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by Catherine Kenwell 5 months ago in Adventure · updated 5 months ago
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For us, the barn was full of ghosts and gothic curiosities

Photo by Jukka Heinovirta on Unsplash

When I look back now, my childhood was full of what I’d call rural gothic horror. We weren’t like kids today, who are tethered by smartphones and GPS. We pretty much did what we wanted, so long as we weren’t caught.

I remember the day it happened. It had been a dry, hot day in a summer filled with dry, hot days. Days were indistinguishable from one another. As an almost-five-year-old, my routine played itself over and over that summer. I’d wake up when the morning sun peeked through my bedroom window, dress myself in most likely the previous day’s denim shorts and t-shirt, chug a glass of OJ, chow down a bowl of Froot Loops, and out I’d run into our rural paradise.

Everything smelled like warm sand and straw in those days. It was a comforting, dusty fragrance that permeated our wood-framed house. Occasionally, a hot breeze would carry the scent of vegetables—mostly onions or celery—from my Mum’s garden. Sometimes, I’d get a whiff of tarpaper from our unfinished garage, the black-papered walls a perfect backdrop for my big brother’s jerry-rigged haunted house, where he used to terrorize me with monster noises and jump scares. Those memories forced me to avert my eyes when I ran past the garage, like I did most mornings. But mostly that summer, the world smelled like sand.

I’d throw open the back door and run around to the side of the house to meet my friend Danny. He usually parked himself in the sandbox long before I appeared each day. Danny’s dinky cars and Tonka trucks were the mainstay of our sandy quarry, and we’d create stories to support the goings-on of all the vehicles in the yard that day.

My Mum said Danny’s parents kicked him out in the morning and told him not to come back until dinnertime. Danny was six years old and had already been to school. His parents let him run like a wild dog, and if he didn’t show up for meals, they were confident a neighbor would feed him—that’s what country families did in those days.

Danny was what my folks called ‘a little dim’ or ‘a few cards short of a full deck’, but he was good company, quiet most of the time, and I’m thinking these days we’d say he was ‘on the spectrum’. Some mean kids from a big family down the road teased him and called him ‘RE-tard’, with the emphasis on the first syllable, but they were always picking their dried green boogers and flicking them at each other, so in retrospect, I wonder if they learned that word at home.

That summer of ’68 was so hot and dry my Mum would keep the bathtub filled with water all day so that anyone could take a dip to keep us from getting heat stroke. At day’s end, she’d bucket up the bathwater and use it to water the tomatoes. I’ll never forget that.

When the fiery mid-day sun became too intense, Danny and I would clamber over a cattle fence to Mr. Johns’ farm and lie in the piles of cool grain stored in the barn. Each time, we’d try to run to the top of the pile before its shifting, slippery contents gave way. We’d never get there. Instead, Danny and I would wiggle and shift until we were half-buried; we’d get oats and seeds stuck in our damp armpits and sweaty underpants, and we’d run our fingers through the silken grains. It felt like a cool, heavy blanket protecting us from the rest of the world. We’d lie there together for hours, counting the cracks in the barn-board walls and listening for the throaty coo-hoos of the mourning doves. At first, their haunting calls made us imagine ghosts, then owls. We were a little disappointed to discover they were just regular pigeons. To us, the barn was full of the ghosts of all the farmers and livestock that had died long before we were born.

That was our favorite pastime that summer, until the day my Mum took me into town and Danny went into the barn without me. I could see him in my mind’s eye, trying to run to the top, probably giggling when he slipped, just like we always did.

Instead, Danny buried himself in the grain pile. When he didn’t show up for bedtime, his mom walked over to our house to ask if we’d seen him. But no, my Mum replied, and Danny’s mom just wrung her hands on her apron again.

Two days and a frantic search later, Mr. Johns found him. Three tiny pale fingertips poking through the camouflage of barley and oats.

I got to keep Danny’s dinky cars and Tonka trucks.

I didn’t miss Danny right away. A few days after the accident, our family joined the parade of other families and walked across the road to the church. There were lots of flowers, I remember, which I thought was weird because there weren’t any flowers in the church on regular Sundays. My Mum said we were saying goodbye to Danny, but I think she made a mistake because he wasn’t there to say goodbye to. But his parents were there. His Dad was crying, and his Mom collapsed across a little white box. I imagined the oblong carton contained a pair of shoes for a giant. What size shoes would a giant wear, I wondered? Big ones, by the size of the box.

My Mum tried to keep me occupied in the days following the funeral. She bought me extra Archie comics and popsicles, and she drove my big brother and me into town so that we could drown ourselves in movie matinees. I couldn’t entirely read all the words in the Archies, but I concocted stories that matched the expressions of Betty and Veronica and Archie and that rascal, Reggie. I liked Ronnie the best, but Archie reminded me of Danny, and that made me feel a little sad.

Mum did a good job of keeping me amused for a while, but as August rolled around, I was lonely and bored. There weren’t a lot of kids in our tiny hamlet, and our dog didn’t always want to play when I did. Even the cows were too hot to let me feed them. The sandbox wasn’t the same; Danny’s daily plots were forever more intricate than mine, and I couldn’t make up stories to support all the vehicles in the quarry.

The barn was off-limits, and I didn’t want to see Danny’s ghost anyway, so I avoided even looking in the direction of Mr. Johns’ farm. Some days I wandered along the shoulder of the side road, kicking gravel into dust, or sometimes I’d count the clothespins as I clamped them onto the clothesline. Then I’d take them off and start all over again.

I missed Danny.

It wasn’t the same, tiptoeing around fly-infested cow patties through the fields to the ancient farm machinery. I lost interest in climbing what Danny had once called a brontosaurus—a rusty threshing machine that had long ago been put out to pasture. Tried it once on my own, but my ‘yahoo’ yell simply fell away without echo.

My Mum tried to console me, but her constant hovering creeped me out and made me jumpy. I’d look up from my comics to find her leaning against a doorframe, just staring at me. I began spending more and more time outside, on my own. Rolling down dusty gullies into the sun-cracked creek bed. Lying down and sometimes napping in the straw-lined doghouse that smelled a little like the forbidden barn.

I took to lying across the middle of the dirt sideroad by our house to wait until I heard a car coming. Some days I’d lie there for almost an hour, and I’d have to talk out loud to keep myself awake. Every night, my Mum would scrub me from head to toe, checking my hair and armpits and private parts for straw, mud, and probably bugs.

Years later—well, everything’s gone now. I’m sitting in my SUV, waiting for the gas station attendant to return with my receipt. I stare across what used to be the dirt sideroad, now a four-lane thoroughfare with a name. Mr. Johns' farm fields have been replaced with a convenience store where you can buy milk that doesn't come directly from the cows that once lived there. Everything here now seems so homogenized.

The only reminder of that summer is one behemoth oak tree, the one that seemed even larger when I was a kid. Life seemed larger then, too. The tree still stands strong, and it must be more than 100 years old. How old would Danny be? Let's see, I’m 59, so he’d have turned 60 last summer. Danny.

I glance over to where I approximate our sandbox used to be. It’s difficult to tell, now, as it’s buried under decades of concrete and asphalt. I wonder if there are any cars still down there…rusted brontosauruses that once belonged to my best friend. So many kid stories, buried forever.

City folks often think farm life is bucolic, with sweet sunrises calling workers to the fields, and even sweeter sunsets, when the day’s work is done. But we knew. Danny and I knew. The barns were full of ghosts, and life for a rural kid was full of gothic fascination, of danger and mischief and tragedy and loss.

I blink twice to focus on the young attendant holding a paper receipt at my driver’s window. I thank him as I take it and shift into Drive. As I exit the driveway, I take one last glimpse of the old oak tree. A trick of the light, perhaps, but I'm sure I spot a tousled-hair kid peeking out at me and waving three tiny, pale fingers.


About the author

Catherine Kenwell

I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.

I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  1. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

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Comments (3)

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  • Prateek Dasgupta10 days ago

    Loved the story, excellent narration!

  • Luke Foster11 days ago

    Fantastic narrative, loved it.

  • Wonderful story, read and enjoyed

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