Episode 217: Boys’ Night by Rebecca Birch


Boys’ Night

by Rebecca Birch

 

Walter Ocherman rolled along the two-lane highway at five miles an hour under the speed limit, scanning the road’s left-hand side for the turn-off to his uncle’s old pumpkin farm.  Marked by nothing more than a dilapidated sign-post that might once have been green, the overgrown dirt road hidden between two poplars was easy to miss on a good day. The fog that rolled in off the river made finding the place harder, but nothing was going to wipe the grin off Walter’s lips.  Today was Halloween and his ex, Minnie, had agreed to let their son come out to the farm with him for the night. Their first boys’ night in almost a year.

He glanced at Jason, who had spread his twelve-year old self over the back seat an hour ago, his straw-blond head pillowed on a stuffed pumpkin Walter had picked up at a yard sale to help set the holiday mood.  His steady zzz-snerk snore could have been annoying, but Walter got so few chances to hear it that he turned off the radio. The news was depressing anyway, trying to settle a fog over more than just the river valley.

Walter looked back at the road just in time to glimpse the turn-off.  He slammed on the brakes and torqued the wheel, holding his instinctive curse-word behind his teeth.  His 1984 Civic’s gears squealed a skull-piercing protest and the right front bumper just missed colliding with a poplar.  A sudden pressure in the back of his seat told him Jason was awake and braced.

Walter brought the car to a dead stop, his heart thudding.

“Jesus, Dad!  If we die, mom’s going to kill you.”

Walter looked in the rearview mirror.  Jason stared back at him with those muddy eyes that could just as well have been his own.  Latte-brown freckles stood out against his pale skin.

“What,” Walter said, more shaken than he wanted to let on, “she’s going to dig up my corpse and stake it?  Or am I more the zombie type? What’s the weapon of choice for them? Chain saw?”

Jason tossed the stuffed pumpkin at Walter’s head.  It bounced off the headrest. Jason wasn’t going to be a quarterback any time soon.  “Whatever. Are we there yet?”

Walter let his foot off the brake and the car inched down the gravel road.  “Just another couple minutes. Remember the last time we came here?”

“I was three.”

“So do you remember?”

“No, Dad.  I don’t remember.  Any place around here to trick-or-treat?”

Walter rubbed his nose.  The fog was building up a damp sheen on the windshield.  He flipped the wipers through a cycle. “Not unless you want to walk three miles to the Henry place.  Anyway, I think I heard that Old Mr. Henry died last year. Tractor accident.” He lowered his voice to an exaggerated whisper.  “Uncle Vernon said sometimes his bloodied ghost comes out on foggy nights looking to take his revenge on motor vehicles.”

“Right,” Jason said.  “Great. I’m sure the car’s petrified.”


The farm was a disappointment.  Uncle Vernon’s farmhouse loomed at the overgrown field’s edge, two stories of off-kilter timber and dark windows, with dead leaves mounded on the front porch.  Walter had hoped for pumpkins, but only found one half-rotten specimen among the lifeless vines. He poked the thing with his tennis shoe and it squelched, releasing the sweet odor of decay.

“Nice,” Jason said.

Walter pulled his suitcase out of the trunk and slammed the lid.  “It’s not so bad.”

“Not so bad?  How long has it been since anyone’s been here?”

Walter clapped Jason’s shoulder.  When had he gotten so tall? He had to be almost five-three.  Walter was only half a foot taller. “C’mon, let’s see what’s what.”

Uncle Vernon was really Walter’s great-uncle, Grandpop’s elder brother, and he’d surprised everyone when he told cousins Hannah and Betty to get him moved into a retirement home in the city before Thanksgiving last year.  Everyone had figured Vernon would live out his days at the farmhouse.

When Walter had approached him about spending Halloween on the property, Uncle Vernon had hemmed and hawed.  Ain’t nobody been down the farm these last few months, Walt, he’d said, smacking his lips around the stem of an unlit pipe.  Best to keep it that way.

Walter had tried to convince him, talked about property values and keeping the place up for resale, or at least as a rental, but Uncle Vernon had shook his head and puffed so hard Walter half expected to see smoke rising from his lips, despite the lack of tobacco.  You leave that place be, boy, Uncle Vernon said, not meeting Walter’s eyes. Some things should be left behind.

Standing there in the dimming light, fog soaking the world in a cold, misty blanket, a tremor slid down Walter’s throat.  Maybe he shouldn’t have gone against Uncle Vernon’s word.

“We’re not going to be able to see anything,” Jason muttered.

“Sure we will,” Walter replied, forcing a smile into his voice.  “I brought candles and I remember Uncle Vernon kept firewood round back.  Besides, it’s Halloween. Couldn’t ask for a better setting. Here–” he took Jason’s backpack, “–I’ll go drop these inside.  You put your Boy Scout skills to work.”

They were going to make the most of tonight.  And what Uncle Vernon didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.


Walter hadn’t been too keen when Minnie said she was signing Jason up for Scouts but, with the fire crackling, he had to admit the kid was good.  Perfect log cabin placement, nice kindling teepee in the middle and a dusting of tinder sprinkles. The single match was the cherry on top.

Uncle Vernon had been thorough, at least with the utilities.  No water. No electricity. The farmhouse with its rust-upholstered furniture and paneled walls smelled musty.  Dust coated every flat surface, and he expected there were more than a few critters and creepers hiding in the shadows, but it was dry and warming up quickly.

Jason sat in the recliner, his face illuminated by his portable Nintendo game.  Tinny jingles emanated from its speakers. Walter cleared his throat to remind his son that he was still in the room.  Jason glanced up.

“Hungry?” Walter asked.

“Kinda, yeah.  What’ve we got?”

Walter got up from the sofa with a grunt and opened the cooler he’d stashed behind it.  “I figured we’d have to cook over a fire, so I packed hot dogs and there’s soda in here, too.  You want Coke or Sprite?”

“Mom doesn’t like me to have caffeine.”

“Sprite, then?”

“Nah, I’ll take the Coke.”  Jason punched a button on his player and set it in his lap.

Walter grinned.  “I won’t tell.” He handed over the cold, damp can.  “I was surprised your mom let you come, to tell the truth.”

“She’s got a date.”

“A date?”  Walter repeated, letting the word roll over his tongue.  It didn’t sound right. Not combined with Minnie. They’d been divorced for five years, and as far as he knew she’d never shown any interest in moving on to someone else.  Instead, she’d transferred her focus to being the best mom she could be, to the point Walter worried Jason would drown.

“Yeah.  She’s been seeing Tom off and on for a couple months.”

“They serious?”

Jason shrugged, popped his Coke lid, and chugged it down.

Walter’s eyebrows raised.  Maybe he’d been able to down a soda in one go when he was younger, but now a sympathetic gas bubble pressed against his ribs.  “We should go find some sticks to roast the dogs on.”

Jason swiped the back of his hand over his lips.  “Got any flashlights?”

“There’s one under the passenger seat in the car.”

“Lemme finish up this level and we can go.”

Walter nodded.  He’d have preferred just going now, but at least Jason was talking to him in complete sentences.  Over the phone, it seemed like the deeper his voice turned the less he was willing to use it. When Walter managed to get him on the line it was all, “Nope,” or “Yep,” or “Huh.”  He tried to tell himself this was normal tween-age stuff, and maybe it was, but when he got so little time with the boy it was hard not to take the monosyllabic grunting personally.

“I’ll go dig out the flashlight,” Walter said.  “Meet you outside.”


Walter leaned on a post at the top of the stairs.  Watery moonlight mottled through the fog, enough so he could see the front half of the sad pumpkin field.  He pressed a fingernail into the post’s soft wood. Someone needed do something about this place before it was beyond salvaging.  Maybe cousins Hannah and Betty would have better luck with Uncle Vernon.

The front door creaked open and Jason stepped out onto the porch.

Walter glanced over his shoulder.  “Killed the big baddie already? That was fast.”

Jason shoved his toe into the boards.  “Power died. Should’ve charged it before I left.  I brought the cord, but . . . ” He shrugged and rolled his eyes.  “Wasn’t expecting a campout.”

“Sorry about that, kid.”  Walter bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling.  Commiserate, and maybe he’d earn some dad-points. “Tell you what.  You know the best sticks for wiener roasting than I do. Take the flashlight.  You lead.”

He followed his son down the steps and past the car.  The gravel grinding underfoot felt unnaturally loud. It had been a long time since he’d gotten out of the city.  Too long. He kept his stride long, staying close behind Jason. “There’s a bunch of trees out the back side of the pumpkin field toward the river,” he said.  “I remember I used to pick up sticks to swordfight with sometimes.”

“Okay.  I found the gate.  Follow me,” Jason said.  The gate opened with a groaning protest.  “Keep close. These old vines’ll trip you up if you don’t see ’em.”

The flashlight turned the fog a milky white.  Jason paused and Walter squinted. “Driving tip for you,” Walter said.  “Never use your high beams in fog. The reflection makes it harder to see.  Maybe we should ditch the flashlight?”

Jason thumbed the light off.  Everything went dim, but even in the darkness it was easier to make out the ground’s details and the trees silhouetted up ahead.  “Good call.”

Frogs chirruped unseen, louder than the river’s shushing flow.  Jason moved ahead. His stride was slow, but steady, his knees flexed, hips moving in a smooth motion, clearly more at ease on the uneven ground than Walter felt.  He was used to sidewalks and office corridors. Even when he was a kid he’d spent most of his time on the nice, flat football field.

“Think we’ll see Old Mr. Henry?” Walter said.

“Dad,” Jason groaned, “not funny.  Not creepy.”

“Okay, fine.  What about the Great Pumpkin?”

Jason snorted.  “Here? This place couldn’t even grow a mini-pumpkin.  No, no wait. I know. It’s the Invisible Pumpkin and his invisible pumpkin horde.”

Damn, tween-agers could do sarcasm well.  “Forget I said anything.”

Jason turned the flashlight back on and crouched low, shining the beam wildly back and forth.  “I can’t see them,” he whispered, doing his best horror film impression, “but I feel them.  They’re closing in.  Drawn to the taste of fear.  The smell of impending hot dogs–“

In a move that would have done a stuntman proud, Jason careened to the side, as if something had smashed into his ribs.  He shouted and toppled. The flashlight flew end-over-end in a brilliant pinwheel then landed with a thud and went out.

Jason sat in a bare patch between vines, blinking and breathing hard.  “Holy crap,” he said.

Walter gave him a hand up.  “You okay?”

Jason dusted off his backside and ran his other hand over his side, fingers splayed.  “That freaking hurt. What the hell?”

“Language, Jase.”  Walter didn’t talk to Minnie much anymore, but while he was willing to bend her rules for soda, he was pretty darned sure she’d give him a reaming if Jason came home swearing.

“No, seriously,” Jason said, his wide eyes darting from side to side, hands half-raised like a fighter getting ready to block.  “Something hit me. Did you see it?”

Walter’s lips narrowed.  A cold sensation blossomed in his chest.  He looked towards where he’d heard the flashlight land.  Did he see something dark moving in the fog? Walter squinted to look closer, but whatever it was he’d thought he saw was gone.  He put a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Good one, Jase,” he said. “You should join the theater club.”

Jason shook his head.  His shoulder trembled under Walter’s hand.  “I’m not hungry anymore. Let’s get back to the house.”

An owl hooted somewhere nearby and a wind gust stirred the fog.  It smelled different. Earthier, as if he were chewing dirt. Walter bit his tongue and swallowed, but the taste didn’t leave his mouth and his teeth felt gritty.

Walter’s free hand clenched.  “I’m going to get the flashlight first.”

“But you said not to use it in the fog–“

“Wait here,” Walter interrupted.  He wasn’t about to tell Jason he wanted it because he felt the need for a weapon in his hand.  Either the fact that it was Halloween, combined with the weather and the setting, was getting to him more than it should, or there was something out there with them.  Neither was something he wanted his kid thinking.

“But . . . ”  Jason started to protest, but apparently thought better of it.

Walter squeezed his shoulder and headed toward the spot he guessed the flashlight had fallen.  He picked his way through the desiccated vines, Jason’s quick, shallow breathing an audible beacon behind him.  His own pulse beat fast. Nervous energy surged in his limbs. Slow, controlled breaths, he told himself, thinking back to his football training.  Channel the energy. Turn it into power.

But power to do what?  He was going to have one hell of an adrenaline let-down when they were back inside with the deadbolt thrown.

“Dad?”  Jason’s voice trembled.  “I hear something moving.”

Walter heard it too.  A rustling, like wind through dry leaves, and beyond that a low rumble as if the earth itself were groaning.  He spotted the flashlight just ahead. “It’s just Old Mr. Henry,” he said, forcing a light tone. “Nothing to worry about.  My car on the other hand . . . ” He reached for the flashlight.

Something heavy crashed into the back of Walter’s skull.  White starbursts flared in his vision and he staggered, then dropped to his knees.  “Jason, run!” he shouted, fingers fumbling blindly for the flashlight.

“Dad?”

“Now, goddamit!”  Walter blinked madly, trying to clear his vision.  An overwhelming rotten pumpkin stench clogged his nose.  His hand touched the flashlight’s cold metal handle and he grasped it like a hammer.

The vines beneath him surged to life, the dried, brittle husks flexing, bending.  Tendrils coiled up his arms, pinning him in place. Walter struggled, but the harder he pulled, the tighter the vines clenched.  Sharp filaments dug into his forearms.

Walter twisted to look behind.  A vaguely human-shaped silhouette stood just hidden in the fog bank.  The head was round, but one side had been caved in, and its limbs were a mish-mash of lumps and oddly curved lines.

“Who are you?” Walter shouted.  “What do you want?” If he could keep that thing’s attention, it would give Jason time to get back inside.

The only response was a groan that shook the ground.  Vines surged up his legs, once so powerful from his days as a high school linebacker.  He jammed his feet into the ground and tried to force himself free, but his awkwardly twisted position weakened the effort.

Was Jason inside yet?  He hadn’t heard the door.

The apparition neared, moving with a strange glide-hitch-glide motion.  Walter pressed himself back as far from the thing as the vines would allow.

Without warning, a hand touched his back and Walter shouted wordlessly.

“Stay still, Dad.  I’ll get you out.”

What the . . .?  “I told you to run.”

“Shut up and let me work.”

From the corner of his eye, Walter saw a small metal blade glinting in the dim moonlight.  Jason sawed through one tendril, then another, grunting with the effort. Severed vines fell, twitching, to the ground.

The groan shifted into a high pitched roar so loud Walter wanted to bury his head in the dirt.  The thing was close now. Too damned close. Through the fog, it came into focus–a twisted, man-shaped mass of vines.  It pulsed forward, ripping and tearing its roots, its body topped by a half-rotted pumpkin with an indentation in the shape of Walter’s shoe.

“Almost got your arm free,” Jason panted.  “What the hell is that thing?”

A bulbous protuberance swelled on the creature’s shoulder, growing to cantaloupe size in the space of a breath.  It grasped the growth with one hand and tore it free, launching it at Jason’s head.

Walter harnessed his strength and ripped his arm free loose from the remaining vine.  He flung his hand up and just managed to deflect the missile. The impact knocked his arm backward, tearing something in his shoulder.

“Give me the flashlight,” Walter said, wincing at the pain.  The fallen missile lay nearby–a pumpkin.

Jason stopped sawing just long enough to shove the flashlight into Walter’s free hand.  Walter switched it on and shone it at what would have been the creature’s eyes. It paused, vine-hands raised to block the light.  More pumpkins sprouted, on its chest, thighs, hip.

The pressure on Walter’s legs increased.  He gritted his teeth. If one of those vines got around his neck, or worse, Jason’s, this would be over in a hurry.

The creature lowered its arms and started forward again.

“Get out of here, Jason.”

The knife sliced through another coil around Walter’s arm.  Only a few left now. “Not leaving you,” Jason replied.

Moving whip-fast, the creature tore two pumpkins off its body and threw them.  One hit Walter in the hip and burst in a seed-filled splatter. The second crashed into Jason, knocking him backward.  He landed with a grunt.

“Jason!  You okay?”  Walter twisted to look behind him.  Jason was sprawled over a carpet of vines, struggling to rise.

The flashlight glinted off the blade the boy had been using and had apparently dropped.  A Swiss Army knife. Walter abandoned the flashlight and grabbed the knife. Fighting searing pain in his shoulder, he sliced at the remaining coils shackling his left hand.

Another pumpkin exploded inches from Jason’s head.  The creature lunged forward and roared, juddering Walter’s teeth.  Fast, faster, it came, so close Walter could make out the dirt falling away from its dangling roots with each movement.  By its angle of approach, it wasn’t coming for him. It was after Jason.

Cold sweat slicked Walter’s palm, making it hard to grip the knife’s smooth handle, but finally, when the thing had drawn even with his head, the last coil fell away.  His old football training flooded him. The game was on the line. He had to make the stop.

Dropping the knife, Walter wrapped both his arms around the nearest leg.  The vines pulsated, fighting to escape his clenched arms, but no way in hell was he letting go, no matter his injured shoulder.  No matter the needle-sharp filaments that tore at his skin.

Jason staggered to his feet, lurching like a drunk after last call.

Walter’s legs throbbed in the vines’ grasp and he was actually grateful.  They made him harder for the creature to dislodge.

“Go, Jase.”

Jason put a hand to his head and grimaced.  “No. I can take him.” He stumbled toward a nearby pumpkin that somehow hadn’t burst on impact and hefted it.

The creature tried to surge ahead, roots flailing, but couldn’t reach up and over Walter’s trembling arms.  His teeth clamped against each other so hard his jaw ached. He wanted to shout and scream, but he didn’t have the breath, and a fiercely determined he recognized too well gleamed in Jason’s eyes.

Jason drew the pumpkin back beside his ear with both hands, his knees bent under its weight, then launched the pumpkin with all his strength.  Walter watched the gourd arc toward the creature’s rotted-pumpkin head. For a moment he thought it was going to connect, but it sailed past, barely grazing its target.

The pain in Walter’s shoulder spiked and his arm went numb.  The creature pulled and this time gained an inch. “Can’t hold him,” Walter forced past his gritted teeth.  He doubted Jason could hear him over the creature’s roar.

A sharp breeze swirled the fog, bringing Jason in and out of focus in a blurry strobe.  One moment he was standing a few feet off, the next he was diving towards Walter. He landed and rolled to his feet, the flashlight in his hand, well within the creature’s reach.  Viny arms wrapped around his ribs, pulling him close, tendrils winding towards his neck.

Jason didn’t struggle, just let the thing drag him in, his face so pale his freckles stood out like chocolate chips in ice cream.

Walter released the thing’s leg and fumbled for the knife.

With a wild shout, Jason pulled the flashlight back like a baseball bat and swung.  Metal met pumpkin with a thud and a squelch and the thing’s head flew, raining pumpkin guts.  The encompassing roar shot up into a scream, then vanished, leaving them in silence, save for their own labored breathing.

The vines that had formed the creature’s body wilted and pooled in a tangled pile.  Immediately, the pressure around Walter’s legs released. He scrambled to his feet and grabbed Jason by the arm.  “You okay, kid? Are you hurt?”

Jason shook his head.  “Just bruised up.”

Walter slumped forward, resting his hands on his knees.  “Jesus.”

A frog croaked in the distance.  The breeze stiffened, bring in the clean smell of the river.  Jason picked up the Swiss Army knife, wiped the blade on his jeans, then folded it and shoved it in his pocket.  “Let’s get outta here.”

Walter nodded.  He’d had more than enough nature for one night.  They picked their way free of the pumpkin field and up onto the porch.  Walter paused outside the door. Uncle Vernon’s sudden desire to leave the farm suddenly made a heck of a lot of sense.  “You want to head back to my place? We can hit a McDonald’s on the way to town.”

“Yeah,” Jason replied.  “I think that’s a good plan.”

Working in silence, it took less than five minutes to gather their things and put out the fire, then they were back in the Civic and heading down the dirt road towards the highway, only this time Jason was in the front seat.

Walter’s adrenaline rush finally began to ebb, leaving him shaky and sick-feeling.  “Hey,” he said, glancing over at his son. “Thanks. For not giving up on me.”

Jason’s pale lips twitched up at the corner.  “I’ve got your back.”

I’ve got your back.  Walter let the words sink past the fear and the pain from his injured shoulder.  He was pretty sure they were tween for I love you.  He just had to respond in the same language.

“We’ve got to work on your aim.”

Jason chuckled.  His voice came out trembly.  “That’s for sure.”

“You could come by sometime.  We could go toss my old football around.”

They’d reached the end of the drive.  Walter signaled the turn for home.

“Yeah, Dad,” Jason said.  He turned and gave Walter the smile he hadn’t seen in far too long.  “I’d like that.”

END

 

About the Author

Rebecca Birch

Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Flash Fiction Online. She is also a two-time finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. Check our her website, Words of Birch, or Twitter.

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About the Narrator

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson is a pretty awesome guy, even if he disparages pumpkin beer. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five amazing years, stepping down to focus on his own writing in 2015. You can find two of his audiobook narrations on Amazon: Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt.

Dave is an Escape Artists’ Worldwalker and Storyteller, having been published in, and narrated for, all four EA podcasts.

 

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