Rural Research, by Chad A. Clark
The barn loomed tall against the pitch black of the nighttime sky. Oscar looked up as he heard the sound of birds taking flight and could see the darkened silhouettes as they rushed by. There was a hint of thunder, as lightning kissed the furthest reaches of the southern horizon. The heat felt oppressive, pressing in on him with physical force. They needed this rain.
“Sorry I had to bring you out here so late at night like this.” Daniel was the caretaker of the property, the one who the bank had arranged to give Oscar the tour. “Frankly, I don’t really know why you’re so interested in this place anyway. Nothing here you can’t read about in books and police reports.”
“The paper wanted me to be thorough,” Oscar explained. “It’s been ten years since Mr. Rollins’ disappearance and they want the coverage to be extensive.”
“Sure,” Daniel said as he continued fiddling with the padlock.
“I’m surprised that all of this is still here, with what the land has to be worth. What’s the point of just leaving it abandoned?”
‘Well, it isn’t like anyone would ever want to live here. The property went into some anonymous trust, and our company is being paid for the upkeep. I have no idea what the owner has planned for this place.”
They walked into the main part of the barn. Oscar heard the fluttering of wings from somewhere up above. There was a strong smell of mildew in the air, indicating not complete neglect, but of a definite absence of attention.
“So what are you looking for anyway?” Daniel asked.
Oscar took out his notebook and flipped it open. “You’re a local, right?”
“Sure. All my life.”
“Would you mind going over with me what happened here, your memories of the events? Just so I can make sure my facts are right?”
Daniel nodded and dropped his gaze to his feet, shuffling them in the dirt as he contemplated his answer.
“Mr. Rollins was kind of a nobody around here. Came in after the war. You didn’t really like or dislike him. He kept to himself for the most part, minded his own business.”
“What did he do for a living? My understanding is that he owned the farm but didn’t actually do any farming himself.”
“Yeah, he rented out his fields to the neighboring farms. He inherited the land originally, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have any interest in working it. Times were good enough that the farmers around him could afford to expand onto his land and he made enough money renting out the property.”
“And when did things start to go wrong for him?”
“An older couple came into town claiming that their son and his girlfriend had been driving through here and had gone missing. Sheriff was ready to write them off until someone found the kids’ car, partially buried in the woods.”
“How was it found?”
“Well, whoever had done it had rushed the job a bit. Some of the bumper had been exposed, likely from a recent wind storm. They called in the Staties and started going door to door, questioning people. They didn’t have anything else to go on.”
“Until they talked to Mr. Rollins.”
“Not even then, at first. One of the officers thought that he was acting strange, but wrote it off. After a few weeks of chewing it over in his head, the officer decided to report his concerns. They were so desperate that they went and got a search warrant based off of it.”
“And that was when they found all the bodies?”
Daniel nodded. “Dozens of them, piled up all over this room here. Whatever he had been doing with them, it had been going on for a pretty long time. The bodies had been hacked up, thrown all over the place. It was a dammed mess. There was a bunch of strange equipment down below and it looked like he had been operating, conducting tests of some kind.”
“And Mr. Rollins was not present during the search, wasn’t heard from again?”
“And what about his research?”
Daniel snorted. “I guess if that’s what you’d call it. They found boxes of Steno notebooks full of his chicken scratches. Crap about other universes, lots of mathematical equations, numbers and more formulas, dates for test subjects. Kept going on and on about finding something. ‘I’m going to figure out how to get there, I will leave this world for good and enter the next.’ Shit like that, mostly.”
Oscar looked up at that. “What was he talking about?”
Daniel shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Do you think the people he killed were the test subjects he was referring to?”
“Probably. Anyway, the last entry they found just had one word. Success.”
Oscar strolled around the barn’s interior. As much as the property outside had remained untouched, most of what had been in here had long since been removed. All that remained was a few stray bales of hay. The wood surfaces all around were colored, stained from the sins of acts long past. He bent down and ran his hand along the handle of a water pump that was jutting up and out of the ground.
“Who were his victims? The people he killed, was there any kind of connection established?”
“Best anyone could tell, they were all drifters, people out on the road for some reason or the other. He never killed anyone who lived here. Guess he didn’t want the attention.”
Oscar nodded, but didn’t say anything to add to the theory.
“Your paper said that you were going to want to see the cellar, is that right?”
“Yeah, I think I need to go down there, unfortunately. Is that a problem?” Oscar found himself half hoping that it would be.
“Nope. The trap door is just over there by the back wall. It’s just that…if it’s all the same, I’d just as soon stay up here.”
Oscar shook his head. “That’s all right. Not a problem.”
Daniel seemed to relax noticeably and went to unlatching the door. Oscar stared down the stairs leading into the cellar and contemplated the immensity of what had likely occurred down there.
“There’s a work light,” Daniel said. “About ten feet to the right from the very bottom of the stairs. Just turn as soon as you step off and go in a straight line, you’ll run into it.”
Oscar nodded and began walking down, wincing at the groaning from the wood, sure that he was about to end up trapped down here for hours while Daniel tried to get a rescue unit out here to fish him out. The stairs held out though, and he soon found himself standing on the cellar floor. There was a rectangle of light around him, cast from the open trapdoor above and all else was darkness.
He took several stops to the right, waving his arms around until he made contact with the light, hanging from the ceiling. As he fumbled with it, trying to find the switch, he had a brief image of Rollins reaching out to him from across the room.
The light finally clicked on and cast illumination all around the thirty square foot room. There was an even stronger smell of damp mildew and mold down here, bugs and worms oozing out from the walls and the muddy mess that the floor had become. There was a wooden work bench set against the wall with pegs, where various tools had likely once hung. Oscar found himself fixating on what Rollins might have been doing to all these people, what horrific lengths he had gone to, in pursuit of what he evidently saw as the needs of science.
The coroner’s original report had suggested that the cuts and wounds on the bodies were consistent with that of an axe, or possibly a saw. Standing here in this place, where so much violence and suffering had occurred, he could almost detect the metallic taste on his tongue of blood in the air.
There were random mechanical parts, in piles all over, but only one piece of actual, intact equipment, in the center of the room. It looked like it had once been the pilot’s chair of a plane, stripped out and mounted on the floor, which was possibly the reason it had never been moved. A primitive control panel of sorts was bolted onto one of the arm rests, with a number of dials and switches, marked with numbers and letters, but with no indication of their actual purpose.
Oscar felt an urge to take a seat, examining the contours that looked perfectly suited for his frame. There were two pedals on the floor of the contraption and, without really thinking it through, he reached down and pressed one of them with an open palm, pushing it down until there was a clicking sound from somewhere inside the mechanism, and the pedal made contact with the former floor of the aircraft.
The barn began to shake, a deep rumbling that came from somewhere under the ground itself. He looked to his right at the sound of tools clanking against the wall. Tools that weren’t even there before.
“What the hell is going on down there?” He heard Daniel yelling at him, but from across a wide gulf. The building was shaking so much that pieces of the rafters were starting to pull loose and rain down on him. The bulb in the work light popped, fading to dark and showering glass down on him.
Oscar knelt down on the floor, crouched, with his hands thrown up over his head. He was afraid to make his way back to the stairs in the dark, not knowing what debris had fallen that he now couldn’t see.
The howling of the wind outside was joined by the ringing in his ears. As he stood, another sound began to creep into his awareness. It was a dragging sound, shuffling across the dirt floor.
The sound of footsteps.
Rollins had never been found, presumably out there somewhere, making himself scarce. Despite that, Oscar somehow knew, in that moment, whose presence he now felt. It bore down on him like a sudden physical weight as his senses detected the new person, now in the room. Somehow, Oscar had managed to bring the man back from whatever infinite gulf he had figured out how to cross.
“Daniel?” He tried calling out to the caretaker, but there was no answer other than the sound of wood fracturing. The room shook with the sudden noise and impact of the stairs finally collapsing under the weight of some unknown force. He heard the footsteps approaching him in the dark, and now the sound of ragged breathing. He also heard something else, dragging like the footsteps, but this had a metallic edge to it.
The head of an axe.
For more short fiction like this, check out Chad A. Clark’s collections, A Shade For Every Season as well as Two Bells At Dawn.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page