A week ago, if you had asked me if I believed in things that went bump in the night, I would have looked at you as if you’d just escaped the nearest psychiatric ward and given you a terse, derisive response.
I’ve never believed. Not in ghosts, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, haunts, haints, or any other explanation for things heard, yet unseen; glimpsed, but never identified. Oh, how content and ignorant I was in my disbelief.
I realize how difficult this will be for you to believe. That is, if you are anything like I was just a week ago. I’m not going to sit here and swear every word of it is true, because you probably won’t believe me anyway (it would be a waste of your time, and mine), but it is. I want to tell my story, if for no other reason than to get it out of my head. Maybe by writing it down, putting it into some tangible form, separating myself from it in some way, it will become less real and more dreamlike. More story-like. And then maybe, I can read it and enjoy it – be disbelievingly amused by it – as if it didn’t happen to me, but to someone else.
I’m scared, though. If I share what I know, where will that leave me? Where will that leave the human race? What if I tell, and as a result of my telling, everyone I’ve ever known and loved is wiped out? After already losing so much? Can I risk that?
I think I must.
Firstly, if I do not say something, I’m going to need to be permanently confined to a straight jacket and a padded room because that will be the only way to stay alive. Maybe. To say nothing of the giant clumps of hair which have already fallen out – or been torn out – of my head due to fright, anxiety, and trauma.
Secondly, if I do not say something, the human race will be wiped out, slowly, one by one, and no one will ever be the wiser. Oh, well, maybe that’s not entirely true. Eventually some poor soul will figure it out – just like I have – and begin hollering from the mountain tops what he knows. To his own folly. They will find him, and silence him, before anyone has truly heard a word he has said. It’s a cycle. And it will not end.
They will find me, too.
But I think I’ve made my peace with what I’m about to do. I believe now. And in believing, I’ve also had to face the fact of my own death. By telling you this story, I know I’m signing my own death warrant. But it doesn’t matter. Death? Over insanity? Over the fingers of dark knowledge wriggling inside my brain? Knowing that by telling what I know, all I have seen, that I might save the lives of others? Yes. I believe it’s worth it.
The building stood, ugly, squat, and long, alongside a seldom-traveled back road, about ten or so miles outside the city limits. It was an old building, maybe at one time it was a barn of some kind, but now, it was hard to tell. The wooden façade now sported a blazing, blood red with black trim.
I happened to travel this road on a semi-regular basis because my parents still lived in the country and the shortest route between where I lived in the city, and where they still lived on the small farm of my childhood, was this twisting, turning, narrow back road. So, I was familiar with the building. Enough to know that it marked – for me, anyway – the half-way point between my home, and my parents’.
I’d never really paid much attention to it before. In fact, until recently the wooden sides of the building had been severely warped, weathered, and mottled brown, forcing it into the general surroundings of trees, brush, and large boulders. There, but not there. Just an old building like any other old building in the well-established woods of rural Tennessee.
But, on one such trip out to visit my parents, engrossed in my own thoughts, I rounded the gentle curve in the road to see the newly-painted, garishly red building and caught my breath. I was surprised. More surprised than I can really express to you. But from what I could tell, the building had virtually been remodeled overnight.
It hadn’t been more than two days since my last visit to my parents’ home. The only reason I was going back was because I had left my iPad there and wanted to retrieve it. Mom had said, “Well, since you’re comin’, you might as well stay for dinner. I’m makin’ a roast.” No one turned down my mom’s roast.
I pulled quickly to the side of the road, across from the newly-painted building, and just sat there for a minute, looking at it. The wood was still warped in places, but it looked like someone had shored it all up; that it was structurally sound once more. Further, the very few windows the building actually had, were – from what I could tell – painted over with the same black as the trim. “Odd,” I said aloud, looking at the windows.
One other odd thing. There was a neon “Open” sign flashing next to the black-painted door. Open? What could that mean?
I didn’t have time to mull it over as I was already going to catch grief from my mother for being late and making her wait. So, I guided my little silver car back onto the road and continued on my way.
The building was forgotten. For now.
Over the next few weeks, I made several trips to and from my parents’ house, and it seemed as if each time I passed the long building in the woods, something new had been done to it. A corrugated metal roof. A little portico over the entrance. A gravel parking lot bordered with huge boulders. Other than the red color, the building seemed to establish itself as both new, and yet also a well-loved, aged part of the natural surroundings.
It became a matter of some interest to me during my back and forth drives. A small pleasure watching the establishment – whatever it was – transform itself. Transform itself, yes, because I never saw a single person doing any kind of work there. Maybe I just didn’t pass at the right times? But I never saw any equipment, either. I tried to imagine how heavy those parking lot boulders were. No way those were moved without heavy-equipment.
But mostly, it was a curiosity to me. Nothing more.
I got up every day. Showered. Dressed for work. Spent eight hours sitting at my desk mindlessly keying data into my computer. Some evenings I’d go out to a local place for a brew with a few work buddies. Other evenings, I’d go home, turn on the tube and suck on a beer, then hit the sack. My life didn’t change much, and honestly, I was kind of bored.
So, when, on one of my visits out to mom and dad’s, I saw cars, pick-up trucks, and motorcycles in the parking lot of the red building in the woods, the “Open” sign flashing garishly in the gathering evening gloom, I began to speculate on what type of establishment might now be housed in that ugly old building.
My parents and I discussed it at dinner that night (scratch-made fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and sautéed veggies from mom’s fussy vegetable garden) but neither one of them knew anything about it.
“I saw it enough to notice it,” Dad said idly, “but that’s it. Ain’t heard nothin’ about it, though. You ask me, it’s a biker bar. Sure and shootin’ we’re going to see a lot more trouble in those woods.”
“Bill,” Mom said, a warning tone in her voice. “You don’t know that. Wouldn’t matter anyway. I’m just glad someone found a use for the place, is all.”
I had nothing to add to the conversation after that, so we finished our supper in silence and, after I’d helped clean up, I went home.
That night, on my way home, I felt something was…off…about that building. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Not right away. But it gave me the jitters as I drove by it in the deep dark of full night. Wary, I kept watch on it as I passed, the building receding away behind me, eerily illuminated by my car’s tail lights, finally lost from sight at the curve in the road.
When I got home, I felt foolish. In the bright light of my own small apartment I chastised myself. A building couldn’t be…whatever I’d thought it was. Stupid. Stupid. I called myself several names before I finally gave up and got ready for bed.
The next morning, my mother called me at the office, which she never does. “Joey, you know what? Your father might be right about that place in the woods,” she said. “This mornin’, as I was comin’ back from the market, there were police cars all around that place! Buzzin’ like flies. That yellow tape up all over the place. I don’t know what happened, but it can’t be good.”
“Wow, that’s…um…a little scary,” I said haltingly. “You okay?”
“Oh, Lord, honey! Yes, I’m fine. Whatever happened has got to be bad, though, for all those nice officers to be out there in such numbers. I’m tellin’ you, Joey, I’ve never seen the like. At least, not outside the television.”
She told me to be careful the next time I came out to their place, told me she loved me, and hung up. I knew she’d be picking the receiver right back up again to call Gladys and Meryl – her two best friends – to gossip. I refocused on my work, the conversation shortly forgotten.
Another week went by and again, mom called at work. “I’m makin’ your favorite tonight for supper. Why don’t you come over and share it with us? It would be good to see you, sweetheart.” She sounded a bit edgy, and I couldn’t think of a reason to say no, so I accepted the invitation gladly, looking forward to her baked bar-b-que spare ribs.
Dinner was amazing, as always. I could never understand how mom could get her baked ribs to taste like they’d just come off a smoking charcoal grill. Those, along with her special scratch-made macaroni and cheese, and a helping of more veggies from her garden, was as satisfying a meal as I’d had in a long time. I loved my mother’s cooking.
But mom herself looked pale, with splotches of red in her cheeks and deep, dark circles under her eyes. She seemed almost unwell. She assured me multiple times she was just tired, saying, “I done too much this week with the ladies’ auxiliary. Once the fall fundraiser is over, I’ll rest some.”
But even her eyes looked watery, paler than her usual bright and sparkling blue.
I pulled dad aside to ask him about it. He echoed mom’s story about the fundraiser and how she’d not been sleeping well. She’d been having bad dreams, he told me.
“If this continues,” I said, looking him straight in the eye and using a stern voice as if I were the parent and he were the child, “she should see a doctor.”
“I know son. I know. I’ll keep my eye on her.” He seemed weary, too.
A day later, the police were gathered around my parents’ home, yellow police tape surrounding the property, my father sobbing in the back of a squad car, the coroner wheeling my mother’s lifeless body out to his van.
Dad was questioned by the police, but they didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. They were just trying to figure out what had happened. I stood, with my hand on dad’s shoulder, trying to reassure him with my presence, but barely able to keep myself together. “She just didn’t wake up!” Dad sobbed to the questioning officers. “We’d gone to bed just like always, but she didn’t wake up! I knew she wasn’t feelin’ right, but she just said she was tired. I wasn’t gonna argue with her. You didn’t argue with Joanna. You just didn’t. If she said she was fine, by God she was fine!” He stopped talking, hitched a breath, and began to cry again, unashamed and broken.
“I was here night before last,” I offered, and proceeded to tell the officers about how she’d looked. How she’d acted. My personal observations. The brief discussion with dad about trying to get her to see a doctor. I was as baffled as my father was. As aggrieved, too.
Finally, one of the officers said, “We’re sorry for your loss, Bill. Yours too, Joe. You’ll holler if you think of anything else, okay?”
We nodded at them as they walked away, and then turned to embrace one another, crying on each other’s shoulders.
The loss of my mother was enormous. I felt a hole in me so vast it could have held the entire universe and then some. And if I felt this way, I could only imagine how my poor father felt. Without discussing it with him first, I decided I’d move back home for a few days. At least until I could get a handle on myself, and on my father. On the situation. We had a funeral to plan, and it would be easier on both of us if we were together. Dad seemed grateful for my presence, though he never actually came right out and said it. He was a man of few words.
I was allowed to take three days off from work for bereavement leave; a meager offering from the corporate machine. So, I worked until the day of the funeral, and then took time off to grieve with dad.
I don’t want to talk about the funeral. I can’t. It was the most horrible day of my life. Suffice it to say between dad and myself, along with a sea of mourners, mom was buried with an ocean of tears and a field of sunflowers. Afterward, the little farmhouse was inundated with well-intentioned folks bringing casseroles and pies, and offering assistance wherever, whenever. We numbly accepted the offerings, held awkward, wooden conversations, which, afterward, were not remembered in any great detail, if at all, and took comfort in one another.
Dad and I had always been close. He’d shown me how to use each piece of equipment on the farm. Taught me how to milk the few cows we’d owned. Kept me busy, occupied with chores and other things. And every time I’d complain he’d say with a wry grin, “Just buildin’ your character, son. You’ll thank me someday.”
He’d taught me how to drive when I’d been twelve. Just a few turns around the barren back field, but I’d felt as if I were floating on cloud nine. None of my school friends knew how to drive yet. Thereafter, I drove the tractor, too.
Dad never said much, but when he did speak, I listened. He was gentle and kind and though he never said the words, “I love you,” I knew he loved me. Every action spoke of his love for me. I never once doubted. I knew how lucky I was to grow up with two loving parents the way I did. These days, so many people I knew were the product of broken families.
We got along fine out there in the little farmhouse. But about four or five days after the funeral, Dad said, “Joey, you go on home now. You got to keep livin’ and you don’t need to babysit your ol’ dad.” I argued with him, saying it was fine, I wanted to be here (because I did), but he all but shoved me out the door.
“I didn’t argue with your momma,” he said as I stepped out on the front porch, “and you sure as heck ain’t gonna argue with me. Now git.” That was it. I was dismissed. And, though I honestly worried about him out at the farmhouse alone, I had to admit I was glad to be heading back to town. To my boring life. Because every minute I spent at the farmhouse, another hole was carved out of me. Grief was, quite literally, beginning to eat me alive.
On the way home, I passed the old red building as usual and…once again…felt something not quite right about the place. I dismissed it, though. I was too absorbed in my grief.
Life returned to normal, or, as normal as it could get. Dad and I talked on the phone every day. He played his part and I played mine, but we both knew our lives were lies right now. Both of us just going through the motions. The loss of wife and mother simply too huge.
Then one day, about two months after mom passed, I couldn’t get in touch with dad. I tried for our usual morning phone call and he didn’t answer. I assumed he must be outside working in the barn; there wasn’t a phone out there. I tried again an hour later; no answer. I tried several times throughout the day, growing increasingly concerned with each unanswered call, until at five o’clock, I leapt up from my desk and practically raced for the exit. An uncontrollable urge driving me to go to the farmhouse. Call it a gut feeling.
I guess I don’t need to tell you what happened. Not really. But I buried my father next to my mother less than two months after she’d died, with his favorite pair of work gloves and a rustic bunch of wildflowers, instead of, as it had been with mom, tears and sunflowers. I stood, blindly watching the gravediggers refill the hole in which my father’s casket now rested, and allowed grief to overtake me. When I’d sufficiently recovered, the hole was filled, the cemetery workers were gone, and it was nearly full dark.
I am not going to regale you with the day by day stuff. I inherited the farmhouse, and my parents’ meager savings, plus all the equipment, land, and animals. As much as it pained me to let go of so many pieces of my childhood, I, alone, could not take care of the farm and keep my job. So, I sold off some parcels of the land, along with most of the farm equipment, animals, and other things, until I’d managed to offload enough that I felt I could live there, take care of the place as mom and dad would want me to, and continue to commute into the city for work. It was only a 30-minute drive after all, so it was doable.
After a conversation with my landlord, I was allowed to break my lease without issue, and moved into the farmhouse permanently.
My first night alone in the farmhouse was bittersweet. Memories of childhood welling up, mixing fondness and joy along with the sadness. I wandered through the house, touching the banister and remembering the time I slid down it on my butt, managing to break my ankle on an awkward dismount. I fingered the wooden paneling in the front hallway, the angular door to the small closet under the stairs, remembering how I’d made that little closet my fort for many years. My parents always knew where to find me, tucked away in there among stashed pillows and blankets, reading or playing with my action figures, immersed in a world of my own making. Opening that small door, I saw where I’d carved my name on the back of it when I’d been ten. The little room smelled the same. Just exactly the same. And memories overwhelmed me.
I spent a lot of time wandering the house as I began to remember what it was like to actually live there, permanently. Slowly, I began to make plans to update a few things. Time went on.
And then one night, about four months after my father had passed, and about six months after mom, I was in bed (I’d taken over the master bedroom, the windows of which looked out onto the front yard) reading a book on coding and nodding off, when I heard a commotion down in the yard. The chicken’s I’d kept were squawking and making fluttering sounds, flapping their wings in distress. I peeked out my window, expecting to see a fox or a coyote (we had both in the area) worrying the chicken coop. But instead, I saw a man! A man wearing dark clothing, standing right below my bedroom window, staring up at me! His eyes were…impossibly…glowing!
My heart thudded hard in my chest in shock. I blinked, hard, and hoped when I opened my eyes he’d be gone. He was.
But that night, the nightmares began. They were relentless, recurring, and awful in every aspect, full of blood and death, yet sweet and seductive. I’d wake, sheathed in cold sweat, shaking from head to toe, both horrified and yearning. I could never remember what the dreams were about, specifically, just that they were terrible things. And the red building in the woods. Somehow, I remembered the red building in the woods. I began to lose sleep.
I would force myself to stay awake only to drift away on a cloud. On a light, beautiful cloud, with music and a voice beckoning me in the mist. Mom’s voice.
“Joey,” she’d say. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew her voice.
“Joey. Everything is going to be alright. Your father is here now, too, and everything is going to be alright.” Sweet. So sweet to hear her voice again. But it bothered me, too. Something about it bothered me.
Every night I’d try to stay awake and drift off only to hear mom’s voice again.
One night, I snapped upright out of sleep suddenly understanding what was making me uncomfortable. Mom didn’t talk like that! She clipped her words. Everythin’, instead of Everything. Gonna, instead of Going to. She’d say fine, instead of alright. I was immediately angry with myself. My mind, my stupid, college-educated mind was messing with my memory of my mother! It was her voice, for sure, but not in the way she’d speak to me. She was a born and bred country girl, raised on cooking lard, butter biscuits, hard work, and prayer. And I wanted, desperately – so desperately – to hear her voice speaking in the way she should speak. But that aspect became just another part of the terrible nightmares. And I couldn’t fight it.
Soon, the dream would change. I would climb out of my bedroom window, jump from the second storey of the house to the brown grass below, lithe and agile, and run – miles and miles – to the red building in the woods. Once there, I would walk up to the front of the building, look at the flashing “Open” sign, and see my hand reach out to open the door…and wake up, sweating and shaking, in my bed.
I attributed these dreams to grief, and for a very long time, I let them slide. Folks at work began to comment on how tired I looked. I’d gotten used to it, myself. It was many weeks before I made the connection. My current, pale face with red splotches and dark circles under my eyes, was the same face my mother had two days before she died. I hadn’t seen my dad for a few days before I’d found him dead, but I suddenly suspected he, too, would have had the same pasty complexion with sickly roses in his cheeks and charcoal ashes under his eyes.
Sleep deprivation. It had to be.
There wasn’t another explanation for it.
I went to the doctor and he pronounced me ultimately healthy, though slightly anemic, and prescribed a pill to help me sleep.
“Anemic?” I questioned him.
“Yes. But only very slightly,” he’d responded. “It’s quite common. Especially if you aren’t sleeping, or eating well.” At this, he pointed at my chart indicating the twenty plus pounds I’d lost since my last visit just before mom passed.
“Look,” he said matter-of-factly. “Just try the sleeping pill. I’ve prescribed a very low dose so you can see how you do. Some people don’t need any more than this. If this helps, then great! If not, well…make another appointment to come see me again in two weeks anyway and we’ll just do a follow-up. Okay?”
“Okay,” I responded, taking the prescription from him.
“Oh, and Joe? Make sure you eat some more, you really are getting a little bit too thin. Iron-rich foods, too; that will help with the anemia. Spinach, beans, stuff like that. You can look it up or…hang on…” he reached behind him. “Here. Take this,” and handed me a brochure called The Iron Rich Diet.
I didn’t like the idea of the sleeping pills. And, tired as I was, I felt like taking them would be a bad idea. I wasn’t sure I was quite that desperate yet.
But that night, in my dreams, my mother’s voice said to me, “It is going to be okay now, Joey. Your father is here, too. He agrees with me. Take the pill, Joey.” Needless to say, I was awake for the rest of the night.
When Kevin, my supervisor, called me into his office a few days later, he told me he thought I ought to take some time off. Maybe go to the beach or something. Get some rest.
I resisted. I was fine. Of course I was fine.
“You’re not fine, Joe, and you know it. I didn’t want to have to pull this card, but you’re making it kinda hard not to. Your work is starting to get sloppy. I need you in top form. Every account here relies on your data and if that data can’t be trusted…well… Let’s not go there yet. Just go get some rest. Somewhere not here, okay?”
I was stuck.
“Okay,” I mumbled, feeling hollow.
“Joe?” he said as I turned my back and started for the door.
“Yeah?” I responded.
“You’ll be okay, you know. Grief…well, it’s a tough thing. Makes us feel all kinds of things. Makes us do stuff, or forget stuff, we wouldn’t normally do or forget to do. Grief sucks. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Just…I…I wanted you to know that if you need anything, anything at all, you can call me. Boss or not, I’m still your friend.”
In an odd way, I felt better.
“Thanks,” I said. And left.
I felt at odds with myself. What did I do? Just take off and go to the Bahamas for a week? I could afford to do that, after selling off so much of the farm in order to make it manageable for me. It wasn’t a question of money. It was a question of…what? What was holding me back? Something was, that was for sure. For reasons I could not explain, I understood I could not simply go to the beach, catch some rays, drink a few beers, and come back refreshed. A new man. Something was holding me here.
“Is it grief?” I wondered aloud.
Maybe, I answered myself silently.
I drove home from work that day in a daze. It was just barely past noon, sun still shining brightly overhead in the cloudless blue sky of early September. I took the curves in the road easily, nearly by rote, thinking about my options; distracted. I rounded a curve in the road and was startled out of my self-evaluation by the sight of the red building. Neon sign flashing “Open. Open. Open.” Almost without thought, I found myself pulling off the road and into the gravel parking lot.
There was a car, and a few burly motorcycles parked in the lot. I’d seen it busier on other occasions, but now, it was probably deserted. I sat in my car for a few minutes, wondering what I was doing there. I didn’t even know what this place was, for sure, only the suspicion my father voiced at the supper table those many months ago; that it was a biker bar. A bar. Which meant beer. And I had never wanted a drink more badly than I did right at that minute.
So, without further thought, I left the car and found myself walking slowly up to the entrance of the red building in the woods. I saw my hand reach for the knob on the door, and turn it, giving the wooden barrier a slight push to open it. What I saw on the other side of the door had me stopping in my tracks.
Six men sitting side by side at the bar all turned to stare at me simultaneously. It was very disconcerting.
The bartender, a tall woman with long, sleek, black hair and cat eyes also turned to look at me, stopping in the middle of swiping her grungy towel around the inside of a freshly-washed glass. I was clearly an outsider, and my father had been right. Biker bar.
The men all wore black leather pants, some wore leather jackets or vests, some wore jean jackets. Each staring face had not seen the blade of a razor in months. The bartender, clearly as taken aback by my entrance as her patrons were, was the first to break the silence.
“Easy, boys,” she said. Her voice like warm honey. Then to me, she said, “Come on in, stranger. Want a beer?” Her eyes sparked with vague amusement.
Haltingly, I said, “Yeah. More…more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my life.” I stepped in and closed the door behind me, walking carefully over to the bar.
The guys were still watching me, but with far less hostility than a moment ago, before Ms. Voice Like Honey spoke to them; to me.
She had already poured me a beer and had it ready as I chose a seat a couple stools away from one of the other customers. Instinctively keeping my distance.
“So,” Ms. Voice Like Honey said, “What brings you to The Red Barn today?”
“The Red Barn?” I asked, stupidly.
She opened her hands, palms up, and gestured around her indicating the building. “You’re sittin’ in it, Slick. The Red Barn.”
Feeling stupid, I said, “Oh. Well…” Not really wanting to spill my guts in front of seven total strangers.
The man just to my right, one stool away, said in a deep, gravelly voice, not looking at me, “This is where we come to share all our secrets, son.”
Something about the way he said it was hypnotic, and I suddenly found myself telling these seven people all about the last few months. Mom’s death. Dad’s passing. The farm. The lack of sleep. The nightmares. The forced vacation from work. I told it all while staring into my untouched beer.
When I fell silent, I took a deep breath and then downed my entire beer in one go. When I glanced up, the bartender was already sliding another glass in front of me, and each man at the bar had leaned around to gape at me. To a man, their eyes seemed almost hungry. I saw not one iota of sympathy from them.
“Geez, Slick. Hella rough time you’ve had there,” Ms. Voice Like Honey said. But even she had a look of hunger in her eyes.
I was suddenly more nervous than I’d been when I’d first opened the door to the place. What the heck was I feeling?
“Yeah,” I said with a nervous chuckle.
The dude to my right got off his stool, came over to me, slung a beefy, leather-clad arm around my shoulder and said, “Sorry man. That just…well, it fuckin’ sucks. Let’s get drunk.”
Nerves gone, his stone-like voice once again hypnotic, I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get drunk.”
Before I knew it, tequila was flowing, faster than I’d ever drunk it before, and I was completely wasted in less than thirty minutes.
“Man, you’re a lightweight,” the bartender said, amused.
Slurring my words, trying to stop the room from spinning, I grinned stupidly at her and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Vanessa,” she said. “Though folks usually just call me Nessa.”
“That’s,” I paused, trying to remember how to speak. “That’s a nice name, Nessa.”
“My name’s Stone,” Gravel Voice offered.
He looked at me accusingly, somewhat offended.
“No,” I tried. “No. It’s just…your voice. Your voice makes me think of gravel. So, your name fits.” Speaking was getting hard. Language was beginning to evade me. English. I spoke English, right?
Stone relaxed a bit. Grinned.
Did I imagine it, or, were his teeth sharpened to wicked points?
Didn’t matter. Drunk me was happy.
“You’re my new best friend, Stone,” I slurred. Then passed out, my head on the bar.
When I awoke, I didn’t know where I was or how long I’d been out. I had a killer headache and my stomach felt oily and wavy. I knew if I moved much I’d vomit up my spleen or another vital internal organ. I groaned. Ugh. I’d never gotten that drunk ever in my life. If I never did again it would be too soon. I fell back into unconsciousness, not caring where I was, just wanting to sleep it off.
The next time I awoke, I felt marginally better. Still headachy and nauseous, but I felt like my internal organs might stay put, even if I did vomit. Still, it was not time for me to even attempt to get out of bed. Was I even in a bed?
Finally, after who knows how long, I woke for good. Feeling mostly like myself and desperate for a glass of water and a shower. I opened my eyes gingerly, taking in my surroundings. I was more than a little surprised to find myself at home. At the farmhouse. In my own bed!
When I looked out the window, the filtered light of early morning feeling like ice picks to my sensitive eyes, I saw my car was parked out in the front yard!
I didn’t drive myself home, did I? I mean, I wouldn’t have! Couldn’t have. I was too desperately drunk to even attempt it. Stone or one of the other guys must have driven me home. I felt both embarrassed, and genuinely grateful.
But…something in the back of my head niggled at my thoughts. Something squirmy and uncomfortable. Something I couldn’t remember. I wrote the feeling off to drunkenness and tentatively got out of bed, testing my footing carefully before I attempted to walk to the bathroom.
I stood under the pounding stream until the water ran cold. Then stood there a bit longer until I felt nearly human. When I stepped out of the shower, I wrapped a towel around my waist and grabbed the big plastic University of Tennessee cup I kept on the sink and downed three straight glasses of water.
“Okay,” I said aloud. “Now what?”
I dressed in sweats and a tee shirt, kept my feet bare, and wandered down to the kitchen. Food was…impossible, but coffee was necessary. So, I set about dumping an uncounted number of heaping spoonsful of grounds into a filter, splashed an unmeasured amount of water into the carafe, and flicked the switch. While the brew percolated, filling the small kitchen with it’s life-affirming scent, I leaned against the counter, the heels of my hands pressed to my eyes. It was so bright. Even without a single lamp on inside the house, and a good amount of pre-rain cloud-cover in the sky outside, it was still too bright. As if someone were shining a multi-hundred lumen flashlight into my eyes. But, with my hands pressed to my face, the pain was lessened.
I heard the final gurgle of the coffee maker, which sounded like in animal in the throes of choking to death, and gratefully poured an unsteady cup of the brown stuff. It was awful; too strong. I didn’t care. I burned my tongue and esophagus thoroughly by downing the entire first cup without pause. I was more patient with the second cup, which tasted much better considering I’d fried my taste buds on the first round.
Barefoot, I went outside to collect eggs from the chicken coop, feed them, and make sure they had water. I opened my car to check to see if I’d left anything in there from the night before, but it was clean. Almost too clean. Did Stone pick up after me? That just seemed…weird.
I went back into the kitchen for a third cup of coffee and brought it out to the front porch to sit and sip for a while. It was definitely going to rain.
I heard the phone ring inside and it startled me slightly, making me slop coffee on my tee shirt. “Dammit,” I exclaimed as I rose to answer the phone.
“Joe? It’s Kevin. Just checking in on you. You looked pretty bad when I kicked you out yesterday.”
“Oh, hey Kev. I’m hungover as hell, but I’m okay.”
“Hungover? You serious, man? You hardly ever drink more than one or two,” Kevin chuckled.
“Yeah. My car wound up steering itself to The Red Barn out past the park, toward my parents’…I mean my…house. It was a serious tequila fest, man. I barely remember it. The bartender was hot, though.” I played it cool. Though as I talked about the red building in the woods, I got that squirmy feeling again.
“Well, okay,” Kevin said. “Just…seriously, take care of yourself. I wasn’t kidding about a trip to the beach, you know.”
“I know. I don’t want to go to the beach.” I was mortified to hear the whine in my voice.
“That’s fine, I guess. Just take some time off. Call me when you’re ready to come back, okay?”
“I wonder why it is that when someone is grieving, people think what they need is time off. Time alone. When really, the truth of it is, we need to be busy,” I mused aloud, not expecting Kevin to answer. “Bye, Kev. I’ll call you in a week or so.” I rang off.
Nerves raw, and not knowing what I should do with myself, I decided to start on some of the updates I’d been toying with. So, I went upstairs, shoved my bare feet into ancient and scarred work boots, then went out to the barn fired up the old Ford pick-up my dad used to drive. The cab of the truck smelled of the Old Spice my father used to use. I used to hate that smell. Now, I loved it, though it made me sad.
Home Depot was crowded. It felt strange to be walking around Home Depot in the middle of a Tuesday morning with a still present, though receding, hangover. I looked at paint, chose a color I liked for the foyer, front hallway, stairwell, and upper hall. Got a bunch of other stuff: brushes, rollers, tape, drop cloths. And, once home again, I put it all in the little closet under the stairs and promptly forgot about it.
I spent the rest of the day restless. Wandering the house and the yard. When I wasn’t wandering, I washed my little silver car, and dad’s pick-up. I cleaned the chicken coop. I dumped a bunch of stuff in mom’s old crock pot, not really paying attention. Not caring if it would be edible that evening. It was a long day.
That evening, I flicked through channels on the television, but found nothing of interest to watch. I felt nearly out of my mind with loneliness and grief! These meager distractions were doing nothing for me. And out of nowhere, I got a flash of the red building in the woods. The Red Barn. I could go there, I thought to myself. At least I’d be able to have a drink. Maybe Nessa would be there.
Energized with the vague outline of a plan, I went upstairs to put on jeans instead of sweats and change my coffee-stained tee shirt. I found a mis-matched pair of socks and put the scarred boots back on. When I looked for my wallet, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I spent nearly a half an hour looking for it – I even looked in the freezer, though God knew why I’d put it in there – with no luck. Maybe it was in my car? But, I halted that thought almost immediately. My car had been cleaned out.
Well, I wanted to drive over there anyway. Maybe I’d left my wallet at The Red Barn last night? Surely Nessa, if she’d found it, would have stowed it behind the bar, right? And, driving more carefully than usual since I was operating a motor vehicle without my license in my back pocket, I steered my car to the red building in the woods.
This time, when I opened the door to the place, it was full night, had a full crowd, and much, much louder than the night before because a live band was playing at the far side of the building. I wasn’t noticed the way I’d been yesterday; there were simply too many people for me to stand out that much. But I did feel eyes on me. I glanced toward the bar. Nessa’s gaze caught mine and she lifted her chin in quick, silent greeting.
By the time I’d forced my way to the bar, she’d poured me a drink and, before I even had time to say anything, slid my wallet coolly across the heavily-lacquered surface. “I was hoping you’d come back,” she said smoothly. “You left this here last night.”
“Thanks,” I said, my voice ringing with relief. “I’ve been looking for it everywhere. It’s actually why I came back tonight.”
“I had it in the safe,” Nessa said. “It’s here, under the bar.” I heard a vague thump as she kicked it with the toe of her boot. “Stone drove you home last night. Hope that was okay.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I said again, staring at my beer.
She was so pretty, it was hard to look at her. Her cat eyes were green and slanted upward with thick black lashes. Her hair was long and sleek, tonight pulled back in a messy pony tail. She wore a red tank top and black leather pants. Her upper right arm had a tattoo, some symbol I didn’t recognize, but I didn’t know her well enough to ask her anything about her skin alterations. Plus, it was none of my business what she did to her skin.
I silently sipped my beer for a while, as Nessa continued to work the bar, taking and filling orders with a rhythm that was hypnotizing to watch. I hadn’t been there very long when I felt that familiar leather-clad arm clamp around my shoulders in a squeeze. Stone.
“Thought ya might come back, Joe. Feelin’ alright?” he asked in a friendly manner.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Definitely drank too much last night. I think I’m still hungover. But, yay for me, I didn’t vomit up any internal organs and I’ve managed to be semi-productive today,” thinking of my trip to Home Depot. “Thanks for driving me home, by the way.”
“No problem!” Stone boomed. “Wanted to make sure you got home safe. Chuck followed me to your place so I’d have a ride back.”
“Yeah! Chuck,” Stone boomed again, pointing a finger to the other end of the bar to one of the guys who’d been there yesterday. Chuck grinned, nodded at me in greeting, raised his glass, and drank deeply.
“Right,” I said, weakly. “Thanks again.”
“So, you up for round two?”
“No freakin’ way!” I told him with earnest, and had him laughing so loud the whole room turned to look at him. I felt my cheeks go pink with embarrassment.
“No worries. No worries, friend,” Stone said. “Another time.” And, after a quick glance and nod at Nessa, he stalked off to another part of the room to talk with a redhead who’d hailed him.
I finished my beer and left enough money on the counter to cover both drink and tip. I caught Nessa’s eye and sent a wordless thanks her way. She understood and sent back a wordless goodbye. I went home.
That night, the nightmare was stronger than ever. I woke up at two o’clock in the morning with a scream on my lips, the sheets wrapped around me in a restrictive cocoon, sweating like I’d been hiking the desert at high noon. My heart was thumping out of my chest. I didn’t understand what had woken me; couldn’t bring the dream to mind. It was vague. Bloody and terrible, yes, but seen through a mist of shadows. The only clear part being the red building in the woods.
Just as my heart was slowing to a regular rhythm, I heard the chickens out in the yard. Squawking and flapping in fright. I peered out the window and saw, once again, the dark figure standing in the yard staring up at me. Silver eyes glowing.
I didn’t squeeze my eyes closed this time, but took time to register the casual stance, the dark clothing, the pale (too pale) face, half hidden by the hood of what was probably a sweatshirt. A male figure. Some vague recognition tugged at me, but I just couldn’t get there. My head began to hurt.
“Joey?” my mom’s voice said.
Was I still dreaming?
I flipped around and saw the shadow of both my mother and my father, standing at the foot of the bed.
“Joey?” mom said again.
“Mom! Dad! What’s going on?” I asked, frantic and confused.
“Everything is going to be alright, Joey. Your father and I are both here now, Joey. Will you come with us? We have something wonderful to show you.” And, without waiting for an answer, she and dad both turned and practically glided out the bedroom door. I scrambled out of bed, frantic to keep up with them. Confused. Scared. They were dead, for God’s sake. How was it possible that I was following them now, seemingly both alive, out of my bedroom, down the stairs, and out the front door? The figure in the yard forgotten, remembered only when it rushed at me the moment I set foot on the front porch.
That was all I knew.
When I came to, I was in a darkened room, laying on a cot. The room stank of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and vomit. Groaning, putting my hands up to support my acutely aching head, I tried to sit up. I had no idea where I was, but judging by the smell, I was not the first person to find myself here. There was enough light for me to tell the room was no larger than a prison cell, maybe four by six feet. There was a toilet, a sink, and a cot. That was it. The walls were concrete block, painted black, and the faint light was coming from a blacked-out window where some of the paint had been scratched off. Probably by the frightened fingernails of the rooms’ previous occupants.
There was a knock on the door, which startled me and made me yelp in surprise. The door swung open, revealing Nessa.
“Good, you’re awake. Come with me, Slick.” Her voice still honey-like, but with an icy edge I hadn’t heard before.
I stumbled to my feet and followed her.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
She didn’t answer me. She didn’t respond to any of my queries at all. Just kept walking briskly until we were standing in the middle of The Red Barn.
The huge room was empty of patrons, but sitting in a darkened corner, was Stone. I couldn’t really see his face because he was lurking in the shadows, but I knew it was him. Further, I suddenly understood he’d been the figure lurking in the front yard, staring up at my bedroom. I was disconcerted, confused, frightened, and several other things…angry, being one of them.
“Aw, Joe,” Stone said gravelly from his shadowed seat, “Don’t get all puffed up on me, you’ll just piss me off. And we’re friends, right?”
I didn’t respond, just watched him, trying also to keep Nessa in my peripheral vision. She seemed to be slowly creeping around behind me and that made me exceedingly uncomfortable.
“I’ll bet you’re wondering why you’re here,” Stone grumbled. “And, I could tell you. But, then I’d have to kill you.” He laughed mirthlessly at his own joke. “Actually, I’m going to kill you anyway, but since you’re here, and since you seem so willing to be my friend, and Nessa’s, I thought I’d explain before I off you.”
“What did I ever do to you,” I asked, suddenly brave. I mean, if he was going to kill me anyway, I might as well piss him off.
“Oh, you didn’t do anything, Joe. I just like you is all. You’re fun. And I’d like to keep you around for the next millennia. Nessa would like to keep you, too.” He grinned wickedly in her direction, his sharp teeth glinting in the poor light. (They had not been a hallucination.) I could hear Nessa’s irritated sigh off to my left. She was nearly behind me now.
“So, here’s the thing, Joe. I want your house. Me and Nessa and Chuck and the others. It’s close to this place, and…well, it’s just perfect for us. So we’re going to take it from you. See, first we offed your mom. She was easy. A little mental suggestion, a few bad dreams, and she basically offed herself, really. She had a bad heart…” He trailed off at my look of surprise.
“You didn’t know, did you. Well, I’m sure there were a lot of things your parents never told you. You can ask them later. They’re in the back.” He grinned again, making me break out in gooseflesh. “Anyway, mommy has a heart attack during the night and simply doesn’t wake up the next morning. Daddy was upset. So upset he pined away for your mom until he, too, was ours for the taking. Again, a few bad dreams, one wickedly fun hallucination, and whoops! Those stairs just jumped up and tripped him. Too bad for you. But I like your dad. I like your mom, too. They’ll be good company for you when you join us.”
“Why would I join you?” I asked critically. Hatred seething, barely contained, just beneath the surface of my skin.
“Why? Because I want you to, that’s why,” Stone answered, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. “I want your house. I want you to hang around for a while. Nessa chose you and she wants you to hang around, too. Among other reasons.”
“Not good enough,” I growled at him through clenched teeth, amazing myself at my bravery. “Tell me the real reason.”
“Ok, you got me,” Stone said, good humoredly. “See, years ago, when your mom and dad bought the farm, they didn’t know the value it really holds for me and mine. There are catacombs underneath that property that have been part of my family for generations on end. So far back you could not even calculate it. We’ve been gone for a long time, but now I’m back, and I want what’s mine. It was never yours. Never your parents’, either. And it never belonged to anyone else who falsely held a deed,” he sneered at the word, “to that house and the surrounding lands.”
“I sold most of the land,” I said.
“I know. You sold all the land to me and mine. We are everywhere, now. Taking over you useless humans one by one. Your parents can tell you all about it later. But for now, I want you to say yes. Just say yes. And I’ll make your death quick and painless. Fight me, and you’ll suffer for weeks before you finally join us.”
“Who is ‘Us’?” I asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” Nessa said from directly behind me. “All you need to know, Slick, is we’re not vampires.”
I laughed then. Real amusement echoing in the darkened room. “Vampires? Seriously? You want me to believe in vampires?”
“No,” Nessa said. “I want you to believe we’re NOT vampires. But if it makes it easier for you, you can think of us as one of the undead. That does apply, in a weird way.”
“Nessa…” Stone grumbled in warning.
“Sorry boss,” she said, and came around to my right side to stand beside me. Immediately, I felt less cornered.
“You’re out in the light,” I said.
“Light? I like light,” Stone said. “I like the sun, too, though I have to admit it does slow me down some. I like the night life. I like to boogie.” He sang the last part and grinned at me, silver eyes glinting malevolently.
“I told you, Slick, we’re NOT vampires,” Nessa said wearily. “Are you really that thickheaded?”
“What are you then?” I asked.
“Ancient,” Stone replied. “Ancient and not something you want to fuck with. So, are you in? Or, are you out? Either way, let’s get started.” He rubbed his hands together in clear anticipation.
“Wait,” I said. “I want to talk to my parents first.”
“Nope. Not until afterward. Already told ya that,” Stone said evenly.
I thought long and hard. I wanted to live. I wanted to live more than I’d wanted that beer when I’d first set foot inside this awful place. I wanted to go back to my dull job and my boring life no matter what it took. But if I couldn’t have those things, I did, desperately, want to keep my life my own.
I began to look around, trying to think of a way I might escape. I was too far from the external door. I didn’t think I could make it. But just as I began to contemplate escape, a shrieking ululation came from the back room. High pitched and awful. Worse than nails down a chalk board. I covered my ears automatically in response. Glasses on the bar began to shatter and both Stone and Nessa lost their focus on me.
“Dammit!” Nessa said, and left my side to run toward the back room.
“SHUT THEM UP!” Stone hollered after her.
I didn’t think. I just ran. Ran for the door and barged out into the bright sunlight thanking God it was still bright daylight outside. There were no cars in the parking lot, so, I just took off at top speed, grateful for all the monotonous hours in the gym. The Red Barn was six miles from the farm, and I knew I probably wouldn’t make it, but I had to try!
I pushed, hard. My legs pumping under me, screaming at the effort. I didn’t stop to look behind me and was just on the verge of stopping, just on the cusp of breaking down and giving up, when I rounded a curve and saw the farmhouse off to the right. It was less than a quarter mile away. I had to make it. I HAD to!
I ran again. As fast as I could, my strength fading quickly, my heart pumping hard, my breathing becoming ragged, and made it to my little house. I dashed inside, grabbed my wallet, my passport, took time to stuff a few random pieces of clothing into a duffle bag, snagged my keys and was back outside running for the barn less than five minutes later. I wanted the truck. It wasn’t much for gas mileage, and it was more than familiar to the locals, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be as familiar to Them…whatever they were.
The truck coughed to life and I screeched out of the barn, pushing pedal to the metal, my only thought to get as far away from the farmhouse as I could. Knowing I’d never be able to go back, but not able to spare a thought for the loss of that, too. Somehow, I got lucky.
I’m in Rio right now. Things have been quiet. Stone and Nessa almost caught up with me in San Diego two months ago, but luck stayed with me and I managed to slip away from them again. They’re pissed at me and they’re not going to stop. They’ve made that abundantly clear. I don’t know what I’ll become when they catch up with me, because they will. Especially after I publish this. Like I said, I’m in Rio right now, and I’m staying in Rio. After two years of looking over my shoulder, I’m tired.
Am I giving up? Hell no. Well, maybe a little, I suppose. But the bottom line is I want you all to know that there are worse things out there than debt, government conspiracies, and lab rats. Worse than losing your mother and your father and your home. And you’ve got to keep your eyes open! You’ve got to watch, people! Watch!
For eyes that glow silver in the dark of night and teeth as sharp as razor blades.
Do I regret my life? Yeah, I kinda do. I know I could have done so much more with it. I would have, too, if I hadn’t run into Nessa.
For me, it comes down to Nessa and that first beer she passed over the counter to me. I lied when I said I’d only gone back for my wallet. I’d gone back to make a go at Nessa, too. Even though I was pretty sure she’d laugh in my face. But, apparently, she wanted me, too. And now, that’s why she and Stone have been dogging my every turn for the last twenty-seven months.
She wants me. And she’ll turn over every stone in her path until she finds me.
I realize now it was my parents in the back room of the building in the woods. My parents making all that awful noise, as a distraction, so I could run. At least that’s what I think, anyway.
So, for my friends, I guess I just want to say sorry. I know you don’t believe me. That it will be easier for you to believe I’d bolted out of grief. But, though that’s partially true, I ran to save my life.
Now, I’ll die to save yours.
CREDIT : Jennifer Shell