Today I decided to excerpt a story from my collection 13 Thorns. I’ve never done this before, but it’s a cool little story-one of my favorites-so, what the hell. I hope you guys like it.
By Gina Ranalli & Gus Fink
The scarecrow was alive.
How he came to be so, he didn’t know himself, but there were rumors aplenty. Some involved a witch in the form of a crow, who pecked at the scarecrow’s head until a tiny hole was bored and then the witch dropped within the hole something called a living seed. The seed slowly grew into a brain which then blossomed life downward through the entire body until the scarecrow gasped his first breath and his eyes flew open, flashing lightning-blue.
Other stories featured elves and demons and goddesses of the fields but it was the story of the witch and her living seed which the scarecrow himself favored. In his memory, the part of his awakening was absolutely true, except for one small factor: when his eyes had flown open that April morning, with dawn still several hours away, the scarecrow was completely and utterly terrified.
He was not perched on a stick, as most scarecrows are known to be, but instead sat approximately 12 feet off the ground on a platform not unlike the lifeguard station on a beach. Beneath lay countless rows of corn, whispering in the pre-dawn dark, and above him, stars as cold and distant as the afterlife of the doomed.
The scarecrow sat still, listening, and knew intuitively what he was and why he was there. To keep watch over the corn, to protect it from thieves and monsters and fire. He thought he was supposed to be a warrior of some kind, brave and strong, able to do battle at the slightest hint of threat and win said battle at all costs.
Instead, he sat on his high throne, trembling with fear, his new heart pounding harder at even the slightest sound, his eyes wide and wet in the night, or sometimes, squeezed shut and waiting for the death blow to fall on his head.
When a rat chattered and scuttled around at the base of his platform, the scarecrow knew he’d had enough. There was no way he could spend his life being so brave. He just wasn’t cut out for it.
He waited until the rat had continued on its way and then he’d slowly, carefully, climbed down off his platform and ran away from the farm.
He ran non-stop, all the way into town, and when he finally arrived, he was exhausted. He stopped on Main Street and regarded the dark shops with fear mingled with interest. He jumped when he heard the traffic light click from green to yellow and then again to red.
“What is this, Halloween?” a voice to his right said.
The scarecrow cried out and peered into the shadows beneath the awning over an ice cream shop. A teenage girl was seated on a bench, smoking a cigarette and watching the scarecrow.
Swallowing the lump of fear in his throat, the scarecrow said, “I don’t know.”
“Uh huh,” the girl replied and flicked the cigarette away. She knew enough to not have fire around a scarecrow. “Well, it’s not. So, what are doing out here?”
Again, the scarecrow could only say, “I don’t know.”
The girl seemed to think about this for a moment. Finally she said, “Neither do I. I just know I don’t want to go home.” She let out a bitter laugh. “I never want to go home.”
It was the scarecrow’s turn to pause. “I…I don’t have a home.”
The teenager nodded and sighed. “Why don’t you sit down? You shouldn’t be standing out in the middle of the street, you know.”
After a brief hesitation, the scarecrow did as he was told and sat down beside the girl.
“What’s your name?” she asked. When he didn’t respond right away, she said, “Let me guess. You don’t know.”
He shook his head. “No. I don’t think I have a name. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “Well, my name is Michelle, but most people call me Mick.”
The scarecrow said nothing. He didn’t know if that was a nice name or not and so thought it wise to not commit one way or the other.
“If you don’t have a name,” the girl said, “maybe I should just give you one. How about that?”
The scarecrow was a fast learner. He mimicked what he’d seen her do: he shrugged.
“Hmm.” The girl said, thinking hard. “Why don’t I call you George? I had a dog named George once.”
“George.” The scarecrow liked the sound of it. “Okay.”
The girl smiled, tucking a strand of blonde hair behind one ear, before consulting her wristwatch. “Well, George, we have about half an hour before the pancake house opens. You feel like walking over and getting some coffee with me?”
Again, George put his mimicking skills to work and smiled. “Yes, I’d like to get some coffee with you.”
“You’re gonna have to get a job,” Mick said, chewing a piece of bacon.
George had tried it but didn’t much care for bacon. Instead, he munched quite happily on a cantaloupe wedge. “A job?” Cantaloupe juice ran down his chin.
“Yep, and a place to live. I guess you can stay in the garage at my house for a while, but not forever. My mom would kill me if she knew I was keeping a live scarecrow anywhere near her precious house.”
George didn’t know what to say to that, so he just continued to eat in silence.
Suddenly, Mick dropped her bacon. “I have an idea!”
As it turned out, Mick’s idea was a pretty good one.
George applied for and got a job as a janitor in Mick’s high school. The superintendent was an old guy with ruddy cheeks and a lot of burst blood vessels in his nose. Mick hinted that she knew all about the bottles he kept hidden behind the furnaces in the school basement and that if he wanted her to keep his secret, he would allow George to live in the basement at night.
The old man agreed without hesitation. Everyone’s secrets were safe.
It may have all worked out too, if it hadn’t been for George’s fear of…well, just about everything. During the day, as he pushed his string mop up and down the corridors, a lot of the kids scared him. They were loud and moved fast, causing George to flinch and turn away, bunching his shoulders up around his neck as if this would protect him.
“You have to ignore them,” Mick told him on his second day as janitor. “They won’t hurt you. Hell, they barely notice you.”
But George knew that wasn’t true. Not totally. He could hear some of the kids whisper as they moved past him; he heard words like freak and creepy and weird. When he heard these things, George made sure to keep his eyes on the floor and never raise his gaze to those who mocked him. He learned quickly that teenagers could be cruel when they sensed fear or a weak one in the midst.
So, George did his best to be brave and get his work done, despite the constant trembling that caused his hands to grip the mop handle in a much fiercer grip than would normally be needed.
The students were bad, without a doubt, but when the last bell rang and George watched the kids and the faculty file out and found himself alone in the vast building, he wondered which was worse. He dreaded the basement, where he slept on a cot and ate most of his meals out of fast-food containers and greasy wax paper bags.
He would huddle on his cot, back against the wall, ears straining to hear the scampering brown rats that shared his space and often showed themselves, beady black eyes fixed and whiskers twitching.
George hated to put his feet on the floor for fear the rats would nibble off his toes before he had a chance to pull away. He also hated the dank darkness of the basement and the sudden loud settling noises that would sound like shotgun blasts to his sensitive ears and cause his spine to straighten with painful cracks.
Sometimes, Mick would sneak back into the school at night through an open first floor window and bring George a bag of his favorite foods: fruits and vegetables, which he would have to gobble down quickly for fear that anything he didn’t consume immediately, the rats would get to.
It was during one of these visits from Mick that she taught him to play poker, while she sat fearlessly on the floor and he remained cross-legged on the bed. George wasn’t particularly good at poker, they discovered—he simply couldn’t force his face into a blank expression—but he loved the game nonetheless.
Or maybe it was just Mick that he loved. She was the only one who was consistently nice to him, didn’t stare at him as though he were a freak or abruptly shout things in his direction for the simple amusement of watching him flinch.
George hated when the hour rolled around that Mick would have to leave him alone in the basement, with nothing but rats and dust bunnies to keep him company.
She slung her book bag over her shoulder, much lighter now that it no longer contained half a dozen different types of fruit. “Try to sleep, George,” she told him. “It’s only a few more hours till daylight and then you can get out of here and go back up to where there’s people and light.”
George nodded but didn’t feel a whole lot better.
Mick left and “a few more hours” felt like long torturous nightmare weeks, but somehow he managed to not be eaten by rats and then it was time to gather his mop and bucket and head upstairs into the rush of sleepy teenagers.
It was several hours later, when he was cleaning up a spill in the cafeteria that a group of kids—two boys, two girls—first approached him and then stood in a circle around him.
“Oh, man,” the first boy said. “How did you get your face to look like that?”
George ignored the question, kept his eyes on the mop.
“And look at his clothes!” One of the girls reached out and plucked at George’s tattered sleeve. “Did you buy that at Hot Topic?”
George shook his head, dared a quick glance up and was terrified by what he saw. These teenagers didn’t look like any of the others he’d seen. They were all dressed in black, with black circles drawn around their eyes. Even their fingernails were black, as were their huge shoes and they all had various shapes and sizes of metal protruding from their faces.
George knew that these creatures weren’t teenagers at all. No, they were demons. Perhaps sent by the witch who had planted the living seed in his skull. Maybe she was angry that he hadn’t gone directly to her. Maybe she’d brought him to life for no other reason than to do her bidding.
One of the boy/demons reached his hand out towards George’s face. “Your skin looks like it’s made out of cloth or something.”
George flinched away, dropping the mop, and backed up a few steps. “Demons,” he whispered and the first tear slid from his eye and down his cheek.
The demons stepped closer, circling around him, trying to touch him with their black painted fingers and asking him questions he didn’t understand.
“You’re a skater, right?”
“Yo, dude, you get high?”
“Are those moccasins?” One of the girls demanded before bursting into loud peels of laughter. “Those are awesome.”
It was too much for George. He turned and fled, tripping over the mop bucket but somehow keeping his balance. Terrified, he sobbed freely now, certain the demons would give chase, but not daring to look back. He never should have left that cornfield. It was scary there but it was also where he belonged.
He ran towards the basement stairs, past other students and faculty, ignoring their concerned faces and occasional question. He ran until he’d reached the door and then as he stretched his hand to the knob, the door swung open and out stepped the old guy who had hired George not so long ago.
The old guy froze, studying George’s damp face and red eyes. “What’s got your panties in a bunch, George?”
“The demons,” George panted between sobs, jerking his thumb behind his back. “They’ve come to claim me!”
The man looked over George’s shoulder and saw a trio of Goth kids heading towards them. George too, saw the demons, still in pursuit and pushed past his boss through the door that led to the basement stairs. Scampering down the stairs at a dangerous speed, rubbing snot from his nose with the back of his hand, George finally made it to his cot and collapsed onto it, burying his head beneath the pillow.
George lay there trembling, no longer afraid of the rats and mysterious noises. Now he feared something worth fearing: the creatures of the underworld who had come to drag him back with them. Just the thought of leaving his basement–however scary it might have seemed–and his job, and most of all his best friend Mick, was enough to make him wail with grief. Where else could he go? Was there anywhere—anywhere at all—that he could safely hide from his destiny?
“Jesus, George, get the hell up.”
It was George’s boss, standing beside the cot and looking down with barely disguised disgust. “They were just a bunch of Goth kids, for Christ’s sake. Nothing to get hysterical about. And you still have to clean the second floor lavs. So, come up. Pull yourself together. Be a man, for crying out loud.”
“I can’t,” George said into his pillow. “I’m not a man.” When his boss made no reply, George felt he had to say more to get him to understand: “I’m scared.”
The man with the blood-shot nose sighed and folded his arms across his chest. “Well, then, George, we have ourselves a problem. How can you work in a school and be afraid of the kids?”
The question made George cry harder.
His boss stood there for as long as he could, shaking his head. Finally, he said, “Well, I hate to do this to you, buddy, but if you can’t get yourself under control, then I really can’t use you here. Maybe you’d be better off finding a factory job or something like that.”
“The demons would find me!” George cried.
“The demons. Yeah, right. Well, maybe a hospital would be more to your liking? I don’t know, buddy. All I know is that you’re just not cut out for this kind of work. Soon, it’ll get back to the teachers and the parents that you’re running around calling the Goth kids demons and then we’d all be riding down the shit creek with you. Can’t have that.” He paused, waiting to see if George had anything to add and when it was clear that he didn’t, the old guy continued. “I wish you luck, George. You’re a good guy. Anyone can see that. So…uh…why don’t you just stay down here until you get yourself together a little and then come and see me, ok? I’ll be waxing the gym. And don’t worry about your pay. I have enough cash to cover you. Ok? George?”
But George was done speaking. He faced the wall, his back to his now ex-boss and the pillow still over his head. Even after he heard the old man with the gin blossoms move away and go back upstairs, George remained in the same position for quite some time. He simply didn’t know what else to do.
Later that same night, Mick snuck through the window with her usual bag of goodies for George, including a fresh cantaloupe, his favorite.
She moved through the deserted school, a small flashlight pointing the way towards the basement, her sneakers whispering on the freshly polished linoleum floors.
As was her custom when she reached the basement door, she opened it and called down to George, so as not to alarm him. It had never occurred to her that a scarecrow could be afraid of its own shadow, but there it was. Poor George was terrified of everything.
“George?” she called, carefully making her way down the steep stairs. “I brought cantaloupe.”
But George didn’t reply and when she arrived at his cot, where he’d been sitting every night since she’d met him, she found it empty, stripped of its sheets while the pillow lay crumpled at the wrong end.
Mick frowned. Had George actually become brave enough to venture beyond the tiny cave he’d created for himself? Maybe he’d had to pee so badly, that waiting for her to stand guard while he did so was no longer an option.
Plopping the plastic bag with the fruit inside it on the bed, Mick waited for a minute, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. Another minute passed and that was all her patience would allow. “George?” she called, moving out of the area where he slept. “Are you peeing?”
Mick continued to travel through the dark basement, flashlight held out in front of her to keep her from tripping on an endless stream of junk that was strewn everywhere.
“George, are you hiding from rats again? I told you they won’t bother you unless you corner them.”
She rounded the bend around the enormous hot water heaters and there he was, hanging from a fat pipe that traveled the ceiling from east to west. He’d made a makeshift noose from the sheets on his cot and strung himself up by the neck, kicking aside the chair he’d used to get up there in the first place.
Mick gasped with surprise but it would have been an exaggeration to say that she was actually startled or frightened by the discovery of her dead friend. She was sad, that was true, but scared? No, she couldn’t say that.
She sighed, studying poor George for a few minutes before turning away and heading back the way she’d come. Maybe she and the guy who had hired George could drag him back out to that cornfield, put him back up on his perch and hope that, now dead, he might finally be able to scare the crows instead of the other way around.