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Lisa Morton

The October Special Guest Writer is Lisa Morton

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Lisa Morton

THE MAZE
by Lisa Morton

Three seventeen-year-old boys and one girl stood at the front of the dilapidated farmhouse, eyeing the hand-lettered sign that read “CORN MAZE – $5 – ENTER THROUGH BACK.”

“This looks a lot more like the ‘trick’ side of ‘trick or treat’,” said Dozelle, shifting his jersey-clad bulk from one foot to the other.

Adam ran a tattooed hand through his long blonde hair, blown about by the late October breeze. “Yeah, Doze is right. This just looks lame, Sean. I hear that haunted house out by the mall will scare the shit out of you. They’ve got these guys made up as zombies who eat real raw meat – it’s just totally fucked up.”

Smirking, Ashley said, “You’re the fucked up one, if you believe those stories.”

Sean eyed the surroundings, silently debating. He was genuinely curious about elderly Miss Macintye, who owned the house and a couple of acres of farmland behind it. When a local blogger had reviewed her maze, he’d said that Miss Mackenzie had avoided using any of the usual agri-entertainment companies that specialized in creating corn mazes and had used her own methods of cutting the design, although she wouldn’t divulge her “trade secrets.” She was rumored to be into some strange stuff, and Sean, who’d recently developed an obsession with folklore, wanted to see the “Bizarro Halloween shit” hinted at in the article.

And, although he’d never admit it to his friends, he missed trick or treat. He’d loved Halloween as a kid – the candy, the costumes, the rich feeling of being out in the night disguised as someone else, someone more powerful than Sean Andrews. He wanted to find a special Halloween experience to fill that hole. He was the only one of the quartet in costume – old moth-eaten army fatigues he’d found in the attic – because he hoped to crash some parties later in the evening, since he hadn’t actually been invited to any.

Dozelle made a dismissive gesture. “Let’s go.”

Sean was about to try to convince his friends to stay when Ashley stepped in for him. “C’mon, we can do this and still do the haunted house.” She gave Sean a slight smile, and relief flooded through him.

Adam shrugged. “What-fucking-ever. Let’s just get it over with.”

Sean led the way around the ramshackle house, its peeling sides badly in need of paint, the roof creaking two stories overhead. As they passed beneath an open window, he got a whiff of something musky and pungent, some sort of herb he couldn’t name.

“Look at this shit,” Dozelle said, standing above a little pyramid of flat stones surmounted with a small animal skull.

“Eww,” Ashley said. “Is that a cat skull on top?”

“That’s fucking weird,” Adam said.

Sean joined them, grinning. “See? This might be good after all.”

The driveway took them behind the house, where a shallow backyard opened onto a wide vista of tall corn, the stalks fading from green to gold. An old woman sat in a folding chair beside an entrance into the corn. She had a cigar box and a small stack of cards in her lap. She sat in silence as they approached, but her eyes – clear, green, strangely youthful - locked on Sean, making him uncomfortable.

“One, please,” Ashley said, thrusting a five-dollar-bill at the woman. Dozelle and Adam also held out cash. Sean fumbled in his wallet, counting out ones, still sensing her gaze on him.

Ashley took a card from the woman and said, “We read about this place in the paper. You’re Miss Mackenzie, right?”

The old woman squinted up at Ashley, giving Sean a chance to look her over. He realized she wasn’t really that old – she might have been no more than sixty. Her face held few lines, her hands were steady, but her long silver hair made her look older. She wore a simple white polo shirt and baggy chinos, but the heavy gold necklace around her throat was unusual – it was a solid band of gold, not a chain, and had no decoration. “Is that a torque?” Sean asked.

The woman smiled at him. “So it is. Not many folks know that.”

He heard Dozelle and Adam snickering, but ignored them. “I like history. In fact, I just read a book about Halloween, and it talked about the ancient Celts. That’s where I read about torques.”

“You’re a smart boy,” she said. “So you know what tonight is really all about, then.”

After a second of thought, Sean answered, “The night when the border between our world and the next is at its thinnest, and the sidh could come through, right?” He hoped he’d pronounced sidh correctly – “shee”.

Evidently he had, because the old woman nodded. “Or so the Celts believed.” She laughed, a sound that was strangely unnerving.

Sean passed his money to her, anxious to be out of her presence. She hesitated before taking it, then said, “You’ll be my last guests this year, looks like.”

Sean realized the sun was about to dip below the horizon, leaving the muddy paths between the corn stalks already deep in shadow. “Are we too late? Will we need flashlights or something?”

“Shouldn’t take you that long in there. It’ll still be light enough to see.”

Sean took the card she offered, saw it was a little hand-drawn and Xeroxed map of the maze. “Well, okay, then. Let’s get lost.”

Dozelle and Adam were already well into the maze as Ashley and Sean approached the entrance. Ashley leaned into Sean and whispered, “What are the sidh?”

“Evil fairies that the ancient Celts believed would come out on Samhain – their Halloween night.”

Ashley said, “How do you know that?”

“I was just reading this book about the history of Halloween, and about how it goes all the way back to the Celts.”

They were on the verge of stepping into the maze when Sean heard the old woman call after him, “Thank you for your sacrifice.”

Again, Ashley leaned in to ask, softly, “What did that mean?”

“Bad joke about my costume, I guess.” Something nagged at the back of Sean’s consciousness, however, and it took him a few seconds to pin it down. Halloween… history… Samhain… “That’s weird…”

Ashley asked, “What is?”

“That crack about sacrifice. Sometimes the Celts sacrificed humans on Samhain.”

Ashley mimicked gagging before saying, “Nice.”

“Actually, it was supposed to be a great honor to be chosen for the sacrifice.”

Stopping at the entrance to the maze, Ashley asked, “You mean they just went willingly? That’s crazy.”

“It is, but…yeah, I don’t get it, either.” And he didn’t; in fact, he’d rolled it around in his head for a while, and just couldn’t see how anyone could accept such a useless death. Even if you believed in all the old gods and that sacrificial deaths would appease them, why would you offer yourself? It didn’t make sense.

Adam and Dozelle were already at the first turn in the maze, peering down at the maps, shoving each other, snickering. They vanished around the turn, leaving Sean and Ashley to catch up. “I love the smell in here,” Ashley said.

Sean inhaled deeply and nodded. The smell of corn husks mixed with yesterday’s rain and fertilized earth. The corn, still mostly green this far into the season, was tall and thick, obscuring their view in all directions except the three-foot-wide path before and behind them. The sky was the blue of autumn, so deep it almost hurt to look at.

“This way,” Ashley said, tugging at his arm as they reached the turn.

Adam and Dozelle were thirty feet ahead, standing at a fork, comparing it to the map. “Which way?” Adam asked.

“Shit, man, I don’t know.”

Adam considered and then said, “Left.” They wandered off that way.

Ashley and Sean reached the branching pathways. Ashley looked the map, said, “I’m pretty sure it’s to the right here.”

Sean looked at his own map and agreed. “Let’s go right, then.”

“What about Doze and Adam?”

“They’ll figure it out. C’mon.”

They veered to the right. On the map, the design looked like a series of branching spirals – not the usual farm scene or logo of most corn mazes. “I wonder if this design means something,” Sean asked.

Ashley paused, her head cocked. “You know what’s weird? I can’t hear Doze and Adam at all.”

Sean stopped to listen. “I don’t hear anything outside of us. I guess the corn is like the ultimate sound baffle or something.”

“I guess.”

Ashley continued on ahead of him, and Sean found himself looking at her back – or, more specifically, at her ass. She hadn’t exactly worn a costume for the evening, but she’d dressed differently from her usual school outfits of black jeans and band t-shirts; instead, she wore leggings and a low-cut blouse. He wondered if she’d dressed that way for him. He hoped so. She looked good, and he hoped that at some point tonight they might leave Doze and Adam and head off on their own. He’d known Ashley since they’d both been twelve, but he’d only recently noticed how much better she looked than all the other girls. He thought she might feel the same about him; maybe on Halloween, dressed as a brave soldier from some long-gone war, he’d have enough courage to find out.

Ashley turned a corner, and stopped abruptly, uttering a little cry. Sean looked past her. “What…?”

Then he saw what had caused her to react: Ahead of them was a pumpkin-headed scarecrow, hung on lengths of wood so it stood slightly above the corn. The eyes of the jack-o’-lantern glowed redly, the flaps of the old jacket flapped slightly in the evening breeze, and Sean laughed at the surprise.

Beside him, Ashley said, “Didn’t expect to meet up with this guy.”

Sean looked past the scarecrow, saw the path continue on the other side. “Guess we go around him.”

“Yeah…”

He went first. There wasn’t much space between the scarecrow and the corn, forcing Sean to turn sideways to get by, and he wondered how on earth Dozelle – who was a quarterback for the school’s team – would get past. He looked up overhead at the scarecrow as he wormed his way under it, and he had the unsettling notion that it had moved, especially the arms. He halfway expected to feel its twig-fingered hand on his shoulder, holding him, pulling him back…then it was behind him, hanging unmoving in the last rays of the sun. Ashley joined him, giggling. “Yep, now it’s getting good.”

Sean had an urge to reach for her. Just her hand; no one would know. She stood close to him, it would be so easy…but then she turned away, heading off into the maze again, and Sean had the unreasonable thought that he’d lost that chance forever.

The path took several wide sweeping curves, moving along the outside of the map, spiraling in. The sun fell below the unseen horizon, and Ashley had to squint to read the map. “Okay, at the next fork we should go left.”

“You’re the navigator. Wonder what happened to Doze and Adam…”

“Wanna bet that they end up calling us and begging to get them out?”

Sean smirked. The comment made him think about his own phone, and he pulled it out of his pocket to take a photo. “Hey, how about a selfie?”

Ashley leaned in next to him. “Do it.”

He held the camera out, smiled. The app clicked. He checked the photo, said, “Oh, it’s good – I don’t look like a total idiot. Want a copy?”

“Sure.”

He tried to punch in Ashley’s number, but the phone had no signal. He moved it around, walked a few feet back and forward, but nothing. “That’s strange – I can’t get a signal in here.”

Ashley pulled out her phone, thumbed icons on the screen. “I can’t either.” She shrugged then, putting the phone back in her purse. “I guess Doze and Adam are on their own. Good luck, dumbasses.”

They continued on, moving in a tightening arc to the left. At one point Sean pushed some of the corn leaves out of the way and felt moisture on his fingertips. He used the light from his phone to look and saw dark red on his fingers, even smeared on the cuff of his army jacket. “What the fuck…”

Ashley looked at him. “What?”

“There’s blood…” He showed her his fingers.

“Are you sure it’s real?”

Sean rubbed his fingers together. He’d once mixed some fake blood for a zombie Halloween costume, and the stuff had been thick and sticky; this didn’t feel like that at all. He sniffed it, got a hint of copper. “No, but…I don’t think it’s fake. Maybe an animal…”

They kept going, until they reached a sharp turn, where Ashley slipped. Sean jumped forward to catch her, and his own feet encountered a treacherous slickness. Looking down, he saw that the ground glistened in the dim light. He turned his phone light on, saw they stood in a huge scarlet pool. The smell hit him then, thick and metallic, turning his stomach. “Holy shit…”

Ashley looked pale in the phone’s glow. “Fuck.”

Sean waved in the direction they’d come. “We’re not going through there. Let’s go back the way we came, just get out of here…”

“Yeah. What about Doze and Adam?”

“If we go back, we should be able to find them along the way. Then we all just get the fuck out of here, okay?”

“Good plan.”

Sean turned and took the lead, moving back the way they’d come. But something was wrong – this wasn’t the long curves they’d traversed before; now they walked along a series of short straightaways with sharp angled turns. He finally paused at an intersection and held the map up to the phone’s light. “We took a wrong turn somewhere.”

Ashley peered over his shoulder. “That doesn’t look right at all. Sean…what if the map’s deliberately wrong?”

Sean looked at Ashley’s face, her eyes worried, and he didn’t hold back on taking her hand. “It can’t be that big. If worse comes to worse, we’ll just push through the stalks in a straight line until we get out.” But Sean felt the lie in that even as the words left his mouth – he knew the stalks were stronger than he was.

For a second, everything whirled into a delirious joy as Ashley squeezed his hand. “Let’s just make sure we don’t get separated, okay?”

He tried to smile reassuringly. “Okay.”

They walked to the right, made another turn, another…and found themselves back at the pool of blood, but now on the other side. “How did we get here?” Ashley asked.

“I don’t know, but let’s just keep going. It’s getting darker.”

Sean led the way through the gloom. At one point he turned a corner and stumbled on something. He looked down, perplexed, used his phone to reveal the object – and gasped at what he saw:

An arm, severed just above the elbow, the edges ragged as if it had been torn, not sawed or hacked off.

Ashley saw it and uttered a choked scream. She clutched at Sean and said, “That’s fake, right?”

It didn’t look fake to Sean. It smelled real, it looked real…and then he realized: the skin on the arm was dark brown, the muscles thick…

“No. I think…it’s Dozelle’s.”

“Oh my God.” He felt Ashley’s body start to tremble and wasn’t so sure that his own wasn’t doing the same. He was abruptly sorry that his army costume hadn’t come with any weapons, not even a knife or a nightstick. Ashley hadn’t brought a purse. They had nothing.

He heard it then: something in the corn, moving. A lot of somethings, rather, creating a leafy susurration that raised the hairs on Sean’s neck.

“What is that?” Ashley’s eyes were wide as they darted around, seeking the source of the sound.

“I don’t know, but let’s keep going.”

Holding Ashley hand like a life rope, Sean led the way down the path between the stalks. They turned a corner and saw the flicker of flames coming from somewhere ahead; they slowed down, tiptoeing, Sean’s head stretched out. They came to an open area in the corn where a number of the paths converged, and it took Sean a few moments to comprehend what he saw there.

Torches were set around a cleared ring about fifty feet across. In the middle of the circle was a big 55-gallon drum; a man’s body was draped over the lip of the drum, the head and shoulders inside. Sean saw that the big corpse was missing one arm, and he knew instantly. “Dozelle.”

Beside him, Ashley clamped a hand over her mouth in shock. Sean looked around warily, but saw nothing, so he stepped forward. He didn’t dare touch the body, but as he neared it he saw a noose dangling down the back, knotted around the neck, and a huge swath of blood staining the side of the drum. Firelight glinted off liquid in the drum, but he couldn’t see Dozelle’s head, since it was submerged. He couldn’t tell what had killed Dozelle – the water, blood loss, or the noose. Then he remembered something from the book he’d read, about how the Celts had used three forms of death in their sacrifices. “This is a ritual killing.”

“It looks like the work of a maniac,” Ashley said, her voice quivering.

Sean saw she was right – aside from the torn-off arm, Dozelle’s body was covered with cuts, scratches…bite marks.

Sean tightened his grip on Ashley’s wrist. “Let’s go.”

“Which way?” They stopped, eyeing the number of paths leading out of the circle. There were a half-dozen.

Ashley examined the map by the light of her cell phone, then lowered both. “None of this is on the map. This whole thing is a trap.” She crumpled up the useless card and tossed it to the ground.

Sean pushed aside the pang of terror that arced through him. “Okay…okay, we’re on our own. We can do this.” He examined the paths; after a few seconds, he pointed to the opening second from the left. “That way.”

“Why?” Ashley made no indication that she intended to move.

“Because I think we need to veer to the left to get out of here, but the far left path is too obvious.”

He held his hand out to Ashley. After a few seconds, she gulped. “Okay.” She accepted his hand, gripping it tightly, even painfully, and they set off on the chosen route.

The path curved slowly, but it also grew tighter, the wall of corn closer – and the sounds just behind it louder. They ignored several turn-offs and intersecting paths to continue on the main one. As they reached the point where the leaves began to brush their heads and shoulders, Ashley tugged on Sean’s hand, forcing him to stop. “I don’t wanna do this.”

Sean looked at her, desperate. “Do you want to go back, try one of the other ways?”

She shook badly; the noise in the corn now sounded like a chorus of voices whispering in a language never spoken by human tongues. “No, but…”

“Then we have to go on, Ashley. We have to try.” He held her eyes with his, hoping he looked stronger than he felt. After a few seconds, she nodded. They began walking again, crouching to avoid as much of the corn as possible. They’d gone maybe a hundred feet when Sean yelped and pulled back, colliding with Ashley. “What?” she asked.

He held up his hand to one ear, pulled it away, saw blood on his fingers. “Something bit me. On the ear.”

Ashley was next, staggering into him with a yelp. “Something touched me on the leg.”

Now they heard laughter, small but distinct.

“C’mon!” Sean began running down the narrow path, shielding his face with one hand, holding onto Ashley with the other. He felt tiny mouths and claws reaching for him, finding him, tearing his skin, he heard the laughter and the rush of movement…but he saw nothing.

The path suddenly opened before them again, into a long rectangle, and they pulled up short when they saw the thing at the far end: It was a scarecrow, like the one they’d already seen, but this one was made of flesh. Human flesh.

It was Adam. He was clearly dead, his arms tied crucifixion-style to a cross bar, legs wrapped around the central vertical stake. His face had been painted like a jack-o’-lantern’s, with dark holes for the features…then Sean realized those black places weren’t paint, but chunks carved out of Adam’s face. Blood had pooled around the base of the stake where it was jammed into the ground, telling Sean that Adam had been killed very recently.

Behind Adam was the far end of the open rectangle. There was an opening there, leading to another path through the corn…and there was light at the end of that path.

Sean began pulling Ashley toward the opening, but she resisted. He looked back at her, and she asked, “What are you doing, Sean?”

“Behind him – there’s an opening in the corn and I can see light there. I think it’s the exit.”

Ashley looked past him, then gave him a quick nod. He wanted to kiss her then, like the hero in a movie would…but he didn’t feel much like a hero, and he didn’t think Ashley wanted to be kissed within a few yards of the mutilated body of their friend. Besides, they needed to keep moving.

Sean hugged the outside of the rectangle as much as possible, but they would have to pass close to the corpse to reach the opening. Sean tried to push the corn back, to give them as much leeway as possible, but he still felt Adam’s blood drip on his shoulder, into his hair, and he fought back the urge to vomit.

At last he was in the opening, moving, pulling Ashley along – and then her hand was yanked from his grip.

He turned, almost expecting to see Adam alive, grabbing her, leering – but what held Ashley had never been human, or even truly alive. Sean could only see outlines in the gloom, faint glowing figures. Dozens of them, hundreds, none taller than a foot. They were humanoid in shape but winged, and they held the shrieking girl suspended in mid-air. As Sean watched, paralyzed, they began to tear pieces of her away, and he knew they’d also done this to Dozelle and Adam. Ashley twisted and bucked and screamed in agony, her blood spraying out, adding more definition to the ephemeral shapes that held her…

The Sidh. The words appeared in Sean’s mind, on the surface absurd, but nonetheless true, and he knew that his recognition of them was something buried deep in his very cells, an instinct as basic as eating or breathing. They’d always been there, waiting for October 31st, waiting for veils to drop and gates to open…

When they tore off Ashley’s head, Sean’s paralysis snapped and he ran. He stumbled down the path, arms flailing, screaming, his only thought that he had to get away, get away GET AWAY –

In front of him, not far, stood Miss Mackenzie’s house, lights glowing in the windows like beacons, and knew he was almost there, out of this nightmare, free –

His legs went out from under him and he went down.

Looking up, Sean saw why he’d been allowed to make it this far, and why he would never leave this maze: A massive shape stood before the house now, blocking any escape. The shape was at least thirty feet tall, broad, with a great horned head that hid part of the indigo sky overhead. Like the sidh, it was indistinct but gaining more form with each passing second. Sean glimpsed something else through it, something on the ground: Miss Mackenzie, dressed now in a white robe, kneeling in supplication.

He understood, then.

“Thank you for your sacrifice.” That had been no flippant response to his costume. A sacrifice had been made tonight – Dozelle and Adam and Ashley had already been offered to the sidh and this horned god. Now Sean would be the final sacrifice, the last one offered to an ancient god on a modern Halloween night. Would this final sacrifice open the gateway forever? Or was there a chance Miss Mackenzie was trying to shut something that had already opened?

Sean couldn’t rise; he would run no more. His life belonged now to the deity before him. He would be taken by it and joined to its sacred matter. Whatever forces Miss Mackenzie had set in motion by arranging the deaths of his friends would be finally concluded by him. He would become the central character in the single most important story in mankind’s history.

In the desire to merge with godflesh, he finally understood the real nature of sacrifice.

He prostrated himself and waited for what was to come.

About Lisa Morton

Lisa Morton

Photo credit: Seth Ryan

Lisa Morton is a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award®, a screenwriter, a novelist, and a Halloween expert whose work was described by the American Library Association’s Readers’ Advisory Guide to Horror as “consistently dark, unsettling, and frightening”. Her most recent releases are the non-fiction books Ghosts: A Cultural History and Adventures in the Scream Trade. She lives in the San Fernando Valley, and can be found online at www.lisamorton.com.

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