Stringy orange chunks went skittering across the road. Nothing was left of the carefully-carved pumpkin face except a lonely candle stuck in the pulpy mess near my feet.
“C’mon, throw yours,” Mike said, wiping his hands on his pants.
“Do it!” Jeff urged.
Kevin pushed my shoulder. “Hurry up! Smash it, and let’s get out of here.”
My friends stood in a circle around me. The pumpkin felt smooth and cold in my hands. It was heavy, even though the stringy insides had been pulled out and holes carved for a silly face. I remembered how long it had taken me to clean and carve my own pumpkin at home, scooping out the slippery seeds and carefully slicing out sections for its eyes, nose, and mouth.
But this pumpkin wasn’t mine. I had grabbed it off a porch tonight after trick-or-treating, then waited impatiently for house lights to blink off one by one. It wasn’t my idea to smash the pumpkins, but my friends said it was great fun. They had each swiped one too.
“Everyone does it,” Mike had said. “It’s a Halloween tradition. Nobody can see you—it’s too dark out. Just hold the pumpkin up as high as you can and smash it on the road.”
“It doesn’t hurt anyone,” Kevin added. “It’s just an old pumpkin. It’ll be rotten soon anyway.”
They were right. It was great fun. My pumpkin-smashing sent chunks flying farther than anyone else’s. I laughed out loud when some gooey pieces splatted on Jeff’s pant legs. Jeff pushed me backward into some pumpkin mess on the road. Mike grabbed a pumpkin chunk and plopped it on top of Jeff’s costume wig. Soon pumpkin pieces were flying everywhere.
A porch light switched on suddenly, and a man’s voice growled from the lit doorway. “Hey you boys! What’s going on out there?”
A small figure in pajamas, clutching a teddy bear, stood by the man’s side. “Daddy, where’s my pumpkin?” asked a tiny voice. “Did the boys break my pumpkin?”
We raced through neighborhood yards until we were safely out of sight, finally crouching behind shrubs to see if anyone was following us. “Watch out! Over there!” But it was only a tree shadow stretching its long black body over the ground toward us. The wind moaned and sighed. Clawlike branches scratched unearthly noises against rooftops. I gulped deep breaths of cold night air and tried to steady my trembling legs. This was scary—but exciting too!
We listened for police sirens or neighbors yelling for us to come out. A dog howled faintly in the distance. An airplane droned in the dark overhead. But there were no footsteps, no searching flashlights, no angry voices. We were safe. We laughed, patting each other on the back. This had been easy!
But something followed me as I walked home. Something invisible wrapped its long, icy fingers around my head and invaded my ears. It was sneakier and more chilling than any make-believe Halloween ghost.
It was a tiny voice crying over a pumpkin—the one I had smashed.
The voice chased me all the way back to my house. I quietly climbed the front steps and sat down in the dark shadows. My own pumpkin scowled at me from the porch railing as if it knew that I had smashed one of its relatives. For fun. Because “everyone did it.”
The front door opened, and Dad poked his head outside, whistling for our dog. “Hey, kiddo, did you have a good time trick-or-treating? Did you get any candy for your old dad?”
I handed him my bag full of treats. “Here. Take what you want. I’m not hungry.”
Dad sat down beside me. He pulled a sucker out of the bag, unwrapped it, and pointed it at my pumpkin on the railing. “You know, Son, in a way you’re a little bit like that pumpkin over there.”
“Sure, Dad,” I said. “I have an empty space where my brains should be.”
Dad rolled the sucker over his tongue. “There’s nothing wrong with your brain—when you use it,” he said, picking at some pumpkin goo still clinging to my pants. “I meant that there’s a ‘candle’ inside you, too—a bright spark that lights up your face and makes you who you are. It’s a pure, clear, beautiful light that’s inside every person. Maybe it shines a little less when they do something they’re ashamed of, but it never goes out completely.” He gently turned my face toward his. “Your light looks a little dim tonight.”
“It’s a wonder it didn’t go out like a smashed pumpkin,” I said. “A broken pumpkin just lying in the road, waiting for a car to run over it. A pumpkin that didn’t even belong to me.”
I stood up and walked over to the railing. My hands circled the perfectly-decorated pumpkin that had taken me a whole hour to clean and carve. I picked it up and started down the front steps.
“Where are you going?” Dad asked.
I turned to face him. “A little voice is calling me,” I choked out.
Dad studied his sucker. “A voice?”
“Of a little boy in pajamas.”
Dad smiled. “Follow that voice,” he said. “Your light is getting brighter every second.”