Kristi Petersen Schoonover

Screams of Autumn

Emily had just slid a pan of pumpkin seeds in the oven when she heard a scream from outside.

She peered through the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked three acres of tangled woods. Now, on the second weekend of October, they were a brilliant tapestry of yellows, greens, and rusts.

“Ryan,” she called to her husband. “Did you hear that?”

He was a quiet man who liked his easy chair and his books. “Hear what?”

“A scream. I heard a scream. Out there, somewhere.”

“Probably the neighborhood kids.”

The nearest children were at the other end of the block, and they were forbidden to play in the woods.

Again, she heard the scream, the piercing shriek of someone impaled. She hugged her long sweater housecoat close. “You don’t hear it? God, it’s awful.”

“It’s probably a fox or something. Making a kill. The woods are full of pheasant this time of year.”

She heard the creak of his chair; he came up behind her, wrapped his arms around her waist, and kissed her on the neck. He smelled like burnt chocolate and pine. “Why don’t we go for a ride? It’d be a nice day to go up to the Corn Maze.”

“The one we did last year?”

“Yes.” His hand moved beneath her sweater and caressed her breast. “Maybe we can fool around in the sunflowers again.”

At this time last year, his touch had excited her. Since then, it was all she could do to sometimes get up every day, let alone want him. “I’d like to see the maze,” she said. “But I don’t know if I want to…do anything. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”

Ryan pulled away from her, then reached for her hair, brushed it away from her cheek. “I understand.” He kissed the top of her head. “I’ll get your coat.”

He left her. Out there, something screamed.


Under the periwinkle sky, the browning stalks of corn tugged at her knit hat. Ryan fingered the map. “Come on.” He held out his hand. “It looks like we should go this way to get to the center.”
In the distance, she heard those same screams she’d heard at home.

“I hear it again.”

He turned to face her and set his hands on her shoulders. A corner of the map tickled her neck. “There’s kids playing in the pumpkin patch. I saw them when we came in.”

“It’s not children. It isn’t.”

Ryan smashed his mouth into a firm line. “Do you not want to do this anymore? Let’s go have some cider instead.”

But she knew the cider wasn’t going to make her feel better.


Dusk fell. Ryan set two pumpkins in the trunk and they headed for home.

As they bumped and jostled their way over the winding dirt road, Ryan marveled at the spectacle. “These leaves are so beautiful. The bright pinks and the oranges, and their nutty smell. It’s amazing they’re dying.”

“What?” She looked at him. Unlike Ryan, who had moved here from Florida, she had lived in New England all her life and had never thought about what the leaves were actually doing. “Is that what’s happening?”

“Sure. It makes sense. Right? They need light to live. And now they’re not getting enough. So basically, it’s like they’re starving to death.”

She didn’t answer, because what he’d said sounded like something her friend Sue, a poet who wrote a lot about nature, would say.

God, she missed Sue.

A gust of wind set loose a rain of yellow leaves, and a hail of tortured screams filled her head. She jammed her palms over her ears. “Ouch!”

Ryan was so startled the car jerked as he tapped the brakes. “What?”

“Oh my God it hurts! The screaming!”

Ryan pulled the car into the shoulder, which was just a narrow strip of grass bordering a burbling, swollen creek.

Emily writhed in her seat, and then the screams began to lessen and finally, stop. She heard only one scream now, and she was able to open her eyes and uncover her ears in time to see a single leaf plummet to the windshield.

The scream stopped abruptly as soon as it landed.

Wide-eyed, she shifted in her seat and seized Ryan’s forearm. “Oh my God it’s the leaves! The leaves are screaming! They’re screaming as they die!

Ryan’s brow furrowed and their eyes met. She could see that he believed her, but he looked so sad.

She burst into tears. “Oh, Ryan, please make it stop!”

“Calm down. Just calm down.”

For a few minutes, all she could hear were her own sobs, the pressure of them mounting behind her eyes, in her head. Every few seconds, she heard another, distant scream.

“Ems.” Ryan set his warm hand on her back. “Ems, do you need to go back to the doctor?”

She calmed and hiccupped a few times, then looked up at him.

There was fear in his eyes.

“No.” She leaned against him. “Let’s just go home.”

He settled one arm around her, and she pressed her hands over her ears and knew that no quantity of Risperdal, Zyprexa or Seroquel was going to erase her memory of what had happened last year.


Emily had always loved haunted houses—the cheesy kind, where half the ghouls and goblins were seventeen-year-olds making eight bucks an hour to cover their faces with fake blood.
“It’ll be so totally fun!” She’d convinced her friend Sue to come with her. This particular house had been on the grounds of the Washington Irving house in Sleepy Hollow, and held the promise of Headless Horsemen and nineteenth-century style spooks.

When they arrived, a line of giant burning pumpkin-headed scarecrows on poles sent sparks into the freakishly dry night; they led to the opening of a large tent, its mouth glowing pale orange and gold. “Come on, come on!” Emily tugged on Sue’s arm.

Sue stopped, frowned, and pulled on one of her braids. “I…think I’m having second thoughts.”
“Stop!” Emily laughed, taking her handbag and settling it on an opposite shoulder so it hung across her body. “Quit it. It’s just a bunch of kids.”

They presented their tickets, entered the tent, and screamed, howled, and fell back on each other through the tight corridors of mummies and vampires, coffins and werewolves. Screams from the people behind them seemed to get louder the deeper into the labyrinth they went.

They threaded through a narrow hall which dead-ended in a room decorated to simulate an ancient forest; piles of leaves huddled around a simulated bonfire. Emily smelled something—something that didn’t seem right. Like burning rubber tires and paint thinner. She felt a rattle in her chest, and every breath brought with it a stab of pain.

A man cloaked as a Druid extended his arms and reached toward them. “Get out!” he commanded. “Get out! Get out!”

Emily heard Sue scream as the figure began to shove her out the way they’d entered.

Just then the wall to her right burst into flame, and in one fatal moment she understood that this was not part of the attraction: the place was on fire. “Get down!” She yelled to Sue. She hit the ground as flames shot over her head, and she felt her back burning. Don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic, she thought. The room was filled with thick black and gray smoke, and she didn’t know where the exit was. Ahead of her, then, she could see a sliver of bright light under the wall, as though someone were beaming a flashlight at where it met the ground; the tent fabric was moving. Crawl there, crawl there…

She did everything she could to suppress the scream that throttled her whole body. She heard
Sue, calling her. “Emily! Don’t leave me!”

No, no, she thought, I can’t, I’m sorry, I have to keep crawling toward the light…

She felt a pair of strong hands pulling her, pulling out from under the tent wall. “Put her out!” Someone was screaming. Then, more noises, a consistent thwucking as her back was flogged with a coat, or maybe a blanket.

“You’re lucky, lady,” a man’s voice said. “You’re lucky you got out. We’ll take you to the hospital, just wait here.”

The tent was completely consumed, and fiery tatters of cloth drifted to the ground. The world spun and her back hurt and she listened, listened to the screams of people burning to death, knowing that some of those screams belonged to Sue.


Ryan and Emily got home just after dark, and the skeletal trees that huddled their house were ablaze in flashing red lights: fire trucks were parked on the lawn.

“Oh, my God.” Ryan barely stopped the car before he leapt out. “Stay there, honey. Do NOT come out.”

Emily huddled beneath her sweater and closed her eyes, refusing to look, repeating the grateful’s Rosary: we weren’t home, we don’t have pets, no one got hurt, we have insurance. But soon she couldn’t resist and turned to look.

Her house was still standing—in fact, it looked like nothing had happened, at least on the outside it appeared that way—and she saw Ryan, a shadow charging up the hill to talk to one of the men in the sooty gray coat of the town fire department. Three other men were recoiling the fat white worm of the hose.

Ryan got back into the car.

She opened the passenger door, leaned over, and threw up. Ryan rubbed her back.

When she’d finished, Ryan said, “As soon as they’re gone, we’ll go inside. There wasn’t a lot of damage. The security system alerted the fire company. They only had to break the window to get in. But the house stinks like smoke.”

“What happened?” It hurt when she talked. A dry, cracked, I-can’t-say-a-word-without-hacking cough exploded from her chest in spasms of pain.

Ryan didn’t answer right away, and she looked at him, watched his Adam’s Apple move as he swallowed. When he turned to her, she thought she could see tears in his eyes, and quietly, he said, “It was the seeds you were toasting. You forgot to shut off the oven before we left.”

Saliva filled her mouth. She was going to be sick again. “I did. I did.”

“You didn’t!”

She leaned out the door again, waiting for it to come. In the past year, he’d never risen his voice to her. “Don’t yell at me. I’m…I’m still recovering, you know that.”

She heard him get out of the car.


But he was up the cement front steps and in the house.

She followed, and stopped when she got to the threshold, because the smell of burning stopped her. It was an earthy smell, like mold and unemptied ashtrays.

“Nice, right?” Ryan threw his keys on the mail table. “This is what happens when you don’t get help.”

“The drugs didn’t work.” She could feel the bile coming up her throat again.

A wind whipped high through the trees and the screaming started again.

She shoved her hands over her ears.

Ryan came to the front door and yelled loud enough that she could hear him. “What is wrong with you? Ems, I have been patient. I have been more than patient. And this is what you do?”

“The last thing I would do is try to burn this house down!” She shouted. Her own voice sounded hollow. The wind howled, the screaming got worse, and when she opened her eyes, she caught a glimpse of Ryan at the top of the stairs, headed for their bedroom.

She tromped up after him, hands still over her ears. “Ryan!” She arrived in their bedroom in time to see him yank a suitcase from the bottom of their closet. She took her hands away from her ears, tentatively. The screaming was more distant; she slammed their bedroom door to keep it out. “What are you doing?”

He tossed the suitcase on the bed. “What I have to.” He unzipped the bag, went to the closet, and tossed her sweaters and pants, hangars and all, inside. “You’re going to the treatment center at Oak Towers.”

The horror of what was happening hit her, and she seized his arm. “Don’t! Please don’t. I can’t—”
He pulled away, opened her dresser and seized a handful of her bras and panties. “You are going. And I’m driving you there right now.”

“I am not going to that place!”

For a few moments all that was between them were the distant screams from outside.

“Fine.” He flipped the suitcase he’d been packing for her over and dumped its contents onto the bed. He opened the top drawer of his dresser and fisted three rolled-up pairs of socks and briefs and tossed them into the suitcase. Then he went to his closet and began to empty it of his clothes.

“Where are you going?”

“Away.” He pressed hard on the bag and zipped it closed. “I’ll call you.” He left the room and rushed down the stairs, the suitcase not all the way zipped and one pant leg dragging behind him.


But he was gone.

He’d left the door open, and the wind blew screaming, dying leaves in with it. Emily crushed her hands over her ears, sank to the carpet, and cried.


The screaming awoke her hours later. She wasn’t sure where she was at first; then she peered down at the open front door and could tell that she was in the upstairs foyer. Her neck throbbed—she’d fallen asleep leaning against the stair railing, and when she touched her forehead, she could feel the imprint of one of the spindles in her skin, a small round depression that hurt when she applied pressure.

The leaves were invading her home through the front door. They screamed as they scuttled in. “Stop!” She shrieked. “Stop!”

But the wind outside got stronger. More leaves swept inside.

She covered her ears, but could still hear them twisting and shrieking and dying. She raced down the stairs to find the leaves had taken over the first floor. They were a couple of inches deep in her kitchen, in her dining room. More came in. The wind got stronger.

The shrieking was so piercing now it was like needles in the center of her brain. “What do you want from me?” She screamed and stamped her foot. The leaves beneath her sole seemed to groan. “What do you WANT from me?”

And then, just like that, the wind stopped, and the leaves quieted. She stood completely still for a few moments, listening. She heard something that sounded like murmuring, like people in prayer in a room down the hall.

She took a deep breath, and her lungs burned.

And then she saw them, on the counter.

The wooden matches.

She waded through the layers of leaves to get to them.

She heard laughing. “Is this what you want?” she asked.

More giggling. It reminded her childhood, of the sounds she’d heard on her Hansel and Gretel record. “This is what you want, isn’t it?”

And then the screaming started again, in full force. She pulled the outer sleeve off the matches and lit one. “Here!” She tossed it into the layer in her kitchen.

The piles singed and sent small hot particles wisping to the ceiling.

The flames crawled up the walls.

She went into the dining room, through the hallway, up the stairs, striking matches, watching them burn, feeling the heat on her face, feeling the searing in her lungs.

Then she sat on her couch and watched everything burn and waited for the screaming to stop.

Kristi Petersen Schoonover is the author of the collection Admit One: Tales from Haunted Disney World, due from Pandora Ink books in 2010. She is the recipient of a Norman Mailer Writers Colony Fellowship Residency and serves as an editor for Read Short Fiction. Her website is