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That barn always gave me a chill whenever I passed it. The blue van that was usually parked in front of it, and the dirty, beat up old caravan with the broken windows that was always parked behind it, in the field just beyond, gave me the creeps too. It was the barn that unsettled me the most though, that put ice in my belly, even as it was shaping up to be one of the warmest summers on record, and I was young and striding uphill and had, as my dad is fond of saying, my whole life ahead of me.
My dad tells me I have a vivid imagination. He likes to talk about the characters and stories I made up in my head when I was little; the fairies I insisted lived in the wardrobe, the talking llama behind the pink hydrangea bush in the garden, the bogeyman in the black pin striped suit who lay in wait under the bed. I am nineteen now, and I am still making up stories in my head. I am halfway through my second term of Film Studies at Birmingham City University, so the make believe comes in useful. One day I hope to write and direct films. Big dreams are what I have. Along with the big imagination.
I was visiting my dad in Devon last August when the terrible thing happened. He’s an English teacher. My parents had separated earlier that year, and dad took a temporary post teaching ESL for the summer at a community college. He rented a holiday let and I went to visit him. I had a month before I started my degree.
The let was small; two tiny bedrooms, a slim veranda that overlooked a children’s playground, a few pieces of Ikea furniture scattered around like toys in a beige living room. The place reminded me of a doll’s house. Sitting in the fawn tub chair, my father looked like one of the male figures you might place in one of the rooms inside the doll’s house, bewildered and adrift. He looked like he might cry, and I thought I might too.
The separation had been my mother’s idea.
We had a routine. In the mornings we’d drink coffee together at the miniscule breakfast bar, and then dad would go off and teach and I would sit out on the veranda and read. In the evenings, we would order in pizza, or Chinese, or Indian, or we’d cook something simple in the doll’s house kitchen. After we’d eaten we would chat, and later we would stream movies. My dad is a film buff too, and American New Wave, mid sixties to mid eighties, is what we both gravitate towards. We are not averse to some more recent action adventure stuff. A bit of Bourne Identity or Minority Report. The first night we kept it light and watched Tom Cruise hang by his fingers from a granite rock face and jump from fast moving motorcycles onto fast moving trucks. We saved Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver for later in the visit, when we thought we would be better equipped to handle all that emotional and physical carnage.
The surrounding countryside was beautiful; lush green hills, wild flowers on grass verges everywhere you looked, small cottages with red roses climbing up trellises next to front doors. I took a walk every day along a quiet country lane that led up to a small hamlet about two miles away, where there was a pub and a church and a graveyard with ancient, weathered monuments. It was on this walk that I passed the barn.
It was made of stone and located far back from the road, at the end of a long sloping field. There were no windows, just a small wooden door. Sometimes the blue van was outside, sometimes it wasn’t. The old caravan looked tragic. You could tell it hadn’t been used for a family holiday for a long, long time. It wouldn’t be taking a jaunt down to the coast any time soon. Behind the barn and the caravan there was another sloping field, and at the top of that field, on the horizon, there was a line of trees. I never saw anyone near the barn or the caravan. Once, I walked past and one of the front doors of the blue van was flung wide open, as though someone had left it in a big hurry.
As well as walking in the late morning, I started going for a jog in the early evening. I’d pull on leggings and trainers, put the front door key in the tiny pocket at the waistband and head out. There was a small lake about a mile outside of town and I would run around it. All I could hear as I ran was birdsong, and my breath, and the sound of my trainers as they hit the ground. After one lap around, I would walk back to the flat and dad would usually be home when I got there. Once I reached the huge supermarket, it was just twenty minutes downhill.
At first glance I thought the man was in pain. He was standing in the car park of the supermarket with one of his hands placed on his chest. He was bent over, and the tie he was wearing was hanging forward. There were large underarm sweat stains on his pale blue shirt and several bulging plastic bags lay at his feet. One of the bags had tipped, and some tins had rolled out onto the ground.
“Are you OK?” I asked.
The man stood up straight and looked at me. He was around forty and carrying a lot of fat around the middle. He looked like someone who worked in an office, like somebody’s dad. I imagined his wife calling him as he was leaving for the day and asking him to pick up supplies on his way home. I imagined a house, a family. I imagined the ordinary.
“Just a bit out of breath,” the man said. His hand was still on his chest.
I offered to help him carry all those bags to his car. It was light out, still sunny. There were several people around.
The car park was as vast as a sports field, and the man and I walked through it, carrying the bags. The man said his car was just a bit further along. We continued to walk, and the people and the cars gradually thinned out. The man said that I was very kind and that it was so hot. He glanced at me. He nodded his head towards a small stone stairway, and said the car was up there. The supermarket and the other people were far behind us now, and it was just me and the man.
A white car was parked on a narrow lane at the top of the steps. The man opened the boot and said “here we are”, and “thank you”, and I put the bags on the ground. My heart was beating fast. Everything around me was quiet and still and peaceful, but I knew something bad was going to happen.
“Let me give you a lift home,” the man said.
“No thanks,” I said. “That’s fine,” I said. “You’re welcome,” I said. I turned away from him and started towards the steps.
It was summer and August and early evening, and when the man grabbed me from behind his grip was as I imagined it would be when I was a child; tight and unrelenting and making me gasp for breath.
I was halfway inside the boot of the man’s car and I was flailing, and the man was trying to stop my kicking legs. The boot smelled like damp towels, like mildew. I screamed and twisted my body, my elbows banging against metal inside the small space. I tried to grip the side, near the opening, but the man grabbed my wrist and pushed me back. All the while, in the semi darkness, images of that barn and that blue van flashed inside my brain like streaks of lightening.
Outside the car, behind the man, everything was bathed in early evening sunlight.
I held the key in my fist and prayed it would make contact with flesh. “Motherfucker,” I said, and threw a punch. In my terror and rage, I went full on American New Wave. “Motherfucker,” I said again, and flung the side of my fist forward one more time. It landed near his eye and the key must have torn some skin there, because the man made a sound and brought his hands up to his face. He stumbled back a little, and I shot up, and out of the car, and ran.
I ran like a champion sprinter. I ran like a small hunted animal when a larger animal is chasing it. I ran like Tom Cruise does in every film he’s ever required to run in; bolt upright with legs and arms pumping at great speed. When I saw a gap in the hedge at the side of the lane I bolted through it, and then I ran across fields, and through the town, and all the way back to my father.
After the police report, and the description, and the moving through life in slow motion, I took a train out of the small town. I wanted to be with my mother. I wanted to be in a city. Everything that happened in that town is in the past, and I am in my second term at Film School now, and I have plans for my future.
The woman I see every week, a therapist, says my obsession with that barn is a result of the trauma from last August. She says it will disappear with time. I nod my head. I want to believe that what she says is true. I tell her about the chill I felt each time I walked past the barn. I tell her this was before the terrible thing happened. She asks me what I think that chill meant, and I tell her that the barn looked to me like the sort of place a man might take a girl he wanted to hurt, that it looked like the sort of place a man might keep a girl against her will. She looks at me, and her eyes are soft and kind. She tells me these thoughts and feelings and fears I have are common. She tells me all girls feel and think this way.
Kate O’Grady lives in Stroud. Her short stories have been long listed/short listed or placed in Bath Flash Fiction Competition, Reflex Fiction Flash Fiction Competition, The Phare Short Story Competition, Exeter Short Story Competition, Gloucester Writers Network competition, Stroud Book Festival Short Story competition, and published in Storgy Magazine and The Phare Literary Magazine.