When I was little, my mom bought a defunct old ranch in Kern County, about halfway between Bakersfield and Tehachapi. It was the most exciting thing my five-year-old self had ever seen. Oak trees and rolling hills surrounded us at every turn. If you stood at the top of the tallest hill, you could see the patchwork of farmland and orange orchards on one side, and the mountains on the other. At the time, a little creek cut through the property, so clear and clean you could count every stone at the bottom.
Our fields had long since given way to weeds, sage, and wildflowers, but the weathered remnants of hog pens and stables remained.
The farmhouse, of course, took pride of place: fully restored and three stories high, with wooden shutters, a fireplace in every bedroom, and an overgrown garden that made me squeal with delight.
My room was the best part of the house: a cozy little square in the basement with a wooden floor, old-fashioned teddy bear wallpaper, and my very own fireplace. Long, narrow windows along the ceiling provided a close-up of the flower gardens.
To celebrate our first night in the new house, my mom built me a fire and slept beside me in my bed. She fell asleep immediately; I, on the other hand, was too excited to close my eyes.
Eventually, though, the comforting crackle of the fire and my mom’s steady breathing lulled me into a sleepy haze.
Just as I was drifting off, I heard a voice.
“Hello, little one.”
I opened my eyes.
“I’m Barry,” the voice continued. It sounded muffled, as if coming from behind a wall or under a blanket. “I see you like my old room.”
I frowned. “Hmm?”
“I used to live here. Right in this room. I suppose I still do.” The voice was warm and gentle, and somehow old-timey; it made me think of wood cabins and Conestoga wagons.
I blinked sleepily. The teddy bear wallpaper came into focus. In my dreamy state, I associated the bears with the voice; after all, wouldn’t teddy bears sound warm and gentle?
“Oh…I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Well, you did,” I whispered irritably.
“I am sorry to hear that. How can I make it up to you?”
The wallpaper danced before my eyes. A hundred little bears floating away on faded balloons. A hundred little bears, wondering how to apologize.
“I know! I’ll tell you a bedtime story!”
“Okay,” I droned.
Barry delved quickly into a poetic tale of an elf prince and his human love. I don’t remember the story, but I remember how it made me feel: desperately sad and somehow cheated.
I drifted to sleep with tears pricking my eyes.
The next day, my mom and I had busy day. So busy, in fact, that I forgot all about my teddy bear storyteller.
Until I was on the cusp of sleep that night, fantasizing about drifting through the silvery night sky on a cluster of balloons.
“Hello, little one,” Barry said in his rich, kind voice.
I tried desperately to ignore him, to fall into a dream of moonlit balloon flights, but it was too late. “Stop waking me up!” I covered my head with my pillow. This was a mistake; the cold underside woke me even further.
“I’m sorry,” Barry said, sounding sad. “I know it isn’t kind. I’m just very lonely.”
His sorrow punctured my irritation, deflating it like the balloons I was so desperate to dream of. “Why are you lonely?”
“Everyone left me, a long time ago, little one. I’ve been alone much longer than you’ve been alive.”
“I’m sorry,” I said in a small, embarrassed voice.
“I know it’s silly,” he continued, “but I spend all my time thinking up stories. I suppose I’ve always hoped that a child would one day come along to hear them. And here you are!” For a moment his voice was a bright, shining bubble, golden and warm. Then it faded and shriveled into something cold. “But you don’t want to hear them.”
“I do, though!” I snuggled deeper under the blankets. “Tell me one now.”
“Do you mean it?”
“I mean it.”
Barry happily segued into a thrilling tale full of magical beasts, fallen gods, and the human monsters who tried to control them.
I drifted to sleep before the end, mind filled with visions of beautiful monstrosities and unlikely saviors.
This was our pattern, night after night. I don’t remember Barry’s stories, but I remember the visions they created: horned shadow gods that exchanged immortality for the blood of countless innocents; magic paintings, flesh-eating genies, and daemons called forth to avenge schoolchildren.
But as the year wore on, Barry’s stories lost their fantasy flair. They became darker, more violent, more real, somehow. One in particular – a story about a bad man who blew half his own face off before stumbling into his bedroom to scare his battered wife one last time – made me cry.
“Don’t you like it?” Barry whined.
The husband’s face filled my mind’s eye: blasted jaw, bloody tatters of skin swinging, bloodshot eyes bulging from his skull. “No,” I sobbed. “It’s scary.”
“Well,” Barry responded coolly. “I’ll just go, and let you be. How’s that?”
The idea of hurting Barry’s feelings – poor Barry, who’d been so alone for so long – hurt my heart. “Please stay.” A sob hiccupped up my chest and broke my words into pieces. “You’re just such a good storyteller, I forgot it was a story.”
“Everything is a story,” he answered nonsensically. “Even you and me. Shall I tell you another?”
He told me of a sick soldier who drowned his children in the creek right outside my house. “And when his wife stumbled upon him, why, she picked up his ax and chopped his head off!”
I stifled a whimper.
“It happened by the hog pens. If you go out there tomorrow, you’ll find that very same ax buried under the forked tree.”
Curiosity and terror clashed all night long.
The next morning, I checked the forked tree. I swept away a thick carpet of curled aspen leaves. There, half-buried in the dirt, was an old, badly rusted ax head.
From that point on, none of Barry’s stories were the least bit fantastical. Each one left me unsettled and panicky. I’d lie awake, staring at the teddy bear wallpaper in hopes that it would ward off nightmares.
Even so, I pretended to like all his stories. On the few occasions I dared to voice my dissatisfaction with a story, Barry would cry.
I didn’t like making him cry.
Spring ceded to summer, and summer darkened to fall. One night in November, as wind came shrieking down the mountain crashed against the house, Barry whispered, “Little one, do you remember the story of the man who blew off his own fool head?”
I whimpered; that man with half a head and dull, bloody eyes popping from his skull haunted my nightmares constantly.
“Do you remember?” he repeated.
“I want to show you that story.”
My guts went squirmy and cold. “I don’t want to hear anymore. I’m sorry.”
“Not hear,” Barry said impatiently. “See. Come here, now.” Quick, skittering scratches erupted over my headboard. I shot up, envisioning rats, bug, or even hail punching through the walls.
Instead, a small patch of wall quivered. It sank, almost like something was sucking it through the other side. Then it popped out like a drywall jack in the box, sending a cloud of white dust into my face.
It was a hole. A tiny little door. Coppery light flickered within. Panic overtook me. Fire.
“Mom!” I wailed.
“Shut up!” Barry hissed. “It’s not fire. Look!”
I tried to scream, but fear paralyzed me. My heart pounded so hard it hurt. Mom wouldn’t believe me. She would be angry. And why not? I’d done this to myself, after all. I’d set myself up as Barry’s only friend.
And on top of it all, she’d be apoplectic if she saw the hole in the wall.
“Hurry and look!” Barry whispered. “You’re going to miss it!”
I blinked back tears and peered through the hole.
It was my room, but different: wood-paneled walls and burnt orange carpet. Tables piled with art supplies ringed the room, and canvases covered the walls.
A woman huddled in the corner, clutching a large painted canvas like a shield. A man sat at a desk across the room. His eyes were large and blank. A handgun lay before him, gleaming.
The lady’s shrill sobs filled the room. Firelight played across her pale hair and turned the tears on her cheeks to embers. She closed her eyes and silently mouthed something – a prayer, perhaps. Then she shot to her feet, still holding the canvas, and ran for the stairs.
The man didn’t move.
The fire popped, sending a shower of sparks into the air. They reflected in his eyes like stars.
A shadow moved behind his head, unfolding like a resurrected spider. No, not behind his head; out of his head.
Long, tangled legs exploded from the back of his head. They curled down around his arms and threaded between his fingers. Then, manipulating him like a puppet, those arms forced him to pick up the gun.
The man’s eyes glittered blankly as the enormous spider legs shoved the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
His eyes widened and bulged out of his head like smooth, bloodshot domes. Blood and bone and spongy curls of tissue splattered the wall. The man’s tongue lolled, swinging wildly over the pulpy, gory hollow where his chin used to be. Then he lurched to his feet and stumbled to the stairs.
I closed my eyes as floorboards creaked and doors slammed. I wept as the woman screamed and a second gunshot rang.
I didn’t open my eyes until the light flicked out.
“Wasn’t that interesting?” Barry asked eagerly. “Wasn’t it good? It’s my third most favorite story!”
I drifted into an uneasy sleep and dreamed of sitting at that desk, watching firelight reflect off the gun.
My mother noticed something was wrong. She chalked it up to the change in weather. I was bursting to tell her the truth, but didn’t know how. It was so awful, so ridiculous. Who would ever believe me?
That night I lay there, wide awake, until Barry came.
“Good evening, my young friend.” Each syllable danced with excitement. “I have a special story for you tonight. A seeing story, not a listening story.”
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. “I don’t want to.”
“Yes you do. Trust me. This is my second most favorite story ever.” He tapped the inside of the wall. Coppery gold light flared to life within the hole. “Look!”
A small, cramped room met my eyes. Flames blazed in the fireplace, reflecting off tools hanging on the wall: saws, shovels, axes.
A sinewy woman worked feverishly at a long table. Sweat sheened her skin. A little boy and an older girl watched from the corner.
The boy was crying; the girl had a blank look on her face. Her eyes were fixed on the table.
I followed her gaze and gasped: a blood-soaked sheet covered a large mound near the woman’s feet. A pale, long-fingered hand protruded from beneath.
The woman moved away from the table, revealing a pile of neatly stacked limbs. A man’s head sat atop like the capstone on a pyramid: ragged and smashed, with a gleaming tail of spine protruding from his neck.
“You will eat,” the woman said quietly. She turned to face the children. I screamed; a crown of wriggling black legs protruded from her forehead. They grew like vines, sliding out of her flesh and flopping onto the floor. “We will all eat now.”
The legs twined around her arms and torso. They bent her over and forced her limp hands to pull the sheet off. A dead girl lay there. It was hard to tell – her head was smashed, her eyes gone – but she resembled the girl in the corner. Same height, same hair, same long hands.
The woman lifted the corpse and rolled it onto the table. “This,” she pronounced, “is the better meat. We will eat it first, and freeze the rest.”
She grabbed her cleaver, so intent on the butchery that she didn’t notice when the girl in the corner stood up.
The boy sniffled. The girl brought her finger to her mouth, shushing him quickly as she crept to the wall. After a moment’s consideration, she chose an ax.
She took a deep breath, spun around and charged at her mother. The ax hit its mark, biting into the back of her head. The dark spider legs went limp, then convulsed.
Then – as the girl chopped away, screaming – the enormous creature exploded out of the woman’s chest. I strained to see it, but the creature was too dark, the light too poor. The girl didn’t seem to notice; she kept chopping, impervious as the thing wrapped itself around her and began to guide her strikes.
Finally the girl backed away, gasping. Blood spattered her face and soaked her hair. Her eyes were large and quite blank.
“Lindy?” the boy whimpered.
She turned and watched him carefully with her flat, expressionless eyes. Then, guided by the spider, she tightened her grip on the ax and lurched forward.
I closed my eyes, plugged my ears and sang loudly to drown out the boy’s screams and the thick, meaty thunk of the ax strikes.
When the light finally died, I flopped back onto my bed and cried.
“There, there,” Barry simpered. “It’s just a story.” Something hissed as it brushed against the drywall. A second later, it touched my skin – sharp and hairy and somehow filthy, caressing my cheek.
I kept my eyes squeezed shut, and cried myself to sleep as that awful, hairy thing stroked my face.
I woke up with swollen scratches across my face. My mother panicked and took me to the emergency room. They wrote it off as self-harm inflicted during night terrors, potentially combined with allergies. Nothing to worry about, they said.
Just something to watch.
I slept in my mom’s bed for weeks. Barry didn’t bother us. For the first time in months, I felt safe.
But one bitterly cold night as wind shrieked and my mother’s fire crackled –
“Where have you been, my little one?” His awful voice came from the wall just overhead. “I’ve missed you so.”
“Please go away,” I whispered.
“Don’t you want to hear my stories?”
“But,” he whimpered, “I’m trapped here. If you I tell enough stories, I get to be free. Don’t you want me to be free?”
I didn’t answer. My mother’s slow breathing filled the room. I wanted to badly to wake her.
But what would I say when I did?
“Just one more,” Barry pleaded.
The wind howled with such ferocity it blasted down the chimney, whipping the fire down toward the hearth.
“Okay,” I whispered.
“Oh, good! It’s my favorite! My very, very favorite! Come see!”
The wall cracked, then opened to reveal a little window. Light flared within. I swallowed a sob and peered inside.
It was my mother’s room: her bed, her clothes piled in the corner, perfume bottles on the mantle. I saw us sleeping: my mom curled on her side, me sprawled.
The wind screamed again. The fire bowed outward. Flames licked the walls.
My sleeping self rolled over. Hair shifted weirdly. I watched, paralyzed, as a hairy black arm sprouted from the back of my head.
It grew like a giant flower vine, slithering across the room to the fireplace where it curled around the logs and convulsed, flinging coals all over the room. Everything caught fire: the rug, curtains, furniture –
On the bed, my eyes opened. They were wide and bright and far too blank.
I tore myself away from the little window, screaming.
But immediately, I began to choke: harsh smoke billowed down my throat, filling my lungs. “Mom,” I coughed. “Mama…” The words came softer and softer, until I wasn’t making any sound at all.
I shook her. She shot up, coughing, and oriented herself quickly. Together we bolted from the house and watched, horrified, as the blaze metastasized.
I saw shadows dancing through the windows. Incredibly long and incredibly thin, like enormous spider legs.
The fire department came and extinguished it quickly.
They found bones in the rubble, so they called for more police backup. My mother was hysterical, even more so when they dragged the remains onto a stretcher. It was hideously deformed, like a particularly absurd Halloween decoration: a dozen enormous arms exploding from a twisted carapace the size of a man, topped with a huge, lumpy skull.
By the time the police arrived, however, it was gone: dissolved, perhaps, into ashes and carried away on the wind. Or maybe never there at all: just an incident of collective hysteria.
I hope that’s the case.
I hope…but I don’t believe.
Because sometimes when I am very angry or very scared, I feel my hair shift: moving too and fro as if displaced by a centipede. Sometimes I reach back. Sometimes there’s nothing – only hair and scalp.
But sometimes I feel hard, hairy sprouts poking out of my skin.
And then I know that Barry will one day tell a story about me.