Grandpa Cobalt hated letting things go.
Whether it was the wobbly chair he kept in his study or his favorite warped record he fed to the gramophone—looping the same groove over and over.
He was a tall man with a frosty thin hairline and a nose capable of the most powerful of snores. Due to the amblyopia, his right eye was the good one, while his left always drifted a few degrees off, coasting its own orbit. He called it his “fish-eye.”
My Grandma, on the other hand, was a short, petite woman who had a voice that never spiked or got frazzled—even if you were on the thinnest of ice. She sang hymns while she cooked and she had loved to chase me around the room so she could peck my cheeks with kisses. I always called her Gram-Gram (creative, I know).
The two of them preferred the country lifestyle, occupying some patch of land amidst the backroads of Ashe County. Far away from buzzing suburbs, but just close enough to the nearest grocer.
I remember being eight and thinking their house looked just like a Christmas card in the snow: An all-American Saltbox with dark, wooden siding, a steeply pitched roof, and an old red pick-up that seldom left the lot. In the years after the last holiday trip, our interactions had been limited only to brief phone conversations and the periodic seasonal wishes. My grandparents did not come to visit, and neither did we. I sometimes felt sad how close my friends seemed to be with their relatives, and, frankly, I blamed it all on the living distance between us.
But the reality was, we were an estranged family, and rocky relations with my father had left a seismic gap between both parties. I never did learn all those lurid details, but I know it involved a lot of money.
I was going through a rough patch in my sophomore year, from dealing with an asshole ex taking all my friends to getting into a fight with one of the worst girls in school. She had tormented me through the entire 10th grade year, and after complaining and having nothing done about it, I dealt with her myself.
In fourth period Chemistry, she and her snickering vultures always sat right behind me. This particular time, one of their murmurs reached me: “You really think she does?”
I turned and looked at her, dead in the eye, “Does what?”
Her lips curled into a spiteful smile, “Stuff your bra—you do, don’t you?” Nice and loud, for the whole class to hear.
Next thing I knew, I had grabbed her by the hair, knocked her backwards from the desk, and jumped on her.
Ten days suspension, but it felt really nice shutting her up.
Worried for my mental health, my mother opted for me to stay with my grandparents for a week. Since her and Dad’s divorce, she’d been working hard to rekindle the ties with her parents, and probably saw this as a way to bring some normalcy back to our family. Happy as I was to see my old folks again, it was hard not to feel just a little used.
The drive from Charlotte to West Jefferson was a two-hour stretch—one and a half, if I’d gotten to drive. I like road trips though. They are always a good excuse to bust out the moleskin notebook and start sketching the scenery. Drawing was always my diversion to things.
As the road eventually gave way to gravel, we reached the Saltbox house all by its lonesome, save for the old barn which occupied the same grounds. And the red pick-up, of course.
Gram-Gram was the first to greet us at the door, her small delicate eyes widening behind her spectacles. She was wearing a cornflower blue turtleneck. “Oh my!” she gasped, gently cupping my shoulders with her thin hands. “You can’t be my Emily! You’re too tall!”
“You got me. I’m an impostor.” I laughed, as we both pulled each other in a hug. Her hair smelled like coconut oil.
She led us through the foyer and into the immediate living room that spanned the width of the house. It oriented around a fireplace, which funneled up to a large central chimney.
The interior still held its log-cabin charm, from the hickory floorboards to the exposed hard-wood beams of the ceiling. In the corner of the living room, sunlight glinted off the old mahogany armchair by the window.
We headed into the small kitchen. Its soapstone sink and aged finish cabinets still looked the same, but seemed lower down than my childhood memory recalled them. The wall still bored the sign that read, ‘No Home is Complete Without the Pitter-Patter of Rabbits feet.’ Complete with a rabbit’s foot keychain dangling at its corner. It was an eerie feeling being back after eight years and finding that really nothing had changed. The house was a hidey-hole, untouched by time.
I walked through the side door and up the L-shaped staircase to the upper floor. Above them, the long, hand-carved faces of the bearded men once again stared down at me, their wooden teeth grinning and their eyes wide with fake life.
While the adults chatted downstairs, I unpacked in the guestroom. The closet smelled of mothballs, which left a lasting, in-the-nostrils effect everywhere else in the room. With my clothes stashed, I walked the hallway and stopped at the closed door of Grandpa’s study. Muffled rustling sounded from inside.
I knocked lightly against the door. That roused a busy voice from the other side, “One sec—Oh, no. Just come in.”
I peeked briefly inside, and then let myself in. The blinds were closed, and the dark space was lit only by a desk lamp. Beneath it, Grandpa Cobalt’s head was bent forward toward his desk, the pocketknife in his hand slicing carefully at a piece of wood. Chips and fuzzy shavings perforated the workspace as he whittled more of its shape down to a fishy outline.
“You can grab the light,” he said, clearing his throat as his good eye left the project. Although his voice was a cheerful one, his lips remained curled in a permanent, dignified expression.
I flicked the switch, lighting the rest of his office up. It was exactly how you’d picture a fisherman’s office to be: an old Big Mouth Billy Bass mounted on the wall, bayou-themed knickknacks lining the shelves, and pinned just above the old gramophone, a wide hanger of fishing lures, all carved and painted by Grandpa himself—his surroundings hadn’t changed since I’d seen him last.
The chair lightly teetered as he left it and clapped a firm arm around me, “Been too long, pal. Barb’s been cookin’ up something special for you guys.”
“Can’t wait for that.” I smiled and returned the embrace.
My mother ended up staying for dinner before the drive home, giving us all a chance to catch up on things and to clear the air, per se. I knew that was a big reason why she stayed, but I also knew she would never pass up a chance to sample Gram-Gram’s cooking again.
While Grandpa Cobalt reveled in his fishing prowess, my grandmother prided herself in one of the oldest southern staples: comfort food. Sugar-glazed ham, sweet potato biscuits, butter cake rolls—she had certainly prepped for our visit that evening.
With full stomachs, I hugged my mom goodbye and waved her off as the car rolled off the driveway and down the gritty road.
As I tried to sleep that night, I could hear every so often the shy whisper of wind that sighed out of their fireplace.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast from Grandma, I decided to walk the grounds again, taking it all in a near decade later. The tire swing in their backyard still hung from the old maple tree, its insides pooled with trapped, smelly water. From there, a path of stone steps led to the garden, still sprawling with life after all these years.
Straight away, I ended up at the barn. Little had changed about it, save for the evident sag in its roof from the rotting timbers. The once bright paint was now lifting and curling away from its red, weathered body. Several of the boards were peppered with holes from woodpeckers trying to get at the insects hiding in their cavities.
I used to follow Grandpa around the stables as he fed the chickens and milked the cows in his crud-caked overalls. But those days were long gone now, and the barn was far past its cultivating years.
I walked up to the large doors, only to find them chained shut with a padlock.
“Not safe in there.” Grandpa Cobalt’s voice came out of nowhere. I jumped, not even realizing he was behind me. “The old girl still has strong bones to her, but they aren’t getting any sturdier. Best steer clear.”
“Why do you keep it around then?” I asked, which only made him smirk and look away.
The rest of the day played out smoothly, with me exploring a few trails near the house and then helping chop and stack firewood. I was lousy at it, and by the third axe drop, I asked if we were done yet. That gave Grandpa a good, whistly laugh. “If you want us to freeze to death!” he cackled.
The day after that, I drew a sketch of the barn in my notebook, watched some old movies, and helped Gram-Gram do some weeding in her garden. Sure, it was nice being helpful for my grandparents, but honestly speaking, I was mostly trying to keep myself busy so my brain wouldn’t shrivel from boredom. The spotty area had fizzled my cellphone service to nothing, and the only books I’d thought to bring were ones I’d read countless times before.
Every so often, when I was walking the hall, I’d catch a whiff of something floating around the house, something other than the mothball scent in the closets and on the furniture. Something that smelled of earth, almost like dirt. But before I could start to trace it, the scent had already evaporated.
On the third day that I was there, Grandpa showed me his favorite fishing spot—a stream that flowed under a short wooden bridge. The two of us sat off the bank with the folding chairs we’d brought. As he cast out a line, I focused on drawing the circling dragonflies and the skating skitter bugs.
At roughly 2 AM that night, I awoke to the awful feeling of sweat. The room was hot, and the cottony, dryness in my mouth had made it hard to even swallow. I rolled out of bed and lightly made my way down the stairs for a glass of water.
A light glowed from one of the table lamps in the living room. Seated wistfully in the armchair next to it was Gram-Gram. She was in her nightgown, and my first thought was that she must’ve fallen asleep there. But no, she was awake.
“Hello dear. Can’t sleep?” She smiled, hunching slightly forward at my presence. Clasped between her hands was a jug, filled to the brim with water.
“No,” I said dryly, clearing my throat in the process. “Just need a drink really quick.”
“Ohh.” She exhaled. “Happens to me all the time. Would you like some?” She leaned forward to offer me the jug, fingers quivering around the glass. Her expression was dull and somewhat disoriented. She was not wearing the turtleneck and I noticed a scar at the base of her neck, circling around it like a grisly necklace.
I smiled, turning down her offer. “No, that’s okay,”
She flinched her boney shoulders. “More for me then.” And tipped the spout of the jug up to her mouth. A guttural glug, glug, glug sound escaped as she leaned her head back and forced more of it down.
I watched, more stunned than anything, as her throat rippled and the neck scars flexed and relaxed. One mighty gulp after another. Globs of water rolled over her chin and spotted her gown.
When she finally finished, she rested the empty jug on the table and breathed, “H-o-o-o,” taking a moment to wipe her wet lips. “Sorry about that, dear. I get pretty dried out at night too.”
The dull expression returned. “Do you want to see?” She asked, her voice dripping.
Before I could answer, or even properly soak up the question, she gripped the ring finger of her left hand and bent it backwards. A muffled POP sounded under the skin as the finger snapped back and touched the top of her wrist.
“Grandma!” I shouted, as my insides all clenched at once.
She did it again, this time pulling her index back like a railway lever, crunching with bone instead of rust.
Despite my horrified reaction, she still stared dimly at me with hollow eyes, torqueing two more fingers out of place. Snapping them like dry stems.
“Grandma, stop! Please stop it!” I pleaded.
Footfalls sounded down the stairs. Grandpa Cobalt rushed in, barefoot, in his plaid pajamas. He pulled Gram-Gram’s hands apart and looked back at me pleadingly.
I could see he wanted me out of the room before she could do more to herself. I went back upstairs, it was all I could think to do.
A minute or two later, I opened the door and peeked into the hallway. Grandpa had brought her up to his study. I could hear drawers being rustled open and closed. Every so often, from the glow beneath the door, a crease of shadow would roll by. Neither of them was speaking on the other side.
I lay in bed for some time. Instead of the dryness in my throat keeping me awake, it was now the nauseating sound of fingers being bent and broken.
That morning, I made my way downstairs. Gram-Gram was once again in her turtleneck and humming another hymn in the kitchen. A choir of eggs harmonized in the frying pan.
“Good morning, hun.” She smiled briefly, but then turned away uncomfortably. She looked to be in a struggle, cooking with her right hand—the dominant one now immobilized in a splint. “Grandpa says that I scared you last night. I’m so sorry. I should have told you about my sleeping condition. If only you didn’t have to witness it.”
I moved to help her. “No, it’s okay, really. I just hope that you’re alright.”
“Oh, yes.” She laughed, flaunting her brace. “It’s nothing I’m not already used to.”
Even though it gave me some answer for what happened, it still didn’t quite add up in my mind. She’d acknowledged me when I came downstairs, spoke to me even. Despite her clearly not acting like herself, was it really possible to be so dead asleep you couldn’t feel your joints snapping apart? As you were the one doing it?
I wanted to believe her. I really did, but it was a hard pill to swallow—even with all that water.
Most of the time, the best place to find her was in the living room, where she typically resigned herself to the armchair by the window. That had always been her favorite spot. I remember being little and sitting on her lap as we watched a storm outside, warm coffee in her hand, hot cocoa in mine.
Now, though, when she did leave the chair, it was only to put something on in the kitchen or refill the glass she always kept close by. But for how much she enjoyed cooking, I don’t think I ever saw her actually eat anything the whole time I was there. She just preferred to sit, taking in nothing but water and window-sunlight.
As I finished a sketch of her from the couch, I soon realized that I’d never seen her blink while she sat there. Not even once.
For dinner that evening, I stuck around to help her in the kitchen. I figured she could use the extra hands. I was dressing the potato salad, when a sudden CRASH sounded behind me.
A plate had slipped out of her grasp and lay shattered on the floor. She didn’t gasp or sigh about it. She just stood there with her head tilted toward the sharp bits of ceramic. Then, in the same instant, she crunched over them, grabbed another plate, and continued with her task. Not acknowledging what had happened whatsoever.
When the meal prep was finished—and after the broken plate was scooped up—we set the dinner table. Roast chicken. Peas. Mashed potatoes. I was starving.
The back door opened and closed. Grandpa Cobalt shuffled his way in and claimed a spot at the table. “Looks good, Barb.” He smiled, his good eye focused on the plate and the other admiring the wall.
During dinner, I noticed Gram-Gram barely touched her plate, giving only a few courtesy prods to the mashed potatoes.
I stood up to take my plate back to the kitchen.
She looked up in surprise. “Where are you going?”
“I’m finished. Getting pretty full here.”
Her brow darkened and her eyes marked me dully behind the spectacles. “Kids who do not clean their plate do not get to play. Please sit.”
A few measly flecks of chicken were left for me to finish. “I’m good, thanks.” I laughed a bit, taking it as a joke.
Her face first went slack and then all at once clenched into a crinkled mask of anger. “Clean your plate!”
“Barb,” Grandpa spoke up, still chewing some food. “Leave her be. She’s finished. Leave it be.”
“It is a waste!” she said fiercely, arms shaking. “A waste of good food!”
Finish your own plate then, I almost shouted back but instead, continued toward the kitchen.
Dishes jittered. A heavy thud resounded across the table. I turned. Gram-Gram was standing up now, lips taut with anger. Her whole appearance looked different. My sweet, gentle Grandma had waivered into something else. Something hag-like. “I SAID EAT!” she screamed. “EAT! EAT! EEEEAT!!” Each word was spat and fueled by another pound of the table. Her glasses dropped into the potato salad.
Grandpa Cobalt left his chair and moved to calm her down.
I was much more angry than afraid at her outburst. I opened my mouth to tell her off, but then I saw it—The black substance running down her face.
It oozed from her left ear, dripping densely down her cheek and over the curve of her chin. I thought it was blood at first, but no, it was too sticky. Too thick.
Grandpa seemed to take notice as well, as he grabbed a napkin to wipe her face.
I left through the kitchen and then out the back door to get away from the shouting. It was all too much to handle. I found an outdoor bench in their garden and sat on top of it for a while.
Grandpa came out and joined me, his face florid with exhaust. “Hey,” he said quietly, “I’m sorry about all of this, Emily. Your grandmother is going through things, difficult things that impair her . . . mentality. She doesn’t mean it and, believe me, she’s trying her best. She’ll be back to her old self soon. Just give it some time. I promise.”
He wrapped his arms around me in a firm hug and then headed back inside, leaving me to my thoughts.
I tried my best to calm down, but all I could think about was Gram-Gram, and the black sap rolling out of her ear.
After the incident at dinner, she did not leave her bedroom. Sometimes I’d hear the whiffled groan of a floorboard or the wet sniffle of breath coming from the other side.
“Is Gram-Gram okay?” I asked Grandpa in his study.
“She’s alright,” he answered idly, his good eye trained on the newly carved fishing lure in front of him as he attached a treble hook to its rear. “Just needs some rest.”
“Should we take her to the hospital? Just to be safe?”
“No!” he said vehemently, veering his attention back to me. “I already told you. She is fine, alright?”
It wasn’t like I had any say in the matter, so I left it alone. But I couldn’t help but feel guilty about how things were going. It was like I’d become a nuisance, instead of a guest.
That night, a loud thump roused me awake.
I heard movement down the hall, and judging by the mutters and mannish grunts, I guessed it could only be my grandfather. He grumbled and sighed as he made his way slowly down the stairs, like he was lugging something down them.
The back door opened and closed.
I glanced out the window and spied his hazy outline pass through the darkness and cut across the grounds. He approached the dark silhouette of the barn, fiddled with the lock at the door, and vanished inside.
It was one thing to be awake at this hour, but an entirely different thing to be entering a place he deemed too dangerous to set foot in.
I settled back into bed, the curiosity keeping me awake even longer.
That morning, I wanted to try and do something nice for Gram-Gram while I was still there—eggs, some toast, and bacon, ever-so slightly burnt. Although I was far from the sort of cook she was, I figured breakfast in bed would count enough.
Plate in hand, I knocked on her door. “Gram-Gram, I made you some breakfast. You hungry?”
I knocked slightly harder which pushed it a smidge open, then, impulsively, nudged it the rest of the way.
The first thing to hit me was the smell—the same earthy one I’d been catching in periodic wafts in the house, but now sharper and thicker than ever. Pungent, damp, bitter, like moldy vegetables.
The second thing, which came immediately after, was that Gram-Gram was nowhere. Her bed was empty, and from the looks of it, only one side of the sheets was being used. Even the bathroom was empty.
Atop her dresser, a miniature cat doll stared at me, its grey face stitched to a frown and a plastic tear drooping out of its eye.
It was just me and the room which stank of rotting soil.
Something crunched under my shoe—a clumpy, sticky substance stuck to the floor. Blotches of it had dried into black, gummy droplets that started at the door and stained all the way up to the bed.
Or maybe it was the other way around.
I checked all around the house, the backyard, the garden, and even found myself double checking the armchair in the living room, like she’d somehow just materialize there by the window. But she was nowhere.
Grandpa came back to the house and walked up the stairs. I managed to catch him on his way out of the bedroom.
“Do you know where Grandma is?” I asked.
Deep furrows marked the corners of his mouth. With one hand still wrapped around the doorknob, he closed the door briskly behind him. “In bed. She needs to rest.”
He disappeared into his study, leaving me standing there, trying to digest the lie I was just fed.
That night, I heard him stir once again to the lower floor, scuttling down each step on quiet feet. From the window, I watched as he looked around, unchained the barn door, and slipped inside.
But why? What was he hiding? The questions rolled around like rocks in my stomach and made me feel queasy. Grandma was missing, and Grandpa was acting strange.
Even as I had attempted to prod him for information earlier that day, he only seemed to divert from it. Eye contact was never his strong suit, given the fish-eye, but I could tell something was off from his body language. It was like he was trying to squirrel away from the subject entirely.
It made me feel nervous, like I was suddenly talking to someone else.
Check the barn, my gut proposed. Wait until he comes back and then sneak out yourself.
I thought about that small hole my younger self had discovered on the side of the barn. I wondered if Grandpa ever did manage to patch it up. It had been the easiest way to sneak inside and pet the cows. No doubt it would be a tight fit, but it could be possible. That would at least get me beyond the padlock. Then I could be in and out quickly.
The thought was provoking, but also curbed by the possibility of what I might find inside there, whatever secret thing he’d been doing. Not only that, if it really was nothing, and I was discovered, it would no doubt hurt Grandpa for suspecting him of something so vile.
But the trust was gone now. Gram-Gram was gone.
I waited by the window for some time, not daring to leave the house until I knew he was back indoors. As every minute passed, so did a rising flux of worry. At last, the barn doors slid open and out he came, returning to the house with an exhausted gait. I listened intently for his shuffling down the hall and then the groan of hinges from the bedroom door. When enough silence passed, I cautiously moved down the stairs and out the back door, thankfully without any noise.
The air outside woke me and brought back the reality of what I was preparing to do. Fear and uncertainty compressed my legs, demanding that I stop, that I really think about this. But I was done second-guessing myself. I pushed on.
Insects chirped their reedy songs from the brushwood. I circled around the barn’s haggard body and, sure enough, found the small hole in its side. Considering that I’d been barely small enough to squeeze through as a kid, there was no chance I’d fit now.
I gripped one of the weaker planks near it and gave a hard tug. The wood groaned from my effort but held firm. I sat on the ground, planting both my shoes against the timber and yanked again. The nail holding it ripped out like a tooth, as the plank gave with a loud snap. I took a few breaths, nerved myself up, and crawled through the widened passage.
The air inside was heavy with the smell of old, dusty wood and further thickened with something sharp and familiar—the same odor that lingered in the halls of the house. Only the smell was a thousand times stronger here.
I flicked on my cellphone’s flashlight. Cobwebs hung like streamers from the ceiling. The animal pens sat empty of anything but silage and still stunk somewhat of their dung. From one of them, the teeth of an old pitchfork poked dangerously out of the brush.
I walked deeper inside, bypassing a tractor beneath a grime-laden tarp, long past its golden years. Beyond the stables, in the far darkened rear of the interior, my light caught the silhouette of something tall and arboreal. A tree—growing right in the haunches of the old barn. From its splayed branches, I could make out the dark, grubby shapes of fruit hanging from them.
I approached it, more curious than anything about why it was here and why Grandpa wouldn’t have just turned it to firewood by now.
A bad feeling slithered down my neck, a very bad feeling. Then, as enough dusty light pushed back the darkness, I saw it. All of it.
Not a tree, the voice in my head squeaked with knife-edge terror.
The trunk, if you would call it that, was not made of bark, but of a stretched, leathery skin. It buckled and folded around the main body, forming the same rows and ridges as a fingertip. From atop its crown, thin skeletal branches, which began as stems, grew and evolved into veiny arms. Human arms. Their splintery fingers gripped in silent torment.
The vague shapes dangling from them that I thought were fruit weren’t fruit at all—but rows of wrinkled heads. Some had wisps of white hair. Some had more developed features than others. And somewhere in the dim compartment of my mind, I realized something else—
They all looked like Gram-Gram.
The tree’s long, gnarled shape reached halfway to the ceiling from the evil earth that birthed it. In its center, a distinct crater was left, as if something large had recently been carved out. Something like a torso.
From the patch of soil in front, someone had been hard at work digging up and exposing the “roots”—boneless, atrophied legs with nubs on the way of becoming toes. A pair of them appeared to have already been cut and removed off the main stem.
I was now breathing hard, practically panting, trying to find some way to process the gaunt, twisted thing before me. Then, without thinking, I snapped a photo.
That was when I heard it—the sound of a chain being fiddled with.
I turned on my heel, clambering around a bit before picking one of the stacks of old hay and hiding behind it. The barn doors slid open just as I remembered to turn the flashlight off.
Overhead lights flickered on and glazed the inner space with a soft, yellow glow. Boots made their way inside, thumping over the matted hay.
I leaned closer into my hiding spot, straggly bits of straw poking into my cheek.
Grandpa Cobalt came into view, approaching the nightmarish thing with a slow, burned-out pace and a few exhaled murmurs. A large empty sack was strung over his shoulder. Taking no notice of me, he maneuvered around to a small workshop in the corner, where a rack of brooms, a shovel, a manure fork, and a stained pruning saw hung in wait.
Bypassing those, he first gripped the wooden ladder, situated it at the front of the tree-thing, and returned for the hand saw.
I couldn’t look away from him, and the thick air I’d been breathing had started to make me feel lightheaded. Like this all truly were just a bad dream.
Stepping on a few of the rungs, Grandpa surveyed the hanging heads. Cupping each one by their cheek with his gloved hands, he opened their mouths, checking the teeth. Finally settling on one, he gave a little twist and plucked it like a fat, ripe apple. The selected head went into the bag.
He repeated the process for the tangle of arms, looking each of them over. Upon choosing the best two, he brought the saw up to where their collars met with the rest of the trunk and started cutting. The silver fangs chewed through them, producing a wet, grinding sound with each stroke.
I pinned my hands over my ears, trying to keep out the noise of moist, ripping fibers.
The arms drooped and dangled from their stems, and after the split, were quickly fed to the bag.
Black sap drained from their stumps.
With his bag full of the chosen parts, Grandpa Cobalt slung it over his shoulder and brought it to a door on the side of the room. It opened to a short, small space, where a light hung above a table. A white sheet was draped over it—a vague silhouetted shape beneath it. He closed the door shut behind him.
Can’t stay here, my thoughts sloshed and finally churned out. Have to go, have to get out. I cautiously moved toward the way I had come in, planning to cut through the empty pens in order to not be seen. But instead of my foot finding soft earth in my next step, it felt something hard and wooden.
A trap door.
Its frame was as dilapidated as the walls around me, and I’m almost certain it would have given beneath my weight had I continued. I tried to peer through a gap between its boards, but it was too dark, even with the overhead ruddy lighting. Checking back once more behind me, I faced my phone between the boards and flicked the flashlight on.
The cavern below lit up, and had I not clamped a hand over my mouth, I would have finally let a scream slip out. A body—no, several bodies—were down there, stacked nakedly over each other in the pit, as though dropped one at a time. Their skin was flaking like old paper. Their eyes were dried in their sockets. Their dry lips curled in mummified sneers and grimaces. But the worst of all was the one at the top of the pile, its white hair spilled behind it, and a splint still fitted around its bony wrist.
The time between squeezing back through the hole in the wall and running back to my room felt stitched together, split maybe between two or three blinks. I fell against the guest room door, closing it, and sank to the floor, hyperventilating in short, quick gasps.
My heart flip-flopped in my chest. My mind was trying its solemn best to keep it together. I dialed my mother’s cell. Pointless. The signal could not reach the towers beyond the mountains. All I could do was wait for her to come and pick me up tomorrow. Then I’d tell her everything. I’d tell everyone everything.
The downstairs door pulled open, and the drumming of shoes drew closer.
There was no lock on my door, so I made a cautious, but quick, crawl toward the bed and rolled the bed sheets over me. Boot heels thumped up the stairs, traveled down the hall, and stopped at my door. I held back the air in my throat and rested a hand over my thrumming chest.
The doorknob jostled softly then twisted, as the door inched open with a horrible, terrible groan. Only partially opening.
I lay still, hoping he’d see that I was asleep and move on.
Then, in a voice so unfamiliar I could hardly understand it, he spoke through the crack. “Delete the photos.”
Sharp, frigid terror shot through me and jostled my insides. I didn’t move, trying to hold onto the façade that I wasn’t awake. But the door didn’t move, remaining open to the slit of hallway. Did he really see me in there, or did the intel come from something else?
I hovered my finger over the phone and erased the first photo, hoping to at least hold out with the second I took—The one of the bodies in the shaft.
“Both of them,” he grunted.
As I deleted the final bit of data, the door began to close, stopped, and pushed open once more. “I love Barb. I hope you know that.”
I didn’t answer.
The door then clicked shut and the boots returned to the downstairs. He must have had more work to do.
I looked emptily toward the window. The sun was on the rise, slowly shifting the night into a newborn dawn.
I did not leave the room, even as the disc of sun finally peeped over the hills, even as the smell of delicious food wafted through the vents, even as the sound of footsteps came to and fro from the hall.
Then I heard it—the sound of wheels crunching gravel outside. My Mom was finally here.
I rushed downstairs, planning to meet her before she even touched the doorbell. But as I reached the living room, my legs deadlocked, the familiar, cold air of shock washing over me again.
“Well, look who decided to join us!” Gram-Gram trilled from the armchair. She was in her turtleneck, and the splint rested securely over her mending fingers.
But it wasn’t her. It was a collection of parts, of pieces from the tree-thing, all strung together beneath that sweater. Behind the collar over her neck, I pictured a fresh ring of scars (maybe even stitches) hiding under the fabric. Were there still guts and organs within them, or just more heaps of black sap?
I knew this wasn’t Gram-Gram, just like I knew it wasn’t the same Gram-Gram I’d spent these days gardening and cooking with. It was a different one. A new one, freshly picked and pulled together.
Was my real Grandmother dead? Was this some deal Grandpa Cobalt made to never lose her? A deal with the devil? Did he just wait for one to shrivel up before carving out a new one?
“Are you alright, dear?” It inquired. “You’re so pale. Are you hungry? Do you need some water maybe?”
I never knew what it truly meant to see the light leave someone’s eyes, but behind those spectacles, the eyes were dead and dull. Wide with fake life.
A knock came at the door, prompting the thing with Gram-Gram’s face to sit up. “That must be your mother, finally come to rescue you from us.” It laughed.
And as she pulled open the door to let my mother in, all I could do was stand there.
That isn’t Gram-Gram! It’s something else! I tried to say, but the words died on my tongue. A tight, queasiness bubbled up my throat and made the room spin.
I just wanted to leave. I just wanted to go home.
Grandpa Cobalt didn’t leave his study to say goodbye to us, and frankly, I wanted nothing more. From upstairs, we could hear his gramophone beginning to play.
“So, how was it?” Mother asked on the drive back.
I tried again to tell her, to spill everything I’d witnessed, but the same wooziness returned and closed my throat. Needle-sharp pain filled my ears and only grew worse as I tried to push the words out.
“Hey, are you okay?” my mother asked, seeing how much I was struggling.
But I couldn’t blurt it out—the awful, horrible images swelling in my brain. Even as I tried to write them down, the seasickness feeling intensified until I couldn’t even see straight.
Maybe it was something in the food, or maybe I’d breathed in too much of the thick, moldy air inside of that place. But one thing was certain. They had no intention of letting me reveal what I saw. Not in my whole life, not even on my deathbed.
Even as I tried later to recover the photos from the barn, the files were too corrupted to fix. Lost forever.
But there was something I did manage to get out on that car ride. Something that only ended up confusing my mother even more.
“Her splint was on the wrong hand.” I said.
Despite all mom’s efforts to revive our family ties, things ended up falling silent after that. No more annual check-ins or seasonal greetings from my grandparents.
Time did not dull the memory of what I’d seen in the barn and, truthfully, I do not think it ever will.
Visceral horror can’t be erased, it can only be negotiated with.
I filled up artbooks with it, sketching page after page of withered corpses and dark hedges made of body parts, eagerly awaiting harvest. What had started as a hobby of mine soon became an act of weak, pitiful defiance, a way to get the secrets trapped inside of me out.
Stacks of them filled up my room.
Teachers were getting frustrated.
Mom started to worry.
I didn’t care, I only wanted to draw.
I now have a therapist and Dr. Abigail meets with me once a week for our forty-five-minute sessions. Even though she doesn’t show it, I’m sure she gets bothered by how little I talk in them because I’m too busy drawing, too busy finishing the piece I’m working on.
“Emily,” she says from her chair, one leg folded over the other. “Can you tell me about that picture you’re making?”
I don’t answer.
“How about a name for it?”
I stop and look up at her, “Impostor.”
Credit : Michael Paige
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