At 3 AM, I jolted awake to a sound outside.
That was unusual for our Ohio farmhouse. We were surrounded in every direction by vast fields of corn, miles from the nearest neighbor. And I’d know if we left the gate open, or one of Madison’s toys was out – I’d done my nightly check of the backyard about a thousand times.
But as I lay there, still under the blankets, the noise continued.
Snap, snap, snap.
I ran to the window and threw back the curtains.
The corn stretched out as far as the eye could see, rippling and churning like some great, dark ocean. It stopped just short of Madison’s swing set, casting long shadows onto the grass that nearly reached the back door.
Snap, snap! The stalks shifted and swayed, shaking the husks so hard they threatened to fall.
“David! There’s something out there!”
“Probably just a raccoon,” he slurred, pulling the covers over his head.
“That’s bigger than a raccoon. Look at it!” The corn rippled and roiled, as if something large was moving underneath. Snap-snap-snap. “What if there’s someone out there?! I’m going to check the locks –”
“You already checked them a million times, like you do every night,” he groaned. “Just go back to sleep.”
I didn’t listen. I opened the door and stepped out of the room.
At the end of the hall –
Madison’s door was hanging open.
“Maddie?” I called, my voice shaking. And then I got that terrible feeling that only a parent knows. Something’s terribly wrong. Sinking, paralyzing, throbbing in your chest, as you try to tell yourself she’s okay, don’t freak out, I’m sure she’s fine.
But she wasn’t fine.
The bed was empty.
“Madison?!” I ran out the back door, into the yard. “Madison! Where are you?!” I screamed, out into the night.
The corn was still.
Now that I was out there, I saw the evidence. Little bare footprints in the mud, leading up to the cornfield’s edge. Where they disappeared, the corn was slightly trampled – two stalks leaned in opposite directions, as if forcefully pushed apart.
“Madison!” I screamed, as loud as I could.
But I was met with only silence.
David stumbled out after me. “She must’ve just went out in the corn, to explore or something. We’ll find her,” he said, his tone barely convincing. He pulled out his phone, turned on the flashlight, and squeezed himself between the leaning stalks. “Hey! Maddie!” he yelled, with panic trembling his voice.
I took a deep breath and squeezed in after him.
The corn scratched my body. My legs were shaking so badly, every step threatened to send me tumbling into the mud. The white orb of David’s flashlight hovered a few feet in front of me – but other than that, the cornfield was pitch black.
I was about to collapse with panic when the corn thinned out.
And then we were in what appeared to be some sort of clearing or crop circle. The corn had been trampled into the ground in a small circle, roughly ten feet in diameter.
In the center stood Madison.
Facing away from us.
“Madison!” I screamed.
She didn’t turn around.
David was frozen, staring at her back, the flashlight shaking in his hand.
“Are you okay?! Madison –” I turned her around.
I was staring at a blank face.
A face made of burlap. A brown wig was stuck on top with safety pins. An Elsa shirt was stretched over the bloated waist of straw. The bottoms – patterned pink fair isle – were put on backwards.
I began to shake.
“Those are the pajamas I put her to bed in.” My voice cracked. “She wanted the My Little Pony ones, but they were dirty, and – and –”
“What kind of sicko would do something like this?!” David said, his panic boiling into anger. He pulled out his phone and began dialing 911.
Snap, snap, snap.
The corn shook and shivered all around us. Shadows, slowly coalescing between the stalks, surrounded us in a ring of black. And then, before I could react –
A hand shot out between the dark stalks.
It grabbed David by the arm. He lost his balance and toppled backwards, his phone flying to the ground.
A cold hand latched onto my waist.
I was yanked into the corn. My back hit the cold mud; the corn scratched and poked at my sides. “Get off me!” I screamed, swatting blindly at the stalks. Black slowly faded into hues of indigo and gray, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
And then I could see them. Interrupting the vertical pattern of the corn stalks, there were several short shadows standing over me.
Then the whispers started.
Hissing, hurried whispers, that seemed to generate the very wind that blew through the stalks. The corn shivered and shook, and then a heavy silence filled the air. I tried to scream – but quickly realized one of them had tied something over my mouth.
But then I heard it, and my heart soared.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
A tinny voice, breaking through the silence. I pulled my neck up, and through the stalks I saw the white light of the phone, glowing against the trampled corn.
“Mmmph – mmmmph!” I tried to scream through the gag. It didn’t work. Similar grunts several feet away from me rung out in the night – David.
A low rumbling sound filled the air. The corn shook above me, harder than I’d seen it all night – stretching and swaying, stalks wildly crashing into each other. And as the voice continued – 911, hello? What’s your emergency? – a loud rush, like an airplane flying right overhead, filled my ears.
I looked up just in time to see the lights. Red, purple, and green, blinking in an odd asynchronous pattern.
The scarecrow, wearing Maddie’s clothes, was enveloped in white light.
And then, with a deafening hiss, it was yanked up into the night.
I looked back at my captors. In the strange, flashing lights, their faces were illuminated – and I saw that they weren’t terrors, monsters, or murderers.
They were children.
Horribly disfigured children.
Some were missing noses. Others had long scars running straight down their faces, as if someone had split open their heads to explore what was inside. Quite a few were missing ears, and one had no teeth. All of them had a profound sadness in their eyes – except for the one to my left, who had no eyes.
But they were also smiling, just a little.
As the light disappeared, and the faces faded back into the shadows, the hands on me loosened. The gag fell away; the shadows receded into the corn.
Except for one.
With a squeal, two warm arms wrapped around my waist. Maddie.
“Oh my God – Maddie –” I began to sob, hugging her tighter than I ever have in my life. “Are you okay? And –”
“Maddie?” The broken, hopeful voice of David sounded to my left. Crunch, crunch – he ran over to us.
“I’m fine, Daddy.”
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, grabbing both our hands and yanking us back through the corn.
We ran back into the house, locking the doors and calling the police. Madison was in a different set of clothes – ones dirty, smudged with mud and riddled with holes. But she was smiling, safe, and happy.
“They saved me, Mommy,” she kept saying, tugging on my arm. “The bad men were gonna get me, but they tricked them.”
As the police were taking our statements – as the sun was cresting over the corn – Maddie stood at the back door.
“Bye-bye,” she said, waving wildly at the corn field.