Created for the Third Annual "Screams" Halloween Contest. Prompts: Scarecrow, Witch, Mask
He paused. The thought had surprised him, startled him even, spontaneous as it had been. Now that he considered it, though, his wife had been acting strangely, as of late. She seemed distant, and more so than usual. That didn’t mean she was cheating on him, though...did it?
Seth Anders and Trevor Davis, two of Party Central’s stock-boys, stood waiting at the foot of the half-unloaded trailer. They looked to be on the verge of laughter. How long, Harold wondered, had he been standing here holding this box, off in his own world?
He looked down at the carton in his grasp. The graphic on the front showed a life-sized, animatronic scarecrow. The maliciously-grinning straw-man was decked out in a battered top-hat. Stamped diagonally across the picture, a red bar with the word DISPLAY written in white block letters.
“Display,” Harold said, as he handed the box over to Trevor. The young man, for his part, turned and handed the box off to Seth. “Put it aside, with the others.”
The truckload of Halloween merchandise, the first of at least two, and possibly even three the store would receive over the next month had been offloaded by three o’clock. At three-thirty, Harold sat in his office, dividing his attention between an afternoon football game and the store’s closed-circuit video monitor.
Concentrating on either was hard. The idea that his wife might be cheating on him kept swimming up to the surface of his consciousness. It was a thought that, quite frankly, had never crossed his mind. Not, that is, until it had popped, fully articulated, into his head earlier that day. Now, it was driving him to distraction.
He should be walking the store, he knew. Party Central attracted more than its fair-share of shoplifters during the Halloween season. For reasons Harold didn’t understand, people just seemed to love stealing Halloween crap. Every October, dozens and dozens of masks, packages of stage make-up--entire costumes even-- would end up unaccounted for.
The first-quarter of the football game had just ended when the door to Harold's office burst open with enough force that it slammed against the opposite wall. The portly man spun in his office-chair, ready to spit indignant fire. “Tina?” He said instead, “What the hell…?”
“Come quick…” Tina Asher, who’d packed her young body (barely) into a sexy-witch costume during her break, looked to be on the verge of going into shock. “No, first we should call 911...no, wait, Vinnie is doing that…”
“Tina, calm down.” Harold was already on his feet. “Here, sit down. Where are they?”
The young woman sat. “Seven. They’re in seven. There’s blood....a lot of blood…”
Harold was already on his way out the door. He hurried out onto the sales-floor and was immediately accosted by two women who had questions about costumes. He excused himself midstride and jogged the short distance to aisle-seven. He turned…
There’s blood….a lot of blood…
Tina hadn’t been lying. Five or six bright streaks of crimson painted the white tile-floor of the aisle, some reaching as far as the product displays on the opposite wall.
A small cluster of people had gathered about three-quarters of the way down the aisle. Vinnie Russo, who was on the outskirts of the small group, noted his boss.
“Harry!.” The young man walked the few steps to meet his manager. He was shaking his head. “I called...an ambulance is on the way.”
"Vinnie, keep customers away from here, okay? Rope off the aisle."
The young man nodded and started off. Harold walked to the small crowd. “What happened?”
Amy Richter, who'd been down on one knee, stood. The young cashier was covered in blood, so much so that Harold’s mind flashed back to the movie Carrie. He wondered, for a moment, whether his employees would be stupid enough to play a prank this gruesome during business hours. They were none of them rocket-scientists, okay... but no, he didn’t think it likely they’d be that foolish.
The young woman looked at him then, and Harold knew it was no joke. It appeared as though she’d aged ten years since she showed up for work two hours ago. A single tear rolled down her crimson-stained cheek and mouth. “I think I stopped the bleeding…,” She managed to say. “He’s dead, though. I think….yes, I think he’s dead.” With that Amy collapsed into Harold’s arms and cried.
Harold patted the young woman’s back in what he thought to be a comforting, but appropriate manner. He looked over her shoulder. There, sprawled out in a spreading pool of blood, was Arnie Fuller. Lindsey Raymond, another cashier, had the young man’s head in her lap. The mouse-faced girl was crying while absently stroking Arnie’s hair. Someone had tied strips of now-bloodied flannel around the boy's thigh. Still, the pattern looked familiar, and Harold wasn’t at all surprised to see that Trevor now wore only an undershirt.
With a motion of his head, Harold summoned Trevor, with whom he knew Amy Richter was close. He gave the young woman over to her friend and squatted down beside Arnie and Lindsay. He looked at Lindsay, who shook her head. With two fingers, he reached out and checked Arnie’s neck for a pulse. There was none.
Business at Party Central usually dropped off a bit around dinner-time, and today was no exception. Harold stood at the front of the store, behind the registers. Nobody felt much like eating after the events of the afternoon, but he’d sent Trevor and Tina for a couple of pies from Salerno’s. He figured it wouldn’t do any of them any good not to eat, and that if there was pizza in the building, they would probably eat it.
His attention was drawn, once again, to the burgeoning display of life-sized animatronics opposite the register and front-doors. Thus far his team had gotten around to unboxing and displaying Count Dracula; a ghoulish Edwardian-butler; a zombie that bore a striking resemblance to Harold’s mother-in-law; a wicked-witch; and the scarecrow.
A chill ran down Harold’s back as his eyes fell upon the straw-man. What were the odds, he wondered, that Arnie would cut himself opening that box, after his own strange encounter with the thing? They had to be astronomical.
Don't be ridiculous. The scarecrow didn’t make you think anything…
Of course, it hadn’t. And he didn’t really believe that it had. Only...there had been an almost electric-current sort of quality to the thought--as though it had coursed outward from the box and up his nervous system to his brain, only then to be actualized as cognition.
Harold shook his head. What a fucking day. He looked again at the phones, checked the cell at his belt. The paramedics had been able to revive Arnie Fuller, thank God...but his condition was still touch-and-go.
He’d just decided he would wait until after dinner to call the hospital when Tina and Trevor returned with an armful of pizza boxes. Harold took a paper-plate and a slice back to his office.
Collapsing into his chair, he took a large bite of his pizza and flipped on the television. The evening game wouldn’t be starting for an hour, but the pre-show commentary was already in full-swing. He chewed his food, watched the talking-heads, and tried not to think about his wife cheating on him. After a time, he turned to glance at the closed-circuit monitor. What he saw troubled him.
The display was divided into four frames. The top-left showed the front door, the top-right the registers. The bottom-left image showed the length of the back-aisle of the store, where the costumes were displayed. It was the bottom-right quadrant that caught his eye, though. That camera displayed a long-view of the front of the store. At the very “end” of the image, you could see the registers and the display of animatronics opposite them.
There on the monitor, Trevor stood seemingly transfixed before the animatronic scarecrow. He stood still, his head tilted slightly. Something about the image sent a tendril of fear into Harold’s stomach and bowels.
Your wife is cheating on you…
Harold stood and moved to the door. He reached out for the knob and took a hasty step backward, as the door opened on its own. In the doorway, stood Trevor. Harold gasped. He turned back to the monitor he’d been watching--the scarecrow was now alone.
“Trevor...is everything okay?” It was a stupid question. One look at the young man's face would attest to the opposite.
“No…,” Trevor shook his head slowly. He seemed half in a trance, as though he’d just received a great shock--which of course he had, only hours ago. “Um...I’m sorry, I have to go home.”
The older man nodded, spooked by the look in his employee’s eyes. “Okay, Trevor. No problem...are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you?”
Trevor seemed to come back to himself, if only partly, and only for an instant; “Thank you, Harry. I appreciate it, but there’s nothing you can do. It’s a family thing.”
Harold nodded. He didn’t like the expression that had flashed across the young man’s face as he’d said “family.” He was trying to think of how best to respond when the telephone rang. “Can you hold on one second, Trevor?”
The young man shook his head. “I have to go, boss. Get the phone; it may be about Arnie. I hope he’s okay.”
Harold turned to the phone, then back to Trevor. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. What he’d wanted to ask, apparently, his mouth had deemed too foolish to speak.
What did the scarecrow whisper to you?
He turned, finally, and answered the phone. “Hello…,” He covered the receiver with his hand. “Be safe, Trevor. Call if you need anything.”
The young man nodded. He turned and left the office.
“So that’s all I know, and I wanted to tell you all so there won’t be any rumors floating around. It was a terrible, freak accident, and the minute I hear anything, I’ll let you know. In the meantime…,” Harold looked at each member of his night crew in turn, “We’ve got a shit-ton of papering and pegging to do, so everybody take a planner and get on your aisle.”
Harold turned to retrieve a stack of print-outs from his desk. As he looked back to his employees, his eyes fell upon the closed-circuit display. His stomach lurched. In the bottom right corner, an elderly woman was staring, wide-eyed, at that damned scarecrow.
That fucking scarecrow…
He handed each of his night-crew employees the plan-o-gram for their assigned aisle. As they filed out to begin their tasks, Harold took David Greene by the arm. “Do me a favor, before you start... there’s an old woman up front, she’s looking at the scarecrow figure. Ask her if she needs help, okay?”
The young man smirked. “A blue-haired bandit?”
“No,” Harold said, “I don’t think so. She’s been standing there a while, though, and I want to make sure she’s okay.”
The young man nodded, his grin gone. “No prob, boss. I’m on it.”
David disappear through the door and out onto the sales-floor. Harold slumped down into his chair and sighed. One of his employees had had an accident, was on the verge of death, in fact, and all Harold could think about was his wife.
It had to be Jack Shriver. Elsa Fletcher worked with Jack, was friendly with him. Harold had never thought anything of it. People have work-friends, after all, and sometimes there’s a bit of innocent flirtation involved...
Before he knew he’d intended to, Harold had snatched up the phone receiver. His finger hammered out his home number. He waited as the line rang...and rang. He returned the phone to its cradle.
Once again the closed-circuit monitor caught his eye. The elderly woman was no longer in front of the scarecrow. That, at least, was a good thing. He noticed movement on the upper-left quadrant, though...the one showing the front door. Harold watched, his eyes narrowed in disbelief, as three of his employees--two cashiers and one stock-boy--walked out of the building.
What the hell…?
As he stood to find out what was going on, the monitor showed another two of his employees walk out the front of the store. A third, Janice White, lingered in the vestibule.
By the time he’d reached the front of the store, most of his workforce had clustered around the vestibule and front-door. “What’s going on?”
David Greene turned. He looked sick. “That old woman...she had a heart-attack or something.”
Harold was still moving through the small crowd. “Has someone called an ambulance?”
Cheryl Holden, the front-end manager, nodded. The two stood just outside the store, now. “We did, but…” She finished the thought with a slow shake of her head.
For the moment, it was all a bit much to process. Not because some poor woman had had a heart-attack and died on the sidewalk, but because of what she’d been doing just before having that heart attack…
She’d been listening to the scarecrow.
“Hey, it’s me. You sound out of breath.”
The woman on the line chuckled. “Oh, I was on the treadmill.”
Harold tried to remember the last time he’d seen his wife anywhere near their treadmill. As far as he knew, it was still playing the part of the world’s most expensive bookshelf/clothes-hanger. “Really? Wow.”
“Yeah, I figured it was time...so, what’s up?”
You’re cheery tonight…, He thought. Must be all that exercise…
“We had an accident at work...a bad one. Arnie Fuller severed an artery and nearly bled-out before one of the other kids stopped the bleeding.”
“Oh, my God. That’s awful. Is he okay?”
Harold exhaled. “No. No, he’s fighting for his life, and they say that if he does survive, he’ll likely have severe brain-damage.”
“I’m sorry, that’s terrible.”
“It is. The thing is, we’re way backed up now, so I won’t be home until at least ten, possibly eleven.”
“Okay,” She said. “I’ll see you then.”
“See you then,” Harold said.
The call came at seven-thirty. At seven-forty, Harold called a meeting of his employees. Arnie Fuller had passed away.
Leah Draven opened Harold’s office door. She rapped her knuckles gently against the steel, poked her head around and inside. “Boss, can I talk to you for a second?”
Inwardly, Harold groaned. Leah was one of the sweetest kids you could meet--and she wasn’t at all hard to look at either. The problem was, Leah was paint-the-walls-with-shit crazy. And, like many troubled teenaged girls, she believed herself to be a witch. He took a cleansing breath, smiled. “Of course, Leah. Come on in.”
“When did that scarecrow come in?”
Harold, who’d been reaching out for the drawer beside his desk, turned back to his employee. “What did you say?”
For a moment, he said nothing. “This afternoon.”
The young woman stared at him. Her eyes were fathomless pools of light-blue, speckled, here and there, with flecks of flint-grey. “Oh…,” She said after a time, “You already know, don’t you?”
Harold feigned ignorance. “Leah, I have no idea what you’re talking about…”
“What did it say to you?”
If Harold had been standing, he might have fallen down. He opened his mouth to protest. “That my wife is cheating on me,” came out instead.
The young witch nodded. “We’ve got a whisperer in the store.”
Leah looked troubled. “There’s nothing I can do to help…”
“What are you talking about, help?”
“It takes a very powerful practitioner to create a whisperer....very powerful.”
Harold was shaking his head. He’d gone to work this morning hoping to get through a big delivery-day. Somehow, it seemed, he’d wound up in a teenage-witchcraft drama. “Leah...I’m sure it’s all a coincidence. Everybody is very high-strung after…”
“It whispered to me, too.”
“It said it recognized me as a practitioner. It mocked me. It said I couldn’t stop it.”
Harold sighed, rubbed his temples with his fingertips. This was all insane. In the span of an afternoon, he’d gone from a relatively sensible man to one who seemed willing to attribute all sorts of terrible coincidences to a plastic scarecrow. What was worse, as crazy as what Leah was saying sounded, it was a belief-system that happened to support what he knew already…
That scarecrow is bad...you knew it when you first touched it, and you knew it when it killed Arnie…
“Okay,” he heard himself saying. “ Say I believe you...which isn’t to say that I don’t, by the way. What do we do? How do we get rid of the thing?”
Leah shook her head, sending loose curls swaying. “There is no way to destroy the demon inside the thing, not for us anyway. We can destroy the scarecrow, though, and deny the demon its voice.”
Harold found himself nodding. “Okay...and how do we do that?”
The young girl looked into her boss's eyes. “Fire,” She said. “We have to burn the thing to ashes.”
It had come to him in a flash of insight, just as Leah had said the word “fire.” He would take the thing home before it could hurt another of his kids or his customers. He would take it home and burn it...along with his cheating bitch of a wife. Because she was cheating on him, he was sure of it now. The more he’d thought about it, the more obvious it seemed. He was angry at himself for not having seen it sooner.
He would wait until she was asleep, and then he would fetch the gasoline-can from the shed. Once the house was ablaze, he would flee the conflagration. Probably, he would...
Harold was nearly home when his cell-phone rang. He fished the device out of his pocket and thumbed it on. “Hello?”
“Harry, Danny Castle.”
“Hey, Danny...what's up?” Harold’s stomach lurched. He’d gone to school with Danny, who’d been a cop for going on ten years now. The two were friendly, but not necessarily friends. Chances were, this was not a social call.
The voice on the other end of the line coughed. “Well, Harry...ah, Trevor Davis, he works for you at the party store, right?”
Despite the fact that he was driving, Harold felt the overwhelming urge to close his eyes. “Yes,” He said.
“Well, I thought you’d want to know that we just brought him in. The kid beat his stepfather to death with a baseball bat earlier this evening…”
Danny was still talking, Harold was relatively sure of it, but he couldn’t process any more of what the man was saying. The blood was rushing in his ears. It made a thunderous racket.
“Harry? Are you okay?”
Harold, who’d pulled his car to the side of the road without realizing he’d done so, managed to say, “Yes. Yes, I’m okay, Danny. Thank you for the call…”
He hung up his cell-phone. That done, he opened the driver’s door and vomited onto the street.
“You’re home early. What’s that?”
Harold placed the scarecrow down on the floor just inside the front door of his house. He dropped his keys onto the table. “A scarecrow for Halloween. Do you like it?”
Elsa Fletcher shook her head. “Not really, no.”
“How was your day?”
Her eyes didn’t leave the set. “Oh, you know. The usual.”
“Arnie Fuller passed away. They called at seven-thirty.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s terrible.”
“Are you wearing makeup?”
His wife turned. “What?”
“I’m going to take a shower.”
“Okay.” She turned back to the TV.
Harold showered and dressed. That done, he walked back downstairs...and froze. His wife stood just inside the front door, staring into the eyes of the scarecrow.
“Elsa?” No response. He tried again. “Elsa, sweetie...are you okay? Elsa!”
At last, Harold’s wife turned from the scarecrow. “I’m okay.” She glanced over her shoulder at the animatronic figure. “It whispered to me…”
Harold felt his insides chill a few degrees. “What do you mean, it whispered to you?”
She gave her husband a knowing look. “Oh, you know exactly what I mean.” She stepped toward him, her hands clasped behind her back. “Would you like to know what it told me, Harold?”
Unable to answer, Harold shook his head. His wife stepped closer to him. They were now standing nearly toe-to-toe.
“First, it told me what it whispered to you.” She reached out to embrace him, then, and Harold caught a glint of reflected light. By the time his mind registered the fact that his wife was holding a large knife, it was too late. He felt the cold, invasive bite of steel as she plunged the blade into his back.
Harold collapsed at the knees. It hurt to breathe, and he wondered if the blade had punctured one of his lungs. A fit of coughing took him, and he hacked bloody-phlegm into his hand.
“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been unhappy?” His wife squatted down, pulled the knife from her husband’s back. “How could you? You never listen to a word I say!”
Harold was just thinking that the pain of the knife being pulled out may have been worse, even, than that of it going in when the blade came down again, this time a bit lower and to the left. He cried out.
“Spending every minute at work, or with your asshole-friends watching football, or baseball, or whatever other excuses you can find not to be home…”
Again the knife came out. Once more, it went back in.
His wife stood over him, her face twisted into a mask of anger he did not recognize. She was no longer his wife; She was the scarecrow’s whispers made-flesh…
“And now I find out,” She said, “You’re going to kill me because you think I’m cheating on you?”
Harold could feel the cold specter of unconsciousness looming. He struggled to fill his damaged lungs with air. “Aren't you?” Some part of Harold recognized that these might well be his last words and that they didn’t exactly cover him with glory. He didn’t care. He wanted to hear her say it, and pride be damned.
Again, the knife came out. Harold looked up to see what remained of his wife staring down at him. She was shaking her head.
“Really?” A look of vague disappointment crossed the seemingly possessed woman’s features. “Wouldn’t you like to know…”
The knife came down again, and then Harold didn’t feel anything. He heard something, though...he heard it quite clearly as he passed from this life into the next. He heard the whispered laughter of the scarecrow.
J Robert Kane