Lost in the Cornfield

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Chapter 3: Field of Screams

Nothing to do but wait for dinner time, Henry guessed. After a short while of straightening up and going through his boxes, the doorbell again rang. What did they want now? Or, was it Ernestine alone again, dressed like God knows what. Somewhat to his relief, he smiled when he saw the realtor, Dominick Robusto, who had first showed him the house weeks ago.

“Hi, I’m Dominick Robusto. You remember me don’t you, Father?” Robusto was squat and barrel-chested and red-faced and Henry imagined that he ate a lot of Italian food.

“Why, of course. What can I do for you?”

“Well, actually, the Bishop’s office called my boss to make sure you got settled in okay. So here I am. If anything’s not quite in order, just tell old Dominick and I’ll get it fixed.” Robusto looked uncomfortable and sweaty around the collar. If the truth were known, he had no desire to be here, seeing how this house and occupant were a done deal. He had also heard about the missing children and hoped Henry wouldn’t comment or question him about it. After all, these incidents could happen anywhere. “You weren’t here when they did the inspection?” Henry nodded. “Well, let’s take a little tour, and see if everything’s in working order,” he concluded, checking his watch.

So, Robusto led Henry through his own house from top to bottom, finding just about everything in ship shape--until they came to the basement. He opened the door to the basement, flipped on the light, went half-way down, and stopped. Henry, practically on his heels, tapped him lightly on the shoulder.

“It’s a bit musty, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah, a de-humidifier is what you need.”

Henry felt a cobweb cling to his cheek and almost shuddered. Robusto noticed and smiled sympathetically.

“Damn spiders,” he said. “Excuse me, Father, but they give me the creeps,” he confided. Creeps, thought Henry. Just the creeps. He wished it were that simple for him. He did not admit to Robusto that they gave him a lot more than the creeps--the foul bulbous shapes skittering along in the dark, or rappelling down the silver filament of their webs. Henry principally didn’t care for the “little beasties” as he referred to them, when he found himself alone in dark enclosed spaces, or once, especially confined in such a place with almost no light--for three and a half hours.

Robusto looked to the bottom of the stairs. He and Henry both saw the mother of all spiders, its body the size of a fat lima bean. Robusto leapt from the next to the last step and ground the spider into the gray concrete floor with his heel.

“Squash the bast--the dirty things!” Robusto wheezed. That concluded the tour of the new home.

Just before Robusto left, Henry mentioned his gas being off and the realtor told him that it often happened to newcomers in the development, so he handed him a phone number he could call. If he were lucky he could have service by late tonight or early tomorrow.

“Oh, one more thing,” said Henry as Robusto paused, filling the doorway and nervously pulling at his collar. “What do you know about the Peregrines?” Robusto stared blankly. “In the big white house across the way.”

“Oh, not much, really. Heard they travel a lot. Didn’t know they were still there, I mean, didn’t know they were home now. Well, have to go. If you need anything....” With that he turned and headed for his car.

Henry went inside to the kitchen and glanced down the dark stairs to the basement. After a moment, he closed the door and locked it. He roamed about the house looking for more spiders, but found none. Thinking about them again brought that Halloween night at the seminary back to him, alive and vivid. What started out as a “harmless” prank left him nearly hysterical, with bepissed briefs, and alternating bouts of nightmares and insomnia for months.

Two upperclassmen, who shared a room next to his, liked to torment the meek and timid Henry. They would put dead flies in his pudding and tell him it was tapioca with raisins. Or, they would slam Henry into the bleachers during basketball. Or, they would retype the cover page to his paper on “Martyrdom in the First Century Church” in Fr. Art McCall’s history course and misspell the instructor’s name (Fr. Fart McDull).

Henry’s room mate, lantern-jawed John Davidson dismissed the pranks as no worse than inflicted on anyone else.

“They never bother you,” said Henry.

“You better believe it, Hoppy,” said John, hoisting a 40-lb. dumbbell at the foot of his bed.

One night, the upperclassmen, Terry Shannon and Rudy Carver, talked Henry into joining them for a theological discussion in the seminary’s memorial cemetery, after hours of course and long after the trick-or-treaters had passed through. Terry and Rudy were hospitable, bringing along three bottles of wine. For their two bottles, they had substituted grape soda, however, they left the three-dollar hearty burgundy in Henry’s.

Somewhere between St. Augustine and Martin Luther, Henry fell off a tombstone, where he lay and began to moan about needing to sleep. Simultaneously, Terry and Rudy glanced at a tool shed lodged into the base of a sloping hill. They deposited Henry in a wheelbarrow inside the unlocked shed, but they failed to notice the click of the lock when they closed the heavy iron door.

Henry sobered up more quickly than he might have otherwise. He found it almost pitch black except for the six-inch square window covered with steel mesh. It didn’t take Henry long to piece together what had happened, taking it reasonably in stride until he tried the door. Not normally fond of the dark, Henry found its concealing menace enhanced tenfold. At first, he believed things were moving around him: mice, rats, snakes, worms, unidentifiable vermin, oozing, slithering about. His head spun and pounded from the wine and his stomach burbled with queasiness.

When he leaned against the wall and slumped down, he saw a pair of smoldering reddish eyes at the little window. Then he felt the cobwebs tugging at his eyebrows. The panic really set in when he felt something crawl across the back of his hand. Rather than brushing it off, he bashed his hand across the concrete wall and transformed the thing into a splat of goo. He got up, fighting off the urge to heave. He ran into more cobwebs as he tried to shout, not wanting to approach the demonic eyes at the window, but his voice sounded small and frail. He felt a wetness below. Whenever he tried to remain absolutely still, he thought he could hear the spiders dashing underfoot, crab-like, their mandibles churning and dripping furiously. Worms gnawing from within rotting carcasses, the utter corruption of the flesh. Despite Henry’s calling, with all the blessings of the salvation and the glory of the soul, he feared nothing more than the notion of being buried in a grave or vault, a feast for earthworms.

Some three and a half hours later, John Davidson came for him with a key proffered by the groundskeeper who only grumbled a little about being wakened from a sound sleep. It wasn’t the first time.

“Hoppy, you’re a mess,” said John. “Why do you let those guys get to you?”

“I--I” In the dim light, he glanced at the red welt on his hand, topped with a slick crusty yellow substance. Henry fainted at the sight and John carried him to the showers. Next, John paid a visit to Rudy and Terry and convinced them to place tormenting Henry on a permanently given up for Lent list.

Just as Henry decided to request the Church Board to take out a pest control contract on his new home, the door bell rang once again. Probably the Peregrines this time. Such passionate behavior, not to mention foul language and then Ernestine coming over dressed like that. But no, a middle-aged man with tired sagging features and dark circles under his eyes flashed a badge at Henry.

“Sergeant Detective Perry. Father?”

“Henry Pauley.”

“Understand you moved in today.”

“Yes and Dr. Helen Fleize across the way.”

“We’re checking with residents. Four boys missing since last night.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Yeah. Wandering around on Mischief Night. Whole Development’s spooked. Don’t think they’ll send out many trick-or-treaters tonight. Anyway, just a few questions. We can go over it together with Dr. Freeze at the same time.”

“It’s Fleize, I believe.”

“Yeah. Save us a bit of time. We’ve been nosing around out here for over twelve hours.”

“Have you talked to the Peregrines? In the white house? They’ve lived there longer, obviously.”

“Obviously,” said Perry, growing more weary with each passing minute. “Nobody home when I rang. Let’s go see the doctor.”

While the realtor Robusto led Henry through the dark corners of his unfamiliar home, Helen had been dozing on her sofa, the valium and wine having kicked in. Now and then, the dream revisited. It came upon her from time to time, but was almost a certainty on or about every Halloween. That ugly afternoon in the tree house when the dog fell, slipped, was inadvertently pushed. No one ever determined. All the children screamed, but being the youngest at six, hers was the most piercing. They just suddenly noticed him dangling. There hadn’t even been a yelp.

Dandy, the golden retriever, dropped like a stone. Who tied the leash so tightly? Dandy might have had a better chance, even at fifty or sixty feet. If not for the leash. She couldn’t remember the exact words of the older boy who was frightened and covered his eyes.

“Gawd, Dandy’s been hung.”

It wasn’t quite that simple, more a bizarre combination of weight, velocity, and the rough leather of the leash. Helen had the vaguest recollection of being carried down the ladder by Uncle Ron.

“Now, don’t you look, honey.”

She lifted her chin from Uncle Ron’s shoulder as they descended. Dandy’s head rested at an impossible angle as a result of the leash cutting half way through its throat. Dandy swayed, his eyes fixed on the farmhouse, his limp weight held only by the leash. That night, after neighborhood kids had heard the news and gone out trick-or-treating, two or three crept up to her bedroom window. One donned a dog’s mask and the others shined their flashlights eerily. Helen screamed herself breathless and voiceless and left a puddle of urine at her feet. Somehow, she made it to sleep, dreaming all night of Dandy.

The next morning, her parents found her sitting on the floor in her room. She had systematically removed the heads of all her dolls and stuffed animals. For some time after that, her sleep was broken regularly by unrelenting night terrors, waking the house with blood-curdling screams. At first, she’d look out the window and Dandy would be swaying, his black bottomless eyes seeming to stare right at her.

Helen, letting out a gasp, sat up abruptly, dabbing perspiration from her forehead.

“Damn,” she hissed.

When someone pressed the doorbell again, she straightened her blouse and stomped to the front door, ready to begin a mini-tirade.

As she flung the door back, she said in a loud voice, “Just what is it now, Mr. Per--”

“Dr. Fleize?” Helen blinked at the disheveled man and noticed Henry standing behind him, smiling tepidly and waving his fingers with that stupid, “well, here we all are again” look. “Sergeant Detective Perry.”

“Yes?” she said numbly, wondering if the strife at the Peregrine’s had escalated further.

“A question or two,” Perry began and then summarized for her benefit and Henry’s the names and ages of the missing children. When he finished, he showed them some photographs, none too clear.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” said Henry.

What’s this “we” stuff, thought Helen. “It doesn’t sound good, if you don’t mind my saying so, Sergeant. I mean they can’t be hiding. They must have gone somewhere.”

“Or were taken somewhere,” Henry said hastily. Helen glanced at him sharply for saying what she was about to add.

Perry had no patience with amateur sleuths. “We’ve got some good people on the case and if the kids don’t turn up real soon, the FBI will be called in.” Helen started to speak, but Perry wanted to end this exchange as soon as possible. “Call us at this number if you see or hear anything,” he concluded, handing a card to each. He nodded and abruptly returned to his car. Helen and Henry stood, almost mesmerized, holding Perry’s card like an admission ticket. Neither would speak aloud what they both thought. It seemed like a quiet peaceful neighborhood.

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