I met the old man at a Bojangles restaurant.
I was about sixteen at the time and had just dropped out of high school with my parents' blessing. It wasn't the sort of place where you'd learn much of anything. Aside from how to take a punch, that is.
That was a period in my life where I had no actual idea what I was going to do with myself. School had been the place holder that took up most of my time, and the sudden freedom was more scary than relieving. I knew I was supposed to be accomplishing something, but other than sketching out doodles and writing half-baked stories I had no real plans.
As usual, my Mom ended up planning for me. She decided that I was going to volunteer somewhere and help others while getting some sort of experience that might lead me down the path to a career. That was how I ended up sitting across from the old man in a corner booth at Bojangles.
I had ordered fries and a drink while I waited for him, and he showed up when I was about half way through the poor excuse for a lunch. Mom had dropped me off to talk with him while she ran errands.
I didn't really want to go to the farm. I had no interest in manual labor, and I secretly dreaded the idea I would have to kill or butcher livestock. I convinced myself that one of the other volunteer "opportunities", if you can call them that, would pan out and I'd never have to meet the farmer.
In my defense, the charity call center was full of middle-aged, sweaty people who seemed desperate for conversation, and the nursing home outright stank. It didn't help that one of the old ladies called me "Jessup" and tried to grab me from her wheelchair.
So yeah. Nothing had worked out, and I had to wait for the old man.
He started talking about a bunch of feel-good, old-timey American shit I can't fully recall. Stuff about a hard day's work, and how I'd find my reward in natural, Christian living. I just nodded and kept eating. I knew I didn't have anything remotely interesting to say to this guy. When he went into how he'd served overseas, and how you had to get out of the way of the cannons or they'd take your head clean off, I had basically tuned him out.
I didn't really stop to think about the situation I was in until he reached across the table with a gnarly old finger to draw the french fries away from me. He pulled them to the center of the table and just kept talking.
He decided I should stop eating and pay attention, and that was how he decided to go about it.
In my teen years, I was basically a door mat. I didn't know how to say "no" properly, and I had no idea how to stick up for myself. The only reason I had gotten out of school was that I'd been choked until I blacked out and it put enough fear into my parents. I knew I didn't want to volunteer at the other places I mentioned but, again, instead of just saying "no", I had gone with "let's see what the next one is like".
The old man, the farmer, creeped me out. I guess I should call him "Farmer Waken" by this point. I'm realizing now that I should have told you his name sooner, but since I he didn't tell me that day I kind of felt natural just referring to him as I'd thought of him then.
"The old man". He was the poster boy for that term. He was short, much shorter than me even though I was still growing. Conversely, I guess he was shrinking. His limbs were rail thin and he was bow-legged. An absence of teeth in his face made his mouth pucker inward, and his sunken eyes were a milky white behind his thin-rimmed glasses.
The outfit was straight out of a rustic painting or something. Blue overalls, red striped shirt, blue cap, brown boots covered in what I hope was mud.
At the end of his rambling spiel, I told him I'd think about the offer. He had put an ad in the paper looking for young people to help on the farm, and in return they'd learn any number of invaluable skills. He didn't happen to write exactly what that might be.
Apparently, something was lost in translation. At least that's what I thought at first. Within days, my Mom was planning again. This time, she was plotting our trip out to Waken Farm. I was confused, completely taken by surprise, when she casually mentioned the trip. I had honestly put Farmer Waken out of my head, hadn't given him a second thought the second I left that restaurant.
When I expressed this to her, Mom said he'd called several times to discuss the preparations, and that he had said I'd agreed to help out. Of course, as you and I both know I had done no such thing - and I told her that in no uncertain terms. I may have been a bit spineless, but I wasn't going to let some rude old weirdo lie about me like that.
But... yeah. She talked me into it.
She insisted that I must've misspoken, or at least he must've misheard. Now he had his heart set on me coming down to check out the farm. No one else had apparently responded to the ad, go figure, and Farmer Waken would have nobody to help keep things running until he could hire some people on where the ad had failed.
Trust me, I mentioned the fact that I wasn't happy about doing free hard labor for him. Repeatedly.
The farm was, as you'd expect, far beyond the reach of modern civilization. My family already lived out in the country, so when I say this was the boondocks, I mean this was really out there. The only way we knew where to stop amidst the infinite landscape of ravaged farmland was by spotting the old wrought-iron gateway arching over the correct dirty path.
Sheet metal, haphazardly cut into jagged letters, read "Waken Farm". The red paint on the name had peeled away so much over the years that it was barely noticeable as we bumped over the rocks and potholes of the path. Even then, the dust we kicked up was nearly enough to obscure it.
Mom said the place was beautiful, but I knew she just trying to make me feel better about the whole thing. It was a dust bowl. Any square patches of crops, mostly corn, were stunted, withered, and brownish. As we drove down the awkward, curving path, I could see a haphazard wire fence containing a handful of underfed cattle.
I was already starting to feel that dread in the pit of my stomach again. This time it wasn't over the idea of slaughtering cows. It was just the look of them. I couldn't, in good conscience, ignore the fact they seemed to be starving.
A large red barn, worn like the sign out front, stood to one side of the cattle pen. It was open to the elements, its doors off their hinges and leaning against the facade. Everything seemed to be in a sorry state, and all at once I realized the worst thing of all; I was the one who was expected to fix it.
We finally pulled to a stop at a crooked little house at the tree line. We had passed some pigs, a chicken coop, a broken-down tractor, and a few other landmarks. They were all in the same state of repair. Not really worth mentioning, since you most likely get the idea by now.
Farmer Waken was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. I couldn't have pictured anything more clichéd if I tried. I expected there to be an old hound dog at his side, but the closest thing to it was a ratty old barn cat that ignored us and focused on a proud rooster nearby.
He got up slowly, probably painfully, and welcomed my Mother and I inside.
On the way up the stairs, I could hear the crunching of bug-eaten wood. The unsteadiness of the surface put me off-balance, and I fell palms-first onto an unforgiving bed of splinters. A few got under my skin, but only one, a thick one, managed to draw blood.
I howled for a moment before pulling the wedge from my hand and pressing the wound tight. I think Farmer Waken made a comment about me being clumsy, but it's difficult to say due to the shock of sudden pain out of nowhere.
Mom used some gauze and hydrogen peroxide on the wound while the farmer watched from his kitchen table and sipped a cup of something that sounded thick and disgusting. I was embarrassed by the ordeal and apologized to both adults for my stupidity. Mom assured me it was alright. The farmer didn't croak out a word.
For the next hour or so, I followed the slow-moving old man around his property. Mom went back to the car while I spent some "quality time" with him. He showed off all the decrepit junk and half-dead animals with a casual sort of demeanor that almost convinced me the state of things was completely normal.
I just wanted to get the tour over with so I could go home.
When I was lead into the house once again, through the back door, up the creaking stairs, and down a hallway to a small bedroom, I wasn't sure exactly what Farmer Waken had wanted to show me. What he said next made me feel numb and cold.
It was my room.
As astounding as it may be, the topic had never come up in any conversation my Mom and I had. The time spent volunteering on the farm was a live-in position. I immediately knew Farmer Waken had lied again. He told her we had already discussed it at the restaurant, when I had no idea whatsoever.
She had already left, dropping a suitcase off in front of the house.
This was the point where I had enough and started to speak up for myself. It took way too long and way too much to get to that point, but the time had finally come. I loudly refused the offer and called Farmer Waken a liar directly to his face. His reaction was no reaction at all. He didn't so much as twitch an eyelid.
I walked past him, out of the room and down the hall. I had seen the old man's phone down in the kitchen and made a bee-line for it. Of course, I had to leave a message on our answering machine. There was no way Mom had gotten home yet. I told her the basics, that I had never agreed to any of this, and that I wanted her to come back and pick me up.
I was on the verge of tears when I hung up the phone to wait for her to either call back or show up at the door, and when I turned back to leave the kitchen, lip quivering like I was toddler, I ran face-first into someone unexpected.
Tessie. I didn't know her name at that point, of course, but there you go. She was short, lean, and well developed by anyone's standards. Her hair was blindingly orange, and unkempt only in a very purposeful sort of way.
At once, I was embarrassed all over again. Crying, or nearly crying, in front of a really attractive girl around my age. Part of me wanted to shove her out of the way and barrel out of the house. Tessie asked if I was alright, to which I remarked something awkward and over-compensating like "Of course I am" or "What're you talking about".
I know what you're thinking, and no. She did not make me change my mind about staying on the farm. It didn't matter how thin her yellow dress was or how far down it I could see if I had the audacity to tilt my head forward. That wasn't enough to make me spend a single night in the garbage heap they called home.
No, what made me stay there was the angry phone call from Mom. The second she heard the message, she called the farm and scolded me for not only trying to get out of my agreement, but for trying to make her drive all the way back out there right after she got home. I could still hear my own simpering voice in the background, she hadn't even listened to the whole thing before grabbing the phone.
I wanted to know why she hadn't even let me pack my own suitcase for the stay if she thought I knew about the deal, and she pointed out that I never pack. She noted that she always packed for me because otherwise I wouldn't do it until the last second. She was right, and that didn't make me feel any less shitty.
With that, I was stranded in Bumfuck County with complete strangers. As it turned out, I was going to be there for three weeks. I had never paid attention to the time frame because I thought I'd be making trips out every few days... and of course I never intended to actually do it, anyway.
That first night in the house, I didn't sleep at all. I mean, if I did, then I couldn't tell. It's possible that sleep caught up with me for a few moments between glances at the bedroom door. I had an irrational fear that Farmer Waken was going to come into the room in the middle of the night, and either forget who I was and shoot me... or do some weird shit that I didn't even want to think about.
When the door creaked open just before sunrise, I nearly screamed.
Tessie poked her head in, and for a moment we just stared at each other. I was both terrified by a stranger intruding on me, and relieved it wasn't the old man, all at once. After that breathless moment passed, she said she was glad I was there and left just as suddenly as she'd appeared.
The next few days were brutal. It was very obvious to me that Farmer Waken was putting the work of three or four kids on my shoulders alone. I put things together in a piss-poor manner, I did shitty paint jobs, and I wrapped barbed wire until the random cuts got me frustrated. It didn't take me long to figure out I only had to work on the things Farmer Waken would be able to see. I didn't care if everything fell apart on him. As long as the facade gave the impression I had completed a job, that was good enough. He didn't earn any of my respect or compassion by behaving so awfully in the lead-up to my stay.
Tessie, his granddaughter, I assumed, was never there to help with the really tough stuff. I'd catch sight of her once in a while, sewing something up or cooking for us, but the only time we crossed paths during the work day had been when she came up behind me with a sparse basket of fresh eggs and smashed one down the back of my neck before bolting away in a fit of laughter.
Also, though it wasn't actual interaction of course, there was a point where I was working up in the barn and I could see her hosing herself off by the house. I guess that was our "closest" moment, though she had no idea.
While I had grown to hate the old taskmaster who was now effectively keeping me prisoner, the only thing that frustrated me more than Tessie was their cat. The frazzled, angry little thing that refused to get off the bed when I wanted to collapse from exhaustion and clawed the shit out of my hand the one time I tried to pet it. That was the only thing on the farm I actually wanted to kill, though it was only in fits of impotent anger at the end of a long day.
It got to the point that I was so sleep deprived, sun burnt, and over-worked that I began to think I was hallucinating.
The problem began when I walked back into the house about a week and a half into my stay. The boards didn't crunch under my feet like I'd gotten used to, and I realized I couldn't remember the last time they did. When I studied the area, it looked like I had replaced the wood and hadn't even realized it. It was like I blacked out and built a porch. Something I didn't tend to do.
When Farmer Waken got it into his head that he was going to check my work on the barbed wire, supposedly because he'd heard coyotes that might jump it, I was once again startled to see I had apparently finished the job when I wasn't looking. Even the crappy effort I had put in seemed to be corrected by an expert. I swear... even the cows looked healthier.
I noticed more and more of this as days passed slowly by. For another example, the tractor I had fruitlessly toiled away on with no idea what I was doing looked almost shiny and new. It was as if I had went out and stolen one to replace the rusted heap that slit my forearm and likely gave me tetanus when I reached in too far.
Things were generally getting better, and it was disquieting. Even the fucking cat was groomed and filled out as if it suddenly realized it was supposed to lick its fur and eat cat food instead of fighting with chickens and losing.
It dawned on me that Tessie, or even Farmer Waken himself might have been going around and cleaning up after me. One or both of them could've been re-doing all my work the proper way... but when? The old man only left the house to feed livestock and do the least taxing chores, and though Tessie woke up before me and went to bed after I did, she was small-framed and slight despite any rambunctious spirit in her.
Plus, I would've heard either of them working during the night. Even after I stopped worrying as much about night visitors, I remained a light sleeper due to being on edge. I would've noticed hammering, especially on the porch right below my room.
I couldn't square it up in my head, so I decided either I was forgetting things due to exhaustion, or there was some sort of trick being pulled on me. Knowing what a coot Farmer Waken was, I would never have put it past him to have someone doing all of this just to teach me some outdated, foolish "lesson" or something.
For all I knew, he posted Tessie at my door while he had the quietest group of migrant workers fixing things up in the brief moments I passed out completely.
In what were to be the my last few days on the farm, I got up the nerve to actually have a conversation with the girl I had now been full-on fantasizing about. She was sitting by a small pond just a short walk beyond the trees, somewhere I had followed her to once before, though again I was pretty sure she hadn't noticed.
For whatever reason... She went there to cry.
She was surprised when I called to her from the undergrowth, her orange mane splaying out as her head turned suddenly. Her gasp turned to a smile within moments, however, as she told me she'd been waiting for me to "get up the guts" and sit with her.
So... I assume that she had actually noticed.
I couldn't get straight to the point of things. I knew I was going to ask her about the phantom repairs, but not just right off the bat like that. I had to work to it since we had essentially never had a real conversation until right then.
We talked about the farm, Tessie's favorite music, and even Farmer Waken and how much she wanted to get away from his dictatorial behavior and away from the house. Apparently, I was far from the first young man that had been brought out for free labor. The peak amount was five boys at one time, but as time went on, less and less teens were willing to be suckered in.
In fact, there had only been one young man as of late, and he had left a full two months before I had arrived. The way Tessie talked about him, I could tell he hadn't been nearly as shy with her as I was. Even though she didn't say anything at all about liking him, I could see exactly how it had been.
I was about to approach the subject of the repairs I hadn't done, knowing full well I was about to sound like a lunatic, an idiot, or both, when Tessie said something I didn't expect.
She called me "cute".
I wasn't someone who considered myself anything of the sort, not by any means. I had just drawn in a breath to begin debating the issue with her when Tessie took my hand and placed it on her knee. To be completely honest, I wasn't the most experienced teenager, so while I had a general idea of what to expect, I still had little to no idea what I was supposed to be doing.
One sudden interruption followed the other as rustling came from the woods toward the house. Farmer Waken. Of course. He called out for me, then Tessie, and asked why no one was working on the barn or sewing his black socks. Tessie threw my hand off like it was a tarantula and whispered for me to get the Hell out of there. She sounded angry, as if I had been the problem to begin with. I got up and moved into some reeds by the lake, then pushed further into the trees.
The last thing I saw before I worked my way back around to the house was Farmer Waken hobbling up to Tessie as she stood to her feet. She cast a quick look in my direction, but didn't seem to see where I had gone. For all she knew, I had run off like a frightened rabbit. Farmer Waken spent a few moments scolding her, while she shook her head and pouted at him. I couldn't hear their words, but the tone and body language were clear.
Then... they kissed.
Not like Grandfather and Granddaughter should.
Not even remotely like it.
When I did circle back to the house, I was immediately on the phone again. Now, I had called home multiple times over the three weeks I had been there, but I never tried to argue with my Mother about the situation again. I knew better than that. However, this time I explained everything to the answering machine in detail. Something weird was going on, Farmer Waken and his daughter were beyond friendly with each other, and if she didn't come get me, I was going to start walking home even if I dropped dead on the way. I didn't care if I was being obnoxious or threatening at that point. As far as I was concerned she deserved it for pawning me off on these freaks just so she could have me out of the house for a while.
I should have expected it by this point.
Just like the last time I had made a frantic call to Mommy, I turned around to see an all-too-familiar orange mop standing in the kitchen doorway. I wasn't sure if Tessie had heard the whole thing, but even so she had to suspect exactly what I was doing.
Luckily, Farmer Waken would take a bit longer to make his way back from the pond.
At first, Tessie asked how my Mom was doing. It was in the sort of sing-song way you talk to someone when you're trying too hard to sound like you aren't mad. I had heard that before. I explained that I was just calling home, like usual, and I'm sure I sounded like I was trying too hard as well.
Tessie brushed past me. She was utterly cold to me now. She walked to the counter and started chopping carrots with a kitchen knife that was entirely too large and unsuitable for the task. I heard foot steps as Farmer Waken walked into the house, but instead of coming to the kitchen I heard him stop out by the front door.
Everything was eerily silent for minutes on end as I stood in the kitchen doorway. When I would look back at Tessie, she was still chopping away, paying no attention to me at all.
In my gut, deep, deep inside of me, I knew that things were about to go very, very wrong. It was the same feeling I'd get between the claps of thunder during a really bad storm. The next shoe was going to drop, and it was unavoidable.
I looked down at my hands. I don't know why. I studied the scratches, the cuts, all the battle wounds I had collected during my stay on the farm. I looked them over in that moment and suddenly a single thought became crystal clear in my mind.
Everything that had miraculously repaired itself, from the porch, to the tractor, and even to the cat... they had all cut me open.
I was there to fix things up, but not in the way I had expected. I was there to bleed.
I was feeding Waken Farm.
Farmer Waken called from the other room, and even though it was only one word, it still carried enough weight to crush the air out of my lungs the second I heard it.
I spun in place, nearly tripped over my shoes, as Tessie herself whirled around and leaped at me, knife drawn above her head. The instant her grandfather spoke, presumably to ask her if she had done what came next, she let out an ear-splitting shriek that I couldn't define as a sound of rage or pain.
We rolled to the floor and Tessie thrust the knife down at me. I wasn't able to block her, or to grab her arms, or anything of the sort. All I could do was pull her down with me and hope she missed.
At first, she was insane. Maddened by an impossible mix of determination and uncertainty.
All at once she was on top of me, straddling my stomach and I lay sprawled out and helpless, knife dangling over my heart in small, shaking hands.
Thinking quickly, or not thinking at all, my hands moved to her. Not with force or hatred, though it was all I could do to contain the natural urge to fight. I knew that one wrong move would put a metal wedge somewhere close to my heart.
Staring her dead in the eyes, no doubt displaying every ounce of fear in my soul, I felt for her legs, her thighs, and waist. I held her like I imagined a man would if I had been anything close to one before that moment.
I could taste her tears.
She softened. Her hands wavered. I sat up incredibly slowly, never breaking from her eyes that were now nearly as red as her hair. She still had the knife in her hands, but now it seemed to have nowhere to go.
When I heard the old man's footsteps, much closer now, I moved quickly once more. All but forgetting Tessie, I rolled to avoid whatever Farmer Waken was about to do now that his Granddaughter had faltered.
A gunshot echoed through the house, creating a deafening echo in the small kitchen.
I had moved just in time to save my life.
Just in time to doom her.
Farmer Waken turned pale, whiter still than he had already been, as he stood in the kitchen doorway. He dropped the smoking hunting rifle to the worn carpet and stared at Tessie as she lay bleeding out. She was still, silent, almost a perfect doll if not for the gushing red patch that had been her delicate throat.
The old man screamed. He dropped to his knees with a crack, and I'm positive he broke bones in the process. He gathered Tessie up in his arms and howled like a wounded beast through gasps and wheezes.
I got to my feet and backed out of the kitchen. I was shocked beyond measure, to the point I didn't even think to pick up or move the gun.
Farmer Waken rocked Tessie in his arms and begged her not to go.
Not after all this time.
Not after more than fifty years.
I watched as Tessie's blood pooled on the kitchen floor, moving between the tiles and spreading quickly from wall to wall.
I watched the cabinets pop and creak as their doors straightened, their hinges tightened, and they took on a new shine. The electric humm of the refrigerator became quieter and quieter as its paint brightened and its handles grew out small fractals of new chrome. The wallpaper came to live with vibrant color, and the ceiling lamp shone brighter than I could stand to look at.
Waken Farm. A vampiric plot of land in the middle of nowhere. A strange, ghoulish blight on an otherwise unremarkable country side. Waken Farm, a place young men go to shed blood, sweat, and tears.
Tessie wasn't Farmer Waken's granddaughter. She was his wife.
I ran from Waken Farm. It might be typical to say I never looked back, but I looked back constantly. I checked to see if the old man was following me at every opportunity, even after I reached the end of the dirt path and knew there was no way his crippled legs could bring him that far. I wasn't going to assume anything by that point.
Every time I looked back over my shoulder, the house was newer.
The first thing we did when Mom arrived at the iron gate was to call the cops at the nearest Mom & Pop gas station. Luckily, she believed me about the supposed "incest", and now about the attempted murder followed by the actual accidental murder.
Some state troopers came out, and we actually had to show them where Waken Farm was. They'd never even heard of it despite working in the area. The troopers left us at the end of that dusty dirt path as they radioed for emergency services and took off toward the house.
Toward the plume of smoke.
The house burned to the ground, and all of us knew Farmer Waken had done it. They found Tessie's remains in the house, later on. We had to find out from the local TV News rather than the authorities themselves. The old man had apparently dragged himself outside after starting the fire, and drowned himself in the pond out back.
I looked into Waken Farm, even though Mom insisted I shouldn't. Under the premise of studying for school, I was able to look up some newspaper articles that seemed loosely related to the place. There wasn't very much, and the information that did exist was mostly innocuous. However, I did find one thing that made it all "click" for me.
I found something about the boy that had been staying at the farm before me, the one Tessie seemed to speak fondly of.
It was an obituary.
I still think Tessie loved him. I imagine she was an old woman, then, tied to an unromantic and cruel husband who stranded them on a Hellish farmland that disturbed her. She probably would have never acted on it, but I bet the boy reminded her of a time when she was happy.
Some part of me wants to think that she warned him. She didn't want him hurt, didn't want him paying a price of pain for their upkeep. I think Farmer Waken found out and killed him. Made it seem like an accident. After all, the cause of death was a fall from the very barn I had been working on.
I think Tessie found him. Held his body. Didn't care that his blood was all over her.
I think that boy gave her back her youth, and by then she didn't want it.
Hell, maybe it really was an accident. There's no way to know for sure, and maybe my disdain toward the old man is clouding my judgement.
I don't know if Tessie tried to kill me because they were desperate to cover up what I had discovered, or if my death had been planned all along. Did Tessie's change show Farmer Waken that a big enough sacrifice could do the same thing for him? Had it taken two months for him to bully, threaten, or even abuse her until she broke down and agreed to kill?
When the police were done with the scene, and everything was about to be auctioned off, there was a final bit of gossip to come out of Waken Farm. Someone or something had left nothing but debris in place of the structures. The crops had turned to dust. The animals were reduced to bone.
No one here wants to talk about it, and now that I've spilled my guts like this, neither do I.