THE CLOSER Julia gets to her due date, the stranger her dreams become. They started out ethereal and wispy, unsettling in the moment but forgotten as soon as her eyes flicked open; but by degrees they became solid and tangible and unsettling, and they linger on long after she awoke.
There was the one where she was back on the farm she grew up on, stood outside under a starless night sky. She’s curious about noises coming from the barn. She slowly picks her way across the uneven yard, the scuffles and thuds growing louder as she nears, and pushes the side door with her forearm. It creaks open in protest. Inside is a shadowy figure, humanoid with an over-sized rounded head. She steps into the barn and the figure turns to reveal a wide, sinister grin on a fleshy orange face.
In another, she’s in the fields behind the new house and she finds the pumpkin patch. There’s a stand of trees nearby and when she looks there is a party of people stood watching her from under the shade. They are naked, partially covered in vines and dirt, their skin has an orangey hue to it. They watch her. Some glare at her through narrow eyes but as she steps toward them they each dip their bulbous heads slightly, vaguely respectfully. Some seem to be almost beckoning her—
Julia also finds herself daydreaming more and more. There isn’t always anything else to occupy herself with, now that the baby’s room is ready, she and Luke have cleaned and tidied the house and the emergency bag has been packed and re-packed and packed again. Besides which, she doesn’t have much energy for moving about.
She mostly sits and lets her mind wander. Imagines what the child will be like, worries about raising it, the birth, remembers her own childhood. Sometimes, she stands and stares out of the window, keeps having this feeling of coming back to herself, with no clue how long she has been gone for.
Nearing Halloween, she stands at the rear living room window and looks out over rolling fields towards the distant patch where the pumpkins grow. At this range she has to squint to see it. She thinks she can just about make out one or two pumpkin shapes still in the field. Her waking self hasn’t been there yet, not since the move. It has only been dreamed about.
At the sight of the patch, the baby kicks hard. She cradles her huge belly in her arms and gently rubs.
‘Easy, ’Lil Pumpkin,’ she says.
Together with Luke she has read several baby books and online articles. One website compared the size of the baby at various stages to pieces of fruit. At fifteen weeks it’d be the size of an apple, at twenty-eight weeks the size of an eggplant and so on. By birth, the site said, it’d be the size of a small pumpkin. With the due date being so close to Halloween ‘Lil Pumpkin has stuck as nickname until they decide on a proper name, something they still hadn’t done.
She wonders if ‘Lil Pumpkin would like to visit the pumpkin patch? She fancies a walk, but Luke will only fret and she isn’t convinced she’s up to it.
The front door opens before she can make a decision. Luke home early, clutching pumpkins under his arm like a basketball coach.
Julia and Luke carve the pumpkins. Or rather, he does. No matter what, she can’t quite bring herself to penetrate the rough skin with her knife. She procrastinates, asking Luke about his day, turning the pumpkin around as if looking for the ideal spot to cut on a face. A few times she raises the knife to begin cutting but then bites her lip, shakes her head and lowers it again. She tries telling herself she is being silly, that it is only the bump being nicknamed ‘Lil Pumpkin which is putting her off, the odd association of it. Hormones. In the end, Julia declares, as casually as possible, that she doesn’t think she’ll bother. That she’ll give it to the children next door for them to carve and they can just keep the one Luke has prepared instead.
Julia tries not to reflect on her strange dreams too much, but they have come to feel so real, more like recent memories. Try as she might to squash them, to dismiss them, to lock them in her mental vault, they seep through the tiny gaps and cracks in the doorframe, overwhelming and flooding her idle mind. They refuse to be sealed away forever.
That’s to say nothing of the other thing she just can’t repress. The thing that was a dream, but is a real memory tormenting her over and over in her head in full, traitorous high-definition.
She hadn’t been overly worried, not at first. They’d been trying for so long, having so much sex, versus just the one time with—
He’d been doing some handywork in the garden for them. The previous owners had neglected the garden, a shame for a house backing onto open country, and they’d hired him to do a few simple chores whilst they concentrated on the house. A little trimming and pruning, clearing the gutters. Planting some bulbs. She’d barely paid him any notice. Then one day, she was at home, and he came to the door asking politely if he could trouble her for a glass of water. They’d gotten to talking. He’d said something about a brother, or possibly a cousin, getting ready for the spring, and they, or possibly another sibling, would find extra work around the harvest. She hadn’t really paid attention to or understood all of his references. He seemed nice enough if not a little weird. She remembered that he had orange skin, as if he were caked in fake-tan.
Normally she found that repulsive. Then suddenly:
Looking back, she can’t remember what had ever possessed her to do it. He hadn’t said anything or touched her in any especial way. She hadn’t felt any spark or connection with the man. Then suddenly there it was, like a switch had been flicked, like she was under a spell. An unquashable urge had risen from deep inside, taking control. Maybe it was just being wanted, touched at all—Julia and Luke had been so desperate for children that what should be the most exhilarating, stimulating, intimate act had become perfunctory, routine.
For a moment, just a moment, as he was on top of her, inside her, he seemed to almost shimmer. He wasn’t a man anymore but the leering, demented, gourd-headed monster from her nightmares. In seconds, the illusion vanished as quickly as it had come.
As soon as the act was over, she felt sickened and ashamed, and he’d left. The next day he didn’t return to work and Julia had been thankful for that.
Now, when she replays the act in her mind, she doesn’t visualise the man. She can only see that strange hallucination: his head replaced by a smirking jack-o-lantern grin. He’s over her, thrusting, beads of sweat running down his wrinkled pumpkin-orange skin and his wart-covered face. When she recalls this, she is certain she can smell a musky vegetable stench.
The last time they had sex, before Julia became simply too big and uncomfortable for it, she had said something in the heat of the moment, something she had never said before. At the time it had sounded to her like the most salacious dirty talk. Looking back, it sounded like dialogue from a bad porn movie.
‘Fuck yeah,’ she said, then impulsively, ‘Give me your seed!’ She had no idea where, in the passion of the moment, the thought to say that came from.
Luke was only half aware of it. He grunted when he orgasmed. For a moment he was lost somewhere in the ecstasy, and then, refocussing, he asked, ‘What was that you said?’
‘Nothing,’ she told him, instantly acutely embarrassed. She turned, and reached up as best she could manage to wrap her arms around him and pull him down into an embrace. To make him forget.
On Halloween itself, Luke spends the day fussing over her and getting on her nerves. She feels cooped-up and oddly oppressed.
After dinner, Julia sends Luke into the garage on a made-up errand just so she can hear herself think, and she instantly regrets that.
Looking out of the front window, she watches a few adults escorting a gaggle of costumed children down the street, no doubt trick-or-treating or perhaps on the way to a Halloween party. She spots a mini wolfman, a black cat, a witch, a vampire, a Frankenstein’s monster and there, at the back, a child wearing a large pumpkin-head helmet.
She feels constrained, being in the house all the time, Luke under her feet. She almost feels it physically, as a tightness in her chest. She wants to be free. In a flurry of surprising speed, she wraps up in a winter coat, scarf and boots and escapes out of the back door.
Without thinking about where she’s going, Julia heads for the pumpkin patch.
It’s hardly far to the field, but she has to stop to catch her breath several times. Finally, on the edge of the patch, she puts a hand on a segment of old wooden fence to steady herself, and her waters break.
The field is almost barren now, mostly consisting of depressions where the pumpkins had grown. Only the rejects remain, the small and the misshapen. The unwanted. And, in its midst, Julia. There’s a chill air and a faint smell of rot.
It’s happening too quickly, far quicker than any of the guidebooks suggested. Julia fumbles in her pockets for her cell, and then remembers she left it back in the house. She looks over the gentle rise of fields to where the house stands illuminated against the sky, a beacon tantalisingly close but too far away. She tries to move a few times and gets nowhere, resorting to laying in the field, her back propped up against the rickety old piece of fence. She manages to shout for Luke, for anyone, and then she can only manage heavy breathing and screams of pain.
She tries the breathing and pain management techniques but most of what she has learned goes out the window inside minutes. After one particularly strong contraction she rests her head back against the fence, panting for breath and thinks she can see them again—those weird figures from her dream standing in the copse of trees at the opposite side of the field, watching her. They look curious, disgusted, expectant. She tells herself she is hallucinating, it’s the pain. Another contraction strikes and when she next looks, they are gone.
By the time Luke finds her it is almost all over. He comes down the fields from the house calling out for her, and when he hears her moans, he comes running the rest of the way.
‘Wanted to go see the pumpkins,’ she manages as way of explanation, and he instinctively glances around the field before returning his attention to her.
He squats, says a few words of encouragement.
‘It’s too quick,’ she says, ‘too quick,’ but her dialogue is stopped by another intense contraction.
‘Don’t worry,’ Luke says. He looks down again.
An expression ripples his face for a moment.
An icy kiss chills her neck, sends a shiver down her spine. It makes her sit up as best she can, so that she can read him better. ‘What is it?’ she pants. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing,’ Luke says. ‘Nothing. It must just be the light.’
Out of the corner of her vision she sees him. The man. The one from her nightmares, the one from her bed. The others are there too, the weird pumpkin people. They aren’t huddled together by the trees anymore, but have spread out, forming a circle around her. Their eyes are averted, some heads are lowered, some are bowing, some down on one knee as if in worship.
Pain lances her again, with an overwhelming urge to push. Julia groans a guttural groan, longer and louder than ever.
Luke looks up at her again. He seems distant, shaken. Bewildered.
He says, ‘I can see the head.’