This story is by Allie April Knox and won an honorable mention in our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Allie April Knox is a native of the farmland of Central New York as well as a part-time laundry service employee. She can usually be found listening to movie soundtracks amidst writing about the unnatural aspects of our seemingly normal reality. “Pumpkin Pie & Formaldehyde” is her debut short story.
“There’s a body for you downstairs,” Cassia’s mother announces, wiping the blood from her hands as she passes the open bedroom door. “All set and ready for you.”
Her words spark a flood of excitement in Cassia, and she springs from her bed to follow her mother down the stairs and into the kitchen. Her fingers itch to snatch up the scalpel, to dig under the skin and see what lies within the corpse.
“I thought it was Alistair’s turn,” Cassia says, falling into step with her mother. “He claimed the next three that came in.”
“Cousin Alistair is otherwise occupied with another target. He’ll be gone a few days.”
Cassia eyes the basement door, practically twitching in her eagerness to get to work. Her mother pulls a mixing bowl out of the cabinet and sets it on the counter. Then she turns back to Cassia, sees her inching towards the door, and laughs.
“Your father and I already had our fun tracking him down and killing him,” her mother says. “You go have your own now. I’ll be baking a pie for the Mitchells’ funeral.”
She barely finishes speaking before Cassia is darting through the door and down the stairs, leaping down the last three steps in her haste, her whole body thrumming with anticipation.
She snatches her lab coat off the wall hook, sliding it on in a single motion and yanking her long hair into a loose braid to keep it away from her hands, away from her work. She loops a surgical mask over her ears and covers her mouth, snapping on a pair of latex gloves from the box sitting on the shelf.
She hates to use them—would prefer to feel the skin, the blood, the bones under her fingers—but it isn’t worth scrubbing her hands raw after the blood dries just to free them of the red stain.
Not yet, anyway.
She plugs her phone into the stereo and pulls up her usual playlist of Disney songs and Broadway show tunes. It’s too cheery for dead bodies, Aunt Rosalie once told her. She disagreed. The music makes the dissection all the more fun.
She turns to the smooth metal table and the cadaver atop it. He looks as if he’d just fallen asleep there, still clad in work clothes, laid out on his back. The image is shattered by the bullet hole in his forehead, silver leaking from the wound.
Cassia, they whisper.
It’s only a nudge against her mind, afraid of what she will do once she knows they’re there.
He wants to see, Cassia. He wants to watch.
“Yes, I know,” she says. “But does he have to? The new ones always scream.”
First, she empties his pockets. A dented stone-age flip phone with no battery life. A ratty wallet with twenty bucks and a driver’s license that identifies him as one Samuel A. Weston. Born October 16, 1991. Lives—
She tosses the ID away before she can read anything else. There is no point in learning who he was. His body will be in pieces before morning comes, identity spirited away to some far-off corner of the Void. Same as every other creature her parents bring her.
She cuts his clothes away—a threadbare shirt made of brown cotton and mud-stained jeans—and drops them into the garbage chute to be burned. Plucking a scalpel from the rolling tray, she presses the shiny metal to the uneven skin of his sternum, rough and valleyed with scars.
“What?” she snaps, irritation flaring.
Please set him free.
“Remember what happened last time you attempted to intervene,” she warns. “You will leave me be while I work. Otherwise, I’ll be enlisting a witch’s help to find your souls.”
There’s a moment of silence, followed by something akin to a weary sigh. She imagines they’re standing right behind her, breathing down her neck, and she shivers. She waits another moment, curious if they’ll say anything.
When they don’t, a hunger flickers across her face but is gone in an instant, replaced instead by an eerie calm.
“Wonderful,” she says. “I’d hate to have to banish you all.”
And with that, she cuts into his chest.
The spirits are silent when she slices him open, but it doesn’t last long. They whimper when she inserts needles to drain body fluids. They cry when she starts pulling organs out. They howl when she flicks on the bone saw to cut off the top of his skull.
Braid thumping against her back, scalpel in hand, Cassia dances around the body. Blood spills when steel meets flesh, staining her fingertips, her clothes. The scent hangs heavy in the air, masking the pumpkin smell emanating from the kitchen upstairs, and she inhales deeply, anxiety and excitement stirring in her.
Humans are too fragile for her, all thin skin and brittle bones, and their dissections are over in the blink of an eye. But the Others? The Wolves, the Fae . . . They’re like puzzles, mysteries even. There are no two alike. She has to search for every nook and cranny, any secret places where they may have some tiny organ hidden away that makes them so different from humans, so much tastier.
She removes retractable claws from under his nail beds. She pulls incisors from his gums and washes them ’til they shine. She fights with hidden joints in collapsing bones that had allowed him to shapeshift in life, holding them aloft in triumph when they finally come loose and she can rip them out.
It’s late in the night when she begins storing body parts away. All sounds upstairs have ceased, her family long since expelled to the depths of the night. Her otherworldly audience has fallen into a pained silence, waiting, praying.
Almost finished, she unhooks the freshly-filled blood bags and seals them, tucking them away in the refrigerator for breakfast. As she returns for the brain, a new voice—Samuel A. Weston’s—joins the hundreds of others whispering around her, loud amidst their quiet droning.
Please set me free.
“The only way I’ll be setting you free is by severing your soul from your body,” she says. “However, don’t believe you won’t be bound to something else.”
What will I be bound to?
She ignores him and drops the brain with a punk! into a jar of formaldehyde, the chemical smell wafting up at her. She brushes off the phantom hands grasping at her clothes and puts the jar away for tomorrow’s transplant.
“Did you know that it was a tradition in some Native American tribes to eat the heart first from a freshly killed animal?” she asks.
The spirits whimper at her words, but Samuel stays silent.
“They believed that by doing so they would receive all the qualities of the animal,” she continues, picking up his heart and carefully examining it. “Bravery, strength, agility . . . Nowadays humans think they know the truth behind this and that the ‘strength’ they found was a byproduct of the B-complex vitamins that are found in the heart.”
Why are you telling me this?
She discards her mask and grins, baring unnaturally straight teeth, sharpened fangs gleaming in the fluorescent lighting. That hunger from earlier is back, brightening her red eyes. It turns her into the monster she hides beneath graphic tees and hiking boots: a vampire addicted to blood and bone.
“Because the Native Americans were right,” she says. “Eating a creature’s heart tethers your souls together, endowing the living with the dead’s powers. That’s what I’m going to do with your heart, Samuel. I’m going to eat it and take your power.”
She sinks her teeth into his heart and he screams.
Within two minutes she has devoured the heart and can feel the new blood—new power—surging through her veins, satiating her vampiric cravings.
“Mmm, delicious. Werewolves always have this—” She pauses. “Well, I don’t know what you’d call it, but they have the most peculiar taste.”
The spirits retreat to the Void, their otherworldly presence disappearing from her senses. Their voices fade as she licks her lips, searching for even the tiniest droplet of blood. She can see the wispy form of Samuel off to her left, tall and blue-eyed and terrified of her.
She watches him until he disappears, his soul following the others to the Void.
“Goodbye, Samuel A. Weston,” she says. “Thank you for your heart.”
She peels off the blood-stained gloves and tosses them down beside her mask. She runs a finger down the scar that cuts across her palm, acquired through a scalpel incident as a child. She nearly smiles at the memory.
She makes quick work of her instruments, sanitizing and drying them with practiced ease. When they’re stored away in their rightful places, Cassia climbs the stairs and opens the door to the kitchen, inhaling the combined scents of pumpkin pie and formaldehyde before shutting the door behind her.