The Barn by Ria Hill
When the phone rings at three in the morning it’s never a good sign. I roll over to check the caller ID and immediately wish I hadn’t. It’s Ben. Ben’s one of my best friends from college, so we’ve been tight for almost ten years. I know I have to pick up, but at the same time know that I’ll regret it. I fumble for my cell and pull it into bed with me.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Caitlin? Thank god,” he says. He sounds oddly distant. Not in the metaphorical way, but like he’s holding the mouthpiece away from himself and not quite speaking loudly enough. “I, uh, can you come get me?” Now I’m awake, and fully.
“Where are you?” I ask.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “Nowhere good.” This isn’t the first time Ben has called me for help in the middle of the night. This is the first time I’m not able to hang up and get in the car in seconds. I sit up and flip on the light at my bedside table.
“Okay,” I say. I try to smooth down my hair, which I can’t see but I still know is sticking out in every direction. “What do you see around you? Street sign? Landmark? Anything?” There’s silence on the other end as I pry myself out of bed and look for the jeans I wore yesterday. I don’t need a bra, I’m not going far, but I’ll sling a jacket on over my tank top for the sake of decency.
“I see a barn?” he says, somewhat uncertainly. “I think I might be in Jerman.” I heave a sigh. Jerman is a small town about ten miles from mine. Not a big drive, but the speed limit is about 30 all the way. A bit of a hike to go on for an “I think.”
“Anything else?” I ask, grabbing my keys from a bowl of change next to the door. “Can you tell me anything about the barn?”
“It’s brown,” he says. “Not like painted brown, but like it never got painted. Wood color. Not sure what kind. You’re the wood expert, right Cait?”
I roll my eyes.“Yep,” I say. “Promiscuous is my middle name. But I’m still coming to get your ass at three in the morning, so maybe help me out here, numbnuts?” I can hear him moving around on the other end. Not panting, just sort of shuffling.
“Yeah,” he says. “You’re right. Sorry, Cait.”
“Damn right you’re sorry,” I say. I slide into the driver’s seat of my ancient Toyota Camry and slam the door with a crash I can only hope doesn’t wake the neighbors. “How did you get there? Did someone drop you off?”
“No,” he says. “I mean, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” I’ve already started the engine, putting the phone on speaker and balancing it on my thigh. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I don’t know!” Ben sounds agitated. He’s probably just starting to sober up. I try a different tactic.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” I ask.
“I was in my apartment last thing I remember,” he says. “I was about to try a new jive.”
“Oh,” I say. That’s not good. That’s Ben-code for doing a mysterious drug that he got from an uncertain source. Chances are good that he’s wandered his way out to Jerman high on some weird pill or powder that he doesn’t even know the name of. Hopefully he wandered by walking rather than driving. If he drove…there could be a lot more trouble waiting for me than just a high-as-balls best friend. “What was it?”
“I dunno, Cait,” he says. “I got it from Ramos.” I curse inwardly and inch the accelerator up to 32. He could be in for a hospital trip tonight if Ramos is involved. Ramos is a dealer. Not Ben’s usual. To be honest, I don’t even buy pot from the guy. I don’t trust him not to lace the shit with any old thing and watch the rest of us try to pick up the pieces. Ben though…he’s not nearly as cautious as I am.
“I’ll be there soon,” I say. “Just a few minutes. Wanna stay on the line?”
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” I say. To be honest, I feel a bit better being able to hear his voice. Know he’s not dead or dying in a ditch out in fucking Jerman.
“I feel like an idiot,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, not arguing.
“I mean, a real, class-A idiot,” he continues. “Caitlin, why do you even put up with me?”
I shrug. “It’s easier than cutting ties I guess.”
“I like you, Ben,” I say. “You know I do. Have forever.” We sit in silence for a bit, and then I have the dumbest revelation. “Ben, have you checked your GPS? On your cell?”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s busted, I think.”
“Shit.” I slow down just the littlest bit as I pass a known speed trap, then gun it back up as much as I dare. “What else do you see?”
“I see a sign,” he says. “But it’s not much help. It just says ‘aeternam’.”
“‘Aeternam’?” I repeat. All at once, the air has gone out of me. All at once, I know he’s probably not in Jerman. “Ben, can you look at your GPS for me?”
“I told you, it’s busted,” he says.
“I know, just humor me.” There’s a brief shuffle, a couple of beeps, a loud sigh.
“Cait, no. It’s not working.”
“What does it say?” I ask. I already know what it says even before he tells me. I turn the car around, driving as close to 35 as I can without calling attention to myself. I should only be a minute away. “Jesus, it’s cold out here.”
“Ben, just shut up, I’ll be there in a sec,” I say. I’m trying to think. I’m not sure what I can do. I’ve seen the shed he’s standing near. Once. Long time ago. It was only sheer chance that I made it back in one piece. At least this time he has me, but I’m not really sure how much of an asset I’ll be. Can’t say for sure until I get where I’m going.
“I think I’m gonna head into the barn,” he says. “Try and find some shelter, wait for you there.”
“Don’t you dare,” I say. “You stay out of that barn, you hear me?”
“Okay,” Ben says. There’s more than a little fear in his voice and I can understand why. I’ve never spoken to him like that, not once. “Okay, Cait.” Less than five minutes later I’m pulling into the housing complex Ben calls home. I’m pulling into the spot his GPS marks. I’m pulling into the place where I’m probably going to find his body, and only maybe going to be able to wake him up.
“Ben?” I say. “I’m here.”
“Where?” he asks. “I don’t see you.” I can’t tell him where I am. If he knows he’s in limbo getting him out is going to be even tougher.
“I need you to listen to me,” I say. I’ve gotten out of my car and am walking toward his apartment. He keeps a spare key inside a fake rock in a potted plant on his doorstep. The plant is long dead, but the rock is easy to spot. “Stay calm. I’ll be there in a second.”
“I thought you said you were here?” he says. “I don’t see your car.”
“I know,” I say. “Just hold on.” I unlock the door and the smell hits me immediately. Vomit, rank and festering. I wonder how long he’s been lying in it, pray that he hasn’t strangled on it already.
“Caity,” he says. He’s never called me that before. “What aren’t you telling me?” I spot him then. He’s lying on the floor in his living room, on his stomach, puke in a pool around his head. He’s dead pale, almost blue. I walk over and touch his hand.
“Ben,” I say. I can’t let myself cry. “Ben, I’m gonna get him for this.”
“What?” He sounds startled. “Who?”
“Ramos,” I say. “Ben, what time did you take the drugs?”
“Around 10 PM,” he says. “Why?”
Even if I call the ambulance right this second… Even if I start CPR and save his body, he’d be there forever, waiting in the cold outside that barn. He’d be exactly where I was when my heart stopped for three whole minutes when I was in elementary school, but he’d never be able to leave. His brain was cooked completely by whatever shit he snorted or shot. There’s no point. He’s not even a little bit warm.
“Ben,” I say. “You can wait for me in the barn.”
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, Caity.”
“I love you,” I say. And I regret it for a split second because he’s dead silent on the other end of the line.
“I’m dead,” he says. “Aren’t I?”
“You can tell me,” he says. “I can take it.”
“Yeah,” I say. “You’re dead.”
“This is the barn you told me about, isn’t it?” he asks. “The one you saw when you had your near-death experience?”
“Yeah,” I say. I pretty much forgot I’d told him about that. He’s the only person I’ve ever told.
“And you were trying to trick me into crossing over without saying goodbye?” I can hear the tears behind his voice too, and I can’t stop myself from crying anymore. “You’re a bitch sometimes, Caity.”
“I know,” I manage. There’s a long silence then, both of us just breathing on the phone. Waiting for the other to speak. “Ben, if you stay…”
“I know,” he says. “I’ll just…I’ll miss your voice, that’s all.”
“Me too,” I say.
“Tell me this,” he says. “Tell me this one thing and I’ll go.”
“Anything,” I say.
“Did I shit myself?”
I stand in stunned silence for a moment, trying to decide if he’s being serious.
“What?” I ask.
“You heard me,” he says, and I burst out laughing. I can’t help it. It’s the most Ben thing he could possibly have said.
“Ben,” I say. “I honestly didn’t think to check.”
“You can’t smell it?” he asks.
“Can’t smell much of anything over the puke,” I say.
He laughs, a sad but very real laugh. I can hear the sobs in it, but he keeps them laughing.
“Caity,” he says. “I love you too.”
“I mean it,” he says. “You’re my best friend in the world.” There’s a little pause. “Were.”
“You’re mine too,” I say, purposefully leaving the tense. “Don’t you ever forget it.”
“I’m going in,” he says. “Think I’ll go to heaven?”
“I hope not,” I say. “If you do I’ll never see you again.”
He laughs again. Then, “Miss you already.”
“Ditto,” I say.
“Stay on the line with me?”
“Sure,” I say.
“I don’t know what you’ll hear,” he says. I nod even though I know he can’t see me. “Okay.” I can hear him starting to walk. “There’s no door on this barn.”
“See a light or anything?” I ask.
“No,” he says. He’s stopped walking, but I don’t urge him on. “I’m scared.”
“Yeah,” I say. I’m scared too. I don’t want to lose him. But I don’t have a choice and neither does he. “Goodbye, Ben.”
“Bye, Caitlin,” he says. The steps pick up, and the phone crackles out.
Ria Hill is a writer and student living in Colorado and pursuing a masters degree in Library and Information Science. Outside of writing and school, Ria enjoys cross stitch, playing the ukulele (badly), and working at the local public library. For more information, visit their website.