If you travel down State Route 20 in West Virginia, you’ll see miles and miles of rolling hills and mountains stretching off into the blue tinted sky. The hills and valleys are strewn with cities and towns, villages and abandoned waystations on old forest roads. History runs deep here… history and forgetfulness.
I come from a small town called Melinda. We always say it’s the kind of place you would never be able to find if you didn’t already know it was there. Your eyes would be blinded by the smoky vistas and misty overlooks and you’d miss the exit that looks like nothing more than a turn off to a run down oil-change shop. But if you somehow find it and turn down that road, you’ll find the red brick buildings, abandoned quarries, and aging schoolhouses where I grew up. It’s quaint in that Appalachian kind of way, but small and sparse.
Most travelers that do find their ways to Melinda find nothing worthwhile there. Honestly, most people that live there don’t either. There’s not always a lot worth finding in these hills, and some of the things you do find… well… maybe the better part is in the forgetting.
My name is Dave, and it’s been 9 years since I left Melinda. I spent some time working as a casual longshoreman at the Port of Philadelphia before saving up enough money to go back to school at Temple. I’ve been living off campus in a rowhouse with six other guys. They’re the closest thing I’ve had to friends since moving to the city. We’re not exactly close, but they’re good company for drinking and the occasional joint. And it’s nice not to have to fall asleep in a quiet house.
This Friday night we’re out on 2nd Street at a dive bar with a broken digital jukebox and that kind of sticky bar floor that always makes it sound like you’re walking on packing tape. Rob, Derek, and I get a seat by a closed up fireplace full of LED candles. Derek has two girls in tow, I don’t get their names, but he’s clearly playing them off each other. That seems complicated.
Rob has a little piece of eye candy he picked up at the last bar named Emily. I don’t think much about any of them, to be honest. I lean back in my chair and nurse my lager and let the hum of conversation wash over me until I hear Emily say, “Oh yeah! I’m from a small town in West Virginia called…” Then I hear her say it like we say it, “Me-leenda”. No outsider pronounces it right. I snap to attention.
“No way!” Rob shouts. “That’s where Dave is from! Man, what are the odds of that?”
I lift my glass and nonchalantly say, “Go Tigers.” She woos.
A town of 800 people and of course I run into another expat here in a dive in Philadelphia. What are the odds, indeed? I don’t want to make a big thing about it, we make a little small talk and move on. There’s not that much to say about Melinda, after all.
But an hour passes. And then Rob shows back up with a tray of Lagers and shots. Here they call that the “City Special.”
“Drink up, ladies!” he shouts as he downs the Old Overholt.
Then he drops back into his seat. They’ve been talking about the case in North Philly that recently broke where it turned out a man had kept two girls in his basement for 6 years. Somehow, against all odds, he managed to keep that secret for that long. They talk logistics. How did he feed them? How did he handle medical care? How did he get them to go to the store for him and not immediately run for help? (Derek and his two girls both seem very into true crime). That’s when Rob turns to Emily and says, “So what about you guys, ever have any action like this back in Me-LEEN-da?” He over enunciates.
Emily shoots me a glance, and for a moment a single word hangs between us in the air like a lead weight tied to both of our necks…
Then she looks down at her drink.
I take a sip of my lager. “Oh, you know every town has their shit,” I say, and I hope to leave it at that. But the whiskey is warming her up. Her head is swimming, I can see it.
“Well, we had one thing…” She begins. Farrhouse. A shudder runs through me. I don’t want to think about it.
“Outside of town there was this old swimming hole…” And she starts talking. She talks about the missing girls. The fingernails and hair that would float to the top of the pond in heavy rains. The brute that was responsible for all those murders. How they found his bloated body hugging the last girl in the flooded hole. That’s the stain of Melinda, the rot that runs deep in our little hidden valley. And some of it did happen that way. But I sigh, because I know she’s going to tell it wrong. There’s no way for her to know, of course. She’s younger than I am. She wasn’t there like I was. And she has no idea how deep the rot truly goes.
First of all, it wasn’t a swimming hole. It was an abandoned cistern. If we’re really going to tell this story, it matters to get the details right.
Schooley’s road heads West out of Melinda through the foothills of what we called Jagged Peak. You can imagine how that got its name. Look, we’re not all poets. Schooley’s runs through fields of bushy bluestem and switchgrass and rises a few hundred feet above the valley before falling back down into a lush meadow. On the Northeastern edge of the road is the river, which you can continue to follow north until at some point it merges into the Tygart.
But to the west and south of the road is the old Farrhouse property.
The Farrhouses made their money in timber and copper in ages past. But their mines eventually dried up. Meanwhile, timber got too competitive, and old man Lyon Farrhouse got too drunk, for them to keep up with the business. So they say, at least.
That left an interesting predicament for the modern day Farrhouse family. They had some 3,600 acres of land left, and the old estates, but not that much in the bank. I used to imagine them up in that old manor chopping wood to keep the rooms warm while eating fish they caught themselves. They probably could have sold a bunch of that land to live an easier life, but who knows why people do what they do.
Lionel Farrhouse still ran the family timber business. I suppose that was enough to keep the lights on, I was just a kid when all this started, so I didn’t really know about such things. The Farrhouse kids were Rory, the oldest. I think he was 7 years my senior. James was 3 years older than me, Lorelai one year older. Mrs. Farrhouse lived somewhere in Pennsylvania. They were estranged, but still married, and she kept the family name.
The Farrhouse property itself extended across a large swath of western Melinda. It covered a lot of ground, but without the money and staff to landscape and maintain it, much less use it for business purposes, a lot of it fell into disrepair. That included an old cistern that was part of a blast furnace 80 years ago not far off of Schooley’s road.
The blast furnace had long been dismantled by some combination of weather and thieves, leaving little more than burned foundation blocks and the occasional scattering of ingots. The cistern had lost its cover and the foundation had cracked open, but otherwise, acted kind of like it always had. It was around 40 feet across, and 12 feet deep. It was surrounded by a perimeter of switchgrass, and kept drained, but it would flood whenever we got heavy rains as old piping and gutters funneled water into it. The family knew this was a hazard and boarded it off. They closed up the gate and put barricades up to stop cars from getting down that road. But that would never stop kids. And they didn’t have the money to decommission it entirely.
From when I was a kid I would hear about what we called the Farrhouse Well, and how kids would sneak out there after heavy rains to swim, or in the night when it was empty to haze each other by pushing each other in and dangling a rope just a little higher than the kid in the well could reach to get them to panic. Kids are little shits. But that’s where our story really starts.
The first time I remember hearing about a tragedy related to the Well I was 10. A couple of high school girls had gone out there on a dare (or so the rumors said). Only one of them came back. Supposedly they got separated in the woods and, terrified, the other girl ran all the way home. Police searched the area and interviewed the Farrhouses but no one had seen her. They combed through the cistern and found nothing. But they didn’t expect to, of course, there had long been rumors of the Farrhouse monster and nothing had ever been found there. It was just an urban legend to most of the Sheriff’s deputies, and it had been some time since they looked as closely as they should.
Anyway, we didn’t know any of that at the time, we were just kids. We were over at Mason’s house for a sleepover when we heard our parents talking about it. We just KNEW it was the Farrhouse monster that had gotten her and pulled her into the well. We spent the rest of the night teasing each other and making up the scariest stories we could to try to see who would break first.
It turns out the truth is harsher than fiction.
The Farrhouse family hated these rumors, and worked hard to show there was no truth to them, for whatever that was worth. But every time this happened, there were the questions and the investigations, everyone seemed to turn against them. James was only thirteen at the time, and Lorelai was eleven. They responded by fleeing into their father’s arms in the walls of their estate. But Rory took in the hardest. He was a junior and almost grown, and took the brunt of the bullying. He never graduated.
Some say he killed himself, but there was absolutely no evidence or reason to think that, except that he left Melinda. It turns out he went voluntarily to a military academy in Maryland. Anything was better than staying where he was.
The next time I heard about a disappearance related to the Well I was 14. Thinking back on it, there may have been other disappearances that I heard my parents mention, but they were out of towners, and I didn’t worry too much about that back then.
I turned 14 right before my Freshman year of high school and two important things happened that year. The first was the disappearance of Valerie Parakeen, who Jeff, my best friend since childhood, had been dating at the time. We’ll get to that in a minute.
The second thing, though, was the new arrival at our school, Leslie Farrhouse.
Apparently Mrs. Farrhouse had recently moved back from Pennsylvania and brought the youngest daughter back with her. She had been the baby of the family when Mrs. Farrhouse left and had wanted to stay with her mother, but here she was, back in Melinda.
To this day I’m not even sure I could tell you what it was about her that mesmerized me. She wasn’t stereotypically gorgeous like Valerie. She wasn’t tall, she didn’t dress nice. But she was beautiful under those ill-fitting clothes and I had an irresistible urge to be close to her.
I sat with her that first day at lunch when I found her alone in the cafeteria and we got to talking. I would have sat with her every day if she would have allowed it, but she was private. And Mason and Jeff weren’t that interested in being around her. No one really was. Everyone seemed to think she was strange, but I thought she was wonderful.
I lived a parallel life for part of that year, hanging out sometimes with Mason and Jeff, and sometimes with Leslie whenever we could find the time. We weren’t lovers, or anything like that, hell we were only 14, but I wanted to spend all my time with her.
That made it all the harder when Valerie disappeared. Jeff had somehow been dating Valerie, who was a Sophomore that year. She was one of the most beautiful girls in school even at 15.
She didn’t show up to school one day. Jeff was confused because he’d been talking to her just the night before, but he figured she was sick. She didn’t show up the day after that, or the day after that. Jeff called her parent’s house, but no one really had the time to talk to him. He even tried to file a police report but they told him they were already looking into it, and besides, he didn’t have any standing to do a thing like that.
As far as anyone could tell, she hadn’t even been anywhere near the Well or the Farrhouse property. The last time anyone heard from her she was catching the bus to school, but Jeff was so sure that was where she was.
“It’s that damn Farrhouse family!” he shouted, pacing back and forth out back of the school.
“Hey, they’re not all responsible for this!” I looked down at my feet after I said it, cowering from Jeff’s glare. “I mean, you don’t even know she ended up out there like the others. And no one’s ever proven any of the Farrhouses have ever done anything wrong.” I was thinking of Leslie, her shy smile, her quiet giggle. After the latest disappearance people had turned against her more than ever.
“What the Hell are you even talking about?” Jeff screamed. “I’m going out there tonight, with or without you and Mason. Someone has to get to the bottom of this.”
He stormed off into the parking lot.
I sat shivering on the stairs.
Normally I would always have Jeff’s back. I would be out there in the woods with him all night long chasing fireflies and ghosts, but this was madness. There was no evidence this had anything to do with the Farrhouses. And I was worried about Leslie. I called her when I got home. She assured me her family had nothing to do with this. She sobbed through the phone for what felt like hours.
A storm rolled in that night, fast and vicious. I thought of what Jeff had said and called his house, but no one picked up. I watched the rain drive in sheets across my window and thought about Leslie.
“Shit,” I muttered into the window pane. “I’m coming.”
I grabbed my jacket and checked downstairs to make sure my parents were asleep. I snuck out and grabbed my bike and pedaled off towards Schooley’s. I don’t know how long it took me to crest the hill by Jagged Peak and make it down towards the boarded up turnoff to the cistern. The rainstorm was torrential and the mud gripped the tires all the way up the shoulder of the road and onto the pullover.
I ditched my bike and charged over the barricade, screaming Jeff’s name into the howling winds. It was far too loud to hear anything in return. I ran through the woods, pushing branches and leaves out of my face until I reached the cistern.
I saw Jeff sitting at the edge of the overflowing cistern and ran to his side.
“I knew it, I just fucking knew it,” he said as I stood over him. He was holding something in his right hand, running it through his fingers. I fell to my knees next to him.
“What happened, Jeff? What did you find?”
He looked up at me with hate in his eyes, and raised his hand full of thick black hair, the same color as Valerie’s. “I found this in the Well” he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard over the wind and rain. And then he was on me.
I was never much of a fighter, nothing like Jeff, even if I was prepared. But there was nothing I could do now against this ferocity. He slammed me into the mud and kicked me hard in the ribs. “Why do you defend them! Why would you do this to me!”
I tried to defend myself but I couldn’t breath, much less speak, through the pain in my gut. I tried to push myself up when Jeff’s fist slammed into the side of my head, pushing my face back into the mud. I lay there breathing in rain and dirt as I heard Jeff’s footsteps recede. Eventually, I pulled myself out of the muck and crawled back to my bike.
The cops searched the area shortly after the storm when Jeff reported what he’d found, but they discovered nothing. I never really spoke to Jeff again, and Mason took Jeff’s side. Amidst the backlash, even Leslie retreated into herself. We still spoke on the phone occasionally, but those conversations grew fewer and farther between. High school got lonely after that.
But the worst part was the nightmares. I started having nightmares of the old Farrhouse Well. I would be running through the woods at night, as tree branches grabbed and tore at my shirt like gnarled claws. The mud would suck in my boots until I could barely move as I emerged into the clearing around the old cistern. There, stuck knee deep in the grime I would watch as tangled black hair slowly floated out of the surging well, followed by pale hands, with bloody pads where there should be fingernails.
Then I would wake. But I could swear, every time, it would feel like what was crawling out of that hole would get closer.
I was there in Melinda for one last incident at the Farrhouse Well. I was 17, and a junior then. I was also a loner, though I don’t think I had much choice. Jeff hadn’t spoken to me since the beatdown at the cistern two years ago. I think he still blamed me in part for Valerie’s disappearance, even though there’s no way I could have had anything to do with that. But Mason went with Jeff. They both played Football now, and they probably didn’t give me any thought any more.
No one did much, everyone kind of thought I was in some way unhinged. So I ate alone. I walked to and from school alone. Kids would push their desks a little bit further away from me in classes. No one liked the weird kid.
Except Leslie, of course.
But our relationship was a strange one. Leslie never recovered from the bullying over the last rumor that another girl disappeared at the Farrhouse Well. James had already gone off to college, and Lorelai responded by getting into drugs and raves. If you already hang with the rejects, you don’t have as far to fall. Leslie didn’t have it in her to head off to the academy like Rory, but she ended up being homeschooled. I didn’t often see her, but we usually talked at least once a week.
There were rumors in the meantime. Anyone who was late to school or missed a hangout or stayed out too late one night and worried their parents triggered rumors of the Farrhouse curse. But the next girl to really disappear caused quite a stir.
That girl was Rachel Morse. Rachel was pretty, and popular. She played volleyball and was in student government, but that’s not really what mattered. What really mattered is that Rachel's father was a state senator.
Senator Morse didn’t live in Melinda, of course, don’t get the wrong idea about that. No one with any kind of clout would stay in this town, but she was still his daughter, and divorce or not, blood here runs thick.
When Rachel Morse disappeared the town went ballistic. Obviously the town had dealt with disappearances in the past, but nothing this high profile. Sheriff’s deputies were out in force even before the normal 72 hour window for missing persons, and the state even lent troopers. The Senator showed up with his personal task force to help look into things.
The rumors started immediately that Rachel had been taken at the Farrhouse Well, first in the halls of the high school and the local diner, then between the adults, and eventually all the way to the ears of Senator Morse. He put the screws to old Lionel who protested most fiercely that his family was innocent of this madness and always had been. This happened every time someone went missing, and there was never any evidence that anyone had been found missing at the Farrhouse property.
Senator Morse and the police couldn’t search the property (yet again) without evidence, and they couldn’t barricade Lionel’s land, but they stationed impromptu checkpoints all along Schooley’s road leading north to the Tygart and south to Jagged Peak.
I’m ashamed to say that my first thought when I heard about the disappearance wasn’t for Rachel at all. She was beautiful, popular, and rich. I knew who she was, for sure, but she wasn’t remotely that kind of person that would even look twice at me. We had nothing in common and I knew the town would do whatever it took to get her back.
My first thought was for Leslie.
I called her as soon as I heard about the disappearance and she was already in tears.
“I didn’t do anything! I don’t deserve this!” She said through heaving sobs. “Everyone just needs to leave me alone!”
“Just keep your head down, Leslie,” I responded, “this is gonna pass.” And we talked through the night about movies, comics, and old times.
But it didn’t pass. The storm got worse. Lorelai almost got assaulted at a rave. Someone threw a brick through the window of the Farrhouse Timber offices downtown. And Leslie sank deeper and deeper into despair. Two days later they still hadn’t found Rachel.
It was a Thursday night. A great beast of a storm was rolling in in the late evening hours. I sat in my bedroom in silence on the edge of my bed thinking about Leslie. Something was wrong. I called her. She picked up. It sounded like she was pacing.
“It’s coming to a head, Dave. It’s time to sort this all out. I’m going to the old ironworks tonight.”
“But there’s nothing there, Leslie! You said so yourself. Why go out there? Tonight is going to be a nightmare of a storm.”
“Everyone says that’s where the nightmares are. That place has haunted my family. It’s time I go back and see for myself. See you later, Dave.”
She hung up, and I sat there in shock. Leslie was going to the well to look for Rachel. I don’t know why, but I knew I had to follow her.
Once again, I grabbed my bike and my jacket and followed the path I’d followed two years ago while storm clouds rolled in from the west.
This time I couldn’t go straight over the Jagged Peak crossing at Schooley’s though, I saw the Senator’s checkpoint there from the turn-off on main street, so I cut up Meadowlands road and ditched my bike by the trailhead to take the rest on foot. The climb up Jagged was steep and unkept, but I knew those trails like my own backyard.
I circumvented the checkpoint and came in the back to the grassy road that led to the cistern just as the rain began to fall. I kept off the path and crept through the undergrowth. I couldn’t risk being seen by the Senator’s men.
When I was about 100 feet from the cistern I froze. I saw a figure with long black hair crouched some way ahead of me behind a fallen tree… Leslie.
Then I looked up towards the cistern.
I saw two figures standing at the edge of the well in the increasing rain. The first I recognized immediately, it was Rachel Morse. She was in just her underwear, with her hands bound behind her back. The other figure was lean and tall, thin and shirtless with muscles like whipcord. He was holding Rachel by the neck six inches off the ground. It was Rory Farrhouse. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but Rachel was shouting something and struggling with futility against Rory’s strength. Leslie was tensing up behind the tree trunk. She didn’t know what to do. Neither did I.
Just then time slowed to a crawl. Rachel had something behind her back, it looked like maybe a sharpened rock? She was sawing at her bindings. And then she was free.
In a smooth motion she released her hands and swung the rock around into Rory’s neck. He released her and she landed on the ground on her feet while he fell to his knees. She said something and raised the rock to deliver a killing blow when Leslie sprinted from the undergrowth. She had a rock of her own.
Rachel’s face was pure shock as Leslie closed the distance and slammed the rock into Rachel’s head. I heard the crunch of bone and Rachel immediately went limp. She tipped over and fell into the hole. Then Leslie was on her knees next to Rory, saying something to him. Then he slowly tipped into the hole as well.
Leslie stayed there, quiet for a moment in the intensifying rain, then she was up and running off into the woods. I sat in my hiding place in shock for what felt like an hour, then I stood and walked to the cistern. Rachel’s body was in the bottom of the well, and Rory fell on top of her. It looked like he was holding her. Next to them was a hole big enough for a person to stand in, and a sick feeling washed over me. Rory had been burying the girls up to their shoulders in the hole before rain storms so they would drown as the cistern filled. Sometimes they would try to claw their way out and lose hair or fingernails which would float to the top of the well and he would come clean up later.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
I thought about that night Jeff beat me senseless here on the edge of the cistern when Valerie was missing, and how she must have been below us that very night, shrieking for help with a voice no one could hear beneath the crushing weight of water and sin.
But I didn’t have time for this. What about Leslie? I saw the rock she used to kill Rachel, still lying on the ground covered in blood. I had to look out for her. This was our secret. I used another rock to smash the murder weapon to pieces and push it into the filling cistern. Then I ran as fast as I could home. The cops would certainly find something this time and I didn’t want to be there for it.
I ran home and showered and threw out my clothes, then got in bed. I called Leslie once knowing no one would pick up, and no one did. The next day the cops found the bodies in the well and it made all the headlines. But I was already planning on getting out of Melinda.
I left as soon as I turned 18, even before I graduated. I never spoke with Leslie again. We had a secret to keep after all. But I’d come back to check on her. Eventually she opened a flower shop in town and lived a quiet life. I was glad. She deserved that, even if I did know what she had done.
Emily is finishing her story.
“They fished Rachel and Rory’s bodies out of the hole. He was still hugging her. The police figured she’d gotten in a kill shot before he drowned her. But in the end it was pretty cut and dry. They searched the property and found an old shed with remains of the fourteen other missing girls. Rory must have been squatting there.”
“DAMN!” Rob shouts. “That’s quite a story. You knew about this Dave?”
“Yeah, man.” I say calmly. “That was a hell of a thing,” and I give a solemn nod and sip my lager. They move on.
But I knew she would tell it wrong. Not that she would know any better. She even left out that another girl has recently gone missing in Melinda, though maybe she doesn’t know that either.
But even though she’s telling it wrong, I can’t correct her. What could I do?
I can’t go to the police, it’s too late now, especially with another girl missing. I already know what they would say. They would say things like, “Why did you wait this long before coming forward?” and “Leslie Farrhouse isn’t even a real person, she never existed, there were only three Farrhouse kids,” and “What were you really doing there the night that Rachel and Rory died in the hole?”
And what could I say? I have no proof. Sure, I could lead them to Leslie at the flower shop, but she’s changed her name and dyed her hair. She pretends she doesn’t even know me, she says we’ve never met. So that wouldn’t help. And we have a secret we have to keep together after all, her and I.
So I stay silent and drink my Lager. Derek goes home with one (both?) of his girls. Rob goes home with Emily. Eventually I’ll walk home alone.
But sometimes I still make the drive down State Route 20, and I see the exit to Melinda. I always know it’s there. And sometimes maybe I’ll go check on Leslie (from a distance of course), but mostly I just drive on. I know what’s there, after all: red brick buildings that just get more run down every year, an old dynasty scrambling to redeem itself, and somewhere, a deep and rotten pit that still stands as a monument to calamity and grief.
But I hold out hope. I hope that one time I drive that route my eyes will be drawn to the blue tinted mountains in the distance and I won’t notice the old exit, or I’ll think it’ll be just an old oil-change shop, and I’ll continue on. And that will mean that the history there is no longer my history, and that I’m free, and that I’m right.
History may run deep in these valleys, but the better part is in the forgetting.