The Long Watch


by C.J. Palmarozzi


A loud screech woke Grant from his chair nap. He tilted his head to listen for the source, but the sound went silent like a recording paused mid-song. All that remained were gusts of wind rustling fields of crops.

“Damn coyotes,” he mumbled. Grant checked his watch – 11:30 p.m. He had wasted an afternoon and an evening sleeping. Mary, who had bought him the watch before passing five years ago, would’ve said the rest was a long time coming. To Grant, it meant less time to prepare for harvest. Now, coyotes threatened to claim his livestock too.

He pushed himself off the ratty old chair and zipped up his jacket, worn to the point its logo had faded into obscurity. He reached for the floodlight on the end table, stopping when he heard tromping outside. It was too loud for a single coyote – maybe a pack then? Maybe people come to cause trouble? Maybe just the wind playing tricks. He knew one thing though: one bite in the wrong spot and he’d be bedridden for a month, not to mention the hassle of rabies shots. He left the floodlight and set out for the shotgun he kept in the living room.

Grabbing the gun-cabinet keychain hanging near the archway between rooms, he paused before the red velvet couch. Mary had loved fooling around there. Laughed like a hyena when they got physical – what a laugh she had. Five years had yet to cease sparking these memories, and whatever was outside could damn well wait for him to pay his respects. His eyes drifted to a rip on the armrest. How long did he have before it started running? Long enough, he decided. That couch would outlive him.

Grant finished his trek to the room’s corner. With the key slotted into the gun cabinet, he dialed the combination below until the safe clicked. The shotgun felt heavier and more foreign every time he picked it up. Hard to believe how little troubled him and his farm all these years, save for a few coincidences where no gun would’ve helped.

Branches snapping and bushes shaking outside interrupted his musings. The rustling persisted as he marched to the front door. He completed his arsenal with a cap fitted with a small flashlight on its bill and walked outside.

“Alright, you damn coyotes.” He slammed the door, hoping to scare them off. “Where’re you at?” Silence answered from fields that ran for miles adjacent to pockets of livestock pens. Country air and bales of hay blended into a perfumed scent. It calmed Grant for a spell, before anger rose again at the intruders.

He patrolled the perimeter of his weathered clapboard house, keeping a keen eye on crop stalks around him. At the center of his longest stretch of land, an ever-vigilant scarecrow watched back. That scarecrow had lived there since Grant purchased the abandoned property thirty-eight years ago. Scorch marks delineated eyes and a mouth on its straw face. Dried hay protruding from clothed limbs never seemed to wither. Even its wicker hat maintained a pristine condition, as if the elements rolled right off of it and onto the ground. He had thrown it away a couple times, but he guessed kids or superstitious workers always nailed him back up. Grant relented when he realized how damn well the relic worked. The healthiest livestock lived in pens closest to the scarecrow, and nothing touched crops within its gaze. Not even bugs – what bug fears a straw man? Neighboring farms couldn’t believe when he stopped using pesticides. Profits soared once high-end grocery chains caught wind of that one and from then on, Grant thought of the scarecrow as family of sorts.

Nodding his respect, he turned his attention back to his surroundings. A jump around the corner of his house took him out of the scarecrow’s sight. He scoured the area with his clip-on flashlight like a detective investigating a murder scene. He tilted his hat down at the ground. No paw prints or nothing. The rustling must’ve come from corn stalks or around the chicken coop. No sign of whatever it was – not even a bother to the crops.

Grant relaxed his grip on the shotgun. He finished the loop around his home, puffing in pride at the expanse of everything he owned. How many fools had nixed this place? Two years it lay abandoned, a ramshackle disaster zone. Everyone had passed on it due to the previous owner’s disappearance amid scenes of a robbery gone wrong. Their superstitious fears made for Grant’s gain. As soon as he had sifted through the soil, he knew this was it.

He looked at his watch, thankful for Mary’s gift and a little sad he had screamed her into tears when she’d first given it to him. She had just wanted to get him something nice, something new for once. He’d apologized fast and grew to love it, even more so after she died quickly from a virus that doctors seemed surprised hadn’t infected him too. The precious memento told him it was just past midnight, suggesting he turn in and tune out for the night. With no work to take his mind off of her, memories continued flooding him. Soon the next formed, calling into question how she-

Noise from the opposite side of the house caught his ear. Low murmuring rode on its echoes.

Kids.

Was it the weekend already? His trigger finger itched to blast a warning shot to the sky. He crept back around to the front of his house.

“You better be off my property before I get to you! Intruders will be shot.” He expected giggling and thickets moving from the trespassers’ flight, but the fields remained calm. Grant stepped forward ten yards, halfway to the start of the crop line. He scanned the horizon as far as moonlight allowed.

Nervous sweat dampened his armpits. Sometimes it felt like the farm punished him for taking any leisure time – like rustlings after napping the day away. When Mary retired, they had traveled internationally for the first time and returned to four farmhands quitting for no good reason. When the couple explored a secondary venture, their house had burned down during loan talks, luckily without spreading to the fields; the catastrophe had forced him back into full-time farm work. When Grant cut back on smoking at Mary’s behest and started napping mid-afternoon instead of taking a drag and working on, pests popped up like harbingers of a plague. Coincidences he knew, but the thought sucked moisture from his mouth all the same.

Cloth ripping deep within the field broke his recollections. Grant looked skyward just in time to see the scarecrow drop from his post. He couldn’t figure how someone could run the half-mile out there without causing more of a ruckus. It sent a tingle down his spine. Nobody messed around here this long without meaning trouble.

Plants split aside to the rhythm of something hurrying toward him, originating from where the scarecrow fell.

“What the?”

Grant backed up a few steps and propped the shotgun on his forearm. Tendons in his neck stiffened like a board in an attempt to straighten his posture.

Halfway into the intruder’s dash, manure wafted under his nostrils.

“You keep coming in this direction, you’re getting shot,” warned Grant.

Three-quarters of the way to Grant, the movement slowed to a stroll. Warmth touched his skin as if the sun had rocketed to the sky. Grant checked upward for an eclipse or something playing tricks. Twinkling stars answered in befuddled quiet.

From within the field, a snake-like voice whispered, “It’s time.”

Any further back from earshot and Grant might’ve missed it. Worry ached in the pit of his stomach. Would he have to shoot someone?

“It’s time,” the voice repeated. Tips of field stalks swayed as the hidden stranger resumed its approach.

“Time for what?” shouted Grant. “What do you want?” He rolled his shoulders to loosen them up then steadied his gun.

Squash shoots at the field’s edge parted to reveal the scarecrow itself, hovering inches from the ground, several yards from Grant. Burlap clothes, still fresh as the day Grant had purchased the farm, covered up golden straw jutting out to form human-like limbs. Grant backed off, scanning for signs of somebody holding it up.

“This ain’t funny. Imma shoot whoever’s propping up my scarecrow, and I’ll be in my rights. This is my home, and you’re well past trespassing now.”

Scarecrow lifted an arm and pushed a strand of straw out from its sleeve. The strand extended to the length of a black mamba, reaching for Grant’s neck. Grant’s finger twitched. The shotgun blast staggered Scarecrow, peppering a half-dozen holes in its torso. Unaffected, Scarecrow’s straw limb jetted out faster than Grant could dodge and enveloped his arm.

Grant’s perspective shifted to where Scarecrow had watched for thirty-eight years. He looked on from this post as if with eyes both in the front and back of his head. His skull thumped in pain from taking in the circular point of view.

Time flew forward. Days turned into nights, and nights turned into days. His house turned to rubble, then transformed into the pre-fire house. Farmland reduced in size, livestock fell to smaller counts, and Grant’s first house regained its original sheen. In the blur of images that coalesced, he sometimes made out Mary and him walking the land together. Walking as if it was thirty-eight years ago.

Time wasn’t flying forward. It was flying backward, backward until every crop withered and died, and Grant’s home morphed into a dilapidated shack with more holes than shingles for a rooftop. Soon, his farm filled with fruit and vegetables once again, yet something was off. Beets grew where there should’ve been corn. Potatoes sprouted in place of squash. The cow pen replaced the pigsty. This wasn’t his farm. It was the one before: the abandoned farm everyone had passed on.

The vision burned away, leaving Grant in a staring bout with Scarecrow, its straw appendage receded. It hovered over the ground in the shape of a cross. Grant blinked hard and shook his head wildly. Scarecrow’s blackened eyes stared back, straw parted on its face in the shape of a smile, filled with decayed human teeth. The circumstances which opened up this fertile land for sale suddenly made sense, but he had worked too hard to lose it all to a third-rate haunt.

“I’m a worker, not a watcher, so no thank you. Now get off my property or I’ll…” he paused. The hell could he do? He made a show of pointing the barrel at Scarecrow, hoping to ward it off despite the gun’s ineffectiveness. “I’ll shoot again!”

Scarecrow’s eyeless voids flashed human pupils. It puffed air from its mouth in mimicry of a laugh. Creases outlined determination in its straw face, as if stretched by human muscles. It floated toward Grant.

Grant swung the front door open and ran inside. He threw the shotgun on the floor near the chair he had woken up in. Useless weapon. He raced to the kitchen in search of a drawer that contained a score of matchbooks. From there, he heard a sound like leaves brushing against the door frame. He pulled open the drawer. Grant pushed aside postcards and threw out paperwork but found no sign of the matches.

“Shit!” yelled Grant. Where were they? The answer wouldn’t come. His body froze. Instead of matches, shapeless fear over that thing catching him filled his head. Was any of this even real? He slapped the side of his head. Think!

Straw brushed against couch fabric. In a moment, it would whisk into the kitchen. Suddenly, Grant remembered Mary had moved the matches to the master bathroom to force him to quit smoking. They’re bad for your lungs and make you work too hard, she had said. He relented, promised to quit for good and meant it. On that same night, she fell ill, as if her lessening his productivity had angered the heavens. Another coincidence, he had thought.

He didn’t believe in those any longer.

“You son of a bitch!” shouted Grant. He banged his fist on the kitchen counter. “You took my wife!”

Scarecrow floated in through the kitchen door. “It is time. It is time. It is time,” it hissed excitedly. The entity showed no sign of remorse, no sign of slowed progress.

“Damned hell”, Grant muttered, not knowing how he’d make it around Scarecrow to the bathroom. He threw a pile of the drawer’s papers at it, hoping to distract it, and out from the mess of projectiles dropped an errant matchbook. A sneer swallowed his face.

This was his land. His farm. His house.

“Get the fuck out!” Grant lit a half-dozen matches at once, then flung them at Scarecrow. Flames engulfed his foe. Mad laughter filled Grant’s throat, but the burning figure carried on.

Undeterred by the full-body blaze, Scarecrow spread its straw arms wide around Grant and embraced him. Grant pushed against Scarecrow’s chest, but it felt like fighting a cement wall. Flames danced from its burlap clothes onto Grant’s shirt. Oppressive heat blocked clean air. Painful writhing exhausted Grant before fire spread to his face. He passed out in Scarecrow’s arms to its hissing chants of “Freedom.”

Hours, perhaps days later, Grant woke again.

He felt no pain. He felt hardly anything at all. It was as though he had jumped from a nightmare into a dream on the verge of waking up. Weights on his eyelids prevented his lifting them. A foreign voice, even more reptilian than Scarecrow and far more ominous, slithered into his ear.

With every action you must expand, to the farthest reaches of the land. I’ll trust you with some of my power, to ensure the next master puts in his hours.  Let no harm befall my field, and in forty years your freedom I will yield.

The weight lifted, and Grant opened his eyes. The sun shone on his farm. His crops were in the right place, but he wasn’t. He saw from the front and behind, now without the headache from Scarecrow’s earlier vision. His wooden house sat, a crumbled mess of charred blackness. Two cops circled around it, sifting through the debris.

“No no no no no,” he cried. “No! Help!” To him, his voice sounded louder than a rocket ship blasting off. Both police officers glanced in his direction and then resumed their work. He yelled for their help many times, but by the third they ceased breaking focus from their inspection.

Grant looked down at his straw body, black from soot but otherwise intact. Below his post, a beetle crawled. He studied it for a few seconds until it flopped over dead.

His long watch had begun.