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Every year, Josephus Applebaugh gave Harriet and Henry first crack at his corn maze.
“You kids keep me on my toes.” Josephus adjusted his worn red cap and jammed his thumbs in his work overalls. “Every year, me and Sally here have to, well, innovate I guess. I think this year we’ve outdone ourselves, ain’t that right Sally?”
Sally flopped her thick black tail in the grass. She was the biggest black lab anyone had seen this side of Uphills, and Josephus was the biggest man in all of Fretter’s Creek, towering over the kids, a full head higher than anyone they’d ever seen stand next to him. Sally panted and blinked in the warm autumn sunshine.
Henry put his hands on his hips, peering into the entrance of the maze. “Grandpa, we were in and out in ten minutes last year.”
Josephus removed his cap. “Well, your grandfather isn’t perfect, boy.” He sniffed. “Lord knows I’m getting older and, well, I try my best to keep it together, but…”
Harriet punched Henry in the arm.
“Ow,” said Henry. “He’s faking it, Hattie. Look at him.”
Josephus grinned. He dangled a silver pocketwatch from a long chain. “Now then, are we ready?”
“Wait,” said Harriet. “Can we take Sally?”
“Now that’d be cheating. She knows the way,” said Josephus. “Now get ready, the two of you.”
A slight breeze rustled the corn husks tied in two tall bundles on either side of the maze entrance.
Josephus held up the watch. “Set. Go!”
Henry was off at once. He immediately turned to the left and around the corner. Harriet sprinted after him.
“Wait, Henry,” she said. “We should have a plan.”
Henry waited for her around the corner, holding a ball of red yarn in his hand. “Just like last year,” he whispered.
“Not again,” she said. “We can do without it.”
“Come on, it’s more fun this way.” And without another word, Henry unwound the yarn behind him as they went. They came to the first intersection. The left path led them to a dead end, so they followed the yarn back and took the right path instead. Another dead end, this one with an old stuffed scarecrow dangling from a wooden frame. He wore a hat just like grandpa’s. So Henry and Harriet tried the other two paths and found two more dead ends.
Henry stood in the last empty alley. “That’s it? Where’s the little flag to bring back?”
“It can’t be it. We missed something,” said Harriet.
“Let’s go back to the beginning.”
They followed the yarn back to where they started. Henry gathered the yarn and Harriet followed him down a long, winding pathway where the wall of corn husks was twisted into spiral towers with thick knotted rope. The sky above darkened. Henry stopped. He held the ball of yarn up to Harriet.
“Look,” he said.
“The yarn ball.”
“What about it?”
“It’s bigger than when we started.”
“Stop it, Henry.”
“No, look.” Henry tried to stuff the ball into his pants pocket. It wouldn’t fit. “Hattie, I want to go back.”
“Back where? I didn’t recognize it back there and I don’t recognize it now. Let’s just keep going in one direction. Grandpa’s field is only so big anyway.”
The corridor walls seemed to shrink a little, but the sky remained dark and overcast. The yarn led to a break in the maze.
“There. See? There’s the entrance,” said Harriet.
Relieved, the children ran to the opening. But instead of Josephus and Sally and the farm, a withering meadow stretched out beyond the maze, ending at the banks of a trickling creek. Beyond the creek, a dark wood loomed, gnarled and ancient. In the wood, a single ghostly light flickered in the window of a dilapidated farm house.
A cold wind swept over the meadow and into the maze. Henry and Harriet shivered in unison.
Henry looked at his feet. The yarn led back into the maze. He grabbed his sister’s arm and ran.
“We follow the yarn, no matter what,” he said, panting.
“What was that place?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”
The children darted this way and that, around corners and down narrow alleys, following the single thread of bright red yarn. On a sharp left, they stumbled to a halt. Harriet gasped.
“What on earth?” said Henry.
It grunted and stamped the ground with its front right foot, but the bull only took a moment to consider the two of them. He was squat and fat, chestnut brown with white patches around his eyes. His horns were crooked and his left eye was a bit lazy.
“Clover? What are you doing here?” said Henry.
Clover snorted and took another mouthful of hay.
The sun returned. The walls of corn husks looked normal again: a man’s height at most, tied tight with brown twine. Harriet walked up to Clover and stroked the bridge of his nose. She fiddled with something around his collar.
“What is it Hattie?”
Harriet held up a little orange towel that read “Trick or Treat!” in the teeth of a Jack-o-Lantern. “The end,” she said. The yarn wound behind Clover and out the way they came in. Henry wound up the yarn. The ball was too big now to carry with one hand much less put it back in his pocket. He tossed it aside.
Josephus was waiting for them when they returned. He sat on an old patchwork quilt with Sally, spreading apple butter on a thick slice of white bread.
He checked his watch. “Forty-five minutes. Well, that’s no record, but you’ll forgive me if I take a little pride in providing a challenge to my sharp little grandkids. Did you have fun? Sit with me. Eat. Where’s the yarn?”
Henry and Harriet looked at one another. “You knew?”
“Sally told me,” he said with a wink.
The pair flopped down with their grandfather. He handed them each a slice of buttered bread. “Got some cider too if you want.”
Henry stared at Josephus intently. “How’d you get Clover in there?”
“Clover? He was in there, eh? I’ll be damned. He roams. Honest to God truth, I didn’t. That bull just sorta ends up places. Old Man Keller called me the other day, told me Clover was in his fishing hole. Damned if he wasn’t standing right smack on the swimming platform nibbling muck from the surface. That was an ordeal. I’ll have to do a sweep tomorrow before the kids show up. Don’t want any moms having a heart attack on me.”
Harriet devoured her bread and asked for another. “What about the woods, grandpa? The dark woods. On the other side.”
Josephus’ smile faded. He slathered another piece of bread and took a bite. He chewed and swallowed. “Did it look like a place for little boys and girls to go?”
“Did the yarn lead there?”
“Then you listen to your grandpa when he says you trust your gut when it tells you something.”
“But what was it?”
“A bad place. A mistake.”
The four sat in silence for a time. Sally rolled over and let Harriet rub her belly.
“There now. The sunshine’s warm on a fall afternoon, we have homemade bread and sweets and best of all, my little labyrinth was a success, more or less. All in all a good day so far, how bout it?”
“What’s for dinner?” said Henry with a mouthful of bread.
Josephus grabbed the children’s hands and drew them close to him, kissing the tops of their heads.
“Let’s go have a look at the cupboards.”
Josephus gathered the quilt and his picnic basket and walked on stiff legs back to the house. Henry and Harriet and Sally followed behind.
“What was it?” whispered Henry.
“I don’t know. Grandpa looked scared.”
Henry scoffed. “He didn’t look scared.”
“Fine then. Worried.”
Henry hesitated. He shrugged helplessly. “I was scared.”
“Me too, Hank.”
Next week we visit Oscar and Francine in “The Rescue”. Oscar gets a haircut!