At the house across the street from my childhood home, a magical thing happened every Halloween – a talking jack-o’-lantern conversed with neighborhood children. As I grew older, I might have spotted the microphone cord stretched along the ground from the corn shock and through the kitchen window. Perhaps, teenage me would have noted the voice sounded suspiciously like the man who lived there or realized the witch stirring her smoking cauldron resembled his wife. But, as a kid, I only knew that a simple pumpkin with a carved face came alive and talked.
Quivering with fright and unable to speak, the boy shook his head. The jack-o’-lantern rested on top of a hay bale, its malevolent eyes flickered and glared. The mouth carved into an uneasy grin, but the lips didn’t move as the pumpkin spoke.
“Little boy, come closer.”
A corn shock served as a backdrop. Earlier in the day, the boy peered through his own bedroom window across the street as the nice couple who lived there had assembled the corn stalks together like a teepee, but they had vanished as the day faded into Halloween night. A witch cooked her spells from a smoking black pot hanging from a post. A shadow moved inside the darkened kitchen window, as if something lurked inside the house watching his every move.
“Boy. Look at me.”
Turning his head to face the glowing pumpkin, he swallowed and steadied his nerves. In Halloween’s past, his older brother had gone with him to visit the jack-o’-lantern after trick or treating in the neighborhood. But this year, his brother had decided he was too old, too big, and too cool to speak to a magical pumpkin leaving his younger sibling standing alone.
“Come closer. I want to talk with you.”
Families crowded the yard, not only children from this neighborhood but from other neighborhoods, too. As word of the annual appearance spread through town, cars and vans – even a church bus or two – descended with visitors. Many of the children formed a line behind the nervous boy waiting their turn.
He was nine years old. A big boy. He could do this without his big brother. He took a tentative step closer to the jack-o’–lantern.
“That’s better. I can hear you when you are close. Can you speak?”
“Excellent. I feared a cat had got your tongue. A black cat, perhaps.” The pumpkin chuckled at its own joke, the laughter dripping through its teeth.
The boy reached inside his mouth and touched his tongue. Relief filled his body and he stuck it out at the pumpkin. “Nope. Still here.”
“Excellent. I like your costume.”
He spread his arms and lifted the black cape from around his shoulders, letting it flap in the October breeze to reveal his jeans and t-shirt underneath. “I’m Count Dracula.”
“Oooooh, that is scary. And do you have pointy teeth?”
The boy raised his left arm, opened his hand, and revealed a set of plastic teeth. “They even glow. See?”
“Oh, yes. Shouldn’t you have those in your mouth?”
“I don’t like them. They feel funny.”
Laughter erupted from the pumpkin. “Yes, I am sure they do.”
“And I can’t talk with them and I can’t eat my candy with them.”
“That would be a big problem. Did you get lots of good candy trick-or-treating this year?”
He slipped the teeth in his pocket and then extended his arms, holding the paper bag open so that the pumpkin could look inside. “Yeah, lots.”
“Very, very nice. Are you going to share some with me?”
Perplexed, he shook his head. He had worked hard ringing every doorbell in the neighborhood and didn’t want to part with any of his loot.
The pumpkin’s voice roared, “I am the greatest pumpkin of them all. A magical pumpkin. And, unlike you, I don’t have legs to walk to doors or hands to ring doorbells. Without help from little boys and girls like you, I don’t get candy. You are to bring me a candy offering!”
Trembling at the booming voice, he hesitated, reached inside his bag and stirred with his hand. One hard candy caught his eye, wrapped tight in cellophane, and glimmering red. A flavor he didn’t like. He extracted it from the bag.
“Now is that one of the good candies? Or just one you want to get rid of?”
The boy closed his fist and hung his head. The pumpkin had caught him.
“I am a most wise and wonderful pumpkin, but I don’t like being tricked. And so now you must treat.” the voice boomed.
Shaking, the boy opened his bag a second time and spied a prized item. A chocolate candy bar. He had two of the same flavor. He wrapped his fingers around it, pulled it from the bag and stared at it. With a trembling outstretched hand, he offered it as a gift.
“Oh, that’s much better. But I have no arms. You will have to give it to me.”
The boy hesitated, staring at the large, plastic bowl resting on the hay bale right beside the pumpkin. He would have to move closer. Reach his hand over the hay bale. Within inches of the leaves flapping on the corn stalks. What if something reached out from inside the corn? Wrapped its cold fingers around his wrist. Dragged him forward.
Or what if the pumpkin moved? Jumped at him. Bit him with those orange teeth.
“Be brave, my boy. Give it to me now.”
Determined, he straightened his back and stepped forward. Nothing moved inside the corn shock. No bony arm reached from inside its dark shadows. No eyes gleamed at him from behind the stalks.
Another step. A gust of wind crossed the yard. His cape fluttered. Corn leaves rustled. The light inside the pumpkin flickered.
A third step. He reached out with a quaking hand. Hovered over the bowl. Released his fingers. The candy dropped and joined the other offerings. Before anything could grab him, he jumped out of reach, wrapping his cape tightly around his body.
The pumpkin’s mirth roared approval. “Good, boy, a nice offering.”
“It’s one of my b-b-best.”
“Good boys like you deserve a reward.”
He looked up, a smile creeping across his face. “I do?”
“Oh, yes, unselfish boys are special. Do you see that witch?”
“Yes, I see her.” A black hatted woman cackled as she stirred a giant bowl. Smoke poured over its side and fell to the ground.
“I, the most mystical pumpkin in all of the land, command her to offer you candy from her bubbling cauldron!”
The witch clucked and snickered. She extended a bony finger from her hand and beckoned the boy to step forward.
Warily, he approached as he heard the jack-o’-lantern call for the children who had stood behind him in line. She motioned him closer and closer. “So, boy, he says you are to get some candy.”
She gestured toward the giant black bowl swinging in the wind. “Just reach in, my child.”
He licked his lips, wanting the candy but scared to reach inside the shadows.
“Go ahead, my child, claim your candy.”
He extended a shaking arm, dipped his hand deep inside and retrieved his prize. He took a step back from the witch. “Th-th-thank you.”
“You are welcome, little boy.”
He ran to his parents who stood in a corner of the yard, talking with neighbors. “I did it. I talked to the jack-o’-lantern all by myself. And I got candy from the witch. She let me reach into the bowl and everything.”
“That must have been scary.”
He shook his head. “No. I wasn’t scared at all.”
“Excellent,” they said as they walked back across the road to their house, waving at the shadow inside the kitchen window and the woman stirring the pot on the front lawn.
The witch cackled and shouted after them, “Happy Halloween!”
The eyes of the jack-o’-lantern flickered as they trekked home.