August

“I wish,” said Charlie, climbing the great dusty wheel of the tractor, “that summer would never end.” He sighed and heaved himself up to perch atop the tire, dangling his feet and staring over the cornfields.

Ben nodded. “Seems like summer just started, but it kinda seems like it’s always been summer, too, doesn’t it? I mean, I know we went to school last year, I can remember fourth grade and Mrs. Tomitz and math and all that, but it doesn’t seem real, know what I mean? It’s like this is what’s real, and we just watch the school year like it’s television or something.”

“Yeah, until about three weeks in, when you get all sad because suddenly, you know you’re stuck there, and the newness of it has worn off, and boom! it’s too late and summer’s gone.”

Above the endless green-gold of the cornfield the low sun’s beams danced with dustmotes and insects and tassel-fluff. Ben and Charlie’s faces grew still, and they closed their eyes and felt summer set on their cheeks and eyelids, hoping they could keep it there for nine more months; the gentle spice breeze, the molten gold buttery evening. The days of jumping fences and flying far, of returning home to a dinner eaten in a sweaty, huffing gulp to waste as little of the ever-dying sunlight as possible.

Then the sun touched the treeline, and the lazy endless river of summer had ceased its flow.

“I gotta go,” Ben said. “Mom wanted me home at sunset. Guess that’s all for this year.” He hopped down to the high grass and looked up at Charlie. “See you tomorrow morning.”

“‘Bye.” Ben turned, put his hands in his pockets, and walked off, leaving Charlie alone with the dusk.

Charlie sat still and listened to Ben’s shoes crunching the gravel road.

Tomorrow morning. How could summer go so fast? It just didn’t seem possible. Tomorrow morning, Charlie and Ben would meet, shuffling and droop-headed, at the stop sign down the road, and out of the still-cool morning would come the school bus, lumbering and hissing and breaking summer like a stone on a pond.

Just a few minutes to relive all summer and hold it in like a sweetcorn breath until next June. He decided to take a short walk through the field.

The corn was towering, now. In a week or two, the fields would be bare and already browning with autumn. But right now, this moment, Charlie could feel the ripe ears bursting around him; he could hear the risp-and-rustle of the coarse furred leaves, smell the dry, musty exhalations of harvest and soil. The sky was far away, high and hazy above the surrounding stalks. It was still light, but night would fall quickly, and soon.

Looking into the deep green shadows of the leaves, it seemed all summer’s secrets lay hidden in those vast expanses of corn and trees, milkweed and soybeans. Bright bee-sweat afternoons, itching and buzzing; a lightning bug starfield floating and twinkling low in the velvet dark; thrashing storms over a wild sea of wet emerald. There were sticks whittled clean and bright; arrowheads and pink pieces of granite, glistening with black flecks, pried from cool soil. Black and yellow caterpillars clinging bulbously to the underside of milkweed leaves, and bulging garden spiders poised grotesquely swollen on great sheets of sticky silk.

And then Charlie stumbled, losing his breath, shaking his head, and looking at his feet.

A scarecrow lay there, stiff and shadowed, the lord of the fields prepared for an autumn burial.

Charlie straightened the wooden frame, hung with shredded jeans and an oil-soaked shirt, still half-stuffed with black mold-spotted hay. The head was a mildewed pillowcase, thin and filthy, grotesquely shaped by the poking haystems within. It hung off to one side, slumped over the caving chest.

The sky was almost dark as Charlie struggled with the scarecrow, finally balancing it upright. Looking upward, he saw a few stars behind the misshapen silhouette, bright in the last dusk of summer. But none were so bright as the two that suddenly opened and burned within that shadowed, baggy sack of a head. They held Charlie’s gaze of wonder and fear and froze him even as the flapping flannel arms reached, and held, and drew him close.

And Charlie inherited the fields.

He smelled of rotting barns leaning in wet weeds, and cool dirt floors and mice trails and daddy longleg shadows high in cracked, damp beams. His hair of sweet hay rattled, the sound of burning leaves; his arms swung stiffly, the creak of broken windmill blades limping in a dusty breath of July evening. His ragged black feet hung and gathered burrs in a tangle, each sticking in a prickly itch to the rat-chewed socks. Dead newspaper bits fluttered out, shredded, brittle.

Charlie’s face grew tight and dry, and when he screamed, it was the whisper and soft rustling of a million acres of corn leaves in a late August wind that crackled his husked lips. And his bright June eyes were slowly darkened like a sunset sky blotted out by a rising flock of crows, a screeching mass of narrow throats and yellow flint beaks, filling the universe with the thunderwhips of oil-shiny black wings and a silent snowfall of ink-sketched feathers, settling, settling.

Summer’s last breath sighed across the evening, quivering the rows.

But for Charlie, it would always be August.

Ω

John Booth  John Booth's website is an Ohio writer and the author of Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek—The First 30 Years and the novel Crossing Decembers. His short fiction has been published in Thaumatrope and Florida magazine.

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