With a final yank, the last wound was pulled shut. The little girl tied the string off in a double-knot and patted her patient’s arm lovingly. “All betters,” Carol cooed, brushing a strand of corn-silk hair from her cheek.
Her patient grinned at her with his stitched-on mouth. Button-eyes twinkled beneath a floppy brown hat, and the heavy gloves were now fastened to his wrists with both stitches and heavy twine. The holes in his legs were patched, and the ends were stuffed into a pair of Dad’s old boots laced as tight as she could manage it.
“I think someone deserves a lollipop,” Mom teased from behind her.
Carol turned, blue eyes twinkling. Mom leaned against the doorway, smiling with her arms folded. She loved it when Mom smiled. Too often she looked tired. “I don’t have any to give him,” the little girl complained.
“Well then let’s go to the kitchen and see what we have,” Mom said, scooping her up. “I’m sure your patient -- ”
“Mr. Haystack!” Carol insisted. “You got to call him by his real name!”
“I’m sorry Mr. Haystack,” Mom apologized. “Can you forgive me?”
Button eyes regarded Mom calmly as the scarecrow sprawled on the bed. Dad was going to throw him away; Carol didn’t think it was right after being on the job near forever so she fixed him. She’d even pricked herself three times doing it. “He forgives you,” Carol told her mother seriously. “He likes your banadana.”
“Why thank you,” Mom replied, nodding to him. The canary-yellow garment in question concealed her baldness; Mom used to have pretty chestnut hair but it fell out a few months ago. Carol figured it was lice or something. “Would you also like something to drink, Mr. Haystack?”
“Lemonade,” Carol said at once. Mom made great lemonade. “Can I have some too?”
“Of course,” Mom laughed, putting Carol down. “Now you two just sit tight. I’ll be right back.”
Carol turned to her patient as Mom left. “Isn’t she nice, Mr. Haystack?” she burbled.
“I think so too.” She reached over and adjusted his floppy brown hat and straightened the buttons on his coat. “I bet she wouldn’t have thrown you away.”
“So you say, but Daddy does nothing ‘cept work all day!” Carol stomped her foot. “I only see him in bits!”
More reproachful silence.
“How come you’re defending him?” Carol demanded. “He was going to throw you away!”
Black button eyes bored into her.
Carol felt suddenly uncomfortable. “What do you mean ‘these things happen’? Huh, if someone tried to throw me away, I’d -- ”
There was a crash from the kitchen. Carol’s head jerked around. “Mom musta dropped a glass,” she told Mister Haystack. Mom often tired easily. Carol wished Mom would stop going to all those different doctors – the little girl was sure that was the problem. “I’m gonna help her clean it up. You stay put okay?”
His limp arms hung at his sides, palms up.
“I love you too,” she giggled. His sudden sorrow didn’t worry her; Mister Haystack was an adult, and adults sometimes did weird stuff.
Carol scurried into the kitchen, thoughts of lemonade and talking scarecrows dancing through her head. “Mooooom!” She called out. Mom was braced against the kitchen sink, head lowered, panting. The remains of a glass glittered from the floor. “Mom, are you okay?”
Liz looked up and smiled. “Yes, sweety,” she panted. “Mommy’s just tired.”
Carol looked down at the glass’ corpse and back up at Mom’s pale face. “I think you need some lemonade too,” she pronounced, grabbing the older woman’s clammy hand. “Come on; you can keep Mr. Haystack company and I’ll get it.”
“Sure,” Liz said weakly, allowing herself to be towed back to her daughter’s room. Frankly, the scarecrow gave her the willies but Carol loved him for some reason and she didn’t have the heart to refuse her little girl. Especially since it didn’t look like she’d live to see Carol grow up. “If he doesn’t mind my company, that is.”
Carol giggled and led the older woman back into her bedroom. She moved Mr. Haystack so he was sitting up on the bed, propped by a pillow. “There. Now you can sit next to him while I get some lemonade.”
Before Liz could answer, her little angel turned and skipped out of the room. She turned and looked at the scarecrow. Button eyes regarded him back. “I wish you could understand me,” she told it. “I’m so worried about my baby; her college is taken care of thanks to her grandmother, but Frank works all hours on the farm and Carol hardly sees him. I’m not even sure she likes her own father anymore.” She didn’t know why she was pouring her heart out to a thing of burlap and straw -- perhaps because there was no one else. “I don’t want to die,” Liz murmured. “Especially not so soon. Carol’s just past the second grade and --” a coughing fit seized her throat and she brought her hand up to muffle it. When she took her hand away there was blood on it. “So much for chemo.”
A sad silence seemed to waft from the scarecrow.
Liz didn’t know if Mr. Haystack could hear her, but she didn’t care. She had to ask someone. Mom raised her bloody fingers and touched his burlap cheek. “Promise me,” she begged, eyes burning. “If you can hear me, if you can understand, promise me you’ll keep my family together.”
Another crash came from the kitchen followed by a squeal of disappointment. Liz winced and hauled herself upright. “That sounds like it need to be picked up,” she said to herself and shambled off in that direction.
She never noticed the bloody mark on the scarecrow’s cheek had vanished.
The forms under her sheets had been writhing for near an hour, and for the last ten minutes Carol had been very pissed. Finally, she thrust away from her bedmate. “Big stud,” she sneered. Puberty had been kind, producing a seventeen-year old delectable morsel.
The football player winced. Doug prided himself on his virility, but some things just made his magic wand fizzle out. “I do better without an audience,” he shot a glance at the room’s other occupant.
Carol gazed over at one of the few remnants from the time Mom was alive. “He’s just an old stuffed toy,” she chided. “He won’t comment.”
“A whole scarecrow?” Doug demanded.
Mr. Haystack regarded then both with button-eyed amusement from his wooden chair.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Carol told him stiffly
“Try me,” Doug declared.
Suddenly the bedroom door burst open. The light from the hallway outlined a slumped figure dressed in dirty flannels and jeans. “ ’M home,” it declared in a slurred voice.
Doug cried out and dove off the bed. Carol sneered at him. “Oh, for Christ’s sake.” She glared at the intruder. “Don’t you ever knock?”
“Didn’t want you to worry,” complained the drunken voice of Frank, her father. His stringy gray hair was still matted with the sweat he stank of.
She raised an eyebrow. “And how long were you at Ed’s bar?” Why she’d ever given a shit about him was beyond her. All he did after Mom’s death was work and drink. Carol couldn’t wait until she was eighteen and inherited the college trust fund left to her by her grandmother; she’d go far away from here.
“Not that long,” he protested.
“Yeah, right.” Carol pointed at him. “Why don’t you go collapse in the gutter or something? I’m busy.”
His bleary hazel eyes finally noticed Doug. “Who’re you?”
“Um…” Doug managed.
“He’s Mr. None-Of-Your-Business,” she snapped.
“ ‘M your father,” the man growled.
“Could have fooled me!” Carol screeched. She thrust herself out of bed, heedless of her nakedness; her father backed up out of reflex. “Get out of my room!” He backed up past the threshold and she slammed the door in his face. “Fucking drunk.”
Frank reached a trembling hand out to touch the door, but his daughter’s last comment sliced through the door and froze him in place. Why couldn’t she understand? Liz had been everything and more to him. After her death, Carol’s accusing eyes drilled right into him as a young child. It had become easy to bury himself in the farm -- despite how mediocre it was doing -- and the bottle. Frank knew he should do something about the rift between them, but it was hard when he believed every word. Weary in body and spirit, he turned around and shuffled off to bed.
Carol kept her ear pinned to the door until Frank’s shambling footsteps faded. She turned to Doug with a smile but it vanished. “What are you doing?”
Doug didn’t even pause in the act of pulling on his jeans. He’d just had an epiphany watching this little soap opera. “What does it look like?”
Carol folded her arms and glared at him. “What’s the matter; can’t get it up?”
Five minutes ago, a swipe like that would have driven Doug to prove her wrong. But that had been a long five minutes. “I don’t feel like it,” he shrugged, pulling on his boots.
“Wow, that’s one for the history books,” she sneered. “A guy not in the mood. Well, Mr. Stud, I’m gonna spread the word around school about your performance tonight. What do you fucking think about that?”
Doug felt a swell of pity for her. Carol’s one claim to fame resided in her availability to the opposite sex; she didn’t even seem to realize what a joke she was to the other kids in town. “Blab away.” He pulled his shirt on, thinking about the girl tutoring him in algebra who always looked at him a certain way. Doug had never considered her a potential girlfriend because of her appearance, but he was now. “Even if anyone else cares, I don’t. Not anymore.” He grabbed his jacket, nodded at the scarecrow – the poor thing looked very sad to him for some reason – and strode out of the room.
Carol watched him go, too stunned to comment. The sound of the front door closing finally snapped her out of it and she flopped down on her bed. “It’s all his fault,” she declared aloud, cheeks burning. Carol had long since ceased to believe the scarecrow was alive, but she often talked to him anyways. It made her feel better, and there wasn’t anyone else who’d listen. “It’s always Dad’s damn fucking fault.”
In the dim light shed by the half-moon, Mr. Haystack’s stitched-on grin almost looked like a frown.
Carol grabbed her pillow and hugged it to her savagely. “I hate him,” she hissed. “He was never around even before Mom died.” Suddenly it came gushing out of her like pus from a wound. “He didn’t fucking care I cried myself to sleep for a year. He didn’t spend any time with me at all a-and...” Carol was starting to cry. She paused to get hold of herself. “All he does is work and drink.” Her voice was more even. “And he drinks more than he works. Mom would have wanted me to stay here and help Dad -- I mean Frank -- with the farm, but he won’t even fucking help himself.”
Mr. Haystack’s floppy hat cast most of his face in a shadow that clung to its burlap wrinkles. Along the button eyes and cheeks, it gave the impression of shadowy tears.
Carol reached over and tugged playfully on the scarecrow’s hat. “Oh, don’t worry,” she told him. “When I take off for college, you’re coming with me. Won’t that be nice? No farm, no small town, and especially no Frank.” She grinned widely. “Two whole months! I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait.”
Carol rolled over in bed and burrowed under the covers, still hugging her pillow. In no time, she was asleep.
She never noticed a dark reddish blotch appear briefly on the scarecrow’s cheek.
Carol sat in the kitchen and waited for her father to come home. It was something she’d stopped doing when she was thirteen, but this was a special occasion. She’d been rehearsing this day for a long time now, and she wanted to be sure she got it right.
If this hadn’t been the weekend she’d already have been to the lawyers’ office getting her trust fund. Carol had been an early summer baby – school still had about a month to go but she didn’t care. She knew to the penny how much money was in her trust fund and there’d still be enough to pay for college and rent to live somewhere else. If she couldn’t find one, she’d hit someone at school up – offering a grand oughta buy her a lot of yeses. Even if she had to pay two grand, it didn’t matter. Carol wasn’t staying in the same house as that man for one second longer than necessary.
(The window to Carol’s bedroom slid open quietly from the inside)
She heard footsteps at the door and checked the clock. Midnight; for once he was early. Ed must have kicked him out of the bar again. All the better – Carol would still be able to get some sleep in. The familiar, hated slouching figure of her father shambled in the kitchen, no doubt on his way to the bathroom to puke or something. Carol stood up. “Hello, Frank.” She refused to even think of him as ‘daddy’ anymore.
“Happy birthday,” he said after a moment’s pause.
(Silent booted feet made their quick way to the outside cellar door.)
Carol was grinning. Frank seemed to be coherent; he must not have had enough money to get seriously hammered at Ed’s after work. “You bet it is, and you know what it means.”
Frank reached into his pocket and felt the small box inside. He knew for a fact his daughter hadn’t noticed for the past month he’d been stone cold sober. It had to do with what was in his pocket, something he’d thought he’d lost. Finding it again – on top of his dresser of all places – had given him hope. Perhaps it was too late for reconciliation, but Frank thought his daughter deserved what lay inside the box. “I do.” He smiled at her and took the box out. “That’s why I’m givin’ you this.”
Carol’s grin twisted into a puzzled frown. Frank had always given her something for her birthday, although it was usually a card and twenty bucks. “What’s that?”
(The booted feet left the cellar with prizes in hand – a dirty plastic bag and a bottle of ether.)
“Your Mom would have wanted you to have it,” Frank said honestly. “It’s her wedding ring.”
Carol snatched the box from Frank’s hand. “You didn’t pawn it?” Her retort lacked feeling; she was too surprised. “I’ll bet you didn’t remember you had it.”
“You’re probably right,” he agreed.
(Burlap gloves closed the window again)
Carol opened the box and lifted her prize out. The ring was white gold with a modest diamond set in it. She could barely make out a faded engraving on the outside of the ring. “Let me guess – cubic zirconium?”
“Nope – that’s a genuine diamond there. Take it to Walt if you don’t believe me.”
She put the ring back in the box, closing it with a snap. “Fine, I will. Was there something else?”
This was not looking hopeful; Frank wondered why he expected anything different. Wasn’t it his fault their relationship had gotten this bad? The call of Ed’s bar was almost overwhelming. No, he told himself sternly. Never again. “I set things up with Jed’s boys so’s I can help you move into the dorm--” he began.
Carol cut him off with a gesture. “Don’t bother. I’ll make my own arrangements.” She was sure she could get one of the football players to help her move with the promise of sex. “I want nothing more from you.” Her conscience briefly gnawed at her; now she was paying attention to him, he didn’t look drunk at all. In fact, he hadn’t even smelled like booze for near a month. He could be – she slammed that thought down hard. No mercy, she snarled to herself. “I’m moving out. As far as I’m concerned I have no parents; Mom died when I was eight and Dad drank himself to death soon after. Don’t call me, don’t write me, and don’t expect me home for the holidays. Do you understand me, you fuckin’ drunk?”
(The prizes were placed in the closet)
Frank blinked back the sting of tears. “I reckon I do,” he said hoarsely. It really was too late; the look of hate on his daughter’s face was thick enough to build a foundation on. “When do you plan on moving out?”
“Tomorrow,” Carol tossed her hair. “There are a few guys I can shack up with until I get my own place.” A final wound; she knew how much her father disliked her promiscuity.
“Guess that’s your choice then.” Frank wished for a smarter brain; maybe then he could think of some way to turn things around. “It’s been a long day at the farm, so I’m gonna call it a night. Sleep well and happy birthday.”
Carol deliberately turned her back on him and strode to her room as the victor. Somehow that scene wasn’t as satisfying as she thought it would be; she chalked it up to the late hour. Mr. Haystack was slumped over in his chair, so she straightened him up. “I told him,” Carol said aloud.
She shook herself; Carol still couldn’t believe after all this time, she expected him to speak! Talk about an ingrained habit. Absently she straightened the scarecrow’s hat. He had an earthy odor about him that made her nose wrinkle. “I think someone needs to be re-stuffed,” she smiled. “Don’t worry. Soon as I’m settled in, I’ll take care of that. And no more straw – it’s cotton for you.”
Carol shucked her clothes off, having long since developed a taste for sleeping in the nude. Sheer impulse caused her to blow the scarecrow a kiss before snuggling under the covers. In no time at all she was asleep, a smile on her lips.
She never saw the bloody fingerprint appear.
She never heard the closet door open.
She never felt the form settle on the bed as it took four objects from the bag – one was a needle, the other some surgical thread, and the third a package of basic surgical tools. The local doctor wouldn’t miss any of these things until Monday, by which time they’d be returned. The fourth object was about the size of a bowling ball and stank of rot.
She did smell the ether, but didn’t wake up in time to do anything about its application. A lingering aftertaste of hay-stuffed gloves followed Carol into a much deeper sleep.
She didn’t wake for some time.
A lot can happen in five years. People grow and change in that time. A down-on-his-luck drunken farmer could even turn into a successful local businessman. Especially with a college trust fund to help.
Frank had always been a pretty good cook. The small town saw a number of its residents traveling up to ninety minutes to and from work in the big city. Put these two things together and you came up with Meals In A Mintue – home-cooked dinners for people with no time to cook. The menu was small but brimming with favorites; Yankee-style pot roast, fried chicken, pan-fried catfish and for desert your choice of apple pie or chocolate cake. All made from scratch. The farm had been converted to a warehouse where he stored the basics for these meals, and since he only bought from local providers the business commanded a lot of loyalty. Other families wanting to make a bit of extra money had jumped on board, and now he was making so much money he had an office in the city! Plans to start up Meals In A Minute for places like New York and LA were even in the works. Frank had been hesitant, but Liz finally talked him into it.
Today had been an early day for him. Frank pulled in the driveway at about 5 PM, trotted up the steps and strode through the front door. Five years as a businessman had added a bit of a pot to his gristle-and-bones frame, but trimmed his hair and did wonders for his personal hygiene. Worn around one wrist, instead of a watch, was his 5-year sobriety bracelet. “I’m hoooome!” Frank bellowed as he hung his coat up.
“ ’Lo, daddy!” Carol’s voice announced from the kitchen. “Mom says hullo too!”
He smacked himself on the forehead. “I forgot the milk,” he confessed.
“Mom says it’s okay. ‘Sides, she wants a kiss.”
Frank’s grin split his face. “Oh does she now?” He made a beeline for the kitchen to greet Carol.
Mr. Haystack had come up with an idea to keep the family together. One night, the scarecrow had stolen some things from the local doctor and then dug up Liz’s corpse and removed her head. He couldn’t just stick it on Carol’s shoulders willy-nilly, and just disposing of Carol’s head apparently hadn’t been an option the scarecrow considered palatable. Liz needed the support of a solid neck so Carol’s head had been removed, leaving the neck in place. Liz’s head had then been mounted onto it, and the Carol’s head had been reattached on her chest, just above her breasts . Frank wasn’t much on biology, so he didn’t know how the scarecrow managed to make sure everything worked properly.
The first year had been sheer Hell. Carol could feel her body but her mother sat atop her spinal chord; she only had control if Liz let her. His daughter had shrieked, sobbed and begged for death but neither parent was having any of that silliness. Then, one morning Carol woke up with the mind of a little girl again – and didn’t mind her situation. Frank often wondered if Mr. Haystack had anything to do with the regression.
“Mom still wants her kiss,” Carol teased. Her voice was slightly muffled because her jaw pressed tightly against her chest and didn’t have much movement.
“Just admiring my happy family,” he murmured, checking Liz over. He’d have thought it would have taken another ten years, but she was looking only months dead after half that time. He patted her grayish, cold cheek. “How are you doing today?”
Liz smiled. Her jaw was still wired shut but her eyes had grown back, even if they were sunken in their sockets. Frank leaned forward and placed a kiss on her clammy lips. “I love you.”
Liz raised Carol’s hand and ran it through his hair. “Eww, cooties!” Carol complained.
He tweaked Carol’s nose. “Mind your mother now. I’m going to go take a shower if that’s okay.”
“Mom says go right ahead.” Carol assured him. Somehow his daughter could her Liz’s thoughts.
He gave them both another kiss and went to his bedroom. Liz/Carol slept in Carol’s old room under the watchful button eyes of Mr. Haystack, when he wasn’t guarding the front door. To this day, Frank had never seen the scarecrow move; sometimes you’d just find him in a different part of the house, beaming a stitched-on smile. Frank didn’t give it a thought. Well, not much of one.
Frank went into the dresser, got out a pair of sweats, t-shirt and underwear, and turned to leave. A figure slumped on the bed got his attention immediately. “Well now,” he said, turning to face Mr. Haystack. “You’ve never been in here before.”
Mr. Haystack regarded him right back. His gloves were stained with dried blood five years old.
Frank stood in front of the bed. “Well, don’t worry about the sheets – not like anyone else sleeps my bed ‘cept me. Guess that’s the one real complaint I have but it’s a fair price to pay, considerin’ all the years I wasted.”
Perhaps it was the presence of his family’s savior than made him bold, or perhaps he was feeling especially content; whatever the reason, Frank was suddenly struck with a sudden need to know. “Can I ask you a question?”
Amused silence. Mr. Haystack never spoke either. Except, again, to Carol.
“I don’t want to know ‘how’,” he clarified. “I’d never understand the answer. I would like to know why you picked us. I know I’m the one that put you together and Carol patched you up, but there’s gotta be more to it than simple gratitude.”
Long considering silence.
Frank sighed and stood up. “Ah well, I guess...” A sudden splash of color on Mr. Haystack’s cheek got his attention. He approached the bed, bent over, and took a good long look at it. It was a bloody fingerprint. Frank nodded thoughtfully. “So that’s it. I should have known. Well, goodnight – who or whatever you are. I’m going to take my shower, then spend some quality time with my family. Thanks to you.” With that, Frank left.
The entity inside Mr. Haystack was well pleased. Frank had proven himself by understanding the significance of Carol’s mark.
Oaths made with the blood of the dying are never broken.
by Doctor Mercurious