Chat-your-own-Adventure #15: The Hog does Birthdays

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Seedy POV                          Spoiled Rotten POV                               Sky Writer POV

It was the autumn. My sixteenth birthday approached rapidly on the horizon. As the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in all of the town of Tinstar, my party was to be quite the event. Not only would it certainly get written up in the local paper’s society and culture section, but my birthday, as it did every year, fell upon the night prior to Halloween.

At the time, though many would describe my position as enviable, I was as loved as the biggest most colorful floats in our annual harvest parade, that was not the truth. On the inside I was a horrid person, all pickle juice and rattlesnake venom. I was lovely to look at, superbly decorated in all public situations, but my attitude towards anyone moldered the moment I heard dissent.

Already I was not feeling very hospitable. The sun was sinking, my party was just two days out, and it was intolerably hot despite the low level of orange light. My father wanted to leave me in the car, with the windows cracked like I was some sort of lapdog, but I insisted on following him. He was out in the middle of nowhere on official party business after all.

I regretted my decision the moment my shoes hit the grass and dry orange soil, but nobody would ever hear that. My father, a tall man but one with the spine of a deep sea eel brought to the surface so fast that it was instantly jellied, pulled me along by the hand.

I thought we were going into the man’s house, but the lights were out in the filthy windows, so he pulled me through the backyard, past a tire swing on a cracked branch dipping into a puddle, and towards the man’s fields.

He grew sunflowers. He grew more sunflowers than I’d ever seen. He stood there admiring them, calling to us without looking back. My father stalled for a moment and I ran into the back of his knees. He was wearing khaki shorts and his golf shoes, because he’d picked me up after practice with his friends, which consisted of a round of nine and then a round of six (beers).

He moved forward hesitantly. The other man wore filthy overalls. He had thick work gloves on and small scratches all over his hairy arms. He stared out into the sunflowers.

There somethin’ I can do ya for?” he asked. He cracked a seed between his teeth and spit out the hull. Krik.

Yes,” my father started. He extended his hand to shake, but the other man didn’t reciprocate. “My name is Harvey Symbal; this is my daughter Allegra.” I heard my name, so I smiled, but the sunflower man, Sunflower Seedy I would eventually learn was his nick-name, didn’t even look at me. “Allegra’s birthday is coming up, it’s the day before Halloween, and we’re setting up a corn and pumpkin maze for her party. We’re hiring performers to, well you know, jump out of the stalks and scare everyone.”

What led you to believe I was a performer?” Seedy asked. Krik. He expelled another hull, like a shell casing from a shotgun.

Not you,” my father explained. His hand was getting sweaty, so I let go and wandered closer to the sea of golden flowers. “I heard there was someone you… work with. Someone who would be very good at scaring people. I want only the most atmospheric fun for this event, there may be a reporter or two there, so I thought I’d come here. I can offer a few hundred dollars for his services.”

Seedy Whistles                            Seedy Points                     Seedy gets a Bullhorn

How much is a few?” Seedy asked. Krik.

I was thinking three for the night’s work,” my father offered. Seedy’s face scrunched up, but in a way that seemed mildly impressed. He held up a finger, telling us to stay put, and walked back to his garage. He came back with a bullhorn, something emblazoned with the logo of a local sports team that no longer existed: the Tinstar Troublemakers. He fiddled with it, smacking the side until it crackled noisily. Then he coughed into it.

Cauldron! Cauldron get your ass out here! Now!” He lowered the horn and waited, as did we. About a minute later the stalks of the sunflowers parted, making way for a truly hideous creature. Cauldron was the name of a domestic hog, thickly furred, black and white, with tusks the size of lipstick sticking out at different angles. The animal snorted and then dropped onto its side, flies buzzing about the swell of its enormous gut.

This… this is Cauldron?” my father asked. “It’s funny…” he rubbed his lips back and forth under his sweating hand. “I thought that was a nick-name for a person. The way everybody else talked about this thing…”

Yeah, we get that a lot,” Seedy said. “We call him that cuz o’ his big dark belly there. Folks talk about him that way cuz he’s real smart. We don’t even know where his stock came from. Something escaped from somewhere. His type aren’t fit for food or sniffing anything out.”

I heard Cauldron was… terrifying. This is a very impressive animal, but I’m not really afraid. What good would he be at the party?”

It’s not Halloween yet,” Seedy said, as if that explained everything. “He’s real smart, and he’s an animal. He’s got those natural instincts for supernatural stuff. Knows when ghosts are around. There’s bound to be some at your party if you’re throwing a bunch of kids into a bunch of corn. He’s like a tour guide for the spirit world.”

What’s the bullhorn for?” I asked, moving over to the pig and petting his flank. He smelled terrible, as if he’d been lying on a mattress of black banana peels for a few nights. I rubbed my hand in the dirt to clean it. I was beginning to suspect this was a waste of our time. My family wasn’t very religious, we only went to church in order to shake hands with the holy people and be seen putting charity into golden dishes, so we didn’t put much stock in stories like Seedy’s, especially when there was no handsome savior involved.

Cauldron’s near deaf,” Seedy explained, “but he can hear ghosts just fine.”

Offer Rescinded                         Offer Accepted                           Proof Requested

I’ve got to be honest,” my father said with a hiss, the same one he had when he was haggling over wristwatches or alligator boots, “I might need some proof for three hundred. Can you get him to do something? Anything spooky. We’ve got some ghouls in make-up and some great animatronic things set up too, so there’s not a lot of pressure on the pig, but still…”

Proof?” Krik. “You’ll have to wait. Ghosts don’t come out ’til it’s dark. Ya should know that my man.”

Oh well of course,” my father said, as if he’d caught as many ghosts as he had small mouth bass. “We can’t really wait; the wife nearly has dinner ready for us.” More haggling. Mother never cooked. When she did it came out of a box and winded up way blacker and crispier than it was supposed to.

Alright…” Seedy said, some half-formed idea sloshing around in the leaky ale cask of his brain. “We just go somewhere dark then. There’s a kiddy pool over here.” He raised the bullhorn. “Cauldron! Cauldron come here!” The pig looked at him, ears as floppy as a dopey dog’s, but he obeyed, rising onto his short legs and tan cracked hooves with much effort. He waddled. I followed behind everybody. At this point I was probably more invested in the proof than my father. If Maggie Trieber found out I had a hoax of a spirit-sniffing pig at my party I would never live it down, at least until I graduated high school and learned what a crab apple I’d been up to that point.

Around the side of the house we hadn’t been to yet there was in fact a kiddy pool, drained of water, with one of its sides collapsed and cracked. There were smiling goldfish along its side. I remember thinking that was so small-minded of Mr. Sunflower Seedy. If you could afford a pool in the first place you could afford a more adventurous theme: swordfish, sea serpents, or the mighty kraken. Instead they had goldfish. It was a bold claim that they could make the mundane shine like treasure. Then again, that was what he was claiming with the gargantuan hog that was supposed to frighten and entertain my guests.

Seedy grabbed the pool by one side, pouring out a puddle of green-brown water and wriggling mosquito larva. He flipped it upside down and held one end up. He waved Cauldron under it with the bullhorn, and the pig ambled into the darkness. Then he waved my father in.

Oh… I suppose I will have to go in there then.” He slowly dropped to his hands and knees and crawled under the kiddy pool. What criminal action Seedy was capable of at that point was unclear, but father didn’t want to leave me ‘out there’ alone with the man. He asked if I wanted to join. Curiosity got the better of me and I crawled in as well. As soon as both of us were in the deep end Seedy dropped it, shutting out most of the light and sound.

My father and I faced Cauldron. The pig once again dropped to his belly and sighed through his nose. We didn’t know what the next step was; I was about to smack the top and ask Seedy to turn the damn pig on so we could get the show on the road.

Cauldron! Show ’em a ghost!” he shouted through the bullhorn. “Show ’em a ghost and you’ll get mac and cheese tonight.” The pig’s ears perked up. Its snout moved back and forth ove the ground like a metal detector.

Phantom Livestock                      Phantom Insects                     Phantom Geezer

I looked back and forth between the tusks of Cauldron and my father’s eyes. Any moment now he would start to suspect he was being played for a fool. It would show up in his eyes like a pie to the face and it would stay there for days, like the time he’d been tricked into purchasing a jet ski missing its engine. It didn’t matter to me; there was always more money (until there wasn’t).

Cauldron found something. He inched forward, dragging his hairy belly, forcing us to put our backs against one side. He kept coming, so we had to lift the pool an inch off the ground and scuttle in whatever direction he chose to maintain the darkness. It was quite the exercise; my thighs were on fire by the time he stopped and dug at a patch of ground with no grass.

We stared at it, ready to get our money’s worth. This was when I became convinced I was going to have the most memorable party in the history of the town and possibly the county. I would no longer be as popular as one of the floats in the parade, but the very subject of one. Allegra Symbal: the girl with the ghost-sniffing pig. Upon my first sight of ethereal blue hairs I was already contemplating purchasing the animal wholesale.

We gasped as the hairs rose out of the dirt and revealed themselves as attached to a bald head covered in dried flesh. The whole thing was blue and lit internally. We could see Cauldron through the back of its head, but the pig, having done its job, had already flopped, bored, onto its side.

Hello?” my father addressed the spectral head. Cloaked as I was in wealth, I had no fear of anything. I reached out to touch it, only to find my hand pass straight through it. Its eyes were pin pricks of light, and its mouth moved open and closed, displaying varying numbers of teeth each time, but it produced no speech. “Oh I see. This is some sort of hologram. It’s a trick.”

It’s the best trick I’ve ever seen,” I contested.

Oh well yes of course. We’re still hiring the man and the pig. I’m just impressed with how far they take their characters. This is going to drive the whole neighborhood wild. Can you keep it a secret for two more days honey?” I nodded. Of course I could; I was better at keeping secrets than he was. He didn’t even know that I didn’t respect him yet.

Sunflower Seedy knocked on the top of the pool three times and asked if we were satisfied. At the sound, the head of the ghostly geezer slipped back into the ground. My father stood, gently lifting the kiddy pool and lowering it back to its proper bottom. Cauldron stayed where he was, happy to see his flies return.

It’s a deal,” my father said with a beaming smile. He brought out one hundred dollars as a deposit and told Seedy he could have the other two upon the end of the party when he corralled Cauldron out of the maze. He offered his hand again, and this time they shook. Even for a con I thought Seedy was under-charging. That pig could’ve had a movie by then; I’d already seen three different talking pig films in the last two years.

Fright in the Maze             Anger at the Snacks                 Mystery in the Truck

It was another two days before I saw that occult pig once more. I was often involved in every detail of the plans for my various parties, but my parents insisted on taking that right from me on my birthdays (which seems particularly stupid because on that day it was a birthright). They wanted everything to be a surprise, at least in terms of its actual timing.

The cake had already been cut and I had already opened all of my gifts. Only about a quarter of them were duplicates or disappointments, and I could say much the same thing about the friends and acquaintances that had purchased them. I digress. It was the designated ‘fun’ portion of the evening. The focus was off of me and onto the corn maze my parents had rented out for us and our sixty-five guests.

I was in the midst of the maze, fully aware that there were two possible exits. There were three if you backtracked to the entrance, but that came with shame. People assumed you couldn’t handle the fear my parents had sprinkled throughout. The night had already claimed two younger boys who reemerged with stains on their trousers because the ghouls amidst the corn were a little too good at their jobs.

I was not alone. None other than Maggie Trieber was by my side. Our parents had partnered us and sent us into the maze. We’d encountered the ghouls already, as well as a few mechanized pop-up poltergeists, but neither of us had screamed. We tested each other, looking for a loose thread we could turn into gossip. That was the sort of teenager I was. Maggie still is that, and I honestly can’t tell you if I miss it or not.

The darkness was nearly complete, with only tiny yellow lights marking the paths, like glowing seed hulls spit out by the moon. Maggie and I walked evenly, because walking behind the other was a sign of cowardice. We both spotted Cauldron as he ambled across our path. So far he had proven underwhelming, but my father had neglected to give any instructions on how to use the pig. I still remembered from our first visit. I wanted to know if Maggie could handle a ghost.

Cauldron!” I shouted at the pig to get his attention. His fat head turned in my direction, his fleshy snout wiggling. “Find us a ghost!” I pointed forward. He immediately turned in the direction and waddled. I grabbed Maggie by the hand and pulled her along. I wasn’t scared. I knew the routine; it would just be a few seconds of a ghostly old head chastising us with its eyes. Then we would see who was braver.

We rounded a corner and found the hog digging furiously. He’d broken through the bottom of a cheap decorative coffin, and it was only then that I realized how big the beast actually was. Hundreds of pounds most likely. His tusks shone brighter than his eyes. His hooves tossed splintered pieces of wood aside as dirt poured into the air. I covered my nose with my sleeve.

Maggie’s hand trembled in mine. The wind had changed. It howled. Bit at us, battered the corn. What was different? Had the kiddy pool created some sort of seal that tamed the occult forces? This was not going to just be a head in the ground, like an idiot posing for a beach picture. This was an entire ghost. A ghost with limbs. A ghost with designs.

Spoiled Girl Ghost                      Giant Pig Ghost                         Shadowy Demon

Cauldron, having done his job, flopped over onto his side. Black claws, too black to reflect any light, supported something over the side of the hog’s belly. Cauldron paid it no mind as it crawled over him. Maggie screamed bloody murder and ran, but I was frozen to the spot. How nice it would’ve been to leave that maze with nothing but a wet spot on the front of my birthday dress.

This wasn’t a ghost. I don’t know if I should call it a demon; it felt more natural than that. It was a thing of darkness, a thing hibernating like a seed, waiting for the right stimulus to sprout. Cauldron forced it out, forced it to make a decision.

It had a snaking neck of impenetrable smoke and a face like a tadpole, if tadpoles always looked like they were asphyxiating and remembering the deaths of their thousands of children. It grabbed my shoulders. I could feel it. This was no trick, no hologram. The geezer was just an observer, someone poking their head out of their grave to see if the world had gotten any better or worse.

This thing had been freed rather than addressed. I thought I was safe. It was my party, my cornfield, my guests, but I was alone now and the corn was finally registering as a hiding place for the ancient creatures of the world.

It opened my mouth and crawled inside. I stood there in the moonlight, in the cheap light of my father’s decorations, and felt nothing but tears in my eyes. Eventually feeling returned to my fingers, then toes, and then the rest of my body. I stumbled forward and collapsed against the rising and falling gut of Cauldron.

Why did you do this to me?” I asked the pig, but he was nearly deaf. I think he thought we were friends. It’s just as well. I never meant the beast any harm, despite the thing now living inside me. It has taught me things over the years, even as its veil of terrible luck has drained my family’s weath and standing. I have seen my own soul standing next to it. I could see its similar darkness, its selfishness.

It convinced me to change, to grow. I had to be a better person to provide a comfortable home for it, like the nutritious soil that had grown the corn. If I hadn’t it would’ve grown uncomfortable and clawed its way out, with no Cauldron to trigger it.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be rid of it, but I know better now. I know these things, these spirits, are all about us, and they don’t appreciate being disturbed. Better to be humble. Better to not make a show of the animals that sense these things, because you’ll only make a show of yourself.

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