Barn Door to Hell - Chapter 1
Night fell on the town of Reaper’s Bend, Pennsylvania. Deputy Regis Jones pulled his cruiser into his prime parking spot in front of the Sheriff’s office. The chill in the November air kissed his skin as soon as he stepped into it and he wondered, not for the first time, why he hadn’t run off to Texas with Sharon West all those years ago instead of pursuing a career in local law enforcement.
To make my Daddy proud, that’s why.
And how was that working out for him? Best not to think about it. Or what Sharon was up to these days.
Two gorgeous kids and cowboy husband with movie-star good looks, that’s what.
Regis took his hat off and entered the office. The cool night air followed him inside, breathing against the back of his neck like a ghostly lover in one of those Gothic paperbacks his mother used to read. When the door closed, the chill dissipated. The office was stuffy but warm and familiar.
“Hey, Batman,” Daisy Keener said from behind the desk. “How’re the streets of Gotham?”
She snapped her gum, placed her hands on her chin, and leaned forward, eyeing him expectantly. Daisy Keener had been working reception at the Reaper’s Bend Sheriff Department since Regis’ father was in charge. She had come close to retiring twice already, but each time, she wound up abandoning those plans, saying she would miss the desk too much. The desk and everything that came with it. She knew more about Reaper’s Bend than any history book, newspaper, or the Chamber of Commerce, and even at seventy-one, she was still sharp as a porcupine quill.
“Cold and quiet,” he said.
“Like my first husband,” she shot back and winked.
“Is that a compliment?”
“That depends on your perspective. Marriage is…” She paused to give the impression she was thinking hard about something. She cocked a mischievous eyebrow. “Well, you’ll find out if you ever get hitched.”
“Yeah, if. You’re not exactly a spring chicken anymore.”
“I’m not even thirty.”
“I married at nineteen.”
“To someone cold and quiet.”
“It was a different time,” she said in a wistful voice.
Daisy met his gaze and they both burst out laughing. They both knew this was harmless banter. Daisy was not someone who looked wistfully into the past. She was a woman ahead of her time; she still was in a lot of ways. In fact, she had campaigned hard for his father when he was trying to get elected as the first Black sheriff in a very white county. His father used to regale Regis with stories of how Daisy—all four-foot-eleven of her—stepped up to deputies twice her size and read them the riot act for calling him “Blazing Saddles,” in reference to the Mel Brooks movie. She was a good woman, didn’t take shit from anyone.
He knocked on the desk and gave Daisy a last nod before heading to the dressing room to change out of his uniform. He put on faded blue jeans and a black and red flannel. He kept the boots and hat that he wore on duty. The outfit made him look like a common redneck or truck driver, but he had always appreciated the aesthetic. In college, when he grew tired of branded clothing and shirts with his favorite rappers on them, he completely redid his wardrobe in this fashion. Daisy and his fellow deputies used to tell him he looked like his dad. Now, they just accepted it as his own personal style if they said anything at all.
“Where are you off to?” Daisy asked when he came back out.
“Clippers,” he said. “Don’t work too hard, okay?”
“May as well ask an old gal like me to stop breathing.”
“There aren’t any old gals like you.”
“Get out of here with your sweet-talking self.”
He tipped his hat and said, “Ma’am.”
Back outside, it had gotten a lot colder.
Carson Reid turned down the volume on the stereo, reducing the soaring vocals of A.F.I.’s Davey Havok to something that sounded like a transmission from far away. She had just turned the Camry she got as a hand-me-down from her mom onto Big Hill Road. The road was named for a steep incline that was nowhere near this part of the thoroughfare. It made the name kind of ridiculous from where she was sitting.
“Hey, what’s the idea?” Ashley said from the passenger seat.
“I don’t want anyone to hear us coming,” Carson said.
Ashley made a show of looking at the dark woods and empty fields on either side of the car.
“Who’s gonna hear us?” she asked in a condescending way that made Carson want to backhand her.
“No one. I just need to concentrate.”
“So, just say that.”
For the third or fourth time tonight, Carson wished she had gone on this endeavor alone. Ashley was a good friend, someone she’d known since the second grade. The girls had cried together at least a thousand times and laughed together even more times than that. As teenagers, they had competed against each other in the same journalism contests, and Carson had been all too glad to congratulate Ashley when her article had placed, even though Carson’s hadn’t. They nerded out over authors like Poppy Z. Brite and Tanith Lee, and earlier luminaries like Charity Blackstock. They were both raised by single mothers and liked chasing shots of Fireball with a can of Pabst. They even liked the same types of men, though fortunately for their friendship, never the same man.
Ashley had even convinced Carson to abandon journalism, go halfsies on a digital camera, and start helping out on local movie productions, learning the ins and outs of independent filmmaking. It was this last detail that more or less had them out here tonight. Carson was all too glad to do it, too, but having Ashley with her was less than ideal because despite their deep history and cherished memories, Ashley could be a real bitch at times. Especially when she was nervous about something.
“Are you sure you know where it is?” Ashley asked.
Davey Havok screamed from somewhere far away. Carson knew how he felt.
“It’s up here somewhere,” Carson said, trying not to sound snippy but failing. “So, keep an eye out, okay?”
They were looking for one of the unmarked entrances to Henshaw State Park, a series of walking trails that wove through nearly two thousand, heavily wooded acres. They couldn’t enter through any of the marked main entrances because they weren’t technically supposed to be in the park after hours, let alone filming without a permit. The entrance they were looking for was ideal because it wasn’t simply unmarked; it was also unmonitored. Unfortunately, this meant it wasn’t on any GPS, so they had to drive extra slow down this stretch of Big Hill Road. They’d already had one jerkoff ride their tail for a nail-biting minute before swerving around them and leaning on the horn. And that had been on the main road before they were going as slow as they were now.
Carson hoped there wouldn’t be another such incident. Road rage scared the shit out of her.
“I think I see it,” Ashley said and pointed up ahead on her side of the road.
Carson squinted and leaned over the steering wheel. She spotted the part in the trees, split by a blink-and-you-miss-it gravel turnoff. She slowed the Camry further and flicked on her turn signal. Ashley laughed.
“What?” Carson asked.
“You’re such a teacher’s pet sometimes. There’s nobody behind us.”
“There’s nobody behind us now,” Carson corrected and made the turn onto the wooded drive.
The gravel hissed under the tires. Branches scraped the sides of the vehicle like clawing fingers. She hoped they wouldn’t leave any marks. Though her car wasn’t new, her mother had kept it in pristine condition before gifting it to her. Any scratches would definitely get noticed, and Carson would get an earful.
She waited until they were far enough from Big Hill Road that no one could see them before stopping the car and cutting the engine. She exhaled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
“Well, we made it,” she said.
“Great,” Ashley said. She clapped her hands together. It sounded extra loud in the confines of the car. “Let’s shoot some fucking B roll!”
That was an inside joke. On the last movie they worked on, the director—a firebrand feminist named Jennie Silva—had berated them in front of the cast and crew. Nothing seemed to be going right that day and dissatisfied with the way a scene was lit, she’d told Carson and Ashley they were pathetic amateurs, and that they should stick to shooting B roll. Not very empowering to her fellow women, Carson and Ashley thought.
The thing was, they were amateurs. They hoped to learn how to be pros. The dressing down, though disrespectful, could’ve been taken in stride, but Jennie never thought to apologize. They vowed after that to hone their craft on their own, rather than rely on independent filmmakers with inflated egos and short tempers. It was a big reason why they were out here tonight.
The young women set about unloading their gear. All around them, the night woods pulsed with the promise of something pagan.
Clippers was just the sort of place you pictured when someone said the words “dive bar.” Bad lighting. Bad music. Bad attitudes. Entering was like walking into the nicotine equivalent of an opium den. Everything stunk and it was hard to see much more than drab silhouettes and flickering neon ads for shitty beer. Nickelback crooned on the juke about looking at an old photo. It was always Nickelback. Or Breaking Benjamin. Or Hinder. Sad, angsty butt rock.
Regis found his father seated in the usual spot. He liked the stool at the end of the bar, right near the bathroom. A half-drained pint glass sat in front of him on top of a soaked napkin. Regis wondered how many pints that was. He could’ve asked Gary the barkeep if he really cared to know, but judging by the slumped way the old man sat in the stool, he guessed it was around the sixth or seventh. Once he’d asked Gary to try cutting the old man off at a certain point, but Gary had held up his hands and said he wasn’t flagging the former sheriff.
Uh-huh. Especially not if he keeps paying his tab, right? Regis had retorted, but he didn’t press further. If the old man wanted to drown his liver, that was his prerogative. Regis only came here to make sure his father made it home safe.
This had become a near nightly affair.
He walked past a pool table manned by two biker types with heavily tatted arms, broad chests, and a whole lot of gray in their beards. He noticed these details because the light over the pool table was the most powerful source of illumination in the whole dump.
When he reached his father, he clapped the old man on the back, bent toward his ear and said, “Checkout time, Dad.”
Abram Jones straightened, but nearly toppled off the stool. Regis placed a stabilizing hand on his father’s elbow. Abram shook him off.
“Get your hands off me. I don’t need your help staying vertical.”
Regis took his hand away. Abram teetered but stayed on his stool. He gestured to the half-finished pint.
“Gonna let me get my money’s worth before you haul me outta here, Deputy?”
“I should say ‘no.’”
“But you won’t,” Abram said. He tried a grin, but it made him look like a constipated man clenching his teeth while trying to dislodge an especially stubborn turd. Nothing of the man Regis grew up with lived in that expression. Only a shameful parody. One day Regis would find out why he did this to himself on such a regular basis. What had changed to make him so utterly give up on himself? He had broached the subject before, more than once, and it had gone less than well.
Abram downed the rest of the glass in one swill. Most of it wound up on his chin and down the front of his shirt. “Oops. Oh, well. Closing time?”
“It is for you, Dad. Come on.”
Abram slinked off his stool and began to shuffle toward the door. Regis gave Gary a curt nod and followed close behind. The stink of Clippers clung to them like fungus to a moist log.
His dad’s place wasn’t far, but by the time they pulled into the driveway, his father was conked out in the passenger seat. Regis left the engine running to keep the car warm and got out with a sigh. When helping Abram to his feet, the old man babbled something that could’ve been protest but came out too slurred to understand. Regis kept his arm under his father’s shoulders and walked him to the front door.
Inside, Regis didn’t turn on any lights so as not to startle his father, but he did use the flashlight app on his phone so he could navigate the floor safely. As predicted, the place needed a good cleaning, which meant he would have to come by and do it on his next day off. Though his father used to be the tidiest man Regis had ever known, that wasn’t the case since his retirement. A lot had changed since his retirement.
He and Regis’ mother had split up while he was still working. His dedication to the position of sheriff had left little room for their relationship. That neglect had sent her into the arms of another man, something Regis had resented her over in the beginning but now understood. Even so, it probably had something to do with why Regis opted to carry a torch for Sharon West instead of finding a nice local lady to marry. Walt, his stepfather was an okay guy; he took good care of his mother. Trouble was, that left only Regis to take care of his old man.
They traipsed around discarded articles of clothing, empty beer cans, and God knew what else. Regis hadn’t the foggiest idea what his father did during the day before heading to Clippers for the night. It was a sad state of affairs, but who was he to tell a sixty-something man how to live his life.
He got his father to the bed and helped him out of his coat and shoes. Abram stirred awake and coughed. He spat a wad of something into the bedside trashcan. Regis tried not to cringe.
“Chi-Town Rumble,” Abram slurred.
Regis didn’t need to ask his father to clarify. He rooted around for the remote and found it under a fast-food wrapper. His hand and the remote came away greasy.
What? I’ll fucking tell you what. I want to know what happened to you. I want to know why you just seemed to give up. It can’t be because Mom left. You were functioning just fine back then as sheriff. Did you retire too early? You need to take better care of yourself. And you need a fucking hobby!
All of this all but burned at the tip of his tongue. He swallowed every word, giving voice to none of it.
“Just get some rest,” he said. “I’ll come by in a few days to help you straighten the place up. Then maybe—”
“You gonna put on my rassling?”
Regis squeezed the remote so hard, it nearly snapped in his hand. Instead, he relaxed his grip and switched on the television. After he pushed play on the proper program, he covered his father with a comforter. Abram was already snoring, but Regis kept the show playing in case he woke up again. Something about the old wrestling matches kept Abram’s mind quiet enough to find rest, giving him the peace reality had so denied him.
As Regis left the house, he wondered for what had to be the thousandth time if his father would’ve been happier as a wrestler than as a cop. He got into his car with a sigh; he still had a long drive home.
“Whoa,” Carson said.
She stood up next to the lighting rig she’d just set up and looked at the now-illuminated place beyond the trees ahead. They had gone aways into the woods to find a clearing where they could set up without the car or any foliage getting in their way. Tonight, it was all about practicing lighting. Get some moody shots of the woods and head home. Eat your heart out, Jennie Silva.
“What is it?” Ashley asked from across the clearing behind her. She had been setting up her own rig and cursing under her breath the whole time.
“I think that’s Alvin West’s barn,” Carson said.
“Alvin Herschel West. Don’t you know your local history?”
“Hey! Don’t forget which one of us placed in that journalism contest.”
“Then you should know who Alvin West is. Come on, let’s check it out. And bring the camera.”
“Uh, that sounds like the worst idea of the century. What if someone’s home? If he’s a farmer, he probably owns a gun!”
“He’d have to be alive to shoot us.”
“What?” The way Ashley’s voice jumped when she asked this implied that she thought Carson was proposing they kill someone.
“He’s dead. About a month ago. Heart attack.”
“I don’t know…”
“Ugh, don’t be a bitch.”
Carson lifted her rig and headed toward the barn, not giving Ashley the chance to argue further. With a huff, the other girl followed.
There was no path to the barn from their side, so getting the lighting equipment through the trees was trickier than before. Carson managed it, not ready to be denied. This barn was going to look cool provided she lit it properly and Ashley shot it right.
Carson stepped into the yard and set down her rig. Ashley stumbled the last few steps into the woods and bumped into Carson’s back. Carson glared back at her. She held up the camera and flashed a sheepish grin. They both burst out laughing.
When they got a hold of themselves, they walked around to the front of the barn. The door was slightly ajar. Carson moved toward it and reached for the handle.
“What are you doing?”
Carson looked over her shoulder. “Going inside, of course.”
She opened the door. Its hinges groaned and its base whispered against the straw on the ground. Her heart accelerated with anticipation. She had no clue what she might see; more than likely, they would only find standard barnyard equipment and a bunch of hay. Even so, it would make for some interesting shots, stuff with character and texture.
Inside, the barn was dark. She jogged to her lighting rig, leaving the door open.
“It smells bad,” Ashley said.
“Of course it does. It’s a barn.”
“No, it’s worse than that.”
Carson approached, set her rig on the ground in front of the door and switched it on. Light bathed the inside of the barn. With the insides now partially illuminated, both young women screamed at what they saw.
A man’s corpse hung in the space in front of the loft. He was tangled in a thick rope and covered in tufts of hay and glistening spatters of blood. The hay was stuffed into his shirt and pants. Pieces of it stuck to his skin, either caught in the blood or pricking his skin like needles. He had no face, only a greasy skull with soupy clumps of skin dangling from the eyes, nose, and mouth. There was no questioning it: this was no elaborately designed scarecrow; this was a dead man, and he hadn’t done the grotesque damage to himself.
“We need to get the fuck out of here!” Ashley shrieked.
“Yeah, I think you’re right.”
Both women began backing up. Carson didn’t bother grabbing her lighting rig. It would only slow her down. If whoever had strung that guy up was still nearby, she needed all the speed she could muster.
“Back the way we came,” Ashley said, pointing to the clearing.
Something whirled through the air. There was a sickening squelching sound, followed by a shrill cry from Ashley. Carson turned to her and gasped.
Her lifelong friend had a hayfork lodged in her gut. All four rusty prongs went in her abdomen and pierced through to her lower back. Blood soaked the lower half of her shirt like spilled claret. Some cascaded down her chin like scarlet drool. She gagged on it, just as Carson gagged at the disgusting sight.
“Oh, God. Ashley?”
Ashley continued to gag and spew up blood. She stared into the barn’s shadowy corners. Carson followed her gaze. She saw no one inside. Even in the darker areas, she couldn’t imagine someone who had hurled the object hiding there. That only meant—but that was impossible.
Ashley dropped the camera and it hit the ground with a crack. Her eyes rolled to the whites as she sank to her knees.
Inside the barn, the hay roiled like a storm-tossed sea. The hanging man with the melted face began to twitch. Something yellow glowed in his otherwise vacant eye sockets.
With another sickening sound like a boot pulled from thick mud, the hayfork dislodged itself out of Ashley’s midriff. It did this with no one holding it, making an invisible thrower of the tool no longer an impossibility. The hayfork came loose but not all the way free. Ashley’s blood-slicked innards were wrapped around the tines like thick noodles.
Ashley slumped, twitching, to her side. There was no saving her. Carson had to leave, and fast. Hay was spilling out the door to the barn like golden vomit. The eye sockets of the dead man were now filled with that yellow glow and his desiccated arms were snatching at the rope that held him suspended.
The hay washed over the coughing, sputtering Ashley and nearly encircled Carson’s feet. Carson jumped back with a yelp. The hay receded back into the barn, dragging Ashley with it.
Carson turned and ran. In her haste, she ran opposite from the way she’d come.
Regis turned onto Route 473, a winding thoroughfare lined in equal parts woods and farmland. People who lived out here mostly grew corn or kept horses. There was also Henshaw State Park nearby, a massive stretch of preserved land full of walking trails, old houses, and a historic covered bridge that went across a section of Tucker County Creek. It was a pretty area to drive through during the day, but at night it often gave the impression of traversing a great void, one occasionally pulsing with restlessness and specks of light.
On the stereo, Shooter Jennings sang that being country was about more than where someone came from. The road was mostly even, despite the occasional dip. Exhaustion from a full day, but mostly from attending to his father, weighed down his shoulders and head. He kept his hands tight on the wheel and tried singing along to keep himself awake.
That would be a fucked-up headline. “Sheriff’s Deputy Crashes Car After Falling Asleep at Wheel,” then under it, “Regis Jones is Son of Former Sheriff,” followed by a bunch of nonsense about how this somehow tarnished his father’s legacy as Tucker County’s first Black Sheriff. The County Times loved salacious shit like that, especially now as print media lost more and more ground to digital clickbait and needed to compete.
He slapped himself on the cheek. Turned the music up louder. He took the curve by the old feed mill with extra care. He couldn’t get home soon enough. Maybe he’d fix himself a drink of his own.
Don’t go there, he thought in his mother’s voice.
He blinked hard and took another curve. Reminded himself there was a stop sign coming up. Not that anyone else was out here to hit if he blew through it.
Don’t go there either.
The song changed to “Me and the Whiskey” by Whitey Morgan and the 78s, another good track. He clenched one fist and rapped against the steering wheel to the beat.
Just a little longer and then I’ll be home.
Home was a one-bedroom apartment he rented in one of the many massive complexes popping up around Reaper’s Bend. They, along with more strip malls and chain restaurants, were supposedly good for the local economy, but they sure diminished the character of the area. Still, no point in owning a house if it was just him.
He stopped at the stop sign. His thoughts were wandering, but at least they were keeping him awake. He double-checked the cross streets just in case before taking his foot off the brake.
When he stepped on the gas, she ran into the middle of the road.
His foot found the brake again. This time, he slammed on it, though he hadn’t picked up nearly enough speed. It made him jolt in his seat and gasp.
The young woman stopped running and faced his vehicle. Awash in the headlights, he could see every troubling detail. She was covered in dirt and debris. She was breathing heavily, perhaps hyperventilating. Her eyes were pulled wide with something between bewilderment and terror. She gritted her teeth, and he thought he saw something like blood between her lips.
Regis got out of the car. He held up a disarming hand, but he kept his other hand near his holster just in case. He didn’t expect she would pose a threat, but if someone was after her, he wanted to make sure he could defend them both.
“Ma’am,” he said, taking a cautious step forward. “It’s okay. I’m with the Sheriff’s Department. Can you tell me what happened?”
She just stared at him. Kept taking laborious breaths through her teeth. Her face was white as a sun-bleached skull.
Instead of answering him, the young woman named Carson Reid collapsed in the middle of the street.