13 Jul John
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Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
I first knew something was wrong when John didn’t return before the first snow. I woke up and looked out the dull, pitted glass window to see white clinging to tree limbs and dusting the barn roof. The image of him smiling as he slung his rifle across his back came to me unbidden.
“I’ll be back before the first snow,” he promised. “Might as well fill up the smokehouse before winter. Got to take care of the both of you.”
He laid a warm hand on my belly, and I had smiled while rolling my eyes. I’d thought he worried too much about this winter, that spring would be the time that tried us most when the baby came. Looking at the snow, though, I felt as if a cold fist had closed over my heart. The unquestioning faith I had in my husband suddenly seemed that much less stable.
Days passed, and I kept as busy as possible. I saw to our livestock, I preserved some of the fruit from our garden, I darned socks and mended fences and knit and chopped firewood and checked our supplies again and again and again. No matter how I busied myself, though, I looked past the line of trees, willing him to return.
Thoughts returned to me as I went about my chores and even created new ones to busy my hands. When John suggested staking out a claim on the frontier, I had been excited. It wasn’t that I didn’t like our life in the city, but there was adventure in my blood. My father had been a trader, and my memories of childhood were in traveling with him. John wanted a bit of land to call his own, to work and make his own way, and he practically split his face grinning when I was so enthusiastic about the suggestion. “I married a tough woman,” he’d said proudly. “She’s not afraid of anything.”
At the time, it’d been true. I took on each of the new hardships with ease, helping John as he built our cabin and searched deep in the woods for logs to fell. I learned all the things a proper frontier wife should know to keep the farm working on my own while he was off hunting or away trading with the natives or in town. His plot was nearly a whole day’s travel from town, and even then the little village was hardly a match for the city where we met. I didn’t care at the time. I liked the quiet. There was something about watching our cabin and farm grow and knowing that it was our achievement alone. We could take a trip into town every month or two and show off our crops or buy some new amenity with pride. We were happy.
The quiet and isolation I’d loved made things worse now. As the days passed and nights grew longer, I longed for something to occupy my thoughts other than the gnawing worry in my heart. I wasn’t worried about myself, mind, or the baby. If I was in danger, I knew the way to the road and always was a strong rider. Not only that, but if we didn’t make it into town after a couple of months, I knew someone would come to check on us. I had food aplenty to last until then. But what of John? What of my husband? It had been weeks, and I was running out of excuses for why he hadn’t come back yet. Maybe the snows came earlier than he anticipated and were slowing his progress, I thought as I knit next to the fire. Maybe game was harder to find than he expected, I reasoned, as I repaired a hole in the chicken coop. Maybe he’d fallen and injured himself, I began to fret as I shoveled a path between the cabin and the barn. Maybe I was now and forever alone.
It was late at night that I first smelled it. It was a clear night with a full moon, and I awoke in the darkness of our cabin to the scent of fragrant wood smoke. My heart jumped in my chest, daring to believe my prayers had been answered as I ran to the window. I could see a shadow moving outside near the smokehouse, and when he turned I felt the tears run down my cheeks. It was John.
I wrapped myself in a shawl and ran outside in bare feet, heart racing, as I ignored the cold and ran to his side. I made such a racket in my enthusiasm that he heard me coming, and shut the door to the smokehouse to greet me halfway across the yard. “Go back inside. It’s too cold out here for you,” he started to say, but I flung my arms around him nonetheless. Finally, I could rest. Finally, I could relax.
I was still weeping and trying to tell him how worried I’d been as he walked me inside. He listened quietly as I spoke, moving slowly and sitting heavily in a chair while I lit the lantern. As I turned I let out a shriek. The firelight showed his face ashen gray, his eyes dull. I put a hand quickly to his forehead, but he grabbed it gently before I could test to see if he was feverish.
“It’s alright,” he said, his voice husky and tired. “I’m fine now. Just promise me you’ll rest.” His other hand reached out to grope at my belly, slightly larger than when he left, and his grip changed to hold me close. “We’re together now,” John said slowly. “Everything will be fine, wife.”
I was not so easily dissuaded. I wrapped him in furs and set him in front of the fire despite his protests, and told him to warm himself while I prepared a bowl of hot soup for him. I set it in his hands, and he watched me go about my business, ignoring the food in his hands. “Go to sleep,” he said heavily. “I’m fine, but you need rest. I’ve worried you with my absence.” Grateful that he was back, that my fear was for nothing, I felt the exhaustion that came with relief. As I climbed into bed, I told him to eat and recover from his journey, but he simply watched me drift to sleep.
When I awoke, John was already hard at work outside. I walked to the window and watched him at work, and the relief of last night washed over me again. It hadn’t been some dream; he was really home. When I tried to join him outside, however, he sent me back with the short words “You need to rest.” My chest tightened slightly at his rejection. As I returned inside and watched John chop wood and haul feed, I noticed his color was still off. His demeanor was tired and slow, and I worried that he wouldn’t let me help with the chores. At first, I thought it was his concern over my worry at his absence. I tried to assure him over the next few days that I was fine, that I had tended to our homestead well enough on my own. With forced smiles and kind but firm words, he rejected my aid.
His color didn’t improve as the days passed. His face remained gray and tired with lines where there had been none before. He moved as if pained, slowly and deliberately, and his voice was low. He kept bundled up as if the warmth of the fire never reached him, his skin cold to the touch whenever I managed to lay a hand on him. I tried to warm him with furs and soup and offer him rest, but John was persistent. “You must rest, wife,” he would say, reaching out to touch my belly with an almost longing look in his eye. My worries grew.
About a week had passed before I realized something odd. Well, odder than John’s apparent illness and refusal to let me tend to him. He spent most of his time outside working the farm by making preparations for winter, and the time he spent inside he used to doze in his chair or fret over me. It was as he was chiding me for going outside to check the hens for eggs. “You have to stay warm, wife,” he said, but the words seemed off to me. And then it struck me: John had not once called me by name since returning home from his hunting trip. Of course, I hadn’t found it peculiar that he called me simply “Wife.” John found it endearing from time to time. But as I searched through my memories of the past week, watching John add more meat to the smokehouse, I realized that he hadn’t once spoken my name. The realization gripped my heart with fear in a way I hadn’t felt before. Something was wrong, but what?
With chores outside denied to me, I found myself with too much time and too little to occupy my thoughts. I busied myself as I could, cooking and cleaning and sewing, but John would interrupt me if he found my actions too strenuous for my condition. This was also new. He hadn’t feared to leave me behind for the sake of my pregnancy before, had never commented on my desire to make this home as much mine as his. As I sat in front of the fire brooding, I searched for more differences between John as he was and John as he had returned.
Some of the changes were quick to spring to mind. The cabin was quiet and seemed less warm since he returned. John’s attitude had shifted from good-humored to somber, and he rarely spoke to me with the same affection as he once had. Not to say that he was unkind, but there was an intensity in the way he spoke. His care for my health had an urgency and desire to it that I couldn’t explain. It was as if the idea of me was more important than I actually was. He spent more time outside, was constantly wrapped in heavy clothing, he insisted on watching me go to sleep at night, and he was awake before I was every day. Other things were smaller, an observation that seemed almost absurd before I started actively looking for clues. I found I couldn’t remember him eating a full meal in front of me since his return. This concerned me greatly because eating properly is the key to getting well again. When I told John I was worried, he would make a show of holding a bowl at night, but the only times I saw him eat was when he pulled bits of meat out of the stew I’d made.
One morning, I woke up to the smell of roasting pork inside the cabin. I opened my eyes and saw John’s back to me as he held a haunch of meat to the fire. The smell made me sick, and I spent the rest of the day ill in bed. I asked him what it was since it definitely didn’t seem like venison. John was quiet, then he told me he’d killed a boar in the woods when he was off hunting. The words were matter-of-fact, but he paused for a while before answering, and later as I drifted off to sleep I heard him gnawing hungrily at the bone as if he hadn’t eaten in days. The sound turned my stomach, and the smell of meat mingled with his unwashed clothes in a sickeningly sour stench. It occurred to me then that I hadn’t seen him disrobe or change his clothes since returning, in spite of all the heavy lifting he’d been doing and sweat he surely must be shedding. The next morning I woke to find the meat and was gone, and John was back at work in the barn.
I couldn’t bear the change between us. I tried to make conversation, to bring back some semblance of brightness that our cabin once possessed. He never strayed far, yet I never felt so lonely. His gestures of affection felt clumsy and unsettling as he reached out to touch my belly or stroke my hair. And he only called me “Wife.” I can’t stress how unnerving that was. My mind was searching for a cause for his change in a way that made sense and didn’t beggar belief, yet I could come up with no answer that agreed with reason. It was odd, I told myself, but it wasn’t bad. I still had hope. I tried to talk about the future, to plan for the baby. When he remained silent after I asked for suggestions for the baby’s name, I suggested he look through the family Bible for relatives to honor. He stared at me blankly a moment before I pointed to the shelf where it rested. He stood slowly, I turned to tend to the beans on the stove, and suddenly there was a crashing noise and howl of pain. I shrieked in alarm, turning to see the shelf on its side and John clutching his hand before brushing past me into the cold night with a slam of the door.
I waited in silence, afraid for John and yet afraid of him as well. He was hurt, yet I hesitated to go after him. I stared at the bookshelf on its side, the papers and books strewn on the floor and the Bible laying open, its gilded pages gleaming in the firelight. I wanted to set things straight, put the books back in order, restore the Bible to its rightful place, but I was afraid. What had happened to John? What would he say if he saw me setting it right? It seemed an age, but finally I moved to the window to look for John. Light snow was falling, and I saw his footprints in the snow leading to the smokehouse. Apart from the crackling fire behind me, there was only silence.
It was then that I began to let a truth inside of me that I had been rejecting since the night I woke up to the smell of wood smoke. There was something terribly wrong with John, something unnatural and dangerous. Once I realized that, I quickly bent to right the shelf and set the books back. I didn’t know what had happened, but I wanted the Bible where it was supposed to be.
I’d eaten and climbed into bed when John returned. I called out to him with concern, and his voice replied in a wooden tone that he’d knocked the shelf onto his foot and needed snow, but he held his hand at an awkward angle. The answer wasn’t a surprise to me, so I smiled at him and told him to be more careful. “I will,” he said quietly. “Just rest.” He sat heavily in his chair, and I shut my eyes as if falling asleep. In truth, it took all my concentration to even my breathing and play the part of sleeping wife convincingly. My mind was racing. I needed answers, and I needed to plan.
The moon was high in the window when I chanced opening an eye again. John’s head was bent low over his chest, his shoulders rising and falling in even rhythm. I stayed still watching him in silence for a moment, observing his appearance for the slightest sign of what could possibly be wrong. Still, his skin was pallid gray, wrinkled and sagging in places. He seemed to have aged years in the past few weeks. The smell was growing, too. It was more than unwashed clothes and skin, though. It smelled fouler. I hadn’t mentioned the scent to John other than to offer a change of clothes, but he had kept his distance all the same since returning. And still he wore the clothes he’d worn on the hunt. Still he bundled himself up.
I took a deep breath, and still John didn’t move. I had never felt him climb into bed with me, but I had seen him dozing in his chair since his return. Convinced he was asleep, I carefully slid from under the quilts and stepped across the floorboards to the window. The snow had stopped, and the moon was bright, just as it had been the night of his return. I chanced a look back at John, but he was still and silent. His boots stood by the door, and I slipped my feet into them and tied them as tightly as I could. If he found the footprints in the snow, they would be the size of his feet, not mine. I wrinkled my nose in disgust at the sour smell, but some burning need was pulsing through me. I had to see with my own eyes what John was keeping from me.
I wrapped myself in a woolen shawl and stepped outside in naught but my nightgown, long underwear, and John’s boots. I took a deep breath as I stepped delicately across the new snow, trying hard to avoid making too much noise. The air was still, and I held my breath as I crossed the yard to the animal pen and barn. Carefully I pulled the door open, and a horrid stench rushed to greet me. I held a hand over my mouth as I peered inside. The livestock crowded the far corner of the barn as if terrified of me. The horse shrieked at the movement of the door, but quieted when I entered, almost as if with relief. I gagged at the scent of dung and urine and shut the door quietly to keep myself quiet. It hadn’t been mucked out, I realized. What was John doing out here? I saw hay haphazardly strewn inside, but the quivering animals looked thin. Stepping away from the barn, I checked the chicken coop. It was in an equal state of disarray. Bloody feathers were strewn about, and I saw a hole in the fence. A rotting egg lost somewhere made the air heavy with the scent of decay.
At the far end of the clearing that marked our homestead was the smokehouse sending wisps of smoke into the still night. The scent of burning wood lingered on the cold air, and I remembered how John had intercepted me before I’d reached him the night of his return. It had been the first time he’d tried to keep me from something. I moved as though in a daze, fearing each step I took yet resolutely walking further. As I did, the smell of meat mingled with the smoke, and I grit my teeth against the feeling of illness that rose in my chest.
As I opened the door carefully, my eyes did not register what I saw at first. The flickering embers that slowly burned the wood in the center of the small room, the hanging haunches of meat that smelled strongly of salt and smoke, and the soot stains along the wall were familiar and normal, as opposed to the disarray of the barn and coop. As my eyes scanned the corners of the smokehouse, I finally saw the fingernails. Torn and bloody, they lay on the ground forgotten as if dropped carelessly. Slowly I looked up, and suddenly the haunches of meat took form into recognizable shapes, and I held my hand over my mouth to stop myself from retching and screaming. Without skin, cleaned and prepared and salted, I saw the torso and arms and legs of what smelled like pork but could only be human.
Time seemed to stop as I stared, the muscles seeming so much more obvious than before. Thoughts whirled through my head in silent horror, questions that leaped to mind and imagined answers that only made me sicker with terror. Finally, I shut the door and leaned against it, breathing in the cold air as I struggled to make sense. I was right. Something was terribly wrong. My unborn child and I were not safe here. First, I had to know how bad it was. The fear that John had hunted human was too much to bear, and I slowly turned and opened the door again. I counted possible limbs and torsos, and to my great relief, I could only see two possible thighs, two arms, and one torso. The rest were sides of meat too large or easily recognizable.
The relief fled quickly as I suddenly realized the implications. His skin was gray and loose, I thought. His hands and feet were always covered, he never washed his clothes, and he stank more and more each day. It dawned on me that I was never reunited with John until this moment. The thing that wore his face never called me by name because it didn’t know my name.
Credit: Erin Bates