She died alone, unless you count the goats.
I’m not sure I do, but she probably would have. She preferred them to people. I couldn’t blame her. A lifetime of letdown will do that to you.
I liked to think I was the best of the worst; the one person she could count on, even if I was far away. My leaving hadn’t been her fault, I told her that a thousand times, but Mom was a True Skeptic. I don’t think she ever believed me. She never asked me to come back, either. We were fine with phone calls and her making the long journey to me.
At some point, without either of us saying it aloud, the farm had become hers, and hers alone.
And it stayed that way until I got the call from the police.
Official cause of death: Cardiac arrest.
I’d always known a broken heart would be the end of her.
There would be no funeral, no final goodbyes, no celebration of the life she’d led. She would’ve said there was nothing to celebrate anyway. A divorced mother of a dead son and distant daughter with only a flock of goats and fifty acres to her name. Not exactly the kind of thing parties get themed around.
I’d told myself so many times over the years that I’d go back, I’d visit her. I’d tell her how much I appreciated all she’d sacrificed for me and Jimmy, that I knew how hard it’d been, that she didn’t need to feel guilt for any decisions she’d made.
That I loved her.
It’s funny how time slips away from us. The life it takes with it, less so.
It was a long drive up the snaking mountain roads, bordered on both sides by its thick line of evergreen sentinels. Pale mist gathered around their trunks, dampening the air and woodland sounds. I’d lost radio signal miles back. If I’d been in a thinking mood, maybe the silence would’ve been welcome, but my mind was as fogged as the roadway, and the hounds of regret and heartbreak howled loudest in the quiet.
I didn’t remember making the turn off the main highway or the journey through the backroads. As if in a dream, I was just suddenly idling in front of the wooden gate branded with the words “Saddler’s Farm”. My eyes traced each letter like I was reading them for the first time, then I slowly undid my seatbelt. Still in a daze, I pushed open the car door and stepped on to the gravel path.
The smell was the same. The thick stink of animals and wet greenery. Mom had carried that smell with her wherever she went, faint as yesterday’s perfume. My breath hitched and tears burned at the corners of my eyes.
“Hey, Mom,” I whispered into the gray afternoon.
The gate screeched with its opening and I left it agape after I drove through. A paddock and barn replaced the trees to the west, and beyond that, a sloping field. Ahead, the two story farmhouse was flanked by patchy bushes and flowerbeds that hadn’t been tended in a long time.
Goats gathered at the paddock’s fence, tails flicking and heads raised expectantly. I imagined it was quite the disappointment when I stepped out of the car instead of Mom. Their needful baa-ing filled the air all the same.
Knowing a couple of the neighbors had been coming by to feed them twice a day, I grabbed my bag and headed for the house instead of giving in to their plaintive yells. I had to fight with the front door, swollen with moisture, before it groaned inward, as if upset it had failed to keep me out of my mother’s domain.
Mom had been a simple woman, and she kept a simple home. A mismatched array of plain furniture, the same TV she’d had when I still lived there over a decade before, all the family photos hung without any semblance of pattern on the walls. The only luxury, if that was even the word for it, she’d allowed herself was the curio cabinet in the corner of the living room, home to her collection of small glass figurines.
There were a few people along the back of the shelves, ballerinas and wide-eyed children, but most of them were goats.
It was exactly as I remembered it, right down to the shrine dedicated to my late brother covering the mantle.
I dropped my bag on the floor and approached the fireplace, scanning the dusty frames and knick knacks she’d kept that reminded her of Jimmy.
There was some measure of sadness there, I supposed as I gazed down at the makeshift memorial, but it wasn’t for him. It was for the woman who’d kept holding on to the sweet little boy who’d turned into a monster instead of a man.
My lip curled unhappily just seeing his face staring at me from every angle.
“Bastard,” I muttered, tipping the nearest portrait down.
First thing I planned to do was remove every trace of him. Mom wouldn’t have wanted it, but we all grieve in our own ways. Ridding her home of him as she’d never been able to do might finally bring her the peace she deserved.
That he’d never given her.
I didn’t realize how tightly clenched my jaw was until it started to ache. I dragged a hand along my chin, trying to ease it, and then, in a sudden outburst, I swept my arm along the mantle, sending everything on it crashing to the floor. My breath shook as I gazed down at the mess I’d made.
“Well,” I muttered, “it’s a start.”
The crunch of picture frame glass beneath my shoes was a satisfying one.
Outside the windows, the goats’ cries continued to carry on the wind.
I had meant to get a head start on dividing Mom’s belongings into things I wanted to keep and things I wanted to get rid of. I’d gone into her bedroom armed with a pair of labeled boxes and pulled out dresser drawers.
I made it as far as her favorite sweater, Irish wool dyed deep green with wooden toggles, before I sank to the floor, holding it to my chest while fresh tears fell.
Suddenly there was too much stuff and not enough Mom, and I couldn’t let the sweater go. Like a child seeking comfort from a too-real nightmare, I pulled myself on to her bed and curled up in its center, trying to surround myself with as much of her that still remained as I could.
I’d never cried myself to sleep before. Not when I’d got the news Dad died, not after I’d found Jimmy. Not until I’d made it home and the weight of my loss finally came crashing down in such furious waves I felt like I’d never catch my breath. They pushed me deeper and deeper into a chasm of sorrow, threatening to split me apart, until sleep took pity on me, and I felt nothing at all.
I’d forgotten that, until they woke me sometime after nightfall. The clamor of hooves in the mud and the shriek of frightened animals was loud, even upstairs, and I sat bolt upright, confused in the strange dark.
It took a moment to remember where I was. Why I was there.
With a tired sigh, I dragged myself off the bed and went to the window, but beyond a few flashes of white, I couldn’t see anything.
“Fucking goats,” I mumbled.
There was probably a coyote or something nearby, and for the briefest second, I thought that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if a predator got in, wiped them out, gave me one less thing to worry about.
I could imagine the horrified look on Mom’s face if she knew I’d entertained the idea at all.
They were her babies as much as I was.
Almost automatically, I tugged on her sweater, and went downstairs, flipping lights on as I went. By the time I’d reached the last step, the goats had quieted, but I turned on the outside lamps and grabbed the flashlight that lived in the small table beside the front door anyway.
At the paddock, my flashlight beam fell over the huddled herd, who regarded me ambivalently. The odd grunt or whine rose from their midsts, but whatever had startled them seemed to have passed.
“What?” I asked. “Did a big, bad plastic bag roll through?”
My only answer was the steady gaze of forty eyes. Their horizontal pupils looked alien even in the dark, maybe more so.
As I stood there, a slowly circling sense of unease began to turn in my stomach. I licked my lips, hardly aware I was taking a step back from the fence. Maybe it was because I’d been gone for so long, but the night made the farm a vast and strange landscape, stretching on every side into a nothingness that left me alone with only the goats, and they weren’t much comfort.
I’d never taken to the goats like Mom had.
“You guys are terrible neighbors,” I said in an attempt to wrangle my discomfort.
They continued to watch me as I trudged back to the house, and I was only too happy to close the door on them.
I replaced the flashlight in its customary spot and turned around.
A dozen new sets of eyes were gazing at me from the mantle.
All the pictures of Jimmy I’d thrown off had been put back in their former place.
I reeled back against the door, hands pressed over my mouth, and looked from the photos to the shattered glass still spread across the floor, then back again. A much younger Jimmy in his little league uniform, Jimmy seated at the kitchen table with our grandma’s cat cradled in his arms, Jimmy in front of the Christmas tree with a bow stuck to his forehead. All back in the exact same spots as before.
No one had been in the house with me. Even if there was, they wouldn’t have known the random order the pictures had been lined up in.
With my heart pounding against my ribs, I took an unsteady step forward.
The silence that followed gradually turned to a ringing in my ears.
“Mom?” I tried again and my voice cracked under the desperate weight in that single word.
No answer came, but I realized I didn’t need one.
I just looked at the photos and knew I wasn’t alone.
Under normal circumstances, I’d have been suspicious and scared, probably called the cops to search the house for whoever was hiding in the walls. “Ghost” wouldn’t have even been in my top fifty explanations for the pictures being replaced.
I’d never believed in ghosts. The idea of being stuck in an endless loop of life’s worst moments seemed a more terrible fate than simply ceasing to be.
But I didn’t want Mom to stop being.
I didn’t care what form she took or how she came back to me; only that she was there. Or that I could think she was. It was the first scrap of comfort I’d been thrown in a week and I shoved aside any of Logic’s attempts to weigh in.
I cleaned up the broken picture frame glass and left it sitting in the dustpan beside the fireplace until I could find a paper bag to secure it in, then went upstairs.
That night, I slept in her bed, glad for her closeness.
I was eating a breakfast of buttered toast and questionably aged eggs when the kitchen phone rang. I set my fork aside and wiped my hands on my jeans front before plucking the receiver from its cradle.
“Jessa?” a man’s voice asked.
“Good, good, glad you made it up. This is Wilbur Sacks. I don’t know if you remember me…”
The image of a perpetually old man in faded denim and a beat up baseball cap popped instantly into my head. Mom’s nearest neighbor five miles up the road.
“Yes, of course. The attorney said you and the Gilroys were taking turns feeding the goats. I really appreciate that. Mom would’ve too.”
“Least we can do. She was a good one, your mom. Me and Katie were real sorry to hear about her passing.” He spoke with a slow sincerity that threatened to choke me up.
I cleared my throat to dislodge the forming lump.
She’s still here, I reminded myself, and exhaled slowly. “Thanks for, uh, keeping an eye on her.”
“Wasn’t a problem. She looked after us too. Wish we could’ve done more.” He heaved a sigh that slipped into quiet reminiscing. “Last time we spoke, she was really beating herself up over what became of Jimmy. We tried telling her it wasn’t her fault, but…well, you know your mom.”
“Yeah,” I said softly. “I do.”
I had had that same conversation with her countless times, and countless times she’d created an entire mental gymnastics routine that ended with her leaving our abusive dad and taking us to her parent’s farm as the catalyst for Jimmy’s downward spiral.
If I’d stayed, he would’ve had a male role model. No, having Grandpa just wasn’t the same.
If I’d stayed, he never would’ve fallen in with that crowd. No, being around your dad just wouldn’t have been the same.
If I’d stayed, he wouldn’t have turned out like that. No, your dad ODing just wasn’t the same.
Regardless of what I said, all of Jimmy’s decisions were because of Mom’s decisions. It didn’t matter I’d turned out ok, that I’d never fallen in with the bad kids, that I somehow never got into drugs, or drinking, or fights, or jail. That I hadn’t drained Mom’s bank account on lawyers and repaid her with Dad’s brand of bruised love. That I’d avoided throwing back one too many shots of vodka and choking on my own vomit for a family member to find.
It just wasn’t the same.
“Anywho,” I heard Wilbur say, “I just wanted to call and make sure everything’s alright up there. Coyote or fox or something’s in the area; got into the henhouse last night. Lost a few of our best girls.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Something startled the goats, but I didn’t see anything when I went to check.”
“That’s good, that’s good. Well, I’ll be by tomorrow to give you a hand with mucking and such if that’s alright with you? Unless you need anything today?”
“Tomorrow’s great. Thanks, Mr. Sacks.”
“Take care, Jessa. If you need anything, feel free to give us a call.”
I didn’t try explaining that I already had the one thing I needed most just then.
After hanging up, I slipped on Mom’s sweater and went to the barn for the goats’ feed. The herd followed me along the paddock fence, loudly voicing their displeasure at the tardiness of their breakfast. I brushed them off with a few choice words while filling their feed bucket before hauling it to the paddock and dumping it in their trough. They were greedily butting each other aside and snapping up mouthfuls before I’d even finished.
As I turned to bring the bucket back to the barn, a fluttering in the grass caught my eye. A single white chicken feather stuck in the morning dew, just outside the paddock gate.
“Guess it wasn’t just a bag,” I said to the goats. “Sorry I doubted you.”
With the goats taken care of, I decided it would be better to begin packing my old room – now a quaint, never-used guest room – instead of hers.
While I worked, I talked to Mom as if she were beside me. None of the things I’d meant to say, the Important Stuff, just mundane chit chat I’d been saving for our next call. Work, the annoying neighbor’s latest antics, the funny movie I’d watched that I thought she’d like.
I didn’t apologize for what I’d done to the photos, either. Mom would understand.
The day passed quickly and by the time I finished, I’d cleared out one of the three bedrooms, the dining room, and the small office where Mom had kept all her important paperwork. Satisfied with a job well done, I heated up one of the TV dinners piled neatly in the freezer and ate it standing over the sink.
The goats, much to their dismay, had to wait until I was done before their evening feed.
After the sun had dragged its last lingering fingers beneath the horizon, covering the farm in a veil of cool black, I sat in Mom’s easy chair by the window, staring out at the void over a mug of tea. The rhythmic song of hidden crickets thrummed against the glass pane. I let myself close my eyes, to settle into the sense of peace that was slowly starting to bloom on the edges of my mourning.
And then the goats began to scream.
They kicked off in a chorus of shrill bleating and trampling hooves, rupturing the tranquil evening with their wild fright.
Probably just a fox, I thought, and scowled at the dark. Not like it’ll hurt them. I sank further into my chair, noisily slurping my tea as if to rival the goats.
“Deal with your kids, Mom,” I called out the house. “I’m not going to do it.”
Moments later, the herd settled, and I smiled into my mug.
After finishing my tea, I rinsed the cup in the sink and went upstairs to take a shower. The water pressure wasn’t great, but it ran hot, and I stood beneath its stream, allowing it to ease the tension from my muscles. I didn’t usually let myself enjoy long showers, but that night, I took my time massaging the shampoo in and working my body wash into a thick lather.
I tipped my head back, eyes closed and fingers combing through my hair as I hummed tunelessly.
The heavy brush of the shower curtain against my bare hip sent me jumping toward the wall with a yelp. I whipped around, arms thrown across my chest and one leg partially raised to shield myself.
A gentle ripple ran down the length of the curtain, and then it was still.
I stood frozen in my defensive pose, the faucet now thundering like a waterfall against the otherwise quiet house, and blinked away the spray splashing into my eyes.
A floorboard creaked from the hall outside the bathroom.
It’s just Mom. It’s just Mom. It’s just Mom.
But the warm, fuzzy certainty of her presence that’d filled me before had dimmed, becoming a frosted, fragile thing that lodged itself in my chest.
No longer interested in a long shower, I shut the water off and tugged my towel off the curtain rod to wrap it tightly around myself before stepping out of the tub.
Too late, I saw the glass glittering atop the bath mat.
The tiny slivers sank hungrily into my foot before I could stop myself. I cried out, yanking my foot back, and sat heavily on the edge of the tub. Blood and water mingled in pale red rivulets down my heel as I held it up to inspect the damage and pull out the biggest of the pieces. Each one brought a new tear to my eye.
“Where…” I panted, trying to form questions out of my frightened confusion. “What…fuck!”
As I pinched a shard between my thumb and forefinger, I saw it sitting in the middle of the doorway.
The dustpan I’d left beside the fireplace with all the broken glass in it.
Only now it was empty.
My pulse pounded in my throat. I tightened the towel around me and stood, careful to avoid putting weight on my cut up foot. I had to get out of the bathroom.
And then maybe out of the house entirely.
I hobbled to the door, leaning heavily on the wall to keep my balance, and made it into the hall. The light I was sure I’d left on in Mom’s room at the end of the hall was out, plunging the upstairs beyond my little bathroom bubble into darkness.
To the left, a step groaned beneath a heavy weight.
My head jerked toward the sound and I gazed down the stairwell’s length of pitch black, eyes flitting back and forth, trying to discern any kind of shape in the dark.
But there was only stillness. So perfect. So predatory. As if the night itself were gathering at the foot of the stairs and waiting for me to trust that perfect stillness enough to turn my back on it.
The hairs rose along my arms, trailing into a cluster of goosebumps that ran across my shoulders and up my neck.
My breathing turned short and shallow.
There were eyes in those shadows, and they were staring right back at me.
I didn’t need to see them to know.
My limping run for Mom’s bedroom was loud and uneven. Each step sent needle-stings shooting up my foot. I crashed into the doorframe with a cry and swung myself in. As I slammed the door behind me, I caught a second’s glimpse of a dark shape, so tall it almost touched the ceiling, standing at the top of the stairs.
After slapping on the light, I twisted the lock and fortified the door behind every piece of furniture I could shove on my own – the bed, a nightstand, the rocking chair – then sank to the floor in the furthest corner of the room, my knees hugged against my chest, trembling uncontrollably.
I bit down on my lower lip to stifle my gasping sobs until I tasted copper.
Suddenly I was five again, crammed into the tight space between my bed and the wall with my hands pressed over my ears, trying so hard not to hear. But Dad’s voice carried. The sound of his slaps was even louder. Mom begging for him to stop was loudest of all.
I’d spent so many nights hiding, wishing the floor would just open up and swallow me so I didn’t have to hear anymore.
So I didn’t have to be afraid.
The door knob turned slowly, met the lock’s resistance, and stopped.
The house went quiet except for my shuddering breath.
I screamed at the first hit upon the door and threw myself at the nightstand, adding my weight to the barricade, desperate to keep it from opening.
My father’s distantly remembered voice became my brother’s, standing outside my room, fists pounding until the hinges rattled, angry over some perceived wrong mixed with his most recent drinks. Mom crying for him to stop in the background. I could still feel the way it shook as I wedged my body against it to keep him out.
The same way it was shaking now with each measured, repeated blow.
Past and present swirled into a nightmarish haze of screams, some of them mine. Some my mom’s, my dad’s, Jimmy’s. Fear, rage, hate.
A crack appeared down the middle of the door.
Mom isn’t here.
I didn’t want to acknowledge the thought, spoken in a broken child’s voice.
Mom, who had wrapped me up in my blanket in the middle of the night and carried me and my brother to the car while Dad slept and drove us a thousand miles away to her parents’ goat farm.
Mom, who had put herself between me and her towering, drunk son, redirecting his anger on to herself.
Mom, who had leveled her shotgun at her ex-husband and left no doubt she’d use it if he ever tried to lay a finger on her or her kids again.
The one who’d always saved me.
The crack widened with a sharp bang, and a red-gold eye, goat-like, except for the vertical black slit cutting through its center, gazed in at me.
Its growl was low and guttural.
I stumbled back, screaming.
Outside, the goats screamed with me.
With the door bowing inward, so close to giving way, I ran for the closet and closed myself in. I huddled, sobbing, against the door, both hands gripped tight around the handle, listening to the splintering and crashing of the thing making its way into my mother’s bedroom.
Scraping footsteps, like untrimmed hooves over wood, grew closer.
Its ragid, animalistic breathing was just outside the closet.
I shrank into the farthest corner behind Mom’s hanging clothes, knuckles pressed hard against my teeth.
The handle turned.
The voice again. Mocking me in a deep rumble.
My foot knocked against something leaning against the back wall and it fell, hard and heavy, against my hip.
Its weight was almost immediately familiar.
Shivering hands felt frantically along the rounded end, the long neck, and as the closet door was wrenched open, I swung it upright.
Over the muzzle, I caught a glimpse of long, pale fingers reaching for me.
The shotgun roared in the small space.
A high pitched keen reverberated through my head, made worse by the agonized, furious howling from the bedroom. There was crashing and erratic scrambling, furniture being thrown aside. It heaved itself into the hall, slammed into a wall, and retreated, snarling, for the stairs.
For a moment, I stood there, mind blank, body unmoving, trying to make sense of what I’d seen.
The face behind the hand.
I don’t know if I started running or screaming first, but I was tearing through the house, adrenaline-oblivious to my injured foot, shotgun clutched in a white knuckled hold, following red splatter down the steps, through the living room, to the front door.
I only stopped to grab the flashlight and shoes.
The blood trail stopped at the paddock
The goats were running wild, streaks of white darting back and forth through my light. They bucked and butted, driven into a frenzy by the scent of blood. I shined my flashlight at their faces.
With an enraged scream, I pulled myself over the fence and waded through the flurried herd, the shotgun swinging and fro in time with the flashlight.
“Where are you?” I shouted over the clamor.
I swept through, studying the wide eyes of every goat that ran past. They were all white, almost indistinguishable from one another, and their panic turned them to a blur.
All except one, slower than the rest, though it was doing its best to keep up with the stampede.
I started for it.
When it noticed I was coming, it attempted to lose itself in the herd, running alongside others and changing directions.
But I’d seen him.
And I knew him.
When it was clear I would not be shaken, he changed tactics and darted for the darkest end of the paddock.
As one, the goats fell silent and gathered in a frightened huddle against the gate, as if begging me to release them.
I ignored them and trained my flashlight on the one I wanted.
The vertical eyed goat.
It was lying on its side, tongue lolling, stomach heaving, and as I watched, its jaw began to open. Wider and wider it grew with a sickening crack of bone and snap of sinew. From the depths of its throat, fingers appeared. They took hold of the goat’s lower jaw, and stretched it further.
Its throat bulged, bullfrog-like, and an arm reached from its mouth, then another. The long limbs unfurled and pulled against the ground until a head and shoulders followed.
Curved horns, twisted grotesquely and overgrown so their tips had burrowed into his temple and cheek, adorned his head.
The face beneath them was sunken and elongated, the sockets deep set into his skull. A hideous caricature of who he’d been.
The goat body vomited him out, an emaciated, knobbled creature with cloven feet and red-gold eyes cut down the middle with black. He rose slowly, and for the first time, fear tempered his posture.
The shotgun blast had shredded two of his fingers, leaving red ribbons dangling from his hand, and torn through one shoulder.
“Jimmy,” I breathed, trying not to let my nausea and horror overpower my anger.
He growled, features warping further with hate.
“How?” I almost choked on my question. “You’re dead.”
“Not dead,” he said in his hoarse voice, tinged with pain, but also taunting. “Loved.”
Every decision Jimmy had ever made had been the fault of the decision Mom made before it. To leave. To drink. To hurt.
Mom had never blamed Jimmy.
She’d lived alone with her grief. She’d nurtured it like others would a garden, and in doing so…she’d remade Jimmy.
The gun rattled in my hands.
“It’s me, Jess,” he said, and this time, he used my brother’s voice. The one that didn’t slur or yell. The one that called me Jess.
Jimmy had been a kind boy once. The kind to share his Halloween candy. That let me hide in his room when the fighting got bad. The one who’d told me everything would be OK.
That person had died a long time ago. Long before his body had the decency to follow.
“No,” I shook my head.
“Mom and I waited for you for a long time.” He shambled a step closer. “Why didn’t you come home?”
Mom had never been able to let go of Jimmy. That need, that crushing weight of motherhood, had conjured up this creature to lurk among her flock, haunt her nights, remind her of every way she thought she’d failed him.
He was so close the stink of blood and goat almost made me gag.
“It’s me, Jess,” he said again.
Mom had loved him so unconditionally she couldn’t live without him, even if it meant having only the worst parts to hold on to.
She had loved him so unconditionally, it had killed her.
He had killed her, not with his fists, but his memory.
I always knew Mom would die of a broken heart.
And I always knew it would be Jimmy’s fault.
The sinister, grey-toothed smile that had started to spread across his lips and the clawed hand starting to rise froze when the barrel of the shotgun pressed against his ribs.
“I know it’s you. But I’m not Mom,” I said, and pulled the trigger.
As Jimmy slumped to the ground, I let the gun fall from my fingers.
Unlike Mom, I had no problem turning away.