Memories become shifting, mercurial things over time, especially those overflowing with emotion. Beautiful recollections become brighter, elevated in our minds, while dark imaginings become increasingly volatile, unstable, like old sticks of dynamite, prone to ill-timed explosions. This is why it took me twenty years to return to the farmhouse.
The abandoned house came into view, and immediately my breath became shallow, my heartbeat rose. I’d spent a lifetime in therapy trying to deal with what happened here, convincing myself that my adolescent memories were warped and distorted by a frazzled mind unable to cope with reality. Malevolent spirits aren’t real; I know that now. Dr. Warren had spent countless hours explaining, convincing, proving… I had simply crafted the unbelievable narrative instead of accepting the monster my father had become as his illness took hold. Right?
The farmhouse had a reddish-hue in the late afternoon light; sheets of rusted corrugated steel had blown off the roof, laying in randomly strewn clusters in the overgrown grass. I parked and exited my car to a gust of frigid wind rustling the nearby trees and chilling my bare arms. I grabbed my jacket from the backseat, wishing I hadn’t come alone. As I approached the entryway, memories began bursting forth in hyper-realistic projections around me: Little Ally, six-years-old, on the porch with her dolls… Mother at the kitchen window, smiling as she washed and sliced fresh peaches for cobbler… “Ally-boo!” ten-year-old me calls from a high branch of a nearby oak. Ally looks up, “Whatsit, Curtis?” she yells back. I point to a cluster of Axis deer in the east field. “Look!”
The memories swirl and whirl away, and I find myself eyeing the busted porch for sure footing. I carefully make my way inside. The farmhouse smells of mold and decay; cobwebs line the ceiling and rafters above, piles of dead leaves and detritus fill the floors and corners below. I turn into the doorway with a creak of the rotten floorboards. The kitchen comes into view and the capricious callings of that horrible day rush forward with the smell of fresh death, coppery like a deep inhalation over a handful of old pennies.
Ally’s blood-soaked hair fans out on the ground below Mother’s hunched back, frozen in a protective posture; the massive hole in Mother’s side reveals a crimson mass of shattered ribs and glistening vital organs. It looks like a great white shark has taken a bite right out of her. A kitchen chair screeches across the floor, and there is Father, the shotgun trembling in hand as he falls into the chair, reloads the double-barrel, and flips the business-end toward his tear-streaked face.
“Mom? Dad? Ally?” younger me calls from upstairs, my little pounding footfalls echoing as I dash down the stairs.
The shotgun blast reverberates off the kitchen walls as the translucent ten-year-old me rushes through my body like an icy wind and comes to a halt directly before me as I relive the terror in past and present. My gaze drifts from my mother and sister to my father, whose face is now a red-mass of goop, a cascade of blood draining down his chest.
Once more, I see the impossible black shadow surrounding Father. Its long arm drops the shotgun, which clatters to the farmhouse floor at my father’s feet. For the briefest of moments, it stands to its full height behind Father, shifting and shuddering like a mass of black smoke confined into the shape of a giant, pinpricks of red glare at me from inches below the ten-foot ceiling. Then it’s sucked from the room like cigarette smoke from a moving car window.
As the ten-year-old me erupts in a scream of abject horror, my life comes full circle, and I realize I’ve spent the past twenty years trying to convince myself of a lie. No, Father didn’t have a psychotic episode brought about stress, alcohol abuse, or a bipolar disorder flare-up. The Shadow Man was real. The only question was, why had I been spared?
The skittering of some critter pulls me back to the present, and I look around the empty kitchen. I eye the two dark stains on the rotten floor a final time and turn to exit the farmhouse. My cheeks are wet and cold as I step back onto the porch. I wipe them with my sleeve and walk back to my car. The door slams, and as I put my key into the ignition, I quickly glance in the rearview mirror, and I see what I now know has been there all along.
A massive shadowy figure fills the rear of my car, a quivering mass of black smoke and nightmares. The Shadow Man will continue on with me, as he has the past two decades, watching, waiting, guiding. Until the appointed time comes, and he grabs hold of me to do the thing I could never do on my own.
Mental illness or contriving spirits, it doesn’t really matter. It all looks the same in the end.