"They're gone again Mom!" The distraught wail of my son wafted in through the still open door.
I pulled my head and a load of flailing clothes out of the dryer. "Oh no, sweetie, you're kidding!" I followed the cold draft to the open door. Buford was standing at the bottom of the steps, tears welling up in his blue, seven-year-old eyes. He pointed to the spot where his Jack-o-Lantern used to sit.
My own heart sunk to the spidery frost formations on the steps. He was a timid kid, Buford. He was fiercely intelligent, and he took pride in his work, but he got discouraged easily.
His grin had been so unreserved last night when he had shown Bret and I the lop-sided cackle of his Jack-o-Lantern, his bright little face smudged with the orange-yellow juice and webs of pumpkin guts still trailing from his elbows and fingers. It had been a project of many hours of scooping and carving and even more drawing and redrawing the perfect face. It was his second one this year.
"You said it wouldn't disappear again, Mom!" he sniffled accusingly.
"I-I'm sorry Bo. I really didn't think it would." What were the chances of us becoming the victims of pumpkin smashing teenagers twice in as many weeks? None even lived nearby.
"Now there'll be nothing to protect the house from the evil spirits on All Hollow's Eve!"
"Oh, honey, we'll have to do another one. We'll just keep it inside in the window."
"Who's doing this Mom?" he stared at me expectantly with big sad eyes. I sighed. I guess there's no protecting even seven-year-olds from human nature.
"I don't know sweetie." Then a brilliant idea struck me. Moms really do have super powers sometimes. "It was warm last night, wasn't it? I'll bet the ground was still soft. Why don't you look for footprints and clues? They should have frozen in overnight!"
The large eyes brightened and a sunny look suddenly broke across his slightly pudgy face. He raced inside to find his magnifying glass.
"Grab a hat!" I yelled after him. I was left alone to watch the Saturday morning light fall watery over the naked trees. The last of the orange leaves blew willy-nilly down the street. I suppressed a shiver smugly. The score had just been evened. Pumpkin Smashers: one. Buford's Mom: one.
The investigation kept him not only happy and distracted but out of the house until two, at which point I pushed the door open to insist he come in and eat lunch. I was surprised to see a gaggle of neighborhood kids standing in a semicircle on the sidewalk. All eyes were following the movements of my son as he carefully perused our yard in his father's old fedora.
My first instinct was to rescue Bret's hat. Instead I carefully and quietly shut the door. Buford didn't have many friends.
Three days later, Bret and I sat at the kitchen table sipping the last of the steaming apple cider when Bret looked up from his book.
"Is Buford talking to someone?"
"Our Buford?" I asked pointedly, but then noticed the phone in the corner was missing from its jack. The sound of Buford's happy monologue leaked softly from his room down the hall.
Bret and I exchanged curious looks for a moment. We both slipped out of our chairs at exactly the same moment. We tip toed carefully down the carpeted hall in our socks and stopped breathlessly inches from Buford's room.
His door stood ajar and his speech burbled on happily without revealing anything telling. Finally I stepped out in front of his door while Bret ducked back a few more steps.
"Buford?" I asked timidly, "Who are you talking too?"
"Hi Mom! I'm talking to Amy from down the road! Her Jack-o-Lantern disappeared too. She's helping me gather evidence! So," he said turning back to his conversation as I shot a puzzled look down to where Bret was crouching, "what do you have on Lizard Kid?"
Bret and I shrugged our shoulders at each other as we made our way back to the kitchen. Our smiles said silently, "Hey, we'll take it. Maybe that pumpkin smashing wasn't such a bad thing after all."
My mind began to change about that the next day when I suggested we invite some of Buford's new friends over for a harvest dinner.
"They're not my friends Mom," he said, alarming me. "Every one of them's a suspect."
"You don't think one of them smashed your pumpkins!" I protested, a little too vehemently.
"I didn't find any footprints Saturday, Mom! No clues at all."
"That actually means you can't go around accusing people. They're innocent until proven guilty."
"There were no foot prints in the mud so whoever it was must have come in the morning after it froze. And we just put the pumpkin out last night. So it must be someone who lives nearby. And there's no smashed pumpkins anywhere in the neighborhood! They've just been disappearing!"
"I'm impressed, Bo. Still."
"But, but-," he growled, confused. His scowl deepened as I packed him into his coat and hat.
"Have fun at school and don't be mean to people just because you lost a couple pumpkins!" I called after him as I shoved him out the door.
That evening I got home as the school bus was already inching its way off our road like a huge yellow caterpillar.
"Bo?" I called as I got out of the car. "Bo?" There was no answer. He should have been waiting on the porch. The house was still locked. I walked up to the road and glanced up and down it. No Buford.
Then I heard a child shouting from the house across the street, a little down the road.
The little boy was on the ground by the time I got there. Buford was standing over him with his magnifying glass to his chest like a sword.
"I know you stole my Jack-o-Lantern, Lizard Kid, and I don't like that very much. Do you, Collin?"
A boy in the gaggle of backpack carrying onlookers shook his head. They all followed suit until the saw me and scattered.
"Collin doesn't like it either. In fact-." His Chicago threat was interrupted as he glanced up to see me approaching, livid.
"Get to the house," I managed to quaver through my anger. He recognized the import of that particular tone of voice and hustled.
I turned to the little boy on the ground. Large dark frightened eyes looked up at me. "Come here, Hon, are you alright?" I took a thin olive-ish toned arm and helped him
up. He wasn't wearing a coat. His skin was cold. He was just about Buford's age. They must have been classmates. He didn't answer me a word.
"You go inside and get warm. I'm going to have a talk with Buford." I sent him off to his door and watched as he went inside. The driveway was empty. It looked like he was home alone.
Buford was spying from his stomach under a brown and golden leaved lilac bush when I got back to the yard.
"Mom, he's the one who's been taking the pumpkins!" he put forth boldly. I steered him inside with a firm hand on his shoulder. "Everyone knows he's different!"
I moaned, holding my head with my other hand. I had never imagined Buford capable of starting fights, much less with the boy from the house across the street whose family were poor and obviously immigrants of some kind. We'd forever be known as the racist family on the block. They were probably Muslim, too. I couldn't get us indoors fast enough.
"But he's not human, Mom!" his little voice got scratchy as it raised.
"He's not Caucasian, Buford, that doesn't mean you can treat him like that! What's his name?"
"Tommy Czerwonka. But that's not his real name because he's a lizard boy! That's why he never talks! And his skin is always cold."
"He probably doesn't speak English very well. His skin was cold because he doesn't have a coat. His family is poor. You know better than to pick on someone just because they're different! Your father and I taught you better than that!"
"Maybe that's why he's been stealing people's pumpkins! Because he's poor! He probably just swallows them whole like an iguana."
"Buford, you are grounded and if you don't invite that little boy over for dinner tomorrow you're not trick-or-treating."
He drew back theatrically in horror, and then ran to his room. When Bret got home he walked down and knocked on the Czerwonka's door to see if he could offer an apology. When he got back he said that no one had been home. Buford still wasn't talking to either of us. It was a quiet evening.
The next day when Buford got off the bus we tromped silently across the road and I stood sternly with arms folded as he pushed grudgingly at the door bell. For a moment nothing happened. Buford looked up at me hopefully. Then the door opened. Tommy held it opened at arm's length and looked at us with large dark eyes. He really was pretty cute. It must have been his mom who stopped to look at us from the kitchen, arms full of clean plates.
I smiled at each of them and looked pointedly to Buford.
"I came to say I'm sorry for yesterday and I want to invite you to dinner so we can make friends," he recited, staring at the door jam with furled brow.
Tommy blinked at him a moment. Then he slowly shook his head no. His mom watching from the next room didn't move to help.
"That's okay, Tommy, sweetie. Maybe some other day. You're always invited to come over a play."
There was a triumphant bounce to Buford's step as we returned home.
As I began making dinner the house seemed unusually peaceful. A glance out the window revealed Tommy down the road sitting on his front step looking our way, and Buford alone in the yard, staring him down, oversized fedora silhouetted against the darkening sky.
In the crazy world of seven-year-olds conducting a witch hunt complete with real victim is considered a resounding success. Buford remained more popular than he had ever been. I let him know in no uncertain terms that his Halloween costume would be burned if I heard him refer to Tommy as Lizard Boy again, and hoped he would still make a descent friend or two out of the situation.
"Tanner's cat has gone missing," was all he would say about Tommy or his own activities Saturday.
Sunday afternoon the street was brimming with anticipation. More than one child escaped to run around outside in his or her costume a day early.
"Bo? What's this?" I called to him, inspecting his sloppy scrawl on our door jam.
"It's Latin," he called happily from the garage. "To keep the spirits away since we don't have a pumpkin!"
"Eww. What's it written with?" asked Bret as he scratched at the brown letters. A 'thunk' sounded from the garage.
"Bo what are you doing?"
"Looking for something. It's okay, I found it. Cindy just put out her new Jack-O-Lantern and I'm going to go make sure
nothing happens to it."
Bret started dinner just as it got dark. We waited a full hour for Buford to come home but as the aroma of Italian Sausage filled the house the miniature gangster/private eye was still missing.
"I'll go find him," I told Bret.
I pulled on my coat, though I didn't need to, the night was surprisingly warm and clear. The street was strangely silent except for the whispery rustle of the occasional dry leaf and the rapping of my own feet on the pavement. I walked down the middle of the road, the better to see both sides, and couldn't help but notice the houses looked like Jack-o-Lanterns themselves, their windows shinning like golden eyes from out of their black bulking shapes.
There were no literal Jack-o-Lanterns flickering from the houses they guarded. Buford must have been right when he reported that it was a neighborhood wide problem. I kept looking, knowing Buford would be nearby the new one put out by Cindy's family.
"Bo! Bo!" I whisper-called when I found a house with a lighted grin on its step. But there was no answer. I made my way up the walkway toward the house. My hand was raised to knock when I noticed the Jack-o-Lanterns were plugged in. They were fake, made of painted plastic and a lightbulb. Suddenly I remembered the house. A retired couple lived here. There were no children.
I hit the street again, trying to remember which houses had little girls living in them. My own porch light was out of sight now. I wondered at Buford wandering this far alone in the dark.
I was just about to turn around when I saw from the corner of my eye a dim flicker on the porch two houses down. A little candle struggled to stay alive against the breeze in the yellow bowels of a fresh pumpkin. I started for it, walking slowly, because in the dark I couldn't even see my feet any longer.
"Mom?" came a whisper from the bushes.
"Bo?" I whispered back. "Where are you?"
"Right here," came his voice from under a shrub beside me. I caught the reflected glint of flashlight he had pulled from the garage. It didn't light anymore.
"Buford! You should have been home an hour ago!"
"I told you I was guarding the Jack-o-Lantern!"
"Not after dark, you're not! That's for the police to do, if they ever care."
"Shhhhh. Mom! Look!"
I couldn't see where his pudgy finger pointed from under the bush but I could imagine.
I turned around. Little Tommy was sitting under the porch light of Cindy's house.
His gullet was stretched membrane-thin as the pumpkin, the whole pumpkin, slid slowly down his throat. I could see the ripples in the skin as the pumpkin spiraled slowly on its descent. The still glowing smile of the Jack-o-Lantern twisted into view, glowing red through the engorged esophagus. Large, dark, content eyes glittered at us from across the street.
I clutched Buford's hand without turning around. I pulled him out of the bush and we started walking, backwards, but very calmly, back to the house. "You know, Bo," I said trying to keep my voice steady and even and low, "I don't think I want you playing with that Czerwonka boy anymore."