The Gourd King: Chapter 13

OCTOBER 31, 1955

Skip Anderson waited and watched the Gourd King’s place for four nights. He wasn’t going to let Pete win the game, and tonight was the last night because it was Halloween. November 1st would be too late. He needed a large man-shaped gourd to win, but they were only found inside the center of the garden, and not around the edges. The largest gourds were always found near the center.

The week before Pete managed to bring out a smaller man-sized gourd. Everyone marveled at it, how knobby the skin looked, but it was the unmistakable shape of the gourd which enthralled them. It wasn’t the fact that the gourd had arms and legs like a man did, it didn’t, but how much the gourd resembled a real face. The bumps resembled a man’s nose, eyes, and crooked mouth.

As a joke, one of Pete’s buddies, Phil, said the gourd looked like Skip Anderson after he lost the game. It was the challenge Skip needed. He couldn’t allow Josh to win. So he staked out the Gourd King’s place each night from across the street. The frustrating thing about the Gourd King was he never left the garden. It was like the guy never slept watching over the garden.

He wondered if he could get in there. Pete’s taunting was just too much. He imagined showing off the biggest gourd anybody had ever seen, and how the tables would be turned, and Pete admitting defeat. This scenario kept him going night after night.

But first he needed to get into the garden.

It was late, and most of the trick or treaters had long gone home, and the porch lights were flicked off up and down the street. There was still plenty of light by the full moon. It illuminated the whole neighborhood in its bluish white glow. Other than the deep shadows, it was quite possible to see everything.

His biggest fear was Pete and his buddies spoiling his attempt to get a gourd, but he had not seen anyone after 10 pm. It was like the town went to bed early on Halloween night. Tonight was his night.

There was no sign of the Gourd King. All the lights were off in his house. Skip looked down into the garden from a tree across the street. Nothing moved inside the garden except for a few leaves. The wind created several waves upon the leaves like it did on Lake Michigan next to Chicago.

There was one particular open space next to the shed where he wanted to look. It was an open patch with four pumpkins sitting on the bare ground. Other gardens had only dead vines and orange pumpkins, but the Gourd King’s garden still looked pristine despite how late in the season it was.

This would be his fourth trip into the Gourd King’s garden. The first time he snatched flowers, the second time he brought out a small gourd, and he had smashed a pumpkin on the third visit. That’s when Pete started to take him seriously. He thoroughly enjoyed watching Pete squirm.

And then Pete showed up with a man-shaped gourd. It was considered a victory, until he had bet Pete he could bring out a bigger man-shaped gourd. Pete accepted his five buck bet, surprising him. He didn’t have five bucks. The bet sort of slipped out of his mouth, and once he said it, he had to follow through. Now he had to bring out a man-shaped gourd.

Once he got the gourd he planned to shove it in Pete’s face, demanding the five bucks owed for the bet. Skip pictured Pete’s wallet opening, and Pete pulling out the five ones found inside, and counting them off one by one into Skip’s palm. He could imagine Pete’s chagrin at losing the bet.

In the distance he heard the 11:30 pm train rumbling on the edge of town. He had a half hour. A giant yawn escaped his mouth. It was late, but he had to make sure the Gourd King was in bed. He looked around for the umpteenth time, and it was dead. A cloud covered the moon, and he heard the rustling of wind through the leaves. It was now or never.

He dropped down to the ground, and landed with a light thud. Using the shadows, he edged to the street, waited, then darted across. Only the street light glowed, as the darkest part of the cloud covered the moon’s brightness.

The vine covered fence loomed above him, and he leapt up and grabbed the top, and used his left foot to vault him up and over. He landed in the pumpkin vines, and crouched low. The vines stood tall, and helped to conceal him.

Pumpkin and gourd leaves rubbed against each other making a whispering sound like girls gossiping at the back of the classroom while the teacher went over the lesson. A thrill made Skip’s hands and feet twitch. “That five dollars is mine,” he kept repeating, softly.

Something moved under the leaves, off to his right, like a bird or rabbit in the bushes. He saw a couple leaves move just above where he heard the noise. He must have startled something.

The garden shed acted like a lighthouse, its white walls shining brightly in the night,  when the moon came out from behind the clouds, bathing the whole garden in white light.

He saw mostly pumpkins where he was by the fence. The prize had to be nearer the shed.

After five paces, he caught his right foot in a vine, and tripped. The vines crisscrossed everywhere under the big broad leaves, and it was impossible not to get tangled up in them. He lifted his right foot up, but the vine tightened around his ankle its barbs biting into his ankle.

He landed hard, crushing a leaf with his left hand and the vine underneath. He felt dirt in his right palm. Cold and damp. He clawed the earth, making an oblong wad conformed to his fingers and palm.

It didn’t matter because he’d have the man-shaped gourd, and everybody would know he was the winner. Pete could go suck eggs for all he cared. This thought encouraged him as he kicked his foot free, and stood up.

A strong wind blasted through the garden from the west. The hills often hid these sudden storm fronts, creating moments when many a kid found themselves inundated by rain while across town on their bikes.

He looked up and saw the dark clouds moving across the sky. In the garden corner, the large maple’s top began to bend eastward as branches bobbed up and down in the wind. Another gust came down and washed over the garden, making the vine leaves rise up, exposing their silvery underbellies. Skip’s heart sank. He didn’t want to get stormed out, but he knew he only had a short amount of time before a wall of water hit, soaking everything in its path.

  He moved with a purpose, bending low in order to find the right type of gourd. There were countless pumpkins, some green, others orange, both big or small; and twice as many gourds, round ones, oblong ones, flat saucer shaped ones, and twisty ones, but no man-shaped ones. He began pushing leaves out of the way, their needlelike spines biting into his hand.

The garden seemed to come alive all around him, as the wind whipped and churned, creating mini vortexes; vines and leaves appeared to jump and prance about as if free from bondage.

That’s when he saw two bottleneck gourds run past him, holding a vine between him. In a moment he was airborne, and then on the ground. He had tripped again, and the lightning had played tricks on his eyes. Gourds didn’t move.

He brushed it off as his nerves playing tricks on him, and used his opportunity on the ground to scout below leaf level. It was like another kingdom next to the ground. Lightning and wind raged above him, but down here, all was quiet.

A shadow darted in front of him and disappeared off to his right. Something scrambled across the back of his legs, just below his knees. It felt like a heavy rope. He looked behind him to catch what it was. He managed to see a green and orange gourd disappear between two vines, disappearing in the gloom. Something brushed his right hand, and he whipped around to see what it was.

Suddenly, he was afraid. Lightning flashed. His eyes were playing tricks on him. He fought to regain his feet, realizing a thick vine had pinned down the back of his legs.   

A wild man’s cry tore through the night, only to be drowned out by the loudest thunderclap Skip had ever heard. Leaves tore through the air, slapping Skip in the face.

Next to the shed he saw countless leaves rise up from below. Two claw like hands pulled the vines apart, causing the vines and leaves to drop to the ground around it like a blanket falling to the ground around a person. In its place stood a hideous shape, bumpy and stripped dark green, browns, and light green. Two intense fiery bright green eyes burned at him.

Tendrils grab his ankles and vines entangle themselves around his legs, as he stood transfixed by the apparition before him. The bright green eyes tore into his soul and burned in his chest.

Thick cold raindrops hit his shoulders, head, and face. The rain, he thought.

“Oooooouuuuuuttttt,” screamed the Gourd King off to his left. He just had time to turn and see lightning light up a grotesque angular face racing toward him, hoe upraised in the Gourd King’s hands. He screamed, and ducked, as a hoe whipped past his head and came down hard on the vines entangled around his legs. The blow made it easier to move.

He darted forward and away from the crazed man, running toward the creature next to the shed, mistaking it for the world’s largest man-shaped gourd. He’d snatch victory despite the storm and the Gourd King attempts to stop him.

It was then that he realized the flaw in his plan. He didn’t bring a knife. How could he cut the vine? His heart plummeted. Of all the stupid things to do. He berated himself, just as another vine tripped him.

He heard the whoosh of the Gourd King’s hoe whip past him. One part of his mind said, that was too close for comfort, while the other part of his mind realized he was falling into a thick patch of vines, and it looked like ten or twelve gourds were there to break his fall. The gourds moved aside at the last second as he landed palms down on the ground, on all fours. That’s when he noticed the little faces on the gourds, and their bright green eyes, and tendril like arms and legs. He shook his head, believing he was hallucinating.

A knee knocked him onto his side just as he looked up and saw the Gourd King’s garden hoe swinging down in a wicked ark, straight for his head. “You will not do this,” the Gourd King shouted. Skip turned at the last second, and heard a “kathunk” next to his ear, as he felt the cold insides of a gourd, cut into two, hit the side of his head.

Before he had time to react, he suddenly found himself beneath what felt like a football pile, except there were no football players, but the kicks and jabs and disorienting mass associated with multiple bodies on top of the ball carrier. The left side of his face and ear were shoved into the ground.     

No matter what way he tried turning, he seemed to be bumped or kicked, and the vines felt like they were wrapping around his arms and legs. It suddenly felt like he was the football, and both sides were fighting for possession of him.

It became difficult to see, because mud had slopped into his left eye, making it useless; he could not hear out of his left ear as well. The Gourd King screamed above him, and then he knew he shat in his jeans. Despite how soaked he was, he knew by the unmistakable oder, he had pooped. Shame swept over him.

There was a loud hissing and rustling sound in his ears, and he kicked and tore at anything around him. Despite soiling himself, he wanted to get out of the Gourd King’s garden, to get away. Each time he managed to free his wrist, something else tangled it up again.

Terror washed over him, and he thrashed as hard as he could, feeling contact with a solid object now and then. The bright green eyes darted in and out of his vision. They weren’t real, he told himself. He was scared, and all this was just a Halloween prank Pete put together to scare him, and win the game. But, deep inside, he knew it wasn’t a game; the tendrils entwining his arms and legs felt real enough.

There was a continual chopping sound all around him. It landed near his head or next to his hands, and once he felt a stinging pain on his left arm where something nicked him. The Gourd King was killing him.

Lightning flashed overhead, and he had time to see the giant gourd creature swing a large club, hitting the Gourd King’s head, and the Gourd King fell on top of him. He could have sworn the giant creature had bright green eyes, as well, burning with a hate so malevolent, he feared something worse than death itself.

The Gourd King: Chapter 12

Mississippi got its mysteries. Shoreline is full of them.

                                                                                     Catfish Joe

“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?” Eddy  said. He walked away from the window and over toward the closet, spun around, and faced Chris. “Are you suggesting your neighbor killed those boys?”

David whistled. He glanced out the window, expecting to see the Gourd King digging a grave for his next victim.

“I’m just thinking out loud,” Chris said. “It’s the only explanation for why my great aunt kept those newspaper articles in that photo album. She was remembering her little brother. I’ve even got his stuff on the dresser. I found it in the trunk with the photo album, and the awesome sword my parent’s took away.” He walked over to the dresser and picked up the pom pom cigar box. “Check this stuff out.”

David asked, “Yeah, when are you going to get it back? I’d like to see it.”

Chris shrugged, handing the cigar box to Eddy . “I had it for all of a minute,” he said, rubbing the spot on the back of his head.

Eddy  opened the cigar box and looked inside. He said, “I remember learning about the Louisiana Purchase. This coin is from the St. Louis World’s Fair.” He held up the coin and turned it around in his hands.

“Can I see it?” David asked, reaching out his palm. Eddy  dropped the coin in his hand and checked out the other stuff.  After a bit they handled and discussed each of the items within the box. “I don’t know about you guys, but handling this stuff sort of makes it like I knew this kid. Even though he disappeared years ago. Where do you think he is?”

Eddy  put the cigar box on the bed and walked over to the window. “He could be anywhere.”

Chris struggled with his thoughts as he watched them checking out the items in the cigar box. David definitely voiced his opinion as well. He said, “I think my great aunt kept tabs on my neighbor over the years. It explains the other clippings. Now whether she knew he did it or not, I don’t know. But she must have thought it important, otherwise why would she store this stuff in the attic?”

Eddy  said, “She could have just put it there for no reason at all.”

“But if she did that, then why take the time to clip out the other missing boy articles?”

“Then why didn’t she tell the police?” Eddy  asked. “The police were asking the public  for any information at all.”

“She didn’t have proof,” David said. “The cops probably had every quack in town giving them clues. Plus, not everyone wants to go to the police.”

Chris realized David must be talking about something personally. Why would David have something against the police? His parents spoke about the police as people you helped, or obeyed, like when his dad got a ticket.

Eddy  said, “But that’s what police are supposed to do, follow up hunches.”

David jumped up and pushed up his glasses. “Could I take a look up in the attic?”

Chris shrugged. “It’s hot up there.” David walked over to the closet and put a hand and foot on the ladder.

“I just want to look,” David said, climbing up the ladder. Eddy  walked over to the closet and followed David up. Chris climbed after them, and showed them around the attic, opening the boxes and the trunk. David tried on a couple hats, and Eddy  pulled out a large black dress from the trunk and held it up to his chest.

“Not my type,” he said, tossing the dress back into the trunk. They studied everything until they got bored and climbed back down the ladder. The boys were also interested in the secret passage running from Chris’s room to the next bedroom. Eddy  agreed one could easily get out of the window and onto the back porch roof. “It’d be easy to drop down to the ground from there. You have a pretty good escape route.”

They finally ended up back in Chris’s room. David said, “You’re right about the place smelling like cat pee. It’s not as bad as it was, but I can still smell it.”

“This is nothing compared to the lady’s house on the corner,” Eddy  said. “It may look nice on the outside, but talk about nasty on the inside. Mom had to drop something off one day, and I went with her. I thought I would die.”

Chris really didn’t want to talk about how bad his house smelled, or even if the lady on the corner had a house that smelled worse. He wanted to get back to the Gourd King. Something about the whole business made him feel uneasy. He couldn’t express it in words but something deep inside him told him something was not right next door.

He said, “I still think the Gourd King had something to do with it. I mean, look at how those high schoolers taunted him. You guys even said this happened on a regular basis?”

As soon as Chris said it, there was a long quiet pause. He hated when this happened. It often happened in school when he asked a question, after figuring out what the teacher was talking about. He’d raise a new point, and the teacher would just look at him. He tried many times not to do it, but it always seemed to happen to him. He couldn’t figure out why. It just happened again.

“He’s right,” David said, breaking the silence, and looking at Eddy . “Kids are constantly trying to get into the Gourd King’s garden. How many people do we know are waiting for a chance when he’s not outside.”

Eddy  frowned. “But I don’t think the guy will go nuts.”

Chris shrugged. “I’m just trying to look at it through his eyes. My dad always told me to look at things through the other person’s eyes. That’s all.”

“I’ve lived here my whole life, and he’s never gone bonkers. And nobody has gone missing, either,” Eddy  said. “You make it sound like the Gourd King will go ape at any moment, and that we’re all dead.”

Chris had to admit Eddy  made sense. He had not grown up in Harrisburg, and there had not been any recent disappearances, despite watching guys raid the garden the first night he arrived in town. So what was it that really bothered him?

“I don’t know,” Chris said, feeling frustrated. “Something’s not right.”

Eddy  continued, knowing his arguments were having an effect. “So you think your neighbor killed those boys and buried them in his garden because they stole a few gourds and pumpkins and called him a few names?”

Chris’s face flushed. Eddy  had a way of saying what he was thinking in a way that made it sound silly, and not very logical. “You’re making fun.”

Eddy  started to laugh. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m saying. Maybe he killed those boys, maybe he didn’t, but we have no proof. I guess that’s what I’m getting at. If he is a killer, why didn’t the cops catch him a long time ago?”

It was frustrating when someone else saw the holes in Chris’s ideas. Maybe he was wrong about the Gourd King. But it sounded logical in his own head. And it had been years since the last disappearance.

“I think Chris has something,” David said, diplomatically. “What you’re saying is true as well, Eddy . But, I don’t think we should brush off the idea he might have something to do with the disappearance. And the lady who put this photo album together thought so as well.”

Relief flooded through Chris, knowing someone else agreed with him. There was only one thing to do, and that was to find out more. Maybe there were more disappearances but they just didn’t know about them. Or maybe, his great aunt had quit keeping track. It could be anything. But he knew he had to find out more.

The Gourd King: Chapter 11

Skeletons are in the closet. Catfish are in the river. But mysteries are found everywhere else.

                                                                                     Catfish Joe

They raced over to Chris’s house by cutting through the back yards. A large hill rose up from behind all the houses on the block. They came to the alley behind Chris’s house and turned right, running past the other places, and even Eddy’s uncle’s place next door. Chris spotted a smaller dirt road angling off to the right into a shallow gully next to an abandoned block building buried deep into the side of the hill.

They ignored this road, and continued on until they were soon in Chris’s room upstairs. He showed them the attic, and the trunk. But the lighting made reading the newspaper clippings in the photo album difficult, so they brought it down to the bedroom.

Chris placed the photo album on his bed and the other two gathered around. He opened it to the first news clipping, and read it aloud.

Boy Gone Missing

Alfred Henning, son of Parker and Hazel Henning, disappeared on the

night of October 31, 1917. Harrisburg Police questioned neighbors and

friends and searched the town, the local cave, and dredged the river,

fearing the twelve year old might have come to some mischief. Police

have indicated possible clues were found inside the Henning’s home,

but will not disclose them at this time. Please contact them if you have

any information about the whereabouts of Alfred Henning.

“Oh,” Chris said. “I thought it might say something about Skip Anderson. Are you sure that’s the name your uncle said?”

Eddy  shrugged. “It couldn’t be Alfred Henning. Alfred is such a strange name, I’d remember hearing it.”

“I guess it’s a dead end,” Chris said, closing the photo album.

David turned the photo album toward him, and opened it. He flipped through the pages looking at the photos. “Who are these people?”

“They’re my mom’s relatives,” Chris said. “The young girl was my mom’s great aunt. I guess she lived here the longest. I think her parents were killed by some flu.”

David flipped a couple pages. “Oh, here it is.” He read it out loud.

Influenza Claims Missing Boy’s Parents

Spanish Influenza claimed two more Harrisburg residents on Sunday

since the pandemic broke out in Harrisburg this year. Parker and Hazel

Henning passed away October 19, at Harrisburg Memorial’s Flu Ward.

Their deaths are of special note because their son, Alfred, disappeared

two years ago on Halloween. The boy’s disappearance is still a mystery.

He was last seen at their residence on the night he disappeared. A

broken window and mud stains were the only clues in the case.

The Henning’s are survived by a lone daughter, Nelle, who graduated

from  Harrisburg High this past May. She is employed at Kingsley’s

Pharmacy in downtown Harrisburg. Twenty-seven residents have died

from the influenza. The Henning’s will be laid to rest at Park Hill Cemetery.

A memorial service is planned for all the families of who have lost loved

ones at Harrisburg Christian Church on Sunday, November 2, 1919 at 3

in the afternoon.

War Hero Succumbs to Spanish Flu

Sergeant Henry Nesbaum, winner of the silver star citation, passed

away after losing his fight against Spanish influenza. Sergeant

Nesbaum volunteered for the Marines and quickly rose to the rank

of sergeant. He served in multiple battles during the war, and was

wounded three times.

Sergeant Nesbaum fought with the 5th Marines in Belleau Wood,

France during the famous battle where Captain Lloyd W. Williams

quoted to have said, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”

Sergeant Nesbaum earned the silver star citation for his gallantry

in action. Funeral services will be held at Pershing Funeral Home

with full military honors. Sergeant Nesbaum will be laid to rest at

Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

“What’s a pandemic?” Eddy  asked.

“It’s like the Black Plague in the Middle Ages,” David said. “My dad is always telling us to wash our hands because colds can become the flu. He remembers the Hong Kong flu killing friends of his. We were already in the states then, but he’s constantly hounding me to wash my hands.”

Chris said, “Alfred’s parents died two years after he disappeared?” Something about the coldness within the article disturbed him. It suddenly felt wrong, like a slight left unanswered.

Eddy  said, “He went missing on Halloween. Of all the nights to go missing. Just think of all the candy he didn’t get to eat.”

“Where did he go?” David asked. It was a simple enough question, and it jarred Chris back from thinking about eating Halloween candy.

If the authorities never found a body, then somebody must have taken him, or the body is still hidden somewhere. The Gourd King’s garden popped into his mind. With all the plants in the garden, the Gourd King could hide could have a hundred graves in the garden and nobody would know.

“Check the other clippings, David,” Chris said. This idea gnawed at him. “Did they find Alfred’s body?”

David began flipping the pages. He found two more clippings, but they were short pieces stating the police had no leads in the missing person case. And then David whistled.

“There’s another boy missing,” he said, reading:

Henry Allen Reported Missing

Harrisburg police said today they received a report Thursday morning

about a thirteen year old boy who went missing last Tuesday evening.

Henry Allen is described as about four feet eight inches tall; weighing

90-pounds, blonde hair, wearing brown corduroy, green t-shirt and

brown corduroy jacket. Any information may be forwarded to the

Harrisburg Police Department.

“What’s the date on that?” Eddy  asked.

David looked over the brownish paper, and flipped it over. “November 2, 1944.”

“That doesn’t help us,” Chris said. “You said your uncle said Skip Anderson.”

“But it seems a coincidence that two boys, twelve years old, both disappeared,” David suggested. He looked down at the page in the photo album. “And why did someone clip it out and put it in this photo album?”

That was a good question, and Chris didn’t have an answer. He wasn’t sure what was going on. They were just trying to find out who Skip Anderson was. “This is obviously a dead end.”

“I agree,” Eddy  said. “Unless there are more clippings in there?”

David flipped through some more pages. He ignored a couple clippings and stopped toward the end of the book.

“I don’t believe it,” he said. “You guys are not going to believe this.”

Chris and Eddy  looked at him.

David began reading:

Skip Anderson Reported Missing

Harrisburg Police are asking local residents to check their out buildings for

a missing boy twelve years of age. Skip Anderson has been reported missing

since Monday evening from his home at 1500 Pine Street. It is possible the

boy was part of a Halloween prank.

Anderson is described as about five feet nine inches tall; weighing 92 pounds,

brown hair, wearing blue jeans, white t-shirt, and denim jacket.

Search Proves Futile

Harrisburg Police Department and local fire departments assisted in the

search for Skip Anderson, a twelve year old boy, reported missing since

Halloween, October 31, 1955. Police Chief, Bob Wells said, “We have

ruled out a Halloween prank as the reason for the boy’s disappearance.

We have dredged the Mississippi River, and made a search of

abandoned wells. A party of spelunkers searched a nearby cave.”

A team of fifty searchers combed the wood near Skip’s home but only

found discarded furniture, and abandoned vehicles.

Local Authorities Question Residents

Despite the recent search no clues have been found in the disappearance

of the missing twelve year old. Skip Anderson has been missing over a

month.

Harrisburg Police Chief, Bob Wells, said, “We’re continuing our efforts by

canvasing the neighborhoods around where Mr. Anderson lived.” Chief

Anderson encourages anyone who might have information as to the

whereabouts of Skip Anderson are to contact the Harrisburg Police. A

reward has been offered for any credible leads to the whereabouts of

Skip Anderson.

“That’s three missing boys,” David said. “All around our age.”

“It’s just a coincidence,” Eddy  said. “What does it matter to us?”

Chris said, “But three kids the same age.” Despite the heat, a sudden chill shot up Chris’s spine.

Eddy  said, “Yeah, but look at the dates.” He grabbed the photo album and pointed the the date on each newsprint. “This one is 1917, 1919, 1944, and 1955. They’re spread out over the years. Just because they’re near our age does not mean anything.”

“I wonder if they were ever found?” David asked. This was an interesting questions, and all three boys were soon deep in thought.

Chris felt something wasn’t right. He couldn’t really put his finger on it, but something told him he was closer to this than the other two, despite Eddy’s uncle living next door. Who made the photo album? And why was is important to keep?

“Can I look at this again?” He said, taking the photo album and looking back over the photos. They were all pictures taken in and around the house where he lived, and a few were taken by the river during picnics and town festivals.

He kept asking himself, why would his great great Aunt keep these photos and newspaper articles? “I’m thinking,” he said aloud, and the other two looked at him. “Why did my great aunt keep this photo album, and cut out these particular news articles, and put them in this photo album?”

David screwed up his face, deep in thought. Eddy  shrugged and thrust his hands deep in his short pockets. Finally, David suggested, “It’s obvious they are important to her, which is why she kept them.”

Chris’ thoughts edged closer to a bigger truth, and he continued to ask over and over, “But why did she keep them? They were about boys our age? But what would she care?”

Eddy  interrupted, “Obviously, the first one was her younger brother.”

“Yes,” Chris said, feeling one piece locked into place. But what do these disappearances have to do with her younger brother.”

“They were around his age,” David said. “But we already know that.”

Outside, they heard a familiar rasping voice shouting. “Get away from here, you stupid kids.”

They all hurried to the window and looked out. Below them, and on the street they saw two teenage boys running from the Gourd King’s fence toward the corner. They stopped in the middle of the corner and turned around, taunting the old man. “We’re minding our own business, old man. Why’re you yelling at us. Who plays with gourds all day?”

Standing next to the fence, the Gourd King shook the rake over his head. “Stay away! Or you have to go.”

“Gourd King, gourd king, gourd king,” they jeered.

The Gourd King turned around and went back to work, muttering to himself.

“Can’t hurt any ole thing,” the teenagers yelled. “That’s why he’s the Gourd King. Pucker up and let her blow, always yellin’, aint got no show.”

It was midday, and Chris asked, “Is this normal?”

David turned back to him, “Yeah. Why do you ask?”

Chris tried imagining what it must be like chasing kids off the property. Constant taunting day in and day out. After a while, it’s make him nuts.

Suddenly, two separate ideas came together. He clapped his hands. “That’s it.”

“What?” Eddy  asked.

Chris pointed outside, and down, toward the Gourd King. “He’s the connection.”

David asked, “What do you mean?”

Countless possibilities flooded Chris’s mind, and he was afraid of losing them before he had a chance to vocalize them.

“Why would my great aunt keep newspaper articles about missing boys? And what connected them all together?”

“We don’t know?” Eddy  asked.

Chris nodded toward the window. “I think it was him.” He looked out the window, and down on the Gourd King’s garden.

It flourished and thrived on its own. Green vines climbed up two clothes line poles and across the sagging lines. More vines marched up the giant maple’s trunk like a massive green monster ready to consume the whole tree. The butterfly shaped leaves with giant tongues sticking out of the bottom covered the whole garden.

Zenias and corn flowers struggled for light as gourd vines slithered through their masses. Fennel and dill, on slender stalks, shot up through the thick growth. Little orange blossoms peeked above fan like leaves. Round gourds hung low along the outside of the fence.

It was a riot of color surrounded by green forms. The whole garden teemed with life, and half of it hidden from view. Chris asked, “How many bodies do you think you can hide in a garden?”

The Gourd King: Chapter 10

Wrecks are dangerous because, sometimes, they’re hidden just below the water.

                                                                                                        Catfish Joe

“After my uncle told me to stay out of the Gourd King’s garden,” Eddy  remarked, “My uncle said something under his breath. It was more to himself, but I think it’s important.” Eddy  coughed. He seemed deep in thought.

“Well,” David said, motioning for Eddy  to get on with it.

“I’m trying to remember exactly what he said.”

Chris couldn’t get the idea of an exploding volcano out of his mind. There were plenty of hills in this town. What if one of them were a volcano? But there would have been smoke. Volcanos were always sending smoke in the sky.

Eddy’s face brightened. “Now I remember. He said, ‘Maybe that’s why Skip Anderson went missing.’”

“Who the heck is Skip Anderson?” David asked. “And what does that have to do with the Gourd King?”

“I don’t know if it has anything to do with it,” Eddy  argued. “It was just strange how my uncle mentioned it in connection with the Gourd King.”

A lightbulb flicked on inside Chris’s head. That was it. He remembered what it was that had eluded him before. He said, “It is important.”

David looked at him, “What do you mean?”

“There has been something bugging me about this whole situation,” Chris said, excitedly. “Something’s not right. But I couldn’t remember what it was.”

“So you know who Skip Anderson was?” Eddy  asked.

“Actually, no,” Chris said. “But I came across the word missing before in a newspaper clipping. I found it in photo album in the attic of my house. The photo album is filled with old pictures. The kind of pictures where the boys wore those strange slacks, like shorts but longer.”

Eddy  and David waited expectantly.

“Anyway,” Chris continued. “There were a bunch of newspaper clippings next to the photos. I remember seeing a couple of them saying ‘missing’ in the titles. Maybe it has something to do with Skip?”

It made sense. Chris wished he had paid closer attention to what was in the photo album.

“Do you still have it?” Eddy  asked, “Or did your parents take it?”

So much had happened since he was in the attic, that Chris wasn’t exactly sure. They did take the Civil War sword. But did they take the photo album? “It should still be in the attic,” he said, “I don’t remember carrying it down, and they haven’t talked about it. We could go see,” Chris suggested.

The Gourd King: Chapter 9

The River has its own way, that’s why there are flood plains.

                                                                                                            Catfish Joe

The next day Chris explained what he had heard the Gourd King say. Eddy  and David listened, drinking in every word. Chris finished his tale, and sat back against the tree trunk.

David whistled. “I’m glad I don’t live next to that guy.”

This hardly made Chris feel better. He couldn’t shake off the unease he felt since last night. He had hoped it would be gone when the sun came up in the morning, but it still remained.

Telling his friends helped, at least to get things off his chest, because dad and mom would not understand. It wasn’t the last time he wondered why his parents had forced him to move here.

“So you heard the Gourd King definitely say, ‘Not like last time’?” Eddy  asked. “And you’re sure he sounded upset?”

“I’m sure,” Chris nodded. “I definitely got a feeling he was upset.”

Eddy  said. “I’ve been doing some investigating myself,” he began, lacing his fingers and thrusting his hands out in front of him, palms out. “I asked Uncle Henry about the Gourd King.”

The suddenness of the Eddy’s declaration caught Chris by surprise. He was impressed with Eddy’s initiative. He leaned forward, waiting for Eddy  to speak.

Eddy  said, “At first I didn’t think much of what my uncle said, but now, now that you told us about the Gourd King referring to something that happened before.”

“What?” David interrupted.

“Uncle Henry told me to leave the Gourd King alone, and to stay out of the Gourd King’s garden. He told me I had no business going into the garden, and he’d personally let my mother know.”

David whistled.

“I told him I had no plans of going into the Gourd King’s garden. He said, ‘Good! Keep it that way.’”

Eddy  looked at them both. “He told me some men snap when under pressure. He saw it first hand in the war hopping from Island to Island in the Pacific. I guess there comes a point when somebody will snap.”

“So my neighbor is nuts?” Chris asked. His stomach did not feel well.

“Uncle Henry didn’t say the Gourd King would snap,” Eddy .

“But he seemed pretty keen on you not going into the garden,” David said.

Eddy  shrugged. “Uncle Henry told me men sometimes check out.They don’t realize what they’re doing.”

“Was the Gourd King in the army?” Chris asked.

“I don’t think so,” Eddy  said. “Uncle Henry wasn’t around much, but moved home later.”

“It sounds like your uncle is afraid my neighbor might snap,” Chris said. “And do something crazy.”

Eddy  agreed, “I think that’s why he doesn’t want me going into the garden. If the Gourd King catches you, you really don’t know what might happen.”

David threw up his hands. “You might as well paint a big sign and put it on the street, Everybody welcome. That explains why they play the game. Gourd King goes nuts and kills local kids in a gruesome pumpkin tragedy.”

David’s rant sparked a memory inside him, like he should remember something, but it remained dark and shadowy. He tried teasing it up into his consciousness but it remained hidden. It had something to do with the cavalry sword he had found in the attic, but nothing to do with his stitches. But what was it? He felt it was very important, and would have some bearing on David’s comments. And, then, the it was gone.

“I didn’t say he was nuts,” Eddy  said. “Uncle Henry thinks anything could set off the guy.”

Eddy’s reassurances did nothing to soften the blow. The idea the Gourd King may be a volcano ready to explode only increased the unease Chris felt about moving to Harrisburg. He did not want to live next door to a volcano. In nature volcanos could destroy whole cities, and lay waste vast amounts of land. Why would he want that?

“So what are we going to do?” he asked.

It was a logical question, but one they could not answer. Eddy  said, “I really don’t care if the Gourd King gets Dillon and his gang. I’m getting tired of his Green Beret stuff. He’s always acting like he’s some big hotshot. Maybe facing your neighbor is the best thing for him.”

“It really doesn’t concern me,” David said. “I’m not supposed to be in the garden anyway. So what if Dillon and Craig get caught. Maybe they’d finally realize they can’t go wherever they like. Father always said it was important to work hard and get along with others.”

Chris wondered what his dad would say. Probably something from Jeremiah Johnson, his dad’s new favorite movie. “Probably didn’t put enough dirt down, saw it right off.” He wasn’t sure what it meant, but his dad would say it to him whenever he did something dumb.

David had a very confused look on his face. “What?”

Chris tried to explain. But he had never seen the movie, and soon he threw up his hands in frustration. “Anyway, it seemed appropriate.”

Eddy  laughed. “Well it’s more than I got. But you did remind me of something my Uncle said in passing. It was about a missing boy.”

The Gourd King: Chapter 8

Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

                                                                                     Catfish Joe

It happened in a couple day’s time. Again, dusk settled over Harrisburg and Chris had just drifted off to sleep. He dreamt of a man standing over him talking, but he could not understand what the man said. Suddenly, he woke up and realized it was a dream. There was nobody in his room. And yet, he heard a man’s voice. It came from outside. He jumped out of bed and crossed over to the window, crouching down, a thrill of the hunt exciting him.

It was the Gourd King talking to himself. Chris searched for Dillon and his friend, but did not find them. In a couple weeks the garden had grown wilder, the vines topped the fences, the corn thrust upward—waist high.

The Gourd King glided through the plants, his waist and legs were hidden. The large maple creaked as the vines climbing up its trunk became lush, giving the old maple a green skirt with yellow and orange flowers as decoration.

“I won’t let you do it,” the Gourd King said, pacing back and forth throughout the garden. His head was down as if he were in deep concentration. “I know what you’re thinking. It’s plain as day, but I won’t let it happen. I’ll stop all of you.”

A cold chill went down Chris’s back. The Gourd King was going to stop Dillon and his gang. Chris suddenly realized this wan’t a game. The Gourd King planned on stopping anybody from entering his garden. He realized then that the Gourd King would be capable of harming somebody. He remembered the first night when Dillon literally had to duck down, leaving his shirt behind, in order to get away. This was not a joke.

“I’ll do it. Just you wait and see. I won’t hesitate. Not like last time.”

Chris shook himself out of his revelry. What had the Gourd King said? It sounded like, “Not like last time.” You mean he’s done this before? Hundreds of questions flooded Chris’s mind, and he really wished it were tomorrow because he had to talk to Eddy  and David.

The Gourd King’s voice grew louder. “Not like last time. This time will be different. This time will be different.”

The Gourd King: Chapter 7

A rutabaga is a turnip putting on airs.

                                                                                     Catfish Joe

They all raced down the street yelling. David and Eddy  were already halfway down the street. Chris redoubled his efforts, amazed at how fast the other two boys were, and sprinted as hard as he could to catch up, not wanting to be left behind, or lose sight of his new friends.

David cut through the yard of the house on the corner, and leapt over the bushes like they were hurdles. Eddy  jumped next and soon disappeared behind the house. Chris had never hurdled before, but if they could do it, so could he. His lungs hurt and his legs felt rubbery, but he still ran onward, not wanting to slow down. He rounded the corner and jumped, just clearing the bushes. The other two were not too far ahead.

Suddenly, a blur came out from behind the garage in the ally, hitting Chris. The next thing Chris knew he was flying through the air, and hit the ground hard. A giant body loomed over him, and the sun made it difficult to see. Chris smelled stale cigarette smoke.

“Did you rat on us?” the boy over asked.

“What?” Chris asked, confused.

“You’re the new kid in the house next to the Gourd King!”

“Yeah,” Chris said.

“I saw you watching from your window,” the kid over him said. “Did you tell your parents?”

Chris shook his head.

“Don’t lie to me kid. Did you rat us out?”

Chris said, “No.”

“Hey, what are you doing, Dillon?” Eddy  demanded.

“Butt out, Johns,” Dillon said. He looked back down at Chris, “Where’s my shirt?”

“What shirt?”  Chris asked. David appeared next to Eddy .

“I saw you wearing it, kid,” Dillon said. “I want it back.”

“What shirt?” Chris asked confused, his body aching where it hit the ground.

Another kid a bit wider than Dillon stepped up next to him.

Dillon said, “The red Cardinals t-shirt. It’s mine and I want it back.”

“I don’t have your shirt,” Chris said. “I have my own Cardinals t-shirt. Everyone does.”

Eddy  said, “He says he doesn’t have it.”

Dillon looked up at Eddy . “I know he has it because I saw the Gourd King give it to his dad.”

Chris had totally forgotten about his dad having Dillon’s t-shirt.

“Let’s just kick the shit out of them and go,” Dillon’s buddy said.

Chris tried scrambling to his feet. But before he could get up, a hand pushed him back down. “Stay down,” the tough kid said.

“Leave him alone, Craig,” David said, rushing in and pushing the other boy. And then everything went nuts. Eddy  and Dillon started shoving each other and the Craig boy tackled David.

Chris managed to get to his feet. David was struggling on the ground as Craig started slapping him, knocking his glasses askew.

Chris grabbed the bigger kid by the shirt, yelling, “Get off him.” Without looking Craig punched Chris in the gut with his elbow. Chris doubled over, the air knocked out of him. He instantly forgot about the fight and fell over trying to breathe. More shouting and shoving occurred but he ignored it. He couldn’t catch his breath. Panic swept over him. He was going to die. He tried breathing, but his muscles wouldn’t let him.

Finally, he took in a deep breath.

The shoving match stopped above him just as abruptly as it started.

Dillon and Craig were racing down the alley. It was then that Chris heard an adult. A man in his thirties ran up and helped him up.

“What are you guys doing?” the man said.

Eddy  said, “A couple guys were giving my new friend a hard time.”

The man looked at Chris. “You’re the new kid,” he said. “I saw you moving in. I drive the Blue Ford truck.”

“I’m Chris,” he said sticking out his hand.

“Hey, there. I’m Tony,” he said. “You got nice manners, kid. Stick with these two knuckleheads. They stay out of trouble. Right, Eddy .” He put Eddy  in an arm lock and knuckled his head.

“Okay, okay,” Eddy  said, waving his hands.

Tony let him up. “You guys keep away from the Gourd King. Leave that guy alone.”

“Yeah, Tony,” Eddy  said. “We won’t go near there. I can’t say the same for Dillon or Craig.”

“Well, as long as you don’t,” Tony said, pointing a finger at Eddy . “Or I’m telling your mom. And I know she’ll have something to say.”

David started laughing, and Eddy  gave him a dirty look.

“Oh,” Tony said, turning to David. “And you think your dad won’t get mad if I tell him you’ve been bugging the Gourd King.”

David stopped laughing and dropped his head.

Tony looked at them and nodded his head. “Get outa here.”

Eddy  and David turned and headed up the street. Chris took after his friends. Eddy  shouted, “Thanks, Tony.”

“Just stay outa trouble.”

The Gourd King: Chapter 6

A rutabaga is a turnip putting on airs.

                                                                                                               Catfish Joe

They all raced down the street yelling. David and Eddy  were already halfway down the street. Chris redoubled his efforts, amazed at how fast the other two boys were, and sprinted as hard as he could to catch up, not wanting to be left behind, or lose sight of his new friends.

David cut through the yard of the house on the corner, and leapt over the bushes like they were hurdles. Eddy  jumped next and soon disappeared behind the house. Chris had never hurdled before, but if they could do it, so could he. His lungs hurt and his legs felt rubbery, but he still ran onward, not wanting to slow down. He rounded the corner and jumped, just clearing the bushes. The other two were not too far ahead.

Suddenly, a blur came out from behind the garage in the ally, hitting Chris. The next thing Chris knew he was flying through the air, and hit the ground hard. A giant body loomed over him, and the sun made it difficult to see. Chris smelled stale cigarette smoke.

“Did you rat on us?” the boy over asked.

“What?” Chris asked, confused.

“You’re the new kid in the house next to the Gourd King!”

“Yeah,” Chris said.

“I saw you watching from your window,” the kid over him said. “Did you tell your parents?”

Chris shook his head.

“Don’t lie to me kid. Did you rat us out?”

Chris said, “No.”

“Hey, what are you doing, Dillon?” Eddy  demanded.

“Butt out, Johns,” Dillon said. He looked back down at Chris, “Where’s my shirt?”

“What shirt?”  Chris asked. David appeared next to Eddy .

“I saw you wearing it, kid,” Dillon said. “I want it back.”

“What shirt?” Chris asked confused, his body aching where it hit the ground.

Another kid a bit wider than Dillon stepped up next to him.

Dillon said, “The red Cardinals t-shirt. It’s mine and I want it back.”

“I don’t have your shirt,” Chris said. “I have my own Cardinals t-shirt. Everyone does.”

Eddy  said, “He says he doesn’t have it.”

Dillon looked up at Eddy . “I know he has it because I saw the Gourd King give it to his dad.”

Chris had totally forgotten about his dad having Dillon’s t-shirt.

“Let’s just kick the shit out of them and go,” Dillon’s buddy said.

Chris tried scrambling to his feet. But before he could get up, a hand pushed him back down. “Stay down,” the tough kid said.

“Leave him alone, Craig,” David said, rushing in and pushing the other boy. And then everything went nuts. Eddy  and Dillon started shoving each other and the Craig boy tackled David.

Chris managed to get to his feet. David was struggling on the ground as Craig started slapping him, knocking his glasses askew.

Chris grabbed the bigger kid by the shirt, yelling, “Get off him.” Without looking Craig punched Chris in the gut with his elbow. Chris doubled over, the air knocked out of him. He instantly forgot about the fight and fell over trying to breathe. More shouting and shoving occurred but he ignored it. He couldn’t catch his breath. Panic swept over him. He was going to die. He tried breathing, but his muscles wouldn’t let him.

Finally, he took in a deep breath.

The shoving match stopped above him just as abruptly as it started.

Dillon and Craig were racing down the alley. It was then that Chris heard an adult. A man in his thirties ran up and helped him up.

“What are you guys doing?” the man said.

Eddy  said, “A couple guys were giving my new friend a hard time.”

The man looked at Chris. “You’re the new kid,” he said. “I saw you moving in. I drive the Blue Ford truck.”

“I’m Chris,” he said sticking out his hand.

“Hey, there. I’m Tony,” he said. “You got nice manners, kid. Stick with these two knuckleheads. They stay out of trouble. Right, Eddy .” He put Eddy  in an arm lock and knuckled his head.

“Okay, okay,” Eddy  said, waving his hands.

Tony let him up. “You guys keep away from the Gourd King. Leave that guy alone.”

“Yeah, Tony,” Eddy  said. “We won’t go near there. I can’t say the same for Dillon or Craig.”

“Well, as long as you don’t,” Tony said, pointing a finger at Eddy . “Or I’m telling your mom. And I know she’ll have something to say.”

David started laughing, and Eddy  gave him a dirty look.

“Oh,” Tony said, turning to David. “And you think your dad won’t get mad if I tell him you’ve been bugging the Gourd King.”

David stopped laughing and dropped his head.

Tony looked at them and nodded his head. “Get outa here.”

Eddy  and David turned and headed up the street. Chris took after his friends. Eddy  shouted, “Thanks, Tony.”

“Just stay outa trouble.”

The Gourd King: Chapter 5

Fishin’, swimmin’, and playin’ are best enjoyed with others.

                                                                                                                  Catfish Joe

Poison ivy ruined any excitement Chris might have felt about finding a real Civil War cavalry sword. It was like the town hated him, and he sat on the porch miserable and feeling sorry for himself.

The bright pink lotion they picked up for the poison ivy relieved the itching for a time, but then he was miserable again. He imagined he looked like a pink monster with pealing skin.

He just wanted to scratch, but his mom told him scratching it would make it worse. It felt so good to scratch, and yet, the more he scratched the more it itched, until his skin felt like it was on fire. There was an inflamed red spot on his left arm where he had accomplished just that. He hated it when his mom was right.

The moving boxes remained unpacked in his room. How could he unpack when every bit of his skin itched?

With the evergreens gone, he could now see the street, and his dad had fixed the broken floor boards. A lawn mower hummed off in the distance. He liked the smell of  fresh cut grass.

He rocked on the porch swing and thought about his friends in St. Louis. He wondered what Tony, Brad, Brian, and Doug were doing back home.

Someone giggled off to his left. He stopped swinging, and listened closely, just in case he had imagined it. There it was again. He jumped up ran over to the edge of the porch, trying to find the person.

He saw Mr. John’s flower beds, and a red maple tree. It was big enough for someone to hide up in its leaves. He watched it closely but the leaves did not move.

Nearer to the porch, and next to his driver were three peony bushes. They were too small for anybody to hide behind. But, now, he thought he saw movement through the stems.

A head popped up from behind the peony bushes, and then disappeared. There was more giggling. Chris saw it was someone his age.   

“I know you’re there,” Chris said, hurrying off the porch and standing on the sidewalk facing the peony bushes. He forgot the poison ivy.

More giggling.

“I can see you,” he said.

Two boys jumped up. They were Chris’s age. They stared at one another for twenty seconds, evaluating each other. They were not the boys he saw in his neighbor’s garden.

“I’m, Eddy  Johns,” said the boy in the Chicago Bears t-shirt. He was a bit taller than Chris with light brown frizzy hair. “Who are you?”

“I’m Chris.”

“You have poison ivy,” a thinner boy said with straight black hair. He wore wire rim glasses with a black elastic to keep them on.

“That’s David Lung,” Eddy  said. “His dad owns the Imperial Dragon.”

David pushed up his glasses. “Does it itch?”

Chris looked down at his arms. The bright pink stuff had mostly come off. He looked up at David, saying, “Not as bad as it did yesterday.”

David said, “I got poison ivy between my toes last year. I could barely walk.”

Chris thought about that, and realized he didn’t have it that bad. “Sorry to hear that.”

“Did you see the fireworks last week?” Eddy  asked, stepping out from behind the peony bushes.

“Just from my window,” Chris said. “We moved in that day.”

Dave pushed his glasses up, “I was in Chicago visiting family.”

Eddy  said, “You should’ve been there. The fireworks literally fell on us by the river.”

“Did you get burned?” Chris asked.

“Nah, but I could feel the explosions in my chest. It was cool.”

Chris remembered the kids running through his neighbor’s garden, and wondered if he should tell them about it. He had said nothing to his parents, even after getting into trouble about the kid’s shirt. And then he heard himself speaking, “I saw some kids get chased out of that garden during the fireworks.”

“Really?” they both asked.

Chris was pleased by their sudden interest. He said, “The guy was yelling at them, and he caught one until the kid slid out of his t-shirt. They climbed the fence and took off that way,” He pointed toward the two houses across the street. They walked over to the front sidewalk near the edge of Chris’s property next to the neighbor’s fence.

“Did you know who it was?” Eddy  asked, turning back around after looking across the street.

“Naw, I just moved here,” Chris said. He didn’t mention his dad getting chewed out by the neighbor.

Before anyone could say anything else, a gnarled scratchy voice growled from behind the fence. “Finally come back to see your dirty work,” it challenged, “Stay out or else.”

They all jumped. His heart racing, and curiosity spurring him on, Chris finally saw the man under the big straw hat. It was an angry face leering at them over the fence. The old man had dark eyes and a long hooked nose. His teeth were yellowish brown. The man’s head looked like a skull.

Screaming, David tore down the street with Eddy  on his heels. Chris followed out of pure instinct.