The Horror Zine
Corn by road
K. A. Opperman

The September First Selected Writer is K. A. Opperman

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KA Opperman

by K. A. Opperman

The crispness of the Autumn air was scarlet on John's cheeks. He was driving on a meandering country road through an endless sea of farmlands and faintly stirring grasses. Lonely oaks stood sentinel throughout the landscape, keeping their silent watch over the wild hay-fields which lapped, wavelike, at their ponderous roots; and pumpkin-headed scarecrows stood vigilant over their corn. Off in the distance, beyond the cornfields, rose a solitary windmill and a rust colored farmhouse. Clouds scudded and crows circled in the rich, evening sky.

John was a young man--old enough to look back at his past, yet still young enough to look ahead and not see what was coming. Maybe that's where he was driving to….what was coming: the future. He wasn't sure. He knew only that travel--even aimless travel--felt like progress, and that was what he wanted to feel right now. The wind tumbled in his tangled hair as it poured in through the rolled-down window, and the sun flashed in his keen, wayward eyes.

A ways down the road, sheltered beneath an oak hung with an old tire-swing, stood an old farmer selling produce. Shelves, baskets, and wheelbarrows overflowed with pumpkins, squash, yams, and corn--the bounty of the fall harvest. Evidently the horn of plenty had been full this year for the venerable farmer.

John would have taken no notice of the old farmer and driven right past him--had the old man not just spilled a basket of pumpkins right across the road. He punished the brake pedal, skidding to a gritty stop hardly a yard before the pumpkin avalanche. The thud of his heart mingled with the heavy rolling of the pumpkins. His lungs sucked in air, thick with tire-thrown dust. He coughed, and a sudden sweat of adrenaline iced his brows.     
The sooner the road was cleared, the faster he could be on his way. John pulled over to help.

"Dear me," said the old farmer in a high, croaking voice. "Clumsy, I'ma gettin'." He was hunched over as he gathered up several small pumpkins from the dirt, though not from the weight of them; they weren't heavy. His hair was a wheat field with a circle harvested out of the middle of it, and his face, the weathered side of a wheelbarrow. Surely his clothes were lent him by a scarecrow.

"Here, let me help," said John, stepping out of his truck. He gathered up the remaining pumpkins with ease and put them back in the righted wicker basket.

"Thank yeh, young man," said the old farmer.

John turned briskly to go on his way, but a surprisingly firm hand caught him by the arm.

"In such a hurry, young man?" said the old farmer. "Hurryin' only hurries yeh tuh the grave.  Stay an' chat awhile with a lonesome ol' man. And let's have sumthin' nice fur yer kindness."

"It was really nothing," said John. "Happy to do it."

"Oh, but it was!" protested the old farmer. "Hurts my back tuh be hunchin' over aftuh spilt pumpkins. Please, young man, I'd like yeh tuh try sum o' my corn--free o' charge. 'S the best around, I promise yeh that."

John noticed that he was really quite hungry; so the old farmer's offer was a tempting one. He hadn't seen a restaurant--let alone a building that wasn't a dilapidated farmhouse--for miles, and here was free food!

He accepted.

" 'Course, we'll need tuh cook it first," said the old farmer, lighting a fire pit beside his stand.  "Butter it up nice, too. That way the pepper'll stick real good-like." He hung two ears of corn over the lighted kindling.

Butter and pepper, thought John. Even better. He and the old farmer sat on upturned vegetable crates, warming their hands while the flames licked at their corn. John reflected that for the first time in many months, sitting beside this fire, with its promise of warm food, and even with this unlikely company, he was content. The revelation settled like a feather in his being as he watched the lanterns of evening begin to wink in the vast, darkening heavens. In this cozy little moment in time, not even the cold pincers of the moon, with their melancholic venom, could poison him.

"So where yeh headed tuh, young man?" asked the old farmer.

"Nowhere in particular."

"Nowhere, eh? Well, this'll be the place."

"Yeah, I guess it is. I'm a little surprised to have met another human being out here."

"Well, ye'll find all sort o' unexpected things in the middle o' nowhere." An odd smile flitted across the tan, white-whiskered face. "It's ready."

The old farmer took their corn behind his stand and buttered and seasoned it as promised.

John's ear of corn was fat and plump--very, very healthy looking. Its well-nourished yellow hue was nicely browned by the fire. It was delicious--the best corn John ever had. And yet, under the butter and pepper, did something taste slightly off?

If it did, John didn't care; his stomach burned and hollered for food. He dug in, making a buttery mess of his hands and face. The juicy kernels warmed his insides as they went down.

Having, like a tornado, devoured every last corn kernel from its patch on the cob, John rose stiffly to leave and thanked the old farmer.

"That was delicious, sir. The best I ever had. But I've really got to be on my way." He took a tentative step backward.

"No, no," crooned the old farmer. "The fire's warm, an' I'ma lonesome ol' man. Please, young man, stay a little longer?"

His aged face looked old and pitiful in the soft light of the fire. The shadows played on his deep-lined cheeks and forehead in such a way as to pluck at John's heart-strings; the old farmer reminded him of a grandfather he had been fond of that had passed away not long ago.

John realized that his legs felt cramped--probably from driving all day. Standing there, indecisive, he bent wearily downward, stretching and massaging his legs. Perhaps he could keep the old man company for just a bit longer. He would lighten the farmer's burden of loneliness just long enough for the fire to melt some of the fatigue from his heavy limbs. 

"I suppose I could stay on just a bit," said John, slumping back down upon his makeshift seat.

The old farmer's blue eyes sparkled with joy. "That's a good lad!" He rubbed his withered and callused hands together with a sound like rubbing corn husks.

John put his legs close to the fire, letting the warmth creep in to relax his muscles. "So--do you do this for a living?" he asked, making small-talk. "Awful weird time and place to be selling a product--just saying." 

It was now full dark, and not a trace of another human being could be seen anywhere. A crow cawed desolately in the distance. A strange wind hissed in the wall of cornstalks across the road, sounding eerily mingled with whispering voices.

"Aye," said the old farmer. "An' I s'pose it is a right curious place an' time fur business. Course, it was different when my whiskers weren't yet so white as they are--before they built that ugly interstate highway oe'r yonder, an' this here little road was the only one what could take yeh through this country. Used tuh be, peopl'd come from all around tuh buy my corn--I'm right famous fur it--an' the kids'd be swingin' on the ol' tire there."          

John's eyes followed the arthritic finger to the tire-swing. It hung pendulous and empty, creaking as it twisted slowly back and forth, with none but the wind and firelight to ride it. For an instant, John saw a bright-faced young boy laughing as he swung on the tire, his parents smiling as they watched. But just as soon as they had appeared the tire went still again, and they were gone.           

"Doesn't anyone come around anymore?" asked John, heavily under the spell of the old farmer's past.

"Naw, not so much, lad," sighed the old farmer like a bellows into the fire. "Most o' the folk in these parts moved on. Died--or went tuh the city. I guess them folks wanted tuh buy their corn at a store, 'stead of visitin' this old farmer. Nowadays," he continued softly, slowly swiveling his frailly supported head to point his ancient face at John, "it's mostly only them come around that get a little--lost." His head swung back into position like a door on rusty hinges. He peered deeply into the fire, perhaps divining some vision in the glaring embers and lurid flame. 

"That's too bad," said John. His legs, he noticed, felt even stiffer than before, pulling him into the shallows of his nostalgic reverie. He massaged them vigorously, glad that he hadn't rushed off to confine himself to his truck on this dark back road. He realized that for the moment, at least, he was glad to be sitting by the fire, listening to the stories of this kindly old man. "I'll buy some of your corn before I go."

"Will you?" The old farmer's face lit up strangely--longingly, for some lost chapter of his life. "You'd be makin' an' ol' farmer feel proud agin, proud o' what he works so hard fur."

John wondered if he would be the old farmer's only customer for the rest of the season. Perhaps no one, save the cornstalks pressing close across the road, would line up to buy his corn this year, and no parents would bring their children to swing on the tire-swing. Probably all of his vegetables, save for whatever John took away with him, would rot and be picked over by the crows.

Sitting there, John found the road beginning to lure his gaze from the fire. Though it stretched off interminably through dark, moon-haunted fields, the future lie down it. His future. And it waited only for him to go to it. Besides, It was getting late, and there might not be an inn for a hundred miles--or more; he had no idea where this quaint country road would lead him. The old farmer had provided food, and he had gratefully accepted it--but the old man, for all his friendliness and stories, could not provide shelter.

John rose stiffly, with some effort, and determined now to leave the forlorn old farmer and his corn. "I've really enjoyed your company, sir, and the corn was delicious--the best I ever had. But now I really must be going. It's late, you see, and there might not be another inn for a hundred miles. I'd sleep in my truck, but my legs are really quite stiff, and I'd like to sleep it off in a proper bed."

The old farmer protested, as John knew he would. "Leg cramps, eh? Wouldn't yeh like tuh wait jus' a bit longer, by the fire--jus' until yer legs feel a bit better? Warm 'em by the fire, an' I promise they'll feel better 'fore long."

No, thought John. I've been here much too long, and I must be getting on my way.... But there's sense in the old farmer's words.... Just a bit longer… .just a bit longer....

"Just until they--feel a little better," John agreed at last. "Then I'll take some of your corn--off with me, have people--try it, tell everyone I meet to--come and buy some." Why was he short of breath?--tired, that's all.

The old farmer's face shone through the fire with an infantile delight, his blue eyes widening with joy, his mouth wrought with silent laughter. 

John thought he heard him murmur, "But it's too late," into the fire. What's too late? he wondered. But he decided to let the old man be alone in the warm silence of his memories.  Oddly, John's legs still did not feel any better; and now even his arms were starting to cramp.

"Corn," chuckled the old man, slack-jawed, showing teeth like a picket fence missing half its planks. "Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn.... Funny story 'bout corn: one year, sum corn stalks sprouted up in the community graveyard, jus' beside my field, right where someone'd jus' been buried. Seeds mustha' blew over on the wind or somethin'. They was the healthiest, juiciest corn I ever saw. That's how I learned it."

The question "Learned what?" quivered on John's lips, but he could not ask it. A vague sickening feeling was stirring up deep inside him, uncoiling like a waking serpent. Sweat bloomed uninvited from his pores. For some reason it was difficult to speak--and to breath.

"Bodies," chuckled the old farmer, answering the unvoiced question.

John's cramps were growing even more painful. He clutched helplessly at his chest, which rose and fell in a frantic, crazy tide. His pulse hammered chaotically against his uneven breathing.

"Bodies," repeated the old farmer, lost in the fire, his chest jumping with short bursts of juvenile laughter. "Fresh ones. They makes the best fertilizer!"

John felt violently ill. The corn festered in his tightening stomach like the rotting human flesh it had been nourished on. Visions of cannibalistic horror racked his panicked mind; pain and stiffness racked his chest and limbs harder still.

"But there weren't enough folks bein' buried there," continued the old farmer, "on account o' that fancy interstate. Made everyone forget about this here road an' everythin' on it...the ol' buryin' corn...." 

He hesitated, his eyes twinkling with flame; and his face contorted demoniacally, yet with a bizarre touch of youthful innocence. In the throes of his gasping and spasming, John was nearly oblivious to the farmer's words as he continued, "So I had tuh git my own bodies. I'd git 'em fresh, like fresh-picked corn. It was easy...."

Clenching his teeth, squeezing every last drop of will out of his rioting muscles, John bent over the vegetable crate, grasped it with shaking hands, and pushed. The night spun around him.  Stars and fire flashed. Somehow he found himself in a standing position, but he was tottering on legs that felt like numb stilts. He staggered for his truck, breathing heavy; he collapsed at the door, his hand clutching the handle as he slumped down. 

The old farmer never lifted his gaze from the blazing fire as he continued his confession. The chuckling, crackling voice of the flames, like a demon priest, bade him continue; but without promise of absolution.         

"I'd do it late, in the evenin', jus' 'fore dark," the old farmer went on, speaking in low, measured tones. "I'd spill a basket o' pumpkins across the road, make 'em git out o' their trucks. It was easy..."

With a final burst of adrenaline, with fumbling fingers and twitching arms, John half crawled, half pulled himself up into the truck. For a moment, the pang of unutterable horror charged his limbs enough to allow them bursts of half-controlled jerking motions. With a desperate effort, slicing several crazy scratches in the dashboard with the key, he started the ignition. But even as the vehicle roared to life, John's own engine sputtered and stalled. His hands, with a sweaty squeal, slid down the side of the steering wheel. The headlights disappeared into the endless corn. 

"I'd have 'em try some o' my famous corn, stay an' chat awhile, 'till it started workin'. Just one drop, an' within the hour, they'd be limp as the snakes whose heads I cut off tuh git the poison from. Course, they didn't know it wer poison! It was easy..."

John fell sideways across the passenger seat, the stick-shift sticking painfully in his side. His lungs were constricting, and he could scarcely twitch his arms or legs. His head hung backward over the passenger seat. His panic-widened eyes stared upside-down at a horribly warped version of the kindly, innocent old man that had somehow reminded him of his late grandfather. Beside his lungs--which were fast constricting under the influence of the snake venom--his eyes were all he could move now. All the movement in his very being burst out through the frantically darting twitches of his eyes. His heart beat erratically.

"I'd jus' put em' in the wheelbarrow, roll 'em right out into the field. Put 'em in the hole what I had dug fur 'em, still awake, still breathin', still fresh. It was easy...."

The lurid firelight played sinisterly on the old farmer's face, on the empty tire-swing, and on the shelves of corpse-nourished corn. He rose from the fire, a demon from the mouth of Hell, and approached John's paralyzed body as it lie slumped across the front seats of his truck, its engine roaring wildly into the night. The nerve-toxin had immobilized him completely.

With preternatural strength, the old farmer gripped John under his limp arms and dragged him from his truck. Dirt collected in the back of John’s shoes as he was pulled, plow-like, across the ground.

John felt himself being slumped rag-doll-like into a wheelbarrow. He saw the wall of the cornfield moving closer, livid, under the voyeuristic moon. It enveloped him. Swallowed him alive. The leaves on the cornstalks felt greedily over him, caressing his face, his side, his legs, his chest.... The hideously overgrown stalks quivered in the wind--with the countless lives of those wholay buried beneath them.

The last thing John ever saw was the corn, leering down at him as the chuckling farmer shoveled damp dirt over his face.

K. A. Opperman (whose full name he will not publicly disclose for fear that certain malign sorcerers will use it in spells against him) is a 23 year old fiction writer and poet living in Anaheim, California. He specializes in the horrifying, the fantastic, and the strange--'weird fiction' is the usual umbrella term. His influences are many: some of them are H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, and Arthur Machen. Among them, he worships Lovecraft and Smith as gods. (If you do not know who Clark Ashton Smith is--find out! "The Double Shadow," easily found on the net--albeit with occasional annoying errors--is a good story to start with. If you are very lazy, even just reading the first paragraph is a treat!)

His most noteworthy accomplishment as a writer thus far was having a ghost story accepted into the paying print anthology "Ghostology: Hauntings from the Library," which will be available from The Library of Horror press, an imprint of The Library of the Living Dead. It will come out--sometime. Aside from this, he has had a small smattering of stories and poems published around the internet, mostly at The Absent Willow Review, Dark Fire Fiction, and now--The Horror Zine!

While he is not shading in the shadows of a weird story, or polishing the often antique and exotic lines of a poem, he passes the idle hours by plucking interminable improvised melodies from his acoustic guitar, in a style he calls 'neo-medieval jazz.' He also has a strange obsession with finding and identifying various types of macrofungi--mushrooms, to the layperson. While he's throwing out the bizarre facts, he might as well also mention that he has been a vegetarian for seven years, and is borderline morbidly obsessed with increasing his vocabulary--particularly with obscure and 'obsolete' words; though he has enough sense to be careful about how many of these he sprinkles into his fiction!

He also greatly enjoys corresponding with like-minded writers. If you are a poet of the dark, the strange, and the fantastic, or a writer of 'weird' fiction, or you simply enjoyed his story (not this one, the one to the left), he would love to hear from you!