Missing Chapter from APPARITION: Detective Grierson finding Matthew’s Body in the Barn (Happy Halloween!)
A policeman stands at the entrance of a huge old barn on 12th Line. He pushes on the old barn door, slowly opening inwards, and he peeks inside. Then he pushes it open some more, so that sunlight streams like rays of heaven into a dark wooden cathedral. He steps inside. He can see the boy standing, slouching forward against something along the far wall. It looks like something is sticking out of his back, and on the ground in front of him, the dirt floor is dark. The officer takes two steps in, stops, then steps back into the sunlight outside.
“The kid is in there. He’s dead. Call it in. Grierson too. And better tell the old man he’ll be coming in for questioning.” Then he turns, head down, and walks back into the barn.
Detective Dave Grierson arrives on the Telford property about 27 minutes after he gets the call. He parks his blue sedan on the long gravel driveway that leads from the road up to the Telford farmhouse, grabs a canvas bag from the car floor on the passenger side, and steps out. There are already three police cruisers and an ambulance parked ahead of him. He walks across a rough field to the right behind the house, towards the old abandoned barn. It’s one of those very faded forgotten buildings in the landscape that don’t catch your eye. There are two officers examining the exterior, two more inside, taking notes and pictures, and two paramedics standing by, waiting for their cue to take the body out. Grierson’s seen a couple of dozen or so murder scenes in his 20 years on the Grey County force. Mostly they’ve been the result of people getting on each other’s nerves. Also drinking, doing drugs and being stupid. But this Sorenson kid was an “A” student from one of the cleanest families in town. He knows the parents. They do fundraising every year for the Annual Police BBQ Picnic. He steps just inside the barn door and sees the victim, a dark-haired teenage boy, standing upright near the far wall. This is the oddest, most brutal murder he’s seen in years. This is going to be a very big deal in Grey County.
The barn is mostly empty, probably hasn’t been used in decades. He’d noticed a second outbuilding on the other side of the farmhouse, brown aluminum siding. That’s what the farmer uses for his tractor, other equipment. Not this one. He walks inside. There are a few broken and rusted pieces of antique-looking farm machinery, tools, and old hardware junk piled up in corners. Nothing out of the ordinary. No signs of vagrants. No recent garbage. No pop cans or beer bottles. Not a hang-out. No illicit business venue. Just a sad, abandoned piece of local history.
Grierson looks up, through the massive timbers and rafters, towards the roof. The grey boards are weathered and loose, a few missing. In the fragments of sunlight the air is filled with dust. He looks back down at the figure before him, propped up like a hunch-backed puppet standing, facing the back stall. Pinned there, it seems, by a pitchfork. “What the devil?” he mutters to himself.
Grierson walks in the direction of the boy’s body, eyes on the ground, scouring for footprints, markings, anything loose, anything odd. He walks a half-circle around the corpse. He’s guessing dead less than a day. He pulls a worn notepad from his bag, pulls a pen from his shirt pocket, and begins to write. Pitchfork entered abdomen at a near right angle, parallel to the floor. He digs into his bag and pulls out a small metal tape measure. The handle end of the pitchfork rests on a horizontal stall ledge about 44 inches above the ground, extending into the stall by about 13 inches, wedged tight between two vertical boards in the stall door, held in place by another horizontal beam inside the stall. The rusty prongs, now sticky and caked, protruding through the abdomen just below the rib cage and out the back by an inch or so, four of the five prongs clear through, one on the right scraping the body. It’s the rib cage resting on the pitchfork that’s kept him upright. Arms limp at sides. Blood running south from the puncture wounds, down the jeans, front and back, on the running shoes and the ground. Grierson stares at the young face. He watches a fly crawling across the lower lip, over the dried blood that spilt down his chin from his mouth.
No sign of defensive wounds. No sign of struggle. Was the penetration made before or after the pitchfork was wedged into place? Could he have been killed, then propped up in this position? And if afterwards, and the pitchfork wasn’t plunged into him, was he pushed into it? Facing it? Did he resist? And looking at the tips of the prongs, how much force to be run right through? Quite a bit of force he reckons. Quite a bit. Ridiculous, really. He continues to write, focusing on questions for the coroner. What’s under the fingernails, on the palms?
The legs are slightly bent at the knees and ankles, not taking the body’s weight. From a distance, it almost looks like he’s standing. Grierson pulls out a flashlight and takes a closer look at the straw floor around the feet. He brings the flashlight back behind the body and slowly circles the light onto the ground. He can see what looks like tracks in the straw and dust leading away and down the barn floor, the kind of trail that might be made by someone kicking up straw as they pace back and forth. He brings the flashlight back to the body. The running shoes are dusty, covered in dry streams of blood and bits of straw. Grierson stands close to the boy’s face now, bowed chin on chest, black hair hanging over the eyes, the buzz of flies in the air, and thinks. Matthew Sorenson. This was a decent kid. Then he nods to one of the paramedics, and they move in to begin the delicate task of freeing the body from the metal grip. He flips through a few pages of his notebook, looking for the Sorensons’ address. This part he hates.
I know first hand what it’s like to be afraid to go into a barn.
The Telford barn in my novel Apparition is inspired by a very creepy barn that was on a farm property my husband and I bought some years ago. We were city folk looking for a weekend escape from our stressful jobs in television, and we couldn’t afford much. The farmhouse in Grey County, just south of Meaford, Ontario, was an eyesore. It had been neglected by an absentee owner who left it to a series of short-term renters for years. But it was affordable. There are condo parking spaces in Toronto that cost more. And if there was ever a house that seemed emotionally depressed, it was that one. We proceeded to put ourselves into deep debt fixing it up, and in the end, it did seem happier.
But the depressed state of that old farmhouse was nothing compared to mood of the huge weathered barn out back. It had issues no hardware store could heal.
Have you ever stepped into a space and with no physical evidence at all, you just knew that bad things had happened in there? The barn hadn’t been used by a proper farmer for many decades, and though it was mostly empty except for the odd unidentifiable pieces of farm equipment, small piles of the kind of old junk you might find in a garage, it seemed crowded with discontent.
It was impressively large. The roof rafters reached up three stories high, like some post-apocalyptic cathedral. The beams that held up the frame were massive tree trunks. Along both sides there were platforms and a series of stalls. The air smelt of an awful old dust and straw, and the sunlight came in shards through all the cracks and gaps and missing boards in the walls and roof. The whole place had a strange spiritual quality. Bad spirits.
If there had been human sacrifices in that barn, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I hated going in, and wouldn’t do it alone at all. My son, 14 years old at the time, thought it was pretty cool and would hang out inside with a buddy, mostly breaking things for fun. We did find one mysterious box of personal stuff, old papers, notes, bills from years before. And a short journal. I admit I read it. I figured the author had long since gone.
It wasn’t your average ‘dear diary’ journal. From the first paragraph, the writer explained that she was keeping a record of interactions with her estranged husband, at the recommendation of her lawyer. He had just been released from prison, and though she had a restraining order against him, she was afraid he would show up looking for her and the kids. She had been staying at the house temporarily, as a kind of shelter or hide-out. There were several accounts of him showing up at night, banging on the doors, shouting and swearing. There was a lot of fear and anger and guilt and regret on those pages.
On weekends we would go for long hikes along the Bruce Trail, and that was when I first started imagining a story about the barn. The scene that kept playing in my mind was of a mother, trying to talk her suicidal son down from a high beam where he’s about to hang himself. The problem would be that he’s been possessed by a suicidal ghost. She would eventually find out, with the help of an eccentric ghost expert, that there had been a series of suicides in the barn over the last century. The skeleton of the story hung in my head for almost ten years. I didn’t begin to write it down until I’d ditched the narrating mother for the teenage boy’s sister. I gave the story to Amelia to tell.
Every few months, a few wicked storm would bring pieces of the roof flying down into the yard, and the boards seemed so unstable that we finally decided to have the whole thing taken down before it fell down on us. We enlisted the services of a young preacher who ran some obscure church in the county, taking down barns on the side in exchange for hauling off the old barn boards. They would sell as reclaimed wood for cabinet-makers. The process was slow and methodical, a barn-raising in reverse. Still, one day, a young teen he had helping him came running to the house in a panic. The preacher had fallen from a great height, and we had to get him to the local hospital right away. He was only out of commission a few days and lucky he didn’t break his back, that’s all I can say.
In a way, I feel badly now about destroying the barn. Old abandoned barns, from a distance, are a beautiful sight. Just as long as you don’t have to go inside or, God forbid, spend the night.