By Daniel Davis
My son James burst through the front door and shouted, “Dad, there’s something in the barn!”
I dropped the book I was reading, but recovered quickly. A frightened ten-year-old makes about the worst sound in the world, but it’s usually an exaggeration, even for a level-headed boy like James.
“Slow down,” I said. I met his eyes and held them until his chest stopped heaving. His face was flush from the cold and snow; we were in the middle of a decent-sized blizzard, the first of the year. I’d only sent him out to the barn after his frantic pleading; we lived in the flat part of Illinois, which is no place for a child to roam during the harshest winter storms. But he’d been taking on more responsibilities in the past week, and had yet to complain or get enough. He strived to act mature and responsible, and the fact that the panic wasn’t leaving his eyes unnerved me.
“What did you see?” I asked. I set the book on the table by the chair and turned, looking at him casually. I kept my voice even, as though he’d done something wrong and I was trying to figure out what it was.
“I didn’t see it,” he said. His eyes dropped from mine—doubt, for the first time. “But I heard it, Dad. It screamed, and—”
“It screamed at you,” I said. “Was it one of the hogs?”
“Not at me. It just screamed. And it wasn’t the hogs; I know what the hogs sound like. Dad, the blood—”
“You don’t know that,” I said. “This wind can distort everything.” I stopped, my thoughts dwindling away as I realized what he’d said. I leaned forward. “What blood?”
“It was everywhere, Dad.” He shivered.
“You’re sure it was blood?” I was standing now, towering over him, intimidating. You frighten them to get the truth; it’s the only way.
“There was so much—” He stopped himself, breaking into sobs. I bent down and held him, the snow from his jacket melting into my sweater.
Melissa finally came downstairs. She said, “Mike? What is it?”
If she noticed how frightened or panicked our son was, she gave no sign. She’d been distant the past week, ever since our eldest boy Joshua had run away. Carl Harrison said it was shock, and he was giving her antidepressants to deal with it. I’d suggested she stop taking them—they seemed to do more harm than good, and anyways Joshua would come back eventually. He needed the farm as much as we needed him.
I gently pushed James away from me. “Take him upstairs,” I said to my wife. “Run him a hot bath, then call Rick Dobersztyn and see if he can send a deputy out here.”
Melissa took James, but absently. I saw the pills in her eyes and had to look away.
“What is it?” she asked.
I thought about not answering, because it wouldn’t fully register. So much hadn’t lately; fortunately, the prescription was running out, and she was too drugged to notice. I’d been telling Harrison that she was doing fine. Carl’s a good doctor, but he’s never been married more than a couple years at a time, so there are some things he just doesn’t understand.
“There’s something in the barn,” I said, my back to her. I was putting on my jacket. “James doesn’t know what it is.”
“Do you think it’s a coyote?” my son asked, his face half-buried in his mother’s sweatshirt.
I shook my head. “If there’s as much blood as you said, then no. No coyote in its right mind would go after the hogs.” I began, however, going over a mental list of dangerous wildlife. A pack of stray dogs; perhaps even a solitary coyote, if it was big enough and rabid. There was always the possibility, too, of a cougar; there had been sightings lately, though nothing confirmed. There were always sightings, from way back when I was a kid. But no one I knew had ever seen one, though many claimed to have.
Large predators don’t make it on the prairie. Illinois is at the far east end of the Great Plains, but the land is still mostly flat. There are large groves of trees, even genuine forests—one began just a mile or so from our house. The truth is, however, that there just wasn’t room for a predatory animal in the area big enough to kill a bunch of hogs. Which meant, in all likelihood, that the blood James had seen came from the invading animal itself.
James’s eyes widened as I pulled the double-barreled shotgun from the closet. Melissa noticed it, too; she clutched James tighter to her, though she didn’t say anything.
Speaking to my son, I said, “I want you to take that hot bath, but call the Sheriff first.”
“Let me go with you,” he said, and his confidence saddened me.
“The Sheriff,” I repeated, tightening the hood of my jacket. I popped open the barrels and loaded them. “Just in case. Whatever’s out there is probably dead by now. Remember Titus?”
Titus had been our German shepherd, Joshua’s dog. James had been fond of that animal in the way only children can be—it had avoided him, and he’d only grown more in love with it. Three years ago, however, something had gone wrong—the dog was in a bad temper, and so was a hog, and the two collided. Titus didn’t stand a chance. And he’d been larger than the average-sized coyote.
I opened the front door, wincing as the cold slapped my face. I shut the door before James had a chance to protest further. He would stay inside, because despite his confidence in himself, he was still terrified. It’d been a while since I’d seen much bloodshed, but I knew how unsettling the sight was to me. It could only be worse for James, especially so soon after Joshua leaving. I really should’ve taken someone with me, in case whatever was in the barn was still in fighting shape. Joshua would’ve gone; he loved to shoot, was a better shot than me, and he was dependable. Wouldn’t have even bothered volunteering; he would’ve just assumed I’d want him at my side.
The wind bit at me, clawed at me. I had to close my eyes and tilt my head downward; the snow pelted me like buckshot. It was the first blizzard of the season, and easily the worst we’d had in a few years. We’d known it was coming for days, had stocked up on groceries and holed ourselves away. School was closed, the roads were closed. Even if James was able to get a hold of the Sheriff’s Department, I doubted they’d be able to send anybody out unless it was an emergency. I’d spent two years in Nebraska as a teenager, on my uncle’s farm; this blizzard reminded me of what I’d experienced there, in the flat-open prairie devoid of any natural shelter. The wind was so strong I could barely stay upright; I felt thirty pounds lighter, as though at any moment gravity’s hold would release, and I would go soaring up into the heart of the storm.
The jacket provided almost no protection from the cold. To distract myself, I thought of Joshua. It wasn’t a pleasant distraction, but it was all I had. He’d been growing distant, as all teenagers do. At seventeen, about to graduate high school in the spring, he’d been more mature than most grown men I knew. Quiet, self-reliant. Murky. That’s a harsh word to use against your own son, but it was true—he’d slowly but surely forced both Melissa and I out of his life. James, too, though he was softer on his brother, as though their mutual youth was a bond too tough to break entirely.
There was no note explaining why he left; just missing clothes and a duffel bag. He had some money saved up from his job at McDonald’s. He left behind his car, though I can’t say I blamed him—if he’d wanted to go far away, that Buick wouldn’t have gotten him there. There was no local bus line anymore, and no one at the Amtrak station in Mattoon remembered seeing him. We filed a missing person’s report after enough time had elapsed, even though we knew his leaving was entirely voluntary. That was when Melissa had broken down, as though putting his picture up everywhere made his absence more official. Perhaps it did, though I urged everyone to be patient. He would come back.
The barn was a good distance from the house, and it took me twice as long to find it as usual. I could see well enough, whenever I was able to raise my head; in the momentary lulls between gusts of wind, the view was actually beautiful, the snow falling down forcefully but not menacingly. It was the wind that did it; when the gusts kicked back in, everything turned inside out. I may as well have been standing behind a 747 as it left the runway.
I knew the way, however, and I reached the barn eventually. I fell against the wood with some relief; the barn was blocking the worst of the wind for now. I took a deep breath, then held it, my ear pressed against the wall. I could hear nothing above the wind, which didn’t calm me. If there was indeed a predator in the barn, the hogs should’ve been irate. That they were making no unusual noise at all was more disturbing than the scream James had heard.
I raised the shotgun to my shoulder, noticing that at some point I’d forgotten to keep the barrel pointed firmly down. There was little chance of the gun blowing up in my hands, but there was a distinct possibility that it wouldn’t fire at all. It was a chance I’d have to take. If it was a coyote, I would be able to club it; they’re fast but weak, nothing like wolves or even large domestic dogs. If it was a cougar in the barn, a phantom cat resurrected from decades past, I doubt even a working shotgun would’ve helped me much.
I walked with my side pressed against the barn, around the corner to the back entrance. I fumbled with my gloves for the padlock, which I always kept open. No need to lock it; just put it through the latch so the door won’t swing open.
The lock wasn’t there. It took me a while to discover that; my hand groped around for a full minute, on the odd chance that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, that I’d discovered another door to the barn, one that we didn’t lock because we didn’t know about it. But this was the right door, the only door except the large one in front, and the padlock had been removed.
It only worried me for a couple seconds. James had probably gone in through this door, despite years of my telling him to use the door in front. This door was the closest to the house, so it made sense that he would skip protocol on this occasion. How the door had shut against the wind, I didn’t know. Wind will do strange things.
I pulled the door open. As soon as I had open it an inch, the wind did the rest. The door struck the shotgun first; otherwise it would have hit my face, breaking my nose and knocking me, unconscious, back into the snow. I did fall, but the gun took the blow for me, and the worst I received was perhaps a bruised rib or two.
The barn was warm; we kept it electrically lit and heated, and the warm air rushed out to fill the vacuum of the night. It touched me momentarily, a fleeting brush before it was whisked away into the maelstrom. I received little warmth, however, because what I saw inside the barn chilled me worse than even the fiercest gust of wind.
There was blood. A lot of it. Too much to come from one coyote, or even two. There were animal parts strewn about, and though it’d been a long while since I’d done my own butchering, I recognized the pieces for what they were. A tail, a foot, an ear, a chunk of mottled skin. I knew, without stepping foot into the barn, that every single one of the hogs had been torn to pieces, the sties on both sides now slaughtering grounds. The image, and the realization that came with it, kept me on the ground, too shocked to move. For however many seconds, minutes, I was vulnerable—whatever had wrought such carnage could have come out and done the same to me, and I would barely have known it.
But I did recover, because there was something still alive in there, something screaming. Wailing. I used the shotgun as a crutch, not thinking of whether I was clogging the barrel or not. Nor was I thinking of protecting my property—if that was a hog in pain, then it was too far gone for me to save it. There are only two motives for such an awful sound: hopelessness and hunger. Neither motive was a good reason for going inside, but I went anyways.
I tried to avoid the blood at first, but my boots were soon coated in it, dotted with small bits of flesh and bone. I could see the hogs in their sties, red and purple and grey and lifeless. There was too much to focus on; my eyes took in the sight, but my mind failed to grasp it. I should have been looking around, prepared for an attack, but I could only stare, gaping, at what had once been my barn. Now it was something else’s barn; this was no longer my property, my livelihood. It was a charnel house, a Roman bloodbath. There were not words for it—just images, and my consciousness refused to accept them. All I could think of was a copy of Dante’s Inferno I’d had when a boy; it had belonged to my grandmother, and was fully illustrated. One drawing in particular, rendered in brilliant reds and oranges, had haunted my earliest nightmares. This was the closest I’d come to seeing that hellish vision actualized.
The thing screamed again, and I was snapped into action. The sound had come from the loft. I couldn’t tell which end of the barn it had come from; the wind added to the cacophony, creating an echoing cavern where my own ragged breathing seemed to come from behind me. I went to the nearest ladder, figuring it didn’t matter; whatever could kill every hog in the barn could kill me without the least bit of a fight. I took the shotgun with me solely because my hand was clutched too tightly around it to let go.
I climbed the ladder, ignoring the blood that caked its rungs. The loft was dark; I couldn’t see anything except the very edge, dirtied with hay and accumulated clutter. I pulled myself up, crouching in the darkness. The thing wailed again, but I still couldn’t pinpoint the source. From somewhere in front of me, I thought, though it could’ve been lurking right behind me, fangs inching towards my throat.
I reached out and instinctively flicked on the upper lights. The wires vibrated; I couldn’t hear the humming above the blizzard, but I could feel it. Then the lights flickered, once, twice, and I could see something crouched against the nearest wall, almost immediately above the back door. A low, black form. I could feel its gaze on me, primal and full of hate. I wanted to close my eyes but didn’t.
The lights kicked in. Sometimes, the winds will render them useless. I wished that were the case. I wished that the loft would again plunge into darkness, and that I would go along with it—a misstep in the dark, a quick fall to the cutting room floor. Then blissful black oblivion and nothing more.
But the lights held, and I stood staring at the figure before me, just ten feet away, looking at me with an expression I could never hope to describe—one of hunger, desire, fear, and love.
He was my son, but he wasn’t. I knew this immediately. My son would never crouch naked in a barn, a raw piece of hog flesh clutched in his hands, tendrils of bloody meat dangling from his mouth. My son would never make the guttural snarl that this figure made, deep in the back of his throat, the sound you hear from a rabid dog as it guards its fresh kill. My son, my Joshua, could never do that.
But there was recognition in his eyes. Humanity. He knew me, and he didn’t attack—just watched, just waited. I didn’t approach. I knelt down, crouching at his level. I placed the shotgun on the boards, pushed it aside—away, but still within reach. I didn’t smile, because he appeared to be smiling at me, and there was no joy in the gesture, nothing that I had ever associated with such an expression. I just watched him as he watched me.
I didn’t think about what he had used to kill the hogs. There were dozens, hundreds, of cutting and bludgeoning instruments strewn throughout the barn. It was a place of killing, of raising animals solely to take their lives. Nor did I think of how he’d acquired the strength, the agility, to do what he’d done. This was my son before me, but not entirely, and I accepted that. I had no choice.
I looked at his face, his body, raw and torn. I thought that maybe one of his toes was frostbit; it had been a mild winter so far, until earlier that day, preceding the storm. I looked at his hair, his mouth; I caught a whiff of the feral stench that emanated from his pores. I slowed my breathing, long exhalations, drawn out, calm. He stayed the same, not moving. The growl in his throat subsided, until the only noise in the barn came from the wind pounding on the walls, trying to tear the building down.
“I knew you’d come back,” I said, during a lull. My voice was steady; he didn’t react. I sensed that he’d heard me, however. I don’t know how, but I knew my voice carried to him, and that part of him understood.
“We’ve been worried,” I added. “All of us. We missed you.” I took a small step forward, a slide really, moving half an inch closer. His eyes narrowed, but otherwise he was still.
Now, I smiled. It felt right.
“Welcome home, son.”