Welcome to the Night Harvest. For the entire month of October, we’ll be featuring scary stories and illustrations from talented authors and artists around the globe. I hope you stay awhile. After all, the Night Harvest is quite a scream. You can see the live list of participants and their posts dates on this link.
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The Soul Maze
by Jamie Corrigan
I must have listened to the voice mail a hundred times already since Saturday. My phone hadn’t rang, but right after the first truck rolled into town I heard the familiar chirp. The one that usually indicates Aisha or my parents have called and I’ve somehow missed it. But the growly voice barking out the invitation wasn’t what I expected—and yet it was.
My thumb slides over the replay button. “This is it. No more,” I vow again. After this, I’ll wait until nine and walk through the maze, my girlfriend Aisha beside me for protection just in case people are wrong about the legends.
“Pumpkin Festival. Center of the Maze. Nine-thirty PM. Don’t be late.”
This time I stick to it and put my cell away.
“Lissa, are you still doing it?” Aisha glares at me from the doorway. Her almond eyes are sunken in from days of no sleep. She’s tried to conceal them under layers of makeup, but it’s useless. Not even the added purple to her raven braids can pull attention away from the panda look she’s been sporting lately.
“You okay, Babe?”
“Lissa, stop dodging.”
My hand slides to the spot beside me, “You look tired.”
Aisha picks at her nails, a clear sign I’m pushing it. “Lissa, answer me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Sweetie, it isn’t going to say something else magically the next time you listen to it.”
“It might. You don’t know how magic works.”
Aisha shakes her head and walks over to me. She gently kisses my lips as she sits down on my bed beside me . “Magic,” she says, pulling out her phone, “isn’t why we got the message.”
The moment I’d told her about mine I found out she got the same one. While I’m convinced it’s the real deal, Aisha’s not exactly on board.
“This has setup written all over.” She pulls one of her tiny braids through her teeth and nips it. After a few seconds of awkward silence, she releases it, saying, “We talked about this, Lissa. You know I’m right.”
I don’t blame her after how our old friends reacted when we started dating. The names and shoving were horrible. School’s not exactly our favorite place anymore, but I still can’t imagine them going this far to prank us. It just doesn’t make sense to me no matter how many times she says it’s true.
Finally I grasp onto why it’s bugging me. “They don’t know about what we think about the legends, Aisha.”
“Idiots don’t have to know you’re into something to use it against you. Lissa, haven’t you watched the news? People are crazy and think their way is the ONLY way.”
“But nothing. We’re not going to this thing.” Aisha stands, keeping her back to me as she adds, “And if you even think you’re going…”
I reach for her hand, hoping I can talk her into it one last time. “Babe, seventy-five years. It’s been forever since someone from our county has been asked to be part of the Skeleton Club.”
“And the fact they asked a bisexual and a lesbian, who aren’t exactly white I might add, is amazing.”
She snorts. “You’re half Japanese, Lissa. That’s not exactly horrible around here.”
“You know what I’m saying.” I fill my voice with all of the hope and truth I can manage and pray it reaches whatever’s causing her to block all of my rational reasons. I don’t dare move. Instead I keep her hand in mine while whispering, “Together. Remember?”
Her nails dig into my palm before she pulls away. Aisha’s voice comes almost as a whisper as she pleads, “That’s why. Can’t you see that?”
“We vowed we’d do anything if they asked us to join. We can’t just not go, Aisha.”
She doesn’t look at me. Instead she walks away, finishing her threat as she exits my room, “I’ll tell your parents. Everything.”
At six I leave my house and head to the festival. My parents aren’t exactly unhappy that Aisha isn’t going with me, but it kills me to have to do it this way. We were supposed to do this together. Even before we became more, we had dreamed of joining the mysterious Skeleton Club. It’s just not going to be the same doing it without her. But she made her choice. Now I’m making mine.
A wave of corn dogs, pumpkin spice, and popcorn assaults me as I enter Main Street. My stomach growls and I make a plan to stop by the Taste-Y-Sweets truck and grab a slice of pie. The moment I step through the jack-o-lantern archway however, my phone chirps.
“Ah. Pie,” I whine and check my cell for whoever just ruined my date with deliciousness.
You look hungry. Get an apple with Bob.
“Okay. Looks like I’m bobbin’ for apples.”
Luckily this place never changes its set up so I’m able to find the booth in less than three minutes. Handing my ticket to Mrs. Walsh, I say, “Looks fun.”
“Aisha said you weren’t feeling well. Guess she was wrong.” The look of confusion paints her chubby face as she ushers me to the barrels. “You just missed her actually. Think she came by around fifteen minutes ago.”
“Oh. Well, I’m feeling better now.” I’m about to go for my first apple when I remember to add, “And don’t tell her I’m here. Okay?”
“Your choice,” she says, putting a minute on the clock. “Ready? Go.”
By the time the clock chimes I’ve managed to get eleven apples. My own personal best and the booths according to Mrs. Walsh.
She frowns, “Huh, looks like you dropped something in the barrel.” I’m about to reach in to grab what looks like a silver charm when she adds, “Not with your hands. Mouth only.”
My brow arches. “Excuse me?”
“They didn’t give me a scoop. Plus, it’s close to the top.” When I don’t just dive back in, she huffs, “We have rules, Lissa. No hands. I’m not getting yelled at by the PTA cause you put your hands in the barrel. It’s dumb, I know. Just do it.”
We all know the head of the PTA’s crazy, so I sigh and go back in. Weight slams against the back of my head the instant I do and I’m fighting to get back up to air again. The charm clutched between my teeth, I swing backwards and connect with a set of ribs. My head flies from the lukewarm water and I search for my attacker finding nobody but a confused Mrs. Walsh.
She hands me a plastic golden apple and pats me on the head with a towel. “Try to drown yourself? Looks like you got it though.”
“Who was that?”
“Who was who, dear?”
Liquid runs down the back of my shirt causing goosebumps to blossom on my skin. I’m about to tell her about the attack when I remember the legends and decide to go with a simple, “Nobody. Just thought I heard someone.”
“Nope. Just us.”
“Okay. Well, I better split before Aisha comes back. Bye.”
Once I’m done there, I walk away and pop open my prize, the charm still firmly in my palm. I frown at the slip of paper that’s lying inside before unfolding it and awaiting my next instructions.
When can you ride an egg? Figure it out and do it now.
“Too easy, “ I snort and make my way toward The Scrambler, tossing my near death experience aside with the trash. Just like always, the line’s backed up two blocks. Thankfully Aisha’s had her turn and I’m tempted to ditch the ride and tag along with her to see what’s task number three. But then it hits me.
She’s totally going to join without me!
Markus Sims snatches my wrist and yanks me from the line. Arm around my shoulders, he leans in and mumbles, “Just say you’re with me and promise to remember it later.”
He ignores me per usual and escorts me straight to the head of the line. “Hey, Dad. My friend here needs to jump ahead.”
“Why? You two have a hot date?” Mr. Sims snickers and gives him a wink.
“Yeah. Actually we do. So, can we jump ahead?”
He eyes me. “When this happen?”
Marcus hugs me closer to his scrawny frame, “Recently. So…?”
Mr. Sims stares at us for a few seconds and then calls out to the crowd, “My boy and his girl’s gonna jump ahead. I’ll make it worth y’alls while if you don’t bust my balls over it.” Once everybody’s groaned, he motions for us to get on and so we do.
Once we’re fastened in about to go, I ask, “So, why exactly are you being so nice to me?”
Marcus waits until the Scramblers doing its thing to slide the slip of paper in my hand, saying, “Just remember,” as he does so.
Questions roll through my mind like a head that’s just parted it’s body and hit the floor. I pull my cardigan closer, the humidity that’s been bugging me for days suddenly sucked from the night’s air. Even though I had told myself that Aisha was wrong, something about what Marcus said tugs at my upchuck reflex and it’s all I can do to make it stop.
Our egg squeaks. Marcus’ back presses against the seat, eyes wide. “What the hell was that?”
I’m about to say something wickedly sarcastic when I feel our egg spin a little bit off balance. My right hand grips the wheel. “Something’s wrong with this thing!”
“You think? Someone took the thing from the center of the wheel.”
I’m clueless about what he’s talking about. All I do know is that this thing’s broken and, “We’re about to die!”
He points. “There! We need to put something there before it spins us off this damn thing!”
The egg tilts a different direction on our next spin and my hands squeeze whatever they’re holding for dear life. Something sharp pinches my left palm and in a flash I have the answer to our gigantic problem. Holding it up, I say, “This. Put this in.”
Marcus doesn’t even question it. He snatches it from my fingers and quickly jams it into the wheel and screws it in just enough to hopefully keep us from becoming scrambled eggs before the ride’s over.
Two more rounds of spins and then we hear the angelic phrase we’ve been praying for.
“All done,” Mr. Sims calls out.
Marcus grabs my hand and drags me from the death machine, shouting, “Check that one before you restart it!” He doesn’t stop to answer questions, instead he keeps going and doesn’t say another word.
I want to ask about what happened, but I’m too shaken to say anything.
Aisha, I really wish you were here now.
We’re by the band stand in the center of the festival when he decides it’s safe to let go. Pushing me backwards, he stares at my fist clutching the next instruction. His visibly shaken as he reminds me, “Don’t forget.”
Marcus splits before I can say anything. Alone again, I stand there and think about things. How my very own girlfriend’s betraying me. The way Marcus’ voice quivered when he handed me my next task. Something I can’t believe I managed to not lose when we about died.
“Someone’s tried to kill me twice already.”
Or have they?
“Home. I just need to go home.”
Mind made up, I spin on my heels and take exactly three steps before I stop at the sound of the paper crunching in my hand. I tell myself to toss it and forget about the stupid Skeleton Club. Too much has happened that says Aisha’s right, but I’m unfolding it before my body can follow my own instructions.
7:00 PM. Cake Walk. Wait there until you get a slice.
“Get a slice? What does that even mean?”
Dangit! A clue like that’s not something I can just ignore. Even if it means I’ll end up almost dying just to check it out. The almost part’s what keeps me in this game. After all, Aisha’s still kickin’ and nobody’s freaking out, so whatever this is isn’t so bad. I can totally do this.
I check my watch. 6:28 PM. The groan slides from me before I can stop it. Not because I know I’m stuck wandering around the festival for thirty minutes, but because I know Aisha is going to be there when I arrive.
Seven sharp I’m standing by the cake walk booth. The note didn’t say I had to play so I stick to just lingering around. Aisha’s nowhere to be seen, but I’m told she’s been there and didn’t stay long.
Probably chickened out. Good.
Kids stomp on the chalk numbers and sing along to the music as they go around in circles until it stops playing. One by one they win pieces of yummy cake and I’m tempted to join in just to take a bite of Mrs. Walsh’s double chocolate fudge bliss. I’m about to plop down a ticket when the lady running the booth asks me to help with the deserts.
“Um, I guess I can.” I glance down and my heart stops. “But I’ve gotta split in ten minutes.”
They don’t mind and neither do I.
An hour and a half with nobody trying to murder me. Yay!
The maze is about a fifteen minute hayride out of town so I’ll have just enough time to make it before nine-thirty. Just to be sure, I start slicing and slapping the wedges on plates until something stings my thumb.
I stare at the small trickle of crimson oozing from skin. Blinking, I look dumbly down at the now headless knife and feel the breath being vacuumed completely out of me. I’m about to throw the handle down and scream screw this when I hear it. Sticking my thumb in my mouth and give it a good suck, savoring the salty sweetness while pulling out my cell with my good hand.
You’ve almost passed. Grab the black bag on the corner. Don’t be late.
Laughter and squeals go off like fireworks around me, filling my head with their dizzy fun. Aisha’s warning tugs at my stomach and for a full minute I’m frozen. Every single option flies through my mind, but still I can’t force myself off this path. Hand grasping the small velvet bag that’s been sitting carelessly on the edge of the cake booth table, I sprint to toward the hayrides.
To my destiny.
I don’t dare peek inside the bag. I’m not ready for what’s in there. Instead I sit by myself on a bale of hay listening to everybody chat while I plan for whoever’s waiting for me in the center of the maze.
My feet pounds the ground, breath coming in short fast spurts. I search and finally find a good spot to stop. Fingers wound around the dagger I’d found in the bag, I wait for the next one to show his face with my back pressed against the haystack wall. The first two put up a fight, but I pray the next one goes down fast.
Aisha said not to come, I tell myself over and over while I count down the seconds to the last one. The legends had warned there’d be blood, “But not like this.”
“Not like this?”
Her voice floats over the wall and caresses my ear causing my body to shiver. I clench the blade tighter. “Aisha?”
“Just couldn’t listen. Had to come along anyway. What? You think they meant touching fingers or something,” she taunts.
“What are you talking about?” Up until now I’ve been telling myself that I didn’t kill them. That I hadn’t sliced that boy’s throat and plunged my blade in that girl’s chest. That all of this has been some cruel joke that some idiots are playing on me. That I wouldn’t feel like that if it were real. But now—
“Aisha, please talk to me!”
She struts around the corner of the wall, blade poised to strike. Her braids are pulled back in pinned so they can’t be used against her and finally I realize why she’s been tired lately.
Aisha smirks. “Of course I did, Sweetie. Why else would the Skeleton Club call this the Soul Maze?”
“Yes. And we would’ve been alright if you had just waited a year. But no, you just HAD to join now.” She moves closer, her eyes never leaving my weapon.
I shake my head, “I’m not killing you.”
Aisha snickers. “I know.”
“You’re not killing me either.”
“Oh? Why you say that?” She frowns and cocks her head, waiting for my life changing reply.
I’m not exactly sure of what I’m going to say, but my entire night at the festival travels through my mind. Then it dawns on me. “Because you could’ve killed me twice tonight and you didn’t.”
“Pft! Those were just me trying to scare you off.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Because I love you.” She takes another step forward. “At least then I did. Now, you’re a means to an end.”
A leaf crunches behind me pulling Aisha’s attention away. I’m about to strike, hoping to wound her enough to render her harmless and yet still alive when I hear Marcus’ voice pleading for help. I turn my gaze just enough to see a masked man holding a gun to the back of his head.
Aisha grabs my wrist, yanking me around to face her. Leaning in just close enough so I can hear her, she says, “Remember what we said we’d do to that douche in that sappy love triangle?”
The memory hits me like a frying pan and I shake my head. “No. We can’t.”
Speaking just loud enough so the four of us can hear her, she exclaims, “So we’re BOTH your girls huh? Nice, Marcus.”
He gulps. “Lissa, please?”
Aisha always has a plan. I’ve known this about her since forever. She’s even dropped hints since we got the message, I’ve just been too blind to see. And poor Marcus knew what was coming. What we had to do just so we could survive and be part of the club.
“Lissa, you can choose. Please, Lissa?”
Aisha groans. “Shut up, Marcus. You volunteered for this after all.” Sensing her slip, she adds, “Dating us both that is. You have it coming.”
I turn and stare into his hazel eyes and feel his plea deep down to my very core. It feels like hours, but I’ve made my decision exactly fifteen seconds after Aisha takes my hand. I know fully now what true love means as I walk up hand in hand to Marcus and help Aisha rid him of his life.
As his frail body hits the ground, I pray for his forgiveness as the masked man takes our weapons from us and points towards the exit saying, “We’ll call.”
Aisha leads the way as we bolt down the final path taking us out into the open festival. Everybody’s happy and nobody acts like five dead bodies have been found inside the maze when we get there. But knowing the Skeleton Club that doesn’t really surprise me.
What does surprise me is how alive I feel walking home holding my girlfriend’s hand, blood staining our close like sugar coating an apple. I tell myself I’ll feel guilty tomorrow, but looking at Aisha’s smile, I know I won’t. No, tomorrow I’ll be too busy making out with my girlfriend while we wait for the Skeleton Club’s next call.
Best. Festival. Ever.
At the moment she’s in the query trenches, but she looks forward to meeting her agent soon and doesn’t mind the hard work getting there.
Anyone may enter the giveaway. This includes the artist and writers contributing to the Night Harvest, as well as the readers of the stories. Enjoy!