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2009 Contest Entry #5 : SQUISHY by Michael Mayhew (WINNING ENTRY!)

2009 Halloween Short Story Contest entry:

by Michael Mayhew

Everyone knew that Leonard was an odd little boy– even Leonard. He walked slowly and he talked slowly and his mouth always hung open. Only his eyes were bright and quick, like a little bird’s. How they ended up in his slow, sad face is a mystery.

School was a trial for Leonard. He was easily distracted, not much good at spelling or math, his mind drifting far away from the classroom. He seldom had much to say, and none of what he did say was clever or funny. His clothes were so old and worn it looked like one day soon they would simply dissolve away,  like a wet sugar cube. Naturally Leonard became a target. The other kids saw his pale, soft form and they named him Squishy. If a week went by without his backpack beging dumped into a mud puddle, or his nose bloodied in a fight that he hadn’t started, it was a blessing.

Life at home wasn’t much better. Leonard’s father worked all day for a company installing chain link fences. The company paid almost nothing, and when Leonard’s father got home he was tired and short-tempered, and only wanted to watch sports on TV. Leonard’s mother often had what she called “spells,” where she was too weak and sad to do much of anything. Together, the three of them lived in a falling apart little shed of a house on the edge of town. The roof leaked when it rained.

Leonard’s one comfort was that he liked to draw. He would gather scrap paper from the trashcans at school, and take it home and draw pictures. Leonard invented whole worlds this way: castles and warriors, damsels and kings, but most especially monsters. Even at ten years old, Leonard could draw monsters that would make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It was his true talent.

One day in early October, Leonard’s teacher, Mrs. Penumbra, announced that there would be a school fair on Halloween night. There would be costumes and candy, and old-fashioned games like bobbing for apples. Most exciting to Leonard, there would be a Jack o’ Lantern contest. The best carving would receive a blue ribbon and a year of free sundaes at a local ice cream parlor.

Leonard promised himself he would win the contest.

When Leonard got home that afternoon he found his mother in bed, her eyes covered with a damp washcloth. All the shades were down to keep out the bright October sunlight. Standing in the doorway of that darkness, Leonard explained about the carving contest.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” his mother said weakly, “we just can’t afford any luxuries right now.”

“Mom, please…” said Leonard.

“Maybe next year,” she murmured, her voice far away.

“Mom, I have to! If I win the prize then everyone will see… they’ll see…” tears sprang to Leonard’s eyes and he could not continue.

For a moment there was silence. Then, slowly, Leonard’s mother removed the washcloth from her face. She sat up and looked at her strange, sad boy for a long time. Without a word she got up, and retrieved a wooden treasure box from a table beside the bed. The box looked old fashioned, but not fancy enough to be valuable. She opened it. Inside was a faded photo of a little girl in a long-ago back yard, soft, like Leonard, but smiling. It took him a moment to realize that this smiling child was his own mother, who now never smiled. The eyes were what finally told him. Bright as birds’, like his own. Leonard had his mother’s eyes.

She lifted out the photo and beneath it, nestled amongst a few faded flower petals – dry as dust and moth-wing fragile – was a tattered five dollar bill.

Without a word, Leonard’s mother gave him the money.

Without a word, she lay back down, and restored the washcloth to her face.

“Thank you, mother!” said Leonard, and raced out of the house.

Leonard spent the next two hours at the local pumpkin patch, carefully going over each and every specimen. Finally, just before closing, in the farthest dusty corner of the place, he found what he was looking for.

It was tall – it came up almost to his belly. It was a deep, orange color. It was heavily ribbed. But beyond that there was something that could not be seen, but only felt –  some magical quality about this particular pumpkin that spoke of hidden possibilities.

It seemed already to have a personality, dark and powerful, waiting to be born.

Leonard lugged it to the cashier and paid.

Including tax, it cost four dollars and ninety-seven cents.

That night Leonard drew like he had never drawn before. He studied his pumpkin from different angles. He examined it under different kinds of light. He drew every kind of face he could imagine – a few happy faces, one or two sad ones as well, but this pumpkin didn’t seem to want to be happy or sad. Angry faces worked better; Leonard drew dozens of those. Cruel faces were better still – faces that carried a malign and capricious power. Yes. The more he drew the narrower the range of expressions. Finally Leonard was drawing the same face over and over and over, as if his hand were working without input from his mind.

Then, at exactly midnight, he began to carve.

It was the biggest, meanest, scariest, Jack-o-Lantern in the entire history of the entire world – times ten!  It’s eyes glared with sister intent.  It’s mouth leered with dark mischief. 

Leonard stared at the flickering face in a kind of rapture. It was three o’clock in the morning. Both his parents were asleep in bed. Leonard looked down at his hands, sticky with strings of dried orange goo. He could not remember doing the carving. He had no recollection of finding a candle or lighting it.

"Perfect!" he sighed.  "He’s perfect!"

He admired his Jack o’ Lantern for another few minutes, then blew out the candle and crawled off to bed. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Leonard could just see the pale glow of the wick in the pumpkin, slowly fading away…

The next morning Leonard awoke with his heart singing! He was going to win the contest – he just knew it!

His father had already gone off to work, but Leonard took his Jack o’ Lantern in to show his mother. It’s eyes glittered wickedly in the gloomy bedroom. Leonard’s mother stared at it with the expression of a person who has gone boating in a pleasant seaside cove and fallen asleep, only to awaken far out to sea and realize that they cannot see land in any direction, are at the mercy of the currents, and surrounded by creatures hidden in the vast depths.

“It’s…good,” she managed.

Leonard beamed.

Leonard’s mother did her best to smile back. Her eyes avoiding the glowing leer of the Jack o’Lantern. “When’s the contest?” She asked.

“In two weeks,” said Leonard.

“Two weeks?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Baby, pumpkins only last a couple of days once you carve them.”

Leonard felt like all the air had gone out of the room, like he had been thrown out an airlock into deepest space with nothing to breathe and no sense of up or down.

“Two days?” he finally said.

“Well, maybe three or four. Maybe you’ll get lucky,” she said. And then, “you’d better be off to school.”

Leonard took his Jack o’Lantern back to his room. The last he saw his mother, she had gone back to bed.

School that day was awful. Leonard didn’t hear a word Mrs. Penumbra said. All he could do was worry about his Jack o’ Lantern. When the bell rang he raced for home to check on it.

The Jack o’ Lantern seemed fine. No marks or damage. It looked just like it had looked when he went to school. Leonard sighed with relief.

And then he felt the spot.  Right in the middle of the Jack o’ Lantern’s orange forehead was a soft spot about the size of a dime.  Leonard gently poked it with his finger.  Squish. 

It was all Leonard could do not to poke the soft spot over and over again, to see if it was still there. He wondered whether he should try to cut it out somehow, but doing that would throw off his whole design.

Leonard felt sick. That night he didn’t eat his supper, and went to bed early.

The next morning the soft spot was fuzzed over with black mold.  Leonard quickly scraped it off.

When he got home from school the mold was back and twice as big.  A fat fly was buzzing around its head.  Leonard cleaned it as best he could.

The following day the Jack had a bad case of the wrinkles. Its sinister face was beginning to collapse. Leonard was getting desperate. He put it in the refrigerator.

When he got home from school the kitchen was buzzing with flies.  A rotten, swampy liquid was oozing out of the bottom of the refrigerator.

Leonard’s mother insisted that the pumpkin be thrown out.  Leonard’s father agreed with his mother.

"But Mom, Dad, I’ll never carve another one that good!"  It was true.  Now, more than ever this Jack o’ Lantern was the scariest.

"I’m sorry. He’s got to go."

“Can we buy another pumpkin?” asked Leonard.

His mother looked at his father. His father muttered something about Leonard needing to learn to plan and turned toward the television.

“I’m sorry, baby,” said Leonard’s mother.

Leonard snuck his Jack o’ Lantern out to an old lot behind their house. Car tires and junk were piled up there, and a scraggly oak tree clung to life.  Leonard lit a candle and soon the yard was glowing with the malevolent smile.

But it didn’t make Leonard feel any better.  The wind skittered leaves along the ground, and blew out the candle. In the darkness, the wick’s pinpoint glow curled in on itself and died.

Suddenly Leonard stood with his fists clenched and made a wish:  Let it live! Just till Halloween!  I’ll do anything! Anything!

The wind kicked up. Leaves swirled around him in a black tornado. For a moment, Leonard felt he truly had called forth some great power from beyond the horizon.

And then the wind died, and Leonard’s hopes along with it.

The next morning before school, Leonard could not help but check on his Jack o’ Lantern, to see how bad things had gotten.

To his astonishment, the pumpkin was fine.

No wrinkles.

No flies.

No mold.

No soft spots.

Leonard could not believe his eyes. He checked and checked again. He felt all over for slime or softness. He sniffed long and hard for spoilage.

Nothing was wrong.

Joyously, Leonard carried the restored Jack o’ Lantern back into the house.

That day was the best day of Leonard’s young life. He saw other kids drawing Jack o’ Lanterns and gloated. They had nothing on him. When a mean girl called him “Squishy” in the hallway, he simply smiled. Wait till he won the contest! Then they’d see!

The only damper on his day was that for some reason his head felt a little itchy. By the time he got home and made sure the Jack o’ Lantern was still fine (it was), he was scratching his scalp like crazy.

And that’s when he felt it. A soft spot. Leonard poked the spot on his forehead with the tip of his finger. Squish.

Suddenly his heart was jumping like a jackrabbit!

What exactly had he said last night? What had he promised?!

Leonard was too scared to tell anyone what had happened. Maybe it’ll heal, he told himself. Like any other scrape.

But he knew it wouldn’t.

The next morning when Leonard was getting dressed, he noticed a funny dark spot on his tummy. When he looked closer, he saw that it was fuzzy black mold.

No! he thought! I have to fix this! I have to unwish it! But then he looked up and saw his Jack o’ Lantern. His one, true accomplishment. The thing that was going to make everyone see Leonard differently. As talented. As special. It sat on his shelf and grinned at him, even without a candle, like a real, living creature with its own dark thoughts and plans.

I’ll tough it out, thought Leonard. Just till Halloween.

Walking to school that day, Leonard’s insides felt different. Like they were sloshing, somehow – melting and going soft.

At lunchtime, the first fly began circling him…

Over the next few days, the mold spread, covering Leonard with black fuzz. His skin became saggy and wrinkled. A swampy liquid oozed out from beneath his fingernails and toenails. All sorts of flying insects sought Leonard out, new ones arriving faster than he could swat the old ones. Not just flies either, but dark brown moths, and strange bugs he’d never heard of with stick legs and long pincers, and wings that fluttered and flapped.

He began to skip school.

Then he skipped meals.

Then he never left his bedroom. He told his parents he wasn’t feeling well. They let him be.

Night after night Leonard lit the candle in his Jack o’ Lantern and basked in the warm glow of it’s power.

Finally it was Halloween. At dusk, Leonard slipped outside, pulling his Jack o Lantern behind him in a rusty wagon he’d found in the dump behind his house.

Leonard’s left foot dragged as he walked to school. His hands hung low, slack and drippy. The mold that now covered him entirely had gone from black to green. He scarcely bothered to slap at the buzzing crowd of insects around his misshapen head. Dogs howled when he passed.

The other Trick or Treaters scarcely noticed him.

The school grounds were brightly decorated with hay bales, sheaves of dried corn and crape streamers. Paper skeletons danced in the October wind. Wheezing, Leonard drew up to the Carving Contest table and placed his Jack O’ Lantern among the others.

There were dozens of entrants. Most were crude: the usual triangle eyes and carrot noses. A few were fancier, featuring detailed witches, or glowing letters that spelled out HAPPY HALLOWEEN. But none felt like an actual, living being. None except Leonard’s.

With all the strength he had left, he filled out the name card next to his masterpiece.

Then Leonard retreated to the shadows of a windblown tree, and sank down amongst the rotting leaves to await the judging.

Within the hour the judges had gone over all the entrants and rendered their decisions. Honorable mentionees were duly called up and awarded ribbons, then the third place winner, and the second place winner.

But when the blue ribbon, grand prize winner was called out, nobody came up. The judges called loud and long into the night. “Leonard! Come and get your prize! Leonard, are you there?!”

No voice answered. But for a moment the wind kicked up. A little tornado of swirling leaves spun around and around, blowing out all the candles in all the Jack o’ Lanterns. All except one. In the dark silence that followed, everyone stared at the Blue Ribbon winner.

It’s mouth hung open, and it’s glowing eyes, like a little bird’s flitted back and forth as if to say “Here I am! Oh, here I am! Now you see me! Now you see…"

Copyright © 2009 Michael Mayhew

Squishy illustration by Dave Pressler, used by permision.

Squishy illustration courtesy of Dave Pressler.