Chapter 43

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After taking the kitchen trash bag to the can outside, Stanley waved to Gramps and began the two-hundred yard walk back to home along the dirt road that spanned their property. He strolled with his hands in his pockets and Doris trotted beside him while he glanced up at Orion's Belt, shining dimly in the void of space.

From his pocket, Stanley removed a balled-up fist and lowered it to Doris, who sniffed eagerly. He opened his hand and gave the dog a bite of sandwich he'd saved for her. "I shouldn't even give you this since you stole most of my grilled cheese at dinner..." After nearly inhaling the morsel, Doris sniffed his hand for more. "But you're a good girl, aren't you?" The pooch gazed at him with hungry eyes and wagged her tail.

A breeze stirred and the corn stalks to their left swished against one another, breaking the stillness of the night. The noise sounded like mysterious whispering, but Stanley told himself there was nothing to be afraid of; it was only a field of crops. Reaching his backyard, Stanley felt like he was being watched. In the field behind him, the leaves swayed together again, more ferociously this time and the boy perceived a sense of menace in the sound. He couldn't help but wonder if it were possible for the land to transform after sunset and become a realm for strange creatures to wander until sunrise.

When they stepped up onto the wraparound porch, Stanley glanced out to the far reaches of their property. There, through a black ocean of cornstalks, he thought he caught a flash of the floodlight his father had set up.

The boy thought about how far he was from his father. If something were to happen here at the house, his father would never know it. Neither would Gramps. He viewed the fields again and felt concern build to fright.

Stanley shook off the thought - what had caused him to think something was wrong? Was it just the nighttime darkness playing with his mind? While Doris sniffed the air, Stanley took notice of the sharp shadows etched into the ground by the moon's cold light. He imagined how they'd creep along the ground during the night and up the side of the house and eventually to his bedroom window. He thought about the dream he'd had of something nearing his home...something sinister. The thought prompted an involuntary shiver and Stanley, with Doris, quickly entered the house and locked the door.

*********

After driving a post into the ground, Mr. Reece mounted a step ladder he brought from the house. Using a bracket and some nails, he secured a battery-operated motion light to the top and aimed it toward the fence and the area of damaged corn from the suspected vandalism.

When he switched it on, he descended the ladder and tested the device by stepping out into the targeted area. The floodlight flared bright white, then went out with a POP!

Mr. Reece sighed, placed his hands on his hips and stared at the ground a moment before turning and heading back to the house.

*********

The pickup truck crossed a small bridge spanning the creek and powered up an incline. At the tree line, Alex hit the brakes and searched the fields for any sign of the missing tractor. He saw the usual tire marks the others created when they had navigated back to the barn, but there was no indication of any stray tracks leading off into the crops as he had expected to find.

He drove on, to the field tractor 4 had been programmed to maintain; it was the plot farthest from the farmhouse, situated near an unused county road. The headlights revealed parallel row after row of corn until at last, he came to a wooden fence that signaled the road beyond, and thus, the end of the plot.

As he stared ahead at the dark road, the temptation to back up, gain speed and plow through the fence became almost overwhelming. He could keep on driving, see what was out there, beyond the farms. Beyond Community. Something tingled in his right temple however, and the temptation was gone.

Alex performed a K-turn and coasted back toward the house and the barn, looking left and right for any sign of the stray tractor. Then, in the field to the left he became aware of a large, dark mass. The shock caused him to slam on the brake and the pickup jolted to a stop. He instinctively reached for the weapon on the passenger seat but realized there wasn't one.

Funny, he could've sworn he'd had a rifle with him. Another tingle...

Alex shifted the gear selector into Park and hopped out of the truck. Approaching the mass among the stalks, he got within ten feet and recognized the bulky outline of the missing tractor. He walked up and patted the metal exterior. "There you are, you pain in the ass."

It had gone astray, leaving the path and trampling the corn. Destroyed crops were the responsibility of the farmer, no matter what. Alex wasn't sure exactly what that would mean once he informed Isaac of the loss, but he would accept full blame. He was liable for the tractors and as such, would need to repair whatever was wrong with it immediately.

Behind the tractor, Alex saw that the tracks abruptly ended about ten feet away. There, irrationally, existed a patch of corn stalks. Alex stepped past the machine, to better examine the mystery. The untouched crops continued for about twelve feet where they gave way to more trampled stalks, broken in the direction the tractor was facing. He glanced back at the tractor, then returned his concentration to the crops, trying to rationalize what he was seeing. If he was to believe the evidence before him, the tractor left its path, causing it to trample some stalks, bypass a twelve-foot grouping of corn, then resume its destruction.

Impossible. The tractor would have to have been hoisted by a crane, then placed back down beyond the twelve-foot grouping of corn.

Removing his baseball cap and scratching his head, Alex started as he was caught in the glow of a bright white light off to his right. Hovering ten feet off the ground, something stepped into its radiance, then the light went out.


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