The Barn Owl

The winter moon shone through the frosted glass of Ryan Greene’s window illuminating his face. His eyes, wide and unblinking focused on the ceiling of his bedroom. It was far too late for a boy of eight to be lying awake in his bed, but for the third night in a row, Ryan’s slumber had been disturbed by the shrieking from outside.

On the first night, he’d instantly been wrenched from a dulcet dream and sat upright upon hearing the sound. Had he imagined that horrible noise? He’d almost convinced himself that he had when the scream pierced the silence of his room again. It had come from outside.

He’d dared to gaze through his window towards the barn that sat behind his family’s farmhouse. The rickety structure held his father’s tractor and a plethora of farm equipment. It was dusty and smelled of grease and Ryan never liked going in there. His bedroom was on the second floor and he had a clear line of sight to the old building, which had appeared to his eyes as shadowy gray. The light from the quarter moon reflected off the snow casting an eerie glow on the large barn doors, which now stood slightly ajar. Ryan’s stomach tightened. He knew his father always kept the doors closed at night. Seeing them open now sent an unfamiliar tingling down Ryan’s spine.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeyaaaaaaaaaaa!” That horrible scream erupted again, a high pitched screech that pierced his mind like a dagger. It was clearly coming from inside the barn. Ryan dove for his pillow, scrambling to cover himself completely with his covers. He drew his body up tightly into a ball and squeezed his eyes closed.

“Go away, go away!” he whispered through clenched teeth. He hugged himself and kept repeating his mantra until finally, he heard a knock on his bedroom door.

“Ryan, time to get up!”

His mother’s voice floated into his ears, muffled by his covers. Ryan opened his eyes and yawned. Pulling back his covers he squinted as daylight greeted him. It was morning and he’d been sleeping. He sat up and peered out his window. The barn, now faded red in the morning light, seemed less intimidating than it had a few hours ago. Relief washed over him as he began to exhale loudly. But then the air caught in his throat. He stared at the barn doors. They were closed!

Ryan tried calming himself. Perhaps he’d imagined everything last night. Maybe it was a dream. Or maybe the shadows of the night played tricks on his eyes and he only thought the doors were open. As he dressed and then walked downstairs for breakfast, he began to feel a bit better. It must have been a dream.

As Ryan’s mother tucked him in on the second night, he wasn’t thinking about screams in the night or mysterious open barn doors. Those memories were stowed away where everyone keeps unpleasant thoughts so as not to disturb the conscious mind. He’d had no difficulty drifting off to sleep and would have dozed until morning if not for the horrendous shriek that pierced the veil of his dreams and left him lying wide-eyed in bed.

Ryan’s heart thudded in his chest. Sitting up, he peered again out his window. He squinted through bleary eyes, making out the front of the barn, which was dark and difficult to see since the moon and stars were hidden behind a blanket of clouds. Despite the dim light, he thought he could make out the barn doors which again seemed to be open. His skin prickled and his flesh felt as though he had been dipped into a tub of ice water.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeyaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Ryan clapped his hands over his ears. It wasn’t a dream. Ryan’s lungs constricted and his breath seemed banished from his chest. His hands went numb and he sat, paralyzed, staring at the barn. His eyes burned and he had to force himself to blink. His eyes watered but despite the blur of his vision, he swore he saw… something… moving just inside the door of the barn. It was nothing more than a shadow, but it moved!

What disturbed him even more than the idea of something alive in the barn, something that certainly should not have been there, was the way it had moved. It wasn’t quick or jerky or anything that resembled either a human or an animal. No, it was more like the shadow had oozed out of the door and then back inside the barn.

When the scream came again, Ryan found himself echoing the noise. His ears only heard a muffled roar and his throat burned and he didn’t even realize he was screaming himself until his room flooded with light and he felt his mother’s arms around him.

“Ryan!” she shouted, pulling him away from the window. “What’s wrong? What on earth has gotten into you?”

Ryan turned to stare at his mother and caught a glimpse of his father standing in the doorway. Both wore the same expression of surprise. It took Ryan a moment before he could even form words and when he tried to speak, he realized his mouth was still gaping wide open.

“The… the barn. The screaming.’ He looked back and forth between his mother and father.

“Didn’t you hear it? Didn’t you hear the screaming?”

Ryan’s parents shot quick glances at each other, frowning and then looked back at him. His mother spoke.

“What are you talking about? I heard you screaming, is that what you mean?”

“No!” shouted Ryan. “From the barn. There was screaming in the barn. And the doors…”

“Screaming in the barn?” asked his father, coming to sit next to him on the bed. His voice sounded a little rough and Ryan could hear a slight edge to it. His father was frowning.

“There was screaming and the barn doors were open and then something came out and went back in and…”

Ryan stopped. His parents were staring at him now, with looks of confusion on their faces. His father pushed past him to look out Ryan’s bedroom window. Cupping his hands around his eyes to block out the light from the bedroom, he peered into the night. Ryan held his breath. Once his father saw the open door, he’d understand.

“What is it, Charlie? What do you see? Is the barn open?” his mother asked.

Ryan’s father turned back to look at the two of them.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but the barn is fine. Doors are closed and I don’t hear anything,” his father replied.

“No, it was open, I swear,” said Ryan, with a slight whine.

His father sighed. Ryan’s mother embraced him warmly and rubbed his back.

“It’s ok sweetie, you just had a nightmare. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” She released him from her hug and smiled at him. “Would you like me to get you something to drink?”

Ryan stared at his parents. Then he turned to look out the window. Cupping his hands around his eyes like his father, he was able to make out the front of the barn in the dim light. Both doors were clearly closed. Nothing disturbed the stillness of the night.

“But… it happened. It was real,” he whispered, not sure if he was trying to convince his parents or himself.

“You said you heard screaming?” his father asked.

“Y…yes,” Ryan replied.

“Barn owl,” said his father, turning towards Ryan’s bedroom door. “Probably a barn owl.”

“What?” asked Ryan, glancing towards his mother.

“Of course,” said his mother smiling. “That’s got to be it.” Seeing the confused expression on her son’s face, she explained. “Barn owls are quite common around here, honey. They like to roost in barns like ours and catch mice and rats. They’re actually good to have around. Keeps the pest population down. But gosh, can they make an awful noise,” She laughed. “They first time I heard one I thought it was someone getting murdered!”

“Barn owl?” Ryan frowned as he pondered this. It could explain the noise. And when he tried to recall exactly what he’d seen, he wasn’t sure it was something moving or just the tears in his eyes creating false movement.

“Yeah… I guess so.” He breathed deeply.

“Yep, barn owl,” said his father. “Now get some sleep.” He yawned, exited Ryan’s room and plodded down the hall.

Ryan’s mother looked at him and smiled again.

“Are you going to be ok? Do you want me to make some warm milk for you?”

Sitting next to his mother in the soft light of his room helped Ryan to relax. He sighed. As his fear dissipated, he began to feel a bit foolish for the commotion he had caused.

“I’m ok, mom. I’m sorry for waking you up.”

“It’s ok, dear. Our imaginations can run a little wild sometimes. Especially at night.” She kissed his forehead. “No more bad dreams tonight.”

She stood and walked to Ryan’s bedroom door.

“I love you,” she said as she turned out his light.

“I love you too,” he replied as he lay back down and drew his covers up over his shoulders.

Ryan closed his eyes and within minutes was dreaming of faraway places.

***

Ryan kept staring at the ceiling.

“This isn’t real, this isn’t real, this isn’t real,” he chanted.

His body felt stiff as a board. Another scream from the barn. He shuddered. For the third night in a row, he’d been awakened and for the third night in a row, he’d peered out his bedroom window to find the barn doors open. This was not a dream. Unlike the previous night, Ryan had not screamed. He’d not made any noise at all. Once he’d looked out his window and confirmed what he expected to see, he’d slowly allowed himself to lie back down. Staring at the ceiling, he’d tried to decide what to do. His first reaction was to simply pull his covers back over his head and try to shut out the noise and fall back asleep. But he knew he’d never be able to do that and even if he could, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to keep doing that every night. This had to stop.

After last night, he was reluctant to wake his parents again. If he woke them and they saw and heard nothing, Ryan wasn’t sure how they’d react. Knowing his mother, she’d probably start talking about taking him to a doctor. His father might find a quicker solution which would end with Ryan’s backside stinging from a whipping. Still, he couldn’t just lie here and do nothing.

Mustering all his resolve, he quietly pulled back his covers and lifted his legs over the edge of his bed. As his feet touched the cold floor, he stood and moved quickly to his door. He scurried down the hall to the room at the end. Normally he would knock on his parent’s door, but he felt the circumstances required a bit more stealth. He reasoned that last time, whatever was in the barn had been alerted by his own screaming and the lights from his room. This time, he was determined to catch whatever it was in the barn off guard.

He moved to his mother’s side of the bed first. He would need her help in convincing his father to get up out of his warm bed and investigate. He shook her shoulder.

“Mom!” he hissed. “Mom, wake up!”

No response.

“Mom!” he said a bit louder, giving her shoulder a rough shake. “C’mon, wake up!”

“Hmmm… huh? What?” His mother stirred.

“Mom, wake up. It’s back. The thing in the barn, it’s back.”

“Ryan? What’s going on? Why are you up?” Her voice was a bit louder now.

“Please wake up, I didn’t have a nightmare. It’s real. There’s something in the barn and there’s screaming!”

“Oh Ryan, not this again. You have to go back to bed. This isn’t…”

She stopped mid-sentence as another shriek sounded from outside. It wasn’t as loud as it was in Ryan’s room, but still easy to hear.

“Wha… what was that?” she asked, sitting up.

“I told you, it’s real. And it’s in the barn. You have to wake up dad!”

Ryan’s mother turned to her right and started shaking her husband.

“Charlie! Charlie, wake up. Wake up. Something’s outside.”

Ryan’s father snorted in his sleep.

Charlie!” Ryan’s mother was much louder now, though still not yelling. “I said wake up! Now!”

“What?”

“Oh for God’s sake, Charlie, I need to you get up, I heard a scream from outside.”

Ryan’s father reached out and turned on the lamp that sat on the nightstand next to the bed. After his eyes adjusted to the light he saw his wife and son staring at him.

“What is this? What’s going on? Ryan, why are you out of bed?”

“It’s back, dad. It’s real. Something’s screaming and it’s in the barn. You have to go look.”

“Seriously? Both of you now? I’m going back to…”

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeyaaaaaaaaaaa!” The scream seemed louder this time.

For a moment, no one spoke. Then Ryan’s father tossed off his covers, jumped from bed and was pulling on his clothes.

“Stella, get me a flashlight.”

Ryan’s mother got out of bed and quickly put on her slippers that she always kept on the floor next to her side. Ryan’s father opened up his closet door and rummaged around and pulled out a long, dark shotgun. Ryan had known the gun was there but had been told to never ever touch it. Ryan’s father then grabbed a rectangular box and pulled out a handful of shotgun shells. As he was feeding them into the gun, Ryan’s mother returned with two flashlights.

“Here,” she said flicking one on and handing it to him. “Should I call the police?”

“No,” said Ryan’s father. “I’ll deal with this. It’s still probably just an owl.” Ryan thought the tone in his father’s voice suggested that he didn’t think it was an owl.

“Please be careful,” Ryan’s mother said to her husband as he donned his coat and walked to the back door.

“Don’t worry. It’s probably nothing. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

As he watched his father walk down the steps of their back porch, Ryan had the strangest feeling. Years later he could only describe it as a mixture of dread, nausea and a surreal dreamlike state. He and his mother raced to the living room window and followed the beam of his father’s flashlight as it approached the barn. The knot that had been in Ryan’s stomach tightened even more as he saw that the barn doors were still open.

He watched as his father left the light of the moon and disappeared into the blackness of the open barn. Ryan held his breath as he waited. And waited. He expected to hear the roar of the shotgun as his father dispatched whatever had been hiding in their barn for the past several days. That sound would bring the end to this nightmare that Ryan felt he could no longer endure. He longed to hear that loud crack. Only then could he exhale.

But the sound never came. Finally, Ryan expelled the air from his lungs and the noise broke the silence in the living room and his mother, gasped loudly.

“Oh, you startled me,” she said, turning to look at him for just a moment before quickly turning her gaze back to the barn.

“Sorry,” said Ryan. And then, “How much longer do you think he’s going to be out there?”

His mother didn’t speak for the longest time. Ryan began to think she didn’t hear him. He opened his mouth to repeat his question when she replied.

“I think I should go out there.”

Ryan turned to her, mouth open, eyes wide. Until now, he’d managed to keep his panic in check. At eight years old, parents are the closest things to gods that a child has in his life. Parents always know what to do. They can always make things right. And as long as his mother was here next to him, Ryan knew he was safe. He knew his dad was ok and would return soon with his gun and all would be well. Hearing his mother tell him she was going outside to check on his father, going outside and leaving him here in the house, alone seemed incomprehensible. She couldn’t really mean that.

“What? No, you can’t. You can’t go outside. You can’t go. You have to stay here with me!” Ryan’s voice took on a higher pitch as fear began welling back up inside him.

“Ryan, I have to go out and check on your dad. I’m sure everything is ok.” The way her voice quivered when she said that told Ryan that everything was not ok. He felt about as far away from ok as the stars that twinkled brightly in the clear winter sky.

“Please don’t go, mom. Pleeeaaase!” Ryan pleaded with her and tears began spilling from his eyes.

“Ryan, stop it. You’ll be fine here. Just… just stay her in the living room and your father and I will be back in no time.” She reached out and picked up the soft afghan that she kept draped over the top of the sofa. Wrapping Ryan in it she leaned in and whispered in his ear.

“Everything’s going to be all right. You’ll see.” She looked at Ryan and then kissed him softly on his forehead.

“I love you, my pumpkin.” she smiled.

“I love you too.” Ryan did not smile.

With that she turned and walked towards the back door. She dressed in her own winter coat, a smart tweed Ryan’s father had purchased for her the Christmas before last and opened the door. As she walked out into the cold night, her last words to Ryan kept ringing in his head.

Looking out the window, he watched his mother approach the barn and he bit his lip as she disappeared into the darkness beyond the doors. And he waited.

***

The bodies of Charlie and Stella Greene were never found. The police never found any blood or signs of struggle. They never found either flashlight or the shotgun.

Ryan was eventually taken in by his aunt and uncle on his mother’s side of the family. The Greene family farm sat abandoned for many years. Ryan never returned. He never knew what happened to his parents that night. But he was absolutely sure of one thing – whatever made that shrieking noise was not a barn owl.

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