The world was crazy when I decided to move. Eventually it all reached a boiling point and I finally did what I’d always dreamed of. I had enough of it all: the work, the stress, the concrete jungle, the loneliness amongst millions. I wanted a simpler life. Portland always felt foreign to me, but most of my friends dreamed of a future with their roots strapped to the city and I could relate to them a little less as each day passed. I wanted space and simplicity, but most of all peace. Something about waking up to cooing roosters and clean sunrises felt like living as we were meant to.
When I first moved in, almost everything was in line with my expectations. I got those quiet mornings with nothing but a rooster’s clucking, a bright orange sunrise and vibrant starry evenings, a couple of kind neighbors, and a tight-knit community. They were wary of me at first, being ‘city folk’ and all. They didn’t think I could handle rural living, least of all Carson Sweeney. For the longest time, I couldn’t read his wife, Betsy. From everything I could gather, she doubted me less – or at least she was quieter about it. But Carson made his feelings clear to say the least. The first time I met him he cornered me at the gas station in town and asked, “Where you from, kid?” His skin was sun-beaten and wrinkled. It looked like his form was only held together by the straw between his teeth.
“Portland,” I told him. “Just moved in last week.” I extended a hand. He stared at it as if it had seven fingers, chewing on his tobacco and scrunching his nose.
He then shook my hand and grabbed my elbow simultaneously. “Carson. Carson Sweeney. You mean the city, yeah?”
“Pleased to meet you Carson. I’m Justin Wendel. And yes sir. I lived there all my life, but wanted to try out the countryside. I feel like this is where I’m meant to be.”
He let go of my hand and grunted, still with a scrunched nose. “Good luck, kid.” He pointed his finger inches from my face. “There ain’t no Little Big Burger at every damn corner around these parts, you hear?” I nodded, but he kept talking without regard for my reaction. “Around here, we work for every scrap we got. We work for our meals, we work for the roof over our heads, and most importantly we work for each other. Now you best know your place and stick to it. Understand?”
“Loud and clear.”
“Loud and clear, sir.”
He grunted with tempered satisfaction, then headed back to his truck to finish pumping gas. A young woman, not too much older than I, watched the entire interaction from the slot machine inside the convenience store. When we made eye contact, she jolted her gaze back to the machine and pulled the lever.
Betsy on the other hand, had the charm I was hoping to find out here. Three days after I moved in, while not even half my boxes were unpacked, I received a frantic knock at the door. When it took me more than ten seconds to make my way downstairs around the scattered clothes, hangers, and boxes, the knocking sounded again. Five pounds in quick succession. I thought I’d left this type of urgency behind in Portland. I sped up towards the front door and swung it open. “Hello,” I said with a weary heave.
There was Carson again. His hand was extended in a fist, about to bash the door for the third time. He lowered his hand once he processed the fact the door was open. He creased his lips up into his wrinkly cheeks within his graying beard. “Hiya,” he replied, sounding much nicer this time. “Me and the wife here just wanted to come over and say welcome.” He extended his hand, his nails caked in mud.
I shook his hand enthusiastically while my fear of him somewhat subsided. “Thank you, I really appreciate it, Carson.”
“Don’t mention it, Jimbo.”
“And what’s your wife’s name?” I asked after a pause.
“Oh, uh, Betsy. Betsy Sweeney, loveliest woman in town.” He opened his body to reveal Betsy standing meekly around ten feet behind him near my mailbox. She raised a hand, waved, and smiled with her lips spread tightly around her darkened gums. She was old and timid, but younger than Carson by a fair amount. I waved back, but with a fraction of her enthusiasm: a result of wondering why she stood so far away for her introductory visit.
“I’d invite you in, but the place is a mess right now. I haven’t unpacked most of the boxes in here and half of what I’ve unpacked is still on the floor. You know how it is.”
“Nope, sir. Betsy and I’ve been here since the dinosaurs if you believe in that kind of stuff.”
“Believe in dinosaurs?”
He nods confidently. “Didn’t pack light, huh?” Carson said, poking his head around me.
“Well I plan on staying a while,” I said with a smile.
“Well…forever I guess.”
Carson nodded with his hands now on his hips, but his grin had faded. He mumbled something with his back turned away I knew I didn’t want to hear. Mr. Sweeney then waved Betsy over. “Betsy made an apple pie last night. Wants you to have it.”
“That’s so kind, you didn’t have to,” I replied.
“No, it’s our pleasure. She picked those apples herself off our trees, so it’s all nice and local.” His smile returned and I caught a brief sense of loving pride of which I didn’t think he was capable.
“Thank you, Betsy.”
“My pleasure,” she said.
I said “it was nice meeting you”, but she didn’t respond. I get it: they’re not used to outsiders. I tried the apple pie later that night, not knowing what to expect. But once the first bite settled on my tongue, I couldn’t sleep until the last crumb was gone.
After a month had gone by, rural life was turning out great. I found a friend around my age, Frank, who I met at the bar. He told me he knew a few fishing spots around the area and took me one day. A couple of the younger guys took me out to a hiking trail about an hour east. My friends were all amazed by my ‘mansion’ compared to the little Portland studios they were used to. I’d even landed myself a babysitting gig with Wilma’s eleven-year-old son. It was all a dream move until that one night.
On a late September evening when Wilma was away at her mother’s house for the day, I agreed to go to her house to watch Jonathan. But later that evening, a storm rolled in and I’d lost contact with her – couldn’t get any service for a call or a text to see if she’d still be coming home.
The rain cascaded into the steel roof as my neighbors rallied their sheep, cows, and goats into their respective shelters. They whistled and clanged their bells to a tough audience of stubborn and panicked livestock. We were expecting dangerously strong winds that night. If the animals didn’t make their way inside and the fences broke, my hard-working neighbors stood to lose everything. I could hardly see any of this frantic movement through the clouds of blowing leaves and dirt and soon couldn’t hear them either as the rain fell harder. Eventually all sounds and sights were drowned out by the beating rain and wailing wind. This was my first big storm on the ranch, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it would be my last. The rain sounded as if it would come through the roof and fill the house like a fish tank.
Jonathan poured himself a cup of water. I told him to make sure it didn’t look dirty. It was still clear so he brought it upstairs to head to bed around 9pm. Before I went up to tuck him in, I made sure all three doors were locked and bolted shut. There had been a string of break-ins a couple towns over and I didn’t want to be responsible for Wilma becoming the next victim. Then I went upstairs to find Jonathan sitting in his bed, waiting patiently for me under the covers. “Can you read me a story?” he asked.
“Of course. What story do you want to hear?”
I laughed. “Harry Potter is a little long before bed, isn’t it?”
“Momma always reads it to me.”
I stopped laughing. “Maybe we should save it for your mom so she doesn’t get confused next time you read, does that sound good?”
Jonathan pursed his lips and thought for a moment of a backup. “Can we read Oh, the Places You’ll Go then?”
“The Dr. Seuss book?”
“Yes. That one is short.”
I picked it out of the small bookcase in his room and read it aloud. Jonathan seemed more jubilant with the drop of each word. It was a melody of sorts to him and I couldn’t quite tell why, but I didn’t ask. At one point, I caught him mouthing the words along with me. He’d memorized the whole thing. When he realized he was caught and I wasn’t angry, he joined me in reciting the next verse:
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.
I flipped through the pages with cartoons of hot air balloons flying away. But after a few more verses, Jonathan’s voice grew groggy and weak. His speech slurred and he drifted off to sleep. I closed the book without finishing it and gave him a satisfied smile he never saw. “Good night, Jonathan,” I whispered, then closed his door behind me.
I headed back downstairs, thinking of what kind of shows would be on at 9pm. There could be a good movie or two, and if there wasn’t, maybe Wilma had a few Clint Eastwood movies lying around. But before I could reach the bottom of the stairs, I stopped and squinted at the latches on the door. They were all unlocked. I mentally retraced my steps. I locked the back door, the side door by the deck, and then the front door. I could vividly remember locking the front door at the bottom of the stairs. Yes: I locked the handle, I twisted the bolt, and I set the chain, but no…it was all undone.
The storm battered against the door and the chain swung against it in a wide pendulum. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, I caught the chain in motion, then set it back in place. Giving it a bit more thought, I started to convince myself that I’d never locked the door at all. Maybe I was creating a false memory in my head. I twisted the bolt and the handle lock, then gave the door a gentle push to make sure everything was in place. But this time, with my hand on the door, I examined the locks carefully and burned the image into my mind. I wouldn’t forget locking it this time.
Then I itched at my neck. My throat was feeling quite dry and at this point I realized how little I’d taken care of myself while I was paying attention to Jonathan. I took a glass from the cupboard and poured some water from the sink. It came out murkier than I was comfortable with, so I emptied the glass and found a wash cloth to begin cleaning the glass.
Then something shattered. It came in as a loud bang and a woosh as the air whipped into the side of the house and a high-speed branch sliced through the living room window. It rattled against the couch and settled somewhere on the wooden floor. Immediately, rain flowed through and soaked the couch. I frantically tried to think up a solution: if I let the water come through all night, we’d drown by morning. After a long search and the living room carpet getting drenched, I found a roll of saran wrap in the cabinet and managed to tape it over the hole in the window – not without a couple cuts on my hands.
Once I was done, I sat at the kitchen table. My mind was tired and stressed and I couldn’t wait for Wilma to get back. But she wouldn’t come back that night: she ended up staying at her mother’s because the car wouldn’t start. At the time, I still held out hope. ‘Maybe she’ll get back and I can finally go to sleep,’ I thought.
After about thirty more minutes, I decided I couldn’t go any longer without a glass of water. I stood up and turned around towards the sink. I stopped short and blinked twice, not believing what I saw. My face began to perspire and my series of unlucky events seemed suddenly much more calculated than before. Upon the counter sat seven wine glasses in an equilateral-triangle formation balanced on top of vertically standing knives. They all spun at a nearly indecipherably slow pace to maintain their balance. “What the hell?” The lights flickered and the storm continued to slam against the house. The glasses stirred upon the knives and I was finally at a loss for solutions. I didn’t even know if this was a problem needing solving. Had some kind of twisted mathematician broken into the house?
All I could think to do was collect the glasses. The moment I touched each, their knives wobbled and fell over. When I was done arranging the glasses in the cupboard, I grabbed one of the knives and tiptoed through each room, looking for our unconventional intruder. All of the downstairs rooms were empty, but then I wondered about upstairs. I wondered if Jonathan was alright.
With the knife in hand I cautiously ascended the staircase. Even from there, I could hear the rain pattering against the saran wrap covering on the broken window. The wind bellowed and shook the house. A burst of lightning struck something a few houses down. But at this point I was not as much concerned with what was outside the house.
I opened Jonathan’s door gently. I was hunched over with my feet staggered – ready to lunge at anything that moved. But when the door creaked open and the lightning cracked at the window, I saw nobody was there either. Jonathan was somehow still fast asleep through the commotion. Relief swept over me. I hadn’t yet totally failed as a babysitter.
I shut his door and headed back downstairs to make sure the saran wrap covering was still holding. The steps squealed as I descended, but their noises were muted by the pattering metal roof and the wind punching the house. I reached the bottom step and looked up to triple check my work of locking the – I couldn’t move. My feet planted to the floor. My stomach knotted all over again. The door was fully unlocked. Again, the bolt was thrown back and the door handle was unlocked and the chain swung, more violently now. But this time I knew for sure: I’d locked all three tightly.
The rain continued to cascade, pounding on all sides of the house. Nonetheless, I stared at the chain and listened to its scratching motions back and forth across the door wondering how – how any of this was possible.
Then I heard another sound scraping from somewhere else. I turned towards the kitchen and looked towards the counter. The wine glasses weren’t set up again as I feared they might be. Instead the refrigerator door was wide open. The carton of milk on the top shelf was tipped over and glugging its contents on the floor.
Someone was there. There was no denying it and it was time to face my strange intruder. With the knife still firmly in my hand I finally gathered the courage to call out for him. “Where are you?” I screamed. My voice came out shrill and shaken.
I spun around, then back again to make sure he wasn’t silently approaching. “Where are you?” I yelled out again.
There still wasn’t an answer this time, at least not verbally. The house felt suddenly eerie. The saran wrap had held against the window, but everything still felt damp and cold, like a haunting version of a rural autumn’s morning dew. “Who’s there? Come ou –”
Before I could finish my prompt, a blue light enveloped the house on every side. It beamed in from every window and every crack around the door frames. I thought I’d go blind if I looked at it any longer. I dropped the knife, trying to protect my eyes with two free hands. Along with the light came a surging sound of flowing electricity and warping air. The sounds blocked out the rain and storm. It was so loud I didn’t know whether to cover my eyes or ears. Another minute of that and I’d have gone blind and deaf.
But as suddenly as the light came, it went away. I blinked a few times to stop my eyes from blotching as if I’d just had my photograph taken with a flashbulb. ‘Jonathan,’ I thought.
I picked the knife off the floor and ran as fast as I could up the stairs. My fear was still quite present, but not strong enough to overcome my duty to protect him. I topped the stairs, rounded the corner and stopped short just outside his room. There were whispers coming from inside. I couldn’t decipher them. I wasn’t sure if the speech was unclear because the door was in the way, or if it was because it was in another language. For a moment I thought it might be German: it sounded harsh and abrupt. But I dreaded it was something else.
I wrapped my fingers around the doorknob. It was freezing. I turned it, then gently pushed the door open. It creaked and swung as I readied the knife.
In the pitch-black darkness I saw something. Four figures standing over his bed. Each was taller, lankier than the next. They stood as silhouettes beside an awake Jonathan, sitting cross-legged in his bed. They whispered their indecipherable words to each other while he watched on attentively. Then his head swiveled towards the door. I couldn’t make out any of his facial features other than his white eyes piercing the shadows. “I’ll be on my way up. I’ll be seeing great sights. I’ll join the high fliers…”
“No, no, no!” I tried to interrupt. But he continued right through my pleas.
“Who soar to high heights.”
Three of the four entities turned towards me and stared along with him. The lightning struck again and I saw them for only a split second. Their faces were long and their eyes were black as the night. Their noses were two diagonal slits in the center of their faces, and their mouths stretched high across their faces and were filled with curved spikes for teeth. The fourth raised a hand to Jonathan, and let it descend like a falling feather onto his shoulder.
“Leave him alone!” I yelled as loud as my lungs could stand. But as I looked at them I felt their power and knew there was nothing I could do – nothing but submit a meek protest against their inevitable plans.
The entity’s thin, scaly fingers made contact with Jonathan’s shoulder and the blue light returned for a few more seconds. I covered my ears against the incessant whirring that followed and threw my elbows in front of my eyes. Jonathan still looked at me, and at the absolute last moment, he finally looked afraid. The blue light flashed brighter and the five of them followed its explosive nature and vanished into thin air. I barged all the way into the room. There was no sign any of them had been there. “Jon,” I called. I dropped the knife again and flung the curtains open to look out the window. Nothing. Nothing but the pattering rain and roaring thunder.
I got a lot of questions from police, being the last one to ever see Jonathan. I told them everything that happened. Everything from locking the doors, to putting him to bed, to the wine glasses, to the…well, you know. I must have recounted the story a hundred times. But after a few weeks, they stopped knocking on my door, stopped calling me at all hours of the night. Not because they solved the mystery, but because they’d talked to the sheriffs at some of the surrounding towns. A total of eleven children went missing that night. Eleven children surrounded by a group of tall, gray entities, swallowed up by a burst of light.
I remember reading the last article our town ever wrote about the case two years ago. It mentioned I’d been cleared of involvement and had pictures of all eleven children: seven boys and four girls. I then closed the newspaper and picked my copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go from the bookcase. I opened it to the page Jonathan and I recited together that night and read it to myself, tracing the hot air balloons with my finger as the pit in my stomach grew deeper. I can still hear that deafening whirring pulsating in my head.