I call him "Feebs", 'cause I can never pronounce his nineteen letter last name correctly…let alone spell it. Me and Feebs are tight; Not as in drunk, but as in we always have each other's backs. Having met during a mortar shelling in Iraq, our mutual reliance was an accelerated fact, and a necessary commodity. Trust was established. Came time for the military to boot us out, I was set free, and Feebs was released under a Psych medical disability. He suffers from PTSD; amazing how someone so heroic can be sent into a cowering crouch by any sudden noise. Having been comrades in arms, it was only natural that we would continue to travel in the same direction.
Trained by the military to be nomadic, we pretty much enjoy roaming through cities, towns, and zones like shifting breezes. Feeling protected among the back roads, we camp out, skinny-dip in livestock tanks, "find" fruits and whatever foods that are in season on farms, in woods, and along back lanes, living just like Huck Finn and Jim on the mighty Mississippi. Sometimes, whenever the ceiling comes down, luck helps us out, and we locate a barn, shed, cave, or empty rundown farmhouse to shelter ourselves from bad weather. Looks like we're gonna have to "reccon" for shelter this afternoon. Meadowlands and pastures surround us; The terrain is as flat as the eye can see. We haven’t passed anyone on this back road, so no local info or invites. We may have to scavenge up some bushes to sleep on, and cover ourselves in our tarps; a rough made lean-to to keep us dry. Well, at least we'll be weather protected, and safely camouflaged.
We continue walking as the silver-greyness slowly tints the fluffy masses kiting above us. Breezes playfully press down the long, tall grasses, and the tree tops talk amongst themselves. Feebs spots a clump of trees a short click away. Looks like this could be our rustic B and B for the day. Hurrying across fields as the drops begin to fall, we pull up short when we realize there’s a quiet little two story farmhouse hidden behind a slope in the fading green meadow. The building looks empty. A few panes are busted out, but it doesn't look like any foot or vehicle traffic has been around the area lately. There aren’t any trespassing signs, or purple boundary markings. We ain’t got a reservation, but there seems to be a vacancy....and we move right on in.
Shouting out warnings, we advance through the downstairs area startling field mice, and a scurrying something. The bottom floor grid holds had been a small kitchen towards the back; there are no drawers, no cabinet doors, and no furniture. A nice size study with empty bookcases stands with its door ajar. There is an entry area living room right off the staircase which has half of its steps missing, so nobody can access the upstairs. The house feels empty, only crowded with dust and memories.
We decide on the study as our HQ. Feebs sets up bivouac right in front of the fireplace. It’s a small space, so it doesn’t take too long to get the room comfortable. We bring in twigs, branches and trash, and use them to start a quiet fire. I divvy up pork and beans while our damp clothes dry out in front of the hearth.
Rain, lightening, thunder, hail, and winds attack the house, and surrounding countryside. The only illumination in the entire house is the steady glow from the fireplace…no need wasting our flashlight batteries when conversation, and Nature's fireworks are gonna be the evening's entertainment. Images, lost dreams, urgent desires, combat horrors, and next day's uncertainties project themselves into the conversation. Sporadic noise, and strikes of lightening accompany our thoughts just like a silent movie. The game of counting between flashes and earth-shattering booms dies away leaving an unearthly quiet. Hypnotized and safe within the warmth of our banked coals, Sleep croons us a lullaby. An early night should leave us well rested for tomorrow's march.
"Pssst". Feebs whispers me awake. "I swear I hear something." We knew upstairs was vacant. And the house’s layout was roomy enough, but not too open as to be spooky when you have to stand guard by yourself. “There it is again.” Well, Roger that. "It sounds like someone is rummaging in the kitchen."
How can anyone be looking around in there and making noise when there aren't any cabinet doors, drawers to slam shut?
"Let's go introduce ourselves in case it's the owner."
Feebs opens the study door. Our flashlights show the hallway all the way back to the kitchen. Everything looks completely different, as if someone had redecorated and painted the entire inside of the house while we had been asleep. This shelter is now someone’s home. An odd feeling makes me want to go back and see if the study has changed. We both stand in the hallway....nervous to advance, afraid to retreat. Clattering sounds continue from the kitchen where we had seen the hungry cabinet casings and pantry. Tense and self-conscious, we almost didn't hear the double set of footsteps overhead....so… now it seems there are three other people in this vacant farm house.
Are we trespassing? Where did all of these furnishings come from? Frozen in place, Feebs gestures a retreat to the study....just as the noise from the kitchen stopped. Glancing down the hallway, we hear floor boards give as if someone is slowly advancing towards our position. Straining to see anything, we hear the floorboards continue to creak. We back up towards the study doorway. Reaching for the doorknob, we keep watching down the hallway. This building is not secure any more.
Safe, on the other side of the locked study door, we sense the sounds moving past us, and on up the stairs. Horrific fighting, screaming, and noises issue from the top floor of the house. Someone falls down the staircase. We know that victim isn't the person who had gone past earlier…because the creaking stairs and floorboards are coming back....heading towards our door.
We had relocked the door when we entered. On edge, Feebs and I reassure each other as we quickly gather our belongings. The footsteps stop right outside the door. Slowly, the locked door opens. We see no shadow there, so we shine our flashlights towards the doorway. Just above the floor...a woman's severed head is just…there…long hair dangled it at someone’s knee level. We can only stand there and watch as it slowly drifts across the room towards the fireplace. We hug the wall, inching our way behind the bearer and its gift.
Thank God, the hearth is on the other side of the room. I look back one final time before charging towards the front door, the wide, open eyes of the woman sat staring out at us from the flames…the same place where we had cooked our dinner.
Confused and beyond tired, Feebs and I trod through the darkness and dust. After a couple of hours, we finally stumbled across a used, little motel…she looked more inviting than any oasis we had ever stumbled across in the desert. "Pops", the proprietor, started his spiel as soon as we dragged to the counter. "You boys look like y'all could stand a hot bath and a good home cooked meal. Happy to have you spend a little, and bunk in with us. ‘Course, you can always go the cheap way, and pitch outside, or, use that old abandoned farmhouse that’s a ways up the road.
I told him that we had seen that farmhouse.
Feebs told him that we had taken shelter until the storm had stopped.
Pops laughed. “Good thing you didn’t have time to light a fire.”
Feebs and I glanced at each other. “How come no one stays there? It wouldn’t take much to put
the frame back in order.”
Pops let out a sigh, “You know how it goes in small towns. Everyone knows everybody else’s business. One of the home’s former residents was not careful. A husband came home early from work.
“What’s that got to do with no one living there?”
Leaning on the counter, Pops smiled, continuing the story. “The husband nor the wife can live there anymore. Local gossip has it that old man Detwhyler went crazy when he came home early from his butcher shop. His Lucy and our county agriculture agent were upstairs plowing the fields. He says the couple didn’t hear him come home. He wound up killing them both. Sheriff Murphy found NC at the bottom of the stairs. We think the fall broke his neck; that with the fact he probably tripped on his own pants leg as he was running away.”
“That wasn’t gallant of him to leave Lucy at the mercy of her husband. You don’t take the eggs and not feed the chicken”, Feebs said.
“So Pops, did they wind up getting a divorce?”, I ask.
Still smiling, Pops says, “In a way old man Dee did give Lucy a divorce. He admitted during the trial that he had grabbed a cleaver from the kitchen, and had gone upstairs only meaning to scare the couple. But when he seen them together…he had just gone over the edge. He wound up cutting his wife's head clean off. Yes sir, we found it sitting on the logs in their fireplace….eyes wide open….I was waiting for her mouth to start moving…she always was a talkative little thing. Yeah, he gave her a divorce… guess she couldn’t talk her way outta that. It reminded me of roasting chesnuts for my momma’s Christmas dressing.
“No one wants to live in that house? It seems like a nice location”, I asked.
“Here’s the thing”, Pops started. “It didn’t take old man “Dee” too long to die in prison.
His relatives couldn't wait to lease out that there farmhouse. Course, we found out that as soon as anyone lit the fireplace, we'd hear people screaming, and they’d come running down the road. Seems like the murder rampage would play out all over again in front of anyone what was in the house. The locals here even avoid walking down that back road. Every now and then, might be some of the kids here try to make each other take a dare.”
Feebs and I just stare blankly at Pops.
“Now, I'm not trying to scare you boys into putting down your money here with us. Y'all are more than welcome to go on down the road, and camp out for free in that there old farmhouse. Being soldiers and such, y'all probably won't spook as easy as us local yokels”, Pops says.
We smile at Pops. "No sir, that's alright. We'll take your word for it.”