by Al Sarrantonio
Any train ride through any town, any October.
The soothing clack of the rails almost had him asleep. His newspaper lay crumpled in the empty seat beside him; the lights in the train car had flickered off in the middle of the sports page and he finally gave up, leaning back against the stiff headrest and turning to watch the night outside. They were passing endless cornfields under a mounting harvest Moon; under the strong white light the stalks looked dry as paper, stiff at soldiers at attention.
Something caught his eye ahead in the field of corn, towering above it — an orange and yellow shape that resolved itself into a scarecrow topped by a pumpkin head.
As they drew abreast of the figure a fire ignited behind the triangle eyes, the sickle mouth, and it turned its head to look at him. As the train left it behind, Corrie watched the scarecrow move one of its long arms to point directly at him…
(Later on our protagonist is compelled to get off the train and look for the scarecrow…)
The night was still and cold, the chill of pre-winter with the sharp bite of a hard apple. Dry cornstalks crackled beneath his feet. Far off, amidst the lights of Orangefield, he heard a dog howl mournfully, hungry or afraid.
The moon was rising above the cornfield to his left, making everything whiter, colder…
Why had he come here, this was madness–
He heard something rustle in the stalks to his left, off the path. He stiffened, waiting for a cold wind to brush his face, but the corn stalks were perfectly straight, unbowed.
He heard the rustle again and thought of that dog; he did not like dogs…
The wet whisper brushed his ear at the exact moment a dry arm was thrown around his shoulder. He felt heat, and saw the glow of the orange face between himself and the cornfield. It had stepped swiftly out of the ranks —
“Let’s walk, shall we?”
Petrified with fear, he turned to look into the pumpkin face inches from his own. He felt heat from a candleless glow within; saw wet seeds adhering to the scraped inside of the head, through the sharply-etched nose, eyes, smiling mouth.
The scarecrow laughed, pulled him closer with boneless fingers. It made a dry, ticking sound as it walked–
“You can call me John, if you like.”