Beware of creepy old towns. They might just decide to sacrifice you for their corn. This is a story first written in 1984 by Stephen King which is oddly similar to the story he wrote together with his son (Joe Hill) called “In the tall grass“. The idea that folk sacrifice travelers to keep their crop strong is not uncommon and this story is a little bit better and a little bit creepier than the ones I have heard before.
Read on for a short preview:
Burt turned the radio on too loud and didn’t turn it down because they were on the verge of another argument and he didn’t want it to happen. He was desperate for it not to happen.
Vicky said something. ‘What?’ he shouted.
‘Turn it down! Do you want to break my eardrums?’
He bit down hard on what might have come through his mouth and turned it down.
Vicky was fanning herself with her scarf even though the T-Bird was air-conditioned. ‘Where are we, anyway?’
She gave him a cold, neutral look. ‘Yes, Burt. I know we’re in Nebraska, Burt.but where the hell are we?’
‘You’ve got the road atlas. Look it up. Or can’t you read?’
‘Such wit. This is why we got off the turnpike. So we could look at three hundred miles of corn. And enjoy the wit and wisdom of Burt Robeson.’
He was gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. He decided he was holding it that tightly because if he loosened up, why, one of those hands might just fly off and hit the ex-Prom Queen beside him right in the chops. We ‘re saving our marriage, he told himself. Yes. We’re doing it the same way us grunts went about saving villages in the war.
‘Vicky,’ he said carefully. ‘I have driven fifteen hundred miles on turnpikes since we left Boston. I did all that driving myself because you refused to drive. Then -‘
‘I did not refuse!’ Vicky said hotly. ‘Just because I get migraines when I drive for a long time -‘Then when I asked you if you’d navigate for me on some of the secondary roads, you said sure, Burt. Those were your exact words. Sure, Burt.
Then -‘Sometimes I wonder how I ever wound up married to you.’
‘By saying two little words.’
She stared at him for a moment, white-lipped, and then picked up the road atlas.
She turned the pages savagely.
It had been a mistake leaving the turnpike, Burt thought morosely. It was a shame, too, because up until then they had been doing pretty well, treating each other almost like human beings. It had sometimes seemed that this trip to the coast, ostensibly to see Vicky’s brother and his wife but actually a last-ditch attempt to patch up their own marriage, was going to work.
But since they left the pike, it had been bad again. How bad? Well, terrible,actually.
‘We left the turnpike at Hamburg, right?’
‘There’s nothing more until Gatlin,’ she said. ‘Twenty miles. Wide place in the road. Do you suppose we could stop there and get something to eat? Or does your almighty schedule say we have to go until two o’clock like we did yesterday?’
He took his eyes off the road to look at her. ‘I’ve about had it, Vicky. As far as I’m concerned, we can turn right here and go home and see that lawyer you wanted to talk to. Because this isn’t working at -‘
She had faced forward again, her expression stonily set. It suddenly turned tosurprise and fear. ‘Burt look out you’re going to -‘
He turned his attention back to the road just in time to see something vanishunder the T-Bird’s bumper. A moment later, while he was only beginning to switchfrom gas to brake, he felt something thump sickeningly under the front and then the back wheels. They were thrown forward as the car braked along the centre line, decelerating from fifty to zero along black skidmarks.
‘A dog,’ he said. ‘Tell me it was a dog, Vicky.’
Her face was a pallid, cottage-cheese colour. ‘A boy. A little boy. He just ranout of the corn and. . . congratulations, tiger.’
She fumbled the car door open, leaned out, threw up.
Burt sat straight behind the T-Bird’s wheel, hands still gripping it loosely. He was aware of nothing for a long time but the rich, dark smell of fertilizer.
Then he saw that Vicky was gone and when he looked in the outside mirror he saw her stumbling clumsily back towards a heaped bundle that looked like a pile of rags. She was ordinarily a graceful woman but now her grace was gone, robbed.
It’s manslaughter. That’s what they call it. I took my eyes off the road.
He turned the ignition off and got out. The wind rustled softly through the growing man-high corn, making a weird sound like respiration. Vicky was standing over the bundle of rags now, and he could hear her sobbing.
He was halfway between the car and where she stood and something caught his eye on the left, a gaudy splash of red amid all the green, as bright as barn paint.
He stopped, looking directly into the corn. He found himself thinking (anything to untrack from those rags that were not rags) that it must have been a fantastically good growing season for corn. It grew close together, almost ready to bear. You could plunge into those neat, shaded rows and spend a day trying to find your way out again. But the neatness was broken here. Several tall cornstalks had been broken and leaned askew. And what was that further back in the shadows?
‘Burt!’ Vicky screamed at him. ‘Don’t you want to come see? So you can tell all your poker buddies what you bagged in Nebraska? Don’t you -‘ But the rest was lost in fresh sobs. Her shadow was puddled starkly around her feet. It was almost noon.
Shade closed over him as he entered the corn. The red barn paint was blood.
There was a low, somnolent buzz as flies lit, tasted, and buzzed off again . . .maybe to tell others. There was more blood on the leaves further in. Surely itcouldn’t have splattered this far? And then he was standing over the object hehad seen from the road. He picked it up.
The neatness of the rows was disturbed here. Several stalks were canteddrunkenly, two of them had been broken clean off. The earth had been gouged.
There was blood. The corn rustled. With a little shiver, he walked back to theroad.
Vicky was having hysterics, screaming unintelligible words at him, crying,laughing. Who would have thought it could end in such a melodramatic way? Helooked at her and saw he wasn’t having an identity crisis or a difficult lifetransition or any of those trendy things. He hated her. He gave her a hard slapacross the face.
She stopped short and put a hand against the reddening impression of hisfingers. ‘You’ll go to jail, Burt,’ she said solemnly.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said, and put the suitcase he had found in the corn ather feet.
‘I don’t know. I guess it belonged to him.’ He pointed to the sprawled,face-down body that lay in the road. No more than thirteen, from the look ofhim.
The suitcase was old. The brown leather was battered and scuffed. Two hanks ofclothesline had been wrapped around it and tied in large, clownish grannies.
Vicky bent to undo one of them, saw, the blood greased into the knot, andwithdrew.
burt knelt and turned the body over gently.
‘I don’t want to look,’ Vicky said, staring down helplessly anyway. And when thestaring, sightless face flopped up to regard them, she screamed again. The boy’s face was dirty, his expression a grimace of terror. His throat had been cut.
Burt got up and put his arms around Vicky as she began to sway. ‘Don’t faint,’he said very quietly. ‘Do you hear me, Vicky? Don’t faint.’
He repeated it over and over and at last she began to recover and held him tight. They might have been dancing, there on the noon-struck road with the boy’s corpse at their feet.
‘What?’ Muffled against his shirt.
‘Go back to the car and put the keys in your pocket. Get the blanket out of theback seat, and my rifle. Bring them here.’
‘Someone cut his throat. Maybe whoever is watching us.’ Her head jerked up andher wide eyes considered the corn. It marched away as far as the eye could see,undulating up and down small dips and rises of land.
‘I imagine he’s gone. But why take chances? Go on. Do it.’
She walked stiltedly back to the car, her shadow following, a dark mascot whostuck close at this hour of the day. When she leaned into the back seat, Burtsquatted beside the boy. White male, no distinguishing marks. Run over, yes, butthe T-Bird hadn’t cut the kid’s throat. It had been cut raggedly and inefficiently – no army sergeant had shown the killer the finer points of hand-to-hand assassination -but the final effect had been deadly. He had either run or been pushed through the last thirty feet of corn, dead or mortally wounded. And Burt Robeson had run him down. If the boy had still been alive when the car hit him, his life had been cut short by thirty seconds at most.
Vicky tapped him on the shoulder and he jumped.
She was standing with the brown army blanket over her left arm, the cased pump shotgun in her right hand, her face averted. He took the blanket and spread iton the road. He rolled the body on to it. Vicky uttered a desperate little moan.
‘You okay?’ He looked up at her. ‘Vicky?’
‘Okay,’ she said in a strangled voice.
He flipped the sides of the blanket over the body and scooped it up, hating the thick, dead weight of it. It tried to make a U in his arms and slither through his grasp. He clutched it tighter and they walked back to the T-Bird.
‘Open the trunk,’ he grunted.
The trunk was full of travel stuff, suitcases and souvenirs. Vicky shifted mostof it into the back seat and Burt slipped the body into the made space andslammed the trunk lid down. A sigh of relief escaped him.
Vicky was standing by the driver’s side door, still holding the cased rifle.
‘Just put it in the back and get in.’
He looked at his watch and saw only fifteen minutes had passed. It seemed likehours.
‘What about the suitcase?’ she asked.
He trotted back down the road to where it stood on the white line, like thefocal point in an Impressionist painting. He picked it up by its tattered handleand paused for a moment. He had a strong sensation of being watched. It was afeeling he had read about in books, mostly cheap fiction, and he had alwaysdoubted its reality. Now he didn’t. It was as if there were people in the corn,maybe a lot of them, coldly estimating whether the woman could get the gun outof the case and use it before they could grab him, drag him into the shady rows,cut his throat -Heart beating thickly, he ran back to the car, pulled the keysout of the trunk lock, and got in.
Vicky was crying again. Burt got them moving, and before a minute had passed, hecould no longer pick out the spot where it had happened in the rear-view mirror.
‘What did you say the next town was?’ he asked.
‘Oh.’ She bent over the road atlas again. ‘Gatlin. We should be there in tenminutes.’
‘Does it look big enough to have a police station?’
‘No. It’s just a dot.’
‘Maybe there’s a constable.’
They drove in silence for a while. They passed a silo on the left. Nothing elsebut corn. Nothing passed them going the other way, not even a farm truck.
‘Have we passed anything since we got off the turnpike, Vicky?’
She thought about it. ‘A car and a tractor. At that intersection.’
‘No, since we got on this road, Route 17.’
‘No.I don’t think we have.’ Earlier this might have been the preface to some cutting remark. Now she only stared out of her half of the windshield at the unrolling road and the endless dotted line.
‘Vicky? Could you open the suitcase?’
‘Do you think it might matter?’
‘Don’t know. It might.’
While she picked at the knots (her face was set in a peculiar way -expressionless but tight-mouthed – that Burt remembered his mother wearing when she pulled the innards out of the Sunday chicken), Burt turned on the radio again.
The pop station they had been listening to was almost obliterated in static andburt switched, running the red marker slowly down the dial. Farm reports. Buck
Owens. Tammy Wynette. All distant, nearly distorted into babble. Then, near theend of the dial, one single word blared out of the speaker, so loud and clearthat the lips which uttered it might have been directly beneath the grill of thedashboard speaker.
‘ATONEMENT!’ this voice bellowed.
burt made a surprised grunting sound. Vicky jumped.
‘ONLY BY THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB ARE WE SAVED’ the voice roared, and Burt hurriedly turned the sound down. This station was close, all right. So close that yes, there it was. Poking out of the corn at the horizon, a spidery red tripod against the blue. The radio tower.
‘Atonement is the word, brothers ‘n’ sisters,’ the voice told them, dropping to a more conversational pitch. In the background, off-mike, voices murmured amen.
‘There’s some that thinks it’s okay to get out in the world, as if you could work and walk in the world without being smirched by the world. Now is that what the word of God teaches us?’
Off-mike but still loud: ‘No!’
‘HOLY JESUS!’ the evangelist shouted, and now the words came in a powerful,pumping cadence, almost as compelling as a driving rock-and-roll beat: ‘Whenthey gonna know that way is death? When they gonna know that the wages of the world are paid on the other side? Huh? Huh? The Lord has said there’s many mansions in His house. But there’s no room for the fornicator. No room for the coveter. No room for the defiler of the corn. No room for the hommasexshul. No room -Vicky snapped it off. ‘That drivel makes me sick.’
‘What did he say?’ Burt asked her. ‘What did he say about corn?’
‘I didn’t hear it.’ She was picking at the second clothesline knot.
‘He said something about corn. I know he did.’
‘I got it!’ Vicky said, and the suitcase fell open in her lap. They were passinga sign that said: GATLIN 5 MI. DRIVE CAREFULLY PROTECT OUR CHILDREN. The signhad been put up by the Elks. There were .22 bullet holes in it.
‘Socks,’ Vicky said. ‘Two pairs of pants. . . a shirt. . . a belt. . . a stringtie with a -‘ She held it up, showing him the peeling gilt neck clasp. ‘Who’sthat?’
burt glanced at it. ‘Hopalong Cassidy, I think.’
‘Oh.’ She put it back. She was crying again.
After a moment, Burt said: ‘Did anything strike you funny about that radiosermon?’
‘No.I heard enough of that stuff as a kid to last me for ever. I told you aboutit.’
‘Didn’t you think he sounded kind of young? That preacher?’
She uttered a mirthless laugh. ‘A teenager, maybe, so what? That’s what’s somonstrous about that whole trip. They like to get hold of them when their mindsare still rubber. They know how to put all the emotional checks and balances in.
You should have been at some of the tent meetings my mother and father draggedme to. . . some of the ones I was “saved” at.
‘Let’s see. There was Baby Hortense, the Singing Marvel. She was eight. She’dcome on and sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” while her daddy passed theplate, telling everybody to “dig deep, now, let’s not let this little child of
God down.” Then there was Norman Staunton. He used to preach hellfire andbrimstone in this Little Lord Fauntleroy suit with short pants. He was onlyseven.’
She nodded at his look of unbelief.
‘They weren’t the only two, either. There were plenty of them on the circuit.
They were good draws.’ She spat the word. ‘Ruby Stampnell. She was aten-year-old faith healer. The Grace Sisters. They used to come out with littletin4oil haloes over their heads and – oh!’
‘What is it?’ He jerked around to look at her, and what she was holding in herhands. Vicky was staring at it raptly. Her slowly seining hands had snagged iton the bottom of the suitcase and had brought it up as she talked. Burt pulledover to take a better look. She gave it t6 him wordlessly.
It was a crucifix that had been made from twists of corn husk, once green, nowdry. Attached to this by woven cornsilk was a dwarf corncob. Most of the kernelshad been carefully removed, probably dug out one at a time with a pocket-knife.
Those kernels remaining formed a crude cruciform figure in yellowish bas-relief.
Corn-kernel eyes, each slit longways to suggest pupils. Outstretched kernelarms, the legs together, terminating in a rough indication of
bare feet. Above, four letters also raised from the bonewhite cob: I N R I.
‘That’s a fantastic piece of workmanship,’ he said.
‘It’s hideous,’ she said in a flat, strained voice. ‘Throw it out.’
‘Vicky, the police might want to see it.’
‘Well, I don’t know why. Maybe -, ‘Throw it out. Will you please do that for me?
I don’t want it in the car.’
‘I’ll put it in back. And as soon as we see the cops, we’ll get rid of it oneway or the other. I promise. Okay?’
‘Oh, do whatever you want with it!’ she shouted at him. ‘You will anyway!’
Troubled, he threw the thing in back, where it landed on a pile of clothes. Itscorn-kernel eyes stared raptly at the T-Bird’s dome light. He pulled out again,gravel splurting from beneath the tyres.
‘We’ll give the body and everything that was in the suitcase to the cops,’ hepromised. ‘Then we’ll be shut of it.’
Vicky didn’t answer. She was looking at her hands. A mile further on, theendless cornfields drew away from the road, showing farmhouses and outbuildings.
In one yard they saw dirty chickens pecking listlessly at the soil. There werefaded cola and chewing-gum ads on the roofs of barns. They passed a tallbillboard that said: ONLY JESUS SAVEs. They passed a cafe with a Conoco gasisland, but Burt decided to go on into the centre of town, if there was one. Ifnot, they could come back to the cafe. It only occurred to him after they hadpassed it that the parking lot had been empty except for a dirty old pickup thathad looked like it was sitting on two flat tyres.
Vicky suddenly began to laugh, a high, giggling sound that struck Burt as beingdangerously close to hysteria.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘The signs,’ she said, gasping and hiccupping. ‘Haven’t you been reading them?
When they called this the Bible Belt, they sure weren’t kidding. Oh Lordy,there’s another bunch.’ Another burst of hysterical laughter escaped her, and she clapped both hands over her mouth.
Each sign had only one word. They were leaning on whitewashed sticks that had been implanted in the sandy shoulder, long ago by the looks; the whitewash wasflaked and faded. They were coming up at eighty-foot intervals and Burt read:
A…CLOUD…BY…DAY …A…PILLAR…OF FIRE.. BY. . NIGHT
‘They only forgot one thing,’ Vicky said, still giggling helplessly.
‘What?’ Burt asked, frowning.
‘Burma Shave.’ She held a knuckled fist against her open mouth to keep in the laughter, but her semi-hysterical giggles flowed around it like effervescent ginger-ale bubbles.
‘Vicky, are you all right?’
‘I will be. Just as soon as we’re a thousand miles away from here, in sunny sinful California with the Rockies between us and Nebraska.’
Another group of signs came up and they read them silently.
TAKE. . . THIS. . . AND. . . EAT. . . SAITH. . . THE. LORD… GOD
Now why, Burt thought, should I immediately associate that indefinite pronoun with corn? Isn’t that what they say when they give you communion? It had been solong since he had been to church that he really couldn’t remember. He wouldn’tbe surprised if they used cornbread for holy wafer around these parts. He openedhis mouth to tell Vicky that, and then thought better of it.
They breasted a gentle rise and there was Gatlin below them, all three blocks ofit, looking like a set from a movie about the Depression.
‘There’ll be a constable,’ Burt said, and wondered why
the sight of that hick one-timetable town dozing in the sun should have brought a lump of dread into his throat.
They passed a speed sign proclaiming that no more than thirty was now in order,and another sign, rust-flecked, which said: YOU ARE NOW ENTERNG GATLIN, NICEST
LITTLE TOWN IN NEBRASKA – OR ANYWHERE ELSE! POP. 4531.
Dusty elms stood on both sides of the road, most of them diseased. They passed the Gatlin Lumberyard and a 76 gas station, where the price signs swung slowlyin a hot noon breeze: REG 35.9 HI-TEST 38.9, and another which said: HI TRUCKERS
DIESEL FUEL AROUND BACK.
They crossed Elm Street, then Birch Street, and came up on the town square. The houses lining the streets were plain wood with screened porches. Angular and functional. The lawns were yellow and dispirited. Up ahead a mongrel dog walked slowly out into the middle of Maple Street, stood looking at them for a moment,then lay down in the road with its nose on its paws.
‘Stop,’ Vicky said. ‘Stop right here.
burt pulled obediently to the curb.
‘Turn around. Let’s take the body to Grand Island. That’s not too far, is it?
Let’s do that.’
‘Vicky, what’s wrong?’
‘What do you mean, what’s wrong?’ she asked, her voice rising thinly. ‘This townis empty, Burt. There’s nobody here but us. Can’t you feel that?’
He had felt something, and still felt it. But -‘It just seems that way,’ hesaid. ‘But it sure is a one-hydrant town. Probably all up in the square, havinga bake sale or a bingo game.’
‘There’s no one here.’ She said the words with a queer, strained emphasis.
‘Didn’t you see that 76 station back there?’
‘Sure, by the lumberyard, so what?’ His mind was elsewhere, listening to thedull buzz of a cicada burrowing into one of the nearby elms. He could smell corn, dusty roses, and fertilizer – of course. For the first time they were off the turnpike and in a town. A town in a state he had never been in before
(although he had flown over it from time to time in United Airlines 747s) and somehow it felt all wrong but all right. Somewhere up ahead there would be adrugstore with a soda fountain, a movie house named the Bijou, a school named after JFK.
‘Burt, the prices said thirty-five-nine for regular and thirty-eight-nine for high octane. Now how long has it been since anyone in this country paid those prices?’
‘At least four years,’ he admitted. ‘But, Vicky -‘
‘We’re right in town, Burt, and there’s not a car! Not one car!
‘Grand Island is seventy miles away. It would look funny if we took him there.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Look, let’s just drive up to the courthouse and -, ‘No!’
There, damn it, there. Why our marriage is falling apart, in a nutshell. No Iwon’t. No sir. And furthermore, I’ll hold my breath till I turn blue if youdon’t let me have my way.
‘Vicky,’ he said.
‘I want to get out of here, Burt.’
‘Vicky, listen to me.’
‘Turn around. Let’s go.’
‘Vicky, will you stop a minute?’
‘I’ll stop when we’re driving the other way. Now let’s go.’
‘We have a dead child in the trunk of our car!’ he roared at her, and took adistinct pleasure at the way she flinched, the way her face crumbled. In aslightly lower voice he went on:
‘His throat was cut and he was shoved out into the road and Iran him over. Now
I’m going to drive up to the courthouse or whatever they have here, and I’mgoing to report it. If you want to start walking towards the pike, go to it.
I’ll pick you up. But don’t you tell me to turn around and drive seventy milesto Grand Island like we had nothing in the trunk but a bag of garbage. He happens to be some mother’s son, and I’m going to report it before whoever killed him gets over the hills and far away.’
‘You bastard,’ she said, crying. ‘What am I doing with you?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I don’t know any more. But the situation can be remedied, Vicky.’
He pulled away from the curb. The dog lifted its head at the brief squeal of thetyres and then lowered it to its paws again.
They drove the remaining block to the square. At the corner of Main and
Pleasant, Main Street split in two. There actually was a town square, a grassypark with a bandstand in the middle. On the other end, where Main Street becameone again, there were two official-looking buildings. Burt could make out thelettering on one: GATLIN
‘That’s it,’ he said. Vicky said nothing.
Halfway up the square, Burt pulled over again. They were beside a lunch room,the Gatlin Bar and Grill.
‘Where are you going?’ Vicky asked with alarm as he opened his door.
‘To find out where everyone is. Sign in the window there says “Open”.’
‘You’re not going to leave me here alone.’
‘So come. Who’s stopping you?’
She unlocked her door and stepped out as he crossed in front of the car. He sawhow pale her face was and felt an instant of pity. Hopeless pity.
‘Do you hear it?’ she asked as he joined her.
‘The nothing. No cars. No people. No tractors. Nothing.’ And then, from a blockover, they heard the high and joyous laughter of children.
‘I hear kids,’ he said. ‘Don’t you?’
She looked at him, troubled.
He opened the lunchroom door and stepped into dry, antiseptic heat. The floorwas dusty. The sheen on the chrome was dull. The wooden blades of the ceiling fans stood still. Empty tables. Empty counter stools. But the mirror behind the counter had been shattered and there was something else. . . in a moment he had it. All the beer taps had been broken off. They lay along the counter like bizarre party favours.
Vicky’s voice was gay and near to breaking. ‘Sure. Ask anybody. Pardon me, sir,but could you tell me -‘
‘Oh, shut up.’ But his voice was dull and without force. They were standing in abar of dusty sunlight that fell through the lunchroom’s big plate-glass window and again he had that feeling of being watched and he thought of the boy they had in their trunk, and of the high laughter of children. A phrase came to him for no reason, a legal-sounding phrase, and it began to repeat mystically in his mind:
Sight unseen. Sight unseen. Sight unseen.
His eyes travelled over the age-yellowed cards thumb-tacked up behind thecounter: CHEESEBURG 35c WORLD’S BEST JOE 10c STRAWBERRY RHUBARB PIE 25c TODAY’S
SPECIAL HAM & RED EYE GRAVY W/MASHED POT 80c.
How long since he had seen lunchroom prices like that?
Vicky had the answer. ‘Look at this,’ she said shrilly. She was pointing at thecalendar on the wall. ‘They’ve been at that bean supper for twelve years, Iguess.’ She uttered a grinding laugh.
He walked over. The picture showed two boys swimming in a pond while a cutelittle dog carried off their clothes. Below the picture was the legend:
COMPLIMENTS OF GATLIN LUMBER & HARDWARE. You Breakum, We Fixum. The month onview was August 1964.
‘I don’t understand,’ he faltered, ‘but I’m sure -,
‘You’re sure!’ she cried hysterically. ‘Sure, you’re sure! That’s part of yourtrouble, Burt, you’ve spent your whole life being sure!’
He turned back to the door and she came after him.
‘Where are you going?’
‘To the Municipal Center.’
‘Burt, why do you have to be so stubborn? You know something’s wrong here. Can’tyou just admit it?’
‘I’m not being stubborn. I just want to get shut of what’s in that trunk.’
They stepped out on to the sidewalk, and Burt was struck afresh with the town’ssilence, and with the smell of fertilizer. Somehow you never thought of thatsmell when you buttered an ear and salted it and bit in. Compliments of sun,rain, all sorts of man-made phosphates, and a good healthy dose of cow shit. Butsomehow this smell was different from the one he had grown up with in ruralupstate New York. You could say whatever you wanted to about organic fertilizer,but there was something almost fragrant about it when the spreader was laying itdown in the fields. Not one of your great perfumes, God no, but when thelate-afternoon spring breeze would pick up and waft it over the freshly turnedfields, it was a smell with good associations. It meant winter was over forgood. It meant that school doors were going to bang closed in six weeks or soand spill everyone out into summer. It was a smell tied irrevocably in his mindwith other aromas that were perfume: timothy grass, clover, fresh earth,hollyhocks, dogwood.
but they must do something different out here, he thought. The smell was closebut not the same. There was a sickish-sweet undertone. Almost a death smell. Asa medical orderly in Vietnam, he had become well versed in that smell.
Vicky was sitting quietly in the car, holding the corn crucifix in her lap and staring at it in a rapt way Burt didn’t like.
‘Put that thing down,’ he said.
‘No,’ she said without looking up. ‘You play your games and I’ll play mine.’
He put the car in gear and drove up to the corner. A dead stoplight hung overhead, swinging in a faint breeze. To the left was a neat white church. The grass was cut. Neatly kept flowers grew beside the flagged path up to the door.burt pulled over.
‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m going to go in and take a look’ Burt said. ‘It’s the only place in townthat looks as if there isn’t ten years’ dust On it. And look at the sermonboard.’
She looked. Neatly pegged white letters under glass read: THE POWER AND GRACE OF
HE WHO WALKS BEHIND THE ROWS. The date was 27 July 1976 – the Sunday before.
‘He Who Walks Behind the Rows,’ Burt said, turning off the ignition. ‘One of thenine thousand names of God only used in Nebraska, I guess. Coming?’
She didn’t smile. ‘I’m not going in with you.’
‘Fine. Whatever you want.’
‘I haven’t been in a church since I left home and I don’t want to be in this church and I don’t want to be in this town, Burt. I’m scared Out of my mind,can’t we just go?’
‘I’ll only be a minute.’
‘I’ve got my keys, Burt. If you’re not back in five minutes, I’ll just drive away and leave you here.’
‘Now just wait a minute, lady.’
‘That’s what I’m going to do. Unless you want to assault me like a common muggerand take my keys. I suppose you could do that.’
‘But you don’t think I will.’
Her purse Was on the seat between them. He snatched it up. She screamed andgrabbed for the shoulder strap. He pulled it out of her reach. Not bothering todig, he simply turned the bag upside down and let everything fall out. Herkey-ring glittered amid tissues, cosmetics, change, old shopping lists. Shelunged for it but he beat her again and put the keys in his own pocket.
‘You didn’t have to do that,’ she said, crying. ‘Give them tome.’
‘No,’ he said, and gave her a hard, meaningless grin. ‘No way.’
‘Please, Burt! I’m scared!’ She held her hand out, pleading now.
‘You’d wait two minutes and decide that was long enough.’
‘I wouldn’t -‘
‘And then you’d drive off laughing and saying to yourself, “That’ll teach Burtto cross me when I want something.” Hasn’t that pretty much been your mottoduring our married life? That’ll teach Burt to cross me?’
He got out of the car.
‘Please, Burt?’ she screamed, sliding across the seat. ‘Listen. . .I know. . .we’ll drive out of town and call from a phone booth, okay? I’ve got all kinds ofchange. I just. we can . . . don’t leave me alone, Burt, don’t leave me out herealone!’
He slammed the door on her cry and then leaned against the side of the T-Birdfor a moment, thumbs against his closed eyes. She was pounding on the driver’sside window and calling his name. She was going to make a wonderful impressionwhen he finally found someone in authority to take charge of the kid’s body. Ohyes.
He turned and walked up the flagstone path to the church doors. Two or threeminutes, just a look around, and he would be back out. Probably the door wasn’teven unlocked.
but it pushed in easily on silent, well-oiled hinges (reverently oiled, hethought, and that seemed funny for no really good reason) and he stepped into avestibule so cool it was almost chilly. It took his eyes a moment to adjust tothe dimness.
The first thing he noticed was a pile of wooden letters in the far corner, dustyand jumbled indifferently together. He went to them, curious. They looked as oldand forgotten a~ the calendar in the bar and grill, unlike the rest of the vestibule, which was dust-free and tidy. The letters were about two feet high,obviously part of a set. He spread them out on the carpet – there were eighteen of them – and shifted them around like anagrams. HURT BITE CRAG CHAP CS. Nope.
CRAP TARGET CHIBS HUC. That wasn’t much good either. Except for the CH in CHIBS.
He quickly assembled the word CHURCH and was left looking at RAP TAGET CIBS.
Foolish. He was squatting here playing idiot games with a bunch of letters while
Vicky was going nuts out in the car. He started to get up, and then saw it. Heformed BAPTIST, leaving RAG EC – and by changing two letters he had GRACE. GRACEbAPTIST CHURCH. The letters must have been out front. They had taken them downand had thrown them indifferently in the corner, and the church had been paintedsince then so that you couldn’t even see where the letters had been.
It wasn’t the Grace Baptist Church any more, that was why. So what kind ofchurch was it? For some reason that question caused a trickle of fear and hestood up quickly, dusting his fingers. So they had taken down a bunch ofletters, so what? Maybe they had changed the place into Flip Wilson’s Church of
What’s Happening Now.
but what had happened then?
He shook it off impatiently and went through the inner doors. Now he wasstanding at the back of the church itself, and as he looked towards the nave, hefelt fear close around his heart and squeeze tightly. His breath drew in, loudin the pregnant silence of this place.
The space behind the pulpit was dominated by a gigantic portrait of Christ, andburt thought: If nothing else in this town gave Vicky the screaming meemies,this would.
The Christ was grinning, vulpine. His eyes were wide and staring, reminding Burtuneasily of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. In each of the wide blackpupils someone (a sinner, presumably) was drowning in a lake of fire. But theoddest thing was that this Christ had green hair hair which on closerexamination revealed itself to be a twining mass of early-summer corn. Thepicture was crudely done but effective. It looked like a comic-strip mural doneby a gifted child – an Old Testament Christ, or a pagan Christ that mightslaughter his sheep for sacrifice instead of leading them.
At the foot of the left-hand ranks of pews was a pipe Organ, and Burt could notat first tell what was wrong with it. He walked down the left-hand aisle and sawwith slowly dawning horror that the keys had been ripped up, the stops had beenpulled out . . and the pipes themselves filled with dry cornhusks. Over theorgan was a carefully lettered plaque which read: MAKE NO MUSIC EXCEPT WITH
HUMAN TONGUE SAITH THE LORD GOD.
Vicky was right. Something was terribly wrong here. He debated going back to
Vicky without exploring any further, just getting into the car and leaving townas quickly as possible, never mind the Municipal Building. But it grated on him.
Tell the truth, he thought. You want to give her Ban 5000 a workout before goingback and admitting she was right to start with.
He would go back in a minute or so.
He walked towards the pulpit, thinking: People must go through Gatlin all thetime. There must be people in the neighbouring towns who have friends andrelatives here. The Nebraska SP must cruise through from time to time. And whatabout the power company? The stoplight had been dead. Surely they’d know if thepower had been off for twelve long years. Conclusion: What seemed to havehappened in Gatlin was impossible.
Still, he had the creeps.
He climbed the four carpeted steps to the pulpit and looked out over thedeserted pews, glimmering in the half-shadows. He seemed to feel the weight ofthose eldritch and decidedly unchristian eyes boring into his back.
There was a large Bible on the lectern, opened to the thirty-eighth chapter of
Job. Burt glanced down at it and read: ‘Then the Lord answered Job out of thewhirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words withoutknowledge? . . . Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?declare, if thou hast understanding.’ The lord. He Who Walks Behind the Rows.
Declare if thou hast understanding. And please pass the corn.
He fluttered the pages of the Bible, and they made a dry whispering sound in the
quiet – the sound that ghosts might make if there really were such things. Andin a place like this you could almost believe it. Sections of the Bible had beenchopped out. Mostly from the New Testament, he saw. Someone had decided to takeon the job of amending Good King James with a pair of scissors.
but the Old Testament was intact.
He was about to leave the pulpit when he saw another book on a lower shelf andtook it out, thinking it might be a church record of weddings and confirmationsand burials.
He grimaced at the words stamped on the cover, done inexpertly in gold leaf:
THUS LET THE INIQUITOUS BE CUT DOWN SO THAT THE GROUND MAY BE FERTILE AGAIN SAITH THE LORD GOD OF HOSTS.
There seemed to be one train of thought around here, and Burt didn’t care much for the track it seemed to ride on.
He opened the book to the first wide, lined sheet. A child had done the lettering, he saw immediately. In places an ink eraser had been carefully used,and while there were no misspellings, the letters were large and childishly made, drawn rather than written. The first column read:
Amos Deigan (Richard), b. Sept. 4, 1945 Sept. 4, 1964
Isaac Renfrew (William), b. Sept.19, 1945 Sept.19, 1964
Zepeniah Kirk (George), b. Oct.14, 1945 Oct.14, 1964
Mary Wells (Roberta), b. Nov.12, 1945 Nov.12, 1964
Yemen Hollis (Edward), b. Jan. 5, 1946 Jan. 5, 1965
Frowning, Burt continued to turn through the pages. Three-quarters of the way through, the double columns ended abruptly:
Rachel Stigman (Donna), b. June21, 1957 June 21, 1976
Moses Richardson (Henry), b. July 29, 1957
Malachi Boardman (Craig), b. August 15, 1957
The last entry in the book was for Ruth Clawson (Sandra), b. April 30, 1961.burt looked at the shelf where he had found this book and came up with two more.
The first had the same INIQUITOUS BE CUT DOWN logo, and it continued the samerecord, the single column tracing birth dates and names. In early September of
1964 he found Job Gilman (Clayton), b. September 6, and the next entry was Eve
Tobin, b. June 16, 1965. No second name in parentheses.
The third book was blank.
Standing behind the pulpit, Burt thought about it.
Something had happened in 1964. Something to do with religion, and corn. . . andchildren.
Dear God we beg thy blessing on the crop. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
And the knife raised high to sacrifice the lamb – but had it been a lamb?
Perhaps a religious mania had swept them. Alone, all alone, cut off from theoutside world by hundreds of square miles of the rustling secret corn. Aloneunder seyenty million acres of blue sky. Alone under the watchful eye of God,now a strange green God, a God of corn, grown old and strange and hungry. He Who
Walks Behind the Rows.
burt felt a chill creep into his flesh.
Vicky, let me tell you a story. It’s about Amos Deigan, who was born Richard
Deigan On 4 September 1945. He took the name Amos in 1964, fine Old Testamentname, Amos, one of the minor prophets. Well, Vicky, what happened – don’t laugh
– is that Dick Deigan and his friends – Billy Renfrew, George Kirk, Roberta
Wells, and Eddie Hollis among others – they got religion and they killed offtheir parents. All of them. Isn’t that a scream? Shot them in their beds, knifedthem in their bathtubs, poisoned their suppers, hung them, or disembowelledthem, for all I know.
Why? The corn. Maybe it was dying. Maybe they got the idea somehow that it wasdying because there was too much sinning. Not enough sacrifice. They would havedone it in the corn, in the rows.
And somehow, Vicky, I’m quite sure of this, somehow they decided that nineteenwas as old as any of them could live. Richard ‘Amos’ Deigan, the hero of ourlittle story, had his nineteenth birthday on 4 September 1964 – the date in thebook. I think maybe they killed him. Sacrificed him in the corn. Isn’t that asilly story?
but let’s look at Rachel Stigman, who was Donna Stigman until 1964. She turnednineteen on 21 June, just about a month ago. Moses Richardson was born on 29
July – just three days from today he’ll be nineteen. Any idea what’s going tohappen to ole Mose on the twenty-ninth?
I can guess.
burt licked his lips, which felt dry.
One other thing, Vicky. Look at this. We have Job Gilman (Clayton) born on 6
September 1964. No other births until 16 June 1965. A gap of ten months. Knowwhat I think? They killed all the parents, even the pregnant ones, that’s what Ithink. And one of them got pregnant in October of 1964 and gave birth to Eve.
Some sixteen- or seventeen-year-old girl. Eve. The first woman.
He thumbed back through the book feverishly and found the Eve Tobin entry. Belowit: ‘Adam Greenlaw, b. July 11, 1965’.
They’d be just eleven now, he thought and his flesh began to crawl. And maybethey’re out there. Someplace.
but how could such a thing be kept secret? How could it goon?
How unless the God in question approved?
‘Oh Jesus,’ Burt said into the silence, and that was when the T-Bird’s hornbegan to blare into the afternoon, one long continuous blast.
burt jumped from the pulpit and ran down the centre aisle. He threw open theouter vestibule door, letting in hot sunshine, dazzling. Vicky was bold up right behind the
steering wheel, both hands plastered on the horn ring, her head swivelling wildly. From all around the children were coming. Some of them were laughing gaily. They held knives, hatchets, pipes, rocks, hammers. One girl, maybe eight,with beautiful long blonde hair, held a jackhandle. Rural weapons. Not a gunamong them. Burt felt a wild urge to scream out:
Which of you is Adam and Eve?
Who are the mothers? Who are the daughters? Fathers? Sons?
Declare, if thou hast understanding.