Mr. Ray loved to carve. It was somewhat of an obsession. He couldn’t really afford to do it too often but Halloween was coming and the temptation to carve pulled at him. Besides, sweet little Dani, his neighbor down the street always looked forward to his massive creations, and she deserved his best work.
At seven years old Dani Duvanik looked like a Norman Rockwell model. Her mother insisted that she wear proper girl clothes to church and to school. Proper girl clothes consisted mostly of cotton dresses, pastel sweaters, knee socks and soft leather Mary Janes. Her mother’s only concession was to let Dani wear shorts underneath her dress for modesty’s sake because she loved to climb. She had climbed every monkey bar set and tree within a ten block radius. And one sheer rock face, much to her parents chagrin. They did not like to climb anything, not even stairs. Mother and Daddy rarely left the parlor.
Dani was only allowed to wear actual pants was when she did her chores, but she did a lot of chores. Her parents never helped. They laughed the first time she got chemical burns on her hands because she didn’t know to wear rubber gloves while using lye or bleach. Her hands had healed pretty quickly, but only because her teacher noticed the red, cracked and painful skin and sent her to the school nurse who slathered aloe all over them. Her parents, pretending ignorance of what could have happened, cooed and worried over her until they got home. Then they scolded her for being so stupid. But how was she to know to use gloves? It wasn’t like they had any lying around either.
“You should have read the warnings on the bottle first.” her mother said, but Dani had tried. She just couldn’t sound out all the big words. She waited for her mother’s rant to end then hung her head and mumbled “Yes, ma’am”, before scurrying to the kitchen to make dinner for them. Dani disliked cooking. All those hot surfaces scared her, but Mother said she needed to learn so maybe she could catch a man some day. Mother said, she didn’t need to cook because she’d caught Daddy with her smile, but Dani needed to because it wouldn’t be her looks that got her hitched. At this point, Dani didn’t think she ever wanted to get hitched, not if it meant she’d end up with someone like her daddy.
Night time was the worst. That was when Daddy got drunk, angry, and willing to climb the stairs. Dani always tried to be very quiet and stay out of his way once the sun set, but that wasn’t always possible, and she had the scars to prove it. Sometimes, when he was particularly bad, Dani would wrap a blanket around her shoulders like a cape, crawl out her bedroom window, onto the roof and make the short hop into the tree that stood next to it. There she would sprawl out on a wide branch and wait for morning.
She never wondered why her parents were the way they were, or lamented her life. She just accepted it and tried to keep things as smooth as possible. There were two days a year however, that she looked forward to with a joy only a young girl can muster: Halloween and Christmas.
On Halloween, Dani was allowed to go trick-or-treating for exactly three hours. She had learned to make the most out of those hours away from home. The other kids’ parents took them out in groups. Not Dani’s. She’d been going out on her own since she turned four and had learned quickly how easy it was to blend into a large group of kids, and how much safer it was. Her first year out, a bully had stolen her candy within the first hour. After that she just trailed along behind a group of kids and did much better.
When she got home, Mother always rifled through her candy bag, taking the best treats for herself and leaving mostly bubble gum and mints for Dani, but Dani didn’t care. She loved bubble gum, and the chocolate bars kept her mother’s mouth busy so she couldn’t yell at her for a while.
Christmas was a different matter all together. The weeks leading up to it were always a stressful and tiring time as Mother yelled directions to her from the parlor. “Dani, clean the bathroom!” , “Dani, shovel the walks!”, “Dani, bake cookies for me and your father!”, “Dani, go add pellets to the stove, it’s cold in here!” Dani was usually working from the moment she got home from school until she dropped onto her bed late at night, but it was worth it on Christmas day.
Christmas morning was the only time Dani ever got presents. Her auntie Pearl always sent her three new dresses and a box of home baked cookies which were promptly confiscated by Daddy. Auntie Bernice always sent her new underwear, socks, shorts, shoes, and last year she’d sent a small hand held game. It was hidden in one of her new shoes, but daddy found it and threw it in the toilet saying, “We don’t need you getting all spoiled like them neighbor kids with their fancy gadgets!”
Mother and Daddy actually did buy Dani a present every year. They were always small, and many times used, but to her they were precious. One year she got a teddy bear. Once it was a story book, and last year she’d gotten her very own set of oven mitts. Her teddy bear was missing an eye, and had a couple of cigarette burns where daddy had been too drunk to hit his original target. Her story book was hidden beneath her mattress, and her oven mitts which sometimes doubled as mittens when it was very cold, were safely tucked into her backpack.
Dani wished she was allowed to get a pumpkin for the front step, but mom and dad said putting one out would attract kids to their house and they didn’t want Trick-or-Treaters freeloading off them. So every day on her way to school this month Dani had watched the Halloween decorations go up bit by bit, until eventually the smooth pumpkins that had set on various porches since the beginning of the month were turned into delightful carved jack-o-lanterns. She knew Halloween was almost here when the neighbors carved their pumpkins. Most of them were pretty basic, smiling, triangle-eyed fare. A few were obviously carved with patterns, but the pumpkin at the front gate of Mr. Ray’s house always stood out and she waited excitedly to see it every year.
Mr. Ray was an artist. Nothing about him screamed artist, but Dani knew that despite his plain looking house and yard, his plain clothes and appearance, Mr. Ray was an artist at heart. Dani knew this because of his amazing pumpkins.
Every year since Mr. Ray moved into the house on the corner he had purchased the biggest pumpkin he could find. Then, on Halloween day he would spend hours in his garage carving the massive gourd into spectacular monsters. He used a small forklift to place his creation and the pallet he’d carved it on, just inside his opened gate, fitting it snugly so that it blocked the opening and no one could trespass into his yard. He would light five large red candles, place them inside the massive jack-o-lantern then sit a big bucket of candy next to it with a sign saying “If this pumpkin made you smile, take only one piece, please. If it didn’t make you smile, take two. If you take more, the monster in the pumpkin will come get you!” Then he would retreat into his house and turn out all the lights. People rarely took two pieces of candy, and no one ever took more. The sculpture was just too grand, and Mr. Ray too quiet and mysterious.
Dani looked forward to seeing that massive jack-o-lantern every year. And every year she would wrap her thin coat tightly around her so no one would see that her costume was nothing but an ill-fitting leotard with a cloth tail pinned to it, or see her tiny rib cage the leotard showed so well. She used a black marker she’d found to draw whiskers on her face and blacken the tip of her nose. She couldn’t manage to find or make any kitty ears but a length of black ribbon made a bow in her hair that was close enough. She liked kitties, so she didn’t mind being one every year. This year though, her leotard ripped, the marker had gone dry, and the wind had whipped her ribbon away a few days ago. She had no idea what to be this year and doubted very much that her parents would help her. Halloween was tomorrow, and with no ideas coming to mind, Dani felt tears forming in her eyes.
Knowing she couldn’t let her parents see her crying, Dani stuffed her leotard under her arm, wiped her eyes and slipped out the back door. She wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood knowing that Mother and Daddy wouldn’t miss her for a while. They had both passed out from an early bout of Pre-Halloween spirits.
Dani wandered down the street, and turned left, away from her house and across the street. She walked a block, then doubled back and headed down the alley behind her neighbors homes. She’d walked this way before, but she’d never run into Mr. Ray until tonight. She was walking, looking at her feet, kicking pebbles as she went, when she bumped into him. He was carrying a large bucket of pumpkin guts out of his garage. He almost spilled the bucket, but managed to right it at the last second while Dani fell down with a plop.
Mr. Ray promptly set the bucket down, knelt in front of the small girl and gently lifted her chin with a strong calloused hand. Dani saw the concern on his face, an expression she rarely saw on her parents pallid, and portly mugs, and the warmth of that look broke something loose inside of her. Holding up her ripped leotard she cried for all that she was worth. Mr. Ray took the girl’s costume out of her hand to examine it, then took it and the bucket and dumped them both into the garbage can. Dani was so shocked she stopped crying. Mr. Ray, walked back to her with the empty bucket and held out his hand. Dani wasn’t sure what to do. Her teachers had always warned her of stranger danger, but was Mr. Ray really a stranger? Dani decided he wasn’t, and took his hand.
Mr. Ray led her into his garage. There on a solid looking wood pallet lay the biggest pumpkin yet. Dani wasn’t sure how much it weighed but knew it had to be heavier than Mrs. Showen’s pet pig Willie, and Willie was a prize winner! The top of the pumpkin had been cut off and Mr. Ray had obviously spent a lot of time cleaning the giant out. There were two more buckets sitting next to the pallet, one more with guts, and the other full of seeds. Mr. Ray sat the child down next to the pumpkin and put a palm up to ask her to stay put. He picked up the other gut bucket, dumped it in the garbage and came back.
He motioned for her to follow him as he picked up the seed bucket and headed toward his house. Dani hesitated for only a moment. She really wanted to see the inside of his house, and she really didn’t want to go back home yet for fear that her parents had sobered up enough to catch her. They’d drink more soon enough so she followed Mr. Ray into his house.
The inside of Mr. Ray’s house was nice. Overstuffed furniture with brightly colored pillows surrounded a rainbow hued woven rug, the kind you usually only see in farm houses. Lovely wood carvings covered every surface. There were carvings in both light and dark wood. Some were large, heavy pieces, nearly life sized horses, wolves, and bears stood in the corners. Small delicate birds, squirrels, flowers, and fairies graced the many shelves. Mr. Ray led Dani to a large, comfy, yellow chair with bright red throw pillows and motioned for her to sit down. Bemused by all the wonderful carvings Dani sat happily.
Mr. Ray disappeared into another room and was only gone a moment before returning with a large box of brightly colored clothes. Setting the box at her feet he started pulling out sparkly scarves, tie dyed t-shirts, long silk gloves, a pair of fairy wings, flowered hats, and even a hot pink tutu with sequins. She gave him a questioning look and Mr. Ray nodded and pushed the box toward her. Delighted, Dani rifled through the full contents of the box, pulling out and arranging various outfits for herself, switching items around until she had the perfect costume. Once she had her ensemble set, she carefully folded and put the rest of the items back into the box. Mr. Ray took the box back to wherever he got it from and returned with a plastic pumpkin candy bucket. He took the costume Dani picked out, folded and stuffed it into the pumpkin then walked to his kitchen. When he came back he handed the costume filled pumpkin back to her. There was a large Snickers bar sitting on top. Dani had never had a Snickers of her very own. Mother always took them. Dani couldn’t help herself. She jumped up and threw her arms around Mr. Ray, hugging him tightly around the waist. Mr. Ray stiffened momentarily, then relaxed and knelt down to return the hug. Dani had not been properly hugged in a very long time and melted into the odd, quiet man’s arms. He held her for only a moment before standing up, taking her by the hand and bringing her back out to the garage. He had her sit on a small stool, then he picked up a sketch book and a pencil and began sketching. After a few minutes he turned the pad around and showed her a sketch of a carved pumpkin then pointed to the one on the pallet. Dani smiled happily. This year’s carving would be wonderfully detailed, scary but beautiful. It would be the best yet!
Mr. Ray pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, handed it to Dani then pulled a large plastic baggy out of a box on the shelf. Going to the seed bucket, he carefully scooped out six large handfuls of seeds, sealed them in the baggy and handed that to her too. She accepted them with a smile but wasn’t sure what he meant her to do with them. Mr. Ray, seeing the confusion in her lovely eyes, pointed at the folded paper in her other hand. Dani unfolded the sheet and read the title carefully. “Roasted Pumpkin Seeds”. She loved roasted pumpkin seeds! She had only ever tasted them once, when her teacher Mrs. Marks brought some to school to share with the class. They were so yummy! For the second time that day, Dani threw her arms about this strangely silent man. He hugged her back, then gently pushed her away, turned her toward home and patted her with one hand while motioning for her to go with the other. Dani didn’t waste any time, she opened the Snickers bar and savored it as she hurried home. Her parents would be good and drunk by now, and that would leave her with plenty of time to roast the seeds without interruptions.
Mr. Ray hadn’t been hugged by a little girl since his own daughter, twenty years ago. She would have been thirty by now if the cancer hadn’t taken her. She had been thin and fragile looking at the end, just like Dani was now. Anger surged through Mr. Ray. Dani was a healthy child, or would be if her parents would take care of her properly. A tight ball of heat settled in Mr. Ray’s belly while his heart grew cold. Something had to be done to save his sweet little neighbor before it was too late. He grimace briefly then picked up his carving tools and began to rough out this year’s masterpiece.
Dani woke early. Today was Halloween! She pulled her costume out from under the bed where she’d hidden it and smoothed it out on the bed. Mrs. Marks told the class yesterday that they’d be having a party today. She was excited to share her new costume and her pumpkin seeds with the class. They’d turned out perfectly. She had washed out the large baggy and let it dry before she poured the roasted seeds in it. Then she hid the bulging baggy and her new plastic pumpkin under the sink. Mother never looked under the sink. Mother never went into the kitchen. In fact, she rarely left the parlor. Neither did Daddy, unless it was to punish her, but right now that didn’t matter. Today was Halloween!
She dressed quickly, hiding her beautiful new ballerina-butterfly costume under her dress. She pirouetted once with joy before she hid her wire and silk wings in her backpack. She tiptoed down the stairs, avoided the squeaky step, and grabbed the goodies from under the kitchen sink. She’d almost made it to the front door when daddy came staggering out of the parlor, lurching to a stop in front of her.
“And just where the hell do you think you are going so early?” he slurred.
Dani froze where she stood. Daddy’s eyes were so bloodshot they looked red and scary in his piggish face. When she didn’t answer immediately he swung at her, the back of his huge ham hand barely missing her as she dodged out of the way. This seemed to infuriate him and he lunged for her. She managed to scoot out of the way just in time and watched dispassionately as her father fell flat on his face. Moving with the speed born of desperation, Dani jumped over her father’s flailing legs and ran out the door while he burped and bellowed curses at her from the floor. She was in for it tonight if he remembered this at all, but it would be worth it. She had a new costume, some lovely, spicy pumpkin seeds, a new plastic pumpkin to collect her goodies in, a party at school, and Mr. Ray’s humongous carved jack-o-lantern to look forward to. She skipped the rest of the way to school, never noticing Mr. Ray standing near the corner of her house.
Mr. Ray had seen more than enough. It was only a matter of time before that bastard of a father did something irreparable to the girl, or the mother worked or starved her to death. He waited until Dani’s father staggered back into the parlor before silently entering the house.
Dani was still dancing on clouds as she walked home. The day had been even better than she’d dreamed. Mrs. Marks had complimented her pumpkin seeds in front of the whole class, she got lots of compliments from her class mates on her new colorful costume, and best of all she was actually invited, for the first time ever, to join a group of her school mates going trick-or-treating tonight! Her ecstasy lasted only until she came within view of her house.
She stopped to stare at the dilapidated porch. Sitting on the top step was a small intricately carved pumpkin with a note pinned to the side. Knowing that the pumpkin would be thrown in the garbage if Mother or Daddy saw it, Dani raced up the steps and shoved it into her backpack. She paused on the front porch to listen for her parents. When no sounds came from inside she ran around the side of the house to her tree and scampered up to her favorite branch to read the note.
“Dear Dani, I hope you enjoyed the candy bar, and that you like this years jack-o-lanterns. I carved them especially for you. Sincerely, Mr. Ray.”
The note was written in a precise block lettering while the signature was written in a lovely, flowing calligraphy. Dani read it over and over. Something was wrong. Mr. Ray had obviously spent time crafting the note but it said “jack-o-lanterns” and “them” as if there were more than the one she’d found on the porch. Maybe he meant the big one at his house, or maybe there had been more that had been stolen off the porch. Either that or Mr. Ray hadn’t brought them around yet. Dani hoped that Mr. Ray hadn’t been caught dropping them off. Mother and Daddy would have yelled at him, or worse if Daddy were already drunk, but if Daddy had caught him she wouldn’t have this tiny beauty. Would she? She hoped Mr. Ray was okay. She thought about going over to his house to check on him but before she could climb down the tree, the sound of his forklift starting up caught her ear.
Dani smiled. Mr. Ray must be all right and finished carving. His beautiful pumpkin masterpiece would be making an appearance soon. That meant she had very little time to get ready to meet her classmates.
She carefully climbed out of her tree and snuck through the back door into the house as quietly as possible. She made it to her room without a peep from either Mother or Daddy. She figured they were once again completely drunk and passed out in the parlor. She emptied out her backpack, set the tiny carved pumpkin Mr. Ray had given her on her window sill and placed a glow stick she’d gotten at school in it. Happy that he would be able to see it from his house, she ran back downstairs and out the back door to meet her class mates.
The group played tag in Janey’s yard until the sun went down, then they trick-or-treated their way up and down the blocks around her house saving Mr. Ray’s for last. Everyone was excited to see this year’s pumpkin masterpiece.
As they walked by her house, Dani glanced at her patio. Sure enough two more jack-o-lanterns, one on each side of the first step were lit up and grinning happily. Mother and Daddy must have drunk too much already to notice them. She was tempted to leave the group to get a closer look, but Janey grabbed her hand just then and tugged her along, while chattering excitedly about the growing crowd in front of Mr. Ray’s house.
The crowd had grown by the time they reached the end of the block. People were grouped so tightly around the front gate that the kids couldn’t see anything at all. They tried to push through for a few minutes and were just about to give up when one of the neighbors, Mrs. Collyer, Dani thought, started waving and calling to her excitedly.
“Dani, Dani, dear you’ve got to see this! Move everyone, it’s Dani!”
Suddenly the crowd melted in front of her and Mrs. Collyer’s gentle hands guided her to the front of the pack, her friends following curiously behind.
The pumpkin was even more beautiful than she’d imagined! Lit brightly and carved in precise and deep relief were two small pig-faced devils, their evil faces wide eyed with fear, their pitchforks raised in defense. The two were facing off against a massive monster. The monster, vaguely human-like, was three times the size of the devils, it’s mouth full of fangs dripped fake blood, one clawed hand was raised in attack while the other was held low, shielding something. Dani’s eyes grew round when she looked at what the monster was protecting. Behind its massive paw was an exact likeness of Dani in her ballerina butterfly costume. Her features so perfectly and lovingly carved showed her clinging to the monster’s leg, her eyes wide, and a small smile playing about her lips as the monster defended her from the devils.
“It’s beautiful.” Dani sighed. Her class mates, now her friends, were all gathered about her smiling and congratulating her for being a part of the masterpiece. Everyone began to clap spontaneously, and Mr. Collyer carefully picked Dani up and put her on his shoulders for everyone to see. The applause got louder and people cheered happily for her. Dani smiled and waved to the crowd, enjoying her moment until a scream cut the night.
It came from the direction of Dani’s house. Roger Larson and two of his friends from the high school football team came running out of her yard and raced toward the crowd.
“They’re pumpkins!” Roger screeched. His teammates, twin brothers George and Geoffrey crumpled down to the sidewalk. Pale and gasping they proceeded to cry.
Mr. Collyer handed Dani to his wife and shook Roger by the shoulders to stop his screaming. “What the devil are you talking about? What’s got you so worked up?”
The whites of Roger’s eyes stood out in the darkness, and his hands shook wildly as they grasped Mr. Collyers forearms. “They’re p-p-pumpkins!” he cried. “Dear God, they’re carved and lit like pumpkins!” Then he wretched violently.
Mr. Collyer told everybody to stay put and ran to Dani’s house. After a moment two police cruisers pulled up in front of her yard with their lights flashing.
Dani didn’t go home that night. In fact, she never went home again. She spent the night with the Collyers until both Aunts, Pearl and Bernice, showed up to claim her. The two old spinsters fussed over her, cuddling and cooing that everything would be alright. That same night they bought her all new clothes and brought her to her first ever restaurant and promised to take good care of her for always. Dani never asked what happened to her parents. She didn’t care. The aunties were so much nicer than Mommy or Daddy had ever been. She did ask if she could visit Mr. Ray but was politely informed that Mr. Ray was gone.
The next day while the aunties were busy packing up what little she owned, she snuck out of the house and ran down the street to Mr. Rays. She knocked on his front door to no answer. She checked his garage, but it was locked. Finally, she ran to the back of his house and stood on a small box she’d found in the ally and peeked through his window. The house, emptied of all its colorful furniture and lovely carvings, stood empty and lifeless.
Dani never saw Mr. Ray again, but every Halloween until her own kids were nearly grown, a small beautifully carved pumpkin showed up on her doorstep. She never saw them delivered, or who dropped them off but they always made her smile.
~ Pumpkin image carved by Ray Villifane at Villifane Studios