Scott Nicholson

The March Special Guest Writer is Scott Nicholson

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scott nicholson

by Scott Nicholson

The sun raised a sleepy eye over the north Georgia hills. Short-leafed pines shivered here and there in the breeze, surrounded by the black bones of oak. Ground mist rose and waltzed away from the light. A stream cut a silver gash in the belly of the valley on its way to the Chattahoochee, the only thing in a hurry on the late-autumn morning. Inside a warped barn, the scarecrow boy rose from its dreams of brown fields and barbwire.

Jerp rubbed his eyes to wipe away the glare of dawn as he walked with his grandpa to the barn. The grass crunched under his boots and his breath painted the thick vapor in the air. A banty rooster bugled a reveille. Wrens fluttered from under the tin eaves of the barn, on their way to scratch earthworms from the hard ground. The sky was ribbed with clouds, a thin threat of snow.

Jerp glanced at the second-story windows of the barn. No scarecrow boy yet. But Jerp knew it was in there somewhere, flitting between cracks with a sound like dry paper crumpling. But maybe it only came alive at night, when the darkness kissed its moon-white face.

"Quit your daydreaming, boy. Got chores to do." Grandpa roped a stream of tobacco juice onto the ground. Steam drifted from his spit and he shifted the bucket from one gloved hand to the other.

Jerp wanted to tell Grandpa again about the scarecrow boy. About how it smiled at him when he was alone in the barn, how it danced from its nail on the wall, swinging its ragged limbs as if caught in a December crosswind. About how Jerp got the feeling that the scarecrow boy wanted something, a thing that only Jerp could give it. But Grandpa would say, "Got no time for such foolishness."

Grandpa held open the barnyard gate and waited until Jerp followed him inside, then closed the gate as carefully as if he were performing a ritual.

"Always close up behind you. We do things right around here." Those were the same words he had said every morning and night when they came down to do chores.

Grandpa passed the bucket to Jerp and removed his gloves. Jerp watched as the big-knuckled hands slammed the hasp into place. The noise echoed across the hill, maybe waking the scarecrow boy.

The milk pail banged against Jerp's knee as he followed Grandpa across the barnyard. A sow grunted under her breath in one of the side pens, mistaking the sound for the arrival of the slop bucket. She rolled over in the marsh of her own waste and glared at Jerp. Jerp wasn't scared of her. He was more worried about the scarecrow boy who would be waiting in rafters or cribs or dark corners for Jerp to step within reach.

Jerp followed Grandpa to the front of the barn. Its rough gray planks were split from decades of harsh weather and ten-penny nail heads stuck out like little brown eyes. Grandpa slid open the heavy door, which hung from wheels that rolled across a steel track overhead. They ducked under the oily ropes that had been dipped in chemicals and stretched across the barn opening. The horse and cows liked to rub their backs against the ropes and the chemicals were supposed to keep the flies away, but the flies were like the sun, reliable and stubborn.

"Gonna be a real corker of a day, Jerp." Grandpa crinkled his eyes, the closest he ever came to smiling. "Maybe we can get some work done around here."

"Yes, sir," Jerp said, checking the barn windows once more for any sign of the scarecrow boy. The windows were empty.

The barn air smelled of hay and dust, manure and animal hair. The cows mooed from their stalls, in a dull hurry to be turned out. Grandpa took a three-legged stool down from the wall and carried it to the milk cow's stall. He sat on the stool and reached underneath the cow and began tugging up and down as if picking fruit. Jerp held the pail so that the cow couldn't kick it over, watching the shadows for the scarecrow boy until at last the pail was full.

"Fetch some ears of corn for the chickens, and I'll meet you back at the house," Grandpa said. He was going to leave Jerp alone in the barn. No, not quite alone.

"But what about—" Jerp knew he was going to sound like a whimpering little city boy. He gulped and finished, "What about breakfast?"

"We see to the animals first. You know that." Grandpa juddered his head as he drew up to spit again. Jerp nodded and turned, walking to the corncrib with feet as heavy as International Harvesters. He heard Grandpa teasing the sow out in the barnyard. Jerp put a trembling hand on the latch.

He turned the latch and the door creaked open. Rats and their shadows scurried for the corners, their rustling making them sound as big as bobcats. He looked under the stairs that led to the hayloft, searching the darkness for movement. At first he saw only rotted pieces of harness and a broken cross-saw blade, its teeth reddened with age. Then he saw the scarecrow sitting among the sun-bleached husks. A smile stitched itself across the faded face. The scarecrow was looking at Jerp as if one of them was a mirror, with eyes as flat as old coins.

It was the boy in the barn, the one he had tried to tell Grandpa about. The one he had seen many times from his bedroom window, through the fog his breath had made on the glass. The scarecrow boy that had swayed like a sheet on a clothesline, its skin glowing sickly in the dark loft. The scarecrow boy that had stared from the barn window as if knowing it was being watched. The scarecrow boy that looked as if it were waiting.

But it's not real, Jerp told himself as he reached down to the grooved skin of the corn husks. The scarecrow boy is not there if you don't see it.

Jerp tried not to look under the stairs, even though the sweat was coming now and his eyes strained toward the corners of their sockets and the sunlight wasn't pouring fast enough through the cracks between the siding planks.

Had it moved? No, it was only a pile of old crumbling rags. Rotten cloth and straw never hurt nobody, just like Grandpa had said. Even though Jerp had seen the scythe of its smile. He gathered an armful of corn to his chest and ducked back, slamming the crib door shut with his foot and elbowing the latch into place.

Jerp's heart hammered in his ears as he shucked the corn and rubbed the grains loose with his thumbs. The kernels fell like golden teeth, and the chickens gathered around his feet, pecking at the grommets of his boots. He was trying to tell himself he hadn't seen the boy in the barn. That the scarecrow boy wasn't wearing a ragged flannel shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. It didn't have skin as white as raw milk and eyes that glimmered with a hunger that even biscuits and hamfat gravy wouldn't ease, nor was its hair as black as a crow nor its teeth as green as stained copper. It hadn't sat there through the frozen night, chattering until whatever served as its bones worked themselves loose.

It had to be a straw puppet, tossed in the corner until growing season. Only weeds and fabric. Only a scarecrow. But Grandpa didn't use scarecrows.

"Scarecrows are for the birds," Grandpa had said. He used pie pans on strings and shotgun blasts and bait laced with battery acid to drive away the magpies and crows. He said every scarecrow he'd ever put out had been covered in droppings by the end of the afternoon. As far as Grandpa was concerned, all a scarecrow did was provide a shady picnic area for the little thieves.

Jerp wasn't going to think about the scarecrow boy in the barn. He had more chores to do, and he didn't want Grandpa to give him the look, the one where he raised one white eyebrow and furrowed his forehead and twitched the corner of his mouth a little. It was a look of disappointment, his wordless way of saying Jerp, you've come up short, can't cut the mustard, maybe you really oughta be in Atlanta with your parents, where you can be just another big-city sissy and everybody can call you "Jerald."

Jerp would rather run through a barn full of thin, silent scarecrow boys than to have Grandpa give him the look.

So Jerp pretended to forget the scarecrow boy as he curried the mare and turned it out for the day, then gathered the eggs that the game hens had squirreled away in their dusty nests. He checked on the two boars to see if they had enough water and dumped a bucketful of mashed grain and sorghum into their trough. Grandpa didn't name any of the animals. He said he didn't think it was right that people gave names to things that they were going to eat.

"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," Grandpa had said, without bothering to explain what that meant. Jerp thought that maybe he meant everything died just the same.

Death was part of life on the farm. Thanksgiving brought a blessing to all but the turkey. Hens who went barren because their eggs were stolen soon steamed on the table, stunted legs in the air. Hogs and cattle found a hundred different uses in the kitchen, baked, broiled, fried, or barbecued.

"God bless this bounty on our table," Grandpa said before each meal. Jerp thought maybe he should do the prayers while the animals were still alive. The way he had done for Grandma.

Jerp had peeked once during the dinner prayer, and saw Grandpa looking out the window to the barn at the same moment he added the part that went, "And, please, dear Lord, spare us from evil."

Jerp shivered with the memory of that word, evil, and the way Grandpa's voice had cracked just a little as he said it. Jerp put away the currying brush and feed bucket, but the chill continued down his spine. Because he heard a soughing, scratchy sound from the hayloft above. He looked up just as a few strands of straw fell through the cracks in the floorboards. He hurried out of the barn, careful to latch the gate just as he had promised Grandma before she died.

Jerp had sat with her one night, when her spark of life was fading rapidly. She looked at him with burning, fevered eyes, looked past and through him to the window, to the long shadows of the barn.

"There’s a season for ever thing," she had gurgled. “The gate...”

Jerp thought she meant the Pearly Gates. He waited for her to say more. But she closed her eyes to the lamplight and slept.

Now Grandma was dead but the scarecrow boy was alive. Last year's piglet had grown plump and earned its place in the kitchen while the scarecrow boy still had its own moldy bristles. The cornfield was a dry graveyard, with not a morsel for the birds to scavenge, but the scarecrow boy still played silent sentinel. In seasons of change, seasons of slaughter, seasons of harvest, the scarecrow boy had patiently held its ground.

As Jerp reached the farmhouse at the top of a slight rise of meadow, Jerp turned and looked back at the barn. It sagged silently to one side, making a crooked face. The two loading bays of the loft were deep eyes and the barn entrance was a hungry mouth with a hay-strewn tongue and stall-posts for teeth. In a high lonely window, Jerp saw the scarecrow boy staring back at him through the chickenwire screen. Jerp's heart clenched as he went inside the farmhouse.

Grandpa was pouring milk into a gallon glass jar so he could tell when the cream was separated.

"Grandpa, do barns have souls?" Jerp asked. Skyscrapers didn't have souls, airports didn't have souls, but maybe barns were different.

Grandpa turned and gave a look that wasn't the look, but it was a look that could be its cousin, one that said I swear to Thee, what'll you think of next? A boy who dawdles in daydreams ain't much good on a farm.

"Barns have animals and haybales and feedbags and potato barrels and a mighty load of cow patties. But I don't know about souls. That's for them who breathe on God's green earth, and them that's gone on to heaven," Grandpa said, his voice as smoky as a brushfire in an orchard.

"Don't animals go to heaven, too? And if they do, won't God need barns to put them in when the nights get cold? And won't God need somebody to watch over the livestock and the gardens?"

Grandpa finished straining the milk through cheesecloth and screwed the lid tight on the jar. "No need for food where people don't need to eat, Jerp. Up there, the Lord provides. Here, we have to help ourselves."

He said it in a way that Jerp thought meant No wonder you couldn't stay out of trouble back home, what with these kinds of darn-fool notions. But he only added, "Now, how about some scrambled eggs before we work up some tobacco?"

They had a filling breakfast, then went back to the barn. Grandpa opened the door to the corncrib and started up the stairs. Jerp peeked in from the doorway, hoping that Grandpa had seen the scarecrow boy while at the same time hoping the scarecrow boy didn't really exist. Daylight was now breaking through the window and flooding the corncrib, and a thousand specks of dust were spinning in the air. Then Jerp remembered that the scarecrow boy had been upstairs, where Grandpa was now. Jerp heard Grandpa's boots moving across the hayloft floor, causing needles of hay to fall to the packed ground below. Jerp held his breath and hurried up the stairs.

One side of the loft was filled with dried tobacco stalks, speared on poles and hung upside down. The smell of the burley leaf was heady and sweet. Grandpa sat at the makeshift workbench he had made from a piece of plywood and two haybales. He pulled the lower leaves from one of the stalks until he had as much as his hand could hold, then wound a leaf around one end until the tobacco fanned out like a peacock's tail. He tossed the tied bundle into a wide basket, continuing the routine that had occupied them for the past week.

"Tops for cigarettes, bottoms for cigars," Grandpa said, motioning for Jerp to sit down. They bundled in silence for a while, the air around them thick as snuff. When they finished the pile, Jerp went to take another pole from the rack. Each pole held about ten stalks of tobacco and had been too heavy for Jerp to lift back when the leaves were green and sticky and full of grasshoppers. But now the stalks had dried and Jerp could lift them by reaching from his tiptoes and sliding until the pole fell down into his arms.

Jerp put his hands between a row of stalks and parted them like curtains, trying to see how much more they had to do before they could load up the bed of the red Chevy truck and drive to the warehouse in town. His hands were already cracked and rough and his fingers ached. He looked down the long rows that meant days’ more work. Something crackled among the brown leaves. The scarecrow boy was standing among the stalks, staring at Jerp with eyes as dark and unreflecting as tobacco juice.

Jerp froze, his hands gripping two stalks as if they were prison bars. The scarecrow boy didn't say a word, but its mouth turned up in a smile, stretching its pale skin even tighter across the limp bones of its face. It motioned for Jerp to step forward, slowly waving one flanneled arm. The scarecrow boy's fingers wiggled stiffly, like white artificial worms.

Jerp could only shake his head back and forth. His throat felt like a boar's head had been shoved in it. He sucked for air and drew only dust. Suddenly his limbs unlocked and he ran to Grandpa.

"What is it now, boy?" Grandpa said, and didn't say, but didn't have to, I thought you were finally learning how to work, finally getting some use out of those hands God gave you, hands you were wasting on piano keys and poetry and shoplifting, hands that couldn't make a tough enough fist to keep the bullies away.

Jerp said nothing, just looked at the knot-holed floor.

"We're wasting good daylight," Grandpa said, and Jerp heard between the words, They burn them lights twenty-four hours a day in the city, but out here we work at God's pace. Out here we ain't got time for made-up monsters and scary stories.Busy hands touch no evil.

Jerp swallowed a fistful of grainy air.

"Well, sit down and I'll get it myself," Grandpa said, and he really meant And this weekend, it's back to the fancy boarding school that my son spends a fortune on, the school where the teachers make too much money to complain about a no-account troublemaker like you. And from now on, you can eat ham that's wrapped in cellophane.

"No, Grandpa, I'll bring it," he burst out, hoping his voice didn't sound as airless as it felt. "I just wanted to let you know that we're almost finished and we'll soon get it to market."

Grandpa nearly smiled, showing the yellowed stumps of his few remaining teeth before he caught himself. "Good boy. What ye sow, so shall ye reap," he said, trying to quote from a book he had never learned to read.

Jerp went back among the tobacco and closed his eyes and hauled down a pole. He was carrying it to the workbench when suddenly he was hurtling into space.

He had fallen through one of the square holes that Grandpa used to toss hay down to the cattle. The pole was longer than the haychute and caught on the edges, bending like a bow but holding Jerp's weight.

He heard Grandpa yelling as if they were miles apart. He kicked his legs, trying to find purchase in the empty air. Crumbs of tobacco leaves trickled down the back of his shirt. His hands, toughened by a season in the fields, held onto the pole until his body stopped swaying.

"Hold on here, Jerp. You okay, boy?" Grandpa's voice came from somewhere above.

Jerp felt as if his arms had been ripped from his shoulder sockets, the way they had felt when he grabbed the electric fence to see how strong the shock was. He looked down at the barn floor fifteen feet below. The scarecrow boy was standing there, grinning like a turtle eating saw-briars even though its eyes were cold and dead.

"Lordamighty, it's a wonder you ain't broke your neck," Grandpa yelled. Boots drummed down the loft stairs, then the crib door banged shut. Then Grandpa was underneath him, telling him to let go. The scarecrow boy was gone.

Jerp relaxed his hands, and the balls of his feet drove into the dirt floor. Pain shot through his ankles. Grandpa caught him before he fell over.

"You sure you're okay?" Grandpa asked, holding Jerp's shoulders.

Jerp nodded numbly. Accidents happened on a farm. Timber fell on legs, snapping them like dry twigs. Horses kicked out blindly, causing concussions or worse. Plows and harrows sometimes turned more than red clay, sometimes making furrows in flesh and blood.

And accidents happened in the city. Gunmen drove by and filled the street with random hot lead. Drug dealers knifed rib cages because someone looked like someone else through angel-dusted eyes. Airliners sheared off rooftops and spread carnage like confetti. Misunderstood boys were labeled maladjusted and sent to juvenile hall where they learned nothing except how to be real criminals instead of amateurs.

"I'm sorry, Grandpa, I just lost my step," Jerp said as his wind returned. "I'm all right now. Let's get back to work."

Work was the answer. Work would keep evil away. Work would keep thoughts and daydreams and made-up monsters away. Work would make Grandpa happy.

"You sure?" Grandpa asked, and this time there was no threat in the words, only real concern and tenderness. Jerp nodded again and walked to the corncrib door, trying to hide his limp. They went back up to the loft and Grandpa lifted the pole that spanned the haychute.

He let out a liquid whistle and said, "Boy, lucky you fell just right. This thing mighta speared you like a frog on a gig."

The scarecrow boy could have made it happen that way, if it had wanted. But Jerp would work harder now.

They bundled tobacco the rest of the day, until the pile of sheaves was taller than Jerp. Grandpa complained about having a headache, and by the time they had cooked and eaten supper, the headache had turned into a fever. As night rose like a cliff made of coal, Jerp built a fire and Grandpa sat by the hearth, a shawl across his knees.

He looked miserable in his helplessness. "Jerp, I ain't up to doing chores tonight. You think you can handle them?" he said, his voice as chalky as his face.

"Sure, Grandpa." Jerp was anxious to make up for dropping that egg basket, forgetting to slop the hogs that day two weeks ago, and burning the cabbage bed by broadcasting too much fertilizer. "I know what to do."

"Don't forget to put up the cows."

Put up the cows. In the barn. With scarecrow boy riding herd.

"Something wrong, boy? You ain't afeared of the dark, are you?"

Dark wasn't bad. Dark was only black, suffocating stillness. Dark didn't walk. Dark didn't smile.

"No, of course you ain't. And remember to latch the gate when you're done," Grandpa said, his attention wandering back to the fire which reflected off his rheumy eyes.

Jerp put on his coat, his fingers shaking as he fumbled with the zipper. He took a flashlight from the ledge by the front door and went out into the night, under the black sky where stars were strewn like white jackstones. Crickets chirped across the low hills. Jerp's flashlight cut a weak circle in the darkness, and he followed the circle to the gate.

The cows had come in on their own, following the twitching tail of the mare who was smart enough to know where food and shelter could be found. They were milling outside the pen, rubbing against the split locust rails. Jerp walked through the herd, grateful for the warmth the animals radiated. He lifted the latch and they spilled into the barnyard, annoying the sow into a round of grunting. Jerp slid back the barn door and the animals tottered inside. So far, so good.

But now he had to go to the hayloft. Now he had to go through the corncrib and up the stairs and across the loft that was littered with square black holes. Now he had to meet the scarecrow boy on its home turf.

He almost turned and ran back up the hill to the light and safety of the farmhouse, almost let his legs betray him by becoming a whirling windmill of fear. But then he pictured Grandpa asking if all the animals were put up and fed and the chores done proper. And Jerp heard the words that Grandpa had been waiting to say.

I was hoping to leave this farm to you, to let you carry on the tradition that your father abandoned. I was hoping someday the soil would lay claim to you, because busy hands touch no evil. But if the dirt's not in you, you can't plant there.

Jerp squinted in the moonlight that spilled into the barn. He kicked a horse chip across the ground. He took a pitchfork from the wall and walked to the corncrib. He would be part of the farm, not a big-city sissy.

Jerp banged the wooden handle on the door to warn the rats and the scarecrow boy that he was coming and had work to do. Taking a deep taste of air, he slammed the door open so hard that the sweet potatoes rolled around in their bins. He ran up the steps with one hand clenched around the pitchfork.

The haybales were stacked like bricks on the far end of the loft. He tiptoed through the tobacco that hung like long sleeping bats, around the hole he had fallen through earlier, and past the workbench. He was among the hay now, walking down an aisle between the silent stacks. Jerp turned the corner and there was scarecrow boy, sitting on a bale and grinning at him, a straw jabbed between its teeth.

Jerp held the pitchfork in front of him. If the scarecrow boy was stuffed with straw, Jerp was ready to pierce its flesh and shred its muscles and rake its insides out. If the boy had a ragball heart, Jerp would make the heart stop beating. Jerp's own heart was racing like that of a crow that had eaten poisoned corn.

The scarecrow boy looked at Jerp with eyes that were beyond life, eyes that neither flinched nor twinkled in the flashlight's glare. Eyes that were as black as good bottom soil, black as manure. Eyes that had seen drought and flood, lush and fallow fields, harvests both meager and bountiful. Eyes that were seeds, begging to be planted and given a chance to take root, to grow and bloom and go to seed, to spread on the winds and in the bellies of birds, to propagate among the loess and loam and alluvial soils of the world.

"You've been waiting for me," Jerp said. "Always."

The scarecrow boy nodded, its head wobbling on its shoulders like an apple tied to a kite.

Suddenly Jerp knew whose farm this was. It had never been recorded on a deed down at the county seat, but some laws were unwritten and universal. Rights of ownership went to the possessor.

And Jerp belonged here, belonged to the farm and to the scarecrow boy.

The scarecrow boy spread its musty arms as if to hug Jerp. Jerp let the flashlight drop to the floor as the scarecrow boy rose like smoke and drifted through the tines of the pitchfork. Jerp tried to draw back, but he felt as if he had a splintery stake up his spine. His arms went limp and he itched, he itched, his hands were dusty and his mouth was dry. The pitchfork fell onto the planks, but the clatter was muffled, as if he were hearing it through layers of cloth. Jerp tried to stretch the threads of his neck, but he could only stare straight ahead at the boy in front of him.

At the boy with the smile that curved like a blackberry thorn. At the boy who had stolen his face and meat and white bones. At the boy who was wearing his scuffed lace-up boots. At the boy who was looking down at his hands—no, MY hands, his cobwebbed mind screamed—as if the hands were a new pair of work gloves that needed to be broken in.

Then Jerp knew. He had forgotten to latch the gate behind him. Even though Grandpa had told him a thousand times. But Jerp had been so afraid. It wasn't his fault, was it?

Jerp tried to open his mouth, to scream, to tell the boy to get out of his skin, but Jerp's tongue was an old sock. He strained to flap the rags of his arms, but he felt himself falling into the loose hay. He choked on the cotton and chaff and sweetly sick odor of his own dry-rot. And still he saw, with eyes that were tickled by tobacco dust and stung by tears that would never fall.

Jerp watched as the boy now wearing Jerp's clothes bent to lift the pitchfork. The boy tried out its stolen skin, stretched its face into new smiles. Then the boy who had borrowed Jerp's body stepped between the haybales and was gone. Minutes or years later, the barn door slid open.

Jerp tried his limbs and found they worked, but they were much too light and boneless. He dragged himself to the window and pressed his sawdust head against the chickenwire. Jerp looked out over the moist fields that would now and always beckon him, he listened to the breezes that would laugh till the cows came home, he sniffed the meadows that would haunt his endless days. He wondered how long it would be before the next season of change. Already he ached from waiting.

Jerp looked down into the barnyard and saw the boy who wore his flesh walking toward the farmhouse, the pitchfork glinting under the moon, perhaps on his way to punish someone who had shirked the evening chores.

The boy remembered to latch the gate.

Scott Nicholson is author of more than 30 thrillers and 70 short stories, including the Arize zombie series, The Red Church, and McFall. He is a Stoker Award finalist and winner of the Writers of the Future award. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His website is AuthorScottNicholson.com

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