by Red Lagoe
The rugged, overgrown path to the old vineyard seemed to wind up the country hillside for eternity. Janiyah glanced at her boyfriend, Ethan, who was driving. She couldn’t help but feel annoyed with the uncomfortable, bumpy drive along the unmarked, unpaved road. They cleared the thick trees and came to a stop at the top, overlooking a vast field. Scant light from the low moon on the horizon illuminated tall grasses. She could almost make out where rows of crops might have grown.
“Can you tell me what’s going on now?” Janiyah asked. “Because, based on every movie I’ve ever seen, you’re about to murder me.”
“I couldn’t murder you.” Ethan grinned. “Then who would I watch scary movies with?”
Janiyah craned her neck to get a better view of the starry sky out the windshield. “It’s beautiful out here, that’s for sure.”
“Happy Halloween.” Ethan said.
She shot him a sexy smile. “Happy Halloween.” Their favorite holiday was also their one-year anniversary from when they’d started dating.
“I have a surprise for you,” Ethan said.
“A better surprise than this view?”
Ethan gave a devilish grin. “Have you ever heard about the old winemaker that used to own this land?”
He pointed to the field in the valley below. “That all used to be a vineyard. Legend says the land started struggling. A lot of harsh winters. Crows getting into the grapes…well, the guy that owned it became really overprotective of his crops. Back when automobiles were becoming a common thing, he worried the exhaust fumes were toxic, so if anyone showed up at his vineyard with a car, he’d push people out of the way, get behind the wheel, and drive it off the property.”
“Gotta respect a man who takes care of what he loves.” Janiyah smirked.
“Anyway, there’s a legend about this hill. They say that if you drive down there into the valley where his vineyard used to be, the old winemaker will drive your car backwards up the hill to get you off his land.”
“Nuh-uh.” She laughed.
Ethan put the car in drive and started down the hill. The steep slope allowed them to coast down easily. The car struggled over some rocks and bumps, but it made it to the bottom and came to a hault. “So we park at the bottom and see what happens.”
Tall, wild grasses and weeds were grown over what appeared to be an old dirt road that continued ahead of them.
“Is this even a road?” Janiyah asked.
“It used to be.”
Beyond the tips of moonlit grasses, Janiyah couldn’t see a thing. “Have you done this before?”
“Nope. First time. I figured we could do it together.”
“For our Halloweeniversary?”
“Well, it’s definitely more original than dinner and a movie.”
He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I read about it on this folklore site. Not only were his crops struggling, but people kept coming to offer him money to turn his vineyard into a pumpkin patch. Said the land wasn’t suitable for grapes. He just got crazier and crazier about his land.”
Janiyah shook her head. She loved spooky films but she didn’t believe supernatural things actually happened in real life. “So now what?”
Ethan put the shifter to neutral. “Both my feet are off the pedals.” He lifted his hands from the wheel.
“Okay…” Janiyah squinted, skeptical.
The car lurched back. She squealed, covering her mouth as the vehicle rolled backward. At first, it moved slowly, gently drifting back inch by inch. But as they felt the car rolling backward uphill, their pace steadily sped.
“Stop it!” She swatted at his shoulder.
Ethan kept his hands raised, his legs pulled back tight to the seat, his eyes bulging. “I’m not touching anything.”
The car reached the top and Ethan set the shifter to park.
Janiyah removed her hands from her mouth and let out a huge exhale. “No. Way!” Eyes wide, she didn’t dare blink. “No. Way!” she screamed.
Ethan laughed maniacally. “I can’t believe it worked.”
Janiyah fumbled her phone out of her pocket and panic-searched for an answer. She asked the search engine How does a car roll up a hill in neutral?
“Why do you have to do that?” Ethan asked.
“Try to explain everything. Can’t we just let it be?”
She raised an eyebrow at his ridiculous question. Her eyes went back to her phone where the first result was a forum on something called gravity hills. She scanned the screen and nodded, proud of her quick investigative skills. “The way the landscape is shaped, it looks like the hill goes up, but it really goes down. We think we’re going uphill, but in reality—”
“No—” Ethan shook his head. “Just let it be the winemaker.”
“For real, it’s a thing. They’re called gravity hills. It’s like an optical illusion.”
“Way to ruin the moment.” Ethan’s shoulders slumped. “I was trying to scare you.”
“Because that’s our thing. Scary stuff. And because, even though you love it, it seems like nothing ever really scares you.”
“Because there’s an explanation for everything. You wanna scare me, you’ll have to do better than a car rolling up-down a hill.”
“Challenge accepted.” He put the car in gear and hit the gas, speeding a little faster down this time, instead of a gentle roll.
Janiyah braced herself for the bumps.
When they reached the bottom, a gentle nudge of the vehicle tried to force the car back, but Ethan put the emergency brake on. “This car is going nowhere, old man!”
“Who are you talking to?”
“You’re taking to gravity.”
Ethan stepped out of the car, moving around to the back.
“Now what are you doing?” Janiyah joined him at the trunk. Towering weeds obstructed her view beyond the tips of grasses. “Is this the part where you murder me?”
Ethan opened the trunk and pulled out a backpack. “Come on.”
“What are we doing?”
Ethan grabbed her hand and walked her out in front of the car about ten feet where the worn dirt road grew wild. He unzipped a bag and laid out a blanket on the ground.
“Plan B?” Janiyah asked.
“I figured if the hill thing didn’t work, we could at least lay under the stars for a while.” He pulled a bottle of wine and two plastic cups from the bag.
“I like plan B.” Janiyah smiled and joined him on the ground.
Ethan removed a utility knife from the bag and popped out the corkscrew.
“You thought of everything.”
He went to work peeling the aluminum ring from the top of the bottle while Janiyah looked to the moon and stars, releasing a sigh.
A rustling in the grasses drew her attention over her shoulder. She stared deep into the recesses between the weeds, expecting to see an animal, but nothing was there. A distant crow cawed, its voice floated on the still, summer air like a warning.
As Ethan opened the wine, Janiyah tapped at her screen searching for more information about this particular gravity hill.
“Would you stop trying to find answers and just let it be?” Ethan said.
Her eyes darted back and forth on the old website.
Ethan leaned over to look. “That’s the website I found it on, but it didn’t’ say anything about it being a gravity hill.”
Janiyah held a hand to her heart. “Oh my god. Did you read this?”
“Not all of it.”
“It basically says the old winemaker started losing his mind. He’d do anything to protect his crops, not just drive cars off his property.”
“He’d chase people out of the fields with a… vineyard rake… whatever that is.”
“That’ll be me when I get old.” Ethan hunched over pouring a glass of the red blend, mocking an old man’s voice. “Get off my property, you hooligans!”
Janiyah couldn’t smile. After reading the rest, her stomach churned. “It says that he even tied up a trespasser once—hung him on a stake like a scarecrow, and let him die from exposure so the crows… oh my god…
“He let the crows eat the man on the stake so they’d stop eating his grapes.”
Janiyah took a glass of wine and put it to her lips, eyes glued to the glaring screen. She stalled. “He was so obsessed, that he stopped sleeping. Just stalked the rows every night until he died of hypothermia. They found his body beneath the stake where he hung the body of the trespasser.”
“This just keeps getting better.”
Janiyah cringed. “Wait for it…. He died on October 31st.” Suddenly, the starry sky felt like a thousand eyes watching her. Warning her. The crow in the distance went silent. Everything was silent. Everything wrong.
Ethan leaned back on the blanket and looked to the sky. “This is a special night, isn’t it?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this here.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “We can take the wine back to my place.”
“I thought we could stay here a while.” Ethan leaned in for a kiss.
“Yeah, well…” Janiyah pulled away and crossed her arms over her body. “I’m suddenly not in the mood.”
“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” Ethan said, seeming proud of himself. He tipped his cup up to his lips.
“I’m sure it’s just my imagination getting the best of me.” Janiyah heard that rustling behind her again. She whipped around. Out of the corner of her eye, above the grasses, the metal head of some kind of weird pitchfork glinted in the moonlight. A quick double-take revealed nothing, but Janiya jumped to her feet.
“I wanna go.” Her fear was messing with her head.
The rustling again came from another direction. Watching intently for movement in the weeds revealed nothing. “I want to—” She looked back to Ethan, but he was gone.
“Ethan?” An oppressive silence and emptiness stood in his place. Her pulse pounded between her ears. “This isn’t funny.”
Ethan’s wine cup lay tipped over at the edge of the blanket. Red wine soaked into the parched autumn soil. His muffled voice broke the silence. Unintelligible grunts and snapping of brush—the sound traveled away from her.
“Ethan?” This time she whispered. Janiyah aimed her phone’s light toward the weeds. She looked back to the car. Briefly, she considered taking off. Get the hell out. She’d leave him alone in the field with his prank. It had to be a prank, right? She could wait in the car until he gave up on scaring her.
Out of the corner of her eye a shadow passed behind the grasses.
She grabbed the utility tool from the blanket, folded the corkscrew in, and popped out the blade. In one hand she held up her light, in the other, the knife. The tiny blade gleaned in the moonlight.
“Ethan. I’m leaving. You can stay here, or you can get in the car.” Her voice wanted to tremble but she held up her chin and steadied her nerves.
Reflecting off the blade’s slick surface, the shape of a figure appeared. A strange pitchfork, prongs bent forward—a vineyard rake. An angry distorted face with a pale blue complexion grew larger in the blade. It drew near, closing in from behind.
Janiyah sprinted away, glancing over her shoulder, but she couldn’t see anyone there. She blasted through the weeds anyway.
The crow cawed again up ahead. For lack of anywhere else to go, she ran toward the sound of that bird.
Panicked breaths struggled to fill her lungs. Each footstep took her deeper into the field, farther from the car. She tripped, tumbling out of the tall grasses and brush, into a clearing. A long row of dried, dead earth was flanked by old withered vine trunks.
Before her, a scarecrow hung on a stake. Arms dangling to its side, limp. Janiyah scrambled to her feet and stepped closer.
Backlit by the moon, the lifelike scarecrow came into view. Ethan. Strung with his feet hanging at least three feet from the ground, his flaccid body was tied tight to the post. Twine wrapped around his chest and legs. His arms hung free.
She concealed a scream, twisting around with her knife ready to protect herself from whomever stalked the field. As the blade tremored in unsteady hands, Janiyah knew it would be no defense to the person with the vineyard rake.
The crow squawked above, announcing her presence.
“Janiyah,” Ethan’s raspy voice came alive.
“Oh my god, babe…” She rushed to Ethan. Tears filled her eyes but she held them back. “I thought you were dead. How…” Her hand on his leg sent a chill through her. “You’re freezing.”
His teeth chattered. The bird landed upon his shoulder, digging claws into his flesh, nipping at his neck. Ethan thrashed against the attack, sending the bird back into the sky with a caw. Another crow answered its call in the distance.
She moved to the back of the post. Large nails secured the bailing twine. “How?” Her finger couldn’t squeeze beneath the twine, it was so tightly bound.
“My legs are asleep,” Ethan said with a shaking voice.
Janiyah slid the knife under the twine and began sawing. “We have to hurry.” She cut the lower binds, but couldn’t reach the triple wrapped twine around his chest.
She handed him the knife. Icy cold fingers gripped the handle. As their hands touched, Janiyah felt the harsh cold move up her arm. It filled her blood, chilled her to the bone. Her heart slowed as the cold cut through her. Her eyes glazed over. The call of the hungry birds echoed inside her head. Her knees weakened and she slowly sat down, letting the hypothermia set in. Letting the vineyard take her.
“Janiyah,” Ethan’s voice grew distant as the sound of the crow took over. It closed in, ready to feed on the trespassers.
Ethan’s body crashed to the ground as he cut his chest binds free. Numbed legs prickled alive, as he struggled to get to his feet. He grabbed Janiyah’s hand and pulled her out of her daze.
She snapped to as the old pronged rake rose above the rows of dead grapevines.
Before they could realize they were running, they were charging through weeds back to the car. Janiyah held Ethan’s weight the best she could as his body worked on getting blood flow back to his legs. Weeds lashed their arms and faces until they reached the path. Clumsy feet trampled the picnic blanket, kicking over the bottle of wine. Janiyah jumped into the driver’s seat as Ethan slammed the passenger door shut behind him.
“Keys!” she yelled.
Ethan dug into his pockets, shaking.
Something hit the front end with the force of a rhino, rocking the car. Janiyah braced herself on the wheel and Ethan’s hands went to the dashboard. The car slid backward even with the front wheels locked in place by the parking brake.
They moved uphill, skidding and catching resistance as the invisible force of the old winemaker dragged them away. She found the parking brake pedal on the floor and unlocked it. Their speed doubled.
Ethan finally fumbled the keys out of his pocket and handed them over. She slid it into the ignition, and put the car in neutral. Their speed picked up, rocketing toward the summit backwards. They leveled out at the top and Janiyah slammed on brakes. The car came to a screeching halt. Dust kicked up around the vehicle, clouding their view of the field below.
They sat still at the top of the hill. Janiyah’s fingers clenched the wheel, sweating. Ethan released his hand from the overhead grip and let out a held breath. They looked at each other in silence, shaking, then back to the ghostly field below.
“Happy Halloweeniversary…” Janiyah let out a manic chuckle.
A glance in the rearview mirror as they drove away revealed the apparition of the old winemaker, vineyard rake held over his shoulder, forever patrolling the fields, forever protecting his crop from trespassers.
“There has to be an explanation.” Ethan eked out the words, jaw quivering.
Janiyah’s tremoring hands stayed latched to the wheel. “Let’s just… let it be.”
(featured image by Willgard Krause on Pixabay)