“When the leaves turn brown and the pumpkins grin,
And the trick-or-treaters knock and say, let me in,
Hide your cats and your dogs, whether big or small,
‘Cuz Pris-killa is coming to slay us all.”
Priscila Teasdale listened to the children sing their song as they skipped through the Gourd Falls Farm pumpkin patch, and raised a sickle in one catcher’s mitt-sized hand. In the other, she steadied a massive pumpkin, its stem thick as a man’s forearm and connected to a substantial length of vine. She tried to steady her thoughts, but this wasn’t as easy as controlling the gargantuan squash. She folded her six-foot frame at the waist, raised the blade with expert precision, and brought it down with a crack.
That’s a new one, she thought with regard to the catchy rhyme. Was it Stu, or one of his little girlfriends, that had come up with it? She didn’t ponder the question long. People were always saying things as if she wasn’t right there to hear them, forcing Priscila to conclude that she was as worthy of being seen as a street sign for a road that had washed away with last year’s rains.
Of course I’m harboring skeletons in my closet. She readied another pumpkin—this one the size of a large dog—for liberation from its snaking vine. Any woman who looks like me must have her share of skeletons, figurative or otherwise.
For a moment, the velvety feel of the vine against her fingers reminded her of the dogs, their prickly muzzles caressing her palm. She shook her head, dispelling the corporeal memory, and focused on the present.
She brought the sickle down, only to look up and find Nathan Hitcher staring at the dilapidated barn her crew would soon convert into a labyrinth of cotton spider webs and self-playing organs. He caught her eye before she could return to her task, and gestured for her to join him.
“Mornin’,” he said.
Priscila tipped an imaginary hat.
“How’re the preparations comin’?”
“Good, good.” Nathan unscrewed an empty water bottle, spit a wad of chewing tobacco into it, and tossed it into a nearby wheelbarrow. “You’ve worked for my father for how long now?”
“Ten years.” What she didn’t say, was that it had been ten years since she’d walked out of her eleventh grade gym class and kept on walking. Walked despite the icy December air until she’d seen the sign for Seasonal Help Wanted; walked down the dirt path, into Hitcher’s office, and right into the position of Holiday Associate. She was chopping down Christmas trees and hauling them onto the main lot before the bell would have rung for final period.
Nathan sighed. “Every October, the fate of the farm is in the hands of a bunch of idiots I wouldn’t trust with a potato gun. Until now, my father has been on the scene. But this year…” He squinted in the sun.
Priscila, too, shut her eyes against the glare. She saw the black void of those sleepless nights in the weeks after Hitcher had announced the grand opening of the farm’s first annual Haunted House and Corn Maze, four years prior, nights she’d watched her inevitable departure from a Gourd Falls Farm that no longer needed her as clearly as if her ceiling had morphed into a movie screen. But she’d made herself useful, mowing the mile-long path through the cornfield and installing the stage sets for the maze’s main stops, and was tickled pink as the farm’s newborn pigs when Hitcher had appointed her head of the haunted construction crew.
“I know you’re quiet,” Nathan said, “and I know why you like to keep to yourself, but I have no idea what I’m doing, and I can’t let my father down. He may be sick, but it’ll kill him if I blow Halloween.” He wrung his hands, unblemished by the callouses that marred his father’s.
Priscila bit her lower lip hard, keeping the excitement from reshaping her mouth into a smile. She was unable to prevent the warm, butterfly wings of acceptance from beating against the walls of her heart.
“I need your experience if something goes wrong. Remember last year, when those hooligans set a cornstalk on fire? And those kids that hid on the property after we closed and decked the cornfield with a twenty-four pack of toilet paper rolls?”
Of course I remember. Priscila recalled the magazine-pretty girls who would pass through, their Adonisian boyfriends feigning boredom as actors with chainsaws and scythe-brandishing grim reapers menaced them, hiding sweaty hands in letter jacket pockets. Maybe someday I’ll have someone to walk through the maze with.
“I want to station you in the cornfield. You’d have a main base, but your primary responsibility would be to oversee the maze as a whole, so I’d want you to, well, essentially to walk the path.”
Nathan put a hand on her arm and looked at her until she met his gaze. “You wouldn’t have to interact with the guests. I mean that. You can yell or wave your arms to spook ‘em when they walk by. And you’d have to be in costume. But like I said, it’s just to make sure there’s no funny business and that everyone gets through this season unscathed, the farm included.” Nathan’s eyebrows furrowed with uncertainty. “It’s just an idea. If you’re not up for it, you can tell me. What do you think?”
Priscila hesitated, and Nathan quickly continued, “Look, I know what people say about you. So if you’re unsure because—”
“You mean if I’m unsure because they say that my farmhouse is a dead ringer for the one from the Texas Chainsaw movies? Or because people can’t decide if I’m a serial killer with dead bodies to hide or a child molester with stacks of pornography?”
Nathan flinched. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to suggest that the things people say shouldn’t bother you. It’s just that, well, what I’m trying to say is… everyone knows that it was parvo that killed your dogs, not you. You have to stop beating yourself up. Who could have known it would spread so fast?”
While Nathan stammered, Priscila remembered the feel of her arms wrapped around the neck of her last, beloved dog. But I did kill one of them, she thought. At least, I think I did…
After the contagion had left her with a single surviving female, Priscila had grown ill herself. One morning, having missed a week of work, delirious and roiling in fever-soaked sheets, she awoke on the floor on top of the motionless animal, the flies buzzing mercilessly. She hadn’t been sure if the dog had been sick after all or if she had smothered the pitiable thing in the night.
Priscila shook the thought away, recalling instead the way kindly old Mr. Hitcher had given her a job all those years ago with hardly a question asked. This, coupled with the way Nathan had sought her out, the way he was, despite his obliviousness to the abuse she regularly endured, really seeing her…
Priscila felt needed for the first time since the dogs. She replied, “Whatever you need me to do.”
Nathan still looked tentative. “Are you sure? I need you to be really sure. I don’t want you to feel like you’re taking on too much responsibility. Not after—”
“I can do it.”
Nathan grinned, and pumped his fist. “Great. We’ll make this work, Priscila. I know we will.”
Priscila blushed and studied her dust-coated hands. In the wake of her excitement, the tune of the Pris-killa ditty faded from her mind.
The rest of the day was experienced in high-definition for all her private glee. After Priscila reshaped the path through the cornfield, she steered toward the storage shed to return the John Deere. As she exited the shed’s side door, she collided head-on with a short, dark-haired man.
She refrained from reaching out to right him, and was relieved when the man found his footing himself. Priscila waited for him to curse and hurl accusations, but when she looked up, the man—out of place in the dust and hayseed in his button-down shirt and shiny shoes—was smiling.
“I think I’m lost,” he said sheepishly. “I wanted to buy tickets for the maze thing this weekend for me and my friends.”
Priscila averted her eyes from that smile. Friends was not a word to which she could lay claim.
The man shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Can you point me in the direction of the ticket counter?”
Priscila froze. Would a normal person speak the words? Or should I walk him to the farm stand? Do I want to be that visible for such a prolonged period of time?
Them’s just people, she heard the voice of Mr. Hitcher say. No sense bein’ a’scared of ‘em. Ask ‘em their name and figure out how to give ‘em what they want.
“What’s your name?” she managed.
He reached out to shake her hand, but Priscila pretended she hadn’t seen, and was moving quickly toward the shop. “It’s right this way,” she whispered.
When she’d made it to the barn that functioned as both ticket counter and gift shop, she exhaled an audible sigh of relief.
Mike turned and gestured toward the barn. “Thanks. I could get lost in a paper bag. Of course my buddies sent me to get the tickets, when I’m the only one that hasn’t been here before. Will you be here on Opening Night?”
“Yes. Overseeing the maze.” The words felt foreign on her tongue, but sweet too, like candy corn.
“Awesome, maybe I’ll see you Sunday night. Thanks again.” This time his smile was wide enough for Priscila to notice dimples in both cheeks. He pushed open the door, and disappeared.
“Awesome,” Priscila whispered to herself. Her scalp tingled. A strange giddiness flooded her insides.
At five, she crossed the dusty parking lot, tired, but content. The foliage seemed to transcend mere oranges and yellows in its brilliance, and the laughter of the other farm workers bothered her not. What an odd feeling, she thought. Contentment.