Copyright © 2016 Kae Bell
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, business establishments or locales is purely coincidental.
© Svetlanarib | Dreamstime.com – Spirit Of Halloween
By acreage, it was not a large farm, 300 acres, plus or minus, depending on whom you spoke with at town hall.
Mr. Banks liked things small. He knew his ninety milking cows by sight, when they shuffled into the milking parlor in the early morning, smelling of grass. He knew which ones were excellent milkers and which ones were mean bitches a crap away from hamburger.
Most of all, Banks knew his land: Every acre of the rolling New York hills. Posted and patrolled.
In a light morning fog, seated on his tractor, Mr. Banks made slow progress cutting a row of hay. It was the season’s second cut. Behind him, the mower whirred as it chopped the thin stalks. Banks squinted into the low sun, rising into a cloudless sky. Banks hoped the day was as hot as predicted. Hay needed dry days.
Behind him, the mower’s metal blades turned, slicing the grain. The engine droned like a snoring monster. At the row’s end, Flint turned the tractor and started a new row.
Over the thrum of his tractor he heard a sharp sound.
It was a sound he knew.
Metal against bone.
Banks braked and the tractor slowed. He cocked his head to better hear, but heard only the tractor’s hum. Killing the engine, in the morning quiet, he heard a second sound.
The sound of pain. Whatever his mower had run over, it was in intense pain. Banks heard the scream, a high-pitched wail of surprise and distress. The creature caught unawares by his unforgiving blades. Cut by metal.
He’d never heard such a desperate wail. It ebbed and flowed in the silence, the noise swallowed by the sky.
Stepping down from his seat, placing his feet on the wheel to hop down, Banks landed in the uncut hay with a light thump. He walked slowly, almost cautiously, through the tall hay that stretched up the large tractor wheels. He was ten or eleven feet away from the mower, when the sound came again, this time more or a wail. It was softer, less a complaint and more an acceptance, as if the air had been let out of a tire. Banks’ stomach turned.
The sound ended in a whimper. Banks stopped for a heartbeat. He forced himself forward, reminding himself that a farmer was of that which lived and died.
In a few steps, Mr. Banks was at the mower. The blades curved and gleamed in the sun. The smell of cut hay was especially strong.
Mr. Banks stood, his hands on the blades, still warm from the morning’s cutting. Banks took a few slow breaths and stared at the ground.
Then he looked up. There, in the cut hay, beyond the mower, where Banks had lifted the blades of the mower and cut the tractor’s engine, lay a bloody pile of bone, skin, and blood. The smell of iron lifted on the breeze to Banks’ nose. As he took a step forward, he felt sick.
The jumble of what had clearly been a human was tangled in the grasses. It was a bloodied mess.
Banks stared at the pile, as a breeze shook the treetops on the wood’s edge. A mourning dove announced the dusk. Another step and the mess came into focus
A bloody human face, the forehead sheared off, stared at Mr. Banks from a bed of freshly cut hay. Nearby, the torso, sliced to near ribbons by the industrial mower, lay still. In the early stage of shock, Mr. Banks looked away, his chest heaving. He bent over and lost his breakfast of fresh eggs and toast with blackberry jam made from the fruit of bushes that lined the dirt road along his farm. When he stood upright, he looked east, to the horizon, where the field’s edge was lined with pine trees. Above the tree line, puffy clouds concealed the rising sun. He stepped forward. His foot settled into the grass. He glanced at the body. And at the row he had begun to mow.
What a shame, he thought, to lose the crop.
The uncut field stretched before him. He walked through the tall hay, down the hill to his farmhouse and his wife.
At the four-way stop, a tractor stopped to turn right down a dirt road. The sports car idling behind it revved its engine and bolted through the intersection, its alloy wheels kicking up stones. A hand from the open front passenger side window gave the farmer the finger. Already partway down the lane, the farmer was unaware.
Meg watched this activity from the wood’s edge, her back set firmly against a tree trunk. From here, she could watch the road to town, the fields, and of course the farmhouse itself, at the bottom of the hill. From the farmhouse, fields extended south, up the hill, and east to the edge of the dense wood where the coyotes yowled at night. Purple, yellow and orange wildflowers lined the fields, clover, buttercups and paintbrush. Drunk from pollen, bees stumbled among the blossoms
The dirt road kept car traffic to a minimum, only the milkman and the occasional hunter would pass by. Fluffy cattails grew in the ditch, which were still wet from an earlier downpour.
From this spot, Meg could not see her house, farther up the road. A thick wood separated the two properties. And happily, she thought, her parents, specifically her mother, could not see her.
Nor could her stupid brothers.
In the shade of this tree, Meg felt like her family was a thousand miles away.
She wished they were.
Meg’s stomach growled. She was hungry. Dinner was a long ways off and breakfast was hours ago. She had missed lunch.
It had been two hours since Meg had heard her mom call her for lunch. Mrs. Flint had even walked down the hill to the farm, in that slow way she had, every limb registering the annoyance of having interrupted an otherwise delightful and carefree life to have three wayward children. Hidden by the tall hay, Meg had watched her mom’s head turned left and right, her eyes seeking movement.
Meg was still angry.
Her brothers had arrived last night, after five weeks at sleep away camp. Filled with bravado from campfires and night hikes.
Meg had been told (‘asked’ her mother said) to give the boys her bedroom, since it had the two twin beds. Meg had moved out to the sun porch, which was fine- it had windows on three sides, a super comfy sofa bed, and a TV. She’d enjoy it, since she could watch the moon rise over the trees and the bug sounds, so loud this far out in the country, put her to sleep.
But she hated her brothers’ looks as they closed the door to her room. Smug.
So she didn’t feel guilty for wishing that the twins had stayed at camp all summer. She had loved the cabin without the boys crashing in and around it, destroying or shooting everything in sight. The days were peaceful, sunnier in the silence.
Mom insisted that the boys return for the last two weeks of summer before school began. Her brothers had not waited a minute to begin their pranks.
When Meg had woken up this morning, her neck itched. Feeling around her pillow, her hand closed around a big chunk of hair. Her hair. Six jagged inches of it. Staring at her cut hair, its summer highlights catching the light, she had envisioned her brothers sneaking out after she was asleep, scissors in hand. They’d probably planned this at camp.
From the couch, Meg had heard feet shuffling and some poorly muffled giggling from behind the door leading into the house
Her brothers were hiding. And waiting. Waiting for a reaction. She knew from past experience, they hoped she would scream. Or tell Mom what they had done. They had started calling her ‘tattle tail’ a year ago.
Instead, Meg had slid off the bed.
She had grabbed some craft scissors from the sewing basket. With jerky motions, the angle awkward but effective, she sliced off her remaining long hair. Strands littered the floor like autumn leaves.
Meg had felt the back of her head. Good enough. She had slipped out of the porch, holding the door to close gently, silently. She’d seen Mr. Banks mowing in the field.
She had been gone since then.
Now she was hungry. She’d seen blackberry bushes on her way down the hill. Heavy with dark fruit. Meg pictured the berries, could almost taste the dusky sweetness. Her mouth watered.
From her perch Meg watched the tractor drive up the road and turn into the road at the bottom where the runoff never fully dried and mosquitos swarmed thick around murky puddles that remained days after a storm. Mr. Banks must be done for the day, she thought. She’d seen him come and go a couple times across the morning.
A breeze rippled by, the tall sheaves brushing together, hissing in protest.
Meg heard a distant murmuring. She was enjoying her afternoon and did not want to be found in her hiding spot. Careful to stay concealed, she poked her head above the tall grain to see who was coming.
There they were. Her stupid brothers, walking down the hill toward the farm, ambled along, filled with lunch and mischief. Meg’s heart sank. And her afternoon was spoilt. They might take the shortcut she had found and discover her hiding place.
Once more, she poked her head above the grain. Her brothers were still a ways off, halfway down the hill. Chucking rocks at squirrels. Meg doubted they could see into the shadow cast by the barn. Staying low, Meg made a beeline across the field, careful to steer clear of Mr. Banks’ tractor.
A massive structure, the barn housed the milking cows in the winter and stored the hay year round. It was off-limits, forbidden to Meg and her brothers by Mom.
Meg crossed the street. Somewhere, cows lowed. This late in summer, the pastures were thin. It was almost time for chores.
By the barn door, a calico cat missing half an ear mewled loudly at Meg. Meg bent to scratch the cat behind its ears. Several feet away, in the safety of the weeds, the other cats crouched, watching. Meg saw cautious ears and tails poking above the grasses.
The voices were closer now. Meg glanced up. Her brothers were almost to the base of the hill and had stopped to yell at the cows. Meg wished one would charge at them. But the cows stood still, dazed by the heat, swishing their tails against the endless flies.
Meg grasped the edge of the barn door and pushed. The door rumbled sideways on its casters, making a space for Meg to slip in sideways. Inside, she pushed the door closed.
Her brothers’ voices grew louder. They were arguing.
“I heard Dad say they didn’t find his head.”
“Naw, he said ‘hands’. They didn’t find his hands. They need to fingerprint him. What do they need his head for anyway?”
“It could be anybody if they don’t find his head. That head is still in the field. I’m gonna find it!” Her oldest brother Justin.
“They need his fingerprints, so can tell his relatives he’d dead.”
“And they don’t need his head for that?”
Meg heard their feet shuffle in the dirt as they approached the barn, Jason’s lazy gait dragging along the road, a step behind Justin.
She wished they’d keep moving. But no luck
The footsteps stopped. Jason called out in an fake high voice: “Here kitty kitty kitty.”
The friendly calico outside the barn door meowed.
“Run away, cat!” she thought.
Footsteps approach the barn door, shuffled in the dust. Then a sharp yelp.
“Oww! It scratched me!” Jason whined.
“You were dumb to pick it up.”
“Who cares. Let’s go find the head.”
“Whatever. Come on.”
Meg heard their footsteps recede.
Relieved they had not found her, Meg turned from the door and slipped deeper into the barn. It smelled of hay and fresh manure in here. Sunlight snuck in between wallboards spackling boards white with light here and there. In the dim light, Meg could see several cows at the far end of the barn, shifting on their feet, waiting in the coolness of the barn.
Ahead, Meg saw sunlight shine down from an opening in the ceiling. The entrance to the hayloft. She’d never been up there. No one would think to look for her there. It would be the best place to hide.
She stepped forward and almost fell, slipping on a wet lump. She looked down. It was a dead rat, slippery with blood. The barn cats had caught it earlier. Meg stepped over the carcass. Ahead, the light from the hayloft beckoned.
Meg grabbed onto the makeshift ladder, old boards nailed to the wall. Spider webs clung to her fingers as she lifted herself up each step. One board gave way slightly, a loose nail. Meg caught herself and continued to climb.
Now, eight feet up, nearly level with the hayloft floor, Meg stepped off the ladder and into the large rectangular room. She looked around. Hay was everywhere. Hay bales lined the walls, seven and eight bales high and two or three bales deep. Along one wall, the bales stretched to the rafters of the vaulted ceiling. Late afternoon light pierced the slim gaps between the wallboards, painting the opposite walls with lines of light. Dust motes rose on warm air currents.
The room felt like a church. Except for the occasional flutter of birds rustling in nests high in the rafters.
Meg climbed the bales of hay like steps to reach the topmost bale of a highest tower.
The tractor had stopped and Meg heard a car drive fast by the barn, too fast for these dirt roads. She felt her throat tighten. She knew that car.
She remembered last summer when the same car arrived at the house. Uncle Phil.
“No explaining men’s taste in friends,” Meg’s mom would say under her breath.
He would sneak up on Meg and ask, “Are the Scare-its coming, Megs?” He’d talk with the twins about sports, even guns, after a few beers.
But with Meg, all he did was ask her if the Scare-its were coming.
Eight years, he’d visited them at the cabin. Meg thought. Enough. She wasn’t four any more.
She could say the word now. She whispered it to herself.
Besides, she didn’t believe in them. She’d told him several times. But he didn’t listen, just laughed and laughed. And drank beer.
Every time he got up to get a beer from the fridge, he’d walk by her chair and ask her again:
“Are the Scare-Its gonna get you tonight, Megs? It’s a full moon. Are they coming tonight? Oohhhhhh!!” He’d waggle his thin fingers at her.
Finally, she had gone out to the porch.
And now here he was again.
Meg leaned her back against the wallboards. Sharp pieces of hay poked at her bare legs. From this height, she could see the entire loft, even into far corners.
That’s when she saw the man. He was lying on the floor. And he was covered in blood.