(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
By Aaron Starmer, author of THE ONLY ONES
The Farmer shot dogs. That was the rumor. He’d shoot you too. As a property owner, that was his right. We called him the Farmer because that’s all we knew about him, but we didn’t even know that. All we knew was there was an old farmhouse, down a dirt road, past a junkyard. None of our classmates had the guts to explore it. After a night of trading dares, we decided we would be the first, because those were the days when the first counted for everything.
We set out from that junkyard, a mud caked collection of old appliances that rested along the edge of the forest and the fields. It was the morning after Halloween and the fake blood on our faces had faded, but wasn’t gone. It was now like rouge on our cheeks. We were 11, a couple of us 12.
The fields hadn’t been cultivated in ages. Even the dirt road was strangled with weeds. The cars that littered it were a calendar: Studebaker, Firebird, Datsun. The youngest of them was older than any of us. Their windows were shattered, their seats torn to shreds. One was flipped over onto its shell, helpless. All were tagged with graffiti.
It crossed our minds that the Farmer could have done this to his own vehicles as a threat to trespassers. Crazy, drunk, holed up with a rifle next to an attic window, he was ready to see the threats through.
The spray-painted pentagrams obliterated that theory.
They sacrificed babies! They smoked marijuana, and ate babies! Ouija boards and records spun backwards told them to do it and they listened because only fools doubt the spirits and Judas Priest, especially under the influence of dope.
But they were also nocturnal. Of this, we were sure. On a crisp November morning, in the wilds of central New York, the Satanists were tucked away in their beds.
So we kept going, single file, sticks in hand, heads on a pivot.
We came to the milking station first, welcomed by bigger pentagrams and the clearly worded: “You have come too far and now you shall die!” The shall seemed a bit excessive, but who were we to question Lucifer’s army.
Among us, there were hushed suggestions about turning back—and no one was called a pussy for that—but there was also an unmistakable thrill. We had made it this far alive, and we only had to go a little farther, through the front door and into the belly of that gray shingled monster. Emerge from that and we would emerge heroes.
So, fists-clenched, we waited for a while, listening to the chickadees and making sure we were alone. Then we eased into things by exploring more of the surroundings.
In an empty silo, we found cigarette butts and the lyrics to love songs written out on loose-leaf. In a vaulted building with a roof of corrugated steel, we found a stash of Playboys, 1970s-era, chock-full of curly haired farmers’ daughters. We stacked rotting haystacks and created a cavern and hid the smut. We found more cars, and more graffiti, and shotgun shells full of powder and pellets.
We were becoming cocky and comfortable.
We were growing increasingly curious.
Only the house and barn left.
The house should have bothered us more than it did. Anyone could tell it hadn’t been occupied in a long time, but the nature of the Farmer’s departure was unclear. He had obviously left in a hurry. The furniture was still there, along with pictures and books and hulking wood-framed televisions. Floral dresses and striped curtains and blue jeans. There were ceramic knickknacks and teakettles and all the trappings of country living. And all of it, every last thing, was knocked over, smashed, thrown to the floor.
To a gang fresh off a night of eggings and shaving cream attacks, this was a goldmine. We rummaged and pocketed and finished the job, kicking in glass and hurling fan blades like giant ninja stars. One of us found a bottle of Sine-Aid, and for a moment we all believed it was cyanide, and convinced ourselves we’d discovered the agent of the Farmer’s demise. The speller among us set things straight, and we stumbled back outside, laughing and confident that all of this wasn’t the work of Satanists. It was wreckage from kids like us, maybe a few years older, but still just harmless punks.
Rough-housing our way across the lawn, we proceeded to the barn. Yes, we were heroes and pioneers, but we were also completists. We had to at least step inside and check it off our list. Then we could go home to our bags full of candy and our new celebrity status.
When I pushed open the heavy wooden doors to the barn, the sunlight that slipped through the holes in the roof revealed a dangling noose.
* * *
(Illustration by Robert Roxby)
Over the next seven years, there were other farmhouses, all emptier, some older and more ramshackle, including one hidden behind a wall of greenery as thick as disease. When we became drivers we became tour guides, and we’d take younger guys, the freshman and sophomores who amused us, and we’d bring them out to those other farmhouses. We’d never take them to the first one, though, because that first one burned down.
The younger guys usually didn’t know me well, and my role was to be the deep-voiced brooder, who sat in the backseat with vacant eyes, the result of the farmhouse horrors I’d witnessed. I’d tell them the story of the first farmhouse, right up to the dangling noose in the barn.
And then I’d point to the new farmhouse, their farmhouse.
“Go inside,” I’d instruct them. “Tell us what you see.”
Of course, we had no idea what was inside. We didn’t explore these places anymore. We’d learned our lessons long before.
But these eager-to-pleasers would always creep up to the doors and duck inside, and come back at a sprint, and breathlessly detail the gummy cobwebs and creaking rocking chairs and whispering Victrolas. We’d pat them on the back and tell them they’d done well.
Only then, on the drive home, would I finish my story about the barn.
“The noose hung down in the middle of the barn,” I’d tell them. “I stepped up to that noose and gave it a yank. The rope was connected to pulleys that were attached to the rafters. The more I yanked, the more they squeaked and soon they drew the door closed. Light still came through the holes in the roof, but it was definitely darker in there. But not so dark that I couldn’t see what was nailed to the back of that door.”
“What was nailed to the back of the door?” they’d always ask.
And I’d pause for dramatic effect, because I’d learned that’s what storytellers do. Then I’d say, “A deer. Freshly killed, probably the night before. He was crucified, his front legs outstretched like arms, his back legs bound together, rusty spikes piercing just below the hooves.”
Some would respond with gasps and exclamations. Some would remain silent. I’d always finish by saying the same thing.
“Did you see something like that in there? Have you ever, in your life, seen anything like that?”
Aaron Starmer is the author of The Only Ones and DWEEB. He lives with his wife in Hoboken, NJ.
Visit Aaron at aaronstarmer.com.
Follow @AaronStarmer on Twitter.