Chapter 2 — A.D. 2001
It was sunny, real deep blue skies just above north-central Indiana but tall clouds the color of fresh-laid tarvy were grumbling in the west, headed thisaway. And that isn’t just meant to be foreshadowing of the trials and tribulations that I, Zane Truax, face in this novel: it was really ready to rain like a son of a gun. And there I was with a shopping bag and my highly-sensitive-to-moisture metal detector, sitting on the curb like a dumbass outside of a Mitchell’s Superstore, hoping my ride was going to get there before the storm did.
Zane is actually my middle name. My parents were both high school teachers, and they thought it would be great to name me Holden, like Holden Caulfield? I think they hoped that I would take after him, seeing through everyone's façade and whatnot. And for a while, that was okay. I could even see some similarities between me and my literary namesake. We both hated the fakeness of forced social interactions, and small talk, and having to pretend to like everyone even though you’ve just met them and you can tell that they're not really anyone you'd want to spend longer than five minutes with.
When I got to high school myself and we read The Catcher in the Rye in an honors English class, it was funny for a while, after classmates made the connection between my name and the book, to do my Holden impression and say 'Yeah, I think you're a real goddam phony, if you want to know the truth.' The problem is that it was funny for them a lot longer than it was funny for me, and after repeating my spiel about a thousand times, I started wishing that my parents had given me a different name. Then I got older, and the personal associations between me and Holden Caulfield just started to drift away. It sort of stopped defining my personality at some point. It's great to hold idealistic personal convictions and curse the darkness and all that, but now I have to make money to eat and pay the bills and everything. So I started going by Zane.
Sorry, let me back up. Even with this new, more mature-sounding first name, I guess making money has still been a problem ever since I graduated from college. I guess I’m what you call an introvert. Not shy, necessarily. I just don’t care about running my mouth off forever like most people, and I like to spend time by myself. Don’t need anyone to entertain me, and I keep busy with my own things. I have exactly one good friend, Brock, who is actually the one I’m waiting on right now.
When I do need to have social interactions with other people, my thoughts come out all jumbled a lot of the time, especially if I’m talking to people that I don’t know very well. It’s like I’m just spitting out this stream-of-consciousness that’s in my head, without filters or organization. And then I look at the confused expression on the other person’s face, and I wonder what they’re thinking about me. How they’re judging me, going, “This guy must have something wrong with him, some sort of mental problem.” And worrying about that makes things even worse, so I just kinda trail off my thoughts and then shut up and sit around, feeling embarrassed for myself. I have a much easier time expressing myself in writing than I do in person because I just need that little extra bit of time to compose my thoughts. Asynchronous communication is my thing.
In school, being the quiet type isn’t usually a problem. The teachers actually like it if you sit there and listen, and I can get lost in my thoughts. In America, in the working world though, the people who get rewarded are the pushy, loudmouth, asshole types. Anyone else gets looked down on as “not aggressive enough, not a go-getter, not a team player.” So my job experiences haven’t been the greatest, and I floated around to a couple of different low-level graphic design jobs, doing logos or brochures or whatever until my boss decides I’m not enough of a go-getter and cuts me loose.
About two years ago, I did make a little money suing an ex-employer of mine, MediaPimpz. Not a huge amount, but enough to live on for a little while without having to work. One day my boss pulled me into his office and closed the door and started yelling at me, venting, for not keeping up with current design trends or something, and how some client didn’t like the work I submitted, and basically laying the failure of some whole project on me. After a few such incidents with bosses, I learned to start carrying a small tape recorder and documenting these tirades. Then I filed a lawsuit alleging that the original job posting to which I had replied created an employment contract with its unmitigated promises of a "super cool and fun environment that will make you love coming to work every morning!" and that the chewing-out constituted a breach of said contract. I probably didn't have a leg to stand on, legally speaking, but MediaPimpz’s lawyer weighed the possibility of a drawn-out trial and negative publicity against a payout of say, $30,000, and decided on the latter to make me go away.
Now the bullet point in the current MediaPimpz job posting regarding the fun work environment is followed by an asterisk and the mouse-print disclaimer, "*at the discretion of management."
Most people would look at 30k and think, “That isn’t even enough to live on for one year!” Well, I’m low-maintenance. I don’t have a car. Partly because cars are just a total waste of money and resources, partly because I can no longer get a loan after I stopped paying some of my bills and wrecked my credit rating. If I’m being completely honest, it’s really more because of the second reason than the first, but I definitely do hate cars, and I hate driving. I despise feeling that I have to work just so that I can pay for a car, and I only have the car so I can drive myself to work. Maybe in the 1920s when driving was a new thing, having a car would have been something to get excited about. But in 2001, a car is just a ball and chain that drags me down. So I sold it. Now I get around by bike, or by bus, or by bumming rides from Brock.
I was really hoping he’d show up soon. I’d been sitting on the curb outside this grey concrete big-box store for half an hour, watching the storm blow in. It was getting close and I could see flashes of lightning behind the clouds in the distance. Still no thunder, so it was outside the realm of the general “lightning-strike-distance” calculation, the one where you count the number of seconds between seeing the strike and hearing the thunder, and then divide by five. That tells you how many miles away the lightning is. The main thing irritating me was seeing all these old Republican-type people shooting me looks as they came and went from the store to their cars, judging me. They probably thought that since I wasn’t at work or school on a Friday morning, I must’ve been a vagrant, or some kind of a troublemaking teen, even though I’m twenty-four years old and far beyond the teen years. “Those kids,” they were probably saying. “Why can’t they just act like decent human beings?” Well, I was silently judging them right back: Hey Mrs. Blue-Hair! Did you see something on a TV commercial that you just couldn’t live without? Those commercials get in your head, make you feel like you were falling behind your friends in the consumption game? You wouldn’t want to miss out on living the full, happy life that only some piece of plastic garbage can provide. Just think of the possibilities when you hold it in your hands. And then you’ll take it home, use it for a week or two, and then stick it in some dusty cabinet somewhere, forgotten for years until you finally sell it in a yard sale for a quarter.
Did I mention that I’m a bit of a misanthrope? Yeah, I admit it. But being a misanthrope comes with its own set of advantages, one of which is not caring about how many friends I have, or having the latest products to impress them with. And definitely no girlfriend. The ladies look down on a guy who doesn’t have a car, and I look down on them right back for being slaves to advertising and consumerism.
Besides not owning a car, I keep my costs low in lots of other ways that I think are pretty creative. I buy clothes from thrift stores. This is one area of my life where marketing’s lies actually work in my favor. The marketeers tell the go-getters that it’s a new season and their clothes are no longer in style, so they’ll need to “freshen up their wardrobes” if they want to impress the boss and land that big promotion. Then these folks gather up all the gently-used clothing that they purchased only last spring and donate it to the nearest thrift shop. That’s when I swoop in and buy five shirts, two pairs of pants, a pair of shoes and a belt for the same price that I’d pay for one new shirt at the mall. Sure, I’m not up-to-date with my fashion. Do I even care? Not a bit. Plus, this is Indiana, we’re generally behind the coasts by about ten years in fashion anyway. So ninety percent of the people I meet wouldn’t know the difference.
Beads of sweat were starting to roll down the crack of my ass, and I shifted the metal detector to my other shoulder. This was the first really warm day of spring so far, and the heat reflecting from the ocean of parking lot wasn’t helping any. My thrift-store Banana Republic shirt (the one that I removed the embroidered logo from with a stitch ripper – if they want to advertise on my shirt, they should be paying me) was already showing patches of wetness in front. Even though it was a short-sleeved shirt, the humidity made it feel like I was wearing a slightly damp wool blanket. There’s that white and wispy old cliché in Indiana: if you don’t like the weather now, just wait five minutes. Well, it had been almost an hour and that storm still hadn’t showed to cool things down any. It pulled up short, like it was waiting for something.
Where the hell was Brock? I took a deep breath and started my “Zen waiting” routine. Any time I get upset or anxious about anything, I remind myself that 1) I don’t really have a job to worry about, or any deadlines or responsibilities to speak of, 2) I hate whiners, so I don’t want to be one, and 3) he’ll get here when he gets here. I should live in the moment and enjoy this.
I tried to visualize Brock’s exact point in space at this moment. His truck is somewhere on the road, probably, headed in this direction. Maybe stopped at a red light down the street… I craned my neck to look. Some lady with an overstuffed shopping cart screamed at her kids to stop biting each other and it broke my focus.
That storm was getting closer. Lightning strike… one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five Mississippi, six… rumble rumble. So that lightning strike was just over a mile away. I got up to move to a bench in an alcove near the store entrance. Wouldn’t be able to see as well from there, but at least I wouldn’t get rained on when the skies opened up. Just as I was about to sit, I heard the singular, metallic clanging pattern of Brock’s beat-to-hell pickup as it pulled alongside the curb.
“HOLDEN!” Brock was yelling out the window. “They’ve been looking all over for you at Pencey Prep.” Brock and I went to the same public school, so he knew all about my feelings for The Catcher in the Rye and that whole deal.
“Thanks, ya Cock!” I yelled back. We’ll pretend that the reason I occasionally refer to Brock as “Cock” is because his downward-pointing nose reminds me of a chicken’s beak. That’s the only way I can get away with this in a Young Adult novel. I don’t want your parents sending around petitions to get this removed from the library shelves. I laid the metal detector gently in the truck’s bed and covered it with a plastic tarp before stepping onto the rusty running board and hoisting myself inside, sweeping a pile of crumpled papers, a map, an inside-out shirt, two empty cans, and some CD cases onto the floor as I did so.
Brock looked at the mess and said, “Guh. I had that just the way I wanted it, man.”
I ignored him. “How goes Mrs. Glazer’s place?”
“Almost one whole room cleared out. We can move in pretty soon.” Brock pulled out of the parking lot as I settled back into my seat. This was another of my many clever methods of keeping living expenses down. Brock’s dad’s college friend was one of those guys who flip houses. That is, they bought it as cheap as possible, fixed it up a little, and then sold it for a profit. So Mr. Armisen (the house flipper) got ahold of this hoarder’s place. The lady who had lived there previously, Mrs. Glazer, had some mental problems, in that she never threw anything away. Her house was stacked, floor to ceiling in most places, with trash. Literally. It wasn’t even useful stuff, it was old newspapers, and books that had gotten wet when the ceiling sagged to let water in during thunderstorms, and bundles of moldy children’s clothes, and scratched LPs, and broken furniture, and cracked plates, cups, serving dishes, and about forty straw brooms (not that she ever cleaned), and dead potted plants, and old soda cans, water bottles, cardboard food containers, candy wrappers, and a lot of things I couldn’t even identify. There were only narrow passages through the garbage, leading from room to room. At some point, her toilet had stopped working. She wanted to have a plumber in to fix it, but every one she called took one look at the roaches crawling all over everything and bolted. I guess she continued to do her thing in the toilet for a while until it filled up, then she started saving her waste in little baby food jars and storing them in the basement. Believe me when I say it was a hellacious sight, and that’s why Mr. Armisen got the whole 2,000 square foot house for about eighteen thousand dollars. He was asking around for someone to fix the place up, and I guess Brock and I are not as smart as the plumbers because we agreed to do the work in exchange for a small stipend and being allowed to live in the place rent-free while we did the cleanup and repairs. We figured that it would take the two of us at least a year to remove all the trash, strip everything down to bare walls and floors, repaint, refinish, fix the roof, and everything. Mr. Armisen wasn’t putting too much pressure on us as long as we kept making progress and got the job done eventually.
Did I mention that Mrs. Glazer had died in there? Yeah. A neighbor called the police when they smelled something like rot coming from the place, and when the cops broke down the door, they found her buried under a stack of old televisions, flattened by her own hoard. Some of the twenty cats she also kept in the house had eaten part of her, too, when they got hungry. I guess she used to cut open a whole forty pound bag of kibble and dump it on the floor for them. When she passed away and that last pile of food was eaten, she was meat.
Living in a place where something like that happened might freak some people out, but I guess I have a bit of a morbid side. I know it’s kind of a contradiction, but I’d love to see a ghost, even though I don’t have a reason to believe in them myself. Seeing a ghost or hearing a voice or something would be like confirmation that there is some sort of existence after death, but all the evidence that people have shown me just seems like wishful thinking at best and complete delusion at worst. Like orb photos? Dust in the air. EVP recordings? Just your brain’s way of finding patterns in random noise. Electromagnetic fluctuations? Electromagnetic fields are always fluctuating, just like the temperature, which explains cold spots. And the people who recount their own personal haunting stories? Well, everyone loves to hear a good ghost story, but that doesn’t make them true. I would need to see some sort of paranormal activity myself, and even then I know that there would probably be some rational explanation. Still, the potential for something like that was exciting. And the creepy or uneasy feelings that I’d get from thinking about it kept my life interesting, just a little more exciting than the typical day-to-day.
My paranormal fascination is also what prompted this little adventure we were on—Brock and I were headed to a storied cemetery way out in the country, to see what there was to see. Discovering and exploring abandoned places was a hobby of mine. I’d been doing research on the ghost stories and legends surrounding this latest location for a week.
“This weather doesn’t look good,” said Brock, crouching over the steering wheel to peer up through the windshield.
“It’s fine, a little rain. Probably blow over by the time we get to Hauser’s Wood.”
“That looks like more than a little rain, man.”
“Well, if you’d gotten here earlier…”
Brock didn’t respond but drove west toward the storm clouds, the truck bouncing and rattling its way outside the Broadacre municipal limits on Route 124. We passed the cloned houses of the suburbs. Most people from these parts thought of Broadacre as the “big city” since it was the largest settlement for miles around, but it was really just a middle-sized town by the strict, legal definition. The population has been declining from its peak of 41,413 in 1963, and is less than 20,000 today. Nobody wants to stay in Indiana anymore. They either move north to Chicago, or south to Indianapolis. Or they get out of the Midwest entirely, if they can. There have been some moves toward redevelopment in the area recently, some new industries moving in, but I don’t know. We’ll see how that goes.
“Whatdja get from Mitchell’s?” Brock jerked his head, motioning toward the plastic bag I carried. By the way, it’s really Mitchell Superstore, but in Indiana we put an extra ‘s’ on the end of company names, to make them possessive. I don’t know why, don’t judge me. Kroger becomes Kroger’s, Marsh is Marsh’s, so Mitchell is Mitchell’s. Sometimes people who have lived here even longer than Brock and I put yet another possessive on the end, saying “Mitchell’s’es” which even I have to admit doesn’t make any sense at all.
“Tracing paper, charcoal sticks…” Just then, we hit the edge of the rain. Fat drops splattered against the windshield. It was actually a bit of an improvement to the visibility because Brock never washes his truck and there was bug mess and dirt smeared all over the glass. He turned on the wipers and tuned the radio to WWAI, the only FM station we can receive clearly in Broadacre, hoping for a weather broadcast but getting old school rap instead.
“Fresh!” I said, not entirely ironically.
Brock looked concerned. He was always the cautious one, and since he had survived a tornado touchdown in his youth that demolished his elementary school’s gymnasium while he and twenty-five other kids plus their teacher huddled in the girl’s bathroom just down the hall, I couldn’t really blame him. Tornados are common enough in Indiana that safety procedures were drilled into us from a young age. The rain intensified from a clatter to a racket. “I’m gonna go back.”
“Come on, it’s just rain.”
“This looks like tornado weather.” Brock was looking for a place to turn around. Outside, the rain swirled. It was still too early in the growing season for tall corn to block the vistas on either side of the road, so we could see winds buffeting trees far out in the distance. No sign of a funnel cloud yet, though.
“Wait ‘till we get the weather report,” I said. I was whining a bit now. Brock shook his head and we sped on. Our excursion had been planned for a month, I had been looking forward to this intensely, and I guess my survival instinct just wasn’t as honed as Brock’s. Just then, dissonant tones of a weather warning interrupted The Fat Boys’ dope beats.
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN INDIANAPOLIS HAS ISSUED A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WARNING FOR CARROLL COUNTY, HOWARD COUNTY, MIAMI COUNTY, SALAMONIE COUNTY…
“That’s us,” Brock said.
SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS PRODUCE DAMAGING WINDS IN EXCESS OF 60 MILES PER HOUR… DEADLY LIGHTNING AND VERY HEAVY RAIN. FOR YOUR PROTECTION MOVE TO AN INTERIOR ROOM ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF A BUILDING.
If there was a building here, in the middle of the cornfields, I thought. Even with the wiper speed turned up to maximum, the rain was making it difficult to see through the windshield, and visibility was a couple hundred feet at most. Brock was starting to look pretty bad: his face looked damp and his hands were shaking. He’s prone to panic attacks and it’s not a pretty sight. Plus he just can’t function when he gets like that.
“See, it’s not a tornado warning.”
“I’m never going anywhere with you ever again,” Brock said, hitting the steering wheel with his palm on every second or third word.
A lightning flash… one Mississippi… BOOM. I didn’t even have to do the calculation, that one was right above us.
The lightning briefly illuminated one of those green informational road signs. “Daleville - 1 Mile.” Perfect. I told Brock in the calmest voice I could muster, “Let’s get to Daleville, and we can knock on somebody’s door or at least find a bridge or overpass to park under while the storm blows over.” Contrary to what you might think, I do have a heart. I looked at him and added, “Hang in there, bud.”
Brock snorted but kept on driving.
Then he saw it. An immense black cloud, an inverted cone stretching from the ground all the way up into the heavens where it merged with the storm, became visible through the murk.
“Jesus!” Brock pushed the brake pedal all the way down to the floor, really leaning into it with his full weight. The truck skidded on wet pavement, but somehow we stayed on the road. The image that immediately flashed into my mind was drawn from those epic poems we read so many years ago in English class, like Jason and the Argonauts battling that giant statue of Talos. Or Perseus seeing the Kraken. Actually, I might be visualizing the stop-action sequences from old movies, and not the myths themselves. Whatever.
Brock jerked the gearshift into reverse and backed up, nearly spinning out and turning the truck broadside to the danger. Now I was closest, with nothing between me and the hundred-story finger of God but a thin sheet of glass and a half-mile of empty fields. I couldn’t stop staring at the undulating beast. I’d never seen a tornado before outside of TV news, and this one had large flames licking its base. At least it wasn’t moving toward us. In fact, it wasn’t moving at all.
Brock was more or less standing on the accelerator now, which caused the back wheels to spin fruitlessly on the wet road. The truck’s rear drifted left a bit, then right, but we only moved forward by a few inches.
“Hold up!” I grabbed the wheel. Brock pushed me away, hard, against the passenger-side door. I held on to the wheel and pointed. “It’s not a tornado!” I said. “Something’s on fire over there.”
Brock stopped, looked, and eased up on the accelerator until the truck shuddered and quit. He was breathing really fast, probably hyperventilating. Without taking his eyes off the tower of smoke, he slowly lowered his chin onto the wheel. I’d seen him like this before. “Brock, jump out. I’ll drive.” Pretending to be a take-charge kind of guy seemed to be the best option, but I just don’t come across as forceful under any circumstances. Brock was still staring straight ahead, taking in short, clipped breaths. I got out of the truck and was immediately soaked. Ran around to the driver’s side, pulled the door open and pushed Brock until he moved to the passenger seat. Then I wheeled the truck around, gently eased the accelerator down to let the tires grip the road, and headed back toward the black cloud.
“Just take us home,” Brock said flatly.
“There might be somebody needs our help. Even if they don’t, we can find a place to pull over and wait.” I flipped off the A/C. My wet clothes were sticking to me and it was freezing. Water beaded on my glasses and ran through my hair. I turned off on the gravel drive leading to the conflagration.
Now we could see what was happening: it was a house ablaze. An old white farmhouse was completely engulfed in flames, the top floor already gone, with thick, black balls of smoke rapidly rolling out the top where the roof used to be. The rain didn’t seem to be slowing down the fire’s consumption of the building at all. A single firetruck, an SUV with “Salamonie County Fire Chief” painted on the side, and a bulldozer were parked nearby. I could see people inside the vehicles but no one was fighting the fire. Odd. I turned off the drive, bumped over the rutted yard, and rolled up to the nearest vehicle. The driver reciprocated when I rolled my window down a crack. Intense heat pushed into the truck, and it felt pretty good. The woman inside the SUV was frowning, eye wrinkles highlighted by her lack of makeup. She was thin but muscular, her dirty blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail.
“You guys need to get back to the main road!” I couldn’t tell if she was shouting at me because she was angry, or because she was just straining to be heard over the wind, rain and roaring fire. Wet mounds of ash were starting to build up on the windshield at the edges of the wipers’ range.
“Was it a lightning strike? I thought, uh… maybe we should get over here and see if we could help, we saw the smoke and thought it was a tornado… Um, and then my friend freaked out, and then we, uh… saw the fire and thought somebody might need help, or we could…” I got nervous, talking to a strange woman who looked like she could put a serious hurt on me.
She shook her head. “It’s a controlled burn. We’re just waiting for the rain to stop.” I looked again and saw the fire chief badge on a lanyard around her neck. She must have been giving us the once over too, because she motioned to Brock who was sitting quietly in the passenger seat with head in his hands, elbows on knees, shuddering. “Is that guy okay?”
“He’s having a panic attack,” I said. “Is there somewhere we can pull off in Daleville, maybe under a bridge, or um… behind a building or something? Or somewhere we could go, like…”
“There’s a barn about three hundred yards back.” She pointed to a path behind the house, two muddy ruts leading away through an overgrown field that obviously hadn’t been maintained in years and was rapidly returning to its natural state. “It’s sturdy, the doors are gone. I’m sure you can get your truck in there.”
I thanked her with a clumsy salute, which she frowned at, and gently pressed down on the gas, easing toward the path, staying as far away from the inferno as I could. We disappeared into a natural tunnel, with branches cracking and squealing as they clawed down the sides of Brock’s truck. Just like the fire chief told us, the path ended at a weathered grey barn. It didn’t even open onto a clearing with the barn in the middle, like I’d imagined—it had been so long since this place was used for any type of agricultural purpose that the Indiana prairie had reclaimed it like an Aztec temple lost in the rainforest. Saplings and underbrush were growing right up to the barn’s foundations and the path led straight to the open door. Getting the truck inside was simple; I had about ten feet of clearance on each side. It was probably originally meant to house a large tractor. I killed the engine and let out the breath I’d been holding since about the time I took over the driver’s seat.
“Hey Brock, how ya holdin’ up?” He was staring out the window. His breathing seemed to have slowed.
“Little better. Kinda out of it. Dizzy.”
I opened my door. “Are you coming out? Got a whole creepy barn to explore here.”
“I’m just going to sit for a little while.” He opened the glovebox and handed me a flashlight.
He was going to be all right. Couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy, but really the only thing he could do was wait until the attack had subsided. It was so random, though. Sometimes he would start to panic because of some kind of stressful event, like bad weather, but usually the attacks would come on for no reason that I could tell, and he just had to stop whatever he was doing. Made it hard for Brock to hold down any type of normal job, which is why this hoarder housecleaning gig was so perfect. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do after that, but I tried not to think about it.
I clicked on the flashlight and took a look around. One side of the barn was all horse stalls, maybe four or five, their floors dirty straw over hard, packed dirt. No horses obviously, but one stall had become the final resting place for some sort of animal, maybe an opossum or raccoon. Its skeleton, completely intact, curled atop a matted pile of fur. The creature’s skull grinned blankly at the wall. Tacked to a beam above the stall was a row of crumbling contest ribbons. I touched them and read the text aloud.
“Simon. County Horse Show, Reserve Champion. Simon. All Breed Horse Show, Third Place. Simon. First Place, Tack and Saddle Club. Rhubarb. Salamonie County Fair, Second Place.” Many were threadbare and illegible, and there must have been even more here at one point, judging from the number of nails sticking out with nothing hanging from them.
An intense gust of wind heaved against the side of the barn, making the whole thing creak and groan. I imagined the weakened structure just sort of giving up and falling over, and I started to wonder how safe this place really was. The logical part of my brain took over, though: if this barn has been standing for decades I’m sure it has weathered a lot worse storms than this.
On the other side of the barn, behind some empty cabinets and a workbench, I found a ladder leading up into the hayloft. It seemed sturdy enough, made from thick, solid beams the size of railroad ties, so I put the flashlight in my pocket and ascended, peeking over the top to check for vicious animals, ghosts, vagrants, killers, or anything else that might be dangerous. Grey and smoky light from a broken window projected an elongated rhombus onto the thin covering of hay that still remained. The loft was really nothing more than a shelf below the peak of the roof, maybe twenty feet from front to back. Everything looked still and quiet here, despite the thunderstorm outside. I hauled myself over the edge and sat back against the wall.
In there, away from the raging elements, it was surprisingly comfortable. That is, I wouldn’t normally have thought of a dark, decaying barn on an abandoned farm in the middle of the country with spiders and dead animals and who knows what else to be a place I’d like to spend any amount of time, but in comparison to an inferno in the middle of a thunderstorm, it was our protector. Like it had wrapped its big arms around me and Brock and was defending us, if only temporarily, from the world outside. That brought me to another curious thought: that if the fire department is burning the farmhouse, this barn must be next. Maybe they’re going to burn it before the end of the day, right after the rain lets up, and maybe I’m the last person who will ever see this place as it was, the place where animals slept, and a little kid raised her show horses, and farmers toiled for decades. Maybe a century or more. After they burn it, the very place where I am sitting right now, on dry hay and ancient timbers, will be just a nondescript point twenty feet up in the air. I closed my eyes, feeling drowsy as the echoing rain on the barn calmed my nerves.
Lost in my reverie, I didn’t hear Brock get out of the truck and start climbing the ladder until he was almost to the top. “You up here?” he called.
“Yep.” I reached out to grasp his hand and pull him up into the loft. He settled back against the wall opposite, my mirror image, divided by dust and smoke swirling through the shaft of light. For a moment, it was quiet in the darkness.
Brock DeKalb and I had known each other ever since the seventh week of fourth grade. He was actually a year younger than me but got skipped ahead in the middle of the semester. I still remember seeing that now familiar look of panic on his face when Mrs. Cabot, his third grade teacher, introduced him to our class. She had led him all the way down the hall with his books, lunch box, backpack, an armload of school supplies, and a garbage bag full of papers from his desk. His clothes were rumpled and his dark hair was wild. He looked like a refugee.
Mrs. Cabot had been my third grade teacher too, the year prior. She whispered something to Mr. Duvall, the fourth grade teacher, and I’m thinking she suggested that we be seated together. She probably knew us both well enough to understand, even though we didn’t at the time, that we’d be good for each other. My first impression was that Brock was a little strange. I could see an orange extension cord trailing from his backpack, even though he didn’t seem to have any devices that required electricity. Mr. Duvall made my friend Rick get up and move to a desk at the back of the room—not cool—and Brock sat down next to me in the empty seat. I didn’t say anything to him at all until he started following me around at recess. I guess he saw the “Reagan/Bush ‘84” pin that I had on my jean jacket and struck up a conversation.
“I’d vote for Mondale. He’ll get rid of all the nukes,” Brock said.
“Then how are we going to fight the Russians?”
“Look, when the Nazis used nukes in World War I, the Earth got a little shaky. Then the U.S. used nukes in World War II and Earth got all these cracks in it. If somebody uses nukes in World War III, the whole world is just going to blast apart into space and we’ll all be dead.” I mean sure, we didn’t have any idea what we were even talking about, but it made me feel grown up to be discussing the big issues of the day, rather than playing dodge ball with the other kids that I generally hated. Though my classmates usually left me alone, they were soon tormenting Brock daily for his looks, for dressing badly, for being younger, for his unusual interests, or sometimes for no discernible reason at all. I can’t honestly say that I was his protector. I had developed enough of a basic middle school survival instinct to know that standing up to those with the power was a sure way to bring the heat down on myself, and so we just stuck together and tried to avoid everyone else when we could. Over the years we collected a small circle of outcasts: Timothy, the guy who was always drawing monsters and buxom Valkyrie warriors in his notebooks, and Jeff, the guy who was really into marching band, and Daniel, the guy who was secretly gay. Our hermetic group reinforced our “otherness” and we started to view it as a badge of honor, kind of like the way the “rednecks” at our school took back that epithet and began to self-apply it as a way to show their pride and to create a group identity. We were the “weird kids” and we didn’t need anyone’s approval. Need more evidence? Consider this: Brock was a member of the Speech and Debate team, and I was involved in technical theatre, running lights and sound for all the plays.
Brock and I remained friends throughout high school, until we went to separate colleges and had only occasional contact by email for several years. It wasn’t until a year and a half ago that I ran into him again at a bank on the outskirts of Broadacre. I was surprised that he was back in town. I’d always figured that he would head off to Chicago or Indianapolis and have some sort of semi-important professional career. Maybe he thought the same about me. We both got good grades in school, graduated from college… something inside us just wasn’t compatible with the real world. After some catching up, it was almost as though no time had passed at all. Where we used to bond over our ostracism from our schoolmates and their social circles, now we bonded over our ostracism from co-workers and power circles at our places of employment.
Lightning flashed again, but the gap between the flash and the rumble of thunder was increasing, meaning that the storm was finally moving off. “They’re gonna torch this place next,” I said. Brock didn’t respond. “After the rain. I bet we’re the last people to ever sit here.”
“We should have turned around before we even got to the rain.”
“Well, then I would’ve never gotten to see this.”
“Obviously, you don’t think about anyone but yourself.”
“Hey, what are you mad about?”
“It’s an old barn. We could have died.”
“Come on.” I got that Brock had some issues, but whatever. The best way to get him to cheer up was just to give in. “Ok, look. It’s my bad. Can we get over it?”
Brock shrugged. He stood and shuffled to the window. “Rain’s letting up,” he said. “Zane, look at this.”
I rolled onto my stomach and pushed myself to a standing position, shaking off the pins and needles in my left leg. Guess I’d been sitting there for a while. I followed the invisible line drawn by Brock’s pointing finger through the window, past the tree canopy and into the brush on the ground. There, in an overgrown hollow, was a gravestone. Even from our distance in the hayloft, the name was large enough to be legible. “Abigail Gustwiller.”
A chill ran through me. I still don’t believe in the supernatural, but when you’re holed up in a dark barn near the spot where someone was buried, it’s a lot easier to believe in the possibility of something out there, lurking. Almost unconsciously, I looked over my shoulder, scanning the darkness for any signs of movement. Brock laughed.
“Are you looking for her ghost?” he said.
“Jesus. Ghosts aren’t real.” I’m not sure who I was trying to convince, Brock or myself. “Do you think that’s the girl who kept the show horses?”
Brock shrugged again. “Not sure there’s any way to know.” I headed for the ladder. “Are you scared now? I thought you liked this stuff.”
“We’d just better get to the cemetery.” It’s hard to explain. Like I said, I really think there’s usually a better natural explanation for things when people think they see a ghost, and visiting creepy abandoned places gives me something like a natural shot of adrenaline. But occasionally my imagination just gets the better of me. I could tell that Brock was enjoying this as payback for being dragged out here in tornado weather. After dropping the last few feet from the ladder, I headed outside to catch a better look at the grave and felt a little less disturbed when I got out into the light. It was still sprinkling a bit, but the worst of the rain was over. I thrashed through the weeds. Below the name on the stone was inscribed, “b. July 8 1947, d. June 21 1960”.
“She was only thirteen.”
“Twelve,” replied Brock. Math was never one of my strongest subjects—I’m more of a liberal arts guy. I mean, I liked learning about theories in hard sciences like physics and mathematics. Quantum mechanics, relativity, weird patterns in prime numbers. All those things were interesting to me. The part of my brain that does rote calculations just doesn’t work very well, I guess. Anyway.
We stood reverently at Abigail’s grave, both feeling the gravitational pull of a life lived from across the decades, waiting half-expectantly to be contacted by a spirit who would tell us who this girl was and how she died, what she wanted from us, or how her spirit could be laid to rest. Hundreds of ghost stories, horror films and myths drilled into us that this was what we were supposed to do, that this was the way it worked. When a long minute passed and nothing happened, Brock punched me lightly in the arm and returned to the truck. It felt a little like a defeat, just one more piece of evidence against the paranormal, supporting only the idea that nothing happens after death but slow decomposition in a hole in the ground. When I heard the engine turn over I sighed and climbed back into the truck.
Brock backed out of the barn and bumped down the narrow path into the clearing by the farmhouse which was only smoking now, the fire having reduced the whole thing to ash and blackened timbers. The fire chief was still inside her SUV, watching us with a tight-lipped expression of distrust. Brock raised a hand in thanks, and she nodded almost imperceptibly. We turned back onto Indiana Route 124 and continued on our way.