They brought me inside out of the weather but it was nearly five minutes before I could speak coherently.
While I rocked and cried to myself, my mother sat at my feet, holding my hands, rubbing them with her own. She kept glancing over my shoulder towards our front porch where my father stood at the window, staring out at the yard, watching the driveway. Finally he came to the kitchen, setting the big shotgun in a corner before pulling a chair close to my own. He studied me for a time, his eyes calm behind his glasses. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and steady.
“Tell us what happened, Lane.”
“I…I drop…dropped the groceries.”
“That’s okay. What was that chasing you?”
“I don’t know.” I looked up into my father’s face. There was always comfort there when I needed it, always a kind word or some type of wisdom from him.
But now there was a hint of fear.
All at once relief flooded through me as I realized something. “You saw it too,” I said. “You sh…shot at it.”
My father stood from the chair and made his way to the kitchen sink and drew himself a glass of water. He drank it down and turned to face us.
“What was it, David?” my mother asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“But you shot at it,” she insisted. “You must know what it was. A bear? Cougar?”
“It wasn’t either of those,” I said, and when I looked at my father for confirmation, his silence was all the assurance I needed. He had seen it too. “It climbed out of a puddle on the road and chased me,” I said, spitting the words out like something sour. “It said it was going to eat me up.”
“What?” My mother rose from in front of me, her eyebrows drawn down. “What do you mean ‘it came out of a puddle’?”
“That doesn’t make any sense, son,” my father said.
“I know, but that’s the truth.” I nearly told them about the goat then, but didn’t. I had evidence on my side now—my father had seen something even if he didn’t understand it. But if I started spouting off about a talking two-headed goat, that he’d killed himself, I was sure it would stretch their belief too far.
“David, tell me what you shot at,” my mother said in her stern voice she typically reserved for me when I’d forgotten a chore.
“It was long and slender,” he said. “Big hands…”
“Big hands? Neither of you are making sense.”
I gazed down at my palms and glanced out of the window at the storm that was in full swing now. Water ran from the eaves of our barn and dripped from the corner of the porch roof.
“If you shot it then where is it?” my mother continued.
“It was there and then it wasn’t,” my father said almost to himself. “Lane, is there anything else you want to tell us?” I shook my head. “Okay. You go to your room and lie down. We’ll call you when supper’s ready.”
I got up and walked to my room as if in a dream. Inside I struggled out of my soaking clothes and crawled into bed wearing only my skivvies. Shivers ran through me and I curled into a ball. My parents’ voices, low but severe, drifted to me, and even though I knew they were arguing, it was a comforting sound. I must’ve fallen asleep because sometime later my mother shook me awake for supper.
The kitchen held the rich smell of fried chicken and baking powder biscuits. My father was already seated at the table when I sat down and I noticed the butter I’d dropped in the driveway was on the platter. He must’ve walked back and got it. It frightened me to think of him tracing my steps alone back to where I’d let the groceries fall.
“Dad, did you see any prints behind mine?”
“No. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, though, because the rain had nearly washed yours away by the time I went outside.”
“And you didn’t see anything else?”
“No. And let’s not discuss this anymore in front of your mother. She’s worried enough as it is.”
I nodded as she came to the table carrying a bowl of mashed potatoes and sat down. Our dinner was eaten in relative silence, broken only by the request to pass a dish or ask for more milk. Afterwards I helped wash the dishes, throwing glances out to the porch where my father sat with a small glass of whiskey. None of us commented on the fact that he’d brought the shotgun out with him.
I went to bed early, exhaustion weighing me down like a pair of bricks around my neck. When I closed my door for the night my father was still on the porch sipping his drink, looking down our driveway. And I couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable outline of a turkey buzzard perched in the tallest pine tree.
Morning arrived with a welcome blade of sun that pierced the edge of my blinds.
For a moment everything seemed normal in that middle ground between sleeping and full wakefulness. But then the events of the day before rushed back in, filling me with a sickening dread. What was happening?
The question hit me like a hammer. In the years since that spring I’ve learned that when you’re in the thick of any situation, a human being can simply deal with what’s occurring. People are remarkable creatures in that sense. The reasonable portion of our brain shuts down and the part that keeps us moving forward takes over. It’s the only way many of us stay alive and sane.
But at the tender age of fourteen I was terribly aware of the events and my young mind couldn’t wrap itself around them. In the end I simply got dressed and readied myself for school because no matter what supernatural situation I found myself in, Mrs. Shawler’s patience only went so far.
My father drove me to school that morning. He told me he had business with one of the Hudsons, but I suspect his reasons had much more to do with the smell of cordite that still emanated from the shotgun in the porch.
On the way I told him about Sara May’s request from her father, and he gave me permission to walk to the Tandy farm after school as long as Jones was going as well. Even with the possibility of seeing Sara outside of school I was still filled with an unease that sickened me. I jumped when a pheasant burst out of cover beside the road as we passed and couldn’t meet my father’s eyes when he dropped me outside the school.
Jones was waiting for me in the entryway, a stem of grass pinched in the corner of his mouth.
“Mornin’,” he said, watching me hang my coat and school bag up.
“And here I thought between my wit and Sara May’s most pleasant company, you’d look better today. Guess I was wrong. You’re still pale.”
“And you’re still an asshole.”
“Least I’m consistent,” he said, leading the way toward our desks. I dropped into mine, weariness a physical weight in my bones. “You got my attention. Spill it,” Jones said. “What’s eating you?”
His words nearly made me cringe. Eatcha up. “Nothing. Might be coming down with a cold. Got rained on last night.”
“Hope you don’t miss out on work this afternoon. Then I’ll not only have to take your wage but it’ll just be me and Sara to pass the time in the field.”
“That I do.”
“Well, don’t get your heart set on it. I’ll be able to work.”
Sara May entered the room then and some of the dread I was carrying bled away at the sight of her. She was wearing a white dress and her hair was tied back in a ponytail. She smiled in our direction and took her seat at the front of the class. Mrs. Shawler wasn’t far behind and soon we were immersed in arithmetic, history, and grammar.
The school day slid by slowly, the sun making its way up past the windows and out of sight as it climbed to its apex in the sky. By all accounts it was a perfect spring day: not too humid, as the storm had washed most of the moisture out of the air, and not too cool.
When Mrs. Shawler dismissed us that afternoon the memories from the night before had dimmed somewhat. In the warm sunshine, waiting by the road for Jones and Sara May, they didn’t seem quite as vivid or real and I was grateful.
The Tandys lived a half mile south of Ellis Wilmer’s farm on County 7, and after Jones and Sara joined me we walked there, three young people side by side, us boys chucking rocks into the woods every so often, Sara walking in her serene way on the shoulder, commenting on several songbirds perched in the blossoming trees.
She seemed different then, and even now I don’t think it was because of what was going to happen to her in the days to come, what was already happening to her. I don’t know what helped her open up to us that spring but I think it might’ve been a nudge from something none of us could see or fathom. Something that might’ve known what was coming and thought we might need the bond that is so special and ephemeral in children of our age. I like to believe it’s so because there’s always two sides to a coin, and there is no true evil without something good to balance it out.
Even though my parents were quite cordial with Sara’s, I had never set foot in her house, never even been up on its porch in all my years. So when Sara went inside to fetch her father, I took a long look at the Tandy home.
It was two stories and painted a nice shade of faded red with white shutters. The long, wraparound porch put our own to shame and the brand new swing mounted at its far end swayed in the light breeze without a sound.
“It’s nice out here,” Jones said, reading my thoughts. “Peaceful. They got the best plot of land in all of the county.”
“It’s nearly the biggest plot too.”
“Makes our place look like hell.” Jones pulled his shirt away from his chest and sniffed. “Damn. Do I smell like cow shit?”
“You didn’t even smell me.”
“Don’t have to. You always smell like cow shit.”
“Come on, Lane, quit bustin’ my balls here.” He lowered his voice. “I took a fall last night in the barn and hit a wet patch of shit on all fours. Got it in my face, on my chest, in my hair. And to top it off we didn’t have enough hot water for a bath. Had to scrub with that God-awful lye soap that Nimble can’t give away ‘cept to my pa, in some cold water. I couldn’t believe the horseshit timing.”
By then I was doubled over in silent gales of laughter, but managed to turn my head toward him and say, “Not horseshit timing, cow shit timing.”
Jones was winding up to blast me in the mouth when the porch door opened and Nathan Tandy stepped outside with Sara behind him.
Everything about Nathan Tandy was compact. His head was almost completely bald and his features were scrunched together, but instead of making him look simple it gave him a shrewd appearance. Along with how powerfully he was built through the chest and back, he cut an imposing figure. Sara looked diminutive by comparison. She had changed into a pair of gray pants and a chambray work shirt. I thought she looked just as beautiful as in her dress.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Mr. Tandy said.
“Afternoon, sir,” Jones and I said in unison.
“Sara tells me you both know how to work.”
“Sure do,” Jones said.
“Good. I got quite a few acres to clear and I want to be able to plant this fall. If you both work out I might talk to your parents about keeping you on longer than this summer since the crops’ll be more than we’ll be able to handle next spring. Couple things before we get started. Be mindful of Winnie, my big workhorse. She’s not partial to strangers and she can kick something fierce, so don’t walk behind her. There’s a few old wells behind the barn and house from the last homestead. They’re covered up but keep an eye out for them. As far as pay goes, I’ll give you each fifty cents for every afternoon, paid before you leave and you’re free to stay for supper if we work late. I want you boys working with Heely, my mule. You’ll start on the east side of the field and I’ll take Winnie to the west. Sara’s gonna pick rocks and run for any tools we need. Sound good?”
“Yes, sir,” we answered.
“Good. Let’s go.”
Mr. Tandy led us to his barn and got us outfitted with Heely and his harness as well as several lengths of rope and a stout chain for pulling the stumps. He handed us each a razor-sharp, two-bitted axe before helping Sara May get Winnie, their white workhorse set up.
“Next spring I’m planning on getting a tractor. Not that I don’t love you, girl,” Tandy said, patting the horse on the side, “but farming’s all about production and tractors are the wave of the future.”
I was listening absently to him as Jones and I began to lead Heely out of the barn, but I was struck by how much Sara May was helping with the horse’s tack. For some reason I’d never pictured her in the fields working with her father. She caught me staring as Jones and I left the barn and my face heated up.
The field we were working on was to the right behind the barn, about a quarter mile from the main yard. There were dozens of stumps sticking up from the rich soil, their tops sawed within a few feet of the ground. Rocks were also prevalent, some as big as a fist while others looked to weigh more than Jones and I combined.
We started on the farthest stump we could find to the east of the clearing while Mr. Tandy led Winnie to the opposite side of the field. Sara carried a shovel and a five-gallon pail, which she started to fill with the rocks she could pry from the dirt.
If you’ve never pulled a stump by hand beneath the flaming gaze of the sun, it’s not something you’d forget. It is hard, hard work. First the roots must be dug free and chopped as they’re exposed. Then whatever you’re using to pull the stumps has to be lashed to the trunk. Once the stump starts to move in the hole you’ve made, the best route is to try and cut the taproot. The taproot normally extends from the very bottom of the stump and not only holds the most, it’s the toughest to get at.
Jones and I worked as hard or harder than Heely that afternoon. Sweat poured from us. Jones, being completely unselfconscious, pulled his shirt off and continued to work while I sweated through mine, very aware of Sara’s gaze whenever she would turn our way. I saw her look at Jones several times as we worked and a spike of jealousy ran through me. Jones was a farm boy, same as me, but his father worked him harder than my own did. Thus his muscles were slightly more defined than mine and I wondered if Sara May was comparing us. I was still brooding on this when we pulled the first stump free and Sara approached us with a pitcher of ice-cold water.
“Thank you,” I said, taking a long drink from the tin pitcher.
“You’re welcome,” she said, taking the water from me when I was done and handing it to Jones. She was smiling the whole time and I felt the jealousy rise again when her eyes traveled down Jones’s torso but had to choke off a laugh when her nose wrinkled slightly. Cow shit has a staying power that few can miss.
The afternoon carried on that way and Jones and I managed to break another stump free as the sun was beginning to touch the tree line in the west. Sara was working on a particularly large rock, and even with the sweat that was dripping from me, my bladder had become painfully full from all the water we’d drank.
“Be right back,” I said to Jones as he guided Heely toward the next stump in the line. He nodded and began shoveling as I walked toward the nearest tree to relieve myself.
The forest beyond the clearing was quiet as I stood there looking at the dappled layer of dead leaves from the prior fall. My muscles ached but in a good way that told me I had gained strength since last winter. I finished relieving myself and was about to turn back to where Jones was waiting when I saw movement between the trees.
My brother Danny walked through the forest, his blond hair ruffled by the breeze.
I staggered back and bumped into the tree behind me. My jaw loosened and the strength went out of my legs.
It couldn’t be Danny. It couldn’t. I was seeing things. My hands came to my eyes and I rubbed them, sure that I was suffering from heatstroke, but when I looked again he was still there, heading steadily on his little legs toward the side of the barn. He was wearing the overalls he had played in nearly every day when he was alive and his arms were held out in the way I remembered he walked.
When he was nearly even with the rear of the barn he stopped and looked over his shoulder at me before continuing out of sight.
As if in a dream I walked through dead grass that reached past my thighs and followed the path Danny had taken. This wasn’t happening. I assured myself that it couldn’t be. It was one thing to hear a dead goat speak and see something climb from a rain puddle, but it was quite another to watch your deceased younger brother stroll through the edge of a forest.
I paused as I entered the yard, not seeing where he’d gone for a moment.
There, around the back of the house, a glimpse of his small form. He was carrying something.
I ran after him, his name pounding in my head, whispered between breaths. How? How could it be? I had attended his funeral, watched the grief nearly crush my mother and father like a giant stone, wept my own tears for the brother I would never see grow up.
Somewhere far behind me Jones was calling my name, but I didn’t stop.
When I rounded the side of the house, Danny was standing in the dead grass off the backyard. Its golden stems hid him to the waist and it was only when he raised his arm could I see what he’d been carrying.
The gas can was a bright red with yellow letters painted on its side. The cap was off, I could see it plain as day in the late afternoon sunshine.
Danny lifted the can up and dumped the gasoline over his head, drenching himself.
“Danny! What are you doing?” I hobbled forward, terror and disbelief hamstringing my strides. He looked at me, dark eyes sad and maybe reproachful. He dropped the empty can at his feet and dug in his pocket, his little hand coming out holding a long stemmed matchstick.
I ran then. Pelted forward with abandon. I could save him, save him this time as I couldn’t from the fever that took him before. This was a second chance.
“I burned up, Lane,” he said then. “It was so hot.”
“Danny stop!” I was a dozen steps away.
He popped the matchstick alight with his thumbnail.
I dove toward him, knowing it was too late.
The impact was monumental. All air left my lungs and the rough, dead grass cut at my face and hands as I skidded through it, through the place where Danny had been. I came to a stop and sat up, sure that he would be an immolated pillar behind me, burning hotter than the fever that had killed him.
Danny was gone.
I sat, dumbfounded on the ground, head barely level with the grass tops. Alone. The breeze shifted the trees behind me. A chicken cackled somewhere in front of the house. Jones yelled my name.
I climbed to my feet and a soft cracking came from below me, the spongy quality of the ground registering somewhere in my subconscious before Mr. Tandy’s words came back, sudden and clear.
There’s a few old wells behind the barn and house from the old homestead. They’re covered up but keep an eye out for them.
The rotted wood of the well cover gave way beneath me and I fell.