Our farm really wasn’t all that big, yet it was big enough for us to find trouble, more often than not.
The “us” I’m using refers to my brother, sister, and I. They’re both older than me – six and five years, respectively – which makes me the baby of the family. As such, I often evaded punishment for our little antics, claiming coercion by force, and I was able to learn much from watching my siblings. My second-hand experience made my mischief effective – I was a good liar and a clever sneak, two qualities that served me well in the battle for independence from my strict parents.
That is not to say that I never found trouble, unfortunately. As I got older, my brother and I especially pushed boundaries often enough that, despite the careful hedging of bets, we still fell victim to an occasional scheme-gone-wrong.
Sometimes, even now, I wonder if it was destiny that we found the trouble in the chicken coop.
It was the one building on the farm that was forbidden to us, which meant it was the one we knew we would find ourselves in eventually.
Dad told us when we were growing up that it was an old chicken coop, and I had no reason to believe that wasn’t true. It was small – not much bigger than dad’s tool shed – and, by the time I was born, consisted of rotting wood that had sagged under years of disuse. It had windows, but the glass was mostly missing, probably from the havoc of the seasonal storms, and what was left was clouded over so badly that it had turned a sick gray. Occasionally, one of us kids would creep close to the coop to try to peek in the windows, only to hear our father’s stern voice threatening a whooping if we “went near that goddamn mess again.” The few times that we were able to peer inside, we were greeted by perfect darkness, as though the holes in the roof didn’t exist, though we all could see them from the right distance.
I found it odd that the coop did little to peak my brother and sister’s interests. They seemed quite content to stay away, but I was fascinated by that perfect darkness, by the thick feeling of the forbidden clouding over everything, by the heavy wooden beam ground in place to seal the door shut.
How could anyone resist, much less a weak person such as I?
I held off as long as I could, I really did… but it ended up not being long enough, not at all. By the time I was 13, I was ready for what promised to be a spectacular adventure, and nothing short of an apocalypse could stop me.
I am, if nothing else, a meticulous planner — you have to be, if you want to break as many rules as I do. I had a backpack prepared long before I had a date set. I’d gathered everything I thought I could need, mostly stuff filched from my father’s workbench. I had a small length of rope, a flashlight, a crowbar, and a dreadfully lacking first-aid kit that I had put together myself, complete with Spiderman bandages. My giant thermos filled with tap water would complete the set, when the time was right — I never went riding off into peril without that damn thermos.
The hardest part was waiting for the opportunity. My parents still didn’t like to leave me home alone, overprotective as they were, and the farm was often crawling with workers who I knew would tell on me – everyone who came on the farm was read the riot act by my father about the coop. I’d need to wait until all the workers AND my parents were gone, which meant that I could be waiting for a very long time.
Fortunately for me, only a few weeks after I made my plans, an opportunity arose and, as excited as I was, I leapt on it.
My older sister had a speech contest over in Redwood – a good three hours away – so mom and dad had decided to go watch her perform. My brother, Darius, and I were spared only because we’d already seen her speech a thousand times and I could, by this point, recite it by heart. And I did. Obnoxiously. On every car ride after a performance. Mercifully, mom and dad left me at home with Darius to act as babysitter. Additionally, none of the workers were at the farm that day – for the life of me, I can’t remember why, now – so that made the timing more than ideal.
Now, I considered going without Darius, I really did, but he was too smart for that. His kid sister is going to play outside by herself for a few hours? With a giant backpack on her back? Yeah, something about that was going to sound fishy. Besides, what good adventure happens when you’re alone? If I learned nothing else from my childhood, it is that adventures are worth sharing if they’re worth having.
So I interrupted him from his video games and introduced him to my brilliant plan.
“Darius… haven’t you ever wondered what’s in that old chicken coop at the edge of the farm?”
He didn’t look away from his game, but I could tell that he was on high alert as soon as the words “chicken coop” flew out of my mouth.
“No,” he answered, pretending at nonchalance, “not really. There’s probably nothing in there, anyway, it’s been abandoned for years now. Since dad was in college.”
“Sure, sure,” I answered, keeping my tone light. “I mean, it would make sense that there’s nothing in there… but… what if there IS?”
Darius didn’t look at me as he said, “No.”
“Come on, it will be fun!”
“Aren’t you in the least bit curious?”
Shit. I sighed as I realized I’d have to change tactics. There had to be something I could do to entice my brother to look inside, or some kind of leverage… if mere curiosity wouldn’t do it, bribery or blackmail could probably get the job done, right?
“Darius, you’re on dishwashing duty this week, aren’t you?”
A twitch. Ah, he didn’t answer, but I definitely had his attention now.
“Tell you what. I’ll do your chores for you this week if you go with me. Or at least if you promise not to tell mom and dad that I went inside.” I didn’t really want to do this alone, but I was willing to, if he was adamant about not following me.
Finally, Darius paused his video game and gave me a long, considering look. Encouraged, I pressed on.
“You and I both know that it’s not even dangerous. It’s not much more than an old shack. I just wanna go inside and take a quick look around. That’s worth a week of no chores, isn’t it?”
I held my breath and waited.
Apparently, it was, because Darius sighed and turned off his game. “Alright, fine. But I’m going with you. If anything happened to you in there, dad would gut me alive.”
That was true enough. I secretly rejoiced – Darius and I were the ideal partners-in-crime, and we got away with a lot more than we would have been able to on our own. He made a quick run to the kitchen to take one of dad’s heavy-duty flashlights and, just like that, we were off, setting out into the cool air just as the sun was setting.
There was something darkly beautiful about the chicken coop at night. The wood was black with age, standing in sharp relief against the dark blue of the fading sky. The clouded windows were almost luminescent under the few strong stars that had already made their appearance. It was strange, the way the darkness seemed to breathe life into the little shack. The way it festered like a crown jewel among the weeds that ensnared it. It was disgusting. It was breathtaking.
And I was going to conquer it.
Well… WE were going to conquer it, I reminded myself, as my brother stood next to me.
“Are you sure you wanna do this?” he asked me. There was an air of uncertainty in his voice and, if I didn’t know him better, I’d think he was scared. But, no, he wasn’t, he was finally excited by the prospect of seeing what was hidden away in that coop, and he was only nervous that I would back out at the last second.
As a response, I marched towards the door. “Come on, or are you chicken?” I teased. He rolled his eyes but I saw him suppress a smile. Oh, yes. We were definitely ready for this.
Finally, after about twenty minutes of hard work, we stood inside the chicken coop.
The door had proven impossible to open. The wooden beam barring it had been held in place so long that it would have taken much more strength than we had between the two of us to open it. Lesser people would have given up the endeavor right then and there. Fortunately, my brother and I have never been those people. Even better, we have always been resourceful, so when I saw a hole where the wall of the coop should have met with the foundation, I took advantage of it.
I was still pretty small, so it was fairly easy for me to shimmy my way inside. Darius, being the older and bigger of the two of us, had a little bit of a harder time, but after much panting and a little swearing that he hoped I wouldn’t hear, we found ourselves inside our long-awaited quarry, staring at our surroundings like it was the lost city of Atlantis. For us, I suppose, it was.
Without our flashlights, we couldn’t see anything, which only enforced the strange aura this place gave out. If you’ve lived in a city your whole life, it would make sense to think that, without the city lights, the landscape would be blanketed in darkness, but that’s not quite true. In the countryside, the stars and the moon provide ample light to get by at night, so long as it isn’t overcast. Therefore, it was very strange that this shambled old shack with its holes and rot was impervious to the light. I’d noticed it before, but this was the first time I was embedded in it, surrounded by it. And it took my breath away… in a good or bad way, I couldn’t quite tell yet.
Darius switched on his flashlight as I fumbled through my bag searching for mine. I didn’t pay much attention or even notice until he said, “Um… Greta?”
“What?” I mumbled, my fingers finally grasping around the stem of the thick black flashlight as I yanked it from my bag.
When Darius didn’t answer, I looked up and gasped.
Darius had turned on the flashlight, and I had expected the powerful beam to erupt in the room, casting sharp shadows and bleeding white light into everything in its path. But it… well, it didn’t. The beam of light was… self-contained. It traveled as though through a tunnel, illuminating the small circle of whatever it touched on, but it didn’t shed any more light that that. So, while Darius swung it around the room, the circle of light dancing over bits and pieces of objects we couldn’t begin to discern, everything else was still pitch black.
“Fucking weird,” he whispered, and a shiver ran through me, because Darius never used that word.
I turned on my flashlight, only to be confronted with the same results. Just that tiny beam of light that couldn’t seem to slice through the rest of the darkness. My right hand unconsciously snaked out towards my brother’s left, and he surprised me by gripping onto my fingers without any teasing or complaining. Apparently he was just as freaked out as I was.
“Let’s stick to the walls,” he whispered. Something about this place demanded a hushed voice, and he could feel it as well as I could. “Let’s start on the left. Put your hand out and keep in on the wall. We’ll go slowly.”
I nodded, forgetting that Darius couldn’t see me in the dark. He was brilliant sometimes – or, at least, much more clever than I was. I inched towards the left-hand wall, pulling my brother with me, searching for the feel of the moist wood beneath my fingertips.
Eventually, I found it. I pointed the flashlight in front of me and it fell on the opposite end of the coop, illuminating what looked like a shelf. Seeing that the path at eye-level was mostly clear, I tilted the flashlight down to light our footpath, hoping that there weren’t any nails sticking out of the ground. Boy, wouldn’t THAT be fun to explain to dad.
We began to walk.
Darius and I swept our flashlights back and forth along the ground in front of us as we took slow, small steps across the coop. There was debris along the ground that looked promising, and I stopped every once in a while to pick something up – an old key that probably didn’t open anything anymore; a leather-bound notebook; a small tin box that rattled when you shook it, as though something small were hiding inside. I stored them in my backpack for future inspection.
As we walked, the silence become terribly oppressive and we couldn’t endure it any longer. It was my brother who actually broke it first. “Why do you think dad doesn’t want us in here?” he asked.
The obvious answer was that it was dangerous – dad was always saying that the moment we stepped inside the roof would probably cave in and what good were two dead kids, honestly, it would be such a hassle. There was always a little teasing tone in his voice, but we could tell that, underneath that, he was at least partially serious. Having stepped inside the coop for the first time and hearing the groan of the floor as we made our way across it, I could acknowledge that it definitely was dangerous enough to warrant the warning my father gave us. And yet…
“I don’t really know,” I answered. “I get the feeling that he’s hiding something from us.”
I didn’t have to be able to see to know that Darius was shaking his head next to me. “Dad isn’t like that, he doesn’t keep secrets.”
“Maybe he just doesn’t keep unimportant secrets. Everyone has secrets, Darius. Maybe this is one of his.”
He was silent for a moment as we finally reached the other end of the coop. We turned towards the right and I kept my hand on the left wall. We swept our flashlights across our path again and noticed that there was what looked to be some old farm equipment on the floor in front of us – we’d have to be careful to avoid it. As we continued, Darius asked, “But then why not tear it down? Secret or not, wouldn’t it… well, wouldn’t it just make sense?”
I didn’t have an answer for that one.
This wall was much shorter than the other one, the building being rectangular, and soon we reached the end, having found nothing of interest to pluck from the floor and steal. Turning once more to the right, we swept our flashlights and my brother – my big older brother, strong and intimidating and unshakeable – let out a small shriek. One that I couldn’t help echoing.
We had swept our flashlights up at the same time, checking to make sure that there wasn’t anything at eye-level waiting to, well, poke our eyes out. Instead of seeing thick, dusty air, we were confronted with a pair of boots, still as though they were sitting on some invisible shelf. Of course, they weren’t on a shelf, not even close. It took me a moment longer than my brother, I think, to figure out how they could be suspended like that. I could feel his hand trembling in mind as he tilted his flashlight up, and I raised mine to follow him.
Boots. Dirty, black, crusty boots.
Pant legs, chewed through by moths and whatever other creatures were hiding in this godforsaken hole.
And then, at the top of his pants, hands. They were bloodless and the nails extended a full inch beyond the flesh, looking for all the world like claws, but they were undeniably human hands.
A chest, unutterably still and thick, wrapped in a worn old flannel shirt.
A neck, obscured by the thick rope corded around it.
And, finally, our lights reached his head.
Pale, like his hands. The skin was leathery and sagging from his bones, as though it had hung there for entirely too long and wanted to break free of its restraints. Lips hanging slack, a large, purple tongue pushing its way out. Even in the darkness, I was sure that I saw something wriggling inside that mouth, and I shuddered. Wisps of white hair that trembled as though in a faint breeze, although there was none. No, everything in that room was completely still, completely frozen.
And those eyes – oh, God, those eyes.
They were like nothing I’d ever seen before, and yet they were so familiar. Brown, like my father’s, but the warmth was drained out of them. They were bloodshot, so much so that I couldn’t see any whites in his eyes, only damning red. And the longer I looked, the more convinced I became that he was staring right at me.
Oh, yes… I knew those eyes from somewhere. From somewhere deep inside me, they called out.
A few moments before, my brother had a death grip on my hand. But I found myself quite easily leaving his grasp as I stepped towards the body. He gave out a choked, whimpering sound behind me, but I didn’t respond to it. My eyes were connected to the eyes of that corpse. I couldn’t let go of that gaze long enough to watch where I was walking. I had to pray that there wasn’t anything dangerous in my way.
As I walked towards the body, my suspicions were confirmed. Those eyes – those dead, bloody eyes – were watching me. Were following me. Were holding me hostage and I was doing exactly what they wanted.
I stopped in front of the body. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard a strange creaking sound. I heard my brother saying something but I couldn’t quite make it out, not with those eyes screaming in my head.
Without really understanding why, I reached out towards that pale hand that was just at my eye-level.
Our fingertips touched just so…
The next moment was unexpected.
The creaking turned into a cracking, breaking sound. The beam that the rope had been attached to snapped and, suddenly, the body was on top of me, crushing me. I heard my brother scream, but I couldn’t find it in myself to respond. All I was aware of was the cold, the goddamn ice cold of that body. It was seeping into my blood as the corpse pinned me to the ground, the heavy body damn near suffocating me. Its face was just above my own, and with horror I could see that there indeed was something moving inside that mouth.
When I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the cracking sound was back and the floor gave out from beneath me.
And I was swallowed into the darkness.
When I woke up to the blinding white light, I was sure that I was dead.
After all, my last memory was being pinned by a corpse as the world fell away from me. It would seem logical to wake up in the afterlife after something like that, wouldn’t it?
In actual fact, I was in a hospital. The Wilbur County Hospital, as it were. And I wasn’t alone – my mother and father were there, waiting for me to wake up. They were incredibly relieved when I did, but even in my disoriented state I could see the flash of anger and… something… in my father’s eyes.
Shit. We’d been found out.
That was really the only thought I found myself capable of having for the next few moments as my parents called the nurse in to check on me. I wondered if they were only waiting for me to get better so the beating I was sure I was getting would hurt all the worse. As the nurse checked my IV and took my pulse, my throat opened and I croaked out, “Is Darius okay?”
My mother nodded and my father stared at me intently. Oh, yes, Darius was fine… for now. But both of us were going to pay, I was sure of that.
Those were some torturous weeks, as I sat there waiting for my father to punish me.
Darius seemed to have already gotten his — he didn’t talk much for the first week or so after I came home. Dad didn’t treat him any different than usual, but Darius was still jumpy. That made my heart sink. I was sure that, as soon as I was feeling better, I’d be getting what he got ten times worse.
So, when my father called me to come help him in the tool shed, I hesitated. I knew that running away wouldn’t help anything, but I had the urge anyway as I followed him, my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. I wondered vaguely if fear could actually kill a person.
I almost laughed at that. No fucking way, because if fear could kill, the moment I saw that body I’d have been six feet in the ground.
Once we reached the shed, my father stopped. I watched his broad, unmoving back for a few moments. He seemed to be steeling himself and, hyperaware of him as I was in that moment, I didn’t sense any anger coming from him. Instead, my father seemed… what did he seem? I couldn’t make it out quite then. Whatever it was, it was foreign to the man that I knew.
Finally, he turned around to look at me.
“Greta… what exactly did you see when you went into that chicken coop?”
I froze. The question in my mind of “how will I explain this to my father” really hadn’t come up. I know, that seems like poor planning on my part, but I was having a hard enough time processing the truth that I couldn’t come up with a plausible lie on top of it.
When I didn’t answer, my father continued.
“Your grandfather… Seamus Wagner… he was a bad man. A very, very bad man, Greta.”
He paused, then, and didn’t continue until I cleared my throat. That seemed to jolt him back to the present from… well, wherever his mind had been, and he went on.
“I’ve never told you about him before. None of you children, because you didn’t have to know. But he was a terribly cruel person. He did awful things, things that I can’t tell you, things that you’ll never know. There was… something about him. Something that just wasn’t quite right. Wherever he went, he left a stain, a mark of darkness that just couldn’t be washed away.
“Well, when he got older, he started spending more time in that goddamn chicken coop. He practically lived out there. If you’d ask me why, I’d say that I don’t know, and it would be the truth. Something out there caught his eye, he was obsessed with it, and he stayed there until… well, until the day he hanged himself.”
My breath caught in my throat and the world seemed to shake as my father looked me in the eyes.
“After he died, that building changed. He left his very last mark, his last stain, inside of it. I went in once – only once – after they’d removed the body. And I never, ever went back inside, do you understand?”
I nodded very slowly.
“Now, I think you know why I didn’t want you kids in there. So, Greta, I’ll ask you one more time: what did you see in there?”
I stared at him long and hard. See, the thing about my dad and I, is that we’re a lot alike. Sometimes we can communicate with just a glance. This was one of those times where I understood exactly what he wanted to hear.
“Nothing. I didn’t see anything, dad.”
He nodded at me.
“Good. Remember that.”
He turned to leave the shop when I remembered that I had one last question to ask.
He turned back and gave me a wary look, and I was finally able to place the emotion on his face. Fear. It was raw, unadulterated fear.
I pressed on, “Why not tear the building down, or burn it, then?”
He was quiet for a moment before answering, “Because I don’t want whatever’s inside to get out.”
My father died last week.
It wasn’t exactly expected… a heart attack had taken care of him in the middle of the night, and my mother had woken up next to a corpse. It was hard on her. Really hard. I wonder if that look will ever go out of her eyes. You know the look, like your whole world has crumbled to pieces around you.
In light of the circumstances, I came back home. All of us kids did. We knew she’d need support.
Somehow, I wasn’t surprised when she confided in me that she wanted to leave the farm. “I can’t live here anymore,” she told me after the funeral, while my brother and sister were still seeing to the guests. “I can’t live here, but I can’t sell, either. You know why that place has to stay in the family.”
I knew exactly what she was asking.
We’re going to set her up in a nice townhouse just a few miles away. It will be good for her, I think. And I know she’ll be happier away from this farm, with all its memories.
For now, the management of the farm has fallen onto my shoulders. I can’t say that I know what I’m going to do with it yet — perhaps I’ll rent out the land so that other people can farm it. But my mother’s implicit instructions were quite clear.
It is my responsibility to make sure that no one goes in that coop again.
After all these years, I finally talked to Darius about that night. See, he and I never spoke about what had happened – it was always hanging over us, like the stench of something rotten, but we couldn’t vocalize what had happened.
When I asked him what he saw that night, he blanched, but he did answer me.
“The same thing that you did,” he said.
Another thing had been bothering me for quite some time. “How did I get out of there? Did you pull me out of the cellar?”
He gave me a strange look at that. There was fear in there, yes, but he was trying to mask it with false confusion, and I wasn’t buying it. “What are you talking about? There’s no cellar under the coop.”
“Yes, there is. I remember, after it… fell on me… the floor gave way. There must be SOMETHING under there.”
I expected my brother to keep denying it, but he didn’t. Instead, he slowly shook his head.
“Greta… don’t go looking any more into this. Nothing good will ever come out of that coop. Just leave it alone.”
These last few days, my mind hasn’t been able to stray far from that coop. It keeps coming back, like it’s some kind of drug that I haven’t the willpower to resist.
I realized something about that night. My bag, along with all those items I’d collected, was lost when I fell. It must be somewhere inside the coop. As much as I want to listen to my brother’s advice and forget that I ever went inside that goddamn place, I can’t stop thinking about it, especially about that journal. And the cellar… what’s in it? Why wouldn’t my brother tell me? Does he know? Did our father tell him?
I think tonight’s the night I end up paying another visit.
And I wonder what I’ll see.