Robert received his fathers letter one bitter Winter afternoon, less than a week before he was to be evicted from his apartment. It was addressed to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma but Robert had moved twice since then. It's funny how fast life can be sometimes. Time never waits on its passengers and Robert had given up on life 100,000 miles ago.
The letter was crumpled and smudged. Robert read what was in it and the next thing he knew he was slumped against the toilet, shaking himself to pieces and bawling his eyes out. His sobs seemed to echo through the empty apartment. There was no one to confide in, no one to talk to. No friends, no wife, no sons to call his own.
He lay awake with the letter on his nightstand. There was only one sentence below the greeting, the words burned accusatorily in his mind's eye. One sentence was all he needed.
Just one sentence.
Robert tried to recall his parents faces from the dredge of his memory. His mother's face was less clear, just a murky, fleeting image of cornsilk hair and the deepest, Scandinavian blue eyes half remembered from the eyes of a child. It was his fathers face that floated to the surface of his mind as clear as day, a face as weathered as the Nebraska foothills with a crooked smile and eyes that could bore a hole into your very soul.
Robert grew up sixty miles west of Oklahoma City in a small farm town called Homestead Hills with his mom, dad, and brother William. Robert was three years younger than William, who everyone called Billy. Billy was an energetic kid that possessed his mothers fair hair and ocean deep eyes that could make any little girl blush as bright as tomatoes if she stared into them. They were raised as farm hicks under the dutiful eyes of their father, who owned 300 acres of flat, fertile land where they grew feed corn and raised cattle. He never talked much about their mother, only telling them she was a 'city gal' who couldn't handle the country life.
Robert remembered the farm with vivid clarity – running barefoot in the fresh dirt with his brother, picking crops until his tiny hands started to blister...and the barn. The fucking barn. Robert and Billy were forbidden from ever stepping foot in the barn lest they suffered the wrath of their father. Even back then Robert had always thought of his father as an angry man but he had no idea.
They were just kids.
The incident at the barn happened one Saturday in late July. The exact year always seemed to escape him but Bush Sr. was president and the two brothers were still young. Their father had gone over to the nearest neighbor about seven miles away to help the man fix a tractor tread and wasn't expected back until much later.
As always he had left them a list of chores to do and warned them not to go anywhere near the barn. They finished their chores a little before sundown and played in the front yard. The sky was a fiery orange where you could almost feel the night wanting to snuff out the flame of sunset and envelope the world in its embrace. Billy stopped playing and glanced around, alert, like a prairie dog peeking his head out of his hollow. Even in the dying light Robert could see the mischief in those deep blue eyes. Billy reached into his pocket and pulled out a key ring.
"Look what I got!" he dangled the keys in Robert's face.
"Uh huh, pa left 'em on the kitchen wall. He must be getting old, he never forgets them!"
"You better put those back Billy, pa'll wear our butts out if he finds us snooping around!"
"Ah don't be such a big baby, pa won't be back for hours. We're just gonna have a little peek." without waiting for a response Billy booked it across the yard towards the barn.
"Billy! Wait up!"
The sound of Billies laughter drifted through the dusk and as they made their way to the barn Robert could feel his apprehension lifted. He would've followed his brother straight until hell, that's how cool he thought he was.
The barn was an old and decrepit structure badly in need of repair and some paint. Billy tried multiple keys on the barns padlocked door until he heard the satisfying click and slid the lock to the ground. He pushed the door open with a grunt and the two brothers stepped into the forbidden place.
The air was stuffy and filled with the strange aroma of hay and dung and something else – a lingering, almost fetid smell that Robert couldn't quite put his finger on. A naked light bulb swung lazily from the ceiling rafters and nestled deep within the shadowy corners were the mysterious chuckling and cooing sounds of chickens and barn swallows. A large pile of hay was piled on one side of the barn and a ladder stretched from the shadowy ceiling all the way down to the hard planking of the floor in the center. The two brothers stood in front of the haymow.
"How deep you think it is?" Robert asked.
"hmmm, I don't know, let's find out!" Before Robert knew it he was scooped off of his feet and body slammed into the dusty sweet haymow. The hay billowed up around him like heavy water and Robert practically had to swim his way out as Billy roared with laughter.
"Oh man you look like a little scarecrow!" Billy said through his tears.
Robert felt like a scarecrow with hay down his shoes, shirt, and pants. He was wiping the hayseeds from his hair when he spied Billy eying the ladder with that same mischievous glint in his eyes.
"Wanna see something cool?" he asked Robert.
Before Robert could respond he felt a sneeze building up in his nostrils that he violently erupted. "Sure," he sniffled.
Billy began to ascend the ladder. Robert watched him with a mix of dread and anticipation. He was halfway up the ladder when it did a little loosey-goosey sway.
"Billy come down from there! You'll fall!"
"No I won't, I'm Jimmy Superfly Snuka!" he called down to Robert. "Get ready for the Superfly Splash!"
Billy was almost at the top, half hidden amongst the shadows. Down below Robert could faintly hear the old nails of the ladder grinding against the wood. Despite the warmth of the barn Robert could feel a cold tendril of fear tickling the back of his neck. If the ladder broke that would be just as good as a signed confession that they were in the barn.
"Billy please! The ladder isn't safe!"
"It's fine Robby, I'm – hey wait a sec, there's something up here."
Robert could hear Billy fidgeting against the rafters way up there. The ladder groaned in protest and Robert tried to swallow but his throat was as dry as the hay pile.
"I almost got it, peeyoo it stinks too!"
Robert never finished because at that moment the ladder gave way with a rotted, splintering crack. It toppled to the barn floor with a flat clap and the brothers screamed as Billy and the thing he had been struggling with fell to the barn floor.
For a moment time seemed to stop, then Billy and the object were brutally yanked by the cord tethering the thing to the ceiling some thirty feet off the floor. Billy clung on for dear life as his legs thrashed wildly at the empty air below him.
"Rob! Help me!"
With a dull snap the rope broke from the ceiling and this time there was no saving grace as his brother plummeted to the barn floor. The fetid aroma that Robert had smelled when they first entered the barn became an overpowering stench as he was able to see what had fallen from the ceiling.
A dead body.
A dead body with tatters of faded cornsilk hair and a sunken, battered face. Billy lay sprawled beneath the corpse, his right leg bent at an impossible angle. His screams unnerved Robert to his core and to this day he would never forget the sound his brother made, like a wounded animal being tortured.
Behind him the sound of boots tore him from the grisly sight and Robert found himself face to face with their father.
"I thought I told you little bastards never to come in here?" he said in a cold, calm voice. He stalked past Robert and knelt at Billies side, whose screams had become an almost guttural whimper. He shook his head slowly, his broad shoulders slumped.
"Rob, I want you to wait for me in the house, I'll deal with you later," their father said.
"Yes sir," Robert whispered and he turned his back on his brother and ran from the barn, but he could never escape the memory of that day. That night their father took a switch to Robert's bare backside. He didn't remember how long the whupping lasted but he was sure that by the time he started bleeding his father was enjoying it.
That would have been the end except that Robert never saw Billy again after that day in the barn. Pa never talked about him either. Robert ended up dropping out of high school and running away from home to take a job at a local meat packing plant. When the facility shut down he drifted from odd job to odd job, never able to offer anything other than the sweat from his back. As for his father he lost the house and barn in a fire and went to work selling plows. The end finally came just ten days ago when his fathers dead body was found hung in some cheap motel along Route 96. That was the end of the family.
Only the letter remained, with its one sentence that burned accusatorily in Robert's mind's eye. The letter was post marked two weeks before his suicide. It would have gotten to him a long time before then if it hadn't been for his moving. It's funny how fast life can move sometime.
I wish you little bastards never went into that barn.
The letter trembled in Robert's hand. Yeah pa, me too.