PRICE TO PAY


JOSEPH WILLIAMS

Halloween night on a backwoods country road with more potholes than level ground.

Wendy’s Harley embraced each crater with a lulling ease which should have soothed her, perhaps even turned her back down the road into darkness. There had been a time not so long ago when she would have done just that. Wiped away her tears, hitched back to her parents’ farm, and cursed into her pillow until the morning sun rose over the cornfields, treating her peculiar tribulation like it was a bout of indigestion to be neutralized rather than answered.

But now that the stagnant boil of vengeance was the only liquid running through her veins, she wasn’t about to stop for anything or anyone. Not in her condition, and especially not on Halloween night with so many days of restlessness hanging in the balance. She was already cutting it close.

After all the hours she’d spent staring at the roof of her casket with her stomach split open and her stitches itching to high heaven, she had one measly chance to set things right. If she missed it, if she sidetracked even to bid a fond farewell to her folks or make amends with her girlfriends, she’d have to wait a whole ‘nother year before she found rest, and that was something she simply couldn’t bear. Her rotted brain wouldn’t allow it.

So she rode.

The cold had come early in September but it was unseasonably warm beneath the full moon. Wendy’s blonde ponytail blew back in a straight line behind her, a tether to the little rectangle of earth which had become her home. Her blue mini-skirt flapped against her thighs. Her black cat t-shirt rippled from her shoulders to her hips. Thin, dry wisps of hair fluttered around her eyes. Some of it plastered to her face in the white, crusted clown make-up. Otherwise, she was completely still, not even blinking when debris from the road smacked against her bare skin.

Her eyes narrowed when she saw the lights from the haunted corn maze up ahead of her across two miles of Midwestern farmland. She wasn’t headed to the main entrance like the rest of the Halloween thrill-seekers, though. The staff trailers were about a mile past it, down a separate dirt road straddling the town line, and that was where Wendy was headed. Down to meet the main attraction.

His name was Silas Sin and he was an asshole. Each fall, the Suits paid him an ungodly bounty to portray the killer clown character from his costume metal band, Rygar, in Mr. Marvelous’ Scare-atorium: the self-proclaimed ‘scariest experience between Philadelphia and Denver.’ This was his third year playing the part and the last night of the season. Seeing as the county-mandated midnight closing time was fast approaching, that meant Wendy was up against more than one deadline. After all, who knew if he would be back next year? She didn’t plan on leaving it to chance.

Dust swirled in her wake and filled her mouth when she turned into the quiet staff parking lot, but she didn’t taste it. She’d lost her sense of taste along with innumerable other sensations and dignities since her last rendezvous with good old Silas. It had, after all, been a long year since the Halloween incident. The night she’d drawn her last breath. It was still firmly imprinted on her memory though most everything else had rotted away. It was the only reason she still walked the earth.

She’d been nineteen. Still a girl, really. Lonely and immobile. Working the family farm while the rest of her friends went away to school or found grown-up jobs in town. It was boring, but at least she hadn’t been homeless. Or pregnant. There were always those consolations to consider, and they were hardly minor considering her social circle. She’d seen plenty of her girlfriends knocked up by Joe Nobody in the throes of Senioritis. Even more of them had gotten in a little too deep with methadone to come out alive.

But that wasn’t always much comfort when she was awake in the midnight hour, wondering what had happened to her high school sweetheart Benny and what she was going to do with her life. She didn’t want to end up a farmer’s wife without an identity of her own like her mother. No, ma’am. Fuck that. That was good and fine for some people and she never held it against them, but it wasn’t right for Wendy.

Ever since she was a girl, she’d envisioned a different life for herself. A city life. A ‘professional’ life as she called it, far away from small-town politics and sensibilities. Walking beneath skyscrapers rather than silos and meeting famous people in person rather than through her TV screen. She hadn’t quite figured out how she was going to realize that dream of New York or Chicago or Paris or Anywhere Else by the time she started working at the Scare-atorium, but Silas Sin had never allowed her the chance.

She hadn’t been looking for work. The job as a guide on the haunted-hayride had fallen into her lap. Her best friend Stephanie had held the position two Octobers in a row, but she was away at college that year and couldn’t commit to returning home every weekend for minimum wage and bad hours. Stephanie had recommended Wendy for the position and she’d taken the job without a second thought.

That’s where she met Silas Sin, the metal rock star. Otherwise known as her ticket out of Normal, USA.

The rest was only slightly more cliché. At least, right up until Silas got a little too drunk and a little too violent with her the night he’d told her he loved her for the first time. The police report claimed that she’d been run over on the hayride and the coroner agreed, but that didn’t change the facts. And if no one else was going to take justice into their hands, she was happy to do it herself.

So there she was on Halloween night, ready to reprise the old trailer-shaking tango with Silas Sin. Only, this time, the end result would be different.

A lot different.

“…and watch your hands and feet, boys and girls! You never know when the bloodthirsty ghost of Farmer Jack will jump out of the corn and drag you off to his shed…”

Another one of the guide tramps. Wendy’s direct replacement, she guessed. They always made sure that the microphone was loud enough to hear from the parking lot so the actors wouldn’t miss their cues. The words didn’t matter though, and neither did the workers, so Wendy pushed the rotting memories away.

She had one purpose now. Everything else was just details.

Shrill screams shot through the cornfield as Farmer Jack leapt out at the passing tour truck. The ride was tamer than the haunted house and the actual maze, but the ‘ghosts’ were good for some squeals from the teenaged girls and their equally terrified boyfriends, and that night was no exception.

“Whew! That was a close one! But don’t get too comfortable…Jack’s scarecrow won’t be far behind…”

Anticipatory screams followed.

Wendy—the only real ghost walking the cornfields that night—ignored the proximity of the riders and headed straight for Silas Sin’s trailer at the back of the park. She reached the darkened rectangle just as Mad Louie’s chainsaw roared to life along the guided tour.

“Shit!” a teenaged boy in a red varsity jacket yelled.

“Speed up!” the girl next to him shouted at the driver.

All of it was just background. Context.

Wiping crusted make-up from her eyelashes, Wendy crouched in the shadows of the swaying stalks at the border of the staff parking lot and waited.

“All right, folks. It’s coming up on midnight and it’s too dangerous to be out in the cornfields after twelve. The spirits tend to get a little livelier than they should.”

The sound from the truck carried remarkably far. Wendy couldn’t hear her own breath (perhaps because she wasn’t breathing), but she could hear the ten year-old muffler with a hole in it belching out the final, pneumatic notes of the night before idling, unloading its passengers, and eventually shutting down completely.

And still, Wendy waited.

She heard the far off screams of the last patrons in the haunted barn and knew that Silas would be the one making them scream most. Right at the grand finale, when the thrill-seekers found themselves in his laboratory of vivisection and the bloody, mutilated body of the teenaged girl implored them for help.

He would be finished soon, then. The security team would guide the stragglers to the front of the corn maze where they served donuts and cider even in the middle of the night. The actors would change out of their costumes and head home to wash off the smell of the musty outfits. Some of the younger workers would get together out in the cornfields with a couple bottles of liquor and a case of beer and perform their sacred adolescent ceremonies until two or three in the morning, at which point they would drunk-drive the dirt roads back to their parents’ farms to make curfew.

But not Silas.

Silas would keep wearing his costume and makeup. He would stagger back to his trailer with a girl on every arm and a bag of the harder stuff hanging from the pouch of his killer clown costume. He would close the door behind him, make the girls do things to each other and to him, and then he would either fall asleep contentedly or rough the girls up a little on their way out because that was what he did with a little whiskey and cocaine in him.

Wendy knew the song and dance all too well. She should have, after all. It had been the last song and dance she’d experienced among the living.

“Where the hell is Max?” someone asked.

One of the workers.

No one answered. Wendy didn’t care if Max had been abducted by aliens. The voice was a distraction. The questions were a distraction. All she had to do was hide in the shadows of the swaying stalks with her legs crossed Indian-style in front of her and wait. Just a little while longer.

Car doors slamming. Muffled sounds of laughter and reprimand as the clean-up crew did one final sweep of the maze before calling it quits.

Somewhere far off across the echoing cornfields, the actors were finishing up with their costumes and makeup, and Silas would surely be doing his rounds among them. Checking to see if there was anything or anyone more interesting than the recent crop of tour guide tramps coaxing the last customers away from the donuts and cider stand.

He was close. She could smell him over the dirt and corn. The mixture of booze, cigarettes, sweat, and makeup.

Soon enough.

“All right, boys and girls,” a voice called over the microphone. “We’re clear to shut down. Don’t forget to sign your time sheet on the way out and check next week’s schedule for clean up.”

No more than five minutes now. She was sure of it. Just long enough for him to pick out his favorites and glamour them with his vampire eyes.

A dry, crooked grin spread across her cheeks, cracking the skin and exposing the rotted brown beneath. She rose to a predatory crouch among the stalks.

The moon hung full and almost comically bright. Close enough to touch with a little legwork. Maybe as close as the edge of the cornfields. If all went according to plan, maybe she’d even be able to follow it out into the dawn and never look back.

Voices ahead, coming up the path. Drunken giggling and the lilt of playful flirtations whispered back and forth.

The time had come.

Raising her dead legs gracefully to their full length, she vanished into the rows of corn just as Silas rounded the corner into the staff parking lot with a girl under every arm. If he hadn’t been so intent on the fresh nineteen year-old meat he was escorting to his trailer door, he might have even seen her slink off into the shadows. He might have seen the pale, nightmarish hue of her skin in the moonlight and known something wasn’t quite right, that he should get the hell out of Dodge while there was still time. But if he’d been focused on anything other than the soft flesh beneath his palms, he wouldn’t have had anything to worry about in the first place. It was precisely what made him Silas, and precisely why Wendy’s death hadn’t weighed all too heavily on him. He was a rock star, after all. Invincible and adored.

“Do you have alcohol?” one of the ride tramps asked him. She said it like she was still getting used to the word, and her lack of specificity only confirmed the notion.

Silas grinned, and somehow his two escorts weren’t repulsed by his unmasked intentions, or the killer clown makeup that stained his teeth black and yellow. “Enough to keep the monsters away.” Rolling his eyes back to the whites and dropping his jaw, he made an ‘ooooo’ sound and goosed both girls at the same time. They erupted in a fit of giggles.

“Stop! You’re scaring me!” one of the ride tramps said.

“Aw, don’t worry sweetheart,” Silas assured her, leading them up to the door of his trailer. “I’ll protect you.”

“You can’t protect people from ghosts. They can do whatever they want,” the other girl piped in.

Silas smacked her rear end and pushed her into the dim light of his trailer. “Bullshit. Even Halloween’s scared of me.”

Drunk.

Wendy emerged from the cornfield a moment later, carrying Mad Louie’s chainsaw without the guard, and Silas didn’t look back when he slammed the trailer door shut to leave her alone in the dirt parking lot. Just like last time. And since he didn’t look back, he didn’t see that one of the swaying stalks had torn off part of her cheek and her rotting teeth were visible.

He was finally in place now, and so was she.

Still, she waited a while, listening to the playful screeches of laughter coming from the trailer as the drinks flew back and clothing flew off (probably Silas’s clown costume first, but it wouldn’t be long before the girls joined in).

Waiting.

She wasn’t waiting because she wanted the girls to be far from the trailer when she took care of business, though, or even because she was having second thoughts. No. That would have required a conscience, and hers had rotted away not long after Silas had beaten her to death. She waited instead because the time didn’t seem quite right yet. In order for her revenge to be perfect, she had to pick her spot carefully.

But she couldn’t wait forever, she knew, whether she wanted to or not. Her time was running out.

That didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy it while it lasted.

“You want a sniff?”

The full moon finally peaked and she knew she couldn’t wait any longer.

The supports had only just begun to rock beneath Silas Sin’s trailer-tango when she crossed the dirt parking lot to his door. The moonlight guided her way, broken only by the shadows of the cornstalks swaying in an unnaturally warm breeze.

“Slow down.”

The walls of the trailer were thin. She could hear every whisper, every moan, every breath as she tapped on the door.

“Have another sip.”

The rocking didn’t stop and no one seemed willing to answer the call, so she knocked again, this time with more force but still reserved enough not to cause alarm.

“Fuck off,” Silas said from inside. He sounded…distracted.

Wendy knocked again, pounding her dead fist hard enough to dent the door.

The rocking ceased.

“I’m scared, Cy,” one of the ride tramps said.

Wendy could imagine the two girls trembling in fear atop the sheets of his pull-out bed while Silas scowled and barely controlled his rage. If there was one thing that worked Silas Sin up enough to prove he was a mean motherfucker, it was being interrupted from spoiling two young Bettys.

The door flew open hard enough to pull off its hinges and Silas’s half-made-up face emerged from the darkness. “What?”

His rage was palpable. Until he got a look at her, at least. Then his demeanor changed altogether, but not in the way Wendy might have expected. Although, with Silas Sin, she should have known to expect the unexpected. Or at least the grotesque.

“Oh,” he grinned, looking her up and down. “We’ve got a late joiner.” He reached out and cupped her breast. “Nice costume. Does your mommy know you’re out trick-or-treating past your bedtime? I think Uncle Silas oughta give you a spanking.”

Wendy grinned back and grabbed his hand.

He didn’t recognize her then. That was all right. She thought it might even make things better, at least by justifying her actions. If he wasn’t haunted by her face every night when he went to sleep, how many other girls like her had been left out in the cornfields to rot? Or dumped off at the side of a county highway in Hicksville, USA? His temper was bad enough during his romps between the sheets (also known as the trailer-tango) that she figured there were probably many others, indeed. Throw booze into the mix with a little sprinkle of the harder stuff and he was a coldhearted killer.

“Come on inside and we’ll warm you up,” he said. He was eyeing her hand. The cold of her flesh had shocked him even though it was practically November. He wasn’t quite suspicious yet, but he was certainly unprepared.

He gave her a little tug across the threshold and Wendy sprang to action.

With a flick of her wrist, she sent him flying across the trailer. His tailbone smacked against the mini-fridge and the rest of him folded backward in absurd angles. Before he hit the floor, Mad Louie’s chainsaw roared to life and the two girls screamed loud enough for all the other workers to hear.

Wendy didn’t care. This was what she’d come for.

She walked across the trailer to where Silas gasped for breath on the floor, staring up at her and trying to decide for himself whether she was serious or not. Whether he could overpower her and take the chainsaw to kill her as he had so many others over the years. It would be messier this time because there were witnesses, he was probably thinking, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t take care of them, too.

Wendy kicked him square in the nose with her leather boot to help the arithmetic and stepped on his throat.

One of the ride tramps quit screaming long enough to plead with her. “What are you doing?”

Wendy barely heard her over the roar of the chainsaw, but it wasn’t the girl she wanted to answer anyway. It was the question in Silas Sin’s eyes.

She leaned over the killer clown with a ring of makeup where he’d removed his rubber nose and whispered in his ear. “There’s a price to pay.”

His eyes widened with recognition. His limbs went rigid.

And then she touched the chainsaw to his chest and blood sprayed the trailer from floor to ceiling.

The naked ride tramps screamed until they pissed the bed and fainted, and that was long before Wendy’s work was done.

By the time she was finished, midnight had come and gone and she was beginning to lose her strength. That was all right, though, since Silas had lost all his limbs. She’d had visions of hanging his head, arms, and legs from the scarecrows in the cornfields as trophies back when she’d been holed up in her coffin, but there wasn’t any time.

She left him in the trailer where she’d cut and emptied him with that disbelieving stare in his eyes.

And then, her job complete, she hopped back on her motorcycle and followed the Halloween moon into dawn.

Free at last and with more than a few scars.

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