Cherry apple dripped over his bottom lip and rolled as a drop of red-brown syrup down to Clay's chin. At twenty-four, he'd still not given up many of his childhood vices, including the least destructive of which was a penchant for hard candies that could only be found around Halloween time in his hometown of Libertyville, New York.
He sucked the cherry-apple-flavored liquid up over his lip, enjoying the tart sweetness on the tip of his tongue as he plowed forward through the snow in the open market. It was a Sunday, and he liked to make it to the farmer’s market while everyone else was still finishing up their confessions, reading the bible, or whatever else they did at their churches and mosques. Let them have the religion; he was going to have the pumpkin.
Something flashed at the edge of his vision, like a bluish-green light followed by a crash.
Especially when in front of him sat the most beautiful sphere of orange gold. With as much girth as his Santa-Claus belly, the pumpkin before him nestled into a mound of others as though they were a rugby team huddled together in a scrum. He ran his hand lovingly over its seductive curves. This. This was the one. He could feel it.
An explosion in the background. Clay is vaguely aware of the smell of burning rubber and far-away cries of panic and despair. He didn’t register that the blood-curdling screams were ever so slowly approaching.
He pulled his hand back. An imperfection. It was only slight, but an indentation interrupted the curve halfway from the peduncle to the base of the fruit. Clay’s mind spun. Could he discard that imperfection and keep the rest? He cocked his head sideways and scrutinized the fruit, envisioning his masterpiece lying over the top of it.
There would be no saving it. With disgust, Clay toppled the fruit onto its side and off the shoulders of its brethren. He stared with angry eyes as it tumbled down to the ground.
“You going to pay for that?”
“For that tripe? Never. Did you see the blemish? I wouldn’t use that to make pumpkin stew.”
“But maybe somebody else might, and now look at her….”
Clay felt warm in his chest to see the pumpkin guts splattered across the cold snow.
“Now I’ve saved them then,” he said, eyeing another pumpkin in the corner. This one had the right curves. It was as if the original pumpkin existed only to highlight the virtues of the next. Clay reached out to touch it as the farmer’s mouth opened. Fully expecting a reprimand, Clay prepared his mental quips. The man should have brought better pumpkins, which is what it all came down to. With the right words, Clay could convince him of that.
But his opportunity never came, which both perturbed Clay as much as gratified him. The man seemed to stop working when his mouth opened the entire way. Clay thought he saw a flash of green, gold, red, and white in the man’s eyes. Then the white washed out everything else. The man turned and ran away from something. Coward. It served him right whatever happened.
Clay fondled the corpulent orb and caressed it, seeking out any hidden imperfections.
Heat prickled the hairs at the base of his neck. It was like a flash of heat, almost as though his neck was instantly sunburned. The pumpkin cart lit up like it was mid-day in Texas.
A blemish. This one must have been imported. It wasn’t local. Possibly the “farmer” brought it up from Virginia. It was anthracnose; Clay was sure of it. Only a tiny spot of black, but his jack-o-lantern didn’t require a beauty mark. His hand slid to the back of his neck to wipe the sweat away.
Something massive collided with the ground and shook the earth. Then another. Then another. As though some monstrosity of a giant took lumbering steps forward, heading toward Clay.
First things first. He shoved the pumpkin out of the way as the chill in the air disappeared. This pumpkin joined the other in a mess on the ground. Odd though. The snow had melted on the surface of the ground and the next pumpkin splattered against the hardtop. Clay unwound his scarf. The next one would be it. He felt his lower belly tighten as he reached for it. It was smaller, rounder, like a basketball or maybe a volleyball — somewhere between—a perfect sphere.
He loosened his top shirt button under his coat. Then he removed his jacket altogether. He flung it over the pile of pumpkins, concealing most of them except for the one sitting majestically before him. He’d never seen a pumpkin so smooth, ridgeless like the moon from afar. As he lifted it to his face, he inhaled its deep, meaty aroma with a faint hint of decay.
It was, in fact, the perfect pumpkin.
The ground shook behind him. The heat intensified against his back, and he squirmed to escape it, shedding his sweater and, finally, his shirt. But the heat still intensified. Clay kicked off his shoes next, only to feel the searing of the bottoms of his feet against the pavement that he thought — no, he was sure — glistened as though it melted out from under him. Bouncing from foot to foot, he watched the pumpkin guts boil and then catch flame.
The perfect pumpkin fell to the earth, remarkably not breaking open as the other two had. It rolled over the pavement, past a pile of burning flesh that had once been Clay, and into something resembling a clawed foot. Two giant fingers closed around the pumpkin and lifted it. A huge red eye peered at it and, finding no imperfection, swallowed it in a single gulp. Then it let forth a guttural roar and set to work on the rest of its prey, enjoying the tart cherry-apple-laced crunch.