The Companion

THE COMPANION

by Joe, Keith, and Kasey Jo Lansdale

 

They weren't biting.

Harold sat on the bank with his fishing pole and watched the clear creek water turn dark as the sunlight faded. He knew he should pack up and go. This wonderful fishing spot he'd heard about was a dud, but the idea of going home without at least one fish for supper was not a happy one. He had spent a large part of the day before bragging to his friends about what a fisherman he was. He could hear them now, laughing and joking as he talked about the big one that got away.

And worse yet, he was out of bait.

He had used his little camp shovel to dig around the edge of the bank for worms. But he hadn't turned up so much as a grub or a doodlebug.

The best course of action, other than pack his gear on his bike and ride home, was to cross the bank. It was less wooded over there, and the ground might be softer. On the other side of the creek, through a thinning row of trees, he could see an old farm field. There were dried stalks of broken-down corn and tall dried weeds the plain brown color of a cardboard box.

Harold looked at his watch. He decided he had just enough time to find some bait and maybe catch one fish. He picked up his camp shovel and found a narrow place in the creek to leap across. After walking through the trees and out into the huge field, he noticed a large and odd-looking scarecrow on a post. Beyond the scarecrow, some stretch away, surrounded by saplings and weeds, he saw what had once been a fine two-story farmhouse. Now it was not much more than an abandoned shell of broken glass and aging lumber.

As Harold approached the scarecrow, he was even more taken with its unusual appearance. It was dressed in a stove­pipe hat that was crunched and moth-eaten and leaned to one side. The body was constructed of hay, sticks and vines, and the face was made of some sort of cloth, perhaps an old towsack. It was dressed in a once-expensive evening jacket and pants. Its arms were outstretched on a pole, and poking out of its sleeves were fingers made of sticks.

From a distance, the eyes looked like empty sockets in a skull. When Harold stood close to the scarecrow, he was even more surprised to discover it had teeth. They were animal teeth, still in the jawbone, and someone had fitted them into the cloth face, giving the scarecrow a wolf-like countenance. Dark feathers had somehow gotten caught between the teeth.

But the most peculiar thing of all was found at the center of the scarecrow. Its black jacket hung open, its chest was torn apart, and Harold could see inside. He was startled to discover that there was a rib cage, and fastened to it by a cord was a large faded valentine heart. A long, thick stick was rammed directly through that heart.

The dirt beneath the scarecrow was soft, and Harold took his shovel and began to dig. As he did, he had a sensation of being watched. Then he saw a shadow, as if the scarecrow were nodding its head.

Harold glanced up and saw that the shadow was made by a large crow flying high overhead. The early rising moon had caught its shape and cast it on the ground. This gave Harold a sense of relief, but he realized that any plans to continue fishing were wasted. It was too late.

A grunting noise behind him caused him to jump up, leaving his camp shovel in the dirt. He grabbed at the first weapon he saw — the stick jammed through the scarecrow. He jerked it free and saw the source of the noise — a wild East Texas boar. A dangerous animal indeed.

It was a big one. Black and angry-looking, with eyes that caught the moonlight and burned back at him like coals. The beast's tusks shone like wet knives, and Harold knew those tusks could tear him apart as easily as he might rip wet construction paper with his hands.

The boar turned its head from side to side and snorted, taking in the boy's smell. Harold tried to maintain his ground. But then the moonlight shifted in the boar's eyes and made them seem even brighter than before. Harold panicked and began running toward the farmhouse.

He heard the boar running behind him. It sounded strange as it came, as if it were chasing him on padded feet. Harold reached the front door of the farmhouse and grabbed the door handle. In one swift motion, he swung inside and pushed it shut. The boar rammed the door, and the house rattled like dry bones.

The door had a bar lock, and Harold pushed it into place. He leaped back, holding the stick to use as a spear. The ramming continued for a moment, then everything went quiet.

Harold eased to a window and looked out. The boar was standing at the edge of the woods near where he had first seen it. The scarecrow was gone, and in its place there was only the post that had held it.

Harold was confused. How had the boar chased him to the house and returned to its original position so quickly? And what had happened to the scarecrow? Had the boar, thinking the scarecrow was a person, torn it from the post with its tusks?

The boar turned and disappeared into the woods. Harold decided to give the animal time to get far away He checked his watch, then waited a few minutes. While he waited, he looked around.

The house was a wreck. There were overturned chairs, a table, and books. Near the fireplace, a hatchet was stuck in a large log. Everything was coated in dust and spider webs, and the stairs that twisted up to the second landing were shaky and rotten.

Harold was about to return to his fishing gear and head for the bike when he heard a scraping noise. He wheeled around for a look. The wind was moving a clutch of weeds, causing them to scrape against the window. Harold felt like a fool. Everything was scaring him.

Then the weeds moved from view and he discovered they weren't weeds at all. In fact, they looked like sticks . . . or fingers.

Hadn't the scarecrow had sticks for fingers?

That was ridiculous. Scarecrows didn't move on their own.

Then again, Harold thought as he looked out the window at the scarecrow's post, where was it?

The doorknob turned slowly. The door moved slightly, but the bar lock held. Harold could feel the hair on the back of his neck bristling. Goose bumps moved along his neck and shoul­ders.

The knob turned again.

Then something pushed hard against the door. Harder.

Harold dropped the stick and wrenched the hatchet from the log.

At the bottom of the door was a space about an inch wide, and the moonlight shining through the windows made it possible for him to see something scuttling there — sticks, long and flexible.

They poked through the crack at the bottom of the door, tapped loudly on the floor, and stretched, stretched, stretched farther into the room. A flat hand made of hay, vines, and sticks appeared. It began to ascend on the end of a knotty vine of an arm, wiggling its fingers as it rose. It climbed along the door, and Harold realized, to his horror and astonishment, that it was trying to reach the bar lock.

Harold stood frozen, watching the fingers push and free the latch.

Harold came unfrozen long enough to leap forward and chop down on the knotty elbow, striking it in two. The hand flopped to the floor and clutched so hard at the floorboards that it scratched large strips of wood from them. Then it was still.

But Harold had moved too late. The doorknob was turning again. Harold darted for the stairway, bolted up the staircase. Behind him came a scuttling sound. He was almost to the top of the stairs when the step beneath him gave way and his foot went through with a screech of nails and a crash of rotten lumber.

Harold let out a scream as something grabbed hold of the back of his coat collar. He jerked loose, tearing his jacket and losing the hatchet in the process. He tugged his foot free and crawled rapidly on hands and knees to the top of the stairs.

He struggled to his feet and raced down the corridor. Moonlight shone through a hall window and projected his shadow and that of his capering pursuer onto the wall. Then the creature sprang onto Harold's back, sending both of them tumbling to the floor

They rolled and twisted down the hallway. Harold howled and clutched at the strong arm wrapped around his throat. As he turned over onto his back, he heard the crunching of sticks beneath him. The arm loosened its grip, and Harold was able to free himself. He scuttled along the floor like a cockroach, regained his footing, then darted through an open door and slammed it.

Out in the hall he heard it moving. Sticks crackled. Hay swished. The thing was coming after him.

Harold checked over his shoulder, trying to find some­thing to jam against the door, or some place to hide. He saw another doorway and sprinted for that. It led to another hall, and down its length were a series of doors. Harold quickly entered the room at the far end and closed the door quietly. He fumbled for a lock, but there was none. He saw a bed and rolled under it, sliding up against the wall where it was darkest.

The moon was rising, and its light was inching under the bed. Dust particles swam in the moonlight. The ancient bed smelled musty and wet. Outside in the hall, Harold could hear the thing scooting along as if it were sweeping the floor. Scooting closer.

A door opened. Closed.

A little later another door opened and closed.

Then another.

Moments later he could hear it in the room next to his. He knew he should try to escape, but to where? He was trapped. If he tried to rush out the door, he was certain to run right into it. Shivering like a frightened kitten, he pushed himself far­ther up against the wall, as close as possible.

The bedroom door creaked open. The scarecrow shuffled into the room. Harold could hear it moving from one side to the other, pulling things from shelves, tossing them onto the floor, smashing glass, trying to find his hiding place.

Please, please, thought Harold, don't look under the bed.

Harold heard it brushing toward the door, then he heard the door open. It's going to leave, thought Harold. It's going to leave!

But it stopped. Then slowly turned and walked to the bed. Harold could see the scarecrow's straw-filled pants legs, its shapeless straw feet. Bits of hay floated down from the scare­crow, coasted under the bed and lay in the moonlight, just inches away.

Slowly the scarecrow bent down for a look. The shadow of its hat poked beneath the bed before its actual face. Harold couldn't stand to look. He felt as if he might scream. The beating of his heart seemed as loud as thunder.

It looked under the bed.

Harold, eyes closed, waited for it to grab him.

Seconds ticked by and nothing happened.

Harold snapped his eyes open to the sound of the door slamming.

It hadn't seen him.

The thick shadows closest to the wall had protected him. If it had been a few minutes later, the rising moonlight would have expanded under the bed and revealed him.

Harold lay there, trying to decide what to do. Strangely enough, he felt sleepy. He couldn't imagine how that could be, but finally he decided that a mind could only take so much terror before it needed relief — even if it was false relief. He closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

When he awoke, he realized by the light in the room that it was near sunrise. He had slept for hours. He wondered if the scarecrow was still in the house, searching.

Building his nerve, Harold crawled from under the bed. He stretched his back and turned to look around the room. He was startled to see a skeleton dressed in rotting clothes and sitting in a chair at a desk.

Last night he had rolled beneath the bed so quickly that he hadn't even seen the skeleton. Harold noticed a bundle of yellow papers lying on the desk in front of it.

He picked up the papers, carried them to the window, and held them to the dawn's growing light. It was a kind of journal. Harold scanned the contents and was amazed.

The skeleton had been a man named John Benner. When Benner had died, he was sixty-five years old. At one time he had been a successful farmer. But when his wife died, he grew lonely — so lonely that he decided to create a companion.

Benner built it of cloth and hay and sticks. Made the mouth from the jawbone of a wolf. The rib cage he unearthed in one of his fields. He couldn't tell if the bones were human or animal. He'd never seen anything like them. He decided it was just the thing for his companion.

He even decided to give it a heart — one of the old valentine hearts his beloved wife had made him. He fastened the heart to the rib cage, closed up the chest with hay and sticks, dressed the scarecrow in his old evening clothes, and pinned an old stovepipe hat to its head. He kept the scarecrow in the house, placed it in chairs, set a plate before it at meal times, even talked to it.

And then one night it moved.

At first Benner was amazed and frightened, but in time he was delighted. Something about the combination of ingre­dients, the strange bones from the field, the wolf's jaw, the valentine heart, perhaps his own desires, had given it life.

The scarecrow never ate or slept, but it kept him company. It listened while he talked or read aloud. It sat with him at the supper table.

But come daylight, it ceased to move. It would find a place in the shadows — a dark corner or the inside of a cedar chest. There it would wait until the day faded and the night came.

In time, Benner became afraid. The scarecrow was a creature of the night, and it lost interest in his company. Once, when he asked it to sit down and listen to him read, it slapped the book from his hand and tossed him against the kitchen wall, knocking him unconscious.

A thing made of straw and bones, cloth and paper, Benner realized, was never meant to live, because it had no soul.

One day, while the scarecrow hid from daylight, Benner dragged it from its hiding place and pulled it outside. It began to writhe and fight him, but the scarecrow was too weak to do him damage. The sunlight made it smoke and crackle with flame.

Benner hauled it to the center of the field, raised it on a post, and secured it there by ramming a long staff through its chest and paper heart.

It ceased to twitch, smoke, or burn. The thing he created was now at rest. It was nothing more than a scarecrow.

The pages told Harold that even with the scarecrow con­trolled, Benner found he could not sleep at night. He let the farm go to ruin, became sad and miserable, even thought of freeing the scarecrow so that once again he might have a companion. But he didn't, and in time, sitting right here at his desk, perhaps after writing his journal, he died. Maybe of fear, or loneliness.

Astonished, Harold dropped the pages on the floor. The scarecrow had been imprisoned on that post for no telling how long. From the condition of the farm, and Benner's body, Harold decided it had most likely been years. Then I came along, he thought, and removed the staff from its heart and freed it.

Daylight, thought Harold. In daylight the scarecrow would have to give up. It would have to hide. It would be weak then.

Harold glanced out the window. The thin rays of morning were growing longer and redder, and through the trees he could see the red ball of the sun lifting over the horizon.

Less than five minutes from now he would be safe. A sense of comfort flooded over him. He was going to beat this thing. He leaned against the glass, watching the sunrise.

A pane fell from the window and crashed onto the roof outside.

Uh-oh, thought Harold, looking toward the door.

He waited. Nothing happened. There were no sounds. The scarecrow had not heard. Harold sighed and turned to look out the window again.

Suddenly, the door burst open and slammed against the wall. As Harold wheeled around he saw a figure charging toward him, flapping its arms like the wings of a crow taking flight.

It pounced on him, smashed him against the window, breaking the remaining glass. Both went hurtling through the splintering window frame and fell onto the roof. They rolled together down the slope of the roof and onto the sandy ground.

It was a long drop — twelve feet or so. Harold fell on top of the scarecrow. It cushioned his fall, but he still landed hard enough to have the breath knocked out of him.

The scarecrow rolled him over, straddled him, pushed its hand tightly over Harold's face. The boy could smell the rotting hay and decaying sticks, feel the wooden fingers thrusting into his flesh. Its grip was growing tighter and tighter. He heard the scarecrow's wolf teeth snapping eagerly as it lowered its face to his.

Suddenly, there was a bone-chilling scream. At first Harold thought he was screaming, then he realized it was the scarecrow.

It leaped up and dashed away. Harold lifted his head for a look and saw a trail of smoke wisping around the corner of the house.

Harold found a heavy rock for a weapon, and forced himself to follow. The scarecrow was not in sight, but the side door of the house was partially open. Harold peeked through a window.

The scarecrow was violently flapping from one end of the room to the other, looking for shadows to hide in. But as the sun rose, its light melted the shadows away as fast as the scarecrow could find them.

Harold jerked the door open wide and let the sunlight in. He got a glimpse of the scarecrow as it snatched a thick curtain from a window, wrapped itself in it, and fell to the floor.

Harold spied a thick stick on the floor — it was the same one he had pulled from the scarecrow. He tossed aside the rock and picked up the stick. He used it to flip the curtain aside, exposing the thing to sunlight.

The scarecrow bellowed so loudly that Harold felt as if his bones and muscles would turn to jelly. It sprang from the floor, darted past him and out the door.

Feeling braver now that it was daylight and the scarecrow was weak, Harold chased after it. Ahead of him, the weeds in the field were parting and swishing like cards being shuffled. Floating above the weeds were thick twists of smoke.

Harold found the scarecrow on its knees, hugging its support post like a drowning man clinging to a floating log. Smoke coiled up from around the scarecrow's head and boiled out from under its coat sleeves and pant legs.

Harold poked the scarecrow with the stick. It fell on its back, and its arms flopped wide. Harold rammed the stick through its open chest, and through the valentine heart.

He lifted it from the ground easily with the stick. It weighed very little. He lifted it until its arms draped over the cross on the post. When it hung there, Harold made sure the stick was firmly through its chest and heart. Then he raced for his bike.

 

Sometimes even now, a year later, Harold thinks of his fishing gear and his camp shovel. But more often he thinks of the scarecrow. He wonders if it is still on its post. He wonders what would have happened if he had left it alone in the sunlight. Would that have been better? Would it have burned to ashes?

He wonders if another curious fisherman has been out there and removed the stick from its chest.

He hopes not.

He wonders if the scarecrow has a memory. It had tried to get Benner, but Benner had beat it, and Harold had beat it too. But what if someone else freed it and the scarecrow got him? Would it come after Harold too? Would it want to finish what it had started?

Was it possible, by some kind of supernatural instinct, for the scarecrow to track him down? Could it travel by night? Sleep in culverts and old barns and sheds, burying itself deep under dried leaves to hide from the sun?

Could it be coming closer to his home while he slept?

He often dreamed of it coming. In his dreams, Harold could see it gliding with the shadows, shuffling along, inching nearer and nearer

And what about those sounds he'd heard earlier tonight, outside his bedroom window? Were they really what he had concluded — dogs in the trashcans?

Had that shape he'd glimpsed at his window been the fleeting shadow of a flying owl, or had it been—Harold rose from bed, checked all the locks on the doors and windows, listened to the wind blow around the house, and decided not to go outside for a look.

 

 

 

Roll back here Thursday, September 25, for another free short story from Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale!

 

"The Companion" originally appeared in Great Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. It later appeared in A Fist Full of Stories [and Articles], a collection published by CD Publications, and Bumper Crop, a collection published 2004 by Golden Gryphon Press. "The Companion" © 1995 Joe R., Keith, and Kasey Jo Lansdale. All Rights Reserved.