In May of 1997 I arrived home from my last day of school to unwelcome news: I would be spending my summer break on Uncle Jacob's farm.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I wanted to laze the breezy days away at the beach, breathing in the salty scent of the ocean while the golden sand warmed my back. I wanted to sleep until noon, free from the shrill ring of my alarm clock, before waking up to devour a bowl of sugary cereal in front of the TV. I wanted to ride my bike and leisurely sip lemonade and reread all my favorite books, but for me summertime now meant hard work and an insufferable rural boredom that made sitting at a school desk seem downright thrilling in comparison.
Begging Mom to let me stay home was futile. She insisted that Uncle Jacob had fallen on difficult times and needed assistance tending to the farm, even if he was too proud to ever admit it. We had no other living family, and Dad had left us years ago before eventually choosing to drop out of our lives entirely. Mom couldn't take time off from her job, leaving the responsibility of helping Uncle Jacob to ultimately be heaped onto me.
I should clarify that I didn't inherently dislike my uncle—I actually felt quite bad for him. Over the past year, Uncle Jacob's life had become a painful cycle of hardship and grief. Aunt Darce had died suddenly the previous summer, and while he'd never been a particularly genial man her death had made him grow stony and distant. His health was declining, and the farmer who had once taken great pride in his crops now owned several acres worth of neglect. I didn't blame him for the robbing of my summer; I knew it wasn't his idea, and I suspected he felt as cheerless about the arrangement as I did. And so I begrudgingly conceded that Mom was right—Uncle Jacob was in dire need of assistance, and to deprive him of it would be unconscionable.
Still, it was impossible not to feel bitter when June arrived and I found myself in my uncle's fields at the crack of dawn. While my friends were soaking in poolside sun and enjoying family vacations, I was toiling my summer away under the blazing sky. Every day my shirt would become so soaked with sweat that it clung to my aching back like a layer of wet skin. My bare arms and the back of my neck soon burned to a furious shade of red before later peeling away in strips that resembled fleshy parchment. Painful blisters erupted along my palms. At night I tossed and turned from the sweltering heat, cursing the farmhouse's lack of air conditioning.
My misery was as incessant as the soreness coursing through my limbs. I wasn't merely unhappy—I loathed everything about the farm, from the chipped paint on the barn boards down to the mildewing wallpaper in Uncle Jacob's dingy house. I impatiently counted down the days until my mother would come to rescue me from my uncle's bleak existence and his endless list of chores.
One rainy afternoon Uncle Jacob granted me a reprieve from my work and retired to his bedroom, claiming that the weather strummed at his arthritis. I knew he simply wanted to be alone; tomorrow would be Aunt Darce's birthday, and the box of yellow cake mix and pink candles sitting on the counter of his small kitchen indicated that he had not yet broken the routine decades of marriage had built.
I was grateful for the respite, yet uncertain of what to do with my newly gifted free time. Uncle Jacob didn't own a television, and I hadn't brought any books to the farm thanks to Mom's insistence that I'd have no time to read. I listened for the sound of my uncle's footsteps creaking along the floorboards and his heavy sigh as he climbed into bed. When I was certain he was asleep I silently crossed the room to where his damp coat hanged from a rack. I stuck my hand into the pocket, carefully fished out a set of keys, and made my way towards the locked room at the end of the hall.
Uncle Jacob had mentioned the room only once, back when I first arrived at the farm, and simply stated that it was an old study I needn't concern myself with. I'd been taught that snooping was wronged, and I felt slightly ashamed even as I slipped the key into the lock. But keeping the terrible beast of boredom at bay overruled any sense of guilt, and so after a few seconds of fleeting hesitation I quietly eased the door open and stepped inside.
My initial reaction was to be underwhelmed. The room was coated with dust and boasted little: a writing desk, moth-eaten curtains paired with a shabby rug, a chair with cracked leather upholstery, and a nearly empty bookshelf that held a few hardbound volumes.
After the initial wave of disappointment had passed, I decided to peruse through the meager selection of books. I plucked one from the shelf, sank into the ruined chair, and gasped when I opened the book and saw dozens of wedding rings spill from its hollowed core to scatter loudly across the floor.
I froze, my heart pounding thunderously in my chest, and waited for Uncle Jacob to burst through the doorway to see what I had done. I was so frightened by the prospect of getting into trouble that it wasn't until several tense minutes had passed without an appearance from my uncle that confusion finally struck me.
Why did Uncle Jacob have all these wedding rings?
I began gathering the rings up by the handful to cram them back into the gouged book. Bands of gold and silver, smooth or adorned with diamonds, aged from years of matrimony or sparkling as if stripped from the fingers of newlyweds—each one felt like a piece of a bizarre puzzle. When I returned the hollow novel to its shelf another inquisitive thought entered my mind.
What about the other books?
I paused, uncertain of whether or not I truly wanted to know what they might contain. The collection of rings had disturbed me, not least of all because of the sheer amount. I even considered that perhaps Aunt Darce had collected them before she died, but that theory failed to make complete sense; many of the rings appeared to have belonged to men and were far too large for her own frail fingers, and the only ring I ever saw Uncle Jacob wear was the same one he'd worn for their entire marriage. And why hide them away in a book when I'd glimpsed a jewelry box sitting on a dresser in Uncle Jacob's room?
After a moment of internal debate, curiosity prevailed. I selected another volume.
Immediately I regretted my decision.
Inside the book's gouged out core rested far too many human teeth to have come from a single mouth. Some were cracked open to reveal an exposed pulp, some were little more than jagged shards, and most were caked with blood. My stomach lurched at the sight of decayed flesh clinging to a tooth's root. I imagined the agony the traumatized mouths had suffered—exposed nerves as teeth were broken and viciously extracted, the coppery taste of their own blood, sharp remnants of their shattered molars piercing through their tongue like nails. My head swam and I fought the urge to be sick on the frayed rug.
I know I should have called the police right then. I know I should have fled from the house and ran until I reached the next farm over. I know I should have been calmer and wiser and done just about anything besides what I did next. But I couldn't think clearly in that horrible room, with its hellish secrets and the smothering dust drifting through its stale air, and so I grabbed another book from the shelf. This time it slid from my trembling hands and fell to the floor.
I watched as the book landed open and yawned a stream of photographs onto the floorboards. When I knelt down to examine them I nearly fell over in shock.
Staring up at me were faces twisted into grimaces of unspeakable pain. Each snapshot captured an act of brutality. Open mouths screamed in anguish while others were sealed shut with strips of tape. Limbs were bound with rope and contorted into unnatural positions. Eyes wept tears or blood, sometimes both. Hair and clothing were soaked with so much blood that it was unlikely any of the photographed survived for long after the camera finally ran out of film.
One photo depicted a mirror placed before a chair with deep scratch marks along the arms, presumably arranged so that the captive could witness their own torture as it unfolded. In its reflection I caught sight of a familiar face.
A hand clamped down on my shoulder.
“I didn't know what she was doin',” Uncle Jacob mumbled sadly, his voice like gravel, “until after she was already gone.”
Uncle Jacob called the police himself. They found more trophies in the study: locks of hair tied with ribbon, watches and women's jewelry, bloodied scraps of fabric, and a small tin full of fingernails that rattled when an officer picked it up. The entire farm was excavated, but they never found so much as a single bone. Even after all these years, no one knows what Aunt Darce did with the bodies or why she committed the murders. Law enforcement had her gruesome trinkets sent to a forensic laboratory, but for the most part identifying victims boiled down to the hideous task of poring over the photo collection—a job made all the more nightmarish when families of missing persons were shown the least grisly of the pictures for tearful confirmations. Aunt Darce continued to inflict pain even as she laid in her grave.
Several of the photographed remain unidentified. If there exists anyone out there who misses them, they'll likely spend the rest of their days not knowing that their disappeared loved one met a cruel, brutal end at the hands of a monster for reasons we'll never understand. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps it's better that way, if the haunting questions and lack of closure are still less painful than knowing the undeniable, heart-shattering, bloodstained truth that those photos so gruesomely displayed.
Uncle Jacob was interrogated. His story never changed: after Aunt Darce died he was preparing to sell the farm and move away to somewhere with less memories, only for those plans to come to a horrifying halt when he found what she'd been keeping in her study. The discovery left him tethered to the farm, for he had no way of knowing if more ghoulish trophies remained hidden elsewhere among his acres and couldn't risk anyone uncovering them before he did. To this day I still don't understand why he allowed me to visit given his fear of my aunt's atrocities becoming unveiled, except that perhaps he had simply grown tired of carrying the crushing burden of her crimes. He claimed to have no knowledge of the murders prior to his wife's death, and for what it's worth I believed him. The voice that spoke to me that rainy afternoon belonged to a weary, broken soul who had finally been relieved of a secret that was eating away at him like a parasite.
I know it was wrong of Uncle Jacob to keep evidence concealed rather than alert the police to what he had found, and I know it was wrong of him to prioritize Aunt Darce's memory as an amicable, pleasant woman over seeking justice for her many victims. But I understand his reasoning, even if I don't agree with it. He lost Aunt Darce twice: once when she died, and again when he realized that he never really knew her at all.
Within weeks of his arrest, Uncle Jacob suffered a heart attack in his jail cell. No funeral was held, and less than a year later we had to have the tombstone he and Aunt Darce shared removed after it was repeatedly defaced by vandals and admirers alike. Pieces were chipped away by those who sought to take a little bit of Aunt Darce—by then a celebrated figure in certain macabre circles—home with them.
Mom put me in intensive therapy and I spent the rest of my summer in my room, reading book after book in an attempt to keep my mind from lingering on the farm. It didn't work, of course. At night I would lie awake in bed and think of the photographs until my ears rang with the sound of tortured screams. But things got better in time; I continued therapy, and today I'm a happy adult with a family of my own. But while the vivid, sleepless nights have been fewer and fewer in number over the years, I still think of Uncle Jacob's farm often.
Every thought circles back to the picture with the mirror, the last one I saw before Uncle Jacob gently plucked it from my grasp and guided me out of the room. I can recall every detail as if I'd viewed it only seconds ago: Aunt Darce looking into her reflection, wearing a cruel grin and a fine mist of blood, her gloves glistening with a wet crimson.
In the chair beside her, his limbs bound by knotted rope and his face almost entirely obscured by blood, sat my father.
Written by CertainShadows