Becky’s visit to Wheatleigh, Kansas on Halloween teaches her to respect the dead…the hard way…
This story was transcribed by Randy Baker, editor of Penguin Books, during an interview with comedian Becky Somers at 4 p.m. on October 31st, 2013. Baker was orchestrating an urban legend anthology for Penguin Horror, and sought out Miss Somers after hearing that she was knowledgeable about the little-known Darrow Curse of Wheatleigh, Kansas. The interview took place in her home in St. Louis.
"The Darrow Curse" was one of many entries cut from the final edition of the anthology, for reasons Baker never explained. He'll decline to comment when asked about it.
Celts used to believe the dead walked the earth between the last of October and the first o’ November. They called it Samhain or somethin', and it was a lot like Halloween as we know it, where people’d dress up like the dead and make asses o’ themselves. But the Celts had a good reason for it: dead folks leave you alone if they think you're dead, too. The dead, accordin' to the Celts, are somethin' to be feared and respected.
Already told this story a hundred times to the police and the shrinks and friends and family. But it’s been years since last I told it, and it seems appropriate to have someone get it down on paper on the eve o’ November First.
At the time I was goin’ steady with a wonderful fella named Harley Davies. He had a big heart, Harley did, and he loved to have a good time, but he never said much ‘cept if he was alone with you. Harley was only comfortable with crowds when he was onstage. He had a little sister named Sage who was even less inclined to talk to folks ‘cos mentally she was basically a child. Their mom and dad died in a car accident when they was little and Harley’d been takin’ care o’ Sage ever since. She followed him around like a puppy dog. The three of us was real close and we went everywhere together: a trio of dumb, drunk, perpetually bored twenty-somethin's.
We formed a dinner theater troupe with our friends Teddy and Enoch in 1991: melodramas, murder mysteries, and hammed-up musical performances. Mainly played bars and restaurants in Laclede's Landing, but we'd play anywhere if the price was right and the crowds agreeable. People mostly came for Harley — you put Harley in front of a piano and he caught fire — but Enoch’s off-color jokes and my skeezy wardrobe helped bring ‘em back every night. Sage had nasty stage fright and refused any part we offered, but she never missed a show.
We had friends in Colorado who gave us a ring one afternoon — good friends from college we used to have insane Halloween parties with, and who now run a fancy club in Aspenvale — and said they wanted to get together with us and set up a regular gig. Enoch and Teddy had stuff to take care of in St. Louis first, so me and Harley figured we'd drive out ahead of ‘em, and we couldn’t leave Sage behind if we put her in cement shoes and locked her in the basement.
Road trip wasn’t supposed to be that long, ‘specially with me drivin’ — Harley useta call me Breakneck Becky. Turned out he didn’t take as much care of his truck as he thought; so on October 31st, 1994, we was stranded on the I-70 in the middle o’ nowhere (or Kansas, if you’d rather call it that). It was only an hour before some nice trucker stopped by to give us a lift to the nearest town, which happened to be a Podunk farmin’ community called Wheatleigh. You can’t see it from the road because o’ the golden wheat fields guardin’ it like a castle wall.
Wheatleigh looked like the late nineteenth century had kept it as a souvenir. There wasn’t one paved road or light pole anywhere. Their phones probably still needed a switchboard operator. They didn’t even have a town sheriff: everyone knew everyone, so nobody could get away with nothin’, I guess. Harley found a modern mechanic there and they went to get his truck. Me and Sage toured the town and got to know the locals while waitin’ for Harley to get back.
The people was real friendly to strangers. Everyone welcomed us with a smile, asked what brought us around their humble community, offered us food, beer, or both. Despite the small population, the place was always pretty busy. The streets was always bustlin’ with trucks and tractors and people luggin’ supplies to and from the town center.
Mrs. Winston, the stout old farmer's wife in charge o’ the inn, was happy to tell us all about the town’s history. Wheatleigh kept its economy goin’ for over a century with wool and wheat — it got its name for the bountiful wheat crop it’s churned out since the first house was built there. I pointed my thumb toward the huge field we saw on our way in and said I wasn’t surprised, and complimented how healthy and beautiful it looked.
Mr. and Mrs. Winston frowned and looked at each other. Mrs. Winston cleared her throat and pointed opposite where I had. “The Edisons raise their wheat crop up that way. What you saw was the Darrow place. Nobody uses that crop.”
“Is it just for show, then?” I laughed. Mrs. Winston ignored me and went on about the Wheatleigh sheep herders.
Harley and the mechanic came back with the truck pretty quick. The mechanic told us it would be in the shop for twenty-four hours or so, but he could fix ‘er up for cheap. On our way back to the main road we passed a cluster o’ little houses what looked like their roofs would collapse any minute, with a couple goats munchin’ grass in the nearest one’s front yard.
A crude scarecrow was propped in the middle o’ the yard with its burlap head hangin’ low as if it was prayin’, its eye and mouth holes stitched shut with black thread so it looked like it was sneerin' like a fox. In a morbid touch, around the scarecrow’s neck was a hemp noose — not attached to nothin’, just severed and danglin’ like a necktie. Seemed an odd place for a scarecrow, since there wasn't no crops in that yard, and I never heard tale o' crows eatin' goats.
While tourin’ the rest o' the town we realized everybody in Wheatleigh had one o’ those things planted on their property somewhere, or was in the process of plantin' one. When Harley asked Mr. Edison about ‘em, he told us an interestin’ story.
In the nineteenth century a serial killer known as the Harvest Phantom terrorized Wheatleigh for several years: every harvest season somebody would leave their home to run errands, only to turn up dead in the street, usually chopped up with sickle and axe. The yearly death tally ranged from as few as one to as many as five. The Harvest Phantom was revealed to be Tommy Darrow, the son of the big wheat crop owner. They never found out why he did what he did -- the town was too hasty to lynch him.
After Darrow died, a plague o' misfortune swept Wheatleigh every October, usually at the end o' the month. Darrow's mother was found drowned in the bathtub one year. Mr. Proctor’s sheep got sickly and started dyin’ for no reason. Houses caught fire and children went missin’. And everyone who tried to take over the Darrow property died in freak accidents, almost always while in the wheat fields: heart attacks, strokes, fallin’ on dangerous tools, one gruesome incident with a combine. People said it was the ghost o’ Tommy Darrow exactin’ revenge on the town for not givin’ him a proper trial; they even said his specter walked the streets at night on the 31st of October — the night he was lynched — and anybody who stayed out after dark would never be seen again. Not in one piece, anyway.
So they started puttin’ effigies on their property to ward him off, made in a scarecrow’s likeness, ‘cos the Harvest Phantom wore a burlap sack over his head that made him look like one, himself. The noose around the neck reminded the specter he was supposed to be dead and sent him back to his grave ‘fore he could kill again. Durin’ the harvest season, everyone erected their effigies in their front yards, and barred their doors and windows at 9 p.m., and they didn’t let nobody in or out no matter what 'til the sun came up. Since they started doin’ all that, and since the Darrow crop was shunned by everyone, there’d been no incidents.
"In all the time since, you never once had a nighttime emergency?" said Harley. "Or gone out for a midnight stroll, even?"
Mr. Edison looked at his feet for a moment, then said, "I had a rotten day one Halloween when it was past curfew. Got to feeling spiteful and told Sarah I was going to work on the tractor to let off some steam, ghostly killer legends be damned. The panic attack this induced in my sweet little Sarah is something I never wanna see again.
"When she calmed down, she told me her great grandfather was once the town physician. The Proctors' youngest son was sick with fever one Halloween night, and needed treatment. Doc gave them instructions over the phone, but they insisted on a house call; he decided the boy's health was more important than some archaic superstition, so he packed up his little doctor's bag, said 'Be right back!' to his family, and scurried out the door."
Mr. Edison took a moment to puff on his pipe, never lookin' any of us in the eye. When he was sure we was all listenin' intently, he said, "They found him the next morning in front of his house, slit groin to throat and gutted like a hog. He'd died stepping out of his yard."
Not believin' a word of it, I made some dumb remark about hirin' Mr. Edison as our troupe storyteller. We had a good laugh, then we left the Edison place in search of any ol' way to kill the next sixteen hours.
Suffice it to say, there ain't much to do in a podunk town like Wheatleigh 'cept drink and fornicate, and with Sage taggin' along, the second was outta the question. So around 7 p.m., when the clouds slithered ‘round the moon and strangled most o’ the light out of it, we found ourselves on the road leadin’ up Wheatleigh Hill to the Darrow house. It stood in front o’ the shunned field like a soldier guardin’ the gate to a forbidden castle. It was only a minute's walk from the main road and Harley thought it’d be fun to go check it out.
Front door wasn’t locked, so we let ourselves in, hopin’ to find some creepy souvenir to show our friends in Aspenvale. All the furniture was intact like nobody’d touched the place for a century. We turned into children: ran up and down the halls, makin’ a mess o’ the place and scarin’ the piss outta each other. After a while we mellowed out, passed around a fat joint, shot the breeze, reminisced. Sage checked her watch and got flustered when she saw it was ten 'til 9 p.m., when the town would go into lockdown. We considered bein' festive and stayin' the night in the spooky ol' Darrow house, but Sage didn't like that idea one bit, so we raced to the Winston place.
We shacked up at the inn for the night and indulged ourselves on the free beer Mr. Winston was nice enough to offer us (that tall old fella was a spittin' image o' the one in that American Gothic paintin'). We didn’t get shit-faced exactly, but we was already high and gettin’ more obnoxious by the minute, be sure o’ that. God bless those Winstons and their kindness and patience, and their good humor when we joked to their faces about their town and the backwards yokels that lived there. They just smiled and laughed with us, like they'd heard it all before from the last dumbass city folk who'd passed through.
God bless 'em for savin' my unworthy ass.
It was my stupid goddamned idea to show the populace o' Wheatleigh how to have fun on Halloween. Thanks to their rigid superstitions about the harvest season, nobody in that town ever knew what Trick or Treats was, or at least never got to practice it. After my fourth beer I pitched the idea of goin' door-to-door Trick-or-Treatin', and scarin' people, and makin' a general nuisance of ourselves. Harley and Sage giggled like the hatter and hare at the thought of it.
We decided not to tell the Winstons, for fear they'd have heart attacks and spoil our fun before it started, so we planned to sneak out the kitchen door while they read quietly in the lobby. It was 10 p.m. when we was set to leave, and when my clumsy ass tripped and stumbled into the pretty potted plant in the hall between lobby and kitchen.
SMASH. Beautiful vase and moist dirt scattered in billions o' little pieces all over the hallway.
Mrs. Winston was heartbroke: the vase was a gift from a great aunt she was real fond of, and though she insisted it was all right, I could see her eyes wellin' up with tears as she knelt to clean up the mess. This was the cherry to top our sundae o' callous rudeness and drunken stupidity, and I said so and apologized for what assholes we'd been. I insisted on cleanin' it up myself and promised to make it up to her somehow. She wasn't exactly touched, but she appreciated my sincerity (I ain't the worst actress in the world, despite what the St. Louis newspapers say).
So Harley and Sage snuck off without me to get a head start, with my promise that I'd catch up as soon as I was able. They slipped out the kitchen door and onto the dark, abandoned streets of Wheatleigh. I figured it'd take a half hour makin' that hall as spotless as we found it.
I wasn't five minutes into my chore when someone screamed two blocks up the road from the inn — a loud, guttural, throat-tearin' scream that sounded like Harley.
At the second scream I was on my feet and runnin' to the kitchen door. Mrs. Winston was smaller and stouter than me, but she had a farmhand's muscle and stopped me like a wall o' bricks: she leapt between me and the door, threw the bolts in place, turned and held me fast with steel hands.
"Don't you dare," she said over the third scream. She didn't yell or nothin'. She said it calm and cold like she knew I'd obey.
I kicked and twisted and writhed and screamed. I fought 'til I was exhausted; she was planted so firm it was like wrestlin' a slab o' concrete. "That's Harley!" I shouted. "Lemme go! That's Harley!"
"What the hell they doin' on the streets this late?" said Mrs. Winston, her voice hollow now, her eyes bulgin' in a mix o' horror and outrage.
There wasn't a fourth scream. The town was quiet 'cept for the rustle o' trees swayin' in the wind and my own short, feral, sniffly breaths.
I was sober now.
"Nothin' to be done," she kept sayin' sadly. "Just wait 'til mornin'. Nothin' to be done."
I backed away from her, pointin' a finger at her like I could magically turn it into a gun anytime I wanted. "This ain't funny, you hillbilly bitch," I growled. "Joke's over, y'hear me?"
"Nothin' to be done," she said, shakin' her head, her face wincin' in sympathy.
"You better hope my Harley and Sage ain't hurt."
"Just wait 'til mornin', Sweetheart. Nothin' to be--"
I stamped my foot on the floor and shrieked for her to shut the fuck up 'til I erupted like a sob volcano. She moved toward me to take me in her arms, still sayin' that same line over and over.
"Just wait 'til mornin'. Nothin' to be done."
Mr. Winston was sittin' in his chair in the lobby when I tore away from his wife and made a mad dash to the front door. I didn't realize he'd moved there from the couch, where he'd sat readin' before; and I didn't notice the coach gun in his lap 'til he leapt to his feet and pointed both barrels right at my nose. I froze with my hand an inch from the door lock.
His gentle face was hard as stone now, his eyes red and hot. "Back up from that door, Miss," he said, "and set yourself down."
I musta looked like a big-mouthed bass just then, my eyes buggin' outta my head, mouth openin' and closin' and nothin' comin' out. He told me again, and I stepped back three paces.
"You people are insane," I whined. "What if Harley's hurt? What about sweet little Sage? You gonna just leave 'em there in the street?"
Somewhere out back o' the house, another sound joined the rustlin' of the trees: a hideous brayin' sound that wasn't quite breathin' and wasn't quite gaspin'.
We heard the kitchen doorknob rattle like someone was tryin' to tear the door off its hinges. Then BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM as somebody's fist pummeled the door in its frame.
Again. BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM.
The three of us stood there, not movin'. My feet started pointin' down the hall, but my eyes went to Mr. Winston and his shotgun. Both was still watchin' me hard.
The breathin' faded away to silence as the source moved away from the kitchen door. It returned a few seconds later, louder and clearer as it approached the lobby door.
The doorknob rattled near outta its bolts.
BAM BAM BAM went somebody's fist against the door. Now I realized what the breathin' sound was: terrified, exhausted, inconsolable sobs.
I shouted Harley's name and moved for the door, but Mr. Winston stepped between us, pressin' the shotgun to my throat. His eyes was empty and dead like a doll's. He'd blow my head off without a second thought.
"Please," I almost managed to say without blubberin'. "Why're you doin' this? Let him in for god's sake! He could be hurt!"
"Your Harley's dead already," said Mr. Winston.
"He's right there on your doorstep!" I shrieked, spittin' like a maniac.
"Right now that door's a floodgate, and Tommy Darrow the flood. Understand? Better to have two dead than five."
The sobbin' continued as Harley clawed at the doorknob. I shot a pleadin' look at Mrs. Winston, and it dawned on me that she'd been shuttin' all the curtains in the lobby while her husband kept my attention.
A new rustlin' sound, different from the trees: the Winstons had bushes lined up under the front-most windows of the lobby. Two windows left of the lobby door, the bushes rustled. Then there was a thud.
Harley's grimacin' face appeared at the bottom of the window, like he'd dragged himself to it. He looked right at me, his face splashed with red, his wet eyes bulgin' out of the sockets with terror. He started bangin' a blood-sopped hand weakly against the glass just as I ran to the window.
Mrs. Winston beat me there and grabbed me, wrestlin' my hands away from the window latch. I started callin' her every filthy name I ever heard at the top o' my lungs.
She stumbled and lost her grip on my wrists; I threw her to the floor and clawed at the window latch, to fling open the window and drag Harley inside where he'd be warm and safe; to squeeze him in my arms and soak up all his pain and fear. I rattled off a chain o' sweet, comfortin' words through the glass, which mighta come out as utter nonsense, I'm not real sure. I was lookin' at Harley again when I heard Mr. Winston shoutin' his last warnin' ten feet to my right, his coach gun starin' right at my head.
I got a perfect moonlit view o' the Winstons' front yard through the window just as my thumb started to flip the latch open.
I still heard Mr. Winston's voice echoin' in my skull when I fainted, and later when I awoke at the Salina Regional Health Center — those words he'd spoke earlier, over the frantic bangin' on the door and the ungodly sobbin' on the stoop.
Your Harley's dead already.
Standin' over the windowsill, I saw Harley's bloody face starin' at my stomach, still bug-eyed, still grimacin'. I saw his left hand, still weakly rappin' against the window, smearin' blood all over it, the fingers limp.
I saw the thing that held 'em both like cheap Halloween props as it squatted in the bushes, its burlap face grinnin' up at me with a crooked, stitched-up mouth.