Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Cornfield"

a short story
by Christopher Hawkins

February 21, 2023
5,273 Words
Genre(s): ,

Alice wasn’t asleep, but she was starting to dose with her phone glowing balanced on her chest, when she heard the scraping at her window. She’d left it half open, as much an invitation as a way to let in the autumn air, and she didn’t look away from the screen as it slid up the rest of the way. A familiar shadow slumped in over the sill, moving slow, moving tired. Alice felt her pulse quicken as she sat up against the pillows and set the phone aside.

It was Nicki. It could only be Nicki, coming to escape, coming for sanctuary. But this time there was something wrong, more wrong than just the normal. It showed in the way Nicki gathered herself together, stumbling as she stood, blonde hair wild and shining in the moonlight. Alice didn’t ask. She didn’t need to ask. She only slid to one side of the bed and pulled the covers back. Nicki skinned down her jeans, legs pale in the darkened room, and fell into bed next to her without saying a word.

When Alice tried to pull her close, Nicki flinched and drew in a hiss of air. Alice let go, and Nicki wriggled back against her by inches. Her legs were cold, but her shoulder was warm, and Alice laid her cheek against it. She was trembling, but Alice couldn’t tell if it was anger, or sadness, or just the chill night air. Or maybe all of them all at once.

It was only when Nicki reached back to pull Alice’s arm around her that Alice realized she was still holding her phone.

“The app?” Nicki’s voice was thin, and Alice could tell that she’d been crying.

“Yeah,” Alice whispered, barely daring to make a sound.

“I put his name in.” There was a remoteness in the way she said it, a cold indifference that made it sound as if she weren’t talking about something awful, as if she were talking about nothing more consequential than what she’d had for lunch.

“So did I,” Alice said.

Nicki drew Alice’s arm tight against her chest, and though Alice could tell that it pained her, she would not let go. “I hate him,” Nicki whispered through clenched teeth, her breath hitching in her chest. Her cheek was hot against Alice’s hand, and she could feel the slow drip of tears on her fingers.

“So do I,” Alice said.

At school the next morning, Tad was the first one to bring up the app. “It’s got to be bullshit,” he said. “You know, like, what do you call it? One of those monkey marketing things?”

It was the five of them, same as always, Mark and Melissa in the shade of the big tree at the edge of the campus. Tad with his arm around Nicki, holding her close. Two couples, with Alice in her hoodie, sitting apart from them both, the oddest of odd numbers. Tad’s other hand was between Nicki’s legs, cupping one knee, like he was staking a claim.

“Guerilla marketing,” Alice said, and tried to keep the edge out of her voice.

He snapped his fingers in confirmation, and when his hand fell back on Nicki’s leg, it was higher up her thigh. “Yeah. Guerilla marketing. Like, I’ll bet they paid those guys to lay low for a while, get people talking. You know how Steve does. He’s probably hiding out in some beach house, scrolling through Twitter, laughing his ass off at all of us.”

Steve Taylor had been gone for six days now. He’d left no message, no warning, no trace of him except for the clothes laid out in the dent in his bedsheets. At least, that’s what people were saying.

Mark shrugged and took a pull off the vape he had cupped half up his sleeve. You weren’t allowed to vape on the high school grounds, and he glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was looking before he blew the mist up into the air. The wind took it back toward Alice, thick and smelling of bubblegum.

“Nah, no way,” he said, dismissing the thought like so much smoke on the breeze. “I mean, I know no one wants to say it, but I’ll be the one to say it. I don’t care. They’re dead. That’s all there is to it. They’re fucking dead.”

Melissa punched him in the arm, hard enough that Nicki flinched a little at the sound. “Mark! Don’t say shit like that. It’s not funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny,” Mark said, though the grin on his face said it was probably a lie. “I’m just trying to be reasonable. No one’s going to just up and leave their whole life behind like that. I mean, what happens when they come back? How are they going to explain all that to their families? To the cops? The only way it makes sense is if they’re not coming back.”

“Occam’s Razor,” Nicki said. Her voice was light, but her eyes were far away.

Mark took another drag off the vape and nodded sagely. “Occam’s fucking Razor.”

Tad pulled Nicki off balance, and she wriggled back against him. If her rib still hurt, she wasn’t letting it show. The hand on her leg slid another inch higher. She was smiling, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. Not that Tad would have noticed, or even imagined she was anything less than smitten with him. Not Tad Parker with his perfect smile and his hand-me-down Audi, skating through life on nothing more than good looks and rich-kid confidence. Not Tad Parker, with his hand on Nicki’s leg like he owned her, thinking probably that he did.

“But it can’t do that, can it?” Nicki’s voice had a hopeful note in it that Alice figured only she could hear. “I mean, that would be crazy, right?

“Of course it can’t,” Tad said into her hair. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Melissa said, punctuating it by digging her nails into Mark’s shoulder.

“Ow,” Mark said. “What did I do?”

“You brought it up.”

“I absolutely did fucking not!”

“But you expressed an opinion,” Tad said, grinning, his teeth perfect. “And your opinion makes no sense.”

“It makes perfect sense.”

“So explain how it works, then. Do they just send ninjas out in the middle of the night? Take people away and never make a sound? Never leave a trace, never set off an alarm?”

Tad squeezed Nicki tighter, and Alice saw her flinch again. It was the same way she had flinched the night before when she’d been in Alice’s bed, the faint scent of smoke–cigarettes, maybe even a little weed–lingering in her hair. Did he know that Nicki never talked about him when the two of them were together? Did he know what Alice knew, that she was only with him because she felt like he could protect her, even when he couldn’t. That he could hold her, but he’d never really have her. Not really. Not in any way that meant anything.

“Just because I don’t know how it works doesn’t mean that it doesn’t.” Mark was indignant now, pulling away even as Melissa was slipping her arm around his.

Tad was grinning. “And just ‘cause someone’s missing doesn’t mean they’re not coming back.”

“Tell that to Steve’s mom,” Alice said, not wanting to think about it anymore, not wanting to hear one more word out of Tad’s mouth. It worked because they all grew silent then and stared at the ground. No one had to say anything because it was all still fresh in their minds, that image of Steve Taylor’s mom on the news, falling to her knees, crying for her son to come back. The video had been shared around for days. Everyone she knew had seen it at least twice.

The way the app worked was this: you put in a name. That was all. Just one name and the app went dark. It might stay that way for days, weeks, or even just a few hours. But, sooner or later, the app would buzz, and then there would be two names. At first they were just names. Nobody knew who they were, so nobody thought twice about clicking the checkbox next to one of them before the timer ran down. That was before anyone knew what it meant to have your name in the app, before they started seeing names of people they knew. Even then, that didn’t stop them from clicking. At the end of the countdown, only one name would be left, and that person would never be seen again.

The app was called Cornfield, which Alice figured at first was just because they lived in a shithole town with nothing but farm fields in all directions. She found out later that it was a reference to some old TV show where a kid from some other old TV show could make people disappear forever by wishing them into a cornfield. Knowing that up front wouldn’t have changed anything. They might even have adopted it more quickly, though it still spread through the school like a venereal disease. The adults called it a hoax and tried to ban the app, but the ban wouldn’t stick. Kids would hold up their phones at the end of minor conflicts like punctuation marks, showing that they hadn’t entered a name yet, implying that your name might be next. But no one did that for too long for fear of missing their chance. In the end, everyone put in a name.

After Steve Taylor disappeared, Alice decided she wasn’t going to put names in the app anymore. Before Steve, the last name she’d put in was Mister Sullivan’s because (ha ha!) wouldn’t it be great if she didn’t have to turn in her calculus assignment? But she had known Steve. They’d talked just the day before, about homeroom or some other bullshit, and then he was just gone. Steve disappearing made it real. Nicki had been coming to her window for a few weeks by then, silent as a ghost with no warning or explanation. If Alice had known why, she wouldn’t have wasted her choice.

Nicki always wore jeans and heavy leather jackets, even in the heat of summer. Alice had always assumed that she did it to be cool, and she was cool, with her knowing smiles and her devil-may-give-a-shit attitude. She was too cool for the likes of Tad Parker, that much was certain. And she was way too cool to be Alice’s friend, too cool by a mile. And yet, there she was, laying on Alice’s bed, her jacket open with a Debbie Harry t-shirt underneath, thumbing through her books, laughing at every dumb joke she made. Nicki was cool and she was kind, once you got past the constant sarcasm and the way she’d blow her hair away from her eyes to tell you when she thought you were full of shit. She was cool, and she was fierce, and she had this way of looking at you that made you feel like you were the only one in the room.

Nicki’s stepfather was careful to never leave his marks where they would show. Dale Morris was mean, but he was careful. Even when Nicki’s mom was still alive, he’d never left any sign. Nicki never let on what was happening, and it was only when Alice caught a glimpse of the bruise turning yellow inside the scoop of her t-shirt collar that it all finally clicked into place.

“You could leave,” Alice told her later, her head resting in Nicki’s lap, thin fingers running long strokes through her hair.

Nicki let out a laugh that was almost a snort. “And go where? If I had any other family, I wouldn’t be stuck with him, would I? And even if I did, what then? I’ve got precisely zero money, and it’s not like anyone’s exactly lining up to give out jobs to desperate high school dropouts. Not unless it’s a job of the hand or blow variety, and that’s not exactly what the guidance counselor had in mind when she said I needed to find a vocation.”

They sat in silence for a while, Alice not daring to say what she was thinking out loud, until finally the thought grew so large that there was no way for her not to say it.

“We could leave.”

“And go where?”

“California,” Alice said. “You know I always wanted to write for TV, and you said you thought I’d be good at it. We could find some shitty job until we get our feet under us. Everyone out there works shitty jobs until they make it. We could be. . . I don’t know, baristas or something. Maybe even work the same shifts at the same place.”

Nicki shifted out from underneath Alice’s head and helped her up until they were both sitting on their knees, their faces just inches apart. Alice’s heart had already been hammering, but it picked up speed as Nicki took her hands in her own, looking into her eyes, looking so deep that Alice thought she might lose herself.

“My God,” Nicki breathed. “You really mean it, don’t you?”

Nicki’s fingers were warm and Alice squeezed down on them, afraid to let go, afraid Nicki would let go first, that the moment would be ruined before it could even take shape and she would lose it forever. But Alice could see that she was thinking it over, could feel it in the way that her hands were squeezing back. All she had to do was hold on.

“You’ve always wanted to sing, right? You think you don’t have the voice for it, but I know you do. You’d be amazing at it. You’re amazing at everything. We could get a place. I have a little money set aside. It’s enough to get settled. Just me and you. We can do it.”

Nicki’s eyes were alive now in a way that she hadn’t seen them alive in months, so bright they were almost dancing. But they only stayed that way for a moment before a distant chill settled over them, and Alice knew she was lost.

“I can’t,” Nicki said.

“Yes, you can! We both can. We can go tonight. You won’t even have to go back home. I’ll pack enough clothes for both of us.”

“What about school?”

“What about it?” Alice was talking fast now, her voice unrecognizable as her own. “We’ll transfer. We’ll get GEDs. We’ll drop out. It doesn’t matter.” It was as if some reckless, impulsive creature had taken up residence inside her and was putting its words in her mouth, as if something new was being born, something altogether different from the person she always had been.

“We’d be free,” this new Alice said. “Don’t you see? We can go wherever we want, be whoever we want. And we wouldn’t have to think about this stupid town ever again, or worry about someone putting our names in some stupid app. You want this. I know you want this. Please tell me you want this.”

Nicki cupped a hand to Alice’s cheek, and it was only when she thumbed away a tear that Alice realized she’d been crying. A slow smile spread across Nicki’s face, a sad longing in her eyes that turned dark, like a light going out. She shook her head. “We can’t.”

“Yes, we can. We just–”

Nicki pressed her thumb to Alice’s lips, the taste of cigarettes and hand lotion on her skin.

“I’d only slow you down.”

“No, you wouldn’t.” Alice was pleading now, trembling with a new energy that begged to be set loose with nowhere for it to go.

“Yes, I would,” Nicki whispered. “We could go, yeah, but you’d be giving up so much to do it. Sooner or later, you’d resent me for it.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“You would, and you’d be right. Alice, you’re going to be amazing. Me? I’m never going to be anything. And I can’t make a life by taking half of yours. I could never live with myself if I did.”

Her hand left Alice’s cheek, and as it did Alice leaned into it, squeezing her eyes shut as if she could will it to stay. She stayed that way even as she heard the rough creak of the window being raised and felt the cool night air send a chill up her back. When she opened her eyes again, her phone was there, sitting mute on the bedspread beside her. She thumbed it on and found the empty screen, cursor flashing, waiting for a name. Trembling, she stared at it, her thumbs hovering over the screen, willing them to move, not wanting them to move, afraid of what might happen when they did.

She put in Dale Morris’s name before she threw the thing against the headboard. It bounced off the pillows and landed with a thud on the floor.

Alice got three more chances to put Nicki’s stepfather’s name in the app after that. The first was the night that Nicki had slumped in her window. Alice stayed awake all that night, listening to the in and out of Nicki’s breath, wondering how things might change if his name came up for a vote, if his name was the last one left. With nothing left to tie her here, would Nicki reconsider? Could it really be just the two of them against the world? Or would the absence of his torments only give them one less reason to leave? This place might become bearable to her then, and over time wear down all the rough edges that made her Nicki. Without him, would she just stay in this little town forever?

But Dale Morris’s name didn’t come up the next time the app chose its names. Or the time after that. Or the time after that. Tommy Dalton, who worked at the gas station on Hill Road, was the next one to go, and the whole town formed lines in the woods to search for him. Everyone from her class showed up, but they all knew they weren’t going to find him. By then they had all heard about how his gray jumpsuit had been spread out beneath Mrs. Witherspoon’s pickup, a socket wrench laying right where his hand would have been. They kept their heads down and their faces somber as they played along with the search, but Alice could see the wild delight in their eyes, the knowledge that anything was possible, that the power was all theirs.

Bill Daley, a pimple-faced freshman, went a week later, followed by Kim Wallace three days after that. Kim’s disappearance made for some extra buzz because her name had been in the final two once before, alongside Steve Taylor. No one knew for sure if the person who went was the one with the most votes or the least, but being in contention at all had left Kim withdrawn and jumpy, unable to look anyone in the eye. She’d quit the cheer squad and stopped turning in her homework. Seeing her in the halls only served as a reminder of how wrong the whole thing was, and when she was gone it was as if a weight had been lifted from the entire school. After that, they held an assembly in the gymnasium where a psychologist talked about loss, but no one talked about the app. Still, Alice watched the bleachers while the speakers spoke, and saw how they were all checking their phones.

Nicki almost never checked her phone at school, but that was nothing new. She always seemed half a step out of sync with everyone else, even made a point of it. Anyone looking for a change in her might not have seen it. Anyone, that is, except for Alice. It seemed to happen all at once, a subtle shift in the way she carried herself, as if a weight were on her shoulders that grew heavier day by day. Most days she said little, but now she said less, keeping to the centers of the hallways where the passing crowd was thinnest, shifting her body to avoid even the most glancing touch.

When Alice wanted to speak with her, she always seemed to be going the other way, retreating to the relative comfort of Tad Parker’s arms whenever he drew her near. Even those times became fewer and farther between, until finally they no longer happened at all. Tad moved on. Mark and Mellissa split off, becoming a unit of two. The whole school was in motion, groups of people huddling together and drifting apart like tectonic plates. Nicki and Alice became islands, the waters between them unnavigable.

There were rumors, once it was clear that Bill Daley and Kim Wallace weren’t going to miraculously reappear, that they might close the school down for the rest of the year. Alice knew that would never happen. To close the school down would be admitting that there really was something wrong, that the talk of Bill killing himself and of Kim being strung out in some crack house on the other side of the city were less awful than the truth, that they were really just macabre comforts that kept the adults from admitting that the app was real, that the app was doing exactly what the kids already knew it had been doing all along. Kim and Bill were gone because they’d been wished away, and they weren’t coming back.

Alice didn’t enter Nicki’s stepfather’s name in the app after that. It wasn’t that he didn’t deserve it, or that she’d changed her mind about him at all. It wasn’t because Nicki had all but ghosted her. She stopped because of the looks she saw on the faces in the hallways and the sullen silences that seemed to thicken the very air like storm clouds. No one spoke because no one dared speak. The risk was too great. Each of them had power over the rest, though none of them had any sense of exactly how to wield it, and no one wanted to risk having that power turned back upon themselves.

That made it all the stranger when Alice left the classroom and saw people gathering again in the hallways, clustered in threes and fours with their backs to the lockers. The smiles they wore seemed grotesque after being absent for so long. They passed their phones in hushed little circles, eager, even amused, whispering to each other between stifled laughter. This was not the app. This was something else, something new, and it drove a cold dread through Alice’s stomach like a railroad spike.

Alice drifted through the crowd, feigning disinterest as the voices became hushed and the screens were hidden against their chests when she got too close. She felt their eyes on her as she passed them by and knew that somehow this was personal. She found her moment when a pigtailed sophomore had her back turned and—quick like a snake—snatched the phone out of her hand. There were protests, hands pulling at her arms, but once she saw what was on the screen she barely felt them.

There was Nicki. It could only be Nicki because no one else had that unruly mane of blonde hair. Only, in the picture there was a hand curled into that hair, holding her head down in the photographer’s lap, a steering wheel with the four circles of the Audi logo in the upper frame. Alice’s stomach heaved. She swiped the photo aside but there was another, this one Nicki with her shirt off, one arm across her breasts, the other fending off the camera. Her face was in full view, her eyelids lowered, looking tired, looking maybe drunk. Looking like she wanted to fight back but didn’t have the will.

Again, Alice thumbed it aside, but there were more, so many more. Her stomach lurched again, made worse by the perverse thrill of knowing that she wasn’t meant to see this, that no one was meant to see this. Flashes of skin, blurred and in motion. A tangle of bodies, closeups with bad lighting. At last she came to one photo, the last photo, in perfect focus. In it, Nicki was curled into herself, her hair in her face, sleeping. Pressed against her back, bare hip to bare hip, smiling with his tongue out, mugging for the picture, was Tad Parker.

Alice felt the hush in the air before she really heard it, and it made her feel small, as if it was her in those pictures and not Nicki. Her cheeks flushed hot with the knowledge that she shouldn’t be looking at them, that no one should. When she finally tore her eyes away from the screen she expected everyone to be looking at her, but no one seemed to even realize she was there. They had all turned their eager gazes to the end of the hallway where Nicki stood alone, her shoulders slumped, her cheeks wet with tears.

The girl in the pigtails pulled her phone out of Alice’s hands, but Alice barely noticed. The air was alive, electrified by the held breath and eager fidgeting of everyone around her. The look on Nicki’s face was all betrayal and disbelief, and in it Alice could almost read the words you too? Alice wanted to go to her then, but the sick feeling in her gut kept her rooted to her spot. Helpless, she watched Nicki run the other way as all around her the air came alive with jeering stutters of laughter.

Alice’s finger hovered over the phone’s screen, Tad Parker’s name practically leering back at her. She’d backed over it and typed it in again twice now, and each time she felt a little less sick doing it. The pictures had come from Tad’s phone. That much was obvious. She wanted to believe that he was a victim too, somehow, that someone had stolen them from him, but she knew better. He’d sent them to someone, maybe more than one someone, maybe even Mark. She’d seen the knowing smiles that had passed between them, as if they were sharing a secret. Had she just imagined that? Maybe, but maybe not.

She thought about texting Nicki. She knew that she should text Nicki, and even started to, once, before she backed over that, too. She couldn’t bear the thought of waiting for her to answer, of knowing that she almost certainly wouldn’t answer. And if she did answer, what then? What would she say? What could she say when the image of Nicki, tucked into the curve of Tad’s body, was still burning in her brain?

Alice lay on her bed and curled in on herself, but there was nothing but the cold glow of the screen in her hands to fill the empty space. She watched the window, willing it to open, trying to conjure Nicki with her mind, knowing that she wouldn’t come here, thinking that she might never come here again. Was she at home now? Was she packing, getting ready to leave this little town without her? Was she alone, or was she with Tad, the heat of her body warming him, his hands tracing the faint comet tails of her scars?

She backed over Tad’s name, typed in Nicki’s, and locked it in with a press of her thumb.

Alice didn’t go to school the next day, or the day after that. Feigning sick, she lay in her darkened room with her phone on her chest, waiting for it to buzz, hoping that when it did, it would be Nicki texting her, and not the app. She couldn’t eat, and her parents didn’t question why she wouldn’t come downstairs. If they knew why, she was certain they would hate her. So she lay watching the window, waiting for the app to save her by showing her someone else’s name, waiting for Nicki to crawl in her window like she always had, and bring the normal world back in with her.

Moments stretched out into little eternities. She tried to cry, but couldn’t. She couldn’t feel any one feeling long enough for it to take hold, whiplashing between sadness and anger, between guilt and wild hope. She wanted to take it back. Had anyone tried to take it back? There were other names. So many other names. There was no reason for the app to pick Nicki, no reason that it couldn’t just as easily pick someone else. The thought calmed her, until it didn’t, until the whole whiplash cycle started all over again, leaving her not knowing, and the not knowing was a torture.

Until at last, the phone buzzed.

She rode her bike on shaking legs down darkened roads all the way to Nicki’s house. The light in Nicki’s bedroom was on, and Alice threw rocks at it, not caring if she woke Nicki’s stepfather, not caring if she broke the glass, not caring about anything other than seeing Nicki’s face. When at last she appeared, framed in unruly blonde hair, she wore a crooked little smile. Her eyes were sunken, but they were dry.

“It was me,” Alice said, the words like caged birds that had been waiting all this time to escape. “It was me.”

Nicki shook her head. “It wasn’t just you.”

“It’s all my fault.” The tears were coming freely now, cutting crooked rivers down her cheeks to settle in the corners of her mouth. “I don’t know why I did it. I was mad. I was stupid. I don’t know. And I just–”

A low thump sounded from somewhere inside the house. Nicki looked back over her shoulder. A light in the next room came on. A moment of panic crossed her face before a wry smile banished it again. Her eyes were still dark, but something inside them was dancing.

“Let’s go,” Nicki said.

Alice felt her heart lift as Nicki shrugged on her leather jacket. She bit down on her lip and tasted salt.

“You and me, just like you said. We’ll get out of this place. We’ll go and we won’t look back. Not ever.” Nicki’s leg was out the window now, shadows moving in the window next door. A little bark of a laugh came up from Alice’s chest as she wiped her tears away, and only then did she realize she was smiling.

Together, they rode. Nicki pressed in close at her back, her arms around Alice’s middle, her chin in the crook of Alice’s shoulder. Alice worked the pedals as fast as they would take them. They rode until the last streetlamps had passed, until they could no longer see the lights of the town behind them. Gravel crunched beneath their tires. Farm fields flew past them, rows of cornstalks stretching out in all directions, farther than either of them could see. Alice pressed on, working her legs until they burned, not daring to stop, not daring to slow down. Nicki’s breath was in her ear, her voice low and reassuring, whispering promises. Wild hair whipped against Alice’s face until her warmth left her back, and her leather jacket rose, empty, on the wind.

For more short stories by Christopher Hawkins, watch for Suburban Monsters, available March 15th, and download his free micro-collection, available now.

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About the Author

Christopher Hawkins is an award-winning dark fiction writer. His debut collection of short stories, Suburban Monsters, arrives in March from Coronis Publishing.

He is a former editor of the One Buck Horror anthology series and a member of the Horror Writers Association, as well as an avid tabletop gamer and collector of curiosities. When he’s not writing, he spends his time exploring old cemeteries, lurking in museums, and searching for a decent cup of tea.

christopher-hawkins.com

Copyright ©2023 by Christopher Hawkins.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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