“Would you like another piece of pie?” The elderly lady’s voice crackled as she asked the detective.
“No thank you, ma’am.” He shook his head and declined politely. It would be his fourth piece of pumpkin pie, and he just didn’t have the room.
A broad, engaging smile swept her face. “That’s fine, dear.” She darted away into the kitchen, carrying his fork and dessert plate. Sitting in the living room of Anita Cambridge’s home, he found it hard to believe that this lady or anyone else in this town could know anything about criminal activity. Autumn sun poured through the panes of the large, old windows and warmed a cat sleeping on a rug nearby. Knickknacks and curious collected over her long life cluttered the many tables and shelves in the warm—if not frilly—room.
Anita was the fifth person he had visited on the late September morning. Everyone in the small New England town seemed to be fond of pumpkin pie, and he had refused, since he was investigating—but Anita’s had smelled especially irresistible. The grandmotherly lady returned.
“I wish I could be of more help,” she shook her head, obviously distraught. “Those poor people. I wonder whatever did become of them.”
“Hopefully, we’ll find out,” he smiled toward her baffled expression. She seemed incapable of comprehending the atrocities that man could do. Maybe, when he retired, it would be to a small town like this, as long as he could leave the cancer of the city behind him. Everyone here was so provincial, he thought, they could be taken at face value. It was a nice change.
He was investigating the disappearance of several people wanted for crimes against children. His investigation had led him to this small town, where—he feared—someone was giving them refuge and then helping them flee to Canada. His fears were quickly being allayed. He placed his hand to his temple.
“Are you alright, dear?”
The detective smiled half-heartedly. “Yeah, I just have a slight headache.”
“You look a little jaundiced, dear. Are you sure you’re not ill?”
“I’ll be fine.” He stood. Dizziness stampeded his sensibility. He felt as if he were standing on the shore, the water pulling the sand from under his feet. He leaned against the chair, trying to steady himself.
“Maybe you should lie down,” Anita offered.
He shook his head then took a few tentative steps toward the door. His legs felt sluggish, like the lassitude after a long run. Stumbling, he fell against a mirror. His face was yellow, as Anita had remarked—and swollen. He glanced down to his hands. The fingers ballooned up like bloated sausages. He needed to rest. He would walk to his room and rest. He stumbled out the door.
Just off the porch, he fell to the ground. “Dear, oh, dear. Maybe you shouldn’t have had three pieces,” Anita sing-songed airily.
The detective frowned. The expression morphed into a full-blown grimace. His entire body felt as if it were twisting inside out. He felt his skin stretch and wrinkle. He tried to move, but his limbs were useless. They were curving toward his body.
“Oh, this is a good one,” Anita yipped. She skipped about the yard. “Handsome, so handsome.”
The detective felt his body shifting, rounding. Deep within his mind he knew what was happening to him. Knew what had happened to the others who had disappeared over the years. They, too, had met his fate. Maybe they had deserved it, but he—he was innocent.
Anita scowled down at him, as if she could read his mind. “Maybe you should’ve claimed responsibility for your child. Maybe then your child wouldn’t have died at the hands of an abusive foster mother,” Anita chided. “Such a shame.”
Only his face remained.
Anita cradled him to her chest, careful not to bruise the delicate skin. “You’re still very soft. I have to be careful. By tonight you will be complete. Tra, la, la…” She sang while carrying the almost fully formed pumpkin to her garden.
That night, under the full moon, the pumpkin began to split. When it ruptured, Anita was waiting along with other members of the small village. From the cavity within the pumpkin, Anita pulled an infant.
“It’s so easy to make people happy,” Anita cooed. A childless couple stepped forward to embrace the infant. Anita handed the baby over, pumpkin pulp and juice clinging to his skin. Anita looked at the new mother; her stern gaze cast a nefarious glow to the beady eyes peering out of her grandmotherly face. “Now take good care of this child for we’ll always be watching you. If you mistreat this child, you know what your punishment will be.” They grimaced knowing, then turned with their handsome baby boy.
Lifting her face to the moon and stars dancing in a cloudless sky, Anita smiled, wondering who would need help next.