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vol vi, issue 1 < ToC
The Final Straw
by
Carl Taylor
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Only the DevilThe Angel's
Played FairWish
The Final Straw
by
Carl Taylor
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Only the Devil
Played Fair




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The Angel's
Wish
The Final Straw
by
Carl Taylor
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Only the Devil The Angel's
Played Fair Wish
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Only the Devil
Played Fair




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The Angel's
Wish
The Final Straw
 by Carl Taylor
The Final Straw
 by Carl Taylor
It wasn’t an Autumn Day, as one might expect when encountering a scarecrow story. It was actually the middle of July, the ripened center of an otherwise humdrum New Jersey summer. A humid day, one with the density of wet ink. The scarecrow’s unseasonable nature is what made it first stand out to Lara Reitman. Well, that and its uniquely bicephalous manner. Two heads is not a feature commonly encountered in nature.

Lara’s husband Tom was working late that evening at the law firm, so Lara rounded up her children and walked them to the local park. She was running out of ways to kill time. There was Lara pushing the stroller, and there was Percy, her five-year-old son, and little Candice, age two. And Tom somewhere, somewhere in the encroaching darkness, working late again in his spacious office in Jersey City. Or so he said.

Percy tugged intermittently at Lara’s free hand, the one that dangled from the stroller, his little fingers sticky with pine cone sap. The park was only a few blocks from their house. The Reitman’s lived in a nondescript suburban town in Central New Jersey. Every few years they spoke of moving to “the city,” only they couldn’t agree on a proper definition of that term. Her husband insisted city meant New York, and she Philadelphia, and so they remained in a fixed stasis somewhere near Princeton. Equidistant between the two metropolises. As Lara taught the children, “Better to be safe than sorry,” and “Fools rush in.”

And she was the girl who played it safe. Grown into a woman who plays it safe. At forty-one Lara Reitman stood at the crossroads of inertia and regret. It was not a lonely place, though she often felt alone. It was not an unpleasant place, though it was far from pleasing. It just was, and she just was ... and she knew it.

It was not her intellect that marked her for such mediocrity, such fraternitè with the mundane. When she wanted to, she could be quite charming, and she possessed a keen if often obscured sense of humor. By any measure she was above average at almost any endeavor she undertook, and yet ... she was somehow less than the sum of her parts. Or rather her life was. It wasn’t just that she no longer worked outside the home, it was the very decision-making tree that led her down, down into a monochromatic trail of days. She was passive in her own existence, and only just now awakening to that fact. Not making a decision was still a decision, why hadn’t she realized that before?

It pained her to think this, to know this of herself. She would stand in her kitchen each morning, adrift as her dog tapped its toenails on the linoleum and her children fussed; she couldn’t help but feel lost. Betrayed somehow, but by what? By whom? By Tom? By her own children? By herself? Just how, she wondered, had she come to be such a deveined prawn of a human? So gutted, so empty inside. Her very being nestled in the passing of moments; her grip on life looser than sand in an hourglass. Dissolving. Gone. And Tom appearing to flourish the more she stagnated; promotions and business trips and cactus-bellied rage whenever she dared question his comings and goings.

She thought of these things as she pushed the stroller, and gripped her boy’s sticky hands, her eyes ever alert for any suburban danger: errant cars, cracked sidewalks, strangers, or worse yet, people she knew. She had married the first boy who sat next to her in Freshman English class, she took the first job she was offered after college (administrative work at a local public relations firm). She vacationed one week each summer, ate sensible meals, worked out three and a half times per week, had two children aged exactly three years apart. According to her cell, she averaged 2.1 hours per day on her device. She weighed between one-hundred-and-forty-four and one-hundred-and-forty-seven pounds. Yes, everything was fatalistically predictable for Lara Reitman until late in the afternoon on the day she encountered the two-headed scarecrow.



Now they had reached the park. Percy ran madly and scorched through blaze-orange tunnel slides while Lara leaned against Candice’s stroller and read a romance E-Book on her phone’s Kindle App. One brown eye on the screen, the other on her two children. The park was small, secluded, chosen for its lack of traffic as well as its proximity. For a while, they had the whole mulch-swaddled place to themselves. She texted her husband.

“What time will you be home?”

“Whenever I’m done with this brief.”

“That doesn’t help me plan dinner.”

“Eat without me. I’ll get something here.”

“It’s Friday.”

“I know ...”

They had been together fourteen years, married eight. He insisted they wait until they had paid off their student loans before tying the knot.

“Careful, Percy,” she called to her son, who wished to hang both upside down and backwards from a swing. When she was young her mother told her the story of a local boy who died on a swing, suffocated by twisting it this way and that. Apparently that kind of thing really happened, could really happen. Or was that something her mother made up to keep her in line? Was it some mere apocryphal tale? Could it really be that so many children die shoelaces-out on escalators or with plastic bags over their heads? Did her beloved cat really go to live happily ever after on a farm? It’s not so much the lies she was told as a child that bothered Lara, as much as her mother’s unwillingness to clean them up or admit to them years later. Who could divine fact from fiction after enduring such an upbringing?



Then a movement in the wooded lot to the side of the park. A shadow cast in duplicate, the flash of orange. Had somebody lost a ball or a safety cone in that dense thicket of brush and deciduous trees? Was somebody out there, in the woods?

A voice seemed to call to Lara, as though from within her own mind.

“Lara, come. Come, meet me in the woods,” it said.



“Time to head home,” she called out to Percy. “Come on!”

He ignored her, of course. Lately it seemed that all the males in her life were impervious to her pleas.

“What, you trying to avoid me?” a cheerful voice called from behind Lara. She swung around to find Daphne Henderson, the head of the local PTA, and a dearly close “frenemy.”

“L.O.L.,” Daphne spelled out to Lara. “Did we sneak up on you?” Next to Daphne was her son Dylan, age seven, a mat of curly blonde hair blowing in the suddenly shifting winds.

“You sure did,” Lara said, trying to hide a rising seafoam of anxiety. “I didn’t see you. We were just about to head around.”

“Aww, please don’t.” Daphne said. “We just got here!” She pouted in the same manner Lara had observed so many times at PTA meetings.

“Meet me in the woods,” a voice again said to Lara. “Now.” The voice was somewhat sinister, and yet ...

“Can you do me a huge favor?” Lara said.

“Anything for you, darling.”

“Can you keep an eye on my two for just a minute? We lost a ball in the woods earlier and I want to go retrieve it.”

“You’re going into that?” Daphne said, pointing to the woods and not hiding her skepticism very well.

“Yes.”

“But you’re wearing Burberry.”

“So I am ...”

And then they were behind her, fading away as Lara tucked between thick branches and the detritus of acorns and the moldering leafy remains of prior autumns. It felt good to finally decide to do something. Could it be that even a somewhat crazy decision was better than standing flat-footed as life passed by? Or was she simply losing her grip, imagining things?

“Getting warmer,” the voice said.

Can you hear my thoughts? No reply.

“Colder, more to the right,” the husky voice said. “Good, getting warmer again.”

Then before her widening eyes stood a large, two-headed scarecrow. He was nearly seven feet in height, his torso wide to accommodate an extra skull, and he wore small sugar pumpkins as shoes. Each face had a cloak behind it, not unlike the hood of a cobra. His broad left visage was perplexed looking, but self-satisfied; the right one bore a cold-lipped scowl. When he spoke, it was with one voice from two directions, as though his heads were but two separate speakers blasting stereo and bass. He wore two large flannel jackets, puffed and blue, and he appeared to be sweating some in the summer heat.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Lara said.

“I called, and you came,” he said. “What does that tell you?”

Lara’s eyes panned across the woods as she tried to articulate an answer.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I always tell my children not to speak to strangers.”

“But we’re not strangers,” the two-headed scarecrow said. “I’ve been watching you your whole life. You see, I’m your guardian angel.”

Lara couldn’t help but laugh, even though she didn’t wish to be rude. “You,” she said. “How could you be anyone’s guardian angel?”

“Is it because of my appearance?”

“Well, truthfully? I mean, you are a two-headed scarecrow.”

“Us guardian angels take the form necessary,” he said. “In one prior incarnation I was a winged fish, in another a large tuber, and most recently I presented as a bronze-age dwarf who wore carpel-tunnel wristbands.” He laughed, a soft delicate laugh with the timbre of a rich cello. His laugh was jarring in its innocence, incongruent with his spoken voice. “The myth isn’t that guardian angels exist, it’s that we only watch over one person. I have many children of the sun to observe.”

Lara took a step closer; she helped stuff straw back into his flannel shirt. “Why would my form be a two-headed scarecrow?” she wondered aloud.

“What would Freud say?”

“Umm, that I’m crazy for imagining such a monstrosity.”

“What does a scarecrow signify?” the raspy voice said, stretching forth from both sets of tight lips.

“Aren’t you a totem of death?” Lara said.

“But also of hope ... And scarecrows are meant to terrify those who may take away the harvest. Do I need to ask who or what is pecking at you lately?”

Lara felt the wind sweep through the ravine; it blew her brunette hair wild. Her nose was stuffy with allergies, but still she could detect the aroma of distant barbeque.

“I should be getting back,” she said. “I left my children.”

“They’re fine,” the two-headed scarecrow said. “You left them with Daphne.”

“But still—”

“—Hop on my back,” the two-headed scarecrow demanded. He was now kneeling down, his gloved hands flat on the layer of wooded debris.

“I can’t. I mean, I shouldn’t.”

“I can take you to uncomfortable truths,” the scarecrow said. “But that’s exactly what you need. If ignorance is truly bliss, then why do you feel so god-awful?” The scarecrow’s furthest right eye winked. “It’s up to you, Lara. The decision is yours and yours alone.”



Without overthinking it, she climbed onto his back, and was soon swept away as he crawled on all fours, his two heads bopping and loose but his speed rapid as he bounded through the woods and back, back toward her home. Lara caught a glimpse of Daphne as she hurtled by; she had all the children sitting in a circle around her and her hands were on her hips. Daphne wore a muted expression on her face, her eyes fixated on her platinum-banded wristwatch.

Then Daphne and the children were left behind, and the scarecrow all but soared through the air. Yes, they were now flying through that stoic little Jersey suburb.

“Where are we going?” she whispered in the scarecrow’s right-center ear.

“Jersey City,” the scarecrow said. “To the law firm of Pickney, Englewood, and Cardino.”

“Perfect,” Lara said. “That’s where I wanted to go.”

“I know you did.”

“How did you know? Can you read my mind?”

“Well, no, but you entered that law firm’s name into your GPS,” the scarecrow said, and when Lara looked down she realized she was driving—driving her Honda Pilot while the scarecrow rested in the passenger seat with its dusty pumpkin feet on the dash.

“I’ve never hallucinated before,” Lara said, hoping she was in a dream, wondering if her new dosage of myriad prescription medicines had somehow interacted negatively.

“I suppose not,” the scarecrow said. “Hallucinating requires imagination.”

“You know what? You’re just like every other man in my life,” Lara said.

“But I’m not a man,” the scarecrow insisted. “I’m a scarecrow.”

“Yes, yes, just a simple two-headed scarecrow with a masculine voice,” Lara said dismissively. “Got it, bud.”

“So, you think your husband is having an affair, huh?” the scarecrow said, apparently keen on changing the conversation.

“That’s none of your business.”

“Of course it is, I’m your guardian angel.”

Lara surprised even herself by lowering her defenses. “I know that lawyers are busy, but ...”

“You shouldn’t measure your self-worth by others,” her companion said. “What do you want to do? Who do you want to be?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “That’s the problem. My whole life I’ve been taught to bend to the whims of everyone around me. I mean, no wonder I’m this twisting twig in the wind.”

“It all ends today,” the two-headed scarecrow said, his faces contorting into somewhat menacing visages in the passenger seat.

They arrived in Jersey City sometime around dusk. Lara called Daphne to ask if she could keep the children for a while. After all, good old Daphne could handle babysitting two extra kids for a few hours, couldn’t she? She was the PTA President, for Christ’s sakes. “Are you sure everything is all right?” Daphne asked. “Of course,” Lara shouted.



Soon enough Lara and the two-headed scarecrow were entering the lobby of a great glass building. The lobby placard read “Pickney, Englewood, and Cardino: Attorneys at Law, Seventh Floor.”

“You know what’s almost comical,” Lara said, once the two of them were alone in the elevator. “I’ve never actually been here before. My husband has worked here five years and I’ve never once seen his office.” The scarecrow apparently couldn’t think of anything to say in reply, so he just shook his heads.

The elevator doors slid open and soon they were in an expansive but faceless corridor, momentum taking them to the glass entryway doors of the firm.

“Try not to get any straw on the floor in there,” she commanded, as though the scarecrow were one of her children.

“I’ll certainly do my best ...”



Then inside, inside where there was solitude and silence save the sound of electric pulse and the mild hum of vacuum from down a hallway. The firm smelled like burnt candles, sage, and now, of pumpkin.

Shuffling feet and then they were faces to face with an old man in a poorly fitting suit.

“Oh dear, I suppose the cleaning service left the door open,” the man said, sweaty-like. His voice was congested-sounding. “Umm, how could I help ... you?”

“I’m Mrs. Reitman,” Lara said. “Is my husband around?”

The elderly lawyer glanced around the hallway, tiny tributaries of sweat forming around his temples.

“I’m afraid he’s left for the evening,” the lawyer said.

“How long ago did he leave, Mr. ...”

“Cardino. I’m afraid he left early today. I understand he has a summer cold.”

“Oh, does he?”



Then Lara and the two-headed scarecrow were back in the Honda Pilot, ignoring incoming calls from Tom flashing on the Bluetooth.

“He’s having an affair, I knew it!” Lara said.

“You know what they say when you assume,” the two-headed pumpkin said evenly. “You make an ass out of u and me.”

“I have no time for your empty platitudes right now,” Lara said.



Anger can sometimes be a gift, helping us address realities we would rather not face. But it can also lead us astray, if our sense of reason becomes divorced from reality. As Lara drove recklessly across the soundscapes of Route 1 that evening, she almost forgot at times that she was accompanied by a large two-headed scarecrow. Every now and again she remembered, but only because the interior of the SUV increasingly smelled like a petting zoo.



Then home, home into the boxed terror of that center colonial. Inside where the sound of the children greeted Lara, assuaging her primary concern. At least the children were safe.

And then she was face-to-face with Tom, who stood next to a dangling kitchen witch, both man and toy witch leaning against the plate cabinets. He had a yellow beer in his hand and his face was the shade of cherry cola. He was still wearing his navy suit from that morning.

“I was about to call the police,” he stammered. “Daphne almost called the police. We could have had child services involved over this.”

“How’s your summer cold?” Lara said.

“Oh, I know all about your insanities,” Tom shouted. “Don’t even get me started.” He finished the beer and tossed it into the kitchen sink where it clanked against the faucet. The lights in the kitchen strobed; Tom had installed LED lights on a line that had a dimmer.

“You left our children with Daphne, with not so much as an explanation,” Tom said. “She thought you were abducted. Then you drove to my office and harangued poor old Cardino with some scarecrow costume? I mean, do you want me to lose my job? You do realize I’m the sole income earner around here, don’t you? Do I have to have you committed?”

“What about the fact that you lied?” Lara said, her fists balled and hugging her midsection. “You’re the one who left work early today feigning illness.”

“Cardino was just confused because you scared him half to death,” Tom said. “That was a misunderstanding.”

“You’re such a bad liar,” Lara said. “You’d think a lawyer would have it down pat.”

“Look, I was working on a brief,” Tom said. “I never said whether or not I was working on it at our firm’s physical location.”

“No,” Lara said eagerly, relishing the pain now. “I imagine you were quite detained at some second-rate motel.”

Tom paced; it was evident he wanted another beer, but he was afraid to walk to the fridge because he didn’t want to hear it. She wanted him to go for it so she could scold him like she did Percy when he placed his hands near the oven range. “You tracing the same path as your father?” she would say. But instead he held firm at his location, even as his eyes plead for leniency or understanding.

“You shouldn’t have abandoned the children,” he muttered.

“But it’s perfectly fine for you to go off and have an affair?”

“The children are your job,” Tom said, his nose flush and his eyes downcast. “Do you think I like working all these fucking hours at a job I hate?”

“Oh,” Lara said. “So you deserve to blow off some steam, is that it?”

“You’re acting completely unhinged,” Tom said.

“Gaslight much?”

And for a while they both stood in their kitchen, unsure how to proceed. Rarely had their marriage veered into outright hostilities, and although Tom was a lawyer, he was seldom in court and not used to arguing on his feet. For like Lara, Tom was ultimately an indecisive person. He was the boy who played it safe. Grown into a man who plays it safe—hence law school. At forty-one Tom Reitman also stood at the crossroads of inertia and regret. It was not a lonely place, though he often felt alone. It was not an unpleasant place, though it was far from pleasing. It just was, and he just was ... and he knew it.





Later that night, after the children were asleep, Lara waltzed into the marital bedroom and asked Tom to strip naked and wait for her in bed.

“Close your eyes, honey.”

He complied, and so she took his silk ties and strapped his wrists firmly to the bedpost.

“So, we’re okay?” Tom whispered, eyes still closed.

“Tell him that you’re better than ever,” commanded the two-headed scarecrow.

“Of course, dear. Better than ever,” Lara said sweetly. “Now, open your eyes.”

And Tom screamed when he opened his eyes and saw Lara above him.

“I’ll try anything you like,” Tom said. “But why this? I mean, why are you wearing that two-headed scarecrow costume?”

“Shh,” she said, pointer finger over his mouth, then a full right palm.

All around them straw, and the remnants of straw floating like dust through the room, visibly floating before the dying light of his and hers nightstand lamps.

“Choke him,” the two-headed scarecrow said. She started to, and watched her husband’s face start to twist and turn, felt the pulse of his splayed out arms struggle against the headboard, felt the suction of his lips as they gasped for air. Then she stopped, broke free of the scarecrow, and ran into the bathroom for a good long cry.

Then a thought came to her, a thought all her own. She had ignored making decisions for so long that she was out of practice. Now when she made a decision, it was a poor one. She creaked open the bathroom door and witnessed the two-headed scarecrow speaking with her husband. They spoke in low-tones, almost inaudible.

“It’s a classic trick,” the two-headed scarecrow was telling Tom. “Accuse the other person of what you’re doing. She goes out and has an affair, and then blames you for being unfaithful. Think about it ...”

Lara couldn’t believe her ears. The scarecrow was not only two-headed, he was also two-faced.

“Lara,” her husband bellowed. “Are you seeing someone else?”

Lara ran, out of their bedroom, then out of their house; if she had had the stamina to leave the town or even the state she would have. The crickets chirped and the houses blurred, all the same as always in that enclave of cul-de-sacs and “McMansions.” She tripped over a sewer grate and sat on the lukewarm pavement, blood coming slowly to her scrawny right calf. It had to be past midnight, and she sat in fear of a stray police cruiser or a nosy neighbor. It wasn’t real fear, more a concern about being questioned. Why was she, such a nice suburban “housewife,” out there so late at night, bleeding all over the sidewalk? Did she need a ride home and had she been drinking ...?



Her scarlet fists pulled her knees up from the sidewalk. She returned to her house, but didn’t enter. No, she walked to the tool shed. Inside there was movement, some kind of nocturnal animal sent scurrying. With her Flashlight App she surveyed the tools. A chainsaw, a hedge trimmer, a weedwhacker, an old lawnmower, two glimmering shovels, and a single black rake.

Of course, a rake. That is the tool one uses to dispose of lingering Autumn. She removed the rake from the hook and moved it back and forth in her hands. It was a solidly built rake, a wooden handle, but its head and tines were a solid composite metal. This would do nicely. She took the tool in her right arm and crept back into her house.

Up the stairs, making sure to first stop and check on the children. They were both sleeping, and appeared to be unharmed by the bizarre events of the evening. Lara then entered her bedroom, where she found her husband cuddled in the arms of the two-headed scarecrow. Her husband was snoring, but as her eyes adjusted she could tell that the scarecrow was awake, that three of his four eyes were open.

She raised the rake over her head.

“Move,” she commanded.

“Don’t do it,” the two-headed scarecrow said. “I was just trying to help.”

“Out of my bed, now.”

The scarecrow lumbered out of the bed and stood nearly as high as the ceiling. “I really am your guardian angel,” he said. “It’s a good thing that your husband now doubts your faithfulness; he needs to know that you’re still desirable. And you needed to be reminded that your husband has his finer qualities too.”

“Oh, give it a rest already,” Lara said. “Just pack up your tricks and lies and get the hell out of my bedroom.”

“But—”

“One more word out of you and I’m going to use this,” she pointed to her rake.

The two-headed scarecrow put his heads down and started to walk past her. It was evident that he was not going to say another word, not while Lara held a rake in her hands. But as he brushed into her on the way out, she changed her mind. She decided to destroy the fucker anyway. She brought the rake down, and the scarecrow leaked straw like a piƱata struck. Again and again she thrashed, thrashed to the soundtrack of the crickets outside and to her husband’s thundering sleep-apnea snoring. She thrashed until her arms were tired and her head ached, and the two-headed scarecrow was just a pulverized layer of cloth and silage.



The next morning she awoke spooning her husband. As the first stray rays of sunlight fluttered in like tiny butterflies through the blinds, she almost laughed at the wild dream she had. Dream? More like a nightmare. But then Lara felt something poking her bare legs. When she sat up, she realized that all throughout their bed, as though the Reitmans’ were sleeping in a rabbit hutch, was a nice even layer of straw.