February 2, 2024
By Daniel Carbaugh
Nothing felt right about walking into the cornfield in front of me, the dried leaves scraping my skin, grasping at my hair, towering above me. The voice of reason and the whispered anguish of the pit in my stomach were at war with each other, barely audible over the thrumming heartbeat in my ears. I tried to steady my breathing as much as I could as I moved through the field, carefully and slowly picking the path of least resistance through the evenly spaced stalks, thin roots crunching beneath my feet, catching on my toes. I listened carefully for it, the soft pained whimper I’d heard from the road on my walk home. I caught faint echoes of it on the wind, but I couldn’t tell how far away it was, or what it was. I kept following the barely audible whines, desperately trying to match it to the catalog of normal creature sounds I’d heard in my life.
Yet, I never seemed to come any closer to the source of the sad sound. I kept a careful eye on the time, knowing that there’d be no way for me to find my way out before the cold set in with the sunset. This wasn’t my land, but something about this cry drew me to want to care for it, regardless of the potential legal ramifications or physical danger. I shook my head at the thought again. There was nothing to harm me here, it was just another cornfield on a sunny afternoon. No predators lived in the area and the people were generally nice and forgiving. I decided, finally, that it must be a dog or family pet I’d been hearing. The tone was docile enough, and the familiarity, while I still hadn’t been able to place it, was oddly reassuring.
I stepped through another row of carefully planted stalks onto a small walking path and looked up, trying to gauge how much time had passed without having to take out my phone, which had been unreliable a few times as of late. The sky was just barely starting to turn the sherbet orange of sunset, my cue to turn around and try to get back to the road. Maybe I had walked past it and would find it on my way back, though my voice of reason whispered quietly that if I found it on the way back, I didn’t have time to help it. I cursed under my breath and turned, my eyes scanning the continuing field in front of me, then the thin path, then back to the swathe of corn I’d emerged from. I had made a couple steps back through when I realized I’d spotted an obstruction on the path I hadn’t seen the first time.
My heart raced in my ears as I tripped back into the path, eyes searching. The ears waved and shook with the wind for an aching moment before I saw the dark silhouette of a tractor, about a quarter of a mile down, its wheel barely eclipsing the path as it sat at rest, quiet in the late afternoon sun. I breathed a shaky sigh and turned back around, chiding myself for being so afraid of a field of corn. Then I heard the cry again, but this time it was finally closer, a little clearer. It was from the other side of the path, I could tell now. I glanced back up, the sky still the same pre-sunset shade, and checked my phone. It wasn’t too late, and the weather app said dusk wouldn’t be for another hour, and I had a decent amount of battery left in case I needed the flashlight.
Another pained sound drew me out of my contemplation, and I put my phone away and crossed the path. It sounded more urgent than before, a sharper cry than the whining that had drawn me into the cornfield. It was still impossible to place, but between my renewed vigor and the waring voices of reason and fear, the compulsion to help outweighed the screaming desire to run. I found my steps becoming less careful, more rushed, my shoes catching on more roots, breaking more thin stems, kicking up more dirt.
The sound got louder, closer, but somehow less discernible. I thought it could be a dog or small critter, but the closer I got, the more the whimpers turned to sharp hisses, the whines gruffer, more growl-like.
Then I found it.
Or rather, I found them. I had nearly broken into another thin farmer’s path when I realized there were shapes, low and close to the ground, silhouettes mixing in repetitive, jerky movements. The guttural fear won and my feet planted themselves, the last few steps slowed until quiet.
I realized part of my confusion for placing the creature’s pained sounds was because it wasn’t a singular creature. It was two. One, the smaller, rounder shape on the ground, looked like a deer, clearly wounded and in pain. The other, more angular and the source of the jerking motion and growling sounds, was humanoid in shape.
I watched the two quietly for a moment, then stepped forward. The rustling corn made the man stop and twist to face me, but he kept his hands tight on the trap he had been working to try to undo.
“I’m awfully sorry for trespassin, but I ‘eard something in pain.” My eyes darted to the small foot trap, then back to the tall, huffing man. His hair stuck to his face and there were small streaks of dirt and blood, likely the doe’s, on his face. He eyed me up and down briefly before turning back to the stuck trap. “‘S all right. Can’t be too mad at someone fer wanting to help.” He jerked back and narrowly missed the hoof connecting with his face as the doe let out another whine of pain. “I’ll forgive it this time if you help me with ‘er legs. Darn thing doesn’t know I’m ‘elpin her.”
I nodded and quickly walked around the two, erring to go around the head of the doe rather than get too close, facing the deer’s head. I gently but firmly grasped the three remaining legs, attempting to murmur soothing things as she bucked against the additional restriction. I was able to keep her still for just long enough to hear the trap snap open before I felt a tug on my back and was yanked off of her.
I heard a distant thump of something hitting the ground a few feet away as I was suddenly pulled to the man’s wide chest, the wind almost completely knocked out of me as he pulled me from the frantic deer as she pawed to get up. Within a matter of seconds, she was running away, a barely discernible limp overcome by her prevailing fear. She disappeared back into the corn, the stalks still swaying from her flight.
I breathed out a breath I had been holding before becoming aware of the man’s hand still on my shoulder. I broke away with a nervous laugh and looked up at him sheepishly, brushing my hands on my jeans as I did. His expression had softened a bit, though he was still watching me intently as he smiled and held out his hand.
“Well, that wen’ well, didn’ it?” I took his hand and shook it, feeling the grit of dirt and sweat on his palm and fingers, his grip tight and almost painful. “M’ name’s Eric. Eric Champlain.” I smiled nervously at him, trying to discreetly wipe my hand again. “I’m Jake August.” Somehow, my usual continuation of “it’s nice to meet you.” felt forced and I couldn’t choke the words out.
Eric smiled down at me and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and goosebumps run down my arms. In the light of the setting sun, his eyes almost glowed a bright golden brown, his smile bright and wide. “Well, now tha’s not a name I’ve heard around ‘er in a while, not since the old man died a few months ago.” Eric crossed his arms over his chest, covering the rest of the logo on his tee shirt that his overalls didn’t.
I frowned and looked away, towards the road, noticing the golden sunlight touching less and less of the corn by the minute. “Well, uh, that was actually more than a year ago. Several, actually.” I turned back towards Eric, shifting from side to side. He hadn’t moved an inch, though it felt like he had gotten taller. I wrote it off to the shadows and the residual fear from my first foray into the field, when the noises had no bodies.
Eric sighed and ran a hand through his dark brown hair, pulling me back to reality. “Well, yer not gonna find your way home back the way you came, so com’on.” He turned and walked down the path in the opposite direction of the doe, toward an ATV I hadn’t seen initially. After a few steps he called over his shoulder. “You comin’?” I suddenly felt like I had a sharp lump in my throat, but I followed. I had only taken a few steps when I tripped, completely losing my balance.
Eric turned and caught me in one motion, his arms wrapping around me as I looked to what had tripped me. The discarded trap, now closed, with its teeth still slick with the doe’s blood. I looked up at Eric, feeling my racing heart in my cheeks. He was smiling at me again, and while it was a comforting smile, the lump in my throat refused to budge. “Ya really ought to be smarter ‘bout where you step, lil’ mouse. Ya wouldn’t want ta get hurt now, would ya?” My heart skipped a beat or three and the world began to feel a little fuzzy, looking into Eric’s eyes.
He got me back on my feet and led me to his ATV, escorting me back home. I never gave him directions, but as he spoke of my grandfather, it was clear he had visited him before his death many times. When I questioned him about how he could be so confused about how long it had been since my grandfather died, his eyes grew dark for a moment before he looked away. He mumbled something about grief and work and then was quiet for the rest of the ride. I didn’t pry any further and simply rested my head on his back, the fabric of his shirt cold against my cheek.
When we arrived at the gate at the bottom of the driveway, Eric stopped the ATV a few feet away and stood up, though he made no move to follow me to the gate, smiling at me in a way that made my heart pound and my palms sweat. I ignored the warmth in my cheeks and the shakiness of my breath as I unlocked the smaller, more human-sized gate. “Do you want to um…” I looked back at Eric, the argument of reason and fear renewing as I saw his face covered in the lengthening shadows, his eyes bright against the dark. “I-Is your house rather far? It’s been quite a while since I’ve been around, so forgive me if I don’t remember where your family’s homestead is…”
His smirk widened into a grin, almost feral in its appearance. “Ya inviting me in, lil’ mouse?” He took a few steps forward, his heavy work boots crunching on the gravel of the rural road but stopped before his toes touched the pavement of the driveway. I looked back at him as I opened the gate and took a step in, my breath starting to form little puffs of steam now that the sun had fully set. He was handsome in a way I hadn’t noticed before, yet that gut instinct told me to slam the gate, thank him for the ride and hope to never see him again.
But the longer I looked in Eric’s eyes, the more transfixed I felt. I took another step towards home, but I didn’t close the gate, instead holding it open wider, the screaming voices of both reason and fear beginning to fade. I nodded up at Eric and cleared my throat. “Y-Yea, why don’ you come in and we’ll get ya cleaned up…”
When he ducked past the gate and closed it behind him, everything in me told me to run. It didn't matter where, just run. He followed me up the driveway, staying at my back. He said some polite thank you or something, but I couldn’t focus on the words, only the oddly, soothing cadence and timbre of his voice. When we reached the door, my hands were shaking and I was having a hard time with my keys. “Ya alright, Jake?” I turned back to him, nearly smashing my face into his chest. I hadn’t heard him get that close. Was he always this tall? I could only nod as I finally managed to open the door and scramble inside.
Once again, Eric hesitated, a look of concern on his handsome face. “Ya sure you want me to come in? I can jus’ go home…” I found myself shaking my head quickly, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans. “N-Nah, I do! I mean..”
I had barely finished my sentence before I realized my mistake.
His grin returned and this time, with the unmistakable glint of teeth so sharp, their purpose was clear. And in that moment, I understood why I had been so drawn in, why I had been so panicked, why reason evaded me again and again.
If you had asked me even yesterday if I wanted to disappear without a trace, I would have screamed “No! Of course not!” But as I felt Eric’s teeth sink into my throat, I was painfully aware that on some level, regardless of reason or instinct, I had truly wanted to disappear.
And now, I had.
Write City Ezine is currently closed for submissions. See submission guidelines for further information.
Agents and Publishers
Book of the Year
First Chapter Contest
Chicago Writers Association
Make a Difference!