The sign at the entrance to the corn maze read “Thirteen and Up ONLY” but Tabby had always looked older than her age and had hurried past the doubtful looking ticket-taker before he could scrutinize her any further, dropping her tickets into the proffered bucket without looking back. There was no way she was waiting another whole year for her chance. They might move away again. This was the first small town she’d ever lived in, the first country school she’d ever gone to and she knew that this move was a whim of her mother’s and the man she was currently living with – there had been more than a few moves, and men’s whims, before this, and Tabby had already begun to see the signs of her mother’s itchy feet. This might be her only chance to conquer a corn maze, enjoy a hayride and drink real apple cider.
She barely paused at the maze entrance, taking it at a quick jog, speeding around a few corners at random before she slowed. The first thing she noticed when she stopped was the quiet. Not stillness, precisely, as the wind slinking through the corn silk and wicking against the lush green leaves caused nearly continuous movement. Tabby was reminded of the solar-powered “dancing daisies” you could attach to your car’s dashboard after you peeled away the paper backing. Or the bobble-headed wiener dogs. Dachshunds, they called them, a word that always seemed mispronounced to her. She struggled with those words – the ones that she’d never heard spoken aloud until the very moment they made her sound dumb, when others laughed at her mistake. Tabby sometimes found it much easier to exist in her books, than in so-called ‘real’ life.
Life made sense on those pages. There were rules, things were explained and understood and you knew that even the bad guys would eventually get their ‘comeuppance.’ She’d recently read that one in a book and longed to be able to say it out loud, properly, and in good context. But yeah, the monsters in books she could handle – just like the ones that might loiter in corn mazes. It was the everyday villains who troubled her – the ones who cat-called her in the streets before she’d even gotten boobs, and the boys at school who were the first ones to notice when she’d started wearing a bra, immediately snapping the flimsy straps in some strange celebration of sex which none of them really understood, yet. The monsters that looked like the men her mother brought home, who sometimes wanted her to call them “uncle” and sit on their laps.
Those monsters didn’t seem to matter at all, at this moment, as she thought these thoughts, and wandered through the corn, delighting in the muted, far off sound of farm equipment, banjo music and laughter. Turning the next corner, she left the inner monologue behind. This part of the maze appeared darker, the light more diffuse. She realized that the cornstalks were draped in thick webs – some old and ragged cobwebs, others newly spun with the morning’s dew still clinging to them. The stories she’d read had prepared her well for this moment and she knew that this was to be her first challenge, and that these sorts of tests came in threes.
She squinted into the gloom at the dark, hulking shape at the dead end of the row. As her eyes adjusted, Tabby could see that the creature looked like a giant spider, but with the head of a wolf, and strangely, it seemed to be wearing the coveralls that Tabby’s mother’s ex-boyfriend had worn to work every day. If she squinted, she could almost make out the “Craig” that she knew was embroidered on his right breast pocket, and she knew that his breath would be deadly, withering the corn in his path and sure to melt her into a human puddle, should she let it. Craig had been one of the worst ones. Tabby grabbed a fallen cornstalk and the moment she brandished it in front her, it became a shining silver sword.
“Hiiiiiieeeee!!!” she bellowed, advancing on the growling were-spider. Tabby knew she’d only have one shot at Were-Craig’s weak underbelly, but felt like she’d been training for this moment her whole life. Every were-story supported the fact that were-things couldn’t deal with silver. It was a medical side effect of shape-shifting or something, she thought. And then it was upon her, rearing up on several hind legs, its enormous body bursting from the coveralls and nearly blocking out the sun.
Tabby feinted and parried, dodging and skidding between the thing’s eight hairy legs. Her breath came in short bursts as she slid underneath it, landing in the muck between the corn rows and rolling to her left as one of the legs stamped towards her. Were-Craig was fast though and it moved quickly to intercept her. Tabby was momentarily frozen in horror as the legs caged her in and the giant lupine face moved swiftly towards her, its putrid breath steaming with the venom that dripped from its fangs. The poison spattered next to her face and she could hear the sizzle it made when it hit the ground.
With a grunt that was part shriek, Tabby threw her left arm over her face to protect it as she swung the other one holding the sword over her body and straight up, into the thing’s underbelly. It met some resistance at first but the sharp blade quickly slid home, releasing a hot shower of ichor that Tabby wasn’t completely able to avoid before it soaked her legs and the ground under her. Were-Craig shrieked, its many legs scrabbling for purchase on the slick ground, trying to shrink away from her sword. She rolled quickly out of the way as the monstrous thing started to pitch sideways, tilted and fell into the corn. Tabby rose up on her elbows, watching the thing as it slowly stopped twitching, faded, and then disappeared. The sword in her hand was once more a cornstalk.
Once she’d caught her breath, she stood, brushed off her shorts and turned around to get back on the path. She walked, enjoying the peace and quiet, but remaining wary. She knew that there were still two more challenges to face, before she could find her way back out. As she walked, she hummed the song that had been stuck in her head for days; ah, ah, ah, ah…..stayin’ aliiiiiiiiiive…Tabby grinned and strutted a little. At this point in the maze, even the muted sounds were gone, and judging by that, and the clouds in the sky and more than a little intuition, Tabby knew that she was close to the middle of the maze.
And close to something else. She could feel the change in the air – although she couldn’t have described just what it was – and she knew she was about to find out what the second challenge was.
One left turn later and there it was. A cornstalk, growing in the middle of the path. But not just any cornstalk. A giant one. At its base, it was probably as wide around as one of the huge hay bales they’d passed on the way here, and gradually grew thinner towards the top, which towered a good fifty feet above the regular corn. Tabby knew she was supposed to climb it, and with that realization came the icy cold fear. She HATED heights.
But she knew she had no choice. She slid the piece of cornstalk she’d been holding into her back pocket and started climbing, willing herself to look only up. Everyone knew what happened when you looked down.
As she climbed, she half-expected to see the evil-but-dumb face of a giant peering down at her from the top, yelling about smelly blood and bones, but when she got there, she found nothing but a spectacular view of the whole farm. If she squinted, she could just make out the tiny figure of her mother, and Ken (her mother’s boyfriend) as they sauntered around the food booths and the carts with handmade items for sale, a hand in each others’ back pockets. Tabby knew it was her mother, despite the height and distance, as she could see the complicated dye job that her mother was currently sporting (three different shades of brown and blonde, with light purple streaks) in order to appear younger. Or hipper. Or…whatever. It was meant to appeal to Ken, Tabby knew, who was much closer to her own age, than her mother’s.
She was still admiring the spectacular view when she heard the first one buzz past her ear, close enough to feel the wind of its wings on her cheek. Startled, Tabby almost let go of the cornstalk but managed to hold on at the last minute, feeling the second one buzz past. She looked around wildly, finally catching sight of a large winged insect, similar to a bee but instead of a normal bee face, the bug’s features were that of the bully who’d made her life hell in the third grade.
The first bug came flying back and she was able to see that it, too, sported a human face – another familiar one. It belonged to a pinch-faced girl who’d spread rumours about Tabby when she’d switched to her last school. They were larger than normal bees, about the size of rats, and Tabby could see that there were a dozen or more of them, circling her. She wrapped her arms more tightly around the stalk, gaping at the legion of bugs who seemed to wear the faces of all of the bullies she’d encountered over the years. Having moved so frequently, there had been many.
She could hear their eager, shrill buzz and watched as they formed a tight swarm – and dove towards her. She shrieked in terror, unable to let go and thus unable to swat them away. She was afraid to touch them with her bare hands, in fear that she’d be stung and would plunge to her death. Suddenly, she had an idea. Loosening the death grip she had on the stalk, she pulled one of the leaves off of it. It immediately took the shape of a jumbo fly swatter, like the kind you could get as a gag gift at any dollar store. As the bugs pelted towards her, their buzzing intensifying, Tabby swung…and missed. They dodged it easily, and waving the flyswatter this high up only made her dizzy. The cornstalk trembled, forcing Tabby to clutch frantically at it, the flyswatter dropping from her fingers, and falling, for a very long time.
The bugs were gearing up for the return trip, and this time, they seemed angry. Tabby thought quickly – she needed to really scare them, stand up to them – show them she couldn’t be pushed around anymore. She had it. She reached carefully back with her free hand, fumbling for her back pocket. She grabbed the length of cornstalk, pulling it out in front of her and aiming it as it became a flamethrower, which ignited instantly. The foremost bug (a boy bug named Tobias who’d pushed her down in the play yard in fourth grade) saw the flame just in time to put on the brakes. But as he turned, the hairs on the end of his thorax came close enough to be singed and his angry buzz filled with surprise, pain and fear. The other bees turned tail (or stinger) and flew off. She waited at the ready, but they didn’t come back for a third round.
The flamethrower once again reverted to its original form. Tabby slid it back into her pocket and started to climb back down.
When she finally reached the ground, she breathed a huge sigh of relief and watched as the giant cornstalk slowly shrunk back to its normal size and she knew she’d passed the second test. She also knew that from now on, picturing the look of shock on the stupid bug’s face, when it had felt the sting of the flames was going to get her through any sort of bullying that might come her way in the future. She smiled at that, and started to walk again.
Tabby became increasingly aware that she had to pee. It seemed wrong to squat in the corn and do her business, but after a few more turns, she started looking for a place that would provide enough cover to do so. She found a place in corn that seemed thicker and more densely populated with cornstalks than some of the others, and slipped into the foliage. As she began to unbuckle her shorts, she realized she could see into the next row through a gap in the corn.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure what she was seeing. The creature’s enormous back was to her, and it wasn’t immediately clear what species it belonged to, although Tabby could see the sun shining off of its gold, bronze and purple colored scales; they looked coldly beautiful, both alien and familiar in some way, at the same time. The thing’s body was long and muscular, its spine ridged with spikes.
Tabby realized that she was sweating, despite the coolness of the day in the shadows of the corn. It felt several degrees warmer than it had on the other side of the row. Tabby wiped her face with her hand, and the rustling of the corn caught the creature’s attention. It turned towards the sound, and as it did, she understood exactly what it was that she was looking at, and why it seemed familiar. The dragon’s scales were the reptilian equivalent of a complicated dye job (three different shades of brown and blonde, with light purple streaks), that made it look neither hipper, nor younger, either.
The dragon saw her at the same time, and the two locked eyes. Tabby’s own widened in surprise and alarm, and although every cell in her body was screaming RETREAT, she couldn’t seem to make her legs work. The dragon seemed similarly frozen – and then started towards her.
She finally regained control of her legs and back-pedalled into the row she’d come from, tripping over cornstalks as she went. She fell onto the path, landing hard in the dirt, knocking the breath out of her. The dragon kept coming. She could hear its heavy panting and knowing it was close, forced herself to get moving. She scrambled through the corn again, trying to lose it in the maze’s many twists and turns. But it was so fast.
Despite its size and the length of its tail, it moved with fluid grace and speed, following Tabby by the sound of her retreat. She no longer paused to mind the order of the rows, she was now just fleeing. She crashed through the corn, zig-zagging this way and that, barely noticing the corn that scratched her bare arms and face. At nearly every turn, it seemed she caught sight of either the thing’s snout, or tail, or the sunlight as it glinted off its colored scales. She wished frantically for one minute’s reprieve – a minute to clear her head and get ready. Suddenly, the maze seemed to give her just that, dumping her out into a wide clearing that branched off into three other paths. Tabby knew this was it, and pulled the cornstalk from her pocket.
The flamethrower again – fight fire with fire, she thought grimly. She could hear the dragon approaching and readied her stance, planting her legs, bending her knees and gritting her teeth. She held her weapon at the ready. As the dragon came into the clearing, Tabby fought the urge to squeeze her eyes shut and curl up into a ball on the ground.
The dragon came into view at the other end of the clearing and stopped. It regarded her with a deep, unknowable expression and Tabby shuddered. The thing’s snout seemed to hiss and steam. It howled, and a lick of flame escaped from its mouth, and suddenly Tabby knew that she couldn’t defeat this creature at its own game. If she tried, she’d be more apt to be the victim of friendly fire, than anything else. Her hands around the flamethrower loosened, and it fell to the ground, once more reverting to a harmless stub of cornstalk. She turned and ran, just as the dragon roared a let loose a stream of fire. It made the skin on her back feel irritated and tight and she knew she had no chance of outrunning the thing. Suddenly, she had an idea and she dove sideways through the corn, searching the ground desperately for a rock, while at the same time certain that this particular corn maze would have been cleared of them during planting. The ground was bare, and the dragon crashed through the row, forcing Tabby to run on.
She didn’t see the rock until she tripped over it, landing with a painful thud on her stomach. She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t get up, she couldn’t….the rock, she thought. She twisted sideways and reached back for it, her hand closing around its rough edges, its heft comforting in her hand. And then the dragon was there, its reptilian face looming above her. It seemed to regard her with a mix of something like mirthless amusement, pity and cold anger. It started to inhale deeply, and this time Tabby DID squeeze her eyes shut, and brought up the large, dripping water-filled balloon that was once a rock. She reached upwards as the dragon leaned down and half threw, half-shoved the balloon down the thing’s feverish throat. She knew this was a ridiculous weapon, an absurd, childish solution…but she thought that magic and imagination were almost always ridiculous, absurd, and childish…….so she also knew it would work. As she forced the balloon into the dragon’s gaping maw, she howled in pure, raw triumph.
The dragon’s eyes widened in shock as the water balloon burst and extinguished the embers that burned deep in its belly. Hot steam poured from its mouth. It choked and gasped and gurgled, trying to claw at its own throat with its woefully small and ineffective paws, then with a deafening bbbBBBRRRAAAPPP, it vomited out the water in a jet that drenched Tabby from head to foot. Still coughing and gagging, it turned and took flight. She watched as it cleared the corn maze, and disappeared into the clouds.
Using her t-shirt, Tabby wiped her face and sighed with relief. She got to her feet, a little shaky but grinning hard. She’d done it. She’d passed the third test. Then she became aware of the throbbing of her bladder. She still had to pee, almost desperately, and the fight with the dragon had made her very hot, and very, very thirsty. She was so looking forward to the first sip of apple cider. Battling monsters and conquering corn mazes made for tiring work.
Tabby started walking again. After a few more turns she finally reached the maze exit. She could hear the farm equipment again, and the music, and children’s laughter. A cheery looking scarecrow sat at the exit, and she slowed long enough to tip an invisible hat to it. And then her need to pee overwhelmed her and she darted towards the blue line-up of Port-A-Potties that sat at the edge of the parking lot. Luckily, one was vacant. Her relief was palpable as she pulled her shorts down and sat. She nearly groaned out loud.
She was almost finished when she noticed the blood. Did I hurt myself somehow? Maybe with the were-spider, or that last bit with the drag………oh, she thought to herself. Oh – I know what that is.
Tabby realized then, that she’d gone into the maze a child, but hadn’t left that way. Time to put away childish things, she thought, dazedly, wondering if she’d gotten the quote right and feeling the abrupt weight of grief for what she’d lost. She was suddenly, inexplicably struck with more fear than she’d felt the entire time she’d been battling through the corn.
“Tabby! Taaaaabbbbyyy!? TABBY!!”
Her mother’s voice came through the vents in the top of the Port-A-Potty, startling her. She sniffled once, wiping her face again with her shirt. Then she stuffed her panties with toilet paper, pulled up her shorts and opened the door. She took one, deep, shuddering breath then called out.
“Here – I’m here, Mom!”
Her mother had her back to her, scanning the parking lot with a hand shading her eyes. She turned at the sound of Tabby voice.
“There you are!” she exclaimed, hurrying over to her. “Ken and I have been looking all over for you – c’mon, they’re starting the hayride.”
Tabby followed her mother to the back of a big green farm truck, ignoring Ken’s outstretched hand and clamoring up to sit on the opposite side from him. He shrugged, slinging his arm around Tabby’s mother’s waist and pulling her onto his lap. She squealed, and Tabby turned away from them.
As the truck rumbled to life, she looked back at the corn maze in the distance. Then she turned back to her mother and Ken, and accepted the steaming Styrofoam cup of cider he held out to her.
“Thanks,” she said.
“No problem, beautiful,” he replied, glancing at her mother to make sure her attention was elsewhere, and then winking at Tabby.
Tabby sighed, wishing she had a cornstalk. Then she remembered the spider, the bugs, the dragon, and the blood. Just before he turned away, Tabby raised her eyes to Ken’s and held his gaze as she slowly, deliberately and resolutely flipped him the bird.
Chantel Sandbach’s job is a prison, literally. She’s a parole officer in a penitentiary by day, out of necessity, and a writer by night (and day, and on weekends and holidays and anytime the inspiration strikes her), also out of necessity; the soul-fulfilling kind of necessity. She still doesn’t know what she really wants to write when she grows up, but has had one piece of flash fiction published, to date (and one upcoming). She is from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.