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This old barn’s basement smells like the one in my mother’s house. The support pole beside me is holding up a wood ceiling beam. My ear is beside a small window. It’s raining and cold outside. There is a nasty draught. I scratch my boot on the dirt-covered concrete. There’s a crack at the bottom of my left hand’s thumbnail but no new blood. I don’t know why I took off my gloves. It isn’t much warmer in here. I raise my right hand and grab the support pole. There are six of these down here and none are in the proper condition. The one in my hand has iron supports fastening it to the floor, but they’re busted. I tug and it rattles. It’s a chipped, worn red.
She’s up there in the barn, but I’m down here.
I crouch and grab a handful of dirt off the concrete. It’s a mix of soil and rock.
“Daddy, there’s a man.”
My knees un-crouch. Each stair bangs beneath me. There’s no handrail. The floor of the barn is covered with straw. If it weren’t so dirty it’d match the colour of her hair. She’s standing near a patch of rot that’s in the right wood wall. She’s holding a small handful of straw. One of the tall and wide front doors is open. Dirty cobwebs and dust line the high barn roof. The air is dank and it’s like a dark church. Through the open door there’s brown grass and dirt and rain steadily falls through fog.
I walk up behind her small frame and grasp her shoulder. It’s covered by a heavy woven sweater.
“What man?” I ask.
She drops the straw.
“There,” she says, pointing to the window on the left wall.
This window is mostly fogged up and full of grime, but in the low center there’s a piece of glass missing. A man stands a ways out. He’s out there in the rain wearing a hooded jacket.
“How long he been there?”
She nudges some straw with the toe of her shoe.
“I just called you a minute ago.”
I lightly grasp the top of her head.
“Come here,” I say, lifting her.
We leave the barn. She has her arms gently around my neck and my forearm holds up her bottom. There’s an awning just out front. Larger drops of rain pass by her face. They’ve collected on the awning and are just now falling. My truck’s parked right here. I open the driver’s door, put her in and grab an umbrella from under the seat.
“Sit tight, sweet pea.”
She’s sitting in the driver’s seat like it’s a comfortable chair. I open my umbrella. Rain plays it like an instrument.
“Watch the designs on the glass,” I say.
Her face turns and she sees the windshield.
“A house,” she says.
I shut the truck’s door. It’s a small green hut for her. I turn and start walking. The man is still out there. Rain comes down off the umbrella and clips my brown jacket. The interstate is a short ways off, down and to the right, but the fog is thick and hides it. I think my voice will make it but I can’t see his face.
“Hey there,” I say.
The rain is loud.
“You all right?”
Parts of his face are clear now.
“Is that barn in Rhode Island or Mass?” He asks.
He holds out his hand.
“Jim,” I say as I shake.
“Good to meet you.”
His hand was wet. I wipe mine on the thigh of my jeans.
“Last I was here it was on the state line,” he says.
I wipe my forehead.
“Well, that’s part of why I’m here,” I say. “Barn’s still on state line. Right on the line. State sent me to check it out.”
“Huh. See if it’s worth it?” he asks.
“In a way. You all right?”
“I’ve been walking. Walked from the center of Warren. I grew up, I grew up here. There.”
“The barn?” I ask.
“There used to be a house. It’s gone, though. Gone now.”
“I don’t suggest going in there,” I say. “It’s in bad shape.”
“OK. That’s all right. I just wanted to see it.”
She’s still in the car. Her little face is hidden.
“Don’t feel as though you need to, I’m fine,” he says.
“It’s good, I’ll head back,” he says. “Just wanted to see it.”
He stands there looking at the barn. He’s soaked and the rain keeps coming.
“You going back to Warren?” I ask.
“Yeah. Center. Right in the center, there.”
“You need a ride? That’s my truck.”
“I don’t want to …”
“Please,” I say. “I don’t mind.”
I walk. He’s behind me. My daughter’s face is in the windshield.
“I’m gonna get this soaked,” Charles says.
“Rain, huh? Rain,” Charles says.
I open the driver’s side door.
“What do you see now, baby?” I ask.
“Just rain,” she says.
Charles waits on the passenger side. I close the umbrella and throw it under the driver’s seat.
“The man’s coming?” she asks.
I lift her slightly so I can get in and then put her in the middle seat. Charles opens the door and gets in.
“Wow,” he exhales. “I really appreciate this.”
“Who are you?” my daughter asks.
“Baby this is Charles. Charles this is Alice.”
Charles takes off his hood. He’s a younger man than I thought. Fair-skinned and healthy. His hair is brown and long and his eyes are kind.
“Nice to meet you, Alice.”
Alice holds out her hand to shake. She’s smart as a whip.
“Nice to meet you,” she says.
I throw the key in and turn it but my truck gurgles.
I try again but it doesn’t fire up.
“Must be the rain,” Charles says.
“Oh, no,” I assure him. “It does this sometimes. We’ll just give her a minute.”
“Her?” Alice asks.
“The truck, baby.”
Charles’ eyes lock on the rain and his eyes glaze over.
“So what brings you back?” I ask.
He adjusts his posture and hesitates but says, “The station fire.”
Alice grasps the steering wheel with her little left hand.
“Mommy won’t be happy if we aren’t back soon,” Alice says.
“It’s OK, baby. Yeah that was something, huh?”
“Yes,” Charles says. “Sure was.”
“That place had one exit. Just one. Setting off pyrotechnics in a place like that? Are you kidding me? Awful. Just awful.”
I rub Alice’s back.
“Did you know someone?” I ask.
“Yes,” Charles says. “My younger brother was inside.”
“Oh my God.”
“I’m terribly sorry. Oh my God.”
“It was a horrible tragedy. He was young.”
“Oh my good God. I’m so sorry.”
I clutch onto Alice and she stares at her hands.
“Yes. Yes,” he says.
Silence and rain.
Why is the barn in such bad shape?” Charles asks.
“Do you need anything?” I ask. “Anything at all?”
“Oh no. Thank you. I’m dealing with it. I know what has to come next. Life is like this sometimes.”
“If you need anything at all, truly. A hot meal? Anything.”
Charles adjusts his posture.
“My wife is cooking. Would you like to come over?”
“Charles is coming?” Alice asks.
“Do you have somewhere to be tonight?” I ask.
Alice grabs my arm. Charles stares through the windshield.
“Yes. OK. I’d like that,” Charles says. “I’ll come.”
I turn the key and my truck fires up. It shakes. I buckle Alice into the middle seat.
“OK. Shall we?” I ask Alice.
“We shall,” she says.
I lurch the truck forward towards the interstate. The rain has slowed but the air is still cold and the fog remains here.
“So the barn,” Charles says.
“It’s that bad?”
It’s really been through it,” I say.
“Is your belt on, Dad?” Alice asks.
“Of course,” I say as I buckle mine in.
Trees line the interstate. The truck hums.
“Huh,” Charles says.
“Yeah it’s ready to fall over,” I say.
The windshield is fogging up as we make our way down the road. I crack the window.
“What’d you think of the barn, baby?”
“Gross,” she says.
“What’s wrong with it?” Charles asks.
Alice stares at Charles.
“You name it. Beams are shot. Tons of rot. The support poles in the basement are so bad I think if you knocked them over the whole thing would go down, ” I say.
“Who are you?” Alice asks.
“That’s Charles, baby.”
The rain lightens up.
Charles has a scar on his face.
“You don’t have to…”
“No it’s fine,” Charles says.
Alice turns and hits me with the same eyes her mother has. I feel them in my gut. Now she turns back to Charles.
“I grew up in the barn where we just left, Alice. A house next to the barn. It isn’t there any more. But I remember being your age and playing there.”
Charles smiles at Alice and then at me. The rain is a drizzle now.
“You hungry, Alice?” I ask.
“Yes,” Alice says. “The rain makes me hungry sometimes.”
I brake. Our exit is up on the right. There is still thick fog.
“What’s Mommy making?” Alice asks.
“I don’t know, baby.”
My truck rounds onto the exit and jets into Warren. The concrete road turns into dirt and I can see the house from here.
“Why don’t you know?” Alice asks.
“She didn’t tell me,” I say.
Alice crosses her feet. She does that when she thinks and my heart sinks.
I pull into our driveway.
“Turn her off,” Alice says.
I throw off the truck.
“Lets go see Mom.”
I open the door. Alice climbs over me and hops out of the car. There’s the house I built. It’s strong. Smoke rises out the chimney. My wife Lucy is cooking. I can see her through the front window. Her profile makes me warm. My door is open but Charles’ isn’t.
“Jim. Do you mind not telling your wife about my brother?” Charles asks.
Alice is on the porch and heading towards the front door. She’s in the house.
“I’m just not. Well …”
“I understand,” I say. “I won’t say a word.”
I slide out of my truck and slam the door. Lucy hears it. Charles gets out. I make my way to the front door of the house and Charles follows. We walk in. The fireplace is roaring. Lucy likes it when it’s so warm you can feel it in your chest. Her apron used to be white. The house is in order and the table is set. Alice is standing beside Lucy. They’re in front of the stove.
“And then we left the barn and I felt better,” Alice says.
“Well that sounds just fine, love,” Lucy says before turning her head.
“Hi dear,” Lucy says.
I walk up behind her and grasp the arch in her back. I kiss her cheek.
“Honey, we have company tonight. This is Charles.”
Charles is still standing over by the entry way. His jacket is still soaked. Lucy turns around.
“Well hello, Charles. Nice to meet you. I have my hands full at the moment but please make yourself comfortable. Jim, why don’t you take his jacket and show him to the dining room. The food’s just about ready.”
I obey. Now we’re in the dining room.
“Take a seat, Charles. I’ll be right back.”
I’m back in the kitchen. The counter is in front of me and Lucy’s at the sink.
“Who is he?” She asks.
“He was looking at the barn. He grew up on the property. It was pouring so I offered him a ride.”
“You let him in the truck with Alice?”
“Yes. He’s fine. Harmless.”
“Could you please let me know before you invite strangers into our home?”
“Keep your voice down. He’s been through a difficult time. This was the right thing to do.”
“She’s up in her room. And would you please keep your voice down?”
“What does that mean, ‘he’s been through a difficult time?’ What the hell do you know about the times that he’s been through? He could be nuts for all we know.”
“Trust me, please. This was the right thing to do.”
We’re all sitting at the dining room table. The chicken is delicious and so are the potatoes. I’m just about done. Alice isn’t a picky eater.
“That’s unsettling,” Charles says.
Lucy responds with “I know. And that’s when I said it had to stop. I can’t be driving around in those types of areas. It isn’t safe. So I put in my notice. I’ll find another position and I’m not worried about that but I just can’t believe Jeffery and the way he handled my reason for exiting. It wasn’t professional.”
“I’m sorry,” Charles says.
“Thank you, Charles. It’s kind of you to understand. Are you hearing this, Jim?”
“What?” I ask. “Yes, of course. Charles is right. And so are you,” I say.
The phone rings in the kitchen. Lucy doesn’t react.
“Let the machine get it,” she says. “Not while we’re eating.”
“Fine with me,” I say.
“When are you going to get your brother?” Alice asks.
It isn’t raining any more.
“What honey?” Lucy asks.
I interject with, “Nothing babe. Hey, Alice let’s not, um. Don’t …”
“It’s OK,” Charles says. He takes a bite and repositions himself.
“Your brother?” Lucy asks.
“Yes,” Charles says. “Alice is right. He’s somewhat lost. But I’ll be with him again soon. Don’t you worry about that, Alice,” Charles says.
“Is there anything we can do?” Lucy asks. “I’m not sure if I …”
“No. No it’s quite all right,” Charles says.
We’re standing in the entryway. Charles has his jacket on.
“Thanks again, Lucy. This was a lovely evening,” Charles says.
“Thank you, Charles. And good luck with your brother. If there’s anything we can do just give us a call,” Lucy says before hugging Charles.
I put out my hand to shake but Charles comes in and hugs me.
“Thanks, Jim. I really appreciate everything.”
“You’re sure you don’t want a ride?” I ask.
“Yes. Without the rain the walk is nice.”
Alice is playing with a few wooden toys over by the fire.
“Goodbye, Alice,” says Charles.
I close the door behind him. Lucy and I watch through the window as he makes his way off the porch and onto the driveway.
“So his brother is lost? I missed all that,” Lucy says.
“I’ll explain later,” I say.
I mouth, “Alice.”
“All right,” Lucy says as she makes her way into the kitchen. I sit down next to Alice. We’re in front of the fireplace.
“Having fun baby?”
“Will we see Charles again?” Alice asks. She keeps playing with her toys. One is a wooden horse and the other is a bird.
“I don’t know, baby.”
She stops playing.
“Why don’t you know?” Alice asks.
“Well, sometimes that doesn’t always happen,” I say.
“Sometimes?” Alice asks.
“Yes. Sometimes we don’t always see everyone again, baby. But don’t worry. Don’t you worry about that,” I say.
I lie on my back. A rug is beneath Alice and I. Lucy is cleaning up in the kitchen. The fire is good. Awful shame is what it is. I can’t get over it. I really respect him. To lose a sibling and be able to carry on. He was great at dinner. Lucy seemed taken by him. His honesty was the thing. He was very honest. You could feel the sincerity. It takes real strength to carry on the way he has. I sit up.
“Hey Alice. What do we know about fire?”
She’s making the wooden bird fly.
“It’s good when it’s small and under control.”
I grab her head and give her a big kiss.
“That’s right baby. And what else do we know about it?”
Her little hand is making the horse trot.
“It’s good when it’s small and under control.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s right baby. And what else do we know about fire?”
She crosses her legs.
“That it hurts when you touch it. It makes a bad feeling.”
“That’s right baby.”
I hug her. Are you getting tired, baby? You want to get ready for bed?”
“Yes. Sometimes when I eat it makes me tired.”
Alice is in bed. I just tucked her in. I’m walking down the stairs towards the front door. I open it and walk out onto the porch. The air and sky are dark and full of fog. The cold is strong. Quite an evening we have here. Alice is fine. She’s doing just fine and that’s great. Lucy seems well. My chest pains haven’t done anything to make me jump. Cold out here, though. I turn and walk back in the house. Lucy’s walking through the living room. She stops in front of the fireplace. The fire is dying down.
“Your supervisor left a message,” Lucy says.
“I just checked the machine. Judy, your supervisor. She left a message.”
Lucy’s face is pale.
“OK. What’d she say?” I ask.
“The barn. Your assignment. Your assignment today. The barn you were supposed to check out and inspect?”
“It caved in, Jim.”
“And someone was inside,” she says.
“Wait a second. Wait one second.”
“It wouldn’t have just collapsed. Someone must have, wait.”
“Judy saw someone walk into the barn. She said it began, the barn started to fall, and the person inside screamed, screamed unbearably while it did.”
“Wait, wait a second,” I say.
“Judy heard the person screaming. She sounds absolutely distraught on the machine.”
Alice walks down the stairs. She’s standing in the middle of the staircase.
“Why can’t we see Charles again?” Alice asks.
The fire is just about out.
“Please put Alice to bed.”