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It was that time of year again. Everyone had something that they looked forward to, whether it was the overly zealous — and WAY too early— Christmas freaks, the Halloween lovers who would swear that the entire month was dedicated to their spookified holiday, or the apocalypse predictors who suddenly saw their chance to start proclaiming the end of the world based on a new old new testament or calendar or something. For Sammi October held none of these thrills. The weather was nice, she got a break from the relentless heat of August and the identity crisis having weather of September — do I want to be winter? Do I want to be summer? I don’t have to choose right? It was the politician of the months — and it wasn’t as harsh as the winter that would inevitably take its place. This was the weather for sweaters, good books and a nice cup of coffee. The one thing that she could not stand, above all else, worse than all other Holiday-lovers and religious preachers was the final category of fanatics: Pumpkin heads. We all know that one person who loves pumpkins just a little bit too much. The one who cannot keep themselves from buying anything with the words “pumpkin spice” on it, or who relentlessly reposts and pins recipes of pumpkin muffins, pies, smoothies, pancakes, anything and everything pumpkin.
Sammi hated pumpkins. Jackolanters, pies, muffins, all of it and don’t you dare even suggest that she order a pumpkin spice latte. She would, in no uncertain terms vehemently display her distaste for what she deemed a crime against all coffee drinking humanity in your general direction. This was normally fine, she could generally ignore any food items that were unnecessarily pumpkin-fied, and she could order her coffee black while quietly judging the overly bubbly college freshman who were so happy that its pumpkin spice season again. All in all, pumpkins were a thing that she could avoid.
Well, they were anyway. One year as October came around, she had almost forgotten the horrendous orange things and their constant desire to impose themselves on everything in existence until one night she was having a drink with her friend Taylor. Taylor had quite the taste for beer and had learned Sammi’s preferences long ago before she even knew that she had them. This had given rise to their tradition in which, when they were both able to sit down and have a drink together, Taylor ordered their drinks, and Sammi accepted. The only other rules were that Sammi couldn’t know the beer before she drank it and she couldn’t critique it until she had finished it. They were sitting down to indulge themselves on night when the subject of October came up. Sammi, in her usual way, was railing against what she had deemed the “cult of pumpkin” that inundated society every year.
“I just don’t understand what is so goddamn exciting about this overgrown gourd!” She glared at the top of the bar, revolted by the tiny cheery pumpkins that smiled back at her from the napkin.
“And I don’t understand why you are so morally revolted by them. I get it, you don’t like them, but other people can like things that you don’t like. That’s kind of the way the world works.”
He settled in to the high back of his bar stool and crossed him arms contentedly, like a cat observing the reaction of a dog he had just booped on the nose with open claws. Sammi squirmed in her seat like a puppy who didn’t know if she should snap back or run away. Finally she sighed and collapsed on to the bar, her forearms barely keeping her nose from touching the questionably sticky wood of the bar.
“I don’t know Tay, I just don’t like it. It annoys me. Are you ordering us drinks or what?”
“Mm, right” Taylor raised his arm to catch the bartender’s attention. “They have great seasonals here” he said aside to Sammi before ordering two of “your October seasonal.”
Sammi wasn’t paying attention to the polite chat that Taylor and the pretty bartender exchanged during the process of preparing the drinks. Work had been long, her car had decided that today was the perfect time to stop working and wouldn’t you know, mom wanted to come visit as soon as she could. She took a deep breath, inhaling the some how comforting aroma of old beer mixed with new liquor, and raised her head to find a tall glass having been placed in front of her, frothing just slightly at the top, with dark amber liquid tinting her distorted view of her friend who smiled at her, raising his matching glass to her before he took a sip. The bartender flashed a smile at Taylor and turned with a flounce. Sammi grabbed her glass and took a sip. It wasn’t bad, had a bit of an earthy taste to it, but mixed in with the hops it rounded everything out nicely. Their conversation turned to work, Taylor’s most recent OK Cupid date, Sammi’s mother’s impending visit, a mutual friend’s imminent breakup. It felt good to get everything out. So good, Sammi had almost forgotten to ask what the beer was. They usually saved the analysis until after her cup was drained, just so that she couldn’t reject it based solely on unfounded bias.
“So” She said, as she drained the last mouthful of her beer. “What was our delicacy tonight?”
“Well, like I said, it was the seasonal beer here. Could you tell what was in the brew?”
Sammi mulled over the last few drops.
“I mean, I got the ale, I got the standard stuff, was there cinnamon in it?”
Taylor nodded, still smiling.
“That was one of the things. There was a big one. Think about it. Can you put your finger on it?”
Sammi stared at her glass as if it could give her the answers, like tea leaves. She didn’t think that beer leaves would work quite as well though.
“Was it… Oh god it wasn’t… “ With a jump she looked around the bar, straining to find an advertisement, some kind of label for what she had just ingested. Taylor burst out laughing.
“It was wasn’t it?! Oh god, PUMPKIN BEER? WHO WOULD DO THAT TO BEER?”
Taylor’s laugh turned into a full guffaw.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that’s what it – – what it was!” he gasped between breaths.
“I just asked for the seasonal pick!”
As Sammi glowered and ordered a water, Taylor proceeded to poke at his friend’s dislike of pumpkin. The bartender brought over a glass of water and asked if Sammi was okay as she set it down. Sammi grabbed the glass and downed it before saying.
“I hate pumpkin. Ugh.”
The bartender laughed and told her “yeah, that wouldn’t have been my pick for you if I’d known that, but your friend asked what the most popular seasonal was.”
Sammi glared at Taylor then turned to the bartender to thank her, but froze. The bartender’s eyes looked orange, honest to god orange. She gave Sammi a “Can I help you?” look, forcing her to stammer an apology.
“I just didn’t realize… I’m sorry, are those contacts?”
The bartender laughed this time.
“No, my eyes are actually this color. They look more amber usually, but this time of year there’s so much orange in everything they just of pick it up. Cool though, right? At least I can match everything else.”
She offered them another drink, which they both declined. By the end of the night she still hadn’t forgiven Taylor for the secret pumpkin intrusion, but gave him a hug and said good night before turning in.
That night Sammi’s dreams were strange. She walked through a pumpkin patch, inspecting each of them, looking for something. She touched their rinds, ran her fingers over stems, picked them up, inspected them. She didn’t know what she was looking for exactly, just that she was looking for it, for them? She went to pick one up, started to tenderly press the rind and suddenly the wall of the pumpkin gave way and she was up to her elbow in pumpkin, the innards twisting themselves around her fingers. She dropped it and started trying to pull the stringy goopy mess from her hands, but it seemed to grasp at her, stretching from the pumpkin to her hand, gripping tighter as she tried to pull away, slipping like fingers in between her own and pulling her towards the ground.
When she woke up she was face planted in to the pillow and the sheet was wrapped around her wrist. Groggy, she stumbled to the kitchen and started trying to make coffee. Eyes barely open, she pulled one of the pre made cups from her cupboard, shoved it in to the machine, jammed a mug under the spout and punched the flashing button, waiting for the sound of a filling cup as she pulled cereal from behind another cupboard door.
The smell of pumpkin pie began to fill the kitchen.
At first she thought it was just some weird residual part of her dream, but after a few moments she couldn’t deny that her kitchen smelled like pumpkin pie.
Ugh, one of the neighbors must be in the holiday spirit early.
She thought bitterly, reaching for her coffee that had just finished filling, picking up the paper as she absent mindedly lifted the cup to her lips. As soon as the warm liquid touched her tongue she started sputtering and almost threw her cup across the room.
“What the fuck!?” she sniffed what was left in the mug, then started digging in her box of pre made coffee cups and frantically read the label. The mug smelled like a mini, self serve pumpkin pie, and tasted just like it. It was revolting.
She ripped the cup from the coffee maker, but found only a green siren smiling at her from a label declaring it to be a classic dark roast. She threw it in the garbage, and washed out the mug as she started making a new cup of coffee. It must have been a mistake, one of the seasonal cups got mixed in with the normal ones. Three cups of coffee and endless disappointment later, Sammi came to the conclusion that all of her coffee had been contaminated, and that she would simply have to buy her coffee later. Realizing the time, she quickly changed clothes and ran out the door, already late for brunch with her sister.
Her sister greeted her with an enthusiastic hug, and they settled in talking about the trip to Ireland that Stacy had just returned from. A few minutes later the waiter came by and asked if they’d like coffee.
“Oh dear god yes” Sammi jumped on his offer.
Stacy laughed “Someone missed their caffeine fix this morning, I take it?”
“Yeah, something like that” Sammi muttered, not wanting to admit that her entire stash of coffee, even the stuff she had bought a month ago, seemed to have contracted the seasonal pumpkin disease. As soon as the cup hit the table, she grabbed it and gulped, immediately spitting it on to the table to the shock of her sister and the dismay of the waiter.
“Is there something wrong with the coffee miss?”
“I just wanted normal coffee” She said through gritted teeth “not anything flavored.”
The waiter stared at her puzzled “Miss?”
“The coffee.” She snapped, handing the cup back to him. “I just want plain coffee, no pumpkin blends or whatever that is.”
“Miss this is our standard house blend.”
Stacey and the waiter stared at her confused. She stared back, just as confused.
“Um. . No coffee for me, sorry.”
“Um okay, are you ready to order?”
Stacey ordered a ruben and Sammi ordered a burger, her stomach reminding her that she had never actually ingested breakfast. The conversation continued and they pretended that she had not just made a scene in the middle of the diner. In the middle of a story that involved a little too much Guinness, a bet with a random guy in a bar, and a very cold lake, their food arrived. Stacey continued telling her story, nodding a thank you to the waiter and gesturing for Sammi to eat as she described just the manner in which her doomed comrade was convinced to jump in naked. Sammi was so engrossed in the story that she didn’t pay attention to her burger as she lifted it to her mouth, only barely registering something off about the smell, but as soon as she bit in to it, she tasted, how could she not?
Where the coffee was simply sprayed back in to the cup, the burger was spewed across the table, barely missing Stacy’s plate. It was Stacey’s turn to exclaim, freezing mid sentence and letting out a series of expletives, wiping Sammi’s burger from her blouse and asking her sister, at a rather high volume
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
Sammi stared blankly at the burger. It looked like meat, but it smelled and tasted like pumpkin. She poked it, barely listening to the frustrated ramblings of her sister, the apology to the waiter, the request for to go boxes, — though maybe not for Sammi’s burger — and the eventual request for the check. What was going on? First her coffee, now her burger? This was exactly what Stacy was asking when Sammi came out of her reverie.
“I uh, I’m sorry, I just need to um…”
Sammi stuttered out an apology, grabbed her purse, kissed her sister on the cheek and ran outside, grabbing a cab home. This was just freaking her out. The entire ride back to her apartment she tried to come up with a logical reason, any even slightly logical reason that everything would taste like pumpkin, of all the damn things.
Maybe it was psychological, she had been having a conversation with Taylor the night before about pumpkin flavored everything, and she had just been obsessing on it so much that she was thinking that it tasted like pumpkins when it didn’t. Right. That was it.
When she got back to her apartment she had logicked herself in to believing that this could be true, but was rather exhausted by having had to convince herself, and decided that considering the fact that she was unable to drink any coffee this morning, maybe going back to bed for a while would be just the trick. She settled down in to her bed, closed her eyes and fell quickly asleep. Then awoke gasping, grabbing at her throat, still able to feel thick gooey tendrils wrapping around her neck, pumpkin seeds closing her throat, pulling her down in to the dirt. She could see the eyes still hovering in front of her face, the orange eyes with the terrifyingly confident smile. This time there were no conspicuously wrapped covers to explain away her fear, only the cloying, grasping feeling at her throat. She fell from her bed still gasping for air. She checked the clock. It had only been an hour. Still panting she walked to the kitchen, trying to go over the dream in her mind, but she was already starting to forget it, the edges getting blurry like an old photograph. Why did she know those eyes? She pulled a glass from the shelf and filled it with water. Just before lifting it to her lips she stopped, staring at the clear, clean water. What would it taste like? Would it be water? Or would it be pumpkin?
Putting down the glass, she grabbed a pen and paper from a nearby drawer and made two columns the first page. At the top of the left hand column she wrote “pumpkin” and at the top of the other “not pumpkin”. She stared at the pad for a moment wondering if she had gone completely insane. Then she began slowly, methodically going through everything in her kitchen.
* * *
Taylor knocked on Sammi’s door nervously. He hadn’t seen her in weeks, and hadn’t heard from her in several days which for them was incredibly unusual. He had texted and even called her – which said a lot – but she hadn’t answered. Normally she was glued to her phone, everything was posted on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, but it had been days since she had posted anything. Normally he would have just chalked this up to one of her social media cleanses, but something seemed wrong.
“Sammi?” He called tentatively, knocking on her door again, louder this time.
“Samantha? Are you there?”
He heard something shift inside, and then the lock clicked.
He tried the knob and felt it turn, but when he pushed he could feel something against the door. He pushed harder and got his head inside. Looking down he saw a pile of mail that had piled against the door, menus from several local delivery places jamming under the bottom edge. He called her name but didn’t hear anything. Suddenly he smelled it. It was sickly, rotting and it hit him in the face like a ton of bricks. He gagged and pulled his scarf over his nose in a vain attempt to stifle the smell as he took a step in to the apartment. He made his way down the hall, checking the bathroom on his way to the living room, kicking past piles of mail and takeout bags, more than a few of which were contributing to the smell. When he got to the living room he found more bags of food from every restaurant in town. Indian, Italian, Thai, sushi, everything was there, everything was rotting. He heard something from kitchen and he turned that way. For a moment he wasn’t sure what he was seeing, then he realized it was Sammi. She had curled herself in to a ball, like a scared child, her knees pulled in to her chest, dark circles under her eyes that darted around the room, barely registering him being there. She was muttering, tapping her fingers on the table, pulling at the edges of her pants, which were hanging on her. All of her clothes hung off of her and he could see where her shoulders poked up against her sweater, disconcerting points that hunched against her cheeks.
He approached her slowly, pushing through the piles of trash.
“Sammi, Sammi are you okay? Sammi look at me.”
When her eyes finally met his he jumped. They had changed from their normal amber brown to dark orange. She was muttering something that he couldn’t understand but she wouldn’t pull her eyes from him now. She was gripping a pad of a paper in her hands, shaking it and tapping it with her fingers.
“Sammi what —“
“All of it, its all pumpkin” her voice finally broke and came out as almost a scream as she shoved the pad of paper at him.
“And the dreams, she’s always in my dreams. I can’t get away from it, I can’t get away from her.”
Taylor pulled his eyes from her as she frantically started pacing around the room, and started reading the paper he had handed her. It was an entire pad of paper that was filled with lists, specifically one list. The column on the left was full of names of food, restaurants, all with the heading “pumpkin”. The right sad of the pad was completely blank.
She was pacing back and forth, muttering, something about dreams and pumpkins. He stood up, tried to get her to stop, tried to grab her, but she kept pulling away, kept shrinking from his hands. Finally he got hold of her shoulders and she froze.
“I can’t sleep” She said, her strange, orange eyes filling with tears.
“It keeps happening in my dreams, it keeps pulling me under, I keep waking up and throwing up pumpkin seeds, everything I eat tastes like pumpkin, I can’t sleep.”
Taylor pulled her in to his chest and he felt her arms slide around his waist, then grip tighter as she started shaking, sobs burying themselves in his shoulder. She felt impossibly small against him.
“How long has it been since you slept?” He asked quietly in to her ear. He could feel the bones in her ribs. How long had it been since she’d eaten?
“I don’t know.” She said, muffled by jacket “I tried to eat, I tried to find something that didn’t taste like it, but everything, everything I bought — “
“Shhhhhh” He cut her off and pulled back just far enough to be able to look in to her face. “You just need some sleep.”
She started shaking her head, pulling back from him as if she was about to sprint away, repeating the word “no” over and over.
“I can’t,” she stammered “I can’t go to sleep, it keeps happening in my sleep, every night, all the time.”
“Every night?” he asked, grasping at anything to help his friend. She nodded and he forced a smile. “Well see, its the middle of the day, you should be fine, right? Come on, let’s give it a try.”
She kept shaking her head, but let him pull her towards the door of her bedroom. He sat down with her, convinced her to get under the covers.
“I’ll be right here, okay. I’ll make sure you’re okay.” He said quietly, smoothing her hair.
She nodded, closing her eyes. Within moments her breathing was heavy. Taylor finally had the chance to look around her room. Piles of laundry were everywhere, more food containers that were half full, a dying plant on the windowsill. He sighed, grabbed one of the discarded plastic bags and began gathering up old cartons of food. He found a glass of water and walked over to the scraggly twig that was once a fern and watered it. He shivered. There was an odd draft in the room. He glanced around and realized that the window across from him was cracked open. When he went to close it he found a vine had grown in through a crack and was keeping it open. He broke off the tendril and forced the window closed. Sammi mumbled in her sleep and rolled over. Maybe she could finally get some rest. He found her phone among a pile of receipts and plugged it in. That explained the unanswered texts and it going straight to voicemail. He went back to the kitchen to continue gathering trash, wading through more bags of discarded takeout and half eaten meals. He had gotten almost all the way through cleaning the living room, having filled two large trash bags already, when he heard her start to stir again. He called her name without leaving the room and waited. He heard her start coughing, so he went back to the kitchen to get her a glass of water. She coughed a few more times, heard her gasp and then it went quiet. He called her name again, but this time heard nothing. He ran in to the bedroom, glass of water still in his hand and froze at the door. Sammi lay in the center of the bed, orange eyes wide, staring at the ceiling, mouth open. Pumpkin seeds filled her mouth and spilled out on to the bed. He could see the bulge in her throat where they had choked her. The room was freezing, the window he had closed was fully open now and vines poured through it, winding themselves around her bed, between the legs, over the headboard, over her. They wrapped around her wrists, ankles, cocooning her on the bed. He scrambled in his pocket and called 911. He shivered as he tried to get her to breath again, screaming her address in to the phone, ripping at the vines.
* * *
The funeral was nice. Her friends came, her family. They avoided asking him questions. All they knew was that she had disappeared, stopped calling people, and that he had found her. That was all they needed to know. The hospital couldn’t release any details, her family refused to believe his story and agreed that it must have been a suicide. After remembrances were said, most people went back to her parents’ house to have drinks and talk about her but Taylor stayed behind the crowd, said that he just wanted a few minutes alone with her. When he went back to say his final goodbye there was someone already there, someone who hadn’t been at the service. The woman stooped at the stone, placing something among the flowers that already seemed to droop the the afternoon rain.
“Excuse me, who are you?”
She stood up at the sound of his voice but didn’t turn around. She continued to stare at her offering.
“I didn’t see you at the service, who are you?”
She turned around.
She had the same eyes. The same orange eyes that Sammi had had when she died. Something about her was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.
“Who are you?” He repeated more quietly this time, unable to look away from her eyes.
“Someone who wanted to pay their respects.” She said, her voice smooth, confident, powerful.
“I don’t know you, you weren’t one of Sammi’s friends.”
“I suppose not particularly, but we got very close. I’ll leave you alone with you friend.”
She brushed past him without a second glance. Over her shoulder he saw what she had placed on the grave. When he got closer he found it nestled between the bouquets of roses. It was a potted vine, and when he touched it he realized it was the same as the vine he had seen in her apartment. A pumpkin vine. He spun on his heel and called to the woman, who stopped as if she’d been expecting to hear him, and looked over one shoulder, those strange orange eyes flashing in the grey light.
“Why would you leave this? If you knew anything about her you’d know she hated pumpkins.”
A smile trickled across her lips.
“It was all I could find,” she cooed “It was just the seasonal pick”
Taylor’s mouth fell open as he watched the bartender from his night with Sammi turned away. He spun and grabbed the pumpkin plant but when he turned back around she was gone. He looked back at the headstone, only to find that vines had already begun to wrap themselves around it, as if they were claiming it as their own.