Photo of James Kidd with Neil Gaiman

James Kidd is a retired carpenter living in western Massachusetts who once met Neil Gaiman while he toured in support of independent bookstores in upstate New York. 


by James Kidd


When my friends Dave and Mikey dared me to sneak out and camp at the Thorne’s abandoned farm, I was all in. Anything to get away from my house was okay in my book. This was back in 1978 when I was twelve or thirteen years old, and my mother had a boyfriend named John Coyne. He used to punch holes in the walls of our tired old house when he was drunk, or mad, which was often. I think my mother was just as afraid of him as I was back then.

When we set out to the Thorne’s, Mikey looked at me and asked, “That’s your gear, John?” The way he said it sounded like he was accusing me of something shameful.

I had the blankets off my bed and my pillow wrapped with a rope. “Yeah,” I said. I was used to feeling crushed like this by not having the right things, and I said the same phrase that was always falling out of my mother’s mouth in those days: “It’s what I got, I’ll make it work.”

I ignored the slide eye look that Mikey and Dave shared. Dave, good old Dave, said, “C’mon, I’ve got a tarp that’ll keep your stuff dry.” And we went back to his house, grabbed a new tarp still in its cellophane out of his dad’s shed, and we headed out to the Thorne’s farm.

“Your dad’s not going to get mad that we took this tarp?” I asked Dave. I didn’t want to get him into any trouble.

“No, not at all.” Dave said and sounded surprised by my question. It was hard for me to believe him.

Along with my bedding, I brought a bag of PB&J’s, some fruit, and my Buck knife that I lifted from Burnell’s Sporting Goods last year. John Coyne nearly broke that knife trying to teach me how to throw it. When he gave up trying, he told me “the knife didn’t have no balance.” That’s how he said it, didn’t have no balance and said it was a shit knife except maybe for opening boxes.

He also taught me about Pungi sticks, and some other weird shit he learned from guys who got back from Nam. Always Nam. Never Vietnam. He acted like a tough guy around me and my mom, but truth be known, he was just hot air filling out a curtain. There was no toughness about him, which I found out once I got my growth spurt.

We walked up Manning Street, rounded the corner to Renda Street, which dead ended at the long driveway to the Thorne’s abandoned farm. The driveway wasn’t paved; it rounded an old pond where it was rumored that Mr. Thorne had drowned unwanted cats. The place was rife with rumors.

The one thing that wasn’t a rumor, but should have been, was that on one cold January night Mr. Thorne shot and killed his family in their sleep. Then he walked out to the milking barns on his property and killed all of his livestock, and then turned the gun on himself. He left no notes. It was, as I’d heard, “an atrocity.” I repeated that word again and again that winter. Atrocity, until I could use it with some confidence. I knew what that word meant. Atrocity. But within its syllables it held no answers.

“It was an atrocity,” Mikey said, repeating the sentence like everyone in town had said. Then he added what everyone else added, “It was a real blood bath.”

We all had heard what happened, and pretty much how it happened. The police put that together. There was a step-by-step, moment-by-moment retelling of it in the newspaper, complete with photos and an accompanying timeline. That winter, it seemed as if the town couldn’t get enough of the story. The only thing that was left for speculation was why it happened. But most people weren’t interested in that. They needed to see Mr. Thorne as a monster—that was easier to understand.

All across town, in the aftermath of the killings, people said things like “The devil was skinning him alive for all eternity.” That seemed to be the women’s take on things, anyway. The men in town said things like “I bet the devil is boiling his balls right now.” This seemed to satisfy their need for justice or vengeance. They had all these interesting takes on the killings, and what eternal punishment should be meted out for Mr. Thorne, but I don’t remember a single person from our town ever going over to their place to visit and be neighborly when they were alive.

“Did you know them?” I asked my two friends. I’d known the daughter, Shelia, because she was our age. She was thin as can be and always sat out during recess. Every day she wore the same threadbare dress that looked like something old fashioned. She sat on the sidelines watching the rest of us, and there was a longing in her expression that made me think she wanted to join us. But no one ever invited her along. I know I didn’t. I was afraid to; afraid the other kids would give me shit about it.

“Just Shelia, sort of, anyway—I never talked to her or nothing,” Dave offered. Mikey was silent.

It seemed to be how we all knew her. She was a name called during attendance, and a soft voice saying, “here,” and that’s it. She was a living ghost girl.

We got quiet as we approached the house where the killings took place. I had been there once, two or three years ago, before the killings. I never told anyone. I’d just gone over one day. Mr. Thorne was sitting on the dilapidated front porch talking to his wife about screening it in against the damned flies when he saw me.

“Who are you?” he had asked, and truth be told, he scared me. He was a course looking man with a hard edge about him. I remember his clothes looked like they were in mid disintegration, flayed and frayed and colorless. They were the labor-battered clothes of a hard-working man.

When I told him, he peered at me. “I know’d your daddy,” he said. “Shame what happened. He was all right.” He said a-right, but I knew what he meant.

I didn’t know how to respond to him. It was still too fresh of a cut for me to acknowledge.

“So,” he said. “Whatcha coming around here fer?”

It was then I saw a movement behind one of the curtains in the house. I saw her face. It was Shelia. She didn’t make to move or wave or anything. She was just an expressionless face in the window, bathed in the soft sunlight illuminating her powder blue eyes into something exquisite.

I stammered, and couldn’t look the man in the face. I’d come over hoping to knock and that Shelia would answer the door. And when she answered the door, that she’d be happy to see me. But it didn’t work out that way. The air in the yard was heavy with that overly ripe smell of cow shit, the kind of stench that burned my nostrils.

Finally I spoke. “Can Shelia come out?”

I didn’t know what-all to say. Come out to play was something I’d said countless times, usually to my friend’s mothers, never their fathers. Can Mikey come out to play? The dads in my neighborhood were either at work or working on something around the house. You could count on there being at least one car’s hood raised up and a small gathering of men around it on any given Saturday in those days. I never asked any of the dads anything back then or they’d have me holding a flashlight for them the rest of the morning.

“Shelia ain’t got no time for boys just yet,” he said and suddenly he laughed. But his laugh was laced with something awful and it made me embarrassed to hear it. Mrs. Thorne got up and went into the house at that, and Mr. Thorne just stared at me. “Now, why dontcha run on off and never mind about Shelia.”

I looked at the window where Shelia had appeared, but there was nothing there now, just a darkness that reflected the trees around it.


The house had a darkness about it, like it absorbed the brightness of the day. It had that same run-down look of the Thorne children. The grey clapboards were bare except in some places, and chips of paint littered the ground like dandruff. The roof sagged and weeds grew knee-high in the abandoned yard.

I looked at the window where Shelia had appeared that day. But all that was there was the reflection of the dull, cloud-encased sun. “Maybe we shouldn’t have come here,” I said.

I was met with a moment of silence from Mikey and Dave. Then Mikey burst up the steps of the porch and turned toward us and taunted, “Don’t tell me you’re scared!”

That gave us no choice in the matter. Our reputation was at stake, because Dave was a known blabbermouth. Dave zipped up the steps and I flowed in behind him, riding his wake although I was weighted down with dread.

“It’s probably locked,” I said and looked around. Strangely, none of the windows on the house had been broken. The porch floorboards creaked under our feet.

Mikey tried the door and it opened. “Just like a fucking horror movie,” he said, and the hinges let out a shriek.

“Now, this is cool,” Dave said, and pushed me forward.

“We probably shouldn’t,” I said. I felt like we were desecrating something sacred. The wind picked up then. I could have sworn I heard Shelia’s soft voice say, “Gowan” a local dialect of go on that has been said in this area since people spoke English. My whole body tingled and I froze, but Dave gave me that push, and I stepped forward.

“Did you guys hear that?”

“Hear what?” Dave said.

“He’s just fucking with us,” Mikey said and had that imp’s grin that scrunched up his eyes. “Aren’t you, John?”

I dropped my stuff next to theirs and we stepped inside. It was darker here and I smelled the scent of the Thorne family.

“Whoa,” Dave said. “What a stink.”

“Yeah, B.O.” Mikey said, waving his hand in front of his face. “Wonder what it was like when there was someone living here?”

But it was more than just body odor at work here. It was the smell of the fields and the livestock. It was a tinge of manure, sweat, and neglect mingling to creating something unique. It was the same whiff I’d gotten when I stood next to Shelia at school. I wondered, standing in this room, the desperation she must have felt when she’d come to school. Carrying that scent with her. Did she try to scrub it away? If she tried, she wasn’t successful, and there were plenty of kids at school who made her aware, and probably ashamed.

“They were scroungy,” Dave said. After a pause Dave spoke again. “Now if that door slams shut behind us, I’m jumping out that window,” and he pointed out across the nearly empty room. There was an empty bookcase on one wall and a stove pipe that came up through the floor and went up through the ceiling.

“Central heating,” Mikey said sarcastically, tapping a finger against the stove pipe. “Can you imagine living like this?”

I didn’t say anything. On a scale, at least the walls here weren’t peppered with fist holes. But, I bet the same rage and shouts reverberated in the history of these walls. A staircase led to the second floor. At the helm of the stairs was a window that let in a strong light that carved through the darkness. I knew the killings took place up there. I was drawn to the upstairs, but was also repulsed by the idea of going up there.

We climbed the stairs like moths climbing the air to a street light.

I looked down the dark hallway. There were hasps attached to the door jambs.

“You don’t think?” Dave said flipping one of the hasps back and forth with his finger.

“What?” Mikey said. He said it in such a way as to sound gruff, but he was as appalled as the rest of us.

“They got locked inside their own rooms.” I said this with the confidence of someone who had undeniable proof.  My mind wandered the hallway, and through the rooms down the stairs and into the kitchen, wondering what it was like to live here—the shuddering fear these kids must have lived through in their own home. I knew that kind of fear, too.

When John Coyne punched holes in the walls, he’d leer over me saying things like, “You’re not so tough.” And he’d challenge me with, “What would you do if I started punching you?” And he’d let out a cackle. He emphasized you, and when I’d look to my mother, she looked away pretending not to have heard him.

I pushed against the first door with my fingers, and it opened. It was brighter in the room than in the hallway. The sun chased out the darkness, and small shadows huddled in the corners or hid in the closet. The bed looked like it had been thrown. There was a smattering splash of brown against the wall. We all knew it was blood. To me, it looked like someone had tried to hide under the bed, and it had been thrown aside, exposing them.

I couldn’t imagine the pleading that went on before the gunshot silenced those voices. I walked over to the window, and looking out. I realized I was in Shelia’s room and in the same spot where she stood that day I had come over.

I turned toward Mikey and Dave. They were motionless, staring at the blood-stained wall…at the aftermath of unspeakable violence. Staring at the atrocity. And that’s when I saw a 3 x 5 framed photograph of Shelia on a shelf.

In the photo she was laughing unreservedly. The greenery around her was softened, and she was staring off to the side at something outside the borders of the photo. Something had pulled her attention away from the camera, something so infectiously intriguing that she leaned toward it, pulling against the hand around her waist.

I took the photo off the shelf and looked at it more closely. This couldn’t be the girl I had a passing acquaintance with? Could it?

“Maybe you shouldn’t touch it.” Dave said to me and honestly, it was like being woken up from a deep sleep. I was pulled back into the room.

“Yeah, it’s probably like evidence or something.” Mikey said.

But I said, “No. It’s not evidence anymore.”

I didn’t have the words to describe what I saw in that photo. It was more than just a photograph of a young woman bursting forth with possibility. She was gleefully pulling away from someone, and reaching toward something else. Something so enticing that she was overcome with the joy of possibility just outside her reach. Something was happening just outside the confines of the photo. Something I couldn’t see. That’s what I saw in that photo, and I wondered what actually happened to her. How did the dazzling girl in the photo become the muted girl who was murdered?

There was a shape at the bedroom door. A density of darkness that slipped away when I looked up from the photo. Mikey was about to say something, some wise crack to release the tension we all felt in the room, but he snapped his head around and looked at the door. He was following my lead.

Dave said, “What is it?”

“I didn’t see nothing,” Mikey said, but fear had crept into his voice like rust on a hinge.

Then, from among us, a soft voice, like a shy girl saying, ‘here’ in a crowded classroom said, “Hey guys.”

I felt like I was falling as Mikey and Dave tore out of the room. They grabbed the door jamb and used it like sprinter’s blocks to propel themselves out of the room and down the hall. Their feet drummed the floor in a mad scramble, and I pictured the two of them rushing down the stairs like water over rapids, bursting out the front door, and leaping to the ground.

“Hey,” I said in the empty room, but it felt as if someone was standing right there in front of me. There was an opposable intention though, an energy challenging me and standing toe-to-toe with me in the room. I raised the photo. “May I have this?” I asked.

After a moment, the force in front of me gained some strength.

“May I please have this photo?” I waited. I wasn’t afraid, not at that moment. Then I added, “Of you?”


At that I was released. The force that held me fell away.

I walked down the stairs and out into the daylight. Mikey and Dave were long gone. Later, when I’d see them milling about in school they’d nod, but our friendship had dissolved. They’d become guys I used to know, as so often happens. 

Some years later, as editor of the school yearbook, I set up a memorial page for Shelia. She’d gone from the ignored girl to “that poor girl,” to the forgotten girl from our class. I took her photo out of the frame for the first time. I did it so we could reproduce the photo for the yearbook. On the back of the photo, written with the heady script of a hopeful young woman, in Bic pen blue was this: “We are all Oceans, Teeming with Life, that goes Unobserved.”

I fell into my chair and stared out across the blurred graphic design room. The silence that weighed me down was chased away by the bell. Outside the room was the muffled shuffle and tumble of kids rushing off to their next class, lockers slammed, and someone laughed, then moments later it was quiet again. My eyes and throat stung as I sat in the dark silence for an unendurable amount of time, wondering—who was this girl that no one knew? Who was Shelia?

That was a long time ago. I still have Shelia’s photo in the frame just as I found it. I keep it on my mantel and stare at it every day. I stood up to John Coyne because I was never again going to be that kid hiding under the bed, hoping the monster would just go away. Sometimes you have to make it go away, and I’ve lived my life by that. I still do. I hope Shelia knows she saved my life. I hope she knows I’m forever grateful.