Amy picked her steps through the roadside clumps of withered thistles and ragweed. At the top of the lumpy slope, a shack hunkered among untended hawthorn and mulberry limbs. The gray remnants of porch planks and rails jutted in errant directions like a decaying grin along the front. Its mildewed roof skewed left on leaning posts. Cobwebs tethered the columns in place.
Tom hustled up beside her. “I think it’s abandoned. There’s gotta be another stand up the road somewhere. Let’s–”
“No, listen.” Amy pointed to the shadowy corner of the stoop.
A woman rose from her rocking chair, gathering a loose-webbed shawl about her shoulders as she shuffled across the porch. A shock of white hair flamed wild from her gnarled features.
She removed a corn cob pipe from her weathered lips and leaned forward. Her voice dragged in smoky octaves and sharp teeth glinted in the afternoon light. “You folks come for a harvest in the patch?”
“Is it open for picking?” Amy glanced at the iron gate, tethered with rosary beads. “I didn’t notice the tied entrance from the road.”
The old woman’s wrinkled countenance contorted into a smirk. “Always open for visitors. I’m sure you can manage the gate.”
Tom wrapped an arm around Amy, drawing her closer. “How much? It is at the end of the season.”
“Depends on your appetite, don’t it? For us, the season don’t end on a date. We eat what comes up.” She pointed her pipe toward the field. “Go on and see what you find. Then we’ll settle on cost.”
Tom frowned. His eyes narrowed and he cocked his head aside.
Amy elbowed him and muttered, “You seriously gonna be cheap with this poor old bag? Everybody’s gotta eat.”
She tugged his arm. They turned and walked to the gate. Amy untangled the rosary from the rusty bars. The gate squealed as it fell away from the fence post. Tom followed her into the field. An icy gust swept in behind them, needling under Amy’s collar at her neck.
“Come on. Looks like the pie fillers are hidden in the middle.” She tightened her scarf and bounded into the patch.
Tom lagged a few yards behind. He meandered around the boulder-sized gourds. “These are monsters. Never seen anything grow like this. Not even on gram’s farm.”
“Wonder what they feed them.” Amy shrugged, then stooped to continue her careful inventory of the pumpkin bed.
As the sun sank beyond the line of crooked trees, a tide of fog washed in to blanket the field. Tom rubbed his tweed sleeves. “It’s getting dark. Better pick a couple and get going, sug.”
“All right. I think I’m done.” Amy wiggled her numbing toes against the radiant chill creeping through her soles from the earth. She bent over and tugged at the stem attached to a small pumpkin. “Vines are tougher than they seem. Might need your knife.”
“Just a sec.” Tom stroked a lateral scar on the warty surface of a huge gourd. “This one’s already been cut.”
He unfolded his sports knife and pried the blade into the carved line. The opening expanded and sucked the knife from his grip. Tom gaped at his empty hand. Arms shot out of the same crevice and snatched hold of him. A gray-skinned, gaunt figure popped up from the top of the giant gourd. The bare-chested man flashed a sharp-toothed grin in the eerie glow of twilight.
Amy screamed. Started to run toward him. Vines tethered her ankles and jerked her feet out from under her. As she fell, ropes looped around her arms and torso.
“Picked us a couple of ripe ones.” The old woman chuckled as she strode toward them. “Everybody’s gotta eat.”