WARNING - THIS STORY IS NOT
FOR THE WEAK OF STOMACH.
By far I think some of the most unusual friends I had in my youth were brothers, Steve and Dan Stakely. For years I had an incurable crush on Steve, who was my age and grade. I was always boy-crazy, but my mother was convinced I would someday marry this crush. Steve and Dan’s mother was convinced equally that Dan would one day marry his crush as well. His crush just happened to me me. It made for many interesting stories involving the bus ride to and from school. At the time, I wasn’t being a very good role model, but I also didn’t realize that Dan looked up to me as much as he did.
I was a rather poor student at the time one particular adventure took place. Well, I wasn’t exactly a bad student. I was actually quite a good student, when I was at school. I had started skipping classes the year before, and eventually it elevated to entire weeks the next year. At this point, it was just a day here, a day there. I suppose I must have been about sixteen at the time, or almost that age. Dan was most likely somewhere around the age of fourteen.
In the beginning, Dan and I would just decide not get on the bus in the mornings. Instead, we would walk down to the park and meet at one particular place. From there we would decide on where to go and what to do. Sometimes we walked to Sheplers and filled out job applications. Other days we would go browsing through Media Play or Walmart. Nobody ever said anything to us about not being in school. He and I had quite a few adventures, but none so memorable as the day we decided to stay at the park on a snowy, cold, frozen day and tried to find some shelter.
Dan and I had explored the woods behind the Cinedome at the park many times. We knew the trees and the paths through them almost as well as we know our own back yards. We headed up the winding sewage creek towards the top of the hill. We climbed and scrambles our way up the muddy embankment past where the sewage pipe submerged from the sheer mud cliff. We emerged in a clearing and could see nothing around but trees, a wrecked, stripped, and rusted old mail van, and a tiny old wooden shack off in the distance.
For a moment, we lingered in the old van, neither of us wanting to do what was coming next. At this point, it was already clear to me that Dan thought I was the toughest girl he had ever known, and had taken liberty to tell me as much on several occasions. To one person, I stood out in a crowd. I was finally important to someone. I didn’t want that to change in his eyes, or my own. I’m not entirely sure if it was ego or pure stupidity that made me do what came next, but one thing that will never change is that I did something I had thought I would never do.
Dan and I picked our way across the snow dusted field, being sure to only step on the tufts of grass on alternating sides all the way up the path. With each tip toe step on the grass we tried to leave footprints indistinguishable from the grass itself. We continued this way until we reached the old wooden shack. One window looked into the building but was too high and too dirty to see into. I pulled my brand new gloves out of my pockets with frozen hands, and slipped my fingers into the leather extremities. My body heat had warmed the gloves as they snuggled deeply in my jacket pockets, and the warmth felt wonderful on my Popsicle fingertips. I clenched and unclenched my fist a couple of times in order to stretch the leather to my hand just so. When I was ready, I struck. The sixteen inch high, one foot wide pane of glass shattered.
Dan stood back in awe. His mouth hung slightly ajar, and his eyes were wide with surprise. I opened my fist inside the window and with a flat palm, pulled more of the glass out through the fresh opening. I picked the broken glass out of the back of my now serrated brand new leather glove and tossed it into a nearby bush. In my heart I knew that what I had just done went against everything I had ever been taught, but at that moment, it just didn’t matter to me. I wanted to hang on to that feeling of being important and needed. I suppose then that it was my ego getting the better of me. I wanted to remain someone who stood out in a crowd. I suppose that was the turning point. I’ve stood out now nearly every day since.
I drug an unearthed tree stump under the broken window and pulled the loose glass from the sill. Making sure I was properly covered everywhere first, I grabbed the rotten wood lining the window and shimmied into it up to my waist and looked around. The opening was so small that I would have to turn sideways to get my hips through. I was much skinnier in my youth, and looking back on this incident, I know now that I wouldn’t have been able to make this same move only a year later.
An old workbench lined the tiny wooden floored room to my left, it’s edge nearly under the window. All the way on the opposite wall on the right, an old glass-handled door remained closed. I couldn’t imagine what treasures lay just beyond that door, just beyond what I could see. Even the room I was in was filled with treasures. Old rusted tools with fifty years of dust or more were scattered across the workbench. An antique tin tool box sat on the wooden floor under me, it’s lid slightly warped to remain forever open. This was a child’s paradise, a teenager’s fantasy come true, and a history fanatic's paradise.
I tested the workbench with my left hand for stability and found it mostly trustworthy, so I slowly pulled my twisted hips through the opening and turned to my left in order to put one knee on the workbench as I pulled the other leg through the window. I felt like a gymnast performing for the circus, but somehow I made it all look graceful.
Once through and on my feet, I turned to help Dan climb inside. The wooden floor was elevated about a foot off the ground, so the window didn’t seem nearly as high from my vantage point. I peeked out and could still see the short boys blond locks poking out in every direction under his knit cap. He elevated himself on his toes, and his blue eyes came into view.
"Step up on the wood," I whispered to him. Hi hands gingerly reached for the windowsill, cautious as he should be with no gloves on.
"I’m already on it," he said with a bit of a sneer, thinking I was poking fun at his short stature. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I pulled on his arms as he braced his feet against the wall of the shack. Somehow, he got turned around and ended up looking at the ceiling.
"Eww! What’s that," he asked, completely disgusted. I followed his gaze to the corner of the ceiling nearest the two of us. From a distance and in the natural dark, they looked like chicken drumsticks hanging on wire hooks from the ceiling. It seems like not only a weird thing to hang in a workshop or shed, but a rather gross thing to leave around anywhere until slightly molded and covered in cobwebs. I told Dan not to worry about it, as was my usual answer, and pulled him the rest of the way inside. I was never an extremely graceful person myself, but Dan’s entrance made me look like a prima ballerina. He was all arms and legs, getting tangled crazily. He landed on the floor in a pile.
As Dan looked around, I became curious about the drumsticks in the corner. I crawled cautiously onto the workbench, still not fully trusting the rotten wooden blanks. They held my weight though, and I inched closer to the dangling pieces.
I nearly screamed. I bit my tongue to avoid shouting out loud. Those weren’t just old chicken legs. They were bats that had been tied upside down from wires around their feet so long ago that the flesh was rotting off the bones. Part of the skull was protruding in the area of the mouth and the eyes were mere empty sockets of complete nightmare. They seemed to stare straight through me with complete nothingness. Just about the time I was going to jump down from the workbench and onto the floor, I saw one more hanging only inches above the window, It also happened to be only inches from my nose. The stench rolling off the rotted corpse gave away its location long before I saw it. I gulped and scrambled down from the table, not letting a syllable utter from my lips. Dan turned and looked at me.
"What’s the matter with you," he asked. "You’re white as a ghost. You feeling OK?" I didn’t say anything for a moment, but I guess the way his expression changed as he watched me that he could see the wheels turning in my head. An evil grin slowly spread across my face.
"I got us in here," I began. "Now it’s your turn." He looked puzzled at first. His eyes darted to the corner of the room and back to me again. Suddenly his face completely melted.
"No way!" he cried out. His shout echoed off the snow covered ground outside.
Much to his rejection at the thought, we searched around for something to help Dan to get what he still thought were chicken legs out of the old shack. The two of us finally decided a pair of pliers and some old wire cutters would do the trick, so I grabbed an old key chain flashlight out of my pocket and got back up on the workbench. Dan followed behind me, tools in hand.
Dan clutched the base of the mystery object with the pliers and something crunched under the pressure of his light grip. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the decaying smell something similar to that of road kill after it’s been in the sun a few days came wafting out, turning both our stomachs.
Dan couldn’t see the wire in order to cut it. I knew that would be the case, though I really resisted using my flashlight. Finally, I knew I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I tried to catch only the thin line of wire in it’s beam, but the bony toes were caught in the light. Dan made lurching noises, and for a moment, I thought he was going to burst. He rocked back on his heels and I just barely caught him before he fell off the table. Unfortunately, the light jarred in my hand when I reached for him and the dim illumination fell squarely on the now crushed head of the bat. Something like oatmeal oozed out around the pliers. Every bit of color drained from Dan’s face, and I’m sure mine was a mirror image.
Dan flung the last of the bats out the window as I stood back ’supervising’ his task. I’ve since blocked out everything in between, though glimpses of the process to get the to the opening still haunt me at times.
Dan and I met at the old shack nearly daily for a while that winter. We’d have to meet outside and I would have to help Dan in since he was too short, but it quickly became one of our favorite places.
The same day we had given flight back to the long dead bats for a few seconds, we’d explored beyond the door at the end of the workbench. The room beyond had once been a carriage house. Dirt floors had long since been cluttered with various things, but faint wheel marks could still be seen from a history long past. A pedal powered knife-sharpening wheel sat by where the double doors once opened outward. Antique brass headboards and foot boards leaned against the wall. Rusted spring-loaded animal traps hung from nails in the framework. Ancient chains covered in grit and grime dangled next to machetes on the ceiling. An old mule-pulled plow sat heavily on the ground next to the door inside. It was truly a treasure chest.
I knew Dan was as tired as I was of climbing through the tiny window opening, if not more so. My mind, ever-devious back then, came up with a plan one day.
"Hey Dan, why don’t you check out the side doors from the outside, see what they’re locked with. Maybe we can find a key and use that as our door from now on," I explained after finding an old she box full of keys under a floorboard in the small room. Delighted at the idea, he hurried out the window as fast as his fat, short body would allowed, and ran around the building to the other side of the doors. After explaining to me what the lock looked like, I began to make guesses as to which key would be the right one. I slid the keys one by one under the door, and one by one Dan tried them all and passed them back.
"I got an idea," Dan said to me, after the last key was safely back in its box. I heard him run back around he building and I met him at the window in the next room "Hand me that saw," he said, pointing to the workbench. I handed him the wood saw, not knowing exactly what he was going to do with it, and went back to the inside of the double doors as he tossed his jacket inside along the wall.
First, Dan tried to saw a bracing board in two, and when that didn’t work, decided to try the metal chain and lock that held it in place. Finally fed up with the resistance, Dan grabbed a rock, determined to smash the lock apart. All the noise he was making should have raised the dead bats from their shallow, snowy grave. Just about the time I was going to tell him to stop, to be quiet, I heard a strange voice.
"Hey Kid," a deep, growling voice yelled. "Get away from there!" Heavy footsteps outside warned me that whoever it was decided walking wasn’t getting the m to Dan quite fast enough. I heard Dan’s rock drop to the ground and I knew he was gone, running like a mad man through the woods. I was trapped inside.
There were apparently two men who had come to investigate. I could over hear them talking as they made their was around the inspection of the shed. I crawled, silent as a mouse, into the smaller room and hid under the corner of the work bench closest to the window.
"Aw, shit. Look at this, Chuck," the one who had yelled at Dan said. I didn’t need to look in order to know what he was talking about. The man was standing right over me, looking in through the window. I held my breath. "That damn kid broke the window."
"I s’pose we should nail it up before it snows again tonight," the other replied. "Let’s get a board and some nails." I heard the two start walking back the way they came and my spirits lifted. They were just about back to the double doors when I heard them pause.
"Wait," the one named Chuck paused. "What if the brat comes back?" he asked. "I better wait here while you get the stuff."
My body sprang into action before my mind had time to think. I jumped up, my head glancing off the table above me, and stood before the window. I knew without a doubt that they heard my head hit, and I didn’t have much time.
I lept into the air and twisted my body miraculously like an Olympic diver would ff a high dive and instead of diving into water, I sailed through the open window. Just before passing all the way through, I saw Dan’s only winter jacket on the floor by the wall where he had left it. It was too late. I could only pray he didn’t have any identification in it.
I landed on my hands and rolled roughly onto my back, catching a sharp stone right in the kidney. An old branch tore at my leg. I heard shouting behind me and didn’t take the time to catch my breath after the landing knocked it out of me. I pulled my feet under my sore butt and fled down through the woods, I imagine much the same way Dan had.
It wasn’t long before I caught up to Dan and passed him. My legs were much longer.
Neither of us skipped a single class in school for a month. Eventually Dan’s mother began asking where his jacket had gone. Not knowing what else to tell her, finally he just said that I had it and would get it for him. The retrieval of his jacket was the last time I ever went back up that hill in the woods, but that’s another story.