This is my first published story, "The Barn." It was published in Mudrock: Stories & Tales, volume 2, issue 2, in 2004. The editors of Mudrock Press have went their seperate ways (on good terms) and the magazine will now be known as Mud. Bradey Allen and Scott Geisel were excellent editors to work with. I have set up a link to Mudrock Press.
My father told me to stay away from Mr. Witfield’s barn. He said Mr. Witfield was gone now; that a family from Chicago had bought his farm. I nodded with all the sincerity of a teenager, and my father saw right through it.
"I mean it," my father said. "This isn’t like before. No more sneaking out. No more barn."
I had never seen my father this way. It wasn’t anger that I read on his face — it was fear. Dad always yelled at me for sneaking out to that barn. He did it with a kind of half grin to let me know that the scolding was mostly for the benefit of my mother. After all, Dad knew why I went. I never told him, but somehow he knew.
That barn was the place I went every weekend to meet with Laura Price. It was the perfect spot. Mr. Witfield was old, but that barn was older still. He never used it anymore. It just stood quietly on the back of his farm like an embarrassed child.
Every weekend Laura and I would sneak out and meet up in the loft. It started out innocent enough — just a flirting dare to see how far the other would go. It wasn’t long, though, before natural curiosities took hold. My father understood that; at least I had always believed he did.
I promised my father that I wouldn’t go to the barn, and that I would make sure Laura got the same warning. Satisfied, my father dropped the subject.
In the back of my mind I knew I would get caught — someday. A good beating was sure to follow, but it was worth it. The things I was learning in that loft with Laura Price was worth a lifetime of leather belts and green switches across my backside.
My father seemed to grow more anxious as the weekend approached. He watched me with a different look on his face, like a person trying to steer a small animal in the direction of safety without startling it into the path of harm. I was the picture of calm. I never let my guard down for a minute. Whatever my father read in my face, it wasn’t the truth.
That Friday night my father stayed up longer than usual. Did he think he could get me that easily? I had planned for this. Laura and I weren’t supposed to meet until one o’clock; two hours later than normal. When I heard my parents go to bed at eleven, I felt an excited euphoria pour over me. The stakes were higher tonight, and that made the prize seem all the more sweet. The anticipation from eleven to one nearly killed me. I had to stop myself three times from getting up and leaving early.
When one o’clock finally came, I rolled out of bed, pulled my homemade rope ladder out of its hiding spot, then repelled out of my bedroom window. I crept off of our property with the stealth of a shadow.
The five miles to Mr. Witfield’s farm went by fast. I was young with a purpose — a dangerous concoction. As I stepped over the threshold of the property I felt a shiver run over me. I stopped and looked around. The trees melted into a black backdrop that, when mixed with the bright half-moon, made the barn stick out like a week-old corpse at a beauty pageant.
I began to wonder just where Mr. Witfield had gone. I couldn’t remember anybody talking about the old man moving. We hadn’t been to any funerals. What happened to him? My Dad said he was just gone.
And who was this family from Chicago? I hadn’t heard of any newcomers in town. Hadn’t seen any moving vans, no brown boxes — no lights in Mr. Witfield’s house. Besides, Chicago was a hundred miles away. Why would someone in Chicago buy a farm in Indiana, and not move there?
Then something happened that washed away my curiosities. I remembered Laura was waiting for me in the loft.
My walk to the barn was a strange one. I hate to use the cliche: felt like someone was watching me, but that’s what it was. I had never been frightened of that barn before, but as I stood in front of the large swinging doors, my mind raced with all manner of dangers that might be waiting inside. Maybe it was my father’s vague warning. Or, perhaps, I felt no ominous feelings at all, and it only seems that way now that I look back. It’s been too long to distinguish.
I pushed through the doors, wincing at the shrill creek from the rusted hinges. I could see nothing but darkness. I pulled my pocket flashlight out, turned it on, then moved to the ladder leading to the loft.
I wasn’t sure if Laura was there yet, and I didn’t whisper her name until I reached the top. No answer. She wasn’t there. I found the propane lantern that we left there, lit it, then waited. At that moment I would’ve been glad just to see Laura’s face, even if there wasn’t going to be our normal night of experimenting. I hated the solitude.
I don’t know how long I sat there waiting for Laura to show up, but I knew she should’ve been there by now. I just knew something bad had happened to her. Whatever it was that scared my father — it had found Laura. I had to go look for her.
I stood up and stretched my legs, which were half asleep. Then I heard something that made my heart nearly explode into my throat. It was the sound of a motor gurgling and gravel skipping out from under rubber. It was a car. Someone was driving to the barn.
I jumped in a kind of weak-kneed way at the lantern, nearly knocking it over with my gangly hands. I heard the car stop outside. I looked for the lantern’s gas valve but it was hiding from me. A car door slammed, then another. I just knew my mother and father had come to get me. I was going to get my beating; probably with the lantern if I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.
Then a third car door slammed. I was so thrown by this, I almost forgot about the lantern. I killed the fire just before the barn door opened. Light drifted up from below. I heard footsteps shuffling on the dirt floor.
"Jimmy," a thick, raspy voice said. "Why in the name of the Pope did we come out here?"
A voice that I assumed was Jimmy’s answered: "Tony, will you tell Sammy why we’re here?"
"Because stupid," Tony said, "it’s quiet. Nobody’s watchin. It’s a good place to do business."
I pushed myself up on my hands and knees and crawled towards the edge. Looking back it was a foolish thing to do, but when your young, curiosity outweighs fear. When I got to the ledge, I looked down. I gasped as I saw a small wad of hay fluttering down right over the head of a very large man.
"So whatever happened to the old fart that owned this joint?" the big man asked. It was Sammy.
"You’re standin on him," Jimmy said.
Sammy stepped off the small mound of dirt he was standing on, and the wad of hay drifted down behind him, unnoticed. With that tragedy averted, Jimmy’s words started to seep into my brain. Did he mean what I thought he meant?