As a child, I would play with my friends, as most children do. But childhood is so brief and ephemeral, is it not. All too soon, life has a way of letting us know when we are not entitled to kick a ball into the back of someone's house and laugh about it, or swipe a sweet or two from the counter, when the shopkeeper is not looking, and then tell such heroic tale to the girl next door. She, too, will soon tire of such menial deeds and seek a different kind of excitement.

But for a while, we can run and feel free from the shackles of mortgages or the latest shareholder report.

And there are times in our childhoods that we never forget. Sometimes, the memory is positive, and encouraging. Poignant, even. Sometimes, not quite.

One such memory from long ago rushed to me today. It popped out of nowhere, or perhaps it didn't. Perhaps it was always meant to surface today. Whether these things happen by chance or are simply pre-defined moments in time, I am never sure of.

It was a summer evening, that I remember quite clearly. One of those times when daylight seems endless, and there is a bright hue around you that's never felt quite the same since.

My friends and I were kicking a ball around. In those days of yonder, money was non-existent, and altogether irrelevant. Children care not for monetary values.

So the ball got passed around, and yells of foul play and why the fuck he didn't pass the ball to somebody else were rife. Then the ball got kicked a little too high. It went over a wall and it disappeared from view. The gang cheered and protested, their game so rudely interrupted.   

The conversation (or yellversation, for lack of a better term) soon turned as to who would climb the wall to retrieve our precious object of entertainment.

And as we talked, the realization that we didn't actually know what was behind that wall suddenly dawned on all of us.

The neighbourhood where I grew up was decidedly working class. There were no fancy restaurants or clubs or any locale where the trendy crowd would show up on a Friday night. There was a baker who made delicious bread, the kind that warms your hands through its paper wrapper when you hold it. And there was and a newstand where throngs of kids would gather on a Saturday morning, ready to burn their weekly allowance on the latest Batman comic book issue, or on sport sticker collections.

And there was an electric substation, too. This facility had existed for as long as I could remember. It probably still exists today, that I can't tell cause home is elsewhere now. But back then, the electric substation hummed and had a tendency to blow out during thunderstorms. We always kept a supply of candles and a torch handy in my house, for those times of random and unwelcome darkness.

The wall was adjacent to the substation, wedged in between it and an apartment block to its right. Whatever laid in that uncharted no-man's land, must have laid undisturbed for some time. 

There were yellow warning signs everywhere around the substation, the kind where you see a little man being struck by a lighting rod. And there were skulls, too. Such images still live somewhere deep within my mind, and raise their ominous grins when the mood is wrong.

Most times, we would ignore these signs. There were nothing but stickers on a metal panel, after all. Yet, all of a sudden, these signs became all too important.

We pondered who indeed would jump the wall and retrieve our ball, so we could continue playing. The idea of simply getting another ball and resume our game without the need of a death-defying stunt never crossed our minds.

Eventually, a volunteer emerged. It was one of the older kids. Older, yes. But not quite an adult. Had it been a grown-up, perhaps he would have simply wave us off and play elsewhere.

But he was determined to rescue the ball. So the rest of us moved back and gathered a safe distance from the wall as he climbed. He went up the wall effortlessly, and soon got over the top, also disappearing into the great unknown beyond. Suddenly, I was all too aware of the humming emanating from the substation.  

We could hear the boy moving around, searching. He said that the place was full or rubbish, a sort of scrub land backyard that led nowhere. His voice sounded sort of distant now, as if he suddenly had crossed an invisible threshold to a parallel reality. There was a rustle of leaves, and low, straining sounds, as if he was trying to lift something heavy.

Then, a moment of silence. And after the silence, the boy cried out: Bones. There is an skeleton here.

We laughed, jeered, and told him to stop fucking around and find the ball already so our game could go on. But the boy was adamant: There are bones here.

As children, we see life events in a different way. Children do not tend to appreciate the enormity or personal tragedy associated with something like that. We just thought cool. In those faraway days before innocence got lost in a messy quagmire of popcorn and sin, finding a set of human bones in your own backyard ranked just about the highest in the list of Exciting Things That Can Happen on a Summer Evening.

The older boy managed to climb back over the wall with some difficulty. He landed back on our side -notably, without the ball- dusted off his jeans and repeated there are bones in there.

I suppose that deep down inside, we all still thought that he was playing a practical joke on all of us. He was one of the older kids, remember, and one of the most street-wise, so the thought wasn't without its merit. 

Yet, there was something in his tone that even us younger children could not mistake: fear. 

So all of a sudden, we all wanted to jump over that wall of mystery and see the makeshift tomb beyond. Only we didn't get to, as grown ups were soon at the scene of the crime. Somebody called the electricity company that owned the substation, and cops showed up in no time.

So there really were bones there after all, the boy was not lying. The cops set up a perimeter around the substation, and the remains were removed. I caught a glimpse of the dry, desiccated, and splintered human skull before it was carted away. To my recollection, this was the one and only time when I saw a real human skull outside a museum or a book.

The Skeleton in the Substation story filled our young minds for a while. We all put forward our own theories as to who the person was, or how he or she ended up in such unworthy resting place. We even imagined that the Ghost in the Bones came back to haunt the lot during the darkest of nights, and with the eye of our minds we saw it beckoning other children to a place where home is a den for the dead.

In time, the memories of that eventful evening faded, and we busied ourselves with something else. A child's mind is as restless and curious as a young bee, it seems. 

We never did find out to whom those skeletal remains did belong to. If there was a police investigation into the matter, we were never made aware of. We were only children, remember, and children's minds are best left unbroken. Whoever poor misfortune ended its days in such undignified resting place, we never knew.

And we never did retrieve our ball, either. That substation, and the lot of scrubland where the bones were found became a no-go area from then on. We children of the neighbourhood understood the unspoken rule that such hallowed place must be left alone. We never did speak about it, yet we all knew that it was best not to go in there ever again. Call it a warning from above, perhaps. In all fairness, a bunch of kids have no business going anywhere near a facility holding enough amperage to kill us all several times over. Suddenly, that skull on the yellow sticker made a lot of sense indeed.

And thus the lot behind the wall remained silent, and dead, and whatever grew there, grew lonely and unseen.

Published by Fernando Sanchez


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