Saturday, October 16, 2010

1,000 Word Writer's Challenge

I entered a writing challenge on one of the Harlequin Write Stuff forums. The challenge was to write a story in 1,000 words or less that contains the following:
  • apple cider
  • scarecrow
  • mum
  • sunrise
  • "Not on your life"
It's my first entry on the forum and my second ever short story. I had trouble fitting it into a thousand words. I've posted the unedited, 1,460-word version here.


Molly tucked the mum into the top buttonhole of her dad’s plaid work shirt and secured it with a safety pin. Stepping back, she surveyed her work. The old shirt fit the scarecrow perfectly. That was the same shirt dad had worn when they had made the scarecrow. He had done most of the work, but at five years old she had “helped.”

“What’s his name?” he’d asked her.

“Scary Man!”

“Scary Man it is. Couldn’t have done it without you, kid.” He lifted her to his shoulders. “And remember, if you take care of him, Scary Man will always watch over and protect you.”

And she’d done just that. Three years later her father had died, burned to death in a car accident. For the last fifteen years she’d taken care of their scarecrow, keeping him well stuffed and replacing his clothes when they became tattered. Only her father’s work boots and gloves had endured.

A strong gust of wind whirled her hair around her face. Dried field corn rustled around her but the scarecrow remained steady. Dad had made it to last forever with a frame of baling wire and pipe.

One glance at the sky told her she had to get back to the safety of the farmhouse. Dark clouds turned the early evening sky black and lightning flashed in the distance. Thunder rumbled and boomed making her turn and run for the house in a panic.

It was dark by the time she finished her chores and got inside. Still rattled by the weather, she tried to settle her nerves with a cup of hot apple cider. It didn’t help. Locking the doors and shuttering the windows didn’t help either. It was the storm. Storms like this reminded her of the night she let her father die.

The electricity often went out during strong storms. Even though she kept a flashlight by her bed, she set out candles in every room and headed to her bedroom on the ground floor at the back of the house. She had moved into this room after her father’s death because she could see the corn field. It was a self-imposed punishment, but it also made her feel safer knowing she was closer to Scary Man.

Molly pulled the curtains back and looked for him. She could barely make out his floppy hat above the corn, but he was there, like always. Keeping her safe.

* * *

Flames licked the night sky fueled by the dry storm winds. Screams. Hers. Daddy’s. Punctuated by lightning. He stumbled from the burning truck engulfed in flames and dropped to the ground while she watched. Helpless. Useless. Crying for her daddy like the eight-year-old baby she was.

Molly came awake gasping for breath, heart pounding. Pounding. More than her heartbeat. The sound came from the window. The nightstand was dark; no LED numbers glowing the time. Electricity was out. Shaking off the nightmare, she grabbed her thick terry robe from the bedpost and the flashlight. Padding to the window she berated herself for not trimming the big mulberry tree. Hopefully, she could break the branch off from inside.

She pulled back the curtain.

A grotesque face with glowing eyes pressed against the window. A gloved hand pounded the pane beside it. Molly screamed and stumbled back. Thoughts both logical and fantastic rioted through her. Logic won. Too late, though, to stop adrenalin from pumping up her heartbeat and turning her body into a quivering mass. Monsters weren’t real. She knew that. What she’d seen looked like Scary Man’s burlap face with glowing blue eyes. But that was not possible. More likely, this close to Halloween, she was being pranked by the local farm boys using Scary Man’s body.

If they hurt Scary Man…

Fear turned to anger. Molly yanked back the curtain, but the face was gone. She opened the window. Wind buffeted her as she leaned out with the flashlight. Nothing around the huge propane tank except the broken remains of its shed and the ancient eucalyptus tree behind it. The flashlight beam caught movement of someone rounding the corner to the front of the house.

Heart hammering, Molly ran through the dark house. From over the front door she pulled down the 410 shotgun. It was an old Sears Roebuck single shot her dad had kept for killing rattlers. It wouldn’t do much harm to a human but it still looked threatening. It was loaded, ready to go. Cocking back the hammer with her thumb, she yanked open the front door and stepped onto the porch.

Someone was in the yard moving toward her in a slow Frankenstein stagger.

“Stop right there,” she shouted over the howling wind.

She recognized his silhouette. She knew before she turned the flashlight beam on him that it was Scary Man. He stood alone in the yard not 20 feet from her, his blue eyes glowing. The wind tugged at his hat and clothes, but he stood steady.

Was it really him? Or someone in his clothes? Her father’s clothes. He lifted an arm and motioned for her to come to him. For a moment, he looked so much like her father she almost gave in. But it wasn’t her dad. She had watched him burn to death. And it wasn’t Scary Man. Scarecrows didn’t come to life and invite you for a walk.

Not on your life!” She raised the shotgun. “Whoever you are, I’m warning you. If you don’t walk away, I will shoot you.”

He moved. One jerky step toward her, hand reaching out. Molly’s finger tightened on the trigger.

“Go away!”

Lightning flashed close by blinding her. Her finger convulsed on the trigger, the boom of the shotgun merged with a deafening crack of thunder. When she could see again, the scarecrow lay on the ground, pieces of straw swirling in the wind.

Scary Man.

Molly dropped the gun and ran to him. She expected to see blood spilling out of someone dressed in her dad’s clothes, but it was only a straw and cloth figure with a gaping hole in its side, the light gone from its eyes.

How could this happen? Was she dreaming? This could not be real. She knelt beside him and rested a hand over his heart.

The scarecrow jerked, grabbing her wrist in a steel grip. His eyes began to glow again as he stood. He turned away from the house and walked toward the corn field dragging her behind him. Molly fought to escape his grip but it was too strong. She screamed but even if there were someone to hear, the storm covered the cry with its own howl.

How could Scary Man do this to her? She had loved him all her life, had taken care of him after her father died. Dad had said he would watch over and protect her. He had never lied to her before.

The scarecrow stopped and looked to the sky. Molly stilled. Her skin crawled and the hair lifted on the back of her neck just before lightning struck the eucalyptus tree. The dry branches burst into flames like a giant torch. The trunk splintered and collapsed, bringing the full weight down on the propane tank by her bedroom. The tank exploded and the whole west side of the old wooden farmhouse caught fire.

Flaming branches, caught on the wind, hurtled toward them. Scary Man pulled her into his chest and turned his back to the flaming missiles. With her face buried in the scarecrow’s shirt she didn’t know what was happening. For a moment, lost in the smell of pipe smoke still lingering there, she felt like a little girl again safe in her father’s arms. And then he flung her away.

She landed hard nearly ten feet away. When she sat up, she swore she was a little girl again reliving the worst night of her life. Her father stood, his back engulfed in flames while lighting struck the ground behind him. But it wasn’t her father. It was Scary Man and he had saved her life, twice tonight: once by getting her out of her bedroom and once by throwing her away from his burning body.

Without a second thought, Molly shot to her feet and ran to him. She pulled off her thick robe and flung it over him, tackling him to the ground, rolling and patting him until the flames were out. Somehow, she managed to pull him into the bed of mums at the edge of the yard and collapsed beside him.

The firemen found her hours later, just after sunrise, curled into the side of the half-burnt scarecrow, tucked under his arm, sound asleep.

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