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Dead before dawn

by SJ Covey 11 months ago in Mystery
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The senseless loss of innocence

Dead before dawn
Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

Archie is sick of people picking on him, today has been a particularly tough day. The kids know how little point there is trying to hit him up for money, Archie doesn't have any. He is a ward of the state which means he gets passed around from one 'care' home to the next. Not much care goes on in any of the homes he frequents. No, today is all about teasing him and trying to make him cry for their own entertainment. Laughing at the fact his loving family are ripped from his life one night. A clear cut case of wrong place, wrong time.

He is left at home with a neighbour while they take his little sister to the movies as a birthday treat. Try as he might he can't recall what the movie is they go to see. All he knows is when the gunman opens fire, in the packed theatre his whole family are wiped out and he never sees them again. Apparently this is reason for a teenager to find a difference in him, to poke fun and tease him. Like this is something he has 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 is poised ready to yank the cracked door open.

"Wadda you want?" He barks.

Archie can't help but take an involuntary step backwards, along with a sharp intake of breath at who confronts him.

By Abbat on Unsplash

"I--" he begins to stutter. The man's eyebrows knit 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 into 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 admits 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?"

"Archie."

"Well Archie, are your parents OK with you getting a job?"

"They're dead."

"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?"

By Markus Petritz on Unsplash

"Yeah," Archie nods enthusiastically. "Can you pay me when I am done though, so no one steals my money?"

"Deal," he shoves 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.

Before him is 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.

By Lori Ayre on Unsplash

Stairways to heaven, if I can walk up one I will be able to visit my family.

“Screeeereeehhhh,” the noise jolts Archie from his melancholy.

What is that?

If asked to describe the sound to a person without the ability to hear, how would he describe this?

A cross between an aerosol can being released and a white board marker pen scratching its way across a cleaned white board and stuttering along the way.

Where is it coming from?

His eyes follow the sound, but is unable to determine it’s source. He closes his eyes, and the sound fills his ears, one step away from nails down a chalkboard. As he pinpoints the source he opens his eyes, and takes a breath.

A heart fills his vision, a white heart. With two dark eyes staring at him from the centre of the heart. The chest of the bird has a gentle splattering of spots as though someone has flicked their paintbrush at it.

By Cliff Johnson on Unsplash

“Beautiful,” Archies sighs walking towards where the barn owl is roosting. The owls head turns at the sound of his voice and he feels an overwhelming sense of love,

I always said I love animals more than people.

“Can we be friends?” He asks the owl.

As though in response, the bird tilts its head, almost a nod.

Archie takes this as an affirmative response.

As is often the case, this is the most inopportune moment for a memory to surface, therefore it obviously does. A time when his dad is away on business, and his mother takes him to a small petting farm. Where the children can buy bags of food, and feed the animals.

They make their way around the small farm where Archie meets goats, chickens and some weird bird things which he can’t remember the names of. They then walk into the owlery. Pre Harry Potter this would have been known as an aviary but times change.

Archie’s mother grips his hand, his instant thought is that she is scared of birds. He is a sensitive child, even then. Turning to leave she grasps his hand and he turns and sees a look of excitement and enthusiasm in her eyes.

“Do you want to go?” She asks him.

“Do you?” He asks in return, confused with her response.

“No! I love owls, they are the most graceful and beautiful creatures I have ever seen. One lived in the barn on our farm growing up.” She explains.

Explanations done, we head into the owlery.

With a smile on his face at the memory of his mother’s love of owls Archie sets to work using a large yard brush, to brush out the stable stalls. By the time he is at 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.

By Brunno Tozzo on Unsplash

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.

What the--

The owl screeches making him jump and then shake his head at his nervousness.

He pulls out the shape wrapped in the dust sheet, and 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 comes 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 out of the question, he doubts the concept was around when this was made.

By D A V I D S O N L U N A on Unsplash

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."

Another screech from the owl.

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."

“But.”

"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 switches off from the answer phone as the sun retreats behind a cloud and the shaft of sunlight the machine rests in vanishes. Archie wonders if he imagined his mother's voice, he presses play, static the only sound which greets him.

"How you gettin' on?"

Tony's voice makes 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?

"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 she say?” Tony asked softly. Archie wonders 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?"

Archie looks up to the owl, it’s gone too. An emptiness creeps through him.

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 shrugs, "please yourself." Got up and left him with the plate of food he brought.

It is dark by the time Archie has finished up, he is 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, 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.

Of course I am.

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.

By Hanna on Unsplash

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! I only knew they were talking’ about you because of what they said about you.“

Archie can't believe what Tony is telling him, this is madness. All because he doesn't react to the bullies, doesn't cry, they want to kill him, want him dead for his difference to them!

"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?”

"Fourteen."

"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, and knocks on the door just as the light turn to dusk. As he stands on the step waiting for an answer, his memory of Tony yanking the door open all those years ago is as fresh as though it happened yesterday.

He looks across the field unable to see the barn where it had stood is nothing but corn stems bright green swaying softly in the gentle wind. The outstretched wings of the barn owl stretch wide as it glides silently over the corn searching for pray amongst it. Archie eyes crinkle in a smile, his head whipping around as the door before him is opening slowly.

By Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

Before him stands a short man in his seventies with no resemblance to Tony.

“Where’s Tony?” Archie asks surprised with the man before him.

“Aint no Tony ‘ere lad,” he tells him. “Av you got the right farm?”

“This is the only farm on this road, or it was twenty years ago,” Archie replies almost to himself.

“Yer right, an’ still is, but there aint no Tony ‘ere never was, bloke we bought off were called—“ He turns into the house and shouts to an unseen person within. “What were him who lived ‘ere before us called?”

“Bobby, Bobby Gayle.” A woman’s voice answers.

“When did you knock the barn down?” Archie asks.

The man raises his eyebrows becoming suspicious of the questions he is facing from this stranger knocking on his door at nightfall. The road his farm is on is not one where they get many people passing by.

“Who are you? What do you want with us?” He asks.

“Oh I’m terribly sorry, my name is Archie. I grew up around here and Tony was my friend.”

The man’s eyes narrow a deep furrow creasing his brow as he takes in the strangers fancy city clothes. As he refers to anyone wearing a suit, shirt and tie, with shoes rather than work boots.

“Well I told yer, aint no Tony, an aint never been no Tony. You must av the wrong farm. An we never ad no barn, no animals on the farm only crops so no need for one. Now be away with yer an’ leave us in peace.”

By Bob Brewer on Unsplash

With this the door is closed, a little firmer than it was opened. Archie turns to look at where he had spent that night on the floor of the barn. The corn rustles in the breeze as the silent swoop of the barn owl dives amongst it. Pulls back up empty, a change of direction and it glides towards the setting sun. Archie takes the owl’s advice and follows their lead retracing his steps to leave the farm for a last and final time.

“Thanks mum, I love you,” he never questions the memory again.

Mystery

About the author

SJ Covey

The Order, SJ's NA series is coming soon.

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