“Hey, Megan! Have you heard the story of the Pitchfork Killer?” Tate asked from the front seat.
I sighed and looked out the window as trees flashed past. He was driving too fast, and us three girls in the back seat were getting jostled together.
“Refresh my memory,” Megan said, because he so obviously wanted to tell the story. She was a good sport that way. She had lived here for nearly six months now, so she must have heard multiple versions of Pineville’s urban legend by now.
Steve turned around and smiled at her, adoration in his eyes. He used to smile at me like that.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Tate said in a comic spooky voice and cackled. “The local loser boy had finally had enough. He was desperate hot for the Harvest Queen, and he decided that if he couldn’t have her, no one could. He took a pitchfork from his dad’s barn and set off for town.”
I tuned out. My dad had told me the real story when I was a little girl, so I wouldn’t be scared. Two brothers had been mucking out a barn and had started arguing over what to plant next season. One lost his temper and whacked the other in the head with his pitchfork. The wounded brother didn’t die, but he had migraines for the rest of his life. But that story wouldn’t work nearly as well for drunken boys to chase drunken giggling girls through the woods at night, so the details had evolved over time.
We were on our way to check out a property a local farmer had offered for the Harvest Festival. We were hoping to have a spirit bonfire for the football team, and some apple bobbing and other games to raise money for the senior trip fund. The goal was New York, but right now all we could afford was Scranton.
Steve was laughing as the loser boy in the story went after a mean old woman who was a thinly disguised version of our vice-principal. I blinked hard and looked out the window again.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.
I missed his laugh so much. I missed everything about him. We used to be inseparable. He used to always sit next to me in class, and he came over to my house after school every day. We had made plans for the future. He wanted to be a doctor, and I wanted to be a doctor’s wife, so it was perfect. He was going to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. I was going to study art history, so I could sit on museum boards. We’d move to Chicago or Philadelphia and be a power couple.
Then Megan’s family moved into the house on the corner, and suddenly Steve and I were “just friends.” Megan with her big brown eyes and her unnaturally shiny hair, and her sweet smile. That was the worst part. She was so nice. Down-to-earth, modest, funny. Even I liked her. I couldn’t help it.
Megan wanted to be a veterinarian. Now Steve’s dream was to move to some podunk place where he could be the town doc and she could be the town vet. They made all these cute little jokes about how he’d take care of the people and she’d take care of their pets. It made me want to vomit.
The loser boy in Tate’s story had broken his pitchfork, so now he was hacking virgins to pieces with an axe.
“This is it,” I called, pointing out a side road. I swear two wheels left the ground when he made the turn. Megan was thrown into me. She laughed and apologized, scooting back to the middle. On her other side, Shania was holding on for dear life.
She was a quiet girl. Intense. As part of her training regimen, she got up every morning at five to go for an hour long run. I had no idea why she had volunteered to be on the Harvest Festival committee, unless it was because it would look good on a college application. One cannot win scholarships by track stardom alone.
The trees opened up and the road ended. Tate pulled to an abrupt stop in front of a ramshackle barn, and we all piled out of the car. There were a couple of sheds, but no house. The farmer lived in town.
I checked my phone. No service.
“This could work,” Steve said, putting an arm around Megan. “There’s a good-sized clearing with no grass that would be safe for the bonfire. As long as it doesn’t rain beforehand. If it does, that will be a big mud pit.”
“Let’s look around back,” I said. “We need to hurry. It’ll be getting dark soon.”
Something brushed against my calf and I shrieked and leaped away.
It was a goat. I hated goats, with their horns and their weird eyes. One had knocked me over at a petting zoo when I was a kid, and I had been afraid of them ever since. It took a step towards me and I backpedaled. Tate laughed like it was the funniest thing he had ever seen.
“Hey, buddy,” Megan said, putting herself between me and the nasty beast. She bent down and started petting it, like it was a dog. “What are you doing out here? Are you supposed to be in a pen?”
She led it away from me, Steve by her side. He knew how I felt about goats, but he didn’t ask if I was okay. He was too enamored with the goat whisperer. It followed her over into a pen at the side of the barn. She darted out and Steve slammed the gate closed before it could follow. When she walked away, it bleated like its heart was broken.
“Sorry, buddy,” she said. “I’ll come visit you again before we leave.”
Behind the barn, the land opened up into fields planted with something I couldn’t identify. There was an old plow and a tractor hooked to a flatbed trailer loaded with bales of hay.
“Look!” Tate shouted, scrambling onto the trailer. “We can have hay rack rides!”
“Excuse me for a second,” Steve said. “I need the little boys’ room.”
He went around the side of the barn. The rest of us approached the trailer. I was unenthusiastic. Hay rack rides sound romantic, but the reality is that they’re itchy, bumpy and slow.
Tate climbed onto a hay bale, dug a flask out of his jacket pocket, and took a big swig.
“You’re not driving us home!” Shania said, scandalized.
Tate cackled. Then he choked. His face contorted and blood bloomed on his shirt. We watched in confusion.
“Tate?” Megan said.
He fell forward. A man wearing overalls was standing behind him, holding a bloody pitchfork. He had a burlap bag over his head, with eye holes cut out of it.
Megan and Shania shrieked and ran. I couldn’t move.
This was a prank, right? Tate had arranged it with one of the guys on the football team? It couldn’t be real.
The man stood motionless. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew he was staring at me. He tilted his head slightly to one side.
I felt arms close around my waist. Megan had come back for me. She gave a mighty yank and we both fell to the ground.
My stupor had been broken. I scrambled to my feet. Megan tried to get up and gave a yelp. She clutched her right ankle. Steve appeared beside us and scooped her up.
The man didn’t move as we ran away.
Shania was circling the car, trying all the doors.
“It’s locked! Tate has the keys!”
“Call the police!” Megan said.
We all checked our phones. Still no service.
There was no sign of the pitchfork man. He hadn’t followed us, at least that we could see. He might be hiding and watching us. I kept swiveling around, looking for him in every direction. I was making myself dizzy.
“Shania. You have to go for help,” Steve said.
“What?! Are you crazy?”
She was still running around the car, trying each of the doors again. Steve set Megan on the hood of the car, then caught Shania by the shoulders.
“Come on,” he said, in a firm voice. “You can outrun him. You can outrun all of us. You’re our best shot.”
He looked into her eyes and gave a confident smile. I could see the hysteria start to melt away from her. He was going to be an an amazing surgeon one day. He already had the bedside manner down.
“Okay.” She nodded. “Okay.”
Then she took off like a shot. I wondered if she would be the last person to see the rest of us alive. We had passed a house a ways back. How long would it take her to run that far? What if there was no one home?
I felt numb. I still couldn’t believe this was really happening.
“I have to go back to the trailer,” Steve said.
“What? No!” Megan protested. “Why?”
“Maybe I can get Tate’s car keys.”
“But we don’t know where the killer went. What if he comes while you’re gone?”
He ran to one of the sheds and opened the door, then came back for her. “I’ll hide you in there.”
He looked at me. Finally, he looked at me.
“If he comes, find a way to draw him away from the shed. Throw a stone into the woods so he’ll think we went that way.” This time I got the surgeon’s smile. “You’ve always had a good arm. Remember when you knocked out Billy Porter with a softball? You can do this.”
“Okay,” I said. I had never loved him more.
Steve carried Megan to the shed and set her on a pile of wood. He bent down and kissed her. The sun was starting to set, and a ray broke through the clouds and bathed them in golden light.
Getting stabbed with a pitchfork couldn’t hurt more than this.
Steve showed her how to brace the shed door shut with a piece of wood. Once she was secured, he grabbed a shovel that had been leaning against the side of the shed. He put it over his shoulder, then swung it like a baseball bat.
“Maybe I can sneak up behind him and put an end to this.”
My heart did a flip flop in my chest. “Be fast. Be careful.”
I found a large rock and held it up for him to see. He nodded, then crept around the side of the barn. It took everything I had in me not to follow him.
It felt like an eternity, but I don’t know how much time actually passed. I was crouched behind the car, so I saw the pitchfork man before he saw me. He came out of the barn and looked around. There was blood smeared on his overalls. I ducked behind a tire, heart pounding.
He went to the first shed, opened the door and peered inside.
My hands were sweaty. I wiped them on my jeans and lifted the rock to lob it into the woods.
I had a vision of Steve, grief-stricken at Megan’s funeral. I would tell him how guilty I felt about her twisting her ankle when she was trying to save me. He would tell me it wasn’t my fault. We would cry together. Pretty soon we’d be inseparable again. Everything would go back to the way it was supposed to be.
I dropped the rock. No one would ever know.
The pitchfork man approached Megan’s shed. I felt light-headed.
He tried the door, but it wouldn’t open. He tugged on the handle harder.
Returning to the first shed, he disappeared for a moment. I moved closer to the edge of the bumper, trying to see what he was doing.
He reappeared with a crowbar.
I looked down at the rock next to my foot. I could still do something. It wasn’t too late.
I didn’t move.
Then I heard a bleat. That damn goat had slipped its pen again. It ran straight at the pitchfork man and butted him. He fell to his hands and knees.
He looked straight at me.
I was on my feet and running into the woods before I realized I was doing it. I heard pounding footsteps behind me. I glanced back and saw him, gaining on me. He thrust the pitchfork out and narrowly missed my shoulder.
I flinched away and tripped over a tree root.
In the distance, I could just make out sirens. Shania must have made it to the house and called for help.
Too late for me.