By Joshua Viola
Art by Aaron Lovett
Published Issue 082, October 2020
Scarecrows was previously published in Nightmares Unhinged: Twenty Tales of Terror (2015, Hex Publishers).
“That’s mine,” Cody said, hoping he sounded tough — if he did, maybe he wouldn’t have to fight them. “Give it back.”
“Newbie wants his little cap back,” Rich, a senior and the biggest of two kids said, sneering. He held the cap higher than Cody could reach.
“Give it back to me now.”
“Or what?” said Joey, the other kid. He was smaller than Rich, but not by much, which still made him bigger than Cody. “You gonna fight Rich for it? Be a big mistake, cap-boy. Maybe the last one you’d get to make. Ain’t that right, Rich?”
Cody’s stomach tightened and he hoped he wouldn’t puke. He felt tears trying to rise too. All he wanted was his cap back.
His dad’s cap. It had the Atlanta Braves A on it, but they never called it the Braves cap. It was the Chemo Cap. Cody helped him pick it out not long after his dad started losing his hair. For a while, they’d thought about something with a funny or positive saying on it, or a stupid drawing.
“Y’know, Code, my man,” his dad had said, “let’s go with Atlanta. Once we’ve got this thing beat, I’ll treat you to the Braves in the World Series next year. All four games. They’re going to sweep it. I’ve got a feeling.”
The Braves didn’t even make it to the postseason the next year, but they still did better than Cody’s dad. He didn’t make it even close to the start of the season. Last thing he did was put that cap on Cody’s head. Cody never took it off, except he had to today — first day of school in a new town, and no caps allowed in class. But the minute the bell rang and he got outside, he put it on. He didn’t even have time to get it settled just right — his dad wore it tilted a little to the left, and so did Cody — before Rich grabbed it.
“Well?” Joey said, his voice cruel. “You gonna fight Rich for it or not?”
“No need to fight,” Rich said, still holding the cap like a pennant in a game of capture the flag. “Let’s all just settle down a little while I explain to– ”
Cody waited a moment before spitting out his name. “Cody.”
“Right. To Cody here that he doesn’t have to fight for his cap. Not that fighting would do him any good, but there’s no need. We’re going to give him a chance to earn his cap back. Got a little job that he ought to be able to handle.”
“What kind of job?” Cody said.
Rich leaned close, his nose almost touching Cody’s. “Be at the baseball field tonight at midnight. Not one minute later.”
Rich made a show of putting the cap on his own head. “If you’re too scared to show up, don’t sweat it. I sorta like the way this feels.”
“Looks good on you, too,” Joey said.
“Midnight,” Rich said again as he and Joey walked off, laughing.
Cody waited until he was sure they couldn’t see him before ducking around the far corner of the school, finding some bushes, and puking his guts out behind them.
Cody snuck out through his bedroom window and made it to the baseball field with a couple of minutes to spare before midnight. Rich and Joey were already there, leaning against Rich’s red Mustang at the edge of the outfield. Rich was wearing the Chemo Cap. Cody hated the way it looked on him, but he kept his anger hidden and walked right up to the two assholes.
“What’s the job?”
“You’re gonna set the night on fire,” Rich said, lifting a gasoline can and shaking it.
Cody heard the gas sloshing inside the can. When he stepped closer, he smelled it. He looked at the cap on Rich’s fat head. He thought he would do anything to get it back. Now, watching Rich put the gas can in the trunk, he wasn’t so sure.
“Get in,” Rich said. “Front seat — between us.”
Cody got in. Rich started the car while Joey climbed into the passenger side, digging Cody in the ribs with a hard elbow as he did. Cody gave him one back, more to see what would happen than to do any damage, and was surprised when Joey didn’t do anything.
Rich put the car in gear and peeled across the outfield, the tires kicking up divots. Cody hoped there weren’t any cops around. It was bad enough that his mom moved them to the sticks — farm country — to be near her sister, and bad enough was already made worse by Rich and Joey, and would undoubtedly take another downward turn or two whenever they got to wherever it was they were going. He sure as hell didn’t need a cop busting them for vandalism or something.
But there weren’t any cops, or even a school night watchman nearby to hear Rich peel off. They got away clean. Rich drove fast and had them outside the town limits in a few minutes, picking up speed as they headed out into farmland.
“You know about the Corn Witch?” Rich said.
Joey let out a nervous laugh. “Gives me the sheebie jeevies just hearing that name.”
“Heebie jeebies, you dumb shit,” Rich said, no nervousness at all in his laugh. Only contempt.
“Yeah, heebie jeebies. Gave me them, too.”
“What’s a Corn Witch?” Cody asked.
Rich lifted his eyebrows and grinned, the Chemo Cap rising as he did. His face looked eerie in the dim light from the dashboard instruments. Cody hated seeing the cap on him.
“Not what,” Rich said. “Who.”
“All right, whatever,” Cody said. “Who’s the Corn Witch?” He turned to Joey. “Stupid name, Corn Witch.” He was sure Joey flinched when he said it.
“You won’t think it’s stupid if she ever gets ahold of you,” Joey said. “Will he, Rich?”
“No. He sure won’t.”
“Because she hasn’t fed for a while. A long while.”
“She’ll be real hungry,” Joey said.
“So, what is it you want me to do? Burn the witch at the stake?”
“You couldn’t get close enough,” Rich said. “Nobody ever has.”
“She’s … protected. Lives in an old house. A hundred years old, maybe two. She’s been there as long as anybody can remember. Nobody knows for sure how long because nobody’s ever really been to it. You can’t get close because of the … scarecrows.”
Rich said the word in what he must have thought was a spooky voice, but he just sounded dumb to Cody.
“She has a circle of scarecrows around her house, and they protect her.”
“Scarecrows?” Cody made the word sound as unspooky as possible.
“You heard me,” Rich said. “You’ll see them in about five minutes, and you’ll know what I mean, so just shut up until we get there.”
The house was old and dark, set back from the road and surrounded by cornfields nearing harvest. Power and telephone lines ran along the road, but none of them extended to the house.
The Corn Witch lives off the grid, Cody thought.
Rich pulled the car onto the shoulder and wasted no time getting out. Cody followed. Joey took his time, and Cody suspected he would have preferred to stay in the car. Rich popped the trunk, got the gas can and handed it to Cody.
“Come on,” Rich said, and stepped into the field, moving slowly among the tall stalks.
Cody walked close behind him, but Joey held back several steps. Cody’s eyes adjusted to the darkness of the nearly moonless night by the time they reached the first scarecrow. Squinting, he saw the silhouette of another in the distance, and beyond that, the barest hint of another. He turned his head the other way and saw the same figures, links in the chain of scarecrows that surrounded the house. He stepped closer to the nearest one. It looked like it had been there a long time. Somebody put a lot of trouble into making it, and made it to last.
Rich tapped Cody on the shoulder and handed him a lighter. “Burn it down,” he said. “Burn the fucker to the ground and you’ll be one scarecrow closer to getting your little cap back.”
Cody put the gas can on the ground and reached out to the scarecrow. He felt something like a shock when his fingertips touched the rough, weathered fabric that covered the straw and corn shucks the scarecrow was filled with. The dry stuffing rustled and crackled. It’d burn fast. Cody pressed his hand more firmly against the scarecrow and the shock gave way to a warmer current of memory:
Cody and his father watching The Wizard of Oz when he was a little boy. He’d told his dad the scarecrow was his favorite. “Mine, too,” his dad had said. “Always has been, always will be.”
And that was Dad, Cody thought. Always had been, always would be. He didn’t need a cap to remind him of that.
“Burn it!” Rich said.
Cody reluctantly took his hand from the scarecrow and turned to face Rich.
“No,” Cody said and dropped the lighter on the ground.
“You heard me. I said no. Keep the hat.”
“You pussy,” Rich said. “Scared little pussy! You aren’t getting your cap back now, and you’re walking back to town.”
“Beats riding with a couple of shits like you two,” Cody said.
“I said burn it, you pussy.”
“You want it burned, asshole, burn it yourself. Or are you afraid of the Corn Witch? Is that it? Who’s the pussy now?”
Cody walked past Rich and heard the sound of sloshing gas. He didn’t look back, but got ready to haul real ass in case Rich did something truly stupid like trying to douse him. He didn’t think Rich would light him, but he wasn’t completely sure, and was ready to run.
“You think I’m scared?” Rich said, almost shouting. “You think I’m a pussy?”
The scent of gasoline grew stronger and Cody heard it splashing.
“Joey,” Rich said. “Grab that lighter and give me a hand.”
“Come on, Rich,” Joey said, his voice soft. “Let’s get out of here. I thought I heard something.”
“Jesus! You too? Either get your ass over here and help me or you’re walking back to town with the newbie!”
Joey didn’t move.
Cody stopped and turned to look at Rich. “Let it go, man,” he said. “Keep the stupid hat and leave the scarecrow alone.”
“Fuck the both of you,” Rich said, and thumbed the lighter to life.
The scarecrow burst into flames when Rich waved the lighter under its chin. He took a quick step back to keep from being burned, but he didn’t move fast enough. Engulfed in flames, the scarecrow’s arms reached out and grabbed Rich. Blazing hands lifted him from the ground. Cody had never heard anything as horrible as Rich’s screams.
The scarecrow raised Rich’s writhing body high above its head and shook him hard three times. Rich was still screaming when it threw him into the circle of scarecrows. Something dark and immense rose up and took Rich from the sky before he landed, and a moment later, the screams stopped.
Cody and Joey ran.
Rich’s car keys must have been in his pocket, so Cody and Joey walked back to town. It took them until nearly dawn, but neither of them spoke a word the whole way, any more than either of them looked back to see how long the scarecrow flames illuminated the sky.
Cody snuck into his bedroom, but couldn’t sleep. When he heard his mom in the kitchen making breakfast, he went through his motions of showering, dressing, and getting ready for the day. After he ate, he told her he’d ride his bike to school.
Rich’s Mustang was still parked on the shoulder of the road when Cody got to the cornfield. He laid his bike on the ground and stood still for a moment. In daylight it was easy to see how the scarecrows encircled the house.
He took a deep breath and walked into the field. When he found the scarecrow, it showed no signs of having been burned. The fabric wasn’t scorched, the arms, covered in flames last night, bore evidence only of years — How many? Decades? Centuries? — of sunshine and rain, hot weather and cold, growing seasons and winter seasons. There was no sign of the gas can, and Cody felt sure there would be no sign of Rich.
The only difference — the only thing that told Cody this was the scarecrow he’d seen last night — was the Atlanta Braves baseball cap resting on its head. Cody looked at the cap for a long moment, then reached up to adjust it so that it was tilted slightly to the left, the way it was meant to be worn.
Joshua Viola is a #1 Denver Post bestselling author, four-time Colorado Book Award finalist, and the owner of Hex Publishers.
Aaron Lovett is a digital artist with work published in SPECTRUM 22 and 24. He was listed on the 2018 Bram Stoker Award Preliminary Ballot in the graphic novel category and his art has been licensed for AMC’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD. He paints from a dark corner in Denver, Colorado, with a passion for bringing characters and worlds to life.