We were children skipping rocks on a lazy pond. I carefully chose my rocks, smooth and flat, from the shoreline as the younger boys Ricky and Dennis lobbed any stone that they could hold in their 6-year-old palms into the water. Thomas, who was taller but not much older than me put all his weight into rolling a small boulder from the land onto a sinking dock. Water spilled onto the planks as the oversized rock submerged the dock further under the surface.
I think the year was 1958, and it was my 10th summer on the farm. I didn’t see the rest of the boys any other time of the year, but my days spent with them had been some of the best memories of my young life. My mother, the youngest of her siblings, had run after a man out west. He had promised her fame and fortune, as men with little means often do. It wasn’t until he slipped out of her backdoor that she realized he never intended to follow through on his promise. He did leave behind a souvenir that she would spend the rest of her life cherishing; a gangly freckled-faced boy, me.
We stayed out west despite him, but every summer she’d borrow our neighbor’s car and drive me back to her childhood home. I never knew why she didn't stay too, but now I think I do. My Grandmother would greet us on the portico, pulling me into her bosom and smoothing out my hair before sending me to put my bags away. Through the screen door, I overheard my grandmother whisper to my mother that Thomas’ father – my mother’s brother, had gotten drunk one night and put a nail through Thomas’ hand. Since that night, he’d stayed with them on the farm.
“Son of a bitch didn’t even feel bad about it,” my grandmother pursed her lips. “Boys will be boys.”
“You know what they say about apples,” my mother retorted through a narrowed gaze as she walked back down to the car. She searched for me in the window to wave goodbye, but I quickly hid out of shame from eavesdropping. She got in the car and drove away on the dusty road back to the highway. I wouldn’t see her again until fall, I wished I had said goodbye, knowing now that I wouldn't be the same when she returned.
The twins didn’t usually stay the night, their mother and father worked at the factory in town. They got dropped off early in the morning and picked up at bedtime. It was Thomas’ and my job to keep them entertained throughout the day.
I liked staying at the farm, in the mornings we’d feed the animals; the pigs were my favorite as they rooted around in the mud for rotten vegetables and dinner scraps. The rest of the day we could play or explore the acres of land until our feet were dirty and our eyes were tired. As long as we were home by nightfall and stayed away from the old barn at the back of the field, we were the kings of summer.
I held my collection of rocks in a hammock I made from the bottom of my shirt, carefully picking my next rock and skipping it across the water. Ricky and Dennis watched and tried to emulate my movement as they counted each skip that came from my hand. 5 skips had been my record when Thomas finally got his boulder into the pond with a giant splash. Fully dressed, he jumped in after the rock and swam to where the 3 of us played.
“I’m bored,” he declared pulling himself onto the shore. His soggy running shoes squished under his steps as he took a handful of my rocks and began to skip them for himself. “Let’s go check out the barn.”
“We aren’t allowed in the barn,” Dennis reminded him, but being the oldest Thomas was our unspoken leader and if he wanted to go out to the barn then we surely would. Our grandfather was the only one who was allowed out there, he told us that was there he butchered the pigs and there were too many tools that could hurt us, but Thomas told us he thought it was just a cover. We speculated that maybe the barn was haunted, but ghosts weren’t real – or at least I kept telling myself that.
“We can walk down to the cornfield and play hide and seek,” I suggested, placing a new idea for Thomas to latch onto under his nose.
“What’s the matter, Jack?” Thomas taunted. “Are you scared of the ghost?”
I was most certainly not afraid of the ghost, at least not in front of Thomas. If he saw weakness, then he’d home in on it like our grandfather’s dog did when he saw a left-over bone in the pigpen. He wouldn’t stop even if it meant that he and the pigs were bloodied, as long as he got that bone in his mouth; my fear was Thomas’ bone.
I narrowed my eyes at the accusation, “I’m not scared.”
On some level that might have been true, maybe I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to break the rules. I always followed them at home, so why wouldn’t I follow them at the farm, but somewhere in the back of my mind the ghost haunted me.
“Oh yeah,” a chuckle escaped his lips. “Then prove it. Tonight, after we're supposed to be in bed, let’s sneak out. If you can spend the entire night in the barn, then I’ll do all your chores for the rest of the summer.”
I didn’t much like the idea of spending the entire night in the barn, but the idea of not getting up at the crack of dawn piqued my interest. Dennis and Ricky whispered to each other like this was the most thrilling proposition that had ever crossed their eardrums. They turned to me in anticipation of my response. I didn’t want Thomas to call me a baby, so I nodded my head in agreement.
When we got back to the main house, fresh pork chops and mashed potatoes waited for us at the table. We devoured them with the ferocity of growing boys before hatching our plan. We begged our grandmother to go into the kitchen and ring to see if Ricky and Dennis could spend the night. If they stayed, then they could keep watch for us back at the main house as we snuck down to the barn for the night.
My teeth chattered. Because I’m cold, I told myself. The barn itself looked like it had been there longer than any other building on the property. I approached it with hesitation, turning back to see if Thomas was still there. His silhouette crouched down to blend into the tall grass, he had brought a blanket to stay warm, but it was clear that he never expected me to last long because he didn’t bring anything else to make himself comfortable. I wondered if a taunting smile was plastered across his face.
The inside was dark and the smell of coagulated blood on the ground made my stomach churn. Even if the ghost never showed, I didn’t know if I’d last the night thanks to the olfactory assault left behind from the slaughtered pigs. I wished I had brought a lantern from the house, but we hadn’t wanted to be spotted sneaking from our rooms, so we had navigated our way to the barn by moonlight. A patch of stars peeked through a hole in the roof, and I carried myself towards it, my feet sticking to the ground as I walked. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a wooden ladder that led up to a hayloft. Out of curiosity, I began to climb it as a blood-curdling scream let out from the world outside. I froze, unsure if it was the ghost or if Thomas was trying to scare me.
The barn door burst open below and I scattered to the top of the hayloft. Light streamed in from the moon, followed by a lantern illuminating the room. The scream that had cut through me on the ladder quaked out again, bouncing from the ancient wood that held up the walls. My grandfather, who handled the lantern with one arm, entered. In his other hand, he clutched a thick fistful of long black hair. A woman struggled, hogtied on the ground as he pulled her in from the outside and shut the barn door once again.
I gasped and scrambled away from the edge of the hayloft into the dark recesses of the barn. I closed my eyes and tried to get the image of her out of my mind. Blood was smeared across her appendages where the jagged ground, or maybe a knife, had sliced up her body. Her shirt was torn, exposing her breasts. I’d only ever seen breasts once before; our neighbor Mrs. Turnbull had forgotten to close her blinds and I had seen her changing out of her nightgown when walking to school one morning. She saw me and winked as she quickly moved to lower the shades and stop any other peeping tom from looking in. This wasn’t the same, the look of this woman’s breasts wasn’t that of a confident housewife, she was exposed and vulnerable. I wanted to run outside and grab Thomas’ blanket to shield her from my grandfather’s gaze.
“Please, please no…” she gasped as my grandfather’s footsteps moved around the room. I flattened myself on the floor where a hole in a board peaked down below. Against my best judgment, I pressed my eye up to it and watched as my grandfather wielded a hunting knife to her throat and slit it with one swift motion. I watched as blood spilled out onto the ground, the thick crimson liquid dripped down her neck and blocked out the glint of a gold necklace that hung around her neck. Hot tears trickled silently down my cheeks as I watch the life in her eyes slowly blink out of existence. My stomach twisted because I swore, her last sight was my eye staring back at her from above.
I stayed there until the sun came up, only roused after I heard my grandfather shut the barn door. I didn’t waste any time getting out of the barn, the only evidence left behind was fresh blood layered on top of what had already been spilled. I ran into the field to where Thomas had been crouched, only to find his blanket abandoned. I gathered it in my arms, and held it tight as I tried not to burst into tears again.
At the main house, Thomas and the twins were on the portico. They huddled together as I approached, sure that I was dead. Ricky saw me first, he pounded his fist against Thomas’ shoulder who looked up, dark circles under his eyes and the tan that he had been building all summer now paled from horror. He swallowed hard and ran to me, I didn’t expect it, but he hugged me. We stood there embraced for a few moments, knowing what we had seen and soundlessly agreeing to never return to the barn again. We tensed as our grandfather walked out and we were faced with the monster we’d never known we knew.
“Pigs are fed,” the scent of Jim Beam landed heavily on us from his breath. “Just feed the chickens.”
We didn't need to be told twice, the 4 of us ran to the chicken coop as quickly as our feet would take us. The pigs squealed joyously as we zipped past, and they gobbled up their breakfast. A glint caught my eye and I stopped in my tracks. Caked in the mud and hanging from a pig’s mouth was the gold necklace...