It was going to be a typical late July day. Rather than spending the whole summer stuck in day camp, Mom and Dad had offered that I could stay most of it at my grandparents’ house. Their house was an hour and a half away, and I’d been told it was right on the border between the suburbs and rural farmland. Just about every time we were there, grandma or grandpa would talk about how the farmers kept selling their properties and the builders would be converting them to houses, so they felt like they were being invaded.
But now — for this summer — I didn’t care about that. I was all set. After all, I’d already made some friends, and I had my bicycle and my G. I. Joe action figures. No, they’re not dolls! Everyone knows that girls play with dolls while boys play with action figures!
I woke up to grandma calling me from the kitchen, shouting that she was about to make breakfast, and if I wanted anything to eat before lunch, I’d better get up and get dressed right now. Realizing I was hungry, I yelled back, “I’m up! I’m up! I’ll be down in just a minute!”
With that, I got out of bed, pulling on my shorts and a t-shirt. At nine years old, I’d decided it was a lot more comfortable to sleep in just my underwear during the summer — especially since it would stay up in the 90s overnight. For some reason, grandpa almost never wanted to turn on the air conditioning. It would have to hit a hundred or more before he’d even think about it — and he ignored that the rest of us were sweating and complaining like crazy.
In the kitchen, grandma was about to start cooking the eggs, and I could hear and smell the bacon sizzling. My mouth started watering even as I walked down the stairs. “Mmm… Smells good, grandma! Sure you’re making enough eggs for me?”
“Yes, Jeff … it’s safe to say I’ve finally figured out you happily stuff away four eggs these days. And isn’t it a good thing the Dixons are such good friends they’re fine with giving me two dozen extra every week this summer while you’re here. Good lord, kid, you eat like you’re starving. Are you sure you’re eating at home? Carol and your dad really do feed you, right?”
“Yes, grandma.” I grinned. “We go through this every morning. I eat fine when I’m at home. What can I say? I just like the way you feed me.”
She grinned back at me. “Uh-huh. Well, in that case, you can set the table for both of us … and grab the toast from the toaster, please? It’ll just be another couple of minutes until the eggs and bacon are ready.” I got the table ready for us to eat breakfast. She poured the eggs into the pan and started to scramble them. “And what are you going to do today?”
I had opened the refrigerator to get the milk and butter and turned to look at her. “I was going to ride my bike — head into town and then probably just wander around. Maybe go to the library?” I grinned again. “After all, I’ve heard that they’ve got air conditioning.”
“Oh, hush! You know your grandfather grew up in the south. He loves the heat and can’t imagine that none of the rest of us do.” The eggs were done, and she loaded them and the bacon onto a serving plate. “That’s fine. I’m going shopping with Sheri. She’ll be here in about half an hour to pick me up. She decided she needs some new dresses and wants my help in picking them out. I should be back before your grandfather gets home from golf … probably around five or so … and then we’ll have dinner together, all right?”
“Umm … OK. But what am I going to do for lunch?”
“Oh, heck … you’re going into town, so how about I give you five dollars and you can buy yourself a couple of slices of pizza and a drink?”
I thought about that for a few seconds. “Could it be six dollars, in case I want another slice?”
She laughed. “Yes, yes … what a surprise! My grandson, Jefferson York, the bottomless pit whenever he visits his grandparents!”
I smiled. “Thanks, grandma! And you know I’m your favorite grandson!”
“You’re my only grandson, kid. But, yes, you are my favorite.”
We started to eat, with me practically shoveling the eggs, bacon, and toast into my mouth. The fresh eggs and bacon, both from neighbors, really were good and always tasted like I just couldn’t get enough of them.
She looked over at the clock. “Oh dear. Sheri’s going to get here any time now, and I need to finish getting ready to go.” She stood up. “Please clean up the table for me? Don’t worry about the pans — just the plates.”
“Will do, grandma,” as another fork full of eggs got packed away. “I’ll take care of it. You can go get ready.”
# # #
After grandma left with her friend Sheri, I put my sneakers on, locked the door and rolled my bike out of the garage. It had been an early birthday present from grandma and grandpa since I was going to be here for most of the summer and it was my first three-speed bicycle ever. The very first couple days with it had been interesting — to say the least — since I had to learn not only how to change gears but also how to use the brake levers to slow down, not just by back-pedaling. The gears had been pretty easy to learn, but I still would, sometimes, forget about the brakes. Even with that, though, I absolutely loved it and had stopped caring that it was a used bike they’d gotten from one of their neighbors. Being able to go with a higher gear was so much a better way to get around!
The route I picked, this time, took me about fifteen minutes to get into town, letting me enjoy the wind in my face the whole way. The road was nice and flat, and I never got tired of seeing the crops on both sides of the road. And of course, lots of times, next to the crops, there would be cows … or some goats — all so different from the city life that I’d been around for most of my life.
When I got into the center of town, I left my bike at the back of Bobby’s, the town deli and quick shop. All my friends had told me Bobby had no problem with us kids leaving our bikes there, as long as we made sure not to block the driveway or the back door. And everyone knew not to touch any bike other than their own, so there were often lots of bikes — all standing on their kickstands — next to each other for everyone who rode into town.
From there, I just walked around, saying hello to folks sitting on their front porches — it seemed like everyone knew grandma and grandpa, so they also knew me. Finally, I headed over to the library. As I knew would be the case, the library was deliciously cool, compared with outside. I went over to the kids’ section to browse through the books, pulling out a couple so I could sit in one of the comfortable chairs and read, enjoying the cool air.
I hadn’t thought about how long I was there until I suddenly noticed how hungry I had gotten, so it was time to head back out to get some lunch. Walking back toward my bike at Bobby’s, the pizza shop was on the way, so I went in. As I’d thought would happen, I wound up wanting a third slice, leaving me fifty cents. I knew that Grandma wouldn’t be too concerned with getting the change back, so I walked the rest of the way back to Bobby’s and went in to buy a candy bar.
I was sitting on the front steps of Bobby’s, eating my Hershey’s when some of the other kids walked over. They said they came back to grab their bikes and were going to head over to the school and play some football in the field … oh, and did I want to come along? I shoved the rest of my candy bar into my mouth, mumbling around it that I’d love to, so we all hopped onto our bikes and rode that way as a children’s bicycle parade.
# # #
We spent a few hours over at the school field. There weren’t enough of us to be able to play anything that even vaguely looked like an actual game of football, so we just started out tossing the ball back and forth, trying to see if we could catch it while we were running. That got boring after a bit, so then we switched to a few games of Tag! Followed by some Hide-and-Seek over by the school buses.
It got late in the afternoon, and most of the other kids were saying it was time for them to start heading home to get ready for dinner. We all agreed to try and get back together the next day, meeting up at Bobby’s around ten in the morning and then we’d decide, from there, what we were going to do.
It took me a few seconds to get the streets plotted out in my head so I could head home as directly as possible and then I started pedaling that way. As I was riding, I realized I hadn’t really been along these roads before, so I was seeing areas that were new to me.
I have no idea how it happened, but I must have made a wrong turn somewhere, since the street I was riding on turned into a dirt road. Thinking I must still be headed the right way, I kept going along it and suddenly found myself pulling up to the end of it, with nothing but overgrown farmland around me. At the very end of this road, there was an old barn. The red paint of the barn was peeling off all over, and the window on this side was incredibly dirty. It looked like some of the shingles on the roof were even falling off. What really surprised me, though, was that there wasn’t anything else around — absolutely no house or any other buildings.
Being a nine-year-old boy, I was curious about what was going on and had to investigate. So I dropped the kickstand and got off my bike to walk over to the barn. As I walked over there, I was kicking up dry dirt and, looking back, could see my footprints standing out.
The big front door to the barn had a thick chain with a padlock on the handles. Everything was really rusty, and I could see spider webs all over the chain and connecting it to the door and the handles. Still being curious about a barn sitting out here all by itself, I began to walk around it.
I went all the way around it, not seeing another door and only one more window — this one lower so I could look through it. The whole building seemed empty inside, but, given how dirty the window was, it was hard to be sure. On the side of the barn, one of the boards that made up the outside wall was broken real close to the ground. There was an open space that was, maybe, a couple of feet wide and a couple of feet high. It was mostly hidden, what with all of the weeds that were growing up right next to the barn.
# # #
Of course, I decided I had to see what it looked like inside this barn out in the middle of nowhere. I got down on my hands and knees and squeezed my way through the hole and inside. It was pretty dark in there, although it seemed like there was more light coming through the dirty windows than I expected.
The inside of the barn was pretty empty like it had seemed when I had looked in from the outside — just a lot of dust floating around now, disturbed by my crawling in. There was more light making it though the dirty windows than I’d thought there would be, but I still needed a few seconds to let my eyes adjust to how much dimmer it was. Until I was sure I could see, I didn’t want to move away from the only way I knew to get out of there.
After a little time, I could see better and looked around. As I’d first thought, there wasn’t anything down on the ground floor. On the other side of the barn, there were stairs going up to the loft that was by the upstairs window on the front. I decided to go and take a look at what might be hiding up there. Walking over to the stairs kicked up a lot of dirt and, looking back when I got to the stairs, I could, again, see my footprints clearly all by themselves in the settling dust.
Upstairs, there was a pile of very old, dried-out hay. Then, just past the window, there was a small table that seemed to be only a piece of plywood or something attached to the framework of the barn, with a 2x4 stuck underneath to hold it up. Sitting on top of the table was a small stack of newspapers. I couldn’t imagine why there were newspapers sitting there just like that, so I had to see what they were and when they were from. Who knew? Maybe they were old enough to be valuable or something?
# # #
The top newspaper had the front page showing. The date on it said it was from about twenty years ago. The top headline was about how the house on the Carlisle Farm had completely burned down last night. Reading the first few paragraphs of the article, it seemed there’d been some problems with the firefighter volunteers getting the tanker to the property along with the other emergency people, and they hadn’t been able to rescue anyone from the house. The bodies of the entire Carlisle family — mom, dad, and both of their children — had been found in the remains after the fire was finally out. There was a picture next to the article showing the remains of the house. About fifty feet away from the house, in the picture, there was a barn. As I looked closer at the picture, I realized the barn looked a lot like the one I was standing in, but looking a lot better for being about twenty years younger.
Intrigued by the story, I pulled that newspaper to the side to see what the next one down was. The second newspaper was flipped open to a short article on the inside. The date at the top of the page showed it was from fifteen years ago. This article talked about how it had been five years since the fire at the Carlisle Farm, and both the town and county were still unable to find any heirs or other extended family members to take over the property. In the meantime, though, quite a few times there had been hobos who’d needed to be chased off. Some town residents were complaining and demanding that the town or even the county, at least, take ownership so the remains of the house could be cleared away — to remove the ongoing reminder of how the volunteers had been unable to save the family.
This was staring to get interesting! I pulled that one aside, wanting to know what the next one would be. The third one was from still another five years later — ten years ago. Again, the newspaper was already open to an inside article. This article talked about how the town had taken ownership of the Carlisle Farm two years ago, using an ongoing failure of anyone paying the property taxes as the reason they were able to claim it. But now, finally, the town had gotten around to clearing what little bit was left of the house. There were two pictures, one showing the few remaining struts and other rubble, all of it tremendously overgrown with plants and weeds and who knows what else. The other picture showed it all completely cleared away, a backhoe and a dump truck standing next to the clear land. Again on the side was the barn — looking very much worse the wear for the ten years that had passed since the fire.
All right! This was turning into a real story! I couldn’t wait to see what was next. I pushed that newspaper to the side, grabbing the next one down. As I thought would be the case, it was from yet another five years later — just five years ago. In this article, there were reports from the town council meeting about how there had been a lot of arguing about converting the Carlisle farm property into a playground and recreational field. Lots of the people arguing against it were complaining about the cost of building yet another playground — on top of the playgrounds, they already had at both schools as well as in the town center. There was also discussion suggesting the town just get rid of the property, by letting someone else buy it and convert it into more houses to generate more taxes. Since here I was, five years later, standing in the loft of the Carlisle Farm barn, I could only guess that nothing had been done either way.
Putting that newspaper to the side, I saw that there was just one more thing to read. This wasn’t even a full newspaper. It was just part of a page, torn out, showing the police reports. Also, this page seemed to be really fresh. It wasn’t old and yellowed like all of the others. I looked at the whole thing, front, and back, and couldn’t find a date on it anywhere. I scanned through the police reports, and one of them caught my eye. It talked about how the police were asking for any information so they could find a driver involved in a hit-and-run accident … on Carlisle Road.
# # #
Carlisle Road? I wondered if that was the road that led to this barn. I started reading through that report very carefully. From what the police were reporting, the driver had hit a nine-year-old boy on a bicycle and then just driven off, leaving him on the road. The boy, whose name was not being released to protect the privacy of the family, was in the hospital in critical care and not expected to survive. Anyone with any information should contact the police immediately.
As I read it, I felt my heart start racing, and all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This was just a bit creepy, since I was nine years old, and I was riding a bicycle. With that, I dropped the paper and spun around, my eyes darting every which way around the inside of the barn. Whew … there was no one else in here — still just quiet and empty. And then, I looked down at the floor of the loft, and over the edge of the loft platform, at the floor at the bottom of the stairs. Both on the loft and down at the lower floor, I could clearly see my footprints standing out against all of the dirt.
I turned my head and looked, very carefully, at the paper in my hand … and, yes, it really did look fresh, and there was no date on it! I suddenly got very scared as I realized that there was no way that page could possibly have gotten up here without there being footprints!
Not wanting to think any more about it, only concerned, right then, about getting out of this barn and getting home, I just about flew down the stairs, almost tripping as I got to the last step. Then I was running across the barn over to the hole in the wall, practically diving towards it as I dropped down onto my hands and knees to crawl and squirm my way back outside.
Once on the other side of the wall, I stood up, blinking hard and fast against the sunlight that seemed so bright after I’d been inside for what I realized hadn’t been all that long. A few slow, deep breaths and I started to feel like I was calming down and my heart was back to a normal pulse.
I walked slowly over to where my bike was standing, still resting against its kickstand, my head twisting back and forth — feeling like I had to make sure there wasn’t anyone else around. It was only when I got to my bike, swinging my leg over so I could sit on it, that I really started to feel like everything was back under control. I straightened up my bike, kicked up the stand, and turned around to ride off, thinking that it was probably getting very close to dinnertime … and wondering how much of my day should I tell grandma and grandpa about? After all, if nothing else, I had plans for tomorrow to go and hang out with the other kids.
As I was riding back the way I’d come, I got closer to an intersection. I didn’t think anything about it until I saw a car coming from the cross street. It looked like he was going pretty fast, so I figured I’d better stop and let him go first. I started to back-pedal to slow down … and nothing happened! I was still going as fast as I’d been before!
I was screaming at myself in my head to slow down and get this damn bike to stop, but it didn’t matter how fast I was back-pedaling. I had just gotten to the stop sign when I realized how stupid I’d been. I had brake levers to stop the bike now! I reached my fingers out to grab them just as I rolled into the intersection … at the same time that the car came rocketing through at me …
Laying on the ground, with everything hurting, I could see the car driving away, thinking how I had really loved that bike even with forgetting the brake levers. I thought that I probably wasn’t going to make it to Bobby’s tomorrow. And then I realized that, just maybe, that newspaper article had been about me after all.