from Thistledown Press YA anthology Takes 1997 Canadian Library Book of the Year Award
I had to have it.
It was the only reason I was here, gathering my courage, waiting in the black of night.
Soon it would be mine, my trophy.
It stood, a stark silhouette against the faint light from a rear window, guarding thick rows of vegetables in old man Oleskiw’s garden. Ragged fingers of straw poked out from its short sleeves.
I crouched tightly against a clapboard chicken coop, deep in the back yard at the very edge of town. Soft clucks of contented chickens, almost like a purring, came from inside. To my right, just beyond a row of willows, an unbroken field of tobacco fanned out like a dense bumpy carpet. Shadows of the willows shifted and swayed over the garden as a breeze breathed through the yard.
A zillion crickets hummed a summer rhythm and the warm August night felt soft, comforting, like a heavy blanket. Now and then a half moon would peer between dark cloud clusters. If it were possible to order up a perfect summer night, it would be this one.
My eyes locked on the partially open kitchen window and the dim light within; an eye of the dark house watching the garden. The old man passed the window. My stomach to flinched. I could imagine hearing the floor creak as he shuffled across the room.
A trickle of sweat began to run from my armpits, rolling slowly over my ribs. But then, as he vanished, the brief fear dissipated and the comfort returned. I felt slightly embarrassed at my needless prickle of fear; I was almost invisible. My black t-shirt and dark blue sweats were chosen carefully to melt into the night–a ninja.
My legs grew stiffer, my back tight, hoping the old man would settle in soon. The man was a night owl. What in the world could he be doing at this late hour? Aren’t old people snoring the night away by now so they could awaken before the chickens?
But there was no turning back. If I did, my life would jump back two giant steps. As the new kid in town–again–I hardly knew anyone. My dad’s a welder and sometimes has to move around keeping himself in work. Mom likened us to nomads. Just when I’d finally feel settled in a new town, getting connected, making friends, or finding a good hangout, we’d pull up anchor. Meeting new friends would be a lot easier if I was six years old; just head for the playground.
One time it was three places in about eighteen months: two distant points at opposite ends in southern Ontario and one way up north in the bush–Nowheresville. A few classmates had called me a liar, not believing anyone moved that much except for army people; a very small army the three of us.
Dad had a tape of Stompin’ Tom Connors with the tune, “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Mom said it was the family song. She and dad used to live on the prairies way back when.
Tonight I’d be connected–fast.
My new friends, Scot, Tony and Aaron, knew everyone and everything about my new town. I envied them being lifers. So far, we’d gotten along well and had quite a time together even though nothing was ever planned ahead. We more or less bumped into each other around town and went from there. I wasn’t sure why they were willing befriend me and didn’t care. All they asked of me was the scarecrow.
“Think of it like an initiation, Davey,” explained Scot, one afternoon from under the hood of his ’72 Nova. He was fighting with the socket wrench, changing his spark plugs.
At first I thought he’d said invitation. But I supposed they were one and the same. Not that it mattered; getting the scarecrow would be a piece of cake. And snatching it right from under the old man’s nose thrilled me. Never had I felt like this–totally electrified, with all my senses on alert, sharpened to a razor’s edge. I was aware of the skunky smell of my sweat, the damp soil, and a pleasing hint of mint in the faint breeze. The leaves on the willow breathed light sighs as they touched against each other.
I imagined myself a super-spy having just breached a high security compound, about to steal an incredibly powerful weapon. The payoff would be the good times with the gang riding in Scot’s car. I could picture myself heading down the main street of town, arm out the window, feet on the dash. And cruising around Wasaga Beach on a hot weekend, hanging out at the Burger Spot, checking out babes along the beach. Oh yeah. That little red Chevy is my ticket to summer fun–bigger and brighter things.
And everyone knows you can’t win without a ticket. The ticket was the scarecrow. It meant <em>everything</em>.
Aaron and Tony waited down the dirt road beside the town limit sign. They sat on the Nova’s rear bumper with the trunk open for a quick scarecrow deposit. From there we’d be off to the scarecrow graveyard and a secret ceremony to sacrifice the straw man to the gods. Totally bizarre.
I could hardly wait.
My hand still tingled as Scot slapped me a high five for good luck before returning to his eternal fiddling of the Chevy’s radio. He mentioned once that I’d even be able to drive his car the odd time. I already had my license but my dad didn’t trust me driving his beat up old half-ton, probably because I said it would be an improvement if it rolled and shook off all the rust.
As a result of my big mouth, I sorely lacked road experience. Any driving would be great, and a big plus would be getting it behind the wheel of the Nova with its powerful 350 Rocket engine. Awesome.
Of course, I didn’t plan to lay rubber or do any doughnuts–it would be a privilege. Driving all over town was probably too much to expect at first–any dirt road would do.
A sudden impulse swept through me to jump up and grab the stupid straw man, to get this show on the road. I fought the urge, drawing in a deep breath. <span style=”text-decoration: underline;”>Slow</span> was the way to go.
I crept ahead toward a row of tall sunflowers, away from the safety of the coop. The very moment I stopped, the kitchen light went off, plunging the garden into a deep darkness and my stomach into a tight fist.
A few more minutes should be enough for the old man to settle in. My hand wandered into a nearby row of vegetables and came up with a fat tomato. I bit into it; cool juice dripped down my chin–pure heaven. The old man sure knew his gardening.
From my new position I spied the heavy tree stump and a wave of nausea rippled over me. It was the chopping block, complete with a long-handled ax deeply embedded in it; a much, much larger ax than I’d seen earlier when a low setting sun angled long shadows in Oleskiw’s lush yard.
We wheeled slowly past his small stucco box of a house with its sharply-peaked, blue roof. A thigh-high hedge protected it from the street and a gravel drive ran beside the house right up to the chicken coop. Four tall chestnut trees shaded a large grassy area running parallel to the drive.
“Reconnaissance,” stated Tony, a sly grin across his skinny face. “I’m the chief scout. We’re targeting our objective.”
“<em>Your </em>objective,” corrected Aaron, pointing at me.
What I expected to see was the usual stooped over, frail grandpa.
Uh-uh, not this guy.
Oleskiw’s only resemblance to a grandpa was gray, almost white hair, and deep furrows lining his round dry face. The man was easily over six feet tall and had the build of a rugby player or a bear wrestler. He didn’t seem suited to being a hoe jockey weeding the garden. I felt his penetrating eyes as we rolled past. He stood beside the chopping block methodically running a file along the ax blade, honing it to a fine edge. His eyes stalked us with a mix of interest and suspicion until we drove off the pavement onto the dirt road out of sight.
We cruised the town aimlessly, drifting in circles, on and off the paved town roads, waiting for nightfall and keeping ourselves amused by sharing tales of horror. Our ramblings took on a serious tone shifting to crazy old man stories. Oleskiw became the madman.
“The guy is the town psycho,” stated Aaron in a serious tone. As if every town had one.
“See the way he was sharpening that ax?” added Tony. “That <em>cold </em>look in his eyes?”
“He’s the unofficial cat terminator in town–and whatever else wanders into his yard,” said Scot, raising a brow at me. “He does ‘em on that block over by the driveway.”
In a few hours the next “whatever else” would be me.
I’ve heard plenty of weird stories before: guys with hook hands, slashers, alien abduction, insane experiments, and cattle mutilations. But looking at that chopping block made my blood run cold. I liked cats, especially my own, Smokey. Their stories ran around in my head faster and faster, like a squirrel in a cage.
I caught myself scanning the yard for kitty corpses.
Whoa! I gave my head a shake. It was definitely time to get my butt in gear before the place spooked me. I drew in a deep breath, scanning the dark house a final time before slowly and cautiously creeping ahead. One eye locked onto the house while the other drew me to my prize. I duck-walked through rows of vegetables, stopping in front of the scarecrow.
I looked into its burlap face and bottle-cap eyes that returned an unblinking stare from under a Blue Jays cap. The blue jay emblem on the front of the cap struck me as a ridiculous image to be scaring away birds. A plaid shirt hung from hockey-stick shoulders. Straw poked out from every opening with a large matted bundle hanging suspended below the shirt as if the creature had been torn away from its lower body. Its painted toothy grin didn’t seem genuine. But why should a scarecrow be happy? It had to be tired of looking in the same direction all spring and summer. Bored stiff.
Poor thing. The thought justified my intention–I would be freeing it from its mundane existence–a mighty blow for scarecrow freedom everywhere. My body tingled as I reached up for its broom handle neck.
A crazy thought occurred to me; would pulling it out really free it? Or, after all the time in the garden, would I be killing it?
There I go again–thinking too much. I stood up defiantly, staring it straight in the eye–and jerked it up from the dirt. I felt strong and brave, a powerful warrior in this tiny town, bathed in a magical light from the heavens, marking this moment in time and space for eons.
My masterful mission was complete. I had the goods.
But what was that? A clink? Or a clank?
Whatever it was, it was barely audible and vanished instantly in my mind.
The buzzing crickets suddenly stopped.
A soft flutter of a chicken’s wings flapped from inside the shed.
But did I imagine the sound?
But something intangible had happened, almost as if the ions in the air had changed, like being very close to a lightning strike.
In a flash, the back yard lit up like a shopping mall!
That magical light beamed right into my eyes!
I froze like a deer caught in the headlights of a Greyhound bus.
The sudden piercing glare hurt my eyes, jerking my head away involuntarily. My eyes opened to my feet; dark dirt soiling my runners; crimson tomatoes hung starkly from a plant; bright green vegetables surrounded me in tight, confining rows.
A loud rattle erupted from somewhere in the house.
A chair scratched against the floor.
The kitchen light flicked on.
My mind’s eyes saw an ax slamming into the chopping block, bloody fingers tumbling away to the dirty grit of the driveway.
The image spurred me into motion. I clutched the straw man and bolted.
A tremendous clatter erupted from behind me.
The fine hairs on the back of my neck jumped to attention in a terrifying flash.
The chickens, their clucks confused for an instant, wondered if they should panic–but then instantly decided–and burst into a babbling chorus of feathered fear as if a weasel had turned up in their midst.
The old man must be throwing things from a window. The noise, almost at my heels, terrified me.
Gravel under my feet crunched loudly as the scarecrow and I scooted up the driveway beside the house. The ruckus behind confused me. It was loud enough to make me want to cover my ears.
I dared a quick look over my shoulder.
It was a trap!
Cans! A string of tin cans jumped and bounced and bobbed and flipped up a storm behind me. The straw man wasn’t coming quietly–it was booby-trapped with its own burglar alarm.
Panic rang in my head like an ear-splitting church bell.
All I could do was charge ahead at full speed, try to outrun the noise, hope the twine would snap, the cans fall away. I turned sharply, skidding onto the street, sprinting for all I was worth.
Light from the very last street lamp in town magnified me, catching me in its cross-hairs. I could almost hear sirens wailing, see guards on the walls pushing rounds into their high-powered rifles.
The whole town must be able to hear the racket.
My feet propelled me off the pavement, a blur into the blackness of the night. Scot’s Chevy loomed in the distance–the getaway vehicle–a dark beacon on the dirt road. The sight relieved a pressure cooker in my head.
In moments the gap had narrowed enough to see Tony and Aaron sitting on the bumper, their legs dangling, exactly as I’d left them. The trunk lid was up, waiting for its late night snack of straw man. My good friends waved, and beckoned, laughing heartily.
All was well.
“Yahoo!” I screamed out across the fields, the county, the whole world, holding the scarecrow like an Olympic torch. I howled at the dark sky, a wolf with its kill.
Tension and fear flooded from me.
Exhilaration charged me with an unearthly power.
Scot’s arm waved out the driver’s window in a salute. I slowed my break-neck pace. Red taillights flashed on like dragon’s eyes in the dark as the Rocket 350 roared to life.
“Go! Go!” My friends shouted from the trunk.
I grinned–until I realized they were not shouting at me. The car tore off, stones shooting from its tires.
Tony and Aaron were overcome with insane laughing, leaning back, sitting in the open trunk.
Disbelief hit me like a hammer.
My jaw dropped.
My legs kept running, unable to decipher my brain waves colliding in confusion.
Hoots and hollers carried above the car noise and rasping of tires against the dirt road.
I expected to see the red lights stop, then, grow larger as they backed toward me through the cloud of dust; oh yeah guys, you really had me–good joke–hah-hah. Congratulations would then be in order and high-fives slammed all around and…I suppose…I would live happily ever after.
Taillights lights faded to lonely red pinpoints in the night. The Rocket 350 rumbled away, the throaty purr from its dual exhausts floating in the blackness.
My heart sank like a heavy stone.
I stopped, out of breath, and turned to face the town. A few lights were already on from the nearest curious neighbors peeking out their windows.
Into the center of the street stepped the silhouette of a large man. Something long and heavy hung from his arm.
I swallowed a lump of fear.
The straw man fell from my grasp. A final tinkling from the cans broke the silence.
I looked down at my trophy–the booby prize.
Moonlight slipped through silver-laced clouds and glinted off its bottle cap eyes.
I swore I heard the scarecrow cackle.