I’ve heard people say that if you’re going to die, your life flashes before your eyes and everything happens in slow motion.
Time slows, not really the actual ticking of the clock, but our perception of it. Our minds speed up, synapses firing faster than light, images and thoughts there and gone in a fraction of a heartbeat. The brain can stretch time.
But it didn’t happen that afternoon in May.
I fell quickly and surely down. No time to think or ask questions. It was simply gravity doing its unending work.
But just as fast as I fell, my hands were out in the quickness that youth holds for a while. They latched over the rim of the old well and I slammed into the side, all the air going out of me.
Jones yelled my name again in the world outside, but I couldn’t answer him. All my strength was used in gripping my little handhold. My feet scrabbled against the well’s wall, slick with condensation and decay. Somewhere below me there was a splash of some debris falling. Or maybe it was something moving down there in the dark. The latter possibility gave me new strength.
With a heave, I yanked myself up and got my chest over the edge of the pit and didn’t stop straining and crawling until I was free of the well. I drew my feet out just as heavy footfalls approached from the direction of the field.
Mr. Tandy was there, his strong hands beneath my armpits, dragging me back farther from the well. Jones stood in the yard, eyes wide, mouth open like a fish.
And beside him was Sara. Beautiful Sara looking stricken and sick.
Mr. Tandy stood me up and spun me around to face him. “What the hell you think you were doing, boy?”
“I…I thought I saw something.”
“I don’t know. Something in the grass. I came to look and the cap broke.”
“Damned fool. Didn’t I tell you that? Didn’t I tell you there were wells?” Mr. Tandy sighed and deflated a bit. He wasn’t really mad. Not really. He was scared. A child in danger is the worst kind of fear an adult can experience, and I’d done this to him.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Tandy. I shouldn’t have left the field.”
He considered something for a moment, then shook his head. “It’s all right. I’ve been meaning to put heavier covers on these bastards for some time now. It’s my fault really.” He smacked me on the shoulder in a kind way and moved toward the well. I looked at Jones and Sara but really all I could see was Danny pouring the gasoline over his head and popping the match alight.
“Are you okay, Lane?” Sara asked.
“Fine,” I lied. “I’m fine.” Jones tried to meet my eyes but couldn’t. Sara searched for something else to say as her father grunted and lifted what remained of the well cover back into place. I wondered what I’d see then if I walked to the pit’s edge and looked down. Would there just be infinite darkness, as if the well went all the way through the earth? Or would I see Danny’s face down there looking back up at me.
I shuddered and started across the yard. Sara turned as well and I caught a glimpse of her neck again since she’d tied her hair back with the heat. The dark mark I’d seen the day before was larger. She glanced at me and I lowered my eyes, not looking up again until we’d reached the stump we were working on. I picked up my shovel and began uncovering the roots and didn’t speak to anyone else again that afternoon.
I didn’t even tell Jones about the spot on the back of Sara’s neck that looked like a hand.
The trouble with being a family is when something terrible is bothering one of its members, it’s liable to bother everyone else as well.
Family is strong. One of the strongest things I can think of. But the weakness is the love that’s shared within it. We care so much sometimes that it can break us.
So when I arrived home that first day after working in Sara May Tandy’s field, I didn’t breathe a word about seeing Danny to my father or mother. I couldn’t. Firstly, I didn’t want to see the stricken looks on their faces by saying his name, and secondly, I’d never worn a straightjacket, but didn’t think I’d fancy it either.
So I kept my mouth shut.
The turkey buzzard was in its customary tree that night when I stepped outside after helping clean supper up. I started to wonder if it had died and only rigor mortis was keeping it clamped in place. I hoped so.
As I was staring it down, the screen door opened and shut and I heard the clink of a glass setting down.
“You want to talk to me, son?”
My father was sitting in his favorite rocker on the porch. A little glass of whiskey rested on the railing beside him, and I was glad to see he hadn’t brought the twelve gauge out as well.
“About what?” I asked.
“About what’s bothering you. Your mom and I can see it from a mile away.”
“I’m okay. Maybe a little tired.”
“Natural to be tired, you worked hard today. I remember what a time we had pulling some of the bigger stumps with my dad for the north field. It was real hell I’ll tell you.” When I didn’t say anything he shifted in his chair and gazed out at the early dusk. “Still thinking about what happened yesterday?”
I nodded even though I wasn’t really. Really it was a culmination of everything. How did you tell your father that you were afraid you might be going insane and absolutely terrified that you weren’t?
“Strange things happen, son. It’s not uncommon to bump into them from time to time. And sometimes bad accompanies the strange. That’s what makes it scary. But you don’t need to worry. Most things are harmless.”
“What if they aren’t?”
He seemed to consider this. “Then we fight, son. We fight.”
I felt the well cap give way beneath my feet again and finally asked myself the question that had been nagging me all evening. Did Danny try to kill me? Or Danny’s ghost, his energy, whatever you want to call it. Did he blame me somehow and had come back to make sure I got my comeuppance?
Or was it something that just looked like Danny?
Regardless, my father’s words were well-meaning but ultimately uncomforting. Whatever it was, either in my mind or tangible, it wanted to hurt me.
We went to bed early that night and, even though my body ached and I was as tired as I’d ever been, sleep eluded me each time I closed my eyes. I had gotten the uncanny feeling that something had been behind Danny’s closed door in the hall when I’d gone to bed earlier, and that sensation was still strong, hanging in the air of my room like a cloistering gas.
Each time I would begin to sink into sleep some noise would wake me. A creak or a crack that normally wouldn’t have registered at all was now a footfall, a turned doorknob. I held my breath so many times listening as the night wore on, my lungs began to hurt.
I’m not sure when I fell asleep but I came awake shortly before dawn, the gray tinge of light barely tainting the dark. I was on my side, facing the door when my eyes snapped open and I realized that I could see the blanket on Danny’s bed across the hall.
Not only was my door open but so was his.
My skin crawled.
Slowly I pivoted my head, forcing my eyes to focus in the dimness, forcing them to see. My fourteen-year-old mind told me that if I appeared to be still asleep, I’d be safe.
As my eyes adjusted I saw there was something on the floor of my room. Many somethings. Little heaps of dirt spaced evenly apart.
Small muddy footprints.
And they led to the foot of my bed.
I drew my feet up under me, knowing that at any second a cold hand would slide beneath the blanket and seize them. My breathing was heavy and erratic, there was no pretending I was still asleep. I had to look, had to know.
With a quick movement I sat up and snapped on my bedside light.
My floor was clean and clear, just as I’d left it the night before.
The door was shut tight.
Silence save for my breathing.
I collapsed back on the bed, not sure if I was relieved or more frightened. Had I been dreaming? My sleep-addled eyes sending the wrong messages to my brain?
I sniffed the air.
A horrid stink had filled the room, the smell of meat rotting in an enclosed space.
Like a coffin.
Somewhere else in the house came the sound of quiet laughter. But it was loud enough to know I was meant to hear it.