previous: Strawman ch9: Sliding Doors
The threat was still very real. Someone was going to destroy Mount Rushmore by hacking into the missile defense system. (And somehow, this process conjures up a rage demon.) Along this path, I had the chance to catch ‘the instance’ far enough in the past to cut off all possibility of a mass casualty event. Now what exactly was ‘the instance’? All I knew was that there would be a moment, a tell-tale sign. I needed to find my way down a path that would lead to a minimal number of victims.
This quest began with me flying home to South Dakota. Using what little money I had in my bank account, I overpaid for an Alaska Airlines flight to Sioux falls, arriving early the next morning. (I have no idea why I just didn’t take a bus.) I was so early, I had to wait for the rental car area to open.
Grumbling to myself, I pulled out my phone, making notes to this travel log, as well as checking the availability of my finances. Thankfully I had a credit card under my own name, so I would be able to rent a vehicle. I had no reservation, so I was set to ask for whatever model had the best mileage. (And even then, I planned to buy my own extra fuel canister at the first visible gas station.)
Enterprise had a reasonably sized Honda civic available. From there I proceeded into the belly of Hell. The beauty of nature was all around; the sky painted in shades of purple orange and blue, the empty fields covered in shadows of the early morning sun. If you weren’t a local, it would actually seem kind of pretty.
Jamie’s family home was, technically, part of the next closest town. I remember this became an issue when Jamie’s livestock business started to turn a profit, yet we were not paying taxes or even registered with the local council. Not exactly sure how the previous owners were able to work under the table for well over a hundred years.
Actually, it was probably my fault. I was the one who insisted on a legal marriage. It had always been my plan to go to West Point; a free education at one of the best universities in the country. Jamie didn’t believe in banks, so it wasn’t about gaining access to my military pay. No, this was about taking him with me; getting Jamie to leave South Dakota.
Although we had no postal address, we were forced to pay property tax on the land that had been in Jamie’s family for generations. This amounted to the farm being nothing more than a money pit. ‘Such bullshit.’
I’d committed the route to memory. there was an opening in the trees, just beyond a clearly marked exit. With how dense the forest became; most people would just assume it was a hiking trail before turning back towards the main road.
When I was getting close, I could feel the start of the nausea. The trees seemed to fold in, creating a path that I was being forced to follow. Soon I could make out the location of our home. The single-story wooden house stood in front of the farmland, acting as a ‘welcome’ of sorts. ‘More like a warning.’
As I cautiously pulled into the driveway, I felt nothing but sickness. Part of it was nerves, anger, perhaps even frustration. But mainly it was because I knew my husband kept a loaded gun by the door to ‘deal with’ hunters (both human and canine.) The layer of gravel crackled beneath my tires as I put on the parking brake.
‘Oh, crap.’ If he hadn’t already heard me coming, he sure as Hell knew now. “Jamie?” I made sure my face was visible from the windshield. “It’s just me.” I kept the engine turned on while I rolled down the window, making sure to wave my white graduation glove.
“Jamie, it’s Grace, your wife. I know it’s been a while. I missed you at my graduation.” I raised my hands like a suspect surrendering to police. ‘For the love of God Jamie, just make some kind of sound!’
I heard the sound of him locking his gun away. this was followed by the innocent squeak of my little daughter.
“Ella.” my perfect little angel opened the door all on her own. She rushed outside, running on her bare feet. I picked her up, spinning her around as she giggled. and then I saw the bottom of her feet. they were caked with, what I already knew was not mud. “Have you been playing with the piggies?”
She nodded happily. “Miss Jessie has babies!”
Miss Jessie was one of six female pigs of breeding age. Out of every litter a few were sold for meat, some raised into adulthood, and (very rarely) one or two were kept around as an unofficial family pet. (Miss Jessie fell somewhere in the middle; not small enough to be a pet while too loved to be sold as meat.)
Jamie stood in the doorway, looking calm and cool. “Hey, baby, did you miss me?”
“Always.” I rushed in for a hug, causing Jamie to flinch in pain. “What’s wrong?”
“I was waiting for you to get home. I was hoping you could help me with something”-Jamie took off his shirt, revealing a bruised shoulder that appeared to be the result of a fall or a fight with one of the animals.
“You needed me to help with your broken shoulder?”
“I think I just pulled it out of socket.”
“No, I’m pretty sure you have a broken bone in there. How long ago did you hurt yourself?”
Jamie pursed his lips. I could tell by his expression that he was attempting to offer an actual answer. “Maybe a month ago.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“You know I don’t believe in doctors.”
“No, I did not know that.” I gave his shoulder a painful squeeze as I guided him to a chair. “You take Ella to her appointments, right? Our baby is current on all her shots?”
“Of course, but that’s because she’s covered by your insurance until she’s grown.”
“And you’re not?” As my legal husband he was entitled to Tricare (the military health insurance for enlisted, officers, retirees and dependents.) With a hard slam I attempted to push his bone back into place. It took three tries before I heard a snap.
Jamie coughed, gasping for air. He rolled his shoulder back, as if attempting to prove that it was in fact just a sprain. “I want to show you something.” Jamie walked me to the bedroom, under the bed was a latch, leading to a secret compartment with a metal case. Inside was a substantial amount of money.
“Do you not believe in banks either?”
“I believe in taxes; the government crawling up my ass while I’m just trying to make a living to support my family.”
“Is that why you didn’t come to my graduation?”
“We would have come if you sent tickets.”
“I did send you tickets. You were literally the only people I had to send tickets to!” The rest of my allotment I had sold online to my classmates who actually had large, close, families.
“Airline tickets? Unless you expected me to drive across the country with a two-year-old?”
I had assumed he could figure something out. That was my mistake. “Sorry.” I reached for my purse, producing a stack of papers. “That’s all about to change. “
“These your orders? When are you flying out?” He asked his questions before actually flipping to the first page.
I pressed my lips to his ear and said in my sexiest Italian diva impression. “Aviano, Italy.”
Jamie shoved the papers at my chest. “You saying I only got two months to spend with my wife before they drag you half way around the world?”
I flipped to the back page. “I want you and Ella to come with me.” The last page was my dependent orders; my husband and daughter would live in the base hotel until housing became available. And then, as a family we could find a rental home.
“What about my land?”
“You can sell it, or we can rent it. I’m sure we could find someone.”
“But this is my family’s land.”
“We can talk about this later.”
“No!” Jamie grabbed me by my arm so hard I felt my heart race.
I wanted to flinch, to cry, but instead I made the choice to slap him across the face. I ran for the door, grabbing my bag. I was nearly back to my rental car when I turned back.
The native American ghost appeared, sitting on the front steps. She was still dressed in full ceremonial costume, garb. ‘What was the politically correct term?’
“Ugh!” the girl groaned. “You are so annoying.”
“I’m sorry?” Could she hear my thoughts?
She leaned forward, allowing the costume to slip off like a caterpillar shedding its cocoon. But instead of a butterfly, she was a denim-clad rocker chick. “You’re seriously fucked up. You know that right?”
“I don’t even know you.”
“Is that why you wanted to be a cop ever since you were a kid? I know you like to tell yourself that you want to solve mysteries; to find the truth no matter which side it falls on.”
“So? What’s your point?”
“In reality; you don’t know and you don’t care.”
It took me a moment to realize what she was saying. “Are you accusing me of being a racist?”
“I’m asking you to check your privilege. Jamie’s connection to his land is what defines him as a person.”
“No one identifies as a farmer!” I really hoped I did not say that out loud. South Dakota was a farming community. The state even had a Corn Palace.
“Wow, just wow. People across the world have identities that don’t fit within the cultural norm. It’s only in the last century that humanity has been brave enough to embrace our genuine selves.”
“Are you comparing the nonbinary movement to identifying as a farmer?
She covered her mouth, doubling over with laughter. “I was thinking more along the lines of race, culture, nationality.” She raised her head, revealing the paint chipping off her face. “You just need to pull your head out of your ass for a second and acknowledge the fact that you do not know everything.”
“Or anything.” For a moment I had no idea what she was talking about. I was certainly not that conceited. ‘That sounds like something a conceded person would think.’
I pushed past the girl as I reentered the house, walking straight to the bedroom. This was our bedroom; Jamie and I together as a family. I reclined into the deceptively soft bed. despite looking like an old bedspring, it was actually memory foam. Just as I felt my body melt into the comfort, I spotted Ella in the doorway.
She squeaked a shy, “Mama?”
“I’m here, I’m fine, baby.”
“Hello, Mama.” Little Ella jumped into bed, cuddling by my side. “Did Daddy feed you?”
She nodded. “Dada made food for you too.”
“Really?” I asked. Ella’s skin was soft like a high-quality doll.
She nodded, looking up at me with her innocent eyes. “Dada said you want to go away?
“I want to take you someplace beautiful, magical.”
Ella smiled wide. “Can we bring Miss Jessie?”
“Well, no. Probably not.” I actually had no idea. I sat up and made my way to the kitchen.
The whole house smelled like roast pork and root vegetables. I was suddenly unbelievably hungry. I took a seat at the table, where there were already three plates set up along with fresh milk, orange juice and beer. I assumed the beer was for him. “Remind me again where’d you learn to cook? You always told me that your mama couldn’t boil water.”
“I can’t believe you remembered that.”
“She’s buried on this land, right under the pig enclosure.”
“She’s buried under the pigs?”
“It was what she wanted. Those animals were her babies.”
‘Not you, her son?’ I forced a mouthful of meat to prevent me from saying something I’d regret. I could imagine Jamie (having grown up without a father) getting compared to his ‘No good, coward of a bio-dad.’ There was no reason to rub salt in the wounds. “Oh, I can see that.”
Jamie, in a visibly calmer mood took a seat at the table. “Do you have to go to Italy?”
“For the first two years.” It was all inside the paperwork I signed when first admitted to West Point. “I could volunteer for a deployment. It could get me a pay bump and if all goes well, I could get in good with the higher-ups and next time around I can choose a stateside post.”
“So, you’re admitting you chose Italy?”
“You know I can’t sell the land,” he cracked open a beer, allowing the bubbles to settle. “Because I’d have to prove I own it.”
“Oh?” My face fell; he had a legit point, one that went beyond ‘self-identifying’ as a farmer.
“The moment we leave town, the city will be out here with bulldozers.”
“Would that really be so bad?” I asked in a whisper.
The way Jamie dropped his fork, sent a shover down my spine. “I’m sorry, I thought we were having a mature discussion.”
“We are,” I replied, looking to Ella for courage. “There’s a whole world beyond the farm. You could go to culinary school. Or maybe even get your degree.”
“Agriculture, horticulture, maybe even animal husbandry?”
“You think I could be a vet?”
“I think you could be anything.” I paused, looking him in the eyes. I was not afraid of being hit, slapped, punched. This version of me could take it. “And I’d be willing to do whatever it takes to give you that chance.” I reached for his hand. “I love you, Jamie.”
He nodded. Jamie crossed his arms, looking down at his plate. He had a full serving of pulled pork over a pile of freshly made biscuits. He was hiding his eyes, his expression.
‘Was he smiling? No, don’t get your hopes up. Just eat.’ I stayed quiet, taking a bite of my slow cooked shredded meat. “Can I have a biscuit?”
Ella squealed with joy. “Kit-kit!” She grabbed a bowl from off the table, it contained a single biscuit covered in butter, honey and jam. “Mama try?”
“I see your daddy isn’t the only creative one.” I pulled my daughter on to my lap and together we split the delicious creation.
That evening I went to bed early, opting to spend more time with Ella. She showed off her dolls, books, and custom toys made by Jamie. She pulled an oddly humanoid plushie onto the bed. It didn’t feel like fabric. “What’s this?
“Baby doll,” Ella said. She quickly buried the doll’s face in her shoulder. No matter how I tried to playfully tickle her, Ella would not allow me to see the toy’s face. Before I had the energy to get upset, Jamie entered the room.
“Kitchen is clean, if you care.”
“I do care,” I said out loud before realizing what he meant. I could/should have been helping. “Sorry, I assumed you were just used to working by yourself.”
“Too late now, I got to take a leak.” He took off his shirt as if preparing to go to bed, then grabbed the chunky yellow camping store flashlight.
While the house had a generator with access to well water, we had no connection to the sewer system. The animals did their business in the pens, and my family used a traditionally made outhouse, located just outside the bedroom. It was actually kind of gross and at times I would much prefer to attempt to squat behind a bush.
I turned to face away from the door. Eventually Jamie returned. I pretended to already be asleep to avoid further conversation. Within the silence of the room, Jamie faced his side of the bed, and went straight to sleep.
Ella had been resting between us, with the doll pressed against her chest. When she noticed her daddy, I felt her squirming. Eventually, Ella found her way to cuddle with her daddy’s big strong arms.
I had to admit I was jealous, but the image looked so sweet. This was what all military parents wanted, a stay-at-home partner, who their child absolutely adores. And now I needed to pee. ‘Where the hell did Jamie leave that flashlight?’
With just the light of the moon (coming from a window on the opposite side of the room,) to guide me I located the designated restroom flashlight. There was even a label made from sharpie and duct tape. ‘Daddy’s Potty Light.’ I assumed this was a warning for Ella: do not use the outhouse without adult supervision. (Though, I had little hope that Ella could even lift the camp light, much less travel with it.)
I frantically looked for my shoes. The idea of stepping out, into the area where the animals had free-range to eat, sleep and shit, did not appeal to me. ‘My shoes are all the way in the living room, aren’t they?’
With my bladder aching, I knew I had two choices. I could get back in bed and piss myself, (and blame little Ella) but that seemed tacky even for me. My second choice would be to walk outside without shoes. This seemed like a viable idea. Near the back door were a pair of durable plastic sandals, the kind worn to the beach, and then cleaned with a garden hose. Judging by the size and the body warmth still evident within the material, they appeared to belong to Jamie. I would be going with option three; use Jamie’s house shoes.
The walk was not too far. I could see the carved door from the bedroom window. ‘Why did all outhouses have crescent moons on the doors? Was it intended as a way to see outside? If so, that was a little stupid.’’
The moon was high in the sky, but there was no actual light inside the outhouse. I figured the camp light was procured as a means to find the toilet hole without falling in. The device itself was hefty, clearly making use of a hand cranked wind-up system (instead of batteries.) I made it all the way to the door, before the light slipped from my hands.
It hit the floor with a gross, squishy sound. Knowing it would be covered in mud (or worse) I decided to get the door open first. There was no lock, only a wooden latch that could be easily lifted. ‘Wow, real sanitary.’ I made a mental note to wash my hands after the eventual completion of this epic journey.
I managed to slip the front part of Jamie’s shoe into a crack in the doorframe. With the creepy wooden door wedged open I was able to slip in without the use of my hands. Of course, there was still the matter of retrieving the damn flashlight.
I left the door wide open, allowing me a view of the moon as I quickly emptied my bladder. (If I ever needed to poop, I would have to find a way to securely lock the door.) ‘And, of course, there is no toilet paper.’
I quickly finished my business, but when I reached for the light, I was ready to vomit. The beam was pointing directly at the back of the seat, allowing me a view of the innerworkings of the toilet.
I expected to see a mass of brown, representing both the bodily fluids and the dirt hole (that I assumed this bathroom was built around.) Instead, I was greeted by a nightmare. The wall was coated in red, shimmering blood. ‘Why is it shiny?’
Even with the way light was catching the color of the rotted wood there was no reason for the contents to be shiny. The wife, mother, (and human being) in me wanted to shut the door and run. Clearly, this was a dead animal; a wolf or a fox (or whatever lived in this God forsaken place), killed one of our livestock and dumped the inedible parts. ‘Yes, that makes perfect sense.’
And yet, my feet were frozen in place. The military school graduate and future FBI profiler in me needed to take a closer look. ‘If you find big bones, maybe some skin or fur, then you can conclude this was an animal attack.”
With trembling hands, I lifted the beam of light. I was actually aiming at the portal to Hell. ‘Why are you doing this?’
The light was catching on the chunks of flesh embedded throughout. Some of it appeared to be stringy, like undigested meat. Other appeared to be clots of fat; white, yellow and pink. Was Jamie already sick?
I took a step backward, leaving the door wide open as I ran back inside the main house. I dropped the flashlight, making more noise than I had intended. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the crash of plastic, and metal on our wood floor, woke up half the state.)
I ran to the kitchen, towards the only sink that I knew had soap. (Although I would settle for bleach and ammonia if it could clean the image from my eyes.)
I turned on the water, causing the pipes to rattle. I could hear Ella waking up, wailing, sobbing. “This isn’t fair,” I said through sobs of my own. I caused her pain; Jamie’s pain, my family’s pain. I fell to my knees. I wanted to vomit, cry, but instead I prayed. ‘Please, God, Charli, anyone? I need help.’
I could hear a sound; a ringtone, my ringtone. I went for my bag. Removing the device from the front pocket. That was how I found my phone.
“What’s all that racket? Your new bosses trying to call you from Italy?”
“No, it’s just my alarm.” I chuckled nervously. I could see I had a voicemail, so I quickly powered down the screen. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Jamie put his arms around me, pulling me onto his lap while still holding Ella. “Hey, it’s alright, sweetheart. It’s alright.” He rocked both me and the baby, until we calmed ourselves to sleep.
I awoke in his arms, the way I wanted to awaken for the rest of my life. The sunrise was a mix of purple, orange, with hints of blue. “Jamie?”
My husband grunted in his sleep. I knew he deserved to rest. We could always talk later.
“Mama?” Ella’s little voice said in a whisper. She sounded oddly terrified.
“What is it, baby?” My daughter’s head was turned, and she was looking out the window.
I wanted to scream. Outside, all of the pigs were asleep in the sunlight, laying on their sides, like a giant jigsaw puzzle of quivering flesh. Some were foaming at the mouth, while others were crying tears of blood. ‘Were they in pain?’
This was all my fault. Everything was my fault.
“Not anymore.” I picked up Ella and pulled the curtains closed.
“There’s nothing out there; no piggy, no monsters, no fear.” I bounced her in my arms, making my way to the kitchen. “All we have in this life is each other. First thing we’re going to do is get your daddy to a hospital.”
It took me a while to type all of this up. The task was a good distraction from the voice mail. The caller was unknown.
“Look out the window,” said the message.
“No,” I said with a smile, as I clicked the delete button. “I don’t think so.”
And then I got a text, ‘You may think you know what you have to do, but if you were really that smart, I would never have been brought into existence.’
‘How are you typing this?’
‘Speech to text.’