Children of the CornStephen King
CHILDREN OF THE CORNCHILDREN OF THE CORN
Burt turned the radio on too loud and didn't turn it down because they were on
the verge of another argument and he didn't want it to happen. He was desperate
for it not to happen.
Vicky said something. 'What?' he shouted.
'Turn it down! Do you want to break my eardrums?'
He bit down hard on what might have come through his mouth and turned it down.
Vicky was fanning herself with her scarf even though the T-Bird was
air-conditioned. 'Where are we, anyway?'
She gave him a cold, neutral look. 'Yes, Burt. I know we're in Nebraska, Burt.
But where the hell are we?'
'You've got the road atlas. Look it up. Or can't you read?'
'Such wit. This is why we got off the turnpike. So we could look at three
hundred miles of corn. And enjoy the wit and wisdom of Burt Robeson.'
He was gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. He decided
he was holding it that tightly because if he loosened up, why, one of those
hands might just fly off and hit the ex-Prom Queen beside him right in the
chops. We 're saving our marriage, he told himself. Yes. We're doing it the same
way us grunts went about saving villages in the war.
'Vicky,' he said carefully. 'I have driven fifteen hundred miles on turnpikes
since we left Boston. I did all that driving myself because you refused to
drive. Then -'
'I did not refuse!' Vicky said hotly. 'Just because I get migraines when I drive
for a long time -'Then when I asked you if you'd navigate for me on some of the
secondary roads, you said sure, Burt. Those were your exact words. Sure, Burt.
Then -'Sometimes I wonder how I ever wound up married to you.'
'By saying two little words.'
She stared at him for a moment, white-lipped, and then picked up the road atlas.
She turned the pages savagely.
It had been a mistake leaving the turnpike, Burt thought morosely. It was a
shame, too, because up until then they had been doing pretty well, treating each
other almost like human beings. It had sometimes seemed that this trip to the
coast, ostensibly to see Vicky's brother and his wife but actually a last-ditch
attempt to patch up their own marriage, was going to work.
But since they left the pike, it had been bad again. How bad? Well, terrible,
'We left the turnpike at Hamburg, right?'
'There's nothing more until Gatlin,' she said. 'Twenty miles. Wide place in the
road. Do you suppose we could stop there and get something to eat? Or does your
almighty schedule say we have to go until two o'clock like we did yesterday?'
He took his eyes off the road to look at her. 'I've about had it, Vicky. As far
as I'm concerned, we can turn right here and go home and see that lawyer you
wanted to talk to. Because this isn't working at -'
She had faced forward again, her expression stonily set. It suddenly turned to
surprise and fear. 'Burt look out you're going to -'
He turned his attention back to the road just in time to see something vanish
under the T-Bird's bumper. A moment later, while he was only beginning to switch
from gas to brake, he felt something thump sickeningly under the front and then
the back wheels. They were thrown forward as the car braked along the centre
line, decelerating from fifty to zero along black skidmarks.
'A dog,' he said. 'Tell me it was a dog, Vicky.'
Her face was a pallid, cottage-cheese colour. 'A boy. A little boy. He just ran
out of the corn and. . . congratulations, tiger.'
She fumbled the car door open, leaned out, threw up.
Burt sat straight behind the T-Bird's wheel, hands still gripping it loosely. He
was aware of nothing for a long time but the rich, dark smell of fertilizer.
Then he saw that Vicky was gone and when he looked in the outside mirror he saw
her stumbling clumsily back towards a heaped bundle that looked like a pile of
rags. She was ordinarily a graceful woman but now her grace was gone, robbed.
It's manslaughter. That's what they call it. I took my eyes off the road.
He turned the ignition off and got out. The wind rustled softly through the
growing man-high corn, making a weird sound like respiration. Vicky was standing
over the bundle of rags now, and he could hear her sobbing.
He was halfway between the car and where she stood and something caught his eye
on the left, a gaudy splash of red amid all the green, as bright as barn paint.
He stopped, looking directly into the corn. He found himself thinking (anything
to untrack from those rags that were not rags) that it must have been a
fantastically good growing season for corn. It grew close together, almost ready
to bear. You could plunge into those neat, shaded rows and spend a day trying to
find your way out again. But the neatness was broken here. Several tall
cornstalks had been broken and leaned askew. And what was that further back in
'Burt!' Vicky screamed at him. 'Don't you want to come see? So you can tell all
your poker buddies what you bagged in Nebraska? Don't you -' But the rest was
lost in fresh sobs. Her shadow was puddled starkly around her feet. It was
Shade closed over him as he entered the corn. The red barn paint was blood.
There was a low, somnolent buzz as flies lit, tasted, and buzzed off again . . .
maybe to tell others. There was more blood on the leaves further in. Surely it
couldn't have splattered this far? And then he was standing over the object he
had seen from the road. He picked it up.
The neatness of the rows was disturbed here. Several stalks were canted
drunkenly, two of them had been broken clean off. The earth had been gouged.
There was blood. The corn rustled. With a little shiver, he walked back to the
Vicky was having hysterics, screaming unintelligible words at him, crying,
laughing. Who would have thought it could end in such a melodramatic way? He
looked at her and saw he wasn't having an identity crisis or a difficult life
transition or any of those trendy things. He hated her. He gave her a hard slap
across the face.
She stopped short and put a hand against the reddening impression of his
fingers. 'You'll go to jail, Burt,' she said solemnly.
'I don't think so,' he said, and put the suitcase he had found in the corn at
'I don't know. I guess it belonged to him.' He pointed to the sprawled,
face-down body that lay in the road. No more than thirteen, from the look of
The suitcase was old. The brown leather was battered and scuffed. Two hanks of
clothesline had been wrapped around it and tied in large, clownish grannies.
Vicky bent to undo one of them, saw, the blood greased into the knot, and
Burt knelt and turned the body over gently.
'I don't want to look,' Vicky said, staring down
helplessly anyway. And when the
staring, sightless face flopped up to regard them, she screamed again. The boy's
face was dirty, his expression a grimace of terror. His throat had been cut.
Burt got up and put his arms around Vicky as she began to sway. 'Don't faint,'
he said very quietly. 'Do you hear me, Vicky? Don't faint.'
He repeated it over and over and at last she began to recover and held him
tight. They might have been dancing, there on the noon-struck road with the
boy's corpse at their feet.
'What?' Muffled against his shirt.
'Go back to the car and put the keys in your pocket. Get the blanket out of the
back seat, and my rifle. Bring them here.'
'Someone cut his throat. Maybe whoever is watching us.' Her head jerked up and
her wide eyes considered the corn. It marched away as far as the eye could see,
undulating up and down small dips and rises of land.
'I imagine he's gone. But why take chances? Go on. Do it.'
She walked stiltedly back to the car, her shadow following, a dark mascot who
stuck close at this hour of the day. When she leaned into the back seat, Burt
squatted beside the boy. White male, no distinguishing marks. Run over, yes, but
the T-Bird hadn't cut the kid's throat. It had been cut raggedly and
inefficiently - no army sergeant had shown the killer the finer points of
hand-to-hand assassination -but the final effect had been deadly. He had either
run or been pushed through the last thirty feet of corn, dead or mortally
wounded. And Burt Robeson had run him down. If the boy had still been alive when
the car hit him, his life had been cut short by thirty seconds at most.
Vicky tapped him on the shoulder and he jumped.
She was standing with the brown army blanket over her left arm, the cased pump
shotgun in her right hand, her face averted. He took the blanket and spread it
on the road. He rolled the body on to it. Vicky uttered a desperate little moan.
'You okay?' He looked up at her. 'Vicky?'
'Okay,' she said in a strangled voice.
He flipped the sides of the blanket over the body and scooped it up, hating the
thick, dead weight of it. It tried to make a U in his arms and slither through
his grasp. He clutched it tighter and they walked back to the T-Bird.
'Open the trunk,' he grunted.
The trunk was full of travel stuff, suitcases and souvenirs. Vicky shifted most
of it into the back seat and Burt slipped the body into the made space and
slammed the trunk lid down. A sigh of relief escaped him.
Vicky was standing by the driver's side door, still holding the cased rifle.
'Just put it in the back and get in.'
He looked at his watch and saw only fifteen minutes had passed. It seemed like
'What about the suitcase?' she asked.
He trotted back down the road to where it stood on the white line, like the
focal point in an Impressionist painting. He picked it up by its tattered handle
and paused for a moment. He had a strong sensation of being watched. It was a
feeling he had read about in books, mostly cheap fiction, and he had always
doubted its reality. Now he didn't. It was as if there were people in the corn,
maybe a lot of them, coldly estimating whether the woman could get the gun out
of the case and use it before they could grab him, drag him into the shady rows,
cut his throat -Heart beating thickly, he ran back to the car, pulled the keys
out of the trunk lock, and got in.
Vicky was crying again. Burt got them moving, and before a minute had passed, he
could no longer pick out the spot where it had happened in the rear-view mirror.
'What did you say the next town was?' he asked.
'Oh.' She bent over the road atlas again. 'Gatlin. We should be there in ten
'Does it look big enough to have a police station?'
'No. It's just a dot.'
'Maybe there's a constable.'
They drove in silence for a while. They passed a silo on the left. Nothing else
but corn. Nothing passed them going the other way, not even a farm truck.
'Have we passed anything since we got off the turnpike, Vicky?'
She thought about it. 'A car and a tractor. At that intersection.'
'No, since we got on this road, Route 17.'
'No.I don't think we have.' Earlier this might have been the preface to some
cutting remark. Now she only stared out of her half of the windshield at the
unrolling road and the endless dotted line.
'Vicky? Could you open the suitcase?'
'Do you think it might matter?'
'Don't know. It might.'
While she picked at the knots (her face was set in a peculiar way -
expressionless but tight-mouthed - that Burt remembered his mother wearing when
she pulled the innards out of the Sunday chicken), Burt turned on the radio
The pop station they had been listening to was almost obliterated in static and
Burt switched, running the red marker slowly down the dial. Farm reports. Buck
Owens. Tammy Wynette. All distant, nearly distorted into babble. Then, near the
end of the dial, one single word blared out of the speaker, so loud and clear
that the lips which uttered it might have been directly beneath the grill of the
'ATONEMENT!' this voice bellowed.
Burt made a surprised grunting sound. Vicky jumped.
'ONLY BY THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB ARE WE SAVED' the voice roared, and Burt
hurriedly turned the sound down. This station was close, all right. So close
that yes, there it was. Poking out of the corn at the horizon, a spidery red
tripod against the blue. The radio tower.
'Atonement is the word, brothers 'n' sisters,' the voice told them, dropping to
a more conversational pitch. In the background, off-mike, voices murmured amen.
'There's some that thinks it's okay to get out in the world, as if you could
work and walk in the world without being smirched by the world. Now is that what
the word of God teaches us?'
Off-mike but still loud: 'No!'
'HOLY JESUS!' the evangelist shouted, and now the words came in a powerful,
pumping cadence, almost as compelling as a driving rock-and-roll beat: 'When
they gonna know that way is death? When they gonna know that the wages of the
world are paid on the other side? Huh? Huh? The Lord has said there's many
mansions in His house. But there's no room for the fornicator. No room for the
coveter. No room for the defiler of the corn. No room for the hommasexshul. No
room -Vicky snapped it off. 'That drivel makes me sick.'
'What did he say?' Burt asked her. 'What did he say about corn?'
'I didn't hear it.' She was picking at the second clothesline knot.
'He said something about corn. I know he did.'
'I got it!' Vicky said, and the suitcase fell open in her lap. They were passing
a sign that said: GATLIN 5 MI. DRIVE CAREFULLY PROTECT OUR CHILDREN. The sign
had been put up by the Elks. There were .22 bullet holes in it.
'Socks,' Vicky said. 'Two pairs of pants. . . a shirt. . . a belt. . . a string
tie with a -' She held it up, showing him the peeling gilt neck clasp. 'Who's
Burt glanced at it. 'Hopalong
Cassidy, I think.'
'Oh.' She put it back. She was crying again.
After a moment, Burt said: 'Did anything strike you funny about that radio
'No.I heard enough of that stuff as a kid to last me for ever. I told you about
'Didn't you think he sounded kind of young? That preacher?'
She uttered a mirthless laugh. 'A teenager, maybe, so what? That's what's so
monstrous about that whole trip. They like to get hold of them when their minds
are still rubber. They know how to put all the emotional checks and balances in.
You should have been at some of the tent meetings my mother and father dragged
me to. . . some of the ones I was "saved" at.
'Let's see. There was Baby Hortense, the Singing Marvel. She was eight. She'd
come on and sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" while her daddy passed the
plate, telling everybody to "dig deep, now, let's not let this little child of
God down." Then there was Norman Staunton. He used to preach hellfire and
brimstone in this Little Lord Fauntleroy suit with short pants. He was only
She nodded at his look of unbelief.
'They weren't the only two, either. There were plenty of them on the circuit.
They were good draws.' She spat the word. 'Ruby Stampnell. She was a
ten-year-old faith healer. The Grace Sisters. They used to come out with little
tin4oil haloes over their heads and - oh!'
'What is it?' He jerked around to look at her, and what she was holding in her
hands. Vicky was staring at it raptly. Her slowly seining hands had snagged it
on the bottom of the suitcase and had brought it up as she talked. Burt pulled
over to take a better look. She gave it t6 him wordlessly.
It was a crucifix that had been made from twists of corn husk, once green, now
dry. Attached to this by woven cornsilk was a dwarf corncob. Most of the kernels
had been carefully removed, probably dug out one at a time with a pocket-knife.
Those kernels remaining formed a crude cruciform figure in yellowish bas-relief.
Corn-kernel eyes, each slit longways to suggest pupils. Outstretched kernel
arms, the legs together, terminating in a rough indication of
bare feet. Above, four letters also raised from the bonewhite cob: I N R I.
'That's a fantastic piece of workmanship,' he said.
'It's hideous,' she said in a flat, strained voice. 'Throw it out.'
'Vicky, the police might want to see it.'