This is the story I’m telling you:
I’m walking up a country road, the emptiest road I’ve seen in a long time.
The sun is high and I wish it wasn’t so bright out here. Wish I didn’t feel so easily seen.
And I must look insane. Walking this road with an axe. And there’s no way a local would mistake me for being the same. There’s a farmhouse far up ahead. But while the address I have says that’s probably it, I can’t reconcile it with any place Oliver Carpenter would call home. It looks nice, for starters. A lot of front porch. From here I can’t see any barn and definitely no fields where the type of things Ever described might grow. There aren’t any cars but that doesn’t mean my friends aren’t there.
I know I said Tracy was scared, but I am scared. I don’t know what’s gone on since she called me and I really don’t know what happened before. Never felt this way under the sun before. In the city, late at night, coming home, sure. But out here, it feels like, despite all the space, there’s nowhere to go. I’m talking to myself, talking myself up, telling myself I may have to use this axe. I’m trying to hide, walking alongside tall crops that edge up to the road but there are sections, you know, where the crops aren’t as high and I’m as obvious as the sky.
If that’s Oliver’s place, I better get off the road now. Too much farther and someone might see me from the window. I’m entering the tall crops to my right. I have no idea what these are and I’m so piqued that I don’t even look at them long enough to guess. I’m moving, imagining my wake is just as easy to see, Oliver inside that house, watching me coming, smiling, my best friends in real danger in the next room, upstairs, downstairs, the cellar. I’m wishing Tracy gave me ten times the information she did but I just gotta be quiet and slow and maybe this will work out for all.
Feels like I’m walking forever, like I may not be heading toward the farmhouse anymore. But every time I worry, I see a bit of it, the very top, an attic window, and I am, yes, I’m getting closer.
I’m thinking of Morris and Rodney and how I could really use them right now. With them I’d have numbers and both are stronger than me.
What am I being asked to do here? What have I come to do?
I allow one second for a completely delusional wish, that this all a prank, a set-up, that my friends preplanned my getting to the farm, they’re all gonna leap from these crops and holler surprise and then we’re all gonna be drinking wine and smoking grass and playing games till the sun comes up again tomorrow. Then I think of Ever, falling, the sound, and I grip the axe harder and I continue through crops that are now, mercifully taller than I am.
But not for long.
I have to crouch as I reach the end of them. They resolve in a near perfect wall and I see a long stretch of open grass that ends at a cluster of willow trees.
I think of Ever crying on his knees by the subway in Brooklyn.
To the left of the willows is the farmhouse.
I see it. Oliver’s farm. The deck. The barn.
And a body.
Someone is lying down to the right of the trees in what looks like endless dirt from here. For me to get there would mean either walking in the open across all this grass or going straight from these crops to a series of pines that look like toothpicks from this distance. Either way, once I leave this wall of crops, I’m in the open.
I don’t move.
I can’t decide what to do.
I could go back, come at the house from the front again. I could walk miles to come from the other side, use the barn as cover. I could walk right up to the front door. I could look through the windows. Is what I’m doing, where I am, the best plan? I realize I don’t have a plan and I feel dumb and exposed and like all my fantasies of helping Tracy were the thoughts of an ex-boyfriend who still foolishly loves the one that got away.
To the pines, then. Because I gotta choose one way or the other. And I gotta choose now. I’m worried I’ve already lost too much time. I’m already late.
Axe in hand I erupt from the crops and I’m not worried about being quiet, just being seen. I look left, to the house. To the body in the fields behind the house. Then ahead, trying not to think. Hoping that whoever put that fear into Tracy’s voice is occupied, isn’t looking out the window today.
It’s even farther than I think. I’m wearing jeans and boots, a complete city boy in the middle of the heartland, running without a plan, out of breath, a third of the way there, moving the axe from one hand to the other because it feels heavier, like it’s gaining weight, like I’m gaining weight, like someone in the house controls gravity and I’ll never make it to those trees.
I should stop. What good am I passed out? But I don’t stop and I’m two-thirds there when I hear the clack-slam of a door far to my left.
I drop to the grass.
Roll onto my back.
I’m breathing rabbit hard, expecting the sound of a gun, boot-steps crushing grass.
But nothing comes and I wait and nothing comes and I lift my head, my chin to my chest.
Is someone on the deck?
It’s hard to see. The sun is almost too bright. Just like Oliver was doing too good. Fuck. I don’t see anybody. I wait. My breathing returns to normal. Close as it’s gonna get. I roll back onto my stomach and start crawling for the pines. I’m going, looking to the house, going, then I’m up and running, reaching the trees sooner than I thought I would.
I wait. I watch.
I walk through the tall trunks, shadowed now, eyes on the back of the house but most of it’s obscured by willows. It’s okay, I tell myself. It’s going to be okay. I just need to get directly behind the house. I can stop there. Plan.
Something big moves to my right and I spin and raise the axe, have a vision of The Farmer, fifteen-feet tall and red, too close for me to do anything about it.
But it’s not a person. It’s a coyote.
We stare at each other. He’s facing one way, me the other. I don’t know where he’s going, but I do know our paths have crossed at the most extraordinary of times.
“Good luck,” I tell him.
He goes, I go, axe in both hands, the sightline to the fields behind the farmhouse a little better now.
There’s no doubt it’s a person. Face down in the dirt.
And I’m closer than I thought. Because I recognize him. From his clothes alone.
The willows are blocking most the house but I can see the steps to the back deck. No voices. Still no cars.
Are they still here? My friends? Or did Tracy call me too late and here I’m arriving even later than that…
Level with the fields, it’s all dirt. So much dirt that Baum’s figure, face down, looks like a single hair on a giant’s hand. A path of red bricks comes from between the willows and splits the open space. I wanna go to Baum, and I will. But first, I need to be sure I’m alone.
So I wait.
And I watch.
And I listen.
And nothing comes from the barn and nothing comes form the house and I step out from the pines, walking slow, axe in both hands, eyes on the house, toward Baum.
“Hey,” I say, “hey, buddy.”
The closer I get, the heavier my heart is beating and I know Baum is dead. Of course he is. His face is literally in the dirt, nose and mouth, no way to breath like that.
I’m watching the house. I’m thinking of Tracy facedown in the barn.
Next to him, I kneel.
But who am I talking to? This friend, this man, can no longer hear me. This man is–
Right. Yes. Baum is moving. And as he plants both palms in the dirt, I see, just ahead of him, two holes in the ground, air holes no doubt, proven when he lifts his face and I see the space he no longer occupies leads underground toward them.
I’m too loud but I don’t care. I’ve had nine thousand terrible visions and thoughts leading up to this moment and here’s a friend, here’s a man, here’s Baum!
He gets to his knees, eyes still on the dirt. I’m expecting him to say hello, holy shit, how are you, get away, what are you doing here, anything.
But he only stares down into the hole.
Then he’s on his belly again, burying his face once more.
I grab him by the shoulder but he shakes me off.
What’s happening out here?
Am I ready for this?
A door opens.
The farmhouse. There’s nowhere for me to duck.
So I stand.
This is it then. Ready or not. Oliver or The Farmer or whatever the fuck is going on out here is going to come down those deck steps and they’re going to see me.
I’m sweating. I’m scared.
But there are no steps on the deck. No movement at all.
Except me. I’m moving now. To the farmhouse.
Tracy warned me not to let anybody know when I arrived but what else can I do?
At the willows, I duck. I see the whole deck now. French doors. A window.
There’s no movement.
Come on, I’m thinking, somebody opened a door. Right? Come on. I’m not losing it. I’m just scared. I can do this.
Nobody in the windows. Downstairs or up.
To the deck, to the steps and up the steps and at the glass I cup one hand and look inside.
Nice place. Nicer than I imagined. Big kitchen, walk-in pantry.
I open the door and I’m inside. It’s hard to articulate how fast this is happening. But I’m breathing and I’m bracing myself for any confrontation, something I don’t yet understand, steeled by that fear in Tracy’s voice.
The kitchen is empty, yes, so is the living room. The fireplace is cold. There’s no sound from above. I look through the front windows. Nobody on the porch.
Up the stairs.
I don’t know if I’m ready or not anymore. I hardly recognize myself.
Should I call out?
No. Tracy would say no. So no.
At the top of the steps I pause. I’m listening. There’s an attic. Someone up there?
I go right, peer into a little bedroom. Nobody there.
Back down the hall, look right. Nobody in this room either. A door, though. A closet? Farther up the hall, a third room. Nobody.
I can do this whatever this is. And if I can’t, I can’t. If I get killed in this house, well then this is where my life’s led up to.
But there is a noise. Yes. Water. I’m looking up and down the hall for a bathroom. I don’t see one. Okay. The door in that one bedroom. Okay. I’m in the bedroom. The noise is quieter here. I open the door. Don’t think it’s coming from upstairs but there are stairs and I am taking them and at this point I’m half expecting to find Tracy chained to the wall, a pentagram in farm dirt on the attic floor.
But, again, nothing.
Jesus, where are they?
I look out the attic window and can’t even see Baum for the willows.
Maybe I showed up at a good time. Maybe I got lucky. Maybe I need to hide. Up here? Maybe. Or down under the deck. Somewhere that gives me an advantage.
But for what?
I’m down the steps and through the bedroom and there’s that water trickling again and I look to the far end of the hall and I’m thinking there might be another bedroom back there, back in the shadows at the end of the hall. It has that look, right? A color darker than shadow. Cloth? Tapestry? No. A corner. Right? I’m close, feels like I’m too close, using the tip of the axe to feel if there’s a wall, there isn’t, open space, into this darkness, the dripping sound getting louder, a dance of water on tile, water on stone, into the dark, the axe, my arms, me, walking, into that color, seeing shape ahead, certain this is it, this is the moment I die, as the shape takes form, begins to take light, growing bright enough to see, just enough to see Morris with a watering can, holding it chest high, the water coming smooth, pleasing, from a sprouted spout, sprinkling an old man sitting in a little green chair, a hat on the floor beside him, the top of the man’s head dirt, Morris watering the man, that color black in the corners of this vision, and me backtracking, back into the black, me, my arms, the axe last, then turning, moving, fast, can’t understand what I’ve seen, see a shape ahead, a rectangle, okay, the hall again, it’s the hall, and I’m out of the black, out of the end of the hall, back under a roof, back into the spilling daylight that illuminates the farmhouse at noon.
That was Morris. Okay, Morris was in there, out there, but I can’t be in there, I don’t know what that was but I can’t be in there, I know that (what’s at the other end of the hall?), can’t think about Morris, too crazy, need to move, to get out, okay, moving, back down the stairs, okay, down to the first floor, a look out the window, nobody on the porch, nobody in the drive, Morris though, Morris was upstairs, doesn’t matter, through the living room, the kitchen, the back doors, wait, back into the kitchen, the bathroom, empty, the bathtub, empty, how about the pantry?, yes, okay, someone in there?, maybe, I’m fast about it, pull the door open, nobody inside but jars, labeled, emotions?, feeling?, traits, yes, like Ever’s story, traits in jars in the pantry, okay, out the back doors again, onto the deck, barely able to hold onto the axe now I’m so sweaty, that was Morris upstairs, why didn’t I say something?, why didn’t I make myself known to him?, okay Morris looked different, he did, different haircut, no blazer, changed, okay, the barn then, the last place to look, checked the house and fields, now got to check the barn, got to, Tracy called from the barn, told me about Donna in the loft, Donna peering over the edge at her, Donna who has been in there I don’t know how long and I don’t know why, down the deck steps, to the grass and dirt, still no cars, no sound of cars, no noise of people, just me and the barn now, except Morris upstairs, right?, watering a man?, and Baum with his face in the fields, okay, the barn, Tracy, Donna, the barn, almost there, wooden doors on the side, the sliding kind, I can hold the axe with one hand, open the door with the other, a sound behind me, a deer, two deer, acting like nobody lives here, like nature has taken over, watching me, like they know, they know what I’m coming up to, what I’m coming up against, they know, my hand out, reaching for the barn door, can see my hand shaking, so fucking scared, and the door opens, but I’m not doing it, the door slides open and I’m backing up fast, too fast and I just wanna get the fuck off this land, call the police, call God, tell Him there’s been a terrible accident, a terrible crime, something was done here that even He might not have known about.
The barn door slides open. Everything slower now.
Oliver. There. Here. Right here.
An axe of his own.
I lift mine but he only looks at it, sees the same thing I see, the sun gloss off the blade like the sky winking. Maybe God telling me, I know all about it.
“Hey, this is amazing,” Oliver says. “You came to visit.”
It’s the way friends talk. Kind of. But the way they do it on stage. Scripted. A hand on a hip. A smile. What a pleasant surprise!
He doesn’t talk like Oliver, doesn’t dress like Oliver, I can barely see Oliver inside him.
“Hey,” I say. “Where the fuck is Tracy?”
“I’m glad you didn’t tell me you were coming,” he says. “I like the surprise.”
Still, that look. Like we’ve run into each other in Central Park.
“Where’s Tracy?” I repeat. “Come on. Don’t screw around with me.”
I’m drenched in sweat. The sun is high. And now that I’m face to face with him, I’m not so scared anymore.
“Tracy?” he says. He looks over his shoulder.
He slides the barn door open a little more and I see Karen, yes, really Karen, at a long wooden table, twisting the lid tight on a glass jar. And farther down the table…
Labeling a jar.
“Modesty,” she says.
Then she sees me.
“Oh my God,” she says. Happy. Light. Smiling. “You freakin came!”
She rushes over to me. As her face breaks from the dark of the barn to the sun outside, she closes her eyes.
She’s the epitome of innocence.
Then her arms are around me and she’s hugging me. Saying hello. Deeply. Again and again. So glad an old friend made good on his word and stopped in.
I push her off me.
“What’s going on here, guys?”
Oliver looks to my axe again.
“I’m glad you brought one, too,” he says. “I only have the one of my own.”
He points past me, to where the backyard ends and the fields of dirt begin.
And between them, the trees.
“Help me chop those willows down?’ he says. “I gotta show you something that’s gonna change… your… life.”