The fear gripped him like the old mans hands and held him tight in his place. Outside the night wind rustled through the barn, stirring the hay and making portentous shadows on the slated walls. He clenched his fists and sighed, watching the air escape his mouth like smoke. It was his own paranoia he knew, not the grip of calloused farm-worked hands that held him. No, it had been almost twenty years since he’d stepped a foot in the barn. Since that night. It had been stirring in his mind, forcing him from his sleep, taking control of his days until he found himself unable to concentrate on even the most mundane of tasks. The secrets buried deep within were coming back to haunt him, he was certain of that.
How old had he been then? Just a boy, maybe only eleven or twelve. That tender age when his curiosity peaked and he believed himself on the verge of a great adventure. The barn had not changed in all that time; and yet it had. The hay still smelled sweet, but it was no longer tended. Another generation of cats had made their home there, though not the ones he played with as a child. It sent a shiver up his spine each time he happened to catch their yellow eyes in the dark. To the naked eye the barn had not changed, except in the way that time changes all things. To Jonas it had become darker, consumed by whatever unnatural thing dwelt there.
He could still remember the last summer he had seen at the old farm. His parents had decided to go away for the summer, to Europe or somewhere. Jonas had gotten in trouble again and they decided that spending the summer doing some hard labor with his aunt and uncle would be just the thing to set him straight. Really, it hadn’t been his fault. Some other boys had played a prank on Mr. Elbins, lit some bags of dog poop and run off. But the flames caught the dry shrubs surrounding the house and Jonas happened to be riding his bike by right after it happened. He broke in and tried to warn him when he didn’t answer his knocks, but no one was home and the police had heard excuses like that before. He had never been in trouble before, so they worked out a compromise, the farm or community service. Back then it had been the biggest problem he had ever had. He had to chuckle at how trivial it seemed now.
Aunt Elma and Uncle Frank weren’t really any different than other farm folk he had met before, a little more guarded maybe, there was something obscure about them he couldn’t quite place but it wasn’t anything to be concerned about. He woke up early and fed the pigs, milked the cows, did the farm chores ‘til his back ached and his hands were raw. It was only when he had been there a week that he began to notice things at the farm were not always as they appeared. He woke up one night, thinking he had heard the kitchen door shut and crept to the window. His breath caught in his throat as he peeled back a corner of the curtain, the amber glow of a lantern bobbed through the cornfield and towards the barn at the edge of the property. Funny, he realized how he had never seen anyone go back there before. He hadn’t been forbidden, but whenever he had gotten close someone had steered him away with some other chore. The light disappeared into the barn, leaving no trace of whoever had been behind it.
But his mind had been made up, whoever was out there, he was going to catch him. He imagined the look of surprise on his aunt and uncle when he took them to the barn and handed over the intruder which he had caught and detained single-handed. Then his mom and dad would believe him. He would be given a medal for his courage and he would be a hero. There would be no more talk of Mr. Elbins ever again. No, this was it. This was his big chance!
He slipped on his flannel overcoat and boots and crept out into the hallway, taking care to shut the door behind him without a sound. He tip-toed down the hall, hearing his heart thump in his chest and worrying if anyone else could hear it. Would the intruder have a backup? Someone in the house? No, he would have heard it if anyone else had been there. He passed Elma and Franks room and heard only the steady sounds of snoring. Waking them up would’ve been harder than getting Elsie to milk without a fuss. He paused one last time, took control of his breathing and made his way down the stairs.
The kitchen was dark, the glow of the full moon outside lending its shadows to its inhabitants, and they were watching them. All of them with silent eyes following him out the door, which barely made a creak as he closed it behind him. The October air stole the breath out of his lungs and he pulled his coat tighter around his chest. There was a pang of fear in his chest, he wondered if he should turn back, pull the warm covers up over his head and everything would be as safe and sane as the day before. But this was something he had to do. Besides, he had made it this far, he couldn’t turn back now.
A floorboard creaked behind him and caused him to jump. His flashlight dropped to the floor with a thud and flickered.
“Uncle?” He squeaked. It was impossible he knew, and he chided himself for being so foolish. None answered but a hoot-owl in search of a midnight snack. What had possessed him to come back? A piece of his boyhood curiosity that had not yet escaped? The letter his aunt sent him the week before? There had been nothing unusual in it; yet the feeling, one he couldn’t put his finger on, had been nagging at him. He didn’t believe in such foolish things as ghosts, or perhaps he would have thought his uncles ghost was beckoning him. But- something was there. Wasn’t it? He picked up the flashlight and dusted it off. It was Franks fault, not his. He never should have scared him like he did. Christ, he was just a boy! Just a goddamn kid and his uncle treated him the way he did. Filled him with all them horror stories about the barn; scared him half out of his skin. Hell, he even went out to the barn that night for added effect. Said he was going to “negotiate with the creature.” He’d heard terrible howling carried faintly on the wind and Frank came back with a look on his stern face that kept even the rooster from crowing in the morning. If Aunt Elma knew what her husband did to him, she’d have refused him dessert for a month. But he never talked about it for fear that his uncle would lock him in the barn. He’d threatened to do that once or twice when Jonas misbehaved and he didn’t dare to question whether or not he’d actually do it.
He shone the beam of light toward the stables. The tiny dots of dust danced in his flashlights path, the only sign of life in the dead barn. Dead. Why had he used that word? It was true enough, even the cats were silent. The wind was silent along with the crickets and it was as if the farm around him had died. A chill ran through him and his hair stood on end. Was this how it had been that night? When he had followed his uncle out to the barn, determined to call the old mans bluff once and for all?
He never meant to hurt the old man, just scare him some, give him a taste of his own medicine. Get him off his back. He crouched down in one of the unused horse stalls, the straw itched his bare knees like crazy, poked through his shorts. He refused to scratch them or to shift about. He wouldn’t let himself be given up that easy. He could hear his uncles heavy footsteps and the gruff of his voice as he muttered to himself, staring at something in the shadows. He could hear the hoarse rasp of the wind, although through the window above him the trees didn’t seem to be moving at all.
He stared at the clouds, trying to see them sail by, when an icy grip clenched around his neck. He looked down to see the old mans eyes as large as marbles, his leathered face contorted into a look of sheer horror. Frank made not a sound but shoved him as if towards the doors. Then he heard the screams. Horrible, high-pitched and inhuman they became his whole world. He tore himself from the rough hands that clawed at his skin and bolted toward the door, unable to feel the weight of his legs beneath him. A deafening thud shook the floor and he lost his balance. Stumbling he fell, landing on his hands and knees. They were scraped pretty bad but he couldn’t feel the sting. He glanced behind him and there he was. His uncle lying face down where he had stood just moments ago. There was no movement, no breath heaving in his chest. Still the screams continued. Jonas realized the screams were his own, his chest exploded as he escaped the barn. Everything went blank.
The wind rasped through the barn, brushed against him as if saying something he couldn’t understand. Of course. Now he knew why he had come. Even after all this time he still felt responsible for his uncles death. Of course no one had blamed him, but he’d never forgiven himself. He wiped a silent tear from his eye. It was all so clear now. He had never been fond of the old man, but still he had been family. He mourned his loss, his uncle and his childhood. He stepped back outside into the night air, the harvest moon shining bright. He picked some wild flowers that grew scattered around the big doors. Held them in his hands and noticed their delicate petals against his own hardened hands. Not like his uncles, but they reminded him of them from time to time.
His boots crunched beneath the brittle bits of farmland that lay strewn about the floor of the barn as he stepped back inside. He stopped and thought for a moment, shone his flashlight back over the stall where his uncle suffered the heart attack that left his face frozen in eternal terror. But he remembered, and instead walked towards the back of the barn, where Frank had last been normal, muttering to himself probably about some farm tools left there. Jonas couldn’t help but realize that the wall only held a shadow. Perhaps whatever had been there was auctioned off after his death. He set the flowers down anyways. Whatever had been there wasn’t of any importance. It was who had been there that counted.
“Whattt” A harsh voice carried on the wind asked, “What have you brought for me?”
His eyes grew large and his heart skipped a beat. “Who’s there? Elma? Is that you?”
“I have been here for a long time. Your uncle knew me. He kept his promises, that one.” The voice was slow, crisp like the wind. His flashlight blinked and went dark. The wind scratched against him like a wool scarf.
“This ain’t funny. You’re trespassing and I have every right to call the sheriff. Now show yourself.” He tried to make his voice stern but could feel it quivering in his throat.
“Veryy well boy. I have waited a long time for you.” The room spun into a darkness Jonas had never deemed possible, even the light from the windows had been snuffed out. He wished he had brought his shotgun, or his cell phone.
Two red lights appeared in the dark, in the spot above where the memorial flowers had been set. Placed like a sacrifice at an altar; the thought sickened him. The orbs became like the eyes of a cat or owl, hollow yet solid all at once. The shadow may have been darker there, he could feel it but not see it.
“What do you mean you’ve been waitin’ for me? What kind of a sick joke do you think this is?” He was screeching now, but he didn’t care.
The breeze bristled against him hot and sticky though it made no sound. No reply at all. It crowded in on him, squeezing him tighter and tighter. It burned in his chest when he struggled to take a breath. His heart jumped in his chest, the movements like being stabbed with Elmas’ embroidery needles.
He could see. The moon outside cast its silvery glow across the woodwork and the wind swirling around him rustled not a single straw of hay, made not a single leaf dance on it’s branch. Then he saw it. The fire eyes burned and in it he could see everything that had been wrong in the world, everything since the beginning of time. The hideous black face grinned, fangs rotting yellow and wormed. He had brought no sacrifice of his own. Instead he had brought what his uncle refused to sacrifice.