At last Tommy was driven into a corner, beaten and exhausted. Straddling him, Frank slapped him once, hard, rattling his senses, then tore at Tommy's clothes, pulling them off.

"No!" Tommy whispered when he realized that in addition to being beaten, he was to be humiliated. "No, no."

He struggled with what little strength he still possessed, but his shirt was stripped off; his jeans and underwear were yanked down. With his pants tangled around his sneakers, he was pulled to his feet and half carried across the room.

Frank threw open the door, pitched Tommy into the hallway, and called out, "Oh, Maria! Maria, can you come here a moment, please?"

Maria was the twice-a-week maid who came in to clean and do the ironing. This was one of her days.


Naked, terrified of being humiliated in front of the maid, Tommy scrambled to his feet, grabbed his pants, tried to run and pull up his jeans at the same time, stumbled, fell, and sprang up again.

"Maria, can you come here, please?" Frank asked, barely able to get the words out between gales of laughter.

Gasping, whimpering, Tommy somehow reached his room and got out of sight before Maria appeared. For a while he leaned against the closed door, holding up his jeans with both hands, shivering.


WITH THEIR PARENTS OFF AT A CAMPAIGN APPEARANCE, TOMMY AND Frank ate dinner together, after heating up a casserole that Maria had left in the refrigerator. Ordinarily, dinner with Frank was an ordeal, but this time it proved to be uneventful. As he ate, Frank was engrossed in a magazine that reported on the latest horror movies, with heavy emphasis on slice-and-dice films and with lots of color photographs of mutilated and blood-soaked bodies; he seemed oblivious of Tommy.

Later, when Frank was in the bathroom preparing for bed, Tommy sneaked into his older brother's room and stood at the desk, studying the jack-o'-lantern. The wicked mouth glowed. The narrow pupils were alive with fire.

The scent of roses filled the room, but underlying that odor was another more subtle and less appealing fragrance that he could not quite identify.

Tommy was aware of a malevolent presence—something even worse than the malevolence that he could always sense in Frank's room. A cold current raced through his blood.

Suddenly he was certain that the potential murderous power of the black pumpkin was enhanced by the candle within it. Somehow, the presence of light inside its shell was dangerous, a triggering factor. Tommy did not know how he knew this, but he was convinced that if he was to have the slightest chance of surviving the coming night, he must extinguish the flame.

He grasped the gnarled stem and removed the lid from the top of the jack-o'-lantern's skull.

Light did not merely rise from inside the pumpkin but seemed to be flung at him, hot on his face, stinging his eyes.

He blew out the flame.

The jack-o'-lantern went dark.

Immediately, Tommy felt better.

He put the lid in place.

As he let go of the stem, the candle refit spontaneously.

Stunned, he jumped back.

Light shone from the carved eyes, the nose, the mouth.

"No," he said softly.

He removed the lid and blew out the candle once more.

A moment of darkness within the pumpkin. Then, before his eyes, the flame reappeared.

Reluctantly, issuing a thin involuntary sound of distress, Tommy reached into the jack-o'-lantern to snuff the stubborn candle with his thumb and finger. He was convinced that the pumpkin shell would suddenly snap shut around his wrist, severing his hand, leaving him with a bloody stump. Or perhaps it would hold him fast while swiftly dissolving the flesh from his fingers and then release him with an arm that terminated in a skeletal hand. Driven toward the brink of hysteria by these fears, he pinched the wick, extinguished the flame, and snatched his hand back with a sob of relief, grateful to have escaped mutilation.

He jammed the lid in place and, hearing the toilet flush in the adjacent bath, hurried out of the room. He dared not let Frank catch him there. As he stepped into the hallway, he glanced back at the jack-o'-lantern, and, of course, it was full of candlelight again.

He went straight to the kitchen and got a butcher's knife, which he took back to his own room and hid beneath his pillow. He was sure that he would need it sooner or later in the dead hours before dawn.



Tommy was sitting in bed, his room illuminated only by the pale bulb of the low-wattage night-light. The butcher's knife was at his side, under the covers, and his hand was resting on the haft.

For twenty minutes, Tommy could hear his folks talking, running water, flushing toilets, closing doors. Their bedroom and bath were at the opposite end of the house from his and Frank's rooms, so the noises they made were muffled but nonetheless reassuring. These were the ordinary noises of daily life, and as long as the house was filled with them, no weird lantern-eyed predator could be stalking anyone.

Soon, however, quiet returned.

In the postmidnight stillness, Tommy waited for the first scream.

He was determined not to fall asleep. But he was only twelve years old, and he was exhausted after a long day and drained by the sustained terror that had gripped him ever since he had seen the mummy-faced pumpkin carver. Propped against a pile of pillows, he dozed off long before one o'clock

—and something thumped, waking him.

He was instantly alert. He sat straight up in bed, clutching the butcher's knife.

For a moment he was certain that the sound had originated within his own room. Then he heard it again, a solid thump, and he knew that it had come from Frank's room across the hall.

He threw aside the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, tense. Waiting. Listening.

Once, he thought he heard Frank calling his name—"Tooommmmyy"—a desperate and frightened and barely audible cry that seemed to come from the far rim of a vast canyon. Perhaps he imagined it.


His hands were slick with sweat. He put the big knife aside and blotted his palms on his pajamas.


He picked up the knife again. He reached under his bed and found the flashlight that he kept there, but he did not switch it on. He eased cautiously to the door and listened for movement in the hallway beyond.


An inner voice urged him to return to bed, pull the covers over his head, and forget what he had heard. Better yet, he could crawl under the bed and hope that he would not be found. But he knew this was the voice of the wimp within, and he dared not hope for salvation in cowardice. If the black pumpkin had grown into something else, and if it was now loose in the house, it would respond to timidity with no less savage glee than Frank would have shown.

God, he thought fervently, there's a boy down here who believes in you, and he'd be very disappointed if you happened to be looking the other way right now when he really, really, really needs you.

Tommy quietly turned the knob and opened the door. The hallway, illuminated only by the moonlight that streamed through the window at the end, was deserted.

Directly across the hall, the door to Frank's room stood open.

Still not switching on the flashlight, desperately hoping that his presence would go undetected if he was mantled in darkness, he stepped to Frank's doorway and listened. Frank usually snored, but no snoring could be heard tonight. If the jack-o'-lantern was in there, the candle had been extinguished at last, for no flickering paraffin light was visible.

Tommy crossed the threshold.

Moonlight silvered the window, and the palm-frond shadows of a wind-stirred tree danced on the glass. In the room, no object was clearly outlined. Mysterious shapes loomed in shades of dark gray and black.

He took one step. Two. Three.

His heart pounded so hard that it shattered his resolve to cloak himself in darkness. He snapped on the Eveready and was startled by the way the butcher's knife in his right hand reflected the light.

He swept the beam around the room and, to his relief, saw no crouching monstrosity. The sheets and blankets were tumbled in a pile on the mattress, and he had to take another step toward the bed before he was able to ascertain that Frank was not there.

The severed hand was on the floor by the nightstand. Tommy saw it in the penumbra of the flashlight, and he brought the beam to bear directly on it. He stared in shock. Frank's hand. No doubt about its identity, because Frank's treasured silver skull-and-crossbones ring gleamed brightly on one slug-white finger. It was curled into a tight fist.

Perhaps powered by a postmortem nerve spasm, perhaps energized by darker forces, the fisted hand suddenly opened, fingers unfolding like the spreading petals of a flower. In the palm was a single, shiny nickel.

Tommy stifled a wild shriek but could not repress a series of violent shudders.

As he frantically tried to decide which escape route might be safest, he heard his mother scream from the far end of the house. Her shrill cry was abruptly cut off. Something crashed.

Tommy turned toward the doorway of Frank's room. He knew that he should run before it was too late, but he was as welded to this spot as he had been to that bit of dusty ground in the pumpkin lot when the carver had insisted on telling him what the jack-o'-lantern would become during the lonely hours of the night.

He heard his father shout.

A gunshot.

His father screamed.

This scream also was cut short.

Silence again.

Tommy tried to lift one foot, just one, just an inch off the floor, but it would not be lifted. He sensed that more than fear was holding him down, that some malevolent spell prevented him from escaping the black pumpkin.

A door slammed at the other end of the house.

Footsteps sounded in the hall. Heavy, scraping footsteps.

Tears slipped out of Tommy's eyes and down his cheeks.

In the hall, the floorboards creaked and groaned as if under a great weight.

Staring at the open door with no less terror than if he had been gazing into the entrance of Hell, Tommy saw flickering orange light in the corridor. The glow grew brighter as the source—no doubt a candle—drew nearer from the left, from the direction of his parents' bedroom.

Amorphous shadows and eerie snakes of light crawled on the hall carpet.

The heavy footsteps slowed. Stopped.

Judging by the light, the thing was only a foot or two from the doorway.

Tommy swallowed hard and worked up enough spit to say, Who's there? but was surprised to hear himself say instead, "Okay, damn you, let's get it over with."

Perhaps his years in the Sutzmann house had toughened him more thoroughly and had made him more fatalistic than he had previously realized.

The creature lurched into view, filling the doorway.

Its head was formed by the jack-o'-lantern, which had undergone hideous mutations. That peculiar pate had retained its black and orange coloring and its gourdlike shape, narrower at the top than at the bottom, and all the tumorous nodules were as crusted and disgusting as ever. However, though it had been as large as any pumpkin that Tommy had ever seen, it was now only about the size of a basketball, shriveled. The eyes had sagged, although the slitted pupils were still narrow and mean. The nose was bubbling with some vile mucus. The immense mouth stretched from ear to ear, for it had remained large while the rest of the face had shrunk around it. In the orange light that streamed out between them, the hooked fangs appeared to have been transformed from points of pumpkin rind into hard, sharp protuberances of bone.

The body under the head was vaguely humanoid, although it seemed to be composed of thick gnarled roots and tangled vines. The beast appeared to be immensely strong, a colossus, a fierce juggernaut if it wished to be. Even in his terror, Tommy was filled with awe. He wondered if the creature's body had grown from the substance in its previously enormous pumpkin head and, more pointedly, from the flesh of Frank, Lois, and Kyle Sutzmann.

Worst of all was the orange light within the skull. The candle still burned in there. Its leaping flames emphasized the impossible emptiness of the head—How could the thing move and think without a brain?—and invested a savage and demonic awareness in its eyes.

The nightmarish vision raised one thick, twisted, powerful, vinelike arm and thrust a rootlike finger at Tommy. "You," it said in a deep whispery voice that called to mind the sound of wet slush pouring down a drain.

Tommy was now less surprised by his inability to move than by his ability to stand erect. His legs felt like rags. He was sure that he was going to collapse in a helpless heap while the thing descended upon him, but somehow he remained on his feet with the flashlight in one hand and the butcher's knife in the other.

The knife. Useless. The sharpest blade in the world could never harm this adversary, so Tommy let the knife slip out of his sweaty fingers. It clattered to the floor.

"You," the black pumpkin repeated, and its voice reverberated moistly throughout the room. "Your vicious brother got what he gave. Your mother got what she gave. Your father got what he gave. I fed on them, sucked the brains out of their heads, chewed up their flesh, dissolved their bones. Now what do you deserve?"

Tommy could not speak. He was shaking and weeping silently and dragging each breath into his lungs only with tremendous effort.

The black pumpkin lurched out of the doorway and into the room, looming over him, eyes blazing.

It stood nearly seven feet tall and had to tilt its lantern head to peer down at him. Curls of sooty black smoke from the candle wick escaped between its fangs and from its leprous nose.

Speaking in a rough whisper, yet with such force that its words vibrated the windowpanes, the thing said, "Unfortunately, you are a good boy, and I've no right or license to feed on you. So ... What you deserve is what you've got from now on—freedom."

Tommy stared up into the Halloween face, striving hard to grasp what he had been told.

"Freedom," the demonic beast repeated. "Freedom from Frank and Lois and Kyle. Freedom to grow up without their heels pressing down on you. Freedom to be the best that you can be—which means I'll most likely never get a chance to feed on you."

For a long time they stood face to face, boy and beast, and gradually Tommy achieved complete understanding. In the morning, his parents and his brother would be missing. Never to be found. A great and enduring mystery. Tommy would have to live with his grandparents. You get what you give.

"But maybe," the black pumpkin said, putting one cold hand upon Tommy's shoulder, "maybe there's some rottenness in you too, and maybe someday you'll surrender to it, and maybe in time I'll still have my chance with you. Dessert." Its wide grin grew even wider. "Now get back to your bed and sleep. Sleep."

Simultaneously horrified and filled with strange delight, Tommy crossed the room to the doorway, moving as if in a dream. He looked back and saw that the black pumpkin was still watching him with interest.