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Monday, October 14, 2019

The Mask, Chapter 14

14.

Friday, October 11th, 2019
8:00 PM

Jasper had been missing for about a week. He'd never come back to school, and the one time Scott had forced himself to walk over to the Riley farm - Wednesday afternoon - he'd found the place abandoned. Though it felt like something had watched him from the woods the brief time he'd circled the house and the barn, Scott hadn't seen a thing, and hadn't heard a sound.

And no one in town seemed to care at all. When Scott had approached Terry, Jasper's supposed best friend, asking if he knew where Jasper was, the skinny fourteen year-old had shrugged and mumbled, "Hell if I know." Apparently they weren't nearly as close as Jasper had let on.

Sheriff Baker had visited their house once more, Tuesday evening, asking Scott if he'd seen Jasper, or heard from him. He'd said no, and the sheriff had mentioned that he'd visited the farm and it didn't seem as if anyone was there now. He wondered if the whole family had gone somewhere. That's what had sent Scott there the next day. 

He hadn't told Sheriff Baker the weird dream he'd had of Jasper Sunday night, of him wearing that weird mask, and sneaking into his house. He hadn't told Baker about waking up to find the front door open, or feeling his cross necklace warm to the touch for some reason. Or, the small blob of what felt like hardened plastic he'd found stuck to the sofa. Sheriff Baker seemed okay for an adult, but Scott still thought the sheriff would wave those things off as his imagination acting up, nothing more.

There hadn't been any more dreams of Jasper, though one more weird thing had happened. Despite his strange dream Sunday night, Scott had once again fallen asleep on the couch Thursday night, watching a stupid horror movie on the Sy Fy channel about a psychotic entomologist who had discovered how to mind-control fire ants. He hadn't dreamed of Jasper again, but he had jerked awake, once again convinced someone had been standing over him.

No one had, but when Scott rolled over, he'd discovered his cross necklace lying on the floor, the chain broken. He told himself it was because it had gotten twisted up in his sleep, and of course the thing would break easy. He'd bought it at a pawnshop, after all. He'd managed to believe that. Mostly.


Scott drifted through the rest of the school week, staying under the radar. In truth, without Jasper around, Scott didn't feel much inclination to cause mischief. It wasn't so much that he'd liked Jasper, or that Scott missed him. It was more like something in him - the hurt confusion he felt over his parent's divorce - responded to the mayhem Jasper represented. 

Without that catalyst around, he'd fallen into a sort of sleep mode. He hadn't gotten back on the 'A train' with his schoolwork, and certainly had no intentions of being the "good boy" again anytime soon. He was simply an inert gas (wow, he'd learned something in Science after all), without the catalyst of Jasper.

Mom, of course, had been delighted over the change. She hadn't said anything, probably afraid she'd jinx it, but she hadn't hassled him about his homework (even though he still wasn't doing it) or his after-school activities all week. In fact, that's why he was here on a Friday night, at Kaminsky's Farm. Mom had suggested that maybe he'd like to visit Kaminsky's annual Haunted Corn Maze and have some fun while she worked the late shift at The Skylark Diner.

Normally, Scott would've scoffed at the suggestion. He'd heard his classmates talking about the Haunted Corn Maze, the girls squealing in glee about how "spooky" it was, the boys snorting and calling it a "lame maze with stupid mannequins that don't look real at all." But for some reason, when Mom had suggested it at the dinner table Thursday night, Scott had shrugged and said, "Sure. Sounds cool."

So here he was, Friday night, at Kaminsky's Farm, wandering through the corn maze as little kids ran by screaming, their tired and annoyed-amused parents staggering behind, trying to keep up. He'd been walking around for about twenty minutes, and he had to admit - while not frightening in the slightest - the maze had a kind of charm to it. Whoever  carved it out of the massive cornfield on Hitchens Road had mapped  an intricate network of multiple paths, intersections, switch-backs, and dead ends. After about ten minutes of apathetic wandering, he'd found himself far more engaged than he'd thought he would be.

He'd passed some kids from school. A few clusters of junior high girls clinging to each other, shaking with exaggerated giggles of fear, and a handful of high school students slouching through the maze, pretending they were bored with it all. He'd ignored them, as they'd ignored him. He didn't
need their company, after all.

But as he turned a corner to see nothing but a long stretch of corn maze, he found himself thinking how empty it seemed, and quiet, also. One moment, he'd heard little kids screeching and parents lecturing them to slow down you'll fall; junior high girls yelping as they scared themselves, and the general background noise of everyone else in the corn maze.

Now, nothing. An almost deafening silence, with the exception of cornstalks rustling in a mild night breeze. The moon hung high  in the night, casting the path ahead in a silvery glow. 

Scott suddenly felt very unsure of progressing any further down this stretch of the corn maze. All the other passages hadn't gone very long before they turned, or split into intersections. This stretch seemed to go on forever, and Scott felt that, if he proceeded down it, for the first time he'd be traveling away from the farm and the road, and deeper into the corn field. Away from people.

He didn't like that idea, at all. Abruptly, he wanted to get back to the farm, hop on his bike, and head home.

He stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out his smartphone. It had been on lock-down since he'd started his slide into temporary juvenile delinquency, but because of his at least not troublesome behavior this week, and because he'd biked to the corn maze alone, Mom had let him have  it. He thumbed it on, typed in his password, and brought up Google Maps. Some part of him complained he was cheating, and that he should find his way back through the maze on his own. Another part of him just wanted to get on he bike, and get the hell home.

Google Maps loaded for several more seconds, until finally it flashed the message: "Check connection." He looked and, sure enough, he didn't have any bars.

Fine. He'd just turn around and go back the way he came. He activated the flashlight app on his phone (for some reason, it seemed a lot darker than it had moments before), and turned around. He stepped back the way he came...

And saw him, standing  at the corner which he'd turned to come this way. A kid about his height, wearing a very dingy and ripped Danzig t-shirt with the sleeves torn off. And also, Scott could see...that damn weird mask, which he and Jasper had seen those two weirdos wearing about a week ago, out on Black Creek Bridge.

The figure didn't move. Just stood there, arms hanging  slack. On some level Scott knew that thing had to be a mask (it had to be, right?) but he couldn't help but feel like those bulging rubber eyes were staring at him. Measuring him. Judging him. Taking him in.

Instinctively, he stuck his free hand into his other pocket, and grabbed hold of his broken cross necklace. He couldn't say why he'd felt compelled to stuff it into his pocket before he'd left home, just that he had. And he heeded an instinct to keep it in his pocket, and not pull it out just yet. It was like...he didn't want to let Jasper, or whoever the hell that was, know he had it with him. It didn't make sense, but he heeded the impulse, regardless.

Another instinct sparked inside. He thumbed open his phone's camera app, held it up, tapped zoom once, and snapped a picture of the figure (maybe Jasper, maybe not) wearing the mask. The flash illuminated the figure, for a brief instant, and in that glow, Scott realized with horror that mask didn't lay still on the figure's face. It pulsed, and writhed, and moved.

Like it was alive.

The figure in the mask jerked in the camera's flash. Tipped its head, as if  curious. Then, it started walking toward him in big strides just short of a run. 

Again, for  some reason, Scott didn't pull the cross out. Instead, he muttered, "Fuck it," turned left, and plunged into the corn, thrashing his way toward where he thought the farm and road must be.

Fear spiked through him as he heard something dive into the corn and thrash its way after him.


*

"Booga-booga!"

Julie mock-screamed as Cassie jabbed her in the side as they rounded a corner at Kaminsky's Haunted Corn Maze and were confronted with a mannequin lurking half-in, half-out of the corn, dressed up to look like Michael Myers from the Halloween movies. Though she knew it wasn't real and that the knife was most likely plastic or rubber, Julie still couldn't repress an instinctual shiver at seeing Michael Myers' iconic, blank-faced mask.

"Stop!" She playfully slapped Cassie's hands away, and shoved her back a few steps. "I swear to God, you don't stop...and I'll ditch you here. You can hang out with Mikey here all by yourself."

Cassie snorted, waving off Julie's threat. "Naw. Serial killers are lame.I'm more of a 'He Who Walks Behind the Rows' kinda girl, myself. Cosmic entities who thrive on ritual sacrifice are way cooler."

Julie shook her head, laughing, and feeling good for perhaps the first time in a week. After getting home from her Thursday morning A. A. meeting, she'd talked to Cassie (leaving  out the part about her odd but not entirely unpleasant encounter with Marty, for some reason) about how she'd felt lately working at The Kitty, admitting that - though it seemed stupid - she still couldn't shake the instinct that those weirdos in masks would come back. 

Cassie suggested she ask for a night off. Kittering would balk, but Conroy really ran the show, and Cassie said  - with a knowing wink - that Conroy would never say no to her. Julie had blushed, insisting that she and Conroy were work friends, and that nothing else existed between them. 

But she also knew Cassie was right. So Thursday night, after her last dance, she asked Conroy for the night off Friday, and he'd given it to her with a soft smile and gentle look in his eyes which made her wonder if Cassie was on to something, after all.

It had been a wonderful idea. Cassie suggested they visit Kaminsky's annual corn maze for some good old fashioned Halloween fun. It would offer some safe shivers, and take her mind off the weirdos in masks.

At first, Julie had balked. While not a recluse, she tried to visit town as little as possible. She'd never once recognized  anyone from The Kitty in town, or thought anyone recognized her. Even so, she sometimes felt like, the rare times she went into Clifton Heights proper, a fluorescent light blazed over her head reading: Hi, I'm a Stripper, and I Take My Clothes Off  In Front of Strangers For Money!

But Cassie's will had always proved to be indomitable. It wasn't long until they were squealing and giggling through Kaminsky's corn maze, clutching at each other like silly fools when they encountered mannequins dressed like Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees,  mummies, Frankenstein, and even one Julie thought might've been Pumpkinhead, but she wasn't sure.

It had been a perfect night. They'd bought warm cider and donuts before embarking on the maze, and while slightly chilly, the night wasn't too cold at all. The maze's corridors were lined with intricately carved pumpkins lit with small LED lanterns (obviously a bunch of candles lining a cornfield maze was probably considered a fire hazard). Some little kids had even dressed up in Halloween costumes early, so every  few minutes pint-sized witches, mummies, and goblins would prance by, their beleaguered but bemused parents in tow.

"Y'know," Julie linked arms with Cassie, "this was a great idea. Just what I needed, honestly. Thanks for talking me into it."

Cassie nodded, smiling impishly. "Of course it was a great idea. It was mine. I always have great ideas. And, hey - not a single person has come up and offered to slip a dollar under your belt. I told you there was nothing to worry about."

Even though they were alone in their particular stretch of maze, Julie shushed Cassie with a hiss. Cassie laughed and nudged her with her shoulder. Julie was about to jab Cassie's with a playful smack, when the cornstalks rustled from their right, and exploded as a form burst from the corn and hurtled toward them.

Chapter 15

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