She edged out the door, hoping not to disturb her sleeping mother. The door squealed in protest; she held her breath and turned to glance back to see if this had awakened Mam. Poor Mam, she looked so dreadfully grey and tired lying there on the small cot. And old. She looked old. But, she was not awake, thank the good Lord. Elizabeth went out into the grayish late November afternoon, closing the heavy door softly behind her.
She made her way over to the barn, which loomed in front of her, dilapidated, sagging at its sides, but still surprisingly strong and erect for such an abandoned structure. And, abandoned it was; ever since Papa died and that one never-ending late summer/early fall three years ago when she and Mam attempted, fruitlessly as it turned out, to reap the harvest and keep the barn stocked with hay for their meager menagerie of live stock.
She wasn’t sure why she was interested in going to the barn; she hated the barn. Not just because it was a physical reminder of their failure; in fact, it had nothing to do with that at all. She hated it now because she used to love being inside its wall so very much. That was ages and ages ago, when she was a young and foolish girl of eleven. After her chores were done, after the mid-day meal was eaten and the dishes were cleared, washed, dried and put away into the old Hoosier pie safe; Mam would nod her head at Elizabeth, signaling it was fine for her to go the barn to explore, play and dream.
Now, as she wandered into its musty depths, she had to brace herself against the involuntary shudder that rolled over her. How could she have ever loved this terrible place? She closed her eyes against the rush of painful memories; those that had completely overtaken the pleasant ones from her girlhood. Overcome, she leaned against one of the empty stalls for support. She closed her eyes and could still smell the scent of long gone animals. Ghost horses. What were their names? She couldn’t recall.
The sound of scuttling overhead brought her back to the present. Her eyes snapped open and upwards towards the hay loft. She didn’t want to look there and it wasn’t for fear of seeing a rat or two. Yet, as strangely as she was drawn to the barn in the first place, she found her feet moving her towards the creaky ladder that led up to the loft.
As she climbed, she got a glimpse of the double doors at the far end of the hayloft. Amazingly, despite the multitude of storms they’d had over the past several years since the barn had been in use, they were still tightly latched. Still sitting on the ground next to the closed doors was her old beat-up steamer trunk, the one that had once belonged to Mam’s younger sister.
How she’d loved to kneel in front of that ancient thing, using it as a desk of sorts, and pretend she was a famous writer. She’d written a lot of silly pieces there, young girl starry eyed notions of adventure, romance and true love conquering all. Still, she’d also enjoyed the view from that vantage. She’d open up the doors and stare out at the great wide open; looking west towards the trees that stood silent sentry in the distance or glancing up into the blue skies while dreaming she was a mystical creature, a girl with wings, who could soar like a bird over Coozie’s Creek to the south.
Now, her trunk was covered with cobwebs and rat droppings.. And, all of those silly, silly dreams? Those stupid, stupid stories? The person that she was now, the woman that she’d become, looked back into the past and felt both scorn and an immense sadness for the young girl who had no idea what was to come.
She walked over to the doors, undid the rusty latch, and flung the doors open with such force that both doors crashed into the side of the barn with a loud THUNK that echoed across the quickly darkening evening sky. She approached the edge of the loft floor; as close to the gaping opening as she dared, and peered out. The view was still breathtaking. She could see miles in every direction. To the south, the glistening silvery trail of Coozie’s Creek. To the north, the spire of the town’s church. And to the west, just visible arising from the tops of the trees in the forest, wisps of smoke from the Childress’s cabin.
“That family”, Mam had declared one day when Elizabeth was still in the habit of playing with dolls on the kitchen floor while Mam fixed supper, “Is decidedly odd”. Papa, sitting nearby, grunted; whether in agreement, disagreement or just his Papa grunt which usually meant, “Yes, my dear”, Elizabeth never knew.
As her eyes grew accustom to the growing darkness, she watched the smoke from their cabin continue to drift up, up, up to where she couldn’t distinguish where it ended and the loaming sky began. She stood there a very long time remembering what Calvin Childress had introduced her to in this very loft the winter after Papa died. Mam had been right; and Elizabeth knew now exactly how odd and how disturbed at least one of the Childress clan was.
As she recalled, her eyes narrowed sharply and her thoughts turned to murder.