Author Topic: Carved With Care  (Read 651 times)

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Slimebeast

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on: 04:21:49 PM 10/23/20
Small town life was never bad to me.

A lot of people will complain about living in a closed-off, kind of backward little town. For me, personally speaking, it was never really an issue. I didn't yearn to go out into the world and find adventure, and I wasn't going stir-crazy by seeing the same familiar faces again and again at school, stores, and on the streets.

If anything, I found it comforting as a young man. Disagreements rarely ended in fights, because otherwise every meddling elder in town would force you to talk it out anyway. Break-ups had to be painless, because you'd see your ex for years afterward and no one wanted the drama. The crime rate was almost zero. You could easily identify a thief when you caught them with property no one saw them buy.

So, naturally, the real characters stuck out like sore thumbs. For example, everyone knew not to leave their kids alone with Mr. Clariet, even though he'd never gotten the chance to do anything wrong, yet. Alternately, guys my age knew they could always rely on Dianne, the check-out girl down at the supermarket, if they were feeling romantically frustrated.

Another such character was Mrs. Tracey, the 70-something lady that lived in the dead end off of Mineral Road. She was a pretty average, cliché shut-in. Her home was all but in shambles, though she always made the attempt to decorate spruce things up as much as she could. Her flowers we kept nicely, and she could often be seen hunched over the front step, beating the non-existent dirt out of a welcome mat no visitors ever stood on. Her lawn maintenance was provided by the local church, as part of their outreach to older, forgotten town residents.

A clowder of cats had taken up residency in and around the house. Mostly black or tuxedo cats, though the random tortoise shell or tabby would appear in the mix occasionally. She named each one "Sweet Pea", I guess to keep it simple.

She wasn't known for her depressing lifestyle or for being a "crazy cat lady", though.

She was known for her astounding artistic skill, expressed though the carving of ornately detailed Jack O' Lanterns.

The first time her artwork affected me, I was in 4th grade. I had a really wonderful science teacher named Mr. Burker. He was short, stocky, with thick glasses and a comb-over that told you right away he loved particles and chemical reactions.

He was always happy, always funny, and loved immature kids' jokes. He was perfect for elementary school, and he was probably the only science teacher I actually listened to, before or since.

That made it all the more disturbing when my class arrived to his room one day and found him crying. No one knew what to say or what to ask, we all just exchanged looks of cold, dreadful confusion and quietly sat at our desks.

Mr. Burker explained, tearfully, that he wouldn't be teaching us much longer. He held back sobs as he spoke, blowing his nose into a handkerchief several times throughout his halting speech.

A couple kids started to cry, as well. The kid who sat next to me didn't, though. A knowing look came over his face as I stared at him for no particular reason. He then turned to me, noticed I was watching him, and leaned in to whisper something.

"Mr. Burker got carved, I bet."

I had no idea what that meant, and I wrote it off as slang I wasn't aware of. That happened a lot, kids would pick up a term form the outside world and use it incessantly until it became common.

Weeks later, Mr. Burker died from undiagnosed stomach cancer.

Amid everyone's concern over Mr. Burker, I heard the term used to describe a few more citizens over the school year. Eugene Wallace, the bait shop owner, was "carved". He left immediately town in the middle of the night, and was run off the road by a drowsy truck driver. Pastor Green was "carved" as well, and had a heart attack in bed with one of his parishioners. The youngest I heard of was a toddler who choked after being "carved", after which her parents moved two towns over.

I heard the stories in passing, and with each tale I grew more and more afraid of asking people what it meant. It wasn't until a couple grades later that curiosity won out over fear, and I started asking around.

If you ever want all the details about small-town secrets, don't ask the oldest residents, or the authorities, or your parents.

Ask teenagers. They love that stuff, and they don't hold back any punches. Random teens had told me more information on puberty than my parents, and certainly more than any health class. I figured they had pretty much all the answers in life, and would tell you bluntly.

I was about 12 years old, and though I didn't necessarily have any older friends, I knew where to look. Everyone did. "Exhibit Discs & Tapes", the music store in a dying strip mall by the highway. The unassuming, bland beige storefront bearing a paradoxically edgy sign, complete with a giant graffiti-style "X" in "Exhibit".

I wandered into the shop cautiously. Mostly because I knew I didn't belong anywhere "cool", but also because it was owned and operated by the aforementioned Mr. Claret. I was probably old enough to watch out for myself at that point. Probably.

I approached a group of somewhat-kind-of-goth teens at the back of the smokey, odd-smelling building and pretended to sort through a box of vinyl records as if I had a single clue what they were.

The group were discussing a band called "Victor Victorious" and whether or not the musical group "ate shit out of an ass". By eavesdropping, I worked out that this was a turn of phrase, and not literal. The conclusion seemed to be a four to one decision that they did indeed eat it, with the dissenting opinion of "fuck you poseurs".

Seeing the majority's opinion, I broke into the conversation effortlessly by lying about having heard the band and enjoying their music, as well. The group laughed, except for the dissenter, and I was welcomed into the conversation. Not so much as a peer, but more as an amusing little mascot. Looking back now, I think they must've assumed I was desperately trying to make friends with them.

Just as awkwardly as I had injected myself into the conversation, I quickly turned the topic to "carving". Basically, I straight-up asked "So... What's up with that carving thing, am I right?" in a manner of speaking.

That topic got them excited. A lot of "Aww, dude"s and "Like, wow"s went back and forth as they went through every bit of knowledge they had on the subject in rapid-fire succession. I soaked up every drop of it.

The only interruption came when Mr. Claret passed by, asking if we were having a good time, and reminding us that there was a couch in the office if we were tired of standing.

By the end of the conversation, of which I was merely a spectator, I had everything I needed to know.

Mrs. Tracey was the carver. Every year, in or around October, she would carve a single pumpkin to decorate her front step. The Jack O' Lantern would depict someone from the town, and within no less than six months, the subject would be dead.

It was that simple. That direct.

End of story.

I stupidly asked for phone numbers so I could talk to the teenagers again some time, as if we were scheduling a play date. One of the girls snickered excessively as she gave me hers. I never got up the nerve to call, but I assume it was a fake, anyway. Probably "867-5307" or something similar.

That was pretty much all I needed to know, and whether it comes as a shock to you or not, I was more than willing to accept the idea that a crazy old woman was killing with magical pumpkins.

Small-town, life, I guess. I heard more fantastical stories in church, and everyone told me they were 100% factual. I had no internet, no smart phone, so who was going to tell me "the carving" was an unbelievable concept? Certainly not the parents who never technically got around to telling me the truth about Santa.

Fast forward several years once again. I was a freshman in high school, struggling to get through each day due to some radical changes in my home life. My mother fell ill and spent three weeks in the hospital before coming home for bed rest, and my dad was working overtime to barely cover bills. Most of the housework, including dinner, became my job. I hated it, but I never let it show out of respect for my parents and especially because my mom was sick and needed to stay positive if possible.

All of this lead to lots of sleeping in class and on the bus.

Things got really bleak. Mom wasn't really ready to be home yet, but the local hospital was understaffed, outdated, and needed machines that weren't nearly a decade old. Dad didn't want her there, and was sick of yelling at the already-stressed nurses for ignoring her. Dad and I did the best we could to keep her comfortable and we prayed nightly, side-by-side at her bed, for her safe recovery.

October had come.

I spent the first nights of the month sleepless, though I was exhausted. An idea had popped into my head, and rolled around in my skull no matter how hard I tried to push it out. Obsessed and half-demented from fatigue, I borrowed the car one morning. I said I was driving up to the supermarket to get some essentials, and I eventually would do just that, but first I planned to take a detour.

As I left the house, Dad answered a phone call. I could tell from his side of the conversation that the caller wa was related to the hospital, and from the tone in his voice, I could tell it was bad news. Focusing on the task I had laid out for myself let me ignore it, I couldn't handle it at that time, anyway.

I pulled up to Mrs. Tracey's house a short time later.

Everything was just as I'd seen it in before, when my family would drive past and I'd peer at scenery through the backseat window. Similar state of disrepair, same thoughtfully placed decorations, but a different host of feline faces.

I didn't knock on the door. Instead I carefully, stealthily peered through the window next to it. Beyond the dusty, yellowed lace curtains, I could see a dark, hunched figure walking through a distant room.

Mrs. Tracey. She had on a worn nightgown, blue with white flowers. She also held a large pumpkin in her hands. I watched as best I could, angling myself over the trailing of the stairs as she shuffled slowly to a table, sat down with a look of pain, and slowly, meticulously began carving the gourd.

I gnawing sense of horror gripped me as I imagined her carving out my mother's face. The dim lighting and the angle of the table made it impossible to see what she was creating.

I didn't know what to do. Should I stop her? Should I shove the pumpkin to the floor and smash it? Maybe if I asked Mrs. Tracey nicely, she would just not carve it at all. For all I knew, though, she was some vengeful psychopath who would carve me into it, instead.

I stood there, frozen, for the duration. Cramps and muscle aches burned through my body as I hung half-over the rail, my eyes focused hard and accustomed to the darkness in the house. When Mrs. Tracey lit the candle and placed it inside the pumpkin, that brief flash of light, however small, blinded me for a moment.

I blinked a few times and let my eyes readjust, just in time to see Mrs. Tracey making a slow, yet unstoppable journey to the very front door I stood at.

Flustered, my mind still racing with dark possibilities and "what if"s, I stumbled down the steps. My feet met the grass just as the door creaked open.

Mrs. Tracey gasped in shock, as I stood with my back to her.

"Oh!" she declared, "My goodness, you gave me a start. Are you here for the church?"

I turned around slowly, fearful of not only the woman and her supernatural aura, but also just being caught snooping on someone's property.

"Uh, yeah I go to the church." I replied. It was true, after all.

She hobbled down the stairs, the Jack O' Lantern lit, but its imagery turned inward, toward her.

"Well, God gave me another message." she pursed her lips as she watched her steps carefully, "Also, the hedges need trimming again when y'all can get around to it."

I took a deep breath that didn't seem to do anything to help my light-headedness.

"Who is it?" I asked, my voice audibly cracking.

"Oh, I can't rightly recall", she answered, placing the pumpkin on the steps, "Too many names, I just did the whole thing."

As she stepped away, I looked at the image on the Jack O' Lantern.

It was the hospital, glowing so brightly from within that it almost seemed to be on fire.
« Last Edit: 04:22:57 PM 03/11/21 by Slimebeast »
If I should live until I wake, I pray the web my death to fake.