A few words in advance.
I don’t usually do Halloween stories, but I wrote this piece as a challenge in a writer’s group, and then didn’t get the chance to present it when work prevented me from attending the meeting. There was a 2500 word limit, so some of the story I should have written got compressed and summarized, probably not in the best way.
This story creeps me out, partly as it is loosely based on a story my Grandmother told me when I was a child. More than that, though, it touches on a couple of themes that disturb me at my core, including graphic violence against a teenage girl, of which I give everyone fair warning beforehand. They say you’re supposed to write what frightens or disturbs you, but I couldn’t do this on a regular basis. I don’t like horror, and I don’t like violence against children, and I don’t particularly like Halloween, but here’s the story, and you can let me know if it’s gratuitous or if it works. Comments are welcome.
Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel
They used to say that, on certain winter days when the sky was so clear and cold that breathing is like a knife in the lungs, and when the setting sun was in its last moment before it let the night in with its mystery and fear, and painted everything of this Earth crimson, travelers who passed by the old Kincaid place would see things that should not have been. Sometimes it was a shape seen out of the corner of one eye, but gone when you looked with both; sometimes it was lights where there was nothing to shine; but, most often, they said you could see shadows on the side of the Kincaid’s old, tumbledown barn, where there was nothing to cast a shadow. Sometimes the shadows looked like spattered clots of blood, and sometimes like some sort of blade that fell with horrible swiftness; but sometimes, they looked like a woman, on her knees, pleading for her life.
I never knew my Aunt Amanda; she was a teenage girl when my mother was born, and when my mother was about seven or so, Amanda vanished. Some say she ran off with a drummer— in those days, a traveling salesman, and not some long-haired musician. Some say she ran off to Kansas City, or even Chicago, looking to escape the weary life of a Kansas farm, for people said that she was a bright, mischievous girl who could never have been happy for long in a podunk town. I think my mother always preferred that story, because it held out the hope that someday, maybe, Amanda would return and there would be a great joyous reunion. She had adored her older sister, and never quite got over her disappearance.
Some other folk, though, whispered that something else had happened, and that Amanda was not the only girl gone missing in the county, although no one could ever put the flesh of proof on the bones of suspicion. The sheriff never saw a pattern, although much escaped Old Sheriff Nichols and his posse of deputies. They were mostly interested in writing parking tickets, and, when Prohibition came in, in making sure they got their cut of the bootleg trade. It was a sad day for them when liquor was made legal again, when I was about four.
It was on a certain summer’s day eleven years later that I rode one of my family’s plow-horses into the yard of the old Kincaid farm. What with the war and gas rationing, no one would have driven me here. A horse, even an old roan named Betty Boop, was far more reliable transportation. It was a moot question, in any event—this was a journey, and a day, I had to face on my own.
My hands sweated on the reins as I guided Betty into the yard. I was old enough to admit to myself that I was scared. I was scared of what I thought was going to happen; I was scared that I would be proven wrong and made to look a young fool; I was scared that it might all just mean that I was losing my mind.
The dreams had driven me here. Three years of them, and the last so precise and vivid that it had led to this noon-time, here in the long-abandoned farm that everyone in Russell County avoided because of the stories about it. As I got down off the horse, I knew the next few minutes would prove the truth of them, one way or the other.
The barn loomed in front of me. Just looking at it caused me to shudder. It was worn and weathered and canted slightly to one side. It should have been just an old barn, no different from a thousand other old barns scattered across Kansas, but it seemed somehow to breathe out horror. I hoped—prayed—it was my imagination.
I heard a car. Around the far bend in the road came Ashton Lamar’s Buick. As mayor of Russell, he, of course, had a gas allowance, and he could often be seen on the county’s roads, going about the people’s business. There was talk of running him for state Senate—maybe even for governor. At the moment, though, seeing that car merely made me go ice-cold inside.
This was happening. This was really happening.
The car pulled into the graveled drive, and then quickly off into the short grass beside it. Not into the sandy yard itself. So as to not leave tracks, I thought, and the cold grew worse.
Lamar got out. For a man of fifty-five, he was still considerably more than just good looking, and the smile he gave me should have warmed me through-and-through. He was dressed in a shirt and tie, tweed pants and polished shoes, just how you would expect a man of public responsibilities to dress on a warm July day. He held out his hands, as if to welcome me.
“Julia,” he said, and he seemed to caress my name with his tongue. “I’m glad you came. This is going to be so special.”
The hardest thing I had ever done in my life was to give him back that smile, or at least the smile a middle-aged man might expect from a young girl on the verge of becoming a woman—excited, flattered, expectant. Three months of enticing this man now came down to this. “I really want to do this, Mr. Lamar,” I said, and it was the most profound lie I ever uttered.
His smile got wider. “Call me Ash, sweet girl,” he said. “Tie up your horse, darling. There’s something I want to show you.” He gestured toward the barn.
I hitched Betty to a still-standing section of picket fence in front of the house. Lamar waited for me follow, and then led me toward the open doors of the barn. I tried to keep from stumbling in fear.
He stopped just inside the barn, and I caught up with him. Standing beside him, I could smell his cologne. The barn, though, was what captured my attention. A cavernous space that smelled of long-ago manure and hay, it was dark inside, except where fallen boards let in solitary shafts of light. Dust lay thick on its floor. A pigeon, disturbed by our presence, fluttered out of its nest in the hay-loft with a rustle of wings.
“Look up there, Julia,” Lamar said, pointing upward toward that loft, and his words were so smooth that, despite the danger, I looked up.
The blow caught me by surprise, even though I had been expecting it. Lamar’s fist crashed into back of my head, and I pitched forward into the dust. I think his intention was to render me unconscious, but we Coopers are notoriously thick-headed, and all it did was momentarily stun me, and make fiery sparks dance before my eyes. I tasted the dust of the barn-floor and struggled to make my limbs move.
He was on me the next instant. He grabbed the back of my shirt—I had dressed in a flannel shirt and blue-jeans, the better to ride in—and dragged me bodily into the shadowed interior. I was genuinely too stunned to struggle very much. In the very back, past the stalls, where hay bales might have once stood, with harness hung on the walls, he flipped me over so he could look me in the eyes, his fist clutching my shirt-front. His smile was now that of a hungry animal, about to taste flesh.
“You stupid little slut,” he said. “You’re all stupid sluts, every one of you.”
“What?” I said, not really having to act the part of a surprised child. “What are you doing?”
“Ridding the world of another dumb bitch,” Lamar said. “It’s my mission, you see—a little fun, and then off you go, with the world a better place for your leaving it.”
“You can’t,” I said.
“Oh, I have,” Lamar said. “Over and over again, right here.”
He slapped me, hard, once, twice, three times. I tasted my own blood. I thought my nose was broken, and my lips were cut by my own teeth.
He grabbed my hair, and twisted my head around. “Take a look, sweetie,” he said, his words now a parody of affection.
I was forced to look at the ground on which I lay. I didn’t understand at first, but then, I began to see it. Beneath a thin layer of soil, and here and there, with no soil at all to cover them, were bones.
Just as in my dream.
“Nobody comes out here,” Lamar said. “It’s my special place. Where I put my trophies. All the dumb little whores who ever followed me. I started with your aunt, you know, long ago. She thought I loved her. Stupid bitch.”
He let go of me, to step over to a stall. He reached between the boards and pulled out a long blade. Leaning back on my elbows, resisting the urge to run, with my head still ringing, I somehow had enough sense to wonder, however irrelevantly, where he had gotten a machete in Kansas.
He pinned me to the ground with a foot on my chest, then bent down to stroke the side of my face with the machete’s edge. The blade was rusty, and where it was not rusty it was crusted with ancient stains. It stank.
“First,” Lamar said, and now there was nothing human left in his eyes, “what we came here for, just not as sweet and meaningful as you might have wanted. Then the pieces start coming off. Then you die. First, though, the little whore’s clothes….”
He flipped me over again. I was face-down in the dust, looking at the bones, as he tugged at my clothing. My nose throbbed and blood ran from it. Droplets fell from my upper lip into the dust.
One drop. Two. Three.
Just as in my dream.
“You’re going to die alone,” Lamar said.
“No,” I said, with the certainty of a returning faith, “and I’m not alone.”
There was something like a chuff of wind, as if someone had opened a door to a hurricane. Lamar let go of me. I twisted around to look.
He had also turned around, to stare into the void that was growing, above and behind him. Darkness swelled, lit by lights that pulsed and flashed. As I gazed into it, past Lamar’s shoulder, the vortex seemed to point into a blackness beyond hope, beyond thought, beyond time.
“What?” Lamar said, sounding utterly shocked, “what?” The machete fell from his hand and buried itself, point first, in the ground by my booted foot.
Out of the vortex came shining forms, shrieking, howling, and the sound of them shook my soul. The walls of the barn swayed and rattled. The shining ones swarmed about Lamar.
He howled, as if in fear or agony, or both. The shining ones swarmed around him, circling him like a tornado of light. He screamed again.
In the next moment, Lamar came off his feet. The shining ones tore at him. His blood flew. He howled, a sound compounded of disbelief, horror and pain. “No, no!” he pleaded.
There was no answer. Instead the shining ones bore him away, toward the infinite darkness. He tumbled, helpless, shrieking, blubbering, to dwindle away into the depths of the black.
In an instant, the vortex was gone. Perhaps an echo of its roar lingered for a moment, or perhaps it was simply the ringing in my ears. Otherwise, there was only the dark interior of an old barn. Dust swirled, and the machete quivered ever so slightly, and that was all.
And then, there was light, growing around me, from some other place. I got to my feet, shaking. My shirt was torn and blood still dribbled down my chin, but I hardly noticed, as someone stepped toward me, out of the light.
She was young, and dressed in the shirt-waisted fashion of a generation before. She had the same auburn hair as my mother, and myself. She was slim and unhurt.
“Aunt Amanda?” I whispered.
She smiled at me. She raised her hands to her face, kissed her fingertips, and swept her hands as if sending the kiss to me. I understood—there was no crossing the chasm between the living and the dead.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Aunt Amanda shook her head, still smiling. Then she turned, and walked back into the light. In the next moment, she was gone, and the light with her.
I staggered back to Betty, and somehow got myself on her. My cover story was already in place; Betty shying at a snake, and me caught unawares and falling off. Somehow I hoped to elide the fact that Betty was the most phlegmatic horse in the Great Plains, and hadn’t even been startled when the lightning bolt had struck right behind her the year before.
It had been as in my dream. The blood of a kinswoman—somehow, in this place, at this moment, it was able to exact a measure of extraordinary justice, something beyond the natural order. I didn’t understand it. All I knew was that I wasn’t insane, but had been a player on the fringes of something great and mysterious.
The question that troubled me all the way home, however, and ever since, is why me? Why then? Out of the millions of times in human history a man killed a woman, either out of some ordinary spite or rage, or the sort of deep sociopathy that possessed Lamar, and this once, in a county in Kansas, the natural order was put aside to remove the disease? Why? For what purpose? It has been a question I have not been able to answer all these years later. It has come back to me with full force, however, as now I have a granddaughter.
And she has begun to dream dreams.
Nowadays they say that, on certain winter days when the breath from your nostrils seems to hang in the air forever, and when the setting sun is in its last moment before it lets the night in with its mystery and fear, and has painted everything of this Earth crimson, travelers who pass by the old Kincaid place see things that should not be. Sometimes it is a shape seen out of the corner of one eye, but gone when you looked with both; sometimes it is lights where there is nothing to shine; but, most often, they say you can see shadows on the side of the Kincaid’s old, tumbledown barn, where there is nothing to cast a shadow. Sometimes the shadows look like spattered clots of blood, and sometimes like some sort of blade that falls with horrible swiftness; but sometimes, they look like a man, on his knees, pleading for his life.