02 Apr The Scarecrow’s Mausoleum
“The Scarecrow’s Mausoleum”Written by Wentz Hesselman Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 18 minutes
Gabriel Larson walked up to Colby Pittman on the playground at recess and kicked him square in the nuts. The heavyset, bug-eyed redhead crumpled to the ground. Then Gabriel kicked him in the stomach with the force of a raging bull. Nobody stopped him. Everyone just sort of watched. Everyone except one of the supervisors. She had old lady hands and batwing arms, but she was strong.
The two boys were promptly dragged to the principal’s office. Mr. Ford’s thick beard couldn’t hide the fact that he was frowning. He looked at them over the top of his thick-rimmed glasses and waited for some kind of explanation.
“Well, Mr. Larson?” he pushed.
Gabriel dropped the note on Mr. Ford’s desk.
“It says it’s from my sister. But it’s his handwriting.”
Mr. Ford heaved a sigh at the note and read it aloud, stumbling over the horrible penmanship:
“Dear Gabriel, my Big Brother,
I am in Hell. It is very hot here. It hurts so much. I must have been a very bad little slut to end up in Hell. You’ll be here soon too, and you’ll deserve it.
Your dead retarded sister,
Mr. Ford pinched the bridge of his eyebrows.
“And you surmise that this was written by Mr. Pittman here?”
“My sister never talked that stupid,” Gabriel said. He felt an unusual mixture of laughter, anger, and grief whirling up into his head and pushing forth tears.
“You can’t prove it,” Colby said.
“I really shouldn’t say this, but I’ve seen Mr. Pittman’s handwriting enough to know that this is probably his. But that doesn’t justify what you’ve done to him today. He has bruised ribs.”
“That’s what he gets for making fun of my sister.”
He held up a hand before continuing.
“Yes, his behavior was abhorrent. But so was yours, Mr. Larson.”
“Yeah? Well, at least he gets to live. My sister doesn’t!”
Mr. Ford regarded the youth like he was unsure if he should reprimand him or apologize.
He then folded his glasses and set them on his desk without a click. He buried his face in his palms and massaged his forehead with his fingertips.
“When I was eleven, like you, I lost my grandfather. I know that’s not the same as losing a sister, but hear me out. When word got around at school, the worst of the worst wouldn’t let me live in peace. Kids that I didn’t even know the names of were hounding me over my grandfather’s death.
They didn’t know me either, and they especially didn’t know my grandfather, and there they were…making fun of him. Of me. It was incredible.
Those kids didn’t end up being the criminals and thugs I thought they would. They just went on to join the rank-and-file adults that are running the world.
I don’t mean to make light of your feelings, but the simple truth is that people are horrible from the moment they’re born, and they don’t get any better. If you go around kicking in the ribs of everyone that demonstrates how horrible they are, then you’ll have a fight on your hands every ten minutes.”
“So are you going to do anything about him or not?” Gabriel said evenly.
Mr. Ford threw Colby a look. “I’ll talk to him. I advise you to stay away from him.”
Gabriel left the principal’s office feeling the same way he always had. Empty-handed and disappointed. It made the weight of his sister’s memory heavier.
“Gabe-will? Gabe-will?” she’d say in that annoying, raspy little voice of hers. The kid just couldn’t take a hint that she was pesky as hell. All that annoyance he had felt turned to guilt when he couldn’t spend another second with her. He’d never hear that little voice again.
It wasn’t certain that she was dead, but when a child has been missing for so many months and there’s been no sighting, no word, no evidence of her anywhere, what were they supposed to think? She was just gone.
That night he lay in bed staring up into the darkness, thinking of her. She was never absent, just present in degrees.
“Gabe-will? Gabe-will?” her voice ricocheted inside his skull.
And then he heard her voice right next to his ear. His body reacted with a violent jerk. His eyes flew open. He heard little footsteps pad across his bedroom floor and out the door. He chased the sound. He’d know it anywhere. The sound of Hayleigh’s bare feet smacking the wood floor. It just had to be her.
“Hayleigh!” he cried out. The footsteps wouldn’t relent. The front door opened and shut half a second before he reached it. He yanked it open and flew out into the cool November night, shouting at that point.
He heard lights flick on upstairs. Mom and Dad came down to check on him. They were caught off guard by their son’s wild eyes and his conviction that he had been visited by their missing child. But their confusion and surprise spiraled down into annoyance. They urged him back to bed, as if all the traumatic memories would lay down and go to sleep with him.
He went back to bed, but his stare was as intense as ever. It was when he rolled over onto his side and tucked his hand under his pillow that he found it.
It was a letter.
This is your sister Hayleigh. Please come pick me up at the corn maze we were at where I bumped my head, remember? I love you very much, and we don’t have much time.
Enclosed was a hand-drawn map that was done in crayon on lined notebook paper. He knew which corn maze she was talking about. They hadn’t been there for nearly two years. It was just down the country road from where they lived. Their house sat on the edge of town. If you walked five minutes one way, you were in civilization. If you walked five minutes in the other direction, you were surrounded by farmland.
It was the tail end of November; the fields were bare and desolate.
He wasn’t willing to fully believe that he had just received a letter from his sister. But he knew those footsteps.
And if that was really her, why didn’t she stay in the house? Why did he have to go get her? His rational side was working overtime to make sense of it all, but none of that work touched the deep down, intuitive part of him, that just knew that Hayleigh had reached out to him from beyond some veil she couldn’t completely pierce.
Gabriel didn’t say much to anyone until the weekend when he made a decision.
* * * * * *
He hoped that he would fall asleep and default on his plans to go looking for a corn maze that had probably been mowed down with the rest of the fields, but sleep fled him. When two in the morning rolled around and his eyes hadn’t grown an ounce heavier, he put on his clothes and he went out the front door as silently as a shadow cast by the moon. It was a full moon, and it rode high. The surrounding fields had scattered stalks of corn that gleamed like broken bones in the cold light.
He wasn’t sure what he would find. Surely the maze had been mown down in the harvest. But no, it was still there. The tall, dense and matured corn stalks that formed its walls were untouched.
He rubbed his eyes, expecting the fog of his breath in the crisp air to wash away the sight of the maze, but there it was, visible and tangible.
A girl sat at a worn picnic table that was set up as an admissions desk. Hand-painted signs announced prices for exciting fall-themed trinkets and goodies, even though the table was completely bare. The girl’s pale skin was made even more pale by the moonlight, and her eyes and hair and lips were very dark by contrast. She wore a metal band shirt with wide-legged black denims.
She looked up to see Gabriel, and she didn’t seem surprised. She also didn’t appear to care.
“Hey,” he said.
“You want to go through the maze?” she snapped.
“Well, I got a letter that told me to come here to meet my sister. She’s been missing for months, and everyone thinks she’s dead and I…”
“Do you want to go through the maze, yes or no?”
“Okay. That’ll be three dollars.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Fine. Give me your hand.”
Gabriel hesitated a moment before trusting the girl with one of his hands. He was quite the fair-skinned youth himself, but her own hands were much whiter. Porcelain, even.
She tied a hemp wristband around his wrist that felt rather snug and a bit prickly. He furrowed his eyebrows and began to itch at it. There was no sympathy in the girl’s gaze.
“You’ll need to put at least three drops in the bowl next to the arch. She pointed to a great arch constructed of hay bales that curved overhead in a majestic feat of rural engineering.
“Three drops of what?” he asked.
She just stared at him. He shook his head and approached the arch. Shriveled pumpkins and gourds of mottled, faded colors sat atop its curve. They weren’t carved into jack-o-lanterns, and yet somehow their withering surfaces still formed vague visages that stared at Gabriel, and this made the air feel colder.
He drew in his breath and nodded to the girl in thanks. He wanted to ask her what she was doing out here in a field, dressed so lightly in the wee hours of the night, but something told him he shouldn’t.
He looked up at the arch, which seemed to grow in size as he got closer to it. Then he saw it; a weathered wooden bowl surrounded by flickering candles. It sat crooked on the ground.
Maybe she meant three drops of candle wax.
The candles were the sort he had seen in church. Fat white candles in tall glass jars. He poured three drops into the bowl and proceeded to the maze.
It wasn’t a complicated maze at all, clearly meant for someone half his age. The exit came up quickly. He stepped out into the wide-open, moon-bathed harvested landscape, feeling apprehension and anger intertwining around his heart. He headed back inside through the maze exit, readying some aggressive questions for the girl at the entrance.
He stopped in his tracks when he heard some sort of abrupt dragging sound behind him. The exit had been sealed behind him. A barrier of corn formed where there had been an opening. He stared dumbly before trying to pass the barrier. It was impossibly dense. He jumped up and down to try and look beyond the leaves and the stalks. He couldn’t see anything due to fog that hadn’t been there before.
He staved off a wave of anxiety and arrived back at the arch. It was barred with splintered planks studded with rusty nails. His jaw dropped. Before the barrier was the wooden bowl with the church candles.
A sharp pain stung his wrist. The wristband had constricted and dug into his skin. Blood flowed in a clean, straight line and started to pool into a trembling bead at the bulge of his wrist.
He then understood the girl’s ominous words.
Three times his dark blood welled up and fell through the rays of the candles into the bowl. Something changed in the air as soon as the third drop thupped against the wood.
The wax of the candles had changed from cotton white to crimson.
The entire arch shuddered as the nail-studded planks retracted upward like a portcullis. He saw before him what could have been mistaken for one of those old wooden corn cribs, only it was much bigger. It felt more like a mausoleum.
There was a great central door flanked by carved faces that sat beneath niches where funeral urns sat. The faces, the urns, and the overall bearing of the gigantic structure was grotesque and foreboding. A shiver coiled its way through Gabriel’s body, and he wanted to leave what he had discovered behind and go home. Someone must have been listening to his thoughts. The spiked planks thumped back down into the earth behind him. There was no going back.
Trembling, he approached the heavy wooden door that had knockers of great rings clenched in the jaws of demonic gargoyles. They were entirely made of wood.
The rings made deeper thumps than wood ought to have. Nobody answered. He gave the door a gentle push, and it opened with an awful creak.
The interior was utterly dreadful. Gothic chandeliers, decorative suits of hellish armor, niches for candles, visages of fearful, howling souls in mirror frames and door jambs; it was all wood, and the guttering lights made everything wriggle with life. It seemed to Gabriel to be one big fire hazard.
A grand chasm of a hallway stretched in front of him, longer than the building’s outside suggested. There was a low, narrow trough that ran the entire length of the hall. It was filled with a black tar-like liquid. It flowed like polluted rainwater in the gutter of a foul street.
“Come in,” echoed a shadowy, whispery voice.
Gabriel took a few tentative steps forward, and he jumped as the door slammed shut, nearly hitting him in the back.
“Don’t be afraid. You’re welcome here. Actually, you’ve been invited,” came the voice again. Gabriel didn’t feel comforted or reassured in the least. Not until he saw his sister step out from somewhere into the middle of the hallway. She was wearing the same dress he had last seen her in.
“Hayleigh!” he cried, forgetting his fear.
She just leered at him and ran away down the hallway. He gave chase and didn’t slow until he started seeing what was in the hallway with him.
There were vaults in those walls sealed by more bars of nail-studded planks. They weren’t empty. Hands and arms hung limply out into the candlelight. A finger would twitch here and there.
Gabriel screamed aloud when the churning black liquid in the channel suddenly looked like oversized centipedes gyrating together. As soon as he saw the shapes of the creatures, it reverted back to being liquid. His heartbeat shook his whole body, but that fleeting sight of his sister drove him onward.
Double doors at the far end of the hallway lazed open, allowing more golden light into his view. He thought he saw wine-red carpet, but he forgot all about it as a far worse sight stole his senses when he reached it.
There was Hayleigh standing at attention. The large, long room was lined with wooden cages, each of them contained a child in rags that vomited a steady fountain of the black liquid. Their eyes rolled in exhausted misery beneath foreheads etched with tired lines. The spurting foulness shapeshifted between the forms of insects and demons and screaming faces as it ran down the pedestals holding each cage, where it joined the black stream that ran throughout the building.
Hayleigh didn’t seem to notice them or the towering figure next to her that kept one hand on her shoulder.
It looked every bit like a scarecrow with a straw hat, overalls, and a burlap bag with stitched eyes and mouth.
“Hello, Gabriel. Your sister has been looking forward to seeing you,” the thing spoke. The stitches in its mouth writhed with each consonant.
“You’re a scarecrow,” Gabriel stammered.
“More than that, I’m a custodian,” the scarecrow said, bowing its head. “I’m also very reasonable. I seem to have accidentally ended up with this little treasure.”
It drummed its fingers on Hayleigh’s shoulder.
“She doesn’t belong in a place like this. Her heart is such a good apple. This place is for rotten, wormy hearts.”
“Can she come with me, then?”
The scarecrow held up a long, gloved finger. “There’s the issue. I would be delighted to let her go home. But someone needs to take her place. And no, I won’t accept you. I see the hero in your golden apple heart that could make that sacrifice. Very touching. No, you need to find me another heart. One with worms, preferably, but any heart will do.”
Gabriel swallowed hard. The only thing that seemed more unfathomable than willingly bringing anyone to this place, to spend eternity behind nail-studded boards, was convincing them to–
“You won’t need to persuade anyone,” the scarecrow interrupted his train of thought. “You’ll just have to be sneaky.”
One large black tar centipede wriggled out of the chamber’s wooden channel and scurried towards Gabriel in a winding “S” movement. It paused just long enough to show Gabriel that its body segments were made of screaming baby faces. He was about to flee when the thing coiled up and shriveled into something small and pale.
A corn doll. Made from colorless, dry leaves.
“Take my totem and give it to whoever you feel is…worthy of residency at this fine establishment. Then you can take your precious little apple home.”
Gabriel blinked at the horrible object.
“What…what if they won’t take it?”
“You’re a bright boy. I’m sure you’ll find a way of getting it on some lucky winner’s person by the deadline.”
“Yes, in two days at sundown. Then I’ll come for whoever is in possession of it. If I end up coming for you, then I keep you and your sister both. Then I’ll have two good apples that don’t belong here. What a shameful circumstance that would be!”
Gabriel was so overwhelmed with digesting the scarecrow’s words that he didn’t notice the corn doll crawling crab-like up his pant leg. Its grip was sharp like a pinch bug, and a sudden, shrieking wind blasted Gabriel off of his feet.
When he opened his eyes, he was in his bed. The notion that the whole thing had been a dream was erased by the sensation of the corn doll’s pointed arms and legs anchoring itself into the skin of his stomach. He pulled it off in horror. It moved a bit and then went still, staring at him with a face it didn’t have, putting the question to him of what he was going to do next.
Day was just breaking, and the sunlight bled through the blinds. It reminded him too much of the candlelight.
He sat up in bed, and regarded the corn doll as if it were the scythe of the grim reaper. It was a tool of judgment, and it was his responsibility. There would be no point in trying to delegate his burden of office to anyone else. Passing the doll on would be an act of damnation.
So who could he give the doll to and still be able to sleep at night?
The question throbbed in his brain all day at school. Every face he saw, he pictured inside those terrible wooden cages, their eyes shedding solid streams of tears to mingle with the stream of fetid black horrors pouring from their mouths, preventing them from asking the questions of what they did to deserve something so unspeakable, if they’d ever see their parents, their pets, their own bedroom again.
Gabriel’s stomach tightened up. He wasn’t sure he could do it. He tried being objective: If he would be damned along with Hayleigh if he failed, well, better for one person to suffer in the place of two.
It didn’t help. His heart really was a “good apple.”
Before he knew it, the school day was about to end, and that meant that he had only one day left. The first one had gotten away from him without a struggle. This backhanded him with a pang of panic.
He approached Colby at his locker. The fat redhead’s strained breathing was almost as loud as his rough movements with his belongings. His blue eyes went wide when he saw Gabriel approaching.
“Hey,” Gabriel said.
Colby said nothing.
“I kinda want to put everything behind us and be friends. I’ve got something for you.”
The bully’s eyes probed all over him.
His eyes popped for half a second when he saw what Gabriel had in his hand. It was the corn doll.
“I don’t want your sissy baby toys,” he said with false bravado.
“Why not? It’s a gift.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t want it.” And with that, Colby had turned and walked away with more than necessary speed.
Gabriel felt two strange emotions welling up inside of him. One of them was hate. But he also felt something like a smile. An adult might compare it to the warmth felt in a beer buzz.
He didn’t know where it was coming from, and his conscious mind tried to reject it like a donated kidney, tried to tell him that he didn’t like it. But a deeper, more primal part of him loved it.
The following day, recess saw the usual explosion of kids out the double doors, and it appeared to Gabriel that Colby had gone out with more than the usual speed and urgency. As if he were eager to get away from something.
Colby headed towards the back of the property. Far away from the school. Gabriel locked on to him and followed at a fast clip. Colby never turned around, but his pace quickened. He knew he was being followed. That warmth in Gabriel’s stomach grew.
Colby must have been operating on fear at that point, because he was leading Gabriel off into an isolated corner of the school property. That corner where you just weren’t sure if you were still on the playground or not, where there were lots of trees.
Gabriel somehow understood that they both knew that they were going to be by themselves. This was either going to be a man-to-man chat or a man-to-man fight.
“You know what it is,” Gabriel said. His question was as much of a statement as it was a question.
It took Colby a second to turn around and look him in the eye.
His usual bold demeanor was rusted out with reticence and fear.
“He promised me I could have my real mom back,” Colby said.
“What? He who?”
“You know who I’m talking about. The thing you got that doll from.”
“I only saw kids there; why would it have your mom?” Gabriel said, unsure if Colby would even know what he meant.
“I saw nothing but people like my mother. Women. He… he sets you up for his deal by showing you people that are like who you lost.”
Gabriel squinted in confusion.
“I thought I heard that she’s the one that used to beat you and your brothers and sisters.”
Colby’s scowl wavered, loosening under the oncoming tears.
“Screw what you heard. She’s my mom. I love her. That’s just the way it is.”
“Who did you give to the scarecrow to trade for your mom?”
Colby scratched his neck and looked away.
“I’m really sorry, okay? Look, I wrote those letters because I thought that if I made fun of you for what I had done, it wouldn’t bother me so much.”
The dots were connecting in Gabriel’s mind, and he was trying to fight off the picture they were forming.
“So what wouldn’t bother you so much?”
“I didn’t know what else to do. I was desperate. I just wanted my mom back, that’s all.”
“You gave him my sister,” Gabriel said in a voice that sounded like a strangled whine. He prayed that Colby would deny it. But he didn’t.
“You don’t get it,” Colby muttered.
“Actually, I do. Which is why I’m going to give you the chance to do the right thing.”
He held out his hand, offering the corn doll to Colby, who looked at him in amazement.
“You got your mom out of there because you love her, right? So do the right thing and get my sister out of there.”
That was the first time Gabriel ever saw someone’s jaw drop.
“You rescued your mom, now rescue my sister! Do what’s right!”
“I’m not rescuing your whore brat sister!”
Colby didn’t have time to catch his breath from his outburst. Gabriel lifted his foot and kicked him square in his sternum, knocking him back into the door of what looked like a burly, industrial shed, the kind with a lightbulb in a small metal cage above the door.
The door had been left ajar, and it swung open wide for the tumbling Colby, whose head rammed into a shelf of paint cans and mason jars. His instincts fired off and he got to his feet and made a mad dash for the door, which was blocked by Gabriel.
Gabriel grabbed the handle of a heavy shovel and brought it up to clock Colby with the sturdy wood, but the inertia knocked both of them back outside. Colby landed on top of his assailant and he sneered down into his face. They grappled for the shovel.
Colby might have been the victor if he hadn’t put so much energy into a great cry of “Help! Help!” But it was just enough of a window for Gabriel to wrench the shovel out of his hands and bring the handle down across Colby’s forehead.
* * * * * *
Colby woke up unable to move. He was back inside the shed. The shovel was leaned against the wall, as if mocking him. He gathered enough strength to thrash and twist against his bonds, but whatever they were, they held fast. He saw a roll of dusty gray duct tape on the floor. He felt tears sting his eyes.
The door opened, and Colby briefly hallucinated that it was a policeman. But it was just Gabriel. He had a hard, neutral look to him. Like a judge.
He held the corn doll to Colby’s temple, and its little arms and legs dug into his skin like the mandibles of some insect.
Tears flowed down Colby’s cheeks and down the duct tape that muffled his whimpers. Gabriel regarded this with a cold satisfaction, that strange warmth rolling in his belly. But then he noticed something about his prisoner.
Where there should have been a bruise on his face from the whack from the shovel, there was flaking skin. Flaking and crumbling. He absently picked at it, making a soft snapping, crinkling sound. Colby winced.
The two gazed into each other’s eyes, and it was the first time that Gabriel noticed how papery his foe’s eyes appeared. He was trying to stave off the idea that his crumbling wound felt much like the corn doll.
The hours wore on. The sun started to set. Colby cried for water through his muzzle, but Gabriel just stared down at him. Gabriel was feeling the dehydration and exhaustion also. But he stayed the course. He was going to see this through.
He winced at everything that sounded remotely like a police siren. He expected that the school grounds would be crawling with law enforcement, and they would be found out minutes before the scarecrow was due. But no.
Nobody came looking for either one of them.
The dangling lightbulb in the crest of the ceiling flickered. Colby bobbed in and out of consciousness until there was a knock on the door and it opened of its own accord.
“Hello, Colby,” said a low voice. “I had a feeling we’d be seeing each other again.”
Colby’s eyes snapped open with clarity.
The scarecrow nodded to the corn doll lodged in the boy’s temple like an oversized tick.
Gabriel didn’t see what happened next. He was standing outside in the cool night air. He saw the scarecrow go inside the shed, but nobody came out. He hesitated, but went to investigate when it had been completely still for too long.
The shed was empty. Colby was gone, duct tape bonds, corn doll and all.
Gabriel wondered if there was going to be any kind of acknowledgment or confirmation from the scarecrow. His conscience was starting to twitch. But that would be easy to ignore if he just knew that his sister was safe, and free of that otherworldly crypt.
He didn’t want to stay on the school property. But he didn’t want to go home in the blind fog of uncertainty. What kind of story was he going to use to cover himself? Colby’s disappearance was going to be a hot question tomorrow when it would be confirmed that he didn’t make it home.
He stumbled on his way home, unable to think of anywhere else to go. He was hungry and thirsty and utterly spent.
He forgot how bad he felt when he saw a short shadow standing outside his home. He could see no details, but he knew. He just knew.
He ran up to the figure and descried just enough detail to confirm that it was his sister.
“Hayleigh!” he said with renewed strength.
She gave him a deadpan gaze just before he swept her up and held her for a long moment.
The front door opened and the outdoor light washed them in a pale yellow glow. The first to come out was their mom, masking her face with both hands. Dad followed just behind, open-mouthed.
* * * * * *
Hayleigh was nothing like she had been before. Doctors called it shock and possible trauma. Police couldn’t get anything out of her as to where she had been. She talked only a little. Stared a lot. It was Hayleigh’s face, voice, and body, but the soul, her spark seemed to be gone.
Gabriel hoped against hope that it was only temporary.
As the months passed, Gabriel noticed something one morning while looking in the mirror. The skin around one of his cheekbones looked cracked. It flaked off when scratched. His eyes looked like Colby’s had. Papery.
He ran his fingers through his hair. He showered last night, but his hair felt dry and the rustle it made was just a bit too loud.
He fidgeted with his hair all day, getting lost in the sound it made, driving his thoughts that circled like a lazy wind in an empty room.
He started seeing movement out of the corner of his eyes when he was alone, false shadows that would evaporate when he looked directly at them. He drank more and more water, but the dryness that was overtaking him would not relent.
Hayleigh, or what was left of her, was home. That’s all he cared about. He knew deep down that the scarecrow wasn’t just going to let him walk away unscathed, just like the way Hayleigh was still tainted.
So he waited to see what would become of him, as he slowly became more and more like a scarecrow himself.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available