Been a while since one of my dream stories, eh? This recent dream of mine stood out to me in how much of a narrative it really was. Most dreams are just kind of chaotic, randomly switching setting and whatnot, but this one was quite cohesive.
And had a horror that struck me as, well, rather realistic.
Music this time is another album I got in Philly, Punishment Room by Rise of Because. It’s noise, which is probably a rather… divisive genre. You’ll love it or hate it. But I love it.
I was walking down one of those old New England roads. The kind of road that no one but those who live on it know of. Dirt, gravel, and flanked on both sides by thick forest. Forest that could hide anything.
I had been walking down this road for a long time. It seemed endless. I didn’t know why I was there, why I was walking, but it was my one aim in life. Stop in and meet the residents of any houses I passed, few and far between.
I passed a man in the road. He was having trouble with something. Perhaps carrying a too-large bundle of firewood. I offered to help, took half of the load, and followed him to his house, exchanging pleasantries as we walked. His name was Travis Wentwood. He was typical New England stock for this kind of place: thick beard; scraggly hair that wasn’t exactly unclean, but unkempt; a gruff voice and demeanor but well-intentioned.
When we got to his house, I made as though to continue on my path, but he welcomed me in. It was cluttered, not exactly dirty but certainly messy, and it was immediately evident that he was a single father. The smell of something baking filled the air.
An adolescent girl sat at the table above a book and looked up as we came in. “This is Sophia,” Travis told me, and turned to her and said “This is Julian. He helped me with some of the firewood.”
She looked up and, while perhaps not exactly smiling, gave a friendly expression, then turned back to her reading. “Busy studying for a test,” Travis said, and another girl, a few years older, came into the room and, after taking a moment to look at me skeptically and with a questioning look to her father, came over and introduced herself as Sarah. She went over to the oven and opened it, poking a toothpick into the cake that was inside. She analyzed the toothpick, judging whether it was finished yet, and closed the oven door and walked away back upstairs where she had come from, setting a timer for a few more minutes.
Travis led me into a mudroom to the side, where there was already piled a stack of firewood. He placed the fresh wood on top, and led me back through the kitchen and into the living room. On the way we passed by a large glass jar of jellybeans, the kind that candy stores sell them out of in bulk. The inside was fogged with age and sugar residue, and the jellybeans had merged into one indiscernable yellowish mess of color.
Various newspaper clippings were pinned to the wall, all centered on one subject: a child molester in the area named John Jenkins. He had a stereotypical pedophilic appearance. Thinning hair slicked back with too much grease; a forehead that looked permanently covered in sweat; glasses that would’ve been in style thirty years ago; hints of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in his facial structure; an attempt at a smile that had turned into a sneer, and so on.
By the dates on the clippings and what I could skim of the articles as I passed, it seemed that he had been active around this area for several years now, had been arrested but no conclusive case had yet been made about him enough to send him for a long-term stay in prison.
Travis noticed me looking at them. “Rat bastard. Can’t believe he hasn’t been locked away yet.”
I thought of asking why he had so much information about him on the wall, but decided against it. This guy had freely welcomed me into his house, I wasn’t going to pry. Once in the living room, he motioned to a seat for me to take, and asked if I wanted a beer.
“We’ve got PBR.”
“Sounds just fine.”
He came back a minute later with two cans and handed one to me before taking a nearby seat. I cracked it open and took a sip.
“Thanks a ton,” I said. “I was getting a bit thirsty.”
“So what were you doing out on this road?. You don’t live around here, I know everyone nearby. And people don’t usually just come through here to pass the time,” he said with a laugh.
“To be honest, I’m not sure. Just needed to get out for a bit. I’ve just been sleeping in the woods as I go. Saying hi to anyone I pass. Met a nice woman a little ways up the road earlier today.”
“Ah, Lucille. Yes, she’s a charm.”
A door behind us opened and I looked over the back of my chair. A little girl, probably no older than eight, had emerged from a darkened door that I assumed led to the basement. She looked at me in shock, then looked worriedly over to her father.
“Don’t worry, Suzanne. This is Julius, we’re just talking for a little.”
Her eyes were still wide and she looked deeply horrified. I noticed that her hands were red and a splatter of blood had dried on her forehead.
“She always gets a bit squeamish when she’s preparing meat,” Travis said by way of explanation to me. “But I say, get them started early! As you might have guessed, I’m a single father, and I’ve actually grown to depend on my little girls a bit. They help out a lot around here. Don’t know if I’d be able to manage without them.”
The timer went off and Sarah rushed through and into the kitchen again. I heard the creak of the oven door and a clank as she presumably set the cake on the stove.
“Like Sarah, what would we do without her treats?” he said to the other girls. Sophia nodded without looking up, and Suzanne managed a smile.
I ended up staying at their house through the afternoon and into the evening. It was nice being able to have more of an in-depth conversation than the little snippets I had had with most people on my journey. Around sunset I noticed the time and apologized for staying too long, but Travis stopped me. “No, no, it’s just fine. Stay for dinner! Hell, stay the night! It’s probably been a while since you’ve had an actual bed to sleep in, right?”
I shrugged and half-smiled. “Yeah, it’s been a bit.”
“We have plenty of space. And food! How’s the cake look, Sarah?” he called into the kitchen.
“It’s all ready,” she said in return.
Travis and I joined the girls at the table in the kitchen, where rice, green beans, and pork were set out on plates. The girls and Travis all held hands and bowed heads and I followed suit.
“Lord, thank you for this food and for this family. Thank you that Mister Linnover was able to join us tonight. Thank you for your help in the challenges we overcome every day and pray for help in the ones we must face in following days. Amen.”
The girls, and I after a moment, repeated the “amen” and Sophia began serving out everyone’s plates. I thanked her for mine and began eating. The pork was prepared well, the pieces all cut perfectly. “You did a great job with the pork,” I said to Suzanne.
“The pork that you prepared. Assuming that’s the meat you were getting ready.”
The horrified look washed over her face again and her skin blanched. “Yes,” she said, her voice weak, “Thank you.”
“Yes, indeed,” Travis said, “You did very well. Good job, Suzanne.”
His voice held a slightly unfitting tone. It fit the words just fine, but not the context. He was praising her for her job, but it didn’t quite make sense for helping with dinner. It was spoken with much more weight than that would.
Travis got he and I another beer, and after the meal he cleared the table and began working on the dishes. Once they were finished – Sophia had resumed her studying, Suzanne was drawing, and Sarah had returned to her room – he brought the cake over to the table and cut it. He called the girls down and they took their places at the table again.
He set out five small paper plates for us and began putting a piece on each.
“What’s the celebration for?” I asked.
“The cake. Or rather, the writing on it in frosting. ‘It is overcome’.”
“Oh. Not particularly a celebration, as such, but it is our way of enjoying the happiness that comes after a hardship.”
I had another urge to ask him, but held back. This was clearly a family that had had troubles, and I didn’t want to pry into them.
After the table had been cleared again and the remaining cake was wrapped up, the girls said goodnight to their father and went upstairs. Travis led me back to the living room and reached to the top of a shelf for a small wooden box. “Cigar?”
I shrugged. “Why not? Thanks.”
After trimming and lighting them, we sat and smoked in silence for a minute. His eyes were distant; his expression was worried, showed years of pain, but a mellow, self-satisfied happiness emerged from underneath it. It was almost too contradictory, I didn’t think he could be that internally happy with that much weight apparent on his mind. Too happy, to almost a disturbing degree. It wasn’t self-satisfication, it was deviousness. It was the maniacal grin of a madman. It was a shaking, chaotic smile filled with hatred and glee. His eyes glinted, shone too-bright in the dim light, a fire behind them that frightened me.
“I like having a cigar every once in a while as a treat,” he said, turning to me. The look was gone. Utterly and completely gone. He was a completely different person.
Well, I was tired. And I hadn’t had a drink in a while, and couldn’t think of the last time I smoked. Maybe it was all just messing with me.
I rubbed my eyes and yawned. Then, realizing I hadn’t responded to his last sentence, I spoke. “I can’t think of the last time I had one. Probably my eighteenth birthday or something,” I said with a little laugh.
“Well,” I continued with another yawn once I had finished the cigar, “I think I should probably go to sleep. Thank you so much again, my back appreciates not sleeping on the ground.”
“No problem at all, it’s nice to meet someone. Here, let me show you to your room.”
We passed the door to the basement, only slightly ajar. For just a second as I passed I smelled something, something I recognized with almost animal instinct, but couldn’t really place. My heart rate increased, I felt a rush of blood flow to my head, and my body tensed, all autonomously. I forced myself to relax, the smell had faded, and went to my room.
The house was old, as might be expected for this area, and quite large. It was the kind of house that I’m sure wasn’t nice to be in in the winter. Large, with entire sections of the house completely empty, and with very little insulation. The bed was already made up, and I thanked Travis again and got in after turning the light off.
I fell asleep instantly. Very deep sleep but with troubled dreams. I couldn’t remember them upon waking, but I did remember the sense of surprise, disgust, and fear that they instilled in me.
I awoke in the morning to the smell of sausage. It took me a moment to remember where I was, between the surreality of the previous night and the dreams, I wasn’t sure if this house and family had actually existed or not. I went down and joined them for breakfast.
“Where do you think you’ll go now?” Travis asked me.
“Not sure. Just.. further down the road, I guess.”
“When will you ever head back to where you came from? Or will you not?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even really know where I would return to.”
I helped them clean up from the meal and gathered my small bag of belongings. I stood in the kitchen for a minute as Travis helped Sophia with something for her school. I looked at the fridge. Several photos and drawings were held onto the fridge by magnets.
One drawing in particular drew my attention. A bright red splash, a disembodied hand, a knife slicing through the red wave.
“That’s the one Suzanne drew last night,” Travis said, joining me. “I think Sarah started reading her some stories by Poe. Not sure if I’m happy about that or not,” he chuckled.
I tried to smile, but couldn’t quite do it. There was something itching in the back of my mind that was irritating and concerning me.
“Poe was a skilled writer, for sure,” I said, unsure of what else to say. “Well, thank you again so much for having me.”
I said goodbye to the girls right before Suzanne headed back down to the basement and headed outside and began going back down the direction I had been walking the previous day. A moment later, though, I waited for a minute, taking a deep breath of the fresh air. It had been slightly stifling in the house but I had gotten accustomed to it, and it was nice to be out in nature again.
I walked again. The woods on the left side of the road, the side their house had been on, were less dense than on the right, and in the early morning light I could see quite easily into them.
I was walking slowly, enjoying the crisp air just slightly dampened by the morning’s dew and the occasional chirping of birds, looking at the woods as I passed when I saw some movement on the left side. I paused, watching, and assumed that it was just a squirrel or something.
But a small girl in a bright pink jacket was there, dragging something large behind her. My eyes weren’t great, so I couldn’t quite make it out, but I thought it might have been Suzanne.
She stopped and crouched behind a fallen log for a few minutes, then walked away again – without the thing she had brought with her.
I was curious. And who could it hurt? I had wondered about the family, about some of the strange, out of place things with them, so I decided to go check it out.
I waited until she was far out of sight, then made my way to the fallen log. As I approached, more motion came, this time from a small group of foxes. I made my way carefully, keeping an eye on them to see if they’d do anything, but they just looked around at the fallen log as well, one of them approaching and sniffing around.
They backed up as I came up to the log, looking from me to whatever it was and back again. I crouched beside the log and searched for whatever it was she had brought.
I found one of those large clear plastic bag-cube things with a zipper, the kind that they sell sheets and comforters in. It was full of a chunky, red mixture with clumps of brown and grey. From here, I could already smell the stench of it.
I didn’t care. I wanted to find out. I pressed on it.
A mixture of blood, bile, and liquidated fat squeezed out from the gaps in the zipper, running over my hand. I pulled it back in horror. The stench had grown exponentially.
The foxes had evidently gotten over their fear of me and approached. With one last cautious look at me, they began lapping up the repulsive mixture, one of them even licking it off of my hand.
I noticed some crumpled up papers shoved underneath it. Wishing to leave but feeling as though I had a need to know, I pulled them out and shook the clumps of fat and coagulated blood off, then spread them out on the ground. One of the foxes tried licking them off, but I gently pushed its snout away.
They were the newspaper clippings about John Jenkins. I understood the horror in Suzanne’s eyes and Travis’s pride in how well she did her job. I doubted she had done that job of her free will. I understood that glimpse into Travis’s true expression the night before, that maniacal happiness and fulfillment. I understood the challenges they credited God as having helped them with in the prayer the previous evening.
I stood up and took a step back. My journey had come to an end. This had been a long journey to get away from those things that I found horrible. I thought rural New England might hold some peace and good will. It was time to go back.