The mild autumn delayed my winter retreat by weeks. I had taken a job picking corn stalks with a group of migrant workers. With my deep tan from a summer of skulking on the edge the Pines, the owner mistook me for another Mexican farm hand looking to pick up some work late in the season.
My boss was a rustic, fat guy named Francis Skirm: a guy with more money than sense. (And he didn't have all that much money.) He was fond of giving little speeches about how much he despised various races. He liked white people because he was one and he liked Mexicans because they worked for him. Everyone else could go to Hell.
It was November 1st, so we were past the peak time for selling corn stalks. After the Halloween season, the supermarkets usually flooded the market. Skirm had made his money. Sanchez, Pedro and I were the last three left. We'd stayed behind to plow the rest of the fields under and clean out the barn for Skirm's crops next Spring. The three of us headed to his shack to get our last day's pay.
"You a good worker, Perro," Sanchez said to me.
Sanchez called me "Perro" or "dog" because he figured only a white guy who was a total dog would to the backbreaking work of a migrant worker. Sanchez was an ambitious 23-year old that spent most of his time bragging how much he was banking in American dollars back in Mexico. With all the money he pissed away on whores while he was here, I doubt seriously that he would open his "dream bar" any time soon.
"You should get yourself a haircut, man," he lectured me. "You don't have to be out here like us. You could get a good job. Make real money."
My Mexican facade didn't last an hour amongst the migrant workers. And my Spanish sucked.
"I prefer to work outside," I explained. "I'd work all winter if I could."
"You should visit me in Navolato," Pedro piped up. "I'll introduce you around. You could stay at my place. You ever been to Mexico? Muy caliente."
Pedro was the family man. A naturalized citizen in the States, he dutifully mailed back every cent he could to Mexico where he lived with his family. I had to wonder how a 40-something guy could keep making the long trek to Jersey just to bust his ass for Skirm or a guy just like him, but he had done every year since he was 20. Pedro lit up a cigarette and offered one to Sanchez. Sanchez declined.
"Texas is about as close as I got," I explained. "These days, I don't leave Jersey."
"Ah, that's right. Parole," concluded Pedro. "Sorry, J.D. I forgot."
The assumption that I was on parole was a rumor I let develop in the migrant worker camp. The real explanation of how a cursed, headless wizard was plotting my demise outside the borders of New Jersey was best left out of the discussion. We arrived at Skirm's "office". It was really a dilapidated wooden shack with a table and a "Bush/Cheney" bumper sticker on the door. I knocked and we went in.
"Hey boys," greeted Skirm as we entered.
Skirm was wearing his usually overalls and trucker baseball cap. All he needed was the chewing tobacco and he would've been a walking, breathing stereotype.
"You finish turning the east field under?" he asked suspiciously.
"It's done, boss. Everything. Completo," assured Sanchez. "Pedro even winterized the tractor for you."
Pedro smiled. He liked to do a little extra for the boss so they would remember him for next year. Sanchez thought he was a suck up and rolled his eyes a little.
"Here ya go," said Skirm a little nervously, handing us the money.
I could tell right away he was short. I stopped him from leaving the shack with my hand.
"What the Hell is this?" I demanded, my voice rumbling a little.
Money was not my primary concern, but clean up week was a lot of work. Skirm was trying to shortchange us by almost half.
"Look, that's all I got. We were a little short this year. We missed that Gamblay's account."
Gamblay's was a gardening center a few miles away. Francis had order us to shortchange the stalks on their order and the owner caught us. The migrant worker supervisor who gave the order was already back in Mexico, but he had told us Francis gave the order. Now he was trying to shift the blame to us.
"Hey! Tomas ordered us to do that!" objected Sanchez.
"Yeah! He lied to us! You know that!" insisted Pedro.
Pedro had an air of honesty about him. To accuse Pedro of lying took a heart of stone. Skirm didn't quite have the mettle. He faltered.
"L-l-look, I'm sorry," he stammered, scrambling to change his story.
"I'm not leaving until you give me my money," I explained flatly. "I'll come up to your front door every day until you give it to me."
"H-hey, you can't threaten me. I'll call the cops."
I leaned in and gave him the stare.
"Fuck the cops," I growled.
"A-a-all right, fine," he reluctantly agreed. "I'll get you the money. But the banks are closed. You'll have to wait until tomorrow."
"Fine," I replied, a little calmer.
Skirm held out his hand as if he expected us to hand him back the smaller amount of money. The three of us quickly pocketed it.
"You bring us the difference," Sanchez added. "Man, Francis, you're really disappointing, jefe. All the work we did for you. Damn."
"There's one more thing," added Skirm. "You can't stay in the flop houses, I'm having them fumigated. You're going to have to stay in the lower barn."
"What? No, forget it," announced Pedro suddenly. "I won't stay there."
Pedro stepped outside and Francis smiled a little. I had the feeling that if Pedro left, we'd probably never seen our money.
"Wait Pedro," I said, stopping him. "It's just one night and we'll get our money."
"J.D., you don't understand. The lower barn is haunted," he explained earnestly. "Francis send three guys to the lower barn last year during clean up. I heard they never come back."
Having some experience with the dead of the Pines, this would normally be a concern of mine. But Skirm's farm was deep within the developed areas and no ghost could tread upon it. Still, it was possible the whole thing could be a set up. Skirm was merely luring us down there only to have the cops take us away or worse.
"Look, all we have to do is make it through the night. If you leave now, Skirm we'll stiff us, I know it. If things get weird, we'll just bolt. If the cops come, they'll probably go after the parolee and not you. Either way, you won't loose any money," I suggested.
Pedro sighed. Against his better judgment, he let me talk him into it. For me, it wasn't about the money. I just couldn't let the fat ignorant hillbilly put one over on me.
"All right Skirm, we'll crash in the barn," I agreed, walking back toward the shack.
"Grab your shit and let's go," Skirm ordered. "Hurry up, I got things to do."
We piled into the back of Skirm's pick up. It was a bumpy ride to a desolate section of the farm. Down a small rise and behind some trees was the lower barn. It looked like it had been abandoned for years.
"You gotta be fuckin' kiddin' me," muttered Sanchez.
"It ain't so bad," Skirm chided him. "C'mon, now go on."
"Why don't you fuckin' stay there, jefe?" he muttered.
Getting out of the truck, I found myself ankle deep in the sand. Developed land or not, the barn was still very much a part of the Pines. The gray sand of the Pine Barrens wouldn't let anything grow near the barn. As Francis tried to drive away, he got stuck. We watched him and laughed for a moment.
"Don't just stand there! Help me!" he snapped.
Pedro and I looked at each other curiously. Skirm seemed a little too anxious to leave. He was practically in a panic. Sanchez made and exasperated sound and moved to help, but I put up my hand to stop him. Finally, frustrated, the fat farmer slid out of the truck. With his flashlight in hand, he examined the wheels of his truck. He was really stuck.
"God dammit! Why are you just standing there?!" demanded Skirm.
"What is your problem, Francis?" I asked. "You seem awfully anxious to get out of here. Did you signal your cop buddies too early?"
Francis looked flummoxed. That clearly wasn't it, but whatever it was, Francis seemed terrified.
"Aw, fuck you guys," he finally said, marching away.
He started to walk back towards the farmhouse. A long trek for anyone this time of night, but it might as well have been a marathon to the fatty farmer. He didn't get more than twenty steps away before we saw it. In the distance, the field we had plowed under rippled under the moonlight. The rippling effect went all the way to where the tree line and abruptly stopped. A 100-year old oak tree suddenly teetered and fell over as if something under the earth had loosened the soil and tore up the roots around it. Francis stopped in his tracks and came running back, moving faster than I ever saw him before.
"What is that?" asked Sanchez.
"Get in the barn!" panted, Skirm, choking on his words.
"Is this some kind of trick?" Pedro asked me. "Is he scaring us?"
I looked out in the direction of the collapsed birch tree. The rippling started up again. The remaining cornstalks were collapsing as if something beneath them was tearing up the ground. It was heading right for us.
"No," I replied to Pedro. "Whatever that is is scaring us."
Hurrying into the barn, we found the place covered in cobwebs. The dirt floor was almost as loose as the sand on the outside. Skirm headed for the nearest ladder, dropped his flashlight and without a word started climbing. Sanchez didn't wait. He hopped one of the low walls that divided the stables and climbed into the loft. Pedro followed Skirm on the ladder. As the doors to the barn flew open and the ground rippled, I leapt and caught the edge of the loft with my hands. Despite the crumbling wood, I managed to pull myself up quickly. The sand below swirled menacingly.
Pedro made it to the third step of the ladder when the step unexpectedly gave way beneath him. He slid down, breaking the steps below as he did. Barely touching the sand, he tried to pull himself up by the ladder handles. From under the sand, a white, viney, root covered in thorns wrapped itself around Pedro's leg and attempted to pull him into the sand.
"Ah! Ahh!" he cried in panic. "It's got me! Help!"
Sanchez and I helped Skirm get into the loft and out of our way. Sanchez nearly dove down the ladder as I held him by the knees. He caught Pedro's hand and began to pull. The vine pulled back.
"Kick it off you!" Sanchez ordered Pedro.
Pedro had been trying to do just that, but the thorns were dug into his skin and he was bleeding. I started to slide off the loft. I couldn't see Skirm in the shadows of the loft, but he obviously wasn't helping. With one hand, I whipped out my pocketknife and opened it. I chucked it at the root. I cut it and the tension on both ends caused the portion of the root around Pedro's leg to snap. We pulled him into the loft.
I looked over the ledge just in time to see the soil swirl again and Skirm's flashlight sink into oblivion. Sanchez had a penlight on a key chain. He used it to examine Pedro's leg as he gently removed the thorny root.
"What the Hell is this?" he asked.
"I don't know," I growled, immediately moving to Skirm. "What is that Francis?"
I dragged the farmer to the edge of the loft. He was so out of shape from years of letting others do his work, the only thing that was keeping me from hurling him over the side was his bulk.
"I-I-I don't know! I don't know!" he squealed.
I slapped Skirm a few times hard enough to watch his fat ripple.
"You don't know? You don't know?! You knew it was here! That's why you wanted to get in the truck, huh?! Huh?!"
"No!" he insisted.
Now I started punching him, hard. There was too much stomach to punch, so I went for the face. Skirm's nose went on the first hit. I figured some blood might make him a little more chatty.
"Fuck! Ow! Fuck! Stop!" he squealed.
"One more time, little piggy," I insisted. "You tell me what the fuck that is. Choose your words very carefully."
"Okay," began Skirm cautiously. "I don't--- I'm not sure what exactly it is. The old man that sold me this place told me about it. I-I-I didn't believe him."
Pedro had the root off his leg and was now carefully removing any thorns. Sanchez joined me for the interrogation.
"You fed those other workers to it!" he accused.
"No! Th-that was an accident!" insisted Skirm.
"Fuck him," concluded Sanchez. "Let's thrown him over and run for it."
"Hold on, he knows something," I said, not dismissing the idea. "What do you mean an accident?"
"The old man told me about this thing. It's some k-k-kind of plant, I don't know. Said I needed to feed three pigs! I thought he was crazy! B-b-but one of the old workers had fed the thing before. Stole three of my best pigs and took it down to the lower barn. I went down there to get them. They wouldn't give them up. I went back to the house to get my shotgun and when I came back, only the pigs were there."
"But what is it?" I pressed.
"Some kind of plant! He was crazy!" insisted Skirm.
"You think he was crazy now? You don't know crazy, Francis. Tell me exactly what crazy things he said or I'm gonna fuckin' push you off!"
I emphasized my threat by hanging him over the edge of the loft. Sanchez kicked him a few times too.
"He said it was older than him! Older than the farm! That it had been here a thousand years! It was old! So old that it fed on hate and fear!"
"What do you mean it fed on hate and fear? What the Hell does that mean?" I asked.
"I don't know!" Skirm cried, tired of insisting. "H-he was crazy. Please don't drop me."
I dropped him on the floor of the loft. Sanchez kicked him to punctuate it. I moved to check on Pedro.
"How's the leg?"
Okay, I guess. It's swelling all over. I think I must be allergic to it," he theorized.
I smelled the root.
"Ragweed," I noted. "And maybe onion."
"That's some fuckin' weed," added Sanchez.
"Give me something to bandage his leg," I instructed, looking around for a piece of cloth.
Sanchez looked around with his penlight. He found what looked like an old shirt, but when he grabbed it, he disturbed the skeleton underneath.
It was one of the workers with the pigs. His ribcage was full of little thorny vines. They appeared to be smaller versions of the one that was wrapped around Pedro's leg. There was some weird, paper-like covering wrapped around him. It was like the skin of an onion, only thicker. I grabbed the root from the floor of the loft and threatened Francis with it.
"That's how you take care of your workers, huh? C'mon, Sanchez, let's loose this fat fuck over the ledge."
"No!" squealed Skirm. "I'll give you anything you want. You can have the truck. Here! Take my money!"
Sanchez grabbed the wallet out of Skirm's hand.
"This is the rest of our money, jefe!" Sanchez spat. "Kick him over!"
"No-no! No, please!" begged Skirm.
"Wait," insisted Pedro. "Don't do this. It's not right."
"He tried to kill us over a few hundred dollars," I reminded Pedro.
"I know, please, J.D. Don't do this. It's not right," he said calmly.
Francis wasn't the only one who didn't have the mettle to stand up to Pedro's honesty. I dropped the fat turd again. It was time to think of a plan.
"If we wait here, that thing will go somewhere else maybe," I theorized.
"It can't," explained Skirm carefully. "The old man told me. He buried cement barriers all the way around the property of the farm. It can't leave."
"Why would he want to keep it here?" asked Sanchez.
"I keep telling you, he was crazy," gasped Skirm. "He told me it kept the deer away and the other animals."
"Well, why does it come now? How did you call it?" I asked.
"I didn't," said Skirm carefully. "You did. When you plowed that field under."
"But you plow that field every Spring," I countered.
"It doesn't feed in the Spring. The old man didn't say, but I think it needs to feed in the winter to get through it. It's a plant, it lays dormant. Hell, I would normally have fed it already, but it's been so warm," Skirm said, amused by the irony.
"What about the animals?" suggested Sanchez. "Won't it go after them?"
"All the pens have cement underneath them and you guys are the last people on the farm 'sides me."
"It has to eat us or it dies," I concluded. "Survival of the fittest. Man or plant."
"Well just stay up here," suggested Skirm.
"And eat what?" I countered. "Besides, we need to get Pedro to a doctor. No telling what that thing has done to his leg. Pedro, do you think you can walk?"
"I'll try," Pedro promised. "We have to get out of here anyway. We have to vote tomorrow."
"We're about to die and you start lecturing us on that?" said Sanchez.
I let the argument pass. I had long since given up on the system. My status as a "parolee" gave me an easy out. Truth was, the police were always after me and showing up at a voting place would get me caught. And I refused to believe Democracy was anything more than a lie conceived by visionaries and left to the caretakers of fools.
Walking across the rafters, I made my way to the loft on the other side of the barn. The second floor barn door opened to the truck below. There was some old rope once used for hay. I found a board about the size of a loaf of bread and tied the rope to one end. I threw it into the back of the pick up truck and pulled the rope. The rope caught on the lip of the truck and I tied the other end to a protruding piece of wood that once held a pulley.
I made my way back to the other loft.
"Okay, I think our only shot is the truck," I explained. "We'll slid down the rope and get into the truck. Francis, with your weight in the back it might just be enough to get the thing moving. Give me the keys."
Francis reluctantly held them up and I snatched them out of his hand. We helped Pedro to the other side of the loft and prepared to watch Skirm slide down the rope first. I took a smaller piece of rope, looped it over the rope so that Francis would slide right into the pick up. I had set up some other rope that led to the ground. Sanchez and I made contact. We both knew what the real plan had been all along.
"I'm sorry what I did to you boys," Skirm admitted, preparing to make his jump. "I'm gonna make this up to you, I swear."
"What you're about to do," I added. "Is thanks enough."
As soon as Skirm slid down the rope, it snapped. He landed in the sand hard and almost immediately, the soil rippled. Unable to get back to his feet, the farm squealed pathetically as he tried to roll away from the onslaught of vines. I threw Pedro over my shoulder and slid down the rope. Sanchez slid down his rope and hit the ground running. I put Pedro down and started to run. I heard Pedro gasp, "No." He went running towards Skirm to help him.
"Pedro! Don't!" I shouted.
"It's not right!" he insisted.
The plant-thing's vines burst through the earth. It gobbled Pedro up as soon as he got close enough. This time, the barrage of vines would not let him go. Sanchez and I tore ass as we both flat out ran back to the farmhouse and we didn't stop until we were standing on the solid highway. The screams of Pedro and Skirm echoed in the distance as we staggered around trying to catch our breaths.
"Poor Pedro," gasped Sanchez. "We should go back there and kill that thing!"
"How? I guess we could poison the whole farm, but then the farm would be dead and half the water table for the county. Besides, we'd probably both get blamed for Skirm's disappearance. And who says that we could kill it? We don't even know what it is. Maybe it belongs here. Maybe it's doing what it should do."
n the great distance, we heard a rumbling and a great tearing of the earth. The ground rippled again as the plant thing sped through the earth like a rocket. It reached the edge of the property, smashed the barrier and went right under the highway where we were standing. The ground rippled on the other side for a few yards and then disappeared into the woods.
much for killing it," I said flatly.
have to tell someone. That thing is real!" Sanchez helplessly as if looking around for a way out.
"They'd never believe us. Not us two. It would have to be seen by dozens of people. Maybe hundreds. You'd have to pile the victims dozens high before anyone would even give a damn."
"Then what do we do?"
"We go our separate ways. Stay out of its way. When enough people see it or escape it, then and only then will they come together to destroy it. But it will take many more victims. Next year, there will be more than two."
"How do you know?"
"Because it exists to do only two things. It feeds and it grows."Return to the Story Menu