That summer I thought I was going to die.
But not like I actually, almost did
die. No. I thought I was going to die of boredom.
My mother had dragged us to the middle of nowhere, a new, shithole town in the midwest where she was going to “reinvent” herself.
I knew the truth. We moved here because we were dead broke, and the house was free, because my mom inherited it.
It was just like every other small, midwestern town, with its sad houses and worn out shops. You know the ones. Smoky restaurants, pawn shops, run- down gas stations, churches on every corner. Well, in that way ours was different. Our town only had one.
It was a depressing place. The residents were just as plain and dismal as you could imagine. At the store I eyed the forlorn women pushing carts of screaming children, or the old men dragging on cigarettes as they ate breakfast at the convenient store.
There was nothing really here at all, except corn. Corn stretching endlessly in every direction. It came right up to the edge of our sad little yard, and circled our house on three sides.
We lived in an old farmhouse on the outside of town. My grandmother hadn’t been able to do much in her later years, so the inside was dated and dingy. I did my best to look on the bright side- at least we had a place to live- but it was hard to ignore the dirty carpet, the peeling wallpaper, or the blue bathtub. It was not a happy place, for any of us.
In the summer of 2004, I was a punk; a scene kid. In Chicago no one had blinked an eye at my choppy hair, or busted- up sneakers, or band t- shirts, but here the combination made me look like a freak at the local high school of 400 students. I was relieved when the semester finally ended.
I spent most of that summer smoking pot with a neighbor kid named Dakota and working in a local ice cream store where I barely made any tips.
I knew my emo look was bad for business. The locals eyed me suspiciously as they chose their flavor, boldly staring at my eyeliner as their lips formed a thin, judgemental line. They saw me as “different.” They thought I was trouble.
That wasn’t true though. I may not have been a good girl, but I wasn’t a bad kid.
I felt bad for my sister, who still bought into mom’s bullshit. She was too young to really know better. Mom was on a church kick these days. I knew it was just another phase, like AA when I was younger, and the guru she followed in the 70’s before I was born. She just replaced one thing for another, always looking for that next thing that would complete her. She never found it, though. That’s what Jen didn’t understand. Mom was just one of those people, always searching.
The church mom was into these days was called New Blessings. All the traditional church elements were there- the potlucks, the choir, the prayer meetings- but there was something different. Something off. It should have been a red flag, but I didn’t think much about the entire town worshipping together. There just weren’t any other churches.
I was fine with being an outsider. But mom wasn’t. She disliked my appearance now, even though she’d never commented on it before we moved. She tried to get me different clothes, and secretly tossed most of my band shirts, to my lament.
Mom spent a lot of time getting to know every member of the congregation, indebting herself to them with little favors and invitations. She quickly became close with the pastor’s wife, Charlotte, and started forcing us on their family for Sunday dinner.
I was embarrassed by this. I knew we were poor, but I hated how mom played it up, and took advantage of their generosity.
“They’re a cult,” Dakota said quietly one evening, as we shared a joint. “Stay away from them if you can.”
I hadn’t believed him- I mean, I knew they were crazy, anyone could see that- but an actual
My mother didn’t approve of me hanging out with Dakota. Her exact words were, “he came from a troubled home.” The critique was laughable, given our current circumstances, but I knew the real reason mom judged them was because they weren’t part of New Blessings like everyone else.
He was a good kid though, and more often than not he would show up at the ice cream shop around closing and walk with me as I pushed my bike back home through the summer darkness.
One muggy evening as I closed up he caught me staring at the cork board by the front door. In between the “for sale” signs, free puppies, and estate auctions were two weathered flyers with grainy photos of teenage girls. “Have you seen me?” they read.
“They’re not really missing, you know. They’re dead.”
I didn’t buy into his conspiracy theories that the town was cursed, and I didn’t believe him that the girls were dead. I thought it was more likely they had run away from this place in search of a better life.
As I spent more and more time in the town, however, I began to wonder if there was any truth to his speculations.
The people here were a bit.. backwards. They distrusted outsiders. Mom, of course, grew up here, so she was technically a native. But I wasn’t. To me, their cold gazes and standoffish manner was rude.
And then there was the church. As the summer dragged on, I began to feel more and more uneasy with it. Maybe it was my anti-establishment outlook on life, but I just felt like something was off.
Mom became more and more involved with the group, more sucked in to the bullshit every day. I joked with Dakota that she had “drank the kool-aid,” which had made him smirk. But I wasn’t joking.
Mom had started leaving Jen and I alone at the house for long stretches of time to attend “prayer gatherings.” These meetings were held at different member homes, and they could last for hours. I had thought it was only normal to go to church on Sundays and Wednesdays, but these people met on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well.
Of course, there was a silver lining to mom being out of the house so much. It was very easy to sneak out.
On several moon-lit evenings I had trotted down our long gravel driveway and met Dakota at the mailbox. He’d recently bought an ancient Trans Am from his uncle and was thrilled to finally have wheels. I was thrilled to be leaving the house, and so we took the car out for long, aimless drives over the country back roads.
I’d never felt so adult as on these drives, where we smoked, listened to music, and discussed our uncertain futures. Our friendship had become something else by then, but I think we both feared that acknowledging it would destroy the magic.
I knew that it couldn’t last. I knew the end of summer was coming.
One afternoon mom brought Jen and I out onto the back porch, where she gave us both a haircut with the kitchen scissors.
“You want to look presentable for the start of school,” she insisted, trimming the bottom of my cut into a blunt edge. It made my hair look even stranger, but I didn’t fight her on it. Instead I just watched quietly as clumps of hair tumbled down onto the porch around me. She did the same to Jen, before shoo-ing us out into the yard for the day and sweeping up the loose ends.
I didn’t want to think about the start of school. So I didn’t. I buried myself in a book instead.
I’d found a weathered copy of Rebecca
upstairs on the shelf and that evening I brought it down to the porch. I tried to focus on the pages, but the heat made me drowsy. I stared out into the horizon instead.
The corn around our yard had reached a height that made our house feel completely enclosed. I’d watched it grow all summer, from the young sprouts to the fortress of green it was now. I liked the way the wind rustled the leaves, and the plants moved like a wave.
Idly, I flipped the pages. To my surprise, a small photograph slipped out.
It was a tiny, black and white thing depicting my grandmother and my mom as a child. Except there was another girl there too. I flipped it over. Margaret, Susan, and I. Initiation, Fall 1971
Who was Susan?
I flipped it back over. They were all wearing white robes and flower crowns. It was an odd photo.
I knew there was a dresser in mom’s room with hundreds of loose photos, and I decided to drop this one in there for safekeeping. But when I opened the drawer, I couldn’t help myself. I squatted on the floor, pilfering through the old snapshots. I smiled to see mom so young and carefree.
I flipped it over for the year. Susan, 1967
I was puzzled. She looked exactly like mom. They could be twins.
I dug deeper, and finally found a black and white shot that looked similar to the one I found in the book. I screamed when I realized it was a photo of my mother and grandmother posed in front of Susan’s dangling corpse.
“What is it?” Jen asked, from the living room. She was working on a puzzle.
Oh nothing, I replied, “Just a dead mouse.” I discreetly stuffed the photos in my pocket.
“Ew!” She shrieked. “I’m not going in there!”
I quickly rearranged everything as I’d found it. I wasn’t sure what I’d discovered, but I didn’t want mom to know I’d been in there.
Later that night as I lay in bed I pulled the photos out of my nightstand and examined them with a flashlight. It was mom, alright. Her face looked blank. The photos gave me the creeps. Susan’s corpse hung unnaturally behind them, in a way that made me shudder.
Who was she? And what had happened to her?
I carefully slid the photos in between the pages of Cujo,
and slid it into the drawer of my nightstand. I didn’t know what I had found. Not really.
“Why do you always say this town is cursed?” I asked Dakota the following evening.
He took a quiet drag on his cigarette.
“A lot of girls have gone missing over the years. More than you would expect for a town this little. They’re not found. Ever.”
“The worst thing is that no one really acknowledges they’re gone. They’re forgotten so quickly. Almost like they were never here. It’s just.. Not right.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about the photos. I knew they depicted something horrible. It made my skin crawl at night knowing what evil my nightstand contained, just inches from my head.
Eventually I put them back in the dresser drawer, carefully hidden at the bottom. I tried to forget them. Tried to forget my mother and grandmother were accomplices in some dark ritual.
Even more I tried to forget Susan. Susan, who I felt certain had been my mother’s twin sister.
What kind of a person kills their sister? Their daughter?
And for what?
Before long, however, I had other things to worry about. School had started again, and it was just as terrible as I expected. I was overwhelmed with my class work and the rigor of the old schedule.
As the days passed into September, the air grew hot and dry, and the skies were a cloudless, piercing blue. I watched the cornfields fade from a vibrant green to a dry, brittle brown as I biked home from school.
I saw Dakota less and less the further we got into the semester. We were still on good terms, but, as I had predicted, the dynamic had changed when we’d returned to school. He had other friends.
I had no one.
I did my best to act normal around mom. I didn’t want her to suspect anything, and she grew more paranoid and volatile by the day. I came home one afternoon to discover all my CDs had been trashed. Mom saw the music as “sinful.” I cried for days. There was no internet here, no TV. My last links to my old life were gone.
Mom was still out of the house a lot, so I was surprised to find her at home one September afternoon, bustling about the kitchen. Jen sat at the table, eating a slice of chocolate cake.
“I made you an after school treat,” she said, waving her hand at the table. “Go on, have a piece.”
I dropped my bag on the floor and sat down. I cut a slice onto my plate.
“It’s good mom,” I said between mouthfuls. I missed moments like this, when we were all a normal family and mom was acting like a real mother to us. They happened so rarely anymore.
“I’m tired,” Jen complained.
“Well why don’t you go take a nap for a while? I”ll have dinner ready in an hour or so.”
Jen nodded, and left for her bedroom. It was odd. I was feeling tired too. I rubbed my eyes.
Mom stopped washing dishes and sat down across from me in Jen’s seat. She pulled something out of her pocket.
“So,” she asked softly, as my eyes grew heavy, “Where did you find these?”
She pushed the photos across the table at me.
My heart dropped. I began to panic.
“What are they?” I mumbled. I was getting sleepier.
“You’ll see soon enough,” she whispered, and that was the last thing I remember before blacking out.
I awoke sometime later, somewhere cold and dark. I could feel the raw stubble of dead plants scratching my face, and my fingers touched cool dirt. I could smell something burning.
I groggily opened my eyes.
I was in the corn.
I wasn’t alone. Most of the town was there, their faces illuminated by a giant bonfire. Beside me Jen slept peacefully. I nudged her awake with my toe.
I was surrounded by a group of people wearing white robes. I recognized many of them from church. I could see that the pastor was actually some kind of high priest, and his wife, a high priestess. My mouth went completely dry.
The leader, I quickly realized, was my mother.
She stood directly in front of me, wearing a white robe and a crown of flowers, just like in the photo. My heart pounded in my throat.
Charlotte, the preacher’s wife, stood next to mom. In her hand was a dead chicken. Its neck flopped limply above her fist. I watched as she drained its blood into a small bowl.
"One to sacrifice," she said as she thumbed chicken blood to my forehead. "One to initiate," she finished as she pressed her bloody finger to Jen's. Sacrifice?
I wondered numbly. I watched as Charlotte stepped forward and tossed a small handful of something into the flames. Hair clippings,
I realized. My hair clippings.
The flames reached up for the hair and momentarily crackled. But nothing else happened. Charlotte looked at my mother. She turned to me, and the look of hatred on her face made me afraid. She grabbed my shoulders and shook me violently.
"What have you done?" She shrieked. Flecks of saliva flew from her mouth.
"Isn't it obvious?" Charlotte stated.
My mom turned to me. "You whore." She whispered.
I gulped. Smoking pot hadn’t been the only
thing Dakota and I had been up to.
When I said nothing, she hit me, harder than she ever had. The blow left me dazed, and split my lip open.
Charlotte threw some more hair clippings into the fire. My mom's head whipped around. "No," she whispered.
Charlotte looked at her pityingly. "One to sacrifice," she answered. "One to initiate."
The flames jumped high and crackled loudly before turning briefly green.
"She is pure."
My mother’s face set into a hard expression. She pulled Jen to her feet and slit her throat in the blink of an eye. I screamed. Blood spewed from the wound, landing on me, my mother, and in the flames, where it sizzled.
She pushed Jen’s lifeless corpse to the ground. “Our harvest will be renewed!” She shouted. The group cheered and hollered loudly.
Mom turned and spoke directly to me.
"The spirits have chosen. You will be the next leader, not Jen. You will run all your life, like I did. But you can't escape. In time, you'll be back here to take your place. The place that should have belonged to your sister, had you not been such a whore."
At this, she hit me again. The blow took my breath away. I spit a mouthful of blood onto the dry ground.
I looked up to see my mother, Charlotte, and the others had turned to Jen's body. They began chanting something I couldn't understand. I watched, horrified and forgotten in the grass, as Jens body began to levitate. Slowly her corpse rose off the ground, dangling as if on gossamer strings over the fire.
A single tear ran down my cheek. I had never been so scared in my entire life. I was paralyzed. But suddenly it broke, and I jumped to my feet like a startled deer and crashed off through the cornstalks.
I could hear my mother’s laughter behind me and echoing in my head as I ran blindly through the corn. The sharp leaf blades sliced my flesh as I stumbled in the darkness. Tears ran down my cheeks, carving trails in the dried blood and dirt that caked my face.
Jen. She had murdered Jen.
I ran harder and harder, crying and blindly pushing forward. My mothers words rattled in my head.
"You'll be running your whole life."
It ended up being true. I never thought I would make it out of the corn stalks, but I did. I managed to make it to town, nearly 3 miles away, and used a pay phone to call my dad. I have no memory of this, but it's what I pieced together afterwards.
My mother mysteriously was nowhere to be found the following day or week. But I don't think the cops searched very hard. They knew who she was, and what she meant to that town.
I spent the rest of my teenage years and twenties in Chicago. I tried hard to do well in school, but I ended up flunking out of college. My mental health after that summer was always fragile. I just couldn't stay focused. But probably the worst was that no one believed me.
After dutifully telling both my father and the cops the truth, over and over, with no success, I had begun to doubt my own memory.
My sister’s body was never found. The cops dismissed my claims she’d been murdered. They said she was probably just with my mother. The thought of her lonely, forgotten corpse buried in a remote cornfield haunts me to this day.
Lately though I've been thinking about that summer. I can't get it out of my head.
I know my sister was sacrificed so my mom could become the leader, just like Susan had been sacrificed for my grandmother. I know my mother and I were both “selected” to be something we didn’t want.
Did I make it up? Deep down I don't believe that at all. I know what happened. I know that town is cursed, and has a dark secret.
They say you can’t run from fate. That's why I've decided to go back. It's been nearly 20 years, and I need to find the truth.
I need to find my Mother