Well, here it is, fresh for the pre-Halloween weekend. Hope you enjoy it!
HOLE FOR A HEART
© 2017 by Robert Elessar. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this work by any means, without express, written consent of the author, is strictly prohibited.
Jonathan Lama drove west on Interstate 80 on a warm, late spring day, headed toward Chicago. The journey was at least partly an excuse to test his recently purchased ’97 Mustang convertible. He was not a car aficionado, but he liked the Mustang, and he had a good friend named Ron Gardner, who was a mechanic and lived near him. When Jon had been looking for a car, and had found the Mustang for a very good asking price, Ron had practically offered to pay for half of the vehicle just for the chance to be able to work on and restore it. Ron plied his trade only part-time—and under-the-table—since a severe back injury had left him both eligible for disability benefits and honestly unable to work a full schedule. He was, however, good at his what he did, and he had finally pronounced the car ready for long-distance travel. Everything else he wanted to do to it was purely cosmetic.
Jon had no complaints thus far. He had previously only driven the Mustang locally, throughout the region where he lived, in East Windsor, New Jersey. At first it had ridden a bit rough, and the speedometer had malfunctioned, so Jon had felt nervous each time he’d taken it out, but he it had been easy enough to match the speed of other vehicles around him, and there was never a time in central New Jersey when there wasn’t any traffic.
Now, though, the speedometer had been replaced and checked and was working beautifully, the engine was running powerfully on all eight cylinders, and Jon could barely tell that he wasn’t driving a brand-new car, at least based on those criteria. The interior did still need a lot of cosmetic work, but Jon had never disagreed with Ron in prioritizing functional issues.
So, once the car was ready for long-distance travel, Jon decided to take some time off and go on a trip. He did contract IT work for several companies throughout New Jersey, so his schedule was flexible. At least as good at his job as Ron was at his, Jon never lacked employment when he wanted it. His skills were in great demand, despite the large number of competing IT professionals in the marketplace; Jon was simply the best, so he could choose his owns assignments and jobs.
He had decided to take his newish Mustang out to Chicago for a few days. He’d gone to Loyola University, Chicago as an undergrad, and he loved the city pretty much any time that wasn’t winter. That narrowed things down a lot, of course. Still, during the late spring, Jon had found few places more beautiful. He couldn’t wait to drive up Lake Shore Drive, passing the museums, going downtown—he wanted finally to look at that reflective, bean-shaped sculpture they had there in the park, which he’d never bothered to visit when he’d lived in the city. He wanted to go up north and see if Long Grove still existed; if it did, he would gorge himself on candy, donuts, and crafts, and bring home some of the fantastic locally made jelly and jam he’d bought there before. And then there were the scones! The scones there had been even better than the donuts. Jon wasn’t sure if it was out-of-season to get cider—were apples ever not available, anymore?—but if it wasn’t, he was going to by God get some. Just thinking about it made him smile.
He knew, though, that he’d have to be on his guard against wistfulness when he was in the Windy City. It was there that he’d had his only long-term relationship, and where he’d been left by the love of his life. They had been together for almost three years, and they’d even shared an apartment during senior years. Jon had tried to hide that fact from his own parents, but hers, oddly, had never seemed to mind.
Allison Chaney, though—the name that Jon tried never even to think—was as ambitious as she was bright and beautiful. She’d wanted more from life, had seen in Jon someone with the potential to become one of the software tycoons who had sprung up like weeds all over America in the preceding few decades. In this, she was probably right, and Jon recognized that fact without fearing egotism. He was very good both at programming and at the hardware side of the IT industry, and at some level he truly loved it. Allison had seen in him the soul and capabilities of a Michelangelo in his field, and though that was perhaps taking things a bit far, Jon knew he could’ve been extraordinarily successful. This was clearly demonstrated by the fact that he made more money working about ten hours a week on contracts than 80% of New Jersey citizens did working full time. And, despite the fact that Jon usually took longer than was really needed for most of his jobs, he was still the most sought-after contractor in central Jersey. So said those who sought him.
Yet Jon had never desired the life of a Gates, a Jobs, or a Zuckerberg, nor that of the seemingly endless second-tier heroes of the industry. It was simply too stressful, and the rewards were not worth the cost. He had but one life on this planet, and no guarantee that there was any other, and he didn’t want to squander it playing constant games of one-upmanship against other computer demigods, for the dubious rewards of money (lots of it, to be fair) and recognition (much less valuable, and as evanescent as the latest iPhone version). If he was a Michelangelo, then he was one who was only too happy to be paid quite well to do the occasional exceptionally good wedding portrait or decorative mural.
Unfortunately, that life had been unacceptable to Allison. Jon had never been sure if it was the possible wealth and fame lost, or simply the fact that his ability would never be brought into the world in its fullest capacity that had driven her most to distraction. He suspected the latter, but he knew he might be biased. Jon’s personal lack of ambition—and the implicit near-nihilism that underlay it—had been the source of almost all their fights, which had grown in frequency as graduation had approached. Allison had hoped for Jon to either go into a major PhD program, doing serious research and development, or to seek out a position in a major corporation like Apple, or Google, or Microsoft. Jon, however, had sought a job at a company near his parents’ home in New Jersey, and he’d been snatched up eagerly. It was not a bad job, but it had been nowhere near as good as Jon could have had.
Ultimately, Allison left him. He had simply been too intransigent in his ideas, too disheartened by the work, the stress, and the inescapable fact that no one could be the unrivaled best in the computer industry, no matter how hard one tried or how gifted one was. It was easier—in some ways better—to be mediocre than to be almost the best.
Jon had been heartbroken, but he had recovered. He had never expected anything special from life, and thus was never disappointed, or so he told himself. Perhaps contradicting that notion, though, he still had to force himself not to think about Allison, not to be reminded of her, not to imagine the life they might have had together. By now she was, no doubt, married to some mover and shaker, or—more likely—was a mover and shaker herself, possibly still in Chicago. Jon had been in a few short-term relationships since Allison, but nothing longer than six months. He had never come close to any stronger commitment; he had never felt the desire. In that devastating heartbreak, he seemed to have lost the capacity to achieve, or even to want, a deep relationship.
He shook his head, trying to drive such thoughts away. Why was he thinking about Allison after so long? He had put her out of his mind for a long time, and was satisfied to have done so. He had, of course, been aware that traveling to Chicago might trigger the odd memory here and there, but had not expected that to begin on a stretch of interstate in western central Pennsylvania, a region through which he didn’t think he’d ever even driven with Allison.
The sky seemed to match Jon’s abrupt gloominess. Before, the trip had been uniformly sunny, with only scattered white dollops of fluff here and there, but now thicker clouds were gathering, and one seemed to have shaded the sun, as if to add atmosphere to Jon’s reminiscences about the long-lost love of his life. He had driven in a near-trance, as so often happened when he went long distances, and had simultaneously wandered down byways of thoughts best avoided. He forced himself to focus on his surroundings. The low, ancient mountains of eastern Pennsylvania had not yet given way entirely to the flat, level ground at the western end of the state, but they had been attenuated greatly, and Jon now drove in a region of gently rolling hills, through forest and farmland, with a great many miles between major cities. It was a beautiful landscape in the late spring. The trees bore full foliage, the fields had been sown and were beginning to grow, and Jon had no doubt that healthy wildlife populated the extensive woodlands. It should have been impossible to be anything but cheerful looking at such beauty, but Jon felt morose. His reminiscences—he refused to think of them as regrets—had dampened his spirits.
As his car rose to the top of one gentle rise, higher than most of its brethren, Jon caught sight of something curious ahead. There was an exit at about the level of the next hill. That was not so unusual, there were many along the highway, and as with most, a gas station was visible near the turn-off. At the top of that next rise, just before it dropped off into the cut that had made way for the interstate, was a great, spreading, towering tree. It looked like a pecan tree to Jon, but he wasn’t sure if pecan trees grew in Pennsylvania. He’d always loved those trees; he’d seen many when he’d visited his relatives in the south as a child, but he never could stomach the nuts. He’d thought they were a southern-only tree, but maybe there were some strains that grew farther north. Or maybe this tree just reminded him of the huge, sprawling pecans he’d seen down south as a child.
In any case, it was not the tree that had really pulled Jon’s focus, but what stood under the tree, a few yards from the trunk, an entirely different kind of planting than the great, natural growth.
In the tree’s shadow stood what looked for all the world like a scarecrow. In the distance, Jon couldn’t make out any details, but it certainly seemed like a typical fixture of at least storybook cornfields, a stuffed human shape raised on a piece of wood, like a cheap, country crucifix. The presence of this entirely typical country prop in a rather atypical location was what had drawn Jon’s attention. For there were no fields within a stone’s throw of the figure, nothing for it to protect from the depredations of corvids. Jon had always thought crows were too smart to fall for such transparent decoys, anyway, but still, one would think that a scarecrow belonged in a field; the nearest such field to the tree and its attendant was easily at least a hundred yards away, well behind the gas station.
Of course, another possible use for a scarecrow, particularly one under a tree, was as a Halloween decoration. It was a thousand years till Halloween, but Jon supposed someone might have put it up in October of last year and then decided simply to leave it, since it would eventually become appropriate again. A Halloween scarecrow might be expected to have a Jack-o-lantern head, but as far as Jon could see, this one didn’t. Still, it wasn’t as though there were official rules about such things. In many cases, a faux-human head could be much more frightening than a pumpkin, no matter how skillfully carved.
Jon glanced at his gas gauge as he rolled down the current hill and approached the next one. The tank was almost half full, so he didn’t really need gas, but the Mustang was not easy of fuel. It wouldn’t hurt to top it off. Also, the pack of Newports on the passenger seat was less than quarter full, and could use replacing.
Poor Ron had been so distressed to realize that Jon meant to smoke in the car. Jon had laughed, pointing out that it didn’t change the car’s appearance at all, but Ron had insisted that it harmed the spirit of the revived vehicle. He had even made the amusing remark that Jon was going to give the car cancer. That had caused Jon to laugh uproariously, partly from the absurdity of the claim—and Ron clearly knew it was absurd—and also in recognition of the fact that Ron knew such a warning was useless against Jon, who often said that he knew smoking was shortening his life, and that it was his own way of throwing scraps of meat to his death wish, to keep it from becoming ravenous and predatory, and swallowing him whole. He always made such statements in jocular tones, but there was an unacknowledged honesty to them.
Smirking at the memory of Ron’s objection, Jon decided to stop at the gas station, fill his tank, refill his cigarettes, and perhaps get a bite to eat if the place had any snacks worth the trouble. He would also, just maybe, get a better look at the unusually-placed scarecrow.
As he pulled into the exit lane, Jon imagined the Mustang complaining about having to slow from highway speeds, but it did as commanded; Ron had optimized the brakes along with all the other important functions of the car, and Jon had no complaints thus far. Ron had also ensured that the driver’s side window opened easily, hoping to mitigate the smell of smoke in the car, but that window was presently closed. Jon reached the end of the exit, came to a slightly rolling stop, then turned right. A short distance ahead, on his left, was the gas station he had seen. Slightly nearer, though farther back from the road, was the hill, the great tree, and the smaller, darker figure. Jon was more certain now that the tree really was a pecan, but he found that he could not make out the scarecrow well, since his view of it was currently obscured.
Slightly miffed, Jon turned his attention back to the gas station.
It had seen better days, possibly before Jon was born, but it was clearly open. A tall Citgo sign, below which were posted the gas prices, revealed what breed of station it was, but there was no other, more personal indicator—no “Joe’s Service Station,” or “Mom’s Diner”—anywhere in evidence. The building near the pumps didn’t look big enough to contain an eatery, but it could at least have a selection of chips and soda. Jon would settle for that, or even its lack. He supposed he could even settle for not getting cigarettes if they didn’t have them. He just wanted gas and to ask about that scarecrow.
He wondered why the scarecrow intrigued him so, but he didn’t give the question much thought. He was indulging in idle curiosity to pass the time on a long drive, and as well as a welcome diversion from his preceding morose thoughts about…well, about someone about whom he didn’t want to think.
He pulled left into the gas station and drew up to the nearest pump. His was the only car getting gas, but there was a truck parked alongside the building to the right, probably belonging to an attendant, or perhaps to the owner. Jon wasn’t surprised at the lack of customers. Most drivers on the interstate stopped at the big, rest-stop style gas stations. Jon tended that way, himself, most of the time. At least, he did when there were no mysterious effigies to investigate.
Stopping the car, John stepped out, but before moving toward the station, he gazed in the direction of the tree. It was perhaps half a football field away, and though the scarecrow was in its shadow, he could make out more details now. It was fully man-sized, with outstretched, crucified arms, typical of such things. As Jon had thought, the head was clearly neither made of, nor made to look like, a Jack-o-lantern, but instead appeared more to be a normal human head shape and size, though its sagging nature led him to think it had been fashioned from a sack, perhaps a pillowcase. He could make nothing out about the design of the face.
Unlike many scarecrows Jon had seen—and he only just now realized that he had seen a great many, at least in pictures—this one bore not just two arms, but two legs, as well as what appeared to be hands and feet, no doubt fashioned from gloves and boots. Its clothes were nondescript, with no significant details discernable from a distance, but they seemed typical of what one might find on such a figure.
Jon felt a mild chill as he looked at the scarecrow. This was, perhaps, due to the cloud-cover that had developed, taking away some of the sunny warmth that had previously dominated his trip. It was also caused by the sense that the scarecrow was truly out of place and out of time. Why would someone put such a figure under a tree near the highway? Why would they leave it there, long after Halloween, or long before? It looked well cared for; it was quite upright and its outlines were firm and recognizable. Jon would have thought that, if it were just some prop left behind from last October, the rigors of a Pennsylvania winter would have beaten it down some.
Shaking his head and shrugging, Jon turned toward from the hill. He glanced at the pumps and saw to his surprise that there was no option to pay right there with a credit card. How old was this gas station? He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been to one where you couldn’t pay at the pump.
That hardly mattered, though. He planned to go inside to buy some cigarettes, anyway, and to get some snacks. It was peculiar, but not bizarre. Looking idly up the road onto which he had turned, Jon saw a few widely scattered buildings on either side of it. They looked like commercial structures, long past their heyday, and Jon wondered if any were abandoned. A few cars and trucks were parked here and there, but Jon saw no living soul—if not for the steady sound of traffic on I-80, he might have thought he was in an ancient, abandoned ruin of civilization. Farther down the road, he thought he made out what might be the spire of a small church. Perhaps a town lay in that direction.
Shrugging, Jon turned and strolled casually toward the gas station door. Its plexiglass panel hadn’t been cleaned in some time, and was smudged and hazy. An old-fashioned bell jingled as Jon opened it and stepped inside.
The interior was about what Jon had expected: a counter with a cash register, and with a rack of cigarettes and other tobacco products above it. To the right were a few racks of chips and candy, beyond which was a forlorn assortment of refrigerated cabinets, containing mostly Coke and Pepsi products. Jon was amused and strangely pleased to note that there were no Monster, Red Bull, or other energy drinks in evidence. A door to the rear of the product area opened into what looked to be both the restrooms and perhaps a storage and office area. To Jon’s left, a shelf on the wall bore two coffee pots, along with cups, creamer, and sweeteners, as well as a microwave and a small selection of instant ramen soups. To the rear was a water tap.
Behind the counter slouched a young man wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers ballcap, an unmarked but faded gray tee shirt, and a rather dispirited attempt at a goatee. He looked mildly surprised at Jon’s presence, but became quickly alert and attentive, belying what Jon might have expected was a diffident attitude.
“Afternoon,” the young man said.
“Afternoon,” Jon replied with a smile, pleasantly surprised by the somewhat formal greeting. “How’s business today?”
The young man looked surprised by the question, but he seemed to give it some honest thought before shrugging and saying, “About like normal, I guess. It’s never all that busy, but it’s steady. There’s always traffic off I-80.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Jon said, having reached the counter while the young man spoke. “And you guys have some pretty decent advertising.”
Now the young man looked deeply puzzled, and Jon wondered whether he might be just a little on the slow side. “You mean the sign?” he asked, obviously referring, with understandable surprise, to the towering but weathered Citgo logo outside.
Jon, disliking himself for the urge to chuckle, said, “No, no, I mean the big tree with the scarecrow under it. I know that’s what caught my eye.”
The boy’s expression looked less puzzled now, but also less interested. If it were not a cliché, Jon might have thought the subject was one that troubled him. “Oh, that,” he said. “Yeah, well…I guess that does get some attention.” Then, as if wanting to change the subject, he asked, “Did you want some gas?”
Surprised, though he supposed he shouldn’t be, Jon said, “Oh. Yeah. Of course. Yeah, I’d, uh, like to fill it up on that tank, there, number…” He looked over his shoulder toward his car, a bit bemused that he had forgotten to look for the pump number.
The young man, however, could not help but see up to which pump Jon had pulled. He cocked his head as though checking to be sure—perhaps in case some other car had pulled up in the few seconds since Jon had entered—and said, “Pump number three.”
“Number three, right,” Jon replied, as though he had known but just forgotten, when in fact the clerk could have named almost any whole number and he couldn’t have been sure if he were being fooled. “Fill her up on number three. And a pack of Newport 100’s, menthol.” The young man nodded, reaching up to pull out the requested pack of cigarettes, then physically typing its price into the cash register, to Jon’s sincere surprise. It seemed that this store didn’t have a laser scanner. It didn’t have pay-at-the-pump and it didn’t have a laser scanner. Astounding.
“Will that be it?” the young man, whom Jon had to struggle to avoid thinking of as a boy, asked.
“Um…well, I was going to grab some chips or something, but would it be okay if I do that after I pump my gas?”
“Sure,” the clerk replied, clearly puzzled by the question.
“Okay,” Jon said. He then pulled out his wallet, retrieved his Visa from its assigned slot and handed it to the boy. “There you go.” He half expected that, if he had not proffered the card, the boy would have let him take the cigarettes and pump the gas before even asking for payment.
The boy did take the card, but even as he turned to activate the gas pump for Jon, he said, “I won’t run this till you have everything together. No sense doing two charges, right?”
“Right,” Jon agreed, though he thought the boy—the young man—was a bit too trusting. Jon could have given him a bogus card and driven off immediately after pumping the gas. He somehow doubted that there were video cameras in the parking lot. Perhaps he was just betraying his own cynicism. He’d like to think that most people were decent and honest; he’d like to think it, but simply couldn’t. It wasn’t that he thought that people were particularly bad, just that they tended to be parochial and foolish, with a self-interest bordering on solipsism.
Even Allison, surely one of Jon’s favorite people ever, had been terribly focused on ambition, on material success in the eyes of others. Of course, at least some of her motives had simply been the desire to see Jon achieve the greatness of which she believed he was capable. But she had wanted that for her, not for him.
Still, maybe he should have done it. He could have. If he had dedicated himself to living up to her dreams, he could have achieved amazing feats, of that he had little doubt. Maybe nothing truly Earth-shaking, but still, he could have been extremely successful. Would that have been so bad?
It wouldn’t have been all that bad, he supposed, but he would have been living his life to the shape of someone else’s desires, rather than his own.
Would that have been so bad?
Who could answer such a question? Jon forced these thoughts from his mind, angry that, once again, he had been thinking of Allison, feeling the ache of her absence, when he had succeeded at shutting down that emotion for so long. He’d had no idea that a trip to Chicago could be so triggering, even when he was still not halfway to his destination. He needed to get a handle on himself.
“You okay?” the young man asked, causing Jon to give a mild start. The clerk regarded him with curiosity and a mild, simple puzzlement, but he didn’t seem truly worried. “You were just staring off into space there for a little.”
Jon blinked and shook his head, giving a brief, self-deprecating laugh as he did so. “Yeah, I guess I was. Just spacing out, I guess.”
The young man smiled and nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “I know how it is. I do that a lot.”
I bet you do, Jon thought, immediately berating himself for his condescension. He smiled again and said, “Well, I’ll be right back.”
The clerk nodded without another word, and Jon walked out through the smudgy, faux-glass door. As he approached his car, he confirmed that, yes, indeed, he was parked at pump number three. He opened the gas flap, unscrewed the tank lid, then grabbed the pump handle and selected the highest-octane gas before putting the pump into the tank and locking it into the “on” position.
While the gas flowed, he turned to look at the giant pecan tree—he was now all but sure that it was indeed a pecan, surprising though that was. For some reason, it too made him think of Allison; he’d told her about the trees he’d loved in his childhood on more than one occasion, and she had often said that they should take a trip south together some day, to visit the sites of his happy memories. That had never happened, and a regretful pang struck Jon’s chest at the thought.
Angry at the pang as much as at his lack of control of his thoughts, Jon tore his gaze from the tree and focused instead on the much smaller human creation beside it. The cloud cover and the shadows were as deep as before, but Jon thought he could make out more of the thing’s features now. A bit atypically, no hat adorned the top of the figure. Looking at the bag-head of the effigy, Jon decided that it probably wasn’t a pillow-case, after all. More likely, based on the color and the way its folds lay, it was an old-fashioned burlap sack. He thought that he could just make out the grainy texture of the cloth.
He also thought he could make out some semblance of decorative facial features, perhaps the image of an eye, perhaps more. The figure was angled slightly in his direction, facing across the fields and woods behind and beyond the gas station, so its head was in a partial profile to Jon. The eye looked as if it had been designed to appear stitched shut, with great, twine stitches. It had, Jon thought, a similarly stitched mouth, curved downward in an expression that might be sadness or disgust. It was not a pleasant face, and certainly would have done a fair job of frightening Halloween revelers—it made Jon uncomfortable even now. But what good could it do up there, facing away from the road, nowhere near any houses? Who would be able to appreciate its macabre visage?
The body was, as Jon had already noted, a very good simulation. Its proportions were all correct; even the way the arms bent in the middle seemed accurately to simulate elbow joints. The knees and ankles, too, hung in a disturbingly realistic manner. Jon had the macabre thought that perhaps this scarecrow had been fashioned using the body of an actual man. That was ridiculous, of course; it would be extraordinarily ballsy to prop a human corpse beside the interstate. Still, it did look real.
A gust of wind came from the west, revealing an aspect of the figure that departed from the realism of the rest. That wind pressed the work-shirt of the scarecrow against its torso, disclosing a strange concavity, as though whoever had made it had forgotten to stuff the chest fully; or perhaps stuffing had fallen out and had not been replaced. Given the otherwise realistic character of the thing, and the brooding, unhappy, sewn-up face, the incongruity was disquieting. Jon gave a brief, slightly affected, shiver, and half-wished that he didn’t have such good distant vision.
A sudden click made him jump in place, and he turned his head, realizing that his gas tank was full much more quickly than he had expected it to be. He had to remind himself that he had stopped before it was truly necessary, and smiled at his own startlement. If he wasn’t talking himself into unwelcome reminiscences or giving himself the creeps over a scarecrow below a tree, he was losing track of simple details that he normally would have kept in the front of his mind. Apparently, highway hypnosis was taking its toll before he was even halfway to his destination. He wondered if he was going to have to stop at a motel at some point, instead of driving straight through to Chicago, as had been his plan. He supposed that would be fine. He wasn’t a college student anymore, he had nothing to prove, and it was certainly not worth endangering the other drivers on the road just so that he could get to his destination in one day.
Oh, well, either way was fine. He topped the car off with a quick final squeeze of the pump, then returned it to its place before resealing the tank and closing the door. He turned back to the gas station and strolled inside.
The young man waved and gave a tiny smile, asking, “All set?”
“Yep,” Jon replied. “Just gonna get those snacks, and I’ll be done.”
“Good deal,” the clerk replied, and Jon veered toward the chip and candy racks.
The selection of potato chips and related junk food was impressively complete, despite its small size. Most of the basic Frito Lay line was in display, as well as its main competitors. At least five different flavors of Pringles were available, and all three potencies of Tostitos brand salsa were on offer, as were the corn chips themselves.
Jon chose a slightly more conservative route and grabbed a mid-sized bag of plain Ruffles, then went around to the candy display, quickly choosing a Baby Ruth—easily his favorite candy bar—before taking a quick look for any more proteinaceous food. All he found were a few bags of beef jerky, but those were always far too expensive for what they contained.
Deciding that he was satisfied with his current choices of food, Jon made a quick trip to the refrigerators, considered a Dr. Pepper, but decided on a sixteen-ounce can of Coke. Then, armed with his small but impressive selection of foodstuffs such as would horrify some people he knew who only shopped at Whole Foods, he turned toward the cash register.
The pack of Newports already lay on the counter, and the young man seemed also to have rung up Jon’s gas. As Jon approached, the clerk was already eyeing his purchases and keying them into the register. This led Jon to a brief recognition that, sometimes, the ubiquitous laser scanners could make things less efficient rather than more. He also thought that the young man might be brighter than he had assumed.
Smiling ruefully at his own prejudgments, Jon put his three items on the counter, saying, “Thanks.”
The young man looked mildly surprised, but said, “You’re welcome.” Then he got the total, slid Jon’s card through the reader, and printed out the receipt for Jon the sign.
As Jon handed the paper back to the clerk, he tilted his head to the left and asked, “Hey, what’s the story with that scarecrow, anyway?”
The young man, clearly wrong-footed, crinkled his brow and said, “Sorry?”
Looking off to his left more clearly—though he had no direct view of the tree or the figure below it, since the station had no window on that wall—Jon said, “You know, the one right next to that big old pecan tree? The scarecrow.”
“Oh!” the young man said—confirming to Jon’s provisional satisfaction that it really was a pecan tree—and with a look of mixed discomfort and illicit fun, he said, “That isn’t really a scarecrow.”
“Well, yeah, sure,” Jon said, “I figured. There’s no crops or anything growing there. Unless you count pecans, I guess. But I don’t think a scarecrow would do any good to protect pecans.”
“No,” said the clerk, as though seriously and deeply considering the point. “I guess it probably wouldn’t.”
“Right,” Jon said. Then, after a pause in which he fruitlessly waited for the young man to say more, he asked, “So, what’s the deal with it? It’s a little early for Halloween, isn’t it?”
The question seemed, again, to caught the young man off guard, but he recovered quickly and said, “Oh, no, it’s not a Halloween thing. Nothing like that.”
Jon was surprised confused. “Wait,” he said. “It’s not for Halloween, and it’s not for scaring crows. So, what is it, why’s it there? It’s a bit…odd.”
Looking mildly embarrassed, the young man said, “Well, it’s…it’s sort of a local legend, I guess.”
Confused, Jon said, “What do you mean?”
“Well, they say,” the young man replied, “that back a long time ago…I think it was just after World War Two, or something like that…there was this guy who lived around here, named Joshua Caesar. He fell in love with this girl who lived not far from him, but he didn’t have any money, and his own family was poor. Her family didn’t want her to have anything to do with him—I don’t know, maybe she didn’t either, then. Anyway, they say he…he sold his soul to the Devil to get rich and successful, and to be able to marry her. And it worked. Before too long, he owned most of the land around here, and some local businesses, too. And I guess she noticed him then, or her family did, or whatever. Anyway, they say she fell in love with him and married him.
“But I guess the Devil always gets more than people think he will. The girl liked coming up on to that hill and looking out at them when they were building the interstate, and there was…well there’s a couple different versions. One says that there was an accident, another one says she was…well, attacked by a worker, and killed. Anyway, she died, right there on that hill.
“They say that he planted a tree to grow there—it was a pecan tree because she always liked them—and then they say he killed himself. Cut his own heart out.”
Jon, who had listened to the brief tale with amused fascination, drew his head back. “Cut his own heart out? That’s impossible, isn’t it?”
The young man shrugged, saying, “Well, I guess for most people, it would be. But they say he did sell his soul to the Devil, so maybe he could do stuff other people couldn’t. Anyway, they put that thing up there afterwards, like a kind of memorial, I guess, right next to the pecan tree, because he loved her, and even though he’d sold his soul, he’d done it because he loved her…”
“Oh, Jesus Christ, Matty, that’s the story that the junior high school girls tell.”
A sudden, deep voice startled Jon so much that he jumped in place, whirling to his right. A tall, heavyset black man in a clean maroon pullover and tan pants stood near the entrance to the bathroom and office area of the station. He must have been there for a while, but Jon had been utterly unaware of his presence. Given the slightly spooky nature of the clerk’s story, Jon found the man’s sudden appearance, as well as his previous silence, disconcerting.
The clerk—Matty, apparently—looked a bit embarrassed, but he said, “What do you mean, Mr. McGlynn?”
“You know what I mean,” the man said, strolling casually toward the counter. “I mean, you’re telling him the romantic, tragic, silly, schoolgirl story, and it’s nothing like the truth.”
As the new man, who was apparently named McGlynn, approached, Jon saw that he must be quite a bit older than either the clerk or himself, because his tightly curled hair was largely gray. His physical presence, however, radiated youthful strength, and Jon could easily imagine that this man had once been a high school football star, or perhaps even a college player.
Matty, the clerk, meanwhile said, “That’s the story that I know. At least, it’s the way I first heard it.”
“Yeah,” McGlynn said, “when you were in junior high, like I said.”
Matty grimaced slightly and muttered, “I think I heard it when I was still in grade school.”
McGlynn came to a stop about five feet from the counter and said, “Well I guess that explains why you heard such a watered-down version of it. But you must’ve heard the real story since, haven’t you? I mean, you’ve worked here for half a year. It must’ve come up.”
Now Matty looked troubled. Again muttering, he said, “Well, I’ve heard some things, I guess.”
“Of course, you have,” McGlynn said. “Couldn’t live here long without hearing it. Especially not working here.”
Jon, who had watched the interplay between presumed employer and employee with mild amusement and surprise, said, “So what’s the real story?”
McGlynn regarded him silently for a moment, as though sizing him up, a slightly lopsided smile on his face. Jon thought he detected just the slightest trace of malicious glee in that expression. Then the big man nodded and he said, “Well, there was a man named Joshua Caesar who lived around here, and it is his story that has to do with that ‘scarecrow’ up by the tree there. And he did fall in love with a girl here, and get rich and successful to try to win her.”
Jon, unable to resist, asked, “What, do you think that he actually sold his soul to the Devil? Do you really believe that?”
McGlynn laughed quietly and replied, “Well, I don’t even know if there really is any ‘capital-D’ Devil in the world—not sure people need the help sinning, you know what I mean? But there was definitely a devil in these parts in the late forties and early fifties.”
“What do you mean?” Jon asked.
“I mean Joshua Caesar,” McGlynn replied. “He was the devil around here. And he fit the description, from what they say, though he died before I was born. But my mom and pop knew him, and they’re not prone to exaggerating.”
“How was he the devil?” Jon asked. He was not normally a fan of local folklore, but this was a welcome break from a long drive, and he thought it might help wake him up for the next leg of his journey.
McGlynn, clearly relishing the prospect of telling the tale, took a step forward and leaned his elbow on the counter. “Okay, well, Joshua was a young man who grew up near here. He was poor, just like Matty’s story goes, and he also fell in love with a local girl, name of Allison Chaney.”
Jon gave an involuntary start, one that was clearly noticed by Mr. McGlynn, for he stopped his story and asked, “What’s the matter?”
Jon shook his head, surprised at the coincidence, though he supposed that Allison Chaney wasn’t all that uncommon a name. Still, considering that he had just been thinking about her for the first time in at least a year, the fact gave him the creeps. Not willing to tell the full extent of his own familiarity, he simply replied, “I just…I knew a girl by that exact name. In college.”
McGlynn, apparently taking the revelation in stride, just nodded, but Matty, the clerk, asked, “Really?”
Jon, somewhat bothered to have to say more, nodded.
Matty, his eyes wide, turned to his employer and said, “Isn’t that weird, Mr. McGlynn? That he knows someone with that name?”
McGlynn shrugged, and, echoing Jon’s thoughts, he said, “Well, it’s not like it’s all that rare a name, and this is a big country, with a lot of people. How many Matthew Carltons do you think there must be in the world?”
“Well, yeah, sure,” the young man said. “But to be right here, and have him know someone with the same name…”
“It’s really not important,” Jon said, trying to conjure the truth of the words by speaking them. “She’s just a girl I knew in college. She was in one of my classes, and we did a project together.”
McGlynn eyed him closely, and Jon wondered whether he read more of the truth in the denial than Jon might have made wished. If so, he decided to leave the subject all but alone, simply commenting, “Well, I guess your Allison Chaney is probably luckier than the Allison that Joshua Caesar loved.” He didn’t wait for a reply before saying, “You see, Joshua loved her, or at least he was sweet on her, from when they were pretty young. They were friends and playmates when they were little, and even went to a few dances together as teenagers. I don’t get the impression that they ever really dated, or had any kind of understanding, but I guess he wanted it and wished for it.
“This was all back in the late thirties and early forties, though, and…well, of course, you know what was going on in the world back then, right?”
“Of course,” Jon replied. “Nazi Germany, Japan, World War Two…”
“Exactly,” McGlynn said. “And, well, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, practically every able-bodied young man around here who could be spared by their families volunteered to join up and fight. At least, that’s what everyone says.”
Jon, who suspected that, if it were an exaggeration, it was slight, said, “Sure.”
McGlynn nodded and went on, “Well, Joshua Caesar, he signed up just like everybody else. I guess he wasn’t any kind of devil, then. And he went off to war and fought in Europe. I don’t know exactly where. Anyway, he was gone for a good while, they say, and as these things happen, he lost something that he left behind.
“There was a young man, about his age, that lived nearby, named Eugene Murphy, and he couldn’t go to war. He’d lost part of his right leg in a farming accident when he was a teenager, so he sure couldn’t join the army. But he was a good worker and all, and he stayed and tended his family’s farm, and helped other people out with things that needed doing—he was a strong young man by all accounts. Anyway, he got a little prosperous, by local standards. And he got prosperous in another way.
“See, he knew Allison Chaney, too, and apparently they spent a lot of time together. They were that age, and he was one of the few young men still around. That’s the way these things happen, I guess, but who knows? They might’ve gotten together, anyway. He was a good man, if the stories are right. Anyway, they started seeing each other, and eventually they got married. And not long after that, they had a little boy.”
Jon felt a slight pang hearing about this, comparing it to the situation with his own Allison Chaney, who might be similarly married and procreating. He found himself sympathizing with poor Joshua Caesar, who had left his love behind for noble reasons, but had lost her just as surely as Jon had his.
McGlynn continued, “Well, before the war was over, Joshua Caesar came home. He’d been wounded in the chest, fighting somewhere in the middle of Europe, and even though he insisted he was still fit for fighting, they sent him home. Apparently, he had a big scar, right about here.” McGlynn raised a fist and held it at the intersection of his chest and upper abdomen, at the lower end of his sternum. “In later days, he used to show it to people to scare them, saying that was where his heart had been blown out by a Nazi. Or he’d sometimes say that was where the Devil had taken his heart, when he’d sold it while he was in Europe. I guess if the Devil ever was anywhere on Earth, he was probably over there at those times.”
Though this sounded almost too melodramatic to be serious, McGlynn looked quite somber as he made his speculation about the diabolic presence on the wartime fields of Europe. Jon, impatient, said, “Well, I guess you could say there were lots of angels around then, too. A lot of good people went over to fight the Nazis.”
McGlynn regarded Jon with raised eyebrows, but shrugged and said, “I suppose you could say so. But the Devil himself was an angel before he fell, so they say. And I guess that still happens.”
Jon was pretty sure that he knew where McGlynn was going with that statement, but he said nothing, and the big man went on.
“Anyway, Joshua Caesar came home—wounded, and having faced who knew what horrors in the war—and found that the girl he loved had married someone else, and was going to have a baby. Well, I’m sure that sort of thing happened to more young men that we could count—sad though it is—but I guess it took him harder than it did most. I don’t mean he was heartbroken. That’s natural enough, we all get that. But they say he—what’s that thing in the bible, with the Pharaoh? ‘The Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to let Moses’s people go?’”
Jon, who knew that it was God who had hardened Pharaoh’s heart in the biblical tale, nevertheless just nodded.
“Well,” McGlynn said, “I guess Joshua Caesar hardened his heart the same way. Or maybe he just shut it down, or decided it didn’t matter anymore. Except, later, to scare people. But maybe it happened slowly, I don’t know. Maybe what he did at first was honestly something he was hoping might win Allison Chaney back. Anyway, they say he turned his own family’s tiny business—a farm supply store, I hear—into something truly prosperous. And he started buying and running other businesses in the area, and farms, and getting them to be prosperous. Some people say he made deals with organized crime, to do things in the background—laundering money, shipping drugs and the like, I don’t know—and some other people say he made deals with the bigger farming and food production companies, to sabotage independent farmers and other local businesses, which he then took over and ran, making them successful again. All I know is that, in that time of post-war prosperity, the beginning of the baby boom, lots of people’s businesses and farms failed around here, and Joshua Caesar would buy them, or take them over, and suddenly they’d become more prosperous than ever before.
“I don’t have any idea how he learned to do all this, or where his luck came from. It seems pretty likely that a lot of what he did was dirty. A lot of people who didn’t want to go along with his plans died…but they died in accidents that didn’t seem to have anything suspicious about them; at least that’s what everyone says.
“And, of course, one of the people who died was Eugene Murphy.”
“Ah,” Jon breathed. “Of course.”
McGlynn gave a cynical nod. “Of course, indeed,” he said. “What’s the use of having power if you can’t use it to get rid of the man who married the girl you loved, right?”
Jon didn’t agree with the ethics of McGlynn’s rhetorical question—he himself had never entertained even the passing notion of trying to seek out Allison Chaney to avenge himself upon any potential spouses. But, of course, he was a very different kind of person than this Joshua Caesar. Also, most of what McGlynn was relating was probably highly fictionalized, and bore little resemblance to the actual post-war events in the region. Nevertheless, Jon found the story gripping, perhaps only because of the coincidence of the girl’s name, and he wanted to hear the rest.
McGlynn seemed more than eager to oblige. He said, “Anyways, as I’m sure you can guess, it wasn’t all that long before Joshua Caesar started trying to court the widow Allison Murphy, formerly Chaney. I’ve heard different versions of the story, some saying that he waited a suitable time after her husband died, others saying he hardly waited at all. Who knows what’s true? Anyway, I imagine it was pretty ugly, because rumors had already gotten around that he’d been behind the man’s death. Though, again, everyone says that there was never anything suspicious about it, at least nothing that ever warranted an investigation.
“Anyway, the girl pretty much shut him down right off. They say that people nearby heard her yelling at him, saying he was a monster and that she never would’ve married him, that even if he hadn’t gone off to war, she’d just never felt that way about him, all that sort of stuff. Not the sort of things that are likely to endear you to a ruthless man who’s learned how to get what he wants, and who may have ties to organized crime, or even to something worse.”
“Worse?” Jon asked. “What do you mean?”
“Well, of course, like I said, he used to tell people that the scar in his chest was where the Devil had taken his heart out when he’d sold it—or his soul, I suppose. I don’t think most people took him literally, but…well, when people died who were in his way, it often happened when literally no one else was around. They say that one person even got struck by lightning.”
“Lightning?” Jon asked, unable to resist smiling.
McGlynn appeared to share Jon’s amusement, for he mirrored his expression and said, “Lightning. That’s what they say. Now, you and I know there’s no sense messing up a perfectly good story with the facts, but it seems that a lot of people—and when I say a lot, it’s a surprising number…as many as dozens, I guess—came to bad ends if they were in Joshua Caesar’s way, but there was never anything that pointed to Joshua Caesar…or to any human. It was all accidents and illnesses. Which, of course, led even people in the second half of the twentieth century to start wondering if maybe Joshua Caesar really had sold his soul to the Devil, and was using black magic to get rid of the people in his way.”
Jon raised his eyebrows, still smiling, though he felt a slight chill at McGlynn’s second-hand speculation. “You don’t really think that, do you? I mean, you don’t believe in black magic or anything like that?”
McGlynn tightened his lips and said, “Well, not really. This is the age of the Internet, after all. But…well, I have to admit, when the weather’s bad, and it’s raining, and the wind’s blowing, that scarecrow out there really does give me the willies. What about you, Matty?” He turned to look at his employee, who had been hanging raptly on his words.
Matty looked embarrassed, but he said, “Well…I don’t really believe in black magic any more than anyone does, but I’ll tell you this. If I’m going home after dark, and waiting for a ride, I wait inside until they pull up. And when I go out, I don’t look up that hill. It’s…I don’t know. It’s creepy.”
“Well, sure,” Jon said. “That’s the whole point of things like that, right? They’re supposed to be creepy.”
“Sure, yeah,” Matty admitted. “I know. But still…I don’t like to look at it, or be outside there, after dark.”
Jon supposed that was a forgivable position. He had felt uneasy himself looking up the hill at the figure, and it certainly had been striking enough to get his attention even while he was speeding along the interstate. Such totems clearly had a psychological power, which was no doubt why people used them, even though their effect at protecting crops seemed dubious.
“But how does that thing connect to Joshua Caesar, anyway?” Jon asked. “I mean, it’s not really supposed to be a representation of him or something, is it? It looks too new, for one thing. People can’t really have put that up to remember him, for whatever reason…why would anyone nowadays care?”
McGlynn smiled his slightly malicious smile again and said, “Well, I’ll come to that in a bit. Let me lead up to it the right way.”
Jon gave a chuckle at the man’s showmanship, not bothered by the mild and comical malevolence he conveyed. “Okay,” he said. “You’re the boss.”
With a look of relish that could only have been enhanced if he had begun to wring his hands in anticipation, McGlinn said, “Well, I guess a lot of people expected Allison Chaney—I mean, Murphy—to be the next one killed. But something worse than that happened to her. Worse, anyway, for anyone who’s ever had a family.
“By then, her son by Eugene Murphy was about, oh, five or six years old. Anyway, he’d started school by that time. And this was, of course, long before the modern days of helicopter parenting and all that, when every mother or father drives the kids to and from school, so they don’t get picked up by a child molester…even though they’re probably more likely to die in a car crash during the trip than have the other thing happen. People sure are strange, aren’t they?”
Jon nodded, never having thought of McGlynn’s point before, but he was morbidly eager to hear the rest of the tale. “What happened?” he asked.
“Well, one day, when the little boy was on his way to school, walking along the side of this very road—though it was even less busy back then, and he was way further down that way…” He swung out the arm that was not resting on the countertop, pointing back in the general direction away from the interstate. “…a truck drove by him. Early morning delivery, I guess, nothing unusual about it, and nothing unusual about kids walking along the road to go to school. Like I said, they were different times. Lots of other kids were out, and they saw what happened; some of the them are still alive, so I believe this part of the story is true. Anyway, just as the truck was coming up near where the boy was walking—I imagine him waving at it as it got closer, but that’s just me—it blew a flat in its front right tire. Apparently, it was as loud as a gunshot. And, of course, the driver did what he could, but his truck went off the road, and right into the little Murphy boy. He died right there, so the people who were kids then say. Killed right away. The front of the truck crushed his chest like a paper cup. No screaming or yelling—not by him, anyway—just lying there, staring at the sky, looking more surprised than afraid.”
Jon felt himself gaping in horror, and he snapped his mouth shut. McGlynn could hardly have known such specifics of the events he was conveying, but he was a convincing and gifted storyteller. Jon had never been particularly paternal—he had refused all offers to do mentoring throughout his life, even before he’d met and then been bereft of Allison Chaney—and had never known a young child for whom he’d had any particular attachment. Nevertheless, he could at least imagine how horrible it would be to see such a tragedy, or to have it happen to one’s own offspring.
“Now, the driver,” McGlynn went on, “swore that the tires were only a month old, and everyone he worked with confirmed it. And when the tire was examined they couldn’t find any evidence that it had been shot out. See, that’s what some people thought must’ve happened, or at least that’s the rumor that spread. But there was no bullet hole, just a rupture, some defect in the tire. Nowadays, someone would’ve sued the company—if not Allison Chaney, then the driver himself, though he wasn’t hurt. But finally, everyone just had to accept it as a tragedy. The more sober-headed people considered it natural, but lots of people thought it the work of Joshua Caesar. And they had some reasons. After all, the company that owned that truck was the very first one that Joshua Caesar had run…the one he’d made from his family’ business. So, people said it was his way of sending a message to Allison Chaney, of signing the killing, if you want to put it that way. Letting her know who’d killed the son of Eugene Murphy.”
“Wow,” Jon said with the release of a briefly held breath. “People really thought that?”
“Of course,” McGlynn said. “It’s only natural. People are superstitious at the best of times, and when things are worse…well, somehow it seems to make them feel better to think that there’s someone out there behind everything that’s happening, even if it’s someone bad, than that the world just doesn’t care. At least, it makes them feel better if they don’t think it through.”
Jon, who had never had any serious suspicion that the universe was anything but amoral, thought McGlynn was probably correct. The man was shrewd, that was certain, and a good storyteller, as Jon had thought before. He wondered why such a man was managing—or, more likely, owned—a gas station in rural Pennsylvania. He supposed there must be a great many such people about: talented, gifted, capable of rising much higher than they were, but without any drive or ambition to do so. He was such a person himself, though perhaps at a slightly different level. Or then again, perhaps not.
Forcing himself back to focus on the story, Jon asked, “So, what happened then?”
Matty, leaning forward from behind the counter, nodded, clearly sharing Jon’s curiosity.
McGlynn chuckled mordantly and said, “Well, you can imagine what happened with Allison Chaney, I shouldn’t wonder. She was inconsolable…understandably, of course. She started talking to everyone she could about how Joshua Caesar really had sold his soul to the Devil, how he was the devil on Earth, and a force of pure evil, and they all had to do something about him before he destroyed them all. No one really believed her, though I imagine plenty of them sympathized and wondered. Or maybe they did believe, but didn’t want to admit it, or to act like they believed. Maybe they thought that would make it worse. Maybe they were just afraid. Even the pastor of the church, when she came and begged him to intervene in the name of God, just told her that God simply didn’t work that way…people were not able to sell their souls to the Devil.
“Well, she apparently told him that she was going to take matters into her own hands, and stalked out of the church, screaming about how everyone in the whole area were nothing but cowards, but that she wasn’t afraid. She’d already lost everything that mattered to her, and if God couldn’t help, then she’d have to help herself.”
McGlynn came to a halt staring off into space pensively. Jon glanced at Matty, who glanced back at him, then Jon looked back at McGlynn. “So,” he asked, “what did she do? Did she get revenge?”
McGlynn gave another mordant chuckle, and this one surprised Jon by raising gooseflesh on his arm, for it was a sound of pure contemptuous amusement at someone who thought justice might be done in the world. “Revenge?” he asked. “No, she didn’t get revenge. This isn’t Hollywood. She might’ve really meant to, or she might have just been blowing off steam. But the next time people saw her, she wasn’t standing over Joshua Caesar’s corpse with a smoking gun or a bloody knife. She was hanging from the rafters in her family’s house…hanging from a noose. Apparently, she killed herself.”
“Apparently?” Jon asked, puzzled by the qualifier.
“Well…there were people who thought she hadn’t actually done it herself,” McGlynn replied. “I guess it wasn’t obvious how she’d gotten up to be able to do it…though I think people who’ve really decided to end their own lives can be pretty determined. But there were many who thought that Joshua Caesar had done it, or had it done, and just made it look like suicide. Though by what I’ve heard there wasn’t any sign of a struggle. Which just made some people say he’d done it by witchcraft, black magic, whatever. Made her do it herself, or magicked her up into the noose somehow.”
Jon, though he felt a chill, raised a skeptical eyebrow. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the clerk, Matty, bore a much more credulous expression, and was plainly unnerved.
McGlynn, clearly noting Jon’s look of doubt, smirked and said, “Also, her body disappeared before they could bury her.”
“Really?” This time it was Matty who interjected, horrified fascination written all over his face.
“That’s what they say,” McGlynn confirmed. “And it seems pretty well confirmed by the newspapers back then. Someone stole the body out of the mortuary before the funeral. Someone who didn’t have to break in, apparently. And then, of course, right after that…” He looked off over Jon’s shoulder, as though staring through the wall of his station, saying, “…someone planted that pecan tree up on that hill.”
Jon, against his own rational urgings, looked over his shoulder, but of course he saw nothing but the wall of the station, marked by the coffee service area and microwave, with its meager supply of cup ramen noodles. In his mind’s eye, though, he could see the towering pecan tree on the hill, swaying slightly in the breeze, guarding its macabre neighbor.
“But wait,” he said, turning back to face McGlynn, “if that tree was planted in, what…nineteen fifty or so, then it’s only sixty or seventy years old. Is it possible for it to get so big in that time? I mean, this isn’t even the usual place for pecan trees to grow.”
“I know,” McGlynn said. “But it was planted around then, and grow this big it did. I’ve seen it over the course of my life. I guess it was planted in just the right place. Or maybe there was something special about the soil it was planted in.”
Crinkling his brow, Jon asked, “What do you mean?”
With a surprised look, McGlynn asked, “Isn’t it obvious? Almost everyone figured Allison Chaney’s body was buried there and the tree planted on top of it. See, just like Matty here said, Allison Chaney always did love pecans. And some people thought that it was a way of Joshua Caesar showing at least a bit of remorse over what he’d done, and giving her that last gift of planting a pecan tree over her body. Others—less charitable, I suppose—said that it was his final insult to her. ‘You want pecans? I’ll give you pecans. You can have all the pecans your corpse can eat.’ That sort of thing.”
“But…then, if everyone thought her body’d been stolen and buried there, why didn’t they just…just dig it up and see? I mean, it would’ve been a crime to do that, right? To steal her body and bury it there?” Jon didn’t know much about the law, but surely this would be a chance for the people of the area to prove ill-dealings on Joshua Caesar’s part. There was no way one could claim that black magic had moved a human cadaver from a mortuary to the top of a hill and planted a pecan tree over it.
“I guess it would’ve been,” McGlynn said. “But this was private land. Owned, of course, by Joshua Caesar. In fact, that hill looked over a whole big stretch of land that was some of the first that he ever owned. And to dig it up, theyd’ve needed to get a warrant, or some kind of court order. And no one was going to swear out a warrant like that against Joshua Caesar. Not around here. Not when there were other ways of doing things.”
Jon thought he caught an ominous tone to McGlynn’s last sentence. “What do you mean?” he asked.
That chilly, malicious smile came back to McGlynn’s face, and it was now more frightening. “Well, not long after that, the people here decided that enough was enough. Some did, anyway. They probably felt guilty for having stood by for so long, for just letting things happen, letting Joshua Caesar have his way. Anyway, one night—they say it was the birthday of Allison Chaney’s little boy, but I don’t know about that—they came to Joshua Caesar’s big house in the late evening. I always imagine them storming up there with pitchforks and torches, but I imagine they more likely came with shotguns, hunting rifles, and flashlights. Anyway, they didn’t have any trouble getting there or getting inside. There were no guards around the place, and Joshua Caesar lived alone. I don’t know why he didn’t try to stop them, or to escape, but I guess his magic wasn’t strong enough to warn him…or maybe the Devil deserted him. I suspect, if there is a Devil, that he always welches on his deals when the time’s right for him.
“Anyway, the villagers—I always think of them as villagers, I hope you don’t mind, it just seems right—fell on him, and accused him of his crimes. By all accounts, he wasn’t afraid at all. Laughed at them, they said. Scared some of them almost to the point where their nerve broke. But a mob has strength that none of its members have, and can do things no one would do if they were alone and in their right mind. So, they set on him, and held him down on his kitchen table…and they cut him open.”
Matty gasped, but Jon said, “What do you mean? They stabbed him to death?”
“More than that,” McGlynn replied. “I guess they decided they wanted some poetic justice, and since he’d always scared people by telling them that he’d gotten his heart blown out, or had cut it out and sold it to the Devil, they’d make his story come true.
“Now, what probably happened is just that. They cut the bastard’s heart out and killed him…well, he probably died before they’d finished, obviously. Who knows what happened to it…most likely burned somewhere, that’s what I’d do, if I was them. But some people say that, when they cut open his chest, right in the place where his scar was, below his breastbone and up through the bottom of his chest, that they found nothing there. His heart really had been gone, and he’d been living on without.”
Matty covered his mouth, truly a satisfying audience for a gothic tale such as McGlynn was telling. Jon, though a chilly image arose in his mind of a gaping, empty hole in the middle of a prostrate man’s chest, nevertheless could not let a logical inconsistency go without comment. “Wait,” he said, “if he was supposed to have been living all those years without a heart—which is obviously impossible, but like you said, stories don’t need to be too worried about facts—well, then why would cutting open his chest kill him?”
McGlynn shrugged, still smiling, and it was obvious to Jon that the big man had long since noticed that plot hole himself. “Who knows?” he said. “Maybe cutting his chest open broke whatever spell had kept him alive. Maybe he didn’t die. Or maybe, more likely, he had a heart just as much as everyone else, and they cut it out, and he died from that.
“Anyway, die he did, by all accounts, and the killers had to decide what to do with his body. Not that they were worried about getting in trouble for killing him. It wasn’t as though anyone was going to miss him, and there was enough of them together that they could vouch for one another being miles away at the time of the murder. But I guess their wish for poetic justice wasn’t quite satisfied yet. So, they found some old, oversized clothes, some gloves, some boots…and a burlap sack. They put him in those, put the sack over his head—some superstitious person in the group actually cut a mouth and eye slits in it, then stitched ‘em back closed with twine, supposedly so he couldn’t see or speak any more evil. I’ve always thought that seemed pretty stupid, but I guess that’s superstition for you. And what about the ears? Did they block those? Not that I ever heard.”
He chuckled at the expense of the foolish person who had thought such gestures would matter, before saying, “Then they brought him up to that hill and tied the body to the cross up there, right next to the tree that he’d planted only a little bit before. And that was his final resting place…in this world, anyway.”
A silent pause followed, Matty looking rapt and wonder-filled, McGlynn half smiling over a contemplative expression. Jon, though he’d enjoyed the story, had another question. “So,” he said, “do they keep on…replacing, or maintaining the thing—I guess you’d call it a scarecrow, even though I know it’s not for crows. Has someone been maintaining it ever since?”
Matty squinched his nose and crinkled his brow, clearly not getting what Jon meant, but McGlynn gave another of his dark smiles and said, “Oh no. No, no one maintains it. It’s been there ever since, just like the tree, just as it is. No one’s changed or fixed a thing.”
Jon pulled his head back slightly. “That’s impossible,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t get a good look at it, but the clothes, the head, all of it…it’s all in good shape. I mean, if it’d been there for more than sixty years, they’d’ve faded, they’d’ve fallen apart by now. The post would rot, and I don’t even want to think about what might’ve happened if there were a real person under those clothes. I think some animal would’ve eaten at a body if it’d been left there. Somebody’s gotta be maintaining, or replacing it.”
Matty just looked confused, but McGlynn clearly took Jon’s point, and just as clearly had thought of it himself. He said, “I hear what you’re saying. You’ve also gotta wonder about wind and rain, and snow and ice, everything else that should’ve knocked it down by now. I don’t know what to say about that. All I can tell you for sure is, it’s been there as long as I can remember, and it’s always looked the same. Kids’ll sometimes dare each other to get up close to it and even touch it, and during the day, some of them do…though as far as I know, no one’s ever touched it after dark. And no one tried to knock it down or anything like that. But no one maintains it, either.”
Jon, not willing to take such a report at face value, said, “Well…no one you know of.”
“Of course,” McGlynn admitted, and here he seemed less amused, more thoughtful and dubious. “It’s possible that someone’s coming out here every now and then to keep the thing up. They could change out its clothes, and its bag, even its boots and gloves, fix the post and the cross-bar…but they’d have to have been doing it at least as long as I’ve been alive, and they’d have to have been doing it perfectly, because I haven’t ever seen anything out of place, like you’d think there’d be if someone had, say, changed out an old shirt for a new one. Also, they’d have to have done it when no one saw them…at night, I guess, because this station’s open seven days a week, and I don’t know of anyone ever seeing anyone going over there.”
“Still…it could be done,” Jon said, though he recognized the difficulties McGlynn was describing. He also recognized that he had only McGlynn’s word for such things; for all he knew, McGlynn himself was the one who maintained the scarecrow. It wasn’t all that great as advertising went, but it was a conversation starter, and had certainly drawn Jon into the station. Adding the local legend-telling would only serve to cement the scarecrow, and the gas station, in the memory of anyone who passed.
McGlynn, unaware of Jon’s speculation about his secret deeds, said, “Yes, I suppose it could be done. People have done harder things than that. You’d have to wonder why they would do it, but people have done stranger things, too, so I don’t think that makes it impossible. But that someone would go to all that bother over all those years would be almost as unnatural as the thing just always staying the same.”
Jon wasn’t sure if he quite agreed with that comparison, but since he had his own suspicions, he didn’t feel pressured to explore the possibilities. “Well, it is an interesting story. This has been one of the most memorable gassing ups I’ve ever done.”
McGlynn smiled, saying, “Pleased to hear it. Hopefully that means you’ll stop here again on your way back the other way, if you’re going the other way.”
And that, as far as Jon was concerned, cemented the case for his own speculation, that McGlynn himself had made, or at least maintained, the scarecrow, and used it to draw in customers. He didn’t mind; in fact, he found it admirable and original. The man knew how to tell a story, and he knew how to set one up as well. So thinking, Jon said, “I’m sure I will.”
Matty had already run Jon’s card, and he quickly put his purchases in a plastic bag and handed them over. After wishing both the clerk and his boss well, Jon turned and walked out of the gas station.
Jon considered having a cigarette before he left, but the cloud cover persisted, giving the whole area a gloomy feel. Glancing up at the tree and the effigy of Joshua Caesar, he decided that it wasn’t a scene he wanted to relish. That was a shame, really, because the surrounding countryside was quite beautiful, with its rolling, partially wooded hills and surprisingly quaint human presence. Even McGlynn’s gas station, though dingy, had a certain charm. If not for that story—and for the honestly creepy presence of the “scarecrow,” with its sewn-shut eyes and mouth—Jon might have lingered. Perhaps McGlynn’s story wasn’t quite the perfect marketing scheme he’d thought it was. Now that he was outside, and in the presence of the tale’s subject, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stop back on his way home. Looking at the scarecrow as he opened his car door, he even felt that McGlynn’s cynical and teasing smile might be more sinister than he had felt it to be while inside the station.
Shrugging to himself, knowing that he didn’t have to make any decision about such things right then, Jon brought himself down into the low seat of the Mustang and shut the door. He put his bag of unhealthy groceries on the passenger seat, pulling his nearly-empty pack of cigarettes out of the way as he did. There was no sense ruining the few that he had left just because he had a brand-new pack in the bag.
He put the key in the ignition and turned it, and his own heart—such as it was—sank.
The starter cranked, trying its best to turn the engine over, but the V8 refused to be coaxed. Jon turned the key back and sat still for a moment.
“Son of a bitch,” he said quietly.
He stepped down on the gas and released it, wondering if he could have flooded the engine, not even really sure how to remedy such a thing. Though his current closest friend was a mechanic, Jon knew only slightly more about cars than Ron did about computers. He just knew that Ron had given the beast a clean bill of health, and declared it unequivocally ready for a cross-country trip.
Turning the key again brought no different response than before. The starter cranked and cranked, but the engine didn’t so much as sputter. Jon was at least reassured that the battery was in excellent shape, since the dashboard lights did not dim when he turned the starter. The indicator lights were all dark; there was no warning that something might be wrong with the functions they were built to sense. That was as it should be. Oil, transmission fluid, coolant, brake fluid—all these things had been optimized immediately prior to his leaving New Jersey, and the car had been running like a dream.
“Mother fucker!” Jon spat to himself, and he took the key from the ignition, opened the door, and stepped out of the car.
He got down and looked under the front end, trying to see if there was any sign of leakage, but all he saw was the typical, and quite minor, dripping of condensation from the A/C unit. No vital fluids had oozed from the car’s workings. What the hell was happening?
Standing back up, he glanced at the hill. A stiff breeze blew, stirring the leaves in the pecan tree, giving the strange impression that the great plant was somehow alarmed. Below it, the wind caught the clothes of the scarecrow figure, accentuating once again that its chest was partly hollow—and Jon knew now why its makers had chosen that effect. The wind also caught the burlap sack on the thing’s head, pulling it taut. This gave the truly disturbing impression that its sewn-shut eye was looking slightly in Jon’s direction. Worse, the slit and twined mouth, its corner pulled back and up, seemed to be smiling.
It was not a reassuring smile.
Jon tore his eyes and mind away from the thing and walked briskly back toward the gas station.
When he stepped through the door, both Matty and McGlynn were still in the main area of the station, Matty lounging behind the counter and McGlynn puttering amongst the displays, perhaps inventorying his wares. They both looked up with evident surprise when Jon came back in the building.
“Forget something?” McGlynn asked.
Jon sighed. “Yeah,” he said, “I forgot to drive a better car. Mine won’t start.” He felt a little guilty for effectively badmouthing Ron’s work, but he was terribly frustrated. He would apologize in spirit to his friend if and when he got the car moving again, and when he had no more trouble with it.
McGlynn stepped forward a bit, cocking his head. “Is it the battery?” he asked.
“No,” Jon said. “It’s not that. It’s got a brand-new battery. And besides, the lights and the other electrical systems are fine, and the starter’s turning fine. It just can’t get the engine to go. I don’t know why, everything was checked out before I left. Fresh oil, all the other fluids are fine, and it’s been running perfectly up till the moment I pulled in.”
McGlynn looked mildly puzzled, but Matty seemed frankly alarmed, saying, “That’s really weird, don’t you think, Mr. McGlynn? Why would his car not start?” He glanced toward the wall to his right, and Jon guessed that he was thinking of McGlynn’s macabre tale.
McGlynn looked irritated by Matty’s apparent speculation, which led Jon to think he took it a little more seriously than would have been expected; an amused roll of the eyes would have been more reassuring. In a tense voice, the big man said, “Don’t start imagining things, Matty. It’s a car, and cars break down from time to time. ‘Things fall apart.’ That’s just what they do.”
Then, rubbing his hands together, McGlynn said, “Okay, well, I’m not a mechanic, but I have run a gas station for quite a long time. Maybe I can figure out what’s wrong with it.”
Jon felt a minor surge of premature relief, and said, “That’d be really great. Thanks.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” McGlynn said. “Thank me if I can get you running.” Then he joined Jon and they walked toward the door, leaving Matty behind to mind the shop.
It turned out that McGlynn was correct in advising Jon not to thank him, for though he tried the engine himself, and though he popped the hood and looked and poked around, the big man reported that everything he saw appeared to be in working order. He even made admiring comments about the state of the engine and the other internal workings of the Mustang. Jon was pleased on Ron’s behalf, and tried to store away the compliments to relate to his friend later, but that was hardly his main priority. Right now, he just wanted to get the car running, and unfortunately, McGlynn did not seem to be able to help him with that.
Also, even as he explored the car, McGlynn kept glancing up at the tree and the scarecrow on the hill with a worried expression. The clouds had solidified their dominion over the sky now, and the afternoon was a dark gray, becoming quite cool for the time of year. Jon could almost have thought that it was Halloween, if not for the fact that all the surrounding vegetation was green.
In between McGlynn’s glances up the hill, Jon cast a few looks there, himself. The wind was still out of the west, and as he had seen it before, it drew the burlap sack back taut against whatever gave it shape, creating a distorted and leering expression—one that seemed to be directed toward him, or at least toward the gas station.
Jon wondered just what they had used to make the head-shape under that burlap. Whatever it was, it was convincing. He thought about the story McGlynn had told, that the scarecrow was made with the body of Joshua Caesar…but of course, a corpse would long ago have deteriorated too much to hold together such a figure. Anyway, no one really would have made a scarecrow out of a dead man’s body, not matter how hated the man. This wasn’t the middle ages. Someone would have said something. Someone would have done something.
It had to be the case that some person, or people, were maintaining the scarecrow for all these years, updating it, fixing it, replacing parts as they deteriorated. As for McGlynn’s statement that the thing had always stayed the same and showed no signs of tampering…well, either he was fooling himself or—which seemed more likely—he was part of the gag. Matty, would certainly need little convincing.
Looking back from the tree, Jon saw that McGlynn was staring at it as well. His face was not that of a clever conspirator. It was nervous. He glanced down from where he stood at the front of the car, apparently giving yet another cursory look at the engine, then looked right back up at the hill, which was now behind Jon. McGlynn did not look amused. He looked speculative. He looked afraid.
Turning back to Jon, he said, “Okay, well, let’s put the hood down. I don’t have any idea what’s wrong, but it’s gotta be something.” When Jon nodded and started forward, the big man followed his own recommendation and lowered the hood. The crash of it falling into place felt strangely distant and muffled.
“Here,” he said next, unconsciously wiping his hands on his pants, which gave Jon a slight twinge as he saw the black grime mar the neatly laundered khakis. “Come back inside. There’s a good mechanic on the other side of town, and they can come out and tow you over so they can try to figure out what’s wrong. And they won’t rip you off just because you’re a stranger who’s in trouble. I’ve got the number inside.”
Jon, who’d privately been resolving to get on his smartphone and check the internet for local mechanics and towing, felt a surge of relief at McGlynn’s news. He felt reassured not so much by the man’s words as the tone with which he said them; he sounded distracted as he shared his assessment, as if it were an afterthought, nothing important. Indeed, McGlynn seemed deeply preoccupied, and even as Jon followed him back toward the door, he thought he saw the big man frequently glancing to his left, toward the tree…and the scarecrow.
Jon forced himself not to look. He was not superstitious, but he could not look at that figure’s face, twisted by the wind, without imagining a desiccated skull under the burlap, a skull that was not quite as dead as it ought to be after having been there for almost seventy years.
The gloomy sky felt oppressive, and Jon found visceral relief when he passed through the imperfectly transparent door and reentered the gas station proper. McGlynn did not look back as he strode toward the office area and disappeared into its surprisingly deep confines. Matty, who had looked up as the pair entered, asked, “What’s wrong with it?”
For a split instant, Jon thought he was referring to the scarecrow, for that was what was in his mind. Then he quickly course-corrected and replied, “I have no idea. Everything looks like it ought to be fine.”
Matty seemed pensive, but sounded slightly hopeful as he said, “Well…it is a kind of old car, right? I mean, things can always go wrong, just like Mr. McGlynn said.”
Jon frowned, defensively irritated by Matty’s speculation. “No,” he said, “it shouldn’t have anything wrong. I have a friend who’s a very good mechanic, and he’s put his heart and soul into making this thing like new. It’s been running better than just about any car I’ve ever driven, all the way from central Jersey. Nothing should be wrong with it.”
Matty looked troubled. After a moment’s pause, and another glance at the wall to his right, he said, “Well, something’s gotta have gone wrong, right? I mean…otherwise why won’t it start?”
Jon looked back at Matty, all too easily reading from his expression that he had suspicions that he didn’t want to entertain, or at least to speak aloud. Jon was all but sure that he knew what those suspicions were. Given the story McGlynn had just told, Matty was surely thinking that somehow the spirit of Joshua Caesar, or at least of the scarecrow under the pecan tree, was somehow interdicting the starting of Jon’s car.
Jon wanted, heartily, to feel contempt about the young man’s fear. He didn’t normally relish looking down on others, but in this case, he would have welcomed it, because he found himself—however weakly—entertaining the same fear that was no doubt going through the clerk’s head.
It was ridiculous, of course. Much of McGlynn’s story had almost certainly been fiction, or at least highly embellished by time and retelling. Even McGlynn had said that there was no sense ruining a perfectly good story with the facts. There was no possible way that the scarecrow on the hill had ever really been made around the corpse of Joshua Caesar. Even if it had been, in the beginning—which it surely hadn’t—a body would long since have fallen apart, eaten by insects, frozen and thawed dozens of times, with the clothes and sack that wrapped it. The wooden cross, even if made from the sturdiest oak, would have fallen to pieces with rot and weather after seventy years.
What was more, even if, against all odds, the remains of local malefactor Joshua Caesar had somehow survived intact the passage of seven decades, that would still be no reason to think that it had some supernatural power, some ability to reach out and prevent his car from starting. That was no more possible than it was that Joshua Caesar had actually sold his soul—or his heart—to the Devil somewhere on the battlefields of Europe in World War Two. It was nonsense. Pacts with the Devil, black magic, evil totems…these things made fine stories, but they were not real.
Jon gave a start as McGlynn spoke loudly, coming back through the doorway from the rear of the station. “Sorry about that,” the big man said. “I had to dig in my desk a little to find the number.” He held a white business card in his right hand, which he extended as he approached Jon.
“No problem,” Jon said. “I appreciate you getting it.” He took the card and looked at it. It bore a simple, childish picture of a tow truck, next to which were the words, “Easy Service,” with an address and phone number below. It was not a particularly imaginative name for a business, but there probably wasn’t a lot of local competition, so there would be no need to be clever; just being a decent mechanic would probably be enough to keep a place in business.
Jon hoped that was true.
He called the number, and was answered after only a few rings. He explained his situation and told them his location—asking McGlynn and Matty to give him the name of the gas station, though he supposed he could have just said, “The gas station by the interstate,” and it would have served as well. His enthusiasm and relief were dampened ever-so-slightly when he was told that the tow truck was currently out on another call, but that as soon as it was done, it would come by and pick him up.
He must have looked glum as he disconnected the call, because even as he put his phone away, Matty asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Oh, nothing,” Jon said. “It’s just gonna be an hour or so. The tow truck’s out getting someone else right now, but as soon as they get that done, they’ll come over here to get me.”
Jon didn’t know what Matty might have been imagining, but apparently it was much worse than Jon’s report, because he looked almost comically relieved, and said, “Oh, well, that’s okay, then. You can just wait in here, if you want. Isn’t that right, Mr. McGlynn?”
McGlynn, who had stood nearby through the course of Jon’s call, said, “Of course. Have some coffee, if you want. On the house.” He waved an arm toward the wall of the room beyond which lay the hill, the tree, and the scarecrow. Jon looked at the twin pots of coffee, wondering how long they had been sitting there—not that he was above drinking day-old coffee—and realizing that he had no urge for it.
“Thanks,” he said, and he handed the Easy Service card back to McGlynn. “I’ll probably have some in a little bit. But right now…” He felt at his pockets in a rather absurd pantomime, as though trying to find something that he already knew would not be there. “…I think I’m gonna have a smoke.” With a rueful smile, he added, “And, of course, I’ve left my cigarettes in the car.”
Both McGlynn and Matty looked alarmed by Jon’s declaration, though Matty’s case was much more severe. Jon doubted that they were worried about his lungs, and it was almost amusing to see the evidence of each man’s internal struggle with fear and credulity.
Matty had the least success, and he said, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather wait till the tow truck gets here?”
“Nah,” Jon replied, meaning that he was sure. “I haven’t had a cigarette in an hour or so already. Anyway, I need to call my mechanic friend and curse him out. He swore to me that this car was in great shape for the drive to Chicago.”
McGlynn and Matty exchanged troubled glances, but McGlynn just said, “Okay, well, stay well away from the pumps, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course,” Jon said, though he realized that, without the admonition, he might very well not have thought to avoid having a lit flame next to great reservoirs of gasoline. He turned toward the door, and even as he began to move, Matty said, “You may want to smoke over on this side of the building.” He waved his arm toward the snacks and the drink refrigerators. “The view’s not as good, but…” He trailed off, clearly embarrassed by his own fears now that he was giving voice to them.
Jon, who found Matty’s concern endearing, smiled and said, “Don’t worry about me. I’m not a crow, and I like to watch traffic. I think I’ll be fine.”
Matty and McGlynn once again exchanged glances, but Matty just nodded resignedly, and McGlynn said, “All right, then.” To Matty, the big man added, “I’ll be in the back, but call me when the tow truck comes, okay?”
“Yessir,” Matty replied. Jon gave a tiny wave and strode through the door.
Outside, the level of cloud-cover had not changed, so the afternoon was dim and morose, feeling still more like autumn than spring. The wind had diminished to a slight breeze, which was fine with Jon, since the cloudiness made the day cool, and he was not wearing a jacket. He didn’t want to get it out of the trunk. He had hoped, in fact, not to need anything at all out of his luggage until the moment he pulled up to the Drake Hotel in downtown Chicago—that was where he had reservations, fulfilling a longstanding, if idle, wish from his college days. He feared that those plans would now be slightly altered. Even if the local mechanics at Easy Service were superhuman in their speed and skills, it seemed unlikely that Jon was going to get back on the interstate in less than three or four hours.
Going around to the passenger side of the Mustang, Jon swung the door open and reached into the passenger seat. Though tempted to fish the fresh pack of Newports from his bag of dubious treats, he did the practical thing and moved it, picking up the almost-empty pack underneath. Closing the door again, he flipped the pack’s top open and pulled out one of the three cigarettes within, sticking it in his mouth.
He almost forgot McGlynn’s warning, but even as he reached for his lighter, he glanced over his shoulder at the gas pump. He shook his head, walking around the rear of the car, palming his Bic for the moment.
As he came around the end of the Mustang, Jon paused. He glanced at the station, then looked to where the pickup truck was parked. Matty was right, there was not much to see there, just a ratty old vacant field, a few modest trees, then the beginning of the row of worn-down businesses along the way. Even a true enthusiast of Americana would not have been excited over that stretch of semi-rural heartland, and Jon was no enthusiast.
When he turned his gaze to the left, though, he saw the hill, the tree, and its much smaller companion.
Oddly, though the tree towered over the wood-mounted effigy, it had less physical presence. Jon snuck himself toward the notion that the tree seemed almost timid—afraid, if such a thing were possible, of the sinister shape planted near it.
Of course, he knew why he thought that way; it was the product of McGlynn’s well-told story, coupled with Matty’s ill-concealed superstition, and McGlynn’s own less prominent but evident misgivings. Jon wanted to laugh at himself, but while looking at the scarecrow on the hill, he was unable to summon amusement. The thing really was disquieting. Any sane person would want to spare themselves its presence, even if they had no belief whatsoever in its evil nature.
Thus concluding, Jon strode to his left, away from the pickup truck and the road leading into what must be town. Once he judged himself far enough away from the pumps, he flicked his lighter into flame and drew in a breath of smoke.
“Luckily for me,” he said aloud, “I’m not quite sane.”
He forced himself to look at the scarecrow, so well-articulated in its joints, such an excellent facsimile of a corpse, but far too intact to be seventy years old. With the slackening of the wind’s force, the expression on the thing’s face had changed. It was no longer grinning, but still seemed to look at Jon out of the corner of its sewn-shut eye. Its mouth was drawn slightly down now, giving an impression of contempt, as though the thing were figuratively, as well as literally, looking down on him.
Jon took a deep drag on his cigarette, relishing the harsh feeling of the smoke entering his lungs, and staring willfully up at the scarecrow’s face. As he breathed the smoke out, he whispered, “Fuck you.”
Most of his expletive was directed at the baleful presence up on the hill, but some of it, at least—more than he’d like to admit—was directed at Allison Chaney in his memory, his Allison Chaney, an Allison Chaney that had very different priorities from those of the poor woman in the tale about old, dead, Joshua Caesar.
Jon had not been a smoker when he had met Allison, nor at any time before. It had simply never been something that he wanted to do. It had never bothered him in other people; he could be the only person not lit up in a room full of smokers and would not feel at all troubled. The smell neither pleased nor irritated him, and the habit itself neither impressed nor disturbed him.
The same could not be said of Allison.
Allison hated smoking with the fervor of a religious fanatic denouncing the sins of the flesh. Jon knew some of that hate was because her father—with whom she’d had a stormy relationship—had struggled with smoking for as long as he’d been alive, and had finally had the battle taken from him when he’d died of lung and kidney cancer at a young age. Allison’s anger about the habit was no doubt partly a defense against her own feelings of guilt and bereavement, and Jon could hardly hold it against her. But she had been so vehement. He had heard her say, on more than one occasion, that she didn’t understand why people who smoked in the modern world—now that everyone knew how harmful it was—didn’t just kill themselves directly, and stop being pussies about it. The world would be better off without them, and everyone else’s air would be a little bit cleaner.
A paragon of empathy and tolerance Allison Chaney was not, and though it was but a tiny part of her otherwise pleasant personality, it sometimes ruined friendships.
Once Allison had given up on Jon, one of the first changes he’d made was to take up smoking. He found it neither unpleasant nor especially gratifying. He’d never had any coughing fits or lightheadedness when lighting up his first smoke, though he had felt strangely guilty when buying that pack. This, he thought, was the result of having spent years in a university environment, where was found—among the many forms of virtue signaling—a righteous aversion to those who smoked.
This, finally, had only hardened Jon’s resolve, and he had started smoking regularly. He was not a heavy smoker—a pack could sometimes last him almost two days—but he smoked as if out of duty. This was his declaration of independence, his too-emphatic response to thoughts of Allison, the statement that he did not need her, nor did he need to please her.
A gust of wind sprung up and pushed the bag mask back against whatever formed the shape of the scarecrow’s head. The smile thus produced looked as contemptuous as Allison could ever have been toward his smoking, and Jon wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a derogatory snort of laughter and the sarcastic words, “Yeah, right!” in response to his thoughts.
Well…yes, he would have been surprised. But, oddly enough, he didn’t think he would have been all that surprised.
“Fuck you,” he said again, with more force but less conviction.
The scarecrow seemed to laugh.
Jon wondered again why he was thinking so much about Allison today. He’d kept his thoughts away from her for so long; it seemed almost that he’d been fighting with them for decades, for longer than he’d been alive. He had avoided consciously thinking her name for at least the last year, perhaps a bit longer. Why had he suddenly started thinking of her?
Come to think of it, exactly when had he started thinking about her?
He searched back. It had been very recently, hadn’t it? Had it been before he’d seen the tree on the hill? Just after he’d seen it? Had it been before he’d seen the tree’s ill-omened companion?
It was before he’d heard the story, wasn’t it?
If it had been after he’d heard the story—if he’d begun to reminisce vaguely about his great love, lost not through tragedy but apathy—he could hardly have been surprised. The name of the woman in the story was Allison Chaney, after all. Such coincidences could hardly fail to be evocative, even if the law of large numbers guaranteed that they would come up from time to time. Then he couldn’t have blamed himself for thinking of her.
That hadn’t been the order of events, though. He’d started thinking of Allison while still on the interstate. Even while cresting the last hill before the one near which he stood, he had begun to think of her. Maybe a little before, maybe a little after, but it had been right around then.
What had triggered those thoughts? He couldn’t recall the stream of consciousness that had caused the dungeons of memory to be cast open. Why would he start thinking about Allison now?
He drew in another drag from the cigarette, already having nearly finished it.
Why did you take up smoking after she left you?
The thought was so precisely articulated that it almost seemed to come from outside Jon’s head, but he recognized the mental voice as his own—or he thought he did. It was a question he had already considered recently, so he wondered why it sprang into his mind now.
Because you know what you thought before was a lie, or only true in parts. A small portion of the reason you smoke is defiance, but only a small portion. Mostly you try not to think of the real reason.
Jon shook his head. He didn’t know why such thoughts came up. He knew why he started smoking; the reasons were plain to him.
You’re only looking at the surface. You know there’s a deeper reason.
“Shut up,” he said to himself, and flicked the butt of his cigarette onto the nearby pavement, suppressing a brief pang of guilt over littering. The guilt annoyed him, and he tried to chalk it up to the same college environment influence that made him feel ashamed of smoking, but he knew that was only partly true. He honestly did care about the environment.
And you don’t like to care about things, do you?
He felt himself frown. This was becoming annoying. He normally kept his mind under a reasonable degree of control, but on this road trip, he had gotten into a peculiar state that combined self-indulgence with self-reproach. It was an unpleasant combination, and he wanted to be rid of it. He was eager for the tow truck to arrive, but knew that the time it took to light and smoke one cigarette was nowhere near what Easy Service had predicted would be necessary.
Maybe the trip had been a bad idea. If he was getting this gloomy now, how would he be once he got back to Chicago, to Loyola?
Maybe he would be okay if he just went to the city but didn’t go to the University. Maybe he also should avoid Long Grove, since that was a place he had gone with Allison.
Ah, you are a coward, aren’t you?
Jon felt his lips curl and his nostrils flare in anger. He was not a coward. He knew how he wanted to live his life, knew the futility of trying to make a difference in the world, the wasted energy that went into accomplishment and achievement, when everyone arrived at the same destination in the end. He wanted to live with as little stress and angst as he could achieve.
With as little life as you can achieve.
Once again, he said, “Fuck you,” but this time it was almost a whisper. He pulled out another cigarette and lit it, taking a forceful inhalation. The breath was so deep that he almost coughed.
You didn’t take up smoking just as a matter of defiance, did you? You’ve never been a defiant person, and whom would you be defying, anyway? You took it up the way some might take up sky-diving or mountain climbing. You took it up as a way of committing small-scale suicide.
“Shut up,” he said to himself, surprised to hear that his spoken voice felt so distinct from the one inside his head.
The cloud cover must have been thickening, because the day felt significantly darker than it had been before.
You don’t have the courage or the conviction to kill yourself outright, but you know that your life is empty without her. When she left you, you lost what little heart you had. Now there’s nothing left, nothing beating to keep your soul alive. There’s nothing but a hole there. You’re like me.
Jon’s head snapped up. What had he just thought?
It had been his own voice, hadn’t it? How could it be otherwise? The thoughts had certainly felt like his. Yet the phrasing had been strange. He could have sworn that he had been thinking to himself in second person, and that the person thinking took a point of view other than his own.
His forced him to look up the hill. A gust of wind blew again, pulling the face of the scarecrow back into a malicious smile—it was not like McGlynn’s harmless, playful mischief, but was true, malevolent ill-will. If Jon had seen that face at night, hard-nosed realist though he was, he surely would have been spooked. He might even have been terrified.
The wind forced the figure’s shirt back again, pressing it into the chest, outlining the hollow there, some trick of wind currents allowing it to suck in rather than be stretched out flat from the sides. The chest was hollow, as though it had been cut open just below or at the bottom of the breastbone, and whatever was inside had been removed.
But, of course, there was no actual chest; it was just a facsimile created by some talented lover of local legends, maintained over the years surreptitiously to continue the local campfire story of Joshua Caesar. There couldn’t be a real body under those scarecrow clothes.
Jon took another drag on his cigarette, almost as deep as the last, then flicked a long ash off the end.
Ashes, the thought came. That’s all that’s left of your soul, isn’t it? Nothing remains but ashes and dust…if it ever was anything but ash to begin with.
Jon shook his head. He had to stop this, had to stop speaking to himself this way. It wasn’t like him; he was saying things he didn’t want to think.
Why didn’t he want to think them? Because they were false? Or because they were true?
Why was he thinking them? The voice was his, he was almost sure of that. But the words…
They were ideas he might have formulated, but not quite in the way they were coming. Ashes, hearts, metaphors of hollowness, these things weren’t his mode of operation. He had a liberal arts education, but he was a techie through and through. Computer metaphors, software metaphors, programming metaphors, these were the dominant styles of his thought.
Yes. Cold metaphors. Mechanical metaphors. Metaphors without heart. These are the kinds of “programs” that you run in what you wouldn’t have the courage to call your soul, aren’t they?
“Stop it,” Jon said, no longer sure that he was talking to himself, but not willing to entertain the notion that he might be talking to someone else.
Right now, there was only one other figure to whom he might be talking.
The gust of wind died, and Jon watched the face of the scarecrow twist downward again, becoming a disapproving, contemptuous frown.
You are weak and soft by nature. You’ve always been so. You have gifts, you have power, but you have never had will. You could have been a giant astride the Earth, like the mythic figures of Genesis, but your heart is tiny…and what little was there has been burned out of you by your refusal to take action.
“Shut up,” he whispered, and this time he directed his speech toward the scarecrow, though no human ears could have heard his soft speech from such a distance. He didn’t think any human ears were listening. He was speaking to a voice inside his head. It was his own voice—it had to be. But it was not a part of him that loved himself.
How pathetic you are. You would have been better suited for the Allison Chaney who lived here, whose corpse lies beneath this tree and feeds its mindless vegetation so well. And how better suited for me would your Allison Chaney be. She would recognize the rightness of my ways.
Jon’s mouth dropped open. He might have laughed at his own expression had he seen it from the outside, out of context, but he did not feel at all like laughing at that moment. For he realized that the voice—inside his head though it was—did not purport to be his own. Its words made that clear.
It was the voice of the scarecrow.
It was the voice of Joshua Caesar.
“That’s…that’s not possible,” he said, not speaking to the other voice but to himself, though his own voice carried little conviction.
How little you know of what is possible. How little you understand. You think only in terms of what you’ve learned in your narrow studies, of silicon and wires, of written codes and numerical logic. I have seen beneath this. I have seen deeper into what you would call the operating system of reality. I knew it even when I was younger. And then I learned much more, in France and in Germany. I learned the power of my will.
Jon gaped up at the scarecrow. The wind did not gust again, but Jon had the slightest misgiving that the head might be turned ever so slightly more toward him than it had been before.
No. No, that was just because he was standing farther back, against the wall of the gas station. His angle was different. It was a trick of parallax.
But then, why would it seem to be different now than it had been only moments before? He hadn’t moved since then, had he?
He didn’t think he had. He didn’t think he’d shifted. Still, maybe without thinking, without realizing it, he had paced sideways a bit. Surely an unconscious sidestep was more likely than for a corpse—dead for more than half a century—to shift its stiff neck to look at him. He had read, a long time ago, about how to test for the truth of the supernatural; some philosopher had said that, if you think you see a miracle, ask yourself what’s more likely, that the laws of nature have been suspended, or that your senses have been fooled. Only if it were the first should you credit the miracle.
But what do you know about the laws of nature? What do you really know? You only know the laws you have been taught. You only know the superficial logic of the program. But if the program contains possibilities which aren’t clear to the casual user, then couldn’t things be possible that would surprise the uninitiated? Might there not be “cheat codes,” about which you, a mere novice, would know nothing?
Jon shook his head, unable to believe what was roiling through his head, a voice that sounded like his own, but with words he would never have spoken. He stared at the scarecrow, his cigarette perilously close to falling from his mouth; it stayed in place only because it was stuck to his dry lower lip. The voice in his head was pretending to be the scarecrow, pretending that there really was a body on that wooden cross, pretending that it was the body of Joshua Caesar.
He must be losing his mind. That was why he had started to think of Allison. Going back to Chicago must have pushed him over an edge he hadn’t known he’d been skirting. How long had he been cracking up? How long had he been deteriorating? Others around him might not even have noticed—he wasn’t the most gregarious of souls, and didn’t tend to socialize much in his spare time. Even Ron barely spent an hour or two a week in his company, and those for whom he worked tended to know him only as a hired gun, brought in to do some specific job. No one might have realized he was close to madness. He hadn’t realized it himself. Yet it must have been the case. He must be having a breakdown. What else could explain this response to a story told by the owner of a gas station to entertain a passing customer?
Again, you think only in terms you have been taught by others, though you have a mind that could have taught itself much. Your Allison understood. She understood that you had the power to shape the world, not merely to be tossed by its currents. And you understood it, somewhere deep in your weak little heart. But you burned that thought, that possibility, out of yourself, and you let her go…and you were left with nothing but ashes.
As the speech in his head went on, Jon thought that it was changing. It was no longer quite exactly his voice. Whatever was speaking to him had initially used his own internal manner to communicate, but as it got warmed up, it was claiming its own character, making Jon’s thoughts merely a conduit for its communication; more and more, it was the voice of another person.
What other person? Joshua Caesar?
Now that was insane. Jon had first heard of Joshua Caesar an hour ago. This was a hallucination, its content triggered by McGlynn’s story. That was the only explanation. He’d been primed to have a breakdown, clearly. That had probably been why he’d decided to take his emotionally charged trip to Chicago. That had to be the explanation.
But hadn’t he started to think of Allison only as the gas station, the tree, the misplaced scarecrow come into his sight, as he topped the last hill before this one? Hadn’t he become intrigued by the scarecrow, by the tree under which it grew, before he had heard the story?
And why wouldn’t his car start? It had been running smoothly, beautifully, all the way from New Jersey, better than many new cars Jon had owned, as Ron had promised it would. It had run perfectly, right up to when he had stopped for gas, not for the first time on his trip.
Still, that wasn’t unnatural. Things fall apart, as McGlynn had said. That was the second law of thermodynamics. Things tended to break, and if they were going to break, they had to do it sometime.
Why this time, though? Why now? Why here?
You know why.
“Shut up,” Jon said, with a little more force this time, though he felt his hair rise on the back of his neck at the implications of the voice’s three-word sentence. It meant for him to believe that his car’s breakdown was no accident. It meant for him to think that it—the corpse of Joshua Caesar, who had supposedly sold his soul, or his heart, to the Devil—had made the car freeze, its engine unable to turn over.
That was nonsense. Insane or not—and he didn’t feel insane, though he did feel scared—Jon didn’t think that, even if there was a real, mummified human corpse under those cliché scarecrow garments, such a thing could affect the external world. Even if it was the body of the man named Joshua Caesar, that man was dead. That man had been dead for decades. He could do nothing but rot.
Then why are you afraid?
Jon wanted to say that he wasn’t afraid, but he wasn’t so sanguine about lying to himself as all that. If he paid attention, he could feel his heart thudding in his chest, could feel gooseflesh breaking out over his entire body. He decided not to deny the fear, and felt strange pride in that acceptance. Aloud—for reason’s he couldn’t easily have articulated—Jon said, “Of course I’m afraid. I’m talking to a voice in my head. I’m going crazy. Why wouldn’t I be afraid?”
He didn’t look inward as he spoke, though. He looked up the hill, at the scarecrow.
You think that you’re insane? You think you’re just speaking with yourself?
“Of course,” Jon said, aware that speaking aloud to a voice in his head was strong evidence of the truth of the diagnosis. Somehow it felt less frightening than the alternative.
Then why do you fear me? Why does looking at me cause you disquiet?
The scarecrow’s contemptuous frown did not change, but Jon thought that a trick of the light made its sneer seem deeper. Was the cloud cover still thickening? It couldn’t be near sunset yet, could it? He didn’t want to look at his cell phone to confirm the time. If he were losing track of himself enough that hours had passed while he stood beside the gas station, then his mind was more disjointed than he could have imagined.
Surely, though, if he’d been hovering next to the building for so long, either Matty or McGlynn, or both, would have come out to see what he was doing. Surely, the tow truck would have arrived already.
Unless, of course, they were all figments of his imagination.
Was that possible? Could he have imagined it all? Could his car be failing to start because he’d run out of gas, and had stopped at what turned out to be an abandoned service station? Could he merely have imagined filling up his tank, buying junk food, and listening to McGlynn’s story?
It seemed ridiculous. That degree of departure from reality surely wouldn’t happen so abruptly. No matter what the movies said, people didn’t just suddenly go insane, like flipping a switch, Jon was pretty sure of that. It was a progressive process. It was a deterioration. The minor faults in the system would happen before the major glitches appeared, and Jon thought—he all but knew—that some of them would have reared their heads before now.
There is the mind that has such potential. There is the ability to see clearly, which you’ve hindered with blinders that you placed there yourself…the drive that you have held back with weights that you chained to your own feet. Cast aside the blinders and the deadweights. Free yourself from your own limitations. Dare to look at me more closely.
No way, Jon thought, this time keeping the words inside his head. The voice was becoming more and more that of another person, and he did not want to encourage it. It was quiet, but he could hear it all too clearly, above the sound of the breeze and the traffic on the interstate. It was enticing, but at the same time filled him with mild disgust. He thought of a documentary he had seen once, with footage of a great cat killing and beginning to devour its prey. Jon had been repelled by the violence, the blood, and the death, but at the same time, the strength of the predator had awed him. He felt now as though he were in the presence of such a creature, a thing of majesty and beauty, but also of ruthless cruelty. He didn’t want to get closer to it, any more than he would want to walk into a cage with a tiger.
Yet you say that this is all in your mind. If it is in your mind—if it is, as you might say, a failure of your own programming—then proximity wouldn’t matter, would it? You would carry your predator with you, no matter where you went. What have you to fear from an out-of-place and out-of-time Halloween decoration?
That might be true. That might indeed be true. It made sense. If he was insane, then he was not going to be able to escape that fact by keeping his distance from a scarecrow. But still, why go closer? Why approach it? What would he be proving to himself?
What would he do if he learned that he was not insane?
What would be better, for the voice in his head to be his own fractured mind, openly working against itself? Or to find that, somehow, the mind, or soul, or whatever, of Joshua Caesar had somehow survived in that ominous figure on the hilltop, and was speaking to him in his head, taunting him?
The wind moved the tree, and its branches swayed from side to side. Jon imagined that the tree was trying to wave him away. He almost thought he heard a woman’s voice saying, “Don’t listen to him, don’t get closer,” but this, he knew, was just his imagination. There was no thinking remnant of that older Allison Chaney.
Jon tried to clear his head. His thoughts were nonsense. They were truly insane. How could he suddenly imagine such things? He was a computer programmer and electrical engineer. There were rules in the world. It didn’t suddenly go off the rails and start making no sense.
Unless, of course, as the voice had said, there were rules to the world of which he was simply unaware; but that was ridiculous.
Then come closer, and face me. Look at me directly, and prove to yourself that I’m truly a dead thing. Prove to yourself that I was never alive, that I’m just a set of clothes and a sack, stuffed with Styrofoam and cotton. Let the evidence speak for itself.
Why? Jon thought. Why would the thing want him to come closer? Assuming it were real, assuming it were somehow Joshua Caesar, why would it want him to come nearer? What purpose could that serve?
Because I want to look at you as well. I want to see the face of this man, who should have been in my place, and I in his, who had the power to seek greatness and didn’t use it, and who had a woman who would have been with him on his journey, adding her power to his. I want to see the man who had what I craved, and who threw it away, because of the weakness of his heart. I want you close enough that, if I were alive, I could spit on you.
Now, for the first time since he had begun hearing the voice, sullen anger ignited in the supposed ashes of Jon’s heart. He didn’t know if the voice was real or imaginary—he still considered the latter much more likely—but that was irrelevant to his ire. He didn’t know its source, but its contempt was intolerable. Who did it think it was, passing judgment on him? His character and choices were what they were, and he had made them deliberately and with understanding. His priorities might not be for everyone, but they were right for him.
Why should he struggle and strain to accomplish some worldly success, fame, or achievement which, rather than make his life easier, would make it more difficult, more stressful? What would be the point, when every person was born to die, and there was no evidence that the program of their life would continue after that? It was good to avoid abject poverty, but beyond that, what was the use of trying to achieve an existence of influence that left you a slave of your own ambition? He had made his decisions about such things long ago, and had not regretted them.
Of course, Allison leaving him had been a blow. Even now, the thought of her brought an ache to his chest, which was why he so assiduously avoided allowing her to surface in his mind. She was a dangerous presence, a source of pain. Like any creature, he tried to avoid things that caused him pain.
That was precisely why he had chosen not to pursue a life of high achievement, straining to accumulate wealth and prestige. As far as he could see, such pursuits caused their subjects stress, exhaustion, and an uninterrupted stream of pain. Did some of them do great things, even important things? Of course. But given the ephemeral nature of life, did Jon think those great things were worth the price? Not for himself he didn’t.
And what had the pursuit of ambition and power gotten Joshua Caesar, if the story was true, and he had even existed? It hadn’t won him the love of his life, any more than Jon had kept his Allison. Joshua Caesar had not had the admiration and respect of his peers, didn’t even have the consolation of having done anything of benefit to the world. He had been hated and feared—which may have given him more satisfaction than simply being ignored, but which surely could not be very fulfilling—and then had been set upon by a mob of his neighbors, and had his heart cut out.
What had been the benefit of his striving? Was this the payment the Devil had promised him—if there even was such a being? Had he been told that he would be rewarded by being dressed in cheap, farmer’s clothes, a burlap sack with stitches for eyes and mouth over his head, and tied to a crude cross under a tree next to the interstate? He certainly couldn’t be said to be living the dream. He wasn’t even dying the dream. If Joshua Caesar was real—set aside the fact that he surely was not the voice speaking in Jon’s mind—then he was an object lesson of the rightness of Jon’s philosophy, and the foolishness of making deals with the Devil to achieve earthly wealth or power.
You understand nothing, the voice said, with a sound of barely-controlled chuckling. I made no deal with the Devil. I simply located the Devil, in the hearts and souls of all humans who have ever lived, and I saw that this was the source of humanity’s true greatness. I saw real beauty and majesty for the first time on the battlefield, and was inspired. And with my own injury, my own near death, I learned of the power I had within me.
Do you think I’m now reaping the rewards of a life badly lived, that I suffer for my sins? You’re misled by the lies the weak tell to excuse themselves from responsibility for their own failures. You want to believe that I suffer now, and that I suffered then, because I made selfish choices, or ambitious choices, or because I was cruel and evil. But I do not suffer. I feel no pain. I am simply aware when I wish to be, aware and able to feel the minds of the multitudes of the miserable and the weak who drive past every day, wrapped in their metal torture chambers. I know from their minds what has transpired in the world since the time my heart was cut out. I’ve learned of the rise of technologies that were beyond even the science fiction of my time. And I’ve seen that these advances—as always—have been the work of but a handful of souls, souls with greatness, souls with power, and that the rest of humanity are insects…insects that, having landed on the shoulder of a colossus, are carried forward to places they never could have reached on their own, to riches and wonder they could never create or deserve.
And until now, I’ve been content to watch, to listen, to learn passively, and to rue the fact that there are so many vermin when there should be lions, but I wasn’t personally affronted. How disappointed can one be, after all, by the fact that insects are insects?
But then, when you approached, I felt something in your mind. I felt the potential within you. I felt the power you had, and which you used so sparingly. I wanted to learn more about you. What I learned sickened me, more than all the crawling multitudes wallowing in their own waste. You had the power of a titan, but you live as a mite. Your soul is vast, but your heart is weak. I have no heart at all now, but there is more contained in the hollow of my chest than you have ever had beating in yours.
I can excuse those who are weak because they are simply incapable of strength. But you are weak by choice. You fear the effort, the unpleasantness, that would accompany the achievement of your potential. And so, you delude yourself with your excuses, and you give up on your dreams, and you’ve burned away what little heart you had.
Then I heard the name of the woman that you drove away with your heartlessness, and her name was the name of the girl I had naively chosen to love in my younger days. What cosmic irony was at play here, that you—with an inherent ability even greater than mine—had been within reach of a woman I might have dreamed of, while I had chosen to love a woman who was content to be nothing, to live the life of a sheep. What a perfect twist of the knife of fate! You had what I wanted, but you chose to give it up rather than become great, while I had been what you could be, but the dream of love in my heart had been spent upon an unworthy object, someone for whom it’s appropriate that her only memorial is a mindless piece of vegetation.
I couldn’t simply let you go by. I wanted to learn more about this coincidence, this fate, and to understand why you still chose to be weak, even though it had cost you all that mattered to you. So, I drew you here, I drew your attention and your curiosity. I encouraged you to ask about me, and I encouraged the telling of my story. There are inaccuracies in the tale you heard, but they are minor. I am all that I was reputed to be, and more.
I wanted to see what the name of my Allison Chaney would mean to you, and whether you would have the character to at least regret your choice of weakness. But you did not. You have stifled and burnt your heart, and it now serves you in almost no way.
You’re pathetic. And I needed to tell you that.
Jon had remained physically and mentally silent during this long diatribe, gaping at the effigy on the hilltop as though he were hearing the words from its mouth, booming from the hilltop without aid of any amplifier, filling the fields below. Though the voice was within his head, more and more Jon was convinced that it really was coming from the figure on the hill.
He realized suddenly that his latest cigarette had gone out, even though it hadn’t reached the filter. He simply must have hardly been breathing. He took the butt from his mouth to throw away, and realized as he did that his hands were shaking.
Why were they shaking? He examined himself, trying to come to some clear conclusion, because he didn’t think they were just shaking out of fear. Oh, he was afraid. He was more afraid than he could recall being, at least of any non-physical threat. The hackles on his neck, and the gooseflesh on his body persisted, and his heart—whatever the voice said—beat powerfully and rapidly in his chest. His throat was dry and his mouth hung open still.
The reasons for fear were obvious. He was listening to a voice inside his head, a voice berating him, telling him how weak he was, and that voice was coming from one of two possible places. The first possibility—the most rational one, ironically—was that it was the voice of another part of his mind, that he was insane; some part of his mind was railing against the rest of him, with an identity and character of its own. He was crazy. He would end up institutionalized, or at least on medication, for the rest of his life, or he would deteriorate and spiral down into a destitute, homeless state before dying in the gutter.
But the other possibility was worse, for it changed his understanding of the very nature of reality, of life and death, of what was possible. It revealed that his knowledge of the workings of the world was superficial, perhaps trivial, that there was a deeper level, and that reality contained possibilities he had never imagined. If a man from western Pennsylvania could return from the war with the power to kill those who stood in his way, to build a personal empire, to destroy the source of his own heartbreak—and then, more astounding, to live on within his own crucified corpse, hearing the minds of those who drove by, reaching out and influencing people like Jon…if all those things were possible, what was not possible? What horrors might exist in the world that he had never imagined?
Surely that was reason to feel fear if ever there had been one. If that were all true, then all of humanity, all of civilization, was just a small band of ragged tribesmen, huddled around the tiny flickers of a campfire, while all around them in the jungle lurked huge and terrible beasts that could seize and consume them at will. If there were one entity such as Joshua Caesar, why would there not be others? That was terrifying.
Yet, fear was not the only reason for the shaking of Jon’s hand as he cast aside his cigarette butt, this time not worried about littering. He also felt angry.
What right do you have to be angry? the voice asked. You, who now glimpse the beginning of the possibilities I represent—that you could represent—and see only dread and horror, see only the danger of the jungle, not the majesty, the beauty, the opportunity it represents. You’re a lion with the heart of lab rat, who fears the world beyond his cage and convinces himself that he’s right to consign himself to captivity. You deserved to have your meager heart broken. You deserved to lose your Allison Chaney. You aren’t worthy of her. You’re all the more unworthy because you could have been worthy—more than worthy—and you chose not to be, out of cowardice. I say again, I want to bring you close enough that if I had the power, I could spit on you. You disgust me.
“Fuck you!” Jon said, loudly this time, only vaguely aware that those within the gas station might overhear him.
The voice, unimpressed by his ire, said, Such clever rhetoric. Your conversational skills make it clear why you’re able to convince yourself of the rightness of your path, even in the face of all evidence. Your acumen is astonishing. I’m clearly outmatched.
Despite the taunts, Jon repeated, “Fuck you!” and he took a few steps forward, away from the side of the gas station, toward the far edge of the small paved area, toward the field, the hill, the tree, and the body that claimed to be Joshua Caesar. “You don’t know shit. You think you’re so smart, so strong? But you’re the one tied to a post under a tree by the highway in the middle of Buttfuck Egypt. No one ever heard of you except the people out here, and they think you’re just a campfire story. You’re just that…that guy, that statue, in the old poem.”
Ozymandius, the voice said, and Jon felt its amused scorn that it had to tell him the very fact upon which he hung part of his argument. He was too angry to care much, and he took two more steps forward.
“Yeah, right, that one,” he said. “You’re just a statue in the desert, telling everybody how great you were, but everything you did is just dust and sand. All you did was take things, and hurt people, and even kill the people you loved, and then get your heart cut out and your stupid body tied to a cross under a tree like a bad Halloween decoration. Am I supposed to think that you have a better idea about how I should live my life? That’s funny. That’s hilarious. You’re the one who’s pathetic.”
If Jon thought he was going to make the voice angry—angrier than it already was—then he was disappointed. In even tones, the voice replied, I would rather spend a thousand years tied to this post than live a year of the life you’ve chosen, subordinating yourself to those you know to be your inferiors, eking out the barest comfortable existence using some small part of the power within you. This cross of wood is indeed my statue in the desert, and it doesn’t matter that I’m surrounded by sand. This cross was made by those who hated and feared me, but it’s still a form of worship; it shows that they recognized how much greater I was than they, and they knew that at least some of their paltriness was of their own doing. This is indeed my monument, and it’s a grand one, and I am still aware while all of those who killed me are withered and gone.
But you are worse than any of them. You live in a Hell of your own choosing, when you could have soared to any Heaven you desired.
I say it again…I wish that I could spit on you.
“Is that right?” Jon asked, and now he began to stride forward, his anger effacing his remaining fear. “You want to spit on me? Well why don’t you try to do it? You’re so great and so powerful and all that shit, why can’t you do it? Why can’t you even spit on me? You’ve figured it all out, you’re so great, why can’t you even spit on me? Because you’re nothing but a fucking corpse stuck to a pole under a tree. You’re nothing.”
He didn’t think much about what he was doing as he walked off the edge of the pavement and onto the overgrown grass that led up the hill. He barely noticed the change from the hard surface to squishy springiness beneath his feet. The grass grew taller as he started up the slope, so Jon had to lift his legs more with each step. This plus the ascent made walking a strain, but Jon didn’t notice himself getting breathless as he went. His ire was too great.
“So, let’s go then,” he added, striding up the incline. He knew that his behavior was irrational. He was rushing up a hill to confront a stupid scarecrow, for crying out loud, to yell in its burlap face. It was ridiculous; it would have been infantile, but for the fact that even an infant would know that one can’t have an argument with a scarecrow. He was just arguing with himself, he was talking to a voice in his own head.
He was, however, past the point of caring about the truth of the matter, about whether he was at odds with himself, in a state of new insanity, or whether there really was some mind or power left in that crucified figure that spoke to him, berating him. It didn’t matter. He was outraged. He was outraged particularly because the voice said that he’d deserved to have Allison leave him, that he hadn’t been worthy of her.
Jon tried not to have too many illusions in life, but he knew that he was as prone to narcissism as anyone else. Though his heart had indeed been broken by Allison’s departure—and he believed that hers had been, too—he’d consoled himself with the notion that he was simply wiser than she. He saw the nightmare futility of the proverbial rat race, the self-imposed purgatory of the drive to achieve ever greater goals, ever greater wealth. Honor, like money, was ultimately dross. It all fell away in the end, and as he had often been fond of self-righteously quoting, no one ever lay on his deathbed wishing he had spent more time at the office.
But now this voice, that might have been that of Joshua Caesar or might have been in his own mind, was telling him that he had been the fool all along, that the honors and wealth weren’t dross, that there was glory even in being a shattered statue in the desert—that this was greater than living a mediocre life if you had the potential to do otherwise.
He was angry because he feared he might have been wrong. He feared that he might have given up the greatest joy, the greatest person, in his life due to a choice born of cowardice rather than courage.
He was going to show his courage now. He was going to face this phantasm, either within his mind, or within the scarecrow, and he was going to show it that fear was not the driving force behind his decisions. He would stand nose to nose with this stuffed effigy, and give it a piece of his mind…if it were not already just such a thing.
It didn’t occur to Jon, as he crossed the halfway point between where he had stood against the side of the building and the location of the scarecrow, that there might be any danger apart from insanity. He didn’t notice that the cloud cover seemed to thicken even more than before, darkening the day nearly to twilight. His own vision was red with rage.
He didn’t notice that the wind had risen even more, and that in it, the great tree’s branches swayed and shook as though trying to wave him away, to caution him from coming closer. He didn’t notice that the noise from the interstate dimmed and disappeared, as though he had stepped slightly outside of its universe.
He did notice, however, that the harsher wind pulled the burlap sack tighter again across whatever lay beneath it. Some part of him saw that there did indeed seem to be a skull-like face below the material, so if it was a fake, it was a superb one. He saw that the stitched mouth pulled back into a derogatory grin. The damned thing was laughing at him!
The slope began to level out as he approached its summit. Though the light had dimmed significantly since the time Jon had first noticed the scarecrow, he was much closer now, so he could make out its details. He learned little that was new. Its shirt was a classic gray work shirt, such as any serious laborer might wear, and the pants were similar, heavy duty khakis. The boots were slightly worn leather lace-ups, and the gloves were canvas. All this gear, though clearly having seen use, looked like it might have been purchased within the last year. It could not possibly be seventy years old.
The sack on the head looked almost too cliché to be believed, perhaps some old potato sack or feed bag, with a weave tight enough and thick enough that it couldn’t be seen through, and with a seam along the top and one side. He noticed that, as McGlynn had said, someone had gone to the trouble of cutting slits in the bag for the eyes and the mouth before stitching them crudely together with twine. It seemed an absurd waste of one’s efforts first to give the bag holes through which to see and to speak, then close them off immediately after. It seemed particularly bizarre since, even if it were a real corpse under that rugged clothing, it certainly had no voice and no vision.
Well…it had a voice, it seemed, or Jon’s mind gave it one. But that voice was not dependent upon its mouth.
These thoughts flittered away, brushed aside by Jon’s anger. He expected the voice to taunt him as he approached, either to egg him on or to try to get him to turn back, but it remained silent. He did feel that the figure was looking slightly more in his direction than before. That was likely the result of his own walk up the hill. Though he had made what he thought was a beeline for the figure, the slope had no doubt altered his course slightly, changing his angle of approach.
Panting slightly, Jon drew close to the scarecrow, standing about five feet in front of it. If it had fallen off its post at that moment, its head might have landed on his shoes.
“Well?” he said. “Still want to spit on me?”
The voice said nothing, and the wind-pulled mask regarded him with mocking amusement.
“What’s the matter?” Jon said. “Nothing but talk? And even with that, you have to do it in my head. Why don’t you spit in my face?”
The voice remained silent, while behind it the tree whipped in a minor frenzy of wind that seemed not even to touch Jon, though he should have felt its force on the back of his head. A tiny bit of his mind noticed this disquieting fact, but his anger was too great to give ground.
“Come on,” he said. “Here, I’ll pull your fucking bag up for you. See if there’s anything left that can spit on me. Then it’ll be my turn.” He took a few steps closer, until he was all but nose to nose with the figure, the head of the scarecrow only an inch or so higher than his own.
He planned to lift the bag—which he could now see was bound tightly around the figure’s neck with loops of twine such as had stitched the eyes closed. He wasn’t sure how he would go about it, but he intended to try. Even as he reached out to test the bonds, however, the head—which had faced slightly to its right, allowing it to seem to watch Jon’s approach—shifted and turned directly to look at him.
Jon gasped. That was no trick of parallax, no change of angle, no unrecognized alteration in his path. He had just seen the head turn to face him. It was a shift of only a few degrees, but it was unmistakable. He heard the burlap sack rustle against the work shirt, and against the presumed neck beneath.
It didn’t occur to him to back up, nor to be very frightened, but he was dumbfounded, and lost all thought of trying to take the sack off the thing’s head. His hand froze, a few inches in front of his body. How was this possible? Was there really a person hiding in these clothes, patiently waiting for McGlynn to tell his story, and for Jon to begin to believe it? Was this some outrageous practical joke?
Jon immediately dismissed that possibility. Not only was it unworkable, and his own presence too unpredictable to prepare for, it was also simply a fact that the voice in his head could not have been produced by pranksters. It was either something inside him, or something truly outside—not merely outside of his head, but outside of the world as he had ever known it, something alien.
And now that something had turned its head.
Jon hadn’t bothered to note how the arms had been tied to the crosspiece—he had assumed it to be rope, wire, or twine, and had been focused more on the face. Now, out the corner of his eye, he recognized that they had indeed been tied to the post by old-fashioned hemp rope. He noticed it because the rope chose that moment to rot and fall away, freeing the arm…which did not flop down limply, but flexed forward at the elbow, perhaps stretching out the kinks of long disuse.
Then Jon’s attention returned to the head, as he heard the voice in his head—and, he thought, the slightest whisper of a real voice, a graveyard shudder from the entwined throat in front of him—say, “You really are a fool.”
Then, the slit mouth of the bag curved upward into a smile that could not have been produced by the wind.
The eyes opened.
Matty was distracted from the fishing magazine he idly browsed by the sound a car motor roaring to life.
He squinched his eyebrows and looked up. Had someone pulled into the gas station when he wasn’t paying attention, realized they couldn’t pay for their gas at the pump, and decided to drive away rather than come inside? He didn’t think so. He thought he would have heard them.
He looked through the grimy plexiglass window of the gas station door, and was surprised to see the Mustang, which had been driven by the guy who’d come in and heard Mr. McGlynn’s story, start to pull away. His mouth opened a bit. Hadn’t that car been broken down? The man and Mr. McGlynn had both gone out and checked it to see if they could get it running; Matty had watched them from the doorway. They had tried several times, but the car hadn’t even begun to catch, though the starter had cranked repeatedly.
Now the car was drawing away from the pumps, and Matty recognized that it had to be the one he had heard roar to life. He walked around the counter and toward the door. As he did, he noticed that Mr. McGlynn had come out of the back room, a puzzled frown on his face. McGlynn exchanged a glance with Matty, nodded as if to give him permission, and the two of them walked through the door of the station.
As they stepped outside into the overcast afternoon, the Mustang pulled onto the main road, rolling along gracefully. Mr. McGlynn stood with his hands on his hips as the car turned into the on-ramp of the interstate, moving to join the traffic heading west.
“Well, what the hell,” McGlynn muttered.
Matty turned to look at him. After a moment, he said, “I guess he got his car started.”
McGlynn shook his head ever so slightly, though he didn’t seem to be denying Matty’s words. “I guess so,” he said. “But how? I thought we tried everything that didn’t need tools.” He turned to look at Matty. “Did you see him looking under the hood?”
“No,” Matty said with a shake of his head, “but…I wasn’t really looking.”
McGlynn’s puzzled expression took on just the slightest caste of irritation as he stepped further out toward the island where the pumps stood. “Well, I guess it’s good that he got it going,” he said, “but it would’ve been nice of him to let us know before he left.”
Matty, who had been surprised by the abrupt departure for precisely that reason, said, “Yeah, I would’ve thought he’d’ve done that. He seemed like a nice enough guy.”
McGlynn nodded, and this time Matty thought it was in agreement. Then McGlynn took a few more steps forward, apparently to give himself a better view down the interstate, though Matty thought the car had to be out of sight by now. As he watched, McGlynn said, “Well, I hope he thought to call the garage to let them know he wouldn’t need the tow truck.”
Matty, to whom that bit of housekeeping hadn’t occurred, nodded.
McGlynn, glancing around idly, stopped when he looked down at the pavement near where the Mustang had been parked. “What the hell is that?”
Matty, surprised to hear the tone of his boss’s voice, took a few steps forward, looking down to see what had drawn the reaction. “What’s what?” he asked.
“That,” McGlynn said, pointing down. “Did he put some power steering fluid or something in the car while he was out here?”
Despite the fact that he worked at a gas station, Matty had never had much to do with automotive maintenance, so he wasn’t sure what power steering fluid might be. He followed the direction of his boss’s pointing finger and saw a few drops of liquid on the ground. The pavement was light enough to see that the liquid was red. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess he must’ve.” He didn’t honestly know if that was true, but didn’t want to sound completely ignorant.
“Well, why the hell would he do that?” McGlynn asked. “It wouldn’t have helped his car start…although, I guess it did start…” He brought his head up to look west along the interstate again, his puzzled frown deeper than before.
Matty, still trying to look at least mildly knowledgeable, also looked up from the pavement, swinging his head and eyes around to look at the highway, though what he might see was a mystery to him. As his gaze swept along, some part of his mind caught an incongruity, and he did a mild double-take.
His eyes fell on the hill, and on the tree, and most particularly on the shape next to the tree. There was something wrong with it.
So used was he to seeing the tree, and scarecrow on the hill beneath it, that Matty almost didn’t credit the fact that something was different. When he finally recognized what had caught his attention, he felt a chill run down his spine.
“Mr. McGlynn,” he said. “Look at that.”
McGlynn, who was looking much more to the right, glaring at the interstate in mild indignation, asked, “What?”
Matty didn’t say anything—wasn’t sure what might have been the right words—but just pointed.
McGlynn took his turn and followed the direction of Matty’s pointing arm, and Matty heard him mutter, “Huh?” as his eyes rested on what had drawn Matty’s attention.
The tree was just as it usually was. The wind had gone still for the moment, and its branches drooped a bit, looking mournful.
Below and to the right of the tree was the post and crosspiece that held up the scarecrow, but now, that post and the crosspiece were unadorned. Someone who didn’t know better might have thought it was a religious symbol that had been planted in the top of the hill, or perhaps a makeshift grave marker. They would have had no reason to think of a scarecrow.
The scarecrow was gone.
Though the distance made him unsure, Matty thought he could see the tattered remnants of the rope that had held the scarecrows arms and legs in place, but the thing itself was not to be seen.
Muttering beside Matty, McGlynn said, “What’d he do, yank the stupid think down? Why would he do that?”
Matty, whose mind tended toward more fantastical thoughts—and who had started to look around and see if the scarecrow now stood someplace other than its usual perch, perhaps stalking closer, preparing to pounce—did not understand his boss’s inquiry. “What do you mean?” he said.
McGlynn waved an arm toward the hilltop and replied, “It looks like he just threw the scarecrow on the ground, there.”
Looking more closely, Matty realized that his boss was right. There on the ground, partly hidden by the tall grass, dark in the early afternoon, lay a limp form that was surely the scarecrow. Matty breathed a sigh of relief, since now he didn’t have to worry about being ambushed by a supernatural entity.
He was startled when Mr. McGlynn began to walk in the direction of the tree, and the cross, and the shape lying nearby. “Where you going, Mr. McGlynn?” he asked.
Not looking back, but strolling at a modest pace, McGlynn said, “I’m gonna see if I can’t put the thing back up. It’s been there as long as I can remember. Don’t know why that punk decided to do something like that. He didn’t strike me as a vandal, but I suppose…” His voice trailed off and he came to a halt, looking down.
Matty, still standing near the pumps, asked, “What’s wrong, Mr. McGlynn?” when the silence lasted for an uncomfortable interval.
McGlynn looked over his shoulder. “Come here for a minute,” he said, waving his right arm in a summoning gesture.
Matty didn’t want to go. Quite apart from the fact that the hill and scarecrow had always spooked him, and that the scarecrow was now out of place, he didn’t like the look on his boss’s face. Mr. McGlynn had lost his expression of puzzled irritation. Now he seemed troubled; he almost seemed afraid.
Still, he was the boss, and a pretty good one at that, so Matty went hesitantly forward. As he drew up closer, his eyes followed Mr. McGlynn’s gaze, and he saw that there was another streak of the red liquid. It looked somewhat larger than the other splash, and had a longer, thinner shape.
Coming to a stop and squinting in puzzlement, Matty asked, “Why would he have power steering fluid over here? His car was over there.” He thumbed a gesture toward the pumps, feeling that he sounded at least a little intelligent in his recognition that no one would need any car-related fluid anywhere but near a car. He was quite sure that the Mustang had never been moved from in front of the pumps until it had driven away.
McGlynn, however, shook his head, not unkindly, and said, “I don’t think it’s power steering fluid, after all.” He looked up from the pavement and toward the hilltop again.
Matty, not looking up with him, instead crouched lower to the ground, asking, “Then what do you think it is?” He reached out a hand, planning on putting a finger in one of the larger of the splashed puddles, which were only a few inches wide in total, and several inches long.
Mr. McGlynn caught sight of his action, and quickly called out, “Don’t touch that!”
Matty pulled his hand back and looked up at his boss, surprised by the urgency of the command. “Why not?” he asked. “What’s wrong?”
McGlynn looked mildly embarrassed, but he said, “I don’t want you to catch anything. It’s fresh, isn’t it, and they say you can catch things like HIV and Hepatitis from another person’s blood.”
That last word made Matty’s own blood run cold, as the scales suddenly fell from his eyes and he realized that he was not looking at any sort of automotive fluid. He gasped and rose again to his feet. He wanted to ask a dozen questions, but could not formulate any of them.
McGlynn, having seen that Matty was following his command, turned and began to walk—perhaps somewhat more hesitantly—toward the hill.
Matty, unable to resist looking up at the tree, and the empty cross, and the discarded heap nearby, found his voice turning high and squeaky as he asked, “Mr. McGlynn, what are you doing?”
McGlynn shrugged as he walked, and without looking back, said, “Gotta try to see what really happened.” After a pause, he added, “Something bad, I think.”
Matty felt that was a terrible understatement, and he said, “Then…shouldn’t you stay away from…from whatever happened?”
McGlynn shrugged again and replied, “I think it’s better to know.” He continued to walk, not too quickly, and he had already stepped on the grass when he added, “You can stay there if you want.”
Matty considered that option. He looked around and saw no other person moving, unless one counted the traffic on the interstate. When he looked back up the hill, though, it occurred to him that there was one figure on the ground, the empty cross, the tree, and Mr. McGlynn. And himself, of course. But one person was missing.
The logical part of his brain told him that, of course, that person had driven off in the car, it had been the pleasant man who had stopped in and listened to Mr. McGlynn’s story. But what if that wasn’t what really had happened? What if someone else had made off with the Mustang? What if that person—or something worse—was still lurking in the area?
He looked down at the longish, thin splash of red liquid on the pale pavement, and he started to walk forward, quickly enough to catch up with his employer. He didn’t know what good it would do, but there was safety in numbers, they said. Even if something or someone attacked, it would be unlikely to be able to get both him and Mr. McGlynn at the same time.
Matty wondered whether, if something bad took hold of Mr. McGlynn, he himself would try to fight it, or if he would try to run. He hoped he didn’t have to find out, because either choice was terrible.
By the time he caught up to McGlynn, they were well up the slope, and McGlynn had slowed further out of necessity; he was a big man who didn’t get a lot of exercise. Matty tried not to look down at the light splashes of red fluid marring the green of the grass. There weren’t floods of the stuff, by any means, but there sure seemed to be a lot. More than there had been on the concrete.
The two were almost side-by-side, Matty a single, deferential step behind McGlynn, as they crested the top of the hill and got a clear view of the area under the tree. They stopped.
The cross was indeed deserted, and the ropes that had held the scarecrow in place hung in loose tatters, looking as though they had not been in condition to hold anything up for many years. Directly in front of the wooden cross, a few yards away, lay the figure of the scarecrow, looking as if it might have been facing the cross, and then had fallen backward.
Was it really the scarecrow, though? Matty didn’t think it looked quite right. The clothes were right, of course; that faded work shirt, the tan pants, the gloves and boots were all the same. The burlap sack was also the same, but there were things wrong with it. The twine that had closed the eye-slits and mouth-slit—Matty had gotten close enough to the scarecrow on one occasion to know that they had been slits—had gone the way of the rope on the cross, looking as rotten as natural twine that had stood outside for seventy years ought to look. But it had never looked rotten before. Similarly, the twine that had cinched the bag around the figure’s neck had also all but disintegrated, and the bag hung sloppily around the thing’s head.
Also, of course, there was the blood.
The ground in front of the cross was splashed with the red liquid, much more than Matty and McGlynn had encountered before, though not the buckets-full Matty might have expected based on horror film viewing. It was plenty, though, more than he’d ever wanted to see. And it was not merely on the ground. The most noteworthy collection of it marred the front of the scarecrow’s shirt and pants, starting just below the middle of the chest, and spreading out like a waterfall, mostly to the font, with some having trickled to the sides, as though it had still been flowing when the figure had fallen back.
“Oh, my lord,” Matty whispered. McGlynn said nothing, but took a slow and hesitant step forward.
Matty felt chagrined to do so, but he shot out a hand and grabbed Mr. McGlynn’s shirt sleeve, pulling him to a brief halt, and he said, “Mr. McGlynn, you shouldn’t get any closer. That scarecrow’s…it’s not right. There’s something wrong with it. I know it’s just a story, but maybe that Joshua Caesar really did sell his soul to the devil, and…”
“That’s not Joshua Caesar,” McGlynn said, and his voice had such conviction that Matty was brought up short.
“Look,” McGlynn said, pointing toward the figure’s head. “You see where the eye slits and mouth slits are opened a bit. That’s not seventy-year-old corpse.” After a pause, he added, “It’s a lot fresher than that.”
Matty looked in the indicated direction. Even in the dim, cloud-covered afternoon, there was enough light for him to see that the modicum of revealed flesh behind the formerly twined eye and mouth holes was…well, not exactly healthy looking, but certainly firm and unspoiled. He released Mr. McGlynn’s shirt.
Mr. McGlynn walked forward and to the side. Being careful to avoid touching anything with blood on it, he gingerly took hold of the lower end of the burlap bag mask and lifted it. It pulled away easily, the bag having always been quite a bit larger than needed to cover a human head. Matty gasped as he saw the face revealed beneath.
It was the traveler, the man who had driven up in the Mustang, filled up his tank, bought his snacks, and listened to Mr. McGlynn’s story before finding that his car wouldn’t start. He’d gone out to smoke a cigarette; Matty had advised him to do so on the far side of the gas station, but maybe he hadn’t. Or maybe it hadn’t mattered.
“Holy shit,” he said quietly, though he usually tried to keep from swearing around his employer.
“Yeah,” McGlynn said. He gazed at the face, as did Matty. The eyes were open and staring forward. The expression was not so much of pain—though that was present—nor even of fear, but mainly of utter shock. Whatever had happened to this man, it had happened quickly.
Someone had killed the man who’d driven the Mustang, and then had put him in the scarecrow’s clothes and driven off in his car. Why would they do that? Why would they put him in the scarecrow’s clothes?
Mr. McGlynn dropped the sack, obscuring the man’s face, and rose to his feet again. As he did, Matty said, “Mr. McGlynn, we need to get away from here. Whoever—whatever did this…it might still be around.”
McGlynn appeared to ignore him, and he surprised Matty by reaching out with his right foot and, using his shoe to nudge at the front of the supine figure’s work shirt. The shirt was untucked, and that it was too large for its wearer by quite a bit, so McGlynn was easily able to push it up. Apparently, he wasn’t as worried about getting blood on his shoe as he was his hands, because there was plenty of blood where his foot was touching.
The shirt lifted, and Matty felt a wave of horror and nausea as he saw the source of the blood. Something had punctured the man’s body, just below the ribs, below the breastbone, in a sort of upward angle; that had clearly been what had killed the man.
Matty wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t. The light didn’t allow him to see beyond the surface of the wound, but he had little doubt about the nature of the injury, given the story he had heard, and what he knew of the legend of the scarecrow on the hill, as well as the amount of blood. He couldn’t bring himself to think it, but he knew what had happened, at some level at least. He knew how the man had been killed.
McGlynn, using his leg to bring the shirt back over the wound again, turned and looked at Matty, finally answering his comment. “Don’t worry,” he said, though he sounded far from reassuring. “I don’t think whatever did this is still around. It got what it wanted, and then it drove off in this poor bastard’s car.”
“It…it drove off? You mean…you mean the…”
McGlynn nodded, and Matty did not choose to finish his thought aloud. He looked at the body on the ground, then at the empty cross, then the tree, then back to Mr. McGlynn. “What should we do, Mr. McGlynn?”
With a sigh, McGlynn said, “Well, I guess the first thing we should do is call the police.” He turned and strode away from the hilltop, going much more quickly than he had when approaching it. Matty followed, his own greater speed not merely because of the downhill slope.
McGlynn continued, “I don’t know what the hell we’re going to tell them, or what the hell they’re going to think, but we’ve gotta call them. A man’s been murdered, and we’ve gotta call the police.” They were already coming near to level ground when he added, “And I guess we should call Easy Service to let them know they don’t need to send their tow truck after all.”
As the two reached the pavement, skirting wide of the now small-seeming splash of blood near its border with the grass, Matty asked, “But…how could something like that happen? How could the…how could it drive?” He glanced over his shoulder even as he avoided thinking the word “scarecrow,” half expecting to find it playfully stalking behind him…either the original, or the animated corpse of the traveler.
“I wouldn’t know,” McGlynn said, “and I don’t wanna know. All I can say is, I hope it got everything it wanted, and it’s done with these parts and is making its way west to some other purpose. I hope it’s done with this part of the world for good.”
They had drawn close to the building, and now McGlynn stopped and looked along the interstate again, saying, “I hope so. But I doubt it.”
The two walked into the gas station, leaving the still-darkening afternoon behind them.