Chapter 5: More Mystery Stuffing
Marvin ushered Henry to the second floor bathroom.
“Go on, Henry, puke your guts out. You’ll feel better. Then we can have a man to man talk.” Marvin had a twinkle in his eye.
Henry knelt by the toilet, with Marvin’s hand on his head. He hadn’t felt this sick since that night in the shed. He managed to keep it down then, but there was no holding back now: the years of indecision and lack of assertiveness, the doubts which spanned all the way back to the seminary and beyond. All of it seemed to come forth now and make him indeed feel like a shell, just as Helen had said.
“You know, Henry,” began Marvin in a fatherly tone, sounding like the Bishop, “there are always alternate ways of looking at things. Give Helen some credit. She’s right about the guilt thing. I can’t think of anything more responsible for guilt than religion.”
“Yes,” Henry managed to rasp out, “when it’s been misapplied. Religion should be identified with love instead.”
“Well, are you serving as the best example?”
“That’s what Bishop Thomas said to me,” he said nodding his head. Right now, he almost hated the Bishop, for treating him like a child.
“Of course he did. Now think a minute. Just because Helen doesn’t have all the answers is no reason to jump down her throat. God is represented by men and men are fallible. In fact, your intolerance borders on the inquisitional.”
Henry stared in disbelief for a moment, and then lowered his head in resignation.
“Give Helen some space to be valid. That’s it. Don’t you see. Your intolerance invalidates her. God doesn’t like intolerance, Henry. He strikes us down for it. There are hidden ways of the mind we can’t fathom. That’s all Helen is trying to do. Your professions aren’t so very different. You’ve got to work together.”
“Together,” Henry repeated as Marvin winked.
As Marvin helped Henry to his feet, he checked his watch.
“Now it’s time to play a game.”
“Game?” asked Henry, fighting back the empty dizziness.
“Time to have some fun,” said Marvin, undeterred.
“Well, all right,” Henry relented, knowing he’d cave in again.
Marvin peeked out from behind the shade of the bathroom window which faced the back of the house. He stared into the formless dark, sensing the presence in the field.
“Soon,” he said. “Soon.”
Off in the center of the field, the right arm of the scarecrow flopped about in the wind, moving steadily back and forth, beckoning all the occupants of Center Lane to join him.
Ernestine shouted from downstairs, “Marvin!”
“We’re coming,” he replied as he stared out the window.
Suddenly he turned and clambered down the stairs, calling to Henry who followed hesitantly, “Come on, I’ll help you violate--I mean validate Helen!”
A few minutes before, Ernestine had been helping Helen from the first floor bathroom. “Come on, honey, don’t cry. It’ll be all right.”
Helen sniffed. “But I’m not supposed to fly off the handle like that. I don’t know what possessed me.”
“Well,” Ernestine began, calmly and deliberately, “and I think you’ll agree, we too often stress the rational and the analytic in modern living and forget we have a spiritual side. It’s a question of respect for other people. We do have a spiritual side, don’t we? There are more things in heaven and earth--”
“Than are dreamt of in your psychology,” concluded Marvin. All four converged in the hallway where Ernestine had tried to “hang” herself. “Come on you kids,” said Marvin, “it’s time to make up. And then we’re going to play a game.”
“What do you mean ‘game’?” asked Ernestine.
“Look,” said Marvin, “you had your fun when the evening started. They’ve just had theirs. When do I get mine?”
Ernestine defiantly placed both hands on her hips, “You’ll get it when you get it.”
“You’re damn right. Anyway,” said Marvin, turning to his guests, “we all have to be neighbors. Let’s bury the hatchet and get off this serious business.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Helen, pale and weak. “It was very unprofessional to shoot my mouth off like that.”
“No more than me,” said Henry. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Helen and Henry sheepishly moved closer and each extended a limp hand. It was a tepid warm handshake.
“Do you call that making up?” shouted Marvin. “Let’s see some feeling.”
“A nice kiss,” added Ernestine.
They embraced coolly and pecked each other on the cheek. Before they moved away, Marvin again intervened.
“Come on, show that you both mean it. You know--more feeling.”
They stood close and kissed longer and embraced more firmly while Marvin and Ernestine alternately intoned.
“A nice kiss,” said Ernestine.
“A nice sloppy wet kiss,” said Marvin.
“A nice lip-sucking kiss.”
“A nice tongue-probing kiss.”
“A nice all-round panting mouth wide open do me hard kiss,” concluded Ernestine.
“All right,” said Marvin, “that’s enough you horny devils. God, you’re a couple of animals.”
“Yes,” said Ernestine, “let’s not forget who you are.”
Suddenly, Helen and Henry parted as if discovered in some promiscuous tryst.
“Let’s adjourn to the sitting room,” said Marvin with an affected air. “And dear Ernie will put on some coffee.”
“You put on the coffee,” said Ernestine, almost with a snarl.
“Now, gang, it’s time for fun,” said Marvin, rubbing his hands as if trying to release a genie from a magic lamp. “The land on which the Earthly Delights Development is built has an interesting history, you know.” Ernestine rolled her eyes. “Goes all the way back to settlers and Indians. A violent history. Settlers killed a scouting party of Indians, hunters actually. Then the whole tribe came down on the settlers. The remains of those who died here on both sides are buried right beneath us.” Marvin looked at his feet. “Finally, someone built a farm here. Used to be much larger of course. The farmer went mad, killed his family. Around the turn of the century, the farm passed to other relatives who sold off part of the land to cover debts. A nephew or somebody like that committed suicide when the farm went belly up during the Depression. Another relative stepped in and sold off more land to keep the farm going. An orphanage was built on the sold off land and twenty years later a fire destroyed it--and all its occupants.”
Helen, who had been half-listening, snapped to attention. Henry shook his head sorrowfully.
“Forty children and the staff perished in the blaze,” Marvin continued. Ernestine got up and poured herself another drink. “So a cemetery was built here. Actually called Earthly Delights. To add local residents to the Indians, settlers, and orphans. So you see,” he paused for sober reflection, “it’s getting kind of crowded down there! Hah!”
“Really, Marvin,” said Ernestine. “Is that the best you can do?”
“It’s a warm-up exercise, Ern.”
“Then, none of that is true?” asked Helen.
“Actually, most if not all of it is true. The icing on the cake is the developers who came in and bought up the land. Didn’t clear the graves out you understand. Strange history to that, too. The owner of the cemetery fell down some stairs and broke his neck the day the sale of land was signed, sealed, and delivered. Four years later, when the last house was finished, the developer suffered a massive stroke.”
“It’s as if they were punished for their greed and insensitivity,” ventured Henry.
“What’s next?” Ernestine sneered. “Graves will open and yield their dead?”
Helen chuckled uneasily.
“Now look, Ernie pooh, I’ve been good and patient since you nearly scared the living crap out of me before supper.”
“All right,” said Ernestine, “go ahead and get it over with. You’re boring these poor folks to tears.”
“I wouldn’t exactly describe that story as boring,” said Henry.
Helen was still mulling over the forty children. She pictured all their faces, lined up like so many portraits in a gallery.
“O.K.,” said Ernestine. “I warned you folks he’s going to try to get back at me.”
Both Helen and Henry wanted to go home, but neither wanted to offend their obliging if eccentrically menacing host.
Marvin took the floor with his hands behind his back. “I’d like to do the handcuffs.”
“The handcuffs?” Ernestine whined, “That’s as old as the hills.”
“I don’t think I know it,” said Henry, thinking back to the seminary, trying to remember if his tormentors ever did anything with handcuffs.
“No, I don’t know it either,” said Helen, almost breaking into a smile, remembering how her husband used to like--
“Oh, it’s silly,” said Ernestine. “Marvin handcuffs the guests together and tries to scare everyone. Says weird things to make them nervous and think that maybe he’s some kind of nut who’s gone off the deep end. The challenge is supposed to be knowing whether he is or not.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s silly,” said Henry. “It sounds like one of those murder mysteries which are enacted at a weekend resort or something, and the guests participate in the investigation.”
“A vicarious thrill,” added Helen. “There are even psychological benefits from this kind of recreation, but Ernestine has kind of let the cat out of the bag since she told us how it turns out.”
“There can always be an unexpected twist,” said Marvin.
“Oh come on,” said Helen, compelled to side with Marvin, somehow feeling it precautionary to do so.
“Really, Marvin, it’s not very creative,” said Ernestine, somewhat relenting. Marvin stepped into an adjacent room promptly returned with two sets of handcuffs. “What do you need with two sets of those?”
“Like I said, a different twist, Ernie. I’d like you to participate.”
“I will not. It’s for the guests.”
“Hanging yourself was for everyone.”
“He’s got you there,” Helen piped out. “Come on, be a sport.”
“It’ll be more fun,” said Henry.
Marvin handcuffed Helen to Ernestine’s right wrist and Henry to her left wrist. Helen and Henry giggled, but Ernestine sighed impatiently. Marvin again disappeared for a minute. The others shuffled along to a long sofa and sat down, but not before twisting a wrist, stepping on an instep.
“That’s it,” Marvin sang out, “make yourselves comfortable.”
“Suppose he gets in the car and drives off?” asked Henry.
“He’ll be more imaginative than that,” said Helen.
“And if that’s all he comes up with,” said Ernestine, “it’s no problem. He’s done this before at parties. I know where there’s a spare key.”
Marvin entered the room with a small suitcase which he placed on a folding table, right in front of his “prisoners”. He opened the suitcase so the others could not view its contents. Calmly and systematically, even humming, he set out a formidable assortment of hunting knives, hatchets, and a butcher’s knife. Next, he produced a thirty-eight caliber pistol and, finally, three large heavy-duty flashlights.
Ernestine turned to her fellow captives and smiled. “This is the part where he says, ‘how do you know I’m just trying to scare you?’.”
“Those knives look real sharp,” said Henry.
“Is that a real gun?” asked Helen.
Marvin ignored them and looked directly at Ernestine. “You may think this is a dull gag having seen it before but, for the uninitiated, it’ll make the palms sweat. It’s more unsettling than, say, wearing blindfolds and feeling for bananas in the toilet.”
“In fact,” said Henry, now tight-lipped, “if you hadn’t tipped us off, it could be pretty terrifying right about now.”
“So,” said Marvin, “if it’s not for real, why am I still going on with it? Did I mention the name of the family that owned the farm was Peregrine?”
Helen and Henry looked at one another.
“What did I tell you?” said Ernestine.
No one spoke for a few moments.
“What are you gonna do, Marvin? Kill us? What a bore.”
“Right here? Now? That would be a bore.”
“Oh, you’re gonna cut our throats in five minutes, is that it?” said Ernestine, growing less sure of herself.
“Ten from when I start counting.” Marvin removed a kitchen timer from the suitcase.
“That’s rich,” said Ernestine.
“Did Ernestine mention that I’ve been under observation? That I almost beat a man to death over a parking space?”
Helen and Henry turned to Ernestine, their eyes begging for her to dismiss the story, but she looked away, flustered.
“Yes it’s true,” she admitted, “but the medication seemed to be helping.”
“I stopped taking it a month ago.”
“But the knives are always fake and there are never any bullets, so I don’t believe a bit of this bullshit, Marvin.”
Marvin stroked his chin deliberately and then looked up. “Henry, do you like cheese?”
“Cheese,” repeated Henry, confused. “Why, sure,” he nodded.
“Well, here.” Marvin reached into his pocket and tossed a small plastic bag at Henry.
“No thanks,” he said as it landed in his lap.
“O.K. Before you give it back, is it soft and smooth?”
Henry tested it. “No it’s as hard as a rock. It must be aged.”
“Yes, now give it back.” Henry tossed it back with his free hand.
Marvin removed it from the bag and sliced through it with one of the hunting knives as though it were warm butter.
“Shall I show you the bullets in the revolver?”
Helen squirmed, feeling the knots of tension in her stomach turn to ice.
“O.K.,” said Henry, “the fun is going out of this. I give up. Let us out. You win.”
“It is getting a bit tense,” said Helen, hardly able to keep from shivering.
“A bit ugly, I’d say,” said Ernestine. “Get us out of here. I need a drink.”
All started to rise when Marvin grasped one of the hunting knives by the blade and threw it at the wall. It entered firmly and held rigidly.
“All of you sit the fuck down!”
Everyone complied, but Ernestine launched into a tirade. “I’m not convinced, you windbag! You king of sleaze and scum! Tasteless swine--”
“Shut up you fat ugly bitch!” Marvin’s veins stood out on his neck and his face turned pink as he trembled with rage. “You’ll all get a fighting chance.”
Henry tried to clear his throat. “I think the joke’s gone far--”
“I said shut up, preacher,” Marvin said in a low, almost growling tone.
“Why us?” pleaded Helen, lowering her face into her right hand, trying to stifle a sob.
“Why not?” Marvin glared at his guests. “Just who do you people think you are?”
Henry tried to clasp his hands, but Ernestine tugged back when he moved his right arm. “Let’s just stop this,” he said. “Just tell me--us what you want.”
“You’ll be given a fighting chance,” said Marvin, ignoring the appeal. “I’m going to set the timer for ten minutes. You three may take these two flashlights here, since Helen and Henry each have a free hand. You, Ern, will be at the mercy of their guiding light.” Marvin stroked his chin pensively and continued with instructions. “You will then proceed in an orderly fashion to the field. You all know the field, right? Where our nightmares live forever. We’re all going to play in the field. Among the corn stalks.”
Ernestine ventured, “What if we don’t--”
“Then I’ll kill you all right away. I’ll follow when the timer rings, unless I decide to cheat and follow early. If you manage to elude me until dawn, I will spare you.”
Ernestine looked to her right and her left. “I still don’t believe you.”
“All right. Fair enough. I think all of you would be adequately convinced if I were to shed my own blood. After all, only a madman would do that. Right?”
No one answered. Marvin picked up the meat cleaver, moved behind the open suitcase, placed his left hand flat on the table, out of sight, and brought the knife down swiftly. There was a red spray. Marvin winced as though he had nicked himself shaving. With a clenched left fist, blood running down his hand, he moved away from the suitcase, and held aloft something that resembled part of a pinky, all slickly red and pulpy. He then set it down and wrapped a small towel around his left hand. After taking a deep breath, he set the timer.
Simultaneously, Helen and Henry stood and attempted to bolt in opposite directions, yanking Ernestine’s arms. She recoiled, almost pulling the others down with her.
“My God,” she cried out with genuine terror, “he’s never done anything this crazy. I’m sure he means it. Follow me! We’ll hide in the field. It’s big. He’ll never find us!”
They were a jumbled mass of bodies, attempting to coordinate their movements into a unified purpose. They stumbled, hopped, clinked their cuffs, and squeezed through a doorway to the garage.
Henry wheezed, “What are you taking us in here for? We’ve got to get outside.”
Ernestine grabbed a handful of his shirt and hissed in his face. “The spare key is here. We can get loose and get out of here.”
There was a box on top of a small workbench. When they paused, Helen stumbled and skinned her knee. Henry wanted out of the dark confining garage and Helen began to worry about her wrist, her hand, her entire arm, shackled to Ernestine. Ernestine scrambled to the box and flung it open and howled like a cornered animal.
“It’s not here! I always kept it here!”
Directly above the workbench was a window to the kitchen. A light flashed on. They all looked up and saw Marvin, sneering, holding the timer in his right hand and a small key on a chain dangling from his bloodied hand.
All three screamed and began to flee, Ernestine slamming open the garage side door so hard that its glass panes flew out. As their sudden rapid movements caused cuts and scrapes, Helen began to sob. They knocked over a chaise lounge and barbecue grill.
“Turn on the flashlights, you stupid bastards!” cried Ernestine.
They did so, but bright floodlights mounted on the sundeck came on, swiftly followed by the opening from ‘Night on Bald Mountain’. As they neared the perimeter of the corn field, Henry grazed a bug zapper which hung on a tree, sending an array of purple sparks into the damp night. Just as they burst into the field, a stalk slapped Henry in the face and knocked off his glasses.
“I can’t see,” he shouted.
“What’s the difference?” said Ernestine. “Just point the flashlight in front of you. The ten minutes might save us. If we can get deep enough into the corn, we might be safe till morning. Oh God, I hope we can manage until then. I didn’t know how bad off Marvin really was.”
As chilly gusts of wind whistled through the stalks, leaves of corn rustled like paper streamers at an outdoor party.
The trio straddled the wooden fence momentarily before falling over, their limbs tangled and entwined. Ernestine got to her feet first, yanking the cuffed wrists of her fellow captives. She stared straight ahead into a kind of opening where the stalks had been pushed back and the crisp dry leaves underfoot beaten down. Instantly she knew someone had taken this path before them. Could Marvin be in there already?
“Point those goddam flashlights in front of us!” she hissed.
The others whimpered and groaned and struggled to their feet, but they did exactly as they were told. Ernestine jogged as far ahead as she could extend the arms of Helen and Henry and so they all took on the appearance of three strange beasts in a kind of harness, led by one slightly more determined and clear-sighted. As the leaves of the stalks slapped them from head to foot, they managed to better harmonize their movements, becoming a twelve-limbed animal winding and slouching its way through the corn field, fueled only by instinct. Its chains of bondage clinked like porch chimes swaying in the balmy breezes of a midsummer’s eve.
Unaccustomed to such physical exertion, Helen and Henry quickly tired, but Ernestine continued to pull and urge them on.
“Come on, you...or would you rather die? Hold those flashlights up. Come on!”
“How big is this field?” Henry wheezed.
“No one knows,” Ernestine shot back, “and what does it matter anyway? We’ll go as far as we have to.”
“Isn’t there another way?” Helen wept, “why didn’t we head for the street? To another street with houses and people, someone who would have helped us.”
“Shut up you sniveling bitch! Who would have helped? People like you? You would have locked your doors, turned off the lights, and hid in the basement. Now keep moving!”
Henry thought about this accusation and what he might have done if three handcuffed and hysterical people suddenly pounded on his front door, claiming to be hunted by a psychopathic killer.
“We’ll take a rest in a little while,” said Ernestine, easing up. “Then, we’re going to move on. We’ve got to keep moving. That’s the best way. If we stop, he’ll find us.”
They continued on, deeper, somehow with more conviction, through a wide lane, almost a well-traveled path. Helen was the first to notice the green glow-in-the-dark mask lying in a crumpled heap. Panic momentarily seared her insides, but she quickly recalled that it was indeed Halloween. What better place for ghouls and goblins than this field at night? She glanced back at the mask as they passed, thinking it small enough to belong to a child. She then wondered if the missing children had preceded them. Before long there was more. Henry spotted a spilled shopping bag of candy, some of which appeared to have been eaten or picked at. Even in the faint light, Henry couldn’t help but notice the ants and worms and white bloated maggoty things crawling all through the chocolate and marshmallow. Ernestine told them to step over a puddle of green ooze, the kind which could be squeezed from tubes and bottles.
“It’s almost like a trail has been left for us,” said Helen half-aloud.
Helen pulled up hard on her handcuffs when she heard a dog bark, a bark which sounded too familiar for comfort.
“It’s only a dog,” said Ernestine.
“I think I heard laughing,” said Henry, his voice cracking.
“You’re both so tired you’re having delusions,” said Ernestine. “We can take a rest--for a little while.”
Helen looked off to her left. “There’s a little lean-to or part of a storage shed over there.”
Ernestine stopped and drew almost nose to nose with Helen. “You’re not really that stupid are you?” Helen had no idea what she meant. Just as suddenly, she turned on Henry, who hadn’t a clue as to the latest bone of contention.
“Any kind of makeshift shelter like that would be the first place Marvin would look.” Helen and Henry looked at one another, not disagreeing, but hardly knowing what to do instead. “Here’s the deal. Follow me.”
With absolutely no warning, Ernestine plunged into a thick section of corn stalks, but not before sliding down a slight incline and into a muddy irrigation ditch, of course dragging the others with her.
“If we’re going to stop,” she began, wiping a clod of dirt from her brow, “then it must be somewhere which doesn’t stand out. Now, turn off the flashlights and let’s try to be still and listen.”
Helen drew the perverse conclusion that Ernestine approached their dilemma like a seasoned guerilla fighter. Henry groaned, but he put out his light.
“What’s your problem, Rev.?” asked Ernestine.
“It’s just the dark is all. I was never fond of it. An unnatural fear going back to my school days.”
“Not so unnatural,” Ernestine whispered, not totally unsympathetic. “But just where do you think spiritual needs are greatest?” Henry blinked at her without comprehension. “Why, in darkness, of course.” She raised her hands and fanned them out, of course raising one each of Helen and Henry in the process, smiling like some witch-goddess of the night as the chains of the cuffs tinkled in the dead stillness which surrounded them. “Not to mention the darkness of the subconscious,” she added turning to Helen.
Helen felt they were being taunted again like back at the house. “Are you in on this?” she ventured.
“Yes and no,” she teased. “Not this part,” she quickly added. “It would be an elaborate hoax. I almost wish we had thought of it, but no. Marvin is supremely whacked out. I really thought the medication could control the violent streak.” She looked away. “I was wrong. Helen, if we get out of this, would you treat him?”
This caught Helen off guard. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Uh-huh, well, just think about it. We’ve got to try to survive. That’s our first priority.”
Helen looked over at Henry and patted him with her free hand. “It’s O.K. about the dark. It really is. A really common phobia. We all have them.” The dog barked again and she started. “With me it’s pets, dogs specifically. I had a pet dog as a young child and it died in a freak accident.”
Henry took her hand in his. “I suppose everyone has their own special, private pain. How about you, Ernestine?”
“Oh, are we in sharing mode now?” she scoffed.
“Come on,” said Helen. “Tell us.”
“My memories of frightening experiences are unspeakable. Probably the worst was my honeymoon night with Marvin.” She stared, distantly, straight in front of her.
Helen and Henry nodded at the joke, but behind her eyes they could both see the pain of remembrance burning like a cold fire.
When a breeze stirred up, rustling the leaves and bending the stalks, Ernestine peered up over the edge of the ditch.
“There’s lights up that way,” she said. The others tensed. “They’re not moving. Could be the farmhouse. Can’t really tell how far it is.”
“Should we try for it?” asked Henry.
“The farmer, he’ll probably have a gun, a rifle,” said Helen. “We always kept them on the farm growing up.”
“And what good will that do?”
“He can protect us, get help--”
“You think I want to see Marvin splattered with a twelve-gauge?”
“Well, no, of course not,” said Henry.
Helen looked away. She just wanted out of this and she almost hated herself for not considering her professional obligations toward someone so deeply disturbed as Marvin.
They made their way, more slowly now, more or less “together”, without Ernestine pulling them along, their collective gazes fixed on hopeful lights in the distance. The path to the farmhouse was unobstructed, except for a post, maybe ten feet high.
“What’s that?” said Henry.
“A scarecrow pole?” wondered Helen.
“Looks like he got away,” said Ernestine. “Come on now.”
They emerged from the field and saw the house rising up on a long sloping hill: an ordinary white clapboard house with a wide porch complete with swing. There seemed to be a light on in every window of its three stories. They clumped onto the porch, all brightly lit, moths and gnats buzzing about in a frenzy. Ernestine rapped on the screen door.
“Hello in there. We’re in trouble. Could you help us?” Ernestine spoke in an even and untroubled voice.
“I know it’s late,” said Henry, “but we need help.”
“There’s someone trying to kill us!” cried Helen, rattling the screen door in its frame. “From the other side of the field!”
“Will you both pipe down?” said Ernestine, angrily tugging on the handcuffs. “Is there anyone home?”
“This is nuts,” said Helen. “It’s the middle of the night. This makes no sense.”
“Let’s go in,” said Ernestine. She tried the door and found it unlocked.
“We can’t do that,” said Henry.
“And would you rather stay out here?”
“Ernestine’s right,” said Helen. “There must be a phone. We can call for help even if no one’s here.”
The house felt familiar to Helen and Henry. After all, Helen had grown up on a farm and Henry had spent a few summers with an uncle on one. Old fashioned lamps with lace and tassels on side tables, resting on hand-sewn doilies. Coarse woven area rugs. A rocking chair with hand-carvings. A newspaper on a sofa. A pipe rack on a fireplace mantle. A chandelier in the main hall next to a wide staircase. A whiff of baked pies, or biscuits from the kitchen. Piles of magazines, an almanac, a basket of yarn and knitting on a hall table--where the phone should be.
“Is anyone fucking here?!” howled Ernestine, almost beyond desperation. Everyone waited for some response, but all they heard was the wind and the swaying porch lamp which creaked.
“Maybe they keep the phone in the kitchen.”
Helen now took the lead and, as they hunched together and passed through a narrow hallway, she paused ever so slightly to notice all the framed photographs hanging on the wall, many of children, one of a large brick building, some kind of institution, like a small hospital or school. Old, faded photographs. Like the ones in the Peregrines’ house. She tugged on Ernestine’s handcuff and glared at her, but Ernestine shrugged her shoulders. Closer inspection revealed even older pictures. One appeared to be from the Depression era of men standing in a field, two shaking hands, one holding a sign posted in the ground. Still, the oldest, barely recognizable with torn corners and scratches, appeared to be from the late 1800s, with men and women and horses and wagons and, possibly an Indian or two.
“What are you looking at?” said Ernestine. “There’s no time for that.”
“Come on,” said Henry gently. “We’ve got to find a phone.”
“I wouldn’t pass up a shotgun, either,” said Helen in an uneven voice.
Helen felt herself break out in a cold sweat, feeling light-headed now from fatigue, but mostly pure unadulterated fear. She saw scrapbooks stacked on a table and when she bent down and opened some of their covers, she saw many yellowed newspaper clippings. She refused to examine these further, knowing with hardly a doubt they would chronicle many of the horror stories offered by Marvin.
She turned to Henry. “This is where Marvin got all those stories. These people, these Peregrines have something to do with this house, this farm, and all that history.”
“You’re overreacting,” said Ernestine none too certainly.
“Remember?” said Henry. “Marvin said an ancestor had been one of the owners of this land.”
“They’re still setting us up,” said Helen.
“You’ve got to be kidding,”said Ernestine. “You think I’d put myself through this?”
“Where’s the goddam phone?” said Helen through clenched teeth.
“How do I know? I’ve never been here before.”
Helen ignored this. “You’ll go where Henry and I say. Now let’s get to the kitchen.” Her eyes lingered on the scrapbooks, but they continued on, she and Henry now taking the lead.
They stood in the doorway to the kitchen. The appliances were old, but tidy. A mixing bowl with some kind of concoction lay on a table dusted with flour in the center of the room. Helen, shuffling along, led the others to the stove.
“It’s still warm. Someone’s been around.”
“I don’t see a phone in here,” said Henry.
“Then we’ll try upstairs.”
Ernestine spoke up. “Maybe we should forget that. Maybe we should go to the barn. Look for power tools to cut these cuffs. Maybe there’s a gun there.”
Helen and Henry wondered for a moment and then someone knocked on the screen door at far end of the kitchen. They saw a figure standing back from the door just out of the light, a black shadowy form.
“It’s not Marvin?” said Helen haltingly.
“Marvin wouldn’t knock,” said Ernestine. “Mister, is this your place? We’re in trouble.”
“Sorry for trespassing,” Henry added pointlessly, but at the same time wondering why the owner would knock.
“Please help us,” begged Helen. They waited for some reaction, but none was forthcoming. “Perhaps we’ve frightened you, but someone has been chasing us...with a meat cleaver. I know it sounds wild--”
The door swung open and the figure entered and addressed them in a low growling raspy voice.
“You mean like this?” asked the figure, holding up a kitchen knife.
Their senses froze when they realized that not only was it too tall for Marvin, but too tall for any normal human being, even a professional basketball center. And then this elaborate scarecrow costume. Could it be the farmer with a very eccentric sense of humor--on stilts--or could it be a psychopath, perhaps the one who snatched the four children, who liked to wear absurd costumes, ones with a theme of terror, of course. Scarecrows were not generally thought of as frightening--unless you happened to be a crow.
Its mouth was a slit, almost a solid black line which didn’t move when it spoke, like a ventriloquist. Ragged tufts of straw protruded from every joint, and even from under the old hat perched on top of its head, over which was some kind of burlap covering--not exactly a mask.
It spoke again. “I was cooling these off outside. Would you like one?” It held a baking pan in its gloved hand.
“What are they?”
“Corn muffins of course.”
“Who are you?” asked Helen.
“Well, I’m supposed to scare off the crows, but I know who my real enemies are.”
“And who are they?” The macabre humor of psychoanalyzing a walking straw man was not lost on Helen, at least not until she received a deliberate reply.
“People,” it said. “People with fears, people with smug attitudes, people who don’t know how to treat each other. How are you Mrs. Peregrine? Sure you wouldn’t like one?” The scarecrow looked down at the muffin pan and one of his button eyes fell, bouncing off the edge of the pan before it clattered to the floor. “Oh well, time for the main course.” He set the pan down.
“Pleased to meet you, doctor.” He extended a hand and although Helen knew better, she reached for it. Helen shook and the arm separated from the body with a soft, swishing sound. Ernestine stifled a scream and Henry’s mouth hung wide open. The scarecrow calmly took back the arm from Helen, who moved her lips, but could not utter a sound. He stuffed it back in its “socket”. Helen took a step back.
“How do you do, Father?”
Henry almost lifted his hand as a reflex, but the scarecrow did not offer to shake. Instead, he unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it wide open, revealing a chest cavity of straw. When Henry peered a bit closer, he believed the straw was moving, squirming. No, upon closer inspection he saw worm-like things, almost the size of eels, their bodies distended, slithering through the blades of straw, making sticking and oozing sounds. Henry could feel the color drain from his face.
Next, the scarecrow closed his shirt and pulled out a tuft of straw and sliced it cleanly and evenly with a knife from the counter. It was only then that Helen looked down and noticed that its feet were wads of straw held together with twine, like whisk brooms. When it began to shuffle toward them, Ernestine reached for a chair and pushed it over at the creature’s feet, causing it to stumble and fall. At once, they turned and fled, their movements coordinated well enough, having practiced all night.
Out into the night they ran with short rapid steps, turning to see the scarecrow pausing on the front porch, directly under the swaying lamp. Somewhere between the kitchen and the porch the creature had gotten hold of an axe. He stood there, appearing over eight feet tall, the axe resting on his shoulder, a stitched smile fixed on his burlap face.
“That’s no scarecrow,” said Helen. “It’s some psychopath dressed up.”
“Too tall for Marvin,” said Henry.
“Does it matter?” asked Ernestine.
“He’s smiling. He wants us to go back into the field,” said Helen.
“There’s no where else to go,” said Henry.
“Helen,” asked Ernestine, her free hand on Helen’s shoulder, “do you have a lighter? Matches?”
“No, I don’t carry them anymore.”
“What about you?” asked Henry.
“Nice idea, Rev. Back at the house. Real or no, with all that straw, he’d probably burn pretty good.”
The scarecrow began to move forward, awkwardly down the stairs, stiffly, as though he had a limp. When he was about half way between the farm house and the others, everyone got a big surprise. Everyone stopped, including the scarecrow, when a low rumbling began, that of an engine. This was followed by thrashing sounds and a mechanized roar and finally bright headlights. From the side of the farmhouse, coming down a long, winding gravel driveway was a combine harvester. Seated at the controls was Marvin Peregrine.
“Marvin!” all three cried.
“Hi, everybody,” he shouted back, standing up from his seat and waving. “Have you guys been--ahem, stalked?”
“Marvin, what is that thing?” cried Helen.
“What is it? It’s shredded wheat is what it is!”
They stood transfixed as Marvin opened up the throttle. The scarecrow turned to face the churning machine. The harvester bore down on the scarecrow, first flattening him like so many rows of corn and then chopped, cubed, and diced the giant into an unrecognizable tangle of straw and mulch.
Marvin stopped the harvester and turned off the motor. “How ’bout a little ire, scarecrow?”
When Ernestine laughed uneasily, the others followed suit.
“Marvin,” began Ernestine with a sob, seeming to be the first to realize exactly what Marvin had done. “If that wasn’t a person--God, we must all be going mad. If it’s a person, we just witnessed a murder--”
“Most foul,” interrupted Marvin.
“Or,” she continued, “we’ve all lost our minds.”
“The night’s still young,” said Marvin with renewed vigor.
Henry looked up. “You’re not through with this? With us?”
“You fucking bastard,” said Helen, almost lacking conviction.
Marvin walked to the front of the harvester, bent down and retrieved the axe, hoisting it up to his shoulder. “You think your nightmares are over? They’ve only just begun.” He checked his watch. “Give you all fifteen minutes this time. While you have another head start, I’m going inside for some hot muffins and coffee.”
Helen had an impulse that they should all just rush him. Between the three of them, they could prevail. Henry looked like he was thinking the same thing. But Ernestine turned and began to pull them along, back into the blackness of the corn field. They were halfway to dawn.