A Short Story by Tami Snow
Morning hung in the air like a satin sheet of lavender, crisp, thin and fragrant. There was something magical about waking up in my grandmother’s country home. A feeling that was never present in any other place, it gave you the sense that the day was filled with possibilities. Even the smells of her flower garden seeped through the creamy, papered walls, coaxing a smile to your face before your eyes could open.
I snuggled deeper into the tiny single bed that had once been my mother’s, willing sleep to take me back. My mind wanted to stay here and soak up the happy memory. Downstairs grandma moved about the kitchen clanking pots and pans like a breakfast symphony. I reflected upon this moment, hanging on every detail as though it was a book I didn’t want to end. The delicate songs of the birds singing in the maple tree outside the window. The distant rumble of tractors as farmers cleared their fields. The happy cluck of chickens as they foraged for feed. Sounds you only heard while spending summer vacation at grandma’s farm.
I sighed with content. I could’ve stayed in bed all day, wrapped in a cocoon of complacency.
Drawing the quilt tighter, I took a deep breath. The woody smell of bacon had wandered its way into the room, triggering my mouth to water and my stomach to grumble. It was the grandma equivalent of an alarm clock—bacon. She knew it would work every time. Flinging the blanket of serenity off my body, I surrendered to its call.
Perched on the edge of the bed, I stretched, allowing my toes to sweep along the warm oak floor, feeling the definition of its natural grooves. The scent of coffee percolated into the room, awakening me further. I smoothed my tank top down over my belly and straightened the waist of my sweat pants. There was no need for me to call down to let grandma know I was up. The floor creaked beneath me as I stood and made my way to the white washed door, and down the well worn stairs; each step a defined note.
Grandma’s kitchen was the color of fresh spring buttercups—a color that made you feel wrapped in sunshine. Standing in the doorway, I silently watched my dainty grandmother move about, conjuring the morning meal, spicing apples that were bubbling on the antique stovetop. Amazing how so much sass and attitude could be housed in such a modest package.
I crept up behind her, folding her small frame into my arms, kissing her atop the swirls of her neatly pinned silver hair. “Good morning, Nan.” I turned and sank into a chair at the table; one next to the window that overlooked the sprawling yard and the big, red barn.
“Good morning to you. How’d ya sleep?” She moved toward the table, cast-iron skillet in hand. “How many would ya like,” she asked already filling my plate with flap-jacks.
I held up my hand. “Four is plenty, thanks.” The steamy aroma floated toward me. I buried my nose in it, sucking in the smell of vanilla.
She spooned apples on top. “I can’t wait for you to meet my new helpers. They are both retired circus folk. Hard workers and quite friendly too.” She sat the plate of bacon in front me.
I held up my coffee cup and watched her pour the dark concoction, trying to chew through what was already in my mouth so I could respond. I stared at her with wide eyes.
She sat across from me and started loading her own plate. “Now Jess, don’t look at me like that. Vern and Carion came highly recommended. Miss Samson had them working down at her place for quite some time before she ended up selling the place, and she had only good things to say.”
I slurped the hot coffee and swallowed. “Nan, do you really…”
She cut me off with a wave of her hand. “Listen. I’ve been doing just fine out here on my own. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself. Just wait till you meet them. Then you can give me your opinion.”
Fact was, what she said was true. She had been living on her own out here, making it on her own for eight years since granddad had passed. “Alrighty then, Nan. I’ll just have to trust that you know what you’re talking about.”
We had finished eating and grandma worked on piling up two plates with leftovers, while I did the dishes. “Can you take these out to the barn,” she said, scrunching aluminum foil around the edges of one of the plates. “It will give you a chance to introduce yourself to the boys.”
I rolled my eyes, but she didn’t see. “Okay. But if I’m not back in ten minutes send for help,” I joked, drying the suds from my hands on a dish towel.
“Ha ha, very funny.” She set the plates into my waiting hands and opened the screen door to let me out.
I winked at her. “Ten minutes, Nan.”
With careful steps, I balanced the plates as I walked around to the front of the barn. The sky was a bright blue with puffy white clouds of cotton meandering across it—perfect and serene. The smells of freshly harvested hay tickled my nose—a smell that to me defined being in the country. Deep brick-red paint on the barn was much brighter than I remembered. It had likely been coated recently by Nan’s new help. With my back to the barn door, I kicked out a loud knock and turned to wait for someone to open it. Was I the only one who thought it strange that there were people living in there? I could hear the muted whinnies of the horses in their corrals. Strange.
The barn door creaked open to reveal a small brown man with erratic black curls snaking above his head. His eyes were black marbles set close together. His bulbous nose made his eyes look even smaller. He had a strange face, worn and wrinkled like tanned leather. But he wasn’t bad looking, just different.
I suddenly remembered my manners. “Uh, hi there. My grandmother sent this for you.”
He retrieved one of the plates from my hand, locking my eyes with his. “Hey Carion. There’s a pretty girl here to see you,” he called out from the side of his mouth.
I blinked, shooting my one empty hand out as an offering. “My name is Jess. “I’m staying here for the summer.”
From behind the other door I heard, “Mmm, mmm, mmm. A pretty girl you say?” Carion’s round head peeked around the edge.He was at least a foot taller than Vern, with blue eyes and dirty blonde hair. “You’ll have to give me one minute, missy. I ain’t got no clothes on.” He sucked on his yellowed teeth and looked me up and down.
Vern elbowed him in the rib-cage. “That’s no way to be talking to a lady. Mind your manners. And for Chrissake get dressed.” He grabbed the other plate from my hand. “Thanks for this. And tell the lady of the house we send our regards.”
I nodded. “You’re welcome.” Backing away from the door, my eyes still locked in Vern’s gaze.
A loud crash in the barn yanked his eyes from mine. He turned to look, quickly closing the door behind him. “Dagnabbit. You’re an idiot fool. Pull yourself together.” His voice muffled through the barn doors.
My heart leapt into my throat, threatening to choke me. How could Nan feel comfortable with these two odd fellows sleeping in the barn only feet from her home? Something wasn’t right with them, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was.
I jumped when the screen door slammed shut behind me. “Oh!”
Nan giggled. “Are you gonna be alright? Dang near scared you outta your skin, I’d say.”
I looked at her through narrowed eyes. “Those guys are weird. Are you sure you feel okay with them living on your property?”
“Awe, come now. They’re harmless, really. Strange lookin’, sure, but perfectly harmless.”
I shook my head and shrugged. “So what’s on the agenda for today?” It was no use fighting with her.
“Well Agnes is having a bridge party over at her place and I figured we could stop by. I know how much you used to love playing cards when you were little.”
“Nan, that was go-fish and I was ten.” I huffed. “I’m not a little girl anymore.”
“Seventeen isn’t that old, but if you don’t want play cards with us, you and Margret’s grand-daughter can go have ice cream. You remember Penny?”
“Fine. I’ll figure it out when we get there.”
Penny and I sat in a booth at Creamy Delights, scraping the last remnants of our banana splits from the bottom of our bowls. The girl had been babbling on and on about her prize pig taking first place at the county fair.
So when she suggested we leave, I jumped at the chance.
“Maybe we can do this again,” Penny chirped, getting ready to pull her crap-green pickup into grandma’s driveway.
“You don’t have to drive me all the way to the house. I’ll just get out here.” I tried not to sound overly rude as I shoved open the door.
She leaned over the seat at me, chewing her pink bubble gum like a cow. “Call me and we can hang out. I know you must get real bored hangin’ out with your granny.
“Sure thing,” I rolled my eyes and slammed the door.
I rolled my eyes again, when she pulled away and her truck backfired, sending a plume of black nastiness into the air.
Strolling up the dirt driveway, I picked the dandelion blooms that grew alongside the white fence that bordered Nan’s property. In the distance I could make out the hunched over form of one of the weirdo’s my grandma had hired, painting the fence. The bigger one was in the field with the cows, but I couldn’t really see what he was doing from this distance.
Nan had to be home by now. The sun was tucking behind the trees smearing the sky with melted Creamsicle.
My leg muscles burned. I was exhausted from listening to a half-wit country girl for far too many hours, pretending as though I gave a damn about why a Duroc pig is better than a Yorkshire. I wanted a hot bath, like, yesterday.
The nearer I drew to Nan’s big white farmhouse, the clearer the scene became. Vern, dressed in ragged overalls, was bathed in the white-wash paint he had been using on the fence. His black hair stood out like dark tumbleweeds above his ghostly white painted face. A few feet away was Carion, bent over a calf with what looked like a hunting knife in his hand.
I squinted into the setting sun, trying to shield my eyes to get a better look.
The reflection of the blood streaked blade flashed in my eyes. A hissing sound filled my ears, blood, blood—everywhere—blood. My mind folded in around the word, trying to decipher what my eyes had seen. My body swayed. My stomach lurched, spilling its creamy contents on the road beneath me. I had to get to the house before I passed out. Stumbling and dizzy, I coaxed my legs forward, first one then the other. Each step seemingly more difficult than the last. And the house appeared to be getting farther away, and the ground—closer.
Dark and familiar, my eyes opened to confusion. Arms bound above my head, my toes grazing the hay-dusted floor of the barn as I hung, tethered to a sixteen-penny nail that had been tightly driven into the rafters. The nail reminded me of the time my dad had walked me through one his construction sites, and had I laughed when he told me the name of that nail. I wondered if he would miss me.
I watched in resolved horror as Carion leaned over, hanging in peculiar form from the hay loft above me, leaning so close to my face that I could taste his rancid breath. Streaks of blood and grease paint were smeared across his cheeks. Sweat melted his face in milky droplets of white wash paint that gathered color as it traveled down, dripping off his chin and splashing in tiny tainted pools on my chest.
I knew I was screaming, but I couldn’t hear. I felt the effort my body gave in struggle, but I was numb.
A wicked laugh drew my eyes downward. Vern’s foam cherry clown nose drifted slowly up my belly. I squeezed my eyes shut, feeling my tears tumble in cool rivers down my cheeks. I knew what would likely happen next, and I couldn’t bear to watch.