Zachary and the Pumpkin Men

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Zachary was afraid of the pumpkin men. He was afraid of their fixed, waxen smiles. He was afraid of their dark, hollow eyes. He was afraid of their leathery, orange skin and, most of all, he was afraid of what they did when no one was looking.

Not that they ever did anything of course. Miss Weaver, the schoolmarm, was quick to point this out, and Zachary was forced to admit it was true. What could they do after all? They were decoration, nothing more, she told him. Gourds mounted on poles, above clothes stuffed with straw. Simple, everyday things. Their faces were carved, not real. Their bodies were nothing more sinister than clothes past their best. Mr Ham's old shirt. Mr Budgen's worn jerkin. And on one, his own mother's old dress. No more scary than the bring and buy sale held in the schoolhouse every spring. The other children laughed at first when he confided his fears. When he insisted, they began to look at him strangely. But to Zachary, the pumpkin men were more than the sum of their parts. The sight of their wide, gaping grins filled him with a quiet dread.

This year, now that Zachary had turned eight, he was supposed to join the older children in designing his own pumpkin head. They each took paper and pencils and drew out the face they wanted to add to the orange hoard. Miss Weaver would carve them all, one by one. Whilst the other children clamoured and jostled for their place in the queue, squealing with delight as each new face was hewn from the smooth orange fruit, Zachary sat with a blank piece of paper and stared at the growing mound of grinning skulls appearing on the classroom floor.

At the end of class, Miss Weaver kept Zachary behind. She tutted at his blank piece of paper and folded her arms across her skinny bosom. It wasn't like him, she pointed out, not to do as he was told. His actions had not gone unnoticed, and she didn't want him upsetting the other children with his outlandish ideas. They would stay there all evening if need be, she told him, but he would be creating his own pumpkin face, just like the rest of his classmates.

Reluctantly, he began to draw. He didn't like the other faces, the ones his classmates had designed. The carved-out black eyes, the wide mouths and pointed teeth. So he attempted to draw a happy face. One that wouldn't be so scary. He did his best, but his drawing hand shook, and the more he tried to make the face cheerful, the more demented it looked. Eventually, growing impatient Miss Weaver snatched the paper from under his pencil. Despite her earlier claim, she had absolutely no intention of being there all night. She was due to meet a young gentleman from the neighbouring village and was eager to be away.

As the paper was wrenched from his grip, Zachary's pencil left a long slash across the page. A chill crept up his spine. Somehow, although for the life of him Zachary could not tell how, that final stroke had altered the face on the paper in such a way that it appeared to leer at him off the page. It did so in such a lifelike fashion that even Miss Weaver caught her breath for a moment.

Nevertheless, she took the paper over to her desk, scooped up the final uncarved pumpkin, and got to work. Zachary stood in front of her and waited awkwardly, wringing his hands. He tried not to watch, but there was something undeniable about the face forming from Miss Weavers cuts and gouges. It put Zachary in mind of the accident at the mill last winter. Sam Budgens had got his arm stuck in one of the machines. Zachary's route home from school took him straight past the mill and he had seen Sam being helped into the back of his father's cart. Sam's arm had been in bloody ribbons. Bone shone through in places. The pile of orange flesh that fell to the classroom floor as Miss Weaver's knife did its grisly work seemed just the same to Zachary. He watched as watery orange juice seeped from the soggy pile across the beaten earth floor.

When Miss Weaver was done she took the grinning skull and skewered it on the last remaining pole at the back of the classroom. It already had a faded red waistcoat and stained trousers hanging from it and, creation complete, Miss Weaver swiftly turned her back on the twenty lifeless bodies and began to clear up. She knew Jack Higgis, the brewer's son, would be waiting for her already, under the old Beech as they had arranged. Zachary, however, was transfixed. Swollen, shiny heads stared down at him, one for each child in the village, their mouths gaping hungrily.

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