Contest #169 shortlist ⭐️

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Holiday Suspense Thriller

 Carving Jack


Lydia Smith bought a house in New Hampshire simply because she fell in love with autumn. In New Hampshire, autumn gives lungs to Vivaldi’s violins. It drinks from a witch’s brew of smoky smells and corduroy textures then follows it up with a warm cinnamon chaser. It is the height of perfection, and gone so quickly all that remains is a sense of it, like a dream you can’t quite recall, but that affects you nonetheless.  

Lydia’s dreams were affecting her during this particular autumn, but not because of the falling foliage, though some blame could be laid on the light of the full hunter’s moon streaming in through the windows. Her dreams were heavy, devoid of discernible storyline, and crowded with the sights and sounds of a bohemian circus rattling through forested countryside, horse hooves pounding the packed dirt trails as the nomads sang in tongues unfamiliar. They beat drums and shook bells and devoured the darkened landscape around them. She awoke upright, sweat dampening her light t-shirt, bed covers whipped and wrangled and thrown violently to the floor.

“Well,” she said out loud to the empty room. “That won’t do.”

In her kitchen trash she dumped yesterday’s damp coffee grounds over the shredded remains of the latest threatening letter she’d found slipped under the windshield wiper of her car. Lydia used to love living at the end of a secluded street on the side of Mt. Cranmore. The quiet that once suited her was now making her jumpy as hell. 

The letters started two days after Lydia appeared in the town’s newspaper as a “Local Artist to Watch.” They were pretty generic, taunting her with suggestions that her art was some sort of feminist-inspired devil worship, and warning her not to enter this year’s pumpkin carving contest in town- a contest she won every year. 

Lydia supported herself as an artist, her main medium being the discarded doll heads she scoured thrift stores and church tag sales for when not in her studio repurposing the heads into planters, vases, lamps, and more. But she’d work with anything that inspired her. She had one of the most popular shops on Etsy, and there was a boutique in Boston that could not keep her items in stock. 

Outside, tires rumbled over the crushed gravel driveway and Lydia rushed to the window. She exhaled a heavy breath and felt excitement push the fear out of the way. The back of Charlie’s blue pick up truck was overflowing with bright orange pumpkins of all sizes. 

“Oh my goodness! Look at all these!” Lydia stood in the doorway, her warm breath spilling out of her mouth and turning to puffs of steam in the crisp, cold edge of the late October morning. She clapped her hands together in delight, then blew into them for warmth.

“Take as many as you want,” Charlie said, stepping around the back of the truck to the steps where Lydia stood.

“Are you sure?”

“Yep, these are all leftovers we couldn’t sell.”

Charlie represented the fourth generation of Caldwells running his family farm about ten miles south. He’d taken a liking to Lydia when she’d come to his little sister’s aid in the dark parking lot of CVS, armed with jumper cables and an umbrella for the pouring spring rain they were experiencing. Lydia hooked the cables up to their cars and got Charlie's anxious and stranded sister safely on her way again. 

“You gonna win the carving contest again this year?” he asked with a playful smile, the dimple in his left cheek darting in and out. 

“Duh,” Lydia replied. She smiled as she looked over the haul. She began plucking plump pumpkins from the bed of the truck, placing them on the slate walkway leading up to her house. “Oh, but I can do so much more now, thank you,” she continued, more sincerely. She picked pumpkin after pumpkin from the truck, then turned to look at the growing pile.

“I can help with any of the bigger ones,” Charlie offered. He stepped to the truck and looked over what remained.

“Well, maybe just a few. I like that one,” she pointed to the back of the heap. “And that big guy, on the left there.”

Charlie retrieved the pumpkins, and walked them to the barn behind the house where Lydia had her studio. She opened the door and directed him to leave the heavier ones on the large wooden work table.

“You can put them right there on the-,” Lydia stopped short with a gasp. 

On the table was a rough wooden cross with a mutilated gray squirrel bound to it by twine, its bushy tail lying limply to the side. Dried flower petals, acorns, and autumn-toned leaves were strewn over the table. A white envelope was tucked under the cross. Charlie was about to remark that he didn’t understand her art, but stopped when he saw the fear in her eyes. He removed the envelope and studied it before handing it to Lydia. BITCH was scrawled in blue crayon on the white paper. He placed a protective hand on her shoulder.

“Do you have a stalker?” he asked, his words dropping like lead weights in the cool air of the barn.

“I’ve gotten a few notes on my car,” Lydia started. The envelope trembled in her hand, and she hesitated to open it. “This is a step up in the creepy. I just thought it was some other artist who was in a snit after seeing the article in the paper.”

“Could be,” Charlie said. “Or could be more serious. Have you gone to the police?”

Lydia shook her head. “What’re they gonna do about a few random notes?”

“This is more than a note,” Charlie insisted, jerking his head toward the gruesome gift left like an offering on Lydia’s work table. 

“Yeah,” she said. “You’re right, I should call them.” 


***


The police kept the note. It was a crayon drawing of the squirrel on the cross, with little X’s as eyes, and a pink tongue hanging out of the squirrel’s mouth. Do you like my art? it read at the bottom, in purple Crayola. They photographed her workspace, then removed the squirrel and cross to take as more evidence. Lydia was left to clean up the rest. They instructed her to lock her doors and windows, take note of strange people or cars coming down her road, and suggested that she get herself a dog, since she didn’t have a boyfriend.

“A big one, not one a’them ankle biters,” the officer said with a sneer.

Lydia smiled politely, but told the officer to fuck off with her eyes. 

When she was alone again, she locked the heavy sliding barn door with its iron latch, stoked a fire in the wood stove to take the chill out of the air, and sat on her favorite stool to stare at the assortment of pumpkins on the long table in front of her.

Every year, the town held a Halloween festival where local businesses handed out candy to costumed children, and hot coffee and doughnuts to the cold and tired parents following behind them. The PTA stationed face-painters near the entrance - which was just two stacks of hay bales and a folding table at one end of the town square - who painted ghosts and bats and pumpkins on little kids’ faces. There was a haunted stroll, spooky storytime, and bobbing for apples. The high school jazz band played Monster Mash and Jack’s Lament on the edge of the parking lot. 

The highlight of the festival was always the pumpkin carving contest. As a professional artist, Lydia had an advantage, and because of her, for the past four years, there were now two categories: amateur and professional. To everyone’s shock, and the local business owners’ delight, this inspired artists from all over New England to enter the contest, descending on the mountain town the Saturday before Halloween to try their hand at collecting the one hundred dollar prize while simultaneously funneling upward of fifty-thousand dollars into the shops, inns, and restaurants in one weekend. She got a personalized Christmas card every year from Robert Swanson, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce. 

Inspiration struck like lightning and Lydia jumped up from her seat and approached her desk set in the middle of the barn. She pulled a black Bic lighter from her jeans pocket and a small charcoal disc from a desk drawer. Holding the lighter to the charcoal, she watched without blinking as it sparked and began to glow along its edge. Lydia rested the smoking charcoal disc on a bed of sea salt in a small, white ceramic bowl that sat on top of a large, smooth river stone. Lydia found the stone on one of her hikes along the stream that ran through the back corner of her property, and brought it to her workspace to remind herself that nature was the world’s most exquisite artist. 

From a black velvet pouch also in the drawer of the desk, Lydia pinched an assortment of herbs and bits of resin in her fingers and sprinkled them on the glowing charcoal disc in the bowl. Small golden nuggets of frankincense, silvery flecks of white sage, and dark green sprigs of rosemary mingled together and began to smoke, curling up, up up into the air of the barn, dispersing like spirits sent to cleanse the space of its negative energy. The warm, earthy fragrance wrapped itself around Lydia and filled her senses. Outside, her wind chimes lent their song to the purification ritual, and she stood with head bowed, hands pressed together, and set her intentions for the day ahead, focusing on peace, protection, and creativity.

The remainder of the morning and most of the afternoon was spent with Lydia bent over the pumpkins - cutting, gutting, and carving. On a cookie sheet, she spread out the seeds and placed them on top of the wood stove to dry while she worked on sculpting a glowering, watchful guardian pulled from her dreams. Using a reclaimed palette on caster wheels as her base, wooden dowels, tiny toothpicks, and fallen branches from outside as her support, Lydia constructed a towering giant from Charlie’s donated pumpkins and the assorted gourds she’d been collecting all month, adding dimpled ornamentals and smooth, summer crooknecks to the expanding colossal figure until he was complete. 

Slipping her long, thin carving knife into its sheath and then into her back pocket, Lydia took a step back to admire her work. She lit the candles inside each of the carved pumpkins in her sculpture. She needed a step stool to light his head, but when she did, Jack-o-Lantern came to life. A story was told in his creation, from his haunting face and glowing eyes to the scenes carved into the smaller pumpkins of his arms and hands - chilling ghouls, screeching bats, and wicked witches flying through the night sky. In his abdomen, Jack is delicately carved devouring a man in his mouth while holding two more in his hands, arms raised above his impressive pumpkin head. From there the story moves into his long legs where Lydia brought forth the trapped victims of Jack’s voracious appetite, stacked one on top of the next, as they scream in silent, trapped torment. It all added up to the most terrifying work of art Lydia had ever created.

“If this doesn’t win, then I congratulate whoever beats me,” she said aloud to nobody but Jack. 


***


Lydia’s steps crunched through the fallen leaves and snapped the small twigs that lay strewn on the trail leading from her barn to the stream on the back corner of her property. When she reached the water, she stood along the edge where the long grass was browned and drooping after a string of frosty nights. The full moon was just barely visible behind the mountain’s eastern ridge. The water traveling through the stream babbled as fallen leaves twirled like ballerinas on its surface in the inky darkness of twilight.

From her front pocket Lydia plucked three of the pumpkin seeds she’d pulled from Jack’s head before she started carving, and held them in her open right palm. She’d written a word on each of the seeds.

Peace. Protection. Creativity.

Lydia closed her eyes, inhaled through her nose, then blew out through her mouth. She cleared her mind of everything but three things. 

Peace. Protection. Creativity. 

“I call upon the ancient powers for peace of mind in my darkest hours,” she said out loud. Her words sounded foreign in the quiet of the clearing, but she continued. 

“For protection when I need it most, and creativity in battling all of evil’s hosts. So mote it be.”

Lydia opened her eyes and tossed the three seeds into the moving water of the stream. She watched as they danced and spun on the current, coming together and moving apart again in ever widening circles as they floated downstream. When they disappeared from her sight in the dim glow of moonlight, she turned and began walking back to her house.

She was nearly to the driveway on the far side of her barn when Lydia heard what sounded like movement coming from inside. She froze. In the light of the full moon, higher in the sky now as the evening wore on, little puffs of warm air escaped from her lips and nose as she waited to hear the noise again. She inched her way closer to the side of the barn and prayed it was just a racoon sniffing around her trash for an easy meal. Then she heard the noise again, like someone tripping over furniture, and she knew there was something or someone in her barn.

Lydia crept closer to the side of the barn, her head on a swivel as she reacted to every noise, whether a dog barking in the distance, or her feet crunching into the fallen leaves that were accumulated on the edge of the barn. She peered around the edge, toward the sliding door facing her house and driveway. It was wide open. Lydia’s heart fell into her gut.

A shadow cast from the security lights attached to the barn swept across the driveway until a dark figure was standing in the open doorway. Without meaning to, Lydia gasped. She immediately regretted it.

“Lydia?” a deep voice cut through the darkness. She stepped forward.

“Charlie?”

“Yeah, hey, it’s me, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” Charlie said. “I just swung by to check things out. You weren’t answering your phone. I guess my imagination runs wild sometimes. But after this morning,” he trailed off.

Lydia and Charlie stepped into the wash of light falling onto the spot of the driveway where her car and his truck were parked.

“Oh, yeah, I took a walk down to the stream out back to clear my head. Having my phone on me kind of defeats the purpose.” She shrugged and offered her best sheepish grin. “But I’m fine, thank you. It’s been quiet here all day.”

“Did you see the paper?” he asked.

“No, why?”

“They’re calling your stalker The Cranmore Creeper,” he said. He kicked at a pebble with the toe of his sneaker until it went skidding across the driveway.

“Oh my god, it’s in the paper? How did it get out?”

Charlie shrugged.

“You want company tonight or anything?” he asked, a shy grin struggling against his better judgment. “We could get a pizza, watch a movie? Just so you’re not alone.” 

“You’re sweet,” Lydia offered. Being a single woman in a small mountain town, this wasn’t the first time a man offered himself to her in the name of protection. “But I’m beat. I’ve been working all day, I’m sore and sticky with pumpkin guts.” She laughed. “I think this whole story is getting blown way out of proportion. I’m just going to take a hot bath and head to bed early.”

As a peace offering, Lydia lay a palm on the back of Charlie’s arm and smiled warmly. She squeezed gently through his thick work shirt. “Good night, Charlie.”


***


Lydia remembered the officer’s words from that morning and locked the front door after stepping inside her house. She decided to do a final check before heading upstairs for her bath. 

On the floor of the dark kitchen, her boots crunched into broken glass, scattered shards shining in the moonlight like diamonds spilled from a tiara. Lydia’s heart raced and she reached for her phone, forgetting for a split second that it was on her desk in the barn. Her fingers felt the carving knife still in her back pocket and she slipped it out in one smooth motion. She threw its sheath to the floor, where in the pale moonlight she saw a shadow pass across the jagged glass splinters. 

Without thinking, Lydia swung her arm in time with the shadow, and hit her mark in the ribcage of the dark force moving toward her. The figure stopped short, gurgled, and fell to the floor with a thud.


***


The Chamber of Commerce issued its sincerest apology to Lydia for Robert Swanson’s foolish actions in trying to create a social media stir around manufactured tales of a crazed boogeyman tormenting the pretty local artist who won the pumpkin contest every year, and assured her their president had gone rogue in carrying out his misguided and ultimately fatal plan. Lydia was confident she would have won the pumpkin carving contest that year, had it not been canceled in light of the stabbing.

Standing on the site in her kitchen where it happened, Lydia looked up from the Chamber’s letter in her hands. Through the window she could see into the barn where Jack-o-Lantern stood motionless in a stream of yellow light from the waning hunter’s moon. He was grinning at her. 


October 28, 2022 06:52

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19 comments

Laurel Hanson
12:55 Jan 06, 2023

This is great! Beautiful imagery that takes me right to New Hampshire. In fact, Keene, N.H. (I know a lot of towns have pumpkin carving contests, but Keene's was really something). I love how evocative those opening paragraphs are, but then you also move the plot along rather than getting too bogged down with gorgeous description. I hope to see more of your stuff posted!

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Amanda Lieser
17:21 Nov 14, 2022

Hi KC! I love how this story incorporates beautiful imagery along with some fun horror tropes-I found myself screaming at your MC to go to the police! I thought this was a very clever take on the prompt and I also love how you decided to make your MC an artist. Nice work and congratulations on the shortlist!

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K. C. Brote
19:27 Nov 14, 2022

Thank you! Living in Vegas now, it was so fun to conjure up all those memories of autumns spent in NH as a kid.

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Story Time
17:20 Nov 10, 2022

This feels like the perfect story for the season. Crisp and chilling in all the best ways. Well done.

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K. C. Brote
18:49 Nov 10, 2022

Thank you! I love writing about fall, its so perfect for rich description.

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Philip Ebuluofor
16:32 Nov 06, 2022

Congrats. Fine work.Welcome to the show.

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K. C. Brote
19:26 Nov 06, 2022

Thank you! This has been such a great experience. I'm loving all the great stories, and I can't wait to participate in more.

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Philip Ebuluofor
15:56 Nov 07, 2022

We are waiting.

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C. A. Janke
03:26 Nov 06, 2022

Loved all the details in her preparation ritual for carving the pumpkins and the little spell by the lake! Delightfully witchy and perfectly autumnal!

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K. C. Brote
19:24 Nov 06, 2022

Thank you so much! Though I live in Vegas now, my writing heart - especially with a Halloween theme - will always be in NH.

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AnneMarie Miles
13:51 Nov 05, 2022

What a journey this was. You built up the suspense of Lydia's "stalker" well and I thought the premise of a jack-o-lantern artist was unique and appropriate for the holiday. Wonderful read, your writing is smooth and rich. Congratulations on making the shortlist, and on your first submission! Bravo! 🎉

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K. C. Brote
18:56 Nov 05, 2022

Thank you, you are so kind. I enjoyed this prompt so much, and can't wait to write more short fiction.

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Martin Ross
22:19 Nov 02, 2022

Fantastic opener -- Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors, and to carry through with your wonderful sensory descriptions, this had rich notes of Bradbury as well as Shirley Jackson without being derivative of either. Lydia has a convincing artistic sensibility, and the story's supernatural elements arose naturally from that. Atmospheric and satisfyingly chilling.

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K. C. Brote
06:39 Nov 03, 2022

Wow, such nice words. Thank you!

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Shelley Burbank
00:51 Oct 30, 2022

I really enjoyed this story…the witchy elements and the world-building in a short word count are pretty impressive. Perfect Halloween fare.

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K. C. Brote
17:10 Nov 03, 2022

Thank you, Dahling! ;)

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David Sweet
17:51 Jan 06, 2023

I enjoyed this story. It was well-paced, and I liked the opening paragraphs, which drew me in and kept me reading. Well done.

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22:17 Oct 28, 2022

I love the vivid Fall imagery. What a great story!!!

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K. C. Brote
17:10 Nov 03, 2022

Thank you so much! I love writing about NH.

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