He'd been left at home with their neighbour while they took his little sister to the movies as a birthday treat. Try as he might he can't recall what the movie was they were going to see. All he knows is when the gunman opened fire, in the packed theatre his whole family were wiped out and he never saw them again. Apparently this is reason for a teenager to find a difference in him, to poke fun and tease him. Like this was something he had any control over. Archie keeps his head down and tries to ignore them, he can never understand people. He much prefers animals.
Having no money is something he plans to change today, he walks the five miles to Yew Tree farm, a horse yard which has seen better days. This can be said for most things in the town. Knocking on the farmhouse door, the door is yanked open, as though the man mountain in front of him were poised ready to yank the cracked door open.
"Wadda you want?" He barked.
Archie can't help but take an involuntary step backwards, along with a sharp intake of breath at who confronts him.
"I--" he began to stutter. The man's eyebrows are knitted together in a scowl, which slowly part and his face melts into a warm smile. Archie isn't sure if this scares him more.
He is going to murder me and bury me on his land, this is why he's smiling. I've walked in to a trap.
"Don't be scared I was expecting someone else, how can I help you young squire?"
"I need money," Archie said.
This is going well so far, now he's going to think I'm begging.
"I mean I'm looking for a job."
"Are you indeed, and what can you do?"
"Nothing much," Archie admitted honestly.
The man lets out a chuckle which doesn't sound as though the noise comes from him at all, much better suited to a little school girl.
"I like you, an’ your honesty, I'm Tony, what's your name?"
"Well Archie, are your parents OK with you getting a job?"
"Sorry, mine are too. Tell you what, I could do with a hand clearing out the old barn and tarting things up a bit so we can have some of the local stuck up horsey types to rent them. Can you manage that?"
"Yeah," Archie nodded enthusiastically. "Can you pay me when I am done though, so no one steals my money?"
"Deal," he shoved his massive shovel of a hand towards Archie, the hand swallows Archies.
I wonder if my hands will become as huge as his from working on the farm, no one will mess with me if I have shovel fists.
Tony leads the way to the barn, cocking his head to the corner where stands a bunch of various tools, some in better condition than others. Taking a cursory glance around as Tony returns to the farmhouse to wait for whoever he mistook Archie for earlier.
Long forgotten machinery which resembles some weird hybrid of a mechanical dinosaur skeleton, crossed with a scarecrow, who's stuffing of straw is bleeding out.
The air is damp, with dust motes dancing in the strips of sunlight slicing through the many holes littering the barn walls.
Stairways to heaven, if I could walk up one I would be able to visit my family. Archie sets to work using a large yard brush, to brush out the stable stalls. By the time he gets to the last one his pale face is bright red with beads of sweat running into his eyes. Boxes are piled high and he takes a breather, sitting on one of the boxes and absently pawing through the contents of another.
The box contains all manner of junk, an old typewriter with keys frozen in the act of striking the paper, never to finish the word. Barn, is scrawled in red marker pen on the side of the box.
Rubbish may be more appropriate.
Archie removes the typewriter and the ream of yellowed paper the typewriter sits on. A red light is glowing through a dust sheet.
Pulling out the shape wrapped in the dust sheet he walks to sit in a patch of sunlight from one of the holes, one of his stairways to heaven.
Carefully unwrapping the contents, Archie pushes the dusty sheet out of his way. His nose starts to tingle with the promise of a sneeze, a result of dust filling the barn. He begins to investigate an old fashioned answerphone, which is where the glowing light is coming from, next to the word 'power.'
This can't still work, the machine is not plugged into any power source and looks ancient.
On closer inspection the machine has a cassette tape inserted, Archie turns it over and over in his hands trying to find where the power source is. No sliding compartment for batteries, and certainly no plug leading to a socket. The contraption being rechargeable is completely out of the question.
Shaking his head in bewilderment he presses play, a tightness grips his chest. The sensation of ice follows all the way down from his chest to his toes and stretches as far as his head. He hasn't realised he has dropped the machine, or that he has scooted back a good arms distance away, until he starts to scrabble his way back towards it, slamming his finger on the stop button.
This can't be, what? How can this be, no it can't—Mum?
"Yes sweetheart, I'm here."
How is the voice coming from the machine after I pressed stop?
"Not everything is black and white Archie, some things aren't meant to make sense or be explained."
"We are so proud of you, but you have to leave. This place isn't safe, and those children, the bullies. They are a bad lot, I don't want you getting mixed up with them."
Where will I go?
"Anywhere, use the money from Tony, Tony will help you. Stay here, stay safe."
The light switched off from the answer phone as the sun went behind a cloud and the shaft of sunlight the machine had been in vanished. Archie wondered if he imagined his mother's voice, he presses play, only to be greeted by static.
"How you gettin' on?"
Tony's voice made Archie jump out of his skin.
"Yeah, not too bad."
"You ok, you look like you’ve seen a ghost?"
Do I tell him, this stranger, but who else have I got to tell though?
"Something weird happened, I thought I heard my mum's voice." Archie begins to explain.
Tony came and sat on the floor next to him.
"The world isn't meant to be understood you know, you gotta accept things as they are and not question them too much. What did you think she said?" Tony asked softly. Archie wondered how he had been so wrong with his first impression of the man mountain, who is clearly a gentle giant.
"She told me to leave, to stay away from the bullies and she's proud of me."
"Sounds like wise words, and she's not telling you anything you don't know I guess. Maybe it was your inner voice confirming what you knew?"
Unsure how to ask this, he decides on bluntness.
"Can I sleep in the barn until I finish and you pay me please?"
"Won't people come looking for you?"
"I doubt they will notice I'm gone."
Tony shrugged, "please yourself." Got up and left him, after he thoughtfully leaving him a plate of food outside the door.
It was dark by the time Archie had finished up, he was exhausted. Although he must have checked the answer phone a dozen times, the light remains off and nothing but static is playing. He snuggles down in a corner on some old blankets which Tony left, he’d not wanting to encourage him to stay but also not wanting him to be uncomfortable.
The sound of fire engines blaring through the night wakes Archie with a start, confused by his surroundings until everything comes back to him in a rush. He is sleeping on a barn floor, following the advice of his dead mother, from an answerphone with no power source.
Makes perfect sense.
Heading out of the barn taking another glance at the answer phone and seeing no red power light as he passes. Off in the distance is a red glow in the sky as though dawn is breaking, but no, the sun rises in the east not the west.
What is that?
Starting to walk towards the glow Archie gets to the road as a truck comes hurtling towards him, screeching to a halt. Tony clumsily exits the vehicle due to his size and the speed at which he is manoeuvring himself.
"Back to the barn, you need to stay out of sight," he said, his eyes wild and frantic hustling me along in front of him.
"Your house has been set on fire, I went to see what was goin' on. Heard them talking, they arrested some boys who said they were forced into it by another boy who wanted to teach you a lesson!"
Archie can't belief what Tony is telling him, this is madness. All because he doesn't react to the bullies, doesn't cry, they wanted to kill him!
"Everyone in the house is dead, you’re likely to be pronounced dead, the fire is fierce and they can't approach the blaze. They are only going to find ashes."
"How awful, those poor people this is all my fault!" Archie said his eyes full of sorrow for the senseless loss of innocent lives.
"Don't you dare, how old are you?”
"You have a decision to make, you can go along with this that you die, and are reborn tonight. Run as far away from here as possible and make something with your life, while thanking your dead mother for her warning. Or you can go and own up, tell people you weren't in the house, and be watching over your shoulder for the rest of your life for when those boys are released from prison and come lookin' for you."
Archie took the money he earned from Tony, along with the answer phone never looking back. Twenty years later he returns to the farm, to be told by the owner they have lived in the house for forty years and no, there wasn't ever a barn in the field he is pointing at.
About the Creator
FamiLIES, SJ's debut NA book is out 20th Sept 2023.
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