"It's on. They're doing it,"
Hector's father watched him put his spoon down in his bowl of cereal and glare up at him. "How? How could they possibly do that? After... everything!"
"It's the county's biggest money-making event all year. Of course they're going to do it," Hector's mother said from the stove. Muted sunlight intruded the small kitchen through the dirty window in front of her. "And it's been a small crop this year. Everyone needs to make up their losses."
Hector shook his head once, angrily. His hair, the same color as the corn that flooded the county, flopped over. He pushed away from the table with a crash and stomped to his room. His parents heard the door slam.
"Oh brother. He didn't even finish his breakfast," Mrs. Donnerson said. Mr. Donnerson sighed and sat at the table as his wife placed a plate of pancakes in front of him. He picked up the paper and scanned the front headline: 'County Board Votes Harvest Carnival Will Happen.'
Jenna Peers approached Hector's locker and heard him muttering to himself, the sentences peppered with vile curses and harsh motions. When he saw her, he stopped. "What's wrong," she asked him.
Hector stood still with the door of his half-locker in his hand, and then slammed it shut and looked at her. "They're going to have the carnival again. Again!"
Jenna leaned back. Hector's hands squeezed shut. His eyes burrowed down at her.
She smiled. "I'm sorry Hector, but we can't do anything about it. Your dad was at the board meeting, he tried to get them to stop it. My dad told me. But people need to earn money, Hector!" Jenna placed her hand on his shoulder and tried to soothe him. "It was too dry this year. Too many crops died!"
Hector shrugged off her hand and about-faced, heading towards his first classroom. He sat by himself as Mr. Cranst talked about angles and sines, and then as Mrs. Beunner discussed the frog dissection they were going to do in a week. His third class was history, which Jenna also had. Mr. Forge was discussing the political implications of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.
Mr. Forge was on the county board. Hector knew that, and he followed the old man back and forth as he paced, waving his arms over his head and bemoaning the atrocities of this country or that country. Mr. Forge failed to notice this animosity, and, with ten minutes remaining in the class, stopped his ranting to catch his breath. He looked cheerily at the class. "Are there any questions?"
Hector raised his hand and leaned forward. "I'd like you to talk about a little bit of local history for me, Mr. Forge. I'd like you to tell us about the Harvest Carnival."
"Well, the carnival, which was started in 1905, had the original name of 'The Wonder of the Harvest,' but some decided that the word 'wonder' made it seem to be more than it was. During the first year-"
"I'd like you to talk about how, each of the last four years during the carnival, something terrible happened," Hector cut in. Mr. Forge hesitated, put off-balance by this interruption. Hector stared at him.
"I'm sorry Hector, but that doesn't seem very-"
"Four years ago?" Hector ignored the look of anger from Mr. Forge. "The spiders?"
Several people in the class shuddered.
"The Langenfields' crops were nothing mysterious. It was just bad luck that all the spiders appeared during the ribbon ceremony. Nobody was hurt by that, simply given a chill."
"What about the next year?" Hector crossed his arms. "A pig went missing. Later, the Harvest Coaster almost crashed because there was a pig mangled in its brake system. If it hadn't been found, dozens would have died. The next year!" Hector continued, ignoring Mr. Forge's protestations. "Lucy McGinnis' dog was up on the catwalk above the stage. It got tangled in a rope and fell, and a hundred children watched a beagle choke to death on a noose on Halloween night." The class was dead silent. Hector gripped his desk with rage. Jenna watched him. "And last year, Charlie's cousin fell off a fence and hit her head." Hector slammed his desk. "She died!"
"Hector! I ask you calm down!" Mr. Forge stuttered. Charlie Inson, in the front row, frowned at Hector. "Unfortunate accidents, all of them! The pig was the work of miscreants hoping for a scare, Lucy's dog should not have been allowed up the catwalk but she was busy watching the play!" Mr. Forge took in a breath. "Charlie's cousin was a terrible event, even now." Mr. Forge swallowed. "I assume you have a point to make, Hector? We're almost out of time."
"The carnival is bad news," Hector forced out. "And you shouldn't have voted to hold it. It's haunted."
Nobody in the class said a word. Hector and Mr. Forge looked each other over. Hector was dizzy with rage.
Mr. Forge clenched his teeth. "Hector, if you have an issue with the way I voted, I ask you take it up with me in private, not blare it to the class. If you wish, we can discuss it after the-"
The bell rang. Hector gathered his books and went out the door without another look at Mr. Forge. Jenna chased after him.
"Hector!" He spun and glared at her. She held up her hands defensively. "Don't give me that look! I understand! You don't want any memory of last year! What else are people going to do this time of year? Houses are too far apart for trick-or-treating!"
"Nobody has to do anything!" Hector said. It was lunch time, and they entered the noisy cafeteria. "They should all just stay home!"
"The carnival is important!" Jenna said, finding an empty table in a corner. "Taking your anger out on Mr. Forge isn't the way to do things! You have to talk to the board!"
"You really think that they're going to take the word of a kid who thinks the carnival is haunted?" Hector shouted.
"Well what exactly was your plan back in class? Shame Mr. Forge into thinking that he had voted incorrectly, after the fact? You don't have to go to the carnival! You can stay home and sulk if you want!" Jenna said baring her teeth. "But good luck getting the carnival shut down! It's less than a month away and people have been preparing all year, without even knowing if it was going to happen!"
Hector ate his lunch without looking at her. She inspected his long nose and heavy brows for emotion. "Why do you want it shut down so badly, anyway?" He stopped eating and stared at the wall.
"Ever since last year, whenever I think of the Carnival I get chills," Hector said quietly. "Every year I can remember something bad has happened, getting worse and worse. What's going to happen this year? Will the whole damn thing burn down? Will more people die?" He shook his head. "I can't get it out of my head." He sighed. "Of course I have to go, my parents are making me go at least once."
Jenna sighed and rubbed his back.
Hector's bus dropped him off a half-mile from his house, and he walked home along a seldom-used path flanked on both sides by towering ranks of golden corn stalks. The Donnerson's closest neighbor, Frank Olson, drove his harvester in endless loops, scooping up the corn and dumping it into the bin that trailed after him. The sun peeked out from behind sparse clouds.
It was early October, and the Harvest Carnival was being held. For four days, ending on Halloween, the large county of Haletown, a sprawling farming community, would gather its many pieces of humanity and come together for nights and days of frippery and masquerade. Stage shows, petting zoos featuring the comeliest of animals, a giant corn maze -- different each year -- and elections for high school students to become Harvest Royalty. Games of skill and chance: spin the wheel, toss the ring, pop the balloon. There were games that city folk would find unseemly, like Catch the Pig, the big mud fight, or corn eating contests. Endless costumes and candy would enter and leave, Haletown too spread out for traditional door-to-door treat gathering. There would be judging for flora and fauna, stands selling pies and cookies, rides bought and maintained just for the Carnival. Everywhere pumpkin scarecrows and garish cardboard witches stood to take pictures against. The smell of fried foods and livestock invaded every corner. Young lovers would walk hand in hand, dressed in boots and jeans and matching flannel, eating chili dogs or cotton candy. Children would pull parents to this or that stand, and ask to go on the roller coaster one more time. Old farmers would stand in circles and spit tobacco at the ground or smoke and become euphoric with friendship and fun. For four days teachers avoided giving homework and employers turned a blind eye when people snuck out at two or three in the afternoon.
And every year Hector would feel the sick, slick terror of something he couldn't see. The spiders that had erupted from the Langenfield's blue-ribbon crops and swarmed toward the applauding audience. The pig dead and shoved into the coaster, found during a routine check. Lucy's two-year old beagle that had stumbled and fallen to its neck-snapping doom in front of children of all ages who had only wanted to see the story of the ghost who'd lost his boots. A year ago, Becky Inson, pretty and twenty-one, fell off the fence between the corn fence and the petting zoo, striking her head on a metal feed bucket and dying without so much as a cry for help.
Hector stopped and stood by the side of the quiet road, watching the receding form of Frank Olson's harvester wind back and forth. His backpack hung on one shoulder.
And as Hector stood in the wind and the hot sun, he remembered the feeling of a watcher on him. He felt it like a hot breath on his neck, a presence that hid just at the edge of the plane of his senses. Since last year, the thought of the Harvest Carnival made his stomach twist in defiance of rational thought.
Accidents, Hector thought, turning toward home. Miscreants. Bad Luck. Words that Mr. Forge had used, and words that, no matter how he tried, Hector could not apply to the feeling he got when he heard that the Carnival was happening again.
He stepped into the foyer of his house and shucked the shoes from his feet. He went into the kitchen and was greeted by his mother.
"Miss Anderson called. She said that you yelled at Mr. Forge," Hector's mother, a stout and hardy woman, placed her hands on her hips. She blocked the exit. "Explain yourself."
"I was angry at him," Hector said. "He voted for the Carnival to continue." Time, even so much as half a day, had dulled Hector's anger. Jenna had been right; he simply didn't want to remember the feeling of the thing. "I'm going to apologize to him tomorrow. I just..." Hector trailed off, searching the ground at his feet with his eyes.
"You don't like the Carnival. I know." Mrs. Donnerson crossed her arms. "You've told us enough times. But it's an important event. It'll help a lot of people."
"I know," Hector said.
"Do you have much homework?" Hector shrugged. "Go do it then. Once you're done your father wanted you to feed the chickens."
After bending his nose to the paper of his math and Spanish books, Hector got on his boots and trudged across the yard to the chicken coop. A chill had settled in as the sun sagged down and changed color; the clouds that had survived shone with autumn brilliance and kaleidoscopic color.
The four chickens that occupied the coop clucked sleepily. The Donnersons used them for eggs, a small amount of breeding and, if the need was great enough, a feather or two. Hector filled the cups in front of the plump birds with feed and water, and, just as Hector had bent over his books, the chickens bent to eat and drink. He stood in the entry of the small coop, watching the contented animals.
Just as he was about to leave, the door slammed shut behind him. The coop went dark. The small window near the roof was blocked by something, and Hector struggled to find the latch to get himself out.
His hand hit the door in front of him and, as it opened, he could feel a presence next to him.
Light entered the coop again, and he was alone inside except for the chickens, who continued to eat unworried. He stepped outside and looked up at where the window was. An old piece of wood had fallen from the building, swung on one nail, and covered over the window. Hector shook his head, closed the coop door, and went back to the house.
That Saturday Hector stood outside the entrance to the Carnival, still in its infant stages. He stood with his arms crossed, his feet planted, and his lip wrinkled.
The entrance was a fake barn outline, taller than any man, flanked by pumpkins and bound hay bales. Hanging from the top part of the barn was a grinning pumpkin-head scarecrow with lengthy arms, spanning the width of the entrance. Its legs hung down the middle, dangling in free air. Its head hung at the tilted angle of a hanged man.
The roller coaster's skeleton rose higher with each day. The scaffolding of the stage was being constructed with the banging of hammers and intermittent curses.
Mr. Bena's harvester diagrammed the path of the maze, as of yet an unknown quality. Students at the high school waged bets on what the design would be. One of them, Larry Hilger, asked Hector what he thought it would be, and Hector responded with "gravestones." Nobody asked him after that.
Jenna walked through the entrance toward Hector. "Come on, my dad wants us to help with the Fuzz-Toss booth."
"Why did you make me come here?" Hector demanded.
"Because I think it will help you realize something. There's nothing wrong here. It's like Mr. Forge said. Everything that happened the last few years..." Jenna knew that she needed to be careful. "It wasn't the Carnival. They happen, and they're terrible... but it isn't the Carnival doing it. This place isn't bad."
Hector motioned up at the hanging scarecrow with a hand. "That thing is bad."
Jenna looked up at the scarecrow. Its genial face looked down at them, its long arms almost asking for a hug. "Okay, maybe. That thing is a little creepy. But is the cotton candy machine creepy? Is the petting zoo creepy?"
"Becky Inson died in the petting zoo." Hector pointed out.
Jenna's eyes narrowed to slits among her black braided hair. "But the petting zoo did not kill her. Come on, my dad's probably wondering where we are." She took the sleeve of his jacket and pulled him. He let himself get carried through the threshold of the Carnival and shook his arm free, preferring to walk under his own power. They made their way in between the partially-constructed booths of this game or that treat, and found the Fuzz-Toss.
Brandon Peers, a bear of a man that had given his daughter his jet hair, waved them over and slapped Hector on the back so hard that Hector lost feeling in his hand. "There you two are! I was wondering if you two had gone behind the shed or something like that!"
"Dad!" Jenna protested, but Mr. Peers drove on.
"Anyway, Jenna, why don't you get the prizes and things from the truck, Hector and I will get the roof up. Jenna grumbled something and moved off. Her dad waved his hand and Hector followed him.
They were guiding the metal poles of the booth into their housings when Brandon began to ask questions. "How are you, Hector? Jen told us about Tuesday in Mr. Forge's room."
Hector didn't respond right away. The apology to Mr. Forge had been received with grace; Mr. Forge said he understood why Hector was upset, but wished he would find a rather more appropriate outlet. Hector agreed, and left.
"I know you probably don't want to be here, but I agree with Jenna," Brandon continued. "It's good to see that this place isn't bad. It's not haunted." He grunted, and a pole clicked into place. "Plus, sweating a bit always makes me feel better."
Brandon Peers was a big, fine man that liked to talk and help people. Hector couldn't help but feel calmer around him, even with the added stigma of being his daughter's boyfriend.
"I... It feels like there's something here that's looking at me." Hector shook his head. "And now it's the only thing I can think about."
Brandon wiped his hands on his pants. "Why don't you go help with the stage in that case? get away from this area?"
Hector saw, for a hot instant, Lucy's beagle strangling at the end of a cord, eyes bulging and paws wheeling wildly as children screamed. "No, I'll stay here. Maybe if I get my mind on something else it won't be so bad."
Brandon slapped him on the back again. "That's the way. Give me help with the sign for this."
So Hector helped Brandon and Jenna get the Fuzz-Toss booth together, and then moved on to the next one. This was a dart-throwing game, with balloons to aim at and prizes to win. There were T-shirts and stuffed dolls and posters, and Hector carried them in boxes by the armload, sweating in the dry air. Clouds moved in but yielded no rain as noon passed and the two teens stopped for a break of water and hot dogs, provided by Mrs. Lund's stand, which would dole out hot links of beef with or without chili frantically during the Carnival proper. Hector choked his down, eager to either find something else to do or leave and watch the entrance to the Carnival dwindle in the rear-view mirror.
He got his wish. Jenna had school work to attend to, and Hector was her ride home.
The scarecrow over the entrance, with a jagged smile and triangular eyes, watched them drive away from the banging hammers and talking workers.
Hector kept track of the days as they blew off the calendar, watching in dread as the first day of the Carnival crept up with its claws out.
Jenna and her two young siblings wanted to go the first day to see the opening. Jenna convinced Hector to take them, because they did like him so much. Her brother, Sam, was eight. Her sister Julie was eleven, and both reveled in the cold air as Hector parked.
The roller coaster was a blur of motion in the dark air, lit by spotlights in the center of the sprawling grounds. Hundreds of people could be seen already, milling inside the grounds and around the entrance.
There was no fee to enter, but people rarely left with their pocketbooks intact. Games were fifty cents, rides were the same or more, shows, the hay ride, and the petting zoo were free. The corn maze, now revealed to be an intricate carving of a haunted house, was a dollar for as many times as you wanted to go during the Carnival; Hector remembered a year he had gone a dozen times, but couldn't quite remember what the design had been.
Sam rode on Hector's back as they went first to the Fuzz-Toss both that Brandon Peers stood behind, dressed in a pinstriped carnie's outfit. He had a fedora on his head and a cane in one hand. A fake moustache was on his lip, and all four of the children laughed when they saw him.
Julie took a turn and landed a fuzz in one of the bowls, winning herself a big sheet of harvest stickers. After that they went to the petting zoo. The three Peers went in, and Hector stood outside, leaning against the fence.
He watched the children play with the goats and sheep and pigs, and carefully pet the baby cow and llama.
Once Sam stumbled and nearly fell, only inches from a feed bucket. Hector stiffened then relaxed when Sam righted himself and gave a little goat a big hug, smiling happily as Jenna snapped a picture.
After the petting zoo they went to the corn maze. They paid the dollar fee and were waved in by the teenaged ticket taker. They wandered among the golden stalks, talking and finding the numbered posts to prove they had made it through. Hector and Jenna met a few of their friends inside, and stopped for a chat as the younger Peers grew antsy.
They made it to the exit and had their slips of paper stamped, which allowed them to take a piece of candy. Julie asked to go on the hay ride. They found the idling tractor with a flatbed trailer behind it, and a sign stating rides every half-hour. The trailer was already occupied by a few families, and the four of them clambered up, squeezing in to one side. The tractor started rolling forward, and Sam whooped.
The dark path was lit with bright lights pointing out over the fields to either side. The bouncing motion was both soothing and frightening.
Dark, bony trees reached down for them as the tractor turned into an old forest, kept standing for just such a purpose. The skeletal trees cast long shadows, thrown by the lights along the path, and Julie grabbed hold of Hector's arm as a sharp branch went over her head.
"Jenna, isn't that the scarecrow that was over the entrance?" Sam asked, pointing over the edge of the trailer. They all looked. The long-armed scarecrow lounged against a tree with one leg crossed over the other, holding a long tube arm in a silent wave.
"They must have made another one," Jenna said. "They're brothers!" Sam laughed and waved at the scarecrow.
Hector's vision stayed locked on it. All the bouncing and rolling of the flat trailer made it hard to see.
The hay ride ended and they walked around the rest of the Carnival, looking at the different treats for sale and the games that surrounded the roller coaster. Hector, an old pro at the dart toss, won a poster of Tony Romo for Sam and a stuffed alligator for Julie. He went again and missed a few times, netting only a cheap novelty lighter. They bought cookies from Mr. Hunter and listened to the barn music coming from the stage. Sam and Julie were getting sleepy, but couldn't bear to leave the Carnival just yet. They wanted to go on rides and play games and go in the petting zoo again. Jenna said they could play one more game.
After they had spent their quarters and tried to argue once more, they went to Hector's car and settled in for the drive back. The moon was a beautiful bright glow, and Hector released the pent breath he had been keeping in the entire time.
Jenna looked in the back seat. Sam's eyes drooped, and Julie was already asleep, clutching her alligator tightly.
"See? Nothing happened."
"It's only been one day. It's not even over yet!" Hector said, not looking away from the road. "Something could happen before it closes for the night!"
"Hector! You're being silly, stop it!"
"I'm not being silly!" Hector forced through clenched teeth. "I'm not! I can't explain it, I just..." He was silent for a few seconds. "When I'm in there, it's like my nerves are burning. I keep looking for something that I feel like I should see. It's never there, but if I just look around the corner, or in the shadows, or the crowd parts, I'll be able to see it."
He shook his head in short waves. "The scarecrow that Sam saw. When I looked over my shoulder I could swear it was looking right at me. Like it was looking for me."
"Don't be ridiculous," Jenna said.
"When we left, and went out to the car, I looked up at the scarecrow that was over the entrance. Its 'brother.' The pumpkin is hollow, right?"
"Of course it is. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to carve it."
"I swear I saw something inside it."
Jenna stared at him as he drove. "Hector, you need to settle down. There's nothing going on. We were all over that place. Did you see anything? A dead pig?"
"Stop it!" Hector said. He snapped his mouth shut and looked behind him. The two children were dead to the world. "Maybe there's really nothing, but I feel like there is. It's... it's... ugh." Hector sighed.
"Well now you've gone once, you don't have to go again," Jenna said. "You can hide in your room and do homework."
"No." Hector sighed again. "My parents want to go on the thirtieth and they want me to come with."
"You can say no."
"I tried. They think that it will help me put everything in perspective." He glanced at her quickly. "They're making me."
They drove for a few more minutes. Jenna's house was approaching.
"I'm going to suggest something," Jenna said. "It's fine if you don't want to. Let's go tomorrow."
"Just you and me. My dad isn't working, Julie and Sam only get to go two days so they don't get cranky, and they want to go on Halloween. It'll be fun. Just us. We don't have to stay very long, just enough to eat some greasy food and lose money trying to win a stupid prize." Her voice lowered. "We can get good and lost in the corn maze." She smiled and leaned back in her seat. "What do you say?"
Hector counted ten passing dash marks on the country road to calm his beating heart. "I guess. I'm just going to be happy when it's all over." Hector sighed, and his shoulders drooped. He was so tired. He pulled into Jenna's house, and they roused the sleeping children. Hector waved goodbye and pulled out of the drive.
When he got home he wearily pulled himself out of the car and stumbled to the house. His parents would already be asleep. He felt around the lighter he had won and pulled the keys out his coat pocket. With a last look at the dark autumn sky, full of the scent of dead leaves, he went in.
"I'm glad you wanted to do this," Jenna said when Hector picked her up the next day. She slid into the passenger seat and hugged him. "I think it will help you."
"I don't know about that," Hector said as he backed out of the driveway. "But it is nice to get some time to ourselves."
"Right!" Jenna smiled and rummaged in her hair, mussing it. They talked until the roller coaster could be seen over the trees. Hector pulled into the parking lot. The moon was haloed by thin clouds, adding misty darkness to the grounds. They passed under the hanging scarecrow. As they did, the wind blew its legs, and the entrance creaked. Hector jumped away from it, startled, pulling Jenna with him. When nothing happened he sighed. Jenna shook her head with a smile and pulled him along.
They went to the judging pens first, full of the stink of animals. Neither of their families had any animals competing, so they walked through the large building gazing at the beasts. There were staggering horses, so tall you had to crane your neck to see their faces; large, docile cows that lowed in the hot building and munched on grass; and others: goats, pigs, llamas. They would be judged on the last day by county board members and elected 'officials', the Harvest King and Queen.
They left the pens and wandered through the rows of crops to be judged, leaning in and inspecting the squashes and corn and other vegetables. Many families entered this contest, saving their best, but only the finest examples of farming went home with the coveted blue ribbon.
The Langenfield's crops were hidden in a corner, forgotten by most of the on-lookers.
Hector and Jenna then wandered through the midway. Jenna asked if he wanted to ride the roller coaster, but he shook his head. They played a few games and walked away with two novelty cowboy hats. Hand-in-hand, they watched others play games. Hector couldn't get comfortable; too many sounds came at him too quickly. Popping balloons, ringing bells, happily screaming children and the slap of many shoes on the dirt ground. The cries of people riding the roller coaster and the other, smaller rides reached fever pitches. Jenna saw Hector begin to look overloaded, so they left.
"How about the hay ride again?" Jenna asked. "We can relax on that."
"Well... I guess so. At least we'll be able to cool down there." They went to the hay ride and climbed on. The flat trailer added a few more passengers and then started to rumble down the same path it had taken the night before. Hector laid his head back against the railing on the trailer and closed his eyes, soothed by the cool breeze. Jenna sat next to him and they rode in silence, enjoying the peace. Not much was said during the ride by either; the only utterance was a moment when Jenna said something to herself, softly. She must not have thought it bore repeating, because she was silent for the rest of the trip.
The trailer pulled to a halt once it had made its circle, and they climbed off. Hector felt refreshed. Jenna pointed toward the entrance to the corn maze and smiled. She winked, and Hector blushed. The attendant waved them in, and they started to wander through the brown lanes. They took lefts and rights at random, getting themselves, as Jenna had put it the day before, good and lost.
"Here," Jenna said. The closest person was a distant voice. Jenna pointed around a corner. "This should do."
"I don't really know about this," Hector said. "If we found a dead end, other people can too."
Jenna pouted. "We won't be here too long," she said. "Just enough to catch our breath after walking through this big corn maze for a while. I've gotten all tired walking, and it's so hot in this maze, too." She yawned, and ran a hand down her stomach. Hector lingered, and she giggled. "Come on, scaredy cat." She hugged Hector to herself and then led him around the corner.
Hector shouted. Jenna looked and jumped back, then put her hand on her chest and sighed. "It's just another one of those scarecrows."
This scarecrow, identical to the one on the path of the hay ride and the one suspended over the entrance, sat with its legs crossed in the dead center of the wall, long arms drooping to the ground before coming to rest behind its head. The empty pumpkin eyes leered at them. The mouth was in a crooked grin.
"Jesus," Hector said. "This damn thing scared the shit out of me," he said. He looked around, then walked up to it. He kicked it over onto its side, tangling the long limbs in loose knots.
"Oh, don't do that! That's just vandalism!" Jenna said. She picked the scarecrow up and put it back in its earlier position. "You know, the one that was on the hay ride was missing. Maybe they took it out and put it here. There are probably a few that they're moving around the Carnival."
"Right," Hector said. He stared at the pumpkin head, which in turn seemed to be staring at Jenna as she stared at Hector.
"Come on, let's find a different spot. I don't think I can get comfortable with this guy right next to us."
Hector shivered and agreed. They had gone a few turns when Hector cleared his throat. "I think we should just leave. As much as I want to be alone with you for a little while, I think maybe we should just go somewhere that's actually private."
"Oh brother," Jenna said, rolling her eyes. "You never want to do anything interesting."
"I came here, didn't I? Come on." Jenna sighed and followed after him. The attendant at the exit was a friend of Jenna's, Tracy Goodman.
"Jenna! How did you do?" She looked at the slip of paper they had been given. "You didn't find them all?"
Jenna shrugged. "No. Hector got scared and wanted to leave. We went on it yesterday, too, so it doesn't matter too much to us." Tracy nodded with a vapid smile on her face.
"I guess it is sort of scary."
"Pff." Jenna rolled her eyes again. "Not really."
Mr. Leon, an old, short man carrying a black walkie-talkie, appeared. "Tracy, do you remember seeing anybody move the scarecrow that's over the entrance?"
Hector went cold.
"No, why?" Tracy asked, taking slips from a few children and stamping them.
"It went missing a little while ago. Nobody saw who did it. Same as last night."
"How many are there?" Hector asked.
"What? What do you mean how many?" Mr. Leon said, just noticing Hector and Jenna.
"Is there more than one?"
"No! Just the one over the entrance! Why?"
"We saw it," Jenna said. "In a dead-end in the corn maze. I don't think we could tell you how to get there. It's in pretty deep."
Mr. Leon nodded. "Alright. Thanks." He held a walkie-talkie to his mouth. "Frank. Brandon's daughter says she saw it in the corn maze." A voice crackled out from the walkie-talkie. "No, nobody saw the one who did it." The voice asked something else. "Well, I don't know! People probably didn't notice!" He sighed and slipped the box into his pocket. "Some miscreant's been moving it around. It disappeared yesterday, too."
"We saw it," Hector said. He swallowed with a dry mouth. "It was in the forest on the hay ride. About half way."
Mr. Leon peered at him. "You sure?" Hector nodded. After another look, Mr. Leon turned and entered the exit to the corn maze.
"Now he thinks I did it," Hector said. "Great."
"Don't get all strange on me now. You were just starting to get better."
"We saw it. Both days!" Hector said. They stood a distance away from Tracy, who was busy stamping slips of paper. "Nobody saw who did it or who carried it, but we see it both times it goes missing? That's not a coincidence!"
"It has to be. It's just a scarecrow." She squeezed his shoulder. "What possible motive could somebody have for moving it around? It's a victimless crime."
Hector stared at the ground, picturing the scarecrow, grotesquely long arms spilling over the ground, as it sat under the reaching trees in the dead grove that the hay ride rolled through. "I don't like it. I think I've spent about as much time as I want to here tonight."
Jenna sighed and crossed her arms. "Fine. Let's go."
They went through the crowd outside the corn maze and entered the midway. The screams of the riders on the roller coaster reached them and made Hector look toward them. They got through the denser crowds there, and went for the exit.
Hector saw something that froze him. "No." He ran through the exit and looked up. "How?"
The scarecrow hung there, long arms poised to receive a hug. The pumpkin head gazed down at Hector, grimacing through jagged teeth.
"We just saw it. Minutes ago! Mr. Leon went in looking for it, how..." he looked at Jenna. "How did it get here?"
"I don't know." Jenna's scowl had changed when she saw it. Now she looked confused and worried. She shivered. The crowd swirled around them, unnoticing, making them feel like the eye of a storm as the scarecrow's cold, empty gaze drilled down at them. "Let's go," Jenna squeaked. "I don't like this. I feel dizzy."
"Yeah. Yeah," Hector said. He took her arm and they went to the car at a fast walk.
"What are you going to do?" Jenna asked Hector the next day at school. It was Thursday, and only two days remained for the Carnival. They stood in the hall of the school with one class left.
Hector shut his locker. "They're making me go, they won't hear any argument against it. You should have heard me try to explain the scarecrow after I got home last night. They looked at me like I was crazy. I know I'm not." Hector shook his head. "I'm just going to keep my eyes open for anything that looks strange or out of place. You aren't going?"
"No," Jenna said. "I'm keeping track of Sam and Julie while my parents are at the Carnival. We're all going tomorrow, though." Hector nodded. The bell buzzed a piercing warning in their ears. "I've gotta go. I'll see you tomorrow." She looked around her for a moment, then leaned in. "I don't know what might happen, but... be careful, okay?"
"Okay," Hector said, and they parted ways.
After the bus ride, and the short walk to his house, he walked into the house sweating like a roasted pig. He drew a glass of water from the sink and sat in the empty kitchen.
He thought about the scarecrow. It seemed to be following him and Jenna; there was no other way to see it. Unless, by some great coincidence, they just happened to be observers of a well-planned trick. That was not something that Hector was going to allow himself to believe. The last four years made sure of that.
He thought of something at that point. When he was twelve -- five years ago -- he remembered being driven home from the Harvest Carnival on Halloween. His parents were arguing about something, and both were clearly unhappy. He remembered being scared about something.
He went into the barn and found his father, Leonard. He was hauling piles of wood inside to dry. "Hi Hector. How was school?"
"Dad. Did something happen at the Carnival five years ago? I would have been twelve. You would have been... forty-one."
"Well, doesn't that make me feel old. But not this again! I told you, we're going tonight and that's-"
"Dad." Hector whispered. "Please. Try to remember if anything happened. I remember you and mom arguing in the car about something. I remember being scared."
Mr. Donnerson threw the cord of wood on the pile and leaned against it, thinking back. "I don't remember anything. Son, I barely remember the pig thing that happened back then. You-" Leonard's face drooped with shock. "By God. Something did happen!"
"What? What happened Dad?" Hector said, wishing he could shake his father and jostle the memories free.
"It was... oh, Jesus..." Mr. Donnerson rubbed his face. "The Ernams' little boy! How could I forget!" He sat on the wood pile. "He was run over by the hay ride!"
"He got away... nobody was sure how... Mrs. Ernam lost him for a second and he was gone. They'd just come out of the maze. That was the year it was a rocket ship, you remember? You went on it a dozen times!" Hector nodded. He felt icy fingers run down his spine. "He was two. She set him down for a bit and he ran right over, like he was chasin' a thing. The driver didn't see him, and struck him dead. Doctors couldn't do nothin'." Hector's father stared into the past. "Your mother's so distraught it was all I could do to get her in the car. I don't think that you knew what was going on, but you felt it."
Hector watched his father sit still on the wood. Then Mr. Donnerson looked up.
"You got me all upset now. We're still goin' tonight. You're helpin' me with this wood now too, fer makin' me think about that."
Hector helped his father stack the bundled wood in the barn, his mind deep in the story that his father had just told him. He made up his mind about something he needed to do when they went to the Carnival.
It was just about dark when they pulled into a slot in the parking lot and exited the car. Hector kept his eye on the suspended scarecrow as they walked under the faux barn entrance. Hector's mother wanted to look at the crops before the judges got to them. Hector said that he'd already seen the crops, so he was going to get a slice of pizza and meet them when they were done.
Hector walked through the grounds with his hands in his pockets, looking around him. He got a soda and a slice of pizza piled high with pepperoni and onion, and ate it on a bench near the midway. He heard the bellow of Jenna's father and, after wiping his hands on his pants, wandered over to the Apple Bob booth, where Brandon was working.
"Hector! Here with your parents? Where are they?"
"They're looking at the crops that are up for judging. Good crowd so far?"
"Oh, not bad. Want to take a chance?"
"Maybe later. Have you seen Mr. or Mrs. Ernam around?"
"Eh? Well, not Mrs. Ernam, that's for sure. She and Brian divorced a few years ago and she moved south. But you know, I did see Brian wandering toward Catch the Pig a little bit ago. He might still be over there. Why are you looking for him?"
"I want to know if he remembers something." Hector walked away from the booth as a half-dozen children swarmed near, and Brandon was caught up in his showmanship.
Catch the Pig was a large arena with stands and a long line of people waiting to get in. There were games for adults, teens, and children, as long as their parents were alright with it. The game was simple: catch the pig. The first one to carry it back to the handler won a piece of paper saying he had caught the pig and a cash prize based on the age group.
Hector climbed to the back of the stands and looked for Mr. Ernam, finding him eating from a carton of popcorn on a bench in the middle section of the stands by himself, laughing with the other spectators as the children chasing the pig climbed over each other. Hector focused on what he was about to do, then went over to him and sat down.
"Hello Mr. Ernam," Hector said.
"Hector! This is a surprise! How are you doing?"
Hector smiled. "I'm fine sir. I have a question I want you to answer as truthfully as you can. It may upset you, and I'm prepared to accept the blame for it if that happens."
Mr. Ernam raised an eyebrow. "What sort of question?"
"Do you remember what happened five years ago? Here?"
Mr. Ernam put a piece of popcorn in his mouth. "Not really. Did something happen?"
Hector's stomach turned cold, clenching around the pizza that he had eaten. This man didn't remember his own son being struck and killed exactly five years ago.
Hector lowered his voice to keep from anyone hearing him. "Mr. Ernam, don't you remember your son?"
Hector watched as Mr. Ernam's face, cheerful from the food and laughter and physical comedy that played out in front of him, curdled. His eyebrows rose up into the mass of hair that fell over his forehead, and his lips parted. His skin went white. The carton of popcorn fell to the ground and spilled, slipping from his still hand.
"My boy," Mr. Ernam squeezed out, his pale hand curling into a fist. "He died. Oh dear Lord in heaven."
"Mr. Ernam, I'm sorry," Hector said. He felt the grip of loss on his heart. "I needed to know if you remembered."
"Hector... why?" Ernam asked, a strangled word. First Hector thought he wanted to know why Hector needed to know. But he continued. "Why did I forget? My boy. My Eli!" Mr. Ernam's eyes got wide. "That was why Susan left me! God Almighty!" Mr. Ernam stood and rushed away from the stands, colliding with a couple that was just entering. Hector chased after him, apologizing to the couple as he passed them.
"Mr. Ernam!" Hector called, as the man stumbled into a crowd of people, stricken with grief. "Mr. Ernam, stop, please!"
The man whirled and grabbed Hector's shirt front. "How did you remember, Hector, when even I couldn't? How?"
People took notice, moving away in a circle, giving Mr. Ernam room to rage. One of the workers from a booth stepped in to peel him away from Hector, but Hector stopped him.
"You'd forgotten too, hadn't you?" Mr. Ernam said, squeezing Hector's shirt. He looked around at the crowd. "Did everyone forget? Did everyone forget my little Eli five years ago?"
There was a pause.
And then a wave of gasps swept out from the middle of the crowd where Hector and Mr. Ernam stood. "Everyone forgot, Hector! Everyone!" Mr. Ernam's face changed. "And you, Hector? Did you forget six years ago? Did you forget your brother?"
Hector nearly said he didn't have a brother, and then his world crumbled around him.
He saw the tiny, grainy image of a boy two years older than him chasing him through the corn field, giggling.
"Hector! Brian!" Hector's father ran up and broke the grip Mr. Ernam had on Hector's shirt. "What's going on here?!"
"My boy, Donnerson! I forgot about my boy!" Brian Ernam said. "I'd forgotten the worst thing to ever happen to me, my own son being struck and killed five years ago tomorrow! How could I have forgotten such a thing?"
"Hector, did you-"
"Did I have a brother," was all Hector said to his father that moment, and Hector saw the same thing happen to his father that he felt from the inside, a cracking and shattering of the life image he once had.
"Jonathan," Hector's father whispered, and Hector felt the blood drain from his head. He dropped to his knees, trying to stay conscious. His brother's name had been Jonathon.
"Leonard!" Hector heard a voice shriek. "Hector!" It was his mother. "What happened?" Hector heard Mr. Ernam mutter something to her, and she wailed after a pause. "Jonathan!"
More people were gathering. People were telling the information to new people that showed up. Gasps and cries of shock rang. The Carnival had slammed to a halt.
Hector got to his feet with limbs that tingled and ached violently. "What happened to Jonathan, mom?" He demanded. "What happened to my brother?"
"He- he-" Hector's mom sobbed. "He went missing, on the second last day of the Carnival wh-when you were eleven."
Six years ago today, Hector thought, reeling. "You never found him?" Hector's mother shook her head and wept. "He's still missing?" She bobbed her head up and down and fell into Hector's arms.
"He would be nineteen now," Mr. Donnerson said as he sat on the ground. The crowd around them, unseen, was dispersing at the behest of Mr. Leon and some others, all of them muttering to each other about their forgetfulness.
"Donnersons," Mr. Leon said. "I know you're having a difficult time, but if we can get you inside..." he trailed off, and Hector led his mother toward a building with a few offices in it on the other side of the midway. His father followed, scraping his feet on the ground.
They sat in the room together, and Hector felt the memories burst through a dam. His brother had gotten lost. At first his parents had looked, calling his name. A few friends started to help, going in the corn maze and the midway. More people began to notice the boy's absence. The police were called, reports were filled, and Hector felt the unimaginable feeling of loss. The carnival had turned into a parade of well-wishers.
And he had forgotten all of it until now. His parents, too. Everyone. They had all forgotten Eli Ernam. Hector's heart thudded. Would they forget about Lucy's dog, and Becky Inson?
How many more events had been forgotten, lost in the rotten wood behind the Carnival? How many more children had gotten lost, or struck their head, or been run down by a tractor? How many parents went through their life without realizing they missed a child?
After an hour of sitting in the office and trying to decipher the night, Mr. Donnerson said they were going home. Hector and his mother agreed and left the offices, heading out to the car.
As they passed under the barn facade of the carnival's entrance, Hector felt something was missing.
He turned and looked behind him, looking back at the entity that took more and more with each revealed memory.
And, through a moment's break in the crowd, he saw the pumpkin head and long arms of the scarecrow standing against a wall, looking straight at him.
The crowd closed the gap and it was gone.
The next day Jenna Peers listened to Hector's story, growing in fear. She'd heard some of it from her father, but the details were muddled. Hector told it laced with fear and free of inflection. Her heart pounded as he spoke.
When he finished, he watched her. Her fingers tried to cover her mouth but they were too limp to make a barrier. Her eyes were distant and unfocused.
She plunged herself into his chest, hugging him and gasping. She stood that way for too long; Hector expected her to do something.
Finally she separated. Her eyes looked moist, and she wiped at them with a sleeve. He couldn't bring himself to say anything. It had all been said already.
"I'm sorry, Hector," she said, her voice cracking. "I didn't remember it either." He looked over her head, down the school's hallway. "But... why?"
"We don't know," Hector whispered. It was the most energy he could manage. "Nobody remembered him. Or Eli Ernam."
It was as if something had gone in and tampered with their memories. How could thousands of people forget an event that had swept the county into a furious manhunt one year, and then a period of awestruck mourning the next? And for what purpose?
Not a single person present at the Carnival had any memory of Eli save for Hector, or Jonathon Donnerson until Brian Ernam uttered the phrase Did you forget your brother? Hector's father had been up all night fielding calls from sorrowful neighbors and friends, all saying they had no memory of Jonathon's disappearance until that night. They all remembered the same thing: the young boy went missing, the Carnival turned itself over looking for him... and he was never found. No account differed.
"I need a pen," Hector said, patting his pockets. "Now! Quick!"
Jenna, flustered, reached into her backpack and handed Hector a black pen. He pulled the cap off with his teeth and made long, hard strokes on his palm. When he was done, he put the cap back on and showed what he wrote.
"'Jonathon.' Why?" Jenna asked, taking the pen back.
"I already forgot once. What's to stop me -- everybody! -- from forgetting again?"
"Something made everybody forget about two painful events that happened at the Carnival, Hector!" Jenna said. "What's to stop that something from erasing the ink on your hands!"
"Today. Today I'm going to stop it! It's the scarecrow, we know it is! I told you what I saw last night! It was looking at me!"
For once, Jenna didn't argue. "What are you going to do? Hector, what if it's something that you can't kill?"
"Then I guess things will stay the same!" Hector shot back. "How long until people forget Lucy's puppy or Becky Inson? Two years? Three?" Hector's eyes looked glossy. "How long until someone else dies at the Carnival, and that person is forgotten? And people will keep going, year after year... because nothing bad ever happened at the Harvest Carnival!"
Jenna watched, scared. "How many people do you think have died at the Carnival without anyone to mourn them?" Hector whispered. "Hundreds?"
Jenna opened her mouth to answer, but couldn't speak. She closed it. The bell rang for first hour, and she hugged him again, then turned and walked away.
Hector sat through school trying to figure out what he could do. He had never hunted a monster before.
When he got home he told his mother that he was going to the Carnival. She looked up at him, and he saw a deep fear in her eyes. I don't want to lose you, too.
"Why?" She asked him. She saw the ink word on his hand and then looked back at him.
"It's something that I need to do." She didn't answer, and he went back towards the door.
"Please take your coat, Hector," Mrs. Donnerson said. "It's going to be a cold night."
Hector stood in the foyer with his back to his mother. He reached out and took his coat from the rack and pushed out the door.
It was only four in the afternoon when he reached the Carnival, but there were already throngs of people inside, visiting the crops and animals for one last look before the ribbons were given, or running the roller coaster once more before it was packed away to keep it safe from the snow and cold. As Hector walked to the entrance he found Jenna leaning against it under the hanging scarecrow. She frowned at him, arms folded and eyes narrowed to small slits, and she had never looked so lovely.
He stopped a foot away from her. "Why did you come here?"
"It's the last day of the Carnival. Everybody's going to be here," she said. She pushed away from the wall. "And I wanted to help."
"I don't know what I'm going to do." Hector looked up at the scarecrow, standing out against the swift gray sky. "It's not human. But I might have an idea." He told it to her as they went inside.
They couldn't start just yet, so they tried to enjoy the Carnival as they could. They walked slowly, watching it take place around them. They played a few games and enjoyed hot fried food, and usually when the person working the booth saw that it was Hector, they'd let him play for free, or upgrade his order to a large without being asked. They all had the same look on their face. I can't imagine what you're thinking.
Hector knew they couldn't. The memories of his brother had exploded in his head the night before and were still settling. Playing games in Frank Olson's corn field, eating at the table, working on homework with the TV on, asking their mother for a dog and getting chickens instead.
Hector looked at his hand and read the word there, sighing with the new memories that had landed on him with all the suddenness of a crack of lightning.
It was getting darker, but they still had to wait. Hector fumbled inside his coat pocket and thought about what he was going to do. They stood arm-in-arm, breathing the cool autumn air and feeling the Halloween excitement.
Finally it was the right time.
They went to the corn field and walked through the entrance. The teen running the maze called out to them before they got far. "Hey! They're going to announce who wins the contests in about fifteen minutes! You're gonna miss it!"
"I don't really want to see it," Hector said. Jenna nodded. The teen shrugged and left his post at the front of the maze, wandering away towards the stage where the awards would be given.
"I'll stay here and make sure that nobody goes inside," Jenna said.
"Also make sure to-"
"Warn everybody. I know." She kissed him. "Good luck."
Hector went into the haunted house corn maze and started to get lost, heading up and around, past corners and pathways. He wondered if he could find the dead-end that he and Jenna had gone to two days ago. His hands clenched inside his jacket, one hand wrapped around his prize.
He took ten minutes, treading through the dry corn stalks and walking over the stomped-flat floor, covered in baked leaves and aborted corn plants. The lights cast stringy shadows as he walked through them. Finally he felt the heat of fear and excitement grow in him as he recognized the place that he and Jenna had tried to get good and lost in.
He stopped before going around the corner, taking in a deep breath and whistling it out.
Closing his eyes, he stepped around the corner and stood with his feet apart.
The scarecrow leaned against the dead-end, just like it had before. Its long, patchwork arms were splayed out to either side, its round pumpkin head was hidden in the shadows, and its appearance filled Hector with fury.
He ran at it and kicked its head, plunging his foot into it and knocking it off the straw-filled body. "Fucker!" He yelled. "Wake up! I know you can hear me! Get on your feet and pay for the lives you took!"
He backed off. The scarecrow remained still. He watched it for a minute, looking for any tiny speck of motion. He waited long enough, and charged at it again.
His foot aimed for the chest, but something solid stopped it from connecting. His foot was caught in something, and he looked down.
One of the scarecrow's straw arms picked itself up and trapped his foot in five straw fingers. Hector tried to pull his foot away, but the hand held it still. The scarecrow began to rise. Hector felt cold as it drew itself up, still holding his foot.
It towered over him by six inches. It threw him backwards and he landed on his arm painfully. It loped to where its head had rolled and put it back on its shoulders, spinning it so the smashed part was used as the face. It turned and looked at him.
Hector got to his feet, clutching his elbow. "I knew you could hear me." The specter that faced him said nothing. "Well? Come on, you sow whore! Do you have anything to say?"
The scarecrow's voice left the pumpkin in front of him and entered his ears as a drilling, freezing sensation that prickled his skin and made his stomach clench.
"You remembered," it said. The words echoed in Hector's brain until he noticed it had stopped talking. "Your brother."
"Yeah, I did," Hector said. "I want him back."
The scarecrow chuckled, or at least Hector called it a chuckle. It sounded more like the cawing of crows. The scarecrow took a long step toward him and Hector stepped back. It chuckled more.
"What I take, I keep. Becky Inson. Linus the puppy. Eli Ernam. Your brother. They become me. You will become me next."
"I won't," Hector said, taking his hand out of his coat pocket. He held the disposable lighter he won on the first day of the Carnival in his outstretched arm. He flicked it on. The tiny flame provided little light and no warmth. "A bit of light," Hector said. "So we can see each other."
"I see everything," The scarecrow intoned.
"And yet you came here, even though you knew I wanted to kill you. What are you?"
"A spirit from a world you would go mad to see," the scarecrow said. Its long arms were pooled around it, ready to lash out and bind Hector. "I have existed on this land for centuries, gaining strength."
"You kill, and then people forget them," Hector said. The scarecrow did nothing. "But I noticed. I remembered enough. You couldn't trick me." He thrust his free hand at the scarecrow, where Jonathon was written. "I won't forget."
"Ink fades like memory. And you will forget! Do you want to see what awaits you when I take you, Hector? When I erase you forever?" The scarecrow's tube arms plucked the pumpkin away from the body, and instead of nothingness that should have been, there was a head. "Bring the light closer, brother."
Dread like a wave struck Hector, and he took a step. He held the lighter up toward the head that had appeared under the pumpkin, and the flickering flame caught a decayed visage of rotting skin and exposed tendons. "Do you see me? It's me, Hector." The rotted mouth pulled into a smile. "It's Jonathon."
Hector stepped back, mind overcome by the memories the face brought back. Christmases and Easters and Halloweens at the Carnival that would take Jonathon's life and give him over to this thing.
"Do you want to know where my body is?" The scarecrow creeped closer. "It's under your feet somewhere, swallowed two feet down by my body, the body of this Carnival." The head tilted to one side. "You went over the country looking, when I was right here. I kill pigs and leave them to crash your machine. I fill crops with spiders. I drop puppies to their deaths. I kill young pretties with uneven footing and a metal bucket, boy. I have babies run to their deaths." It paused and swelled. "What possible thing could you do to hurt me?"
The lighter in Hector's hand died, pulling the flame into the plastic body, which was substantially hotter now than when he had started it. It made a small zoop noise as it flickered out, turning the lighter into a grenade.
"Burn you," Hector said, and hurled the lighter with all his might as it burst at the figure.
Flaming fluid coated the scarecrow and turned it into a blazing effigy. The fire dropped to the ground and quickly swept the dry crops into a frenzy, sending the flames whirling. As the Scarecrow screamed, Hector scampered back, running ahead of the spreading flames. The Scarecrow's howling chased him too, making him sprint faster.
The fire eagerly consumed the dry corn stalks, growing bigger and hotter. The discarded leaves and husks on the ground sped its growth, sending the flame to all corners of the corn maze without hesitation, and sending Hector running as fast as he could.
The flames chased him, and he tried to get away. He took corners and raced down bare stretches of path as the walls of corn burned down, leaving only the fire. It ate away at the crops that had been planted and cultivated for the maze.
Hector reached a dead end. The fire surrounded him, filling the air with hot smoke and making it hard to breathe. He turned to go back.
The immolated Scarecrow blocked his exit, a moving pillar of flame and burnt straw. One burning hand stretched out on a long arm to clutch at Hector, and he moved back. The Scarecrow without speaking dragged itself closer, bringing its heat close enough to singe Hector's skin.
The burning head that rested atop the Scarecrow's straw body leered down at Hector as the flames ate at its decrepit skin. Jonathon Donnerson's burning eyes locked Hector with a deep stare that Hector could not escape.
And then the Scarecrow turned to ash and fell to the ground, losing whatever hold it had on Hector. Hector couldn't find any sort of head in the smoldering remains, and jumped over it to run ahead, away from the fire.
He got to the exit a few minutes later and found a crowd around the exit watching the dancing flames. His mother was there, and she grabbed him in a frantic hug, then just as suddenly stepped back; his body was hot. He had burns on his arms and legs and ash covered his clothes. Finding Jenna, he hugged her quickly and, in response to her questioning look, gave her a small smile. Firetrucks were fighting to contain the blaze.
"Hector!" Mr. Leon yelled, coming over to him. He was followed by another board member, Mrs. Horwitz. "Are you all right? Was there anyone else inside?" He paused. "Did you do this?"
"Yes, no, and no. At least, I didn't mean to. I had a lighter in my pocket from the first night of the Carnival. I was sitting in a dead end and wanted some light to see.I guess I left it on too long, and dropped it; it was too hot." He showed them a burn on his hand where he had held on to the lighter until it burst. "I think it exploded. I don't know why."
"Damn cheap lighters! I told Mr. Foley to buy American! Are you sure no one else was in there with you?"
"Well... I did see that scarecrow again. I think somebody's still moving it around. It's probably nothing but a pile of ash now."
"Good. You should get those burns looked at," Mr. Leon said, before turning away, followed by Mrs. Horwitz.
"What was in there?" Jenna asked Hector under her breath.
Hector swallowed. "Maybe later." Jenna nodded as her parents came over to them. Mrs. Peers expressed how happy she was that Hector was okay, and Brandon slapped Hector on his smoking back. Jenna's siblings hugged his legs.
An hour later the fire was dead, contained and deprived of fuel by the fire department. Hector sat on a bench and watched the glowing embers for any motion.
Jenna came up behind him and rubbed his back. He had been given lotion and patches to soothe the burns on his skin. "A Harvest Carnival to remember," she said. Hector grinned.
"I hope so." He looked at the hand with the pen word on it, and saw in his mind the dripping face of his brother on the Scarecrow's body. He shivered. "Come on, let's get out of here. I'm going to let our parents know I'm taking you back."
After telling the Donnersons and the Peers, they walked with their fingers linked through the empty midway and past the deserted stage, under the barn entrance, and into the parking lot. They got into his car and he began to pull out of the lot.
He drove down the road away from the dark Carnival. When he turned down a connecting street, he might have been able to see something hanging over the Carnival's entrance in his mirror.