Two young girls make a dare and a horrible discovery.
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The Silo Game
To get to the top you have to climb seventy feet vertically up a rickety steel ladder. You don’t view it as climbing a seventy-foot ladder. You view it as climbing a one-foot rung seventy times. That’s the number of times that you place palm over palm, heel over heel. But most importantly, you don’t look down.
Neither fourteen-year-old Ashley Janison nor her ten-year-old sister, Brooke, had ever made it to the top of the large silo overlooking their family farm. The current record was held by Ashley, who once made it forty-five rungs up the side of the enormous concrete edifice. You better believe the amateur daredevil counted each one. The furthest up her younger and more naturally timid sister ever got was forty-one rungs, for the steel ladder that climbed precariously seventy feet into the air had a particular idiosyncrasy which made this junction even more difficult than the proceeding forty.
The forty-second rung was missing. Why this was Brooke had no idea, and although the athletic young girl was in no way physically incapable of making the two-foot reach, the tension of having to make it at such an altitude proved too unnerving, for she knew well enough that a fall from that height was more than sufficient to break her neck. However, such an outcome is unlikely to deter young children from trying.
To be sure, it would have cost the reckless thrill-seekers some of the skin off their backsides should their father ever catch them playing on top of the functional structure that’s force, he knew, had the potential to be destructive. More people died per year from silo accidents than shark attacks, and while the idea of a shark attack anywhere near their dusty Oklahoma farmstead was absurdly stupid, the statistic impressed thirty-six-year-old William Janison enough to command his two impetuous children to tow-the-line, a line which extended in an imaginary ten-yard radius from the concrete base in a wide circumference.
After all, had his own grandfather not died in such an accident while endeavoring to scrub the damp, clumped-up grain from the inner walls of this very silo? Unbeknownst to the farmer, a pocket of air had formed beneath the dry grain he stood upon. When it popped, Bernard Janison sank to his neck in the cement-like substance and struggled gainlessly for eight whole hours before asphyxiating to death on the toxic fumes emitted from the fermented silage inside. His body wasn’t discovered for three days.
But this cautionary tale only served to fan the flame of temptation, for such is the appeal to young children. Most of the time, William Janison could keep an observant eye on his two daughters. However, being recently estranged made his vision far from omnipresent.
Every Saturday morning the struggling farmer filled the bed of his truck with what reap the week had profited to be sold at the farmer’s market in the city. The nearest city was nearly thirty miles away, so secluded was their lonely farmhouse. Consequently, these trips proved to be an all-day affair, as is custom with residents of small towns.
He always left his daughters a significant list of household chores to be done. The purpose of this list was to keep the two so preoccupied as to negate even the slightest possibility of mischief. However, a hundred acres of farmland is a lot of space and offers bored children the potential for a lot of trouble. William Janison didn’t necessarily take his girls to task should an item or two on the list be incomplete upon his return. Not as long as the gas stovetop wasn’t left on. Not as long as they steered clear his bedroom on the first floor – here, the farmer kept his collection of antique rifles in a cabinet under lock and key. But most importantly, not as long as they hadn’t been playing anywhere near the silo.
An infraction of this magnitude would surely result in a whipping.
This story takes place in a time when it was common practice for parents to beat their children. It happened routinely in homes, unceremoniously in grocery store aisles, and even in schools. Growing up in the custom-rooted bible belt, Ashley And Brooke Janison were no strangers to either the bible or the belt, as it were.
To be specific, this story takes place on one of those lazy June days. School had let out two weeks ago, but the symptoms of a summer slump could already be felt. The nearest neighbors to the Janison homestead were beyond walking distance and the only children residing there were boys. There was too little to do and too much time in which to do it. The heat proved disagreeable, so fourteen-year-old Ashley sought refuge inside, sitting on the sill of her second-story bedroom window watching her father haul the last crate of corn into the back of his truck, perspiration standing out in big beads on his forehead.
He fetched a dirty white shirt hanging from the towing hitch and slid it over his bronzed skin. Shielding his eyes with one hand, he glanced up at the sun beating mercilessly down. Then he chanced his gaze in her direction.
A freckled face capped with a bob of strawberry-colored hair pulled back in a ponytail. Turquoise eyes. Her body already showing suggestions of the woman it would soon become. A young girl in the spitting image of her mother.
This moment of familial resemblance was not an agreeable one, and a frown unconsciously found itself set against the features of the brooding farmer’s face as he turned away from the girl framed behind the glass and climbed into the truck. He closed the door to the dusty teal pick-up and started the engine.
The frown didn’t go unnoticed by the observant girl, who also saw the likeness growing more pronounced every time she looked in the mirror. She saw it and she hated it. Their mother had unexpectedly left a month ago. Left without so much as a goodbye. The shock, the bewilderment, the anger, the hatred. All of these things were still fresh. Ashley wasn’t sure if time would eventually dull the sensations, but she knew there would always be some residual scar tissue beneath the scab. That was the hatred. Hatred at her mother and hatred at herself for having been made in the same mold.
She often wondered if she were somehow responsible for her mother’s infidelity. The lack of trust, the difficulty setting boundaries, being overly sensitive, lacking the skills to manage her emotions. Seeds sown that would in time produce harvest. A future of bad relationships with narcissistic and controlling men.
The engine’s purr sounded anomalously in the late-morning silence. Exhaust belched from the truck’s tailpipe. A black cloud in an otherwise clear sky. Ashley watched as the pick-up hiccupped down the bumpy dirt road and out of sight. The last cough of vapor dissipated in a wide expanse of blue rife with possibilities and freedom.
She smiled. An impish smile. The kind of smile that transmits a message to other children, often made behind the backs of adults. If you’ll excuse the use of such a well-worn cliché: when the cat’s away, the mice will play.
“Is he gone?” Brooke standing in the doorframe on tiptoe. Wide, eager eyes straining above cheeks burnt sun red to peer out the window.
“Affirmatory,” came Ashley’s reply.
A candid grin. “Bet I can beat you to the porch.”
“Bet you can’t.”
“Bet you two bucks I can.”
Without waiting for a response, the ten-year-old catapulted herself from the room in a tumult of slamming doors and running feet. Ashley set to work at once, unlocking and pulling open the window frame. On all fours, she ducked out onto the roof overhang. The black shingles were sticky and hot to the touch. She crawled hands and knees across the eaves and over to where a downspout extended some thirty-five feet to the ground.
Inside, Brooke took the steps three at a time, leaping across the banister when she approached the final stretch. Barefoot, she threw open the front door and sprinted out onto the sun-bleached wooden porch, heedless of the possibility of splinters.
Where Ashley was already waiting, a look of smug triumph on her face.
“That’ll be two bucks.”
Frowning, Brooke reached into the back pocket of her denim jeans and brought out a plastic coin purse. Ashley snatched it out of her hands and took off running, laughing to the middle of the front yard. Her sister chased after her.
“Hey – Give that back! That’s mine!”
They stopped in the shadow of the silo. The shade provided welcome relief. Even though they had only run a short distance, both girls were sweating and panting hard. Ashley held the coin purse high above her head, passing it hand to hand. Brooke jumped in the air, arms reaching, but her sister had a good ten inches on her.
“I mean it! Give it back!”
“Not until I collect my two bucks.”
Ashley squeezed the plastic coin purse and allowed the contents to spill onto the grass, dry and yellow from a season devoid of much rainfall. Brooke dove to retrieve her belongings but her sister beat her to it.
She tallied up her gains. A tube of chapstick, a hair tie, a smattering of loose coins, and a wad of dollar bills. The earthly possessions of a ten-year-old girl.
“You’re a big loser,” Brooke said, brushing her hair back.
“Yeah, well you’re a sore loser,” Ashley said, doing the same.
She uncurled the wad of bills and counted two out. A white article strewn carelessly among them fluttered to the ground. She seized it mid-air. She unfolded it and felt a knot tighten in the lower part of her belly.
It was a polaroid snapshot of their mother. Deep crease lines from being many times unfolded and refolded tarnished the worn print with an X. A Christmas morning scene from many years ago. Photographed also were both girls. Ashley as a five-year-old toddler with a crown of signature strawberry-colored hair, holding a present wrapped in bright green wrapping paper. Brooke as a pregnant stomach that their mother held cupped in one hand. In the other, she dangled a pink ornament inscribed with the words, it’s a girl!
Their father had obviously taken the photo, a thing evident by the finger that intruded in on one side of the picture in an attempt to steady the camera. The finger bore an emerald wedding band to match the one on their mother’s hand.
He no longer wore his ring. Ashley knew he kept it in the top cabinet of his bedroom dresser. More than once, she had stolen into the forbidden room to gaze mystically at the sterling silver band with its emerald-cut halo, wondering where its sibling fetched up. Had their mother pawned it? Was she wearing it still, at this very moment?
Did its diamond glisten with the reflection of the face of another man? Perhaps a man with children of his own. Their father’s comprehensive statements regarding the departure of his wife were never very absolute, but terse mutterings about her unfaithfulness were more than once articulated over the phone to close family members. Ashley and Brooke frequently eavesdropped in on these conversations and such words as adultery and whore had to be explained to the ten-year-old by her older sister.
“What on earth do you wanna hold on to this for?”
Brooke snatched the photo from Ashley’s hand, who offered no resistance. “It’s the only picture of her I have left. Dad took the rest of them down.”
“Why do you think that is?” Ashley challenged. “She abandoned him for another man. She abandoned us. Sayonara! Just took off in the middle of the night.”
The ten-year-old clung to the picture. “She might still come back.”
“Pft! I hope not. I don’t want to ever see her again.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“Yeah, I do,” Ashley said, knowing full well that she did not. Knowing that the ice around her heart would thaw instantaneously at the sight of their mother walking back up the dirt driveway, suitcase in hand. But she also knew the possibility of that happening was astronomical, if not altogether nonexistent.
You don’t leave your children, your husband, your family, in the middle of the night without a goodbye, without so much as a note explaining why, unless you had already made up your mind to do so a long time ago.
There was silence as Brooke stuffed the photograph, which she refolded with a delicate care that annoyed her sister, and the rest of her belongings back into the coin purse. The coin purse went into her pocket.
“What do you wanna do?” she asked.
Ashley shrugged. “We can ride bike.”
“No. I always have to ride on the sissy bar.”
“That’s because you’re too short to reach the pedals.”
“That’s not true!”
“Is too, shortstop.”
Brooke socked her sister.
Rubbing her shoulder, Ashley looked around at their surroundings. A hundred acres of farmland with nothing to do. “We can play hide and seek in the cornfield,” she volunteered, thinking how lame and childish it sounded.
Brooke made a face. “It’s too hot.”
Ashley squinted up at the sun and the tall silo eclipsing it. An idea planted itself in her head. “I know a way you can win your two bucks back.”
“What do I have to do?” Brooke asked with hesitation.
A nod. “Beat my record.”
Both girls turned and stared up at the structure that in a child’s mind could be a rocket ship, the mast of some pirate boat, or the battlement of a dragon guarded castle.
“Come on. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.”
Brooke screwed her face up in deep concentration. She gazed at the concrete pillar with its steel ladder glistening in the sun, trying to envision herself halfway up. Her palms grew damp with sweat. No biggie when you have both feet planted on solid ground. But when you’re fifty feet in the air with only your grip on a smooth rung to keep you there, sweaty palms could seriously jeopardize your situation.
On the other hand, she only had to climb forty-six rungs to beat her sister’s record. Had she not attempted it many times before without peril? She’d made it twenty, thirty feet up too many times to count. What was another fifteen? She’d have to watch her footing on the forty-second rung. That would be tricky. But there was no reason to assume the next stretch of ladder would be in any way different from the first few steps.
All she had to do was place palm over palm and heel over heel. But most importantly, she couldn’t allow herself to look down.
She shifted her weight between legs. “Make it ten bucks and you’re on.”
Brooke strode over to the silo and stared directly up. Her golden pigtails swayed behind her as she cocked her head this way and that. Ashley watched her, wishing that she hadn’t dared her sister to climb so high. Wondering if she shouldn’t discount the dare. But before she could stop her, Brooke had already grabbed hold of the ladder.
Then she began climbing.
Higher and higher she climbed. Graceful as a cat. Each barefoot feeling the rung beneath it just long enough for her constantly clutching hands to grab the one above. When she neared a quarter of the way up her pace slackened. A caution worked its way into her formally steady rhythm. She held onto each rung a little longer before letting go.
Brooke was about thirty feet up by now. Standing straight beneath the silo, Ashley could just see the round shape of her bottom, clad in denim blue jeans. She wanted to yell out to her, to tell her to be careful up there but knew how pointless such a warning would be. Brooke suddenly came to a stop and Ashley surmised that she had reached the forty-second rung. Her pulse quickened. An unpleasant chill tingled the nape of her neck.
Forty feet in the air, Brooke felt a similar chill as she squatted beneath a gap in the ladder that, to her, looked tremendously large. She lifted her right foot to the rung at her knees, keeping her hands planted firmly around the one they held fast to. This awkward stance made her bottom stick out even more. Just as she predicted her palms grew moist. They slid on the smooth steel. She readjusted her hold. Her knuckles were white knobs of bone. The sun beat down upon her without obstruction. She grew lightheaded.
For a moment she swayed dangerously. Then she was shaking off the sensation like a dog drying itself. She whispered a prayer, something she made up on the spot. She lunged. For a fraction of a second, both hands left their perch. In that brief moment in time, there was nothing except an upward momentum keeping her from falling forty feet to paralysis or death. If her hands missed the rung there would be no second chance.
But they didn’t miss. They closed around the sturdy steel. She heard applause from below. It sounded very far away. She wondered if that’s how it sounded to circus trapeze artists and tightrope walkers. Betraying her cardinal rule, she allowed herself one downward glance and gave the tiny speck that was her sister a performer’s bow.
She quickly regretted this bit of theatrics. The sight of the ladder diving beneath her in seemingly endless undulations produced a disagreeable vertigo effect. She gazed at her fingers gripping the rung at nose level. This restored her perspective. Only three rungs left to beat her sister’s record. Three rungs left and the ten bucks would be hers.
She cleared them easily, just as Ashley knew she would. She wasn’t in the least bit surprised when the ten-year-old pumped one fist into the air and let out a loud whoop. Ashley let out her own victory cheer. She felt her pulse return to normal. Her heart eased back down into her chest. The relief was greater than anticipated. She became aware that she had been holding her breath. That her fingernails were digging into her palms.
“How’s the view up there?” Ashley called out, cupping her hands around her mouth to pitch her voice loud.
“I can see everything from up here!” Brooke shouted. “How’s the view down there?”
“All I can see is your ass!”
Laughing, Brooke gave her bottom a wiggle. Ashley laughed too. In another moment she was shouting, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
For instead of starting her descent, Brooke had begun climbing higher. With a flash of real panic, Ashley understood that the ten-year-old, emboldened by her victory, now intended to make it all the way to the top. All the way to where the ladder terminated at a white dome with a hatch resembling something like a submarine door.
“Stop! Come back!” Ashley bellowed out. “You’ve already beat my record!”
“I can make it!” Brooke returned, climbing higher.
“I think I see dad!” Ashley lied. “If dad catches you up there he’s gonna skin your hide!” It was a weak lie. She knew Brooke could see from here to Timbuktu.
If Brooke heard, she heeded her not. Ashley’s heart followed the ten-year-old further and further up the silo’s side. Each foot gained drew it that much higher into her throat. As the small blue dot that was her younger sister grew smaller still, she felt a dizzying vertigo sensation of her own. She swayed as if on seasick legs. The sky above her seemed to spin. The silo to tilt horizontally. Again, she called out, “Come down!”
Almost seventy-five percent of the way up, the exhilaration wore off and the sheer effort of the climb could be felt. Brooke’s arms ached. The arches of her feet were numb. Sweat dampened her forehead and dripped into her eyes. She stopped to wipe them on the shoulder of her shirt. Sniffling, she stared up at the remaining fifteen feet. Of course, to someone who’s just climbed fifty-five feet, fifteen might as well be fifteen-hundred. She wondered if she’d have the strength to make it down again. With a grim smile, she recalled something Ashley once said about the perils of finding yourself in such a situation.
Getting up is the challenge. One way or another, you’re guaranteed to make it down.
A sparrow dove past, barely a yard away. It landed tauntingly atop of the white dome comprising the silo’s summit. A second thought squeezed itself into the ten-year-old’s head. One that had doubtless occurred to her sister long ago.
I’m pretty high up.
Up in the domain of birds and clouds and airplanes, connected to the familiar land of people and dogs only by a shaky umbilical cord of steel.
The sparrow cawed its mocking caw as if to say, come and get me.
With fresh resolve, Brooke set her teeth and glared up at the alluring finish line before her. It was close, no more than fifteen feet away. She climbed. Fourteen feet now. A baker’s dozen. A real dozen. Ten. A stone’s throw. Within arm’s reach.
Anxiety clutched at Ashley’s chest, activating the maternal instincts she never would admit having inherited. Despite these feelings, she couldn’t help share her sister’s triumph. She was up there with her, nearing the finish with each clutching grasp, every fiber of her body straining with tense exhilaration.
Is that what it was? Or terror? The distinction between the two seemed slight as she watched, through her fingers, Brooke lift herself to the last and final rung. Then she was waving both hands in the air in celebration. The weight of terror lifted and the paralysis that held her spellbound was broken. She was jumping up and down. She was shouting.
“Yeah! Woohoo! Yeah!”
Brooke heaved her chest over the top of the ladder and let out a heavy sigh. She sucked in mouthful after mouthful of clean, high-altitude air. Sparrow flew.
“Now come on down, you nut!” Ashley’s voice; distant and faint. A broadcast from a radio station not quite tuned.
But Brooke had no intention of beginning her descent just yet. After allowing herself a much-needed respite, she determined to inspect the top of the structure. The white dome looked massive up close. The young girl estimated that she could wrap both arms around it thrice. In the distance, dirt roads and nondescript farmland meshed into a senseless blur.
She felt like Rapunzel leaning her head out from that tall tower window. Rapunzel, who had tallied the feet between herself and the ground not in rungs but silk pieces. She wondered what sights were to be seen behind the hatch door. Brooke knew enough to know that farmers like her dad often stored grain or feed inside these lofty structures. In her mind’s eye, she imagined a mountain rising to the silo’s brim.
Curiosity getting the better of her, Brooke seized the hatch door and twisted it with both hands. The crying of antique joints badly in need of an oiling made her wince.
“Whoa- What are you doing? If you don’t come down right now I’m gonna tell dad!” Another weak bluff. If their father ever found out what they had been up to in his absence, both would be whipped to high heaven.
“I’m just going to take a peak,” Brooke muttered to herself.
Ashley grabbed hold of the ladder, mounted it, dismounted, stomped her foot on the ground, paced back and forth in helpless defeat.
“Shit,” she said, hating the shrill panic in her voice.
She wished their father would come home, though she knew it would be hours before she could expect to hear the sound of the truck’s engine humming up the long dirt driveway. She wished she hadn’t thought of the stupid dare in the first place.
Riding bike or playing hide and go seek sounded terrific right now. Never mind how childish it felt. She’d prefer to be childish than-
Seventy feet up the erect shaft of the silo, the ten-year-old pulled open the hatch door and peered her head inside. In another instant, she jerked it back and was gasping to fill her lungs with fresh air. An intolerable stench wafted out the black aperture. A smell she oddly associated with death. She recalled the story of her great-grandfather and the toxic air that he had been forced to breathe in while buried neck-deep in fermented grain.
Covering her nose with the hem of her shirt, she waited until the initial blast dissipated into the clean summer air. She peeked her head back in, seeing only darkness.
“Hello!” she called out.
“Hello-o-o-o!” echoed back to her.
“That’s what I asked you!”
“That’s what I asked you-oo-oo-oo!”
Satisfied, she had just begun to close the hatch door when something arrested her attention. Something shiny caught the sun and sparkled amid the dark heaps of what she could only assume was grain. She thought of castle-guarded rubies and buried treasure. Leaning forward for better seeing, Brooke’s sweaty palms betrayed her.
Before the ten-year-old could catch herself, she was diving headfirst into the black abyss, the sound of her screams reverberating off hollow walls. The sound seemed to travel a considerable length, and even in that moment of absolute terror, she found herself wondering exactly how far down she was likely to fall.
The answer to that question came in the form of a hard landing on a hard surface. Compact grain packed together as tough as concrete. Her left arm and leg, the side she landed on, broke instantaneously. Two ribs shattered on impact.
Did she scream? Did she pass out?
The shock of the collision took the wind from her. Her lungs still screamed but her throat transmitted the sound as a barely audible squeak. The force of her body striking the grain caused one of those deep air pockets to burst.
Before she knew it, the grain was swallowing her whole. If she weren’t seized by blind panic, she would have surely thought about the perilous pits of quicksand she often saw represented in kid’s cartoons and superhero programs.
Her legs sank first, tipping her body into a vertical standing position. Around her hips, the kernels of grain sucked and clawed and groped. Up her chest, pouring down the front of her shirt, strangling her neck. Unseen phantom hands tugging at her ankles, her clothes, her wrists. Her arms plunged beneath. She gazed up at the circle of light made by the open hatch door no bigger than a pinprick. She closed her eyes. She prayed.
And sank into utter darkness.
William Janison returned home to flashing lights.
A firetruck, an ambulance, and two police cars looking out of place against the backdrop of countryside and sky. A retractable ladder extended diagonally from the firetruck to the top of the silo. The farmer’s heart sank.
He stopped the truck at the end of the driveway.
A firefighter and a police officer were conferring at the silo’s base. They turned and stared at the idling vehicle. A space of time elapsed. The firefighter said something to the police officer. The officer nodded his head.
William Janison glanced in the rearview mirror. He swallowed hard. Hands on his hips, the police officer sauntered down the driveway. Gripping the steering wheel tightly, the farmer crept the truck forward and met him halfway.
A bag of nerves rolled down the driver-side window.
The officer gazed into the pale face drained of color and said, “Is this your property here? Do them two little gals belong to you?”
“I am their father,” the shaky man behind the wheel replied.
The officer removed his hat. “I’m afraid there’s been a horrible accident. You might want to steel yourself for this. It involves one of your little girls. I couldn’t make out much of what the older one was saying, she was pretty hysterical as you can well imagine. She was the one who called 911. But the heart of the matter is that your little one fell through the top of your silo. Lord knows what she was doing up there. We had to call the fire department to fish her out. Just in time too. She’s alive but in pretty bad shape. Hasn’t opened her eyes or woken up yet. Suffered a couple of broken bones in the fall they tell me. But she’s breathing steady. I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this. Honestly, it’s a broad miracle that she’s still alive. God is good. Hallelujah, I say, and praise Jesus. He was watching over your flock today.”
There was a moment’s pause. The farmer made a noise, something halfway between a chuckle and a sob. The police officer hocked phlegm into the driveway. “Do you understand what I’ve just told you, sir?”
“Yes, I understand,” he said. Then he threw back his head and laughed.
That night, Ashley Janison expected to catch sixty different shades of hell. She waited for her father’s reckoning at the bedside of her younger sister, who lay prostrate wrapped in bandages around the torso and left leg.
She hadn’t opened her eyes yet. Only once did she rotate her head on the pillow and mutter something incomprehensible. Something about hands reaching out and grabbing hold of her. Grabbing hold and dragging her down into darkness. Ashley wondered what depths of terror her sister had plunged in those horrifying moments inside the silo, and if when her body finally did heal her psyche would do the same.
The thinly carpeted stairs creaked with the weight of their father’s tread. He stood in the open doorframe silhouetted by the hallway light. A dark shape in a rectangle of yellow incandescence. Deep shadows hid what expression his eyes held.
He looked at Brooke. Her small body had never before seemed so small or so fragile. Then he fixed his gaze on Ashley. “What was she doing on the silo?” he asked, moving further into the room. The silence was awful.
The fourteen-year-old had rehearsed a dozen different lies but when it came time to face her father’s wrath she folded like a lawn chair. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she babbled truthfully about the dare, the climb, begging her sister to come down, Brooke’s determination to reach the top, and her accidental slip into the open hatch door.
While listening to this story, the farmer had crossed the room and now stood towering above the girl sitting with both knees drawn up to her chin. He had one hand wrapped around the back of her neck. She wished he’d say something. Even a tongue-lashing would be preferable to that dreadful silence. His fingers tightened around her flesh.
“It was an accident?” he asked at length.
She nodded her head fervently.
“Did you go up there too?”
Shaking her head with even more intensity.
Another interval of silence that felt eons long.
“I’m glad you had the wherewithal to call 911,” he said, letting go of her neck. “That decision most likely saved your sister’s life. You watch over her. Take care of her and see that she has everything she needs.”
“When she wakes up you’ll let me know first thing?”
“You’ll let me know if she says anything?”
“Right away, you hear?”
“Has she said anything yet?”
“Alright, that’s fine.”
“You’re not gonna give me a whipping?”
“No. I love you, sugar pop.”
“I love you, papa.”
“Goodnight, sugar pop.”
Brooke didn’t wake up for three days.
In the meantime, Ashley never left her sister’s side. She sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair brought up to the young girl’s bed and watched for any change in her condition. Twice more Brooke stirred restlessly and babbled about hands snatching and dragging her. At one point, she mumbled something about grasping for but being unable to reach an object that was both shiny and bright, and Ashley guessed without guidance that she was referring to the circle of light cast by the open hatch door atop the silo. The last thing those two wide, innocent, pitiful eyes must have seen before being enveloped by total darkness.
She told her father none of these things, fearing that he would send the girl to a hospital to be watched over by a real nurse should he suspect anything wrong with her brain. Ashley was determined not to leave her sister’s side until she woke up.
On the second day following the accident, Ashley heard a loud mechanical humming outside and crossed over to the window to investigate. Pulling back the drapes, she saw a large rental truck parked at the base of the silo. A big twelve-wheeler. A long steel auger connected the trailer to a side hatch in the storage container.
Her father carried out the emptying himself, a task he usually performed with two or more hired farmhands, channeling nearly a hundred tons of grain into the trailer before closing the swing doors. He drove off in the truck, which must have been unable to hold the silo’s entire contents, for when he returned home that afternoon in the pick-up he had left at the rental place, he loaded its cargo bed and made one last trip.
Ashley didn’t witness him do this, but she heard the sound of the tailgate clutch open, a heavy object being dragged into the back, the tailgate close, and the engine vanishing down the dirt driveway, down the road, out of hearing distance.
He checked in on Brooke later that night.
Had she woken up? Had she said anything?
Ashley replied in the negative.
“She does you tell me right away.”
The next morning, Brooke woke up.
Her eyes flittered softly open. The young girl stared into the face so similar in semblance to her mother’s. “Mama?” she said.
“It’s me, it’s Ashley. Are you alright?”
Brooke sat painfully up. Every muscle in her body sang out. She laid back down. From the bed she was surprised to find herself laying on, she surveyed the familiar room she was equally astonished to find herself in.
“What the- But how- I mean-”
“A firefighter pulled you out just in time. I thought for sure it was too late.” A nervous little laugh. “I guess I owe you ten bucks, huh?”
Bewilderment shone blankly on the young girl’s face.
Ashley felt a flash of panic. She had read about cases of amnesia and wondered if her sister had suffered such a memory lapse. “Do you remember climbing the silo?” she prodded. “It was my fault. I never should have made that stupid dare.”
Brooke sat bolt upright in bed, heedless of the pain. Ashley recoiled in alarm. “I remember hands. I remember reaching out and feeling hands. They were grabbing me, pulling at my clothes, dragging me down.”
Ashley frowned. “You’ve been out of it for three days now. I mean, totally zonked out. You must’ve had the most horrible dreams. You talked in your sleep. You were muttering something about hands and I don’t even know what else.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Brooke said sharply, shaking her head. “When I was inside the silo, down there in the darkness, sinking deeper and deeper, I reached out and I touched something. It was a hand! I know it was a hand.”
An incredulous look from her sister.
“I’m telling the truth, I swear! Someone else was down there with me.”
Ashley gently eased the excited girl back down on the bed. “You were delirious. You were absolutely raving. I didn’t tell dad because I was worried that he’d send you to a hospital or a loony bin or something.”
Brooke’s voice rose to a shout. “Don’t tell dad! Whatever you do, don’t tell dad!”
“Shhh! What are you talking about?”
“My hand.” Nodding to her left arm, which she feebly tried to raise. It was wrapped elbow to wrist in a white plaster cast.
“You broke it in the fall,” Ashley explained.
An impatient click of her tongue. “No, in my hand.”
Leaning forward, Ashley took her sister’s hand in her own. She felt a small, sharp object transfer from Brooke’s palm to hers. She uncurled her fingers and beheld a sterling silver wedding band with an emerald-cut halo.
Her mother’s ring.
She gazed at it, suggestions and implications weaving a terrible tapestry before her eyes. Then she looked up and gazed at Brooke.
“Do you mean-” she said, and let silence complete the thought.
Brooke didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. Her eyes said everything that her mute throat lacked the conviction to put into words.
Never a word to anyone did either girl speak regarding the sinister suspicions that both individually harbored, and later tried to forget. Ashley ran away from home at the age of seventeen and smothered memory first with alcohol and then with heroin. Brooke recovered physically but developed a crippling claustrophobia and fear of dark places. But worst of all was the not knowing. The uncertainty. A week after their horrible discovery, both girls snuck into their father’s bedroom and peeked inside the top cabinet of his dresser. There they found the ring’s duplicate, confirming that it did, in fact, belong to their mother, whom Ashley spent a good many years later, unsuccessfully as it turned out, trying to locate.
Not every tale has an ending.
The closest thing in the way of one came twenty years after that lazy June day. Both girls had moved on with their own lives, each in their own fashion. On a bitter winter morning, William Janison could be seen slinking through knee-deep snow to the big red barn on his property. Did he feel under scrutiny from the depressing outline of the silo as he made his lonely voyage? No one will ever know the thoughts that went through his head. Only the rafters heard him mutter, God, forgive me, before tying the noose and tossing it around his neck.