I wish I had warned someone about Uncle Pumpkin. Maybe I could have stopped him. Maybe I could have saved those poor kids. But until recently, I had no memory of the man at all. It was only after the bodies were found—one boy still clutching a deflated pumpkin balloon in his shriveled, blackened hand—that I remembered what happened that night. And I realized that one of those kids could have been me.
Every Halloween, the Rafferty Family Farm hosted a spectacular autumn carnival known as Uncle Pumpkin’s Festival of Fun. The centerpiece of the festival was the giant slide that towered over the fairgrounds. Officially, it was called the Great Slide, but all the kids called it by its unofficial moniker: Uncle Pumpkin’s Tongue. It was an apt nickname. The top of the ride was framed by an enormous plywood facade hand-painted to resemble the face of the festival’s mascot, Uncle Pumpkin: flat black irises, thick eyebrows, and a twisting mustache over a gaping, open-mouthed smile. A red plastic slide protruded from the center of the mouth like a tongue, descending through a series of stomach-dropping humps and ending in a long straightway with hay bales stacked at the end.
Hour after hour, kids climbed the wooden staircase to the top of the slide, where a seasonal employee—usually a teen from the local high school—handed each of them a frayed burlap sack to sit on. The kids lined up five across, one in each lane of the slide, waiting for a shout of “Ready? Set? Go!” from one of the attendants. Then the riders pushed off and zipped down the slide on the sacks, each of them secretly hoping to be going fast enough to crash into the hay bales stacked at the end of the straightway.
My parents encouraged me to try the Great Slide every year, but I always refused. It wasn’t the slide itself that scared me—it was the character of Uncle Pumpkin that I found most terrifying. He was supposed to be a silly, clown-like figure that brought joy to children around Halloween, but the only thing he brought to me was a sense of profound unease, a lingering dread that left me feeling like I had a sandbag in my stomach.
The face painted above the slide was scary enough, but the actual Uncle Pumpkin—the one roaming the festival grounds with a bouquet of pumpkin-shaped balloons—was even worse. His real name was Joe Rafferty, the middle-aged grandson of the original Uncle Pumpkin, his Grandpa Fred. Joe wore the same oversized black suit, orange bow tie, and crushed fedora that his grandfather wore in the 1940s. The classic Uncle Pumpkin features were smeared thick and messy across his pale, pockmarked face, as if he had applied the grease paint with the chewed end of an old hot dog. His mouth reeked of cigarettes and spoiled chicken, with yellowed teeth that leaned and twisted like they were trying to escape from his receding gums. He enjoyed sneaking up behind kids and poking them in the side with a bellowing “Boo!” before handing them a balloon to quell their startled tears. The schtick was intended to be funny, but it always felt cruel to me.
As I grew older, my refusal to go down the Great Slide became a liability, especially when all of my friends rode it without a second thought. Finally, when I was ten, my friend Simon convinced me to give it a try.
After saying goodbye to my parents—possibly for the last time, I feared—I began the tortuous ascent up the rickety stairs toward the top of the slide. The line seemed to take forever. The higher we went, the colder the steady autumn wind got. By the time it was my turn to ride, my teeth were chattering and my fingers were numb.
“Lane Five.” The attendant handed me a burlap sack to sit on, then pointed to the far end of the platform. I froze, too petrified to go any further. I tried to will my legs to move, but they wouldn’t respond. I was paralyzed was fear.
After waiting a few seconds, Simon nudged me in the back. “Go!”
“I’m going!” I took a hesitant step, trying not to look down at the ant-sized people on the fairgrounds far below. I imagined my parents smiling proudly up at me from the bottom of the slide, having no idea that their beloved son was about to soil his jeans.
Simon put his hands on my shoulders and guided me forward. “Come on. Let’s move.” He positioned me in front of Lane Five, took his seat in Lane Four, then patted the red plastic in my lane. “Here. Sit.”
I flapped the burlap out flat on the slide, carefully settling my backside down onto it and closing my eyes. In the distance, I could hear squeals of glee from the carnival rides mixing with the twang of country western music from the stage in the barn. A strong gust of wind pushed against my back, carrying with it the smell of cigarettes and rotten chicken. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a powerful wave of vertigo that threatened to topple me forward down the slide. I grabbed for the sides of my lane to steady myself. But instead of cold plastic, my hands touched something else. Something warm. Something wet.
Gasping with revulsion, I yanked my hands away. My eyes snapped open. The blood drained from my face.
The fairgrounds were gone, replaced by a featureless void that merged with the starless sky above. Simon was gone too, as were all my other friends, and the attendants, and everyone else who had been waiting in line. The sound of the festival had been replaced with a silence so absolute that my brain could only process it as a sort of rushing hiss. I was utterly alone at the top of the slide. Except, it wasn’t a slide anymore. It was a tongue. A real tongue.
Uncle Pumpkin’s Tongue.
The slide had transformed from shiny red plastic into dull pink flesh, rippling with papillae and slicked with saliva. The tongue snaked out into the darkness beneath me, so impossibly long that it seemed to disappear over the horizon. The warmth of its flesh radiated through the burlap as the saliva soaked into my jeans and dampened the backs of my thighs. A drop of hot liquid splattered onto my forehead from above and ran down over my eye. I swiped it away with the back of my wrist, then looked up. Overhead, rotting yellow teeth protruded from gums blackened with disease. Elongated drips of drool dangled from cracked and bleeding lips.
I was in Uncle Pumpkin’s mouth. And if I didn’t get out of there right away, I knew he would swallow me whole. I’d slide down his throat and into a churning acid bath filled with half-digested chunks of kids just like me, dissolving in a vile stew of melted flesh and bubbling fat.
With a desperate cry, I closed my eyes and threw my weight forward, away from Uncle Pumpkin’s rotten maw. I felt myself falling, picking up speed as I slid down the spit-slicked tongue. I opened my mouth to scream, but all that came out was a strangled moan of terror. Stinking droplets of foul spittle splattered against my face and neck as I accelerated, plummeting faster and faster through a series of nauseating drops, then rocketing off the end of the tongue and into the infinite nothingness beyond…
…where I slammed feet-first into a bale of hay. Cheers erupted. I opened my eyes to see a crowd of festival-goers applauding me. The noise of the festival returned, warbling unsteadily like a record player picking up speed.
Simon crawled over to me, an expectant look on his face. “Well? What’d you think?”
“Fun,” I mumbled, still confused and disoriented by what just happened. “It was fun.”
I turned and looked back up the slide. It was just as it had always been: a painted Uncle Pumpkin face at the top, with a red plastic slide descending to the ground. Whatever I experienced up there must have been my imagination, an insane hallucination brought on by panic and fear.
Relieved that the nightmare was over, I climbed to my feet, returned the burlap sack to the pile by the stairs, then followed Simon out through the ride’s exit. As we merged into the crowd, a sharp finger jabbed into my side. I yelped and spun around. Uncle Pumpkin was behind me, leering at me with a nicotine-stained grin. My bladder loosened, threatening to dump a flood of urine down my pants. I felt an overwhelming urge to run, but my legs had turned into useless sacks of grain. There was nothing I could do but stand there in fearful silence.
Uncle Pumpkin motioned like he wanted to tell me a secret. Then he bent down, his face drawing within an inch of my ear. He cupped his hand around his mouth as if to prevent anyone from hearing what he was about to say … then dragged his tongue along the length of my ear in a long, wet stroke. The stink of cigarettes and rotten chicken assailed my senses as he spoke in a breathy whisper.
Then he took my hand, pressed the string of a balloon into my palm, and ambled off into the crowd without another word.
I wiped at my ear with my sleeve, desperate to remove the film of foul-smelling spit the man’s tongue had left on my skin. Tears welled in my eyes.
“What did he say?” Simon asked.
I should have told him what happened, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Instead, I said, “Nothing.” I shrugged. “Just Happy Halloween.”
Then I opened my palm and let go of the balloon, watching as it spiraled skyward into the cold October night.
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