I like mornin’ best in summer. Chet don’t, cuz he’s fifteen and likes his sleep, but I’d rather make my own breakfast, get chores done quick – enjoy the rest of the day if Mama gives me a choice. Let Chet take the afternoon. He thinks he’s winnin’, but he ain’t. Molly moves a lot during late milkin’, sheep and horses need rounding up. It’s harder and dang hotter, and more flies – that’s a fact.
Sun’s not close to bein’ up, but the air is cool and fresh, not too wet, and the sweet scent of lilacs fills the barn when I prop them big doors open. I breathe deep. Molly kicks a leg back, swishes her tail as I shift the stool and nudge the bucket back. I give her smooth tan flank a pat, “Whoa there, Girl,” and go back to milkin’. I got a weird feeling. Look for Roscoe out the doors, but he ain’t there – dumb dog. There’s a flicker in the floodlight circle outside. I gasp, feelin’ off. Sometimes I spot a Luna moth in the light all glowy-green and big. They don’t stay long, too smart. Bats chase ‘em, but I ain’t never seen a bat catch a Luna moth. I might like that, I think, maybe.
I hear a noise come from the hayloft above. Molly moos high-pitch like, shakes her head, jinglin’ her bell. I got goosebumps. She don’t ever do that. My eyes shoot up at another creak; somethin’ with weight by the hay door. I can’t see nothin’ through them slats – could be rats nestin’, maybe. I smell somethin’ too, somethin’ foul mixin’ with them lilacs.
The hayloft is a sanctuary – Mama says, in the strong light of day. I like readin’ up there, propped on a bale near the hay door in the afternoon when the breeze is light and I can see all the way to the lake – but now, since Daddy… “Odd, no rooster crowin’ – ‘bout time, ain’t it?”
Molly don’t answer. There’s another flicker, a shadow in the floodlight circle like somethin’ peeked out the dang hay door above. I squeeze the teat too hard, eyes on the circle of light – waitin’, thinkin’ ‘bout what’s up there, and that weird smell, ‘bout no rooster. I suck in a hard breath, cough a little. Molly stomps her hind leg hard. I flinch. Milk sloshes out the half-full bucket side, splashes my rubber boot. I shake my head. If he were here, Daddy would say, “If you ain’t thinkin’ about what you’re doin’ then you ain’t doin’ what you think.”
I smirk – go back to milkin’ in lamplight meant for baby chicks. Ain’t no eggs hatchin’ right now nowhere, so I prop that light to where need be. Daddy always said I was best milker – don’t need no light, but baby chick lamp is warm and not too bright. Chet don’t care enough – that’s why I’m better. Molly moos again. My ears perk. Its peaceful most mornin’s less them chickens get a rat in the coop, or somethin’.
Overheads are so bright, and I hate flippin’ that giant switch outside that takes two hands, and makes a sizzling noise – no thank you. No sense in wakin’ the whole barn, or rilin’ up Daddy’s old hound Roscoe – gawd, he must be old as Chet. All wiry and gray fur that felt like pettin’ a bristle brush the few times he let me. Dog never did warm to me, even when Daddy was alive, but used to wag his tail, at least. Now, he just kind of follows me, watchin’, lookin’ all mean. Sometimes he barks at nothin’. I think his hearin’s gone bad, or maybe he plain misses Daddy, but I got used to him. Funny, him not here now, growlin’ at the wall.
Overheads do no good in the hayloft; only daylight. I don’t wanna in the dark, but soon I gotta take my boots off, climb that old rickety ladder and toss down three bales for the horses – too quiet, I notice, not even a whinny from Taffy. I think about the shadow again. What if there’s a raccoon up there – or a possum? They can be awful mean. Where is that Roscoe?
Daddy always hated that loft in dark too. Strange, how Chet found him up there. His face… Doc said was a heart attack. Chet weren’t himself – cryin’ an all. Told me Daddy looked scared. Thought he were still alive cuz that look on his face. I can’t never picture it – Daddy scared? Suits me just fine that I can’t.
Two years he’s been gone now. We weren’t never close. “No use for girls,” he’d say, but he’d wink when he said it. He liked that I weren’t no whiner, even when Molly stomped my foot, broke my little toe. I weren’t mad – was Roscoe spooked her, barkin’ like that. Sometimes I like Molly better than Sara from school – talk to her more – that’s a fact. Them heavy creaks above sound to me like footsteps shufflin’. Molly turns her head back toward me, glaring with that big saucer eye. I think, can she sense my fear?
“Riitttaaa,” something whispers from the hayloft. I don’t breathe. Can’t be, I think. Sounds like Daddy. No breeze to rustle hay. Horses are quiet. I stop milkin’, pat Molly’s flank again, and press up to her side. I rise up off that old stool real slow, linger a moment. I feel safe there nuzzled to her soft hide, start breathin’ again till I hear it.
“Riitttaaa,” it moans louder than before.
I’d think it Chet playin’ a trick on me, but he ain’t funny – not never. I wish Roscoe was watchin’ me, lookin’ mean, growlin’ at the wall. I close my eyes, promise to be nicer to that dang hound if he just appears right now. I open ‘em wide, but no Roscoe. I force my feet to move toward the pump sink. “Riiitttaaa,” it repeats, sendin’ chills all through me, soundin’ so much like Daddy. There’s a flashlight on a hook. I feel around, find it – click it on. It flickers like that shadow did. I tap it to my palm till it shines bright, let out a long breath then go check the horse stalls first.
Taffy likes a handful of sweet grain in mornin’ – never missed, strange, her not neighin’. I don’t hear no crickets, neither. That quiet is raisin’ them hairs on the back my neck to run all the way down my arms. I stand on tiptoes, point that light over, and hold my breath again. Ain’t no horse there. Looks like Taffy done kicked her stall open. Latch is busted. She must be far in the field if I can’t hear her whinny. I breathe out, think: how’d she get past the gate? Chet couldah left it open, I suppose. He gets lazy toward supper time.
“Riiitttaaa,” it calls from above. I pay no mind thinkin’ it can’t be real. Check the next stall. Traveler’s done the same dang thing. Now Traveler couldah jumped that gate in a flash – that’s how he got his name; gallopin’ all the way end a town ‘fore Daddy caught him. I need to get Chet, I think, but point the light through the stall to the wide pen beyond – see if Taffy and Traveler are out near them sheep. Two dozen beady eyes stare back – no horses. A few sheep bah at the light that don’t go past ‘em. The flashlight goes out. I shake it. It comes back, but weak, shinin’ on blood spread all over that mucky third stall floor – opened from the outside, it looks. And like somethin’ were dragged through the hay, out ‘round the corner. “Kettle Jack,” I whisper.
“Riiitttaaa,” It’s callin’ me, still. I’m tryin’ to ignore that whispery voice, like them stories Daddy told of the Huggawuggahs to scare me. I think, so I wouldn’t run off visit Sara in town two and a quarter miles away. Them dark miles with no street lamps, but I weren’t scared, not really. Only once – was nine – right before Daddy died.
He caught me halfway, pullin’ up in that old truck well after eight, and boy, was he mad. I’s glad to see him, though. It was real dark. He told me about them Huggawuggahs on the way back. I giggled then got quiet. Daddy looked real serious at me. “I know there’s a one livin’ other side of the lake” he said, “…ain’t never caught but shadows and whispers, but I know. You best be careful – them is tricksters. Chief – you ‘member sold me Kettle Jack?” I nodded. “…he seen one. Scared him silly and he’s toughest man these parts, ‘sides your daddy. Don’t you go walkin’ past dark, not ever.” He said the lake Huggawuggah kept to itself less it got too hungry, I ‘member that. Did Daddy say he left a sheep or two in winter by wood’s edge? Or maybe that dang Huggawuggah just took ‘em. I can’t recall.
The shufflin’s almost right above my head near the cutout in the loft to push bales through. And that foul odor gettin’ worse. “Riiitttaaa,” it cries, soundin’ an awful lot like Daddy. I point the flashlight at the rectangle hole, feelin’ brave for a second. It flickers and goes out, but not before I glimpse what looks like – can’t be – my daddy hunched over that hay hole. I freeze, drop the light, find it hard to breathe. I shut my eyes tight.
Didn’t Daddy say Huggawuggahs could change shape? Maybe that’s one up there now. Maybe it weren’t no story. “Riiitttaaa,” It calls, won’t quit. I stumble back; kick the flashlight – dang boots. Open up my eyes, then pick it up and shake it. The flashlight’s out for good. I back up to the pump sink, feel the wall in the dark for the shotgun wedged in its spot. Don’t no one ever touch it less need be – loaded is how Daddy kept it. “Can’t shoot nothin’ with an empty gun,” He’d say.
My fingers brush the cold metal, thinkin’ back to if Chet fired it since Daddy died. “Riittaaa,” it calls from above. I wipe my hand gone all sweaty, on my jeans. As quiet as I can, I pull the old shotgun from the wall; run my hand along the rib, the barrel. It’s heavy, but I lift it till my fingers flick the safety off. With me shakin’ so bad I need keep that shotgun close. “Riittaaa,” it pleads, like it needs me. I hug Daddy’s shotgun to my body, cold barrel pressed to my cheek. Only one shell – one shot, I think. I look to the door. “Roscoe,” I whisper, and wait a tick but ain’t nothin’ but the light circle and the dark all around. I bite my lip; swallow hard, hope that weren’t Roscoe’s blood in Kettle Jack’s stall… Hope it weren’t Kettle Jack’s neither.
Molly’s mooin’ something awful. I tiptoe back near her. Hard in them dang rubber boots, huggin’ Daddy’s shotgun, to run a hand along her side, give her a pat. She kicks her leg back, shuffles her hind away like she don’t want me touchin’ her – I must be oozin’ fear, I think. I glance out them open doors to the circle of light, prayin’ for that old dog to waddle in and watch me. It’s gray outside, still moonlit, but getting lighter. “Riiitttaaa,” it wales louder than Molly mooin.’ Could make a run for the house, but Molly – and it’s still dark, and what if there’s a Huggawuggah out there?
In my mind I see Daddy shaking his head. I toughen up. I ain’t no whiner. I walk close to the hole, take a deep breath. “Riiitttaaa,” it calls so loud it hurts my ears, and my eyes are waterin’ from that nasty smell. I do it quick. Aim the shotgun up that hole at the shadow and pull the trigger, like he taught. Bam!
It kicks me back, but I don’t fall, just hit Taffy’s door. I hear the milk bucket spill. Somethin’ shuffles above then staggers through that old hay hole – hits the ground hard, front of me. My heart’s beatin’ so fast. In the gray light, that shape curled up too close to my feet looks like a man – then not. I don’t move an inch; press harder to Taffy’s door, breakfast climbin’ back up my throat. I can hear shallow breathin’ a minute or two. “Riiitttaaa,” it hisses… then nothin’.
Outside, past the floodlight circle, a flashlight beam zigzags toward the door. Chet is there, out of breath. I want to hug him. He’s in sleep pants, no shirt, looking real scared.
“Rita – what-in-the-hell?” he asks, his eyes so big.
I think that’s what Daddy’s face mustah looked like, then wish I didn’t think it. Chet aims the beam over where it fell, to the shape. The light shines on Daddy’s old hound dog Roscoe; lyin’ on his side, blood oozin’ from a hole ‘tween his ribcage, deader than dead, and stinkin’ like he done died last week. His fur looks darker, softer, and his face looks different too – bigger teeth, wider eyes like a wolf. Chet don’t seem to notice. He pries that shotgun from my tight grip, pats my head.
“He – Horses are gone. There’s blood in Kettle Jack’ stall. Was scared – just shot,” I manage to say, still shaking somethin’ awful.
Chet runs back out, flips the big switch. Gawd, it’s bright. He checks outside then Kettle Jack’s stall. “Horses by the road – they fine. There’s a sheep down, mauled awful – dead,” he says. I let out a long breath, swallow breakfast back down. Chet reaches way up over the pump sink, fetches another shell to load Daddy’s shotgun. Then he nudges Roscoe’s side with the barrel, sees blood ‘round his mouth, on them big teeth. He hugs me quick, “You never did like that dog none.”
Mama comes in next. Boy, does she look affright. “Rita, Baby, what-in-the-”
She loses her voice as her eyes fall on Roscoe. She hugs me to her breast so tight. I feel safe there, like with Molly. She whispers, “You never did care for that dog, much.”
“I did,” I say, “I’m sorry,” but I’m not. Roscoe couldn’t a climbed up that rickety ladder, no how. Weren’t him I killed. Was a Huggawuggah – that’s a fact. Even if I couldn’t never tell – I know. Molly knows. Just then Molly moos sweet like she agrees. I call out, still clingin’ to Mama, “Whoa there, Girl.”
“Mustah gone mad – rabies, maybe – you bit, Baby?” Mama asks, squeezin’ tighter, like she’s trying to crush the fear right out of me. I shake my head no; start to say somethin’ then stop. I don’t tell Mama or Chet about it being in the hayloft, or it looking like Daddy, or about it callin’ my name over and over. Chet and Mama don’t believe in no Huggawuggahs.
I miss my Daddy somethin’ awful then… thinkin’ now, maybe we was close. That he done saved me by telling me about them Huggawuggahs before. I squeeze Mama tight, pretend its Daddy. Tears leak out. Maybe that lake one killed Daddy – scared him dead.
Molly moos again. I think about that tipped bucket – I ain’t never tipped one before, not ever, not even when Molly broke my little toe. Daddy always said I was best milker. Laughed, I ‘member, nicknamed me cuz I filled that bucket so dang fast. I knew it never were Daddy what called out ‘Rita’ from the hayloft. Since I’s six years old Daddy always called me ‘Squirt.’
Credit : Navissa Kaiser
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