The Farmhouse by W.T. Paterson


Two days after closing on our first home—a classic farmhouse in rural New Hampshire with a large plot of unused, fertile land out back—with my belly a month away from popping, Charles lost his job at the bank.

“How can we afford anything?” he asked, our room packed and bare the night before the movers were to arrive. His eyes fluttered with mortgage payments, utilities, upkeep, hospital bills, and food.

“We have a savings,” I reassured. “And my dad won’t let us starve.”

For the rest of the night, he pretended to be asleep even though I felt his anxious legs twitch beneath the covers, his shallow breath and restless shoulders cold against the pads of my fingers.

The next morning, he stumbled into the kitchen with eyes sunken, dark, and pained. Charles blamed it on nightmares and, because I said nothing, he assumed I believed him.

We said goodbye to our one-bedroom apartment just outside of the city. We lived on the second floor of that boxy place for three years and had experienced a proposal, a wedding, and the news of our little boy during our time there.

“We need a bigger home,” Charles said one day, and I agreed. Later that year, with the help of his bank, our wish-and-a-prayer offer got accepted for the farmhouse.

The bulky movers lugged boxes into the hall and down the steps. Their sweat soured the air. With the walls empty of art and flowers, it seemed like no one had ever lived there, that no one could ever live there and so, we closed a chapter of our lives without any fanfare.

Charles drove behind the moving van, checking their speed and paying attention to turn signals. A man of numbers, of order, of precision—should the hired help step out of line, I feared he would phone them for discounts and refunds as a temporary fix to his out-of-work status.

But they were professionals and did no wrong. Boxes and furniture inside by three in the afternoon, I tipped the movers in cash while Charles roamed the yard, and off they went. The baby kicked, and our new life together officially began.

The field behind the house spread into the horizon, far too big for any one family. I imagined rows of cornstalks, of wheat, hay, and vegetables. Shades of green to complement the blue skies and white clouds. So much potential, so much beauty. Along the edges, a hand-built stone wall marked the property lines with our closest neighbor whose big red barn glistened under the sun. Branches from the trees in our front yard swayed in the breeze, giving the birds a reason to chirp. The land felt alive, quiet, and still.

I spotted Charles shooing away a dog: a brown and gold mutt traipsing around the rear entrance to our home.

“Must be the neighbor’s,” I said.

“Git!” Charles said flailing his arms, but the dog continued to sniff, unbothered. A man in large overalls and dirty boots stepped out of the shining red barn and waved hello. He wiped his hands on a towel pulled from the front pocket of the overalls and stepped over the stone wall.

“Sorry ‘bout ‘im,” the farmer said. “He’s prolly lookin’ fer the old owners. Name’s Stanton. Bob Stanton.” Bob held out his hand and Charles shook it, then palmed the back of his jeans.

“Good people?” I asked.

“Kept mostly to themselves, but pleasant nonetheless. Where y’all from?”

“Boston,” Charles said.

“Proper, or burbs?” Bob asked. He tucked his hands into the front pocket and rocked from heel to toe. His body was an enormous thing; it seemed as though peeling back skin wouldn’t reveal bones, but boulders.

“Burbs,” Charles said. He said it like he missed it, and my heart shrank at the idea that I had done this to him, forced him into a life he didn’t want.

“Scooter here means no harm,” Bob said, nodding at the mutt. “Gentle beast. Curious thing. When are you due?”

“Soon, maybe three weeks,” I said. I folded a palm over my belly, warmed.

“Havin’ rugrats puts it all in perspective. Got three myself. Gonna be a grandad ‘fore the year’s up. A young stud like me, a grandad! Ain’t that a thing!” He whistled for Scooter, but the dog sat down and eyed Charles.

“If we need anything, we’ll let you know,” Charles said in the tone he used when ushering clients out of the bank. He turned to the mutt. “Go, go with your master.”

“Word to the wise, sweet-ums,” Bob said, nodding at me. “Be careful. Something about the land—the water maybe—can’t say for sure, but the previous owner was set to pop three different times. Never made it to one.”

I looked at Charles and Charles’s face reddened. The stillness of the land, the eclipsing beauty. It didn’t seem possible, but I had no reason to doubt Bob as he lumbered back to his plot, whistling to the birds. Scooter watched Charles pace and wagged his tail whenever my husband got close.

“Guess we have a dog now,” Charles said. Saying it out loud made him laugh and, when he laughed, I laughed and, just like that, all was right in the world.

The next day, Charles went into town to apply for jobs. A small community with one bank, a newspaper publisher, a library, and one restaurant; the odds were low that he’d come home happy. Fiercely hot, the sun cooking the green grass yellow, I allowed Scooter inside and gave him a bowl of cool water from the tap. He sniffed around, probably seeking the old owners, and then lapped from the dish.

I put plates and flatware away in the kitchen, wiping each piece down with a small yellow hand towel given to us as a wedding gift. That day had brought together our families, our friends, and the promise that life was a shared celebration. Thinking back on it made me feel that our little boy might grow up happy.

The kitchen took up half of the downstairs. Natural edge counters ran the walls into stainless steel appliances. Scooter wandered into the living room, sniffed the blue couch and loveseat, circled into the dining room checking beneath the table stacked with boxes, and stopped to peer upstairs. The bristles of his neck rose, and his tail shot out straight. His mouth pulled into a snarl with large canines catching the daylight. He growled once, looked at me with innocent eyes, then back up the stairs with another short warning. Finally, he came back into the kitchen to nap.

I went to the stairs and looked up, unsure of what I might find. A window screen in the bathroom vibrated with the wind, and I reasoned it to be what Scooter had heard. The bedrooms on either side had creaky floors, and I told myself that a person walking or an animal scraping would have been more pronounced.

Before I met Charles, I was attacked in my own home. A man followed me to my apartment after a shift at the car dealership my father owned. For years, I worked everything from reception to financing to payroll and, one day, a man came in asking about me.

“Does she need a husband?” he asked, and my brother Duggy told him to beat it unless he planned on buying a car. When he came back the next day, Duggy asked, “Do you know Julie or something?” The guy smiled and said, “Julie, is it?” That night, the man shouldered through my door and put his hands around my throat, said he loved me and told me to take off my clothes. I fought him off and Duggy, who lived in the downstairs apartment, heard the commotion, and showed up with a handpiece, keeping him there until the police arrived.

I tell myself that the man was just a creep which, I know, is minimizing the situation. But my father always said I was as tough as I was beautiful. That idea kept me going. It made me look at life through a different lens though, and when I me