submerged, muffled, and eventually… silenced.
The morning after Halloween. Candy wrappers littered the streets. Toilet paper was strung out along several front lawns. A handful of people tore down their Halloween decorations at the crack of dawn before the workday began.
Among the townspeople returning to their regular lives were three sets of worried parents, wondering where their boys had gone. Last Franky’s mom had seen of him, he was departing the house with an empty pillowcase and that sycophantic smile as he waved goodbye to her. Aspen’s mom watched as her son departed with Franky. And Tyler’s mom had only heard a halfhearted ‘bye’ uttered by her son, followed by the sound of the backdoor slamming.
Search parties were sent out to look. No one nor nothing turned up. Liam said not a word of it, of course. The day following Halloween was always a somber one for him, because it meant he had to wait another year to see his god.
Eventually, the search parties went looking for the three missing boys in the pumpkin patch. They searched through the entire patch, looking for any sign of the missing boys; a watch, a glove, a bag of candy, anything.
And after the search parties rummaged through the pumpkin patch, Liam found himself watching the story on the news that evening. As he plucked the peas from his otherwise satisfactory pot pie, he smirked at the image on the television screen: his very own handiwork, the phrase ‘INRI’ carved into the side of a pumpkin.
Written by Jake Wick