“Now what was this all about, David?” mom asked me during dinner.
I shrugged and didn’t say a word.
“David Sullivan, you don’t just shrug when I ask you a question!”
“Sorry, mom. Ethan wanted to check on a few things, but it’s all just,” I broke up shaking my head.
“All just what?”
“I don’t know, he was talking nonsense, that’s all.”
She eyed me suspiciously for a while, but eventually, she let it slide.
“How come the two of you are hanging out again?”
“We’re not hanging out. Ethan wanted to get in the archives, so he asked me to tag along.”
“David,” she started belittling me, “you can’t just let people force you into doing these things. You need to stand up for yourself!”
“Yes, mom, I know. It’s just,” I didn’t continue and sighed in frustration.
When I went to my room, the things Ethan had said were still fresh on my mind. I couldn’t help but feel for him, but this theory of his. It was such nonsense.
The next morning I’d barely made it to my locker at school when Nathan came up to me.
“What? No, I still didn’t beat the game. I didn’t even get to play yesterday.”
“Not the game, you idiot! What did that guy talk to you about?”
“You mean Ethan?”
Nathan raised his brows. “You all buddy, buddy with him now?”
“No, shut up. I don’t know it was a whole lot of nonsense. I think he’s come up with some sort of conspiracy theory.”
“Yeah right, the only conspiracy here is that he got away with what he did!”
“Well, we don’t-” I broke up in an instant. There was no reason to talk about what Ethan had told me. Nathan wouldn’t believe a thing. Hell, even I wasn’t sure what to think. The way he’d acted, however. I couldn’t believe he was responsible for Claire’s death anymore.
Nathan was about to ask me what I’d wanted to say, but we were interrupted by the bell.
“Shit, Mr. Richard is going to give us hell if we’re too late!” he blurted out.
With that, the two of us hurried to our classroom. The moment we entered, Mr. Richard was already inside.
“Well if it isn’t Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Simons,” he said in his deep voice. “Nice of you two to join us.”
“Sorry, Mr. Richard, it won’t happen again!” we said almost in unison.
“I’m sure it won’t.” He gave us a long stare.
Mr. Richard was a strict and stern old man. There was no secret he didn’t particularly like me or Nathan, or most students for that matter.
During the lunch break, Nathan and I had just sat down when I noticed someone walking over to us. When I saw that it was Anxiety Eric, I groaned. When Nathan heard it he kicked me under the table.
“Dude, come on, he’s not that bad.”
“It’s Anxiety Eric for Christ’s sake, Nathan,” I whispered.
Nathan simply shrugged. “At least he’s not hanging out with Ethan,” he teased me.
“Oh come on, I’m not Ethan’s friend.”
“Why are you talking about that guy?” Eric asked in his awkward, timid voice.
“Well, David here,” Nathan started, but I cut him right off.
“Ethan came up to me yesterday because he wanted to get into the town archives. Nothing important.”
“That guy’s so weird. I mean he always was, but the other day he almost beat me up! He heard me talking about Claire and freaked out on me. Not like I’m the only one doing it, you know? My brother told me he’s going around town asking people all sorts of strange questions.”
“Dude’s a freaking nutcase, that’s what’s going on!” Nathan cursed. “David, you know what’s up with that?”
I shook my head. “No clue, really. Like I said, he thinks there some conspiracy related to the church.”
The two of them looked at me waiting to go on.
“Seriously guys, I’ve got no clue,” I said to put an end to the topic. By now I really didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
After two more classes, school finally ended.
I’d probably forgotten about Ethan’s story after a while if I hadn’t seen him on my way home.
Nathan and I were arguing about a silly movie we’d seen when I saw Ethan out of the corner of my eye. He was further away, down a small side road talking to an old lady. After a moment, I realized that the two of them weren’t just talking. The old lady seemed to be screaming at him.
I told myself to ignore it and keep walking, but the longer I watched, the more curious I got. I quickly made up an excuse and told Nathan I’d forgotten something at school. When he was gone, I went closer to Ethan and the old lady.
What the hell was he up to now?
“How dare you,” I heard her yell at Ethan with a shaken voice. “Why are you asking me this question!?”
“Because there’s more to your daughter’s death Mrs. Rose, there’s something-”
“And why’d someone like you care? Do you think this is funny? Is this a joke to you? You, you…” She didn’t finish.
As I stood nearby and listened, I was once more relieved that I hadn’t gotten involved in his mess. What was the matter with him talking to old Mrs. Rose like that?
As I watched, the old lady got more and more agitated. She screamed at Ethan and told him to get away. She went as far as to threaten him to call Sheriff Anderson. When Ethan heard that he finally walked off, leaving her behind, crying in hysterics.
“Mrs. Rose?” I approached her carefully. “Is everything alright?”
At first, she didn’t react to me and didn’t even seem to realize I was there. Her eyes were staring ahead at nothing. She murmured to herself, seemingly repeating the same phrases over and over again.
I was finally able to catch some of her words: good girl, dreams, the noises, metal, and other similar things.
When I heard those words, I stopped in my track. Had Ethan talked to her about Claire’s dreams?
“Why didn’t I remember her?” she jerked around and demanded of me.
She walked up to me, clinging to me. “Why? Tell me, why didn’t I remember my little girl?” She broke up, the tears streaming from her eyes.
“Mrs. Rose, I don’t-”
“Of course you don’t!” she spat at me. “This devil, how dare he, how dare he talk to me like that! Karen’s death, it was a tragedy, yet he, yet he…”
I opened my mouth, but I wasn’t able to get a word out between her screams. She was panting, shivering, and crying heavily.
Over and over again, she questioned me how she could’ve forgotten about her little girl.
Finally, though, she turned away from me and staggered off, still mumbling to herself.
I knew I should’ve been concerned about her and hurried after her. My mind, however, was busy with what she’d said.
The moment this thought formed in my mind, I wanted to discard it, throw it away, and consider it ridiculous. I couldn’t do it, though. What Mrs. Rose had said was too strange. Had Ethan really told her about Claire’s dreams, or had she been talking about her daughter?
For the rest of the day, the thought came back into my mind. It was like an annoying little itch, just too far out of reach to do anything about it.
In the days to come more and more rumors about Ethan spread in our town. One day Nathan told me his parents had asked him about the ‘Miller boy.’ On another day, Susan, a girl in my algebra class, told everyone he’d attempted to confront her grandma.
It was all these stories that made me question my ideas about Ethan. It sounded like he’d simply snapped. Whatever he was doing seemed like nothing but an insane hunt for something that wasn’t there. Hell, Mrs. Rose was as old as Eric’s grandpa or even older. Who knows, maybe she suffered from dementia herself.
What happened about a week later finally convinced me that Ethan was out of it.
During recess, a commotion started in the schoolyard. Nathan and I had been sitting together when a crowd gathered nearby.
“… get the fuck away from her you goddamn freak!” I heard someone yell. I saw that it was Craig Danes. The person he was yelling at was no other than Ethan.
“I don’t give a shit about you or your problems, Miller, but if you talk to Lauren like this again… Hey, are you listening to me!?”
Ethan just stood there, completely ignoring the torrent of words Craig released at him. His eyes were focused on Laura Summers instead, who stood behind Craig. When she noticed that Ethan was still staring at her, she took a trembling step forward.
“How dare you! You fucking asshole! Yes, she did! Is that what you wanted to her? Is that it? Well, there you go! Now you know it!”
I could hear people murmur all around me. None of them understood what was going on. I, on the other hand, had a pretty good idea about it.
After Lauren’s outburst was over, Ethan turned to leave. He was about to make his way through the crowd when Craig stepped up to him.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” he yelled at him. “So, who’s next? First Claire and now who? Well?”
When Ethan heard the name, he turned around and pushed Craig back. “Don’t you dare,” he pressed out.
“Don’t I dare what? Talk about her? Talk about how you killed her? Everyone here knows about it anyways!”
Before Craig could even do anything, Ethan rushed forward. Craig was half a foot taller but was simply taken by surprise. A fight erupted, and it was clear that Ethan was completely out of it.
“Someone stop them!” I heard voices from the crowd.
It wasn’t long before Ethan, in his rage, overpowered Craig and was beating down on him hard. Moments later two of Craig’s friends, Mark and Thomas, joined in and dragged Ethan off him. By then Craig had a bleeding nose and a painfully twisted arm.
The two of them were about to turn on Ethan when Mr. Richard arrived. He must’ve noticed the commotion as well and had pushed his way through the crowd to see what was going on.
The moment he saw Ethan was involved, he exploded.
“Of course it’s you again! This is the last straw, Mr. Miller! I’ll have you suspended for this!”
Ethan, who was still in the grasp of Craig’s friends, ripped himself lose. “Fine, go ahead! Like I give a shit!”
With that, he started to walk off. Mr. Richard was still yelling after him, but when he got no reaction from Ethan, he stormed off, most likely to the principal’s office.
All the while, Craig was still on the ground, holding his twisted arm. “That freaking psycho,” he cursed to Lauren who sat next to him.
For a moment everyone eyed Craig and Lauren, still wondering what was going on.
“What the hell are you all looking at?” she screamed at the people still present. Soon the crowd dispersed.
I later heard that Ethan was suspended for a whole week. Not that it mattered much, I’d heard that even before he hadn’t been at school regularly.
The days went by, and even though I didn’t see Ethan, I still heard the rumors.
It was a couple of days after his suspension that he approached me on my way home from school.
The moment I saw him, I frowned. At least Nathan had left early today, I thought.
“Yo, David, can we talk?”
I didn’t say a word and walked on. I tried my hardest to ignore him, but he started to follow after me. I cursed at myself. Shit, I didn’t want people to see me with him. Go away, for Christ’s sake.
“Hey, man, what the hell, wait up?”
I didn’t stop. Just leave me alone already. I noticed that at least a handful of people were already watching our interaction.
“Are you deaf or something,” he finally yelled at me and grabbed me by the shoulder.
When he did this, I’d had it and turned around. “No, Ethan, I’m not fucking deaf!”
“Alright, alright, I get it. About the other day, man, I was-”
“No. I don’t care Ethan. Just leave me alone, okay?”
For a moment, his face turned angry again, then he swallowed his anger. “Hey man, I’m sorry, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten you involved, but fuck man, I need to tell someone. You’re the only one in this freaking town who ever even listened!”
“Ethan no. I don’t want to know what you’re up to and what you think you found out. This is just too outlandish!”
With that, I turned away and started to walk off. Freaking hell, what’s that guy’s deal?
“You know what’s outlandish? This goddamn town, that’s what.”
I still didn’t react. I didn’t even want to listen. All I wanted was to get out of here. All those stares, it made me feel so uncomfortable.
“David, listen to me,” he called out once more and stepped right in front of me.
“There are more people like Edgar Reeds,” he finally told me in a hushed whisper.
“What the hell are you even talking about?”
For a moment, he looked around at the people watching us and pulled me behind a corner.
“Edgar Reeds killed himself nine years, ago, remember? More people did the same thing!”
“How’d you even know this?”
“Because people talk when you question them long enough. You’ve got no idea how many people in this town die prematurely! At first, I didn’t believe I’d find anything, but then I talked to Benjamin Brown’s mother. Remember his brother?”
I looked up. James Brown. I vaguely remembered him, but it had been ages since I’d seen him.
“You realize it, don’t you? It’s the same for everyone else. You forgot about him completely, right? Now tell me, how in the hell is that possible if he died only three years ago? What about Laura’s mother? What about Mr. Jeremy, the friendly librarian?”
I stood there and listened. Mr. Jeremy, I remembered him now, but before… How had I never wondered that he was gone?
“There’s something wrong here, man. This town is rotten!”
“Ethan, what the hell is,” but I was cut off when the sheriff’s car appeared on the street right next to us.
Anderson stopped the car and got out.
“Miller, you’re coming with me,” the man demanded of Ethan.
“And what for, sheriff? You got another anonymous tip on how I murdered Claire?”
The sheriff grinned at that remark. “No, this time I have a real reason. It’s about the Danes boy. Looks like you twisted his arm real good. Turns out they might want to press charges.”
“What? But he was the one what fucking started it,” Ethan yelled at the sheriff.
“Tell you what, boy. You’re out here, causing trouble for me all day, every day. If I want to hear your story, I’ll ask you. Now get your ass in the car, or I dare you things will get ugly right here, right now.”
For a moment, Ethan’s mouth turned into a hard line, and I could tell he was considering the possibility of making things ugly. Then he relaxed and shrugged.
“Well then, lead the way, Sheriff Anderson.”
When Ethan had entered the car, Anderson gave me a long, hard look, but didn’t say a word. Then he got back into his seat and started the car.
I was about to continue on my way when I noticed that the whole street was quiet. The only sound was that of Sheriff Anderson’s car as he drove off.
Everyone else in the street was frozen, looking after it. I saw their gazing eyes, their grinning faces, and hands balled to fists as they all watched. The moment the car vanished around the corner, everyone was back to normal. I’d seen it though.
What Ethan had told me, people’s reactions, it was enough to put a small seed of doubt into my mind. As I turned to walk off, I couldn’t stop Ethan’s words from echoing in my head.
‘This town is rotten.’