Sammie Jo Creech watches the family garden plot like her living calendar.
In the early spring, her father's rows sprout in dark greens, and the lines of collards and kale uncoil from their mounds in an ever-spreading spiral.
"Everything blooms," he tells her as he cuts some greens for supper. To Sammie, the collards look like miniature trees--heavy stalks support the spreading leaves. Her father always cuts the bitter leaves away for compost. Always slices the tender green from the fibrous stalk just before they bitter with seed.
And during the summer, she helps her father plant the pumpkins. She holds them carefully, he pats the soil down lightly with a trowel.
"Not more than two inches deep. You gotta baby them," he says. "They need compost--good compost--and lots of time."
Sammie spreads her compost with the rake, and by the beginning of August, sixteen of the orange pumpkins grow perfect and symmetrical. By the time her junior year starts, thirteen plump up to the height of Sammie's ankle. And one of them continues til it swells past her knee. The pumpkins must sit in dry soil, so that their roots don't rot black. They need space for their tangling vines to grow. Eventually the fruit sits three feet tall, so big she can sit on it.
Her father gets his brother Karl to help him turn the big pumpkin every day, just slightly, so the bottom doesn't rot out.
When nobody is around, Sammie tries to pose against the pumpkin like a pageant queen, her body etched against its pale husk. Sammie is sixteen, now--short for her age. The boys in town always tell her she is pretty, but when she looks at the women in her brother's magazines, she only sees their taut, extended arms and curvy lines. When she arcs her petite back against the pumpkin, the flesh almost presses back toward her. She swears she can feel it growing.
"Must be six hundred, at least," her father says one day, clapping mulch from his gloves and onto the clean kitchen linoleum. "Maybe eight. Bet people would pay to see an eight-hundred pounder."
The pumpkin stands well over her waist.
Later that day, her uncle Karl arrives. His red truck always bucks against the hill--this time shuddering and belching black smoke from its tailpipe. Usually he comes up to Sammie first, pulls her in for a tight, close hug. But today, he just passes her by.
He lives in Synder, above the florist on Spruce Street. Snyder is the second-largest town in Peters County. It has two McDonalds and a Winn-Dixie store. Uncle Karl was once a photographer for the local paper, the Snyder Post-Gazette, and he has an eye on the pumpkin. He licks his lower lip and stares at it like it's a headline. Sammie could envision him in his tiny apartment kitchen--he stands over draft paper, draped on the countertop. Sample headlines are taped to the edge of the hanging cabinets.
"We could get it to the county fair, Jed. Hire a flatbed from Dwayne Cummings, get us a sponsor. Something." Uncle Karl rubs one hand against his head.
And after pushing the truck into the yard, her father and uncle sit by the oak trees, talking money and smoking little foul-smelling cigars. They sit out there until the sun melts into the treeline and her mama hollers at them to come inside the house, already, for some dinner.
The next morning, uncle Karl retrieves a boxy Polaroid Sun from his truck and beckons Sammie out to the pumpkin patch. Every time the Polaroid flashes, she changes her pose.
Her uncle wipes his head with a yellowed handkerchief. "Shit, Sammie, you're getting in the way of the pumpkin."
After he finishes, he hands Sammie most of the Polaroids. She shakes them and watches her features bloom from the gray--her mother's wide eyes, her father's stern nose.
"Turned out pretty."
A couple days later, her uncle comes from town with a stack of paper handouts. He pulls one from the bottom and hands it to Sammie.
"Made 'em at the church," he says.
The advertisement pales on the white page. BIGGEST PUMPKIN YOU EVER SAW, it confides.
The picture he chose has Sammie beside the great pumpkin, her features blasted away by the high-contrast of the ancient mimeograph machine. She heralds the gourd like Vanna White, the picture capturing her arms in mid-flourish.
She shows the leaflet to her mother while they shell green beans for supper. A handful of beans soak in a container of ice-water. Silken strands pile in the garbage can, and the kitchen snaps with staccato bursts.
Her mother smudges a wet thumb across the flyer. There is a brief pause.
"Trash. Just trash." Her mother's mouth sits thin, red and cut as a hatchet wound. Her knuckles white, and the beans plunk into the bowl.
"I want to be a model, Mama." Sammie flushes.
She always had cut out pictures of covergirls with interesting faces--their broad brows and high cheekbones--and hung them up around her vanity. Sammie would contort her face toward the mirror, elongating her father's nose down to a fine point. Sweeping her cheeks upward to catch the warm camera lights.
"You got no reason to dream about that." Her mother snaps another bean into the bowl and tosses its string to the garbage can. "You got school. You can forget those pipe dreams."
The next morning she skips school. Sammie walks down Main Street and posts the pumpkin fliers on the nail-bit telephone poles, pastes them onto store windows. She tucks the fliers in between most every windshield wiper from the Baptist church all the way past the hardware store, sliding the paper--her print advertisement--into the bare cracks under front doors.
That afternoon, the farm swarms with town-people, already coming to see them. Sammie poses next to the giant gourd, modeling the pumpkin for its growing audience. Old men in cover-alls bring their pinch-faced wives. Glowing couples come carrying their fussy toddlers. Some have even come from as far away as Knox City.
"How'd you do it?" they all ask. Sammie says nothing, just flourishes her hands and poises her arms toward the pumpkin. Uncle Karl handles the money quietly, sliding five-dollar bills into his hip pockets.
After the second day, her father builds this chain-link cage around the pumpkin, to prevent the vines from being trampled before the fair. Sammie can't model the pumpkin directly, but every day she stands just outside the fence, slumping artistically against the cold wire.
That night, she dreams the pumpkin is a balloon. She straddles the stem and watches her father's farm grow smaller and smaller as they rise. Then the pumpkin catches a sharp autumn gale, and it blows her towards the fairgrounds, behind the state capitol. The shimmering lights of the boardwalk form a carpet beneath her, and she wants to jump--to entwine herself with the spreading scintillation.
The next morning, she wakes to the sound of a tractor. Her father harvests the corn in early October--the empty fields behind their house would be laid bare for the winter, waiting to be covered by swaths of snow. A crowd already gathers by the pumpkin patch, and her uncle Karl takes pictures of the growing group.
When she walks to her spot under the chain-link--its shadow crosshatches across the pumpkin patch--her chin sets high, her shoulders bow, her palms cup loosely to her side.
That night, her uncle motions to her while her father is counting money. They walk the row-line out past the pumpkin patch, down to where harvested corn stalks hang their silks and wait patiently for the scythe. He raises the Polaroid, and Sammie elongates her neck, turning toward the October moon that fits the spreading Kentucky sky like a flashbulb--shading her in deep blues and heady oranges.
"Hunter's moon," Uncle Karl says, the camera tucked into his elbow like a football. "That's what the Indians called it."
She stands tiptoe. Uncle Karl circles her and the camera flashes like he is still a reporter and she is some famous woman, a person who called to be orbited. She pants, her blouse skewing white shoulders. The pads of her feet bore into the soil and she pirouettes, once, then falls.
"Sammie!" Her father's voice, distant.
Uncle Karl clamors for the dropped pictures, faint outlines of Sammie's litheness punching through the gray. He shoves them into his left pocket, with his share of crumpled five-dollar bills. When he stands into the moonlight, his broad-brimmed hat shades his face. He could be their scarecrow, expressionless as a flour sack, but when she climbs to her feet, he is gone.
And when she leaves the cornfield--dirt caked on the soles of her feet, brown-pressed patterns bloom on the back of her dress--it is one of the few times she has lied to her father.
"I was catching fireflies," she says. "And one of them got away from me."
That night, she dreams of the fair again. She walks a sawdust boulevard bordered by red-striped tents. In the distance, she can see the stage illuminated against some hill's rolling slope. She runs down the path--past the dull tin of boardwalk chimes and the promenade full of farmer's wares--runs until the stage is in front of her, and she is swallowed by the pulsing crowd.
She wakes with a start. It is almost noon--that evening, her father and uncle Karl are to carry the pumpkin 170 miles to the muddy outskirts of Lousiville. Downstairs, her mother cuts potatoes into cubes, and Sammie brushes her lips against the woman's dry cheek.
"Trash," her mother says. "Don't give me any of that."
Her mother cuts a new potato in half, runs the knife along its skin to discard its eyes.
"We found the pictures, Sammie. We heard you've been skipping school. We thought you knew better."
Her mother cuts the potatoes silently, looks down at the cutting board. And then, Sammie sees the Polaroids laid out like a map on the kitchen table--her bare shoulder leads to an extended leg. Her eyes--like her mother's--wide yet bold.
Down by the driveway, Uncle Karl's pickup opens easily, and Sammie slides herself behind the wheel. She turns the key in the ignition, and the engine bucks. Five-dollar bills and dozens of Polaroids rain from the visor, and she accelerates, at first slowly. Over the hill behind the house, Sammie sees the still form of her father and Uncle Karl out by the oak trees. Uncle Karl's shoulders are slumped down and she can see the fluted line of her father's cigar smoke as it rises to the branches.
She presses the gas and the truck accelerates.
At a speed of 40 miles per hour, Sammie learns, her father's chain link fence collapses into itself. At 50 miles, a pumpkin's flesh breaks open like a wound, and tire tracks imprint wet on asphalt as she drives down the road. At 60 miles per hour, Sammie learns that highways slot between high mountain rock like rivers, and that pumpkin flesh washes off the hood of a Ford truck as easy as its grill slices through the husk.
At home, her father will call Dwayne Cummings and cancel the flatbed. Her mother will move the tall oak chiffarobe from the end of the hallway to cover Sammie's door. And her uncle Karl will take the old rake from its hook outside the barn, and beat neat ridges of pumpkin and film into the compost, until the maggots come and lay their last eggs--til the flesh has been consumed, and her features fade. Til the snow falls and blows in drifts, flowering over the dead pumpkin patch and fallow corn field.
Til the girl in the red Ford heads past Louisville, up the Dixie Highway--halfway, perhaps, to Chicago--where, every night, one hundred thousand lights rise and fade each other with their brilliance.
BIO: Shaun Turner writes in West Virginia, where he is assistant fiction editor for Cheat River Review. His work can or will be found in the following great publications: Sandy River Review, Cleaver Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, Word Riot, among others.