The Unktomi of Middletown: A Thanksgiving Tale of Mystery and Adventure

The Unktomi of Middletown: A Thanksgiving Tale of Mystery

November 25, 1987

A thick soupy fog hangs over Middletown Lake, obscuring the shoreline. From the shadows, a lone shifting figure emerges, changing from a towering lanky form to a wide and spindly one. Suddenly, it crouches down to pull a huge clump of webbing from thorny bushes with long bristled fingers. Piercing red eyes glare as eight hairy legs move in for a closer look. Nearby, a raven caws, warning nearby animals. Twins Jenny and Jason Greenwood ride their bikes to school nearby, unaware of the red-eyed creature watching from the shadows.

It is Big Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. That means a half-day of school before a long weekend. Jenny and Jason are looking forward to three days of saving princesses on Dragon Quest and Zelda, and one day eating mashed potatoes and cheesecake. They think it beats Christmas. On the way out the door of their classroom, Ms. Grace, their fifth-grade class teacher, hands the departing children a large envelope.

“School photos,” she repeats robotically. “Wait till you get them at home. Have a great Thanksgiving. School photos. Wait till you get them home. Have a great Thanksgiving.”

The weather has gotten cool, almost cold. The pictures were taken on a hot and humid day way back in the second week of school and then forgotten. The photos are forgotten again as the kids rush to the basement to play Zelda.

“If I made this game, the princess wouldn’t need saving,” Jenny says. “It would be a dumb prince instead.”

“Yeah, as if,” Jason responds. “Who would want to save a prince if he’s that dumb?”

They have only made it to the second dungeon when the phone rings in the kitchen. The kids are too far away to hear the conversation, but Mom calls for them shortly after.

“Jennifer! Jason.”

“C’mon Mom,” Jenny yells. “We just started.”

“She said Jen-ni-fer. Not good,” Jason whispers.

“Fine. Pause it,” Jenny orders before running out of the basement with her brother right behind her.

“Who was on the phone?” Jason asks as soon as he’s in the same room as Mom.

“Mrs. Johnson,” their mother Hilary responds. “She says I need to look at your school photos. Right away. Can I see’em?”

Jason finds his backpack and pulls them out carelessly, bending the envelope.

“Carefully, Jason,” Mom responds. “We gotta give them to grandma tomorrow.”

At the same time, Jennifer takes hers out of the bag slowly, making sure she doesn’t bend them.

Mom looks at Jennifer’s pictures first. Cute smile. Eyes open. Long hair straight down over her shoulders. Glasses off. Looks good.

“You look like a dweeb,” Jason laughs.

For that, he earns a punch on the shoulder from his sister.

Mom sets Jenny’s photo aside and moves on to Jason’s. It doesn’t take long before a look of horror takes over her face. “What in the name of?” she mutters.

Jason leans in, and his eyes widen. In his photo, Jason faces slightly to the right. His outfit is on point. The smile is a bit wonky but still passable. His short hair combed to one side looks as good as it can, but the hair isn’t the issue. The issue is his ear. In his school photo, his left ear has been removed and replaced with more skin. From the looks of it, the skin has been copied and pasted from his forehead.

“I have no ear,” Jason exclaims.

Jenny laughs. “A dweeb? You look like a Q-tip.”

“Why is it like that mom,” Jason asks, ignoring his sister. “Where’s my ear? Why did they take my ear off? That’s so weird.”

“It’s psycho,” Mom follows. “Grandma won’t want this picture. No offense Jason.”

“None taken,” Jason responds with a smile. He has always wanted to say that.

Mom runs back to the phone hung from the wall, its long red wire nearly dragging on the ground.

“Who are you calling?” Jenny asks, examining her own picture, wondering if her hair is supposed to hang down like a curtain or if the photographer removed her ear too.

“Yeah, exactly how you describe it,” Mom says to someone on the phone, probably Mrs. Johnson. “Nobody has any ears. Let’s go. Gather the team.”

She hangs up.

“Into the Caravan, kids. Bring the envelope with the address.”

The three climb into the van and head to Bernard’s A+ Photography Studio.

“I look so creepy,” Jason exclaims from the back seat, looking at the photo on the way to the studio.

“You do not,” Mom turns around and grabs it from his hand. “The PTA’s gonna get your ear back kiddo.”

“But can the PTA help me unsee Jason’s weird face?” Jenny laughs. “Or save me from any future nightmares of my uneared brother.”

She gets no response.

Bernard’s A+ Photography Studio is housed in the building that was the former home of the Middletown fire station. It still looks mostly like it did except for a new sign, and the fifty confused and angry moms huddled outside with their kids.

“I see him in there,” They hear one mom say as they pull up.

Jennifer and Jason’s mother finds Mrs. Johnson.

Their kids hang out awkwardly. No ear? Yeah, no ear.

In Middletown, the PTA is more powerful than the police. While a few parents bang on the oversized garage doors, a window above them bursts open. A man with hair like a badger pokes his head out and shouts.

“Look ye, look ye. Unktomi will destroy us all Look ye -“

“Excuse me. Excuse me, Bernard.” Hillary interrupts coldly. “As president of the PTA, we need you to quit the poetry and let us in.”

“Who is Unktomi?” Jason whispers to Jennifer, who shrugs.

“Kids stay out here,” their mom tells them before all the parents head in. The kids move to the window to watch.

Inside, Bernard slides down the fireman’s pole. He greets everyone with a welcoming smile as if they actually want to be there. He has a dozen folding chairs lined up and a table with freshly poured apple cider. The moms are not into the cider idea nor sitting.

“Have a seat,” Bernard insists, apparently unable to read a room.

“What have you done with our kids’ ears,” a mom calls out, holding up a photo of her earless daughter. “What is the meaning of this?”

“Does this have to do with voodoo?” asks another.

“Voodoo?” Bernard answers. “No. No, it has nothing to do with voodoo. Please sit.”

Some parents do reluctantly, hoping it will help to get the show on the road.

“We don’t have time for this. We have stuffing to make and pies to prepare,” Hillary says.

“My pumpkin pie. Ah, I left my pumpkin pie in the oven!” Someone in the back yells before quickly exiting.

Hilary continues. “We need our kids’ ears back now.”

“I know your time is valuable, and I look like a crazy person, I have no choice but to hold your kids’ photos hostage. How else can I get anyone to listen to me?” Bernard explains. “I need your help. There is something potentially dangerous here in Middletown nobody is talking about. I asked the police. I asked the mayor. They wouldn’t help me, but you must.”

“Okay, spill it,” Mrs. Johnson yells out. Not paying attention to her son watching from the window behind her.

“Something is eating all the ducks and geese up at Middletown Pond,” Bernard says. “I go there to take pictures and have for years,” Bernard says. “Normally, there are hundreds of birds. It’s a migrating destination, but not anymore. They’ve gone missing. I needed to know what was afoul, so I went before dawn before dawn. That’s when I saw it. That’s when I first saw the Unktomi.”

“Unktomi?” Hillary questions. “You’re saying it like we know what that means.”

The kids watching and listening outside repeat the word. Unktomi.

“The Unktomi is a beast the Lakota described as a giant spider,” Bernard says. “This one is different. Our Unktomi is half half-human spider. Not exactly half and half. It’s mostly spider, but it’s massive.”

“I hate spiders,” one mom calls out, bored with the conversation. “You know what I don’t hate? Pictures of my wonderful kids with their ears.”

“You want pictures?” Bernard says with a sigh. He walks over to a table picks up a stack of photos as big as the phone book and throws it into the air. The photos separate and flutter all around them, but they are not photos of their kids.

“That Unktomi ate all the geese and almost all the ducks,” Bernard protests. “What happens when it’s out of food at the pond? It’s gonna wander into town. Cats. Dogs. Kids. What then? Then all you’ll have left are those stupid pictures of your kids. Get it?”

The kids outside listening get it. Jenny and Jason share a horrified look.

One of the photos slides under the garage door and lands right at Jenny’s foot. She picks it up. It’s a photo of Middletown Pond on a beautiful morning, but the focus of the image is a giant spider with two human legs in sneakers and a nasty black and yellow torso. The remaining six legs are all spider. In the photo, the car-sized beast carries a dead goose in its mouth.

That lives in our town?” a girl says behind them, and suddenly the kids get loud. Everyone wants a better look. Inside, the same thing is happening as they finally see what the Unktomi is.

Bernard yells out the old Lakota poem. “Look Ye, Look ye, Unktomi will destroy us all. Look ye, Look ye. Unktomi lives among us. Only the PTA can protect us.”

A mom in the back says, “It has sneakers. Reeboks.”

Bernard says, collecting the photos, “It’s running out of food.”

“I hate spiders,” Mrs. Johnson comments. “If you think I’m gonna go after a giant spider, you’re crazy. Why don’t you kill it, Bernard?”

“It’s partially human,” Bernard says.

“Don’t complicate it,” Mrs. Johnson follows. “I just want my son’s photo with his ear.”

“Yeah, what she said,” says another.

Bernard eventually relents and gives back the photos, murmuring the same poem, “Look ye look ye” under his breath.

Outside, Jenny takes the photo of the spider and puts it into her pocket.

They go back home. Mom doesn’t say one word about the Unktomi. All she can say is how wonderful both her kids look in the new photos.

The following day, Thanksgiving, Jenny and Jason fearing the hunger of the beast, sneak what is left of the turkey and its carcass into their backpacks. Together, they ride their bikes up the old village road until it dead-ends at the pond.

They are surprised to find a brand new tall chain-link fence completely surrounding the pond and the encircling woods. A sign is posted:

“By Direction of the Middletown PTA, the Middletown Pond is closed for public use until further notice.”

Jason removes the backpack, now reeking of Thanksgiving dinner. He takes out the turkey carcass and places it in a small, makeshift catapult stationed by the fence. With a quick pull of the lever, the turkey carcass is launched over the fence. They are stunned to find their offering is not the only one. On the other side, there are a half dozen turkeys; raw ones, frozen ones, and some just bones on the ground. There are even some side dishes and a burnt pumpkin pie lying about as if others had the same idea of using contraptions to send food to the monster.

The siblings stand quietly at the fence, frozen in curiosity. After nearly a minute, they shrug, but just at that moment, trees shake. They scream and jump on their bikes as a crow caws at their hasty retreat.

Since that Thanksgiving, Middletown’s children have had the solemn duty of keeping the Unktomi fed and happy. They know not to let the food run short. Keeping the monster happy with snacks has become an important job. Some leave little notes with their offerings, wanting to be friends with the curious critter/monster. The beast keeps their secret as long as they keep it fed – this is the deal made to protect their homes and prevent it from destroying them all.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Kevin Marshall says:

    This series has me hooked! And this story reminds me of goosebumps I read as a kid. even without pictures you feel the mystery and fear.

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