A young man banged down the gavel with a loud clack. He wore a slim suit that caught the light like oiled cloth, heavy and wet. The murmur and snickers quieted down, and the young man pointed his gavel down toward the nearly empty benches of the town hall, straight at the only man in the room with wrinkles painting his face.
The young man's lip snarled up. "Alright." He read a name from the paper in front of him—"Mr. Kostic"—he put the paper down. "You may speak now. Please, tell us why the city should not make better use of that forgotten plot of land with its fire hazard of an old barn. You have five minutes."
The old man, Mr. Kostic, stood up from his place in the front row of seats and gazed around the room. He gripped his tattered, woolen flat cap, the color of roasted coffee, and wrung it in his fists. The town hall sure was a sight to see; it was dazzling, like a movie set. Every surface was bright, shiny, polished, with white paint, chrome doorknobs and light fixtures, cherry wood tables, and white marble floors shot through with veins of black. Rooms like this were built for stars; Ingrid Bergman or Katharine Hepburn clutched onto the arm of James Stewart or maybe Humphrey Bogart as they stared into one another's eyes and whispered.
As for the old man, he felt out of place, like a relic from another time. He tore his gaze from the shining room and looked down at himself; his hands were gnarled and rough, his skin the color of leather that had seen too much sun, his thick denim overalls had hand-sewn repairs, repairs he had done himself, poorly, after his wife died over a decade ago. Even his boots were caked with manure on the side. He tried to stand up straight, but no matter how hard he tried these days, he couldn't help but hunch over.
Mr. Kostic had made a promise a long time ago, and he would keep it. He nodded to himself and began to speak. "Well, sir, that old barn means the world to me. I grew up there, and my daddy, and his daddy before. Those days were hard. We tilled the fields from sun up to sun down; only ate what we could grow or trade with our nearest neighbors, who were a few walking miles up the road—"
The smirking young man interrupted, his high-pitched voice pierced across the room and over the old man's words. "You grew up in a barn? I can see how that would be important, of course! Wow, yes, that is something. You know, in America, we have these things called houses; you should look into them." The young man waved his hand dismissively, "Thank you for your time Mr.—" he trailed off and flipped through papers, searching—"Mr. Whatever, let's take a vote—"
Mr. Kostic, his voice sharp with anger, shouted as best he could with the windpipes he had damaged from years of smoking; he never should have started—if only they had known. "Sir, with all due respect, I am not done. My family immigrated here over a hundred years ago by boat from the Austrian Empire; half of us fell sick and died on the trip. I am an American citizen. You, sir, can afford me my five minutes."
The young man pulled up the sleeve of his oily cloth suit and checked his watch, then sighed. "Fine. Three minutes. But I have to remind you that your benevolent local government is offering you fair market value to purchase that plot. We have a highway to expand, and the state of Colorado has deadlines to meet. You are the only one who has not agreed to sell."
"I don't need the money," Mr. Kostic said. "It's the memories. They're all I have now. I'm the last of my line, sir; all of my family is gone; all my friends too. I don't live there. I have a house. But, I visit it all the time. It's where we used to have dances in the spring, fireworks in the summer, and hayrides in the fall. It's a family heirloom; places like that should be a national treasure. Isn't there any other way? Can't it be made a historic building?"
The young man laughed. "You've got to be kidding. That dilapidated shack? A national treasure?" His laughter roared across the town hall. "Come on, seriously? It's not a national treasure or a historic landmark; it's not even safe! Now listen, we don't even need a vote; we're all in agreement here anyway. Your land will be seized, that barn will be destroyed. You old folks need to learn that you can't get in the way of progress just to keep things the way they were." He slammed his gavel down once, and the few people who cared enough to come watch began to stand up and shuffle out of the room.
Mr. Kostic frowned—he had failed to keep his promise. It was all about to go so wrong. His grandad had made a solemn oath, then passed the promise down to his dad, then he had carried on that promise. Now, there was no one to pass the promise onto after his son had died in the jungle years ago, halfway across the world.
It was the promise to their family friend, the tall man with the thick mustache and deep eyes. He had shown them wondrous things, coming up with new bits and bobs in that barn, lightning flashing out from the window every night. One night, according to Mr. Kostic's daddy, that tall man's eyes had turned to fear. He was never the same after. For months, that man had shut himself up in the barn, coming out only for food and water, trembling like the old folks' disease.
Mr. Kostic lifted his head. "I'm glad I'm old, and I'm glad all my kin are gone. I won't have to witness what will become of this world. I'm sorry."
The young man in the slick suit laughed and walked out the door, shaking his head.
The old man, Mr. Kostic, was sorry. Nothing was going to be the same. He made his way toward the door slowly, with his crooked gait. If they were going to tear the place down anyway, he might as well go there himself. Be a man and own up to his failure. He would go open that broad, red door, unchain its terrifying secret, and be the first to go. That was the least he could do, having broken his promise.
At last, it would awake and lay claim with its own eminent domain.
Originally published in my weekly newsletter Into Horror History. Subscribe at my website https://www.jahernandez.com to get these straight to your inbox.
About the author
J.A. Hernandez enjoys horror, playing with cats, and hiding indoors away from the sun. Also, books. So many books—you wouldn't believe.
He runs a weekly newsletter called Into Horror History and writes fiction.