Campfires are usually good for two different kinds of stories. The first kind are those thought up by adults in order to scare children. They are usually encouraged by children who bait their elders by insisting the story is not scary even as their eyes slowly widen.
The second kind is told after all of the imagined stories have been exhausted and the children put to bed. These are the stories the teller is hoping will have some kind of reasonable explanation that they themselves have yet to find. They are the stories of unusual experiences that cannot be real yet cannot be denied. They are told in the hopes that some explanation given by someone who has heard it might be plausible enough to drive out the explanation the teller knows in his heart is true.
I will leave it to the reader to decide which type of story it is that I’m about to relate. Perhaps it is some mixture of both. Perhaps I blend the imagined with the truth in order to convince myself that what I experienced was nothing more than a story to be told to children seeking a good scare.
I met my wife, Amanda, in Chicago but she was a small town girl at heart. After we were married, she wanted to move back to her hometown to raise a family. And so it was that a city boy such as me ended up living in the heart of Packerland, Wisconsin.
The first summer had been nice, but it was reaching the cold half of Autumn, now, and our small town didn’t seem to do enough to keep out the dark emptiness of the approaching winter.
We had been invited to a gathering at her friend’s boyfriend’s house, to sit around a fire and have a few drinks. By the time I got home from work and we were on our way, it was already getting dark. I didn’t realize it would be that far out of town, and we ended up taking roads I was unfamiliar with through an endless succession of farm land. Pickup trucks passed me on narrow roads that I drove on cautiously. I was a fish out of water here, in a place where the rules were unfamiliar. Once you leave the town, the rules of the road become a little less enforced. It’s a combination of locals travelling quickly over familiar territory mixed with the occasional farm vehicle that can’t make it over twenty miles per hour.
I was stuck behind such a vehicle now, a large truck with a tarp over its trailer that did little to stop the silage from spilling out behind it. A pickup was behind me, anxiously waiting to get past the both of us. I tried to wave the pickup around, but he seemed to be waiting for me. Nervously, I pulled into the oncoming lane and gunned the engine. There were no cars coming from the other direction, so I just put my foot to the floor in order to get out from behind the truck that was leaking corn stalks all over my windshield.
Like I said, I didn’t see any carlights approaching, so I felt safe. So when my wife screamed, it scared the hell out of me. I didn’t know what to do until I saw the truck in front of me slow quickly, then saw the form of a deer nearly directly in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, tried to keep my car from hitting either the deer or the farm truck. It’s like the damn deer was looking to get hit, because it jumped right in my path. My foot was stuck so hard to the brake that it was like I was trying to will the car to stop. I heard the thud as the deer hit the right side of my car. It hit the ground, dragged itself up, and sprung off into the wooded area on the other side of the road.
“Thank God it’s all right,” I said.
“It’ll probably die,” said my wife, almost accusingly.
“I didn’t mean to hit it!” I felt bad enough, I didn’t need her making me feel worse.
“You didn’t have to pass that truck. You could have just let the other truck pass us both.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not used to being out here.”
“Well just be careful from now on,” she said. “It’s rutting season and deer are a lot more active, especially around twilight.”
My wife came from a family that hunted, hell, she had killed a few deer in her time. I couldn’t understand how someone who hunted deer could be so concerned for them. I drove slowly now, not caring what other drivers might think. From time to time my wife would point to a gully or into the woods and I would see small points of golden light, the reflection of my headlights in the eyes of deer. Sometimes it was a single pair of eyes, other times it was several in a group. The fear of another collision made me yearn to reach our destination.
It was just about dark by the time we arrived at Brian’s house, a place that was alone on the landscape save for a barn and an oversized workshop/garage. Near the driveway was adeer carcass, another victim of traffic. But this one was far more damaged than the one I had hit.
“What happened to that?” I asked my wife. It looked like half its body had been skinned.
“I don’t know. A semi, maybe. Maybe it got run over by a Tiller,” she said, as she stared at the thing. The darkness seemed to blunt the disgust at the sight.
There were several vehicles—all but one were pickups—in the gravel driveway. As much as I was happy to have arrived, I did not want to leave the fully warmed car to step into the cold night. To be honest, I was just going for her sake. I was trying my best to fit in to my new environment.
We approached two men who were busy building an impressive pile of wood. Old lawn chairs surrounded the place where the fire would be.
“Hi, Brian,” said my wife, recognizing her friends beau.
“Hi,” said Brian, a cigarette in his mouth and a can of beer in one hand, a load of twigs in the other.
“She’s inside the house with Adam.”
“Oh,” Amanda said. “I’ll go say hi. Turning to me, she said, “You want to help them?”
“Let me go say to Adam,” I said. I really didn’t feel comfortable with a bunch of strangers. Besides, I really liked Adam, who seemed born to sports. We’d been to a picnic with Laurie and Adam in the summer and he did nothing but play baseball the whole time, a real natural.
We entered the house—a bachelor farmer’s house with minimal furniture and décor—to the noise of crying. Adam was only six, but he was all boy, so it took me a little off guard seeing him like this. Laurie was busy trying to sooth him but he was in a panic.
“What’s the matter?” asked Laurie, in a gentle cooing voice. But Adam was so worked up he could not articulate what was bothering him.
“What’s up, buddy?” I asked, hoping I could distract him from his worry. But he had no time for me, seemed to have trouble grabbing breath.
“It’s okay,” Laurie said, bouncing him in her arms as she would a much younger child.
“It’s…it’s out there,” he said between sobs.
“It’s all right,” she said. “It can’t hurt you.”
“What is it?” asked Amanda softly to Laurie.
“Oh, there’s an old burning barrel out back. Brian found a dead raccoon the other day and put it in there. I didn’t even think Adam could look over the rim, but he must have seen the thing. It was all burnt up, must have looked nasty.”
Amanda and I sat there looking rather awkward for a minute, when Laurie said, “You two get yourself a drink and go sit outside. I’ll be out as soon as he settles down.”
Amanda poured herself a wine and grabbed me a can of beer from the fridge and we went out to join the others around the fire.
People around these parts tend to be rather cliquey and not very well mannered. We found ourselves sitting by ourselves, nursing our drinks and listening to Brian’s two friends talking amongst themselves.
“Boiled up some sheep hearts,” one of them said. “I had the old lady try ‘em but she won’t eat ‘em. Better than goin’ ta waste, the way meat prices are nowadays.”
“Awful tough,” said another voice. The figures were mere shadows against a rapidly growing fire.
“Not if you boil ‘em,” said the first.
I cast a glance at my wife to see if this kind of talk was normal where she was from. She looked at me and with a glance let me know that it made her sick to her stomach as well.
Looking down, I noticed a small cat near my leg, acting as if it wanted my attention. I’ve always been an animal lover—which is why the comments about sheep hearts made me nearly ill—so I reached down and stroked the little guy, much to his approval. Barn cat, I thought. Cats like this one have to work for their living, eat whatever mice they find.
I stopped petting him but he nuzzled up against my leg. I reached down to pet him again, and in the light of the fire I noticed the pustule that was where his right eye should have been. I pulled my hand away in surprise and disgust.
“What’s wrong?” asked my wife.
“That cat. It’s disgusting.”
Amanda looked at the thing, still wanting to be friends with me, still trying to snuggle up against my leg.
“It’s a barn cat, James. Who knows what kind of things they get into.”
It continued its attempts to be friendly, but I just wanted it away from me. I nudged it gently with my foot, but it would not take a subtle hint. I shoved it harder but still it did not seem to understand I wanted it to go away. I’m not one to be rough with animals, but I really wanted it to just go away. I squelched my normal instinct towards kindness and gave it a rather firm kick.
“YEEOOOWWW!” it screamed loudly. The others around the fire stopped their conversation to look in my direction.
“I didn’t know it was there,” I lied.
“They been actin’ funny, lately,” said Brian, a beer still in his hand. I could tell by his voice he must have been drinking for a while now.
“How many do you have?” I asked, trying to be conversational, trying to make everyone forget I’d just made his cat scream.
“I don’t know. One of ‘em had kittens a couple weeks ago, but only a couple of ‘em made it. And others, they seem to come and go.”
I looked out at the field that was between us and the barn and noticed several sets of eyes reflecting the fire in the darkness, the flames moving in their stare.
Before long, Laurie came out of the house, a glass that tinkled with ice in her hand.
“Your sister said she’d stay with Adam for a while,” she said to Brian.
“He’s not normally like this,” she said to my wife, sitting down in the chair next to her. In a moment they were lost in conversation and I was left by myself to stare at the fire and eavesdrop on the conversations of others. Perhaps I would have pushed myself to be more sociable with a couple more drinks but it had been decided that I was driving that night.
The fire warped both the looks and sounds from the people who sat opposite of it, so that I began to feel as if I had drunk more than I had. I turned my glance away from the fire, looked to the porch of the house and noticed a little figure in the porchlight. It walked down the stairs and towards the fire, a woman walking behind him. It was Adam, and he walked his way calmly towards his mom, who let him up on her lap.
“You feeling better now?”
“Yeah,” he said, a little sleepily.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said, stroking his blond hair.
“I know. It’s okay. He’s not dead.”
“What?” said his mom, surprised by the boy’s response.
“He’s not dead, mommy. I thought he was dead, but he’s not.”
“Of course he’s dead,” Laurie’s voice betrayed the shock and concern she felt. “But don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.”
“No. He’s not dead. He talked to me. He told me he was okay.”
The concerned look Laurie had on her face earlier when Adam was crying was nothing compared to how she appeared now. There are things children say for no explainable reason, but this went beyond anything she’d experienced.
“Stop it!” she said, her anger covering her fear. “It’s dead. Isn’t it, Brian? Brian put it in that barrel himself. It was dead then and then he burned it. So stop that crazy talk, Adam.”
But Adam spoke with all the authority a six year old could summon. “It’s not dead, mommy. I told you it’s not dead.”
“Nonsense,” she said, standing up while still holding him. “I’ll show you he’s dead.
I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t really know Laurie or the others that well. But this was not ordinary behavior for anyone. I looked at my wife and could see the same concern on her face.
Meanwhile, Laurie walked towards the fence where there were several barrels. By this time, every one of us was involved in wanting a resolution to what was playing out before us.
She looked into each barrel, intent on showing her son the very thing that only short moments ago had driven him to hysterics.
“Brian, it’s too damn dark to see anything. Bring me a flashlight.”
“It’s in there,” he said, the thickness of his speech abating somewhat because of the need to deal with the situation. “No sense in setting him off again. It’s in there. I put it in myself.”
“Just bring me a damn flashlight!” Her level of excitement seemed to nearly match that of her son’s earlier.
Brian walked into the house quickly. The other two men that were with him wandered over towards where Laurie and Adam were standing. When I saw my wife rise to head that way, I followed.
“He’s okay, mommy,” said Adam.
“Shut up! Just shut up.” Laurie was clearly upset and I can’t say I blamed her. There was no accounting for the way Adam was behaving. Children don’t behave that way. He was calm, now, but there was no explanation for why he would be saying what he was saying. No logical explanation. I felt a chill run up my back, one I believed I felt with everyone else who was standing there.
The screen door to the house slammed noisily, Brian’s work boots sounding on the cold-hardened ground, the beam of a flashlight bobbing along the ground.
“Here’s your flashlight, Laurie.” There was noticeable anger in Brian’s voice “You’re just going to scare him again.”
“Just give me the flashlight.” When he arrived she grabbed it angrily from his hand.
She flashed it in the one to the right. I couldn’t see what was in it, but it was nothing that interested Laurie. She tried the one in the middle, then the left. I could see inside the one in the left. There were unburned pieces of scrap lumber in there, no ash that I could see.
“Which one was it?” asked Laurie, her voice twisting still higher in pitch.
“The middle one,” said Brian.
She pointed to the middle one with the beam of the light, all of us straining to see inside of it. Her hand was shaking now, so that the shadows moved about the inside of the barrel. The moving light made it difficult to be sure what we saw.
Brian grabbed the flashlight from her. She released it, feeling the need to grasp her son with both hands. She was a primitive mother now, protecting her child from the unknown dangers of the darkness.
“It was in this one. I’m sure it was,” said Brian, too convinced that he was right to permit fear to enter his thoughts. “I know it was,” he said, a little less certain.
It was still more of a riddle for him than a reason for fear when he dropped the hand that held the flashlight. That’s when I saw a dark line on the ground, extending from the middle barrel towards the fire where we had been a moment ago. A trail of black ash marked the bare earth below us.
“See, mommy,” said Adam, sounding like any normal pleased child. “It’s alive. I told you it was alive.”
I looked at Adam and there was a contented smile on his face, like a child discovering a lightning bug or butterfly. But the look upon his mother’s face is one I’ll never forget. She appeared as one intent on clinging to an idea that did not agree with her direct experience. Whatever was happening, her mind was going to stay with an explanation that she could live with. She stared at the line of ash as though it were a fuse which her gaze could light and burn to nothingness.
I’ve always been a person who’s overly concerned with manners, of making proper greetings and farewells. But at the moment I simply could no longer stay in this place for another moment. Everyone else stood still, glancing at the line, wondering what would be at the other end. But I grabbed at my wife’s arm. It was hard to break the inertia that held her to her spot, but I pulled her towards the car and she followed as one without will of her own. The eyes from the field still echoed the flames of the fire as we walked past, not all of them in pairs. I opened the door for my wife, who got in without speaking. I got in the driver’s side and started the car. I backed up as quickly as caution permitted, as slowly as fear would allow. It did not occur to me until we were safely down the road a few hundred yards that I had not seen the deer carcass where it had been when we arrived.
Laurie seemed to distance herself from my wife after that night, as though she didn’t want any reminder of what had happened. Perhaps it was her way of protecting her son. She broke up with Brian, too. I’ve seen him a couple of times at local stores, and we talk, but nothing about that night. It’s there, we both know it, but there’s really no way to broach such a subject. Not in the daylight. Not in the middle of our ordinary busy routines. It’s only around a fire, late at night, away from the ordinary world, that one can really discuss such matters.