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Town Startles — Episode 4 — The Headless Horticulturist

October 30, 2021
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The Legend of the Headless Horticulturist

The Devil and Derek Attler

Derek Attler was a simple man. He worked his land, he feared the Lord, and he loved his Gloria. His farm was a modest little piece of the countryside, not so low that it would flood in the rainy season or high enough to get bit by the spring gusts. It nestled nicely right into the plains on a little hill, Derek’s own picturesque patch of paradise.

He loved his horses almost as much as he loved his Gloria. They were well fed and well cared for. Derek used to go riding with Gloria, she on her brown spotted Appaloosa, Gerty, and Derek on the jet black Arabian that he called Midnight. They’d spend whole evenings out meandering and watching the fireflies, reminiscing about the old days when their love was young.

Derek grew what he could on his land and he was good at it, but nothing was ever big enough for him. He envied the local boys who took home the blue ribbons from the county fair for their gigantic and perfectly shaped squash, melons and pumpkins, and he swore one day he’d grow something bigger than they’d ever seen. Gloria used to laugh at what she called his pumpkin dreams, saying “pretty big’ll get you there, long as there’s enough to share.” Gloria always had a way with words.

On a terrible stormy night one December, the Lord took Gloria suddenly and quietly in her sleep. Derek was never quite the same after that. His fear of the Lord turned overnight into bitter resentment. He still had his horses and his land, but no one with whom to enjoy his patch of paradise. To pass his remaining time, Derek set out to accomplish the one dream he had left: To win the blue ribbon at the county fair.

Derek decided on pumpkins to go for the prize. He had always been fond of the way they grow, and the fall was his favorite time of year. He made a vow to himself that he’d grow the biggest pumpkin not only in the county, but in the world. He knew it would be tough, but he didn’t care. Darik spent years practicing and failing, growing pumpkins that didn’t quite cut it. Some were misshapen and others were too small. Some had worms and others’ lives were cut short by garden sabotaging varmints who came in the night.

At the local feed store, Derek bragged to the local boys whenever they’d listen about the pumpkin he would make before long, how big and glorious it would be, how it would show them all. Sometimes they’d laugh in his face and call him Ol’ Pumpkinhead, a name that cut to his soul like the edge of a dull and rusty scythe. He’d walk away grumbling with his pumpkin seed pouch in hand, fantasizing about rolling over them with his combine, crunching straw hats, moustached faces and overalls into a ghastly fertilizer that would finally make his pumpkins grow the way he wanted. Five years after Gloria’s death, Derek was a bitter and broken man.

One day in late summer an afternoon hailstorm came out of nowhere and decimated Derek Attler’s pumpkin crop when he had been sure this was his chance to win the ribbon. The hail broke the vines beyond repair, and there in the sloshy muddy aftermath, Derek fell to his knees and cried the salty and stinging tears of a defeated man. He pounded the pumpkins with his fists, he threw them into the air. He smashed them open on one another and watched the undeveloped guts spill out onto the muddy ground. He kept at it like a madman for ten or twenty minutes, until his muscles burned and he could barely lift the damn things. Finally stepping back and surveying the destruction of his favorite garden, he felt a glimmer of giddy satisfaction.

This was it for Derek Attler. Without his pumpkins, he had nothing left. Since Gloria died, everything good in his life had vanished. If he could just win the godforsaken blue ribbon at the county fair, then Derek could leave this world. But how could he do it? He went over to visit his horses, who had been curiously watching his tantrum from the fence line. They were the only friends he had in the world and maybe they could bring him some comfort and reassurance, the way Gloria used to do. Ol’ Midnight just nodded and whinnied toward the driveway, where a rickety horse-drawn wagon was approaching with a hunched old driver and a small covered load.

The driver pulled to a stop not far from where Derek stood, and there he waited motionless. Midnight took off like he was spooked by something unseen and ran to the other corner of his yard. Derek started to make his way toward the stranger and his wagon.

The wagon looked like it came from a different time, like it had been through the storm of the century and in some places, like it had been on fire more than once. The horse pulling the wagon was a majestic creature, blacker than Midnight. It stamped and dragged its hooves on the ground like it was in a hurry to carry the dark stranger off to other important business.

The stranger was old, older perhaps than anyone Derek Attler had ever seen. The old man cleared his raspy throat and Derek’s heart skipped a beat. He suddenly found himself afraid and wished he was holding a weapon. Still he continued approaching the old stranger, his curiosity taking complete control. The cloaked old man turned and looked at Derek. His face was wrinkled as the stones at the quarry and almost a solid shade of white. His eyes were bloodshot to the point of almost pure redness. His mouth opened into a painfully wide grin, revealing several missing teeth. The man slowly reached out a vile and bony hand toward Derek Attler, looking for a shake.

A handshake was everything where Derek was from, and he wasn’t about to shy away from this one. Hoping the old man didn’t have some contagious leprosy, he reached out and clasped the white hand. Firm shake, his daddy had always said. When Derek clasped this hand, he swore he felt bones cracking beneath his grip, but the old man revealed no pain or discomfort.

The stranger spoke his name simply in a voice that would haunt Derek’s dreams for decades. “They call me Scratch,” he said.

“Wagon’s worse for the wear I see,” Derek replied to Scratch, attempting to break the old man’s awful gaze. It didn’t work. Scratch laughed and coughed, but kept staring with his piercing red eyes deep into Derek. “Alright,” he said, “what you got for me old man?”

“Pumpkin seeds,” said Scratch. “But not just any pumpkin seeds. These are the pumpkin seeds you been waitin’ for boy.”

“Alright,” said Derek. “I figure one of the guys from the feed store put you up to this. I’ll take your damned pumpkin seeds. How much?”

There was a pause that lasted a long, long time, then a cold wind blew over the fields, causing Derek to shiver to his core. Finally Scratch spoke. “Your immortal soul.”

Derek wanted to laugh, but he couldn’t find the energy. Instead he replied “Fine, friend, but you’ll have to guarantee these seeds will make the biggest pumpkins anyone in these parts have ever seen.”

Scratch chuckled and spoke again. “A hard bargain, boy, but throw in your favorite horse and you got a deal.”

Derek Attler reached out and clasped the bony and nightmarish hand once again. As soon as he did, there was a flash of powerful blinding lightning and the loudest thunderclap he’d ever heard. Then the stranger and the wagon were gone. He was all alone, and in his hand were six pumpkin seeds. Assuming he was in some kind of dream, he walked over to the garden field where his desecrated pumpkins were strewn, tossed the seeds onto the ground and kicked some dirt on top of them, sealing his eternal fate.

The years turned into decades and the decades faded into the past. Some old farmers still tell stories of the magnificent pumpkins grown by ol’ Derek Attler and how he sold his soul to the devil. The old mansion was later built on the little hill and since deserted. They say that under the old mansion’s porch is where Derek first sowed those evil pumpkin seeds. They say that he still haunts those grounds, a headless ghost carrying pumpkins forever. He rides the horse that was part of the bargain and his only friend, Midnight, and only the devil knows when the Headless Horticulturist will be free.

The Haunted Mansion is a set of modular NFTs currently for sale in the Town Star store. Each comes with in-game benefits (Passive oil and more), and each is eligible for Town Star Play-to-Earn daily rewards!