The pumpkin foretold the event—the dare, the maze, the fire, all of it. If only Gregg had known to heed the warning of that orange jack-o’-lantern on the porch: The flickering slits for eyes, the leering mouth with mold grown over the gourd’s carved incisors. He’d laughed when he spotted it. So Julian

Photo by Burst on Unsplash

But then Breslin stood in the doorway, with her beestung lips, the look in her eyes that invited him—demanded that he come into the cabin without delay. 

“You’re late,” she said, pulling him inside. “We’ve started.”

She joined the three others at the wood-planked table: Julian, Monty, and Claire. One chair sat empty, and Gregg claimed it.

The windows were draped with dark fabric, and the only light came from candles that flickered on the mantle and the stained kitchen counter. In their dim glow, Gregg glanced at the quartet. The room smelled of unwashed bodies and beer. 

“Drink up,” Julian said, pushing a bottle of IPA toward Gregg.

“It’s still on?” Gregg opened the bottle and hesitated before raising it to his lips. If what they’d planned was still a go, he wanted to be alert, fully sober.

“Fuck, yes.” Monty wrapped a scythe with tape, winding the sticky strand round and round the handle. “You’re not backing out, are you?”

Gregg shook his head. He was there and he would stay, even though his better sense urged him not to. 

Julian pushed back from the table. “Let’s go.” He stared for several moments at Gregg. “What happens tonight stays with us. Anyone who talks is dead. Anyone who runs, we’ll find you.”

*

The five walked up the wooded Poconos hillside to the large expanse of open field at the top. Monty carried the scythe, Claire held an unlit torch, Breslin grasped a dagger, and Julian led the way with a backpack on his shoulders. Gregg, empty-handed, trailed behind—not far enough to invite Julian’s wrath but a good ten feet behind Breslin. Had she ever really liked him? Gregg wasn’t sure. What she did love, he knew, was the rush of the dare.

Julian’s challenge that evening: They would brave the hilltop corn maze, cut to resemble a spider’s web. Once through the maze and if they survived its gallery of obstacles, they would destroy it by fire. The cabin they would torch on their way out. No one would be able to pin the destruction on them. So Julian said.

How had Gregg gotten himself mixed up in all this? It was Breslin who’d invited him. Julian was chilly to the idea of Gregg’s presence, but they’d all hung together in high school, and why not continue the friendship circle? Gang, Gregg corrected himself. He remembered the hazing. And Breslin was a looker. He would follow her anywhere.

Almost anywhere.

At the entrance to the maze, Julian looked at his phone. “One hour,” he announced. “If you’re not out by seven, we light the field anyway.”

Monty held up a hand as though to put Julian on pause. “Wait. Send up a flare if we’re not out in time. We can whack our way through to you before you burn it.”

Julian laughed. “I’ll think about it.” He looked up at the sky. “Clear and calm. This is your last chance to say no.” He smirked. “Of course, if you do, you may not see tomorrow.”

Then he was through the entrance and around a corner before anyone else could react.

“Motherfucker,” Monty muttered, and he, too, was gone.

Breslin and Claire put their heads together for a beat, then set off into the maze at a sprint, but not before Breslin looked over her shoulder at Gregg. 

Maybe she just wanted to make sure she wasn’t the last one in.

*

Twelve minutes to seven, with the October daylight fading, and Gregg stood at the junction of two paths, absolutely lost. He had not seen or heard any of the others—had they made it out? A slight breeze made the dried corn stalks scratch against one another, and he heard the distant cawing of a murder of crows.

His palms were slippery with sweat even in the coolness of sunset. Somehow he had a machete in his left hand. He didn’t recall picking it up, but the last fifty minutes had passed in a blur. Out, out, get out, his mind urged.

“Fuck it,” he said aloud. He would never finish by Julian’s deadline, not unless he borrowed Monty’s idea of hacking his own path. But which way? With the corn stalks a good foot above his head, he couldn’t see the tree line or anything but the sky. His phone was no help.

A series of loud pops and a scream straight ahead made the decision for him. He dashed up the righthand path toward the cry, holding the machete in front of him as a kind of shield. When the path turned, he nearly hit Breslin. She stood frozen, silent, staring at the ground, where Julian lay, the dagger Breslin had carried buried in his chest. 

Gregg moved Breslin to one side and knelt to feel for Julian’s pulse.

“He’s . . .” Breslin whispered the word.

Gregg nodded and closed Julian’s blank eyes. “What did you do? Where’re the others?”

Her face cycled through conflicting emotions. “He’s . . . a monster.” She crumpled to the ground. “I had to . . . stop him.”

Gregg wanted to comfort her but wasn’t sure he believed her. The evening was skewing far off course, and the main objective now was to get out of the maze before it was too dark to see.

“We’ll chop our way out,” he said, standing. He could do nothing more for Julian. Swinging the machete, foot by foot he cut a path that he guessed would lead him out. If he stood on his toes, he could see the top of a bare tree in the distance. That would be his landmark—until it was dark.

“Gregg.” Breslin was behind him, and he whirled to make sure she wasn’t about to stab him, too. Her face was pale in the dimness, and he could see her shaking. “It was self-defense,” she breathed.

Once again he nodded. “We need to get out of here, now.” He returned to his task of clearing a path.

She touched his shoulder. “Do you smell it?” she said. “The smoke.”

He caught the scent and battled his impulse to freeze in panic. “Jesus,” he said. “The field’s on fire.”

His chopping became a frenzy. Whenever he glanced over his shoulder, the light of the flames danced against the roiling smoke above the maze. 

At last, the stalks thinned, and they were standing in the shorter field grasses. Gregg’s shoulders ached from the effort of swinging the machete. Breslin moaned and sucked in a gasp: The maze fire was advancing rapidly toward them.

“Breslin? Gregg?” Monty emerged from the darkness, Claire a few steps back.

Gregg squared off to face them, the machete still in his hand, the flames glinting the blade. Someone had started the fire—someone who hadn’t checked to see if he and Breslin were still inside. “We’re safe. And you?” 

Monty held up his hands; he no longer held the scythe. “We didn’t start it. Julian must have planted some igniters ahead of time.”

“So we’d all die,” Gregg said. “Good of him.” He raised his voice above the crackle of the flames. “We’ve got to get off this hill. The fire’s going to overtake us if we don’t.”

Claire stepped forward to hug Breslin. “What a fucking nightmare.”

Breslin pushed her away, shaking her head. “He’s dead,” she said. “I killed him.”

“Because you had to,” Gregg said. He believed her now, but still he shivered. If they’d been a few minutes longer in the maze . . . “Let’s go,” he said, echoing Julian’s earlier command. 

He jogged off to reach the graveled path back to the cabin, and the rest of them followed. 

Author Bio
Author Bio
Born and raised in the Midwest, Dianna has also lived in three other quadrants of the U.S. She writes short stories and poetry, and is working on a full-length novel about a young woman in search of her long-lost brother.
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Born and raised in the Midwest, Dianna has also lived in three other quadrants of the U.S. She writes short stories and poetry, and is working on a full-length novel about a young woman in search of her long-lost brother.
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