Lost in the Cornfield

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Chapter 6: It's a Good Life...A Real Good Life

Again, they dashed off, driven by a raw unthinking urge to survive. Several minutes later, Ernestine again led them breathlessly tumbling over one another into an irrigation ditch. Exhausted, they silently decided to await either a dawn of salvation, or an endless night of oblivion. The threat of Marvin now extended itself beyond that of a single malevolent being into all pervasive numbing fear. Not only had Marvin threatened to kill them, but had eradicated someone or something who might have done likewise. He had saved them, but from what? Throughout the rest of the long dark night, they trembled, clutching one another, but neither offering or receiving comfort. They dared not sleep for fear of their waking nightmares pursuing them even into their subconscious. Occasionally, as if to pass the time, they took note of distant shrill cries, their source much obscured. Helen believed it to be the cries of children, like when all the children cried in her family after Dandy’s accident. At the same time, she imagined the cries of the children perishing in the orphanage fire.

Henry tried to control his fear of the dark, constantly brushing himself off, imagining ants and spiders and worms crawling on him. Ernestine, nearly catatonic, stared straight ahead, east as it turned out, awaiting the first signs of dawn.

As the sun rimmed over the edge of the horizon, Ernestine shook free of her trance, and even demonstrated a renewed spirit. She raised herself up and calmly proclaimed,

“It’s over now. He’s gone.”

Helen and Henry got up and stared at her as if to say, “how do you know?”

“Let’s go. It’s light now. I can find our way back.”

“Back where?” asked Henry, genuinely confused.

“The house.” She raised a cuffed hand. “I’ll find another key.”

Helen shook her head violently and tugged back on the handcuffs. “He’s a homicidal maniac. He’s--”

“He’s not there.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s over. That’s all.”

“If you’re wrong--”

“I’m wrong. No one lives forever.”

Helen and Henry looked at each other, wondering at this pronouncement. Could Ernestine have been so terrified in the farm house, in the pitch blackness as they had been, and now so stoical and accepting of the still remaining possibilities of mutilation and death? When they got right down to it, they were still lost, a sea of corn stalks all they could see in any direction. What else could they do but follow?

They re-entered uneventfully, the back door having been left unlocked. Once inside, Helen and Henry were conscious of a feeling of new visitation, of human presence in a place that had not been merely vacant for several hours, but untouched in recent memory.

They passed the table with Marvin’s open suitcase which lay like a magician’s discarded satchel. They saw no chopped off pinky, no bloodied towel, no dried red pool. Marvin’s was indeed a conjured performance. There remained an assortment of knives and a pistol with which the guests did not fail to arm themselves. Helen grabbed the handle of a knife without looking while Henry seized the pistol, neither knowing or confident of their use. Helen imagined that the whole episode must be very similar to the psychotic terrors suffered by some of her patients. For Henry, it was a hellish landscape, a true Dante’s Inferno, with no hope of purgatory.

Ernestine led them upstairs to the master bedroom. “There’s another key. It must be in here somewhere.”

“Where do we look?” said Henry falteringly.

“Yes, where?” Helen piped up.

Ernestine studied them both for a moment and then declared she had to pee. She turned to face the bathroom as if confirming some pre-determined appointment. For the guests, it was almost a welcome return: the beckoning of normal bodily functions. Again, Henry faltered. Helen wondered at the strength of her own bladder which she had managed to hold all night.

“Yes, well, I suppose I can look the other way,” said Henry.

“I suppose you can at that,” said Ernestine, regaining some of her challenging tone. “Both of you can just look the other way.”

Henry averted his gaze as Ernestine lowered her slacks and panties. When she sat down, she looked around suspiciously, but Helen and Henry were too fatigued to notice. Henry was in the doorway, facing out into the bedroom. He cast a quick furtive glance at Ernestine whose features contorted into cold, raw alarm.

“Oh my God,” she said softly through clenched teeth. She beheld the cramped space in front of her as if confronted by some hellish apparition. Helen assumed she was in some discomfort, brought on by the ordeal, but she sighed impatiently and regarded the modest Henry with a measure of contempt, as she had done the night before.

“Ernestine,” she said wearily, “we’ve got to get that key so we can get out of here.” And then what, she wondered to herself. Hide in her house? Call the police? What would she tell them? That she saw a deranged man drive a combine harvester over a straw man who had threatened to kill them? “Can you get on with it?” There could be no going back to normal after this night.

From behind the shower curtain, a thunderous voice cried, “By all means! Let’s get on with it!” When the curtain flew back, they beheld Marvin, holding an axe that rested on one shoulder, his features twisted into a delirious sneer. Some reddish gauze dangled from his left hand. No one moved at first. Ernestine began to whimper.

“It’s too late. It’s dawn. You had your chance. You promised.”

The man standing in the tub was not the Marvin of last night: boorish and uncouth, marginally hospitable, and more than remotely menacing. It was more than being muddied, scratched and bruised, assuming that Marvin had been slogging after them through the corn field. It occurred to Ernestine that like they, he had confronted his own tormentor. But who or what could that have been? He had eradicated the eight-foot straw man.

“Hell and damnation!” he cried, condemning everyone present, while at the same time turning his terror inward. His features reflected torturing visions of charnel houses, putrid and fetid sinkholes filled with rotting corpses, encircled by leathery serpentine demons, breathing fire and hissing smoke and emanating an unspeakable stench, all fueled by blind rage, hatred, and fear.

Ernestine stood abruptly and peed all over herself, the bathroom, the guests. They stumbled out of the doorway with Marvin following. Ernestine glanced at the knife and pistol clutched by Helen and Henry, respectively. The psychiatrist struck first, lashing out with her eyes closed shut. The gray rubber blade curled up against Marvin’s belly that was tautly covered with his now soiled red polo shirt. Henry, remembering police detectives on TV, tried to raise and aim his pistol, but Ernestine’s plump arm weighed him down some. He pulled the trigger anyway, and a stick protruded from the barrel with a click, unfurling a little flag with the letters, “BANG”.

Marvin began to slowly stalk his prey all over the bedroom. With all three handcuffed together, they could hardly outmaneuver him. Marvin huffed and puffed and wheezed with the axe poised on his shoulder. He appeared perfectly content to continue shuffling about the bedroom until they dropped. His bandage, stained red, dropped from his hand, but no one could see the pinky, or what remained of it because he kept his fists clenched.

Ernestine finally paused abruptly, drawing her hands up to her head and stopping her fellow prisoners in their tracks.

“Enough!” she screamed. “I don’t care. Go ahead, you fat bastard!” Slaughter us! They’ll fry you for it!”

“Ernestine, no,” whimpered Helen.

“Now, Mr., Mrs. Peregrine,” stammered Henry.

“All of you shut up!” said Marvin contemptuously. His voice was husky and hoarse and strained as if someone had tried to strangle him. Helen noticed a white patch of hair on the side of his head which she had not seen last night. Marvin seemed as worse for wear as the rest of them, if not more so. His face reddened and he trembled with rage. Ernestine began to sob deeply. For a long moment, they looked in each other’s eyes and surprised the guests by uttering in unison, “Why all this?”

Marvin let the axe fall. It hit the floor, just missing Henry’s foot.

“Why? You have no respect for yourself,” Marvin began. “You drink and eat and sleep too much. You spend money like water. You have nothing to show for your existence. And, you have no feeling or concern for my professional and personal interests and problems. Is that reason enough?”

“There are alternatives,” Helen broke in. “I know from personal experience.”

“And ways to resolve differences.”

“Shut up, you psycho-bimbo,” Ernestine shouted at Helen.

“And you, too, you mealy-mouthed preacher,” Marvin shouted at Henry.

Ernestine sobbed and then abruptly stopped. “Maybe I wouldn’t do all those things if you didn’t make me unhappy. You ignore me. You’re always at the office, the club, driving that sports car and picking up those teenage girls. That’s why I drink. I used to want to spend money on you. I bought you things, but you hated everything. Custom silk shirts, monogrammed ties, Swiss watches, rare classical recordings, imported cigars and brandy.”

“I picked up those girls because you drink.” Marvin rubbed his sagging features with his hands, “Those things you got me cost too much.”

“You were so unkind. It hurt. I started drinking because it hurt. I wouldn’t give you the time of day now. I hate all those things--especially your goddam music!”

As Ernestine became more impassioned, she flung her arms about, flinging also the captive wrists of Helen and Henry. They offered no resistance. They were one-armed silent marionettes directed by Ernestine as though she were some master puppeteer.

“You braying cow!” continued Marvin. “I started ignoring you when you started hanging around bars, wearing those sleazy black and gold dresses. There’s no point in telling you to crawl out of the bottle. You’re too bloated with the sauce.”

“Unspeakable swine!” Ernestine raised both cuffed hands and tensed her fingers into claws as if preparing to scratch Marvin with her nails.

“Cheap whore!” Marvin started to bend down and pick up the axe.

“Oversexed scumbag!” She pursed her lips as if making ready to spit in Marvin’s direction.

“Sleazy bitch!” he shouted from his toes so loudly he almost gagged, his face turning beet red, hardly able to catch his breath, drool forming in the corners of his mouth. Helen broke into sobs and Henry fought back the tears, for now they seemed genuinely touched by the pain the Peregrines had inflicted and suffered.

Ernestine drew closer to Marvin, as everyone watched a tear drop perched on the end of her nose. “I knew when we first moved into this house, trying to start fresh. I was so tired that night. You were grumpy to me all day. And when you didn’t take out the garbage, that was the last straw. So, I got drunk that night.”

“You wouldn’t even get me a beer from the kitchen. I was just as tired as you--”

“And I knew, like a revelation, that nothing would change.”

“You said it. An endless cycle.”

“I ignored you more.”

“I spent more time away from the house. From you.”

“We drove our friends away. Drinking in the morning. Reading filthy magazines and watching pornographic movies. Screaming bouts in public.”

“Brawls in shopping malls.”

“The analyst’s office.”

“Parking lots.”

“You almost beat that man to death.”

“You broke into the neighbors’ houses.”

“You followed me and we beat each other with our bare hands and wrecked their furniture. One house almost caught fire.”

“And then they moved.”

“Of course. Everyone moves.”

“You guys,” gestured Marvin with a nod of his head, “want to, don’t you? You wouldn’t stay and face the likes of this, would you? Confront the beast? Huh?”

Helen and Henry looked away. All the layers had been pared away. They felt the Peregrines had looked deep inside and saw the truth: how their fears, anxieties, insecurities occupied the center of their lives, hardly affected by their so-called professional aspirations. To help heal the mind and the spirit: how could they do that for others when they couldn’t do it for themselves?

“Even we won’t be here forever,” said Ernestine.

“In fact, Ernie, it’s come to an end right about now.”

“It couldn’t go on,” she replied in resignation.

All the chaos of their passion had been distilled down to a single note of discord. And now, even that faded. They had brought themselves back, back before the first callous reply, the first disinterested sigh. From this emerged a bizarre sense of harmony. At first, mesmerized by the exchange, as though it had been rehearsed, Helen and Henry were now shaken and alarmed by its note of finality. They beheld their hosts and then each other with tearful supplication, as if seeking a stay of execution.

“Let us go,” they said in unison.

Marvin’s features twisted with disgust. “Innocent--”

“Bystanders,” completed Ernestine.

“Standing by at any rate,” said Marvin. He reached into his pocket and produced a key. Before he unlocked the handcuffs, he asked the guests if they had anything to say. Helen wished she could feel for them, try to help, but her fear stopped any words of solace. Henry experienced a sense of guilt, for not being able to step forward and fill this void brought on by their suffering. They both shook their heads rigidly. Marvin unlocked the handcuffs.

“Then,” began Marvin portentously, “we sentence you to exile.” They stared, dumbfounded. “The party’s over. Get out.”

Stiffly, Helen and Henry exited the bedroom, urged on gently by Marvin, like a loan officer turning away an unqualified couple. Ernestine continued sitting on the bed, near a night table. She looked away as the guests left, her features clouded with disappointment, as Marvin closed the double door. The guests not only found their spirit blunted, but their legs weak and unwilling. They had been breathing in short spastic bursts during their final moments of captivity. Now, they tried to draw more air into their lungs before attempting the stairs. They heard Marvin inside. It sounded as though he were beginning his tirade anew. Would they go on forever?

“You were a cut up all last night, Ern. Now, it’s my turn.”

Helen and Henry could hear the axe scraping the floor as Marvin sighed wearily, bending over to pick it up.

“How about a little off the top, you slut, you--” There was a sound of a drawer opening quickly. “Where’d you get that gun? Put it down. No--”

Almost simultaneously, a shot rang out and a bloody axe blade crashed through the bedroom door, splintering wood and spraying Helen and Henry with red droplets. This was followed by piercing, unnatural screams. Roused from their stupor, the guests fled from the Peregrine residence for the last time. Out on Center Lane, they fumbled with their house keys again momentarily confusing their new homes, rushing past one another as they corrected the error. Their minds raced with images of flashing red lights, squad cars, ambulances--they imagined they heard the sirens. They envisioned a quiet and efficient removal of the bodies, three of them, one in pieces out at the farm house to the local morgue and subsequent probings by the county Medical Examiner. They anticipated the return of Detective Perry at their front doors, eventually linking them to the slain couple and the man in the bizarre scarecrow costume. It had to be a costume. Next, gossip, then scandal. Scurrilous tales of mayhem. Another in the catalog of tales surrounding the Earthly Delights development and the adjacent farm.

Father Henry Pauley bolted all his doors, closed the shades, and turned on all the lights. He quickly ate some stale bread in his kitchen and washed it down with tap water. Next, he checked the locks again, especially the one to the basement, and then went upstairs to his bedroom, stepping around unopened boxes. Methodically, he began picking pieces of straw from his clothes and hair. He then stripped and lay on his mattress with a blanket and reached for his reading copy of the Bible, which he clutched to his heart while he offered a short prayer--for everyone, the Peregrines, Helen, the missing boys, and himself. He opened the Bible, but before he could begin to read he fell into a deep sleep, the Bible open and face down across his chest and he slept all day and into the early evening.

Dr. Helen Fleize slammed the door behind her and, in darkness, she backed slowly into her living room, not remembering her teak bookcase with her favorite volumes and textbooks. When she jumped, she lost her balance, her weight lurching against the bookcase. It tottered and swayed and some books fell. A particularly large textbook struck her on the head. Dazed, she slumped to the floor and succumbed to exhaustion and slept as long as Henry, but without nightmares.

Detective Perry stopped back early that evening and, as before, went to see Henry first. Henry staggered to the front door and as the gaunt Perry eyed him from rumpled head to foot, he asked if he wouldn’t mind coming with him so he could talk to “the both of you so he wouldn’t have to repeat himself.”

“You mean Helen,” Henry said, barely able to clear his throat. He dressed quickly and followed the detective across the cul-de-sac, sneaking a glance at the Peregrine house, which appeared normal and undisturbed. Helen had awakened a little before and managed to get in a quick shower. Clad in her bathrobe, she stood in the kitchen, waiting for the microwave to heat water for instant coffee. She jumped when she heard the doorbell, but refused to believe it could be the Peregrines. When she saw Detective Perry and Henry, she invited them in. She exchanged glances with Henry, sharing the assumption that Perry was now investigating the grisly double murder of the Peregrines. She would tell the truth as she sensed Henry would. What else could they do? Tell the truth to Detective Perry. Tell the truth to themselves. Helen sincerely regretted how the Peregrines were beyond her healing powers as Henry likewise lamented his inability to reach them with his ministry, to make a difference.

“OK, folks, this shouldn’t take long. The children were found--”

“Oh, God,” said Helen.

“Alive, alive,” said Perry, almost enjoying the semi-intentional suspense. “They appear to be all right except for a bad scare. We found them hiding in a barn--in a hay loft actually.” Helen and Henry braced for further questioning about the field, the farm house, the scarecrow, but none was forthcoming. “We are puzzled about one thing, though. We went to the Peregrines’ house a little while ago, and, well this is odd, but they appear to have suddenly taken a long trip.”

Helen and Henry could not contain their surprise. “A trip? How do you know?” asked Helen.

“We looked around the outside of the house.” Helen and Henry waited for the phrase “signs of a struggle”. “We could see in the windows. Most of the furniture was covered with sheets. But the weird part was the note they left pinned to the front door addressed to me. That they knew nothing about the missing boys, but that, and I quote,” he said retrieving a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket, “‘DOCTOR Fleize and FATHER Pauley might have some answers.’ What do you make of that?”

Helen and Henry each took a deep breath and announced at the same time, “You’re not going to believe this.”

Perry blinked. “How’s that?”

“I’ll get us some coffee,” said Helen, “this is going to take a while.”

“And,” added Henry, “if you don’t cart us away after we’re done, maybe we can go see if those boys or their families need help.” Helen nodded in agreement.

From this All Soul’s Day forward the Peregrines remained away and the house was eventually sold to an elderly couple who seemed perfectly normal. Thanks in part to Helen and Henry, the boys, Scott, Tony, Paul, and little Timmy recovered, but never seemed able or willing to describe exactly what they had seen. The identity of the farmer remained a mystery, but on rare occasions, usually early morning, some residents of Earthly Delights thought they caught a fleeting glimpse of someone moving about the corn fields, but no one investigated. They would just stop and listen, but all they ever heard was the wind rustling countless stalks of corn. The immense man of straw was back at his post on this windy early November day. His thin slit of a mouth turned up at one corner, as if anticipating new visitors, waiting for the proper time.

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