Jill wasn't the first girl who'd listened when Linus had shared stories of the Great Pumpkin. She wasn't even the first to join him in his pumpkin patch on Halloween. She was, however, the first who didn't get upset when the Great Pumpkin didn't appear. She merely shook her Raggedy Ann curls and said, "I'm fifteen. Way to old for trick or treating."
She was also the first to join him the next Halloween. By their third Halloween together, she made him dress up as Fred to her Wilma but even in costume they spent the night in the pumpkin patch. Linus, naturally, attended a local university; he wasn't about to leave his pumpkin patch behind. Jill studied at a nearby horticulture school and started working in her parents' florist shop. Nothing disrupted their tradition until their first year of marriage.
"Now that we're living in a house, I'd like to hand out candy to the trick or treaters."
"Oh." Linus couldn't find any other words. How could she betray the Great One like this? How could she spend the night mindlessly handing out candy when she could be rejoicing in the appearance of the Great Pumpkin?
"Hey," she said. "Don't give me that look."
She was smiling. How could she be smiling?
"I'll join you in the pumpkin patch after trick or treating's done."
"Oh. Of course. If that's what you want."
"Great. So, any ideas about costumes?"
He bit back a retort of you could be Benedict Arnold. "I hadn't given it much thought." That was true. The costumes were her thing. He didn't mind dressing up, but it made no difference to the Great Pumpkin.
The pumpkin patch in their backyard was smaller than his old one but Linus was sure it was even more sincere. The night was chillier than he'd expected and he regretted not bringing a jacket but maybe Jill would be upset if he covered up his milk costume. It felt unfair that Jill got to be the cookie. Her argument that the trick or treaters would like the cookie costume better did make sense. It wasn't as if the kids would see his costume. Maybe he should go grab his jacket. No, he'd kick himself if he missed the Great Pumpkin.
When Jill didn't join him at eight, Linus glared towards the house. Trick or treating had ended! Why wasn't she joining him? When she did sit next to him in the pumpkin patch – a whole seventeen minutes later – she brought hot cider. "I thought you might be getting chilly," she said, handing the thermos over.
"Thanks." Was this why she was late? He took a sip. She'd used his favorite mulling mix.
"And …" She opened a Tupperware container. "Cookies."
Linus happily grabbed a pumpkin shaped cookie. Jill was the best baker. She opened a bag and pulled out a blanket. They spent the rest of the night cuddled together under the blanket waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear, and Linus thought that maybe Jill's handing out candy hadn't been too terrible change to their tradition.
The day of their daughter's birth was the best day of Linus' life. He was sure that even meeting the Great Pumpkin could not have given him more happiness. As Halloween approached, he took little Emma out to see his pumpkin patch. "This is where the Great Pumpkin will arise. I can't wait for you to meet him."
"Linus," Jill said, "we can't keep Emma out all night." That hurt but when Linus thought about it, he realized she was right. Of course Emma was too young to stay out all night. When Jill added that she would bring Emma inside after trick or treating, Linus understood that Jill would not be joining him in the pumpkin patch. Someone had to stay inside with Emma. Jill's decision was the right one but Linus knew that without the two of them, Halloween was going to be terribly lonely.
The weekend before Halloween, his sister Lucy called. "The firm has me swamped with a big case. I don't have time to take my boys to a farm this year. We're stopping by to pick out a couple of pumpkins." She hung up before he could object.
Jill ran in. "Honey, what is it?"
"It's Lucy. She wants to steal my pumpkins, to desecrate them."
"Let me guess. She hung up before you could tell her no. Do you want me to talk to her?"
"Do you think you could stop her?" Linus already knew the answer. Nobody could stop his bossy sister.
Jill grimaced. "She is a lawyer. It's her job to argue and win."
Linus felt bad leaving Jill to deal with his sister, but he couldn't stay. When he returned, he went straight to the pumpkin patch to inspect the damage. Lucy'd taken two of his prize pumpkins: the biggest one and the roundest one. "The Great Pumpkin will never come this year."
On Halloween night, as he carried Emma, properly bundled up against the chill, into the pumpkin patch, he tried to convince himself otherwise. "It's Emma's first Halloween," he told himself. "Of course the Great Pumpkin won't disappoint my precious baby girl." He didn't believe it. Linus was certain the Great Pumpkin would not appear.
And so when he saw a brightness at the far edge of the pumpkin patch, Linus thought it was a trick like the year those three high-schoolers made up a pumpkin with cardboard and glow-in-the-dark paint. But this was nothing like that. This glow was unearthly, sublime. Nothing man-made could touch it. And when the Great Pumpkin grinned down, its face was full of kindness and understanding.
"Oh true and faithful servant. You have kept me in your heart all these years. What would you have of me?"
Why would the Great Pumpkin even ask? He was supposed to bring gifts for all the children. Even in his own head, the thought sounded immature, and Linus didn't know what to say.
When the Great Pumpkin spoke, it was as if he knew Linus' thoughts. "The greatest gift is already in your hands. It's to spend time with those you love."
Linus thought of Jill joining him that first year and how wonderful it'd been to have a friend who believed. He thought of other years, when they'd been closer, holding hands in the pumpkin patch or cuddling together under a blanket. He thought of how she'd brought him hot cider. He looked down at his daughter and his heart overflowed.
When he looked up again, the Great Pumpkin winked one triangle eye at him. "I see you take my meaning." And then it faded away.
Linus rushed into the house. "Are you OK?" Jill asked. "What's wrong?"
Linus kissed her. "Nothing. Everything's wonderful. Here, take Emma."
He ran back out into the garden and picked out a pumpkin. He didn't look for the biggest or the roundest. He just picked one that felt right and brought it back into the house. He'd never carved a pumpkin before but he'd seen friends do it. As trick or treaters arrived, Linus took breaks from his carving to admire their costumes but finally he finished his jack o'lantern. The triangular eyes and crooked mouth didn't capture the etherial beauty of the Great Pumpkin but Linus knew that nothing he could carve ever would. Jill found a candle, lit it, and placed it inside the carved pumpkin. Then she took a picture of Linus, Emma, and his first jack o'lantern. He took the cell phone from her and held it before Emma, showing her the picture. "See, Emma, this is you the year you met the Great Pumpkin."