The Old Homestead

Posted on: November 12, 2015

Henry noses his SUV into the narrow spot next to a cherry red convertible with the top down. He squeezes out and closes the door before Zeus follows him. The dog lets out a displeased whimper from inside the car.

An older man with salt-and-pepper hair gives him a friendly nod. Henry notices he has a new cowboy hat on the dashboard, the tag still on it. The hat’s small and feminine, a turquoise heart encircled in hammered silver, black twine strands secured with a cheap, plastic toggle. Overpriced tourist tchotchkes.

Its owner skulks out of the convenience store, a teenager with a real chip on her shoulder. She wears pastel pink Uggs, cutoff denim shorts, and a pink and white plaid top. She looks like the kind of girl whose name has too many ys as vowels.

“They didn’t have caramel. Ridiculous.” She rolls her eyes and sets a vanilla Frappuccino on the hood, the glass bottle emitting a high-pitched squeak. The man winces and the girl pulls an iPhone from her back pocket. Henry walks into the store as the man attempts to engage her in conversation, monosyllabic responses her weapon of choice.

When Henry returns to his SUV, large Coke in one hand and a bag of Doritos in the other, the man blocks his path, eyes pleading and desperate.

“Bob,” the man introduces himself, “and this is Persephone, my daughter.”

The girl sticks out her hand, not looking up as she continues to text.

“We thought we’d take a little father-daughter getaway this summer, while her mom’s on a trip,” Bob says.

“Jesus, Dad, she’s on her honeymoon,” Persephone groans. Bob blushes, and his brown eyes grow cold and distant before he wills a too-wide smile to appear on his face. His eyes remain sad, and Henry has a hard time looking at him, the divorced dad who’s miserable but trying to keep it together for his kid.

“Anyway,” Bob forces his voice to sound happy, “Persephone loves roadside attractions — ”

“You like them.”

“— and we’re wondering if there are any here. We got some cold cuts for a picnic somewhere on this stretch of highway. With all that dust on your truck, I’d bet my last paycheck you’re a local.”

Henry nods and asks Persephone if he can borrow her iPhone and keys in an address.

“My family’s land,” Henry explains. “Technically it belongs to Uncle Jim, but he went AWOL years ago so we just let it be. Mama says he always turns up, not to mess with it more’n we have to. There’s always been stories about things that happened there when they were kids, like funny lights and weird storms. The kind of rumors you get when military testing facilities are around.

“Anyway, it’s gorgeous, and it’s deserted and peaceful. There’s an old mailbox at the end of the road; you can put your trash in there. I usually check on it once a month, but I’ll swing by this afternoon.”

Bob thanks him and Persephone gives a shrug of approval.


That afternoon, Henry almost drives by the narrow split of road. He peels off the main road, another motorist protesting the lack of turn signal with a long, loud honk. Zeus braces himself during the swerve and lets out an annoyed bark.

“Sorry, sorry,” Henry mutters as he glances in his rearview mirror.

The SUV bounces along the dirt road when the sky goes bright — a hot, white light blinding him. A stream of obscenities escape his mouth and brakes. Henry exits the car, blinking until his vision returns. Zeus whines and nuzzles against his leg.

The sky has a lilac tint to it, pale where it previously blazed orange and red, a swollen sun setting on the horizon.

Henry has never seen the buildings in person, though he recognizes versions of them from yellowing photographs that also feature his grandparents, mother, and uncle.

The old homestead, no longer in faded two-dimension but standing, real and in front of him and wrong. Green paint peels from the first building. Behind it, a second building fights a losing battle against time, the roof already caved in.

A low, eerie cry comes from the house and Zeus bolts toward the haunted sound. He bounds through wayward drifts of snow on the ground.

Henry fights the survival instincts that tell him to turn back and feeds that dangerous streak of curiosity, the one that got him rattlesnake-bit at fourteen. In the hot summer sun, he can feel the phantom venom throb and pulse under his hand, but in this odd, ethereal thaw he feels nothing but a compulsion to follow his dog’s lead.

Persephone sits, limbs pale and pulled to her chest. She looks up, brown eyes like her father’s, cold and distant.

“Jim said it’s the crossing-time,” Persephone says, “when he can go back, when things can come over. I wandered away. I guess I came over.”

Henry nods, but he does not want to know. He wants to get her out of here, get her to the authorities, and never know the details. Zeus paws at Henry’s legs, eager for permission to go inside.

“Can you stand up? Can you walk?” Henry asks the girl. “We need to leave, right now.”

The cold bite in the air is more than wind and snow. It is something dark, something unsettling. People pray over things they do not understand, and Henry begins to pray..

Henry gets them all into the SUV when the blinding light comes back. And then it is summer again, a stream of police barreling down the main road.

To her credit, Persephone said she wandered off and fell, and when she came to it was Henry who heard her cries for help. Bob didn’t contradict; he'd searched the land for an hour before going to the police and telling them Persephone was missing. The cops were happy the reunion didn’t require a lot of paperwork; they let Henry go without much hassle.

He pulls out his cell phone when he’s down the road, lights and siren behind him.

“Mama —” he begins, but she interrupts.

“You’ll never believe who turned up!”

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Blake Bronstad

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