There are many things best left buried.
With the best of intentions, our brightest minds have dedicated themselves from the dawn of civilization to the collection, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge so that their descendants might live better lives. Simultaneously, minds just as brilliant, just as dedicated, have toiled to scatter, destroy, and conceal events that if known might destroy those very same civilizations.
Sometimes, however, that which both sides should fear most will refuse to stay buried.
An ancient Ford F150, whose once bright-green paint job has long ago been replaced by layers of rust and dirt, comes to a gravel-spraying stop only a couple feet from John Becker’s mud-covered work boots.
With a screech of worn door hinges that probably haven’t seen a drop of oil since Becker was a kid, he watches with a look of resigned weariness as his elderly next-farm-over neighbor, Frank Potter, jumps out and yells, “I SAW LIGHTS FLASHING AROUND MY MILKING SHED!! THEM HIPPIES ARE AT IT AGAIN!!”
After a deep sigh, Becker replies with a resigned sounding, “And a good evening to you too, Frank.” Knowing full well any rational conversation with his senile neighbor was doomed to failure when he’s angry, or most any other time for that matter, he still makes the effort out of respect for the man’s long suffering, and long dead, wife. How that saintly woman, his great aunt, had put up with Frank for near-on six decades was a common topic of conversation around town.
Immune to any form of sarcasm, and manners apparently, Potter ignores Becker’s tone. Instead, he tries to vent his growing anger by slamming the truck door behind him closed. The operative word is ‘tries’. Whether because of weakness caused by advancing rheumatism, or simple lack of any proper maintenance, Potter fails twice and is eventually forced to body slam the door until the latching mechanism engages.
After a second to gather his breath, he yells even louder, “DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME!! I SAID THEM HIPPIES ARE AT IT AGAIN!! OR MAYBE IT’S THOSE RED CHINESE COMMUNISTS!! LEND ME TOM’S SHOTGUN TO DEFEND MY PROPERTY!!”
Frank Potter doesn’t own any firearms. And he hasn’t since the mayor, the sheriff, and Pastor Gabriel from their church, showed up on his porch a score of years back demanding he turn them over for safe keeping. Potter was always a far better farmer than a marksman, otherwise he wouldn’t have missed when that unlucky, or lucky depending on your point of view, John Deere salesman drove onto his property waving a Shell gas station map asking for directions.
Like the young folk say today, there was no way in H E double hockey sticks he was going to let Potter anywhere near his prized Stevens double-barrel blued-steel sixteen-gauge shotgun. His father, Tom Becker, had bought it brand spanking new and left it to Frank upon his death eight years ago in 1965.
Certain he knew the likely cause of the octogenarian’s ire, Becker lifts his gaze westward in the direction of his neighbor’s once-immaculately maintained cow pasture. Far in the distance a large decrepit farmhouse, an even more weather-beaten milking shed, and a precariously leaning metal grain silo, are barely visible in the rapidly approaching sunset.
Sighing even deeper, he asks a question that’s more of a declarative statement than anything else, “The high-school kids making out in there again?”
Hippies and Red Chinese Communists momentarily forgotten, Potter responds matter-of-factually, “Don’t forget the beer! There were empty bottles and cigarette butts all over the place last time! How can I tend my cows if they burn it down?!
Potter’s milking shed hasn’t seen a cow in nearly a dozen years. It took a while, but eventually the FDA office in Rohrerstown got flooded with so many reports about animal neglect they had to take action. With the help of Doc Julius Morton, Downingtown’s semi-retired, and now late veterinarian, they hauled off or culled the few remaining head of cattle on the farm, and ordered the dairy machinery sold at auction to pay a six-inch-thick pile of warning letters Potter has been ignoring since the late 50′s.
It’d be only a year or two before Potter himself was carted off, likely screaming and threatening to sue every government official in the state of Pennsylvania, to a retirement home. Until that joyous and much anticipated moment came for anyone who’d ever crossed paths with this cantankerous farmer, he’d continue to live nearby in the small itinerant farm-workers shed he moved into when Mary passed on. And support his meager financial needs renting out unused pastureland to neighbors.
Annoying everyone within a mile of his farm came free of charge.
With daylight rapidly coming to an end, Becker decides a little white lie is his best option to get his chores done before full dark, “Sorry, Frank. I mailed it off to have a sticky trigger fixed yesterday. I’m not sure when it’ll be back. If you want, I’ll take a look at your milking shed tomorrow morning after I slop the hogs.”
“FINE . . . I’LL RUN THEM OFF MYSELF!!”, Potter yells back and starts to root around in the pile of corroded-to-uselessness junk filling the bed of his truck for something sharp and pointy.
Knowing he’s never going to sleep comfortably again if a poor nicotine-addicted teenager, or worse, his girlfriend, got skewered by a pitchfork, Becker lowers his head in defeat and mumbles, “I’ll come with you. Just give me a minute to grab a flashlight and tell Donna I’ll be gone a bit.”
His wife, twin teenage daughters, Linda and Susan, Pastor Gabriel, his large extended family, and all the self-righteous wagging tongues in town, would never forgive him if he didn’t stop his addled-brained neighbor from hurting someone. Going off on a wild goose chase in the dark would only take an hour at most. He’d just have to make up for lost time by getting up at five tomorrow morning to tend his chicken barn and hog runs.
Almost crowing in satisfaction, Potter replies at a near-shout, “I’m driving!”
Becker doesn’t know if he should laugh out loud, or scream in terror, but the very idea he’d get into anything driven by Frank Potter brought both to mind. He decides instead to compromise with another white lie, “I’ll follow you in my truck. That way you won’t have to waste time or gas bringing me back.”
Most people will agree in an instant if given a time and money-saving option like that. Potter ruminates for a good thirty seconds before he replies with, “I got a better idea. How about you follow me in your truck? That way I don’t have to waste time or gas bringing you back.”
Mumbling, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’, Becker decides that any attempt to set the record straight wasn’t worth the effort. He’d have enough trouble asking for forgiveness when he said his bedtime prayers tonight. Those two ‘little white lies’ were already beginning to weigh on his conscience, “Sounds good to me. I’ll be right back.”
The trip was uneventful ... for the most part.
Staying far behind his traveling companion’s rear bumper, Becker keeps a wary eye on the two speeds Potter normally drives: fast and recklessly fast. After a couple close-calls in the moonless dark avoiding axle-busting drainage ditches, and the rusted half-buried remains of a thirty-years-dead-and-abandoned tractor, they arrive near the milking shed and circle around.
Out of any possible onlooker’s view from the main road, once again, a small area free of tire-puncturing debris has been turned into an unauthorized parking lot.
In order to facilitate a quick getaway, two garishly painted, and heavily chromed, convertibles, gleam like a fairground fun-house mirrors in his headlights with their grills pointed towards an empty field. ‘No doubt about it’, Becker thought, ‘it’s the high-school kids again.’ It couldn’t be anyone else. No self-respecting adult would drive either vehicle was his firm opinion.
After turning off his engine and setting the emergency brake, he grabs a club-size flashlight off the bench seat and near-leaps from his truck to stop his elderly neighbor from entering the milk shed’s dark interior, “Hold on, Frank. Now’s not the time to go in there and bust a leg. Let’s turn some lights on ...”
Before he can finish the sentence, the response his brain is already predicting arrives, “Ain’t got none here. Government busy-buddies cut the wires when they stole my equipment! God damn them all to Hell Fire!!”
Automatically, Becker responds with a loud, “Mind your language! There are kids about here somewhere!”
History was made that very moment. It must’ve been a quarter century since Frank Potter last apologized to anyone for anything, “Sorry. Please don’t tell Pastor Gabriel. He’s still mad at me for falling asleep and snoring through most of his sermon last Sunday!”
Becker opens his mouth to agree but stops. From the darkness beyond the open door a young woman’s a barely audible agonized groan echoes, and a whisper-soft plea for aid is heard, “Aaaahh... help me!”
They were too late. The decrepit milking shed was an accident waiting to happen in full daylight, and nighttime only made it worse. The floor boards had given up their fight against dry-rot long before Becker graduated high school, and the sagging rafters weren’t far behind. Potter refused to take it down, so Becker’s late father had helped him nail the doors and windows shut several times over the years. A total waste of time, it still attracts bored thrill-seeking young couples looking for privacy like a magnet.
He spins around and shines the beam of his flashlight into the all encompassing darkness. There’s nothing to see but warped floorboards, ancient dust, cobwebs ... and a broad gleaming red smear snaking its way deeper into the milk shed’s interior. Coming from a family that’s raised and slaughtered hogs for five generations, Becker has no trouble recognizing the sight and smell of fresh blood.
Seeing no other option, he points a finger at Potter’s chest, “I’m going inside! Get back to your house. Phone the sheriff and Doc Brown. Tell them we need help. There might be several injured people inside there!”
The old farmer doesn’t move a muscle. The stress of the situation, and his obviously limited mental capacity to cope with it, has frozen him in place.
“NOW, FRANK!! GO!!”
With a blank look on his face, Potter replies in an emotionless monotone, “No phone. I ain’t gonna pay for people to bother me.”
Fighting the urge to slap him back into reality, Becker instead grabs the old farmer by the shoulders and shakes him gently, “I need you, Frank. They ... need you. Go to my farm and find Donna. Tell her to call Sheriff Williams and Doc Brown. She’s to tell them someone’s hurt bad in your milk shed and to sent help here quick. Please, repeat what I just said.”
“Go to Tom’s farm. Call the sheriff. Someone’s hurt. Need help.”
Thinking, ‘Close enough’, Becker spins Potter around and shoves him gently in the direction of his truck. Not waiting to see him speed off leaving behind a black cloud of burnt-oil exhaust fumes and kicked up dirt, he points his flashlight down and begins to follow the trail of gore.
The first room he enters, where milking equipment was once cleaned and repaired, is empty except for a few long-outdated pulley-powered pumps no one would pay a wooden-nickel for at auction, a heavily foot-traffic disturbed carpet of dust and rodent dropping, and countless cobwebs hanging from every rafter.
As quickly as he dare near-tiptoe over rickety squealing floorboards, Becker follows the body-wide trail of crimson fluid through another darkened doorway and down several steps leading into a narrow milker’s pit where it vanishes.
Standing within this sunken corridor running almost the entire length of the sizable room, Potter’s handful of workers had once tended to thirty or forty cows during morning and evening milking cycles and not much else.
Expect for a dozen vacant wooden stalls within easy reach on either side of the pit, a heavily stained concrete floor, several wooden troughs filled with decades-old desiccated hay, and a large white sheet of cloth, that’s about it. Atop this cloth are a sputtering near-extinguished kerosene lamp, an upended cardboard box, and two items that can only be clothing of some kind.
Two more piles of similar looking items, just within the range of his flashlight, are barely visible almost the entire length of the room away. Mumbling to himself, ‘At least I know how many kids are running around here now.’ Becker quickens his pace and yells, “I’M JOHN BECKER, IS THERE ANYONE HERE?!”
Thinking, ‘What’s that, a varsity jacket?’ Becker stops and points his flashlight down at what are indeed two piles of neatly folded clothing. The nearest is a man-size black and white leather jacket with a foot-tall red letter ″K’ stitched onto the back. A smaller, and much more finely tailored copy, is resting only inches from the first. This one has a fancy letter ‘R’ embroidered on the left side, and both had been placed with utmost care near the outward edge of a spotlessly-clean painter’s canvas drop cloth.
Something about the letters strike a chord in Becker’s mind, ‘I’ve seen those before. Jeffery, Walter Kent’s son, the high-school football captain wears one just like it. And, what’s her name, yeah, Ronda something-or-other, his girl friend, wears one too. I saw them both last month when Jeffery lead his team to a ten to two victory over their arch season rivals.’
Finding not much more of interest, he turns his flashlight towards the cardboard box with the name, Lester’s Grocery and Feed Emporium, printed on one side, and its spilled contents scattered nearby: Beer bottles and cigarettes. Or, more precisely, a dozen mostly empty Budweiser lager bottles, two open packs of Pall Mall cigarettes, and a shiny brand new bottle opener with a large fancy letter L stamped into the metal handle.
Becker didn’t have to match the intellect of Colombo, the star of a new detective show he’d seen last night on television, to figure out what had likely transpired here: Jeffery, Rhonda, and a couple of their friends, had broken into Potter’s milk shed for a little private picnic involving drinking, smoking, and other ‘activities’ their parents wouldn’t approve of. And sometime during the festivities, one or more had gotten drunk and managed to hurt themselves. His job was find them before their youthful indiscretions become a tragedy.
Thinking, ‘Sheriff Williams and Lester Cooper are going to have words, serious words, when the sheriff gets back to town!’ Becker shakes his head ruefully as he climbs out of the milker’s pit. Selling alcohol and tobacco to youngsters is unconscionable in his mind, and if these items contributed in any way to a teenager’s injury or death, he knew Lester’s days walking around as a free man are numbered.
Determined not to add another regrettable accident to tonight’s tally, Becker keeps the beam of his flashlight close to his boot tips while walking carefully towards the open livestock-size barn double-doors on that opposite end of the shed, and one of the two other piles of clothing he’d spotted earlier.
Confused, and yes, visibly frightened by what he’s seeing, Becker stops and spins around looking for anything capable of causing so much damage: Only a few steps away are the tattered and partially melted remains of a leather varsity jacket, a pair of brand-new blue jeans with knife-sharp creases, a fancy heavily-tooled leather belt, and expensive custom-made cowboy boots that match the belt perfectly.
None of the agricultural chemicals he’s familiar with could reduce so many different materials to near-liquid so quickly. Not even the strongest lye or acid could do that much damage in the hour or two this clothing may have lain here ... if ever... without leaving behind an eye-burning cloud of toxic fumes.
Considering how much all this clothing must’ve cost the wearer’s parents, why it had been left on a filthy concrete floor was an even greater mystery.
In a tightly knit farming community such as his, young people could only find the concept of privacy inside the dictionary on top of their teacher’s desk. A young man, and his paramour of the moment, had to be extremely fortunate to find an out-of-the-way location where they could, at the very least, get to first-base without incurring the wrath of two sets of parents; even if said parents were well aware that a little innocent necking had to occur eventually if their kids were ever to fly from the nest.
However, if the youngsters involved in an underage relationship are caught skinny dipping in a stock pond wearing only their birthday suits, the scandal and lose of family reputation would be beyond monumental; which is partially why he’d volunteered to accompany Potter to his milking shed.
This was his chance to repay old man Evan’s kindness for running off a sixteen year old John Becker, his fifteen year old girlfriend and future wife, Donna Yates, and taking the untold story to his grave when he caught them ‘rolling in the hay’ inside his horse barn.
None of this made a lick of sense.
Catching himself at the very last second, Becker almost shouts out-loud, ‘WHERE THE HECK ARE YOU?!’ as he moves towards the open barn doors and the last pile of clothing before venturing outside. A farm far from the nearest town isn’t anything like life in a city. When the Sun goes down, that’s it.
Expect for light escaping from the windows of farmhouses often separated by miles of uninhabited emptiness, swinging strings of wind-tossed light bulbs outlining livestock holding barns or pens, and the exceedingly rare motor vehicle traveling down a lonely county road, the night reigns supreme. Trying to find anything, human or animal, that’s possibly hurt or hiding with even the brightest flashlight on a moonless overcast night is nearly impossible... and stupid, too.
Falling into a ditch, getting tangled in rusty barbed wire, or impaling himself on any of the numerous pieces of discarded farm equipment Potter has left to rot around here, would only add another victim to the list of those needing rescue.
Clenching his teeth in frustration, Becker moves quickly as he dare towards the last pile of clothing. Resting almost within the wide open doorway, it also marks the likely route one or more of the injured teenagers took to exit the milking shed.
Even under the most optimistic of circumstances, it would be forty-five minutes to an hour before help arrives. Knowing, realistically, it’ll be more like an hour and a half before Sheriff Williams can get out here with a couple volunteer deputies and the doctor, he quickens his pace again.
As a father, and a man of deeply held religious convictions, he really has no choice whatsoever. The memory of someone’s child in pain begging for help was tightening like a fist around his heart. He had to answer no matter the risk.
A call he hears once again, “... help ... help ...” coming from beneath a pile of torn partially-melted clothing only two or three steps away. Nothing but random pieces of cloth remain for the most part, but a varsity jacket clearly tailored to fit a short and slim person, most likely a young woman, still survives relatively intact.
Becker instantly comes to the most rational observation, ‘There’s no way anyone could be under there!’
After an angry shout “NOT AGAIN!!”, Becker sighs deeply in frustration. There’s no other explanation possible for this mess. Potter’s milking shed was obviously the target of this year’s high school pre-prom prank.
Becker has no difficulty dredging up memories that are almost four years old to the day.
On that brisk windy morning, only moments beyond the crack of dawn, he pulls on his windbreaker before venturing out to attend to his hog pens. To his astonishment he finds Bingo, a huge fierce-looking mastiff, and normally a very attentive guard dog, nosily tearing through a five-gallon bucket worth of meaty beef bones under the front porch.
Expecting the worst, he races towards the pens.
He finds all the sows contently eating slop he didn’t provide with white frilly bows tied around their necks. The boors, equally focused on filling their bellies, bear the name of the next-town-over’s football coach painted on their flanks with almost impossible to remove purple mimeograph ink. Watching George Dumas, the owner of the Downingtown Farming Gazette, drive onto his property seconds later with a camera man to record the event for next week’s cover was just icing on the cake.
Unwilling to give juvenile delinquents the satisfaction of yet another trophy photograph, and story to crow about on prom night, he reaches down and grabs the damp and greasy looking jacket collar. His only goal is to turn off whatever windup noise-maker they’ve hidden underneath, and make the evidence of everything else they’ve done tonight disappear before Sheriff Williams shows up.
John Becker is a farmer from a long line of farmers. He is, like many generations of his family before him, also a civilian that answered his nation’s call without hesitation during a time of war. Death in all its ugly forms is something he’s not unfamiliar with ... or so he thought.
Witnessing a fellow farmer get torn to pieces, or crippled, by moment’s inattention around a combine or tractor is a heartbreaking sight; no less intense than watching someone you’ve trained and fought besides for months get turned into red mist by North Korean artillery only steps away from safety.
This was different.
This defied explanation.
This defied reason itself.
Unable to process the mind-numbing sight before his eyes, he retreats several paces with the jacket forgotten in his right hand. Writhing silently as if in unimaginable agony is a young woman ... no, a partial young woman ... still wrong, a fraction of a young woman.
Both legs and the hips they had once been attached to are gone; along with the left arm, left shoulder, and most of the chest. All turned into a blood-hued jelly that is now, unconfined by the heavy jacket, oozing out of disintegrating undergarments and spreading away from her dissolving body in all directions.
Gagging uncontrollably at the horrifying sight before him, Becker instinctively begins to retreat even more until stopped when a near flesh-less face turns in his direction, and the sole surviving eye locks on his. After several failures, the young woman finally manages to stretch out what’s left of her right arm and hand in his direction as if begging him for help.
It’s not an arm.
It’s not a hand.
It’s nothing like either of those things.
In miniature, on a scale closely approximating the human limb that should be attached to that melting shoulder is a hairy bovine front leg and black cloven hoof.
Except as a child escaping unequal fights against two older brothers, and an even older sister, Becker has never backed down from anything or anyone. The children of Pennsylvania farmers simply aren’t raised that way. They take what Nature throws at them and keep the homestead going despite drought, flood, crop failure or disease. And, if necessary, they take up arms against anyone threatening their farms or country.
Not this time.
He drops the jacket.
He turns to run.
He doesn’t get two paces from where he was standing.
A shadow drops from a beam directly overhead.
Possessing far more mass than a semi-transparent gelatinous material that size would be expected to possess, he’s knocked to his knees as if blindsided by a pro-offensive lineman’s flying tackle.
Stunned by the impact, Becker breathes deeply and moans for several seconds before furiously grappling with his attacker. His empty left hand attempts to take hold of the gelatinous muck smelling of fresh blood flowing down his right side, while his right hand strikes his left shoulder and chest repeatedly with the flashlight.
Neither action impedes the attack to any visible degree.
Howling in agony, Becker feels the fingers of his left hand melt like wax under a blowtorch’s flame along with much of the jacket sleeve covering that arm. Desperate to escape the pain, he continues to slam a rapidly decaying flashlight into his attacker with his right hand. That hand soon suffers the same fate as the left.
Without a single digit left to hold it, the flashlight remains deeply embedded in the liquefying remains of his left shoulder and quickly continues to waste away until, with a tiny snap and crackle, the bulb explodes and wires lacking any trace of insulation short out. The entire power output of four D-size carbon batteries course through the black jelly eating his body.
The black ooze covering much of his torso stops moving.
Pain impossible to describe fades instantly into sensation-free soothing numbness.
The respite lasts approximately three seconds.
With renewed vigor, the once-caustic fluid flows rapidly over the scant remnants of his arms, and cascades over his still-undamaged torso and lower limbs harming nothing in its passage. Within moments the only uncovered surface on his entire body is his face.
But only for an instant… as if guided by a singular purpose it seeks entry.
And quickly finds it.
From all directions ebony tendrils converge upon his mouth, and force their way inside in unstoppable streams that devour everything they touch. Teeth, tongue, and throat soften and vanish just before both lungs fill to capacity and burst. Cut off from any source of oxygen, Becker’s brain mercifully starts to die taking his torment and consciousness with it.
Only a handful of seconds from the oblivion Becker yearns for, his attacker climbs searching for the aforementioned dying brain. Burning upwards through everything in its path without the slightest hesitation, it tears through the bottom of his skull and stops. For the first, and only time, it displays an uncharacteristic, and almost tender, amount of care as it gently encircles and consumes every morsel of tissue within a liquefying skull as if to savor every nerve cell to the fullest.
John Becker is dead.
Nothing remains but a pulsating child-tall mound of ebony-hued jelly. Still containing a few dissolving shreds of clothing and bone, it rolls with mounting speed towards the shed’s open doorway to intercept a growing number of heat sources it senses closing rapidly on its location.
There will be more victims this night... many more.